The trouble with race tracks is that a degenerate gambler can be accidentally exposed to blue skies, fresh air and some of God's noblest creatures while he is trying to place a bet.
But today, modern technology finally made it possible for a horse-player to "go to the races" while sitting in cavernous gloom and without seeing an actual horse. The 1,200 people who attended the opening of America's first Teletrack handicapped, bet and yelled the way horseplayers always do, except that they were yelling at a 24-by-32-inch screen that was showing the afternoon's races from Aqueduct.
This way sound soulless, but whether one likes it nor not, the Teletrack is the wave of the future.
Across the county small race tracks have been finding themselves crushed by their own overhead. It is increasingly difficult to pay out large sums in purse money, maintain a big physical plant and remain profitable in the face of rising competition for the betting dollar.
When Connecticut decided to go into the racing business, it saw the handwriting on the wall. So instead of authorizing the construction of a track that might not survive, the state perceived the possible virtues or a teletrack.
General Instrument Corp., the parent company of American Totalisator, would build it; the New York Racing Association thoroughbred race tracks and Yonkers and Rossevelt harness tracks would provide the action and Connecticut would share the revenues with these partners. It was a low risk venture with tremendous potential.
The Teletrack was conceived seven years ago, but giving birth to it was not easy. "There was a whole set of problems," said John A. DeVries, senior vice president of General Instrument. "There were federal statutes that might be problems. There was the racing industry's concern about getting its fair share that took a couple of years to resolve." But having surmounted all the hurdles, DeVries could proudly survey his $8 million facility today and say, "We see the applicability of this concept to many areas of the world."
The Teletrack reminds well-traveled gamblers more of a jai-alai fronton than a typical thoroughbred track. The structure is semicircular, with 1,800 theater seats on the ground floor facing the giant screen. Behind the seating area are the betting windows. In the second floor clubhouse, balconies, "VIP rooms" and a dining room all look outo the big screen. Admission to the grandstand is $1.40, to the clubhouse $4.20.
The Teletrack would be an ideal, comfortable movie theater, but as a betting facility it has a few draw-backs. For one, horseplayers are peripatetic creatures who don't sit quietly with their hands folded between races. They mill around, but the Teletrack doesn't offer much milling room.
The dominant physical impression of the Teletrack, however, is its darkness. So that patrons can see the screen, the lighting level is kept low -- low enough that a man trying to study the Daily Racing Form almost starts to yearn for some genuine sunlight.
I've been at congested race tracks before. I've been in dark, gloomy race tracks (Bowie for example). I've spent many days in race track dining rooms when I didn't look at anything but closed-circuit television monitors and did not see a single live horse. But even so, Teletrack is different. It somehow seems isolated from reality. As I watched the New York races larger than life on the big screen, I found myself constantly wondering what is really happening?
When Halika won the first race in 1:29 1/5 for seven furlongs, I wondered what weather or track conditions accounted for the slow time. When a field of 2-year-old maidens was approaching the post, I wondered which of them might be the "hot horse" at Aqueduct. (Teletrack customers see only the odds for the Connecticut betting pools; they don't know the prices in New York).When a horse in the second race was scratched shortly before post time, I could only wonder what had happened. Was he lame? Had he run off in the post parade?
The sound of the Teletrack is unreal. Instead of the buzzing of the crowd, you hear the William Tell Overture (or other vaguely martial music) piped over the P.A. system.
And placing a bet at the Teletrack seemed a bit unreal, too. I wagered $200 on a daily double combination and handed two bills to the seller, who examined them as if I had thrust a couple of moon rocks at him. He called his supervisor, who held the bills up to the light, and finally nodded her approval.
But such complaints about the Teletrack are probably short-sighted, and they are surely irrelevant, for the concept is here to stay. In the foreseeable future, horse races probably will be conducted only a major tracks in the largest population centers. Across America, people will go to their neighborhood Teletrack and see a succession of races beamed to them from Aqueduct, Hialeah, Santa Anita. When that happens, horseplayers can look back to the October day in New Haven when the new era officially began.