Thursday, October 02, 2014

Even for the Innocent, Payback’s a Bitch

PLANTATION, FL., October 1, 2014—At once, L’Affaire Espinoza was--and was not--as bad as I was led to believe reading the media reports regarding Saturday’s Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita.

According to the latest NTRA national poll, this country’s top ranked Thoroughbred nearly suffered his first career defeat in the Grade 1 nine furlongs because of the race-riding tactics of a rival, not because he wasn’t up to the task.

As the Awesome Again was run, Shared Belief was much the best horse defeating, among others, an older, worthy rival in Fed Biz. If the gelding weren’t a very, very good horse, his slate would have read (7) 6-1-0.

Given the kind of trip Shared Belief suffered through, that kind of race dynamics would have beaten 99 out of 100 runners—he is that classy in our view.

The most damning physical evidence against Victor Espinoza were the floating incident coming out of the first turn and never making an attempt on the backside to save Sky Kingdom any ground.

That speed tack might have been cast after the Grade 3-type runner worked a half mile in 46 4/5 seconds three days before the race, 3rd fastest of 83 peers to work last week in Arcadia.

As for the incident on the racetrack, I guess I’ve seen worse, but probably never in a bigger spot. However, it’s the circumstantial evidence that’s so damaging.

While the act itself wasn’t all that heinous, the fact that the beneficiary of those actions is the same barn that not only would have benefitted from the tack taken but also one for which Espinoza rides what appears to be the best juvenile in America.

There is, too, the aspect Tom Jicha mentioned in his Tuesday column, citing that Espinoza not only rides Shared Belief’s primary Eclipse challenger, California Chrome, but opened the door for the Bob Baffert barn’s Bayern.

That speedster would not be without championship portfolio should he lead his Classic rivals throughout; 10 furlongs might be a tall order but it certainly is do-able.

Actually, this could be a year in which there is Eclipse life beyond a dual classics winner, which brings the discussion around to Tonalist.

In a fashion, his Jockey Club victory, in which where he showed a dimension that many suspected he had but apparently only Christophe Clement knew existed all along—was as impressive as that of Shared Belief.

Sans blinkers, Tonalist overcame trouble twice, altering course and, once clear, ate up the Jockey Club real estate the farther the field traveled, doing it in race-horse time. It was a superior performance that appeared far less enervating than Shared Belief’s run.

In a Paulick Report poll, three out of four horseplayers believe that the 7-day suspension meted out to Espinoza was a little harsh or about right, the odd handicapper out believing the punishment didn’t go far enough.

I’m siding with the majority here: Espinoza, especially since he was so vocal following the Pennsylvania Derby, should chill and get his mind right before the championships:

After all, he could have been a little more aggressive on the first turn and dictated to the Derby field instead of the other way around.

And so he seemingly took out his big-race frustrations on an innocent third party, a race in which he had more of a vested interest in defeating a rival than winning the race for his mount.

But there’s another aspect to this: Espinoza wasn’t “careless,” he was calculating. If the SA stewards want to describe it as such, then stewards in New York should give Junior Alvarado a lot more than seven days--and they did--15 to be precise.

What Alvarado did curling into the Jockey Club’s far turn was "reckless," dropping over as wantonly as he did. Not meaning to be overly dramatic, but Rajiv Maragh might have gotten off easily with a broken arm—very easily under the circumstances.

What both cases illustrate is that there may be just a little too much race-riding going on these days. The stewards finally may be catching on.

Many of today’s jockeys, even some of the best, don’t have the same level of sophistication that old-school riders had to play the dangerous race-riding game.

We’re all for laissez-faire officials that allow the athletes, equine and human, to decide the outcome of races, but they need to use excellent judgment and should be held accountable, just like jockeys and trainers.

We commend the NYRA stewards' decision, but whatever happened to those promises made in New York and Florida about increased transparency in the race adjudication process? It might have shed some light on how these situations were handled, a teachable moment.

For that to happen, however, there must first be some level of transparency, the kind that goes beyond lip service and spin.

Next time: Super Saturday Weekend Revisited, Keeneland Opens, and Juveniles Take Belmont Spotlight

Written by John Pricci

Comments (28)


Friday, September 12, 2014

What’s the Better Bet: Horses or Sports?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 12, 2014---Our friends next door in the Garden State New have been making wagering news of late.

What with New Jersey’s fiscal crisis and recent credit downgrade, Governor Chris Christie, coincidentally or not, has decided to roll the dice—those that remain—on sports betting.

Legalizing marijuana would have been far more profitable and probably would have a better chance to be ignored when it comes to the enforcement of federal law.

But the sports leagues lobby is very strong and they are against legalized gambling. The leagues cite the “integrity of the competition” and they correctly figure that the courts will favor the power of corporations over the power to the people.

"Ignoring federal law, rather than working to reform federal standards, is counter to our democratic traditions and inconsistent with the Constitutional values,” Christie wrote when he vetoed proposed sports gambling legislation.

Of course, he’s really no different from most pols. Doesn’t it always work like this? You’re for something until you’re against it but now you’re for it again.

We’re sure legislators from all over the U.S. are shocked to learn there’s gambling going on in the sports world. The hypocrisy from all levels of government to the leagues themselves is as astounding as it is predictable.

For about a month, my local radio sports station, WOFX-980 AM, has been running ads about fantasy football, to the effect that “you don’t have to wait until season’s end to see if you won because there’s a new cash contest every week.”

I guess the authorities figure it’s just like betting on the horses, only with people.

How these ads are not banned from the public airwaves I don't know. Advertisers can call it what they wish; a contest, a pool, a lottery. But what it is is illegal gambling, pure and simple.

Since racing is in straits more dire than most businesses, its institutions will accept financial support from most any source: As of this week you can refer to the race as the DraftKings Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.

That might be a good thing for the Breeders’ Cup bottom line but what it does for the industry as a whole is a dubious proposition.

Who knows, however? Maybe the “competition gap” between sports betting and playing the horses, in terms of takeout, is starting to narrow.

Back in the day when you walked to the candy store or street corner looking for the local bookie, making a bet was pretty straightforward and the takeout was negligible.

For every $5 bet, the wager would cost $5.50, the 10% rake was the cost of doing business. If you won, however, the takeout was zero. If you went 11-10 for the week, all else being equal, you made a small profit.

But now, with a lot of sports betting online, you have to pay a little for the privilege. Rather than moving lines on a hot team to balance their books like the bookmaker did, bet-takers now demand a higher rate if you want action.

If I wanted to take the Cowboys +3.5 points this Sunday, as Marc Lawrence suggests, the price is -115.

Not wanting to get caught in the “middle,” bet-takers are balancing their books by making bettors pay a premium for the hot side.

But that’s still a bargain when compared to a blended parimutuel rate of 20%. If horseplayers, who obviously enjoy the handicapping process, leave the game, betting on sports is a tempting option.

No game of chance is easy but betting on sports teams is easier, given that there are two choices: Team A or Team B; Over or Under.

Meadowlands To Offer Super Hi-5 Jackpot with 8% Takeout

Beginning November 14, pending regulatory approval, The Meadowlands will offer a Super High-5 Jackpot wager with a $.20 cent minimum on the last race of each card.

Eight percent takeout is an industry low and is comparable to the rake from VLTs. The track will seed the first Jackpot Super Hi-5 pool with $10,000.

As opposed to most “jackpot carryover” pools, the Meadowlands will distribute 75% of the pool to multiple winners each day and carry over 25% to the next day’s pool.

This, too, is an industry low jackpot distribution takeout rate and should create some interest because more money will be paid out nightly and the 20-Cent minimum makes the wager affordable for most players.

Per usual, the entire pool will be distributed should there be a single winner. Given the minimum and relatively low take on this type of expensive wager, it would take a super-chaotic result for there to be a lone winner.

Should there be no winners of Super Hi-5, the entire pool is carried over to the next day. There is no provision for picking the first four horses in correct order. The mandatory payout is Hambletonian Day next August.

I might have played the Thoroughbred version of this bet once or twice. It’s not the degree of difficulty--which is daunting--but it’s the high cost due to a $1 minimum to kept me away, another example of how racing caters disproportionately to a small group of high-volume bettors.

Chaotic results coupled with high costs makes the bet unattractive and generally is better for the track’s bottom line than it is for the handful of winning bettors in the near term.

So if tracks believe that they are doing bettors or themselves a favor in the long term they are mistaken.

Unless and until takeout is lowered significantly in the straight pools, the industry never will be able to increase handle significantly over a sustained period.

Low minimum bets coupled with low super-exotics takeout is the equivalent of parimutuel crack-cocaine. For player and racetrack, these bets are good for the occasional score but poor if the goal is long-range fiscal health.

Tap the horseplayer out at a faster rate and suddenly the Cowboys plus 3 ½ at minus-115 begins to look a lot more attractive.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, September 08, 2014

We’re Not Guests, We’re Customers

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 8, 2014--I’m a Bill Shanklin fan and have been for some time. A creative Lexington-based marketer, some of the more inventive ideas I have encountered in this business seems to have originated with him.

This time, however, I think he missed the mark. Oh, he’s correct when he posits that racing needs to cultivate the horseplayer but, if takeout is the issue, his focus is on the wrong type of player.

His idea of the ideal target, the whale, has no incentive to see takeout lowered since the high rates in place ultimately fuel his rebates.

If takeouts were lowered across the board, increased participation would affect the nigh-volume bettor in a more meaningful way because “square money” would be back in play.

Fresh betting capital would allow the deep-pocketed player to make up for smaller rebates because his expertise and bankroll leverage could buy more big-payout pools, especially fueled by carryovers.

Lower takeout, in addition to keeping active players liquid longer, would give way to marketing campaigns that attract new bettors who don’t mind mixing a little intellect with their action.

But until the current customer base is maintained and new ones are created, added liquidity won’t happen, and whales will begin to cannibalize each other, a process already underway.

As this trend continues and grows, when the whale’s perceived edge becomes smaller and smaller, they’ll move on to the next big gambling scheme.

In his most recent piece, Shanklin discussed the nuance of language and how that language affects marketing strategy. And there’s one new PR buzzword that insults my intelligence as it should yours. That word is “guest.”

I’m almost certain the term guest was first used at the “old Meadowlands,” but in this era the phenomenon has spread everywhere throughout the industry so that many marketing campaigns are built around the nuanced term.

Empirically, no intelligent individuals are buying into the message.

A “guest” often enters familiar premises by bringing a bottle of wine or a box of expensive cookies to express appreciation to the host for his invitation and hospitality.

But the guest doesn’t enter this domicile with an almost-certain expectation that he will leave with less money in his pocket than when he entered.

The racing industry is in the gambling/entertainment business. Horse races are the show, and are there many places on the planet that provide such Grade 1 people watching? When there are people in the building, the electricity is palpable, the place exciting.

For this experience, fans/bettors are charged a fee to participate; parking, admission, and a scorecard to differentiate one player from another notwithstanding. Further, for every five betting dollars spent, one goes for taxes.

This is what happens to customers, not guests. Of course, there is also some expectation that fans could leave the building with more betting money than when they arrived.

However, when I win I’m taking your money; when you win you’re taking mine. That always happens in games of chance; somebody wins, somebody loses. Either way, it’s betting money, not guest money that fuels the process and gives life to an industry.

But those dollars don’t go to those who actually put on the show; they only share proceeds from the winners and losers. But the house--at least 99 and 44/100s percent of the time—always wins.

So it’s the betting customer, not a guest, who provides the revenue needed to make all the mares go.

And choosing from this population of occasional and inveterate bettors, even casual fans who might watch horse races four times a year, bet sometime. They need to bet more of the time—and have their friends do the same.

It’s the player who bets his money regularly--whether he is a weekend or event warrior, or the daily online player sitting on a couch--who is racing’s MVP.

The use of nuanced language is indicative of how racetrack executives regard fans and market their wares. This calls for a hook. Television does that with pretty pictures and myriad human interest stories about the human and equine practitioners.

But after yet another month of downward economic indicators, and with fewer “guests” on the horizon in the coming months, rank-and-file bettors are the group that badly needs targeting and not the handful of large-volume players, whatever their considerable contribution to the betting pie.

As the handicapping/betting process continues to be more data driven, and players become more sophisticated, winning will become more difficult than it already is—and that’s plenty difficult.

When only “experts” remain, they eventually will take their algorithms and move on to the next big pasture lined with green. For them, money is not the prime motivator, it’s the only motivator.

What needs growing is the pie, that pool of rank-and-file weekend warriors and online bettors. And no one will become part of this fabric until they’re first introduced to a racetrack and treated like the valued consumers they are.

These customers pay for the privilege of walking into a wagering space with all its ancillary expenses. The industry needs to provide them with a clean, comfortable facility and not be price-gouge them for ordinary--or even good—fare and services.

Like bettors, today’s customers want value. Don’t welcome them, or newbies, into your house by tell how much their status as guests are appreciated. As long as they are, like me, spending and betting their money, they’re patrons, not guests.

Don’t tell us; show us you appreciate our spending discretionary income and betting dollars at your facility and you can do that by creating more of us.

Now that would be an “experience” worth “sharing.”

Written by John Pricci

Comments (29)


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