As post time for the fifth at Santa Anita Park approached on Wednesday’s opening-day card, a colleague perused the top of the program page and mumbled to no one in particular, “There are 11 different ways to bet this race.”
He was right. The full field of maiden 2-year-olds could be played win, place, and show; as the first leg of the 20-cent Rainbow Six, the $1 rolling super high 5, a $2 rolling double, and a 50-cent rolling pick three; grouped in a $1 exacta, a 50-cent trifecta, and a $1 minimum superfecta made up of 10-cent combinations; along with the brand new $2 Horse Racing Roulette that bundles runners as red, black, or green teams played as single entities.
No quinella, sad to say, but boy, what a menu. Denny’s just conceded the crown.
Today’s racing managements seem obliged to trot out new ways to separate players from their money every time a fresh meet opens its doors, rivaling the selection of craft beers at their clubhouse bars. And, once a new bet is applied, there usually is no going back, since it is impossible to prove the negative of how those dollars would have been bet without it, or if they would have been bet at all.
While perusing those 11 betting options, I flashed back to a writers’ room moment during my time a decade ago under the wing of David Milch, creator of the HBO racetrack drama “Luck.”
Just to make sure we were rowing the same direction, philosophically speaking, Milch would share his well-earned observations (as owner of two Breeders’ Cup winners) on the state of the horse racing business. Milch also has been known to have a flutter, and in his prime as a horseplayer he sallied forth with both barrels loaded, pulling the trigger until it went click.
As a loyal and perceptive consumer of the product, Milch came to understand that the proliferation of betting options mirrored some of the root causes of the U.S. economy tanking at the time. Milch imbued his main “Luck” character, a former mob fixer turned racetrack owner, with the wisdom to recognize the dangerous spiral.
“What this guy winds up proposing is that, in a fashion not dissimilar to our economic extremity in the nation generally, horse racing is [screwed],” Milch said, only he didn’t say “screwed” (see “Deadwood”).
“And the reason it’s [screwed] is because of the proliferation of propositions,” he continued. “Instead of just a win bet, a place bet, and a show bet, now the same event is packaged as 50 different events – as a win pool, a place pool, a show pool, an exacta pool, a daily double pool, a trifecta pool, pick three pool, pick six pool. It’s the same event just being rebundled.”
Just like, Milch noted, the bundling and selling of toxic sub-prime loans that precipitated the 2008 recession.
He continued that the constant repackaging of the single racing event “… depends further upon a narcotizing of the participant, the bettor, to persuade him that this proliferation of choices can somehow operate to his advantage, when in fact every time he makes that bet a portion of his dollar is going away, so on the same outcome he is wagering 20 different times in ways that have to at some level operate against each other.”
Picking winners, once the point of the exercise, becomes marginalized. Playing 14 trifecta combinations, Milch noted, at best saddles the benumbed player with 13 losers.
“Ultimately,” concluded Milch, “you are taking all of his money because he’s paying such a high interest rate.”
Though it continues the trend of reducing horses to numbers, Horse Racing Roulette is an innocent-enough diversion. With its takeout in the 15 percent range, on opening day it contributed about $29,000 to the $20 million all sources handle. According to Tim Ritvo, who runs Santa Anita for The Stronach Group, the bet was devised by Cantor Gaming of Las Vegas, a company whose main endeavor is the operation of casino sports books.
Ritvo says Horse Racing Roulette is designed for the novice horseplayer to cash often and keep the betting dollars churning. Hopefully, when the roulette bet pays off appreciably lower than a straight win bet on the actual winner, the baffled newbies will seek further enlightenment on such topics as morning lines, overlays, and late action. In one race, a $21.40 winner was part of a $4.20 roulette payoff, while in another the winner returned $12.80, while the winning roulette color paid $2.40.
“Luck” was canceled before Milch’s hero could realize his ultimate intention of presenting a match race, without betting offered, between two wildly popular Thoroughbreds before a huge audience that would show up just to witness the spectacle. Call it fantasy or science fiction, but the idea embraced a distillation of racing’s oldest ambitions. Milch and his “Luck” minions were betting that viewers – even experienced horseplayers devoted to their vertical and horizontal bundlings – would appreciate the reminder of a certain brand of purity.
It was a bet we lost. But at least we bet to win.