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Encores of Familiar Horse Racing Refrains Part I...By Nelson Lardner

A trio of not-unfamiliar sore spots in the long-term thoroughbred-racing picture again made the news in rapid succession earlier this month. Veterans have seen these movies before, but the fact that those looking to capitalize on these "opportunities" don't seem to be going away is of sustained significance - as is the fact that the sport still encounters considerable difficulties in curtailing such recurrences.

We open with the revelation of a Delaware state police investigation into a tampering incident at the state's lone thoroughbred track, Delaware Park, located in Newark, close by the state university.

Maren's Meadow, a 4-5 favorite in a five-horse field in Delaware's eighth race October 16, tired in the stretch to finish third in the event. Trainer Larry Jones, of Hard Spun fame, noticed a couple of days after the race that the filly was snotting (passing inordinate quantities of mucus), and shipped her to a major Lexington, KY veterinary center for examination. Antibiotics failed to alter the prevailing physical equation. Cancer was even considered as a possibility, but an operation quickly yielded a small sponge with small holes, which had been inserted deep into a nasal cavity.

The most recent known flurry of activity by a practitioner of this "art" came a decade ago, involving races at Kentucky's venerable Churchill Downs. A suspect was apprehended, and a federal grand jury saw fit to indict, but the individual vanished without a trace prior to a trial.

When "properly" done, "sponging", as its called, inhibits a thoroughbred's breathing process . . . thus, it's not surprising that the heavy favorite failed to keep pace after a half-mile, finishing third. The technique goes 'way back; in Ye Olde Days, the trick was occasionally used by independent operatives looking to gain a huge hidden edge in a race. The fact that the ploy was used in the days of win/place/show/daily double betting makes it not surprising that this efficient manner of "stopping" a heavily-played horse is still used by desperadoes in the era of diversified exotic pools. After all, lucrative gimmick payoffs are far-more accessible when you have a good idea that a public favorite drawing a plurality of the money risked on an individual race is most unlikely to wind up in the picture when the field passes the winning post.

And it's also clear that the opportunities for someone with advance knowledge that a pronounced favorite will likely be uncompetitive are constantly present on the modern internet exchanges. Once upon a time, it was the bookmakers who were the prime beneficiaries of knowledge of such activities. Layers with inside info could offer fat prices with impunity on favorites that books operating without such information could not prudently match. Anyone with an account with the cash and nerve can now "capitalize", given the broad access to the exchanges that's enjoyed by the serious wagering public.

But wait . . . there's more!

During the annual Symposium on Racing and Gaming, which took place at Tucson, AZ earlier this month, serious Keeneland-based horseplayer Mike Maloney matter-of-factly noted that on November 25, he was able to make four separate wagers on the third race at New Orleans' Fair Grounds - AFTER the race had started! The bets lost - but longtime Fair Grounds spokesperson Lenny Vangilder confirmed the veracity of Maloney's account, noting that the "stop wagering" mechanism controlled by the track's stewards failed to operate properly, and that the track's mutuels manager stepped in to halt wagering fifteen seconds after the start.

Similar stories have circulated about alleged parallel incidents regarding a number of different tracks over the years. This typist is familiar with nagging rumors regarding both Aqueduct and Freehold Raceway, in the not-too-distant past. Nothing was ever confirmed. But I harbor few doubts that so long as a track's mutuel machines are not locked when the first horse enters the gate, thus virtually assuring that the final wagering "cycle" will reflect on the tote board prior to the start, a broad discomfort level regarding significant odds changes after "They're off" will linger.

Given that the alternative could drive any serious player slowly insane, let's assume that all's on the up-and-up in this area. But make no mistake, there remains room for another manipulation for serious potential advantage . . . and that involves the CANCELLATION of wagers. It's hardly a state secret. In fact, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations lists the tracks which essentially allow the possibility of bet cancellation following a start. The time window ranges from three to ten(!) seconds, and it's interesting that most of the tracks which permit this (excepting Gulfstream Park, and Horsemen's Park in Nebraska) are situated in the Far West, including EACH AND EVERY of the California majors.

Say you have a big bet riding. You're camped at a window, tickets in hand. Your key horse blows the start, by ten lengths. And you're able to present your tickets and yell, "Cancel these, please?" Not cricket, but at every major California track, you're theoretically able to do precisely that!

In Part II, we'll explore the third - and biggest - development of the month, and pose some questions about how best to engineer attitude adjustments which could mitigate some of these concerns.


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