Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mark Mac Gets the Boot; and Other 'Matters'

Last year Mark MacDonald drove two year old Canadian champion Sportswriter to a near flawless record. Not only did he get the best of him in the big races, he also drove him to a victory when by all rights he should have been beaten in the BC prep. However, he has been taken off the colt in favour of driver Brian Sears for the upcoming season.

Brian Sears, the sport’s top driver, said he has made a commitment to drive the outstanding colt this year when he competes. That includes, of course, the million-dollar events like the Meadowlands Pace and the North America Cup.

I find things like this a little premature, that is: Changing a driver for races three months in advance, when you have no idea how a horse comes back, and when you had mucho success with the old one. Maybe I am just superstitious, but in a sport that only has one certainty - the uncertain - it makes me quake when I read things like that.

In other Matters, a maiden colt out of the Noel Daley barn won his debut Sunday at the M and his name is Ideal Matters. It is impossible to teach talent in racing, and this horse was born with a lot of it. In his qualifiers it was pretty obvious he was a beast, but his victory Sunday stamped it. He went on one line off the gate, looking around, then sat 6th through slow fractions. His cover stalled at the head of the lane, but that hardly mattered. He exploded home in 25.4 to win easily.

The thing I especially like is he is doing this while a bit growthy like an immature Western Ideal usually does, and I think he should get a ton better. As well, Noel is never one to crank one for his first start, which bodes well.

The last time I remember watching a 3YO maiden win like that happened three years ago in February, at Woodbine. A colt broke at the quarter, got back on and closed 17 lengths back, to win going away by six in 155.2. Everyone knew they were looking at a good one. That colt was Tell All, and we might be looking at a similar here. If he develops like he should, driver decisions may be the least of the worries for Sportswriter.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Oh Boy

Ontario is going to look into legalizing online gambling.

"Premier Dalton McGuinty is opening the door to allowing Internet gambling in Ontario.

Paul Godfrey, the new chairman of Ontario Lottery and Gaming, wants the province to get in to Internet gambling instead of watching potential revenues go to other provinces and offshore websites.

Quebec has announced plans to join the British Columbia and Atlantic lottery corporations in allowing online gambling."

With upwards of 17 racetracks, multi-millions in horse race handle and over 40% of the entire country's GDP, this could be a huge blow to horse race handles. As we know, handles are off on live racing by about 40% on harness alone since 2000, without any government promoted online gaming.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Three Times Heads or Tails, One For the House

In a pretty cool act of google mapping, an ADW created a harness track map, complete with takeouts. It's here.

Clicking the icons for takeout data is like a kid opening up his Christmas stocking and finding a lump of coal.

I wonder how that 32% superfecta take is doing at Chester. You can get a bargain on trifectas though; that take is only 30%.

Or how about that 24.6% win, place show takeout at Hiawatha? Would you play any game where if you flip a coin four times one of the results go to the house?

In the words of a thoroughbred playing friend of mine after seeing this map: "No wonder no one plays harness racing, they are all broke".

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

And Off Stride They Go

Sitting outside, or in the grandstand at Greenwood brings back many memories. Racing was super-popular and we usually had a packed house and some energetic fans. Every harness fan at that time will remember the reaction when a horse broke stride. First there would be cursing; players more upset than they are finding out they do not get a tax refund this year. Then, after the horse would come by the grandstand, far, far behind the others, the crowd would give the driver a bronx cheer.

"Am1947" has been tracking horses who break stride in his database and posted them at Pace. I found the numbers pretty shocking.

At the Meadowlands there have been 11,815 pacers sent to the gate in the past year and a half or so. 329 of them broke at some point of the mile, for a 2.78% break frequency.

There have been 4604 trotters sent to the gate and 522 have broke stride, for a 11.3% break frequency.

That means about 900 times the past year or so a bettors money went up in smoke without even having a chance.

These numbers are at the Meadowlands, which has gentle turns, the best horses and a great surface. On a half mile track these numbers must be much worse.

This is clearly a problem. Someone heads to the track, pays admission, studies his program, waits twenty minutes between races, puts down his hard earned cash, and with trotters, 11% of the time their money goes poof, without even having a chance to play. The takeout is about 17%, so adding 11% due to breaking at random, it is like a huge takeout hike.

Breaking horses are part of the game, but I don't think they have to be. If we are being honest with ourselves, we all know that most of the cash for purses in our sport are from slots. What if there were refunds given for these breaking trotters? Are we really going to miss the smidgen of cash that we lose? Would these refunds be worth their weight in gold for customer satisfaction and churn?

Maybe we should try something new. If we do, perhaps when a horse breaks in the future we will not hear "f*#) harness racing", but "well, at least I get my cash back. I will try that horse next time" instead. The latter seems to be preferred from a customer service perspective.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Go Green

Tracks and racing organizations are constantly asking for government help. We often read a similar angle while they try to convince government for this help: Racing speaks of the "economic impact" when money is injected into racing, and hands off an economic impact study, done by some company with six names. This has always been a curious angle to me. Sure if you give a racetrack $20M for purses, that money will get filtered down to feed men, hay farmers, gas stations, trailer and truck sellers and so on. But if I give that $20M to say, a deck maker to give everyone a free cedar deck, then that money will be filtered down to lumberjacks, construction workers, steel makers and places that sell those tables with umbrellas in the middle of them (among others).

Why do they continue to do this in places like Jersey? I don't really know. If anyone knows about people asking them for dough it is the government, and they know x will go up if you give money to y. They see these things every day.

I think it is time for a new approach. It's time to throw those economic impact studies in the scrap heap, and go green.

Keeping farm land and pasture land away from urban sprawl is a pretty compelling argument. Nowadays land is getting swallowed up for development everywhere we turn. Keeping racing in business helps make the states who help it, green.

Although the environment is falling down the list of the general public's main concerns, it is still pretty big in government - sometimes bordering on the incredulous. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a subsidy for of all things, golf carts. Because golf carts fall under the "electric car" category, you can pretty much get one free (in the US). Enterprising businesses are pushing this strange loophole:

Golf Cart Man is referring to his offer in which you can buy the cart for $8,000, get a $5,300 tax credit off your 2009 income tax, lease it back for $100 a month for 27 months, at which point Golf Cart Man will buy back the cart for $2,000. "This means you own a free Golf Cart or made $2,000 cash doing absolutely nothing!!!" You can't blame a guy for exploiting loopholes that Congress offers.

That might make us scratch our head, but it is what it is. If racing truly wants to advance their argument in places like Jersey, go green. They seem to like giving away cash if you bring that message.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Big Loss for East Coast Harness Racing

It was announced that the General Manager of Harness Racing PEI, Jeremy Pierce, is leaving for a new job. This is not very good news at all.

For those who do not know, PEI hosts the annual Gold Cup and Saucer in Charlottetown, and it is a tremendous event. The Island is one of the most unique places on earth. They are somewhat secluded from the rest of the country, and have their own style. And they love harness racing, sometimes simply racing for ribbons. Jeremy, though his knowledge of sports marketing, and passion for a new sport, worked his butt off this past few years.

I first met him at a wagering conference in Montreal, and was immediately impressed. He moderated the panel on new racing innovations in Windsor this past year as well. He always, without fail, wanted to know an opinion from a bettor about a new policy. He also was always trying new things, to up the bet, and grow the game, even a little bit.

The new guy or gal has some big shoes to fill in PEI. We hope they find a good one.


I have my TV on the racing channel today, and about 2:45 I see the track announcer at Oaklawn announce that the Apple Blossom Stakes has been moved back. Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta will meet on Friday April 9th.

The weird thing was, I did not really believe it. There was no press release, no story up on any of the top websites, nothing. After about an hour, the DRF picked it up, and it appears to be true. It is a pretty good illustration that we do not need press releases much anymore. Word filters through.

Some folks are upset it is a Friday instead of a Saturday, but that is irrelevant to me. If people want to watch it, they will find a way to watch it. Seabiscuit versus War Admiral in 1938 was on a Tuesday, and they did not have what we have today: Cable racing channels, live video streaming, and all the rest.

Not to mention, they will probably run the race late in the card anyway. It will be an early evening affair.

Saturday appears to be a bad day to run it, because of competition. The FA Cup semi's are that day for our UK friends. It is also the day of the Grand National. Saturday as well has full coverage of the Masters on moving day. Friday's Masters coverage is somewhat abbreviated. It is also the only sporting event of any significance on that Friday, so people popping over for the race is not a stretch.

Regardless, this is good to see, if it happens. When betfair has the odds up, I wonder what they will be. If there is an option of "none of the above" it might be heavily underbet. That's my long-winded way of saying, I will believe this match up happens, when I see the entries.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Peta Police

Audi's Super Bowl ad has been causing quite a stir both in print and on the web. The agency who wrote the ad (Venables Bell & Partners) and is marketing it after has done a good job in getting the message through. Outwardly, the ad is one which tells the consumer about a product, its features and benefits and does it in a funny way. In the bigger picture, the message is a bit more pronounced.

Cars are polluters, more than a battery thrown away, having your hot tub over 105 degrees, or using a plastic bag; one look over any major North American city confirms that. Audi makes a car, and it is greener than some, but it is still a car. Audi, knowing that just like everyone else does, says to the mainstream: "Yes we agree, things are crazy out there on the fringes, and being a driver you know damn well you pollute, but if you want to be socially and environmentally responsible while owning a car, here is one you might like."

It is a grown up message, for a grown up consumer.

I believe racing should take a similar stance in their message responding to concerns spread by organizations like PETA. PETA is a group that is not nuts, crazy, or whatever else we like to heap on them, but they are on the fringes. The general public is smart enough to know that. We should embrace who we are and make no bones about it, and show some confidence in the mainstream. PETA does not need to be responded to, the public does.

The public knows that a racehorse is not a pet, he is a racehorse. They are not stupid. They do not want them kept in a bubble because they know racing is a sport, they simply want them to be treated with some sensible respect.

I believe it is important to be honest and open and let folks know that we agree that we have some issues that need to be addressed. We need to let them know whipping is not something that we tolerate as is, and we are ever vigilant and constantly working to make it better. We need to convey that horse retirement policy is not there yet, but it is evolving, and we will make it better because we care. In terms of any kind of egregious abuse, we must let the mainstream know it is not swept under the rug. The general public in 2010 will not condone in any way the abuse of an animal. If it happens, we must share their outrage and respond by making the punishment swift, total and transparent: The person who abuses a horse can not work with them ever again. We do not have that policy in racing today, but we should. What would the response from the mainstream be if Michael Vick is allowed to own a new kennel of dogs?

When we hear criticism from a place like PETA, we at times go overboard to try and appease them, always playing defense. There is no need to, in my opinion. We just have to be open, honest and use some common sense to move forward, because the people who will be voting thumbs up or down on racings future at a ballot box, are filled with it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Random Thoughts

Chris Christoforou is a hell of a good driver, but one with an issue. He wrote a letter to the industry today on the SC website:

To My Fellow Horsemen and Women;

It has recently become obvious to me that I need and want immediate professional therapy to help me fight an addiction I have developed to prescription pain medication. I have tried to control this problem myself, and although I am currently clean and am winning the battle, I feel as though I'm fighting something I don't fully understand yet.

With the help of a loving family and wonderful friends I have decided to enter a 45-day, 12-step program in the United States in the hope of getting my life and career back on track.

The encouragement and support I have received from everyone (especially in the past few weeks) has been overwhelming -- THANK YOU! It also serves as a reminder to me as to why I love this business and the people in it.

This must be tough to go through, especially publicly. Good luck Junior.

I hear New York is having more trouble with their Aqueduct slots deal. I don't follow New York much, but every time I read something, something is goofy there. Is it the most dysfunctional state in the union, or is California worse? I don't know, I'm Canadian.

I am not one for mass marketing for racing (or using mass marketing for a lot of things, actually), because we are a perfectly suitable niche sport, and that is fine for us to market and thrive. However, I am being swayed by the reach of Super Bowl ads. Are they worth the money? I am thinking some are. I really enjoyed the Audi ad below, because it said something that riled up both fringes of the political spectrum, while the majority just laughs at it for being comical - an effective way that gets people talking to market the ad for you. It is doing well on the web today. The aardvark is priceless.

Ice Fisherman from Frobisher (or something like that) added a comment below asking where the extra cash goes when Woodbine ups rates on low takeout bets offered from other tracks. For example, the pick 4 at the M (15% takeout) paid $4,605.90 down there, and $4,064.05 up here. I have no idea where the money goes, quite frankly. If anyone from WEG reads this, shoot me an email and I will print your explanation in full for people who are asking. They are not happy about it of course, as I am sure you are well aware.

Barry Irwin calls for a 12% takeout ceiling in horse racing. He is about the fourth insider to call for this level the past few months. Racing is coming around, but it probably won't get done. The Tragedy of the Commons ensures it probably won't be. Regardless, there seems to be movement on lower takeout from within the business now.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Pick 6 carryover at the Big M, and Low Take Pick 4's

Tonight there is a $96,000 carryover at the Meadowlands Pick 6 pool. It's probably time to play. Depending on the weather, one could expect the pool to reach $300,000 tonight.

For more information, some analysis and sample tickets, click here.

As most know, Balmoral Park (and Maywood) have lowered their pick 4 to a 15% takeout. Here are some sample numbers about what you can score when these tracks lower their takeout.

Sunday, January 31 Pick Four at Balmoral

Old payoff $8,984.90 New payoff $10,182.90

Added winnings of $1,198

Wednesday February 3 Pick 4 at Meadowlands

Old payoff $7,821.70 New payoff $8,864.70

Added winnings of $1,043

Thursday February 4 Pick 4 at Meadowlands

Old payoff $7,624.50 New payoff $8,641.40

Added winnings of $1,016

It is important to note for Canadian readers: You can not get these rates here in Canada at Woodbine, or through their ADW. Those 15% takeouts are jacked up, to (I think) 25% or more. So beware; you will get lower payoffs at the old, or worse than the old rates.

Friday, February 5, 2010

It's a Trainers Game

Drivers make some cash - a lot of cash. And as handicappers we will hear almost incessantly how important they are from the media.

Last year, we heard quite a bit for example, about David Miller - he was driving like a man possessed according to many. He was 38 for 259 and making some serious moola. However this year he is 9 for 235 and you get back about 50 cents for each dollar when you bet on him. Suddenly, he has "lost it", according to many of the same people.

He has not lost it, he lost power.

Last year he drove for Casie Coleman, who was an amazing 10 for 35. He also drove for Ken Rucker. He was 13 for 82. 23 of his 38 wins were layups.

This year, Ken Rucker is 3 for 83, and he does not drive much for Casie Coleman. Result: a 4% win percentage.

In this day and age where what vet you employ makes the utmost importance, drivers do not make horses, trainers make drivers.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Worst in Show

The Thoroughbred Times reported the break-down rate at Penn of banished owner Michael Gill's horses today. It turns out about 1 in 200 break down. As most everyone knows, the jockey's at Penn National have stood up against the owner, feeling for their safety.

Switching gears from the Gill-bashing (there is plenty of that both in print and on the net) to racing in general, it makes me wonder.....

How do we ever expect racing to be mainstream, or even tolerated where 1 time out of 200 a horse will end up dead?

If a dog was destroyed due to injury once every 200 laps around the walking ring at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, I am pretty sure it would not be very well attended.

Video: MSM take on the Gill situation.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Change in Attitudes

As we spoke about below, Harrah's is trying to get out of a racing deal by paying Iowa $70M for them to not hold greyhound races. A congressperson agrees: "It's an industry that does not have a lot of following," Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, told The Register. "It doesn't make sense to subsidize something Iowans aren't interested in."

Several years ago it was proposed that some purse money goes to lowering rake, and to market the sport. It was met with "do not touch our purse money!" from most quarters. However, with the writing slowly being etched into the wall, there is a bit of a change in attitudes.

From Standardbred Canada a comment:

Harness racing is next.

Takeout needs to be lowered while racing is on the last leg of it's casino subsidies. That is the only way it will ever become a sustainable business on it's own.

When the subsidies are gone, will racing for about 10%-20% of current purse levels keep racing alive? Of course not. That is why racetracks don't even attempt to lower takeout so handle will increase. They want it to drop, claim that harness racing is dead, and then get rid of it. They can do this because they know horsemen are so greedy and stupid that they will never understand that giving up a little of their "welfare" money now, would be returned tenfold in the future while also becoming independent without the subsidies. Independence equals power. Harness racing has no power to do anything presently and will soon become obsolete just like dog racing in the article above.


The casinos are trying to find loopholes - this time with the greyhounds - to get out of having to subsidize racing or requiring them to make dates available. If this happens, you can bet your life Harrah's and Mohegan Sun will look to do the EXACT same thing at Chester and Pocono to start with.


Good. It's a step in the right direction. Too many horses, too many tracks that have minuscule handles yet gargantuan purses, too much complacency, too much of everything awful and not enough handle or interest in growing it. A totally false economy, and it's about time it started to get stood on it's head. I'll say this for WEG - they at least make a decent effort to accommodate the punters, messing with track configuration, barring perceived undesirables, D-barning the usual suspects, launching new wagering platforms etc. etc. You might disagree with what they're doing, but it's hard to argue with why they're doing it. It's to make it a more attractive place to play. I know, lower the rake and that'll do more than everything else combined..

and ....

Unless the horsepeople band together to begin better utilizing the horseman's share of slot revenues for effective long term initiatives to market the sport, and reinvest in the facilities we too will be at the mercy of the bureaucrats and casino operators. We have to make a concerted effort to market the sport and increase handle and attendance or we (harness racing) can and will become expendable.


Lets say we suggest taking 5% of our purse cut to market the sport per se. You'll first have the people who dont think our purses should be used for anything but purses. Secondly, you'll get most people onside, and even if it goes through, you'll then have to deal with the people who oppose once they realize that is around $8 million.

To me, the idea is brilliant. NASCAR spent millions marketing their sport, as has MMA and similar success stories. Our current marketing budget would be lucky to crack $400,000 so I could only imagine how well a marketing budget of that magnitude would help revive interest in our sport.
Unfortunately for those who understand it, the idea will never fly because the industry is filled with far to many who are so greedy that they cant see the forest through the trees. As a whole, we're ultra short term thinkers.

There are clearly some thoughtful people trying to change this sport for the better.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Can Racing Be That Far Behind?

"Harrah's Entertainment, the world's biggest casino chain, is pressuring Iowa lawmakers to end live greyhound racing and is willing to pay the state millions to see it happen." says today's story in the Des Moines Register.

It has been said again and again that sooner or later horse racing must show ROI on its own, or it will be culled. At many jurisdictions it does not. Although it sounds pretty strange, since we are all horse racing nuts, not dog racing nuts, it does not take a huge leap of logic to see this item be replicated for some harness and thoroughbred tracks in the next decade.

Slot tracks need to lower their takeout and put money into the customer soon, in my opinion. Today's "far-out-can't-happen-to-us" story, might be tomorrow's reality.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Video Monday

Two videos. First a true racing spectacle from France. I have no idea what they are saying, but I love this race every year.

Second, Andrew Cohen interviewed after his O'Brien Award for a piece he wrote which tried to give racing one swift kick in the butt. I thought it was a good interview and I agree that change is coming.

Slots, a Tale of Two States

The New York slots debacle appears to be over, as the governor has made his choice. You can see the dollar signs in everyone's prose, eyes, whatever it may be. Unfortunately, virtually all the commentary I have read is exactly what we heard here in Ontario, circa 1995, about slots at racetracks.


If we upgrade our facilities

If we increase our purses and get better horses

.... we will thrive.

We all have problems with that because, well, been-there-done-that and we have the t-shirt. In Ontario we learned the hard way that a new coat of paint did very little to increase attendance or wagering, and the promises of site improvements being a savior were completely off the mark. In addition the better horses promise was equally specious. One would think people in racing would have read the University of Louisville study on wagering which stated when increase purses, handle goes up by only a negligible amount. What many knew at the time, but it was not trumpeted, was that adding slots onsite actually decreases handle - killing your on track business.

Slots helped some people get rich, but they did not grow racing.

If New York is anything like Ontario they will have top-of-the-line dining rooms, with no one there to use them in a dozen years.

On the flipside, the New York Times reported on the New Jersey racing situation - “the status quo is not sustainable”. It certainly is not, in the state beside slots rich New York.

In Jersey they have no lifeline, or a hope of one, but they try their butts off. Low takeout bets, new bets, some good promotions - all grown in Jersey. They have to fight for customers and fight they do. It is truly sad when the folks who try hard perish, while the folks who sit on their duffs and cash slots checks thrive. There is just something so wrong with that.

New York could do what New Jersey is doing without slots, with them. They could use some of the slots cash to lower takeout (something that actually does increase handle), and throw long-suffering bettors a life preserver to encourage them to play the game.

It seems they have chosen the old way; the Pennsylvania and Ontario way. Let's just hope 31% takeouts don't follow, like many Penn tracks currently sport.

Maybe New York should send some cash to Jersey. I have a feeling they would do something with it to grow the sport, something completely wacky - by investing more in their customers than in their dining rooms.

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