Tuesday, May 02, 2017


The 96-Hour Entry Box: Confident, Informed Players Bet More Money


I don't know if it's myopia, personal inconvenience, or attitudes that prevents races from being drawn 96 hours in advance.

If you value your own business interests by providing excellent customer service to horseplayers, the benefits are obvious.

Because “it’s-always-been-done-this-way” notwithstanding, is there a good reason why the Kentucky Derby could not have been drawn today, or the Oaks card on Monday?

Most of the industry is on a 72-hour entry schedule so that racing officials can have one whole and entire day off. And that’s certainly fair. They have lives like everyone else.

And it also allows horsemen and backstretch workers to duck out a little early one day a week. And that’s not too much to ask considering their 24/7/365 work schedule.

Nothing changes for the racing office except for the fact that early in the process, entries may be harder to fill. That’s the nature of horses and horsemen; waiting until the last minute until making the decision to run, also not a bad thing.

But entries should be drawn 96 hours on a daily. Many smaller tracks already do this. They must think that by getting their product out earlier it gives them a better chance to compete with the big boys.

And this does not suppose that major tracks, who compete with each other all the time, couldn’t do the same thing.

Isn’t it in racing’s best interest to get the product out as soon as reasonably possible so that customers can decide where they want to invest their labor-intensive handicapping time and their betting money that weekend?

Handle has decreased precipitously in the modern era for various and sundry reasons. Betting dollars at every level of play are finite.

If horseplayers and racing is to survive, what’s needed is a little more time to create personal-best betting menus, those that not only play to their handicapping and betting strengths and by having the time to prepare without having their brains go on data tilt.

I’ve heard the reason why this can’t be done many times before: There’s medication involved and in cases of a late scratch, medication thresholds could prove an obstacle if a horseman wanted to enter another suitable spot a day or two later.

Filling a card is no given, not even at major tracks, as we learned last week at Santa Anita. Obviously there are too many dates, too few horses, licensing accords--all standing in the way of progress.

Another obstacle is the greed factor, not wanting to close entries until every eligible horse on the grounds has a program number to match that day—as if there weren’t another card to fill tomorrow.

Has anyone noticed there are far more 12-race Saturday cards than there used to be, programs that make it possible to card three Pick 4 and/or other mega-race wagers that are expensive to play and difficult to win. Twelve-race cards have their place: Event Days.

But let’s be honest. There’s been no real urgency to cater to rank-and-file players or concerted efforts to create new bettors by expanding. i.e. simplifying, betting menus.

Promotionally, either in-house or via national broadcast, players are urged to “get involved,” that the quarter-million dollar carryover is just sitting there waiting for you to scoop it up, begging the question whether all horseplayers are a minute old.

Unfortunately, making scores may be the only way to survive the high-takeout, high-risk modern game long term because the greed genie has been out of the bottle for decades now.

On balance, today’s bettors lose more money than their bankroll justifies and do not win as often; consequently, there is less betting-money to churn. Turnover in any gambling session anywhere is critical to successful wagering operations.

What is so frustrating is that management realizes this but they seem to prefer the champagne-wishes and caviar-dreams approach in pursuit of topping last year’s metrics.

Ten or 11-race midweek cards are counter-productive if the goal is to put on the best daily show possible. People will bet that same C-Note or two on an eight or 9-race program than they would on 10 or 11. Haven’t considered simulcast into this, either.

In case track officials are unaware, serious bettors at every level of betting strata specialize. Some players only bet stakes and allowances, or claiming sprinters, or turf. Many specialize in maiden first-time starters--wherever they’ve had the most success.

These days, that may mean two races from Belmont, three from Churchill and three more from Santa Anita. The turf maven will play races anywhere where those events remain on the grass, etc., etc.

Catering to horseplayers is the farthest thing there is from rocket science.

With respect to Churchill Downs Inc., why is it that I was doping out the Louisiana Derby past performances on the Saturday before the race? If it works at Fair Grounds, why not Churchill proper?

But for the biggest race, all must wait until Wednesday before knowing Kentucky Derby post positions ad what the great undercard will offer. Is there any real good reason for that? A 30-minute TV program, or building the suspense, really?

But there’s no good reason why racing, for the thoughtful convenience of its betting public and its own bottom line, shouldn’t go to a 96-hour entry box. Horsemen eventually will accept it, especially if given no alternative.

Can’t racetracks in every jurisdiction makes this simple commitment to the public and, by extension, its own fiscal health?

I realize that after decades of trying, the sport has been unable to coordinate post times, for whatever reason. But there are uncontrollable outside factors that come into play on raceday.

This is an easy, extremely helpful change to the current system for the benefit of all. So could someone please bring this up at the next national gathering of racetrack practitioners?

We all need the most sensible time-management possible. A better prepared player makes more informed choices and needs the time to construct betting strategies. A confident horseplayer bets more money. It’s no more complicated than that.

So, please, take this into consideration.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, April 30, 2017


Overview of Kentucky Derby 143 Field Ranked by Qualifying Points


With six days until Kentucky Derby 143, an overview of the field ranked by qualifying points. Infer no handicapping opinion until after the post postion draw Wednesday evening:

1-GIRVIN: Never beaten on dirt, a dual graded stakes winner around two turns, undoubtedly talented colt with a promising future, but a delayed workout schedule necessitated by foot issues that required special shoeing? Interrupted training is the rock; overall inexperience the hard place. Had a fast breeze this weekend but questions linger.

2-CLASSIC EMPIRE:
Very pleased to see a champion return to winning form and everything’s gone well from the time he arrived at Winding Oaks straight through the Blue Grass. Has every right to improve but also a right to regress. Of course, the likely public choice can win, but a bet would require an act of faith on looming underlay.

3-GORMLEY: Was not at all impressed by his Sham win, then came Mastery before taking all day to finish off the Santa Anita Derby in glacial final fractions. But the early pace was extraordinary and he did show a new later-run dimension. Have new found respect and love a pointing Shirreffs’ horse. Strong work this weekend with excellent gallop-out.

4-IRAP: Like most, we did not expect his Blue Grass. But on closer inspection there were two graded stakes placings and seven races of experience--uncommon hardiness these days. His figures, from Pricci Energy Ratings, to Thoro-Graph, to BRIS pedigree, to TimeFormUS, are good across all metrics. One-mile breeze from O’Neill sound familiar?

5-IRISH WAR CRY:
Came out running at 2 and has kept on doing it at 3, improving from pretty fast to damn fast with maturity, his indiscreet Fountain of Youth notwithstanding. Rebounded big-time in New York and Motion has kept him settled in at Fair Hill. Has the class, talent and the figures to escape logjam of tactical-pressure types present Saturday.

6-THUNDER SNOW: Finally, after all the drama, the decision was made to run. Is the idea to take America by storm by keeping a low profile and become the first kid from the other side of the world to get the Dubai-to-Derby job done? Or was it to lower expectations? Either way, comes off three straight victories, including an uber-game UAE Derby win-and-inner. He owns the longest pedigree in the field.

7-ALWAYS DREAMING:
Visually it’s hard to argue that his Florida Derby victory was not the most impressive of 25 U.S. two-turn preps? But his Thoro-Graph figure was a 9-point leap forward. So, how can he NOT regress on Saturday? Then, it you re-consider the manner of his something-in-tank score and his strong 5F breeze and gallop-out this weekend, you start thinking, late-developing “freak?” All will be revealed in six days.

8-GUNNEVERA: Might as well start by stating deep closers win Kentucky Derbys, recent trends be damned. Derby winners score if they’re tough enough, fit enough and classy enough. Let’s not forget this guy owns a devastating turn move [see Delta Jackpot] and can dominate from last [see Fountain of Youth]. And his last was better than it looks [see Florida Derby]. His best figures are as fast as anyone’s. Anymore questions?

9-PRACTICAL JOKE: Agreed, his pedigree is on the light side for 10 furlongs. But not his winning attitude, or a two-prep schedule that should have him at tops for his third start off the layup. He mid-moved prematurely and tired late when second to Gunnevera in 3YO debut and, yes, he had every chance to win the Blue Grass. Well, it’s LAY-3 time for Chad and colt toyed with his workmate in deep stretch on Friday. No more excuses.

10-J BOYS ECHO: Announced his arrival with an authoritative and fast score in the Gotham then got roughed up a bit in his final prep, finishing a better-than-looked fourth in the Blue Grass. Owns comparable tactical speed, can kick on, and is a fine, athletic-looking animal. His works have gotten progressively better since his last and we loved his most recent breeze, followed by an excellent gallop-out.

11-STATE OF HONOR:
The only times he’s failed to fire was over yielding turf and on WO’s all-weather. He didn’t win any of his three graded preps but the competition was well aware he was in the fray. Like some others here, he will have 10-furlong questions to answer, and he must guard against a tendency to become a little too fresh early on.

12-TAPWRIT: Didn’t care much for his penutimate workout leading up to this but he looked much stronger this weekend, even if he needed a bit of coaxing to gallop-out strongly. Looked like a potential Derby favorite when he destroyed six rivals in Tampa but not only didn’t he run back to it at Keeneland, he was beaten 11 lengths in a very dull performance. Have no idea what to expect Saturday.

13-HENCE: Was dominant in the rarified air of New Mexico, winning the G3 Sunland Derby from which also-ran Irap emerged to win the Blue Grass. Flashy chestnut comes in six weeks fresh and has been working quickly over a surface where he raced very well at 2, placing gamely after doing the dirty work in a one-turn mile. With grandparents like Street Cry and A.P. Indy, not expecting the distance to stop him.

14-FAST AND ACCURATE: We’re stunned by how fast the early and middle fractions of the Spiral Stakes were on Turfway’s all-weather surface, but Hansen gray stuck it out and prevailed in a very game effort. The problem for us is the surface switch, the much tougher competition and final figures that are too slow on all final metrics.

15-MCCRAKEN:
Three-for-three on this ground at 2, won the Sam F. Davis at about 80% fitness, was forced to skip the Tampa Derby with a wrenched ankle before returning with a rank, tough-trip-between-rivals third in the Blue Grass. He’s been training up to Derby the way Ian Wilkes has planned it and his electric turn of foot and surface preference figure to be big factors Saturday. Loved this weekend's relaxed breeze and gallop-out.

16-BATTLE OF MIDWAY: Battled on the hot Santa Anita Derby pace but had to settle for a game second to Gormley. This weekend’s work at Santa Anita was a strong 6 furlongs with a very good gallop-out. Appears to be peaking for Hollandorfer at just the right time moment, but is a little light on 10F pedigree, final figures, and is relatively inexperienced.

17-PATCH: One-eyed colt ran fast while breaking maiden at a mile over 13 Gulfstream rivals before returning with a tough-trip placing to Girvin in the Louisiana Derby. Has had three good company works on a precise time schedule for Todd, but with only three lifetime starts, we don’t see how victory in possible in this deep field.

18-UNTRAPPED: A difficult read. After game second in Girvin’s Risen Star, he made a premature turn move in the Rebel but did not go on with it. Asmussen added blinkers for his third start which turned to out to be the good and bad news. He was too sharp early and unable to save ground at any juncture. Blinkers are removed and he’s back at CD where he broke maiden by five.

19-LOOKIN AT LEE: His final figures are a tad better than one might expect and he’s never taken a backward step in any of his fast-track starts. Third in the G3 Southwest and G1 Arkansas Derby last out, he is only member of today’s field, Thunder Snow notwithstanding, who looks like he can’t wait to go today’s added furlong. Big late kicker.

20-SONNETEER: Broker’s Tip redux? It’s only been 83 years since a maiden won the Derby but one supposes that in this season of Irap, anything’s possible. Again using a 7F prep as a two-turn springboard, Keith Dosormeaux shipped distance-challenged colt into OP and was a good second in Malagacy’s Rebel then came a good-finish late-rally fourth in the Blue Grass. Big-time kick but added ground might mitigate his late power.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017


The State of Racing’s Union: It Is What It Has Become


As the 143rd Kentucky Derby looms, the state of the game is teetering, fighting to remain popular with even with its staunchest allies while simultaneously efforting to remain relevant to a much wider audience. Like world events, these are worrisome times.

How troublesome? Well, it’s so bothersome that no less than one of the world’s most brilliant comic minds and huge racing fan, Mel Brooks, took to Twitter for the purpose of castigating the Los Angeles Times for “eliminating daily coverage of horse racing.”

At issue is the recently jettisoned daily listing of entries and results. Brooks’ tweet was enough to elicit a comment from his long-time friend and collegial comic genius, Carl Reiner, who replied “anything that upsets my friend Mel upsets me.”

Lamentably, they are not alone, and not everything can be explained away with kneejerk retorts that it’s simply a sign of the times--that encapsulated agate of entries and results has gone the way of classified ads and stock listings.

While comprehensive racing data lends itself well to the endless boundaries of cyberspace, as long as mainstream media and journalistic standards exist, I refuse to acknowledge that mesmerized smartphone habitués can’t learn to appreciate the feel of paper between their digits.

While the world moves forward--whatever your definition of “progress” is--Thoroughbred racing remains frozen in time. Tracks compete with each other at the bottom line and in the equine talent pool, a world that fosters competition, not cooperation.

All in the racing industry agree, e.g., that the perception of drug use, legal and otherwise, is bad yet, owing to the sovereignty of the states in which they are permitted operate, tracks will not unite in agreement that federal oversight is the only true option for reform.

Certainly, no one can blame the industry’s distrust of a centralized federal authority, given the current example of gross incompetence vested in the Executive branch and the intractability of the Legislative branch. This happens when their interests, beholden to obscene-money donors and corporate lobbyists, conflict with the citizens who put them in office.

Even when racing does present a united front—the only way statutes ever gain traction—the process is endless.

What has it been, nearly six years now, before getting a vote on the unfair and arcane taxes on winnings of over $600, needing all that time to make lawmakers understand that not many trifectas that pay off at 300-1 are the result of one-number cold punches?

And this is the kind of progress that summonses industry celebration?

The all-encompassing success of the Kentucky Derby notwithstanding, the only member of a ‘Big Three’ that includes the New York Racing Association and Churchill Downs Inc., only The Stronach Group is setting positive trends. But they have come at some cost.

The TSG is top-class winter racing, but its’ venue on the Left Coast is in dire need of a fix. Emblematic of the greed, arrogance and power wielded by a triad of owners, horsemen and racing governance, Santa Anita has become the poster child for bad publicity.

Until some form of reconciliation is made, Santa Anita’s currently muddied reputation is deserved.

But perhaps the best example of good news-bad news worthiness is the recently concluded “championship meet” at Gulfstream Park. And try as they might, critics cannot argue with Gulfstream’s trend-busting success.

Nitpickers will always find chinks, but the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational was a triumphant sensation by every measure. For one glorious afternoon in South Florida, racing was great again, a sporting event worthy of kings.

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Pegasus Day:
Linchpin of Gulfstream's 2017
Championship Meet

And it is odds-on to continue attracting every great five-year-old-and-up champion before it’s ushered off to the breeding shed, just as it did this year, luring a great “people’s champion” vs. a younger champion that would become the world’s leading Thoroughbred.

The momentum that began in late January was the first stop on the road to record earnings by early April—handle figures that would continue to eclipse previous meetings on a year-over-year basis, on the meet’s biggest mega-stakes event days.

Finally, the 2016-17 championship stand culminated with the emergence of a conceivable Kentucky Derby favorite, the result of a well-structured three-year-old racing program that attracted, to date, this year’s best sophomore runners.

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Arrogate, Latter day Pegasus
But all this came at a price when operations are factored in. In what arguably has grown into the most successful circuit for racing on a year-round basis, it has had its share of embarrassments among racing’s most ardent supporters; loyal bettors and fans.

The one trend the track should lament was the creation of the post-dragging trend that has spread nationwide. What was consistently a tolerable four-minute delay in advance of huge jackpot carryovers and sophomoric guarantees was tacitly accepted.

But you know things are bad when an industry-organ staffer chides the track after an 11-minute Rainbow 6 drag and a 9-minute delay on a guaranteed late Pick 4 on the same program, resulting in conflicting simulcast feature races.

Saturday race-days often lasted more than six hours became extremely tedious for fans and track employees that came into the building in support of live racing.

When playing the long game, some acknowledgment must be made that wagering dollars are finite at every level. At some point, a toll will be extracted for carding 10 or 11 races on weekday programs.

For handicappers of every stripe, time is the game’s only absolute truth. Butt far too often, running times at Gulfstream Park were seriously questioned, breeding distrust where none should exist. These errors manifest themselves when handicapping future races.

The track must provide a fail-safe. Atmospherics will only get worse with unstoppable and unpreventable new technologies, a further intrusion on the method by which Trakus compiles timing data. Only a trained official with a stopwatch can provide fail-safe verification.

Gulfstream’s spring-summer meet has recently begun and common sense dictates this session will top 2016’s. The racing office has shored up quality by attracting a handful of mega-outfits from the Southeast and Midwest and top New York stables have left small divisions behind.

Gulfstream must realize that a thin line exists between overarching success and embarrassing overreach that can harm the huge strides already made by the brand.

BOUTIQUE MEETS: Since Saratoga and Del Mar have seen their seasons extended over the years, the term boutique seems a little less applicable.

On balance, and given overall quality, the sport at both tracks is not quite up to the lofty reputations earned by both, though their brands remain extremely strong.

Considering that top echelon outfits point their best horses to traditional features at both venues, each will maintain its top-class status, especially Saratoga: History, health, and horses is a cold trifecta if there ever was one.

But there is no race meet on the planet that can compare--save Ascot perhaps for its deep, rich and storied events—with Keeneland Spring. It’s fitting that some of the world’s best nurseries are but a long stone’s-throw from such a picaresque environment.

Fourteen days of racing indeed encapsulates the meaning of boutique when it comes to horse racing. We don’t know with certitude that the stars are aligned perfectly these days, then neither do we know that we’ve ever seen 14 days of such sustained quality.

Good weather has helped keep programs intact, but the races themselves? Keeneland’s low-level claimers are better than your average claiming fare anywhere.

As for depth, Wednesday’s Keeneland feature was a NX3 allowances, a race that hardly ever fills in the modern era. But that’s what happens when the quality lives on the backside and the racing office often opts for the best eight-race programs when the need arises.

If only such civility were present everywhere, programs would be more balanced and entertaining for bettors and fans from California to New York, from South Florida to Canada and all the stops in between.

File Photos: Toni Pricci

April 19, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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