Thursday, December 02, 2010


Improving the Bottom Line Not Rocket Science


ELMONT, NY, December 1, 2010--Location, location, location, is the mantra of any successful business enterprise. In this economy, there’s another: Pricing, pricing, pricing.

Irresponsibility and officiating notwithstanding, the success of the recent Breeders’ Cup World Championships was a perfect storm. Call it when tenets collide.

Attendance and wagering on the 2010 festival at Churchill Downs increased by double-digits over the 2009 event at Santa Anita Park. How can that be?

The fact that there were 16 more horses over the two days to wager on, and that dirt is a more popular wagering surface than synthetics, cannot be overstated.

The Thoroughbred industry in Kentucky--nursery to the world doesn’t seem so apt these days--is in trouble but Louisville, not your average tourist destination like, say, Southern California can be, does know how to make fans and punters feel right at home.

Face it, because of their size, and apathy, LA and New York just can’t or doesn’t want to get behind a racing event the way the Derby City does. It’s not more complicated than that. That’s the location part.

In total there were 163 starters in 14 races, a Breeders’ Cup record. The common and separate pool handle for Saturday’s 11-race card was $118.6 million, an increase of 23% year over year. The $54.7 million wagered on Friday was an increase of 8% more than was bet on the 2009 Ladies Day program.

That’s all good, but there’s more.

The real interesting increase was in international handle. Despite the decline in international starters from a record 35 in 2009 to 24 this year--a trend likely to continue at dirt venues--pools outside the U.S. and exchange betting in the UK totaled $196.3 million.

Total attendance for two days was up 8.5% from 96,496 in 2009, reflecting Friday gains of 11 percent and almost 24 percent on Saturday. In addition to betting revenue, Breeders' Cup and Churchill Downs attracted 11-million ancillary dollars.

Looking inside the numbers, it’s reasonable to posit that the increased number of micro wagers received a warm response. Pricing is very important to parimutuel viability. The more the merrier, no matter what the level of play.

Breeders’ Cup followed the betting menu available at Churchill Downs, as it did for the first time in 2007 at Monmouth Park. The hope is that wherever they go in the future, they will insist on menu that includes fractional wagering.

In addition to the now commonplace Dime Super, 50-Cent wagers were available in the Pick 3, Pick 4 and trifecta pools. There were handle increases in every pool except the Pick 3s, which was flat or down slightly. Considering gains in the Double and Pick 4 pools, something had to give. It was the Pick 3.

One of the statistics that stood out were percentage of handle figures in races where fractional wagering was NOT available. Consider:

In Friday’s centerpiece event, field size increased from eight starters last year to 11 in 2010. While Ladies Classic W-P-S handle increased by over $500,000, the percentage of straight handle for the day decreased from 35.1 to 32.2 percent. There is no fractional wagering in the W-P-S pools.

Saturday’s Classic had 12 starters, the same as last year. Total straight Classic handle was up $2.5 million, but percentage of W-P-S handle for the day slipped from 35.0% to 32.5% of the grand total. What could this mean?

Dah!

Nowhere is fractional wagering more significant than in pools with a higher degree of difficulty. While the trifecta is a long standing exotic familiar to all horseplayers, trifecta betting featuring a 50-cent minimum increased from 16.3% to 17.3% on Friday, from 16% to 17.3% Saturday, as percentage of total play.

On balance, the Pick 4 is America’s favorite super-exotic horizontal wager. On Breeders’ Cup weekend, the 50-Cent Pick 4 showed percentage-of-handle gains; from 4.9% to 5.8% Friday and from 4.6% to 5.4% on Saturday, increases of 15.6 and 14.9 percent, respectively.

The common thread with respect to the success of micro wagers is, of course, the leverage a lower base wager provides, allowing all players to compete on equal footing with the bankroll endowed in high risk-reward scenarios.

No one wants the big players to be ignored; that‘s foolhardy. But the only way to grow the popularity of the game is to make it more affordable for the rank and file to compete.

There’s no reason for the masses to be at a disadvantage in a zero-sum parimutuel game. The marriage of a racing extravaganza to a player-friendly betting menu helps to grow the game.

Wouldn’t it be great if the results of this year’s Cup at the bottom line helps point the way forward for an entire industry?

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, October 28, 2010


A Plethora of Eclipse Storylines, Including Leading Rider


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 28, 2010--If by now you’re still unaware of the major storylines permeating Breeders’ Cup 27, here for your edification is a brief recapitulation:

Of course, Zenyatta’s continued pursuit for perfection and dual victories by a female in the Classic, ultimately determining her place in racing history.

Goldikova, in her quest to become the first three-time winner in Breeders’ Cup history, would evolve into an international star of the first magnitude, a genuine legend.

The clash of young titans: Undefeated juvenile Uncle Mo versus uber impressive Boys At Tosconova, whose only loss came in his debut, a graded stakes over the Breeders’ Cup track in which he was a strong second.

But there are others; storylines of interest for racing’s true fans not to be ignored. To wit:

Whether the Europeans, despite fewer numbers given the switch back to dirt from two consecutive years of all-weather racing, will continue their recent dominance of America’s best runners. Foreigners won six races in 2009.

And, whether they continue that dominance or not, will an Arc de Triomphe winner finally break through and parlay that victory into a Breeders’ Cup Turf score.

Can the three-year-old protem filly champion Blind Luck make her sixth transcontinental a successful one for the fifth time, this time against a deep field of elders?

Will this renewal rank as Breeders’ Cup’s best ever? On Monday, a record 184 horses were pre-entered. As a group they have won 865 races and over $125-million in purse earnings.

Can Espoir City, Red Desire, or both, become the first Japanese runners to win a major American race, appearing in the Classic and Filly & Mare Turf, respectively?

Will Todd Pletcher, with 11 pre-entrants, dominate the event in the manner of Richard Mandella, who won four Breeders’ Cup races in 2003.

Who’s better at a mile and a quarter at level weights; Quality Road or Blame?

Will this year’s event--with Friday’s races carried on ESPN2, the first three Saturday on ABC, and the heart of the program, the final five, on ESPN, attract anything resembling a good-sized audience?

And, finally, will a successful two days of race riding break the blockage atop the list of America’s most successful jockeys? The latter is really interesting.

I am old school, but not old school enough when it comes to the fact that Eclipse Awards for leading rider invariably, almost automatically goes to the jockey who has accrued the most earnings.

I think this honor should a little less about dollars and a little more about sense. Rather the award should go to the rider who’s won more than his share of high profile races. He should have a winning percentage north of 20 percent, and there should be a return-on-investment statistic indicating the rider was much more pilot than passenger.

Not sure the top riders would think this a good idea; as a group they are extremely covetous of their “customers.” Every good jockey presumably can win on the favorite.

So wouldn’t it be preferable if voters and fans had another way to measure the kind of season the sport’s human athletes had, where it might be surmised that the rider was the difference between victory and defeat?

Clearly, it’s too late for this idea to take root immediately. But an ROI for jockeys seems an acceptable statistical measure of Eclipse worthiness sometime in the future.

Anyone who follows the game regularly probably can name North America’s top money riders, whether it’s literal or figurative: Bejarano, Castellano, Dominguez, Garcia, Gomez, Husbands, Leparoux, Lezcano, Rosario and Velazquez.

I couldn’t name a single one I wouldn’t want on my horse based on his ability to win a horse race.

But if purse earnings alone is considered THE measure, then a Breeders’ Cup Classic score coupled with another major victory will determine this year’s Eclipse Award winner.

According to the most recent statistics on the NTRA website, $4.2 million dollars separates the leading Ramon Dominguez, $13.7 million in purses, to seventh ranked Martin Garcia, at nearly $9.6 million.

Last year’s defending Eclipse champion, Julien Leparoux, is $1.2 million behind Garcia.

The real logjam is at the top where less than $100,000 separates, Dominguez from his closest pursuer, Johnny Velazquez. And a mere $400,000 separates current show finisher Rafael Bejarano from fifth place Joel Rosario, with Javier Castellano sandwiched between. Garrett Gomez is $800,000 behind Rosario.

Competition between riders in million dollar races is always fierce, of course. This Breeders’ Cup not only provides a stage for jockeys to show their talents but truly has Eclipse implications as well.

Now if only the racing gods can provide the right answers to just a few of these storylines, 27 might just turn out to be the 1.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, October 21, 2010


All-Time Favorite Dominant Distaffers


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 21, 2010--While doing my daily surf thing the other day, I noticed that a poster on Thoroughbred racing brought up the subject of his Top 10 Fillies of All Time.

This got me to wondering, which were mine? So with pen and notepad (remember those?) I began jotting down names. My brain went on tilt when I reached 25.

I couldn’t believe it. And I didn’t include names like Twilight Tear or Regret or any of the other legendary race mares of history.

So I thought I’d limit my choices to those I actually saw race live, in person or through the miracle of video. In good conscience, I found that I couldn’t whittle it down easily.

Then I remembered that, as a horseplayer, conscience had nothing to do with it.

Uncomfortably, then, I thought of 12 names I absolutely couldn’t live without.

Perhaps you share the same thoughts regarding my Terrific Twelve, perhaps not, especially if the firestorm of the past two years relative to Rachel Alexandra v Zenyatta or, if you prefer, Zenyatta v Rachel Alexandra, is the measure.

But one thing became abundantly clear, however. If my life depended on picking the winner of this mythical 12-horse field, I wished that my charred remains be buried somewhere in the infield of Saratoga Race Course.

I predict that RA and Z would attract the most attention, which would be disappointing. Not that either is unworthy but we’d like to see some historical perspective here.

But I’m sure if I asked sports fans to name the best NFL linebacker they ever saw, Troy Polamalu would get more votes than Mike Singletary; Singletary more than Lawrence Taylor; Taylor more than Sam Huff; Huff more than Chuck Bednarik.

But since racing’s audience skews older, I‘m hopeful.

These are fillies I saw race often, most for their entire careers, some Europeans notwithstanding. I tried flashing back to how I felt at the time I saw them compete and whether in my mind’s eye I could conceive them being defeated.

I’ve been interested in watching horses race, and betting on them, for 49 years. Here are my personal favorites--again, favorites; not best. They amount to less than one filly every other year, 24 in all.

The Terrific Twelve is listed alphabetically at the bottom of this post. Feel free to agree, or not, or write-in the name of your favorite filly.

Your comments would be most welcome. You can supply those in the usual manner.

Here are 12 that didn’t make my personal BHF cut. You’ll be shocked by many of the names on this list; I know I was. (Three turf specialists were included in a separate category below):

Azeri: Champion older mare 2002, 2003 and 2004, Horse of the Year in 2002, Hall of Fame 2010.

Bayakoa: Champion older mare 1989, 1990, Hall of Fame 1998.

Chris Evert: Champion three-year-old 1974, Hall of Fame 1988.

Desert Vixen: Champion three-year-old 1973, older mare 1974, Hall of Fame 1979.

Genuine Risk: Champion three-year-old 1980, Kentucky Derby winner, Hall of Fame 1986.

Paseana: Champion older mare of 1992 and 1993, Hall of Fame 2001.

Personal Ensign: Champion older mare 1988, undefeated winner of 14 races lifetime, Hall of Fame 1993.

Priceless Gem: Half-sister to Affectionately defeated juvenile male champion and eventual Horse of the Year, Hall of Famer Buckpasser, in the 1965 Futurity in an extraordinarily brilliant and game performance.

Susan’s Girl: Champion three-year-old 1972, Champion older mare 1974, Hall of Fame 1976.

Ta Wee: Hall of Fame 1994. “Beautiful Girl,“ Dr. Fager’s half-sister, twice beat males in the Fall Highweight carrying 130 as a three-year-old and 140 at 4. She won the Interborough spotting the second highweight 29 pounds.

TURF SPECIALISTS:

All Along: Horse of the Year and Female Turf Champion 1983, Hall of Fame 1990.

Goldikova: American and European Champion Turf Female 2009, winner of 11 Grade/Group 1 races.

Pebbles: Champion Turf Female 1985, first filly to beat males in the Eclipse Stakes, winner of the Champion Stakes.

The Terrific Twelve:

Affectionately:
Co-Champion Juvenile 1962 and Older Mare 1965. Champion Sprinter 1965, Hall of Fame 1989. Saw the “Queen of Queens” win 1965 Vagrancy beneath 137 pounds. Beat boys in the Vosburgh and Toboggan and, a sprinter by nature, she still won the 9-furlong Top Flight by 8 lengths as the highweight. Unforgettable.

Davona Dale: Champion three-year-old 1979, Hall of Fame 1985. Won eight straight stakes at 3 including two Triple Crowns, the old NYRA variety of the Acorn, Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks, the latter also concluding the older national version, which started with the Kentucky Oaks and Black-Eyed Susan.

Lady’s Secret: Champion Older Mare and Horse of the Year 1986, Hall of Fame 1992. Won an amazing 20 of 32 starts at 3 and 4, including the Whitney, in one of the most aggressive campaigns by a filly we‘ve ever seen. Twenty for thirty-two!

Landaluce: Champion juvenile 1982. Broke her maiden first time out in 1:08 1/5 and a week later won the Hollywood Lassie in 1:08 by 21 lengths, the largest victory margin by a two-year-old ever at Hollywood Park. One of the most brilliant fillies we’ve ever seen.

*Miesque: French Champion Two-Year-Old Filly 1986, European Turf Filly Champion 1987, 1988, American Champion Turf Female 1987, 1988, French and American Hall of Fame in 1999. Positively electric turn of foot; hard to imagine one more impressive.

Moccasin: Co-Champion Juvenile 1965 and Co-Horse of the Year. Ridan’s full sister was the only juvenile filly ever to earn that honor. A dominant sprinter/miler, she beat the boys at 4 in the Phoenix Handicap. Big, blocky, breathtakingly beautiful.

Go for Wand: Champion Juvenile 1989, Champion three-year-old 1990, Hall of Fame 1996. Seven for nine in her sophomore year, finishing second in the Kentucky Oaks, until that fateful afternoon at Belmont Park. Speed and uncommon courage.

Princess Rooney: Champion Older Mare 1984, Hall of Fame 1991. Seventeen for 21 lifetime after going six for six at 2. Totally dominant, no weaknesses, uncommon versatility. Can’t understand how she once finished off the board.

Rachel Alexandra: Champion three year old and Horse of the Year 2009. No introduction necessary for future Hall of Famer.

Ruffian: Champion juvenile 1974, Champion three year old 1975, Hall of Fame 1976: Five for five at 2 and five for five at 3 until her tragic match race with Kentucky Derby champion Foolish Pleasure. No horse was ever ahead of her at any point of call in her career. Beloved legend died on the lead.

Shuvee: Champion Older mare and Turf Champion 1970, Champion Older Mare 1971, Hall of Fame 1975. Won the NYRA Triple Crown at 3 (but lost sophomore championship to Gallant Bloom). Won the Jockey Club Gold Cup at two miles at 4 and 5, the last time by 7 lengths. Big and powerful, she imposed her will on the competition.

Zenyatta: Champion Older Mare in 2008, 2009. The only female winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Her pursuit of perfection continues in less than two weeks.

*The only turf specialist to make our Top 10 Plus Two.

HRI READERS SPEAK:

Best Mare you have ever seen ...


Written by John Pricci

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