Monday, February 03, 2014

Will Handicapping Contests Ever Resemble Real World Betting?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 30, 2014—Thanks to a controversial finish and lots of media outcry both pro and con, handicapping contests have been making front page racing news again. This was on my mind as I watched the latest National Handicapping Champion present a trophy at Santa Anita over the weekend.

If anyone is unfamiliar with the story, it involves the tactics used by the winner in the last race of the recent contest finals in which an attempt was made to either hedge his bet against his most serious challenger or, in some way, an attempt to manipulate the payoff on a rival’s horse by deflating the odds with a last-minute win-pool plunge.

I agree with those who posited that Jose Arias did nothing wrong; that it is part of a winning strategy that was within National Handicapping Championship rules. The last time I looked, there was nothing wrong about trying to take money out of a race by any legal means necessary, either parimutuelly or, in this instance, within handicapping tournament guidelines.

Hedging, or making “saver wagers” will continue given this same scenario unless and until the rules are changed to prevent this practice--which may be unenforceable--by not posting player’s selections until after the betting pools are closed. Hungry as all tracks and their ADWs are for handle, there probably will be no urgency to make changes.

Saver bets are, of course, something that’s done every day, the most common being to cover horses unused in the final leg(s) of horizontal Pick wagers either by wagering straight on longshots or taking favorites in top of “alive” horses in the vertical pools; exactas, trifectas, superfectas and the like.

But make no mistake: Playing in handicapping contests is not the same thing as conventional betting. By definition, handicapping is about picking winners, and a multitude of winners likely would carry the day even for the worst money managers.

Picking winners and making money often is a completely different mindset, especially in tournaments where money management and strategizing against a finite number of opponents often will trump handicapping prowess. Promoting handicapping contests is a sexy marketing stratagem; a money management contest is a non-starter, sounds too much like work.

In the real world of the horse racing, there’s always tomorrow. Indeed, without that promise there likely would be no industry. It’s axiomatic that a trainer would never die if he thought he had a 2-year-old capable of winning next year’s Kentucky Derby. For the horseplayer, it’s the promise of tomorrow’s past performances.

No serious horseplayer, or weekend warrior who takes handicapping seriously, would come down to the final race in the midst of a bad day and tap out on some wild longshot whose only attraction is the payoff on the odds board. Even rank and file bettors know when it’s time to just fold ‘em.

But the contest player who’s paid his entrance fee has nothing to lose by throwing a Hail Mary deep into the parimutuel end-zone. Yes, the winning contestant must choose the correct longshot. But taking a price shot is much easier when there’s no other choice; if he’s far behind but still dreams of wining, betting one of the top three choices that wins about 75 percent of the time doesn’t work.

Of the contest formats currently in use, the one that most resembles real world conditions is the live money contest in which bettors pay an entrance fee but must dedicate the majority of their fixed bankroll to that day’s wagering account, just as a conventional horseplayer might buy a betting voucher.

Betting greenbacks is as real as it gets, and real-world handicapping demands that players try to assess a horse’s real chances of victory at proper odds. Just as we thought that the graded-earnings qualifier for the Kentucky Derby needed overhauling, so, too, do handicapping contests. Last race “stabbing” should be minimized to reward handicappers who made good, consistent selections throughout the contest.

Rewarding consistent, handicapping excellence should be a value that’s put in place, as a teaching tool for neophytes or possible converts. This is how the game should best be played to achieve long term profitability, the long haul being important to health of the individual and the industry.

Maybe a weighted points system, one that takes into account payoffs that fall within certain prices ranges: less than 8-5 might be worth 3 points; 8-5 to 3-1, 4 points; 7-2 to 6-1, 5 points; 6-1 to 9-1, 6 points, 10-1 or more 9 points. This is just one example.

The above would reward both consistency and creativity once the handicapper makes an honest assessment of any horse’s real chances of victory and its odds; the definition of value. Good, consistent handicapping should matter. Isn’t trying to pick winners without going on tilt what this game should be about?

We’ve written about this before. At that time, regular contributor Top Turf Teddy thinks the answer is to simply multiply the number of winners by the dollar total accumulated. Indulto would like to see the most winners rewarded over a broad spectrum of events; races run over disparate surfaces, distances, and at different venues, since different conditions require different skill sets.

My good friend, the late, great Cary Fotias, had a different take. In 2012, he wrote here: “No format is perfect, or even close to it. I measure my performance in real life by the month, not a day or two. For professionals, this game is won in the long run. I've had three losing YEARS over the last two decades…

“It's nothing unusual for me to lose 20 bets in a row as I am usually betting on ’value’ horses at 4/1 or higher. While I prefer live-money contests, as they most closely resemble real-life wagering, they have their flaws also…

“My favorite event is the $10,000 Breeders Cup tournament. Of the $10,000, $7,500 is your live betting bankroll and $2,500 goes to prize money... Unless players have deep, deep pockets, they have to treat their bets with respect. For that same reason, several top tournament poker players can't cut it in a cash game…

If the DRF/NTRA want to better measure handicapping proficiency, they should run a year-long tournament consisting of, say, 10 races per weekend, every week. Each player would be required to make 400 bets over the course of the year. I say 400 because that allows 12 weeks off for those who can't make it every weekend and [permits] contestants to pass certain races, just like real life.”

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, January 20, 2014

From Weekend Warrior to TV Warrior

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 19, 2014---Florida Sunshine Million Classic winner Mucho Macho Man wasn’t the only good horse in action over the weekend. A synopsis, beginning with the other five Gulfstream Park features for Florida-breds:

To open the program, Todd Pletcher cross-entered Sweet n Discreet in both the SM Sprint and SM Distaff and, not surprisingly, made the right call choosing the Distaff despite the filly’s inexperience at the distance and a sprint-oriented pedigree.

The win might not have been surprising but the manner of victory was. We expected a stalk-from-close-range or perhaps a front-running tack, as Pletcher in the past often has his jockeys ride aggressively, taking the race to the competition.

Considering the size of the field and race shape, Joe Bravo had the filly very relaxed and well behind a soft early pace outside in a comfortably rhythmic beat. Discreet Cat’s daughter simply was too sharp and too quick for the group and likely will, all being equal, continue her present, if belated, development.

Parranda, meanwhile, really as hit her stride as a five year old—at least in Hallandale--finishing strongly late to take the S M Filly & Mare Turf after having won the Preview prep two starts back. Perfectly ridden by Jose Lezcano, it was her fifth win in 10 starts at Gulfstream. Score another victory for the Horse for Course crowd.

Ullapool’s job in the SM Filly and Mare Sprint got a lot easier after the other speed filly, R Free Roll, threw her head at the break, at once eliminating herself and handing her rival a manageably soft easy lead. Eddie Kenneally’s filly gave Lezcano a natural double.

Star Channel gave Kenneally his natural two-bagger and Lezcano his trifecta with a stout stretch run, surviving a stretch-long bumping match with Old Time Hockey to prevail by a head. The stewards look at it, losing rider Gary Stevens beefed, but the judges decided both were equally at fault—this observation coming from a player who lost the Pick 5 by that narrow margin; ouch.

Jason Servis has done amazing work with Ribo Bobo, a gelded six year old claimed three times last year, twice for $6,250 and once for$ 8,000. Only a half-length defeat at Penn National separated this remarkable speedster from winning 11 straight races dating back to February, 2013. A tip of the cap goes to Joe Orseno, who has runnerup Happy My Way racing in career form.

On the Road Again with the Three Year Olds:

Earlier in the day that his Shared Belief would win Eclipse honors for outstanding juvenile colt, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was took the California Derby with Exit Stage Left, ultra-game repulsing speed challenges throughout before repulsing perfect-trip favorite Enterprising by a half-length. Like champion stablemate, Exit Stage Left is undefeated after three starts and never has set foot on dirt. Stay tuned.

On the afternoon Ken and Sarah Ramsey would accept their third Eclipse Award for outstanding owners, their Vicar’s in Trouble stalked the pace of Roman Unbridled throughout, kicked in at headstretch, and drew off to a 6-3/4 length score beneath Rosie without so much as a lead. The son of Into Mischief is talented but might prove distance challenged as the races lengthen.

Exit Stage Left may have impressed with his gameness but Unbridled Forever impressed with her class. Spotting Silverbulletday co-favorite Divine Beauty recent conditioning and a soft pace, Unbridled’s Song daughter of Kentucky Oaks winner Lemons Forever, Dallas Stewart’s filly had her rival measured soon after entering in the lane, lengthening stride the closer she got to the wire. Distance will be a non-issue. This is a good filly beneath a confident Robby Albarado.

Bob Baffert-trained runners finished 1-2 in the Strub Stakes for four year olds at Santa Anita. Super-sharp Shakin It Up beat stablemate Governor Charlie by a clever 2-1/4 lengths, the latter making his first time since May, 2013 at Pimlico. Shakin It Up answered any distance doubts with authority, pouncing on his mate soon after entering the straight to win going away with Mike Smith’s stick pointing south. Hollendorfer’s 7-5 favorite was a non-threatening third after stumbling at the break and angling out wide into the lane. Should benefit, and more ground figures to help.

Must See TV? We'll See

The DVR is set for 10 p.m. Tuesday for the debut of “Horseplayers” on the new Esquire Network. I’m hopeful, but I’m fearful, too.

I’m not sure what the producers and writers ultimately will be going for here. Is it following a bunch of colorful characters as they walk the simulcast plank or more of a look of the entire horseplaying experience a la poker programming?

Will a light shine on the hours of homework, the research needed to find winning angles that work today but not necessarily tomorrow? Or will it about the psychology of gambling, the W’s and L’s associated with making bets that could put a gambler on tilt?

Will it teach the uninformed that every time they see a horseplayer lose two of every three bets he makes that they're witnessing genius in action? Indeed, it should promote the idea that playing the races is fun, even when losing makes a player grumpy and fills him with self-doubt; Losing money has this effect on people..

Making the horseplaying experience enticing will in itself be easier said than done. Becoming proficient, never mind successful, requires dedication, patience and an open mind. Know a lot of people like that? For the most part, America loves its game shows and mindless reality series. Here's hoping that the cerebral aspects of handicapping will be presented and perceived as a rewarding aspect in and of itself.

I hope the producers are not looking to create latter day Damon Runyon characters. Even in the age when something like Duck Dynasty is popular, programming, lowest common denominator thinking won't create lifelong fans. Only love can do that. Some intellectual aspects of the handicapping process, among other storylines, set a pitch-perfect tone in the abbreviated HBO series, “Luck.” It’s what the demise of the show so very unfortunate.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Macho Man by Day, a Wise Dan by Night

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 18, 2014—Who would have thought that the period spanning 2004 to 2007 would, in Breeders’ Cup Classic/Horse of the Year terms, be regarded as the good old days?

Dean and Patti Reeves
Photo by Toni Pricci
Dean and Patti Reeves have much to smile about
At that time, it was possible to secure racing’s ultimate prize by parlaying a Classic win into a Horse of the Year title. After all, the achievement was good enough for Ghostzapper, Saint Liam, Invasor and Curlin, the last horse to win consecutive Horse of the Year championships.

But sorry, Raven’s Pass, your Classic score wasn’t good enough, even though you beat eventual Horse of the Year Curlin and avenged your only 2008 defeat to Henrythenavigator at Santa Anita. And the G2 score before that? Small potatoes, apparently.

Zenyatta? The Classic belonged to the behemoth filly but the year belonged to Rachel Alexandra. Blame? Sorry, again, but the voters apparently felt that they owed Zenyatta one.

Drosselmeyer? Even though he won the Belmont Stakes and the Classic, I’m not sure I know anyone who marked their Horse of the Year ballot that way.

Fort Larned? Ever hear of girl power? How soon we can forget a filly named Havre De Grace.

Mucho Macho Man? Sorry, but where’s your turf resume?

Should the Breeders’ Cup folks scrap the 2014 Classic due to a lack of respect?

Of course, Wise Dan had a deserving Horse of Year resume, limited and turf specific as it was, But in repeating last year's feat, he became only the sixth horse Eclipse history to win consecutive Best In Show titles, the seventh to win multiple Horse of the Year championships.

Wise Dan was also honored with older male and turf championships, the only horse to win three championships in consecutive years. This year, Wise Dan might shoot for the three-peat, especially if a very humble Morton Fink successfully can convince his trainer, Charlie LoPresti, "to run on dirt and to run long," first reminding those in the audience and watching on HRTV that 'Dan' owns a track record at nine furlongs.

Two words, Mr. Fink: Whitney and Woodward.

As far as the Florida Millions feature was concerned, it was as if the Macho Man know that the Sunshine Millions Classic would be the only prize he would win this day, so off he went to obliterate five seriously overmatched rivals by 14 lengths with partner Gary Stevens appearing not the least bit interested in running up the score.

The Big Hoss is back
Photo by: Toni Pricci
The Big Hoss is back
How do you like me now, the proud six year old might have thought? When the first poll for America’s leading horse is released in March, Mucho Macho Man’s should top that list off his Millions Classic performance.

Winner of the 2013 Vox Populi Award as America’s most popular race horse, an appreciative crowd followed the gigantic colt’s every move around the walking ring and out on to the fast Gulfstream Park surface.

“I’m gonna’ need a friggin’ ladder to get up on this guy one day,” Stevens, more passenger than pilot, quipped as he dismounted in the winners’ circle after guiding ‘Macho’ through nine furlongs in a snappy 1:48.76, a bit more than a second off the track record.

A fourteen-length smile from trainer Kathy Ritvo
Photo by: Toni Pricci
A fourteen-length smile from trainer Kathy Ritvo
But if the day belonged to Mucho Macho Man, the night, and the 2013 racing season, belonged to three-time champion Wise Dan; Javier Castellano, whose $26-million in earnings and win percentage of 22 was good enough to eclipse the remarkable comeback of co-finalist Gary Stevens.

Castellano’s acceptance speech, honoring the forcibly retired Ramon Dominguez, was perhaps touching moment of the night, followed closely by Pletcher’s emotional tribute to his parents and tragically injured barn favorite, Caixa Electronica.

And, of course, there were the characteristically upbeat words of “the coach,” Merit Award winner Wayne Lukas and his owner, Willis Horton, whose unforgettable speech went on longer than Jacqueline Bisset’s at the Golden Globes but no one seemed to mind. In fact, the crowd loved it.

The saga of the Comeback Kid continues
Photo by: Toni Pricci
The saga of the Comeback Kid continues
Congratulations to all remaining winning practitioners; Pletcher, who stands alone as the sport’s only six-time Eclipse-winning trainer; Castellano; the Ramsey’s, the sport’s outstanding owners and breeding; and apprentice Victor Carrasco.

Juveniles Shared Belief, undefeated in three starts with nary a win on dirt or turf, and She’s A Tiger, who compiled the most comprehensive among the juvenile fillies; Beholder, who stepped up on the big stage, narrowly defeating a filly who compiled an impressively diverse body of work, Princess Of Sylmar.

Of course, there was Royal Delta who did more than enough before tailing off at season’s end, winning an Eclipse for the a third straight year, and kudos to sprinters Points Offthebench and the filly, Groupie Doll; Dank, the best turf mare seen in action in America in 2013, and steeplechase champion Divine Fortune.

But the most memorable campaign waged in 2013 perhaps belonged to a horse that closes like the wind; on the racetrack and in his peer group. It took Will Take Charge virtually an entire year to get his act together but, when he did, the results were extraordinary. The top three year old of 2013 was the 25th Eclipse champion coached by Darrell Wayne Lukas who warned his younger rivals that he’s coming after them in 2014.

Written by John Pricci

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