The wind is blowing throughout some of the city's former OTB parlors, since the State Senate voted to close all of its off-track betting establishments in 2010. Originally conceived in the early '70's, as one way to curtail illegal betting and take power away from the local bookie, the state-owned legal betting service never turned into a lucrative enterprise. A few of the city's OTB parlors boasted full service restaurants, where gamblers could order three-course meals as they studied their racing forms. But the majority of the city's parlors were dingy storefronts, where cashiers sat behind glass windows, like proprietors of liquor stores in the city's tougher 'hoods. The OTB parlor was a daily gathering spot for hundreds of the city's avid racing enthusiasts, many who were on a first name basis with each other, based solely on a shared habit. A new film, starring John Ventimiglia, of "The Sopranos" fame, and Babs Olusanmokun, (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Veronica Mars, The Unit) illustrates the gritty allure, as well as a sort of nostalgia, of the OTB parlor.
"Ponies" is the film adaptation of director Nick Sandow and writer Michael Batistick's critically acclaimed stage play. The original play was produced by Michael Imperioli's Studio Dante in 2004, and was praised by The New York Times, noting that "Mr. Ventimiglia delivers a hammy, charismatic performance of Pacinoesque proportions." Ventimiglia has clearly honed that performance for the film, playing the addicted and charismatic Croatian immigrant to the full Dostoevskian hilt. His Drazen is at once sympathetic, as he attempts to mollify a distraught friend whose cab has been stolen, and vile, as he sells the same friend out to save himself. Ventimiglia never wasted a minute of screen time as "Artie Buco", in David Chase's HBO masterpiece, "The Sopranos". Running with the wolves as he did, his character was put through the spectrum of the human comedy in all its glories and tragedies. His trust and faith in himself and his so-called friends was constantly tested. The character of Drazen is like all the vices of every low and deceitful "Sopranos" character rolled into one. With the exception of Tony Soprano, as Drazen is broke, unemployed, and forced to beg for money from friends to make his small time bets.
"Ponies" was screened last night at Tribeca Cinemas on Varick Street, and will open tomorrow at Cinema Village in Greenwich Village. An after party was held at Nolita's Ken & Cook on Kenmare Street, where guests like Michael Stipe, Parker Posey, Mick Rock and the film's cast and producers gathered to celebrate, and drink refreshing summer cocktails made with Sailor Jerry's Spiced Rum.
The original play's writer, Michael Batistick, sat at a corner table in the back of the restaurant and discussed the themes of his story. In defense of Drazen's almost completely despicable character, Batistick spoke about the complex qualities of the addicted personality. He remarked that those with first hand experience of the addict's behavior know too well how seductive the addict can be one minute, and totally disappointing the next. This is one reason Drazen is able to continuously grub money off pals to make his bets. Addicts survive through a symbiotic relationship with an enabler. He presents this situation through the experience of the immigrant, because, he says, "America is made of immigrants." And America, the writer claims, is ultimately all about addiction.
It would be difficult to argue with this statement, taking into account the overall toll addiction of every kind has taken on this nation's health. The current state of our national economy is blowback from the casino like nature of our banking and lending system. A cure looks to be far off, as plans are afoot to privatize off-track betting and bring it back for private gain. It looks like Thoroughbred racing might fall back into the hands of the faceless dealer once again. Next Friday, July 20, the mecca of Thoroughbred racing, Saratoga, opens. This is arguably the most prestigious race meet in the country, where anyone who is anybody in racing puts on a show and bets on the highest purses on a daily basis. It is the real deal, as far as betting goes, and as the OTB was the only bookie joint in the history of gambling to consistently lose money, the allure of the racetrack is still calling.
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