By T. D. Thornton
First thing Monday morning, common sense should be enough to get the New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC) to quickly re-examine a rule that has been on the books for decades, but just surfaced with controversy over the weekend, one race into the 2021 Aqueduct meet.
But in case reason isn't enough to spark regulators into action, here's an alarming lost-revenue estimate that might get their attention: Every time the mounts of recently married riders Trevor McCarthy and Katie Davis are mandated to be coupled in the wagering–as required by a regulation ostensibly designed to protect the sport from spousal collusion–the handle has the potential to plummet by $90,000 per race.
Considering the newlyweds rode against each other in six decreased-field races at Aqueduct over the first three days of the meet Jan. 1-3, the running total of theoretically vanished handle now stands at $540,000–with that number ticking upward every time entries are drawn with a 1 and 1A appearing where there realistically should be two distinct betting interests.
Those estimates are based on Aqueduct's handle-per-interest figure of $90,509 from January 2020, when field size averaged 7.1 starters per race (the source is this national handle chart published last year by Horse Racing Nation).
Although it's impossible to project the precise amount of handle that evaporates when you lose a betting interest by forcing two independently owned and trained horses into a single mutuel coupling, the comparable per-interest January 2020 figure for Aqueduct (third-highest in the nation for that period) offers a reasonable approximation. Even if the rounded $90,000 per-interest estimate is off by a bit, the potential cumulative handle loss has already spiraled well into six figures–in addition to igniting plenty of confusion.
At a time when tracks nationwide are competing fiercely to maintain attractive field sizes, New York's antiquated rule is creating a competitive disadvantage for Aqueduct.
It also has the potential to damage the mount-booking business for both McCarthy and Davis, who are trying to re-establish themselves on the New York circuit.
And then there's the blowback of bad press and undesirable negative attention on social media. People opposed to the rule far outnumber those speaking up in favor of it, and the regulation is being described as sexist, misogynistic, and generally not grounded in reality.
Dave Grening of DRF.com first broke the story last week about McCarthy and Davis getting hitched in mid-December, and how their post-honeymoon plans called for both of them to relocate from Maryland to ride together in New York this winter.
McCarthy, the son of retired mid-Atlantic jockey Michael McCarthy, rode at Aqueduct during the 2018 winter meet. Davis, the daughter of retired New York jockey Robbie Davis, is one of three siblings currently active as jockeys.
They both rode in separate Aqueduct races Dec. 31, but when the Jan. 1 entries were drawn, the couple had mounts in two common races. That necessitated a 1 and 1A coupling, as per state rule 4025.10 (f), which states, “All horses trained or ridden by a spouse, parent, issue or member of a jockey's household shall be coupled in the betting with any horse ridden by such jockey.”
Since the outset of pari-mutuel wagering in America nearly 100 years ago, it has been customary to–in theory, at least–protect betting integrity by treating two horses that have some sort of commonality (same owner or trainer, or involvement of family relatives) as one betting entity. The idea is that if there is some attempt by the related parties to manipulate the outcome of the race, the “two for one” betting model is supposed to disincentivize them from profiting by arranging for the longer-priced horse to win the race.
But over the decades, and especially in the past few years, racing jurisdictions have largely relaxed or eliminated entry coupling rules because A) They don't seem as necessary or effective as they were once thought to be; and B) The sport needs every betting interest it can get to bolster handle, the chief driver of which is field size.
New York's rule does not prohibit siblings from competing while uncoupled in the same race–unless they live in the same household. That's why the Ortiz brothers–Jose and Irad, Jr.–can compete against each other without forcing a betting entry, and it's the same reason why the Davis siblings–Jacqueline, Dylan, and Katie–have all ridden together in the same race without triggering a three-way coupling.
Every state is different in its mutuel coupling rules. And if you are familiar with any given racetrack, you can probably glance at an overnight and know who is dating (or cohabitating) with whom, or take a good guess at which longtime allies might be inclined to collude, even if they are not at all related. Because no rule could possibly police against the myriad ways participants could try to conspire to fix a race, why is New York picking on married couples while drastically eroding a racetrack's potential to generate handle?
It's mind-boggling to think that most states have rules in place that create clear paths for convicted felons to regain their racing licenses, and many jurisdictions have welcomed back jockeys who have been caught illegally shocking horses with electrical devices.
Yet if two upstanding jockeys with not even a hint of a history of race fixing say “I do,” New York in 2021 still regards the couple with pari-mutuel suspicion in the form of a scarlet-letter 1A winking accusingly on the tote board.
McCarthy and Davis are hardly the first married couple to face resistance to competing on even terms in the same race. In 1995, the Illinois Racing Board (IRB) repealed its regulation that prohibited married couples from riding against each other when that rule kept jockey John Hundley and his wife, apprentice Lisa Nuell, from competing together at Fairmount Park.
“This is the 1990s, not the 1880s. I don't believe we should be trying to keep women barefoot and pregnant,” then-IRB commissioner Richard Balog said at the time, adding that the rule was “sexist and works against women.”
Married jockeys Amy Duross and Harry Vega were similarly prohibited from competing against each other by the Suffolk Downs stewards in 1998 until the Massachusetts Racing Commission overturned that decision. Around the same time, married jockeys Michelle Luttrell and Freddie Castillo moved their tacks to Suffolk, where that precedent allowed them to also compete without restrictions.
More recently, Kassie Guglielmino and Jake Samuels, married in 2017, have battled near the top of the standings at various tracks in the Pacific northwest and in Arizona.
McCarthy and Davis have expressed frustration at New York's out-of-step rule, but they have taken the high road in pointing out its shortcomings. Over the weekend, Davis thanked supporters on Twitter, while McCarthy wrote that the couple will respect and follow the rule. “I will continue to do my best as will my wife and keep moving forward no matter what obstacles are thrown at us,” he added.
But by the end of Sunday, New York's coupled spouses rule had devolved into yet another sub-level of absurdity.
Davis was named at entry time to ride in the ninth race. McCarthy was not, but midway through the afternoon he picked up a vacated mount in that race. Because those two mounts ridden by the spouses had not been coupled at the time of entry, McCarthy's horse–and just McCarthy's horse–was forced to run for purse money only.
“It's too confusing for me to even explain,” Aqueduct broadcast handicapper Andy Serling said pre-race when alerting the public to the reason why McCarthy's mount was showing as scratched on the tote board. “I'm not that smart.”
Even though the mounts ridden by Davis and McCarthy finished off the board, Pick 4, 5, and 6 wagers placed before McCarthy's horse was taken out of the betting (when it was 30-1 on the morning line) were treated as scratches that converted to valid tickets on the betting favorite–who, of course, ended up winning the race.
A rule change at most racing commissions generally first must be proposed, voted upon at a public meeting, published in the state register, pass a public commentary period of about 45 days, come up again for a final vote by commissioners, and then be certified by an office of administrative law before it goes into effect. The process often takes months, or the better part of a year in some jurisdictions.
But the NYSGC, like many commissions, has broad powers to implement emergency rule-making if it deems such changes are in the immediate best interest of the sport.
Here's hoping that an estimated $90,000 per-race handle hit–plus the associated chaos–qualifies as an emergency, and that the NYSGC steps up and makes a swift change in its mutuel coupling of married jockeys rule.