Sunday, July 12, 2009

If You Have a Minute, We Need Your Help

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 11, 2009--We've been trying to take the temperature of the betting public on the idea of closing betting windows at post time to stop the perception that past posting is something that happens routinely. In fact, it does not. The rest of this piece tells that story. But we'd love your input, and so might track executives. So, please, just an up and down vote in the comment section is all that's necessary. Thank you.

There’s been some progress made in the area of wagering integrity as it relates to programming glitches, late-odds drops, and failure to close pools in a timely manner that can result in past posting. In the state of California, anyway.

After getting approval by the State Senate in May on SB 662, legislation authored Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo), the bill received overwhelming endorsement from the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee to provide independent oversight of all parimutuel horse race wagering in the state.

The bill specifically would require the California Horse Racing Board to institute independent real-time monitoring of all parimutuel wagering transactions. The bill now goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The legislation was largely in response to a 2008 controversy surrounding ticket processing at Bay Meadows Racecourse when 1,300 “quick pick” tickets on the Kentucky Derby superfecta omitted the “20 horse” among the 5,200 possible permutations.

Derby-winning Big Brown, the 20 horse, would have topped a $1 superfecta wager worth $29,368.90.

In April, 2009, another glitch occurred when $2 bets placed at New York City Off-Track Betting through the AmTote system were deposited into wagering pools in five states as $200 bets, including Northern California’s Golden Gate Fields.

There have been other well documented system failures. On Preakness day this year, betting windows at 33 simulcast sites remained open on a Hollywood Park race after a “stop betting signal” from the Scientific Games tote company was not transmitted in a timely manner.

Further, the infamous Breeders‘ Cup “Fix Six” scandal is now seven years old and the testimony of prolific bettor Mike Maloney, who reported two years ago that he was able to bet on a Fair Grounds race 55 seconds after it started, is now two years old.

So what happens now?

In the main, late-odds drops continue to be a source of major concern for bettors who believe that somehow wagers are still being made after the bell. From a technical perspective, because of existing redundancies, that can’t happen.

The culprit generating suspicious late-odds drops are cycle times that are not synched properly with the video host, Cycling is the time it takes to display bets made at one venue to appear on a track’s tote boards or closed-circuit monitors.

With cycle times from bet-taker to host track set at 45 seconds in most jurisdictions, and with three-quarters of all wagers being made by players in the last two minutes, it is inevitable, barring a real time fix, that current odds information will be delayed.

Obviously, not all win odds go down. When late money deflates the payoff on popular contenders, odds on other horses inflate; by definition, parimutuel wagering.

In most instances, there’s nothing sinister about late-odds drops, but a bad message is being sent because much of racing’s technology is outdated, the cost of fixing the problem prohibitive and it doesn‘t make any money for the tracks. But that's no excuse.

Of course, handle is lost when customers walk away from the game because of the false perception the industry creates by its reluctance to address the issue once and for all.

Horseplayers are distrusting by nature. The industry must recognize this and work much harder to gain and keep their confidence. But if the Breeders’ Cup Pick Six handle wasn’t enough to spur the industry to act, what will?

Unfortunately, given the current state of the industry and the U.S. economy in general, spending millions on programming isn’t something that’s likely to happen anytime soon.

Batch betting--software allowing computers to place as many as 70 bets within a few seconds--started with one or two wagering teams in 1999, but that number has grown to approximately eight groups. They need to know last-minute odds before the computer will place their bets.

Resultantly, because of batch and conditional wagering, last-minute odds on logical contenders are almost always going to drop. And, as new technology is introduced that services the convenience market via I-Phones, PDAs, and the like, last minute wagers will increase, further fueling price volatility and exacerbating the problem.

Conditional wagering, first introduced by Premier Turf Club and currently offered by the Twin Spires advance deposit wagering system, places last minute wagers after the computer sees that the pre-set price parameters are met.

An industry official I spoke with argued that closing wagering at post time or after the first horse is loaded costs the tracks money and is unfair to bettors who make their wagers only after seeing their horse enter the starting gate.

He argued further that it would be impossible for bettors to make last-second adjustments following a gate scratch once the “stop betting signal” is transmitted. Once the pool is shut it cannot be reopened.

Until bettors get used to placing bets in a timely fashion--right up until post time--there will be shut outs. And while I’m sure some bettors must wait to see their horse loaded in the gate before wagering, I personally have not met one in 40 years.

By now, all bettors have accepted the fact that there will be a refund following a gate scratch, that odds on remaining horses will be adjusted and that jurisdictional rules will apply to adjustments made in multiple-race sequences.

Nothing short of real time technology will stop significant late-odds drops and I sincerely hope Gov. Schwarzenegger gets to sign SB 662 mandating real time monitoring of betting pools in California--if, that is, the Assembly Appropriations Committee finds funding for the project in a state already tapped out.

I argued with the industry official that the majority of players would prefer wagering to be stopped at post time, that even though odds will continue to change late, horseplayers would prefer to know the closing odds before a race starts.

Please take a moment, if this is an area of concern to you, to give us feedback on closing betting precisely at post time.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (70)


Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Provincialism Taking a Toll on Rachel, Zenyatta Match

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 30, 2009--For the current darlings of Thoroughbred racing, it’s game on. Unfortunately it’s not the game anyone wants to see.

In contemporary racing history, the game we’re seeing played out now goes back to War Admiral and Seabiscuit, the battle of East vs. West.

In the older version of the game, the man from out West, Charles S. Howard, believed he had the best horse in the country. So he shipped Seabiscuit everywhere, taking on and beating all comers.

Thoroughbred racing, college football and boxing were the most popular sports of their day. But it took the egocentric connections of the country’s two best horses a long time to reach a compromise and create a sports event for the ages..

Samuel D. Riddle was the owner of the Triple Crown champion, leading candidate for Horse of the Year 1937. Riddle believed it unnecessary to accept a challenge leveled by an upstart, some nouveau riche car dealer from California.

Finally, however, Howard pushed the right button, the public clamored for the matchup and the press played it up big time. The result was the most famous renewal of the Pimlico Special ever.

There are similarities now. Justly or not, it’s the three-year-old Rachel Alexandra which, in the minds of many racing fans and the Horse of the Year voters who vote in the weekly NTRA thoroughbred poll see Rachel Alexandra as this country’s leading race horse.

There are reasons for the perception: Rachel Alexandra was purchased by the high profile owner of Curlin, Horse of the Year 2007 and 2008, who kept his promise to raise the filly‘s profile by seeking her rightful place in racing history.

As such, she was entered in the Preakness Stakes and, not only did she win, she was ridden by Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel, who opted to ride her instead of the Derby champion because he believed the filly was the best horse in the country.

Then, in her next start, she went out and ran the fastest Mother Goose Stakes in history, faster than at least four winners of the old filly triple crown, by a margin six lengths farther than Ruffian’s victory in the same race.

Wide margins, a combined 39-½ lengths, are extremely rare on the level at which Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose fillies compete. She dominates the competition and beats the clock, too.

Zenyatta is already a champion. She’s never lost a race, which counts for a hell of a lot, and she’s won virtually all of them with dominating style.

And that includes the 2008 Apple Blossom in which Zenyatta defeated a defending champion, Ginger Punch, among others, most impressively proving she’s more than an All Weather wonder.

But that’s what makes the decision of her connections not to leave California, again, all the more quizzical. Then there’s something else.

Thus far, the camps surrounding both fillies have eschewed trash talk. Jackson’s only knock has been the “plastic” surface at Santa Anita. In fact, he even said he doesn’t hold it against any owner for doing what they think is best for their horse.

Neither did Zenyatta’s owner, Jerry Moss, who said only that no one would dictate the terms of a future meeting between two females that have dominated the racing landscape in 2009.

After the defense of her Vanity title, Moss said he’d like the two fillies to meet somewhere, that it would be good for the fans, for racing. On Sunday he said he’d like to challenge his filly a bit more, too, like Jackson wanting to define her place in history.

And this was after trainer John Shirreffs said they probably would leave California at some time this year.

The trash talking was left to turf writers, Horse of the Year voters who favored one side or another, coming down mostly along geographical lines. The tenor, it seemed, was beginning to shift.

Suddenly, Shirreffs ended any speculation saying that Zenyatta would race next in the Clement Hirsch, now run under allowance conditions. If they stuck to their original plan, she need not carry the grandstand again.

It’s apparent that Jackson’s making the decisions for Rachel while Shirreffs seems the prime mover of Zenyatta’s future.

Surprisingly, between Sunday and Monday evening, the Moss message changed: They would stick to the original Breeders’ Cup schedule which, if all goes according to Hoyle, would result in undefeated career victory 14 on Breeders' Cup day, a modern record for major race horses.

What changed Moss’s mind?

At Monday’s press conference previewing the upcoming 2009 Saratoga racing season, New York Racing Association President Charlie Hayward, playing to the local media, good-humouredly referred to Del Mar as the “minor league Saratoga of the West.”

Sometime later, Chief Operating Officer Hal Handel picked up the ball, lightheartedly identifying Del Mar as “our Triple A affiliate.”

Non-racetrackers who may be reading this need to know: From who’s dating whom, to how many positives any racing department might be stonewalling at the time, there are no secrets on the racetrack.

And for a game that demands a sense of humor from its participants, it’s a bear market. Suddenly, Zenyatta's possible appearance in the Personal Ensign, Ruffian or Beldame doesn’t seems impossible.

Moss has second thoughts now, recalling how his Derby-winning Giacomo freaked out in New York’s despised detention barn, finishing seventh in the 2005 Belmont.

It seems certain that the best way to make a meeting between the two moot is for either filly to step out of their division and meet males, Rachel for a second time.

Should the three-year-old filly beat the Derby and Belmont winners in the Travers, it would be game, set and Horse of the Year match, even if Zenyatta were to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Unless, of course, they met after the Breeders’ Cup.

Moss said he would consider meeting Rachel Alexandra somewhere after the Breeders’ Cup. But if she wins #14, that’s unlikely to happen. The bottom line is that Moss and Jackson have to make like Howard and Riddle and find a way to make it happen.

It’s the only race the fans really want to see. If it doesn’t happen, what remains of racing’s image as a sport in this era would take a hit from which it might never recover.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (12)


Friday, June 26, 2009

Racing’s Problems and Government’s Role

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 25, 2009--As one looks around the racing industry and the country as a whole, the game’s troubles are very much representative of current big picture realities. So far, this millennium hasn‘t been the wondrous new age it was purported to be.

So it’s not surprising, then, that what’s happening presently in regions that always have been considered America’s leading circuits, those of California, New York and Kentucky, are also reflective of larger issues. There’s no other way to say it: the racing industry in these states are in a shambles.

No need to rehash what everyone seems to know as to the root causes: A general lack of cohesiveness, uniformity, proactive vision and fat cat entitlement has stunted whatever growth was possible when the game reached its zenith of popularity in the 1970s.

Just as racing’s growth stopped, other professional sports leagues were becoming more aggressive, and niche sports started to gain in popularity. Then came the advent of convenience market wagering, the resultant growth of various forms of off-track betting.

Simulcasting arrived on the scene and almost immediately handle grew significantly across the board. Shortly thereafter, in-home wagering fostered more growth--inevitable cannibalization notwithstanding--aided by the burgeoning popularity of the Internet, the ideal tool for taking advantage of racing’s statistical orientation.

With states becoming more dependent on alternative forms of revenue raising, casinos became the new gambling reality. Native American gaming, with its huge tax advantages; a paradigm shift that turned the Sin City of Las Vegas into Disneyland for adults; Lottery expansion, and the exponential growth of cable television that helped kill the notion of night racing as choice entertainment, have all conspired to compel an industry to look at itself from the outside in.

Should it have embraced off-track betting instead of hoping it would fail? Should it have put itself on television to a greater degree? Should it have educated the populace, changed the betting paradigm, lowered the cost of wagering and gotten out in front of the drug explosion? Everyone knows the answers now.

But the enemy at the door is not coming from within this time, from its own ineffectual leadership, complacency and greed, standards which never seem to go out of style. Instead of being audacious, the notion of hope for the industry now had become pusillanimous in the extreme.

The consequences are that racing has come under attack from without. During the 1990s, ideology subtly began to replace reason in this country, becoming so much a part of the sociological fabric that political chickens had no choice but to come home to roost.

Resultantly, America is currently getting the dysfunctional government it deserves. If unchecked, don’t be surprised if America’s elected representatives destroy the entire racetrack community and its way of life.

In California, Native Americans are using their competitive advantage to influence state government, using their pocketed tax dollars to buy favorable legislation. But don’t blame them; they didn’t invent the system. Northern California is all but lost now. Santa Anita’s storied past, from Seabiscuit to Shoemaker, is in danger of becoming ancient history unless the track is put on sound economic footing again, if it’s not already too late.

In New York, where onerous tax rates have chased companies across its borders for decades, state government is a sad joke that has allowed eight-year-old enabling VLT legislation to lay dormant while all but a handful of horsemen fail to make a living commensurate with a 365/24/7 work schedule because political values always trump the best interests of the people.

In Kentucky, the party of “no,” bereft of ideas, apparently prefers to allow it’s signature industry to the world to fade away rather than give its citizens what they want. Why? Because it’s what the other political party wants, and because they can. What could be more unconscionable than that? What could be more decadent than feigning morality, pandering to an extremist wing of its constituency?

What truly is outrageous is that the leader of the opposition is himself a person who goes gaming, taking his business to casinos in nearby states rather than throw his support behind his state’s largest industry; throwing it a lifeline that would cost nothing.

What Senate leader David Williams’ party proposes as an alternative to VLTs, ironic given the party’s brand identity, is legislation that would divert funds to purses via taxes: one on the state lottery, one on charitable gaming, and a third on out-of-state simulcasts of Kentucky races.

Apparently taxing church sponsored bingo games and such, and having horseplayers from other states make up for Kentucky’s shortfall were preferable alternatives; collecting pennies instead of dollars before seeing simulcast revenue eventually dry up when horseplayers figure out that the winners aren’t paying as much as they used to.

The thoughts of one independent thinker, David Trimble, an attorney from Georgetown, Ky., in his weekly News-Graphic column:

“The Kentucky State Senate under the leadership of Senate President David Williams seems to believe its role in Kentucky government is simply to say "No." Rather than coming up with viable and sensible alternatives, the Republican Senate serves as a roadblock to anything and everything proposed by the Democrats, good or bad, while exercising no realistic leadership toward fixing Kentucky's problems.

“Yet, just as in every wet-dry election, the opposition political action groups set up the false bogeyman of "family" concerns, which far too many of the populace buy into without ever questioning the facts. Shouldn't having adequate school buildings, education programs, and social services be "family" concerns, rather than inchoate fears that too many studies have proven false?”

Perhaps even more unacceptable was State Senator Damon Thayer (R-Scott County), a horse industry consultant and former Breeders’ Cup and Turfway Park executive, standing mute on the VLT issue, suggesting that the Senate’s tax measure was the better alternative. Apparently, political ambition knows no bounds, Thayer now a poster child for the government we deserve.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (26)


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