What many people fear to be the future of American racing arrived at Belmont Park today, some five to 10 years ahead of its time and, depending upon one's concern over tradition, the future looked very bleak or very businesslike. Certainly it was different.
The gates to the track opened on time. There was no charge for parking, admission or programs. Nine races were run. One of the finest programs to be presented at a U.S. track this season was offered, with three-time horse of the year Forego in the sixth race and an excellent field of fillies and mares competing in the $54,850 Shuvee Handicap.
But only 3,379 fans were in the stands for the first race - the final count was 7,514 - and more than one-third of them appeared to be from the backstretch. The reason for the pathetically small crowd: the infield tote boards and the TV monitors in the stands stayed dark all afternoon, so far as the presentation of odds were concerned.
There was, unbelievably, no betting at beautiful Belmont this idyllic spring afternoon as American's most stately racing plant began a 60-day meeting. All the wagering was done at the 200 Off-Track Betting shops in New York City and Nassau County, Long Island, and in upstate New York.
The New York Racing Association, after having shut down the sport at Aqueduct Friday and Saturday because of a strike by mutuel clerks, decided early Sunday evening to offer a "Studio B" playlet today for purists and OTB regulars.
OTB handled $2,355,602 today, compared to $2,186,233 last year when Belmont attracted a $2,867,231 play on opening day. What happened to the money that would have been bet at the track today?
"That's a good question," Harry McCabe of OTB acknowledged. "We anticipated much more."
Could it be that OTB and the NYRA now play to two separate audiences? We shall see.
The day's biggest winners, however, were the city's bookmakers.
"I've never had anything like it, on horses, since the old days," said "Leonard," a Times Square theoretician known in the trade for his integrity, his insolence and his lack of inhibition. "OTB's always been good for us," Leonard said, "but today was all sweetness. I told customers I was paying OTB prices only, because that's all there was, with the 5 per cent surcharge. Normally, I pay track prices, cent or higher."
Such figures are what the strike here is all about.
"We're talking about survival," said Pat Lynch, a vice president of the NYRA. "Since OTB opened in June of 1971 our attendance is down 48 per cent and our betting is down 29 per cent. People can get as philosophical as they want about this, as to why we're running when it helps our competition, but it's simple. It's a matter of survival. That's the reality."
The mutuel clerks, some 600 strong, are banded together in an independent union. Other unions did not honor their picket lines today but the NYRA did not attempt to open the parimutuel lines with nonunion help it reportedly has trained.
Andrew Squazzo, president of the clerk's union, couched his comments today in animal terms other than that of horses.
"When the wolves are at your heels, you keep kicking," Squazzo declared. "When they're at your heels you don't turn around and offer them your throat."
Union and management are negotiating over higher wages, automation, a lower retirement ago and, most importantly, the elimination of 40 per cent of all jobs over five years. New York has the most modern tote equipment in existence, with better hardware on the way, meaning a sharp cost reduction.
State mediators hope to get both sides to return to the negotiating table tonight. If they don't, and if the strike continues for three weeks, the Belmont Stakes may have to be run out of state at, say, Monmouth Park in New Jersey although the NYRA says it is prepared to run the way it did today "indefinitely."
Seattle Slew, undefeated hero of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, will bid to become the 10th Triple Crown winner in the Belmont on June 11 over a mile and a half.
Should Belmont continue to operate as it did today it will receive 1.75 per cent of all monies taken in on basic pools by New York OTB for operational costs and 1.76 per cent for purses. OTB keeps 12.4 per cent of its basic takeout, with 11.1 per cent going to the state. The on-track takeout of 17 per cent breaks down as fallows: 9 per cent to the association, 3 per cent for purses and 5 per cent to the state.
The takeout on the triple wagering is 25 per cent. OTB bettors pay the 5 per cent surcharge only when they win.
Eventually, if this situation continues too long, it would be self-defeating for Belmont and the horsemen to continue to run for OTB's benefit. The NYRA apparently is hoping that being a "good guy" and operating for the state and for OTB will gain for it a higher share of the OTB takeout while breaking the independent union.
Until then, New Yorkers will be able to see how thoroughbred racing is conducted in France, Australia, New Zealand and other off-track outposts. Those countries have fantastically successful programs even though the crowds and on-course betting is small except on the days when the most famous races are presented.
There is, of course, one overwhelmingly important difference. Off-track betting truly supports the sport in those countries, giving the tracks and the horsemen a generous portion of the total wagering so the game can continue healthy. Here it's been tragically different from the start in 1971, the tracks receiving little from OTB as the state politicians tax more and more revenue from racing.
All the major parties concerned must share the blame.