Rafael Gonzalez, who is big in insurance in Puerto Rico, and his daughter Martha, who was breathing the clubhouse air of San Juan's El Comandante racetrack after 19 years as a Carmelite nun, sat cheerfully in the dining room studying the program. Gonzalez runs under the name of Ohio State Stable and names most of his horses for his former college classmates. Daughter Martha's Ananda Stable, says Gonzalez, "has six horses, but you know who is paying for them!" One of the six, a 2-year-old by Li'l Fella named Kentucky Dawn, was coming onto the track for the sixth race, his second lifetime start. "Shall I pray for a victory?" asked Martha. Her father smiled. "Prayers are good when the horse is good," he said gently. "The better the horse, the better the prayers." Minutes later Kentucky Dawn won and paid $16.
Racing at Puerto Rico's only track is pleasant, though not all that neat. El Comandante is a dandy little layout, some eight miles from downtown San Juan, and, with its 520 runoff ditches, may be the fastest-drying track in the world. Admission to the clubhouse is $2, to the grandstand 50�. There are 156 days of racing a year—with an average purse of $5,000—and seven races a day three days a week. It is a chalk player's paradise. Because the same horses run over the same track so often, giving students of form a chance to really get to know them, the percentage of winning favorites at El Comandante is a staggering 61% as compared to a 33% average on tracks in the continental United States.
Although Puerto Rico is never going to be much of a threat to the major thoroughbred-producing states on the mainland, it is moving ahead. A dozen years ago three breeding farms produced some 80 foals. Now there are nine farms and nearly 250 foals. Puerto Rican horsemen buy about 80 U.S.-bred yearlings at auction annually (mostly at Keeneland), and El Comandante is proud that it is the only track in the world that helps finance owners. In seven years the track has advanced its owner-buyers $2 million to spend at U.S. auctions. El Comandante will establish a maximum credit of $30,000 for an owner and give him one year to pay off on monthly installments at a 7% interest rate, considerably less than he would find at any bank. The track fully expects most of the $500,000 owed to it to be paid back by the end of 1970.
How does a track that barely borders on being major league manage to contribute $1.5 million to a government educational fund when Puerto Rico's 14 gambling casinos together have contributed only $1 million? How does a track that averages only about 6,000 in attendance for its three days per week act so financially bold? (So bold, in fact, that within two years El Comandante's present 500-acre site will be studded with high-rise buildings, and a new El Comandante, costing $20 million, will be ready for night racing on a nearby 700-acre piece of property.)
The answer, says San Juan Racing Association President Hyman Glickstein, is off-track betting. Just about half of El Comandante's daily handle of $350,000 is bet at the track itself. The other half comes from off the track, without which racing in San Juan would be reduced to a minor-league operation so unprofitable to management, to horsemen and to the government as to make it hardly worthwhile.
This is not to say that off-track betting is a worldwide remedy for racing's ills. Habits vary from country to country, and what may be workable in France, for example, would hardly be acceptable in England, where off-track betting on credit through bookmakers could never be entirely replaced by modern computer methods. There is off-track betting of one kind or another in Peru, Venezuela, Mexico and Japan, among others. It probably works best of all in Australia, whose highly efficient all-computerized system may show up before very long in Ontario. Governor Rockefeller has authorized off-track betting in New York City but has yet to tell its eight million citizens (from whom he expects to extract some $50 million in taxes a year) just exactly how they are going to be separated from their money. When he does, all the bookmakers probably will rejoice in the knowledge that they won't be deserted by loyal customers who will go right on dealing over the telephone—and on credit.
There is no sense in comparing San Juan with New York. But there is some point in examining Puerto Rico's system because it is the only U.S. territory where legalized off-track wagering operates in direct competition with a local track. Further, as the system goes into its 14th year, attendance at the track steadily increases and so does the handle. In 1957 off-track betting accounted for 60% of the handle; today it is just about 50%, proving in this case at least that access to off-track facilities does not necessarily cut down on a track's business. It can stimulate it.
Most other major off-track betting is on individual races, but Puerto Rico's system of pool betting is less complicated and therefore more functional. In the pool system—known in San Juan as the cinco-seis or five-six pool (similar to the five-10 at the Caliente track in Tijuana)—a bettor selects winners of six consecutive races (the second through seventh). He can do this by playing a papeleta, which is simply the selection of one horse in each race, or by playing the cuadro, a multiple wager allowing him to pick any number of horses in each race. The basic bet is 25�, and on April 19 of this year some lucky punter cashed in to the tune of $67,000. Until last year large winnings were taxable, as they are in the U.S., but the government spent so much time and money dispatching its agents to collect taxes from winners that it came up with a better and more profitable method: tax every bettor at the source. Thus when you buy one 25� papeleta you pay 33� in cash and the government pockets the difference. You can also play the daily double, which at El Comandante is on the fifth and sixth races.
Off-track bets are made at 439 betting shops, or agendas hipicas, scattered throughout San Juan and the island. There is at least one shop in every town, enabling the entire 2.6 million population of Puerto Rico to bet every race day (Wednesday, Friday and Sunday). Selections are automatically punched onto a card, one half of which the bettor keeps for his record, the other half remaining in the shop until all betting ceases for the day.
The timing on this can be a bit tricky because all money bet in all 439 shops, together with each shop's collection of cards, must be turned in at El Comandante and be completely processed by computer before the second race goes to the post. If the second race goes off, as it usually does, at about 2:50 p.m., betting-shop proprietors near El Comandante are apt to close down at 1 p.m. in order to turn in money and cards no later than 2 p.m. Shops at distant points have added problems, mostly involving transportation. The operator on the island of Vieques, 18 miles out in the Atlantic, must close at 10:30 a.m., bring his haul to the mainland by boat and drive the rest of the way. Regular air service is widely used. For a time so were helicopters. That ended when one hot-rod chopper pilot, bringing in a load of tickets and money, buzzed the homestretch and hit the finish-line wire, spilling himself and his machine 20 minutes before the first race.