Sunday, May 11, 2014
For Racing, Derby Was a Pleasant Distraction
LOS ANGELES, May 11, 2014--Derby day has come and gone and despite the presence and previous day's success of Steve Asmussen, the subject of a widely anticipated interview with Bob Costas, racing still seems to be alive and solvent; even if still unreformed and unfriendly to bettors.
[Ed. Note] There was, however, no mention to Asmussen from Costas as to why thyroxine was used needlessly on all his horses.
Though I watched without wagering for the first time in many years, I still enjoyed what I saw of the broadcast; the running, the result--and not being split by longshot Commanding Curve who came from the clouds to finish second.
California Chrome proved himself the real deal; capable of carrying the high-speed with which he motored over the Autobahn at Santa Anita a furlong further over a slower surface at Churchill Downs.
Parenthetically, one need only remember the track maintenance performed in Louisville prior to Invasor's Breeders' Cup victory to rationalize the relatively slow fractional and final times recorded for the Derby following a rapidly run sprint several races earlier.
But those fractions may have been as much, if not more, a function of jockey tactics and a lifeless, waterless surface. Clearly, nobody wanted a repeat of last year's suicidal pace, anyway.
In its second year, the new Derby eligibility system produced a popular winning favorite whose vertical exotic payouts were leveraged considerably by the longshot runnerup.
Hopefully, Commander Curve's surprising placing is a preview of what is to come rather than a reprise of Golden Soul's and Ice Box's careers as one-hit wonders.
The ‘Commander’ will be waiting to get even in the Belmont Stakes rather than take on Chrome in Baltimore where the pace figures to get hotter than the Derby’s. The ultimate wisdom of that plan will have to wait until June.
It is worth noting that the Chrome would also have qualified for the Derby under the previous earnings-based system, as well as the weighted points system based on graded stakes finishes exclusively. Commander Curve only would have qualified under the new rules.
Like old friend Drosselmeyer, he had only a third place finish in the Louisiana Derby to recommend him.
Once more Todd Pletcher's presence was underwhelming given his mastery of the Derby preps; especially given the new rules. His Derby trainees finished 3rd, 10th, 12th, and 17th, Danza could have finished closer owing to his troubled third.
Potential prepmeister Mike Maker's multiple entrants were unable to muster serious threats, as they finished 11th, 16th and 19th.
If Danza shows up in Baltimore at the last minute, it will be his third race in five weeks, a la Bodemeister, compared to six weeks for the Derby winner. If as expected he doesn't, it will reaffirm that Pletcher regards five weeks rest more important than racing his Derby also-rans in the Triple Crown’s second jewel.
All but the top two finishers had troubled trips to varying degrees. If you totally trust the Equibase charts, Dance With Fate seemed to have encountered the most interference. At various stages he was jostled, shuffled, bumped, and shut off, yet still managed to finish sixth. I am awaiting his next start with interest.
As there will be betting on the second leg, too, I won't be expecting to find any from new shooter Social Inclusion. As of this writing, only Ride on Curlin and General A Rod are the only Derby survivors to join the Preakness cast—although I believe Ride On Curlin needs more distance, not less, to turn the tables.
In terms of wagering, apparently DRF Bets account holders were given a chance to bet the Derby after all but had to transfer their account to Xpressbet to do so. Unknown to me is why couldn't both platforms offer Derby betting?
At the end of the day, I and my bankroll both got a well-deserved rest from the rigors of handicapping and wagering, respectively, which doubtlessly saved both my bankroll and sanity.
I will still be boycotting Churchill Downs races, only the Grade I Stephen Foster really representing any sacrifice at all.
The old friends I was Skype-ing with Derby Day supported my decision to boycott in principle, and only one attempted to entice me to split a ticket. He cashed the winning bet by himself, the racing gods being the poor sports that they are.
Knowing my affection [affliction?] for alliteration, he pointed out what a perfectly symmetric exacta box the two CCs would make. I replied that the asymmetric Danza/Dance With Fate combination might work, too. All I wound up losing was my mind.
My friends were as outraged by the takeout hikes imposed by Churchill Downs Inc., as they were when the Thoroughbred Owners of California did the same thing three years earlier. They understand how rebates--enabled and masked by excessive takeout--put them at a disadvantage.
The difference is that my friends play five to 10 days a year compared to my 50 to 100. These days they're into the entertainment and social aspect of the game with perhaps a slim possibility of making a score, even more than in staying in the black.
Parenthetically, I find this a source of amusement since some of them are the same guys that in their earlier days frequently burned the midnight oil on Friday nights, marking up their Morning Telegraphs prior to making long drives the next day to the nearest track with the best purses. How we loved horseracing then, and still do.
They will be watching the Preakness and the Belmont and those with grandchildren might attend the Belmont if the Chrome is still chasing the dream. But they only participate when the best face the best.
They have expressed no interest in the majority of races they perceive to be less reliable; the contestants too frequently over-medicated to the detriment of horse, rider or bettor.
Contraction seems inevitable to them unless the California Chrome story can be replicated and told over and over. It’s often said that in this game there’s always tomorrow. That’s still true. Unfortunately, the game’s prospects don’t look as good as they once were.
Written by Indulto
Saturday, April 26, 2014
The Asmussen Saga: My, My
LOS ANGELES, April 26, 2014--Frank Sinatra’s life helped popularize Jimmy Webb’s song, "That’s Life
," but Steve Asmussen’s perhaps has epitomized the up-and-down of it all.
"You're riding high in April, shot down in May."
Actually, it was a month earlier when the New York Times and PETA – now to be referred to collectively as the ADHR (Alliance to Destroy Hose Racing) – released the ignominious video that suggested massive misconduct within the Asmussen operation.
At that point, the winningest active trainer had been nominated to the racing Hall of Fame. That nomination was withdrawn, of course, with the four worthiest inductees of 2014 announced Friday, April 25.
"Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race."
Asmussen already had bounced back from a long suspension with the accomplishments that led to his nomination. This is a trainer who not only won with Horse-of-the-Year quality stock but also compiled huge numbers with his far-flung operation, amassing nearly 6,800 career victories.
How many other trainers have worked with so many different horses and have been involved in addressing such a diversity of issues? It’s time to see how he and others fare if asked to compete on a level playing field.
My guess is that he would still be successful; to what degree is the nagging question.
"I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king."
An aside: Remember how early hackers were recruited by their corporate victims to improve the security of the computer systems they once exploited? I wonder if Asmussen, now that he has been accused of egregious acts, fairly or unfairly, might be persuaded to assist in establishing rules that would thwart the kind of behavior allegedly attributed to him.
"Some people get their kicks stomping on a dream."
Among those committing aggravating--if not aggravated--assault on Asmussen’s Derby dream is Steve Davidowitz
The handicapping icon offered a curious analogy between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s alleged undermining of his underlings to Asmussen assistant Scott Blasi’s abuse of owners and the English language. Davidowitz believes that Asmussen should step away and spare the sport "the maelstrom of negative publicity that will dominate Derby week coverage …"
The problem with that is even with Asmussen on the sidelines, what’s to prevent another suspected "cheater" from filling the void? There’s going to be a "maelstrom" regardless of what Asmussen does on Derby Day. In fact, there is a story in the April 26 edition of the NY Daily News on this issue.
The only way the Asmussen storyline doesn’t overshadow traditional Derby coverage is if critics can be convinced that pro-active steps are taken to prevent foul play by the edge-takers, whether it be owner, trainer, jockey, track executive or even bettors.
That would occur only if creditable professional turf writers work cooperatively in support of that objective.
Apparently "Bill Finley
would. In fact, he wants Asmussen’s horse in the Derby so that the story doesn’t go away:
"… It needs to stay alive and force some self-reflection on the part of the sport … so that the industry can't run and hide but, instead, finally deal with a problem … that a culture exists in this game where far too many trainers and owners believe that the way to get to the winner's circle is best accomplished with a needle."
Mr. Finley’s "culture problem" may be too limited in scope. It goes back to the debate about whether racing should be promoted as a sport or gambling game. Many think it’s a mixture of both.
Others regard playing the races as a game of skill, but few seem willing to call this skill what it really is; "edge-taking." Indeed, that’s the basis of parimutuel wagering, gaining an edge on the wagering competition as opposed to other luck-dependent games of chance. Purely and simply, rebated batch bettors are taking an edge with the public.
But putting the lives of horses and riders at risk is reprehensible edge-taking but can we expect those focused on the bottom line to give up whatever edge they think they have while others refuse to give up theirs?
Who can rightfully determine whether a particular edge is legal or not, moral or not? The handling of financial and informational edges remains largely conjecture. The game is always changing. New edges turn up every day.
To his credit, what Davidowitz has contributed to the game was effective instruction to horseplayers as to the importance of using one’s mind to create tools that give them an intellectual leg up over the crowd.
While edge-taking has become pervasive on the backstretch, so has awareness, due in no small part to the efforts of the ADHR’s making use of tactics culled from a Dick Francis novel. The late jockey-turned-author’s cumulative works contain every edge ever attempted, plus a few from the novelist’s fertile imagination. Going undercover was a common tack.
In "Dick Francis’s Refusal," by his son, Felix, there were developments analogous to the Asmussen situation whereby the main character had to fight charges brought against him based on manufactured visual evidence.
Further, the story’s villain extorted cooperation from another character by using staged photographs suggesting scandalous behavior. It was press coverage that was instrumental to the malefactor’s initial success because human nature is ever willing to believe in the worst capabilities of their fellow man.
PETA has raised questions of employee loyalty with all horsemen, be it the prospect of potential undercover agents or those willing to address some grievance by planting evidence. Sadly, the general public seems to be buying into PETA’s claims of widespread abuse. Livelihoods are at risk throughout the industry.
The only cure is cooperative comprehensive change with common goals and objectives. That change will come from within--or with coercion from without.
“And if I didn't think it was worth one single try, I'd jump right up on a big bird and fly”
Written by Indulto
Friday, April 11, 2014
To Bet or Not to Bet, That’s the Game-Saving Question
LOS ANGELES, April 7, 2014--Not since the “Fix Six” scandal over a decade ago have I been so fascinated with racing-related commentary as I’ve been with some of the opinions expressed in the wake of the taped revelations from the PETA undercover agent working in trainer Steve Asmussen’s barns at Saratoga and Churchill Downs.
The c-word then was “crook.” Today it’s “cheater.” The “Drexel Frat Boys” broke laws and went to jail. The current excessive edge-takers operate within winking distance of inconsistent rules with inconsequential penalties.
Today’s c-worders are enabled by incompetent and/or agenda-driven regulators, laissez-faire racetrack management, greedy and self-serving horsemen and uninformed and unorganized customers.
The only reason for which I can remember someone facing criminal charges for abuse of race horses was starvation and neglect to animals that no longer were in competition.
One thing I gleaned from the content was that very few people are in a position to confirm equine abuse inflicted by others and far fewer who are willing to do something about it.
This doesn’t mean the widespread apathy doesn't exist. But until now little concerted effort has been made to discourage it beyond New York’s decision to limit purses in the wake of a rash of winter breakdowns several years ago and efforts made to establish uniform rules by tracks operating in the Northeast and Delaware Valley.
There is a National Uniform Medication Program in place in four states with 10 others reportedly in the process of doing likewise. Ten other racing jurisdictions have begun taking a serious look at adoption. The sport cannot afford any more foot-dragging on this issue.
With Kentucky Derby rapidly approaching, racing officials have begun to plead in earnest that the industry adopt the NUMP immediately. Meanwhile, there are 10 more jurisdictions yet to be heard from. What's up with that?
Amidst the usual hand-wringing, PETA-bashing and status quo defending, several other familiar potential solutions were recycled. Some were eloquently expressed but predictably few seemed to generate much agreement.
A possible exception was a piece by Andrew Cohen that seemed to touch many individual consciences but precious few among the entrenched establishment.
While referred to by other media contributors the commentary has not yet spurred collective action. Indeed, the longer the discussions continue, the less likely change seems possible.
The only person that appeared to strike any fear among commenters was NBC’s Bob Costas. Perhaps he should become racing’s first commissioner or the vehicle by which one is created.
What he has to say on the Kentucky Derby telecast--if indeed he plays the role of host given NBC's recent hiring of Josh Elliot--viewed by millions of viewers could go a long way in motivating actual reform. It would help if he could report there is massive support for change among the sport’s bettors and fans.
One way to accomplish this would be to boycott a subset of the pari-mutuel pools for races preceding the Derby that did not involve exotic multi-race bets, i.e., eschewing straight wagers and vertical exotics.
Another race could be used to heighten interest and increase impact. Either way, it would send a clear message to the widest possible audience without ruining an entire day or crippling the sport.
(Other suggestions for accomplishing that objective are most welcome).
What is needed for this is a temporary organization -- one with a name like BETCARE, Bettors for Equitable Treatment and Care of All Racing Equines -- that could construct such a message to help raise the funds for spreading the word through media in preparation for such a demonstration.
Surely the authors of opinion pieces advocating pro-active change as an appropriate response to PETA and the NY Times would be willing to lead this charge. How about it, Messrs. Casner, Cohen, Irwin, Pricci, Weisbord, et al … will you accept supportive/constructive input and draft the message for confirmation in an on-line petition?
Will you be willing to place ads enlightening bettors and instructing them how to speak with a single voice on this issue? Could HANA provide resources to enable such an endeavor?
Everyone knows what the obstacles are; acknowledging a crisis exists, the need to overcome the inertia in fixing it and, of course, the kneejerk resistance to change in the status quo. The many must not be thwarted by the few any longer.
Those who know in their hearts that the status quo cannot continue must assert themselves and clean up the game in the face of fifth-column opposition to existing alliances that destroy racing. Take-charge leaders must prevent the greatest gambling game known to man from being ground to a halt by the arrogant and corrupt.
We have the opportunity on May 3 to effectively hold a national referendum on how U.S. racing should be conducted at a time when the whole world is watching. It is a chance for horse owners and horseplayers to demonstrate respect for each other by addressing mutual concerns.
The time has come to stop looking backward with recrimination and deliver a positive statement about how racing intends to move forward in harmony with a single goal; truly doing our best for the horses and the humans who care for them.
Written by Indulto