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CASINO COMPETITION SHOULD GET RACING BACK ON TRACK

Local horseplayers and others who enjoy a bit of recreational gambling have been just giddy with the news coming out of Albany the past two weeks. It's so nice to have competitors fighting for your business.

The Happy Handicapper may have missed something in the recent swirl of announcements, but it seems that if all the planned projects come to fruition, there will eventually be six casinos (two in Niagara Falls, Ont., plus one each in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Fort Erie, Buffalo and the Seneca Nation) plus three horse tracks (Fort Erie, Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs) within a one-hour drive of downtown Buffalo. Plus all those OTB parlors all over Western New York and Southern Ontario.

Add another hour on the road and you can get to four more tracks (Finger Lakes plus Ontario's Flamboro Downs, Mohawk Raceway and Woodbine) and three more casinos (they're already at the Canadian tracks, where casinos provide purse money for the races.) That's a lot of competition for the gambling dollar. Hopefully, the competition will result in some pluses for the players.

Horseplayers are already enjoying a few of the benefits of increased competition. Remember the pre-casino days when the tracks charged admission? And how they also charged money to park your car? That's all gone (except at Finger Lakes, which still has turnstiles.)

Hopefully, the stepped-up competition will bring even better things for the bettors. Such as:

Lower takeouts: Horse racing is an exciting, mentally challenging game that rewards the bettor for being smarter, and/or luckier, than his competitors, the other bettors. But as a gambling proposition, there are many better bargains. Horseplayers must buck some pretty horrid mathematics. At Fort Erie, for instance, there's a 15.7 percent takeout on win, place and show wagers. That means that for every $100 wagered, only $84.30 is returned to the bettors. It's worse on multiple wagers, where the takeout is 26.2 percent to 28.2 percent. At Finger Lakes, the whack is 18 percent on straight bets and 20 to 25 percent on everything else.

And let's not forget the extra tax on winners at OTB in New York, where they grab another five or six percent of the payoffs, AND then round the payoff down (never up) to the nearest dime.

Horse gamblers don't operate in a vacuum. A lot of them go to casinos too. And some of them -- especially those who can do the math -- don't return to the track. The worst bets in the casino don't come close to the mauling the bettors' dollars take at the track and OTB.

For instance, the house edge at roulette is 5.26 percent. The worst bet at the craps table -- on the spot that says "Any-7" -- provides "only" a 16.67 percent edge for the house. You can even find several bets at the casino where the house edge is less than two percent.

So let's hope that heat from casinos will result in more competitive takeout rates, so the horse bettors' dollars can last longer.

More "perks:" The word is casinoese for "perquisites," which are gifts for the bettors.

Modeled after "frequent flyer" programs, the slot-machine emporiums issue plastic cards that players insert in the machines to keep track of how much they wager. The points add up and can be redeemed for cash, meals, merchandise and other prizes. Hey, how difficult would it be to give horse bettors the same deal?

More "comps:" As in "complimentaries," or other free stuff.

Play long enough at a table game and the pit boss tosses you a free lunch or dinner. And of course, the casino players are constantly being asked if they'd like a free drink (only non-alcoholic drinks in Ontario). When was the last time track or OTB management asked horseplayers if they'd like some refreshment?

Free literature: Casinos liberally give away brochures that explain how to play their games. Even OTB provides free sheets with the lineups for each race. But when you go to the track, you have to pay $1 or more for a program to learn the names and numbers of the contestants. Not to mention $5 for a Daily Racing Form. What's wrong with this picture?

Less down time: Let's face it, those 22 minutes of emptiness between races can be pretty boring. Slot machines and table games are a lot faster and that is a big reason for their popularity. Might competition from casinos force tracks to shorten the time between races?

Better casinos: Casino Niagara is a popular place, but it sure could use some competition.

Parking there is free, if you're willing to ride a shuttle bus. Otherwise, there's a stiff charge for the garage.

There are lots of table games, but many of them are unstaffed except at the busiest times. And then you usually can't find one with a minimum lower than $15. Only the early-morning patrons can dream about finding a $5 blackjack, dice or roulette table. And the payout tables on the video poker machines must rank among the lowest anywhere.

The mathematics are so tough that nobody should expect to get rich playing horses, games or slots. But hopefully, the presence of rival casinos will improve conditions for players and also force the horse tracks to get in step with the times. Competition should always make things better for the customers.

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