Commentary

Take the money and run

Updated: November 4, 2008, 2:27 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Wake up and smell the monopoly.

An industry struggling for its financial survival has been blessed with the only legal internet gambling in America, yet wants to funnel it all down the drain because its factions can't agree on who gets what.

While it's natural to want more, unfortunately it's even more common to over-value your personal worth. Both factors appear at play as America's horseplayers twist and turn in the breeze.

A nationwide dispute between Thoroughbred horsemen and advance deposit wagering (ADW) companies continued at an impasse this week. All the while, fans and bettors alike were shut out from online wagering on most of the top signals in the sport, including Churchill Downs and Hollywood Park.

Horsemen around the country, who have bonded specifically for a made-for-clout organization called the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Group (THG), want an equal one-third share of all dollars wagered through ADW companies to go into the purse account. Right now, they're getting approximately one-fifth of the pie.

When there's 13 percent between negotiating bodies, something has to give. Neither side looks willing to blink, even though absolutely no one is going to win from all this posturing. Tracks are losing. Horsemen are losing. Worse yet, horseplayers are losing patience and interest.

Where I reside, I can't subscribe to half of the ADW providers in existence and the other half don't have contracts to provide the tracks that I'd most like to play. And that's when the two sides aren't bickering. Now, you might as well write your bets on a paper airplane and try to fly them to the racetrack.

Racing organizations had better realize this: I'm not a crack addict. I don't need to play the sixth from Anytrack USA this afternoon. In fact, I can go weeks on end with plenty of other fancy-free hobbies and habits. And I'm not alone.

I've sat in conference rooms and been on conference calls where racetrack executives and horsemen's representatives act as though the bettor is a complete degenerate who simply will do cartwheels in order to satisfy a $2 jones.

I've sat next to a president of a state horsemen's group who openly complained about a handful of customers in the grandstand of his local track calling in their bets on the cellphone to an ADW company instead of going to the track's betting windows, thus depriving the horsemen of a bigger percentage of those few bets. How simpleton can you possibly be? You base your argument on a few dollars going local to national, but fail to see the benefits of big money coming national to local through the ADW. Honestly, the thousands of guys betting in their underwear around the country today were not making 600-mile, cross-country roadtrips to your track.

Rest assured, the current ADW-horsemen dispute won't end the racing game as we know it. But it could hammer yet another nail of inconvenience into the coffin of an industry growing short of breathing room.

Who is at fault? Take your pick. ADW companies and racetracks/horsemen's groups ironed out the roughly 20-percent purse agreement at the inception of the internet wagering era. Let's just be honest: most of the old schoolers representing horsemen didn't see the light at the end of this tunnel. At that time, many thought E-mail was something Captain Kirk received on the Starship Enterprise.

Now we see that the ADW segment is the only growing faction of the horse racing industry's income machine. More and more players are finding that lousy on-track service, rising gas prices and the convenience of home are pretty good reasons to click-a-bet.

And, of course, the horsemen have now come calling for more of the pie. Much more. Simple math tells you that going from 20 percent to 33 percent is not asking for 13 percent; it's asking for 65 percent more than you used to be getting. Try going into a contract negotiation with your boss and asking for a 65-percent raise on your current take-home pay.

What's more is that the timing could not be any worse. In a declining economy, just who -- in any business sector -- is going to blow around the Benjamins like tiny bubbles?

Horsemen should thank ADW companies for coming along and bringing Thoroughbred racing into the 21st century. Private enterprise gave life support to an ailing, insular racing industry. Those who compete for purse money should be thrilled to gather every penny on the dollar they can get from customers who otherwise wouldn't walk within three states of their local venue. They should be happy as a lark that they bear ZERO of the expense involved in developing software, staffing, marketing, promoting or processing a single wager.

Do the horsemen deserve more? Perhaps. But it's nowhere near an equal, one-third pull, in my estimation -- and I don't care how unpopular that makes me the next time I walk through a stable area. Certainly live racing is what all wagering is derived from, and you have to pay your players. But this is a prize-money sport, not a salary sport. In NASCAR, teams and drivers receive about 25 percent of the revenue in race purses, while 65 percent goes to the host tracks and 10 percent to the industry's home office. If a wildly popular and successful business model like NASCAR gives 25 percent to its winning teams, which have to slice their pie in many more pieces than an owner, trainer, jockey and groom, asking for as much as 33 percent in horse racing seems a bit much.

My message goes out to the horsemen and ADWs: Folks, you've got something good here. Amazingly good. You're this country's only gambling game legal on the world wide web. It's not going to last forever; so you had better take what you can get while you can get it. Someday soon, Joe Six Pack will be able to click his mouse and place his hard-earned on a New York Yankees-Dallas Cowboys parlay for the World Series and Super Bowl.

When that happens, the few bucks that left the local grandstand will be the least of your worries. All I can say is take the money and run. Now.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can E-mail Jeremy on this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.