Friday, February 29, 2008

Guest Post Friday: The Sphere

Jeff Platt from, a horseplayer and software developer wrote a super-interesting and bang-on post about handicapping. It is entitled "The Sphere". I liked it so much that I asked him if I could post it up for Guest Post Friday's at the blog. He said "sure".

This is a great post. And if you are a horseplayer, or want to be one, it is worth reading, and rereading, and rereading. I read a good deal of handicapping books and articles. I find that I agree with some, disagree with some, but rarely agree 100% with any. This post is an exception. When I feel myself making boneheaded moves, or getting mad at a lost photo, or bad drive/ride, I usually read an article like this, or look at some of my old results, just to get the head back in the game.

I encourage everyone who wants to try to win at racing to read this post. It's good. Perhaps at the end we can get some comments about how you may lose focus, or how you have gone on "tilt" in the past. I am sure I can come up with a story or two. Or fifty.

I mentioned once before, this game is fun when you have your plan set up, and you know you are doing the right thing. You don't get mad when a loss comes, because you know it is just part of the game and a winner will come, just like it always does.

This is the greatest gambling game with the toughest intellectual challenge in the World. Jeff gives readers advice on how to maximize your fun while trying to win at it. I hope everyone likes it.

If you are a thoroughbred player and are serious about the game, Jeff's software is pretty damn amazing. It does not spit out "winners", or promise to. If you work at it, however, it can be profitable, in my opinion. Please visit his site at to learn more. I am a user, and I love it.

Thanks for this Jeff. I appreciate it.

Note: When Jeff says "UDM" in this piece, it is the equivalent to a spot play, or angle.

The Sphere


I spent a little free time these past few weeks organizing my thoughts. My intent in doing so was to be able to do a write up of the mental process I go through on a daily basis when I’m in the act of playing horses. I think this stuff is important. While I’m playing, there are certain processes I do each day as I attempt to beat the takeout. I tend to think of the sum of these processes in terms of them forming a game plan or roadmap that leads to success. I know from my own personal experience that when I follow this roadmap the very act of overcoming the takeout becomes a much easier thing to do than if I attempt to go outside its boundaries. What you will find in this write up are things that I do to help me achieve my goal of being a winning horseplayer. My hope in committing these thoughts to writing is twofold. First, I hope that the act of writing this piece will serve to reinforce my own clarity about these ideas and help me to remember them on race day. Second, I hope that someone else out there somewhere finds them to be of benefit after reading what I have to say.

Most of what I am going to present here is basic philosophy. Much of it reaches well beyond the subject of handicapping. In fact, if you give it some thought, you just might realize that this can be applied to just about every area of human endeavor you see fit to undertake.

A Little History and a Profound Realization

In February, 1999 I left a pretty cozy accounting job in the 9 to 5 world that I had held for 12 years. At the time I decided I needed a career change. I loved programming but had no formal training as a programmer. I had already written a very early version of the program that would later evolve into JCapper. I had the ability to run database queries and had crafted a handful of crude CPace and BF based UDMs that had shown a reasonable enough profit over a pair of 3,000 race samples. My rough game plan was to use some of my savings as a bankroll and pay the bills through my handicapping. I would also devote 20-30 hours each week towards getting enough formal training to make it as a programmer once I felt I was ready. I knew from the database tests I had run that success was one possible outcome. I also knew that failure was another very real possible outcome. In the end I made my decision more as a leap of faith than anything else. I believed I could fly. Therefore I jumped.

Please understand that I am in no way attempting to convince any of you to jump in the event that jumping is something you happen to be thinking about. It should be obvious. Failure to fly under such circumstances can have some very severe negative consequences. Attempting to fly was the right decision for me at that time in my life. In no way does my own decision make it the right decision for you.

In February of 1999 I was living in Arizona. I had never heard of offshore wagering accounts or rebates. At the time, in Arizona, you had to actually show up at Turf Paradise to bet their full simulcast menu. Their OTB locations, and there was one barely a half mile from my house, offered the entire TUP card but only a limited number of handpicked out of state simulcast races each day. Stranger still, Turf Paradise did not commingle wagers made into their system into the pools of the simulcast host tracks. Instead, they created their own separate pools which tended to run on the smallish side. That point was driven home to me one afternoon when my own $30.00 win bet cut the win price of an overlay Maiden winner that paid over $130.00 to win at HOL all the way down to $58.00 in the local win pool which was only about $1500.00.

At that time my workday would start about 7:00 am. I would download data files from Bris, manually unzip them, load them one at a time into my program, and spit my reports onto perforated computer paper using a very loud (and slow) dot matrix printer. On most days I would have 4 or 5 tracks printed out by 8:00 am. After some breakfast I would drive across town and arrive at Turf Paradise sometime around 9:30 am. That would give me 30 minutes or so to start handicapping the early races at the east coast tracks. In those days I had to comb through my printouts and identify my own plays. I carried around a handwritten set of rules for each play type that I wanted to make on index cards. The simple concept of programming a computer to find my own plays wouldn’t even occur to me for another three years.

I would see the same faces at Turf Paradise each day. People got to know me. And I got to know some of them. One of the most memorable events that ever happened to me at a racetrack happened within the first 30 days of me setting out to see whether or not I could fly. An elderly man – I only remember him as Jim – asked me a question. Jim knew that I had quit a pretty good job to play horses full time. Understandably he thought I was nuts. And he made no bones about hiding it.

It turned out to be a loaded question. I didn’t realize it at the time but the answer Jim gave me to his own question turned out to be one of the most profound things anyone has ever said to me.

The exchange went something like this:

Jim: “Jeff. In your opinion, what is the single most important factor in horse racing?”

Me: “That’s easy. Early speed is the most important factor.”

Jim: “You sure about that?”

Me: “Yes. Why?”

Jim: “Are you really sure?”

Me: “Um... Ok. Early speed with enough form and class for a horse to stay in front all the way to the wire. That’s the most important thing.”

Jim: “You’ll never make it as a handicapper.”

Me: “Um... Ok. I’ll bite. What do you think the single most important factor in horse racing is?”

Jim: “Discipline. That's the single most important thing. Without it you have no chance as a horse player. Never forget that.”

Unfortunately for me, I dismissed this conversation at the time. It wasn't until nearly two full years later that I realized the profoundness of what Jim had actually said to me. In the end it turns out Jim was 100 percent correct. Discipline is the single most important thing in betting on horses profitably.

What follows are my own thoughts on making discipline work for me.

The Sphere

When I play horses the first thing I do is form the image of a glowing electric blue sphere in my mind. Try not to laugh. My sphere is my reality. Here are the rules for my reality. Anything with the ability to affect me, in either a positive or a negative way, is important and belongs in my sphere. Everything inside of my sphere, because it has importance, deserves and receives my intense focus.

Everything outside of my sphere has no ability to affect me and is therefore completely irrelevant to me. Anything existing outside of my sphere is completely ignored by me. I refuse to waste my time and energy by focusing in the least on things that are irrelevant to me.

So what belongs inside my sphere? What belongs outside my sphere?

In my opinion, the most powerful single thing found in JCapper (I’m the program’s author remember?) is the concept of the UDM. Hopefully I can get my point across in such a way that it won’t be lost on you.

Suppose for a second that you have one and only one UDM. Let’s also suppose for the sake of argument that your one UDM has a very remarkable trait: As you bet its plays over the course of time you get back more money from the cashier than you pay out for the tickets you buy as you make the bets. In other words your UDM is profitable.

Suppose for a second that you create a sphere of your own.

Now, given the above scenario, let me ask you a question. What happens if you place just one thing inside of your sphere? What happens if you place your one UDM inside of your sphere?

Now let me ask you a second question.

What happens if your sphere is your only reality when you play horses?

The answer should be obvious. If the only thing inside of your sphere is a profitable UDM and the only reality you have when you play horses is your sphere… you just became a winning horseplayer.

Go back and read that last paragraph again. Let it sink in. It’s what really separates the tiny percentage of winning horseplayers from the vast majority of players who lose money.

Here’s a list of the things that have a place in my own Sphere:

1. Profitable UDMs. Just because a UDM is profitable across many samples doesn’t mean it has a place in my Sphere. One area that I often see with new users is that they try to do too much. I’m talking about a question of workload. In my opinion it’s far better to play a single UDM at a single track and do it accurately while following scratches and changes and making the bets in accordance with an overall bankroll money management plan than to try to make the plays for dozens of UDMs at multiple tracks each day if trying to make all those plays means that you have to do it haphazardly. By haphazardly I mean that you are missing scratches and changes here and there and you are possibly even getting shut out of races because there are too many plays coming up simultaneously.

2. A Bankroll/Money Management Plan. I’ve made no secret of the fact that my game is based around backing UDM plays to win their races and that I play to a bankroll. One of the primary goals I have when I play is growing a small bankroll into a large one. Unless you are just extremely lucky the task of actually doing this takes an incredible amount of willpower. The reality is that without discipline the act of growing a small bankroll into a large one over an extended period of time is nearly impossible. Along these lines I suggest that the inexperienced player start out by going through the exercise of simply flat betting UDM plays just to get experience. After proving to yourself that you have the ability to bet UDM plays while betting nothing else, and do it profitably - then and only then try making each bet within the context of each bet being part of a bankroll. Trust me, there is no other way. Until you try you simply won’t believe how hard it can be sometimes to play a perfectly clean race day – a day where the only bets you make are UDM plays and where each bet is made at your intended percentage of bankroll.

3. Mental State. When I play horses I want to be in the best mental state possible. The right mental state for me is one of detached involvement. When I play I’m not concerned with outcomes. I’m concerned with being able to execute my game plan. Past history tells me that if I can do that then the outcome takes care of itself. There’s one question that I ask myself over and over each race day that helps get me in that right mental state. That question was taught to me by a professional poker player. That question is “What should I be doing next?” I find myself asking myself that same question over and over hundreds of times each race day.

When I’m in the right mental state my decisions become instantly clear to me. I’m on autopilot and my game plan seems to self execute. I check each race for fresh scratches before I bet it. I see a play and I make it. I move on to the next race. The game seems incredibly easy at such times. Everything flows and time ceases to exist. The only things I see are those things I’ve allowed inside of my Sphere.

Here’s a list of some things I refuse to allow inside of my own Sphere:

1. Emotion. In my opinion emotion has no place in horse race betting. I could tell you a thousand horror stories of how I’ve let emotion cloud my own judgment – how I’ve let it cause me to make action bets that bled profits from my UDM plays and bankroll – how I’ve let emotion cloud my judgment so that I missed making plays on overlay UDM winners that I had every intention of playing, etc. The bottom line is that emotion, good or bad, can cloud your judgment and prevent you from executing your game plan. Because of this emotion has no place in my Sphere.

2. Action Bets. I define an action bet as any wager made on a non UDM horse, a UDM horse outside of the prescribed odds ranges indicated by your own research, or any bet made on a UDM horse outside of your own Money Management/Percentage of Bankroll Plan. I used to have a real problem with action bets. I’ve mentioned this before but it bears repeating here. It’s easy for action bets to get out of hand. My own initial foray into playing professionally back in 1999 came to an end about 18 months later because I lacked true discipline and I let my own action bets get the better of me. I ended up having to go back to work and took a job as a programmer. Don’t get me wrong. I landed a very nice job. But imagine the self reflection that comes from realizing that you were able to make UDM plays profitably enough to pay the bills and then some for 18 months but in the end you gave nearly two thirds of that away in the form of action bets because you couldn’t control yourself. Trust me. I know of what I speak. Action bets have no place at all in my Sphere. Hopefully you’ll never find them in yours.

3. Distractions and Annoyances. These also have no place in my Sphere. I say this because they have the ability to invoke an emotional reaction from me. Hopefully I’ve already gotten the point across that emotion has the ability to lower your mental state to the point to where it can interrupt the execution of your game plan. With that understanding in mind I’ll list a few of the things I consider to fall within the Distractions and Annoyances category:

a. Lost Photos
b. Disqualifications
c. Troubled Trips
d. Poor Starts
e. Bad Rides
f. Late Money Odds Drops
g. High Paying Mutuels from non UDM horses
h. Not noticing scratches and changes
i. Not focusing on the task at hand resulting in getting shut out of a nice winner

You can probably think up a few more. But hopefully you get the idea. If items h and i from the above list are happening to me with any frequency at all I take it as a very strong hint that I'm letting something interfere with my desired mental state. I immediately flush my emotional reaction away by telling myself "Ok. That's in the past and I can't change that. Now what should I be doing next?"


I’ve found success with this approach: I create my own Sphere each and every race day. I only allow certain things into my Sphere. I deny certain other things entrance into my Sphere. When I play horses my Sphere is my only reality. Everything inside of my Sphere merits my intense focus. Everything outside of my Sphere is worth none of my focus at all.

Create a Sphere of your own and let me know what happens.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Harnesslink Launches a Blogosphere

Our friends at are at it again. They care about racing there, that's for sure, and they are launching a new site to get bloggers energized. From a press release today:

New Media Hopes to Breath Life Into Old Sporting Establishment

Harnesslink has developed a blogging platform appropriately named Harness Racing Blog ( which allows anybody to voice there opinions by creating a blog. A blog is simply an online diary which enables any person to communicate online.

Harnesslink hopes its new initiative will empower supporters and help to spread new ideas in the slow-paced industry.

Once commanding crowds of thousands, in recent years many racetracks have experienced deteriorating visitor numbers, betting and general enthusiasm.

Problems are prolific; competition from other spheres is one major hurdle. Internet poker has pilfered many customers, and marketing successes in comparatively new sports like Nascar have taken their toll.

Harnesslink editor Matt Smith, a New Zealander, is perplexed.

“If people can sit all day and watch cars go round a track, surely someone can come up with a way to make harness racing more appealing to the general public.”

One early adopter is Kimberly Rinker, herself a journalist and winner of the prestigious 2007 Hervey Award which honours the best of harness racing journalism. On her blog, Rinker says she aims to present viewpoints and notations from a variety of guest journalists from the North American harness racing community.

Smith hopes many will follow in Rinker’s initiative.

“There are an amazing number of intelligent and passionate fans out there who feel something needs to change, but who feel silenced by those in control. We want to give them a voice,” he said.

I was like most of you, I sat silent as I watched this industry sink faster than my betting bankroll in a snowstorm. I don't know if I am doing much here, but I let my feelings be known. It's a start. Harnesslink is allowing everyone to become involved in a quick, easy way. Those of us in the business realize it is a tightly knit one; this just tightens it even more.

If you are at all interested in getting a blog going, pop over to and light er up!

Note: Kentucky has passed casino legislation, but racetracks are not guaranteed a license.

Imagine if the racing community went to the table during this legislation and said "we are going to have the World Harness Championships at the Red Mile and sink a pile of money into making Lexington a tourist destination for thousands." I bet they would have been welcomed with open arms.

Nah, that would be a dumb idea, wouldn't it. After all, everyone said it could not be done ;)

Drugs, The Real Breeders Cup Classic and The Moon

We have all heard about drugs and racing; as I noted before we are track and field. When a 100 metre winner bolts across the finish line we hear “cheat”, and when a horse does the same, we hear the same. Perception is reality. People in this business are starting to realize it.

Today on the Hill, NTRA President Waltrop was being grilled by congressmen about the use of drugs in the sport. His answers were fairly well received, but a couple of the congressmen pressed on:

Despite those assurances, some lawmakers - including Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, the top Republican on the subcommittee - argued horse racing lags far behind other sports in dealing with the problem of performance-enhancing drugs.

Whitfield suggested that if the sport doesn't take more aggressive steps to rid itself of steroids, the federal government might mandate the changes.

"Is it time to call the federal cavalry and send it chasing into your stables with guns blazing to clean up the sport of horse racing?" Whitfield said.

That is what this business must get through its sometimes-thick skull: If we do not fix this business, someone else will. The status quo is not an option.

Speaking of not doing the same ol’ same ‘ol, how about this gem? For owners who send their horse to the Dubai World Cup - a race some call the real Breeders Cup Classic – the organizers are rolling out the red carpet.

Sheikh Mohammed told me: "I would like to make the whole experience of winning a race in Dubai something special for the owner, not just [a matter of] walking up after a race and collecting a trophy. We will offer much more than prize-money."

His message is that the owner should be treated as a king - a policy that should be welcomed by those paying the training bills in the United Kingdom, Europe and elsewhere.

I think it’d be cool if he gave an oil well. Ya, that’d be pretty cool.

Tomorrow morning Curlin has a prep race for the World Cup, and has been preparing. At least the thoroughbreds have a star to cheer for. The news about our sports stars' this month, is that Donato Hanover and Tell All are planning to have sex. Yippee!

Great horses are smart; I don’t care if an animal psychologist on Oprah tells me otherwise. They really are. And Curlin certainly is no different. In a piece up on, his trip is discussed:

Curlin this morning paid his first visit to the Nad Al Sheba starting stalls, which are designed differently to the machines he is used to in his native America. However, he walked straight in without any hesitation, and stayed totally still in the gates before backing out when the routine was over.

There is a picture of him in the starting gate in the piece. The caption could easily read “yah guys it is a starting gate. A little different than the one at home, but really, can I just get some paddock time?”

Lastly, I have said many times on the blog that the business can not seem to fix itself - using slots cash to grow, lower prices, doing what the Sheik did in the UAE, many other things. I have said once or twice that “we put a man on the moon almost 40 years ago, but these guys can’t fix racing?” Well that thought came about tonight again. I opened my email to see an update on what google is doing on the advertising front. It seems they are going to the Moon. Well, they themselves aren’t, but they are sponsoring a contest, with a $20M first prize.

The Google Lunar X PRIZE is a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth.

Ok let me get this straight, private citizens are going to send a robot to the moon through nothing but smarts, passion and cajones; yet in this business we can’t even watch free video for some tracks that we want to bet.

Sometimes I sincerely think we are doomed.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Panaramic Art; The NA Cup and Metal Health

Phil from New Jersey has Panaramic Art video’s linked up on his site, along with some commentary. I must admit, I do not follow the Meadowlands as I once did. But horses like this are fun to watch. A good deal of time we hear with horses like this, “wait until the Open horses come back, then he will meet his match!” Sometimes this is true, but with some it is not. Mr. Big last year parlayed his winter successes into an Older Pacer of the Year award. It will be interesting to see how Art does the rest of the year.

Phil has some interesting thoughts and questions on WEG racing below in the comment section of the Barbaro post. If you have any Woodbine tips for Phil, please comment there.

I watched War Pass win this weekend. He is a real beauty. It was a cheap field but he is poetry in motion. You can check the video here if you are interested. Again that got me thinking about our first Classic race in harness racing, the North America Cup. I have heard almost nil from the press about how the horses are wintering. Anyone heard anything? I found out the most about a horse by chatting with Jeff Gillis at Jeff relayed that 2YO Crown champion Santanna Blue Chip has been jogging and training well. He is paid to all the big ones and they are hopeful he has a good year. Other than that I am in the dark. Trot magazine should come out with a North America Cup winter book again. I look forward to hearing some updates.

More slots talk in Pennsylvania, courtesy The first link is to the usual “we have higher purses now, so racing will grow” stuff. The second link says “the jury is still out”. I am not sure, but I think every subsidy in history was used to decrease the cost of the product to raise demand. Milk, pork, whatever. All we have had in racing is higher prices, and when places like Premier Turf Club, or Betting Exchanges, or whatever try to give the player a break by cutting prices, they get shut out of pools, or shouted down as pirates. I don’t know when racing will realize that the people or companies who are cutting prices for you are increasing your competitiveness, and are a vital part of the game.

Cangamble has some thoughts on WEG and racings pricing in his latest blog post. Sometimes I feel we are banging our heads against the wall, but I guess as long as the wall is there, we’ll keep bangin’.

I see there is some talk on about racing in Atlantic Canada. A few of the boys are trying to get their point across that making racing competitive again is a pricing issue. One poster who disagrees speaks about survey’s showing people do not care about takeout, nor do they even realize what it is. He is right, that is what most of our current customers feel. However, that is it in a nutshell: Everyone who cares about prices have already left racing for other games. We don’t need to survey our current customers to tell us what we already know - not to mention they are dying off - we have to survey who left racing and how to get them back. You’ll find out the mantra of those who left betting racing is quite simple: They left because they could not win because of racings egregious and asinine takeouts. When we get them back racing will win.

Try having a discussion with someone in racing about that salient fact, though. They’ll look at you like you have six heads.

Like I said, we’ll keep bangin’ our head.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Recanting Barbaro

It was interesting during the time of Barbaro's shattered leg and his recovery, that people's opinions varied. I had heard many thoughts relating to the fact that the owners were "in it for the money", because the horse surviving could stand at stud. Others spoke about how inhumane it was to keep a horse like that alive. Everyone can have an opinion, but mine was (I'm not one to mince words) that they were full of it.

I always found the owners of Barbaro to have hearts the size of Secretariat's. They cared about that horse. Frankly, who wouldn't care about that horse. We all did. I was sad when he passed on., upon scouring the news like they usually do, came across a good article by Tim Smith. Apparently he wrote a nasty article about the Jackson's around the time of Barbaro's recovery. In a new piece, he recants much of what he said.

I have had a lot of time to reflect on the situation and I do believe I have a newfound respect for what the Jacksons did to try and save Barbaro - even though the horse did perish after their best attempts. Especially after the fact, its hard to put myself in their shoes ... hard to determine exactly how I would have handled the situation if those decisions were left up to me.

I know what I would have done in that situation. Exactly what they did. I have a personality streak in me which never wants to give up, even when it is stupid not to give up. Plus I like horses. I don't know how you could have looked into that horses eyes and sent him off to be euthanized when it looked like he clearly wanted to fight for life. It is inherent in us as mammals to fight for life. It doesn't matter if you are a dog, a person, or a horse. We never want to give up.

Anyway, I just thought that was a good article from one of the people who disagreed with the Jackson's and their fight. Something that I thought about today, on a slow Tuesday morning.

Note: Our trainer, Nick Boyd was interviewed tonight on the Score, during Woodbine Racing Live. He did a good job. Not bad for a punk :) I am going to place a post up soon about Nick's trials and tribulations on being a young person in harness racing. As many know, established trainers get horses, young people really have to fight for owners. I think it would be cool to explore that phenomenon with Nick.

I ran my numbers today for my betting the past month. I had a 38.6% hit rate, on 378 bets. These have been good. I am clicking on a few angles, and sucking on a few angles. I need to somehow now turn that data into making a pile of money. Sheesh, if it was only that easy, huh? Somehow I still have this belief I will be sitting on an island, sipping a Corona with a laptop betting races before I am 50. What a doofus. But I will keep trying.

Lastly, our stable had a first and a third tonight. I think the last time I had a first and third in one night was a double-leg spelling B in grade three. I lost the second leg on the word exercise. Or excercise, one of the two. Regardless, the blind squirrel proverb comes to mind. But it was sure nice to have a good night.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

These Guys Just Don't Get It

Some news and views by some, who clearly don't get it. I thought I would share these views so we can all have a laugh.Don't worry, at the end of the piece, I give credit to those that do get it.

Jamaica. Sounds like a decent spot to visit. It seems there is horse racing there. The current head of a horse racing organization there has some ideas, and wrote them in an editorial in a newspaper.

Some snippets:

One study of 24 racing jurisdictions done over 15 years shows conclusively that the profitability of track operations varies inversely with the takeout rate, because a lower takeout rate "stimulates a larger handle of which the track retains a fixed proportion".

That study concluded that at the average takeout rate of 15 per cent track revenues would be 60 per cent greater than if the take out were 20 per cent.

Other studies have shown that a decrease in the price of wagering tends to increase race track attendance and, therefore, "the total amount of dollars available for distribution for purses, etc"

A couple more:

Claiming races are not product-enhancing. They do not represent an attractive alternative to other forms of gaming and/or recreation, nor do they enhance patron interest.

The integrity of the activity must be of the highest level - consistent and firm stewardship, stringent drug testing accompanied by prompt judgement - not the six to 12-month delay that seems to be the norm now.

The promoters, regulators and horsemen must undertake education programmes specifically directed at attracting new patrons.

Ok, integrity, lower prices, and attracting customers. Wow, he clearly must be from Jamaica, because he sure as hell ain't from here.

ESPN's Randy Moss wants racing to put slot cash into well, racing. Another radical idea.

But what happens when slots are finally approved?

The state gets a financial windfall. Horsemen get a financial windfall through a huge purse boost. The owners of the tracks -- or shareholders, where applicable -- also laugh all the way to the bank.

And the crusade to "save the sport" usually ends there.

An unprecedented opportunity to reinvent a struggling sport is circling the drain, but it isn't too late.

And he must of taken Economics in school, because he brings up that wacky supply-demand curve.

Track owners also do not take advantage of the increased revenue flow to convince horsemen and legislators to slash racing dates, even though too much racing is perhaps the major problem facing the sport in this country.

Randy clearly has no place in racing. We must put half of all slots revenue for purses, and half for the tracks. If there is any excess cash, we must fight about it. If anyone wants to cut racing dates we must strike. We have to keep forty-seven dollar claimers racing 47 times a week. It's our right, dammit. Crazy ideas using some of that money to attract fans in your core sport and crafting a supply-side business plan to grow is completely wrong. What a weenie.

Meanwhile the sports establishment was busy hand-wringing about racings problems this week at the big meeting. These are the folks in charge. They are racing. Thank god for them, and not knuckleheads like Moss and Hamilton above. These folks, unlike them, clearly get it.

Here was the stunning headline from day two::

Gaming boosts revenue, does not create racing fans, panel says

Boy, Ben Matlock must have showed up this year to uncover that mystery. You mean the empty grandstands are not due to prohibitive fire-safety regulations?

Don't worry, there are more revelations of epic proportions, like this:

Revenue from expanded gaming helps fund capital improvements at racetracks and fatten purses from horsemen, but handle on racing has not increased and there is very little crossover between slots players and horseplayers.

Wow, who knew?!

I look forward to next year's meeting where they talk about young people playing video games instead of going to the track.

That's it for this Sunday. Just another week around racing.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Handicapping: Pulling the Trigger on Value

Well we are at the last part of the series. In part one we looked at why we need to get value. In the second part, we talked about identifying value. This one is about finding and betting your value play.

Where do we find these plays? They could be anywhere, really. Sometimes they are right in front of you. Trainer angles are usually worthwhile. So, let’s find a trainer angle and look at how to recognize it, when to bet it, when not to bet it and when to jump off of it.

Everyone knows Casie Coleman, she was trainer of the year in Canada two years ago, and is a high percentage winner. We will use some of her stats to find an angle (as an exercise) and then make a value betting plan.

We’ll first look at her off claim stats from Dec 1st 2004 to December 1st 2005 at Woodbine. She had 24 fresh claims. She won with only two, and had a horrid UTRS, as well as an ROI of -80%. Unless we want to bet and lose, we should stay away from fresh Casie claims. But we must keep watching, because trainer angles change.

Over the next couple of months - from December 1st 2005 to February 1st 2006 - a funny thing happened. She made 7 claims. She won 2, placed 4 times and was third once. UTRS was 0.651: She did not miss the board with fresh claims. We are now onto something. With a 0.651 off claim UTRS, after a dismal off claim record, we must make a decision because this statistical fact might continue, and this is in our wheelhouse: A high percentage bet.

This is our plan moving forward after recognizing the anomaly: She hits 29% off the claim now, so with fair odds she is a little less than 5-2 odds break-even. We decide that any of her horses that are off the claim, who are over 5-2 odds we will have an edge, and we will bet.

On her next 28 claims at Woodbine she went on to win 12 races, for a 43% hit rate. Her ROI on new claims was a whopping 26%, and many of these horses were 2-1 or over. We were in good shape pulling the trigger on these bets. As you reevaluated her hit rate, you could then lower your fair odds. At the end of the period you might have been betting her at 3-2 or over (you need only over a 40% success rate to make money on 3-2 shots and since she was hitting at over 40%, you got value).

After this period, a couple things happened, she cooled off a bit, and she was overbet. The run with this angle was over.

Ed Bain, in his book and on his website bets what he calls “4+30’s”. This alludes to his automatic bets where if he sees an occurrence happen 4 times and it has at a 30% or more hit rate, it is a bet. When betting these plays, we set the bar for our minimum odds at 5-2, because 5 to 2 is profitable at a 30% hit rate. If he notices something happened 50% of the time, he might bet that horse at say 6 or 7 to 5 as a floor. It is a simple way to quantify value with angles.

Some examples from the World of racing? I’ll try a couple:

Wednesday at Gulfstream in the runners, trainer Kirk Ziadie had one off the claim. He was off 60+ days and he was dropping. In this situation this trainer hits at over a 50% hit rate. He would be a bet at even money or better according to our value line. At post time: He was even money! It was a red light for us, but there was opportunity. In 20/20 hindsight, he won like a 1-5 shot, so even money might have been an overlay; but we don’t care about that.

I am currently running similar models. I have one that has a 29% hit rate and an 8% edge. One was in today. He was even money. I could not pull the trigger on that. I would lose two out of three times and only get paid one out of two times! Red light.

Another angle last night fared better. I had a 9 out of 23 trainer stat (40% hit rate, so 3-2 is our floor), and the horse was 5-2 (28% break-even). Green light.

Another angle, this one for thoroughbred turf racing happened today. I have a stat that is a whopping 47% hit rate and the horse was 3-1! Wow, I'm rich. The only bad part of the story is the horse lost.

The results of the past are not a true indication of the future. We all know that. But by approximating the hit rate of your angle, you can at the very least approximate what odds level you will take to pull the trigger. If your pattern becomes too obvious you have to pretty much drop off the bandwagon as you will have very few green light bets. Seldon Ledford near the end of his career was at that point – he was massively overbet most times off the claim. Kirk Ziadie at Gulfstream is similar.

Hidden positives are the key. We need to find something that happens 20% or more of the time, which is not bet heavily. When we have those we have found our wheelhouse as 5-1 or better it is a play. If something happens one in five times and we are getting 10-1, it is time to swing for the fences. You can not get too low a hit rate though, because of the massive variance. If something happens 4 out of 100 times and the winning horses paid $60 I would pretty much ignore that other than taking an action bet, eventhough it is ROI positive. You need high hit rate angles.

Conversely another thing I watch for is what I said above: We can’t accept 1-2 or 3-5 on an angle we see happens a great deal of time. This is difficult because when you see something win that often you begin to think it is invincible. It is clearly not. When the angle gets to that level, it is time to move onto something else. If you are bridge jumping that is another matter of course. I am purely speaking of spot plays.

I hope this illustrates how I handle angles, or trainer patterns. I think it is pretty sound. First you have to recognize one, like with Casie off the claim; then you evaluate, then approximate fair odds, then pull the trigger based on your perceived hit rate. When the angle goes south, we drop it like a hot potato.

I know what some might say about my betting of these angles, especially trainer ones: That is, we never look at the individual horses and individual races with this and handicap. That is true, but you know what? To me it is irrelevant. If Seldon Ledford claimed a horse and improved it 6 lengths and then another one 8 lengths and another one 4 lengths how could we possibly know which is which? How can we possibly make an accurate fair line with that? When dealing with trainers like that you are in a chasm of the great unknown. You have to take all your passion out of the wagering equation and look at hard numbers. That’s what I like to do anyway. Andy Beyer said supertrainers have soiled the great art of handicapping. He is right.

I am working on this every day. I am trying to find the right bet amounts, and frequency. It is very difficult. If it was easy, I guess the game would not be much fun. It sure is fun trying though, because when you do succeed, the sky is the limit.

Any comments or thoughts?

Note: For you thoroughbred watchers Phil at his play of the day blog has a good handicapping primer on Laurel Park. Well worth reading, so give it a shot if you are interested in playing LRL. He handicapped tomorrow’s card as well. It gave me an idea for a track bias post for harness and I think I will work on that for this week.

Note 2: If this post is of interest and you want to learn more about betting angles, I would suggest Ed's book above. It gives a wealth of information on how he gathers, bets and filters stats. It is not tough to understand at all, and for any player it is a good read. You don't have to be a runner player to use his knowledge. It works with any game of skill.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Guest Post: B Track Madness

Well a reader asked a question recently: "Which Canadian B tracks are rated best to bet?". Frankly it is a good question. I know what I like, but I am not slugging away at the B's - betting, grinding, watching replays. But fortunately I know someone who is. So, I asked him if he would write up something and rate the B tracks for betting. Where can we make some scratch? Which tracks are fun to play?

So, we have this weeks guest spot. It is from a good capper, and a buddy. I like that he has some strong opinions. Opinions make the world go round, and we like them here.

Without further delay, here they are: The Ontario B Track Betting Rankings, courtesy Lou. Thanks buddy.

Georgian Downs 83.5

Probably my favourite track to bet, but by no means are they perfect. One thing I cannot stand is their willingness to go head to head with M1 on a Saturday night. By this I mean sending their races off at exactly the same time, which is totally insane from a betting standpoint. If you are betting, are you going to bet into a 50k win pool or a 1k win pool? They wonder why their handle is so bad on a Saturday, this is clearly one of the reasons.

From an operating standpoint they have to realize that on a Saturday night that their two main competitors are WEG and M1. Don't tell me they can't adjust to avoid going head to head to head, it can be done.

Other than that they do have a very good product, they seem to stay away from the cheap, cheap claimers and usually package together many full field races with superfectas. I also love the two win4’s as it gives you 2 chances at hitting your favourite ticket (mine anyway). Not many tracks can say they have two win4s.and they are perfectly spread (starting in r4 and r8).

Grand River 79.0

Probably the best simulcast product you can ask for when it comes to the B scene. I think they could even compete with the award winning WEG racing live crew. Mind you Gary would have to work on his picks a bit more, but kidding aside they do put on a great show.

However, they still are having trouble gaining market share (wagering dollars). Their pool sizes are still small, in the Western Fair range, and as I bettor that is a huge negative. They need to pick it up a bit; but they are at least trying and making an effort, and I can't say the same for many others. Maybe they need a time adjustment or day change, something to boost the pools. I did like that trial they did a couple of years back when they worked together with Georgian and promoted each other during a Tuesday night.

Windsor Raceway 74.5

Decent pool sizes and variety of horses coming from many tracks make for a good product. They don't really do much as far as interviews or any promotion of any particular race (do they even have the provincial cup anymore?). They are more or less a here-you-go-and-here-are-the-horses-so-please-bet kinda track.

Fraser Downs 71.0

If you can get past the most annoying announcer in the game you might enjoy yourself. Mind you this track is full of chalky races. You have guys like Bill Davis and Serge Masse who send out 5+ a night and their batting averages hover around .500.

Yes. .500

Most of them end off at 3/5 or lower, but if they are having an off night you certainly can pick up the pieces and make some decent scratch.
One of their benefits it seems, well at least to me, is their time slot. With the time difference they take in a lot of money once WEG/M1 are done (we talked about this during the 4 in 48 discussion). And not only that, they have the advantage of being the only harness track going past 11:30pm eastern time. That's one helluva advantage if you ask me.

Their camera on the finish line seems to be hooked up to a pole PAST the finish line and it points at it from the left. This leads to MANY confusing nights as to trying to figure out who won the race. From experience the horse on the outside has the advantage, by almost a head. So basically if your horse is on the rail at the wire, he has to be at least a head ahead of the horse on the outside. If not, pray.

Flamboro Downs 65.5

Talk about a depleted product. 3 years ago they would have ranked #1 on my list, but lately they have just gone downhill. I'm not sure if it's lack of effort or just not getting enough quality horses to enter. Some of the races that are carded are just NOT bettable. They are the only track that I know of that card NW of a race last three years and must have been beaten by 20 or more lengths in last 3 for both pacers and trotters. Thankfully they still have the best W4 pool of all the B-tracks and probably is the only reason I still bother even playing.

Kawartha Downs 66.0

The opposite of Flamboro. They are a growing product, starting to get decent entries and building fans. They are fairly new to the simulcast scene and they are putting up some decent numbers pool size wise. I'm not a particular fan of their graphics template, but I won't hold it against them.

Western Fair 55.5

Pool sizes are small, post parades are the worst in the game, and some of these super payoffs are a joke. It's like there is some conglomerate of 20 cent super bettors and they all bet Western because there is absolute zero value betting them at this track.

Forget about betting anything more than 50 bucks to win. Not only do you have to wait until they are going into the gate to get a very vague idea what your odds are going to be, you take a chance of losing many odds points betting any more than 50. They are another track that needs a complete graphics overhaul, but with a rating this low, who cares anyway, right?

Hiawatha Horse Park 0.00000

Hey Hiawatha owner: It's called simulcasting. Look into it.

Have an idea for a Friday Guest post? I'd be happy to post it up. The more the merrier.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Handicapping: Odds Lines For Value

Making an odds line might be rudimentary for some, but it is always good to chat about from time to time.

We often hear from new players something like this: "I am going to bet that horse no matter what, because he is a sure winner." Of course that is not correct. If you are getting into a game of coin flipping with someone and he says he will give you 2-1 odds on heads, you are probably a sure winner. If he gives you 1-2 odds on heads, well that is not a bet! The odds determine if a horse is a good bet or not. Not the trainer, not the driver, not the horse. Only the price you are getting.

Each race has an outcome. A winner, and losers. The probability of a race being won by one of the horses is 1.0, or 100%. The horses in the race make up that 100%, each with a lower number. The longshot might have a 2% chance, the even money favorite might have a 50% chance, and so on. All these probabilities must add up to 100%. That is how we make something called a fair odds line.

An exercise: We have a race with five horses. You handicapped the race and gave each horse a chance to win.

Horse A: 20 times out of 100 you think he'll win this race.
Horse B: 2 times out of 100
Horse C: 33 times out of 100
Horse D: 20 times out of 100
Horse E: 25 times out of 100

So, when checking the numbers - 0.02+0.2+0.33+0.20+0.25 = 1.0. There is our outcome. One of these horses will win the race, and the total of their probabilities is 1.0. It is a sound mathematical line.

How do we convert these to fair odds? It's easy. We take this quick formula:

1/odds+1 = percentage;

For Horse A: Fair Odds = 4-1
Horse B: Fair Odds = 49-1
Horse C: Fair Odds = 2-1
Horse D: Fair Odds = 4-1
Horse E: Fair Odds = 3-1

There is your fair odds line. If one of those horses (or more) are higher than the odds that you have handicapped the race, then you are considered to be getting value, and you play. If horse E is 5-1, you play it. If he is bet off the board at 8-5, you look elsewhere.

It is not about horses winning or losing, it is about us winning or losing. The number of "gross wins" is irrelevant. I could hit 85% of my bets on show tickets on heavy chalk, but I might come out a loser. I could hit 1 out of 100 bets on 200-1 shots and come out a big winner. It simply does not matter. You can get value anywhere. You just have to be sure you are getting value.

The next time you see an even money shot that you are thinking about betting on, try this. Look at the first horse, and say to yourself "if this race was run 100 times, how many times would he win?" Do that with several others. Then, saving the even money horse for last whatever you have left over is his odds. More often than not you may find that you have 35 or 40 chances out of 100 left. That means that the even money horse is overbet, and you should look elsewhere. Will the even money shot beat you? Of course. After all, he has a 35 or 40% chance of winning. But it does not matter, because you did not get value.

Next time we will move on to using the above with some hard stats on a few trainers, or angles. We'll show how we can be a winner and a loser in several ways. It should be interesting. As I mentioned I have been trying a few ROI-based angles and it should be a good thing to get my head around in a post. It'll help me a lot to get it down on pen and paper and think about how to be more profitable.

For a look at odds lines, and grinding profit by using them here are a couple of resources. They are books and they are decent reads:

The Four Quarters of Horse Investing
(Fierro, 2001)

Value Handicapping

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sometimes Bad Things Happen

And often times bad things happen to good people.

A friend who is in the business and loves horses, lost a foal today. He and his daughter are broken up about it, like so many in this business would be who love horses.

It's a tough business at the best of times, and it is very tough at the worst.

The mare was turned out in her paddock and had her foal during the day (after we have been watching her all night). When I got home the foal was lying on the snow and was cool with limited vital signs. We took them inside and the vet came promptly. We took the foal into the house and put him in a warm tub and rubbed him all over and manipulated his limbs ... we rubbed him in the tub for about 90 minutes ... everyone was soaking. Gradually his vital signs slipped away. We had no inkling that today would be any different from any other day for the mare. She looked great and heaven help us if we had tried to keep her in. I don't second guess the decision to turn her out. We felt then and now we had little choice but here's the thing .. we should have been there for them. Yes I work in town and my daughter goes to school but keeping animals is a sacred trust and we weren't there. If you aren't there when you are needed you aren't good enough.

This business is filled with people like this in it. They are who matter.

I'm sorry for their loss.

Wednesday Wrap

Some quick notes this Wednesday.

Saturated Slots

Pompano Park is cutting purses 35% starting this week, and cutting a few racing dates.

As we have stated on the blog, and I think we are correct in stating it: Gambling dollars are not unlimited. The more casinos that are in play, the less money we have for harness racing. This will only get worse, in my opinion. Slots will never be a long-term fix for this business - never.

Ben, oh Ben

Words from trainer Ben Wallace today in a story at

"We've created a scenario where when young people win a race, he must have cheated," Wallace said this morning. He also went on to say that research can be a dangerous tool in the hand of a regulator.

I am not sure who "we" is. The story says it is the industry itself. Then he speaks of gamblers.

"When a gambler loses his bet, very rarely does he say, 'I made a bad bet.' When an owner gets beat, maybe it wasn't drugs - maybe he bought a bad horse."

Fair enough, I guess. The problem with this talk though, is that sometimes they are right. We are track and field. We are bike racing. Like it or not, we have problems - big ones. And they started happening a hell of a lot earlier than the Aminorex press.

Ben might want to read Bill Finley's column this week about the state of the game with these matters.

Cheaters ruin this game, not the people who talk about them.

Let's Get Dem Whales

Another story from the industry meeting in Florida this week focuses on the bettor - the whale - and why they have left for greener pastures. This talk happens every year. I think they should just cut and paste quotes instead of getting new ones.

Nick Eaves of Woodbine Entertainment said that racing created the problem it now faces.

"Racing relinquished control of its pari-mutuel product," he emphasized. "We abdicated our responsibility. Five percent of our customers make up 60 percent of our wagering. We have to regain control of our product distribution, product pricing, and to whom it's sold to make sure that the whales [major bettors] don't beach offshore."

The only thing the above spells to me is "higher prices." It reminds me of an Andy Beyer column where he was speaking about a track exec talking about protecting the customers, and he replied (paraphrasing): 'I find it hard to listen to a racetrack executive tell me he is trying to protect me when he takes 25% out of trifecta pools'.

Are you like me? Do you find that asking racing to fix this themselves is tantamount to hiring a plumber to do an appendectomy?

Our pal Maury is there though, trying his darndest again to get these guys to realize what the problem is, and how to attempt to fix it. Poor Maury is there every year and he always ends up being ignored:

Racing economist and long-time major bettor Maury Wolff noted that the horseplayer today has "quite a few more options" than in past years. He stressed that the price of betting, or takeout, is a driving factor in determining where those wagers are placed.

"Pricing is everything," said Wolff. "You cannot consistently beat that 25 percent takeout on a Trifecta."

Wolff said that racing was not a good steward of its product in years past.

"Racing has had trouble competing on its own, and its answer to that problem is to get a slots license."

Don't worry Maury, your message will get through. Maybe after we open that new track on Mars.


I just glanced at the blog and I noticed that this next post (this one) was number 100.

Time flies. I generally do a little reading in the morning or at night and pop a post up. Usually it is one a day. I find it hard to believe we are at a hundred.

I am very surprised that folks seem to be enjoying it, and offering their comments. I honestly expected maybe five or ten hits a day, mostly from friends. I never for a moment thought that only after a couple of months I would get readers from all over the world and that I would make new friends like I have.

Anyhow, thanks for reading and participating. Hopefully we'll get on to the next 100 starting tomorrow!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

New York Legislation - My Way has the story on the deal struck in New York about saving the industry. They call it this:

"The result of the Albany lawmakers’ patient cajoling is nothing short of the most significant and beneficial legislative passage harness racing has seen since the original promulgation of video lottery gaming in 2001.

It is hoped that with these new mandates, guideposts and economic incentives and opportunities that harness racing will continue to flourish as not only a significant and lucrative aspect of the state’s economy, but also as an extremely important player on the international harness scene.

No stakeholder can say that we haven’t been given the tools to do it."

I agree that this is a good thing for those tracks. And it seems there is a marketing allowance given to tracks' to try and get new people interested. I encourage everyone to read the harnesslink story as it is quite detailed.

Of course (it would not be a blog if I agreed with everything), I would have written this differently. Here is what I would have done:

The tax breaks and the like would have stayed the same. The percentages for purses would have been lowered by 0.25% and I would have taken 0.25% off of the breeding fund. As well, 25% of the mandated on-track marketing fund would have been siphoned off. With this cash I would have developed a slush fund for the future of New York harness racing.

First, I think it is painfully apparent that we do not know how to market harness racing. It has been tried and it has failed. When we give money to "marketing" in a broad sense it seems we might as well be flushing that money into the Erie Canal.

Second, a breeders fund I think is fine; but what in the heck do we need a breeders fund for when we already give 8.75% to purses? They can stand to have a quarter percent peeled off for the long-term welfare of the game.

So we have a budget. This budget is now the state-wide harness racing fund. It is allowed to grow over a year or two while we study the issues affecting racing in New York. A marketing man is hired, and over this year or two a small staff is assembled. With a budget, and a plan, that plan is then put into action in year three.

Perhaps the fund would be used like this: A person is hired for each track in the state, by the fund to work hand in hand with the on track staff. The work that was done in the past two years of study is implemented with that person and this is in addition to any local marketing.

The brand would grow through the New York state-wide chapter, while the track itself could focus on its core customers in its own unique way.

In the end we would hopefully have figured out a "horse marketing in a box" and each track would be an affiliate of it.

This type of thing is important. We need everyone on the same page. This is not a cut-up of the tracks. People there work hard. But they are working without any tools. We do not know how to market racing, so why in heavens name would we throw money at something we do not know how to do.

I would hope there is still time to do something like the above. I think it is worthwhile; perhaps even vital. According to this paragraph, it seems this is something we could think about (bolded):

At all New York harness tracks, 8.75 percent of the VLT net win will be allocated to purses, with an additional 1.25 percent distributed to the Agriculture and New York State Horse Breeding Development Fund (Standardbred Fund).

The law specifically grants racino operators and the representative horsemen’s associations the right to agree to an increase or decrease in these percentages. Moreover, the percentages do not change the terms of existing contracts.

Horsemen and breeders: Do you want to take all of the cash for purses to live for today and repeat the mistakes of the past, or do you want to grow for tomorrow?

The choice is yours.

The full story with details is a good read. It is here if you have not read it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Cold Stats and Harsh Reality

Steve Crist, Publisher and Columnist for the Daily Racing Form, has been crunching some numbers that are recently released in the Jockey Club Fact book. He notes some interesting facts and figures about the state of racing in North America. It is primarily runners, but since track execs and horseman groups (as well as takeouts and race dates) are not dissimilar, this should be able to apply to harness as well.

I haven’t linked the piece yet (I will do that below). I did that because it’s time for a quiz! Gosh, we all like quizzes :)

1. The USA and Canada have:

a) Twice as many races a year than Great Britain
b) Three times as many
c) Five times as many
d) More than 5 times as many

Answer is d). In the North America (I assuming Canada is grouped in this) 52,000 races take place a year. In the UK the number is 9,000.

2. True or False: The US gives out more dollars in purses than Japan.

Answer: True. The US gave out about $937M in purses, while Japan gave out $719M. But the kicker? Japan raced 18,000 races and the US 52,000.

3. Horseman and horse owners often complain that they do not get “their fair share” from handle to purses in North America. Horseman disputes seem to happen yearly about this statement.

So, question 3: How much more goes to purses from handle in the UK than we get here in North America?

a) The UK contributes twice as much
b) Three times as much
c) Four times as much
d) None of the above

The answer is d). In the UK 0.99% of all handle goes to purses. In the North America, over 6% of handle goes to purses.

4. With 52,000 races, North America leads the world in gross handle. True or False.

Answer: False. Yes, it is false. Nowhere in the world is even close to offering the number of races we show on a yearly basis here in North America and we have around 25% of the Worlds Gross Domestic Product, yet we do not lead the world in gross handles! We rank third, behind Japan and the UK. There goes the “it’s competition” argument, by the way. The UK has more things to bet on than we have probably by a factor of about 100. This is a frightening stat.

5. North America per capita wagering is higher than that in the country of Turkey. True or False.

Answer: True. North American per capita wagering - out of the 12 countries surveyed - ranks 11th. Turkey is 12th. We are second last. Let’s break out the bubbly. We beat one country in the world – Turkey.

Mr. Crist notes the following:

These results suggest three obvious conclusions:
1. We run way too many races in this country, and less product would probably not mean a decrease in total betting or purses, given the evidence elsewhere.

2. Though American racehorse owners constantly complain about not getting a sufficient return on investment, in comparison to other countries, we do a pretty efficient job of directing betting commissions back to owners through purses.

3. If you add population to the equation, you can get either very depressed about how thin racing's reach is in this country or, if you're the half-full type, see enormous potential for expanding that reach.

There is clearly not the demand for 52,000 races in North America. This spreading of our betting dollars into a thin line like this only hinders us from growing our game. We know it, the tracks know it, the horsepeople know it, the owners know it. But like most things in racing, if it doesn’t make sense, we keep doing it.

Time for the bonus question:
With the above stark facts upon us and the spiral that the pari-mutuel business has been in the last 20 years, track executives and horseman groups should do which of the following:

a) Raise Takeouts
b) Go on strike for more race dates
c) Put together a million dollar commission to study the issue
d) Find someone new to run racing

I would not blame you if you chose d). After reading the above I don’t have much faith in them either.

Steve Crist's piece is an excellent one and it includes many facts and figures. The comments that follow are also very good. You can read it at here.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Handicapping: You Always Need Value

We often hear the term “value handicapping”. It is generally defined as getting value for your money, or making a bet with a return higher than risk. I don’t really like the term because if you are not getting a higher return than what the board odds are, you should never make a bet.

When I was a grade-school kid, back in the 1970’s, a fellow student came up to me before the Super Bowl between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers. He was going on about how good the Cowboys were and how bad the Steelers were. He was a huge Roger Staubach fan. I hated the Steelers with a passion, but I had heard from my cousin that they were 4 and a half point favourites, so I knew they were probably the better team. He asked me, and others to bet the game. I did not really have any money to be betting, but when he wanted to bet just to win (no one really heard of a point spread at that time, certainly not in grade 5), I began to think I better make this bet. I was getting the Steelers straight up at even money and they were 4.5 point favourites?! I can’t remember what the bet was, or how I got the money to put up, but I said yes. I was getting value.

You should not care what the circumstances of any bet are; you should only consider yourselves with getting value. If you do not like the driver that is on the horse it matters not, as long as the horse is higher odds than his chances of winning. Mike Saftic or Phil Hudon win races. If you don’t like the horses gait it does not matter either. Many foul gaited trotters win at 20-1 with a 10% chance of winning. If you have any bias against a horse, maybe because you bet on it three starts ago and he stunk, it does not matter. You have to be dispassionate and learn that when you get value, you bet. When you are not getting value you sit on your hands.

Vegas Handicapper “Fezzik” who has his own radio show, recently showed just how value is determined. He began with the supposition that the lines for NFL games were correct. He is probably right since year after year the faves and dogs win a similar number of games. What he did was start a mutual fund type index where he line shopped and when he got better than Vegas odds on something, it was a bet. It didn’t matter what the team was, or the game. If the Patriots were favoured by 14 over the Jets, and he saw some other book offering New England minus 13, he made that a bet. Over time this index grew, at a very good rate. It was his definition of value.

In the next post we will look at how to judge value in horse betting, from then we will look at pulling the trigger on angles based on value. I think it is a good exercise and it might spur some interesting discussion. I'm working through this on a few things now, so it will hopefully help me, as well.

Note: Have you ever seen what $411,000 looks like? Well, someone was alive onto the 11 horse at Santa Anita today for a $411K pick 6. So, if you click here, you will see what $411K does not look like (the inside horse is the 11). Tough luck for some solitary soul. The pick 6 pool should reach around $2M tomorrow at Santa Anita if anyone is interested.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Ontario Live Track Ratings

Saturday is a day we pop up a lengthy post, usually about something local. Last week we did our new bet, the 4 in 48. I had written that a bit ago. I just checked my inbox and noted that I had rated the Ontario tracks awhile ago, as well, and forgot to post it. Since the 4 in 48 generated some decent discussion, maybe this will, too. What is your favourite Ontario track to lounge around and watch the races at?

You are sitting outside on a summer day. You are enjoying a beer, a hot dog and the racing. Where do you want to be sitting? Which track do you want to be at?

Those questions tend to be, more often than not, a personal preference.

For this piece we are going to rate the tracks in Ontario for live racing, based solely on my opinion. It has nothing to do with simulcasting, or stakes races, or all the rest. It is simply a score for the “fan”, the guy who heads out to the track and wants to enjoy his/her experience - the person who pays the bills.

Those that know the blog now know that we like to standardize things – come up with some numbers and weight them to give us the most dispassionate rating we can find. So that is what I did. Tracks were weighted and a score given on the following types of criteria: Sightlines, staff friendliness, proximity to the track, paddock and the action, food and amenities, entertainment between races, product & atmosphere, and the general customer experience. When we add up the score we get the Pull The Pocket Live Track Rating.

Here we go.

Georgian Downs, Innisfil, ONT. Rank 1. Score 93.0

On a summer night heading up highway 400, turning off to Georgian is never a bad idea. This is a new track and the planners who built it knew what they are doing. It is set up beautifully, it’s clean, it’s friendly and it’s 100% racetrack. The choices for food and drink are great, the staff is super-friendly and the sightlines are good. Other than no huge outdoor seating I do not see too many drawbacks. It is simply a great place to spend a night out for men, women, or families. Horsemen seem to like it too.

Perhaps a little more between-race activity in the summer months might be an idea, but other than that I can’t see too much needed from my perspective.

Are you planning to spend some time in Cottage Country? If so, make Georgian a stop. It is a must see for racing fans.

Mohawk Raceway, Campbellville, ONT. Rank: 2. Score: 92.5

Mohawk is perhaps the nicest harness track in North America. Sightlines are tremendous and the racing experience is fantastic. For those who have not been there, I suggest you hit the patio upstairs and watch a race. The big screen flashes right in front of you and the horses thunder by. Sit outside and have a drink. Stand near the wire and watch the horses parade. You can reach out and touch them.

The staff is incredibly pleasant, as well. Prices are fairly affordable.

There is very little downside to a night at Mohawk. If there is a drawback it might be food minimums upstairs, and a bit of a corporate feel that simply does not translate well to a non-urban track. It looks like a B track, acts like a B track, but it doesn’t overly feel like a B track – as much as a place like Georgian does anyway.

If you are planning to visit Mohawk for the first time may I suggest North America Cup night. It’s packed.

Grand River Raceway, Elora, ONT Rank 3. Score 91.5

Grand River is also blessed with being a new track, in a beautiful little town near Guelph. We have spoken about Grand River below in several posts (our B Track Blueprint), so there really is not much more to say.

The staff is what you expect – down home, and courteous. The racing is generally good and the drivers seem to more often than not, go all out for victory. What tends to set Grand River apart is their overall experience due to their Tarmac Show. Fans are entertained.

I have said it before but it is worth repeating: Mark your calendar in August for Industry Day – great racing and a lot of smiles. You will have a good time.

Western Fair Raceway, London, ONT Rank 4. Score: 79.0

Western Fair is under some solid management. Race secretary Ian Fleming seems to card some decent tilts. Added bonus: Frank Salive, one of the premier race callers in all of harness racing bellows out the calls.

Being an older track, and situated in a downtown area, there is not quite as much room for a B track feel, like Georgian or Grand River. They are handcuffed, but they try. That is not to say the amenities and facility are poor – they are not. Inside is quite nice, the people are friendly and I find the food pretty good. Outside you step onto the pavement and the horses are literally inches away from you. Overall it is a good experience and a place worth visiting. I enjoy it when I go.

Flamboro Downs, Flamborough, ONT Rank 5. Score: 73.5

Outside of Hamilton lies a track that has been there for some time, but it is fairly modern. They have done a fairly nice job with the grandstand, amenities and the downstairs restaurant.

You can sit outside and get food from the restaurant, have a beer, or just hang out in a fan-friendly area. It’s quite nice on a summer evening.

The sightlines are fairly good as well. You can head upstairs and see the entire race quite easily. The fan experience is not as good as Grand River, or Georgian. I think with some work, Flamboro is a track that can grow their live crowds.

Woodbine Racetrack, Toronto, ONT Rank 6 Score:73.0

We all know Woodbine: It’s clean, it’s fairly fan-friendly, and the staff seems to be nice.

But it is a thoroughbred track. It feels like one. The track is very far away from fans and the winners circle is no where in sight. I always thought for harness racing it feels like I am watching a race in a mall. It is wonderful on a summer day at the Queen’s Plate but not so wonderful on a Monday night in November for a nw2 harness race.

I can’t rate it any higher for harness racing, as much as I might want to.

Windsor Raceway, Windsor, ONT Rank 7 Score 64.0

Windsor is one tough town. It’s a car town. The track has been around awhile with it. I went to Windsor in the early 1990’s to watch one of our horses race and I did not find it too bad. I went back a couple of years ago and frankly I did not find it too bad either. But compared to Mohawk, or Georgian, it simply can not compete.

Upstairs the food and sightlines were just fine. In fact, the on track experience was fairly good. They dim the lights and you can see the track very well from the seating area. It added some excitement. Where it loses points in our rankings is pretty much everything else to do with live racing. The tarmac area is not very good. I found there really was not a great place to watch a race other than the seating in the restaurant. What Windsor has that some of the others don’t however, is competitive racing. Watch a five claimer at Windsor. You’d think it was the Breeders Crown.

I read that they were looking to build a new track in Windsor. I think that would be great. A new track like Georgian can be built for the 2000’s not the 1970’s. Windsor deserves it. There are a lot of fans in that town who support the racing.

Kawartha Downs, Peterborough, ONT Rank 8 Score: 62.5

KD is a cross between a farm track and a city track. It is a little bit older, a little less fan-friendly, a little more run down. I do have a decent time when I go there, however. I find the people nice. Hamburgers off the grill in the summer are good.

You can see all the action, but it is not overly pleasant to look at. The centre of the track has remnants of something cementy – I guess the car track. Sometimes I feel like it is a place where harness racing got in the way. It’s simply one notch below the tracks above, and more along the lines of a summer B track in terms of amenities. If you are staying at a cottage up that way in the summer, however, and looking for something to do, it makes a nice night out for some racing.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Road to the......

Today is guest day on the blog. I have been busy and I have not put the question out to a couple of people I would like to hear from, and no one offered via email, so dang it, we are stuck with me.

Anyone noticing the buzz that thoroughbred Pyro is generating for the Kentucky Derby? Jeremy Plonk has an article on ESPN about it, the chat boards have a Derby 2008 chat flowing, and generally the racing world is stoked for the first Saturday in May. Every track that holds a prep event is of course part of the act, as well, providing cross promotion.

My question is: How can we do that in harness racing?

The first big stakes race for three year olds is the North America Cup at Mohawk. What prep races can be promoted for that race? Since we think outside (sometimes way outside) the box here, what about something like this.

The Burlington Stakes is now run on May 10th and 17th, let's say. Divisions and a final. It is an open event for 3YO's, and the winner earns a birth in the Cup final. He gets to bypass the eliminations.

The Berry's Creek winner, if scheduled close to May, also gets a birth in the North America Cup Final, perhaps.

Pie in the sky I guess, and logistics have to be worked out. But why not do something to create a "Road to the Cup", like the "Road to the Derby"?

Another thing I would like to see is that the North America Cup winner gets an auto-birth to the Meadowlands Pace Final. It is a long road with our Classic races, as all have elims and Finals. This takes a few races out of the loop for winners. It makes sure our stars are in finals and that has to be a good thing.

In our post Breeders Crown 2010 below we touch on this subject with the creation of a Breeders Crown Showdown, for a big purse, where our Classic winners are invited. The Breeders Cup Classic in thoroughbreds makes sure that their stars are in that race. We have to make sure our stars make it to Finals.

Anyway, a little bit to ponder I guess, on this Friday.

Next week, let's hope we get a guest poster with something on his/her mind so you don't have to listen to me ramble on about these things :)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Less Handle = Less Purses

Even today in some circles we don't hear alarm when talking about handle decreases. "It's ok, we have slots." In this month's Trot Magazine there is a chart that certainly shoots down that theory. I believe it is a subtle nudge to some that we have to start taking handle losses seriously.

On page 34 a chart entitled "Purse Distribution in Canadian Dollars" shows that in 2002 $252.5M was distributed in purses. In 2007, that figure fell to $224.4M, or a 12.5% decrease. This is of course reported in non-inflation adjusted dollars, so the result is much worse.

On the next page we see why this has happened. Pari-mutuel wagering in Canada was $862.9M in 2002. In 2007, it was $553.0M.

Slot money is playing a larger role in purses; but those purses are falling. This is causing the business in this country to recede. Less money for purses equals less owners, less trainers, less grooms, less feed men, less stallions, less mares and so on.

Could anyone imagine if tomorrow, or next year, it is decided that slots to purses are lowered? David Miller, Mayor of Toronto wants more of a share; maybe the government wants more of a share with a possible recession. Perhaps more important, the battle for the gambling dollar in neighbouring states with casino-type gambling, like New York and Michigan, as well as here at home is on the increase. Slots money has not exactly been growing leaps and bounds. What if that happens? With bettors leaving us in droves, there is no one left to fall back on.

This is a serious, serious issue. Perhaps the most serious one we have faced as a business in our history. I hope someone, somewhere is listening. We have to get our act together, if it is not already too late.

When you hear someone say "that's ok, we have slots," point him or her to Trot magazine and let them have a glance at reality.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Inside Information

On the Harness Edge this morning, I see that there is a story up about the BCSA offering their members up for driver and trainer interviews before races.

The BCSA and Fraser Downs hope the Backstretch Minute initiative will allow fans to get to know the trainers and drivers on a personable level rather than just being a name in the race program.

I think this is a good thing, but I would suggest we go one step further and I think this would help us gain fans.

In business, when your company has a stigma attached to it, fairly or unfairly, it is best to attack it. Like it or not, in our industry some bettors think we cheat; or you need to be "in the know" to win. Simulcasting lets us educate fans in many ways, one of which is giving all information out before the race is run, to quell that fear. We do not really do that, though. You and I know that the game has so little cheating in terms of "stiffing" and setting up races, but many fans do not seem to know. Thoroughbred fans especially think we are simply not on the up and up. Giving out inside information before the race is one thing I think we should make an effort to do.

I was watching the nationally televised Woodbine races last week on the Score. Bob McIntosh had a nice trotter racing, driven by Randy Waples. The horse won, then after the race Randy was interviewed. In the interview it came up that the horse broke stride last time because she lost a shoe, right near the wire. Interesting comment, and that's great, but I would think more than one bettor out there watching said "well, thanks for telling us that after the race has run!"

To me, it is this type of information that if packaged well, can grow the game, and market our sport. We know before races there are about 8 trainers who may think their horse has a chance and they are surprised at wins just like fans are, but fans do not know that. There is no conspiracy, no funny stuff. If each of the trainers were interviewed, or a backstretch reporter gained information from the connections prior to race time, I think it would do our bettors a big service; and to me the game would look more honest. That is something we need to attack.

How would we go about this? I really do not know. But to me it is something (at Pull the Pocket Downs) I would look at. Was the one horse sick last time and now he's fine? Did Kevin McMaster school the three horse, off this 4 week layoff last week? Did Randy's horse blow a shoe last time? Did the five horse not like the off going last time, and that is why he was 7th by 13? Is this horse off a qualifier tight and ready? Does Casie like her horse tonight? Does Bob? Does Blair?

In Hong Kong as I have posted up before, there are vet reports listed on their website (and in newspapers) when a horse races poorly. I am sure there are reversals of form there, as well as here in our sport, 99% of the time they can be explained. Why can't we explain them here, before they happen, and make our customers believe that when they bet money in harness racing they are getting a fair shake?

The benefits are there. 1) Our simulcast show is watched, because people will be getting good information 2) Our sport gets to know the participants and have a better feeling about them 3) Our sport attacks the cheating perception and 4) We have an edge on thoroughbred racing, because they do not do this.

If you give people a reason to bet, they will bet. If you make them comfortable with your participants, they are comfortable to bet. They get respect, and we hopefully grow the game. Too much of our air-time is wasted on human interest, or horse stories. I think we should spend it on betting information. After all, bettors pay the bills.

Note: It seems Jeff Gural and Vernon might have gotten something in the NYRA deal announced today. The story is just up on Bloodhorse.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

When Men Were Men, and Horses were Horses

“I remember one boy from Holland who told us he had come to America to see the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, and Greyhound.”

Frank Marrion's excellent piece on the Grey Ghost - legendary trotter Greyhound, is up at harnesslink.

In the annals of harness racing history there might not be a more revered figure. Dan Patch is arguably up there and in modern times rugged pacer Cam Fella is a throwback to that time; but I am not sure any of them could eclipse Greyhound in terms of popularity.

It was a time when horses did their talking on the racetrack, not in the breeding shed. And so did their owners. It was the halcyon days of harness racing.

Not only did Greyhound take all comers for seven seasons, he went in different distances, sulkies, and even under saddle. Each race was a new assault on a world record. It did not matter the venue, the track size, the weather, or the machine - he came to play.

This is testimony to the times. Greyhound's owner Colonel Baker was a true sportsman. And he had a heart. When he passed on Greyhound had a place in his will, to be cared for like a King until he died.

Nowadays we seem to have a sport that has lost some of this sportsmanship, and goodwill. Some change trainers like I change shirts. We race to breed, we dodge tracks or surfaces. The season is planned out right down to the letter, and any deviation of this plan seems to cause dismay to the ownership group in question. Even when a horse that should win loses, we often times hear excuses, instead of the classy "we got beat, and I congratulate them wholeheartedly" of yesteryear.

If you asked Greyhound's connections for a match race on the moon, it seems that the answer would be "sure, how do we get him there." If you beat them, you got a handshake, a congrats and a smile.

It was a time when men were men and horses were horses. And harness racing was the better for it.

If you are interested in reading the full Greyhound piece, please do. It is well written and filled with stories that are both enlightening and interesting. Kudos to Mr. Marrion for a well written story.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Doc's, Big M Drivers and Ron Paul

Have you ever seen a horse in the post parade that makes you wonder where the track vet is? Well it appears that even human doctors can’t quite get things right, either. Last week in the UK a jockey - after falling from a bolting horse - was pronounced “fit to ride”. One problem: His leg was broken.

The incredible episode occurred at Warwick when jockey Christian Williams took a crashing fall in the opening contest. His mount Allistathebarrista ran out approaching the final fence whilst challenging eventual winner Beat The Boys, smashing through the plastic wing of the obstacle.

Williams was thrown out of the saddle, but was able to walk back to the weighing room where he changed silks and weighed out to take his ride aboard Big Buck's in the Grade 2 Kingmaker Novices' Chase.

However, when Williams was unable to get his swollen foot into the stirrup, the racecourse executive commendably gave connections the opportunity to quickly replace the jockey, and Liam Heard was called up as substitute.

"He has broken his leg just below the knee - the tibia bone - and is going to have an operation to put a plate in tomorrow.

Next time I see a washed out horse, I will give the track vets a break. No pun intended. I thank for pointing me to that story.

Panaramic Art won his 19th in a row this week at the Meadowlands. Nice horse and certainly deserving, but I am interested to see if he is in this week again, as I believe I will play against him. I think he is ripe for a loss.

Speaking of the Meadowlands, it’s time to crunch the 2008 driving stats.

The Good

Brian Sears gets an A. He is the outright leader. But he has some chinks in the armour in ’08. He is only bringing in 39% chalk (which is well down from where he was), and is about smack-dab in the middle with longer shots, batting 0.150. He is getting overbet finally as well. His ROI has gone from positive to negative at -15%.

George Brennan is making the most of his drives, and he too gets an A. Positive ROI on chalk at a whopping 61% hit rate is noticeable. George on chalk nets you a 24% return!

Cat Manzi, considered washed up by bettors not long ago, has had a resurgence. Amazing what driving for a hot barn can do, huh? Grade A-.

The Bad

Tim Tetrick might have made a decent move heading back to Dover. He has a negative 51% ROI, and has been ordinary. Grade C.

John Campbell, who seems to be on the top of his game come stakes time, is having a tough time. Very few live drives, too. He gets a C+, just because we know he will be kicking some serious butt in the warm weather.

Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul didn’t vote for the online gambling ban in the US. He’s a bit of a libertarian, and he thinks people can make their own decisions with their cash I guess. He has gained a following in online gambling hot bed Costa Rica, and they want him recruited for their cause of legal online gaming in the US.

A number of operators have been planning a Ron Paul meet up group in Costa Rica. Some have talked their own customers into voting for Paul during the state primaries and caucuses.

I personally think legalizing online gambling is good for horse racing. What you say? How can that be good? Well it is good because these people know how to sell gambling; they understand churn and they understand the business. Betfair has been alive only seven years and they have a million customers. The worst thing racing ever did was not take these folks seriously. They built companies from the ground up, with zero customers. They know what they are doing. Instead of yelling at them, racing should have been copying them. If racing can’t bring us into the 21st century, maybe they can. Sell them the signal for 5%, and let them do what they do. We'll grow.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sports Betting to Jersey?

In a recent legislative session the state assembly passed a bill to bring sports gambling to New Jersey. Most believe that the bill (if it passes the Senate) faces an uphill climb, though, as in New Jersey there is a federal ban on the practice.

If passed and made law, this gives Atlantic City casinos an edge on states which now have the one-armed bandits, like New York. The casino lobby is obviously very powerful.

So what’s in it for racing? Well, it appears the usual, a piece of the pie to help purses:

Assembly Gaming Committee chairman and bill sponsor Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Cumberland, said he would seek amendments in the Senate version of the bill to allow for racetracks to host sports betting.

I’m pretty sure some people are cheering at that. Hey, why not. It is another form of revenue that racetracks can have to place back into purses. As you know New Jersey is looking for more subsidies, or slots, to help them compete.

Let’s have a closer look at this. How does sports betting, if allowed at racetracks, grow our sport and attack what we need attacked, that is fan growth and handle growth? In my opinion, it does the opposite.

Sports betting with a ten cent money line, possesses a takeout of 4.5%. To break even you have to hit 52.38% winners, or just over one in two (remember there are only two outcomes of most sporting events, like football). Why would someone want to bet racing instead of a sports bet, when racing takes out almost 20%? Our prices are too high to compete with even more gambling.

The Meadowlands might have a sports betting room. Racing fans can now pop in, maybe play a race or two, but it allows them to have $250 on the Knicks-Celtics game instead. It’s a whole lot easier to sit there with your friends with a few dollars in your pocket watching a game, than sitting there grinding away at the ponies. This takes even more handle away from racing. These things simply cannibalize.

It is amazing to me how some politicians and others think that discretionary income for gambling is infinite. If we offer lotteries, and slots, and sports betting and god knows what else, that there will be enough left for all of them to spilt and live comfortably. It does not work that way. It never has, and it never will.

As a fan of racing I hope that sports betting never sees the light of day in New Jersey, nor anywhere else. I would for once like to see someone in racing lobby for real change to our sport; change which can grow handles, not borrow off other gambling games for life support. Instead of looking at sports betting or slots betting for help, how about this for a concept: Let's grow horse betting.

Note: The Road to the Kentucky Derby is beginning. Pyro captured the Risen Star Stakes in fine fashion with an explosive drive to the wire on Saturday. Worth watching!

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