JC / Railbird

“A Slap in the Face”

The Thoroughbred Times reports on weekend developments in the Suffolk Downs-New England horsemen’s dispute, making mention of an open letter placed by the track in the Sunday edition of the Daily Racing Form:

The tone of the letter reflects the bitterness of the dispute, calling the horseman’s decision to block simulcast signals “a spiteful, punitive action toward Suffolk Downs, NYRA and its horsemen, and a slap in the face to the bettors of Massachusetts whose wagering dollars supply the purses.”

It’s a smart move by Suffolk, stepping up as defender of bettors. Much like the TOC with the takeout increase in California, the NEHBPA board has made a crucial mistake in pursuing its agenda by taking Massachusetts horseplayers for granted. When the full impact of the blocked signals from New York and Florida are felt on Wednesday, bettors won’t be interested in parsing the dispute’s fine points — blame will fall where it lands easiest. And to the extent that this story has any legs beyond Massachusetts among racing fans, it’s that yet again, it’s the horseplayers who pay when horsemen and tracks fight.

When Bukowski was horse racing’s customer, the perpetual maltreatment of horseplayers didn’t have much power as a meta-narrative. In an era in which most of the game’s customers are online (and increasingly organized), it does.

2:30 PM Addendum: Another take, from a commenter on the Suffolk Downs Facebook page: “If Suffolk really thinks fans will blame the HBPA on this, that’s crazy. They own the signal(s) and it’s really the only card they have to play.” True, that the signals are the most significant leverage the horsemen have, but the NEHBPA hasn’t sold the story of why such drastic action — and the resulting losses, along with the inconvenience to bettors — is necessary.

2/8/11 Addendum: The full text of the letter published in DRF (PDF).


A telling quote from the Bukowski post:

“In the first place, people who actually play the races are not customers, and, for that reason, customer service would be completely wasted on them.”

It’s fairly obvious that this is not an uncommon sentiment.

Posted by dana on February 7, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

With signal disputes it usually comes down to a micro-problem where handle losses are multiplied, some players never come back.

If we use the NYC OTB issue and break it down, invariably long-term losses are apparent.

What might happen at Suffolk is people go to the track, or go to bet online and popular tracks are not there. Some will still play, some will try offshore, some will take a break.

When the signals are turned back on, the people who go to the track might return in an big number. The ones who try offshore will probably stay there because they can bet all tracks and get a rebate. The ones that take a break might never come back. Long-term it is a lose-lose-lose formula.

In Ontario we have had no less than half dozen stoppages like this. In 2009, finally, the commission stepped in and said “enough is enough” you are killing the sport by chasing customers away.

We have not had one since.


Posted by PTP on February 7, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

in ontario we have FREE PARKING and FREE ADMISSION.
EXCEPT FOR QUEEN’S PLATE DAY AND MILLION DAY AND INTERNATIONAL DAY , no one comes. those days are free and yet they only get 1/2 of what they used to get 10 yrs. ago when you had to pay.
it’s too easy from the comfort of your own home plus the FREE streaming of every race from every track in north america.
all you need is a betting account.
every racetrack owner should follow woodbine entertainment and stop charging for what the customer gets for free at home.

Posted by palaceplace on February 7, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

It is “too easy from the comfort of one’s home”; and it is very hard on horsemen, owners and breeders, not just the tracks. Without some portion of the online bets going back to purses, there is no reason to breed or race.

But, why pay for the cow when the milk is free? As pointed out, the stoopage is horsemens’ card to play. The track now needs to make online bettors pay for the product, the longer term implications for the entire racing structure being dismal. This is not simply a local problem.

Posted by Michael Martin on February 8, 2011 @ 9:46 am

Sooner or later, “horsemen” are going to have to accept that they have caused and exacerbated their own problems.

The actual value of a race horse with a number on it need not be that much different than the actual value of a ping-pong ball with a number on it. Yet for centuries horsemen have been playing a highly speculative game adjacent to, yet entirely separate from the wagering which drives the business of horse racing.

Today’s horsemen have the mentality that stock market backers had in 1999: “the only way is UP… can’t go wrong… get in NOW!”

Thoroughbred race horse owners, like investors in real estate, have always believed that they were somehow ‘entitled’ to steady gains without risk. To introduce a free-fall in market value is unheard of, and in the minds of some, cannot be tolerated.

Horse racing is dying simply because horse owners have developed a scenario wherein each time they bid another $100 for a race horse they contribute more to the PROBLEM than to the solution.

Not only that, but it is uncanny how the people complaining most about purses are those who almost never rate even a share of the pot.

Until horsemen are willing to go right to the source and inspire race tracks to actually DO SOMETHING for their customers, it will always be the case that the guy sitting at home in front of the computer has it much better than might anybody wandering around Woodbine or any other track on a given day.

Posted by Landry on February 8, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

It isn’t clear to me whether Landy wants to play ping pong, or go to the races. I know guys who will bet on which cat comes out of the garage first, but that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the topic at hand.
Race tracks need to do some things for their customers, that is for sure, but “horsemen” (generally people do know what that means) can’t do a lot about that. It is hard enough to get the track to even want the horses to be there at all. Like Landry, the tracks would prefer ping pong balls; the ping pong balls don’t eat, and don’t dump what they eat in a pile of bedding. How in the world is $100. bid on a horse creating a problem? Where do the ‘entitle’ments play into this scenario? The owners generally just get screwed, and then quit, as it is. Breeders who race their own can do all right, and speculators in racehorses are not the same thing. There have been plenty of free falls in market value in the past, and will be another in the future.

The privilege of owning a racehorse isn’t all that privileged, it is just another sort of gamble. The privilege of being parted from one’s money at the window, or at on the internet, is a little less risky. The bet is generally smaller, for one thing, and there won’t be another vet bill in the mail, either.

The guy sitting at home in front of the computer has to made to share the risk, or the whole thing will have to fold, perhaps for some ping pong balls with a number on each of them. Don’t old ladies gamble on bingo, anyway? B-11, anyone?

Horsemen at Suffolk are going right to the source and making them do something. And some bettors will never come back.

Posted by Michael Martin on February 8, 2011 @ 3:28 pm


You speak about the person betting in front of the computer as something bad. It is supposed to be something good – more people to sell to, more convenience etc. Most businesses think it’s a good thing.

The “fair share” is paid for. Signal fees are upwards of 10% for some racetracks, so they are not paying peanuts.

If you increase the price of the signal fee you have no demand, and if you have no demand you have no purses.

Horse racing has fallen on hard times. It is not 1980 any longer where people cram to the racetrack to bet. They will also not pay 22% takeout over the internet and bet. It might not be a happy situation, or equitable, but it is what it is. The industry has to come to grips with that or it will never get better.


Posted by PTP on February 8, 2011 @ 8:51 pm

Michael Martin,

You don’t get it – and you never will.

Where did you get “ping pong” from??? The balls have numbers on them, or didn’t you catch that prominent detail???

In case you hadn’t figured it out, lotteries were prime competition for the gambling dollar long before casinos ever were.

If all horses cost $100… what would be different about racing than is the case today?

Most prominently, there wouldn’t be the unsupportable scores of middle men now each trying to scoop up a few dollars from every horse deal they can get their hands on. These people are the problem, and you just can’t see the reality right in front of you. A classic example of same are those working for the NTRA. Imagine how horse racing survived for hundreds of years before these brainchildren banned together, put their hands out, and exacted still another steady, significant toll on racing’s bottom line. Racing is so blind and gullible that it put money in their hands, further distancing itself from any hope of recovery.

10% cuts for winning jockeys – fine! – but why should the 10% be different at Keeneland than it is at the Minidoka fairgrounds?

If racing were conducted everywhere with $100 horses and purse levels known to the Minidoka fairgrounds then handle would be able to support purses, there would be more money available for the venues to profit from putting on the show, and they could make a concerted effort at actually doing something for the fan base. This would inspire people to opt to be at the live venue rather than sit home in front of the computer.

As for breeders… you talk as if horses would become extinct without “breeders”. These are still more people playing a tangent, speculative game amongst themselves which has exactly nothing to do with pari-mutuel wagering on horse races.

How exactly do you think horses withstood the test of time up until the 1700’s when the trio of Thoroughbred foundation sires roamed this earth? Did they really need some self-absorbed person nearby who thought he was a necessity for the continuation of the species?

Michael Martin, in reference to your last few paragraphs, there is no ‘privilege’ involved, yet it is exactly that “gamble” which has become racing’s greatest hurdle.

Horse owners used to the early 1980’s simply cannot and will not come to grips with the fact that they and they alone have caused the mess they’re in 30 years later.

Through 1986, when the tax laws changed, racing paid a great deal more in taxes to local coffers, and horse owners kept bidding record amounts for various horses, while inviting middle men into the fold which racing can no longer support.

These days, and because racing now barely gives an ounce to state and local governments, it comes as no surprise that political leaders have no incentive to give a cat’s ass about horse racing.

The guy at home wagering on race horses should in no way be made or even asked to share in the “risk” caused entirely by horse owners having artificially inflated the market value of $100 horseflesh.

Posted by Landry on February 9, 2011 @ 2:19 am

[…] Gulfstream, or Tampa races on track or by ADW beginning today, a shut-out Suffolk called “a slap in the face” to […]

Posted by Jessica Chapel / Railbird v2 - The Impasse, Cont. on February 9, 2011 @ 7:06 am

Wait a minute. Not only do I get it, but get this: this isn’t the lotto, or bingo, both with ping pong balls. The state gave all these entities the privilege of extracting dollars from bettors.

Whatever some fool pays for his very fashionable horse is their business, not mine; that is speculation. Cheap signal prices drive purse levels down. Competition for other gambling forms is difficult anyway, without tracks offering signals at a discount relative to the normal takeout. That takeout is already somewhat high, compared to those other gambling venues.

Others have made the point, elsewhere, that it is difficult visually to separate a claime race from a stake race; whatever price is paid for a horse is irreleveant. Without adequate purses, the help doesn’t get paid. Field size decreases, and the product is cheapened. Why bet on short fields, with less form? The same lack of form also happens when horses head to the breeding shed simply because they won a good race. Such is the price of fashion. Larger purses might keep them around for a couple of years beyond their three year old season. Racing becomes a bit more valuable relative to horse speculation with increased purse size.

Bring signal prices and track takeout into line, so at least that part of the equation balances, without any ping pong balls, numbered or not. Then the guy in front of the computer also pays equally to get in the game, same as the gal at the window. You are right, it shouldn’t be twentytwo percent. Same-same, mismo y mismo.

Hell, just pull the handle, and leave the horses back at the ranch. Racing is too expensive to operate, regardless of who-pays-what for fashionable horses, and without the expensive meddle men, excessive veterinary intervention, and the other impediments corporate racing has evolved. All of that falls under what Chris Hillman called “high fashion queens”.

Same bet, same takeout, no quarrel.

Posted by Michael Martin on February 9, 2011 @ 9:19 am


Your idea of socialism for horse ownership at $100 each makes even less practical sense than socialism in general. What the horse costs is almost insignificant. Your monthly bill for vet, trainer, blacksmith, etc. is still going to be $3,000 whether or not you have a $100 horse or a $1,000,000 horse.

Posted by Brian Russell on February 10, 2011 @ 9:47 am