Dressed up, it's still gambling

Dan Rodricks

December 16, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

I once went into an Off-Track Betting parlor in New York City and, when I emerged an hour later, I wanted to shower.

"Parlor" is too nice a word; a parlor is where Aunt Beatrice serves scones and all the tables have doilies. The OTB joint I visited -- it was in Elmhurst, Queens -- was a den of degenerate gamblers and desperate souls. The men who packed the place looked as though they'd just come from the blood-donor trailer down the street. None of the video monitors in the room showed a race; they only posted odds, then results. No one ever saw a horse.

It was neither an exciting nor inspiring experience. Methadone clinics are more uplifting.

Of course, the image I've just presented is off-track betting at its worst.

Still, is this what the racing promoters have in mind for Maryland?

Relax.

If off-track betting comes to Maryland, it won't even be called off-track betting. In fact, we won't have "OTB parlors," like the seedy place in Queens that left me queasy and depressed. Instead, we'll have "satellite simulcast centers" with glitzy "tele-theaters" so horse players can actually see the races on which they bet. It's gonna be class, Jack. Real class.

But let's be real for a moment. We're still talking about gambling here.

Dress it up all they want, the movers and shakers in the racing industry aren't fooling anyone. Off-track betting makes gambling on horses more accessible to more people; it should make race tracks more profitable. And that's the point.

In fact, the OTB boosters shouldn't bother with all the high-tech glamour; there's no need for fancy digs. The OTB parlors in New York might be seedy, but at least they're honest. If we bring OTB to Maryland, we'll simply bring temptation closer to more people already predisposed to gamble their money away.

Of course, all the studies show that those people are the ones who can least afford it. Many of them are poor or borderline-poor; they should be trying to improve their lives with hard work instead of hard-core gambling. But gambling offers them hope that a little money can turn into a lot of money fast.

So, whether it's the state-operated lottery or state-sanctioned off-track betting, it's still gambling -- the opportunity to squander cash on a flier.

Those who push OTB look at the success of the state lottery and know there's an untapped horse-betting market out there. They know that many mom-and-pop gamblers limit themselves to playing the daily lottery only because it's inconvenient to do more than that. These are the players likely to go for OTB. They might never get to a race track -- they might know nothing about horses, they might never read the Racing Form -- but conveniently situated OTB parlors will offer quick, direct service for their gambling impulses.

With the recession upon us, could the timing be any better for OTB?

Starting with a governor who has been a foot-kissing pal of racing interests from the start, Maryland politicians are desperate for new forms of revenue. They don't dare increase taxes. So why not expand state-sanctioned gambling? It might be a tax on the poor, but it works. In fact, these days, it's the only thing that seems to work. It's a "revenue enhancer."

That's why there's talk that 1992 will finally be the year for OTB in the General Assembly.

The Maryland racing industry is hurting -- we've heard that one before -- and the state is hot for new money. So, Del. Paul Weisengoff, a racetrack owner's best friend, is chomping on his cigar. "I'll give you 1-5 odds that an OTB bill passes," he said last week.

Of course, there's one little catch: The state wants a piece of this action.

Right now, the state only gets one- half of 1 percent of each dollar bet at a race track. That's incredible, but that's how the late Frank DeFrancis, owner of both Laurel and Pimlico, wanted it. Now, however, some legislators are talking about increasing the state's cut in return for approving OTB. But racing interests, led by DeFrancis' son, Joe, will kill that effort. You can count on it. After all, what's the point of having OTB if the tracks don't increase profits?

Weisengoff can light up another White Owl. Off-track betting is probably coming to Maryland.

And why shouldn't it? It makes gambling more convenient. The only argument against it is a moral one, which, in these desperate times, is no argument at all.

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