Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Remind Me Because I'm Dumb - Why Does The Sport of Horse Racing Need "Influencers" Again?

I'm the first to admit I don't get this trend of tracks hiring influencers to, do what I am not certain, but this week's chatter about Alix Earle (yes, I had to google this person) made me want to at least think about it a little. 

I did. And I have come to report, I still don't get it. 

Out of all the things I can list that I believe horse racing needs to improve upon, hiring someone on tiktok might be about 289th. 

Let's think about this audience target. 

I've scoured twitter and I have not heard one complaint that there are too few hats on Derby Day. Hell, turn on the teevee, all we see is hats on Derby Day. It's a freaking hatapalooza. 

I'm not sure there are too few plastered kids at Keeneland. 

No complaints that there are too few people dressed like Michael Iavaronne at Gulfstream. 

I have not heard what the Derby telecast needs to turn horse racing around is more Johnny Weir. I like Johnny Weir, don't get me wrong. His sidekick seems nice, too, but I don't think more Johnny Weir means a bigger foal crop. Do you?

Frankly, if there's something that doesn't need fixing in horse racing, it's the on-track crowd for the big events. 

TV ratings for the Derby are massive, crowds at big events are still good. Saratoga rocks. Even Kentucky Downs raised takeout because apparently a hundred million in free subsidy money couldn't pay for tents. They really wanted those tents. Maybe they're going to fill them by hiring more influencers.

Regardless, here's what the smart marketing people think we are all supposed to believe in this fantasy land -

i) One in like one million people will see Alix (not with an "e") on tiktok, and it looks like she's having fun with all the pretty horses. 

ii) This tiktok unicorn person lives in Pittsburgh. 

iii) She or he and a few friends will be "influenced" and hop in the car and go to Mountaineer, and they get the bug. They become regulars, bettors and possibly even new horse owners!

We were born on a day and it wasn't yesterday (well except for those of you reading this who are one day old). We know that even if this black swan event happens, these kids will take one look at Mountaineer, see a bunch of people that look like me, and immediately leave for the casino and play blackjack and drink free drinks. 

Influencers. Out of all the boneheaded and bizarre things horse racing does, this one is so bonkers I think all the other dimwitted ideas orbit around it. 


For a more nuanced take on this, try Andrew Champagne

If you haven't seen the interview with Chris Larmey, which in my view does have actionable intelligence in growing the sport, click here. Thanks to Bacon for re-running it. 

Monday, January 29, 2024

Navigating Those Damn Models

Models and math geeks can be infuriating, and for some fans of yesterday's Lions-49ers slugfest, that was on full display. Making decisions that just don't "feel right" do not sit well with us. We're emotional beings. And we sure had alotta feels yesterday, especially on 4th down calls. 

For football, or as we wager on horse racing, modeling helps us learn something by taking the emotion out of it. I think we all know that. But, according to many that's the problem - models can't account for a lot of things outside the numbers. 

As for Dan Campbell's aggression, the pure numbers did say he made the right decisions. The win probability gained definitely shows it. 

But what about game state, and momentum and everything else we use as a crux to be anti-model?

That's where we can use some of the qualitative (and for anti-model people, in this instance, this probably isn't going to make you feel any better).

As Bill Barnwell notes, should Dan have been less aggressive or more aggressive based on these (mostly) unmodelable factors?

"Absolutely (more aggressive). There's hardly a question. The strength of the Lions is their offense, especially their offensive line and ability to overpower opposing defenses. Their weakness is their defense, particularly their pass defense. They should be more aggressive than the numbers suggest on fourth down because it aligns with the strength of their team."

So, long story short, yes, we don't have to be married to the numbers. We can pivot and adjust, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it's a duck. At that point, no emotional factors or stubbornness or feelz should cement us to go against it. 

Switching over to horse racing, we hear much the same about the "models" - they don't factor in 'stuff' - and that can be true. This gives us an out to hold on to some old angles, or things we think or does work, but the same prescription should apply. 

We may notice, say at the Big A, a 0-11 horse taking money in pick 3's and doubles to 3-1. He's on the board at 3-1, as well. We've watched replays, it ain't our first rodeo and we're convinced this horse simply isn't a "winner". 

We may be right and it's an auto-pitch, but the modelers are telling us he has a 25% chance. Here, rather than just relying on the 4th down decision bot, we can go deeper. 

Is the horse dropping? Did he lose the races simply because he was against better horses? Will he get an easy lead today, where as we all know that can turn perennial losers into winners?

Rather than sticking what makes us feel good and relying on base cases that may or may not be correct, we keep open minded and can pivot. No, we may not bet the horse, but we might decide to sit the race out, or not go all-in on the 9-5 shot, because we convinced ourselves the 3-1 loser has "no shot".

I've changed my horse racing play dramatically over the last six months or so. 

Just recently I loved an animal for a sizeable wager. Just loved the horse. When the board opened and I checked will-pays, a horse who has a high ceiling but has been racing terrible was completely hammered. I watched replays, I looked as hard as I could for something I missed, and nothing. Meanwhile the horse I loved was not being bet. 

Five years ago I bet the horse I love with both fists. Two years ago I bet my horse with one fist. Six months ago I might sit the race out. 

In this case I didn't just sit the race out, I actually bet on the horse I was confused about. He won by 8 and paid $5. 

The bottom line is that models work. No not all the time, but they work. 

It's why NFL coaching is getting more efficient, and at least partially why we're seeing more close games. It's why every topic under the sun in racing involves "CAW" teams winning too much. 

No, they aren't the be all and end all, and knowing and learning when to add data and pivot is important. But they aren't going anywhere, and if we're sticking with emotion or feels, or any other heuristic that's married to old mindsets, in my view we're not doing ourselves any favors. 

Have a great Monday everyone. 

Friday, January 26, 2024

(Somewhere Else) Horse Racing Has "Been There Done That"

The Tinky-Mike Repole King of All Horse Racing battle on the twitter is kind of interesting. 

I guess battle is not the right word, since Tinky's blue checkmark 3,239 character missives are usually met with one word replies. But they're interesting to me nonetheless. 

Most of what Tinky and the rest of the horse racing world talks about, in my view, is what Crunk calls "Groundhog Day". We've been through this many times before. It's rinse-wash-repeat. 

And it truly confuses me. 

I got an email today from Microsoft detailing a new feature. Microsoft owns Bing, which is a search engine like google's is, and they have their own ad platform to drive search revenue, just like google does. For 15 years or more, Microsoft tried to create their own "thing" to deliver ads. They spent money, they experimented, they created various iterations of platforms. 

However, over the last six or seven years, their big corporate change is to do whatever google does. If google changes an ad type, they do. If google creates a new set of audiences, a month later they do. 

This change is not because they're lazy or dumb. They realize that google will i) try and maximize their ad serving revenue (it was over $200B last year) and ii) have reams and reams of data and engineering to support the change, so the change is probably right. 

The thing is, horse racing has that, too. 

We argue about fixed odds, like it's something new, like one of those Stanley tumblers everyone wants. Fixed odds for horse racing has been around for three centuries. 

For a dozen years we argued about exchanges. Betting a horse to lose, cannibalization, revenues, margins, blah blah. Meanwhile, it's been running for over twenty years already in several parts of the world for horse racing. 

Fixed odds has been perfected over the years. Sure people can get tossed if they win too much, but it's a vital part of the ecosystem in places like the UK and Australia. It drives reach and revenue, and it's there if people want to use it. It's changed over the years and continues to. It's profit driven, and for the most part taxed on profit so it drives near optimal revenue. 

Exchanges are like some new bogeyman in 2024 in North America, but they happily drive reach and revenue just like fixed odds do. And they innovate and change as well with regards to prices and profits. 

A bunch of years ago Racing Victoria downunder wanted more money from exchanges, so they increased the hold. This brought in less profit, so they reversed their ask and went back to the hold around 7%. How many times have you ever heard a racing jurisdiction ask to lower the takeout to a bet taker with data to back it up?

This goes for a lot of other things in this sport. Field size, driving horse ownership, allocation of purse funds. Many places have "been there done that".  They are more centrally run, they have the data, they have tried things over and over. 

The UK, Australia, Hong Kong are not perfect and everything isn't wine and roses, but they have done much of the work for you. No one is starting from scratch. 

The job of "racing" in North America, whether it be the Jockey Club, or Repole, or the Tinkster, is to create some path that allows the sport to use the work that's already been done by others. 

For Microsoft it's easy. They simply create a platform with an ability to mimic another. 

For racing, it probably is another Groundhog Day moment. But it sure would be nice for them to focus on that side of the issue, than to start from scratch when much of the data is only a google (or Bing) search away.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Interesting Nuggets from the Much Talked About Bloodhorse Wagering Survey

Twitter, or X or whatever, was abuzz with the Bloodhorse Industry Wagering Survey article. It, for those who didn't read it, asked questions about racing to various stakeholders, most of whom have some power in the sport. 

Unsurprisingly, I have some thoughts. 

First, a shout out to the "I don't know much about this topic so I'll just say this" responder, Dr. Dionne Benson. Dr. Benson knows her lane and simply said sound horses and full fields surely help wagering. Kudos!

Most know Dennis Drazin of Monmouth. He's the one who pushed and implemented fixed odds betting through Monmouth Bets dot com. So, we'd expect to hear about fixed odds, right? 

Nope, Dennis noted "we need to increase and expand entertainment opportunities at our venues to encourage live attendance." That probably tells us how fixed odds wagering is going. 

Another Dennis, this time Cornick of West Point, had a great answer in my view. He touched on all the wagering bases including the simple fact the industry has to be responsive to the customer base when it screws up. It's remarkable to me that he was the only one who spoke about this. 

I thought Michael Mulvihill of Fox Sports had arguably the best big picture comment.

  • Horses and horse racing are soulful. Online sports betting is frankly soulless. Racing has to emphasize the qualities that are more satisfying than just staring at your phone. Racing can't compete with sports betting on either takeout or volume of betting opportunities, so fan satisfaction has to come from other qualities: the art of handicapping, the unrestrained fun of a day out at a good track, the enjoyment of being around the animals. Horse racing has to build its brand on the unique qualities that make it more than a digital roulette wheel.
Some might roll their eyes at that but there's some meat on that bone in my view. 

I think it was Mike Maloney, many years ago now, that said "we can't out casino a casino".  Currently, casinos are not trying to out casino online betting either. To put another "00" on a roulette wheel you better be attracting people with something else. 

After 3,000 posts you know this isn't me advocating for putting another 00 on the horse racing takeout wheel, I am speaking about the top funnel which the sport (and us as bettors) are dependent upon. Differentiating your product in the current gambling landscape is not a weakness but a strength, and exploring that is smart business. 

I thought Elliott Walden made a strong point about bringing "inside racing" to the masses. I've believed in this for a long time. The more open and transparent you are, the more chance you're giving people a new data point, or reason to wager. 

Most of the rest I found frankly wishcasting, which can be prevalent in the business. 

I suppose the underlying point about these stakeholder thoughts should not go unmentioned.

I listened to a podcast recently about tech bloat at Twitter. They over hired, and project managers were paralyzed to do anything because you'd have to speak with so many others to get approvals (for sometimes the simplest of things). This was a privately run, public company with management under one roof. It was a company who just a few years before was smart and nimble. 

So, let's say we wanted to change wagering because we had the Best Racing and Wagering Idea of All Time™. 

Every person on that list. From horsepeople groups to HISA, from NYRA to Stronach, from Dennis Drazin's fixed odds platforms to 1/ST racing's pari-mutuel, from the COO to the Jockey Club to a wife of a trainer who has an idea or two. All of them would have to sign off. 

Wagering ideas are great. Some of the respondents to the survey were quite thoughtful. However, as someone I read somewhere wrote, "you can do anything but not everything". 

Horse racing's structure proves that wanting to do everything with people who are focused on 'their thing' is a ball and chain so big that other ball and chains orbit around it. Fixing that? Maybe we need another committee. 

Have a nice Tuesday and all the best to you and yours in 2024.  

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