If you’re ever feeling lucky, take the 1 train all the way north. Get off at Van Cortlandt Park. Make sure your wallet is rife with crisp bills, peel off a few, and catch a ride to Empire City, a massive casino complex just north of the city line in Yonkers.
Tonight, on the train ride up, my friend and I meet a man with a hat that reads “DANGER: THIS VET IS PROTECTED FROM YOUR MEDICATION”; unperturbed by the train’s impending reversal south, he stays in his seat. Below the station is not a park, but the dirty intersection of 242nd Street and Broadway. Cars idle aimlessly and Manhattan College students loaf around, ducking into bodegas for beer, cigarettes, or whatever else Manhattan College students buy at 7 p.m. on a Friday night.
We look to hire a car. A cabbie standing under the subway tracks offers to take us for $15. We decline, and walk up the block, searching for cigars. As we emerge empty-handed from the corner store, a car in the middle of an intersection honks—it’s our recently-rejected cabbie. We pile in the back seat, unsure if our initial rejection brought our fare down. Our driver, built like a boar, burps frequently, and asks us if we are going to the “cassss-ino,” stretching the “s” for no apparent reason. We tell him we’re starting with the horses. A slickster in the passenger seat with a billowing cream shirt and dark sunglasses says nothing for the entire ride. His relation to the cabbie is unclear.
We arrive at Yonkers Raceway, adjacent to the casino, as the sun sets. The breeze whips around the half-mile oval, and crowds of old men huddle under the heat lamps near the betting windows. Before we even place a bet, we are asked to prove our age. We do, and though 18 is New York’s betting age, we seem to be the only gamblers under 50.
Both Yonkers Raceway and Empire City seem neutered: this isn’t Churchill Downs or Vegas. Not to say that it isn’t free-market; it just isn’t as fun. For instance, the track features harness racing, where a jockey trails his horse on a two-wheeled cart called a sulky. Harness racing is slower, and considerably duller, than thoroughbred racing (where jockeys directly mount their horses). The unwieldiness of the carriages makes starting position, not speed, paramount.
Out in the cold, at least, the action is live. I check my program and go with Speed Bomb, a fast starter with 9-to-2 odds, in the fifth race. Speed Bomb never loses the lead, coasting to a victory. I prance to the betting booth, hoping for some admiration from the sour-looking old man behind the counter.
I’m disappointed. “Race’s not official,” he snaps at me. Apparently, there is a delay from when the winning horse crosses the finish line to when the tellers can pay out bets, as officials scan the video of the previous race, checking for equine hijinks. Chastened, I linger a few minutes, then collect my score.
My luck turns, and I lose the next few races. After a while, only a few dozen other degenerates remain huddled together, protecting themselves from the gusty wind off the adjacent maze of highways, counting a dwindling supply of bills with print-blackened hands. In the red, my friend and I bet the same horse: Imperial Count, a black stallion who has finished in the money in seven of his last eight races.
Walking away from the betting counter, we’re approached by a large black man, wearing a light brown tracksuit. He gives us his rigmarole—most gamblers have one—that involves jokes about a train accident, a phallic tattoo, and a plastic piece of shit, which he produces from his pocket as the punch line that we don’t understand.
Imperial Count takes off at 3-to-1 odds; if he wins, we’ll enter the casino playing with house money. The race is close, as Imperial Count and the favorite, Calchips Brute, stay neck-and-neck. The horses accelerate, the rumble of hoofs nearing the grandstand. Standing at the finish, we see our Count stick his nose forward, crossing the line fractions of a second ahead of the Brute. Victory is ours—and it pays $7.70 on a $2 bet.
Inside, Empire City is a “video lottery casino,” featuring thousands of video slot machines. The few table games that do exist are also played electronically, individually. A computer-generated image of a woman with massive breasts stands in for the croupier; every few rounds, I notice that she is replaced by a new digitized sex bomb.
The casino floor less resembles Monte Carlo than Chuck E. Cheese. Since receiving a gaming license and opening its doors in October 2006, Empire City has installed over five thousand “video gaming machines.” The casino gives about half of its net winnings to the New York state education fund. In the last fiscal year, this sum topped $275 million. The casino’s latest reports indicated that the average gambler loses at an 8% rate.
The floor is dominated by slot machines of various thematic merit, from the cinematic (The Hangover) to the cartoonish (Smash the Pig). Unlike poker, a game of pain tolerance, the slots require a player who doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to know, that the odds are against them. Sitting in rows, drowned out by blinking lights and repeated jangling, all the lucky people look like beady-eyed drones, gambling mechanically, each in their own cubicle.
We walk upstairs, where the casino has table games, sans tableau. Each player gets a booth with a touch-screen, facing a buxom computerized dealer. We settle in at the roulette table, and watch as the cash we earned on the ponies slide into the slot, earning us a stack of virtual chips. The guys next to us have their boards filled, playing several lucky numbers at once, along with odd, black, or whatever else they think of. Quickly, my friend puts all his money on red, and the ball comes up black. He sighs, and sits down on a nearby couch, more than happy to see someone else mathematically assured to lose.
Slowly, my chip count accumulates. I’m taking most spins off, but somehow, I have a rhythm. I’ve doubled my count when an idea pops into my head: outside the Columbia gates, I’d seen a cab careening up Broadway, blaring rap, with “Magnificent Seven” written across the side in peeling-off lettering. I put my chips on multiples of 7, the ball comes up 21, and my chip count skyrockets.
The oxygenated air and deliberate lack of clocks at the casino makes it impossible to tell how many hours remain before the 4 a.m. closing time, but I think my luck is about to peak. I drag all my chips to red. Thinking better of it, I try to cancel, but the shapely virtual dealer has already announced, “No more bets,” crossing her hands over her chest, as if to scintillate the players into betting more, thereby impressing her. I know that my fate is sealed. The ball flirts with red, skips a few pockets, and ends up black. Tired and broke, I stumble into a cab, and start the long journey home.