Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wednesday Link-o-rama

Deweycheatumnhowe, one of the three highest priced sires in harness racing, has left Kentucky for Ontario. I remember as a kid, Ontario sired horses were second class citizens. Armbro Omaha, Fundamentalist, Dallas Almahurst (the poor man's Oil Burner) and other pacing sires were non factors on the grand circuit. The trotters were a little better, with the very good Dream of Glory siring good horses. But nowadays, with slots, Ontario is at or near the head of the class.

VFTRG, in a post with regard to whipping violations at Windsor asks Marty Adler, the Windsor announcer, to keep the comments to himself.

What a difference a year makes. Last year as you would remember, there was a knock-down, drag-out fight between the horseman's association and Woodbine. A year before that, a scrap between Georgian and OHHA. Now, everything is signed sealed and delivered, without a fight.

The Meadowlands starts their meet on Friday. Free PP's et al right here. It looks like they have worked hard on their card. Full fields and some good racing. One would expect handle to be very good opening night. The one thing the Meadowlands does well, is respond with field size questions the best they can. They know opening day is a big day for any track. For thoroughbred fans, check the sixth race for a great race of talented old timers. It is something the runners rarely see, but we get to see it in harness racing quite a bit.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Overpricing Horses is Predictably Irrational

You head to Ikea and buy a desk for $100. It comes in boxes, so you have to put it together. Seven (or in my case about 70) hours later, voila, the desk is put together and it is sitting in the home office, looking dang good - a job well done. Now, a friend comes over and says "will you sell it?" and offers you $200. Chances are you say no. The desk is not a desk, it is your desk and it has value to you. You might not take $300 or $400 now for it.

So goes "the Ikea effect" detailed in a chapter of Predictably Irrational, a fascinating book on behavioural economics by Dan Ariely. In it he studies why we do what we do, why we buy, how we form relationships, how we act, and it is a good marriage between psychology and economics.

In exploring how we price items that we own (in fact, his latest blog piece speaks of this), it all depends on the story. To illustrate this in the book he used an anecdote about college kids camping out for days for Duke basketball tickets. He and his cohorts ran an experiment:

After the tickets were awarded (some who camped out got them, and others who did the same thing did not win them) he asked the people who won what price they would sell their tickets for, and conversely asked those who lost what they would pay to go to the game. The ones who won would immediately tell an emotional story about the game, how it would be a part of their college memory and that they are invaluable. When pressed for a price, they reluctantly said they would take (an average) of $2400. For the ones who lost, they immediately thought of money - e.g. if they did not go to the game, how much it would cost to have a good time out watching it, with some good food, good drink and with a little scratch left over. After mulling it over rationally, with cold hard cash decision making, the average they would pay was $170.

This chasm explains a lot to me about how we price horses. If you or I want to buy a horse we will call a trainer, expecting the price will be $60,000. We weigh what we can do with that $60,000 if he says no. We can buy two 20 claimers, take a trip with the family, pay a couple of bills, maybe or invest in a stock; after all 60k is 60k. We rationally equate what price we offer to other things. But often times the owner whom we are trying to purchase the horse from does not think that way. He does not see that the 60k can pay his feed man, give him 3 replacement 20 claimers, and so on. He only sees his horse and the story with the horse; how he bought him as a yearling, fed him carrots, worked with him (in a trainer's case), travelled to a track to watch him race; the memories. He or she equates its value with a story, not with economic reality.

I think this can explain a little bit about "rna's" at breeding sales, as well. "I picked this cross with tons of research, I raised the horse with the finest grains, and he will be a champion. You are only bidding $22,000? I am buying him back."

There is currently a push in Ontario to rejuvenate the claiming game. Some believe that changing the claiming jail time rule might help out. That is a worthwhile debate, but one thing we can not make trainer-owners or owners who have had a horse for a long time do, is price them. People who race their horses in protected classes are often called "bad businessmen" but in fact, as Dan Ariely's research shows, it is not that at all. They have an attachment to their horse, and to pry it from them takes cash; sometimes irrational amounts of cash.

The next time I ask someone to sell a horse, I will look at it from a whole different perspective. Although they are being irrational, at least now I know that it is an irrationality of a predictable variety.

Monday, December 28, 2009

8 Questions for Harness Racing in 2010

At the end of every year I make a list, wondering if racing will get together and embrace some change. You'll be not surprised that nothing much has changed since I started the blog long ago now. Each year brings us important questions, and here are a few I think are important for 2010.

1. Will harness racings flagship track bounce back from a terrible handle period?

- As most know the Meadowlands is a shadow of itself. $4M to $5M handles on a Saturday night, with deep fields, were once the norm. Now with Chester and Yonkers and their bandit cash taking more and more horses away from Jersey, it seems to be in a free fall. Star drivers follow the cash and they have abandoned the Jersey oval for a couple days a week as well, adding to the lost handles. Will they be able to reverse the trend? Will they be able to card deep fields? Will drivers say no to other tracks and support the Meadowlands? We'll see.

1a. Will the slot money cut in Pennsylvania mean a slice in purses?

- Earlier this year Pennsylvania cut slots funding by about 16%. Will this result in a purse slice for PA tracks?

2. Will there be racedate cooridination and purse pooling in Ontario?

- Woodstock races for huge purses, with no handles (oh, excuse me, they get about $10,000 in handle a day), while places like Windsor race for peanuts. Since about 2002 track owners and bettors have been asking for a change to the way purses are funded by purse pooling. Each year it is thwarted by horseman's groups. Is this the year something is finally done?

3. Will Woodbine harness embrace low takeout?

- With harness racing falling further and further down the foodchain, high takeouts still prevail at Canada's largest track. They have spent oodles on the racetrack, on infrastructure, on purses - on virtually everything to do with racing, except the bettor via the takeout rate. Is this the year we see a 14% pick 4, or a 12% superfecta to try and get some patrons back playing harness again?

4. Will other tracks try to stand out by offering new bets at a low takeout, or seeded carryover?

- Slots cash is everywhere and it supplies purses with the majority of their seed. In some places pari-mutuel handle only supplies 5% or 10% of purses - a mere pittance. Will the handle be looked at like a loss-leader by some smaller tracks whereby they lower takeout to try and get people interested again? Will they use the cash for something more than purses?

5. Will the Eaves era at WEG bring in a new direction?

- Since the early 2000's Woodbine is about the least available signal anywhere in North America and the general corporate culture on that point has been about signal protection. For example, on numerous ADW's one can bet Yavapai Downs (it is in Arizona, if you are wondering) or Cal Expo, but there is no Woodbine. Will they open up in 2010 and embrace the changing betting landscape?

6. Will there be a movement in Canadian racing to go after more ancillary revenue sources, or go after more racing revenue?

- Poker of the internet variety is soon to be offered in Quebec and British Columbia. Will racings strategy be to fight for a slice of it, or lobby for new ways to bet racing instead? I am betting the former, but the latter would be pretty cool.

7. Will there be a change in how inquiries are handled in 2010?

- Horse hits another horse, causes no real change in the race dynamic, judges look at video for twenty minutes, take down horse, turn the page, horseplayers shake their collective heads, wondering what just happened. In Australia recently they are reporting judges decisons in real time, with the reasoning behind them. As well, some other locales are putting time limits on inquiries to keep things moving (eg if you can't see a foul in five minutes, there probably isn't one). In the age of twitter, HD TV, and real time information sources, will we use them, or continue to pretend they do not exist?

8. Will HPI finally offer bet tracking?

- It is not a shock that people lose betting racing - 22% takeouts almost assure you do. ADW's in the US, like Youbet, Twinspires and all others offer a system to help you keep track of your losses (or wins) and help you be a better player. HPI has avoided this like the plague and it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out why. It would be nice to start the year with openness and transparency by having HPI offer a MYROI system like youbet does (youtube video attached).

Happy new year everyone!

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Grunch, and A Few Neat Posts

Over at r2 Dana wrote an absolutely excellent post on race replays. Replays were voted as the #2 innovation this decade by industry panelists. The history of them are pretty cool and she touches all the bases. I remember PTP reader "whip" being a huge replay follower and taping them on his VCR back in the 1990's. He would always have a trip note gem or two from them. Nowadays? Not so much.... we can watch replays in many of the areas Dana touches on.

Darryl Kaplan at Standardbred Canada has a festive poem up, on racing, and its hopeful growth. There are plenty of inside jokes (and obvious ones too) about racing in general. I found it a great read, and got a chuckle or two.

How The Grinch Stole Racing

Every Bettor down in Bet-Ville liked the racetrack a lot; but the Grinch, just North of Bet-ville, oh no, he DID NOT!

He stood there with a grimace and a snarl on his face; he looked at the Bettors and called them 'a disgrace'.

“I must force them all to just leave me to be, so I can finally shut the doors and throw away the key!

“I’ll watch the pretty horses and train them to pace; but those Bettors, oh those Bettors, get away from my race!

“With their figuring and biggering and messy program scrunching, with their deciding and devising and their tickets always punching.

“And the noise, oh the noise, I can’t deal with the noise! They’re the lewdest and the crudest, like loud little boys.

“I'll teach them a lesson and kick them out the door; I'll let them play poker and spend their pennies offshore.”

Continue here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday Cheer With My Peeps (& Kevin Bacon)

We don’t get to meet up in the blogosphere much, but I am happy report that yesterday we did. A few of us headed to the pub to have a few beers and enjoy the season.

And I thought I would share the story.....

I showed up first as I am always early. I waited patiently at the entrance but it was cold so I went inside. It was a fine pub, filled with holiday cheer, happy faces and a wide selection of brew. I felt immediately at home and grabbed a spot at the bar beside a gaggle of hot women, all trying to chat with a man who looked exactly like Kevin Bacon.

It turns out I was not the first here - Ray Paulick arrived before me.

“Hi Ray”, I said.

In return I received a slight frown. Ray was pretending to be the Footloose dude. For the love of God I hope he does not try to dance.

I decided to walk to the back of the bar to see if anyone else had arrived. Out of the corner of my ear I heard a diatribe, a soliloquy if you will, speaking of the inner workings of New York politics, Aqueduct slots and interesting facts on Ashley Dupre’s new hairstyle. Cool, it was Left at the Gate!

“Hi Left”, I said.

“Hi Pull” he replied.

“Have you seen Ray?” I asked.

“Sure did. I got 3 to 1 in a bet with Dana that he dances soon.”

Ah ha! There was Dana and this year she was dressed in multi-colors. “Dana, why are you so colorful? Last year you were all in purple!” I queried.

“Now that the Breeders Cup finally came to their senses with the saddle pads I am honoring them. Look at my socks… candy canes!” she beamed.

“Good job,” I said. Dana had been working hard on that all year.

Just then I heard a massive amount of laughter; like Ruth Buzzi provoked laughter at an old age home. I should have known, it was Sid Fernando, the most interesting man in the world, and he was telling stories. I could not make it out, but I think it was a story about a mating of a horse in the year 1210 whose offspring hoof-signed the Magna Carta, and whose bloodlines can be traced from the winner of the seventh at an obscure racetrack in Puerto Rico.

At that moment I heard “Switch it to Yonkers. Damn runners.” It was my old hopple pal View From the Racetrack Grandstand.

“Hi Pull. Do you believe these TV stations? Mountaineer and some hole named Penn instead of Yonkers. $&^!(*#!”."

I know whatcha mean View. We can’t get a break.

We were instantly joined by a well dressed fella: “I am the King……. the king! Now he roams in with that Brad kid who dresses like a Chicago Bear and tries to be like me. And it eternally pisses me off that those hot chicks think he is Kevin Bacon.”

Equidaily was upset.

“I think you are the King, Seth,” I tried to console.

"Well one thing is for sure, I can dance better than that"

Ray was dancing, and amazingly “Let’s Hear it For the Boy” was playing. He must have requested it.

“I can think of 360 reasons why that is so wrong,” said Jessica, now beside me, watching Paulick dance.

“Maybe he will do a 360” I said. Jessica smiled, a big round smile, not a 180.

“Hey there is CG. Where have you been?”

”I ordered takeout” said Cangamble “but it was like $18 for a pizza. Takeout is too high. The next time I order, I am going to pick it up. And no more Woodbine pizza. Those 28% margins on their triple pepperoni special are criminal.”

“Hey who is that dude?” I asked. “I think it might be that Tinhorn guy. “

“Tinhorn, like a greenhorn, like Green But Game…..... that’s me!!!” said Dana.

“No, that dude who spells good – Fugue for Tinhorns” I said.

“He has no business here” said Cangamble. “People who can spell. And what’s a fugue? What’s a tinhorn?”

None of us knew.

"I do," said Claire. Claire was writing for fancy places like ESPN. She was like Bill Finley, only much younger. And she could spell, she could really spell.

"Hi Claire" ....... I was instantly interrupted.

The door flew open and glowing vision walked in. It was none other than Teresa from the Brooklyn Backstretch, and behind her carrying her train was NYRA’s very own Andy Serling.

The party had started, and that was my cue to vamoose. I needed my sleep.

Another party at the pub was done for another year. Me, my peeps, and a guy who looks like Kevin Bacon.

In case it was not obvious, the people at this fictitious party all linked to my silly blog here in Pocketland in 2009. I thank them a ton for that and wish everyone a Happy Holiday and a very nice New Year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

In 2010 Can Badwill Become Goodwill?

The recently released wagering initiative by Darryl Kaplan (we'll have more on this later) got me thinking about working together. Darryl certainly has his work cut out for him in racing. I was reminded about that today reading a post at

In a thread about working together and growing attendance at the races, Jeff Platt, President of the Horseplayers Association of North America replied the following:

At this point I don't think the concept of takeout and elasticity is lost on track operators. Many of the people I've talked to in the industry would be in favor of giving lower taleout a try. Many still aren't. And some won't even take my calls to talk about it.

"One of the problems, as I see it, is that no one entity in racing has the power to make decisions.

As an example, I own a racing related business, JCapper... and even in a down economy - I've quitely had a pretty good year. I call the shots, but I answer to the customer. The shots that I call tend to be driven by customer needs and wants. The point I'm trying to make is that the business of racing customers is out there to be won... provided you satisfy their needs and wants.

In most if not all cases, the race track operators in favor of takeout reduction can't call their own shots. They can't decide on their own to just reduce takeout. They have to sell the idea to horsemen - and in many jurisdictions politicians. Historically, it has been really tough to get tracks, horsemen, and politicians to agree on just about everything.

Then there's the infighting that goes on between different groups withing the industry. Last year I talked with people on both sides of the TOC/THG vs. Tracknet signal impasse. And recently I've talked with people on both sides of the NYRA vs. Mid Atlantic Coop and the Tracknet vs. Mid Atlantic Coop signal impasses. A couple of days ago I found myself in the middle of a spat between NYRA and Equibase over NYRA's refusal to use Equibase's new Scratches and Changes system... (NYRA being the only organization out there that has so far refused to use the free system that Equibase created for the benefit of players.)

I can tell you that a lot of badwill exists among the parties in these disputes... Enough badwill that it gets in the way of bringing about positive change that would benefit everybody. Many of the conversations I've had literally reminded me of playing the role of an adult who has just separated two 8 year olds from a fight and having to listen to both of them explain through tears what the other other one did first... I'm not kidding about this - and I'm talking about grown men.

Several years ago, Keeneland tried to do a real reduced takeout experiment. The badwill between competing tracks boiled up and the entire Mid Atlantic Coop decided not to allow Keeneland's signal at their outlets. Like I said... 8 year olds.

To really make positive change happen, a majority of the decision makers have to be on the same page."

I sincerely hope Darryl and crew can herd cats, and turn badwill into good. Let's hope we see that with this new venture.

Monday, December 21, 2009

My Top Ten Trotters and Pacers of the Decade

Top ten lists of the decade are so everywhere. But, heck I think they are cool and I like reading them. It was a wonderful decade to watch racing, and we were blessed with some great horses. I will do my best to count down who I think were the top ten. It is only my opinion, and as always, I look at performance ahead of record. A horses talent tells us where he fits in the history of racing, a horses record is simply a snapshot about how he/she fits in a crop.

So, here goes.

#10 - Gallo Blue Chip (133-53-19-9 $4.3M) - It is impossible for me to leave the all time leading money winner off this list. He won everywhere, and raced for years. He was not the fastest, was not the most durable horse of the decade, but he deserves his due for a marvelous stakes career.

#9 - Rock n Roll Hanover (26-15-5-5 $3.0M) - Brett Pelling did a masterful job with this horse and he responded. He was born to be a champion and he was. He set a world record at two and went on to win the big three at three. At the end of his 3YO year he looked done, but he was not. His win in the Breeders Crown was as good as his win in the North America Cup.

#8 - Mr. Big (85-34-20-11 $4.1M) - He is probably the most accomplished older horse of the decade, but he was not bad as a two and three year old either. He lost a teeny step this year at age 6, but he still won some races, including the Ben Franklin in a sparkling 148. He is now retired, but I have a sneaky feeling with last years less than stellar three year old crop, he could give them a run for another year.

#7 - Snow White (19-14-0-1 $1.4M)
- She is a filly that is generational. Her 152.4 world record at the Red Mile (below) is the stuff of trotting legend. How good was she as a two year old? Her dominant effort in the Breeders Crown would have easily won the sophomore division, which never happens. If we look, the same night the two year old colt Crown (won by Deweycheatumnhowe) went 157, she crushed in 55. Truly one of the greatest freshman, male or female, to strap on a bridle.

#6 - Art Major (49-32-7-2 $3.3M)
- If there was a match race tomorrow between Art Major and Somebeachsomewhere, I believe that he would be 7 or 8 to 5 because he was that good a pacer. During his three year old year I had the feeling that each win would be an open length one and its was not will he win, but how much will he win by. That is a mark of greatness, especially when his crop included horses like Mach Three and Red River Hanover. His win over McArdle in the US Pacing Championship at 4 was breathless. I do not think that there are many horses alive who could have won that race off that trip, against those tough horses.

#5 - Muscle Hill (21-20-1-0 $3.3M) - Muscle Hill was one of those transitional figures, as well, which it tends to take to make my list. There have been fast trotters to step on the track before. Sometimes they get a flyer and win easily, however often times this is never repeated, nor can they last doing it. This horse was the first trotter that reminded me of a pacer - push button speed, can go a quarter in 26 then back it down with a 30, and finish strong. Although he did not accomplish it, to me he is the first real 149 trotter. We have never see a horse win the Hambo in 150 with so much left. A true superstar.

#4 - Eternal Camnation (101-47-18-5 $4.2M) - The winningest mare in harness history is here for many reasons, the most of which might be her longevity. I do not think she could have beaten Rainbow Blue, but boy could she have given her a tussle. I sincerely wish her Classic Series win at Dover was on Youtube. In it she proved she belongs on anyone’s list. She was in a no win spot and driver Eric Ledford had to tip her three wide extremely prematurely. That would have stopped virtually any horse, but not horses who make this list. She continued to surge, and surge and surge; and she won. She was another who broke down barriers and was mentioned as perhaps a starter in some races against the boys. She might have had a tough time beating the Free for Allers, but she would have tried her butt off, because that is who she was.

#3 - Peaceful Way (52-33-3-2 $3.2M) - She won $3M, and probably beat herself (not many could beat her when she stayed flat) out of another million or so. She crushed male free for all superstars in the Maple Leaf Trot, she was constantly talked about as being able to possibly beat Mr. Muscleman. It will take many, many years to forget this mare and I don’t know if we’ll see another one like her. During her heyday she was always compared to the greatest trotters ever, which happens only to the true greats. For a race that sends chills up ones spine, remember her performance in the Classic Series at the Meadowlands below. She was awesome.

#2 - Rainbow Blue (32-30-0-1 $1.6M) - Words do not do this beast of a mare justice. Does anyone have any doubt that in the ten seasons of this millenium she would have beat any filly foaled? I don’t. In her Roses are Red elimination at Woodbine she won in a hand drive in 49.2. There is a chance she could have set the all age track record that evening. In the final, on a soupy track, she proved her talent even more, going three high at the half, surging to the lead and winning with ease. This was the three year old year of horses like Metropolitan and Modern Art. Not only was she argued as being one of the best fillies in history, there were many observers who felt that she, if entered in the Pace or North America Cup would have won. That has not happened with a three year old filly since perhaps Fan Hanover 30 years ago. She stands at number two, but could easily be number one.

#1 - Somebeachsomewhere (21-20-1-0 $3.4M) - I constantly am looking for kinks in an armor of horses, but with this colt I can not find one. He represented a sea-change in racing in 2008 - a horse built for pure speed, but with a toughness and constitution that we will have a hard time seeing moving forward. There is one three year old colt in modern history who would have been 3-5 racing free for allers, him. Only a few horses can stand the rigor of modern racing for two full seasons, and those did not set four world records in the process. Fans for his two years of racing tried to bring him down. He was never challenged, he only raced in Canada as a two year old, he could not handle heats, just wait for a sloppy track, wait til he meets Shadow Play on a half, he won't last the season going that speed they said. He answered every criticism, game set and match. He won on a half, and set a world record. He went heats and won both. He paced first over to a half mile track world champion, locked wheels and still won in a rainstorm. He set a world record all by himself, in less than ideal conditions. From the moment he set foot on the track, til the moment he left it, he dominated, while making other world champions look like they were not in the same species. In 21 races (by my count) he was tapped with the whip no more than a half dozen times, and it was not because of sub-par competition, it was because he was faster than any horse alive.

In the end I guess it can be summed up like this: Throughout his career the "Beach" was compared to Nihilator and Niatross, while horses like Rock n Roll Hanover, Art Major and this years star Well Said, were compared to Somebeachsomewhere. It is why he is number one my list.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Power Play & Old Grey Friends

A recent blog piece on business quoted a book publisher saying "We must do everything in our power to uphold the value of our content against the downward pressures exerted by the marketplace."

The author rightfully says, "You don't have the power."

He is fundamentally correct, of course. Fighting market forces is a one way ticket to the poorhouse. Over the last ten or so years racings response to competition reads like the playbook of a prohibition politico from 90 years ago: "Internet poker is illegal and it must be stopped, we need legislation .... once we ban offshore wagering people will be back betting at the track .... we can not lower prices to compete because it costs too much"

I don't think that strategy is working too well.

The future is something we move towards, not look for protection from. Let's hope we do better this decade than the last one.

There is a story today (h/t to Standardbred Canada) about the 23 year old mare Keystone Wallis. She made over $600k with 18 wins from 62 starts. I remember seeing her maiden race and followed her throughout her excellent career as a class-skipping track goer. She stood out like a sore thumb - a beautiful grey mare, almost bright white.

She was recently (now a barren mare) sent to auction where her days would be numbered. But some Christmas cheer came her way when a gal at Hogan Equine named Kate Miller saw her in the catalogue. They scraped up some cash and voila - the grey mare has a new loving home. For more on the story and to see pictures of Keystone Wallis, click here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ontario to Privatize Slots?

It is being reported that the Ontario government is shopping around its lottery arm - the "OLGC" - for a potential sale to private investors. The OLGC is a partner at the reacetracks and slots program. They run the slots, the tracks and purses get their cut.

Jeff Gural, among others in racing, have long complained that the slots train might some day come to an end. Usually politics trumps everything, however. For example, there is little chance in privatizing the liquor control board because of unions, and racing and the people it employs (especially in rural ridings) also has political clout. But if the OLGC is privatized one would think that can change.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. There is a good deal of political capital behind slots at racetracks (Conservative MP's, Woodbine Entertainment to name but two) and one would have to think there will be built in protections for racetracks if this comes about. We'll see.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December Harness Edge is Up & Slots & Coyotes

This month's Harness Edge, the online harness magazine is up. The Christmas issue is always neat because it is filled with ads of industry insiders wishing each other a happy holiday.

This month the story that caught my eye was the one on All Speed Hanover, the two year old Breeders Crown champ. He is perhaps the least hyped two year old I have ever seen, but arguably the best.

Click here to enter the magazine if you'd like to read it.

There is still some major lobbying going on in Jersey for slots. There is a new governor there and maybe something positive happens. I am usually indifferent to slots being approved since for so long they have hurt handles. But for Jersey I have a sneaky feeling the Monmouth, Meadowlands and others might actually do something with the cash windfall other than throw it into purses. It's also funny to me that I think there will be a slot machine at the Meadowlands before Aqueduct. Funny of course because slots are approved in New York. They just can't get out of their own way.

Further to our rabbits post below where a driver and a horse got into a minor accident due to Bugs and friends, there is some follow up. And the follow up includes more animal stories. It turns out that there are about 20 rabbits in the infield of the track. In past years there were not too many at all because (if you are a PETA type do not continue reading) there was a coyote in the infield and he ate them. But the coyote (again don't read this PETA folks) had to be put down last season because he was "following staff out to the parking lot." Full story of rabbits, coyotes and Northlands Park here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Low to High, Instead of High To Low

The post today on the horseplayer blog (via an article on Colin's Ghost) shows that when the pari-mutuel system was started, way back in 1908 the takeout was 5%. That got me thinking about what happened.

Racing was a monopoly in 1908 - want to gamble, go bet the races. Usually monopolies charge as high a price as they can, then competition steps in, or the government does (slapping you down for an unfair practice), and the price is lowered. Instead racing, like all too often, seemed to have turned this on its head. They charged what they thought would make them the most money (I think they knew about churn and customer retention in 1908) and kept it there. Until, of course, they saw that being a monopoly meant they could charge more with some impunity. In the 1930's we were up to 8% take, 10% in the 1950's all the way up to 22% today. When they were the only game in town, their prices were over 400% lower than when they are not the only game in town.

Nothing should surprise us in racing, but that really does. They operated like a capitalistic business in 1908 when they were protected, and now in 2009 when they should be operating as a capitalist business (with a plethora of competition), they act like they are monopolists.

I have said it before, but I truly do believe that 50 years from now racing will be studied in MBA programs across the entire planet as a case study on "ass-backwardness" in business.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Golfers and Horses

The headlines in sport, unless you are living under a rock, have been filled with Tiger Woods. TV networks, the PGA Tour itself and every associated with the future of golf are hand-wringing about him taking time off, and his problems in general. "When Woods missed eight months to recover from knee surgery, television ratings for the tour dropped 50 percent."

As well, several endorsements that not only promote Tiger Woods, but the game of golf too, have gone by the wayside.

I think this is provides and interesting comparison to the marketing of horses. Often times we'll hear that horses should not retire early, because as soon as they are known to the general public, they are gone, and it hurts racing. I believe this is true to an extent, but to believe it makes a huge difference depends on the supposition that revenues are gained or lost because of the horses. Being a gambling game I doubt at all this it true. Until purses are increased or decreased based on the sale of Somebeachsomewhere or Rachel Alexandra t-shirts, or we are selling our major races for millions upon millions to TV networks, that is a huge leap of logic. And of course bettors would rather bet a deep field with a lot of possibles. The Kentucky Oaks this year, or Somebeach's races last year? Not a chance. A field without a standout star brings more revenue for their race than one with a standout.

So what good can a racehorse do for us, if anything? I think it is solely based on the casual fan. The NFL has plenty of funnels to the casual fan - office pools, community outreach, United Way work, and several other avenues. These help them brand themselves and get into the fabric of society, and maybe grab some fans and goodwill along the margins.

Racehorses racing for a long time can help us in exactly that same way, I believe. For example, we all know the government controls the purse strings in many areas. Without slots, racing would be down by more than half this decade. The public, through their knowledge as casual sports fans of our most diligent competitors, can be pushed on our side to help protect that revenue stream. As well, horses who have raced for years can be used to show the care they receive, show they are treated, and can be an ambassador for the sport. This helps with PETA types or others who simply want racing to end. "I saw that horse race for years and saw features about the care they receive" comment from a stay at home mom is some solid ammo against those types.

The PGA Tour is a shadow of itself without Tiger Woods. Without Zenyatta we are essentially the same game, but on the fringes I think we lose some things that we can't see or touch - horses speak to casual fans in a way we can not, and we are a better game if they are around longer to do just that.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Let's Party Like it's 1949

There is a story in the Globe and Mail today about Woodbine's lost handle due to the shutdown of racing in Quebec.

"Since the four Quebec racetracks operated by Attractions Hippiques shut down on Oct. 14, Woodbine has lost $500,000 weekly in off-track wagering from that province."

So, let's get this straight. The tracks shut down, but what about internet wagering, or offtrack venues? Surely for such a huge market of willing bettors they should easily be able to play online, or somewhere should they not? This should be a non-issue for bettors.

"The shuttering of their province's tracks means Quebeckers cannot legally wager on a horse race anywhere. Federal rules require that a racetrack must conduct 50 days of racing to collect wagers from off-track parlours or account wagering."

Home market bricks-and-mortar rules for racetracks that were written a half-century ago. This in an internet world where you can buy a share of a stock on the Hang Seng at 3AM in your pajamas. Is it any wonder why we're in the tank?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Horses are Scared of Rabbits

At Northlands Park Wednesday several rabbits were in the infield. This spooked one of the horses, and he took a tumble, sending driver Debbie Manning to the track. She injured her shoulder. They are kind of tough to see in the video (it is just before the quarter), but here it is.

"I could see (Last Chance Buddy) get scared of the rabbit," explained Manning. "He jumped straight sideways."

Sometimes watching these horses on television as bettors we do not get an appreciation of how they are flight animals. If something is out of whack, they get scared. A laymen might say "to be scared of a rabbit as a 1100 pound horse? It does not make sense." Smart horse folks tell us that it sure does make sense.

That got me thinking about the classic Mythbusters episode where they tested the "are elephants really scared of mice" question. I was astounded at this piece. Quite entertaining, and I don't blame our equine friends at all for being scared of a bunny after watching this.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Harness Racing TV Ad Wins!

The V75 has struck again, this time earning the "People's Choice Award" for best TV ad at the Arizona Symposium. I think this ad is supposed to mean "the horses are taking over, so to join them bet the 75", however I am usually slow on the uptake. Plus it's Swedish.

For a previous award winning V75 ad, click here.

Helping Out

I got an email from Susan over at Scarborough Downs this morning about helping out the folks who survived the carnage of the Lebanon barn fire. Two men and 43 horses lost their life in the fire.

Harness racing is like the police, or fire departments, or the military. They stick together and when one of theirs go down, the troops rally. We have seen this time and time again over the years. Just this week, driver Greg Grismore started the movement in his way.

Greg Grismore, a native Ohioan who now races at Yonkers Raceway, is calling on all drivers to donate their driving fees earned in races on Dec. 8 to the funds.

He posted the following online: “I am deeply saddened of the news out of Lebanon today. I would like to send my condolences to all that have been affected by this tragedy. I will be donating 100 percent of my earnings on Tuesday, Dec. 8, and would like to encourage other drivers to do the same. We as horsemen need to stick together and show our support to our fellow horsemen and friends in this time of need. My thoughts and prayers go out to each and every one of you.”

“My post has gotten a big response,” Grismore said. “I’ve talked to a couple of drivers here, and they are going to do it. I’ve also talked to Ronnie Burke, and he and a bunch of guys are also going to do it at the Meadows.

“I’ve gotten Jason Bartlett and Jordan Stratton to agree, and I’m going to talk to more of the guys at Yonkers when I get to the track.”

Susan at Scarborough is asking for patrons to donate this weekend, and asking horspeople for silent auction items. Details are here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Meadowlands Meet to go January 1st

I spoke with a friend today and he said "has the Meadowlands closed down?"

With handles lower and lower, along with field size thanks to neighbouring slots tracks, one might be excused for thinking that. After all, each year come the third week in November the harness world focuses on New Jersey. But this year, the meet is starting January first.

A few changes from last year:

* Sustaining payments for the Meadowlands Pace are lowered. I think this is a good idea, as I found those high.

* Hambo day is huge again: "Racing's greatest day is set for Saturday, August 7 with the sport's premier events for 3-year-old trotters, the $1.5 million Hambletonian and $750,000 Oaks for fillies, forming the centerpiece of a $4 million card. Sharing the spotlight are the $525,000 Merrie Annabelle, $523,000 Peter Haughton Memorial, $400,000 Mistletoe Shalee, $325,000 US Pacing Championship, $300,000 Nat Ray Invitational, $246,000 Lady Liberty, $230,000 Oliver Wendell Holmes and $100,000 Perretti Farms Matchmaker."

* The Woodrow Wilson and the Haughton are late August starts.

I sure hope the drivers hang around a little this year instead of bolting to Chester at the first sign of a higher purse. As well, a few more fields of eight or more are on the Christmas wishlist.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Some Stiffs and Some Tweets

Y'know when you go to form an opine on something and then get hit right between the eyes? This happened to me today. Last evening I was reading about the NTRA Survey on thoroughbred racing, and was struck by this metric:

Among core fans, 70% said they don’t believe there is “widespread cheating” in Thoroughbred racing—but that means three in 10 aren’t convinced.

I was about to write a post that this was too high, and the reasons why. I got busy doing a little pre-Monday work and did not get to it. Then I wake this morning to see this:

According to a report, a harness racing owner has been banned from the sport for 13 years after it was determined that he was found guilty of manipulating a race.

An article by the Herald-Sun states that Queensland harness racing stewards down under have banned the owner, Lucas Sullivan, and also disqualified drivers Jay Bellamy and David Turner for four years for not letting their horses run on their merits.

It seems these fellas were making some scores on off form horses. Nothing new there, but I would submit this is rare. With purses so high there is no reason for this any longer. But I guess to bury our heads in the sand would not be wise. Regardless, just when I was gonna write about something..... boom.

Next up: The R2 Collective had a post up today about a company which offers "tweets" from some celeb's about your product and service. Yep, for a few hundred bucks singer Leanne Rimes can tweet to her followers that your really awesome new broom kicks some major ass around the kitchen.

I wondered about this for racing; so let's talk harness. Who would be good celebs to promote harness racing via online mediums?

George Steinbrenner owned harness horses, including the very good Incredible Finale. He would be a good candidate. It would be funny to hear what he thought about the quality of drives his horses receive.

Also, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman has harness ties. His dad ran Castelton Farms in Lexington for many years (among other things racing related).

Eddie Olczyk, the former NHL coach and player apparently bets some harness racing.

Former Leafs centre Mats Sundin is known for more than being traded for Wendel Clark. He owns Rotation, the really good trotter, and I think still owns horses.

Those are off the top of my head and I am sure there are many more, so add to those in the comments section if you guys and gals can think of some.

Speaking of R2, the very talented writer and journalist Claire Novak wrote a blog post about the project today on "Racetrack executives should take notice and bookmark this site; advertising and marketing managers should add it to their RSS feeds or a daily click-through part of the morning news routine. As various forms of social media develop, it will serve the industry well to remain up on the times – and R2 Collective will lead the way." It is darn nice to hear such positive things about the project. Thanks very much Claire!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

200 wins in 233 Starts? Youbetcha

Glen over at has a look at Jarvsofaks, a cold-blood trotter racing in Scandanavia. Today this 15 year old trotter got his 200th win.

Some facts that Glen offers about this phenom:

-Born 1994 -15 years old
-233 starts, 200 wins
-21.2 million in earnings
-sire of 500 plus; 11 are millionaires
-holds every World Record for cold blood trotters
-win : 86%
-in the money : 94%
-horse of the Year title in Sweden -Norway -Finland -11 times
-multiple winner of every major race
-number of consecutive wins 42
-200th win today
-mandatory retirement this year

When he was profiled last year by Dean Hoffman, this old fella only had 176 wins - so he has been busy.

Somebeachsomewhere was heralded for his 20 for 21 record. Zenyatta is equally heralded for her 14 for 14. How about 200 for 233? Priceless.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Handicapping Time Warp

I got into a conversation a couple of days ago about handicapping yesteryear, versus handicapping today. What a difference a couple of decades makes in our game.

Back in the pre-internet day you would head to the corner store for a program (usually out 48 hours to the minute to post time) and pick it up for $2. You would then head home and study. If you saw what you thought was a trainer change you would dig through all your other programs (in my handicapping roommates case - all over his floor with the 'throw it up and see where it lands' filing system he had) to see if it was or not. Was the three horse boxed last time? You would check your notes. But, you did not see that race because you had to write an exam that night - time to make a phone call to ask a buddy if he saw that race and remembered. Did this horse race here last year as a shipper and win? Does his trainer ever do this move and win? Back through the old programs I go.

Using techniques like going through old programs and using your memory was a staple. The sharpest folks I knew were those who could remember facts about races, facts about trainers and were able to read and recognize quickly. Your memory was your greatest ally.

Fast forward to now. That same exercise is very, very different.

You download your program 48 hours out and save it to the hard drive. You can print it out if you'd like but it is really not that necessary. Trainer changes are listed in the program, so no need to try and get an edge there. Was a horse boxed last time in the Mohawk 5th? Don't call a friend, go to Youtube to watch the Woodbine Entertainment replay channel, or use your ADW to sift through them on that replay platform. Trip notes sheets? They are done virtually through the Trackmaster stable alert, or via computer. Did this trainer make this move last year? Just go to Trackit, or Pathway and go through last years lines - yes, he did and he won in a higher class than he is in this week - green light. Am I missing something? Go to a chat board like and ask a question. You will probably have an answer. What about figures of some sort to see what others think? Woodbine through HPI has compubet figs up for free. Click your mouse and away we go.

I kind of miss the old days because if you were sharp, you could find some horses that others could not. There was dumb money in the pools because working at it was too damn hard to do. Nowadays it is easier to work less and find a winner. This has hurt a lot of price horses that we used to play. For evidence of that look for a horse that was boxed at 5-2 last week with a ton. He will open at 3-5 the next time.

But what happens in response to that is interesting to me - we have to step outside the box and search for value to play the game, just like we did before, but with a different set of factors. Some factors that were underbet before are overbet now. Some factors that are currently overlooked are still there for us and tend to yield fruit - warmups, physical handicapping, proper odds lines and so on.

The handicapping game has changed, no doubt about that. But the fundamentals are the same. We need to find a horse who has a greater chance to win than his odds indicate and it does not matter if we use a PC, or a pen and paper.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Jackpot Syndicates

One thing (among many, like some excellent fish) the Swedes have over us is the V75. The jackpot pick 7 is sold weekly throughout Sweden and has an average total prize pool of $15M per week. This bet is of course on harness racing, in a country pretty mad for it.

One thing big pool bets do is allow for syndicates. In the US and Canada, archaic betting laws tend to frown upon these syndicates, which I believe is a major reason we do not see our game more mainstream.

Here is an example of a syndicate for the V75 in Australia. It gives lotto minded people a chance to play a simple bet, and perhaps walk away with a whole lot of money.

It is something that the industry should look into here in North America more and more in my opinion.

I guess this gives me time to place up my favorite horse racing commercial ever. It is not for a race, or a horse, or a movie. It is for a harness racing bet - the V75. Now we're talking.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Good Stuff

Nice post today on racing losing some of its identity. With stud deals, politics and almost a fear to lose, times have changed. To read "My horse is faster than your horse.... let's race" click here.

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