Friday, September 10, 2010

One Small Step for Delaware, One Giant Leap for an Industry?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 9, 2010--There’s a lot Delaware Park doesn’t have. It doesn’t have New York’s classy horses or the horse population of neighboring Pennsylvania, and it’s purses are nowhere near current New Jersey levels. What it has is the courage to try new things.

To get people into its racetracks last year, tracks in Delaware hoped to do so through sports betting. But after the hypocritical anti-gambling lobbying from the sports leagues and other gaming organizations, it had to settle for parlay wagering on NFL games, combining at least three teams. Sorry, no college sports.

As one might expect, it was no home run. But during its two months of operation in the fall of 2009, it handled nearly $6 million. The net was approximately half that, better than the proverbial sharp stick but no bonanza for either the state, the tracks, or the horsemen.

Year two of parlay betting started today, so it follows that handle is likely to grow, the same way it did as the 2009 season lengthened. Toward that end, the state’s three tracks, including Delaware Park, will introduce a new wager.

The new bet combines the traditional element of football betting--beating the spread--with an end-of-season contest with a sizable grand prize. It probably was the only way the Delaware Lottery people could do it legally and not incur the ire of the leagues.

To play the contest, a fan must be willing to wager $250 for an entire season’s play. Players then choose from a slate of six NFL games each week, trying to pick the winners against the spread.

Whoever picks the most games correctly wins a $50,000 first prize at the end of the regular season. The leading handicapper at the end of each four-week period, and one five-week period, collects $5,000.

It’s a good, relatively inexpensive way to keep players engaged for an entire season with a chance for a top sports handicapper to make a tidy score. Entries must be made each Sunday on track by 11 a.m.

The weekly parlay cards demand a minimum of three teams to win. Obviously, the more teams included on a parlay card, the higher the degree of difficulty and the higher the payoff. Players can choose from a variety of six different types of parlays.

Bettors can also try to sweep the card, picking the winners of all 15 games against the spread. Get that right and collect $100,000. That parlay card costs $5. The bet was not hit last year, although one player did pick 14 winners. Tough beat, that.

What’s going on at Delaware Park is far from a perfect wagering world. But at least it is trying to bring people into the building, bettors not tempted by horses or slots. It’s working, albeit on a small scale.

This year, Delaware created an incentive for horseplayers which, if it caught on at other tracks in America, could be one answer to attract stay-at-home horseplayers to the track.

Delaware Park currently is offering a sizable 10 percent rebate for on-track-only exacta players. This is a huge tax break on one of racing’s most popular wagers.

Simulcast players would be able to bet on and cash winning exactas, of course. In order to get their rebate, on-track fans need to take winning tickets to designated windows where the payoff is increased by 10 percent. Logistically and practically, this is the only way the exacta rebate can work.

The following is not an original thought, but this mechanism can be used by racetracks wishing to offer rebates to all their customers who bet live at the track.

Not only is it a good way to reward their loyal customers and possibly attract new ones but it’s a great way for tracks to market wagering in general, especially in the multiple pools with their higher rates of takeout.

Billed as a promotional tool, the exacta, trifecta or Pick 3 rebate would be a way for tracks to minimize the influence of state government mandates. Takeout rates are set by state law.

“Promotional rebates” in certain pools might be a clever way to conduct new business. It very likely would be able stand up in court if a challenge was made. Of course, this would require a pair.

Even if it were allowed to, racetracks could not conduct sports betting given existing legal mechanisms. Why? Because the house could lose and state‘s only play games that are rigged in their favor.

To avoid losses, legal bet-takers move the point-spread or make bettors pay a premium to lock-in a certain price. It’s how they avoid “exposure.” It’s not so much book-making as it is book-balancing. The other way is to conduct wagering through the parimutuel process.

But it’s good to see that at least one racetrack is trying its best by introducing new wagering elements in the hopes of attracting a wider audience. They apparently recognize that there is some symmetry between football bettors and horseplayers, via the process of handicapping.

Wouldn’t it be good if more venues tried an outside-the-box approach, not by creating new models but by tweaking existing ones? Everyone knows that organizations don’t change as much as they entrench.

If the industry is seeking bold innovations, all it needs to do is take a baby step or two.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 20, 2010

At Santa Anita, It’s Back to the Future

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY--August 19, 2010

Hosanna In Excelsis Deo.

No disrespect intended, to either the Deity or Frank Stronach.

Say this for Frank: You can often question his methodology but never his love for the game.

But I thought replacing Pro-Ride with God’s dirt was supposed to cost $10-million? Turns out it was half that. So what took so long?

Can other tracks be far behind? Good question, but first things first.

Don’t really know what Stronach intends to do about Golden Gate Fields, which reopens August 25. But I do know that the dirt track there was awful.

Actually, I’ve never heard much of an outcry from the Northern California crowd about anything. I like those people; they seem more reasonable, less defensive.

I don’t expect the move back to dirt will be hailed everywhere. Some will speak to the issue of horse safety. That, combined with human safety, comes first, they will say. They are right about that, but how long does this jury have to remain out?

Oaklawn Park has proven that you can measure the surface for safety through testing. Maybe the California Horse Racing Board will insist on something like that, something they should have thought about sooner.
If they decide to do that now, after the synthetics fact, they should pay for it. They’ve already cost a hurting racing industry in the Golden State too much money and grief already.

But they shouldn’t deregulate the whole thing. It was a disaster when it was tried in Florida. There’s one word to describe the effect deregulation would have with respect to racing dates: Chaotic.

And how’s that Wall Street deregulation thing-ee working out for ya’?

What effect will converting to dirt have on future Breeders’ Cups? Clearly BC Ltd/ has been trying mightily to raise its international profile, and betting handle, too, not necessarily in that order.

I’m setting the over-under at 35 percent, the number of fewer foreign entrants in the next Breeders’ Cup hosted by Santa Anita.

Just thought about this: What if Zenyatta had been racing on Santa Anita dirt all along? Would anyone, myself included, demand that she go on some kind of tour then? I’m just sayin’.

If last year’s Classic were on dirt, would Rachel Alexandra have run in the Woodward, and pointed toward the Classic, or the Ladies Classic, instead? And in which race would Zenyatta have run?

Would the Europeans have finished one-two ahead of Curlin in 2008?

Good thing that the sales market has been in decline or there might have been a rush to breed more horses whose families crossed over to synthetics successfully.

Know that we’re all in favor of stamina in the pedigree here at HRI. We’re not, however, a big fan of s-l-o-w. That’s downright un-American.

The bad news would be that we might not see Bullet Bob make as many forays into New York in order to get off the plastic. “I’m sitting on good horses here but I can’t race them on this surface,” Baffert told the San Diego Union Tribune earlier this week re: the Del Mar Poly.

In case you were unaware, two horses broke down in the Del Mar homestretch last weekend, raising the total to five at the meet. There has been one breakdown in a Saratoga, and that came on grass.

The problem is that the Del Mar dirt was god-awful and even more dangerous. Too bad they don’t conduct aquatic horse races. Where the turf meets the surf, for real.

What does Santa Anita’s return to a dirt surface do to overall form on a circuit that‘s mostly contiguous--not that it was easy making sense of Pro Ride to Cushion Track to Polytrack?

And now we’re going to inject dirt into that already confusing handicapping scenario?

It looks like Frank really intends to open his gates whenever he wishes and thinks that the competition from his dirt track will drive Hollywood Park right out of business.

Of course, Hollywood’s been on life support for some time, thrown a lifeline--if you want to call it that--by an ailing economy. But there’s a problem having only one track in the same geographical area. Like people, dirt racetracks get tired.

Unless there are plans to expand the Fair season significantly beyond Fairplex, Santa Rosa meets and the seven weeks of Del Mar, will it be all-Santa Anita all-the-time for the remainder of the California racing year?

Meanwhile, the synthetic track debate continues to rage in California. Some trainers say the horses are healthier; others insist they’re seeing more hind end injuries. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Meanwhile, Stronach has not filed the necessary paperwork that would set aside the surface switch mandated not long after Barbaro’s tragic breakdown.

It’s likely that after some kissing of rings, permission will be granted for a racetrack owner to do what a majority of his horsemen and horseplayers want.

With as much money as Stronach’s invested in the industry, he’s entitled to do the right thing by a situation that steadily had gone from bad to worse.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (35)


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Provincial Campaign Will Deny Zenyatta Her Rightful Place in History

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 10, 2010--I’ve tried, I’ve pleaded, I’ve cajoled, just short of begging. I’ve written pieces such as “Can’t We All Get Along?” Go back in the archives and read one if you doubt that.

Other stories have been written, too, stories that posited how unfair and shortsighted it is that a compliment of either Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra is to disrespect the other.

You might be glad to learn that, like most of you, I’m sick of reading and writing about the two mares, no matter how great they are. And until they race again, or new news develops, I no longer will stoke this insatiable fire.

First, this heads-up to Webmaster Mark. Get ready for an onslaught of invective, character assassination, or worse. It could get ugly quickly. But I’ve had enough. Now it’s time to allow chips to fall.

Running Zenyatta in the Zenyatta is a disgrace.

At least when New Mexico-bred sprinter Peppers Pride remained in state-bred company to complete an unbeaten streak at 19, the connections never promised a whirlwind campaign. They placed her where they expected her to win.

This year, the Zenyatta camp have done the same. Only their Perfect Campaign has done a disservice to the legacy to the great race mare.

Is Secretariat or Seattle Slew or Spectacular Bid or Man o’ War any less than because they got beat? Since when is losing a race some big disgrace? Horse racing is a game in which if you’re wrong two out of three times you’re considered a genius.

The true disgrace in all this is saying one thing and doing another. The connections promised they would share Zenyatta with all her fans. I wasn’t aware that all of them lived in California.

Detractors disparaged Rachel Alexandra because they felt Jess Jackson ducked the 2009 Breeders’ Cup. Beating Grade 1 males thrice, including elders, just wasn’t a world class good enough. But they can’t say it came as a surprise.

Jackson announced he wouldn’t run on “the plastic” well before the Woodward. No one was surprised that another very successful businessmen had become a control freak. By definition, control freaks get what they want. What’s the good of having all this weight if you can’t throw it around?

The rescheduled, lengthened and enriched Lady’s Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park is an example of this. It was no less tacky than the road being taken by Zenyatta‘s people.

The wraps finally are coming off the defending Horse of Year’s 2010 campaign. Resultantly, one of the hottest mares on the East Coast, ironically named Malibu Prayer, will duck Rachel and head to Monmouth Park for the Molly Pitcher instead.

But the Personal Ensign will be no walkover. Life At Ten and Unrivaled Belle are more than capable Grade 1 rivals.

When the undefeated mare recently went after 18 straight and pulled it off, no one noticed. After tying Cigar, Zenyatta’s every move should have been chronicled in mainstream sports media. Nothing fires the imagination like a little imagination.

Instead, it all happened with a whimper. The only people who knew what was happening were racing’s true fans, some of whom waited until 9:30 on a Saturday night to see her on a delayed simulcast feed, if one were even available.

I cannot forget how excited I was to hear that Zenyatta would race again at 6; a clear challenge against all odds. She would be shared with all of racing’s fans and the rest of America, too, not just those in her own backyard. Finally, a win for racing. Instead, we got 2009 all over again.

As a sports fan and lover of this greatest game played outdoors, I can no longer root for Zenyatta’s human connections and, by extension, their mare to win #19. They had a chance to perhaps make a small difference but instead placed greater emphasis on their own local celebrity and “the streak.”

If the Zenyatta camp had a true sense of history and tradition, they might have recalled how a great West Coast champion beat a great East Coast champion in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. And they might have remembered, too, how it was the vanquished Seattle Slew that won the day. His greatest performance came in a losing effort.

I can’t think of anything more deliciously appropriate than to see Zenyatta suffer her first defeat in a race named in honor, a made-for-the-moment Grade 1 event that disrespected another great mare, Lady’s Secret, who never ducked, who sought new worlds to conquer and not challenges to avoid.

And would a defeat in Zenyatta the race make Zenyatta the horse any less than? Of course not. Would it mean that she would have no chance for redemption a month later with a Classic repeat at Churchill Downs? Again, no. And isn’t that truly the stuff of legend?

“If we go to New York, that will mean she’ll be away from the barn for over a month,” Shirreffs told the Daily Racing Form early this week. "The only thing that concerns me is if I go to New York, do I go directly to Kentucky?

“How long do I stay away from the [California] stable? I'm not a good telephone trainer. We have to decide the best decision. We'll follow the script as much as possible as we did last year," he said.

And so any trainer who successfully ships around the country apparently is a good telephone trainer. I thought he might be just good horsemen, perhaps even a sportsman.

Following last year’s script is not a bad thing and is common practice in this business. But we all could have saved lots of time if we were told that right from the beginning.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (106)


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