Sunday, December 13, 2015

For Pletcher, Castellano, Stewards and Bettors, Just Another Day at the Office

HALLANDALE BEACH, December 13, 2015—As the racing world is well aware, Todd Pletcher is going for his 13th consecutive South Florida training title this winter. And, yes, he does have the stock and the numbers to get that job done.

But when given an obvious advantage, there is enormous pressure to execute, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t make it look like breaking so many sticks.

There was much talk this summer and fall about Pletcher’s two-year-olds. Where were they at Saratoga and Belmont Park? Where were they on Breeders’ Cup day?

Guess many of them were late to develop. Through yesterday’s opener, he broke the maiden of six juveniles from seven starters. After Saturday’s fourth race, he was 7-for-8; better late than never one supposes.

It helps when you have a friendly condition book but then, as stated, you must execute. Most of these maiden breakers have been training in South Florida since early to mid-November. This streak is no happenstance.

The meet is one week old. Unless the sky falls, you can put the baker’s dozen in the books right now. It’s hard to win down here, yet Pletcher continuously makes it look so predictably easy.

The same can be said for Javier Castellano. He started the meet with a four-bagger on the Claiming Crown program. He had a riding triple yesterday, including a beauty aboard Harlan’s Holiday winner Valid, though we can’t say we liked the circumstances under which that was accomplished.

It’s not because it wasn’t nice when Castellano replaced young Matthew Rispoli at the last minute. Not that Rispoli could do anything about it; he’s currently riding at 27% for trainer Marcus Vitali, including Valid here, two starts back.

And it’s not that I can blame Vitali or the owners for wanting to ride the defending Gulfstream champion, who secured an unprecedented fourth straight title last winter. If Javier is available to ride your horse, you name him at time of entry.

But why yesterday’s extremely late change? I did not hear track announcer Larry Collmus state that there would be a change of riders until after the race immediately preceding the Harlan’s Holiday. Some never heard it:

“I didn’t even know Castellano was on the horse,” said Tom Jicha, who covered Saturday’s four stakes for the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, upon his return to the press box after post-race interviews.

If the stewards were doing their jobs, i.e., protecting the interests of the betting public, the change never should have been allowed.

The Harlan’s Holiday was the penultimate leg in Gulfstream’s highly successful lineup of horizontal wagers:

The sequences were five races into the highly publicized and well promoted Rainbow Six Jackpot, four races into the late Pick 5, and second-to-last leg in the Late Pick 4 and Pick 3.

From all sources, over $10.2 million was wagered on Saturday’s Gulfstream Park program, of which $526,701 was bet on the four horizontal wagers above.

Most bettors, including Gulfstream linemaker Jay Stone, thought the Harlan’s Holiday principally was a two-horse affair between the early line favorites; Horses for the Course Valid (5-2) and Madefromlucky (3-1).

Valid, dropping out of the tough-trip G1 BC Dirt Mile, brought a (10) 5-2-1 Gulfstream slate into the race. Madefromlucky, a dual Grade 2 winner this year, won both lifetime starts over the surface.

But when it came to speed figures, it was no contest. The gelded five-year-old had a huge edge on performance figures, earning two of the highest figures in the field on the Thoro-Graph scale and on our energy-distribution-based Race Dynamics Ratings.

For the uninitiated—and we’re speaking of many racetrack executives and racing officials—betting any popular sequential wager uses the same principle college basketball coaches use to describe success in the NCAA Tournament: survive and advance.

The figures suggests that Valid was a most viable single, especially given the mile and a sixteenth trip and upper-stretch finish line that strongly benefitted Valid.

Additionally, there were Pletcher’s pre-race comments that he expects to have a big year with Madefromlucky, the G1 Donn being the major winter target, and that nine furlongs, the distance of both his G2 victories, was his best trip.

However, when using the survive-and-advance tack; what does a handicapper do with the Harlan’s Holiday? Casting no aspersions, does one single the team of Vitali and Rispoli over Pletcher and Johnny Velazquez?

Of course not. For most handicappers, both horses must be used to advance to the final leg. But here’s the problem with using both horses: Whatever sequence you play, the cost of the ticket is doubled. Doubled!

But what if Castellano was named on the program; could one “gamble” with Castellano’s horse as a potential single, one who figured to have a good trip from a cozy inside slip with beneficial dynamics and a wide edge on numbers? Of course.

Am I a disgruntled bettor? Only mildly, since the 50-Cent Pick 4 returned only $178.90. We didn’t have it since, forced to use Madefromlucky and needing to single somewhere, we stood alone with Aztec Brave in the last-leg finale.

We decided to allow Reporting Star to beat us from post 10 going 7-1/2 furlongs on the turf with the rail out way in the middle of the course. Of course, Reporting Star beat us a nose after moving in several slips following a bevy of late scratches, including one at the gate.

As was much written everywhere during the recent hysteria over Fantasy Sports betting, there’s no greater game of skill that handicapping horse races with its myriad of factors requiring bankroll decisions before making a wager, especially hard-to-win sequentials.

With no slight of Rispoli, who we believe is a naturally talented and promising young rider, a video review of the Harlan’s Holiday will indicate that perhaps no jockey on earth could have ridden Valid any better than did Castellano.

He waited until the very last instant, moving at just the right instant to swallow an easy, loose-leading Mr. Jordan before opening enough separation which enabled him to last over a fast-finishing Madefomlucky.

To his credit, Castellano sounded sincerely apologetic in a closed-circuit post-race interview: “It’s a business. I feel bad for the other rider…they were looking to make a change and I was lucky to be able to ride the horse.”

Said Vitali: “I had talked to Matt before… Nothing personal, it was a business decision. He’s a great kid and he still rides for me, and we move forward.”

It is true that the best business decision was made to win the race; no beef with that that. But Castellano was open in the race when the overnight came out. Vitali spoke with Rispoli the day or two before the race.

Then why wasn’t the damn announcement made at noon so that players would have had a chance to reevaluate their handicapping, especially with respect to late-day horizontals?

Once again, racing officials failed to have their customer’s backs.

And this happens days after the industry holds its annual December confab in sunny Tucson trying to divine ways to attract new fans when they apparently don’t care a lick about holding on to the loyal ones they already have.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, December 08, 2015

PVal’s Legacy: Tragedy or Triumph?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 8, 2015--- It was the winter of 1996-7. I had just taken a buyout from Newsday and went to South Florida looking for work on the racetrack, possibly as a jockey agent.

At that time, Patrick Valenzuela was beginning one of his many failed comebacks. He was exercising horses in Florida that year and we met by chance one morning outside of Nick Zito’s Gulfstream Park barn.

I gave him my credentials and Zito vouched from my bona fides. Valenzuela was warm and very engaging but not interested in hiring me. He wanted an experienced agent to jump-start his return.

Actually, I struck out as an agent three times that winter. Another talented jockey was riding at the meet but had been struggling big-time, having fallen out of favor after he decided to change agents a short time prior to his shipping south for the winter.

The rider was very polite, thanked me for my confidence and interest but, in the end, it was no thanks. Strike two.

I took one more shot at the backstretch brass ring. After the Gulfstream meet I ventured Midwest to Turfway Park for the Spiral Stakes. I met with a rider who was enjoying some success but should have been doing a lot better.

“Come back to New York,” I said. “I have some television contacts there and you would be a natural on TV.” I got a beautiful note of appreciation shortly thereafter, but no job offer.

Eventually, Mike Smith became a world class sports figure thanks to a filly named Zenyatta, Donna Barton eventually married Frank Brothers and wound up on NBC, Valenzuela was back in rehab and I wound up here at HRI.

For now, I assume that all God’s children are happy.

Patrick Valenzuela has been and remains a lightning rod that many in the racing establishment believe the sport can do without. All I can fathom is that these critics must have never placed a serious bet.

If they had, their parimutuel paths would have crossed at one time or another and they would have had many occasions to celebrate PVal’s athletic prowess.

Valenzuela became a true household name as the rider of dual classics winner Sunday Silence in 1989, nine years after winning his first Santa Anita Derby when he barely was old enough to drive.

Four years ago, Valenzuela announced his retirement. Many believed he did so rather than potentially fail yet another drug test. Always having issues making weight, it no doubt was a contributing factor to his developing a cocaine habit. At that time, he reportedly had gall bladder surgery.

Aside from the usual suspensions jockeys receive for careless riding and the like, he never has been cited for any serious racetrack violations. He loved riding too much to jeopardize his career in any way.

Has he been a bad boy? Sure, probably nine times a bad boy. But when is it ever the right time to give up on an individual?

Whatever your politics, all reasonable people must agree by now that alcohol and drug addiction is a disease; climate change deniers, standing in seawater up to their ankles, notwithstanding.

Personally, I’ve never been compelled to live my life one day at a time but I’ll say this: I’m not very sure I would excel at it; I’m just glad that my own demons don’t require daily monitoring.

PVal has tried to return many times and failed. Will he fail again? Line-makers likely would make the chances of a regression an odds-on favorite. Not me, I prefer to stay positive.

The only thing I hope Valenzuela gets hooked on again is winning races on a regular basis.

Does Valenzuela’s presence in a race represent a clear and present danger to other riders? Maybe, maybe not.

I’m kidding on the square when I posit that a slightly impaired Valenzuela would be no more of a threat to rival jockeys than the average 10-pound bug boy. There is no evidence that he ever has ridden in a race while impaired.

Age doesn’t make one smarter but it almost always makes people wiser. At 53, let’s hope that Valenzuela takes a been-there-done-that attitude on substance abuse and that it’s of a thing of the past.

As it stands, Valenzuela, has visited the winners’ circle several times at the Fair Grounds recently, and he is not the only current rider dealing with personal demons. Then that’s what regularly scheduled random drug-tests are for.

At his age, maybe the next time he falls off a wagon should absolutely be his last by decree—better to fall off a wagon than in the path of an oncoming horse and rider for all parties concerned.

For the time being I’m rooting like hell for PVal and his presence in the saddle will be for me, all else being equal, an invitation to bet on, not against.

Substance abuse has not kept other riders out of the Hall of Fame. If Valenzuela can stay clean and sober and resurrect his career in a reasonably successful way, his resume would speak volumes for his legacy.

He could even become a role model in the future, the poster boy for never giving up on a dream.

Godspeed, Patrick.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Angst of Bloodhorse Has It Right on CRW

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 22, 2015—When I first learned that the Jockey Club was buying a controlling interest in “Bloodhorse” magazine, I feared the worst.

My initial reaction was that the austere organization would follow the lead of many racetracks which limit media credentials in an effort to manage the news, making reporters more dependent on information disseminated via press release.

Then I took a different tack, that The Jockey Club, whether you agree with its policies or not, yields immense influence, e.g., their laudable efforts on the discontinued use of raceday medication.

I now believe my initial concerns were unfounded, especially if the "new" editorial policy permits a column such as the one authored by Frank Angst five days ago. After all, creating a commotion isn't the Jockey Club's default position.

But you know an item is on point when it stirs controversy, considered a dirty word inside the industry--even when its point of view is trying to correct something that is unfair on its face, and that's computer-robotic wagering.

Like changes in medication policy that may negatively impact handle in the short term, so would the elimination of computer aided batch-wagering that gives unfair advantage to bettors placing wagers at near exact odds milliseconds before post time.

That leaves the other 99% of bettors completely in the dark by comparison, allowing the majority little or no time to adjust to a significant odds shift.

On balance, computer-robotic wagering, CRW, has hamstrung the search for “value,” real or imagined, for the individual handicapper.

Empirically, I can attest that my winning straight wagers yield lower payoffs, after making my within-three-minutes-to-post-time wager, eight or nine times out of 10. Eliminating myself from the equation, sophisticated bettors who recognize true value when they see it can’t react because time doesn't allow for it.

If that regularly happens to double-and-triple-digit-per-race bettors, they will walk, if believing they’re playing a game that’s rigged against them, even without possible chicanery.

(Recall that several large, highly sophisticated Wall Street trading firms had to skuttle their last-second automated orders or the unfair advantage their modeling created).

Angst made two key points: That race betting has become less attractive to sophisticated new bettors who wager significant amounts, and that recent actions taken by lawmakers against fantasy sports companies whose activities may be illegal because it tilts the playing field dramatically.

According to the author, one of every five dollars wagered on horses last year came from CRW and if the practice were made illegal it would have a devastating effect on short term handle.

But like the elimination of permitted use of race-day medication, it is in the industry’s best interests long term that betting becomes as attractive as possible to gamblers.

And gambling in this country is as omnipresent as gun ownership: Gambling doesn’t create degeneracy, people do.

As Angst demonstrated, instantaneous knowledge of probable payout and the ability to wager thousands of different combinations in milliseconds before the race give CRW bettors an unfair advantage because of their special access.

Lack of time does not afford the 99% an equal opportunity to adjust to odds shifts. In a skill-based game like handicapping, knowledge is power, and the power to take advantage of precise information is a way for privileged players to prevail long term.

As presently constructed, the chances of converting new players into regulars is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Recognizing overlays is the staple of successful race wagering. If horseplayers--old or new--tap out, they’re gone. Want-to has nothing to do with it.

In order to accommodate those who account for 20% of present handle, the industry can't or won't fight statehouses over high takeout rates that enables rebating of well financed CRW types, or whales in general. Neither group has stemmed the tide of decreasing handle.

Whales eat a lot of things, but they don’t buy hot dogs, drink beer, or buy past performance programs at the track. There’s a lot more to successful racetrack life than simply catering to the 1%.

Racing’s best marketing, recruitment, and socialization tools are still tied to a day at the races, not sitting in a living room in pajamas betting online or on the phone.

The youthful gambling demographic is not scared away by critical thinking. Young people have lots of ways to spend their money; losing money at the races doesn’t occur to them because, among other things, it’s a costly pastime.

Winning poker players are matched against a handful of peers, a “game of people, not cards.” In racing, thousands of bettors depend on the same basic information.

It's no secret that horseplayers who win consistently are better informed. Coupling knowledge with special technological access and rebates give privileged bettors an inside track to attain true value, which becomes more illusive with each passing day. The betting market is choking on high takeout.

Fantasy sports players, meanwhile, study voluminous stats which are provided free, as opposed to fans who spend $8 for racing’s paper of record just to stay informed about the sport.

Angst points out that state’s attorney’s general have referenced unfair advantages to a handful of well healed fantasy players who gain most of the winnings because they can create hundreds of lineup cards, not dissimilar to the way CRW works.

To his credit, the author suggests that “it’s time for racing to shake its unfair model” and it should do so before law enforcement decides to get involved.

Angst’s best idea was to offer optimal takeout rates so that all players can compete on equal footing. Not a single study ever refuted that lower takeout results in greater handle and revenue over a sustained period. Optimal takeout is akin to a universal rebate, the only way to grow the game.

Written by John Pricci

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