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Gambling in America

From Sin City to Atlantic City, from high-end resorts to offshore cruises, gamblers have more choices than ever before to get their hit
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02

(continued from page 4)

The Aladdin's problems boil down to surprisingly naive planning, despite a great location on the Strip. "The Aladdin was poorly designed, poorly laid out, and its key drivers of traffic flow -- the parking lot, the shopping mall and the casino entrance -- disintegrated," says Ader. "It didn't work out and it's unfortunate for the market."

Ironically, save for a few ailing operations, the only other truly dark clouds on gambling's sunny horizon seem to be the kinds of high-action sports that ought to be embraced and loved by gamblers. As all other kinds of wagering thrive, horse racing, greyhound racing and jai alai remain buried in the doldrums, seeming to be antiquated victims of a changing world. Attendance in all three areas is dipping and recent betting figures for dogs and jai alai are sketchy (according to Bac Tran, director of marketing for Phoenix Greyhound Park, there are 48 dog tracks in 15 states and handle is $2.3 billion -- but these figures are from 1996. Jai alai handle was $193.9 million last year). In jai alai, a sport that's always accused of being fixed, top players earn only $100,000 per year. And that says all you need to know.

Nevertheless, jai alai qualifies as one of gambling's great secrets, as it centers around a ball that travels at 180 miles per hour and its players exude Nureyev-style grace. These elements help to make jai alai the national game of Spain (at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, a jai alai event was held as an exhibition sport), but it has never risen above cult status in the United States. Those who love jai alai, however, get off on the aesthetics and feel challenged by its parimutuel gambling format, complete with quinellas, exactas and trifectas. The payouts are higher than in racing and the players are undeniably gifted athletes. "Games last 15 minutes and have the kinds of ups and downs that get you to the edge of your seat," enthuses Marty Fleischman, the assistant general manager and marketing director at Dania Jai Alai in Dania Beach, Florida. "The lead changes more frequently than it does in a horse race or a dog race. There are a lot of factors in a ball game that make it less predictable than a race. That makes for bigger payouts" -- because there are fewer odds-on favorites.

What serious handicappers dislike, however, are the unpredictable finishes (jai alai's hand-stitched balls take wild bounces), modest handle (which makes it hard to win a lot), and the lengthy games that lack the constant infusions of action that you could get with a horse race or blackjack game. Fleischman does offer one secret for gaining an edge: "We get guys betting a number system, because certain players have a statistical advantage. Jai alai is played as a round-robin arrangement. The Îone' player goes up against the Îtwo,' and they score the first points. If you bet on the one and two, you will have an advantage."

What everybody seems to agree on is that interest in jai alai, greyhound racing and horse racing has been declining. In 2000, parimutuel betting in the United States took in a paltry $3.8 billion; charitable games and bingo trailed embarrassingly close behind, grossing $2.5 billion. But this has not dampened the enthusiasm of those who are paid to love the games (Fleischman describes lightning-paced jai alai as "catching bullets").

Gary Guccione, the secretary/treasurer of the National Greyhound Association, enjoys the thrill of this particular chase. "Greyhounds are the fastest canine breed and there are no jockeys in this sport, which means there's no human element to factor in," he says, clearly viewing that as a positive. "The dogs go 47 miles per hour, and they love to race; they'll chase anything that moves. Greyhounds are instinctive runners and the finishes are somewhat predictable." (Talented Mr. Ripley, the hottest dog in the sport, won his first 27 of 30 races this year.) "This sport attracts its share of serious handicappers. Guys predict outcomes based on past performances, the dog's racing style, whether he's a strong breaker or a good finisher or if he likes to run the rail. This is a tremendous challenge, just like handicapping horses."

In spite of all that, even the most ardent boosters of dog racing find it difficult to ignore the sport's uphill battle for popularity. "Dog-racing handle has been declining since 1989," groans Bob Nash, a spokesman for the Sanford-Orlando Kennel Club in Longwood, Florida. "It's turned into a year-round, six-day-a-week simulcast business. We simulcast horses as well as dogs. Saturday we have four greyhound tracks that the public can wager on live, and three that are simulcast here. Plus there's everything from trotters to thoroughbreds." He pauses for a moment and takes a breath. "You don't have people going to the track like they used to. We're out of the tourist business. There are just too many other things to do around here."

Never mind that thoroughbred racing formed its first trade organization only three years ago; in terms of strategizing for the future, it is miles ahead of jai alai and dog racing. "Purses and handle have been going up," says Tim Smith, commissioner and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. "Purses are at around $1.1 billion in the United States, but there is a reduction in track attendance and racing is growing at a slower rate than all other gaming. Even lotteries have grown faster in the last decade." In 2000, lottery sales across the country reached $37.2 billion, and last year ticket sales hit $38.4 billion.

On the positive side, Smith says, television exposure has increased by 60 percent since 1997 and the percentage of Americans who say they are interested in horse racing rose by 5 percent in 2001 (the increase is second only to NASCAR). "Racing has gone through a major transformation in its economics," says Smith. "There is now substantially more wagered off track in various ways -- OTB, simulcasting, online, phone wagering. So less is wagered at tracks running live."

Still, Smith hopes to see racing evolve into a sport of kings for a new generation of cerebral gamblers. "This is a wager where history can be made. So we are at the opposite end of the spectrum from slots," says Smith, emphasizing the sport's intellectual cachet. "This is a thinking person's wager. To get in the game, you have to play it in a serious way. The intriguing thing about handicapping is that it's about managing information, utilizing data, seeing things that other people don't see. It's more like day-trading than playing a machine." Looking toward the future, he sees technology as a potential boon: "Use of the Internet or computer technology to place wagers is very positive. We're a little behind Hong Kong and Japan in terms of technology at the consumer level. But TVG [a network that airs racing and doubles as a virtual OTB] is out front to be the next Golf Channel. If we were in 30 million or 40 million homes, that would put us close to the Golf Channel."

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