Racer, the new Toto game which features betting on horse races in England, is sweeping Israel, bringing in some NIS 700,000 daily. Baruch Dagon, the Toto spokesperson entrusted with the management of sports betting in Israel - primarily soccer and basketball matches - can't hide his enthusiasm: "Even the English are impressed with the way it has caught on here, a state without the tradition of betting on races. This is some project and I'll believe we'll have yearly income of NIS 500 million for Israeli sports."
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Stepping into the Toto betting office on Tel Aviv's Ben Yehuda Street, I encounter eight men who bet on every race, and numerous others who come and go, all men in their fifties. In order to better grasp the game, I bet NIS 10 on Flora Lee. I know I can count on beginners' luck.
Confident of victory, I smugly sit myself down beside a man in a distinguished grey suit, who seems to be on top of things. He prophesizes that it will actually be Horse Number Five who will win, thanks to his jockey, whose name he pronounces in a perfect accent. I ask him if, as an expert, he thinks that my Flora Lee stands a chance. "I'm an expert only in losing money," he responds.
The horses take off and everybody in the place begins jumping around and cheering at the TV screen. "Go, Go," my non-expert friend in the suit calls out, as though trying to hypnotize the horses. Another man seems to be praying solemnly, repeating the liturgy, Number Three Number Three." "You're disturbing him," someone tells him.
My Flora Lee starts off fine, but loses energy and eventually finishes last. Haaretz loses NIS 10.
Nixing my number
The next race begins after a few minutes. I decide to take my chance on number six, Double Chocolate, who takes the lead from the start. Everyone around me knows I've bet on him, and since I'm new here and their horses have faded away, they begin to cheer Double Chocolate on. I have new friends, and I'm already thinking of what I'll do with the NIS 80 I'm about to pocket. "You can't really tell in a 5,000-meter race," the man in the suit tells me, before some wicked amateur suddenly yells, "Six will be last." "Why would you nix him with you filthy mouth?" someone shoots back. Luck and nixing are crucial here, and, unfortunately, it worked. Double Chocolate slumped to third.
A., who sells snacks at another Toto office explains: "People mostly lose here, because Israelis don't know anything about horses." He says that many clients are gambling addicts who show up every day, and bet from 3 P.M. to midnight. He himself claims the best bet ever in the station, when he placed NIS 10 on a 1:108 horse and won. Today, he says, he saw someone bet NIS 18,000 and lose.
In another betting office in the south of Tel Aviv, one of the employees told me: "I don't like Racer. These guys are addicts. They're here all day. I tell them 'go home to your wife, go home to your kids.' What we need is to hand out a page of directives for dealing with addicts."
At a Toto office on Aliyah street, also in the south of town, the people seem even more down. An African migrant shows me how to find the statistics on each horse, something most gamblers don't even bother with. Most of the men here, too, are in their fifties. A young man comes in, but he heads straight to the lottery's slot machines. I didn't even know they existed.
I talk to two gamblers, one a fisherman and the other a cab driver, and ask them if they had any luck: "Everybody loses, I've never met even one winner," they say. "Why do we gamble? We're sick. Give us cockroaches and we'll bet on them, too." Both men say they lose thousands of shekels a month.
While the whole concept of this legal activity seems shocking to me, there are also those who oppose the betting for other reasons. Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg called for abolishing the races due to the suffering of the horses. "The ads and aggressive campaigning leave a bitter taste, as though they are shoving this abuse and suffering [of animals] in our faces, with a legal stamp of approval.
Dagon says that Toto tried to receive permits to hold races in Israel for 17 years, without success, so the bets are on English races. "England is a progressive country when it comes to animal rights," he says. "Even if horse-racing bets are outlawed in Israel, the races will continue." Responding to a demonstration held by animal activists against the betting, Dagon adds: "They would be better off demonstrating at the Yarkon Park, against the abuse of the poor pony who carries children on his back all day."