Monday, June 17, 2013


Near fatal incident reminds us of a formula that can revitalize racing

by Mark Cramer

On June 11, an "incident" unheard of in the annals of thoroughbred racing history can indirectly serve as a way to introduce a measure that could revitalize horse racing. It happened in what is known in France as "The Event": the daily horserace-lottery called the Quinté (pronounced cantay).

First watch what happened and then we can talk about the concept I am proposing for American racing. No need to understand the French of the race callers. Just look at the images. If you listen carefully you will hear a siren in the background as the horses round the turn. The siren was supposed to be an announcement to the jockeys to STOP THE RACE. But they could not hear it.

The driver of the tractor that should have pulled the starting gate off the track had difficulty with the computer panel (it was a brand new tractor), and was not able to start up the vehicle.

The starting gate remained on the track and this was a two-turn event!

With the gate located just after the turn, the riders could not see it until they were already upon it. No one was right on the track to warn them that a fatal collision could be imminent.

Just before it was too late, one rider, Adrien Fouassier, heard the siren and shouted to the other jockeys. Certainly Fouassier saved them all from a pile-up that would have made Hollywood chase scenes pale in comparison.

Jockey Alain Couétil told the press that they were all lucky. "If the turf had been less yielding and the pace faster, we never would have been able to stop on time."

So what does this have to do with an idea for revitalizing racing in the USA? First of all, this race was being carried live, not only on the cable racing station Equidia, but also on public television. The reason for the live broadcast? It was the Quinté race of the day, mainly an off-track wager that brings extra handle on a daily basis from players who rarely if ever go to a racetrack.

Even though the Nantes race course is a smaller market, there were 9 million Euros (about 13 million dollars) in the Quinté betting pool that day. Needless to say, all wagers were refunded to the players.

To understand the phenomenon, consider that the Paris-Turf publishes a centerfold just for this Quinté race, with vastly expanded past performances that include remarkably candid trainer commentaries, such as, "my horse is not cranked up for this one, and has a better race coming up in two weeks" or "disregard the last race, the mare was in heat".

Since the Quinté functions as a national lottery (you need to pick the first five finishers in order), racing authorities demand transparency in the past performances. Thanks to the Quinté alone, the Paris-Turf pps are found at virtually every newsstand, where you will also find a half dozen other past performance publications that specialize in the Quinté.

Back in the USA, finding a Daily Racing Form has become more challenging than finding Waldo.

In American racing, the bargain with the devil has produced racinos, where the slot machine area is completely isolated from the racing itself. There is no crossover between the mindless gambling at the slot room that feeds the handle, and the mindful gambling engaged in by horseplayer handicappers a few yards away. There is no relationship between slot machines and horse betting. With the same logic, race tracks could have houses of prostitution on the premises.

On the other hand, the Quinté has created a significant crossover. It's still a lottery wager but allows for the intervention of thoughtful handicapping. I do not play the Quinté. Even if it were a 5-horse field, there would be 120 different possible combinations for picking the first five finishers in order. With fields of between 14 and 20 horses, the odds against picking the winning combination are breathtaking. Winning combinations often pay more than 200,000 Euros but consolation payoffs are so feeble that there is no way to scratch out a sustainable bet over the long run.

Intelligent handicapping can help you come close from time to time, and that will seduce players to continue trying. As Yankee announcer Mel Allen used to say: "so near and yet so far!"

One of my racing friends and betting partners, Jean, is a smart handicapper who does well enough in other betting pools. By pooling our resources and combining our handicapping, Jean and I have been running a profit for the past year and a half in another wager called the Pick 5, where you do not need the five finishers in order.

Strangely, he continues to play the Quinté, at a loss, even with occasional good payoffs for picking the top four finishers in any order. I ask him why he persists in playing the Quinté, knowing that he does better in other wagers.

"It's just part of my culture," he says.

The Quinté race is a cultural phenomenon that bridges the gap between lottery bettors and horseplayers. Like the slots at race tracks, it's still a bargain with the devil, but in the end, the Quinté will certainly be more sustainable for the industry, while slot machines at race tracks will eventually and inevitably diminish as casinos arise at non-racetrack venues.

A national racing lottery wager would be good for the USA. But it won't work unless it brings new people into reading past performances, some of whom will eventually cross over into becoming race goers and race players. You'd have a better chance to get such a bet on national TV if it were based on a single race, rather than a pick-4 variety: fewer pps to study and easier to show on national TV. If they broadcast the lottery on TV, why couldn't they show a single horse race?

I once appeared on National Public Radio and was given a chance to explain to lottery players that they would do better to shift their money into a trifecta at the races, because they could actually make an informed choice based on the logic of the past performances. If racing industry leaders were to engage in a smart public relations campaign, we could certainly convince some of the more mindful lottery players that they would have a better chance with a horse race.

The near fatal incident at the Nantes race course reminds us of how many people had a stake in the Quinté "event" of the day. Many of them were folks who would have otherwise bought a few lottery tickets. Followers of this type of daily event do not need a Zenyatta or a Goldikova to play. The event is a mere handicap race, unless a major stakes race like the Arc de Triomphe has at least 14 starters.

Anyone who hangs out at a French OTB (PMU) can see that there has been a significant extension of Quinté wagering into other races on the race cards of the day.

Some bargains with the devil are better than others.

Mark Cramer is a writer and handicapper living in Paris.

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