Sunday, January 01, 2017

Handicapping Great Dr. Harris Never Stopped Learning

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., New Year’s Day, 2017—Upon hearing of the passing of Russ Harris at age 93 earlier this week, I took to Twitter and wrote: “Must confess that as a competitor in the same market, Russ Harris made me a better handicapper. RIP Mr. Harris, my friend.”

Twitter might be all that’s needed for discussing world affairs but it doesn’t begin to tell the story of public handicappers, their trade, or their history.

Back in Harris’ New York Daily News heyday, everybody’s world was simpler. Life was good growing up in Queens and, if memory serves, I believe there were 13 daily newspapers available in the five boroughs, including morning and evening editions.

The Morning Telegraph broadsheet, the East Coast version of tabloid Daily Racing Form, was 25 cents, a nickel more than the today’s Rainbow Six or Canadian superfecta.

Returning home from high school and later from my first job at a bank, I always bought the afternoon edition of the New York Post where the early results from Aqueduct or Belmont, sometimes four or five race, were right there on the back page.

The results of the daily double, the only multiple wager at the time, was the big news, however. Even if it weren’t, the great columns of turf writer Bill Rudy and those of two of the best columnists of their time, Pete Hamill and Larry Merchant, were more than worth the effort.

By the time I traveled 17 stops on the GG local from Clermont Ave. in Brooklyn to 74th Street in Queens, and after four more stops on the #7 train 103rd St. Corona Plaza, my world was complete.

Those were the days my friend, I thought they’d never end.

After the resurgent Daily Mirror closed, legendary turf write Bill Nack got me an introduction to Newsday’s sports editor, the late Dick Sandler. Newsday had plans to venture west from Long Island with New York Newsday and the paper needed to hire its first public handicapper.

I had a handicapping trial under the name Rosinante--the windmill-chasing horse of Don Quixote--every Saturday card for one year. In fact, I had a $6 profit going into the final weekend. Naturally, I went 0-for-9 but it was good enough for Newsday to take a chance.

And so I walked into the Aqueduct press box with a new job. Tom Jicha and I were known to everyone because of our work at the resurgent NY Daily Mirror. Later, Tom and Pat would move to Miami and I was going to become the Handicapping Prince of the City.

As I was finding my new seat on the press box second level, I looked down and saw New York Post handicapper John Piesen. Across from the steps on the far end of the press box sat Russ Harris. Let’s just say that the reception I received was less than warm.

Intimidated I suppose, I never stepped over that line where Harris sat, literally and figuratively.

In my early days at Newsday, I befriended a professional gambler from New York City, Paul Mellos. We met outside of Joe Duell’s newsstand every night on Broadway in Saratoga awaiting the next day’s delivery of the racing form.

And this was during DRF’s pre-advance era. My selections were already made for the next day. We had to handicap from result charts which were kept in big, thick accountant’s ledgers: Today’s first race at Aqueduct would be race #1, the finale race # 9, etc.

It was a long, tedious process for everyone, especially non-speed handicappers. My only edge, having come from the harness racing world, was a gift for watching races and making notes on as many horses as possible.

There was one replay after the race, a replay of all races the next morning, but that was it. Many of today’s horseplayers don’t realize how good they have it now.

If there was another practiced “trip handicapper” in print back then, his name escapes me. Mellos read my comments, surmised I was a visual handicapper and taught me trip-handicapping short hand, a technique I shared with many of my peers.

Trip handicapping was my edge and, meet after race meet, my ROI was almost always higher than Mr. Harris, but meet after meet he kicked my ass at picking winners.

Russ Harris picked more winners than any public handicapper I’ve known--with the exception of Newsday’s harness handicapper, Toni Sisti.

So if I wanted to compete, I had to learn to make speed figures. Harris used speed figures, either of his own creation or something passed down; the former is more likely.

I went out and purchased “Winning at the Races; Computer Discoveries in Handicapping” by Dr. William L. Quirin of Adelphi University^. Quirin’s work with computers in handicapping was ground-breaking in optimizing the process using technology.

Though not actively involved in today’s racing scene, the prodigious author’s Quirin Speed Points and Impact Values are an integral part of BRIS past performance data. But neither Quirin nor Harris were the first speed handicapping practitioners.

The history of speed handicapping probably dates back to the early 1940s. Robert Dowst’s methodology was popularized by Beyer in his first book, “Picking Winners.” The legendary gambler Pittsburgh Phil was said to be a devotee of Dowst’s approach.

The greatest of the early speed handicapping practitioners, however, was Dave Wilson, aka, “King Wilson,” father of the best Daily Racing Form chart caller ever, the late Jack Wilson.

Based in New England, the Boston American Record used King Wilson’s selections as a wrap-around. New England horseplayers would line up the night before, just as Mellos and I did in Saratoga, waiting for the paper to see who Wilson picked the next day.

“The King” was widely acknowledged for selling more newspapers than anyone in Boston newspaper history. Wilson made his own figures. In fact, the late Chuck Streva, gone too soon, was a line-making legend in South Florida.

When a snowbird walked into the press box at Hialeah, Gulfstream or Calder, he checked in with Chuck before making his first bet. He could always tell you something of value about that day’s races, prevailing biases, etc., etc.

Streva also was one of Beyer’s national figure-making operatives. He later informed some local colleagues that learning Beyer’s methodology was fundamentally the same as Grandpa Dave Wilson’s, whose figures were the basis of Streva’s own.

When I had a cup of coffee as a New York Racing Association press staffer, I kept the speed figures of Pat Lynch, then NYRA Media Relations Vice President but formerly a prominent speed handicapper at the Journal American, one of the aforementioned 13 NY dailies.

I worked from entries printed on an 8x11 mimeographed sheet, went into the charts ledger, and copied Lynch’s speed figures onto those 8x11s. Usually, five figures per horse, chronologically from left to right, the fifth indicating a horse’s lifetime best figure.

“A horse can run back to that number any time,” Lynch counseled. But handicapping was simpler back then. Horse racing had seasons; speed handicappers weren’t lurking around every bend, and the art-science of trip handicapping was still in its infancy.

And simpler, too, because it was the pre-raceday Lasix era. Horses virtually ran 20 times a year. Once in top form, they seldom regressed. Under comparable dynamics, betting on the best-last-out figure horse was the way to go.

I used to run Lynch’s bets in those days. Decorum still mattered. His bankroll was buoyed by an amazing run at a Las Vegas craps table one night after he was honorably discharged from the army.

And he knew how to use that bankroll, often making huge place bets: At that time, there was a 14% takeout in the straight pools.

Parenthetically, he was my hero for another reason: His company was first to arrive at Auschwitz and he helped to liberate interred Jews, those fortunate to survive.

Lynch also confirmed for me the legend of Al “The Brain” Windeman. A prodigious winner back in the glory days at Hialeah, Windeman took the knowledge he gleaned from the best speed handicappers of his era and raised it to another level.

When racing went to parimutuels, Windeman hired betting operatives to place bets then later hand-time races from different vantage points, using an anemometer to measure to measure wind velocity from the roof at Belmont Park.

In those pre-simulcasting days, when there were huge odds drops at the last minute on a particular horse, usually a sensible longshot, the murmurs would pass through the Belmont grandstand: “That’s The Brain’s horse,” they would say.

Post Lasix-era, Len Ragozin founded The Sheets, performance figures largely based in ground-loss/energy principles. If two horses finished in a dead-heat with one racing on the rail and the other four paths wide, the outside horse earned the better figure.

Ragozin’s research found that enervating efforts causing overexertion would deplete a horse’s energy reserves and they would not race with the same level of energy present in its last start, particularly when returning a short rest.

A “bounce” may be good on Wall Street or in political polling, but not so much on the racetrack. Hence racing’s popular use of that term as a negative variable.

But Harris was very much an old school handicapper and more, much more. A veteran reporter and columnist from Akron to Aqueduct, a racing official in Chicago, he gained legendary status as the Daily News lead handicapper on one of racing’s most challenging circuits.

Critics who say he picked a lot of favorites miss the point, that’s not the measure of Harris as a handicapper. Yes, he picked many favorites, but if the public’s choice won at a 30 percent rate overall, he picked 80-90 percent of those winning favorites.

His greatest source of pride, however, was picking Coastal to upset Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Belmont. “Live by the figures, die by the figures,” Harris said of Coastal’s big figure score in the Peter Pan Stakes.

Harris and the late, great Cary Fotias, who produced the best performance figures I’ve ever worked with in terms of accuracy and pace-final figure relationships, would have loved talking racing history as each loved the sport immensely.

Russ Harris was a renaissance man. He loved history so much, in fact, that at age 75, three years older than I am at this writing, he returned to school and earned a Ph. D in history. Hell, Russ even was a sire of great handicappers.

His son Craig Donnelly has been a highly successful handicapper since the early 1970’s as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s racing analyst. He’s still picking winners on the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s website Six years ago, Donnelly was inducted into the Parx Racing Hall of Fame.

So it was in self-defense that this trip handicapper was forced to learn to become a speed handicapper, too. Lynch also taught me another valuable lesson, one that Dowst, and Quirin, and Harris learned in their successful careers.

Said Lynch: “Running time is the only absolute truth in the game.”

Written by John Pricci

Comments (19)


Monday, December 26, 2016

Racing Must Go Back to the Future

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 26, 2016—I have little doubt that Thoroughbred racing as we know it will outlive me. However, unless steps are taken in 2017, I'm not sure the game will make it passed the next generation.

This is not my being a prophet of doom. It’s about getting real; it’s about taking a shave and haircut now or having your head lopped-off later. Try to convince me--convince yourselves--that no existential threat exists.

When are racing’s stakeholders finally going to do something, anything proactive, besides talk, study, and more talk?

Everybody knows that 38 divided by 38 equals one. But not in horse racing. In this industry, 38 into 38 doesn’t go.

Earlier this month in Tucson, at the annual Global Symposium on Racing and Gaming, several attendees made presentations about a variety of new wagers that are available internationally.

If American racing doesn’t consider some new ideas conjured up by outside-the-box global experts efforting to improve racing’s lifeblood flow—wagering revenue—the U.S. racing industry will die from inertia within.

When final figures of leading economic indicators are released early next month, champions of truthiness will be falling over each other to spin virtually flat wagering, give a percentage point or two, as a positive development.

In the immediate aftermath of a rare Triple Crown champion and a great Derby winner that came into his own this year at age 5, there wasn't passion enough to spike a hint of a rebirth in interest and support. If American Pharoah and California Chrome won't do it, then no amount of great racing or great horses will.

Even in the age of fake news, facts still matter. End times are neigh because for more than a decade now, horse racing handle has been reduced by $5 billion, or nearly one-third.


In Australia, new wagers have made it possible to flip U.S. results over the same time period of time as handle has grown by $5 billion.

In this country, where seriously curtailing government regulation is all the rage, racing interests still fear to give fixed-odds or exchange wagering a try.

Opponents argue that exchange wagering is fraught with concern for racing’s integrity. On that, all racing needs is simply to do a better job, crucial at every level. Exchange wagering has been in place for several years in New Jersey and thus far there’s not been a hint of scandal.

Early cash-out wagers is another Down Under innovation. Using this model, U.S. bettors wishing to cash out after the opening legs of a Pick 6, bettors could insure a profit on the initial bet and reinvest those winnings, whole or in part, in a Pick 4 later on the card--cost free.

This is an example of what a true betting market could look like, think day trading with horses.

Australia also offers Virtual Betting--animated races that helps fill time between live events. At once, this “no-brainer” educates new customers about the different wagers available while it produces revenue that costs nothing beyond the writing of new code.

What could possibly be the excuse for not investing in technology that would greatly help an industry data-rich with money-making information? Isn’t this game worth the investment? In the real world, isn’t money spent to make more money?

In addition to introducing horse racing as a gambling game of skill, there needs to be fractional wagering in all pools coupled with the elimination of breakage, paying to the penny made possible by self-automated betting machines.

Parenthetically, clerks would still be needed to provide standard functions such as voucher selling and cash-outs, perhaps also providing personal services to top-tier bettors at, say, $200 straight-and-exacta-wagering-only windows.

Of course, betting volume depends on many factors: Field size, weather conditions, competitive races and the popularity of both turf racing and high-quality racing. In addition to increasing handle, creating engagement is needed to ensure survival.

Working against handle are factors such as medication, therapeutics and otherwise, and too much competition for a finite number of customers on normally high-handle weekends, special-event days, and poor visibility when boutique race meets suck out all the oxygen.

Only live, high-quality racing should be offered on weekends in order to showcase the sport’s best racing and create interest in the game. Smaller tracks can still offer simulcasting, of course, but schedule its live racing away from the big boys.

If tracks tried harder and negotiated in good faith, they could make economic agreements to the benefit of both, creating the kind of synergy that helps disparate markets. It’s complicated, yes, but it’s not damn rocket science.

The above offers a few ideas to chew on. The need for new customers is ubiquitous as sinking ships are everywhere. The kind of thinking that can attract new customers contains a betting-menu philosophy that offers simpler wagers that appeal to bettors coming at the game from a Wall Street perspective.

Facilitated through Internet and user friendly bets on mobile platforms, exchange wagering would allow bettors to set the odds, prices that another bettors would be willing to accept. Once a price is accepted, payoffs are locked in. Fixed-odds wagering works on this same principle.

These are concepts readily understandable by newbies, a great way to attract new players that come with a different perception of risk.

The American horse industry critically needs a new thinking, one that renounces protectionism and rejects the notion that fixed-odds wagering and exchanges cannibalize pari-mutuels. There is room for at least two of these three to co-exist. Internet and mobile wagering platforms are perfect vehicles for a paradigm of that increases a bettor's chances to win.

Nowhere is the need for new thinking more critical than in Southern California, whose broken model has been teetering. But before SoCal can grow it must first become healthy and lucid, the latter in short supply in the Golden State.

Back in the day, while having a cup of coffee as a press staffer for the New York Racing Association, my boss, the late Pat Lynch, a company man, told me something I never forgot:

“Remember one thing,” said Lynch, “what’s good for horsemen generally is bad for the player.” That wisdom turned out to be timeless. Lynch realized that the goals of horsemen and players work at cross purposes.

The near usurious exacta takeout in California resulted in a temporarily increase in purse money but inexorably has resulted in handle declines, much of the harm done during Mike Pegram's administration as Thoroughbred Owners of California president.

With help from America’s Horse Racing Network, the industry continues to play the greed card, a philosophy not limited to California. Constant reminders of Carryovers Du Jour, ersatz guaranteed pools, etc., ultimately hurts player liquidity: Consistent Money Loss = Customer Loss.

To its credit, Santa Anita has the nation's lowest major track takeout of 15.43 percent on straight wagers, and a competitively low takeout on the 50-Cent Players Pick Five. It promotes the latter; the former, not-so-much. It should be the other way around.

The 22.43% exacta rake and newly instituted Jackpot $2 Pick 6, which divides the 30% five-consolation in half, with 15% for consolation winners and the other 15% going into a jackpot pool when there’s a single winner Pick 6 winners, are decidedly crowd unfriendly. The motto seems to be "all you need is a couple of hundred dollars and a dream."

There was an interesting LA Times Santa Anita pre-opening piece that shined a light on show wagering, widely regarded as a boring old dinosaur.

But for future horseplayers, show wagering could provide a gateway to learn more about handicapping factors. Like veterans, new players want to win, but engaged players will want to learn how to win more.

If California officials would only consider a suggestion offered by SoCal racing activist Andy Asaro, SoCal racing be able to turn its sinking fortunes around. Asaro is correct when he posits that industry viability depends on a thriving California.

By paying to the penny with show payouts limited $2.05 minimums, lowering exacta takeout rates, and promoting betting on horse as a gambling game of skill, volume will increase over time. And given more time, so will revenue.

The suggestion to make Parlays and Round Robins (think “Personal Double”, “Personal Pick 3”) makes sense by allowing players to create their own betting menus, giving them a better chance to win. How can new, simpler wagers not be handle generators?

The activist also suggests that the new penny breakage can be donated via self-automated machines to racing charities benefitting backstretch workers, racehorse aftercare programs or permanently disabled jockeys--a painless, effective way for players to give back to the game.

Higher profit margins are not the answer; higher betting volume is.

Newer, simpler wagers and “smart-gambling” education are gateways to racing's for future success. Protectionism and cronyism has brought the game to where it is today.

Fresh thinking is needed, and it's needed before we all run out of racetrack.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (23)


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

INDIANTOWN, FL., December 13, 2016—While 4-5 favorite Takaful opened a loose lead curling into the backstretch in Aqueduct’s Remsen Stakes on Thanksgiving weekend, fellow last-out maiden winner Mo Town cruised up from the outside into third, Johnny Velazquez intent on putting the Uncle Mo colt in the race right from the jump.

Then a strange thing happened. Within several more strides, as Takaful began opening a six-length lead between backstretch calls, Velazquez peaked under his left shoulder, even though it appeared on paper that the main competition was directly in front of him.

Leaving the three-quarter pole, just after Takaful widened his advantage, Velazquez decided to step on the gas, putting Mo Town in stalking mode before putting the reins back in his lap. At that point Mo Town switched off, awaiting Velazquez to give him a final cue.

That point came at mid-far-turn. Velazquez asked Mo Town to get closer as the leader once again tried to open his margin as Win With Pride applied pressure to his outside and No Dozing began to rally strongly from the 4-path, appearing to have the best momentum at headstretch.

After straightening away, Mo Town attacked the favorite, who lacked both experience and a victory beyond a maiden-allowance Belmont sprint score, but the battle was over almost as quickly as it was joined. In a repetition of his maiden breaker, Mo Town drew off like a good horse, galloping out well and remaining in front of his nine rivals.

“Johnny thinks he’s a good horse,” said trainer Tony Dutrow at his Payson Park base, “as do I. Right now, neither of us know how good.”

What everyone has seen thus far has been pretty damn good.

Second on his Travers day debut behind a Steve Asmussen-trained second-time starter, Mo Town raced in fifth from his outside position in the 6-furlong sprint, steadied briefly when caught between horses at the turn, knifed between rivals at the five-sixteenths looming a possible winner at headstretch, but could not match strides with the experienced winner despite running his final quarter-mile in just under 24 seconds.

“Mentally he was ready to run,” said Dutrow. “It was late August and it was time to get him started. Fitness-wise, I probably had him at about seventy-five to eighty percent.” The runnerup effort was so good that Dutrow received many inquiries after the race.

“I told everyone that he was not for sale because I felt strongly that he was going to run much better in his next start.”

As advertised, Mo Town takes it easy on himself.

Mo Town’s second race came at one mile at Belmont Park where the colt was first introduced to a racetrack on May 1st, arriving from Ocala after being prepared by Bo Hunt at Starting Point Farm.

The colt’s 3-5 maiden win was a revelation. Breaking professionally from slip #4, he attended the early pace easily, running third outside another rival while under a tight rein, moved into second approaching the half-mile marker and was ready to seize control approaching headstretch.

Under a supremely confident Velazquez, Mo Town took command on his own and, as he began to widen, Velazquez went to a strong hand drive a furlong from home as if he wanted to find out just how much power was left under the hood.

Those reserves were enough to win by 7 widening lengths over the muddy going, racing his final quarter-mile in 24.58 at the end of a mile in 1:37.26.

After that performance, more offers came in earnest and suddenly Team Coolmore became the majority owner, Team D Racing retaining a share in the colt. The price was not disclosed but strongly rumored to be into seven figures. Mo Town was a $200,000 Fall yearling.

And so after three starts, Mo Town has a second and two wins over three different tracks and has handled fast and wet footing equally well. Long and leggy, he is the rare individual that’s professional at the start, owns both tactical and turn-of-foot speed and rates kindly. His best attribute?

“He’s easy on himself,” explained Dutrow. “Before he ran, we worked him in company but we don’t need to do that anymore. He knows what to do and he’ll do whatever we want to do in the morning.”

Dutrow does not want to get him started until late February and currently is mulling his options.

Mo Town looks toward the future.

After winning the Remsen, which has not been a great predictor of Classics success despite its nine furlong distance at the end of the two-year-old season, Dutrow stated the Wood Memorial, given the identical dynamics, likely would be the colt’s major Kentucky Derby prep. Now he’s not so sure.

“The downgrading of that race is a consideration and we’re looking at other options. The fact that neither New York nor Kentucky has a Grade 1 for three-year-olds in the spring doesn’t make sense. The Wood and Blue Grass have a rich history and are the kind of races the sport needs.”

Another consideration could be that the Grade 3 Gotham, which fits Dutrow’s schedule as well as a logical bridge to the Wood Memorial, had its purse lowered from $400,000 to $300,000 this year.

Parenthetically, that’s another factor that could have a negative effect on the Wood’s ability to regain its Grade 1 status.

Tony Dutrow contemplates his next move.

At this point Dutrow is mulling Fair Grounds’ Risen Star on Feb. 25 or Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth a week later, opposite the Gotham on Mar. 4. Both spots also are being considered for protem champion Classic Empire. Recent Delta Jackpot winner Gunnevera is another targeting the Fountain of Youth.

As far as other starting points, Dutrow said he doesn’t know enough about Tampa Bay Downs, host of the 50-point Derby qualifier Tampa Bay Derby Mar. 11 but a run in the Risen Star, also a 50 pointer, is a useful five-week bridge to either the 100-point Louisiana Derby or Florida Derby, Apr. 1.

“There have been no soundness issues with him, knock wood, and I know we have not seen anything near his best yet,” Dutrow sounding like a man who’s very eager to find out. On that, he has a lot of interested company.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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