Wednesday, December 14, 2011
As “Luck” Would Have It
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 13, 2011—I must have missed the memo that said David Milch was supposed to create a dramatic piece meant to promote horse racing and attract new fans to the sport.
Hopefully that cause is not lost already, on Milch or anyone else, but neither should it be one person’s responsibility to change the course of an industry that for too long ignored or treated its fans poorly, many of whom have either left or in the process of leaving.
There recently appeared on this site a piece that tried to put the checkered career of the recently retired Patrick Valenzuela in some perspective by recalling a movie line, “wasted talent,” to help describe the life of one of the most gifted race riders the sport has known.
Well, here’s another quote, delivered by George C. Scott as General George S. Patton as he surveyed the human carnage of a battlefield the morning after an epic conflict had been waged: “God help me but I do love it so.”
And yet another, this from an honest-to-goodness Kentucky Derby-winning Hall of Fame horse trainer, Leroy Jolley, who, after the tragic “Great Match” that took Ruffian’s life, said: “We don’t play this game in short pants.”
In that spirit, then, I believe the pilot episode of HBO’s “Luck” captured the game at its core; the highest of highs, the lowest of lows, all in the same race.
Now everyone can sit back, relax, and watch a narrative unfold.
I spoke with one of my daughters the morning after the sneak preview and, somewhat surprisingly, she became emotional. Her favorite part of the game, like mine, takes place on the backside during training hours. For her, it’s about the animals.
In all the reviews I read online, it was very surprising that more wasn’t made of the breakdown; the gruesome view of a bloodied left foreleg hanging by a thread, the mercy killing that followed, all of it commencing with one horrific snap.
“Oh no,” I cried out when I heard it. I've felt the anguished passion expressed by jockey Ronnie Jenkins who explained to the triple-bug apprentice as they walked back to the jocks’ room: “You never get used to it. That’s what the Jim Beam is for.”
If all eight episodes turn out to be as good as the pilot, it’s very clear that series creator Milch, who’s owned horses for a few decades, gets it. This game is dangerous on so many levels and never discriminates between the animals and the people around them.
It’s the textbook backdrop for what lead character Ace Bernstein and his people have in mind; “the perfect Trojan horse,” his intention to turn a failing racetrack into a casino cash cow.
For anyone that didn’t see the pilot episode, pay no attention to the few naysayers and nitpickers. It’s scary how many scenes were pitch perfect, like ‘the Old Man’ sitting in a lawn chair and talking to his grazing “big horse.” Not to mention thr eclectic, talented cast.
Anyone who has seen Dustin Hoffman play Meyer Lansky or Dutch Schultz knows how menacing and volatile his criminal persona can be. Dennis Farina has deceptively great range, from Lt. Mike Torello, to “Bones” Barboni, to “Empire Falls” ’ Walt Comeau.
Who doesn’t love John Ortiz as the “crafty” Turo Escalante? Does Nick Nolte’s “the old man” remind anyone of Frank Whiteley Jr.? Is Richard Kind a jocks’ agent in real life, too? I think I know that guy.
And Gary Stevens, the Hall of Fame jockey? Stevens seems a natural born actor with more than a modicum of intensity in front of a camera.
The racing scenes were amazing, too, snapshots of real life on the racetrack, right down to closing the tailgate on a vet’s SUV. Shedrows were captured authentically. Tight cuts to horses racing, training, galloping; great job. Then there is the postcard that is Santa Anita.
There was one scene that did hurt the eyes, however. It was one of the early shots of a racethat looked more like a morning gallop with horses all over the track than an actual race, something I’m sure went unnoticed to an untrained eye.
The people I really know best in “Luck” are the gamblers,of course, and a degenerate lot they are. I’ve seen more than my share. I grew up, hung out, with guys like them. I guess I was more of a nerdy DG, believing there was more to the game than just action.
Jason Gedrick’s character Jerry, like many of the guys I knew, would bet on anything. I hope Jerry’s character doesn’t become too prominent a player in the piece. Too many sidebars about high stakes poker with “ricers” would distract from the racing storylines.
There was one egregious error that, for a work so rooted in honest detail, was a careless, unnecessary mistake. There were nine runners in the final race of the Pick Six sequence. Hence, the 3 x 1 x 4 x 5 x 3 x ALL ticket would cost $3,240, not $846.
Michael Mann, whose visual style began by watering the streets for scenes shot at night on the original hit series “Miami Vice,” gave that show the slick, modern look that’s become standard fare. The quick-cut, tight shots convey action and urgency at once. I wish Mann were directing all nine episodes.
As the pilot showed, there are many sub-texts that should keep the series moving at a fast pace. When coupled with greed, intrigue and danger, the beauty of Santa Anita should enable "Luck" to continue to be a visual treat as well.
“Luck” is an action drama made by a racetracker for other racetrackers and non-racing fans alike. It conveys the sense of a bubbling underworld of excitement that only horse racing can provide--moments capable of blowing up in a minute flat, going from zenith to nadir and back again.
One final thought: To hell with the learning curve. Viewers that become engaged with “Luck” will want to catch-up on the lingo. Those who aren’t, won’t. Racing’s not going to convert those people, anyway. You don’t choose this game. It chooses you.
Written by John Pricci
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Curb Super-Exotic Madness or Continue Losing Handle
SARATOGA SPRINGS, December 7, 2011—A very interesting blog entry on the Horseplayers Association of North American site Tuesday indicating that, according to details in an exchange wagering application made by TVG in the state of California, the churn rate for wagering in the U.S. has fallen from a bellwether 7 times starting bankroll per wagering session to 4.
How alarming is this? Let's count the ways.
The example that was given for this phenomenon is easily understood and, if you missed the original blog post, it bears repeating:
If a crowd of people show up at a racetrack or simulcast facility with $100,000 to wager collectively, at a churn rate of 7, the crowd would push $700,000 through the windows. The same crowd and starting bankroll with a churn rate of 4 would produce $400,000 in total handle.
First and foremost, of course, are takeout rates which, with notably few exceptions, have been climbing steadily for a decade. The continued plummeting of U.S. handle is clearly tied to this factor.
The pari-mutuel hold is inexorable. To put it in yet another way: The less
money returned on winning bets, the less
money bettors have to wager in return.
The second factor contributing to the loss of handle is what is termed cashable bets
Every bettor, myself included, wants to win a lot for a little. The proliferation of super-exotic bets has fed this a-lot-for-a-little approach, especially bettors with limited bankrolls—virtually all bankrolls are limited to some extent.
Super-exotic bets are, by definition, exotic or high risk. They yield for bigger payoffs—scores, if you will--allowing players to stay in the game for longer periods of time, a cushion to absorb losing sessions that are sure to come.
My super-exotic weakness is the superfecta. For me, the degree of difficulty is more than commensurate with the added degree of difficulty, superfecta payoffs often returning four or five times more on average than a winning trifecta.
But bets such as the Super High 5 are bankroll killers, sucker plays. It's extremely ratre to see a three-digit ALL payoff in the superfecta. Empirically, it seems there almost are as many High 5 carryovers as Pick 6 carryovers.
But large High-5 payoffs seldom approach large Pick 6 returns. Given that the Super High 5 is priced at a one-dollar minimum, it’s one play most bettors really can't afford to make.
When it comes to takeout increases, greedy horsemen’s groups and unsophisticated off-track interests notwithstanding, the industry often falls victim to legislators who cannot pass a sensible state budget much less understand the nuances of the pari-mutuel system.
However, with tracks needing state approval to conduct its business, there is little that racetracks can do to stem the tide of quick fixes so popular in states where pari-mutuel horse racing is conducted.
But there is something tracks can do, and that’s to stop worshipping at the altar of super-exotics. There should be fewer of them, not more. If a track offers Pick 4s, Pick 5s and the Pick 6, wagers like the Rolling Pick 3 become not only unnecessary but churn killers.
The Pick 3 is the quintessential trap. In practice, it’s much more difficult to win than it appears at first blush. Further, if a track is offering the exotic Pick 4, 5 and 6, there’s no need for a Rolling Pick 3. Rolling Doubles are much more player friendly and still offer a chance for a sizable payoff because takeout is extracted once, not twice, as is the case with parlays.
Another benefit to offering bets that players can win more often is the positive effect it would have on ever-sagging pool liquidity. Further, it is imperative to offer fractional wagering on any sequence involving a three-tier payoff and that includes the trifecta.
Tracks think they are doing their big customers a service by keeping minimums higher so that whales can throw more money to insure a win in a difficult sequential wager. But only by returning more money to winning bettors more often and increasing churn, can pool liquidity—and handle—stop reversing itself.
This helps big and small bettors alike, just as lowering takeout would act as a disincentive to competitive offshore rebate shops.
Written by John Pricci
Monday, December 05, 2011
A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma?
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 5, 2011— The cliché popularized by Mark Twain pertaining to the use of “lies, damn lies and statistics” is never more apt than when perusing the monthly handle figures for Thoroughbred racing.
November was a good month, I guess, since handle dropped “only” 3.47 percent, as compared to a median 7.13 percent for the entire year.
But for my life I cannot fathom with certitude whether this is a good thing or not, mostly because it’s unknown whether or not the slow-down is attributable to a greater number of racing days and thus more opportunities to wager.
Further, noting below that Wagering on U.S. Races reflects worldwide commingled handle, it’s difficult to know how much of an impact exporting the U.S. signal worldwide is helping the American game avert a slide of monumental proportions.
Of course, if you race more days, more money will be bet in the overall, although that helps bring average handle per card down as finite dollars are spread over a greater number of opportunities.
But the real difficulty regards the purse increase figures for November 2011.
How can purses go up when handle goes down over a greater number of days? And where does Racino handle fit into all this?
Is there a Breeders’ Cup effect? It’s not so much there were 15 races this year, the most ever, but perhaps tracks nationwide raced more days surrounding the event to gain maximum exposure of their own product in the local market?
To a degree, the year-over-year numbers make more sense. Overall purses should be higher on a percentage basis given fewer racing days, and presumably fewer racing opportunities results in bigger fields.
I’ve seen five furlong turf races that are easier to decipher than these figures indicate.
November 2011 vs. November 2010
November 2011 November 2010 % Change
Wagering on U.S. Races*
$874,386,107 $905,848,904 -3.47%
$101,876,670 $95,522,074 +6.65%
U.S. Race Days
392 375 +4.53%
YTD 2011 vs. YTD 2010
YTD 2011 YTD 2010 % Change
Wagering on U.S. Races*
$9,970,704,337 $10,736,200,808 -7.13%
$987,513,084 $971,187,788 +1.68%
U.S. Race Days
4,953 5,159 -3.99%
* Includes worldwide commingled wagering on U.S. races.
Written by John Pricci