Sunday, October 08, 2017

Horseplayers No Longer Crying in the Wilderness

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But in this case it’s more about the horse race industry working at cross purposes with its customers in the interests of commerce than anything else.

In this weekend’s edition of Horse Racing Nation “Insider,” the publication offered “FREE PICKS for KEENELAND STAKES!” Any NCIS fan can quote you chapter and verse Rule #37, according to Special Agent Jethro Gibbs: “There’s no such thing as a coincidence.”

It follows that the Cross-Country Pick 4, combining four Grade 1s at Belmont and Keeneland was also being heavily promoted, including “a 15-1 shot you can’t leave off your tickets,” with FREE Shadwell Mile PPs to sweeten the deal.

This is not meant to assess blame for bet-takers promoting their business but it is interesting that this “Insider” edition happened to coincide with a horseplayer’s boycott at Keeneland which dubiously insisted raised takeout was meant attract the best horses.

As if that weren’t going to happen, anyway. Clearly, this was a move to mirror the higher Churchill Downs takeout rates in place for years now, creating synergy should the two racing behemoths be given permission to encroach on other regional Kentucky tracks.

It would be also fair to ask whether these increases are in place at the Red Mile harness track. Is that Keeneland-owned property also a non-for-profit venture?

The highly touted Fall Champions Weekend that began opening day thus far has played to mixed betting results. Despite record attendance for Friday’ Fall opener, handle was flat year over year.

However, Saturday’s mega-card, featuring an All Stakes Pick Five—two Grade 2s and three Grade 1s--attracted 14.4% less handle than did the same number of races in 2016 and with two more betting interests, according to racing activists.

In advance of the Keeneland opener, the Horseplayers Association of North America and issued a joint announcement that a horseplayer boycott would take place to show that bettors resent being insulted by the false propaganda circulated.

Keeneland’s significant takeout increase was enacted despite the fact that Historic Racing machines at the Red Mile property have produced revenue increases for the parent company that insists on sticking with its false narrative.

Never mind that a takeout increase seven years ago resulted in an on-track dip of 27% at Los Alamitos. Or that a boycott of Santa Anita and Golden Gate the following year ultimately resulted in purse cuts, not increases, giving rise to significant employee layoffs at Santa Anita.

And never mind that the takeout increase at Churchill Downs three years later gave rise to a 25% handle dip at the spring meet, Kentucky Derby weekend notwithstanding, and also a 20% purse cut the following Fall.

The lesson here is that the loyal horseplayer base is mad as hell and not only are they not going to take it anymore but they’re actually doing something about it.

Even if the boycott does not reach its stated goal of 25-30% handle decrease at the Keeneland meet, the horseplayer boycott is getting coverage and gaining momentum in racing establishment media this time around and not treated as some passing fad.

The horseplayers who really care about the state of the game going forward are taking a stand and their voice is being amplified. A message is being sent and that real news is this: We’re here and won’t be taken for granted any longer.

And so the future is in the industry’s hands now, not ours. The chickens are back in their homes roosting. For how long only the business can say.


BELMONT PARK: The longer uncoupled portion of the Chad Brown entry takes the opener and will be the start of a huge day for Irad Ortiz… Copper Town takes a preliminary allowances at 1-1/16 miles impressively and it appears Todd Pletcher is going to have a lot of fun with him this winter at Gulfstream Park.

Disco Partner,
giving Irad his first of three stakes on the day, is one of this country’s classiest turf sprinters and proved it again in the Belmont Turf Sprint at 6 furlongs. They’ll be going shorter than that around those tight turf turns at Del Mar next month…

Montauk was strongly rumored to be Pletcher’s best 2-year-old. Nothing he did in his 7-furlong debut belied that opinion. Awesome performance, very bright future…Firenze Fire’s experience, and Irad strength and timing, the difference in the Champagne but Belmont's classic juvenile test not the strongest we’ve ever seen.

Yoshida finally breaks through but getting through some tight quarters, Manny Franco, in midst of a career year, helping to make the difference aboard one of the unluckiest horses at Spa meet. Love this animal but not sure he’s quite ready for a world stage, but give Bill Mott time…

New York-bred Diversify has really come into his own as a late season gelded 4-year-old taking the centerpiece Gold Cup under brilliant Irad rating, making some mid-race separation and leaving Keen Ice and Pavel with too much to do.

Their private stretch battle the latter two had allowed leader to get away. Not sure the Breeders’ Cup Classic favorites feel seriously threatened this a.m. Meanwhile, excellent work by Rick Violette, getting Diversify and peak at the Spa maintain that form in October.

KEENELAND: The stars on Friday were Whitmore, who looks like he’s back and with something in reserve for the Sprint. Whether he’s ready for Drefong is another issue, and Mark Casse with a training triple.

Did we mention Alcibiades winner Heavenly Love? Let’s put it this way; her dominant victories on Kentucky Downs turf and in Friday’s dirt 1-1/16 miles were like if Ruffian were turned inside-out. She has incredible late foot.

Heavenly Love vs. Moonshine Memories; East meets West in Juvenile Fillies. Can’t wait to see this one.

Happy for the connections who really enjoyed Bucchero’s victory in G2 Woodford, the 5YO sprinter taking advantage by sitting behind runoff speed. But he’ll be facing a different kind of competition and dynamics at the seaside course next month. Good job of pointing, Tim Glyshaw

Same can be said of Bret Calhoun who had Finley’sluckycharm fresh and fit enough to take the G2 Thoroughbred Club of America despite Brian Hernandez’s quixotic handling and should be a presence in the F&M Sprint but will meet much, much tougher next time…

Lament the passing of Ten City who appeared to be heading for victory in the Breeders’ Futurity before taking a bad step on the stretch turn, suffering an irreparably fatal injury...

Happy for Dale Romans who stretched Free Drop Billy out successfully, setting up another East-West confrontation in the Juvenile in which Bolt d’Oro will be a deserving favorite given his explosive score in Santa Anita’s Frontrunner last weekend…

Well ridden, fast-finishing Suedois raced strongly through the wire and galloped out well for Team O’Meara/Tudhope. He’ll be meeting better European peers next month but he sure looked good taking the G1 Shadwell.

Heart to Heart never got a breather but Mott’s Ballagh Rocks made a very good, sustained late run and should benefit from Saturday’s effort.

Casse, not known for having his first-timers pumped up for debut but $1.5 million purchase Curlin’s Honor broke maiden as the heavy favorite with a classy, come-again victory beneath Julien Leparoux, who’s gotten off fast looking for his sixth Keeneland title. Winner’s best races appear ahead of him. (Runnerup Fascilitator a likely maiden breaker next time out but probably will go favored).


Blackjackcat was a clear winner of the Obviously Mile but doesn't appear to be a serious threat a month from now and Roy H. looked good winning the Santa Anita Breeders' Cup Sprint Championship. Six furlongs in 1:08 3/5, with a final quarter in 23 3/5 over the tiring strip is to be respected. Next time the waters will be much deeper, however.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Finally, a Win

Like any horseplayer, I’m very pleased that IRS regulations regarding income tax reporting and mandated withholdings finally has been amended to reflect modern horse wagering reality.

Of course, the lengthy wait could have been averted had legislators asked the advice of industry stakeholders, any industry stakeholder, from the start.

But the industry itself must share culpability. Why? Because whenever it goes to Washington or into statehouses, it doesn’t speak with one voice. Considering that many tracks still do a bad job coordinating post times, this was, admittedly, more complex.

Conclusively, common sense has been applied to the 300-1 payoff provision, reflecting the amount wagered into a pool where potential boxcar payoffs are the rule rather than the exception. The good news is that there will be a lot fewer “signers” at every level.

Today if you made a simple $1 Trifecta box of three horses, a cost of $6, a $602 payoff does not reach the 300-1 mandate for reporting those winnings in the IRS. The new provision, finally, takes into account the sum total of the “investment.”

Of course, this change benefits wagering 1-percenters who bet much more money than it does the average player/fan. This is a huge boon to bettors who invest $2,000 chasing a Pick Six carryover pool, one that wins and pays $20,000.

The $18,000 score made above is the equivalent of betting on a 9-1 winning horse straight. A nice hit, sure, but by definition hardly a windfall.

In another context, allowing bettors to keep more of their winnings helps all stakeholders just as, say, lowering the parimutuel takeout would.

This is, for legislators who may be reading this, is what’s called churn. Human gambling nature being what it is, the more winning players get back the more they bet in return. When this is allowed to play out over time, it works. Revenues eventually increase.

The dichotomy is that it’s OK if gamblers are made to cool their heels but bet-takers don’t have to be as patient, allotting time to allow the process to do what it always has done; create more business. Generally, racetracks have taken a one-meet-and-done position.

In a statement released Tuesday, the change in regulations is expected to increase the amount wagered on U.S. pari-mutuel racing by as much as 10 percent annually, at this juncture about $1 billion per year.

At first blush this estimate seems more hopeful than real, but were willing to take a wait and see stance. If wishes were horses, the hope is that we’re wrong and that the estimators prove, well, estimable.

Parenthetically, if only this could have been coupled with the elimination of breakage, those pennies from every payoff that hurts bettors at every level every day, especially the little bettor that needs to grind out profits. But I digress.

The official regulations will be published in Wednesday’s edition of the Federal Register and scheduled to go into effect Thursday if bet-takers can make it happen. Figure that all will get their accounting acts together ASAP.

Obviously, two words can sum up why all bet-takers should hurry their preparations forward: Breeders’ Cup.

Breeders’ Cup event days serve dual purposes; one is to crown potential champions, the other is to generate huge handle which benefits everyone who happens to be tethered to the industry, most especially the player.

Value will be available most everywhere on November 3rd and 4th at Del Mar and betting venues everywhere. Pool size is the result of large fields, competitive racing and heightened interest. The two days of Breeders’ Cup provides all that and more.

None of this would have happened without the considerable efforts of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. The NTRA is the industry’s marketing arm and deserves props for eventually getting the job done.

Common sense dictates that this should have been a sprint. Instead, making this kind of progress, like everything else in this game, turns out to be a marathon. Meanwhile, we should be happy to celebrate winning for a change.

OK. What’s next?

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Accidental Stakes Race

I made a gentlemen’s bet with TJ on Saturday and lost. I assured him that he’d probably get an email from the NTRA on Sunday announcing the guests who would appear on a national teleconference advancing the newly minted Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby.

Alas, no email was forthcoming, and neither was there the oft-presented Tuesday teleconference before major racing events. Saturday is the day Pennsylvania Thoroughbred fans look forward to every year.

Maybe somebody dropped a dime to the industry’s public relations organ that Jorge Navarro, aka “the juice man,” was about to drop the name Game Over into the Penn Derby entry box.

Or maybe they wanted to save the industry further advancement if tomorrow, Wednesday, the New Jersey Racing Commission ups the punishment ante for Navarro and his foul-mouthed owner, Randal Gindi, fined $5,000 by New Jersey stewards.

But the Pennsylvania Derby? With apologies to Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen, who adapted Walter Tevis’s The Hustler to the silver screen: “This is Pennsylvania, mister. Ever heard of Fast Murray Rojas?”

Even if Navarro were not invited to participate at Parx, there could have been some embarrassing questions asked of the other trainers, owners or jockeys on a national hookup. The fact there was no presser enabled NTRA to luck out of a shameful situation.

Where the NTRA missed out was an opportunity to promote the country’s leading three-year-old filly, Abel Tasman, who will leave from post 9 beneath Mike Smith as an 8-5 early line choice to win the G1 Cotillion, which drew 11 fillies including a coupled entry.

But she won’t be the only California-based Bob Baffert-trained three-year-old on the plane. West Coast, arguable leader of the three-year-old colt division, is also an 8-5 early line choice in a race that looks as salty as the one West Coast won, Saratoga’s Derby of Midsummer.

Among West Coast’s nine rivals are beaten Haskell favorite Timeline (5-1), compromised at the start of that Grade 1 and involved in a contentious pace duel on a tiring Monmouth oval July 30. Previously, he was an undefeated in four starts including a pair of Grade 3s. Javier Castellano rides for Chad Brown.

In the stall next door is the blooming Outplay (12-1), who won Saratoga’s restricted Curlin Stakes at the Pa. Derby distance by nearly six impressive front-running lengths with Johnny Velasquez again in the boot for Todd Pletcher. But wait, there’s more.

Immediately to the favorite’s outside in slip #5 is Irap (3-1), significantly wide on both turns in the Travers and forced into making a premature move on the final turn. Irap finished third, beaten 5-1/2 lengths, and gets a two-pound weight pull from the favorite.

Add Irish War Cry, also hindered by the closer-friendly Monmouth surface, who chased the pace from close range after a troubled start while making a difficult turnback from the mile and a half Belmont Stakes in which he earned a lifetime best figure on many scales.

Baffert won this race with Bayern three years ago, Brown won last year’s renewal with ill-fated Connect, and Nick Zito, who won this race three times, has entered Giuseppe the Great (20-1), who starts from post 10 with Luis Saez, reuniting with the Jim Dandy runnerup.

We are a little surprised that Baffert chose to run back in four weeks when he could have prepped for the Classic at Santa Anita next month, but apparently decided he prefers a longer layup into the Breeders’ Cup that Saturday’s race provides.

Six weeks spacing has proven to be a boon to both the Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion.

Neither West Coast nor his trainer need to carry a racetrack with them. The colt has won on four disparate surfaces while the filly, shipping in fresh, will attempt to win at a seventh venue, having won thrice out west, once at Churchill, Belmont and Saratoga in July.

While the G3 Gallant Bob, Saturday’s 9th race, is competitive per usual and an interesting start to a graded-stakes Pick 3, we’ll pass, as we never make it a habit to support Parx with its usurious takeout rates.

There are other attractive stakes on a well-stocked 13-race card but we will be avoid Parx, a good prep for shunning Keeneland's opener. With the exception of Saratoga horses-to-watch, we will not wager on any Keeneland feature, as appealing as those races may be. HRI supports the message behind the HANA boycott.

With contrition to Sonny Corleone, “they hit us, so we hit them back.”

Written by John Pricci

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