The confidence of horseplayers has been shaken, and that is a very serious matter for racetracks, owners, breeders, and anyone else with a financial stake in this business.
The Breeders' Cup Ultra Pick 6 scandal is not, as some would like to think, an isolated incident that can be neatly swept under the nearest rug. It is merely the latest in a string of insults to horseplayers that has put the credibility and integrity of pari-mutuel wagering in doubt.
Some people saw problems within the pari-mutuel system as "an accident waiting to happen." That's how Jockey Club and Equibase executive Alan Marzelli described to the New York Times the archaic system currently in place to accept pick six wagers.
Marzelli, among a handful of industry executives with a vision that extends beyond the next fiscal quarter, was a proponent of a business relationship between the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and IBM Global Services that could have led to an industry-owned totalizator system. Mark Elliott, an IBM executive who led an army of consultants and technical experts in an examination of the pari-mutuel business, said two years ago that racing was farther behind any industry he'd seen in the use of technology to improve its economic conditions.
But the IBM project was tossed around like a political football by parties at war with the NTRA, several of which are no longer members of the organization. Unfortunately, NTRA leaders bowed to the pressure from the dissidents and jettisoned the IBM initiative.
Apologists will say the apparent "fix" that allowed one bettor to correctly select all of the winners in this year's Breeders' Cup pick six occurred only because someone working for Autotote was able to go into the tote company's computer database and change the selections before they were transmitted to the AmTote computer at Arlington Park, the host track for the Breeders' Cup. They will lay the blame, plain and simply, on "human error."
However, many horseplayers were outraged to learn that, while the amount of money wagered on multi-race bets is transmitted before the first race is run, the actual selections for the wager are stored in a local computer for several races before being sent to the host track. That is asking for trouble, and it begs the question: How long has this been going on?
Why was this flawed system in place? According to a report in Daily Racing Form, transmitting the betting information any earlier would clog the nationwide tote system.
That, in a nutshell, describes the mess IBM's Elliott saw when he shined some light inside racing's dark closet, the mysterious place otherwise known as the totalizator system. Warnings made a decade ago concerning the lack of research and development inside the tote industry have been ignored. The days of reckoning are upon us.
The same clogs in the tote system may explain how a horse at 9-2 odds when the starting gates opened was 2-5 when he crossed the wire 3-1/2 lengths in front in the first race at Hollywood Park last April 24. It wasn't past-posting; it was slow posting.
It's easy to point fingers at the three tote companies and tell them to spend more money to upgrade their technology. It also would be wrong. Racetracks have used the companies to their own advantage, playing both ends against the middle to squeeze the best financial deal possible. That's why some track operators opposed an industry-owned tote and the participation of IBM. They'd rather get the cheapest price and take a chance on the quality of service provided.
The pari-mutuel industry, with annual wagers approaching $15 billion, no longer can afford to take that approach. The stakes are just too high.