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
Friday, December 26, 2014
Moving Blue Grass Has Ripple Effect Beyond Keeneland
LOS ANGELES, CA, December 23, 2014—By moving both its Kentucky Derby qualifying races up one week, Keeneland not only has changed the dynamic of the horsemen's path to the Triple Crown, it also may have redefined the sixth most attractive racing day of the year for horseplayers.
While some are split as to whether Derby day or Breeders' Cup Saturday enjoys the widest audience in North American racing, few would disagree two days of Breeders' Cup and the three days of Triple Crown racing are the five most popular of the racing year; Belmont Day--with a Triple Crown on the line--commanding the most attention of all.
It may be that currently “Super Saturday” is the reigning sixth-ranked day of import, featuring championship preps at Belmont Park, Santa Anita, and Keeneland, 10 Grade 1s in all, two more than even Championship Saturday.
A case can be made for Florida Derby Day, the beginning of maximum-point qualifiers determining Kentucky Derby eligibility. The Louisiana Derby and the UAE Derby are also run that weekend, as is the Dubai World Cup, whose $10 million purse making that day's total purses the highest of the year.
Actually, racing at Meydan impacts U.S. racing not only because UAE Derby winners often compete in Kentucky, but because older American horses have had success in the world's richest race in the pre-synthetics era. The return of both races to dirt is likely to increase participation.
For 2014, 120 G1s were scheduled in the U.S., Canada, and Dubai. By moving the Bluegrass [and the G1 Madison] to the same day as the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby, that Saturday's G1 total jumps to seven, ranking it third among 49 days of racing on which there is at least one Grade 1, 25 having at least two.
By giving Lexington performers three weeks to recover, Keeneland makes its prep more significant, even if its point total doesn't get adjusted by the Churchill Downs brain trust. This leaves room for the Illinois Derby's return to the Derby Trail--provided CDI is serious about its stated need to improve its image instead of continuing to punish Hawthorne.
As things stand, Oaklawn also would appear to benefit since all eyes on the “Trail” will focus more keenly on the Arkansas Derby, the final “win or place and you're in the big dance” event.
Despite decreasing foal crops, most Derby preps will continue filling to near capacity even when clustered closely together. The main problem, of course, is the perceived inability of today’s Thoroughbred to withstand the rigors of closely spaced races.
Of course, if you miss one timely opportunity you might miss out on the big event entirely, especially when few qualifying spots remain. The other concern is that with so many opportunities, horsemen can cherry-pick their spots limiting the possibility of rubber matches. And that’s too bad; as rivalries matter.
We could debate whether the Keeneland move will degrade or enhance the quality of the Derby field, and whether or not a lone superior competitor will be less or more likely to capture the Crown.
Either way, this new pre-Derby spacing increase apparently does not inspire thoughts of changing the Crown’s five-week format, especially since new Maryland Jockey Club President, Sal Sinatra, already has disavowed his predecessor's willingness for possibly moving the Preakness to later in the meet. No boats will be rocked there.
Revisiting Belmont Day changes,, the Grade 1 total jumped from three to six when the Metropolitan Handicap, Ogden Phipps, and Acorn were added to the undercard in an effort to make the day super special with or without a Triple Crown contender.
Now, however, the storied Met Mile can no longer serve as a Belmont prep, and the feats of Arts and Letters and Conquistador Cielo can never be replicated. The hope is that new traditions can replace the old Only time will tell.
And now Met Milers will have one less week to freshen for the 10-furlong Suburban, further altering the course of another proud tradition. The prestigious Stephen Foster also took a hit since Met Milers would need to ship and run in a week’s time.
As an aside, with so many lamenting the loss of a cohesive championship schedule for older dirt runners, all changes not made in concert with other venues seems like a poor strategy--if the goal is to create and sustain fan interest beyond the three-year-old class.
In our view, Bluegrass day now deserves to be moved up a notch on Players Up’s “Scale of Nationally Significant Race Days” to sixth place, dropping Super Saturday to number seven, with Breeders’ Cup Prep Saturday checking in at number eight.
But that’s just only player’s opinion.
Written by Indulto
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Make a Friend, Keep a Friend, Make Money
LOS ANGELES, December 7, 2014—Tom Jicha stimulated HRI readers recently when he challenged those commenting beneath a column
asking contributors to provide ideas how racing can best market itself.
The usual ideas were recycled: emphasis on sport versus gambling game; age group targeting; handicapping tournaments, etc.; resulting in the usual lack of consensus.
The only old saw missing was "Get the women in and the men will follow."
Actually, tracks haven't done all that much to entice women to enter racing’s emporiums, much less bet on races. The chic Del Mar and Saratoga meets get more than their share of women to attend but their effect on handle is minimal at best.
On-track customers are overwhelmingly male and for many of them racing isn't just about gambling; it's about enjoying time with friends, sometimes with those that also have a life-long passion for the game.
But racing needn’t be limited to either making money or sharing familiar time; it should be about creating opportunities for acquiring new friends in uniquely entertaining circumstances.
Just as racing needs new recruits to replace customers it loses through attrition, aging racing fans need new friends to spend time with when old ones move on to that race book in the sky.
What better starting point for establishing common ground than to recreate circumstances that were present when growing up?
Targeting age groups makes a lot of sense but each should be approached a little differently. Consider, for instance, the following demographical breakdown:
How about a plan to create as many multi-gender groups as feasible and reward each group with free vouchers that could act as seed money for each unit. What better way to randomly make new contacts and possibly forge new friendships than by splitting the proceeds of a parimutuel ticket?
This new “social promotion” could vary by themes: "Singles Day," "Ladies Day," "Couples Day," "Seniors Day," "Youth Day," etc. If there were a simple handicapping contest, e.g. “Pick the Winner, with the leading group entitled to some other perks.
Later on, there could be a battle among the groups for bragging rights and more prizes--and another way to make new friends at the racetrack. Why not leverage racing’s social aspects more fully?
Here's how it might work: Following an appropriate amount of new advertising. All interested new patrons would receive a coded "entry coupon" that randomly puts small groups of individuals within their category together.
If the promotion's theme that day happened by "Singles," a team would be created whenever three unattached females became available within the same age group. Later, they could be matched with similarly aged, unattached males to comprise a team.
Once a team is complete, whether they be chosen randomly or the use of color-coded ID cards, they would be directed to meet each other in a promotional area designed just for them.
Then the entire team would get registered in order to be eligible for the betting voucher, and possibly other discount vouchers good for food, beverages and the like, promoting further social interaction.
Some thought should be given as to whether teams be allowed to combine vouchers, provide participants with the opportunity to make even more new acquaintances while increasing the chance for potential financial rewards.
A positive by-product of a promotion such as this, in addition to getting new potential fans in the door, is creating an expectation that one's next visit to the track will also be a pleasurable experience.
Once people come in contact with other individuals who liked going to the track, wouldn't they be more likely to go to attend more often; even on their own?
An extension of the original matching process could result in individuals funding their plays in targeted pools, seeking out partners with similar investment goals.
However, before any new fans can be created, tracks need to start treating customers like people they value and want in their building today and as often as possible.
One egregious example of poor planning occurred in New York when Belmont Day patrons tried to leave the track by rail. No apologies were offered for the exceedingly inadequate service, only finger-pointing at the Long Island Railroad.
Racetracks need to start closing the gap between the perceptions created by the realities they create.
While the Internet has brought racing's customers closer together it has also widened the chasm between customers and track management.
There are many online forums like this one that can forge a meeting of the minds; what steps might be taken to handle specific complaints and criticism in general.
Sadly, there is seldom if ever an official response to issues raised at HRI and elsewhere on the Net, officials being either willing to ride out the latest storm or “not dignify” a complaint with a response.
I wonder if there is even one racetrack CEO willing to answer one customer email each day on his organization's website. That would be a good place to start.
Written by Indulto