By Larry Levin
Horseplayers are the plankton of Thoroughbred racing, and get about as much respect. Plankton are the tiny organisms at the bottom of the oceanic food chain. If they were suddenly to disappear, life in the sea would plummet, probably to the point of extinction.
The betting dollar builds racetracks, provides purses, pays the participants, and generates demand for bloodstock in the hope of achieving riches or glory. If there was no wagering, people could still race their horses over the back 40, but the industry as it exists today would be devastated.
Yet the patrons of the betting windows receive little or no appreciation. In his "Let's Get Specific" article on the subject of drugs and racing (The Blood-Horse of Jan. 27, page 678), Kent Stirling accuses those complaining about undetectable drugs of being "professional horseplayers."
"Horseplayers," Mr. Stirling informs us, "are people who believe they are smart enough to consistently beat the most unpredictable game on earth. When they eventually fail, and fail they will, they look for something to blame..."
One might wonder, if all horseplayers fail, how can there be professionals who make a living at it? Damon Runyon wrote a short story, "All Horse Players Die Broke" -- a witty line, although not a true one. Pari-mutuel bettors as a group play a negative sum game and lose money, but within that body are those who succeed, some quite impressively. And it isn't luck any more than in any other form of financial speculation.
Why the pejorative description matters is that racing spends a lot of effort attracting new fans. And what is it these neophytes are encouraged to do? Become horseplayers, of course, preferably those with strong opinions, deep pockets, and a fondness for risk-taking. But if a significant portion of the industry believes bettors are basically degenerate losers, and complainers to boot, then that condescending attitude will ultimately manifest itself in any advertising campaign.
The ladies with the white parasols at Keeneland are quite lovely and part of the pageantry of the sport. But it's doubtful that if and when they go to the windows they're moving the tote board. Ernie Paragallo may have dressed for the 1996 Kentucky Derby (gr. I), as Al Michaels described it, looking more like he was getting ready for the fifth at Aqueduct, but it's those who bet the fifth at Aqueduct who help provide the industry's backbone.
Years ago, in the days before Frank De Francis, a leading racing executive in Maryland described his view of the patrons and gave his management philosophy. He could put barbed wire around the track, he said, and the bettors would crawl through it.
Horseplayers have pretty much stopped crawling through the barbed wire, but the contemptuous attitude toward the customer remains at many tracks. Like other management attitudes, positive or negative, it trickles down through the organization to the rank-and-file employees.
Last year, after many years of going to the races, I went to Fair Grounds for the first time. When I placed my first bet, I happened to use a $100 bill. The mutuel clerk looked at it for some length of time, turning it over and examining it. I watched, speechless, fascinated by this incredible drama. Had she never seen such a bill before? Was Fair Grounds, unbeknownst to me, accepting only French currency? Was the clerk going to accuse me of passing counterfeit money? After this delay, during which time no handle was generated in her line, the clerk deigned to accept the bill. At that moment, I lost any interest in supporting racing at Fair Grounds.
In contrast is the experience I had when I made a rare appearance on a riverboat casino and bought poker chips. I also happened to use $100 bills on this occasion. The manager of the poker tables became my immediate friend, inquired about why I didn't come more often, and gave me free passes.
Horseplayers may complain about the game and how it's run, sometimes with justification and sometimes not. But such a "confession of failure," as Mr. Stirling calls it, a "whining assignment of blame," is also something else. It's the voice of the customer. And the customer, in any business except horse racing, is always right.