by Nick Hahn
It appears the dispute over the live racing days between Virginia horsemen and Colonial Downs officials will leave February and enter March. The Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) board met on February 25th and did not take any official action towards a resolution.
Meanwhile, Virginia’s Secretary of Commerce Maurice Jones is working with both sides of the stalemate that began in late January and has shut down wagering on Thoroughbred racing on Colonial’s Off-Track Betting network throughout the Commonwealth.
“There are some fundamental differences,” noted Colonial Downs President and CFO Ian Stewart.
“It’s very unfortunate that the OTBs are shut down (for Thoroughbred racing), but there is still on-line wagering through EZ horseplay or any of the other 3 ADW companies approved in Virginia,” commented Frank Petramalo, the executive director of the VHBPA.
Colonial had originally proposed a 2014 schedule of just 12 live days over four weeks. It has, however, said that it would accept a reprise of last year’s schedule, which included 25 live days over five weeks. The HBPA’s proposal included 32 days over eight weeks.
Petramalo is hopeful a compromise proposal of 28 live days spread over seven weeks gains ground.
Yet left at the starting gate are those caught in the middle, like the mutuel tellers and food service employees who work in Colonial’s OTBs. Four OTBs are closed as a result of the “staredown” while another four, (two in Richmond and one each in Hampton and Chesapeake) remain open but with reduced hours for harness wagering only.
The impasse over summer live Thoroughbred racing live days is having an impact on their lives well before the first day of spring arrives.
“There are people that are out of work,” acknowledged Colonial’s Stewart. “I’m sure it’s tough.”
Yet right now, those people are not feeling very appreciated.
“We don’t see a future in it. I’ve never been like that,” says Dusty Melton, a teller currently dealing with depression and anxiety over the impasse. “When we go to work, we’re afraid the doors are going to be locked.”
Melton was hired by Colonial prior to the grand opening of the Richmond OTB in December of 1996. For nearly two decades, she has seen the rewards of what friendly service can mean at the window. A major portion of Melton’s income comes in the form of tips, so while she still has a job as a full-time teller, she is taking a substantial pay cut. Melton now accepts wagers from $2 harness bettors at night instead of the big money Thoroughbred bettors she would see during the day. With her shifts switched to late afternoon and evenings, it’s been difficult on her household as a single mom with two teenagers in school.[pullquote]“There are a lot of people that enjoy coming in, but right now there are a lot of bets not being made. I don’t see who’s winning. I just hope they can work something out.” — Robert Young[/pullquote]
Melton still sees many of her customers who come in to see how tellers are doing without betting. They are also a source of news about the disruption.
“They look out for us more than Colonial does right now,” says Melton about many of her longtime customers. “They have no other reason to come in other than to say ‘hi.’ We hear more from them than Colonial right now. They leave us in the dark. They’re still getting a piece of the pie, but we don’t.”
Teller Robert Young also had been punching and cashing tickets since 1996. While Young is approaching retirement age, he maintains a vision of how a successful wagering future can work.
“There are a lot of people that enjoy coming in, but right now there are a lot of bets not being made,” says Young. “I don’t see who’s winning. I just hope they can work something out.”
Young has seen people come into the West Broad Street parlor and enjoy pari-mutuel wagering as a great form of entertainment but right now, these days are the darkest he’s seen.
“It’s tough to go in and just sit there,” says Young who calls in several times a week to see if he is working. “It’s very ‘iffy.’ The morale is not good there anymore. Everybody is on pins and needles. All we can do is the best we can.”
Colonial would not disclose the number of full and part-time employees employed in the OTBs, but it’s estimated that the number of full-time tellers in the Richmond OTB prior to the standoff was around 10, with another 15 part-time tellers rounding out the work week in that facility, one of eight that were in service in January. While the full-time shifts have been altered, the part time shifts have virtually disappeared.
Beverly Southers, a part-timer teller who retired from the Virginia lottery in 2004, is another in a dwindling class that has worked since Richmond’s grand opening. Having some seniority, she now may be fortunate to complete two shifts a month.
“I absolutely love my job,” says Southers. “I feel like the customers like me and I enjoy them. We have made a lot of friends. A lot of our customers are our friends now. When customers ask me about what’s going on, I just try to remain positive.”
The OTB employees, the first impacted by the disagreement, work at the most critical point of the industry’s financial flow, where disposable income becomes handle. With the development of self-serve windows and advance deposit wagering, the number (and role) of tellers has diminished.
Still these tellers serve a valuable role with beginning bettors, those who don’t trust their own keypunch skills or those who simply prefer the human element of making wagers the traditional way. As racing’s human face in the OTBs, they can serve a role in the growth of racing’s economic future.
They may be feeling pretty small in Virginia’s racing equation these days, but if you get enough plankton, you can feed a whale.
(Featured photo by Vas.)
Firstly, just about everything to do with horse racing in Virginia is becoming an embarrassment. Secondly, the human element-experienced tellers bring in money, they don’t cost the tracks money. From personal experience,and please add your own opinion, I don’t see the people ahead at the automated tellers placing anywhere near the level of bets that I use to a live window. It’s also very rare day at the track that I don’t have to instruct several people how to use the automatic teller, I only do it to keep the line moving. Never in my life did I have to step in for a teller to explain how to place a bet.
I was listening today to an acquaintance explain on the Radio how successfully his Men’s clothing store in Chestertown, Maryland is doing. I’ll bet most of you didn’t think an Independent Men’s clothing store could survive in today’s economy – the secret – he only sells American made clothing and accessories. When people find out that quality American clothing purchased from a friendly salesperson doesn’t cost any more than foreign made bought from a chain, they go out of their way to come back. Sometimes, and Thoroughbred Racing is very guilty of this, you need to go back and rediscover your customer instead of assuming you can think for them.
With the pathetic purse structure in Va, wonderful idea to halt the wagering that produces it.
As a part time teller in MD, I don’t work as many hours as I would like. The management keeps the work force at a minimum while installing more self service machines. A good portion of the self service sit idle while my line might be 5-10 deep on a Saturday. It is very frustrating for me to not have the time to help a newby when they do try to make a bet and they are intimidated by the regulars crowding behind them.
I can wait on an experienced gambler quickly and efficiently and explain how to bet to a first timer with a smile. I don’t see the self serve machines do either.
Ive been gambling on horse racing for 35 years and the industry has just been getting smaller and smaller,I would bet at the NYC otb palors and they closed something i never thought would happen, now i live in richmond and go to the broad st betting facility.I agree 100% with miss melton you never know what the hours are gonna be if they are gonna be opened one day closed the next its totaly ridiculous and iam just a bettor to have to work in those conditions puts a ton of strees on a person and its so unfair that nobody seems to even care about the workers this should never happen period to anyone,ive met some really good people that are tellers at the otb and its hard to watch them go through this,I hope this situation gets resolved because its not fair for all parties involved.