To the average horse bettor, there appeared to be nothing unusual about the first race at South Florida’s Gulfstream Park on Friday, Nov. 11. The even-money favorite, a low-stakes maiden claimer named Glass Star, prevailed, while the second choice on the morning line, Too Much Vino, finished as runner-up.
On its face, that’s about as boring as it gets. But Pat Cummings, executive director of the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation (TIF), saw a blood-red flag.
A few months ago, Cummings and an associate created a system to identify and monitor suspicious wagering activity at tracks across the country. And in this otherwise ho-hum Gulfstream race, Cummings noticed that a bettor or group of bettors placed a disproportionately large number of quinella wagers involving a 43/1 longshot by the name of Miss Grand Slam.
Similar to a boxed exacta, a quinella is a bet where you pick two horses to finish first or second, in either order. Technically, a quinella is one wager that gives you both results, while a boxed exacta is two separate bets giving you each horse on top of the other. But functionally, they’re the same thing — except in terms of how much money they attract to their respective betting pools.
Because the exacta is a far better-known wager and boxed exactas are part of the overall exacta pool, such bets tend to outstrip quinellas by a ratio of 25-to-1. To wit, on Nov. 11 at Gulfstream, the average exacta pool was $100,000 per race, while the average quinella pool was $4,100.
But the quinella pool in that first race ultimately swelled to $24,280, an abnormality that Cummings caught and called to the attention of Gulfstream officials.
From a legal wagering standpoint, it was hard to figure out who got the short end of the stick. The horses that were supposed to come in first and second did, and all of that peculiar wagering on the longshot meant that bettors who picked those top two horses to finish in the quinella made $42.40 on a $2 bet — or a boatload more than they would have if that action hadn’t come in on combinations involving Miss Grand Slam.
But from an integrity standpoint, the race was troubling to Cummings, who feels it’s time for America’s racetracks to reconsider what types of bets they should accept to guard against such manipulation.
Pool manipulation a victimless crime?
Cummings believes that a bettor, perhaps acting on behalf of a gambling syndicate, placed $18,000 worth of quinella wagers on Miss Grand Slam, and then recouped that money several times over by betting on a quinella involving the morning-line favorites at a number of offshore sportsbooks, which mimic track odds but aren’t part of the parimutuel pool.
So there’s your loser: unregulated, offshore books — which, to some, means there was no loser at all.
“I’ve spoken with [state racing] commissions,” Cummings told US Bets. “The answers I’ve sometimes gotten back are, ‘Is this really a bad thing? It’s handle, it’s participation, customers got more than they would have expected.’ That’s one way to look at it, but what we don’t know is if there’s anyone inside the rails or preparing a horse that’s racing to influence the outcome to extract this result.
“Are we staying on top of the integrity of racing? This is an integrity of sport, confidence of customers issue. Most ordinary customers don’t ‘get hurt’ in an instance of manipulation.”
After the Gulfstream situation was brought to light, the track quickly agreed to remove the quinella wager from its betting menu. But while Cummings was encouraged by this swift, forceful decision, it’s smaller tracks (Gulfstream is in the upper tier) with smaller pools that are a lot more vulnerable, and it’s not just quinella wagering that should be called in for questioning.
“One of the things I want to make clear is this isn’t about the quinella. It’s just that the quinella is the pool that was able to be manipulated because of a low level of liquidity,“ Cummings said. “At small tracks, the show pool’s the risk, the place pool’s the risk, or the double pool’s at risk of getting manipulated. It’s about liquidity. Just about any pool can be manipulated if there’s not a lot of money in it. And I think that’s the point. I’ve got dozens of examples of this in American racing in the last six to eight months.
“This isn’t about a bet type that’s vulnerable — this is about a pool size that’s vulnerable. If you get $1,000 in your show pool, it doesn’t take that much money with a bet of $1,000. You could double or triple the pool and lose that money, then you can go offshore. Some of this was very subtle. Some of this was about taking a horse that’s even money to win and getting even money to show. They take some 30/1 no-hoper and make him the show pool favorite.”
As he was being interviewed last Thursday, Cummings quickly pulled up an example of a vulnerable pool structure at The Meadows, a harness track in Pennsylvania. Pointing to the first race of the day, he observed that the win pool was $4,295, while the place pool was $1,427 and the show pool was $1,179.
“Are we better off as a business with two pools that are less than $1,500 each, or are we better with one pool that’s $2,500?” he wondered, rhetorically. “If you’re a standardbred track, do you really need place and show betting, or would you be better off getting your customers to focus on show betting? We should be driving our customers into certain pools and letting the value of the pool eliminate risk.
“This is about the tracks kind of waking up to the realities of betting on horse racing in America in 2022. Having a pool with only $1,000 makes it a risk to be manipulated. Parimutuel racing hasn’t really evolved all that much. Someone could take $800, bet it on a longshot and skew the entire pool, and then bet in multiple accounts offshore.”
A ‘broken window, not a house fire’
Earlier this month, before a UFC bout between Shayilan Nuerdanbieke and Darrick Minner, a curious amount of money began coming in on the favorite, Nuerdanbieke, to not only win, but to either prevail in the first round or in fewer than two-and-a-half rounds.
As Eric Raskin reported at US Bets’ sister site, Sports Handle, almost as soon as this flood of wagering — which may have been prompted by some bettors being privy to injury information about Minner, who wound up losing in just 67 seconds — was detected, several sportsbooks reported concerns about suspicious activity to U.S. Integrity, a private wagering monitor. Other times, this communication flows the other way, as U.S. Integrity monitors odds from every regulated sportsbook in the U.S. and will send out an alert if any strange patterns are afoot.
Integrity monitoring in horse racing, however, tends to be more laissez-faire. Cummings does what he does for TIF, explaining, “It’s just something I kind of do on the side.” Then there’s the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, an industry group that occasionally investigates reports of suspicious betting and gives its member tracks access to its Wagering Analysis and Security Platform.
Some state racing regulators are more vigilant than others. Take, for instance, the New York Racing Association (NYRA), which offers quinella wagering at its tracks twice a day and has no immediate plans to put it out to pasture.
“NYRA aggressively monitors our pools and we continuously evaluate our overall wagering menu,” said NYRA spokesperson Pat McKenna. “That said, we have no changes to announce at this time.”
“The track operators set the betting menu and they need to be offering a series of bets that meet the needs of the customers and provide proper liquidity,” said Cummings. “So if there’s a track out there that has win-place-show, rolling doubles, rolling pick-threes, maybe you don’t have the liquidity to offer a daily double in every race of the day. The betting menu has evolved, the minimums haven’t really increased, participation is different. It should be up to the operator to monitor what they’re offering to their customers and determine if that’s the appropriate betting menu in the present day.”
Careful not to make a mountain of manure out of a pile of pucky, Cummings concluded, “I’m not suggesting, and our organization is not suggesting, that this is the end of the world. This is a broken window. This is not a burning house fire. … We want to grow the business, and in order to do so, you need to clean up the house, clean up the broken windows, make the house nicer.
“Until we can do that, I don’t think we can evolve and compete for customers in what is the most competitive wagering environment in the history of the country. You have to draw people’s attention — this is a problem, let’s fix it.”
Photo: Douglas DaFelice/USA TODAY