09/01/2010 1:43PM

Exchange concept seems foreign


Let’s say a player figured out somehow that the winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup would finish absolutely last in the Pacific Classic. If there was a bet for that, after what happened to Awesome Gem last Saturday at Del Mar – ca-ching!

There surely were those in the gambling public who were highly skeptical that Rachel Alexandra could be successful going a mile and a quarter under any kind of pressure in the Personal Ensign, Sunday’s race at Saratoga, but were completely in the dark as to who would step up to take advantage. No worries, though, if such a lose-only bet existed. Ca-ching again, big time.

And how about those killjoys who watched the Kentucky Derby last May and were so underwhelmed by victorious Super Saver that they swore he’d never win another race. Wouldn’t it be cool if they could have found somebody – say in California – to take that proposition? After his flop in last Saturday’s Travers, the bet would still be alive.

Welcome to the wacky world of exchange betting, where gamblers can set themselves up as the house, and the sky’s the limit in terms of creative ways to deconstruct a horse race into a limitless array of playable outcomes. Remember those rusty old days when we few gathered around the finish line cheering for a horse to win? Win? How quaint. Now in some races it matters who finishes fifth, and when exchange betting hits the scene, there will be dancing in the streets at the sight of a horse going wrong at just the right time.

The passage of a bill in the California legislature, late Tuesday night, could make it legal for exchange betting to commence in May of 2012, and if you think that’s a long way off, it’s not. Somewhere, the 2012 Kentucky Derby winner is in a grassy field, waiting for his first feel of a saddle.

The bill containing the exchange betting provisions also allows increases in takeout for exotic bets, as well as permission to use $2 million to hustle the Breeders’ Cup for California racetracks.

The Breeders’ Cup incentive, in fact, was what the bill was about in the first place. The takeout provisions were added in July, and then the exchange betting portion was tucked into the bill in mid-August, allowing precious little time for public debate on the merits.

Not so, says the California Horse Racing Board’s executive secretary, Kirk Breed, who points out that exchange betting was discussed at every meeting of the racing board’s Legislative Committee since last March. The racing board, led by chairman Keith Brackpool, is enthusiastically in support of the exchange-betting concept, which was strongly backed by the British company Betfair, owners of the California-based racing network TVG.

For the most part, those committee meetings were undercovered by media and therefore not part of the mainstream conversation in California racing circles. The concept of legalizing betting exchanges was broached only a couple of times at the regular monthly meetings of the state racing board held this year, and then never as an agenda item for formal discussion.

And now it is law. Is this a great country or what?

Do not think for a moment the California legislature sat around, sipping espressos, just waiting for the horse racing bill to hit the floor. As is their barely functional lawmaking custom, assembly members and state senators engaged in a flurry of votes on a bottlenecked pile of bills into the wee hours Tuesday night as the clock ticked down on the legislative session.

Along with the passage of the takeout/betting exchange bill, California’s finest passed a bill raising the minimum age for admission to kindergarten to five, by Sept. 1 (I started the Big K at four years, 10 months, which certainly explains a lot). They defeated one bill that would have banned plastic bags in retail stores (some 19 billion are used by Californians each year — got a problem with that?), and another that would have banned the open toting of unloaded firearms. But at least they passed a bill that would increase penalties on paparazzi who break the rules of the road while chasing targets like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, or any child accompanying Angelina Jolie.

Horse racing should be so lucky, that paparazzi would care. Instead, as a response to downward purse trends, the takeout on exotic wagers will increase by either 2 or 3 percent, depending upon the type of wager. Horseplayers should be rightly peeved – charging more for a bet when customer cash is tight is as nuts as cutting taxes in wartime – but at least the money goes right to purses, which might keep an owner or two in the game for a little while longer. Still, the dike will need more thumbs.

Exchange betting has its philosophical opposition, and there have been instances of race-tampering come to light where it is practiced in England and Australia. Desperate times encourage desperate measures, however, and turning to exchange betting would be the latest desperate move by a racing state that has zero chance of getting slot machines installed at tracks. Indian casinos have the town sewed up tight.

Industry leaders insist there are checks and balances in the exchange-betting provisions of the bill that will assure its benefits to the economics of the game, and if the industy itself can somehow manage to build its own exchange-betting business, there could be a thin silver lining to all the legislative hula.

But then there is Betfair, firmly in place as a growing player in California’s racing business (they were high profile last weekend as sponsors of the Pacific Classic), an aggressive, successful company that will be poised to take full advantage come May of 2012. It’s not exactly a runaway train – more a local commuter – but did you ever try to stop a train at any speed?