Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Even in Small Ways, The Meadowlands Keeps Trying

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 17, 2017—It is no secret that horse racing in New Jersey is in trouble and has been for some time. Competition from casino-enhanced purses in neighboring racing states has dealt a serious blow to its economic viability.

But unlike, say, California, the Garden State’s woes can’t be attributed to lack of trying. Contrarily, when it comes to new ideas, it can be argued New Jersey is one of horse racing’s most progressive jurisdictions and has been for some time.

New Jersey was the first to embrace exchange wagering in the U.S., and while that concept hasn’t set the horse-betting world on fire, it has raised awareness that expansion is possible via diversification and choice given its appeal to a Wall Street mentality.

Exchange wagering pits player against players or player vs. crowd by locking-in prices based on handicapping skill and knowledge of the public’s betting habits. At once, players have diversification and control over their money.

In an effort to spur business, The Meadowlands lowered parimutuel takeout to 15% across the board at its brief all-turf meet. But lowering takeout works best only over the sustained trial periods needed to overcome near term revenue shortfall.

In order to attract people into their buildings or online bet shops, New Jersey horse interests have lobbied for sports wagering, with its venues as gateway, a concept that has received governmental support, then not; public support, then not again.

At blame is hypocritical right-wing attitudes toward gambling and because New York casino interests and sports leagues have lobbied against competitive racinos that are 20 minutes from Manhattan or Westchester County.

Whatever it’s tried, New Jersey has been stymied to the point where horse racing is rapidly becoming unsustainable.

The pressure to stop the bleeding by any means necessary occurred recently when The Meadowlands decided to computerize it the harness-racing morning line earlier this month.

In the big picture this looks like a small issue, but it’s indicative of the fact that horse racing everywhere is failing in its attempts to keep the fans it has, never mind attracting a new audience.

Like handicapping, line-making is an art science, which is how all thinking-man’s gambling games should be approached. It’s as much about feel, gambling soul as it were, as it is about stats. In short, it takes one to know one.

Latter-day bettors can’t even agree on the function of what a morning line should be. Is it a predictor of how the crowd will eventually spread/spend their money or a guide as to how they should bet their money?

At the National Armstrong Daily, I was taught that ideally it’s the former. But more often than not it winds up being a hybrid. That’s not a negative. Setting the line is a thankless job.

A linemaker’s good opinion is never acknowledged; he’s noticed only when a mistake is made and, of course, no one is privy to insider betting until the prices appear on the tote board.

The morning line is important because those quotes greatly impact future betting behavior, especially in the popular sequential pools that attract heavy wagering.

Many regulars argue why bother with setting this guideline at all? Simply allow the opening flash on the tote be what the crowd should bases its wagering on.

That argument has some merit save for the fact many in the crowd could know what constitutes “value” if there was not a pre-set judgment based on objective past performances data. Parimutuel betting is fluid and constantly evolving.

Additionally, mainstream bettors, especially in the simulcast era, have a right to see where the “steam” is coming from? Much of the crowd’s perception is not so much that the game is rigged but rather that it’s too inside and nowhere near as transparent as it should be.

Like humans, computers have limitations, but only the most sophisticated programs can be intuitive as humans, especially practiced horseplayers. And how do we know that humans fed the computer the most relevant information?

But machines are exposed to political pressures that accompanies the linemaker. Can a linemaker set a Hall of Fame trainer’s entrant at 30-1? Can the “house horse” be that price? The pressure is subtle but no less real.

The bottom line is that the public uses the early morning lines to reach decisions and computers know with even less certitude than humans how the crowd with react to disparate dynamics; how does one assess known unknowns from unknowable unknowns?

The early line is important because it impacts perception, be it a race or the entire game. If the novice cannot understand, like many veterans, how or why a particular 10-1 shot opens at 4-5, both camps will know something’s up and further investigation in needed.

Empirically, computer odds have a greater chance of success in harness racing where one mile in a standard distance, stout Standardbreds race much more regularly and trainer stats are available to shade the line in the direction the stats take you.

The Meadowlands is using a computer line generated by Trackmaster. That product has a deserved, good reputation in that area. The track has also assigned a betting expert to review the computer line seeking obvious anomalies.

Handicapping tenets in Thoroughbred racing are more intricate and a lot more subtle. A computer is unlikely to differentiate the worth of a 59-second workout from a Bob Baffert-trained debuting two-year-old compared to one conditioned by Bill Mott.

However, consider this: Comparing a computer-generated Thoroughbred morning line with one constructed by a track linemaker who wears four other hats would be a very difficult call.

A solid, professional morning line is almost taken for granted, and it shouldn’t be. It protects both the public and the sport’s reputation. As such, it’s money very well spent. In that context, the tack in New Jersey is keeping its eye on the prize.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Interesting, Puzzling Year for Eclipse Award Voters

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 2, 2017—In a recent online poll, roughly three out of every four respondents thought that 2016 was a good year for racing. In light of what happened between the fences, I agree.

There were many great performances and memorable moments. As for the rest of the year, we have chronicled the game’s shortcomings here too much already, so we’ll await another time, another day for that.

Please note, however, I must disagree with those who posted that a good number of categories with respect to making cases for 2016’s Eclipse champions were open and shut. Far from that, in our view.

Either way, here is what one final ballot looked like for the racing year 2016 and the thinking process behind some of our choices. But first, our annual disclaimers that all folks who care about such things should know.

As one of the late, great founding members of the National Turf Writers once counseled, there are no rules: “The Horse of the Year can be anything,” said Joe Hirsch. The same applies to other categories; some champions are obvious, others in a beholder’s eyes.

But what it shouldn’t be is a popularity contest or a predictor of who will win. It should be about voting your conscience in the face of peer pressure and regionalism. To wit:

When one California-based horseman was polled on Horse of the Year, his response was: “California Chrome, Art Sherman’s my man.” Friendship and loyalty are wonderful things but Sherman could have gotten this support on the merits: Superb management!

Here, then, is one man’s ballot. [Voters must cast a 1-2-3 vote in order for the category to count or he can abstain].

Two Year Old Male: 1. Classic Empire: Should be unanimous; no colt accomplished more. 2. Mastery: Undefeated, yet to be tested. 3. Practical Joke: Energizer colt just keeps coming and coming...

Two-Year-Old Filly: 1. Champagne Room 2. Lady Aurelia 3. New Money Honey
Considered abstaining here as no filly dominated nor even holds a clear edge. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies was the tie-breaker. The fact that the runners-up here were turf specialists speaks to the above. I easily could have voted Lady Aurelia or New Money Honey #1 and not lost a moment’s sleep.

Three-Year-Old Male:
1. Arrogate: The most dominant sophomore seen this year and probably in most others, too; a freak of nature. 2. Nyquist: All Hail Kentucky Derby! 3. Exaggerator: Had his major wins come over a fast track and he remained healthy, Arrogate might not be such a layover.

Three-Year-Old Filly: 1. Songbird needs no introduction. 2. Cathryn Sophia: A major talent but, on balance, overachieved. 3. Catch a Glimpse: If only she weren’t forced to reach her bottom in the Grade 1, 1-1/4 mile Belmont Oaks Turf…

Older Male: 1. California Chrome: Thanks for the memories, champ. 2. Frosted: Thanks for one of game’s all-time great performances, taking the Met Mile. 3. Melatonin: Not in the same class, but a really nice horse.

Older Female: 1. Beholder: Never, ever went on the road, but what a mare! 2. Cavorting: Seriously talented; love to have seen what she might have become this fall. 3. Stellar Wind: Top class filly ultimately came up one race short.

Male Sprinter: 1. Drefong: The Breeders’ Cup has several events that truly are championship defining; the Sprint is one of them. 2. Lord Nelson: Has one more Grade 1 than his three-year-old stablemate, but not when the whole world was watching. 3. A. P. Indian: Clearly the East’s best, but there’s no speed like SoCal speed.

Female Sprinter: 1. Songbird: Fully realize she did not race at a one-turn distance, but name a faster, more consistent filly of any age. I’m waiting…and let’s be honest. Had she run in the F&M Sprint she would have been 2-5, and who would have beaten her? I’m waiting…think Forego; think Dr. Fager. 2. Cathryn Sophia: Kentucky Oaks winner won G2 7-furlong Forward Gal. 3. Finest City: For me, the F&M Sprint is another of those championship defining events, not this time.

Male Turf Horse: 1. Flintshire: Some tossing and turning on this one but was America’s best turf horse this year save for one absurd-dynamics soft-course loss and a tough-luck Turf placing. Has the same number of G1s this year as his championship rival. 2. Highland Reel: Stole the Turf; may steal the title, too. 3. Tourist: BC Mile winner also won Saratoga’s G2 Fourstardave.

Female Turf Horse: 1. Tepin: Dominated much of 2016, winning six of eight with two placings [all graded; three Grade 1s] and held form after history-making Ascot performance while completely out of her comfort zone. 2. Miss Temple City: Also three G1s, twice defeating males. In any other year, against any other rival... 3. Lady Eli: For true Thoroughbred lovers, the Story of the Year.

Steeplechase Horse: 1. Rawnaq: Clearly the most accomplished. 2. Top Striker: Is this the reason why Arch Kingsley took a shot in the Allen Jerkens on the flat? 3. Portrade.

Outstanding Owner:
1. California Chrome LLC because sportsmanship matters. 2. Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence: Fifth in earnings with fewest starters; excellent percentage; three-way tie for third in Grade 1s and best across the board graded stakes slate (9) 3-3-3. 3. Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey: Consistent home cooking.

Outstanding Trainer: 1. Chad Brown: One word: Domination! 2. Mark Casse: a career year and developed/managed two likely Eclipse Thoroughbreds; unfortunate timing. 3. Todd Pletcher: Even in an “off year,” second in earnings ($20 million) and graded wins; third in number totals wins; fourth in Grade 1s with seven.

Addendum: The fact that Bob Baffert and Art Sherman are not in our top three should be an indication of the outstanding horsemanship on display at the game’s highest levels in 2016.

Note to DRF, the Eclipse committee, Breeders’ Cup, whomever: Who gets to decide whether and where horses or horsemen appear on the printed pages of Eclipse past performances data? The fact that I couldn’t find Sherman’s name listed anywhere because California Chrome’s Dubai World Cup earnings is considered a category unto itself is absurd.

Why bother considering the grade of the race—or the race at all? We host an end-of-year event, term it World Championships then doesn’t acknowledge an international race of great import when an American race horse wins a Group 1 a half-world away? What’s the point of any of this?

Outstanding Jockey: 1. Jose Ortiz: Dominated New York throughout the year, including Saratoga. Rode 351 winners from 1563 mounts, the highest in both categories, a phenomenal .224 percent, with earnings of $22.9 million. 2. Javier Castellano: Led all riders with $26.8 in earnings, his fourth consecutive money title, and his aggressive skill-set many times is the difference between victory and defeat. 3. Mike Smith had a great year in pressure-packed situations but rode more big-favorite "Cadillacs" than any of his peers. Still, three more Breeders' Cups winning rides; remarkably ageless.

Outstanding Apprentice: Another category in which I seriously considered abstaining. I do not follow the exploits of apprentice riders unless their seasons were Steve Cauthen-like. And so I allowed the stats to dictate: 1. Luis Ocasio. 2. Lane Luzzi. 3. Eric Cancel.

Note that Cancel rode with the *bug for about one-third of the year. Of the apprentices I saw with some regularity, Cancel was the best of them, by a lot.

Outstanding Breeder: 1. Win Star Farm: Have had brief conversations with Elliott Walden but don’t really know anyone else. Excellent percentages across the board with earnings that drowned the competition. (I can’t say I appreciated WinStar’s Belmont Stakes buy-a-rabbit tack. There’s no rule against it; just really bad optics). 2. Clearsky Farm: When represented by Arrogate and Lord Nelson, you’ve had a damn good year. 3. Darley: Consistent quality and quantity, virtually every year.

And now, again, I’m forced to play the Joe Hirsch card: It’s how I was raised in this game. As all are aware, the arguments for Horse of the Year represent disparate philosophies: Head-to-Head vs Body of Work.

I believe both are of equal measure, meaning a strong argument-against either cannot be made; whereas an endless argument-for can be, #boundless dilemma.

So, in recognition of a horse that has had a target on its back all year, winning Grade 1s over a span of 10,000 miles and dominated the NTRA Poll for an entire year, right up to the finish of the BC Classic, in which he gave the winner a couple of pounds over 10 grueling furlongs:

HORSE OF THE YEAR: 1. California Chrome. 2. Arrogate. 3. Songbird.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 01, 2017

Handicapping Great Dr. Harris Never Stopped Learning

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., New Year’s Day, 2017—Upon hearing of the passing of Russ Harris at age 93 earlier this week, I took to Twitter and wrote: “Must confess that as a competitor in the same market, Russ Harris made me a better handicapper. RIP Mr. Harris, my friend.”

Twitter might be all that’s needed for discussing world affairs but it doesn’t begin to tell the story of public handicappers, their trade, or their history.

Back in Harris’ New York Daily News heyday, everybody’s world was simpler. Life was good growing up in Queens and, if memory serves, I believe there were 13 daily newspapers available in the five boroughs, including morning and evening editions.

The Morning Telegraph broadsheet, the East Coast version of tabloid Daily Racing Form, was 25 cents, a nickel more than the today’s Rainbow Six or Canadian superfecta.

Returning home from high school and later from my first job at a bank, I always bought the afternoon edition of the New York Post where the early results from Aqueduct or Belmont, sometimes four or five race, were right there on the back page.

The results of the daily double, the only multiple wager at the time, was the big news, however. Even if it weren’t, the great columns of turf writer Bill Rudy and those of two of the best columnists of their time, Pete Hamill and Larry Merchant, were more than worth the effort.

By the time I traveled 17 stops on the GG local from Clermont Ave. in Brooklyn to 74th Street in Queens, and after four more stops on the #7 train 103rd St. Corona Plaza, my world was complete.

Those were the days my friend, I thought they’d never end.

After the resurgent Daily Mirror closed, legendary turf write Bill Nack got me an introduction to Newsday’s sports editor, the late Dick Sandler. Newsday had plans to venture west from Long Island with New York Newsday and the paper needed to hire its first public handicapper.

I had a handicapping trial under the name Rosinante--the windmill-chasing horse of Don Quixote--every Saturday card for one year. In fact, I had a $6 profit going into the final weekend. Naturally, I went 0-for-9 but it was good enough for Newsday to take a chance.

And so I walked into the Aqueduct press box with a new job. Tom Jicha and I were known to everyone because of our work at the resurgent NY Daily Mirror. Later, Tom and Pat would move to Miami and I was going to become the Handicapping Prince of the City.

As I was finding my new seat on the press box second level, I looked down and saw New York Post handicapper John Piesen. Across from the steps on the far end of the press box sat Russ Harris. Let’s just say that the reception I received was less than warm.

Intimidated I suppose, I never stepped over that line where Harris sat, literally and figuratively.

In my early days at Newsday, I befriended a professional gambler from New York City, Paul Mellos. We met outside of Joe Duell’s newsstand every night on Broadway in Saratoga awaiting the next day’s delivery of the racing form.

And this was during DRF’s pre-advance era. My selections were already made for the next day. We had to handicap from result charts which were kept in big, thick accountant’s ledgers: Today’s first race at Aqueduct would be race #1, the finale race # 9, etc.

It was a long, tedious process for everyone, especially non-speed handicappers. My only edge, having come from the harness racing world, was a gift for watching races and making notes on as many horses as possible.

There was one replay after the race, a replay of all races the next morning, but that was it. Many of today’s horseplayers don’t realize how good they have it now.

If there was another practiced “trip handicapper” in print back then, his name escapes me. Mellos read my comments, surmised I was a visual handicapper and taught me trip-handicapping short hand, a technique I shared with many of my peers.

Trip handicapping was my edge and, meet after race meet, my ROI was almost always higher than Mr. Harris, but meet after meet he kicked my ass at picking winners.

Russ Harris picked more winners than any public handicapper I’ve known--with the exception of Newsday’s harness handicapper, Toni Sisti.

So if I wanted to compete, I had to learn to make speed figures. Harris used speed figures, either of his own creation or something passed down; the former is more likely.

I went out and purchased “Winning at the Races; Computer Discoveries in Handicapping” by Dr. William L. Quirin of Adelphi University^. Quirin’s work with computers in handicapping was ground-breaking in optimizing the process using technology.

Though not actively involved in today’s racing scene, the prodigious author’s Quirin Speed Points and Impact Values are an integral part of BRIS past performance data. But neither Quirin nor Harris were the first speed handicapping practitioners.

The history of speed handicapping probably dates back to the early 1940s. Robert Dowst’s methodology was popularized by Beyer in his first book, “Picking Winners.” The legendary gambler Pittsburgh Phil was said to be a devotee of Dowst’s approach.

The greatest of the early speed handicapping practitioners, however, was Dave Wilson, aka, “King Wilson,” father of the best Daily Racing Form chart caller ever, the late Jack Wilson.

Based in New England, the Boston American Record used King Wilson’s selections as a wrap-around. New England horseplayers would line up the night before, just as Mellos and I did in Saratoga, waiting for the paper to see who Wilson picked the next day.

“The King” was widely acknowledged for selling more newspapers than anyone in Boston newspaper history. Wilson made his own figures. In fact, the late Chuck Streva, gone too soon, was a line-making legend in South Florida.

When a snowbird walked into the press box at Hialeah, Gulfstream or Calder, he checked in with Chuck before making his first bet. He could always tell you something of value about that day’s races, prevailing biases, etc., etc.

Streva also was one of Beyer’s national figure-making operatives. He later informed some local colleagues that learning Beyer’s methodology was fundamentally the same as Grandpa Dave Wilson’s, whose figures were the basis of Streva’s own.

When I had a cup of coffee as a New York Racing Association press staffer, I kept the speed figures of Pat Lynch, then NYRA Media Relations Vice President but formerly a prominent speed handicapper at the Journal American, one of the aforementioned 13 NY dailies.

I worked from entries printed on an 8x11 mimeographed sheet, went into the charts ledger, and copied Lynch’s speed figures onto those 8x11s. Usually, five figures per horse, chronologically from left to right, the fifth indicating a horse’s lifetime best figure.

“A horse can run back to that number any time,” Lynch counseled. But handicapping was simpler back then. Horse racing had seasons; speed handicappers weren’t lurking around every bend, and the art-science of trip handicapping was still in its infancy.

And simpler, too, because it was the pre-raceday Lasix era. Horses virtually ran 20 times a year. Once in top form, they seldom regressed. Under comparable dynamics, betting on the best-last-out figure horse was the way to go.

I used to run Lynch’s bets in those days. Decorum still mattered. His bankroll was buoyed by an amazing run at a Las Vegas craps table one night after he was honorably discharged from the army.

And he knew how to use that bankroll, often making huge place bets: At that time, there was a 14% takeout in the straight pools.

Parenthetically, he was my hero for another reason: His company was first to arrive at Auschwitz and he helped to liberate interred Jews, those fortunate to survive.

Lynch also confirmed for me the legend of Al “The Brain” Windeman. A prodigious winner back in the glory days at Hialeah, Windeman took the knowledge he gleaned from the best speed handicappers of his era and raised it to another level.

When racing went to parimutuels, Windeman hired betting operatives to place bets then later hand-time races from different vantage points, using an anemometer to measure to measure wind velocity from the roof at Belmont Park.

In those pre-simulcasting days, when there were huge odds drops at the last minute on a particular horse, usually a sensible longshot, the murmurs would pass through the Belmont grandstand: “That’s The Brain’s horse,” they would say.

Post Lasix-era, Len Ragozin founded The Sheets, performance figures largely based in ground-loss/energy principles. If two horses finished in a dead-heat with one racing on the rail and the other four paths wide, the outside horse earned the better figure.

Ragozin’s research found that enervating efforts causing overexertion would deplete a horse’s energy reserves and they would not race with the same level of energy present in its last start, particularly when returning a short rest.

A “bounce” may be good on Wall Street or in political polling, but not so much on the racetrack. Hence racing’s popular use of that term as a negative variable.

But Harris was very much an old school handicapper and more, much more. A veteran reporter and columnist from Akron to Aqueduct, a racing official in Chicago, he gained legendary status as the Daily News lead handicapper on one of racing’s most challenging circuits.

Critics who say he picked a lot of favorites miss the point, that’s not the measure of Harris as a handicapper. Yes, he picked many favorites, but if the public’s choice won at a 30 percent rate overall, he picked 80-90 percent of those winning favorites.

His greatest source of pride, however, was picking Coastal to upset Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Belmont. “Live by the figures, die by the figures,” Harris said of Coastal’s big figure score in the Peter Pan Stakes.

Harris and the late, great Cary Fotias, who produced the best performance figures I’ve ever worked with in terms of accuracy and pace-final figure relationships, would have loved talking racing history as each loved the sport immensely.

Russ Harris was a renaissance man. He loved history so much, in fact, that at age 75, three years older than I am at this writing, he returned to school and earned a Ph. D in history. Hell, Russ even was a sire of great handicappers.

His son Craig Donnelly has been a highly successful handicapper since the early 1970’s as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s racing analyst. He’s still picking winners on the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s website Six years ago, Donnelly was inducted into the Parx Racing Hall of Fame.

So it was in self-defense that this trip handicapper was forced to learn to become a speed handicapper, too. Lynch also taught me another valuable lesson, one that Dowst, and Quirin, and Harris learned in their successful careers.

Said Lynch: “Running time is the only absolute truth in the game.”

Written by John Pricci

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