Saturday, December 08, 2012

Presque Isle Experiment Could Teach Industry a Lesson

SOUTH OZONE PARK, December 7, 2012—Pending approval from the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission, Presque Isle Downs & Casino will shift its racing program to a Sunday through Thursday schedule and drop racing on Friday and Saturday.

Weekend programs normally draw bigger crowds, of course, especially when first post is 5:25 p.m. So then why drop those popular days? Because destination venues and boutique race meets notwithstanding, the live gate no longer assures viability.

The popularity of a simulcast signal is no longer a luxury; it’s an absolute necessity. If simulcasting fails, slots are the last resort, but tracks like Presque Isle need viable racing, too. And if that fails, yet another shopping mall becomes the reality.

It matters not that tracks get a bigger slice of the wagering pie from the live product than it does from its simulcast product, not when “all-sources” rules. If a racing model is to succeed, betting handle, not Lotto receipts, must fuel purses.

There’s still a big place for on-track handle, of course, but only if you own a destination venue, or run a boutique meet, or have the right location…location. Think Oaklawn… Oaklawn. That’s the sad fact of life in this brave, not-so-new simulcast world.

In no small way, then, is it ironic that the 21st Century racetrack has a much better chance to build its brand through the simulcast marketplace than in their own back yards.

Why concentrate on Erie, Pennsylvania when you can target the world?

And that’s what Presque Isle is attempting to do with this move. Schedule changes have worked at other tracks and it can work for them, too. The track will find out if it gets that opportunity when the PSHRC convenes next Thursday.

Reality dictates that the Presque Isles and Parxes of the racing world cannot compete with the Aqueducts and Churchills; Hawthorne on a Saturday afternoon is no match for Gulfstream. Quality of competition and branding matters.

While it’s true that large fields of claiming horses will out-handle small fields of allowances horses, selling platers are no match for class masters when placed on even footing at the entry box, everything else being equal. The Jockey Club has studies to prove it.

Presque Isle management gets this and is taking proactive steps. The elephant in the room is: What’s taking the rest of the B-level and C-level tracks so long to figure this situation out? Apples can compete with other apples, but they won’t beat oranges.

In fact, here is the first bold prediction for 2013: More smaller tracks will change their schedules to fill the simulcast void left by the majors on Dark Mondays and Tuesdays. If they are to remain viable within the racing community, it’s inevitable.

In fact, smaller tracks can do for racing what racing has failed to do for itself. Smart scheduling will have the same effect as the creation of major and minor leagues. It will be no different than when tracks schedule post times not to conflict with parimutuel rivals.

With B and C level tracks competing with other B and C tracks, all will be on equal footing with no thousand-pound gorillas to take on. Tracks such as Parx and Presque Isle, and next-level venues such as Laurel and Delaware could OWN Dark Mondays and Tuesdays.

Consequently, tracks might figure out a way to cooperate instead of compete. A 10 percent, 50-Cent Pick 5 shared among three or four tracks, similar to the Stronach wager wager a few years back, could attract significant handle by bundling the best races. Low takeout rates could be sold to state houses as a “marketing” expense.

And if this long chance ever became a reality, simulcast coordinators and racing offices should guard against making the races impossible to handicap.

In their greed for short term handle, tracks fail to realize that many serious handicappers eschew impossible sequences but rather are attracted to those offering potential “singles” and a reasonable chance of success.

Think of it this way: Whales want minnows in the pools.

The Pick 4, for instance, even with a 50-Cent minimum, can be too costly for the average fan that has the capacity to wager “only” $200-$300 per day. Force him to stretch his bankroll chasing a score and churn goes up in smoke, along with most tickets.

By the way, the 50-Cent Pick 4 offers a reasonable chance of success, especially when compared to the $2 Pick 6, but the bet is no gimme.

We congratulate Presque Isle for using a common sense approach to competition and wish them success with their experiment. That might lead the way for other smaller tracks to own their share of the racing week and build their brands simultaneously.

There’s only one Saturday and so many weekend warriors to go around.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, December 03, 2012

Gulfstream Park Opening: Present, Past and Future

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., December 2, 2012—The first weekend of the 2012-13 Gulfstream Park meeting is in the books and there are plenty of smiling faces lighting up the immediate area.

The widest cheers appear to be a triple dead heat among Claiming Crown “King” Ken Ramsey, jockey Joel Rosario, and Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo.

And if Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders President Dan Metzger were still in town, it would have made for an all pearly-whites superfecta.

In effect, Gulfstream Park may have saved the Claiming Crown. When the event was held last year at the Fair Grounds, five races attracted five small fields with no buzz whatsoever.

But with Gulfstream’s marketing department aggressively promoting the opening day event, that effort paid dividends.

It wouldn’t qualify as an upset, then, if the Claiming Crown found a permanent home in South Florida.

With purse help culled from an agreement with the Florida horsemen, and with a $25,000 staging fee from Gulfstream, seven Claiming Crown races drew 135 entrants, albeit with a handful of cross-entered horses.

On Sunday, Ramsey was still basking in the glow of his personal superfecta on the Claiming Crown card: Four wins, including the centerpiece Jewel with 16-1 chance Parent’s Honor.

Rosario, making his first full-time foray into Gulfstream Park, jumped out to a fast early lead with six winners in the first two days of racing via a pair of riding triples.

Parenthetically, we’re sure that Corey Lanerie, making his first visit to Gulfstream, is smiling, too. He has only one win, but it was a big one; the Claiming Crown Emerald with Nikki’s Sandcastle.

Of course, the talent waters will become much deeper in the coming weeks. And it’s worth noting here that Javier Castellano, last year's defending riding champion with a record 112 wins, won the meet lidlifter.

Ritvo, meanwhile, is amazed that a featured card boasting starter allowance claimers could generate handle from all sources of $12.2 million. Those are big day-like numbers, Donn day-like numbers.

And consider that a race like the Donn might handle over $2 million on its own; the balance of the card accounting for the rest of the betting. By any measure, opening day was remarkably successful.

The positive trend continued on Sunday. Handle was up 10 percent with nine races vs. 2011’s 10-race card. Even the Rainbow 6, introduced with seed money last year but without a $50,000 sweetener this time, attracted $23,000 worth of dimes in its meet debut.

And wouldn’t know that the jackpot was hit; the lone ticket-holder taking down over $17,000.

But it’s not all sunshine and smiles in South Florida. It seldom is.

With Churchill Downs Inc. charging Calder-based horsemen $10 per horse, per stall, per day, and backstretch workers $10 per unit, two people to a room—essentially a cot without the three hots—Florida’s infighting tradition continues.

The levy, which rank and file Calder horsemen can ill afford, has caused a dispute with Calder management and resulted in an unofficial, partial boycott of the Gulfstream entry box.

In response to the fee, only 77 horses were entered for Wednesday, a program that offers only eight races, as does Thursday’s, for which 91 horses were entered.

It will be interesting to see how horses many remain after scratch time.

Insiders report that Gulfstream is dealing with the issue quietly. In the interim, temporary stalls are being added at Gulfstream. Over 200 stalls are available at Palm Meadows in Boynton Beach until it hosts a horse sale in mid-January.

The announcement that Calder horsemen would be made to pay stall rent was not made until after Gulfstream’s racing schedule was set and stalls were allotted for those intending to race in Hallandale Beach.

The elephant in the room is nothing short of the fate of top class Thoroughbred racing in South Florida.

Since getting slots and poker, any improvements made at Calder have been on the casino side, not the racing side. The backstretch there is badly in need of attention.

However, the future success of Gulfstream is linked inexorably to an expansion of the Gulfstream Village, which the Stronach Group now owns in total.

The future construction of a stand-alone casino and hotel, tied to a more equitable tax rate, is needed not only for the successful implementation of Stronach Group’s entertainment-destination vision but the near term viability of the complex’s commerce and continued good health of world class Thoroughbred racing.

For this to occur, an agreement must be forged between Calder, which shows no indication that horse racing will be emphasized in the future, and Gulfstream Park, whose future also includes playing host to the Breeders’ Cup once again.

To make South Florida racing whole, year-round racing at Gulfstream Park appears to be the only reasonable solution. In the big picture, Calder’s decision to charge its horsemen stall rent looks like a possible opening salvo.

Perhaps the positioning for forging future agreements already has begun.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Single, Double…HOME RUN!

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., December 1, 2012--Opening Day.

5:34 pm: For Ken Ramsey, who's had, among others, a Breeders' Cup winner, a Dubai World Cup hero, and a Joe Hirsch Turf Classic winner, Kittens Joy, who turned out to be a blue collar sire for all time--now standing for a $50,000 fee--it all came full circle when Parent's Honor, claimed for $35,000 this summer at Saratoga, upset the Claiming Crown Jewel at 16-1 for the owner's fourth victory on the card.

Ramsey is now the leading owner in Claiming Crown history with 10 victories and trainer Mike Maker, who saddled all four winners yesterday, leads all Claiming Crown trainers with 11. The first two were ridden by Joel Rosario; the other two, including the Crown Jewel, by Alan Garcia, whose ground-saving, rivals-splitting ride won the day for the Ramseys and Maker.

The Dime Pick 7 with mandatory payout and a 20% take handled $129,000, which extrapolates out to about $2.5 million in the traditional Pick 6, a $2 basic wager. The Claiming Crown as expected was littered with longshots as well as favorites, but no one had a perfect Pick 7. The Dime Pick 6 consolation returned $6,030; the Pick 5 consolation paid $84.30.

And, so, South Florida's first Claiming Crown proved a success, certainly as far as Gulfstream is concerned. All-sources handle was $12.2 million, up 66% from last year. On-track, an estimated crowd of 9,100, 600 more than the 2011 standard, wagered $1.4 million, up 84% on the comparable day last year, a day which also fell on Saturday and boasted fast and firm conditions.

Ken Ramsey is now the undisputed King of the Claiming Crown, seven in front of runnerup Richard Englander with four.

"We should be called the King and Queen--my wife [Sarah], we've got to put her in--of the Claiming Crown."

And of yesterday's four-pack? "It's like eating cracker jacks'" Ramsey said. The more you have, the more you want."

* * *

4:25 PM: Not that it mattered, since she tired badly and appears badly in need of a freshening at this juncture, but heavily Tiara favorite SIlver Streaker traveled 36 feet farther than the strong-rally winning Starsilhoutte and 58 feet farther than pacesetting, fence sitting Juanita, according to Trakus data.

Juanita was setting the pace, apparently, for her uncoupled mate, who gave the Ramseys and trainer Mike Maker their third win on the Claiming Crown card.

* * *

4:07 PM On their All-2YO-All-The-TIme opener at Tampa Bay Downs, Graham Motion enjoyed a promising turf runner in Sea of Laughter. THe well regrded European import (3-1) was wrestled off the early lead by Luis Garcia, showed push button acceleration between horses on the turn, and finished determinedly to the wire.

First-timer Eu Te Pago made a 3-4 path sweep on the stretch turn, loomed a winner oh so briefly, then weakened as the leader found more in midstretch. Stable mail, please.

Meanwhile, Don't Tell Lou, up from claiming company, finished well too late for place; she, too, will be hard to stop next time over the Tampa lawn.

* * *

3:16 PM: This makes half of the six races run on the Claiming Crown opener won by jockey Joel Rosario. And, make it two stragith for Mike Maker and the Ramseys. Something tells me the day's not yet over for this outfit. In fact, third finisher Won Fast Bullet gives the group another share of the purse at double digut odds.

Maybe Ramsey, who loves to wager, is losing his touch--winning with the shorter half of his uncoupled entry.

Note: Unfortunately, jockey Cotto misjudged the finish line, thinking the first finish was the finish. "It's unfortunate," said winning jockey Borel. "I've been there. We've all had these days."

* * *

2:43 PM: Interesting to go back and watch the replay of the fourth race, opening leg of the Pick 7 sequence. It appeared that 13-1 Pot Of Gold snatched defeat from victory's jaws. For some reason that appeared unapparent, Pedro Cotto Jr. stopped riding with a clear lead 50 yards from the wire as if the horse went wrong and Cotto was trying to protect the animal.

Meanwhile, Calvin Borel came roaring up from between horses and get up in the final two strides. The thing about the Cotto ride is that he appeared to start riding again just after the finish. Strange, and certainly something the stewards need focus on in the replay room.

Brother Bird much the best in the fifth at 1-1/16 miles, saving ground at no juncture whatsoever, and staying gamely to the first finish line, first installed last year, giving Rosario his second win opn the day and first for Ken and Sarah Ramsey, the leading owns in Claiming Crown history. This was their seventh victory...

1:22 PM: Another turf debut, this one from Bill Mott, who finished like an absolute wild horse to run down Drenched, who looked as if he'd be hard to beat at midstretch until tiring in final sixteenth. Joel Roario timed this one perfectly. His final 1/4 mile, courtesy of Trakus, was :24.18. Third finisher Amen Kitten finished up in :24.35. Significantly, the third fastest final 1/4-mile was :25.02, so the two mentioned were really rolling.

* * *

1:09 PM: Weather handicappers wrong, at least so far. Fast, firm, rail out on turf 48' and 108' respectively...Wind in their faces down the backstretch, gusting to around 20 mph.

Shug won the first with Divine Luck, perfect stalking trip beneath Castellano, who stole it soon after entering the stretch, leaving pocket sitter Dawn Glory with a little too much to do...

Money in the doubles for Shug to complete the early double with Overwhelming, who's bred for it in turf debut. Also double money for fast-working Elmutahid...

Unfortunately, South Florida one of those "wait five minutes" weather destinations. It's beautiful as this is being written but the weather handicapper is still predicting ran for this afternoon or, more properly, "30% chance of chowers." We shall see...

After working on the Pick 7, it's even tougher than i imagined. Will still take a swing but must take a stand in a spot or two because even at a DIme, the play can get a little pricey. Remember, is a mandatory payout, with consolations to winners of P6 even if the P7 is hit, on a 75% to 25% basis. Takeout rate is 20%

BTW: Did you check out the juvenile card at Tampa, which also opens today? There figures to be plenty of play in the Sunshine State. Have fun. And remember, both tracks will be open again tomorrow, making patience prudent.

* * *

And if you’re wondering what this has to do with what many regard as the premier winter race meet in America, Gulfstream Park, then you may not have gotten the recent memo:

On Saturday, the 2012-13 Gulfstream stand will open with seven Claiming Crown races in which horses that have run for a selling price at some point this year will compete for purses worth an aggregate $850,000.

Happy holidays to racing’s 98 percent.

And opening day might also provide a festive occasion for horseplayers thanks a Dime Pick 7 with a $100,000 guarantee and mandatory payout.

The takeout rate of 20 percent virtually splits the difference of the tariff on super-exotic wagers that can range from a low of approximately 15 percent to a high of 25 percent or more.

A mandatory payout makes that takeout rate reasonable.

* * *

Saturday marks Gulfstream’s second December opening as it tries to build on last winter’s successful launch, the racing turning out to be better than expected considering the early liftoff and traditionally slow holiday season.

By the time this meet concludes with the Florida Derby program March 30, over $10 million in purses will do its part to attract the best horses east of the Mississippi including, of course, newly turned three-year-olds.

With the first three finishers from last weekend’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and traditional powerhouse New York outfits taking up stall space in Hallandale and Boynton Beach, Gulfstream’s Derby prep program, starting with the Jan. 26 Holy Bull Stakes, will be very strong per usual.

In fact, certain 2012 Juvenile Champion Shanghai Bobby is already being pointed to that one-mile event in what will be the first of his two-race prep campaign.

In all, 61 added money events for all divisions will be staged before Gulfstream brings its curtain down.

For the uninitiated, the Claiming Crown is a series of starter events which began at Canterbury Downs 14 years ago and will be renewed in South Florida for the first time after stops at Parx, Ellis Park and Fair Grounds.

Purses have been increased since last year and the program was expanded from five to seven races. The $200,000 Jewel at nine furlongs for horses that have run for a claiming price of $35,000 in 2012 will anchor the card.

The fields will be huge, horses coming from everywhere, and the races will be extremely competitive, making for vexing handicapping puzzles. Winners may be hard to come by but with victory likely will come fat payoffs. The races will run on dirt, turf, both long and short, providing something for everyone.

In principle, we seldom advocate that the rank and file horseplayers immerse themselves in wagers with extremely high degrees of difficulty. But the chance to make a potential life-changing score for a relatively small investment is a reward that’s commensurate with the risk.

Anecdotally, I seldom if ever play the Pick Six. I find the $2 base wager too prohibitive, but nonetheless have played it on occasions when large carryovers effectively lower the takeout to fire-sale levels.

I probably have cashed a half-dozen winning Pick Sixes in my lifetime, none of which paid over $5,100. Aside from instances when I was part of a larger group, $48 was my biggest investment.

It may be interesting to note that I invest more than twice that into Pick 4s or Pick 5s but the lower takeout wagers and 50-Cent minimums provide greater leverage with a better chance to succeed.

On Saturday at Gulfstream Park, it’s theoretically possible that the Pick 7 could go un-hit, yet a Pick 6 or Pick 5 consolation could pay four or even five figures, based on a most formidable degree of difficulty.

Saturday’s sequence begins with Race 4 on the 10-race program. The seven Claiming Crown races average nearly 11 starters per race. Past Performances include running lines from virtually every track in the country—we counted 35—representing 18 states and Canada, from Saratoga to Del Mar, from Pleasanton to Mountaineer, and all the Hoosiers and Beulahs in between.

Even if three or four favorites succeed, payouts could reach high three figures based on empirical data from last season’s Rainbow 6 payouts. It’s what happens when $20 can buy 200 possible combinations.

“Realistically, we think the pool could reach $400,000 or $500,000,” said Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo Wednesday by phone from Kentucky following a meeting of the Graded Stakes Committee.

“If the bet is well received by the fans, we’ll definitely try it again and with a lower takeout, possibly as low as 10 or 12 percent.”

Here, then, is a chance for bettors to use their bankrolls to make future policy.

Written by John Pricci

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