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Strange harness race highlights sport’s parimutuel betting problem

Updated January 31, 2019 - 7:45 pm

Imagine the advantage you would have if you could bet on a race after the horses had left the gate. You would be able to see if the favorite stumbled, if one of the speed horses didn’t get away cleanly or if the best closer dumped his jockey.

The results of a Jan. 16 harness race at The Raceway at Western Fair in Ontario suggest that certain bettors might have been enjoying such an edge and exploiting it.

Here’s what we know:

The winner paid $46, which was all well and good until you looked at the other payoffs: The exacta paid only $43.60, even though the 9-1 second-place finisher was the fifth choice in the seven-horse race.

Track management alerted the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario to the unusual payoff, both of which launched an investigation. The track also issued a statement saying, “Our tote provider provided us the pertinent wagering information which showed that the bulk of the winning tickets were sold at a tote hub in Kentucky.”

The statement said there had been previous wagering anomalies traced back to the same hub and that a prior investigation “found no evidence of collusion or anyone driving in a questionable manner in that race.”

Neither agency responded to calls from the Review-Journal seeking comment, but Raceway racing director Greg Blanchard said he expects the results of the investigation in the next week or two.

While we await word, Garnet Barnsdale of Harness Racing Update published some informed speculation that the Kentucky bettors were able to bet during the period when the motorized vehicle carrying the starting gate folds up the contraption and the point where the timing of the race actually begins. He noted that bets similar to the winning wager of approximately $150 to $200 were made on all combinations of the 2, 4 and 5 horses, which broke first, second and third off the gate.

“It makes sense to conclude then, that the Kentuckians making these bets are watching to see which horses are leaving the gate and hammering the combinations involving those three horses at the absolute last second before wagering gets cut off,” he wrote.

It sure does. And if that turns out to be the case, it’s time for racing’s powers that be to finally address the late odds fluctuations that are driving players away in droves. A relatively simple fix would be to cut off wagering two minutes before a race is run. I also would suggest that bettors still be allowed to cancel wagers during that two-minute window, to prevent the late odds changes from simply occurring earlier.

I’m sure that system could be manipulated as well, but players at least would be able to back out if they decide the odds are not to their liking. In the long term, I think the sport needs to shift from the parimutuel system to an exchange-wagering scheme such as is being tried in New Jersey. That enables players to know their odds with certainty when they lay their money down.

#RJhorseracing featured races

The Triple Crown races no longer are specks on the horizon, so the #RJhorseracing handicappers will be focused on 3-year-old action over the coming months, beginning with this week’s featured races: the $350,000 Holy Bull Stakes (Grade 2) at Gulfstream Park and the $150,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (Grade 3) at Santa Anita, both to be run at 1-1/16th mile.

In the former, the crowd ’cappers are squarely in the camp of even-money morning line favorite Maximus Mischief, with Mihos (5-2) and Federal Case (6-1) filling out the minor placings.

I’ll take a shot with Epic Dreamer (15-1), who looked good breaking his maiden at Belmont last fall and then had plenty of trouble in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park in December. I’ll use Maximus Mischief and Federal Case in the lesser slots.

In the Robert B. Lewis, which is likely to be run over an “off” track, the crew narrowly likes Gunmetal Gray (9-5) over 8-5 morning line favorite Mucho Gusto, with Nolo Contesto (5-2) a distant third in the balloting.

“I’ll take Gunmetal Gray to look like Zenyatta against this short field,” crowd ’capper Michael Kaczer wrote of the group’s pick, referring to the John Shirreffs-trained mare’s late running style.

I think the Bob Baffert-trained Mucho Gusto has a big pace advantage and won’t be denied. I’ll use Magnificent McCool, who prepped for this on the turf, and Gunmetal Gray in the second and third slots, respectively.

Last week’s picks: The crowd ’cappers correctly selected the winner of the Pegasus Turf Invitational Stakes, Bricks and Mortar ($7.60), while I had the winner of the Pegasus World Cup Stakes, City of Light ($5.60).

And you can always check to see how we’re doing at http://bit.ly/2HxxwwB.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Friday. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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