Tom Jicha

Tom Jicha grew up in New York City and worked with John Pricci at the short-lived revival of the New York Daily Mirror. Tom moved to Miami in 1972 for a position in the sports department at the now defunct Miami News.

Tom became the TV critic in 1980 and moved to the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1988. All the while he has kept his hand in sports, including horse racing. He has covered two Super Bowls, a World Series and the Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream Park.

He's been the Sun Sentinel’s horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, February 08, 2018

Horse players rejoice! Your voices have been heard

The boycott of Keeneland that many said was a waste of time and effort has achieved its goal. Keeneland has caved and rolled back the takeout on WPS to pre-boycott levels for its spring meeting. Exactas also are returning to almost pre-fall meet levels. This is far more significant than victory over a single track. It sends a message to the entire industry that the days of horse players meekly accepting whatever is offered them are over. Elsewhere, a lot of Las Vegas sports books took a beating on Super Bowl Sunday. This should strike a cautionary note among those who thinks sports betting is the next panacea for race tracks.

Victory! Vindication!

Keeneland has caved to the horse player’s boycott many said was an exercise in futility with no chance to succeed. (You know who you are.)

Keeneland announced Wednesday that takeout on win-place-show wagers will be rolled back from 19 percent to 17.5 percent, the rate prior to the boycott. Exacta wagers will be charged at 19.5 percent, down from the 22 percent in effect for the first time at Keeneland’s fall meet.

Victory wasn’t total. It rarely is. In what could be argued is a face-saving move, exactas are still a half-point higher than prior to last fall. Takeout on other multi-horse wagers will remain at 22 percent.

This is the first time in memory a concerted action by horseplayers, with leadership from HANA (Horse Players Association of North America), has succeeded in getting a major racetrack to back off an increase in takeout. HANA President Jeff Platt reacted to the news. "All of us at the Horseplayers Association of North America would like to applaud Keeneland for its decision to partially reverse its 2017 takeout increase. This would not have happened without support from a lot of horseplayers."

Thanks to the boycott, Keeneland handle in the fall, which had been on a regular upward trend, declined 8.7 percent. There is no other reasonable explanation for the decrease since it came during a period when handle at other major venues was increasing, some by double digits. It could be some of that can be traced to wagering moving from Keeneland to other tracks.

Nevertheless, until Wednesday’s surrender, Keeneland maintained the boycott was ineffective. One sign that this was disingenuous came when Keeneland announced that all stakes at its upcoming spring meeting, with the exception of the Transylvania, which was bumped up $75K, would be run for the same purse as the previous year, a reversal of trends. Keeneland said the purpose of the increase in takeout was to raise purses.

The impact of Keeneland crying uncle cannot be overstated. It will have a chilling effect on any other race track that ponders raising its takeout. It also could signal a movement toward horse players being paid heed when it comes to matters effecting pricing.

For now, horseplayers can savor a victory that for the first time shows their voices can be heard when it is done as part of a concerted chorus.

Another Trojan horse?

The employee, who used to be the boss, and the boss, who used to be the employee, had a successful Super Bowl Sunday. So did a lot of people in Las Vegas, who sent it in, according to the LV Review-Journal.

The Sin City newspaper reported that the William Hill sports book empire endured a multi-million loss. CG Technology books were hit for a mid-six figure loss. Boyd Gambling and the Wynn also reported losses.

This should be a sobering reality for those in New Jersey and other states salivating over the possibility of the U.S. Supreme Court giving a green light to legal sports betting by this spring.

Here’s a basic tutorial most of you know, so I beg patience while I educate others not so tuned in to the inner workings of gambling. Race tracks can’t lose. They accept bets and pocket their takeout. Sports betting doesn’t work like this. The house can lose, as Sunday proved.

Over the long haul, sports books are on solid ground because of the “vig” tacked onto bets. It’s $110 to win $100 on football and basketball. Baseball, which doesn’t have point spreads, has its own complicated vig system. The key is to keep the money relatively equal on both sides.

This might not be easy in an area where the Giants, Jets and Eagles have rabid fan bases. If a couple of those teams have big seasons against the spread, the New Jersey books could get into trouble. If the New Jersey books have to raise the odds to achieve equality, sharp-shooters from around the nation will jump in.

Indeed, despite the losses posted by some operations, Nevada’s almost 200 sports books, which handled a record $158.6 million on the Super Bowl, had a combined profit of $1.17 million.

For all of 2017, Nevada sports books had a record “hold” of just over $250 million. Divide this by the 200 books and it comes to not much than a million bucks apiece before expenses. Granted some of the bigger outfits do a lot better. Conversely, some smaller operations slip into the red if enough games fall the wrong way.

The point is, sports betting might not be the panacea for New Jersey that advocates are predicting, especially when you consider more than a dozen states, including New Jersey's neighbors could piggyback onto New Jersey winning in the Supreme Court.

Also, sports betting revenue is not guaranteed as slots dollars are. Let’s say people in New Jersey are allowed to bet on next season’s Super Bowl. What happens if the players have another big day? Where is the money to cover those winnings going to come from? What happens to the racing purse accounts, which are supposedly going to be fortified by sports betting?

The likelihood of SCOTUS giving the green light to New Jersey caused me to reflect upon my own views. I realized I am guilty of something I have often accused many in racing of doing, putting my own self interest first. The fact that I like to bet on games blinded me to the downsides.

There is a very real possibility that legalized sports betting will be a dagger to the heart of racing. The impact of racetrack casinos underscores this. Promised to be a savior of racing, racinos have proven to be just the opposite.

They have cannibalized gambling dollars, which otherwise might have been spent on horses and are now going to the push-button bandits. They also have put tracks without casino subsidies in a precarious fiscal state because they can’t compete purse-wise with neighboring jurisdictions with racinos.

When states begin to withdraw the doles gambling has provided, a process that has already started, it will be Armageddon for racing as we know it. Sports betting could accelerate the time table.

People who like to gamble on sports have much more in common with horse players than slot players. In a vast number of cases, sports gamblers are horse players and vice versa.

Also, the migration of sports dollars from illegal bookmakers to race track sports books might not be as pronounced as proponents predict for one significant reason. Sports betting is cash intensive and bookmakers let you bet on credit. In many cases, they’re also more accessible. The big season for the Jersey shore, where Monmouth sits, is Memorial Day through Labor Day. The horses and crowds are gone after that.

Football, which attracts more action than the other sports combined, is just getting started in September. The second biggest betting event of every year, March Madness, also occurs outside the racing season. Monmouth is a long drive from the major population centers in the Northeast.

Let me reiterate. I hope sports betting gets the OK from SCOTUS. I hope it spreads as rapidly to other states, including Florida, as predicted. But I don’t see how it will help racing to any great extent, if at all, and it might actually hurt.

Written by Tom Jicha

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