Friday, June 24, 2016

Churchill's Pick 6, Same Stuff, Different Day

Last evening a gal, or guy, had two horses going into the last leg of the Churchill Jackpot pick 6 for an entire pool shot. If either horse gets up (both were pretty long), this person or persons walks away with three quarters of a million dollars; yep 750 large. This is a life-changing score to any customer, and it's why many of us play the game.

He or she never had a chance.

A cell moved through, and the race was cancelled. The bet carries over to tomorrow.

The Churchill pick 6, seeded with Derby money, has enough bad press already, but this one, frankly, takes the cake. In all my years in this sport, as an owner, breeder and bettor I've seen some crazy things that have worked against the people who pay for purses, but I don't think I've ever seen anything as callous as this towards the sport's customers. The race was cancelled, without any planning, foresight, or even a modicum of respect.

This is not a question of being upset a race is cancelled because of weather and safety. For crying out loud guys, try and think of a better argument; customers don't want to see dead horses, maimed jockeys and a dismembered gate crew.

This is all about what would've been done in this situation if the shoe was on the other foot.

If weather is coming near post time for the Stephen Foster, or Preakness, or say any stakes race where the winner receives $750,000, the executive branch and racing officials spring into action. They would move up post time, or move it back, or wait it out; they'd have some sort of action plan.

Only as a last resort would a race like that ever be cancelled.

That's done, you see, because there are people that own those horses in the 'Mansion'.  They're running for big money. They're racing for black type. They're buddies of people in high places. They're insiders.

The race probably ends up being a go because the show must go on; all hands on deck. We've seen it a hundred times.

For a guy or gal with $750 grand at stake? They're racing for their own kind of black type. But it's, 'let's all go home'. There's no 'let's wait this out', no,'we have pick 5 tickets going and one of our customers has a chance at $750k, we owe it to them to at least try and pull this off', no alternative. Nothing. Just crickets.

For insiders who don't understand the above, I only feel pity, because you are not capable in seeing this is an example of exactly why customers have left this sport for other gambling games, en masse. It's a big reason why the sport is in the shape it's in.

If this was only one example, we could chalk it up to force majeure, or unseen circumstance, but unfortunately it's part of a list so big, you wouldn't be able to fit it in a Melville novel.

Customers in horse racing have the right to feel like they feel, because you keep doing this kind of stuff.

Most tough it out, some just silently leave.

Have a nice Friday everyone.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

We Like Who We Like. Data and Gambling Outreach

This week there are rumors (probably true rumors) that Hockey Night in Canada is replacing the young, hip anchor George Stroumboulopoulos with the (older, more generic) anchor he once replaced, Ron MacLean.

"Strombo" was tapped for the job when Rogers paid billions for the rights to the NHL a couple of seasons ago. Rogers wanted to expand the base, go younger (where have we heard this before?) and attract new viewers, so they made the hire, and the fire.

Traditional viewers (and in Canada, traditional hockey viewers are pretty much everyone) seemed to enjoy Ron MacLean. He knew hockey and we knew hockey. That resonated.

How much it resonated might surprise some (it surprised me).

Here's a poll from Toronto's largest newspaper, asking if hockey fans liked the move back to MacLean or not.

Those numbers are insane.

Hockey fans do not want newbies asking questions, they want questioners who know the game asking questions.

This is not too dissimilar to a take in Awful Announcing awhile back, talking about the dumbing down of tennis coverage, and using soccer as an example of a proper way to broadcast a sport. 
  • "A discussion of the televised coverage of tennis, or any other niche-sport product in the marketplace, is best advanced by pointing to the rapid growth and improvement in the coverage of soccer in the United States. Soccer coverage — not just availability of matches, but discussion and intelligent treatment — has increased over the past decade because TV networks have taken soccer seriously. To be more precise, they have covered soccer the way soccer fans would want the sport to be covered."
In racing, this same type of issue rears its head. People do not like newbies asking newbie questions. A lot do not like fluff, or the incessant talking down to an audience. Some are generally angry that, even on niche coverage, spread pick 4 tickets and other hard to hit bets are created with no gambling skill, or gambling education accompanying it.

I get the Derby coverage. I get broadening the tent. But I think they have a point.

If racing wants to grow racing, that means growing betting on racing. Filling your booth with bettors who have a deep understanding of gambling along with handicapping, might just be something to think about.


Data > Broadcasts > Partnerships > New way to consume a product > More consumption of the product.

At least that's the hope of the Canadian Football League as they and DraftKings announce a DFS partnership. For the first time, gamblers and fans can field CFL teams in cash games.

Already some in the industry are talking about the CFL. Yes, the CFL.

Users can i) watch the games on ESPN ii) Play the games on DraftKings and iii) Have access to stats, data and other tools to create their line-ups.

That sounds like a plan.

Meanwhile back at the racing ranch, the Derby Wars-Stronach Group suit looks like it's still in court, and new entities who want to create and resell handicapping products are treated like they're stealing something.

Have a nice Wednesday everyone.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Gambling Growth; "Banning" People from the Sport

The Olympics in Rio are slated to go in less than two months, and Russian Track and Field athletes are under a blanket ban due to doping inquiries. A window was left open, however, for athletes that can 'prove their innocence.'

In the U.S. there's a current discussion about putting people on a list who may or may not have done anything wrong and denying them a constitutional right. Some might find this similar. The big difference of course is that the Olympics is a club not a country.

Some may say horse racing is not a right either, but oftentimes the lines are blurred. A trainer may get caught with a drug program in full force, weeks later his son takes over the barn like nothing happened and the horses are allowed to race. "A right to make a living", the lawyers tell us; and they have a point, because racing's quasi-public/private relationship is real. 

To me and many of you, though, that's like banned Russian athletes training with the head of the doping program's daughter and competing under the flag of Togoland. It would never happen.

Racing is different, and always has been. It's why the sport has seen only marginal progress on such issues. 

Meanwhile, back at the Meadowlands, one fellow who doesn't much care who he offends or what he does - Jeff Gural - is trying to put a cap on such things. Jeff owns three tracks and bans people the sport won't or can't or don't want to, including beard trainers operating on behalf of the harness version of Togoland.

Just last week he banned his nemesis, Joe Faraldo, because of an alleged beard trainer shuffle. 
  •  “(Faraldo) has a lifetime ban. Last night (Friday) he entered two horses in the Billings that were trained by Richie Banca who is not allowed to participate at my tracks,” Gural wrote. “(Faraldo) put himself down as the trainer and looking at the program it was obvious that when he raced in New Jersey he put himself down as trainer and when the horse raced the next week in New York, Banca was back down (as trainer)… I thought this was a serious violation of our policies regarding drug trainers.”
Jeff Gural might rub people the wrong way; he might get under people's skin; some of what he does is knee-jerk. But he doesn't seem to care. That carefree attitude resonates with a lot of frustrated people in the sport of horse racing.

There's growth in them there gambling hills. 

The latest positive article involves "E Sports". In "How E-Sports Gambling Grows to $30B in Wagers by 2020" the writer notes:
  • Steady growth for already-significant skin gambling products mixed with a series of small booms on the cash betting side will combine to vault esports betting toward the upper tier of online gambling verticals by 2020. 
Recently, the NBA game seven anecdotally blew away gambling expectations, people are speaking of $5B (legally) or more bet on sports this year, almost a 100% increase since 2006. Daily Fantasy has done over a couple of billion per year despite being hammered by nanny-staters and seemingly everyone else; after doing virtually nothing in handle in 2011. If you speak with any Wall Street analyst they talk about the potential for gambling stocks over and over again.

This is going on while some people in racing argue about 1% drops or rises in handle, or if a takeout reduction brings in more or less revenue after a couple of weeks, (after 87 or so years of takeout hikes).

The mindset in Vegas with sports betting, or in esports or fantasy is all about growth, new markets, investment and innovation.  Racing's mindset seems to be stuck in poker subsidies or government handouts.

I don't think anyone is happy that in this environment with rising populations, with gambling becoming more and more mainstream, racing- which had a tremendous first mover advantage for so long, especially online - seems to have little or no response.

Enjoy your Tuesday everyone.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Canterbury Park's Handle Report Card, So Far

I was asked a couple of months ago what I thought Canterbury Park's handle would do this season. As most know, the Minnesota racetrack announced a takeout reduction; from the low 20's in exotics to 18%, and 17% to 15% in the straight pools.

The answer I gave was "I don't know." It's a small track, with small pools (where there is a struggle to get noticed) and the landscape for smaller racetracks this year has been soft. With so many factors at play I simply had no real guess.

What I can say, however, is the little track has been doing the right things, and bettors have been responding.

Although it is problematic to analyze micro results, or to get too concerned day to day - for example, I wondered why handle was off Saturday, but there was a $150,000 bridgejumper in 2015, and Saturday of 2016 was a quarterhorse day - we do have some data:

Currently from 2015, the track's Thoroughbred handle is up by about 4%. Its per entry handle is up about 10%.

Although that may not look like a big jump, given the circumstances, it is.

The entries and carded fields (partly because of fewer races on turf, but also other factors) have been really soft. Out of the 18 cards raced in 2016, 6 (33%) of them had fewer than 48 Thoroughbred entries. In 2015, no cards had under 48 entries.

During one of the cards with 43 entries, a player who is supporting the pools told me "unless I can find $500 in bets in the next two races, I won't be able to spend $2,000 today." The last two races had five horses in each, so I expect he did not succeed. That's big stuff to gamblers at almost any takeout rate or rebate level.

This is not a 'field size' issue in generic terms, though. When a track goes from a 9 horse race to a 7 horse race, handle does fall, of course, but it's almost linear. When 7 horse fields turn into to 3 or 4 horse fields -- like Canterbury has been scratched into several times this season -- it's crushing; trifecta and superfecta pools are cancelled. You can't even tread water by eliminating entire pools.

I would estimate that if Canterbury had done nothing for 2016, they would probably be down somewhere between 15% to 25% in handle this season. In fact, other tracks of their ilk, are struggling, despite fielding much more than 45 or 46 entries on a third of their cards. Small tracks overall, (those who have done less than $10M in 2016 so far) are down 10.35%. Tracks between $10M and $30M are down about 5%. It has not been a good year for smaller venues.

Canterbury Park should be encouraged at this early stage. They have done well promoting their racetrack, and have increased their handle under pretty poor circumstances. As well, it appears they stopped the bleeding; they lost revenue from handle in 2015 from 2014.

For those bettors who took a look at a couple of the 40 entry cards and were discouraged, that's improving, and should improve this summer.

For those who have not dove into the pools, take a look this Thursday and Friday, because I think it's a fun track to play, and you will be rewarding one who seems to care about its future and wants your business.

As for how much I think they'll be up in 2016, I still don't really know. Takeout reductions are usually long term in nature because of the value of churn and customer lifetime value, and in the short term there are many factors at play, just like there was a couple of months ago.

Have a nice Monday everyone.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Belmont Day Thoughts

Yesterday's Belmont, as you all know by now, went to Arkansas Derby winner Creator. Exaggerator, the 7-5 chalk, faltered after a wide trip and was no threat.

Creator earned a 120 TimeformUS figure for his effort. Destin, a nose back, earned a 121.

Creator, not-coincidentally, was the horse the 'rabbit' (Gettysburg) was entered for, in a bit of old-time horse racing skullduggery. Not soon after the race, Gettysburg was transferred back into the barn of the original trainer; the trainer who noted he would not get 12 furlongs. Then later on, apparently Toddster told them to take a hike.

While that all happened, the sport yawned with its favorite line - "it's part of the game" - while the rest of the world looked on wondering what kind of insider game they're up against when they lay down their $2.

Creator's rider - Irad Ortiz Jr. - gave the big grey a masterful trip, saving every inch of ground like a real pro. It likely made the difference because Destin was iron tough. Lani, closing from Japan, made a good impression. As did the hard luck rail horse, who was bounced around like a pinball.

Now, to some notes:

Frosted chose the Met Mile as his first race back from Dubai and as usual with Dubai shippers, ran a major clunker  absolutely throttled the competition with a 135 TimeformUS figure. I have no idea what KM does or did with his horses coming back from Dubai, but all of them have made an amazing account of themselves. Fat, happy horses. Frosted was in a world of his own, against some nice horses.

Exaggerator, to me, looked a little soft in the post parade; like the schedule got to him a bit. I don't know if my eyes were deceiving me or not, but if he was worn down, it's more evidence on how amazing the constitution of American Pharoah was.

A sportswriter calls Belmont Day 12 hours of hell.  Insiders might say such people should venture out on the grounds and learn about the sport, looking for stories they understand better. But when a personality does that, they get flamed on twitter. You can't really win.

It's being reported that Belmont TV overnights were about 1/3rd last years, not surprisingly. However, in 2009, one year after Big Brown's Triple Crown try, they were only cut in half. It'll be interesting to see the numbers when they are officially released. (update here)

Overall handle was down 37%. From what I see, apples to apples, this is not a great number, when all things are considered. But there are arguments to be made. Take a look at Crunk's sheet, which shows some numbers.

From the same sheet - handle outside Belmont yesterday was down 22.2%. A Triple try brings folks out who may have not come out without one.

Per capita Belmont day figures bounce around - probably indicative that we can't really trust reported attendance numbers in the sport - but yesterday they came in-line at around $183. That's a lot. A track like Canterbury, who is trying to cultivate a fan base to become bettors, has about $30 a customer. It's a little better this year with the lower juice.

If you would've told me two months ago, the day with the biggest handle wins from Triple Crown 2016 would be wet, soggy Pimlico, with no real stars on the card, I would've been surprised. But it was. I think Magna (or whatever we're calling them now) has improved their distribution over the past year or so.

Flintshire -- too good for those.

There were bounces this past weekend, then there was the horse everyone predicted to bounce like a big beach ball -- Sharp Azteca -- who raced well. Go figure.

Have a nice Monday everyone.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Number 9

Gordie Howe, "Mr. Hockey" passed away today, at age 88. Throughout the world (and in Canada especially) the man was a true sports legend.

Number 9 played in a time that many people who watch the sport today are unfamiliar with. The game was nowhere near as fast, and players with skill, or moxy, or pure smarts could dominate the game, and make it incredibly entertaining.

Gordie Howe was not as gifted a scorer as many would think, but he played the game with such vigor, he was a game changer. Nicknamed "Mr. Elbows" for his prowess in the corners, he would intimidate opponents, come up with the puck, over and over again, setting up goal after goal. He was the quintessential power forward; a Gordie Howe hat trick - a goal, assist and a fight - carries his name.

For many, it's when hockey was hockey.

Horse racing (to many of us) brings back similar memories.

Remember in the 1980's (or before that for many of you) having to head to the track to see a star horse? For those outside a metropolis, we might have seen him or her on a grainy video on a sports show or newscast, but we certainly never saw them race. If such a horse visited your track, there would be an energy, and line-ups down the street to get in.

Even seeing a horse like Seattle Slew, or Cam Fella, or Affirmed, or Jate Lobell's past performances were a luxury.

These horses, like old time hockey players, raced and raced hard, too. Every week or two or three they'd be in the box, and we'd have to get a newspaper, or chat with a friend to see how they did.

It didn't matter if they lost - horses lost and bounced back fine. There were no trainers worried about a win percentage in stakes, or what a loss might do to stud value, they were more worried about making money.

It was a glorious time.

But, sometimes while thinking of yesterday makes us appreciate what was, we often time lose sight of what was. 

Growing up in a hockey family, I got to hear stories. One of which, from a line mate of my father's in junior, kind of cut to the chase. This gentleman played several years for the Boston Bruins, and was traded to Detroit in the early 1960's. As the story goes (one day as a kid in the basement), upon negotiation of his Detroit contract, a condition was that he could not disclose his salary to anyone. Why, because he (and a few others) were getting paid more than Gordie Howe, and management didn't want him to know. That's "Old Time Hockey", too.

Today the players are getting paid what they're worth. They're not sent back out after getting hit in the head with lumber, they're taken care of with rules beyond the law of the jungle.

Today we can also watch the sport when we want, how we want. It's there for us in our busy lives. Finding out who won a game the next day seems, well, so 1960's.

Similarly, although I loved seeing a star at the track, with thousands of other fans who love horse racing, seeing him or her on my computer screen any time I want is a luxury I would never want to give up. Chatting with friends and fans of the sport on social media is a wonderful thing.

Horse racing - like hockey - has gotten safer, as well. Bringing a horse out behind the barn doesn't happen nearly as much. The world has changed and demands it.

Number 9 will always bring back good memories, just like old time horses do for me. But despite the difficulties in each sport today, I think we have it awfully good.

Rest in peace Mr. Hockey.

Enjoy Belmont Stakes and North America Cup elimination day everyone. Have a nice weekend.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Dazed and Not-So-Confused

Trainer (this is apparently the story; no one is really talking much) fails drug test > his horse is scratched > racing becomes dazed and confused.

I don't blame anyone for being a little upset about this. Although we know nothing about this case in particular, probable trace elements of THC are not the be all and end all in this world, and will likely be perfectly legal in 50 states and 10 provinces at some point during our lifetimes.

But, from the information we do know, I'm not a bit confused.

State run enterprises and their employees are usually under such rules because drugs like THC are still (for the most part) against the law. In addition, working with 1,100 pound animals in a dangerous environment poses particular risks. Drug, alcohol and other rules will be enacted and continue to be enforced in the sport, whether the product is legal or illegal.

Because the laws are on the books, NY State had zero choice in their enforcement of it. In the super-litigious U.S. it becomes even more obvious they had to act. Sweeping it under the rug, and having a horse get loose and killing someone will end up being a movie of the week with Julia Roberts kicking some NY State gaming board ass for not suspending 'Jeff Spicolli'.

As well, there are those who say 'let the horse run' and again they have a point; I understand it. However, the horse would be running under a beard trainer, and everyone hates those.

Following and enforcing written rules never seems to be overly convenient. But as long as they're written, and as long as racing is a quasi-public enterprise, rules like these will be around forever. If you work in the industry, you should probably take heed.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Small State-Small Track Conundrum

There was some news out of Michigan horse racing today. A bill passed the House that would outlaw all internet wagering in the state on horse racing. For those who use a letter in front of someone's name to decide whether to cast blame or praise, well, you can't do that in this case, because the vote was 104 to 4.

The reason is the same given for passing many policies such as this, falling revenues.
  • From a high of nine tracks in the state, only two remain — Northville Downs and Hazel Park Raceway — and staying in business has been a challenge. In 1999, horse racing generated $13.2 million in revenues to the state on wagers of $416 million and boasted of 42,300 jobs across the farms and tracks. By 2015, according to the state’s annual horse racing report, those revenues had shrunk to $3.5 million on wagers of $106 million.
Although this is clearly anti-consumer - through restricting choice and increasing prices - most industries who lobby for such policies, do so because there is little other choice. They're not competitive in the open market, so they have to get the market changed.

There are a few other tactics that can be used to help, but really, they are all anti-consumer. There's not a lot one can do when the demand for a product in a state has fallen so rapidly.

Short-term the state, if the Bill is signed, should see a revenue increase. Long-term, as customers find other ways to bet (a good deal of Michigan's bigger players will suddenly be cozying up to Grandpa for his out-of-state address), and other things to spend discretionary income on like the new-and-improved Greektown Casino!, revenue will continue to shrink.

For the horse racing industry as a whole, these policies are especially damaging. If states like Texas, Michigan and others continue to enact exclusionary policies, or high priced source market fees, it shrinks the betting base for national horse racing in one fell swoop.

There are no easy answers; such is the way it is in small track, small state live horse racing.

Monday, June 6, 2016

My Top Innovators in Horse Racing

It's often said innovation in horse racing doesn't happen much, if at all. It's said the business is too constrained for innovation; fiefdoms control much of the signals, video, data, and just about everything else, causing an environment that is 'innovationless'.

I won't argue that's, at least in part, true.

But, commentator, physicist and author Peter Diamandis once said, 'Companies have too many 'experts' that block innovation. True innovation comes from perpendicular thinking.'

You can still think in perpendicular fashion, despite being blocked. There are certainly some in the sport who think without shackles. 

Here are a few people and/or organizations that I think have been trying to innovate in the sport of horse racing. I'm sure there are others, but these ones, over the years, have caught my eye.

Mark Midland -- Mark is the man behind Derby Wars and Horse Racing Nation, after a career at Youbet. Mark is always trying to think of new ways to do things, and has succeeded in various ways. Derby Wars, for example, was an early adopter of the fantasy seed laid by FanDuel, before many even heard of FanDuel.

Dana Byerly - Not employed by horse racing, Dana proves you don't need a paycheck to try new things.  Hello Race Fans, a fan education site, was created long before anyone was talking about fan education. Tout Wire and Horse Racing Data Sets are two other ventures.  Dana also runs which (I'd be bereft to mention) was created by another innovative thinker, Jessica Chapel.

TimeformUS - Real time updated odds on the PP's (for racetracks who let them), pace projector, bias indicators, updated PP's with scratches and surface changes; all optimized for a tablet. In racing it's often said "our customers won't like that, because they like reading the races one way." This makes trying things (at times) that are deemed commercially not viable difficult. But, people read paper charts while stock trading 20 years ago and now paper charts don't even exist. Times change, markets change and so do people. TimeformUS is working towards that change. **

Betfair/New Jersey - Racing often considers new ways to play sport cannibalization, and has forever. But cheese makers didn't worry about cheddar sales and looked towards increasing gross sales by offering more types of cheese and packaging it differently. New Jersey grabbed the ball and ran with it. Racing in many ways missed the boat with online wagering; Betfair didn't. Kudos to the Garden State for trying to look forward.

Brad Cummings -  Brad helped create The Paulick Report and supervised its various user experience iterations. People can gripe all they want about it being a link farm, but it works, and has worked for some time; it's modern, fast, and entertaining. Brad also created "Equilottery" which, on the surface, is something the industry needs to look into to attack new markets.

OptixEQ - A visual way to look at the races along with dedicated trip notes; longer and more detailed than the "ridden out" industry standard.  This is a new entrant into the space, created in part by past NHC champ John Doyle.

Ian Meyers - Ian was the man, at the early stage, behind Premier Turf Club. This ADW was the first to offer conditional wagering, and most importantly, cash rewards to every player. Small players were getting rewards from offshore sites for some time, and Ian helped bring some of them back into the fold. Others resisted, and still resist in offering better pricing to their customers, so they can win more, and bet more.  Ian saw the way the industry needed to head to not lose market share, long before the industry did.

Canterbury Park - Canterbury Park is trying to leverage their on-track crowd better, and they're educating them on the benefits of lower takeout. They're also trying to stake a claim to a national audience. Their subsidy for purses may run out some day, and they're trying to be innovative on what they do beforehand. Some might just say this is good business, and they'd be right, but you can count on many hands and feet jurisdictions that do or did nothing with slot money other than stuff it into a purse.

NYRA's TV and Video Department - At NYRA, it's not just put up an "L" screen and hope people keep betting. They use their back-end talent to create new ways to show the races. Their on-track show is tops, they have different TV angles, HD pictures and even allow Spanish listeners to hear a call in their preferred language. It's no surprise other signals have copied the left to right lower virtual odds board of late.

Some honorable mentions -- I like XBTV; the DRF is clearly still doing some excellent things (Forumlator is a very good tool, and one of the first web-based database programs offered in the sport); there are many people trying things on twitter and elsewhere, like Jason Beem. There are others I have no doubt forgotten (or am unaware of), so let me know what you think in the comments section.

** - I know a couple of the TFUS guys. Just an FYI.

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