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Soon enough, slot machines will be standard equipment in every bathroom stall in America.
That’s the certainty you’ll take homealong with the scents of Bay seasoning and tobacco smokefrom a visit to the Cracked Claw at Peter Pan (it’s one of two), an upscale-crab-house-turned-upscale-betting-parlor in decidedly un-urbane Urbana, Md. The structure was built in the early 1800s as a carriage house for horse-and-buggy commuters between D.C. and Frederick, Md., and was converted into a restaurant in the 1920s. An even bigger transition took place almost three years ago, when the venue became Maryland’s first off-track-betting site.
But while gambling has inarguably become its raison d’être, the joint successfully feeds guests the canard that the wagering options aren’t any more crucial to its existence than the surf-centric menu offerings. At the Claw, the decor and ambience suggest that an exacta bet is just another side of hush puppies. Still, when they tally the take at the end of the night, it’s a safe wager that the place peddles more bets than beef.
The joint is jumping right now, but back when the Cracked Claw added betting to its fare, the state’s racing trade had pulled up lame. The fortunes of the Free State’s second-biggest industrybiotechnology wins by a head over horse racing as a revenue producerhave reversed since then, and the folks at the Cracked Claw don’t think it’s a coincidence.
“Nobody expected Maryland racing to turn a profit in ’94 or ’95, but it’s happened, and we’re definitely a reason for that. This has worked out extremely well,” gushes Tim May, the OTB manager for the Cracked Claw.
Admonitions against overgambling are plastered all over the joint, and a warning label (“Bet with your head not over it”) is stamped on the restaurant’s brochure. But judging by the wafts of cigar and cigarette smoke that fill the front room, horseplayers probably aren’t big on warning labels. There are 80 different races”betting opportunities” in parlor parlancesimulcast via satellite by the Cracked Claw each day from as many as nine different tracks across the country on more than 70 TV sets spread out over seven large rooms. An average of $75,000 to $100,000 is wagered each racing day at the betting parlor; for Triple Crown events and the Breeders Cup, the handle here hits more than $400,000.
For the state of Maryland, the Cracked Claw is no gamble; no matter which horse wins, places, or shows, the state profits. In football betting, the point spread is set by the house before any bets are taken. The house shifts the spread in hopes of getting a 50-50 betting split. Because a 10-percent penalty is affixed to losing bets, the house will rake in a 5-percent share of the overall handle if an equal amount is bet on both teams. Still, the possibility exists that the house can lose money if, for example, a group of high-rollers plunks massive amounts on the same team at the same time, and that team then covers the spread. There is no such risk for the house in horse racing, since a parimutuel betting scheme is used. With parimutuels, a horse’s odds are determined not by past prowess or potential, but by the amount of money bettors have wagered on it. (If a three-legged mare gets the most win bets placed on it, the odds table will display it as the favorite even if Secretariat’s in the field.) Bettors aren’t sure how much they’ll make on their wager until it comes time to collect. But the house, be it the Cracked Claw or the tracks where the races are held, knows exactly what percentage it’s going to get out of every dollar wagered, regardless of what horse is picked. The state and the horsemen also are guaranteed their piece of the revenue pie.
“That’s why we don’t have any phones here,” laughs May. “We don’t want a bookie taking the action, because then the right people don’t get their cut.”
But even state-sanctioned gambling has its opponents. Anybody who’s ever seen the broken-down personalities that huddle outside OTB storefronts in New York’s outer boroughs each morning can grasp why there’d be some resistance to that type of operation from the residents of pastoral Urbana, which serves as a bedroom community to sleepy Frederick. But the facility hasn’t turned into anything near the vermin-magnet that some feared.
“We’ve won the townspeople over,” says May. “So we don’t hear from the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ types anymore. We’ve even got the local Catholic church teaching their Sunday school classes in our meeting rooms now.”
The little worshipers always clear out well before post time on the Christian Sabbath, to make room for, among others, Brenda Perkins of Frederick. Perkins spent last Sunday afternoon speaking in a tongue that horseplayers of any denomination could translate.
“C’mon up, 6! C’mon up, 6! C’mon up, 6! C’mon, 6-3! C’mon, 6-3! C’mon, 6-3!” Perkins yells as the fourth race from Laurel Park is shown live on the Cracked Claw’s TV screens. While screaming out the numbers, Perkins waves a pile of bet tickets in the air. Among them are one for a $2 6-3 exacta (meaning the 6 horse, Local Problem to its owner, will come in first, and the 3 horse, Sleek and Graceful, will come in second) and another for the 6 horse to win. Possibly because of her shrieking, the horses finish in the exact order Perkins commands.
“Oh, it’s not going to pay much at all,” Perkins remarks as she heads toward the Cracked Claw’s cashier’s window. A few moments later, she returns with an extra $23.50. Not much, maybe, but a better result than that garnered by her male companion, who has disposed of his losing tickets for the fourth race by the time Perkins returns.
In one of the Cracked Claw’s nonsmoking rooms, Christopher Woodcock is taking a busman’s lunch with his wife, Cassondra Thomas. During the week, Woodcock serves as a groomer for Sugarloaf Equestrian, a horse farm about five miles from Urbana. The couple’s nonchalance toward the TV screens is in stark contrast to Perkins’ hyperkinesis.
“I care less about what’s going on on the TV screens than a lot of people here do,” Woodcock says. “I’m not really here to bet, but when I do, I bet on what I’ve heard from the people who have something to do with the horses that are running. I’m not into crunching numbers and seeing what comes up, like so many people here are. If I were into that, I’d rather be in Atlantic City betting on where the little ball is going to drop.”
A septuagenarian hanging out by the betting counter says he comes to the Cracked Claw “a few times a week” ever since his wife died last year. On an average day he places 10 $2 bets and rarely cashes any winning tickets.
“I’m only good at picking losers, it seems,” he explains with a meek smile. “But even that passes the time.”
The typical Cracked Claw customer hasn’t shown up to merely pass the time. Perkins, for one, certainly wants more out of her day.
“I’ve got to win or it’s not exciting for me here,” she admits. Perkins takes a sip of her drink and rejoins her friends to pore over a tabletopful of forms, charts, and tip sheets that they obviously believe hold the secret to the fifth race at Laurel Park. Post time is just minutes away. CP