This morning Keeneland topped the Horseplayers Association racetrack rankings yet again. The rating is an unabashed "bettor rating" based on field size,takeout - "bettability" if you will. (to read it, the tracks are all rated 1 through 64 here)
This rating has held firm over the years. Keeneland, despite its switch to poly in 2007, has grown in leaps and bounds. Their handle keeps increasing, even with the polarizing poly chatter. Their field size this year was a whopping 9.61, one of the best on the planet. It's easily and without question one of the big success stories in a game that has lost upwards of 50% of their inflation adjusted handles in a decade.
This flies into the face of logic. Don't people like "dirt" and hate Keeneland; I read so on Facebook. Twitter doesn't like it either.
The switch from poly to dirt, announced today, is fascinating on a number of levels. Perhaps it will make the Blue Grass more fun to watch as a Derby prep. A few owners with dirt studs will like it; some of the people who love dirt will love it; traditionalists will do cartwheels.
But what will bettors do?
When Santa Anita switched back to dirt a couple of years ago, there were cries from the rafters "thank god". There were proclamations of huge handle gains, from all these surface folks who were so happy. Just watch handle now, they said.
Watch what? The handle did not go up and none of their predictions were true. If you understand bettors and betting, these predictions could not have come true.
What some racetrack executives fail to realize about bettors, is that in this day and age where horse racing is not a monopoly, they need value. This was exemplified nicely during a chat former CEO of Woodbine David Willmot was having with a bettor years ago. Wilmott, who wanted the bettor to pay full boat at full takeout, said that if he didn't pay up he would have to bet on frogs, because there would be no horses.
"What would you do then?" Willmot asked.
"Find the fastest frog", the bettor replied.
Frogs, sports teams, surfaces made of dirt, poly, grass or cottage cheese. It's all about value. Betting is not a charity. I had a chat with a sharp player last week who said "I am at the point where I can only find value at places like Kentucky Downs and Keeneland. It's a jungle out there." That's your current reality, horse racing.
Poly at Santa Anita was not a handle killer. Looking at the numbers, poly at Keeneland was not a handle killer either. They had internal field size and chaos, which bred some value.
Look at the Breeders Cup Classic in 2009 at Santa Anita. They went too fast and Zenyatta swooped them. There were a half dozen horses with a chance to win at the head of the lane. The field was not particularly deep, but when fractions are fair, it brings the field closer together.
Now look at the last two years. They could've went 44, 108 and the results would've held firm. Bettors are smart and the odds breadth on the board showed it.
Polytrack at Keeneland allowed a field size to increase, internally. Instead of four speed horses having a chance in a field of nine, eight horses had a chance in a field of nine. Each horse, based on pace scenario's, fitness, dozens of factors, could come to play and land on your ticket. The more horses who can land on your ticket, the more inherent value, the lower the effective takeout and the better the chance to win.
That's what bettors bet for : A chance to win.
I am not a surface zealot. Keeneland is a big track and they can do what they want. I watch the Blue Grass to bet it, not to find a Derby horse or worry about the race's grading or black type. I don't really care either way from a fan's perspective. However, if they think for a second this will boost their handle from cartwheelers on social media, it likely won't happen. Dirt shortens field size, and when field size is shortened, value is squeezed. When value is squeezed, bettors bet less.
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