Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Accidental Stakes Race

I made a gentlemen’s bet with TJ on Saturday and lost. I assured him that he’d probably get an email from the NTRA on Sunday announcing the guests who would appear on a national teleconference advancing the newly minted Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby.

Alas, no email was forthcoming, and neither was there the oft-presented Tuesday teleconference before major racing events. Saturday is the day Pennsylvania Thoroughbred fans look forward to every year.

Maybe somebody dropped a dime to the industry’s public relations organ that Jorge Navarro, aka “the juice man,” was about to drop the name Game Over into the Penn Derby entry box.

Or maybe they wanted to save the industry further advancement if tomorrow, Wednesday, the New Jersey Racing Commission ups the punishment ante for Navarro and his foul-mouthed owner, Randal Gindi, fined $5,000 by New Jersey stewards.

But the Pennsylvania Derby? With apologies to Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen, who adapted Walter Tevis’s The Hustler to the silver screen: “This is Pennsylvania, mister. Ever heard of Fast Murray Rojas?”

Even if Navarro were not invited to participate at Parx, there could have been some embarrassing questions asked of the other trainers, owners or jockeys on a national hookup. The fact there was no presser enabled NTRA to luck out of a shameful situation.

Where the NTRA missed out was an opportunity to promote the country’s leading three-year-old filly, Abel Tasman, who will leave from post 9 beneath Mike Smith as an 8-5 early line choice to win the G1 Cotillion, which drew 11 fillies including a coupled entry.

But she won’t be the only California-based Bob Baffert-trained three-year-old on the plane. West Coast, arguable leader of the three-year-old colt division, is also an 8-5 early line choice in a race that looks as salty as the one West Coast won, Saratoga’s Derby of Midsummer.

Among West Coast’s nine rivals are beaten Haskell favorite Timeline (5-1), compromised at the start of that Grade 1 and involved in a contentious pace duel on a tiring Monmouth oval July 30. Previously, he was an undefeated in four starts including a pair of Grade 3s. Javier Castellano rides for Chad Brown.

In the stall next door is the blooming Outplay (12-1), who won Saratoga’s restricted Curlin Stakes at the Pa. Derby distance by nearly six impressive front-running lengths with Johnny Velasquez again in the boot for Todd Pletcher. But wait, there’s more.

Immediately to the favorite’s outside in slip #5 is Irap (3-1), significantly wide on both turns in the Travers and forced into making a premature move on the final turn. Irap finished third, beaten 5-1/2 lengths, and gets a two-pound weight pull from the favorite.

Add Irish War Cry, also hindered by the closer-friendly Monmouth surface, who chased the pace from close range after a troubled start while making a difficult turnback from the mile and a half Belmont Stakes in which he earned a lifetime best figure on many scales.

Baffert won this race with Bayern three years ago, Brown won last year’s renewal with ill-fated Connect, and Nick Zito, who won this race three times, has entered Giuseppe the Great (20-1), who starts from post 10 with Luis Saez, reuniting with the Jim Dandy runnerup.

We are a little surprised that Baffert chose to run back in four weeks when he could have prepped for the Classic at Santa Anita next month, but apparently decided he prefers a longer layup into the Breeders’ Cup that Saturday’s race provides.

Six weeks spacing has proven to be a boon to both the Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion.

Neither West Coast nor his trainer need to carry a racetrack with them. The colt has won on four disparate surfaces while the filly, shipping in fresh, will attempt to win at a seventh venue, having won thrice out west, once at Churchill, Belmont and Saratoga in July.

While the G3 Gallant Bob, Saturday’s 9th race, is competitive per usual and an interesting start to a graded-stakes Pick 3, we’ll pass, as we never make it a habit to support Parx with its usurious takeout rates.

There are other attractive stakes on a well-stocked 13-race card but we will be avoid Parx, a good prep for shunning Keeneland's opener. With the exception of Saratoga horses-to-watch, we will not wager on any Keeneland feature, as appealing as those races may be. HRI supports the message behind the HANA boycott.

With contrition to Sonny Corleone, “they hit us, so we hit them back.”

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The 15-30 Takeout Solution

If the clown in the White House can a make a deal with ineffectual Congressional Democrats, then surely racing’s stakeholders can compromise and find a solution to the parimutuel takeout problem.

The problem of course is that it’s too high. It’s just one of several issues why lifetime horseplayers are walking away from the game, and racing can ill-afford to lose any more old-schoolers who choose to walk away.

Takeout might not be right on the top of the list but it’s the kind of problem that’s fixable. Cost-cutting is never a bad thing; it’s promotable, gambling-centric and a way to lure young adults who prefer to mix some critical thinking with their gambling.

If do-able, a deal that helps all of racing’s stakeholders--from horseplayers of every stripe, to racetracks, to horsemen—is one that makes sense and long overdue.

This industry is one that does not work collectively because at once there as many agenda as there are racing jurisdictions. Lowering takeout won’t fix the drug problem or equine and human safety concerns but its good business.

Just as climate deniers are famously not scientists, I’m no mathematician. I leave that to better analytical minds than mine. So if someone wants to tweak the numbers that follow so that they make more sense and dollars, please have at it.

As the deck is stacked now, the only horseplayers that catch any type of monetary break—one that still makes sense enough for them to continue playing the game--are the 1 percenters, the whales.

The math that follows is easy enough for me to understand: If you bet a million dollars a year, thoughtfully arbitrage your bets to break even, and get 8-to-10% on your money in the form of a rebate, that kind of return can support a family, even at today’s prices.

But that $80,000 to $100,000 is made at the expense of powerless rank-and-file players who can wager $500 per session and at the end of the day collect the dollar equivalent of bangles and beads.

A friend and grassroots activist made a suggestion that was thought provoking and makes sense. Think of takeout rates as the difference between a main course and dessert menu. Daily churners, the meat and potatoes guys, need help.

The bettors we’re talking about here are those who wager a couple of thousand dollars per week—every week, and receive the equivalent of shinier bangles and multi-stringed beads.

In its simplest terms, bet-takers won’t punish their best customers to help the serious middle-class players, fearing that takeout reductions will result in revenue reductions, which will happen in the short term. Their concerns are understandable.

But it takes time to convert added churn into higher revenue, and tracks have been unwilling to take haircuts for several years for their own long term growth and that will have a deleterious effect on the entire industry going forward.

So let the rank-and-file, the solid everyday churn player, meat-and-potatoes: The straight and duel multiple pools; daily doubles, exactas and quinellas.

Meanwhile, allow the whales, score-seekers, racetracks, ADWs, and the horsemen have their cake and eat it, too.

We’re aware of the catch, the reason this pipedream won’t happen: This entire industry is incapable of sitting down in one room and make a compact, a compromise; 38 racing jurisdictions sending one message to the states which give them license to operate.

Consider this: Drop the takeout on straight, place, show, exactas, doubles and quinellas to 15%. Simultaneously, increase the takeout on three-tiered and greater multiple wagers to 30%.

According to the HANA 2017 Track Ratings chart, average takeout on straight wagers at 64 North American racetracks is a quite high 17.25%. A 15% rake would increase payoffs by 13.01%.

The average cost of playing the Pick 4, considered by many the most popular horizontal wager especially given the number of guaranteed pools offered ubiquitously--as opposed to Pick 5 or Pick 6--is 22.28% at those same 64 tracks.

Raising the takeout on three-tiered and greater wagers to 30% represents a 25.7 percent increase which, with rounding, more than offsets “revenue losses” from the straight and two-tiered payouts.

The 15-30% solution—or whatever figure serve all stakeholders--accomplishes several goals. Everyday players who grind their money need bigger payoffs to survive by increasing churn; straight and two-tiered wagers are, simply stated, more winnable.

By returning more money to winning players, higher payoffs make the game an easier sell to thoughtful, upper scale Millennials. The 15% rate is still too high—10-12 percent probably is closer to optimal levels that GIVEN TIME, will increase revenue.

While 30 percent takeout from three-tiered and larger sequences makes bettors wince, the 25.8% increase will encourage most bettors to make less complicated, easier to win, churn-friendly wagers in straight and two-tiered pools.

This is especially true of exactas, by far the betting option of choice by a majority of players.

Since successful wagers in pools with three or more tiers requires a hearty capital investment, tracks and horsemen will be able to retain more handle revenue.

Promotionally—and there is a preponderance of multi-race, score-oriented advertising--betting precincts can offer higher rebates to everyone; per usual the biggest bettors would receive bigger rebates.

The rank-and-file would get a bigger share of rebate money too, providing bet takers put in language that guarantees them a bigger share of the new pie.

Since my personal handle represents a wide range, from a low of $25,000 per year to $50,000 or more, I personally prefer that Pick 5 takers would offer consolations, as is done at Gulfstream but not at NYRA tracks.

Big players and racetracks shun consolation pools, preferring perfect-only payouts that helps to generate carryovers and jackpots, resulting in higher handle both in terms of dollars and number of overall players jumping into those pools.

It follows that consolations probably should be eliminated in the new higher takeout multi-race world, except pf course in instances when no bettor completes a given sequence.

Admittedly, this approach is a little like trying to legislate morality; it gets a message across but doesn’t completely solve the problem.

But some sliding scale version of a takeout-decrease/takeout-increase/rebates-for-all process would be a good place to start. Even if sliding-scale-takeout rates based on degree of difficulty fails, at least horse-racing would be sending out a better message.

PLANTATION, FL, September 12, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 03, 2017

Fifty Years Later, No Rabbit Redux in This Woodward

How ironic is it that on the golden anniversary of one of the greatest rivalries in Thoroughbred racing history, the New York stewards wouldn’t allow Ron Paolucci to do what it allowed Mrs. Edith W. Bancroft to do 50 years ago in the storied Woodward Stakes?

Mrs. Bancroft, of course, the breeder and owner of Hall of Fame champion Damascus, is the daughter of William Woodward Sr., the scion of Belair Stud, whose white silks with red polka dots graced the Belmont Stakes winners’ circle five times in the 1930s. The Woodward Stakes that bears his name has been run since 1954.

A notable aside: Mrs. Bancroft was also the breeder and owner of a swift stakes sprinter by the name of Hedevar which, thanks to the 1967 renewal of this storied race, arguably became the most celebrated “rabbit” in Thoroughbred history. Her son, Thomas W. Bancroft Jr., later became Chairman of the NYRA Board of Directors.

Hedevar’s mission, of course, was to sap the reserves of the great Dr. Fager, whose great speed gave him a tactical advantage over his arch rival. But his presence in the Woodward of 50 years ago just as well could have aided Buckpasser’s late surge but, as history shows, was no match for that of Damascus.

However, it appears that today’s stewards are now in the handicapping business and can predict exactly what will happen in a horse race, and they can, “in racing’s best interests,” help predetermine an outcome by preventing an owner in good standing from spending his money in a way that is within the rules and regarded as a time honored racing tactic.

By any handicapping standard, May. B, a seven year old gelding purchased by Paolucci after finishing second in a $35,000 Del Mar claiming race after winning a Los Alamitos starter-allowance sprint by 9-1/4 lengths in his previous start, had no reasonable chance to win Saturday’s Woodward.

Clearly on form, May B clearly did not have the class or ability to compete in the nine furlong Grade 1 route, and does not even measure up to the standards of rabbits past, but he was purchased and nominated to the race to do one job: Help insure a strong early pace for Paolucci’s late running War Story.

Instead, the New York stewards invoked the discretionary powers granted to them by racing rule 4025.2 and determined that the nomination and entry made by Paolucci would be revoked because they “feel all horses that enter should be able to win” and take issues like this on a “case by case basis.”

What the stewards failed to address is that they also had the discretionary power to couple May B. and War Story in the wagering, thus protecting the public and ensuring the rights of an owner in good standing who, as an aside, is regarded as one of racing’s good guys for his charitable work inside and outside the sport.

Now while May B. obviously lacked the credentials to beat any of his Woodward rivals, I personally never have encountered anyone who believed that Gallant Man couldn’t run down Bold Ruler in the 1957 Belmont Stakes without Nero’s assistance, or that Buckpasser needed his speedy mate, Great Power, that Loach was of comparable ability to Strike the Gold--or that Hedevar would out-finish Dr. Fager, Buckpasser and celebrated stablemate Damascus a half century ago.

But that didn’t stop all those politically acceptable owners from entering their rabbits to insure that their classier charges would have their best chances stolen from them by a comparable loose leader that would be allowed to set a snail’s pace.

Of course, rabbits do not prevent other late-running rivals from benefitting from fast fractions, and neither did the track veterinarian prevent a sound May. B from competing, albeit poorly, in Saturday’s seventh race against a full field of hard-hitting sprinters with its 22-and-44 speed types.

On its face, this ruling was a capricious and arbitrary call when the New York stewards could have coupled the Paolucci stablemates, just as they allowed Cautious Giant to be War Story’s rabbit in the Whitney at the same track four weeks earlier.

Had he surmised, Paolucci could have entered another speedster, Mo Don’t Know, who was good enough to win a stakes at Thistledown one week ago. But since May B.’s entry was denied at the last moment, it is unreasonable to expect that Mo Don’t Know would van to Saratoga from Cleveland, a racing situation that would have been fraught with as much “danger” as running May B in yesterday’s prestigious feature.

It is interesting to recall that these same stewards allowed a controversial Belmont week barn change prior to the 2016 renewal won by Creator. On that occasion, the speedy Gettysburg was transferred from Todd Pletcher to Steve Asmussen with the announced intention that Gettysburg would serve as a rabbit for late-running Creator, who won a tight photo finish from Destin.

Subsequently, Pletcher was miffed to the point that when the winning WinStar group offered Gettysburg back to Pletcher post-race, the trainer said thanks but no thanks. What made that sacrificial entrant OK? What reasonable chance did 55-1 Gettysburg have to win the Belmont? He was, however, good enough to earn $30,000 for finishing eighth.

As all racing fans know, Thoroughbred racing has a serious optics problem. This kind of double standard that gives certain owners first class consideration while giving other less well connected owners something less should not be repeated, especially when the stewards, whose first responsibility is to safeguard the public, had a viable coupling option.

When given the opportunity to respond to events, Paolucci told Daily Racing Form: “I’m not trying to make a mockery of the race. I love the sport. I don’t want this to be the headline.”

When Gun Runner underscored his Whitney tour de force by setting a Woodward Stakes record, the chestnut’s brilliance became the headline that matters. But his victory will come with an asterisk when someone asks: “So what ever became of tradition in the sport of horse racing?”

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, September 3, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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