Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Controlling the Message

It was recently announced that there were several morphine positives in the UK. One of the horses who tested positive was the Queen's horse. Yes, that Queen.

This has made headlines, and most of them scream like the one in the above link does. Short version: Racing is crooked, even the Queen does it.

Morphine positives, and other obvious egregious drugs that find their way into positive tests, are often due to some sort of contamination. An easy way to tell if the positive test is a mistake of some sort, is by releasing the levels of the drug in the system. 1 parts per billion, which will test, could not performance enhance an ant, let alone a twelve hundred pound racehorse. If we see those levels we know darn well it's an error.

I understand why racing has to release tests like this to the public, but they need to have some sort of narrative to go along with them. It's one thing for the trainer in question say "there was only a small amount in the system and it probably came from the feed", and quite another for the authorities to say similar; the latter meaning a lot more than the former.

It's not apoligizing for horse racing, it's about doing the right thing. A trainer - especially with the Queen's horse - would have to be insane to use morphine because he or she knows it will test. It's a non-starter and should be treated as such.

There are bad trainers out there. There's pre-race in the shadows that "won't test"; there are bloodbuilders and other nefarious drugs. We know this to be true because some have been caught, signed, sealed and delivered, and some will be caught again. Whenever there's money involved you'll find corruption. But in the above, no corruption was likely, and racing needs to do a better job in such situations. The public just sees "crook" and that's helpful to no one.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday Notes

Good morning everyone.  Here are a few things that caught my eye over the weekend.

Sebastian K was beaten at Mohawk on Saturday, as most know. Intimidate, the always fast but sometimes not sharp and sound trotter, nailed him in the final stride. It's pretty clear the off track bothered Sebastian K, as it does with tons of horses at Mohawk. Shoeing is pretty important on those days and Sebastian, who is reported to race barefoot, probably slipped and slid his way around the oval. 

After the race Modern Family, the super-nice trotter of Daryl Bier's who finished fourth, passed away in the paddock. That's horrifying. He was a nice trotter. The first person to comment on the passing in the Sc story was Intimidate's owner. They have class.

In Las Vegas a redone and remodel superbook is planned at a Westgate Resorts casino in Vegas. One line caught my eye:

"The spokesperson echoed Siegel in saying the biggest change will be a move more toward sports betting, with two-thirds of the venue geared to that and one-third to horse racing."

In Vegas, with so much to bet, 4.5% juice on sports betting rules the day. Old timers still like the track it seems, but as we all know, 21% (and rising) takeouts make for an unpalatable wager oftentimes.

Saratoga's meet is off and running through opening weekend. Logic would dictate, with fewer races and a likely dip in field size, handle might be off this meet by 5% or so, but I must say opening weekend was enjoyable from a betting perspective. NYRA gets clipped on social media often, but I find they are much better than the left coast tracks in promoting and offering good bets. The effects of the admission increase, which I think they handled poorly, are still TBD, but I figure it won't mean much either way. Revenue streams from admission for big race meets is something racing has to explore.

I know people like Del Mar as well, and if you say anything bad about it sometimes the west coasters take it personally. I can't say much either way. I have not played California racing since the takeout hike in 2010. The buzz for the meet seems okay, though.

Trixton won easily at the Big M on Saturday, as did Nuncio. Let's hope and pray for an 11 horse or so Hambo, with no eliminations.

Trotters with some European flavor continue to impress in driving web traffic, and interest. Greg on twitter said he put up two races on Youtube this weekend, the Battle of Lake Erie from Northfield and the Maple Leaf trot. The former featured the richest horse in harness racing, Foiled Again, the latter Sebastian K. The Maple Leaf Trot's hits were about 7:1 the Battle's.

Have a good Monday everyone. 



Friday, July 18, 2014

Takter Reaction Shows How Hard it is to Run The Sport

In Harness Racing Update, driver/trainer Jim Takter was "steaming mad". As most of you who watched know, Takter, driving a longshot against two other of his stablemates, sat on the outside and did not advance, in a stakes final last weekend. This caused crawling fractions and a good old fashioned boat race. 
  •  “Why should I put pace into the race? I had no reason to do that. I was screwed no matter what I did; she couldn’t even keep up anyway. This whole thing is (expletive) bull (expletive).”
    Takter said
  •  “It’s upsetting because I’m a standup guy,” Takter said. “I do everything right in this sport. Go after these scumbags doing all this dirty garbage.”
 Jim doth protest too much. No one is calling him a crook. No one is saying he deliberately boxed in a challenger. All people are saying is he did not advance with a horse on the outside - which is against the rules of racing - and because he had two others in the race, including the leader who clearly benefited, the perception for the sport is tarnished.

Jim is so upset, he says if the rules are changed he will sue.

The above shows how hard it is to police the sport, for the benefit of the wagering public. In Major League Baseball, a guy taking a supplement that you and I can take can be booted out of baseball. He's not a drug addict, but it looks bad. A dude who smokes a joint - legal in some states - as an NFL player is treated differently than a guy on the corner. He's not a drug addict either, but it can cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in suspensions.

Jim is not a crook, he just did not advance on the outside with a horse, which causes an issue for the $5 million or so going through the betting windows on Saturday. He should be fined. And he should, along with anyone else in the same position, learn from that mistake.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Horse Racing's Data Bog & The Decisions It Makes

With most of us, at work in our jobs or while we are handicapping the races, we need data to make a decision. If we do "x" we need to know what happens to "y". Reading a couple of headlines it makes me wonder how racing does the same thing. I guess the short answer is, it probably doesn't.

As Alan at LATG talked about today in his Saratoga notes, NYRA has increased admission prices to the storied track, but they've also changed their policy on "spinners" who buy more than one admission for free stuff.
  • Excessive spinning will be limited to two extra vouchers at a time, in an attempt to prevent hoarding and to give more people a chance to get the items; and the extra vouchers sold will not count towards attendance.  So the phony crowd figures - to me one of the treasured traditions of Saratoga - will become a thing of the past. 
So, if racing tries to answer a question like "did a fairly large percentage admission fee increase hurt attendance?" they can't. The old data is bad, they changed two variables not one, and even worse, it's probably planned anyway. When attendance goes down it's because there "were no spinners", so of course it went down.

Ass covering, maybe. But worse, no one learns anything about proper policy or revenue generation.

It's even worse, like we see with Churchill Downs. Although the field size issue has been debunked dozens of times (Churchill's field size is down almost exactly what horse racing's is in 2014, yet their handle was down by 800% or 900% more than national handles), it still is thought of as "the issue". This is bad because the real problems and the real data points that need action, are overlooked. As Matt Hegarty tweeted the other day:
The Kentucky Commission, approved taking money away from drug testing to help CDI purses yesterday, probably due to the fact "that field size issue" is a real bear.

Even when they have data points that make sense - e.g field size down average, handle below average, so the takeout up is the only major factor left to attribute the losses to) - they don't use them.

Does raising admission fees at Saratoga matter? Who knows. NYRA has a built in excuse and it will be hard to measure its benefit or detriment to revenues either way. Internally they probably will, but if the policy looks like a dud it's unlikely they will broadcast it.

At Churchill, should they lower the takeout rate back to try and make more money, and get back customers they've lost? Who knows. Just take $125,000 out of drug testing to give them more for purses please. Purses did crappy last meet.

Horse racing is frustrating. It trudges along in a data bog, making decisions that either already fit a prescribed political agenda, represent the path of least resistance, or use the data in a way which makes little sense in the first place.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Doubles, Doubling Down, Expectations & Other Monday Notes

The "Del Mar Double Caper" was in full effect the last week. As you may know, double takeout was set at 18% for the Santa Anita and Los Al meets, and this was planned to be carried over the rest of the year. Now, after some negotiation with the horsemen and owners, double takeout is being set at 20%, a 2.68% reduction from last year, but a 2% increase from earlier this year at other So Cal tracks.

Chris, who has run racetracks for years, summed it up on twitter:
If you don't quite understand his point, maybe the head of the California Lottery can help. They lowered their takeout percentage on scratch tickets and ended up making more money:

"Increasing the prize payout percentage improves the product's value to the consumer, provides us with a powerful message that gets consumer attention, and gives us a tool to drive sales and profits. A relatively small increase in prize payout percentage can be leveraged into a much more significant increase in top-line sales.

Although the increase in prize payout percentage leaves a smaller percentage to be transferred to education, the total dollars going to our beneficiary goes up. And at the end of the day, you can spend a dollar, but you can't spend a percentage. So these changes have resulted in increased funding to education and that's what our constituents care most about and the reason the Lottery was created in 1984."

In horse racing, because it has lived with a pricing mechanism that is not only average cost priced, but worse than that, arbitrarily set at false levels, when a margin goes up, horsemen and others believe that they will make more money. When in fact, they are probably losing more money.

Chris's comment hit that right on the head.

There is a ton of talk about the Dumb Ass Partners doubling down with their requests for appearance fees for their horse, California Chrome. Although this is much ado about nothing, in my view, this is what a lot of people have been clamoring for in the business - more revenue outside purses and stud fees for the stars of the game.

Everything, also in my view, comes from the lack of structure in horse racing (or a structure built for another time). In the NFL, appearance fees and memorabilia etc from active players is run out of the players association. Some of the revenues go back to help the sport, and the players. In this case, the owners of the horse take the insurance and shipping risk, but the racetrack attendance benefits. Of course one can be altruistic about this, but if there was a proper system set up for appearances by star horses, I think everyone would be better off.

Speaking of systems, horse racing business is led by an act created in 1978 - the Interstate Horse Racing Act. Owners don't like it much because it gives too much power to trainers, and horseplayers don't like it much because it is a barrier to lowering takeout, or getting more customer centric things done for them. I agree, it has to be scrapped and something new has to replace it, like this opinion states. 

There was a letter to the editor to Harness Racing Update this week from a Pet Rock fan who didn't take kindly to the hype of Captaintreacherous last season.  The writer does make some good points, primarily, when you race a restricted crop, it depends on the year you're born a lot of the time. If Pet Rock was a three year old last season, or in other years with the lack of a deep crop, he'd probably have won a lot of races,  and been hyped himself. Conversely, if the Captain raced in the super deep Pet Rock year, the world's worst handicapper could tell you he wasn't going to win 90% of his races.

The owners of ILuvthenitelife felt similar last year, and I agreed with them. Their filly was a monster, but because the Captain was racing and winning races, she was an afterthought. When we look at this season, we see how things have worked out and look at it through a different lens. ILTN was beating up on Shebestingin and Somewhereovertherainbow like they were not in the same species. This year those two fillies have done well in the older division. It's likely, barring injury, she would be a four year old superstar against some tough older mares. She was a quality animal, like Pet Rock, but because she was overshadowed by a winning horse, she got little respect. It was not her fault, it was based solely on circumstance and the year she was born.

This is why I feel it's imperative horses race longer. We get to see who is a great horse and who is a good horse. Restricted divisions can make some look like good horses who are actually great horses, and some look like great horses who are actually good horses.

Have a nice Monday everyone.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Meadowlands Pace Night: Different, But Good

Last night's Meadowlands Pace night is in the books. For the two big races, Sweet Lou took the Haughton and He's Watching - a $3,000 yearling purchase - joined Somebeachsomewhere as the fastest three year old in harness history with his Pace win.

Some notes, or things that caught my eye .......

This was not a Pace night of old, where most of the accompanying races were overnights, with ten horse fields of high conditioned horses or claimers battling heads. These races, a harness staple, have been long gone from Jersey as neighboring states have added slots. It's a shame, because those races had high handles and brought in the gamblers. Instead, we had a stakes card with several low priced winners. It wasn't bad, it was just different.

Trixton looked amazing to me..... losing. Father Patrick, after a brief scare from pocket sitting Nuncio, won fairly easily in this anticipated tilt. Early Hambletonian odds? How about Takter-Takter-Takter at 2-1, 5-2 and 7-1 for Trixton, Father Patrick and Nuncio.

In the fifth race we saw the worst harness racing has to offer: A boat race. A Takter horse on the lead, with a Takter horse blocking, with another Takter horse not wanting to go three high to get around the blocker. At PTP Downs, Jim is $5,000 lighter in the wallet for pulling a Refrigerator Perry. 

In the Mistletoe Shallee we saw Act Now act like Act Now. When you see a horse spit the bit after looking like he or she is cruising by like she does,  it usually means a terrible physical problem. But I wonder, could it be in her head? Strange, super fast, strange mare.

After his two year old Breeders Crown, Sweet Lou was the now horse. It didn't materialize, until perhaps now. I know the division got quite a bit easier with Pet Rock and A Rock n Roll Dance off to stud, but seriously, would it matter if they were still racing? Right now I don't think so. Congrats to Sweet Lou.

Speaking of Lou, I did quite well off his looks in the post parade, especially in the NA Cup a couple of years ago. He always paraded a little funky, but looked totally different that night than he had in his Pocono tilt to start the season. I thought I saw the same last night in the PP; just a Lou that looked a little bit more off than usual. Ummmm, apparently not.

Last year, here on the blog, or on twitter, several sharp bettors were wary of the hype of the Captain, and got in a lot of trouble for it from his fans. It was nothing personal, it was just exhibiting an opinion that when he did start to face decent raceway horses, he might not be winning those short margin races that he was winning last year. Horse racing sometimes is a game of smoke and mirrors. A lot of stud farms like the undefeated-type horse at two and three, and rarely want that exposed, which is what the four & five year old years can do. Even though the farms hate it, as a racing fan and a bit of a historian of the sport, I think it's good for racing to have that extra year. As for the Captain, he is a nice horse and he's always been a nice horse. He raced well last night (and has raced well his season, coming back sound and strong); just not as good as the hype from last year would have led you to believe.

Three year old crops can be hits (Somebeachsomewhere's year) or misses (Well Said or the Captain's year). This year, so far, it looks like a bit of a hit. He's Watching got the best trip of any contender, but he won like he did not need it.  A very very good performance. People like to use excuses when a horse loses, and if He's Watching lost on the big track they might say "he's a little horse who is at a disadvantage". They'd probably have a point. But this horse is so nice his size does not hurt him. Well done for a $3,000 purchase.

I don't know how many harness races I've watched - maybe 100k - and I have not seen a horse do what Always B Miki did last night. He was almost in the middle of the racetrack at the first turn, then got stuck three high the entire rest of the mile, until the head of the lane when he was four wide.  Normally that means an 8th place finish or worse (Sometimes Said had a similar trip and check his line). This night, with this horse, not a chance. He, despite running in during the stretch drive, came second and paced 147.1. I am so excited to see what this horse can do when he gets his head on straight and learns what he's out there for.  I so hope he stays sound.

A lot of people said the Meadowlands Pace was a drivers race, but the rodeo we saw was anything but. Harness stakes races are a race of circumstance, nowadays. Today, speed is paramount and if you are trapped along the rail you can't take advantage of a Meadowlands shuffle, you just find yourself in an impossible spot along the wood. Because of that, everyone stayed on the outside and drivers David Miller and Cory Callahan got royally screwed. He's Watching, who had the three, benefited from that, because Sears with the two ended up in the only spot he could've the way the race went. I saw a lot of people blaming CC and DM last night, but if you watch the race they had no other choice. In races like the M Pace, others dictate what trip you may or may not get, by forcing your hand.

While I think the Captain has come back good at four, I think last year's Horse of the Year, Bee a Magician, is still not near her best. She won last evening in 151.3, which was good, but when she was reeling off similar times off worse trips last year, it's still concerning. She is not as fluid or sound on the track, in my opinion. She should be sprinting away from 50-1 horses coming off her back, not under the stick to hold them off.

Handle last evening, per race, was higher than last year by a decent margin. I am not sure if the early start happened last year or not (which is generally worse for handles) but the results were good. The wagering on the Pace itself was lower than I expected, and only a deviation or two above the others, which is curious, but does show something about harness racing: In terms of betting handle, a deep field of good conditioned horses can hold their own against a stakes field.

Those are my thoughts. All my opinion, of course.

Have a really nice Sunday everyone.