(Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.)
Welcome to the new Wild West. Except, it isn’t limited to a specific geographic location west of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
In May 2018, when the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of New Jersey, they delivered a fatal blow to the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). The federal law limited single-game sports betting to Nevada. Now, the decision to legalize sports betting — and strike tax revenue gold — lies in the hands of each state.
A new type of gold rush ensued after the Supreme Court struck down PAPSA. Seven states had legal sports betting markets by the end of 2018. As of the end of August 2019, it grew to a total of 12.
Pennsylvania was an early adopter, including a provision for sports betting in its 2017 gambling expansion package.
With rules and regulations varying from state-to-state, it only adds to the Wild West mentality.
If we are living in the Wild West, then the best place to start to tell the story is at the modern-day watering holes and O.K. Corrals. Our first stop was off-track betting (OTB) parlors, where we found people who love horse racing and a cast of characters more colorful than a Western black-and-white.
Welcome to the wild west of legalized Pennsylvania sports wagering.
The Parx-operated Oaks Race & Sportsbook (formerly Valley Forge Turf Club) and the South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook are off-track betting (OTB) facilities. Both opened in the mid-90s and serve as havens for horse betting. Customers equipped with the daily racing form, newspapers, and notebooks spend hours in the hunter green chairs watching races on the numerous televisions everywhere you turn.
Perhaps feeling like a moody pop star, Oaks Race & Sportsbook went through a few name changes before settling on one. When they started offering sports betting, it was rebranded to Valley Forge Race & Sportsbook.
However, with nearby Valley Forge Casino also in the sports betting game, it was a bit confusing. The name was changed again to its current iteration. Still, most people from the area simply refer to it as “the turf club.”
Would long-time regulars have to jockey for position at their usual table? Do sports bettors, whose regular action stays within major sports, have any interest in the No. 4 race at Gulfstream? Is there an impending turf war on the horizon?
Oaks Race & Sportsbook
Two electronic billboards before the Oaks exit on US 422 tout John Fogerty performing at Parx. A new strip mall with a Buffalo Wild Wings and Pizzeria Uno greet commuters off the of exit.
Welcome to suburban sprawl.
The area’s experienced substantial growth since Oaks Race & Sportsbook opened in 1996 as an OTB facility. A hotel opened next door in 2012. Across the street, The Marketplace at Oaks, a 513,000-square-foot upscale, suburban community center, serves as a major hub of retail.
On March 12, Oaks Race & Sports Book became the eighth location to accept wagers on sporting events in Pennsylvania. A $1 million renovation to refurbish the property added new amenities, betting kiosks, and a modernized kitchen.
Meet Rick and Mike
A few days before the Preakness Stakes, Rick and Mike sit outside smoking cigars.
It’s a perfect day to relax outside on Oaks Race & Sportsbook’s patio or your own. The pair would prefer to be inside watching the races. But the book doesn’t permit cigar smoking and limits cigarette smoking to one room.
“That’s the way it’s been for a few years, now. It was half smoking and half nonsmoking, but not anymore. A lot of people were upset about it at first. Now,” he said, throwing up his hands, “what are you going to do? You can’t smoke anywhere.”
Collegeville-area residents Rick and Mike have been betting on horses since the 1970s. They used to own a few horses in the mid-80s but have since “got out of that business.” Both are retired and spend a few days a week at OTBs, usually Oaks Race & Sportsbook. They go to Arby’s for lunch because they say the food got too expensive at Oaks.
“I don’t see anyone ordering food anymore,” said Mike. “I think it’s the prices. And there are too many other places that are closer where you can get better food cheaper.”
Occasionally, they go to the OTBs at Penn National Race Course at Hollywood Casino in Lancaster, the live races at Parx, and sometimes Delaware Park Race Track.
“We don’t golf, so this is what we do,” said Mike. “This is our entertainment.”
For them, the Oaks Race & Sportsbook is more of a social club. A place to see friends, other horse guys, and have a few cigars.
Rick takes a puff on a cigar and eyes a small group of men through the cloud of smoke. Clad in business casual, they enter and leave within five minutes.
The invasion of betting kiosks
In and out at the speed of touchscreen sports betting.
“We don’t like it,” said Rick of the new offering. “It’s gotten a lot more crowded. Most people that come here now are just betting on sports.”
“These new people, they ain’t betting on horses. Right now, they are coming here and betting on basketball, baseball,” said Mike.
“They are even betting on golf and tennis,” he said, followed by an eye roll. “How much do they even know about that?”
Inside, there are a decent amount of patrons throughout the club. There are tellers taking bets, along with 14 self-serve betting kiosks.
A few people, mostly gray-haired, and a few with oxygen tanks set up camp at the small cubbies with the races on personal televisions. Others are spread out at tables with racing forms, newspapers, and soft drinks.
There are signs of a summer Friday in progress. A group of office workers stroll in wearing company-issued polos and sit at a deep-corner table out of plain view. Another trio in button-downs and loosened ties laments going back to the office.
At the bar, Gary’s eyes narrow on the screen. The Norristown resident’s once-pale complexion turns a bright-red hue. He clenches his fists and pounds them once on the bar.
The room comes to life when horses head for the homestretch.
“You got it, Seven.”
Gary expresses his disappointment in silence, scribbles some notes in the racing form, and takes a swallow of Miller Lite.
“I have to go to work tonight, or I’d have another one,” he said.
Since Oaks Race & Sportsbook starting accepting sports bets, Gary’s noticed more traffic coming in and out of the location.
“You got one of the last seats at the bar,” he pointed out.
“The horse guys, they come in, sit down with the racing forms, and are here for hours. The guys that bet sports, as soon as you walk in, there are kiosks,” said Gary.
An overwhelmingly under-40 crowd go directly to the sports betting kiosk, place their bets, and leave. A magnetic force pulls them in, and after a few pecks on the touchscreen, they were out the door without even a glance at the races on the television screens.
He’s a horse betting guy. His friends bet everything on their phone. He isn’t interested. He prefers taking time to pick horses and spending time watching the races.
“That’s too easy,” Gary said of betting over the phone. “When you come here, you’re putting more thought into it. It’s part of the process.”
As a longtime customer, Gary doesn’t mind the increased foot traffic. He knew legalized sports betting was coming.
It couldn’t have been clearer if it was one of those electronic billboards.
During Week 3 of the 2018 NFL season, he took a day trip to Atlantic City to check out Borgata’s sportsbook. It was his first trip to New Jersey in over five years.
“I’m not a beach person. Why would I want to go all the way to Jersey to go to a casino when Valley Forge, Parx and SugarHouse [are] closer?”
“All that money was going out of state, with Jersey, then Delaware … the state wasn’t going to keep letting that happen.”
Barstool equine economics
Pennsylvania casinos should seriously consider hiring Gary as a spokesperson.
“I love the horses and horse racing. My father and grandfather loved it, too,” he said. “Casinos support it. And they gotta do what they gotta do. So, you knew sports betting was coming.”
Gary takes the next few minutes to talk about horse racing. He is a regular here and at other OTBs. He says some people he knows have major issues with horse race funding in the state.
It’s not barstool bullshit.
In the mid-90s, the Pennsylvania Legislature introduced bills allowing slot machine gaming with the intention to support the horse racing industry. In 2004, the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act passed.
According to a 2017 report in The Inquirer:
“The horse-racing industry was handed a little more than 10 percent of that for the Race Horse Development Fund (RHDF). The $239 million given to the horse industry last year was larger than the entire budgets of several state departments.”
The Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, in a July 2017 letter to state legislators said:
“Virtually every piece of information about the state’s horse racing industry that the Commonwealth Foundation shares is inaccurate. The RHDF is funded by an assessment that casino operators agreed to pay on their slot machine revenues — an “obligation” they voluntarily undertook to offset the negative impact that the legalization of slot machines would have on live racing and the state’s agricultural industry.”
Gary finishes his beer and decides to stay for one more race.
“Hey, you gotta place a bet before you go,” he called after me. “It makes it fun.”
“On horses or a game?”
“Whatever you want.”