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Thursday, September 9, 2010
Why Calif. will get away with this crime

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

Horseplayers are stupid.

That's what they are counting on in California, where the California Horse Racing Board is about to push through an exorbitant increase in takeout. Starting Dec. 26, the take on trifectas, superfectas, Pick Threes and Pick Fours is going up to 23.68 percent. Exactas and daily doubles are going to go up to 22.68 percent, which will be the highest takeout rate on such bets among any major racing jurisdiction. Only the irrelevant racing states of Massachusetts, Colorado and Minnesota will have a higher take on the doubles and exactas.

The day after Christmas, they're going to start robbing you blind. And they're going to get away with it … because horseplayers, as a lot, are, indeed, stupid.

When there are so many better betting opportunities out there, why would any rational person continue to bet on California racing?

When there are so many better betting opportunities out there, why would any rational person continue to bet on California racing? Not only is it a product plagued by small fields, overwhelming favorites and a lot of unplayable races, but it's going to be one of the worst values in the game. The same exacta that would pay $81.40 in New York and $81 in New Jersey will pay just $76.20 in California. That's a big bite to begin with and the type of thing that turns into a huge number over time.

The CHRB, track owners and horsemen should be quaking in fear that such an onerous takeout increase will destroy their business. After all, what other slumping business would dare try to improve the bottom line by increasing prices, especially when the competition gives its customers such a better deal? One of the biggest problems racing faces is that the casinos, which have become the sport's biggest competition, offers its customers far lower takeouts on its many games of chances. Betting in a casino makes a lot more sense than betting at the track.

In a logical world, the house would be slashing takeout prices and coming up with all sorts of incentives to get the customers coming back through the doors. In a logical world, with such a hefty takeout increase, the customers would flee from the California product and bet only on the tracks that give them a better deal. Handle would then fall so precipitously that the California tracks would be forced out of business.

That's what should happen, but it won't. And they know it.

Very few horseplayers ever react to takeout increases, or decreases, for that matter. If history is any kind of guide at all, there will hardly be a single horseplayer who will decide on Dec. 26 that because the takeout is so high in California they will boycott the first at Santa Anita and instead bet on the seventh at Aqueduct because their money will go a lot farther playing New York races. The vast majority of horseplayers won't change their betting habits one bit.

The result will be that whatever changes there are to the total betting handle in California will be marginal and this legalized robbery will go off without any serious penalties being inflicted on those committing the crime. California is raising the takeout in an effort to find more money for purses. They'll get just what they are looking for, because most horseplayers won't fight back.

That's why they keep doing this to us. They know they will get away with it. Even when racetrack operators or racing commissions have tried to do the right thing, the players haven't done their part. Keeneland and Laurel both tried dramatic takeout decreases in recent years, hoping that would spur bettors to bet more on their races. In both cases, it didn't happen and those tracks soon went back to the old takeout levels.

I have written hundreds of articles over the years blasting tracks that have raised their takeouts and predicting they will eventually pay for it with smaller total handles. I thought I was right. After all, when you continually take so much money out of the players' pockets, handle will fall. A broke customer is not a good customer.

The problem I overlooked is simulcasting. If players had only the California tracks as a betting option, the handle at those tracks would eventually decline and decline by a lot because so much betting money would eventually be taken out of circulation. The problem is that most players are playing tracks all over the map. If they go home with $20 less in their pockets at the end of the day because they were ripped off by the new California takeout rate, that probably means they'll be betting less on not just Santa Anita, but on Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Calder, Hawthorne and whatever other signals they might be playing. That limits the hit California takes.

Tracks just keep digging deeper into our pockets. Who's to say that a takeout increase to 30 percent won't be next in California? The only way to put a stop to these things is for the customers to rebel, for them to stop betting on the tracks that gouge them and support the ones that don't. But horseplayers have never looked out for their best interests and I don't hold out any hope that will change.

Tired of getting fleeced at the track? You have no one but yourself to blame.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.