Good-Bye Trotters. The State of Michigan Wants You to Lose Your Money Faster.

The Zola System in Action

Thoroughbred Horse Racing is called the sport of kings. The sport dates to ancient Rome chariot races were organized to amuse the emperor. The Vikings held horse races to please the Gods. And of course, bets were placed on the horses to win place and perhaps, even to show. As the royalty of the day sat in their shadowed booths and watched the drama of the races unfold, the average citizen or serf of the day was relegated to watching the event from some nosebleed seat he or she could barely afford. Gambling became the easiest way to pass the time.

Modern Horse Racing is no different; punters wear their Church Sunday finest for an afternoon of polite wagering and watching the various national and local celebrities circulate with the winning jockeys, horses and owners. Like millions of other American homes, the first Saturday in May meant the Kentucky Derby. My brothers and I had the race on Channel 4, watching the pageantry, the hats and openly wondering what exactly was in a Mint Julep. The Old Man would walk into the living room, look at the TV and shake his head in disgust. “Look at those schmucks, blowing their money on chance,’ he’d shake his head. “You never bet on a horse race you don’t know the outcome of ahead of time.”

Although this phrase might seem like a Kramer-esque nonsequitor it was the most frequent piece of parental advice offered by Aron Zola to his three sons; advice usually given as Dad took us with him to the window to collect his winnings. Three nights a week, the Old Man would walk through the door of the kitchen, loosen his red or gray skinny tie and announce: ‘I have a tip. Who wants to go to the track?’ The track meant either Hazel Park Raceway or Northville Downs where, depending on the season, where the Trotter’s were running. The tip meant a sure thing payday.

Harness, aka Trotter, Racing, where a standard bred horse pulls a two wheeled cart and driver, is the most corrupt sport known to man. The races held at night and are televised by a stationary single camera. Drivers are regularly paid to throw races and rarely get caught. Their feet mysteriously come out of the footrest, a horse will ‘break stride’ when far ahead, allowing the other horses to pass or bridle is pulled back from the start. If the driver’s are busted by a track official or an industrious bettor not in the know the fine was light, a few hundred dollars and MAYBE 30-90 days in the county lock-up. However, job security was guaranteed. Horse fixers love a guy with whom they can do business.

For nearly 60 years, harness and thoroughbred racing were the only legal ways to place a bet in the state of Michigan. The lottery had yet to come into existence and casinos were only legal in Las Vegas. Thoroughbreds were for those rich folk with money to burn. Aside from actually being a sport of chance, the races were held in the afternoons. The Trotters ran at night so the massive blue collar community of Detroit could come in after dinner and place wager to their heart’s content. The track became a meeting place for the working man. If you knew the right people, you might even win a race or two. So what if the majority of the races in Detroit were fixed? The beer was cheap, the company good and there were no screaming kids or nagging wives.

The Harness Races became such a moneymaker for Organized Crime in Detroit that Vegas stopped booking any action from Hazel Park, Northville or the surrounding tracks in Jackson, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario. The Casinos may have known the winners but had licenses to protect. A major fixing scandal with Las Vegas books involved could spell the end of legalized sports betting in Nevada, currently a multi billion-dollar business.

However, the State began to get into the Gambling business because, as Meyer Lansky was reported to have said, that’s where the money is. In the 1970’state lotteries became the rage. The 1980’s and 90s saw casino gambling expand into every state including Michigan in the form of luxury casino hotels built in the foundering city of Detroit. By the 2000’s, poker on the Internet and in sanctioned clubs became the next big thing. Harness racing, with it’s shadowy past and present suffered. No one seemed to care they were dropping far more than a lousy $2 per race. It was far more exciting to drop the Mortgage payment in twenty minutes at a craps table than $10 over the course of 10 races a couple of nights a week. However, who was there to collect their cut of the action? The State.

Harness racing is going through its death throes in Michigan. Hazel Park and Northville are currently under state investigation for race fixing and the bad press has further hurt ‘the sport.’ Former Deputy Michigan Racing Commissioner Tom Dorsey told the Detroit News racing is in the decline because people want something faster. Yes, people are always looking for a faster way to lose their money – just look at e-bay. However the State of Michigan has a vested interest in having its citizens lose more money faster as well: it has more money to spend.

Let’s face it, 1,000 people losing $100 a night doesn’t compare to 5,000 people losing $1,000 a night. So under the guise of rooting out corruption Harness Racing will be thrown into the dustbin of history by Big Brother or worse still become jai-lai.

Much like the War on Illegal Drugs, the state is addicting the citizenry to something far more insidious under the guise of public safety.

I love the Nanny State, don’t you?

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