Past The Wire
By Jonathan Stettin
BCBC Not For Me
It was the Wednesday before the Breeders’ Cup and I thought to myself why not? I would finally enter the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. I had always thought there was one, maybe even more with my name on it, but I’d never played. I never really considered it before last year when they made it available to play on line without going to the event itself. While I’ve attended my share of Breeders’ Cups, and love doing so, I’ve found it is easier to focus and play seriously from a quiet and private setting. Additionally, I am not really a tournament player. I have nothing against them, until now maybe, it was just never my cup of tea. I grew up in an era without them, and did quite well, so I saw no reason to change my game at this stage. That said, I am all for growing the sport, increasing handle and interest, and if tournaments help do that I support them even if I chose not to partake personally.
I did not feel the format of the NHC reflected true handicapping savvy. The $2 win place format crammed into a bunch of races over two days with mandatory and optional races does not allow for a player like me, who prefers picking my spots, and making it count when I am right, to study the races and be prepared the way I like to be. At times I wondered how so many races at out of town smaller tracks could be handicapped in such a short period of time efficiently. I felt many players must use some kind of system, which I would never do as I think the biggest of edges come from experience, your eyes and memory, and intangibles. Even with today’s technology you can’t program that into any system even at the NASA level. Maybe some played as partners or as teams I thought, never caring much as I didn’t play or know the rules. I wrote an article about that a few years ago which generated a whirlwind of insults and social media blocks from tournament players and even led to an interesting in depth discussion with the head of the NHC at the time. My feeling did not change.
I also stayed away from the NHC because it allowed and promoted the wildest of stabs in horse racing, and if lucky enough you get crowned the champion handicapper and get an Eclipse Award to go along with a respectable check. The stab is playing the leader board as opposed to handicapping. Towards the end of the tournament, most players look at the leader board, see where they stand and who can propel them to victory or a decent placing. They then bet those horses, who they did not actually handicap, and who they’d probably never bet with actual case money, and if one wins they get the glory. All the power and spoils to them, but it hardly means they are or were the best handicapper in the tournament let alone the year. So yes I liked what it did for the game, and I love players being celebrated similarly to how poker tournament winners are, but I don’t kid myself or fall for the hype. I’ve been at this too long for that to ever happen. If you think you make the same bets and play the same with Monopoly money as you do with cash, let alone case money, guess again. Nobody does.
As I sat in front of this very same computer about to pull the trigger and enter, I had a thought. I thought I should actually read the rules. You see I had a plan on how to win it. A good plan I thought, and it was in my head since I went all in on Drosslemeyer in the Classic a few years back which I felt would have easily given me the win. I knew the buy in was $10,000, and $2,500 went to the Breeders’ Cup for prize money and I was left with a $7,500 bankroll to do with what I wanted. I quickly found that was not the case and would foil my plan. My plan was to bet one $7,500 exacta, and based on my calculations of what it would pay, and a review of the past winner totals, I thought if I’m right, I am right there. The worst scenario is I get a bonus prize on top of my exacta winnings if I hit the board so to speak. The question was, would that bonus be worth more than the additional $2,500 on the exacta. As I read the rules albeit not forensically, I realized my plan was flawed and outside the rules. I’d be required to place 5 bets on Friday at a minimum of $500, and 6 bets on Saturday at a minimum of $900, or something like that. That was not my plan, and goes against everything I believe about being a good handicapper. I believe you have to know when to take your shot, and when to pass. I think you have to make it count when you are right, and you should minimize losing wagers. I don’t believe anyone should tell me which race to bet or not bet, or how much. Part of beating the game and being a good handicapper, in my opinion, is knowing how to wager and manage your money. I saw the penalty for doing what I wanted was a point reduction and not a disqualification. At that time I had no idea any players had lobbied for a rule change that initiated a point reduction as opposed to a disqualification. I was able to calculate how many points I’d lose if I stuck to my plan and ate the penalty. I may have even played if I could figure out what those points would have translated to dollar wise. I couldn’t. Again I didn’t read the rules forensically, nor with a fine tooth comb, but I did read them and did not see where this point reduction translated into a dollar amount. Of course I did see where it said all matters are resolved and subject to the Breeders’ Cups discretion. Without knowing the dollar amount I’d be penalized, and if it would cost me any chance at winning, I just couldn’t play. I said BCBC not for me and went on with the two days as I normally do.
When I saw the prize money was being withheld and the Breeders’ Cup was investigating for players possibly playing in collusion, I was not all that surprised. When money is involved people will look for an edge. Our game, the Sport of Kings, is no different than any other. We have tracks, ADW’s, trainers, owners, riders, and of course bettors who look for an edge. It’s inevitable. When that edge pushes the envelope beyond the rules and gets into the possibility of cheating, then we have a bad problem this game does not need. That is not to say that’s what happened here or in any other tournament, as I do not know nor have all the facts. I’m simply stating if it is happening, which I hope it is not, it’s a serious problem not to be taken lightly. If we do it will bite us down the road or sooner.
Collusion is a tough thing to prove. It’s more than co players chatting and discussing the races. It’s more than asking who do you like. It’s playing in partnership, and making calculated wagers to increase your chances of winning over that of players strictly on their own. Yes, that would be cheating at worst or gaining an unfair advantage at best. If player A tells player B you zig with this horse, and I’ll zag with that horse, and if either of us win we split or kick back money, that’s playing in collusion, and if it is not a rule violation it certainly should be. This isn’t tennis where we have doubles and single matches. Nor is it a team sport. We play against each other. With live cash at the track we know it is every man and woman for his or herself, and there is nothing to stop partners or syndicates, but in a tournament you buy into, with both prize and bonus money on the line, you are talking about a different animal and environment.
What has been reported is that Nisan Gabbay, a well known and long time tournament player, won the BCBC with a final total of $176,000. He got there by betting $4,000 to win on Talismanic at 14-1.That propelled him to about $55,000. He then bet three $15,000 exactas with Gun Runner on top of Collected, West Coast, and Gunnevera. When Gun Runner spurted away from Collected who held on to second, Nisan had a total of $176,000 and was the winner, at least for now. Gabbay had $7,200 going into the last two races. He had started with the same $7,500 as everyone else.
Gabbay has an LLC set up with Kevin McFarland. According to reports, Gabbey readily admitted the LLC is used to manage their tournament play, and they do in fact share in the winnings. Kevin was also in the tournament and Gabbay reportedly did not make a wager until McFarland was down to $1. Esentially, when McFarland was out for all intents and purposes. The obvious question is how did Gabbay have $7,200 going into those last two races. If he lost the minimum mandatory bets on Friday he’d have $5,000. If he lost the minimum bets on Saturday he’d have only $2,600. He never could have made enough to win the tournament if he played by the rules he agreed to when signing up, and therein lies the unfair advantage of collusion regardless of whether he picked a winner or not. It’s simple math, starting with $7,500 on Friday if you lose the 5 minimum bets at $500 you have $5,000 going into Saturday. If you lose the first 4 minimum bets going into the last two races when Gabbay was right and scored, you’d have $2,600 to bet with, a lot less than the $7,200 he wagered to win the $175,000. You can slice or dice that anyway you like, it is an unfair advantage. The plot thickens however as the circumstantial evidence does not stop there. It turns out Nisan Gabbay was one of the people who lobbied to change the rules from disqualification if you don’t wager the minimum amount on the number of races. It has been reported Gabbay made only one wager before his two winning ones. He supposedly lost $300 on the Juvenile, thus leaving him with $7,200 for those last two bets. Had he made the minimum bets, the scenario would not have this bad a look to it.
Although the Breeders’ Cup is doing the right thing after the fact, by conducting an independent investigation, through independent counsel, and holding up payment, you don’t applaud anyone for doing what they are supposed to and required to do. I’d expect nothing less from the Breeders’ Cup at this point. They are surely in for litigation from the winner or runner up depending on what they do unless they come up with some global settlement solution. That however can possibly taint the tournament worse than the Volponi Pick 6 scandal. There is also a bonus at stake for anyone who wins the BCBC and NHC. That will have to be dealt with as well, and that tournament will be here before you know it.
A solution to this mess is harder to find than ways to mitigate the chances of it happening again going forward. First off, multiple entries are a problem waiting to happen. One entry. One player. As I have said for years ,we need uniformity across the board. We need a central governing body representing everyone’s interest in the game, including the bettor. The bettor and owners are the only ones putting money in. We need a commissioner and one set of rules for racing, steward rulings, wagering, tournaments, everything. Never mind this lack of cooperation from track to track and state to state. Most other sports are played in different states, and different venues, but they don’t have a problem with a commissioner or a central governing body. Why should we? Wagers should be openly listed, at the very least for all players in the tournament to see. Tournaments should fall under the jurisdiction of that much needed central governing body, and all should be subject to the same rules and penalties. You almost have to disqualify anyone who doesn’t play by the rules or who deliberately skirts them.
Collusion and teams will still be hard to police, as who can stop handshake agreements between players, but at least we can create an environment that discourages it as opposed to enabling it. How is the dollar equivalent of a point that you lose for not making a wager not disclosed in plain sight in the rules when you are supposedly playing for live money? This is exactly why I logged out and didn’t play. I do not regret my decision.
Did Gabbay and McFarland play in collusion? I don’t know but it certainly appears that is a possibility. If not, you’d have to buy into they set up an LLC for tournament play, they share in the winnings, one did not bet until the other was out, at least one held onto his bankroll until the other was out, violating rules he lobbied to change, and they didn’t play the you zig and I zag game. I don’t know how that plays out in court, but it would never fly in the street. That said I truly hope they didn’t, it is just a hard sell.
A Daily Racing Form article by Matt Hegarty states that this may in fact be common practice and singling out these individuals could lead to a hornets’ nest. That makes sense to me as I go back to never understanding how you can play in the NHC without help and have a real chance. Maybe some can and do, but it would be impossible for me to see how. The few players I know well that have played in it, and all are excellent players, and all played alone on their skill and ability, haven’t done very well. Coincidence, possibly, but most times coincidences are for romance novels.
HIGH FIVE: Enable, a most deserving Cartier Horse of the Year!
LOW FIVE: It’s tough to give a winner a LOW FIVE, especially a fellow player, but it has to go to Nisan Gabbay and Kevin McFarland. I’d add the name of anyone who signed the complaint letter to the Breeders’ Cup if they in fact play the same way. I hope none do.
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