by Letter to the Editor |10.05.2023| 4:16pm
by Mark Paul
Letter To The Editor: Racing In Crisis – Thoughts From A Passionate Fan
I have been obsessed with horse racing for decades. Racing combines beauty, adventure, triumph, and (occasionally) the sophistication of a Hollywood movie. Throw in the excitement of gambling and “You had me at hello.”
I have bred my own horses, have invested in 30 horse racing partnerships (don’t tell my wife), and have written The Greatest Gambling Story Ever Told – the best-selling horse racing book since Seabiscuit. In short: I’m all in.
I believe horse racing is the greatest game in the world, and I am desperately fighting to remain engaged in the sport I love. It is from this desperation, written solely as a racing fan and horse player, that I write this letter. I have listed my issues with horse racing’s current realities while acknowledging I don’t have many solutions. Perhaps my next “Letter to the Editor” will include a few of my ‘half-baked’ ideas of controversial fixes for racing’s demons.
When simulcasting was first introduced in the late 1980s I thought it the greatest invention since vodka. I could go to my local track, or stay home, while watching and gambling on live racing at the nation’s greatest tracks. When other fans complained that onsite attendance was dwindling, I told them, “The track is still open in person. It’s just not as crowded.” In retrospect I believe that simulcasting is simultaneously the best thing that ever happened to racing (it would be extinct without it) and the worst thing that ever happened to our sport.
Technology is transformative. The concept that I can download my Daily Racing Form “Formulator” past performances, watch and wager on top stakes races daily, all from the convenience of my home office, is incredibly convenient. My wife says she likes me at home—but I have my doubts. Unfortunately, being a solo racing fan is like gambling in solitary confinement.
No one likes to eat at an empty restaurant. Walking through the nearly empty, cavernous Santa Anita stands—on all but a few big Saturdays—is depressing to me. I loved buying horses in public partnerships, sharing with fellow owners in celebrating our wins, and convening in the bar after our numerous defeats. I enjoy bringing my wife and friends to the races, especially the excitement new attendees show when seeing a powerful, sleek, stunningly beautiful thoroughbred up close enough to touch, in the paddock, barn, or winner’s circle. Now the track usually resembles that empty restaurant and when I ask friends to join me for a day at the races, they mention the racing deaths they read about, while looking at me like I’m an axe murderer.
My personal opinions of racing’s future:
- Legal sports gambling will not save horse racing, but instead will be a fierce competitor. Why will gamblers pay takeout of 16 percent on a win bet (21 percent blended racing takeout rate on exactas, trifectas) on horse racing, but only pay 5 percent vigorish on a sports team bet (8.6 percent on a two-team parlay).
- Simulcasting will not create racing fans. If it did where are they?
- CAWs (computer assisted wagering groups) are driving out serious horse players like me! I don’t mind competition. Hell, I don’t even mind losing—but give me a fair shot. Let me get this right: I am supposed to pay takeout of 21 percent, and compete against a computer with better data and the knowledge of pools that I am not allowed to access, and then the CAWs are getting a rebate of 10 percent for consideration of their huge bets? And the CAW site is owned by the racetrack? I think I’ll grab a beer, pay $5 takeout on a $100 dollar football bet, and call it an afternoon.
- Continue with all the great recent improvements for horse safety. Racing fans and owners love our horses. The fatalities numbers are way down. Bravo. Keep it up and add new technology like scans, etc. to get even better. But don’t try to appease PETA and don’t give unrealistic horse safety expectations to the public. What would happen if we took all the racehorses and let them go free in the wild? Do everything reasonable to make racing as safe as possible—but is it better to not breed horses at all, or to lose less than a small fraction of 1 percent while racing?
- Having played Hollywood Park and Santa Anita synthetic racetracks for a decade, I personally will not watch racing on synthetic surfaces. It is not just racing I enjoy wagering on or watching; if running on a track made of oatmeal is safer than dirt, then as they say on Shark Tank: “I’m out.”
- Racinos and slot machines will not save racing. Eventually economic reality will lead to the elimination of these subsidies and racing’s umbilical cord will be cut.
- Racing is funded by gambling dollars and well-bankrolled horse players who do not want to view or wager on small five- and six-horse fields. The number of thoroughbreds bred has been reduced nearly 60 percent from a few decades ago. I believe that racing is headed the way of a few big “super tracks” racing year-round, plus the summer “spa” meetings at Saratoga and Del Mar, and the spring and fall Keeneland meets. I am sympathetic to those hard-working backstretch workers at small and mid-level tracks, but I don’t see a future there. Respected podcaster Chuck Simon tells me that big tracks cannot exist without smaller satellite tracks feeding into them. How does Sha Tin racetrack in Hong Kong continue to thrive with huge fields and huge wagering pools?
I attended horseplayer heaven at both Saratoga and Del Mar this summer, loving the energy of packed stands, the roar of the crowd, and full fields to lose my money on. I left hopeful, re-energized, and headed straight to the ATM. I don’t regret a single day I have spent at the racetrack.
How do I reconcile my adoration for this game with the realities of today’s racetrack experience?
- My personal solution may unfortunately be to attend and simulcast only on racing’s few big Saturdays per year.
- The only experience that rivals cheering home your own winning horse is watching your children compete at sports and I enjoyed that gift when my family was young. I love being as close to the game as possible, yet I have decided there is no reason to own additional horses to race in front of empty stands.
Several days this coming this year I will put on a sports coat and invite my wife to take out her “track hat” for a big-stakes day at the races. I will spend three hours of excited anticipation handicapping full fields of magnificent horses and will push my bankroll through the windows with happy abandon—all to enjoy the greatest game in the world.
Mark Paul – Beverly Hills, Calif.
Author of “The Greatest Gambling Story Ever Told”