Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Progressives ruin a different kind of race in New Jersey

Jerry Stratton, May 29, 2014

photo for Progressive gambling

Where the Taj Mahal once offered a racebook. (One of these things is not like the other.)

My girlfriend loves the horses. We went to Black-Eyed Susan Day1 to watch the pre-Preakness race on Friday, and watched the Preakness on TV. We just finished a trip to Atlantic City, and thought, since we don’t have a racetrack near us in Texas, we might place a bet on California Chrome from the gambling capital of the East Coast.

We stayed at the Trump Taj Mahal, and figured it would be easy enough when we walked down to the casino floor and saw their “racebook” sign. But we were told that they had shut down their racebook; the Taj Mahal casino no longer took bets on horse races.

So as we walked down the boardwalk the next few days, we also asked around at several of the casinos to see where we could place a bet on the Belmont. You can see my girlfriend’s take on this adventure at her blog Stride by Stride.

Showboat, next door, also doesn’t have horse racing.

The Revel, clearly the nicest property on the boardwalk, doesn’t take bets on thoroughbred racing but the security chief there was very friendly and helpful. He said they had a Kentucky Derby Party a few weeks ago, set up a screen for watching the races, had special drinks, went to great lengths to decorate the floor or ballroom2 and had lots of people asking to place bets, and they couldn’t do it.

A casino set up a special party for the Kentucky Derby, and couldn’t take bets on it.

He didn’t think that the Revel ever had a racebook, but told us that all the casinos that did have one were shutting them down. Slot machines make more money, and so make better use of the space. There just aren’t enough people betting on the races any more to make it worthwhile.

We first asked him if the Revel had a sportsbook, because that’s what we are used to calling it.3 He started to tell us sportsbooks were illegal in New Jersey, then wasn’t sure, and before he completed the thought we emphasized we were talking about horse races. He told us that horse racing wasn’t part of a sportsbook, but he wasn’t sure what it was part of. We remembered the term racebook from the Taj Mahal and he acknowledged that it made sense, but he still wasn’t sure.

At this point we began to realize horse racing might be in trouble, not because the Revel didn’t carry it, but because even the terminology was becoming obscure.

On the other side of the Taj Mahal down the boardwalk, we stopped in at Ballys; they didn’t have either horse racing or a buffet, but the helpful security dude4 pointed us to the Caesars buffet and our waitress there was helpful. She knew that Caesars didn’t cover the races, but thought that the Borgata and the Revel still do. Her floor manager said that the nearest Harrah’s property to handle the races was Harrah’s Philadelphia.5

We did not check either the Borgata or Harrah’s in Philadelphia, because the point of this was that we thought it would be easy to gamble on the horses in Atlantic City, and neither of those establishments are on the boardwalk. Although, apparently, the Borgata did have a sportsbook, unbeknownst to management, despite it being illegal in New Jersey.

At Trump Plaza, the security shift manager told us that in Atlantic City only the Taj Mahal still handles horse racing. And at the Tropicana we were told that the only place left on the strip to handle the races is Revel, “way on the other side of the boardwalk”.

Checking online, it looks like the Borgata is in fact the last remaining racebook in Atlantic City. So, the best-informed casino representative we talked to was our buffet waitress. We tipped her above 20%.

Even as the only place in Atlantic City to place a bet, the Borgata is only likely to take in somewhere between a hundred and two hundred thousand a month on the horses. Which I’d love to have, but at 60 million dollars a month it’s a drop in the bucket to them. Horse racing is sporadic revenue; the slots are non-stop.

Our Jersey runaround is a funny anecdote unless you’re a part of the racing industry. We were in one of the biggest gambling Meccas in the United States and we couldn’t find an easy way to bet on the horses. I’m sure that casinos would include horse-racing if they were allowed by New Jersey to take bets on sports in general.

Christie at one point tried to get sportsbooks legalized, but the NCAA and several sports leagues sued to block it, and the case awaits the Supreme Court.

The needs of sports betting and horse betting are similar enough that they’d probably happen in the same space and allow that space to pay its way in the casino. But I found it fascinating that most casinos didn’t even know where to go for it. It isn’t even popular enough to warrant removing it from the sign in the Taj Mahal. If irate racing fans were annoying them by continually asking for the racebook, they’d remove racebook from their sign.

Sports betting is mostly illegal in the United States because of the Progressive movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Progressives wanted then, as they still do, to control public morality by banning actions they considered immoral. Besides their “success” banning alcohol6 they also successfully banned a lot of gambling forms, including sports betting.

In the thirties, the horse racing industry began carving out exceptions to the gambling prohibition laws. This meant that what once would have been part of a sportsbook, were sportsbooks legal, now became a separate racebook. For as long as racebooks were among the most exciting forms of betting, they were guaranteed a space at houses of gambling, because they were legal and their competitors were not.

As with any form of prohibition, however, the prohibition itself has shaped the form of what it prohibits. Modern slot machines are the crack of the gambling industry. They are more exciting and hit more of our psychological buttons more reliably than betting on the horses. 7 They are pushing the older, more natural form of betting aside.

As usual, the laws of Progressives have the opposite effect as intended. But once enacted, they create a web of bureaucracies, legal and illegal, making their living by way of the counter-productive law, and carving out cronyist exceptions. And these bureaucracies become a constituency that must be appeased by politicians, and a lobbying force against real reform.

In response to 2014 in photos: For photos and perhaps other quick notes sent from my mobile device or written on the fly during 2014.

  1. Who else thinks of an abusive Partridge Family when they hear that title?

  2. At this point we weren’t taking notes, we didn’t yet realize how hard it would be.

  3. I don’t know if it’s the correct term, but in Vegas and San Diego people seemed to understand it.

  4. I use the term precisely.

  5. Caesars is a Harrah’s property. Or the other way around.

  6. Alcohol prohibition was such a disaster that only the most dedicated progressives publicly support it today.

  7. Superficially, horse-racing looks like the perfect sport for the Internet age. Each race is shorter than a YouTube video, a few minutes of extreme excitement. Unfortunately, you have to wait for each race, and you don’t even know how long, making it also a horrible sport for a world that wants what it wants now. Races don’t even have set times; they have hoped-for times and usually hit those times give or take a minute or two. Rather than setting aside a few minutes or even a few hours, betting on the horses requires setting aside a full day.

  1. <- Bathroom paranoia
  2. Waffle of Allegiance ->