A couple of winters back I was lounging around my apartment on my day off from work. I happened to be browsing through my Facebook newsfeed. A buddy of mine posted a status “Found this bar that you can bet horses at. Think I’m going to check it out”. I immediately texted him to ask him where this place was and told him I’d be right there. I told him I’d meet him there for a couple beers and a couple races. Figured why not, I’ve got nothing to do and it’s something different. What I didn’t realize was that something different was going to turn into the norm.
Gambling isn’t exactly something different for me. I happen to be a recreational sports better who has at times had some pretty impressive success, but most commonly I’m referred to as a degenerate. My experience with betting horses had for the most part been pretty limited. I grew up in Troy, NY which isn’t very far from Saratoga Race Course. I’d make a few trips up there every summer when they had races, and occasionally I might have stopped into an OTB for a race or two to try my luck. For the most part I lacked the time and disposable income to really take it seriously. My buddy is a little different. He grew up in New York City where the tracks are open pretty much year round. From what I understand it was a past time he and his father enjoyed.
Now most bars offer some form of gambling to entertain their patrons while they’re enjoying a few beverages. Whether it’s Quick Draw or scratch off machines the idea is generally pretty simple. Have them gamble in your establishment, and if they win they have more money to spend on booze. Off Track Betting (OTB) has been appearing more commonly in bars. Personally I find it to be more enjoyable than hoping to get lucky. People like me tend to think they can find an edge if they study up enough. Sometimes this can be true, but the gambler in me will sometimes find an edge that doesn’t exist so I can justify making a bet.
When we walked into this particular OTB we discovered we didn’t exactly blend with the crowd that hangs out there. It was pretty much a group of old men who are at the age of retirement or guys in there late 30’s who seem pretty down on their luck. Considering my buddy and I were in our mid 20’s and tend to be more clean cut in appearance, we kind of stood out. I can’t remember whether or not we won or lost or first time, but I did remember having an absolute blast. When we started coming back that is when we started to become part of the crowd. It wasn’t long before older men we’re buying us beers and saying “You kids got any winners for me?” Pretty soon the head chef was shaking our hands whenever we were there. Apparently not only was this guy pretty good in the kitchen, but he was also enjoying the ponies while he was cooking up a storm. A gambler’s ability to multi-task at work is unparalleled.
Let me first give you a brief tutorial on wagering on horse racing. The standard way to bet is betting horses to Win, Place, or Show. If you bet a horse to win it has to win, bet it to Place it has to win or come in 2nd, bet it to show it has to come in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd. Depending on the odds on the horse will depend on the payout. There is also what is called exotic wagering. Exactas are when you pick the horses that will come in 1st and 2nd; Trifectas are when you pick the horses that will finish 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. There are also other bets where you try and pick the winners of multiple races, because picking 1 winner is SOOO easy, why not try and pick the winner of every race. These exotic bets are where you get into trouble, because you can bet $2 to try and win larger amounts. $2 bets start adding up very quick when there are multiple tracks and multiple races to bet on.
Then there’s how people arrive at making their bets. Some people have lucky numbers that they bet. Others will bet horses based on their names. Since I’m a ginger I’m prone to taking a shot on any horse with the word red in it. My buddy is a meteorologist and tends to bet a horse if it has a weather term in it. (By the way he proves a theory I have long believed, which is that weather men are just a bunch of frustrated gamblers.) Traditionally, you read through the racing form which to the average human being might as well be written in Sanskrit. To us degenerate folk though we will look to see how a horse runs at a given distance, or on a particular surface, and from there we try to draw some conclusions.
Spending an afternoon at an OTB with the right crowd of people can quickly turn into complete madness. I’ve personally been blessed to have encountered one of the sickest human beings that ever walked this Earth while at an OTB. This guy will sit down and bet $100 on a horse to win without knowing a thing about it, lose and then go back and bet $100 on another horse. Sometimes he will put $50 and let the computer pick his bets for him. I’ve had him ask me who I liked when I bet $2 on it, and then he goes and bets $50 on it. The problem is if he wins, you suddenly feel like you lost money. Yea they’ll buy you a beer, but the machine doesn’t accept beer for betting.
Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a bettor is winning big early. I’ve had this one happen at casinos and OTB’s. You go and catch some early luck and 15 minutes into the trip you’re up $250. Now upon your arrival if someone told you “you’re going to walk out here plus $250”, you would take that all day. But if it happens that quickly, you don’t just want to call it a day and go about your life. Nope, you want to go for the big score. Suddenly you go from betting $2 to betting $5, and instead of picking horses to Win, now you’re playing exactas, trifectas, superfectas, and rolling daily doubles every race. Plus, you’re also now betting every race at every track because after hitting 1 long shot bet you suddenly think you’re a genius and you should be rewarded for it financially. When in reality you stumbled across some dumb luck and you’re about to lose every dollar you won, every dollar you came with, and a little bit more after a few trips to the ATM. Probably the worst is when someone is dead broke, but has a “sure thing” in the next race and they need to borrow a couple of bucks to bet it. It’s sort of the degenerate code to let that person borrow it. They win that race; they pay you back and catch themselves up to even. If not, well in some cases $20 is a cheap price to pay to never have to see someone again.
That’s just what happens on one side of the tracks though. I’ve described to you the dark side of horse racing. There is a side full of glitz and glamour that you won’t find at an OTB. The biggest event in horse racing is the Kentucky Derby. Known as “the fastest two minutes in sports” it matches the best 3 year old horses for a 1st place prize of almost $1.4 million dollar. A little different than the $9,000 the horses are racing for at nearby Finger Lakes. The crowd at the derby is a little bit different than the crowd described at the OTB. The cheapest possible ticket is $65, and that basically just gets you into the place to be able to bet. You will have no view of the race, and also have $65 less to gamble with. Typically that is an event attended by wealthier types who probably don’t even bet on the race, but just being there is more of a status symbol.
The biggest race in the entire world is the $10 million Dubai World Cup. The best horses from around the world compete in this race, but here’s the biggest shocker on this one. In Dubai you can’t even legally bet on the race. They just consider it to be a joy to watch these horses race, which sounds absolutely absurd to someone like me. Of course maybe that’s because I wake up early in the morning to be able to bet it, you know with the time difference and all. The point is once again, horse racing can be a great spectator sport. My best way to sell someone who has never watched a big time race would be to go onto YouTube and search “Zenyatta/Blame”. This race was the final race for prized horse Zenyatta, who was attempting to finish her career undefeated. Take the 2 minutes out of your day to watch it and tell me you don’t feel the excitement. Now pretend you have $50 on that race and tell me you wouldn’t want to stop by an OTB and start a new chapter of your life.