Saturday, October 18, 2014

No Triumph This Time, Only Tragedy

MIAMI LAKES, October 17, 2014—Call it the Robin Williams syndrome, anything that properly reflects tragedy that goes beyond the pale.

Death almost always begets sadness but this was something more, perhaps a replication of how one feels when a special one passes. Even from a great distance, Juan Saez seemed to possess the kind or rare talent that belied his tender age.

Sometimes, death can be a blessing for those that suffer from disease, but I’ve always wondered if that was true. How would I feel about letting go if given the choice between doing just that or carrying on?

There was nothing about the death of the 17-year-old Saez that had any saving grace whatsoever: In death’s wake, shocking and profoundly sad are the only apt descriptions.

I never met the young man nor did I have the opportunity to see the teenage phenom in the flesh; only on horseback, on a closed-circuit monitor. His productivity demanded that you sought him out wherever he chose to hang his tack.

I finally caught up to his all too brief meteoric career while he was riding in Kentucky this Fall. His passing came with an ever-present reminder that jockeys are the least appreciated athletes of all.

It was like Billy Crystal said upon experiencing the loss of his good friend, Robin: “There are no words,” he said.

Position conscious--a trait horseplayers love most--and a strong finisher, his seat was a contradiction to his tender age. But it was the gift that only God can bestow that was most apparent when you watched him ride, and only the great ones have it:

Hands. How horses just loved running for this young man. Consider:

Career Record: (440) 89-79-63, yielding a win and in-the-money percentage of 20.2 and 52.5%, respectively. Earnings of $2,053,219 placed him 116th among 1,602 active jockeys worldwide. Remarkable stats for any rider that's just getting started.

Despite my unfamiliarity with the young man, I cannot believe that he is gone, cannot begin to imagine how his family and close friends must feel at this point in time.

Tributes have come from every corner of the sport, but what spoke loudest to me was a Rosie Napravnik tweet about the kind of person Saez was, how she always will remember his smile and the classy manner in which he conducted himself.

Our sincere condolences to family and friends. Rest in peace, Amen.


In light of declining attendance and handle figures at its current race meet, it’s easy to understand why Keeneland executives felt compelled to blame the wet Fall weather for the small fields this season, the cost of doing business when dirt tracks become wet dirt.

From the comfort of my living and simulcast venues, it was impossible not to be impressed with how their state-of-the-art dirt track reacted to the elements and how the races played out

Indeed, speed types had an edge on some programs, and the rail did not appear to be the place on other days.

At mid-week, the results were a good example of what we're saying here: Wednesday's wet-fast track had a good mix of speed and stamina winners. On Thursday’s sloppy oval, the opener for maidens was won by a first-time starter coming from last but the double completed in wire-to-wire fashion.

Even given such a small sample, the first six days of racing in Lexington, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a surface play as honestly as this one has to date.

As horseplayers have come to expect, it was a job very well done by the folks at Keeneland, a management group that has led the way in video presentation and understanding the complexities of takeout by giving bettors a fair shake, consistently building their handle through churn year over year.

Now, aided by space age technology in its creation and maintenance, Keeneland’s new dirt track should help business rebound from losses suffered to date.

Wet tracks are bad for business and always were. And there might have been some reticence for horsemen to ship in for racing on a brand new surface, taking a wait and see attitude. Alas, they had nothing to fear.


There is a lively thread on this site following Tom Jicha’s most recent contribution about how some racetrack executives get it, some don’t, while others are disengaged from its customer’s needs and wishes.

The comments of HRI regular Kyle were at once telling and on the mark: He talked about how Keeneland places its Pick 5 at the end of the day—“the takeout is reasonable at 19%,” he pointed out--and how a consolation eases the pain when picking four of five.

Kyle went on to suggest that by eliminating breakage, cutting takeout in the straight pools significantly and paring the wagering menu would help to promote churn instead of taking the position that jackpot payouts fix all.

“If I recall,” Kyle wrote, “Cary was an advocate of paring the racing menu [because he] was all about pool liquidity,” adding that one only needs to note the instability of straight and exacta pools at most tracks to put the problem in perspective.

Kyle posits that the takeout levels in the straight pool should be on the order of 15-10-10--highly unlikely to ever happen, however—and Kyle’s notion is right on point. The proportions are just right.

There isn’t a horseplayer I know who wouldn’t sign on the 15% dotted win line right now. Better, the 10% rate in the place and show pools is inspired. The place pool greatly helps a player remain liquid, thus increasing churn.

A 10% rake would all but revive a moribund show pool. Right now, its greatest utility occurs only when double-digit odds are present or there is a possibility that a “sure thing” would attract bridge jumpers and those guppies seeking a windfall when a 1-20 shot runs up the track.

A 10% takeout in the show pool could attract a new player, a “portfolio” bettor willing to make a significant wager for a value-laden return in a favorable-outcome scenario.

More liquidity = more churn = more customers = more overall interest. It’s only rocket science when you want it to be.

When will a major track think about utilizing a large portion of its marketing budget to card the first race of the day featuring good horses and extremely low takeout on straight--and possibly double--wagers only; no three-tiered or greater bets of any kind?

Why not attempt to create excitement to begin the day with a promotional “contest wager” that gets around state parimutuel regulations? The mix of favorable outcome with inflated payouts could pave the way for handle increases.

The high cost of wagering has caused serious bettors to walk away from the game. Maybe now tracks will begin to take the takeout issue a lot more seriously.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, October 02, 2014

Even for the Innocent, Payback’s a Bitch

PLANTATION, FL., October 1, 2014—At once, L’Affaire Espinoza was--and was not--as bad as I was led to believe reading the media reports regarding Saturday’s Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita.

According to the latest NTRA national poll, this country’s top ranked Thoroughbred nearly suffered his first career defeat in the Grade 1 nine furlongs because of the race-riding tactics of a rival, not because he wasn’t up to the task.

As the Awesome Again was run, Shared Belief was much the best horse defeating, among others, an older, worthy rival in Fed Biz. If the gelding weren’t a very, very good horse, his slate would have read (7) 6-1-0.

Given the kind of trip Shared Belief suffered through, that kind of race dynamics would have beaten 99 out of 100 runners—he is that classy in our view.

The most damning physical evidence against Victor Espinoza were the floating incident coming out of the first turn and never making an attempt on the backside to save Sky Kingdom any ground.

That speed tack might have been cast after the Grade 3-type runner worked a half mile in 46 4/5 seconds three days before the race, 3rd fastest of 83 peers to work last week in Arcadia.

As for the incident on the racetrack, I guess I’ve seen worse, but probably never in a bigger spot. However, it’s the circumstantial evidence that’s so damaging.

While the act itself wasn’t all that heinous, the fact that the beneficiary of those actions is the same barn that not only would have benefitted from the tack taken but also one for which Espinoza rides what appears to be the best juvenile in America.

There is, too, the aspect Tom Jicha mentioned in his Tuesday column, citing that Espinoza not only rides Shared Belief’s primary Eclipse challenger, California Chrome, but opened the door for the Bob Baffert barn’s Bayern.

That speedster would not be without championship portfolio should he lead his Classic rivals throughout; 10 furlongs might be a tall order but it certainly is do-able.

Actually, this could be a year in which there is Eclipse life beyond a dual classics winner, which brings the discussion around to Tonalist.

In a fashion, his Jockey Club victory, in which where he showed a dimension that many suspected he had but apparently only Christophe Clement knew existed all along—was as impressive as that of Shared Belief.

Sans blinkers, Tonalist overcame trouble twice, altering course and, once clear, ate up the Jockey Club real estate the farther the field traveled, doing it in race-horse time. It was a superior performance that appeared far less enervating than Shared Belief’s run.

In a Paulick Report poll, three out of four horseplayers believe that the 7-day suspension meted out to Espinoza was a little harsh or about right, the odd handicapper out believing the punishment didn’t go far enough.

I’m siding with the majority here: Espinoza, especially since he was so vocal following the Pennsylvania Derby, should chill and get his mind right before the championships:

After all, he could have been a little more aggressive on the first turn and dictated to the Derby field instead of the other way around.

And so he seemingly took out his big-race frustrations on an innocent third party, a race in which he had more of a vested interest in defeating a rival than winning the race for his mount.

But there’s another aspect to this: Espinoza wasn’t “careless,” he was calculating. If the SA stewards want to describe it as such, then stewards in New York should give Junior Alvarado a lot more than seven days--and they did--15 to be precise.

What Alvarado did curling into the Jockey Club’s far turn was "reckless," dropping over as wantonly as he did. Not meaning to be overly dramatic, but Rajiv Maragh might have gotten off easily with a broken arm—very easily under the circumstances.

What both cases illustrate is that there may be just a little too much race-riding going on these days. The stewards finally may be catching on.

Many of today’s jockeys, even some of the best, don’t have the same level of sophistication that old-school riders had to play the dangerous race-riding game.

We’re all for laissez-faire officials that allow the athletes, equine and human, to decide the outcome of races, but they need to use excellent judgment and should be held accountable, just like jockeys and trainers.

We commend the NYRA stewards' decision, but whatever happened to those promises made in New York and Florida about increased transparency in the race adjudication process? It might have shed some light on how these situations were handled, a teachable moment.

For that to happen, however, there must first be some level of transparency, the kind that goes beyond lip service and spin.

Next time: Super Saturday Weekend Revisited, Keeneland Opens, and Juveniles Take Belmont Spotlight

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, September 12, 2014

What’s the Better Bet: Horses or Sports?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 12, 2014---Our friends next door in the Garden State New have been making wagering news of late.

What with New Jersey’s fiscal crisis and recent credit downgrade, Governor Chris Christie, coincidentally or not, has decided to roll the dice—those that remain—on sports betting.

Legalizing marijuana would have been far more profitable and probably would have a better chance to be ignored when it comes to the enforcement of federal law.

But the sports leagues lobby is very strong and they are against legalized gambling. The leagues cite the “integrity of the competition” and they correctly figure that the courts will favor the power of corporations over the power to the people.

"Ignoring federal law, rather than working to reform federal standards, is counter to our democratic traditions and inconsistent with the Constitutional values,” Christie wrote when he vetoed proposed sports gambling legislation.

Of course, he’s really no different from most pols. Doesn’t it always work like this? You’re for something until you’re against it but now you’re for it again.

We’re sure legislators from all over the U.S. are shocked to learn there’s gambling going on in the sports world. The hypocrisy from all levels of government to the leagues themselves is as astounding as it is predictable.

For about a month, my local radio sports station, WOFX-980 AM, has been running ads about fantasy football, to the effect that “you don’t have to wait until season’s end to see if you won because there’s a new cash contest every week.”

I guess the authorities figure it’s just like betting on the horses, only with people.

How these ads are not banned from the public airwaves I don't know. Advertisers can call it what they wish; a contest, a pool, a lottery. But what it is is illegal gambling, pure and simple.

Since racing is in straits more dire than most businesses, its institutions will accept financial support from most any source: As of this week you can refer to the race as the DraftKings Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.

That might be a good thing for the Breeders’ Cup bottom line but what it does for the industry as a whole is a dubious proposition.

Who knows, however? Maybe the “competition gap” between sports betting and playing the horses, in terms of takeout, is starting to narrow.

Back in the day when you walked to the candy store or street corner looking for the local bookie, making a bet was pretty straightforward and the takeout was negligible.

For every $5 bet, the wager would cost $5.50, the 10% rake was the cost of doing business. If you won, however, the takeout was zero. If you went 11-10 for the week, all else being equal, you made a small profit.

But now, with a lot of sports betting online, you have to pay a little for the privilege. Rather than moving lines on a hot team to balance their books like the bookmaker did, bet-takers now demand a higher rate if you want action.

If I wanted to take the Cowboys +3.5 points this Sunday, as Marc Lawrence suggests, the price is -115.

Not wanting to get caught in the “middle,” bet-takers are balancing their books by making bettors pay a premium for the hot side.

But that’s still a bargain when compared to a blended parimutuel rate of 20%. If horseplayers, who obviously enjoy the handicapping process, leave the game, betting on sports is a tempting option.

No game of chance is easy but betting on sports teams is easier, given that there are two choices: Team A or Team B; Over or Under.

Meadowlands To Offer Super Hi-5 Jackpot with 8% Takeout

Beginning November 14, pending regulatory approval, The Meadowlands will offer a Super High-5 Jackpot wager with a $.20 cent minimum on the last race of each card.

Eight percent takeout is an industry low and is comparable to the rake from VLTs. The track will seed the first Jackpot Super Hi-5 pool with $10,000.

As opposed to most “jackpot carryover” pools, the Meadowlands will distribute 75% of the pool to multiple winners each day and carry over 25% to the next day’s pool.

This, too, is an industry low jackpot distribution takeout rate and should create some interest because more money will be paid out nightly and the 20-Cent minimum makes the wager affordable for most players.

Per usual, the entire pool will be distributed should there be a single winner. Given the minimum and relatively low take on this type of expensive wager, it would take a super-chaotic result for there to be a lone winner.

Should there be no winners of Super Hi-5, the entire pool is carried over to the next day. There is no provision for picking the first four horses in correct order. The mandatory payout is Hambletonian Day next August.

I might have played the Thoroughbred version of this bet once or twice. It’s not the degree of difficulty--which is daunting--but it’s the high cost due to a $1 minimum to kept me away, another example of how racing caters disproportionately to a small group of high-volume bettors.

Chaotic results coupled with high costs makes the bet unattractive and generally is better for the track’s bottom line than it is for the handful of winning bettors in the near term.

So if tracks believe that they are doing bettors or themselves a favor in the long term they are mistaken.

Unless and until takeout is lowered significantly in the straight pools, the industry never will be able to increase handle significantly over a sustained period.

Low minimum bets coupled with low super-exotics takeout is the equivalent of parimutuel crack-cocaine. For player and racetrack, these bets are good for the occasional score but poor if the goal is long-range fiscal health.

Tap the horseplayer out at a faster rate and suddenly the Cowboys plus 3 ½ at minus-115 begins to look a lot more attractive.

Written by John Pricci

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