By Albert Samaha
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Even the dimmest dime-store Romeo knows that taking a date to the off-track betting parlor is a romantic kiss of death. Crammed with hordes of bleary-eyed men, all seemingly one ill-placed bet away from ruin, OTB joints are notorious as hotbeds of testosterone-heavy scuzz. The vibe at each of New York City's 67 walk-in parlors usually runs the narrow gamut from grim to downright bummer. The scene rarely changes: hordes of somber punters line up in front of bulletproof glass windows, scowling pensioners agonize over handicapping sheets, and the occasional well-soused fellow leans against a column, grinning blankly at the flickering monitors overhead. The odds on spotting a female customer rival those of hitting an exacta. It's the kind of atmosphere that may scream "trashy charm" to a few, but rarely earns the tag "romantic."
The image of betting parlor as center of scum and villainy makes the folks at the New York City OTB Corporation cringe. After 28 years in business, OTB wants New Yorkers to think of off-track betting as a pastime more akin to shooting craps amid the splendor of Monte Carlo than shooting dice on Avenue X with a guy named Weasel. The key, they believe, is to offer the pleasures of placing an Aqueduct wager in the comfort of restaurants and ritzy clubs, far from the throngs of down-at-the-heels gamblers who haunt the old red-walled parlors. "We feel strongly that it is important to upgrade the image, as well as the business of OTB," says Allen Gutterman, OTB's director of marketing. "We're doing much more of these upscale kinds of things."
The new marketing push comes amid high times for the city's OTB corporation. Not long after Mayor John Lindsay placed the city's first-ever off-track bet in 1971 $2 on a 4-1 pacer named Moneywise the corporation became a financial black hole, cursed with a bloated bureaucracy and bonehead managers. In 1993 a campaign-trail Rudolph Giuliani decried OTB as "the only bookie operation in the world to lose money."
The turnaround, however, has been stunningly rapid. Giuliani appointees hacked off the fat with a butcher's disdain, canning 100 employees and closing 10 lackluster parlors. They also introduced phone-in betting and simulcasts on public-access TV, a pony-loving couch potato's dream. Red ink turned black in 1994, and OTB hasn't looked back; the corporation handled over $930 million in wagers last fiscal year.
But the success has done little to dim the notion that off-track betting is a lowbrow activity. And that kind of perception, says Gutterman, has kept a fair number of newbies from ever trying their luck. "We want an audience that hasn't been to [a parlor]," he says. "Maybe that's something they've wanted to do, but it's just not part of their being."
The strategy for roping in a kinder, gentler breed of bettors centers on introducing off-track action into restaurants, which was legalized in 1994. In March of 1997, OTB set up shop on the second floor of Mary McGuire's, a cozy neighborhood joint in Astoria. Since then, two other well-known eateries O'Neill's in Maspeth and Isabelle in Sheepshead Bay have welcomed OTB outlets, with more to come this year in Throgs Neck and Staten Island. Such team-ups, says Jim Levy, OTB's director of new business, go a long way toward bringing women into the fold."It's a much easier atmosphere, it's more relaxing," he says. "That makes it a little more desirable for the women to come in with their kids and have dinner, and while they're here they can place a wager."
The marketing push also includes a much higher profile for Manhattan's "teletheaters," three upscale sports bars that have been around since the mid 1980s. After dedicating much of its advertising revenue in recent years to trumpeting the wonders of telephone wagering, OTB is now furiously pitching these establishments as hangouts for the young and glamorous. A recent commercial features an attractive couple dressed to the nines, hooting and hollering at a bank of TVs amid the posh elegance of an OTB teletheater.
Bringing these new venues to the fore has not merely been a spin job by OTB. Last fall, they brought in Tracy Westmoreland, owner of the midtown martini dispensary Siberia, to tinker with the failing Select Club at 165 Water Street. While Westmoreland went about hiring a "real" chef and staff, OTB poured $70,000 into spiffing up the place, redoing the floors and ceiling, adding 40 TVs, and making sure the omnipresent brass rails were in tip-top form. "It looks like a slice of Las Vegas in Manhattan," says Westmoreland, who hopes to be a star soon in her own commercials in both English and Chinese for the club.
Those who fear that off-track betting is mere steps away from joining Times Square among New York's newly sanitized attractions need not fret too much. Ten minutes north of the Select Club, the parlor at Chatham Square the city's busiest teems with Run-yonesque types and the sad stench of Pick 6's barely missed. But the forces of "good," "clean" entertainment are gaining. Mary McGuire's, for example, recently expanded into a neighboring liquor store to meet the demand. And at the Select Club, amid the wizened chain-smoking pros, the occasional table now boasts a young, pretty couple, sipping Heinekens and picking at their salmon as ponies gallop across a hundred screens.