Pricci's Saratoga Diary
For the next 40 days of New York racing, Executive Editor John Pricci will provide his insights on all things Saratoga for the 35th consecutive year in his original "Saratoga Diary." It debuted in 1977, the year Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown and Jatski was placed first in the Travers Stakes following the disqualification of Run Dusty Run. So keep up with the cold exactas, hot issues, and build your own stable of live horses, all from John's unique perspective, exclusively at

Friday, August 10, 2012

Diary, Day 18:  Rulemakers, Officials, Need to Put the Player First

August 9, 2012—It was a confluence of events; an obstreperous race horse, a poorly constructed rule that governs Pick 4 wagering, and a judgment call by the stewards that considered horsemen first and bettors second, incurred the ire of several players who button-holed us at a Saratoga watering hole Wednesday night after the races.

Unhappy horseplayers are more plentiful than fun seekers on Caroline Street these days, but in this instance beleaguered bettors had a legitimate beef. Hopefully, the events of Wednesday can shine a light on the process of creating the rules of racing.

As the field for Wednesday’s ninth race, a $67,000 allowance event for 3-year-olds and up on the inner turf course at a mile and a sixteenth, left the paddock, the #10 horse, Roaring Contest, unseated Javier Castellano twice. After the second flying dismount, Castellano refused to ride the horse, citing an injured thumb suffered in the fall.

At the time, Roaring Contest was favored to win the wide open grass event. However, no attempt was made to find a replacement rider in a jock’s room that on balance is the most talent-laden it has been in the modern era.

While Roaring Conquest headed back to the barn, the rest of the horses were in their pre-race warm-ups, and the concern was that a delay might upset one of the remaining members of the field, an explanation that on its face seems hollow.

Commonly, horses are delayed on the backstretch in national events in order to accommodate last-minute bettors as post time draws near, the race starting several minutes after scheduled post time.

“The stall” is fairly commonplace, especially on big event days when tracks attempt to siphon every betting dollar available. Horseplayers understand it’s a business and are not unusually put out by this.

Nothing is more frustrating than getting shut out, or being unable to watch a race you bet on.

Wednesday’s incident occurred on the penultimate race of the day, so any inconvenience caused by a delay to find another rider for Roaring Conquest would have been minimal, especially considering the alternative.

Today’s betting menus are constructed for the simulcast market at considerable inconvenience to the on-track patron. Economically that tack makes sense since nine of every 10 dollars are bet away from the track.

But the track experience is the only way to create a racing fan. Otherwise, it’s just another kind of video wager; attendance will continue its inexorable decline.

With respect to Wednesday’s incident, most players would prefer to see the start of any race delayed when an important simulcast event is in conflict. Fans will always prefer to see both races if possible.

On Wednesday, the stewards ordered Roaring Contest scratched without much ado. If the concern was for the jockeys and trainers of the remaining horses, then no consideration was afforded the owner and trainer who were sending out the favorite in search of the lion’s share of a $67,000 pot.

Castellano was viewed icing his injured thumb in the jocks room after the incident, but was sufficiently healed as to accept four mounts on Thursday’s program.

A racetrack executive in town for meetings this week said he would make any jockey that took off a scheduled mount due to injury would be required to see his primary care physician in order to get a note clearing him to ride.

At least, the executive said, it would be an inconvenience that might discourage jockeys from feigning illness or injury the next time he puts the bettors and the track in an untenable position, costing the venue and the state money.

Historically, the NYRA has a good record when it comes to making late-scratch decisions that protect the betting public.

But in the event of a late scratch in the Pick 4, or Pick 6, bettors by rule are switched to the post-time favorite. This does not serve the public well. In sequential wagers “form horses” often anchor the play; not always, but quite often.

What sequential bettors want, above all, is coverage, not two tickets on the favorite. To the sequential bettor, favorites are a necessary evil. Bettors try to beat them, not embrace them.

Not that it colors the argument either way, but Wednesday’s 2.20-1 post time favorite, Hysterical Cat, checked in fifth after setting the early pace.

There was a time when the NYRA permitted alternate bets in sequential wagers by introducing bet slips on which players made alternate selections in the event of a late scratch. It wasn’t all that popular an alternative but that was the Pick 6, which doesn’t draw nearly as many players as the Pick 4.

Now that the Pick 4 is commonplace, more people have been, and will continue to be, negatively impacted by the “post-time favorite” rule. I don’t know what the best alternative is, but I do know it’s not the rule presently in place.

Whatever change the Racing and Wagering Board might consider in this scenario, perhaps they should try to emulate what a bettor with a strong opinion might do: Put the horseplayer on top.

Written by John Pricci

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