Monday, August 06, 2012
On the Backside or Frontside, Racing’s a Numbers Game
In an era where horses struggle to compete at classic distances, the 9-furlong Haskell offered three-year-olds the best first post-Triple Crown opportunity for a Grade 1 win and a million dollar purse.
You’d think trainers would be lining up at the entry box but this year’s renewal, won by Paynter, attracted only 6 starters; hardly a vertical exotic player’s dream and a surprising disappointment to the leadership of the horseman-operated Monmouth meet struggling to stay solvent.
The Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga, run the same weekend, historically has cannibalized the Haskell field. But now that NYRA also cards the ungraded Curlin at the same distance as the two graded stakes, fields shorter on quality and entrants is virtually guaranteed.
One thing seems certain; without slots revenue to fuel purses--a situation to which NYRA could revert—all tracks will have to alter their strategy for funding marquee events.
In a breakthrough if not breathtaking announcement, Churchill Downs introduced a change to the eligibility criteria for its Kentucky Derby. No longer would earnings determine which horses entered the Derby starting gate. Rather, performances in fewer qualifying events regardless of purse size will determine eligibility.
Stronger fields are the expected result for an event in which field size is now never less than excessive. No other race enjoys such urgency of participation among horsemen. It remains to be seen how the purses of the impacted preps will be affected in the future.
However, it’s the relevance of the established system for grading stakes races that is the real victim of CDI’s ground-shaking edict. Indeed the current process is a controversial, subjective one where the quality of competition in actual races is not as important as subsequent performances in fields that may have been diluted by injury and non-cooperative scheduling.
Although perhaps suitable for juveniles, current grading is a better tool for breeding than handicapping--or for qualifying performances for either race eligibility or Eclipse awards.
I can’t argue with those who feel there are too many graded events for the good of the game, especially in the light of steep declines in recent foal crops. If there were a National Horse Racing Commission (NHRC), it could trim the fat from stakes schedules more equitably and eliminate divisional conflicts.
Absent that, the answer may be to ensure that horses are rewarded with purses and graded-based rankings that more accurately reflect what actually happened on the track, and which horses showed up to compete.
We could start by reducing the purses of all graded stakes to the minimum for its current grade and then increment it by an amount assigned to the highest [and/or latest?] graded-stakes Win-Place-Show performances of each entrant.
Now, suppose any stakes race for older horses could receive an automatic upgrade effective when the starting gate opened for a full field of graded-stakes winners with a specified minimum number of winners at levels above the original grading for the race?
Further suppose that any graded stakes race would similarly receive an automatic downgrade if no graded stakes winner at the original level or above were in the field?
With some adjustment, such a system could maintain itself without questionable choices by a committee of breeders. If the horses won’t go to the mountain to compete, let the mountain come to where they will compete and when.
Where is it written that excess leads to success, anyway? Graded stakes aren’t the only races suffering from small field sizes, but motivations differ between connections of horses seen to still have a future and those whose horses only have a present: One could argue that the likelihood of increasing field size by increasing purse size is inversely proportional to the value of the horses involved.
There is increasing evidence suggesting excess leads to even more excess. The industry is awaiting results of a study of breakdowns in low-level claiming races whose purses were elevated by slot subsidies to nearly 5 times their claiming price. The fear is that such reward relative to risk reduces inhibitions to run horses of questionable soundness.
That spotlight on subsidies to horsemen should be shared by subsidies to horseplayers through rebates on wagers placed predominantly on non-stakes races, if only due to their overwhelming numbers: Non-stakes handle is dependent upon racing’s core customers, i.e., the dedicated, the determined, and the deep pocketed; whereas stakes races attract media attention and recreational handle as well.
Excessive takeout, excessive purses, and excessive margins awarded to off-track bet-takers have combined to destroy what was once a symbiotic relationship between horsemen, track operators, and horseplayers. By failing to maintain the delicate but workable balance between takeout, handle and purses, racing’s “leadership” has already lost several generations of customers.
Excessive direct takeout rates enable off-track bet-takers to play Robin Hood in reverse, i.e., rob the “poor” to give to the “rich.” The practice of rebating players selectively based on their wagering volume (and/or state of residence) is based on the premise that a smaller piece of a larger pie is more profitable to the bet-taker. Few foresaw that the pie would eventually shrink because players either fell off the tilted playing field or were turned off by it; never to return or be replaced.
If direct takeout were equally lower for all bettors, more money would be returned to all winners in the form of higher pari-mutuel payoffs. What’s happening instead is that some players are being rebated an amount reflecting a portion of the high direct takeout on their wagers which is “returned” whether the bet itself wins or loses.
The benefits to those recipients are at least five-fold: 1) the effective takeout rate is lower on their wagers, 2) the effective return on straight wager investment is higher, 3) more exotic wager combinations can be purchased for the same actual outlay, 4) there is always something left to churn the next time and 5) a marginally unprofitable player might be turned into a profitable one.
The practice is defended --by its beneficiaries as well as its enablers -- as discounts on volume purchases to their best customers and with claims that the overwhelming majority of players are not profitable anyway.
A friend of mine sees the categories of winners and losers as being in a state of flux--containing most players at one time or another. Such statistics are somewhat dubious. When it’s “winning time,”, whether the game is slots, sports, craps, cards, or Thoroughbred racing, one wants the full benefit of ending up a winner.