Friday, March 09, 2012

Racing Goes To The Dogs

There's a story in today's NY Times about the tough times at dog tracks around the country and how owners who were allowed to add casinos -- slot machines and poker rooms -- now want to get out of the racing business altogether because the greyhounds no longer attract enough gamblers. The tracks are losing millions, while the casinos thrive.

I've seen this first hand on my visits to the Palm Beach Kennel Club, which has a poker room that supports the rest of the operation.  Last month, it hosted a World Series Of Poker circuit event that drew some of the largest fields in Florida poker history -- but there was never much of a crowd gathered to watch the dogs chase the artificial rabbit on a pole, and there weren't many lines at the windows where you'd place your bets (on races there and at other dog and horse tracks across the country).  No one on that side of the business; not the bettors, not the employees, not the dogs.  It's a depressing scene.

On breaks from the poker games, I'd wander outside to watch this not-quite-a-spectacle, look at the big board that laid out the odds for each race, and pick a dog -- sometimes the favorite, sometimes the long shot.  I didn't put any money down, and it's a good thing, because I usually got it wrong.

Watching the races without betting wasn't much fun, but it reminded me of the first time I ever saw a race in person and enjoyed it.  It was 40 years ago when we were on a family road trip.  We had stopped for the night at a motel in Charlestown, West Virginia.  Mom was exhausted after dinner, so my father suggested we leave her in the room while we walked to the nearby racetrack, the only attraction in town.  Dad wasn't a gambler in any sense of the word, but he was a good husband giving his wife a break by allowing her some time to relax without her loud sons making a ruckus.  Since my brother and I were underage, we couldn't get into the track, so we walked across a field to the far side, where we could stand by the rail and watch the horses go by, but couldn't see the big board or the finish line very well.  We spent an hour or so male-bonding and avoiding the cloud of dirt each pack of horses kicked up as they went by.  To pass the time, we'd each pick a number at random to see who could guess which horse would win.  We based this on absolutely no information, but occasionally one of us would hit one by chance. 

That's not all that different from the way most people place bets at racetracks. They like a certain number, or the color of the horse/dog's skin, or the silks the jockey's wearing.  Sure, there are the "experts" who read the racing form and study histories, but they're not getting rich betting on the races.  You've never heard of a track going out of business because too many people were picking winners.  They go out of business because too few people are coming through the turnstiles and passing their hard-earned cash through those windows.  The Kentucky Derby and other "prestigious" races continue to draw crowds because TV makes it all look majestic, but the reality is exactly the opposite.

As for the greyhounds, they're in the doghouse, where the best bet is on slots and cards.