By Hunter Atkins
The opening of Resorts World’s new neon-blazing casino at the graying 117-year-old Aqueduct Racetrack — the "racino" — is more of a culture clash than a gambling hybrid.
The horse-race handicappers, with their ancient rituals, still tend to crowd the track in Queens and its less-than-glamorous environs, enjoying the daylong ebb and flow of studying the daily racing form and waiting for bursts of thoroughbred action.
Then there are the newcomers: casino lovers flocking to an array of 2,500 glowing monitors and electronic table games, and feverishly depositing dollar after dollar in hopes of an instant jackpot.
And so while the racetrack clubhouse is physically connected to the new casino, there’s not a whole lot of cross-pollination among the clientele.
On a recent Thursday morning, Tony Monk Sr. thumbed through a racing form in a row of folding chairs in the racetrack clubhouse while his son Anthony Jr. swirled his fingers across a touch screen at the casino.
Tony Sr., 77, is a track regular from Bedford-Stuyvesant and a former Aqueduct betting clerk. He has been gambling for 65 years. Anthony began spending time at the racetrack two years ago in an effort to better connect with his father.
"Bottom line, we didn’t really have that relationship," Anthony, 32, said. "He never was really a family man."
He is not certain what his father did every day to earn a living. Still, Anthony fondly remembered watching his father preach at Monk’s Memorial Church on Fulton Street. He admired his father’s swagger as he rubbed shoulders with New York politicians and activists like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan.
Spending time with his father at the track, Anthony discovered a man he hardly knew and a relationship he did not expect to ever have.
But their routine changed after Anthony was lured away from the track by the electronic craps machines when the casino opened its doors Oct. 28.
Now the father and son meet in the morning. And then they split.
On this day last month, though, Tony Sr. opted to at least try the casino life. If briefly.
With time to spare before the first race of the day, Tony Sr. ventured beyond his comfortable habitat to try his luck at a slot machine. He left the gray rug, which was spotted with stains, and crossed over to a fuzzy carpet, a blue oasis of concentric circles. Chimes and jingles from the new machines gradually replaced the chatter of the clubhouse. Sunlight disappeared as he reached the casino floor. Chandeliers and neon monitors illuminated the room.
Tony Sr. stopped at Majestic Sea, a slot machine with images of seashells, starfish and Neptune’s trident. He stood behind the seat, rather than sitting down.
After reaching over the chair to deposit a dollar bill, he wagered 90 cents on his first bet. He lost it all with his single press of the button.
"It’s that fast," Tony Sr. said with his deep, scratchy Southern accent, revealing his Virginia roots. "No control. I can control the horse."
Eager to get back to the track, Tony Sr. gave away his remaining 10 cents. He returned to his folding chair in the clubhouse, pushed his black fedora aside and started poring over the racing form.
"I have skills handicapping," Tony Sr. said. "When it comes to them machines, it’s no skills. Just people trying to get lucky. Once my money goes in that machine, it’s all over."
Developing a strategy, rather than yanking a lever or pushing a button, is what Tony Sr. said makes him a professional, not a "sucker."
According to Tony Sr. and another track veteran, Frankie Burke, the horse is less important than the person holding the reins. Burke was sitting in the front row outside at the track before the first race, mulling over the field of jockeys as he let out a few puffs from his pipe.
Aqueduct was love at first sight for Burke, 55. As an eighth grader at nearby Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, Burke would rush to the window when the nun’s back was turned and catch a glimpse of the thoroughbreds striding around the bend.
"We would hear the jets coming in and roaring, but this was a different roar," Burke said, referring to landings at the area airports. He then let out a roar to mimic a race crowd erupting. "Tens of thousands of people," he said.
Now bushy-bearded and on disability after injuring his back as a construction engineer, Burke attends Aqueduct every day he can. He enjoys what he called the natural beauty of the track. He gazed at a tractor manicuring the dirt and said it reminded him of his childhood urge to ride one. He was outfitted with his daily good luck accessories: a calabash pipe and a New York Giants sweatshirt stained with paint and singed from tobacco embers blown out by the wind.
It takes only $20 to fill a leisurely day at the racetrack. Burke and Tony Sr. usually spend just $1 a race, with the hope of winning long-shot bets. The thought of looking into the face of a machine and quickly burning through hundreds of dollars deeply upset Burke.
"With all the noise, it’s an addiction," Burke said. "It makes a loner out of you."
For all their calculations and trade secrets, neither Burke’s nor Tony Sr.’s horses finished in the money in the opening race.
Anthony, Tony’s son, mocked the idea that a handicapping formula gave a gambler any more of an advantage than his betting method of gripping the craps machine and praying for a winner.
"You say you’re the best handicapper, but you only win one out of nine," the son said of his father’s longtime love, noting that racing wagers were threatened by the human element, like a last-minute scratch or a jockey who pulled back before the finish line. "That don’t make sense to me."
Unemployed since April after not getting enough work as a chimney sweep, Anthony called electronic craps his new job. He relies on previous winnings and his earnings from infrequent odd jobs to finance his play. He used to travel in from Newark or Brooklyn three days a week, but he started gambling every day after being one of 65,000 people to pack the racino on its opening weekend.
As his father was just settling in for a day of horse racing, Anthony blew through his $50 ration in 15 minutes. He returned to the craps machines a while later and ran into a new gambling buddy named Chris.
"It’s more lit up here, it’s more alive," said Chris, who occasionally bet the horses but is now devoted to the casino. "Over there, it’s kind of dingy. Over there, everybody looks tense."
Trying to earn back the $100 that he had lost, Chris deposited another $100. He immediately offered Anthony an electronic roll of the dice. During Anthony’s run, Chris pitched an idea for a video he wants to film and put on the Internet, where he will bet $1,000 every day for 10 days and edit together clips of all the jackpots he hits.
"It will inspire people to come here because they will win," he said enthusiastically.
Anthony lasted 18 rolls, earning back half of Chris’s losses.
Handicapping requires a patience that Anthony said he has never had. He prefers the fast-paced, nonstop games and the quick, frequent thrills of throwing dice. Even if it is a computer graphic.
"You still got the feel even though it’s a screen," Anthony said.
Anthony left the craps machine to light a cigarette on the terrace, which opened to a vast view of the track. It was vibrant green and golden under an afternoon sun that had broken through an overcast sky.
In another world, Tony Sr. was buried in a new page of the racing form. His brow was furrowed until he glanced up to catch the highlights on eight television screens.
He said he was down after six races. He would not say how much.
At the end of the day, Tony Sr. and his son — and the faithful gamblers with whom they identify — are very much alike. Each thumbs his nose at the suckers at the other end of Aqueduct. And then they come back.