What are the Odds?

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E ast of Ikea on Long Wharf Drive, not far from where the Mill and Quinnipiac Rivers spill into the New Haven harbor, a semi-industrial hinterland of Interstate flyovers, oil infrastructure and office buildings hides a weird and wondrous revival.

Sports Haven. You might have heard of it, but you’ve probably never walked past the modernist concrete installation above its main entrance. Maybe it’s the stigma associated with off-track horse betting places—generally reputed as seedy, unsavory spots—that’s kept you away.

It’s a stigma that Sports Haven is trying hard to overcome. In the five years since British company Sportech bought the 1979-constructed architectural gem—a wider-than-tall (but still very tall) cylinder, with an open layout in the middle—the company’s invested three quarters of a million dollars into revitalizing the place, according to Todd Hill, Sportech’s acquisition manager.

sponsored by

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

Of Sportech’s 15 OTBs across Connecticut, Sports Haven is, and obviously should be, its flagship, and it’s where the company is most actively trying to expand into attractions beyond betting on horses. In the fall, Sports Haven markets itself as the place to watch football every Sunday—which, given four massive projection screens towering over the main floor, a 360-degree bar in the center of the room, lots of tables scattered around and curved theater-style balconies, it very well may be. Since 2014, it’s become a noteworthy comedy venue, hosting occasional shows by fairly big-name comics—like Gilbert Gottfried, Dave Coulier and Adam Ferrara. And to burnish its casual hangout credentials, the bar offers long- and late-running happy hour specials from 4 to 8 p.m., $2 off local beers on “Wicked Wednesdays” and trivia nights every Thursday.

But horses are still the bread and butter here, a point splashed across the outside of the building in the form of a 100-by-65-foot mural depicting thoroughbreds and jockeys in powerful stride. One of the great overlooked pieces of public art in New Haven, the mural, commissioned in 1995, is the work of local artist Tony Falcone, who also has several other murals around town, at Albertus Magnus, Hillhouse High School and the Peabody Museum.

According to Hill, the building has a place in national, not just local, horse racing history. He says the building housed the first simulcast facility in the United States, meaning that New Haven was the first place in America you could watch and wager on a live race.

With those four huge projection screens and an airy, wide open space to watch from, the building really does mimic the feeling of being at the track. Catching a big horse race like the Kentucky Derby here, with that last-second excitement that sweeps over a roaring crowd as the horses enter the starting gate, comes surprisingly close to the real thing.

Something you couldn’t possibly confuse for the real thing, but is pretty remarkable in its own right, is a neon installation on the outer curve of an inner wall. Rather than heading straight up the stairs into the main room as you enter, turn right and walk up the ramp that follows the shape of the building. In a hallway that feels akin to an M.C. Escher drawing colored in during an acid trip, fluorescent green thoroughbreds race across a crowd of glowing red spectators. The scene is a bizarre and delightful piece of psychedelic Americana, perhaps worth the trip alone.

It’s not the kind of thing you expect to see at an off-track betting facility, that’s for sure.

Sports Haven
600 Long Wharf Dr, New Haven (map)
Mon-Wed 11:30am-10pm, Thurs 11:30am-11pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-midnight, Sun 11:30am-8pm
(203) 946-3252
www.sportshavenbarandgrille.com

Written by Michael Lee-Murphy. Photo #2 by Michael Lee-Murphy; others by Dan Mims.

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Michael Lee-Murphy is an Irish-born, Connecticut-raised, and Montreal-schooled reporter and writer. He blogs at A Furious Return to Basics.

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