Throwback Thursday: Remembering When ‘Off to the Races’ Meant West 72nd Street

Off-Track Betting, circa 1982.

Photographer Stephen Harmon’s remembrance of Countess Vera, The Woman Who Loved Pigeons, was so well-received that we asked him to search his archives for another nostalgic photo essay. He sent this one about the Off-Track Betting parlor on West 72nd Street, in the 1970s and 80s.

By Stephen Harmon

Fifty years ago this month, the first OTB (Off-Track Betting) parlor opened for business in NYC, and by the mid-1980s, there were over 150 throughout the boroughs. Before the advent of OTB, betting on a horserace was illegal, except for bets placed at the racetrack. Not everyone could get to a racetrack, so every neighborhood had a bookie, or several, who worked the illegal operation usually from a legal neighborhood business, such as a candy store, or a grocery, or a diner. Sometimes they used violence to collect on a wager.

OTB was started for two primary laudable purposes. First, to provide a government-authorized venue for placing non-racetrack bets on horse races, and, second, to raise revenue for NYS, which took a percentage of the wagering. Why OTB failed in NYC is too complicated for me to discuss. Suffice it to say part of the reason was competition from casinos that opened in Atlantic City in 1978 and from the ever-growing NYS Lottery, as well as from other kinds of wagering. By the early to mid 1980s, OTB parlors were considered by many to be unsightly and unpleasant (many did not have toilets in order to dissuade customers from staying at the OTB for hours), and the clientele was considered by non-bettors to be unattractive, lazy or just unsavory. I, however, did not see it that way.

My neighborhood OTB was a fairly large one on the south side of W. 72nd Street, a few doors from Broadway. I saw the OTB in the late 1970s and 1980s as a democratic (small “d”) place that was available to everyone — men, women, old, young, white, black, brown or other color. The people who bet inside or just hung around outside were so wonderful to see. Some of them looked like they had just walked out of a Damon Runyon novel. They could spend a few minutes or a few hours talking with each other and enjoying each other’s company. The OTB was a big part of the soul of that area of the UWS. I was not a bettor, but I was sorry to see it go.

Here are some photos of how it looked to me. Most of these are from 1982.

There’s also a movie about OTB by lifelong Upper West Sider Joseph Fusco that is now out on demand. It’s called “Finish Line: The Rise and Demise of Off-Track Betting” and is available for rent or purchase here.

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    1. Carlos says:

      Classic photos – thanks! Is the guy in the striped suit in the last picture the same as the one in the third to last picture? He is wearing a different hat but I think it is the same person.

      When did this OTB close? I remember going there around 2003 or 2004 as I would occasionally put down a few dollars on the Kentucky Derby if I really liked the name of a horse.

      • Lisa says:

        Carlos, it relocated to 143 W. 72nd sometime around 2005 or 2006. It was open for a few years, then closed in 2010 when all the OTBs did. OTB spent a lot of money to restore the landmarked building and aside from some tickets littering the sidewalk, they were a good neighbor.

      • Steevie says:

        Same guy. He has different glasses frames but he is wearing the same tie.

    2. MAD says:

      Thank you for this wonderful article and photos. Makes me remember that the UWS was (hopefully still is) home to a much more varied population than some might think. I went to OTB to bet on various big races; sorry to see it close. I grew up in Chicago and was no stranger to the race track and betting forms.

    3. Sue says:

      Fantastic photos! Thank you!

      (I’ve been a fan of your photography for a while thanks to FB)

    4. MM says:

      My father frequented OTBs and I was sometimes with him as a little girl. I can smell the cigarettes in these pictures. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

    5. Harriet Flehinger says:

      We tried to avoid the OTB, but there was a great fresh juice place a couple of doors closer to Broadway. So I would brave the “unsavory” crowds and the litter, to get carrot/beet juice fresh squeezed at their sidewalk window.

    6. Terence says:

      When I got to the Upper West Side in 1987, there was still an OTB at 91st and Broadway, west side, corner. Only bet the three Triple Crown races and the Saratoga Travers.

      Then in the early 90’s, that closed, requiring a trip to W72. There were so many characters, and most were more more than happy to answer any questions I might have had. Of course, the smoking laws had not come into effect and many bettors had cigars and cigarettes, giving me cover to light a joint which no one blinked an eye at!

      • Bob A says:

        Thanks for this. I lived on RSD and 98th in late 70s and early 80s. I know I didn’t walk to 72nd to wager at an OTB. So I must have gone to the one you mention on 91st. Good item–brought back fond memories of that time.

      • LL says:

        We moved to the UWS in 1988. I was a kid, but oh, my memories of that OTB on 91st. I still remember the smell. The OTB on 72nd I remember as well

    7. Drew says:

      What a terrible memory to bring back. Dirty filthy unsavory characters. Not a place to walk by width your kids. Imagine some here are sad to see it go. Shame on you. I’m surprised that this picture is considered nostalgia, I think I have a picture of needle park with needles and people shooting up. Nostalgia wish you were there?
      Where are your values people?

      • Ken J. says:

        Drew, look qt the photos. Do they look like “Dirty filthy unsavory characters.”

      • Steevie says:

        Drew: They are not dirty, filthy or unsavory. They look like people who did not spend a lot of time working out at the gym or reading great literature or ironing their shirts, but I see none of the things you say above.

    8. Joanne the Yogi says:

      I used to go to the Bikram Yoga studio in that building which I believe was on the 4th floor (it’s been too long since the shut down) and I always thought the contrast between the clientele going to the yoga studio and those at OTB was hilarious!

    9. Mary Mansfield says:

      Drew. 🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣. Go back to sleep in Utopia. Do you even live in NYC?

    10. James Goodman says:

      Here’s a related scene from my book on the ’77 blackout. The lights went out the night before, but they were still out:

      “A young couple strolling down Lexington Avenue spotted a dozen or more men gathered outside a storefront just north of 86th Street.

      The couple knew that there had been looting up Lexington, in Spanish Harlem, but in their neighborhood, even the parties had been subdued.

      They walked a block closer, then stopped.

      One of the men stepped up to the storefront and peered through the window.

      He had something in his hand.

      They all did.

      The man backed away. Anoher took his place.

      Some of the men were reading.

      Racing forms. They were outside an offtrack betting parlor, hoping against hope that it would open before the first race.”

    11. Richard Green says:

      I delivered Lawton, OTB BLUE SHEET, MARINOS, PANDYS PICKS, THE OFFICIAL TRACK PROGRAM and other publications to newsstands around OTB’s for ovee 30 years. But I only bet on a horse once and it came in last!

    12. Sarah says:

      Love that last shot!

      Yes, OTBs are the kind of place that may increase in charm as they recede in history, but such places are part of the point of city living. As dens of iniquity go, they were pretty mild.

    13. Susan F says:

      “The Race to Win!” (haiku)

      Moderna packs punch
      Pfizer Johnson and Johnson
      completes Trifecta

    14. Penelope says:

      Great pictures, and reminding us of a brief history