07/24/2011 5:11PM

Head Down


Of the $15,715,478 gambled on the races at Del Mar on Saturday through transparently reportable sources, $31,413 of it was bet on the debut of the Head-to-Head proposition offered in the featured Eddie Read. This figure represented 0.19 % of the total pool (okay, let's round up and call it 0.2 % -- looks better), which is just about where it belongs until, hopefully, it is put out of its misery.

There will be voices protesting that Del Mar marketers at least should get points for trying something new. Agreed, if that something new is fresh talent at the Friday night concerts, or a different color giveaway ball cap, or another way to profitably package tequila. A couple years ago Del Mar started hooking the Cougar II Handicap to a contest celebrating the efforts of middle-aged women to nail the pool boy. Fine. They got a few extra media hits. It did not get in the way of the game.

Tough times encourage desperate measures, though, and among the most desperate is the trend toward the encroachment of marketing upon the operational aspects of a given business. If the widgets you're selling don't matter, and have no flesh and blood component, by all means turn the whole thing over to the marketers. Selling one thing is the same as selling anything to them, like fast food. But horse racing is not widgets. This is not betting on which raindrop slides fastest down a window pane.

Obviously, memories are short. In 2007, having signed on with Yum! Brands as an enabling sponsor, Churchill Downs unfurled something called the Yumfecta. This offered a million dollars to the connections of the Derby winner if he/she could do better than Barbaro's 6 1/2-length victory from the year before. It is safe to say that among those not consulted before the Yumfecta was launched were racing officials, jockeys, trainers, owners and veterinarians, who might have warned of the temptations inherent in putting a cool million on the table for running up the score.

“It only enhances what the Derby is all about," said Yum! Brands chairman and CEO David Novak.

Maybe where he lives. Anyway, there was no second Yumfecta.

Del Mar's Head-to-Head bet is only a little bit better. In the past, riders have come to understand that once they are clearly beaten for purse money or placement in betting pools their only priority is to bring the horse back safely to fight another day. Stewards encouraged this and owners and trainers appreciated the consideration. Now, with Head-to-Head, if a selected stakes race draws more than six starters, jockeys could find themselves being asked to ride hard for what used to be a meaningless sixth place, or worse. And won't that be a pretty sight -- two jocks belly down and strapping hard at their horses at the back of the pack, distant lengths behind winner.

The bet could be modified to require one of the horses in the head-to-head matchup to at least finish fifth, or something like that. Still, there remains a fundamental problem of approach. The modern trend calls for the mixing and matching of the results of a horse races into an infinite variety of betting combinations. The steady drop in handle nationwide has spawned a generation of racetrack executives who make it a point to wring as much handle as possible out of each event. In doing so, the new betting combinations remove the horseplayer/fan farther and farther from the visceral reality of the race itself. Worse than being viewed as mere numbers, horses become nothing more than credit default swaps, repackaged as proposition bets that have nothing to do with winning the race.