The premise of parimutuel wagering on horse racing is fairly straightforward: Pick the best horse or horses and you will cash a ticket. But because of human error, confusion, and (arguably) flawed rules, many who were holding what should have been winning tickets were left with nothing Friday on one of the biggest stages in the sport, the Breeders’ Cup.
Modern Games crossed the wire first in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, the last race on the first of two Breeders’ Cup programs at Del Mar. But either a small consolation or no money at all was distributed among sports bettors who selected the colt in multi-race betting pools.
“We literally turned winners into losers and losers into winners,” said Pat Cummings, executive director of the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, a self-described think tank that addresses issues in the horse racing industry. “This was a multimillion-dollar mistake perpetrated on the betting public.”
A dangerous incident at the starting gate
Most of the 14 horses scheduled to participate in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf were loaded into the gate when the trouble started.
The first sign was Frankie Dettori, one of the most prominent jockeys in the world, jumping out of the back of the gate. His mount, Albahr, in post position 2, had essentially flipped in his narrow stall. Albahr was caught under the gate, with his head pointing toward the back and his hindquarters toward the front, where he was supposed to exit for the race.
To Albahr’s inside, in post position 1, his stablemate Modern Games (both are owned by world racing behemoth Godolphin and trained by Charles Appleby) came out of the front of the gate and cantered away to safety, while the gate crew attempted to extract Albahr from his precarious position.
It was obvious Albahr would be scratched from the race, and he was. It was an unfortunate break for his human connections, but he would live to race another day. There was confusion, however, regarding Modern Games. One of the on-track veterinarians was initially under the impression that Modern Games broke through the gate, when he was actually let out of the gate by an assistant starter, who stood in the stall with the horse and jockey, to avoid further injury. This is an important distinction, as horses who break through the gate on their own can sustain injuries and a fair amount of stress, which often leads to them being scratched.
Moments later, track announcer Larry Collmus announced the scratch of Modern Games, citing the advice of the on-track veterinarian behind the gate. Because the on-track vet thought that Modern Games broke through the gate, they recommended a scratch to the Del Mar stewards, who then scratched the colt. But, as the California Horse Racing Board statement said after the race, “After further discussion among the regulatory veterinarians at the gate, and after further observation of … Modern Games, that horse was declared fit and racing sound, and this fact was relayed to the stewards, who, pursuant to CHRB Rule 1974, allowed the horse to run for purse money only.”
Rule 1974 states, “If a horse is removed from the wagering pool due to a totalizator error, or due to any other error, and neither the trainer nor the owner is at fault, the horse shall start in the race as a non-wagering interest, for the purse only, and shall be disregarded for parimutuel purposes.”
Simply put, the veterinarian suggested the scratch of Modern Games without fully understanding what led to his exit from the gate and without a proper examination of the horse.
Because he was scratched and taken out of the wagering pools, Modern Games no longer had odds on the infield tote board. From a wagering perspective, he was a non-entity. He then roared to a convincing victory and collected the $520,000 winner’s share of the purse.
But as Modern Games’ connections were celebrating, boos bellowed from the grandstand. The overcast skies at the seaside racetrack may as well have been dumping rain on their parade.
On Saturday, the CHRB, Breeders’ Cup, and Del Mar disclosed in a joint statement that Modern Games was reinserted into the wagering pools after the scratch “due to a miscommunication between the stewards and the Del Mar mutuels department” before he was removed again.
“Clearly there were mistakes made,” said CHRB Executive Director Scott Chaney. “A horse was scratched that shouldn’t have been. There was an error, but in terms of assigning blame, I’m going to have to wait until we’re done fully investigating what happened.”
Racing rules put gamblers in unenviable position
The way certain multi-race wagers are handled after a scratch is announced has been criticized by gamblers for years.
In California, unless a bettor makes a wager on track or at a brick-and-mortar satellite wagering location, where they can submit alternates to take the place of a scratched horse, those who selected a horse scratched after the multi-race wager is initiated automatically get the post-time favorite as a replacement.
This practice is not ideal, especially if the wagering strategy deployed is to throw out the horse that ends up as the post-time favorite. In the case of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, those who wagered on Modern Games or Albahr in the Pick 4, Pick 5, and Pick 6 got the replacement of Dakota Gold, who went off as the 5-2 top choice. Those who played Modern Games in the Daily Double and Pick 3 got consolation payouts far below what would have been expected if he remained in those pools.
That meant Dakota Gold had to win or finish second, behind Modern Games, for bettors who selected Modern Games or Albahr to cash those wagers. Dakota Gold came in fifth. The “winner,” from a wagering perspective, was Tiz the Bomb, who finished second, 1½ lengths behind Modern Games.
The reaction was a mix of anger and confusion. It’s one thing to lose and watch another horse win, with your horse out of the race. It’s another to lose while watching the horse you picked cross the wire first. Those multi-race wagers ending with Modern Games ranged in payout (for bet minimums) from $117.85 (Pick 4) to $3,443.50 (Pick 6) before the scratches were submitted. According to the betting information documented by Equibase, more than $7.7 million was in those non-consolation pools (Pick 4, Pick 5, and Pick 6) and the entirety of them paid out to bettors who selected Tiz the Bomb.
“The only people who were satisfied with that result were Appleby, Godolphin, and [jockey William] Buick,” Cummings said. “Even the customers who were paid for Tiz the Bomb weren’t fully satisfied. They won, but they know they shouldn’t have. … This was racing’s regulators directly burdening the public with their own mistake.”
‘There’s not enough respect for the bettors’
As painful as it may have been for those who were set to close out multi-race wagers with Modern Games, most regular horseplayers can come up with a somewhat similar experience, in the sense that, when something goes wrong in horse racing, bettors often get the brunt of it.
When the race favorite is substituted for a scratched horse in a multi-race wager, the purse is still paid out in full to the entrants of the race, and the racetrack still gets its takeout of the wagering pool. When a race was run at the wrong distance at Saratoga in 2018, bettors were not refunded, but purses were paid out and the racetrack got its rake of the wagering pools. When a post-race drug test leads to a disqualification, the purse payouts are redistributed among the entrants who did not run afoul of the rules, and again the track still keeps its share of the pot, while bettors who lost to a potentially enhanced horse have no way to recoup their losses.
Friday at Del Mar provided just another example on a long list.
“Horse racing hasn’t figured out that it needs to cater to its betting customers,” Cummings said. “We have figured out what we need to do to protect our horses better, and we have to modernize elements of the sport. We live in a different time, and we need to evolve. For some reason, we haven’t evolved to address people that keep racing going — and that’s the bettors.
“In California, in particular, if there are no bettors, there is no racing. Advancements in safety are a priority, as they should be, but not at the expense of customers.”
Chaney acknowledged that enhanced safety protocols from recent years played a part in the incident.
“My broad overview of the situation is that the main focus is animal welfare, and that’s not insulting to any stakeholder or group to make that statement,” Chaney said. “Animal welfare is the most important thing. This occurred because there is such a focus [on the safety of the horses]. The intent was good.”
But there are signs that aggrieved horseplayers may not be going down without a fight. Michael Beychok, a respected and prominent horseplayer, is part of a group that has a pending lawsuit against trainer Bob Baffert and owner Zedan Stables, whose Medina Spirit tested positive for the corticosteroid betamethasone following this year’s Kentucky Derby. The Medina Spirit case is still being adjudicated at the regulatory level by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, but Churchill Downs Inc. suspended Baffert from entering horses in races at its properties for two years, with a statement that claimed “Baffert’s record of testing failures threatens public confidence in thoroughbred racing and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby.”
Beychok was affected by the Modern Games incident, as he had to alter his plays while he competed in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, but took issue with Friday’s happenings on a larger scale.
“What it has exposed is a flaw in how we manage scratches in multi-race wager pools,” Beychok said. “For a Pick 6 or a Pick 4 player, it’s neanderthal mode to get the post-time favorite. With all the tech in the world, that is absolutely ridiculous. It’s something we have to address. It’s about the integrity of the races and the wagering pools. There’s not enough respect for the bettors — the investors. We need protection, and we have none.”
Chaney said he disagreed with that sentiment, and pointed to the example of a “no contest,” when a race is called off to protect bettors because more than half the field is compromised, while the track has to surrender its handle to refunds and owners don’t get to earn purses.
“It’s unfair to say the wagering public always bears the brunt,” Chaney said. “As stewards, the consequences [for the bettors] are always in the back of our mind. … I don’t want to go that far and say bettors were treated unfairly [in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf] because the regulation was in place. It was used properly. The CHRB, and me included, certainly cares about the wagering public in everything we do, because wagering drives California racing.”
Is there a solution?
What can be done to prevent this scenario in the future?
Potential changes that could mitigate similar issues include allowing alternate selections on advance-deposit wagering sites, making all multi-race wagers eligible for consolation payouts for a scratched horse, and modernizing a tote system that is generally regarded as archaic.
The day after the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, the Breeders’ Cup, Del Mar, and the CHRB announced a modification to their “injury management communications protocols” ahead of their Saturday races, which made Dr. Dana Stead the lone veterinarian to “make the final determination with respect to recommended scratches at the starting gate [with] sole authority to communicate those recommendations to the stewards.” In the Modern Games case, another vet, Dr. Chuck Jenkins, made the scratch recommendation to the stewards.
Chaney indicated he was hesitant to jump to a regulatory solution based on one incident.
“We can’t write a rule that is results-driven,” Chaney said. “I’m not arguing that the rule shouldn’t be changed. Perhaps it should. But some people want to take a situation and write a rule to that situation. You have to be mindful of writing a rule that fits all situations.”
The Breeders’ Cup declined to comment on specific questions about the incident. Del Mar Thoroughbred Club President and Chief Operating Officer Josh Rubinstein was not available for comment Monday, while Del Mar spokesman Mac McBride indicated the modifications made to the scratch process Saturday will make a difference.
“What happened on Friday is unlikely to happen again,” McBride said.
That may not be good enough for some horseplayers.
“With the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (set to begin in 2022), to me, one of the most important parts of that is integrity,” Beychok said. “They’ve been very sincere about their goals. And getting rid of the drug cheats is one of the pressures that drives people out of the game, but I would hope they use that ‘integrity’ word to address integrity in the wagering pools. That may not be as big of a problem, but it is clearly a problem for the future of horse racing.”
Photo: Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY