…and they're never glad you came. Yes, NYC OTB is the anti-Cheers.
While in New York City for my best friend's wedding, I thought I would take a couple hours out of my visit to get part of the New York racing experience. I've been to Belmont Park before and since the LIRR is no longer heading out to the track except for Belmont Stakes weekend, I crossed that off my list. So when we highlighted the Thoroughbred Times interview with NYC OTB chairman Sandy Frucher, I realized my destiny was to visit one of New York's many OTB parlors.
Outside of our trip last year for Breeders' Cup or Bust when we stopped through Vegas and spent some time in the Wynn Hotel racebook, I've not had the opportunity to experience OTB wagering. After spending a few hours at the NYC OTB on 2nd and 53rd, let's just say it's not the stuff that dreams are made of. And it makes me think, what exactly are we fighting to save?
I made the hike from the 59th Street subway stop, passing authentic boutiques, fine dining and million-dollar high rises. The streets were filled with the hustle and bustle that the Big Apple is known for. Nearly everyone seemed to have a mission, a purpose to their lives that day. As a Chicago boy, I appreciate the fast-talking, fast-walking lifestyle. But that all came to a screaming halt when I arrived at my destination.
Almost the inverse of what this city is known for, the people inhabiting the OTB are almost an underclass of society's dregs. Fifty-five-year-old men looking like they just crawled out of bed in time for Belmont Park's first race, a 7-horse field 6 1/2 furlong outing that made me $10 poorer. A Panama Jack looking character walks around like he owns the place and yet doesn't seem to have enough money to actually place a bet. The average age is between 50 and 60 yet you get the sense no one in here (present company excluded) has so much as touched a woman in 10 years.
The set up is drab to say the least. Just a series of betting windows and automatic AmTote machines line the walls, two vending machines and about 20 televisions suspended from the ceiling are the only decor drawing customers from the much more enticing street activity. As I'm writing, a not-as-old-as-he-looks man is yelling at the screen over an inquiry in the first race at Meadowlands.
It's decidedly multi-racial, perhaps the one positive I can point to in the whole experience. But I suppose that may only prove loneliness knows no race.
I wish this wasn't the case. Nothing would have made me happier than to come into an environment that was welcoming, a place I would want to invite my wife to experience with me. But the NYC OTB doesn't seem to care about expanding its audience. It doesn't seem concerned with its limited appeal. In fact, it seems to specifically cater to this lowest common denominator customer, one who would be uncomfortable with the even minor luxuries of the world around them.
Unless you are a hardcore racing fan, one step in this establishment and you'd be turned off to racing for life. In a world where image is important and in a city where status is king, why would anyone turn to racing if it means hanging out in an emotionally cold and depressing gambling prison?
If the NYC OTB isn't going to update its facilities, if it isn't going to breathe new life into a place filled with broken dreams, what good is it doing for our sport? If it's likely to turn off more customers than it attracts and seems content to stay there, why keep it alive at all?
I think I'll head down the street. At least I'll get a hello.
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