At Pechanga, poker and ponies work

Dec 19, 2018 3:01 AM

Neither poker rooms nor horse tracks are enjoying the level of success they once did. But don’t tell Pechanga Resort & Casino.

The luxurious California property just off Interstate 15 – 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles and 60 miles north of San Diego – has combined the two with a “Poker & Ponies” room, and the results apparently are encouraging.

It has been more than a year now since Pechanga added off track betting (OTB) to the second-floor poker facility. The set-up includes 72 seats in the OTB portion with 22 TVs to simulcast horse races from around the country, along with 40 poker tables.

“It’s actually working out pretty good for us,” said Richie Lopez, Pechanga’s assistant director of poker and OTB. “We’ve got people in here betting ponies and running over and getting back in the poker games.”

He started monitoring the path between the two sections to make sure the carpet doesn’t get too worn down.

“It’s actually getting there,” Lopez said.

Lopez, 47, has been making the hour-long commutes from one reservation – the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians, where he lives in San Jacinto – to another reservation – the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, where he works in Temecula – for the last 22 years.

“I have a lot of family ties from that reservation,” Lopez said of Soboba. “I really wanted to grow on my own. I wanted to learn so that later on I can go and give back.”

Lopez spent a year and a half as a firefighter before settling on a full-time career in the casino industry, initially as a poker dealer. He has witnessed numerous changes over the years at Pechanga, including a $300-million renovation completed earlier this year that turned the AAA Four-Diamond recipient into the largest resort/casino on the West Coast.

The addition of OTB has helped “increase the overall foot traffic” around the casino, according to Lopez, particularly during big races such as the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup.

The poker room, meanwhile, is open around the clock.

“It doesn’t matter what time it is, there will be some type of game going on,” Lopez said. “A lot of our regulars and new players like to play all hours of the night.”

Lopez said he thinks part of the reason his poker room remains popular is because it continues to charge a standard $4 drop (the casino’s take per pot).

“Our drop has been one of the lowest in Southern California for years,” he said. “Most of the other properties have been increasing their drops.”

Pechanga is planning a major poker tournament series for this spring. The dates haven’t been confirmed, but Lopez expects to host it in probably March or April. That tournament will last for a week or two.

“We run those events to create new players from all over the world,” Lopez said. “We want to drive new bodies to the property. We had 1,500 entries for the last big event here.”

Smaller daily tournaments and promotions are also held on a regular basis, including some lower-priced games to try to encourage inexperienced players.

Lopez said the OTB offers horse bettors some other small perks, such as free soda and coffee.

All together, Pechanga has found a nice combination with its Poker & Ponies room.

“We saw other areas closing down their off track betting,” Lopez said. “We had guests asking about it. We saw an opportunity to add to our poker players and wanted to capitalize on it.”