The big gam­ble

The Compass - - OPINION - Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic Re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­; his col­umn ap­pears on Tues­days, Thurs­days and Satur­days in TC Me­dia’s daily pa­pers.

The Char­lot­te­town horses are out run­ning in the night. Not fast: there are no track lights on. You can hear the rhyth­mic clop of the hooves out there, the har­ness mak­ing soft, rhyth­mic sounds — the horses oc­ca­sion­ally chuckle.

The sta­bles are quiet, with empty sulkies lean­ing against the wall, their long arms straight up like they’ve sur­ren­dered. Seven at night, full dark, an un­sea­son­ably warm Novem­ber wind. It’s out­side that strange con­cept, the ra­cino. Ra­ci­nos are sup­posed to help the fail­ing har­ness business, the pe­cu­liar premise be­ing that it’s OK to in­tro­duce casino gambling to a sport where there’s al­ready race­track gambling, like the two are bound to be com­ple­men­tary.

But here, no one but me is watch­ing the horses. You can hear the jock­eys talk­ing as the two horses round the track, their voices mov­ing as the horses travel, the horses and sulkies side by side, one man, one woman.

They talk to me when they pass, me only a stand­ing shadow on the rail. “How are you doin’?” the man calls. “Hello,” the woman jockey says. The horses look over, their heads held straight but their big eyes cut­ting over as they pass through the light from the park­ing lot. The park­ing lot, with only a smat­ter of cars, so quiet that you can hear when a man spits in the dis­tance. There’s a sliver of moon, so that you can see the rest of the lu­nar cir­cle up there, lit only faintly.

Red Shores is a small casino — three black­jack ta­bles, maybe five for poker. One black­jack ta­ble’s be­ing used, and one poker ta­ble. Ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­one: one player is go­ing back to work in Al­berta at 2:30 a.m. — he’s gambling un­til he has to pack, un­con­cerned about the flow of money. Deal­ers and staff keep com­ing over to ask him when he’s go­ing back. That’s the first strange thing: it’s a first-name ba­sis for ev­ery­one but me. There are three lo­cal doc­tors play­ing at the poker ta­ble — prob­a­bly the best place on P.E.I. to choke on a french fry or have a heart at­tack. Bet­ter chances than the slots, any­way. Maybe it’s dif­fer­ent in sum­mer, busier.

Right now, it’s ev­ery­thing that can be wrong with a casino.

Any gov­ern­ment that wants to be in the casino business had bet­ter be think­ing about just who’s go­ing to play — and how to get peo­ple from out­side their prov­ince to sur­ren­der cash. Casi­nos have been pitched in New­found­land. Oth­ers op­er­ate in Hal­i­fax and Syd­ney, N.S., and in a high­way-side bunker-like room near Monc­ton, N.B. There’s ap­par­ently a First Na­tions casino in Wood­stock, N.B. — I’ve never seen that one. The rest seem to share the same pa­trons, the ex­act same sad, long-dis­tance eyes.

The last time one was pro­posed in New­found­land, bu­reau­crats were blunt in their re­view of the plan.

“...(It) is ques­tion­able whether any ma­te­rial fis­cal or eco­nomic gains could be achieved, or whether they are worth any so­cial pol­icy trade-offs. Cit­ing past prac­tices in other ju­ris­dic­tions where casi­nos have been es­tab­lished, the pro­po­nent con­cedes that a casino would at­tract few ad­di­tional tourists to the prov­ince and that the majority of its pa­trons would be res­i­dents. ... As gaming is largely a dis­cre­tionary spend­ing item, rev­enues gen­er­ated by a casino may be off­set by a re­duc­tion in At­lantic Lot­tery Com­mis­sion (ALC) rev­enues or from other ex­pen­di­tures.”

Has tithing the Char­lot­te­town reg­u­lars saved the race­track? Maybe. But only by re­cy­cling lo­cal dol­lars that would be spent any­way, the gov­ern­ment hap­pily tak­ing its cut while ar­gu­ing that casino gambling is just an in­no­cent bit of fun , not an in­escapable tax on the eter­nally hope­ful.

The horses van­ish into the dark again. One makes a typ­i­cal sound with its lips, a wet and rubbery bur­ble. Not a whicker, more de­ri­sive than that, almost dis­mis­sive.

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