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
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Only an Organized Horseplayers Group Can Insure Racing’s Survival, Growth
LOS ANGELES, March 16, 2014—A New York State Gambling Commission press release proved that when horseplayers get “mad as hell,” they can spur reform in thoroughbred racing:
Stated the release: “At its March 12 meeting, Commissioner John A. Crotty noted that there had been considerable controversy surrounding the disqualification of a winning horse at Gulfstream Park on February 22 in the last leg of the Rainbow Six wager…
“The disqualification led to rampant allegations of collusion which brought into question the integrity of the decision.”
“Commissioner Crotty’s notion that we can do even more to demonstrate to the public that New York’s pari-mutuel racing is open, honest and fair is right on target,” said Commission Chairman Mark D. Gearan.
The preceding came on the heels of a similar one by Gulfstream Park in response to the groundswell of frustration and criticism expressed by racing fans in social media and on discussion forums. Gulfstream CEO Tim Ritvo said that any additional changes “will be based on what is best for our bettors” and “if these changes work at Gulfstream, we will roll them out across all Stronach Group tracks.”
The commission also said that it supports the development of “uniform rules to govern disqualifications” and will “reach out to the … Racing Fan Advisory Council and to the wagering public … for further recommendations on how to best increase transparency and public confidence.”
All this is very good news indeed, but the best part is that it demonstrates the power that horseplayers can wield collectively when properly motivated.
The question now is: How do we build on this?
One critical aspect was that turf writers reacted as strongly as recognized activists. Another was that social media facilitated expression and distribution of horseplayer emotion. It wasn’t just a “bad beat” for one bettor. Every race on which people bet their money is important.
The bad news is that foul adjudication might have diverted focus from ever-present takeout concerns. It is commendable that Commissioner Crotty was pro-active. Hopefully, the pursuit of transparency will shine more light on the issue of excessive takeout. Lowering takeout effectively rebates all, not just high-volume bettors.
Increased fairness could be further promoted in New York by no longer restricting participation at Fan Advisory Council meetings to those able and willing to attend on-track or at other locations that are at best inconvenient, if not impossible.
NYRA’s customers make up 20% of total national handle and not all of them live in New York. These FAC meetings should be held on-line with feedback from the nation’s bettors and ideally need to be interactive in real time.
These public sessions can be conducted on dark-days with agenda set and thoughtful questions from concerned players submitted in advance.
Real dialogue in real time. What a concept.
The sad reality, however, is that the discussions likely will continue to be limited to New Yorkers, the issues filtered through state appointees. Given that, how would contributors know whether their input was considered constructive, if at all, and what priorities were addressed? There needs to be an interactive process that’s timely, meaningful and truly transparent.
What if these meetings were conducted on-line and hosted by horseplayers from a newly created National Horseplayers Organization, or through the auspices of the existing Horseplayers Association of North America?
A respected panel of horseplayers could set the agenda and publicly invite industry organizations involved with the issues being addressed, with an implied obligation to show up and relate just how the industry’s “best practices” deals with a particular concern.
In a public online forum, industry groups; tracks, horsemen, NTRA, etc., etc., would have a public responsibility to participate or risk being exposed as disingenuous or obtuse. Betting handle, or lack of same, provides horseplayers with leverage here.
The vehicle that would enable horseplayers to speak with a single voice cannot be operated on a voluntary basis. Even horseplayers have lives, but should be prepared to be as committed in the same way demands are made of the industry.
We have just witnessed what can be accomplished by serendipitous player discontent. Should we be satisfied with that, or encouraged that further organized action will result in horseplayers becoming an influential force whose common concerns no longer can be ignored? More progress needs to be made.
Whether the issue is standardized medication rules, optimal takeout rates, or consistent foul claim adjudication, a level playing field must be created for all--by all. If not, how can the game possibly grow? How much entertainment and increased betting handle can be generated by a participatory sport that institutionally tilts the game against horseplayers, professional and novice alike?
Establishing a level playing field probably would require an interim board comprised of prominent and trusted horseplayer/communicators with the advocacy credentials of an Andy Beyer, Steven Crist, Len Friedman, Barry Meadow, John Pricci, or others of similar stature.
How do we motivate these individuals to get involved? Perhaps enthusiastic endorsements of those willing to step forward via an on-line petition could get the dialogue started. It might require a pledge drive to pay any individual for his time and expertise.
As opposed to those on handicapping and wagering, think of a player advocacy panel as a seminar on the best ways to increase collective horseplayer influence by nationally recognized advocates.
I would gladly pay a nominal amount, say $25 in yearly dues, to get a national horseplayers organization off the ground. The question is how many other horseplayers care enough to do the same?
Written by Indulto
Monday, March 03, 2014
Stewards Should Be More Than Just Traffic Cops
LOS ANGELES, March 2, 2014—Gulfstream Park’s highly successful Rainbow Six wager has set the stage for some serious debate regarding the accountability of stewards’ decisions.
In the wake of the controversial disqualification of last Saturday’s final race’s first-place finisher, horseplayers were clamoring for clarification of how a lone ticket-holder’s dream was denied by an arguably arbitrary decision. Having reached true jackpot status, the wager should continue attracting a lot of money, but now fear of futility may have become a factor.
Weather impact, surface switches, equine equilibrium, rider reactivity, starting gate shenanigans, scratches, traffic problems, etc., are all handicapping-defying hazards the horseplayer must accept. The “three men in a room” dynamic, however, has to be the hardest to swallow.
The game as we know it cannot exist without the Stewards’ authority to ensure that races are fairly run. If the actual order of finish were always permitted to stand, racing would soon degenerate into free-for-all, no-holds-barred contests resulting in equine bloodbaths that only the ancient Romans would bet on. Still the process is not perfect.
At the very least, any decision to disqualify should be unanimous, but such information is not currently forthcoming. Likewise, steward performance should receive no less scrutiny than the riders they regulate. Yet no such accountability is required and no review takes place.
John Pricci suggested that tracks provide live audio/video of the Stewards’ deliberations. Fellow HRI blogger, Tom Jicha, disagreed; opining that the camera would likely change behavior as feared in jury deliberations. That might be true initially, but eventually they would get their acts together, and fans would be treated to enlightening, if not entertaining, experiences.
Each steward’s vote and his justification should be recorded for periodic review and analysis as to appropriateness and consistency by a central authority. If such reform were implemented in this context, it would put pressure on racing to start holding others responsible for fair conduct of the game--trainers and veterinarians included.
What I’ve yet to see answered is “were they aware that the first place finisher would trigger the jackpot and, if so, did that information play any part in any individual’s decision?” This is not intended to be an indictment of any individual, rather the system as a whole. Is too much information—such as the possibility of one jackpot winner--being released in advance?
There are many facets to transparency, or lack thereof. When viewing the Sam F. Davis a few weeks ago, I noticed that -- at least for that race -- Tampa Bay Downs did not show the loading of the runners from behind the gate for the one mile and one sixteenth event. What followed might have been interpreted by some as either a Big Brownout in Oldsmar or some kind of Life At Ten lackluster look-a-like.
Just when it seemed as if Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux’s comeback was starting to gather momentum, the specter of Big Brown’s Belmont re-emerged when Desormeaux’s mount, Noble Cornerstone, finished next-to-last as the favorite.
As the horses were loading into the starting gate, track announcer Richard Grunder informed that Desormeaux was off his horse. Since he didn’t say the horse unseated its rider, I was left to assume it was the rider’s decision. Eventually Desormeaux re-mounted just prior to the start.
Daily Racing Form later reported that “Noble Cornerstone, the 9-5 favorite, was never a factor when finishing seventh after acting up badly just prior to the break. [Noble Cornerstone] absolutely freaked in the gate and lost his race right there,” said his jockey, Kent Desormeaux.”
Noble Cornerstone, racing without blinkers for the first time, “was off a bit slow, raced far back and showed little” according to the chart footnote.
Those who bet Noble Cornerstone didn’t get a run for their money and no one knows why. Should the horse have been scratched? Are there uniform guidelines for determining a horse’s fitness to race based on its behavior at the starting gate, or are only extreme examples such as Quality Road in the Breeders’ Cup Classic allowed to protect the betting public? What is, and what should be, the role of the stewards in such matters?
The controversial disqualification at Gulfstream has resulted in either maligning individuals in authority at Gulfstream Park or serious questions about of horseracing integrity in general. If this heightened awareness of the game’s flaws underscores the need for a central authority, so much the better.
One only needs to note how selective rebating and high takeout rates stacks the game against the average bettor. Maybe this unfortunate incident will give racing’s leaders amplification to what extent players are taken for granted and what needs to be done to level the playing field for all.
Written by Indulto