The Horseplayers Association of North America officially declared war on California horse racing on Thursday, announcing in a press release that a much-talked about boycott had gotten under way earlier in the day. HANA and many of its most vocal members have been protesting the increase in takeout to 22.68% on two-horse or two-race bets and to 23.68% on bets involving three or more horses or races. All so-called exotic bets had been assessed a 20.68% takeout until the new law, SB1072, went into effect on Jan. 1, 2011.
Some proponents of the boycott declared victory before the action even began, citing day after day of depressed wagering statistics on California's product, taken from Daily Racing Form or Equibase charts, since the Dec. 26 opening day. Frankly, that's nothing new. With the exception of Del Mar, which dropped from a six-day-a-week schedule to five last year and kept its daily average handle from falling, wagering statistics have been in decline at virtually every recent California race meeting. The California breeding industry has been in free-fall, too, and if anyone hadn't heard, the overall economic picture for the Golden State has been very, very bleak.
When Thursday's races were over, one pro-boycott blogger posted an article under the headline: “Boycott Day 1: handle drops 15.2% at Santa Anita.”
I called Santa Anita executive Scott Daruty to ask where the biggest shortfalls were coming from: on-track, ADW, in-state simulcast facilities, or out-of-state locations? To my surprise, Daruty said handle on Thursday's eight-race live program from Santa Anita was actually up from the corresponding eight-race program in 2010.
“We respect everyone's right to speak their mind, especially the horseplayers who bet on our product,” Daruty said. “And it's a positive for us that our horseplayers are so passionate about the sport. But when they are trying to make a point, the numbers they use should be correct and accurate.
“To say that Santa Anita was down 15% on the first day of the boycott is not accurate.”
Daruty said the amount of money wagered on Santa Anita's eight races on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011, was 4.77% higher than the amount wagered on the eight-race program on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010.
The comparative numbers, taken from the CHRIMS database, are $3,686,000 on Jan. 13, 2011, compared with $3,518,000 on Jan. 14, 2010 (rounded off to the nearest thousand). The figures include on-track, ADW, in-state and out-of-state wagers made on Santa Anita's live races. They exclude wagers made in California on imported simulcast races from Golden Gate Fields or from out of state.
“How much was bet in California on Aqueduct's races is irrelevant, if the issue is how the increase in takeout affected wagering on Santa Anita,” said Daruty.
Equibase and Daily Racing Form charts report all money wagered at Santa Anita, including bets on imported simulcasts.
So, in otherwords, handle on Santa Anita's live races on Boycott Day 1 was UP by nearly 5%, not DOWN by 15%.
Daruty is far from declaring victory on the issue, though he did say there are indications the takeout hike is beginning to have the desired effect of increasing the horse population.
That remains to be seen. The biggest problem Santa Anita has had for the first three weeks of the meeting is short fields, which depresses handle more than anything else, according to numerous experts.
Sources close to rebate operations and high-volume horseplayers indicate the return to dirt has made the young meeting a challenge, particularly for those “program” bettors who are driven by past performance data that is mostly non-existent for horses racing on dirt.
“Some of these guys who are usually getting a 90%-plus return (and who show a profit after receiving rebates) are down in the mid-80% range now,” one source said. “The computer modeling they do – data in, data out – isn't working for them, so some of them have moved on to Gulfstream or Tampa. Others are waiting until there's more data on these horses.”
Daruty said he has heard the same thing from many of his biggest players, that they are “apprehensive” about the change in surface because they are not confident with the data they have.
Meanwhile, Daruty wants horseplayers to know that Santa Anita does care about them.
“Horseplayers have some good ideas,” he said. “Some of them are things we can do and some are things we can't. We care very much about our customers and want to listen to them.“
One thing Daruty is not going to do is get into a day-to-day comparison throughout the meet. “These numbers are instructive,” he said, “but we can't get spend all of our time debating this issue day after day. For example, I'm not expecting a great day today (Friday). Last year on this date we had one of our “free Friday” promotions and had a good on-track. Today's card has a lot of short fields and we don't have that promotion.
In other words, this war won't be won or lost overnight.
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