Monday, June 23, 2008


HERE’S a tip for those of you who like a bet on horse racing in the United States: Emigrate.

As a purist and long-time follower of The Sport of Kings, I’ve never been a fan of racing on “the dirt.”

All-weather – or non-turf track – racing has become more widespread in the United Kingdom due to the desire of bookmakers to keep the horses running, even in the depths of winter.

Kempton Park, and more recently Great Leighs, have joined Southwell and Lingfield Park as synthetic surface tracks able to operate all-year round.

But the best horse racing in Britain still takes place on the turf: the Derby meeting at Epsom, Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood and the Cheltenham Festival for National Hunt (jumping) enthusiasts, to name but a few.

Punters in the UK have never had so much choice. At the track, they can bet with the rails bookies or the Tote. Off-course, bets can be placed at the High Street bookmakers or, more commonly these days, on the Internet.

Betfair, launched in the summer of 2000, has grown to become the largest online betting company in the UK with more than one million customers and a turnover in excess of $100 million a week.

Clients can bet at odds set and requested by fellow punters, thus eliminating the traditional bookmaker. Betfair charges a commission of 5% on net winnings.

For legal reasons, Betfair is not allowed to accept customers from the USA, denying American punters the same choice and value as those in the UK.

Unless U.S. bettors use an illegal bookmaker, they have to place their wagers through the pari-mutuel pool. And, of course, all bets are subject to a much larger deduction.

The New York Racing Association’s take out from the pool amounts to between 15 and 25 per cent, depending on whether your bet is to win, place, show or what is termed in this country an “exotic” (eg exacta, trifecta).

Uncompetitive horse racing, unfair odds

With most races having eight runners or less, you often end up with three horses trading at odds of less than 3-1. Unlike the UK, you can't take a price. Your selection might be 10-1 when you strike a bet, but it could end up being returned at 2-1.

The net result is that no matter how good you are at handicapping, it’s impossible to win in the long term.

If that wasn’t bad enough, horse racing in the United States lacks variety. Racing takes place at the same track every week for a period of months. The NYRA operates three tracks: Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga.

In the UK, racing is staged at different tracks up and down the country each day. Fields are much more competitive. Many races have 16 runners or more and distances on the Flat range from five furlongs to two miles-plus. Weights can differ by as much 35 pounds in handicaps.

In the US, most races are run between five furlongs and a mile and a quarter and there’s little differential in the weights. Every other race seems to be a claimer

A distance of one and a half miles is considered excessive for a thoroughbred racehorse, although the last leg of the American Triple Crown – the Belmont Stakes – is run over that trip.

Horses tend to be given more time between their races, making it much harder for punters to establish solid lines of form. Not to mention the fact that in many states, they are allowed to run on drugs such as Lasix, which prevents bleeding in the lungs.

Since the British Government abolished betting tax (of around 10%), sports betting has enjoyed a boom period. The United States, in comparison, is living in the Dark Ages.

Internet gambling is not without its dangers. Available 24 hours, seven days a week, it’s extremely addictive and needs to be properly regulated.

But until the U.S. Government falls into line with Britain and the rest of the world, responsible bettors will continue to get a raw deal.

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