Colorado Sports Betting History: New Laws the Product of Almost 200 Years of Progress

Rich Allen explores Colorado’s betting history as sports are about to return to a newly licensed online betting state.

With the imminent returns of several major sports, albeit none likely within Colorado’s pseudo-rectangular borders for the foreseeable future, sports betting will finally get its shot in the Centennial State. 

Soon, Coloradans will get the chance to sit in front of their TV or, in a limited and socially-responsible fashion, at their favorite sports bar, phone in hand, and wage their sports wits for profit. It will be a breath of relief, accomplishment and reflection. The road to this point will have been one full of twists, turns and roadblocks. A destination hundreds of years in the making.

When settlers began making their way to Colorado en masse and popping up mining towns in the 1800s, they brought casinos with them. The area has some claim to the beginning of the casino industry in the U.S.: Brown’s Saloon opened in 1822 in what was then known as Brown’s Hole, a valley that reaches into Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. Both Wyoming and Colorado have laid claim to Brown’s Saloon, but neither state existed during the casino’s run. 

The likes of Butch Cassidy and Doc Holliday found their way through places like Brown’s Hole, bringing along the mayhem that they were synonymous with. As societal structure developed, it took the anarchy away, and gambling, at least legal variations of it, disappeared.

Sports betting led the way for its return.

In 1947 the state passed a tax on pari-mutuel wagering for greyhound and horse racing, beating out the legalization of casino gambling by 44 years. A three-person racing commission was established, and Colorado was set for its first legal bets to be made. Within the next few years, Colorado’s first major racing venues opened up and gambling dollars started changing hands.

Greyhound tracks were the first out of the gates. Both the Pueblo Greyhound Park and Mile High Kennel Club opened their doors in 1949. The latter of which, opening in Commerce City, became a main attraction in Denver. It eventually gained the affectionate nickname “The Big Store,” housing more than 13,000 occupants, on occasion filling more seats than the Denver Broncos would in football’s early days in Denver. At times, the Kennel Club exchanged more than $1 million for single events. 

As many as five greyhound racing tracks were in operation at the same time during the sport’s peak, dotting the front range from Pueblo to the Cloverleaf Greyhound Park in Loveland. According to The Denver Post, the state saw more than $58 million wagered at Mile High alone in 1982. 

The Big Store’s horse racing counterpart, however, did not flourish in the same way. Colorado’s supposed premier horse racing track, the Centennial Racing Track, opened in 1950 in Littleton, south of downtown Denver. It was touted by its ownership as the “Santa Anita of the Rockies,” in an attempt to draw a comparison to the famous track in California.

While the Mile High Kennel Club drew more than 13,000, average individual race attendance for Centennial never exceeded 7,000. Willard Tunney, the general manager of the facility, boldly estimated the venue would produce a daily income topping $400,000 in its inaugural season. The mark turned out to be no higher than $50,000. A revolving door of ownership failed to produce high-quality racing, and profitability evaded the race track. An extreme flood of the South Platte River in 1965 killed hundreds of horses and destroyed the track, setting it back even further. 

Centennial attempted out-of-the-box ideas like harness racing in the ‘70s to try to save the business. It even became the first track to simulcast and take wagers on events elsewhere in 1981. But nothing stuck, and it shuttered its doors for good in 1983.

Horse racing didn’t fail altogether in Colorado, but it didn’t exactly prosper. It never gained completely solid footing, and never reached the level of popularity that greyhound racing did. When the state phased out greyhound racing completely in 2008 before officially outlawing it in 2010, its income from pari-mutuel gaming dropped from $2.7 million to $700,000. 

There is one horse racing track left in Colorado: Arapahoe Park in Aurora. And, as of 2018, there are 10 licensed off-track betting locations, scattered across the state. But with the end of greyhound racing, sports betting in Colorado returned to a state of relative dormancy. 

Until Murphy v. NCAA struck down sports betting at the federal level in 2018. But even then, it took the narrowest of margins for Proposition DD to pass in Colorado, garnering just 51.41% of the vote in 2019 to allow sports betting in Colorado.

The bill took effect in May. Coloradans, after hundreds of years, can finally place a bet on their Nuggets, Avs, Broncos and Rockies. But another speedbump in the road to sports betting came in the Covid-19 outbreak, and sports betting, at least on local teams, will have to wait just a little longer. And there are still more milestones to reach.

There will be no sportsbooks in Denver, at least not yet. Gambling licenses were only offered in towns where gambling is legal: Blackhawk, Central City, Cripple Creek and tribal towns. Bets can still be placed from sportsbook apps anywhere in-state, but the closest in-person venue will be at least a 30-minute drive from the stadium where the game is taking place. Pushes from the industry, including teams, will undoubtedly attempt to change that.

In December, the Colorado Division of Gaming projected an income tax revenue ranging from $1.5-1.7 million for the 2020-21 fiscal year. While that number will undoubtedly fall with the current global crisis, the fiscal year doesn’t begin until July 1, as sports inch closer to returning. Residents of Colorado, starved of sports, will likely jump in head-first and engage in any way possible.

After centuries of work, one last hurdle will make that first winning wager all the sweeter.

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