Needed: Honest Effort

By Barry Irwin -- Immediately following revelation of the Breeders' Cup Ultra Pick 6 scandal, my e-mail in box filled up with letters from friends who bet on horse racing. Most of the missives had the same theme: I told you so!

After reading the memos, my initial thought was that a chief by-product of the scandal was that it would create fresh fodder on which these gamblers could feed their paranoia.

Having worked at racetracks in several capacities, I had heard degenerate gamblers tell stories about how the game was crooked. Greatest urban legend of them all, and one that seemed to have no geographic or generational boundaries, was the tale about the phantom mutuel machine that remained turned on during races.

While nobody I ever met had actually eyeballed one, everybody had heard the stories about the open machines. The most popular version of the myth was that the unit was housed in the office of the mutuel manager, who with a few select pals, periodically indulged in an occasional post-race bonus.

Another version of the story had the machine placed in the closet of the track president, especially if he happened to own horses or liked to bet now and again.

As I began to read my mail and as revelations began to unfold, one thing became crystal clear: these gamblers, sick as they may be, had not merely been giving in to paranoia the past few years, they were absolutely correct in their assessment that the game was indeed rigged against them.

Stuff that casual racegoers scarcely could image was actually taking place on a regular basis. Human corruption was behind the shenanigans, but most of the problems stemmed from an ability of wiseguys to take advantage of emerging technology.

Owners of racetracks made their own gamble about a dozen years ago, when they decided to forsake their live product in favor of relying on simulcasting.

Whether this was a good or a bad business decision remains open to question. But in shifting the load from on-track to off-track, racetrack owners did not want to spend the money necessary to create and implement the technology to properly deal with their change in strategy. The situation led to the gatekeepers falling asleep at the door of the vault. The result is a loss of consumer confidence from racing's lifeblood: the gamblers.

Problems arose that became all too apparent to those who bet the races every day. Year by year, these bettors smelled new rats. To hear them tell it, the stench has become fouler than ever. Their outcries, however, fell on deaf ears at the racetracks across America.

The revelation that racing is no longer on the up and up because of loopholes in the totalizator systems could not come at a worse time, as the NTRA has made headway in bringing the game to the attention of the general populace.

Some racing jurisdictions have made changes to safeguard the integrity of the betting pools. Others, most notably California, have declined, under a misguided notion that some of the changes would actually work against the consumer.

There is an old hardboot expression in the Bluegrass: "Money makes the mare go."

Well, here is a new one that should gain popularity among racing's elite: "Gamblers make the races go."

Without betting on races, there is no game--period. Even though the big shots in racing every once in a while are forced to concede this point, they don't let it get them down for long.

For far too long gamblers have had no voice in racing. Only once in a while is a token position made available for them on some board or committee.

Bettors don't require much. All they want is a square chance and a level playing field.

It is high time the entrepreneurs who have invested billions of dollars in facilities and politicians that can appoint individuals to racing boards make an honest effort to listen to the concerns of those folks who wager on horse racing.

Regardless of what a coffee table book about the glorious history of the Turf may suggest, the real sportsmen in racing are those hardy souls who come out day after day and bet their money.

Barry Irwin is president of Team Valor.