Print and Go Back ESPN.com: HorseRacing [Print without images]

Monday, December 20, 2010
22.68 reasons to boycott Calif. racing

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

The racing business is in the toilet at too many places because there's too much product, the product is lousy and the price of making a bet is way too high. The customer is never wrong and the customer has been telling the horse racing industry for a long time that it doesn't like what it is selling, at least not at the existing price of making a bet, which is the takeout level. The proper response is obvious: anyone with an ounce of sense would figure out that the best way to boost business would be to slash prices.

Apparently, the people who run the California Horse Racing Board don't have any sense, not an ounce. They believe the answer to the sport's problems in California is to raise the price of a bet.

California racing is unique in that it is so isolated. Far removed from any other major circuits, the California tracks don't get much of anything in the way of shippers.

Starting December 26, opening day at Santa Anita, the takeout is going through the roof at the California tracks. The takeout on exactas and daily doubles will shoot up to 22.68 percent, the highest level for those bets at any major racetrack in America. The takeout on all other exotic bets will be 23.68.

Merry Christmas, horseplayers.

The purpose of the takeout increase is to create extra revenue for a purse increase. There's nothing wrong with putting more money into the pockets of owners, trainers and jockeys but to do so at the expense of the downtrodden horseplayers is, frankly, sinister. No one is more deserving of a break than the people who bet on horses. They are what make everything in this sport go and they have had to put up with nothing but abuse, starting with takeout levels that make the game all but impossible to beat. Now they want to take even more money out of the Average Joe's pocket. This is criminal.

And it's not likely to make much of a difference. California racing is unique in that it is so isolated. Far removed from any other major circuits, the California tracks don't get much of anything in the way of shippers. If a race is worth $40,000 or $50,000, the fields are going to be pretty much the same. It's not like that $10,000 increase is going to entice some guy to ship in a horse that otherwise might have run at Gulfstream Park. The racing is not going to get any better.

But that's not even the worst of it. The takeout increase won't work; it will eventually backfire on California racing and accelerate its decline. The sad (comical?) part of this is that the people at the California Horse Racing Board don't seem to understand the business they've been entrusted with governing.

Perhaps the single dumbest thing uttered by anyone in the horse racing industry in 2010 was the statement made by David Israel, the vice chairman of the CHRB, defending the takeout increase.

"People often say we're competing with the casinos," Israel said. "I think that's shortsighted and wrong. We're not competing with casinos. We're in the entertainment business. We're competing with the Dodgers and the Giants and the Angels and the Lakers, and we're putting on a show."

Apparently, the man was not joking. Of course, racetracks are competing with casinos, and lotteries and sports betting. Horse racing in 98 percent gambling and 2 percent entertainment. The Kentucky Derby might be a "show." Your typical day at Hollywood Park is about betting and nothing else. No one cares about anything other than trying to hit an $86.80 exacta. (oops … make that an $84 exacta, what the old $86.80 ticket will pay once the takeout increase begins in California).

In no way does horse racing compete with Kobe Bryant or the Lakers. It is going head-to-head versus casinos and slot machines and getting murdered because the takeout on casino games is significantly lower than it is on horse racing.

Santa Anita might actually get off to a good start. A lot of bettors are excited about the return to dirt and that might yield an increase in handle at the outset. But what will eventually happen is what always happens when racetracks raise the take. Doing so takes betting money out of circulation -- lots of it. With players having even less money in their pockets to bet with, the handle will go down. In time, it will likely go down so much that the purses will have to be cut. When that happens, everyone will have lost.

A lot of people are fed up with what is going on. The Horseplayers Association of North America, which has done a terrific job of becoming an advocacy group for people who play the races, has called for a boycott of California racing. There are some big players, including HANA members, who will stop betting on California. Good for them.

But most people who bet the races pay no attention to takeout, which is what the CHRB is banking on. They believe the customer does not count for anything and is not smart enough to know when they are being fleeced. Are they right or wrong? It doesn't matter. Take that much money out of circulation and handle will always decline. A broke horseplayer is not much of a customer.

Racing needs help and it needs visionaries and people willing to do the right thing. In California, they're getting people who are falling back on the oldest trick in the book, a trick that never works. On December 26, join the boycott and say a prayer for the future of California racing. With these boobs in charge, it needs all the help it can get.

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.