Sunday, November 12, 2017

Industry Powers Need to Lead or Get Out of the Game

I first met Dave Gutfreund at the turn of the Millennium while I was having a cup of coffee at New York City Off-Track-Betting. After three decades as a public handicapper, I wasn’t exactly anxious to meet a colleague who called himself “The Maven.”

Well, my preconceived notions were unfounded, which most such notions are. We met on the NYC-OTB racing channel set in a makeshift studio located just off the paddock at Yonkers Raceway.

Don’t ask.

Anyway, the man wasn’t at all as pretentious as his alter ego would portend. He was hard-working and imaginative, had an excellent opinion borne out by his performance as a public handicapper and later his success on the handicapping-contest circuit.

Gutfreund’s name surfaced online and on social media this weekend when he was asked to comment on the controversy surrounding last week’s Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, the million-dollar live-money contest staged at Del Mar, Nov. 3-4.

It was alleged that the winner colluded with other players re: the number of entries permitted. Contestants are limited to a maximum of two contest cards. Breeders’ Cup has withheld the winning purse until it concludes its own investigation.

At once, it’s ironic and interesting that uncoupled entries might become as controversial via grandstand machinations as it is viewed inside a racing-office entry box. Could it be that when big money’s at stake, the front side may be no different than the backside?

Gutfreund was asked his opinion: “Let's just say, as gingerly as I can put this, I have absolutely no faith in the people involved making these decisions. Those are some people who, despite my success in horse racing, are the reason I got out of a game I played for 39 years.”

It does appear that wherever horseplayers turn, the chances are that if they’re not already up against it, the perception that they are never seems to abate.

In the third race at Del Mar Saturday, there was the photo finish process that looked like it would never end. By some estimates it took as long as 12 minutes to separate an 11-10 favorite from a 54-1 outsider at the finish.

As I watched TVG, curious about the result of the photograph, the upshot was that the California stewards could not decide which horse won, and eventually posted the result as a dead heat.

There probably will be more news on this coming out of California today so, in a sense, the question still may be open to debate as to what took so long.

The overarching concern is that this wasn’t the first time a controversial photo finish was posted in Southern California. The question is why it had to take so long? If the finish was thisclose, shouldn’t have been readily apparent to three sets of eyes?

As fans waited to see whether Ishi clung to his tenuous lead or whether Minoso nailed him on the final bob of a head, the amount of time spent in review drew rare criticism from TVG analysts who wondered how, in the digital age, a picture is worth 720 seconds.

Several months ago jockey Kent Desormeaux wondered aloud about the credulity of the photo finish process. While his concerns were justified, it did take a fair amount of chutzpah for him to raise questions considering his penchant for not riding his mounts out to the finish.

Following the race, Steward Scott Cheney was interviewed by TVG and gave a somewhat curious, circuitous answer, one lacking definition and clarity. Cheney told the audience it was so close that the judges wanted a hard copy of the photo to be sure they got it right.

Presumably I wasn’t the only one needlessly confused by Cheney’s explanation that high-definition resolution wasn’t enough to separate two horses, that the judgment was so difficult they had no choice but to declare it a dead heat.

If indeed that were the case, the official sign should have been lit a lot sooner. It’s not the kind of unclear message you want to send to gamblers.

Cheney said that the Stewards want complete transparency. If that’s true, their decision-making process should not be conducted behind closed doors. In countries that walk their transparency talk, stewards’ deliberations are shown in real time.

This incident doesn’t speak to possible malfeasance as much as it speaks to competency or lack thereof. It was unnecessarily embarrassing and only serves to feed ever-present, oft-justified horseplayer paranoia.

Gutfreund had other remarks that he made during an interview while he playing in the Monster Stack tournament, one of 6,700 poker players.

The former professional horseplayer turned professional poker player didn’t give up the game because he wasn’t any good at it. “[Last year] I finished fifth in the biggest handicapping contest, and sixth in the second biggest…

“I was the maven,” Gutfreund exclaimed with embarrassed enthusiasm. “[The handicapping contests] seem like a long time ago. I’ve just had enough. I think poker is the answer, not horse racing.

“The game’s changed so much. It isn’t as good from a gambling aspect. I’m pretty sour on horse racing.”

And what makes this so?

“The computer programmers, the odds changing at the end, certain trainers just dominating--Baffert, Chad Brown, Pletcher. The value that used to be in horse racing just isn’t there anymore.”

The question for racing is how many defections will it take before the message hits home? Racing leaders are going to talk about why handle has remained flat and how to tweak it at the annual University of Arizona industry symposium next month.

In the last year, we have written about how Dr. Steven Roman gave up the game. And we’ve written about some of the HRI Faithful; one that moved from Thoroughbred racing to Harness racing, and how a weekend regular now focuses on big event days only.

Some of these issues are fixable but that would take action, not words. Improved video technology has been promised to Californians for several years. It hasn’t happened. Officiating can be standardized countrywide and still leave room for judgment calls.

Locking computer-arbitrage programs at one or two minutes to post would allow non-programming horseplayers to react to late-odds changes AFTER wild fluctuations. That makes sense on several levels; here is where a post drag really could come in handy.

Whales are given special access. I understand giving your best clients the best service. All businesses try to do that. But how about leveling the playing field for the majority of customers?

And, of course, there is the need for more rigorous out-of-competition testing; no third-party Lasix administration; no raceday medication at all. The latter of course probably will be a non-starter forever. But the rest are easy, common sense fixes.

Racing needs its own coalition of the decent or the game will be lost and never recover. Industry leaders need to lead or get out of the way. When I first met Dave Gutfreund, neither one of us would have believed it would ever come to this. Yet, here we are.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, November 12, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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