Slots at New Jersey's race tracks raise stakes for many
Posted by The Star-Ledger Editorial Board December 29, 2008 10:51AM
Categories: Hot Topics
NOAH ADDIS/THE STAR-LEDGER Phil Moss is flat broke, has been for an hour, so he is trying to bum a couple of bucks from his friend, because, you see, Moss is absolutely certain he knows which horse is going to win the sixth race at Freehold Raceway. The simulcast television monitor warns there are only three minutes to post.
But Ralph Attarian isn't coming across with the scratch.
"You haven't had a winner all year, and 2008 is almost over," Attarian says. His buddy smiles. "You're right," Moss fires back. "So, I'm due!"
Two minutes to post ...
The two are killing a Saturday afternoon -- and their paltry bank accounts -- at Chester Downs, a Pennsylvania race track and casino approximately 20 miles from Philadelphia. They are among the 200 bettors screaming at TV screens as their horses fade or surge at race tracks around the country.
One floor above them, 2,700 slots and video poker machines, in operation 24/7/ 365, are blinking and jangling and cleaning out five times as many gamblers -- a nickel or quarter or dollar at a time.
These days, slot machines are the ventilators of the horse racing industry, be cause without the gambling revenue, the fading sport would die. Quickly.
Odds are, slot machines are coming to the four New Jersey race tracks soon. The stars -- or the cherries -- are aligning. New Jersey desperately needs the cash, and the casinos, starving in this economy, won't have the tens of millions they'll need to bribe the New Jersey tracks and keep the slots out.
For years, the casinos and race tracks have fought over slots, but the battle finally will be decided by the legislature and a governor-created panel that will study the issue and make a recommendation.
While Sports Darwinists believe horse racing should be allowed to die, others, like State Senate President Richard Codey, want to take one last shot at saving an industry that produces 13,000 jobs, protects 176,000 acres of farmlands and pumps $1.1 billion into the New Jersey economy.
Besides, slots won't cost a dime. They make a profit. So, it's a no-brainer, right?
"Not having slot machines at the race tracks by now just proves not all of the horse's (butts) are on the track," Codey says.
But if the state is going to turn race tracks into casinos, it must pump more money into gambling education and rehabilitation. If Codey and other politicians won't lose sleep over siphoning money from society's most vulnerable, they could at least provide a safety net.
Counties surrounding the race tracks had better demand it. A recent study shows that most slot machine players who come to racinos don't travel more than 25 miles, and pathological gamblers strain social services. Need proof? Just talk to the bettors at Chester Park. Nearly all have stories of divorce, bankruptcy, unemployment, crime, homelessness and health problems.
And they're off ...
Moss and Attarian live in homeless shelters. Moss takes a bus to the track. Attarian walks. The two, who play the ponies and the slots, could be poster boys for what's ahead for the New Jersey racinos.
"Next year, I'll get $4,000 a month in benefits," Moss says. "And out of that, Har rah's will make, um ..." Atta rian finishes the sentence: "Four grand a month." They laugh.
The race ends.
"Thanks for distracting me," Attarian says. "You saved me a few bucks. My horse finished last."
In a four-year period, Moss has had 12 car accidents. "I should get the motor vehicle Purple Heart," he jokes. Maybe that should be a sign: After all, a dozen accidents -- including one that put him in the wheelchair -- might indi cate he isn't a very lucky guy. So, maybe he shouldn't be betting.
"What do you mean, I'm not lucky?" Moss says. "I'm still alive, ain't I?"