“I love horses. But horses don’t love me,” says Abrahim Toubr, glancing up at his rearview mirror. Abe loves gambling.
“I’ll bet on horses, dogs, cats, anything that runs.”
He turns around to tell me what he insists is all I need to know about Sports Haven. “They offer you nothing and take all your money.”
He calls it “the worst place in America.”
Almost divorced several times because of his all-too-frequent visits to the establishment, Abe has never been able to stay away. He has been going to Sports Haven for twenty years, as long as he has lived in Connecticut. An Egyptian immigrant, he seems to have enjoyed every part of his 27-year-long American experience — except Sports Haven. He’ll stop going after this week. He has to. At least that’s what he says.
I leave the cab at 600 Long Wharf Drive and look up at the cylindrical monolith rising out of the concrete. Moonlight dimly illuminates the mural of horses and jockeys on the front of the building. From Abe’s description, I expect a putrid stench from the bowels of hell to be oozing through the cracks in the parking lot. All I smell is a slight something, maybe the Long Island Sound blowing in from the wharf. It’s quiet.
The inside feels just as desolate. The walkway ramp curls around and rises, ascending into the heart of this bleak column. Torn up betting stubs decorate the ground like confetti after a national championship victory. The ramp lets out to reveal the first signs of life. Screens are everywhere. Four jumbo screens dominate the wall space. In the pit below them, hundreds of small televisions sit in personal booths, where customers can watch their event of choice and place their bets with tellers. Touch-screen betting consoles stand around the mid-level, surrounded by more TVs. You can either wager here electronically, or walk to the nearest “mutuel” (teller) desk. At the top level, restaurant tables have their own screens. A person would have to try hard to find a line of sight without a screen in it.
The Shark Bar in the center of the room encircles a 2,800-gallon fish tank. My kid in an aquarium excitement soon fizzles when I see nothing even closely resembling a man-eater. Where are the sharks? And the lone lionfish just isn’t enough to redeem the Shark Bar, but I decide to sit down and look around anyway. As I post up on a stool, the bartender tosses a plush football over my head to a guy in a Jerome Bettis jersey. He throws it back. She catches it, stashes it under the bar, and asks what she can get me.
Janice Pacileo is 56 and from Wallingford, currently living in West Haven. After she discovered that her husband was fooling around with a Canadian girl, she left him and has been making a living working bars. This is her fourth month at Sports Haven, and she’s already made friends with most of the regular customers. Our conversation is intermittent, as she moves along the bar serving a handful of customers. A group of middle-aged men clink glasses (or, rather, click plastic cups) and take single sips before putting their drinks down. They then stare intently up at the TVs above the bar, each of them clutching several betting stubs. I look up at the jumbo screens. The horse track announcer breaks the general silence of the space. Harness racing from Northfield Park in Ohio is just as incomprehensible to me as regular racing, which is just as incomprehensible as greyhound racing, which is much less incomprehensible than Jai-alai. A large screen off to the side shows this Basque sport where players sling a ball at walls using a long scoop. The sign for the “Bolivar Room” — “Where Jai-alai action never stops” — hangs between Spanish and Portuguese flags. The two most recognizable flags of the Iberian Peninsula make sense, though Basque separatists would probably disagree. But why put the name of a South American revolutionary who fought against Spanish colonialism next to a Spanish flag? Regardless of these anomalies, Brian Regan, head of security, tells me that Jai-alai betting has increased over the past two years and no one has an explanation. Tuesday nights are the most popular nights because of it.
You can’t bet on every sport shown at Sports Haven, only horses, dogs and Jai-alai. Sundays, however, are some of the more popular days because of football. People come in to watch the games over pitchers and fifty-cent wings. Janice shows me tiny flags with NFL team logos on them. You can’t bet on football, but if you pick the team that’s ahead at the half, you win a free beer, shot, soda or coffee.
Bookies bet on football, though, and I’m told, if I keep my eyes peeled, I might see some hanging around if I come back during game days. Running with the theme, Janice pulls out a plastic football with holes that fit test tube shooters. She likes to mix a special shot specific to each team playing.
Sports Haven is one of the flagship locations of Winners, an off-track betting operation. It simulcasts races from around the world so people can place bets at any time. It makes most of its money, in fact, from off-site bets made either by phone or over the Internet. The building itself only fills up during special events.
All the employees tell me that people aren’t really betting anymore. The casinos in Connecticut have killed business, and the recession hasn’t helped. Janice explains that the only people that bet here are those with a lot of money and those that pick cans off the street. There’s no middle class. Gamblers still come because, as Regan explains, “This place is the closest thing to actually being at the racetrack.”
Sports Haven started as the New Haven Teletheater in 1979, one of the first venues of its kind in the country. Bob Lucarelli has been working as a mutuel since opening night on October 25th. He tells me that they used to have one track from New York broadcast at a time. He used to cater to long lines of gamblers. Now, he has the time to answer my questions leisurely. Bob argues that the simulcast has corrupted the business. “We used to have people from New York and Newark coming.” The whole building would be fixed to one screen, watching the same finish line. The only time that happens now is during a race like the Kentucky Derby, which is Sports Haven’s biggest event.
But out of everyone at Sports Haven, Janice stands out — she’s the center of energy. She seems to power the whole enterprise. She wants to change the business and says she has the ideas to do so.
“Every place I ever worked, I made it better.” She lists a few of her proposals. She wants to hold a Ladies’ Night and call it “Just Bitchin’,” where girls come and complain about their boyfriends (while getting hammered, I presume). Janice tries out one of her slogans on me: “Why go downtown and get a parking ticket, when you could go to Sports Haven and get a winning ticket?”
The Sports Haven crowd is generally middle-aged, but Janice wants to reach out to the college youth. “Tell your friends. They could come watch all these other assholes.”
On top of it all, she’s trying to sell a children’s book to Ellen Degeneres, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt.
What about the gamblers, though? Mike Leclair, the owner of a renovation company in Milford, sits at the bar with his wife Tricia. It’s her birthday. He bets every day, mostly on Jai-alai and mostly by phone. He’s been coming to Sports Haven for 20 years.
“If I didn’t come in here a year, I could buy a brand new Harley – cash.” He explains that he plays numbers; he doesn’t worry about odds. If he notices numbers, any numbers, that stand out during his day, he’ll play them. He jokes that he makes most of his money gambling.
An old man with a full, long, scraggly white beard dozes on his stool, a full cup of beer on the bar in front of him. He sports a UCONN cap and an empty cell phone holster clipped to worn-out jeans. Everyone seems to be used to his presence. Herbie is 65 years old and lives with his mother. Herbie’s got a tattoo of a watch around one wrist. If you ask him the time, he’ll smile at you, look down at his wrist and read from the ink. “It’s time to party.”
He’s worked hard all his life, in factories and pizza shops. Now he rides his bike around picking up cans from the street. Bar people say he bikes from Branford to Bridgeport most days. He’s a regular at Sports Haven. He doesn’t gamble, but he sits at the bar. He drinks a few beers, bought by others, and takes a nap. Then he gets back on his bike.
As I wait for Abe’s taxi to return, a white bike stands hitched to a trailer holding plastic bags filled with cans. A green Yale bag for recycling mixed paper hangs from the handlebars. Herbie exits Sports Haven, yawning and rubbing his eyes. Now he’s on his bike, pedalling off into the dim lights and gentle drone of the highway.