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Bet to win, bet to lose, that's Betfair's wagering menu

Jan 13, 2009 5:04 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

They are battering at the gates of horse racing in this country, east and west.

Betfair wants in.

The English betting exchange wants to operate in the United States, and it has found a weak spot – the Thoroughred Owners Association of California – that is its best bet so far to get in.

They also, according to Ray Paulick, who formerly edited the weekly thoroughbred racing magazine Blood-Horse but now runs his own publication, and a very newsy one called simply The Paulick Report, says Betfair wants to buy TVG, which can be bought.

He says there are interested buyers: Churchill Downs, Keeneland, the New York Racing Association tracks of Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga, and Californians R.D. Hubbard and Edward Allred among them. But all would be hard pressed to match Betfair for money,

It is only eight years old, but its low commissions on bets and the huge volume of them, has created a worldwide organization – except for the U.S. – that has enabled it to use governments, powerful partners and its own considerable capital to keep moving forward.

Paulick says the California owners’ association has developed its own exchange deal with Betfair, having it promote California racing worldwide while it works from within, trying to convince the state of California and its racing board it would be a good thing to let Betfair in.

There are a number of reasons why racetracks in this country do not want Betfair.

One is that it does not pay very much for its signals, and tracks as we know them would have to restructure themselves, or Betfair would, to arrange a reasonable marriage.

Another – perhaps THE other is a better way of putting it – is that Betfair allows you to bet on horses to lose as well as win.

That of course is the very antithesis of American gaming philosophy. The game here is all about winning, not losing, and there have been enough problems controlling that aspect of horse racing, let alone worrying about cheaters who bet to lose.

Drew Couto, the president of the TOC, says he worries more about the present and future welfare of racing in this country than he does about cheating on losing. He dragged out Einstein’s old comment, if Einstein actually made it, for Paulik: that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. So Couto has signed a letter of intent with Betfair that could open a crack in the door just a bit, which is more than anyone else has opened it.

Chris Scherf, executive vice president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, the trade association of North American racetracks, is coming to Las Vegas in three weeks for a big racing meeting at Bellagio. The subject of Betfair is not on the agenda, but you can be sure it will be discussed.

And it will be discussed a country away, too, in Ontario.

There is turmoil there, so much so that John Walzak and Jim Whelan, the two men who run the Ontario Harness Horse Association, were deserted by their members who voted against a boycott of racing at big Woodbine in Toronto. Walzak and Whelan fled to the Ontario provincial legislature for help.

They are asking the legislators to tell the Ontario Lottery Gaming Commission to withhold slot machine revenues from Woodbine until it signs a contract with their horsemen’s association.

Woodbine does not like that kind of third party negotiation, and has ordered the OHHA to cease and desist. It also has announced that it has no intention of doing business with an outfit like that, and with the horsemen already having voted not to uphold the boycott it sounds as if Woodbine is in a fairly strong bargaining position

This has no direct connection, of course, with what the thoroughbred horsemen are doing in California. Except that Betfair is looking for any cracks in the door or open windows, and dissatisfaction is a good place to start.

A Kentucky public relations man named Fred Pope, by coincidence, wants the U.S. Congress in Washington to reopen the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978 and mess around with it.

No one knows what kind of things fly out when these tightly closed boxes are opened. But once open, they enable every kook on the block to get his or her hands on the prize.

This is dangerous stuff. Racing had better understand fully what this kind of harm fooling around with tried and true laws, and with radical changes in the North American racing game, can do to the institution. It can change it. It also can destroy it, as we know it.

Racing may have to pick one down the road.