Monday, February 24, 2014

Gulfstream Stewards Got It Right; Ritvo Calls for Transparency, Televising Inquiry Process

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 23, 2014—Take this from someone who’s been there, although not to the extent of $1.6 million.

Long ago in a land far away, a place called Saratoga, I rushed into the stewards stand after the second race on Saturday afternoon, August 2, 1986, to inform the New York stewards that when they disqualified Allumeuse, they had taken down the wrong horse.

But that was like a day at Frank’s Beach compared to what happened in the finale on Fountain of Youth day when $20 million was wagered on the Fountain of Youth program, the first time that figure was surpassed in the new structure on a non-Florida Derby day race card.

With over $1.2 million dollars in the carryover pot and another half-million spent chasing it on Saturday, there was to be a single winner of $1.6 million in the Rainbow 6 jackpot when 15-1 Collinito finished first beneath Luis Saez.

But then the stewards posted an inquiry and jockey Paco Lopez, on 39-1 shot Strategic Keeper, lodged an objection against Saez for alleged interference soon after entering the stretch.

The Florida stewards, after their usual lengthy deliberations, disqualified Collinito from first and placed him second.

Ironically, even though Strategic Keeper was more than double the odds of Collinito, there was more than one winning ticket on the winning 11-12-3-5-4-13 sequence paying over $36,600, thus creating a carryover into the Sunday program of more than $1.3 million.

Two observations: It was the worst beat at the races I’ve seen. And while it would have been a very close call either way, the stewards made the right call. Clearly, I’m in the minority of horseplayers here.

Saturday night and early Sunday morning, the Twitterverse and the chat room exploded, the sentiment running almost 4-1 against the disqualification.

Able to watch the stewards’ tapes of the incident more times than I can remember on Sunday afternoon, with slow-motion capability, did nothing to dissuade my original position that the disqualification, while a close one, was righteous and just.

Soon after entering the stretch, Collinito drifted out approximately four paths into the lane occupied Strategic Keeper, forcing Lopez twice to bend his mount in half. Further, the second finisher appeared to lug in, compelling Lopez to gather his mount, which only added to the confusion. But the harm already had been done.

Upon straightening out in deep stretch and getting clear to the outside of Collinito, Strategic Keeper re-rallied and was getting to Collinito rapidly in the final strides, losing by a rapidly diminishing neck.

In my view, the original winner caused a lot more than a neck’s worth of trouble, thus the disqualification. Saez was suspended three days for the infraction.

Observers are allowed to see these incidents in a different way, the reason why they are referred to as judgment calls. Controversial judgment calls happen in virtually all sports, only not when people are legally betting their money on the outcome. And let’s face it; horseplayers, even if their concerns are largely ignored by track executives, are a vocal lot, mostly negative in nature, especially when it involves winning and losing.

I will wager that no bettor before or after Saturday’s 12th race at Gulfstream Park ever will have suffered a worse “beat.”

By definition, parimutuel wagering is a zero-sum game and arguably as many bettors benefitted from the decision than were harmed; the fact that more Rainbow 6 tickets were sold using #13 speaks to that.

But American horse racing, with its lack of transparency on virtually every level, deserves the cynicism it sows. For instance, I don’t want to read why stewards made their decisions after the fact.

I, and the majority of horseplayers I know, want to see the foul adjudication process live and in real time. Simply install a camera in the stewards’ stand, turn on the audio, and allow bettors to eavesdrop on the proceedings.

HRI questioned Gulfstream President and CEO Tim Ritvo Sunday afternoon about televising the review process and other issues arising from Saturday’s disqualification:

“I love the idea,” said Ritvo. “A live camera in there would give us full transparency. We do it at the [Kentucky] Derby once a year. Why not do it all the time?”

HRI: Will-Pays are no longer posted for the Rainbow 6 although the information is readily available. Why?

A: “The tote company would not provide Will-Pays after the Fair Grounds incident a few years ago. There was a late scratch in the final race in their jackpot bet and a bettor with the scratched horse was moved to the post time favorite by rule.

“When the favorite won, there were two live tickets instead of one. They’re afraid they would be liable in some way when things like this happen.”

“If that happens to a bettor here and the scratched horse makes him live to the post-time favorite winner, we pay the jackpot as long as the ticket belongs to one bettor and the sequence is on one ticket.”

HRI: Were you involved in the decision making process with the stewards via phone which some observers said they saw during the process? It was also reported on HRTV that you had a ‘sick look’ on your face when the inquiry sign went up?

A: “I had no contact with the stewards and phone records would prove that. I am [not a litigious person] but we’re thinking about suing those persons. Besides, [stewards] Don Brumfield and Jeffrey Noe would never listen to me.

“The sick look on my face is because the last thing I want to see in the final race are foul claims, horses scratched at the gate or a rider falling off his horse. I don’t want to see anything happen that might give bettors the wrong impression.”

HRI: Some sharp bettors, citing a turf race won by Old Time Hockey, claim the stewards have exhibited something of a laissez faire policy in the adjudication of turf races this meet, forgiving more contact than they would on dirt. Is that accurate, and where is the consistency in officiating?

A: “I’d have to look at that race, but I’ll tell you this. They took down Javier Castellano one day when he was four in front turning for home for drifted out. “He blamed it on the lights or shadows or something. If you look at that race you'll see the consistency of [Saturday’s] call.”

HRI: As of mid-Sunday morning, only the Am-West website was showing the head-on replay of the final race even though they showed the head-on in all other races. What happened?

A: “I have no idea. We showed it here while the stewards were looking at their films. The idea that that was a conspiracy is absurd. There are a lot of gray decisions in racing but we stand behind [Saturday’s] stewards decision one hundred percent.”

HRI: In general, doesn’t the lack of transparency in these kinds of incidents have an adverse effect on wagering integrity?

A: “Throughout the history of our game, there have always been controversial calls. In sports like football or basketball today, officials can watch replays. In racing, the stewards can look at things over and over for as long as it takes from every angle, including slow-motion.”

HRI:Gulfstream has a vested interest in the results since carryovers generate added handle. Isn’t this true and how much of a difference does this make?

A: “On a good weekend, $500,000 is bet into a carryover pool, $300,000 during the week. The blended takeout rate is 20 percent for the entire country so that leaves $100,000 for all the tracks. Our share of that is 7 percent, of which 3.5 percent goes to the horsemen, that’s about $35,000 for us.”

HRI: Is there a chance that Saturday’s incident could result in a criminal investigation?

A: “We are completely confident the stewards made the right decision and would have no problem talking to anybody about it. We feel bad for the customer, it probably was the worst bad beat ever. But I have not gotten any calls about it from the customer complaining about the decision.”

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Candy Is Dandy

HALLANDALE, FL, February 12, 2014—Count me among those who were impressed by Candy Boy’s victory in the Robert B Lewis Memorial and underwhelmed with Midnight Hawk on Saturday and in future Grade 1s.

Perfect trip notwithstanding [good horses make their own perfect trips, see Lea], the way he lengthened stride, at and passing the finish line while well within himself [see pricking ears] indicates to me the longer, the merrier.

With the big weekend in South Florida, I did not pay enough attention to the Lewis pre-race; my bad.

But it was my stupid, too, because this was the horse that made that wild middle move in the G1 Cash Call following a tardy start and continued on well enough to finish second behind the undefeated and back-in-training Shared Belief

That move would have buried lesser stock. Gary Stevens wisely took the return call after working him five times, simultaneously learning and teaching.

“I just wanted Gary to be patient,” trainer John Sadler said on TV after the race. Well, he must have said something before the race, too.

Approaching the far turn in the Lewis, Stevens had a cat-bird’s seat of a three-pronged battle directly in front of him and instead of asking his mount when odds-on Midnight Hawk went after the leaders in earnest, Stevens reached down and took another hold.


As the three-ply battle was to continue into the homestretch, Stevens let out a bit or rein, tipped Candy Boy four wide, allowed the colt to gain momentum on his own, rode him in earnest at the eighth pole then allowed his mount to do the rest late.

I’m a figures guy, but this race wasn’t about running time--a very solid 1.41.83 for 1-1/16 miles with a big gallop-out. It was about the manner of victory and power-packed stride. It belied a pedigree that doesn’t scream 1-1/4 miles, as a son of Candy Ride from the In Excess mare, She’s an Eleven.

But Candy Boy’s victory spoke loudly as to ability. Sadler, who doesn’t have a great amount of success when he leaves SoCal, might have a runner that could make that observation moot. I can’t wait to see him run again, and I won’t be surprised if he skips the next dance and awaits the Santa Anita Derby.

But Lochte Is Quicker If Calder-based “claiming trainer” Marcus Vitali wants to get to Disney World by the fastest route, he should pay jockey Orlando Bocachica a pretty penny to handle the driving assignment.

Saturday's Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap was the first Grade 1 win in the careers of both men. Good for them. And good for Lochte, a rapidly developing early season four year old.

Anyone who can read past performances knew that the improving Medaglia d’Oro gelding likes the Hallandale course and his last race, a low level allowances, was a career best from a performance figure perspective.

Vitali realized it, too, and when the grandson of Lemon Drop Kid came back with a bullet blowout at his Miami Lakes base, they assessed the competition and decided to take their shot. B-I-N-G-O!

The event more closely resembled an aspiring Grade 1 than the real deal—not that there weren’t talented runners in the group--but most were proven Grade 2 runners and Grade 1 wannabes. In the case of runners-up Imagining and Amira’s Prince, they're likely to earn G1 status sooner rather than later; both ran well in defeat.

Durkin, Spadaro Back in Action In case you were watching the ponderous opening ceremonies from Sochi and missed it, the boys from Tuscany--harness racing sage Joe Spadaro of Saratoga, and the legendary track announcer from Floral Park--were making some noise in East Rutherford.

Coraggioso, making his second start off a lengthy layoff and having missed a week due to the track’s Super Bowl hiatus, trotted a mile in 1:52 4/5 on the engine throughout while racing into a moderate head wind.

Now in the hands of husband and wife team of trainer Julie Miller and driver Andy, the New York-bred earned a lifetime mark with his victory and never appeared in danger of being defeated in the C1/B2 handicap.

Making some training and warm-up changes to his routine, Coraggioso responded well, trotting the mile one full second faster than A1/FFA handicappers earlier on the card.

In fairness, parenthetically, the FFA handicap was a 5-horse field with a half-mile pace [can you even say that?] 4/5s of a second slower than Coraggioso’s and little or no lead challenges. The time would have been slower still had John Campbell not attempted a mid-race move a la Stevens in the Cash Call.

The effort likely will move Coraggioso into B-1 company, the race scheduled for Friday night.

Will New Meadowlands Get a Casino? Bet on it, even if it needs state-wide approval and support from South Jersey political interests.

There was an interesting editorial in the Bergen Record calling Gov. Christie’s five-year plan for Atlantic City a failed project—this is year three—and endorsing a casino for the new North Jersey sports complex as a better means to fund urban renewal in the state’s major cities.

Increased competition from Pennsylvania and New York have hurt the Atlantic City casinos and the improvements slated for Atlantic City’s revival never materialized and are unlikely to, according to the Record.

A casino in the Meadowlands sports complex is the tonic that can help keep the state’s casino gamblers home instead of crossing the Hudson to play in Yonkers or South Ozone Park (if there are enough lanes open on the GWB to get there, of course).

Plans already are in place with a major casino operator. Once the five-year moratorium against casino expansion is lifted, there will be a ritzy destination casino a short drive from midtown Manhattan. (There’s always the tunnel and Route 3).

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, February 03, 2014

Will Handicapping Contests Ever Resemble Real World Betting?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 30, 2014—Thanks to a controversial finish and lots of media outcry both pro and con, handicapping contests have been making front page racing news again. This was on my mind as I watched the latest National Handicapping Champion present a trophy at Santa Anita over the weekend.

If anyone is unfamiliar with the story, it involves the tactics used by the winner in the last race of the recent contest finals in which an attempt was made to either hedge his bet against his most serious challenger or, in some way, an attempt to manipulate the payoff on a rival’s horse by deflating the odds with a last-minute win-pool plunge.

I agree with those who posited that Jose Arias did nothing wrong; that it is part of a winning strategy that was within National Handicapping Championship rules. The last time I looked, there was nothing wrong about trying to take money out of a race by any legal means necessary, either parimutuelly or, in this instance, within handicapping tournament guidelines.

Hedging, or making “saver wagers” will continue given this same scenario unless and until the rules are changed to prevent this practice--which may be unenforceable--by not posting player’s selections until after the betting pools are closed. Hungry as all tracks and their ADWs are for handle, there probably will be no urgency to make changes.

Saver bets are, of course, something that’s done every day, the most common being to cover horses unused in the final leg(s) of horizontal Pick wagers either by wagering straight on longshots or taking favorites in top of “alive” horses in the vertical pools; exactas, trifectas, superfectas and the like.

But make no mistake: Playing in handicapping contests is not the same thing as conventional betting. By definition, handicapping is about picking winners, and a multitude of winners likely would carry the day even for the worst money managers.

Picking winners and making money often is a completely different mindset, especially in tournaments where money management and strategizing against a finite number of opponents often will trump handicapping prowess. Promoting handicapping contests is a sexy marketing stratagem; a money management contest is a non-starter, sounds too much like work.

In the real world of the horse racing, there’s always tomorrow. Indeed, without that promise there likely would be no industry. It’s axiomatic that a trainer would never die if he thought he had a 2-year-old capable of winning next year’s Kentucky Derby. For the horseplayer, it’s the promise of tomorrow’s past performances.

No serious horseplayer, or weekend warrior who takes handicapping seriously, would come down to the final race in the midst of a bad day and tap out on some wild longshot whose only attraction is the payoff on the odds board. Even rank and file bettors know when it’s time to just fold ‘em.

But the contest player who’s paid his entrance fee has nothing to lose by throwing a Hail Mary deep into the parimutuel end-zone. Yes, the winning contestant must choose the correct longshot. But taking a price shot is much easier when there’s no other choice; if he’s far behind but still dreams of wining, betting one of the top three choices that wins about 75 percent of the time doesn’t work.

Of the contest formats currently in use, the one that most resembles real world conditions is the live money contest in which bettors pay an entrance fee but must dedicate the majority of their fixed bankroll to that day’s wagering account, just as a conventional horseplayer might buy a betting voucher.

Betting greenbacks is as real as it gets, and real-world handicapping demands that players try to assess a horse’s real chances of victory at proper odds. Just as we thought that the graded-earnings qualifier for the Kentucky Derby needed overhauling, so, too, do handicapping contests. Last race “stabbing” should be minimized to reward handicappers who made good, consistent selections throughout the contest.

Rewarding consistent, handicapping excellence should be a value that’s put in place, as a teaching tool for neophytes or possible converts. This is how the game should best be played to achieve long term profitability, the long haul being important to health of the individual and the industry.

Maybe a weighted points system, one that takes into account payoffs that fall within certain prices ranges: less than 8-5 might be worth 3 points; 8-5 to 3-1, 4 points; 7-2 to 6-1, 5 points; 6-1 to 9-1, 6 points, 10-1 or more 9 points. This is just one example.

The above would reward both consistency and creativity once the handicapper makes an honest assessment of any horse’s real chances of victory and its odds; the definition of value. Good, consistent handicapping should matter. Isn’t trying to pick winners without going on tilt what this game should be about?

We’ve written about this before. At that time, regular contributor Top Turf Teddy thinks the answer is to simply multiply the number of winners by the dollar total accumulated. Indulto would like to see the most winners rewarded over a broad spectrum of events; races run over disparate surfaces, distances, and at different venues, since different conditions require different skill sets.

My good friend, the late, great Cary Fotias, had a different take. In 2012, he wrote here: “No format is perfect, or even close to it. I measure my performance in real life by the month, not a day or two. For professionals, this game is won in the long run. I've had three losing YEARS over the last two decades…

“It's nothing unusual for me to lose 20 bets in a row as I am usually betting on ’value’ horses at 4/1 or higher. While I prefer live-money contests, as they most closely resemble real-life wagering, they have their flaws also…

“My favorite event is the $10,000 Breeders Cup tournament. Of the $10,000, $7,500 is your live betting bankroll and $2,500 goes to prize money... Unless players have deep, deep pockets, they have to treat their bets with respect. For that same reason, several top tournament poker players can't cut it in a cash game…

If the DRF/NTRA want to better measure handicapping proficiency, they should run a year-long tournament consisting of, say, 10 races per weekend, every week. Each player would be required to make 400 bets over the course of the year. I say 400 because that allows 12 weeks off for those who can't make it every weekend and [permits] contestants to pass certain races, just like real life.”

Written by John Pricci

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