Sunday, June 30, 2013

Harness Stakes Night A Real Gem

Yesterday evening at Pocono we saw the best harness racing had to offer with three stakes that would be graded grade I's if harness racing graded stakes. It was quite the evening.

Highlighting the night was the super-interesting Hempt where if you weren't a fan of open stakes draws before the race, you sure were afterwards. The three best horses had the three worst posts, and it made for one of the most entertaining races we've seen in years.

Captaintreacherous, the top colt so far in 2013 had the furthest outside post. Just inside of him was Sunfire Blue Chip and just to his inside was Vegas Vacation. Another good horse, Code Word, drew the advantageous two post. In what shocked quite a few people, out of those three outside horses, the Captain being forced to let things settle from the far outside ended up working to his advantage. After the dust cleared, he found himself second over with a ~56 back half to work into, with a completely spent front end.

A few things made this race a race which can be talked about an analyzed for some time. Yannick Gingras and Cory Callahan probably had more influence than anyone. By choosing to brush from just in front of the Captain on the outside, Yannick made the lead, but was used hard. Cory then pulled and tried to "brush and crush", but Yannick (somewhat surprisingly to me as the half was 53 and Code Word is an excellent horse to sit behind) elected to park him. This gave the Captain his snake in the weeds trip. Tetrick, who drove brilliantly, in my opinion, did not bite and try to rush to catch cover, he simply bided his time. I expect he did not think Sunfire Blue Chip would hang in for so long off that tough trip.

I am a gambler and look for the race inside a race - some of the TV handicapper types like to call me nuts sometimes when I am betting against a horse like San Pail - and while everyone was going nuts over the Captain, I was most impressed with Sunfire Blue Chip. He was three high to near the quarter, parked to the clubhouse turn, went 53.3 and then parked out the excellent Code Word - with that he still almost won. As for Vegas Vacation, it would not have mattered much, but Brian Sears barely made the gate and went right back to last. That was a nice move from off it, having to go wide. But I didn't understand why he seemed kind of disinterested in such a big race.

"Am I sold on the Captain" World Famous @itstheJHO asked me last night. I am obviously sold he is a good horse - he was pacer of the year last season - but no, I still think he is not dominant like an I Luv the Night Life is. In two stakes finals this year he has had a snake in the weeds trip which worked to his advantage. I don't think Vegas Vacation, Fool Me Once and Sunfire Blue Chip are that far off. If any of those horses gain a tactical advantage on the Captain during a race, I believe they can beat him. We'll find out, because it's a long year in harness racing.

I Luv The Nightlife is hands down the best filly in harness racing. While the Captain has had to work  hard for his wins, she just lopes along. The Open draw played a part in her race however, because I am pretty sure if she made an easy lead David Miller would not have quarter poled. That was a good drive by Miller. It was a good drive by Tim as well. He could've elected to park her like Yannick did Code Word, but did not. It worked out for him.

Last week I wrote that Smiling Eli looked "pully" which is never a good sign, and he won. This week he looked sleepy - the exact opposite. As a handicapper I will draw a line through his race. He seemed to hate that track, the rain, or something.

Foiled Again won the Franklin and he is one of the most amazing horses in harness racing history. That was another excellent race. We've been wondering since the start of the year why Betterthancheddar has been so well bet this season and we're still wondering. Is there something up with that horse? Perhaps.

Have a great Sunday everyone!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Saturday Harness Notes

Yesterday the long-term framework was released for Ontario racing. Bill Finley summarizes it in HRU (Pdf, page 2) for those interested.

I'll have more on it next week, but it's pretty much as expected. For many years racing's factions fought over racedates, rules, slot money and everything else under the sun. The framework pretty much says "throw that out of the window". Now racing will rely on handle and customers for funding and revenues, and that alone.

It's a wake up call for the alphabets, not for customers or those pesky HANA types. Customers and many industry watchers have been talking about it for years.

What a night in store for everyone at Pocono for Sun Stakes Saturday. The absence of giving the best horses the best post positions has resulted in something we don’t see very often in Stakes Finals: Mind-bogglingly interesting races.  With Smiling Eli, Betterthancheddar, Captaintreacherous and I Luv the Nightlife starting from the outside tear, there will be no walkovers for all the chocolates. For punters, the pick 4 for the stakes races becomes eminently bettable. I can’t remember the last time I have watched such a compelling menu of stakes races in our sport. 

Be honest, aren’t you as a fan stoked to see if the Captain can overcome the nine post? I am, but more than that, I also am interested to make a wager to find out.  And wagering makes the horse racing world go round. 

World Famous It's the JHO ®
Grading would be a good thing, just to label our races for the masses. Ha, I know, I'm a broken record. For those who don't know I think harness racing's braintrust chatted about it for maybe a half minute or so at the last industry meeting/big buffet of fun. It was apparently deemed too hard to accomplish or something.

Yesterday the Cancelliere's had a couple big ticket items in. Detour Hanover has some wheels that's for sure. The $825k yearling has a stud career in front of him no matter what, but of course they'd like to get a nice mark and win some races with this fella. He's rank and he is nowhere near where he needs to be mentally, but this is the kind of horse who can find himself and really make some noise, in my opinion. maybe at age 4. Who knows.

Enjoy your long weekend my Canuck pals and get ready for a darn nice weekend of racing. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

The California Who's Who Primer

I got to thinking today and said to myself, "Pocket, this whole California thing sure is cray cray. I wonder if people who don't follow the situation much even know what's what and who is who."

In the interests of public service, I figure I'd jot down this primer about California. I hope, when you see tweets, retweets, twitter spats, chat room discussions, emails, and whatever else, this might help you a little bit.

Here we go........

The CHRB - The CHRB is the California Horse Racing Board. They oversee a billion dollar industry and they are staffed by appointees. The CHRB was previously chaired by Keith Brackpool, but now it is chaired by David Israel. They have a meeting every month and it's streamed on the web where fans on twitter supply running commentary, which isn't overly complimentary. It's a big organization that has an ominous logo and releases press releases on Friday afternoons.

David Israel - This man, CHRB Chairman, has been in some twitter hot water lately for swearing or something in a meeting. Apparently his background was in sitcoms, which the cynical might say prepared him well for the CHRB. He also said something about racing competing with the Dodgers and the Giants during the takeout hike a few years ago, which to horseplayers made him Jeff Mullins in a suit.

Andy Asaro aka "Andymays", "Horseplayer Andy", or to his enemies "that a**hole" - Andy is an old time horseplayer from San Diego. Each time something happens in California, his email list - which I think now goes to 1.7 million people - is alerted. Andy is like a squeaky wheel and he likes to squeak a lot. I chat with Andy sometimes and he is nice to me now, but I think he called me a huge doofus like fifty or sixty times. He probably still does to his friends when I'm not around. It is rumored that Andy cannot walk because his skin is so thick, but it is only a rumor.

JERRY JAMGOTCHIAN - Jerry is seen mostly in two places: One, on the phone via his Paulick Report picture and two, writing amazingly colorful emails on the internet. He has html email's mastered, probably more than anyone in the history of the medium. He tends to be good chums with Andy because they are on the same side of things. Jerry - this is just a guess -  eats at Burger King.

Mike Pegram - Mike Pegram runs the TOC. He's the President or something. He also owns a lot of horses. He made oodles of money in McDonald's which is why you see so many chicken Mcnugget references when people who don't like him talk about him. I think he and JERRY JAMGOCHIAN don't like each other. Horseplayers don't seem to like him much either, but then again, I don't think there's a horsemen group person who has ever been liked by customers and vice-versa.

Ray Paulick - Ray Paulick owns and operates the popular Paulick Report website, where people think most of its success came from guy named Brad Cummings; or so says my sources (Mrs. Cummings & Brad Cummings). Ray has been writing about the TOC, CHRB, and probably the NBA and the NSA too, but it's the former that's been getting most of the action. He has covered the Bob Baffert horse death story, which has endeared him to some, and not to others. Paulick likes walks on the beach and looks like Kevin Bacon.

Jill and Bob Baffert - Jill and Bob have been really getting slammed in the press lately, due to the death of several horses in their barn. Bob, who I think has had silver hair since Mike Pegram ate his first McNugget, can't get any greyer, but he sure seems to be. He was in a public spat with Ray Paulick recently and they don't seem to like each other anymore. I think some people don't like them, only because if you look at family pictures of them, they are all so damn good looking and happy.

Bo Derek - Ms. Derek is on the CHRB (above). She starred in some good movies like "10" but is likely most remembered for her kick-ass part in Tommy Boy. She says some things at CHRB meetings that get retweeted by horseplayers more than a 14 year old Sheboygan Wisconsin teen retweets Justin Beiber.

Joe Drape - Joe Drape has nothing to do with California racing. I just added him because if California racing implodes, people will likely blame him for it.

That's my California racing primer.  I hope it helps you connect the dots and follow the intertwinings, spats, emails and press releases. The way it's going, this California story is a long, long way from going away.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Saturday Night Harness Recap

Last night was an interesting evening in harness land. At the Meadowlands, ostriches and camels and maybe some sort of Russian alpaca's raced; and there was some harness racing. At Pocono, the best of the best was on display with eliminations for three huge stakes races, culminating in a big night next weekend.

From an attendance and handle perspective, the camels and ostriches kicked some butt, forever reminding anyone who yet doesn't know, the Meadowlands rules the betting world.

At Pocono - 'I cant believe this track races one full mile' - Downs, we saw speed rule speed, with very few bias busters.

A few notes:

People bet drivers, and they sure look at confirmation bias when doing it. Conversely, Vinny Ginsberg grabs some catch drives off pros and sets lifetime marks; Doug Mcnair takes some horse's off Tetrick and rolls; Andrew McCarthy does what anyone with a pulse would do with Dynamic Youth and roars to a lifetime mark. I have no idea why people don't remember the driver switches that confounds their biases, while only remembering the good ones.

The horse, post position, gate speed and the circumstance of a race tends to lead to a race result. It's been that way forever.

Taking supreme advantage of the above were the horses who were sharp and who made the lead at Pocono. Seemingly no matter what the fractions, the speed demons won. In every pacing race you had to be on top, in the pocket or first over to win. In the trots it was not much different, except for Royalty For Life, who was mind boggling after breaking stride.

The winners, to me, proved one thing - they were the winners, but most could also have lost with a different trip. Does Captain Treacherous beat Vegas Vacation if Sears makes the top? Does Foiled Again set a life's mark at 9 without that trip?

Next week should be marvelous. In the eliminations we had a lot of speed sorting themselves out, but next week, instead of four speeds, we have eight. If we are betting the Finals, I'll be looking at value on the odds board, because trip will matter. And as we see with Vinny Ginsberg, Andrew McCarthy and Dougie McNair, I certainly won't be looking at drivers to make my choices.

Harness racing, this year anyway, is a different game. It's a bunch of fairly good gaited well bred horses knocking heads, all capable of putting up a fast mile with a trip. It makes for interesting betting affairs, and I expect we'll see some neat races next week.

A few horse by horse thoughts:

Heston Blue Chip was a complete no try but I thought he looked fantastic. He had plenty of horse in the lane, and I bet he's a big try for all the chocolates next week.

Betterthancheddar has had a pretty bizarre career. He was the colt who went crazy in a nw 2 at three, then raced sick a couple of times, apparently, which hurt his summer. Last year he got injured. This year he looks to have come back worse than last year, but people keep hammering him. I know the connections have been trumpeting him up, but any good handicapper uses his or her eyes, not his ears. If you did that, you made some serious coin betting against him this season.

Smling Eli looked 'pully' in the post parade, in my opinion, but he raced well again. Maybe something is pinching him, but he has so much quality it doesn't matter.

Everyone wants to make the Captain a standout, like a Well Said or Rock n Roll Heaven was. I ain't buying what they're selling. If a horse trips out against him, he can easily be beaten, unlike those previous two, who could spot them 5 and still win.

I remember betting Royalty For Life in the BC last year, but I wasn't sold on him. Now I am. That horse has come back amazingly fast.

I watched Michael's Power at Mohawk. Ya, first start, blah blah blah, but I thought the horse off those Q's looked substandard.

Have a great Sunday everyone.

Friday, June 21, 2013

What's in a Name

I don't follow pop culture. Although I enjoy movies and music and respect those who are good at their craft, the more a celebrity speaks the less I like him or her. Regardless, being on the twitter it was hard to not notice that Kanye West and one of those Kardashian people named their newborn "North West".

Other than my initial horror that the South West might be royally pissed at the overlook and it could spark a new dumb-baby-name civil war, I just felt bad for the kid. Why, with things so hard on kids nowadays growing up, does any parent want to saddle them with even more? I don't know.

Anyway, it's neither here nor there. It's a free country and I don't want to live in one where majority rule picks baby names, so good luck to the little one. And congratulations on your newborn, strange celebrity people.

While most of us are looking to name babies Rachel or Jack or Pete or Julia, when it comes to horse racing, many of us are Kanye and the Kardashian lady.

Kendall Hansen sure is. After all what would Hansen be without his owner?

Who would name a horse Putthebabiesdown? We have one.

Ninja Cat - one of my personal favorites - is neither a cat, and to the best of my knowledge he's not a ninja either. But so we have it.

Drunken Spider - a low level gelding now at Suffolk - is probably one of the funniest named horses in the land.

Billyjojimbob, owned by our twitter friend @aprilfuel, won the Elitlopp in Sweden where everyone must've been saying "what's up with these Canadians?"

Maybe the Cockeyed Rooster is cockeyed, but I've seen him race, and he sure as hell isn't a rooster.

One of the most fun things about buying a horse is naming him or her and we can be as wacky and crazy as we want. That's more than fine. As long as our brown and bay and grey and roan friends get their carrots and good care, they seem pretty happy. And they don't have to go to school and stand for attendance when their name is called.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Distractions Don't Only Happen To Animal Kingdom

Barry Irwin in today's TDN has an explanation for Animal Kingdom's poor showing yesterday at Royal Ascot.
  • About 25 minutes after walking calmly around the pre-parade ring at Royal Ascot today prior to the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes, Animal Kingdom suddenly stopped, turning his head left as his nostrils flared while he took in a scent, and dropped his penis and started acting stubborn. It was not a simple matter of Animal Kingdom having unsheathed his sword. The personal member was on display for quite a spell. The horse was gone.
I know what you're thinking: If Barry needs a job he's a sure-fire hit as a writer for Penthouse Forum. But beyond that, he makes a strong point. We all get distracted.

"It happens to the best of us, " said pedigree expert and 4 and a half day a week guest on At the Races with Steve Byk, Sid Fernando, this morning via an Apple product. 

"I remember this one time I was on twitter and people were talking about the Vietnamese Dong, trainer Richard Head and my old pal Mike De Kock. I was working on a pedigree at the time for a potential mating for a client and I simply got really distracted. The next thing you know my preferred cross turned into a Tapit mare being bred to a Clydesdale. Boy was my face red." he admitted.

"Lord knows I can relate," Joe Drape the New York Times racing writer told me today. 

"Remember that story last year about mangled horses or whatever? I was writing a story originally about the majesty of horse racing and how much I like and adore Sunland Park, when I smelled hot dogs. I love hot dogs. It threw me off, and before I even realize it, I am handing in a completely different article."

"We all have bad days," noted Ray Paulick, from his private bunker at an undisclosed location.

"Just last week we were sitting in the sitting room and Flatliners came on. I've seen the movie 1000 times and know the Kevin Bacon lines by heart, but I watched it again of course; like seriously, who wouldn't? I got so distracted my article on the quarterhorse dude that had that horse die at Ruidoso suddenly had Baffert's name attached."

"What can I say, Kevin does that to me sometimes. I love the guy and get all giddy." said the purveyor of the Paulick Report.

Buffalo News racing blogger and the extremely pro-Buffalo Gene "Equispace" Kershner also feels the ills of distraction.

"One day I was happily writing my horse racing blog about how great a city Buffalo is to live in if you are a racing fan, and then boom, just like that, a replay came on showing Scott Norwood's kick go wide right. It threw me off so bad that I actually wrote a nice article about Erie Pennsylvania. Like, really. Erie freaking Pennsylvania!" 

So before you decide to slag Mr. Irwin for his excuse (or hire him as a writer), just remember we all get distracted. And when we do get distracted - man, woman or beast - we simply can't do our best work.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tuesday Notes & NA Cup XXX

Sitting here a few minutes to post waiting to watch Animal Kingdom, and not really wanting to work, I figured I might as well write a post.....

The North America Cup on Saturday was a fascinating affair. Here are a few observations and opinions:

This crop is not last year's crop. The top to bottom pure speed is not there yet, and probably won't be there. It makes for an interesting year, though.

The third quarter made the race. Sylvain Filion's horse must have felt wonderful, because he pretty much sprinted from the half (which was not slow) on. This caused the brouhaha near the three quarters when Vegas Vacation could not hook the leader, and the Captain was gapping cover. Those horses were all pacing as fast as they could, like it was a last quarter around the turn. The last sixteenth was glacial.

So far we've seen no standouts. The Captain leads the division yes, but he is certainly not near his father's ability. He is nowhere near as fast and not even close to as well-gaited. I expect we'll see several winners of the classic races based on trip, sharpness and soundness.

I watched Odds On Equuleus's connections in the post parade and both John Campbell and Robin Schadt looked like they lost their dog. He raced poorly - he was rough and terrible gaited. There is something up with that horse.

A horse I think needs to find his feet, and when he does he will be very good, is Wake Up Peter. There's something not quite 100% with him yet, in my opinion.

Fool Me Once reminds me a bit of Bolt the Duer so far. If you give him a two hole trip he is going to win a lot of money this year. He's great gaited and supremely handy.

$3M was bet on the Cup card. On-track handle was up 10% as well. That's a good result. Woodbine Entertainment, like so much of Ontario racing, is seemingly getting their ass in gear with promotion, signal availability, and so on to juice handles.

Other notes.....

"Put that in your pipe and smoke it". I am daft, totally daft on things. I had no idea this is what that entailed, even though I know Ray's well-publicized history. It just didn't even register for me. This episode seems to get more and more bizarre.

You knew that there was more to the story on the NY Post cutting their racing coverage right before the Belmont. John Pricci lets us in. What say NYRA apologists? John also talks about Andy Asaro's public correspondence with Bob Baffert.

Enjoy your Tuesday everyone!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Fathers, Sons & Horse Racing

I watched the US Open yesterday. Justin Rose, the supremely talented Brit, won his first major in clutch fashion playing the last two holes with ice in his veins. I noticed as his final tap-in dropped he looked to the Heavens, talking to someone that was important in his life. We found out later he was thinking about his father, whom left him when he was only 22.

In the interview he later noted that it was his dad that guided him through the sport of golf and taught him how to be a "good man". I think that's the most important thing a father can do. If you teach your son to be a good man - mostly by leading by example - your job is done.

Yesterday got me to thinking about that. I too lost my father at a young age, and I know he tried to teach me the things needed to be a "good man". In horse racing, the lessons taught me are still with me.

I remember in high school a horse the stable owned was being retired and it was important to him to find the horse a good home. After trying for month's something came open and off he went. Mission accomplished, or so everyone thought.

Several months later he heard through the grapevine that the horse was not in a good home, but was being left outside and getting little food and water. My dad got on the phone and worked to find out what was happening, drove 500 miles to where he was stabled and was appalled. He arranged to find him a new home on that trip and finally did succeed, this time for keeps.

Close to twenty-five years later I take that lesson with me. When I buy a horse I immediately think 'what can I do with him if he cannot race?'. Honestly, it is the first thing I think of, because of that lesson. I truly believe as a horse owner it is your job - not the trainers or anyone elses - to make sure the horse you own doesn't end up somewhere awful. I didn't come up with that on my own.

I remember other times too, like when we drove what felt like 1,000 miles to get to a rural track to make it to a race where a problem trotter was racing in an Ontario Sires Stakes. We were late - and lost - but made it as the horse was rounding the turn behind the gate, only to watch him break stride. A couple of the owners saw red and immediately wanted to tear a hide off the trainer-driver for not having any success, mainly out of pure frustration. My dad just told him "we'll get them next time" knowing the trainer was doing everything possible to get the horse to stay flat. I think of that each time I get a bad result, too. The man or woman taking care of my horse is trying their level best and they are as disappointed as I am. They certainly don't need to hear me yelling and screaming at them. I didn't come up with that on my own.

I remember the other things too, like when a horse needed time with an injury to give it to him or her. Injecting and driving on was something that wasn't really considered. Paying your bills on time and not overextending yourself was another lesson that stuck with me. Those are basic things as a horse owner we all take into account. I didn't come up with them on my own, though.

I wish I learned everything and did everything perfectly. I've made mistakes and have been nowhere near perfect as a horse owner. But it sure wasn't my dad's fault.

I hope everyone had a good Father's Day and I sincerely hope that when you are making a decision with your horses, that you know someone is watching. In twenty or thirty years most of their decisions and how they conduct themselves in the sport will have a lot to do with what you taught them; sometimes when you might've thought they weren't even paying attention.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

North America Cup Card Trumps the Sports Weekend

The US Open is in full stride with Phil right there ready to try for his first US Open. Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals are on tap. The Foster is at Churchill. But for me at least, nothing tops this North America Cup Card at Mohawk Raceway.

At times the Cup card can be a bit of a snoozefest. Sure there are stakes races, but usually there is one standout where we have to fight a short price. Tonight, at least on paper, this is not the case. This card is very good for both fans and bettors. In fact, I think it's the best Cup card I have seen in many years.

In race two, the $270,000 Armbro Flight it's tough to see past Maven. We've been a fan of this filly since she beat Check Me Out in her first start last year and she has rarely disappointed. However, she is beatable and at 3-5 or lower I will look elsewhere. Personal Style, Cedar Dove and even Bax of Life, could be there with some luck.

In race three, the $364,000 Elegant Image has an even money shot in the morning line, but I think there is little chance that filly has a 50% chance to win. This race is extremely contentious, as you can see by last week's final times. Mario's trotter was quite good last week and should be a really nice price. I think Handover Belle needed her last one and should peak tonight, although she'll need pace to chase. To Dream On, the Takter filly, was not great last week, but Takter horses have a habit of bouncing back. This is a fantastic race.

I Luv the Nightlife is a 4-5 morning line shot in the  $391,000 Fan Hanover, but again, I think this line is way too short. Love Canal, Jerseylicious and others certainly have a shot. One I will use as a bomb in the Pick 4's is Parlee Beach. The filly has had some terrible tying up problems this season and she could pop at anytime. She's a quality filly.

In the big one, the $1,000,000 North America Cup, it seems wide open. Any one of several with a trip should be able to win. Captaintreacherous, who will likely not be his 2-1 morning line, looks like a play against at anything under 8-5. The horse inside him, Fool Me Once, has always been a good horse and was solid last time. Wake Up Peter was quite good and people tend to forget his Breeders Crown elim win last year which was mind bogglingly impressive. He is a quality horse. Odds on Equuleus, a horse I think could end up being the division leader, had a pus pocket burst last week yet still raced well. This is a super nice race.

In the $100,000 Gold Cup for older pacers, a magical field has been assembled. Warrawee Needy was super last week at Tioga, and Modern Legend could be a nice price here.

In the Goodtimes, we find ourselves with a race that could provide a bomb winner. There are no standouts here and I sense that the outside post horses - Flanagan Memory and Caveat Emptor - if the pace is hot have a shot. Hamdalla looks very logical and might even be a price in here.

The rest of the card is good as well, and even with the twenty cent option that scares a lot of serious players, the pick 4 is bettable.

I'm looking forward to a great evening of harness racing.

Free programs are here. 

HANA Handicappers selections are here. 

Enjoy your Saturday everyone!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Foot Issues and Changes of Heart on Out of Competition Testing

The New York courts recently ruled in favor of the NYSRWB in a case regarding out of competition testing. With some restrictions it can go on. Trainer Mark Ford, whose name was on the top of the case filed in 2009, told HRU he likes that he lost:
  • "I am in favor of out-of-competition testing wholeheartedly," he said. Ford explained that he believes the claiming game has been turned upside down in recent years, in part because of the overwhelming success of some trainers. "There is no more claiming game," he said. "It has been wrecked and if we don't do something about it we're all going to pay the price. The landscape has changed so much in recent years.
The claiming game is important for all owners, in my opinion. It is also important for newer owners and syndicates. If you are up against it - trying to do things the right way - and get your head kicked in over and over again, you don't tend to end up in the game for too long. Or alternatively, you join the brigade of turnaround trainers. Out of competition testing and detention barns tend to help the game, in my opinion, and I too am happy with that decision in New York.

Saturday, Woodbine Entertainment has carded what I think is the best betting harness card I have seen in many years. Even the stakes races, despite some short shots in the morning line, are nowhere near cut and dried. The sixth race is one of the most contentious races of the evening that could provide a price. The Gold Cup is a very good betting race as well.

And the $1M North America Cup?  Although I dislike picking posts for a Final because it gives the best horses the best posts and usually makes for a poor betting affair, this time it doesn't seem to matter as much. There is some stock in this race.

One such horse you may want to look at (and he was discussed by Finley in the link above) is Odds on Equuleus. He developed a pus pocket last week and raced poorly. In the elim he was much better, but one could expect him to be even better this weekend.

Whale of a card, whale of a betting race.

Have a nice Friday everyone. I will likely write a NA Cup preview later on.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Brouhaha With Some Baffert Bacon

Earlier today the Baconater (some people know him as Ray Paulick) wrote an article on a quarterhorse trainer who had a horse die at a recent race at Ruidoso Downs. The story, and the protagonist of the story, was the trainer of said horse.

But intertwined in the article was thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert's issues regarding his horse deaths. Read the article for how it was woven in, if interested.

This prompted Bob Baffert's wife Jill to post on twitter the following:
That caused quite a brouhaha on the twitter, with tweets and retweets and everything else.

I was on a call tonight with a number of racing fans and bettors and asked what side people are on in this. Most sided with Paulick - this episode is a charged issue and everyone sides with the horses -  but I then asked, "was this gratuitious? Does it seem to be jammed in the article to take a shot at Baffert?"

Everyone agreed with that. They thought it didn't fit.

Y'know, as strange as it may sound to some, I side with Jill Baffert on this one. I think the Baconman used too much pork.

Driver Intent is the Number One Driver Factor of All

One thing that any newbie bettor does in harness racing is look at the driver. It is the number one obvious positive. The top drivers choose the best horses, and the best horses win races. Whether it's a chicken or egg it doesn't really matter.

However, time and time again betting only this factor leads you into the poorhouse. In pari-mutuel gambling, the last thing you want to do is bet something everyone else is betting.

When you run the numbers, positive impact values tend to occur, without the resulting ROI with driver changes. People keep betting them generally due to confirmation bias (they remember when it works, not when it doesn't which is the importance of keeping statistics). Where does the ROI get better, if anywhere? In my opinion, if you are looking at drivers through an intent prism.

Harness racing is a speed game. A driver who tries with a horse will win more races than one who does not try. It doesn't matter if the drivers name is Waples or Sears, or Takter or Poliseno. If the intent is to try, the horse will race his race.

This is why Jimmy Takter can win with a horse like Great Vintage in a lifetime mark while taken off Dave Miller or Trond Smedhammer can win in an ROI positive fashion off Sears, or why Mark Harder can take Statesman off Tetrick and go 149 - faster than he's ever gone before by a full second.

Good drivers don't yell at horses differently than bad ones. They don't whip harder or any such other nonsense. If a horse is good, he is ready to go and the driver's intent is to put the horse in the race, he will pace or trot fast, as long as the man or woman behind him has even a remote clue.

When I look at driver changes I look only at intent, and here are some examples where - in my opinion - you can make some hay.

If Chris Ryder is driving a trotter from the nine, he is telling you loud and clear - don't bet me, I am not trying. If two weeks later he puts a driver up you are going to get a try. It might, in a pick 4, be worth a key if you like the horse. The horses don't have an anchor if he drives and if the pace falls apart he can and does win races in a fast time, but he's telling you he is schooling the horse.  Learn the red flag drivers and when they move into green flag territory with the change, and bet accordingly based on your odds line.

Just this last weekend we saw the importance of handicapping this way with horses a lot of trainers were driving at the Meadowlands. No they were not going to the back because they were driving them - it was not a Chris Ryder situation. They were driving them because all the catch drivers were at Yonkers and  Mohawk. Some of those horses tried and some won in fast times, just like they had a regular driver behind them. A lot of them were overlays rather than underlays.

Secondly, there are "wake up drivers" out there. Being in a paddock as a horse owner we all know who these types are. They are driving your horse for the first time and they see his lines - 4th at the quarter, buried. 8th from the ten post, etc. They say "looks like he needs a wakeup call" and go down the road. Nine times out of ten it works out better than his previous lines. Drivers who do this are Jody Jamieson, Tim Tetrick and George Brennan.  Again this is not magical, it's just intent. Look for them to pop on a horse that has some gate speed but hasn't used it in awhile, and make them part of the mix. Some will end up being overdriven and end up way up the track, but overall the ROI can be there.

As with any change in form, or equipment, or anything else for that matter, everything has to be analyzed through a fair odds crystal ball. You have to be receiving more of a probability bump through a change than the odds indicate. Driver changes from Poliseno to Sears on a trotter is death knell for ROI because Polioseno has tried with the horse and Sears is not going to try harder; all you are doing is betting an overbet horse. In other instances the green light is there; where a horse with a 20% chance might be a 33% chance - moving from fair odds of 4-1 to 2-1. If over 5-2, you're away to the races and you're making a positive expectation bet. Remember, even if you make a driver worth a very high 10% of your odds line, you cannot move a probability that much. 10-1 to 2-1 odds line changes are only telling you that you are heavily over weighting, and that lands you in the poorhouse over time.

If as a newbie you use catch phrases like - "Dube to Brennan is a big change", or  "I can't bet Takter on this horse from Miller at any price" - you are doing what little old ladies in the slot parlor are doing when they handicap. That's the only signal you need to tell you that you're doing something dreadfully wrong. This is a tough game with computer players betting millions upon millions a year. To beat them, one has to bet with sound logic, not with bumper sticker slogans.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

North America Cup XXX; And Some Branding

Penn National is just a track – your average every day Thoroughbred track – with four claimers or low level state breds. It might be more known for controversial owners or high takeout than it is for anything else.  Really if you ask any player, serious or casual, it’s just kind of “there”.

Last weekend, however, Dan Silver (a recent hire from the New York Racing Association) and the management team created their very first “big event” for the venue; The Penn Mile. As told via a press release, the event was very well received:

“Total all-sources wagering on the entire ten-race card at Penn National was $3,658,996, shattering the previous all-sources handle record for a single card of $2,173,921, which was set on December 26, 1998. The Penn Mile was the final leg of an All Stakes Early Pick 4 that handled $199,514 all-sources, eclipsing the previous record Pick 4 by more than $100,000.”

“On every possible level, tonight was a huge success,” said Dan Silver, director of racing operations at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course. “The racing department here – including racing secretary Dave Bailey, stakes coordinator Craig Lytel, and assistant racing secretary Jenny Bowman – put together the best card in the history of Penn National Race Course, and it was great to see people on track and around the country respond so enthusiastically. We’re thankful for the strong support demonstrated for our races by the horsemen and it was exciting to see so many tremendous stakes performances tonight, highlighted by Rydilluc’s thrilling win in the first ever Penn Mile. The on-track atmosphere was electric, and we are thrilled that so many fans came to the track to enjoy a terrific night of racing!”

This evening is part of an overall new strategy at Penn to concentrate on big events; to brand the track as something more than a $4000 claimer venue – to brand it as a place to look for on the simulcast dial.
Event branding is nothing new, but in racing, it really is a new strategy. For years, with a monopoly, getting people out to the track was about as easy as printing a program. Where else are they going to gamble? 

Over the past twenty years this has not been the case. Now racetracks have to fight and claw for on-track attendance, and produce both good racing and a good betting proposition, along with the on-track activities needed to ensure a good turnout. 

When I was a kid I saw my very first North America Cup, which happened to be the very first North America Cup. Legal Notice with Dr. John Hayes in the bike, roared home to take Canada’s richest pacing race; which was one third of the Canadian Triple Crown. Greenwood Raceway was was packed, raucous, and it was a thrilling evening. 

Since that time I have been to more and more North America Cups, but like so much in harness racing, the crowds are smaller, the electricity not there; it just felt a little blah.

Woodbine Entertainment then made a big change. They took the Cup away from cavernous Woodbine and moved it to quaint, welcoming Mohawk. For those of you who have been to both venues you know exactly what I mean when I say one venue felt big-city thoroughbred and one felt like homey-harness. 

This move immediately changed the feel, and the branding of the Cup. Gone was the event where you might run into someone on the second floor of a grandstand if you’re lucky, to one where you might get splashed thrice with beer from a paper cup on the tarmac, trying to dodge your fellow racegoers.  In a way, they got smaller to get larger. 

This year, as in years past, the branding of the event is in full force, but with slots leaving the Ontario landscape, the marketing has been ratcheted up a notch. 

"At this important time for racing we are investing more marketing effort into our signature events than ever before", noted WEG’s marketing man Paul Lawson.

“Included in this year’s plan are  more advertising & more on-site activity including a free 30th anniversary commemorative poster and autograph signing, an ad campaign featuring Randy Waples,  and bringing back the successful "first bet is on us" promo to teach new customers how to bet and build our customer database for the future.”

“For our core customers, they will get 4 times the points for all on-site wagers that day and benefit from a handicapping insert developed for the card. A guaranteed Early Pick 4 at $100K has also been promoted. As well, there is an aggressive North American campaign to promote WEG product with US ADW (advance deposit wagering) promos and the Daily Racing Form,” added Paul. 

I can attest to some of this – as being a hockey junky and watching the playoffs nightly – I have seen not one, but about six or seven commercials during the games for the North America Cup.

Digitally, Woodbine employs Greg Gangle on the harness side and he too has been hard at work on the event. 

"Coming into every year, our goal is always to surpass last year’s "Cup' numbers [in digital engagement] and so far we are doing just that. We are experiencing tremendous growth right now compared to a year ago and our customers and fans are appreciating the content that we've been supplying. We will continue to provide as much content as possible in a timely fashion in the form or news, videos, photos etc.", Greg said via email. 

Although Woodbine has always been good on the marketing side in terms of fan and attendance promotion, guaranteeing some regular pools is a more recent strategy. As a bettor, many believe Woodbine can do more, as other tracks have when it comes to juicing up the betting pools. An event like the Cup definitely breeds larger than average pools, so a good argument can be made that choice and familiarity can be added to the mix. 

Two things I might suggest from my travels in the betting landscape – in the interests of branding and creating more handle – are namely a 20 cent super high 5 and a 50 cent pick 5 in and around the North America Cup Final. Both bets need to be guaranteed or seeded (in this day and age that goes without saying I guess). 

Since the Cup card is shown throughout the US, a pick 5 seems to be a much needed addition. Pick 5’s have become a well-known bet in the US, probably because it provides one with a huge possible payoff without having to play a $2 pick 6 denomination against the big boys. I can imagine someone tuning into the Cup card via a TVG and wondering where their comfortable pick 5 is. They won’t find it. 

A super high 5 is somewhat similar to the pick 5. Most smaller players avoid it because it is a $1 denomination, but those same players love to take a shot when it is not that high of a denomination. In a contentious field with several good horses that’s being shown continent-wide, there is a chance the super high 5 for twenty cents could pay something. 

Cannibalization is fairly irrelevant; although maybe the current pick 4 guarantee’s might have to be adjusted. They’d add to the menu, and to the event, in my opinion.

Regardless, we’re seeing more and more interest in big events in Thoroughbred racing, but harness – other than perhaps the Hambletonian and Jug – seem to be lagging. Woodbine, through their strong horse racing brand north of the border, seems to believe races like the North America Cup are where their promotional future lies. I don’t think too many can argue with that.

This article originally appeared in Harness Racing Update.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Racing Has Little Evolvement in a Society That Expects It

The A and W bear
A & W, for those who may not know, is a burger chain that's been around forever. In my hometown it was there long before we had a McDonald's. It was situated on the highway in a drive-in setting - y'know where the waiters and waitresses would come out to the car and put a tray on your window. It really wasn't a bad burger joint.

Last week I went to the new and improved (so they tell me) A & W, which is supposedly making a big comeback.

In high school I would order a two patty "Papa Burger" if I was hungry, and this time I did the same. Holy firecrackers. This new papa burger was huge enough for six papa's who play lineman for the New York Giants. I ate it all, and my brain told me I just consumed a side of beef.

What's that have to do with racing? In a roundabout way, I think a lot.

Anthony MacDonald - a winning driver and could be racing activist - wrote a blog on SC today asking a for a few things from racing. He believes racing must be recreated from the ground up with the customer in mind. He offers a couple suggestions:
  •  We must have competitive races going on the track at every facility, big or small, at all times in Ontario.
  •  We will need to modernize the way we collect entries and what we do with them. By pooling our entries we can build competitive races easily . By putting a Director of Racing in charge, with a 24-48 hour window with all communication tools at his or her disposal, this task is now doable. We need to recognize this is paramount to our survival. We need tracks to coordinate and work together to improve our product and fan experience level. 
I think Anthony is certainly on the right track, and because it is coming from a horseman, it carries some weight with the masses.

Similar was suggested awhile back in the Racing Development and Sustainability Plan, that was rejected. Too costly, no business plan etc (ironically with $345M a year in slots).Similar is suggested on a daily basis, whether at Beulah or other tracks with small field size. 

Really, this type of thought in some form has been suggested since I was buying A & W as a kid and eating my papa burger. Nothing ever seems to happen, even with this one little thing: "Putting on a race that people might want to bet on."

Today's society wants more for less. Burger sizes and portion sizes are through the roof. Network TV spends millions more a year to produce content because the cable networks are coming after them. Hotels and casinos are aggressive in pricing. Movies have taken production value into the stratosphere. Gambling companies like Betfair have changed the way people bet, and expect to bet forever.

Racing? We're talking about the same thing we talked about 35 years ago. We aren't giving more for less; in fact in some cases we're giving less for more like another serving of a five horse field in California with a takeout hike attached.

I don't think it's a great mystery why we've lost so much market share. We're not serving bigger burgers to a world which demands them, and in some cases we're selling smaller portion sizes for more. Be honest with yourself: Would you shop at any store, or patronize any establishment who is doing that in 2013?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

If You Can't Turn a Newbie Into a Horseplayer This Crown Season, Why Bother Trying

The Triple Crown races as stand-alone entities are da bomb.  It's not because they're horse racing events, it's because they're events steeped in Americana.

However, just like you and I may be enthralled with watching skiers ski and shoot a gun at a target every four years doesn't make us want to go skiing and shooting, Triple Crown watchers don't seem to want to handicap the other 362 days a year either.

We hear the reasons why. There's too much time between races, we're not on network TV enough, takeout is abysmally high where no one can win, and of course, racing is far too complex a pursuit.

While many of those reasons may have merit, this Triple Crown season, in my opinion, had the tools to break down the barriers in terms of what's important in this game - becoming a bettor and supplying money for purses. Why? Because anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of sport could've easily swept the three events; while landing on some serious price horses.

For the Kentucky Derby (if I was writing for a site that made money I'd follow that with 'presented by Yum Brands') we had a formidable chalk that everyone was talking about. This horse would do fine in the soup, had all the tools to get the job done, had a wonderful rider and trainer. I know a few newbies who bet "that Orb horse". Event one to the newbies.

For the Preakness, those same players could've played Orb again, but the tools were there for another choice: Oxbow. A lot of folks, even me, talked about the Derby hot pace and mentioned the performance of Oxbow. He was close to the pace and did not die on the vine. It does not take a pace guru, or Andy Serling to understand this simple concept. Anyone who has ever watched a race of any kind knows that if you go too fast early you'll die, and if you go too fast early and still hang around while everyone around you is gasping for air, you are not a bad bet next time. Oxbow was that horse.

For the final leg, those Oxbow bettors could've looked no further than Palace Malice ("What About Palace Malice").

"Hey, that's the horse who went crazy at the Derby and still came 12th. He beat that Varrazano horse everyone was talking about even though he was going cray-cray fast! He's not wearing that funny hood thing that messed him up. I'm taking a shot"

Horse racing is complex. There are speed figures and jcapper and HDW and HTR and the sheets and Brad Thomas. There's Moss Pace Figures and Tomlinson's and Jerry Brown. There's breeding for turf and dirt, for 6 furlongs and 16 furlongs.

But there is still a thread of common sense in any gambling game, and common sense - having something happen you think should happen and cashing on it - is very important to hook someone . This year, this Triple Crown, we saw a big can of common sense whoop ass.

A newbie watching the Triple Crown races that decided to use it, took a whole lot of experts to the woodshed and possibly cashed hundreds if not thousands of dollars without breaking the bank. They didn't bet what someone told them to bet, they bet what they told themselves to. When that happens, why wouldn't they come back?

Note: This weekend and at the Preakness I got a chance to hang with some newbies beforehand and afterwards. The above played out pretty much as described for a couple. Although, one of the newbies who bet Orb in the Derby and Oxbow in the Preakness did not bet Palace Malice flat in the Belmont. He still liked Orb and Oxbow so he decided to box the three. That'll do.

Sunday Notes

Yesterday's Belmont Stakes and North America Cup elims are now in the books. Here are some random thoughts for those interested.

A lot of handicappers were waiting with anticipation to see how the track was playing. Conventional wisdom seemed to point to a drying out track being kind to closers. Such was not the case as it turned out to be like an east coast version of Santa Anita.

Point of Entry raced huge in the Manhattan, going wide and digging in like great horses do. My only problem with him was his place in the pick 4 sequence. As players we live for a chance at a huge score on big days, and trap races in a pick 4 really dampen that. I didn't take a pick 4.

Perretti Farms' Forty Tales took advantage of the crazy pace and stormed home to win nicely. Congrats to everyone at Perretti.

When you put Oxbow in the mix he sure is a good horse isn't he? He was contesting a fast pace in the Derby and raced really well, got things his own way at Pimlico and raced really well, and contested a fast pace in the Belmont and raced really well. He probably deserved more than a 6-1-2 boxscore.

Orb and Joel Rosario went back to the Derby playbook for their trip, racing wide and from the rear. It was not enough, but on that speed track one wonders how good a horse would've needed to be, to win racing that wide. He was the only horse to close a lick.

The winner, Palace Malice was overlooked by quite a few folks. He finally got a decent settled trip and won fairly easily. He has not had a chance to show what he can do, the last several races.

The final time, and the final half, make one wonder: How bad are the classic distance horses in North America?

The off-track and ADW handle was down for the big day from last year, which was not surprising when you looked at the card and the weather. Attendance of course was down, with no Triple Crown on the line.

At Mohawk, the North America Cup elims were contested. Captain Treacherous got everything his own way and won elim one, although Cory Colin Johnson's colt gave him a scare. He heads into next week as a formidable chalk.

Speed ruled the day in elimination two with Fool Me Once. Wake Up Peter raced a solid prep. He's a horse with any kind of draw I will be looking to bet in the final.

In the last elim Vegas Vacation won fairly easily, but slightly on one line. I do not like this horse next week. The runner up, Odds on Equuleus raced much better but was struggling the last fifty yards. I was disappointed in his effort, especially since I wanted to bet him next week if he showed some zip.

Unlike last year's version, this year's seems a little less deep. But it will be interesting.

Enjoy your Sunday everyone.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Old Belmont's, Great Horses, & Orb

I read Paulick's piece this morning about when the racing bug bit him. I remember reading a survey somewhere (it might have been a HANA survey question a couple of years ago) about 'when you got interested in racing'. Most of the answers were 'my dad took me to the track'. For me, and it seems Paulick, it was different.

I remember visiting my brother who was in University - first of my family of miners and tailors to go - when I was a lad. He subscribed to Sports Illustrated and there was a story on Spectacular Bid going for the Triple Crown. I was fascinated. This horse looked like a fast one, and although I knew nothing about racing, I was going to watch this Belmont Stakes thingamajig.

To my horror, this Spectacular horse spectacularly flamed out. I made a proclamation as young kids do which was unassailable, "boy, he's not very good", and I felt duped by this SI article.

I didn't follow his career thereafter (I lived in the sticks and I probably couldn't if I tried) and when people would talk about the Bid a few years later, I would still say "overrated".

Years later, after reading and studying some of the greats I learned that the Bid suffered from an injury before the Belmont and did get a suspect ride, too. At maybe 70%, he ran a great race; I just didn't know it. He went 9 for 9 as a four year old and the rest is history - he was one of the top dirt horses ever.

I think back to the Bid each time a horse loses one or two races, who gets summarily criticized. It helped shape the way I think about our equine athletes.

Case in point, I did not want Rachel Alexandra to race Zenyatta in the Personal Ensign at 10f like everyone wanted. Rachel was a shadow of her best self and would've been trounced by Queen Z. Someone out there would've watched the race (many people would've) and concluded that Rachel wasn't "really that good, and could not hold Z's bridle". What she did before would've been trumped to many. She'd be my Spectacular Bid to some, if not a lot of casual fans.

There were many people who wanted to see Zenyatta fail miserably in the Classic at Churchill too, so they could call her a "slow synthetic specialist" and confirm their bias. I, conversely, was cheering like hell for her. I am so glad she got an okay pace set up, or didn't step on a nail before the race like Bid did, because could you imagine her legacy if she "had a bad day". It would've been worse than unfair; it would've been tragic for her and her connections.

I have a feeling I will be cheering for Orb this weekend. I think he's got the tools to be a pretty decent horse, and I hope he bounces back.

For all the casual race fans that watched him flame out in the Preakness, don't judge him like I did Spectacular Bid. He might not be as bad as you think.

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