Friday, May 27, 2011

Socrates: There is only one good; knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 26, 2011--It is often said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Whenever I hear that, I think as compared to what: The sweet oblivion of no knowledge at all, or that knowledge is power?

And if knowledge is power, how exactly does one develop paralysis by analysis? This becomes relevant when considering an issue that’s been a hot item in racing chat rooms this week.

Regarding the NBC Preakness telecast, fans have been remarking that while analyst Donna Brothers comments on a horse’s appearance were instructive, they came too late to help bettors looking to make an informed wager.

Now before an NBC spokesman spins this into “we put on a show for the general sports fan and not racing insiders or gamblers,” there’s no reason why the type of knowledge imparted by Brothers cannot be addressed by the industry.

It should be of no consequence whether or not any network thinks it has an obligation to supply this kind of information in a more timely fashion, if at all.

The idea is to help sports fans--whether they be loyal or casual in nature--by any media necessary. Given recent declining handle figures, it’s apparent that many of racing’s most dedicated enthusiasts are mad as hell and have decided not to pay attention anymore.

Racing always has done a woeful job in educating its fans which, given the scenarios above, falls into either the oblivion category of no knowledge at all, or the danger that studying long is studying wrong.

During the run-up to Kentucky Derby, Uncle Mo owner Mike Repole opined that full disclosure can do more harm than good since even racing’s most dedicated fans lack the sophistication needed to evaluate the physiology of any particular horse.

I can’t say I totally disagree. Horses lie as often as trainers do--sorry, couldn’t resist--in that their actions can belie their performance. But, at minimum, in the absence of full disclosure can come more disclosure.

Brothers spoke to two aspects of appearance; weight and profuse sweating.

With regard to the latter, “washing out” is most often a bad trait because it indicates nervous anxiety whereby the animal expends all its energy pre-race. But it can also be a sign that perhaps bad things are starting to happen internally. Maybe a horse is beginning to develop ulcers, many do. That's why they sell a lot of ulcer products on the backside.

For some horses, sweat can be like a boxer getting ready for a match, needing to warm up, to get good and loose. Horses that wash out and run well might not perform up to its potential if one day it comes out dry as a bone.

The opposite trait is true also. Some animals by nature are “non-sweaters” and only perform at their best in cooler climates. They must change venues from, say, Florida to somewhere in the Northeast, where temperatures are more moderate.

Brothers also referred to Mucho Macho Man’s apparent weight loss since the Derby, which apparently must have been an eleventh hour development.

It certainly was too late to help bettors adjust to the situation, just as a similar announcement about Super Saver last year also came too late to help. But don’t blame the talented Brothers. In this context, she speaks only when directed to.

A horseman friend stabled at Belmont Park, who I trust implicitly, told me that in Macho Man’s gallops the week after the Derby, he had high energy and looked better physically than when seen in Florida this winter.

The following week he breezed a half-mile then shipped to Pimlico. Maybe that breeze turned out to be too much? Horses are like strawberries and can spoil quickly counseled the great Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham.

At the post draw Wednesday night, I spoke with a relaxed and very confident Kathy Ritvo. But perhaps the racing gods invoked the Whittingham rule and things changed in a finger snap, just like that?

Assessing body language with regard to profuse sweating can be a tricky read. You have to know the individual intimately. By all accounts, trainer Dale Romans and jockey Jesus Castanon were not overly concerned by Shackleford’s pre-race appearance. They knew it was just Shackleford being Shackleford.

However, weight loss is never a good development. You hear horsemen refer to healthy horses all the time which “carried their flesh well,” “haven’t lost any weight,” “put on weight since its last race,” etc., etc.

At dog tracks, a whole handicapping cottage industry developed around weight gain or loss and that information is carried in the official track program. Dogs apparently have an optimum weight that often produces the best results.

Many horsemen, such as Jim Bond in Saratoga, has a horse scale at his private barn which he uses consistently to tell him what his horses may or may not need with respect to maintaining condition. Back in the day, Greentree stable had a scale outside its Belmont Park barn and horses were weighed once a week.

There is no good reason why a horse scale cannot be put in place at a holding barn to weigh horses before they race. Previous running weights can be included in the past performance data.

Raceday weights can be announced during the post parade for on-site fans. The same information can be disseminated via the track’s closed circuit system to service simulcast players. Let the fans decide whether or not that information is pertinent.

Where to fit this information in the past performances? That’s easy. Place it right in between the name of a runner’s attending veterinarian and the tongue-tie information.

Maybe it’s the industry and not the fans who need educating.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Exchanges Are Just Another Way to Bet: Discuss

ELMONT, NY, April 28, 2011--Some interesting data was set forth in a conference call this week regarding the future of exchange wagering in the United States. Unfortunately, clarity regarding if and how this all might be accomplished and implemented were in short supply.

But that can happen when the data you’re mining is two years old and when the study is funded by the company--commissioned by the TVG racing network, owned and operated by Betfair, the extremely successful betting exchange based in Great Britain--that wants a share of America’s horse betting market.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, a brief primer: A betting exchange is not the same as traditional parimutuel betting at racetracks or bet shops, where all wagers are pooled and the odds determined by the amount of money bet on each horse.

At a wagering exchange, one bettor is paired with another having a difference of opinion. Eventually, they agree on a set of odds they determine themselves and the payoff is made at those fixed odds.

This is altogether ironic since the term parimutuel, deriving from the French meaning “between us,” takes it out of the hands of the entire population and turns it into a one-on-one wagering proposition. This takes “between us“ to a whole new level.

Exchange betting, a stock exchange played with racehorses, can take many forms through the creation of completely new wagers. It is meant to attract tech savvy young people who might be familiar with money markets and soybeans but are unfamiliar with Thoroughbreds.

For instance, a betting exchange could allow for intra-race wagering to be conducted, i.e., while a race is being run. Bettors could also wager on horses to win or lose, or some other proposition entirely.

With exchange wagering, bettors act like traders, swapping horses between themselves, agreeing on a bet at a mutually set fixed price. The exchange-betting company then extracts a small percentage from the winning bettor, anywhere from two percent to five depending on the bettor’s level of play.

This compares to a blended 21 percent parimutuel takeout rate at American facilities nationwide. So you can see what has the U.S. parimutuel industry so concerned.

Still, the states of New Jersey and California have already authorized exchanges pending agreements between all parties. This attempt to increase business begs another question: Won't betting exchanges cannibalize traditional parimutuel pools? The answer seems obvious but it's not that simple.

Given current figures, the contribution Betfair would make to the American racing industry would be miniscule. Further, the report contends cannibalization will be minimal due to the creation “parallel markets” that are natural extensions of the betting exchange.

In brief, parallel markets work when one player takes a “short position” on the exchange and a “long position” on the same horse in a pari-mutuels. It is possible for bettors to lock-in profits without risk which increases liquidity of both pools.

An adept bettor skilled at making his own odds line and can successfully predict which direction the parimutuel odds will go, can be a successful trader by, e.g., betting against a horse listed at 2-1 on the exchange but betting on the same horse at 4-1 in the parimutuel pool..

“Exchange betting is an important option,” said Eugene Christiansen, perhaps this country’s most recognized authority on gambling whose company has long been the racing industry’s go-to researcher on matters pertaining to wagering.

“The consumer has been asking for lower prices for a long time but the bettor is the forgotten man. He wants lower prices but what he gets is a tee shirt. The [betting model] has been extremely successful in Great Britain and Australia. [These jurisdictions] have experienced increases incremental to all markets.”

The study offered that betting exchanges did not have an adverse impact on the horse racing industry in Great Britain and Australia, and that similar good results should be expected here.

“Exchange betting can rejuvenate Thoroughbred racing’s consumer base,” Christiansen’s report concluded. “The data suggests that exchange betting can stimulate new interest and generate new revenue.”

There are a number of problems with the study in addition to data from 2009 and limited in its sphere to Great Britain, including what effects the emergence of Betfair has had on purses and national betting handle.

Critics claim that the exchange has indeed cannibalized betting handle, resulting in lower purses. In the U.K., Betfair pays a tax levied by a state board and contributes approximately 10 percent of its handle to the racing industry.

The Christiansen report made no provision for comparing data influencing the two models since those numbers are publicly unavailable--some say conveniently--making the comparison of exchanges to pari-mutuels in this country virtually impossible.

Resultantly, the report could not provide an estimate for the amount of U.S. handle would be cannibalized which, by extension, cannot determine how ancillary revenues would be effected.

According to Christiansen, an analysis of the impact of exchange betting was not possible because Betfair was yet to decide the level of compensation it would pay the America’s racing industry. Given current realities in the U.K. it would to be a significantly higher percentage than is paid elsewhere.

Everyone knows racing must breathe life into the best wagering game man ever developed, even if today's population doesn’t care or even know anything about it. It has not kept up with competition from casinos or offshore bet shops taking action on sports and horse racing.

But the most glaring issue that the report failed to address in any meaningful way is the concern that the industry and bettors have with respect to betting on horses to lose. All are concerned that this is an aid to those insiders inclined to cheat.

In addition to a horsemen’s boycott over purses in the U.K., which speaks to the cannibalization issue, there is a scandal involving an owner betting horses to lose after getting inside information from six jockeys allegedly paid five-thousand pounds per race.

However, this "problem" can be reconciled via the use of a proven, trustworthy bet company; computer technology able to uncover unusual betting patterns, and having racing officials act like those in Hong Kong who question riders for using unusual strategy even without suspicion of foul play. Proactive stewards instead of traffic cops looking for lane violations.

Do that or put up a million other propositions that will create liquidity in the exchange and pari-mutuel markets, such as horse-to-horse matchups based on one horse finishing ahead of another, regardless if it wins or loses.

By paying their fair share of handle to the racing industry, exchanges could be the engine for future growth. The idea of betting exchanges should not be dismissed out of hand. In fact, to the contrary.

Only the next time a study is commissioned by anyone involved in racing, let’s bring data to bear that cuts both ways. To that end, Christiansen said that he would welcome an opportunity to fashion a report on the subject commissioned by the racing industry. I’m sure he would, as long as the industry doesn’t arrive empty-handed.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, April 15, 2011

The Hall of Fame Envelope, Please

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 14, 2011--The last time I went public with my Hall of Fame ballot it caused quite a stir with many of the HRI regulars. I expect that this year will be no different.

Here’s how the Hall of Fame voting works. On the ballot are 10 names that can be deemed worthy of entrance into the pantheon, seven humans and three equines.

Voters can select as many, or as few, of the 10 nominees as they want, all 10 if they‘re so inclined. But only the four top vote getters can be inducted into the Hall of Fame in August.

I can make a case for nine of the 10, but since only the top four vote getters will gain entrance, I narrowed my list down so as not to compromise the chances of those I believe most worthy.

Tried as I might to whittle the list down to four, I went with five after eliminating all the equines--it’s not like the horses are on pins and needles in their stalls waiting to hear the news.

Eventually, Open Mind, Safely Kept and Sky Beauty are likely to gain entrance, if not through the voting process then via the Historic Review Committee, defined on the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame website as a “special circumstance.”

The 10 nominees for 2011, listed alphabetically, are: Calvin Borel, Garrett Gomez, Jerry Hollendorfer, Gary Jones, Safely Kept, Sky Beauty, Alex Solis, John Velazquez and Robert Wheeler. Ultimately, I voted for five horsemen.

In terms of this exercise, the only disclaimer is that I have voted for Robert Wheeler more than once. Since he has not gained admission thus far, I decided to wait until next year, or await the judgment of the Historic Reviewers.

When the Hall of Fame biographies were prepared earlier this year, Calvin Borel had won with 4,815 of his 32,379. As many mounts as he normally accepts on any given card, 15 percent efficiency is a worthy win rate.

But it was his third Kentucky Derby victory with Super Saver in a four-year span that seals the deal. Can anyone disagree that Borel’s athleticism, judgment, daring and timing likely was the difference between victory and defeat in any of those three wins?

If Borel fails to gain admission to the Hall, I don’t know how I could possibly explain the slight to future generations. On a aesthetic level, he’s been one of the few bright spots in what’s been a very difficult decade for the sport. While some will disagree, to me this was a no-brainer.

I voted for Garrett Gomez because he owns Hall of Fame talent and his career appears nowhere near the slowing-down stage. This after overcoming personal demons that have stopped lesser men in their tracks.

His timing, decision making and strength are his best attributes, enabling him to compile statistics that are enviable and rare. To wit:

His 3,435 winners from 19,818 mounts yields a strong win percentage of .17. As for his reputation as a “money rider,” his purse earnings of $176.9 million is $63 million more than Borel’s despite 12,500 fewer opportunities, which is fairly astounding.

Gomez owns the single-year record of 76 stakes wins, established in 2007. He’s won 12 Breeders’ Cups, including the 2010 Classic on Blame, of course. His win percentage in graded stakes is a very rare .20, which includes 19 Grade 1 scores in the past two years.

I will tolerate no characterizing of Jerry Hollandorfer as being simply a big fish in a small pond: You would think that at least one trainer would have interrupted his 37 straight training titles at Bay Meadows, or his 32 straight at Golden Gate Fields.

Besides, any criticism along those lines should have been dispelled for his work with last year’s three-year-old filly champion, Blind Luck, five cross-country trips and all. Hollendorfer upset last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile with Dakota Phone and engineered a 6-for-6 campaign with ill-fated Tuscan Evening.

Long before the advent of huge mega-stables, Hollendorfer hovered around his career win percentage of .24, an incredible mark over a sustained period, saddling 5,863 winners from 24,768 entrants.

Hollendorfer has finished in the top 10 in nationwide wins for 24 consecutive years through 2010, 12 times in the top 10 on the earnings list. He’s saddled 192 stakes-winning horses, including 84 (15 percent efficiency) at the graded level. He deserves to be in the company of many of the game’s all-time great horsemen.

I have also voted for Gary Jones before and did so again this year. Winning at an 18.5 percent rate for his career on the highly competitive Southern California circuit is a Hall of Fame accomplishment, not to mention his 15 individual meet titles.

In all, Jones won 102 graded stakes--also an 18 percent rate--among his 233 stakes victories, doing so with 104 individual horses.

Jones has won Grade 1s across the country with every manner of horse, from two-year-old colts to older stakes mares and geldings.

While developing and conditioning such talented mares as Kostromo and Meafara, Jones is best known and remembered for his work with two males; the redoubtable Best Pal and the great champion, Turkoman.

If John Velazquez is not a first round Hall of Famer then I don’t know who else it would be--Borel and Gomez notwithstanding, of course.

Velazquez is batting 18 percent for a career which began in 1990, which seems other worldly when you’ve had more than 25,000 rides.

Even if his main client is the prolific Todd Pletcher, career earnings of over $241-million is nearly as much as Borel and Gomez combined. In a short 21-year career, he’s already fourth on the all-time list.

He has partnered with seven champions, and this excludes major horses such as Quality Road and Lemon Drop Kid, to recall just two. Through last year, he’s won 617 stakes races, including 413 graded events, both categories at an 18 percent clip.

In the last five years, Johnny Velazquez won 43 Grade 1s, 12 in 2010. His greatest attribute on a daily basis is an almost steadfast refusal to beat himself. He’s probably the least cussed-out jockey in racing history.

The best position rider since Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey, Velazquez instinctively knows when to push the button and is seldom out-finished. Perhaps when you ride for Pletcher and are mentored by the great Angel Cordero Jr., this is as it should be.

Only good wishes for these great practitioners of the sport.

Written by John Pricci

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