By Bob Summers
The racing industry might learn something from what I overheard recently at an off-track betting parlor in Niagara Falls, N.Y. A race from someplace--Calder, Aqueduct, Philadelphia Park, and Turf Paradise were all on the screens--produced a longshot winner and behind me some disgusted horseplayers were discussing the improbable victor and its jockey in not-so-glowing terms. "That's why I like the casino," one finally said. "You know the dice ain't loaded and the cards aren't marked." Attention racing industry: When competing against a casino, your game is, in the perception of some, just too suspicious. Casino gambling came to Niagara Falls just over seven years ago. First came Casino Niagara on the Canadian side. Then last January Seneca Niagara Casino opened in the U.S. Last year, it handled $4 billion. With a "B." I have played horses since Northern Dancer (who broke his maiden at nearby Fort Erie) was a yearling. But I was lured into the casino soon after the doors opened and by now have become somewhat proficient at craps and blackjack. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the games where I often find some fellow horseplayers, and also some local horsemen, at play. What makes horseplayers belly up to a dice table? Many of the same things that draw them to the track. You make your bets and root for your favorites. "C'mon seven! Horn-high yo!" Blackjack; it was love at first sight. Just as each horse race is a puzzle, so is every hand of cards. Like handicapping, it is a thinking person's game. You're dealt 15 and the dealer shows a 6; you stand. But if the dealer has a 7, take another card. Always split aces and 8s. Double on 11. Another fun thing is the math. There are dice bets where the house takeout is under 1.5%; same with blackjack. The house edge is almost zero. The comparable whack at the track? At Fort Erie, it's 15.7% on straight bets and 26.2% on doubles and exactas. At Aqueduct, it's 14% and 17.5%. Despite the unfavorable math, I really do prefer the Sport of Kings. I can think of no better way to spend a free afternoon than settling in at a simulcasting parlor with a Daily Racing Form, a red pen, a blue pen, a couple of sandwiches, a can of pop ("soda" to you), and $40. When I lose on a race, I try to figure out what I missed. But sometimes, I am--like the men I overheard--completely baffled by implausible reversals of form. I've been around the races long enough to conclude the sport isn't as dishonest as the public thinks. But sometimes, I do have trouble convincing myself. Another reason players gravitate to dice and cards is that horse playing can get so darned complicated. The mind boggles at the myriad of factors in handicapping. But the dice can only come up 36 different ways. And the blackjack universe contains only about 250 possible hands. Which is why every few weeks, I'll give my boggled mind a break and visit a casino, where I don't have to think so much and I still have almost a coin-flip chance of winning. Casino gambling has a few drawbacks and the racing industry should try to capitalize on them. There's little room for a $2 bettor at the casino. No dice or card table around here allows a bet under $5. I need at least $70 for a fighting chance at craps and $125 to get through a blackjack session. Win or lose, casino games go fast. The other day, it took me 10 minutes to tap out at the dice table. Blackjack takes longer, but I don't think I've ever sat at a table more than three hours. If you're looking for a long, relaxing afternoon at a casino, you had better bring a book, or a lot more money. And those low odds are killers. Blackjack bets pay off at even money or 3-to-2. At dice, the "intelligent" bets pay just even money or 7-to-6. There's no such thing as a "value" play where the odds are higher than your actual chance of winning. Still, I don't envy the racing industry's competitive position. The casinos are open around the clock and post time is whenever you can get there. And, as far as anyone knows, the dice ain't loaded and the cards aren't marked. BOB SUMMERS covers racing and writes "The Happy Handicapper" column for the Buffalo News.