Santa Anita Shortcomings: Goosed by a Wonder Wager

Popular racecourse Santa Anita Park will soon offer a questionable new betting opportunity.

Updated: Dec. 25, 2018 • 3:10 PM ET

Santa Anita Park is one of horse racing's most popular venues.

In the 1970 Oscar-winning film “Patton”, a reporter asks the General, portrayed by George C. Scott, if he has heard of the “wonder weapons” that the Germans worked on during the Second World War — i.e. long-range rockets and push-button bombing that don't need soldiers. With a firm retort, Patton holds forth.

"Wonder weapons? My God I don't see the wonder in them. Killing without heroics, nothing is glorified, nothing is reaffirmed. No heroes, no cowards, no troops, no generals. Only those who are left alive and those who are left dead. I am glad I won't live to see it.”

True handicapping, followed by wagering on a horse race, and for that matter cashing a ticket, is much like Patton’s perspective on combat conditions. There is honor mixed with torment, promise coupled with peril, and a sprinkling of risk and chance for good measure. Without these elements, there really isn’t much left.

That empty feeling is what I got when I heard about what the Great Race Place, Santa Anita Park, located just outside Los Angeles, is about to do. Next week, when their winter meeting opens after the Christmas Holiday, they’ll inaugurate a new wager: Horse Racing Roulette.

Can I get a guffaw? Where’s William H. Macy’s character from the movie “Seabiscuit” with that xylophone when I need him?

This wonder wager groups horses together that are competing against one another in individual races into red, black and green lots. The favorite will be found in the red group, while long shots will mainly comprise the green group.

A $2 wager will get you into the pool (at the same takeout level as a win wager at 15.43 percent), and you can only collect if you pick the color that has the winning horse.

Click here for the official rules.

Why pray tell is the iconic Santa Anita Park doing this? Well, according to some critics, horse racing has an image problem and an aging fanbase. There’s likely truth in that, but I return to the Patton dialogue. I don’t see the wonder in this wager. What is the Park trying to achieve?

The answer lies somewhere in racing officials and track ownership attempting to reinvent the wager — a sort of flea circus.

Step right up ladies and gents; look closely!

Gimmicks continue to abound in this sport, like the 20-cent Rainbow Six and the multi-track vertical Pick 5 and Pick 6 wagers. Poppycock!

The problem with instituting these types of plays is that it waters down the existing pools (yes, that’s a metaphor). But we need to remember that horse racing, unlike casino gambling, is built on pari-mutuel types of wagers. Simply put, that means you’re competing against every Tom, Dick and Harry, and you have just as good a shot as these three chaps as anybody to score. There’s a house that takes their cut, but it’s not a rigged game, nor is it one that is easy to manipulate.

Yes, there are some Boss Hogg types, not to name any names, and there can be manipulative Ponzi schemes. For the most part, though, people win and people lose. The sanctity of the game is what’s at stake.

This new form of wagering is more Russian Roulette and reflects what seems endemic at Santa Anita; the “Great Race Place for Problems.” Their ownership, managed by the powerful Stronach Group, just cleaned house and fired key people in positions from the long-time Racing Secretary (which is probably the most important position at any racecourse) all the way to the announcer’s booth, where the pithy Michael Wrona was shown the door, rather unceremoniously.

I’m all for investment and attempting to capture future generations for our sport, but agenda items like larger field sizes, less racing dates and the best purses possible should be worthy goals. In general, tracks should steer clear of gimmick wagers that water down pools in the service of the turnstiles and not make veiled attempts to rake in casual fans and gamblers.

Santa Anita is akin to Petra, the Great Wall or Jim’s Steaks on South Street in Philly — it sells itself. Just look at that mountain range in the background! I can’t think of a more picturesque landscape astride such history and culture.

If Horse Racing Roulette becomes a cornerstone of tracks across the country, like Patton, I may have to resort to uttering those words: I am glad I won’t live to see it.

Crap through a goose, indeed.

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