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.