The ‘Best Sports Sports Betting Scenes in Television and Movies’ series rolls on, following up a recent big-screen edition on Silver Linings Playbook with a classic gambling scene from the small screen.
When the defining sitcom of the 1990s — if not the entire history of television — Seinfeld arrives on Netflix in 2021, it figures to reach a new generation of young binge-watchers just like Friends and The Office, among others, have over the last few years. And when it does so, those fans will learn that Jerry and his friends weren’t shy about making the occasional wager long before sports betting became legal in their home state of New York.
Their most famous bet had nothing to do with sports; it was a friendly $100 challenge (well, $150 for Elaine) in the Season 4 episode titled “The Contest” to see who could remain “master of his domain” (or her domain) longest.
The show took other dives into gambling, such as the Season 6 episode in which Kramer (Michael Richards) and a man from Texas start betting at the airport on when flights will arrive, and the Season 8 episode in which Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) accidentally breaks the thumbs of Kramer’s bookie friend Mike.
But the only time Seinfeld spent significant time in the legal wagering world came in the Season 3 episode “The Subway,” in which the show’s “core four” characters take a ride together on New York City’s underground train, then splinter in their various directions.
The four horses in the first race
On YouTube, a few scenes are stitched together to tell Kramer’s story:
After the K-Man loses a game of musical chairs and then a variation of Hungry Hungry Hippos over a newspaper, he overhears a conversation about a horse race. One of the guys Kramer is eavesdropping on has inside information about a horse named Papernick, who’s “a lock” at 30/1.
The insider’s pal wonders if the previous night’s rain will be an issue, to which he famously replies, “He loves the slop. It’s in his bloodlines. His father was a mudder. His mother was a mudder!”
The show cuts to the exterior of an off-track betting joint, and inside Kramer is repeating word for word to another bettor what he overheard on the subway — with talk of bug boys, breaking his maiden, and of course, “his mother was a mudder.”
Kramer is distraught as the race starts badly for Papernick, but when the horse starts making his move late, physical comic genius Richards goes full pantomime jockey with Kramer, assuming a position atop an imaginary horse and whipping him with his rolled-up paper — his famous mountain of curly hair rocking about. Papernick wins, and Kramer celebrates, having achieved the rush every sports bettor craves.
The laughs pretty much end there, as the writer of the episode, Larry Charles, takes the story in a strangely serious direction, with Kramer collecting stacks of bills at the betting window and then getting attacked for his money on the subway, only to get saved by an undercover cop. This one didn’t enter the history books among Seinfeld’s iconic signature plot dovetails.
Betting the ponies in the Big Apple
The first legal sportsbook in New York State opened in July 2019, but legal off-track betting dates back quite a bit further. The first legal NYC OTB took bets in 1971, just over two decades before this episode of Seinfeld was filmed.
And a lot has changed in the nearly three decades since. If this episode were set in modern times, Kramer wouldn’t need to go to an OTB; he could place the bet from his phone or computer — either in New York or in neighboring New Jersey.
But that would have denied us the delightful visual of Richards whipping his invisible thoroughbred amid a crowd of fellow gamblers. And chances are that Kramer texting a friend to tell him “His mother was a mudder” just wouldn’t have the same comedic impact.