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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


How many ways does racing want to reach into bettors’ pockets? The catalyst for this question is a fairly recent pitch on automated betting machines.

When you cash a bet, before the voucher is spit out, a screen comes up asking if you would like to contribute a portion of your return to a thoroughbred retirement program. It doesn’t matter if the ticket you put in cost $100 and the give-back is $6.

I always feel a little guilty when I hit “no.” I suppose a guilt trip is the idea. But I really resent bettors being asked to pick up a part of the tab for what should be solely the responsibility of owners and race tracks.

This is in addition to confiscatory takeouts, rakes averaging about 20 percent, exceeded in the gambling world only by the sucker bet lotteries.

Then there’s breakage, which reduces the return to a figure rounded out solely for the benefit of the track at the expense of the player. It might be pennies on each bet but it grows into tens of millions of dollars at the end of the year, money that rightly belongs to bettors.

(I won’t get into New York’s OTB’s surcharge. That’s outright robbery. Fortunately, it isn’t copied elsewhere.)

A hot meme on the political trail is, “Health care should be a right, not a privilege.” Who could argue with that?

A perplexing follow-up is how to pay for it. This is a racing site, not a political one, so I’ll let those running for office chew over it.

A dignified retirement also should be the right of every thoroughbred, not a privilege of just the few whose on track achievements afford them (at least some of them) special treatment in their post-racing years. I’m all for this. But it shouldn’t be the players’ responsibility to pay for it, even partially.

Alas, the industry never gives up trying. NYRA has come up with an imaginative way to bolster retirement funds, which amounts to another ripoff of players. The Empire Racing Club is NYRA’s version of shared ownership plans, which allow fans to become quasi owners of a race horse for a minimum investment. In this case, it is $500 with a membership in each horse limited to 200 partners.

The club is a great idea. I’ve written many times that the best way to get more fans involved in racing is to get more fans really involved in racing. It’s the execution that I have a problem with. A major appeal of owning a horse is the possibility of striking it rich.

Granted, this is highIy unlikely. The figure thrown around is that 85 percent of owners lose money. This has never been truly verified but it sounds right, maybe even conservative.

Nevertheless, the dream of hitting big is what keeps everyone in the business coming back. Alas, there is no such dream with Empire Racing. Any profits at the end of the year go to Take the Lead, an admirable retirement program. So the membership fee amounts to still another way to hit fans to pay for the upkeep of retired horses. An unkind but accurate way to put this is, “you can lose but you can’t win.”

There surely have to be better, fairer ways. The one that comes most readily to mind is to tap into the windfalls most tracks now reap from casinos, card rooms, etc. A lot of this money goes to fund ridiculously inflated purses. There is no reason four- and five-horse fields should be running for half a million dollar purses. Take maybe 10 percent of these casino bonanzas and put it into horse retirement funds.

Premier sales at Keeneland and Saratoga net hundreds of millions of dollars. How about a one or two percent surcharge on the purchase prices being set aside into retirement funds. You would be surprised at how many million-dollar babies don’t do enough on the track to encourage owners to make sure they have respectable later years. Why should players be asked to pay for it?

Again thanks to casino doles, low and mid-level claimers are running for twice their sale price. A percent or two on their inflated earnings earmarked for retirement funds would go a long way to making a dent in the cost of horse retirements.

Any and all of these would move the burden of the cost of race horse retirement to those who can most afford it and away from horse players, who already are overburdened. It’s galling that the industry would even ask.

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7 Responses

  1. TJ-
    The option to contribute to retirement via self-betting terminals is an idea that came from PETA. Aftercare should begin in the breeding shed.

  2. Agree whole-heartedly with the latter.

    Now that I know the source of the former, I dislike it even more. Upside is, I will no longer feel guilty about saying NO!

  3. Hate to be polyanna about this, but agree with you both. It should start with breeders and buyers.

    Think we recommended in a previous column one percent from buyer and seller combined, and one percent from the sales company, who could not exist without the first group–you know, something like racing and horseplayers.

    While I resent paying the freight for industry stakeholders who benefit directly from the business itself, I don’t mind helping out some.

    So anytime there is change involved in the return, e.g. $10.60, I donate the 60 Cents.

    As you say, TJ, the pennies do add up and I don’t mind helping out in some small way, one that doesn’t overly tax my return.

  4. TJ–I always love it when one part of the industry recommends that other parts of the industry should underwrite safe placements for retired racehorses. To be fair, breeders, brokers, auction houses, pinhookers, owners, bettors, racetracks, off track betting platforms, state governments and PETA should all belly up to the bar to support this worthy cause.

    Chuck from Saratoga

  5. John, 60 cents in your example is 6% of your payoff. Even a higher percentage of the profit.

    It’s equivalent to the NY OTB surcharge Tom mentioned.

    Let the Industry pay for itself. They reap the profits, then forget about the ultimate fate of the horses they brought into the world. It’s their responsibility.

  6. Rite Aid had a promotion for a charity whereby if you signed on the breakage would round up to the next dollar. So if your toothpaste cost $.4.01 you were now paying $5.00 with the $.99 going to the charity. Sweet deal. I got out of this one pretty quickly.

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