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Off Track Betting was introduced to the world of horse racing over 30 years ago to combat illegal bookies and organized crime, but ever since, the organization has dealt with the same corruption from the inside while also encouraging gambling in the city.

There are over 60 Off Track Betting, or OTB, sites in New York City’s five boroughs, all of which allow gamblers to bet on the day’s horse races around the country, rather than have to go to the racetrack to do so. Off Track Betting accepts an average of 1.6 million sales transactions per day and handled over one billion dollars in bets in 2004, according to the NYC OTB, and there are currently about 18,000 active telephone accounts on their Automated Telephone Betting system.

Thomas Hart, 86, has been betting on horse races for 60 years. “I used to go to the track, but now I don’t have the time,” he said. “I use the phone now, so I don’t have to wait in line or worry about tickets. Now I can watch [the races] at home on TV. OTB makes life easier.”

But many contend that Off Track Betting simply allows New York’s poorest residents, many of whom are compulsive gamblers, to consistently lose money, on the same scale as alcoholics and drug addicts.

Hart said he goes to the OTB on Delancey Street “almost every day.” Whereas OTB’s advertising sells the image of attractive young people enjoying the spoils of successful gambling, in each OTB establishment one is more likely to find a crowd made up of cigar-chomping men with gray hair and discolored hats, crowded into a sparse room lined with televisions along the walls, standing on a floor littered with betting stubs, advertisements and candy bar wrappers.

Off Track Betting is the one of the few legalized gambling venues in New York State. The men gather not only to place their bets, but to watch the races and cheer on their favorites. Each of the nearly two dozen televisions displays a different track: Aqueduct, Santa Anita, Laurel, Gulfstream, the list goes on. The end of each race is marked with shouts of “Come on!” and “Please God,” in English, Chinese and Spanish, among other languages.

The convenience, not the atmosphere, is what attracts most bettors to Off Track Betting.

“I don’t come here looking for friends,” said Sam, 46 (whose last name is withheld at his request), who has been betting at the OTB on Lafayette Street about three times a week for the past 10 years. “The track is just too much out of the way. Plus prices are up. They do nothing to get you over there.”

Sam’s friend Joseph, 63 (who also requested his last name withheld), recognized the dangers of such a convenient betting system. “At OTB, you can lose a lot of money real fast because it’s so much easier to bet over the phone than to go to the track.”

Sam and Joseph met at Alcoholics Anonymous, and have since maintained their bond by gambling instead of drinking.

“It’s a lot of the same people here all the time,” said James Hill, 30, a security officer at the Delancey Street OTB. “Even though they won’t admit it, you can tell there’s kind of a community here. They all know each other.”

This story was written April 2006 for the NYU Journalism class “Reporting I.”

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