11/24/2017 12:06PM

BCBC inquiry could spur needed change

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The lights on the toteboard from the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge have been blinking for a while now. Just like at the track, many horseplayers assume that the longer a potential violation is looked at, the more likely it is that someone is coming down. And while that might or might not be the case here, there are a few things that can be gleaned from the length of the inquiry.

The first is that the Breeders’ Cup is taking the matter seriously. For those who don’t know, a group of concerned horseplayers wrote a letter to the Breeders’ Cup in the wake of this year’s contest – the first $1 million purse in live-bankroll history – about possible “irregularities” at the event. Shortly thereafter, the Breeders’ Cup announced it would be holding the purse, which is typically paid out the week after the contest, and would conduct a full investigation.

That investigation is ongoing, and it stands to reason that the scope of it has moved beyond the contestants mentioned in the letter, the winner, Nisan Gabbay, and the ninth-place finisher, Eric Moomey. This only makes sense, especially given the amount of money involved. In addition to the purse money, 12 entries in this year’s contest were competing for a $1 million bonus, having won designated contests throughout the year to which the bonus was attached should they go on to win the BCBC.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see how that additional money would certainly provide an incentive for players to collude, despite contest rules clearly stating, “Collusion of entries between horseplayers is prohibited, as is any attempt to manipulate the results of the Tournament.”

Some have theorized that the controversy could mean the end of the bonuses, which have provided a boon to live-bankroll contests. Since the announcement of the bonus, both participation and final scores in live-bank tournaments have increased, and it’s undeniable that both of those factors would lead to more churn in those events. Increased ontrack handle is the very reason live-bankroll tournaments are so prevalent today, as opposed to mythical-money tournaments or fixed-bankroll contests where money is bet via the tote.

To eliminate the bonus, however, would be a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. What this year’s controversy demonstrates more than anything else is that the line in the rules concerning collusion must be enforced, and also defined much more clearly, not only because of the million-dollar bonuses at stake, but simply because of the $2,500 put up by every player to participate in the BCBC.

Breeders’ Cup also would be wise to review its rules regarding multiple entries as they call into question the very idea of what collusion means. Are you allowed to collude with yourself? Is it okay to combine your two entries into one? They rules don’t specify. Say you have two entries heading to the last race and one is alive to a million-dollar bonus. Are you going to play the non-million-dollar-eligible one in a way where it might finish ahead of the one that’s live for a million? Of course not. But isn’t that a type of collusion?

Now say you’re Kevin McFarland, Nisan Gabbay’s playing partner. Gabbay quite sensibly sat on his money throughout the tournament while the two made their plays on McFarland’s million-dollar eligible entry. Once that went bust, Gabbay’s entry swung into action, making two brilliant plays and capturing the win. Do you think he would have made those plays had McFarland’s million-dollar entry been alive?

In my view, there’s nothing untoward about the Gabbay-McFarland partnership because the two have played in the BCBC together before and their relationship is well known by both the Breeders’ Cup and throughout the contest world. In a contest where players are allowed two entries, it doesn’t seem to me that any unfair advantage was gained by their clearly playing as a team.

Why didn’t they just play two entries in McFarland’s name to eliminate all confusion about the “collusion between horse players rule?” McFarland was already double-qualified for the National Horseplayers Championship and therefore could not have won any additional prize by finishing in the top 15 at the BCBC. To me, if the people running the contest said that was okay before the tournament, it would be unfair to disqualify them after the fact, even if what they did was against the letter of the rules.

Kudos to the Breeders’ Cup for taking the investigation seriously and looking beyond the scope of the initial query. But it’s important to note that whatever happens with this year’s Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge should just be the beginning. A full review of the rules and a new system of enforcement for them are necessary going forward. If they play their cards right in all these areas, this controversy could be the sea change that leads to a much healthier contest world, as opposed to an event that damages handicapping contests forever.