Saturday, October 19, 2013
If the Shoe Fits…
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 19, 2013—As stated in today’s Feature Race Analysis this morning, New York-bred Showcase Day in recent years is the third-largest handle day at New York Racing Assn. tracks, behind only the Belmont and Travers programs.
Full fields are the rule, not the exception, lots of diversity, and a horse population that’s familiar to New York horseplayers, providing plenty of grist for the gambling mill. The event has come a long way since Dr. Dominic DeLuke, one of the program’s pioneers, and trainer Mike Hernandez seemingly won all the events.
Quality has improved steadily and the event no longer is—and I’m not proud of authoring this—the “Muskrat Ramble.” Funny Cide changed the profile of the state-bred program forever—although there probably are still too many mares of dubious quality being inseminated here. But that’s a story for another day.
Whether you know him or not, or whether you like him or not, it was fun watching trainer Gary Sciacca loving on Saratoga Snacks in the Belmont Park winners’ circle after the very talented 4-year-old gamely held off the late rally of Bigger Is Bettor to win the centerpiece Empire Classic, his seventh victory in 10 career starts for the August Dawn Farm of NFL Hall of Famer Bill Parcells.
There was pressure on the trainer this week as he vacillated between the 9-furlong Classic, in which he finished second last year, and the 6-furlong Hudson Handicap. But since Sciacca equipped the 4-year-old ridgling with glue-on shoes, he’s been training more aggressively, giving Sciacca the impetus to go for the big prize.
Sciacca believed his horse was fit enough to get the trip, his first start since August 1, and Joel Rosario, who only recently returned from an injury, worked his magic in the final furlongs as Saratoga Snacks was getting weary. Excellent job all around, including the association’s decision to debut the popular 50-Cent trifecta on the high profile betting card.
Gold Rail Has Bettors Seeing Red
Apparently, bias is not limited to extremist wings of political parties. The inside portion of Big Sandy, especially lane #1, has been carrying home speed in an aberrant fashion all meet long, notwithstanding a week-to-10-days period when the main track gave all runners a fair chance to win, no matter which path, no matter the running style.
Actually, we hadn’t seen a bias this strong in New York, and for such a long period of time, since the rail literally carried Gusty O’Shea to victory in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga in 1973. This season it’s been difficult to distinguish between the Belmont Fall meet and any spring session at Keeneland pro-Polytrack.
The atmospherics have been very good on Long Island relatively speaking since racing returned to Long Island at the beginning of September. There are no legitimate excuses as far as I can see.
A bias is unfair to horsemen that are powerless to meet such a challenge and to bettors that are often forced to guess which horse will be sent to the lead at all costs, badly skewing race dynamics. And with virtually all main track races being contested around one turn, positional speed, more than overall ability, is paramount.
Some jockeys are quick to recognize a bias. Rajiv Maragh stole several races late this week when he made use of his mount’s ability to get the lead and clear the field to establish rail position.
Leading rider Javier Castellano also has made excellent use of the golden rail at this session, although he seemed to overcompensate aboard the speedy Warrioroftheroses in the Empire Classic, making far too much use of his mount early in a 9-furlong, one turn event.
The point is that horses should determine the outcome of races, not track superintendents.
Written by John Pricci
Thursday, October 10, 2013
Simulcast Conference Takeaway: One Step Forward, One Step Back
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 10, 2013—It’s good to see that in the Fall Championship season, form is holding: There will be no concerted effort by the Society of Thoroughbred Simulcasters to reduce parimutuel takeout.
And why you ask: Because at this week’s Simulcast Conference, Hawthorne Race Course's assistant. general manager said—ensuing Internet firestorm to follow—that “I never hear anyone say anything about a takeout rate unless I read a blog.”
Well, the one good thing that came out of the confab is that there will be more of a concentration to lower bet minimums because data has shown that factional wagering has a beneficial impact on handle whereas—get this—studies that prove lowering takeout increases handle are inconclusive.
Note to Mr. Walsh and any other industry executive who believes that lowering takeout is an Internet phenomenon that doesn’t have real world applications: Fractional wagering would not have expanded had the blogosphere been mum on the subject.
HRI only has been lobbying for lower minimum bets and lower takeout rates since—I don’t know—forever?
This much I will give the Anti-Takeout people; revenues decrease in the short term. The problem is no one is willing to take a haircut long enough for the benefits of churn to kick in. Back in the 1970s in New York, a study lasting nearly two years showed handle increases and revenues started to rise.
Of course, the law permitting the lower takeout rate experiment sunset and the issue died of complications due to chronic apathy in the legislative halls of the state capitol. Never mind that it would have been good for the state’s education coffers. When politics wins, real solutions [read people] lose.
Good thing for horseplayers that Scott Finley, simulcasting executive for the New York Racing Assn. and knowledgeable horseplayer, was in attendance, informing the conferees that lower bet minimums in multi-race pools not only didn’t cannibalize other existing sequential wagers but actually helped increase handle.
In fact, NYRA soon will lower the minimum wager on trifectas to 50-Cents, something HRI has called for since Arlington Park first popularized the fractionalized wager several years ago.
Apparently, the move has been on the back burner for a while since the new wagering machines that debuted at Belmont Park this fall now allow bettors to make 50-Cent wagers at tracks that allow for this minimum.
The problem, of course, is simulcasting’s double edge sword. Providing the type of content that bettors want in the modern era--which accounts for nearly 90 percent of total handle in the U.S.—has helped bettors to specialize at tracks where they have the greatest amount of success or with given race forms; stakes, turf racing, maiden allowance types, etc.
The flip side, obviously, is the fact that racing states and/or ADWs won’t pay for simulcast products they can’t max-out at the bottom line. At the philosophical bottom line, industry fractions still prefer to compete than cooperate.
Yes, point an appropriate finger at state houses in the various racing states, but there must be some creative way to overcome. Instead, states like New York will use their product for leverage by charging out-of-state bet-takers a 5% premium for handling the action of the state’s horseplayers.
The businesses that succeed figure out ways to grow, lest they die; myopic racetrack and off-track executives figure out ways to advance protectionism, believing that the ill will of competitors and customers is a small price to pay to grow their business.
Written by John Pricci
Sunday, October 06, 2013
Toasting the Champagne
ELMONT, NY, October 5, 2013—I wish I could remember more about Donut King, learning later in life only that the horse was named for owner Verne Winchell, who owned the highly successful California-based franchise. But that was 52 years ago.
Two years later, little Roman Brother, sporting the readily identifying silks of Harbor View Farm, made his usual late run to win beneath a well named “Gentleman John” Rotz.
Buckpasser gave a hair-raising performance in 1965 and five years later, within a span of three years, 1970 -- 1972, two of the best juveniles I’ve ever seen, Hoist The Flag and Secretariat had their victories expunged courtesy of the New York stewards.
As best as I can remember, I believe Secretariat’s was understandable but not so Hoist the Flag’s. Having won by double digits, the Sid Watters Jr. trainee never would have been disqualified given today’s rules and the brilliant colt’s complete domination.
The modern day judgment call, even when I disagree, is a better way to go.
Of course, the great Seattle Slew announced his presence in 1977, followed in rapid succession by Alydar and Spectacular Bid, with Easy Goer virtually closing out the decade of the 80s.
By that time the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile took precedent and, for me, it wasn’t until 2010 and 2011 when brilliant miler Uncle Mo and the somewhat ill-fated Union Rags brought back some needed electricity to the most significant event in the history of juvenile racing.
Personally, then, it’s been quite some time since I eagerly awaited the one turn mile at Belmont Park: Hopeful monster Strong Mandate vs. Honor Code vs. Havana.
It looked like it would be a match for the ages--but two out of three ain’t bad.
After breaking sharply away from the barrier Strong Mandate was seventh in the blink of an eye, never to be heard from again.
Wayne Lukas blamed himself, saying he should have come to Belmont earlier, that jockey Jose Ortiz was saying the colt wasn’t really comfortable on a surface that’s more demanding than Saratoga’s.
For the time being, I’m willing to swill the Kool Aid. Clearly, Strong Mandate bore no resemblance to the one on display upstate. He might not win but figures to be much better in the Juvenile, his next start.
Then so will the 2013’s one-two finishers—Bahama and Honor Code—who just have easily been two-one. From appearing to have the race well in hand, it was fortunate that the wire came up when it did.
Just like the day he broke his maiden, coming from a crazy 22 lengths back, Honor Code came flying late and just missed getting all the money.
Honor Code might not be a better colt at Santa Anita, but only because Shug McGaughey left the door open for the nine-furlong Remsen at Thanksgiving weekend rather than ship to California.
“You’d always like to go to the Breeders’ Cup but he’s a young horse and it would be only his third start,” said McGaughey.
“Obviously, next spring would be our main objective. [But] whatever [owners Lane's End Racing and Dell Ridge Farm] want to do is going to be fine with me."
The Juvenile would be Havana’s third start, too, and he was stretching from 5-1/2 furlongs to a mile yesterday and not seven as did Honor Code.
“He wasn't 22 lengths out of it today, McGaughey said, “it was only 12 or 15. Having to go wide probably cost us the race but Havana got the jump at the head of the stretch and opened up and we were unlucky to not catch him”
Which is not to say that Havana had it easier. Forced to chase the pace from along the inside down the long backstretch, Havana was part of the pace, the middle of the race, and finish. Not all that enviable, especially coming off a lone 5-1/2 furlong run.
“I thought there were a couple that could press us,” said Todd Pletcher after winning his fifth Champagne…
“I think Irad [Ortiz] did a good job of not giving up that position but not forcing it too much, either… I could see the other horse revving up and I knew he had a big run from Saratoga. I was hoping we'd have enough to hold on."
Havana did, in a solid 1:35.81.
Pletcher was asked if he’d go with confidence to the Breeders' Cup: "I think so. I can't imagine the horses we ran against today aren't going to be certainly some of the favorites for it.” Then he offered this:
“I think there's room for improvement. I think he can move forward for his third start."
If he does, it would provide Pletcher with what his two most recent Champagne winners, Shanghai Bobby and Uncle Mo, afforded him: an Eclipse championship.
Written by John Pricci