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Old Game With New Wrinkles

I guess the last time I was in a horse parlor was back in the days of the Depression, when bread was a nickel and beer was a dime. That would be back on Park Street in Hartford, Conn., where my Uncle Ed was running a sting, as usual.

You remember Ed, my gambling uncle? Well, Ed had this scheme going. He had this storefront bookie who had a candy counter or newsstand in front--I forget which--and a betting setup in the back.

The nearest race track was 200 miles away but that was all right because Ed had a guy there with a phone and binoculars. This guy would check a race and if, say, horse No. 5 came into the stretch full of run and needing only a heart attack to lose, this spy would flash the news to a waiting list of clients out on the Southern New England phone system.

Ed took his call next door to the bookie’s store, where he had a confederate--that would be Johnny Pachesnik--with a scratch sheet, supposedly studying the form with a view to making a bet.

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My uncle wore this cardigan sweater with 12 buttons on it and, when he got the information from the track on the certain winner, he unbuttoned the sweater from the bottom with the exact number of buttons as the putative winner of the race.

Now, bookies are no dummies. When they take a late bet, they usually take it on time. That is to say, they take it on condition it was placed before the post time of the race.

When the bookmaker would do that, Johnny would promptly bet a horse that did not win the race, knowing he would get a refund.

But after an afternoon of turning down losing bets, the bookmaker would get greedy. If he accepted the bet unconditionally, Johnny would chunk it in on the winner. This is a nuance known as past-posting and it is every bookie’s nightmare.

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Ed didn’t get rich. The bookie wised up. But it was a nice cameo for Newman and Redford, and I couldn’t help thinking of Uncle Ed when I went out to Hollywood Park the other afternoon and I couldn’t get over how times have changed.

Off-track betting in my uncle’s day was a matter for the vice squad and the night court. You had to pay somebody off, like, say, the mayor, one or more aldermen, the cop on the beat, the squad.

But you drive up to Hollywood Park and it’s as legal as rum. Ed would roll over in his grave.

You pay 2 bucks to park--4 if you want someone to take your car--and you go into this gorgeous multilevel Cary Grant Pavilion with indoor waterfalls, escalators, restaurants, bars, television sets--and the vice squad is nowhere in sight.

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There are no horses on the track, only on the television screen, but horseplayers don’t require horses, just numbers. It’s studio horse-racing.

The races are 100 miles away--at Del Mar--but you don’t need a spy with binoculars at the site. The race is right there on a hundred screens for you, including the Cinemascope-sized one in the infield. You can’t past-post here. You bet at the windows the same as you do on Gold Cup day and they slam shut the minute the horses leave the gate.

The bettors are hard-core. Their wagering runs heavily to the exotic--exactas, the Pick Six, the daily double, the late double, the Pick Three. They talk of baseballing, boxing, and otherwise complicated wagering.

There is none of this, “If I bet a horse to show and he wins, do I still collect?”

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They wait till the horses are practically in the gate to rush the windows with their complex wheel bets, then scream when someone doing the same thing takes too much time. “He always locks the window when he gets up there!” they scream. “Get him outta there!”

The betting is locked into Del Mar’s mutuel pool. The payoffs are exactly the same. Even the swollen Pick Six payoffs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars could presumably be won by a guy nowhere near where the horses run.

They behave precisely as the $2-bettors at the live track do. “Go to work on him, Chris!” they yell as Jockey McCarron hits the stretch. “Don’t let that dog die, Shoe!” they roar at Bill Shoemaker.

They even have stoopers, the guys who go around with their eyes glued to the ground looking for discarded winning tickets. Pickings are lean with this crowd. There’s not a careless bettor in the group. Addicted, maybe, but not careless. Nobody here throws away a winner.

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It’s big business. Getting bigger. Sometimes, $2 million dollars a day are bet at Hollypark. And there are nine off-track locations in the state.

Last Saturday, the track attendance at Del Mar was 20,258. The off-track attendance was 21,190. The at-the-track pool was $3,534,443. The off-track pool was $4,803,936. That’s a total pool of $8,338,389 for an ordinary Saturday at a hinterland track. Only the Kentucky Derby used to attract that kind of one-day pull at the windows.

The off-track location gets to keep 2% of its take. The host track gets 3%. The state continues to get its 7% of all the money wagered. The horsemen get 5%. The bettors get back 80% of what they put up.

Intertrack wagering can become the tail that wags the dog. A million and a half was bet on the Kentucky Derby at Hollywood Park last year. Attendance come-ons--duffel bags, mink coats for lucky numbers, new car raffles--can’t be far behind.

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Still, it’s taken a little of the romance out of the game. I didn’t see a single cardigan sweater with the bottom four buttons unbuttoned. Uncle Ed would have hated it.


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