Friday, February 19, 2010

Horse Racing and Government’s ONLY Answer

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, February 19, 2010--Received a private e mail the other day from loyal HRI contributor Dennis Dotson with a subject line so brilliant that I decided to give the issue an airing, for about the thousandth time.

The issue is the always regressive, counter-productive tax on horseplayers, parimutuel takeout, which is draining any remaining liquidity from the betting pools.

Want to stop those late-odds flashes, or at least slow them down? How about a pool the size of which cannot be adversely affected by a handful of large wagers?

Dotson’s introductory subject line was, in fact, so crystal clear at assessing this issue that you read it in the headline that introduced this piece. The only answer, indeed.

For his part, Dotson is fighting his own battle, one that has made him the bane of every New York Racing Association executive he has written to last year and this.

What Dotson wants to know, and what he feels is his privilege as a valued customer, is whatever happened to the “Survivor” contest, and why can’t he get a reasonable explanation as to why it was discontinued?

He might have received an answer had he refrained from his liberal use of colorful phrases. Frustration, it seems, saps patience from us all.

So, as he stated in his letter: “The Survivor contest attracted thousands of handicapping players from all over the world….

“[Fans] played the contest and many played the daily cards through their local and/or ADW venues. These are thousands that do not live in the state of New York….

“I have written this same e mail six times without one reply….

“The fact that yours was $10 per entry (unlimited entries) and the prize pool climbed upwards of $50,000 at nearly every NYRA track should be screaming volumes at you to bring it back…”

Dotson went on to list a number of tracks that offer this type of on-line contest for free, namely Santa Anita’s, which recently added “Winvivor” to complement its “Showvivor” contest already in place.

Of course, the prize pool at Santa Anita,, and other venues is much smaller--$2,500 was the common amount--than the one offered in the NYRA’s pay-to-play contest.

Digressing, and speaking of “fat chance” issues, is the hope that state legislators from Anywhere, U.S.A. will learn something about the laws of supply and demand that eventually put all those that ignore this axiom out of business.

Or, as Dotson reflected, quoting Einstein: "We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

Which brings us to a bill recently introduced by Kentucky House Speaker Pro-Tem Larry Clark that would tax bets made by Kentuckians through account wagering companies such as Churchill Downs Inc.’s

This genius believes that a 0.5 percent tax on advance deposit wagers made by Kentucky residents would generate as much as $400,000 a year.

Really? That much?

Clark envisions that the 400K would be split three ways among the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, whichever track is operational at the time, with the balance going toward that track’s purses.

Would someone please inform Clark that this amount buys the tracks about two really good allowances races--after first explaining what an allowance race is.

So I guess this means that the 400K would be collected about three times a year so that Churchill Downs, Turfway and Ellis Park could share the largesse. The alternative would be to let them fight among themselves for these table scraps.

But the best part of Clark’s reasoning as to why this kind of commerce should be taxed? “I think it’s something we need to do,” he said. “It’s the fastest growing betting we have now ... and we need to capture some of that revenue (to) put back into purses.”

The bill apparently is a compromise of the one Clark proposed last year that died in committee, calling for a 3.5 percent tax. The current tax rate would be similar to ones imposed by Illinois and Virginia on account wagering.

My question is why the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission needs a third of this projected $400,000. Could it be to pay for commissioners’ salaries?

A few years ago, something like that quietly occurred in New York when a portion of the parimutuel takeout was redirected by law to pay for Racing and Wagering Board operations. America in action: Create a regulatory agency then eventually allow horseplayers to pay for it.

I say go for it, Mr. Clark. Nip this growth thing in the bud. Kill any forward momentum online wagering has and the hope of salvation it provides. Kill it because the Internet is the only avenue for growth left, at least until the current model is scrapped. Fat chance of that, too.

So, as Dotson suggests from his research: “Have a little faith; let God go first.” Or this:

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it, and a moral code that glorifies it.”

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 12, 2010

To Survive, Horseplayers Need Complete Data

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, February 12, 2010--If some industry organizations are still wondering why handle continues to decline at a double-digit rate, they would do well to look inward for answers.

The decline we’re talking about is not about marketing. The reference here speaks to basic services that horseplayers need to make the best handicapping decisions possible and keep themselves liquid. God forbid anyone should actually win consistently.

Why is it that industry organizations, from data collectors to data suppliers to the racetracks--in short, everyone--need to be told when they’re not doing something right and are letting down their customers by not providing basic information and services.

On opening day of the 2010 Gulfstream Park meet, president Ken Dunn was interviewed on the track’s closed-circuit system which is seen by simulcast audiences throughout the country. Dunn was highlighting the changes that would take place at the current meet.

One of those changes, dividing Gulfstream’s expansive turf course into two separate courses, sounded like a good idea, and indeed it was. The move was well received by the professional players we spoke with and the weekend warriors, too.

Dunn explained that the temporary rails would still be utilized on both courses which serves to give the worn parts of the course a needed rest when atmospherics and extensive use deemed it necessary.

Indeed, there are several tracks around the country that utilize two courses. In a perfect world every venue should have two courses for just such purposes; to give one course a rest while also providing variety by giving fans/handicappers/fans a different puzzle to solve.

Given two courses, there are intuitive rules that even the most casual fans understand. On balance, an inner course with tighter turns would naturally favor rail hugging speed. Conversely, outer courses, because of their wider circumference, give late-rally types a better chance.

Whether or not the data providers believe these handicapping dictums to be true is not the issue. What is important is that the majority of bettors think so.

Horseplayers embrace the challenge of handicapping. It makes them part of the game’s process, not to mention it occasionally results in putting more money in their pockets than they had when they left home for the track or simulcast venue.

Because of its generally larger fields and the wide open results they often produce, turf races are very popular with the betting public. The tracks understand this, too, especially when they see the influence turf racing has on their bottom lines.

That’s what so vexing about making horseplayers bet on Gulfstream turf races with incomplete past-performance information. So where is Equibase, the sport’s official data collector, or the data disseminators Daily Racing Form and Brisnet on all this? Good question.

Apparently, none of these organizations think it’s necessary for tracks with more than one turf course to delineate in past performance lines the specific course on which a horse recently raced.

Yes, that information is included in the result charts, and in race-condition headers at the top of every turf race. But that‘s not the point.

With simulcasting accounting for nine of every 10 dollars wagered, time management is a major concern for even the most casual fan. Who has the time to consult a result chart every time he or she wants to dope out a turf race thoroughly? I know I don’t, and I do this professionally.

In New York, Belmont Park and Saratoga have two turf courses. Whether it’s the Widener or inner course downstate or the Mellon and inner in Saratoga, those designations are rightfully included in past-performance lines, just as the Aqueduct winter dirt is separated from the main track.

This was what I was thinking as I listened to the Dunn announcement. So I gave the data purveyors a few weeks, then a month, then six weeks, for horses to run back. And I’m still waiting to learn what Gulfstream course horses raced on last out.

It seems no one ever thinks about the horseplayer without first being asked to do so. If data organizations didn’t think to include this basic information in the running lines, it was in Gulfstream’s vested interests to remind them.

So, please, no spin about how the Gulfstream turf isn’t technically two courses. And if that technicality does exist, for arguments sake, then why not go all out and provide the specifics rail placements; 12 feet, 48 feet, or 72 feet, whatever. What’s one more symbol in a past performance running line?

I’d like to know going into a Gulfstream Park turf race that a particular horse’s running style might have been compromised or aided by the circumference of the oval. Size always matters.

Like almost everyone in America today, I’m a simulcast player now. So please stop wasting my time. Do your job correctly and completely, and provide all of us the information we need. With pool liquidity drying up by the day, we need all the help we can get.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 05, 2010

It’s On, Kinda’ Sorta’

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, February 5, 2010--In what has been described as the boldest move yet to bring Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta together in a race and the greatest sporting event in the history of Arkansas, Oaklawn Park president Charles Cella as expected announced yesterday that the purse of the April 3 Apple Blossom would be raised to $5 million if both horses showed up.

Cella certainly put his money where his aspirations are. Recall that several years ago he raised the purse of the Arkansas Derby to $1-million and created a $5 million bonus for a horse that would sweep the Southwest Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby.

So he knows how to throw a party and get noticed. Ultimately, the attention he brought to Oaklawn Park’s centerpiece event for three-year-olds resulted in the race earning Grade 1 status. And, yes, the rating was long overdue.

The race, to be called the Apple Blossom Invitational, will have its distance lengthened a half-furlong to 1 1/8 miles. The event for fillies and mares, 4-year-olds and up, was a handicap but now all horses will carry scale of 123 pounds.

Should the matchup fail to materialize, the purse will revert to the original $500,000. No word on whether the Apple Blossom would return to handicap status at its original distance.

Clearly, Oaklawn is trying to think positively. As scheduled, the summit would have the largest purse ever offered fillies and mares and matches the Breeders’ Cup Classic, dollar for dollar. The added money will come from Cella and the Arkansas Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

At yesterday’s press conference, Cella said he has had multiple conversations with Jess Jackson, the owner of Rachel Alexandra, and Jerry Moss, Zenyatta’s owner. "Both of them have told me they embrace the idea," Cella said.

As has been widely reported, Oaklawn Park is neutral ground. Both horses have won there. The 2008 Apple Blossom was Zenyatta’s first Grade 1 win and only start outside California. Last year, the Martha Washington and Fantasy Stakes hinted that Rachel Alexandra would be a very special three-year-old.

On Wednesday at her Hollywood Park base, Zenyatta breezed five furlongs in 1:01 3/5. She’s had two serious works since un-retiring but never was out of training, having breezed three times to “take the edge off” before being sent to the breeding shed.

And, then, well, it was cold in Kentucky, so she remained in Southern California and on the Saturday prior to the Horse of the Year announcement the news that Zenyatta would race as a six-year-old became official. But it wasn’t a huge surprise.

Following her un-retirement, Zenyatta’s connections mentioned two possible spots, throwing down a gauntlet that stretched all the way to New Orleans. Jerry Moss wants to win the Apple Blossom again, and the camp thought that the Santa Margarita on March 13 looked like an excellent spot to get started.

Of course, Rachel Alexandra hasn’t run since winning the Woodward on Labor Day weekend. It has been well documented that her training this year was delayed owing to poor weather conditions and too many wet Fair Grounds surfaces.

Rachel Alexandra had her first work last weekend, a slow and easy half mile in :52 seconds. Even given the poor weather, it never appeared that the Rachel camp was in a big hurry to get started. Consequently, some have speculated on her nursing some injury, real or imagined, then hustled off to a date with Curlin.

When it was known late last year that Rachel Alexandra would winter at the Fair Grounds, management announced they would create a $200,000 race for fillies and mares at a mile and a sixteenth, an accommodation that had the added benefit of putting fannies in seats. Ironically, that race is scheduled for March 13.

Coming back at four after the most ambitious three-year-old filly campaign in modern history, in which she met and defeated males thrice, including a Classic two weeks after winning the Oaks by 20, could be a tricky proposition.

Just like newly turned three-year-olds, some horses don’t transition well from three to four, so there is no knowing for sure how Rachel Alexandra will run as a four-year-old until she does so.

Rachel’s layup has been lengthy, but she never has given an indication that she needs a whole lot of training to get ready. She has been galloping and hacking around virtually all winter to maintain her fitness.

To meet Zenyatta, one must be 100 percent. Anything less wouldn’t be fair to Rachel, or Zenyatta, or to all the people that have been clamoring for a summit between--thanks to a hanging chad--two unanimous champions.

Shortly after Cella’s announcement, Jackson said “as you have heard me say many times, a number of factors must be considered when deciding where to race a horse, the number one factor being the condition of the horse. Rachel will tell us when she is ready to start, and we humans must agree she is in top form.”

"We’ll do our best to make the race, but obviously, it all depends on Zenyatta, and how she’s doing,” said racing manager for the Mosses, Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs.

If they want one, both camps have an out, especially Rachel’s. So the next quote you might hear one of the humans say might sound something like: “We can’t get her ready in time for her prep, and we won’t meet Zenyatta without at least one race under our belts.”

The sad truth is that two months might not be enough time to get ready for a Breeders’ Cup Classic champion at nine furlongs, no matter how much the filly might like Hot Springs. This deal is far from done.

Written by John Pricci

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