NYRA issued a press release trumpeting "double digit" increases in on-track attendance and handle at Aqueduct on Saturday, when 5,444 showed up, as opposed to 3,378 last year. 164 of those customers arrived via the new free bus service, and there seemed to be steady business at the information booth on the first floor, which has been transformed into a sign-up center for NYRA Rewards.
Indeed, there seemed to be something happening there. The numbers may still be small from a historical standpoint. But so is the part of the track presently in use; so the place seemed full and - I'd go as far as to say - vibrant on Saturday. It had me thinking of The Simpsons episode in which the Itchy and Scratchy show goes off the air, and kids all over Springfield rediscover - albeit just temporarily as it turns out - the joys of the playgrounds and the great outdoors. Of course, NYC OTB has aptly played the role of Itchy to NYRA's Scratchy over the years, tying the sport's tongue with dynamite and blowing off its head. So, despite the dire warnings we've heard from some corners regarding the closing of NYC OTB, it feels to me like a time of opportunity for the beleaguered industry.
Of course, an outside observer may not be at all impressed. Clyde Haberman writes in the New York Times that, at the Big A, there may be More Bettors, But Little Sign of Life. Haberman writes the NYC column for the Paper of Record, and there he chronicles the various and sundry injustices and inequities afflicted upon the working class heroes of the city by politicians and others in positions of power. His points of view on matters political and ethical generally comport rather well with my own.
And indeed, even this hardcore Aqueduct veteran finds it difficult to argue with many of his points here. His observation that the view of the track from the A train "can make you think that you’re bound for a cement factory" actually might be kind. It's the sad truth that a typical weekday crowd is "barely enough people to fill two subway trains." The Champs Sports Bar he visited on the first floor is a worn and weary setting that hasn't been renovated in decades; and he missed the photo of the Rangers' 1940 Stanley Cup team in his observation of the sorely outdated mementos on the wall. (Though he might have taken the time to head upstairs to the more inviting Equestris level if he was interested in filing a fairer report.)
His recitation of off-track handle versus wagering on-track - "That ratio of about nine to one was not significantly different from that of a comparable Saturday last December" - as well as the sad decline of crowd figures over the years, are merely the facts. And his suggestion that the land might be put to better use - "perhaps for parks or for reasonably priced housing, which goodness knows the city sorely needs," is a fair point and in keeping with his usual themes.....as long, that is, that he's not forgetting about the tens of thousands of people state-wide who make their living in the industry.
But where Haberman blows it entirely is in his snarky closing.
The place brings back memories of a visit two decades ago to Macao, then a rather seedy gambling haven administered by Portugal. While waiting for a cab to the main casino, we chatted with a South Korean businessman who was a regular visitor to the territory.Here, the writer reveals without a doubt that he's simply not knowledgeable enough on the subject at hand to pass judgment on a sport which still attracts large and enthusiastic crowds in the appropriate settings, and, despite the declines, still generates over $10 billion annually in handle nationwide. After all, anybody with any experience whatsoever knows that when you win a bet on a horse race, you feel great. No matter where you might be, even in one of those repugnant - and increasingly defunct with each passing day - NYC OTB parlors. So this column thus becomes just another weak and gratuitous cheap shot by a know-nothing outsider on a convenient and manifestly easy target; fodder for a column on a slow news week with the state legislature out of session and the mayor in a mellow mood. He should have stuck with Cathie Black.
“The thing about Macao is that when you lose, you feel lousy,” he said in English, “but even when you win, you feel lousy.”
Aqueduct is kind of like that.