Thursday, October 04, 2007


Lawyer Ron to Upset Three-Year-Olds Bid for Classic History Berth


After last weekends Breeders Cup prep races, even those late to the dance regarding the superiority of the 2007 three-year-old class is now squarely aboard the bandwagon. But are they good enough to repeat the feat of the class of 2000?

Seven years ago a late developing sophomore named Tiznow took on the world and won a thrilling stretch duel from the uber-talented European Giants Causeway.

And when Captain Steve roared home for third, at the direct expense of speedy Albert the Great, three-year-olds comprised a Classic superfecta for the first time in Breeders Cup history.

Can Any Given Saturday, Curlin, Hard Spun, Street Sense and/or Tiago duplicate that feat?

Will Curlin and Street Sense stage a Preakness redux, dominating the Classic the way Sunday Silence and Easy Goer did in 1989?

Or will Lawyer Ron, reprising the role played by Gate Dancer four years earlier, break up the party the way Jack Van Bergs runner did when he prevented a sophomore sweep, separating Proud Truth from Turkoman and Chiefs Crown?

Its this historical context that makes this years Classic the most anticipated renewal since the inaugural running in 1984.

If it turns out to be a sophomore sweep, Tiago likely will be the odd three-year-old out. He simply hasnt caught up to his generations upper echelon on the Equiform performance figure scale and has been beating up on inferior opponents in California.

Encouraging is that Tiagos best figure came in the Kentucky Derby at the Classic distance. The problem is, trips and inexperience notwithstanding, he wasnt good enough to beat Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin then, and he isnt good enough to beat all of them now.

Any finish better fourth for Tiago would be a stretch.

Should that happen, it likely would come at the expense of Hard Spun who has proven tough, very fast and completely genuine, but still suspect at 10 furlongs.

Its unlikely Hard Spun will get loose on a lead easy enough to steal a Classic, in the manner of Black Tie Affair 16 years ago, even over a speed-kind Monmouth oval. But he never runs a bad one and that includes the Belmont Stakes. Garrett Gomez needs to take credit for that debacle.

Which brings us to Any Given Saturday, the only proven Monmouth horse for course. This Todd Pletcher three-year-old raised his game in the Dwyer, running as fast as colts his age can run.

The colt virtually duplicated that effort winning the Haskell with authority and managed to win a slower Brooklyn despite an out-of-comfort-zone journey. That soft win might prove beneficial when he meets the Derby colts again, without the hindrance of a foot bruise like the one he sustained in the Derby.

Curlin is back if, indeed, as trainer Steve Asmussen said early this week, he ever left. In the modern era, no three-year-old weve seen has accomplished as much as he has in a narrow career window spanning from Feb. 3 to Sept. 30 of his sophomore year.

Its unknowable how badly this long striding colt was hampered by Monmouths tighter turns in the Haskell or his inactivity since his grueling match with the Belmont heroine last June.

In May, Curlin proved an extraordinary horse with a Preakness for the ages, running faster on the Equiform scale than any three-year-old this year not named Street Sense. Then last weekend he took measure of an older horse that had run nine furlongs faster than any horse in the storied history of Saratoga.

Curlin looked the part of a winner even as five furlongs remained in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The sense here is that he had some energy in reserve despite the narrow victory margin. Hes back--and hes back with a vengeance.

Street Sense is the most popular three-year-old in the country owing to his throwback quality as a racehorse, likeable connections and, oh yes, as a winner of the Kentucky Derby and Travers, the fourth leg of the Triple Crown no matter what Asmussen thinks about that.

You cant even beat Street Sense when you take him out of his one-run, turn-inhaling game. Your best chance is to hope he strikes the front a few strides from the finish, and your horse is close enough for that to matter. And, of course, youll need to hand him his first 10-furlong defeat.

Even with all this, it will be extremely difficult for this superb sophomore class to duplicate the feat of their contemporaries of 2000. And thats because Pletcher has the best four-year-old in the country to accompany his surface loving three-year-old into the Monmouth starting gate.

Lawyer Ron was a record setting winner of the Whitney and subsequently a completely dominant winner of the Woodward. The only thing he lost in the Jockey Club Gold Cup was a photograph and a horse race.

The defeat was attributed to Lawyer Ron reverting to a head strong style that compromised his classics run last year, a possible regression off his enervating Saratoga performances and, to a lesser extent, the mile and a quarter route. Holes are easily poked in two of these three scenarios.

Consecutive lifetime-best efforts are extremely valid reasons for a regression. But he did gallop out well at the end of the JCGC, its Classic distance seemingly not a serious compromising factor. But the pace was. And not for Lawyer Rons inability to rate kindly.

How was he expected to relax off an opening gambit of :24.28 around a half-turn in that wide, open expanse that is Belmont Parks backstretch run? Given those dynamics he rated fairly well. Whats a little disconcerting, however, was Pletchers and Johnny Velazquezs reaction to this scenario.

This week Pletcher said that after discussing the situation with his rider, they might be better off allowing the colt his head right from the start. Unless he was blowing smoke, it upsets the form when Pletcher voluntarily discusses pre-race strategy. He just doesnt do it. Why now?

Maybe its because he thinks, as many do, that Lawyer Ron would relax better around two real turns. And with Hard Spun signed on, how soft does he think the early fractions will be? Theres just no reason for Team Pletcher to overact to the Gold Cup defeat.

It just may be that Lawyer Ron is the horse to beat in this mega high class Classic struggle, perhaps its best renewal ever. But one thing is clear: Lawyer Rons odds-on to break up the three-year-old superfecta and deny the extraordinary group a berth in Classic history.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, September 27, 2007


Reputation Tarnished, Curlin Seeks Redemption


He arrived on the scene already a star. if the whispers emanating from Florida were true. But it certainly appeared people were jumping the gun. Whats the rush to canonization?

The chestnut colt took the track at Gulfstream Park in February in a typically loaded special-weight maiden sprint for three-year-olds at seven furlongs, and the workout whisperers were betting him down to 5-2.

Didnt these people know there were two horses with excellent form in the field, one with experience at the distance, and that his inside draw didnt figure to help him?

Then Curlin went out and blew their doors off, by almost 13 lengths, in fast time while bearing out the length of the stretch.

Too bad. The way he was getting out down the lane, hell never last, I was thinking. What, hes been sold? For how much? Like Discreet Cat, off one race? Are these people, nuts?

No. I was.

And just like that Helen Pitts was out, Steve Asmussen was in, and the rich got richer.

Why should racing be different?

But they would get their comeuppance, I was certain. Imagine, a Grade 3 two-turner, at a different track, bearing out the length of the stretch in his only sprint start. What are these people, nuts?

No. I was.

Curlin used that Rebel Stakes as a bridge to the G2 Arkansas Derby. But this would be different for sure. The waters are a lot deeper now. And this time its nine furlongs. Are these people nuts?

No. It was me.

Curlin won the Arkansas Derby by nearly 11 and his action was flawless. Watching Robbie Albarado partner him down the backstretch, the colt appeared so fluid it looked like he could have balanced a glass of water on his back.

But an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby? Are these people crazy?

If they were, not by much. By only 10 cents on the dollar: Street Sense; 4.90-1. Curlin; 5.00-1

But serious Derby contender in his fourth lifetime start? Crazy, right?

Again, not by much. Third by eight, behind Street Sense and Hard Spun, after being steadied early and rallying wide into the stretch.

Lost in Street Senses winning rally, from 19th of 20 on the backstretch to first, was the fact Curlin was 14th when Street Sense was 17th at the six-furlong pole.

The Derby may be a hell of a spot to get an education but I guess its true what they say about whatever doesnt kill you makes you stronger.

Certainly, the speed was there, the talent, too, and in the Preakness Curlin would prove that class was there as well.

Calvin Borel saved just as much ground in Baltimore as he did on Street Sense in Louisville. He opened a momentum-building length and a half advantage leaving the three-sixteenths pole. Elmont, here we come.

Wait, here comes Curlin! Wasnt he left for dead at headstretch? Then Street Sense did what he always does after striking the front: He waited. Curlins still coming.

Here comes Street Sense to re-engage. Ding-dong. Ding-dong. Photo finish. Bye-bye Elmont. Bye-bye Triple Crown. Back home to Churchill.

Now its Curlins time, to live up to all that ability, to all that promise. Hello filly.

The Belmont Stakes loss was no disgrace. Far from it. Another head to head battle for the ages. Another photo finish, one that didnt serve a loser.

But, no. Not this time.

Trainer Steve Asmussen didnt lose heart. In fact, quite the opposite. He spoke of Curlin in glowing terms, even in defeat. His confidence was bordering on the arrogant.

As if Curlin didnt lose that photo. As if Curlin werent at least a little fortunate to win that picture in Maryland.

Alls well that ends, however. Time to freshen, recharge the batteries, get ready for the Haskell. Its not often you get a chance to get the feel of the Breeders Cup track for a million bucks.

But this is racing where, on any given Saturday, they all get beat.

Curiously, with his third place Haskell finish, Curlin seemed to lose support. Its not as if he wasnt on the sidelines a few months, coming from a mile and a half marathon three weeks after the Preakness gut-wrencher, and meeting a sharper speed rival on a speed-kind oval.

So as quickly as he became a star hes become the forgotten Triple Crown performer. Even to the point of being disrespected. Maybe its because hes only won once against the divisions best. Maybe its because his trainers been a little cheeky.

Im not sure why everybody has given up on him, said Todd Pletcher this week. Pletcher will saddle favorite Lawyer Ron against Curlin in Sundays Jockey Club Gold Cup. [The Haskell] was his first race back. It was a good third in my opinion.

But it was jockey Robbie Albarados post-Haskell comments that were, well, puzzling. He felt good, he said post-race. Steve does a great job getting this horse ready but [Curlin] just couldnt get it done today. He may have needed a rest today, but hell bounce back and be fine.

He felt good but may have needed a rest today? Unless it was a misquote, what did that mean?

If he needed a rest after coming off a rest, how is that a good thing?

Typical of any trainer with a losing favorite, Asmussen was defensive of his stable star, as in were proud of him, wouldnt trade places with anyone, etc., etc.

Hard to think that Curlin can beat Lawyer Ron on Sunday, who is older, faster, and owns a recent conditioning edge on the Preakness hero. And Asmussen knows that a Classic victory is Curlins only chance for post-season honors. Not all screws will be fastened tightly.

But to get his favorable reputation back, Curlin must run well, look like a horse that will benefit from his race to emerge a viable Classic contender next month.

I expect him to run a good race Saturday, [sic] said Pletcher, rival trainer and still Curlin fan. Id be cautious to say anything negative about what Curlin has done, or will do in the future.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, September 21, 2007


Disparate Industry Factions Short Sighted On Takeout Issue


If youre a serious horseplayer wagering serious money, the news out of Kansas City earlier this week wasnt promising. Of greater significance, it doesnt augur well for the future of the game, either.

The occasion was the National Simulcasting Conference. Appropriately, the subject of takeout was among the more pressing issues. And the bottom line--for modern racetracks and for future horseplayers--wasnt good.

There were three glaring problems with some of the comments, however. In terms of growing the business, the takeout experiments conducted at second tier race meets in competition with the two 500-pound gorillas of summer; Saratoga and Del Mar, were doomed from the start.

The second is that the lower take experiments conducted at Laurel Park and Ellis Park didnt have a fair chance because they werent given nearly enough time, especially Laurels 10-day stand.

The third is the nature of simulcasting itself.
Starting in the 1970s at the New York tracks, the NYRAs non-profit model allowed for a sensible time period in which lower takeout could generate added revenue. Three extended lower-takeout periods were conducted and the lower rate produced increased handle every time.

The result of our experiment left us with a big question mark, said CEO Lou Raffetto by phone from Laurel Park Thursday morning. Our on-track fans came up and thanked me for the lower takeout. That was nice. But as I said before, it was a PR bonanza and a financial bust.

The lower take didnt matter when going up against Saratoga and Del Mar, he continued. And we were caught in a Catch-22 in that big bettors only want to play into large pools. Were handling about $3 million a day at the fall meet now but only about $1.5 million [at the 10-day summer meet]. The only gains we made were with Internet players who tend to be more savvy when it comes to takeout.

The concept of churn--the less you take the more you make--was not only hindered by the brevity of the experiment but by the nature of simulcasting itself. Pre-simulcasting, bettors had a choice of nine races a day and the more money returned to them, the more they bet back in the next race. Simulcasting changed that.

If one of our fans hit a $300 trifecta that paid $340 because of the lower take, he took the extra money and played the upcoming trifecta at Philly Park where the [trifecta] take is 30 percent. When it comes to takeout, some fans just dont get it, said Raffetto.

Lower takeout produced mixed results elsewhere under mitigating circumstances. At Ellis Park, new owner and track president Ron Geary lowered the take on the tracks Pick Four wager to four percent. Even with many outlets refusing to take the bet, Pick Four handle nearly doubled from $19,282 daily to $35,085.

Also in competition with Saratoga and Del Mar, there was no trickle down from the Pick Four to individual races. Geary will not decide until early next year whether to continue the experiment. In order to get it off the ground, there was much political compromise on how the lower revenues would be split. Outside the Commonwealth and in Maryland, for that matter, there was much gnashing of teeth over signal fees and projected lower revenues.

The area for growth everyone agreed on was the positive effect innovative wagers and fractional betting, such as dime superfectas and fifty-cent trifectas, had on handle.

But, once again, tracks objected to fractional betting, citing extraordinary gains in superfecta wagering with the new minimums but a cannibalization of other pools such as the trifecta and exacta.

Of course, this thinking is short-sighted. With superfecta payoffs being at least four times greater on average than trifectas, discerning players rightfully figured that the leverage provided by fractional betting more than compensated for the higher degree of difficulty.

The smaller exacta handle cited by some lower-tier tracks that experienced superfecta gains is counter-intuitive. Exactas are a perfect leveraging wager for superfecta players, at least from a personal perspective and bettors we talk with. Or maybe players simply prefer more bang for their buck. Everyone likes to bet a little to win a lot.

The $2 Magna Five was given as an example of how tracks successfully increased bottom line revenues. But the figures provided ignored other factors. Widely promoted, the Pick Five is a national wager combining races from as many as three tracks, two of them winter juggernauts Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita. The races often feature popular graded stakes.

The wonder is whether a $1 Pick Five would turn a mid-six-figure weekly handle into a seven- figure one. Contrarily, the MEC brain trust believes that carryovers produce a greater windfall the following week, increasing revenue overall, while in the interim they collect interest on the carryover money.

In terms of how takeout affects revenue optimization, modern math experts believe the rate of take that optimizes revenue lies between eight and 10 percent, which shows how much times have changed.

In March of 1991, the University of Louisville commissioned a study to determine the optimum rate of takeout. It was found at the time, when simulcasting was in its infancy, that number was 12.5 percent. Based on that figure, Raffetto came up with a blue skies scenario:

This would work best at tracks with slots to offset short-term losses, he explained. In a perfect world, takeout at all tracks would be 12.5 percent. All outlets then would have to agree to charge no more than 2.5 percent for its signal. The shortfall could be made up by charging rebate shops 4.5 percent.

Those figures might need some tweaking, but these rates would level the playing field for all bettors and optimize profits by structuring the precise price at which demand meets supply.

Because rebate shops boast huge per capita handle and low overhead, they can afford a fee increase and still operate profitably. This way, the small bettor can win the same proportionate amount as the whale. And while the whale gets a lower rebate rate, he still enjoys the benefits of lower takeout, a win-win.

Unless tracks and their states realize they would benefit more from getting a smaller slice of a much larger pie, that pie will remain where it is right now: In the sky.

Written by John Pricci

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