By Rob Varnon
Only occasionally is the quiet at Winners Shoreline Star in Bridgeport on Thursday broken with shouts of “Come on,” as bettors hold tickets in their hands that, for just a moment before the horses hit the wire, represent the elation of victory or the disgust of defeat.
“Ah, shoot!” said Art Dupree, a retired letter carrier and one of the regulars at Shoreline. “Oh, well. That’s the way it goes.”
Dupree has a swirl of tickets in front of him and a couple of newspapers, one of which he’s been studying as each race comes up at Belmont Park in New York. In the sixth, he had a small wager on Love In the Rain. His horse was leading coming into the final turn when it suddenly looked like it was running in wet cement, and Quorum, Sokitumi Samurai and Revere roared past.
It’s a mellow afternoon for the regulars who place bets right before the post.
“You can hear yourself think,” Dupree said.
But that’s not expected to be the situation on Saturday when — thanks to one horse — owners of Shoreline Star and the off-track betting system in Connecticut, along with bars across the state, expect a boom in business.
I’ll Have Another and jockey Mario Gutierrez left the gate as a 16-to-1 longshot and shocked the racing world at the Kentucky Derby in May, reeling in Bodemeister in the final 300 yards to win. They repeated their come-from-behind victory at the Preakness and now have a shot at becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed won the three major races in 1978. Some very good horses and jockeys stand in their way, including Dullahan, which finished third in the Derby.
But this Triple Crown bid couldn’t come at a better time for Sportech Inc., the United Kingdom-based company that took over Connecticut’s pari-mutuel betting system 18 months ago and pumped $3 million into upgrading the facilities and systems at the 15 venues.
Sportech has rebranded the venues with the Winners name. The farthest southern location is in Norwalk, but it also has venues in Milford and Waterbury.
Ted Taylor, Sportech managing director, said the company saw potential in the Connecticut system that suffered from neglect over the years.
“We had to come in and stabilize the business,” he said.
Taylor said the idea is to make customers feel comfortable and provide an enjoyable experience with better furniture, televisions and service. The company repainted, redid the floors, changed the flow into the place and created a VIP room.
“It’s really common sense,” he said, noting that staff is available to help people bet on big race days.
The goal is to make the venues inviting to regular bettor and the casual fan, Taylor said, and the Triple Crown is the best chance Winners has to attract new fans.
Steve Alford, general manager of Shoreline, has worked at the Bridgeport location since 1995 when there was still greyhound racing there.
He said this year’s Triple Crown has been fantastic, describing it as “absolutely crazy” on race day, and I’ll Have Another is a big part of that.
“Usually, during the race, I just walk through making sure everything is going alright,” Alford said. “But I stopped and watched the Derby and was pulling for I’ll Have Another.”
This year, betting on the Kentucky Derby at Connecticut pari-mutuel sites was up 11 percent, according to the state Department of Consumer Protection, which regulates Winners. The Preakness was up 2 percent.
“They’ve broken away from the old stigma that the OTBs had,” said Bill Ryan, state gaming regulator. “They had a good day for the Kentucky Derby. That was a record for the OTB in Connecticut.”
And that means the state is winning.
Since Sportech took over the business, it is up 2.5 percent overall and that translates into higher revenue as Connecticut and the towns that host the OTBs get a small percentage of the wagers.
“In the 2010/2011 fiscal year, a little over $183 million was wagered,” Ryan said. “The state’s general fund received about $3.7 million, and the towns that host the sites got a little over $3 million ” Prior to (Sportech), it had been going down.“
It’s not uncommon for the betting to be huge for the Kentucky Derby and then to see a fall off in Preakness and Belmont betting, but with I’ll Have Another, expectations are for a big day.
“It always helps to have a Triple Crown contender,” said Paul Reiman, the state’s off-track betting unit supervisor. “Belmont (Park) is already selling reserved tickets.”
The important thing for gamblers, Reiman said, is to make sure you get the bet you ask for, so before leaving the window, make sure you have the numbers you wanted.
OTB isn’t the only one expecting a surge in business. Some bars run pools on the race where everyone kicks in some money and the winner takes the pot.
Reiman said these are unregulated private pools and as long as the winner gets all the money and the bar doesn’t take a cut, the state has no interest in them.
At Buffalo Wild Wings in Stamford, there won’t be a pool, but general manager Tim Blaire is expecting a big crowd.
“We’re excited about it — the potential for a Triple Crown,” he said, adding that Wild Wings got decent crowds for the first two races. But this is the deciding one, and he’s hoping I’ll Have Another pulls it off.
“I want the Triple Crown. I think everybody would like to see that because it hasn’t happened in so long,” Blaire said. “It’d be great for the sport and anytime it boosts the sport, it’s good for us.”
Wild Wings also has bars in Danbury and Milford. Other bars in the area confirmed they planned to have pools if there is enough interest, though they were loathe to give their names.
Ultimately, this year’s Belmont is about seeing a horse and jockey reach for immortality in their profession. That it is so difficult is one reason you might not see a lot of regulars putting money on I’ll Have Another. But even the most cerebral bettors can get swept up in the excitement.
“I’ll Have Another — that’s some horse,” said Rafael Velazquez, at Shoreline. “You throw him in with a long shot.”
He said he would bet I’ll Have Another to win with a long-shot to place.
But he said you have to study it and remember why it hasn’t been done in more than 30 years.
“Any horse can come through that day and rock and roll,” Velazquez said.