Friday, September 25, 2015

OTB or not to be?

Apparently that is the question according to this morning’s local newspaper (Yes, my wife and I do still read the local newspaper – print version – each morning preferring to get our lies and egregious entertainment flashes from an old school medium rather than an electronic one. NYS Comptroller, Thomas Napoli, who has been featured in this blog before (See Tom Napoli, June 2014) is quoted in the article saying "The viability of OTBs is in financial jeopardy. Statutory payment requirements, a downturn in racing interest and major fee increases have each contributed to this plight.”

Can I say, “And not a moment too soon!”

Have you ever been in an Off Track Betting parlor, a phrase used very loosely to identify these spaces where gentleman, mostly gentleman, another loosely used term, gather to place bets at racetracks too far away for them to go to? If you haven’t you aren’t missing much.

Since 1970, that’s 45 years ago, New York State has licensed various regional corporations to run off-track betting establishments so that those not lucky enough to live a short distance from a racetrack could plunk down a few bucks and become a millionaire. OTBs never seemed like a great idea to me but I was fortunate enough to be born and raised in Yonkers where, with a few glitches here and there, a harness racing track was always only a bus ride away. Once old enough to drive a car, Roosevelt Field on Long Island (since turned into a shopping mall of sorts), and Aqueduct Race Track in Queens were also easy commutes.  OTBs seemed unnecessary and a waste of space. Why lose your money at some track far, far away when it could easily be lost close to home.

Race tracks are generally far from the scenic atmosphere of Churchill Downs which everyone gets to visit once a year through the magic of television. Some are much nicer than others but all of them have their “pits,” let’s call them, where the $2 bettors congregate, yell, spit, curse, smoke (they used to anyway!), throw their butts and losing tickets all over the floor and variously lament on how close they came to winning or what a loser  or cheater their jockey was. These denizens of the paddock do not usually deign to dress for their race track outings. They come in T-shirts, dirty jeans, raggedy jackets or their work clothes with “Henry” or some other mundane name stitched onto the outside of their shirt pocket if they are there on their lunch break. Some stay for all the races; some run in and run out betting on a “tip” from someone who knows all about it. Women are in the minority but if they are there they often look more disheveled than the men.

Image this scenario and multiply it downward by a factor of five and that’s what your typical OTB looks like. Usually painted a drab institutional minty green but wearing the scuffs and grime of decades, the walls are not inviting. The floors aren’t either, made up of dirty chipped linoleum tiles that have not been cleaned or waxed in ages. The floors eventually get swept but for the most part the discarded betting slips will remain there for most of the day. Tellers, those who interpret the complicated wagers that might spell success for the bettors, are behind barred or thick plexi-glass windows and say little to the patrons. Do something wrong – propose a bet that is unintelligible – and you will get a stair, a frown, and maybe even a growl. All are good signs that your bet will go unplaced as your horse comes to the rail.
In the midst this woefully pathetic environment there are opportunists lurking midway down the long lines of bettors that usually form minutes before a given post time. They wait and wait to the last seconds before the race goes off and then adeptly shoulder their way in front of an unsuspecting newcomer in order to squeeze their bet in at the wire. More than once have I witnessed this scenario result in pushes, shoves and no one on that line getting a bet in for that race.

It’s not surprising that OTBs will soon be a thing of the past. There are many other alternatives to them including multiple ways of placing bets on horse races from the comfort of your own home. Sorry to say that few of us in NY will miss them – mostly we stopped going a long time ago.

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