Forget slot machines and Seabiscuit. Whatever future horse racing has in this country should be visible in Craig Brownstein’s house this weekend. He’s having a little party.
It’s a Kentucky Derby party. Brownstein, a media-relations vice president at Edelman Public Relations, has been hosting such affairs on the first Saturday in May since moving to D.C. from his native upstate New York in the early ’80s. A couple of dozen friends will hang out at his East Dupont Circle home and spend the hours before the big race eating, drinking, minglingand wagering.
All but the wagering, which Brownstein made available to his guests for the first time last year, have long been staples of the Derby get-togethers. His newly renovated kitchen will house both a bar and a betting window.
This is all quite legal. Myriad laws and regulations restrict Internet gambling in the United States, so anybody wanting to, say, take the Redskins and the points has to either travel to Las Vegas or use a foreign, or “offshore,” bookie to get the action. But those anti-gambling edicts have, relatively speaking, laid off the ponies. So now anybody with a phone or a computer can, without ever leaving home or sending dollars overseas, get a bet in on essentially any race that takes place on any American track.
Bettors can even watch the race as it happens. Brownstein has an account with Brisbet.com, and he subscribes to the Television Games Network, a satellite channel owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and AT&T that airs racing-related programming pretty much around the clock.
“You combine the satellite feed with the online account, which takes just a point and a click to place a bet, and your house basically becomes a simulcast facility,” says Brownstein. “The technology turns my living room into the sports book at the Mirage.”
On all but a few race days, Brownstein’s the only bettor on the premises. (He promises he bets only “dollars here and there” even without supervision.) But come time for the Derby and the Breeders’ Cup, and maybe the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Brownstein invites some folks over to watch the races with him. He provides a crash course in handicapping to anyone who wants it. And, of course, he gives guests the opportunity to bet on the big races.
The racing industry, Brownstein says, would surely better its allegedly remote chances for long-term survival by promoting small, private, Tupperware party-style functions like his, which would not only increase the race-day handle but also expose new fans to the sport.
But the industry has a long history of doing nothing in the areas of self-promotion and customer recruitment.
“I think they don’t promote [the Internet and satellite] so much, because they only want people to go to the track,” says Brownstein. “It’s pretty myopic, but the racing industry has made a series of missteps and missed opportunities to bring in new generations of fans. What’s going on right now is what went on in the late 1950s: When the NFL and Major League Baseball were signing the big TV contracts, racing was the No. 1 spectator sport. But the racing community wouldn’t get into TV, saying, ‘We’ll get killed at the gate if we do.’ Lo and behold, they got killed at the gate anyway. Now the same thing’s going on: Racing has been slow to take advantage of the Internet. Every year, a couple or three people walk away from my parties asking questions about racing and going to the track.”
The get-togethers are Brownstein’s way of giving back to a pastime that has taken untold amounts of his family’s time and an undisclosed number of its dollars over the years: Brownstein lore has it that his Uncle Buttsie, a Louisville resident who amazed his kin by getting by without ever getting a job, died from a massive heart attack while waiting in line at the $50 window at Churchill Downs. (“But Uncle Buttsie was still alive in the double!” Brownstein says. “That’s an old track joke.”) And his Uncle Sam, a Louisville liquor distributor and part-time bookie, was found dead with a fresh copy of the Daily Racing Form lying beside him.
Brownstein caught the racing bug 30 years ago this week, during a family visit to Louisville in 1973. His Uncle Sam got him a ticket to the Derby. That was the year Secretariat ran. Even a kid who didn’t know anything about the nags knew where to put his money.
“I had Secretariat to win,” Brownstein says. “Didn’t pay anything, maybe 20 cents on $2.”
But it was the winning that left the biggest mark. When he got back home, Brownstein began studying the Racing Form and, though only in ninth grade, set up an account with the New York Racing Association, placing bets through the local OTB outlet. He says he was doing OK picking winners until his mother found the betting slips and registration papers for the account.
Rather than confront her son about the evils of a gambling habit, his mother took her complaints to the newsroom of the local paper, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
“She began yelling [at the editor] things like, ‘Where’s the outrage? How can anybody allow a 15-year-old boy to open an account?’” says Brownstein. “She told them her son got hooked on racing from going to the Derby the year before, and they printed a story about the kid with an off-track-betting account. These days, I like to say any ink is good ink, but she made me close the accountor, rather, the account was closed on my behalf by the state.”
A tattered copy of the newspaper story that outlined his juvenile delinquencies was always tacked on a message board near his desks at Laurel Race Course and Pimlico, where he worked as press-box manager with the Maryland Jockey Club for two years beginning in 1998. He’d given up a job as an editor at
C-SPAN, where he’d worked for 15 years, to take the track position. He admits the career move wasn’t exactly upward.
After the Jockey Club, Brownstein jumped out of horse racing and back into the rat race when he signed on with Edelman.
“It was total racing immersion on that job, and I’ve always been fascinated by the track, and I got to go to the track every day,” he says. “But when I was offered the [position with Edelman], my [current] boss said, ‘Craig, I want to get you away from the racetrack.’ I told him, ‘So does my mother.’”
Though he stopped visiting the track when he took the PR job, his soirees have forced Brownstein to keep up with the racing game. He watched all the Derby tuneup races this year, and anybody who asks for a tip from the host this weekend will be told to stay away from Empire Maker, who will likely go off as the prohibitive betting favorite.
“The favorite doesn’t win the Derby,” he says. “And in racing, you don’t bet dollars to win pennies.”
Unless Secretariat’s running. Dave McKenna