Thursday, February 21, 2008

Requiem for OTB in New York?

I'M NOT SURE HOW THEY managed this, but New York State's Off-Track Betting Corporation, set up in the 1970s to manage horse race wagering in and around NYC, may shut down in mid-June because it has achieved the dubious distinction of running a money-losing bookmaking operation.

My grandfather is probably cursing in his grave.

I know nothing about the art of handicapping Thoroughbreds, but my maternal grandfather had the touch. For a Hell-fearing Irish Catholic who survived the Depression, he had no qualms about betting on cards or the ponies. Before OTB, he would study the Daily Racing Form and call my "aunt" Lizzie to transmit bets to the bookie who lived on her apartment building's ground floor. The parlors opened just in time for his retirement, and he enjoyed his trips to the Castle Hill or Parkchester offices in the Bronx, even if they took a bigger bite out of his not infrequent exacta and daily double hits via the state-run pari-mutuel system.

Evidently, this vig was not enough to keep OTB solvent. New York's experiment in taking the race-betting business from the city's bookies and the Mob could end, barring sale of the operation to another manager or a renegotiation of the profit split among the city, state, and the association that runs NYC's tracks. And don't think the Mafia won't welcome the extra business. Hell, they never stopped booking race bets, OTB or not. Via a guy in my poker game, I could reach a bookie within two phone calls if I wanted to get some money down without hauling my ass over to the Meadowlands or into Manhattan.

Sadly, any horse betting on my part is strictly gonna be for fun and small potatoes. My grandfather slipped off to the big OTB parlor in the sky before passing along any of his handicapping secrets. I've only ever thought about betting on a horse when I worked in the city, and could walk two blocks to an office in Midtown to make a nominal bet on the odds leader during one of the Triple Crown races. I did experiment one year with boxing a couple of horses together, which, if I am correctly recalling the details, allows one to win, at a reduced rate, no matter what order your horses come up, as long as you pay for all the potential bets in that combo. I lacked the deep understanding to seal that sort of deal, and lost the $12 or so it cost me to conduct the experiment.

I have to verify the testimony of several commenters in this City Room piece: The environment and crowd at OTB offices is unique. I recall wandering through the crowd of regulars clustered outside the Midtown office, all sucking down cigarettes between races or while reading a Racing Form. Inside, sheets covered one wall, each one listing the individual races and horses at tracks across the country. The decor and seating was the same batch-bought low-bid generic quality as you'd find in a DMV office. Old TVs — no flat screens for this venerable parlor — hung from the ceilings or were set in the walls, so wherever you looked you could watch your financial fate unfold. And of course, dozens of bettors, slouching or sitting with foot-bobbing tension in their seats, chatting like Talmudic touts about some horse's prospects, waiting in line to make or cash in on a bet, from all realms of city life, were there to strive against the odds, play a hunch, or construct some elaborate system of bets across several races to bring home the long green.

Still, with comfy horse parlors in the Connecticut casinos, the Borgata in AC, and of course sharing the same space as the sports books in far greater luxury in Las Vegas, a few hours of two-buck longshots might be a nice side dish to a long day of poker or craps degeneracy with the gang. Just a bummer that I would have to travel so far to do so. As much as it might be worth funding New York's social services via some more reliable and transparent method, it will be a shame, and a piece of city history lost, should the green-and-white OTB signs cross their final finish line this coming June.

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