12/17/2012 12:08PM

Bergman: Harness bettors now able to shop for discounts beyond takeout rate


The takeout “hawks” responded in force to last week’s commentary on Pennsylvania harness racing. The quick overreaction to the 35 percent takeout on some exotic wagering suggested that the horsemen and this scribe had no concern whatsoever for the horseplayer.

First, Pennsylvania Harness Horseman’s Association executive director Ron Battoni chimed in.

“Sure we’ve heard all about the takeout, but to tell you the truth it’s not an issue,” Battoni said. “We’ve experimented with the takeout and have found it to make no difference.”

Is Battoni deluding himself?

That’s what the takeout hawks would have you believe, but the landscape for horseracing has changed radically over the last 30 years and with it has the opportunities for horseplayers.

A 35 percent rake is way too high for many players to engage in the action. I have a few close friends who will simply not play in Pennsylvania because of it. Then again we have seen examples at some smaller tracks (notably Tioga Downs) where a lowering of the takeout didn’t dramatically improve the amount wagered on the product.

With the advent of multiple wagering outlets online and offshore, the opportunities for those wagering on the sport have grown exponentially. At the same time, despite the increased volume of the takeout hawks speech it’s still hard to conceive that our handle malaise has anything to do with takeout, as opposed to an overly saturated horse racing product and the ability for players to play across state lines.

While Pennsylvania may not be right for everybody, the question must be raised how much better things would or could be if the takeout was lowered significantly. Moreover the real question is just how many players will know or notice the change in takeout, and how many will care enough to change their betting habits.

I asked a friend and a harness player at a local OTB recently this question:

Would you bet on a track where you thought you could pick more winners or would you rather bet on a track where the takeout was lower?

“I’d bet where I could pick more winners,” he said.

Mind you not only do players deal with the takeout at Nassau OTB locations, they also deal with a surcharge that significantly deducts from winning wagers at a rate you wouldn’t think players would take.

But they do.

Anyone been to a department store recently?

How many people are willing to pay full price for an item?

There are those who want what they want and are willing to pay full price. There are those who want what they want and can’t afford to pay full price and then there are those who must wait until an item is reduced 40 percent before they can even think of purchasing it.
Before simulcasting and before online and offshore wagering, players had to accept the takeouts if they wished to play the game on a local basis. The fact is that a large majority of those who gamble on all sports haven’t a clue about the takeout.

Is racing overpriced?

I would say when compared to other forms of wagering one could say it is overpriced, but again when you speak about gambling on horseracing it isn’t necessarily the house that matters, it is the level of competition from those you are playing against.

If I had to cite one reason why handle on harness racing has suffered over the years, I would say a reduction in betting angles.
While takeout contributes to just how much is left in the pot for the winners to split, betting angles are what separate me from my competition.

Back in the 70’s when harness races were decided with a complementary split of speed horses and closers, it was possible to look for closers from outside posts and have a winning angle. What that meant was a bettor could see a return on his investment if he stuck with the angle at all times.

Now look at the current product and we find that closers from outside posts rarely win harness races. The cost of the loss of that angle is the horseplayer either stopped playing the sport for lack of funds, or was forced to modify his angle to effectively compete with the others. If the latter is true, then logic suggests that the player might be forced to start wagering on speed horses and join a growing list of handicappers pointed in that direction. Suddenly my enemy is my ally and thus we will all be forced to share in a smaller amount should we prove successful in our handicapping.

Takeout hawks really do have quite little to complain about these days for an even bigger reason. Most astute horseplayers who monitor their funds and expect to profit, are well aware of numerous outlets that offer “rebates” for playing. The advanced takeout from horse racing has given rise to the ability for these outlets to offer sizeable givebacks to the $2 player and the $100 player. Though those betting more tend to work out more favorable deals, the ability to get a 12 percent kick-back on a particular trifecta wager throughout North America is probably as easy as one Google search.

So here’s where shopping kicks in. For those gamblers really in search of a better opportunity, there are enough stores willing to make it worth your while to play through them. For those who like the convenience of off-track betting locations, because you are not forced to give your name or open an account, the price for making a winning wager moves up significantly. Most off-track locations will offer track prices to players willing to keep money on account with them, but rebates are rare.

Battoni says his horsemen are aware of the betting public.

“We have some big players at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs and we’re very concerned that they are well taken care of,” Battoni said.

Smart horseplayers would be wise to follow the words of Smokey Robinson who said: You better shop around.