Monday, October 27, 2014

On Breeders’ Cup Eve, Horseplayers Continue Their Advocacy

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 26, 2014---Set against a backdrop of horsemen signing entry cards for a run in Breeders’ Cup XXXI beginning Friday, close to 500 stakeholders have signed a petition asking that security cameras be installed in all barns on the Santa Anita backstretch.

After being unable to get any satisfaction with that state’s alphabet groups, most significantly the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the TOc, grassroots horseplayer activists in California took matters into their own hands.

It may be too late for this year's Breeders’ Cup but not so for the prime winter meet the day after Christmas. If all tracks don’t take reasonable measure to shore up their security, no executive ever should be allowed to use the word transparency again.

Not onsite for the Breeders’ Cup this year, I’m not privy to the current politics of the situation but the issue is simple and universal enough. It’s all about the level playing field, about customer’s betting money, the coin of the realm that gives lifeblood to this thing of ours.

As a rule, it’s difficult to spur horseplayers into action, but since the advent of the Horseplayers Association of North America and activists such as Andy Asaro, who continues to act as Prodder-in-Chief to hundreds of industry stakeholders daily, horseplayers finally are playing a role: See Santa Anita in 2012; see Churchill Downs in 2013.

Thanks to these volunteers, the voice of horseplayers has created within the betting community a spirit of cooperation for the health of the game, one that offers a front that’s more united than the sum of all of industry alphabet groups combined.

Of course, state houses everywhere in which racing is conducted make racing’s uniformity process nearly impossible--only the feds can bring about true uniformity--but states don’t want to lose control of their power bases and lose a place that conveniently serves as a patronage dump for the well connected jobless.

State control is one of the reasons why many horsemen at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania are currently waiting to be paid purse and claim money from July, since requests for funds due from the fruits of their investment and labor first have to be processed and then approved before checks can even be cut.

Why? Aren’t usurious takeout rates mandated by Pennsylvania paid to the state by the tracks almost immediately? The situation there is disgraceful, but I digress.

Among the almost 500 petition signatures, there are precious few from industry types, as if security and transparency were not in the interests of all. However, some horsemen were not afraid to step up and some of the signatories may surprise:

The names of Donna Barton Brothers, Mark Casse, Gary Contessa, Bruce Headley, Mark Hennig, Graham Motion, Todd Pletcher, as well as owners, breeders and members of the mainstream media, appear as signatories, although not all the signatures have been officially verified as of this posting.

[HRI contacted Mr. Pletcher via text message who replied that until I informed him, he was unaware that the following petition existed. Organizers indicated subsequently that “most of the other” horsemen responses have been verified].

Interesting to note that no TOC board member has signed on, nor have we recognized any industry media, electronic or otherwise. [I might have missed a name or two, so please advise so that we can note it for the record].

THE PETITION READS: On Improving Thoroughbred racing through better surveillance and security along with tough penalties for those who violate the rules.

We the Bettors, Fans, Owners, Trainers, and other Industry Stakeholders sign this pledge advocating for better Thoroughbred horse welfare by enacting greater security measures to protect horses and the integrity of the Sport. We also want meaningful strengthening of rules providing appropriate consequences for all those that break the rules governing race day medication.

Here, the undersign, request that state horse racing boards, in the interest of fair and clean racing implement surveillance and security systems throughout the backstretch including stricter security for those entering and exiting such areas. This alone can ensure better horse health and deter improper conduct.

In addition governing bodies like the California Horse Race Board should create and enforce regulations in an equitable fashion based upon higher standards as those found in the Hong Kong Jockey Club, widely considered the worldwide leader in such matters.

On the eve of the Breeders’ Cup, we strongly urge the California Horse Racing Board to take the lead in putting such measures in place following North America's premier two days of racing.

In addition to signing, we're asking petitioners to add to the discussion board below with any suggestions that would benefit Thoroughbred horse racing by providing the safest and fairest conditions for the sport we love.

As noted in the privacy clause of this site, names and emails will only be used to show horse racing governing bodies that each signature is unique and has been provided by an individual interested in joining this most important cause.

Friends and Stakeholders of Thoroughbred Racing

Click the link to sign or look at the latest comments:

BETS ‘N PIECES: Congratulations to the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund for electing Richard Migliore to its Board of Directors as the first jockey so serve in that capacity. Migliore has viable ideas as to how retired racehorses can have successful second careers…

Speaking of jockeys, retired or not, it’s curious why there were no names on the petition since their very lives are dependent on animals that have no business on the racetrack except for the use of certain “therapeutic medications”…

Breeders’ Cup entries will be drawn later today, Friday’s card at 1PM PT and Saturday’s at 4PM which is, of course, 7PM Eastern. Why wasn’t the draw conducted three days ago, one week in advance of Day 1, allowing horsemen, media, and, most importantly, bettors, more time for study?

For most bettors-- Breeders’ Cup is not the Triple Crown, it has a smaller more sophisticated loyal racing audience that will be involved this weekend because they are the game’s most serious fans/bettors and, Eclipse champions notwithstanding, Breeders’ Cup is all about the betting.

In 1984, there were seven Breeders’ Cup events on one day. But Breeders’ Cup Ltd. needs wagering to remain viable and in the forefront as an industry- leading organization; hence it is now two days and 13 races--which is two less than last year.

Suggestion to Breeders’ Cup: All horsemen know if and when they are running and their preferences for particular races. If the weather issue is going to be trotted out, or horsemen want to wait until the last minute to see if a strong favorite is declared, then maintain a short also-eligible list of, say, three horses, determined by the BC Committee, much as they already deal with first and second race preferences.

Here’s how it works for the fans, and because handle are attendance are the only metrics the industry seems to want to consider are handle and attendance figures, consider this:

The recently concluded Keeneland meet was an aesthetic success by any measure, bad weather and all. Yet Sunday’s regurgitated headlines read “Handle and Attendance Down at Keeneland.”

And what makes Keeneland immune to racing’s national down-spiraling handle trends? It’s not all about field size.

Not one headline heralded the remarkable performance of Keeneland’s state-of-the-art dirt surface--the storyline at meet's beginning--under disparate conditions; its drying properties; consistency, minimal bias, even on days when certain styles had an edge. Invariably, the best horses won. Isn’t that all that matters to bettors, breeders, owners and trainers? Again, I digressed:

To do a thorough job—increase personal handle--handicappers require about two hours to research a conventional nine-race card. But that’s without limit fields in virtually every race; without automatic throw-outs; without a record number of pre-entrants, including scores of unfamiliar foreign entrants and without the best trainers and jockeys in the world competing against each other in the same race.

What’s the sense of easily recognizing the best horse in a turf race, e.g.; a worthy, post-time favorite, after it draws post 12? Certainly, post positions significantly affect race dynamics and bet-able odds.

Beating favorites has more to do with Breeders’ Cup than it does for the everyday value seeker: Players don’t get a chance to bet into pools this large in 13 straight races. Fans/bettors need more time.

We know that BC Vice President Peter Rotundo Jr. understands this and we hope he takes this suggestion to his colleagues at his pay grade and above.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

No Triumph This Time, Only Tragedy

MIAMI LAKES, October 17, 2014—Call it the Robin Williams syndrome, anything that properly reflects tragedy that goes beyond the pale.

Death almost always begets sadness but this was something more, perhaps a replication of how one feels when a special one passes. Even from a great distance, Juan Saez seemed to possess the kind or rare talent that belied his tender age.

Sometimes, death can be a blessing for those that suffer from disease, but I’ve always wondered if that was true. How would I feel about letting go if given the choice between doing just that or carrying on?

There was nothing about the death of the 17-year-old Saez that had any saving grace whatsoever: In death’s wake, shocking and profoundly sad are the only apt descriptions.

I never met the young man nor did I have the opportunity to see the teenage phenom in the flesh; only on horseback, on a closed-circuit monitor. His productivity demanded that you sought him out wherever he chose to hang his tack.

I finally caught up to his all too brief meteoric career while he was riding in Kentucky this Fall. His passing came with an ever-present reminder that jockeys are the least appreciated athletes of all.

It was like Billy Crystal said upon experiencing the loss of his good friend, Robin: “There are no words,” he said.

Position conscious--a trait horseplayers love most--and a strong finisher, his seat was a contradiction to his tender age. But it was the gift that only God can bestow that was most apparent when you watched him ride, and only the great ones have it:

Hands. How horses just loved running for this young man. Consider:

Career Record: (440) 89-79-63, yielding a win and in-the-money percentage of 20.2 and 52.5%, respectively. Earnings of $2,053,219 placed him 116th among 1,602 active jockeys worldwide. Remarkable stats for any rider that's just getting started.

Despite my unfamiliarity with the young man, I cannot believe that he is gone, cannot begin to imagine how his family and close friends must feel at this point in time.

Tributes have come from every corner of the sport, but what spoke loudest to me was a Rosie Napravnik tweet about the kind of person Saez was, how she always will remember his smile and the classy manner in which he conducted himself.

Our sincere condolences to family and friends. Rest in peace, Amen.


In light of declining attendance and handle figures at its current race meet, it’s easy to understand why Keeneland executives felt compelled to blame the wet Fall weather for the small fields this season, the cost of doing business when dirt tracks become wet dirt.

From the comfort of my living and simulcast venues, it was impossible not to be impressed with how their state-of-the-art dirt track reacted to the elements and how the races played out

Indeed, speed types had an edge on some programs, and the rail did not appear to be the place on other days.

At mid-week, the results were a good example of what we're saying here: Wednesday's wet-fast track had a good mix of speed and stamina winners. On Thursday’s sloppy oval, the opener for maidens was won by a first-time starter coming from last but the double completed in wire-to-wire fashion.

Even given such a small sample, the first six days of racing in Lexington, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a surface play as honestly as this one has to date.

As horseplayers have come to expect, it was a job very well done by the folks at Keeneland, a management group that has led the way in video presentation and understanding the complexities of takeout by giving bettors a fair shake, consistently building their handle through churn year over year.

Now, aided by space age technology in its creation and maintenance, Keeneland’s new dirt track should help business rebound from losses suffered to date.

Wet tracks are bad for business and always were. And there might have been some reticence for horsemen to ship in for racing on a brand new surface, taking a wait and see attitude. Alas, they had nothing to fear.


There is a lively thread on this site following Tom Jicha’s most recent contribution about how some racetrack executives get it, some don’t, while others are disengaged from its customer’s needs and wishes.

The comments of HRI regular Kyle were at once telling and on the mark: He talked about how Keeneland places its Pick 5 at the end of the day—“the takeout is reasonable at 19%,” he pointed out--and how a consolation eases the pain when picking four of five.

Kyle went on to suggest that by eliminating breakage, cutting takeout in the straight pools significantly and paring the wagering menu would help to promote churn instead of taking the position that jackpot payouts fix all.

“If I recall,” Kyle wrote, “Cary was an advocate of paring the racing menu [because he] was all about pool liquidity,” adding that one only needs to note the instability of straight and exacta pools at most tracks to put the problem in perspective.

Kyle posits that the takeout levels in the straight pool should be on the order of 15-10-10--highly unlikely to ever happen, however—and Kyle’s notion is right on point. The proportions are just right.

There isn’t a horseplayer I know who wouldn’t sign on the 15% dotted win line right now. Better, the 10% rate in the place and show pools is inspired. The place pool greatly helps a player remain liquid, thus increasing churn.

A 10% rake would all but revive a moribund show pool. Right now, its greatest utility occurs only when double-digit odds are present or there is a possibility that a “sure thing” would attract bridge jumpers and those guppies seeking a windfall when a 1-20 shot runs up the track.

A 10% takeout in the show pool could attract a new player, a “portfolio” bettor willing to make a significant wager for a value-laden return in a favorable-outcome scenario.

More liquidity = more churn = more customers = more overall interest. It’s only rocket science when you want it to be.

When will a major track think about utilizing a large portion of its marketing budget to card the first race of the day featuring good horses and extremely low takeout on straight--and possibly double--wagers only; no three-tiered or greater bets of any kind?

Why not attempt to create excitement to begin the day with a promotional “contest wager” that gets around state parimutuel regulations? The mix of favorable outcome with inflated payouts could pave the way for handle increases.

The high cost of wagering has caused serious bettors to walk away from the game. Maybe now tracks will begin to take the takeout issue a lot more seriously.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, October 02, 2014

Even for the Innocent, Payback’s a Bitch

PLANTATION, FL., October 1, 2014—At once, L’Affaire Espinoza was--and was not--as bad as I was led to believe reading the media reports regarding Saturday’s Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita.

According to the latest NTRA national poll, this country’s top ranked Thoroughbred nearly suffered his first career defeat in the Grade 1 nine furlongs because of the race-riding tactics of a rival, not because he wasn’t up to the task.

As the Awesome Again was run, Shared Belief was much the best horse defeating, among others, an older, worthy rival in Fed Biz. If the gelding weren’t a very, very good horse, his slate would have read (7) 6-1-0.

Given the kind of trip Shared Belief suffered through, that kind of race dynamics would have beaten 99 out of 100 runners—he is that classy in our view.

The most damning physical evidence against Victor Espinoza were the floating incident coming out of the first turn and never making an attempt on the backside to save Sky Kingdom any ground.

That speed tack might have been cast after the Grade 3-type runner worked a half mile in 46 4/5 seconds three days before the race, 3rd fastest of 83 peers to work last week in Arcadia.

As for the incident on the racetrack, I guess I’ve seen worse, but probably never in a bigger spot. However, it’s the circumstantial evidence that’s so damaging.

While the act itself wasn’t all that heinous, the fact that the beneficiary of those actions is the same barn that not only would have benefitted from the tack taken but also one for which Espinoza rides what appears to be the best juvenile in America.

There is, too, the aspect Tom Jicha mentioned in his Tuesday column, citing that Espinoza not only rides Shared Belief’s primary Eclipse challenger, California Chrome, but opened the door for the Bob Baffert barn’s Bayern.

That speedster would not be without championship portfolio should he lead his Classic rivals throughout; 10 furlongs might be a tall order but it certainly is do-able.

Actually, this could be a year in which there is Eclipse life beyond a dual classics winner, which brings the discussion around to Tonalist.

In a fashion, his Jockey Club victory, in which where he showed a dimension that many suspected he had but apparently only Christophe Clement knew existed all along—was as impressive as that of Shared Belief.

Sans blinkers, Tonalist overcame trouble twice, altering course and, once clear, ate up the Jockey Club real estate the farther the field traveled, doing it in race-horse time. It was a superior performance that appeared far less enervating than Shared Belief’s run.

In a Paulick Report poll, three out of four horseplayers believe that the 7-day suspension meted out to Espinoza was a little harsh or about right, the odd handicapper out believing the punishment didn’t go far enough.

I’m siding with the majority here: Espinoza, especially since he was so vocal following the Pennsylvania Derby, should chill and get his mind right before the championships:

After all, he could have been a little more aggressive on the first turn and dictated to the Derby field instead of the other way around.

And so he seemingly took out his big-race frustrations on an innocent third party, a race in which he had more of a vested interest in defeating a rival than winning the race for his mount.

But there’s another aspect to this: Espinoza wasn’t “careless,” he was calculating. If the SA stewards want to describe it as such, then stewards in New York should give Junior Alvarado a lot more than seven days--and they did--15 to be precise.

What Alvarado did curling into the Jockey Club’s far turn was "reckless," dropping over as wantonly as he did. Not meaning to be overly dramatic, but Rajiv Maragh might have gotten off easily with a broken arm—very easily under the circumstances.

What both cases illustrate is that there may be just a little too much race-riding going on these days. The stewards finally may be catching on.

Many of today’s jockeys, even some of the best, don’t have the same level of sophistication that old-school riders had to play the dangerous race-riding game.

We’re all for laissez-faire officials that allow the athletes, equine and human, to decide the outcome of races, but they need to use excellent judgment and should be held accountable, just like jockeys and trainers.

We commend the NYRA stewards' decision, but whatever happened to those promises made in New York and Florida about increased transparency in the race adjudication process? It might have shed some light on how these situations were handled, a teachable moment.

For that to happen, however, there must first be some level of transparency, the kind that goes beyond lip service and spin.

Next time: Super Saturday Weekend Revisited, Keeneland Opens, and Juveniles Take Belmont Spotlight

Written by John Pricci

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