At its Feb. 28 meeting in Arcadia, the state horse racing board heard the outline for the World Thoroughbred Tour, the brainchild of poker tour founder Steve Lipscomb.
“We’re extraordinarily excited about the possibility to do something in this sport,” Lipscomb said. “(After the success of the poker tour), we’ve had appeals from everything from bingo to blackjack. We passed. … But there are so many parallels (between racing) with the poker market in 2001.”
That’s when the tour started poker’s rebirth.
“At that time, poker rooms were closing in droves,” Lipscomb continued. “Fans were dying out. People asked how do we save poker?”
Exploiting a hole-card camera and boiling the game down to super-simple basics, Lipscomb’s poker tour turned the centuries-old pastime into a spectator event and popular television. The tour’s biggest fans and most of its stars are under age 30. A tournament at nearby Commerce Casino the same weekend as the Santa Anita Handicap has a $7 million pot.
About a year ago, Lipscomb and his staff started thinking seriously about horse racing in a tournament format. Working with Drew Couto of the Thoroughbred Owners of California and Billy Koch of Little Red Feather Racing, the WPT crew developed a game that combined a pick-three or pick-five concept with poker tournament strategy.
Said Koch, “We can create new heroes for our sport. Handicappers can be heroes.”
“In racing, we already stand on the shoulders of giants,” Lipscomb said. “People love horses. It’s exciting to watch. But we needed a way to try to allow that young bravado thing, allow people to compete against each other instead of the anonymity of the pari-mutuel system, then translate that group experience to TV.”
The rules of the tournament would be up to the host track. Under the proposal presented to the California Horse Racing Board, the races could be limited to the host track or include other tracks, both in and out of state.
Scientific Games, which services California tracks, has the capability to put the wager into action immediately, Couto said.
“It’s doable,” he said. “This can work both on and off track and through ADW (advance deposit wagering), too.”
Here’s the concept: A bettor buys into the tournament at a set fee, such as $25. In return, the bettor receives a fantasy bankroll loaded into a plastic swipe card similar to many tracks’ rewards cards or an online betting account. Tournament wagers are restricted to win, place or show, or a combination of those, on only one horse per pre-determined race.
Unlike a multi-race wager such as a Pick 6, the bettor decides his or her wagers between races and can go “all in” at any point. The bettor can also pass a race. Television monitors keep track of the leader board. At the end of the tournament, the pool is paid out to the top 5% of the players with the winner getting 45%.
“It’s certainly very interesting,” commented CHRB chairman Richard Shapiro. “It could add new life to another old game. It’s a wonderful thing. Poker has been a phenomenon. This is a terrific concept.”
Added commissioner Jerry Moss, “We think it’s a good idea, but it’s up to the tracks how to implement it.”
The board directed its staff to draw up a proposal in time for its March meeting and public review. Tour officials hope to have the wager in place in time to introduce it at Del Mar this summer.