Monday, April 29, 2013

Vyjack & The Case of the Flats

We read about cycles, third off layoff's, the "sheets" and everything else in angle and fitness lore in horse racing when we handicap, and more so come Derby time.

I spend, like many of you, hundreds of hours in a database researching layoff horses, 2nd off layoffs, 3rd off layoffs, sprints under belt after layoffs, bounces, time between starts, work patterns and a hundred other things to help figure out when a horse will fire, or regress. They are certainly important to us as every day horseplayers.

However, one thing that throws everything and everyone off in making hard and fast rules handicapping in such a way is when a horse races flat in a prep race for a major event. These are generally random occurrences and can not be modeled or predicted.

Horse's can race 'off' - with no punch, willingness or finish - for a number of extraneous reasons: Mainly they're sore, or they're sick.

We've seen it throughout racing history, and we see it each day as bettors and horse owners.

A couple of the more common flat preps come Derby time have some big names attached.

Remember Secretariat's Wood? He was poor by his standards, showed little willingness, looked uncomfortable and was an auto-pitch for some after the regression. Later on, though (much later on) we learned he raced with an abscess in his mouth - a painful thing and an easy reason to explain his effort.

Almost thirty years later, Monarchos had his shine taken off the rose in the Wood, too, and went from being a horse compared to Spectacular Bid to an 11-1 shot a month later.  It wasn't because he ran a top before, or was a bad horse, or any other handicapping reason. He raced with sore hocks, they got the needed treatment, and he bounced back with a winning race and a good number.

If lesser horse's had these issues, they might've finished way up the track in the Wood; not be as competitive as both were. We'll never know, but the proof was in the pudding, obviously (and especially) in Big Red's case.

More recently, we saw Blame lose the Jockey Club Gold Cup where he was sick and raced really flat, and beat Zenyatta a month later. Frac Daddy tore a hoof and with better preparation almost won the Arkansas Derby at bomb odds just this year.

Sick horses and sore horses race badly. We don't need to explain it, or handicap it with fancy form cycle analysis. They just race bad. But oftentimes they bounce back with big efforts, where they're back to their old selves.

This year Vyjack raced fairly well in the Wood, coming third to a couple of good horses in Normandy Invasion and probable Derby chalk Verrazano. It was reported afterwards that he had lung infection (a fancy name for a chest cold). To some 'cappers this made some sense, because (if you're a harness fan) he hung like a chandelier in the last sixteenth. This past few weeks he has visited a hyperbaric chamber, had the required meds and looks no worse for wear. His work tab seems fine.

To other 'cappers the race just said what his pedigree says: He's a miler, and he's a pitch for the Kentucky Derby.

While some might, I will not be worrying about his virus when handicapping the race this year. I think he'll be the same horse that raced in the Gotham, where he moved wide in a quickening pace like a good horse does. That of course begs the question, will that be good enough; can he handle the distance; is he a Derby horse? All legitimate questions and a lot of people don't think so. But maybe they might be leaning on the performance in the Wood as a confirmation bias.

Let's for arguments sake say he isn't sick in the Wood and comes home a few ticks quicker, beating Verrazano. People are talking him up as a possible favorite. Instead we're looking at a longshot.

I am leaning to putting a couple of dollars on Vyjack. I understand the pedigree, I understand his limitations on paper, and I know Rudy's barn has been terrible of late, but I also understand that coming third in the Wood with a virus is not easy to do. Vyjack is a good horse.


It's Derby Week. 60 w/ Rosie & Levy Finals

Good morning racing fans.

It's Derby Week, which is fun in so many ways. Everyone (well maybe not everyone, Alan) is stoked.

Last night the week kicked off with a 60 Minutes interview (and profile) with Rosie Napravnik. I'm a bettor and I know and follow horses, and I know and follow statistics of trainers and riders, but forgive me: I don't have the foggiest about many of racing's personalities. She's one of them, so like most of North America, I got to see her first hand, for really the first time.

And boy did I like what I saw. She was professional and very sharp; just like she is on the racetrack. It's rare to see someone in sports - anyone - who's making serious coin at age 25, not come off as somewhat unpolished in interviews. She blew that stereotype out of the water. I don't know you Rosie, and probably never will, (and you probably don't care about my opinion either way) but I think you did the sport proud yesterday.

I had to chuckle at the Todd Pletcher submarine when he said "girl jockey". This fit perfectly into the narrative of the story and CBS used it. This is a sport where "girl and boy" are used more often than most, and Todd might've just had a slip of the tongue anyway, but it was a green light in the world of journalism. As @notthetoddster might say...... "Boom!"

One last point I find somewhat interesting: Has a network done more for racing than what CBS has? NBC, ESPN and others get paid to show many races, through Churchill and the Jockey Club, but CBS, through this Rosie interview and the last profile on Zenyatta before the Breeders Cup has probably done more for ratings than anything they've done. It begs the question: Why wasn't this profile on NBC's Dateline, or myriad other news programs? Why isn't more done by these networks?

Saturday's Levy Final for $450,000 at Yonkers, won by Razzle Dazzle, wasn't much to watch, but such is half mile track racing.  Half mile track racing is what it is, and there probably isn't much harness racing can do about it. Other than the Jug, which is a once a year race, I find (and most bettors agree) it's far too predictable. On the good side, Yonkers did have their second $1M plus handle night of the meet on Saturday.

Who do you like in the Derby? That's a question we've been hearing for months. But this week is the week that that question is answered when so much happens. Who do I like in the Derby? I will know when:
  • The post positions are drawn
  • The bias of the track is apparent
  • How the horses look in the post parade 
  • What the odds board says
I might bet one of a half dozen horses. Which one? I won't probably know until eight minutes to post.

Have a great day everyone!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

What's Up With the Chalk, And Saturday Notes

The dog got me up early this morning, the poor fella isn't doing the best, but I see I was not the only one. There are works happening at Churchill and there's a buzz. Seven days to the Derby.

We were chatting on twitter yesterday, having a little fun with the fact that five or six of the first races run were won by the favorite. For players who fade the fave as much as possible (e.g. me) it makes for pretty paltry scoring, in the game of money we all play.

Going through my 2013 database, we see something that is somewhat unfamiliar. A plethora of chalk.

This is pretty astounding.

It's rare to see a 0.8455 ROI for chalk, but the place and show pool ROI's for the favorite is something I can't ever remember seeing at this stage of the year.

I have heard anecdotally (since last year) that computer players have been playing shorter prices because shorter prices are coming in more often, and with a rebate and a filter or two, it can be profitable. There is something happening out there, I think.

For whatever reason, we're seeing chalk pay more than in previous sets of data.

This is not good for racing. A race office's task is surely to get horsemen to enter, but they have a responsibility to the customer to ensure good betting affairs are set up as well. Without good betting affairs you cannot attract handle and the game becomes a coin flip, at 22% rakes. In other words, a mugs game, and mugs game's can't prosper.

Here are the chalk, and ROI's by track so far if you are interested.





Notes:

Today we'll likely find the works steam horse of 2013. Thus far it has been Revolutionary. With a sparkling work, along with Calvin, is there a chance he could actually be the favorite? I don't think so, but anything is possible.

Rosie Napravnik is on 60 Minutes this weekend. Mylute should take some serious money, and for many he'll have to be a pitch in the win pools because of that.

I read a few tweets yesterday about having the winner being the most important thing in a Derby - it's one race, find a horse you like and play it, regardless of the odds. That's a point, but as a gambler you never look at a bet as a one-off. I don't care if you are betting elections every four years, or a Derby every one year. They are all a bet in a sea of bets, and you always, no matter what, want to bet what you think is a value (i.e. positive expectation bet).

The 2013 OSS sked was announced. I had to chuckle, there are "Mid Season Championships" for the two year olds in the first week of August. A lot of us don't like to even have the two year olds qualified by then.

Bacon has been hitting the business hard of late, trying to keep everyone honest. He'll take some flack for it, but there are very few (virtually none) who will take on these issues in horse racing. Fortunately there are enough advertisers who agree with many of the editorial stances and story topics where this should not be a monetary issue. It's not 1990 anymore.

Have a great Saturday everyone.



Friday, April 26, 2013

A Fascinating Response To UK Steroid Positives

Reading in the Telegraph today (h/t to @sidfernando):
  • Godolphin founder Sheikh Mohammed has been vocal in his condemnation of the incident and locked down the Moulton Paddocks yard until full testing of every horse is undertaken. The BHA is due to start that testing on Monday, with chief executive Paul Bittar and Godolphin currently tackling the issue of who will oversee the training of horses at the yard.
And.....
  •  Sheikh Mohammed have given use a commitment that they will cooperate fully with all of our requirements in terms of investigations. "We will be testing them from Monday, in which we will cover every horse in the stable that we have not yet tested. We will also be doing a review of their procedures in that stable and then providing them with a report of what needs to be done to get it up to speed." 
This fascinates me, because both the owner of the stock and the regulator want to get to the bottom of this whole affair. They seem to be working hand in hand. It feels like someone is minding the store, that someone cares, that someone is there to stand up for horse racing. It's how it should be done, shouldn't it?

Keep in mind he does not have to do anything, and so far no one has shown he has done anything wrong, but this is kind of what I expected the CHRB and Baffert to do with his situation, where seven horses have died in 18 months. 

I expected the CHRB and others to work with Bob and his training staff, to get to the bottom of what's been happening, if anything. Maybe they'd put his stock in a security barn, where everything is monitored to the milligram, like they do in Hong Kong as a matter of course. They'd investigate from top to bottom to see if anyone is sabotaging Bob's stock. They'd look to see if bad feed, or vitamins or supplements are a culprit so it could save more horses in other stables, as well as Bob's. They'd investigate if there is a vet going around with bad stuff, purported to be a regular treatment and selling it as good on backstretches. Or maybe they'd see it's absolutely nothing but bad luck.

Some sort of published action plan would be expected and reasonable wouldn't it?

Instead we got, well, nothing really. At one meeting a CHRB member, straining all credulity said, “No trainer or trainers have been mentioned in our discussions.”

I don't even know if anyone is doing anything (maybe there is an action plan and I missed it?), other than business as usual.

The above is just one little example of many we could've used. I don't understand, with millions of dollars in stock, billions in betting dollars and an industry that supplies so many with a living, how we seem to take things so nonchalantly here in North America when it comes to horse safety and guarding the public trust.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The UK and America - Full Circle

Last week it was announced that one of the largest stables in the world received eleven steroid positives.

The reaction from across the pond was swift and unequivocal: It was shameful, it was a disgrace, and it was a black mark on a beautiful sport.  

In America the reaction was similar in some ways, but there was quite a bit of glee in some quarters. 'Those Brits who think they're so clean'. Aha, look at them now. Good on 'em. For those who think across the pond they act 'uppity' about their sport there, some of us one-upped them by acting not too dissimilar here.

Unfortunately for those involved in schadenfreude, this week the narrative changed again, brought about from the BHA, Sheik Mo and virtually everyone in British racing.

On April 9th out of competition testing (something some horsemen groups fight against here in North America) was started on the Goldophin barn.

Less than two weeks later, on April 22nd, the results were released, by both the BHA and by Goldophin on their website.

Today, April 25th, the BHA announced that the trainer of record is suspended eight years, and the owner cannot race these horses for six months.

In sixteen days, this whole mess has been completed. The largest stable in the world has been penalized, without any delay, or legal teams, or obfuscation. The trainer is likely out of racing forever. The owner is penalized and takes part in this mess by having his stock - worth millions - on the sidelines for a half a year. What might even be more interesting is that the shame they (and others in the spotlight) embrace for committing this wrong against the sport was palpable and real. And it is something rarely seen anywhere else in the horse racing world.

This 16 day episode allowed the Brits to lob the ball across the court again today, saying "take that Yanks".

Take that indeed.

We are separated by a quick plane flight geographically, but how we handle tough situations in horse racing shows just how far apart we are. Neither of us are perfect, not even close, but they seem to have a leg up on us, no matter how much we don't want to admit it.


The Kentucky Derby Cheese Provides Racing With a Worthwhile Lesson

I've read almost as many marketing books as ones on horse racing, and one anecdote from one of those books stood out. It was about cheese.

People love cheese. If you and I were a monopoly cheese maker we could make blocks of cheddar and we'd be rich. But if we wanted to be more rich, we'd create many more cheese's and we'd package them in many ways. Monteray Jack, singles, swiss, cheese strings, feta, pre-shredded, liquid for dipping and 1000 others if we could. We'd also have information websites and recipes with ways to use all these glorious cheeses.

Consumers want cheese, but they also want many flavors, sizes, and ways to use it. It's a world of cheese.

At the Horseplayers Association of North America, survey after survey have asked for better field size, better pool size and more information. The HANA Racetrack ratings make two of those components paramount to the fundamentals of wagering, and the racetrack rankings. It's all about cheese.

The Kentucky Derby is a prime example of this, and we see it each and every day.

With twenty entrants, bettors are given choice. With twenty entrants and a world of social media, health reports, press conferences, clocker reports, video and free past performances at places like Brisnet, there are hundreds of ways, and thousands upon thousands of reasons to like one of those twenty horses. With a pool size where you know a $50 bet on one of them won't knock them down in the odds, or the odds won't change after the bell, you have yourselves a bettor's dream. It's a world of cheese, with many flavors, distinct packaging, and it tastes good, too.

You might be saying "Pocket, you're crazy. The Derby is the Derby for gosh sakes. You can't replicate it."

Maybe not, but the fundamentals of cheese selling are the fundamentals of increasing gross demand for a product. 

At the Meadowlands this winter, we've seen these things in play, not on a Kentucky Derby scale of course, but with those same fundamentals.

Field size has been issue number one. Their field size has increased and this is planned right from the race office to the horsemen. Did you know this year for a stakes race they got only six entries. Guess what? They didn't card the race. They put the money somewhere else, where they would get more horses instead. They wanted losta choice, through lotsa cheese.

Pool size is paramount, so they offered lower rakes to many, hoping they'd bet more.

Information on how to bet and what to bet is important, so they took a page out of Hong Kong, and started reporting stale date horses, and the reason for the stale date. Trainers have been more than willing to give out this information when they enter, and it has so far been a good idea. They're going the extra mile to give information on how to turn one of their cheese choices into something pretty tasty.

These things are done without slots, in a locale which has slot tracks giving away much more purse money within a one hour drive. 

Compare this to what many other tracks are doing: Carding short field races, not being imaginative in any way, writing races for horsemen, not the end user, and throwing their hands up in the air saying they can't do anything.

They need to find ways to be more like the Derby, to make different and differently packaged cheese, just like the Meadowlands has done.

You don't have to be the Kentucky Derby, to learn from the Kentucky Derby. Carding races with lots of choice and giving out information on those choices should not be a one off concept. It's something that needs to be done every day.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Bringing Racing Mainstream With Six Exciting New Games

Football has fantasy football. The Super Bowl has magic squares. The NCAA's have bracket madness. All of these spinoffs help their respective sports.

It got me to thinking. Can we create some racing "games" to help push the sport like those sports' do? I put my thinking cap on and came up with a few. I hope you like them, because I think they're the bomb.

1. The Todd Pletcher Derby Press Conference Game

It's Derby Time, so why not jazz it up a little bit with a drinking game? Each time Pletcher says a quote, we drink a shot of Jagr.

"He worked great, we're happy"

Drink

"I wouldn't want to be in anyone else's shoes"

Drink

"He's perfect right now"

Drink

You lose if you think he says something interesting, because you've had way too many shots.

A game like this can get you energized for the Derby, and it can keep you up to date on all of Todd's Derby stock that you probably aren't going to bet anyway. I think it's a winner.

2. Pin the Tail on Joe Drape

Players are blindfolded, and spun around. They then have to pin the tail on Drape. Whomever is closest wins a subscription to the New York Times.

This is more of an insider game, but since Joe Drape hasn't written a racing article in awhile it can keep the anti-Drape fires burning on backstretches and shedrows until he does.

3. The Mike Repole Pinata

Create a Mike Repole paper mache head and let the fun begin!

This can possibly (if they want to I will let them steal the idea) be a great initiative for the Jockey Club and America's Best Racing. Repole is loaded, so get him to bet hundreds and hundreds of betting tickets, stuff them in his paper mache head and bring it to local schools. Let the kids swing, and collect the tickets. They will likely want to go to the track to cash them, and when they do racing's demographic immediately gets younger.

The NFL has the United Way for community outreach, the Mike Repole Pinata one ups them, because (if Repole picks the right horses) it gives away cash!

4. NYRA Apologist Word Association

A disaster that happened is placed onto NYRA's shoulders, and the NYRA apologist must quickly come up with someone else to blame, or to deny there is a problem to begin with. This is a fun game for NYRA supporters, allowing them to sharpen their skills.

Examples:

"Boy NYRA should've hit the switch on that takeout reduction"

"It was the State's fault!"

"NYRA is responsible for Global Warming"

"I can't believe how cold this winter was!"

5.  Richard Grunder's Word Find

This is great on planes, or when you are sitting around with nothing to do. It's very challenging because you have to find great historical horse names, but they're listed as only Richard Grunder would say them. For example, if you are looking for Affirmed, you would have to find Affirmation. Favorite Trick might be My Favorite Truck.

At times, Grunderisms like "in the shadow of the wire" or "heads apart" are sprinkled into the match for bonus points.

6. TOC-O'Ween

This yearly occurrence happens on Halloween in California.

Kids, dressed up as Batman or Winnie the Poo enter homes of TOC and CHRB members where they are given four pieces of chocolate. Before they leave a man dressed as Mike Pegram jumps out of a closet and takes one piece back saying "you got to pay to play, kid!"

This is an education program for the children, so when they are old enough to bet they can handle increased takeouts at all Calfornia racetracks. They'll probably have fun too, because hell, TOC masks make for a frightening (and memorable) Halloween!

Those are my six. I am biased, but I think all of them are huge winners for the sport of horse racing. Enjoy!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Racing on Television: Why Doesn't It Work Better?

Yesterday we wrote about the ratings numbers for the Kentucky Derby prep races on various networks, from the current NBC Sports Network and NBC to the previously tried ESPN and USA. It's no secret the ratings for live events like the Blue Grass or Wood Memorial have not been knocking it out of the park.

We know horse racing will never beat the NFL or other professional sports on a regular basis for a prep event in terms of TV ratings. But the question is, why aren't they doing better? Should the ratings be better? Can racing hope for more?

We'll start with a sharp fellow who likes this stuff, and enjoys numbers, social scientist Dan from Thorotrends:


..... and we'll add Derek, who is a PR guy in a suit, who generally has a good opinion on such things:


In the NFL, golf or NASCAR, the big events like the Super Bowl, Masters, and Daytona 500 knock the TV ratings out of the ballpark.  Just like the Kentucky Derby does when compared to prep races. Is it all just part of the package and it is what it is?

It might be. But, the NFL, golf and NASCAR make a pretty penny and get some serious ratings for their small events too. Derby prep races - which really can be described as an NFL playoff game, or a semi-big tournament like the Players in golf - have nowhere near the draw of the Derby. Neither does the Breeders Cup for that matter, which has also drawn a three rating in years past. It's like there's the Derby (or other Triple Crown races) and everything else.

Is selling a Derby prep race on television impossible? Is selling race on TV as a weekend desitination impossible? Is there a ceiling, like Dano from Thorotrends thinks?

In my opinion - in its current form - probably.

"It's a horse, stupid."

On twitter, Melissa (@keenegal) tweeted that when going to the Blue Grass stakes where Undrafted, part owned by the Broncos slot receiver Wes Welker, was racing she would not even know Welker if she ran into him. She can't see "past a helmet". Both hockey and the NFL has this issue and more and more they try to get their stars into the media sans headgear, because they think it helps.

In horse racing, the stars are, well, the horses.

Horse's can't talk, and they generally look alike. I know they're different and have personalities, and so do you, but to the general public they are animals.

"How did you feel at the three quarter pole", asks ESPN.

"Nicker" answers the horse.

At least football and hockey players (well, some of them) can communicate with the spoken word. Horse's can't, and the public knows they, not the jockey's or the trainer, are the ones doing all the real work.

"Let's watch a crash. No, let's not."

Some say NASCAR is popular on television because of the crashes. Apparently - why, I am unsure - we like seeing mangled metal and mangled limbs. Horse racing is dangerous too, so why don't we see a spike of those type fans?

Because we're dealing with horses.

Michael Schumacher can get paid $20 million a year knowing he is taking his life into his hands on a racetrack. An animal is taking his life, not into his own hands, but in the hands of others, without even knowing it. The last thing we want to see is an accident or breakdown, and the public feels the same way. We ain't landing the "crash, bang UFC crowd" unless they have a (even more of a) screw loose.

"What team are you cheering for? I don't know, the brown one."

The NFL thrives on team rivalries. The protagonists are "America's Team" or the big bad Patriots who steal other teams plays like a blue jay steals other birds' hard-earned worms. We want to see Brady face Manning because we've known and watched Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for years.

In racing, for Derby prep season, the teams change every year, and like Derek says, many of the teams will not only not be around in a month, we may never even see them again. Oh boy, that sounds exciting!

I was chatting with a non racing fan recently and he loves Animal Kingdom. He saw him in the Derby and loved the horse's name. When I told him he was racing in Dubai, he watched. How many Animal Kingdom's does racing have? One or two. There's no America's Team in these prep races.

This probably helps explains the ratings when we do have something crazy happen - that is, a horse that people know. Zenyatta had a personality, was a filly racing colts, and was on 60 minutes. She blew the TV ratings out of the water, but horse's like her come around once in a generation it seems.

"Hey, a Derby prep is on, who are you betting? Um, We can bet this, how?"

A set of NFL games on a Sunday has innumerable draws. Julie has a bet on the game, Phil is in an office pool, Dave has Adrian Peterson going as his starting running back in his fantasy football league.

And gambling is supposedly illegal.

In horse racing for a Derby prep, gambling is legal, yet try getting a bet down if you are just tuning in for the first time. Joe Blow isn't running to his convenience store to get $5 on the five that he saw a neat story on during the telecast, and he isn't joining up online easily either. If he wants to see a past performance he might have to scour the web, sign up, wait til Monday and give someone $6; all for the privilege to see a set of numbers and symbols he doesn't understand. Heck, if he lives in a state that bans ADW's like Arizona, he can't even gamble online if he jumps through all those hoops.

Horse racing is a gambling sport that survives on people betting money, yet people can more easily gamble on a football game.

Unless something drastic changes in the way racing runs its business, or the way the races are shown, I suspect Dan and Derek are right. Getting over 1 million people to tune into a Derby prep on television where they don't know the horses, the protagonists change, and they can't even gamble on a gambling outcome, in a  gambling sport, seems to be a fundamental barrier to success.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Television is Not Trending Racing's Way

Televising live racing is something that this industry is a big fan of. We want to see the sport on the tube and share it with others. It simply sounds like the right thing to do. Churchill, the Jockey Club and others have been paying to have racing televised, with the hopes it catches on with the masses that matter - a new viewing audience.

So far, it looks like things are not going overly well.

As we talked about two weeks ago, the ratings for the Florida Derby on the NBC Sports Network were mediocre at best, with just over 160,000 viewers. This, fresh off the Road to the Kentucky Derby preview show which only had 19,000 viewers. Two weeks ago the Wood Memorial garnered about the same number of viewers as the Florida Derby.

On the main NBC network, the Blue Grass received a 0.7 rating, which put it near the ratings for the Speed Golf Championships and a monster truck show the same day. In 2002, this same telecast (also against the Masters, with Woods in contention) drew a 1.3 rating for the race itself. In addition, just three years ago, on USA, Derby preps like the Lane's End were earning a 0.3 rating, or 420,000 viewers.

No matter what the network - USA, ESPN, NBCSN or the main networks - racing seems to be losing some momentum (this despite the Kentucky Derby ratings usually being pretty solid.)

Other than reading a few marketing books, and discussing things with some people who know a bit about it, television marketing is by no means my marketing genre.However, what I wrote a couple of years ago about television ad spend still stands, as my opinion, to the best of my ability.
  • Until we figure out our unique market and its place in the world, spending scarce funds on the conduit of television, in my opinion, is putting the cart before the horse. We need to find a way to present racing that sticks with new viewers, and gets them to participate in the racing conversation, in some way, with us.
For whatever reason, prep events do not seem to resonate. They're not the Kentucky Derby, which will be watched no matter who is in it, or who isn't, of course. But the fact that they are not even in the same zip code is troubling.

What can racing do to make these events more watched and deliver more return on ad spend? What strategy can be used to up viewership and get people excited to watch racing as a live event? The answer to that is above my pay grade, but I hope they experiment with something new next year, because what they've been doing doesn't seem to be building an audience.

Related: Follow-up post, with some comments from twitter.

Strange Saturday

Good morning racing fans!

Saturday has come and gone, and in my opinion (if you returned from a 40 year time warp), it was one strange Saturday.

Last evening at Charles Town, Game On Dude won the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic. The race, one of the richest in North America, drew six entrants. It was held in the middle of West Virginia, at a bull ring.

At Yonkers, the Levy Series continued, with $50k divisions and the best horses, trainers and drivers on the planet. It was held at a place with a low handle, about 350% lower than across the bridge, where they are racing $10,000 claiming finals on a Saturday. It produced, as usual, some of the worst betting races known to man.

Neither of those places are doing anything wrong. Charles Town has put on a good race, have slot cash, have lowered rakes, do good promotional work, and have turned a backwoods racetrack into a place people have begun to pay attention to. Yonkers has done less on the customer front, but why not attract good horses and participants to your track for a Saturday card? They got's slot cash too.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, Hawthorne, a privately owned track with no slots, put on the Illinois Derby. It was for $750,000, produced a thrilling race, included a large, full field, and was won by a horse who certainly would have a shot at the Derby. But the Grade III race was taken out of the Derby points scheme. As well, there's a goofy signal fight in Illinois, where in state horseplayers are being screwed from playing the races at an ADW.

If you rolled back the clock 50 years, or found yourself in a David Lynch time travel movie, none of those things would make much sense. Today, in horse racing, it is simply reality. Slots money has diverted purses, but it has not brought with it a change in customer behavior or betting dollars. Politics has changed the Kentucky Derby too. Signal fights? Well, I guess they've been here since the Interstate Horse Racing Act and are not going anywhere. For bettors who say there is not a horsemen group who even remotely notices or cares about them, they're probably right; but a horsemen group is there to protect themselves, not customers.

Regardless, having $1.5 million races with six horses in a small state, at a small track, racing for big money in harness racing with few handle dollars, or having a Derby prep not be a Derby prep dependent upon who says what, and what politics are currently happening, is horse racing in this day and age. It is what it is.



Friday, April 19, 2013

Slots, Breaking Bad and Some @Itsthejho & @keenegal

Good morning racing fans!

Slots at Thistledown gets off to an inauspicious debut. Horsemen have blocked the signal, and hey, why not right?:
  •  Ohio horsemen don’t appear to be worried, since a new law grants them at least nine percent of revenue from the track’s slot machines if there is no agreement with the track on a set portion. The first condition book still contains purses which are an average of 65 percent higher than last year in anticipation of coming subsidies, and there are an average of 9.9 horses entered in the eight races on the opening card.
I don't know how many customers have been lost over the years with signal blockages, but it's probably more than a few.

Speaking of slots, a bettor-type talks slots at the Meadowlands and what that can do for harness racing (pdf):
  •  Currently, even with many jurisdictions with slots, change and vision and reinvestment is not part of the picture. In Ontario we saw the Racing Development and Sustainability plan left unfunded. In many other jurisdictions we see some tinkering, but very little in the way of investment or major change. If slots are approved at the Meadowlands I'd bet dollars to donuts the proceeds would be used much
    differently. And everyone - every fan, every bettor, every customer, every yearling buyer or breeder, every horsemen, every track executive and every third party software maker like Dave Vicary - should be pulling for it to happen.
Speaking of slots (III), Sue Leslie of OHRIA commented about if the Slots at Racetracks program in Ontario will ever come back:
  •  "I personally don't think it will return, particularly in the form that it was. I'm hopeful that there may be some form of slot revenue sharing at some racetracks but I would doubt very much that there's going to be an industry program called slots-at-racetracks going forward."
#FridayFollow - Yesterday, everyone's twitter friend Melissa made her TVG debut, handicapping the fourth race at Keeneland. By all accounts she did a good job, and arguably had the best bet in the race, with the 12 horse coming third after a super-wide trip. You can follow her at @keenegal on twitter.

We've spoke about it here for bigger harness races, The Prince of Wales Stakes might be raced this year on a Tuesday.  Packaging a race like that when there are fewer races (and competition) going on is smart in this day and age.

I was handicapping Keeneland's 7th race yesterday, looking for some sort of a bomb, because I was not in love with the chalks. I came across a replay for one horse, who just so happened to be in Java's War's maiden attempt. Guess what? Java's War broke bad. It's something to think about come Derby Day, I think.

John Pricci said what needed to be said about the Baffert situation.
  • Common sense dictates that seven cardiac-related deaths from one barn in 18 months, five during training hours, is way beyond the pale. Horsemen interviewed by myself and others are warily suspicious to say the least, their observations going beyond the usual competitive jealousy. The animal is at the heartbeat of this way of life. What is problematic has been the public deference shown toward Mr. Baffert by CHRB members one day before--through a public relations firm and on the advice of counsel-- he would issue the ill-considered “personally troubling” statement. 
California racing, in my opinion, acts like it is on an island, and like its participants and governing bodies can somehow control it in any way they see fit. California racing is one of the faces of racing in the sport, and right now (from the outside looking in) I agree with John that it appears it is suffering from a lack of strong and informed leadership. If that is happening, it affects everyone in the sport, not just California.

#FollowFriday II It's the JHO! Justin over at Vernon has created a Showvivor contest for harness bettors with a $1500 first prize. If you win, who knows, maybe you'll meet his cousin JLO! You can follow JHO here: @itsthejho

Have a nice Friday everyone.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

If Pittsburgh Phil Were Alive Today.....

The Colins Ghost blog is one of the more fascinating and interesting blogs in blogland. At times he not only writes snippets about the history of racing, the horses and the people who raced them, he writes about betting.

Today he detailed an excerpt from a book written about the legendary horseplayer Pittsburgh Phil (be sure to visit for a great picture of him). The quotes, taken at a time when governments, tracks and racings participants were beginning to bleed the customer dry with increased takeout, are telling.
  •  If Pittsburgh Phil were alive today he’d sooner match coins on the street corner than buck the deadly percentage of the pari-mutuel machines.
Average takeouts were about 10% at that time, versus 22% today.

Back in 1900, Phil was pretty legendary. He watched works, timed races, kept his ear to the ground and he gambled. If he wanted to bet a horse with a 25% chance to win, he'd look for 7-2 and often he'd find it from a willing bookmaker. He'd bet his $100, or what have you, and get his price. He'd watch the race knowing he had an edge, because, well, he had an edge.

It's simple-to-understand gambling, and it is why he did what he did.

Today if he doped out a horse like a Mike Maloney or thousands of good horseplayers do a day, he'd certainly have a different time of it.

If he wanted to bet a horse with that 25% chance he would check the tote at 3 minutes to post and see 4-1. He could make his bet and at the half mile pole see his horse at 8-5. He'd watch the race thinking he had an edge, only to see it evaporated by this "new technology tote system", which is in fact technology about thirty years old.

Perhaps, like most serious players today, he would seek a rebate and not look for edges per se, but look for churn and volume, hoping to end up with more money than he started with. He'd have to learn a new way of doing things.

More likely, I think he'd probably move and set up shop somewhere else. He might do what Dave Nevison does in the UK. Sniff out a horse, find a bookie to take his bet, just like Phil might've done a century ago, and then look to lay some of it at Betfair, juicing his final odds to a point where he has an edge bet. 

Maybe he'd head to Hong Kong and try to take advantage of dumb money in the pools, with big money pokes at a Triple Trio, like the very successful Alan Woods did for years.

Times change, but one thing that never changes is a horseplayer's search for making a value bet. Value betting, an often misused term, simply means betting a horse whose chances at victory are higher than the odds offered. Today value is hard to find - 22% blended takeouts, and a tote system worthy of an episode of the Flintstones assures that. This, as the Colin's Ghost article says  "make[s] an impossible situation and prove[s] a short cut to the nearest poorhouse.”

In 2013 we are promoting a gambling game that most gamblers see as a short cut to the nearest poorhouse. Food trucks, bands, youtube videos and mobile betting can never, ever reach the pure bettor. Turning racing into a better gambling game - the way it was in Phil's time - isn't turning back the clock, it's doing something that's fundamental for any gambling game to thrive.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

It Takes Time, But in Racing Things Do Change

About ten months ago the NYSRWB instituted a security barn for the Belmont Stakes. At that time the headlines said "Detention Barns Unwise Move" and "Belmont Stakes Trainers Bristle at Extra Security" and "Security Barns Irk Trainers"

Fast forwarding one year, the Derby, the Preakness, and presumably the Belmont again will add security protocols. This, on the heels of the Santa Anita Derby instituting their 72 hour surveillance initiatives. There's nary a peep from the usual suspects, who complain, sometimes only for the sake of complaining. It's likely you'll see more and more of these surveillance barns for years to come.

Change is hard in racing but sooner or later that change happens.

In 2004 or 2005 rebates were being given by offshores, much to (they had a point) racing's dismay. When bettors like me and you said "your customers are telling you your prices are too high - offer your own to compete and get them back", you were told it was "too expensive" and "never gonna happen". Racing hung their hats that shutting them down with things like the UIGEA would get those customers back, but that never happened, because it was the price, not the avenue that was the issue. Fast forwarding six or seven years, rebaters are here, and a couple shops are now owned by companies like Magna and CDI. Other than in backwards California, you can get a rebate if you are a big player, or a small one, virtually anywhere. Handle is probably $2B higher today with them.

The whipping debate in Ontario was tantamount to the hand-wringing of a woman getting married to another woman while drinking a large sugary drink at a gun shop; you'd think the world was ending. Now? The whipping is what was prescribed and those who use them use them within the rules.

Many other changes, like a six month ban for a class I, with horsemen groups fighting like hell to make them less penal, are long gone. Now, get caught with frog juice, you're getting ten years and your horsemen group commiserates with you in comforting silence, not on the front pages of the DRF.

I think this is why so many were upset with the Breeders Cup backing off their lasix initiative. It would've taken time, but some consensus on lasix would've been achieved much quicker if they held firm. The status-quo protectors won that round, but I doubt they'll win the entire fight. Because in racing change takes a long time, but sooner or later it comes.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Slotsgone: Woodbine Harness Cuts Trakus, No Takeout Reductions

Woodbine, one of the few tracks that put at least a little bit of slots cash into the end product, has officially ended Trakus and they have not followed with a harness rake reduction like they have with the thoroughbreds. 
  •  "We've taken a different approach on standardbred. We raised our guarantees starting [this past] Thursday night to $75,000," Martin told Trot Insider. "It has to do with the takeouts at other tracks. Thoroughbred is more competitive than standardbred with takeout, that's not a secret."
The win rake reduction for thoroughbreds is not a bad idea. When you look at the lowest win takes on the HANA chart, Woodbine will pop up on top.

So far, slots being removed from the equation in Ontario - from an end user perspective - has resulted in a loss of Trakus and an end to the Score show, at Woodbine. On the flip side, we see a rake reduction and an increase in a pool guarantee.

Woodbine held a rally Monday to try and drum up some support for a casino in Rexdale. This, as I have written many times here, I think is the best course of action for Woodbine. That and government lobbying as they have been doing seems to be working. Woodbine has always been good at this course of action. They've been around for a long, long time, and have worked closely with all forms of government.

As for handle, I think they'll probably have to be more aggressive with customer-centric promotions, or they will have a tough year.

Things have gotten very competitive in horse racing the last few years. After what feels like decades of few changes - anti-customer changes rather than pro-customer in many cases - things have started moving. Rainbow sixes, changes in takeout rates, rebating, "paying people to play" have probably saved racings yearly handle numbers from falling into the $8B per year range. It's not that long ago that rebating was a bad word in the sport and paying people to play was specifically abhorred at the old OJC/Woodbine; now it's commonplace. Players are expecting more and more each year it seems and they are slowly (especially in places without slots) becoming perceived as being important rather than a useful nuisance.

It will be very interesting to see what 2013 brings for the thoroughbreds and standardbreds at Woodbine. The thoroughbred meet begins this Saturday, and harness racing continues until stakes season begins at Mohawk in May. If you are a thoroughbred player you should be giving Woodbine a look. Low win rake and high rebates (if you are at a rebate shop that carries the signal), and larger than average field size can be fruitful.

Notes: News on the Rudy Rodriguez licensing hearing today.  People can call it what they want, but Kentucky sending a signal that they take these things seriously sends a message to the industry - if you are a miracle worker off the barn change, have a history, and have medication violations, you can't just skate through like no one is minding the horse racing store. It's not 2005 anymore.


The Pace Puzzle Starring Blame & Zenyatta

Derek Simon wrote a neat article on pace recently where he looked at fast and slow half mile split times and their effect on the final time. He found, that over a large sample, a brisk to moderate pace results in the fastest final time. Too fast or too slow, and we don't see it quite as much.

Intuitively this doesn't make sense, but if we think about it a little more deeply, it does.

Like humans, a horses final time is a representation of their internal fractions, where even ones are relaxed and comfortable, stops and starts, fast and slow, are uncomfortable. Physics taught us that in high school. In general, in route races, the larger the variance between internal quarters, the less efficient the energy use. Horses - no matter what fractions the leader puts up - who "run their race" will have a better final time.

People have talked about it in idiomatic terms for a hundred years: "It's not how fast they run, it's how they run fast".

If we look at the Breeders Cup in 2010, Blame exemplifies this well. Not only did he get a clean inside trip, he ran his fractions with not very much variance at all (average fractions for a 2:02.3 race would be about 24.4). It was a fairly even effort, which should result in him running exactly to his ability, or arguably a decent figure:
  • Blame                       24.6     24.5     23.7     24.6     24.9
His bigger third quarter probably took its toll late, where he came home in almost 25 seconds. Good for Blame.

Zenyatta ran these numbers:
  •  Zenyatta                   26.3     23.7     23.7     24.5     24.1
I guess if we were comparing internal fractions we'd say she was the much better horse. She ran uneven, and in a stop and start.

But here is where the simple concept of even fractions muddies a pace puzzle.

Blame's fractions fit his running style perfectly, and were pretty ideal. Zenyatta's probably fit her pretty well too. She was a deep closer, and racing her as Mike Smith did (although he took tons of criticism for the loss) arguably allowed her to fire her gun.

At Santa Anita in the 2009 Breeders Cup (on a faster surface) she ran these fractions:
  •  SA BCC            26.9     23.3     23.3     23.9    23.2
I'm of the belief she was in better form and faster in 2009, however the numbers are not too far off what she ran at Churchill (and thankfully stopped the "she's only a synthetic horse" nonsense).

So, not only do we have to look at pace and internal fractions when assessing a horse's final time, we have to look at running style, too.

When interviewed by Horseplayer Magazine, Mike Maloney said "I think evaluating pace is still an area where there’s still some opportunity if a person takes the time to do it."

I think there's no doubt he's right. If you want to open a can of worms, open one that contains the concept of pace. You can spend a lot of time trying to figure it out, but it's a fascinating mental exercise.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Brand New Post Idea: A Derby List!

I was sitting around last week and wondered why there are no Kentucky Derby lists; y'know, like a top ten or top sixteen, or whatever. They have them for sports like the NFL, NHL; they even have a top ten for Miss America Pageants. Why not the Kentucky Derby? Boy is this sport backwards.

I figured I would create a new trend right here on the blog. I don't have the following of Seth, or Ray, or Steve (Go NYRA, Wooooo!), or even the very charming Andy Serling. But maybe, just maybe, this new idea of a Derby List can help me approach their immense popularity.

Here it is, the new, exciting, groundbreaking, Pocket's Derby List ®. If anyone tries to steal this and do their own top "X" list, please beware, I will need a licensing fee.

Special note: This is so new, and so unique, people like Sheik Mo and Sid Fernando will tweet this piece to millions of their followers,it will likely appear on ESPN, the DRF and the Bacon Report, too. You might experience slow load times. Please be patient!

1. Itsmyluckyday

*Pros* - The fastest horse this year, in my opinion. I think he was flat last time and seemed to have the tank on about 7. I think a horse near the lead will win the Derby.

*Cons* - Pedigree questions. Didn't exactly look like a world beater in the Florida Derby.

2. Orb

*Pros* - Looks like he can run all day, is tractable, somewhat versatile, seems sound, has a good trainer and doesn't get too worked up.

*Cons* - Might not be fast enough; his last prep didn't exactly stun the world in the way of a fig, or a big last quarter. Tough to see a horse winning a Derby with a name that is some sort of ball. That might be nitpicking.

3. Java's War 

*Pros* - Like Orb, looks like he can run all day. Looks like a Derby horse.

*Cons* - He looks like a less professional, slightly slower, less versatile version of Orb. Might break poorly and be closing from 20th. No worries if so, because people on twitter can just blame Julien.

4. Goldencents

*Pros* - Much to some bettors surprise, perhaps, he handled the 72 hour security at Santa Anita. He has speed and looks like they'll use it, trying to be this years Bodemeister, without a Trinniberg to contend with. I wouldn't blame them, maybe he can run away and hide. Top LO Beyer has won 6 of the last twenty one Derby's.

*Cons* - Do you want to bet a horse with a tricked up fig on a souped up track which might cause an underlay? Lexington is not big enough to offset the Louisville cash on this hoss.

5. Normandy Invasion

*Pros* - I was watching Patton last month on AMC one night and figured he'd be betting this colt with both fists. Not really a pro, more of a feeling. This horse looks like he hasn't been cranked up yet, so there's room for improvement.

*Cons* - A bit of a wise guy horse I think, and sometimes those stink to bet.

6. Lines of Battle

*Pros*- I have no idea. You just have to put him somewhere, because this year's crop ain't running 110 beyers.

*Cons* - Daddy Long Legs. What a bad bet. The Dubai-Derby winner ROI is worse than betting a Pletcher horse.

7. Mylute 

*Pros* - He looked decent in the Lousiana Derby and could move forward off of it. Good trainer who knows what he's doing.

*Cons* - Should've won the Louisiana Derby. 

8. Overanalyze 

*Pros* - Only two preps, same as Super Saver. Has a fast fig. Might peak for the Derby.

*Cons* -  Do we really want to bet a Pletcher horse?

9. Palace Malice

*Pros* - Has to be ahead of Revolutionary, because I think he dusts him easily in Louisiana if he doesn't get bounced around like a three year old at a Chuck E Cheese birthday party. Has some speed and talent it appears.

*Cons* - How did he lose the Blue Grass if he's any good? Do we really want to bet a Pletcher horse?

10. Will Take Charge

*Pros* - Obviously has some go. If you don't use a D. Wayne Lukas horse on a list like this you are not a horse racing fan. It's like having a top ten TV detective list and not using Columbo.

*Cons* - What's up with the mile works? Is DWL trying to confuse other trainers? Is he trying to throw us off to cash a big superfecta? The potential mystery involved is perplexing.

11. Vyjack

*Pros* - That was quite the talented move in the Gotham. He has a great name. A Derby-worthy name for sure. He might've been sick in the Wood and if he races that well while sick, look out. Joe Drape's favorite horse.

*Cons* - He seemed to struggle in the last sixteenth off a great trip. Sickness excuses are sometimes just lame excuses, developed from generations of trainerspeak.

12. Verrazano Verazzano (I always spell it wrong, just like Leriosdexendesoromeaux)

*Pros* - He has not lost a race. An imposing physical presence, like the dude on the cover of a romance novel, except he's a horse.

*Cons* - He looks as green as grass. I like that he is running figs with this greenness, but in Kentucky with a 20 horse field and a big crowd it could be a recipe for a last place finish (but I will use him 12th). And of course, do we really want to bet a Pletcher horse? He's tied with Apollo.

There's the "Derby Top 12". Thanks for your patience, especially with these slow load times. Have a great Monday everyone!!!!

A Whirlwind Saturday

Good Sunday morning racing fans.

It's snowing here. Yes, snowing. Winter is not going to end until next winter, I am sure of it.

Yesterday's Kentucky Derby preps are in the books. Here are a few thoughts from a handicapping person.

 > Both preps were glacial, but you don't need fast times to generate excitement, in my opinion anyway. Both were entertaining affairs, and presented betting opportunities.

> If you have a horse coming into the Derby I am not sure you're happier than Ken McPeek. Java's War had one prep on dirt, where he closed nicely, and one on poly where he did the same. Discount the performance yesterday all you want by the teletimer, but he passed every horse, and he did not get a 46.2 half or anything either. I suspect what one might be worried about at the Derby is his break in a 20 horse field, as well as the fact the Churchill oval might be a runway like it was last year. Regardless, if you like to bet a horse who looks like he has a Derby pedigree who can run all day, who looks 100% sound and ready, that's your horse.

> Todd Pletchers 2 for 49 triple crown race record is well documented, but there are a couple of nuances this year to notice. Overanalyze, who won the Arkansas Derby going away has not had a "Perfect Pletcher Prep" season like most of his 3 year olds do - most of whom race in the Derby about as slow as a fat man in flip flops. Overanalyze comes in just like Super Saver did, which represents Pletcher's only Derby win. Also, Palice Malice who got mauled in New Orleans does not have "PPP" either. He raced well yesterday and is coming into the Derby with a different foundation. If you want to fade "PPP" - like a lot of sharp bettors have over the years - with Revolutionary and Verrazano, there are reasons to like the other Pletcher's, in my opinion.

> It's important to pay attention to how ready a colt is, and maybe you can make some hay. Frac Daddy had a quarter crack after the Holy Bull, and was probably unable to be trained much for his next effort. Yesterday, with some sort of soundness and fitness he fired an excellent shot in the Arkansas Derby, racing very wide throughout, coming a nice second.

> Fade the flash. Flashy wins, which are made look better by the competition, are usually a good fade. Rydilluc raced okay I thought, but wow, 7-2, off a perfect set up win, on a different surface from post 13?

> We thought Fort Larned's riderless escapade in Florida was achieved by racing like a scared cat. Racing like a scared cat can produce fast times, but they also can present a big bounce. I think we saw that yesterday in the Oaklawn Handicap. The next uber-fade we might have to look at is Dreaming of Julia, in my opinion.

> I've bet thousands upon thousands of races and can recite hundreds of bad beats, but I could never ever say "I was leading at the top of the lane, took a right turn, then a left turn, then a right turn around the starting gate and lost by a nose". Fast forward to the 3/4's for this stupendously bad beat.  

> If you watched the Arkansas Derby and said "oh, oh" when I did after Baffert's horse pulled up, apparently he's okay. But it was reported by Baffert on twitter and no one else that I saw. Gosh it looked bad.

Have a nice Sunday everyone and I hope the races treated you well yesterday.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

What Will Racing Look Like in 2050, & Other Saturday Fun

Good morning racing fans! As we embark on an interesting Saturday of racing, I wonder what our sport would look like in 35 years........
  • "Racetracks and communities will hold events that will turn small town racing into a true tourist destination for days or weeks of the year. Revenues will flow through partnerships with corporations looking to leverage the love of the horse. Wagering handle will explode and betting exchanges will allow customers to bet horses online in a way that is responsive to their needs. Fans will come to the racetrack for the energy it provides, as it will be a tremendous social gathering in a society dominated by impersonal devices. The product will offer tremendous variety and be integrated into a lean and efficient entertainment offering rivalling the best shows available. The public’s relationship with horse racing will also become about their relationship with the animal and to agriculture – not a sterile spot to cheer for saddlecloth numbers and colours."
The above was from an interview with Darryl Kaplan. For the full interview (specifically not about Ontario's situation, but an overall look at the sport), click here (PDF). 

There's quite the conversation going on at SC, where one better/customer is chatting with industry participants. It's fascinating to watch the interactions.

Today's festivities include the $10k HANA Derby Wars game, with the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby. I find both, but especially the former, great betting tilts. For the BG we have a couple of horses making a start back, where they should be better - Java's War and Uncaptured. As well, we have a horse doing something very, very, very odd - a Todd Pletcher colt with no works between stakes engagements.

There's this kid at the mall, I am pretty sure he's a communist, that runs some sort of table each weekend. Most times he is handing out stuff on Global Warming. Today, he is likely to get socked in the noggin by disbelieving villagers. I woke up to snow. Yes, snow. This winter has been ridonkulous.

The Bob Baffert situation continues, with a statement sent from him, through handlers.

The NYRA folks got mad at me for asking for a cheap pick 5 and lower rake with slots windfall. Now they can get mad at Steve Crist instead.

Enjoy the days racing everyone, and if you are playing in the Derby Wars contest, good luck and see you there!


Friday, April 12, 2013

Woodbine Lowers Win Takeout, Derby Wars & Other Musings

Here's a take on some news, if y'all are interested.....

Woodbine lowered their win takeout to 14.95%, which is the lowest in North America. Perhaps they checked this handy ratings chart to see where they needed to go to do that. This is a good thing. As I wrote awhile back, looking at each bet type and rake that I thought made sense:
  •  When we eat at a restaurant we look at the prices and they can help us decide what to order. The tote board is racings restaurant menu. When you see a board with lower takeout, you are advertising value to the masses. This is very important to any sport or game. A football game with a -1+1, -150 line is not appealing, and when racing, for example, has a match race with two horses at 3-5 each it is not very appealing either. You don't have to be a mathematical genius to realize you are getting a coin flip bet, at terrible odds. A low rake tote board let's everyone know you are open for business, it allows bettors to churn more money. It also allows (along with low take two horse exotics) for racing to say "our game is beatable" to sports bettors and poker players (see comments of sports bettors here, for what I mean). I have never, in all my dealings with racing, understood why they have high WPS takeout. It used to be 5% and it should've stayed there.
The fact of the matter is, at 14.95%, you might actually have a shot - with some discipline - to make a go of it in the win pools at Woodbine thoroughbreds. With a large field size, that low takeout, in my opinion, allows you to beat the game. If you add in a small rebate through a place like HPI, you are doing even better.

Like most takeout changes it won't be immediately felt, however, over time it should be a good thing, and for bettors looking for a win pool to play, you can't do much better than Woodbine.

This is apparently for Woodbine thoroughbreds only, which raises some questions. If I have some time I will dig around and try and find out why.

Yesterday we had a semantic CHRB meeting, where the sudden death issue was brought up. Spikes, lulls, normal, abnormal? 'We're not looking at any particular barn'. Ed Zieralski puts the matter out in a simple headline:  "Trainer Bob Baffert's Horses are Dying at an Unusual Rate"


Derby Wars is a cool site, and tomorrow they have a $10,000 Game, co-sponsored by HANA. It's a lot of fun and I'm playing. I am going to try and take tomorrow off from serious betting, play the tournament and watch the Masters.



Speaking of the Masters, there is a gazillion dollars bet already this year and no doubt, with a tight leaderboard that will continue. The course is playing soft and I loved seeing Phil Mickelson's comments that he was going to "fire at pins" because this is not a regular Masters. Not too many players say what they feel at Augusta, but he does. Compare that to a bland Tiger Woods interview that sounds like it's been rehearsed with a team of handlers.

I made a trip to the Masters for the first (and probably only time) several years ago. I got to see a practice round, and learned that beer is not served on Sunday's at the gas station beside the hotel. On the way there I stopped at Keeneland and had a blast. After watching Santa Anita go back to dirt, at the behest of some of the power brokers, I hope Keeneland does not follow suit. This meet has been decent to play, with a neat concept at work on the poly: If they go too fast, closers can win. If they go too slow, leaders can win. Whoda thunk it?

There will be an interview with SC's Darryl Kaplan this weekend in Harness Racing Update. Darryl is always good to read because he usually has big ideas and he is simply a huge fan of the sport. Trying things and being bold has never been one of his favorite things to avoid. He also does not let the infighting, alphabets and status quo protectors get him down much either.

Other reminders: Hastings Park opens tomorrow, trying to continue the momentum of their lower takeout and fractional wagering initiatives.

Enjoy your Friday everyone.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Desert Horse Shows Are Tough, A Track Trying & The Ratings

By now you've all read the Baconator (and others) story on So Cal racing. I feel there is little to comment on, as it is pretty new, and somewhat nebulous.

However, one comment in the (massive) comments section caught my eye:
  • "mexican redbull" is rumored to be used by some pennsylvania super trainers.
Those goofy backstretch names (and rumors). I have never heard of it, so like a certain trainers connections, I googled it. I only found a mention of it on a Arizona Desert Show horse thingamajig
  •  Here are a just a few common names of prohibited substances: Clenbuterol, Paylean, Caffeine, all of the Steroids and mixtures such as Mexican Red Bull, the red juice, the pink stuff, the orange stuff, the yellow juice, Nitrotain, Dexamethazone, Lasix, Bute, Banamine, DMSO, all  nerve blocking agents.
So it appears "Mexican Red Bull" does exist (whatever it is).

Regardless, this show is tough because in one of the following paragraphs, they ain't taking no guff:
  •  We don't care "Who done it", or "How it happened."  We don't care if the owner, the trainer, the vet, the disgruntled ex-employee (ex-boyfriend/girlfriend), the jealous competitor or the Martians at midnight did it or if it was by carelessness, accident or mistake, knowingly or unknowingly.  We are not affixing blame to any person.  If the prohibited substance is found in a horse at any time during the training period, during a qualification race or during the main Desert Showdown Event, that horse is disqualified and all money paid for its enrollment and entry is forfeited.  Additionally, if anyone (any racing commission or jurisdiction) catches the horse with a with a positive test for any banned/prohibited substance, that horse is disqualified from our race program. In other words, if we don't catch it but someone else does, your horse is out of our program too. 
Holy moly. Watch out.

HANA's 67 Racetracks are now published, with full sortable notes on field size, handle growth, pool size and many others. 

Hastings opens this weekend and Raj and the fella's and ladies are sure trying hard. They have lowered takeout yet again, and are doing the little things (wifi, a good customer experience etc) that go hand in hand.

Give these guys a look.






Oh oh, Crunk has been blocked by Baffert:
Yesterday I wrote about how the OLG's "plan" is a response to  changing demos and a changing gambling world. I also wrote how "weird" some of its implementation is. At least the Auditor General is now looking into it, although it probably won't mean much for racing.

Enjoy your Thursday everyone!


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Anticipating Disruptive Changes & Rolling With the Punches

Changes in markets, demographics, delivery systems and the like have long been known as market disruption. The car disrupted the horse and buggy, the mall disrupted the mom and pop store on the downtown strip, Ebay disrupted the auction market, electronic mail disrupted the US Postal service, and on and on and on.

Some disruptions can be planned for, and business model's modified to attack the changes, and those have occurred as well. If one told you thirty years ago that state after state and province after province will have billion dollar casino's, slot parlors, sports betting, lotteries and everything that goes with them, you might think Vegas would be a ghost town, but it is not. They modified what they were.

I read a pile of white papers each week, and one that I did read was the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Review. I figured that if they were coming for all of racing's slot money in Ontario I might as well understand why the consultants they hired told them to do it. In effect, many of the changes they have planned were the result of being disrupted, and this was their response to them.
  • While gaming and lottery playing have been well accepted entertainment options for decades, the current OLG business model is not sustainable over the long term. Advances in technology, changes to shopping patterns, aging demographics, and declining visits from the U.S. have combined to threaten the industry and the contribution to the Province.
I personally think many of the changes they have planned will not work - mainly because the citizenry in the province does not have the stomach for more gaming. However, the plan was in response to something real - a changing gaming world - and they are trying to make it happen.

In racing we too have faced many disruptions, just like the OLG has. Online gaming, is one. That realm is younger, tech savvy and if they wanted their gambling fix in 1980 they went to the track. Now they go online to play a game of poker, or what have you.

Racing's response to that has been somewhat muted.

For example, Betfair has been running its business since 2002 - 11 years now - with this demographic (green bars show a higher weighting to the general population, red shows lower):

Meanwhile, racing toils with this (DRF.com):


The former Managing Director of Betfair was interviewed a long while ago now and said this about their customers:
  • They're in the 25 to 40-year-old bracket. In horse racing, they are predominantly male. They are predominantly people who see themselves as professional rather than blue collar. In Australia, our demographic tends to be a mirror image of what it is in the UK and it tends to mirror the demographic in Europe. It's a different sort of world of people compared to the ones you and I see on a daily basis when we go to the track. If you were to go out to Aqueduct today, could you imagine the demographic? The same goes for Australia. I am a member of the Melbourne Racing Club, which hosts the Melbourne Cup. I have two sons, 21 and 17. I walk into the members with my two sons, who both love racing, and I am the third youngest person in the members' area and I'm 50. What's happening to our sport that we're not encouraging young people to attend? If we do encourage them to attend, we encourage them through booze, concerts, and so forth. I think that's fabulous. But the issue is that it isn't leaving an intrinsic mark on people's brains about racing as a sport.
We complain that racing does not have a sales funnel to young people, but what have we done?

Concerts?

A painted bus?

Mobile phone wagering?

What about giving them what they want - a new exciting way to play the sport. That was never really considered. In fact, alphabet after alphabet tried to block any change, and continue to. This has been going on for eleven years.

I have been critical of the OLG plan here on the blog and I am the first to admit I am totally biased, because they side-swiped my sport. But as their white paper shows, they have seen the writing on the wall and they realize they need to make changes to ensure the Province receives revenue from gambling for decades to come. They are making that happen, come hell or high water, no matter how many toes they step on. They're getting punched, but they are trying to punch back.

Racing too has been given a chance, a chance to change the sport, the way it operates, the way it distributes the product, through betting exchanges and other avenues.We don't roll with the punches and change, we seem to simply take punches.

If we try and block product changes that a demographic says they like and are interested in, how can we ever expect to win them as customers?

Betfair is over a decade old now so it is not longer "new", but when the next Betfair comes along that might help racing, I hope it says yes and looks at it. We can no longer look to block, protect, and hope things get better.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Beating the Chalk

Each time I go to Vegas I stop by the Gambler's Book Shop (which I think might be no more) to see what they have in stock that's racing related. Some of what they carry is out of date, which, as far as I am concerned is all the better. Just like we don't want to bet what others are betting, we don't want to be using angles that others are using, too.

I once picked up a book, which shall remain nameless, and I ran all their hot "angles" through a database. All the angles - not some, but all - were ROI negative, despite having the expected good impact values.  Some were of an angle variety which we all love and yearn for: Here's how you beat the chalk.

It's great to beat the chalk. Not only are you getting a great payoff, but it feels good. We outsmarted the crowd! Unfortunately, it is one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult things to do in horse racing, in an ROI positive fashion.

When you try and subset data to beat the chalk, it shows just how hard it is.

Beware the chalk off extended layoffs! Well, here is this year by favorite, by days since last start, non first time starters (click to enlarge):

 Horses off greater than 300 days, who are the favorite, win at 37.72% with an ROI of 0.91. This is well ahead of horses who have recency in their profiles. If you try to beat the chalk that way, you're road kill.

Maybe we don't want to bet chalk if they are from lower ranked connections? Beware!

I guess there's something to it, but if you try and pitch out the 4th or 5th ranks, you aren't making much headway - their ROI is at or near the top connections.

Jcapper has a neat algorithm for horses who look ugly - no works for awhile, terrible form, ugly, negative-angle horses. They win at 4.6% of the time. What do they do as a favorite? A 0.81 ROI and a 29% win percentage. When ugly horses filled with negative angle after negative angle payout what any other horse does when they're chalk, it's a mighty tough gig. 

Most angles you often hear to beat the chalk tend to be just like most angles: A fast way to the poorhouse.

Here are a few things I look for when I want to fade a chalk, and they all have a common theme:
  • Perfect trip beaten favorite.
  • Post parade inspection. Does the horse look off, is he or she less keen and happy? 
  • Cold trainer. Jamie Ness has run off the board with a few lately. Why bet him at 4-5 if he's cold?
  • A hot "Replay" horse. He was checked and would've won for fun. But everyone saw it. These are the types who are even money and have a 35% chance to win.
I only find profitable fades over time when I go "off book", with tiny subsets. That works for me.

What works for you?



Monday, April 8, 2013

D-Barn Eggs with Some Crist Bacon

Last week Paulick wrote a little bit about detention (or security, or retention, or surveillance depending on where you live it seems) barns at the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby. He likened the whole experience to the intrusive TSA background checks, along with the narrative that if a little inconvenience is necessary to ensure an honestly run race, it's a small price to pay. In the end, both the Wood and the Santa Anita Derby went off without a hitch.

While not mentioning him by name, Steve Crist let his opposite thoughts to the Baconater known on security barns, with the following. 
  •  Some supporters have likened the measures to extra security at airports, inconvenient but benign. This selective implementation, however, is more like increasing airport security only for first-class passengers on flights to expensive resorts.
Looking at both articles and applying some Pocket logic (beware, sometimes it's not good logic), I have to side with the Bacon man on this one.

Crist wrote:

"If extra security is necessary, why is it being taken for only one of the thousand or so races being run at Aqueduct this year? "

This is the "aren't all races important" argument. To me the argument has never held water. At the Tour De North Dakota (pretty sure I made that up, but you get my drift), riders are not subjected to trailer searches, random blood doping checks in the middle of the night, or a rigorous pre-race blood passport regime. For the Tour De France they are. This makes common-sense: A rider who wins the Tour De France can cash in on millions of dollars, and the race is watched by millions of people. If they win the Tour De Fargo, neither are likely.

The winner of a Derby prep, through purses and stud fees, the value of brothers and sisters of the horse, the progeny sales numbers of the sire and the dam can cause millions in ripple effects; especially if he wins the Derby. We aren't racing for ribbons.

Some like to say that detention barns hurt integrity because it makes the public think we're all cheaters. I think the opposite. If you tell anyone on earth that horses who win a big Triple Crown race can earn millions of dollars they'd probably say "and you don't monitor them before the race? Are you crazy?"

And let's be serious. In popular culture any reference you see on a TV show, book, or in a discussion at your local bar about racing usually involves horses and "doping". It's engrained. It's not like we're exposing some sort of industry secret by having a security barn. Yes, at times people have drugged horses for monetary gain. Oh boy. What a revelation.

In the end, detention barns and the like should probably be implemented for all big races, just like it's done for all big cycling events. The simple fact is that there are things that can be done to a horse before a race to help him or her win. Shock wave therapy, frog juice, to name but two, and let's not pretend that people haven't tried anything before, even in detention.

Is this a pandemic problem? Are trainers running around with frog juice needles before the Derby each year? Of course not, but sometimes it's better to be 100% sure, and having a track security guard monitoring a horse worth a potential millions of dollars for a few hours before a race doesn't seem odd in the least. In fact, it probably seems more odd that we don't.


.44 Magnum's, Slots Talk & Some Florida Derby TV Rating Numbers

Good morning racing fans. Here are a few thoughts on what caught my eye this morning.

Techcrunch had an article up about start-ups and the need for them to be disruptive to succeed in a big way. 
  •  Time and again I see pitches from companies that want to create, what in effect is a widget. An application. Something which simply extends an existing ecosystem, or tinkers around the edges. For instance, if I have to see another startup which wants to ‘aggregate travel experiences’ I will gnaw my right leg off. [What you need to do is] You build the biggest handgun you can (in the real world this would equate to a .44 Magnum). You then hold it to the metaphorical head of the largest industry you can find (telecoms, music, media). You then say: “Do you feel lucky, punk?”
Major disruptions that have occurred in gambling - like betting exchanges and online poker - were a .44. In racing, this is pretty impossible to do, mainly because (in my opinion) not only does it not think like a start-up,  the roadblocks (Interstate Horse Racing Act, alphabet soup) are formidable.

The result is what we've been seeing for years in way of change - a couple of races off lasix for the Breeders Cup, or a Rainbow 6 or low takeout pick 5."Tinkers".

Speaking of the Rainbow Six, Lenny had a post up about mandatory payout day being "No Pot of Gold". He makes a lot of good points, but I think mandatory payout day was never about a big jackpot. If they wanted to make it so, they'd have to change the rules, e.g. make it a ten cent pick 8, up the minimum to $2. In the end the pick 6 paid about 10X parlay, with so many going so deep. As we see with a lot of low increment bets, it's become better to hammer some chalk and get value that way.

When people are passionate about something to the point of anger, it is very hard to have a rational conversation, even if they're the most level-headed people at virtually all other times. In Ontario it's been difficult in some quarters the last 13 months.

I remember when @gatetowire popped over to Standardbred Canada and left a simple comment about the industry having to be more customer oriented now that slots are over (fix the product, etc). Despite posting nothing that would in the least be considered controversial, he got brandished as a "Liberal government plant".  That's probably news to him, since he lives in the U.S. an doesn't work for any government.

At the risk of getting called a government plant, I link today's Snobelen column:
  •  The best place to put the past is behind you.While this may seem obvious, it is also evident that people have a difficult time ending things. That’s why, in relationships and careers, people often get stuck in their pasts. Whole industries sometimes have difficulty leaving the past behind. As a member of the government’s horse racing industry transition panel I have spent much of the last year encouraging horse people to build a better future. But there has been a major hurdle to get over — the past.

I think it's good advice.

Ontario racing has been led by three distinct narratives the last 13 months: i) Let's move forward with what's offered, because the status-quo has left the building. ii) Let's fight for more because this government plan sucks iii) We need slots back (the "way it was").

I think iii) is long gone. So we're left with i) and ii). The bottom line for many, and I think they're probably correct: The government will play a major role in whether horse racing sinks or swims. They need to be a huge partner from here on forward. Continuing to work together with bold new ideas is probably preferred, because the alternatives (racing for ribbons at a track near me and you) are much worse.

TV Ratings for the Florida Derby are in, showing 174,000 people watched the NBC Sports telecast. Is that good or bad? I guess it depends on how you look at them. I remember several years ago the Spiral Stakes got about 200k viewers on the main NBC Network, so near that on NBC Sports might not be bad. And it was 9th rated on the network. However, racing is spending a lot of money to NBC to show prep races, and it can be argued a great many of these viewers are like me and you; we'd watch the races online, or on TVG or HRTV without the NBC deal. Is it money well spent? Time will tell I guess.

Have a great Monday everyone.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Super Saturday

Good Sunday morning racing fans!

Yesterday was quite the day. Here are a few thoughts.
  • Verazzano Verrazano won the Wood and earned a 95 Beyer in the process. I won't bet a Pletcher horse in the Derby unless something odd happens (almost never in the Breeders Cup either, despite it costing me a pick 6 last year), but this horse does not look like the prototypical Pletcher horse that I like to fade. He is green, big and strong, but doesn't look like a keyed up monster. It's a little odd he had to be scrubbed on at the 3/4's, but maybe he was just a little flat, or a little green. He finished well and looked really good, I thought. 
  • Flashback : Derby Horse as Pocket : Flowery Blog Writing. 
  • Normandy Invasion looks like a perfect wise guy horse, if it was 1984, when people couldn't watch replays. This horse will take a ton of money in a month, methinks. 
  • I think I ran the 100 metres in high school in maybe 13 seconds. If I ran it at Santa Anita, I'd have a chance to break 10 flat. For those calling for Keeneland to go back to dirt, be careful what you wish for, because it could look like Santa Anita. And that would be terrible.
  • Vyjack looked great, until the last sixteenth, as pedigree guru types feared. I see the owner tweeted he scoped sick, which is not enough for me to change an opine that he might be a better sprinter/8f horse. However, it's easy to manage a horse when he isn't yours. Vyjack will go to the Derby, and he'll be lower than 20-1. I can't argue with a small stable wanting to go. If he raced that well sick, maybe they'll shock a lot of people.
  • Keeneland opened this weekend and if you wonder why it's so popular, just turn on your track feed, or television. Big fields, great TV production, huge crowds, good races and a decent betting menu at a fair price makes everyone want to take a punt. 
  • I'm glad I can switch the betting channel to other tracks, and it's a great part of racing. The Gulfstream meet was getting to be too long.
  • Foiled Again, at age nine, captured a leg of the Levy at Yonkers last evening. 
  • One thing the Verrazano win yesterday did was take the shine off the "he's a superhorse" meme. He didn't win by 10, and the time is what it was. Ironically, a slower time, with a nice comfortable turn of foot home, usually allows a horse to move forward. If he was 6-1 board odds Friday, I suspect he's 8-1 today, though.
  • Next week is a week worth watching, for fans of Java's War and Uncaptured. The former can be a real wise guy horse (with a real shot), and the latter has a good Beyer over the CD oval. I'm interested in watching both of 'em.
Have a great Sunday everyone!