Tough Luck: Want to bet on race horses in the District? You better like virtual ones.
Tough Luck: Want to bet on race horses in the District? You better like virtual ones.

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After more than a century, horse racing has returned to the District. Kinda.

The return came late last year, when the D.C. Lottery introduced an animated version of the sport called Race2Riches. Every five minutes from 6. a.m. to 2 a.m., a virtual derby is broadcast on video screens across the city.

Whereas traditional off-track-betting parlors show live races from real tracks, Race2Riches offers computer-generated simulations. And while in OTB a horse’s odds are determined in a pari-mutuel fashion, with payouts determined by the total amount bet, each Race2Riches contest’s odds are fixed according to post position, with higher odds assigned to higher-numbered horses. A winning bet on the No. 1 horse, for example, has the same return ($3 per $1 bet) every time, even if everybody in town puts $10 on No. 1. (Bettors can wager from $1 to $400 per Race2Riches betting card.)

Another difference worth noting: Every race in Race2Riches really is fixed.

Intralot, a company based in Greece that calls itself the world’s second-largest provider of gaming services, holds the contract to run Race2Riches for the D.C. Lottery. Its contests are tailored to our environs. The first Race2Riches race I watched, for example, was called the Chevy Chase Sweepstakes, featuring entrants named Bipartisan and Legislation (both finished out of the money). Virtual cherry blossoms and a virtual U.S. Capitol could be seen in the virtual distance as the virtual horses rounded the virtual track.

“We want players to feel it’s their game,” says Intralot spokesperson Gabrielle Barry.

Barry says 89 businesses had signed up to sell Race2Riches tickets as of last Friday. At Café International in Woodley Park, owner Jason Wee says he’s getting “$200 to $300” in bets per day since his recent rollout. He’s happy to offer wagering alongside his normal menu of pastries and caffeinated drinks.

“I think that the lottery, especially in this economy, gives people hope,” says Wee, who admits he’s never been a racing fan. “For $1, this lets them dream.”

For real horseplayers in the District, the real dream involves having real racing return to their hometown.

This city has an amazing racing past. The sport of kings was once also the sport of presidents. George Washington was known to be a big fan of the ponies. According a century-old account by racing historian Lyman Horace Weeks, a racetrack called The National was built in 1802, during Thomas Jefferson’s administration, at the site of what is now Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park. The Washington Jockey Club was formed in the early 1820s by a clique of local and national powerbrokers. (It temporarily disbanded in 1846, when officials were preoccupied with the Mexican-American War.)

The National closed around 1870. But a new track soon opened in Ivy City, near the Gallaudet University campus. President Rutherford B. Hayes attended the 1879 groundbreaking. A big race called the Willard Hotel Stakes was run at Ivy City in 1880.

After Ivy City closed in 1890, the Washington Jockey Club opened the Benning race track, also in Northeast, on property where the Mayfair Mansions development now sits off Kenilworth Avenue. Benning’s flat-track and steeplechase cards were soon the area’s prime racing attraction—especially on holidays. A nostalgic 1934 Washington Post report about D.C.’s racing history compared Benning’s crowds on a typical Gilded Age Thanksgiving Day with “rush hours on a New York subway train.”

The beginning of the end of live racing in the District came with a 1908 Congressional effort to widen an adjacent road. To ensure there’d be room for the expanded thoroughfare, Rep. Thetus W. Sims of Tennessee introduced a measure to ban betting on horses in all of D.C. The measure passed that May; Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law. Benning promptly switched to auto and motorcycle racing.

Live horse racing has never returned.

Maryland was the real beneficiary of the ban. The Free State’s racing history is even older than the District’s—the Maryland Jockey Club was founded in 1743—and the state was already the home of Baltimore’s Pimlico track. Three years after the ponies left Benning, Maryland began offering an even more convenient destination for Washingtonian bettors when what is now Laurel Park opened in 1911. Another nearby track, at Bowie, opened up in 1914.

Just as D.C. adopted the Baltimore Orioles when the Washington Senators left town in 1971, Washington’s horseplayers accepted Maryland’s racing offerings as their own: By the 1980s, The Washington Post’s sports page had four writers on its racing beat.

Alas, the Post employs no turf writers anymore. In 2005, it even stopped running results from Maryland tracks, which had been appearing in the paper since the 1870s.

And there ain’t much live racing in the state for D.C. outlets to cover: Bowie has closed, along with five other state tracks. The three surviving Thoroughbred circuits—Pimlico, Laurel, and Timonium—will offer 146 days of racing this year. In 1986, those same three tracks were live 286 days.

Intralot’s Barry says the introduction of Race2Riches was inspired by a desire to attract fans of Maryland racing. (The current director of D.C. Lottery, Buddy Roogow, ran the Maryland Lottery for 13 years before taking over the District’s operations in 2009.)

But given that Maryland racing still exists, wouldn’t a better way to attract its fans be to simply set up OTB outlets in the District?

“We can’t offer real racing,” says D.C. Lottery spokeswoman Athena Hernandez. “It’s the law.”

Hernandez says the federal government, the same body that banished live racing in 1908, still has codes on the books preventing wagering on ponies. Live ones, that is.

There’s been a slew of gambling legislation in recent years, aimed mainly at offshore firms that lure U.S. sports bettors over the Internet. But those laws have routinely exempted horse racing. Alas, those statutes are superseded by an old federal law that prevents D.C. residents, and only D.C. residents, from gambling on “football, baseball, softball, basketball, hockey, or polo game, or a tennis, golf, or wrestling match, or a tennis or golf tournament, or a prize fight or boxing match, or a trotting or running race of horses, or a running race of dogs, or any other athletic or sporting event or contest.”

Since 2007, betting firms that once accepted bets via the Internet from customers in every state have started refusing accounts for city residents, citing the old federal statute. The D.C. Council never pushed Congress to update the law and ensure fair play for Washingtonian gamblers.

Folks who live elsewhere can get on their home computers to place a wager on, say, the fifth race at Laurel. But the easiest option for D.C.’s horseplayers is to actually travel out to Laurel. Unless, that is, your definition of horse includes Bipartisan, Legislation, or one of their virtual stablemates.

John Scheinman, a D.C. resident, former Washington Post turf writer, and lifelong horseplayer, says he’ll stick with the going-to-Laurel option.

“It’s a disgrace,” sneers Scheinman of the Race2Riches’ introduction. “For it to be OK to go to a carryout to bet on cartoon horses, something which requires no skill at all, but it’s illegal to bet on real races, which is a real skill, a cerebral pastime, is the height of hypocrisy. What if you could go to a bar or OTB site in D.C. that served nice food and drinks, and you could bet on real racing? How great would that be for the city? But, no, instead we get this stupid animated game that just preys on the poor. This is just corrosive.”

Scheinman hasn’t yet played Race2Riches and says he doesn’t intend to. He celebrated the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday by taking a date to Laurel for a day of handicapping. He says he won big.

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