Friday, July 11, 2014

Will Del Mar Horseplayers Double Their Pleasure?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 11, 2014—There’s a rumor being circulated on the Internet that the Thoroughbred Owners of California are considering a return to the higher takeout rates on Daily Doubles currently in place at Del Mar.

This can’t possibly be true, can it? Don’t they read newspapers out there? Has Internet commentary and social media reached lower California yet?

Hasn’t any owner out West ever heard of Churchill Downs?

Takeout deniers, much like climate change “non-scientists,” believe more in spin than science, coincidence over statistics, and obfuscation over progress. However anyone spins it, the Churchill Downs boycott was largely responsible for handle losses of $48-millionat the 2014 spring meet.

The Dow Jones is hovering around 17,000 for a while now, California Chrome gave the sport a bounce, in a Wall Street sense, this spring, and fields are smaller everywhere.

So, what else could it be?

According to recently released industry statistics, the number of race days is down 3.09% year over year; as was handle over the same period by 1.71%, yet, in the 2nd Quarter of 2014, purses miraculously increased by 0.42%.

And horsemen are still expecting that horseplayers will cheerfully pay for everything from continued higher purses to state-of-the-art medication testing protocols?

If we attribute the slight 2014 purse increases to the $10-million NYRA invested on the Belmont Stakes Festival card, resulting in record handle, doesn’t it follow that 2nd Quarter handle decreases of 1.43% has some relationship to CDI boycotters protesting takeout increases?

(The boycott also had an adverse influence on CDI properties Arlington Park and competition-laden Calder).

Year to date, handle on all U.S. races is $5.509-billion through June 30. For the same period in 2013, handle on U.S. races was $5.605 billion, a decrease of approximately $96-million.

One doesn’t need a sophisticated algorithm to figure that half of that handle loss this year is attributable to Churchill’s $48-million beating.

At stake today, as the prestigious Del Mar meet approaches, is the notion that Daily Double takeout will remain the same as last year’s, 23.68%. California bettors are insulted that the 18% takeout rate on Doubles, in effect all year at Santa Anita, will not be duplicated where the turf meets the surf.

Using comparative days and relative to other races, the 18% takeout on Rolling Doubles at Santa Anita resulted in handle increases in a range of 19% to 24%, according to Jeff Platt of the Horseplayers Association of North America.

It’s easy to understand the temptation of leaving the takeout on Doubles at Del Mar the same, which would be the same mindset that blew up in CDIs face at their recently concluded meet.

They believed that the higher take over Derby-Oaks weekend would be enough to create added revenue for the meet. While boycotters didn’t shun betting on those prestigious cards completely, many bet fewer races, concentrating on the prime events.

By leaving takeout rates the same, it appears that Del Mar wants to take advantage of their bridge races, especially true given the popularity of the Saratoga signal.

The thinking likely is that takeout-conscious players will be content enough with the reduced-take Pick 5 already in place and won’t mind paying 5% more on doubles than is paid
at Santa Anita.

Apparently, racetrack executives still believe that since horseplayers are creatures of habit, they won’t go shopping for the best deal and are willing to roll the dice on their strong Del Mar brand.

A decision on the takeout rate is expected to be made at a meeting of the Thoroughbred Owns of California today.

It must be said that Del Mar is not Saratoga on a daily basis and on many levels, plus the old Spa has a three-hour head start. Not every day is opening day; not every day is Saturday.

Further, it will be interesting to see how summer racing at Gulfstream Park impacts both, especially Del Mar, since it is likely the South Florida track will have large, competitive fields and enjoys the same logistical edge that any East Coast track has.

Will common sense trump greed in southern SoCal?

In this game, the only time less has meant more is when it comes to churn: The lower the rake; the bigger the handle. The only negative is a lack of patience, waiting for revenue to catch up.

Finally, Something for John Q. Horseplayer

To their credit, the NYRA has come up with an excellent idea, albeit at the very last minute, perhaps bringing lower expectations to a new level or meant as a trial balloon. There's no time to promote it now.

Tomorrow at Belmont Park, the track will host its first ever “Low Roller” live-money handicapping tournament, costing fans $40 to enter.

Of that entry fee, $10 goes to a prize pool to be distributed among the top three money finishers on a 70%, 20%, 10% basis, with the remaining $30 used as the handicapper’s bankroll.

With it, players must bet $2 across-the-board on five different horses in five different races on the 10-race Belmont card.

Live-money contests best approximate how players actually bet the races, as opposed to traditional contests in which contest-betting strategy rules.

Geared toward the average bettor-fan, the format assures some return on investment unless a player throws deep in every race, in which case his five bets could produce zero return on investment. A guaranteed pool is set at $500.

This contest seems an inspired way for fans to hone their betting-strategy techniques, sharpen their value-getting skills on fair-odds horses having a good chance to win, and it helps on-track handle by keeping players focused locally, from which the track gets a bigger slice.

Should the one-day only launch be successful, perhaps similar contests could be offered in Saratoga on the slowest days of the week, traditionally Thursdays and Mondays once the meeting gets into high gear.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Tom Durkin: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 22, 2014---Allegiance to present day race callers very often is a matter of taste, like appreciating a fine wine, a movie, favorite athlete, etc., etc.

Consequently, it follows that provincialism plays a huge role in formulating those preferences, just as one would for a favorite horse or jockey: Seabiscuit or War Admiral; Shoemaker or Arcaro; Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra?

And, so, when it comes to con the world of contemporary race callers, the majority of racing fans are aligned in two camps: Denman or Durkin?

Personally, it’s impossible for me to remain neutral. I, like so many others who have crossed paths with Tom Durkin during his 43-year career, consider him a cherished friend.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t strive for objectivity.

I have not listened to Denman’s calls nearly as many times as I’ve heard Durkin’s. But I can’t imagine, even if the coasts were reversed, I would remember as many of Trevor's calls as I would Tom’s.

Twenty-four Breeders’ Cups and 11 Triple Crowns has given Durkin far more opportunities to voice racing’s most memorable events, and he has had more than his share of “moving like a tremendous machine” moments:

There was Easy Goer and Sunday Silence “in a racing epic,” the Real Quiet-Victory Gallop Belmont photo: “a picture is worth a thousand words, this photo is worth five million dollars; history... in the waiting.”

And, of course, Smarty Jones’ crushing Triple Crown bid, marked by Durkin’s diminishing crescendo as he informed 120,000 fans “Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes.”

But there are, too, the moments of whimsy, Durkin’s paean to Wallace Beery as Long John Silver with his “Arrrrr” call in Saratoga, or singing the scales as “Doremifasolatido” crossed the finish line in front.

One of Denman’s widely acknowledged gifts is his uncanny knack for picking up winning moves, anticipating outcomes before a fan might make the same surmise, including one in particular.

Until I googled it, I had forgotten that the Denman call I won’t ever forget took place 17 years ago. The horses for the Santa Anita Handicap were at mid-far turn when Denman said that trainer Richard Mandella’s horses could finish 1-2-3.

To this day, I don’t know how he could have known that, or had the cojones to make that call out loud. I consider myself a good race-watcher and I never saw it coming that far from the wire.

Calling one horse “moving like a winner” three furlongs from the wire is one thing; but three for the money? Never. But there they were: Siphon, Sandpit and Gentlemen at the wire, the runnerup coming from seventh of 11.

I first became aware of Durkin’s gifts one winter at Hialeah. My routine seldom changed: Get there early and find a seat in the back yard adjacent to the statue of Citation--the same one Michael Corleone drove passed in Godfather II.

I’d put my feet up on the fountain’s retaining wall, point my face toward the South Florida sun, and try to pick a few winners.

After making my bets, I’d either either walk out on the apron to watch it live or return to my place in the sun and listen to the call.

The first time I did this, the race was delivered with deadly accuracy, but it was more than that. The race unfolded perfectly in my mind’s eye, the word pictures not only indicating where each horse was but whether or not it had winning position.

I introduced myself to say how much he added to my Hialeah experience and we’ve been friends ever since.

There have been many great race callers that have filled the soundtrack of my racing life, including the legendary Fred Caposella, Joe Hernandez, Chic Anderson and Dave Johnson, to name just a few.

But with the exception of comedian Robert Klein’s hilarious takes on ‘Cappy’, no race caller has been more imitated than Durkin.

His phrasing, word pictures and drama-building cadence are mainstays in the lexicon of today’s best announcers, an homage paid by any one of them who describes a game front running winner as a horse that “won’t be denied.”

There are other phrases or words not generally heard anywhere else; a hot pace that’s “audacious,” an even pace conducted as “a steady beat,” slow fractions that are “nonchalant” or “calculated,” or the slowest ones, which are “pedestrian” or “soporific.”

But, to me, Durkin’s greatest attribute is making all the races he calls better, whether it’s “a filly in the Belmont” or a maiden claimer getting up in the final strides to win the nightcap.

Everyone has their favorite announcer and I have mine. But when racetrackers and fans are asked to join the conversation about who they believe is the greatest race caller of all time, the name Tom Durkin will not be denied.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, June 20, 2014

The Case for a Lower Case triple crown

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 18, 2014—I was happy to see the other day that Steve Haskin of the Bloodhorse suggested that the Triple Crown for Fillies—oops, make that lower case triple crown, insisted the late, great Joe Hirsch—for Fillies be revived.

Perhaps this is an idea whose time has come. Again.

Now before anyone says it won’t have a smidgeon of the impact that the Upper Case version does, we are already aware. But that’s not the point, nor should it be.

This triad would be for thoroughbred racing fans that will care, and each race of the series could a possible anchor leg of an All-Stakes Pick 4, even if the events are overnighters with a purse of $100,000. Hopefully, it would get more support than that.

One of my fondest memories was of Mom’s Command winning the mile and a half Coaching Club American Oaks after having taken the Acorn and Mother Goose previously.

Even though she dominated her generation, not many believed she would go that far, but her class prevailed.

It was a real family affair as the Hall of Fame filly was owned by Peter Fuller and ridden by his daughter, Abigail. Fuller was a driving force behind the creation of a racing circuit in New England, once a hot-bed of thoroughbred racing and still home to passionate fans and horseplayers.

Then, of course, there was the great Davona Dale, another Hall of Famer that was so good she won two filly triple crowns, the older traditional version run at Churchill, Pimlico and Belmont, and the same NYRA version won by Mom’s Command.

If there were one this year, it might have caught on nationally what with Kentucky Oaks winning Untapable reaching second in the NTRA three-year-old poll, now third behind Belmont Stakes winning Tonalist.

Many believe her to be the most talented sophomore in America. If not, she certainly has run her way into the conversation.

If a filly triple crown were to be resurrected, wouldn’t a national version with sensible spacing, preferably at the Upper Case tracks, be that be something worth seeing?

But why stop there? Why not a three race series for all divisions?

Yes, I know, something like this was tried years ago with the American Racing Series which generally was greeted with a collective yawn.

With more and more horse racing making its way back on television, good programming is a must. Why not a series in all divisions to promote interest and continuity, from the babies to the old pros?

The championship landscape in all divisions has changed. There are some divisional champions—juveniles and sprinters come immediately to mind—that are generally crowned after season’s end victories in the Breeders’ Cup.

That was the intended goal of the Breeders’ Cup, that, and it to be a traveling road show for thoroughbred racing. In the last decade, however, the accent has been on handle with added races that hardly reflect championship divisions.

The Marathon and Juvenile Sprint, for instance, were staged as ungraded events sans the seven-figure “championship” purses, their existence appearing to be little more than parimutuel fodder for the Friday programs.

Those kind of races notwithstanding, there is the other argument that when Breeders’ Cup crowns a champion it can do so at the expense of the regular season of traditional, high profile events. No better example than horse for course Beholder’s Distaff victory trumping Princess of Slymar’s considerable body of work in time honored events at different venues.

There would be no need to reinvent the field. If racetrack and industry executives were administered truth serum instead of the local Kool Aid, all could construct a consensus of the most important races in each division.

For example—truly as example only—a Grade 1 9-furlong series including the Donn Handicap, Stephen Foster Handicap and Whitney Handicap would be an very attractive package in attractive settings.

Older fillies and mares could face off in the Apple Blossom, Ogden Phipps and Spinster, a triad providing a top class stage on which the female runners could establish their best-in-show credentials.

And if a three-year-old wanted to throw her hooves into the ring in the fall at Keeneland, that would only lend to the drama and provide greater championship definition.

An older horse turf series at 10 furlongs that features the Manhattan Handicap, Arlington Million and Clement L Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship Stakes could lend more definition to the Breeders’ Cup Turf, an event traditionally dominated by the Europeans.

Even if any of the above races have been reduced by circumstances and scheduling to becoming latter-day Breeders’ Cup preps, the winners could have raised their profiles so significantly throughout the year against top company as to hold safe their Eclipse Award lead vs a talented European interloper to be named later.

But it’s not limited to that. It’s about growing interest and business, with the added benefit of possibly growing the game if television networks do their jobs and package a triple crown, lower case, in all divisions.

Written by John Pricci

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