A few clouds dot an otherwise brilliant blue sky. A cool breeze blows that makes you understand why Sinatra sang about the summer wind.
It’s a perfect June evening for a baseball game.
But the Phillies are in the midst of an early summer swoon. It’s an ugly one, filled with poor base running and erratic starting pitching. Tonight, it doesn’t matter. They are honoring fan-favorite Chase Utley in a retirement ceremony. There should be a sellout crowd of 40,000 at Citizens Bank Park.
South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook
A few hours before the first pitch, it’s hard to gauge how busy it is at the South Philadelphia Turf Club. It’s a weirdly designed 27,000 square feet, broken into sections. For reference, the largest Cheesecake Factory is 21,000 square feet.
It’s actually not called the South Philadelphia Turf Club anymore. In January, it got rebranded as the South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook. Still, in a city known for shortening names of venues (the Vet, the Linc), it’s still widely known as the Turf Club. According to parent casino Parx, the property underwent a $1 million renovation. The remodel included fully refurbishing the location and adding new amenities.
Located on the second floor, upon entrance to the South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook, guests are greeted with a flight of stairs and an escalator. Tonight, the escalator is out of order. With no signs for an elevator, I scaled the steps. I made a quick visit to the ladies room and choose the stall without toilet paper. With my jeans around my ankles (there were no other women there) I waddled to two other stalls before I found a square.
South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook is located adjacent to the sports complex in South Philadelphia. It’s the only place to legally bet on horse racing in the city of Philadelphia.
A combination of young and old bettors
Like its sister property in Oaks, PA, a steady stream of customers file in and head directly to the sports betting kiosks. They place their bets, and most do not even offer a cursory glance at any of the races.
A pile of newspapers and racing forms cover the table where John and his two friends gather. John looks like he could have played linebacker for Dick Vermeil’s early 1980s teams. His friends sit, but John hardly ever does. He makes his rounds saying hello to other regulars and placing a bet at the kiosk before almost every race.
“I need four and eight this race,” he says to his friends.
“Four and eight!” he says to the TV screen.
Eight is edged at the wire by the seven-horse.
“By a nose. By a f—— nose,” his friend says, slapping his hand on his back.
“That’s how you can tell who’s winning and who’s losing. The losers are always making this sign.” John holds his thumb and forefinger an inch apart.
Within a minute, he’s already flipping through a pocket-sized notebook planning for the next race. He looks at the screen and bangs his notebook against the end of the table.
“I wanted the two-horse in the next one, but that shit got scratched.”
For about two hours, John and his friends from South Philadelphia are glued to the races. But they won’t place a bet on any of the other action.
They already did before they arrived at the South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook. The men visited their bookie before coming to bet on a few baseball games this weekend. It’s what they do before each of their bi-weekly trips.
The local bookie is here to stay
Sports betting in Pennsylvania moved out of the shadows and into the light of legality. To say it’s new to South Philly would be more comical than suggesting a switch to a kombucha and kale tailgate menu.
The bookie “has gotten busier” according to Peter, one of John’s friends, since the legalization of sports betting. Peter thinks there is “no way” the local bookie will go out of business. He has bet with a bookie for decades because, “he’s easy to get in touch with, my wife and the government don’t know about it, and they give better odds.”
“Bookies give credit, too,” John adds. “They ain’t going anywhere.”
A customer since its inception, John’s noticed a definite uptick in business since the South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook started taking sports betting action. A younger crowd who, he says, bet on sports and horse racing.
South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook seems to be divided into horse racing bettors who sit down and stay and the in-and-out sports bettors. The in-and-out bettors skew younger — males in their 30s and 40s. Only a handful are wearing any Phillies red.
Start ’em young
At 7-years-old, John started playing craps in basements and back alleys. In his teens, he started betting football pool. After a trip to the South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook with his uncle, he added horse racing to the list.
“Some kids get an abacus to learn to count. I got a pair of dice,” he said. “The horses, I was hooked, you know. I watched my uncle…he taught me. Every couple of minutes a race would start and there was action again.”
John talks at length about the smaller number of entries in races. He remembers fields of 10 to 12 horses. The races today consist of about seven or eight horses. It cuts down on research time and makes it “hard to resist if you got a good feeling on a few horses.” Still, John worries about the future of the sport due to its dwindling fields and aging fan base.
“These young guys are spending most of their money at the kiosk or on their phone,” he says referring to mobile betting. “That’s where their big spends are going.”
He pauses when another race hits the homestretch despite not betting on it.
“It’s a great sport. But my favorite thing to bet on is two women going at it in a mud ring.”
What wives don’t know
Jerry peaks from under the brim of his Vietnam veterans cap at the sound of two handclaps.
“My brother!” he says, shaking his head. Ron flashes a Cheshire smile. He picked a winner and won “a few hundred in a scratch-off.”
“My wife hit big at Parx on the slots last week. She don’t know I’m here losing it,” he says.
“Yeah, they always get it back,” Ron says. “Ain’t nobody’s wife know they are here as much they are.”
“I hit the number with my bookie this week. More than I hit here on anything in a long time,” said Jerry.
Both men say they bet on horse racing, football, and basketball for over three decades with a neighborhood bookie.
“No, it won’t put the bookies out of business,” says Ron of the legalization of sports betting in PA. “They give you credit. And you can push through the phone. When it’s cold out, you don’t have to leave. You just have to call ’em up.”
You don’t come to the Turf Club for the food
For them, the South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook is a place close to home bet on the races and talk horse racing. It possesses a no-frills, social hall vibe where there is no cover, no dress code, and no overpriced drinks.
Jerry says that some people complain about the food.
“I don’t come here for the food,” said Jerry. “I haven’t seen the food business pick up since sports betting started. If you’re coming to South Philly, you ain’t eating at this place anyway.”
Jerry and Ron do a quick count of friends who are on vacation this week. They say it’s been less crowded recently since regulars are at the Jersey Shore or the Poconos.
“March Madness was nuts here. So busy,” Ron says. “When the Eagles play. It’s bananas in here.”
“It’s crazy everywhere when the Eagles play,” adds Jerry.
A young sports bettor’s story
Nate Uber’d from his Center City office to meet his father at South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook. They are headed to the Phillies game and wanted to grab a few drinks before.
“I usually go to Xfinity before Phillies games. But that’s not my dad’s scene,” he says. In the former site of the Spectrum, Xfinity Live is a busy pre- and post-game spot for booze, food and the occasional live music.
Nate, in a red Bryce Harper shirt, nurses a bottle of Miller Lite. His father is engrossed in the races.
During the early 2000s while in college and a year after graduation, sports betting served as Nate’s main source of income.
With an offshore sportsbook, he bet “a little bit of everything” but mostly college and professional football and basketball.
Nate explains that once he settled at his finance job, he stopped betting. A few of his friends who bet gravitated toward the local bookie instead of offshore sports betting. But he decided against it.
His “system” required a time commitment, where he would pore over stats and scour the Internet. Then there was “hassle” of withdraw and deposit from offshore betting.
Can PA sportsbooks replace offshore sites?
Today, Nate is married with two young children. Most of his close friends still bet with a bookie, but they have been making frequent trips to the Valley Forge Casino sportsbook since it opened.
He joined them at the sportsbook on a Saturday night in for Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Nate said he made two bets that night and won “over a couple grand.”
“I wanted to put money on Game 7. But I didn’t have time to really do the research then go to the sportsbook. Am I going to lie to my wife and be late to my kid’s recital because I had to place a bet?”
As of June, PlaySugarHouse was the only mobile betting option in Pennsylvania option, and it wasn’t yet available on iOS.
“I can see myself doing online sports betting. It’s going to be so easy and convenient,” said Nate.
The new neighbor is coming a-Live!
Something monstrous is happening across the street from the South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook.
It’s hard to miss if your its neighbor or passing on I-76.
Live! Casino is coming to life. On the site of the former Holiday Inn, cranes erect precast and steel. At $700 million, Live! representatives are touting it as “the first comprehensive gaming, resort, entertainment and sports destination in the United States.”
On a return trip to South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook, there is no Phillies game since it’s the All-Star break. The elevator is still cordoned off with caution tape. However, there are pieces of paper with arrows guiding customers.
I follow each one down a hallway to a narrow elevator, knowing that this is a scene reminiscent of a cartoon where an anvil falls at the end.
When I get off the elevator, a staff member sitting at the front desk greets me. He seems surprised to see me but keeps eating his KFC Fill-Up Bowl.
Half of the South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook is closed. At the bar, a man in his early fifties finishes off a plate of buffalo wings. He’s a regular at OTBs from Delaware Park to Monmouth. Ray took an early retirement package “from a place you use all the time” and still works part-time. His wife works full-time, and he tries to “have fun and keep busy.”
“This is the best OTB I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to all of ‘em. There’s a lot of horse guys in Philly, and this is where they come.”
Ray says he’s noticed a bigger crowd at South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook since it started offering sports betting. Obviously, customers bet on sports since the installation of the kiosks, but he says “a fair number” stay and bet on horse races.
‘People like to bet’
“People like to bet. Now it’s legal. I don’t know anyone that’s stopped using their bookie though,” he says.
Ray loves “the action.” Each place offers a different atmosphere, and he decides where to go based on his mood. If he wants a communal experience, he heads to the OTB. Or, if he wants to “drop a couple hundred” at the table, he’ll go to Harrah’s Philadelphia. If he wants convenience without leaving the house, he’ll call his bookie.
Ray isn’t interested in mobile wagering. He bets over the phone with his bookie. He also won’t be frequenting Live!
“That,” he says, pointing out the window in the direction of Live!, “isn’t going to be a place for a guy like me. They are going for a younger crowd. They aren’t even going to show horse racing there.”