It's a balmy Saturday in early March and, in the predominantly Italian section of Brooklyn known as Carroll Gardens, the streets overflow with residents out shaking the winter frost from their bones. They bustle up and down Court Street, dancing in and out of storefronts and past a group of men huddled around a TV monitor inside a plain brick building. The group soaks up the colored pixels as if they were the very fruits of life.
"Go six. Go six. Run, you motherfucker," one of them, a short, middle-aged fellow with no teeth, screams at the screen. There is a sea of men around him, pawing at his shoulders. As one, then another, starts to yell, the small man jerks back and forth, his hair lifting from his scalp in greasy clumps as he violently shakes the newspaper in his hand.
"SIX. SIX. SIX. SIX."
Behind him, a group of elderly Italians slouches in a row of black leather chairs, lined up movie-theater style along a giant plate-glass window separating them from the busy street. Some watch halfheartedly, while others bury their faces in white, pocket-size books, diligently studying the fine print while the crowd swells around them, expanding like a giant lung.
"The six is a bum." A short Puerto Rican, with immense buckteeth and a pair of oversize glasses that make him look like Jiminy Cricket, stands in front of the Italians. "I had him two weeks ago. That bastard can't run to save his life."
"Shut your trap," someone yells from the back of the crowd. Jiminy Cricket laughs.
Near the doorway, a cripple paces back and forth before hobbling toward the crowded semicircle of onlookers with the aid of a cane. His hair is a sulfurous orange, and his mouth opens to expose a gold tooth. Flashing a grin at an old Latino man with a face like Hemingway's protagonist from "The Old Man and the Sea," he shuffles over to the group glued to the TV. As he fights for an unobstructed view, shouts and curses bounce off the walls and the crowd grows louder and wilder until the tension in the room becomes unbearable. Then, as if on cue, a great silence falls over the room, expanding like a giant soap bubble until it is burst by a terse yelp from the toothless man.
With that, tiny pieces of paper are thrown to the floor, feet shuffle away from the screen and mouths explode in chatter. The room hums again.
Welcome to the world of off-track betting. Or, rather, welcome to a betting parlor in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, one of dozens around New York's five boroughs, and a mecca for the local gamblers and diehard horse racing fans of my neighborhood. This is home plate for the kind of hard-luck pricks whom life has shortchanged from Day 1. Every day they plunk down a crisp bill, crossing their fingers for luck, on one of those magnificent, powerful beasts in hopes of hitting it big and changing their lot in life. It's an act as futile as pissing into the wind.
Spending my Saturday and Sunday afternoons at OTB for two months now, I have joined a cast of characters who look like they walked off the pages of a Nelson Algren novel, a dozen Frankie the Machines and Sparrow Saltskins in the flesh. I've landed the plum role of the wayward kid they try to set straight.
"You should go to the park or visit a museum. This is a rough game," they say. "Don't start betting; you'll never stop."
Judging from the turnout at the OTB parlor, they may be right. It is open seven days a week and, unlike other businesses, has no trouble holding onto its customers. Even a Monday evening bubbles with energy, and on weekend afternoons the joint is positively electric. Italians, Poles, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans -- a half-dozen languages bounce off the walls, spoken by a half-dozen nationalities all focused on one thing: What horse will win the next race?
The OTB on Court Street has eight TVs broadcasting races. Not more than three ever show the same race at once. This means when one race ends, someone can walk across the floor and bet on the next race about to go off -- and the next, and the next. It's like a cafeteria line for gamblers.
The regulars bet on races piped in via satellite from places like Gulfstream Park and Hialeah in Florida and Santa Anita Raceway in California nearly 365 days a year. Some places even stay open until 3 a.m. to catch races going off in Australia. It's been five months since the Breeder's Cup, two days since the Kentucky Derby, but for the diehards, the Derby and the Cup -- the marquee events of the racing year -- are no different from any other day of the year. If you're holding a winning ticket it'll pay off, and that's what matters.
For the uninitiated, here's a brief lesson in playing the ponies. A buck fifty buys a program at the OTB parlor. After looking over the printed information (past performances, class, breeding, etc.) and choosing a horse, there are three main ways to bet. You can pick a horse to win, meaning it must come in first; pick to place, meaning it must finish second or better; or pick to show, meaning the horse must finish third or better.
Seasoned horse players rarely bet any of these, though, as the payoff on a heavy favorite is minimum at best -- maybe 5-2 or 2-1. They prefer, instead, to lay their money on exactas, trifectas and pick-sixes, with the exacta -- which requires correctly picking the first and second finishers -- being the most popular. Based on how much money is wagered collectively on any given horse, the odds then slide up and down right until post time.
The real trick is to find the races with the best value, that is, to find the quality horses hidden within the day's program that haven't been heavily wagered on. That's the beauty and the allure of playing the ponies. Unlike dice or roulette it's not so much a game of chance as one of calculated risk. Stories of someone picking Pretty Paula, a 50-1 long shot, because that was the name of their first lay, and then winning $500 when the pathetic nag beats the rest of the field by three lengths are, for the most part, fiction. The guys don't bet on whim; they bet by poring over statistics.
These guys are scientists. A horse's lineage, past performance, whether it's on medication or wearing blinders, the conditions of the track, the distance of the race, whether the horse is a sprinter or a distance runner, among other things, are carefully weighed before making a decision. The smart gamblers take all data, no matter how small, into consideration. They'd sneak into a horse's stall and analyze its stool if they thought it'd give them an advantage.
Above all they decide for themselves. Never once have I seen a seasoned horse player like Jiminy Cricket or Toothless wager based on the opinions of the public handicappers, guys like the New York Post's Anthony Stabile. When it's their money, it's their decision. Immense pride and respectability come with being a stately handicapper. Everyone inside that dilapidated storefront knows the kings from the jesters.
When it comes to handicapping, a slight Italian man named Jimmy is the king of Court Street. He dresses sharply, decked out in a pair of amber glasses, a tan turtleneck and a brown driving cap that rests squarely on the top of his head. He is thin and not physically intimidating, but moves with a casual confidence that suggests he has commanded the respect of others for many years. He is soft-spoken and laughs with a devilish grin. He is wise about horses and is often asked for his opinion. He comes late and leaves early. His socks are made of silk. He is the closest thing to class the joint has ever seen. For Jimmy, OTB is more about socializing than striking it rich. His playfulness is in stark contrast to the wrecking ball of emotional intensity that is Toothless and the hysteria of Jiminy Cricket, who, when he loses (which is often), jumps around the linoleum floor like a hyperactive child, berating the jockeys with a litany of insults. "Chavez, you prick," he yells at the top of his lungs, "where did you learn to ride a horse, you fucking midget?"
With its subtle pecking order and shared history, the Court Street OTB is, in many ways, like a corner bar. The races at the popular tracks like Aqueduct don't begin until noon or 1, but when the regulars swing through the doors on a weekend afternoon, they're greeted with smiles and warm embraces by the guys who've come to play the early cards. For most, it's a chance to talk horses and be around others who've been bitten by the gambling bug. Empathy is an important, and not often found, emotion for gamblers, and, judging from the looks of disbelief on the faces of passersby when they see 60 men gathered around a TV set in the ugly, sweltering room, it must be nice to have someplace to go to feel understood.
Horse racing, like boxing, has long been a sport with an image problem, stemming mainly from its running courtship with legalized gambling. Though the owners, trainers and broadcasters would like to believe that it's the sport of kings, adored by aesthetes who relish the surging power, nimble grace and superior breeding of a prize thoroughbred, it's closer to the truth to say that if the tracks didn't allow gambling, interest would likely rival that toward synchronized swimming.
Watching a pack of slobbering animals run around a dirt circle, no matter how awe inspiring their physical prowess, is awfully boring without the rush of a sawbuck on the line. And the throngs of down-and-outers who cram the off-track betting parlors daily, screaming and cursing with a lack of self-consciousness that comes only after years of hardened gambling and thousands of dollars pissed away, don't do much to help.
"OTBs have ruined racing," a man named Paul who played the ponies for 20 years and who now answers phones for the Gamblers Anonymous hot line, told me. As many as "10,000 people used to attend a weeknight race at Belmont; now it's more like 800. No one goes to the track anymore; they all stay home and place their bets from OTBs."
Perhaps OTB didn't ruin the sport, as Paul suggests -- it just forever altered it. For the most part, the parlors are run-down and dingy places. The addition of a water fountain would likely spoil the regulars rotten. But whatever harm off-site betting did to the "let's go down and chat with the trainer and jockey" camaraderie of old that existed at the track, it had the opposite effect for gamblers. By eliminating the traffic, weather concerns and food, parking and beer prices at the track, OTB made it easy for race fans to do what they like best: gamble.
During my first few visits to the parlor I refrained from betting, preferring to play by pretending to wager. It was utterly boring, like being at an orgy and opting to read "The Joy of Sex" instead of joining in. It wasn't long before I needed the adrenaline rush of betting with real money to sustain my interest. When your hard-earned money is at stake, the juice coursing through your veins as the horses thunder down the track takes over your brain -- and your body. The minute the thoroughbreds hit the stretch, the OTB regulars dig deep within themselves for what can only be described as a good-luck spasm. Lips flutter, faces shrivel, torsos and necks twist and turn in completely unnatural ways. One middle-aged man works himself into an ungodly position during each race. Crouching low, he rocks back and forth (slowly at first, then, as the horses enter the last quarter mile, frantically), straining with his entire face and torso as if trying to unlock months of constipation. It is a truly disturbing sight to witness, and goes completely unnoticed by the others, who are doing their own versions of the chronic gambler's two-step.
It's 15 minutes to post time now for the fifth race at Aqueduct on this balmy Saturday, and it's a real washout. Only three of the horses have even finished in the money in their last six runs, and none has ever won. Worse, they're all equally lousy, so picking a favorite is like a crapshoot. Good handicappers hate these kinds of races because the numbers don't mean anything. These are more like Vegas odds.
Jimmy has closed his program and is skipping the fifth altogether, preferring instead to talk to his buddy, an Italian with a white mustache that rests upon a dour, down-turned mouth, about the great ass on some 20-year-old whom he flirts with in church.
The rest of the guys know the race is a dud too, but they can't stand to be out of the action. They'd bet on a sewer rat if it could be relied upon to run in a circle, so they're walking around the room, scratching their scalps and fussing and fidgeting, just like the animals they're betting on.
It's 10 minutes to post when the maitre d' from Marco Polo, the fancy Italian place across the street, walks in, black tux and all, and heads for the betting window. No one even bats an eye. On the way out, he stops and talks to the Hemingway-esque old man about a hot tip on a horse in the sixth before darting back across the street to work.
The racing day is half over now and, from the long faces that pepper the room, it's not hard to tell who is going home flat busted. One guy with rotten teeth can't stop talking about the trifecta he missed two races ago. He wanted to bet it, but didn't, and his caution cost him a $200 payoff. He goes over the story again and again, and you can hear the quiver in his voice and almost see the tears welling up in his eyes each time he tells it. It's the only thought he's had for over an hour now.
There is a sickening desperation that grips the room every so often, and now, just before the fifth, it has returned. The day gets long and the air inside the OTB parlor grows thick and claustrophobic, polluted with a collective guilt, regret and frustration. Some walk outside to combat the plague, but they can barely stand to be away from the TV screens for more than five minutes, so they inhale their cigarettes as quickly as possible before rushing back for their next shot at financial salvation.
Two minutes to post and the room starts buzzing with the lifers taking roll call and offering last-minute speculations: "Who'd you bet on? Did you box the exacta? I like the four horse, good speed numbers. Who does Jimmy like?"
Up on the screen the jockeys have mounted and the horses are prancing near the gate, shaking their heads and hips and preening like the stars of the moment they are. I often wonder if the animals sense the hurricanes of emotion that twirl around them on race day, the suffocating weight of a thousand men teetering on the brink of financial ruin as they huff and puff around a dirt oval for a brief minute or two.
Jimmy is holding court now over by the bay window, busting the Cricket's balls and waving his winning tickets in front of those gigantic choppers. "Ah, fuck off, Jimmy," the Cricket retorts, secretly glad that it's his balls the old man chose to bust. Amid a sea of sweaty brows and worried eyes Jimmy looks as relaxed and peaceful as a baby in his mother's arms.
Just before the race starts, as the regulars are going through their good-luck rituals, Toothless strikes up a conversation with a big, oafish Pole. Jimmy may be the king of the OTB on Court Street, its undisputed ringleader, but its heart and soul is Toothless. In his cheap, fake leather coat, white-knuckled desperation and undying devotion to the unseen dollars waiting to be collected from the payoff window is as concise an explanation for why these men gather here every day as you will ever find.
Turning to the Pole, he begins to speak in a slow, somber voice. "My daughter is getting married in a month, and my wife says the caterer wants $400 to do her wedding," he confides. "Do you believe it?"
"Yeah, but it's a once-in-a-lifetime event, you know," the Pole says consolingly.
Toothless' mouth contorts in a sudden flash of anger, his wrinkled face looking worn out and old in the dim light, and he unleashes on the Pole.
"Where in the hell am I going to get $400? Huh?"
He lets the words hang in the air for a moment, standing in complete silence as the final odds flash on the TV screen above his head, before shuffling off to the betting counter just in time to lay $20 down on a long shot in the fifth.