12/01/2010 4:01PM

Whither NYC-OTB? Who Cares?


So the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation may go out of business on Friday. Excuse me if I am not alarmed.
For the racing industry in general, this would be merely another in a long line of disasters that has marked the precipitous decline of the sport over the last 20 years. For the New York Racing Association (NYRA), it signals yet another wakeup call to a moribund operation that is still banking on the installation of slot machines at Aqueduct to bail itself out.
For the increasingly rare bettor who might be interested in getting a bet down on a given race, it could serve as a spur to his getting a NYRA or TVG account. For the general public, it means that the disreputable characters who congregate at the storefront OTB shops around New York City will disappear from the neighborhood.
Have you been inside a New York City Off-Track Betting shop recently? As a 40-year resident of Manhattan, I have been wandering in and out of them since they first opened in 1971, the very year I moved into the City. They were barebones operations in the early days, but as time went on they became beehives of activity, if not quite providing the amenities one could find at the racetrack.
But that was a long time ago. With the continued failure of the racing industry to market itself as anything but a venue for gambling, coupled with incompetent management, NYC-OTB handle dropped to the point where - even as a pari-mutuel wagering operation - they could not pay their bills.
In recent years NYC-OTB branches have come to resemble those infamous lowlife bars once so common on the Bowery. They are unwelcoming places repellent to any intelligent person with even the slightest interest in horse racing.
A healthy sport - even a healthy gambling operation - will attract customers of all ages, all income groups, and both sexes. Any Major League Baseball game will have a healthy proportion of women, children, middle agers, etc. in attendance. Ditto a college football game, an NBA game, or any of the casinos in Vegas, Atlantic City or any Indian reservation.
At New York City OTB's, women are thin on the ground, or anywhere else on the premises. Finding anyone under the age of 50 might require the skills of a Sherlock Holmes. Members of the middle and upper classes have long since abandoned NYC-OTB outlets on all but a few days of the year, e.g., Derby Day, Preakness Day, Belmont Day and Breeders' Cup Day.
In this, NYC-OTB reflects the general clientele of racetracks around the country. That is why the racing industry - and NYRA in particular - should heed the warning that the difficulties of NYC-OTB signifies. Given NYRA's past record on recognizing industrywide problems, it is doubtful that they will.
Should NYC-OTB close its doors on Friday, its failure could provide an opportunity for a private enterprise to pick up the pieces, although the success of any off-track betting operation is ultimately tied to the overall health of the sport, and racing seems to be in critical condition.
Wouldn't it be nice if, instead of paid governmental employees, NYC-OTB's were run by a casino or a British bookmaker? The shops might then become places where bettors and fans might wish to congregate, perhaps even just to watch a race without even betting on one. Novel thought!
The difference between the New York City Off-Track Betting experience and that of the Las Vegas casino experience or that of a British bookmaking shop, is greater than the difference between night and day. AT NYC-OTB's it is difficult to keep track of the races, as the American racing industry has never co-ordinated its post times, not even at the three or four major meetings upon which most money is wagered. Finding payoffs can be troublesome, especailly when compared to casinos and British betting shops. And the quality of the help at NYC-OTB is one of the reasons betting at them is such an unpleasureable activity.
That is not the case in Engalnd, not at William Hill, not at Ladbrokes, not at Coral or any of the smaller bookmaking shops. In all of them, each track has its own screen upon which the preliminaries and the race itself can be seen. Immediately below that screen is one displaying the odds for the upcoming race. And below that screen is a third continually flashing the results and prices of that track's previous races.
Moreover, racecalls are heard for all races, as British shops subscribe to an outside service providing calls at all tracks. Even better, all betting shops in Great Britain have on free display the form pages of the Racing Post, Britain's racing daily.
If there is the rare overlap in races - something that happens form time to time when bets are being accepted on Irish races or at dog tracks - the lesser event will be shown in a reduced screen in the corner of the main screen. Everything is run very efficiently, and that includes the people behind the windows, whose tasks are considerably more complex than those of OTB clerks, as they must frequently decipher complicated multiple bets, not to mention having to decide upon odds for certain wagers, and whether to accept bets that might put the firm in jeopardy of a big loss, keeping in mind that British shops are betting man-to-man as opposed to pari-mutuel.
In general, it is something of a pleasure to do business in a British betting shop. It is even quite possible that you can enter into conversation with a fellow player about the nature of a race, a racecourse, or of a horse's chances in a race.
Let us hope that if and when NYC-OTB goes belly up, it will be replaced by casino or bookmaking professionals who can re-introduce a modicum of decorum to playing the races in New York City. Anything would be better than what we have now.

dennis m terrone More than 1 year ago
when you have to wait over 20 yrs for most of the otb parlors to install rest rooms it's no surprise that almost all of the serious bettors left a long time ago.
PAUL O'NEILL More than 1 year ago
Bernard Downes More than 1 year ago
Alan - I accept your response to my post, of course my memories were wholly unrespresentative. However, and this is the question for every one to consider, what comes after the closure of the OTBs? Do those former OTB patrons find a different way to bet on the horses (phone or computer?), or are they of a generation that will simply find another pastime to spend their dollars on. (They can start by going to the track, like people did for 150 years before OTB came into existence. More to the point, NYRA, New York State and the racing industry in general must find a replacement for OTB. As I suggested, a Las Vegas casino or a British bookmaker could do the job much better, but the industry is so lackadaisical about solving problems, I don't expect this to happen. It had years to address the problems posed by NYC-OTB. Their lack of effort came to fruition this week.) AS
Hugh More than 1 year ago
I won't miss the OTBs aka Only the Bums. I don't think I met one sane, normal person in the times I was there. They were all degenerate gamblers in their own way. Adios!
Perplexed Punter More than 1 year ago
Too good a discussion to leave alone...the OTB has served its time and purpose. May it RIP! It is time for "Teletrack" operations to pick up the mantle. A few large screen TVs and small screens at your booth is a great formula. Five dollars in the door would let the real gamblers have a nice experience. Let the unions tender to provide a service and see if they can compete in a corporate environment. The UK and Ireland bookies have a decent formula, but there are plenty of shops that would give the worst of the OTBs a run for their money. That being said, New York hasn't been able to get any slots running in over 10 years. How do you expect them to revamp the OTB in less than 20 years?
Andrew More than 1 year ago
I work for NYC OTB as do 1000 others. Do not hate me or my coworkers for making a living.I do not make 100,00, but I do try to support my family with this income in addition to another job. How many of you realize how expensive it is to live in NYC ! I think we are under paid! Yes I said UNDERPAID! How may of you in your jobs have been cursed out,spit on or threatned. As a city/state organization MANY things are out of our control. We make money, but give it all away to NYRA and the tracks. We are a public place and all are welcome. Sometimes people come in that should not but WE CAN NOT THROW them out. I welcome EVERYONE and RESPECT ALL as I know they( the betters) are my lifeblood and their dollars pay my salary. I love new faces as they are the future.We are UNION and PROUDLY so. How many people work a job and do not take a lunch break, 15 min coffee brake, smoke break, etc. NOT MANY. We have been closing branches, cutting staff, and asking for people to retire to keep us a float. I agree there are problems at OTB, but we are in the process of dealing with them.
thehoarsehorseplayer More than 1 year ago
Closing the OTB’s is like cutting off a leg of a diabetic. It might be absolutely necessary (if the patient has insurance coverage) but it does nothing to address the underlying health issue. And here I agree with your commentator, Paul Clyons “The racing industry won't market itself as a fascinating and exciting intellectual pursuit because "intellectual" as in reading, studying, analyzing etc are suspect in this country. Better to sit passively in front of your TV, brain in a semi-vegetative state, yelling yay team - that's American. Therefore the face of gambling is the mentally deranged, the degenerate and the old guy with the plaid shirt and the checked pants; the industry and their governmental partners treat all of us accordingly. Until the horse racing industry recognizes the superiority of its own product and has the nerve to aggressively and confidently market that superiority it will continue to devolve into what NYOTB has become.” The underlying disease sucking the marrow from Racing’s bones is an inability to take itself and therefore its customers seriously. At its best Racing is not merely a gambling game but a suburb test of wits and character; the thinking man’s game, sport of kings and all that. When you move away from that concept, when you fail to honor handicappers and handicapping, then Racing is no longer about the horse, but the cash cow. And that’s the thing everybody has to remember in this scenario: for all the talk of Racing’s woes, there are still a lot of people making a lot of money perpetuating the status quo. And certainly the OTBs made a lot of money for a lot of people for a very long time. (And they’re still making a lot of money for a lot of people.) What’s happened is they’ve simply collapsed under their own bureaucratic weight. Because the mission was never conceived of as how best to serve the customers and extend the Racing franchise, but rather was one intended to maximize political patronage OTBs lived they way they lived and will die the way they die. On the other hand, one can certainly make the case that there has never been another business in America that has survived for as long as OTB exhibiting as much brazen contempt for their customers as OTB has evinced. But again, OTB is just the most diseased limb of an industry that thinks it can survive being dismissive of their customer’s needs. And the truth is it will survive, more or less. But the rot marches on. Tracks close, prestige wanes. Racing will never be all it can be unless and until it starts taking its customers needs for information, for transparency and accountability seriously. Start honoring handicapping and handicappers and people will start honoring race going again.
Amrit Nanda More than 1 year ago
(Big loss for the homeless people),They are staying in the OTB branches to sit and sleep for whole days and Organizer's are paying the rents for them and the 1000 idiots,who is working for this Union rule organization are getting a big money without work,All employee's of all branches are so idiots and weird. Please close all branches ASAP. Very Good Decision. Don't listen Gov.Patterson,He have no brain,I don,t know how come he is the Gov. of New York.
Bernard Downes More than 1 year ago
As a British reader of the DRF blogs can I add a few contrary points on this matter. First off, quite a few British Bookies offices have their own fair share of idiot customers. No gangsters, but plenty of time-wasters, angry losers and people with no interest in the horses, but in love with the gaming machines (my pet hate). Re the NYC OTBs, I think you are being a little harsh on them. I recall several lazy afternoons spent in the OTBs on 7 Ave/38 St and 2 Ave/53 St, lunching, drinking and betting from their little lunch counters (am I right to remember rather good seafood, or am I dreaming?). Yes, there were a mixed bunch of customers (virtually all men) and woe betide if you sat on a regulars seat, but I never felt any real insecurity (when we Brits are not fighting with people, we try to get on with them). Why doesn't one of the big Vegas casinos take over the business. They seem to appreciate horse racing bettors, certainly the times I have been. And the Wynn's futures betting would be a great idea. (The OTB shops you are recalling are not the typical branch outlet, of which there are 44 or 45 in New York, but the restaurants at which one must pay a $5 entry fee. These are much, much more upscale than the walk-ins. If all of the shops were as nice, NYC-OTB would have fewer problems than it does, but even in the upscale restaurant shops, you are still being paid at least 5 percent less than you would get on winning bets at the track. Obviously, it's not that way in England.) AS
C More than 1 year ago
Perhaps the most brilliant part of this article is the title, as both "whither" and "wither" can be used in some sense to convey the same general feeling.
c richard waller More than 1 year ago
great article allen. i would hope that all of these comments would be sent to albany. maby if they read them they will come to the realization that the otb's are discusting in every way, starting with the state employees ,the conditions of the otb's and the dagger of the surcharge. when a house gets old and worn down and ridden withe termites, it's time to tear it down and build anew. let the tracks run the otb's along with the account wagering, and all pay track odds. there is nothing like being at the track live. that being said the next best thing is visiting a nice otb such as in penn. or new jersey. i live two miles from the favorites in toms river nj and you can't find a nicer atmospher to enjoy a day at the races or watch football and all other sports that are on that day. the staff are warm and friendly. there is a great snack bar, with really good food and a huge sports bar. with so many tv's all around the facility and personal tv's at your individual desk set-up, with waitress service. i also have an on-line account wagering service, but getting out to favorites is my prefered choice. say goodby to the ny otb's and all the greed and filth. say hello to nyra run otb's and account wagering. a better time will be had by all. CRW
gkel More than 1 year ago
OTB has always been considered a threat to NYRA since its inception. The whole plan has been to take over their operations. OTb telephone operations has been one of the major targets of NYRA. Through legislation they have developed a formula of cash distribution that eventually accomplished that goal. OTB is required to compensate all tracks a percentage of their gross, these percentages are prohibitive. There is no company that could sustain themselves under these punitive conditions.
Richard More than 1 year ago
Other issues not discussed: OTB will allow wagers on only some races at a given track (such as Balmoral, Northfield, Los Alamitos, etc.). Why can you bet on the first 9 races but not the last 2,3, or 4?? The excuse that the branches close prior to post time is nonsense as they take wagers Sunday night (7 p.m. closing time !) for upcoming races. They take action on a track some nights but not others (Pocono Downs). You cannot play 10 cent superfecta's at any track except Churchill & Yonkers. If they can program machines for those tracks, why not all who offer that wager? Branch hours do not synch with the post times of night tracks. On Mon. & Tuesday evenings, wagering ceases around 10:30 -10:45 even though the tracks still have races being run, but OTB doesn't accept wagers on those races (see above) - They are therefore paying employees across the State to sit and watch their favorite TV shows as the branches close at 11:15 p.m. and customers are there, but again, are not allowed to wager. Incredible. Let's hire a 120k per month consultant to screw things up even more. Oh, wait, that's been done.
Jeff T. More than 1 year ago
Alan... it is quite clear from the responses (1-20 thru 21-35, which is the most responses I've ever seen from one of your blogs) that you are "spot on." I could add my own horror story from my only visit to a NYC OTB but... what would be the point. I say (like many others) "good riddance" and would welcome the opportunity to receive 5 percent more as a result of their death.
Dantemann More than 1 year ago
To see how an OTB system can be run, New yorkers olny need to look south and west. Pennsylvania got it right (although this was probably done by looking at NYC and saying "don't do anything they did"). In PA, OTB's are owned by tracks and each track can only have 6 (or maybe 7) OTB shops. This means that each shop has to be kept up, because you can't open a new one and let the old one slide downhill. PA OTBs must have a restaurant and bar, which means that in addition to the racing authorities, the Board of Health and Liquor Licensing inspectors pay regular visits. The result is a nice atmosphere, it still isn't perfect but the wife and I have spent several "big" racing days (and a few "average" ones) at various PA OTBs and all have been enjoyable (well there was that Breeders Cup that we didn't cash a ticket all day, but that wasn't the OTB's fault!)
mpm101 More than 1 year ago
As a patron of the NYC OTB's i feel that their loss will have an extremely negative effect on racing in NY. While i am only a Saturday player at the outlet on 2nd Avenue in Manhattan, I can confirm that their are definitely players in their 20's, no less 30's and 40's and from all walks of life. It is a welcoming atmosphere and enjoyable afternoons with much discussion of more than just racing. The biggest loss though will not be the OTB themselves as you can always bet online, but the end of the TV channel which broadcast the races on NYC cable tv. WIthout a viewing outlet I am reasonably sure that interest will decline affecting tracks in NY and across the country. mpm101
Pru More than 1 year ago
Alan, I appreciate your article and I currently live in New York City. Since graduating from an ivy league college in 2007 and moving to New York, I have frequented NYC OTBs to bet on mainly the NYRA circuit. I played regularly at 2nd Ave & 52nd Street on the weekends, but finally had the last straw and began to bet enough where it forced me to get a NYRA one account early this year. The NYC-OTBs are as you have described, a pretty down scene. Mostly made up of old time, $2 bet horse players, some degenerate gamblers and your corner hustlers. I routinely saw drug deals go down. I rarely ever saw anyone near my age (25) and most of the folks are 50+. I've been betting on horses seriously since I saw Kent D get caught on the wire by Victory Gallop in Elmont and my father who still makes his own speed figures taught me the ropes at a young age. NYC-OTB as currently structured is a complete failure. They take an extra 5%, the places are unkempt and service is non-existent. I would never think of bringing a friend or work colleague to an OTB to expose him to the game because he would probably think I had lost my mind hanging out in such a joint. The only reason I had put up with it was due to need, the fact I wasn't yet a New york resident and my connection to horse racing. While, I think they need to BLOW up the current system, one point you may have missed involves the fact that OTB handles roughly 10% of US wagering on horse racing. Less liquidity in the pools and less dead money makes this game even tougher and eventually leads to even less handle. This obviously affects me as well as the others who wager. I beg for the day where Betfair extends their services to the U.S. so I can wager against others and even act as my own bookmaker. Also, NYRA or a private company needs to take over the NYC operations and develop a new strategy. 3 Key Points: 1) Education and develop new blood: they could post the racing form, hold seminars and teach people how to bet. 2) Add Food & Drinks to make it more Vegasesque and 3) Eliminate the 5% Take. I fear for horse racing's future and I think the pools have become increasingly more difficult than just a mere 5 years ago. More of the money has become smart money and horses that used to pay 12-1 are 7-1 now. You really need to have discipline and pick your spots. I hope New York can find a solution that helps horse racing. Thank you for your comments and insightful analysis. Regards, Mike
uwe fruendt More than 1 year ago
i did the otb betting for 30 years. in the early years, the smoke, standing room only and taking the abuse of the employies! then i stoped in laughlin nevada, visiting the sportsbook at the casinos. i stayed for 5 years, no smoking indivitual tv screens for any track you whant. comfortable chairs, free coffee and friendly service at the windows. now that is the way to treet the horse bettors. the new york otb's should have bin closed down years ago. RIP''
Paul More than 1 year ago
I agree with the looks. If you walk into the OTB parlor in China town the patrons brush up against you with there pen tips. When they do this it marks your cloths or even the one on Delancey Street. There you need to keep your wallet in your front pocket because there are people trying to pick it. I have been there numerous times and heard people yell out PICKPOCKET!
paul clyons More than 1 year ago
The racing industry won't market itself as a fascinating and exciting intellectual pursuit because "intellectual" as in reading, studying,analyzing etc are suspect in this country. Better to sit passively in front of your TV, brain in a semi-vegetative state, yelling yay team - that's American. Therefore the face of gambling is the mentally deranged, the degenerate and the old guy with the plaid shirt and the checked pants; the industry and their govenmental partners treat all of us accordingly. Until the horse racing industry recognizes the superiority of its own product and has the nerve to aggressively and confidently market that superiority it will continue to devolve into what NYOTB has become.
Any Spray More than 1 year ago
Alan, Spot on analysis of an organization that should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. At home or while traveling, I attempt to see live racing if at all possible. Second choice is enjoying TVG/HRTV or a computer feed to place bets in the comfort of my home. Third choice is any OTB, anywhere, at any time. OTBs are my last resort and always will be - and some have the audacity to place a surcharge on your bet (YES, THAT'S YOU PORTLAND MEADOWS!!!!) I have also traveled abroad and to Vegas many times and if you have those experiences, OTBs give the appearance of run down Federal housing. Thanks again for another great column.
Turnbackthalarm More than 1 year ago
Couldn't agree more with you, Alan. I lived in Manhattan a long time ago and went in to place a bet on my namesake. As a then, young woman, I was shocked, appalled and uncomfortable with the people who were in there and the way they looked at me. Losing these places is no great loss. A better question might be, when is racing going to wake up and hire some horseplayers to clean up the game? It is the passionate fans whose ideas I have seen on many boards that seem to have a much clearer idea on how to revive and save this sport.
Angelo More than 1 year ago
Great, spot on, article. I work in New York and wear a jacket and tie to work. The four or five times a year I used to visit an OTB (before I opened a NYRA account several years ago) during a work day I would be treated like a pariah. The looks from the grubby patrons were bad enough, but on a number of occasions, a "supervisor" would approach me to ask if I needed help. When I would state that I did not and was simply there to make a bet, I was usually told that my professional appearance and notebook (it contained my handicapping material) made them assume I was "spying." I guessed Albany must have periodically done this, but the idea that a well dressed middle aged gambler would be made to feel so unwelcome is pretty telling. PLEASE let NYC-OTB die.
One Green Banana More than 1 year ago
I am amazed to discover that the most corrupt off track betting operation in the United States might be finally closing its doors. I find it very hard to understand how any gambling operation with a five percent surcharge could ultimately fail. Maybe this is just another example of how New York bureaucrats and politicians can tax and suck the daylight out of any viable business or organization.
JK More than 1 year ago
The NYC OTB's are a disgrace. The one shop near where I work, opens at 11am and the manager goes on break from 2pm-3:30pm and anything that you need help with between those times has to wait for him to return. Once my $50 voucher got stuck in the machine at 2:15 and for the next hour and fifteen minutes I had to stand next to the machine till he returned to help. This all happened while I was supposed to be at work. Another time I hit a IRS Sign job trifecta, I went to cash the ticket and was told to come back at 4pm when the manager gets back so he can fill out the paper work. It's ridiculous that the place opens at 11 and then three hours later the manager needs to take an extended lunch break?? Especially during prime racing hours. I'm glad they are getting shut down. I just hope some day a better run company opens their doors for us.