Bucking Horse Sale, Miles City, MT, May 20, 2007

On a beautiful Spring Montana Sunday I paid my excessive $11 Bucking Horse Sale admission, sat down on the bleachers at the Eastern Montana Fairgrounds, opened my program, and prepared to handicap the day's worth of racing at the 2007 Miles City Bucking Horse Sale meet. Ten races, so the program said, but the 3rd, 5th, and 9th looked a little funny. The races were listed as "Miles City Bucking Horse Sale Match Bronc Ride", and the horses listed, such as Wild Man, and Jumpin Jim, didn't have pp's as such, but rather comments like "Steve Dollarhide received a No Score on this horse at the 2007 Clovis, CA Rodeo". And, all the rider names were blank. I studied and I pondered, but I couldn't figure out exactly what this was all about. Finally it dawned on me ... this must be some sort of betting on the bucking bronc rides that take place between races!

After a little while I spied Sam Murfitt, the executive secretary of the Montana State Board of Horse Racing, walking by, and I collared him to ask what this was about. He explained that this year, today, for the very first time, they were going to offer parimutuel wagering on the bronc riding (which was already an object of a hefty Calcutta auction pool), with the "race" finish positions based on the riding scores the cowboys got. Win, place, show, quinella, tri, you name it. And the cowboys had just been named on the horses.

How fun! I went in and got all the cowboy names, and put them on their horses, and tried my best to match up a competitive horse description with a winning sounding cowboy description based on the little stories about them in the program, because if there's one thing I am it's a handicapper, and how hard can this be, really?. The Calcutta auction pool thingy then went off, and the 20 cowboys brought anywhere from $550 to $1800, with the owner of the top scoring cowboy to receive 33% of the total pool (after a 15% takeout to help fund the cowboy competition), with the owners of the 2nd through 6th cowboy to receive lesser amounts. These 20 cowboys were split into two groups of 10, and the two groups of 10 made up the 3rd and 5th parimutuel "race". Then the top 6 cowboys would advance to the finals, and be re-auctioned to ride in the 9th "race" (along with the option of "the horses", which would win if there wasn't three qualified rides in the last round, and all the toughest horses had been saved for that last event). Well! Sounds simple enough. Except I wasn't doin' none of that.

Then we had quite an exciting opening ceremony, including galloping rodeo queens carrying important flags like Montana, Coors beer, and some other sponsors, but this year there was special attraction with the U.S. flag, a young lady all in pink standing on her horse and trailing Old Glory behind. How cool! You don't get this at just any old racetrack.

The first two regular horse races went off and some horses won, as will often happen in horse racing, but for me it wasn't soon enough to the 3rd, and some of that cowboy bettin' action!

Well, the maiden voyage of parimutel wagering on cowboy events in Montana didn't go off quite so smooth as maybe some people had anticpated, starting with the first cowboy of the 3rd race coming out of the chute with the toteboard still saying 9 mtp, and no warning from the rodeo announcer guy at all. Many people were shut out, and I barely got my bet down. There was some grumbling in the crowd.

Then there was the strange happenin's with the 1/1 favorite cowboy in that "race", who also happened to be the top wagering favorite in the Calcutta, costing someone $1800, one Hugh Connolly. Initially is was announced he had been awarded a measly score of 74-1/2. Crummy score. Real bad news for whomever had spent that $1800, but good news for longshot parimutel bettors anfd others in the Calcutta. 74-1/2 that is, right up until about three riders later, when it was announced that his real score was 84-1/4, amazingly exactly 1/4 point high enough to take the lead in the competition over the previous high score, and put that person who spent the $1800 back in good shape. That seemed more than a little bogus. Way more. In all the rodeos I ever attended I never saw a score changed 3 riders later. I smell larceny, chump. Vague confusion and some disbelief in the crowd at this. WTF?

Quite frankly, I couldn't tell how these things were scored anyhow. It seemed more like a popularity contest than a measure of who rode the toughest ride, but who knows. I'm not a rodeo judge.

Finally, there was the issue of re-rides. Rodeo re-rides happen when a horse doesn't do a good job of bucking and just kind of walks around the place so the cowboy gets a bad score. So he gets a chance to say "Re-Ride!" and ride another horse and try to get a better score. Whatever happened on that previous horse disappears into the ether. The announcer promised us, "Folks, re-rides will be treated just like a scratch in racing. You'll get your money back." He promised us this several times in fact. By the time the "race" worth of cowboys and horses was over, that happened to apply to two of the horses in my 3 horse quinella box, slacker horses that had turned out to be no-buckin' slugs that day. I had my entire quinella coming back. The "race" was declared official (astoundingly finishing in almost perfect odds order with the favorite winning, 2nd choice 2nd, etc., thanks in no small part to the suddenly discovered somewhere in the judges' booth extra ~10 points for cowboy Connolly.) The re-rides themselves were left for a future time.

Sam was hurrying back to the building from the rodeo judges stand. "That was interesting", says he.

I strolled in to get my refund and bet the 4th. The machine did not give me a refund. In fact it told me, "Ticket not a winner". I took my case to a mutuel clerk, who had no idea, and she referred me to a mutuel supervisor.

"What horses were scratches in that race?", I asked.

"The 2, 4, and 7", she answered.

"Well, the machine didn't give me my money back."

"You won't get any money back", said she. "They're scratches."

"But scratches are refunds", I countered. "The announcer said so. And they are refunds in real races."

"You don't get any money back! They get re-rides!"

"What? Re-rides? But the race is already official! People are getting paid!"

"They're scratches!" And that was her final word as she turned and left.

I wasn't real happy with that answer, so collared Sam Murfitt again, a very harried looking Sam Murfitt, once again on the apron before the 5th.

I explained my concern. He looked apologetic and said, "We couldn't do it", was all he said.

"Well", said I, "You better tell the announcer."

As Sam hurried away again to the infield judges booth, I thought to myself, "Then how the hell do you handle non-starters?"

This race, things went a little smoother to beging with, with some actual warning to get in and make bets. So more people spent money on these wagers. Including me. But wouldn't you know it, another couple re-rides, one of which was one of my bets. And sure enough the rodeo announcer, right there next to Sam in the judges box, RIGHT FRIGGIN' NEXT TO HIM!, once again promises, "Folks, the re-rides will be handled just like a scratch, you'll get your money back." Additionally, this time the re-rides took place before the race was declared "official". But turns out the re-ride scores were not counted for the purposes of the parimutuel wagering. They maybe could have been, because the "race" was not yet official, but they just weren't. However, they counted for the purposes of the big money Calcutta auction pool and all the people who had bet that. Of course they did.

I went inside right after this race when there were many other people in the mutuel lines, only now therw was a great deal of grumbling about not getting refunds. When my turn in line came, I asked the teller, "There's not really any chance this scratch is a refund, is it." "No", he answered with a pained look, "I don't know why they keep announcing it."

So there you have it. If your cowboy gets a re-ride, you're just plain f**ked, like if your horse tosses a jock in a regular race or somerhing, and your money is down the drain with nothing to show for it.

It was at this point I finally realized that in parimutuel rodeo wagering as here implemented your're not betting on the same thing at all as those calcutta bettors, namely the standard high rodeo score for a cowboy no matter which horse delivers it for him. Nope, here you're betting first and foremost on the horse to deliver a good ride, and then hoping the assigned cowboy hangs on. If some rodeo judge decides the horse didn't deliver, re-ride for the cowboy, you're screwed, and while that cowboy goes on to do other things and maybe even get high score, you 2nd class citizen partimutuel bettor you you're stuck with a losing ticket and your butt hangin' out. Not a "scratch" at all, but a plain old arbitrary human-declared DNF.

Maybe it would have been okay if that was explained up front, with that extra added risk in this sort of wagering, but it really wasn't. It had been presented as a parimutuel wager on the standard rodeo scoring. Not to mention those P.A. announcements that we would get a "scratch" refund, which we did not. Screw that, the unexpected refusals and bumps and jock actions and stew decisions and so on in normal horse races is bad enough, without some new totally arbitrary variable of a human judge DQ'ing the horse but not the jock. This wagering was not for me.

I also realized I'd had entirely enough of that ripoff nonsense. I cashed out with a grumble to anyone within earshot that I was leaving, which I then did. Huffily. Besides, I was getting a bad sunburn and already had my limit of beers with a long drive ahead.

So pfui! Don't waste your time and money on parimutuel betting of cowboy events, if there's rerides involved. It's a ripoff, the pools and payoffs are sucky anyhow, and you're screwed, chump. Two massive thumbs down to that nonsense. Go buy yourself a beer or hotdog or something instead, and simply pass that phony "race".