Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Seeking Big Picture Balance in Simulcasting

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 20, 2015—Once upon a time, while working for a daily newspaper far, far away, I often was invited to participate on a panel reviewing and deciding which in-house simulcast presentation was worthy of the Simulcast Award as conducted by the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of America.

The Simulcast Award honors excellence in a racetrack’s live race product presentation to simulcast outlets. Every year, a panel of five judges selects the winner as North America’s best. The award is presented yearly to the award winner at the annual International Simulcast Conference.

The TRA is a trade organization comprised of 44 member racetracks which account for about 75 percent of total North American handle annually. This year, 14 tracks submitted entries for the panel’s consideration. Santa Anita won the third time in 23 years, its first since winning back-to-back in 2000-2001.

The panel cited Santa Anita for its presentation, very informative yet easy to read, also noting its excellent display of results, payouts and race splits. Additional considerations were user-friendliness and use of multiple camera angles.

Each of the 14 competing tracks included one day’s actual audio and video presentation which incorporated pre-race features, odds, will-pays, commentary, the live race, followed by results and post-race features.

The closed-circuit TV department must have had an extraordinary day on June 27, the day Santa Anita submitted for consideration, because every time I watch the track's CC-TV coverage it leaves me wanting more.

The surmise is that this year’s panel members must not be serious horseplayers. All the winning elements cited I’m sure existed on June 27, but whenever I watch Santa Anita's presentation it has me wanting more relevant information, more efficiently.

Maybe it’s me but I don’t want to see any more commercials, whether it be in-house, local or national spots. I’m sure it helps pay the bills but it gets in the way of getting the betting information I need in a timely fashion.

If this year’s panelists are indeed serious players, then I apologize. But my surmise is that you make most of your wagers live on-track. At latter day race-book-style simulcast areas, on track or off, there is seldom audio for a simple reason: Can anyone decipher two or three sets of talking heads all speaking at the same time?

Back in the day, TV sets were placed far enough from each other that bettors picked their favorite track and park themselves in front of it. They heard all the audio information needed at Santa Anita, Belmont, Churchill, wherever.

Today’s theater style banks of TVs generally are lined up one after another on a big flat wall. If there is audio available, which it seldom is, conflicting sound is held to a minimum by placing the most popular signals far enough apart so as to avoid distraction.

Betting focus is difficult enough to maintain without conflicting information being disseminated as so much conflicting gibberish. Competing tracks, while getting better, remain in conflict vis a vis post-time synchronization. For dedicated simulcast handicappers, less audio is more.

What I see happening at Santa Anita too often is the following: The race is run, followed by on-track interviews which, as a turf writer, I want and appreciate. But the bettor next to me doesn’t. Sometimes there are two interviews with owners, trainers or jockeys--trainers should be the priority except in extraordinary newsworthy circumstances.

Then come two replays; the pan shot the clear priority. Time is always critical in simuland. Next come the commercials which, having no choice, I must live with.

By that time the horses reach the paddock. Video, interviews and paddock analysis comes next, the horses then leave the paddock, are followed onto the racetrack and shown in parade; the latter clearly the most critical of these.

And now Santa Anita deigns to show me the will-pays?

Now if I want to bet more money; to save with a runner getting smart tote action; press my Pick 5 with a Pick 4 that includes prime contenders, overlays, or solid runners I could not afford in the original P5 sequence, I couldn't do it intelligently without the needed will-pay information.

Aside from a betting system that points out sneaky, live horses in double will-pays in relation to the morning line, Double will-pays provide clues at what final post-time odds are more likely to be, especially when horses open as overlays. There are myriad reasons why will-pays are essential.

California tracks seem to consider horseplayer’s needs last. Whatever your past-performance provider preference, e.g., tracks there usually are the last to make entry sheets with morning lines available. Three time zones do not account for too-long delays.

During the years I served on the simulcast panel, I always seemed to vote for either Keeneland or Woodbine. This makes sense, since Keeneland, with seven awards, and Woodbine, with five, have accounted for more than half the 23 winners.

This year, the New York Racing Association came up with an innovation that includes will-pays next to paddock shots and post parades for a lengthy period to the right on the same screen. Further, added camera angles on both sides of the post parade, shot in high definition, and with on-air talent second to none, rate my unofficial vote.

Who knows? Maybe 2016 will be the year the NYRA wins its first ever Simulcast Award. Indeed, Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga are a collective 0-for-23 years. And there’s plenty wrong with that picture.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Are Rolling Hi-5 Carryovers Too Much of a Good Thing?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, October 11, 2015—When it comes to observing the phenomenon of gambling at the racetrack after more than four decades, nothing much astounds me. We’ve pretty much seen it all.

But I was simply amazed by what happened at Gulfstream Park West with respect to its newly created Rolling Super-Hi 5 with carryover.

And, no, it wasn’t that the winning payoff on the final leg of the Saturday program paid $127,569, which was astonishing enough.

Rather, it was that bettors spent $231,000 chasing a $58,000 carryover, the result of the bet failing to be won for four consecutive races. The sixth race carryover was $11,594, which grew by a factor of five over the next three races.

But almost a quarter-million spent chasing $58K? If that’s not a stunning development, then I don’t know one when I see one.

Yesterday I was suffering through a very long afternoon in Simulville yet I was never tempted to throw even a few dollars at the free money.

First, the degree of Hi-5 difficulty is extraordinary. I know this because under the right circumstances, I love playing Dime Supers--and they are plenty tough enough. Given the added permutations, the $1 minimum for a majority of players is too much to bear.

I know that Gulfstream’s philosophy is to build handle via carryovers on bets with a high degree of difficulty, but these wagers prevent bettors with capped bankrolls to manage their money effectively, even those with deep pockets.

It might take a little longer, but a 50-Cent wager would get more people engaged in the initial legs and, even at the more affordable rate, rollover handle would be significant enough with an added benefit of allowing players to preserve their bank.

Saturday’s GPW 12-horse finale was viewed as a one-horse affair. It featured a 17-10 favorite with co-second choices at a lofty 5-1, and co-‘third’ choices at 10-1. The favorite finished last of the dozen $10,000 claimers.

The results thereafter were not outlandish. Heart Doctor, one of the two 5-1 shots, won the race, followed in order by 15-1, 10-1, 17-1 and 26-1, the longest shot in the field but not outrageous considering the field size.

Obviously, the payout was the product of a strong favorite not hitting the first five. Only two deep-pocketed bettors were the beneficiaries.

While the publicity generated by a big payoff is a positive, it sends a mixed message:

Those who can’t afford to play the wager properly have no business in the pool. Luck plays a huge role in these multi-tiered finishes. Is that the message the industry wants to send, that it's mostly luck that produces a small-bet life-changing score?

Further, is this how any track should represent itself to a dwindling number of customers or to introduce new ones, that if you want to win big, you might want go out and buy yourself a lottery ticket. All they need is a dollar and a dream.

Meanwhile, the newly created $5 quinella has yet to find an audience despite more of an accent on handicapping than bankroll--in addition to its more manageable degree of difficulty.

The first four days of the meet that began Wednesday attracted handle of $4,540—for all four programs! The better news were the payoffs; generous at best, thought provoking at least.

The figures for the first four days, with odds of the top two finishers, in order, followed by the $5Q payoffs: 16-1 and 3-1 returned $272; 2-1 and 15-1 paid $244; 7-1 and 5-1 combined to pay $280.50, and 5-1 over 15-1 returned $428. Food for thought and worthy of continued tracking.

International Trot: A Welcome Return

After a two decade hiatus, Yonkers Raceway revived the old Roosevelt Raceway classic and it turns out that the country that won the last edition, Sweden, with His Majesty, won the revival with Papagayo E at 9-1.

Odds-on Canadian favorite Bee A Magician finished off the board following a very good but extremely wide brush approaching the mile-mark of the mile and-a-quarter event. She flattened out midway of the final turn while the winner enjoyed a pluperfect-pocket, passing-lane, trip.

The aggressive Johnny Takter made the winner’s trip possible by having enough speed to park the field all the way to the top of Yonkers’ notoriously short stretch before weakening, hanging on long enough to give the eventual winner clearance as the leader drifted as the wire rapidly approached.

As opposed to the normal harness race on a half-mile harness track, the International was anything but a pack of overland trotters or pacers going head-to-head first, second, third and fourth-over in a tight pack. There were moves and middle-move sweeps throughout the last half-mile, a good, exciting show.

One thing we’d like to see, however. With Roosevelt far back in the rear view and branding within the same circuit unnecessary, don’t understand why the start-and-finish line couldn’t be farther up the stretch, giving ralliers half a chance.

With todays’ harness tracks as glib and speed favoring as they are, the final result shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion before the entire field gets a chance to find its best stride in the straightaway. Interesting and more competitive half-mile harness racing would benefit fans and horsemen alike.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Thoroughbred Racing: Whose Game Is It, Anyway?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 6, 2015—To paraphrase a popular refrain commonly heard on one side of the aisle in the nation’s capital, I’m no economist, but the recent handle figures released by Equibase appears to indicate that if you throw enough money at the purse structure, bettors will come.

The surprising aspect here is that not only do the horsemen benefit from increased purses but so, too, does the industry. The numbers clearly indicate that bettors prefer to wager not only at the best price but on the best product available.

Statistics show that the formula for success this entire year, thanks to the month of September, has been relatively simple: Decrease the number of races by 5%, increase the amount of purse money by $15-million, and reap a $71-million reward.

We check the national handle figures when they are released by the Equibase News Service each month. For the most part, the percentage increases or decreases are almost always minimal or, in bean counters language, flat.

But not last month, and not so, albeit to a lesser degree, for the third-quarter of fiscal 2015. The third-quarter betting figures show a total handle increase of 3.65% across the U.S. compared to 2014. That’s a fairly significant gain.

And it’s important to note here that these numbers correspond with overall purse increases of 1.23%.

Admittedly, this seems like an empirical coincidence. But when factored into the decline in race days, number of races and number of starters, by 2.16% 3.78% and 2.54%, respectively, a new picture begins to emerge.

Throughout 2015, handle has been down marginally. In context, however, this makes the third-quarter increase, a current-day aberration, significant:

Handle in September increased by a huge double-digit margin of 11.90% year over year while purses were increased by 7.13%. Meanwhile, the number of race days, races, and starters all decreased, by 0.45%, 2.91% and 1.29%, respectively.

Acknowledged is the amount of money saved by not distributing purses over fewer dates, races and starters, thus allowing for increased revenue for racetracks at the bottom line. But that “saving” is unrelated to increased betting, during football season yet.

The Triple Crown, topped by the prodigious Kentucky Derby, is racing’s best hoof forward regarding the sport’s appeal among general or mainstream-sports audiences. Of course, the Triple Crown and its run-up spans the first half of racing’s yearly calendar.

The just concluded third quarter is that segment of the year which on balance is the season’s best. Destination tracks, led by Saratoga and Del Mar, and to a lesser degree venues like Monmouth Park, comprise the first half of the third quarter.

This year, Saratoga enjoyed a record season but Monmouth Park, despite American Pharoah’s Haskell appearance, posted only modest meet gains while Del Mar’s numbers were a flat-out disappointment.

Enter September.

As football season began, purse-enriched Saratoga and Del Mar remained open but were winding down in every way. Racing in the fall has made a championship prep season the new normal as tracks begin to stage their biggest races of the year.

With Belmont Park and Santa Anita front-loading the beginning of their 2015 fall meets, mega-event days and weekends resulted in a glut of dollars being thrown the horsemen’s way.

To this mix add Keeneland, with or without Breeders’ Cup, the brief return of Churchill, the huge five-day success that is Kentucky Downs, the new Parx Racing Festival and the latter portion of Gulfstream Park's popular record-setting summer meet, and racing’s third-quarter offers the year’s best sport.

The common thread coursing through all the above are wildly enhanced stakes purses, which turns out to be the good news and the bad news. For fans and most owners and trainers, the purse money thrown at a handful of stakes would be better spent overnight on a daily basis.

But these mega-quality programs are what the bettors want and they vote with their betting money, even while complaining that many of the races aren’t as quality-laden as they should be.

The increase in fractional betting and lower takeout available hither and yon also has the positive effect of putting more of the people’s money into more betting pools, a.k.a. a win-win.

Note, however, that the third-quarter numbers do not reflect two “Super Weekends” of Breeders’ Cup preps conducted at Belmont Park, Santa Anita and Keeneland: Those occurred the weekends of October 3rd and 10th.

Several recent studies have determined that field size is not as critical a handle component as is widely believed, however counter-intuitive the notion may be. The comparative trends released Monday by Equibase underscores this point.

Marketers who struggle to make horse racing compelling again have tried everything except aggressively promoting gambling, a legitimate and familiar lament. By comparison, fantasy sports—especially in consideration of a New York Times story alleging inside-information trading by employees at Fan Duel and Draft Kings results in pre-posting its fans/bettors--have promoted gambling boldly and obviously quite effectively.

This is yet another example from which racing can learn. If September’s nationwide handle figures mean anything, it’s this: Horseplayers, racing’s indispensable life-blood, are betting more money on quality races despite a perceptible presence of heavy early favorites.

And there’s one more philosophy that all racing executives might do well to consider going forward, if the goal is to increase the sport’s overall popularity in the future: Less may be more, a lot more.

Written by John Pricci

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