Bettor lawsuits point to a bigger underlying issue

I don’t think trainers should be too worried, but the sport should be that PETA is involved.

by Dean Towers

You probably saw the screaming headline, “Bettor Sues Harness Racing Trainer for Loss Linked to Doping” this past week.

The story was in reference to a situation at the Meadowlands where a horse – Tag Up And Go – won a race, but later tested positive for blood builders. The bettor alleges that he was duped out of $31,000 in winnings and is suing for damages.

The suit is backed by PETA with the hopes that it would “open the floodgates for more litigation by bettors” to “dramatically curtail illegal horse doping.” Whether that happens or not is anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly a testament to the power of the group. This news was carried by ABC News, Washington Post, Fox News and many other outlets. If you ever wanted harness racing in the headlines, well, this time you got it. And that was probably PETA’s plan all along.

Even though I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, I have little knowledge of what the future holds for this, or similar suits. From folks who do know about these things, the suggestion is that the lawsuit is probably going nowhere. I have no reason to not believe them.

And, even when I try to get my head around the fact that such lawsuits could be used as a stick to change behavior, it doesn’t quite compute, either. When Donald Trump took the oath of office, border crossings dropped on a dime and that seemed obvious. When word gets around there’s this new crazy guy, hell-bent on stopping it, the threat means something and things change. Is there any suspect trainer out there today who will change his routine because PETA might file a lawsuit that they likely won’t win? Maybe, but to me it’s doubtful.

Where I think we need to see a potential behavior change is from the leadership of the sport itself: The rule makers; the horsepeople groups; the participants.

When I spoke with a professional bettor about the PETA suit this week, he echoed to me what I think many feel.

“They can’t win these lawsuits because we factor cheating in when we bet and handicap harness racing. We know some trainers are doing bad things, and they’re usually winning a lot of races. We build it into our odds lines; we assume cheating is going on. So, it’s pretty tough to say you’re aggrieved by cheating.”

I understand that may be difficult for some to read, and you may not even believe it. Whether his thoughts are true or not doesn’t much matter, though. When your customers – people who bet to the tune of $2 billion dollars a year – think that about your sport, you’re in serious trouble. How do you attract new bettors when that’s your tagline? How do you possibly grow?

Further, what’s it say to those who are looking to invest luxury and entertainment capital into the sport? These are the potential yearling buyers; the smaller time partnerships. It’s telling them to invest in something else.

And somehow we continually shake our heads (and form committee after committee) about handle and foal crops being down?

This is why, in my view, you’ve probably noticed a few bettors (and some owners) actually cheering for PETA to succeed, as well as the many who stand firm behind Jeff Gural, despite some of his missteps. It looks like they’re trying to do something, while they think others are letting Rome burn.

We may see more of these lawsuits, or we may see none. But until the sport changes, these tactics and those supporting them will not go away. Harness racing has an investment and customer problem. It needs to be addressed in a meaningful way.