Monday, June 30, 2014

Churchill Meet: Takeout Up, Handle Down, Purses Down

Studies show that when you raise takeout, handle declines, and in the long-run - because fewer people are betting your product - purses eventually go down.

This played out about perfectly at Churchill Downs since they raised rakes in April. But amazingly, it did not take a year or two years for the purse component to take a hit.  According to the Bloodhorse, which looks like it reprinted a CDI press release, purses declined in only 36 race days, from $534,942 to $532,903. 

In April, CDI announced that they were so confident that the purses would increase with the takeout hike, they increased stakes by 2.7%.
  • Churchill, however, is counting on a net gain from the higher takeout even if betting declines. The track has already increased its stakes purses for the spring meet by 2.7 percent to $7.68 million for the 24 stakes races
Horseplayers, just like any other betting consumer have spoken with their dollars, with handle for the meet down close to $50 million. This, during a month of May where North American handle gained, as well as June, which looks to be a good handle month, despite challenging field sizes.  For a full update on all Churchill Downs handles and statistics, please click here. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Random Harness Thoughts

Last evening the Stakes card at Pocono was raced, with the who's who in the sport. A few thoughts:

Sebastian K is some kind of trotter. The moment he stepped onto the track he looked sound and really happy to be out there. The eight year old went a mile for the ages - 1:49 flat. What was amazing about the effort, and what's amazing about him, is his (what thoroughbred handicappers call) tractability. He stormed the quarter in 26.2, immediately relaxed, backing down the half, then sped up again. That is so rare for a trotter. What an effort.

Sometimes trotters go bad when they go too fast. I worry about this with horses like Father Patrick and Trixton, mainly because of their age. With Sebastian it's tough to worry about it. He has a solid foundation, has already won a race in 50.2 without shoes and came back a week later and was even better.

Speaking of Father Patrick. How good is the Hambo potentially going to be this year with him, Trixton and Nuncio? Last year at this time we were searching for a horse we thought could be under 10-1 in the Hambo. 

It was the first time I saw the three year old filly Tyra race. I was impressed. That's a sound, fast little filly.

In the Franklin, we saw a dominant performance from Sweet Lou. Yes he got the half backed down a little, but he was torched to the quarter and had to restart the engines in the third quarter to keep a very good Domethatagain parked. He had every reason to be beaten by his stablemate, but he wasn't.

The Captain raced well (what he was doing at 2-1 from the eight hole is a great mystery, though), and he has come back as a four year old super-good. He's as tough as he always was, tries hard and doesn't quit. The only difference this year is the class jump; if he was a claimer, he would have raced 40's last year, and this year he has to deal with 100's. He's now 0 for 3 with a second against the top group, but seeing how he is pacing, it would not be surprising to me if he wins some races this year.

I was not thrilled with Sunshine Beach last night. I thought Captive Audience looked as good as any of them last evening. He had some pace in a quickening last half. 

Pocono is brutally hard to bet. I saw Uffezi Hanover at 8-5 and wondered why, but in the back of your mind you think she'd be going up to 3 or 4-1 the last few flashes, so betting others is futile. Miller drove her like a 5-1 shot, and she probably was 5-1 fair odds.

The Meadowlands carded an okay card of the usual's last evening. I played that much harder than the Pocono card (I think I made two bets at Pocono). Even when they card races like that you can find horses to play.

Have a great Sunday everyone.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Finley Makes a Strong Point on Lasix Use

In yesterday's TDN Bill Finley looked at the starts per year since the proliferation of lasix use. As most know, over 9 in 10 Thoroughbreds are on the drug. It clearly enhances performance, by helping stop fluid build up in the lungs, so it is well-used for that purpose. But does it hurt starts per year?

Harness horses at a high level, like thoroughbred's, are racing fewer and fewer times. But in harness the speed the horses are going can cause some issues, which probably mean fewer starts. Thoroughbreds have no such issue. Although sprint times have been fast, route races are not seeing increases in speed at all.

Bill makes a compelling case. Common sensically, how it is conducive to increasing starts/year when horses lose so much weight after each start with the drug?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


New York horseman dude Rick Violette:

Where would you want to see that money [money for drug testing to catch cheaters] come from?

“I’d like to take some of it off the top of handle. We certainly need the investment. Handicappers, or handicapping groups, are the first ones to rail about catching cheaters."

Ya, that's it. Those handicappers and fans would benefit so they should be paying for it. The horses - that many claim to love - won't benefit. They might be injected with frog venom, or given blood builders, ruining them for life but they certainly won't be helped by catching the people doing it to them.

Or the fact that the game gets sullied with "cheaters" where PETA comes out against it, governments rail against it, and owners leave, stop investing in horseflesh,. because they don't want to play a mugs game against a juicer down the street. That costs trainers like Rick Violette, and breeders and hay men and feed men, and vets and Bob Evans and  everyone else who draws a paycheck from the industry money. But they won't benefit.

No, it's the gamblers who would be the big beneficiaries, because they "rail against it".

The big picture vision in racing's alphabets and those who speak for them is incorrigibly blind. 

In a sport that has recieved billions and billions in slot revenue - money that this sport should be using to make the game better, by oh, I don't know, maybe paying for drug testing - it is maddening that this industry's participants constantly come back to customers to pay for everything that benefits them.

Leaving the fact that if takeout was raised to pay for it, less money will be bet, and they might have less money than they do now aside: It doesn't make logical sense and it has never made logical sense.

If a company wanted to create a stock purchase plan they don't ask shareholders to send in one of their shares to keep the employees happy. General Motors would not ask Ralph Nader to raise money for airbags because "he is always railing against consumer safety". If at a meeting you suggested to Steve Wynn he increase the craps take to 6% to pay for new security cameras you'd be fired before you grabbed the last donut.

In horse racing the mantra is, and always has been "great idea, as long as I don't have to pay for it."

The person paying for it is usually the customer, which is a big reason why racing doesn't have very many of them.

Keeneland Says "Welcome To Horse Country"

I watched the Championship of Canadian Football  - the Grey Cup - like I usually do, because it is an interesting game and it is part of a culture. The game itself is unique, it's niche, it's different. But it's Canada and it has a history.

The CFL has had a resurgence the last half dozen years or so. TV ratings have skied (more people watch the Grey Cup in Canada than watch the Super Bowl now if you can believe it), attendance is up. This is very impressive for one reason, mainly: In the 1990's the niche league probably had a 30-70 chance of surviving.

If you think racing is "dead", it is probably much healthier today than the CFL was.

Numerous things occurred that helped pull the league from the doldrums, but there was one old axiom of marketing that led the charge: Be yourself because you can't market what you aren't.
  • Until a few years ago, the CFL existed apologetically. It wasn't the National Football League, wasn't American or glamorous. That it also was neither profitable nor especially stable fuelled the CFL's inferiority complex. Sorry the field was wide. Sorry there were 12 players. Sorry two teams in a nine-team league once had the same name. Sorry it was so Canadian. 
  • The CFL was uncomfortable in its own skin. "I 100 per cent agree with that," CFL commissioner Mark Cohon said Thursday. "When I came in, I looked on our website and the first thing I saw was the old ad campaign 'Our balls are bigger,' because the old CFL ball was bigger than the NFL ball. I thought: Why are we comparing ourselves to this league south of the border that's a $9 billion entity? We need to celebrate what's great about us.
Their marketing moved on that meme. Canada's railway system linked the vast country together and was a major reason it became a country. The Grey Cup marched on a train tour across the entire nation. People touched the Cup and got to know it. It paraded up and down Yonge Street. Horse's from Calgary did too, adding more to the zeal of the event. The league didn't apologize for what it was - it markets what it always was.

As for the game itself, traditions that some might call "cheesy" - like the Governor General's ceremonial kickoff - were not buried, they were front and center. Interviews from polticians like PM Harper were not staged events, they were done on the field, and they talked about the game and its history as a part of the country's fabric. The PM even sat in the cheap seats, not in a plush box. New immigrants come to Toronto each day and they see a PM sitting with everyone else enjoying a uniquely Canadian event? Welcome to the Grey Cup.

That doesn't mean you don't go after new demographics, because you have to, especially when all eyes are on you. Justin Bieber did a halftime show, while the demo in the stands probably have never even heard one of his songs.

I was at Keeneland a couple of years ago and spent some time with horseplayer Mike Maloney. A good guy, great player who loves the game. We shared some racing stories over dinner one day about what it means to be a player, horse owner, and lover of the game. At one point he said "why do we try to out-casino a casino? Why do we try and be something we're not? We can't compete."

I think he's right.

Racing does much better when it's just itself. It's no surprise the Kentucky Derby is a staple today - they'd fill the joint if twenty 5 claimers were racing on the First Saturday of May. The race is not raced in Manhattan, it's in Kentucky. Racing is a niche sport where people get together to see if my horse is faster than your horse, and it was never about restaurants or sheiks, it was about racing a horse. It's a gambling game that's a puzzle. It's as old as the day is long and it has a tremendous history.

Embrace and celebrate the history. Embrace and celebrate the handicapping puzzle. Embrace and celebrate what racing is. Like the CFL, racing will never be a major sport like the NFL. It'll never be the Bellagio or Caesars Palace. It needs to learn from them, market what it is, and never run away from it.

Today Keeneland announced they were hosting the Breeders Cup in 2015. The video below is a marvelous piece of marketing. Horsemen from the UK, or Japan, or from the backwoods of Pennsylvania, or Texas can relate. Keeneland knows exactly who they are, and they are clearly embracing it.

Welcome to horse country, Breeders Cup. What took you so long to come back?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Saturday Harness Notes

As y'all know, last evening several eliminations for the Beal, Lynch, Hempt and Frankin were held at Pocono Downs.

Here are a few thoughts; my opinion only:

Jimmy Takter in harness racing update said that Father Patrick's vet bill was $50 last month and that was just to draw and test his blood. Normally we would think this hyperbole, but when you see him trot I think it ain't blowing smoke. I was loathe to call this horse the next Muscle Hill last year, because a lot of 2 year old trotters can slay unseasoned competition and look good doing it in the trot ranks, but this year I do not know how anyone can deny it. I believe he is trotting perfection and we might be looking at the next big thing in this sport.

Captaintreacherous was defeated by the journeyman, but very fast Domethatagain last evening. In the open ranks the Captain has gone zero for two, after beating up on a really suspect crew of three year olds last season. Some are surprised, I know, but should anyone be? There are a lot of pacers that can go 1:48 and a good deal of the time it depends solely on the trip. Last evening, over the tarmac that is Pocono Downs, off those fractions and race set up, at the clubhouse turn there were only two horses who could win that race and they came 1-2. If the Captain got Sunshine Beach's trip, he does not hit the board. If Foiled Again gets the lead in 26 and comes his back three quarters in 22 on that bullring, no one is probably beating him but the pocket horse either. These are all good speedy horses, but trips matter so much nowadays when five or six in a field can go, and carry that speed.

One horse that truly did stand out in the Franklin, however, and I think he should be considered the best older horse in training, is Sweet Lou. Lou blasted his last three quarters in (if you can believe this) : 26.4, 26.4 and 27. Niatross with a head start couldn't close into that. Perhaps the soundness kinks are ironed out on old Lou, and he can retrace the steps of his brother who got better and better with age too.

Neither the fillies or the colt's taught me anything last evening, although it was obvious McWicked goes into his final with a huge edge. Nuncio was a measured winner and looks like (in a year like last year) to be a top three year old. If there is a better set of hands on a trotter than driver John Campbell I'd like to see it. That was a pure professional at the lines for that tricky colt.

How fast is Pocono Downs and how hard is it to close from more than a few lengths back? Watch the replay of the 7th race. All Star Partner was pacing so much out of his skin coming home he could not negotiate the turn. Racing like it was at Pocono last night makes me long for my construction of PTP Downs one mile straight harness track.

I bet nothing last evening at Pocono, other than betting a few horses to show against Father Patrick. That was, what I thought, a takeout free bet. I simply can not bet into that track's takeout rates.

Harness Racing Update has some stuff on Gural, including his response to the incendiary, and rather odd Faraldo facebook post. It has a look at what's been happening in harness racing so far in 2014 that's good and not so good, and Bob Pandolfo has a letter that shares what we've espoused with him for years: Driver quality does not create handle, good betting races do.

Have a super nice Sunday everyone.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Move That Horse

A couple of high profile horses in both breeds are apparently moving barns. It's one of those "owner decisions" we see and hear so much about.

In harness, Finley reported Golden Receiver, the $2M plus winning nine year old, has been moved from Mark Harder to Jake Huff.

In Thoroughbred racing, Normandy Invasion is supposedly going from Chad Brown to Larry Jones.

NI's owner summed it up this way:

“I have moved Normandy Invasion over to Larry Jones. I consider Chad Brown a fine trainer and a personal friend, but we just haven’t had the right luck together with Normandy, and I need to try something new.”

Some might think this is blowing smoke, but I would wager it is 100% true.

When things are going poorly for a horse or a barn, the "move" often happens. The first move is to fire the pilot, and when that doesn't work (it almost never does), the CEO of the airline goes. It's rarely anything more than what it is on the surface - like Porter says let's change up the "luck".

I remember chatting with a top trainer at Mohawk who I've known for years. He had a falling out with a driver and changed the pilot. The driver was not particularly any better than any of the other top ten or so at the track, or any track - most are interchangeable at that level as we all know. The new driver drove fine, but the stable was a little cold, horses were up in class, they got some bad posts, the usual barn ups and downs. He went back to the old driver because "we seem to have good luck together." It didn't make sabermetric, five-thirty-eight sense; I don't think it does very often.

Horses confound us, and we are always looking for answers. If a horse races poorly on the lead once, he suddenly, "needs to come from off it" and is raced like that for months; until some guy who didn't get the message takes him to the lead and wires them. A horse races sick once, but no one knows it. The next start a piece of equipment is changed and he races better. "He did not like that equipment I guess"

It's a tough game, so when someone changes trainers, I would submit it's rarely anything personal. It's just the way it goes.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bravo To the Breeders Cup ®

Each year as a dutiful Canadian boy I watch the Grey Cup. I've even attended a few. It's a Canadian football tradition, dating back a gazillion years, and will probably be here a gazillion more. 

There is something interesting with the Grey Cup, and football north of the 48th. It's unique.

Football late in the year can be played in several cities that we can describe as smaller, in terrible weather.  The Grey Cup could very well be staged each year devoid of weather (Toronto has a 6 million plus population to draw from and has a dome, for example, and Montreal played in a dome for years), and was for some time. But what it did was hurt the brand. The Grey Cup in Toronto was one of fifty or so events going on in the Big Smoke, and it did not stand out. And it was not played outside, in the possible wind and cold.

The CFL fixed that, and started to give the game more and more to western cities, including last year in Regina, Saskatchewan.

In these smaller cities the game is big. Everyone is there to watch the game. Everyone knows football. The game is presented in a manner which is exactly what the league is - different. This is infectious to everyone else in the country - rural, urban, football fans, or non-fans - and has helped the brand grow. TV ratings have been through the roof, and attendance has been huge.

In an exclusive scoop, Greg Hall reported today that the 2015 Breeders Cup will be held at Keeneland, in Lexington, Kentucky.  This is great news for the Breeders Cup brand, and great news for horse racing.

Keeneland is horse breeding. It's rolling hills, horse sales and a hotbed of the sport, just like a Regina Saskatchewan is for CFL football. Where better to hold a Breeders Cup and showcase the event to the world than where the sport is lived, breathed and is in the fabric of every resident, patron, old and young? I don't think you'd find anywhere better.

Sure there aren't myriad high class shops in downtown Lexington like LA. Sure there aren't hundreds of movie stars living nearby.  No, a dozen bands won't be playing a coliseum that weekend, nor will there be 1,000 restaurants to try. But why should we care? If you go to Keeneland, you go to watch horse racing. If you go to Regina Saskatchewan for the Grey Cup, you go to watch football. Who needs the rest?

Jack Trout, Seth Godin and many other marketers say that a business or venture can not survive when they do not embrace who they are. CFL football and other niche sports have done exactly that, and have survived, grown and sometimes thrived. At Keeneland, the Breeders Cup is saying "here is what we are, come join us." And that, I think, is a recipe for success.

Bravo to the Breeders Cup.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Pureness of Athletic Excellence, On-Track Numbers & Notes

The Baconator wrote an article today examining a rather libertarian view that performance enhancing drugs - if disclosed - might be allowed.
  • The late Charles Harris, a New York-based horse owner who for years fought for clean sport, once suggested the same thing as Gladwell, that all drugs should be permitted in racing, so long as they are disclosed. At least that would level the playing field, he said. As athletics, horse racing and veterinary and genetic science move forward, will Gladwell be proven right? Will that bright moral line separating doping from science or surgery become less defined?

Whether it's 2014 or 1914, sports of any kind are held in high regard. We don't want to watch robots playing a game, we want to watch pure athleticism. We want to watch athletes doing what they do best, without any enhancements. It's been like that forever, and probably will be like that forever. It might be naive or whimsical, but it's something that's always been there. Sure, get a surgery, but bulk up with a steroid and you are done in the public's view. For horses, because they can't speak and make decisions for themselves, this is enhanced. That's my view.

Speaking of athletic performances, how about Martin Kaymer yesterday at the US Open. The dude scorched the Pinehurst track and it was like he was playing my local 5,900 yard venue, not Number 2. His performance was amazing but also amazingly boring. Without a foe, without drama, TV ratings are sure to be down and the event was very blah. Even though the gallery surely liked the German - there is not much not to like about him - you could see them pulling for him to fail, just to make it a closer event.

It struck me how different this is in horse racing. When we see a horse we revere, like Secretariat at the head of the lane at the Belmont widening, we want the margin to grow. We want to see him demolish records; the further the better. Athletic excellence is held in a different prism based on the sport we're watching.

I saw the numbers from the usually big Fathers Day card at Monmouth yesterday. About 29,000 people packed the joint. But they didn't bet too much more than $1 million. It's such a different world today.

Back in the 1980's and early nineties at old Greenwood in downtown Toronto, the place might get full some days, with 5,000 or 7,000 patrons, but boy did they bet. $2M to $3M a card. Simulcasting and internet betting has changed the landscape. The big bettors don't want food trucks or crowds; they bet at home or off-venue. There are people in racing that want to change that and go back to the way it was, but that's like pay phones making a comeback, because we somehow banned cell phones. It is not going to happen and even if it did, people would find something else to gamble on that's more convenient. Now we're stuck in this world where some tracks and consortium's want to change the way off-track wagering is priced, by hiking fees and stifling competition. That's a non-starter too because when you do that, the price sensitive player who bets larger than average volume gets squeezed, and handle falls. What successful business has grown long term by hiking margins and lowering overall revenue in today's global, connected world? The list is almost non-existent.

 Last up, speaking of fee hikes, Churchill Downs handle has been updated at Overall, handle is down $43 million so far, and they've only raced 30 days. Last year the handle floor was about $3.1 million and this year almost 30% of the days have fallen below that floor. One day they barely did $2 million. There is little question that the Churchill Downs brand is taking a tremendous hit this season. They will probably find it very hard to recover. It could take years, and a possible millions upon millions of revenue losses. Which is what happens to tarnished brands.

Have a great Monday everyone.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Big Saturday Notes

Last night the Pepsi North America Cup was raced at Mohawk. The weather was cooler, but it cooperated. It was a nice evening.

Garnet has a complete update of the results at HRN for those who did not watch the card. For those of you who did watch, here are a few thoughts.

Trixton won the Goodtimes and looks as good or better than his stablemate Father Patrick. Normally with trotters this time of year they are doing nothing special, but this horse is. Last night he trotted a second quarter in 26.4, cleared and trotted 27.4 down the back for a 54.3 middle. Normally horses (usually pacers, not trotters) get a little soft at the end.  With a 28.4 home he looked great. I worry what a mile like that will do to him for August, but he has cleared the bar each and every time.

A horse a lot of us were worried about was Bee a Magician. We could excuse her first loss, but when she ran in during the stretch of her second (like she did in start one) and got picked off by D'Orsay, it made a lot of bettors wonder. Last night after a perfect pocket trip she backed off bad, coming 9th. It looks like she has some physical problems. Sad. She's a great horse and we can only hope she gets straightened out.

In the big one, a horse I was not playing was JK Endofanera. He paraded funky last week and was washed out. As Garnet mentioned, he did look good on the track this week and he delivered. Good for those of you who played him off that appearance. That's how you get prices in our game.

All the others in the race, did race well I thought. This crop looks deeper than last year's at this stage. It will be fun to see how it plays out.

Evening of Pleasure has always been a super nice horse, but he probably deserved to be over 50-1 in the Gold Cup. He has been sharp, though, and if others don't get the trip they desire, or are a bit flat, he's a horse than can and will win more of these, I think.

Yannick's drive on Foiled Again probably signaled that he feels the now 10 year old has lost a step. Sure he knew he was behind a live one, but nine months ago he is out and driving.

I watched Sunshine Beach closely. I am a fan of the horse and think he might make a good four year old. He raced really well, I thought. I was disappointed in State Treasurer's race.

What a difference a year makes. No sharp Needy, no A Rock n Roll Dance, no Pet Rock, Foiled Again not as sharp...... big difference in the aged stakes ranks this year.

Handle was over 3.4 million last night, up 12% from 2013. Wagering on the Cup was down slightly. There was one more race last evening.

Having the race in the second pick four resulted in a $118k pool versus $138k last year.

The half hour coverage on TSN was really well done. There was a great feature on Bill Cass and John Craig, two of the good guys in the business. Bill was stabled not far from a family horse in the 1980's and I remember him when I was barely a teenager. He's been around, and they've been partners for a long time. I liked when Cass said the relationship has lasted a long while, this despite many people telling Craig to "change trainers and maybe you'd do better." Craig says Cass 'is honest and a friend', so why would he change. I know and a lot of you know: Some crazy things happen to us as horse owners. Trust, openness and honesty and integrity trump a few extra purse dollars 10 times out of 10. We understand where John is coming from.

Dawn made me LOL last night on TSN:

Greg Merton sometimes horse shipper part time harness driver, returned to the Big M last night. Greg is such a good driver, he should ship less and drive more. 

I did not watch one Churchill Downs race last evening for their big card. I was interested to, but when I cut a track out of the rotation it's gone.  I did see the handle numbers: Down about $1.3 million. Even on big days like that one CD seems to be having customer problems.

Have a great Sunday everyone.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Ontario Election Results: Racing Probably Has to Get Cracking

In the Ontario election last evening, the governing party won another go-round, this time with a majority government. As most know, both the Conservatives and NDP promised some sort of return of the slots at racetrack program, while the Lib's have implemented their four year plan, to try and get racing to be self-sufficient.

I have said before, and believed it most certainly, that whichever party won the election, not a lot would change in the short-term for horse racing. I think some form of the current partnership between the government and horse racing would continue. But that was before last night: No one honestly expected a majority government.

Ontario - an economic powerhouse for a century up until the early 2000's -  is pretty much broke. With a majority, the governing Liberal's can now do what they want, without any other party approval, and they certainly will have to make some tough decisions to at least look like they care about the massive debt Ontario has racked up. Their main constituency - government workers, teachers, unionized folks on the public purse who have made out like bandits salary-wise the last ten years - probably won't be touched. What might be first to go? Well, how about the $100 million or so for horse racing people: Those rural folks in riding's the Liberal's couldn't win if they ran Old MacDonald.

I think it's a very important time for horse racing. After the four years of the initial deal are up (maybe a year or two sooner, if the Lib's start cutting) horse racing may find themselves on their own.

I think the industry needs to instill a new sense of urgency. $250k handles at Fort Erie probably means no more Fort Erie this next year, or in four years. The "Alliance" tracks need to bring in more revenue, or the "Alliance" tracks will be trimmed to two from eight. Right now progress has been made in Ontario horse racing, and that's good. But they might want to turn things up a notch; approve new ideas in weeks not months; create tighter timelines for change, etc.  Funding that racing is counting on might not be long-term funding, and with a Liberal majority might be gone much sooner than everyone thinks.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Racing's Big Days Continue to Roll

The Belmont Stakes handle is in the books and it was a record year for the storied race. Yes it was a Triple Crown year so we should expect handle to be appreciably higher, but it was even higher than it was in 2004, when Smarty Jones was going for the Triple. This year, according to the DRF figures, handle was over $90 million on the race itself.

Just three and a half weeks ago, Pimlico's Preakness Day numbers were very good, as well. Via the Bloodhorse: "Total pari-mutuel handle on this year's 13-race program was $83,786,363, up 2.2% from $81,939,228 last year for the same number of races."

And the Derby, the granddaddy of them all - maybe that's the Rose Bowl, but you get my drift - handle was large, too.

The Derby had terrible branding from not only a well publicized boycott, but also the litany of complaints from insiders. It was still good.

The Preakness card (sorry for being so blunt) was fairly awful. Shorter fields, some scratches, and a 'meh' array of chalk. Handle was fine.

Belmont was probably the only racecard that did not have bad branding going in. They stuffed a gazillion dollars (not quite that much, it might've been $8 million) of the racino money into purses and carded a few more stakes. They also finally approved a few new ADW's like Premier Turf Club, just in time for the Belmont. It looks like they could've done none of those things and handle still would've been up huge. It was a Triple Crown try after all.

Regardless, welcome to the Hotel Horse Racing. We can have PETA videos, short fields, takeout hikes, signal fee nonsense, protectionism and just about everything else contributing to the 40% or 50% decline in real wagering the last ten years - all of those things that turn people off and kill handle. However, you can stab this sport with your steely knives, but you can't kill the big day beast.

It's the immense power this niche sport has over the casual fan on these days. It's real and it's palpable.

Some might say the glass half empty (these people don't come back to wager on the sport until next year and never do long term, so who cares), or half full (the market is there, racing just has to tap it), depending on your perspective.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Fantasy Sports Nut: It's Still About Making a Good Gamble

When peeps in the business talk about horse racing, you'll often hear about selling excitement or the jockeys or drivers, or the horses, or how good or bad a venue is or is not. Those all mean something sure, but the great draw of any game or event that you are going to spend hours and hours preparing for, invest the needed capital to buy tools to make your experience better, and want to be a part of long-term, is the draw of the good old fashioned Benjamins.

I spoke with an track dude many years ago now when we were nattering on about racing, giving customers good races to bet at a good price etc, and he said "you have a point, because it's amazing how much our customers bet when they win." He ntoticed that year's ago and you know this to be true. Having at least a chance to beat a game is the draw of the game itself. When it occurs you want to do it more and more and more.

In the Wall Street Journal this past weekend there was a story about 29 year old student Cory Albertson.
  • He is enjoying his return to campus life but increasingly finds it difficult to make time for his classes. He considers it hard to believe, though more plausible by the day, that the side business he started last year with $200 could actually make him rich. Even more incredible: His business is playing fantasy sports. Using tactics more familiar to a hedge-fund manager than to your average sports enthusiast, Albertson is earning thousands of dollars almost every day. One NFL Sunday, he took home more than $100,000. "It is like securities trading," Albertson explains, "and athletes are the commodities."
Mr Albertson has honed his software package (a lot of it through Microsoft excel)  to scour for news, project who is going to start where, against who, and how effective the player might be. The system then enters his line-up in thousands of leagues - those paying money to winners - and away he goes.

$3.3B is spent (call it wagering, because most of it is) on Fantasy sports each year. Mr. Ablertson's "handle" is astonishing.

And for those who think you have to love the sport to wager on, or follow the sport, or spend hours upon hours honing a software package to take advantage of it, think again. 
  •  To him, fantasy sports isn't really about sports. It's about data. He doesn't trust his eyes to tell him who the best players are; he only trusts the numbers, which tell him who is overvalued and who is undervalued. Albertson's strategy is almost literally a formula, and it bears little resemblance to casual fandom. "It's all about having logical inputs that lead to logical outputs," he says.
Mr Albertson might not like hockey, but he likes playing fantasy hockey because it's all about the Benjamin's - about making cold hard cash from his efforts.

This is why here on the blog we talk about issues like this so often. In the skilled game gambling market the handle probably totals a trillion dollars worldwide. Cory Albertson's are everywhere. Yet racing does not make a good gamble. 7 horse fields, small pools, high takeout that spawned a tagline "you can beat a race but you can't beat the races" simply means racing is closed for business.

The next time you see a slots track stuff another 7 horse field with 30% takeout, the people complaining about it aren't whiners, they're trying to show you it's all about the Benjamins. When your current customer base loses constantly, handle will fall. And people like Cory Albertson will be submitting his line-up for the Grizzlies-Lakers game, and about forty others, and never thinking for a moment to look at you.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Belmont Opines

Happy Monday. I figured I would write a quick post on some of the happenings on Saturday, just for kicks. It was a strange, fun, interesting day. Horse racing is never boring.

The board for the Belmont, both here and most of the day on Betfair, was close to what we all expected earlier in the week, except the eventual winner. Tonalist was 14-1 for quite awhile (about 11-1 at Betfair at one point). There are those who like to bet "early money" like people know something. If they followed that mantra, they were pretty disappointed because it signaled Tonalist stepped on a safety pin or something.

California Chrome broke a teeny bit awkwardly, but seemed to settle ok with an inside trip. When VE moved him near the head of the lane, the horse with multiple gears was stuck in second, looking more like a grinder. After the race it was revealed he had a nasty gash incurred in the race. In my view, that played little part in his loss (in the heat of battle horses get these gashes, loses shoes, any number of things they run right through). My theory is like most: He raced well for a horse who has been through the grind and who might've been a little bit pedigree challenged at 12f.

After the race, Steve Coburn and Wilfred Brimly simultaneously trended on twitter.

A non-horse racing fan I was with when Frank Sinatra Jr was announced and "New York, New York" began to play: "Hey, don't they use that Alicia Keyes song?" That change was more than a one year wonder I guess.

Bayern was my nemesis. Lying in the pick 5, pick 4 and a pick 3 sequences, I pitched him off all three tickets, costing me money. He was the most impressive winner of the day, most likely, yet I would not have bet him with stolen money.  I, like you, usually have one or two Bayern's a card, which costs us big time in multiples.

I thought the riders and the track played well. The horses were fit, riders used their speed without being stupid about it, and the track played fair. if you went 46 flat in an 8.5f race, you could get picked up.

I think a lot of us out thunk the Palice Malice race. The rail at 8f is fine at Belmont ROI and IV-wise. I thought the Met Mile would be more of a sprint too, and that was a mistake.

Belmont handle was up and there was a lot of googoo gaagaa about the card. With a Triple Crown try it is impossible to judge handles and what if's, but since that's what we do here, we will. The Belmont itself was up 40%, and the card was up 47%. $8M in purses and a whack of grade I's were added to the final card. What would the overall handle numbers be with no added stakes or stakes purses? Since the non-graded stakes were up huge, arguably up not less than 35% or so. The thing we have to remember, though: Opportunity cost and return on purse spend. Met Mile weekend was off about $10 million this year because the race was moved from Memorial Day to Belmont Day. Showcasing some of these other stakes on their own weekend would boost handle $6 million or more those days, as well. I think the overkill did not result in positive return on purse spend.

Reaction to Tonalist winning? Not as bad as in past years it seemed when I asked that question on the twitter. 
 LL Cool J was loud. The NBC talking heads had to really yell over him, but the entertainment portion seemed to go over well. Chris Kaye might not know much about horse racing, but he knows the rap.

Comment on email: "Typical that with all this Coburn nonsense, there has been little if anything mentioning that his idea would lead to pukey Belmont Races from a bettor's standpoint. But then again, who cares about the customer."

Poor old Churchill Downs. Their handle was even off Belmont Day. 

I've had the idea for a harness track to run a 4 in 48, which is a pick 4 in 48 minutes. At PTP Downs I am running a 10% takeout pick 4 in between the Manhattan and the Belmont. If I ever (shudders) get a PTP Downs.

Steve Coburn apologized this morning. Cowboys usually end up doing the honorable thing.
I hope everyone had a good Belmont Day. And carry that over and have a great Monday everyone.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Steve Coburn's Comments Not New, But the Setting Sure Was

By now you've all heard California Chrome's owner on the TV, or the net, or read it in print.

With words like "cheaters" and "cowards" used, his comments did not go over well with many. Even Coburn's wife, a seemingly lovely woman, was forced to give "that look" to her life partner (thanks Racing Dudes).

I see the cowboy-hatted owner has been on the radio this morning and is not walking back his comments, either.

The Richard Shermanesque rant was, like old Rich, in the heat of the moment. But this time the rant was not from a guy schooled at Stanford, who has taken PR classes and who has millions in endorsements riding on his behavior. It was from a good old boy who shows up to work at a factory at 6AM each day. One of those people who, well, we might just expect a whole lotta cussing to go on after a disappointing loss.

And, of course, these comments:
  • “They need to change this sport to where those 20 horses that start in the Kentucky Derby are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races,” Coburn said. “If you bow out in the Preakness, you don’t come back for the Belmont. I honestly believe that if the Triple Crown is not won this year by California Chrome, I will never see it in my lifetime because there are people out there trying to upset the apple cart.” 
.....were not from yesterday, they were from May 18th, after the Preakness. 

So, they're nothing really that new. Yesterday you got the raw version, unfiltered by focus groups or handlers (or his wife).

In a sport where we shake a man or woman's hand after a loss or a win and have done so for generations, the comments aren't up my alley. I believe in winning and losing with class. But as a fan of this sport I understand them perfectly.

No, the Triple Crown does not have to be changed, in my view, but the comments underscore the passion and monumental nature of this task in modern Thoroughbred racing. It's that passion we all feel, whether we buy yearlings, bet the sport, or watch it as a fan.  Some express that passion through a shrug of the shoulders, by blaming a jockey or a trainer, by throwing a racing form at a TV screen, by seeking out others in a social media therapy session. For California Chrome's owner, a fiery cowboy hell bent on winning the Triple Crown,  it was turned up a notch. Considering he has slept, eaten and breathed the Triple Crown trail for months to see it come down to a thud in two minutes and thirty seconds, it should not really be too surprising, I guess.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Belmont Stakes Is Upon Us

I've been a little busy lately, so there has not been too much action here at the web log, but I come back with a post that is a) Really hard to find b) interesting and c) unlike anything you've seen before.....

..... A Belmont Stakes pick blog!

Ya, I don't normally do these, but what the hay, it's the Triple Crown after all.

From the rail out.

Medal Count: I think this horse is rapidly improving. He seems very sound and has some ability. He's worked well, his internal fractions show some sneaky talent. He handles dirt fine. Nothing not to like and I can't believe we'll get 20-1, even with Chrome overbet.

The Champ: Most likely winner, I feel. He has the most talent and is the fastest horse on paper. There are no holes with this horse. My fair odds are somewhere around 8-5, and since I will never get that, I can't bet him.

Matterhorn: He has a high mountain to climb.

Commanding Curve: This was my Derby bet (I would find the link on twitter but I am too lazy), and I do think he is very sound and bounces around out there like a happy little clam. I think he is simply not as good as Medal Count and the Champ.

Ride on Curlin: He'll probably be overbet. I don't like him much at all.

Matuszak: Pitching.

Samraat: Non-flashy, one speed plodders tend to win the Belmont. He is a real plodder. In fact, he might be one of the most boring horses ever. He might win, but I won't have him anywhere.

Commissioner: This horse strikes me as one with problems. I don't have any inside Joe Drapian Dragnetty information, but it's what I feel. In his last he did better than I thought he would, so maybe I am wrong about this horse, but I would not bet him with a Churchill Downs executive's expense account money. 

Wicked Strong: A case can be made, and is being made, that he is ready to fire a big one here. He can and he might, but I simply think others are better right now.

General A Rod: If he hits the ticket, I ain't cashing, maybe even if I hit the all button.

Tonalist: Looked great last time, seems fairly fresh. I can't play him. He's steamy and he might not get a good trip from out there.


Medal Count - California Chrome - Commanding Curve - Tonalist

Supers: 1-24-2411-ALL, 1-2411-24-ALL, 24-1-2411-ALL and 1-24-ALL-2411

Happy Belmont day and good luck at the windows everyone.

Disclaimer: If you bet with me you deserve to lose money at a tremendously fast rate. The above picks are for entertainment only. When the 1 2 4 and 11 run badly, you are free to come back to the Web Log and laugh hysterically at me. You are not able to sue. And please, do not take the above picks if you are taking anything for back pain, internal bleeding or hives, as the use of them could interact and make you into a terrible horseplayer. Past returns of my picks - i.e. an ROI of like zero - are probably evidence of what future picks will be - i.e. an ROI of like zero. If you are under 18 please no wagering, unless you get someone older to wager for you like everyone does. Ptpblog ®

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Skinny on the Churchill Numbers: Bettors Are Clearly Saying No

Back in April when Churchill raised takeout rates on an already teetering betting product, many industry watchers and horseplayers wondered what might happen. After 22 racedays, it looks like we have our answer.

Total handle, including the Oaks and Derby Days, are off $31.9 million.

As noted when the takeout increase was enacted - and the fact that Oaks and Derby Days will skew any numbers - it was the rest of the meet that mattered, via a hike in rates was sure to be detrimental to handle. This was a fairly common opinion in horse racing land at the time, shared by many:
Similarly, after the Derby, Tom LaMarra in the Bloodhorse wrote:

"The six-day Derby week total handle of $253.8 million dropped almost 2% from $258.5 million last year. HANA said it believes there were a number of bettors who didn't wager into the pools, and that the true test will come as the regular spring meet progresses through its June 29 conclusion."

What we are seeing when one weeds out the Oaks and Derby is nothing short of devastation:

Total handle year over year is down $30.6 million or 27%. Per race handle is down 22.5%.

They are precariously close to becoming negative in terms of revenue for the meet, despite the big "EBITDA" gains made on Derby Day that they trumpeted. 

The current narrative that the field size loss (about three quarters of a horse per race) has been the culprit for the handle losses is a red herring. The elasticity (academically studied in 1998) for field size losses is only -0.6. But the data doesn't jive either.

On June 1st Churchill Downs had 68 entries. In 2013, same day, they had 66.

The handle was down $1,023,641 or 21.2%.

Last Monday there were 78 entries versus 77. Handle was off almost one million dollars.

Not to mention, tracks like Belmont have lost a similar amount of horses this year, yet handle remains fairly strong. Last year, in fact, Belmont lost a third of a horse per race, and handle was up 2.42%.

Horseplayers, for whatever reason that floats your boat, are saying no to Churchill Downs, and are doing it in spades. This should not be surprising. They raised a price on a product that was not very appealing, making it even less appealing to the general public, and discerning horseplayers. No multi-million dollar big board, an excellent race caller like Larry Collmus, or all the bells and whistles in a world can fix that.

They've got serious issues in Louisville, Kentucky. Racedates will likely be cut precipitously for next year, and the horsemen - who are reticent to do that at anytime - will likely have to go along with it. That's what happens when you concentrate on corporate "EBITDA" for a big day and forget about the people who pay for purses the other 364 days: Your betting customers.

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