Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Back To the Futures

While in good conscience I never could encourage people to bet their money six months in advance of a racing event, I couldn’t keep my own counsel this past weekend—and not for a lack of other good horses on which to bet.

And so I took several small positions in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Futures, more for bragging rights if nothing else, though I will line up to cash if so lucky. Just as it is on a daily basis; it’s about price, not about horse.

The rule I adhere to when making future wagers is that I will not accept odds less than 30-1, which for me was written in stone after my first ever Derby futures proposition.

On what I believe was my second visit to Las Vegas, and first ever “winter book” bet, placed in a casino, I took what I remember to be 30-1 on Go for Gin. Of course, he won the 1994 Kentucky Derby and the price was set in stone from that moment forward.

Accordingly, I took 29-1 on Enticed and 37-1 on Dak Attack. (Kiaran and Dale have to win a Derby eventually, yes)?

Anyway, Kiaran’s connections owe me for Mohaymen—in truth, that was my bad—but Dale owes me nothing, as we’ve gotten lucky with him any number of times when the price was right. Of course, these are nice horses but it’s about best value available, right?

However, I do admit to being a chalk–eating weasel when it came to future betting on sires which is not as outlandish a position as one would think. So we took a small exacta box position on three of the favorites and included a fourth as a price shot:

Medaglia d’Oro, represented by Bolt d’Oro, Enticed and Montauk, wound up the 5-1 favorite in the parimutuels.

The second choice was Curlin (6-1), represented by Good Magic and Solomini.

And next up was Tapit (8-1), represented by Mask and Prince Guilherme.

Price shot Ghostzapper (27-1) has only Dak Attack among the 23 individual betting interests. All our choices have more representatives in the “All Other Three-Year-Olds” category, obviously. Then so do all the others.

And so we took a four-sire exacta box, pressing the play with Medaglia d’Oro in two positions. Interesting are the $2 exacta payoffs, which range from $42.00 to $226 [rounded] with the favorite on top, and from $312 to $776 with Ghostzapper’s kids.

For informational purposes (seriously), interested Derby fans should check out the sires’ template at http://www.kentuckyderby.com. Not only will you see the sire with its current offspring, lineage and connections, but how the sire fared in past Derbies. Cool stuff.

One trend that has dominated in two decades of the straight Future wagers was repeated: “All Other Three-Year-Olds” is the favorite, this year at 6-5. Following behind are Juvenile third Bolt d’Oro (7-1), and Juvenile winning Good Magic at 11-1.

After nine late nominees, a total of 377 horses eventually were nominated to the 2016 Kentucky Derby. Derby Fever is a particularly virulent strain.

The First Saturday in December

Saturday is the lid-lifter of the prime winter race meet at Gulfstream Park. It also marks, for all intents, the closing of the graded stakes season in New York.

Doubtlessly—or should I say hopefully--there will be an all-graded-stakes Late Pick 4 at the Big A, and the NYRA Late Pick 5 with a 15% takeout will make a cameo for one final hurrah for the year. [The bet is offered to NYRABets customers only].

Since the Remsen has proven more of a negative Derby barometer for some time now, perhaps the race, the horsemen, and the horses themselves would be better served by cutting the race back from 9 furlongs to a one-turn mile over the new year-round surface.

It just presents more options for all concerned, and the sophomore debut doesn’t have to be a counter-productive turnback. Rather, it would be more of a natural progression as youngsters develop. The same can be said for the Demoiselle fillies.

These longer races were fine when New York had clearly defined seasons which of course is a relic of the past. Since year-round racing is not going anywhere, a shorter Remsen makes sense. It very likely would be more competitive as well.

I understand that the Jerome is now one mile on New Year’s Day. Horses not ready for Saturday could run there, or in both, since there are four weeks in between; just enough. Besides, there’s plenty of time to run a mile and an eighth. The Wood Memorial is April 7.

Gulfstream Park opens with the Claiming Crown, where horses that have run for a tag sometime during the year can choose from races worth an aggregate $1.1 million.

The following week is a very interesting curiosity, the Clasico Internacional del Caribe, making its debut on this continent the following Saturday. The headliner would be Justiciero, winner of the Puerto Rican Triple Crown. There are five Caribbean events in all.

The next big Saturday is January 27th with the second running of the Pegasus World Cup, the last scheduled start for certain-to-be Horse of the Year Gun Runner. There will be seven other added-money events on that program, four of them graded.

But Gulfstream Park will always be about Florida Derby Day, which brings down the championship season portion of the program on March 31. The 9 furlong Grade 1 has been on a roll, producing three of the last five Kentucky Derby winners.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 28, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

So Which Is It: Race Results or Body of Work?

Today’s thought started out as a thread on Tom Jicha’s most recent offering where the topic was: Which horse might be this year’s rightful three-year-old champion?

The discussion later talked about the relative merits of the Kentucky Derby vs. the Travers Stakes as to which is the more influential race with respect to end-of-year championship titles.

In TJ’s defense—not that he needs any from me—he did not make up a false equivalency when he talked about how trainers, when met by non-racing fans, are never whether they ever won the Travers.

On this, you don’t have to take Jicha’s word. It’s trainers themselves, when asked as first-time combatants or Derby winners, the first question is always "have you ever won the Kentucky Derby?".

It’s the same for jockeys, that's because there’s nothing quite like it in this country or anywhere in the world. America didn't raid Europe or the Far East in the 1970s when seeking the best livestock, it was the place where most of the best horses in the world are born.

There may be more prestigious races in the world; the Arc de Triomphe, Melbourne Cup, etc., but none with the worldwide cache of the Derby.

And even foreign fans concede that no event is as glitzy and gaudily as packaged for mass consumption. It’s an American fairy tale, that once-in-a-lifetime-in-a-lifetime-of-chance horse race.

In a qualitative sense, the Travers on is a much better horse race because the cream has risen to the top by then. There are the Triple Crown achievers that show up, the Haskell winner, or a late developing phenomenon such as Arrogate.

If Tesio were alive today he’d find the Derby’s timing abhorrent. For three-year-old Thoroughbreds in the spring, a savagely contested mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May is way too much and way too soon.

But as Confucius often said: It is what it is.

Many horsemen have told me over the years that three-year-olds should wait until June to run that far, virtually the same time we ask then to win the mile and a half Belmont. As a people, patience never has been an American virtue.

The Derby gets more consideration in end-of-year balloting because voters know that a Derby victory is a horseman’s most sought after prize, an outstanding achievement for trainers, jockeys and owners alike.

Of course, not all Grade 1s are created equal. While the brainchild for a breeding industry that never takes its eye off the bottom line, grading nevertheless is the most practical way to define class. On balance, a G1 horse will beat a G3 rival most every time.

In the case of Always Dreaming, back to back winner of the 2017 Florida and Kentucky Derbies, he brought a near insurmountable divisional lead into racing’s second season but it appears that those consecutive wins emptied the tank.

Then the announcement was made that the Travers disappointment would not target the Breeders’ Cup Classic and focus on a four year old campaign instead, widely hailed as the right thing to do.

And that made sense, especially considering the $16-million Pegasus will be run over a surface and at a distance he loves; a no-brainer.

But now his return has been delayed, the target now a late spring/summer campaign which presumably targets the Met Mile then either or both of Saratoga Grade 1s, the Whitney and Woodward.

However, it also raises the question how much of the Derby-winning version Always Dreaming has left, and it’s only fair to ask.

But as far as the 2017 Eclipse title is concerned, is there really a need for discussion?

West Coast’s second season was as impressive as Always Dreaming’s first, perhaps more so since he defeated all who were title aspirants at one time or another

And he ended his season with a solid third behind his elders, protem Horse of the Year Gun Runner and the streaking, accomplished Collected. His resume clearly is the most title worthy.

Leading Juveniles Vie for Eclipse Title

Next year’s three year olds remain juveniles for another 43 days and that division also has inspired debate. In our view, this divisional puzzle is a lot more vexatious.

It’s the age old Eclipse question: Which is more righteous? The head to head match-up result or is it the body of work?

And that’s what makes Bolt d’Oro vs. Good Magic so interesting.

Good Magic won their only meeting when he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in which Bolt d’Oro was a trip-compromised, good third.

An aside: We personally do not consider trips as either a qualifier or disqualifier of championship status. As they say in court, it's “let the record show...”

The question is this: Is a placing in the G1 Champagne and Juvenile victory more or less impressive than Bolt d’Oro’s two Grade 1 scores and his Juvenile third?

Personally, we’re still mulling the question over and I won't beat myself up whatever I decide.

One of my first Eclipse litmus tests is to count Grade 1 wins and go from there. In that context, this is an open and shut case.

Which carries more prestige and value; a second in the Champagne or a win in the 7-furlong Del Mar Futurity? Sorry, we believe there’s no comparison; the former.

But ‘Bolt’ also won the G1 FrontRunner and that’s a serious victory, which made him 3-for-3 into the Juvenile. Good Magic went into the Juvenile a maiden.

So it’s two G1s and a G1 placing vs. one G1 win and placing, but the one was the big one. I’m a huge believer in the Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies should be regarded as championship defining events.

Choosing the “best horse” is often subjective in horse racing, so it matters not that I believe Good Magic will make the better three year old. But there is plenty of time for that.

It is likely that both camps will sit and await the results of the balloting but there is a clear tie-breaking opportunity next month that would still give these two plenty of time to freshen for a Derby campaign, especially if their trainers take the two-prep tack.

CashCall Futurity, anyone?

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Industry Powers Need to Lead or Get Out of the Game

I first met Dave Gutfreund at the turn of the Millennium while I was having a cup of coffee at New York City Off-Track-Betting. After three decades as a public handicapper, I wasn’t exactly anxious to meet a colleague who called himself “The Maven.”

Well, my preconceived notions were unfounded, which most such notions are. We met on the NYC-OTB racing channel set in a makeshift studio located just off the paddock at Yonkers Raceway.

Don’t ask.

Anyway, the man wasn’t at all as pretentious as his alter ego would portend. He was hard-working and imaginative, had an excellent opinion borne out by his performance as a public handicapper and later his success on the handicapping-contest circuit.

Gutfreund’s name surfaced online and on social media this weekend when he was asked to comment on the controversy surrounding last week’s Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, the million-dollar live-money contest staged at Del Mar, Nov. 3-4.

It was alleged that the winner colluded with other players re: the number of entries permitted. Contestants are limited to a maximum of two contest cards. Breeders’ Cup has withheld the winning purse until it concludes its own investigation.

At once, it’s ironic and interesting that uncoupled entries might become as controversial via grandstand machinations as it is viewed inside a racing-office entry box. Could it be that when big money’s at stake, the front side may be no different than the backside?

Gutfreund was asked his opinion: “Let's just say, as gingerly as I can put this, I have absolutely no faith in the people involved making these decisions. Those are some people who, despite my success in horse racing, are the reason I got out of a game I played for 39 years.”

It does appear that wherever horseplayers turn, the chances are that if they’re not already up against it, the perception that they are never seems to abate.

In the third race at Del Mar Saturday, there was the photo finish process that looked like it would never end. By some estimates it took as long as 12 minutes to separate an 11-10 favorite from a 54-1 outsider at the finish.

As I watched TVG, curious about the result of the photograph, the upshot was that the California stewards could not decide which horse won, and eventually posted the result as a dead heat.

There probably will be more news on this coming out of California today so, in a sense, the question still may be open to debate as to what took so long.

The overarching concern is that this wasn’t the first time a controversial photo finish was posted in Southern California. The question is why it had to take so long? If the finish was thisclose, shouldn’t have been readily apparent to three sets of eyes?

As fans waited to see whether Ishi clung to his tenuous lead or whether Minoso nailed him on the final bob of a head, the amount of time spent in review drew rare criticism from TVG analysts who wondered how, in the digital age, a picture is worth 720 seconds.

Several months ago jockey Kent Desormeaux wondered aloud about the credulity of the photo finish process. While his concerns were justified, it did take a fair amount of chutzpah for him to raise questions considering his penchant for not riding his mounts out to the finish.

Following the race, Steward Scott Cheney was interviewed by TVG and gave a somewhat curious, circuitous answer, one lacking definition and clarity. Cheney told the audience it was so close that the judges wanted a hard copy of the photo to be sure they got it right.

Presumably I wasn’t the only one needlessly confused by Cheney’s explanation that high-definition resolution wasn’t enough to separate two horses, that the judgment was so difficult they had no choice but to declare it a dead heat.

If indeed that were the case, the official sign should have been lit a lot sooner. It’s not the kind of unclear message you want to send to gamblers.

Cheney said that the Stewards want complete transparency. If that’s true, their decision-making process should not be conducted behind closed doors. In countries that walk their transparency talk, stewards’ deliberations are shown in real time.

This incident doesn’t speak to possible malfeasance as much as it speaks to competency or lack thereof. It was unnecessarily embarrassing and only serves to feed ever-present, oft-justified horseplayer paranoia.

Gutfreund had other remarks that he made during an interview while he playing in the Monster Stack tournament, one of 6,700 poker players.

The former professional horseplayer turned professional poker player didn’t give up the game because he wasn’t any good at it. “[Last year] I finished fifth in the biggest handicapping contest, and sixth in the second biggest…

“I was the maven,” Gutfreund exclaimed with embarrassed enthusiasm. “[The handicapping contests] seem like a long time ago. I’ve just had enough. I think poker is the answer, not horse racing.

“The game’s changed so much. It isn’t as good from a gambling aspect. I’m pretty sour on horse racing.”

And what makes this so?

“The computer programmers, the odds changing at the end, certain trainers just dominating--Baffert, Chad Brown, Pletcher. The value that used to be in horse racing just isn’t there anymore.”

The question for racing is how many defections will it take before the message hits home? Racing leaders are going to talk about why handle has remained flat and how to tweak it at the annual University of Arizona industry symposium next month.

In the last year, we have written about how Dr. Steven Roman gave up the game. And we’ve written about some of the HRI Faithful; one that moved from Thoroughbred racing to Harness racing, and how a weekend regular now focuses on big event days only.

Some of these issues are fixable but that would take action, not words. Improved video technology has been promised to Californians for several years. It hasn’t happened. Officiating can be standardized countrywide and still leave room for judgment calls.

Locking computer-arbitrage programs at one or two minutes to post would allow non-programming horseplayers to react to late-odds changes AFTER wild fluctuations. That makes sense on several levels; here is where a post drag really could come in handy.

Whales are given special access. I understand giving your best clients the best service. All businesses try to do that. But how about leveling the playing field for the majority of customers?

And, of course, there is the need for more rigorous out-of-competition testing; no third-party Lasix administration; no raceday medication at all. The latter of course probably will be a non-starter forever. But the rest are easy, common sense fixes.

Racing needs its own coalition of the decent or the game will be lost and never recover. Industry leaders need to lead or get out of the way. When I first met Dave Gutfreund, neither one of us would have believed it would ever come to this. Yet, here we are.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, November 12, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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