Sunday, June 15, 2008

As Talks Stall to Save the OTB, Horseplayers Worry About Getting Shut Out

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

At an OTB parlor on the Upper West Side, customers are advised to cash winning tickets before the close of business on Sunday.

Published: June 15, 2008

There were the usual utterances of triumph and defeat, elation and heartbreak, and there was also this: worry. With time slipping away before Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s threatened closing of the city’s Off-Track Betting Corporation, and no agreement between the city and state in sight, the thrill of uncertainty that usually accompanies horse wagering was buffeted by the sobering question of whether Sunday will be the last day of simulcast racing at the parlors.

“People are on pins and needles,” said Steve Simmons, 45, a security specialist for an OTB parlor on the Upper West Side. “We know we’re good till Sunday, but we don’t know what’s going to happen Monday. They said, there’s a possibility we may be locked out.”

Talks between the Bloomberg administration, the office of Gov. David A. Paterson and the State Legislature continued on Saturday, but progress was stalled over a key economic issue. The city wants to retain about $19 million it receives annually from surcharges on winning bets, while the state, which has proposed taking over the parlors, says it should get that money.

“It’s like taking over a store that someone doesn’t want to run anymore,” Governor Paterson said in an interview on Saturday, “and then they turn around and ask you for the profit.”

At stake are some 1,500 jobs ranging from tellers and secretaries to branch managers, accountants and executives. The governor said the state had a “moral obligation” to keep the parlors open and aimed to pass legislation on Sunday to do so.

The city’s OTB parlors generate about $1 billion of the $2.7 billion that is bet on horse racing in the state each year. The profits are split among the city, the state and the racing industry through a distribution formula that city officials say has increasingly left the city unable to cover the cost of running the parlors.

At the urging of Mayor Bloomberg, the city’s OTB Corporation, which runs the parlors, voted in February to close the parlors at the end of business Sunday if a new arrangement was not reached.

The negotiations took an odd twist on Friday when Mr. Paterson held a news conference announcing an agreement to have the state take over the parlors. But the announcement appeared to catch Mayor Bloomberg and his staff by surprise. A short time later, the mayor issued a statement saying that he still intended to close the parlors unless “substantial legal and economic issues” were resolved.

Governor Paterson acknowledged on Saturday that he should have said the financial issues had yet to be worked out. But he expressed surprise at the mayor’s objections, saying he thought the state was doing the city a favor.

“If I misunderstood, I apologize,” he said. “Since he said he’d shut it down, we thought we were helping.”

Jim Anderson, a spokesman for the mayor, said that Mr. Bloomberg has “been clear from the beginning that there needs to be a long-term solution that benefits the public — not just the racing industry — and that if OTB is operating in New York City, it should actually benefit the public here in New York City.”

Governor Paterson’s proposal on Friday did not do that, Mr. Anderson said.

At least one lawmaker, Assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow, a Westchester Democrat and chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on Racing and Wagering, signaled a strong reluctance on Friday to let the city keep the surcharge revenue in a state takeover. Mr. Pretlow said the state would “just take” the parlors if the city refused to give them up.

But Governor Paterson struck a more moderate tone on Saturday, saying the state would do whatever it would take to keep the parlors open and that the finances could be worked out later.

“Finances and money, that’s fungible, we can work that out,” he said, adding that he did not “see this as a difficult situation.”

On Saturday, the usual assortment of elderly men in Panama hats and baseball caps and younger men in shorts and T-shirts gathered at an OTB on the Upper West Side that is squeezed between a cupcake shop and a Latin-Chinese restaurant. Most were well aware that their days of betting there could be near an end.

“I think it’s a stupid mistake,” said Vincent Bochicchio, 72, a retired Army veteran who said he visits the parlor about three times a week. “You know what happens if the city closes this, they’ll go to the illegal bookies.”

Keeping bets out of the hands of illegal bookmakers and organized crime was exactly why the OTB was established in 1970.

Mr. Bochicchio said that in “this whole stupid mess,” the people whom he felt most sorry for “are the people who work here.”

Indeed, the topsy-turvy negotiations and the threat of losing their jobs has led to anxiety for many of the people who run the operation.

“I have a daughter starting college in the fall,” said Judy Jackson, 53, a branch manager of the Upper West Side parlor who started with the OTB as a cashier 24 years ago.

“Yesterday we were all cheering when we saw the governor on television saying we were going to stay open,” she said. Only after many of them got home, she said, did they learn there was no deal after all.

Nate Schweber contributed reporting.

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