Friday, November 30, 2007

Time Has Come for ‘North American Pick 6’

In case you have been spending time on another planet, here is some news that might shock you. As of yesterday, the rate of exchange between the American and Canadian dollar has flip-flopped. The American dollar currently is worth fractions of a penny more than 99 cents.

First, the dollar. Whats next, innovation?

A few years ago, our racing friends north of the border realized that it was losing wagering market share to other forms of gambling. Since last year they have been conducting a review of gambling regulations as it concerns the racing industry vis a vis other forms of gambling.
The Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency realized that the thoroughbred and harness racing industries provided the oldest, institutionalized form of wagering and, as such, their rules were antiquated and placed racing at a competitive disadvantage with casinos, the Internet, and government regulated lotteries.

Resultantly, the Agency has proposed to eliminate or change restrictive regulations to permit expansion of wagering menus at the tracks and increase the kinds of betting options available. The CPMA has also taken an active role in the social aspects of gaming, requiring its teletheaters to offer seating, food and washrooms.

Parenthetically, if New Yorks State Racing and Wagering Board permitted those amenities from the outset, maybe New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would not be making these ridiculous threats about closing betting parlors in the five boroughs because they lose money.

On an administrative level, the CPMA is proposing measures to allow telephone betting accounts and is trying to figure ways to create synergy between the racing industry and other forms of government regulated gaming, such as slots.

Of greater interest to bettors is the expansion of the wagering menu to include new wagers with a fractional component, bets that would exponentially increase the possibility of windfall payoffs. To that end, Canadian regulators are considering the institution of the V75 and V64.

These wagers are among the most popular bets in Europe. The V75 jackpot is a Pick 7 wager that in a short period has become Europes most popular bet. Despite the 10-Cent minimum, the V75 attracted a record handle of $11-million U.S, according to figures quoted in the Toronto Globe and Mail. The V64 is a Pick 6 offered on Swedish harness races with a 20-Cent minimum. The carryover in the V64 has reached $25-million.

Despite the inexpensive cost, the V75 reached a record high payoff of a lottery-like $6.5-million while the V64 reached a high-water mark of over $566,000. It is amazing what a difference fractional wagering, marketing on a national level, and life-changing payoffs can make.

In addition to tapping into the mentality of lottery players, the potential for huge payoffs in these super-exotic pools minimizes competition from offshore bet shops that will not risk booking bets with such a low handle-to-payout ratio.

In the stodgy world of American pari-mutuels, indifference is often confused with tradition. State racing regulators continue protecting the wagering public against itself while red state politicians have done their best to make gambling Americas next wedge issue.

Since the racing industry does not figure to get help on the national level anytime soon, Americas racetracks must begin showing creativity in wagering options in the areas of bet diversification, the placing of wagers, and creating the potential for windfall payoffs.

To paraphrase the political catchphrase of another administration: Its about the money, stupid.

It is not as if Americas tracks are not trying. Last year, Arlington Park introduced 50-Cent trifectas, a wager that seems ideal for bettors with a slots mentality. On point, it gives the average horseplayer the leverage he needs to collect more often and to use the kind of marginal contenders that help inflate payoffs.

On the third Saturday of May at Pimlico, a 25-Cent Pick 6 was available on a stakes-loaded program that culminated with the Preakness. However, either no bet-takers in New York State thought to ask the Racing and Wagering Board for permission to take the wager, or the venues wouldnt pay tote companies to re-program the betting machines. Either way, more potential handle lost; less customer service given.

In New York, the NYRA introduced the Grand Slam, and the bet has played to mixed reviews. Interesting in that it was a four-race sequence requiring an in-the-money finish in the first three legs, thus loading the bases, and the winner of the fourth leg, to hit a Grand Slam.

However, the wager is just not that interesting and it makes no sense to tie up betting capital for a relatively small return. The wager was a little interesting at Saratoga because of the quality of the competition and higher average payoffs. But at least track management tried something, like when it lowered the takeout on Pick 6 from 25 percent to 15 on non-carryover days.

Efforts made by Americas tracks have been few and far between. There has been no movement toward, say: A 25-Cent North American Pick Six every Sunday, on six stakes races from the USA and Canada.

Promoted continentally, entries would be taken Wednesday; wagers taken everywhere for four days (Thursday through Sunday, including Internet). Then print the entries in USA Today on Thursday--right next to the illegal sports betting lines--with a rotating group of nationally recognized handicappers from the areas hosting the races, forming a super-consensus-box guide.

Like the current Magna 5, races should be bundled into a nationally televised, one-hour show live on one of the ESPN networks--or suitably large regional sportsnets--and streaming on the Internet. During the NFL season, find a Saturday window, excluding Breeders Cup day, for a three-day national wager leading into the local evening news.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hall of Fame 2008 Nominees: An Embarrassment of Riches

Saratoga Springs, NY--The Hall of Fame nominations ballot arrived in the mail Monday. Is it that time already? Can Eclipse Award ballots be far behind?

The answers are yes and no, like the entire process itself. So many worthy nominees; so little time to get them all in at once.

My first inclination was to not add to an already worthy list. The H of F rule is that horses and horsemen nominated but not elected in the past three years automatically return on next years ballot.

Thats entirely fair. If you made the cut once but failed to enter; try, try and try again. There are no losers on the list. Its the reason why all those TV award-show presenters say: And the Fill-In-The-Award-Here Goes To

In that spirit, I wasnt going to add to the existing lists.
To varying degrees, arent jockeys Eddie Maple, Craig Perret, Randy Romero and Alex Solis worthy of induction to the Hall?

Howd you like a horse trained by Dale Baird or Gary Jones or Mel Stute or Robert Wheeler? Me, too.

Were you not entertained by the performances of Best Pal and Housebuster and Lure and Manila?

Dont you like mares that shave, such as Inside Information, Silverbulletday, Open Mind and Sky Beauty?

Thats enough to consider, enough to make a horse-lovers head hurt.

So how do you choose between Maple, a winner of nearly 4,400 races, and Craig Perret, a winner of exactly that number, many by appointment only?

Or were Romeros rides on Go for Wand and the pressure of Personal Ensigns winning streak, ending with that indelible Breeders Cup over Derby heroine Winning Colors, good enough to seal the deal? How about Alex Soliss work on Classic/Dubai World Cup winner Pleasantly Perfect. Snow Chief, too. Either way, no argument.

The great trainers are always hardest for me to separate. How is the winner of 9,418 races through last October not in the Hall of Fame? And I dont care if Dale Baird saddled all of them in my back yard. They count!

Gary Jones? He was 18 percent effective in stakes company, the developer of Turkoman and Best Pal and Quiet American. Quiet American? He won the Cigar Mile when it was the NYRA Mile, in 1990.

Everybody remembers Stutes work with Snow Chief, but how soon we forget Bobby Wheeler, if we ever knew him. In 1960, when C.V. Whitney was Americas leading owner, it was Wheeler who won tons of stakes money with Tompion and the fillies Silver Spoon and Bug Brush.

Bug Brush? She set a world record beating males in the San Antonio. Wheeler won 18 stakes with those two fillies that year. And when racing began to grade its stakes in 1976, Wheeler won 25 percent of those he entered. No wonder Greentree and Nelson Bunker Hunt hired him, too.

That would make him a sort of back-in-the-day Pletcher. Todd Pletcher? With current earnings of over $138-million, fourth all-time, hes not eligible until 2020. Riddle that for a minute.

The horses? Best Pal: 18-for-47, 17 stakes, Big Cap, Hollywood Gold Cup, Oaklawn Handicap; $5.6-million. Turf specialist Manila: 12-for-18; Arlington Million, United Nations, Turf Classic, Breeders Cup Turf over Theatrical, Estrapade and European champion Dancing Brave; $2.6 million. Silver Charm: 12-for-24, 11 graded stakes, Derby, Preakness, Dubai World Cup (Swain, by a nose); $6.9-million.

And the girls? Inside Information: 14-for-17, nine stakes (six Grade 1), wins over Heavenly Prize, Sky Beauty and Serenas Song. Sky Beauty: 15-for-21, NYRA Triple Tiara, Alabama, the Ruffian (130 pounds). Silverbulletday: 15-for-23, 14 of first 16; $3-million; Juvenile Fillies, Ashland, Kentucky Oaks, Alabama.

So Im thinking this is easy. Plenty to think about already. How impertinent to add more names to those lists.

Parenthetically, what if Midnight Lute does win Saturdays Cigar Mile? Does he upset Lawyer Ron, the protem handicap champion? Excuse the digression.

In their zeal to make the process easier, the Hall of Fame people provided more information to nominators; a Top 100 list of trainers, jockeys, and horses, both active and inactive. But the committee actually made the decision process harder, confusing voters with all these facts.

Among the Top 100 trainers listed by earnings, sitting at No. 5 is Bob Baffert. Right, hes not in the Hall of Fame, and hes eligible. Got to nominate him.

But wait. What about Jerry Hollandorfer? Would there even be a Northern California circuit without him? Now look all the way down to No. 29. Are you kidding me? Carl Nafzger? He doesnt have Bafferts numbers, but he doesnt have Bafferts owners, either.

(I know Im in the minority, but I must vote my Eclipse conscience: Curlin for Horse of Year; Nafzger for Trainer of the Year. Why? Because at the end of the day, Nafzger accomplished more working with a little less. And Im a huge Street Sense fan).

Already mentioned Baird. But racings third winningest trainer, King Leatherbury, is eligible, as is Richard Hazelton, fifth on the all-time winners list. Will they, too, be victims of geography?

A glance at the Top 100 money earning jockeys shows Edgar Prado right behind Solis at No. 7, and hes eligible. And did you know that Garrett Gomez, the new all-time single-season stakes king, is eligible, too.

At No. 35, nine slots behind Gomez, is Chris Antley. Does anyone deny his Hall of Fame talent? Or will a tragic off-track life and death be his legacy? Which begs the question, what about the eligible Patrick Valenzuela?

Dont know if anyones thought of this, but if 500 home runs is one benchmark for entering the MLB Hall of Fame, so should members of the 6,000-win club, especially since only 15 jockeys have done it. Yet, David Gall (7,396), Larry Snyder, Carl Gambardella and, most recently, Mario Pino, are not Hall of Famers despite their qualifications.

It is with a measure of excitement and trepidation for my future workload, that I add these names (one per category limit) to the 2008 list of Hall of Fame nominees: Trainer: Carl Nafzger (Baffert next year, I promise). Jockey: Edgar Prado. Contemporary Male: Maybe Tiznow, maybe not. (Consecutive Classics loom large, an 8-for-15 career mark doesnt). Female: Enough already.

The deadline is December 4. Probably will take that long to decide.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Breeders’ Cup Marathons Could Prove Beneficial to Sport

The events immediately surrounding Breeders Cup 24 has provided grist for countless mills. The impact of the first two-day scenario; the Cups negative impact on existing traditional fixtures; catastrophic breakdowns and even the weather has been fair game for speculation and commentary.

The true impact of this Breeders Cup season instead might prove to be what happened before and after racings crowning event, happenstance that could make a greater, more lasting impression on the sport, one that actually reverses some of the negative trends of the last decade.

Before and after the recent Breeders Cup there was much speculation about how the event can be changed for the good not only of that organization but how enlightened self interest regarding some changes under consideration could be whats best for the game going forward.

The dominant topic has been expansion and its potential for not only raising the profile of the season-ending event equal to the level of public consciousness enjoyed by the Triple Crown, but also how by lifting the events prestige elevates the brand to a true world class level, one that reaches beyond Europe to racing outposts in the Far and Middle East.

Fair minded individuals would have to term the Breeders Cups inaugural two-day format a success. Despite a well documented fact that people wager less money on sloppy tracks and, to a smaller degree, wet turf courses, on-track handle of $5-million at water-logged Monmouth Park was significant as was a weekday simulcast handle of $30-million. All this despite relatively small fields in two of the three added BC events.

Expansion that would include a six furlong turf sprint and possibly dirt marathons will be on the docket when the Breeders Cup board of directors meets next month. At this juncture, the turf sprint is considered the strong favorite for adoption on the first of the Cups two-day program slated for next October at Santa Anita Park.

Would anyone truly be surprised if someday Breeders Cup expanded to include races for every Eclipse division? And wouldnt that be the right thing to do? Indeed, if Breeders Cup expanded further, wouldnt it make sense to spread the two-day event over a three-day period to sustain and build greater anticipation? That way Day 1 would get comprehensive coverage instead of the prelude/afterthought treatment it got this year. The host track certainly wouldnt mind.

More important than a turf sprint, sure to prove popular on both sides of the Atlantic, is the notion of creating dirt marathons. Season-ending marathon championships might go a very long way toward helping restore the sport to its former glory days. To wit:

Because of the slower pace and the accent on stamina, marathon events are safer for the animal. Clearly, sprint racing is far more stressful. By taking the ability to run fast out of the equation, horses again can be bred for stamina, which should prove a boon to both horsemanship and the breeding industry. Leveling both those playing fields are in sports best interests.

The creation of championship marathons is certain to increase a wider range of international participation, drawing competitors from lands where distance racing is the rule, not the exception. Resultantly, more marathons would be instituted here as a matter of policy, thereby creating an alternative for an underutilized segment of American thoroughbred sport. A pattern of new races leading to a championship lends diversity and provides an added level of interest for both fans and bettors.

The trend of synthetic-track racing in this country dovetails nicely into an expansion of marathon events. In addition to the promising safety studies, there has been even more empirical evidence to suggest that training on artificial surfaces results in a greater level of fitness and conditioning, a necessary by-product when trying to get horses to stretch their speed over much longer distances.

Perhaps the best reason to create a championship division for marathoners is that it might help keep some of racings three-year-old stars around a little longer, at least until their 4-year-old season. Beyond that a championship program for marathoners gives rise to the possibility that once again the sports fans could see a new millennium filled with latter day Kelsos, Foregos and John Henrys.

A championship marathon division is the impetus that could engender a greater spirit of cooperation within the provincially splintered industry. Its easier to gain cooperation among competitors when each has a vested interest in the successful outcome of a new program initiative.

The fruits of commitment would take time, of course. But stimulating a spirit of cooperation between competitors within the same region can be a reward in itself. A series of marathon races, sensibly scheduled, could create a circuit where none previously existed. A newly formed cooperative could result in a synergistic marketing effort among what have been competing venues.

Much of the pre-Breeders Cup storylines involved how racings crowning event rendered the sports traditional fixtures obsolete, events that previously gave the game its continuity and historical perspective. But that was an unintended negative consequence. Ironic, now, how the expansion of what some believe a debilitating concept could instead prove the instrument for making the sport better, beyond anything ever envisioned by Breeders Cups early practitioners.

Written by John Pricci

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