Sunday, May 29, 2016

Figs Don’t Lie: Canterbury and Pimlico Post Significant Gains

HALLANDALE BEACH, May 29, 2016—Long term, the jury on the takeout experiment at Canterbury Park will be sequestered for quite a long time.

But after reviewing the initial evidence, skeptics who questioned whether horseplayers would support a track in the hinterlands with their betting dollars against prime time rivals have been found guilty as charged.

There is one important takeaway for the industry, that no matter which branch of the sport practitioners engage in they need to learn this: Horseplayers Matter.

Whether the opening weekend momentum can be sustained over time is going to keep the jury out for quite some time, which is something that the Shakopee, Minnesota track has pledged to give it.

Canterbury’s bold decision to lower takeout to 15% in the straight pools and 18% on all exotics was well received by racing and social media alike. Sunday’s program is the fifth of a 69-day race meet.

The aim, of course, is prove once again that lower takeout rates will stimulate betting volume so that at worst the experiment would prove revenue-neutral at the bottom line while at best it would increase profitability.

Takeout reductions have spiked handle everywhere it’s been implemented since the ‘70s. There’s no logical reason for it not to succeed again, especially given that savvy present-day horseplayers have become price sensitive, knowing the simulcast market gives them options.

Shopping for value before the handicapping begins is mandatory since there are so few of us left, making it difficult for the horse-playing 99% to find an edge. Today’s loyal customer is better educated, and there’s more handicapping data available than ever before.

Given this new reality, Canterbury is supposed to show substantial gains and it will with player support. The Shakopee track lacks a national presence but horseplayers have lent their support for the reduced-take experiment. Once again there’s data proving that churn works.

Betting handle has increased and, on a percentage basis, increased dramatically, Saturday notwithstanding. The attendant publicity Canterbury has garnered, along with an instant decision to scuttle a higher takeout Jackpot bet—helped enable big gains on opening weekend, May 20.

Field size was moderate last weekend yet Canterbury posted increases of 34% for the Friday opener; 20% on Saturday despite Preakness competition, and a staggering 48% last Sunday. Canterbury races Friday nights and Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

There will be a Memorial Day program on Monday.

This weekend began well, too, with Friday posting a gain of 17% year over year. But on Saturday Canterbury got slammed. Bad weather and a sealed wet track against the sport’s biggest markets--most enjoying good weather—was too big a mountain to climb.

After scratches, Canterbury’s eight races Saturday averaged six starters, including four seven-horse fields. Three turf races were rescheduled to dirt and handle for the day was only $325,894. In all, 48 runners competed for total purses worth $148,500.

Resultantly, handle was down a whopping 47% compared to 2015, but four out of five days ain’t bad, good for an overall boost of 9.1% for the first five days of racing.

I have looked at the past performances for the highest-pursed races for five days and bet from $10 to $24 at each session, Preakness day notwithstanding. On balance, the racing has been good and form held well.

(Thanks to Foolhardy [$26.20], we’re ahead for Canterbury [see Friday’s Feature Race Analysis page]. And I will continue to support the track that wants to help support me).

Looking back, the two stakes offered opening weekend, the 10000 Lakes Friday night and the Paul Bunyan Sunday afternoon, were good, competitive events on paper and played that way. Those races, filled with some nice runners, were quite handicappable.

Admittedly, the dirt track was a little speed crazy opening weekend--albeit not as much as Woodbine’s was Monday for its special Victoria Day program.

I have no experience as to whether this bias trend will prevail but certainly we saw nothing that proved extraordinary. Speed, especially tactical pressers, have historically done well at the Minnesota track on both dirt and turf, around one turn or two.

Two-turn turf routes give stout closers their best chances to win, but do try to avoid double-digit outside posts on either surface whenever possible.

The turf races play like they do at most other venues, although there aren’t many last-to-first dynamics at longer distances like those seen most everywhere else. Generally, it’s always best to think speed, the universal bias.

Preakness Sets All-Time Records in Handle and Attendance

The good karma surrounding Maryland racing this year, due mostly to major improvements made at Laurel Park for the winter meet, might, in the final analysis, be helping downtrodden Pimlico.

Attendance records reportedly were broken for both the Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness day programs and the second jewel of the Triple Crown turned out be an aesthetic success despite dreary weather and the defeat of super gallant Nyquist.

Total handle on the 14-race Preakness program, featuring seven other stakes, was a record $94,127,434, eclipsing the previous mark of $91,028,704 set 11 years ago. Total handle was up 10.8 percent year over year, with attendance up 2.5 percent.

Alas, the hangover effect from American Pharoah’s Triple Crown accomplishments turned out to be a good thing. While ratings were spotty for this year’s Derby, the undefeated Triple Crown-eligible Nyquist attracted a half-million more viewers than Pharoah did last year.

NBC’s coverage averaged 9.4 million viewers, 6% more than last year’s 8.9 million. The 9.4 million viewers plateau was 200,000 fewer than California Chrome’s two years ago and Oxbow’s 9.7 million mark the year before that. Numbers like this have not been seen since the early 2000s.

Additionally, over 3.1 million minutes of coverage were streamed live on the Internet, a gain of 221% over 2015, with a record 115,000 unique users.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Record-Breaking Preakness Weekend: Saga of Triumph and Tragedy

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 23, 2016—Just got to love Thoroughbred racing’s Classics: All of it; the pomp, circumstances and performances; animals giving their all, expert horsemanship and, of course, controversy. What’s racing without it?

First the bad news: Leave it to the Drudge Report and other major media outlets, even in my local television market, to lead their Preakness coverage with the two equine fatalities that occurred early Preakness day.

The tagline, by the way, was “Exaggerator won the Preakness denying Nyquist his bid for the Triple Crown.”

What did I expect? What should the industry expect when it gives its horsemen’s groups power to lord over everything, especially leading the opposition to national standardized medication rules and independent, federal oversight of testing procedures?

Before hearing from the Excuse 101 department, this is not about a government takeover.

It’s about the Feds appointing an independent agency, such as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, to mandate standardized medications thresholds and uniform, meaningful sanctions without scape-goating tactics.

It’s about rules and sanctions being administered by appointed board regulators; USADA board members acting in concert with industry appointed regulators.

Why should change come? Because optics matter and so that when equine deaths occur, it would be a portion of big-event racing coverage, not its lead media item.

Another reason is so that PETA officials lodge its concerns with government appointed officials and not take shots at the industry as it did upon learning of the incidents:

“In today's racing drug culture,” said one PETA official, “at least three horses are dying every day on U.S. tracks. The foolish use of muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatory drugs and other [raceday] medications must end now."

Racing’s practitioners, horseplayers and fans realize that accidents are, and always will be, an unfortunate part of the game. All must recognize that many “accidents” can be avoided, except for bad steps and apparent cardiac arrest.

The death of gelded nine-year-old Homeboykris, a former Champagne Stakes winner, from an apparent coronary after winning the Preakness day opener could have been the result of many factors, including an adverse reaction to medication, legal or otherwise.

Owned by Barbaro’s connections, painfully aware of what happened on Preakness day a decade ago, Pramedya took an apparent a bad step on a wet but safe turf course. Too bad she had to suffer a tragic end on one of the few days the whole world watches, as ironic as it is heartbreaking.

Thrown heavily, jockey Daniel Centeno was “fortunate” to suffer a broken right clavicle, but an injury that will keep him on the ground for six to eight weeks.

Great Horsemanship on Display at Preakness

Another element to consider in light of fatalities is how racing’s “drug culture” can blur some of the great horsemanship on display not only at Pimlico Saturday but available in some measure every day at every Thoroughbred venue throughout the U.S.

Nyquist no longer is perfect, but it’s highly likely that Nyquist would not have achieved as much as he has if trainer Doug O’Neill weren’t calling the shots.

O’Neill’s somewhat unorthodox interval-training methodology is more old school than original but it’s to his credit that he recognized exactly what his horse needed for peak performance.

“Nyquist had such a strong campaign,” O’Neill said on a recent NTRA Preakness teleconference.

“I had to nurse him through it. I learned that when you hit a fitness plateau you’ve got to give them rest. You need a good grasp as horses as individuals--feed tub in the morning, winning his races; it’s working.”

And it still is. All that Nyquist lost yesterday was a horse race, and its welcome news that the Preakness-vanquished Derby winner will continue on to New York, according to a report from Pimlico Sunday morning. He is slated to ship Monday morning.

For handicappers looking forward to the champion’s test, it wasn’t pedigree that prevented Nyquist form remaining undefeated; it was a toxic, pressured pace which allowed uber classy, mud-loving Exaggerator to pounce on Nyquist at headstretch.

The Derby winner never had a chance to exhale in Baltimore, unlike an apparently anxious Mario Gutierrez did soon after setting foot on the sloppy surface for the post parade as if he knew what was coming--coming at him in waves.

A Poor Man's Affirmed-Alydar

O’Neill also said something else on the NTRA call in reference to main rival Exaggerator. “Keith [Desormeaux] is a super competitive guy. What they have done with that horse is brilliant.”

Like O’Neill, Desormeaux knows his horse. It wasn’t long after the Derby that Desormeaux referenced Exaggerator’s recuperative powers. “There’s not much you can do in two weeks fitness-wise. I just wanted to keep him happy and fresh,” said Desormeaux pre-race.

On Sunday morning he reiterated the message: “I’ve been preaching about my horse’s recuperative powers. He rests, he eats well, and 24 hours later he’s full of energy.” This augurs well for the Belmont, that and the way he looked post-race.

As Desormeaux said on national TV afterward. “It’s three weeks to the Belmont; we’ll be there with bells on.”

While Exaggerator legitimately turned the duel into a real rivalry, he did so on his preferred wet footing--a 3-1/2 length tour-de-force despite idling in deep stretch--but the scoreboard still reads Nyquist 4-Exaggerator 1.

Wet or dry, we’ll wager that this classic-looking will continue to narrow his rival’s advantage.

What Dead Rail; Kent Knows the Best Way Home

While the wet Pimlico surface was muddy and sealed throughout the day, the rain that fell nearing Preakness post helped level the playing field for all. Horses running on the rail through the stretch tired throughout the day in race after race.

But late showers rendered the track sloppy so that no particular path held an advantage. Kent later would tell his brother, who was concerned about the inside, that he tested it in pre-race warmups and found the rail to be no worse than the rest of the surface.

And what ostensibly appeared to be a premature move was actually perfectly timed. In the end, Nyquist, challenged throughout on both sides through very fast early fractions, Desormeaux pounced on Nyquist just as the favorite’s challengers tired.

What was encouraging for Nyquist fans is that once Gutierrez--who may or may not have had an opportunity to try Plan B and back off Uncle Lino as the pair entered the backstretch--angled Nyquist outside his rival in midstretch.

Nyquist re-rallied briefly but the pace had taken a toll. He was unable withstand the game late run of another mud-lark, Cherry Wine, for the place.

"3-5" Stradavari Disappoints

Making only his fourth lifetime start, Stradavari ran on well for fourth but certainly didn’t look the part of an odds-on favorite. We’re being facetious here, but once again racing is the embarrassed victim of age-old technology, human error, or simple rule-breaking.

There has been no official explanation of what happened during advance Preakness wagering. Apparently, no one has found an answer or hasn’t had enough time to conjure up an excuse.

Early Preakness morning, TVG posted advance-betting odds for the Preakness and all appeared routine. At the time, the two favorites were very close in odds and Stradavari was a clear cut if distant third choice.

At approximately 12:20 pm, an announcement was made that one bettor at Laurel apparently wagered $80,000 to win on Stradavari. From memory, Nyquist resultantly went up to about 2-1 and Exaggerator was 7-2. The rest were double digits-to-1.

At about 3 p.m. Stradavari’s odds had drifted up to 3-2 while Nyquist ticked down to 8-5.

But the next time we noted the odds an hour or so later, the prices posted approximated the off odds, those prices holding through the final hour of wagering: 3-5 on the favorite, 5-2 on the second choice, and 8-1 on Stradavari.

Though possible, it’s highly improbable for the final odds to change so dramatically again had the $80,000 wager not been canceled.

Some tracks such as New York’s places time restrictions on cancellations. Many have a rule that once a bettor leaves the window, he owns the ticket. In light of nine-figure handle totals, horseplayers are owed a clear explanation.

An expected phone call from an official to explain what occurred was not forthcoming.

Future Hall of Famer?

In juxtaposition to Homeboykris—winning his 14th race in 63 career starts--is legendary 10-year-old Ben’s Cat. On Friday, “the Cat” made a magical final-strides surge between rivals to win his fifth Jim McKay Turf Sprint, career victory 32 from 55 lifetime starts. He’s earned $2.54 million in the hardest way possible for Hall of Famer King Leatherbury.

The 83-year-old was asked after the race how he keeps Ben’s Cat going: “To tell you the truth, he’s the one who keeps me going.” Only in racing will you find such stories.

Ben’s Cat is four victories shy of another legendary gelding, the great John Henry. Whether this old boy reaches or surpasses that milestone should be immaterial. Ben’s Cat is a great horse, deserving of his own plaque on Union Avenue.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Promoting Greed Hurting Bettors and Bet-Takers

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 15, 2016—Bitch, bitch, bitch…that’s all horseplayers and certain segments of the media do. Complain and complain and complain and…

Well, here’s a suggestion for industry movers and shakers who feel that way: Just stop providing the grist for our bitchy mills.

ITEM: Kentucky Derby Is Always on the First Saturday in May

Always, and without fail. It’s an American institution, the embodiment of Americana, right?

So why doesn’t various bet takers—mostly referencing you, ADWs--invest a little revenue in needed bandwidth, for the sole and express purpose and earning more revenue?

Never mind that you’re in a service industry and all you really need do is to provide prompt service to customers in the only area that matters: wagering.

Every year, what happened at last week and at a couple of Las Vegas casinos--and likely others with which we are unaware—is that the system, not the players, go on tilt.

The question is shouldn’t all segments of the industry invest in the latest technology, whatever the individual cost, to properly handle the final hour of wagering on the Kentucky Derby?

Damn right they should.

The first Saturday of May is the one day when casual sports fans and the public at large become aware that there is a famous horse race taking place, and that’s it’s customary to bet on it.

It’s difficult enough getting a Derby bet down in the final hour of wagering when all systems are up and running smoothly and all parimutuel windows are manned everywhere.

Volume causes chaos: This comes as a surprise to no one, except possibly those whose job it is to provide a service. The mindset seems to be let’s alienate “Christmas and Easter bettors” so they would never think it a good idea to visit a racetrack one day.

And here’s something vocal betting critics fail to consider on the subject of service: Convenience betting online may be the present and future of the game, but only exposure to a racetrack can create a racing fan for life; it’s about horseplayer DNA.

Besides, not investing in technology assures that the game will disappear from public view altogether in the next decade or two just as the latest generation approaches middle age.

And we’re not even considering growth here, only suggesting that it might be a good idea to properly service an aging, dwindling fan base and the occasional newbie who bothers to find what all the fuss is about on Derby day.

According to a recent poll, horse racing is the favorite sport of exactly 1% of the population, ranked behind swimming and track and field. SWIMMING!

ITEM: Carryovers vs. Jackpots vs. Consolations; Consternation Abounds:

Today, Sunday, there are no less than a dozen carryovers or jackpot carryovers available at popular venues throughout the country. Of course, Jackpot Carryovers refer to pools where bonanzas are paid out only to a single winner.

Equibase correctly describes the wager as such; racing’s paper of record, Daily Racing Form, incorrectly insists on a sweeping “carryover” designation. “Jackpot Carryover” would eliminate any confusion, but that would be too easy.

All current routine promotion; Internet, print, closed-circuit TV hosts, etc., is consumed with selling life-changing scores—lowest common denominator lottery advertising—instead of promoting wagers with a lower degree of difficulty that keeps the customer liquid and coming back for more.

As HRI’s Mark Berner wrote last week with respect to New York’s Pick Six wager, the bet has become anachronistic with the advent of fractional wagering in Pick pools such as the Pick 3, Pick 4 and Pick 5.

At the recently concluded Keeneland meet in which attendance and handle rebounded extremely well from 2015, I surmised that the Pick 5 made more sense to chase than the Pick 4.

That might sound counter-intuitive but it’s not, why? Because Keeneland’s Pick 5, like Gulfstream’s, comes with a built-in P4 Consolation that makes more wagering sense than playing the less difficult Pick 4.

Racetracks in particular play to, and count on, the greed factor in their advertising, pandering to the biggest bettors instead of taking care of racing’s 99%. It’s the reason why tracks think they fool bettors by listing, say, Superfecta payouts based on a $2 wager.

Do you know anyone who plays $2 Superfectas, especially given IRS burdens? Clearly, the bigger believes that posting artificially inflated payouts is the siren call to get involved.

This approach works great--right up until the point the player taps out.

It’s no small irony that while most of the pillars of the turf have gone to that great racetrack in the sky, present day executives still manage the racing business as if the sport were still the province of some exclusive club members and kings.

While Keeneland and Gulfstream have figured it out a Pick 5 that includes a P4 Consolation helps player liquidity. Bettors can recoup losses and reinvest the original bankroll the next day. A Pick 4 Consolation churns wagers that by their nature intrinsically discourages it.

Both Laurel and Pimlico in Maryland and Santa Anita don’t offer a Pick 4 Consolation even though they are members of the Stronach Group consortium, Neither does New York nor does prominent CDI tracks Churchill Downs, Fair Grounds and Arlington.

I cashed a Pick 5 on the last weekend at Keeneland and, for shame, was unaware there was a P4 Consolation available. A $300 payout became about $340 upon cashing. What price goodwill?

Not only was this a nice bonus but had I failed to complete the sequence, I would have gotten back my original $24 investment plus. What are the chances I’d be looking to play again the next day?

And isn’t this the goal, for bettors and bet-takers alike?

Written by John Pricci

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