Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Thoroughbred Racing: Whose Game Is It, Anyway?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 6, 2015—To paraphrase a popular refrain commonly heard on one side of the aisle in the nation’s capital, I’m no economist, but the recent handle figures released by Equibase appears to indicate that if you throw enough money at the purse structure, bettors will come.

The surprising aspect here is that not only do the horsemen benefit from increased purses but so, too, does the industry. The numbers clearly indicate that bettors prefer to wager not only at the best price but on the best product available.

Statistics show that the formula for success this entire year, thanks to the month of September, has been relatively simple: Decrease the number of races by 5%, increase the amount of purse money by $15-million, and reap a $71-million reward.

We check the national handle figures when they are released by the Equibase News Service each month. For the most part, the percentage increases or decreases are almost always minimal or, in bean counters language, flat.

But not last month, and not so, albeit to a lesser degree, for the third-quarter of fiscal 2015. The third-quarter betting figures show a total handle increase of 3.65% across the U.S. compared to 2014. That’s a fairly significant gain.

And it’s important to note here that these numbers correspond with overall purse increases of 1.23%.

Admittedly, this seems like an empirical coincidence. But when factored into the decline in race days, number of races and number of starters, by 2.16% 3.78% and 2.54%, respectively, a new picture begins to emerge.

Throughout 2015, handle has been down marginally. In context, however, this makes the third-quarter increase, a current-day aberration, significant:

Handle in September increased by a huge double-digit margin of 11.90% year over year while purses were increased by 7.13%. Meanwhile, the number of race days, races, and starters all decreased, by 0.45%, 2.91% and 1.29%, respectively.

Acknowledged is the amount of money saved by not distributing purses over fewer dates, races and starters, thus allowing for increased revenue for racetracks at the bottom line. But that “saving” is unrelated to increased betting, during football season yet.

The Triple Crown, topped by the prodigious Kentucky Derby, is racing’s best hoof forward regarding the sport’s appeal among general or mainstream-sports audiences. Of course, the Triple Crown and its run-up spans the first half of racing’s yearly calendar.

The just concluded third quarter is that segment of the year which on balance is the season’s best. Destination tracks, led by Saratoga and Del Mar, and to a lesser degree venues like Monmouth Park, comprise the first half of the third quarter.

This year, Saratoga enjoyed a record season but Monmouth Park, despite American Pharoah’s Haskell appearance, posted only modest meet gains while Del Mar’s numbers were a flat-out disappointment.

Enter September.

As football season began, purse-enriched Saratoga and Del Mar remained open but were winding down in every way. Racing in the fall has made a championship prep season the new normal as tracks begin to stage their biggest races of the year.

With Belmont Park and Santa Anita front-loading the beginning of their 2015 fall meets, mega-event days and weekends resulted in a glut of dollars being thrown the horsemen’s way.

To this mix add Keeneland, with or without Breeders’ Cup, the brief return of Churchill, the huge five-day success that is Kentucky Downs, the new Parx Racing Festival and the latter portion of Gulfstream Park's popular record-setting summer meet, and racing’s third-quarter offers the year’s best sport.

The common thread coursing through all the above are wildly enhanced stakes purses, which turns out to be the good news and the bad news. For fans and most owners and trainers, the purse money thrown at a handful of stakes would be better spent overnight on a daily basis.

But these mega-quality programs are what the bettors want and they vote with their betting money, even while complaining that many of the races aren’t as quality-laden as they should be.

The increase in fractional betting and lower takeout available hither and yon also has the positive effect of putting more of the people’s money into more betting pools, a.k.a. a win-win.

Note, however, that the third-quarter numbers do not reflect two “Super Weekends” of Breeders’ Cup preps conducted at Belmont Park, Santa Anita and Keeneland: Those occurred the weekends of October 3rd and 10th.

Several recent studies have determined that field size is not as critical a handle component as is widely believed, however counter-intuitive the notion may be. The comparative trends released Monday by Equibase underscores this point.

Marketers who struggle to make horse racing compelling again have tried everything except aggressively promoting gambling, a legitimate and familiar lament. By comparison, fantasy sports—especially in consideration of a New York Times story alleging inside-information trading by employees at Fan Duel and Draft Kings results in pre-posting its fans/bettors--have promoted gambling boldly and obviously quite effectively.

This is yet another example from which racing can learn. If September’s nationwide handle figures mean anything, it’s this: Horseplayers, racing’s indispensable life-blood, are betting more money on quality races despite a perceptible presence of heavy early favorites.

And there’s one more philosophy that all racing executives might do well to consider going forward, if the goal is to increase the sport’s overall popularity in the future: Less may be more, a lot more.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Wigglin’ N’ Jigglin’ Through First Round of Cup Preps

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 27, 2015—We bring you this interruption in our analysis of first-round of Breeders’ Cup preps in order to provide a look at possibly the greatest pacing event we’ve ever seen on a half-mile harness track.

As stated here often, we cut our horse-racing teeth at Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceways, highlighted by those amazing Friday night Free-For-All pacing battles between Eddie Cobb’s Adios Butler and Clint Hodgins’ Bye Bye Bird.

Not long after that came the slugfests between Stanley Dancer’s Cardigan Bay and John Patterson’s Overtrick. Meetings with Frank Irvin’s Bret Hanover would come later, one that required fans to park alongside the Thruway because lots at “The Yonk” were filled.

One picture will be worth a thousand of my words. Suffice it to say that getting hung out for three-quarters of a mile in 27-second quarter-miles, then resurging to win when apparently beaten, just doesn’t happen. A mile in 1:49 3/5, on a half-miler?

Enjoy the race of the weekend: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5IsLdiUGHcwatch

East Side, West Side, All Around the Breeders’ Cup Prep World

With Keeneland hosting its first ever fall championship event, contestants will be coming far and wide--from New York, California and Europe--to compete in the U.S. World Championships.

It follows that both Belmont Park and Santa Anita had to front-load their graded stakes schedules, to the detriment of both. There’s only so many top class runners to go around. Even races such as the storied Jockey Blue Gold Cup, scheduled for Saturday, has not been immune.

As for competition for good horses, other million-dollar events have proven a lucrative distraction to history and tradition. Of greater significance may be the fact that trainers would like to have their Breeders’ Cup preps over the surface which will host the event.

A city like Philadelphia, for instance, is efforting to become a top racing market, entitled to a spot on the national simulcast map, however brief, despite its player-unfriendly takeout policies.

For Breeders’ Cup horsemen, last week’s seven-figure Grade 1 and Grade 2 events provided opportunities to give them what they covet; graded titles, big bucks and six-weeks spacing prior to a possible championship-defining moment.

Round One Confirms, Denies, Potential Promise and Greatness


Grade 1 Beldame
: Like many of her generation, Wedding Toast has had the misfortune to come along in the Year of the Beholder. She dominated a solid field of five rivals, headed by three-year-old runner-up, Curalina.

Wedding Toast obviously has had her issues, given numerous layoff gaps in her form, but has been managed expertly by Kiaran McLaughlin and staff and generally has proven clearly best wherever she’s appeared, especially at Belmont Park. She dominated here.

If runner-up Curalina has designs on a three-year-old filly title, she probably must win the Distaff. She was a game-finisher despite a stutter-step start and looks like a better two-turn prospect.

Grade 2 Gallant Bloom: La Verdad is amazing, reminding us of 2015 Hall of Fame inductee Xtra Heat--that’s what a front-running 15-for-21 lifetime mark gets you. She runs the turns very well. Seven furlongs may be her outer limit but it can allow for an easier early lead. None of her Gallant Bloom rivals impressed with upside Cup potential.

Grade 3 Pilgrim: Damn good horse race! The first four finishers: Isotherm, Azar, Ray’s The Bar and Highland Sky; all looked worthy of an appearance in the Juvenile Turf. Cup fans will need to review the replay and do so often, given the amount of troubled/nuanced trips.

Grade 1 Vosburgh: Difficult to knock a sprinter that’s been perfect in five starts this year, including his second consecutive Grade 1. But the score by Rock Fall is a difficult read for us--unless Todd Pletcher, as he stated post-race, left a few screws untightened.

On one hand, Rock Fall was his typical ultra-game self in an A- performance. On the other, we didn’t particularly care for the way he went to the post. He will be meeting the fastest of the fast give weeks hence and we have a nagging feeling his form might be declining. Hope that's not the case.

Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic: As all know, trips and dynamics are everything on turf, especially marathons. Big Blue Kitten came with his Big Blue Kick as the rabbit finally did his job properly. And, of course, as goes the hot pace, so goes the course record.

I would expect the big four of the Joe Hirsch; Big Blue Kitten, Slumber, Twilight Eclipse and Red Rifle will return to run very competitively in The Turf. But if Flintshire, or some other talented European shows up, the Americans will be up against it yet again.


Grade 1 Forerunner: Nyquist did not disappoint yet was disappointing. He just may be distance challenged. Some excellent race riding by Mario Gutierrez got the job done. Swipe, legally intimidated, in my view, has more upside heading into the Juvenile.

Grade 1 Chandelier: Songbird did not disappoint nor was she in any way disappointing. She won geared down and ran faster the Nyquist, by a lot; 1:44.89 compared to her 1:43.79. While never a serious win challenger, Land Over Sea put in a fine late rally and can be an exotics factor in the Juvenile Fillies. However, we’re anxiously awaiting Rachel’s Valentina’s prep appearance next weekend.

Grade 1 Rodeo Drive: Similarly, America’s female turf division, the West Coast fillies, at least, appear to be win fodder for some well-meant Europeans. Photo Call benefitted from a good, ground-saving trip from Drayden Van Dyke but believe these fillies might not even be the equal of turf mares based elsewhere in this country.

Grade 1 Awesome Again: Bye, Bye Bad Karma Bayern, or whatever it is that makes him a shadow of his three-year-old self. Four year-old, four-race career Smooth Roller normally would be the kind of late bloomer that would pique the interest of wise guy Breeders’ Cup handicappers. But not this year.

Grade 1 Grade 1 Zenyatta: Behold a great race mare. She continues to give notice that she might be America’s best race horse. Should Beholder and American Pharoah reach the Classic in the top form and she beats he, the vote for Horse of the Year will be unprecedentedly difficult.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sports Betting and Fantasy Sports, Is There Common Ground for Racing?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 16, 2015—Forget for the moment that Monmouth Park and racing in general is on life support in the Garden State, a state that devotes thousands of acres to green space, a state rich in racing tradition.

Consider instead the issue of whether sports leagues, claiming they don’t want to compromise the integrity of their games, should have the power to dictate what states can and cannot do.

Is the integrity of organized sports really threatened by legalized gambling but not subjected to the same dangers inherent by illegal gambling on it? Could professional sports leagues, especially the NFL, be more disingenuous?

With Week 2 of the 50th anniversary Super Bowl season about to commence, is anyone tired of the Fantasy League commercial spots yet? I know I am.

Apparently, the uninitiated don’t mind it at all. Fantasy Sports players are lining up in droves to gamble on the games/people of their choice, new gamblers who at another point in time might have become horseplayers.

Betting on the races, despite onerous takeout rates, is still the greatest wagering game played outdoors but fantasy players don’t know this, of course, because they are not exposed to it in the same way, at the same rate.

Can’t blame the Fantasy Sports bet takers, though. They get it. They know what they’re selling; easy-to-play fun with a good chance of winning money. They how to sell it, too, thousands of sports fans are signing up by the day.

Fantasy Sports are bet takers: They book action on the outcome of a sporting event. The only difference is that fans are betting on players, not teams.

Is there a real fundamental difference between choosing the best team and the best player? Whenever people put their money on an unknown future event or result, it’s gambling; case closed.

I don’t blame sports leagues for trying to get away with having some other industry offer a product or service that helps enhance the popularity of their own product by making results more interesting, more compelling television, all of it in support of the bottom line.

On one side of the argument, leagues say they abhor gambling; on the other they tell supporters to show them the money. Purely and simply, they are cashing in on the popularity of sports gambling in America, prohibited by law in all states but four.

It makes me furious when my favorite sport can’t get traction because politicians kowtow to religious groups or factions that would like nothing more than to have racing banned. The hypocrisy all around this issue is nauseating.

Speaking of the NFL, do you think they asked the networks to have a little chat with the Monday Night Football announcers that riffed on and giggled about the “meaningless” extra point in the waning moments of Monday’s game?

Paraphrasing, “it’s what keeps people tuned in,” said one. “We’ll probably get in trouble talking about this,” said the other. It’s all very hush-hush, wink-wink, nod-nod.

And we’ve mentioned this a hundred times before: The point-spread is what allows a broadcast network to charge the same rate per commercial minute for blowouts at the end of games as they do for the nail-biters the league is famous for.

A related irony is that for the most part, surgery, tapping and health-care procedures such as hyperbaric treatments available off track remains inside information in a legal betting game whereas NFL injury reports are widely circulated Tuesday of game week.

Fantasy Sports betting has become so popular in Michigan, for instance, that State Senator Curtis Hertel this week introduced a bill that would ensure fantasy sports continue being defined as “a game of skill” so the practice of gambling on it remains legal there.

Want to know what a game of skill looks like Senator? Try cashing a Super High-Five ticket. Try fashioning a Pick 4 sequence while hoping to ensure maximum return on minimum investment, even at 50-cents per ducat.

And just maybe that’s the problem. It takes years to develop the skill of handicapping horse races. Honest practitioners will tell you they’ll go to their graves without coming close to getting a Masters of Horse Race Handicapping degree.

Conversely, anyone with an HD television can become an expert sports-handicapping numbers cruncher before reaching puberty.

Fantasy Sports betting is legal in some states and banned in others, but how long will it be before representatives in other state houses follow Hertel’s lead on this?

Organized Fantasy Sports bet takers haven’t been around all that long yet their annual “handle” is estimated at nearly $5 billion from a population of about 60 million fantasy sports players nationwide.

Currently, Thoroughbred racing’s business is more than double that, the difference being that sports fantasy betting is spiking while Thoroughbred betting is cratering, by one-third in the last decade. Even in the Year of the Pharoah, racing handle remains flat.

Which brings us back to New Jersey, a racing state surrounded by casino-fueled competition from its neighbors.

A recent notice by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals gave major league sports until the end of the month to again state its case why federal law should supersede state law that permits four states to conduct some form of sports betting.

At issue is whether the state, which has no intention of conducting sports betting, can remove sports betting prohibitions as mandated by 1992 federal statute that makes state sponsorship of sports betting illegal.

If so, racetracks and Atlantic City casinos would be allowed to conduct their own sports-betting operations. State lawmakers last year passed a revised bill allowing the removal of the sports betting ban but the leagues won out in court.

New Jersey is presumably getting a third strike to make their case. This time, they must come up with legislation that the leagues can’t refute on Constitutional grounds with the chance that if the matter does end up in the Supreme Court, it can withstand the challenges sure to come.

New Jersey racing better get some help in this area before Fantasy Sports eats its lunch. The same might be said for racing in general, another topic for another day.

Written by John Pricci

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