Yes, they’re off, ladies and gentlemen. Off and running at Saratoga, giving us the opportunity to lay a few dollars on the horse of our choice and then cheer the beast on as it pounds its way to the finish. And giving me the opportunity to note that betting on horses is a little different from betting at a casino.
It’s a form of betting known as parimutuel, in which you’re betting against the other customers, as opposed to betting against the house, as you do at a casino.
Parimutuel betting is akin to betting through a bookmaker. If the bookmaker has done his job right, balancing the bets that he accepts and taking his standard commission, or “vigorish,” he can’t lose.
Likewise the race track. The track, meaning the New York Racing Association, doesn’t care which horse wins a race. It always, automatically, balances the bets, adjusting the odds as the bets come in, and skimming off its commission before paying out.
Theoretically, a casino could lose, not on its slot machines, which are sure things, but on table games like roulette and craps.
But the race track cannot lose. It doesn’t matter if the longest shot on the tote board wins every race. NYRA takes its 20 percent off the top, divides the remainder of the pot proportionately and returns it to the customers.
The same if the favorite wins every race. It doesn’t make any difference.
No matter how talented a handicapper you think you are, you are unlikely to win in the long run simply because of the relentlessness of the system.
The track’s takeout begins at 16 percent for simple win, place and show bets and goes up to 26 percent on the more fanciful bets, like Pick 6 and the like. It works out to about 20 percent overall.
So for every dollar you bet you’re going to lose 20 cents, on average, and that’s a tough burden to overcome.
I meet people from time to time who boast about how much they win on the ponies, or who have a friend or relative who regularly wins, but those people, in my considered judgment, are full of feathers, and I don’t believe them for a minute.
I figure that like all gamblers I’ve ever met, they count their winnings but not their losses.
If you’re a serious horseplayer who studies the workout times and the bloodlines, you would expect to have the advantage over people who bet the horses’ names or the jockeys’ colors, but I’m not sure you do, based on my occasional surveillance of the handicappers who pick horses for newspapers.
Anytime I’ve checked their results, they do no better than a rank novice would do by simply betting the favorite in every race.
I don’t mean to detract from anyone’s enjoyment of Saratoga. There are plenty of reasons to go to the track on a summer day besides the desire to make money.
If you position yourself just right, you might even see a live horse, as opposed to television-monitor horse. They are handsome animals, by general agreement.
The jockeys’ blouses are colorful. The pageantry of parading onto the track to the toot of a bugle is engaging. The rush out of the starting gate is thrilling. And the dash to the finish line is the perfect climax, especially if the nag you have bet on is gaining on the leader.
If you find yourself thinking about it all the time, however, and imagining bets you’re going to make, and deluding yourself that you’re winning when you’re actually losing, then give me a ring, and I’ll refer you to a gamblers’ anonymous meeting. There’s one near you, guaranteed.
THE CASINO VIBE
Meanwhile, to keep an eye on the other form of gambling, I popped into the Saratoga Casino last Saturday night, wondering if there might be an overflow crowd of enthusiasts who had not lost enough at the track to suit themselves and were determined to lose still more.
I was not disappointed. There was a large crowd indeed, much larger than the weekday crowds I had seen on my few previous visits.
Two things struck me.
First I observed an ordinary-looking middle-aged man sit down at a $5 slot machine, which is an expensive one, feed five $20 bills into it, and start betting two lines at a time, meaning $10 with each tap of the “play” button.
He lost 10 consecutive plays in approximately half a minute, and his $100 was gone.
He pulled out his wallet, fed five more 20s into the machine and repeated the process: 10 taps of the “play” button, 10 losses, and his second $100 was gone.
He fed in five more 20s, and this time, after losing a few plays, he won about $50, putting his electronic pile up to $120. This continued a few more times — losing a few, winning a little — until I walked away, figuring he would sit there till his third $100 was gone, which I was sure would not take long, and then he either would or would not feed in another $100.
If you ask people about this curious activity, they invariably tell you it’s their entertainment, but the second thing that struck me was that nobody appeared entertained. The rarest thing you see in a casino is a smile.
What you do see is a bunch of old grumps, middle-aged and up, all dour-faced, sitting transfixed in front of these machines, mechanically tapping the “play” button and watching the video effects flash in front of them, signaling the decline in the number of “credits” they have left.
Highway billboards show glamorous young models jumping for joy as dollar bills fly through the air, but the actual scene more nearly resembles a funeral for a distant relative that no one ever cared about.
I do note there was no spike in the action last week to coincide with the opening of the track, but on the contrary there was a dip.
Financial reports posted on the Lottery Division’s website show customers dropped $2.9 million at the casino last week, compared with $3.2 million the week before and $3.4 million the week before that. So my hypothesis of track fans flocking there to lose what they had left of their shirts did not pan out.