Fellow Denverite Derek Simon, blogging for www.twinspires.com, wrote an interesting piece about horse racing whales, those ultra-big money bettors. He seemed to make three important points. First, whales are not necessarily good handicappers. The second point was that whales survive by wagering large amounts of money often. So if a whale bets an average of $250,000 a week for 50 weeks out of the year, and sees a 2% return, he finishes the year $250,000 to the good. Now that amount is a good year for most people, but it seems like a lot of risk for a fairly small reward. You still have to be a 2% winner, assuming there are no intervening factors. Of course if making money was that easy, a lot more people would be whales. The third point is questionable – whales limit their play to the larger tracks and leave the action at smaller venues to the minnows. It doesn’t get much smaller than Arapahoe Park, and I’ve seen plenty of whale sized bets there. Same for Turf Paradise, Tampa Bay Downs, Mountaineer Park and a host of other small tracks. Simply put, 5% is 5% is 5% whether it is at Santa Anita on Breeder’s Cup day or Turf Paradise on a Tuesday in February, and a bettor is guaranteed at least 5% return on a winning ticket. Why would you avoid betting at Turf Paradise because you felt limited to, say, $10,000 bets? In fact, I might argue that at some of the smaller tracks the certainty factor is even higher than at larger tracks. Don’t laugh, but there are people I know who specialize in crushing Arabian and mule races at tracks like Delaware, Retama, Arapahoe Park and Pleasanton and are deliriously happy with a cold $7.40 trifecta, which by the way pays $7.40 because they have a substantial percentage of the pool. Ask any Wall Street investor if he’d take 5-2 on a 90% shot. The conclusion of the blog is don’t get too hung up on the action of the whales because mostly they are betting against each other. Derek also suggests that the rebates are irrelevant and that is where I want to zero in.
In 1968, Richard Carter using the pseudonym Tom Ainslie, published the seminal work, Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing. On page 38 he talks about The Magic Number. Basically Ainslie suggests that no one should lose more than the track take on the win pool. So if the take is 17%, at worst, even if you are betting randomly, you should lose no more than 17% of your bankroll in the long run. He goes on to say that if you only bet favorites, you can reduce that loss to around 8%. Now imagine you are a whale getting a 10% rebate. Betting only favorites to win, you do two things. First, you skew the pool by making the favorite all but unbettable. Second, you still make a 2% profit. Think about it. You are an 8% loser making money, and the more you bet the more you make. If you are any type of handicapper, or if you are using a sophisticated betting program, you might erase half of that 8%, making you a 6% winner. Our same $250,000 a week whale would net a cool three-quarters of a million dollars.
Back when Ainslie wrote his book, favorites were winning at about a 32% rate and one of the first four choices won around 78% of the time. Today, the dilution of the racing product has resulted in smaller fields and a higher percentage of favorites winning. The modern percentage is close to 35%, and at the smaller tracks it seems like there are an increasing number of days when favorites win all the races.
Rebate whales affect the pools and sooner or later they are going to make your return on investment lower than it would be otherwise.
That is bad enough, but they negatively impact the industry as a whole. Ten years ago the New York Times published a short piece on how rebate whales affect the industry. They documented that since the advent of the rebate shops, purse money was declining even though handle is increasing. Is there another viable explanation? It doesn’t seem likely. So what do the tracks do? They think about raising the take, and guess who suffers the most? That’s right, the millions of patrons who aren’t whales. According to the NTRA, money is leaking out of the system and it isn’t going back to live racing. Instead, low overhead operations pay for the signal, make their profit on the volume of bets, and cater to the big money whales.
What’s the answer? I’m going to ask you to tell me your thoughts. Tell me what you think about whales, rebates, and how tracks are dealing with them.