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Meadows-Moon off-track betting parlor sent to pasture

Jason Cato
PTROFFTRACKBETTING1062613jpg
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Very few gamblers are present at the Meadows OTB site in Moon, Tuesday, June 25, 2013. The location is scheduled to close on Sunday after two decades in business.
PTROFFTRACKBETTING4062613jpg
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
The Meadows OTB site in Moon is scheduled to close on Sunday June 30, 2013, after 20 years in business.

The sight of hooves pounding their way to big paydays at The Meadows-Moon used to be more exciting when big crowds shared in the moment, customers say.

But those days are long gone for the threadbare off-track betting parlor. It closes for good after the races on Sunday, leaving Meadows locations in New Castle and Harmarville as the only OTB sites in Western Pennsylvania allowing people to bet legally on horse races simulcast from other tracks.

“They don't put too much into it anymore, let's put it that way,” said regular Tom Shehady, 65, of Robinson. “The OTB is dying off in a lot of areas and now in the Pittsburgh region, too.”

A new landlord bought the aging building that sits adjacent to the crumbling asphalt of a razed shopping center. The Moon OTB's lease was not renewed, which hastened its demise.

Business started falling off years ago, said Meadows Racing President Mike Jeannot.

In 2012, the site took in $13.5 million in total bets, known as the handle. Of that, betters wagered $624,000 on races held at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino in North Strabane, Washington County. Betters wagered about $1 million on races at other Pennsylvania tracks and about $12 million on races at tracks elsewhere, Jeannot said.

“At its peak, that OTB was handling in the $28 million range,” he said.

Pennsylvania horse races drew $776.9 million in wagers in 2012, but only $14.5 million came from OTB parlors for races at their local tracks, according to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. That figure in 2006 was $27.6 million.

“OTB wagering over the last several years has declined,” Jeannot said. “It's not just The Meadows.”

The idea of going into gritty parlors filled with older men isn't one younger people found attractive, said John Hartig, CEO of the Daily Racing Form, the thoroughbred industry's top media company, founded in 1894.

“And the struggles of the racing industry at its core is about attracting new fans,” Hartig said.

A 2011 study commissioned by the Jockey Club, the breed registry for thoroughbred racing, showed the average age of U.S. horse-racing fans to be 51. Football fans' average age was 43, and basketball fans' average age was 35, the study showed.

“This is too slow for younger people,” said John Pitaro, 84, of North Fayette, a Moon OTB regular since it opened in 1992. “They want to bet fast, so they go to the casinos.

“We have to wait for the races, so we bet slow.”

Penn National announced this month it plans to shutter the Chambersburg off-track wagering center it opened in 1994.

Kentucky Off-Track Betting, a business started in 1993 by racetracks in that state, closed its three remaining OTB sites this month after the Triple Crown series. The company's OTBs handled $10 million in wagers last year, down from $25.7 million a decade ago.

In 2010, New York City Off-Track Betting Corp. closed its last 54 parlors to end a decades-long financial slide and attacks on its dreary image. The company had more than 150 outlets at its peak in the 1980s.

Any new success of the industry will be tied to its ability to modernize parlors and embrace online betting, known as advance deposit wagering, Hartig said.

“It's the only aspect of the game that is growing,” he said.

Meadows Racing officials are looking to grow on both fronts.

The Meadows is exploring opening OTBs inside sports bars that already draw younger crowds, Jeannot said.

Efforts to partner with a sports bar on Pittsburgh's North Shore that started in the early 2000s never advanced. Now, The Meadows is considering other locations, including Robinson, he said, but it won't resemble the old, stand-alone OTB model.

The Meadows is turning to technology to increase its appeal.

The track that introduced the revolutionary Call-A-Bet system in 1983 that first allowed people to phone in wagers this year introduced Mbet, which allows customers to place bets from loaner iPads or their own mobile devices while at the racetrack and casino.

Wagers also can be placed over the Internet or through a mobile app that runs on Xpressbet, an advance deposit wagering platform that spun out of Call-A-Bet.

“The big migration is to online wagering,” Hartig said.

Increasingly, that is leaving OTBs like Moon out of the money.

Jeannot helped open five original OTBs tied to The Meadows when it was owned by U.K.-based Ladbrokes. Already gone are OTBs in Greensburg and West Mifflin.

When it opened 21 years ago, employees said the Moon OTB buzzed with action. Up to 350 people a day flocked there, packing the bar area and viewing lounges. Only those with reservations got seated inside Triumph's restaurant.

“There was never an empty seat, whether it was a Monday or a Saturday,” said Lori Santia, 51, of Hopewell.

Now one or two tellers per shift wait on occasional walk-up traffic from a few dozen people.

Horse racing's popularity rivaled that of America's pastime, baseball, a century ago. Interest began to fade in the 1960s, when state lotteries began and casinos opened.

New Hampshire passed legislation that led to the first U.S. state lottery in 1963 — the year The Meadows racetrack opened. It celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend.

Moon employees said they could see the demise coming for years, and that it sped up once casinos opened in Western Pennsylvania. The OTB's 24 employees have been offered opportunities to work at The Meadows and severance packages if they stay through this weekend's closing.

Despite its diminished draw, Santia said she will miss the place where she has worked for more than 20 years.

“I love working here, and I love the horse business,” she said. “But it's a dying breed.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or [email protected].

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