Sunday, April 29, 2018

THE HIGHS, and lows, OF DERBY WEEK 144

Today begins Easter Week for Thoroughbred racing fans for it is on this day each year when America begins contemplating a return to its past and celebrates a horse race that, on balance, is the most sought after prize in equine sports.

Finally, a week of positivity for a great sport that sadly is not the great game it once was. Politicians can’t make a move without powerful interests making their voices heard, and such is the case in Thoroughbred racing, too, as racing’s premier event is renewed.

It’s no small irony that as democracy itself fights for its life, as America tries to live up to its ideals, the worst administration in the history of the republic that wants to build a wall on its southern border, Derby winners and losers will celebrate Saturday May 5 with the cocktail of the day, a margarita.

“Horseplayer Week” begins now and there is cause for celebration. The most interesting, deeply talented Kentucky Derby field in decades will jam into two starting gates, side-by-side at the top of the Churchill Downs stretch, set to begin its headlong charge into American folklore.

Enjoy it while you can because while the short-term trends may be positive, what looms over the horizon is not encouraging. It’s an era in which horseplayers have a say but have no one’s ear. At the bottom line, they might well be voices crying in the wilderness.

Everywhere one looks in America today, economic elites are in charge: The billionaire donor class shares in 83% of permanent tax cuts while everyone else gets pennies on the dollar, and only on a temporary basis.

Corporate taxes dropped from 35% to 21%. Where’s does the money for all those Syrian missiles come from, American taxpayers or Koch Industries? And how is this analogous to horse racing? Well, guess who’s paying for the high rebates afforded betting syndicates while the rank and file pays retail?

Alas, the model is working, so there’s very little hope that things will improve for Joe Fan. Everywhere one looks; from Gulfstream Park to Mahoning Valley to Oaklawn Park, jurisdictions are setting handle records faster than Southeast Asia dominos fell a half-century ago.

And these tracks are not isolated cases. Year over year, wagering on U.S. races is up 11.35% and purses have increased 13.95%. With an accent on stakes racing, today’s mega-race cards continues to work well. Average wagering per race up 12.05% despite a field-size increase of less than 1%.

In 2018, the upward spiral continues: For the first quarter, wagering was up 11.35%, lifting all boats as the average purse increased by 14.67%. Buoyed by the potential for the most spectacular Triple Crown wagering totals in history, May and June receipts figure to be just as impressive.

Where there is room for major improvement, however, is in the area of communications and the respect that the racing industry shows the sports and betting public, something beyond lip service. And that lesson can be learned and practiced within the industry’s own community as well.

When asked, industry stakeholders still knee-jerk into a protectionist, isolationist posture, continuing to run to its past performances, one that embraces competition over cooperation.

It is understandable that racing venues are pitted against each other via the constraints of racing dates imposed by state houses and a lack of central authority. Smaller high-end foal crops, controlled by a handful of mega-breeders, cannot fill the need for more and better product.

Yet somehow a national calendar emerges from all the chaos, as national attention focuses on the warmer, sunny climes of Florida and California winters, springtime in the bluegrass, summers and autumn in New York and other Breeders’ Cup proving grounds. At New Year’s; rinse, repeat.

Flaps happen, like the one this week involving competitors Churchill Downs Inc. and sports/race-book company, Betfair. Each vie for business at its online Advance Deposit Wagering websites; and Betfair also owns the sport’s only daily national presence, Television Games Network.

In a fit of sophomoric irrelevance, CDI denied Derby credentials to two broadcasters; respected freelance analyst Caton Bredar, who is closely associated with TVG, and a TVG network host, Todd Schrupp. Each had adjunct Derby roles, as event rights are the exclusive province of NBC.

However, the Bredar scenario resulted in a national outcry and on Saturday CDI reversed its decision. Bredar can now reprise her analyst’s role for Louisville’s NBC affiliate, Wave3News, on its Oaks and Derby programs.

The run-up to Derby really wasn’t the best time to be sending embarrassing hardball messages. But another recent issue, one bigger than an inside-baseball matter, occurred, and it is an issue that affects horseplayers everywhere. To wit, a recent example:

Thanks to record-setting Arkansas Derby and Rebel Stakes days, the recently concluded Oaklawn Park meeting was the most successful in its 114-year history as total handle increased by 11% despite the loss of two racing days in January and 14 inches of biblical rainfall in February.

The standard was accomplished without the benefit of America’s trending love affair with turf racing and its larger, more competitive fields. And even if Oaklawn does draw from a five-state radius, a Rebel crowd of 37,000 and the Arkansas Derby’s 64,000 are otherworldly these days.

Last year, Oaklawn rewarded on-track fans with a 10% show-pool bonus, stressing churn over jackpots and providing rank-and-file and major straight bettors alike with greater liquidity. Oaklawn also keeps the simulcast-field level by not allowing computer batch-bet programs into its parimutuel system.

Recently, HRI made three attempts to speak with Oaklawn Park officials re three issues. While I was unavailable on one suggested occasion--which I attempted to reschedule immediately at management’s convenience--we received no response whatsoever to two subsequent requests.

I had explained I wanted a progress report on the show bonus, a success last year, and verification of reports that batch bettors do not get special access afforded them by virtually every ADW everywhere. And I wanted a response on the “Unique Bella poor-start bet cancellation.”

No one--Oaklawn Park, the tote company, nor Equibase--has provided a clear explanation in the form of a computer printout of exactly when the cancellation occurred. Was the bet canceled at post time or in the immediate aftermath of Unique Bella’s seriously compromised start?

The story, of course, is greater than the odds on one horse. The bigger picture is about whether computer syndicates are getting special access to betting pools to the detriment of the majority, raising serious questions about the integrity of the pools, the sport’s foundation.

Special access to betting data is a greater threat to horseplayer liquidity than near-usurious takeout rates at tracks, be they large or small. (Routinely, betting syndicates are attracted only to the larger pools of major racetracks).

When combined with sizable rebates to these big players, arbitraging not only is lethal to the bankrolls of a vast majority of players but affects the foundations of the handicapping process itself. For the majority of serious horseplayers, it’s about price, not about horse.

Given present betting atmospherics, there virtually is no chance to attract new horseplayers—or even maintain regulars who are slowly slipping away--who would learn that the haphazard manner in which the game is regulated might be rigged against them.

Earlier this year, the Association Racing Commissioners International appointed a “wagering czar” charged with overseeing the integrity of wagering. I don’t know what the ARCI, which is controlled by a politician at the top, thinks about the Unique Bella situation. Thus far, only crickets.

Given the plethora of talent and serious handicapping questions related to the variables associated with many of the major players. I didn’t envision my Kentucky Derby piece to be anything of this nature. As horseplayers we adapt. However, let’s end on a positive note and with a suggestion.

The New York Racing Association, obviously the site of the third leg of the Triple Crown, deserves props in two areas. First, there are no purposeful post drags delaying the start of their races. But of greater import, there is this:

“Non-account wagers can be cancelled at self-service terminals but with a limit not to exceed $50. Wagers placed on NYRA Bets Account Cards or Cash Cards can be cancelled… but with a limit not to exceed $500 on win, place, show wagers and/or $50 on any one single combination for all exotic wagers.”

If that’s not the case at Oaklawn Park, or at other racetracks, that might be a good place for a wagering integrity czar to start.

Written by John Pricci

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