Horseplayers can be schizophrenic. Sometimes we want to be left in our own bubble, sometimes we want recognition, and sometimes we want both at the same time.
Most casinos and racetrack/casinos have some version of a players card. You know, one of those things that gives you redeemable points for spending your money at their place. You can use those points to get anything from the chicken fingers and fries plate (I’m just guessing, but I believe that is around five million points) to an LCD TV (at least a billion points, and it is generally a TV brand you’ve never heard of). However, it is hit or miss whether your racetrack only has such a system, and believe me, a lot of them don’t. Unless they have some version of the NSA software I’m not aware of, I don’t think most tracks are paying very close attention to my bets, even though they can get instantaneous feedback on what is being bet at a particular mutuel machine. “Hey Harry, some guy just bet $400 at mutuel 82.” Or, “Gee Bob, someone just got a $500 voucher. Maybe it’s a big bettor.”
There are, of course, the infamous rebate sites where you just get some money back from each bet. It’s pretty exciting watching my balance go from $63.20 to an even $64 after I get credit for my losing bets.
Back to schizophrenia. Most horseplayers who bet significant amounts of money don’t really want anyone involved in their business. Especially the IRS, which seriously frowns when you forget to enter one of your W2-G forms. It may take them a year and a half to get around to sending you a letter, but trust me, they’ll get around to it. The worst part is the inefficiency of the tax collection agency also winds up costing you an extra year and a half worth of interest and penalties. I have no solid proof of this, but I’m pretty sure they also hold the letter until the day after you find out your leaking roof will cost $8,000 to fix, your car needs a new engine, and your doctor tells you you need an operation that is not covered by insurance.
No, the idea of being tracked by the casinos, tracks, or the NSA doesn’t settle well with most of us. Let’s face it. When someone who hasn’t even bought so much as a lottery ticket in their lives asks you how much you bet last year and you say, about $80,000, the most common response is not, “good for you!” It’s, “how long have you had this gambling problem?” It doesn’t help to explain that most of the $80K was just winnings we couldn’t stand to keep.
On the other hand, we would like some trustworthy track official to just know that we are a preferred customer. The logic goes something like this. I see you here every day, I know you walk up to the betting windows, so I’m going to give you the VIP treatment.
My brother, a good friend and I used to regularly attend the races together. One year they actually gave us parking and entry passes and a table in the clubhouse right behind Penny Tweedy’s table. Very nice, gracious woman by the way. I’m not exaggerating when I say on some weekdays the three of us were 1% of the handle. Think about that. 300 people like us and everyone else could have stayed home. They actually did a movie about us called 300 where Gerard Butler played me. They changed the venue from the racetrack to Greece, gave us all rock hard, six-pack abs, and fiddled with some details in the way only Hollywood can fiddle with details, but otherwise it was generally accurate.
The next year we were offered nothing. So we hunted down the General Manager and he simply said that someone in the corporate office just decided such privileges were no longer necessary. So we sniffled a little bit, paid for admission, and moved to a spot in the track where they had set up some cheap tables and chairs and a few 20-inch TVs, no charge. It was sort of like being banished to the corner, only we could go to the betting windows whenever we wanted. One or all of us sat in that spot every single day of the meeting. We refused to even take vacations while the live meet was running. On Breeder’s Cup day we got to our appointed table early, spread out our racing forms and paraphernalia (and we had lots of paraphernalia including books and charts – we had more printed material than Chico Marx in that scene from Day at the Races where he is touting Groucho), got our vouchers and waited for the first race. About an hour later one of the the minions of the GM showed up with a very nice couple and said he just sold them our seats, because they had made reservations and they actually ran out of the seats that normally were put up for sale and, you know, they felt guilty and wanted to accommodate the couple. Naturally we refused to move and tried reminding them that we were going to bet more on the first race than the 800 people who show up at the track two days a year (the Kentucky Derby and Breeder’s Cup) were going to bet all day. Rather than calling security over, which in retrospect he would have been well within his rights to do, the minion said, ok this time, but don’t forget we’ve done you a great favor. I cleaned up and shortened the story quite a bit, but the point should be clear. They should have escorted us to a plush table with our own betting machines and a comp on the roast baron of beef buffet instead of asking us to stand around with our library bags full of racing junk.
Instead, like a lot of tracks, the attitude was almost, if it wasn’t for us you wouldn’t have any horses to bet, so just be grateful we run a race meet here. Somehow it seemed like the symbiosis should have been clearer, like we needed each other to survive.
I try to make it to Monmouth every year. On most days they have a free outdoor grandstand where you can take advantage of the great ocean breezes and not have to worry about rain drenching you. But they have a sign that says something like, these seats are not free on Haskell Day. Frankly, I respect that. By golly we’re going to fill the track up a couple of days out of the year and we’re going to make enough money to subsidize most of the other days. As long as you know who you are bumping out of those seats, and you are accommodating them, why not grab a few bucks from the people who only show up on special occasions? If my track had given us some warning, we would have simply marched down to the office, said good for you selling those seats, now where would you like to accommodate us at no extra charge.
So here are my questions. Could the racing folks at your local track identify the 10 or 20 or 100 biggest bettors by sight? Have they instructed all the track employees to recognize them as well? And if they have a clue, what are they doing for these loyal patrons? Free passes? Free racing forms and programs? A nice place to sit? Maybe some modest food and beverages? What are they doing for you anyway? And let me say, anyone who came up to management and said they deserved the comps probably doesn’t deserve the comps. Management should have a scheme for identifying the best customers and rewarding them without making a big deal about it. And it doesn’t have to be tellers feeding you grapes as you lounge on a plush couch. It’s amazing how little we would take for a modicum of recognition.
I’m not talking about the owners and trainers who get all that and more. I’m talking about the people who are for all intents and purposes paying the bills.
I get it. Mostly we’re going to show up no matter how we are treated. But when all you seem to hear is how racing is dying, does anyone but me think one of the nails in the coffin is apathy toward at least the reliable, stalwart fans?