Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sports Betting and Fantasy Sports, Is There Common Ground for Racing?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 16, 2015—Forget for the moment that Monmouth Park and racing in general is on life support in the Garden State, a state that devotes thousands of acres to green space, a state rich in racing tradition.

Consider instead the issue of whether sports leagues, claiming they don’t want to compromise the integrity of their games, should have the power to dictate what states can and cannot do.

Is the integrity of organized sports really threatened by legalized gambling but not subjected to the same dangers inherent by illegal gambling on it? Could professional sports leagues, especially the NFL, be more disingenuous?

With Week 2 of the 50th anniversary Super Bowl season about to commence, is anyone tired of the Fantasy League commercial spots yet? I know I am.

Apparently, the uninitiated don’t mind it at all. Fantasy Sports players are lining up in droves to gamble on the games/people of their choice, new gamblers who at another point in time might have become horseplayers.

Betting on the races, despite onerous takeout rates, is still the greatest wagering game played outdoors but fantasy players don’t know this, of course, because they are not exposed to it in the same way, at the same rate.

Can’t blame the Fantasy Sports bet takers, though. They get it. They know what they’re selling; easy-to-play fun with a good chance of winning money. They how to sell it, too, thousands of sports fans are signing up by the day.

Fantasy Sports are bet takers: They book action on the outcome of a sporting event. The only difference is that fans are betting on players, not teams.

Is there a real fundamental difference between choosing the best team and the best player? Whenever people put their money on an unknown future event or result, it’s gambling; case closed.

I don’t blame sports leagues for trying to get away with having some other industry offer a product or service that helps enhance the popularity of their own product by making results more interesting, more compelling television, all of it in support of the bottom line.

On one side of the argument, leagues say they abhor gambling; on the other they tell supporters to show them the money. Purely and simply, they are cashing in on the popularity of sports gambling in America, prohibited by law in all states but four.

It makes me furious when my favorite sport can’t get traction because politicians kowtow to religious groups or factions that would like nothing more than to have racing banned. The hypocrisy all around this issue is nauseating.

Speaking of the NFL, do you think they asked the networks to have a little chat with the Monday Night Football announcers that riffed on and giggled about the “meaningless” extra point in the waning moments of Monday’s game?

Paraphrasing, “it’s what keeps people tuned in,” said one. “We’ll probably get in trouble talking about this,” said the other. It’s all very hush-hush, wink-wink, nod-nod.

And we’ve mentioned this a hundred times before: The point-spread is what allows a broadcast network to charge the same rate per commercial minute for blowouts at the end of games as they do for the nail-biters the league is famous for.

A related irony is that for the most part, surgery, tapping and health-care procedures such as hyperbaric treatments available off track remains inside information in a legal betting game whereas NFL injury reports are widely circulated Tuesday of game week.

Fantasy Sports betting has become so popular in Michigan, for instance, that State Senator Curtis Hertel this week introduced a bill that would ensure fantasy sports continue being defined as “a game of skill” so the practice of gambling on it remains legal there.

Want to know what a game of skill looks like Senator? Try cashing a Super High-Five ticket. Try fashioning a Pick 4 sequence while hoping to ensure maximum return on minimum investment, even at 50-cents per ducat.

And just maybe that’s the problem. It takes years to develop the skill of handicapping horse races. Honest practitioners will tell you they’ll go to their graves without coming close to getting a Masters of Horse Race Handicapping degree.

Conversely, anyone with an HD television can become an expert sports-handicapping numbers cruncher before reaching puberty.

Fantasy Sports betting is legal in some states and banned in others, but how long will it be before representatives in other state houses follow Hertel’s lead on this?

Organized Fantasy Sports bet takers haven’t been around all that long yet their annual “handle” is estimated at nearly $5 billion from a population of about 60 million fantasy sports players nationwide.

Currently, Thoroughbred racing’s business is more than double that, the difference being that sports fantasy betting is spiking while Thoroughbred betting is cratering, by one-third in the last decade. Even in the Year of the Pharoah, racing handle remains flat.

Which brings us back to New Jersey, a racing state surrounded by casino-fueled competition from its neighbors.

A recent notice by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals gave major league sports until the end of the month to again state its case why federal law should supersede state law that permits four states to conduct some form of sports betting.

At issue is whether the state, which has no intention of conducting sports betting, can remove sports betting prohibitions as mandated by 1992 federal statute that makes state sponsorship of sports betting illegal.

If so, racetracks and Atlantic City casinos would be allowed to conduct their own sports-betting operations. State lawmakers last year passed a revised bill allowing the removal of the sports betting ban but the leagues won out in court.

New Jersey is presumably getting a third strike to make their case. This time, they must come up with legislation that the leagues can’t refute on Constitutional grounds with the chance that if the matter does end up in the Supreme Court, it can withstand the challenges sure to come.

New Jersey racing better get some help in this area before Fantasy Sports eats its lunch. The same might be said for racing in general, another topic for another day.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Fans Know Knowledge Is Power

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 12, 2015—When the public announcement was made that American Pharoah would compete in the Travers equipped with an aluminum pad, it took many fans by surprise.

An argument could be made that it should not have come as a revelation: The use of protective foot-ware had been well publicized when the colt’s three-year-old campaign began this spring.

Of course, at the time, he was simply just another promising Derby horse and racing’s 12th Triple Crown champion.

Still, if he were to be the great bay hope that would attract new fans to the sport, then the more education new fans receive, the better.

However, a problem may be that this game is so nuanced even veteran horseplayers become confused on a daily basis by various, sundry issues.

Then there’s this: Over-analysis can lead to paralysis of the decision-making process, which often results in depleting bankrolls.

HRI regular Denny asked if we could write a column expressing the need for horseplayers to get any and all information possible in order to make better informed decisions.

While this seems a no-brainer, the late Pat Lynch, a highly respected speed handicapper for the Journal-American before becoming the NYRA’s Vice President of Communications, answered my handicapping question with another question:

“At what point does too much information become confusion?”

Back in the day I enjoyed a cup of coffee as a member of NYRA’s press staff. Part of my responsibilities was transcribing Lynch’s speed figures on press box-created entry sheets immediately after the next day’s races were drawn.

Races were drawn on a 24-hour then, so there were no advance past performances for handicappers to study. Public handicappers of the day had to fashion selections from result charts pasted into thick accounting ledgers:

Nine-race cards were the order of the day; the first race on January 1 was race #1. The first race on January 2nd was that year’s #10, etc., etc.

I asked Mr. Lynch if he wanted me to include chart footnotes that describe what happens during the running of a race in the information I provided. He said “no, I don’t want to know what everyone else knows.”

Only later did I understand that he was being the ultimate contrarian, putting stock only in his figures and experience. The horse having the best figures with a good separation between itself and the competition was the best bet.

The game was a lot simpler then. The only times the term bounce were used came when describing that day’s action on Wall Street compared to yesterday. It was a positive term, as in “bounce back.”

Only after Sheets founder Len Ragozin wrote his seminal work, “The Odds Must Be Crazy,” did the negative term “bounce” enter the handicapping lexicon.
With no raceday Lasix as crutch, or worse, and with breeders concentrating on soundness and stamina rather than athletic speed types that look pretty in sales rings, trainers ran their horses back quickly. “Recovery time” was not an issue.

There were no breeding statistics back in the day, or Tomlinson figures, only mud-marks. There were no percentages on jockeys or trainers to compare; no trend information. There was no pre-race prattle, no paddock analysis.

Front bandages were not noted in past performance lines then; only blinkers on or off. No one made a big deal about the use of tongue ties and nasal strips had not yet been invented.

I got into the habit of getting to the track early—there was no OTB, much less nationwide simulcasting. The only way to see replays was to get to the track well before the races and watch previous day action for that track only.

And if you wished to see a tight photo pre-race, you had to walk to the floor where it was posted on a large screen, usually next to a results board that showed late-arriving bettors who won, placed or showed earlier that day.


Modern horseplayers have never had it so good but this is a different era-- the information and social media age. The use of television and the Internet are tailor-made for disseminating racing’s voluminous databank of factors.

However, basic betting information is in the hands of the providers: Equibase and racing/marketing departments at racetracks. The responsibility for educating horseplayers is incumbent on them.

We’ve commented before that NYRA’s closed-circuit coverage is, on balance, second to none. But had I been, say, checking the odds on a Gulfstream race I wanted to bet, I would have missed seeing Ralis’s nasal strip or hearing Maggie Wolfendale’s paddock commentary.

But that’s what printed entries and past performance lines are for. However the information can only be as good as the original source; racing department’s everywhere.

Why shouldn’t horsemen be compelled by track rule to indicate, for instance, nasal strip or tongue tie use at time of entry so it can be posted on the overnight and advance past performances?

Why shouldn’t every track be compelled to indicate changes in footwear, or other equipment such as cheek pieces?

Are they merely decorative or do they help or horse focus, acting like some blinkers do? The answer depends on which horseman you ask.

Denny mentioned that there are many forms of blinkers. At what point does that knowledge become confusing? Opening up the blinkers was a tack Kiaran McLaughlin used successfully prior to Frosted’s Wood Memorial score.

But at that point McLaughlin admitted he was merely trying shake things up, hoping that would help reverse a prior losing effort. It did, but he couldn’t know for sure until after the race.

Regardless, the industry shouldn’t worry about whether or not too much information causes confusion. It simply must do a better job of educating their consumers. Put everything out there and let fans decide for themselves.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, September 05, 2015

Nothing Foggy About Racing Australia’s “Clear Day” Policy

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 4, 2015—As Thoroughbred racing gets closer to zero hour with respect to enacting meaningful reform via independent oversight and a ban on raceday use of medication, battle lines continue to be drawn.

What’s encouraging is the fact that the industry is finally addressing medication concerns, legal and otherwise, earnestly, especially since federal legislation has emerged as a real possibility.

By now all organizations know where the others stand and there’s no need for any further study. This issue has been studied to death with each side claiming it has the evidence to support its own position. However, only independent action will do now.

The pro independent-oversight faction gained more support this week when Jeff Gural’s three racetracks, including the Meadowlands, America’s leading harness track, joined the Coalition of Horse Racing Integrity as its eighth supporting organizational member.

The Coalition supports the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015 sponsored by House Representatives Andy Barr (R-KY) and Paul Tonko (D-NY) which in part would enable the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to create an independent, racing-specific, non-governmental and non-profit organization to work with established racing commissions.

And only this week did the DEA report that their sting operation, with the assistance of USADA, made 90 arrests and seized 16 underground steroid labs, including 636 kilograms of raw steroid powder and 8,200 liters of raw steroid injectable liquid, manufactured and trafficked via underground labs in China.

As for Gural, he has been walking his talk for years, paying for beefed-up security and out-of-competition testing that utilizes Hong Kong Jockey Club laboratories out of his own pocket. Gural does more than just pay lip service to the illusive level playing field.

Had New York been utilizing this same approach—highly creditable outside labs and state- of-the-art security--two recent positives might never have occurred. HRI has learned that in one case the level of overage was so high that it placed a stakes winner’s life in danger.

Consider this: Would it make sense for any horseman to put a valuable horse’s life at risk to win the lion’s share of a low six-figure purse? I don’t think so. Nevertheless, all trainers are culpable under the absolute insurer’s rule.

So the question then becomes how does an extremely high amount of any substance get into a horse’s system in the first place? Of course, this assumes accurate test results which as we have seen is far from a given in New York and just about anywhere else.

In an unrelated case, a horse from another barn tested positive at levels approximately 50 times what is considered normal. But when tested again after the horse raced back five days later, not a trace of the medication was found in the horse’s system. A veterinarian would tell you that this is impossible.

Fearing recrimination, neither trainer would comment publicly--another reason for independent oversight since outside agencies couldn’t hold stalls allotments over the head of trainers courageous enough to speak to reporters on the record.

The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association this week announced its intention to acquire state-of-the-art testing equipment for New York’s Equine Drug Testing and Research Program, a platform that has failed miserably since leaving Cornell’s auspices with attendant funding cuts.

NYTHA stated it will cover the entire cost of the new equipment, approximately $450,000, which is a laudable intention but is too little and too late. Anything short of independent oversight assures only status quo with lipstick. The road to false positives has been paved with good intentions. New York is symptomatic of an industry-wide program.

This has been quite a busy week on the drug front. On the other side of the world, Racing Australia—representing an entire continent in love with horse racing--announced a ban on injections “one clear day” before races and official trials, effective Oct. 1, 2015.

The ban extends to blood tests, vitamin injections and all other injections of any kind. A “clear day” is defined as the 24-hour period from 12.01 am to 12.00 midnight the day before the race.

Racing Australia trusts there is no scientific evidence to support that the health and welfare of a horse is guaranteed by hypodermic injection within one clear day of racing but believes there are a number of excellent integrity reasons to restrict the administration of any substance by hypodermic injection so close to a race.

Australia has it right when it argues there is an unjustifiable reliance on intravenous injections close to race day and that integrity concerns demand a reform to established practices that are not essential to a horse’s well-being.

Those screams you are about to hear will come from the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Assn., the Association of Racing Commissioner’s International and other organizations preferring that the current system remain in place.

Under certain circumstances, the new Australian rule will allow a trainer to seek permission from the stewards for an exception to the ban if clinical issues in the horse are clearly apparent. However, the announcement did not define what “clinical issue” means or what substance could be used as a remedy.

Given the New York positives cited above, especially with respect to the horse whose life was threatened and it being unlikely that a horseman would purposely put an animal’s life in jeopardy, NYTHA’s $450,000 would be better spent as a down payment on meaningful barn security.

Twenty-four/seven surveillance video of everything and everyone entering or exiting the barn would be an excellent deterrent to cheaters whether they be backstretch workers or ancillary racetrack personnel by providing tangible evidence.

From the horsemen who seek a true level playing field--to the racetracks that book bets and charge for everything from admission to hot dogs--to racing states who take their cut of it all, a top-level security function should have been provided long ago.

As horseracing practitioners on the other side of the world have already realized, it’s never too late to begin meaningful reform. More bandages will only serve to hide the festering damage already done.

* * *

Coalition For Horse Racing Integrity Issues Response To HANA Poll
by Press Release

Statement from Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity Regarding Horseplayers Association of North America Poll

The Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity has released the following statement in response to the publication of a poll by the Horseplayers Association of North America reflecting overwhelming support among bettors for reforming drug use and enforcement in horse racing:

“Horseplayers and bettors are the lifeblood of the Thoroughbred racing industry. The leadership of HANA clearly understands that we must ensure their voice is represented, and we praise the recent announcement of a poll of its members which concluded that more than four in five horseplayers (83%) support national uniform drug and medication standards overseen by experts at USADA, an independent, nongovernmental non-profit organization.
Shadwell Farm

These results mirror similar polling conducted among bettors in recent years by the NTRA, McKinsey & Company and Penn Schoen Berland. Most recently, a 2015 Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity survey found that:

· 77% of horseracing bettors consider the possibility of illegal drug use when handicapping.

· Among those who form an opinion about whether trainers are using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), three in five (60%) say they typically bet less on the race, compared with less than one in twenty (4%) who say they bet more.

· 92% of horseracing bettors said they want to see uniform medication policies happen faster than they are happening now, and

· 72% support a proposal to grant oversight of drug and medication testing and enforcement to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

The support of individual horseplayers for a national framework, as well as the recently announced support of the Meadowlands, Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs, epitomizes the wide variety of industry interests who are committed to the medication reform and uniformity that is needed to ensure integrity in our sport.”

The Coalition – whose membership also includes the Breeders’ Cup Ltd., the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Veterinary Medicine Association, The Jockey Club, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders, Meadowlands Racetrack, Tioga Downs, Vernon Downs and the Water Hay Oats Alliance – supports the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015. This bill, introduced in July 2015 to the House of Representatives by Congressmen Andy Barr (R-KY) and Paul Tonko (D-NY), will direct the non-governmental, non-profit U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to create an independent, racing-specific, non-governmental and non-profit organization to work collaboratively with state racing commissions and their respective staff members throughout the country.

Additional information, including full 2015 polling results, stories from supporters and ways to contact Congressional members to express support for this legislation, is available at

Written by John Pricci

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