Saturday, June 30, 2012

Racing's a Game For In-Running Betting

Several years ago I was presenting at the Canadian Wagering Conference in Montreal, Quebec. Along with industry folks, there were a few bettors like me, including a couple of professional punters, who were sharing their opinion on harness racing, trying to offer some suggestions to make the sport a better betting game. 

At the end of the first day, one of the organizers asked me, a couple of other bettors and a track handicapper if we wanted to make the drive to Three Rivers Raceway, about 90 minutes up the highway for some food and some harness racing. We bit and off we went.

After enjoying some excellent fare in the dining room and playing the first six or seven races at the small pool track, one of the pro bettors asked if we all wanted to play a game. The challenge was to pick the winner of the race while the race was going on. You could pick any horse, at any time, and get even money for a $5 bet, but once a horse was picked, no other person could choose that horse.  What happened was a lesson about what can occur when racing moves outside the pari-mutuel system, and broaden its reach.......

Friday, June 29, 2012

Fascinating California Follies

When I was a dumb kid fresh out of school, I got a job at a heavy industry company who was expanding. Production was good at the mill, and when everyone ran the numbers, increasing production and a plant expansion was the goal. After meeting with the Environment Ministry, the city, the provincial government, public groups, the union - and of course securing new financing via private equity - the shovels were in the ground. It took about four months, and construction took another nine or ten, but off and away we went.

When I look back, it's amazing how many groups you had to talk with, get approvals from, and all the rest. But lo and behold, millions were raised and spent, a new mill was built, and about 150 new people were given high paying jobs within a year.

If we look at yesterdays CHRB meeting on exchange wagering at Los Alamitos, we see exactly how much different it is in racing. The track is hurting badly more than ever (despite the takeout increase in 2010 that some thought would 'cure all ills') and they want to try and jumpstart it with exchange wagering. The wagering provider (Betfair) is also game to give it a whirl. It looks like an easy peasy time for a test case, and they've been doing due diligence and talking about it for more than two years.

Unfortunately this is a case study in why racing is stuck where it is. Despite all that it was delayed even further yesterday.

Some quotes:
  •  By a 5-1 vote at Betfair Hollywood Park, the CHRB kicked back a series of 25 proposed regulations governing exchange wagering to its pari-mutuel wagering committee, where suggested changes in the new rules will be given further examination.
  •  The Thoroughbred Owners of California has announced it will not vote on exchange wagering until next year
  • Other speakers objected to portions of the rules in large measure because they felt they were vague and open to varying intepretations.
  • Yes, we believe that to put a system where you bet on a horse to lose is a system that has integrity issues," said Richard Specter, an attorney representing the racing associations that operate racing at Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields.
  • Scott Daruty, also from the Los Angeles Turf Club and Pacific Racing Association, part of The Stronach Group, objected because exchange wagering under the proposed rules is limited to Internet bets.
  • The Los Alamitos Quarter Horse Racing Association also sought approval to amend its current license
  • The delay also tabled for now applications from the advance deposit wagering firms Betfair-TVG and to conduct exchange betting on their websites

    This reads like the Abbott and Costello routine "Who's On First".

    We have competitors like Twinspires and Magna, who don't want to see TVG get more of a market share. We've got lawyers talking about Interstate Horse Racing Acts. We've got horsemen who want like 100% of every penny of revenue known to man, we've got people talking about "integrity rules" like they haven't been diced and sliced already since 2002 in about twenty five countries already. I'm surprised a bet taking union head is not there to object by asking for a bump in salary for tellers, because people might actually want to bet with a computer.

    Some people call this stuff being open and transparent. It looks more to me like a fiefdom convention.

    Could you imagine if it was 1876 and we were going to introduce betting to racing? If the above is any indication, it would likely have been approved sometime after the second world war.

    You'd think we're reinventing the wheel here not doing a test case at a small handle track to see how it goes, of something that's been legal in the world since 2000, and has been approved for use in California for over a year.

    What's even more curious is that this is a business where these same people will spend $500k on a yearling, that you don't even know can run. We're not exactly risk averse.

    Anyway, I have to get back to work. My head hurts.

    Friday Notes:

    Thanks for the Aussie comments and links on my Betting Exchange Tax piece yesterday. I got more hits from Australia yesterday than the time I posted a picture of Paul Hogan drinking a Fosters.

    Kyle left a comment on that piece about Tony Black on the Byk show. I have heard little spoken about it on the interwebs, and I have not listened yet. Has anyone seen anyone talking about it?

    Have a nice Friday everyone.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Australia's Turnover Tax, The ABC's Of Screwing Up a Good System

If you talk to any player in racing, you'll often hear - when a decision of some sort comes down on the gambling side of the game - "don't these people ever bet?" There's a reason for that. Mainly because well, I don't think many of them do bet.

If any of you have enjoyed the game again betting on an exchange, like betfair, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you haven't, while this may be greek to you, but if you want to read on, please go ahead.

In-running betting is a new way to play racing, where when a race goes off, the odds change and you can back a horse (go long the horse, or bet the horse to win), or lay a horse (go short the horse, or bet him to lose). Most in running players do some laying, or "green up" their pre-off positions to try and make the most money. Smaller players, looking to enjoy the excitement of betting a race in-running, tend to go long, so these players provide a ton of liquidity and make the market.

Like the stock market, where you buy a stock at $1 and sell it later for $1.05, for say, $500 profit minus a $8.95 commission at your favorite online broker, this type of betting is taxed in a similar way. If you buy a horse for $1000 at 2.0 and sell $1000 at 1.96, you made a few dollars, and were taxed at a % of your profits. Clearly, the exchange can not tax you at 15% takeout, because you'd owe $150 on your bet, and you only made $40. That would be silly.

However racing - in their infinite wisdom - challenged this set up in Australia. They wanted a tax on turnover, instead of gross profits and did exactly that.

This in turn, of course, changed a betting game for customers of racing in that jurisdiction.

Via an Aussie blog:
  • Since the High court decision, a number of 'traders' on NSW racing have been asked to cease operations - including yours truly. Overseas residents have also been contacted, which can be a dilemma as they may need to check the location of the racecourse they'd like bet on! If you are new to the exchange or you're betting in very small amounts you're probably OK for a while.
  •  Traders enable liquidity and generate interest in markets.  This in-turn stimulates wagering via the TAB and bookmakers - with players looking to lay-off/arbitrage/take advantage of better odds. All this generates funding to the racing industry and provides owners with better returns. Why most of the powers that be can't sit down and work this out I'd love to know. I think the term 'vested interests' comes into play.
This is astounding for a sport that is clinging to its very existence in a number of parts of the world.

"....a number of 'traders' on NSW racing have been asked to cease operations"

Racing is telling these people not to bet. In fact, you'd have to be insane to even make a bet, because for the first time in gambling history, you'd win a bet, and owe racing more than you won.

It's 2012 and we need every possible outlet to reach people. We need differentiating products to use as loss leaders. We need new ways to play to get at people who never even would look at us. We need big companies trying to gain new customers by spending their marketing money that we don't have. We need partners, we need technology. We need dynamic pricing, so people who want to trade and follow the sport, can trade and follow the sport. That's exactly what exchanges, in running betting, traders and tech geeks are trying to do.

We should never be doing anything that encourages people not to bet.

For the folks in racing who fought long and hard to get this turnover tax done for the 'good of the sport' - congratulations, you succeeded in driving away customers.

Harness Handles From Yesteryear

I got an email from a harness watcher (thanks Beav!) noting a blog post from Robert Smith. He looked at one single day in 1986 at various tracks, detailing both attendance and handle. This was in the dead of winter, to boot.

Some highlights:

Greenwood Raceway : Attendance 10.179, Handle $1,931,591

Orangeville (now closed), a whopping handle of $283,334. This with average purses of about $600.

Cloverdale in BC, over $500,000.

Blue Bonnets in Montreal, almost $1M.

All in all, for just that day, with other tracks dark as well, the handle was about $5M. Attendance was over 30,000.

In today's dollars, that puts Greenwood's handle at $4.1M, overall harness handle for the day at over $10M.

It's a different world today. There are so many other options for our time, our gambling dollars and our entertainment dollars. I can't help but think, however, if you had a crystal ball and said "in 20 years we'll be able to bet at home, bet any track we want, at any hour of the day, handles will explode", I don't think too many would disagree with you.

That didn't happen, of course, for the most part. I think one of the major reasons is the fact we increased frequency of potential bets, increased the number of bets (most of them hard to hit), and did not decrease takeout rates to ensure people stayed in play. Losing money more quickly, is an easy way for people to leave you forever.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Racing Is Government's Favorite Whipping Boy

The headlines are pretty astounding. Almost everywhere you look - Indiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and of course the granddaddy of them all, Ontario - racing is taking it on the chin. We're a favorite whipping boy for government's virtually everywhere. And it doesn't matter which political stripe. Democrat, Republican, Conservative or Liberal. Our name is mud.

It's not that we're unloved by everyone or in some cases we don't deserve getting a smack down because of bad management of our money and customers, it's because, in my opinion, we're a really easy target.

Ontario is perhaps the worst case of them all, for government policy, I believe. Can you imagine that if, say, in 1995 the Toronto Maple Leafs were building a new arena. The government stepped in and offered a casino at the new venue and gave 5% of the revenue to the team to build it. The team built a winner because they could afford the best, spent on a great arena, supported a feeder system of minor league hockey all across the province, and built a new hockey industry. To run this whole system from top to bottom, as they are working as a non-profit, it takes all the revenue.

Then one day the government said "at the end of the season, we're taking all the cash". Not in five years, or ten years, or whatever - right now. Immediately, minor hockey teams would fold. Kids would not be able to play, arenas all across the province would close, the team would have to have a fire sale of all their contracts. They'd barely be able to ice a team that could win two games a season. The arena would be bulldozed, because they could barely pay for the upkeep. Hotels beside the venue, some built this past year because of tourism dollars and a hockey team and concerts next door, would all fold and everyone would lose all their investment.

The public outrage would be palpable.

That would never happen of course. Politicians would know not to mess with such a venture in such a callous way, because they'd be toast. If they planned to cut it off, they'd probably work out a nice plan with hockey, tourism, hotels, the city, and everyone else to transition things properly.

But in racing, the exact same thing has happened, sans consultation. Breeders who live with 5 or 10 year business plans, buy plant and equipment on the same time horizon, people with yearlings or weanlings (like me), can't plan anything. It's not like I'm on welfare and they give me 24 months to find a job before I am cut off. Me as a private citizen can help myself. But an entire industry with this time horizon? It's crazy.

This is nothing new for government of course. Public policy can be insane, like in the States with a crumbling economy in 2008-9, the Congress down there worked on health care, which was an added business cost with uncertainty making business not want to hire, and they were actually going to do cap and trade - another sure job killer - before some common sense kicked in.  It's not that those things were not important or didn't have merit. It's just crazy stuff to be even thinking of, let alone implementing, with millions out of work during a recession.

But this surely takes the cake.

I'm not an apologist for this industry. We've made plenty of mistakes. But I am a fan of common sense. Cutting off all the funding for an entire capitally intensive industry in one year is not right. I sincerely hope the governments here - and everywhere - sees this for what it is, and gets to work on making this policy something that acts as a proper transition, so an industry can have some certainty to restructure. Bringing out a guillotine for a business with a long time horizon is not only terrible public policy, it lacks even a morsel of common sense.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It Will Be An Interesting Fall At the Ontario Yearling Sales

When I was a lad, we'd travel to small tracks to watch the Ontario Sires Stakes races, which were a highlight (some of the small tracks had purses of $600 back then for an average). $25,000 purses were occasionally seen, and the horses were much better than average. That all changed when slots came to the Province, where Gold Finals for $130k are the norm, and sires like Kadabra, Mach Three and Camluck replaced the Armbro Omaha's, Fundamentalist's and Dallas Almahurst's.

With slots gone, what will this years sales look like?

They'll likely be bad, but not horrible in my opinion, for a number of reasons.

-In 2013 the Ontario Sires Stakes will still be there, albeit purses will be likely lower. Instead of $130k, maybe it'll go for $70k, or $50k. Still better than other jurisdictions. That's speculation though.

-There is still hope that something can be done by 2013.

-High end sires in Ontario will still sell for big money, because horses by Kadabra (second in sales price in US sales for trotters last year to Donato), Mach Three (Beach's brother went for $430k last year), Camluck, Bettors Delight, Angus Hall, and a couple of others should be alright. Buyers don't shell big money for those horse's for sires stakes.

-New sires like Big Jim, and some middle of the road sires will likely take it on the chin pretty hard, really bringing down the average.

- Horses from small sires will probably be kept out of sales.

- Any restructuring of the condition sheets, and extra cash will likely go to breeding programs. For example, expect to see many more purses for Ontario sired only.

With that I think we won't see a bloodbath. In fact, if things were too bad and you had a nice Camluck going through the ring for a song I certainly would have my hand up.

However, as we've seen in Ontario, what is happening today might be different than what happens tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Don’t Blame Some For Being Skeptical of Supertrainers

In 1983 a collector brought a statue to a museum to be examined. The statue, purportedly from 600 B.C., was a rare fine indeed.  Not one of these statues had surfaced in years and experts firmly believed all of them had been discovered.  The asking price of $10 million was steep, but certainly in line with such a rare find.  After looking at the statue carefully, the museum curator began to initiate the battery of tests needed to verify it so he could get clearance to release such a huge sum of money.  After 14 months of scientific study, the verdict was in. The piece was in fact, real. 

When it was finally placed on display for the experts to examine, one historian took a quick look at the piece and told the curator, “I hope you didn’t pay much.” Another said, “There’s something wrong with this piece.” Time after time the experts had a subconscious, visceral reaction to the statue. They thought it was a fake. They could not tell you why or give you hard evidence why they thought so. They just took one look and knew what they knew.

What did these historical experts see and feel? That is something Malcolm Gladwell delves into in his book Blink. Part of his thesis states that if you are unconsciously competent in something (e.g. an expert with knowledge built into your subconscious mind), it takes no more than two seconds for you to form an opinion, and much of the time, that opinion is 100 percent correct.

Jeff Gural is currently excluding some horsemen from entering at the Meadowlands. None of us know who’s on the list, but I’d bet dollars to donuts at least one or two of them make us, as handicappers, blink.

A handicapper with skill knows that a $20,000 claimer who’s parked three-high in a 27 second opening quarter, takes a three hole, and makes a second move first up into a 56 second half and a 1:23.3 three-quarters will likely come home in a slower time than the others, just like every other $20,000 claimer since the history of horsekind.  Those who’ve been around the game for 40 years have seen it tens of thousands of times. It’s in their subconscious.

When that particular horse with that trip does not lose the customary six lengths in the lane like all or many others, but instead he draws off and wins, sharp bettors and horsemen notice.  

As is the case often in our sport with these performances, we look up and see the horse had a barn change for that inexplicable “blink” start.  In only a week he improved enough to do something that thousands upon thousands of $20,000 claimers never do, which is probably fine, if it happens sporadically. But further, as seems the norm in these cases, we see the same thing happen next week with a different horse who enters the same new barn. And then another, and then another and then another. 

We, in two seconds really, just like the experts with the statue, blinked. Our subconscious decides there is something going on that we don’t understand. 

Nobody can “prove” anything of course, unless maybe you’re Gil Grissom. There are no positive tests. There’s nothing to go on but internet and backstretch rumor. We just feel something is not quite right.

This feeling is not just in horse racing, it’s in other sports too. Several years ago I was amazed by the performance of a cyclist in the Tour de France and absolutely loved his burst of speed in one particular mountain stage. It was like he was exponentially better than all the other riders, and I was a huge fan. I am no expert on cycling, but I called someone who was, to talk about this particular performance. His response was not quite as thrilling as mine. 

 “He probably blood doped,” he said. 

Coincidentally, the very next day this rider was out of the Tour de France. His team fired him (he was leading the race and a lock for the overall title, too) for “violating internal rules.” I bought the hype that this cyclist was somehow that much better than the rest. I simply didn’t know any better.

Just like cyclists tend to be right about cyclists, history has shown that handicappers and horsemen tend to be correct about other horsemen, and it’s all done without a chemistry degree and a fancy machine giving them their results. It’s a big reason why the argument “so and so doesn’t have a positive test, so I have to give him the benefit of the doubt” doesn’t resonate very much with a whole lot of these same people.  

For example, when Mighty Mite Morgan was taken from Jim Campbell after finishing tenth, beaten by nine and a quarter lengths in 1:56 and eighth (placed seventh), beaten ten lengths in 1:58, and moved into a hot barn where there were whispers in 2006, he remained in the same class and jogged a couple of weeks later in 1:52.4. My e-mail inbox was filled with people “blinking”. 

The Drunkard was moved from Doug Arthur off 1:55-1:56 type lines into a new barn, one that Woodbine Entertainment Group had some doubts about because the trainer’s horses were already all in retention. He jogged by eight in 1:51 his first start, setting a new life’s mark. About thirty seconds after the prices were posted, a topic popped up on a chat board, filled with posts from people “blinking.”  

Judging by the suspensions that followed for those barns not long after, flummoxed handicappers and horsemen were thought to be prescient, not jealous.  

It is why, in my opinion, we cannot blame participants and bettors for judging performances like they do in horse racing. Their subconscious competency has served them pretty well in the past.  It solidifies their beliefs.

The question remains regarding exclusion and what to do, or what not to do with some people in certain situations. I’m a dumb handicapper, not a smart District Court Judge, so I cannot answer that in any way, shape, or form.  But I do think that in grandstands, and on backstretches, it’s fair to say that people will continue to “blink” until our game is much cleaner than it is. 

Note:   Going back to the 3,000 year old statue: It was a fake. Because of the expert skepticism, the curators went back and found numerous holes in the seller’s documents. As well, they uncovered scientific evidence proving it was a sham. After the episode, the curator who made the mistake said, “I always found scientific opinion more objective than esthetic judgments, but I was clearly wrong.”

This article was originally published in Harness Racing Update, Bill Finley's Weekend paper. If you want to sign up for Harness Racing Update, for free, you can here

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Huge Harness Year Is Brewing For the Three Year Old Pacers

If you want to follow a sport this summer that involves creatures with four legs instead of two, you might want to think about following harness racing.

Each year harness racing is not unlike thoroughbred racing for the classic age restricted events. At times we see one or two good horses battling plenty of also rans, sometimes we see a really good horse against some sub par stock. But rarely do we see so many top horses battling week in and week out.

When HoofBeats came out with their 2012 Predictive Rankings, Sweet Lou, Rock n Roll Dance and Warrawee Needy topped the list, and there were not too many who could argue with that. On paper it was logical, and if all three horse's raced like they did at two, we were in for a cool spectating year. A funny thing happened, though: Those three horses were off the board in a $1.5M race, have one win this season, and were beaten by 26 in their last, respectively.

Looking at the Hoof Beats list for the others, North America Cup winner Thinking Out Loud was unranked, not in the top 25. Perhaps the fastest horse since Somebeachsomewhere - Hurrikane Kingcole - was ranked 12th.  NA Cup second place finisher Time To Roll, was nowhere, third place finisher Dapper Dude, was ranked 19th.

This is sure to be one whale of a year in harness racing.

For the record, my Top 5 in Hoof Beats were Sweet Lou, RnR Dance, Warraweee Needy, Hurrikane Kingcole and Mel Mara.

To me the most fascinating horse of this season in harness racing is Hurrikane Kingcole. In the spring for Hoof beats I wrote this about him:

"It’s never wise to place a 2-year-old with a bit of a settling problem on a list like this, but he quieted down late in the year. And he is super-fast. Watch out if he puts it together."

That's a stretch for me, because when I evaluate two year olds I almost 100% of the time throw horses like this off the list. For example, last season, two fast two year olds - Idyllic and Pretty Katharine - I discounted for this same reason. They, to me, looked like they'd get, or were tweaked, and went faster than they wanted to go. I didn't feel that way with this horse. He looked to be green and funky, but even when he was off setting big fractions, he looked to be learning, not being tweaked.

I feel the same today about this colt. If he keeps learning, I think he might learn to go faster and be more and more sure footed. Last night he went 148.1 with a 52.4 back half. I believe he can get better and better and I think there is a possibility we have not seen this horse's bottom. If he learns and stays sound, on an 87 degree day at Lexington, 146 flat is not out of the question, in my opinion.

Things can change quickly in this sport, with so many fast horses. In a month Sweet Lou could be back on top. In three months and for the latter half of the season, Needy might be fresh and ready to go fast again. Of course, let's not forget Thinking Out Loud, Time To Roll, Pet Rock (I'm loving the way Morgan is handling him) and all the rest.  One thing is for sure, what in the off season looked like a battle between last year's big three - with one or two of them as standouts - is not what's happening as of July 1st.

Other 2012 Crop Notes:
  • If we're excited about the three year old pacers, how about the three year old trotters? This division is constantly dominated by one horse, but this year we have at the very least, two very fast colts. Googoo Gaga is the best of them, and last night he was absolutely marvelous. To read about how a horse this fast came about - from a $1200 mare bred to an obscure pacer - read today's Harness Racing Update (pdf).
  • Another horse that interests me - because I believe he is better and faster than he shows - is Aracache Hanover. He looked amazingly sound and bouncy in London for the Molson Pace elim, and scorched to a 151 win. Since then he's been off - a little dull and a bit steppy - and he has not looked like the same horse. If you watched him last night at Pocono when he went 148.1, he was bouncing around again like a happy horse. Horse's are not machines, and when they're right, you can see superlative efforts. I hope this portends a good year for him, because he's a very nice horse. The older division is wide open.
  • The four year old and up trotters are in for an interesting year as well. San Pail looks a little slower, and Arch Madness looks similar to where he was last year at this time (after starting the year lights out). The most interesting part of this, in my opinion, is the fact that perhaps the three best trotters are four year olds - Mister Herbie, Chapter Seven and Daylon Magician. We in racing have to lose this "four year olds can't compete against older" mantra. Over the past several years especially, there have been two year olds that can give three year olds a beating (Sweet Lou would've probably crushed three year old Breeders Crown pacers last year at Woodbine etc) and many four year olds that can do the same (We Will See last season, Better Than Cheddar this year etc). This breed has changed and we're breeding faster and faster horses, who are going faster and faster at a younger and younger age. 
  • Thus far the most boring division is the three year old filly pacers, but not because they aren't fast or exciting. One is standing out - American Jewel. I was 100% sure she wouldn't come back well. What a dummy. Not only has she come back well, she's come back to look like another Peelers or Rainbow Blue.
  • I still think we've not seen the best from Maven in the three year old filly trotter division. I hope both she and Check Me Out stay sound, because at the start of the season this division looked like a walkover for the latter. It's clearly not.
  • Bob Marks, via email on why we're seeing what we're seeing: "It’s not so much that the breed has improved but the gaits have been purified..Meadow Skipper, Overtrick, Bret Hanover or whomever all had trotting blood within  the second or third generation. Many trotting sires like Worthy Boy, Victory Song and even Stars Pride were actually double gaited sires producing a preponderance of pacers alongside their great trotters. Much of that has been bred out..  Today’s pacer is often four or even five generations clear of trotting blood, while today’s trotter is equally generations removed from the double gaited sires…"
  • Enjoy your Sunday everyone.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Black Caviar: Fish Out of Water Horses Breeds Excitement, Drama

If you compare Tuesday's Frankel 2012 debut to today's Black Caviar win there isn't much comparison - in margin of victory or excitement. The fact that Black Caviar traveled 20 hours on a plane to race in another country at a premiere race meet, overshadowed anything we've seen in racing this year.

The race and the trip had everything - an undefeated mare, a country on her side, in a faraway land to prove herself to another continent of race fans. It was shades of Phar Lap many years ago.

When horses travel to new locales to tackle new challenges it's pure theater, worthy of an Oscar winning Hollywood drama. I don't think there is much like it in sports, anywhere. It is this sports' niche.

I think it's also why not only Australia was pulling for the mare today. Everyone was. We stand up and cheer when a horses' connections are sporting, and are willing to show their horse to the world.

This happens from time to time when horses try a new surface or a new distance as well. Curlin, for example, tried all three surfaces, in a sporting endeavor. I hope we see more of things like this (how about Frankel, in the Breeders Cup Classic?), because that was absolutely amazing.


I watched the race in-running this morning on Betfair, and because betting is a few seconds ahead of the feed I got mighty concerned when I saw Caviar trade at 1.50 (from about 1.20). Someone out there saw she was being shaken up and not liking the going I guess. The money against her at 1.30, or 1.31 - even though they lost - was sharp money.

Last I checked $21M was traded on the race. She ended up at 1.01, so there wasn't much doubt about who won the photo.

In HRU today, an article about using "non-analytical" positives to rid the sport of cheaters ("A New Way to Catch the Bad Guys?" p4 pdf) using exotic drugs was penned. I am not sure if racing would ever pull this off, but I would not be surprised (as we get more and more serious with exotics)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Slots Chatter In Ontario, More & More Disingenuous

The talk in Ontario is heating up (on both sides) as the hammer comes down on the slots at racetracks program. I think, from the horse industry side, the realization is finally setting in that there's not going to be a white knight to save the day. As for the government, well, they just continue to be silly.
  • "We are committed to the people in the industry but there comes a point when it's health care and education or horse racing. That's our bottom line," Aly Vitunski said. "It's unfortunate but we have to choose health and education."
Those type arguments have to be some of the most disingenuous in politics. They're insulting, and unfortunately they're used a lot.

What happened, as most know, is that slots were housed at racetracks as a way to introduce them into a ready made market. The horse industry built infrastructure and a breeding business, based on that. In addition, places like Woodbine changed the way they did business, by not charging for admission, as one example.

It's terrible government policy to not transition a business off of a subsidy, when the government made the overture to begin with. I think others would feel the same way if it was their private business who was offered a similar deal, and you spent millions on products, infrastructure, plant and equipment, only to find at the stroke of a pen it's all over.

The whole thing really, really smells, and McGuinty et al should be ashamed of themselves.

As for racings side, I don't know about you, but the propagandist articles, disguised as news items, on Standardbred Canada are beginning to be annoying. Almost every story I read on this topic uses incendiary language like "ill advised" plan, or "inexplicable" or others. They're acting no better than this lady with her "it's unfortunate we have to choose health care and education" comments, like somehow if you oppose the government's plan you want bad health care and dumb kids.

It's like we're watching two children yelling insults at each other in a schoolyard. I guess that's just the way it is in the business of politics and government programs.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reason Number 3,492 Why Uniform Rules Are Needed

The Daily Racing Form reported the following with regards to the Demorphin positives recently found in a few southern states. The trainer has initially been handed a six month suspension.
  •  The case has been referred to the commission because the stewards in Louisiana are restricted to handing down a maximum six-month suspension, according to Charles Gardiner, the commission’s executive director. The minimum recommended suspension for a drug like dermorphin – a potent opioid with morphine-like effects – is one year, and the trainer who was issued the suspension, Alvin Smith, was suspended 13 years ago for two positives of a drug in the same potent class.
How crazy is that? It's a second class I, and we have to go up the chain of command to get a penalty longer than six months? Sure it looks like he'll get more, after "circumstances" are looked at, but when your guidelines at the steward level say six months? Incredible.

What's this say to the public and to politicians who think we're all crooks? We have someone allegedly using frog venom which can kill horses and humans, and they read in the paper he might get six months? If they read further they see he did similar in 1999 (he got a whopping seven months back then, some deterrent eh?)and was let back to do it again? What the heck?

The amazing thing is, if it happened in another state, he'd get a different penalty. Some states, like California defy some logic. Other states like New York are more draconian.

It's a mess.

It's not 1980 anymore, where exotic drugs are not readily purchased. Today it's a different beast, and for things like this, we need uniform penalties. In some cases we need lifetime bans.

The Ontario Racing Commission had to deal with this long before other jurisdictions. EPO - a completely horrible Class I drug - made the rounds in the early 2000's, via EPO/DPO and aranesp and they were extremely vigilant. Ask anyone who had to care for a horse who was coming down off EPO and they'll tell you some horror stories. It's an awful drug for horses. They immediately stepped up to the plate and changed the way class I's like this are handled. (pdf)

For the gentleman who is accused of using this "tree frog drug" in Louisiana, he'd be at minimum gone for 5 years (this is his second class I) in Ontario. He would not be able to race while under appeal. If he has other positives on his record, he'd be likely gone 10 years and face a huge fine in Ontario. If he proves his innocence on appeal, that's fine, and good for him, but the guidelines and penalty would be swift and without question.

Steve Crist once said he talked to horseplayers about drugs and towards trainers they were "hang them high and hang them higher". I'm not like that. Mistakes are made, intent to injure the game or horses, or fellow horse owners, as well as extenuating circumstances do happen and can happen. Everyone deserves their day in court after a penalty is handed down. But the initial publicly reported penalty for something like this should never be six months, anywhere. It should be years, it should be the same no matter where you race a horse, and it must be done like that so cheaters take commissions seriously, and our customers know there is someone minding the store who's watching their backs.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Frog-Gate Goes Mainstream

I have been watching Drugs Inc on Natgeo the past while and it is a really cool series. It is flat-out amazing how drugs are created and sold, whether it's bath salts, or ketomine, or heroin, or ecstasy, or crack cocaine. Sometimes they can be ordered over the internet, cooked in a basement, or bought on the corner. The fact remains, if there is a market, and there is money involved, it will be bought and it will be sold.

Why would racing be any different?

This weeks newsflash, first broke at by Bob Fortus, is about the South American Tree Frog, and its analgesic and pain killing "juice". So far we have a dozen or so positives and we'll likely have many more.

A few thoughts that may or may not be accurate, but are my opinion: 
  • Racing gives away $1B in purses each year - more if you include Canada - so this should be no surprise. If a guy will take a gun and rob a bank for $1,000, it's not a stretch to see someone order something over the internet that won't be detected in a racehorse, and take cash that way. The best part of it? If you get caught robbing a bank, you'll get thrown in jail. If you get caught robbing fellow horse owners, you'll likely get legal help to fight the positives from the horsemen group, get six months, and be able to use some of the money you stole for a nice vacation.
  • A lot want to say it isn't widespread, but it probably is more than it looks like on the surface. EPO wasn't supposed to be widespread either, but there were plenty of busts with people selling it over the last ten years. The fact is, two horses are tested a race only. To catch a positive, one or both has to be using it (probably within a set time period) and the test has to not only be developed, but when it is, it has to work perfectly. For so many positives to have popped up, this is likely more widespread than people think. 
  •  I think it's naive to think that a few trainers in New Mexico or Louisiana are the only ones with an internet connection to order this drug. The only jurisdiction testing for it, caught it.
  • This is the true scourge in our sport. Horse's not feeling pain is cruelty. Not to mention, the jocks on their back, fellow riders and horses are all put at risk of death when things like this are used.
  • When lasix is spoken about, or therapeutic positives, I defend a lot of horsepeople (in fact, one of my horses over the last 20 years had a positive once, and had no intent behind it). These drugs are not there to cheat, or be bad to the horses. There is no intent to steal, there is no intent to cheat. Unfortunately, drugs like this make people want to hang everyone with a positive. It hurts a lot of honest horse owners, trainers and the sport. 
  • A part of me is happy (selfishly) that this is being exposed in thoroughbred racing. I for one am tired of hearing how harness racing trainers use everything, but somehow thoroughbred trainers aren't made of the same genes as other humans and wouldn't even think of it. Human nature is human nature. If you're running for $25k for an 8 claimer and your horse runs, you are as likely, or even more likely to do something like this than with a 5 claimer harness horse that paces, racing for $3,800 at Windsor Raceway. Those aren't my rules, they are Adam Smith's.
Those are my thoughts on Frog-gate. I hope Dr. Barker and others who are putting in the work helps rid the sport of this drug, so we can move onto the next one. And for the love of God, don't give them a few weeks vacation like this is a banamine overage. It's not. And for the mainstream media, please don't paint us all with this brush. Your industry likely has some bad apples too.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Face of Unemployment

No matter which way you fall on the slots debate in Ontario, or the political spectrum, you have to feel for everyone in the business. In this clip, we see a snapshot into the face of the unemployed in horse racing. It's very sad.

One of the stable managers said "when you're having a bad day, you can come in and work with your favorite horse. It's good for your soul."

So many souls will be lost without the horses - especially in rural Ontario.

This video is really worth a watch. It was wonderfully done.

Tuesday Notes

Frankel was fabulous this morning in his first tilt of 2012. Of special note for fans, however, is that he is unlikely for the 2012 Breeders Cup.

This is rather interesting, especially in the context of North American and Australian horses. Our superstars (and yes there have been few) are sometimes labelled as "duckers" if they don't step outside their comfort zone and compete. Zenyatta was crucified for it by some, even though she stepped out to win on dirt, at different distances and took on the boys in two Breeders Cup Classics at 10f, on two surfaces. Rachel Alexandra took on the boys as well. Curlin raced on three surfaces, in Dubai, on both coasts, and raced many distances. This years Zenyatta - Black Caviar - flew 20 hours to Ascot to prove herself and races this week. Goldikova, of course, raced for years and traveled too.

Frankel on the other hand, has not stepped out past eight furlongs, and has not left home base, and likely never will. I think they deserve all the criticism others have if they plop him in another 8f race against overmatched foes. They're not only cheating their horse, they're cheating the sport.

Soap box speech over.

Social Media and sports are made for each other, as top trends and tweets show. You'd think we'd need to slam racing here for not getting it, but they have. America's Best Racing, and racing tweeters everywhere are on twitter and talking racing, just like other sports. Everyone has done a super job, in my opinion.Handles for this year seem to be better than last year, and I think this presence has something to do with it.

We've been chatting for years about the on-track crowd being different from the at-home crowd and the Cameltonian might prove it beyond a doubt. The Meadowlands had over 5000 people for the camel races on Saturday.

Jody Jamieson is getting some blame on chat boards for a couple of his drives Saturday evening. He might not have had a great night, but for goodness sakes, is he supposed to not try, knowing that Warrawee Needy would back up by 26? Is he Jody Jamstrenamous?

If we don't put Thinking Out Loud on top of our three year old ratings I am not sure when we will. Sweet Lou and Needy both have some question marks, and TOL came off deep cover to win fairly easily. I'll wait to see if Sweet Lou bounces back before putting him back on top.

Somebeachsomewhere's foals are rocking the joint out. His number of starters are formidable and they are showing speed. If we thought a Mach Three from a rather non-descript mare might have not been able to do the job in the shed,we'll likely have to rethink that. Contrary to popular belief you could not breed a donkey to his mares and get winners. There have been several sires that had great initial books that did not do the job.

The end justifies the means. It seems if a horse wins a race at 10f or 12f, he "can get 10f or 12f". If he doesn't he can't. That has always stuck in my craw. Union Rags, which many thought couldn't get 12f, won, so he is suddenly a 12f horse. The fact that the final time was a snail pace, and if a few other horses were in it, and/or raced well in 227, seems to make no difference. Any horse that races and has a decent Beyer at 9f can get 10f. He just might get it a little slower than an ideal distance.

I'm not sure the hand-wringing and comparative measures with the new Kentucky Derby rules pass the smell test. You can't say "this horse would not have made it!" with any credulity, because the criteria has moved and that horse's connections would've chosen a different path to get into the Derby. It's like moving the field goal uprights back forty yards behind the end zone and wondering why coaches don't choose to try field goals from the 50 anymore.

The speed harness horses are going is pretty stout and there's no way it's only equipment. If you watch some old races there are a few gaits that stand out: Staying Together, Artsplace, Jate Lobell, Niatross are some examples. All those horses went super fast and their competition, with head nods, skippy gaits and all the rest were no match. I have a ten claimer with a better gait than some of the old time Free For Allers. The breed in our sport - breeding speed to speed, and slick gaits to slick gaits - has improved it leaps and bounds, in my opinion.

I'm of the opinion San Pail is not quite the same horse this season, and I think his 2 for 4 record this year proves that. However, even if he is, he still will have some trouble. Last night another trotter smoked in 1:51.1 - the very good Daylon Magician. There are some good trotters this year showing their force.

Have a great Tuesday everyone.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Cup Card Notes

Last night's North America Cup was about as interesting as a race can get. Thinking Out Loud, the Bob McIntosh trained son of Ponder, exploded home off cover to get all the marbles. The very good Time To Roll was second, with Bob's other charge, Dapper Dude, rounding out the tri.

This morning it is pretty clear that last week's slugfest took something out of both Warrawee Needy and race favorite Sweet Lou. Needy was beaten by 26, and Sweet Lou seemed to have a bit of a head nod throughout the race, and he bravely hung on for fourth. Although both horses did not perform up to expectations, count them out at your own risk, in this players' opinion. They are both very talented, and although (especially in Needy's case) it may take some time to get back to form, I suspect they both will.

It just shows something we all know, and what handicappers go through each day to try and make a score: They are not machines.

In other action, the freshest and soundest looking horses did the job. Check Me Out is no Snow White (and I hope those comparisons end soon) but she proved she has still got it. She marched first over in slower fractions (an advantage for the first up horse) and she held off a fast closing Maven. I thought Yannick was going to get her (I bet him!) but he fell just short. Both fillies were really good and it portends a nice year for them both, and hopefully some good battles. Yesterday I was sure Maven was the better of the two, today I am more 50/50.

In the Goodtimes Final, the chalk faded into obscurity. Beer Summit, off a nice speed try in his last was good and he took home the prize. All the big colts seemed to be flat, other than the very good Guccio. I don't think we're going to make too many Hambo predictions off that race, and we can perhaps keep in mind it is mainly a prep for the big one in August. Honestly, I am not sure Woodbine should keep that race as is (and they probably won't since slots will end next year).

We Will See won the Gold Cup, finally showing some flash that we expect of him. Perhaps he needed to get some fast miles under him before letting loose, because in his first three he hung like a chandelier near the wire. Usually that is a sign of something not quite right. I don't think so in this case, however and the older pacers better watch out. Early season star Golden Receiver threw in another bad one, and that makes two in a row. I wonder what's bugging him.

American Jewel was spectacular, winning in 148.3. There's really not much else you can say about that. She and her stablemate are very good horses, and they will light up the toteboard with their numbers quite a bit this year, I think.

Last night's handle was short of $3M and I did notice more space on the tarmac. No matter how you slice it, that's disappointing. The field was great and the weather was too.

Enjoy your Sunday everyone.

Ps: Thanks for the congrats on our HRU North America Cup analysis. I wish $133 exactas were that easy all the time :)

Friday, June 15, 2012

$1.5M North America Cup - My Odds Line

Here's my fair odds line for tomorrow's North America Cup

On paper, Sweet Lou and Warrawee Needy are probably closer to 50% and 28% respectively, however this is a deep field and I think there is a chance both may regress. In contrast, Thinking Out Loud and Time To Roll both seem to be on the improve, and they have not been beaten up too much at all. Both horses only need to be slightly better (and get a trip) to give the big boys a run, perhaps.

There is a chance that this may be a boat race (the outside horses may all take back in fear of Sweet Lou) and if so this line is way off, but when they're going for $1.5m, we should see some pace. 

Enjoy the card. I'll pop up a free program link whenever I find one.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Thursday Notes

..... Talk to a newbie and say "graded stakes dollars" and he will think it's a special promotion at the Ponderosa. I never quite understood why we make things so anti-fan friendly. Today that changed, with hopefully the best of both worlds - a better measuring stick for starting slots as well as being more fan friendly - as Churchill announced a Kentucky Derby points system.

..... The Hambo (and the rest of racing) pulled it off. The big race will be shown on CBS Sports Network, for 90 minutes.

..... Who will end up being a better filly this year, Check Me Out or Maven? Right now I'm leaning to Maven.

..... There's no NA Cup consolation this year because of lack of entries. There is just so much stakes money out there now.

..... Harness track in Minnesota is screwed by its thoroughbred cousin/former partner. 

..... Do you find it kind of cool that the two two colts going for NA Cup 2012 are by E Dee's Cam and Yankee Cruiser?

.... The Feds are coming, there is no doubt about it; while we argue about virtually everything.

.... Lasix ban in Kentucky may begin in 2014. I don't think this does too much more than offer some good PR, but if you read the criticisms of it from some thoroughbred horsemen, it's like someone took away their saddles.

.... I'm excited to bet this years North America Cup card, but I can't get stoked betting into 20 cent pick 4's and 20 cent supers with that horrible takeout. I really wish we'd start to focus on sending more people home with a shot at more money than they came with.

.... The NA Cup will be broadcast on XM and Sirius satellite radio on Saturday.

Enjoy your Thursday everyone.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

NA Cup Night Insert

This Saturday evening there are millions up for grabs at Mohawk, and we should see one of the highest harness handles of the season for NA Cup 2012.

The Sportsman, in conjunction with Woodbine Entertainment, has offered out an insert for this Saturday, with some picks and news.

You can take a look at it here (pdf)

This is a fantastic night of racing, and unlike some of our big races where we see coronations, don't let the morning line odds on some horses scare you (in my opinion of course). Horses like Check Me Out and Sweet Lou will likely have to work very hard to win their respective stakes, and there are many capable horses on the race card.

Glee And Reality

There are some blog posts, and some interesting chatter on the Interwebs about the TV ratings and attendance for Triple Crown races the past few years. There are some who feel that racings problems are not causing a dying sport, and that we're on the rebound.

I don't think horse racing is dead. It never will be dead because someone somewhere will meet a man with a horse and want to race his or hers. Stakes will be put up, people will come to bet and watch, and we'll have a race day. People will watch the big races, like they always have. But it is certainly in bad shape, and Belmont Stakes attendance, a TV rating, Zenyatta on a news show, Secretariat movies, Seabiscuit movies and whatever else people want to use to argue with that, are simply missing the point on what drives the sport.

In economics, a depression is a loss of 10% of GDP, in a period over 2 years. If that's applied to our sport, we're in a depression times about ten. Real handle losses are about 50% of our business in the last ten years, 35% of the money for purses come from slot machines. Foal crops have shrunk, and there are fewer and fewer people betting horse racing as customers. It's rotten out there.

And the future, no matter how rosy we want to look at it, portends more storms on the horizon. In Canada, $350M a year just went poof for horse racing when the slots deal was taken away, and in 2013 purses will be low. In Iowa, it's all gone. In Pennsylvania, 16.7% of the cash was taken away and they narrowly escaped losing another $72M this year. Indiana dodged a bullet, which is likely to come back in next years budget. New York? If there's slot money going to racetracks in 5 years I would be stunned, and you would too. Ohio added slots and some other states may, but we all know that's a band-aid, anyway.

We put all those facts against, say, a nice Belmont attendance, and handle that's up 1.5% this season, and we're supposed to be gleeful? We're supposed to think this bottomed out?

Big races will always take in revenue, because they are big events. The Calgary Stampede - a large rodeo - had an attendance of a couple hundred thousand in the 1950's and now it's 1.2 million. TV viewership is up, mainly because there are more people around via population growth. If you use those numbers like some are using the popularity of the Derby or other Triple Crown races, you'd say rodeo is popular and growing. It isn't. It's deader than a doornail. Millions of people watch the biathalon each Winter Olympics. It doesn't mean skiing while shooting at targets with a gun is a hot commodity in the sporting world.

The sport of horse racing will grow when the problems that it has are fixed, and they are numerous and seem insurmountable. A run of good weather out east and small takeout reductions, a decent viewership for a TV series of TC races where there was a TC chance and a few other rosy stats in 2012 do not change that.

There's nothing wrong with being happy about our sport and getting excited about racing. The Jockey Club is doing some great work and there are other positive things happening. But we tend to accentuate the positive and try and extrapolate the micro to the macro way too often. This is why up until the last year or two we've been told things are fine (listen to a CHRB meeting and you'll still think things are fine). They weren't and they aren't. It simply allows people off the hook from doing what's needed to be done. We have never been a "CFL", who as a niche sport started to accept their fate, and finally tackle their issues.

That's not doom and gloom, that's reality. We have work to do, lots of it. It's better to put the gleeful feelings aside and get back to work to effect real change to help a shrinking sport.

Monday, June 11, 2012

What a Weekend

It was a fun weekend to be a racing fan.

On Saturday we had a Belmont where finally Union Rags won something this year that everyone expected him to last year. But was it enough? He got nearly the exact same trip (with a colt on his outside flank the whole way) that he got in Florida for the Derby, so there goes that excuse. The time was slow, and his Beyer was not that great. He doesn't seemed to have moved up at all from last season. If there's a horse who has to do more, this is that quintessentail colt, in my opinion.

I think Atigun might've blown the doors off them all if he could've settled. He was being fought almost the entire race, and he hung a little bit late as is often the case with trips like that.

Dullahan was well, Dull. He was covered in dirt, looked like he wanted nothing to do with racing on Saturday, and his anemic final time proved it. He is so much better than he showed, but as we all know too well in this game, horses at times simply don't show up for whatever reason.

Anyhow, it was a good day for betting and attendance and for the TV viewers. Despite the scratch of I'll Have Another.

The North America Cup elims were pretty awesome on Saturday night, offering us more questions than answers. We looked at them in HRU today (p2 PDF). Also in that issue is the story that Brennan has been allowed back at the M to drive, which was not unexpected.

It's been done 100 times before with Boxing and Horse Racing - they're linked. Over the past 100 years, poor decisions, fixed fights and the like, have plagued the sport of boxing. Over the past 100 years people think horses are constantly drugged. Both sports have no commissioner, no structure, nothing to work towards fixing it. In an article today, the weekend fight and the weekend race were looked at, not in glowing terms:

Results like the ones in these two once-dominant sports awaken a skepticism that many would prefer not to have about sports. They leave us with doubts not only about the result, but the process.

Controversy happens, of course. But once a sport loses the trust of the mass of fans, or at least, once skepticism takes the lead on the scorecard, every high-profile controversy becomes another blow in a countdown to knockout.

It's not just mainstream media who are looking at IHA's injury and scratch with some skepticism. It's horse racing opinion. Cangamble, never one to back away from an opinion, questions it as well. 

In racing we often hear: "See, we should not even talk about it, or go to any great lengths like having a D barn or whatever, because no one believes us anyway." I think that's nonsense. We've had this affect us for 100 years and it will take some time, but you don't run away from it. We looked at changing the culture on how we report no try drives, or rides in Saturday's HRU. How do we change opinion on our perception? One policy at a time.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

An Interesting 24 hours

The last day was pretty exciting, albeit disappointing of course.

Twitter showed it's worth early on, when Scott Hazelton mentioned there were rumors that IHA was going to be scratched. Not long after this was confirmed.

Then the fun started, where twitter can show, well, not-its-worth.

The scratch was NYRA's fault. Follow me on this. If they hadn't have screwed up the takeout thing, Charlie would not have been fired, the NYSRWB would never have put in the D barn, and I'll Have Another wouldn't have been in the detention barn, he would not have kicked a stall, and he would've won the Triple Crown. NYRA is responsible for ruining it for everyone.

Damn that NYRA!

If you didn't like that one. It was a security guard's fault. If there wasn't a guy watching I'll Have Another, Evil Doug would've been able to give him a giant needle, filled with rocket fuel, and he would've won. Knowing that this pesky guard wouldn't look away for a minute, Doug could not use the needle, and without the needle IHA is like a 5 claimer at Mountaineer, so he was scratched. The guys name is "Bob" and he lives in Queens. Send your hate mail to him for ruining the Triple Crown.

There were others; plenty of conspiracy theories. It was a really interesting day.

People want to blame something on someone, or something, or some organization. I realize that is the way society is today, but in horse racing it is probably exacerbated. We have little structure and the public does not trust us. The participants don't seem to care much for change either. A lot of it is branding. Things like post-race testing, detention barns, etc are probably good for the public perception of the sport, but we've got 100+ years of bias to tackle. It certainly won't change overnight.

Yesterday a horse stretched a tendon and he was scratched. It happens probably every day.  There's no need to blame anyone, anything, or any organization. Stuff happens.

I hope everyone has a good Belmont Stakes day today. And remember tonight - some of the very best colts we've seen in a long time head off in the North America Cup elims, at Mohawk.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Did the New York Times Scratch I'll Have Another?

Twitter pal, and all around nice fellow, Sid Fernando had a wonderful historic piece up last night on his blog. It was about Majestic Prince, who in 1969 entered the Belmont with a tendon issue. He ran and lost. His career, as told to Sid, was over before the race, or after the race, it didn't much matter.

Sid also touched upon Conquistador Cielo today too on twitter, and his history as a three year old.

Today, after the scratch of I'll Have Another, I asked Sid: In another time, even recently, if a horse had slight filling, but could run, what percentage of people would run them in a situation like this? Sid answered he thought 100% would run.

Filling, slight bumps, strains, soft tissue injuries and the like, are relatively common, and to race horses with them is common too. I bet there are 100 or more horses in to go today with injuries similar to this; and they'll run, some will win. As Sid pointed out, it's clear in the past horses were raced with much worse.

Why this time? Why with this horse? Why the scratch? Well cynics can say what they will - they scratched to keep his stud value up, if he ran poorly it would tarnish the horse and trainer (remember the horse was in retention this time) - and so on. But taking that cynical meme and shelving it away for a moment, could it be they did not run because horse racing is changing?

Never before has the glare of the spotlight been so bright. Never before have maladies of horses been so linked to the public, through the mainstream media (some of them wonky), social media and similar. Never before have people in racing had to worry about what the public thinks, like they do right in the here and now.

Is horse racing capitulating, or is it evolving?

Perhaps a bit of both.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

You Can Count On Pierce

Perhaps the greatest interview - for any number of reasons - in racing is Ron Pierce. Often times he says some of the most ridiculous one liners, where you don't know if he's nuts, having fun with us, or he's being serious.

Today he got detailed - yes, Pierce actually got detailed - with regards to George Brennan getting booted out of the Meadowlands for his Pena comments. As well, he spoke about supertrainers in general.

"I can tell you what I believe and I’m not ashamed to say it. “In racing today there are great trainers and there are great chemists – and sadly a lot of these great trainers can no longer compete against the great chemists.

“I’m 55. I’ve been in this game a long time and I have noticed the changes over the years and I’ve also known who the great horsemen have been,” Pierce said.

 He said the medication rulings in the United States were badly in need of change. “It should be like Scandinavia does it. No horse is permitted to be touched by a needle, except for maybe acupuncture, 13 days prior to the running of a race. “If that happened then we would see who the real horsemen are. I don’t know much about medication but I do know a bit about horses and the majority of them are taking some sort of medication close to race-time. 

More at link 

Fotias Says What a Lot Want To Say

A lot of industry insiders and players who want to see the betting part of racing improved are a distant memory now. Malaise usually sets in after 5 or 10 years of stagnation, and most move on. Cary Fotias is not one of them.

After yesterday's piece, he ain't getting invited into the Turf Club for free snow crab, methinks - if he ever did that is.

Some gems from his "State of the Game" Article:
  • It’s so simple an economic concept [lowering WPS takeouts] that it probably has no chance of happening considering the panjandrums that control the game. 
  •  The industry has taken the greatest gambling game ever invented and trashed it. It is a testament to “what the outside of a horse does to the inside of a man” that the game has survived the egregious and almost unconscionable decisions of its management.
  •  The myopic managers at CDI have decided that rather invest money to help keep the industry’s promise, they simply “blank out the late odds” until they are final.
  •  If you can change the rules on a whim, why not allow I’ll Have Another to race with the nasal strip that is permitted in every other US racing jurisdiction? Lasix is OK, but not a nasal strip? Let’s get real.
  •  The Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) have shelved a betting exchange trial for at least a year. That’s right, these fools are fine with 5-horse fields where it’s easy to collect purse money but refuse to allow Betfair to begin an experiment with exchange betting in the U.S. 
It's a great read if you are a die-hard horseplayer. I imagine most of you will be nodding in approval on almost every line. It's nice to see there are still people around like Cary, not letting the industry off the hook for bad policy. Most of them have long given up, road kill from racings CEO, Mr. Status Quo.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wednesday Action

Here are a few things catching my eye today:

Question: How do you increase your ADW's handle by about $1.4 million in a flash?

Answer: Give your customers a quick $280,000 by depositing it in their betting account.

That's what did recently, to pay back the NYRA takeout snafu. Expect this week's betting to look a little higher than usual, with any churn rate approaching 5. This is a de-facto takeout decrease, or a takeout decrease via rebate. That's how it works, and that's how it ups handle.

On the flipside, it was announced yesterday that Hollywood Park's handle was down. Everyone seems confused, like it's a mystery. Jeff Platt from HANA tries to unravel it, like a modern day Columbo. Ok, ok , I kid.

The North America Cup elims are drawn and if you've seen a better, deeper two races for the Cup, please point me to them. Sure Warawee Needy or Sweet Lou could run away with it, as they are supremely talented, but horses like Rock n Roll Dance, Time To Roll, HKC or Thinking Out Loud would likely have all been chalk in many elims this decade.

Apolitically, I think recall elections were made for another time. If you are a politico and you piss off some powerful factions, by making tough decisions, it's easy in the Internet age to gather signatures to try and get him or her booted. Watching last night it dawned on me how easy it is, and how ridiculous it is (the recalled dude won by more votes than he did in the original election), at the same time. Then I think of racing. We've lost about half our handles. We've gotten killed the last decade. But when I look at the who's who at various tracks and horsemen groups, it's often the same people. Does anyone get recalled in racing?

I researched a piece for HRU this week on 'lack of effort' by riders in different parts of the world. It's eye-opening. The policy of protecting the customer in some jurisdictions is there, and it makes for a better business - for both participants and bettors. We don't do that in North America; maybe because we were a monopoly and didn't have to, maybe because horsemen groups have too much power and hate change, maybe because slots are here, so who cares about customers. I don't know, but there is a disconnect.

From time to time I have seen strange information on takeout. I saw it again last night on a chat board. Some think if takeout was 5% in 1906 and it's 23% now, going up by a factor of 4.5 is less than the rate of inflation, so it's a good deal.  It amazes me how many times I see it. There was a funny line on about it, namely if takeout was geared to inflation, it would be around 184% now, so if you cash a tri for $1000, you owe the track $1840, creating a disincentive. I laughed pretty hard at that.

Windsor Raceway is finished, and now Fort Erie follows suit. It's a sign of the times in Ontario, and no matter what you think about this business, slots, and all the rest, it's a sad day. That was a storied track, and a beautiful one, with many memories for horsemen and long time bettors. We'll likely see six or seven others follow suit within the next 24 months.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Handicapping: Bucking Convention; The Hardest Thing A Player Can Do

The best handicapping column I've read all week - maybe all month or all year - came from an unlikely spot. Bloomberg business had a Black Swan story about betting the Belmont, and it described the chaotic results of the race of late, with ROI numbers betting horses blindly. The fact is apparent: Some bad horses - on paper and in reality - won the Belmont.
  • Look at the last 10 winners. They raced 43 times after their Belmont victories and won just five of those races, or 12 percent. Four horses in that group went a combined 0-for-28. By comparison, the past 10 Preakness champions won 29 of their 74 subsequent races, or 39 percent. Gamblers who anticipated the Belmont chaos were well rewarded. The winner paid 21-1 on average over the past decade. The exacta ticket -- where a bettor predicts the first two finishers of the race -- returned an average of $233 for each $1 bet. 
So, we must bet some bad horses - horses that look like they have little shot - work a little magic and we make some money.

Not so fast. Even the writer of the column says something that we all say, almost all the time:

" While I understand the principles of chaos laid out above, I just can’t get myself to wager on bad horses."

There's the crux of the problem in taking advantage of chaos races - we still look at the horse, his speed figs, everything else the public is looking at - and we discount them, and throw them out. Even when we get hit in the noggin with what's been happening, we handicap traditionally.

If we do that, we're less and less likely to make a score.

I remember a few years ago sitting at Woodbine, and I was watching Mountaineer. Top pace figure horses were winning almost every race the past night or two, or coming second. 10-1, 40-1, 1-5, it didn't matter. If your pace horse was aggressively ridden, he was going to be there. I found a horse in one race who looked horrid, but he had speed, and sported the #1 pace fig. Sitting with a very good traditional handicapper, I expected him to be on board, but he wasn't.

"That horse has backed up by fifteen the last two. He's an impossible bet"

I wouldn't tell the story if he was right, so you can guess what happened. 22.1, 46 and an easy winner at 12-1.

Not too long ago I hit the largest superfecta I have ever hit. It was a day where outside speed was winning everything. The 11,10 and 9 had outside speed, and they all looked like crap, but they were capable if they ran out of their skin. I bet it, and it came in.

I called someone who was live at the track who is a very good player who plays chaos and bias really well. He had the winner and a couple of the exotics. He was there with another player and I asked what he hit in the race. It turns out, like my traditional handicapping friend in the Mountaineer example,  he simply could not bring himself to bet the bad lines on those horses.

"They looked too bad" he said.

A lot of people who have been handicapping for a long time are married to their angles, married to a PP, and married to conventional thought. It is simply the hardest thing to expunge from your brain memory, when handicapping chaos, bias, or random type events. In fact, it's hard to get out of your mind in any race; that's why, with so many betting horses with obvious positives, they cash winners, but lose money.

It's easy to pick winners. I can give you 4 of 10 of them by touting the post time favorite each race. You can do that too. You can also find bombs when looking at those traditional angles and other things that help you. But if we cannot bet the unconventional, bet that ugly horse, bet a one post because the inside is good, bet outside speed on a biased track, closers in every race when they've been winning at huge numbers  - no matter what the horse looks like in the PP's - we're missing out on chances at a lifetime score.

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