Sunday, May 08, 2016

What Happens in Vegas…

LAS VEGAS, MAY 8, 2016—Cross off Derby Day in Sin City from the old bucket list. I have now been there and am doing it. l will think about whether or not there will be an encore, but more on that later.

I believe this is my fifth trip here, the last two with my late, great friend Cary Fotias. But it wasn’t Cary who I was missing from this sojourn; quite to my surprise, I miss him every day.

I would have thought that the intensity of loss from his passing two years ago would have ebbed by now. But like everything else in the technology age, all episodes take us one step further away from our souls--the corporal, not the spiritual kind.

Toni has left for church because someone had to. It’s 7 a.m. PDT and it’s a beautiful day in the desert. We check out of Hilton’s Elara in a few hours and move south to join Mr. and Mrs. Jicha and their lifelong friend Sherry at the South Point Casino & Resort.

It will be our home for the next three days, on The Strip but about three miles south of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign and the Little White Chapel where Jon Bon Jovi got married.

Go figure.

The iconic structure is now in the middle of a constructed island surrounded by parking spaces specifically designed for those eager visitors needing to picture themselves standing in front of it, before I-phoning those images to friends back home.

Soon, it seems, the postcard business will follow in the path of newspapers. As you read this, who needs either anymore?

Besides, in the glamorous mall on the other side of the double doors across from the swimming pool, first class 49-cent stamps cost one dollar from a machine that takes either quarters or old fashioned greenbacks.

Toni refused to pay the ransom, bless her principles, so we took selfies up on the 57th floor of Elara, the city below looking southwest as picturesque backdrop, and we sent them to our daughters instead.

The Kentucky Derby? From one live take, it appeared to be a fairly uneventful event-- unusual to say the least--but I’ll get to that later, too. There’s plenty of time for recapping and digesting before the Triple Crown road tour arrives in Baltimore.

The smart-phone digits now read 7:45. Couldn’t sleep anyway, it’s Vegas!

The Race Book at South Point, like the hotel itself, is new, spacious, and well appointed. Their policy is player friendly with free abbreviated racing programs, $2 Forms, complimentary cocktails and coffee and where the waitresses appear happy to be there.

Upstairs, a second betting area was set-up to handle the overflow Derby crowd which was good thinking, something the industry could learn from. More on that as well.

The Race Book manager moved people along throughout the day, instructing newbies over an intercom what was--and what was about to be--happening:

“Please check your tickets now,” he warned several times. “We can correct any mistakes that might have been made right now…after the race it will be too late.”

The horseplayers in our row, including Brian and “Big Chris,” turned out to be Jicha’s and my best Derby-Day buddies. Like Florida, where seldom is found a native, Vegas is like that: Tim migrated from California 20 years ago. Likewise did Chris from South Florida.

Between races, Chris and TJ swapped Phil Saltzman stories, the colorful (to say the least) former Calder race caller, and Toby Callet, a complete public handicapper and professional player, who today lives just north of the Palm Meadows training center back home.

For all his efficiency, the race book manager was not a gracious man. We asked if we could have some volume beneath the video feed to hear “My Old Kentucky Home” as the maiden led the Derby 142 cast onto the track.

This was after Lani—‘hide the women and children’--was excused from the post parade--probably more out of paddock safety concerns as opposed to providing him with some kind of competitive edge.

Anyway, the manager made a little frowny face, accompanied by a what-are-you-kidding-me? stare. I pounded my chest NBA-style and blurted out “where’s your soul?” He ignored me and turned away. I figured he was just racetrack executive-in-training.

Without getting into Derby day itself—suffice that it’s not easy to lose money after you’ve cashed on Rocket Time ($5.20, $27.20 exacta), the Tepin exacta (12.20), Catalina Red (30.20) and Sharp Azteca (28.20)—but I did.

That’s how pivotal the photo lost by Beach Patrol was. The decision cost the HRI boys several four-figure payoffs.

Added to over-betting the Derby, which I consider a patriotic duty, I managed to lose a third of my bankroll. Now I know why what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas; it’s your cash.

Notwithstanding, I wouldn’t have change a thing except for the losing part.

I get to see my old friend Paul Cornman at dinner tonight, and that’s a big Win.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Canterbury Executives: Caballeros With Cojones

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., April 24, 2016--For once I won’t have to sound like a broken record; one that’s right twice a day (just checking to see if you're paying attention).

Indeed, for once, a racetrack brain trust is prescient and gutsy enough that its executives are willing to think outside the trifecta box and shake up the industry.

My sense of frustration with the modern game runs so high that when I read the news that Canterbury Downs was lowering parimutuel takeout to 15% in the straight pools and 18% in all multiples, I got a little emotional.

Then, at 72, which is the new 72, I reach for Kleenex every time a new Publix opens in my South Florida neighborhood.

If you think I’m being flippant or sarcastic here, slam the gavel down and convict me: Guilty as charged: 30 days. Step down; next case please.

I’ve been writing about the significance of takeout rates as the lifeblood of the game since the 1970s, when multiple bets were in their infancy and the New York Racing Association boldly experimented by lowering takeout on wagers from 17% to 14%.

Predictably, handle and attendance increased significantly--by 10-12%--but revenue didn’t rise at the same pace. The experiment wasn’t long enough, lasting little more than a year. NYRA was supposed to launch another but it never happened; likely didn’t fly in Albany.

Government thinking back then was so bass ackwards and regressive that the newly created Off-Track Betting Corporation had the gall to attach a 5% surcharge on winnings--which for a time was raised to 6%. In philosophical terms, very little has changed.

In the mid-70s, horse betting accounted for roughly 35% of gambling in America, then came government mandated OTBs mistakenly not controlled by NYRA, lotteries and the nearby expansion of casino gambling. Exit horse racing as gambling’s big wheel.

The stir that the Canterbury announcement made on social media was Thoroughbred racing’s equivalent to the news concerning the formally alive musical artist Prince.

But unlike that sad tale, this news from Minnesota was welcomed with huzzahs and arm pumps on a much smaller scale, of course. And the announcement was staged brilliantly. If it weren’t, riddle me this:

Would you be aware that the 2016 Canterbury race meet is scheduled to open on May 20th? Ordinarily, would you care?

Upon hearing the news some precincts provided many reasons why it wouldn’t succeed:

“It would never be supported to the extent that would make it a success; I told you so. No one knows the jockeys and trainers. The racing is cheap and takes place at night in the densely populated East.

“How will lower takeout effect the simulcast marketplace? Will other tracks or ADWs offer Canterbury with its small margin, making less money by helping a competitor? Are PPs even available?” And so it went.

Canterbury executives have put their 2016 meeting on the racing map but, as every manner of horseplayer and critic knows, it will take betting support to keep it there.

Slouching Toward May 20

Online racing commentator Lenny Moon made some great observations last week when the news broke by calling takeout--for all the media visibility it gets—“invisible.”

“The anatomy of a takeout decrease is not bells and whistles’ wrote Moon… It's money in your pocket which makes a difference on how you view your betting experience.” And then he provided a stark example:

With rounding, a trifecta that pays $4,000 would pay $4,100 at the new Canterbury rate while that same trifecta in Pennsylvania, where takeout on multiples is a usurious 30%, would return $3,499 to the winning bettor, a difference of $600.


Now ponder this: Horseplayer hits a $4000 trifecta, pays some bills, puts some money in the checking account and celebrates by taking his loved one to dinner.

Do you think this weekend warrior, who typically might go to the track with a $200 bankroll, take $300 with him on the following Saturday?

And if he lost all $300, might he come back the following week with another $300? And he loses that, too? The result? His original bankroll remains intact.

Because of the benefits of invisible takeout, he’s “even” on the extra $600 he made on that $4,000 trifecta. Think he comes back the week after that with his original $200 stake?

That sounds like something I would do; sounds like something any typically loyal horseplayer might do. The question is what will simulcast executives at other betting venues do?

Such as it is, I do this for a living, and I don’t know the first thing about Canterbury. But PPs are PPs, figures are figures, etc., etc.

As the HRI Faithful know, I limit by plays predominantly to stakes races, turf, and maiden allowances. But I will support Canterbury to the small extent, say $10 at every gambling session.

As horseplayer activist Andy Asaro reminds us, buy-cotts are easier and more positive than boy-cotts.

Fans who take playing the horses seriously, whatever their bankroll, must send this message.

Without horseplayers there would be no million-dollar purses or six-figure yearlings, just whatever is the equivalent of a one-arm bandit.

United, horseplayers just may save the industry from themselves.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Best Betting Races Not Always in Bettor’s Best Interest

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., April 19, 2016—Even if “N.C.I.S.” were not the longest running drama on TV, I’ve seen it enough to know Gibbs Rule #39: “There is no such thing as coincidence.”

And, so, with a modicum of skepticism, I ask the following question: How did Ricardo Santana Jr. know enough to drop back to lonesome last, 14-3/4 lengths behind the leader according to the Equibase result chart?

Actually, it margin might have been more since the trackman there believed that Suddenbreakingnews was only a length back at the stretch call when it seemed to the eye to be more like, what three lengths?

But there is another issue that fascinates more. In his most improved recent starts, Creator has come from far off the pace but never as far back as 15 lengths at the first call as indicated in the Arkansas Derby official chart.

But then he never raced behind that fast an early pace in his entire two-turn career. There are two things about this:

Generally, pace moderates as the distances increase but not this time. In the 1-1/16 miles of the Rebel, the half-mile split was 46 4/5; in the 1-1/8 miles Arkansas Derby, Gettysburg went in early fractions in 46 1/5 after an opening gambit of 22 4/5--too fast for the distance this side of California.

And that’s where things got interesting.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Saturday’s Grade 1 it’s that a high number of betting interests--popular because fans and tracks want bigger fields on which to bet--might not be, in the main, good for bettors: Uncoupled entries are still controversial with many players.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with uncoupled entries. In fact, I often prefer it because better payoffs are available on both horses, especially the entry’s “wrong half,” and it’s the handicapper’s job to figure out what racing dynamics will be for any race.

We’re not suggesting anything untoward was afoot on Saturday and I understand that the best way to defeat odds-on favorite Cupid was to challenge him early. That’s exactly what Johnny Velazquez did with the Todd Pletcher-trained Gettysburg, who forced to go for position from an extreme outside post.

On the first turn, Johnny looped Cupid who also broke from an outside, albeit inside Gettysburg, and took the lead. What was a little unusual is that Velazquez urged Gettysburg energetically throughout as if to hold the lead at all costs, a necessary tack with a speed horse.

Gettysburg doesn’t seem one-dimensional, however. In his Sunland Derby prior, Gettysburg also broke from the extreme outside but the Winstar Farm colt stalked the pace and was able to narrow the gap late, placing second to Collected who returned to win Saturday’s Lexington Stakes.

An aside: When Ken Ramsey was tired of losing Big Blue Kitten’s winning chances because of routinely slow-paced turf routes, he went out and bought himself a rabbit, Shining Copper. After doing so, he announced his pace-setting intentions every time, even if Shining Copper raced uncoupled for trainer Chad Brown.

In the Arkansas Derby, Winstar started horses saddled by Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, trainer of the winning Creator.

As I watched the pace develop and saw that Velazquez would not allow Martin Garcia take the lead, I glanced back at Santana and Creator, lonesome last and not in any hurry, as if assured that the pace would be fast.

“Steve told me to be patient, be patient,” Santana said post-race.

“He ran hard, really hard, said Winstar president and C.E.O, Elliott Walden.

“I know Martin wanted to get him in the clear, said Cupid’s assistant trainer, Jim Barnes. “He got in the clear and they were rolling right along. I think the fractions probably took a toll on us.”

To Creator’s benefit.

Asmussen showed Hall of Fame patience training the highly strung Tapit colt, who didn’t break maiden until his sixth start lifetime start, only fourth on dirt. He had never run in a sprint. “The maiden races were experience,” Walden explained. “That’s why we didn’t have any problem going into the Rebel.”

And maybe that’s why he will be well equipped to handle 19 expected Kentucky Derby rivals, having faced fields of 11, 13, and 11 rivals, respectively, in his last three starts.

Run under ideal conditions, Creator is unlikely to need help from a fast, pace-setting stablemate. His mate in the Derby will be Gun Runner, not a speed type. But I could be wrong about using uncoupled mates as stalking horses in stakes. “Sometimes you’re wrong,” states Gibbs Rule #51.

At Churchill Downs, the tandem will run--what else--uncoupled in the wagering.

Written by John Pricci

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