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TrackNotes: Bet Bug

It wouldn't be the end of the world. Really.

The cessation of Thoroughbred horse racing in my life would certainly be a void, but I can report is hasn't happened - yet.

But after a confrontation with that very possibility in the past two weeks, I can say for sure the game will never be the same to me again.

It's an abusive relationship, that of the racing industry toward its lifeblood, the horseplayer. Rather than get its house in order, the oldest sport in America relentlessly inflicts pain upon its customers, sometimes sharp and cutting, sometimes dull and fatiguing. Whatever, they're pushing the perceptive fans away.

The latest aggravation came on the eve of the opening of the legendary Saratoga and Del Mar racing meets, when we here in Illinois found out that we would not be able to use our advance deposit wagering (ADW) accounts to bet on these two prestigious meets, as well as a number of others, including Calder, Evangeline Downs, Laurel, Lone Star, Los Alamitos, Louisiana Downs, Ohio 7&7, Presque Isle Downs, River Downs, Sacramento, Sam Houston, and Santa Rosa.

While Del Mar is most definitely a suffering part of the beleaguered California racing industry, it is still the West Coast's premier summer racing venue. Saratoga, in the opinion of many, including me, is the year's finest racing meet, offering a schedule that showcases many of the best horses in the nation and determines to a large degree the pecking order going into the Breeders' Cup.

So coming into the meets, we learn we're shut out in Illinois from wagering on premier summer racing, unless we go to the track or an OTB. It's a very complicated issue, but I'll give it a shot.

Advance deposit wagering companies like my two, TwinSpires.com and YouBet.com, are charged a (negotiated) fee by tracks outside of Illinois to procure their signal and wagering capabilities for residents in Illinois. This fee can be anywhere from the capped 3.5% in California to 10% or more of the amount bet on that track. (These restrictions do not apply at the track or at an off-track facility; those are different arrangements.)

The Illinois Racing Board recently passed its own a cap on that fee, limiting it to 5%. So a track like Saratoga, which might have been charging 8% for Illinois bettors to wager on it through an ADW, refused to lower its negotiated percentage. The ADWs and tracks, unwilling to eat the difference, cut off Illinois bettors from wagering at several tracks, including Saratoga and Del Mar. Blame the IRB.

The racing board's argument is that any money over the 5% that would have been taken by the ADW to pay off Saratoga stays here, instead going to the horsemen and, ideally, purses for Illinois races. Higher purses means better racing here.

"These interstate fees come largely from revenues that would otherwise be paid to Illinois horsemen in the form of purses on Illinois races," the board says in a statement posted to its website. "The purpose for the cap on interstate fees is to preserve and promote the interests of Illinois horsemen and Illinois racing relative to other states."

The IRB appears to be doing whatever it can to support struggling Illinois purse levels. The ADWs are taking out a cut to pay out-of-state tracks and a cut for themselves. As those cuts get bigger, our local purses suffer greatly, which helps explain the low quality of racing in Illinois. I believe the IRB is merely demonstrating stewardship here, but not doing anything constructive.

But how could the IRB not know that the ADWs would cut off Illinois players from out-of-state tracks? That's how they operate. On the very surface, IRB's action was proprietary. But it certainly did not take players into consideration.

If it wanted to drive Illinois players to Illinois tracks or OTBs, it's hard to see how that would work. It's not easy for all players to get to a facility. Perhaps it figured computer players would be content to sit out these tracks and transfer their handle to other tracks. I am not one of those players. In fact, one of my reactionary tactics has been to play on the phone even while attending the OTB to avoid the 3.5% ripoff cut Illinois OTBs take out of every winning ticket.

The decision hurts handle, and that's never good.

The industry has not adequately evolved from the days when making a bet meant going to the track. The ADW-related cut is not taken from a bet on an Arlington race placed at Arlington or an Illinois OTB, so that portion ostensibly goes right back into the purse structure.

But the vast majority of racing wagering is done either through simulcasting outlets - OTBs - or, more increasingly, through ADWs. Name me another industry that has had so much trouble acclimating to technology. Global video and wagering access, in the world of technology, is really a no-brainer. They just can't agree on the money.

A corporation like Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) does well because it runs both ADWs and tracks. Profits are being redistributed in the industry and tracks that don't have something, like continued decent handle, a huge day like the Kentucky Derby, or casino subsidies, are struggling. In the case of Arlington Park, the corporation is at least partially subsidizing it.

Hawthorne Race Course is struggling to maintain live racing, and its biggest revenue stream is in simulcasting - acting as an OTB.

The vortex of issues and problems that the game is incapable of addressing or solving is so complex that any discussion breaks down into "yeah, but what about this?" or "yeah, what about that?" This is on both the big-picture and a state-by-state levels.

Yes, racing, as it has been known, is dying. There will be a Darwinian-esque shakeout and it will be ugly and painful.

In this specific situation, it was yet another indignity for a horseplayer. I don't want to play Charles Town, Mountaineer, the Podunk County Fair summer meet or even Arlington Park much. On the computer at home or on the smartphone, I want to play Saratoga. I want to play Del Mar. I rarely can get to the OTB or the track.

So I had to take action.

I reduced one of my accounts to subsistence level. I maintained another account because I was able to use it last weekend for the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth. I'll probably take that down to a minimum balance very soon.

And I found an alternative that I can't really go into. This alternative appreciates my business, rewards my efforts and communicates with me on matters other than further draining my wallet.

I've already scaled back significantly on the dollars I push through the window. Maybe I take it too personally, but when you feel pushed away and there are real dollars involved, you retreat. You pick your spots.

The IRB makes a finger-in-the-dike, parochial decision completely ignoring Illinois players. ADWs like TwinSpires and YouBet react predictably to protect its margins.

I look it as an entire industry. All I know is that the industry tried to shut me out of wagering on my favorite racing. Now, they won't see my dollars at all.

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Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes (nearly) every Friday. He welcomes your comments.

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