I have a rule of thumb at the racetrack, and it’s a simple one: If you have an opinion on a horse, and you bet it, and you’re right, you should be rewarded for it.
This sounds like a given, and it should be. However, the events leading up to Sunday’s first race at Saratoga turned this concept on its ear.
Here’s what happened, in as few words as I can muster: One of two coupled Joe Sharp trainees scratched at the gate. By New York law, the other half of the entry was forced to run for purse money only, and no wagers would be taken on the horse. That horse won as much the best, but for wagering purposes, the runner-up was declared the “winner.”
The aforementioned law, as it’s been explained to me, is on the books as an attempt to protect bettors. However, let me ask this question: If you’re a gambler, and you were betting the entry because of the horse that ran (as opposed to the horse that scratched), exactly how are you being protected? The only thing that’s protected, in this case, is the cash residing on the track’s end of the betting windows, as they’re refunding your wager rather than paying out a win.
This isn’t just an issue with straight, one-race bets. There have been issues with this in multi-race wagers, as well. The one that stands out to me came a few summers ago at Saratoga. I spread pretty deep in a Pick Four that included a 2-year-old race, and one of the betting interests I used was an entry trained by Edward Barker. Before the race, a part of the entry named Yorkiepoo Princess (who went on to win three stakes races) scratched, leaving just stablemate Kissin Cassie to run for purse money only.
You can guess where this is going. Kissin Cassie won by two lengths (she was about 8-1 or so when her stablemate scratched), and the horse that ran second was a 33-1 shot I did not have on my tickets (nor did pretty much anyone else, judging by the eventual payoffs). I was right to use the entry. The connections of the entry celebrated a victory. Those who bet the entry, however, were left with no profits to show for their astute handicapping.
Explain the concept of, “being right to bet a horse to win, but not winning,” to a novice horse racing fan, and the fan’s head might explode. It should never happen, yet it happens several times a year on the NYRA circuit. These are the simple things we need to clean up if racing is to survive once sports betting becomes widely legalized. If I bet the Michigan Wolverines to beat Notre Dame, and they beat Notre Dame, I expect to collect money. The same principle should apply to horse racing, and it’s not rocket science to think that.
I understand why multi-horse entries exist. Having said that, it’s entirely possible the concept has outlived its usefulness. Southern California does not have entries, and as a result, the circuit does not have this problem. Furthermore, since horse racing’s top level is being populated by fewer and fewer trainers, there are races where entries do not serve their intended purpose.
As an example of this statement, I submit Saratoga’s third race from the August 2nd program. It was a maiden special weight event for turf horses, and Chad Brown had three entrants. Two were coupled (#1 Business Cycle, a main-track-only runner who scratched, and #1A Frontier Market). A third, #3 Hizeem, was not part of the entry, which defies the very principle of entries. If entries exist to protect the public by coupling horses that share owners and/or trainers, why was one Chad Brown trainee not coupled with the other two? This holds especially true since one of the runners would only run if the race was rained off the turf, and in that circumstance, it’s highly likely that at least one of the other Chad Brown-trained runners would scratch. With that in mind, a three-horse entry would have been very improbable and should not have been seen as a bad thing.
The procedures here seem inconsistent to me, and it doesn’t pass the test of being able to explain the concept to a casual fan in less than 15 seconds. If I’m a fan, and I have a discretionary amount of money with which to bet, why would I want to spend all of this time trying to understand principles that don’t make sense? In much less time than it would take to wrap my head around these concepts, I can look up a game preview, read 300 words on the participants, and have enough substance to formulate wagering opinions on that contest.
I believe that we’d be smart to treat every issue this game has with fan education and retention at the forefront. I am not a, “THE SKY IS FALLING!,” type who believes every little issue could be the downfall of horse racing. In fact, my views are far from that. I earnestly believe there are a lot of people in the sport that genuinely want it to succeed and prosper in an age where gambling, in theory, will have less of a stigma attached to it. However, when the sports betting folks get their ducks in a row, and when that provides real competition to horse racing, we’d better be ready with a customer-friendly product that attracts people and keeps them coming back.
There are big problems the sport has that will take a lot of thought to solve. Those will all need time, unity, and, in some cases, short-term sacrifices to fix. However, there are problems we can deal with right away with very little effort that will make it easier to attract and keep new fans, and this is one of them.
In lieu of a better solution (and if someone has one, I’m all ears), NYRA and other organizations that still have multi-horse entries should treat each horse as a separate betting interest. The rules that are on the books are not working as intended, and they’re costing players money rather than ensuring they’re protected. Changes to these procedures and policies would be to the benefit of everyone involved, and they would prevent issues like the ones that arose Sunday at Saratoga from happening again.