Gary West.

West: Bettors Deserved Better in Juvenile Turf Wagering Fiasco

By Gary West/Special to TVG

A couple months ago, the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency fined Wells Fargo $250 million for “unsafe home lending management.” In its consent order, the OCC required Wells Fargo “to improve … decision-making” and went on to explain that it would use all its “tools” to ensure that banks “treat customers fairly.”

I wonder what the OCC would have to say about the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) and the on-site veterinary team at Del Mar regarding the collective handling of last Friday’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1)? Shouldn’t they be held accountable, just as other businesses are held accountable for poor decision-making and miscommunications? Shouldn’t there be fines and sanctions for not treating the customers fairly?

Here’s a quick summary of what happened in the final race of the afternoon on Nov. 5, the first day of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Prior to the start, once all the horses were loaded, Albahr (GB), the No. 2 horse, reared up and fell, pinning himself underneath the starting gate. As Albahr thrashed about, an assistant starter opened the stall of his stablemate, the No. 1 horse, Modern Games (IRE), so that he might exit the gate and avoid injury. Albahr, of course, would have to be scratched. The stewards scratched Modern Games on the recommendation one of the track veterinarians, Dr. Chuck Jenkins, at the starting gate and CHRB equine medical director Jeff Blea confirmed the call was made on the basis of an incorrect assumption and without actually examining the colt. Apparently, the vet assumed Modern Games had broken through the gate and gone to SeaWorld. True, this recommendation doesn’t rank up there with Mary Lincoln’s suggestion about going to the theatre, but it was shockingly atrocious because it was based on nothing but a mistaken assumption.

After it was determined by another track veterinarian, Dr. Dana Stead, that Modern Games was uninjured and very capable of racing, he was momentarily re-introduced into the betting pools by the mutuels department only to be removed from the wagering pools again when it was made clear to the mutuels department he was racing for purse money only. 

And, of course, he won impressively.

Modern Games in front of the gate after his stablemate Albahr flipped in the gate before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf on Nov. 5, 2021. Bill Denver/Breeders’ Cup/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM

Bettors who had used Modern Games on their multi-race wagers — Pick 3, Pick 4, Pick 5, Pick 6 — got the betting favorite, Dakota Gold, as a replacement. But he was a poor replacement, an ersatz favorite, and finished fifth. So instead of a winning ticket, these bettors held a loser. Multi-horse wagers, such as exactas and trifectas and superfectas, at least gave bettors something of a refund. But a refund is a pathetic consolation; it’s a wretched replacement for a winning superfecta.

And so for the first time in the history of the Breeders’ Cup, boos greeted a horse as he entered the winner’s circle. The 2021 Breeders’ Cup may be remembered by some for the brilliance of Knicks Go or Life Is Good or Echo Zulu, but it will most certainly be remembered by all who witnessed it for the wagering fiasco that overshadowed the performance of another supremely talented equine athlete.

I’ve never seen so many racing fans and bettors so angry. I was among them, I must point out, for I had several multi-race wagers that singled Modern Games in the Juvenile Turf and several more multi-horse tickets with him singled on top. I’m inured to the sport’s vicissitudes and take losses with insouciance, knowing they’ll be offset by a win on another day, but this hit hard, not because of money lost, but because of goodwill squandered. The sport had an enormous opportunity, but once again, horse racing blew it. This was just what horse racing didn’t need, evidence that there really is no such thing as rock bottom. And so Friday night, I seriously considered packing up and going home. How many times can you watch somebody shoot himself in the foot before becoming sickened? What will tomorrow’s fiasco be, I wondered. Rather than pack up, though, I walked. I walked angrily at first and then slowed to a thoughtful stroll, up and down La Jolla Village Drive, until I could shove the fiasco into a corner in the back of my thoughts and replace it in the frontal lobe with the anticipation of seeing Knicks Go, Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie and all the other stars that were set to appear on Saturday.

The CHRB needed more time, a few days in fact, to get its stories straight. It first reported that Modern Games had reared up and hit his head on the gate. But his jockey, William Buick, quickly dispelled that notion, and video evidence confirmed that the horse remained calm in the gate, didn’t hit his head and left the gate only when an assistant starter opened the stall – all facts the CHRB copped to when it issued its third statement on Nov. 8. The Breeders’ Cup, which must share in the blame because, after all, it selected Del Mar to host the event, issued its own statement saying it regretted “the impact this has had on the betting public.”

If Wells Fargo had attempted to explain away its incompetence by saying it regretted the impact this had on the banking public, the OCC would still be laughing.

Friday night and all through the following days, social media exploded with outrage and disgust. Many of the people commenting seemed to understand the sport’s problems much better than the sport itself does. Somebody said, for example, “The bettors, as usual, are an afterthought,” another commented, “As usual, the only people who suffered were the bettors,” another, posted, “The sport’s biggest day is overshadowed by a fiasco,” and another asked, “Will somebody at the Breeders’ Cup tell me why I should wager tomorrow?” 

Social media gets it; the fans get it; the bettors certainly get it. But horse racing still hasn’t, even though the Modern Games fiasco shined a glaring light on one of the sport’s greatest problems, its neglect of the bettors. It’s a negligence that can border on abuse, and it crossed the Rio Grande on the first day of the Breeders’ Cup. But maybe the problem isn’t so much ignorance as indifference. Imagine asking the sport and its so-called leaders this question: Why do horses race? To make it easy for them, let’s turn this into a multiple-choice question with these possible answers:

A) Horses race to define themselves and in so doing to provide some sporting entertainment, excitement, and joy to the fans and bettors.

B) Horses race so that breeders will have a market for selling their product, both here and, with increasing importance, abroad.

C) Horses race so that your favorite racetrack can fill its gargantuan grandstand for two days each year while charging outrageous prices for everything.

D) Horses race so that we can win races.

I refrain from saying there’s a right or wrong answer. But this much is clear: The people who currently lead and guide this sport, the people with the power, never, ever answer that question with an A.

Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.