Tuesday, January 08, 2019

2018’s Mixed Signals: Business Very Good; Not So Optimistic Outlook

Tis a pity that sometimes progress cannot be stopped; such is the dual-edged sword of the Internet in general and social media in particular.

Argue what you will about government encroachment into our lives, then don’t you feel a tad less safe about today’s not-so-friendly skies, or needing to pay your bills later rather than sooner?

Actually most honest people would agree that Internet giants Facebook, Google and, yes, Twitter, too, need to be reined in for the good of society and, as facts prove, for the democratic republic, too.

However, the Internet and social media should prove a boon to data-dependent racing and has to a significant degree. Otherwise, how does one explain, surprisingly and contextually, recently released prodigious handle figures for 2018?

Many industry observers admit that handle figures are not the metrics they once were to reflect the success, failure, or the general popularity of horse racing in the modern era.

Just like the country’s immediate fate, things are not headed in the right direction. The result of a recent poll taken at a large racing website show that 52% of the sport’s stakeholders are pessimistic about the game’s future.

Yet, national handle increased by more than 3.3% last year. That might not sound like much but, in context and in our view, it was huge.

The facts is that 2018 was the first time that national handle topped the $11 billion plateau in the last eight years, the largest percentage growth this Millennium.

Another metric, daily handle, increase by a rounded 6.6%, a figure that was at once logical and counterintuitive. A daily increase makes sense because there were fewer racing days conducted compared to 2017, yet fewer races resulted in greater overall handle. Less proved to be more.

Staff and contributors here at HRI believe there is too much racing and that the sport could generate more excitement if the product were more of a premium: Bettors and track surfaces need down time and circuits need seasons.

There is no question that the repeal of the onerous 300-1 one-ticket-multi-bet mandatory reporting, and a higher reporting and mandatory withholding threshold jump-started handle early on and will continue to do so, albeit at a lower rate as time passes.

And the successful promotion of mega-events and multi-day racing festivals also have spurred betting interest. Further, credit must go to the recent proliferation of universally available horizontal wagers that requiring heavier investment to compensate for the higher degree of difficulty.

What is lost is the fact that these wagers are a dual edged sword, and not only because of higher takeout rates associated with jackpot horizontals.

The reality is that rank and file horseplayers are ill equipped, financially and psychologically, to handle the long losing streaks between windfalls, already happening to a large degree. Those who would deny this are either obtuse or disingenuous.

Not given its proper due is the increase in the number of fractional wagers available, which at once helps the rank and file cope with a pragmatic higher level of wagering approach while smaller denomination tickets also decrease the chances of mandatory reporting of windfalls.

Also not credited is the popularity of Rainbow wagers, rightfully attacked because of the initially high takeout rates but are seldom given credit when the jackpot on the 20-Cent wagers effectively lowers takeout and regularly produces windfall payoffs of the small four-figure variety.

The same large bettors who complain that factional wagers lowers payouts ignore the fact that without rank and file they would only cannibalize each other--algorithm-batch-betting whale vs. algorithm-batch-betting whale.

Indeed, had tracks not embraced fractional wagers in high-risk horizontal wagers, overall handle would have stagnated. And a lot for a little is a much easier promotional sell than hang-in-there and grind-it-out.

If it were not for all this, how could one explain Gulfstream Park handling over $2 billion last year, an increase of nearly $123 million, or how on-track play rose by $118 million despite two fewer live racing dates? There must be something that bettors especially like about Gulfstream’s wagering menu.

New York Racing Association tracks, which only recently expanded its horizontal betting menu but limited access to the Pick 5 exclusively to its own ADW, lost almost $78 million year over year but still cleared the $2.1 billion barrier despite fairly significant extenuating circumstances.

There were six less racing days in 2018 compared to 2017, 52 fewer races, including 95 others that were rescheduled from turf to the main track with its
inevitable reduction of betting interests and options.

The NYRA wisely intends to adopt a jackpot format sometime in the future but lamentably resists lowering exacta minimums to 50-Cents, prevalent virtually everywhere else.

Twitter Giveth But Mostly Taketh Away

Social media certainly has given rise to the instant racing expert whose default is to criticize before diving deeper. Critics wasted no time, e.g., in predicting gloom for the 2018-19 Santa Anita meeting yet were reticent to recognize a record opening day.

Over 41,000 fans welcomed Thoroughbreds back to Arcadia attracting $14,489,402 from all sources, $3,463,535 of that live. Both records, but the Twitterverse chose to concentrate instead on the poor performance of the new Roulette wager.

Thank goodness there was no social media when Trifectas and Superfectas were first introduced.

Handle figures on the Roulette wager were appallingly low but like a good doctor it is doing no harm. The wager will require much more time and promotion to be impactful, if at all. Then does it need to be?

Most everyone wants to see a greater accent on promoting the gambling side of horse racing to attract new fans and sports bettors racing hopes would cross over. The Roulette is a novel step in that direction.

The wager, a grouping of three sets of horses within a race, is not intended for even the established recreational player; it’s intended for the newbie who hopefully will learn about horse racing as he goes.

In rooting for several horses simultaneously, a novice can learn to see the many dynamics that occur within a race; learning race watching techniques and, by extension, trip handicapping: Learning works best when it’s fun and interactive.

Bettors won’t win a lot playing Santa Anita Roulette--in many cases next to nothing at all. Then neither will the newbie pay a steep price for an education. The bet is not a score maker nor a handle generator but it does show some promise. To wit:

Personally I like new bet but that’s because I’m 1-for-1, the win coming in Saturday’s Sham Stakes.

As the HRI Faithful know, I chose Gunmetal Gray to win the Sham given his experience and class relief. I thought, given the circumstance, that 5-2 would be fair odds. I reasoned that Coliseum, given the hype machine surrounding the Baffert brigade, would be a dramatic underlay at about 1-2 or less.

So I thought I’d spin the wheel. At 7-2 on the ML, and the projected 5-2 ante post, I bet BLACK to win, getting a three-ply coupling that included “the longer Baffert” and 10-1 Savagery. Then I took a cold saver exacta of Coliseum over ‘Gunmetal’.

Gunmetal Gray won, an overlay at $9.40. BLACK paid $7.80. Pre-race I would have been happy to accept 5-2, as stated above, especially on a three-ply “entry.” Whether I ultimately outsmarted myself, or made a good strategic wager, is open to debate.

There surely will be similar opportunities to bet against problematic underlays. I will 3-1 all day on what I perceive is a match race. The one thing I didn’t like was betting blindly. If probable odds were available, I couldn’t find them.

But there is only one true lesson here: Rushing to judgment is easy; it’s patience that’s hard.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Today, the Game Renews Itself… Like Always

Glad we waited to cast our ballot until after the Grade 1 season official closed on Saturday, December 29.

For us it made the difference in several classes, most notably the Eclipse Champion Trainer category and for some second and third place rankings.

But before we consider what the coming year will bring for the industry and its supporters, a final piece of 2018 house cleaning. This is what one man’s Eclipse ballot looked like:


1-ZANJABEELl: Richard Hendricks figured it out for 2018, win half your four starts [it is a short season!] make two of them G1, including your main rival.
2. Optimus Prime
3. Jury Duty


1-GAME WINNER: Perfect season at 4-for-4, three Grade 1s including the Juvenile. And we like him because he appears a bit ‘old school’ to me.


Amazing that if she hadn’t won the Juvenile Fillies in a romp, she might have had no chance to win this category—that’s how dominating Newspaperofrecord was. And, sorry, one can shorten the Eclipse Awards program, but time has come to recognize Juvenile Male and Female Turf champions.
3-Restless Rider


1-JUSTIFY: Undefeated, untied, and un-scored upon modern-precedent-setting 13th winner of the American Triple Crown. We hardly got to know you.
2-Catholic Boy


1-MONOMOY GIRL: A complete champion, doing it the old school way, from February to November, including a defining moment, a victory over older mares in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
2-Midnight Bisou
3-Shamrock Rose


1-ACCELERATE: In any other year that didn’t boast a Triple Crown winner, waged a Horse of the Year campaign by virtue of six victories and a placing in seven starts, including four consecutive Grade 1s culminating with the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
2-City of Light
3-Bee Jersey


1-BLUE PRIZE: By Default. We believe that no filly distinguished herself without qualification as to merit Eclipse recognition in a more traditional sense. This vote is in lieu of an abstention, the only other option open to me in good conscience.
2-Unique Bella
3-Abel Tasman


1-ROY H: Early on, didn’t think I was looking at the same Sprint Champion from last year. Wrong, Peter Miller played him like a Stradivarius. The bad news as more of the short, measured campaigns of America’s best horses.
2-Imperial Hint
3-Promises Fulfilled


1-SHAMROCK ROSE: Doesn’t make one’s heart go pitter-pat but, frankly, there’s was a lot of that going around in 2018. Filly & Mare Sprint was the clincher in an spectacularly unspectacular division.
2-Marley’s Freedom
3-Unique Bella (think Forego)


1-CATHOLIC BOY: Classy 3-year-old Travers winner won both of his turf starts, including G1 Belmont Derby at a mile and a quarter. Another undistinguished division and another almost-abstention. Champions should be dominant, not just Grade 1 aggregators.
2-Glorious Empire
3-Expert Eye


1-ENABLE: Expect to get flack for this for two reasons: Many voters believe one race in this country should not qualify foreigners for a North American Eclipse. But Enable’s Breeders’ Cup was Apollo-jinx-like; first Arc winner to win The Turf (after winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe off one soft prep). Plus taking one Grade 1 win vs. males over four divisional G1s for Sistercharlie, who we believe the most likely to be elected.
3-A Raving Beauty


CHAD BROWN in a squeaker over Bob Baffert. The former, while turf and older-horse centric, has expanded his horizons to younger horses in recent years with some success. Baffert, two- and three-year-old centric, really has no turf game. Look, a very tough category demanded some eclectic choices.


Michael Corleone had the answer: “It was between the brothers.” Taking the more adaptable and aggressive JOSE ORTIZ over his strong-finish brother Irad Jr., race-riding Joel Rosario and Money Mike Smith. I wouldn’t be upset if any of them picked up the hardware; Eclipse-worthy year had by all.


In a very close call, EDGAR MORALES over Weston Hamilton and Assael Espinoza.


HRONIS RACING in a three-way photo with Peter Brant and WinStar Farm


WINSTAR FARM over John Gunther and Mike Abraham


His trainer summed it up best. “Now they say it doesn't look that tough, but they're all tough. Justify simply ran those horses into the ground when they were chasing him. That's what happened. A lot of horses get ground up in those classics.

“We're all here for those races. We want to win the Derby, we want to win the Triple Crown. It's all about the classics and they're hard on the horses. Unfortunately, we couldn't run Justify after the Belmont.”

Unfortunate, indeed, for the colt’s fans, for Jeopardy players and for loyal fans of the sport.

For those who are interested, the three finalists in each category will be announced Saturday, JAN 5 at 11:05 a.m. ET from Gulfstream Park. It will be available at http://gulfstreampark.com, the Gulfstream Park simucast feed, and at XBTV.com.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 23, 2018

‘Tis the Season

This didn’t start out as a Christmas column. That would have been expected and I would have believed it to be a little cliché for my journalistic bent.

Unexpectedly, however, we gained lots of perspective this last month, which sounds a lot like another dreaded cliché for anyone facing trying or difficult circumstances.

In my case I’m thinking more trying than difficult, even if more woods remain to find one’s way out of. Know that I’m not the kind of horseplayer who shouts “you got this” as your best bet approaches the sixteenth pole.

And if this game hasn’t humbled you, you’re not an inveterate horseplayer and life has taught you absolutely nothing.

Tis the season for thoughts and prayers and daily thanksgiving, a practice for all seasons. Consider this example from the other day.

As a neighbor, I behave as any typical native New Yorker would; keep your head down and mind your own business. I’ve found that it’s always best in these scenarios to heed the advice of Broadway Danny Rose’s uncle: Friendly, not familiar.

Gail and Ray live next door and while Toni does the stop-and-chat as good as anyone ever has, I remain a pleasantries-exchange type.

The doorbell rang several days after I was sprung from UM’s Jackson Memorial Hospital and there stood Gail giving Toni a welcome-home, he’s-going-to-love-it giant cupcake. I never thought I would be on their radar. What a lovely, humbling gesture, I thought.

My recent albeit still ongoing experience has taught another lesson: Prayers work. Be it from family, close friends, or the devoted HRI Faithful, beseeching a Higher Power has borne fruit—at least thus far. Slow and steady not only wins races but brings inner peace.

Tis the season, after all, when peace and love come back into fashion--holiday blessings that doesn’t come replete with dollar signs.

By extension, it could be that the thoughts and prayers of well-meaning people is started to reap dividends for my country, under siege from without and, most troubling, from within.

I’ve spent time searching for mindless, escapist TV to aid in the recovery process, fare that would of a restorative nature. Didn’t care to watch my TVG; Sorry, no critical thinking now if you don’t mind.

But the events of the past week were inescapable and once again I was trapped by the 24-hour news cycle. And no American alive today has seen anything like this; not Meacham, not Beschloss, not Kearns-Goodwin.

It will take a decade, maybe longer, for things to normalize, if indeed there is any hunger for that. For such a fast country we sure are slow learners, if-at-all.

But there is hope because facts are slowly beginning to win the day again, and the ship of state once again may sail. But first comes survival, not the given today that it was when the 2018 Advent Calendar first appeared.

One day we may recovered from the events of Nov. 8, 2016. This isn’t about distinguishing one ideology from another. It’s about the survival of a democratic republic in which no individual is above the law, nothing less--the pillar of America.

Some comparisons can be made to Thoroughbred racing. Like the electorate, the modern game seems split 40% horsemen on one side; 40% fans and gamblers on the other. It’s a battle of control for the 20% in the middle who will decide the sport’s future.

In an effort to find restorative relief, as above, we have not watched televised racing except for major horses online since DEC 6. And here’s the bad news for the industry: I can’t say I missed it.

Saratoga and Keeneland notwithstanding, prime time Gulfstream is my favorite meet to participate in. Big, quality fields of open races is, at once, aesthetic and betting nirvana.

For me, this is a first. I’ve been betting on horses since I was 13, 61 years ago. Later, as a junior at Bishop Loughlin Memorial in Brooklyn, I was a minor celebrity when after collecting $22 from classmates, I feigned illness, left school early and took two trains and a bus to Aqueduct.

I bet the wad, plus $20 of my own on Red Belle to win the Interborough Handicap, a Hobeau Farm trainee conditioned by Allen Jerkens, long before anyone called him “the Chief.” She went wire to wire and paid off a 5-2, if I recall correctly.

For 24 hours, the ability to pick a winner made me more popular than B-Baller Larry Lembo, later the most celebrated zebra in college-hoop history, and more than then-sane Rudy Giuliani in the next homeroom. But enough digression.

As 2019 approaches, I considered some of the issues covered by HRI staffers and contributors this year: Raceday medication; super-trainer dominance; Thoroughbred retirement vs. its shameful alternative; excessive whipping; special betting access and potential past-posting; high takeout vs. rebates and legal sports bet’s dual-edged sword.

I predict that if these issues are not resolved, the game will not survive. Wrong? I’m a naysayer, prophet of doom? There’s too much money and influence in the game? It’s too big to fail?

That’s where the industry, and status quo short-term thinkers, are wrong:

The American public, the same that’s slowly wising up about the Criminal-in-Chief, is not on your side. In a recent poll, America indicated there #1 concern is not global warming, attacks on the democratic process, or the immigration game; its animal cruelty.

They don’t understand that racing, even with therapeutic medication is OK because the animals don’t get to choose. And far too many of them, even the healthy ones, are slaughtered when their utility as glorified moneymakers is gone, absent a second career.

A former American institution, the circus, is gone. So is dog racing in South Florida, where the Sun Sentinel recently reported that if the current adoption process doesn’t speed up satisfactorily, thousands of dogs will be euthanized.

On opening day of Gulfstream’s championship meet, PETA members lined up outside the gates. Thoroughbred racing is their next target. Who knows what one high-profile breakdown in a high-profile nationally televised event would bring?

But the end doesn’t always come with loud bangs but with barely audible whimpers.

I will never stop writing about the game that has given my family a good life, a living that if fortune hadn’t interceded instead would have been a hobby with no chance to give back.

Isaac Goren, Doctor of Eastern Medicine and my spiritual advisor, told me he’s never worked with another group that was more passionate than racetrackers. His observations to their devotion and love of animals is, in almost all cases, on point.

I can never repay the game that’s been so good to me but tis the season for love and thanksgiving, even as passion ebbs.

It is said that the only battles worth fighting are those you can’t win, but the kind of effort that requires takes its toll, after decades of trying and realizing that you’ve hardly moved the needle.

To all: Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a Healthy New Year

Written by John Pricci

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