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A Safe Bet

A novice observes the peculiar universe of off-track betting


On a recent gorgeous Sunday afternoon, I decided to spend some time at a place I never think to go (or think of at all, really)—the Off Track Betting facility on Central Avenue in Albany. My first experience at this place occurred a few weeks ago, when someone convinced me to go there for lunch and to place some bets, just for shits and giggles. So I went, and ate a tuna sandwich, and lost about three dollars to the betting machines. My companion won about $20, with which he bought our lunch. In between watching races, I couldn’t help but notice the people there—the smoke-ravaged waitresses, the white-haired men sipping brews and placing bets. I found the whole scene fascinating, and decided that I needed to return to just observe.

It occurs to me, as I park my car and slip out of the sunlight into the poorly lit, yellowed OTB lobby, that this has got to be one of the most depressing places there is to go when it’s bright and warm outside. It seems like the place was designed to make one think that it’s nighttime, no matter what time of day it is. There are few places I can think of that can negate a good mood so quickly. But, I figure, these people must know something I don’t. Maybe they are all in there getting rich, and I’m the silly one, unassumingly running errands on a Sunday afternoon instead of picking bets. Admittedly, I have zero experience in the betting game—after living in Albany for eight years, I still haven’t even been to the track in Saratoga Springs, and I only recently learned how to play Texas Hold’em. Gambling away what little money I have does not scream “fun” to me. However, I was determined to discover what exactly attracts people to the OTB.

After paying an inexplicable $2 entrance fee, I enter the huge, cavernous, dark- carpeted tele-theater, which is filled with the din of people murmuring what I can only assume is some sort of betting strategy to one other. I could, of course, be wrong; they could be discussing game theory, for all I know. There are different levels of the tele-theater (which emulate stadium seating at a real race course, kind of) on which red-linen-covered tables are situated, each with its own little TV set. When a race is on, all eyes are on these TVs. People are seated at random tables, mostly in groups of two and three, having lunch, chatting, and betting.

The people in attendance are white, mostly male, and mostly older. I am by far the youngest person in the joint, with the possible exception of the young lady tending bar. The median age here seems to be early-to-mid 50s.

It’s 1:40 PM, and a race in full-swing at Belmont is on the huge television screen that dominates the main wall of the room. Horses with names like Holy Canyon, Noonmark, Graynumberfive and Abraaj race across the big screen.

There are a smattering of woops and shouts from people seated at tables around the room. People are shouting at their chosen horses, directing them where to go, and how fast to get there. “Come back on the rail! Come back on the rail! Come back on the rail!” one older man yells, bouncing up from his seat. From the enthusiasm, one can tell that there’s a lot riding on this game.

“Get off the screen,” another guy shouts, while the guy next to him has his fists clenched around a booklet of stats, praying to the heavens that his horse comes in first.

“You’re gonna be outta money,” another gray-haired man warns his buddy, as their eyes follow a losing horse across the screen.

When the race ends, people are either smiling or grumbling.

“The horse looked like garbage on paper,” one guy says, tearing a ticket in half.

The bettors turn back to their tables, which are laden with booklets of horses’ names and stats. They pour over these booklets, and then get up to walk to the betting machines in the corner to place their new bets.

I am definitely an outsider in this nether-world. There seems to be a certain camaraderie among the bettors—it’s obvious that a lot of patrons are regulars. They chat and catch up with each other, utilizing the OTB as their meeting place. And if they can cash in while they catch up, hey, there are worse ways to spend a Sunday.

—Kathryn Lurie

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