The South Philadelphia Turf Club has to be close to 50 gazillion square feet, (much of it depopulated, waiting only for the demise of casinos, the end of phone betting, the second coming of Smarty Jones, or, in order to fill this vast, carpeted expanse, all of the above).
So, it's unclear why, in all this echoing sprawl, one particular gambler in his 50s has singled out our table to launch his wide-ranging monologue: on gambling strategy (the odds of winning in a 12-horse race: one in 12), on his views of prostitution (income is income), on the work ethic of various minorities, and on the penological value of starvation for inmates.
But, I've learned, it is best to be prepared for anything — or, just as likely, for nothing — at this off-track-betting establishment, stranded amid highway on-ramps and blank-faced warehouses, just blocks from the sports complex.
I and a friend had decided to visit a Turf Club in advance of the Preakness. Parx Racing runs three of them in the region, all opened after off-track betting was legalized in Pennsylvania in 1988. It used to own more, but a couple have closed in recent years.
This one features ample parking and a flashy entrance, via an escalator flanked by black-and-white photos of bygone celebrities like Cary Grant, Ray Charles, and Eddie Cochran. (Note: These are merely examples of famous people, not actual past Turf Club visitors.)
Upstairs, the crowd was modest on a Thursday night — or perhaps it was large, but scattered across a region big enough to span several Philadelphia voting precincts.
"It's that big because of what the business was twentysomething years ago. You could fill it all the time," Parx Racing's Joe Wilson said.
There's a central, rectangular, Formica-topped bar staffed by a single bartender/waitress, who disappears for long periods in order to cover this expansive turf. Around it, in every direction, rooms filled with empty tables and chairs stretch toward the horizon. Each room features banks of televisions: some modern flat-screens, others old CRT sets, all tuned to silent scenes of horse or harness racing. Picture windows offer skyline views that are striking, even with the concrete mass of I-76 in the foreground.
On our visit, though, most people gathered around monitors near the betting terminals, where the vibe was evocative of nursing-home-rec-room bingo. The men — and they were exclusively men, in jeans caked with construction dust, or blazers and fedoras, or track suits and oxygen tanks — suffered through the races, each in his own style. Some slouched in chairs, motionless. Some paced anxiously, as though outside a 1950s delivery room. Some stood inches from the monitors, screaming curses and punching at the screen with frustrated fingers.
One man shouted, "C'mon baby!" Another smirked. "As soon as you start yelling for your horse, just rip up your ticket," he muttered.
I took this in while waiting 20 minutes for the bartender to return from a long, overland journey to the kitchen. Once she did, I ordered a Miller Lite in a bottle ($4.40) and contemplated the food menu: cheesesteaks, fries, an improbable house-made pizza. But, at 8 p.m., the kitchen was already closing.
So we made our way to a counter once manned by bookies but now staffed by touch-screen, automated bet-takers. We surveyed the evocative, exquisite-corpse names of the thoroughbreds — Southwind Ike and Jive Daddy and Goods Gone West — and put our money toward the favorite in a Churchill Downs race, a horse encouragingly named Arsenalofdemocracy.
The race started badly. By the end, our horse was dead last. That's how it goes sometimes at the Turf Club. So much for democracy.
The South Philadelphia Turf Club
700 Packer Ave., Philadelphia, 215-551-8270, parxracing.com/turf_sp
When to go: May 20 for the Preakness Stakes, or June 10 for the Belmont Stakes. Any time the Phillies are on a rain delay. Otherwise, it's open noon to 11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, and noon to midnight Friday-Saturday.
What to order: A lager. A shot. A lager and a shot. You can't go wrong with any of those.
Bring: Your bachelor party. Your mall-walkers' club. Any claustrophobes in your life.
Bathroom situation: Stalls that, in the rarely used women's room, were clean, functional, and adorned with signs advising, "For sanitary and visual reasons please flush the toilet."