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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Tuesday, August 28, 2018


Can a Triple Crown Winner Actually Lose Horse of the Year Status?


When it was recently suggested in the comment section at HRI that Accelerate--the handicap division star that sits atop the NTRA National Poll—had a chance to become 2018 Horse of the Year, I smiled.

…And I could hear TJ harrumphing at the notion from Jensen Beach to Pahrump and back again.

A Horse of the Year other than a Triple Crown winner, an undefeated one at that, the only other since Seattle Slew and the conqueror of the Shadow of Apollo. As McEnroe one famously said: “You cannot be serious.”

But you know what?

Whether Accelerate runs the table through Breeders Cup or not, the balance of Catholic Boy’s 2018 campaign could give—could being the operative word—this voter Horse of the Year pause.

Yes, I know, it’s sacrilegious, and this is strictly conjecture because the Catholic Boy camp has no apparent Horse of the Year aspirations. But they might want to give one scenario some thought.

If they decide to prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the grassy nine furlong Grade 2 Hill Prince, as has been announced, that wouldn’t get Horse of the Year done--even if Catholic Boy were to defeat Accelerate on the first Saturday in November.

Straight three-year-olds on grass for $500,000 is a sensible. But what if the connections got ambitious and decided to throw Catholic Boy’s hooves into the Horse of the Year ring?

What if they got ambitious and still wanted to stretch out going turf to dirt into the Classic, there are two races they could consider, albeit both against far better. What if they were to beat older horses going a mile in a Grade 1?

Keeneland’s Shadwell Mile and the Woodbine Mile in Toronto are out there. Those races certainly would be challenging both from a distance and competitive perspective. But they win and go on to repeat in the Classic?

That would be four Grade 1s, two on each surface, which includes a Midsummer Derby, two victories over elders, one at a mile on turf, then finish 2018 by winning America’s most prestigious championship race. Then what?

Whether or not the connections of Justify were doing the right thing by retiring the Triple Crown champion—they did, considering his value and the inherent risk of racing again with an injury that may be more complicated than anyone outside his circle knows—fans do not abide early retirements.

This is the age old question: Is Thoroughbred racing a sport first, or is it primarily a business? And what if the answer is that it cannot be had both ways, for the purpose of this philosophical exercise? Then what?

If voters wanted to handicap past performances, which achievement is more impressive?

Was it the small field G1 Santa Anita Derby and a Triple Crown sweep against a group that has boasts but three respected next out stakes winners: Good Magic’s Haskell, Tenfold’s Jim Dandy and Hofburg’s Curlin Stakes?

How does that rate on the achievement scale given that Catholic Boy whipped two of them in the Travers while Hofburg was properly sidelined, albeit a minor issue?

With each owning four Grade 1s--one against members of his own division; the other on two surfaces with two victories over elders, including an intense, top class turf mile—one would have the better degree-of-difficulty resume.

The chances that Catholic Boy’s connections would choose the more difficult road are slim and none, and Slim just asked if I had an uber app on my I-Phone or was thinking about challenging Usain Bolt in a foot race.

But if they did decide to choose the most arduous path I could conjure up and actually pulled it off, they would get at least one vote for Horse of the Year. That would be mine. Anything less, it's Justify.

Requiescat In Pace

To learn that John Asher had suddenly passed away from an apparent heart attack at 62 while vacationing with his family on Orlando was a terribly tragic way to start this or any other week.

But that’s what happened when I checked my Twitter feed Monday morning and Karen Johnson’s tribute to John was the first thing I read. To say that it was stunning would be to undersell the impact of what I had just learned.

John Asher was not a close friend but he was a good friend. I haven’t covered a Kentucky Derby since Churchill Downs repurposed the best press box in horse racing history and turned it into a luxurious money maker.

But I’ll never forget Asher from the 16 I covered for Newsday and how John’s warm greetings and extensions of kindness and consideration.

The truth is that he was a good friend to everyone who ever crossed his path. It was a privilege to know him.

Accounts of his passing officially note that he was the Vice President of Racing Communications for Churchill Downs. But as you hear so often these days when accomplished people are feted, he was an even better person.

In the oft-unforgiving corporate atmosphere of Churchill Downs Inc., John was not “one of the suits.” He was a racetracker with the soul of a journalist, one who had the professional bona fides to prove it.

As a radio broadcaster, Asher won five Eclipse Awards for “Outstanding National Radio Coverage of Thoroughbred Racing” and seven times was flattered by the Associated Press as greater Kentucky’s “Best Reporter.” Period, end quote.

In his role as CDI spokesman, my memory is of a man who went out of his way to help “the loyal opposition,” always striving for fairness, showing appreciation and respect for the men and women whose job it is to report or opine.

Not many racing administrators in any capacity loved the game more than John Asher. The fact that he died so young only underscores the cliché about how God wants good people in his kingdom sooner rather than later.

HRI and its staffers would like Asher’s family to know that their patriarch was beloved. Condolences to the family and his many, many, many friends.

I hope that before too long I will soon learn about plans for the inaugural running of the John Asher Memorial Stakes. No one could deserve it more. John Asher was Grade 1 man.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018


To Industry: I’m a Sore Winner and I Won’t Be Betting as Often in the Future


Until something is done to level the wagering field, you can take this headline to the bank.

What’s that? I don’t bet enough to matter? It’s no big loss? Well, I’m not the only one. Some lifelong passionate players have already walked away from the game because of your indifference.

With every non-action you take, you continue writing your own epitaph. But, like cowardly modern day politicians, as a group you sit on the sidelines, waiting for things to blow over.

Well, as long as there are a few people willing to tell the truth, the inequities that exist never will be allowed to blow over. Don’t want to hear or read it? Then tune out daily like one of every three Americans: Only my life matters.

So, as a whole, take all your alphabets and just keep doing nothing because you have 38 separate states to use as an excuse. With no central authority you’re powerless. As long as state patronage jobs continue, who cares?

Here’s something that no one will care about, except the HRI Faithful and a handful of players who bet on the winner of Monday’s third race at Saratoga. Let’s start at the beginning.

I have readers who subscribe to my Horses-to-Watch service. As soon as my stable mail arrives, it is turned around quickly and emailed to the men and women who believe that my time is worth money to them.

After one late scratch, the third race field was reduced to five. My H2W figured strongly in the quintet and, coming from the white hot Jimmy Jerkens barn, I figured the price would be too short to get involved in straight wagering.

Given the small field, and with the horses to beat exiting the Pletcher and McGaughey barns, even exactas likely would have little or no appeal.

With post time scheduled for 2:06 pm, I turned TV on at about 1:55 and couldn’t believe my eyes: Pletcher’s Big Muddy was even money; my horse, Point to Remember, was 2-1. In my opinion, that was excellent value.

Believing Big Muddy was vulnerable, I saw that McGaughey’s Domain was 9-2. I could key-box exactas, pressing the value-laden Domain for a handsome profit.

I watched the post parade—Shug’s horse caught the eye, and Point to Remember was a picture, too. A check of the odds board and little had changed.

For a flash or two in the final few minutes, Point to Remember dropped to 9-5, drifted back to 2-1, Shug’s horse alternated between 4-1 and 9-2. The favorite vacillated between even money and 6-5. I made my bets

Point to Remember was 9-5 as he walked into the starting gate.

In this age of computer batch betting, with its wild late-odds fluctuations and the attendant negative publicity it generates, some tracks have stopped posting odds on the screen during the running of a race.

I can’t say whether or not that happened yesterday. I was watching Junior Alvarado (who’s having a great meet) and wondering why he was racing three across the track in a five-horse field?

Turned out Alvarado knew exactly what he was doing; maybe his horse didn’t like racing inside of horses, or he knew he was on much the best animal. Either way, Point to Remember drew off with authority in deep stretch.

Good deal! My subscribers would be pleased and, after deducting my exacta losses, I would have to settle for about a $30 profit, the equivalent of 3-2 or 8-5, depending on breakage.

I turned my eyes back to the computer and heard TVG host Rich Perloff say to analyst Nick Hines, or vice versa, “the winner got a lot of late money, went off at 4-5.”

What?!

Point to Remember was 9-5 entering the gate; saw it with my own lyin’ eyes. The favorite around even money or 6-5, Shug’s horse at 4-1 or thereabouts.

As the new, too-late-to-do-anything-about-it 4-5 favorite, Point to Remember returned $3.60. My profit, after deducting exacta losses—was $8. I got 2-5 on my money.

My point? I didn’t need to waste my time, or risk my money for such a paltry reward. Late computer-robotic wagering stripped me of my wagering options.

If there are racing officials reading this, understand it’s not about yesterday’s dollars and cents. It’s about the integrity of the game I’m playing, that what I see at the last minute is approximately, given reasonable fluctuations, what I get.

And for all mainstream horseplayers, the optics suck. I am tired of defending the game re late-odds fluctuations on this site, that it’s not past-posting or canceling bets at the last minute--athough sometimes I find it hard to believe myself.

When gambling, integrity is everything. The game is hard enough without unfair and unnecessary roadblocks being set up by greedy racetracks who worship at the altar of Handle Almighty.

Frankly, I’m sick of it. When will some racetrack go to its state capital and demand that its track be allowed to offer fixed odds wagering now? If tracks and state governments weren’t so damn myopic, they would see it might even increase handle.

Short of showing they truly care about the customer beyond lip service--it’s bad enough that they provide rebated, deep-pocketed robotics players with a huge edge; direct access to betting pools--at least level the field.

While 95% of the customers pay for admission, parking and overpriced food and services, it's not until the last minute when they figure out that their pockets are being picked.

At the very least—the very least—tracks could shut off computer access at the three-minute mark, thus allowing rank and file players time to react or reassess on the fly.

The vast majority of players don’t have the wherewithal to match the whales in the straight pool. But they might change their approach and pick another pool to bet into. They deserve a fighting chance to survive this tough game.

Industry: You probably could care less but you’ve lost my steady business. I will limit bets to only big fields of good horses, even if I have await short boutique meets or big-field big events like Saturday’s Travers.

A handful of players cannot be allowed to own the betting markets. I’m finally going to heed the wisdom of that old television commercial: “It’s enough to make you sick; isn’t it enough to make you stop?

Acknowledging a small character flaw, suffice it to say that in the near future I will only allow myself to get a little bit pregnant. It doesn't have to be this way.

But as long the present climate continues, I'm considering a return to sports betting. The rewards might not be as rich, but at least I know the price I’m willing to accept is the price I get.


One Too Many Maraghs?

Social media went wild Sunday and Monday after Musical Heart finished second in a photo finish following Sunday’s fourth race at Gulfstream Park. Why?

Well, according to the Equibase chart footnote, “Musical Heart, reserved racing wide and unasked while trailing field in early stages, began to move up closer racing wide still unasked in the turn, entered top stretch eight wide and continued to gain without being persevered with.”

As one might expect, it caused quite a stir. After viewing the video several times, it’s difficult if not impossible to disagree with the majority opinion. Between ownership, training and riding interests, the Maraghs had four family members involved in the race.

Musical Heart’s jockey Tony Maragh has a date with the Gulfstream steward Wednesday morning. Two of the officials work for Gulfstream, the other for the state of Florida.

Inflamed by the computer-betting incident I suffered through Monday at Saratoga, below was my reaction posted in the Paulick Report comments section early Tuesday morning:

“God forbid the racing industry puts its big boy pants on and says enough; we can no longer do things on the state level because we finally acknowledge that it doesn't work. We need help at the federal level to nationalize (read and grow) the industry.

“We need to create a league or leagues of racetracks, interview, and appoint an independent commissioner with experience from within the Thoroughbred community. We need a board of federal stewards who review races nationally and dispassionately. We have no uniformity vis a vis medication or penalties for wrongdoing.

“The patchwork of 38 states continues to fail, the Association of Racetrack Commissioners International continues to fail, and the Jockey Club has no authority. If the Feds don't want to get involved, empower the Jockey Club. Have independent industry sources review their work and get back to [Washington].

“Sound crazy, impossible, too convoluted? Of course, any port in an impede-the-process storm will do. We know our sport will never become mainstream as long as the status quo remains. And that's just the way we like it, and the way we want it.”

Written by John Pricci

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