Making Betting More Friendly: Brian DiDonato

Brian DiDonato

With racing's temporary opportunity as the only game in town, the TDN's Katie Ritz took a poll of some industry insiders known to like a good bet and asked them: what is one simple way that tracks could make betting more friendly for existing horseplayers and/or more effective at bringing in new players? As you'll see, none of them could stop at just one.

My answer will probably differ from most, as I think there's far too much focus on trying to cultivate an army of novice $2 bettors and not enough of an emphasis on making the game attractive to individuals who will actually generate serious churn. The way to attract the latter group is to make racing more bettable (i.e. better, more accessible data; far better policing of cheating, etc.) and more beatable (i.e. lower take-out; better wagering options, etc.). We need the person who's currently building a computer model for daily fantasy sports or the one who's beating six-person sit 'n gos on an online poker site.

I don't know many people who became serious horseplayers or industry participants because the game was dumbed down to them or presented as easy–it appeals to those of us who love the intellectual challenge and puzzle of it all, and I still believe wholeheartedly that racing is the best and purest gambling game (when it's not being destroyed by shortsighted cluelessness).

Horse race wagering in its traditional format is different than some more popular forms of gambling in that it's not house vs. player. Sports books run bettors off or limit their action when they're deemed too good, and casinos loathe card counters and savvy video poker players who know how to find positive expected value. While racing doesn't treat its better players with such explicit disdain, it renders itself perhaps even more uninviting to the “sharps” with its very close to unbeatable rake; prohibitively expensive, inaccessible and/or inaccurate data; either inept or indifferent approach to cracking down on doping; and lack of seriousness when it comes to other matters of oversight and transparency.

While I believe the focus should be on making betting more friendly for serious horseplayers, most reforms would benefit everyone to varying degrees. The reality is that the average guy at your neighborhood OTB doesn't know and won't care about take-out rates (believe me–I've spent way too much time in them), and he's going to lose in the long run either way. But he's going to hang around a lot longer at a 10% effective rake than he is at 20%. Everyone (besides the cheaters) benefits from a cleaner, fairer game and legitimate data. The sophisticated players will probably just care more, and in turn bet a lot more (my personal handle would probably triple overnight if take-out was cut in half). And advantage players currently focused on other games will absolutely shift their attention to (or back to) racing.

“New fans” in the traditional sense are great and we certainly shouldn't discourage them, but one sophisticated new bettor is worth far more to the bottom line than dozens of new casual bettors. The sophisticated ones also become the next Marshall Gramm or Joe Appelbaum or Jim Covello.

It's not about dumbing things down. Instead, let's finally play to our strengths and give people a reason to bump up their handle.

So much for “one simple way”… but here are a few more concrete ideas that would benefit just about everyone:

  • Regulate published workout information: if it's being printed in the past performances, it needs to be far more accurate than it is currently. There appears to be almost no oversight of clockers, allowing for both innocent mistakes and more nefarious abuses. It'd take some investment, but perhaps all published breezes should be filmed. XBTV has become a great handicapping resource for the works they do catch, and more video would be both a useful tool for analysis and an effective form of oversight. Plus, as an owner and syndicate manager, it'd be a very welcome addition on that front.
  • Embrace and expand handicapping contests: some tracks seem to view tournaments as competition to pari-mutuel wagering, but they're much more of a compliment than anything–even non-live bankroll tournaments. Contestants aren't just entering one pick and pray contest and watching all day–they're putting additional money through the tote on races they've already handicapped. It amazes me that every track isn't holding tournaments on their website just about every race day. Perhaps there are some regulatory/contractual kinks that need to be worked out because I can't think of another reason for why it isn't happening
  • Eliminate jackpot bets: this will almost certainly never happen, but the proliferation of jackpot bets is one of the worst things that's happened to bettors since I've been in the game. The only people who play them on non-mandatory payout days are those who are indifferent to or unaware of their astronomical effective take-out. On mandatory payout days, the sharks simply swoop in with huge tickets and scoop up all the money that the fish have been funneling in (and that's been sitting there out of circulation.)
  • Improve morning line accuracy: this one's more for the benefit of novices. I certainly don't envy morning line makers, but it seems like lines have gotten increasingly less accurate of late. Pretty much every daily player picks up on these poor predictions (you'll see plenty of twitter conversations about bad lines), but they do a huge disservice to new players who rely more heavily on them–I wrote about this last month when discussing my friends' new found interest in betting races. Imagine if every bet you placed was to some degree informed by one person's poor or indifferent opinion. There's probably a way to automate this process to improve accuracy and save money at the same time.

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