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
Monday, February 17, 2014
Scintillating Saturation Stakes Scheduling
LOS ANGELES, February 17, 2013—Governor Cuomo’s Not-Yet-Reality-Accepting racetrack management team is not permitted to bet on races yet they are willing to gamble that:
A: People will be willing to pay exorbitant admission fees on Belmont Stakes day even if no Triple Crown attempt materializes.
B: The weather is going to cooperate.
C: Sufficient quality horseflesh can be attracted to compete for absurdly inflated purses in wager-compelling fields.
By essentially combining Memorial Day and Belmont Stakes Day into one and increasing their total stakes purses by $3.1M, the New York Racing Assn. seeks to make their biggest day even bigger. By gutting other weekend cards of graded stakes and concentrating them on fewer, bigger weekends, they expect to increase total handle for the meet.
Even if that expansion occurs, will profitability even be possible given the recent purse hikes?
Some contend the amount of money available to racing on a weekend basis has its limits and base that conclusion on the fact that Breeders’ Cup total handle for Friday and Saturday cards hasn’t significantly exceeded the one-day Saturday event.
NYRA customers bet more than one out of every five dollars wagered nationwide. Belmont Stakes day is already NYRA’s best attraction in terms of attendance and handle; roughly doubling the 13 or 14-race Travers-day handle and more than quadruple the money bet on either of the 11-race Met Mile and Jockey Gold Cup programs.
With national television coverage available, many who could experience the event in person will opt to watch it in high-definition in the comfort and convenience of their living rooms. And many will be encouraged to bet more on-line with money saved from transportation/parking, food/beverage and admission/seating costs.
Raising prices on the latter is the best promotion for staying home.
Many observers agree that year-round live racing has already reduced the game’s specialness and eliminated the anticipatory excitement that seasonal venues experience.
And now the reverence normally observed for championship-level sport is being squandered by squeezing several month’s of stakes racing into a single weekend.
Worse, multiple events could cannibalize racing’s glamour division. Why risk siphoning off any three-year-olds from a possible Belmont Stakes run?
Both the G1 Metropolitan Handicap and especially the G2 Brooklyn Handicap likely would be better positioned after the Belmont, positioning it closer to the Whitney. The Met Mile might attract top three-year-olds prepping for the Haskell and/or Travers as well.
And I’ve always why there was no tie-in between last year’s Belmont Stakes winners and this year’s Brooklyn, a natural extension for Elmont-loving three year olds to return for some big money at four?
Is this year’s Brooklyn capable of attracting a field worthy of $200K, much less $500K? And will hiking the Met Mile purse from $750K to $1.25M adversely affect the handicap division nationwide? When will the competitive madness between racetracks end? (Since racing is more regional than national in scope, it appears that answer is never).
Raising the Belmont Stakes purse will prove to be a waste unless the Derby and Preakness winners both show up. And wouldn’t the race be better served if the winner of a Louisville-Baltimore rubber match be eligible for a bonus? Speaking of bonuses, shouldn’t the Triple Crown bonus scheme be reprised? In my opinion, no undercard race not named Breeders’ Cup deserves a $1M purse.
The purse elevations of the Manhattan, Ogden Phipps (even with Beholder and Princess Of Sylmar), and Acorn seem particularly unreasonable. What works for Breeders’ Cup doesn’t really have practical applications anywhere else.
Since management is willing to “experiment” with the allocation of slots revenue, why not try lowering effective takeout for on-track bettors rather than further subsidize the wealthiest owners? This could be achieved in either of two ways: paying a 10% bonus to on-track winners or selling one-day use betting vouchers at a 10% discount on-track.
Would any drop in revenue from a lower takeout come even close to the added infusion of cash into the purse accounts, with or without a Triple Crown bid?
Isn’t it ironic that the maximum takeout in Kentucky is lower without slots than New York is with them?
The Triple Crown trail through the Classics demonstrates the value of making horses recognizable to the general public. So, too, would the game benefit from additional divisional series that rewards consistent multiple performances against one another through a bonus program instead of bestowing higher financial rewards one race at a time.
Stacking 10 stakes on Belmont Day does not constitute a mini-Breeders Cup day or even a mini-Jockey Gold Cup day. In my opinion it’s a hastily concocted hedge against the absence of a Triple Crown attempt that does little to eliminate dependence on slots revenue and an unhealthy distribution of funds. Overvaluing races while undervaluing customers only reinforces the organization’s imperial image the Governor once indicated he would eradicate.
No decision of this magnitude could have been made without approval from the Governor’s inner circle, and I wonder if this plan truly was supported by feedback from the Racing Fan Advisory Council, the formation of which was an early attempt by Team Cuomo “regulators to consider more than just the views of owners, trainers and breeders.”
If nothing else, this decision has generated a lot of commentary that has raised the visibility of Belmont Stakes Day in February without spending any money at all. Is this is the wave of the future: marketing through controversy; customer acquisition by provocation? Horseplayers can’t always be organized but can easily be antagonized.
Written by Indulto