Who heads to a Rosie’s Gaming Emporium on a weekday morning to bet on horses — the living kind and even some long-dead ponies?
As a newbie to the world of historical horse racing (HHR), and still a relative noob to Virginia as a whole, this was clearly the assignment for me.
Since I began covering the world of sports betting, casinos, and the lottery for PlayVirginia, one aspect of Virginia gambling has both fascinated and perplexed me: “Rosie’s,” as most Virginians call it.
Colonial Downs owns the four Rosie’s locations across Virginia. Last week, I ventured to the one in Vinton, just east of downtown Roanoke.
I’m no stranger to gambling establishments. Previous jobs took me to Las Vegas at least a dozen times a year. I also lived in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, where casinos, poker rooms, racetracks, and even gas-station slot parlors were a quick jaunt away.
But Rosie’s? Historical horse racing? Machines that look very much like slots but are somehow supposed to be something that’s completely different? I just didn’t understand the whole thing.
So I did what any respectable member of society does: I decided to try my luck with some totally-not-slot-machines as part of my initial Rosie’s Gaming Emporium trip on a Tuesday morning.
Rosie’s Gaming Emporium first impressions
Rosie’s is operational in three eastern Virginia cities, with one additional location on the way:
- New Kent
- Dumfries (January opening)
I ventured an hour down I-81 and visited the only location west of Charlottesville: Vinton. Like other Rosie’s locations, the Vinton parlor features an array of historical horse racing machines. Approximately 150 of them, in fact.
I arrived at Rosie’s at about 11 a.m. on a Tuesday with a stash of hand sanitizer, Lysol wipes, and an N95 mask in tow. A security guard checked both my ID and my temperature, and then I was free to enter the establishment, which was roughly the size of a CVS.
It wasn’t exactly a traditional prime-time gaming hour, but the place was still doing a fairly brisk business. With no table games, sportsbook, poker room, or kitschy attractions, Rosie’s lacked true Vegas vibes. The HHR machines, with their cacophony of sights and sounds, made it feel a bit more like a Dave & Buster’s geared toward an early-dinner crowd.
However, I quickly realized that not all of the machines were operational because of COVID-19 safety precautions. Plexiglass dividers separated each machine, but every other one was also turned off to help enforce social distancing.
In fairness to Rosie’s, the place looked and felt clean, from the parking lot to the gaming floor to the restrooms. COVID-related safety signage was everywhere. So were hand-sanitizing stations. And employees were constantly spraying and wiping down the playing machines and other surfaces — to the point that two staffers were joking about cleaning the same spot about 20 times in the previous hour because “I ain’t got nothing else to do.”
Additionally, nearly every Rosie’s patron was wearing a mask properly, aside from a few goofballs who had them slung under their chin or across their forehead. But with the distancing measures that Rosie’s put in place, it felt easy enough to have some elbow room and feel relatively safe while I settled in for my first HHR whirl.
Quick intro on Rosie Gaming Emporiums
So, what is historical horse racing (HHR) – aka “instant racing“?
The first thing the industry wants you to know is that these machines that look, sound, and essentially play exactly like slot machines are totally not slot machines. Not at all. I mean, sure, you choose a denomination (1 cent to 1 buck), put in your money, determine your bet size (my “penny slot machine” went up to 300 pennies per play), watch the wheels spin, and hope Lady Luck smacks a wet one on you.
But no, these are totally not slot machines. Not at all.
You see, these are “games of skill.” Legally, anyway. That’s where the “historical horse racing” moniker comes from. Rather than pure chance determining your outcome, the machines rely on replays of thousands of horse races that have already been run. Players’ money is essentially pooled and uses the pari-mutuel wagering system that was used with the live race all those years ago.
Early HHR machines apparently looked like actual horse racing terminals, but as auto-play wagering options took over, they eventually evolved into the modern (and totally-not-a-slot-machine) look.
In all honesty, I still don’t totally understand how they work. I scanned my Blue Bolt 7s penny machine for instructions, pay tables, and whatever else I could find. Eventually, I just popped in my new player’s card, and I made my first spin for the minimum play of 30 pennies.
My result? I won 40 cents for a 10-cent profit.
Afterward, I finally got a box to pop open on the screen. It listed horses and jockeys and other betting data for Race 5 at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort on March 11, 2001. I still couldn’t make heads or tails of what I was supposed to do with this information, but I figured I’d snap a quick phone pic and maybe figure it out later.
Annnnnd that’s how I got my introduction to Rosie’s security personnel.
“Buddy, you can’t be taking photos in here,” a no-nonsense guard swooped in to tell me.
My HHR play lasted for about an hour. Toward the end of my session, my screen exploded with glittery graphics, triumphant music and a ding! ding! ding! after one spin. It all but promised a big payday. The actual result, though? $1.50. It probably cost that much in electricity just to power those fancy graphics announcing this meager score.
In all, I lost $14.40 during my HHR session. And hey, I was OK with that. As someone who owns “Runner Runner” on Blu-ray, I’ve spent more money on far less entertainment.
A Nice Bonus: Live Horse Racing
I worked up an appetite with my
slot HHR play, so my next stop was the on-site food counter/lounge, Rosie’s Kitchen. I was told the famous R’ Burger and seasoned fries are divine, and sure enough, I was impressed. (Rosie’s regulars also swear by their carver sandwich, flatbreads and donuts, though I could barely finish the burger and fries.)
After a quick stop at the on-site Virginia Lottery self-service machine for a stocking stuffer (a New Year’s Millionaire Raffle ticket), I then ventured on to a nice surprise at Rosie’s: an actual racebook.
This section of Rosie’s features 10 large TV screens with live feeds of tracks and horse racing from across the country. Three self-service betting terminals allow you to wager on any of those live races, though there’s also a manned station with a helpful Rosie’s employee if you want to place a wager there.
In all honesty, I much prefer the live horses to the computer ones. With the live racing, I can hop online for some handicapping advice, sweat a wager for a few minutes instead of a few seconds, and I can even share the experience with my fellow degens. I’ve enjoyed many a morning and afternoon in Las Vegas racebooks with their colorful characters while waiting for friends to wake (or sober) up and emerge from their hotel rooms.
On this particular day at Rosie’s, “Ron” and a few other weathered horseplayers were firing off exotic bets and commiserating about their bad luck and all the “dumbsh-ts” who were ruining their Tuesday afternoon.
That horse he picked? “Total dumbsh-t,” Ron sighed as the hack faded to the back of the pack. The other horses who left his colt in the dust? Also dumbsh-ts. The jockey? Dumbsh-t. The owner cheesin’ it up for the cameras in the winner’s circle? Clearly a dumbsh-t. And poor Ron, who seemed to have a knack for finding these dumbsh-ts? Well, after muttering about his losses and tossing his worthless tickets into the trash before departing for the Rosie’s parking lot, I know who Ron thought was the real dumbsh-t that day.
Honestly, for the first time that day, my trip to Rosie’s felt like a true Vegas experience.
The future of Rosie’s as Virginia casinos open
All in all, Rosie’s was perfectly fine entertainment. I’ve never been much of a slot guy, or HHR guy, but slot jockeys would probably feel right at home in this unpretentious and welcoming environment. And after winning a whopping $5.40 in the real-life racebook, I was feeling pretty good.
However, Rosie’s will soon face stiff competition now that Virginia has legalized casino gambling, and now that four VA cities are moving forward on major casino-resorts that will begin opening in 2022 and 2023. Those properties, each with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, will simply offer far more than a Rosie’s location can.
However, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gave a one-year reprieve to the state’s other “skill game” operators, notably Queen of Virginia. Initially, the General Assembly wanted to ban the 10,000 or so “gray machines” that have popped up in restaurants, convenience stores and truck stops across Virginia. But Northam then pushed to tax those machines (rather heavily) to help close a gap in revenue that the coronavirus pandemic caused by a loss of lottery revenue.
The skills-game stopgap could generate $120 million in revenue for the commonwealth, but the reprieve isn’t expected to extend beyond its June 30, 2021 deadline.
Rosie’s can keep chugging along while those other operators are forced to pull the plug. However, when full-fledged casinos open in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth (and possibly Richmond), will Rosie’s still draw a crowd?
Sure, if you want the glitz and glamor, Rosie’s may come up short compared to those future big-buck properties. But as I learned during my foray into Rosie’s and historical horse racing, there’s something to be said for the convenience and affordable entertainment of these rather unique Virginia establishments.