It’s a short flight from Portland, Oregon, to Las Vegas, Nevada. But sitting in the subterranean off-track betting parlor at the Rose City’s Rialto Poolroom a few years ago, my friend Tom and I were a world away from the palatial sports betting environs of a SuperBook or Circa.
While it’s located in a ragtag sector of downtown Portland that’s rife with sidewalk denizens, the Rialto, which makes space for poker and live jazz alongside its corner pockets, is presentable enough. But back before they moved the operation upstairs and replaced human tellers with a pair of horse betting machines, the OTB was obscured from plain view, requiring a trip down a narrow staircase to a windowless basement area that felt about as big as a studio apartment.
About those human tellers: They were not happy to see you. Their primary professional function was to process horse wagers, yet they were perpetually prickly when having to perform this task, penetrating punters’ eyes with a molten gaze, as if to say, “I hope you lose, leave, and never come back.”
Tattered, vinyl-backed chairs were positioned in front of a bank of mismatched television sets, some holdovers from the rabbit-ear era. Several of the races came in fuzzy, and it was not uncommon for a signal to temporarily drop as the horses turned for home. Occasionally, the picture would split into two, which did nothing to double one’s winnings.
If you neglected to bring a writing utensil to mark up your picks when poring over past performances, you would be crankily supplied with a church-pew pencil in dire need of sharpening. To get a beer, you had to trudge back upstairs and hope an employee was somewhere in the vicinity of the bar, a scenario that bore roughly the same odds as an 8/1 shot in a maiden claimer.
Sounds awful, right? It wasn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was with one of my best friends, watching and wagering on one of my favorite sports. And, eventually, a bartender showed up and our beers got poured. Toasts were made; aesthetics were immaterial. We had the requisite tools for excitement and camaraderie, with stacks of cash so modest that even a spate of superfectas wouldn’t have changed our financial fortunes much.
It’s so easy to bet alone on one’s phone these days, be it on horse racing or jai alai, that bettors under the age of 40 are unlikely to have experienced the grit and grime of America’s most hardscrabble betting parlors. Thankfully, US Bets boasts a stable of staffers who’ve never met a stale beer, backwater simulcast, or dimly lit fronton they didn’t love.
These are their stories.
Getting the gambling gene from dad
That might sound odd considering I turned 10 in 1980, but in my family, we started young. And, frankly, in those days, nobody seemed all that concerned about underage gambling, because I’ll swear to this day I placed many of my $2 bets all by myself at the window, starting when I was about 9.
My dad wasn’t a get-your-hands-dirty-playing-with-the-kids kind of guy, and he had five of us. But he did take his time teaching me, his youngest, how to read the Daily Racing Form. We would often sit in Fairmount’s Black Stallion Room, filled with cigarette and cigar smoke, some of the latter coming from my old man. I could barely stand the 25 minutes or so between races, but even back then I would remind myself to use the time wisely, to scour the fine print for the horse with the best odds.
I just remember the ink from the newsprint getting everywhere — on the white tablecloth, my hands, my clothes. I was an ink-stained wretch even before I got into newspaper journalism a dozen years later.
This was way before Fairmount Park partnered with FanDuel to offer sports betting, and was even before simulcasting took hold. The only draw was the live races, some of the lowest-purse offerings in the country. I couldn’t have loved it more. I felt like I was in the center of a universe of action.
My father grew up poor with uneducated immigrant parents in North St. Louis, and he often talked about two particular aspects of his youth: his athletic ability and his gambling exploits. My brother, David, got the athletic ability. My brother, Ed, and I got the gambling gene.
My dad, Leonard, died a few years ago in Los Angeles, where he (and I) had relocated from our native riverfront town of St. Louis. I moved back to St. Louis six years ago and haven’t yet returned to Fairmount. It just wouldn’t be the same.
What I wouldn’t give to have had one more night with Dad in the Black Stallion Room in the middle of rural Illinois, poring over a $1,250 claiming race.
Grimy stables of degeneracy
Few figures in sports journalism are as universally respected as Sandy Padwe, a former senior editor at Sports Illustrated and consultant with ESPN’s Outside the Lines.
I took two classes with Professor Padwe en route to a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University in 2009, including a course on sports reporting. Several of my classmates from Padwe’s news reporting course considered him a second father. After all, Padwe published three books on sports and earned accolades such as Sportswriter of the Year from the National Headliners Club.
Padwe covered Joe Paterno extensively at Penn State, where he served as sports editor for The Daily Collegian from 1959-1961. He also handled the editing responsibilities for William Nack’s horse racing coverage at Sports Illustrated. The late Nack, an artful writer, is best known for his 1975 book, Big Red of Meadow Stable: Secretariat, the Making of a Champion. I still remember Padwe’s delight in Calvin Borel’s trip in the 2009 Kentucky Derby when he brushed against the rail in guiding 50/1 longshot Mine That Bird to an improbable rally from the back of the pack.
One of Padwe’s students wrote his master’s thesis on the eclectic regulars who assembled at a New York City OTB in the wee hours past midnight to bet on Australian horse racing. I cannot recall if the contingent frequented the OTB branch on the west corner of 91st Street and Broadway or another location on West 72nd between Broadway and Columbus Circle. In any event, Padwe was so intrigued by the prospect of watching hardened bettors wager on the Aussie ponies that he even accompanied the student one night.
The actual location is beside the point, as most of the 150-some odd OTBs in the city at the height of the franchise were smoke-filled, grimy stables of degeneracy. The gold-plated entrance on 72nd represented a façade for the environment bettors were about to encounter inside. Floors littered with losing tickets and splintered-wood panels encompassed the parlor, producing an atmosphere bettors became accustomed to at OTBs in Manhattan.
According to Stephen Harmon’s remembrance of the 72nd Street OTB, most parlors in the city did not contain a bathroom as a way of deterring bettors from staying inside for hours on end. That could be a problem if you used to bet the late Pick 5 at Royal Randwick at 4 in the morning. Another blogger described the milieu at an OTB parlor in Washington Heights, tucked into a bus station in the “Little Dominican Republic” section of the uppermost portion of Manhattan, like so:
The staff of OTB is notoriously abrasive and unhelpful, and this branch is no exception. The good thing is there are three ticket machines where you can buy your tickets so you don’t have to deal with the staff unless you need to cash out a winner. In the event you cash out a big winning ticket, walk straight for the door, ignoring the GA dropouts and losers trying to sell you frozen TV dinners from their mothers’ freezer for a cut of your earnings.
When the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2009, the parlor total throughout the city had whittled to less than 70. By December 2010, the corporation had shut down for good, and roughly 1,000 employees lost their jobs.
Floors littered with fallen soldiers
When a place is referred to as the “snakepit” or “the dungeon,” you should probably understand what you’re getting into. These are some of the names assigned to the Paddock Room at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California.
Even the racetrack’s website calls it “the no-frills, all-function space for all those horseplayers who want to cut straight to their wagering.” But it also calls it a “haven for handicappers.”
The snakepit sits underneath the Santa Anita grandstand. You have to go downstairs to get to it from the main grandstand level, but you can walk straight into it from the paddock area and walking ring, where the horses are saddled and get ready to race.
Despite what you might see from the fashionistas on TV at the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders’ Cup, these are the down-and-sometimes-dirty horseplayers who fill the pools at tracks you’ve never heard of. A standard outfit might include a weathered hat and T-shirt — bonus points for racetrack promotional garments from the ’80s or ’90s — and a pair of cargo shorts. They arrive early to reserve tables, often with bags of food to sustain themselves through the day, and many stay as late as Santa Anita will allow them, betting the quarter horses at Los Alamitos and simulcasts from Australia into the night, well after the live, onsite racing has ended.
These aren’t the “oh, look at the pretty horses” racetrackers. I get along with most folks at the racetrack, but these are really my people. They’re the same lot who I’d stand in line with for dollar hot dogs and dollar beers on a Friday night at Hollywood Park. And it’s a diverse set. Obscenities of several languages are shouted at the screens on any given day.
When I was covering racing daily from the track, I would occasionally walk downstairs to cash a Pick 5 ticket on my way out, usually around 7 p.m., and the snakepit would still be bustling, with bettors slapping programs and the floors littered with fallen soldiers (losing tickets). From the early morning to late at night, the only thing that changes in the snakepit seems to be the amount of tickets on the ground and the tracks on the screens, because natural light doesn’t get in there anyway.
Love and hate on the fronton
My parents weren’t interested in gambling — no surprise for two people who grew up poor during the Great Depression, then with one flying 35 missions from England over Germany as a bombardier aboard a B-17 during World War II and the other waiting nervously at home. They had experienced all the drama anyone ever wanted, and then some.
So one of my first forays into gambling came about 40 years ago. A neighborhood pal was a devotee of jai alai, the European sport that was played at frontons in Bridgeport and Milford in Connecticut. With visas limited to six months, you got one set of players at each site.
My pal’s dad particularly liked to play exotics. So out of the eight singles players or eight two-man teams, he would choose three of them. Almost always it was 2-4-7, and we just needed to finish first and second to win. But — and this may be the most “degenerative” part — he also liked to double up, typically playing 1-6-8 or 3-6-8 for the second exotic in the same match.
Basically, the match starts with 1 vs. 2, winner plays 3, and so forth. Out of my group, only one of us ever truly figured out the vagaries of the playing sequences, so the rest of us wound up asking him constantly who we were rooting for.
“We want 2 to win the first two points, then 4 to win at least two points, and then … ,” was a typical answer.
But with two sets of numbers, he would flip-flop from one sequence to another. Too often, late in the game, he would explain that we were doomed.
“Either the 5 is about to win, or the 6 will — and that won’t work for either of our sets of numbers.”
As for the sport itself, it’s like racquetball played on a longer court, with each player possessing a long basket — called a cesta — to capture the ball. The players were all from the Basque region, on the border of Spain and France.
Of course, Americans love the “old college try” — diving for a loose basketball you have no real chance of saving, or relentlessly hustling to first base on a routine grounder when you have virtually no chance of being safe. But jai alai players are different. They instantly can figure out when an opponent’s shot is so good that they can’t possibly get to it. As a result, they simply stop and concede the point.
This enraged many of the American fans, who would loudly express in rude English their belief that the game was rigged. The players may not have understood the exact words, but they could tell what point was being made.
Still, the players kept returning, and so did the fans, renewing their love-hate relationship over and over. It couldn’t have been the unpalatable food or watered-down drinks that lured them to the fronton.
Lead photo: Winslow Townsend/USA TODAY