Off-Track Betting Parlors May Close

The planned shutdowns may spell the end of an era for New York.

Retired actor John Fellows joins race fans at an off-track betting parlor in Manhattan.

Retired actor John Fellows joins race fans at an off-track betting parlor in Manhattan.

By SHARE

The sixth race of the day from Philadelphia Park was going off without a hitch as Musical Melody opened up the gap and cruised toward the finish, winning some of the spectators a return on a $2 bet and others just a chance to complain about the TV camera angle. "Why in God's creation are they only taking pictures of the horse that's leading by a mile? Where's the rest of the field?" yelled one of the men in the off-track betting parlor on Brooklyn's Livingston Street.

It's a safe wager that the cameraman isn't the only one New York's racing aficionados would like a word with now that the New York City Off-Track Betting Corp.'s board has voted to shut down the operation entirely. Without a political deal to save it, NYCOTB's 60-odd parlors will take their last bets on June 15, putting almost 1,500 people out of work and threatening to end an era for the city.

On the face of it, the potential demise of NYCOTB (which opened its doors in 1971 and peaked at more than 150 parlors in the 1980s) seems to be one more sign that the fun is slowly being drained from New York City—that is, if your idea of fun includes smoking in bars, scarfing trans fats, walking down a block not dominated by chain drugstores and banks, and enjoying the rakishness, to use a polite term, of a pre-Disney Times Square. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg says the OTB operation simply no longer works. Instead of adding to the city's coffers, it's about to start siphoning from them at a time when the city is already facing a huge budget deficit.

There's dispute over how badly the financial situation has deteriorated over the past several years, but no one argues that in June, the system will be losing cash for the first time ever (about $1 million) and will need more in September. In Albany, Gov. Eliot Spitzer's office and the state Legislature, which has lawmaking authority over all of the state's six regional OTB operations, are trying to hammer out a solution. Spokesmen for the Empire State Development Corp. and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said discussions were continuing.

Skimming. Bloomberg says that the OTB operation, which takes in more than $1 billion in bets per year, is a victim of the state's and racing industry's increasing skim, approved by the Legislature. Fees due those two entities eat up the lion's share of the $125 million or so that OTB makes every year, making the operation impossible to sustain. "What we need is for state government to come up with a formula that will allow OTB to keep enough money to operate," says Leonard Allen, president of Local 2021 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents most of the employees.

The broader question is how the city's OTB fits into the 21st century, when gambling has been gently renamed "gaming" and the emphasis is on entertainment and technology rather than the no-apologies, unglamorous transactions of the OTB parlors. Interest in horse racing is declining as the broader gambling market expands. Even in its own shrinking segment, OTB is faced with new competition from websites offering gamblers a way to play the ponies from home or with their cellphones.

The parlors may also be a little too scruffy for their own good. A report by the Boston Consulting Group said last year that in addition to implementing a new fee structure and other changes, the OTB needs to create "an inviting social betting environment" to survive. A handful of more posh "teletheaters" and restaurants, where you can get a turkey-and-brie ciabatta while waiting for post time, are scattered around the city, but the parlors remain the mainstay of the operation.

The regulars say that misses the point, as people come to the OTB for community, not bells and whistles. "It's like a hangout or a friendly club," says 79-year-old John Willis, who's been patronizing OTBs since their New York City debut. "Half of them, you don't even know their names, but it's the same group of people every time. They whoop and holler, but it's all friendly," he says. Seated a row ahead of him, John Gallo agrees. The 81-year-old takes the bus from Park Slope to downtown Brooklyn four or five times a week, betting $2 or $4 at a time. "I've been coming more since my wife passed away four years ago," he says. "I like to socialize." He says he'd probably go to the track if OTB disappeared, but not as often—it's too inconvenient. But, he says, the odds are he won't have to face that dilemma. 'They'll save it. I say it's 50-50—no, 80-20," he says. "What's a few million dollars in the richest city in the world?"