Why Horse Racing Roulette struggles to connect with bettors

January 20, 2019 12:15pm
Even as pools remain small, Santa Anita Park continues to offer the new Horse Racing Roulette on races featuring six horses or more. As seen in a recent Horse Racing Nation story story, the idea could also expand to Gulfstream Park in time for Saturday's Pegasus World Cup card, when it will gain more exposure. The casino-type wager is an attempt by the Stronach Group to attract much-needed new bettors to racing.

But, I think, the basic idea of making horse betting more like a casino game is flawed. Most readers already know the high-takeout/low-payoff argument against Horse Racing Roulette. I'd like to offer another important reason why the bet is failing to catch on.   

First, here are the rules laid out by Santa Anita Park.  

Similar to a win bet, the minimum wager amount is $2 for Horse Racing Roulette, and the goal is still to find the winning horse. In this case, the bettor picks a color -- either red, black or green -- and more than one horse is assigned to each group. Red equals favorites, while black is slightly higher in value and green represents longshots.

The amount of horses in each color can vary. If the chosen color contains the winning horse as part of the group, then the bettor cashes in. Because each color contains more than one horse, cashing a ticket is easier, making the bet theoretically inviting.

If there is one important factor the roulette bet is missing, though, it is the connection between bettor and horse. The unique connection helps separate racing from casinos.

To help explain, in a typical race bettors read the past performances, check the paddock or post parade to evaluate the horses' condition, and make some picks.

A connection is created. Unlike casino gambling, as bettors learn the horse’s backstory they tend to become fans of the creature taking money off them, especially if that horse wins the race. The traditional handicapping process is long but rewarding. 

Horse Racing Roulette encourages siding with a color corresponding to the group’s overall betting value rather than thinking about the actual horse, who has a name, connections and pedigree.

Many beginners fall in love with the horses, and they start gambling on racing through their love of horses without considering the high takeout placed on them.

Of course, numerous other articles point out the 15.43 percent takeout, small pools and low payouts. But those are all problems for the more experienced player.

Casual horse bettors will accept a high-takeout, low-payout wager if the idea is right and involves something closer to picking horses rather than colors or cards. 

To prove this point, think about the popularity of show betting, one of the mainstays of horse racing and a certain wagering option as long as the field contains five or more horses. Yet in most races, the bettor is most likely going to receive around $2.10 to $5 because it pays out to three different horses rather than one horse in a win bet. 

Since the favorite usually hits the board, the show wager dilutes the overall payoffs to those small amounts, making it unattractive for someone looking for a bigger score. Furthermore, the takeout is also 15.43 percent, which is actually low compared to takeout rates at other racetracks for the same wager, but high compared to casinos in Las Vegas.

The rules for show betting change in a bridgejumping situation, and that is when a big star faces a small field and gobbles up 50 percent of the show pool or more. If this happens, then someone could hit a larger payoff betting one of the other horses to bet, assuming the horse attracting all the show money misses the board. 

On that point, most bettors flock towards the “bridgejumped” horse that will only pay $2.10 to show, which shows the problem with roulette is not only low payoffs.

Bridgejumping is a topic for another post, though. In a normal field, a bettor will not earn a significant amount for a show bet, yet most casual bettors accept this fact.

Why? The process of picking out a horse and rooting for the chosen horse is still there, and when the horse finishes third or better, the bettor can boast about that horse. 

No one wants to brag about hitting red, black or green after a horse race.

Show betting seems like the best bet for beginners, as it allows them to make a connection with the animal and get the feeling of a winning ticket. By no means is show wagering a sound long-term strategy in non-bridgejumping situations, but it works as a gateway to more complicated wagers without disrespecting the normal traditions.

Once a beginner feels more confident with show bets, then he or she can move on to win and place wagering, and finally exotics and longer horizontal wagers.

To be fair to Horse Racing Roulette, there are other factors working against the pools for this wager throughout its current test run at the Santa Anita meet.

For one, it is only available on track and through Xpressbet. Many casual players at home are cut off from trying.

Secondly, not even a month has passed since the bet began. It could need more time to pick up momentum, or to iron out issues such as the high takeout, even though as pointed out it is mostly serious horse players caring about that percentage number.

In regards to the takeout problem, Bill Finley pointed out in the Thoroughbred Daily News that the roulette casino takeout is 5.26-percent, a big difference from 15.43.

With the emergence of jackpot Pick 6s and this new roulette wager, it feels like most racetracks are attempting to make horse betting feel more like casino gambling, without offering the benefits of playing inside a casino. Gambling is pushed as the attraction.

Subsequently, today's horse racing feels less like horse racing. Without an emphasis placed on learning and analyzing the actual horses, newcomers and casuals players are not as interested, and “lifers” are not going to accept high takeout rates.

If people want to play roulette, they will head to Las Vegas. Casual players know they will most likely lose, but it is about the entire experience.

When it comes to racing, there is no substitute for reading the program or past performances, and picking out horses in the paddock. Reducing horses to colors will not lead to those habits. If anything, it may encourage actual casino gambling.  

Horse Racing Roulette was a nice idea, but it is time to think of new bets, or bring back ones experimented on before. For example, the “Head to Head” wager offered during the Breeders’ Cup is a nice idea -- at least when it keeps the focus on two horses. If people can experience what makes racing unique and special, they will stick around.


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Meet Reinier Macatangay

My first time at the racetrack came as a 5-year-old kid at Santa Anita Park. For most of my younger life, that was the only track I attended other the occasional visit to Hollywood Park. 

Years later, after graduating California State University, Stanislaus with an English MA, I began writing for Lady and the Track. From late 2014-2016, my articles were seen on a weekly basis and covered handicapping, interviews with well-known racing personalities, fashion and more. 

The handicapping style I use concentrates on pace analysis. Some horses are compromised by the pace. Others are helped. Handicappers just starting out cannot easily see how pace affects the finish, so with this blog, I hope to help those unsure of how to apply pace into their handicapping and post-race analysis. 

On an unrelated note, I enjoy video games and attending anime or comic-book conventions. I am currently based in Kentucky, but spend a lot of time traveling between there and California.

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