After today, Maryland race track bettors will never see a $2 window again.
They will never see "Seller" and "Cashier" windows again. They will no longer call out their wagers the way horseplayers have done for the last half-century.
When Bowie Race Course opens its season Tuesday it will unveil a sophisticated, computerized betting operation. Built by American Totalizator Co., the Tote 300 system is more than just a new set of machines. It is a technological revolution.
First introduced in Florida a year ago, the Tote 300 machines combine every betting and cashing function at every window. A bettor may be venturing $2 to show while the person in line behind him is waiting to cash $10,000 worth of exacta tickets. It's a triumph for democracy as well as technology.
American race tracks have desperately needed more streamlined betting machinery ever since gimmick wagers started becoming popular a decade ago. Some tracks offer win, plac, show, quinella, exacta and trifecta wagering on every race, and an out-of-shape bettor risks a heart attack running from window to window.
But a horseplayer who wants to place win and exacta bets on a race at Bowie will be able to go to any window and say, "Fifty dollars to win on No. 1. Ten dollar exactas, 1-3, 1-7.? The clerk can punch all these wagers onto a single ticket. To make the system work smoothly, though, bettors should get into the habit of specifying the amount of the bet, then the type of the bet, then the numbers. (No more, "Gimme the 3 horse!")
The machines simplify what once were ridiculously cumbersome wagers. If a plunger at Laurel wanted to take a shot at a killing in the triple and use No. 2 on top of all combinations of Nos. 3, 4, 7, 8 and 9, for 10 times each, he had to wait while the seller laboriously punched out 200 tickets. Then he'd wait more while the seller counted out all these tickets.
On Tuesday, the bettor can go to a window at Bowie and say, "Thirty dollar triple key box, 2 over 3-4-7-8-9." The machine will spit out a single ticket, and a digital display will tell the customer that he owes $600.
Since Tote 300 can handle wagers of any size, bettors don't have to limit themselves to the traditional denominations any more. A horseplayer can bet $3 to win or $19 on an exacta, and while the clerk might look at him peculiarly, the machine won't be flustered at all. (Minimum wagers are $1 for a triple box or wheel, $3 for a regular triple, $2 for everything else.)
When a horseplayer hits a winner, he doesn't have to race to the window to cash his ticket immediately. He can cash it while he is betting the next race. He can wait for months, and Tote 300 can handle the transaction routinely, for the computer has a long memory.
To cash a ticket, the clerk slips it through a slot in the machine, and the electronic display shows the amount of winnings. There is something especially satisfying and esthetic about making a big score on the new machines, seeing a figure like $5,000 light up in front of you, a glowing, red tribute to your handicapping brilliance.
Bettors will need time to learn and appreciate all of Tote 300's functions, but they should understand quickly one of the pitfalls contained in the new system. I learned the hard way.
Last January at Gulfstream Park, I was betting a race like a madman, calling out $50 exactas, $25 exactas, $10 triples, $4 triples, even a win bet. I got lucky. The triple paid $704.60 and I had $4 on it, for a return of $1,409.20.Or so I thought.
When I went to the window, the cashier deducted 20 percent, the IRS mandated withholding tax on payoffs at odds of more than 300 to 1 and sums of more than $1,000. If I held two separate $2 tickets worth $704.60, there would have been no withholding. I howled in protest that a $4 ticket was the same as two $2 tickets.
The cashier explained that because the wagers were on the same ticket, he had to withhold the tax, and Maryland tracks will follow the same policy.
So if you are shooting for the moon at Bowie, betting a $50 exacta on two longshots who could produce a payoff in the $600 to $1,000 range, you don't tell the clerk, "Fifty dollar exacta, 2 and 7." Instead you say, "Two dollar exacta, 2 and 7, 25 times. I want separate tickets."
This is necessary because Tote 300 can still put four $2 wagers on the same ticket. The clerk will have to hit the "Subtotal" button on his machine 25 times, and he probably will give you a very dirty look. If he does, tell him to write his congressman and suggest a repeal of the gambling withholding tax.
Because of the many complexities involved in the new system, horse-players and clerks will surely be grumbling about it for while. Robert Hancock, the track's mutuel director, moans that the introduction of Tote 300 couldn't have been scheduled for a worse day. On Jan. 1, many of Bowie's customers would be a bit fuzzy-headed and disoriented under normal conditions.
But at every track of a growing number where Tote 300 has been introduced, the complaints have stopped quickly, as soon as horseplayers realized how fast and efficient the new machinery is. In few weeks, bettors won't be feeling even a twinge of nostalgia for the old $2 window.