One night recently at Chicago's Sportsman's Park, Kenny Brodie walked up to a betting window, counted out $40,000 for the ticket seller and then called out his combinations for the "Super Bet," an exotic wager that can produce astronomical payoffs.
When he left the window, he immediately was greeted by Billy Johnston, the president of the harness track. Johnston had a few questions for the plunger. Who was he? Where did his money come from? Was he a member of a syndicate of bettors from Philadelphia?
After finishing his interrogation, Johnston told Brodie he didn't want him to bet at the track any more. The gambler did what any American would have: he came back the next night with his lawyer. Johnston told the lawyer to leave, too.
This may have been the first time in American racing history that someone has been barred from a track for betting too much. But far from being an isolated, weird event, the Sportsman's Park incident raises some crucial issues that tracks across the country need to confront.
This year, Sportsman's Park joined the ranks of tracks offering exotic wagers such as the Pick Six and the Twin Trifecta, but it created a unique version called the Super Bet. Bettors try to pick two exactas and one trifecta, and if nobody hits this elusive combination, most of the money in the pool carries over to the next night. And keeps carrying over.
Obviously, it takes a lot of capital to play the Super Bet (or similar exotic wagers) and have a realistic chance to win. Earlier this year, a group from Philadelphia put together a pool of capital to try to win these big exotic payoffs at tracks around the country. When the size of the jackpot had become sufficiently enticing, the Philadelphians were willing to bet as much as $100,000 in a day.
In March, at Sportsman's thoroughbred meeting, the Philadelphia group stepped in when the Super Bet jackpot had grown to a formidable level, and took home a record payoff of $764,284. Johnston didn't like it, and neither did the track's regulars.
"The people who are here every night, playing the horses and building this jackpot, can't afford to bet $60,000 or $70,000 in a night," Johnston said. "But they watch these people come in and win the pot with sheer power. These people are not handicappers. They're just criss-crossing all the favorites and saturating the board. How would you like to be in a friendly poker game and have Nelson Bunker Hunt sit down at the table?"
Johnston said members of the Philadelphia group "have bad reputations, according to what I read in the paper." None of their reputations have anything to do with horse racing, however, and so to bar them, the track invoked a section of the Illinois Horse Racing Act that forbids "messenger service betting."
Brodie was a "messenger" for the Philadelphia group; ergo, he's breaking the rules. This rationale is patently flimsy, and Johnston knows he's got a lot of legal wrangling ahead of him.
He has it coming. One of racing's greatest virtues as a gambling game is its fairness; the house is impartial. Unlike casinos, which will bar blackjack players who win because they know how to play intelligently, a race track takes its standard percentage and doesn't care who wins and loses. But the track's integrity crumbles immediately when it wants some people to win and not others.
As much as Johnston dislikes the idea of shadowy syndicates taking big payoffs out of Sportsman's, there is no tolerable method of stopping them. Suppose, I asked him, that I cleaned out my bank account, flew to Chicago, walked up to the window at Sportsman's Park and started to wager $40,000 of my own money on the Super Bet. What would happen?
"I'd come up to you and size you up," the track president said. "I'd be very interested to know where the money was coming from."
Is this Moscow's Hippodrome or Sportsman's Park?
Like other race track owners, Johnston needs to face this fact of life: In offering an exotic wager that can produce gigantic payoffs, a track is offering a bet that demands large capital. Most of the people who play them form syndicates to increase their leverage.
Two-dollar bettors may pool their funds to play a $50 ticket, just as the Philadelphia group makes five-figure investments. The more money you invest, the better is your chance of winning.
If that principle seems repugnant and undemocratic to a race track, then it should not offer Super Bets or Pick Sixes or Twin Tris. But if the exotic wager is to exist, everybody should be allowed to play -- instead of having the track president play policeman.