Attempts to organize horseplayers to collectively address issues that affect them adversely have seldom attracted sufficient support to achieve the desired result.

Although boycotts by players in response to takeout increases at Santa Anita in 2010, and at Churchill Downs in 2014, succeeded in lowering handle for those meets, the amount was not sufficient to substantially decrease short-term revenue from takeout, and the rates were never rolled back.

Yet another boycott is now being organized by the usual suspects, i.e., the HANA leadership, in response to Keeneland’s announced takeout hike effective next month.

I doubt the result will be any different this time around unless 1) The takeout issue is expanded beyond just rolling back rates to reforming takeout distribution and 2) The need for takeout reform is viewed as only one component of a larger integrity issue that would become the central justification for the planned protest.

As the first achievable step in addressing all component issues, however, reversing the blatantly unnecessary takeout rate increase would establish a precedent for collective horseplayer success in pushing back against the greed-driven corruption and short-sighted decisions that plague the sport.

Last week, HRI columnist, Mark Berner,
"compellingly described the state of disrepair racing has allowed itself to reach:

"Thoroughbred racing in the US ... will drown in a sea of drugs, deaths and litigation. Its destiny is our hands.

… Uncontradicted testimony [in the Federal trial of trainer Murray Rojas] described widespread, in fact, nearly universal, cheating; regulators asleep on the job; a corrupted and ineffectual testing system.

… It is time to change the stewards of our sport if this is the best they can offer ..."


Indeed the term, "racing integrity," is becoming an oxymoron. Hardly a week goes by without some reference to medication abuse, cheating, lack of full disclosure, questionable steward rulings, spikes in equine breakdowns, or the absence of uniform rules, standards, and penalties resulting in their inconsistent interpretation and enforcement.

What is less transparent, however, is the institutionalized edge-taking which includes the behind-the-scenes appropriation of takeout by tracks, ADWs, horsemen, and rebated bettors. Some see that as a greed-based issue because the excess extracted within artificially high current rates from the vast majority of non-rebated bettors effectively subsidizes the tiny minority of high-volume, rebated bettors.

Racing may call itself a sport but the game is not played on a level playing field.

Ironically, rebates are defended by some as "reducing effective takeout" for bettors contributing the preponderance of handle. Wouldn’t simply reducing direct takeout for all produce the same effect? No, because the reality is that rebates give a clear edge to players that receive them, and to bet-takers that provide them.

Rebated players dominate HANA’s Board of Directors. It’s possible that the effective rates they currently enjoy won’t change despite the increase in the direct rate. But suppose some factor, e.g., a concurrent signal fee increase, were to cause their effective rate(s) to rise as well? In that case, they would be seeking assistance from non-rebated players in order to maintain their advantage over them.

Does that seem like equal representation for players of all bankroll sizes?

Is it any wonder, then, that HANA’s membership hasn’t grown appreciably over time? If players can see through their charade, can’t track operators, state regulators, and horsemen as well? Would Keeneland have turned its back on small-bankroll bettors if they thought they actually had functional representation?

Horseplayers have a real opportunity to start the reform ball rolling by bringing their combined willpower to bear at Keeneland, but we need to convince all the other parties mentioned above that their primary objective is to make the game work more fairly for all groups involved.

If even one track operator can be forced to treat all bettors fairly, then management of all tracks will be susceptible to similar pressure to treat them fairly. If the industry can be made to treat horseplayers fairly, they will have to treat horsemen fairly as well. And so on.

Potential new objectives might look something like this:

1. Prove that a sizable, determined horseplaying constituency exists that must and can be dealt with in the future:

Abstain from wagering on the Keeneland product so that its cumulative handle is reduced sufficiently that operating revenue from takeout is markedly lower than it was for the same period in the previous year.

2. Establish horseplayer representation that is directly accountable to its membership with all leaders/negotiators, policies, objectives, and actions confirmed by a vote of Dues Paying Members (DPM).

If HANA’s name recognition and resources could be utilized, including existing decision-makers committed to leveling the playing field for all its members, so much the better.

3. Establish funding (at least in part) for a workgroup to conduct ongoing research (in conjunction with other industry group representatives) that would develop strategies for determining -- and experimenting with -- optimal takeout levels as they might relate to various factors such as venue, wager type, field size, etc.

Some will argue that takeout rates cannot be isolated from other factors such as field size, pool size, purse levels, product popularity, etc., in order to achieve a sustainable balance among handle, purses, churn, etc. This group would have the credentials to separate fact from opinion.

This is reminiscent of an old "Happy Days" episode where Fonzie tries to teach Richie how to build up his image and confidence in dealing with bullies. After Richie shows he has the posturing down pat, Fonzie points out to him: "Somewhere, sometime, somebody has to have seen you actually throw a punch."

It’s time for horseplayers to throw that collective punch at Keeneland. Otherwise jurisdictional bullies will raise takeout whenever they feel like it.

LOS ANGELES, September 8, 2017