Lessons from my self-imposed hiatus from betting

With so much working against the average punter, I just might not be back.

by Garnet Barnsdale

Recently I wrote a feature for an industry publication that asked five regular punters several questions related to the current and future state of harness racing. Many of the responses mentioned takeout and the rake’s effect on their bankrolls, and ultimately the chance to turn a long-term profit playing this game that we love.

Certainly, some racetracks have made great strides in offering lower takeout bets for their patrons, but is it enough? This week, I decided for the first time in decades, to take a hiatus from wagering. To be fully transparent, I had a disastrous betting month of April, culminating with a Pick 4 that I “should have had” at Century Downs on Sunday that cost me a $3,700 cash. I won’t bore you with the gory details, but that was a ticket that I should have cashed that followed several other narrow losses, bad beats and in some cases, poor handicapping and bad wagering strategies. So, I decided to take a break and to be honest, it’s made me start to think about the wagering game that I have loved for so long and whether it’s worth resuming.

Here are some of my random thoughts on the plight of the bettor in the industry. First and foremost, other than some of the featured wagers such as the Pompano Park 12 per cent takeout Pick 4 and the WEG 15 per cent Pick 5 and the Racetrack at Western Fair’s 15 per cent Pick 3 and Pick 4s, takeout is too high for punters to overcome. While I try to limit my bets to the smaller rake bets, being a public handicapper for the WEG races, I also like to bet their Pick 4s, but the higher rake still makes it tough for me to stay in the black.

I thought last year was one of my better years for gambling on harness racing, but when it was all tallied up at the end of the year, I had cashed $107K on $110K wagered. Now, from an entertainment standpoint, I got my money’s worth for less than $60/week for sure, but, despite partially beating the takeout, I still ended up in the red.

One of the bigger issues faced by bettors in Canada is being forced to bet through the HPI Bet site which offers puny rewards and rebates. If I was a bettor that used an offshore site instead, my rebates from last year would have more than covered my losses and could have easily resulted in additional winnings because I would have a bigger bankroll to churn. Somewhat altruistically though, I refuse to take my betting money out of the pari-mutuel system, because I understand the overall implications if more and more bettors do so.

So, what’s the answer? At this point I’m not sure, but one thing I constantly feel as a bettor is that there is still a belief that permeates the industry that bettors will play regardless, and most don’t care about things like takeout. Throw the doors open and they’ll come, people used to say in the heydays of Greenwood Racetrack, and indeed they would. But I think of myself as a customer and when I see some of the improvements that are being made at my home track Mohawk Park, for example, I think what’s in it for me, the gambler? I’m not renting VIP suites, as nice as they look. Just once I’d like to see: “Opening weekend special for bettors: 10 per cent takeout on all win bets,” or something… anything.

The bottom line is, in an era of whales and computer bettors having edges on everyday punters that is nearly impossible to overcome, I’m seriously considering quitting altogether. That’s a thought that’s never crossed my mind in 40 years of betting on the races because I love the challenge and the action and because it is “in my blood” as they say.

I realize I’m only one man and my wagering capital is a pebble in the ocean. But I think that when guys like me are on the verge of quitting betting on this game – and I know through conversations I’m not alone – somebody should be worried.