Once upon a time, a day at the races meant something entirely different than it does nowadays. The racetrack was teaming with people, who complained that by the time the horses for the first race were at the starting gate, they were already behind for the day: Transportation, parking, admission, the Daily Racing Form, perhaps a beer and a sandwich. It added up.

There was no system of off-track betting or any other form of legal gambling in those days. Slot machines were in Nevada and the lottery was called the number and was an enterprise of the mob, not the state government. Al Gore had not yet invented the Internet and most accounts that harbored cash were in banks. There was no exacta, trifecta, superfecta, pick three, four or six. The only alternative to win, place and show was the daily double on the first two races. The sharp players labored to calculate their own speed figures, but shared them with no one.

But there were people at the races, most of them standing in line because if you were betting, thats what you did between races. There were windows that sold tickets in fixed denominations and there were others that cashed tickets. Self service was an option only for the clerks.

A day at the races was not the festive occasion that those who bemoan the off-track migration of the live audience would have you believe.

This comes to mind after having seen the anti-NYRA television spot produced this week on behalf of the Capital Play, the Australians who would happily raise the takeout on every wager currently legal in New York if only the authorities would share the vision that by granting them the racing franchise they would somehow cause the empty grandstands of the two downstate racetracks to suddenly team with horseplayers shouting, Aussie, Aussie, Aussie oy, oy, oy!

Garbage. Any talk of returning to the good old days when racetracks were destinations is simply dishonest. Any notion that it is possible to stimulate meaningful growth of the daily on-track attendance total is foolish. The industry created the options that encourage remote participation and is living with the result.

It is Saturday morning and I like a horse in the second race at Aqueduct. If the price is acceptable, I will pick up the telephone and place a wager. I will watch all nine races on the card. If an opportunity presents itself in the form of an overlay, I will again pick up the phone. If not, I am warm and comfortable at home and I will bet no more or less than I would were I at the races. My best guess it that fewer than 5,000 people will be at Aqueduct today but the total handle will likely approach $10 million. Next Saturday, Midnight Lute will be in town for the Cigar Mile, more than sufficient reason to make the trip to Queens. The Stuyvesant Handicap, particularly in lieu of a strong opinion, is not.

Aqueduct has seen its last big crowd. Get over it. There will be big crowds at Belmont, but few and far between Belmont Stakes day, the occasional Breeders Cup. Saratoga is the exception to every rule, but the combination of place, season and a level of racing duplicated nowhere else defies what is otherwise the stark reality of racing in America.
The audience is off track literally.

In places away from Aqueduct but all over New York, places closer to their homes, horseplayers still enjoy the camaraderie of kindred spirits once reserved for the track. They gather at teletheaters, in neighborhood bars and restaurants that have been fitted with self-service betting terminals by various OTB agencies and lined with televisions.

This is by no means an ideal circumstance considering the misshapen fiscal structure of OTB in the state but it is not the fault of the New York Racing Association. It is the natural evolution of a marketplace shaped by OTB, account wagering, technology and convenience. This is not a symptom of some greater problem or a decline in the size of the audience; it is the current state of a market which has never participated with more enthusiasm -- if enthusiasm is measured in money. With the migration of the audience, the method of keeping score has also changed.

There are better uses for space unused at both Aqueduct and Belmont Park. Aqueduct will eventually house a large video lottery facility. Belmont should be treated with a less vulgar hand. But those who bemoan the empty grandstands that stand now as monuments to an era long gone fail to see the forest for the trees. This is no longer an issue but, like suburban malls, cell phones and Internet shopping, a fact of life in the 21st century.