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Friday, March 30, 2007

Racing’s Credo: Maintain the Status Quo

By John Pricci

Saratoga Springs, NY–And so another racing season ends with the knowledge that little has changed. For traditionalists such as myself this is a good thing. After all, racing’s been going on, in one form or another, since the sport was first introduced on the Hempstead Plains in Long Island, New York in the 17th century. But for pragmatists such as myself, the lack of change is something else; good because of the game’s storied past but bad because there’s more bottom to feed on before making an progress.

Increasingly it’s harder for me to understand why playing poker is a good thing to be embraced while horse-playing is something that only happens on the cheating side of town. Lottery, the world’s worst wager, is good because it’s state sponsored and it pays school bills, as if racing dollars don‘t spend. Illegal betting on the NFL with open media references to point spreads thrives on a wink and a nod. Las Vegas doesn’t call it “King Football” for nothing. But then double standards are as much a part of American life as making a bet.

There are many things racing can do to scale the walls of indifference and misunderstanding, even if things need to get worse before getting better. But that won’t happen as long as racing remains under state jurisdiction, and federal controls would be a greater of two evils. Racing organizations know this but none is willing to subjugate itself for the greater good. The industry is its own worse enemy.

And so medication rules never become uniform. States will continue to legislate racing morality and what’s a few more cc’s, give or take? So what if form varies from state to state? Shippers and how they run are just another piece of the handicapper’s puzzle. Let the bettor beware.

Does it matter that bloodstock prices are artificially high, that there’s more incentive to retire than race? What’s the difference if our champions are made on five-race campaigns instead of compiling an old-fashioned body of work? The market doesn‘t care if horses are not campaigned to win anything only that they shouldn’t lose. Why should horsemen race if they’re not running the favorite? There’s a handful of trainers at every track you can’t beat, anyway. If your winning percentage slips, your business goes south.

Parimutuel takeout is too high but politicians will pay lip service to supply-side theory and how lower taxes spur economies. They won’t get it when it comes to the hold on wagers. They believe revenue generated from wagering gives them a right to tax racetracks, OTBs, and horseplayers at a far higher rate than anyone else. The concept of churn is lost on them. How do we know for sure that when more money is returned to winning bettors the more they will bet in return? It doesn’t matter that every study done on the subject tells them so. They wail and want to make illegal the rebate shops that tax racing’s best customers at a far lower rate. Instead they point to the bottom line and say that lower take is bad for profits as if their own inefficiencies have nothing to do with it. When the stewardship situation is resolved in New York, bettors will pay more for the privilege of being customers. OTBs openly campaign for a higher take as if their own bloat has no effect. And the embattled New York Racing Association will go along with anything that keeps them alive. A higher takeout in New York is a sure bet in 2006.

Make no mistake. Further injury to New York racing will erode the entire industry. If NYRA doesn’t receive an 11th hour infusion of cash, as proposed by a powerful state senator this week to construct a bridge from present failure to a VLT windfall-aided future, they will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

What will happen to the state’s $2.4 billion agri-business and the 40,000 people that make a living from it? Mind-boggling to think that the New York State Lottery still hasn’t given formal permission to construct housing for video lottery terminals at Aqueduct Racetrack. Or that the New York Assembly leader still hasn’t appointed three representatives to an oversight board entrusted to fix New York’s problems, perhaps preferring to await the results of the 2006 gubernatorial election in which his party has the leading candidate?

Problems abound everywhere but no one’s in charge. Racing has failed to address the Triple Crown, its best marketing tool but one that presently is ill-suited to its own needs for better marketing and education while watching more and more of its young stars prematurely retire through injury. For whatever reason; permitted racing medication that weakens the breed, accent on procreating speedy athletic types rather than robust individuals, the decline in horsemanship and increase in training-by-vet, today’s racehorse cannot stand the rigors of a early three-race series that spans only five weeks.

In an age when simulcasting accounts for 80 percent of handle, racing won’t even take the small step of coordinating post times between tracks, clinging to the quaint idea of a first race, a second race, and so forth. Can’t new identities be created, such as the 1:00 at New York, and the 1:05 at Monmouth; post times that would permanently identify races as is done in Europe? What could be simpler?

Racing is embarrassed by wagering even though it’s the game’s life-blood. They don’t promote it as an intellectual exercise, akin to poker, a game fundamentally no different than when a sports handicapper concedes that playing style and speed dictates results. There are lessons to be taught that would give players a chance, that the odds one gets on horse races gives him a better chance than the 52.5 win percentage needed just to break even in the NFL. Racing doesn’t teach that. The game can’t even agree on uniform payoffs, based on the universally understood $1 pay standard. And never mind investing in software to make fractional betting in real-time possible in every pool. Why compete with lotteries?

Instead, racing will do its very best to maintain a status quo. After all, there’s one born every minute. Build it, and they will come. And be sure to meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

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