Monday, December 26, 2016

Racing Must Go Back to the Future

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 26, 2016—I have little doubt that Thoroughbred racing as we know it will outlive me. However, unless steps are taken in 2017, I'm not sure the game will make it passed the next generation.

This is not my being a prophet of doom. It’s about getting real; it’s about taking a shave and haircut now or having your head lopped-off later. Try to convince me--convince yourselves--that no existential threat exists.

When are racing’s stakeholders finally going to do something, anything proactive, besides talk, study, and more talk?

Everybody knows that 38 divided by 38 equals one. But not in horse racing. In this industry, 38 into 38 doesn’t go.

Earlier this month in Tucson, at the annual Global Symposium on Racing and Gaming, several attendees made presentations about a variety of new wagers that are available internationally.

If American racing doesn’t consider some new ideas conjured up by outside-the-box global experts efforting to improve racing’s lifeblood flow—wagering revenue—the U.S. racing industry will die from inertia within.

When final figures of leading economic indicators are released early next month, champions of truthiness will be falling over each other to spin virtually flat wagering, give a percentage point or two, as a positive development.

In the immediate aftermath of a rare Triple Crown champion and a great Derby winner that came into his own this year at age 5, there wasn't passion enough to spike a hint of a rebirth in interest and support. If American Pharoah and California Chrome won't do it, then no amount of great racing or great horses will.

Even in the age of fake news, facts still matter. End times are neigh because for more than a decade now, horse racing handle has been reduced by $5 billion, or nearly one-third.


In Australia, new wagers have made it possible to flip U.S. results over the same time period of time as handle has grown by $5 billion.

In this country, where seriously curtailing government regulation is all the rage, racing interests still fear to give fixed-odds or exchange wagering a try.

Opponents argue that exchange wagering is fraught with concern for racing’s integrity. On that, all racing needs is simply to do a better job, crucial at every level. Exchange wagering has been in place for several years in New Jersey and thus far there’s not been a hint of scandal.

Early cash-out wagers is another Down Under innovation. Using this model, U.S. bettors wishing to cash out after the opening legs of a Pick 6, bettors could insure a profit on the initial bet and reinvest those winnings, whole or in part, in a Pick 4 later on the card--cost free.

This is an example of what a true betting market could look like, think day trading with horses.

Australia also offers Virtual Betting--animated races that helps fill time between live events. At once, this “no-brainer” educates new customers about the different wagers available while it produces revenue that costs nothing beyond the writing of new code.

What could possibly be the excuse for not investing in technology that would greatly help an industry data-rich with money-making information? Isn’t this game worth the investment? In the real world, isn’t money spent to make more money?

In addition to introducing horse racing as a gambling game of skill, there needs to be fractional wagering in all pools coupled with the elimination of breakage, paying to the penny made possible by self-automated betting machines.

Parenthetically, clerks would still be needed to provide standard functions such as voucher selling and cash-outs, perhaps also providing personal services to top-tier bettors at, say, $200 straight-and-exacta-wagering-only windows.

Of course, betting volume depends on many factors: Field size, weather conditions, competitive races and the popularity of both turf racing and high-quality racing. In addition to increasing handle, creating engagement is needed to ensure survival.

Working against handle are factors such as medication, therapeutics and otherwise, and too much competition for a finite number of customers on normally high-handle weekends, special-event days, and poor visibility when boutique race meets suck out all the oxygen.

Only live, high-quality racing should be offered on weekends in order to showcase the sport’s best racing and create interest in the game. Smaller tracks can still offer simulcasting, of course, but schedule its live racing away from the big boys.

If tracks tried harder and negotiated in good faith, they could make economic agreements to the benefit of both, creating the kind of synergy that helps disparate markets. It’s complicated, yes, but it’s not damn rocket science.

The above offers a few ideas to chew on. The need for new customers is ubiquitous as sinking ships are everywhere. The kind of thinking that can attract new customers contains a betting-menu philosophy that offers simpler wagers that appeal to bettors coming at the game from a Wall Street perspective.

Facilitated through Internet and user friendly bets on mobile platforms, exchange wagering would allow bettors to set the odds, prices that another bettors would be willing to accept. Once a price is accepted, payoffs are locked in. Fixed-odds wagering works on this same principle.

These are concepts readily understandable by newbies, a great way to attract new players that come with a different perception of risk.

The American horse industry critically needs a new thinking, one that renounces protectionism and rejects the notion that fixed-odds wagering and exchanges cannibalize pari-mutuels. There is room for at least two of these three to co-exist. Internet and mobile wagering platforms are perfect vehicles for a paradigm of that increases a bettor's chances to win.

Nowhere is the need for new thinking more critical than in Southern California, whose broken model has been teetering. But before SoCal can grow it must first become healthy and lucid, the latter in short supply in the Golden State.

Back in the day, while having a cup of coffee as a press staffer for the New York Racing Association, my boss, the late Pat Lynch, a company man, told me something I never forgot:

“Remember one thing,” said Lynch, “what’s good for horsemen generally is bad for the player.” That wisdom turned out to be timeless. Lynch realized that the goals of horsemen and players work at cross purposes.

The near usurious exacta takeout in California resulted in a temporarily increase in purse money but inexorably has resulted in handle declines, much of the harm done during Mike Pegram's administration as Thoroughbred Owners of California president.

With help from America’s Horse Racing Network, the industry continues to play the greed card, a philosophy not limited to California. Constant reminders of Carryovers Du Jour, ersatz guaranteed pools, etc., ultimately hurts player liquidity: Consistent Money Loss = Customer Loss.

To its credit, Santa Anita has the nation's lowest major track takeout of 15.43 percent on straight wagers, and a competitively low takeout on the 50-Cent Players Pick Five. It promotes the latter; the former, not-so-much. It should be the other way around.

The 22.43% exacta rake and newly instituted Jackpot $2 Pick 6, which divides the 30% five-consolation in half, with 15% for consolation winners and the other 15% going into a jackpot pool when there’s a single winner Pick 6 winners, are decidedly crowd unfriendly. The motto seems to be "all you need is a couple of hundred dollars and a dream."

There was an interesting LA Times Santa Anita pre-opening piece that shined a light on show wagering, widely regarded as a boring old dinosaur.

But for future horseplayers, show wagering could provide a gateway to learn more about handicapping factors. Like veterans, new players want to win, but engaged players will want to learn how to win more.

If California officials would only consider a suggestion offered by SoCal racing activist Andy Asaro, SoCal racing be able to turn its sinking fortunes around. Asaro is correct when he posits that industry viability depends on a thriving California.

By paying to the penny with show payouts limited $2.05 minimums, lowering exacta takeout rates, and promoting betting on horse as a gambling game of skill, volume will increase over time. And given more time, so will revenue.

The suggestion to make Parlays and Round Robins (think “Personal Double”, “Personal Pick 3”) makes sense by allowing players to create their own betting menus, giving them a better chance to win. How can new, simpler wagers not be handle generators?

The activist also suggests that the new penny breakage can be donated via self-automated machines to racing charities benefitting backstretch workers, racehorse aftercare programs or permanently disabled jockeys--a painless, effective way for players to give back to the game.

Higher profit margins are not the answer; higher betting volume is.

Newer, simpler wagers and “smart-gambling” education are gateways to racing's for future success. Protectionism and cronyism has brought the game to where it is today.

Fresh thinking is needed, and it's needed before we all run out of racetrack.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

INDIANTOWN, FL., December 13, 2016—While 4-5 favorite Takaful opened a loose lead curling into the backstretch in Aqueduct’s Remsen Stakes on Thanksgiving weekend, fellow last-out maiden winner Mo Town cruised up from the outside into third, Johnny Velazquez intent on putting the Uncle Mo colt in the race right from the jump.

Then a strange thing happened. Within several more strides, as Takaful began opening a six-length lead between backstretch calls, Velazquez peaked under his left shoulder, even though it appeared on paper that the main competition was directly in front of him.

Leaving the three-quarter pole, just after Takaful widened his advantage, Velazquez decided to step on the gas, putting Mo Town in stalking mode before putting the reins back in his lap. At that point Mo Town switched off, awaiting Velazquez to give him a final cue.

That point came at mid-far-turn. Velazquez asked Mo Town to get closer as the leader once again tried to open his margin as Win With Pride applied pressure to his outside and No Dozing began to rally strongly from the 4-path, appearing to have the best momentum at headstretch.

After straightening away, Mo Town attacked the favorite, who lacked both experience and a victory beyond a maiden-allowance Belmont sprint score, but the battle was over almost as quickly as it was joined. In a repetition of his maiden breaker, Mo Town drew off like a good horse, galloping out well and remaining in front of his nine rivals.

“Johnny thinks he’s a good horse,” said trainer Tony Dutrow at his Payson Park base, “as do I. Right now, neither of us know how good.”

What everyone has seen thus far has been pretty damn good.

Second on his Travers day debut behind a Steve Asmussen-trained second-time starter, Mo Town raced in fifth from his outside position in the 6-furlong sprint, steadied briefly when caught between horses at the turn, knifed between rivals at the five-sixteenths looming a possible winner at headstretch, but could not match strides with the experienced winner despite running his final quarter-mile in just under 24 seconds.

“Mentally he was ready to run,” said Dutrow. “It was late August and it was time to get him started. Fitness-wise, I probably had him at about seventy-five to eighty percent.” The runnerup effort was so good that Dutrow received many inquiries after the race.

“I told everyone that he was not for sale because I felt strongly that he was going to run much better in his next start.”

As advertised, Mo Town takes it easy on himself.

Mo Town’s second race came at one mile at Belmont Park where the colt was first introduced to a racetrack on May 1st, arriving from Ocala after being prepared by Bo Hunt at Starting Point Farm.

The colt’s 3-5 maiden win was a revelation. Breaking professionally from slip #4, he attended the early pace easily, running third outside another rival while under a tight rein, moved into second approaching the half-mile marker and was ready to seize control approaching headstretch.

Under a supremely confident Velazquez, Mo Town took command on his own and, as he began to widen, Velazquez went to a strong hand drive a furlong from home as if he wanted to find out just how much power was left under the hood.

Those reserves were enough to win by 7 widening lengths over the muddy going, racing his final quarter-mile in 24.58 at the end of a mile in 1:37.26.

After that performance, more offers came in earnest and suddenly Team Coolmore became the majority owner, Team D Racing retaining a share in the colt. The price was not disclosed but strongly rumored to be into seven figures. Mo Town was a $200,000 Fall yearling.

And so after three starts, Mo Town has a second and two wins over three different tracks and has handled fast and wet footing equally well. Long and leggy, he is the rare individual that’s professional at the start, owns both tactical and turn-of-foot speed and rates kindly. His best attribute?

“He’s easy on himself,” explained Dutrow. “Before he ran, we worked him in company but we don’t need to do that anymore. He knows what to do and he’ll do whatever we want to do in the morning.”

Dutrow does not want to get him started until late February and currently is mulling his options.

Mo Town looks toward the future.

After winning the Remsen, which has not been a great predictor of Classics success despite its nine furlong distance at the end of the two-year-old season, Dutrow stated the Wood Memorial, given the identical dynamics, likely would be the colt’s major Kentucky Derby prep. Now he’s not so sure.

“The downgrading of that race is a consideration and we’re looking at other options. The fact that neither New York nor Kentucky has a Grade 1 for three-year-olds in the spring doesn’t make sense. The Wood and Blue Grass have a rich history and are the kind of races the sport needs.”

Another consideration could be that the Grade 3 Gotham, which fits Dutrow’s schedule as well as a logical bridge to the Wood Memorial, had its purse lowered from $400,000 to $300,000 this year.

Parenthetically, that’s another factor that could have a negative effect on the Wood’s ability to regain its Grade 1 status.

Tony Dutrow contemplates his next move.

At this point Dutrow is mulling Fair Grounds’ Risen Star on Feb. 25 or Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth a week later, opposite the Gotham on Mar. 4. Both spots also are being considered for protem champion Classic Empire. Recent Delta Jackpot winner Gunnevera is another targeting the Fountain of Youth.

As far as other starting points, Dutrow said he doesn’t know enough about Tampa Bay Downs, host of the 50-point Derby qualifier Tampa Bay Derby Mar. 11 but a run in the Risen Star, also a 50 pointer, is a useful five-week bridge to either the 100-point Louisiana Derby or Florida Derby, Apr. 1.

“There have been no soundness issues with him, knock wood, and I know we have not seen anything near his best yet,” Dutrow sounding like a man who’s very eager to find out. On that, he has a lot of interested company.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Racing’s History and Tradition Matters

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 10, 2016—Given the decline in horse racing’s popularity as a sport and business with the sporting public at large, there has been much hand wringing about how the game should be marketed.

Is it a sport? Is it a gambling game, in which skill most often decides the difference between the thrill of victory and the agony of emptied wallets?

I personally believe there’s room for both, accentuating the fact that horse racing--even more than handicapping and gambling on mainstream sports--is a thinking person’s game if for no other reason there are more than two sides to every puzzle.

So what does all this have to do with the recent downgrading of both the storied Blue Grass and Wood Memorial Stakes and, to a lesser extent the Mother Goose distaff for racing’s three-year-old glamour division?

Before considering the current status of these events we agree with those who certified the uplifting of the Pennsylvania Derby to Grade 1. As the HorseRaceInsider faithful are well aware, Mr. Jicha and I have been calling for such a move for several years.

However, the elevation of the race that has attracted high profile talent is the result of factors beyond the prestige normally associated with a Grade 1 designation.

Equi-distant from both the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic, it is the only opportunity for three-year-olds to run for a cool million and a Grade 1 title in their own division.

The Pennsylvania Derby is at once a chance for late developers to throw their hooves into the championship ring with the potential of defeating a Triple Crown, Travers or Haskell hero because the connections of those events get $50,000 for just showing up.

Most horsemen and other industry stakeholders agree that money, Grade 1 status, and good spacing is a powerful trifecta.

But here’s what bothers me about the downgrading of two major three-year-old events that in the modern era are considered--unfairly in our view--mere preps, albeit major and lucrative ones for the world’s most famous horse race run on May’s first Saturday.

Thoroughbred racing deserves the criticism it gets for living in the past when it comes to course correction for the future. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with its past, a foundation that has given well rounded sports fans a lifetime of passionate memories.

Add in color, pageantry and love for a majestic animal in a sporting context, it’s not difficult to fall in love with horse racing whether equine athletes win money for you or not--though winning is so much better.

Horse racing is nothing less than American history itself. And if people don’t understand that premise, buy them a copy of Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” or rent them the video for family viewing around their new smart TVs at Christmas time.

But what’s really bothersome about the downgrading of the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial is two-fold:

The Blue Grass takes place in the Thoroughbred nursery to the world and New York--despite the state’s thumb that acts like it would love to crush it into dust--is still this country’s most famous circuit and its betting volume leader.

The New York circuit also happens to be the home of one of America’s Top 10 sports venues and the Wood the defining race of the spring racing season conducted in “the greatest city in the world.”

So do 11 people have a right to throw the racing history made in Lexington Kentucky and New York City into the trash bin of antiquity? Don’t these regions deserve to host a Grade 1 event for three-year-olds in the spring?

Recent editions of the Blue Grass and Wood have left much to be desired, obviously. All know this. But between the major competition these races face and modern training programs, something had to give. Who’s to say this just isn’t be a bad cycle? Consider:

How many more winners would these races have produced in eight, 10 or 12-horse Kentucky Derby fields? How many more winners would they have produced had racetracks in Arkansas and Louisiana not thrown a million dollars at their state’s Derby?

Southern California’s 4-out-of-5-year Kentucky Derby hot streak notwithstanding, where would all those East and Midwestern-based three-year-olds raced in the past? Would Lexington be in that mix? Would New York?

What would happen if Keeneland and Aqueduct raise the purse of the Blue Grass and Wood to $1,500,000? I’ll tell you what would happen: Bob Baffert would ship his horses further east.

Or what if Keeneland and NYRA decide to declare war on Gulfstream Park and move their races back a week so that horsemen would have a choice of three 35-days-to-Derby preps? I’ll tell you what would happen: All three would suffer.

The Blue Grass and Wood problem is more about money and scheduling than races suddenly deemed less-than by panel decree. There’s too much Grade 1 blacktype, too much money, in too many places and in all divisions given smaller foal crops.

Simply stated, the thought of Lexington and New York not hosting a Grade 1 three-year-old prep and traditional spring racing event is on its face preposterous. Racing tradition is more important than the fate of a geographical accidental tourist.

From an earlier Wood Memorial era, notable Derby losers included champions and super studs such as Tapit, Empire Maker, Unbridled’s Song, Easy Goer and Slew o’ Gold.

From the Blue Grass came Derby defeated Thoroughbred legends Pulpit, Skip Away, Holy Bull, Alydar and Round Table.

This is not only about the Kentucky Derby and their latter-day “preps.” Even in this era, all racing history matters.

Bad Weather, Good Day for Gulfstream’s Showcase Juveniles, Especially Pletcher’s

He didn’t win them all but did take four of the five races he entered. Todd Pletcher came away with sprint wins for Bode’s Dream, undefeated in three starts, and Sonic Mule, now 3-for-4 sprinting. Both will remain at shorter distances in the near future.

But his other two winners, plus one runnerup, highly likely will get their opportunities to see whether they belong with the soon-to-be three-year-old elites.

Main Track Only entrant Fact Check took advantage of the off-turf conditions and an outside draw, as did Tapwrit, to win their one-turn miles very well.

Tapwrit must have been a looker at auction. Even though a son of the remarkable Tapit, his $1.2 million purchase price was twice that of the average Tapit offspring, a big number considering there’s not a lot of stamina on the bottom side of Tapwrit’s pedigree.

Of Appealing Zophie’s four other foals to race, only two won and yesterday’s $75,000 listed race was the mare’s first offspring to win a race with a name attached to it.

As good as Tapwrit ran, his runnerup stablemate impressed more favorably. Master Plan, also boasting a sprinter/miler’s pedigree, finished strongly late, whittling down the winner’s 5-length midstretch margin to a length with a final quarter-mile in: 24 2/5.

But the best of the quartet was Fact Finding, a $523,000 two-year-old purchase who extended his undefeated record to three, winning the Smooth Aire by 7 widening lengths in 1:36.92--solid time in the sloppy conditions--after being hounded throughout by co-favorite Basha.

“He showed us today that he should be able to handle the stretch-out from a mile,” said the trainer seeking his 14th Gulfstream title. “The time stacked up favorable for the day; it was a quality effort.”

In other Showcase races, Lirica stretched her speed a mile to win the Hut Hut with authority for trainer Antonio Sano and Party Boat got up in the finale strides for Graham Motion, the juvenile filly’s third straight victory but first on dirt. Very nice filly.

Good News, Bad News for Baffert at Los Al

Mastery extended his undefeated record to three, winning the G1 Cash Call Futurity in his first start around two turns after re-adding blinkers. The win was his second at the graded level [B3 Bob Hope], Baffert’s ninth in the race. Mastery’s now won at every track in Southern California.

American Gal didn’t fare as well in the G1 Starlet, suffering a second consecutive ultra-wide journey going two turns, even if Saturday’s run was less eventful than her third place Juvenile Fillies finish. She seemed to have it in hand by tired in the final 100 yards.

But take nothing away from Abel Tasman, a winner of three straight herself, her second rounding two turns. Simon Callaghan’s filly finished very strongly under a confident Joe Talamo and had reserves in the tank at the end of the 1-1/16 miles.

“We decided to supplement her [$10,000] because she was getting good at the right time,” said Callaghan. “I thought she had the stamina for this race.”

Abel Tasman’s victory was good for 10 points towards an appearance in the Kentucky Oaks which is, of course, a sixteenth of a mile farther. “I think the distance is the key for this filly,” Callaghan added. The Quality Road filly underscored his opinion Saturday.

Written by John Pricci

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