At 10:51 last Thursday morning in New York's musty old Grand Central Terminal, Mayor John V. Lindsay, looking as fashionably shaggy as a potential presidential candidate should, neatly sliced through a pink ceremonial ribbon, scissoring forever the Good from the Luck. With that, legal off-track betting—despite its heavy impost of lawsuits, union troubles and a $5.5 million investment—came stumbling happily, if somewhat naively, from the starting gate. It was a quiet snip, one not quite heard around the world, but Mill a historic moment watched with intense interest by other debt-ridden and money-hungry U.S. municipalities. It also was watched by apprehensive racetrack owners who view New York City's Off-Track Betting Corp. as a sort of pari-mutuel cancer.
As the ends of the ribbon drifted to the floor, the bettors jammed against the police barricades, waving wrinkled dollar bills and demanding to be turned loose on the 10 light blue, bulletproof windows which had once churned out tickets for the now-bankrupt New Haven Railroad. "Forget the lousy ceremonies," shouted a man in a business suit, shaking his attaché case at the mayor. "Let's have the action."
"Lindsay, you are a salami," yelled a pretzel peddler in a black-and-white checkered ski cap. "Get out of the way, ya bum."
Parrying the verbal thrusts with a professional smile, Lindsay stepped to one side to let a jowly constituent place the historic first bet, then plunked down his own $2 to win on a horse named Money Wise, which would finish fourth in the seventh race that night at Roosevelt Raceway. Harness racing at Roosevelt was the only action open to OTB patrons, and that only because George Morton Levy, the track's ancient but hyperactive president, stoutly believes in obeying the law—while he works to have it changed.
From the total amount bet at a New York racetrack each day, 17% is taken out to be split between the state and the track. The amount the track keeps—from 5½% to 11½%—depends on the amount bet. From the new OTB handle, however, a track is awarded but 1%, a minute revenue, with one-half percent going to the state. Then after the winners are paid off and expenses are deducted, 80% of the profit goes to New York City and 20% more to the state. In addition, OTB is expected to keep 80% of the breakage; New York tracks keep 25%. "I'd sure like to hear the promises Lindsay made to Rockefeller to get that deal," snarled an official at Aqueduct racetrack, which so far has told the OTB to take its business somewhere else. Yonkers Raceway, which will open May 24, also told the OTB that it didn't want to play New York's latest game.
"It is ridiculous," said Levy, "but if a law says you should do something, then I believe in complying. That is, while you are appealing that law. The financial return to the track is too small for letting the state use your show, your production. One percent, that's nothing. Off-track betting will cut into our attendance; we'll have to reduce our staff, and finally the whole thing could go down the drain."
Chop off employees? That's when the unions came out fighting. "You let the OTB in here," they told their respective tracks, "and nobody shows up for work." That, of course, delighted Aqueduct and Yonkers, neither of which wanted Lindsay's bookies anyway. Levy, however, called in Howard J. Samuels, the OTB's multimillionaire chairman and president. "I'm going to light you in the courts," said Levy, "but in the meantime, if you'll give my people 90% job security guarantees for three years, I'll let you use my track."
"Fair enough," said Samuels. There are 500 mutuel clerks averaging $30 a night, six nights a week at Roosevelt. And there are approximately 300 other employees, from janitors to security guards, averaging $25 a night. But when you've already spent $5.5 million before booking your first bet, what's a guarantee of another $3 million or so of job security?
"If it was me, I wouldn't let that bleeping bleep in the door," roared John Duffy, the very large, very tough Irish-man who runs Roosevelt's mutuel clerks' union. "But when Mr. Levy asked us to go along, we did. If the OTB is an example of the other functions of the city, I'd swim the bleeping Hudson River just to get away from there."
Undismayed, Samuels, who seems to have an inexhaustible amount of optimism, a huge store of good humor and a dandruff problem, forged ahead. On opening day he predicted a tiny handle of $10,000 but then grandly forecast an annual take of $1 billion by 1973. Then he stepped aside and watched the people storm his betting windows. "We are gambling with the most technological advances," he said. "We did not want to start out with a horse and buggy; we went directly into the jet age."