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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Itchy Times Columnist Blasts Big A

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renovated in decades; and he missed the photo of the Rangers' 1940 Stanley Cup team in his observation of the sorely outdated mementos on the wall.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 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.

“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.
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.


Figless said...

The authors anti- horse racing agenda is very evident.

Other gems from the article;

"Instead of hanging out in dreary parlors rank with the air of crushed hopes and misplaced dreams, they can hang out at a race course rank with the air of crushed hopes and misplaced dreams."

Look, some of these folks undoubtedly harbor some misplaced dreams that they are going to get rich playing the ponies, but the vast majority consider it entertainment, pure and simple.

Would he write the same thing about the patrons of a Vegas Casino? Doubt it, and if you took a poll I suspect more of those casino patrons believe they are going to get rich than those of at the Big A, who are simply out for a good time.

His criticsm of the posters on the wall is silly, these are clearly meant to celebrate the City's great sporting past and have not been hanging there since the Big A opened, but rather since Champs Bar was renovated in the 90's.

"Champs", get it? Ali, Yankees, Mets 1969. Duh!

And he lazily falls into the trap of using attendance to emphasize the sports decline. A true journalist would point out those wagering figs that Alan counters.

If I had to guess, this guy was pissed he got assigned this gig by the editor, googled a few stats, typed the article on his laptop while on the train to the track, and spent about 15 minutes at the Big A to gather some "facts" to support his pre-ordained conclusion.

Lazy journalism, while preaching to the anti-gambling choir.

Figless said...

PS- a journalist would point out the decline of attendance has corresponded to the opening of the OTB wagering outlets, especially since this is the backdrop from which this article is derived.

jk said...

The bigger story which Alan mentions is the business opportunity for NYRA. Their biggest competitor just went under and any business with a pulse will take advantage. It looks like NYRA is doing all it can including a request for streaming video on its website. The opening of Belmont as a simulcast center is a shot across Nassau OTB's bow as well. The initial results do not look like a wipe out as many had feared and predicted. There is a lot of upside here if the State govt. is willing to get out of the way.

SaratogaSpa said...

What stereotype did he leave out?- none that I could find. Terrible article. The funny thing is I read the article last night while watching the NY Giants crush the spread. I won a large bet and felt very good, not lousy at all.

Anonymous said...

I expect nothing less from the NYT.

Figless said...

Winning is fun, even in Macao.

Losing at the track, in moderation, is entertainment and a lot cheaper than many other entertainment venues, especially if you haul in your own refreshments.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the author of this blog doesn't know much about gambling.

Vast numbers of hard-core gamblers are effectively trying to lose. Thus, to win, causes them to feel somewhat depressed.

Nice try though!

If you're going to write on a subject, at least know the subject before you start critiquing...

Anonymous said...

Alan - What are your thoughts on the 3-5% pay increases that the NYRA board just approved ?

Article here:

I find Charles Wait's comments laughable....

steve in nc said...

If Haberman doesn't know how to handicap, how the hell can he expect to have any fun at the track?

I didn't read the piece, but the "crushed hopes and misplaced dreams" line sounds more like a comment on the current political moment than any racetrack.

Not that there's any shortage of pitiful folks at any gambling facility, but I suspect Haberman doesn't have many friends in low places. (Big surprise for a Times reporter.)

When we lived in NY, my wife used to go to the track with me and never looked at the Form. She focused a little on equine body language, and did even more people watching. She always felt there were lots of folks with real character. If it were mostly hopeless cases, she'd have never come back.

Anonymous said...

This Spa regular is pleased to see Alan and others sticking up for the Big A. Without the Big A there will be no NY racing at Belmont or Saratoga.

The demise of NYCOTB is another chance to do the OTB thing the way it should have been done when it first came into being: Let those who know racing best operate the OTB's.

Hopefully Alan and others will cancel their subscriptions to The NY Times, that most supercilious of all news media. Somehow I don't think it will be necessary in Alan's case as he has demonstrated time and again that he is not fond of the Times proclivity to bash racing in general and NY racing in particular. /S/greenmtnpunter

ballyfager said...

Why does anyone even read the NYT? They have long since lost their credibility. They are as biased as Fox News (albeit in the other direction).

Anyway, the reporter's ignorance reminds me of a story from long ago.

Back when Bill Hartack was the top jockey (along with Shoemaker), he was riding at Keeneland when the Ky Derby was imminent.

Because of the Derby, the mainstream sportwriters were there. They attempted to question Hartack. He responded to the first question by saying this,"What's the matter, aren't there any baseball games today"?

Sportswriters, most of whom don't know a fetlock from a furlong, are not deterred by their own ignorance.

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed greenmtnpunter could spell or even know the meaning of such an advanced word. Or type. I thought he would be crying your eyes out along with that bozo Boehner.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Haberman seems out of touch not only with our game. He's also beyond out of touch with his anecdote about Macao. I doubt he knows that Macao is now perhaps the most advanced, most alluring gambling destination on earth. (Except Saragota in July-August, of course). Mike D.

Anonymous said...

Great article about horseracing. You have a amusing and interesting style. Maybe next years winner will come from Mountain Trail Training Center

We just won the Pa Nursery with Der Meister, keep an eye on him.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm weird cuz I'm at Aqueduct every day and I thought Haberman's piece was laughably accurate! I must be biased since I'm a subscriber...
Gosh folks, change the tampon and move on.

Anonymous said...

btw, it's great to hear another adult admit to watching "The Simpsons" haha

Figless said...

Anon - I presume you are rank with crushed hope and misplaced dreams?

And you feel lousy when you win?

Anonymous said...

No figless, as I read the piece (which, btw, appeared in the NY/metro section, not the Sports section, so it wasn't designed to appeal to racefans) I knew he was describing the nature of Aqueduct the grandstand, and not the nature of me personally.

Anonymous said...

The new dirt main track at SA is closed for the next 5 days due to rain. I'm thinking this isn't going well.


Anonymous said...

And JP's Gusto was much the best.


Figless said...

Have not been following the ongoing SA dirt track follies, but was wondering is Stronarch ever changed the base of that track or is he just pouring new stuff on top and calling it a new track?

steve in nc said...

I think the base is made of all the money Stronach's shredded.

Hey Alan, where are ya? Your blog's not the same without you.

El Angelo said...

He's in the same parallel universe as Steve Crist. In fairness, December is by far the most uninteresting month of the racing season.