Friday, February 27, 2015

Identifying Horse Racing Space Aliens

As you know by now, everyone is talking about colors of a dress. The dress, which is blue and black, has spawned a weird cult of white and gold people. Last evening on the twitter, when I posted the color and saw the responses, I began to realize, that there was something wrong.

Dougie Sal: Earthling
After analyzing the white/gold, blue/black data the best I could, I believe, and posted, fervently, that I think the white and gold people are space aliens.

It's really the only logical explanation.

After that - maybe the aliens got a memo from the mother ship - fewer and fewer people were willing to tweet or post they saw white and gold. So, today, it is much harder to tell who is space alien or not. Space aliens, as we all know, are very smart.

Now, here on the blog we are not going to solve these space alien issues. Some are friends so I hope they are not exported; even if they have to live in camps with leg monitors, at least they are around and we can visit. But, regardless, I'll let smart people like the United Nations or George Clooney figure it out.

But I can do a service to everyone in horse racing land: Here is a sure-fire, foolproof, impossible to fool way to figure out if your horse racing friend is an earthling, or from outer space.
CDI board meeting

Takeout Hikes - Ask someone about takeout hikes. If he or she is for them, there's a good chance you're having a close encounter of the third kind. As I proved last year during the Churchill Downs takeout hike, CDI executives are, in fact, space aliens. As an aside, revenue from the hike last year at Churchill, outside Derby week, was down. Tracks run by non-space aliens take heed!

Do they congregate at DRF Live? - For this one I have done the work for you. I began looking into this some time ago because this "DRF Live" place that they meet felt like some sort of secret spot they go to talk about earth domination - like the free masons, but instead of talking free mason stuff, they talk about Delta Downs. I like a lot of the DRF guys and gals, but if we are being honest, they are (with 98 or 99% certainty) all from another planet.

Best Horse Racing Movie - Ask someone what they think was the best horse racing movie ever made. If they don't answer Phar Lap, they are clearly not from terra firma.

..... and space alien.
Equispace - This is an easy one. He admits it. He calls himself the space man, is married to the space gal. Watch out for him if you are ever in Buffalo, he might beam you to a Sabres game.

Anyone who has been on the America's Best Racing Live Bus - This one is simple. If anyone has entered the bus, they are beamed to the mother ship, turned into a space alien, and their memory is wiped. I am hearing stories that pro-lasix people come off the bus anti-lasix, because horses on the planet Zoltar do not use the diuretic. I am also hearing this goes higher than just the bus. There are rumors ABR parent the Jockey Club will be buying the Bloodhorse, to further their space alien message. Watch for it.

TimeformUS users - If you are at the track and see a dude on his iPad reading a TimeformUS past performance, check his drink. That's not diet coke, it's space juice. Anyone doing new things in horse racing is from another world. Some of the people at TimeformUS sound ok (outside the guy who likes bands like Husker Du). One even talks about the Oklahoma Thunder on twitter like he was born here. But don't be fooled.

E-Nicks Users - Enicks (get the app here!) is a great product. Sid Fernando is involved which is good, but I believe Sid is from outer space. Remember that big storm forecast for New York a few weeks ago that only turned out to be a dusting? While people were hunkering down the night of it, Sid was posting pictures on twitter of him eating in a Turkish restaurant in Brooklyn. Space aliens can forecast the weather better than we earthlings. He knew. Use the app, enjoy the app, it might bring you a Kentucky Derby winner, but remember: You are supporting a probable invasion of earth.

We're obviously at a critical point in world history. We've been attacked by ice ages, meteors, Al Sharpton, but never have we been in such peril. In my one small way, I hope we've helped identify the enemy in our slice of the world. Losing this battle will almost - not quite but almost - be worse for us than losing slot machines.

Have a good day fellow earthings and enjoy the weekend, if you can.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

We Can Handle the Truth

Jack Nicholson was wrong. Racing can handle the truth, because the truth allows us to do the right things, rather than the wrong things. And it's a way forward.

Churchill Downs net income dropped 16% last year. Which is due to many factors. Most important to horseplayers in 2014 was the takeout hike, which decreased payoffs whenever you cashed a ticket. That spurred a pretty stout backlash. At the time, everyone and everyone's grandmother believed that Derby Day revenue would rise; which was pretty simple logic. It was the other part of the meet that was in trouble, handle wise. That turned out to be true:

The problem is, narratives about "field size" and other items muddy the truth, and that's where racing gets in trouble.

A takeout hike will hurt handle; you know that and I know that. But when the message gets muddied, the business glosses over it with other factors - weather, the Olympics in Vancouver, the economy, losing a half a horse in field size. No one wants to be wrong.

But that's dangerous, because the other factors permeate the industry and are used time and time again as a crutch, to raise juice, slap ADW taxes, make it harder for you to be a customer.

Racing not only can handle, but it needs to handle the truth. "We raised takeout to make more on Derby Day, and we succeeded, but the other days were soft, because we raised takeout".

Then, maybe, the next track, and the next, and the next, will think twice about it, and we'll not read year end press releases about handle being down, ad nauseam.

As well, I noticed a post at the Paulick Report about a trainer in Australia who got a TCO2 positive and was banned for three years. If and when this happens in North America - and it happens often - it's a slap on the wrist or an investigation of some sort. Some in the press will apologize for it time and time again (the "he's a nice guy" defense).

But we can handle the truth.

A trainer, known to many who has had various run ins with folks, but now seems to lead a pretty decent life as a very good trainer, posted this on a chat board recently (click to enlarge).

What he is saying is, sure you might've not used soda, but when you are tubing, the properties of what you use are giving you this reading. In other words, you meant to pre-race on race day and avoid a positive and you thought you were using something that would not affect blood gas levels, but it does. So you can get caught.

This does a service to everyone. First, don't drench on race day and you're okay, and two, to those who stand up for multiple TCO2 positive dude or dudettes, you might be hanging your hat on the wrong rack.

Handle will fall when takeout is raised. Positive tests can and do happen when someone might not mean to, but does intend to do something wrong. For the horse racing industry, the truth is better than obfuscation, or apology. Obfuscation and apology are nothing more than an excuse for the status quo.

Have a great day everyone. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

It's Fun to Slam Stews, But it Could Be Worse

A recent article originally published in HRU. I thought it kind of apropos after the weekend races at Gulfstream, so I repost it here.

I’m about to submit an article in support of the judging system. You read that right. For the few of you not so perplexed who plan to keep on reading, I promise, it will at least make a bit of sense. 

In the second round of the playoffs an NFL game occurred between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. It was a dandy affair with the underdog Cowboys playing inspired football against a hobbling Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The NFL was dubbing the game “Ice Bowl II” which was a little disingenuous, but the game was not disappointing. After being behind most of the game, Green Bay had just taken a 26-21 lead, but Dallas was charging for a go ahead score, on the Packers 30 yard line. After three plays, a pivotal 4th and two play was not your average, every day fourth down. It caused quite a bit of controversy that will probably last a long time; possibly resulting in rule changes. 

The play was a fly pattern from quarterback Tony Romo to Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant. Mr. Bryant went up, caught and controlled the ball, took three steps and appeared to reach for the goal line. Was it a go ahead touchdown? No, it did not look like it, but Dallas was in business at the one – first and goal. Not long after, however, a challenge flag came out, and upon further review, the ball seemed to hit the ground at the very end of the play (it popped up, so it likely did, anyway).  The new NFL parsed-replay-catch rules read like Swahili when it comes to catches and non-catches, but in a nutshell: If a receiver catches the ball – even if he takes three steps – but fails to make some sort of “second move” and the ball comes free, it is no catch. If he makes a “second move”, it is a catch, and if the ball comes free later on it’s a fumble, or down by contact, depending on the situation. A second move is simply some sort of move that involves avoiding a defender, reaching the ball out to get a first down or score, anything really that would be considered a “football move.”

After a long replay review, the biggest play of the game – the biggest play of the entire season for either team – was reversed. No catch. 

After the game, league officials explained they didn’t think Dez Bryant made a football move by trying to score, thus it was no catch. Many in the league’s media, like NFL Network’s Rich Eisen and Fox’s Howie Long thought it was obvious he wanted to score by extending for the goal line, and the evidence of that is if the catch was made at the ten, he would’ve just gathered the ball in, like a regular in-field play, thus making it a legal catch. The referees, one way or another, had to judge whether someone’s intent met what was shown on the video, and they disagreed.  By definition and consistency, they don’t reverse plays on the field when the word “think” is involved, but this time they did. Green Bay was given the ball on downs, and ran out the clock.

Horse racing has a lot of experience with this already. Video evidence has been judged on a daily basis since video was invented. It’s old hat. And boy, oh boy, the NFL can learn something from this sport. 

Horse racing judges call fouls not by the letter of the law, but if they are sure the outcome of the race, or a placing warrants it. There are dozens of infractions a day when a horse might get shoved out a little bit, or someone shuts a hole a little late, or who drifts out sideways a little in the stretch. These don’t cause placing’s because things happen in a horse race with 1,000 pound animals pulling sulkies, or having a 120 man or woman on their backs, and most of them have no bearing on the placing’s. They’re only called when they are blatant and obvious. 

I guess the biggest example of that this season, was the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, televised on NBC.  At the beginning of that mile and a quarter race, eventual winner Bayern broke inwards at the start, bothering race favorite Shared Belief. Was that interference so bad and malicious that it changed the race finish? Was Shared Belief so bothered that he lost all chance to hit the board? After review, there was no change. The stewards said they could not tell for sure if it affected the outcome, and Shared Belief had the entire race to make a move to improve his position, which he never did. 

Probably half the people who watch that race agree, the other half don’t. But the stew’s never bowed to pressure. They kept to racing’s judging mantra: Unless we are sure, we have to let the athletes decide a five million dollar race.  Compare that to the NFL call this weekend. Half the people believe the receiver was making a football move, half don’t, but the officials changed the result. They did not let the players on the field decide. 

In harness racing – as much as we get upset with judges - when a horse in the stretch is bothered, but the horse is losing ground and unable to keep pace with any closer or the leaders, there is no placing even though a rule was broken.  Meanwhile, if a horse is charging hard on the outside, decelerating slower than the lead horse and he or she suddenly stops because of interference, it’s an autopitch. In another case, if two horses are slugging it out and there is some movement, but the judges can’t tell for sure that the outcome is altered, judgements are left with the participants on the track, and the result stands. 

There are some people who do not like this form of judging, but to me, the alternatives are much worse. We as horse owners or bettors do not want judges to use a crystal ball, to try and surmise what might’ve happened. We don’t want them to say “well, the horse was bothered by the six at the eighth pole and might’ve lost three feet, so since he lost by two feet to the offender, we have to place him.” Tic tacs are mints, not something to decide horse races, and we don’t want inquiries lasting ten minutes every second race. In turn, we certainly don’t want a free for all on the track, where drivers can commit dangerous moves, endangering our equine and human athletes, where the judges let everything go, to decide things on the track.  This bar is set just about right.  

Sure horse racing has plenty of controversy when making rulings that are not so cut and dry. Remember the slow quarter incident at the Red Mile two years ago, for example. You will simply have that with tens of thousands of horse races, with horses and humans pacing or trotting around in a circle at more than 30 miles per hour. Things are going to happen.

The NFL is a marvelous league with a tremendous history. Its revenues are at an all-time high, it is proactive and has made good move after good move to grow the game. It usually makes horse racing look like it lives in the business dark ages. However, in this one instance – judging – they should’ve looked to this sport; the sport of horse racing. If they’re not sure about a play and have to think, they need to let the participants decide an outcome, not a fellow in a replay booth watching a video. That’s what racing does, and it’s the right way to go. 

Maybe we have to give the NFL a break. Racing has been dealing with these questions for a century, they’re only just learning. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mass Market

A post that I vehemently agree with was made on Godin's blog this week. "Mass Market" is a concept we've spoken about a lot here, so I guess that agreement is not shocking to anyone. But it's nice to see a talented writer talk about it, rather than me, your not-so-talented host. 
  •  When someone wants to know how big you can make (your audience, your market share, your volume), it might be worth pointing out that it's better to be important, to be in sync, to be the one that's hard to be replaced. And the only way to be important is to be relevant, focused and specific.
Horse racing's main edge in the marketplace has not come from television, or mass market appeal. In fact, television has supplied racing with very little reach, and mass market appeal for its product is virtually non existent outside Triple Crown days.

What has kept it afloat is the fact it has stayed 'relevant, focused and specific' - not because of a marketing plan - but mainly because of what it is.

It's not a game of chance. This is an edge that poker, horse racing, sports betting and now, Daily Fantasy Sports has. This has relevance with gamblers; and the market for such skill game pursuits approaches a half a trillion dollars each year.

It's niche. It takes a special person to bet each day, every day; to buy PP's, software, develop angles, compile trainer stats, FTS trip notes and angles, and to make their own pace figures. Racing will draw that person in, because that person enjoys that type of pursuit. With lower juice, a better value-product to wager on, that person and persons can bet a whole lot of money.

Horse racing, despite its many failings, will always have a place in the gambling world. When takeout went to 40% in Italy, and the country's racing product was virtually destroyed, those gamblers did not leave; they found another place to play. The world is connected in a mass way, but there will always be niche customers looking to conquer arguably the greatest gambling game ever invented.

When racing realizes its a niche sport, and caters to the mindset that wants to enjoy it, not to a mass market slot player, or casual fan, it will be much better off.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Gulfstream DQ's & Non DQ's Were (Unfortunately) Consistent

You probably watched the races from Gulfstream on Saturday. Although the headlines were dominated by the Fountain of Youth disqualification of Upstart, there were two other stewards decisions on the same card. Mike Watchmaker made some proclamations about those decisions.
Earlier on, he wrote that "consistency was needed for the GP stewards".

I understand where Mike is coming from, and I bet you do too, but I think there's a problem with that.  The three rulings were not the same infractions; they were three separate, different racing incidents, which exemplify how difficult the sport is to judge consistently. And if we look at the facts, I don't think they were judged inconsistently at all.

In race 4 you had a horse on the outside, who looked like a pretty clear winner (the horse was getting clear and decelerating slower than the two inside foes), cut off the five horse (at 22-1) who ended up coming second.

In the Fountain of Youth you had a horse on the outside (the eventual winner after DQ) moving forward and getting within about a half a length of Upstart. Then suddenly, Upstart swerves out under the left handed stick, crosses over directly in front of him, and four strides later is a length and a half ahead of Itsaknockout.

In the last we had a two horse affair, with a little bit of bumping and herding, which happens almost every tenth or eleventh race in this sport.

In the fourth, the judges applied a long held tenet of judging. "If the horse that committed the supposed infraction ran straight, would he or she have still won easily? If the offended horse was allowed to run straight, would he or she have won the race, or did it cost him or her a placing?" In that case (if you rewatch the race) the winner does appear to be able to win, with or without a DQ, and the offended horse probably would've come second, and did come second, if given a straight path. Therefore, I could see this call being made, and I think 95% of the time it would be called exactly as it was.

In the Fountain of Youth we had something different occur. This time it was not a horse with all the momentum cutting off another horse who appeared to be struggling, it was the inside horse cutting off a charging horse. If Upstart raced in a straight line and did not cross over into Itsaknockout, would he have still won? If Itsaknockout was allowed a straight path, would he have won? I don't know, and I'm sure you don't; it's clearly a judgement call, as it is with all horses charging on the outside. Maybe Upstart would've found more, maybe Itsaknockout could've outstaggered him to the wire. He certainly was moving up on him, and in those cases these horses usually do go by. Again, a fairly consistent call based on the tenet.

In the last race, in my view we have the scourge of this sport. A jockey coming out on a horse with all the momentum and doing the obligatory bumping to stop his momentum. It's a jockey trick that is used constantly, it's bad for this sport and is such a blatant infraction it should be a DQ 100% of the time. But if you're asking for consistency, well, the stewards at Gulfstream were pretty consistent here, as well. I'd say about 30% of the time this is called an infraction, and 70% of the time it's called "mutual bumping" or "things that happen in the stretch" with 1,000 pound tired animals.

You and I and thousands of other fans and bettors will not agree on every call made, because they are subjective. It's the way the sport was in 1915, 1955 and is in 2015. But we do ask for some consistency, and if you look at those three calls dispassionately, with cold, hard, ugly logic, and with the history of such calls at Gulfstream, the stewards, in my view, were fairly consistent.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Curious Case of Horse Racing Television

This past week everyone began to digest the merger of TVG and HRTV. Instead of two separate channels on two US cable systems, there will be two channels on one. There are proclamations this is good for the sport, bad for the sport, or indifferent for the sport.

TV and racing is a very curious marriage. Racing on television is not football, or hockey or baseball. Those leagues sign deals with networks, and some of them run into the billions of dollars. In a quid pro quo, the network gets viewers, sells advertising, and the leagues get revenue and exposure.

Racing on the other hand - barring the Triple Crown races - pays networks to show their races. It's not because racing is too small, because rodeo, pro bowling, the WSOP and countless other small sports with only a few hundred thousand viewers or fewer, get paid for programming. It's just because racing is a gambling game, and having to show the product to everyone at all times, is a staple for the main revenue driver of the business (gambling dollars).

I think this was no more apparent than yesterday. TVG had a split screen up on their network with two races going off near the same time. On one side of the screen was Gulfstream: There were nice trees, happy people, sunshine, a great setting and a stakes race with high quality horseflesh. On the other side of the split screen was Aqueduct. It was snowy, dark and a short field of cheap claimers was ready to go.

That's tantamount to having an NFL Wild Card Game on one side of the screen, and the Mississippi Pop Warner regional final on the other.

Real sports don't function like that and the reason horse racing does this, of course, is because of gambling dollars. That grainy Big A race had well over a half a million dollars bet on it, while the GP race didn't have appreciably more.

TV deals or mergers with TVG and HRTV seem to cause a lot of chatter, but in the big picture, does anyone really care? The billions of dollars bet on horse racing are done so through many conduits. Those will be bet whether there's one network, two networks, four networks or no networks. For those seemingly impossible to land "millenials", well they cut the cord long ago. For others, like your 64 year old prime racing demo fellow, he's at the simo-center chatting with his buddies and doesn't much care one way or another. In a business with so many issues, a merger between horse racing channels seems to be big news, but in the grand scheme of things, I just can't see it meaning much.