Given that polling data and water cooler angst clearly indicate a country that is increasingly frustrated with our government, it should come as no surprise that big brother is becoming the enemy of even our favorite pastimes. This week, elected officials in California elected to stick it to horseplayers by voting to raise the tax on nearly every wager by 2 percent or 3 percent. The cost will impact horseplayers in every state who make a bet on California racing.
Is taxing consumers, who are fighting for financial stability in their own right, the best way to fix the horsemen's problem?
The move, advocates say, will provide an additional $35 million to $70 million in revenues not returned to bettors at the state's racing establishments, but instead will be earmarked to go into the horsemen's purse account. In doing so, my calculations indicate that $35 million to $70 million over approximately 9,000 annual races in the state would mean about $3,800 to $7,700 more in the pot every time a race leaves the gate.
What this bill essentially says should be of no surprise to anyone who has watched the national news in the past several years. Now more than ever, it's the consumers' responsibility to prop up horse owners who have overspent on their operations and have forgotten that racing a horse once was a privilege and sport, but now has become a painful ink stain on a spreadsheet to too many. It wasn't horseplayers who drove up the yearling prices, or who decided that because a drugged-up 2-year-old worked in 11 seconds at an auction preview, that he or she suddenly became worth $140,000 when the same horse should have sold for $20,000 based on pedigree.
But state bill 1070 will try to rescue all that, increasing the takeout on two-horse wagers (exactas, daily doubles) by 2 percent to 22.68 percent and on three-or-more-horse wagers (trifectas, superfectas, pick threes, pick sixes, etc.) by 3 percent to 23.68 percent. All the bill needs now to be passed into law and begin with the 2011 Santa Anita winter-spring meeting is the signature of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I understand that the cost of racing horses has exploded in recent years, particularly in California where worker's compensation insurance is mandated for all stable employees. That's made training horses in California much more expensive and, in turn, ballooned the monthly bills trainers send to their owners. Myself a small business owner, I realize that everything we do costs more today and that's part of the rub in deciding whether or not we choose to participate. If it can't become affordable, or does not justify its cost versus enjoyment, it's time to get out and do something else.
California and many other states have felt the pinch of horse owners leaving the game or heading to states where casino funds prop up racing purses. But perhaps the problem is that we have too many owners in the game who can't really afford to be owners? Does that sound familiar to anyone who has watched any news lately? How many Hummers do you see cruising the street today as opposed to two or three years ago? How many fools offered $40,000 more than the asking price on a house just to make sure their dreams came true?
But somehow it always comes back to the little guy to fix. Is taxing consumers, who are fighting for financial stability in their own right, the best way to fix the horsemen's problem? Certainly the horseplayers would shout from the top of the San Gabriel Mountains an affirmative "No!"
Admittedly, anyone who has worked in the game or gone to the track with their pals knows that horseplayers are a chintzy lot in general. Most all complain that they want free admission, free parking, free handicapping information like programs, and cheap concessions to boot. Most think the racetracks are making money hand-over-fist and have a pile of large bills under the money tree on which to jump in and play. I'm not among those, as I am someone who has been on both sides of the aisle as a horseplayer and a member of racetrack management.
The tracks have a bad business model with way too much overhead to run the operation and way too much competition. Today's competition in the betting market is advantaged in that it can be presented for a tiny fraction of the overhead cost. Most casinos or lottery terminals don't need enough real estate to wedge in a couple of one-mile circumference racetracks. Nor do those competing betting outlets have to pony up a nearly equal percentage of every bet collected and pay off purse money to the six of clubs, the ace of spades or the manufacturer of the ping pong balls.
Don't insult me with another tax hike that makes the game even less attractive.
I feel for the racetracks in this awesome struggle against cheaper-to-present betting competition. And I feel for horseplayers who already are up against it when trying to overcome a massive takeout structure. As a realist, I understand that the takeout needs to be significant and it can't be lowered to slot-machine like levels. I'm willing to pay to play, and I recognize the costs of putting on the show within limits.
But I don't feel any great sympathy to the horsemen, for whom this takeout increase will solely benefit. I understand where the horsemen are coming from in wanting and needing more, but I don't feel any responsibility as a consumer to be FORCED to give it to them. Maybe horsemen and the many organizations that represent them collectively could put their entrepreneurial minds together to create something that I would WANT to financially grab onto like merchandising. Let me and thousands of other highly supportive racing fans buy an $18 Zenyatta ballcap, or $125 Rachel Alexandra pendant that goes to the purse account if I so choose. Put on an all-star game of sorts that means something and that we'd want to attend. Hell, race your good horses more than five times a year.
But don't insult me with another tax hike that makes the game even less attractive.
I'm not an addict, and neither are the vast, vast majority of other horseplayers. We don't need to wager seriously on the game if we have absolutely no chance to win. Sure, I don't see myself ever walking completely away from the windows and giving up my favorite pastime.
But I've already been betting less and less every year because of the takeout. That's not a consumer choice or me standing my ground on any moral issue. The bottom line is that you can't bet what you don't have. It's as simple as that. Keep taking away money from the consumer and see where that gets you in a sport whose revenue is 100 percent consumer driven.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the owner of the handicapping-based website HorseplayerNOW.com. You can e-mail Jeremy at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.