Not Your Father's Otb Parlor

GLITZ HAS COME TO THE gritty world of offtrack betting. In New Haven, a Vegas-like entertainment emporium has just opened, offering a shark tank, a discotheque, upscale bars, leather sofas--and oh, yes, wagering.

Autotote Enterprises, which owns and runs the Nutmeg State's OTB parlors, spent $9 million to buy and fix up the four-story building a la Caesar's. Called Sports Haven, it shows simulcast races from North American tracks--horses and greyhounds --on four massive overhead screens and hundreds of TVs. On Kentucky Derby day, May 6, it raked in $330,000, four times its downtown predecessor's take. New York and Illinois are trying a similar approach, although nothing on Sports Haven's scale.

The pitch is geared to younger customers, not the typical middle-age OTB crowd. Says Autotote President Rick Cowan: "It's vitally important if racing is to survive." Horse betting at the track is declining (down 5.5%, to $8.8 billion, in 1993) because of casino gambling's rise. Offtrack wagering, now in 11 states, rose 4% in '93, to $4.8 billion, only because more states are adding it. Oklahoma, for instance, just O.K.'d the idea. While OTB wagers are climbing in Connecticut, the amount bet has been falling in New York, the largest OTB state, since 1988.

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