Friday, March 20, 2015
A Quixotic Quest for Quality via Quantity
LOS ANGELES, March 19, 2015--The strategy of saturating selected Saturdays with graded stakes seems to be gaining strength within several racetrack ownership domains.
It appears to be succeeding in increasing the sport's exposure as well as the handle generated on those dates, but it remains to be seen whether interest in betting on thoroughbred races has actually been expanded in the process--and if total overall handle has increased as a result.
Santa Anita Handicap day has traditionally been an exercise in stakes-stacking but with somewhat static results. Approximately 5,000 more people came out to watch Shared Belief demolish a less than stellar field in the Santa Anita Handicap last Saturday than came to see him face off with California Chrome in the San Antonio Handicap four weeks earlier.
But that was still almost 15,000 fewer than the 40,810 who showed up on opening day to see him narrowly defeat an unheralded band of sprinters in the Malibu.
However, this was about 1,000 less than the 27,121 at last year's Big Cap for the anticipated rematch between Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge that turned out to be Game On Dude's finale, too. Both year's all-sources handle was just under $15 million.
This year's festivities featured replays of some famous renewals of the track's signature race, including a colorized version of Seabiscuit's victory over Kayak II. That film documented just how popular racing was in those days with displays of overflowing attendance.
One could conclude from all this that stacking stakes may not be as important as stocking them with competition. The more recent redistribution of racing product wealth is not being conducted cooperatively across competing management spheres which is, of course, not virgin territory.
The resultant reduction in practical opportunities for individual horses to participate in Eclipse Award-determining events has manifested itself once again. The Met Mile is reported Shared Belief's next Grade 1 target which comes three months after Big Cap.
With the 7-furlong Carter and the 10-furlong Dubai World Cup the only G1 options in between, he is expected to prep in the 9-furlong G2 Oaklawn Handicap, although Jerry Hollendorfer walked back that possibility this week. So we shall see.
This situation raises the visibility of some already questionably-placed Grade 1 races. Perhaps the most blatant waste of G1 status is the running of the Malibu at Santa Anita on Dec. 26, rather than at least six days later in the following year when it could exert some influence on divisional championships for older horses and/or sprinters.
Absent the Strub series it once anchored, why continue burying it out of sight of Eclipse voters?
The Hollywood Derby might have also been insignificant in 2014 had California Chrome's connections not used it to experiment with their colt on grass and try to firm up his claim on three-year-old divisional honors; fortunately for them, the strategy worked.
And speaking of the Metropolitan Handicap, moving it to Belmont Day still defies logic for so many. The Met Mile once matched sprinters with routers to provide a springboard from the G1 Carter to the 9-furlong G1 Stephen Foster and/or 10-furlong G2 Suburban Handicaps.
In one fell swoop, NYRA Vice President of Racing Martin Panza eliminated options for Met starters to also participate in the Belmont, Brooklyn, and Stephen Foster. Isn't a champion who raced at multiple venues and distances better for the sport?
The Brooklyn is a natural for a face-off between Belmont Stakes winners. It could join the Breeders' Cup prep path between the Travers and the Classic. Prepping at 12 furlongs for a big purse at 10 furlongs has its precedent, albeit not ideal preparation; Del Mar offers the longer Cougar II Handicap in advance of the Pacific Classic.
That path was successful for synthetic specialist Richard's Kid in successive years.
Remaining outside the box, perhaps the Brooklyn could rematch Breeders’ Cup Classic routers on Thanksgiving Saturday.
Either way, NYRA could offer a variable purse depending on the combined presence of multiple Belmont winners, just like it attracts Breeders’ Cup milers and sprinters to the Cigar Mile.
One might expect the popularity of the Triple Crown for three-year-olds to spawn similar series in other divisions.
Without bonuses, however, there is little incentive to commit to someone else's schedule. Jay Hovdey
recently referred to bonuses as a “boondoggle” because winners are required to sweep a series in order to collect.
Hovdey wasn't wrong, especially if the Alysheba-Bet Twice fiasco is the barometer..
Written by Indulto
Thursday, February 12, 2015
A Cross Country View from the Left Coast
Los Angeles, February 11, 2015—When the sprint-sharpened Shared Belief sat off a snail's pace and collared the questionably-conditioned California Chrome in the final furlong, it appeared that a tighter, more confidently-ridden Horse of the Year contesting the lead earlier with faster fractions could have been closer at the finish.
As such, the issue of individual superiority between the two rivals has yet to be settled in my view, and until their common conqueror Bayern re-enters the picture, so do future divisional rankings appear a work in progress.
Other than Bayern's stablemate Hoppertunity, the Grade II invitational event at Santa Anita offered little competition for the two superstars who both eschewed acquisition of a Grade I title scheduled less than an hour earlier cross country at Gulfstream Park.
I found it hard to believe that Bob Baffert thought he had a shot with his second-string in the San Antonio and that he was blowing a G1 opportunity for Hoppertunity facing what looked like, on paper, weaker Eastern opposition.
That suspicion was strengthened when Constitution, beaten by Hoppertunity in last year's G1 Clark Handicap, captured the Donn Handicap. That result drove Baffert's folly down to 5-1, enticing me to save with him in a superfecta over the dynamic duo, with the remainder fourth, for a fraction of my investment in a no-brainer universally-cold trifecta that came to fruition, albeit just barely.
In attempting to create a coast-to-coast success by showcasing the sport’s best older horses, The Stronach Group (TSR) somehow managed to avoid separating its brightest stars. In response to an expanded wagering opportunity and extended live television coverage, a somewhat disappointing 21,522 fans watched the centerpiece event live. Further, the $500K guaranteed Cross Country Pick Four betting closed $27,000 short of projections.
Perhaps I wasn't the only one unwilling to embrace then endure a short-priced, heavy-favorite-laden sequence which wound up paying a whopping $68.25 for fifty cents when the second favorite won the Donn. Parenthetically, I wonder how long Constitution will remain the division's leading G1 winner.
Shared Belief is now poised for a profitable appearance in the Santa Anita Handicap while California Chrome prepares for his globe-hopping trip to Dubai and a shot at the world's richest purse.
However, I doubt that money is the overriding consideration here. California Chrome has taken his connections through a Triple Crown campaign and to the Breeders' Cup. One can hardly blame them for believing the world is their oyster.
And so they'll go diving for pearls in exotic and prestigious places. These folks may be more tempted by the Arc de Triomphe than another Breeders' Cup Classic before their horse enters the breeding shed in their unbridled pursuit of lofty goals in every aspect of the game.
But I wouldn’t be too surprised if Chrome never won another race in top company. He hasn't really been the same since he sustained a minor injury at the start of the Belmont Stakes. For the second time now, his trainer suggested post-race that he may not have had the horse fully cranked.
If I owned a Triple Crown prospect, Sherman would still be my first choice to get the horse through it safely as well as competitively, but the current circumstances under which he works seems a waste of his talents.
Consequently, it's the rematch between Shared Belief and Bayern that fuels my interest more. And if that meeting should include Constitution, Tonalist, Palace Malice and other high-profile performers, so much the better.
The question now is whether Shared Belief really will race outside California prior to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland. Victories in the Santa Anita Handicap and Gold Cup at Santa Anita, Del Mar’s Pacific Classic and the Awesome Again back in Arcadia could add four G1 wins to this year's Horse of the Year contender without ever having to leave the state, although Jerry Hollendorfer did mention New York during last week’s media teleconference.
Hopefully a competitive rivalry between Shared Belief and Bayern will develop and force an expansion into New York. Another question is whether Shared Belief's trainer is ready to wrangle his share of the national spotlight from the likes of Baffert, Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott, et al, even if he cares about such things. As usual, only time will tell.
SPEAKING OF THE EMPIRE STATE
NYRA could use some help in finding out why a sudden rash of breakdowns has recurred this winter. Just possibly the answer might come from a different perspective, but NYRA, and racing in general, never appears willing to embrace outside help from racing fans, horseplayers in particular.
And so it’s highly doubtful they would craft a video package of the unfortunate race events from all vantage pints, however unsettling, including past performances for each horse, and to provide a synopsis of what they have learned from their investigations to the public. Maybe fresh sets of eyes will help. Any good suggestion could prove useful in the future.
Who Will Step Up Now?
When David Skorton, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's original Reorganization Board Chairman, vacated that position last December, the news coverage
it was also revealed in the news coverage that Bennett Liebman, the Governor's top adviser on gambling, had retired.
Like many, I have long regarded Liebman as the straightest shooter involved with New York racing in his various roles as regulator, industry observer, and NYRA board member. I applauded his appointment as Deputy Secretary of Gaming and Racing but was profoundly disappointed by his uncharacteristic public silence on racing issues. Hopefully, he will be moved to resume his insightful commentary.
The current Board Chairman vacancy provides an opportunity to appoint someone more inclined to keep the State's residents, voters, and racing customers informed as to what Team Cuomo really has in mind for the franchise and its properties in the future, maybe even accept public feedback on its plans and objectives. Horseplayers can only dream.
Written by Indulto
Saturday, January 10, 2015
Until the Perception of Horseplayers Change, Neither Will Racing
LOS ANGELES, January 9, 2015—The image of that of the horseplayer proved a popular topic for kicking off the New Year. First John Pricci
wrote, "In a culture that will bet on virtually anything--even illegally, if the proposition is popular enough--it is the horseplayer that society holds in low regard.
For many, the horseplayer is a cliché: He is the guy you meet on a street corner, a racetrack, or even in front of a home computer wearing worn out shoes; with silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants, looking like he probably drinks a bit, too.
But it is the horseplayer who is the most resilient of gamblers: You can ignore him, lie to him, cheat him, steal from him and keep him in the dark. But you can count on him, win or lose, mostly lose, he keeps coming back for more."
On the very next day, the New York Times
described Aqueduct patrons as "lonely old men who don’t care much about whether the track is preserved. They just complain about it."
Most "accepted their small losses as the price of a day’s distraction, and the losses of others as a small reward."
"That’s why they don’t care if they lose. ... They gamble for gambling’s sake. They know no one wins."
There wasn't anything new in either article about the ways horseplayers are perceived or the injustices imposed on them by those they allow to do so. The former lamented that self-enabled exploitation; the latter used it to promote its agenda of getting Aqueduct closed.
The Times photo essay amused me because what I saw was a group of seniors still able to get out in the open air under their own steam, and playing with money that likely belonged to them. They probably no longer had to worry about mortgages, educational or medical expenses, and certainly not their next meal. The fact that they all complained about what racing at Aqueduct has evolved into proved that their senses and reasoning remained intact.
For me, however, such characterizations trigger memories accumulated over a half-century of horse playing during which I endured unrealistic and unwarranted concerns, as well as undeserved and unfair criticism, and even condemnation from family, friends and co-workers when they became aware of my interest in the game.
Today's younger player bears a new burden of being branded as enablers of animal abuse. Older ones are deemed to be addicts; willing to play against a stacked deck in the face of decreasing transparency.
As there does appear to be mounting evidence of corruption and/or incompetence among industry operators and regulators, who are still not held accountable to some centralized authority, does anyone else out there wonder, "For what percentage of us could any negative representations be accurate at any point in time?"
I've played horses for over fifty years, advancing through life's stages and personal circumstances. I started as a college student with a bankroll painstakingly accumulated from part-time, minimum-wage jobs for summer sojourns scheduled on the rare breaks between them.
The ensuing period as a single professional with free time and disposable income passed with astounding alacrity, as did subsequent marriage minus parenthood. Participation was severely curtailed as a dad with limited time and family financial objectives, later as parental care-giver. The final phase as a retiree with a fixed income limited by an economy without a middle class, has acquired the discipline lacking in prior ones.
I've been ahead of the game and behind it at various times during each segment, and I feel very fortunate to have developed a passion for a pastime that now provides some welcome distraction from an increasingly complicated, competitive, and corrupt society of which racing's ills are merely a microcosm. My goal was always for racing to pay its own way in my life, not for my whole life. Naturally I was always curious to find out if I had what it took and whether I liked it if it did.
Given the luxury of an extended paid vacation between jobs, I once experimented with full-time immersion. I came away with an appreciation of the temperament, talent, drive, and discipline professional bettors must possess to make a living at the game, along with the conclusion that less might be more for me. Any admiration for the accomplishments of professionals ended with the rebate subsidy that tilts the playing field against recreational bettors.
Obviously, such players were not among those portrayed in the articles. In my opinion, their image should be that of predator; part of an unholy alliance between bet-takers and high-volume bettors to pervert the pari-mutuel process, and maximize their incomes on the backs of small-bankroll bettors.
With so many recreational players having been driven from the game since rebates were instituted, "whales" now represent a sizable portion of those participating in any given pari-mutuel pool. At the same time, according to some, they are generating at least half (and perhaps as much as 80%) of the pool's handle.
One might reason that they are now cannibalizing themselves as much as preying on the vast unrebated majority. Well, everybody loses some percentage of their bets, but a rebated whale always gets about one-third of his takeout back -- win or lose!
Wake up, you overwhelming majority of non-degenerate recreational bettors! If you won't resist this level of exploitation, why should anyone in racing stop catering to their own self-interests?
We can't right all the wrongs the first time around the track but we can prove to the industry unequivocally that we matter, collectively, and that they have to acknowledge and accommodate us to stay in business.
It's a matter of betting recreational bettors gambling on themselves rather than horses. We need to reduce our personal handle until it's apparent that whale-on-whale competition is not self-sustaining.
I'm not suggesting that we go cold turkey but rather restrict our play to, say, five personal-favorite weekends annually until our point has been made, i.e., that effective takeout means a reduced rate for all participants-- whether in the form of equal rebates for all or by lowering takeout to acceptable levels without rebates of any kind.
By demanding and hopefully achieving a level playing field, horseplayers might spur action that would level the playing fields for horsemen and, by extension, racing jurisdictions. The first part is within our power to accomplish unless, of course, the stereotypical image of horseplayers is reality and not just perception.
Written by Indulto