For the last decade, Jack Morgan and his wife, Norma, have been selling the Daily Racing Form at some of California's most prestigious horse-racing tracks, including Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar.
But when the Camarillo couple learned that off-track betting was starting up last week at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, they did not hesitate to abandon the more glamorous turfs in favor of hawking the statistical tabloid to local crowds.
"This is actually better," said the 74-year-old Morgan, a fit and well-tanned man, as he waited for customers at a makeshift stand outside. "The people are nicer. There's the breeze. There's the ocean . . . It's like I'm on vacation."
For the 600 or so horse fans who have flocked to the fair's Home Arts Building each day since Nov. 18, when the giant satellite dish out front began simulcasting races from Southern California tracks, the sentiments have been much the same.
Although orange plastic chairs substitute for grandstands and the closest raceway is the fair's nearby stock-car course, many of the gamblers expressed a preference for the low-key ambiance of the Ventura facility.
"People here are all settled down and relaxed," said Donald Bryan, 63, a retired Ventura plumber. "It's not as congested. And I don't have to travel. I live three blocks away. I can walk."
If the pace of the fairgrounds is a bit slower, the effect has not registered on the ability of fans to make a grab for their wallets.
Daily Bets Total $100,000
According to Fair Manager Jeremy Ferris, the off-track operation has been taking in daily wagers totaling about $100,000--or an average of about $155 gambled each day per person.
The fairgrounds gets to keep 2% of the total, which when spread over 250 to 300 days of racing for the year, means an annual booty of about $500,000, Ferris said. Adding in revenue from admission prices and concession sales, he predicted the fair would reap about $1 million a year from the operation.
"That's a substantial business in and of itself," Ferris said. "It provides the fairgrounds with financial security--which hasn't happened before."
The door for off-track betting in Ventura was opened in September, when Gov. George Deukmejian signed a bill permitting wagering at non-racing fairgrounds in southern California.
Ten fairgrounds in northern California already offer off-track betting, said Richard Cain, executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs. As a result of the new legislation, wagering also has started up in San Bernardino and Del Mar, he said.
In Ventura, the off-track operation is set up in the cavernous Home Arts Building, a 14,000-square-foot structure that serves as the showplace for quilts and canned goods during the annual 12-day fair.
For the chance to wager, patrons pay a $3 general admission charge. Once inside, they can buy a tuna fish sandwich for $3.75, a large draft beer for $3 and a chili dog for $2.
The facility is kept clean by a team of custodians who enforce what Ferris calls the "Disneyland treatment"--a rule that no garbage should be left on the ground for longer than five minutes.
"People who aren't used to horse racing tend to think the atmosphere is somewhat unsavory," he said. "But it isn't. This is more like a bingo parlor. You've got a lot of family-type people around here."
Some of those fans included Billy Graham, an unsuccessful candidate in this month's City Council election, who came with his wife, Alex, to assess the new operation.
"There's more action here than you see in one week at the county fair," said Graham, who served as superintendent of the fair's Commercial Building in the early 1960s. "I think it's a great addition."
His friend, Bill Reed, a regular traveler to the Santa Anita track, agreed.
"I just came down to see what it's all about, and I love it," said Reed, a Ventura cement salesman. "People here get just as excited as they do at the race track."
And Bob Dixon, a retired sign painter from San Ysidro, now a professional horseplayer, was enjoying himself after having just arrived from a stint at the Bay Meadows track in San Mateo.
"I may take off tonight," said the 59-year-old Dixon, who travels the racing circuit year-round. "I never know."
Most Gamblers Are Men
As at the live tracks, the clientele are primarily men, who spend most of their time studying the Racing Form while noting the changing odds flashing across the television monitors.
Those odds, as well as the races, are transmitted simultaneously from the host track, which until Dec. 24 is Hollywood Park. After Christmas, the races will be broadcast from Santa Anita.
As each post time approached, the gamblers gradually worked their way to one of the 24 betting windows, where the lines were rarely more than five or six people long.
The announcement that "the horses have reached the starting gate" cast a hush, and the aficionados jockeyed for position in front of one of the 15 26-inch color monitors or five 48-inch screens.
Then came the shouts and cheers of encouragement, as the fields of horses battled for the lead in Inglewood, 60 miles to the south.
"Ah, he's eating up the track . . . I missed him," shouted a disgruntled fan, as jockey Jose Santos rode a 2-year-old chestnut colt named White Mischief to a long-shot victory in last Friday's featured eighth race.
Back outside, the Morgans were already selling Racing Forms for the next day's races.
"It's horses," Jack Morgan said when asked to assess the difference of the off-track operation. "It's all the same."