On a hot, steamy afternoon last Saturday in midtown Manhattan, about 150 racing fans made their way to a second-floor walk-up that in more pristine times would have been as illegal as a speak-easy in 1930.
But the action overlooking and visible from Second Avenue is as legitimate as church bingo. This is how horseplaying has evolved, and now the state and the New York race tracks, which contended that they were competing with themselves when off-track betting (OTB) began about 15 years ago, are in more compatible cahoots to draw the bettors any way possible.
Besides the Inside Track, which is part restaurant, part lounge and all serious race-picking, another place to follow the horses on an August day in the city is at Aqueduct. The Queens track is occupied by horses, jockeys and trainers almost six months out of the year, but because of the schedule, there is no racing at Aqueduct in August. Even so, as many as 9,000 die-hards gather every day, at picnic tables, on the grassy lawns and in the plush turf club, to bet the televised races at upstate Saratoga, 150 miles and at least a three-hour drive away.
The Inside Track and impersonal Aqueduct are not Saratoga, that ageless dowager of American racing who has been celebrating the sport for 120 seasons. On Second Avenue and out in Queens, there are no horses being saddled under elm trees, no fresh-fruit stands and dancing cloggers next to your favorite parimutuel window. No tanned, rich-looking women wearing big hats.
At least, though, there are daily doubles and exactas and triples, and for the entrenched New York horseplayer, that and a good cigar are enough.
On one recent Saturday, $1.6 million was bet at Aqueduct, at $178 per capita considerably more business than Saratoga ever does. For the bottom-line non-romantic, the amenities of Aqueduct are free parking, no admission charge, a clear picture from Saratoga and no gas tank to fill.
If the betting is spirited at Aqueduct, it is downright intense at the Inside Track, where the average patron has recently been wagering $632 a day, more than the per capita at any track in the world. There are no stampedes to the windows, but once the bettors get there, they have large bills in both fists.
Aqueduct will handle about $30 million on Saratoga races this month and Yonkers Raceway, a harness track that races standardbreds at night, will do an estimated $90 million in business this year on New York's three major thoroughbred tracks--Saratoga, Aqueduct and Belmont Park.
"There's been a definite shift in where the bettors are placing their bets," said Gerry McKeon, who heads the three thoroughbred tracks. "Through the first five months this year, on-track wagering was down almost 4%, but overall betting was up more than 5%."
The Inside Track is the antithesis of the OTB shops all over Manhattan, those bare, rubbish-strewn locations where the players must stand, without benefit of live telecasts, and wait for results to be announced and posted on the walls. Other than the Inside Track, and its sister restaurant, the Select Club, in lower Manhattan, OTB shops ignore every sound business practice in the book. If you opened a confectionary and gave your customers the same seedy surroundings, you wouldn't sell a single egg cream.
It seems as though OTB, with its restaurant concept, is trying to make restitution for what it had at the start. Coats are required at the Inside Track, there is a $5 admission charge, presumably to discourage the rabble, and spitting on the floor is verboten.
The players get a better break, too, because there is no 5% surcharge on payoffs, a policy that has been an albatross around the neck of OTB since it began. What heavy bettor is going to wager at a corner parlor, where a winning horse that pays $30.80 at Saratoga is only going to be worth $29.20?
Track executives all over the United States envision the Aqueduct operation and facilities similar to the Inside Track as the savior of the industry, which has been crippled in this decade by competition from lotteries, the glut of racing dates, an older spectator base and a me-first attitude by owners and breeders that whisks young horses off the track and out to stud farms before the public can adopt them as stars.
Even in California, which has fewer problems than most racing states, variations of off-track betting have gotten off the back burner. Satellite wagering and simulcasting are the buzz words. In Northern California, Bay Meadows offers Aqueduct-like facilities while neighboring Golden Gate Fields is running and vice versa. There are other satellite betting facilities in Santa Rosa, Sacramento, Fresno, Stockton, Santa Barbara, Bakersfield and Santa Maria.
Nationally, off-track betting has accounted for $40 million in bets on the Kentucky Derby alone in the last two years, and there isn't a racing jurisdiction anywhere that doesn't want to capitalize on such revenue potential.
Imminent passage of a bill sponsored by Sen. Ken Maddy will bring Southern California tracks into the satellite-wagering business. In the next several months, Del Mar will be able to offer betting on races from Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, and the Los Angeles tracks will conduct betting when they are closed and Del Mar is open. There is no allowance for Hollywood Park and Santa Anita to take bets on each other's races.
At Golden Gate Fields, near San Francisco, satellite gains are already an important part of the business. Without the satellites, Golden Gate's business would have been off slightly this past season, but instead the track showed overall gains of about 7% in betting and 9% in attendance.
Although simulcasting will send horseplayers to Del Mar year-round as opposed to just seven weeks a year, officials at the seaside track are wary about how they will be affected. Del Mar isn't broke and doesn't even have a rattle--its growth in the last decade is unparalleled in American racing--and there is great concern about whether it needs to be fixed.
According to Joe Harper, Del Mar's general manager, 40% of its attendance comes from the Los Angeles area, and there have been estimates that one-fourth of those people might go to Hollywood Park and Santa Anita for televised betting rather than battle the freeways south.
Dan Smith, another Del Mar executive, has reservations for another reason. "Racing is a lot of people on their feet, yelling through the stretch run of an important race," he said. "Would the Santa Anita Handicap still be as important if only 30,000 or 40,000 people were there instead of 70,000 or 80,000?"
Alan Balch, a former marketing executive at Santa Anita and now the president of a San Francisco firm that develops the simulcasts for Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields, doesn't see satellite betting as a means of increasing the fan base.
"These are facilities for the committed players," Balch says. "What potentially new racing fan would go to an empty race track that has betting windows and television screens, but none of the ambiance of a track that's actually running the races?
"Inducements for new fans are the beauty of the horses, the thrill of the competition and the atmosphere that surrounds the buildup to a big race. It's impossible to capture all that at a satellite facility. The job of winning over new fans still rests with the tracks that are running the races."
When Up the Apalachee and Without Feathers reached the finish line only a head apart in the Alabama Stakes last Saturday at Saratoga, there were roars in front of several large television monitors at Aqueduct.
Missing, though, were the catcalls that Chris Antley, the rider of Without Feathers, got at Saratoga when he dropped his whip with three-sixteenths of a mile to run. Some of Without Feathers' supporters at Aqueduct hit the nearest wall with their programs, but they were calm enough to know that you couldn't boo a jockey who wasn't there.