Place your bets: An insider's guide to the best race and sports books in Las Vegas
- Larry Olmsted
- Sep 14, 2011 12:00 AM ET
I first discovered the allure of a race and sports book in a Las Vegas casino more than a decade ago while on a golf trip.
After I lost all my money playing blackjack and had a lot of post-golf time on my hands, I learned of the city's best-kept tourist secret. By randomly picking the occasional horse (I go for ones that share a name with one of my dogs), and wagering maybe $2 an hour, I could comfortably sit, watch sports on myriad TVs and drink for free. Not only did I get my money's worth, I actually got lucky and won a few bucks.
These days I go to Vegas several times a year to write about golf, food, hotels and other things, and I still have a big soft spot for race and sports books. There's no better entertainment bang for the buck in Sin City. Depending on the time of year, you can watch college football, NFL, MLB, NBA and almost always PGA Tour golf, place bets big or small, enjoy comfy chairs and free cocktails, and even play the ponies.
It's a great (and affordable) place to kill time while being pampered by cocktail waitresses (in many cases, even if you lose money on bets, it's cheaper than going to a bar). And if you happen to be there on a golf trip with your buddies, what better 19th hole for watching a major or other big tourney than a Las Vegas sports book?
While you can bet on every golf tournament -- and it's one of the only sports where you can place a bet after the event has started -- golf is not a sports book draw in Las Vegas. So while the NFL on Sundays, college football on Saturdays and the NCAA men's basketball tournament pack the places, you can watch golf majors undisturbed without fighting for seats.
But not all sports books are created equal. The stingier sports books give you drink coupons when you place a bet at the window, while the more freewheeling sports books simply serve you for sitting there.
At Caesar's, I placed $98 in race bets in one visit to the window and got a single drink coupon -- and then the waitress wanted to charge me a $6 supplement to give me a name brand spirit. At Bellagio, I wagered $2 across the board on a horse, a $6 bet, and enjoyed three rounds of Johnnie Walker.
Here's my guide to the best sports books in Las Vegas ...
A classic. The race and sports sections are neatly divided, so multiple race screens do not distract sports enthusiasts but horse lovers can still watch sports. If you go with a bunch of guys, you can grab a bar table in the small cocktail lounge a step up from the sports book and make yourselves at home. They also have comfortable over-sized chairs for all-day viewing. Cocktails require no tickets, and the Mirage is very well laid out. If your friends wander from the sports book to play table games, get a bite to eat or hit the poker room, everything is close and it's easy to reunite.
It's a similar setup to the Mirage, with divided horse and sports areas, great living room-style easy chairs, no tickets for drinks and a small bar area with tables. Tucked somewhat off the main, large casino floor, the Bellagio is a great choice for an all-day immersion, but not as good for exploring. It's surprisingly intimate for such a big casino resort.
The thing that sets the MGM Grand apart are the four modern skyboxes, stadium-like private rooms a level up overlooking the sports book. One is dedicated to horse racing with multiple race screens. These have no fee, because charging rent would violate pay-per-view rules, but they are generally reserved for high rollers and there is an expectation that users will spend money. They are great for bachelor party-type gigs (you can even set up a poker table in one). But to book one you need to call VIP services and convince them you'll make it worth their time.
This small modern room's main distinction is intimacy, and for purists, total separation for sports and race fans. Aria also has a sports bar/restaurant attached, one of the few sports books with more than just a snack bar.
Lively, huge, spacious, comfortable chairs and friendly servers, Mandalay Bay is a great all-day choice or a post-round 19th hole. You can also grab a table in the adjacent lounge and still see all the games on TV. This is one of the best.
Green Valley Ranch
Green Valley Ranch is the best bet off the Strip. The huge room is comfortable, friendly and semi-divided between sports and race books. Plus, this is one of the cooler and more overlooked resort hotels, a favorite of locals and drive-market tourists.
The only sports book in the city at a casino with an on-site golf course, making for a seamless golf weekend experience. Wynn Las Vegas attracts an affluent 30- and 40-something crowd, with very comfortable chairs, one big room and an urban feel.
Las Vegas' newest casino resort has a unique twist: The upstairs sports and race book is small and more for betting than hanging out, but on the main casino floor there's a full-blown sports bar with a satellite betting window for a totally different take on the Vegas sports book experience. It's the only one where you can sit at the bar like you are in an ESPN Zone or something, order food and drinks and chat with the bartender and fellow patrons, and still place bets.
For a taste of old Vegas, this one is comfortably downscale. So if the flash of places like Bellagio or Wynn is too much for your group, this is a good call. Flamingo Las Vegas has nice chairs, great drink service and an adjacent bar area, and the sports and race sections are completely separate.
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