They've been fixing harness races in Michigan. At least that's what the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Gaming Control Board have claimed. Reports surfaced last week that state cops and racing regulators in Michigan are looking into fixed races at Hazel Park, Northville Downs and Sports Creek Raceway and that as many as 30 owners, drivers, trainers and gamblers could be involved.
Michigan State Police raided the homes of three people allegedly involved last week. No names have been released and not one of the races supposedly involved have been disclosed.
It's the type of story that grabs your attention and sullies harness racing's image, which doesn't need any more sullying. It's also doesn't add up. Either that or these are the dumbest race fixers who ever lived.
The thought of race fixing conjures up images of bad guys sitting in smoked-filled rooms deciding which horses are going to be stiffed, how they're going to bet the bogus races and how they're going to divide up the huge loot they're going to make.
It's the last part that is the key. Race fixing involves greed and greed involves making money, usually lots of it. In Michigan, anyone in the race-fixing business would be lucky to make minimum wage.
Harness racing in Michigan is small-time stuff and the pools at the state's track are pathetically small. The feature race Saturday night at Northville Downs, the only track currently racing in Michigan, was a conditioned race with a $5,600 purse. The best race on the biggest night of racing during the week, it attracted all of $8,782 in wagering in the win, exacta, trifecta and superfecta pools. After the takeout, roughly $6,800 was returned to winning bettors.
In order to fix a race, you'd have to have at least three drivers in on the scam, not to mention some gamblers and maybe even a trainer or two. At the very minimum, five people would have to be involved. Much of the pool would be taken down not by the race-fixers, but by gamblers who honestly stumbled onto to the winning numbers. Whatever the exact math is, there'd be nothing but a few crumbs left for the five or so bad guys after they divvied up their winnings. Anyone in on a fix would be lucky to walk away with a couple hundred dollars.
The betting figures out of Northville last Saturday were not an aberration. Hazel Park handles the most of any Michigan harness track. It averaged $89,612 per card in handle for 2008, according to the most recent Michigan Gaming Control Board report to be released. The average daily handle at Sports Creek in 2008 was $24,238, which comes out to about $2,000 per race. Imagine making your living fixing races at Sports Creek. You'd be on food stamps.
Would anyone fix a horse race, risk their career and jail time, for, at the most, $200 or $300? I suppose it's possible, but it's hard to believe anyone could risk so much for so little.
Have Michigan gumshoes been overzealous or have they made mistakes because they don't understand racing and how pari-mutuel betting works? (There's not a bookmaker on the planet that would accept a bet from a Michigan harness track). It's happened before.
It will be interesting to see where this story goes once more information comes out. My guess is it's going nowhere.
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The Horse Racing Hall of Fame finally did something smart last week when it changed its rules regarding election procedures. Under the old system, one horse or individual had to be elected from each category every year, which all but guaranteed problems. In years where a division consisted of only weak candidates, someone undeserving of the honor would get into the Hall of Fame. Conversely, there were plenty of times when deserving Hall of Famers were overlooked because they happened to fall into particularly strong categories and didn't get the most votes.
Starting this year, the four horses or individuals who get the most votes will get in, which means some categories (the four are trainer, jockey, male horse, female horse) could have more than one inductee and some may have none.
There are better ways of doing this, but this is a vast improvement on the old system. It also alleviates what was going to be a sure embarrassment for the Hall of Fame. With Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta likely to become eligible the same year, it would have made the Hall of Fame look ridiculous to elect one and not the other.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.