Sunday, April 24, 2016

Canterbury Executives: Caballeros With Cojones

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., April 24, 2016--For once I won’t have to sound like a broken record; one that’s right twice a day (just checking to see if you're paying attention).

Indeed, for once, a racetrack brain trust is prescient and gutsy enough that its executives are willing to think outside the trifecta box and shake up the industry.

My sense of frustration with the modern game runs so high that when I read the news that Canterbury Downs was lowering parimutuel takeout to 15% in the straight pools and 18% in all multiples, I got a little emotional.

Then, at 72, which is the new 72, I reach for Kleenex every time a new Publix opens in my South Florida neighborhood.

If you think I’m being flippant or sarcastic here, slam the gavel down and convict me: Guilty as charged: 30 days. Step down; next case please.

I’ve been writing about the significance of takeout rates as the lifeblood of the game since the 1970s, when multiple bets were in their infancy and the New York Racing Association boldly experimented by lowering takeout on wagers from 17% to 14%.

Predictably, handle and attendance increased significantly--by 10-12%--but revenue didn’t rise at the same pace. The experiment wasn’t long enough, lasting little more than a year. NYRA was supposed to launch another but it never happened; likely didn’t fly in Albany.

Government thinking back then was so bass ackwards and regressive that the newly created Off-Track Betting Corporation had the gall to attach a 5% surcharge on winnings--which for a time was raised to 6%. In philosophical terms, very little has changed.

In the mid-70s, horse betting accounted for roughly 35% of gambling in America, then came government mandated OTBs mistakenly not controlled by NYRA, lotteries and the nearby expansion of casino gambling. Exit horse racing as gambling’s big wheel.

The stir that the Canterbury announcement made on social media was Thoroughbred racing’s equivalent to the news concerning the formally alive musical artist Prince.

But unlike that sad tale, this news from Minnesota was welcomed with huzzahs and arm pumps on a much smaller scale, of course. And the announcement was staged brilliantly. If it weren’t, riddle me this:

Would you be aware that the 2016 Canterbury race meet is scheduled to open on May 20th? Ordinarily, would you care?

Upon hearing the news some precincts provided many reasons why it wouldn’t succeed:

“It would never be supported to the extent that would make it a success; I told you so. No one knows the jockeys and trainers. The racing is cheap and takes place at night in the densely populated East.

“How will lower takeout effect the simulcast marketplace? Will other tracks or ADWs offer Canterbury with its small margin, making less money by helping a competitor? Are PPs even available?” And so it went.

Canterbury executives have put their 2016 meeting on the racing map but, as every manner of horseplayer and critic knows, it will take betting support to keep it there.

Slouching Toward May 20

Online racing commentator Lenny Moon made some great observations last week when the news broke by calling takeout--for all the media visibility it gets—“invisible.”

“The anatomy of a takeout decrease is not bells and whistles’ wrote Moon… It's money in your pocket which makes a difference on how you view your betting experience.” And then he provided a stark example:

With rounding, a trifecta that pays $4,000 would pay $4,100 at the new Canterbury rate while that same trifecta in Pennsylvania, where takeout on multiples is a usurious 30%, would return $3,499 to the winning bettor, a difference of $600.


Now ponder this: Horseplayer hits a $4000 trifecta, pays some bills, puts some money in the checking account and celebrates by taking his loved one to dinner.

Do you think this weekend warrior, who typically might go to the track with a $200 bankroll, take $300 with him on the following Saturday?

And if he lost all $300, might he come back the following week with another $300? And he loses that, too? The result? His original bankroll remains intact.

Because of the benefits of invisible takeout, he’s “even” on the extra $600 he made on that $4,000 trifecta. Think he comes back the week after that with his original $200 stake?

That sounds like something I would do; sounds like something any typically loyal horseplayer might do. The question is what will simulcast executives at other betting venues do?

Such as it is, I do this for a living, and I don’t know the first thing about Canterbury. But PPs are PPs, figures are figures, etc., etc.

As the HRI Faithful know, I limit by plays predominantly to stakes races, turf, and maiden allowances. But I will support Canterbury to the small extent, say $10 at every gambling session.

As horseplayer activist Andy Asaro reminds us, buy-cotts are easier and more positive than boy-cotts.

Fans who take playing the horses seriously, whatever their bankroll, must send this message.

Without horseplayers there would be no million-dollar purses or six-figure yearlings, just whatever is the equivalent of a one-arm bandit.

United, horseplayers just may save the industry from themselves.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Best Betting Races Not Always in Bettor’s Best Interest

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., April 19, 2016—Even if “N.C.I.S.” were not the longest running drama on TV, I’ve seen it enough to know Gibbs Rule #39: “There is no such thing as coincidence.”

And, so, with a modicum of skepticism, I ask the following question: How did Ricardo Santana Jr. know enough to drop back to lonesome last, 14-3/4 lengths behind the leader according to the Equibase result chart?

Actually, it margin might have been more since the trackman there believed that Suddenbreakingnews was only a length back at the stretch call when it seemed to the eye to be more like, what three lengths?

But there is another issue that fascinates more. In his most improved recent starts, Creator has come from far off the pace but never as far back as 15 lengths at the first call as indicated in the Arkansas Derby official chart.

But then he never raced behind that fast an early pace in his entire two-turn career. There are two things about this:

Generally, pace moderates as the distances increase but not this time. In the 1-1/16 miles of the Rebel, the half-mile split was 46 4/5; in the 1-1/8 miles Arkansas Derby, Gettysburg went in early fractions in 46 1/5 after an opening gambit of 22 4/5--too fast for the distance this side of California.

And that’s where things got interesting.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Saturday’s Grade 1 it’s that a high number of betting interests--popular because fans and tracks want bigger fields on which to bet--might not be, in the main, good for bettors: Uncoupled entries are still controversial with many players.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with uncoupled entries. In fact, I often prefer it because better payoffs are available on both horses, especially the entry’s “wrong half,” and it’s the handicapper’s job to figure out what racing dynamics will be for any race.

We’re not suggesting anything untoward was afoot on Saturday and I understand that the best way to defeat odds-on favorite Cupid was to challenge him early. That’s exactly what Johnny Velazquez did with the Todd Pletcher-trained Gettysburg, who forced to go for position from an extreme outside post.

On the first turn, Johnny looped Cupid who also broke from an outside, albeit inside Gettysburg, and took the lead. What was a little unusual is that Velazquez urged Gettysburg energetically throughout as if to hold the lead at all costs, a necessary tack with a speed horse.

Gettysburg doesn’t seem one-dimensional, however. In his Sunland Derby prior, Gettysburg also broke from the extreme outside but the Winstar Farm colt stalked the pace and was able to narrow the gap late, placing second to Collected who returned to win Saturday’s Lexington Stakes.

An aside: When Ken Ramsey was tired of losing Big Blue Kitten’s winning chances because of routinely slow-paced turf routes, he went out and bought himself a rabbit, Shining Copper. After doing so, he announced his pace-setting intentions every time, even if Shining Copper raced uncoupled for trainer Chad Brown.

In the Arkansas Derby, Winstar started horses saddled by Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, trainer of the winning Creator.

As I watched the pace develop and saw that Velazquez would not allow Martin Garcia take the lead, I glanced back at Santana and Creator, lonesome last and not in any hurry, as if assured that the pace would be fast.

“Steve told me to be patient, be patient,” Santana said post-race.

“He ran hard, really hard, said Winstar president and C.E.O, Elliott Walden.

“I know Martin wanted to get him in the clear, said Cupid’s assistant trainer, Jim Barnes. “He got in the clear and they were rolling right along. I think the fractions probably took a toll on us.”

To Creator’s benefit.

Asmussen showed Hall of Fame patience training the highly strung Tapit colt, who didn’t break maiden until his sixth start lifetime start, only fourth on dirt. He had never run in a sprint. “The maiden races were experience,” Walden explained. “That’s why we didn’t have any problem going into the Rebel.”

And maybe that’s why he will be well equipped to handle 19 expected Kentucky Derby rivals, having faced fields of 11, 13, and 11 rivals, respectively, in his last three starts.

Run under ideal conditions, Creator is unlikely to need help from a fast, pace-setting stablemate. His mate in the Derby will be Gun Runner, not a speed type. But I could be wrong about using uncoupled mates as stalking horses in stakes. “Sometimes you’re wrong,” states Gibbs Rule #51.

At Churchill Downs, the tandem will run--what else--uncoupled in the wagering.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Rick Porter, Just Continue to Say No

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, March 7, 2016—Unintentionally, Songbird, and her exclusion from the initial NTRA Kentucky Derby poll but inclusion in HRI’s rankings until late Triple Crown nominations close March 20—has become a lightning rod of sorts.

The caveat that came inside the latest NTRA release instructed voters to enter the names of their top 10 three-year-olds that “have nominated to the Triple Crown,” seemingly wishing to avoid any controversy regarding her non-participation in this year's Kentucky Derby.

As everyone knows, the filly’s connections have insisted from the time she gained national prominence en route to the 2015 juvenile filly championship that she would be pointed to the Kentucky Oaks and that a Derby run was off the table.

At HRI, an executive decision was made to include her in the Top 10 if our staffers and contributors believed her worthy of such an “honor.” And none of us believe there’s a racing fan in America who doubts she deserves a Top 10 ranking, if not Top 1 status.

This site will include her for another week but in the March 21 poll she will be included in the “also receiving votes” category, even if I have to throw out my 10th ranked colt to put her name on the list of this country’s top three-year-olds.

We also include her acknowledging that Derby Fever is a virulent strain and if, heaven forbid, something untoward were to keep the best five males from running in the Derby, Songbird’s connections could have a change of heart. Either way, a clock is ticking.

Editorials have been written elsewhere begging that she be allowed to compete in the Derby, her supporters using a “Horse for the Ages” argument which she might very well prove to be. God knows the talent is there.

And that is why she has become a catalyst for controversy, albeit the kind of polemic that, frankly, racing could use more of: Should she, or shouldn’t she?

In a recent Internet survey, two of every three racing fans responded that the connections should stick to their original goal and continue pointing to the Kentucky Oaks. We could not agree with those fans more.

The hype encouraging the owner of Songbird to point for the Kentucky Derby instead of the Oaks focuses on the wrong priorities, and it’s not because we believe that racing females against males is a bridge too far.

In the modern era, there have been plenty of examples of wins and losses on both sides. Of those we have witnessed, for every Gamely unable to handle Dr. Fager there was a ground-breaking Zenyatta beating the world’s best Breeders’ Cup males.

For every Cicada unable to outlast Ridan, there was Winning Colors taking Derbies back-to-back. For every Glorious Song vanquished by Spectacular Bid there was Rags to Riches, “a filly in the Belmont,” and a Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness and Haskell and Woodward.

But times have changed. Racing now struggles for its legitimacy as a sport with the public at large, and the lights of the Triple Crown are hot and bright and unforgiving.

Whether racing likes it or not, the sport is one high profile tragedy from getting its doors shuttered by animal rights activists.

The American public doesn’t remember a Dahlia or an All Along and probably never heard of Black Caviar.

But from the movies they know Ruffian and from television they just might remember the fate that befell Eight Belles, owned by the same man who campaigns Songbird.

When Songbird is mentioned in the same sentence as Derby, Rick Porter never mentions the filly that was euthanized after breaking down jumps passed the Churchill Downs finish line. He doesn’t need to and it’s probably too painful even if eight years have passed.

Still, there is only one chance to earn the kind of immortality that only a Kentucky Derby can bestow and a fortnight can be an eternity in the horse business.

There are several indelicate considerations to ponder: Would Ruffian be as famous had she survived her match with Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park? Has she become immortal more for her death than her racetrack heroics? Her legacy was acknowledged because she died as she had lived: On the lead.

Does anyone want to remember Songbird, or any other magnificent filly that might meet their tragic fate because they reached down to parts unknown within themselves, deeper than they ever have in their lives, summoning more speed, more courage?

Given the climate that exists around racing in a larger sports context, can this sport afford to risk another tragedy of such great magnitude? Could racing’s somewhat tenuous world-class existence continue to survive after something like that?

Tomorrow’s guaranteed to no one and equine tragedy can strike anywhere, anytime, even in the relative safety of the shedrow. But it would be imprudent for Porter to take such a risk.

Even though Stuart Janney, owner and breeder of Ruffian, had some misgivings, he capitulated to the idea of a match race because the racing public and the media wanted it and he talked his trainer into running. Frank Whitely wanted no part of it.

There are some things owners should consider doing for the good of the game. Running Songbird in this year’s Kentucky Derby isn’t one of them.

Written by John Pricci

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