Bar Bet

Bar Bet

Despite its Modernist credentials, colorful horse-and-jockey murals and promise of a unique experience, Sports Haven is a place New Haveners tend to avoid. Punctuating the stark commercial zone rounding the top of New Haven Harbor, our local off-track betting facility looks like a repurposed oil tank—a question mark for motorists on I-95 and a sharp exclamation point for critics of the city’s waterfront development choices.

But when it comes to watering holes, it’s what’s inside that counts, and the bar here is a good bet. The food menu is predictable, offering your run-of-the-mill bar snacks, but someone in the kitchen clearly knows how to work a fryer. The wings are surprisingly good, and everything else I’ve tried has scratched the itch it was meant to. Though I doubt anyone is dropping by Sports Haven for their draft list, they’ve got local reliables like Headway and Sea Hag on tap. Nothing is too fancy on the cocktail side of things either, but a Dewar’s and soda pairs well with a horse race and a few onion rings. The bartenders are good, too. Staffers could get away with some surliness in this environment, but all the service I’ve received has been attentive and kind.

At 38,000 square feet with a soaring 50-foot ceiling, the scale of the joint feels comically out of proportion. Not counting stadiums or arenas, Sports Haven has gotta be the biggest place by volume to knock one back on the eastern seaboard. Designed in the late ’70s as the “world’s first theatre of racing,” it originally held tiered stadium seating for over 2,000. It’s since been converted into more of an open plan dotted with personal viewing booths, flexible seating arrangements and private balconies aimed at four massive screens on the perimeter wall. Serving customers in 360 degrees, the octagonal bar, perched in the middle above a sea of those personal booths, boasts 20 screens alone.

In total, there might be more screens at Sports Haven than all of New Haven’s other bars combined. (A recent companion lost count at around 200.) And for as little as a 10-cent superfecta, you can get in on live, simulcast action from Santa Anita to Saratoga Springs. On a Saturday afternoon, a friend of mine turned 20 cents into 70 dollars while I was showing her how to use the self-serve betting kiosk. The gamblers who know what they’re doing usually have a racing form in front of them. Strike up a conversation and they might walk you through the arcane knowledge it contains, like watching an Assyriologist translate cuneiform.

The barroom, especially, is one of those increasingly rare places where strangers want to talk. Everyone in there has a story, and if you sit awhile, you’ll hear a few: the 90-to-1 that came in last week; the firefighter wrapping up a 30-year career; the brother mourning a sister who died too young. I met a former professional jai alai player generous enough to show me the scar tissue on his belly from an errant pelota.

I can’t, in good conscience, recommend that a gambling venue become your local. But there are few places in the area more intriguing or potentially rewarding, even if that daily double doesn’t hit.

Sports Haven Bar & Grille
600 Long Wharf Dr, New Haven (map)
Mon-Wed 11:30am-6pm, Thurs 11:30am-9pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-10pm, Sun 11:30am-8pm
(203) 946-3144

Written by Chris Renton. Images 1 and 4 photographed by Chris Renton. Images 2 and 3 photographed by Dan Mims.

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