The controversy over coupled entries

12:25 PM 06 May 2014 NZST
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Chris Wittstruck, harness racing
Chris Wittstruck, attorney and columnist

Recently concluded stakes’ series at Yonkers Raceway underscore the consequences created by the coupling of horses for wagering purposes. The Blue Chip Matchmaker and George Morton Levy Pace consolations each contained an entry. That reduced those races’ betting interests to 7 and, with a scratch, further reduced the Matchmaker consolation to 6 interests. Finals of these series each contained two coupled entries, thus reducing the program choices for these two prestigious races down to 6.

What’s the point of coupled entries? Racing commissions require that horses with certain types of common connections race as a single betting interest to preserve integrity, or at least its appearance, for the wagering public. If horses A and B from a trainer’s barn are permitted to race as separate betting interests, the thought is that the two drivers might work together to disadvantage other horses in the race. For example, the weaker half of the uncoupled entry might be used as a sacrificial lamb, parking out the horse with the best chance of beating the stronger half of the entry. Another scenario is that the trainer might nefariously give instructions to the drivers that are calculated to ensure that the horse with longer odds outperforms his more favored stablemate.

The problems created by coupled entries are obvious. The fewer betting interests offered in a race, the fewer opportunities for the bettor to find value. This is even more pronounced when a standout is in the race. With few wagering alternatives, the standout goes off at even shorter odds than expected. The contest presents an occasion for the bettors to abandon the mutuel window in favor of the concession stand, while awaiting full, competitive fields later on the card. For those bettors willing to take the plunge, fewer betting interests equate with less exotic waging combinations to cover.

Either way, the result is the significant loss of wagering handle. Not only does that financially injure the tracks, the state, the horsemen and the breeders; as these entries occur primarily in major stakes races, it also deters from the excitement surrounding what are the marquee events at a particular oval.

It also negatively impacts the sport in another way. The insinuation that horsemen would seize upon an opportunity presented by uncoupled entries to cheat is a sad condemnation of them, as well as the industry as a whole. Stated plainly, the signal sent is that horsemen shouldn’t be trusted to race horses honestly. The unavoidable hint is that the horseplayers might want to skip much more than just a race or two, and put their wagering money into scratch-off tickets, multi-state lotteries or some other endeavor purportedly more on the “up and up.”
 

The coupling rules vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. While Pennsylvania harness rules require coupled entries for horses trained or owned by the same individual or entity, a trainer can request uncoupling in non-overnight events despite common ownership   In Delaware, the Association can request uncoupling of horses with a common owner or trainer in non-overnights.

Interestingly, the New York rules are markedly different for Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. Thoroughbred rules require coupling of entries with common owners in all races, except when the race has a purse of $1 million dollars or more. Horses with common trainers in overnight races may be carded as uncoupled, so long as there is no common ownership.  Conversely, the harness rule expressly prohibits coupled entries in all overnight events (except with commission approval), permitting only one horse per race to be entered by a trainer or owner. The rule mandates coupled entries for horses with common owners and trainers in non-overnights. In this regard, a horse to be driven by a full-time employee of another driver in a race is considered to be racing from the same stable.

Despite a common trainer or owner, horses from the same barn will necessarily be steered by different drivers.  Today, professional catch drivers are the norm, not the exception, and this is especially true at the stakes level. Paper appearances aside, it would appear objectively implausible that a stakes-class catch driver would risk a severe, potentially career-threatening penalty by following “bad orders” from a trainer with uncoupled entries in a race. Ironically, if a driver were to heed such orders, he is more likely to do so when his mount is coupled with a stablemate. In such a circumstance, the #1’s so-called “defensive drive” in assisting the #1A would be innocuous; it cannot be said he harmed the betting public by “sacrificing” his charge for that of the other. Moreover, ensuring integrity in stakes events through coupling is to a large extent counterproductive, as the bettors in general shy away from races with fewer betting interests anyway.

Not in spite of the punters, but in furtherance of their interests and that of the entire industry, it’s time to consider the uncoupling of entries in stakes, early and late closers and other non-overnight events in all jurisdictions as a rule. While it can be reasonably argued that every publicized integrity violation presents a real danger to pari-mutuel handle, there is no question that pari-mutuel handle suffers each and every time betting interests are reduced through coupling of entries. Harness racing can ill afford to lose any more handle, or the chance to pick up a few bucks through uncoupling for that matter.   

Chris E. Wittstruck is an attorney, a director of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York and a charter member of the Albany Law School Racing and Gaming Law Network.

[1] PA. Harness Rules § 183.198 (a)

[2] Delaware Harness Rule 7.1.4 

[3] N.Y. Gaming Commission Rule 4025.10

[4] N.Y. Gaming Commission Rule 4111.15

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