12/17/2010 10:07 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

New York City OTB Finishes Dead Last

You can take your pick on the holiday season. Most Wonderful Time of the Year or something more melancholy, along the Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas line.

If it's the latter, you'll be willing to let me tell you the story of the end of off-track-betting in New York City.

The story, which ended this week, goes back to 1971, when New York decided to take over the business that had formerly been run by neighborhood bookies, and set up legal betting parlors around the state, run by six regional companies.

The thought was nice. Instead of sleazy bookies, the profits from neighborhood bettors would go to support the racing industry (think of mamma thoroughbreds and their babies in verdant pastures upstate) and the state (think of aid to education, nursing home care for poor people).

But New York is not particularly efficient at supplying even needed services, like public schools and home health care. The idea that New York could deliver quality, low-cost off track betting was so ridiculous as to be almost touching.

The architects of the system realize this. They understood that if left to their own devices, the OTB managers would manage to spend every single cent of the handle on jobs for the politically connected.

So they added a rule that the state and the racing industry would each get a percentage of OTB's gross profits, not net.

"If they're allowed to pay on the net there would be nothing left over," explained Assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow of Mount Vernon when the death knell for the city's OTB sounded this month.

In flush times the system managed to squeeze out profits for one and all. But when horse racing went out of fashion, and gamblers migrated to the casinos and on-line games, the city's OTB operation found it impossible to contract and become more efficient. OTB was a loser under Rudy Giuliani, who threatened to shut it down, and under Michael Bloomberg. By 2008, when the OTB was running a $17.8 million deficit, Bloomberg finally became so adamant that the state took it over.

The state scrambled for a solution. But by then, Albany had become so dysfunctional that it couldn't pass a budget, let alone reform the gambling industry. The whole thing fell apart.

When it ended, there were about 50 parlors in the city, employing 1,000 people.

Have you ever been in an off-track-betting parlor? This is not the kind of luxury service that requires individual attention to each and every treasured customer. Guys stand in line. Bets are made. Smokers cluster around the doors. The race starts on some grungy TV screens. The patrons make noises that are closer to mutters than actual yells. A winner occurs. Guys stand in line. Bets are made.

By the end, the city OTB was in hock to the state, which stands to lose virtually all of the $11 million it was expecting, and the track owners. It was also in hock to its retired employees, whose pension and health benefits could cost the state more than $600 million.

If they're paid. The OTB, which was in bankruptcy proceedings, has filed a court motion under which it proposes to simply go out of business. That would mean an end to the health insurance for the 900 retired employees.

And culturally, it's the end of an era. On the last day of betting, Michael Wilson of the Times found Henry, an 82-year-old widower in Queens who said OTB helped him "just getting out of the house." The vision of Henry, now sitting all by himself at home, or playing horses on a computer, is depressing.

The colorful world of Damon Runyon gamblers is over. In fact, Damon Runyon is pretty much over as well. Sorry, Henry. Sorry, mother thoroughbreds. We live in unforgiving times. Have yourselves a merry little Christmas, anyhow.