TOC's Coukos Backs Bettors in CHRB Session

TOC's Coukos Backs Bettors in CHRB Session
Photo: Courtesy of Thoroughbred Owners of California
Nick Coukos

California Horse Racing Board member George Krikorian opened up the question to the entire room at Los Alamitos Race Course May 11.

On the topic of surface changes made during multiple-race wager sequences—a hot-button issue in recent months because of decisions made by Santa Anita Park—Krikorian asked all of those in attendance at the CHRB Pari-Mutuel/ADW and Simulcast Committee meeting if they had any issues with how it was handled.

"Is there anyone in the room who is unhappy or concerned with the way it's being dealt with right now?" Krikorian said.

The room full of industry stakeholders sat silent, but a few minutes later, Thoroughbred Owners of California president Nick Coukos spoke up.

On April 8-9 Santa Anita took races off the turf in the middle of both the early Pick 4 and Pick 5 sequences, drawing the scorn of horseplayers on social media. In the multiple-race wagers, when there is a surface switch bettors are given "all" runners in the race, which dilutes the potential winnings of those wagers. In the instance of the April 8 sequences, on that Thursday the Pick 4 paid $2.05 and the Pick 5 paid $10.10.

"There is nothing more frustrating for a horseplayer than to find out you're stuck after a surface change," Coukos said, after first saying he was not representing the TOC in his statements and that he was speaking solely as a horseplayer. "If we really want to keep our horseplayers happy, we have to make the decision prior to the mutuels being opened on whether there is going to be a surface switch."

Earlier in the meeting, Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle detailed the track's process in deciding when to take a race off the turf in the case of wet conditions.

"Our standard procedure at Santa Anita is to get those races off the turf before wagering begins," Hammerle said. "That's what we try to do every time there's a rain event. Unfortunately, as we know down here, sometimes it's difficult to predict. In general, if we can have a confident feeling that the race is going to have enough rain to take it off two or three hours down the road, we will do it beforehand.

"If it's not raining outside and it's sunny outside, and the race is two or three hours away, we'll just keep going. We'll ride it right up to the end and, in some of those cases, if it starts raining at that moment, and the race is in an hour, I'm sorry, but we have to do that."

Coukos took issue with this tactic.

"If it's sunshine all day, it's sunshine all day," Coukos said. "At least we're not hurting the customers. I think that's really important. We've got to put them at the forefront."

Hammerle bristled at the idea that Coukos, in his position as TOC president, would advocate taking races off the turf unless it was absolutely necessary.

"That's an odd comment from the head of the TOC, that you should take a bunch of horses off (the turf) with the sun shining and it might not rain later in the day," Hammerle said.

"Why is that an odd comment?" Coukos replied.

"Because you have full fields of owners who are waiting for certain races that come along once a month," Hammerle said.

Hammerle earlier in the meeting said he wouldn't be opposed to modifications in the rules, and even offered an alternative way to handle the wagering.

"We do consider the players, we do consider the trainers, and all factors involved. Safety is of course No. 1," Hammerle said. "If it's a safety issue, they're coming off. If it's determined early, we do it. If it's not, we take it to the last minute and make the decision when it needs to be made. Maybe we need to (rethink) about giving (bettors) that free spot (in the multiple-race wagers). Maybe there can be an alternate rain pick."

After the meeting, Coukos said he was inspired to speak to the issue when Krikorian asked for feedback and was met with silence.

"One thing we tend to forget in this industry is the most important thing in our industry—our customer," Coukos said after the session ended. "We make decisions without keeping the customer in mind. They have to be the first thing we consider in every decision we make. I personally get pissed off when I keep on hearing people keep throwing the 'safety' thing at me. I really don't want to hear it any more. There isn't anyone in the world that is going to (argue) with that. We all know: Safety absolutely comes first.

"If we keep the customer in mind, we need to make these decisions before the mutuels open, and if we make the wrong decision, we make the wrong decision. If we think it's going to rain at two o'clock and it doesn't, at least the customer knows what surface the race is going to be run on.

"I felt it was important for someone to speak up. It didn't seem like there were customers in the room. Do I want to take a race off the turf? Of course not."

Also discussed during the meeting was a desire expressed by the TOC to adjust advance deposit wagering rules for bets made from within brick-and-mortar facilities. TOC representative Greg Avioli brought up that bettors are increasingly using ADWs to wager on track through mobile devices, and he asked the CHRB to consider altering its rules to require ADWs to "geolocate" bettors using ADW applications on mobile devices.

Avioli also brought up adjusting ADW rules that would give more of a share of the money wagered in those cases to the racetracks and horsemen, rather than to ADW companies, as if the wager was made at a betting window at the track.

TVG representative John Hindman wasn't as keen on the idea, calling geolocating customers "invasive" and a "barrier to entry" for potential new customers. Online ADWs already geolocate to determine what state a bettor is in, but they don't use the function to pinpoint where exactly a customer is in the state.

Another topic discussed during the meeting was "player pools," in which multiple players pool their money together to make larger wagers, often targeting large pools in multiple-race wagers or jackpot bets. Though the practice is not legal in California and some other states, it has been determined that player pools in other states, wagered on California races, is legal.

CHRB board member Richard Rosenberg asked the industry stakeholders in the room if California "was at a disadvantage" for not allowing player pools.

"We feel that it's not the hugest issue in the world, but it is something that's good for racing," said The Stronach Group's Scott Daruty. "In particular, when we have a large carryover at Santa Anita and Del Mar, we know there are people elsewhere in the country who are pooling their wagers and buying tickets. Ultimately, would we like California residents to be able to do this? Yes, we would."

Though illegal in California, it is accepted that pooled wagers are a common practice in the state and aren't reported.

"It goes without saying that we're putting California bettors at a disadvantage," CHRB chief counsel Robert Miller said. "If players in other states can pool, but California  residents cannot, it seems to me that California (bettors) are being placed at a disadvantage."

"Aren't they pooling anyway?" Krikorian asked, drawing a laugh from the crowd.

"Well, hopefully they are," Miller said. "But they're not telling us."

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