Monday, November 29, 2010

Kirschenbaum on Intransigence

Superstables, lack of vision, slot money, lack of customer appreciation? All wrapped up into one post by Alan Kirschenbaum - California horse owner, bettor and industry participant.

"The rich get richer in this business, and the poor, well, in a few years, we won’t even remember who they were. They’ll be gone. We live in a time where the most successful trainers have 50 horses in the barn, 80 horses, 100 or more. And each year, another group of smaller trainers leave the business."

"I guess most of my friends up North are okay with this. Because when Standardbred Canada offered up a plan to try and do something about where this sport is headed, the only potential game-changer on the horizon, and amass a war chest of money for marketing, for publicity, to do something, for god’s sake, I believe every horseman’s organization up there refused to participate. “No one’s taking a percentage of our money, not even five per cent, without us having some control,” or words to that effect. Well, my friends, wrap your minds around this: it’s not your money. It’s welfare money. You’re all on welfare."

More at link. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lessons from the Three Down Sport

I am sitting here watching not the Eagles game, but the Pre-Game for the 98th Grey Cup. Trust me, this is something that rarely happens. I can count on one hand how many Grey Cup's (the Championship game for Canadian football for those who do not know) I have watched since the 1980's. This is new for me; or perhaps more appropriate, new again.

Back in the 1970's I loved this three-down football as a kid. I played it and I watched it weekly on one of my two channels. I even had a jersey made for myself (there was no jersey sales for the league back then) at a local shirt store. Come the late 1970's and early 1980's, though, I found the NFL and came to resent this "second rate league". It was not the thing to do, and I was not the only one.

In University, Grey Cup parties were non-starters; there simply was not one to be found. But Super Bowl parties were prevalent. Even my stable partner, whose father played offensive line for the Toronto Argos in the 1960's, would not watch a game if you paid him. This once proud sport, which filled stadiums and dominated the television ratings was on the skids.

In the mid to late 1990's, the league was as dead as dead could be. Less than 100,000 people across this entire land were watching games. The Grey Cup ratings were dreadful, teams folded and nothing could stop the onslaught. If you were a stock trader, you would have shorted the hell out of this league - if you could find a buyer for your short, which was doubtful.

But a funny thing happened: The league changed.

Miles Long wrote that the catalyst was the league getting smaller to grow and it was a management decision. The 1995 Grey Cup, for example, was given for the first time to a small city - Regina - which also was football mad. This Cup was infectious, according to the writer. In addition, cavernous stadiums, like Olympic Stadium in Montreal were quashed, for smaller stadiums, like McGill University's. The league started to gain momentum.

Although nowhere near out of the woods, the bottom seemed to be hit.

Later on, through some investment, grass-roots organization and vision, the league began to not only hold its own, but grow.

The "this is our league" marketing program and the use of the very good worked. When a team wins the Grey Cup now it is not taken back to a dark building, it is brought around the country as players get to keep it for a week (like the Stanley Cup does), getting local TV and print headlines. There was much more.

With the coveted 18-34 demo, it worked special wonders as 20% of the leagues viewership comes from that segment. Last year over 14 million people watched the Grey Cup, which is about the same number of people who watch the Super Bowl in Canada. Television ratings now beat baseball and NASCAR - by a good margin. Sales of merchandise are up 150%.

This league, which anyone with any business or marketing sense 15 years ago, would have predicted demise is growing.

My obvious point is that racing and the CFL could very well be cousins. Packed grandstands were a thing of the past in racing just like in Canadian football. Bettors lined up to play our game, just like people trying their darndest (with most failing) to get Grey Cup tickets long ago.

For one sport, there is hope, for another it seems there is none. But I don't think it has to be that way. If the CFL can do it, why can't we?

If the CFL can make and run a which gives people access to everything for free, why can't we have a national racing site that does the same?

If the CFL can get into homes via various means, why can't we have an ADW which allows (shudder the thought) everyone to watch and bet regardless of where they live?

If the CFL can offer $15 tickets to get to the price-sensitive sports fan, why can't we have a max takeout of 12% to get at the massive amount of price sensitive bettors?

If the CFL can partner to get its games shown on the competitor NFL network, why can't we have a national partnership done with Betfair?

The list goes on.

For those of you who have read this, you know as well as I do that racing is in a lot better shape than the 1990 CFL. If they can turn it around, so can we.

But it won't get done on hope, or wishing. It will get done on organization. Things like the Racing Development and Sustainability Plan here in Canada (so far it has generated grass-roots support but poo-pooed by the old guard) are an obvious catalyst for us, and something that should not be done tomorrow, but done ten years ago. I am sure there are other ways to do this, too. The question to me is: what's taking so long?

The game is starting now, so I have to run. It's time to watch some CFL football.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Calder and Tampa: The Tale of Two Cities

Calder Race Course has cut purses again, this time blaming it on a weak betting market. The Calder signal used to be a pretty popular one with players. Although Churchill does not issue handle numbers (I know, that makes little sense to players, but does when you are a public company I guess), it appears daily handles are about $1.75 million now. Not long ago, over $3 million was the norm. The Bloodhorse article states that almost $1B was bet at the track in 2007, and last year that total was $673M.

What the article fails to tell you though (which I am sure you all remember) Calder raised takeout in 2008, and not by a tiny amount. They upped pick 3,4,5 wagers 3% to an obscene 27% and increased DD's and Ex's by 1%. This along with a signal fight there, made a lot of players upset. This anger did not last a week or a month, people were talking about it a year later on chat boards, with comments like "I used to play there every day, but it has been off my radar now for a long time."

In addition, sure a few players can cut a track who raises takeout cold-turkey, but the true detriment of a takeout hike is not felt for years. If you get $225 back for a pick 4 instead of $250, it takes time to know you are more broke that usual. It takes time for a tracks bottom line to reflect that the dude who hit it rebets $225 instead of $250.

A case study, which is a polar opposite of Calder, is Tampa Bay Downs. In 2001 they had about the worst takeouts anyone in racing could imagine (they would have ranked in the low 60's in this list in terms of takeout score). Handle was about $1.8M or so a day then. Each year since that time, management there (quietly and without much fanfare) lowered takeout. In 2010 Tampa Bay set a per day handle record of over $4.1 million dollars.

If someone looked at the handle at Tampa in 2002 or 2003 there would not have been enough of a bump in handle to pay for the takeout decrease. People might have said "we should make it higher again" or "lowering takeout does not work; I told you so". Thank goodness they didn't, because they probably would never have doubled their handle.

Takeout, gambling games, and their customers are not an on/off switch. It is a part of a business strategy which has to have a long term vision and plan, based on sound economics. Places like Tampa who treat it like that type of business win, and places like Calder get their asses kicked.

Google Maps tells us that the two tracks' are 207 miles apart. But in terms of management vision they might as well be on opposite sides of the Universe.


Tell All goes to Ontario. Stallions have been leaving Jersey, and he is the latest.

Zenyatta.... but
It is no secret some public figures and handicappers never gave Z much respect. Some of them after the BC quieted down. However, does anyone ever notice that some of the folks can not let it go? Almost every sentence with the mare is "Zenyatta is good....but". In the latest I see some folks are talking about how she would never have beaten Blame if they went around ten times. In response, there are videos and still shots going around chat boards showing her (appearing) to collar Blame after the wire. She is quite the horse; even in retirement people are still arguing about her.

Have/Have Not
Like Jersey, Kentucky is facing a "no slots" problem.

Knight Sky
Meet a pro capper

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wednesday Notes

It's pretty difficult to watch is it not? In New Jersey things hinge on a government allowing or not allowing alternative revenue through slots or other measures, and in several other jurisdictions it is similar. Now we have a severe dust-up in New York. The cash-cow Acqueduct casino (after 9 or 10 years of the New York political kindergarten) was supposed to start rolling in money. But now a new threat has emerged - a nearby casino. And it will not only affect Acqueduct.

"Racing officials say an Indian casino in the Catskills would seriously impact New York’s harness and thoroughbred industries, probably forcing Monticello Raceway out of business."

It is truly sad because this is not only horse racing's fault, it is greeds fault. In the 1940's cash was there for everyone so they raised takeouts, then they allowed other gaming which cut into racing, so they gave them slots. Then they slowly take away slots for full casino's. What's racing left with? 22% blended takeouts which are the laughing stock of the entire gambling world, no customers, and big huge grandstands with no one in them. There is a lot of blame to go around, but I guess (for me) it all comes down to one simple fact: We were never treated or run like a gambling game; we are treated and run like a government experiment.

Memo to thoroughbred trainer Doug O'Neill: If you are going to say something to Ray Paulick, mind your p's and q's. Fascinating.

Rock n Roll Heaven calls it a day. He will be standing in New York (I hope he does not read the blog above) for $12,000.

Every year some three year old has to win the classic races. Every year people seem to want to coronate the champ to bigger and better things, and be bigger and better than they are. This year we don't have to do that because it is obvious - he is truly the real deal. And with the amazing success of his dad, this has to be a monster scoop for Blue Chip Farms. I do not like, nor would I have ever considered buying a first crop sire's offspring (it's for the rich and famous), but with him I would make an exception. Throw out the Beach, because he was a freaky horse, but put him against all the best of the decade on the track - His dad, Art Major, Mach Three, Bettors Delight, etc - and he holds his own or dusts them. Add to the fact that he lasted, is a grinder, and won races on racehorse will, not pure speed, and you have an excellent prospect, in my opinion.

Speaking of a grinder and a 100% racehorse (but with that Life Sign blood which seems to hamper some sires), Real Desire is off to Indiana. I notice Tell All's sons and daughters did not really light up the sales ring in Harrisburg. I would like to see him do well, because he deserves it and I think we need this line in breeding.

Discussed on R2 - the Paulick Report site changes.  Don't mess with success, or change and grow? That is the question.

I notice there are two driver names for the O'Brien this year that are sons of trainers, or trainer drivers. Unlike any other sport, you can pretty much jump anyone into the spotlight if you give them good stock, and this is a prime example. When you are young and given some 3-5 shots to learn with, you will win races and get noticed. When you are young and have no stock, you are destined to come 8th every race (if you are lucky enough to get a drive) and never be noticed. It is bar-none, the hardest thing for a new harness driver to do - win races and get noticed. It is why we see so many sons of racers in the spotlight, year after year, and so few others. It often makes me wonder - some of the best drivers this sport might have produced, may be toiling as a groom, or at Wal mart selling electronics.

The old-guard in Australia is still priming the pump trying to hold on to the monopoly, despite figures showing the monopoly (and higher takeout) well, stinks.

"“It should be noted that turnover on Victorian thoroughbred racing has increased substantially since the introduction of corporate bookmakers,” Racing Victoria chief executive Rob Hines, said.

“Having these lower margin operators in the market has stimulated wagering and improved returns to the industry by attracting price sensitive customers to racing."

In the words of every reader here who bets - "well, duh"

Scott over at his blog analyzes. We need someone to send the link to everyone in racing over here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ontario Standardbred Director Elections

Usually elections for directors of organizations like Standardbred Canada are garden-variety. In effect, an industry insider runs and everyone knows them, so they win (I would love to see the participation in these votes sometimes!). It tends to be the same people over and over again. Some of them are great people - don't get me wrong - but it is the same folks.

This year it is slightly different. When your industry is losing customers left and right, handles are going down, places like Iowa want to ditch horse racing and the flagship state for harness racing is a shadow of itself, there is a sense of unease in the way things were done. Like in the US, where "Tea Parties" sprung up in many states asking for change, there is a similar movement in the world of Ontario harness racing. There seems to be a true call for major change. This year, unlike all others, I will be voting for directors.

There are 13 people running, of which three will be elected. I am in the process of deciding who to vote for, as some of you are I am sure. For me, I have a few criteria that I will use. The candidates I like must be for change - the RDSP (or its ideals), customer centric ideals, and doing things differently than we have the last 25 years. They also must have some sort of business background, or vision for the future that is not old-school and yesterday.

Having a look at the candidates, here are a few of them that fit my criteria for an "x". You can look at their resumes here.

1. Marty Adler: Marty is someone that seems to want to shake things up. He is a television producer and understands that medium. He seems passionate about racing.

2. Ralph Clark: Owner and operator of Clark leasing, and he bought his first horse two years ago.

3. Jim Lehman: Seems to care a lot about this sport, and has a business background.

4. Robert Mackenzie: Trainer, smart fellow.

5. John Marshall: Supports the RDSP framework. Worked in company restructurings, mergers, acquisitions and corporate change and has volunteered time already on working with the simulcast program in Ontario. This is some new blood with real-world smarts. People with a resume like this do not come along every day willing to help this sport. People like him charge hundreds an hour, and tend to be worth it. This is an absolute slam-dunk vote for me.

6. Jody Jamieson: Supports change and is a good voice for it.

7. Alison Moore, DVM: Another person we seem to be lucky to have. She seems to deeply care about the health and welfare of our athletes and knows about the muddled infrastructure of government institutions who regulate our sport.

8, Aaron Waxman: Has called for a lot of the old-guard and old-thinking to be tossed, and change to occur.

After my vote for Mr. Marshall, I have to come up with two more. Is that a tough list to find two votes? Yes, and that is a good thing.

Off to do a little more research..... and I hope you do too, because it is an important time for our sport.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Rising Costs of Horse Ownership & Doing the Right Thing

About two months ago I went to a dog pound website and saw a pooch listed. They thought he was eight to ten years old. He was found wandering the streets. His teeth were black, he had a limp in his back hind and his right front, he had little back-end muscle, he had a bad cough, he was not fixed and he was underweight. The awesome folks at the pound, and the vets who give up their time for free, did a great job with him and diagnosed some of his problems.

He had a torn ligament in his leg and his right front had some problems from over-compensating. They estimate he had this issue for many years. With only a (hopeful) few years of life left, where he would at the very least need to be medicated and so on to live happily, he was not exactly a candidate for an easy adoption.

After inquiring about him several times over the phone, we went and saw him about six weeks ago. He was simply the kindest dog you would ever want to meet. We were sold and brought him home.

I then went to work. I had to research this as much as I could - could he get surgery for his limp, could he have supplements and drugs to help him live a good life, what kind of food can we give him to help him gain weight and be stronger? We took him to two vets, got his blood done and converted some of this research. There were some things that could help the little fella.

First he needed anti-biotics, then daily pain meds. Then I found some supplements for his joints and some treats with something organic in them that people tell me helps. I found some really good food for the guy which was a specialty brand and is supposed to take care of many of his nutritional issues (it was funny going to the vet for a dog and have her read me his bloods - I only get to see that with horses!*). He'd need this for the rest of his life, and the jury is still out on what else he might need.

At the present time he is doing a lot better (he can get up stairs alone now and can jump, not waddle onto the couch) and I would do it all over again, but it is not exactly inexpensive. I wanted to do everything I possibly could to help this mutt (I think it is from being a competitive horseplaying type.... I really want to win, and I really like animals).

What does this have to do with horse ownership? I think everything. And I think it is why our costs as horse owners have gone through the roof and purse increases like we see at a lot of slots tracks, or this year in California for the thoroughbreds, never do the job.

One of our trainers is competitive like me. He loses sleep over the slightest item with his horses, he scours the net looking for anything that can help them with their diet, or what-have-you (2AM barn visits when a horse is sick is not uncommon, it is expected). He also wants to do it like most of the horsepeople in racing; above board. I called once before a race and he said "we're at the spa", as the horse was getting a pre-race bath in a salt water equine clinic. I had a laugh when I watched Blame getting the same bath the morning of the Breeders Cup Classic. It's not only for multi-million dollar animals.

I will often hear "this supplement costs a ton but it really helps them feel better after training", or "there is a cheap knock-off of this vitamin, but I am convinced the real one does better", or "I was reading an article on track and field and this person said...." and so on.

It is this type of thing that is common-place in racing. If we read an article on Zenyatta I know John Shirreffs would get along with this fella. He speaks of placing aloe in her food, of giving massages, salt water baths and having "14 people touch her". People like John want to win, and they want to do it the right way. And of course, they are sometimes competing with people who want to win, but want a vet to win it for them - legally, or by taking the dark side (I believe that the horsemanship knowledge of your trainer is inversely correlated to the size of the vet bill; try it sometime).

The end point of this is I will spare little expense to get my pup healthy, and horsepeople will spare little expense getting their horse healthy. Unlike my dog, I have money in my bank account and am not worried about where my next meal is coming from, and he does not have to worry about being a tool to run a business. He does not have to race, he sleeps on the couch. But horses do, and that is where the purses come in.

Some of the things that John does for his horse's and my trainer does with his, cost serious cash. There is always something to spend money on to keep up with your neighbor, or with those who choose the dark side. And because of the need to make money, the love of the animal and the way the business is, purses can skyrocket, but people seem to stagnate. It is just like the 1970's in racing - despite massive purse increases, everyone still seems to be searching for the home-run horse to stay afloat.

It would be fine if this was only inflationary, but it is not - it is hyper-inflationary. And it eats every purse increase.

Is there a solution? I have often thought that horseman groups (some of them often very militant and strident) should have been working with tracks to somehow get these costs under control. I am not sure how, or if it would work, but having track vets be able to sell prescriptions cheaper, or having joint meds etc that cost $40 but are marked up to $150 available at a racetrack at bulk prices, might be some things that can help. Investing some slots cash in this might be an option.

Until then, in my opinion, when a purse increase happens there is a corresponding increase in monthly costs and we get nowhere. It is a vicious circle; one that hopefully one day will be closed, because unlike my beagle, this is a business that needs a future. Horse racing is a subsidized business, but it should not be one where the subsidy goes in full to Adequan makers, vets, and people who rent hyperbaric chambers; it should go to horse owners and trainers as well.

* An interesting note to horse owners, and dog owners who might need it. A full blood panel for a horse near Woodbine is around $50. For a dog with my vet? $174.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Dream"fair Eternal Beats the Guys

I, like a lot of you, watched the Open pace at Woodbine last night to see how the mare did against the top pacers in the country. Dreamfair Eternal swept off cover and mowed them down in 150.2 in a really nice effort.

Funnily (to me anyway) I might be the only one who went to sleep figuring that was it, but it was not. I woke up around 5AM with a fresh dream. Who dreams about a horse race? Well I do apparently.

Randy Waples pulled up to my house in his driving suit.

"Did you guys see my drive", he said.

"Drive? What the hell Waples, your horse was awesome. It had nothing to do with your drive", someone said.

"I got second over. I was brilliant. The horse was fine, but I was really good," said the toothy Milton resident.

"You would have been first up, but Luc pulled. There was no way you would have known that. You were lucky to get second over", said a guy named Glen.

"It was all planned. That's what us great drivers do" said Waples.

Right then Mark MacDonald drove up, also in his driving suit.

"Lucky Man scoped sick. He had nothing in the last 100 yards. You were lucky to win," he told Waples.

"Ya" said someone I did not recognize (it was a dream and I can not remember. I think he was a neighbor's friend or something - he was eating a hamburger).

"I outdrove you" said Waples.

I think I then I woke up (I did not say it was a good dream, only that I had a dream).

Mares do not often race male horses in open paces. There is usually a mares open for them and if it does not fill it the mare does not race. It is nothing like thoroughbred racing, where other than the top classic distances on dirt, both sexes racing are not hugely rare, especially in Europe with distance and surface specialists. I agree with some of the thoughts in my dream. The field did not race that well against her (especially Lucky Man, who has been much better his last three), and she showed up. But even her showing up shows us something - she does not much care who she is up against, she just races.

And that she does very well. There is absolutely no reason she could not take on, and give a go to, the best male open pacers in North America. She would not in any way embarrass herself.

With apologies to Randy Waples, she was certainly the star of the show.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Jersey Quagmire

In fifty or one hundred years what is currently happening in New Jersey gambling will probably be read about in business books at the University of Chicago, Wharton or Columbia. It is a painful, yet important period to watch and be a part of.

The New Jersey governor, faced with decreasing state revenues, a bloated bureaucracy and special interests up the wazoo, is making some very tough decisions; and one of them involves the sport that you and I participate in, bet and enjoy.

Yesterday an updated Hanson Report was released. In it, the recommendation was made to close the Meadowlands (save a small meet for the Hambo), and race some dates at Monmouth. In addition, there is a plan to open more off-track betting hubs, add exchange wagering as well as instant wagering. Doing this, the report authors believe, will help make racing a non-taxpayer subsidized business - one that can stand on its own four hooves.

On the surface this sounds logical to virtually everyone outside our sport, and quite honestly (if we look in the mirror) we knew this would be coming. We can not expect to run races in front of few people, with few people betting on them forever. We can not expect horse owners to race for $12,000 at the Meadowlands, while they can race for $22,000 at Chester either. For those mad at the governor for doing something based on ROI, well frankly, we are doing exactly the same thing as horse owners by entering at tracks with higher purses, and the sport be damned if no one is betting on them.

Having said that, I truly feel that the plan lacks a certain vision, simply because the Meadowlands is the harness track with the most brand power in the entire world. If you ask someone from Australia, or Sweden which track is the world's best, they will probably say the Meadowlands. If you run a 10 claimer race on a Saturday for $12,000 at Chester, or $6000 at the Meadowlands, the latter will have close to 10 times the handle and pay for itself. I would have loved to have seen a plan focused on the track and its brand power, rather than demolishing it and starting it all from scratch.

Regardless, the new world of Jersey racing is simple. It is dead without slots.

Slots have completely changed the horse racing world - they have killed handles, made vets, breeders and drivers pretty rich and in the process (most importantly in this case) have destroyed jurisdictions that don't have them.

Just how crazy is the horse racing slots world? Let's look at purses and handles. Alan over at View From the Racetrack Grandstand looked at Meadowlands handles versus purse distribution the other day.

November 12 Meadowlands Card (no slots, but a track people like to bet, which holds interest of fans of the harness racing game)

Purses Distributed: $94,900
Handle: $1,533,000

November 13 Sudbury Downs Card (slots-fuelled track)

Purses Distributed: $87,800
Handle: $7897

The track with over $1.5M in handle on a Friday evening, which is the most brandable track in harness racing history, is on the verge of being shut down forever. A track with $7897 in handle hums right along.

It's a wild world out there. I think it is what happens when there is no one minding the store. And even when someone tries to make sure what is happening to the Meadowlands does not happen elsewhere (like the RDSP proposed by Standardbred Canada) only 740 people sign a petition.

We are our own worst enemy.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Has Paulick Jumped the Shark?

We've always been a Paulick fan here because he tends to covers some tough issues. The thoroughbred trade press, who gets most of their revenue from breeders and other insider groups, can not be very controversial, for obvious reasons - i.e. they know where their bread is buttered. However Paulick's site in its early days was nothing of the sort; he seemed to not care who he angered, or who he praised.

But today, it looks to this observer like the Paulick Report has jumped the shark.

In an editorial titled "California's Push for Purses", he extolls the virtues of a purse increase in California which reads almost like an advertisement in itself - which I guess is fine. However, several quotes are not up to his standard.

For example:

i) "Anecdotal evidence shows that wagering does increase with a lower takeout, but to my knowledge no studies have proven the point that reducing the cost of a bet will increase the revenue to tracks and purses."

ii) "What is most amazing about the legislation projected to raise purses by 25% is that racetrack owners agreed to channel every dollar from the additional revenue to purses."

iii) "There is an enormous investment to put this game on, from the standpoint of the racetracks and the horse owners. It’s not poker, where the investment is a deck of cards or a web site."

In looking at each comment -

Of course there are studies on take reductions doing some good, both theoretically and in practice. Places like HANA, Maury Wolff, Barry Meadow, The University of Louisville (hell, Ray Paulick walked there last week) Jeff Platt, Eugene Christiansen and Wil Cummings (people who either gamble, have Phds or consult with gambling) all have listed them, or authored them. The old Ray would have sought them out before writing the piece for their opinion, instead of taking the CHRB's word for it. If he did he might have noted that a doubling of purses increase handles only 6%.

The "raise purses" line is even more old school. As Roger Way, commenting on the Paulick piece pointed out :

"Money was given to the horsemen for purses a few years ago via SB27($40 million) with the promise that it would solve the problems of racing. Here we are again with the same promise(2-3%increase,$70 million) for bigger purses."

The old Ray would have challenged the CHRB by asking "you raised purses $40 million several years ago to fix the same problems and now you are back doing the same thing. It did not work before, why would it work now, especially when you are going after overtaxed customers for it who have been leaving the game in droves?"

The old Ray might have looked at harness racing in slots states, where purses are obscenely high but handles barely break $100k a day and there is very little spreading of horse ownership apart from super-stables. The old Ray might have looked at the fact that vet bills and hyperbaric chambers and adequan and supplement costs all go through the roof causing every purse rise to go to suppliers and not doing a thing to grow the game. He might have noticed and asked about super-stables, with $5k a month bills, or factory like claiming outfits running vetted up 30,000 claimers for 10 to win a juiced up purse, turning horse owners off even more like has happened in dozens of jurisdictions with an artificial (and unsustainable) purse hike.

As for the "investment in the game" it is the whole 'cost to put the show' line that people in the industry like to use over and over again. Some of the above people tackle that line in the pieces that Ray seems to think are anecdoctal.

The old Ray might have asked "It costs billions to buy and run a casino, but takeout on video poker is 0.43%. It costs billions to cut down a tree, mine for sulpher, truck it and process it to make a pack of matches, but they are less than a dollar. Every wagering economist calls such logic specious at best. Why do you in power in the industry keep feeding us this non-economic demagoguery? "

You can usually tell the quality of an article in racing by the comments, and in the comments on the piece, and on chat boards, there is what I would call a dismay, but not from some of the usual suspects.

I notice Caroline Betts, who holds a Phd in economics and teaches it, poignantly challenged Ray's point by citing the Los Alamitos takeout increase stats, in more than one post. I can virtually see her pulling her hair out while typing.

"ITP" who is a California horse owner and large bettor who posts at Paceadvantage, was none too kind to Ray by typing: "When you repeatedly posted Fred Pope’s ramblings about revenue generated from wagering, I knew you had absolutely no idea about betting, gambling, horseplayers, etc. With this article, you now have removed all doubt to everybody that you know nothing about the betting aspect of racing."

Another poster said "I wonder what would happen to the Paulick Reports advertisers if he raised his rates above what is considered the norm."

I wonder myself. And looking at the Paulick Report's front page today, maybe these people are answering their own question.

Yep, a full blown paid ad from Cal Racing. Right underneath an "opinion" article about how great California will be with a takeout increase.

The first sign of being considered trade press has always been, to me, when you start editorializing like your advertisers. If that is the least bit true, Mr. Paulick's once daring and unapologetic site might now be considered just another part of the industry "trade press". If that is not true, well one thing is for sure - the Paulick Report's readers deserve much better editorial articles, because this one could have been written by the California Horse Racing Board.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Way We Handle Scratches in Mayfield

There was a time when things just kind of worked.

If Whitey stole Wally's ball glove, his father would return it, and as punishment make Whitey mow the Cleaver's yard for a week.

In horse racing everything seems to be simple on the surface, but in the end it is anything but. Common sense goes out the window.

If we interview 100 track execs 99 will say our takeout is too high. But we never lower it. We often say we do not have enough marketing dollars spent on the sport (in Canada Bingo spends 400% more on marketing than racing does), but we never do anything about it. The list is seemingly endless.

The Life At Ten debacle at the Breeders' Cup, and its aftermath, brings this lack-of-common-sense to the fore, just like many of racings other issues.

What we have is an event that should have never taken place in the first place; if racing was even close to a normal functioning sport.

In general, what happened was -

Horse was off in the paddock - and the public knew
Horse was off in the warm up - and the public knew
Horse raced - the public wondered why
Horse was eased in front of a national TV audience - the public was mad
Controversy breaks out

A solution to the above: Kentucky racing commission dude John Veitch believes the problem is that too much information is given out in interviews:

“From the time a horse leaves the paddock until the time he starts, nobody should have communication with that jockey one way or the other,”

Where the hell are we racing horses, Shanghai Downs?

As what happens way too often in racing, we send the patient in for knee surgery and the doctor performs an appendectomy.

In Mayfield, methinks the process would have gone like this (something that I have seen done in paddock's everywhere, dozens of times):
  • The horse is off in the paddock so the trainer informs the track vet and rider/driver. He says "my horse might be tying up and I want to inform you all that if she warms up poorly we have to scratch her. The rider/driver will make the decision while out there, ok?" In this case, a national TV audience knows this is occurring.
  • Horse warms up poorly. Rider/driver brings horse back, informs vet and trainer that she feels like she is off. The TV audiences is right along with the story. Like reality TV, without sex, tiki dolls or Donald Trump.
  • Horse is scratched to race another day. TV audience says "that was the right thing to do"
  • The race goes on. TV audience at home says "they really have their act together in horse racing to do right by the horse"
This places the onus on the person who should be in charge at all times - the trainer. After all, he and no one else is responsible for his horse. If he races lame horses, give him 60 days and $30k. He won't do it again.

Too simple? Perhaps.

But that's the way it works in Mayfield.

Note: Alan talks about a sad story in harness racing whereby a trainer tried to scratch his valiant horse for warming up poorly and was dismissed. The great horse broke down and was destroyed. Common sense and racing? Two mutually exclusive terms.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Life at Ten and Life at Twenty

John Pricci this morning has a look at the Life at Ten incident on Friday. It appears, according to quotes, that she had spiked a temperature and had a high white count after the race (a high white count usually indicates sickness of some sort).

"Dick Brown, a spokesman for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said trainer Todd Pletcher disclosed Sunday morning that “Life At Ten’s temperature was ‘well above normal’ and that a subsequent blood test showed an ‘elevated white blood cell count’.”

But previously all was supposedly well.

"Earlier, however, Pletcher said the filly’s temperature was normal before the race, speculating that Life At Ten may have had a reaction to Lasix, or tied-up prior to the race."

Ray Paulick and some others are calling for an investigation into this matter. As a lot of commenters have said - this is a job for a commissioners office. But of course, we don't have one.

There are plenty of professional photographers in the sport with wonderful talent. but sometimes the non-professionals are pure magic. Check out Pine Tree Lane's set on

Look at how far the big mare was back.

In addition, in this day and age everyone can be a movie maker. Here is someone (someone with some talent) with a Zenyatta tribute. Some of the quotations used are absolutely hilarious. This mare made some handicappers take a look at everything they have been doing the past forty years.

Last up here is Ernie Munick's fine video of the BC.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

In-Running - Some Nice (or not so nice) Zenyatta & Blame Odds

With exchange wagering proposed in New Jersey (with a huge chance to pass) it makes me wonder what the world of Breeders Cup betting might look like next year in America.

This year each and every race at Churchill (including the non-Cup races) were able to be bet in-running. For those who are not familiar with it, in-running wagering allows a better to bet, or bet against horses while the race is being run. For 3 mile races in the UK, in-running betting can be quite the challenge, and quite fun.

I noticed less action than usual watching the in-running trading this year, but that was more than likely due to the delay in pictures for our UK friends. For the marathon, the winner could be had most of the way for 10-1 to 16-1 prices, even though he was traveling comfortably near a slow pace. The looked-to-be-live mount, which instigated the jock fight traded at 4-1 with some serious action when making his move. Uncle Mo, who never looked beat, ever, traded quite low.

But the interesting action was in the Breeders Cup Classic.

Zenyatta, who pre-race was around 9-5 dropped back appreciably at the start, losing contact with the field. To anyone who knows her they might have said "who cares", but to punters, something was wrong. 1/8th of a mile off the gate she vaulted to 5-1, then she traded all the way up to 12-1, before narrowing to even when she made her huge, patented move.

Blame, who was getting as good a trip as a closer can get, amazingly (to me) vaulted to 8-1 near the half, and started to narrow a little bit after he had the red seas part.

In hindsight, grabbing Zenyatta at 12-1 and Blame at 8-1 when the half clicked at 47 looked like a no-brainer did it not? For those two talented horses (ok, I guess a lot of Beyer folks still thought Z had something to prove, but at least one of them were considered talented before the race) off a quick half to trade at 8% and 11% win chances seems odd. Of course it is easy in hindsight.

Such is the power of in-running betting and fixed odds. There is still fun to be had in horse race betting. Perhaps the folks in the Garden State will find that out next year.

Horse Police Get Tough

For about as long as I can remember, on backstretches and in grandstands, the response to a horseman who got caught doing some really bad things was "why don't the police charge them?" This was almost never the case; even when the horse in question was being abused in some way.

But this year it is different. Three weeks ago in Iowa a trainer was charged with three felony counts for allegedly injecting a horse before a race. Now in Ontario, a Windsor triumvirate faces a similar charge.

It appears the Ontario Provincial Police (kind of like state troopers to our US readers) had an ongoing investigation and have reached some conclusions. "The accused have all been charged with one count each of cheat at play, fraud, and offences under the Pari-mutuel (betting) regulations of the Criminal Code. All charged persons have been released on an Undertaking which prohibits involvement in horse racing. They are to appear in Windsor court on January 5, 2011."

For a good long time these folks have been painted with a brush, primarily due to some amazing one-week turnarounds. Haskell sported some numbers that rank up there with Lou Pena, the whipping boy in the US. Last year he won 92 of 179. This year 64 of 179. He claimed several horses for a low, low price, and moved them right up the ladder like we see in thoroughbred and harness racing on almost a weekly basis the last twenty years. Trainers like that have a bulls-eye on their back, especially if they are younger trainers with very little experience.

I have no idea (other than what I read above) what should happen or will happen. Guilt or innocence is for the courts. But one thing I do know - if you are doing something untoward in racing and lighting up horse's like a Christmas tree, chances are that you will not get 60 days and $10k and be right back at it. In this day and age you might find yourself rooming with a dude named Bubba in the local pen.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Funday Thoughts

There is a ton of fun reading this morning on the web and in newspapers across racing-ville.

Andy Beyer (most would say finally) gives Zenyatta some props. In his previous column he waxed on about synthetic surfaces (Jessica Chapel over and over again seems to be proven right) saying:

"When racing fans of the future look back at the record of a mare who excelled on long-forgotten substances called Pro-Ride and Cushion Track, they are apt to regard Zenyatta as a historical curiosity rather than an all-time great racehorse."

"Historical curiosity"? It seems that synthetic surfaces are something some people can not get out of their minds when judging horseflesh, or anything else for that matter.

Thankfully (although with two wins already on dirt; a surface she obviously likes as well) a dual surface superstar (the only mare to win the Classic last year and only mare to come second in it this year) like her can finally be trumpeted by everyone, including Ms. Chapel's old colleagues at the DRF. But I do not blame that on Zenyatta, her owners or her trainer - I blame that on people that can not see the forest for the trees.

Conversely, Goldikova is having no problem getting called the best mare in racing. Which to me is funny and hypocritical, because she is a single surface horse as well as a single distance horse, the same criteria people seem to have used to discredit Zenyatta.

Both are tremendous mares. Two of the best we have ever seen.

.....Although, Hitler might not agree on Goldikova.

Ed Fountaine (please allow me an LOL) says that you are a chowderhead if you don't vote HOY for Zenyatta.

Monday morning brings us (with apologies to MSNBC's Keith Olbermann) the worst person in the world award. Is there anyone with less class in racing than Seth Hancock, owner of Blame? After the race, John Sherriff's as expected said he was disappointed but "congratulations to Blame". Jerry and Ann Moss echoed that. However, Seth replied:

"Well, I thought the battle for Horse of the Year was fought about a half-hour ago, and Blame won it,''

Sports Illustrated put it this way.

"(On that day, winning trainer Nick Zito totally embraced the warring emotions of the afternoon, embracing Smarty Jones' trainer, John Servis, near the winners circle and saying "I'm sorry.'' The same could not be said on Saturday for winning owner Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm, who, when given the opportunity to embrace obvious perspective, could do little better than, "Well, I thought the battle for Horse of the Year was fought about a half-hour ago, and Blame won it,'' as if the suddenly higher stud value of a horse that will stand at Claiborne is more important than the soaring presence of Zenyatta for the last three years. It was disappointing at best, unseemly at worst)."

Big Jim, Big Jim! Big Jim sets a world record at Woodbine on Saturday with an amazing display of speed. The track seemed hard and souped up, but it was a monster effort. Great drive by Phil as well. If you are betting on physicality in the post parade, this horse is a chuck each and every time. He looks like he wants to fall over. He is one of those really neat horses who seems to work through his issues (both mind and physical).

Crys Dream romped as well in a great performance. She had to move a little early, but Luc backed it down enough and sprinted home to win easily. She's the best filly trotter since Snow White, in my opinion (although she has a world to go to be better than her!).

Rock n Roll Heaven stamped himself as the harness horse of the year with another win in the Messenger. He deserves each and every one of his accolades. He is a tough, tough horse with awesome talent.

Handle was through the roof for the Breeders Cup. The BC is brand-building and doing it well (full disclosure - I was on their digital marketing committee this year, so I am biased as I like and respect Peter and the crew there) and this has to be paying off. Marketer Mark Hughes says you better have $60M and six years to brand build in this century. The BC is doing that, for much less cash. Racing has become as many of you always thought it would - a big ticket, big event sport.

Racing did well over the weekend with a great many google searches. R2 looked at them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Even In Defeat Zenyatta Answers the Questions

So ends one of the most contentious and often silly debates in thoroughbred racing history. Zenyatta, called by some public handicappers "slow", and a "synthetic specialist" closed from the clouds, only to fall a scant head short in the Breeders Cup Classic, on dirt, against the best males on that surface.

With the showing, she threw a giant hole into the speed figure handicapping dogma that has permeated the sport since the 1970's.

The big mare only runs big numbers when she has to. She is not Quality Road, where she can run like a scared cat on a rock hard three path and run a 120. She is too smart for that. She runs to her target, and then coasts, taking care of herself and showing brains that few racehorses have. If Blame was stopped up early in the lane and she made the lead early, she probably would have run a second slower, winning by a tiny margin; and earning a "slow" figure.

That's what she does, and that is why speed figure gurus had a difficult time assessing her.

Speed figures are the bomb. They make you money, especially when you sprinkle some handicapping logic and sound gambling strategy into the mix. But with her they are nothing short of worthless.

As for the surface debate, some watchers pointed to a sub-par figure in the Apple Blossom to explain her disdain for dirt. How does a mare run a 12 second eighth around the turn at Oaklawn with her ears pricked, win by four in a canter and not like dirt?

Zenyatta gave us great joy and great debate. She's one of the best mares ever to walk the earth - two Breeders Cup Classics on two different surfaces against the best males the sport had to offer, where she came a foot away from sweeping the entire two fields, assures that. We will be remembering her fondly for being a wonderful racehorse and a wonderfully fast racemare for generations.

And we do not need a Beyer figure or a handicapping guru to tell us so.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Thoughts

The money at Betfair - to me still surprisingly - keeps pouring in on Zenyatta. She is now 9-5.

I was doing my surfing this morning, trying to look-see for a little more info to construct some horizontal plays in the BC today and I came across an awesome article that I had not read on Zenyatta. It is from ESPN and deliciously written by Wright Thompson.

I am a handicapper and play almost 365 days per year, however I am also a horse owner and I love those big brown things that cost way too much money. I am an animal lover as well, and can not help but appreciate an article like the above. It shows the caring that a horse receives and just how much they are appreciated by those around them.

That article says what needs to be said in our sport. Those folks, especially trainer John Shirreffs, deserve our deep respect. In addition, what a training job - how do you keep a mare in training for over three years straight and keep her sound, healthy with a mind on her business. Astounding! It is pure magic.

Conversely, on the down side of racing, comes a story on new drugs that have infiltrated our sport. ITPP, which acts just like EPO but is more powerful, has entered the game. One hit, one week wonder trainers still abound in our game. And owners continue to chase the money. They need a lesson from Ann and Jerry Moss and John Shirreffs.... but they probably would not listen.

Courtesy comes a billboard on the roof of Hollywood Park:

The Fall Four goes at Woodbine (note the 7:50 post time) and they are pretty good races. The big one for 2 year old pacers features the return of Big Jim. Crys Dream, the best trotting filly you might have never heard of, goes in the Goldsmith Maid. If you would like to have a look at how to train and race a two year old, look no further than her. Conversely, check some of the lines on some of the other two year olds tomorrow.

Our annual Breeders Cup warning for Canadian players - this time from HANA. If you are playing in HPI, expect the payoffs to be skewed - and not in your favor. On we have one stand-out comment:

"I could write about 14 pages here about how woodbine and Fort Erie thru hpibet are screwing us here....Instead, I'll just say our small group of regulars will be playing the two day breeders at Presque Isle in pa. The woodbine *****ers drive us out of our own country."

As I mention every year here to Woodbine: Guys, spend some time on fixing this for good, for the good of your customer and for the long-term health of your business. This nonsense has gone on for far too long.

Good luck to everyone playing the BC today. Enjoy your Friday!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Some Serious Zenny Cash

At this time last year the Betfair trading for the Breeders Cup Classic was about expected. Zenyatta - overbet to be sure at 5-2 - was 5 and a half to one at the betting giant via the exchange. Scanning the chat boards, as well as speaking to several big hitters, that was about right according to them.

This year it is all together different. She is taking loads of cash; now down to just north of 2-1. And of course, this is not "newbie" cash or from a lady with a Zenyatta hat: betting at betfair before the races is not a Sunday picnic. Those newbies will be there, but they will be there on betting day.

Speaking to an assortment of players, both at Betfair and here, it is not at all like last year. Many think 5-2 is a fair price on the big mare, when nary that opinion I could find twelve months ago. I know someone that got sizeably filled at 3-1 who ain't trading it out. It will be interesting to see if the sharpies are right, or like last year wrong.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Animals Get Ya

Darryl Kaplan wrote an interesting piece in Trot this month discussing how animals really can pull on us.

"As objectively as I can look at it, no human athlete throughout history has been able to reach us emotionally the way a racehorse can. Whether it’s Secretariat, Cam Fella, Barbaro or Admirals Express, there is an attachment we can make with a racehorse that no other sports figure seems capable of." he wrote.

I could not agree more. People are people. They make human decisions and they do what is expected of them, and if they do that, it is not overly moving to me. But a horse, well that is entirely a different matter. To read more of his thoughts, click the link above.

Western Fair has dropped their pick 4 to 15% takeout. Great stuff. HANA profiled the London track today on their blog.

Pacing Guy does not like late odds changes, but who does? He explains his Saturday betting the Meadowlands. Pari-mutuel wagering was invented over 100 years ago. Over time it has lasted, but lasted for one reason : horse racing is a monopoly, unable to look past its nose. This system is archaic, obsolete and embarrassing for a 21st century gambling sport, as proud as horse racing is. In its present form (for win markets) it should have been gone twenty years ago.

One of the most insane arguments against Zenyatta (which you have touched on before) is that she "has not beaten many grade I winning females." Don't laugh - this ridiculous argument has been put forth by many. Jennie Rees, thank goodness, writes about it in huge headlines today:

There's a reason Zenyatta hasn't beaten a Grade I winner this year: She wins all the Grade I races

Way to go Jennie. If a team won four straight Super Bowls a headline would never be that the team was suspect because they have not beaten a Super Bowl winner the last four years, but in racing (with plenty of Zenny bashers) it is commonplace. The people putting forth this argument are either biased, stupid, or both.

Monday, November 1, 2010

12 Minutes of Exposure

Last night, as everyone knows by now, the 60 Minutes feature on Zenyatta was aired. As we opined below in our piece on "Focus", I think the power of this piece is palpable and we are in for a very well-watched Breeders Cup Classic.

The reaction in the community is expected, and something we often see in this sport, because we are a niche sport. Just like the Secretariat movie, for a sport to have a mainstream media, or mainstream movie-goer attraction, the insider elements are always glossed over, and insiders get pissed.

On the net, just this past twelve hours, I have read insiders griping that the feature:

i) did not mention the horse of the year battle with Rachel Alexandra

ii) that Zenyatta's speed figures are not that good

iii) that she did not travel very much outside California

iv) that she races better on pro-ride etc and is a synthetic specialist

The reasons for this apparently, is because (one or more of): CBS sucks, Mike Smith sucks, the media is in the tank for Zenyatta, or people are blind and do not know how to handicap. Some of these people are professional trolls obviously, but many are not.

Conversely of course, the mainstream sees - fast horse, she looks friendly with kids, her trainer, owner and handlers love her, she drinks beer, she never has lost a race, she is the oldest horse in her next (and final race), and she is a girl racing boys.

Nothing else matters to them and this piece was amazing in conveying that story.

It is absolutely the best story (by far) that this game has relayed by way of a racehorse in modern racing history. And it was the most watched story on a racehorse in generations, if not ever.

Save the speed fig talk, the who did she beat talk, and the overrated talk for another day. Today is a day to embrace racing, because a superstar named Zenyatta will have the general public talking about a racehorse for all the right reasons.

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