Takeout rates miff horseplayers


Every so often I find myself longing for HANA. This is not some Miley Cyrus flashback. It is actually the fond memory of the Horseplayers Association of North America.
Largely the underfinanced volunteer work of a dozen or so people who had a passion for racing, HANA was active for about 10 years as a collective voice for the horseplayer. It heightened awareness of hot-button topics from medication controversies to simulcast distribution. It even organized wagering boycotts of places that were seen as doing wrong by the average bettor.
The best thing HANA ever did was to hold racetracks accountable for their takeout rates. It was credited with having a vital role in Keeneland rolling back its percentages three years ago.
HANA’s detailed annual spreadsheets that chronicled takeout figures were bookmarks on every serious horseplayer’s computer. They still exist in an online half-life at the old website horseplayersassociation.org, which looks like a ghost town that has been preserved since the day it was abandoned.
Four years ago was the last time HANA cobbled together its list of 64 North American tracks and ranked them primarily on their blended takeout rates. Field sizes, average handle and TV distribution came into play, but this chart was mostly about what tracks were pocketing from bettors before they were paying the winners.
Some things have not changed. Kentucky Downs rated best, based largely on takeout rates ranging from 16% for win-place-show to only 19% on vertical exotics and multiple-race horizontal wagers. According to a report released by the track in September, those numbers have not changed a bit in the last four years. If Kentucky Downs is not still No. 1, it is in close competition with the likes of the recently reopened Colonial Downs in Virginia.
It is one thing to carve out an attractive price point for a boutique, late-summer turf festival on the Kentucky-Tennessee state line. What about the tracks that offer the most popular meets in the country? Next week Saratoga and Del Mar welcome back their legions of fans who were prevented by the pandemic from passing through their gates last summer.
Saratoga has pretty much held its ground on takeout since it was rated HANA’s second-best racecourse in 2017. According to figures posted on the New York Racing Association website, the track has kept its win-place-show takeout at 16%; exacta, quinella and the rolling daily double at 18.5%; the Pick 5 at 15%, and most other horizontals at 24%.
Field sizes dwindled from 8.09 in 2017 to the COVID-influenced 7.4 last year at the Spa. But they are forecast to be better for the five-day weeks that begin July 15 and run through Labor Day.
The most notable change at Saratoga is with NYRA’s Pick 6 — the “Empire 6,” as it is known — which reverted to a 15% takeout rate after having been as high as 20%. NYRA has also tinkered the last couple of years with the base stake, cutting it from $2 to 20 cents before bringing it back up to $1. The higher minimum bet answers critics who contend that the smaller wager helps only the batch bettor, the so-called computer player, to cover more bases for the same amount of money while leaving average Joes dreaming of not-so-big scores.
Del Mar ranked fourth in the last HANA rankings, but that was also based on a five-day racing week. That is long gone as the horse population continues to shrink in California, a reality that reduced Santa Anita’s program to three days a week this year. That is how the summer schedule will start for the first two weeks at the junction of turf and surf. Then Del Mar will stretch to a Thursday-Sunday schedule for most of the rest of the meet before closing with five days of racing Sept. 2-6.
With fewer cards to fill and with the advent of bonuses for out-of-state shippers, field sizes at Del Mar rebounded last year, going from 8.0 in 2019 to 8.4 in 2020. That was even better than the 8.36 reported by HANA in 2017.
Del Mar’s blended takeout rate, most recently reported last year by the California Horse Racing Board, was 20.76%. Last year Del Mar cut its hold on daily doubles back to the 20% it was in 2017. It had gone up to 23.68%, consistent with the peak level for deep exotics at all Southern California tracks.
In the abstract, horseplayers understand that the blended takeout rate covering all types of bets comes out to about 20% in North America, with some tracks taking close to 30% from their exotics. Saratoga and Del Mar look pretty good against that backdrop. Considering their popularity, they should.
Go to little tracks across the continent where small fields of cheap horses race for purses that offer little more than a hand-to-mouth existence for the hard-working souls who keep the sport going. The takeout rates are steeper if only to provide wages that are barely livable for everyone from hot walkers to racing secretaries. That is a reality that rarely crosses the minds of bettors who sit at home watching TVG while playing the races like they are ordering off Amazon.
Whether bettors are paying attention to any of this really is the big question. There is plenty of grousing about takeout, especially when weighed against the mere 9.1% that Nevada casinos hold for most sports bets. It is the price horseplayers pay to dream of big payoffs that can and do happen in racing, the kind that seldom occur in two-team contests.
Put it this way: If all who bet on horses coalesce to say they are mad as hell and not going to pay big takeouts anymore, maybe HANA would still be active today.
In addition to this weekly report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode looks ahead to the July 15 opening of the summer season at Saratoga. Tom Law of the Saratoga Special offers an on-the-spot preview. Rampart Casino sportsbook director Duane Colucci handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST Bet.


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