Friday, July 17, 2009

Breeders’ Cup Making Some Progress

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 16, 2009--It’s an odd time of year but the Breeders’ Cup is much in the news these days.

Interesting, too, how after a quarter-century “racing’s greatest day” still can be a polarizing force depending on your particular point of view.

My view, frankly, is a bit of a dichotomy. I’m an old schooler but wide open to new ideas. After all, no one’s too old to learn. Consider:

At once I can say the Kentucky Derby is my favorite race but Breeders’ Cup is my favorite event. The Derby can sometimes disappoint but never the Breeders‘ Cup. There are too many good horses for the day to fail. There’s just too much there, there.

The dichotomy part has to do with how I can say I like the idea of a two-day event, but not all of the new races.

How I didn’t like changing the name of the Distaff but understand the concerns of marketers who say no one outside the industry ever heard the term used in a sentence.

Racing is a sport supported entirely by parimutuel wagering. But neither Derby day, nor Travers day, nor Big ‘Cap day, could ever hope to match the number of potential wagering opportunities available to Breeders’ Cup bettors.

Like much of the rest of the world, Breeders’ Cup is having financial difficulties. As with any organization, mistakes were made. No one is immune to that. But perhaps the Ltd. part of Breeders’ Cup should have purchased more bonds, less stocks.

Indeed, 99 percent of the population never saw the travails of September 2008 coming. We’re not trying to play the red board here but Breeders’ Cup Ltd. might have made better use of other people’s money.

More attention could have been paid to its fiduciary responsibilities. Actually, the same can be said for the Jockey Club’s portfolio, too. But I digress.

Money isn’t the only issue. Breeders’ Cup always wants to enhance its prestige worldwide. Otherwise, why schedule two consecutive events at a track--one of this country’s most magnificent venues, modern warts and all--with a synthetic surface if not to provide a “neutral surface” for foreign horses?

It worked. Last year’s exacta finish in the Classic underscores that point of view. And this country doesn’t award Eclipses to our best juvenile turf runners. Then why stage those races if not to attract strong foreign participation?

Indeed, money makes the mare and the horses and the geldings, go. Otherwise, why 14 races? And as a glutton for graded parimutuel punishment, I‘m conflicted once again.

Can’t have enough big-field wide-open events for my wagering appetite nor, apparently, for anyone else’s. Two-day handle of $155-million speaks to that.

So, why is Breeders’ Cup $5-million light this year? That part is not their bad. Much of it has to do with a serious decline in nominating fees owing directly to the world economy.

If Breeders’ Cup is going to break even this year, it had better see a significant boost in handle and additional sponsorships. And, in that regard, help is on the way.

With new people on the Breeders’ Cup board, business is being conducted a little differently. By allowing media types to listen in on board discussions, the process is more open, more transparent. That’s laudable and hopefully this tack continues.

One potential revenue raiser is a newly created handicapping contest for high rollers and contest-circuit professional types; the “Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge.”

The two-day tournament will be conducted at Santa Anita Park on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 6 and 7, and have a six-figure payout based on the number of participants and the hefty $10,000 buy-in.

Each entrant will receive a free VIP ticket to the Championships and have a private seating area at the track with complimentary food and beverage. The contest is limited to the first 100 players to enter.

Of the initial $10,000 bankroll, $2,500 is applied toward the prize money and $7,500 is earmarked for personal betting. At the conclusion of the tournament, any dollar amount remaining in the bankroll is retained by the player.

The top six finishers qualify for the 2010 DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas in January. Each NHC qualifier also earns $1,000 towards his or her travel expenses to Las Vegas.

(HRI resident handicapper Cary Fotias sent his non-refundable $500 deposit in on Wednesday). Deposits are credited towards each player’s bankroll. The remainder of the $10,000 bankroll is due by Nov. 1, 2009.

Prize money for the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge will be awarded to the top ten finishers. Based upon 100 entries, prize money will total $275,000 with $150,000 to the winner.

Tournament races will include only those live events from Oak Tree at Santa Anita Park, including, of course, all 14 Breeders’ Cup races. Wager types permitted are Win, Place, Show, Exacta and Trifecta.

It would have been better had the general public been included too, perhaps given an opportunity to win some humongous prize based on the Classic results, fashioned loosely on the Irish Sweepstakes principle. Could create buzz and certainly wouldn’t hurt television ratings.

Speaking of TV, Breeders’ Cup announced yesterday it has entered into a multi-year agreement with TVG, the racing network and Advanced Deposit Wagering platform owned by the Betfair people, who just happen to have a great looking balance sheet.

TVG, which once sponsored the Sprint and last year’s Dirt Mile, is now title sponsor of the Breeders’ Cup Mile, one of the world’s premier turf events. It will also be the exclusive marketing partner in the ADW category.

The network will produce the Breeders’ Cup Simulcast Show, distributed to over 2,000 simulcast locations. They will also provide enhanced coverage of four major Mile preps: the Del Mar Mile, Woodbine Mile, Oak Tree Mile and Shadwell Turf Mile.

Details were not released, but this was all about Benjamins and the “new” Breeders’ Cup’s strategy to enter long term alliances.

Recall that several years ago, when the New York Racing Association “borrowed” from the horsemen’s account, resulting in a shortfall of some $17-million, TVG came to the rescue with oodles of cash. NYRA then paid the horsemen and TVG had an exclusive agreement.

Given Betfair’s European roots and TVG’s potential to grow the Breeders’ Cup international audience, it appears a win for both sides. So far, the new strategy is working.

Betting Exchange, anyone?

Written by John Pricci

Comments (12)


Sunday, July 12, 2009

If You Have a Minute, We Need Your Help

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 11, 2009--We've been trying to take the temperature of the betting public on the idea of closing betting windows at post time to stop the perception that past posting is something that happens routinely. In fact, it does not. The rest of this piece tells that story. But we'd love your input, and so might track executives. So, please, just an up and down vote in the comment section is all that's necessary. Thank you.

There’s been some progress made in the area of wagering integrity as it relates to programming glitches, late-odds drops, and failure to close pools in a timely manner that can result in past posting. In the state of California, anyway.

After getting approval by the State Senate in May on SB 662, legislation authored Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo), the bill received overwhelming endorsement from the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee to provide independent oversight of all parimutuel horse race wagering in the state.

The bill specifically would require the California Horse Racing Board to institute independent real-time monitoring of all parimutuel wagering transactions. The bill now goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The legislation was largely in response to a 2008 controversy surrounding ticket processing at Bay Meadows Racecourse when 1,300 “quick pick” tickets on the Kentucky Derby superfecta omitted the “20 horse” among the 5,200 possible permutations.

Derby-winning Big Brown, the 20 horse, would have topped a $1 superfecta wager worth $29,368.90.

In April, 2009, another glitch occurred when $2 bets placed at New York City Off-Track Betting through the AmTote system were deposited into wagering pools in five states as $200 bets, including Northern California’s Golden Gate Fields.

There have been other well documented system failures. On Preakness day this year, betting windows at 33 simulcast sites remained open on a Hollywood Park race after a “stop betting signal” from the Scientific Games tote company was not transmitted in a timely manner.

Further, the infamous Breeders‘ Cup “Fix Six” scandal is now seven years old and the testimony of prolific bettor Mike Maloney, who reported two years ago that he was able to bet on a Fair Grounds race 55 seconds after it started, is now two years old.

So what happens now?

In the main, late-odds drops continue to be a source of major concern for bettors who believe that somehow wagers are still being made after the bell. From a technical perspective, because of existing redundancies, that can’t happen.

The culprit generating suspicious late-odds drops are cycle times that are not synched properly with the video host, Cycling is the time it takes to display bets made at one venue to appear on a track’s tote boards or closed-circuit monitors.

With cycle times from bet-taker to host track set at 45 seconds in most jurisdictions, and with three-quarters of all wagers being made by players in the last two minutes, it is inevitable, barring a real time fix, that current odds information will be delayed.

Obviously, not all win odds go down. When late money deflates the payoff on popular contenders, odds on other horses inflate; by definition, parimutuel wagering.

In most instances, there’s nothing sinister about late-odds drops, but a bad message is being sent because much of racing’s technology is outdated, the cost of fixing the problem prohibitive and it doesn‘t make any money for the tracks. But that's no excuse.

Of course, handle is lost when customers walk away from the game because of the false perception the industry creates by its reluctance to address the issue once and for all.

Horseplayers are distrusting by nature. The industry must recognize this and work much harder to gain and keep their confidence. But if the Breeders’ Cup Pick Six handle wasn’t enough to spur the industry to act, what will?

Unfortunately, given the current state of the industry and the U.S. economy in general, spending millions on programming isn’t something that’s likely to happen anytime soon.

Batch betting--software allowing computers to place as many as 70 bets within a few seconds--started with one or two wagering teams in 1999, but that number has grown to approximately eight groups. They need to know last-minute odds before the computer will place their bets.

Resultantly, because of batch and conditional wagering, last-minute odds on logical contenders are almost always going to drop. And, as new technology is introduced that services the convenience market via I-Phones, PDAs, and the like, last minute wagers will increase, further fueling price volatility and exacerbating the problem.

Conditional wagering, first introduced by Premier Turf Club and currently offered by the Twin Spires advance deposit wagering system, places last minute wagers after the computer sees that the pre-set price parameters are met.

An industry official I spoke with argued that closing wagering at post time or after the first horse is loaded costs the tracks money and is unfair to bettors who make their wagers only after seeing their horse enter the starting gate.

He argued further that it would be impossible for bettors to make last-second adjustments following a gate scratch once the “stop betting signal” is transmitted. Once the pool is shut it cannot be reopened.

Until bettors get used to placing bets in a timely fashion--right up until post time--there will be shut outs. And while I’m sure some bettors must wait to see their horse loaded in the gate before wagering, I personally have not met one in 40 years.

By now, all bettors have accepted the fact that there will be a refund following a gate scratch, that odds on remaining horses will be adjusted and that jurisdictional rules will apply to adjustments made in multiple-race sequences.

Nothing short of real time technology will stop significant late-odds drops and I sincerely hope Gov. Schwarzenegger gets to sign SB 662 mandating real time monitoring of betting pools in California--if, that is, the Assembly Appropriations Committee finds funding for the project in a state already tapped out.

I argued with the industry official that the majority of players would prefer wagering to be stopped at post time, that even though odds will continue to change late, horseplayers would prefer to know the closing odds before a race starts.

Please take a moment, if this is an area of concern to you, to give us feedback on closing betting precisely at post time.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (70)


Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Provincialism Taking a Toll on Rachel, Zenyatta Match

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 30, 2009--For the current darlings of Thoroughbred racing, it’s game on. Unfortunately it’s not the game anyone wants to see.

In contemporary racing history, the game we’re seeing played out now goes back to War Admiral and Seabiscuit, the battle of East vs. West.

In the older version of the game, the man from out West, Charles S. Howard, believed he had the best horse in the country. So he shipped Seabiscuit everywhere, taking on and beating all comers.

Thoroughbred racing, college football and boxing were the most popular sports of their day. But it took the egocentric connections of the country’s two best horses a long time to reach a compromise and create a sports event for the ages..

Samuel D. Riddle was the owner of the Triple Crown champion, leading candidate for Horse of the Year 1937. Riddle believed it unnecessary to accept a challenge leveled by an upstart, some nouveau riche car dealer from California.

Finally, however, Howard pushed the right button, the public clamored for the matchup and the press played it up big time. The result was the most famous renewal of the Pimlico Special ever.

There are similarities now. Justly or not, it’s the three-year-old Rachel Alexandra which, in the minds of many racing fans and the Horse of the Year voters who vote in the weekly NTRA thoroughbred poll see Rachel Alexandra as this country’s leading race horse.

There are reasons for the perception: Rachel Alexandra was purchased by the high profile owner of Curlin, Horse of the Year 2007 and 2008, who kept his promise to raise the filly‘s profile by seeking her rightful place in racing history.

As such, she was entered in the Preakness Stakes and, not only did she win, she was ridden by Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel, who opted to ride her instead of the Derby champion because he believed the filly was the best horse in the country.

Then, in her next start, she went out and ran the fastest Mother Goose Stakes in history, faster than at least four winners of the old filly triple crown, by a margin six lengths farther than Ruffian’s victory in the same race.

Wide margins, a combined 39-½ lengths, are extremely rare on the level at which Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose fillies compete. She dominates the competition and beats the clock, too.

Zenyatta is already a champion. She’s never lost a race, which counts for a hell of a lot, and she’s won virtually all of them with dominating style.

And that includes the 2008 Apple Blossom in which Zenyatta defeated a defending champion, Ginger Punch, among others, most impressively proving she’s more than an All Weather wonder.

But that’s what makes the decision of her connections not to leave California, again, all the more quizzical. Then there’s something else.

Thus far, the camps surrounding both fillies have eschewed trash talk. Jackson’s only knock has been the “plastic” surface at Santa Anita. In fact, he even said he doesn’t hold it against any owner for doing what they think is best for their horse.

Neither did Zenyatta’s owner, Jerry Moss, who said only that no one would dictate the terms of a future meeting between two females that have dominated the racing landscape in 2009.

After the defense of her Vanity title, Moss said he’d like the two fillies to meet somewhere, that it would be good for the fans, for racing. On Sunday he said he’d like to challenge his filly a bit more, too, like Jackson wanting to define her place in history.

And this was after trainer John Shirreffs said they probably would leave California at some time this year.

The trash talking was left to turf writers, Horse of the Year voters who favored one side or another, coming down mostly along geographical lines. The tenor, it seemed, was beginning to shift.

Suddenly, Shirreffs ended any speculation saying that Zenyatta would race next in the Clement Hirsch, now run under allowance conditions. If they stuck to their original plan, she need not carry the grandstand again.

It’s apparent that Jackson’s making the decisions for Rachel while Shirreffs seems the prime mover of Zenyatta’s future.

Surprisingly, between Sunday and Monday evening, the Moss message changed: They would stick to the original Breeders’ Cup schedule which, if all goes according to Hoyle, would result in undefeated career victory 14 on Breeders' Cup day, a modern record for major race horses.

What changed Moss’s mind?

At Monday’s press conference previewing the upcoming 2009 Saratoga racing season, New York Racing Association President Charlie Hayward, playing to the local media, good-humouredly referred to Del Mar as the “minor league Saratoga of the West.”

Sometime later, Chief Operating Officer Hal Handel picked up the ball, lightheartedly identifying Del Mar as “our Triple A affiliate.”

Non-racetrackers who may be reading this need to know: From who’s dating whom, to how many positives any racing department might be stonewalling at the time, there are no secrets on the racetrack.

And for a game that demands a sense of humor from its participants, it’s a bear market. Suddenly, Zenyatta's possible appearance in the Personal Ensign, Ruffian or Beldame doesn’t seems impossible.

Moss has second thoughts now, recalling how his Derby-winning Giacomo freaked out in New York’s despised detention barn, finishing seventh in the 2005 Belmont.

It seems certain that the best way to make a meeting between the two moot is for either filly to step out of their division and meet males, Rachel for a second time.

Should the three-year-old filly beat the Derby and Belmont winners in the Travers, it would be game, set and Horse of the Year match, even if Zenyatta were to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Unless, of course, they met after the Breeders’ Cup.

Moss said he would consider meeting Rachel Alexandra somewhere after the Breeders’ Cup. But if she wins #14, that’s unlikely to happen. The bottom line is that Moss and Jackson have to make like Howard and Riddle and find a way to make it happen.

It’s the only race the fans really want to see. If it doesn’t happen, what remains of racing’s image as a sport in this era would take a hit from which it might never recover.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (12)


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