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Death of 'Best Seven' Wager: Horse Racing at Its Worst

April 04, 1995|ANDREW BEYER | WASHINGTON POST

When the horse-racing industry last year inaugurated its weekly national wager, the Best Seven, the concept sounded irresistibly exciting. Handicappers would attempt to pick the winners of seven races at different tracks, and then watch the action unfold in rapid-fire fashion on a one-hour television show. A perfect ticket might be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But after 10 months of existence, the Best Seven has failed to generate great excitement or revenue. Even hard-core horseplayers, who were initially intrigued by its possibilities, gave up on it. Wagering on last weekend's Best Seven totaled a paltry $46,000. As a result, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, which created the bet, announced that the Best Seven would be terminated after April 8.

The fate of the Best Seven vividly illustrates the reasons that the whole racing game is in such ill health. The Best Seven was the victim of inept management, selfishness and bickering.

"There just wasn't any cooperation," said Chris Scherf, executive vice president of the TRA. "And that doesn't bode well for the future of our sport."

The Best Seven had been closely linked to the idea that horse racing needs some form of national leadership. Some prominent members of the TRA -- the organization of the nation's racetracks -- thought their sport should have a commissioner, and hired a marketing expert, Brian McGrath, for the post. The Best Seven would be his first important project, and its revenues were supposed to pay his salary.

McGrath got a quick and rude education about the fragmentation of the industry; neither he nor anybody else could dictate plans for the Best Seven. The bet had to pass each state's regulations. In New York, laws governing off-track betting prevented the OTB system from accepting the wager; the state racing commission then ruled that if OTB couldn't offer the Best Seven, neither could the racetracks. So the Best Seven never got into the rich New York market.

The Best Seven, too, had to meet the approval of the horsemen's organization at every track. In many places, horsemen have long-standing feuds with management, and they were happy to use approval of the Best Seven as a bargaining chip. The Best Seven was launched without Kentucky's participation because the leaders of that state's Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association had vague reservations about the innovation.

While track owners criticized horsemen for their failure to support the wager, the Best Seven was ultimately subverted by the tracks themselves. Because revenues from the Best Seven would go to the TRA, tracks didn't have a direct financial incentive to promote the wager. Many failed to educate their customers about the mechanics of betting the Best Seven; many did a deplorable job of disseminating information and late changes.

Horseplayers might spend hours handicapping and plotting strategy, only to learn -- minutes before the wagering closed -- that a favorite had been scratched or that a race had been taken off the grass. Such aggravations caused many bettors to stop playing the Best Seven.

Scherf said these failures of communication were mostly the fault of the tracks, but the TRA must share some of the blame for the bet's demise. It never seemed to understand that the appeal of the wager was based on its potential to generate giant payoffs.

Joe De Francis, president of Laurel and Pimlico, said, "I was an ardent supporter of the concept, because the greatest excitement you can have at a racetrack is when you have a big carryover pool in a super-exotic wager. The possibilities of the Best Seven were so exciting."

But the organizers of the Best Seven subverted these possibilities. By setting the unit of the wager at 50 cents, they reduced the size of the payoffs and made it too easy for bettors to cover too many possibilities. They regularly carded too many uncompetitive races as part of the Best Seven.

When the lineup included a five-horse field with a 2-to-5 favorite (which frequently happened), the chances for large payoffs were reduced. The first Best Seven returned paltry $190.75, and over the coming months it didn't produce enough giant payoffs to entice the participation of serious gamblers.

Moreover, the national telecast of the Best Seven, which should have been so exciting, was consistently wooden and uninformative. It's hard to make gambling and horse racing seem boring, but the TRA's brainchild did its best.

The failure of this project was so distressing because, as Scherf observed, "Nobody was able to see the big picture." Neither horsemen nor track managements were willing to make small sacrifices in order to benefit the sport. The Best Seven was an easy project compared to some of the other challenges that face the industry -- such as the creation of interactive home betting.

De Francis said: "I'm extremely distressed at the outcome of this. If we can't do a simple national wager, it's a pipe dream to think that we can take on more ambitious projects. It's a miracle that this sport has survived the idiocy of the people who run it -- track owners, horsemen and regulators."

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