07/06/2012 7:25PM

Beyer: Horse racing thrives in Turkey, but it's a tough bet

Susan A. Vallon
A statue of Kemal Ataturk, first president of the Turkish Republic, at Viliefendi Racecourse in Istanbul. Ataturk declared that "Horse racing is a social need for modern societies."

ISTANBUL — During a period when the world’s Thoroughbred business has suffered, and betting totals in the United States have dropped year by year, there is at least one nation where racing has prospered: Turkey.

Its success may be unrecognized even by industry insiders; despite the globalization of the sport, horse racing in Turkey is little known. Its horses rarely venture outside their own borders, and outsiders seldom come in. But last year Turks wagered the U.S. dollar equivalent of $1.49 billion on their races — a 21 percent jump from 2010.

The statistics in Turkey contradict many people’s notions about the right way to make horse racing grow. Most fans believe that a low takeout rate — the percentage of a wager that is kept by the track and the state — will give players a fair chance to win and thus will stimulate betting. Yet Turkey’s takeout rate of 50 percent is among the most oppressive in the world. And while many people in the industry believe that too much government meddling is the bane of the sport, the central government controls almost every aspect of Turkish racing.

Horse racing has a long history here, but it began to take its modern shape in the 1920s — just as the entire nation did — after Kemal Ataturk, the first president of the Turkish Republic, set out to transform almost every aspect of a backward country. He turned Turkey into a secular society; he obtained full political rights for women; he imposed a new alphabet and a new calendar; he mandated that every Turk adopt a surname; he told the male population to wear hats instead of a fezzes. And he made a memorable declaration that is still quoted at racetracks like gospel: “Horse racing is a social need for modern societies.”

The government organized horse racing, and in the early 1950s, after Ataturk’s death, put the sport in the hands of specialists by creating the nonprofit Jockey Club of Turkey, overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture. Today the Jockey Club is responsible for the country’s eight racetracks, its on-line betting system, its 2,700 off-track betting shops, and seven stud farms. It buys and imports most of the prominent stallions in the country, including many familiar to Americans: two Kentucky Derby winners, Sea Hero and Strike the Gold (who died in December), Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop and Haskell Invitation winner Lion Heart, whose purchase caused some controversy. Burak Konak, corporate relations coordinator for the Jockey Club, said a committee’s decision to buy Lion Heart spilled out into the political arena. “There was a huge debate in Turkey about buying a single-testicled horse,” Konak said. “They were even talking about it in Parliament.”

Private horse owners — who come from all levels of society, not just the elite — pay stud fees to breed to these stallions and they obtain a fair chance to make a profit. It’s cheap to keep a horse in training here, and the everyday purses are respectable. The tracks offer races for Arabian horses as well as Thoroughbreds, and because the slower Arabians are sturdier and run more often, they can be even more profitable. The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities calculated in 2009 that the earnings of the average horse in Turkey exceeded the cost of his upkeep by 18 percent. Owning racehorses is a winning investment.

But betting on them isn’t.

The Jockey Club receives a 22 percent cut from all wagers in order to fund purses and pay for its operations — slightly higher than the takeout rate in the United States. But in addition to that slice, the government takes a 28 percent tax off the top of every wager — creating an insurmountable 50 percent total takeout. “People are used to it,” Konuk said. Horseplayers adjust their betting accordingly; more than half of all the money wagered in Turkey goes onto the Pick Six, which has a wagering unit of about 27 cents. The more sophisticated players probably understand that their only chance of winning is to make a big score, but the less sophisticated surely don’t understand the implications of a 50 percent takeout.

When I visited Veliefendi racecourse in Istanbul on Sunday, I enjoyed most aspects of the racing. Situated on the edge of the Marmara Sea, it has a grand-looking 1 1/4-mile turf course surrounding a Polytrack oval on which the majority of the races are contested. The grandstand is modern and comfortable, though many of the fans prefer to congregate in a large, tree-covered picnic area that evokes the atmosphere of Saratoga. I love the way Veliefendi pays homage to the sport’s history. An imposing statue of Ataturk on horseback graces the grounds. The VIP room is named after the Byerly Turk, the 17th-century horse who is one of the three progenitors of the entire Thoroughbred species.

But as I watched horseplayers in the grandstand poring over their form sheets in the manner of horseplayers everywhere, I couldn’t repress the thought that they were playing a sucker’s game. The government has organized the sport so that it can collect the maximum revenue for itself while giving fans no realistic chance to win. It’s hardly a model that the rest of the racing world should want to emulate.

(c) 2012, The Washington Post

Adem Dowey More than 1 year ago
I spent some times in turkey. I like its horse racing which has government organized. I think it is very famous thier's horse racing in the whole world. Private horse owners can participate in this racing.
Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
twitter needs a damn edit button!!!...please...
Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
What is are the #'s on the humans that attend live racing???...
robert More than 1 year ago
There are suckers everywhere: no one playing lotteries in the U.S. seems to mind their 50% takeout!
JoyJackson21 More than 1 year ago
This was a very good, informative article, Mr. Beyer. I enjoyed it very much. I hope you are having a good time on your vacation. Turkey is a fascinating country, with stunning contrasts between the modern and the traditional. I did not know about the political ramifications of the purchase of Lion Heart. Very interesting information, indeed. Have a great trip back to the States. I'm sure you're looking forward to all of the exciting racing ahead of us for the rest of the year.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought that was an interesting article. I did not know that Lion heart was in turkey. Obviously Mr Beyer is on a working vacation before gearing up For Saratoga.
Slew32A More than 1 year ago
Who cares.
jack s More than 1 year ago
betfair has Turkey beat....they take up to 60% from winners....this is not a typo...a 60% tax on winners.
Cangamble More than 1 year ago
There is a big difference in taxing those who are net winnings versus track takeout. As for Betfair taxing winners, I understand that only affects very few players (mostly those using bots). I know net winners who haven't been taxed at all.
jack brandt More than 1 year ago
The horse racing business is a shining example of government regulation and attempted monopolization slowly destroying a business and the customer getting shafted. Most people aren't aware that even if a track operator wanted to return to 5% takeouts in win pools, state laws won't allow them to do so. With their intervention being so destructive and anti-consumer, just think how much of an adverse affect they have in the hundreds of other businesses that they a large role in . It was interesting to read a Kentucky supreme court opinion (from 1931) as to the definition of a paris-mutual system. (yes, it was invented in paris). A paris-mutual system is where players do not bet against the house, but against one another. The wagers of all constituting a pool going to the winner or winners. The operator receives 5% of the wagers as his commission. It is interesting to read archive DRF results from 1920's Latonia Downs. 5% takeouts and no breakage. In fact, way before machines and computerized bets, they were paying mutual prices to the exact penny (exp 8.43 5.23). Now, not only do they take 15-20%, they take another 2-5% by always rounding down to the nearest .20 cent mutual price. So a horse that should pay 4.19 will pay 4.00. Where govt. sees it a .20 cents and no big deal, in actuality, that's a huge added theft of a customers money.
Charles Hogan More than 1 year ago
Horse racing is DEAD in the United States. Nothing but dopers and racetrack management stealing everything they can. Like Churchill Downs passing out their Derby tickets to insiders in management and kick-backers. Then we have stewards and dopers. I started at Churchill Downs in 1954 and I missed few days till 2003 when Churchill started to run their horse players off for slot players. I never went one time this year. I will never miss a day at Keeneland, 300 mile round trip. Keeneland last great race track in America. Horse racing is DEAD.
Mark Colonomos More than 1 year ago
I hear dick dutrow will be training in turkey now that he is suspended from training here due to ll his drug infractions...oh WAIT. He is still allowed to train here..my bad
Alex More than 1 year ago
No, it isn't.