People in the racing industry who want to foresee betting trends don't have to hire consultants or attend panel discussions. All they have to do is come to Second Avenue and 53rd Street, climb a flight of stairs and behold an establishment called the Inside Track.
On one giant screen and numerous television monitors, patrons can watch the live closed-circuit transmission from Belmont Park -- the odds, the post parade, the actual races, the replays. They can wager at five betting windows, and they can do it all without the hassle of driving from Manhattan to Long Island.
A part of New York's Off-Track Betting system, the Inside Track was conceived to attract upscale bettors. There is a $5 admission, a dress code (jackets required), a $10 food-and-drink minimum for table seating. To further entice serious gamblers, wagers are not subjected to the 5 percent surcharge that is applied at all other OTB outlets.
The Inside Track has succeeded beyond the most optimistic expectations of its creators. "We're getting an altogether different crowd from the regular OTB people," said Jack Brown, the director of simulcasting. "They're track people, they know what they're doing -- and they bet!"
Indeed, they bet an astonishing amount. Although the capacity of the Inside Track is only 150, it has generated daily wagering of $100,000 -- more than $600 per capita. The Inside Track clearly is the wave of the future.
It has been evident for many years that off-track betting has enormous potential, and yet no racing state has followed New York's example and made OTB legal. The racing industry has been scared to death of the concept after seeing the way OTB has been run here.
Off-Track Betting was created in 1970 as a revenue-raising device for New York City. It grew into a statewide enterprise with six separate regional operations, six separate bureaucracies concerned with money, politics and patronage.
As OTB grew willy-nilly, little effort was made on either side to create a healthy, symbiotic relationship between it and the racing industry. Nor was OTB conceived or operated in a rational fashion.
OTB shops were, by design, as sterile as possible: no seats, no refreshments, no television, no loitering, no fun. "I don't know how much real thought went into this in the beginning," said OTB President Harry McCabe. "When the law was passed, the legislature seemed to have mixed emotions and didn't want it to be too successful."
The 5 percent surcharge on OTB payoffs was another bit of idiocy instituted by the revenue-hungry politicians. They couldn't comprehend that serious bettors wouldn't tolerate a $2.80 payoff off-track when they could get $3.20 on-track.
And the mechanical operation of OTB wagering often is ridiculously inept. Regular trackgoers who visit the Inside Track are surprised by the limitations of computer equipment, the frequent breakdowns and the ineptitude of the clerks.
(Bettor: "$2 triple part wheel, A with C with all."
Clerk, punching her computer and looking confused: "It won't do it. I guess it won't take that many horses."
Bettor: "How many horses can you put on a ticket?"
Clerk: "I don't know. The machine is kind of funny sometimes.")
Despite all its flaws, OTB's business has kept growing to the point where it now accounts for more than 50 percent of the money wagered on racing in New York. For years, the New York Racing Association viewed OTB as a parasite and an enemy, because its most conspicuous effect was to take customers away from the track. In the spring of 1969, the year before OTB was legalized, the average daily attendance at Belmont Park was 29,828. This summer it is 15,208 and shrinking each year.
OTB was an easy scapegoat for the declining attendance at Belmont and Aqueduct, but most race tracks in other states were losing business, too. All tracks are suffering from increased competition for the gambling dollar, from the proliferation of lotteries, casinos and sports betting. Gamblers like action that is fast and convenient; a leisurely afternoon at a race track almost has become a thing of the past.
The way for racing to compete for the dollar is to bring its product to the customer, and after years of resisting OTB, the NYRA realizes it. In fact, the very existence of the Inside Track is part of an agreement between NYRA and OTB.
NYRA wanted to telecast its races at Yonkers Raceway and conduct its own off-track betting at the harness track but needed the permission of OTB. Its approval of the Inside Track was part of a quid pro quo. "NYRA's attitude toward this has been pretty realistic," McCabe said.
OTB wants to construct more establishments like the Inside Track, though McCabe complains that he has to deal with a wide range of legal and political problems every time he wants to open a new facility. He wants to open a plush 375-seat operation in the financial district if he can get the approval of all the necessary city officials.
But the delays will be only temporary, because the future of the game is inevitable: Most of the betting on horse races will be done at places like the Inside Track, and vast plants like Belmont Park will become anachronisms.