My last column was about this year’s Baseball All-Star game. I received countless comments. One comment from John Moore of Ventura caught my eye. I had pointed out those sports that were popular in my youth. John suggested I should have included Horse Racing. You know! He was right! As a result, I went back into my memory bank, did a little extra research and here’s what I learned.
I remembered that when I was a student at the University of Massachusetts, I voraciously read everything written by Damon Runyon. You probably know most of them,” Sorrowful Jones, The Lemon Drop Kid, Salty O’Rourke” and of course, “Guys and Dolls”. All became either Movies, or Broadway Plays. The main protagonists were bookmakers, jockeys, bettors, touts and breeders. In short, the characters involved with the SPORT OF KINGS.
I admired him so much that while in college, I created “Shelly’s Spectacle” which raised countless dollars for the “Damon Runyon Cancer Fund”. You can only imagine my euphoria when years later I worked with the great man himself. However, I am getting off track (no pun intended). Let’s talk about the sport.
Horseracing competition first started in Central Asia! Tribesmen domesticated the horse around 4500 B.C. Today, modern racing exists primarily due to the fact it is a major arena for legalized gambling. It is the second most widely attended U.S. Spectator Sport, after Baseball. Annually, on the average, there are more than 8000 days of racing attended by almost 60 million people betting over 9 billion dollars.
The British are credited for starting Professional Horse Racing during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14). Match Races gave away to races with several horses and spectators placed bets. Throughout the United Kingdom, Racetracks sprung up.
In order to attract the best horses, the tracks offered large inducements. As a result, breeding and owning horses became profitable. Based on greed, an unscrupulous element was born making it neccesary to have a national governing body. In 1750,Racing’s Elite formed the Jockey Club, which to this day still exercises complete control over English racing.
British settlers brought horses and horseracing to the New World. The first racetrack was out on Long Island as early as 1665 only 45 years after the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.
The rapid growth of the sport without any central governing body led to criminal elements dominating the tracks. , Around the turn of the 20th Century, elite owners met in New York and following the English model formed the American Jockey Club.
Antigambling sentiment saw most states ban bookmaking. Racing was almost wiped out. By 1908, the number of tracks had dwindled to 25. However, in that same year, pari-mutuel betting was introduced at the Kentucky Derby. States got on the bandwagon welcoming the return of racing by legalizing this form of betting. This meant the states would have a share of the money bet.
By the end of World War I, prosperity and great horses like Man o’ War and Seabiscuit saw fans filling the tracks. The sport prospered until World War II. Those were the years, which I talked about in my All-Star article.
Pari-mutual betting offers many ways that you can lose your money. Wagering on the outcome of horse races has been an integral part of the appeal of the sport since B.C. Today, it is the sole reason horse racing survives. Under this system, somewhere between 14-25 percent of the total amount wagered goes to the track off the top for a variety of expenses.
The balance is divided among those who bet. Before each race “odds” are placed on a visible board. If the “odds” are 4-1 that means if you wager one dollar and your horse wins, your return is four dollars. There are many different ways to bet… the terms are simple. In order of first, second and third, they are called “ win, place and show”.
“Daily double”… selecting the winners of two consecutive races. “Exacta”…selecting the winners of two consecutive races in order. “Quinella”… selecting the first and second horses in either order. “The pick six” is the real moneymaker… it is when the winners of six consecutive races are picked.
Earlier, I talked about Damon Runyon. Where we live in Thousand Oaks, among our friends are Dr. and Mrs. Gurvey. Mrs. Gurvey is the daughter of Jule Fink. Damon Runyon would only go to the track if he went with Jule. Jule was a pioneer who revolutionized how one wagered and beat the odds. An immigrant boy, he was an honest bettor.
He started in the racing industry before World War II. At 15, he worked for his father, a barber who took bets. After taking the bets, he would read the ticker tape results from all over the country. Once the results were in, he and other boys were sent to collect the money. They would run as fast as they could to collect each debt… He became known as one of the “Speed Boys.”
He was a genius at handicapping and developed a system for winning that has never been equaled. His talent caught everyone’s eye. Celebrities and world leaders flocked to be with him. These men included not only Runyon, but also Presidential Advisors and Wall Street giants.
As I learned about the Jule and betting, I became more determined to learn about how the Pari-mutual betting system works. I asked my friend Jerry Berger, a follower of breeding who also has been a horse owner. He explained that in betting, first you look at the bloodlines… (who was the sire and who was the mare). Then you look at the track record and who the competition was and at what track… and who the competition is in the current race. Then you place your bet.
With the current economy, Attendance at racetracks is down.
I’ve often thought with our current financial crisis how a man with Jules’ mathematical and financial wizardry might help our economy. I know it sounds ludicrous, but in these dire times, we should explore every avenue. One day at Monmouth Race Track, I met a lady betting her Social Security Check.