Thursday, December 16, 2010

As OTB Parlors Close Gamblers and Workers Cry Foul

By Jason Barczy

A dark, gloomy cloud not only washed over New York City on Monday but also the faces of bettors, horse racing enthusiasts and employees as the last of the NYC Off-Track Betting (OTB) sites closed.

The bankrupt NYC OTB closed its doors on December 8 after state Senate Democrats failed to gather enough votes to pass through legislation that would have rescued the nearly 40-year-old operation.

Joe Fazz, a 53-year-old court officer from Rego Park said it was a very sad day. He gathered all his betting slips from the past year and cashed them in at the NYC OTB parlor at 107-40 Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills.

“This was an irresponsible decision,” Fazz said. “Employees are out of jobs two weeks before Christmas. I understand the money changers don’t care about that but it’s something that’s not lost upon the people.”

The Forest Hills location was one of the last three betting parlors that remained open. There were 54 in the city–including 17 in Queens–that provided customers a chance to cash in any winnings and close accounts.

Fazz and others came in to cash out for the last time. The parlor in Forest Hills was all but empty Monday afternoon with a couple senior citizens lounging at the site.

“A lot of senior citizens come out to these places to sit and relax just to get out of the house,” Whitestone resident and NYC OTB employee Arthur Kaplan said. “Now, those
people aren’t going to the track. People like that have no way of getting to the track; they came here because it’s local and in that sense it’s a shame. These people are going to suffer.”

The shutdown puts nearly 1,000 employees like Kaplan out of work and, according to Kaplan, could have a bigger effect on surrounding businesses.

“There’s a residual effect too because customers here would go to restaurants so they’ll lose business too,” Kaplan said. “Stores will lose business from people that come into this place.
NYC OTB was $228 million in debt when it filed for bankruptcy in 2009."

The Senate voted 29-21 on the rescue plan, falling three votes short of the 32 needed to
pass the measure and the closure could cost the state upwards of $500 million in revenue. The failed rescue bill included concessions from NYC OTB, its unions and creditors along with cuts in statutory payments to state racetracks, which have long been cited as a main reason OTB was losing money.

Senator Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), who sits on the Senate’s Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, voted in favor of the bill because he was concerned about the loss of jobs.

“It is truly unfortunate that there was not enough bipartisan support to save the approximately 1,000 jobs of the NYC OTB workers with a plan that would have cost the state nothing and actually would have resulted in cost savings and additional revenues,” Addabbo said in a statement released after the vote on December 7.

“As a result, we must now focus on dealing with the lost jobs, financial cost to the state upwards of $500 million, the negative impact on the thoroughbred and horse racing industry, and any detrimental effects this may have on Aqueduct’s racing future,” he said.

OTB’s were responsible for taking in 40 percent of New York’s racing handle, amounting to nearly $1 billion a year in bets on harness and thoroughbred horse racing.

OTB board Chairman Lawrence Schwartz said NYC OTB provided $700 million to the state and the racing industry from 2004 to 2009.

In an interview with WOR radio on December 8 Schwartz said, “NYC OTB is shut down and there is no plan to reopen it. You can’t switch it on and off. There have not been negotiations. The future is bleak if not finished.”

The New York Racing Association is working on a number of plans to make up for the shortfall of revenue it received from NYC OTB including opening up its own betting parlor at Belmont Park.

NYRA is offering free bus rides to the Aqueduct Racetrack from select NYC OTB locations across the city. The bus rides started on December 4 and will run until further notice. NYRA president and CEO Charlie Hayward also asked the state to consider allowing video streaming of its races online.

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