Horseplayers' bets are louder than their barks

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

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Complaints about a lack of uniform regulation in racing are eternal, but they have been more than offset by generational growth during the past year in the sport’s betting handle. (NYRA photo)

Louisville, Ky.

How many times has it been said that U.S. horse racing needs a commissioner? That it needs one set of rules covering everything from takeout rates and scheduling to medication and racetrack safety? That the sport is driving away its customers by ignoring these eternal demands?

Yet at the very same time these calls are made, the betting public plays the role of hypocrite, even reinforcing that position this spring. If they are so incensed by the chaotic structure of the sport, why did bettors pour historically epic numbers of dollars into the tills during the Triple Crown?

The Belmont Stakes this month provided the signpost. The June 5 program with its 13 races attracted $112,725,278 in handle from all sources. That was a record for a New York card in any year that did not offer the lure of a potential Triple Crown sweep. It was more than 10 percent higher than the old record two years ago. Nearly 54 percent of that total was bet on the Belmont itself, a race that was poo-pooed by mainstream critics as featuring also-rans from the Kentucky Derby and a fluke of a Preakness winner. Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie shut them up.

Last month’s Preakness card attracted its first-ever nine-digit handle – $112,504,509. It broke the old record from 2019 by 12.7 percent. The main event accounted for 62 percent of that. So much for the blather about a boycott of the race because Medina Spirit was a drug-tainted Kentucky Derby winner.

Derby day brought in $233 million. It was not a record, but it was the second-largest handle in the event’s 147-year-history in spite of an on-track crowd that was only about a third of normal because of health restrictions. It was also an 85 percent increase from a year ago, when the COVID postponement and the protests against the police shooting of Breonna Taylor turned the annual bacchanal into a get-it-over-with experience.

It is not even big events. The Jockey Club reported off-track handle across the U.S. last year reached nearly $10.6 billion. That was a 12-year high. The pandemic crushed on-track handle, but for all sources, it was down only 1 percent from 2019. That was despite a 24 percent plunge in the number of races because of COVID cancellations.

So why is all this a sign of horseplayer hypocrisy? If the public is so hot and bothered by all that is wrong with racing, why does it keep wagering money hand over fist?

I can hear it now. “This sport is a joke. It is so disorganized. All chaos. No structure. Why would anyone want to watch this mess? Oh, wait. Let me get this $50 bet down on this horse in the fourth.”

Yeah. That’ll show ’em.

One thing the pandemic did was bring new fans to racing. With them came new complaints from the longtime players who preceded them. They said the sport’s inability to have one voice actually prevented it from making the most of gamblers who were itching to bet money somewhere, anywhere, when racing was the only game in any town last spring.

Yet, to reiterate, the Derby somehow had its second-best handle ever. And the Preakness its best ever. And the Belmont its best without a Triple Crown possibility. And generational wagering growth for the whole sport in the midst of a pandemic.

It has been suspected that batch betting by computer players accounted for a lot of these gains. If that is primarily the case, why did it suddenly and coincidentally happen in lockstep with the pandemic? The rebates to lure these big bettors existed long before the coronavirus, making this explanation – a viable one at first blush – ultimately dubious.

Back to the racing public at-large. If it really felt strongly about the need for reform at the top of the sport’s structure, it would say so by creating an economic crisis – by staying away in droves. Instead, it continues to pour cash over the digital transom while bleating for some unnamed muckety-muck to get rid of the muck.

Actually, Mr. Muckety-Muck has a name. Charlie Scheeler was named chairman of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, which is a byproduct of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which is supposed to take effect around this time next year. Oh, wait. There are lawsuits challenging HISA’s unfunded mandate for states to kowtow to its federal trappings. Please stand by.

Mr. Scheeler seems a qualified enough fellow as these bureaucratic things go. He is well versed in legal red tape. His claim to fame is that he was the lead lawyer when George Mitchell wrote a 409-page study in 2007 called the Report to the Commissioner of Baseball of an Independent Investigation Into the Illegal Use of Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Substances by Players in Major League Baseball. Oh, yeah. The Mitchell Report. That was the document that gave the impression baseball was cleaning up its act.

Are we to believe that C. Scheeler could be that knight in shining armor that is the object of the racing public’s stated desire? That much-ballyhooed commissioner? Hey, maybe he can do for horse racing what commissioners have done for other sports. For instance:

* Baseball. The current commissioner really showed those Houston Astros what he thought of their cheating. He wagged his finger, suspended a few people and even levied some headline-catching fines. And then he let them keep their rings and pennants.

* Basketball. The sport where the perception of shady officiating reached its nadir with disgraced referee Tim Donaghy’s 2007 admission that he was in bed with gamblers. OK, that was the old commissioner. Yet the new one perpetuated the shady perception when he let the game’s biggest star get away with a bald-faced breach of COVID protocol. Oh, yeah. Two more words. Load management.

* Football. While the league turned a blind eye to life-shortening head injuries and its well-paid practitioners of domestic violence, the current commissioner toed a company line when it came to standing up against social protest and legalized sports gambling. Then, as the wind changed direction, he raised his moistened finger and did a 180 on both.

And the collective voices of racing say they want a commissioner.

Maybe Mr. Scheeler will be better than that – if he gets the chance. That is an enormous if. Even without the hurdles of jurisprudence, the written authority of HISA is limited to two areas: medication and racetrack safety. Looking for uniform rules when it comes to jockeys using their crops or the end of overlapping stakes races every Saturday? Sorry. They are not covered in any federal law.

Forget all the caterwauling about the need for uniformity and reform and a commissioner. Racing really does not want it. And by racing this means trainers. And horse owners. And racetrack executives. And state authorities. And especially bettors. Yes, bettors. Who continues to offer hollow criticism while exhibiting true feelings with a cascade of money? Look in the mirror.

This is not to say the reforms are not worthwhile. On the contrary, they could be. But the true power base in racing, the betting dollar, says they are not wanted, vox populi noise notwithstanding.

The sound of money in this sport is a long way away from where its mouth is. And it is a hell of a lot louder.

In addition to this weekly article, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com with more frequent postings during big events. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. COVID forced Canadian racing into a long delay, but the horses are running again at Woodbine. Champion jockey Rafael Hernández talks about it and his recent injury on the RFRP. Also, Penelope Miller of America’s Best Racing talks about her job traveling the country to photograph Thoroughbreds, and Rampart sportsbook director Duane Colucci handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST Bet.”

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