Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Jockey Club Needs Action on Good Ideas

August 14, 2018--In the day, I always looked forward to attending the Jockey Club Round Table conference in Saratoga. You know it was long ago because mainstream media was formally invited back then, outlets had an actual place at the table.

And it mattered little that the press were seated in the back on the room. But when sports editors were replaced by younger employees with little or no knowledge of racing, the sport got less and less space in newspapers.

Fans of the sport began to be considered a niche that newspaper budgets could ill afford, and this was pre-cyberspace. Horseplayers had become disposable readers because political correctness was all the rage. Today, full time racing coverage no longer exists in print.

While the times have changed, passionate fans and serious horseplayers are getting some attention via cyberspace and cable television, and this is the good news because the Jockey Club appears to have picked up the ball and is beginning to run with it. It had no choice.

If the Jockey Club wants to continue living up to its mission, time has come for it to be woke. When an industry loses about one of every three dollars that supported it only seven years ago, action is the only alternative.

Since 2011, 11 racetracks have gone out of business and the Jockey Club wants to reverse the trend now that it appears the bottom has stabilized. It intends to use its deep pockets to affect change; no more regressions to the mean. The time for “study” is over.

The austere racing organization made its position quite clear last Sunday morning in Saratoga Springs. Now it needs to walk its talk.

And it appears that the Jockey Club, the sport’s titular leader, finally is starting to look for love in all the right places, from providing grants and loans to smaller tracks, to growing the fan base, increasing track revenue and, finally, giving the paying customer more of what it wants.

To avoid a continual erosion of market share, which was a mere four percent of all gambling before it commissioned a recent study but since has fallen to three percent, it seeks to create new fans and better serve the ones it has with a little unintended but welcome help from its British counterparts.

In fact, the idea of possibly buying floundering tracks has worked well across the pond. The Jockey Club of Great Britain has acquired 15 racetracks since the 1960s and its tracks now present four of Britain’s five premier events.

Admittedly, this has been easier “over there.” Seven of every 10 Brits are well aware of the sport of horse racing and indeed pay dearly to attend the races—and they have as many, if not more, betting parlors than the U.S. does. And this diverse audience, something this country sorely lacks, serves them well.

Horse racing is a much easier sell in Great Britain because it is marketed as a social experience, colorful and exciting, a portal to lifetime devotion. By putting the horse before the cart, the BJC is engaging customers via its main product: Horseracing.

And they have educated their consumers. They have mainstreamed the education of consumers, showing them how equine welfare works, rather than have them learn about horses via the taunts of animal rights activists.

Racing anywhere is not a perfect world, but the fact that raceday medication is not permitted in Europe is a good look. The fact that Thoroughbred racing actually has a season helps define it as a sport like any other.

The Jockey Club addressed some of these issues and offered several concepts on the weekend. Like everything in life, there were winners and losers. The following is some of what was discussed, including an HRI take on some of the issues:

# Track Experimentation with Lower Straight Pool Takeout Rates

Since it is daring to take a leadership role, the time has come to strongly suggest that tracks experiment with lowering takeout on straight pool wagers as a means of increasing handle through churn and as a gateway introduction to would-be new fans.

Lower takeout on win, place and show is a win-win. A commissioned study indicates that 15.8% is the number that can help grow revenue. Right now nine of every 10 tracks have rates that are about 2% higher. Lower takeout over an extendedperiods has always proven fruitful.

Frankly, these “experiments” never were given a fair airing. When they were tried in New York over a sustained period decades ago, handle and revenue increased over time. But the industry has not involved itself with significant rate cutting aside from short race meets.

Takeout rates also faces substantial pressure from widespread use of rebates to well-financed big bettors, effectively lowering takeout rates for them but leaving no wiggle room for rewarding average rank and file players. However, lowering takeout rates in multiple pools is a revenue loser for racetracks.

This problem is exacerbated by the use of computerized robotic systems using sophisticated algorithms to arbitrage betting pools by eliminating a small handful of no-hopers while betting varying amounts on logical contenders to ensure a profit.

What is unfair is racetracks allowing robotic players direct access to bet-processing networks. Resultantly, huge computer-aided last-minute wagers cause wild odds fluctuations that makes knowledge of approximate payoffs extremely vague.

This issue, coupled with high takeout and the prevalence of super trainers, has caused many veteran players to abandon the game. A recent fan poll indicates that 71% of the respondents agree that something must be done to address the robotic betting problem.

It is here where the racetracks choose to play the short game. Robotic wagers now account for nearly one of every five dollars wagered, or well over $2 billion in 2017, double the market share when the phenomenon began seven years ago. High rebates to those players is what makes it all possible.

Tracks have tried to combat bad PR and stem the tide of revolt by permitting fractional wagering, combined with relatively low takeout rates in some of the more popular horizontal pools. Most of the marketing by bet-takers, especially Television Games Network, is feeding this hard-to-win beast.

It’s the industry’s way of sustaining the rebate model: Feeding minnows to the whales. The fix is to grow the handle that comes from the average player. Lowering takeout in the straight pools is no luxury; it’s necessary for long-term sustainability.

# Subsidizing or Buying Troubled Racetracks

If that’s what it takes to save smaller tracks in many locales, then do it. Small tracks in remote regions are the gateway to growing the fan base. There are, after all, other, cheaper ways to gamble that require little or no learning curve.

In effect, this is what the Jockey Club of Great Britain did when it began collecting racetracks in the 1960s. By this standard, the concept of Jockey Club racetrack ownership could be a successful long-term strategy.

An aside: A survey conducted at the behest of the Jockey Club indicated that nearly one of every two lapsed racing fans stopped going to the track because they no longer lived near one. Of the 35 major U.S. cities, only five host big league racing; 12 have no track within hailing distance.

# Cross-Promoting Horse Racing and Sports Betting

While the numbers are not major league, it is well known that many horseplayers bet on sports, but not the other way around. Certainly not with the same frequency, anyway.

Since the racing world would never accept smaller wagering menus and simpler bets on a daily basis, education programs for horse racing and sports handicappers could change all that.

Racing and sports betting could and should be integrated for the benefit of both, especially since horse racing has more events to offer. Integration is done now in New Jersey, where bettors can play a Pick 4 consisting of two races and two games.

# Fixed Odds Wagering:

Why this doesn’t already exist everywhere is indefensible. If someone wants to lock in his price, that bettor should be able to do so, just like sports bettors. Later, when the odds change in either the fixed or traditional pools, value bettors likely would dive back in; it’s arbitrage, only on a much smaller scale.

Betting against oneself is not the gambling taboo it once was. Arbitraging is done every day, via sophisticated computer robotics or by recreational players making a $1 exacta box. Less value? Sure. Greater liquidity? Most probably.

# Expansion of Live Racing Programming and America’s Best Racing

Racing needs all the mainstreaming it can get. America’s Best Racing serves the digital crowd quite well and would do better with sensible, creative expansion. Expanding racing’s digital footprint doubtlessly would improve badly needed diversity among the fan base.

Televising more live events—albeit three decades late—is no-brainer life beyond the Triple Crown, and a more informed conclusion to end-of-season championships. Racing’s older demographic is watching more television than ever; the game needs to better exploit that trend.

However, only one of every three racetracks currently send out their signal in high definition, considered an essential when broadcasting all sports events anywhere and everywhere. This could be Jockey Club money well spent.

# Introduction of Single-Pool Wagering with Betting Partnership:

Single pool wagering is the redistribution of monies wagered in one betting pool into another, e.g., money bet in exactas could be distributed to win bettors, or vice versa.

Single-pool wagering is supposed to mimic Wall Street limit orders. But the model is inscrutably esoteric and good only for the company that created it and rebated whales who already enjoy a huge edge. Pasadena!

# Introduction of Flexi-Betting

Unlike single pool, this is a good idea that helps the majority of players. First, it has worked well in other more progressive segments of the betting world. It’s an option that would make difficult multi-race wagers friendlier.

Let’s say a player fashions a Pick 6 ticket costing $200 to cover all the combinations he needs to win, but can’t afford to make the play. The Flex ticket allows him to cover the same horses for $50. Should the bettor win, he would receive 25% of the posted payout.

# Intra-Race Betting

Already legal in New Jersey via Betfair, it could be a useful hedge should your horse speed horse break badly, or if your closer is left with too much work to do. The assumption is that the odds would adjusted accordingly via a prescribed algorithm based on running-style dynamics.

Whatever racing does via Jockey Club auspices, it needs to act while it continues to study. The consensus guess is that black market sports wagering in the U.S. is around $300 billion annually. What if the integration of racing and sports could tap into a couple of percentage points of that?

Clearly, some action must be taken on some forward ideas. As stated above, market share of four percent is now down to three. Without action, how low the limbo stick goes is anyone’s guess.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 05, 2018

From Saratoga to East Rutherford, New York-Breds Rule

It was Whitney Day, 1981, and I was about to be introduced to New York State Thoroughbred Breeding program in a big way, only I didn’t know that at the time. It was my fourth year on the job, third as a Saratoga press box regular.

Of course, I knew everything and nothing back then, but as I looked around I could see some famous bylines, competitor colleagues whose presence inspired me to be the best me I could be. The course was simple:

Learn some horseracing history; the people and the horses, both. They didn’t teach those things in my Queens neighborhood. And I was in awe of the environment that day: The Whitney; it’s important. It’s right there in the name.

When a Finger Lakes shipper, bred in New York State, came in and swooped away the blue-blooded Whitney trophy, it was at that point that I learned a Saratoga racetrack crowd actually could make a building shake.

I only remember experiencing that one other time, in 2009, when Rachel Alexandra beat back the boys in the equally storied Woodward Stakes.

But what just happened? I looked at the track program. The horse’s name was Fio Rito. Trainer Michael Ferraro tightened the girth, Leslie Hulet did the booting. He brought a gaudy record with him but never with this kind.

And the local crowd loved it, proud of their state-bred champion. After breaking through the gate before the start, not even that kiss of death could stop him he raced head to head through nine furlongs, repelling two challengers.

At the end, Fio Rito held off MacKenzie Miller-trained, newly blinkered, and perfect tripping Winter’s Tale. And he didn’t steal a thing. The contested half-mile went in 46 3/5, and he completed his mile and an eighth in 1:48 flat.

It wasn’t like waiting 37 years for a Triple Crown winner but it was 22 more before another New York-bred, Funny Cide, would garner national headlines.

And after winning the 2003 Kentucky Derby, jockey Jose Santos, while still on horseback, told a national television audience to “get with the program.”

On Saturday at Saratoga, a pair of New York breds, Diversify and Mind Your Biscuits, the two morning line favorites, finished 1-2 in the slop at Saratoga.

The 91st renewal of the prestigious event was over on the first turn, Irad Ortiz Jr. taking no prisoners from the start. As the racetrackers say, he went to the front and improved his position.

Trainer Rick Violette had called a brilliant audible and was handsomely rewarded. Violette originally was pointing toward the Woodward until the speedy Diversify touted himself in a workout last Sunday. Explained Violette:

"He did too well not to run here… He ate well, shipped up here well, breezed well last Sunday and came out of it good, his blood work came back well, so [I said], 'OK, stupid, stop being a chicken and run him’.” Good fortune helps.

Due to an all-too-familiar biblical Saratoga storm, the start of the race was delayed 44 minutes as the horses and their connections took shelter beneath the paddock stalls. Thereafter, track maintenance came to the rescue.

"I felt a little better after they sealed the track…I felt the outside was playing better than the inside and I thought maybe sealing the track in the rain might have even it out a little bit, and I felt better about that. We had planned on being very aggressive,” said Violette.

While never in danger of pulling off the minor upset, Mind Your Biscuits ran very creditably down the center of the track to secure the place. Said trainer Chad Summers of the reigning New York-bred champion:

“Diversify has good cruising speed and once he goes that 46 and change and he's in front by three or four, he's a tough horse to run down. He's a good New York-bred, but we look forward to seeing him down the road.”

Diversify and Mind Your Biscuits are both good New York breds. They have to be to earn multiple Grade 1 victories. And so the 2018 Whitney went to a remarkably speedy state-bred. Just like what happened 37 years ago.

Ladies First at the New Meadowlands: For only the second time in 93 years, the first father and son team since the immortal Billy Haughton and son Tommy won the 1982 edition with Speed Bowl, Rick and Scott Zeron won the Hambletonian trotting classic with two brilliant heat performances by their filly sensation, Atlanta.

After an overly aggressive drive that highly likely cost her victory in the first heat--beaten in the last stride by Tactical Landing under a well-timed drive from Tim Tetrick—the young Scott Heron made amends.

Atlanta, who maintained a rare three-length lead in rapid early fractions of 26 and 53 2/5, Zeron opened ground prematurely on the final turn of the first heat with three-quarters in 1:21 4/5. The final time of 1:50 1/5 was a world record for three year-old trotters.

Employing virtually the same tactics as in the first heat, Zeron left the barrier quickly, making a three-wide sweep to the lead on the first turn, only this time had had the filly post reasonable fractions, backing down the half to 55 2/5.

This time, Zeron waited a bit longer before bottoming out his rivals, opening ground one or two strides before entering the homestretch.

The 14th filly to win the Hambletonian took the finale in 1:50 4/5. To his credit, Zeron took the heat for his earlier gaffe but more than redeemed himself in the final.

Interestingly, Atlanta, like the sport’s foundation sire, Hambletonian--and like the exacta finishers in the Whitney Handicap--were bred in the Empire State. Honeycrisps for all my friends.

Separationofpowers Passes Grade 1 Test: For the second time in her career, Candy Ride’s bay daughter earned a Grade 1 title after annexing the Frizette at 2. But not before she forced to dig down deep to wear down an extremely gritty Mia Mischief.

Winning trainer Chad Brown was completing stakes double in the Test, having finished 1-2 in the listed De La Rose with Uni nailing stablemate Precieuse in the final jump after both rallied very wide into the inner-turf stretch.

Precieuse won a Group 1 at Deauville in 2017 and was last seen exiting Ascot’s prestigious Gr. 1 Coronation Stakes, finishing last of seven after setting the early pace 14 months ago. With this one under her girth, she will be very difficult to deny wherever Saratoga’s leading trainer decides to send her.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Again: At Del Mar, Cambodia won her second consecutive Yellow Ribbon Stakes, giving jockey Drayden Van Dyke an unprecedented third straight victory.

The day was marred by a horrific spill that took the life of Irish Springs, who died from his injuries after clipping the heels of a rival. Two riders, Corey Nakatani and Geovanni Franco, were sent to the hospital. Franco appears to have suffered an ankle injury.

Florida Sire Series Off With a Bang:
Cajun Firecracker, getting first Lasix following a debut win, showed some class after tracking odds on favorite Fully Loaded, running him down gamely in deep stretch to win the six furlong Dr. Fager in 1:09.94.

The 7-1 winner had to withstand a claim of foul by Tyler Gaffalione aboard maiden place finisher, Garter and Tie, who alleged interference by the winner in the stretch.

The bumping in deep stretch started with the favorite, as Fully Loaded drifted out and caused a chain reaction beneath a race-riding Edgard Zayas. Wisely, the stewards disallowed the claim.

In the Desert Vixen for juvenile fillies, Capture Your Dream, also with first Lasix, underscored her impressive 10-length debut score, pressing the pace before kicking on to win the six furlong sprint in 1:11.31. Gaffalione rode the 3-5 favorite.

The next races in the Florida Sire series is the Affirmed for males and Susan’s Girl for the distaffers, as the two-year-olds stretch out another furlong on September 1.

Rain, Rain Couldn’t Keep Them Away:
Over 40,000 fans showed up at the Spa Saturday, a day that began beautifully before the storm cell arrived.

The Whitney was the day’s ninth race and finale as NYRA prudently canceled the last two races of the day owing to 2.3 inches of overnight rain. Both turf stakes, The Grade 3 Waya and the Lure, already have been rescheduled.

Good Racing = Good Business:
The Saratoga crowd wagered $6 million with all sources handle exceeding $22.8 million. In Hallandale Beach, the Florida Sire series attracted all sources business of $9.5 million, a 13% increase year over year.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Triple Crown Victory Is a Double Edged Sword

Unequivocally, Thoroughbred racing is a game that offers the sports world a little of everything but guarantees nothing.

I am reminded of the pain on colleagues’ faces that evening at Churchill Downs when the racing gods denied Zenyatta a perfect ending to a perfect career.

I remember asking Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News, “how could this happen?”

“It’s the reason we keep coming back,” he said sagaciously.

What is also indisputable is that what Justify achieved over a period of 112 days was the greatest achievement ever in the sport’s long and storied history.

To accomplish what he did takes true greatness. But the time frame of this unique achievement was an accomplishment that cut both ways. Justify, we hardly knew ye.

And for that, his greatness, for me, must be spelled with a lower case g, not in caps. My capital Gs require a bit more longevity, a bigger body of work.

Many millions of dollars may not be what they used to be but a value of $75 million for today’s race horse boggles the mind no less than the $6 million that bailed out Meadow Stable in 1973.

If you’re in this game long enough, or even if you’re not, you know it has two disparate parts; the sport and the business. Sometimes they are the same. But at the highest levels of the game, they don’t come close.

The irony is that when one of those equines who breathes different air arrives on the scene, he’s whisked away in a twinkling.

When Justify’s value was assessed in what seemed like 10 minutes after he had become racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner, the second ever to do so while undefeated, and was a singular Kentucky Derby victor dating back to 1882, the literati wondered if he’d ever race again.

After a hush-hush period came the ah-ha revelation of an ankle filling and it was “well, there it is, the beginning of the end.” Ankle fillings are no big thing providing, of course, there’s time to treat them properly.

Money can buy time but then time is money, isn’t it? Especially in Justify’s case.

While relatively minor, ankle fillings can be the tip of larger icebergs. I was cynical before I devoted some time to research.

This injury apparently is not a wrench or a sprain that can be walked off in many cases until the filling is gone. That period usually is accompanied by tapping the ankle and injecting a lubricant to promote healing.

But ankle fillings can indicate one of three things: a chip, a suspensory issue down low, or a cannon bone, also down low, all which manifest themselves as ankle fillings.

A chip removal is a relatively easy procedure, not so the other two, depending on severity: The common thread that runs through all cures is time. It could take 90 days before a horse can safely be tacked up again.

With too much uncertainty and a questionable time frame, retirement was the only realistic answer. Clearly, there was not enough time to prepare for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on November 4.

As it stands, the only thing missing from Justify’s racing profile is a victory over older horses. Turf would have been nice, too. But no races vs. elders leaves the question open, even if it’s impossible to envision an “A-game” loss.

Under the circumstances, the connections are doing the right thing by Justify.

The unfortunate aspect is that a decision was made relatively early that this magnificent chestnut beast would not race at 4, begging the question:

Would racing fans, and by extension the sport, have been better if had Justify not won the Triple Crown?

The last two Horses of the Year, California Chrome and Gun Runner, raced as older horses, as did sensational near-Horse of the Year, Arrogate.

Triple Crown champion American Pharoah did not race at 4 but he left the stage with his magnificent Breeders’ Cup Classic tour de force.

California Chrome’s people were very enthusiastic and were highly motivated to see him run at 5, lured by the inaugural, uber rich Pegasus.

But Arrogate and Run Runner were late season phenomena and were looking to add to their stud value.

There are no such concerns for Justify and now there’s just too much money available in the breeding shed, which hurts the sport.

Prior to the 3-year-old retirements this decade, three other Triple Crown champions retired at 3.

But Gallant Fox ran in 17 races, winning 11, and Secretariat raced 21 times, winning 16, including his grassy Canadian International finale. Count Fleet, like Justify, retired after the Belmont but he, too, ran 21 times and also won 16 races.

In 112 glorious afternoons, Justify ran six times and won them all, four at the highest levels of the sport.

Justify is a great horse and looked the picture as he was paraded in front of the stands and circled the paddock at Del Mar on Saturday. The reality that we won’t see him race again, well…sucks.

Social media has been replete with comments this week, such as: “OK, Justify has been retired. NOW can we get on with the rest of the racing season?”

And that’s the good news and bad news about life and being a fan of Thoroughbred racing. What choice do we have but to move on?


The mantel of divisional leadership now falls on defending juvenile champion Good Magic, who everyone would be talking about had a chestnut freak not emerged from the West.

Good Magic was the only horse with the temerity to give Justify a battle, twice. And the fact that they never met on a dry track will always haunt his fans, myself included.

Even though Chad Brown is a Mechanicville, NY native and has the Derby of Midsummer circled on his calendar, the way Dale Romans has the Derby of Spring circled on his, Good Magic must win the Haskell Invitational.

Of the Travers preps already run at Saratoga this weekend, it’s obvious that Belmont Stakes third Hofburg made the best impression, winning Friday’s listed Curlin Stakes with authority. Equine confidence is no myth.

Tenfold, used early to engage a gritty loose leader, Flameaway, showed class, ridden as if he were the best horse by Ricardo Santana Jr. in the G2 Jim Dandy, even while he lost focus badly in deep stretch, something he can ill afford going forward.

Tenfold was prepared expertly by Steve Asmussen, who has lost none of his Samson qualities, rolling into Saratoga in high gear despite a recent shearing.

It is likely that Vino Rosso ran only spottily over the drying-out Spa surface. He did finish boldly late, just missing place, and galloped out strongly. His was an excellent effort to build on as he goes another furlong on August 25.

Written by John Pricci

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