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Saturday, March 21, 2009


If Racing’s Under Attack, It Must Be Derby Season


Hallandale, Fla., March 20,2009--Admittedly, I had a knee-jerk reaction when I first read William Rhoden’s piece on the state of the racing industry on the New York Times website yesterday that began: “The death of Eight Belles at last year’s Kentucky Derby…”

My negative inclination was because reporters such as Rhoden jump in an out of thoroughbred racing coverage during the Triple Crown of spring and early summer and could care less bout it the rest of the year.

This is their prerogative, and nobody ever said life was fair.

Given its timing, I could have dismissed the commentary as Rhoden being opportunistic, again injecting himself into the Kentucky Derby storyline as he did last year when invited to appear on national television to lend perspective to the Eight Belles tragedy and talked about the indefensible practice of racing thoroughbreds.

In the piece Rhoden asks: “Are breakdowns the outgrowth of a meat-grinder industry, or evidence of a horse population spread too thin?”

On an intellectual level, this is akin to asking “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

Sadly, however, Rhoden’s question needed asking no matter how negative the tone and I have too much respect for Rhoden as a reporter to question his motives, even if there appears to be an agenda at work, especially in light of the season.

Rhoden’s story talked about the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection hearing last June that on its face wanted to help remedy racing’s problems: the on-track death of horses, over breeding, and over-medicating.

All the Subcommittee did was to effectively put the industry on notice--a good thing--that it must clean its own house over the government will clean it for them. The legislators didn’t seem to be grandstanding, at least not in the same fashion as is being seen today in the AIG scenario.

While it’s true the industry remains culpable with respect to over breeding and over medicating--even after making substantive changes subsequent to last year’s Derby events--the element that seemed disingenuous was there was no recognition of the fact that accidents can happen.

By definition, wrongdoing is determined by intent. Do reasonable people believe that the intent is for horsemen and women to inflict harm on their animals? Indeed, isn’t the opposite true?

Rhoden is right about this: The Thoroughbred Safety Committee and Racing Medication and Testing Consortium has yet to address the practice of giving racehorses the legal drugs that allow them to perform when not physically at one hundred percent.

He rightfully acknowledged, too, that spokespersons for the American Association of Equine Practitioners believe the industry needs to rethink the use of legal drugs for racing and training since they can mask the finding of veterinary inspection, that medicines should be confined for the treatment of diagnosed disease.

Rhoden made the same point that’s always made whenever horses die from something other than natural causes, that human athletes who suffer serious injury or worse voluntarily do so while no one speaks up for horses who cannot speak for themselves.

Actually, there are hundreds of people within the industry that speak for the horses, caring for them while they race and after their racing days are finished, ignoring the fact that racing is the reason they were born in the first place and actually enjoy running.

Horses were bred to carry the early settlers over the most rugged terrain to settle the West. Nobody believed that to be cruel or unusual. Animals have been serving man from the beginning and never was that somehow considered immoral.

Beyond being bred for commerce, they still serve the general public by helping to preserve the green space that enables the planet to survive--and that’s not a stretch.

I agree with Rhoden that watching horses get injured and die is unusual punishment. But the act of racing is not cruel in and of itself. Only the practices that keep them racing unnaturally are, and need to be addressed.

Progress up until the Eight Belles tragedy was mostly non-existent. But changes are being made, albeit slowly. But it takes time to undo the selfish practices of the past as today‘s economists can attest.

I would have been more impressed had Rhoden gone after members of the general public that steal horses, kill them for the meat, or sell them to the horse killers in other countries for the same purpose. This practice currently is epidemic in wide expanses of South Florida.

In recent months, according to a report Wednesday on the local NBC affiliate, hundreds of horses have been stolen from farms or private residences and killed, either sold to horse killers and transported to Mexico or killed on the spot for the meat.

These killers leave the ribbed carcasses, heads, manes and tails in the fields of southwest Dade, or they transport them to the Everglades for disposal. A disproportionate number of those killed have unusual markings or color, indicating there might be a thrill element involved. It was awful.

There was no mention of any well meaning people or organizations that have come along to save these horses. Now that would be a crusade worth fighting, a practice that deserves all the negative publicity it would get. Someone should drop a dime to the New York Times.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Across My Desk


Saratoga Springs, NY, March 11, 2009--Why is at that when the game finally starts to get good, news, big and small, comes flying from every direction? Some of it is late in arriving--an oxymoron, I know--but all of it, if it has relevance, is worth reinvestigating. To wit:

Item: A note from a regular HRI contributor, former thoroughbred trainer Doug Amos, which should be of interest to some of our fans:

“The Canadian Broadcasting Company show "The Passionate Eye" is running a documentary Sunday night, Mar. 15th, on the life of a thoroughbred jockey. They are usually very current and incisive. Fans should be able to link through CBC.ca news. Maybe we can start a movement to increase the scale of weights…give these people a life.”


This is something different than what he see on the Animal Planet series “Jockeys,” the reality horse opera we liked, lauded and was pleased to learn it was being renewed for a second season. It’s probably a lot different.

HBO did a piece on the plight of jockeys as athletes a few years ago on the practice of “flipping,” whereby jockeys force themselves to vomit undigested food in order to inhibit weight gain. HBO made the argument that raising the scale of weights was humane and a health issue for riders which, of course, it is.

Horsemen objected--Wayne Lukas being quite vocal in opposition--claiming it wasn’t in the horse’s best interest. That argument wasn’t logical then and doesn‘t make any more sense now. At that time jockeys were talking about raising the scale of weights five pounds. A healthier jockey is a stronger athlete, on balance in the best interests of human and equine athletes alike. The industry should revisit the issue.

Item: “Senator Leland Y. Yee, Assistant President pro-tem of the California State Senate, introduced Senate Bill 662 to ensure that the California Horse Racing Board establish a real-time transactional monitoring system for pari-mutuel wagering at all California horse tracks.”

Pretty timely considering the impetus for this was 1,300 “quick pick” bets placed at Bay Meadows Racecourse on last year’s Kentucky Derby superfecta that failed to include the “20” horse among the possible permutations. Of course, the “20” was the winning 2-1 favorite, Big Brown.

Bet processor Scientific Games cited a computer glitch that inexplicably excluded the highest numbered horse in every race from being part of the quick pick pool.

Yee said that consumers were entitled to know that the bet they make is fair and not being compromised; that the integrity of the sport must be protected. Yee sounds more interested in the plight of horseplayers than many industry executives and racing commissions.

There have been other glitches, of course, resulting in wagers being made after a race has started, known as “past-posting.” A famous big bettor gave testimony at a Kentucky integrity hearing stating he was able to bet on a Fair Grounds race nearly a minute after the race had begun. That was more than a year ago.

Late odds-drops continue to be tolerated for two conceivable reasons. In a pari-mutuel game, the bet taker gets a cut whether the player wins or loses. Second, providing wagering cycles in real time costs money for new programming. So it’s OK that racing’s infrastructure is in the same shape as the country’s, right?

Item: “CTBA Boardwatch, a grass roots movement that says it has the support of more than 500 California horsemen, continues to question the abhorrent practice of ‘warp-speed’ workouts at horse sales.”

Four horses in the recent Barretts March Sale of two-year-olds in training entered the ring boasting 1-furlong workouts in :10 seconds; one had worked in :09 4/5.

Three horses boasted 2-furlong workouts in under :22 seconds; one in :21 1/5, and another worked in in :20 4/5.

When HRI wrote about this practice last year, there was righteous indignation from many quarters saying many of these horses work faster than they’ll ever have to run in a race, putting tremendous stress on bones that haven’t had time to knit.

Then came Eight Belles, her unfortunate accident and all that negative publicity. And the congressional hearings that followed. And the new safety initiatives sponsored by the Jockey Club, NTRA, and every influential and well meaning horsemen’s group including the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

Reasonable and well intended measures all. But then come the breeze-up sales and it’s money that still makes the mares and horses go.

And go, and go, and go; fast, faster, fastest. We care, but then there’s the free market. So make what you can now and deal with the consequences later. But here’s where the Jockey Club and NTRA can do some more big picture good.

To its credit the proactive NTRA accreditation program has addressed 16 important health and safety issues. If implemented properly, the program will change the course of the industry for the better.

But there’s no good reason why the accreditation process cannot be expanded to include standards to which breeders, consignors and sales companies must adhere.

Item: “Eric Poteck, a Canadian grass roots activist and regular HRI contributor, asks: ‘Why is it when the official order of finish is appealed after a race is official, and changes are made at a later date, owners, jockeys and trainers are made whole but horseplayers get zip?’

Good question. The situation responsible for Poteck’s query refers occurred last fall at a Canadian harness track when a 1-5 favorite, hopelessly boxed in, took the short way home. The horse was guided off the racing oval, leaving the course and racing inside several pylons before re-entering the track by cutting in front of the leader, finishing first under the line. Obviously, this is in violation of the rules.

Not only was the race made official but, upon appeal, the result was allowed to stand, the commission saying it was the right decision to make. No further explanation.

Incredible!

But don’t take my word or Poteck‘s, mostly because there are no words to explain this. In case you missed the video and commentary on several sites previously, the links are below. Paste them into your browser and check it out. Seeing is still disbelieving.

http://www.standardbredcanada.ca/news/1-13-09/dustin-on-western-fair-race-appeal.html

http://www.standardbredcanada.ca/trot/february-2009/the-view-please-explain-yourself.html-0

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, March 05, 2009


Last-Minute Fountain of Youth Odds Drop Frustrates Bettors


Saratoga Springs, March 4, 2009--It was post time for the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth. The horses were parading behind the gate, allowing one final look at Quality Road, breaking from an outside position.

Quality Road looked great. So did 8-1. I indicated in Saturday’s post that I would take 6-1, reasoning that if the Fountain of Youth was run 100 times, Quality Road win at least 14 times.

As for that quoted price, as Casey said, you could look it up.

The Fountain of Youth start was a good start for all, especially the outside horses, or so it always appears on TV when races come out of a long chute.

This Ones For Phil broke like a shot from the extreme outside slip, which probably added to his undoing. He became the unintended pacesetter.

As other speed types rushed up toward his inside, Quality Road was right up there with them in the opening furlong, Johnny Velazquez allowing his long striding colt to get into rhythm.

Quality Road had perfect position, which usually is the case when Velazquez is riding at the top of his game. And Johnny’s riding like Johnny again these days, finding the sweet spot in most every race.

By the time the field approached the five-furlong pole, the running order with odds first appeared on the television monitor: Quality Road, 5-1.

Damn it!

At that point there’s nothing a bettor can do. Nothing sinister happened; machines lock at post time.

But it takes about 30 seconds for the last flash--that includes gobs of simulcast money--to be added to the pool, and for the odds to recalibrate and appear on the tote board.

Then it takes another approximate 30 seconds for tote-board finals to reach TV monitors, which is where most bettors get their information.

What’s frustrating, of course, is that nothing can stop the flow of late money. If odds go down on one horse, they go up on the others, which could, in other circumstances, alter betting strategy.

And being unable to make wagering adjustments to the odds is not the way anyone wants to play this game.

Obviously, there’s nothing a bettor can do about final fluctuations of the odds. But until odds are displayed in real time, nothing can be done except to sit back and root for your horse, somewhat half-heartedly because you‘re not getting your price.

Or, as Tony said when he called my cell about a minute after Quality Road reached the finish line in 1:35.01 for the mile: “Did you see that,” he asked, not needing to explain what “that” he was talking about.

“This is some game. Even when you win you don’t get paid [enough]. No wonder people are walking away.”

No wonder, indeed.

How can 99 percent of horseplayers compete with one percent of the whales who watch the odds and wager with rebate-providing bet-takers, on-shore and off, after their algorithms or experienced eye identifies true value?

Good for them, and good for an industry that needs them. Bad for the game, read the overwhelming majority of horseplayers.

I was speaking with a colleague on Monday, lamenting the $13 win mutuel and $77 exacta payoff with Theregoesjojo, 15-1 on the early line, but opening 4-1 and closing a well backed 9-2.

But with race co-favorites at 7-2, and with seven of the 10 horses at odds of 8-1 or less, you’d think the exacta would have paid more.

I know, I know: They were coupled horses; coming out of the same race.

So what?

“He was a great play,” my phone buddy said. “I got 8.5-1 on the betting exchange. But in this country the rules make it tough to make money.”

This situation also speaks to the high takeout rates throughout the industry. The hold on exactas at Gulfstream Park is 20 percent.

And so, with seven of 10 horses at less than 8-1 in what was universally billed as the toughest Kentucky Derby to date, a $77 payoff was paltry, with nearly $800,000 wagered in exacta pool. (Over $1.1 million was bet straight).

There’s a lesson here, unless the industry is only spinning when it says that it values horseplayers.

Maybe they can figure out a way to incorporate head-to-head exchange betting at the same low rate charged in England, or other derivations of low takeout propositions.

Talk to Lee Amaitis at Cantor-Fitzgerald L.P., or the people at Bet Fair who now own TVG. They might show you a new way to grow handle, and the value of low takeout wagering.

And fear not, revenue will grow. But it takes time. Just like it’s going to take time for the world to get out of the economic morass.

If last minute bettors, betting finite amounts no matter how large, were wagering into an $10-million win pool instead of one one-tenth the size, the odds on Quality Road would have remained virtually the same instead of deflating three points.

Until the industry can figure this out--to the player‘s benefit as well as their own--can there just be a one-minute delay from the close of betting to the start of the race?

At least that way, when some neophyte sees all the late money come in on one horse, he doesn’t think he’s getting cheated by past-posting.

Can’t tracks in 38 jurisdictions at least agree on that much? There is more to servicing customers than safeguarding the health of the horses, no matter how noble that mission might be.

Written by John Pricci

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