Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why I Left Racing: Part Two

Hajck Hillstrom was a six figure player, racing ambassador and horse owner. In October of this year he settled in to download the racing form, found out he could not bet a certain track and said enough is enough. In Part One of the series he introduced himself and spoke a little bit about some of the issues facing fans of this sport. In Part Two, he speaks of how the business badly mismanaged their customer base in the most basic way - they did not seem to grasp the intelligence of the modern player and his ability to leave the game for other gambling pursuits.

Why I Left Racing…

…and what it will take to get me back.


Hajck Hillstrom

Part II

The game has lost its way

As a young man growing up in Central Washington, I participated in many sports competitively. Basketball, Football, Baseball, Swimming, Golf, Tennis, & Volleyball all garnered various amounts of attention from adolescence through my college days. A couple of trips to Las Vegas in my early 20's introduced me to another form of competition; that of gaming. I looked around and saw a different city than what exists today, but a field that could be played on for the rest of my life, and set out to find my niche.

Initially, it was the tables, Blackjack, Roulette, and Craps. Gambling was new to me, and the learning curve an expensive one. The Race & Sports Book was the natural progression, and learning the line appeared to be the perfect arena for me, but it was there that I learned the hook was more like a slashing sabre that somehow managed to find the jugular of my bankroll more often than not.

It was then that Thoroughbred racing got in my blood. After years of casual observation via print media, and three Triple Crown winners, I was introduced to the wager, the process of analysis and the investment in that analysis. If you were right, you were rewarded, sometimes handsomely, and if you were wrong, you paid for it. For some reason, this scenario fit my eye.

I had been to the racetrack three times before I ever placed a wager. I had gone to Yakima Meadows and Santa Anita with friends that had some experience in the game, and gave them my $20 to coattail their wagers, quite frankly intimidated by the entire process. After a couple trips to Vegas, the environment appeared less daunting, so in 1984, on "Big Cap" day, in front of 85,000 fans, I went to the window for the first time and placed my first pari-mutuel wager, winning on a 7-1 shot. $10 across the board yielded a return of about $150 on the $30 wager, and the return seemed outrageously generous to me at the time. I liked the concept of odds, and the ability to bet a little to make a lot. Keep in mind this was even before the advent of the trifecta, superfecta, Pik3, Pik4 & other exotic wagering opportunities. The exacta was available, but only in the nightcap and each combination would cost you $5.

That fall I attended the inaugural Breeder's Cup at Hollywood Park, and again, everything just seemed to fit. I had discovered that I was part of the sport and was competing against everyone else at the track. I learned to read the DRF, and devoured its data. I read every book I could get my hands on, and slowly built my personal methodology. I attended Racing Expo's in Las Vegas, competed in Handicapping tournaments in Reno, and with the advent of the internet, exchanged perspectives with other handicappers via that medium. I rubbed elbows with the best and brightest handicappers in the country, and had a few handicapping articles of my own published along the way.

I had found a game I could be truly passionate about, a sport that transcended all class structure, and at the same time, defining it. I had become a dedicated handicapper, a purist, one who only wagered on horseracing. Simulcast wagering brought about new opportunities, and no longer would one have to travel extreme distances to visit their local venue live, plus the addition of racing from other venues became available, albeit limited initially.

Thoughts of halcyon days gone by resonate, days of hope and opportunity, and a sport that eluded the masses. It was a game of character, filled with characters, and a tradition and history that one could find himself getting lost in.

Sadly, the once robust flavor has soured into bitter disarray.

Yes, the game had come a long way in the last 25 years, but in that time, it managed to get lost somewhere along the way.

In my last piece I referenced the sport of thoroughbred horseracing as a "house of cards divided." Ten years ago I referenced it as merely a house divided, but the winds of time and change threaten the grand old sport now to point of being visualized as the proverbial fragile house of cards. The only consistent fact is that it remains divided, with those three derisive divisions being the Horsemen (Owners/Breeders/Trainers & Personnel /Jocks), the Horseplayer (Those that fuel the sport), and the Sport's Administrators (Those that set the standards and provide opportunity).

I once illustrated them as the three fingers on Mickey Mouse's hand, with the Administrators commanding center stage and the other two forced to knell on either side.

Without question, the Horsemen are the heart and soul of the game. Without them, there would be no sport of horseracing. Their investment in the game begins long before a horse ever gets to the track and their position is entrenched firmly atop the food chain. They make the decision where and when their horse should run, and, for the most part, the industry should be grateful for their dedication to the game.

If Horsemen are the heart and soul of racing, than the Horseplayer is certainly its life's blood, but with the game in need of a transfusion of new blood, there appears to be some inability to access it.

Often viewed by the masses merely as a degenerate gambler, today's Horseplayer is a sophisticated commodities broker just down the road and around the corner from Wall Street. He comes ready to invest, and should the rubber band need to come off the bankroll, than by all means, let it snap. His laptop in tow, his data-base at the ready, and his spreadsheet programmed to tackle any algorithm set before it, the new age RTD (Race Track Degenerate) has come a long way from "who does yuz like in da thoid?"

Sadly, it appears to this handicapper that many Administrators still view the latter exampled Horseplayer as their patron, and merely as a necessary evil of the sport. They need to get into the Horseplayer's pocket to survive, and they will do this in what appears to be any means possible.

They also appear to fancy themselves the puppet master, pulling all the strings, but in truth should answer to the Horseplayer, for without them, the sport would simply dry up and blow away.

It is easy to point fingers though, each faction blaming the other for the ills of the game. The advocacy that "if you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem" couldn't ring more true than in the sport of horseracing. In Part III of the series we will address the myriad of problems and the needed solutions. H.A.N.A. gives the horseplayer the opportunity to join a grassroots organization to help improve this great sport, and that should be everyone involved in the sport's fundamental premise.

For Hajck's Bris Horseplayer Hall of Fame Bio page, click here.

To join us in helping to get players like this back into racing again, please sign up to HANA. We need you more than ever.


Anonymous said...

great stuff Hajck. I see someone recommended the series from a comment on DRF blog.

"Is there an answer or solution to any problem in the sport? I don't know but, there is HANA (Horse Players Association of North America). While in its infancy is really the only organized voice that I am aware of that if fighting for our best interest. Here is the link:

I joined and will try and add in anyway I can. I encourage all of you to read their mission statement and what they are trying to accomplish. Furthermore why not sign up, there is strength in numbers.

By all means read Hajck Hillstrom's article on why he left the sport! "

HANA said...

A comment from a new sign up today that I thought I would share:

Its painfully obvious when a smart & successful horseplayer like Hajck Hillstrom decides to walk from this game that it is BROKEN. It better get a quick-fix, or itll wind up like the NHL(who?)! Horseplayers must get together to fight for fair takeouts & an end to the $5,000 withholding tax.

HANA admin

Unknown said...

Hi Hajck-

Another fine piece again if might say! many would say that when it comes to the racing game...(if i may use a line from an old country song) "It's a long and lonely road that knows no turning"

However they are of the mindset "if it's not broken don't fix it"

Either way it spells trouble for for a dying trade. If something is not done, and done soon
it may be too hard for them to reverse the damadge as the Horseplayer may have moved on and beyond!!

Well done Hajck, this Horseplayer is listening!!


Unknown said...

It may very well be that "we are in the last furlong, of the final race" unless something is done!!


Anonymous said...

You said it Hajack. The tracks view us horseplayers as ignorant folks who won't notice higher takeouts, who can't calculate the possible payouts in our heads, and who allow ourselves to be ripped off at every turn without a peep. We are, as you wrote, the life blood of the sport, yet we are treated like second class citizens much of the time. The administrators must listen to the horsemen and the fans, not the other way around!

Please keep writing these blogs Hajack. We are all listening!