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Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Poker Track


In the last 15 years, horse and dog tracks have added poker and other games because the race business is dying. This is not the 1920s, when horse racing was prevalent enough to have a song about it open up the Broadway musical "Guys and Dolls." Now the cards (and in some states, slots and other games in the "racino") are helping keep the tracks in business.

Racing may have once been The Sport Of Kings, but you won't find any royalty at the track these days betting on horses or dogs. When I played poker the other night at Tampa Greyhound Track, there were no live races going on and only about six people in the off-track betting area, where they could wager on races at other tracks around the country. Unfortunately, these six guys looked like they didn't have a nickel between them.

If your only image of horse racing is the glamorous façade of the Kentucky Derby, that's like judging the popularity of bobsledding in Jamaica by the movie "Cool Runnings." That's not to say no one's betting on these animals -- but technology makes it possible to get those bets down without ever setting foot in the grandstand. That may help the prize pool, but not by much. A friend who occasionally puts down ten bucks on a horse via his phone told me that for many races, the entire parimutuel betting pool is only a few thousand bucks. No one's gonna get rich at the track -- including the owner who, with attendance down so much, misses out on the concession revenue, so income is even lower.

I've played in a few racinos that are well cared for (e.g. The Isle in Pompano Beach, Parx in the suburbs of Philadelphia, the West Palm Beach Kennel Club) and a pleasure to be in, but most of the others look and feel like they're on their last legs, hanging on by a card game. You always have to take a creaky escalator upstairs, pass by a bored security guy at the front desk who couldn't stop a crime if it were in his pants, and wait forever for a surly waitress to bring you a bottle of water. And if there are live races going on, there are no more than a hundred people in the stands, looking like they're just killing time -- and their social security checks.

Still, for poker players, it's nice to have more venues where we can play, if you can overlook the fact that the facility you're sitting in was originally built to entertain people who enjoyed watching small men sit atop large animals and whip them to go faster. Now that the world's biggest circus company is closing up shop and no longer forcing animals to do tricks, the tracks might very well be next.