Sunday, September 09, 2018


Did Kentucky Downs Stewards Get It Right?


Among the favorite causes of consternation that horseplayers express here with regularity is the inconsistency by which fouls are adjudicated.

The most recent example of how various teams of stewards interpret events differently in diverse states was on display yesterday concerning a race at one of America’s favorite new betting venues, Kentucky Downs.

The non-disqualification of Fooch from Saturday’s second race at this popular boutique session was not particularly egregious--even though personally I might have taken Fooch down and placed him third.

The incident was another one of those bang-bang plays that occur in the shadow of the finish line which by definition makes it a tough call, but it does get to the principle of what exactly makes a foul a punishable offense.

Should a foul be considered a foul under any reasonable circumstances? Or should inquiries/objections be decided on whether or not stewards believe an incident, even one perceived as minor, adversely affected the result.

I posit that the actions of Fooch, who came out slightly under left-handed urging, thus causing a chain reaction involving two other horses were, strictly speaking, enough for him to be justifiably disqualified.

The posted result was allowed to stand even though third finisher Uber Kirk was--according to the official chart footnote—“bumped around and steadied in the final stages.” Uber Kirk was beaten two heads for the win.

We saw this ruling as being juxta-opposed to an incident in the eighth race at Saratoga Sept. 1 in which there was the double disqualification of Final Frontier and Strike Me Down, elevating third finisher Hizeem to first.

My issue Saturday is that the rider of Fooch allowed his mount to herd a rival under left-handed urging, bump Uber Kirk, costing him the place in the chain-reaction incident.

Parenthetically, eventual winner Taxman, racing three-abreast for the win “was bumped late and prevailed in the final stages.” Again, we believe the stewards were justified, even if I disagreed with their interpretation of events.

Where this issue is for me--and for other horseplayers in these situations-- is that, almost without fail, bettors and horsemen wind up getting caught in the switches based on the whimsy of a particular team of officials.

Harkening back to the eighth race at Saratoga, we believe that Strike Me Down, the place finisher beaten by a nose, was the victim of factors more “politically correct” than objectively accurate.

Consider the official footnote on this occasion and why New York horseplayers are fortunate to have the Equibase chart team it has, in our opinion the best in the country, to bear witness to events.

In this case, the chart caller observed that there were clear, extenuating circumstances indicating that Strike Me Down should have been awarded the win, not placed third in the official result. To wit:

“Strike Me Down… swung seven to eight wide into the stretch, rallied outside under a strong hand ride, was given one crack of a right-handed whip at the furlong marker, lugged in badly while gaining fast…was corrected by the rider with hard tugs of the right rein while switched to a left-handed whip…continued to lug in while being corrected hard by the rider as he drew alongside the leading pair, maintained a straight path under correction before being bumped by Hizeem near the wire as that one was shoved out by Final Frontier and narrowly missed while having his head turned completely to the outside at the finish.”

In this illustration, a thousand words were be more preferable than the picture playing inside the heads of the three New York stewards.

This is not about competence but rather about universal consistency in the process, and the reason we have done a 180-spin philosophically, now agreeing with those observers who believe that a foul is a foul is a foul.

The following solution has been mentioned here often by staffers and commenters alike; that a panel of stewards paid independently, whether it be the state or the feds (should they ultimately oversee the industry, a longshot under the prevailing deregulatory Washington mindset).

Current officials can stay in place everywhere but four independent stewards can overrule local officials or concur upon review each time an objection or inquiry sign is lighted. It’s about getting it right in an impartial way.

We’re fully aware that the fix above in not perfect, but perfect should not be the enemy of better. There’s gambling money at stake that affects bettors and horsemen alike. A better attempt should be made to get it right.

BREAKAGE, AN UNNECESSARY EVIL

It didn’t take long for the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation to release its first white paper: “Penny Breakage – Returning rightful winnings to horseplayers and stimulating North America's tote pools,” shines a light on the rounding-down of payoffs on winning bets.

In its report, which can be reviewed at RacingThinkTank.com, the organization gave an example on what the win and place prices should have been on Justify in the Preakness; $2.88 and $2.94 respectively, instead of actual payouts of $2.80 each.

In straight pools alone, the amount of winnings withheld from bettors amounted to over $500K. Further, the amount not paid out to win bettors in three Triple Crown races was over $1 million. Annually, nickel or dime breakage totals over $50 million.

When breakage was instituted, betting was done on track through sellers manning parimutuel machines; there was no self-service terminals and, of course, no online bet takers on the Internet. It was sold as an issue of logistical convenience.

This doesn’t fly now, even if existing technology badly needs upgrading in many areas. What legislators need to understand is that if the annual $50 million withheld were returned, business could see gains of nearly $200 million.

Said Patrick Cummings in a TIF news release: “Breakage represents an opaque practice in an era where pricing transparency is essential to the wagering customer, particularly in the face of a growing competitive marketplace with far lower takeout rates.

“Economists and industry consultants agree racing's declared takeout is too high, yet breakage only adds to the burden, yielding effective rates that can push nearly 21% in the win, place and show pools, far higher than what is advertised.”

“Penny Breakage is the first in a series of reports TIF will offer to challenge conventional norms and encourage stakeholders to examine ways in which racing's model should change…The industry should examine ways to change practices that have contributed to the [business] downturn.”

Cummings is a bright, passionate executive I’ve known since his early days with Trakus and is the right person to lead an organization that does not resemble the ineffectual alphabet groups which are all to familiar.

Instituting penny breakage, which has the added benefit of eliminating the practice of bridge-jumping that most often will cost tracks a nickel for every show dollar wagered is another factor adding to increased bet churning.

A perfect solution? No. But a step toward eventually lowering takeout across the board, especially in straight pools? Absolutely.

Between the creation of the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation and recent outside-the-box Jockey Club initiatives, the industry, if it’s not careful, might actually make some progress. By nature, as horseplayers we are hopeful.

Written by John Pricci

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