Commentary: Back Into The Hole

By John McEvoy

One of the features of what my parents considered my misspent youth was learning to bet horses at a downtown bookie joint in my hometown of Kenosha, Wis. A buddy and I would finish our baseball games in the summer league for teenagers, then sneak down the stairs into a pool room/horse room popularly referred to as “The Hole.” There, under the permissive eye and occasional guidance of the owner and his adult clientele, we gained valuable knowledge regarding past performances, parlays, round robins, bad beats, how to lose with at least some semblance of grace, and how to win without gloating too irritatingly over thrilling triumphs. You could bet as little as 50 cents. Results came over the wire and were posted on chalkboards by an aged clerk who also updated odds. The proprietor, a one-time Major League Baseball player, did not see himself contributing to delinquency by tolerating our youthful presence. Far from it. “You gotta water the seedlings,” he often said, “so they can grow into full-fledged suckers.” I can’t look back at my educational background and find any experience more instructive or with cheaper tuition.

A year or two later, when we had driver’s licenses, we headed south on summer afternoons to Arlington Park. An epiphany occurred. We realized that there was nothing more exciting than watching your picks perform. Listening to race results in “The Hole,” or over the radio, did not compare to the real thing. My buddy and I were hooked forever on the sight of these beautiful competitions. Except for winter Saturdays speculating on Hialeah and Oaklawn Park, all our “action” from then on was on live racing. “The Hole” was pretty much over for us. After college, and the service, it was entirely a part of the past.

This comes to mind as I became entangled in the morass created by recent mergers and machinations of some of horse racing’s current powerhouses. The main result affecting me is a dismal one. I am a TVG subscriber through my cable provider in Evanston, Ill. Because of recent business developments, TVG will no longer be able to televise races from Churchill Downs, Arlington Park, and Calder Race Course, once current contracts elapse. Races from those tracks will now be offered by HRTV. However, HRTV is not available on my cable system. That being the case, I’ve already been missing races televised from Pimlico, Gulfstream Park, and Santa Anita, to mention just three. This latest development puts me in the worst possible position a player can find him or herself: just about shut out from major American racing—the New York Racing Association tracks, Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga, now existing as the lone exceptions. I, and thousands like me, have been caught in the squeeze between aggressive corporations battling for monopolistic control of “the product” while turning a frigid shoulder to the people who purchase the product.

A longtime Brisbet customer, I am now prevented from wagering on NYRA tracks over that service. On the other hand, I cannot join the Churchill Internet betting service because I am a resident of Illinois, a state whose residents are barred from participation in this new venture. So, while the corporate stare down continues, I can’t watch most of the races I want to see on TV, and I can’t bet on most of the ones I can see.

Was anyone surprised when, for the first time in 16 years, the Kentucky Derby day card at Churchill experienced a decline in overall handle after a history of impressive growth? That Preakness program betting also dropped. This is called bucking a trend, by turning away bucks that bettors were ready to spend.

Today, when racing’s share of the sporting market continues to shrivel, I am at a loss to understand how these recent actions could be seen as anything other than detrimental to fan interest, either the launching of it, or the maintaining of it. One of the track executives involved in producing this situation described it as “a pain worth enduring.” Another said he wanted to apologize to racing fans for what has been described as an “inconvenience.” Hell, it’s not an inconvenience—it’s a downright deprivation.

To stay in the game, I’ve had to add another Internet betting service. I’m starting to grow weary of jumping through hoops for seemingly uncaring suits. Looking to the Belmont Stakes, I may just watch it on ABC with my 9-year-old granddaughter, Cecelia, and book her 50-cent bets. The kid’s already beaten me out of $11.75 on the first two legs of this Triple Crown.

John McEvoy’s second horse racing crime novel, Riders Down, was published in 2006.