As New York City plans to close its Off-Track Betting parlors, crusty old gents will have to find other worn-down, rat-infested locations to spend an afternoon making lousy decisions, cursing and losing what little money they scraped together from collecting aluminum cans.
"This is a major setback," said Artie Fuzzell, a 68-year-old retiree and 40-year veteran of ruinous handicapping. "Why should I spend my social security check on essentials like food and shelter when I can come here to escape my troubles for eight or nine hours?"
Warm-weather thoroughbred horse tracks like Santa Anita, Hollywood and Gulfstream parks have captured the charm and allure of The Sport of Kings. Beautiful people with money to burn emerge from limousines laughing and bejeweled, seeking a quick gambling high before returning to the rigors of squashing the masses for personal wealth-building and pleasure.
But OTB brought the sport to the little guy in the early 1970s. Instead of traveling to the racetracks by subway, bus or carjacking, bums, leeches and tipsters found it easier to waste earnings or savings at the handy, in-town shops. At first, many players said they were reluctant to forego the on-track experience of losing, but appreciated the state's concern for them by allowing legalized gambling to creep into their neighborhoods.
"I love the interaction of throwing beer at the jockey who just cost me the exacta by not whipping that son of a bitch hard enough," said Robert Houston, 64. "You miss that at the OTB parlor because all you've got are fuzzy TV monitors and no fence to run up to to get in his face, but I've learned to change with the times.
"Now I bring my wife or mother along and yell at them. It's brought us closer together."
OTB customers said that when the outlets close, they'll miss the parlor's rancid smells and unidentified liquids pooling on the floor, but not the do-gooders who stand near entrances and tell them to mend their ways.
"I'll spend my discretionary income as I see fit," said one aging dreg as he fumbled with two crumpled-up dollar bills. "Gambling has never been a problem for me."
Some of the gamblers dress as Englishmen, donning a vest, derby hat and monocle, and twirling a duck-head walking stick while waiting for the door of their fantasy world to swing open and whisk them to boxseats at Epsom.
"A man has to keep his dignity," one loser said. "But mainly, the walking stick helps me keep my balance so I won't slip and fall in that sewerage collecting by the betting windows. The soup kitchen won't serve you if you're covered in muck."
Many OTB customers said that even though the economy is going to hell, they favor President George W. Bush's rebate initiative.
"As soon as I get my $600, I'm going to invest in the Kentucky Derby," said an elderly wag, standing in a mound of torn AmTote tickets.