Friday, February 12, 2010

To Survive, Horseplayers Need Complete Data

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, February 12, 2010--If some industry organizations are still wondering why handle continues to decline at a double-digit rate, they would do well to look inward for answers.

The decline we’re talking about is not about marketing. The reference here speaks to basic services that horseplayers need to make the best handicapping decisions possible and keep themselves liquid. God forbid anyone should actually win consistently.

Why is it that industry organizations, from data collectors to data suppliers to the racetracks--in short, everyone--need to be told when they’re not doing something right and are letting down their customers by not providing basic information and services.

On opening day of the 2010 Gulfstream Park meet, president Ken Dunn was interviewed on the track’s closed-circuit system which is seen by simulcast audiences throughout the country. Dunn was highlighting the changes that would take place at the current meet.

One of those changes, dividing Gulfstream’s expansive turf course into two separate courses, sounded like a good idea, and indeed it was. The move was well received by the professional players we spoke with and the weekend warriors, too.

Dunn explained that the temporary rails would still be utilized on both courses which serves to give the worn parts of the course a needed rest when atmospherics and extensive use deemed it necessary.

Indeed, there are several tracks around the country that utilize two courses. In a perfect world every venue should have two courses for just such purposes; to give one course a rest while also providing variety by giving fans/handicappers/fans a different puzzle to solve.

Given two courses, there are intuitive rules that even the most casual fans understand. On balance, an inner course with tighter turns would naturally favor rail hugging speed. Conversely, outer courses, because of their wider circumference, give late-rally types a better chance.

Whether or not the data providers believe these handicapping dictums to be true is not the issue. What is important is that the majority of bettors think so.

Horseplayers embrace the challenge of handicapping. It makes them part of the game’s process, not to mention it occasionally results in putting more money in their pockets than they had when they left home for the track or simulcast venue.

Because of its generally larger fields and the wide open results they often produce, turf races are very popular with the betting public. The tracks understand this, too, especially when they see the influence turf racing has on their bottom lines.

That’s what so vexing about making horseplayers bet on Gulfstream turf races with incomplete past-performance information. So where is Equibase, the sport’s official data collector, or the data disseminators Daily Racing Form and Brisnet on all this? Good question.

Apparently, none of these organizations think it’s necessary for tracks with more than one turf course to delineate in past performance lines the specific course on which a horse recently raced.

Yes, that information is included in the result charts, and in race-condition headers at the top of every turf race. But that‘s not the point.

With simulcasting accounting for nine of every 10 dollars wagered, time management is a major concern for even the most casual fan. Who has the time to consult a result chart every time he or she wants to dope out a turf race thoroughly? I know I don’t, and I do this professionally.

In New York, Belmont Park and Saratoga have two turf courses. Whether it’s the Widener or inner course downstate or the Mellon and inner in Saratoga, those designations are rightfully included in past-performance lines, just as the Aqueduct winter dirt is separated from the main track.

This was what I was thinking as I listened to the Dunn announcement. So I gave the data purveyors a few weeks, then a month, then six weeks, for horses to run back. And I’m still waiting to learn what Gulfstream course horses raced on last out.

It seems no one ever thinks about the horseplayer without first being asked to do so. If data organizations didn’t think to include this basic information in the running lines, it was in Gulfstream’s vested interests to remind them.

So, please, no spin about how the Gulfstream turf isn’t technically two courses. And if that technicality does exist, for arguments sake, then why not go all out and provide the specifics rail placements; 12 feet, 48 feet, or 72 feet, whatever. What’s one more symbol in a past performance running line?

I’d like to know going into a Gulfstream Park turf race that a particular horse’s running style might have been compromised or aided by the circumference of the oval. Size always matters.

Like almost everyone in America today, I’m a simulcast player now. So please stop wasting my time. Do your job correctly and completely, and provide all of us the information we need. With pool liquidity drying up by the day, we need all the help we can get.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 05, 2010

It’s On, Kinda’ Sorta’

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, February 5, 2010--In what has been described as the boldest move yet to bring Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta together in a race and the greatest sporting event in the history of Arkansas, Oaklawn Park president Charles Cella as expected announced yesterday that the purse of the April 3 Apple Blossom would be raised to $5 million if both horses showed up.

Cella certainly put his money where his aspirations are. Recall that several years ago he raised the purse of the Arkansas Derby to $1-million and created a $5 million bonus for a horse that would sweep the Southwest Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby.

So he knows how to throw a party and get noticed. Ultimately, the attention he brought to Oaklawn Park’s centerpiece event for three-year-olds resulted in the race earning Grade 1 status. And, yes, the rating was long overdue.

The race, to be called the Apple Blossom Invitational, will have its distance lengthened a half-furlong to 1 1/8 miles. The event for fillies and mares, 4-year-olds and up, was a handicap but now all horses will carry scale of 123 pounds.

Should the matchup fail to materialize, the purse will revert to the original $500,000. No word on whether the Apple Blossom would return to handicap status at its original distance.

Clearly, Oaklawn is trying to think positively. As scheduled, the summit would have the largest purse ever offered fillies and mares and matches the Breeders’ Cup Classic, dollar for dollar. The added money will come from Cella and the Arkansas Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

At yesterday’s press conference, Cella said he has had multiple conversations with Jess Jackson, the owner of Rachel Alexandra, and Jerry Moss, Zenyatta’s owner. "Both of them have told me they embrace the idea," Cella said.

As has been widely reported, Oaklawn Park is neutral ground. Both horses have won there. The 2008 Apple Blossom was Zenyatta’s first Grade 1 win and only start outside California. Last year, the Martha Washington and Fantasy Stakes hinted that Rachel Alexandra would be a very special three-year-old.

On Wednesday at her Hollywood Park base, Zenyatta breezed five furlongs in 1:01 3/5. She’s had two serious works since un-retiring but never was out of training, having breezed three times to “take the edge off” before being sent to the breeding shed.

And, then, well, it was cold in Kentucky, so she remained in Southern California and on the Saturday prior to the Horse of the Year announcement the news that Zenyatta would race as a six-year-old became official. But it wasn’t a huge surprise.

Following her un-retirement, Zenyatta’s connections mentioned two possible spots, throwing down a gauntlet that stretched all the way to New Orleans. Jerry Moss wants to win the Apple Blossom again, and the camp thought that the Santa Margarita on March 13 looked like an excellent spot to get started.

Of course, Rachel Alexandra hasn’t run since winning the Woodward on Labor Day weekend. It has been well documented that her training this year was delayed owing to poor weather conditions and too many wet Fair Grounds surfaces.

Rachel Alexandra had her first work last weekend, a slow and easy half mile in :52 seconds. Even given the poor weather, it never appeared that the Rachel camp was in a big hurry to get started. Consequently, some have speculated on her nursing some injury, real or imagined, then hustled off to a date with Curlin.

When it was known late last year that Rachel Alexandra would winter at the Fair Grounds, management announced they would create a $200,000 race for fillies and mares at a mile and a sixteenth, an accommodation that had the added benefit of putting fannies in seats. Ironically, that race is scheduled for March 13.

Coming back at four after the most ambitious three-year-old filly campaign in modern history, in which she met and defeated males thrice, including a Classic two weeks after winning the Oaks by 20, could be a tricky proposition.

Just like newly turned three-year-olds, some horses don’t transition well from three to four, so there is no knowing for sure how Rachel Alexandra will run as a four-year-old until she does so.

Rachel’s layup has been lengthy, but she never has given an indication that she needs a whole lot of training to get ready. She has been galloping and hacking around virtually all winter to maintain her fitness.

To meet Zenyatta, one must be 100 percent. Anything less wouldn’t be fair to Rachel, or Zenyatta, or to all the people that have been clamoring for a summit between--thanks to a hanging chad--two unanimous champions.

Shortly after Cella’s announcement, Jackson said “as you have heard me say many times, a number of factors must be considered when deciding where to race a horse, the number one factor being the condition of the horse. Rachel will tell us when she is ready to start, and we humans must agree she is in top form.”

"We’ll do our best to make the race, but obviously, it all depends on Zenyatta, and how she’s doing,” said racing manager for the Mosses, Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs.

If they want one, both camps have an out, especially Rachel’s. So the next quote you might hear one of the humans say might sound something like: “We can’t get her ready in time for her prep, and we won’t meet Zenyatta without at least one race under our belts.”

The sad truth is that two months might not be enough time to get ready for a Breeders’ Cup Classic champion at nine furlongs, no matter how much the filly might like Hot Springs. This deal is far from done.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

This Time, Lawmakers Must Not Fail New York Racing

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 28, 2010--In the long history of the racing industry in New York, never before have the stakes been so high. At issue is the game’s existence, and the stars are beginning to align.

In 2009, eight years after enabling legislation permitted VLTs at the state’s tracks, there were interminable delays in announcing the winner of the VLT franchise race. The Governor’s office announced a handful of dates throughout the year, none of which materialized.

In a closely related development Monday, a state task force released a report recommending how to overhaul the state's six regional off-track betting corporations, including New York City OTB, which has threatened to close its doors permanently following a March 30 deadline.

Among the task force’s many recommendations was a proposal that account-wagering operations outside New York, known as ADWs, be required to pay the same amount to horsemen's organizations and local governments via licensing fees that OTBs do.

The report further suggested that the state's six OTB regions consolidate its business and marketing functions and streamline its management. There also were references to having the New York Racing Association and the OTBs merge under one umbrella. Nothing new there.

Given these machinations, however, the franchise-naming delay by the current sitting Governor, David Paterson, is beginning to make sense. Efforts of conflicting lobbyists notwithstanding, the VLT decision might finally come only after the OTB situation is resolved in some meaningful way. OTBs want into the VLT business, also not a new development.

The interminable VLT-franchise delay doesn’t make sense unless one considers the NYC-OTB situation that necessitated Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. Given there are 62 counties in New York that depend on OTB revenues, it is no wonder Albany’s eyes haven’t been focused on VLTs.

Whatever is decided relative to these issues, it will have a profound effect on the industry and its customers. And it is those fans, like taxpayers everywhere, who could wind up footing the bill. One involves the ADW scenario. The other, parimutuel takeout.

If the trifecta of legislators, racetracks and OTBs decide that raising takeout and requiring out-of-state ADWs companies to pay licensing fees are the only ways to go, it will hasten racing’s demise in this state. If you don’t believe a revolt is going on in this country, ask Martha Coakley.

There’s a recent example of the debilitating effects of takeout on handle that New Yorkers should heed. Two weeks ago, HorseRaceInsider, backing the play of the Horseplayers Association of North America, implored readers to e-mail the California Horse Racing Board requesting it not raise takeout on races from Los Alamitos.

According to HRI sources, the CHRB received 169 e-mail responses. Apparently horseplayers didn’t take the request or the threat seriously enough, and so neither did the CHRB. By a vote of 6-1, a takeout increase was passed to bail out struggling satellite betting shops in California, the Golden State’s OTB equivalent.

Four days of results is in no way a defining measure, but it is indicative of a trend. The numbers were nothing short of alarming. Comparing handle figures from January 21 through January 24 to Thursday-through-Sunday receipts from the previous week, handle was down $644,240, according to HANA President Jeff Platt.

Platt and fellow board members are unpaid individuals in a grass roots organization dedicated to fighting for horseplayer’s rights. Aware that torrential rains probably were a contributing factor, Platt also compared numbers with corresponding dates from a year ago to gain more perspective. Those figures were worse; the shortfall was $868,171.

A 20.75 percent drop year over year and a 16.27 percent loss suffered the week after a tax increase is enacted is significant. Poor weather is one thing but these numbers are indicative of something else.

Because of the work done by the Horseplayers Association of North America and other Internet sites that post takeout rates from tracks throughout the country, today’s educated horseplayers are aware of the inequities of takeout and have been betting their money at venues where dollars go farther.

It should be clear to those who control New York’s destiny that horseplayers no longer can be taken for granted. The player is voting with his dollars, concentrating on tracks with a good product at a fair price. Still others are voting with their feet and walking away for good. This on top of a demographic that skews older by the minute.

In his e-mail to HorseRaceInsider, Platt recalled that the CHRB promised tracks and the legislature that handle would remain flat. In the long term, a higher takeout NEVER does, although generally it takes time to make an impact. That’s what makes the Los Alamitos numbers so startling.

At whatever price point horseplayers are taxed out of the game, that consequence is a day-to-day reality. Whatever short term fixes worked in the past will destroy what’s left of the industry if repeated today. Past performances are not promising.

Anyone with sense agrees that the OTBs and tracks need to streamline operations and eliminate redundancies in bet-taking and marketing. Time has come to eliminate measures such as “dark-day payments” that reward tracks for not opening their doors. Unrestricted in-home simulcasts are long overdue.

There should be no restrictions on Internet video streaming, and counties should provide public access cable stations for horse racing broadcasts. Again, none of this qualifies as new ground but the time to act is now.

Harness tracks should compete for market share, just like flat tracks do, and they no longer should enjoy protectionist status to the further economic detriment of the OTBs and taxpayers. OTBs and tracks must, of course, reduce overhead and market creatively in tandem.

The current simulcast-rates model is broken and an attempt must be made to fix it. But ADWs shouldn’t be confused with the majority of rebate shops. Racing and Gaming Services is an example of a rebate shop that gives back to the industry, big-time.

And how were their contributions to NYRA purses in the form of simulcast fees rewarded in the past? NYRA responded by cutting its signal to RGS when putting on its dog and pony show while efforting to retain its own franchise. That’s not the kind of transparency anyone needs.

If the state demands licensing fees from out-of-state ADWs that take bets on New York racing, propping up OTBs by restraining trade, the tack is odds-on to backfire. Don’t legislators read newspapers?

Don’t they know that if fees are increased significantly many tracks and ADWs might not want to pay for New York’s races? Don’t they realize that interstate wagering is where the money is? Has anyone seen the New York product recently? Would you pay a premium for it?

Does the New York trifecta think protectionism will help corner the betting market within the state? Are they not aware that’s what New Jersey did when it enacted off-track betting, but recently reversed course after realizing it was a handle killer?

But what if you did this and made New Yorkers criminals by forcing them to bet illegally with their preferred ADW should that company fail to pay New York State a licensing fee? Don’t they realize that bettors will better-deal them, possibly betting offshore or leave the game completely?

There was a word for this early in the last century. It was an impetus for criminals to organize and syndicate their activities. It failed and eventually was repealed because it proved impractical and ineffectual, turning citizens into resentful “criminals.” Prohibition didn‘t work. Neither will protectionism and higher taxes in the new order of world class racing.

Written by John Pricci

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