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OPINION - Frustration at the racetrack

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) That's my horse, Commissioner, losing by a head at 28-1 to Tonalist in the Belmont Stakes. He would have paid $46 to win, and, normally that would have been a very frustrating "beat" at the racetrack. However, I had already left Canterbury Downs outside Minneapolis several hours before the Belmont Stakes. I'd had my fill of frustration earlier in the day.

Canterbury is a minor league track. It offers low-level racing for horses that aren't good enough to win at other tracks where the competition is tougher. I was going to play their local races, and the races at Churchill Downs which are simulcast (shown on closed circuit TV). Canterbury would take a break between their 9th and 10th races to allow people to bet on and watch the Belmont Stakes.

A much larger than usual crowd gathered on Saturday; this could be a historic day for horse racing. Canterbury, unsatisfied with the extra money they'd make off larger-than-expected number of bettors, decided to raise their admission too. Saturday was declared a "premium day" -- where you'd pay $8 instead of $6 to get onto the grounds. (The correct amount for racetrack admission should be "free" -- it is the 18% that the track keeps from each dollar bet that makes the game go. The horse-player's admission should be covered out of the money they push through the betting windows. But that's an argument for another day.)

About 15 minutes before Canterbury's 2nd race, everything came to a grinding halt. I was second-in-line at a self-service betting terminal (where you enter in your own bets, instead of using a teller). Suddenly the betting computer screen went blank. In fact, every betting terminal at the track went down. It was a massive computer crash. The man in front of me, who was actually using the betting terminal, had already entered his bet -- but the machine hadn't printed his ticket. He and I were chatting, and we both agreed that #5, Pendulum, was going to win. We were both shut out. And, sure enough, Pendulum made a three-wide move at the top of the stretch and rallied to win. I was also shut out of the next race at Churchill Downs, where I also had picked the winner. Take my word for this, I'm not a good enough handicapper to have my winners not count.

After about a half-hour of standing and waiting, the tellers' computers came back on-line. But the self-service machines remained down. After getting no information on when, or if, things would be back to normal, I cashed out and left.

It turns out the "crash" was at the tote company's hub -- a computer problem that was beyond the racetrack's control. The fault with Canterbury Park was poor communication with its customers, and choosing to run (instead of further delay) their races while a majority of their paying customers couldn't place bets.

The next time I go to the races, I'll head to Arlington Park in Chicago. It's a longer drive, but they're a major league track, and their customer service is excellent. At a minimum, Canterbury Park should refund admission to their (many) patrons who left early. Alas, there isn't even a mention of their computer crash, nor an apology to their customers, on their web site.

Chris Conley

Image: Photo finish of the 2014 Belmont Stakes, New York Racing Association.