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William C. Altreuter
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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It's been about twenty years since I've been to the track. I suppose I could fix the date more firmly if I cared to-- we have photographs of EGA togged out in baby jockey silks, and as I recall she looks about two. It's been a while, in any event. I keep my hand in, more or less, by playing the Triple Crown races, and since my folks live in a place that doesn't have an OTB setup I play their picks too. Thus it was that I was in the OTB on Delaware in North Buffalo yesterday, cashing in my dad's ticket and musing about the Sport of Kings. I wonder if there is any future for it, and I kind of doubt it.

The scene at the same OTB two Saturdays was different from the quiet Monday lunch hour yesterday, of course. It was more crowded, naturally, and there were a number of people who were pretty obviously amateur handicappers like me, only there to bet one race. The parking lot was filled with beater cars, and the cars that were the closest to the entrance were almost exclusively American-made, and mostly ten years old or older. It is no longer true that when I walk into an OTB I'm the youngest person in the room, but I still look younger than most of the people there, and I'm likely to outlive most of the people who are actually younger. So that's the first issue-- who follows this sport? Once upon a time a day at the track could be a sophisticated outing. When I'd go with my dad and my uncle they wore sports jackets and hats. That's how I learned to read the Racing Form, having breakfast with my father at Saratoga. OTB changed the dynamic somewhat, I think. It used to be that if you were a horseplayer you either went to the track or you called your bookie from work, but when the OTB parlors opened they became a place for the sorts of characters who used to winter at Aqueduct to hang out. When I walked into the OTB yesterday my first thought was that there is no reason for the place to be as disgusting as it is, but then it dawned on me that the reason is simple. It smells like smoke because the people in there all smell like smoke. It's filthy and poorly lit because it is run by the State of New York, and everything the State of New York runs is filthy and poorly lit-- with the exception of the State Capitol Building, which they keep nice for themselves. Although casinos have the reputation of being luxurious the fact is that they mostly really aren't, and even to the extent that they are the people who frequent them don't really notice one way or the other, at least in the US. OTB parlors don't even pretend: they are all linoleum and cheap paneling, with smudged glass teller windows and betting slips littering the floor. What's the demographic that's attracted to this? I like horse racing because it seems less like gambling than casino games do-- I research my picks, then watch the ponies run, and watch my picks keep running, long after the other ponies are in the shower. Watching the cards turn against me doesn't offer the same thrill because I have a better understanding of the fact that the game is designed to beat me. When I watch a 20-1 shot finish down the track I just reckon I outsmarted myself. Saying it out loud sounds pretentious, but I've always thought that horse players were a somewhat more cerebral sort than other gamblers. At least there is evidence that they know how to read. The reality, of course, is different. Playing the ponies is just another gambling fix, and the endorphin rush that gambling provides is poorly supplied by watching the third race at Pimlico. The payout is lousy too, particularly at OTB. Do bookies even take horse racing action these days?

So I wonder: are the people who follow horse racing able to support the sport? Are there enough of them? Do they put enough dough in it to make it profitable for the tracks? I suspect not, but I'd be interested in reading something about the economic model for thoroughbred horse racing. It seems more likely to me that it is a sport on the brink of collapse, and that makes a kind of sense. In the heyday of the sport people were familiar with horses. The United States was predominantly rural, and horses were everyday transportation even in cities. The only horses I see in my everyday life are under cops. In the 19th century the most popular sports were horse racing and boxing. Boxing is nearly extinct-- is horse racing next?

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