Monday, July 09, 2012

Handle Helper: An Open Letter to NYRA, Racing & Wagering Board

ELMONT, NY, July 9, 2012—To Whom It May Concern:

If I had the name of an actual person or organization I can speak with, I have an idea that might help increase betting handle in New York unless, of course, no one is interested in spending money to make more money.

I know that’s a radical concept these days but I wish someone would try it.

I was at Belmont Park Saturday for the Suburban Handicap, a race I described in an advance story as a Grade 1 masquerading as a Grade 2. The Suburban did not disappoint as Mucho Macho Man came up with one of the top performances of 2012.

Anyway, a veteran New York turf writer told me that for the first time in his career covering the New York Racing Association, he didn’t know who to call in the event of an emergency or with a big-picture question.

Since the firing of former President and CEO Charlie Hayward, there’s no longer an absolute go-to person when any serious issues arise. This doesn’t surprise everyone since many say that the NYRA has been on automatic pilot for years.

Sadly, that has a ring of truth: If it were not for the fact that NYRA owns some of the best support staff in the industry--from officials to administrators to backstretch personnel to security—all departments, really--the show could not possibly go on.

However, sometimes you need to speak with someone in charge. The only one I can think of would be NYRA Board Chairman C. Steven Duncker, but he’s been virtually invisible since he assumed the role in 2005 after helping NYRA retain its franchise.

I have something I’d like to see done, and it’s a little thing, really, but one that has a positive effect on the bottom line. It helps all customers, really; fractional wagering.

Now before anyone’s underwear gets twisted in a knot, we’re not talking about the anything new here; nothing to send in, no box-tops to clip. And even if the bottom line didn’t benefit, customer service is priceless, right?

I mentioned the following issue to Hayward in Saratoga a few years ago; he said he would look into it but apparently never found the time. Like I said, it’s a little thing, but one that can have a positive effect once on-track players know they have another option when making certain simulcast bets.

The issue is why offer simulcast wagering if you have no intention to offer the same betting menu in place at the simulcast venue? The issue re-surfaced on Saturday but I first became aware some years ago when I tried to place self-service 50-Cent trifecta wagers on Arlington Million day but couldn’t; the reason I sought out Hayward.

Even though 50-Cent trifectas are available at some of NYRA’s simulcast partners, their full betting menu is not available at New York tracks. Why?

I can think of two reasons: Either NYRA does not want to make an investment in writing new computer code allowing such wagers to be placed on self-service betting machines, or they don’t want to give an edge in a competitive betting marketplace:

The fear that the casual bettor, the customer racing covets, might not invest in $1 NYRA trifectas if his dollars can go twice as far in a 50-Cent pool is typically short-sighted. Or perhaps it’s strictly business; NYRA gets a larger slice of the take from the live product.

Or maybe it’s because NYRA can’t offer the wager by statute because it doesn’t offer 50-Cent trifectas on its races. If that’s the case, it’s more parochial thinking but all parties concerned.

The benefit of fractional wagering is that it puts bettors in pools they might normally avoid due to the link between cost and degree of difficulty.

If NYRA has the will, all that it needs to do is make a simple request to the State Racing & Wagering Board permitting it to offer any fractional wager at simulcast tracks with which NYRA does business. Recall that New York bettors were allowed to wager on Dime Superfectas before they were available locally.

It’s instructive to note there was a time when I asked a former NYRA executive about why superfecta wagering at the time was not allowed in races with stable couplings when trifectas were: If both members of an entry finished in two of the top three positions, the trifecta was completed by the horse that finished fourth. I asked whether he thought horseplayers were unable to count to five.

He said it wasn’t a logistical issue but that such “favors”--like changes to its betting menu--were granted if there were some quid pro quo for the state, such as, say, a rise in takeout. I asked a SRWB operative the same question. He explained it was more about “setting agendas,” that there might be more urgent matters to discuss, etc., etc.

After a while, I stopped asking.

When Dime Supers began to become popular, bean counters explained that the bet was wasn’t good for them because it only cannibalized money from the trifecta pool. At first, this was true, but Superfecta handle has grown considerably and the Trifecta remains as popular as ever.

Why shouldn’t a 50-Cent wager help increase Trifecta handle in the same way Dimes did the Super?

Handle is important not only for bottom line considerations but for pool liquidity. Without sizable pools, sizable bets cannot be sustained. It lessens potential payouts for big and small bettors alike. Fractional betting grows the game and keeps bettors liquid longer.

So that’s my issue: I want to bet simulcast tracks as if I was there and at a rate I can afford. Keep me liquid and I’ll keep betting.

Is there anyone alive out there who can help me and my fellow horseplayers with this?


John Pricci

Written by John Pricci

Comments (42)


Sunday, July 01, 2012

Detention Barn for Saratoga Bad Political Theater

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 1, 2021—Last week, when we were dealing with issues resulting from a corrupt server, there was a Daily Racing Form story that trainer Larry Jones decided to decline the 11 stalls he was allocated for the upcoming Saratoga meet.

Unlike several weeks ago, when Jones sounded off on the raceday Lasix ban issue, this time I’m behind Jones’ decision 110 percent.

I could not disagree with Jones’ thought process more than when he stated that he would refuse to buy horses under the auspices of any jurisdiction that would prohibit horses from being treated with Lasix on raceday.

With that message, Jones was telling proponents of the ban he would do anything within his power to stem the tide of the proposed ban of the diuretic on raceday.

We think that Jones, and other high-percentage trainers, should be sending a different message to the betting public and sports fans; that the industry will do whatever it can to gain and regain their trust.

As with anything that relates to integrity, the sport’s stand on medication, legal and otherwise, is the #1 issue in racing and it will continue to be until the Thoroughbred industry shows the world it’s really serious about cleaning up its act.

However, I do stand with Jones, and any other horseman, who is railing against the New York State Racing and Wagering Board proposed edict to ban the cooking of oats—for goodness sakes—at Saratoga somehow is a security issue.

How absurd, really. How much advice did the SRWB ignore from the practitioners they consulted on this—if they consulted anyone, that is?

And I hope nobody ever tells The Chief about this idea; this news could send him back to the hospital. What are the chances any state regulatory agent ever walked the shedrow with Allen Jerkens at feed time?

While proposing this security measure for Saratoga, did anyone bother to ask whether the feeding of dry oats is a healthy regimen? Horses don’t digest dry oats very well. In fact, they could get colic as a result. Colic can cause a horse to founder. Founder causes horses to die.

Jones said the primary reason for cooking oats is to help horses digest their food easier. He’s still gnawed by the time when, during the detention barn era a few years back, he needed to get the stewards’ permission to feed his horses yellow corn.

According to the DRF story, Jones was irritated when regulators gave Doug O’Neill a hard time when he was cooking oats for I’ll Have Another outside the Belmont Stakes detention barn.

And now the SRWB is considering instituting a detention barn for the Travers and other important stakes at the upcoming Spa meet, in addition to testing jockeys for alcohol.

This is known as political expediency. While the Belmont detention barn might have been a good idea in that it would help to safeguard the integrity of a potentially controversial Triple Crown champion, its institution at Saratoga is unnecessary overkill.There’s enough lead-up time to ensure that the clumsy procedures put in place at Belmont would work better this time around, but upsetting a horse’s routine unnecessarily does the animal--and the bettor--no favors.

“The board consistently seeks to improve security and safety measures for horses at New York’s tracks,” a spokesperson said recently. Here’s a thought; increase the number of security guards, or install video surveillance and forget the detention barn.

“There’s no reason for it,” a horseman said recently. “No reason for having it. There’s plenty of testing in place to catch anyone cheating.”

The problem with that thinking, of course, is that testing is under-funded, standardized rules are non-existent and the process of keeping up with cheaters arduous and time consuming. But make no mistake, there’s tons of room for improvement.

Jones said his decision not to accept the 11 stalls he was allotted was not a boycott on New York racing; he will ship in to race.

But Jones is making a statement that when it comes to well-meaning but ill-informed regulators, enough is enough, that decisions having an adverse effect on an animal can do as much damage to form as medication.

So police the back-side, and the security personnel if you must, but leave the care and welfare of the animal to the people who live with them 24/7/365.

Racetrack professionals have earned the right to do a job the best way they know how.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, June 11, 2012

A Longer Triple Crown Has Benefits Far Beyond Tradition

ELMONT, NY, June 11, 2012—Most people agreed that his was the year it was finally going to happen. From horsemen, to media, to horseplayer and sports fans, the consensus of all was that I’ll Have Another, demonstrated in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, had all the tools to become an immortal.

Never mind that if I’ll Have Another competed and won the Triple Crown here Saturday he would have beaten almost three times the number of rivals Citation did in 1948. Citation? The original “Big Red,” until the “Big Red” of Meadow Stable” came along, was considered the greatest American horse of the modern era.

Never mind that in 1978, Affirmed, notwithstanding his nemesis, Alydar, beat only 17 other rivals to become the last Triple Crown winner of 34 years. Hell, I’ll Have Another beat 19 rivals in this year’s Kentucky Derby alone.

Finally, never mind that all 11 Triple Crown winners ever had to beat more than seven rivals in the Test of the Champion. Had I’ll Have Another run and won, he would have beaten 11 rivals, 40 Triple Crown opponents in all.

All of the above can be construed as logical reasons why today’s Triple Crown series is harder to win than ever; numbers dictate. But there are many more reasons; some subtle, some not, and all worth considering:

Speed-laden commercial pedigrees; inherent unsoundness of popular sire lines; modern training philosophy; the hot-housing of yearlings, increased popularity of speed-crazy breeze-up sales; lack of juvenile foundation for the classics season, etc., ad nauseum.

When concerned individuals suggest that the duration of the series needs lengthening, two arguments heard most often is “five weeks” is what makes the accomplishment so difficult--so special; and that a lengthened series would cheapen the achievement of the predecessors.

A question, then, for all those making the degree of difficulty/historical context argument: Given the above factors, would a victory by I’ll Have Another on Saturday somehow have tarnished the accomplishments of the 11immortals?

Said the apple to the orange, of course not. The time for debating is over. Acknowledging reality and self-serving sanity is what’s needed now.

The tradeoff of stamina for speed has proven to be a mistake for the breed, not for the people who bred and sold them. Consider:

According to recently released Jockey Club statistics, field size in 1980 was approximately nine starters per race; halcyon 1950 levels. This likely reflected the surge in racing’s popularity coming off the Triple Crown binge of the ‘70s. That number dropped to eight last year.

In 1972, the average race horse had a career spanning over 10 lifetime starts. Last year, that number was a bit over six, meaning that despite all the medical and technological breakthroughs, lifetime career expectancy was lower by 40 percent lower, over the past 40 years ago. Coincidence? I think not.

The breed is far less durable; consider Citation’s Triple Crown season: Big Red raced four times in February and thrice in April. He won the Derby Trial on April 27 and the Derby four days later. He won the Preakness on May 15 and the Jersey Stakes two weeks later.

Between the Jersey Stakes on May 29 and the June 12 Belmont, Citation breezed a half-mile, worked a mile three days later and, three days after that six furlongs, one day before the Belmont. He went wire to wire and won by eight.

Citation obviously was a great race horse but also nothing more than flesh, blood and bone, strong bone. Name one American horse that could withstand that kind of training schedule in this era. Can’t think of one? Of course not; that Thoroughbred no longer exists.

Before the ink on the 2012 Belmont Stakes chart was dry, two respected members of the mainstream media used words like change, outlaw, inhumane. Like it or not, his is how the majority of the 85,000 people at Belmont Park Saturday, and the millions viewing on TV, still get their news.

Wrote Bob Ford in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "We see it every year in the Triple Crown chase. Horses break down, or they develop physical issues that lead to their retirement.

“It is too much to ask a 3-year-old, who are "little more than teenagers" in their development to run three hard races in just five weeks… At some point, the sport of horse racing has to make a change. Not because there will never be another Triple Crown winner. Some horse will beat the odds and get it done eventually…

“Enduring the three races in the span of five weeks is one thing. Preparing to do it and trying to recover between the races is just as sapping. As constituted for modern horses, the Triple Crown series is inhumane. It doesn't work."

Sally Jenkins, Washington Post: “It’s a good thing I’ll Have Another is such a celebrity. Otherwise that horse would be working right now. The most scrutinized trainer in thoroughbred racing was forced to withdraw the most famous horse in America from the Belmont.

"This is hardly proof that thoroughbred racing has cured its creeping moral sickness. It only proves that [trainer Doug O’Neill] knows he can’t take another major public scandal at the moment, and neither can his sport…

“We should be grateful that I’ll Have Another won’t be on the track at risk of a public breakdown... But somewhere, on another track, in a less publicized race, a sore-legged horse will run. About 800 horses die racing each year… That rate is intolerably high…

"Thoroughbred racing is at a moral junction, and it's time to decide whether it has any real worth, or needs to be outlawed."

Andrew Cohen Atlantic Monthly /60 Minutes: “In horse racing, everyone has an excuse. Everyone has an explanation. No one accepts responsibility. Regulators don't enforce the rules aggressively enough. And when they do the targets of their investigation whine about how unfair the rules are.

“A few weeks ago, for example, New York regulators suspended a harness racing trainer for nearly 1,700 pre-race medication violations. How did the industry react? Leading trainers were outraged-- at regulators…

“The question now is whether this fire will roar long enough, and generate enough financial and political and regulatory heat, to do any good for the sport. If not, it will be yet another wasted opportunity for the industry, another tragedy for its many purists…”

The industry should defend itself the best way it can, by all means. Believe it or not, this is a bigger issue than who’s right or who’s wrong. It’s not what we think that matters. Racing will live with its problems; has for the four decades I’ve covered the sport.

The ones who can’t live with it, right or wrong, are the public that only get interested a couple of days a year. Why should the industry care? Because it won’t be regulators who will shut the game down. It will be the public, with an assist from mainstream media, that will end it.

The time has come for the practitioners so fond of saying how the top priority is to “do what’s best for the horse,” make a concerted effort to show the general public and its loyal fans and bettors that it will practice what it preaches.

This isn’t like the Raceday Lasix issue replete with serious economic complications. This is an easy fix that will make headlines, the application of pen to calendar. Please, space the series out in a fashion that reflects today’s reality.

Racing is losing favor with Americans while also needing to compete with NBA and NHL championships? Then give the public what it wants and the horses what they need.

Link the Triple Crown series to the holidays and make it part of America’s fabric. Forever, the Kentucky Derby is the first Saturday of May. A little more than four weeks later, a Memorial Day weekend Preakness. Five weeks after that, the Belmont Stakes on the Fourth of July weekend, an event even without a Triple Crown on the line.

The value of good will and added favorable publicity attendant to an elongated schedule is priceless. Racing needs to show people that it truly cares in a big, headline grabbing way. It must show, in terms the public can understand, that it's willing to alter tradition by doing what's best for young, present day Thoroughbreds.

Half measures won't work; it's far too late for that.

Written by John Pricci

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