by Mark Cramer
I suppose that in a country where employees engage in boss-napping (taking CEOs hostage in order to negotiate compensation for mass layoffs), where PTA members hide immigrant children who are threatened with deportation, and where in Operation Snail angry interest groups slow down traffic to make a point, it's not too much of a longshot to expect some sort bizarre protest to erupt at a French racetrack.
The eruption occurred July 4 at Dax, a small track in southwest France. At least six trainers who prolifically enter horses in low-level races in Paris and at rural tracks across the country decided to scratch a total of 35 horses from the Dax card. One of the rebellious trainers, Cedric Boutin, told the Parisien newspaper that, "Three of my horses came down with a fever just before getting on the road to Dax, and the other nine have upcoming races elsewhere."
Other trainers scratched "sans motif" (without a stated reason), which is permitted. If these trainers had expressed outright that they were scratching to protest, it would have meant fines of as much as the winning purse money.
For the past two years, France Galop has been adding restrictions on the subsidies paid to trainers for shipping horses. This began with a hike in the Value Added Tax on horse transactions. It was followed by a cap in the amount of shipping subsidy that any one horse can receive during a calendar year. Evidently, some of this belt-tightening is the result of guidelines from the European Commission.
In French racing, horses are not stabled at the track and most racing meets do not run day after day, so vanning is the primary way to get a horse to the track on race day. The subsidizing of shipping for lower class horses has meant a renaissance of racing in smaller markets, and this in turn has led to a significant expansion in betting handle. The cost of shipping falls heaviest on the small owners who race more frequently for lower purses.
On July 4 at Dax, the effects of the trainer-owner protest rippled across the country. An example would be the second race, with 14 originally entered, with a featured Multi wager. In order to card a Multi bet, where the player must pick the top four finishers in any order, you need at least 14 horses in the field. For €3 you can play a Multi with 4, 5, 6 or 7 horses. If you use 7 horses, for example, you receive 1/35 of the payout. With 14 runners, if you can get a longshot to finish fourth (or better), the payout can be generous. Hence, this is an extremely popular bet. But 8 of the 14 horses declared as late scratches, which meant that the Multi had to be cancelled. This meant an enormous amount of refunded tickets for those off-track bettors who played the Multi before the scratches, and a general loss of interest in other wagers on the race because of the small field.
According to the president of the Dax Racing Association, Jean-Louis Gayan Sourgen, this strike by the Association of Trainers and Owners cost the track €300,000, not a small sum considering Dax has only 15 racing days in 2013.
One trainer told me, "As for the transport subsidies, yes, I'm concerned about France Galop chipping away at them, because it's a marketing card that is useful in attracting owners, especially from England, where they end up paying exorbitant transport fees. I didn't know about the strike in Dax until it was happening, but I have to say hats-off to the trainers who actually cooperated to do it. There is an increasing frustration among smaller trainers (or big trainers with lots of small owners, like Boutin) that France Galop really doesn't have any use for anyone other than the Aga Khan and the Wertheimer brothers. Cutting the transport allocation the same time as the value-added tax went up is a blow toward keeping small owners in the game.
"Already two years ago, they eliminated any transport reimbursement for a horse that earned prize money of more than €6,000 in the day, and now that's been lowered to €5,000, too). I disagree that there are only 420 horses that have exceeded the proposed annual cap of €2,500 in transport subsidies. I'm sure horses at Cedric Boutin's yard are over the top on that limit."
From a bettor's point of view, the idea of playing dozens of different smaller tracks with large fields is seductive and enriching, at least in spirit.
France Galop responded with a communiqu that referred to "grave consequences", not without ambiguity, since these consequences to players, the track operators and the owners, trainers and jockeys of the scratched horses could refer simply to the aggravation and the money lost, rather than to any future sanctions.
Will the trainers and owners involved in the flash scratch strike be punished in some way? There have been no charges against boss-nappers, nor any punishment for parents who have hidden immigrant children in their homes to stop deportations. Farmers, truckers and students who have engaged in "operation snail" protests have never been pursued by the law.
So, as an investigation proceeds, it is unlikely that France Galop will apply any sanctions. "If they try to unblock this situation with sanctions," according to the Paris-Turf, "it would be like adding oil to a fire that is already impassioned--it seems time to sit around a table and have a discussion."