Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Chris Kay Will Be Missed: Discuss

January 30, 2019--In the wake of Chris Kay’s “resignation” from the New York Racing Association last week, an Internet poll was conducted asking: “Should extensive racing knowledge be a prerequisite for being CEO of a major racetrack or association?”

The results were not in the least bit surprising but the margin of disparity was an eye-opener: Four of every five respondents indicated that a deep knowledge of racing was needed to do the job.

Perhaps the margin shouldn’t be all that surprising and is really typical of racing’s stakeholders; breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, fans of every stripe and horseplayers big or small.

Despite the fact that about 95% of the above mostly lose money, 81% of the population believes that they have a 100% solution to an important industry issue; the game’s management.

In the poll’s comment section, a former NYRA executive--not without his share of controversy--had it right when, after some self-serving observations, noted: “In reality, it is an impossible job! How do you marry horsemen, politicians, executives, handicappers and fans?”

In New York State, the current answer is you can’t, such is the nature of politics. And recall that Governor Andrew Cuomo, who routinely turns his back on racing, recently released a budget that actually suggested divorcing horse racing from OTBs.

As with anything, there are two sides to every story. On the con side, Kay did appear to have a measure of jerk in him. He never failed to see an opportunity to promote himself but, most notably, asked company employees to do private work at his home.

I never have spoken with Kay. My first public glimpse was a press box observation of a winners’ circle ceremony at Saratoga celebrating 50 years of service to the association by lifelong racetracker Sentell “Sonny” Taylor, NYRA’s Official Timer.

Richard Migliore was the master of ceremonies and after the introduction, gave Kay the microphone which the CEO accepted without acknowledging Migliore, a moment that at best was a little cringe-worthy, at worst, rude and self-aggrandizing.

Kay spoke for about five minutes citing, in what can now be categorized as Trumpian style, all the accomplishments his administration made since the prior Saratoga race meet. Afterward, Kay presented Taylor with a gift for his long and meritorious service.

If he acknowledged Taylor by name, I never heard it. Funny how it’s the little things you notice about a man.

So there’s that and the unpopular significantly-higher prices that, in latter day corporate-speak, was meant to “enhance the guest experience.” Then you look at the other side, at what was accomplished during a tenure that began in 2013.

Kay gave subordinates the tools for growth. On his watch NYRA created horse racing’s best closed-circuit TV signal, featuring a deeper talent pool for producers to utilize. With that came many more broadcasts of NYRA racing on Fox Sports 2 into 2020.

Coupled with TV exposure came the significant growth of NYRABets into a world class ADW betting platform that stressed Mobile wagering, racing’s wave into the future.

Kay greenlighted the resurfacing of the Aqueduct main track, lending a big-time veneer to NYRA’s image-busting winter product.

The year after Kay took the helm, thanks to cost cutting and increased revenue, NYRA finished in the black for the first time in over a decade. Indeed, the NYRA has shown a profit from racing operations for all five years of his tenure.

The emergence of a couple of steeds named American Pharoah and Justify certainly didn’t hurt.

In recognition of the Triple Crown’s final leg and event oriented, the NYRA racing office created the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival weekend. The festival theme was replicated on or about Independence Day with a two-day Stars N Stripes Racing Festival, a largely turf-centric theme featuring international invitees.

Kay never got the chance to work on his vision of night racing at Belmont Park, a complete renovation of Elmont’s main track and turf courses, including the installation of a synthetic track for winter racing in anticipation of the future shuttering of Aqueduct Race Track.

Additionally, Kay had hoped to make capital improvements at Belmont in the manner of changes that is reshaping Saratoga, an accomplishment that has played to mixed reviews.

Horseplayers, like Wall Street gamblers, don’t easily embrace change, especially if it comes at an added cost, choosing instead to not look at the sports world and entertainment landscape that surrounds them. To wit:

While in no way comparing the two sports, the average pre-scalper price of a ticket to Sunday’s Super Bowl LIII ranged from $2,500 and $3,000. America’s middle class has long since been priced out of live sporting events.

By comparison, Saratoga racing, even at inflated prices, remains a bargain.

While Kay’s past as chief executive at Toys R Us has been a constant source of critical amusement, his executive time at Universal Parks and Recreation might have created the vision that helped enhance NYRA’s bottom line, his mandate when he accepted the post.

Taking shots at “Mr. Toys R Us” was the low hanging fruit of racetrack executive ridicule. Kay never was a popular CEO but he made the difficult out-of-box decisions needed to move NYRA forward. He deserves credit for that, even if he benefitted him financially.

It is true that Kay never met a photo op that he didn’t like, and made one very stupid decision that came at a very high price—his job.

Let’s see what the geniuses on the NYRA Board of Directors, and the state’s chief executive officer, has in mind going forward. It’s extremely unlikely that any new appointee will accomplish in the next five years what Kay achieved in that same time frame.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, January 21, 2019

Racing’s Waiting for Gadot

January 21, 2019--As international racing fans await Saturday’s Pegasus World Cup and Pegasus Turf, both to be drawn Tuesday and, of course, the big Horse of the Year reveal, this weekend provided a glimpse back at a defending Sprint champion and a look forward on the classics trail. Going round and round in the circle game:

AQUEDUCT: SoCal speed—and now a SoCal closer—came East to dominate his rivals when Solid Wager, happy to make the mini-stretch to his preferred 7 furlong distance, roared home in deep stretch under a well-judged ride from Jose Lezcano.

In taking the G3 Toboggan and improving his record at the trip to (11) 6-1-0, the gelded 8-year-old ran well enough to stick around for the Tom Fool, next up on NYRA’s graded sprint calendar, according to trainer Chris Englehart, who was happy to act as Peter Miller’s New York deputy. Speaking of Miller…

It was welcome back, champ, and this just might be Roy H’s year to take Dubai’s Golden Shaheen. There will be no Mind Your Biscuits to run him down this time, nor might there be a sudden X Y Jet to chase, certainly not the version that showed up in Gulfstream’s Sunshine Millions Sprint earlier.

Roy H, last seen winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint back to back last November, showed absolutely no rust off the layup, tracking mate Conquest Tsunami through a half mile in 44.35, took over when ready entering headstretch, and galloped through the lane, stopping the timer in 1:08.89 eased up beneath Paco Lopez. “He’s a bullet,” said Lopez. “He’s the LeBron James of sprinters,” said Miller, closer to truth than hyperbole.

Earlier, Bob Baffert debuted a 2019 version of Justify called Dessman. Now that might be hyperbole but make no mistake, this Forego-sized 3-year-old can run. Yes, it is one race at 6 furlongs but after breaking flat-footed, he cruised up to the leaders, put them away, then drew out by 7-1/2 lengths, Flavien Prat more passenger than pilot. Stable mail, please.

GULFSTREAM PARK: …Speaking of the Sunshine Millions Sprint, the ever-dangerous Midwest Thoroughbreds outfit picked up all the pieces for trainer Georgina Baxter and Irad Ortiz Jr. when Quijote launched through the stretch after X Y Jet and Ray’swarrior committed pace suicide with splits of 21.09 and 43.54. Not even the perfect trip winner could keep up that pace, needing 1:09.98 to get 6 furlongs.

Javier Castellano showed why he is one of the world’s best grass riders, taking Sunshine Millions Turf with gelded 7-year-old Big Changes and Sunshine Millions Filly Turf with Gulfstream turf grass machine, Starship Jubilee.

With Big Changes (Brad Cox), he kept the race favorite in the clear throughout, set him down with vigorous urging to pass main rival Class and Cash on his outside and drifted a few paths thereafter to intimidate and show his mount that there was more left to do.

But the Starship Jubilee (Kevin Attard) ride was magical. It has to be when he start from the 13 slip with a short run to the first turn. He sent him early, decided to back off but was caught five-wide and between horses mid-turn then curled into the backstretch in the 3 or 4 path, the best that could be achieved under the conditions. After straightening away, the filly devastated her state-bred rivals.

Not to be outdone, Johnny Velazquez was tactically brilliant to take the Sunshine Millions Classic astride Souper Tapit for Mark Casse, who enjoyed quite the Saturday...more on that later.

With Jay’s Way setting a controlled but pressured pace, Velazquez established a comfortable 3-wide stalking trip but, more importantly, kept the dangerous Dalmore and Irad Ortiz boxed in on the fence a long way, long enough to get the jump at headstretch while Ortiz waited for room.

Dalmore could not sustain his rally after tipping outside but Jay’s Way was a tiger on the fence, coming again to loom a late threat. But Souper Tapit dug in to secure the win in a good horse race.

Don’t know how fast the Oldsmar surface was yesterday but a pair of sprinting 3-year-olds, one of each sex, sure made it look that way with visually impressive scores at 7 furlongs in the Pasco and Gasparilla Stakes, respectively.

Michael Trombetta-trained colt Win Win Win is fast fast fast. After breaking slowly from the No. 2 post, Win Win Win was taken in hand, allowed a fast pace to develop in front of him,

On the turn Win Win Win gathered momentum beneath Julian Pimentel, was in full stride at headstretch and absolutely powered home in 1:20.89, final three furlongs in 36.37, winning by 7-1/4 lengths in track record time. It’s very likely that the G3 Sam F. Davis at 1-1/16th miles is up next.

After Molto Bella raced virtually head-and-head during the early stages in swift fractions of 22.61 seconds for the ¼-mile and 45.12 for the half, it seemed unrealistic that either would make it to the wire without a pit-stop. Then there was Molto Bella.

A Grade I winner, she sustained and recorded a 6-1/2 length win over Into Trouble. Her time of 1:22.20 broke the former five year old stakes mark of 1:22.41 Ian Wilkes, currently racing on three fronts, was the winning trainer, Luca Panici coming up Alligator Alley from Hallandale for the ride.

Tapa Tapa Tapa
won the Wayward Lass by five in yet another stakes record performance, this one on turf, stopping the timer in 1:43.27 for 1-1/16 miles beneath Antonio Gallardo, who bagged a triple on the day.

It appears that a recent maiden graduate likely has zoomed into everyone’s Kentucky Derby Top 10, such was the commanding victory by War of Will in the one mile, 70-yard Lecomte, the Mark Casse trainee’s stakes debut.

After breaking sharply from mid-gate in the huge field, Tyler Gaffalione kept his mount out in the clear, the 4-path throughout and possibly wider on turns, and his words rang true when he said he was in command throughout.

"I was just worried about moving too soon." Gaffalione said. "He was carrying me so well. He's something special. You just put him wherever and he handles the rest." Casse said it another way in a post-race TV interview after checking the video.

“I was telling some friends that I think I have the Kentucky Derby this year--and I never say things like that.”

Parenthetically, I have known Casse for perhaps 40 years, from the time he was the young trainer for Calumet Farm in New York. I’ve never heard him utter a hyperbolic word, so I wouldn’t categorize this as the usual trainer-speak.

Of course, Derby questions remain: Dirt in his face; getting jostled about between rivals; continued development; peaking too soon. But the ability to handle 10 furlongs shouldn’t be one of them.

While his two-sided pedigree screams turf: War Front from the Sadler’s Wells mare, Visions of Clarity, the average winning distance for the offspring of this mating is 7.3 furlongs and 10.7, respectively. After four grass races to begin his career, including CAN G1 Summer Stakes, he’s two-for-two going long on dirt.

Needs Supervision
also won her stakes debut, taking Silverbulletday Stakes for trainer Jeremiah O’Dwyer, holding off a strong-rally late finishing Eres Tu beneath Joe Rocco Jr. "I more or less stayed out of her way," said Rocco Jr. "She stumbled leaving the gate and I was a little worried, but she picked herself up right away and put us in a good spot."

Of note: Victories by First Premio in the Col Bradley under hot-riding Brian Hernandez Jr., giving Casse a stakes double; Dubara in the Krantz Memorial beneath visiting fireman Jamie Spencer, and well-named Wynn Time in oft-entertaining Kenner under Marcelino Pedroza. The gelded 5-year-old improved his lifetime mark to (11) 8-2-1.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, January 08, 2019

2018’s Mixed Signals: Business Very Good; Not So Optimistic Outlook

Tis a pity that sometimes progress cannot be stopped; such is the dual-edged sword of the Internet in general and social media in particular.

Argue what you will about government encroachment into our lives, then don’t you feel a tad less safe about today’s not-so-friendly skies, or needing to pay your bills later rather than sooner?

Actually most honest people would agree that Internet giants Facebook, Google and, yes, Twitter, too, need to be reined in for the good of society and, as facts prove, for the democratic republic, too.

However, the Internet and social media should prove a boon to data-dependent racing and has to a significant degree. Otherwise, how does one explain, surprisingly and contextually, recently released prodigious handle figures for 2018?

Many industry observers admit that handle figures are not the metrics they once were to reflect the success, failure, or the general popularity of horse racing in the modern era.

Just like the country’s immediate fate, things are not headed in the right direction. The result of a recent poll taken at a large racing website show that 52% of the sport’s stakeholders are pessimistic about the game’s future.

Yet, national handle increased by more than 3.3% last year. That might not sound like much but, in context and in our view, it was huge.

The facts is that 2018 was the first time that national handle topped the $11 billion plateau in the last eight years, the largest percentage growth this Millennium.

Another metric, daily handle, increase by a rounded 6.6%, a figure that was at once logical and counterintuitive. A daily increase makes sense because there were fewer racing days conducted compared to 2017, yet fewer races resulted in greater overall handle. Less proved to be more.

Staff and contributors here at HRI believe there is too much racing and that the sport could generate more excitement if the product were more of a premium: Bettors and track surfaces need down time and circuits need seasons.

There is no question that the repeal of the onerous 300-1 one-ticket-multi-bet mandatory reporting, and a higher reporting and mandatory withholding threshold jump-started handle early on and will continue to do so, albeit at a lower rate as time passes.

And the successful promotion of mega-events and multi-day racing festivals also have spurred betting interest. Further, credit must go to the recent proliferation of universally available horizontal wagers that requiring heavier investment to compensate for the higher degree of difficulty.

What is lost is the fact that these wagers are a dual edged sword, and not only because of higher takeout rates associated with jackpot horizontals.

The reality is that rank and file horseplayers are ill equipped, financially and psychologically, to handle the long losing streaks between windfalls, already happening to a large degree. Those who would deny this are either obtuse or disingenuous.

Not given its proper due is the increase in the number of fractional wagers available, which at once helps the rank and file cope with a pragmatic higher level of wagering approach while smaller denomination tickets also decrease the chances of mandatory reporting of windfalls.

Also not credited is the popularity of Rainbow wagers, rightfully attacked because of the initially high takeout rates but are seldom given credit when the jackpot on the 20-Cent wagers effectively lowers takeout and regularly produces windfall payoffs of the small four-figure variety.

The same large bettors who complain that factional wagers lowers payouts ignore the fact that without rank and file they would only cannibalize each other--algorithm-batch-betting whale vs. algorithm-batch-betting whale.

Indeed, had tracks not embraced fractional wagers in high-risk horizontal wagers, overall handle would have stagnated. And a lot for a little is a much easier promotional sell than hang-in-there and grind-it-out.

If it were not for all this, how could one explain Gulfstream Park handling over $2 billion last year, an increase of nearly $123 million, or how on-track play rose by $118 million despite two fewer live racing dates? There must be something that bettors especially like about Gulfstream’s wagering menu.

New York Racing Association tracks, which only recently expanded its horizontal betting menu but limited access to the Pick 5 exclusively to its own ADW, lost almost $78 million year over year but still cleared the $2.1 billion barrier despite fairly significant extenuating circumstances.

There were six less racing days in 2018 compared to 2017, 52 fewer races, including 95 others that were rescheduled from turf to the main track with its
inevitable reduction of betting interests and options.

The NYRA wisely intends to adopt a jackpot format sometime in the future but lamentably resists lowering exacta minimums to 50-Cents, prevalent virtually everywhere else.

Twitter Giveth But Mostly Taketh Away

Social media certainly has given rise to the instant racing expert whose default is to criticize before diving deeper. Critics wasted no time, e.g., in predicting gloom for the 2018-19 Santa Anita meeting yet were reticent to recognize a record opening day.

Over 41,000 fans welcomed Thoroughbreds back to Arcadia attracting $14,489,402 from all sources, $3,463,535 of that live. Both records, but the Twitterverse chose to concentrate instead on the poor performance of the new Roulette wager.

Thank goodness there was no social media when Trifectas and Superfectas were first introduced.

Handle figures on the Roulette wager were appallingly low but like a good doctor it is doing no harm. The wager will require much more time and promotion to be impactful, if at all. Then does it need to be?

Most everyone wants to see a greater accent on promoting the gambling side of horse racing to attract new fans and sports bettors racing hopes would cross over. The Roulette is a novel step in that direction.

The wager, a grouping of three sets of horses within a race, is not intended for even the established recreational player; it’s intended for the newbie who hopefully will learn about horse racing as he goes.

In rooting for several horses simultaneously, a novice can learn to see the many dynamics that occur within a race; learning race watching techniques and, by extension, trip handicapping: Learning works best when it’s fun and interactive.

Bettors won’t win a lot playing Santa Anita Roulette--in many cases next to nothing at all. Then neither will the newbie pay a steep price for an education. The bet is not a score maker nor a handle generator but it does show some promise. To wit:

Personally I like new bet but that’s because I’m 1-for-1, the win coming in Saturday’s Sham Stakes.

As the HRI Faithful know, I chose Gunmetal Gray to win the Sham given his experience and class relief. I thought, given the circumstance, that 5-2 would be fair odds. I reasoned that Coliseum, given the hype machine surrounding the Baffert brigade, would be a dramatic underlay at about 1-2 or less.

So I thought I’d spin the wheel. At 7-2 on the ML, and the projected 5-2 ante post, I bet BLACK to win, getting a three-ply coupling that included “the longer Baffert” and 10-1 Savagery. Then I took a cold saver exacta of Coliseum over ‘Gunmetal’.

Gunmetal Gray won, an overlay at $9.40. BLACK paid $7.80. Pre-race I would have been happy to accept 5-2, as stated above, especially on a three-ply “entry.” Whether I ultimately outsmarted myself, or made a good strategic wager, is open to debate.

There surely will be similar opportunities to bet against problematic underlays. I will 3-1 all day on what I perceive is a match race. The one thing I didn’t like was betting blindly. If probable odds were available, I couldn’t find them.

But there is only one true lesson here: Rushing to judgment is easy; it’s patience that’s hard.

Written by John Pricci

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