Friday, May 22, 2009

HANA Proving a Positive Force for Industry Change

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 21, 2009--What began as a horseplayer rant among several handfuls of people in a chat room at pace has become a burgeoning populist movement that’s gaining a voice in the thoroughbred industry.

There’s something happening here and it’s beginning to become clear that what’s going down is a shift in attitude from the racing industry towards fans that allows horseplayers to become a part of racing’s reconstruction process going forward.

It could not possibly have come at a better time.

And what could be better proof of the kind of passion the game elicits? Horseplayers, by definition, competitors within a parimutuel pool, bonding together for the good of all.

Wouldn’t it be great if the industry took a lesson?

The grass roots movement all happened because fewer than a dozen horseplayers decided to do something about their plight and those of their colleagues throughout the country, the whales and the minnows.

And so the small group incorporated themselves in September of 2008, appointed an executive committee, and the Horseplayers Association of North America was born.

HANA’s mission statement, available on its website,, includes a list of proactive principles. Never before in the history of thoroughbred racing have horseplayers united in such a unique and positive way.

Given the nature of the beast, no one believed it could be done. But in less than nine months, HANA has grown to include approximately 1,200 legitimate members whose combined handle brings between $40 to $45 million to the industry table every year.

No longer can the industry afford to look away.

According to HANA president Jeff Platt, the voluntary organization has at its core four principles, four elements upon which positive change can be effected not only for horseplayers but for the industry as well.

“What we are seeking,” said Platt in a phone interview, “is that the industry makes every track signal available to every ADW (advance deposit wagering platform).

“Takeout needs to be lowered so that the lower product costs can enable horse racing to be more competitive with other forms of wagering.

“We want a national drug policy that’s enforced with real penalties for cheaters. No longer can those horsemen be allowed to train from their cell phones.

“And, finally, pool integrity. We want the odds to be displayed [wagers posted] in real time. We believe all these elements have combined to hold the game back for the last dozen years.”

To be proactive is to put ideas and words into positive action. One such HANA initiative was the creation of a “buy-cott” which, as the name suggests, is the opposite of boycott.

HANA’s board reasoned that they needed to choose a race at a meeting that--because of its smaller size and quality of its horses--doesn’t generate much handle. HANA determines the race its members could wager on to make a statement, proving at once that the organization should be taken seriously and be a force for positive change.

“The results have been OK so far,” shared Platt, “but it’s been a learning process. At first, we chose small tracks in different time slots where we might make an impact [on handle].”

But, by far, the most successful buy-cott occurred on the final Saturday of the recently concluded Hawthorne race meet.

“We chose a very competitive Illinois-bred stakes with a large field, the kind of race most bettors want to wager on. Our members responded to the higher rated track by wagering $80,000 more on the event than was handled [in several years on the same race].”

Parenthetically, this week's HANA buy-cott play is Saturday's eighth race at Canterbury Park.

Serendipitously, Platt had wagered on the second race at Penn National just prior to our interview Wednesday night. He was all set to collect 10-1 on the winner, Twodoorsdown. The race had been declared with an advisory that prices were pending.

As Platt awaited the prices, he noticed the winner’s odds drop from 10-1, 9-1, 8-1 and 7-1. After a delay of approximately 20 minutes, the race was declared a non-betting event and refunds were made on all wagers, including winning bets made prior to post time.

“The stop-wagering mechanisms are not being received from the tracks [in a timely fashion].”

“This happens more often than people think. Everyone’s finding out more about these developments because people are speaking up. The industry needs to pay somebody to create a modern and secure tote system.”

Platt is a programmer by trade and spoke with a number of experts in his field. The bad news is that the cost would be very high. He has been given estimates in the $250-to-$300 million range.

With a combined national annual handle of over $14-billion, the high cost, unfortunately, is the price of doing business. It would be in the interests of all tracks and simulcast venues to pay their fair share based on handle.

In this environment, no one’s holding their breath.

Aside from proving that HANA has the power to make positive change at the bottom line, a more important aspect is that horseplayers are finally getting a seat at the table.

HANA recently has had positive talks with Keeneland’s hierarchy. At a recent wagering conference in Canada attended by representatives from Woodbine, Betfair, horsemen’s groups and horseplayers, the organization was happy to be part of the process.

They discovered that when the subject of lower takeout was broached, participants found themselves agreeing that lowering the cost of the product was in everyone’s best interests. Imagine that.

“Behind the scenes the sides need to continue to sit down, put down their swords and pick up the pen.”

Relative to takeout, Platt sees positive signs by the shift in attitudes on rebates.

“The concept has changed recently with regard to offering rebates to all players. You’re starting to see organizations such as the California Horse Racing Board, and some of the tracks beginning to provide rebates its on-track patrons.

“The pendulum is starting to swing because the industry is becoming aware that the players are aware. At our meetings, we try to settle on a marketing strategy that helps give customers what they want. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what the industry should do.”

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, May 15, 2009

What Would Damon Runyon Do?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 14, 2009--As legendary sportswriter Damon Runyon once advised: "The race does not always go to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."

That quoted, the starkest difference between seasoned handicappers and passionate thoroughbred racing fans comes down to this: The best horse isn’t always the best bet.

There’s ample evidence that sensational filly Rachel Alexandra is the “best horse” in the Preakness 134 field. And you need not trust any handicapper’s opinion on that; just read the comments of any horseman who’s not so eagerly lining up against the filly on Saturday.

Of course, contradictions such as the above is what makes the handicapping of horse races such an engaging and challenging exercise. Or referencing the George C. Scott line in the movie “Patton”: “God help me but I do love it so."

Here, then, the remaining handicapping profiles of Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, listed in post position order:

7-PAPA CLEM: Much improved since moving from synthetics to dirt three starts back, he was beaten seven lengths by Friesan Fire, who had freaked in the Louisiana Derby slop, and by the same margin when Mine That Bird freaked in a sloppy Kentucky Derby. In between came a gutsy win in the Arkansas Derby and, if not for being jostled about in the Derby’s rough-house stretch run he, would have finished second. Kept limber with a very slow breeze over a deep and holding Pimlico surface early in the week, he acts on any type of going and Rafael Bejarano figures to use this colt’s versatility to best advantage should that need arise on Pimlico’s quirky configuration. Maintaining his performance level might be problematical, however.

8-GENERAL QUARTERS: Not only did he suffer through a terrible trip as he was buffeted about by rivals in the Kentucky Derby, he also was forced to check on two separate occasions. This is a long striding colt with gears and can win from near the early pace or from behind, but despite his versatility he never appeared comfortable in the off going. Consequently, he’s yet another Derby runner whose effort can be dismissed as an aberration. He’s obviously a lot better horse than he showed in Louisville and in Julien Leparoux has a race-riding star in the boot. Has enough foundation to run strongly here, even though an in-the-money effort seems far more likely than a victory.

9-PIONEEROF THE NILE: Remains the most accomplished of the Preakness horses by virtue of two Grade 1 victories, a G1 Kentucky Derby placing, and two victories at the G2 level this season. Not only did he demonstrate an ability to handle something other than a synthetic surface at Churchill Downs but showed that he’s as gritty as ever, winning a rough n’ tumble place battle over two contentious rivals after racing out in the center of the track much of the Derby’s 10 furlongs, not the fastest part of the Louisville surface May 2. Continues to please trainer Bob Baffert with his Triple Crown preparation and comes into the Preakness off a small forward move in the Derby and a New Pace Top, a harbinger of yet another improved effort.

10-FLYING PRIVATE: Don’t be shocked if this colt shows a much improved performance in the Preakness. It wouldn’t be the first time that trainer D. Wayne Lukas prepped a horse in a marquee event for a subsequent spot. The Preakness is the middle jewel of the Triple Crown but it’s not the Derby, and this runner needed to get his feet held to the fire. Already beaten by double-digit lengths in the slop at 2, he caught that surface again after drawing post 19 on the inside-favoring Derby track. Prior to that wide non-effort came two good-figure performances in the Lanes End and Arkansas Derby. Lukas has won the Preakness five times and taps Alan Garcia here. At a huge price, he’s a Super High 5/Superfecta inclusion.

11-TAKE THE POINTS: Taking points is never a bad idea since it gives bettors two ways to win. Reserving him from the Derby in favor of a Preakness run was a prudent decision but it might not help when he lines up against some crusty Preakness 134 rivals. This colt’s development is admirable. With the exception of the slightest regression in the Sham Stakes when he chased The Pamplemousse from a wide path throughout, he’s not taken a backward step in six career starts, and his improvement has been beneficially incremental. His connections were concerned about short recovery time heading into the Santa Anita Derby, so today’s six-week spacing should have his batteries fully charged. Probably a notch below, but a nice colt nonetheless. Money prospects.

12-TONE IT DOWN: I love it when modest local owners have a horse worthy enough to compete in a historical classic and the Preakness seems to attract at least one every year. Remember longshots Icabad Crane, Magic Weisner? But I’m afraid that I prefer my Maryland horses to have won or made a winning-type performance in Pimlico’s traditional Preakness prep, the Federico Tesio. Tone It Down set a moderate pace and tired to finish third behind Miners Escapade, who’s skipped the Triple Crown’s middle jewel. Rather than try matching strides early with the likes of Big Drama and Rachel Alexandra, the connections have decided he try off the pace tactics today. In either case, his performance figures are too slow.

13-RACHEL ALEXANDRA: From an Equiform figures’ perspective, the 79½ final figure she earned winning the Kentucky Oaks without urging was the same figure earned by the Derby winner the following day. But unlike Mine That Bird, Rachel’s figure represented an incremental move forward--not the big leap taken by the Derby winner-- making her less likely to regress. She receives a *five-pound weight concession from the colts at today’s mile and three-sixteenths journey which projects her to be, by definition, the “fastest horse” in the race. However, it is unknown how she will handle much, much tougher rivals from a class, final-figure and pace-figure perspective. A talent edge is the great equalizer but is no guarantor of success. No horse has won the Preakness from post 13 and fillies are 4-for-52, none in 85 years. This is what academicians call an epistemological dichotomy. I call it a use-her and lose-her proposition.

Tomorrow: Final selections and constructing a winning exotics strategy.

*corrected weight

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Will 13 Prove Lucky for Rachel’s Rivals?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 13, 2009--Post 13? Not to worry. If Big Brown could win last year’s Kentucky Derby from post position 20, why can’t Rachel Alexandra win Preakness 134 from the far outside, too?

If owner Jess Jackson were a trainer, he might have said “that’s exactly what we wanted.” But he’s the owner and that’s what he wanted everyone to know when he spoke at Wednesday’s hastily convened national media teleconference.

“Steve [trainer Asmussen] and I are extremely pleased with post 13. She’s on the outside and can stay out of trouble. This will give her a fair chance.”

It will, indeed, but there won’t be any bo-railing this time, which would have been unlikely even if she were to start from the pole position, from which speedy Big Drama will break just inside of the Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird.

Jackson wasted little time defending his position to run back against males two weeks after her 20-¼ length demolishing of the Kentucky Oaks field. “This is not about male and female,” he said, before addressing the elephant on the other end of the trunk line.

“It’s about competition and the ability of the best horse to race around two turns, not break down, and put the industry back in the spotlight.”

As for awaiting the Belmont three weeks later, Jackson said “if you look at the way she devastated her field, she showed she had the skill and not burn herself out. They had to send an outrider almost completely up the backstretch to capture her.”

And so Jackson--who made a business decision to acquire the future broodmare now rather than wait for what promised to be an extraordinary season against her own kind--helped set the stage for one of the most intriguing confrontations in Triple Crown history.

Today, a look at the first six horses in the Preakness starting gate. Friday it will be the remainder of the field which includes the filly then, after midnight Preakness morning, selections and suggestions on how to best construct a Preakness play.

After two weeks of waiting, it‘s Game On. Again.

Preakness 134, in post position order:

1-BIG DRAMA: Rivals who confuse this horse with a one-dimensional speed type prone to cracking under pace pressure and coming back to the field just might see his hindquarters getting smaller and smaller as the finish post approaches. He’s unofficially won six of seven, the only two graded stakes he’s been in, and is 2-for-2 rounding two turns. He runs well fresh, is fast but tractable, and doesn’t need the lead to win. He’s actually more comfortable in a stalking role. Loses Eibar Coa to Musket Man but attracts Johnny Velazquez, a more than able substitute, especially with a quality pace. David Fawkes doesn’t have the national reputation of his rivals but recall his excellent with multiple Grade 1 winner Take D’ Tour. His last performance figure, albeit at seven furlongs, is the equal of the Derby and Oaks winners.

2-MINE THAT BIRD: Beyond his connections, no one will believe in the colt until he somehow can duplicate his Derby effort. It needn’t be another tour de force, just a win. If the Derby proved anything it’s that he has the ability to be among the best in show and that his victory might not have been as impossible as originally perceived. He showed much improved early speed in the Sunland Derby--which also produced the Lone Star Derby winner last Saturday--he also was dropping down to sea level from 3,500 feet and really wants to be taken back and make one run. And what a run it was. He’s a tough, gutsy, experienced throwback of a racehorse that handled adverse conditions while many of his hot-housed rivals wimped out. Seems to have retained his energy with an accidental half-mile breeze. In losing Borel and picking up Mike Smith, he goes from the rail to the 7-path, unless the Hall of Famer thinks he has something more to prove.

3-MUSKET MAN: Talented, supremely honest racehorse who’s been outrunning his breeding limitations throughout his career. Has managed to compile a 5-for-7 lifetime mark including two graded stakes and a Derby third, in which he rallied very wide on an inside track, finishing with good energy. Fast or wet, short or long, near the pace or farther back, this distance runner with a sprinter’s pedigree never has failed to fire. His performance figures are very good but not quite top echelon. But he’s got heart and loves his job. Eibar Coa rides him with lots of confidence and trainer Derek Ryan has pushed the correct buttons thus far. Very sharp work Tuesday at his Monmouth Park base.

4-LOV GUV: No relation to Client Nine but was an authoritative winner on the Kentucky Derby undercard. He’s the lesser regarded of the D. Wayne Lukas lightly esteemed uncoupled entry but the Hall of Famer knows something about winning this race, having done so five times. Further, owner Mary Lou Whitney is no less sporting than Jess Jackson, and indeed would have withdrawn this entrant had the colt prevented Rachel Alexandra from being entered. But he’s coming back quickly of a career best effort. And that victory was his first in 10 career starts. Horses with worse credentials have run in the Preakness. However, what’s the point of this exercise, exactly?

5-FRIESAN FIRE: A winner of four of eight starts lifetime, this quality colt never had a chance to show his ability in the Derby after being completely eliminated by a horrendous start and a rough trip thereafter, suffering nicks and scrapes in the process. Elements and racing luck notwithstanding, his was a tall order not having run in seven weeks nor having raced beyond a mile and a sixteenth. But for this race he’ll be tighter, tougher and more experienced. The smaller field should help as he’s most comfortable stalking from close range. The tandem of Larry Jones, Gabriel Saez and a talented runner cannot be taken lightly. In fact, Tuesday’s sharp work suggests a rebound to his winning Louisiana form.

6-TERRAIN: Never met his trainer but have admired Al Stall Jr.’s work for some time. The races Stall chooses to enter are generally well spaced and the horses equally well prepared. Indeed, “Little Al” has proven adept at pointing to spots and doesn’t fire many blanks when his horses fit the conditions. Thus far, however, this colt hasn’t developed the way he should from 2 to 3 and thus has been somewhat of disappointment. But the trainer must think there’s a big one lurking inside the gelding somewhere. Even if that day were today, he’s unlikely to find a spot on any tier of my exotic wagers. Stall’s a profitable 24 percent with third off a layoff starters and in three career starts at the G1 level, Terrain’s been beaten a total of 10-¾ lengths. Needs an extreme pace meltdown.

Tomorrow: How Does Rachel Stack Up?

Written by John Pricci

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