Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Poker has had a well publicized renaissance over the last decade. A combination of the vast reach of the Internet and a popular ESPN television series took the game out of smoke filled backrooms and placed it squarely in front of a wagering public hungry for action. Horse racing failed to capitalize on its own Internet monopoly on legalized gambling but that is a story for another day. What is interesting about the game of poker is how closely it resembles a particular segment of the thoroughbred industry, ownership of horses.

While there are obvious differences as a poker player can simply walk away and choose when he wants to play while the owner is beholden to daily expenses as long as horses continue to eat and has to play by the racing secretary's schedule. However some parts of each game are eerily similar and thoroughbred racing can learn from poker if we stop making excuses and start paying attention.

Like poker, playing the claiming game has many twists and turns with bluffs, upping antes and folding hands part of both games. Like poker you need to hold your cards/horses close to the vest, trying to find the easiest spots to run in just as a poker player looks for good hands to play. Sometimes you draw a great hand and sometimes you claim a bad horse. An owner must "keep the competition honest" by sometimes dropping a horse in class to win simply to do that. Sometimes you push your chips into the middle of the table and raise the horse in class. Developing patterns is taboo as your opponents will quickly use those trends against you.

Where am I going with this? Well in some racing locales there is a guy who is playing the game so well that he is seemingly winning every pot. Phil Ivey has nothing on him. Horses are winning on the drop, on the rise, off the layoff, on the cutback, just about all other factors except human connections are thrown out the window. If this happened at a poker table the seats would empty out after a few hands. As self proclaimed world's greatest gambler Amarillo Slim once proclaimed, "Look around the table. If you don't see a sucker, get up, because you're it". As genius trainers continue to win every hand more and more players are leaving the table, owners are realizing that they are the sucker. Some may try a different location, most just walk away.

Casino's may not be the friend of the racing industry but there are lessons to be gleaned in how they do business. A player that wins too much hurts business which hurts the bottom line. When the bottom line is affected, the winning player is asked to move on regardless of any proclamations of innocence. Now because most of these obscene winning streaks are being accomplished at predominately C level tracks, with claiming and low level allowance horses the NY Times doesn't focus its spotlight on this story (or perhaps because its internal sources in racing are not concerned with the riff raff of places like Delaware Park and Hawthorne when lasix is such a politically correct target). But don't be fooled, these kinds of "miracles" seem to seep into the big leagues then all of a sudden the evil eye is cast upon the "newcomer" with the magic wand. That the sport is content to simply let these things play out with no plan to stem the tide of owners (and gamblers) folding their hands and pushing themselves away from the table for good is really all you need to know about why casino's and the game of poker thrives and why racing doesn't.