Horse Racing’s Son of Sam

December 17, 2019

With the newly formed Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, countless articles, the Horse Racing Integrity Act gaining momentum, and just about everyone who is anybody, and some who aren’t weighing in, it is pretty clear horse racing is at a very significant crossroads. The industry collectively acknowledges issues on just about every front. There are pretty much two schools of thought. Reform or abolishment. I haven’t seen anyone support a status quo.

Most of us in the game favor reform. Like the old saying goes, “and leave show business?” Nobody wants to go and get a job over a way of life and a passion.

The rampant problems within the Sport of Kings reach into the sporting side and the business side. I think we have to be careful not to let the sporting side, specifically safety and horse welfare, make us forget the business side. If we do not fix both, the one we leave out will bring the other side, thus the whole game down. That is not to say safety and horse welfare should not be the priority. It should. It has to be.

I always like to be analytical and figure things out. I ask myself how did we get here? It is a natural question for anyone who lived through what we called the glory years of racing. The 70’s and 80’s in New York were truly the glory years. We had champions, and rivalries. We had “real handicap” races. We ran starter handicaps at a mile and five eighths, in the winter at Aqueduct and horses got the distance. We bred for racing, pretty much with no drugs. Lasix was banned and if you had to run on it you had to ship out of New York and were considered a second stringer. Wealthy farms bred their own horses and protected the bloodlines. They took pride in the names of the farm, and the horses. The gate crew didn’t look like a swat team. The grandstand and clubhouse were crowded most days, but packed on every Saturday. The atmosphere was electric. Allowance races filled and stakes horses used them to go through conditions, and prep for bigger and better things. Saratoga was the August place to be and unrivaled as a race meet in every way. It was 24 days of the best the game had to offer and you either saw a star, or a potential star every day except Tuesday. If you wanted a championship, you had to run and win in New York at least once.

Many things were different. Meets were shorter. We ran less days and races each day. Corporate greed and the mentality it brings were present on some levels, but it had not yet permeated our world within a world. It would.

So how did we get here? I don’t know that there is one answer to that question. There are probably at least three or four. There is a turning point that comes to mind. When it was happening, I heard some wise words from a wise man that proved to be very prophetic.

“It’s not Sam that will get us. Don’t be foolish. It’s Son of Sam that you should be worried about.”

Back then being a mutual clerk for NYRA was a pretty good job all things considered. The clerks fell into two groups. Regulars, who were union, and extras who worked mostly weekends and holidays for lesser pay and no benefits. The union clerks had a good benefits package, and made just under $200 per day, with time and a half on weekends and holidays. They had to be in by 10:30 am, and were on their way home by 5 or 5:30. You could take off, albeit without pay, anytime you wanted with a morning phone call. There were always extras who made about $50 per day willing to work for you. They were required to work a certain amount of days during the year in order to change to union status.

As much as the racetrack is its own world within a world, working behind the windows was a world within that world. Times were different then and behind the windows reflected those times. There were guys who loaned money for “vig.” You had clerks giving out football sheets. Some were touts and got paid for it. Some sold figures or numbers. Sadly, some even stole from gullible bettors. Everybody knew everybody and also who did what. Most gambled. Some heavily and at times with the track’s money. Betting out of the box it was called. That is, however, a story for another day. So is the aftermath of it which led to prison time for some clerks and a mutual manager for NYRA. It also led to the suicide of two clerks. Again, that is for another place and time.

The clerks were part of the electrical union back then. That was a pretty strong union, and even though the clerks were the red headed step children of it, it gave them some strength. Things between NYRA management and the clerks became quite contentious at times. The clerks were thought to have it good, and management was always trying to take something back. Typical stuff. There were even a couple of strikes and things did at times get a little rough. Not Sylvester Stallone in Fist tough, but this was New York, and some of these people weren’t boy scouts and did not take kindly to picket line crossers, or suits messing with their livelihoods. I was an extra back then, and really had my mind on other things, betting on the races being one of them. My Dad and Brother were clerks however, as were some of my friends. My Dad got “into the union.” That kept me pretty much in the loop about everything.

My Dad’s thing behind the windows was betting. He never did or got involved in anything else. Never. He did have a hook into the union. You could buy your way in back then for a measly $600 that went right to the guy who could make it happen. My Dad got a fair share in, and never charged anyone a cent.

Every couple of years the mutual contract would expire. The clerks would usually work without a contract until a new one was negotiated. That didn’t happen every time however. Sometimes there were strikes, and that is when things got a little nasty.

NYRA management came to the union with a new demand during one of these contentious times. Back then there was no simulcasting. You had to play and focus on your local track. Betting from home wasn’t even in anyone’s imagination yet. There was no computer betting, There was no U-Bet, yeah some of you will remember that. No ADW’s at all. There weren’t even self service machines to bet with at the track. Nonetheless racing was at its best, and the tracks were electrified, crowded, and exciting. Management wanted to introduce what they called a Sam machine. This was the very first self service wagering terminal.

The pari-mutual clerks union went into a panicked tailspin. NYRA wanted to take all their jobs was what they believed. Sam as it was called would replace all the tellers they feared. A heated battle and negotiation ensued.

I believe the union deep down recognized they could stall progress but not prevent it altogether. There was a meeting at the union hall on Rockaway Blvd. across the street from Aqueduct. The place was packed, much more crowded than for a usual meeting. The clerks, and the union representatives were sure their jobs and futures were on the line. Only one guy knew it was much more than that at stake.

The union representatives all made speeches aimed at voting down the contract and the installation of Sam machines. They all focused on how, if they allowed these machines to be installed, they would be out of work by the next contract, which would be three years down the road. Phasing them out of their cushy jobs was managements goal they said.

The clerks had to vote to ratify the proposal. A strike could only go on so long. Both sides were losing money. The clerks did not know which way to go. You could sense the fear and apprehension at the meeting. The union delegates were going to cave. Some amongst the ranks felt they were being given special deals to persuade the membership. There was a group of clerks that did not want to give in. They were a group of friends and co workers who were prepared to slug it out. They were out on the picket line confronting those who dared cross it. They were sending in “ringer clerks” to work and then go short large sums of money by making “wink wink” mistakes. They were focused on the big picture and long term, not the quick return of a paycheck. I remember them all so well. I remember their names, and what they had to say. One in particular addressed the membership. Maybe because it turned out prophetic, or maybe for much closer personal ties, but I remember what my father Joe Stettin said as if it were yesterday.

I’ll summarize as best I can.

You are all a bunch of fools. You are worried about a paycheck next week, but you will be giving up a paycheck for a lot longer if you let these machines in without dictating the terms. They can’t race much longer without us. The scabs are failing. It is not Sam we have to worry about. It is the Son of Sam that will get us all if we let it. First some self service terminals. What’s next? Any of you know? You can bet they know. First a few terminals, then a few clerks. That is what will happen. Let’s limit what they can do by number. Five a year. Ten a year. Anything. This won’t make things better for us, and in the long run probably not better for them but they are shortsighted too. Next thing they will want people to bet from living rooms and this place will be a ghost town. Nobody will come here anymore and they won’t need any of us. We are fighting for more than our next pay check.

The membership rallied around this philosophy. They supported it and the delegates came around also. They fought to limit the amount of Sam machines to be installed. Fate is a funny thing and usually makes up its mind earlier than any of us know. The first Sam machines were extremely unpopular. Hardly anyone liked or used them. They sat gathering dust at the end of the bays. When management wanted to add some more, nobody cared anymore. They were useless and seemingly no threat. Gamblers are creatures of habit. They preferred betting with live clerks. More machines came in. Better versions came out and were installed. The wave of change had begun.

We all know what followed. Bettors warmed up to the machines. Other smaller tracks embraced them as money savers. Technology and our society evolved. U-Bet was launched and ADW’s became the future. Simulcasting was born and allowed us to bet whatever track we wanted whenever we wanted. It is hard to argue that in some ways these are all advancements and good things. At first look that appears obvious. At second look I wonder. We certainly as an industry and a sport are not better off. Tracks are closing. They are empty. Small circuits suffer and probably could not survive without subsidization. They say handles are up but never factor inflation which would bring them down.

I remember in private conversations with my Dad how he would assure me they would ruin racing and the racetracks. It was just a matter of time he’d say. I would argue but it is the Sport of Kings, it has been around so long. Just watch he’d knowingly say. Things change.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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