novice observes the peculiar universe of off-track betting
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.
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.
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.
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.