The first time I saw Derby Owners Club was at a truck stop while I was on the road in Texas. It was the biggest arcade game I had ever seen. It had a giant screen that was surrounded by rows of several video terminals with their own seats. On the big screen was a horse race, albeit rendered in what were already outdated graphics by 2005. On the individual terminals there were screens where the players trained their horses to prepare for the next race on the schedule.
Six or seven truckers sat at the terminals feeding digital horses peppermints, training them in tandem workouts or in the pool, or just galloping around the field, playing and waiting for the next race to begin.
During the race, the players slapped one of two big buttons - a red button to pull on the reins and a green button to use the whip. That was all the control they had during the race. The rest was up to their horse’s breeding, training, and conditioning. And when the race was over, those who decided to get up pressed a button and their terminal ejected a plastic card that they took with them - not just a memento of their game but a magnetic-stripe card with the data of the virtual horse they created so they could return and race again. And those who made more than one horse could enter both cards in the machine and mate them to create a new horse to train.
I sat down and put a $20 bill in the machine. A half-hour later, I put in another, and then another. I sat at that game until I was broke. It was addictive. The races weren’t easy to figure out how to win, but there was a learning curve, and I could feel myself figuring it out as I went. But most importantly, the game was fun. I really enjoyed breeding and naming my horses, then trying to specialize them in one kind of racing or another, then picking the right race on the “card” for them to enter. I enjoyed striking up good-natured rivalries with the truckers, some of whom had binders full of cards they had designed and trained in truck stops across the country.
And, I loved yelling for my horse to come home in the stretch as if I was watching a real horse race. I was hooked instantly. When I got home to New York, I got on the internet and searched for where there might be a Derby Owners Club machine near the city. I couldn’t wait to give it all my money again.
Derby Owners Club was first released by Sega in Japan in 2000 and was an instant hit. The game was so popular that players would occupy the seats at the terminals for entire days, and players would have to sign up for a spot at most locations using a reservation system.
The following year Sega released Derby Owners Club World Edition into the U.S. market with English translations and the names of the races converted to things like the “American Oaks” and “American Derby.”
In addition to truck stops, the massive arcade games were usually located in big-chain arcades like Dave & Buster’s. They were expensive to play, about $1.75 per race, and they catered to a mostly adult audience, so they weren’t good fits for Chuck E. Cheese’s or other kid arcades. The machines themselves were incredibly expensive, costing more than $100,000 to purchase, which accounts for the high price of the game play. Those arcades that splurged on them saw big returns, though. Derby Owners Club players were a committed bunch, playing for hours on end and spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars in pursuit of Grade 1 titles and climbing the online leaderboards.
I found an arcade in New York City that had Derby Owners Club, the Smiles Entertainment Center in Whitestone, Queens, near the bowling alley. It was a no-frills family arcade, and the Derby Owners Club machine was very popular. Players, mostly older Asian men, would camp out at the machine and even take their meals sitting at their terminals while they played.
I recruited some friends to go with me and see this incredible arcade game for themselves, and they were not disappointed. They also got hooked on the game right away, and before the end of our first night playing at Smiles, we started gambling with each other on whose horses could beat the others. For me it was a cinch, I didn’t just find the location of this machine searching the internet, I also found tips on how and when to whip and hold your horse for each type of race to get the biggest run out of them. I held back enough to let my friends get the hang of it a bit before the money came out and the stakes went up. Then I put my new skills to work to leave them all in my dust, closing from last place to first in the stretch over and over again. I had become a Derby Owners Club hustler. My friends didn’t like it, but it only motivated them to want to go home and study up, come back, and try again.
Derby Owners Club was the first of a long line of games in Asia that utilized magnetic cards that players could take home with them and use for games later on. Building on the success of Derby Owners Club, Sega developed World Cup Champion Football, also using the multiple-terminal construction and the custom-player-on-magnetic-cards concept. From there, they developed Key of Avalon, which utilized deck-building type strategies and resembled Magic: The Gathering. Other game companies took notice and started copying the idea.
By 2006, arcades in Japan were making record profits based on games like Derby Owners Club that created passionate fan bases that returned to the game again and again and again.
In the United States, Derby Owners Club was also peaking around 2006. There were hundreds of machines throughout the country and arcades were eager to take the plunge and spring for an expensive machine and cash in on the craze. Sega helped by creating cheaper, smaller versions of the game - one with four seats instead of eight and one with four stand-up terminals that took up the space of a regular stand up arcade game.
My friends and I brought our Derby Owners Club mania with us to the World Series of Poker that summer and found a machine in the Gameworks arcade on the Vegas strip. By then, we had each perfected our games and were much closer in ability than in the beginning when I hustled everyone out of their money. Since we were each more confident in our abilities then before and because we were in Vegas, the stakes went way up. We wagered hundreds of dollars in winner-take-all bets. It could have made one of us a big night. What happened instead was the money nearly evened out as we each found a race that our best horse could excel at. In that way Derby Owners Club resembled horse racing the most - a lot of the game was entering the right horse in the right race.
The craze would not continue forever in the United States. Arcade companies like Jillian’s started going out of business around 2010 and 2011.The chains that survived like Dave & Buster’s started making more room for carnival-type games that spit out tickets rather than video games, especially a game that took up as much floor real estate as Derby Owners Club. As machines began to break, arcade and truck stop owners opted to sell them off or scrap them for parts rather than pay to have them repaired.
Today, there are only 24 Derby Owners Club machines listed in the United States on Aurcade. None of them is in New York City.
Derby Owners Club is still going strong in Japan and other countries, however. In 2008 they made much-needed improvements to the games graphics and released a high-definition version called Feel the Rush. In 2009, they made even more upgrades and released Ride the Wind. In the United States, the most faithful fans of the game have tried to piece together their own home versions of the game using cast-off parts and tech, rather than spring for full machines, which are still being sold for over a hundred grand.
One thing that remains, however, is the secondary market for horses. Once upon a time while Derby Owners Club was at its peak, people would sell their best-bred horses for as high as $50 a pop on ebay. Today, you can still buy horses from the same top stables from back in the day, but they fetch more like $5 a pop. Even in the virtual world, the horse game is a tough racket.