Even at tracks, California's sports-gambling plan is outdated

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

A proposal by 18 Indian tribes could put sportsbooks like this one at the Meadowlands in New Jersey at racetracks and tribal casinos in California. But it would not open betting on line and through digital apps. (Meadowlands photo)

Las Vegas


What is it about racing that invites the old? Not people. Ideas.


Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know there are young wags who believe that only slumping geezers who wrap themselves in mothballed clothes and wadded-up newsprint bet $2 at a time on horses. Apparently, while yapping “OK, boomer,” they are blind to the diverse crowds that annually attend the Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup or big days at Del Mar and Saratoga and Keeneland.


I get it. There are still more than 300 days a year that look threadbare, not to mention all those months at racecourses that do not have the luxury of can’t-miss events. How to get more people – and therefore more bettors – to show up at the track is an eternal challenge.


Which brings me to the news that came out of California this week. Eighteen Indian tribes there are backing a proposal for the ballot that will also have next November’s presidential election. If about 1 million valid signatures are collected by early summer, the ballot question would ask voters next fall if they want to let tribal casinos and, yes, racetracks offer sports gambling. In return the state government would get 10 percent of the hold.


But here is the big problem. The proposal will not allow sports betting on line or through mobile apps.


“Californians should have the choice to participate in sports wagering at highly regulated, safe and experienced gaming locations,” said Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga tribe that operates a casino in Temecula, Calif.


Translation? “If we build sportsbooks only at casinos and racetracks, they will come.”


Really? How is that working out in New York? Four upstate Indian tribes have generated only about $6 million in revenue since sports wagering became legal there this summer. That means the state government’s 10 percent take would not even cover the annual salary of a medical-school dean – or a pocket-change, World Series bet by Mattress Mack.


Granted, no one in that rather populated place known as New York City is going out of the way to traipse up the thruway to bet at places like Tioga Downs. But that is just the point. How many betting dollars are being left on the table – or under it, off shore – because those casinos are not allowed to offer a wagering app that would be available anywhere in the state?


New Jersey figured it out. Go to Monmouth Park or the Meadowlands, load a sports-betting app there, and bet like crazy – or responsibly – anywhere from Sussex County to the tip of Cape May. The result has already generated $37 million in tax money for the state over the last 1½ years. That actually might put a dent into the liability for the recent opening of American Dream, that painted-over eyesore that began as Xanadu.


The point is that we live in an era when retail stores made of bricks and mortar (the materials, not the horse) are an endangered species, and when NFL teams are struggling to keep the in-person, stadium experience competitive with the growing popularity of the sofa and HDTV.


In the more sustained era of expanded wagering choices, racing is already marginalized. Trying to convince California bettors to show up at a track or even a sports book to bet on NFL games every week – or baseball and NBA games every night – is foolhardy, especially in a state where driving through traffic to get groceries might soon require the hiring of a babysitter.


That sound we all heard from the Caribbean this week was the gale of laughter at the thought anyone would be willing to abandon their off-shore gambling app, get in a California line and then get shut out of a wager that the Rams would outscore their opponent by three points in the second half. Or to wait for a ticket clerk to punch in an in-game bet on the Lakers only to learn that particular live spread had already come and gone.


Here is what makes the tribal proposal even more myopic and hypocritical. Why prohibit digital sports betting in California when racing’s advance-deposit wagering apps have long been legal there? Maybe it is to provide the illusion of added integrity.


(By the way, this dichotomy is similar to what we are stuck with in Nevada, where ADWs are supposedly verboten while sports-betting apps are legal. It is Carson City’s and, by extension, Las Vegas casinos’ way of telling operators from other states that while they should buy the expertise of Nevada bookmakers when taking those baby steps into sports gambling, they are banned from doing racing business here. Talk about dishing it out and not being able to take it.)


The idea that sports gambling should be offered in California without allowing apps is as silly an idea as installing more pay phones to get people to put down their cells.


Here is a crazy idea. Why not allow ADWs that already operate in existing partnerships with racetracks to extend their businesses to Indian casinos so that they may all offer sports gambling? There would be more revenue streams, meaning more money for the casinos, the racetracks, the ADWs and, dare I say, the state of California. (Ethically, I must point out that VSiN’s racing coverage and my weekly podcast are sponsored by Xpressbet, an ADW.)


If there is one thing that we have learned in the 18 months since the Supreme Court scrapped PASPA, it is that state governments and even tribal bureaucrats will pass laws and policies that demonstrate an insistence that they know more than veteran bookmakers here in Nevada.


Good luck to them, I said, sighing.


Racing notes and opinions


Two Bob Baffert horses and two trained by Doug O’Neill are among the six 2-year-olds racing at Del Mar in the $100,000 Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes, a seven-furlong dirt sprint Saturday at 7 p.m. EST. Just off a share of the autumn riding title at Santa Anita, Flavien Prat rides Baffert’s morning-line favorite Thousand Words (7-5), a winner from an outside draw in his debut three weeks ago. The other Baffert – High Velocity (5-2) – gets Drayden Van Dyke after he won his debut last month with apprentice Jean Díaz riding. A strong workout Monday and the possibility of slightly longer odds makes High Velocity my choice with the long shot Rager (12-1) jumping in to separate him from Thousand Words. O’Neill’s allowance winner Howbeit (12-1) is also worth considering.


A three-time winner in nine races since June 2018, trainer Brad Cox’s deep-closing 5-year-old gelding Mr. Misunderstood (5-2) is the morning-line favorite for the $175,000 Grade 3 River City Handicap, a 1⅛-mile turf race for open company Saturday at 5:36 p.m. at Churchill Downs. The field of 10 is frankly subpar for a graded stakes that is almost completely devoid of speed. By default Charles LoPresti’s 4-year-old gelding Get Western (5-1) will probably set a tepid pace against four mid-pack rivals and five closers. On paper – and on what should be dry turf on a 45-degree day – Get Western should win this leading from gate to wire. If I bet this race he will be my key horse. The others that could make my tickets might be Chad Brown cast-off Admission Office (3-1), Space Mountain (5-1) from Mike Maker’s trio in this race and former British runner Emmaus (5-1). Suffice it to say, I will be looking at the live odds before I even consider betting this one.


It is easily the best argument I have read in the debate over whether racing should be suspended or banned in the wake of horse deaths during the past 10½ months in southern California. At her website, former jockey and current NBC racing analyst Donna Brothers Barton wrote an eloquent, well-researched, 3,500-word essay that is as much a direct response to animal-rights extremists as it is a template to argue the merits of the sport. It is thorough, reasoned, backed by facts and figures and devoid of counterproductive emotion – unlike many cases being made on both sides of this issue. Brava, Donna. Brava.


There is still time to vote for the Ron Flatter Racing Pod (or one of my seven fellow finalists) as the Best Radio Show/Podcast of 2019. The on-line poll for 12 categories of the inaugural Fan Choice Awards closes at 4 p.m. EST Wednesday at the America’s Best Racing website. One voter will be chosen at random to win a trip for two to the 2020 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland. The prize includes a $10,000 win bet on the Classic.


Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is normally posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big racing events. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Michael Trombetta, trainer of Kentucky Derby futures favorite Independence Hall, and sports-talk host Tony Bruno are the guests on the current episode of the RFRP, which is also available via Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher.

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