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Any lingering doubts that there is a certain compulsion among horseplayers were dispelled once and for all the other night at The Meadows, the harness track near Pittsburgh. In what amounted to an unplanned sociological experiment, pari-mutuel tickets were given away for the asking. That was the good part. The bad part was that winning tickets couldn't be cashed. Thus, the crowd of 5,000 was betting strictly for fun.
The surreal situation arose at the opening of a meeting at which the track was scheduled to unveil its new $1.56 million computerized digital wagering system. Just two hours before the first race, officials discovered that the tote board didn't work, forcing them to cancel betting. But they decided to go ahead with the nine-race program and to let patrons go through the motions of placing bets, thereby familiarizing everybody with the new system. All a bettor had to do was go to a window and tell the clerk how many tickets he wanted.
Although the tickets everybody was holding were worthless, to all outward appearances it was business as usual. Bettors exchanged hot tips. They cheered the favorites. They cursed the drivers. They watched the monitor. They talked about "getting even." They fretted when complicated bets held up lines at the windows. To be sure, many people who normally bet $2 were now "buying" $1,000 and $5,000 tickets. But not all of them, as this exchange suggests:
Bettor: Box the two, three, four, five, six and seven for me.
Clerk: How much?
Bettor: Two dollars. What do you think I am. rich?
The NCAA has a rule that no more than two teams from any conference can be selected for its basketball tournament, and some people don't like it. However, few critics have been quite as intemperate as Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell, who a few weeks ago talked about organizing a boycott of the NCAAs in protest. Admitting that Maryland had "a very tough road ahead" to reach the tournament, Driesell said at the time, "We've been gypped out of it before, and we might be gypped out of it again."
The boycott went nowhere, and as Driesell feared, Maryland didn't make it to the NCAAs. Instead, the Terrapins went to the NIT, where they were eliminated last week by Ohio State, 79-72. Afterward Driesell declared, "I don't want to make it sound like an alibi but I've said all along that the ACC tourney takes a lot out of your teams."