Belmont is a beautiful, stately racetrack. When it was rebuilt in the mid-1960s, it was designed to accommodate crowds of more than 50,000. Nowadays it might enjoy that kind of attendance only on the day of the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel in racing's Triple Crown, in June. Some of New York's most prestigious stakes races, like the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the fall, draw only 18,000 or so.
Ah, but don't think nobody is watching. It's estimated that every day, more than 100,000 people bet on racing in the 32 Off-Track Betting shops around the state, and every day they account for about half of the racing handle, which lets New York take in $408,000 in purses a day, the nation's highest average. But these aren't racing fans; they are gamblers. The only good that can be said about them, from NYRA's standpoint, is that at least they aren't blowing their dough on the lottery. Or going to the Meadowlands, across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Or heading down the Garden State Parkway to the casinos in Atlantic City, which opened for business in 1978.
"I don't for one minute believe that OTB generates any new fans for our sport," says Tom Meeker, president of Churchill Downs, in Louisville. "We may regenerate some old gamblers, but that's about it."
New York is the best example of OTB at its worst. In 1971, when New York became the first state to have OTB parlors, NYRA was so opposed to the idea that it refused to have anything to do with it, forcing the state to create a separate OTB authority. "In retrospect, this was sort of like refusing to recognize Red China," says Stan Bergstein, executive vice-president of Harness Tracks of America. Instead of regulating OTB as a partner, racing had to fight it as a competitor—a tragic mistake that must be corrected soon, says McKeon, "or one or the other of us will die." The politicians who came to run OTB built parlors willy-nilly, with no regard for what impact they might have on the sport of racing and its fan base.
As grim as Aqueduct is on a January afternoon, it's downright cheery compared with the OTB parlor on Hempstead Turnpike, just across the street from Belmont Park. The shop's windows are streaked with dirt, and the floor looks as if it hasn't been swept in weeks. The 25 or so bettors lean against tables (there are no chairs) and grimly stare at the Daily Racing Form or the racing pages torn from newspapers. There are only two betting windows and two TV monitors. When it comes time for a race, all that comes over the monitors is the track announcer's call. There is no picture.
And yet here the patrons are, blankly watching the odds on the screen. One guy snaps his fingers and urges on the No. 6 horse. When the race is over, a bettor bangs his hand on the table and says to no one in particular, "Can't buy a winner." Whatever this is, it is not the Sport of Kings.
When this scene is described to McKeon the next day, he nods grimly. "Sometimes I worry that permanent damage has been done to our fan base," he says. "People have been introduced to racing through the OTB stores, which are often distasteful. You should duplicate the racetrack environment—the sights and smells of the track—as best you can with electronic equipment. That, to me, is the future."
New Castle, Pa.
This is a bleak old steel town where nothing seems to have changed in 25 years. It's located 45 miles north of Pittsburgh and 18 miles east of Youngstown, Ohio. The closest thoroughbred track is Thistledown, in Cleveland, and yet, believe it or not, New Castle (pop. 30,000) is where you can see racing's future.
Outside town, in the Westgate shopping center, tucked between the Cinemas Three and the supermarket, is a sprawling betting parlor. That's right, a betting parlor. And not a dingy, drab place, either. On the contrary, the parlor cost $3.2 million to build in 1989 and is strictly up-to-date, from the four satellite dishes on the roof to the thick carpeting inside.