Lagging odds unacceptable

When the field of nine left the Saratoga starting gate at 2:42 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 12, a horse named Lord Kipling was 5-2. One minute and 22 seconds later, when the 2-mile marathon was nearly half over, Lord Kipling was 2-1 and on his way to a front-running win. No matter how it happened, why it happened or who is to blame, this is completely unacceptable.

Imagine buying shares of Google at one price only to be told 10 minutes later, sorry, you actually bought the stock for another, higher price.

Yet, it happens all the time. Anyone who plays the horses sees this occur on a daily basis. Some horse breaks out of the gate at 3-1, his odds drop to 5-2 at the quarter-pole, and he pays $6.60. We have been told time and time again that nothing untoward is going on. Nobody is betting after the races start. Rather, the tote equipment takes a while to process the bets coming in from all over the country, and that's why odds change mid-race. That, at least, is what they say.

(At the request of one irate horseplayer, the New York Racing Association did look into the race and confirmed that no past posting occurred. The problem was due to a telecommunications malfunction at one off-track betting site. Not only wasn't this NYRA's fault, but that a racetrack employee would actually lodge an investigation on behalf of a fan is admirable.)

You know what? It doesn't matter. As long as the odds continue to change during races, people have a right to be suspicious. People don't want to hear about antiquated tote equipment and how long it takes for a bet from Idaho to make its way to Saratoga. They want to know with absolute certainty that everything is on the up and up; they want the horse that breaks out of the gate at 4-1 to still be 4-1 when the race is over.

Even people who made winning bets on Lord Kipling had to be steaming. They thought they were playing a 5-2 shot only to find out the horse was 2-1. Imagine buying shares of Google at one price only to be told 10 minutes later, sorry, you actually bought the stock for another, higher price.

What made the Lord Kipling situation particularly tough to swallow was the length of time it took for the odds to change. Racing fans have been told to accept that odds will change shortly after a race begins because of the length of time it takes to process bets and that is why the odds may shift 20 seconds or so into a sprint race. But this wasn't 10 or 15 seconds. It was 82 seconds, enough time to have run an entire seven-furlong race.

Racing has a lot of problems and, sadly, some of them simply can't be solved. The maddening thing about late odds changes is that this is something that can be fixed overnight. All that needs to happen is that the betting windows at every track, simulcast parlor, Internet betting site, etc. close when the first horse is loaded into the gate. It usually takes upward of a minute to load an entire field, normally enough time for every bet made everywhere to funnel its way into the system.

But no track wants to do this because they fear people will get shut out and revenue will be lost. People will indeed get shut out, but for no more than a day or two. Horseplayers aren't stupid. They will quickly figure out that they have to get their bets in in time and will adjust accordingly.

Instead, our racing industry would rather let a system persist where its customers are angered on a daily basis and concerned they might just be playing a game on par with three-card monte. Perception truly is reality. I guarantee you that some customers were lost for life because of the Lord Kipling situation, driven away from horse racing to never gamble again or to find something they believe is more trustworthy, like slot machines.

It's wonderful that racing has moved to ban steroids and that toe grabs have been dealt with, but those sorts of things are of little importance to the sport's core customers, who are the gamblers. It's simple: give them what they want or they will be ex-customers. And no one wants to see their 5-2 shot drop to 2-1 82 seconds into a race.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.