At 10:51 last Thursday morning in New York's musty old Grand Central Terminal, Mayor John V. Lindsay, looking as fashionably shaggy as a potential presidential candidate should, neatly sliced through a pink ceremonial ribbon, scissoring forever the Good from the Luck. With that, legal off-track betting—despite its heavy impost of lawsuits, union troubles and a $5.5 million investment—came stumbling happily, if somewhat naively, from the starting gate. It was a quiet snip, one not quite heard around the world, but Mill a historic moment watched with intense interest by other debt-ridden and money-hungry U.S. municipalities. It also was watched by apprehensive racetrack owners who view New York City's Off-Track Betting Corp. as a sort of pari-mutuel cancer.
As the ends of the ribbon drifted to the floor, the bettors jammed against the police barricades, waving wrinkled dollar bills and demanding to be turned loose on the 10 light blue, bulletproof windows which had once churned out tickets for the now-bankrupt New Haven Railroad. "Forget the lousy ceremonies," shouted a man in a business suit, shaking his attaché case at the mayor. "Let's have the action."
"Lindsay, you are a salami," yelled a pretzel peddler in a black-and-white checkered ski cap. "Get out of the way, ya bum."
Parrying the verbal thrusts with a professional smile, Lindsay stepped to one side to let a jowly constituent place the historic first bet, then plunked down his own $2 to win on a horse named Money Wise, which would finish fourth in the seventh race that night at Roosevelt Raceway. Harness racing at Roosevelt was the only action open to OTB patrons, and that only because George Morton Levy, the track's ancient but hyperactive president, stoutly believes in obeying the law—while he works to have it changed.
April 19, 1971
From the total amount bet at a New York racetrack each day, 17% is taken out to be split between the state and the track. The amount the track keeps—from 5½% to 11½%—depends on the amount bet. From the new OTB handle, however, a track is awarded but 1%, a minute revenue, with one-half percent going to the state. Then after the winners are paid off and expenses are deducted, 80% of the profit goes to New York City and 20% more to the state. In addition, OTB is expected to keep 80% of the breakage; New York tracks keep 25%. "I'd sure like to hear the promises Lindsay made to Rockefeller to get that deal," snarled an official at Aqueduct racetrack, which so far has told the OTB to take its business somewhere else. Yonkers Raceway, which will open May 24, also told the OTB that it didn't want to play New York's latest game.
"It is ridiculous," said Levy, "but if a law says you should do something, then I believe in complying. That is, while you are appealing that law. The financial return to the track is too small for letting the state use your show, your production. One percent, that's nothing. Off-track betting will cut into our attendance; we'll have to reduce our staff, and finally the whole thing could go down the drain."
Chop off employees? That's when the unions came out fighting. "You let the OTB in here," they told their respective tracks, "and nobody shows up for work." That, of course, delighted Aqueduct and Yonkers, neither of which wanted Lindsay's bookies anyway. Levy, however, called in Howard J. Samuels, the OTB's multimillionaire chairman and president. "I'm going to light you in the courts," said Levy, "but in the meantime, if you'll give my people 90% job security guarantees for three years, I'll let you use my track."
"Fair enough," said Samuels. There are 500 mutuel clerks averaging $30 a night, six nights a week at Roosevelt. And there are approximately 300 other employees, from janitors to security guards, averaging $25 a night. But when you've already spent $5.5 million before booking your first bet, what's a guarantee of another $3 million or so of job security?
"If it was me, I wouldn't let that bleeping bleep in the door," roared John Duffy, the very large, very tough Irish-man who runs Roosevelt's mutuel clerks' union. "But when Mr. Levy asked us to go along, we did. If the OTB is an example of the other functions of the city, I'd swim the bleeping Hudson River just to get away from there."
Undismayed, Samuels, who seems to have an inexhaustible amount of optimism, a huge store of good humor and a dandruff problem, forged ahead. On opening day he predicted a tiny handle of $10,000 but then grandly forecast an annual take of $1 billion by 1973. Then he stepped aside and watched the people storm his betting windows. "We are gambling with the most technological advances," he said. "We did not want to start out with a horse and buggy; we went directly into the jet age."
As a self-styled jet-age bookie, Samuels came on more like Orville Wright. From the starting gun it was chaos. For openers the OTB had blissfully ordered an electronic system which can handle, per machine, no more than four bets per minute. If they had looked around, for the same money they could have purchased machines that can turn out 25 tickets per minute. No matter, because for now Samuels' machines are still in the factory and all bets are being recorded by hand. It is slow going.
Compounding the confusion was the OTB's decision to list horses not by numbers but by the alphabet. Instead of, say, a 4-7 daily double, bettors had to ink in a D-G on the regulation three-ply forms. A D-G daily double? And the clerks, moving only as fast as their penmanship would permit, were allowed to handle bets only in the sums of $2, $10, $50 and $100. To wager $8, a bettor was required to fill out four separate slips. A simple bet across the board became almost as complicated as a calculus exam. It was madness. A delightful madness.
Lines to the betting windows were long and painfully slow and many a player had to wait two hours or more before unloading the week's grocery money. Most, however, inched their way forward with amazing good humor. New friends were made; polemics on morality, ethics, philosophy and politics were waged. "Look at them," said a New York City cop, shaking his head. "If they had to wait this long for anything else, we'd have a riot on our hands."
"This is beautiful," said Helene Santini of the Bronx. "But it won't keep me away from the track. This is just a convenience. To me, going to the track is like a picnic." In her right hand she was carrying the book Sun Signs, by Linda Goodman.
Just a step behind her, David Alexander glanced at her book and grimaced. "None of that stuff for me," he said. "I'm a scientific player."
After a wait of several hours, a man with a wad of 30 betting slips finally arrived at a window. There, the clerk discovered that each slip had only two sheets instead of the required three. Dismayed—but not defeated—the man went back to the end of the line. There he discovered that the slips were now in short supply and this time he was allowed bin five. Without a word he filled in his five new slips and once again began inching his way toward the windows.
As the lines lengthened, the police barricades stretched, and at last they extended the full width of the old terminal. Finally, a railroad executive stormed from his office and began removing one of the barricades. He was quickly challenged by an OTB worker, a pretty young girl in a fetching official off-track jockey costume.
"Young lady," said the man with irritation, "the primary business in Grand Central is still the railroad."
"Not for long," said Lee Lonsdale, a short-order cook standing at the end of a line near the disputed barricade. "The railroad is dead. Right? So what they should do is put betting windows in all over Grand Central and cut out the trains. What the hell, the Penn Central is now the world's biggest loser. Right?"
"Right," said Lou Belgim, who apparently thought Lonsdale was talking about off-track betting. But then, he was only half-listening to the conversation while studying the morning line in a local newspaper. "Gambling is human nature. Everybody has the urge, but unless you call a bookie, you have to make the long trip to the track. You know what I mean? With OTB everybody will be doing it—suburban housewives, grandmothers, everybody. Beautiful. New York will become the gambling Mecca of the world."
"Is that so wonderful?" someone asked.
"Aw, that's a lot of pastrami," said a little old man in a neighboring line. "Look at what's happened to New Yawk. Crowded housing, lousy food, high prices. Clean streets we ain't got. But plenty of drugs we got. Moider in the streets we got. A subway system that woiks we ain't got, good schools we ain't got. But plenty of muggings we got. Boigluries we got, and now we got a city running bookie shops. New Yawk is a crazy city." The old man looked at the pastel-colored ticket in his hand. "At the track you go to a window, say, 'Gimme a ticket!' Bing! Bang! You got it. This I can't fill out. Numbers it says in the paper. Numbers it says at the track. But I come to OTB and they tell me no numbers. They want letters. How can you make a bet with letters, I ask you?"
Next came a couple of German descent, and when a nearby lady, who turned out to be a recent arrival from Czechoslovakia, appeared bewildered, they tried to help.
The woman was waving a fistful of tickets. "Plis," she pleaded. "Which one for train?"
The couple tried to explain to her in German that the tickets were for horses. She didn't understand. Finally, another man spoke to her in halting Russian. "Horse?" said the woman. "I don't wan' no horse. I wan' a train. Horses too slow." At last she was directed to the information booth, where she had to wait until a young man was turned aside after requesting something good in the fifth race.
Nearby a small man in a gray beret shook his head sadly. "At the track," lie said, "there'd never be any trouble. But the tracks don't have to worry. This cafeteria-style betting will never replace the real thing. But it has its point. You know what I mean? If you've got the slums you bet OTB. When you are loaded you go to the track. Betting here saves the nut. Like it costs 10 bucks between transportation and getting in. Instead, here you put the $10 in the window. But if you got the dough, who needs this aggravation?"
A few miles away in forest Hills on Long Island, in the OTB's only other betting shop at the moment, the opening-day problems were just as critical. And they were met with equal good humor. The shop there is much smaller, only six windows, and for most of the day there was a long line of people standing Outside the shop in a biting cold wind.
Jack Danon and Carolyn Rich came into the shop together. She made all the bets, using her own unique method: the sound of names. "Jack reads the names, and, depending upon the feeling I get, I bet. If it's a very positive feeling, I like it." In 1970, when she had a feeling about Dust Commander, a 15-to-1 shot in the Kentucky Derby, they bet it through a local bookie. "Somebody told us to go to the diner and ask for Hook. We did and sure enough he took our bet. We went back and waited and waited and we were afraid he wasn't going to show up. But after four hours he did. I like this OTB better."
Two old ladies came tottering by, clutching slips in their wrinkled hands.
"Oh, dear," said Mrs. Burke. "What do we do now?"
"Just make a small bet," said her companion, Mrs. Williams. "Don't worry, I've got the grocery money at home."
If Samuels' plan proceeds according to schedule there will be something like 200 convenient betting shops in the New York area, all of them geared, he hopes, to handle everything from the Kentucky Derby to eventually, yes, baseball and basketball and football and ad sportum. Providing, of course, that the OTB discovers not only how to lure a wager, but what to do with it after it is made.
Despite its heady start OTB seems far from the guaranteed bonanza envisioned by Samuels. At the moment it is a novelty, but the tedium of long waits to place bets might soon drive mans a bettor back to his neighborhood bookie. And if this doesn't do it, the limited action of harness racing could. The OTB now must entice an agreement with the very reluctant New York flat tracks if it is to attract the more sophisticated and larger plungers. And it must survive a growing storm of lawsuits, most of them questioning the constitutionality of a city's cutting into the profits of a private enterprise. On still another front the unions seem prepared to battle the OTB to their last picket. I mails, there are the horse owners who fear that OTB will reduce attendance and track handles, which, in turn, will slice a sizable chunk from the purses.
On the opening Thursday $66,098 went into the OTB windows, and on the following day the take was raised to $77,352. Saturday's score was $80,670. "Hooray," said Samuels, who admits he still thinks a long shot is something out of a rifle over 500 yards. "God help us," moaned the people at Roosevelt when the grayish-green computer tapes transmitted from the OTB offices blew their machines. Duffy, the union leader, called in five of his men the first night and sent them to the $10 machines. There, after scratches, they punched out 6,233 tickets—including three $2 tickets. When the same foul-up happened the second night, Duffy was looking to do some punching of his own.
"Who the bleep needs this?" he roared. "We've got 9,000 people working on one lousy $60,000 bet. Hell, we do more than that in one race. Everything around here is bleeping OTB. I wish Lindsay would take it and stick it in his ear."
"Now, now," said Samuels serenely, "you can't expect too much too soon. We've had birth pains and now we are having growing pains as well."
Do not give up on Howie the Horse, as Samuels laughingly tagged himself when he took the job. In 1946 he and his brother Richard borrowed a small amount of money and went into the plastics business. Four years ago they sold the business, netting $23 million each. "And he's learning about horses, too," said Irving Rudd, the OTB's peppery little publicity chief. "Just the other day he told me the difference between a fetlock and a foreleg. He's looking good. And he'll look even better after I have a talk with his tailor."