Commentary

Disaster at Santa Anita

Updated: December 29, 2010, 11:17 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

When Santa Anita opened Sunday, the numbers were not pretty. They bet $11,707,276 on the first day of the 2010-2011 meet, a 21.5 percent decline from the previous year and the lowest opening-day handle since 1992. Yet, there were some excuses -- primarily a blizzard in the East Coast that shut down a lot of simulcasting outlets -- enough excuses to conclude that the dismal handle figure was perhaps an aberattion. The following day, $5,529,285 was bet on the Santa Anita card, but there was nothing to compare it to. There was not a comparable Monday, second-day-of-the-meet card in 2009.

There can be only one reason why Santa Anita has gotten off to such a wretched start -- the takeout increase.

But on the third day of the meet, there was a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, a Wednesday card in 2010 versus the same sort of Wednesday card a year earlier. The results were almost exactly the same as they were on opening day. Again, Santa Anita got slaughtered. They bet just $4,038,175, a $1,578,842 decline from 2009. That's a 28.1 percent drop off from a year earlier and less than Tampa Bay Downs handled on the same day.

There can be only one reason why Santa Anita has gotten off to such a wretched start -- the takeout increase. It looks like horseplayers actually can be pushed too far.

When the California Horse Racing Board decided to spike the takeout at the state's tracks to obscenely high levels (the takeout on exactas was upped to 22.68 percent) it was betting that the nation's horseplayers would lie down and take the latest abuse heaped upon them without a whimper. People who bet on horses are notorious for failing to react when those who control racetracks and racing commissions fleece them. The CHRB figured this would be no different and that it could funnel the millions sucked out of the customers' pockets due to the takeout increase into purses. It was all about robbing the horseplayer to pay the horse owner.

Apparently, the CHRB has backed a loser.

A horseplayers advocacy group called the Horseplayers Association of North America called for a boycott of Santa Anita and several media members took up the call and alerted readers to the pain about to be inflicted on anyone betting on California racing.

Though supporting the boycott (I will not bet a penny on the Santa Anita meet), I was among those who figured the bad guys would win. For the most part, gamblers pay no attention to what the takeout is. But this time, the player has clearly said enough is enough. Good for the player.

It looks like that message is being sent, and even the dense and ignorant people who compromise the California Horse Racing Board are not going to be able to ignore what is happening.

I'm not rooting for the collapse of Southern California racing and neither is HANA or anyone else. What we are rooting for is a message to be sent to the people who own and regulate racetracks that the customer does in fact matter, and that raising the takeout during difficult economic times and in an era where racing is struggling against competing forms of gambling is insanity. We are rooting for the Santa Anita meet to be so awful that no one ever again will be dumb enough to raise takeout.

It looks like that message is being sent, and even the dense and ignorant people who compromise the California Horse Racing Board are not going to be able to ignore what is happening.

If the handle continues to go down by 21 to 28 percent every day at Santa Anita the ramifications are going to felt throughout California racing. A drastic purse decrease will soon be necessary and horsemen are going to have to flee to states offering them better deals. That will mean worse racing in California, which will mean still more declines in handle. It's a cycle that will never end.

What the player needs to do is to continue to boycott Santa Anita and support tracks like Tampa Bay Downs, which lowered the takeout this year for several wagers. Gulfstream, where there's going to be a record-low 15 percent takeout on the Pick Five and a player-friendly 10-cent Pick Six, is another place that is trying to treat the customer right.

The irony is that Gulfstream, like Santa Anita, is owned by Frank Stronach. He's not the villain here, the CHRB is.

Yes, it is still early, only three days into the meet. Maybe Santa Anita will recover, but things aren't looking good for them. On Day 3, the public spoke, and the public doesn't like being ripped off.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com