Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thoroughbred Racing Proving Bullet Proof?

BALTIMORE, MD., May 20, 2012—It’s the economy stupid, I thought when trying to make sense of what’s been happening in the business of Thoroughbred racing industry this year.

I couldn’t understand it when national handle figures kept rising each month this winter despite less than stellar racing in New York, even by winter standards, and a perceived decline of this year’s product at Tampa Bay Downs.

True, things were looking up at Santa Anita, where there was no horseplayer boycott this time, and at Gulfstream Park, which had a season reminiscent of racing’s glory days when champions routinely showed up in mid-week money-allowances.

Still, given the continued contraction of racing dates at tracks that were hemorrhaging money and those that hosted abbreviated race cards to accommodate a declining horse population, how could this be?

Then came the scandalous takeout story at the New York Racing Association; the sensational treatment the New York Times gave a “disreputable industry” and an on-going raceday medication controversy that has fair-minded practitioners lining up on opposing sides.

Despite all this, betting volume continued to rise this month when Churchill Downs posted double-digit gains on Derby weekend, a trend that continued in Baltimore on Saturday where Preakness business rose for a third consecutive year and a new attendance mark of 121,309 was set.

But from the Derby came stories that raised questions, making casual fans aware of the winning trainer’s checkered past. Further, the ink on the Preakness chart was hardly dry when a Louisville Courier-Journal story told how the owner of the colt that stands on the precipice of racing history had his company branded by the California Attorney General two years ago as a high-interest lender resorting to “loan-shark tactics.”

There are a number of sure bets to be cashed during the three week run-up to the Belmont Stakes. The woes of the event’s host will be recounted, again, as will Doug O’Neill’s milkshaking travails, again, as well as the strong-armed tactics of Paul Reddam’s company.

The one aspect of the NYRA situation likely to be unreported is the unwitting role that the state played in all this. Several of its regulatory agencies in an oversight role failed to detect the accounting error in a timely fashion. Despite that, the state took temporary control of the NYRA on Tuesday by altering the makeup of its Board of Trustees, an arrangement that will remain in place through Governor Andrew Cuomo's term of office.

Sadly, all of what is to come will prove a distraction to the historical matter at hand because other agenda unflattering to racing are at work here. The industry deserves much of what it gets from critics, but not all of it all the time.

Thoroughbred racing has been waiting for a moment like this to come to fruition for 34 years now and the organization charged with putting on the show is rudderless. It doesn’t have a best face to put forward; that face was fired weeks ago.

The faces responsible for moving the show along now are the trainer of a fun bunch surrounding a gifted, gritty and unflappable colt, and his humble from-out-of-the-blue jockey who allows his mount to do the talking despite giving two brilliant tactical performances under the glare of racing’s biggest spotlight.

On June 9, the huge ballpark on Long Island, a racetrack whose size has become anachronistic, will play host to 100,000 history-starved sports fans that will fill every corner of the behemoth track.

The noise these fans will make at Belmont Park if I’ll Have Another is in winning position at the beginning of a stretch run that begins in one county and ends in another will be positively scary.

The roar will shake the building to its foundation as yet another Thoroughbred attempts to boldly go where only 11 have gone before, and where 11 since 1979 have failed to tread.

For two and a half minutes, the only thing that will matter is who finishes first. If that horse happens to be I’ll Have Another, human warts and all, it will remove the bad taste left when a troubled Big Brown was pulled up with a quarter-mile left to run.

Smarty Jones and Funny Cide also shipped into Gotham with the same chance to make history but both were defeated, one via questionable riding tactics and home cooking, the other by the suitably pedigreed betting favorite. At least both were beaten on the square.

Even in victory, the chances are that I’ll Have Another won’t be racing’s savior. Last year, a study conducted by the austere Jockey Club found that the general public does not hold racing in the esteem it once did so who knows how long the afterglow will last.

The recent Times series added to racing’s current undesirable categorization and there is concern that an historic victory might advance this adverse perception of horse racing in this country because of the possible increase of negativity in mainstream media.

But all year the sporting crowd has been voting with their dollars so that any negative perceptions that exist are trending otherwise thus far. So is it an improved economy, increased and improved network television coverage, or is it something else?

Could it be that what makes horse racing great is that a society that has been tethered to the Thoroughbred since racing began over five centuries ago on the Plains of Hempstead, not far from Belmont Park, has and will remain loyal indefinitely?

Are we learning that the game might be bullet proof after all?

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, May 14, 2012

Three Belmont Trainers, Horses, Don’t Need No Stinking Lasix

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 13, 2012—In the wake of Saturday’s Peter Pan Stakes, it’s like that comparisons will be made between the tactics of Right To Vote in the local prep for the Belmont and Bodemeister’s attempted heist of the Kentucky Derby.

Each set an excruciating, enervating pace, and each hung on tenaciously for a game second-place finish. But there was one stark difference however. Right To Vote, even though he had a Right To Lasix, didn’t race on furosemide in the Peter Pan.

Right To Vote’s owner, Bill Casner, is making a statement: Check that, Casner already has made his statements on the subject of raceday medication. What Casner is doing now is practicing what he believes.

Casner, his personal views notwithstanding, must also know that Lasix does not extend racing careers. In fact, the opposite is true. Otherwise explain why the number of starts a horse makes per year is half of what it was 30 years ago, when Lasix use became a raceday standard.

Interestingly, the Eoin Harty-trained Right To Vote was not the only runner on Saturday’s Belmont program to race Lasix free. Actually there were three others, as “Trackfacts” co-host Nick Kling pointed out on his Sunday morning cablecast.

In the fifth race, trainer Dominic Schettino sent out Post Pattern, a 10-1 chance on the early line, going a mile and the sixteenth on the turf. The special-weights maiden came from far back to finish a fast-closing second.

In the seventh, the “Chief’ sent out turf sprinter Renzo Bertoni, 6-1 on the early line, that also came from far back after getting shuffled back at headstretch. But the Allen Jerkens trainee got up in the last strides to win the 7-furlong turfer going away.

In the Peter Pan, sprint-bred Right To Vote, outrunning the very quick Jerome Mile winner The Lumber Guy for the lead, set fractions of :22.71, :45.35, 1:09.52 and a mile in 1:34.92, forcing heavily favored Mark Valeski to reach down to beat him, the winner eventually going away at the end for a 1-1/4 length win in 1:48.31.

In the finale, Say Lancelot finished last after battling for the lead down the backstretch. His odds were 66-1.

Horses can race effectively without Lasix, of course, and that’s the way it was done in New York until the Kenny Noe Jr. administration came to town.

It matters not whether these trainers were experimenting or tipping their cap to what seems inevitable; might as well learn to deal with the variable sooner rather than later. Besides, as long as Lasix remains legal, the diuretic is readily available to any trainer with access to an endoscope.

But it does make one wonder why all those two-year-olds that never have been subjected to the stress of racing need to debut with an “L” printed next to their names in the official track program, doesn’t it? Need a quick answer?

Because they can.

Does this make sense, or should it be considered more negativism from one of racing’s “detractors” who agrees with those with skin in the game who prefer to see all horses compete without the aid of raceday medication?

Calling someone with an honest disagreement sounds to me a lot like the “love it or leave it” game played in the 60s and early 70s, and again in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. Personally, I never considered Hall of Famer Gary Stevens to be a detractor. Does anyone?

It’s people like Stevens and Casner and George Strawbridge, anyone you could name on the side of banning raceday medication, who deserve to be supported and not those advocates of the status quo.

Standing still has brought the sport to this precise moment in time. Isn’t it safe to say, without raising ire, that things haven’t worked out very well using that approach?

By now, everyone knows the problems on both sides of this issue, most of them centered on economics, money that makes the mare, and all the other horses, go.

Initiating a raceday ban is not that hard, really. Start with the juveniles of 2013, or the following year, and move forward. All other horses are grand-fathered in, providing that rules and punishment are made uniform.

Those who believe public perception doesn’t matter either are fooling themselves or being disingenuous. The fact that the Kentucky Derby set records for attendance and handle only proves that America still loves to party and gamble on a Super Bowl played with horses one day a year.

Anyone who underestimates the American public, especially those not attracted to racing, or sports of any kind, for that matter, are playing with fire, one that might not be extinguishable once the conflagration starts.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

How Greed Cost CDI Stockholders…and One Oaks Day Horseplayer

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 8, 2012—Despite racing’s issues, the popularity of the Kentucky Derby continues to grow: To attract more than 165,000 spectators is a testimony to an event, the Derby Experience. And many of them brought money; the $12.3 million bet on-track also was a new record.

And gambling America loves ‘America’s Race’ card, too. All-sources wagering was up a whopping 13.2 percent to $187-million; heady numbers considering the game’s recent travails and an economy that’s improved but far from back to pre-crash levels. A record $113-million was bet on the Derby alone.

But the numbers could have been better were it not for shortsightedness and greed. I’m sure Churchill Downs Inc. will say Dime Superfectas are not available on Derby weekend because it would mean chaos at the betting windows, the tourists creating insanely long lines and shut-outs; counter-productive.

But there are ways around this, such as additional self-service machines specifically dedicated to Dime Super wagering, or designated windows at the end of each betting bay for Dime Super betting only.

If it wasn’t about greed why would the minimum Super bet go from a dime to a dollar on the two biggest days of the year including the Breeders’ Cup championships? Here’s an example of how CDI Inc. cost its shareholders, and one horseplayer, money.

I consider myself an average bettor, big by $2 standards, guppy-like when compared to the whales. As such, I try to be in as many of my preferred pools possible, considering each event part of a wagering portfolio.

In the main, a typical race wager would include win, exacta, and Dime Supers. My bankroll generally can accommodate handle of from $40 to $60 per race, as much as 50 percent more on a handful of preferred bets.

The lack of Dime Supers, available at Churchill since 2007, cost me a minimum of $387 on Oaks day alone. And that amount doesn’t include churn, a concept many industry leaders, including horsemen, fail to grasp when they think it’s time to raise the takeout.

I didn’t have a strong opinion about the Oaks but I did have what I thought were good ideas earlier, in the Eight Belles and Edgewood Stakes. The Eight Belles was a sprint for 3-year-old fillies and the exacta of Contested (even) and Good Money (3-1) appeared to be a cold proposition.

I rarely bet even-money shots to win. Instead I hope optimize the odds in the multiple pools. First would come a one-way exacta and next the superfectas using the “all button” in the third and fourth positions and second and fourth positions.

(This strategy allows bettors to be wrong by definition but likely to cash a bigger ticket. To make the play suggested above in an 8-horse field would cost $6, or two separate $3 bets. But at $1 per combination, the cost is $60).

Not only is $60 too rich for my bankroll but it takes me out of my comfort zone for a race and situation like this; after all, the keys here are a heavy favorite and a 3-1 shot in a relatively small field. Chances of making a score are slim.

I played a cold 7-3 exacta for $10 and collected $70 when the two Eight Belles favorites finished 1-2. If Dime Supers were available, I could have taken two tickets on the favorites running 1-2 with “All,” and one ticket with “All” finishing first and third.

In that case, the $9 wager would have returned $143. Had the favorites been split, I might have collected more, even if I one combination and not two. These are good percentage plays because “All” makes a friend of chaos.

The Edgewood result really stung. The turf event for 3-year-old fillies marked the return of Stephanie’s Kitten to Churchill, the course over which she won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf last year. Her Equiform performance figures towered over the field.

Another strong favorite, but this one coupled with two price-shot exacta opinions, virtually the same approach as was used in the Eight Belles. Two cold exactas using ‘Stephanie’ over Welcome Dance, 12-1 with Julien, and Treasured Up, also 12-1, with Garrett Gomez.

When faced with this situation in the Super pool, I would use ‘Stephanie” over the two pricey fillies, hoping for a 2-3, 2-4 or 3-4 finish, with “All” to finish fourth or third or second.

The Edgewood had a full field of 12. Taking a series of $1 Superfectas using Stephanie first with 10,13 with 10,13 with All; Stephanie with 10,13 with All with 10,13, and finally Stephanie with All with 10,13 with 10,13, combinations costing $54 (3 x $18)--out of my price range.

For a Dime, however, each of those three tickets cost $5.40, a total of $16.20. Even if I had lost the Eight Belles, it’s likely I would have taken each ticket twice. But another longshot, Firehouse Red, finished second, at 26-1. The Dime Super payout on the 3-5-13-10 would have paid $315.25.

There’s really no telling how much money Churchill Downs management cost me--and their company--the remainder of the weekend. We were terrible in the Derby itself but had a tremendous undercard.

Between Cary Fotias and myself at Equiform’s E-Seminar Derby Eve, we selected Top Projected Value Plays of $33.30, keying a $2 Super worth $3,129.20, and a $10.80 winner, keying a $1,341 Super. Further, three Top Projected Tote Busters returned $17 ($72 exacta), $13.80 and $42.40 ($203.60 exacta). [All results are verifiable on the Equiform website].

But I wasn’t the only player who jumped OUT of Churchill’s Superfecta pool last weekend. Here’s an admittedly small, but instructive sample:

On four racing days prior to the Oaks, when Dime Supers were available, Super handle on the day’s feature races, as a percentage of 50-Cent Trifecta handle, was 54%, 60%, 51% and 60%. These were allowance events featuring three 8-horse and one 7-horse field--not an attractive Super proposition.

But in the 14-filly Oaks and 20-horse Derby, $1 Super wagering only attracted 33% and 38%, respectively, as a percentage Trifecta handle. The positive effects of fractional wagering cannot be starker even in this small sample.

Hopefully, Churchill Downs management will study this phenomenon more closely and make Dime Supers available on and off track come Derby 139 week-end. And maybe the New York Racing Association can take a look at this, too.

Despite years of making suggestions to NYRA executives, bettors still are unable to make fractional bets such as 50-Cent Trifectas at simulcast tracks that offer them. It’s a simple programming issue, so the question is why not?

The other question is why fan/horseplayer grass roots organizations purporting to be bettor-friendly are not fighting for fractional wagering across the board in an effort to make racing’s costly learning curve more affordable? Isn’t it about the player? Or is it about advancing some other agenda? How about some enlightened self-interest?

Written by John Pricci

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