Thursday, January 06, 2011


“It’s Enough to Make You Sick; Is It Enough to Make You Stop?


SPRINGFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS, January 6, 2011--I was stuck a few dollars at The Rock simulcasts on Tuesday. Alive in a chalky late double at Parx, I decided to handicap the Calder finale, literally, as Gulfstream Park would open the next day.

It was a nondescript field of seven older filly maiden claimers going two turns. Al’s Angel, with hot riding Paco Lopez, opened at 1-2, the rest of the field nowhere in the wagering, so I took a closer look.

There was no doubt that Al’s Angel was a deserving favorite. Her last performance figure over the same surface towered over the competition.

The bad news, however, is that she was entered back on only nine days rest, and the lifetime best figure set her up for a regression. It was time to dig deeper.

Gimmeamink was running consistent figures, albeit slower, and figured to run at least as well. At 6-1 on the tote, I had found an overlay. A $20 win bet would make me a winner for the day--no matter how the Parx late double turned out.

I made my wager, rejoined my friends at the table. One didn’t play, the other had the favorite and Gimmeamink in a boxed exacta. There was 1 minute on the tote board as the track feed turned to the horses being loaded. “They’re off.”

Under a well timed move by apprentice Jose Alvarez, Gimmeamink rushed passed the favorite, who got on my filly but didn't go on with it.

Sometimes things go as planned, Gimmeamink drew off nicely as Al’s Angel held second. Smiling faces all around.

Until the prices were posted. Gimmeamink paid $8.00 to win. Not even breakage on the $8 mutuel!

“Wait a minute,” said Phil. “That horse was 9-1 as they were running.” I didn’t see that myself, but I know the filly was 8-1 on the tote with less than a minute to post.

I’ve been around the game long enough not to be a sore winner. I hate it when players tell me how much they won but should have been more; if this, and if the other thing.

The chalky late double won and I was able to maximize the play, taking two price shots to complete cold exactas, using the ALL button to block, essentially making a trifecta saver. Got lucky when my 25-1 chance finished third to a 19-1 shot.

Harissa won the race, the Sleigh Ride Stakes, paying $3. The trifecta returned $119.50 for $1 despite the usurious Parx trifecta takeout of 30 percent. But I was livid, and I'm not being a sore winner. It made me think about the declining wagering trends, and the admonition at the top when cigarette advertising was first banned on television.

With apologies to master thief Frank, the James Caan character in “Thief,” the 1981 movie marking the directorial film debut of Michael Mann, I’ve got some A-B-C-type information for Santa Anita President George Haines.

Haines beleves that betting on horses is about picking winners, not takeout, and that only the top fraction of one percent is concerned about the rake. Well, Mr. Haines, I would not have bet on Gimmeamink at 3-1. I couldn't afford to.

Most good bets lose, Mr. Haines, that’s why you must “get paid” when you win. Players can’t afford to take bad prices in a difficult risk-reward, zero-sum game.

Fortunately, however, the industry is coming to the rescue. The Thoroughbred Racing Associations, in a recent press release, announced that its board “approved to support development…” of a tote security system…

To “ensure the close of betting throughout the parimutuel network” and the dissemination of real-time decimal odds to “participating host racetracks” for display…”Upon implementation within 18-24 months…”

If this is supposed to be the model for private sector efficiency then government might as well take over everything.

“Support development?” “Participating host racetracks?” “Implementation within 18-24 months?”

What’s the rush?

I don’t mean to be flippant, truly don’t. And I applaud the development. But I’m not even sure if “participating racetracks” only means TRA member tracks. Certainly hope not.

This is not a new problem. The first time I became acutely aware was when Monarchos won the 2001 Florida Derby, the odds going from 9-2 entering the backstretch to 5-2 entering the final turn.

This process should be further along by now--and it could take up to two more years? Wonder what the national handle figures will trend like then?

Then I shouldn’t worry. Everyone knows that further contraction is inevitable, and with further contraction will come greater efficiency. But don’t take my word for that.

“It seems that this year’s wagering drop was much more a function of the decline in racing days--compared to 2009 when wagering declined 9.8% and race days were down only 2.6%,” said Alex Waldrop, President and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Associations.

You mean you don’t understand? Then simply follow this: Wagering on U. S. races in 2010 declined by 7.33%, from $12.3-million to $11.4 million. Race days, meanwhile, declined by 7.75%, from 5,933 days to 5,473.

Hell, we’re practically making money? Time to invoke Larry the Liquidator again, the second time this month. That's Larry, who just loves “Other People’s Money”:

“We're not broke. And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure.”

I see Netflix in Mr. Waldrop’s future; I'm willing to pay for the rental.

In the meanwhile, perhaps racing managers who have not yet read Ed DeRosa’s instructive tutorial blog on the Thoroughbred Times website re: the debilitating effects of takeout, should take note.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, December 30, 2010


Just One Man’s Opinion


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 29, 2010--For most every member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, the following chore is considered a privilege, not a routine.

Many members feel, as I do, that as racing journalists who heap what we hope are equal amounts of praise and criticism, it is incumbent upon us to go public with our Eclipse choices.

For me, this annual exercise is a coming clean, trying to judge the horses and the horsemen as objectively as possible, go where the record speaks loudest.

When making the difficult call, however, such as 2010 Horse of the Year, we work for a subjective opinion that's based on a personal truth, not personal prejudice.

A look, then, at one man’s ballot seeking to honor the best of 2010’s best. Eclipse voting rules require three choices in all categories:

Steeplechase, 4 Year Olds & Up: Slip Away owns Grade 3 win, was Grade 1 placed thrice and gave the dominant performance of the year, winning the G1 Colonial Cup by 25-¾ lengths beneath worthy 156 pounds. 2. Arcadius. 3. Sermon of Love.

The Skinny: On balance, a down quality year for the up-and-over set.

Juvenile Colt: Uncle Mo dominated winning three lifetime starts by combined 23-¼ lengths without defeat. Extraordinary turn of foot demonstrated the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was uncommon and unforgettable. 2. Boys At Tosconova. 3. To Honor And Serve.

The Skinny: Has a freaky dimension, making him a legitimate Kentucky Derby favorite.

Juvenile Filly: Awesome Feather, at 6-for-6, the one undefeated equine that most people never heard of. Tactically brilliant and a true professional. 2. Turbulent Descent. 3. R. Heat Lightning.

The Skinny: Blind Luck will be a tough act to follow but this one‘s been a developmental wonder.

Three Year Old Colt or Gelding: Lookin At Lucky proved inarguably the class of the division following the retirement of early season wonder Eskendereya. 2. Eskendereya. 3. Afleet Express.

The Skinny: A snake bit class, injuries took a significant toll and the retirement of the protem champion is a real blow, after he acquitted himself fairly well in a very wide-trip Classic.

Three Year Old Filly: Blind Luck crossed the country no less than six times en route to a five-win season that included three Grade 1s, among those the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama. 2. Evening Jewel. 3. Devil May Care.

The Skinny: Heart-stopping style and courage was a blend that proved beyond reproach. How she comes back at 4 one of the early season 2011 storylines.

Older Male: Blame enjoyed a near perfect season, culminating with a Classic victory over the great Zenyatta. 2. Quality Road. 3. Richard’s Kid.

The Skinny: Ultra consistent, hickory tough and extremely well managed. Another premature retirement that really hurts the game in 2011.

Older Female: The mighty Zenyatta needs no introduction. 2. Life At Ten. 3. Unrivaled Belle.

The Skinny: Owns the most unique equine personality we’ve ever seen, she’s in the conversation for greatest race mare of all time.

Male Sprinter: Big Drama won the Sprint, the definitive dash, with authoritative style and never worse than second in five starts with three victories. 2. Majesticperfection. 3. Discreetly Mine.

The Skinny: In a division searching for a leader all season, a would-be champion emerged while the whole world was watching.

Female Sprinter: Dubai Majesty finished 2010 strong winning three of her last four, with one second, including the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. 2. Franny Freud. 3. Champagne D’Oro.

The Skinny: Another division that all year a work in progress until the very last moment, after Franny Freud went to the sidelines with an injury, never to race again.

Turf Males, 3 Year Olds & Up: Gio Ponti won two Grade 1s and was narrowly beaten in two others, always with his weight up when racing in top company. 2. Dangerous Midge. 3. Paddy O’ Prado.

The Skinny: The championship was there for the taking until sophomore Paddy O’ Prado opted for the Classic instead of the Turf.

Turf Female, 3 Year Old & Up: Goldikova is a truly great race mare that routinely beats top class males and made Breeders’ Cup history with her three-peat in the Mile. 2. Proviso. 3. Tuscan Evening.

The Skinny: It took a history making performance to deny four-time Grade 1 winner Proviso the title. On balance, this division stronger than their male contemporaries.

Trainer: John Shirreffs' handling of an uber talented, uber large, quirky 6 year old race mare coming up a half-head short of a 20-for-20 career is the stuff of Thoroughbred legend. 2. Albert Stall Jr. 3. Jerry Hollendorfer.

The Skinny: L’Affaire Life At Ten leaves Todd Pletcher on the outside looking in.

Jockey: Garrett Gomez, the most sought after money rider in North America, won this country’s most prestigious race for male runners and, despite, 700 fewer rides, was only a half-million dollars beyond leading earner Ramon Dominguez, whose won purses of $17.2 million and counting. 2. Dominguez. 3. Mike Smith.

The Skinny: L’Affaire Life At Ten leaves Johnny Velazquez on the outside looking in.

Apprentice Jockey: Omar Moreno’s earnings of over $5.3 million is an extraordinary total for a young rider. 2. Luis Saez. 3. Angel Serpa.

Owner: Jerry and Ann Moss, despite their zeal for protecting Zenyatta’s unblemished slate, showed uncommon sportsmanship by bringing her back at age 6 when she could have retired on top of the racing world.

Breeder: Claiborne Farm and Adele B. Dilschneider. Old school mating philosophy has its rewards.

Horse of the Year 2010. 1. Zenyatta. 2. Blame. 3. Goldikova.

After the reams of copy I've written on this issue, I'm sparing those of you suffering from Zenyatta fatigue. There's plenty of material in the HRI archives.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Racing’s Top Stories of 2010


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 21, 2010--Pick any recent year in Thoroughbred racing history and what you’ll get is a mixed bag, just like the year that‘s mercifully coming to an end, on many levels.

All who are engaged in this sport; the owners, trainers, jockeys, backstretch workers, racetracks, racing organizations and the media will have their take on whether or not, 2010 was a good or bad year.

However, there are two other groups engaged in the sport. Eliminate either one and there is no game: They are, of course, the equine athletes themselves and the fans who make the whole thing possible.

The following is one man’s opinion regarding the news made the game go throughout the year--again, some good and some bad. Depending on your own point of view, the following likely turns out to be an equal sampling of both. To wit:

1. Zenyatta, Racing’s Queen: The great six year old mare was the only horse in 2010 to put the game into the sports mainstream. Her story never about how much she was worth, the overriding element that controls the game, more often than not to the sport’s detriment. It was about what was for many, the horse of a lifetime.

It was about remaining perfect until she reached her ultimate goal, and she did just that, all in Grade 1 company. It wasn’t Zenyatta’s fault that the Reigning Horse of the Year was suffering a case of burnout.

Had the meeting with Rachel Alexandra taken place at Oaklawn Park, there would have been no talk of the soft schedule. But somewhere in the story of Zenyatta it must be acknowledged that she really didn’t need to race at all.

Credit Jerry and Ann Moss for their sportsmanship, or the Queen could have retired with a perfect record in tact after becoming the first female winner in Classic history. That would have been enough to keep her legacy in tact.

Credit John Shirreffs, too. He conducted himself with all the pomp and circumstance of the trainer next door. He managed Zenyatta’s career as well as any horseman ever has managed any horse in history.

Shirreff’s handling was perfect even if the mare came up a head short of going 20-for-20. The class and grace he demonstrated under pressure, both in victory and defeat, is a template for what a role model is supposed to be.

But it was the Queen herself, with an electrifying style that went looking for trouble every time postward. Even in defeat, she never failed to fire. She put on a show, unlike any I’ve seen in four decades, before, during, and after her races.

A star of the highest magnitude, she finds herself embroiled in her second consecutive Horse of the Year battle with the only horse ever to finish ahead of her on the racetrack, Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame.

For the second consecutive year, Zenyatta finished second in the Associated Press poll for Sportswoman of the Year, this time to Olympian Lindsey Vonn. For her sake, and her connections, it is hoped that scenario won’t be repeated at Eclipse time.

2. The Closing of New York City-Off Track Betting: The organization had been on life support for some time, but no one really thought it would come to this. An outdated business model, bloat, and mismanagement ultimately did it in. The ramifications of the loss of the billion-dollar bet-taker will be felt into 2011 and beyond.

NYC-OTB’s handle was so critical to the fiscal health of this country’s largest racetracks that it could hold tracks hostage if it didn’t agree with its rights’ fees prices, and it often did. Sooner or later, the tracks would capitulate and compromise.

It’s demise resulted in the loss of a thousand jobs and left the NYRA holding the bag for eight figures, the state’s breeders for seven. Chances are strong that its final chapter has been written but given the course of politics in the Roman Empire State, anything’s possible.

3. New York Racing Association Gets VLT Franchisee: It took nine years--nine years--for New York State to finalize a deal, ultimately with Genting New York. The delay cost the state’s taxpayers billions based on projections at that time VLT approval was granted.

Now, a decade later, Yonkers Gaming and Raceway has solidified its place in the metropolitan area market. NYRA has missed a golden opportunity to establish its gaming brand. With the state entertaining overtures from Indian Tribes to establish casinos in the Catskills, oversaturation, despite favorable projections from gaming experts, remains a possibility.

4. Churchill and Magna Pull Out of NTRA: What does that say for the health of racing’s only national marketing arm and its chances to be effective going forward? That question will continue to challenge the industry when racetracks need to be more responsive to shareholders than the sport’s long term health.

NTRA has replenished some of the lost revenue but the organization remains on shaky ground. Resultantly, what it can do is limited. It takes a good deal money to get horse racing on national television, funding that the organization has found harder to come by.

5. Horse Shortage Hits Full Stride: The state of a failed economy since 2008 has put a tremendous strain on the breeding industry. Dollars to spend in the marketplace dwindled to the point where fewer horses were bred, and farms have had difficulty securing bridge loans that carry them from mating date to sales ring.

The number of horses needed for racing over the next three years is expected to drop by more than 25 percent. With significantly less stock to go around, tracks already having difficulties filling races are going to feel a greater strain to do so. Further contraction of racing dates, with weaker tracks failing altogether, is inevitable.

The number of race days in 2010 will be down about eight percent by year‘s end. Breeding farms having either shrunk their operations, moved to states with slots-infused purses and breeding funds, or both.

Like the NYC-OTB scenario, this issue will continue to having a negative impact on the sport going forward. Until the economy truly recovers, And until employment turns around significantly, it’s hard to know where tomorrow’s customers with disposable income in hand will come from.

6. Monmouth’s Boutique Summer Meet: The experiment held at racetrack on the Jersey Shore is considered by many to be a template for the racing industry to follow when inevitable contraction continues. It’s hard to argue with that logic looking at racing’s traditional indicators.

The less is more approach--in which dates were cut, higher profile race days were bolstered by more and better races, with bigger fields and lower takeout-- created huge spikes in attendance and handle. But it’s difficult to gauge whether it was successful at the bottom line.

If contraction inevitably improves the quality of the product, that would be another welcome result from this experiment. A recent study showed that wagering on the higher class races is up significantly, approaching 20 percent, a remarkable figures when seen in the light of handle losses. The trick then becomes producing better horses from smaller foal crops.

With total industry handle down again, it’s fair to ask whether Monmouth made sustainable gains given its sizable Atlantic City subsidy and whether its gains were the result of winning the simulcast wars, attracting handle away from other circuits. Cannibalization, another element sure to lead to further contraction.

7. Life at Ten Debacle: With its lack of uniform drug rules, constant threat of catastrophic injury at a national event, the industry’s laissez faire attitude when it comes to adjudicating rules violators adds to the perception that the game’s not always on the level and a double standard exists when dealing with issues.

Rightfully or not, the fact a horse was permitted to race after its jockey told a network television audience something was wrong with his mount, then failed to follow proper reporting procedures while racing officials never considered taking precautionary measures by notifying the state veterinarian at the starting gate themselves, then watched the second betting favorite be eased immediately after the start, costing the betting public millions, was and is indefensible.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission is still fiddling with its ruling while the betting public continues its slow burn for nearly two months awaiting an official ruling.

8. Santa Anita Back To Dirt: For the first time since a state mandate to install synthetic surfaces at all major Thoroughbred racing venues in California, a major racetrack will return to a dirt racing surface beginning opening day, December 26.

Bowing to pressures from leading horsemen and a major segment of the betting public, the Magna group installed the new dirt surface at its own expense without even waiting for state approval, only recently granted.

The entire state is likely to be rooting for the dirt surface to rekindle interest in California racing, to boost field size, provide relief from the negative publicity generated by industry infighting, the takeout increases at Los Alamitos and soon Santa Anita, and restore the quality of the California racing product.

9. Takeout, Handle and Fractional Wagering Trifecta: While handle losses this year were not as precipitous as early season trends indicated it would be, the continued decreases remain alarming. When measured against inflation rates, national handle has been halved over the last seven years as fans have walked away and higher takeout rates have taken a toll.

While wagering aspects continue to be largely ignored, strides have been made by racetrack executives who are beginning to respect the concept of churn and how it works. On balance, tracks that have introduced lower rates have seen handle grow. The coupling of lower takeout with fractional wagering unquestionably has proven popular with racing’s rank and file fans; one of the few positive developments of 2010.

10. Growth of Internet and Grass Roots Organizations: Led by the Horseplayers Association of North America, which is sponsoring a boycott of the upcoming Santa Anita race meet in protest of takeout increases, horseplayers, a notoriously apathetic group, are beginning to take themselves seriously as potential change agents.

It is not the intention of the organization to disrupt handle on a national basis. With nine of every 10 dollars bet at simulcasts, HANA suggests that betting dollars find their way into other pools. The idea is to send a message to tracks that the customer matters.

HANA has attracted support from several betting syndicates and large players and has seen over 1,750 horseplayers pledge to boycott the Santa Anita meeting, according to the number of registrations on PlayersBoycott.org. It is now considering a new starting date to commence the Santa Anita boycott in 2011.

Written by John Pricci

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