Who Yields the Power in Horse Racing

November 20, 2019

I always say coincidences are for romance novels. About a week ago I wrote an article about some of the sports woes and needs for reform and improvement called We Have Met the Enemy and It Is Us. The safety and well being of our sports equine athletes has become the primary focus of the industry and rightfully so. That article addresses that we must do better in that area. It is not the only area where we must drastically improve.

Racing’s business model does no favors for their customer, the bettor. High take out. Bad rules regarding scratches and surface changes. Exorbitant costs for data that should be free. Most tracks will charge the bettor for a cup of stale lukewarm coffee. This is the tip of the iceberg, and when you see the tip of the iceberg you already know what is under the water.

Who yields the power in horse racing? Interesting question. With all the calls to action to fix the multitude of issues the sport of horse racing faces I hear this asked a lot of late. Once again the industry collectively misses it. So do most asking the question. That is indeed discouraging as nobody is strong enough to steer a rudderless ship this big.

The answer is simple. A wise friend told me years ago:

“whoever has the checkbook has the power”

Life and all it offers in the way of experiences and more proves him right again and again.

I received a private message the other day from an influential industry insider whom I respect. They referenced “some really powerful people in the horse business” and an agenda they have to bring about change in the game they way the want it to happen. It is probably not the way many of us would like to see it happen, and it may not be the change a lot of us want and will welcome. I’m not going to get into a lot of that now. That is for another conversation on another day. I will say in the end it may be what is best and personally I am not as opposed to it as many will be.

What I found interesting is the way they referred to:

“some really powerful people in the horse business”

Now I am quite cognizant of the wealth of some of the people in the Sport of Kings. I also believe the aforementioned regarding the checkbook and who holds it. Things get a bit dicey here however. Is that wealth going anywhere to keep the game going other than the purchase, breeding, or selling of racehorses? I am going to bet no. That translates in my math to they are not the ones with the checkbook, hence the power, unless those with the checkbook give it to them.

Unfortunately we, and yes I said we are giving it to them.

Imagine this scenario. It is the first Saturday in May. It is 9am EST. A Tweet is sent simultaneously to an e mail blast to as many industry executives as can be found that says this:

As bettors, and yes gamblers, your customers, we have gotten together collectively and have elected not to do any wagering on any race cards today. We’d like a series of reforms designed to improve the Sport across the board starting with Horse Welfare and Safety and going all the way down the line to take out and everything in between. We have an itemized list and accompanying agenda we would like to introduce at a meeting Monday morning at ______________. Please consider this an invitation to attend. We suggest having people with the authority to make binding decisions for their respective entities as we will have legal counsel present with proposed contracts.

At 9:05 they will think it is a joke. At 60 minutes to post they will already be in a panic as the reality will begin creeping in. By post time it would be mainstream. By Monday morning we’d need a bigger meeting room. Everybody with a stake would be scrambling for a seat at the table. Everyone. Everybody would be listening to the gambler. The stigma would evaporate even if temporarily.

Now you tell me who really has the power and who gives it away. The problem is what the industry gambles on about the gambler is that they care more about the $2 bet than anything else. They count on the larger majority to be compulsive and that they will bet no matter what. Are they wrong? You tell me. Therein lies the bettors problem. They have the biggest stick. They just don’t know how to swing it or don’t have the fortitude to do it.

Claudia Lorena the publisher of Thoroughbred Today magazine contacted me about this very thing. She had interest in getting the attention of the industry and trying to position to fight or even force reforms the sport desperately needs but is too dysfunctional to bring about. My response was saddening. I told her I was afraid the industry was right about too many of their customers, bettors, for anything like this to even be taken seriously. They may not know their customers, but they know that and bank on it. I’ve discussed this scenario with friends for years. There are many, many indeed that would partake enthusiastically. There are many more who would not.

The bettor has the checkbook and the power. They don’t have the ability to use it.

The Sport of Kings is complex. Most things involving this much money are. The bettors don’t have the only checkbook. Advertisers have their own checkbooks. They have their own interests and they by virtue of the checkbook can control much of what is written about the sport, how it is written and reported and what gets little to no coverage at all. Many with advertising budgets trace back to similar interests, ownership’s, and partnerships so things are interwoven. There is a lot of back scratching without any hands on the ones with all the power. Nobody scratches the bettors back and most don’t even know how. I was recently offered a free $2 wager to switch back to an old ADW. That shows how out of touch this industry is with their bread and butter. It is an odd system mechanically, and one that looks like it can implode. Many tracks need some sort of subsidizing to stay afloat.

Of course there would be many more obstacles to a wave like this. There would have to be agreement on the reforms and a lot of organization. I don’t have a lot of confidence this could ever be achieved. Bettors interests and wants and cares are probably more divided than track and racing managements.

The only group of players exempt from the cold shoulder, red headed step child treatment are the computer syndicates. They are bringing big money to the pools and are getting taken care of for it at the expense of the everyday players. Their contribution to handle is significant but if the other players, who play the old fashion way, ever got together we’d all see who really had the biggest stick.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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@jonathanstettin you're a fuckin beast The free money you give out every week is insane. May start calling you Crazy Eddie

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