Thursday, March 05, 2009

Last-Minute Fountain of Youth Odds Drop Frustrates Bettors

Saratoga Springs, March 4, 2009--It was post time for the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth. The horses were parading behind the gate, allowing one final look at Quality Road, breaking from an outside position.

Quality Road looked great. So did 8-1. I indicated in Saturday’s post that I would take 6-1, reasoning that if the Fountain of Youth was run 100 times, Quality Road win at least 14 times.

As for that quoted price, as Casey said, you could look it up.

The Fountain of Youth start was a good start for all, especially the outside horses, or so it always appears on TV when races come out of a long chute.

This Ones For Phil broke like a shot from the extreme outside slip, which probably added to his undoing. He became the unintended pacesetter.

As other speed types rushed up toward his inside, Quality Road was right up there with them in the opening furlong, Johnny Velazquez allowing his long striding colt to get into rhythm.

Quality Road had perfect position, which usually is the case when Velazquez is riding at the top of his game. And Johnny’s riding like Johnny again these days, finding the sweet spot in most every race.

By the time the field approached the five-furlong pole, the running order with odds first appeared on the television monitor: Quality Road, 5-1.

Damn it!

At that point there’s nothing a bettor can do. Nothing sinister happened; machines lock at post time.

But it takes about 30 seconds for the last flash--that includes gobs of simulcast money--to be added to the pool, and for the odds to recalibrate and appear on the tote board.

Then it takes another approximate 30 seconds for tote-board finals to reach TV monitors, which is where most bettors get their information.

What’s frustrating, of course, is that nothing can stop the flow of late money. If odds go down on one horse, they go up on the others, which could, in other circumstances, alter betting strategy.

And being unable to make wagering adjustments to the odds is not the way anyone wants to play this game.

Obviously, there’s nothing a bettor can do about final fluctuations of the odds. But until odds are displayed in real time, nothing can be done except to sit back and root for your horse, somewhat half-heartedly because you‘re not getting your price.

Or, as Tony said when he called my cell about a minute after Quality Road reached the finish line in 1:35.01 for the mile: “Did you see that,” he asked, not needing to explain what “that” he was talking about.

“This is some game. Even when you win you don’t get paid [enough]. No wonder people are walking away.”

No wonder, indeed.

How can 99 percent of horseplayers compete with one percent of the whales who watch the odds and wager with rebate-providing bet-takers, on-shore and off, after their algorithms or experienced eye identifies true value?

Good for them, and good for an industry that needs them. Bad for the game, read the overwhelming majority of horseplayers.

I was speaking with a colleague on Monday, lamenting the $13 win mutuel and $77 exacta payoff with Theregoesjojo, 15-1 on the early line, but opening 4-1 and closing a well backed 9-2.

But with race co-favorites at 7-2, and with seven of the 10 horses at odds of 8-1 or less, you’d think the exacta would have paid more.

I know, I know: They were coupled horses; coming out of the same race.

So what?

“He was a great play,” my phone buddy said. “I got 8.5-1 on the betting exchange. But in this country the rules make it tough to make money.”

This situation also speaks to the high takeout rates throughout the industry. The hold on exactas at Gulfstream Park is 20 percent.

And so, with seven of 10 horses at less than 8-1 in what was universally billed as the toughest Kentucky Derby to date, a $77 payoff was paltry, with nearly $800,000 wagered in exacta pool. (Over $1.1 million was bet straight).

There’s a lesson here, unless the industry is only spinning when it says that it values horseplayers.

Maybe they can figure out a way to incorporate head-to-head exchange betting at the same low rate charged in England, or other derivations of low takeout propositions.

Talk to Lee Amaitis at Cantor-Fitzgerald L.P., or the people at Bet Fair who now own TVG. They might show you a new way to grow handle, and the value of low takeout wagering.

And fear not, revenue will grow. But it takes time. Just like it’s going to take time for the world to get out of the economic morass.

If last minute bettors, betting finite amounts no matter how large, were wagering into an $10-million win pool instead of one one-tenth the size, the odds on Quality Road would have remained virtually the same instead of deflating three points.

Until the industry can figure this out--to the player‘s benefit as well as their own--can there just be a one-minute delay from the close of betting to the start of the race?

At least that way, when some neophyte sees all the late money come in on one horse, he doesn’t think he’s getting cheated by past-posting.

Can’t tracks in 38 jurisdictions at least agree on that much? There is more to servicing customers than safeguarding the health of the horses, no matter how noble that mission might be.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Racing Hall of Fame: Bobbing for Trainers

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 25, 2009--No more argument. No more technicalities. No more politics. Bob Baffert, winner of eight Triple Crown races, seven Breeders' Cups, and the trainer of 10 Eclipse champions is a finalist for election into the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame.

When the ballots are finally tabulated, the Hall of Fame nominating committee will be the biggest obstacle the youthful, silver-haired 56-year-old had to overcome. This is his first year on the ballot but not the first time he was eligible. It’s a little complicated.

Beyond that pesky association with Quarter Horses that doesn’t really sit well with the old guard, there were a bunch of incomplete thoroughbred seasons sandwiched around years in which he entered not a single thoroughbred race. But now it’s 2009 and, in Baffert speak, everything’s cherry.

Baffert, who led the nation in earnings three times and whose horses have bankrolled over $135-million, has trained more than 160 stakes winners and counting, including a remarkable 254 graded stakes. Figure that that’s an awful lot of five-furlong bullets.

It was Baffert’s work with Thirty Slews--a horse he purchased as a yearling that would eventually win the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Sprint--that earned him a national reputation, the year after he won three stakes races on Oak Tree-at-Santa Anita’s California Cup program.

For Baffert the horseman, good things, and bad things, came in fours. There were four Quarter Horse champions and eight Triple Crown wins, but with four different horses, earning him four Double Crowns but no cigars. The most frustrating, of course, was Real Quiet’s agonizing nose loss to Victory Gallop in the 1998 Belmont.

Baffert’s certain first round election will come at the expense of another Bob from California, old schooler Robert Wheeler. Because of a controversial rule, only one finalist can be elected in any category in any given year, unless there’s a dead heat.

The consensus among voting writers is that the qualifying rule should be amended to include any nominee with a worthy portfolio.

This is Wheeler’s eighth year on the ballot. Two of his best-known stakes winners were C.V. Whitney's homebred Silver Spoon, the co-champion 3-year-old filly of 1959, and the filly Bug Brush, winner of six stakes including a world record performance defeating males in the San Antonio Stakes.

Silver Spoon defeated males, too, winning the 1959 Santa Anita Derby, one of three fillies to do so. Both fillies later won consecutive runnings of the prestigious Santa Margarita. Wheeler won that race for a third time, 18 years later, with nine-time stakes winner Taisez Vous, the only trainer to win the Santa Margarita thrice at that time.

In 1960, Wheeler won a second consecutive Santa Anita Derby with the Whitney owned colt, Tompion, who later won the Blue Grass and Travers when Wheeler sent him East for another trainer to saddle.

Much of Wheeler's career pre-dated the grading of races, but he won 26 percent of the graded stakes he entered and 25 percent of all stakes from 1976 to 1992. He trained a total of 56 stakes-winning horses, including Track Robbery, the 1982 older female champion.

Wheeler was a consummate horseman. He won turf marathons, the 14-furlong San Juan Capistrano and 12-furlong Sunset with Patrone, and was an ace with two year olds, winning the pre-Breeders’ Cup Hollywood Juvenile Championship five times. Wheeler trainees also won two Hollywood Gold Cups and the La Canada back-to-back.

Where the surf meets the turf, Wheeler won the Del Mar Oaks twice and three runnings of the Del Mar Debutante. He won the Del Mar Futurity and Del Mar Derby, too, winning stakes at the seaside track for a period of 30 years.

Wheeler died in 1992 but is still ranked 10th in all-time stakes victories at Santa Anita. Seven of the nine trainers ranked ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame. He saddled his final stakes winner, Never Round, two weeks before his death at age 72.

Robert Wheeler’s career achievements are clearly worthy of enshrinement into the Hall but in good conscience it’s impossible to deny Bob Baffert the deserved honor of first- round inductee. And so Bobby Wheeler will be denied for the eighth time because of a questionable qualifier.

Eventually Wheeler will get in. His Hall of Fame credentials are undeniable and, if he’s not voted in, he’ll certainly get the nod from the Hall of Fame’s historic review committee. Bobby Wheeler died 17 years ago. He’ll be eligible for historic review in 2017.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

AAEP White Paper Is Roadmap for Substantive Change, Part 2

In the natural order of things, the procedures recommended in an American Association of Equine Practitioners white paper released this week will lead to mandatory cross-jurisdictional sharing of information.

This seems like a basic tenet, but a lack of uniformity exists because no one’s in charge. Everyone in the sport recognizes this, and the hope is that the industry will embrace many of the AAEP recommendations that are, on their face, timely, sensible and thoughtfully radical.

In terms of how the game is perceived, it is clear that the public must be educated. Racing must concede that social mores have changed and that the modern racehorse no longer a beast of burden but a pleasure animal and companion that isn’t abused but cherished, more a way of life than strict business commodity. The public needs convincing that the animal’s well being is of the highest priority.

For this to become a reality, the public must see for themselves that the industry has the horse’s best interests at heart. Given that claiming and condition horses dominate racing programs, changes to the structure of the claiming game and medication usage in horses intended for sale on the racetrack--and at public auction--must be made.

The AAEP recommends that periods of rest for all horses be mandated to provide opportunities to refresh the animal. Further, no horse should be permitted to race within 10 days of its last start, and every horse entered to race must be on the track grounds in sufficient time for pre-race inspection by a regulatory veterinarian to assess racing soundness.

Other recommendations include having all claimed horses subjected to post-race inspection, as currently is the rule in New York, and claimed horses that test positive shall have the claim rescinded at the buyer’s discretion. And no claiming race should have a purse exceeding the claiming price by more than 50 percent, which should reduce the temptation to over-race.

All claimed horses shall not be allowed to start in a claiming for 30 days since the date of the claim, or for less than 25 percent more than the amount for which it was claimed. And, most significantly, horses that do not finish the race, or sustain catastrophic injury, remains the property of the original owner.

The AAEP knows it’s in for a battle as it tries to be an instrument for restructuring the racing model. Quoting Dr. Scott Palmer from the white paper: “Our premise is very simple: What is good for the horse is good for racing. It is fair to say that particular recommendations will resonate with some individuals and alienate others.”

Funding, of course, especially in this environment, is another issue. This is where the NTRA might be creative in raising revenue for the industry: There’s the matter of maintaining testing facilities; the storing of samples, underwritten in large part by the Jockey Club; research and development on medication and surface testing, and added backstretch security. After that, an aggressive public relations campaign to educate the public about the advances made safeguarding the health and welfare of the horse.

But there’s another issue, one the NTRA has not strongly embraced; advocating for the abolition of horse slaughter. The industry needs funding to assist in the transition of horses from racing to a second career. It cannot ask horseplayers to pay for it in the form of higher parimutuel takeout, which, in the absence of creativity, has been typical of the industry’s solution to deal with failed business models.

In most racing jurisdictions there is no institutional program to care for horses. There is no vehicle for rehabilitation, retraining, or adoption of horses whose racing careers have ended. Significantly, the organization recommends the programs that reinforce the concept of owner responsibility to support a secondary racehorse market.

Both the AAEP and the Jockey Club could have gone further to include the responsibility of the breeding industry in the area of foal over-production. As we have all learned the hard way, a free market economy lacking some form of oversight is not always the best way to go.

But it seems clear that the AAEP wants to be part of the solution and not the problem. And since they’re actively campaigning for cooperation and transparency within the racing industry, I’m sure the organization would have no objection with having the names of attending veterinarians printed in the past performance data right next to the owner and trainer.

Written by John Pricci

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