The Piper Is Calling - by Eric Mitchell

The morning before the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II), maybe you had a hunch that Chitu was sitting on a big race. Not only did you plan on betting the son of Henny Hughes at Santa Anita Park Feb. 8 but you started sniffing around for a future wager in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), too. The key is to strike before the iron gets hot.

Unless you were near a racebook in Las Vegas or Atlantic City at the time, however, the future wager option was off the table. Chitu was not among the 24 individual wagering interests listed in the Kentucky Derby Future Wagering Pool 2, which closed prior to the Robert B. Lewis. To get a future bet down on Chitu, the only option was to take the “All Other 3-Year-Olds” entry, which opened at 7-5 and closed at 3-2. Not exactly the fat payoff expected from a bet made 12 weeks before the live event.

If you happen to have access to the Wynn Las Vegas Race and Sports Book, you would have been able to get Chitu at 200-1 or 125-1 through the bookmaker William Hill. Now that’s a future wager someone could get excited about.

The question comes up year after year. Why is the Future Wager limited to 24 entries when 414 horses are nominated to the Triple Crown?

Limiting technology is the reason, according to John Asher, vice president of racing communications for Churchill Downs.

“If you go to all the racetracks and all the OTBs around the country, you won’t find many that are equipped to handle more than 24 entries,” Asher said in a podcast interview with’s online managing editor Ron Mitchell. “It is not like Las Vegas, which can take all kinds of bets and if there is no winner it doesn’t matter. In pari-mutuel you have to have a winner. The field makes it work.”

Asher said expanding the number of betting interests is reviewed regularly by Churchill Downs and it may grow up to 40 one day but not much beyond. For one, he said larger players like the limited betting fields. He also said the racetrack isn’t making enough off the Derby Future Wager right now to justify a substantial technological investment.

The Derby Future Wager is frustrating not just due its limited offering but because of why it’s limited.

It seems hard to believe, with a system that could handle it, that offering future wagers on 414 horses wouldn’t generate more revenue than the option to wager on 23 plus a catch-all “all others” pool.

We’ve been down this road before. People were screaming for tote system reform after the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Pick Six scandal when a computer programmer manipulated a Pick Six ticket because he knew the wagers were being held in a queue, waiting to be transmitted until just prior to the last race. A victory by 43-1 shot Volponi in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) shone a very bright spotlight on the single winning ticket that had single entries for the first five races and “all” in the Classic.

Ironically, the then fledgling National Thoroughbred Racing Association had been working with a team of experts from IBM Global Services back in 2000. The conclusion of IBM’s analysis then was that the racing industry was further behind any other industry in its use of technology. Despite the grim assessment a dozen years ago and the 2002 scandal, we haven’t made much progress since.

Granted, some improvements are coming soon. This year the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau is expected to launch a new Tote Security System that will provide real-time monitoring of pool activity, assure the proper closing of pools when the gates open, and reduce the time of win odds updates. The 41 TRA member racetracks have committed to adopting the new system at a cost of $950 per month. The improved data collection will allow for other improvements such as offering more exact will-pay information on exotics, but the new system is an enhancement built on top of a still-outdated frame that cannot process more than 24 individual pari-mutuel entries.

IBM proposed a solution to racing’s tote infrastructure problems more than a decade ago and the industry collectively walked away. Since that time, exchange wagering has boomed overseas; offering a slicker, faster, more enticing way to wager.

The piper is knocking on the door and wants to be paid; otherwise, he’ll lure racing’s customers away.

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