Racing’s maddening conundrum

When the best interest of bettors is at odds with the best interests of the drivers, punters feel violated and the handle the horsepeople used to rely on goes down.

by Brett Sturman

Until the advent of slots as a means to fund harness racing, there used to a dynamic that worked between horsepeople and the bettors. There was a mutual understanding that the two groups were dependent on one another. The owners, trainers and drivers needed bettors as a way to generate handle, which, in turn, generated the purses. In turn, the horsepeople were expected to conduct fair and honest races so that bettors would continue to generate handle, and on and on. Of late, the checks and balances that were once in place have largely been removed, and the question becomes: What does the relationship between horsepeople and bettors look like today?

In recent weeks, there have been a number of drives in races that have caught the ire of many on social media. Whenever one of these drives occurs, it’s predictable what the reaction will be from both horsepeople and horseplayers alike. Bettors are often infuriated and demand that they deserve better, while horsepeople cite a need to do what’s best for their horse. And these two options almost always seem mutually exclusive, though they don’t have to be.

Starting two weeks ago in the final preliminary leg of the Levy series at Yonkers, Missile J was given a just “don’t get hurt” drive, as described in the Yonkers press release for races that night. Missile J was already assured a spot in the finals and with an outside post, anyone who follows harness racing knew that it was unlikely that he would ever be seriously involved.

But Missile J was somehow bet down to 5-2 odds. He wasn’t the favorite, but was well supported nonetheless. As expected, he never had a shot in the race being always well behind; he could have been Albatross heading into the stretch and it still wouldn’t have mattered. It’s one of those things where if you follow this sport day in and day out you know what to expect, but what if you’re just a casual player?

Last Friday at the Meadowlands the betting faithful were thrown again for a loop on the no-shot drive on the 70 cents on the favorite, Penpal. In this race, the 4-year-old mare driven and trained by Pat Lachance never showed any desire to try and was about 15 lengths behind the top pair of horses when entering the stretch before coming on for a third-place finish. Granted, that in Penpal’s first two starts of the year she also came from off the pace (in which she won both in sweeping monstrous fashion), but in those races she was put into motion far earlier than she was on Friday.

Again, anyone who knows racing knows that this isn’t the first or last time that Pat Lachance has driven a horse like this. But bettors hate it because he often drives decent stock and you just have to guess with him. Lachance gets many accolades from fellow horsepeople and owners for being someone who is always looking out for the horse’s best interest, and it shows the consistent rate in which his horses earn money and enjoy longevity.

As a horseplayer myself, what am I realistically supposed to expect from a driver? I’d like an honest effort every time, but these drivers have trainers to answer to, who, in turn, have owners to answer to, and the reality is that protecting a horse’s best interest is going to take priority over extending a horse too much to nail down fourth place to complete a $0.20 superfecta ticket for a guy sitting in an OTB somewhere hundreds of miles away.

It’s perhaps a jaded view I carry, but those are the times we are in. No longer do horsepeople need bettors to supply the purses. Just how bad is it for bettors? On Tuesday night it was reported that a race at Yonkers with a $35,000 purse did a grand total for the race of a measly $22,000 in handle. It’s almost inconceivable.

At the heart of this is the question, is harness racing today still considered a gambling game, first and foremost? It obviously used to be, but the answer isn’t so clear today. Horseplayers still feel it is, which is why they get vocal and question drives, but then there are drivers who realize that their income is derived from the handle of a slot machine and not racing handle.

Regardless of what racing is considered, judges are still put in place to ensure the integrity of the races. Very rarely these days do you ever see or hear of a driver getting days for a lack of effort. This continues to happen with much frequency in other parts of the world, but not here. Is there anything judges or track management can do to give the betting public a fair shake before a questionable drive occurs? In the case of Missile J, is there any protection or “heads up” that could have been given out to alert those less suspecting casual people that in all likelihood they would be wasting their money by supporting this horse? Something similar could go for drivers such as Lachance that have a history of racing conservatively, often not giving bettors the best run for their money.

Part of handicapping harness racing has always been handicapping the drivers. While it’s relatively easy to predict horses form from week to week (especially if in the same barn), it’s difficult to guess on a driver’s strategy or the mood of a driver for any particular race. Most of the time as bettor’s we’re willing to accept some deviation of strategy from a driver as to what we might expect and we all know that racing luck plays a large part as well, but it’s these examples of lackluster drives that can be maddening to a bettor.

This isn’t the way the sport wants to model itself under, but when it comes to wagering in today’s world of slot racing, it truly is the principle of caveat emptor for the bettors; let the buyer beware. Horses race for more money today than ever while wagering on races is in decline, and many seem okay with it. Until the horsepeople have a need to give further thought to bettors’ regards they probably won’t. And based on the current structure that they race under, horsepeople would also be correct for taking that approach.

Last Week’s Bankroll: $922
Total Wagers: $84
Total Return: $0
This Week’s Bankroll: $838

Mohawk, Saturday April 29

Race 7: OUR SKY MAJOR N never had a realistic chance to flaunt his best in the Levy series at Yonkers and that’s too bad; there’s obvious talent here for the recent invader. He returned to Mohawk last week and won as he pleased on the front end; can easily come right back tonight and we might actually get the 5-1 morning line with Drury on board. How about DINNER AT THE MET? He was a $15K claimer just a few weeks ago and then beat the Preferred’s last week when he won first start off a re-claim for Travis Cullen. You obviously have to respect the form but I’d pay to see if he could do it again; tougher spot tonight too. ERLE DALE N was overloaded last week and now lands the rail for the second straight time; good opportunity for Bob McClure as he picks up the drive. MOHAWK WARRIOR has now been second for six races in a row; Doug McNair goes here for Moreau over #2 and that is noteworthy. SINTRA is fast but this might be asking too much in his first start back since October; first start as an older horse. NICKLE BAG usually beats me whenever I leave him out.

$25 Win 2
$3 Exacta 1-2-3

Race 9: VELOCITY DRIVEN blazed the way uncovered two back with a big :26:4 third panel when he settled for second in a 1:50 mile. He had no shot last out while getting stuck with post 10 on the step up, but this looks like about as good as pop and drop spot as any; winner of his race two back went onto win the Preferred next out. PRESCOTTS HOPE finally got a win last out against lesser and maybe that can be the start of better things for him again; can certainly compete with these if he’s over his breaking woes. RISE UP NOW returns to WEG off a crushing score at Flamboro; an obvious short priced contender with these connections from the inside. PROVEN DESIRE showed speed last out and held well; potential longshot play. COOL ROCK was too far out of position last week and McClure will have to do something different to avoid a similar situation. I’ll bank on WAZZUP WAZZUP needing one although that was a good return Q by the veteran as he makes his first start for Marfisi.

$40 Win 2

$5 Exacta Box 2 / 1-3