Horse Racing Trade Media Disconnects

It's a pretty common occurrence to see analysis of the media - any media really - nowadays that contains a whole lot of grains of truth regarding a strong disconnect; a disconnect with statistics - like handle and TV coverage - or something seemingly as tangible as what's happening on the ground right in front of our eyes. 

Last night, this was the headline from a trade paper about a performance of a driver. Big night; one for the ages! When you scroll the article, youtube videos are linked, including to the second race, which was not won by the driver in the headline.


 

 Jody was driving the 1-5 shot and if you watch the video, there was something for the ages and it was something. He sat behind a leaver, and never pulled, only getting out at the end. It's one of those drives that in Hong Kong would get you shipped onto the next plane to Northern Tibet Raceway. It was one of those drives where in North America, bettors scream "fix!" and head to the poker tables. It's the drive customers were were talking about on twitter. 

If you read the headline of the trade paper, you'd never know it even existed. "Local Driver Has Great Night", time to move on. 

Now, I don't point out that drive to suggest something sinister happened. Not only do I not believe it did, suggesting it (without fact or knowledge) I'd be as bad as the media we criticize so often. The filly could've felt like she had zero go, she could've felt lame; a hundred things where a chalk might sit in. 

But the fact remains - what you at home were talking about was not reflected in a trade media story. 

Horse racing media - and I think this is true with most media - lives in a vacuum. Sometimes this is by necessity (advertisers, don't rock the boat) and sometimes it's by an unwillingness to listen and understand what's happening around it. For whatever reason it's been here since what seems the beginning of time. And it doesn't appear to be getting fixed anytime soon. 

As for Jody's drive, well, that's a pox on horse racing's house. As I note, I have no idea why he drove the filly like that and neither do you. And that's the problem. 

Information needs to be disseminated in this sport; things can't just be buried. When upwards of $200,000 is bet in multis and in-race wagers on a race like that, the people giving you their hard earned money deserve more than silence and a story in a trade paper about what great a night the guy had. 

It leaves you scratching your head and it leaves me scratching mine too. It's no way to run a gambling sport. 

Have a wonderful Travers and Hambo weekend everyone. 


Horse Ownership and the Health of the Game

I saw this tweet this morning:

This is not breaking news to anyone, but it certainly strikes a chord, doesn't it? And to me it shows just how unhealthy the game has gotten.

For systems to thrive (and price things correctly) there is an immutable truth - the volume of buyers and sellers is the KPI. Whether we are buying a stock on the Nasdaq, bartering at the farmer's market, or visiting our local proprietor selling every day goods, we want lots of buyers and lots of sellers. It's how a healthy system rolls.

In horse racing we used to have that.

Leaving aside the big dogs in the runners, as Crunk details above, I was thinking about harness racing in this vein recently. 25 years ago when I was hanging around the track, watching baby races or qualifiers, chatting with bettors and owners, the conversation in the late spring and early summer went a little like this -

"Burns has a nice two year old for Shipp"

"Fritz has three good ones that should take a beating in the sires stakes"

"Kopas has a bunch of New York breds that are all good"

Doug Arthur...... Ben Wallace..... on and on have a some stock  ....."

There were dozens of trainers and dozens of owners who were all active at the sales, looking for a good one.

Last night - and again, this is not unlike any MSW in Thoroughbred racing now - we saw the Dream Maker for two year olds, and we sure as hell didn't see this. We saw two barns, with a half dozen now two year olds with yearling prices ranging from $120,000 to $340,000, and then everyone else. The everyone else was racing for fourth.

Flip open the program to the Meadows, the Meadowlands, Yonkers, Tioga. It's all the same. It's concentrated power.

As with most of this blog since forever, it's observational, and most of these issues are well above my pay grade; I'd offer, perhaps, many don't even have a solution. But, the declining breadth of ownership and the lack of interest in people wanting to take a shot at glory in this business surely is troubling.

Have a nice Wednesday everyone.

The Horse Racing Immaculate (and Perhaps Surprising) Success Story

I read a story this morning about a whack of members of the Florida Marlins baseball team testing positive for COVID-19. Baseball season just started, and boom just like that we see a story placing it in peril.

This is nothing new, and no, we should not be surprised if baseball continues for their "season". I made a beef stew last week after months of meat packing plants being COVID-19 hotbeds; the stew was filled with delicious veggies from places like Florida, where one run of recent tests for farm workers produced positive rates of 40%. Our system is built to bring products and services to market and it tends to overcome the hiccups, eventually.

While most businesses have had a tough time navigating these virus inflicted waters, one business that has had relatively smooth sailing is this one - horse racing. Yes, this twenty-seven headed fiefdom, raise juice, 900 rules for 900 jurisdiction, protectionist, tend-to-do-the-wrong-thing-all-the-time horse racing.

When New Orleans coach Sean Payton tested positive for COVID in March at Oaklawn the doomers were in full force. But the meet was not doomed. It carried on, and was (by almost all counts) successful.

Not long ago, the Big A was planned to be used for tent hospitals; instead NYRA - in New York no less - has driven handle, a Saratoga meet, and delivered the shortened Belmont Stakes.

As for harness racing, last evening I played Grass Roots trotters from Rideau, glanced at Georgian; last week watched a thrilling Meadowlands Pace, and this coming fortnight will watch the Hambo, with gates open at 25% capacity.

Sure we've seen hiccups like a rider or driver testing positive (as is probably obvious with a highly infectious disease), but it didn't burn down the industry; it didn't stop moving forward. For me and you as stay at home horseplayers - if we're being completely frank - I bet we barely even notice a difference from July of last year.

Compare that to casinos, where for example Vegas is in trouble. There's a hell of a lot more incentive to get those slots and table games churning and being fed Benjamins, but alas, they can't seem to pull it off.

We all complain vociferously about the sport, and most of the time it gives us a lot of material to work with. But this time, all hail the Sport of Kings. Whether through serendipity, happenstance, shit luck, or precise planning, it has pulled off a real beauty.

Have a nice Monday.


Using Data & "Free" to Engage Players

Think With Google has been sharing some excellent case studies recently via their partnership with MIT's Sloan. One that caught my eye was Electronic Arts, the video game maker. 

EA, which makes FIFA World Cup Soccer, earns some major hay when the World Cup comes around. They drop a new game with updated stats and players, and sell it to the masses.  This past World Cup, though, they took a different approach - they updated the previous version for free right into the 2018 game..

This might sound silly, but there was a method to their madness - deep customer insights. They learned, through player metrics, that there is such thing as a recency effect. Those who play the game late cycle convert to the new product. They learned, however, veterans of the game who had not played in more than two months needed a push to engage again. Hence, the free product. 

"Our free update succeeded in bringing those players back and, given the Recency Effect, increased their likelihood to convert to FIFA 19."

The results of this test should not be overly surprising to us, the horseplayer. Back around 2006, with handle flailing, the Hong Kong Jockey Club used the same type of metric to bring their lost horseplayers back. In that case it was a rebate. 

A rebate works in similar fashion. Poorly engaged veteran players are having trouble staying afloat, so they're given a push. This push gets them back into the habit of playing, with a higher probability of winning money.  When referencing the results of their change in policy, the HKJC remarked how the habitual nature of horse racing customers is an important metric, and this seized the day.

Over here across the pond we're not doing Electronic Arts, or the Hong Kong Jockey Club. We're not using internal player metrics as they should be; we're not creating any dynamic policy of "free" to increase engagement, and grow lifetime value. In the quasi-oligopoly (or in Canada, HPI's pretty much monopoly) there seems to be little incentive to. But, as that happens, make no mistake, horse racing is falling behind.

Have a great Thursday everyone.

Joe

On Monday, via trainer Paul Kelley, we learned harness racing's defacto Chief Historian Joe Fitzgerald passed away.

To say this was unexpected - and to the the many of us who chatted with Joe over the years, shocking and sad - was an understatement.

Joe was a very private guy, but that didn't stop him from talking to just about anyone who liked or watched the sport of harness racing. His tweets were a tour de force, and if this sport was as watched  as the big ones he'd probably be a (reluctant) popular figure. He absolutely loved the sport, and his knowledge of it was as vast as his prodigious vocabulary.

I'll definitely miss him for that, but I'll mostly miss just chatting with him, and his good nature overall.

Joe was a wonderful writer. A wordsmith. And his articles on various websites are testament to that.  But for a guy who could write like that, he sure didn't flaunt it. Sometimes with me - not a wordsmith, obviously - he'd gently reference a line that wasn't quite right, or an incorrect word. I'd look at it and realize how stupid I was, but he never did it to make me feel stupid. That wasn't him. That was the antithesis of him.

I don't know what Joe did for a living (and I am sorry I never asked) but I think he'd be at home on a shop floor because his good natured needling and humour would take him far. I remember when Donald Trump won the Massachusetts primary, and me knowing Joe's disdain for him, tweeted something about "You Massachusetts types love the Donald, Joe!" He replied in jocular fashion, playing along, just like he always has since. He'd fire back to me something about Trudeau at times that was laugh out loud funny, giving it back to me.

Joe appeared to be an amateur hobbyist type person in Astrology. Me, being, well not that, again would ask silly questions like, "Joe, if Mars and Mercury are retrograding, does that mean I will hit a pick 4 tonight?" What I'd get back was pure Joe.

I am pretty sure if I lived in Boston I'd want to hang with Joe, because he was Joe. And if you loved harness racing, you were automatically a friend. You were in the club. Joe's club.

I remember years ago speaking to someone in the sport who had a title of some sort. I told him that harness racing history is not really documented; we can't find what we're looking for (especially with even historical horse lines behind paywalls). I asked about the sport creating a harness racing wiki - a funded project with hands on deck to document the sport; to live on the web forever.

Today I think about this even more because we lost Joe. He - unpaid of course - was doing that for us, almost each day. Now he's gone. And others will surely follow, leaving us to pick up the slack, when few of us are capable. I don't know why I should - I am just a fan with a blog - but I find that troubling.

I'll miss your tweets Joe. But I'll miss you as a person even more. You were a fantastic guy. God Speed.


Harness - Track Size or Track Culture, The Differences in Driver Strategy Are Real

Harness racing is a unique bird when it comes to driving styles and driving colonies. Whereas in Thoroughbred racing, a jock does not race a turf horse too much differently in various states, in harness racing we see drivers do just that. It's something that's been talked about since forever, really.

At Yonkers - a half mile track - we'll see drivers wait until the half almost each race before pulling. Often they wait for cover so long, the leader has stolen a 57.3 and hasn't even started to race yet. It is antithesis to the colony to park on two turns.

Over at Northfield (another half miler), which many of us have watched lately, it's antithesis not to park on two turns. In about half the races, horses are starting to move just past the quarter, looking for cover at the 3/8's pole - directly on the turn.

On five-eighths like Scioto Downs and Dover we see similar. The flow is stacked on the clubhouse turn, almost each race. Greenwood, oh beloved Greenwood, in the 1990's raced like this as well.

Over at Mohawk, where the driving colony has long been labelled passive, sometimes the shoe fits. How many races have you seen in Campbellville with 30 second 2nd and 3rd quarters? Oftentimes we'll see drivers not want to park on a half of a turn, near the three quarters, where they wait, hoping to find a seam. At times the race is already over by then.

This style of racing also rears its head at Hoosier - where inexplicably, in my view, they have a passing lane.

At Mohawk - a larger track - the drivers don't attack for position.

At Yonkers -  a smaller track - the drivers don't attack for position.

At Scioto and Dover - smaller tracks - the drivers attack for position.

At Northfield - a super-small track - the drivers attack for position.

What's the main difference?

I think it's two part, but it has to deal with Prospect Theory - not wanting to give up what we have, even though we could get more EV with more risk. It's the case of the NFL coach not wanting to go for two or go for it on 4th down, even though the math say she should, because if he's wrong it sticks out and he can be criticized.

First, it's cultural. The drivers are used to the same style, they race the same style. Holes are given, sit wait and pounce rules the day - 5% is 5% for coming 5th. If a hole doesn't open up, so what. When the U.S. drivers come to Mohawk, they shake things up, and Prospect Theory goes out the window. Yannick or Tim are not sitting fourth with a decent horse in a 30 second 2nd quarter, and we see this regularly.

The second is purse size.  At Yonkers (and Mohawk) in my view we see a "take turns" mentality. When you're sitting fourth at Yonkers for a $24,000 purse, you think fourth place and racing next week, especially with the 4-5 shot on the lead. 8% of $24k is good money, why bother pulling and maybe come 6th?

At Northfield with a $4,500 purse you get a big piece or don't pay shipping. Ditto Scioto in a lot of cases; Harrington, others - go is the word. At these tracks the culture is to hit the board, not be passive, looking for next week. It shows each and every race.

Harness racing has always been an in and out game. Horses take a week off, then they're on go and vice-versa. It's why they instituted a rule in Australia and New Zealand where "tactic changes" have to be given customers beforehand. But it's more than that. Harness racing is regional. Drivers at Mohawk watch Northfield and lose their minds, while drivers at the Meadowlands and Scioto say, "a thirty second second quarter, what in the hell are you guys doing up there?"

Usually information is spread and things change, but in harness racing we seem happy with these regional differences. In a way it makes the game more interesting - prospect theory or not.

Have a nice weekend everyone.
 



Horse Racing's Innovation Blinkers

Innovation and horse racing. Put together, the two of them elicit feverish reaction in this sport. One one side you have the customers, along with some, like for example the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation and people who've made money outside the sport like Mike Repole. Then you have everyone else.

In the history of innovation, the everyone else is a powerful force.

In "How Innovation Works", an epic history of invention and innovation, British author Matt Ridley explains innovation in its glory, along with the forces that oppose it at every turn. It's the latter that struck me when it comes to this sport.

Ridley believes that there are three main characteristics to opposition to innovation: An appeal to safety, a self-interest among the vested, and a paranoia among the powerful.

When margarine was innovated in 1869 (as a cost saving to ever-expensive butter), the American Dairy Council denounced it; New York state banned it; "studies" were financed, one where one rat was given butter, one margarine, and within months, the margarine-fed rat died a horrible death (it was later uncovered that the study was bunk). Bogus bans on margarine were still on the books in 1940.

Cab drivers organized against the innovation of the umbrella; the Horse Association of America fought the introduction of the tractor. In 1707 a Londoner named Papin built a boat with a paddlewheel (the first innovation of the steamboat), demonstrated its efficiency one day at the shipping docks, expecting a marvelous reception. Instead, the oarsmen saw the competition and destroyed his boat.

If this rings a bell it should. This is pretty close to how racing has reacted over the years.

Remember in 2010 when California passed the law that allowed takeout to be increased? I bet you do; it was implemented in days.

Now, remember what was attached to that law? Exchange Wagering. As sports betting is passed in California and that 2-5 shot that you didn't like lost on Saturday at Santa Anita, was it fun betting against it on the exchange? No, because one doesn't exist - through safety (how it's safe to raise takeout is beyond me, but they clearly think so), vested interest and paranoia.

People complain about the lack of innovation using horse racing's data - namely, there is little to none. How can innovation happen through Equibase's vice-grip on it? They don't seem to want to break your boat as much as make it impossible to build.

Lowering the use of the whip to make racing more visually appealing in a world where the animal is considered so differently compared to our agrarian roots? You'd think we were talking about implementing margarine.

The sport - and as above this is not unique to only this sport - can't possibly leave a favorite off their pick 5 ticket, hoping to score. It's considered dangerous and unsafe to.

The innovation we do see is meaningful, but most-often its the proverbial deck chair. The Rainbow Six came from the Fortune 6 at Beulah, which came before it from a track in Puerto Rico. Now everyone has or wants one.

Post drags are fun. If they work at one track to steal money from another track it's great. The problem is that when all tracks do it, we're in some sort of Gene Roddenberry-12 Monkeys-Doctor Who hyperloop of post drag hell.

Both those "innovations", probably, in the long term, drive customers away from horse racing. I'm not an expert, but that seems sub-optimal.

Horse racing lacks the innovation bug because it's not built for it. But for those of you out there fighting the good fight, please keep fighting. This sport - and I don't think this is going out on a limb - needs an innovative sea-change.

Have a great Monday everyone.



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