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Best of Dan Podheiser

Gaming Guru

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Top-10 reactions from my trip to Suffolk Downs

29 September 2014

I remember the first time I ever watched a horse race. I was 15 years old.

In 2004, Smarty Jones won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in dominating fashion, taking down both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. He was the talk of the town in my neck of the woods. Not only was Smarty Jones trying to become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the sport's coveted Triple Crown, but he was also Philadelphia-area born and bred.

By the time the Belmont Stakes rolled around that summer, Smarty Jones had the entire Delaware Valley captivated. Unfortunately, he finished second in that final race, and would not win the Triple Crown; but his legacy in Philadelphia sports lore had been cemented.

Ten years later, I'm pretty sure the 2004 Belmont Stakes was the last horse race I had seen, much less cared about. That is, until last Wednesday, when Casino City Senior Editor Aaron Todd and I decided to visit Boston's Suffolk Downs.

This was both mine and Aaron's first live horse racing experience (you can read Aaron's feature from his perspective here). We took the trip to East Boston on a Wednesday afternoon because, this weekend, Suffolk Downs will officially stop holding live racing. Call it a farewell, if you will.

Because this was my first trip to a track, it was at times overwhelming. But I did my best to put together the top-10 things that left the biggest impression on my afterwards.

10. Pari-mutuel betting is a massive scam

Aaron ran like God at the track, picking the correct winner in six of the seven races we bet on. And in the second race, we thought he hit a massive score, when his 15-1 long shot went wire-to-wire for the surprisingly easy win.

Not so fast. When Aaron went to the ticket counter to cash in his ticket, the cashier paid him out at roughly 3-1. She then explained to him that the odds are constantly changing, and the odds at the time you bet on the horse are irrelevant to what the final odds will be.

Now that I've gained some understanding on how pari-mutuel betting works, I am pretty convinced it is one massive, corrupt conspiracy. Why do the tracks even bother posting pre-race odds? Because the money coming in determines what the final odds will be at race time, there's no legitimate reason not to handicap the clear favorite at 1,000 to 1 at the beginning of the day, thus getting a bunch of suckers (like us) to bet on that horse, only to find out at race time that it will pay out at even odds.

The fact that simply betting on the horse you like causes your odds to go down is still ridiculous to me. I will never bet on horses again, unless it is against the house.

9. It's a crapshoot, regardless

If you think you are someone who can beat the pari-mutuel betting model (not to mention the extremely high vig), I believe you are full of it. These are animals running around on dirt in a circle. For Pete's sake.

And if you haven't guessed by now, I got my clock cleaned at the betting window.

8. I liked the retro style

The Suffolk Downs grandstands reminded me of a 1970s-style baseball stadium. In fact, I called it the Veterans Stadium of horse racing tracks. I have a special place in my heart for Veterans Stadium, where I watched my Phillies and Eagles play until it closed in late 2003. So anything that reminds me of the Vet still gives me a fuzzy feeling.

7. The hot dogs weren't half bad

Suffolk Downs had a crummy little snack bar, the only place in the entire venue where you could get food. The woman working the register seemed completely downtrodden (I probably would to if I were losing my job in a week). It did not seem like it would be a promising experience.

But the jumbo hot dog turned out to be pretty damn good -- way better than one would expect to get at Suffolk Downs. Unfortunately, the ketchup and mustard dispensers had seen better days. There had to be a catch.

6. I wish The Terrace was open

The Terrace is a restaurant inside Suffolk Downs where customers can eat a meal while watching the live racing going on right outside. Or at least, it was. It seems as if the track operators thought there was no reason to keep the restaurant open any longer, with the track due to close in a matter of days.

Aaron and I were looking forward to eating at The Terrace, but it was probably a good call to not have the restaurant open. There were not enough people there to make it worthwhile.

5. The clientele was what you'd expect on a Wednesday afternoon

I've been to many casinos, and played in my fair share of underground poker games. But I can safely say that I've never seen more degenerates in once place than when I went to Suffolk Downs. Of course, it's okay to degen every once in a while, if you have the bankroll to support it. Betting is fun. But I got the feeling that several of the people I saw at the track were not simply betting for entertainment purposes. It was like a Gamblers Anonymous meeting gone very, very wrong.

4. A casino would not have helped

Suffolk Downs would have stayed open if Mohegan Sun had been awarded the Boston-area casino license. But I sincerely doubt it would have helped. Maybe Mohegan Sun would have taken over and integrated some of its own marketing and engagement strategies. But the bottom line is that Suffolk Downs simply did not have an appealing product for consumers.

3. Where are the deals?

Why did the hot dogs cost $3.75? Why did the beer prices mirror those at Fenway Park? Why don't you get free drink tickets for making big bets, and why is there no rewards program?

Casinos -- and other businesses -- have figured out that rewarding customers for their patronage is a great way to keep them coming back. And yet horse racing hasn't seemed to figure this out. Drinks should be inexpensive. Get college kids to come to the track to bet on every race while downing $2 Bud Lights. You'll still make money on the booze, and you're creating a more inviting experience. Not to mention the fact that you'll attract a young client base.

2. It was very intimidating

From my lack of knowledge about anything having to do with horse racing and pari-mutuel betting, to the fact that Aaron and I almost accidentally stole a couple racing booklets (see his story), I'm not sure I've ever felt so out of place in a gambling venue. And that's not what you want in terms of inviting new customers.

If horse racing is dying, it's because nobody is trying to sell it anymore.

1. A day at the track can be fun

Suffolk Downs is about as bare bones as you can get for a horse racing track, from what I understand. But I can see the appeal of spending a day watching and betting on horse races.

For me, I'd want the experience to mirror that of betting in a nice Las Vegas sportsbook, like the Bellagio or the Wynn. I'd want to feel like I'm having a great time outside of what's taking place on the track -- the races themselves should be an added feature. Betting is fun, but betting on horses at Suffolk Downs -- where that's the only thing going on -- sort of just makes you feel dirty. It's all about the gambling, and less about the entertainment.

And though I love gambling, if I'm going to spend time and money betting on something I don't care about (horse racing), I want to be eating a nice steak and sitting in a comfy chair while doing so.
Dan Podheiser

Dan Podheiser has covered the gambling industry since 2013, but he has been an avid poker player for more than a decade, starting when he was just 14 years old. When he turned 18, he played online poker regularly on U.S.-friendly sites until Black Friday in April 2011.

Since graduating from Emerson College with a degree in journalism in 2010, Dan has worked as the sports editor for a chain of newspapers in Northwest Connecticut and served a year as an Americorps*VISTA, writing and researching grant proposals for a Boston-based charity.

Originally from South Jersey, where he still visits occasionally to see his family (and play on the state's regulated online poker sites), Dan lives in Brighton, Mass. with his wife and dog.
Dan Podheiser
Dan Podheiser has covered the gambling industry since 2013, but he has been an avid poker player for more than a decade, starting when he was just 14 years old. When he turned 18, he played online poker regularly on U.S.-friendly sites until Black Friday in April 2011.

Since graduating from Emerson College with a degree in journalism in 2010, Dan has worked as the sports editor for a chain of newspapers in Northwest Connecticut and served a year as an Americorps*VISTA, writing and researching grant proposals for a Boston-based charity.

Originally from South Jersey, where he still visits occasionally to see his family (and play on the state's regulated online poker sites), Dan lives in Brighton, Mass. with his wife and dog.