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Sin City at Home
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
The coming of spring brings a bounce to everybody's step, but to most of my degenerate gambler friends, the month of March is a time of unbridled optimism. The insane opening weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament, the plethora of high profile, Kentucky Derby prep races, the fascinating match-ups in crunch time NBA basketball — March is the headiest post-football month on a gambler's calendar. It is also the time of year when many of my shadier friends make their annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for a decadent, amphetamine-and-liquor fueled blowout weekend of shameless overindulgence. When they return to Fort Wayne they look like cadavers, and they always give me the same, blank look when I ask them if they had a good time. A good time in Vegas? It's virtually impossible, with the money lost and the sleep disdained, with the overstuffed buffet food and the free booze and the constant seduction of the senses. After a Vegas weekend, most of my gambler friends come home with road map eyes and neon tans. They barely have enough strength to make that one important phone call to their lawyer before taking Demerol and sleeping for twenty hours.
While I'm a big fan of excessive and destructive behavior, this practice has always seemed wildly impractical to me — if I want to go on a 72 hour bender, hell, I'll save my airfare and hole up at the Brass Rail for the weekend. And if I want to overload my senses with wild rushes of gambling-inspired dopamine, I'll just aim my car toward Washington Center Road and go to the Fort Wayne Off Track Betting parlor. I can get in all the gambling that I want there, with the added bonus that there's a significantly lower chance I'll run into Celine Dion.
Horse racing used to be one of the big sports in America, along with baseball and boxing, and there still remains a strong core of nostalgia for the Damon Runyon-esque atmosphere of the race track. Old stereotypes from the heyday of American racing still abound at the track — the muttering, broken down horseplayers, the ladies in funny hats, the taciturn oatmeal-faced trainer. But at OTB, it's all about the 21st century. Simulcasting has changed the nature of racing, and the atmosphere at Fort Waye OTB reflects the evolution of the sport. Dozens of televisions and smaller monitors carry live racing from across the country, giving the horseplayer the chance to play as many tracks as he cares to. Races run continually from noon to midnight, five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday. On any given day, a gambler has the pick of at least a hundred races to play. Of course, you miss the ambience of true racing — you're basically watching television — but for the serious player, OTB offers a wealth of chances. The action can be head spinning, with races going off constantly, and it's not unusual to have multiple bets going off at multiple tracks at the same time. It's always shocking how quickly time flies by at the track, just like it does at Vegas. At the peak sessions — say 3-6pm, when most of the daylight tracks are up and running — it is a blurring experience, with constant betting, watching, screaming.
I should mention the obvious here, that OTB also offers a handy cautionary tale about the pitfalls of gambling. I could rhapsodize about the glories of the sport, about the mental challenge that racing presents to the player, but frankly, that's not what it's about. It's about gambling, and gambling is a drug. The sad, irreducible truth is that addiction is always right around the corner at OTB, and once inside it's pretty apparent to anyone (you don't have to be a psychiatrist) that there are a lot of folks who flat out shouldn't be there.
Still, though, I must admit I have a strong affinity for the off-the-beaten-path types, the guys (it's mostly guys) who refuse the 9-5 life because it would interfere with them playing the Double at Churchill every day. I like the guys at OTB, even the desperate ones, because they're smart and eccentric and they don't worry too much about social graces and small talk. They aren't loners, necessarily, but they do engage in a singular practice that requires great concentration, so it's wise not to expect too much bonhomie. But sometimes, after a big hit, with someone buying a round of drinks, it can be a fun, loose social scene. Guy talk, to be sure, and a little chest puffing, but a bit more refined than a locker room.
My dad was an occasional horse player, and he once told me you could break down all gamblers into two distinct groups — ones that can afford the money they're losing, and ones that can't. Of the two, he recommeded that I align myself with the former and not the latter. I'd like to come clean and tell you which of the two groups I belong in, but I won't know until after the 10th at Gulfstream.