End of another Vegas tradition: horse racing wallboards

Jun 20, 2017 3:01 AM

The past can never really be retrieved.

Sounds like someone important should have said it, but I’ve been unable to determine who, prominent or otherwise, uttered those words, so I’m saying it here and now.

The past I’m writing about pertains to wallboards, the 18 by 36-inch blow-ups of the horseracing program once on display in nearly every major horse-betting parlor in the state. In the next few weeks, the wallboards will be no more and Nevada’s horse betting industry will never be quite the same.

The final sheets will be hung at Texas Station, the Riverside in Laughlin and the South Point. The merged corporate descendant of Print-a-Sport and Nevada Wallboards, Nevada Parlay Cards, will manufacture and deliver the final few sheets in about a week. A combination of technology, the decline in popularity of horse wagering and general casino cost cutting has squeezed the life out of what was once a popular product.

The wallboard sheets, for more than 35 years, were a “must have” product in all racebooks. Those that had the sheets had the most betting handle. In Reno, alone, eight books hung them years ago. No operator in Nevada could really compete without them. Originally, they were laboriously drawn by hand, as an employee wrote each horse’s name on a chalkboard. The Stardust even had its own microfiche process to project the horse names across its huge front wall.

Later they were printed using an inexpensive and rapid method of making copies, mostly for construction, using diazonium salts, which turn blue when exposed to ultraviolet light in presence of ammonia. 

The reproduced copy is called a “blueprint” because it shows the black-ink lines of the original drawing as white lines on a blue background or conversely as in the case of wallboards, blue lettering on a white background. It was called either the “diazo” or “ammonia process.”

When the construction industry moved to large-format xerographic copying, the wallboard industry followed suit. However, the blue letters of the diazo process gave way to the black toner used in the large-format machines.

Back in the day, just producing the sheets took a lot of labor. First, a master was created on a plotter. To make the copies, the master along with the chemically-coated blueprint paper was hand-fed through a noisy machine, passed under a bright lamp as a chemical reaction with the ammonia gas and water in the machine created the final product. Producing the data meant assembling the horses’ names and the riders for tracks all over this country and sometimes other countries, as well. Initially the data had to be hand typed. It took hours. That eventually gave way to a dump of the data into a computer program that would create the layout and data for the wallboards

Just which racebook had the best wallboard display and the best “boardman” or “boardwoman” to meticulously write the jockey changes and the results on the bottom of the sheets was often debated among the regular players. The calligraphy was a source of pride for the employee tasked with keeping the boards up to date and writing the results at the bottom. The books let them hang all night so players could wander in and learn if their bet was a winner. There was no Internet back then. Print-a-Sport and Nevada Wallboards fought fiercely to keep each customer. That alone kept the price of the sheets low and the product as fresh as possible.

Among Nevada’s time-honored traditions is for the casinos to have two or more vendors slug it out to keep the quality of a product high and the price low.

Years ago, it was not uncommon for Print-a-Sport and Nevada Wallboards to get calls from new simulcast outlets nationwide asking for wallboards to be shipped to them. However, the exorbitant shipping costs made that price prohibitive. Even though the new horse parlors desperately wanted them, they never had them.

When the major motion picture “Casino” starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone was filmed in and around Las Vegas in 1995, a production assistant called looking for wallboards as part of the background for a scene shot in the old “Leroy’s” book downtown. Using the Daily Racing Form’s American Racing Manual, the sets of boards were made and hung with horses and riders from the era in which the movie was set. The sheets are clearly visible in the “Leroy’s” scenes especially when Joe Pesci as Nicky Santoro tells a bettor to which he has loaned money to “pay up, or else.”

They remained unique to Nevada and a real source of pride where they were used. One year, Harvey’s in Lake Tahoe ordered 200 copies of the Kentucky Derby board so they could give one out to each customer. Often a winning owner would call looking for one to display at his home. A memorabilia seller once called asking for wallboards recreating Triple Crown winner Secretariat’s Derby, Preakness and Belmont wins. He erroneously thought he could make some money selling them as a set.

For many years, the old Cal-Neva book in downtown Reno would hang sheets listing each Kentucky Derby future book horse along with the odds. That meant typing three to four hundred names by hand.

The wallboards were valuable the day of the races and trash the next. The printing deteriorated quickly in light and never made good keepsakes, souvenirs of a big score or anything else after the races were run.

But, the customers loved them and voted with their dollars, demanding their favorite book keep them. Sadly, the customers have slowly lost that battle and the now the war.

The wallboards will join the Dodo bird in extinction. The first recorded mention of the Dodo was by Dutch sailors in 1598. The bird was, in the following years, hunted by sailors and regarded as an invasive species, while its habitat was being destroyed. The last widely accepted sighting of a Dodo was in 1662.

I can’t say for sure when the first paper wallboard appeared in a Nevada racebook. I can say for sure that by July 1, 2017 the sheets will join the Dodo bird as extinct. With Nevada racebooks becoming less profitable and less important to the state’s casino/resorts, much of the space that used to be dedicated to racing is now devoted to sports instead.

It can be said the habitat for horseplayers that created the need for wallboards has been destroyed, as well, and, truly, the past will never be retrieved.