Imagine you placed a $10 bet on a horse tagged with 10-to-1 odds for today's Preakness Stakes. Like a dream come true, that long shot comes through.
But instead of the odds you were promised before the race, the track makes a mistake. Your payout is a meager $36 instead of the $100 you anticipated.
That's just how Henry L. Straus got burned at a small Havre de Grace racetrack almost 70 years ago.
Today, the stakes are much higher. Pimlico Race Course officials expect to rake in about $8 million in bets on the 116th running of the Preakness. But thanks to the late Harry Straus, all bets should pay off with no surprises.
The Johns Hopkins University-trained engineer channeled his frustration into the creation of the totalisator, an electronic device that registers bets, computes odds and automates payouts.
The Northwest Baltimore native founded American Totalisator Co. and installed the nation's first electronic odds-display board at Pimlico. More than half a century later, the track still relies on the company now called AmTote.
"I could never imagine being a general manager of a track that did not have AmTote," said James P. Mango, vice president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club of Baltimore City, owner and operator of Pimlico. "The relationship has been very strong."
And close. Instead of purchasing tote systems, racetracks hire companies such as AmTote to install, operate and maintain their products, usually in five-year contracts. AmTote engineers and technicians report to work every day at their client tracks to ensure the equipment runs soundly.
The Hunt Valley-based company leads the industry with tote systems installed at more than 120 thoroughbred, harness and greyhound racetracks around the world.
On special-event days, AmTote ships extra terminals to its client tracks. For instance, Pimlico has been outfitted with more than 200 additional machines that were used at the Kentucky Derby on May 4.
Specially designed tickets bearing Preakness colors were printed at AmTote's ticket-printing shop at its Hunt Valley headquarters. The tickets bear the Jockey Club logo in black ink on gold paper.
AmTote-trained clerks, many of whom were bused in from Ohio, Kentucky and New York to handle today's heavy betting volume at Pimlico, are expected to process between 800 and 1,000 transactions on each AmTote terminal.
Several self-service terminals resembling automated teller machines also are at Pimlico for bettors who chose to place their own wagers.
Cutthroat competition from competitors Automatic Totalisator in Newark, Del., and United Tote in Montana keeps AmTote busy trying to provide more service, more products and better technology, said James E. Clark, director of customer service.
AmTote, a division of New York-based General Instrument, employs approximately 300 people in the Baltimore area. Its xTC history in the gambling business was firmly rooted with Mr. Straus' invention and branched out to the automation of off-track betting in New York State, lottery technology and intertrack betting networks.
The company supplies Pimlico with the odds-display and message boards located in the track's infield, as well as electronic gadgets that count track patrons and cars using the parking lot.
But the primary breadwinner is the tote. AmTote's system has evolved over the years, but the mission remains the same: accurate and efficient parimutuel wagering.
Automating the concept of "people betting against people," as Mr. Clark described it, AmTote's totalisator counts the cash bet on each race. From that "pool," a percentage off the top is given to the track to fund the winners' purses and help cover track operating expenses.
The rest is divided among the winning bettors, based on the amount of their wagers.
AmTote links its terminals to a pair of microprocessors working in concert to register each bet. If one computer goes down, the other already contains duplicate information so it can easily pick up the slack.
To avoid counterfeiting and payout mistakes, each bet is assigned a serial number and a computer bar code when the track clerk types the betting information into an AmTote terminal. The bar code must match the computer's records before the bettor is paid his winnings.
"Dollars cashed has got to equal dollars bet," Mr. Clark said.
Before bar-coding, tracks relied on clerks to spot counterfeit tickets, Mr. Clark said. That imprecise practice led to millions of dollars lost to phoney-ticket payoffs, money which the tote company was generally expected to reimburse the track.
For all its trouble, AmTote receives a cut of the day's wagering.
"If the track's revenues increase, our revenues increase," Mr. Clark said.
Neither Mr. Clark nor Pimlico officials would quantify AmTote's assigned proportion of the betting pie. But competition from lotteries, bingogames, casinos and other gambling outlets have cut into racetrack revenues over the past several years, admits Mr. Clark, who has worked for AmTote for the past 50 years.
AmTote hopes to make an early leap into the next century of racing with its new Spectrum tote system, which will be introduced in the fall. Through Spectrum, the company can link more than 30 tracks through a single tote machine, enabling racing enthusiasts to place bets at their hometown track or a course thousands of miles away.
For Pimlico, that might mean another first. "When they complete the design of Spectrum," said Elizabeth L. Quill, director of mutuels at Pimlico, "hopefully we will be one of the first tracks to use it."