Thursday, September 27, 2007

Reputation Tarnished, Curlin Seeks Redemption

He arrived on the scene already a star. if the whispers emanating from Florida were true. But it certainly appeared people were jumping the gun. Whats the rush to canonization?

The chestnut colt took the track at Gulfstream Park in February in a typically loaded special-weight maiden sprint for three-year-olds at seven furlongs, and the workout whisperers were betting him down to 5-2.

Didnt these people know there were two horses with excellent form in the field, one with experience at the distance, and that his inside draw didnt figure to help him?

Then Curlin went out and blew their doors off, by almost 13 lengths, in fast time while bearing out the length of the stretch.

Too bad. The way he was getting out down the lane, hell never last, I was thinking. What, hes been sold? For how much? Like Discreet Cat, off one race? Are these people, nuts?

No. I was.

And just like that Helen Pitts was out, Steve Asmussen was in, and the rich got richer.

Why should racing be different?

But they would get their comeuppance, I was certain. Imagine, a Grade 3 two-turner, at a different track, bearing out the length of the stretch in his only sprint start. What are these people, nuts?

No. I was.

Curlin used that Rebel Stakes as a bridge to the G2 Arkansas Derby. But this would be different for sure. The waters are a lot deeper now. And this time its nine furlongs. Are these people nuts?

No. It was me.

Curlin won the Arkansas Derby by nearly 11 and his action was flawless. Watching Robbie Albarado partner him down the backstretch, the colt appeared so fluid it looked like he could have balanced a glass of water on his back.

But an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby? Are these people crazy?

If they were, not by much. By only 10 cents on the dollar: Street Sense; 4.90-1. Curlin; 5.00-1

But serious Derby contender in his fourth lifetime start? Crazy, right?

Again, not by much. Third by eight, behind Street Sense and Hard Spun, after being steadied early and rallying wide into the stretch.

Lost in Street Senses winning rally, from 19th of 20 on the backstretch to first, was the fact Curlin was 14th when Street Sense was 17th at the six-furlong pole.

The Derby may be a hell of a spot to get an education but I guess its true what they say about whatever doesnt kill you makes you stronger.

Certainly, the speed was there, the talent, too, and in the Preakness Curlin would prove that class was there as well.

Calvin Borel saved just as much ground in Baltimore as he did on Street Sense in Louisville. He opened a momentum-building length and a half advantage leaving the three-sixteenths pole. Elmont, here we come.

Wait, here comes Curlin! Wasnt he left for dead at headstretch? Then Street Sense did what he always does after striking the front: He waited. Curlins still coming.

Here comes Street Sense to re-engage. Ding-dong. Ding-dong. Photo finish. Bye-bye Elmont. Bye-bye Triple Crown. Back home to Churchill.

Now its Curlins time, to live up to all that ability, to all that promise. Hello filly.

The Belmont Stakes loss was no disgrace. Far from it. Another head to head battle for the ages. Another photo finish, one that didnt serve a loser.

But, no. Not this time.

Trainer Steve Asmussen didnt lose heart. In fact, quite the opposite. He spoke of Curlin in glowing terms, even in defeat. His confidence was bordering on the arrogant.

As if Curlin didnt lose that photo. As if Curlin werent at least a little fortunate to win that picture in Maryland.

Alls well that ends, however. Time to freshen, recharge the batteries, get ready for the Haskell. Its not often you get a chance to get the feel of the Breeders Cup track for a million bucks.

But this is racing where, on any given Saturday, they all get beat.

Curiously, with his third place Haskell finish, Curlin seemed to lose support. Its not as if he wasnt on the sidelines a few months, coming from a mile and a half marathon three weeks after the Preakness gut-wrencher, and meeting a sharper speed rival on a speed-kind oval.

So as quickly as he became a star hes become the forgotten Triple Crown performer. Even to the point of being disrespected. Maybe its because hes only won once against the divisions best. Maybe its because his trainers been a little cheeky.

Im not sure why everybody has given up on him, said Todd Pletcher this week. Pletcher will saddle favorite Lawyer Ron against Curlin in Sundays Jockey Club Gold Cup. [The Haskell] was his first race back. It was a good third in my opinion.

But it was jockey Robbie Albarados post-Haskell comments that were, well, puzzling. He felt good, he said post-race. Steve does a great job getting this horse ready but [Curlin] just couldnt get it done today. He may have needed a rest today, but hell bounce back and be fine.

He felt good but may have needed a rest today? Unless it was a misquote, what did that mean?

If he needed a rest after coming off a rest, how is that a good thing?

Typical of any trainer with a losing favorite, Asmussen was defensive of his stable star, as in were proud of him, wouldnt trade places with anyone, etc., etc.

Hard to think that Curlin can beat Lawyer Ron on Sunday, who is older, faster, and owns a recent conditioning edge on the Preakness hero. And Asmussen knows that a Classic victory is Curlins only chance for post-season honors. Not all screws will be fastened tightly.

But to get his favorable reputation back, Curlin must run well, look like a horse that will benefit from his race to emerge a viable Classic contender next month.

I expect him to run a good race Saturday, [sic] said Pletcher, rival trainer and still Curlin fan. Id be cautious to say anything negative about what Curlin has done, or will do in the future.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Disparate Industry Factions Short Sighted On Takeout Issue

If youre a serious horseplayer wagering serious money, the news out of Kansas City earlier this week wasnt promising. Of greater significance, it doesnt augur well for the future of the game, either.

The occasion was the National Simulcasting Conference. Appropriately, the subject of takeout was among the more pressing issues. And the bottom line--for modern racetracks and for future horseplayers--wasnt good.

There were three glaring problems with some of the comments, however. In terms of growing the business, the takeout experiments conducted at second tier race meets in competition with the two 500-pound gorillas of summer; Saratoga and Del Mar, were doomed from the start.

The second is that the lower take experiments conducted at Laurel Park and Ellis Park didnt have a fair chance because they werent given nearly enough time, especially Laurels 10-day stand.

The third is the nature of simulcasting itself.
Starting in the 1970s at the New York tracks, the NYRAs non-profit model allowed for a sensible time period in which lower takeout could generate added revenue. Three extended lower-takeout periods were conducted and the lower rate produced increased handle every time.

The result of our experiment left us with a big question mark, said CEO Lou Raffetto by phone from Laurel Park Thursday morning. Our on-track fans came up and thanked me for the lower takeout. That was nice. But as I said before, it was a PR bonanza and a financial bust.

The lower take didnt matter when going up against Saratoga and Del Mar, he continued. And we were caught in a Catch-22 in that big bettors only want to play into large pools. Were handling about $3 million a day at the fall meet now but only about $1.5 million [at the 10-day summer meet]. The only gains we made were with Internet players who tend to be more savvy when it comes to takeout.

The concept of churn--the less you take the more you make--was not only hindered by the brevity of the experiment but by the nature of simulcasting itself. Pre-simulcasting, bettors had a choice of nine races a day and the more money returned to them, the more they bet back in the next race. Simulcasting changed that.

If one of our fans hit a $300 trifecta that paid $340 because of the lower take, he took the extra money and played the upcoming trifecta at Philly Park where the [trifecta] take is 30 percent. When it comes to takeout, some fans just dont get it, said Raffetto.

Lower takeout produced mixed results elsewhere under mitigating circumstances. At Ellis Park, new owner and track president Ron Geary lowered the take on the tracks Pick Four wager to four percent. Even with many outlets refusing to take the bet, Pick Four handle nearly doubled from $19,282 daily to $35,085.

Also in competition with Saratoga and Del Mar, there was no trickle down from the Pick Four to individual races. Geary will not decide until early next year whether to continue the experiment. In order to get it off the ground, there was much political compromise on how the lower revenues would be split. Outside the Commonwealth and in Maryland, for that matter, there was much gnashing of teeth over signal fees and projected lower revenues.

The area for growth everyone agreed on was the positive effect innovative wagers and fractional betting, such as dime superfectas and fifty-cent trifectas, had on handle.

But, once again, tracks objected to fractional betting, citing extraordinary gains in superfecta wagering with the new minimums but a cannibalization of other pools such as the trifecta and exacta.

Of course, this thinking is short-sighted. With superfecta payoffs being at least four times greater on average than trifectas, discerning players rightfully figured that the leverage provided by fractional betting more than compensated for the higher degree of difficulty.

The smaller exacta handle cited by some lower-tier tracks that experienced superfecta gains is counter-intuitive. Exactas are a perfect leveraging wager for superfecta players, at least from a personal perspective and bettors we talk with. Or maybe players simply prefer more bang for their buck. Everyone likes to bet a little to win a lot.

The $2 Magna Five was given as an example of how tracks successfully increased bottom line revenues. But the figures provided ignored other factors. Widely promoted, the Pick Five is a national wager combining races from as many as three tracks, two of them winter juggernauts Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita. The races often feature popular graded stakes.

The wonder is whether a $1 Pick Five would turn a mid-six-figure weekly handle into a seven- figure one. Contrarily, the MEC brain trust believes that carryovers produce a greater windfall the following week, increasing revenue overall, while in the interim they collect interest on the carryover money.

In terms of how takeout affects revenue optimization, modern math experts believe the rate of take that optimizes revenue lies between eight and 10 percent, which shows how much times have changed.

In March of 1991, the University of Louisville commissioned a study to determine the optimum rate of takeout. It was found at the time, when simulcasting was in its infancy, that number was 12.5 percent. Based on that figure, Raffetto came up with a blue skies scenario:

This would work best at tracks with slots to offset short-term losses, he explained. In a perfect world, takeout at all tracks would be 12.5 percent. All outlets then would have to agree to charge no more than 2.5 percent for its signal. The shortfall could be made up by charging rebate shops 4.5 percent.

Those figures might need some tweaking, but these rates would level the playing field for all bettors and optimize profits by structuring the precise price at which demand meets supply.

Because rebate shops boast huge per capita handle and low overhead, they can afford a fee increase and still operate profitably. This way, the small bettor can win the same proportionate amount as the whale. And while the whale gets a lower rebate rate, he still enjoys the benefits of lower takeout, a win-win.

Unless tracks and their states realize they would benefit more from getting a smaller slice of a much larger pie, that pie will remain where it is right now: In the sky.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Coach Belichick Forfeits His Legacy

Racing is always attacked from all sides whenever the subject of integrity is broached. I contend that, despite its flaws, its the best policed game in the world of sports. And its precisely because the betting on it is legal.

Fans have recently learned that major sports--upon which there is much illegal wagering-- might be the real culprits in the cheaters arenas.

We know, for instance, that at least one NBA referee cheats. New York Giants manager Leo Durocher was legendary for taking a cheaters edge. With a pair of field glasses he raised the practice of sign stealing to an art form.

Just ask any remaining living member of those Brooklyn Dodgers baseball teams of the 1950s.

And now we know for sure that the eminently dislikable Bill Belichick--recall his disingenuous congratulatory handshake with Peyton Manning following last years Super Bowl and his boorish press conferences nearly every week--doesnt place sportsmanship high on his to-do list.

So now Belichick joins the ranks of cheaters for having stolen defensive signals in his season opening victory over a hated divisional rival and former assistant coach, Eric Mangenius, of the New York Jets.

The most condemning aspect in Laffaire Belichick is that he went high tech to do it. Indeed, its a lot easier to put a hat on a blitzing linebacker when you know hes coming off the weak side so that you can isolate your best receiver in man coverage.

But that doesnt insure victory for the cheater. King Football, so-called because it attracts more wagering than any other sport, illegal or otherwise, and is, arguably more than any other sport, about one thing: Execution.

Just because you know exactly whats coming doesnt mean you automatically can do anything about it. Just ask a remaining living member of any defensive unit that tried to stop the Green Bay Packers power sweep in the 1960s.

Call me cynical but I regard sign stealing--by definition, cheating--as little more than advanced gamesmanship. What makes signal stealing any different from putting footballs in a freezer to deaden them, or over-watering the playing field?

What about supplying sneakers to the home team in the second half after the tundra actually froze? The Giants beat the Bears in a title game that way.

Commissioner Roger Goodell did a good job doling out punishment. Maybe $250,000 is a drop in the corporate bucket, but a half million dollars is a lot of money for any coach. It really hurts and thats all it needs to do.

The loss of a first round draft pick can punish even a playoff team for years, as would the loss of a second and third round choice for a non-playoff outfit.

Belichicks punishment goes beyond money. His legacy, should he win one more championship, would have been assured, given the nature of a singular achievement. Instead, he always will be the coach who cheated. Then theres the matter of looking his own and other children in the eye, punishment sure to last a lifetime.

Goodells sentence was strong and commensurate with the crime. A forfeit in a 16-game season would have been over the top, punishing many innocent players along with a guilty coach.

The New England Patriots beat the New York Jets handily last week not because they took an edge but because they were, and are, the superior football team. Perhaps Belichick should have been fined one more penny. What were you thinking, coach?

Written by John Pricci

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