Sports Outside the Beltway

Was there race fixing at Hazel Park?

Last week I blogged about police and regulators in Michigan looking into whether races were fixed at Michigan area horse tracks. ESPN’s Bill Finley has an interesting take on the subject.

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.

Finley goes on to wonder if investigators really understand horse racing.

If the take numbers Finley cites are accurate, I don’t see how fixing would be on these tracks for the same reason he does. That goes my usual inclination to believe if an investigation is under way in sports, that there has to be substance to it.

I grew up being taken from one Midwest race track or county fair to another*during the years 1971-1974. In late 1973 over 20 people(including some of the country’s most famous drivers) were arrested in the New York area for fixing superfecta races. I remember this huge scandal very well but it is almost forgotten today. The handles in 1973 by the way were many times bigger then today. Most of those arrested were found not guilty in court, but this and some of my father’s stories about drivers holding back, I’ve always taken a jaundiced rule when the possibility of race fixing surfaces. This time I want to see more and won’t jump to conclusions.

*- I grew up on Long Island but my father’s horses raced out of tracks in New Jersey, Ohio, and the Chicago area. New York city are tracks had strict rules about minors attending the races. In fact I can count the times I saw races at Roosevelt and Yonkers on on hand. Whereas I been to Freehold, Atlantic City, Brandywine, Scioto, Sportsmans Park, and a couple other tracks probably 200 times all combined.

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