Tuesday, February 05, 2013
Ray, Et Al, You’re Going to Have to Trust Me on This
HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA. February 5, 2013--As horseplayers go, Ray Paulick is an excellent journalist who probably never had to depend on betting for a living. We are only acquaintances, however, and, as such, I don’t know that is for sure.
But I certainly would categorize both of us as old school, in the best sense of the term but on this issue Mr. Paulick is out of touch; not necessarily philosophically but in all practicality.
The way the game is played today, making scores in exotic and super-exotic pools is not only an exciting way for the action crowd to participate in horse racing but the only way the average horseplayer can survive.
Until straight wagers are raked at a realistic max of 12 percent and a full frontal promotional assault is made on Wall Street gamblers--especially day-traders—increasing churn via straight wagering is as practical today as high-button shoes are fashionable.
In a recent blog post, Paulick began with a quote from the ivory-towered Charles Cella, who holds dominion over all things Oaklawn: “I think exotic wagering is the worst thing in the world for horse racing.”
At one time, Cella was onto something when he said that wagers with a lesser degree of difficulty kept players around a lot longer.
Given today’s dwindling betting base and high blended takeout rates, however, tracks no longer have the luxury of churning their way to profitability in the traditional sense.
And isn’t profitability still the only way all of us--big, small and weekend warrior; owner, trainer and casual fan keep score?
As Larry the Liquidator of “Other People’s Money” fame once said, the quickest way to go down the tubes is getting an increasing share of a shrinking pie.
Given the shortage of customers and “recreational” money, what remains are people who know what they’re doing. Of course, there are various levels of expertise.
But bettors who win consistently are still those that outwork the competition and, given that, the biggest problem for horseplayers trying to survive and advance is remaining focused on the task.
Expertise and undisciplined greed notwithstanding, lack of focus and exhaustion from today’s stress-filled lifestyles are the enemies of all horseplayers seeking success on a consistent basis.
Add to this the large betting menus of today’s simulcast marketplace, where nine of every 10 dollars are wagered, conflicting post times and lack of a uniform payout structure requiring a few extra seconds of thought are needless distractions.
Parenthetically, time come for all payoffs to be posted at the uniform rate of one dollar since that’s how odds are commonly posted. Further, all fractional wagers should posted at the lowest denominator, i.e. Dime Supers and, where available, 50-Cent Pick 5s, 4s, 3s, trifectas, etc.
Posting trifectas, superfectas and sequential wager payoffs at a $2 rate insults the intelligence of horseplayers everywhere and is a disingenuous and deceptive promotion that should be stopped.
Tracks should know that even whales take advantage of the leverage provided by fractional wagers and, believe it or not, horseplayers are capable of simple multiplication.
Continuing this digression, guaranteed minimums are real and provide a basis for players getting involved in certain pools, especially large bettors, but over-the-top shilling by simulcast hosts suggesting that players are getting something extra, or that you could win a million bucks for a dime is, at best, sophomoric.
Paulick correctly notes that it’s very likely that more exotic players are losing today and winnings are winding up in the hands of fewer players, which is why today’s average bettor has to outwork parimutuel opponents to mitigate potential bankroll gaps.
It’s no secret that larger professional players and serious recreationalists are betting through rebate shops, including some well-known industry types that keep this fact on the down low.
Further, racing’s biggest gamblers can buy sophisticated batch betting models that guarantee a profitable return if the handicapper can consistently eliminate four or five horses in a 12-horse field, far easier than identifying four or five top contenders.
While there’s nothing illegal about it, batch wagering can only succeed if the projections are based on accurate odds. That accuracy can only be guaranteed at the end of any wagering session.
In a game where late-odds fluctuations are routine, even at America’s biggest venues, late-odds changes are anathema to straight win players who must have value--disproportionately higher reward than risk—to survive. Grinding out straight value plays consistently is virtually impossible
Exotics make the game harder because of the higher degree of difficulty; no argument. But they also provide a means for the average player to leverage his smaller bankroll by giving himself more ways to beat a race or series of races.
In this fashion, average players can take advantage of mistakes when the big player overleverages his bankroll which consequently creates more value for his parimutuel rivals. When it comes to wagering in today’s game there’s no easy route to success.
Indeed, takeout levels originally increased with the proliferation of exotic bets, but with the success of tracks such as Betfair Hollywood and Tampa Bay Downs, to name just two, the pendulum is swinging the other way.
Tracks are making sequential wagers more attractive by offering some bets at a vastly reduced rate which in turn increases pool size and provides opportunities for higher payoffs because lower takeout is a rebate for all.
Where Paulick’s logic gets faulty is in not realizing that a 14% Pick 5 does not tie up money for five races; it actually increases intra-race handle and wagering in other sequentials such as the Pick 4 , Pick 3 and Rolling Double.
Saver wagers are no longer regarded as throwing good money after bad. If the whale is using his money to leverage his wagers and increase his chances of profitability, so, too, can the average player given the benefits of combining low-takeout sequentials with fractional buy-ins.
Back when life was simpler, when illegal sports betting wasn’t as mainstream as it is now, there wasn’t a casino or OTB parlor on every corner, no simulcasting, and everyone went to the track to bet win, place, show and the daily double, insuring pool liquidity, it was possible to patiently grind out profits by churning bankrolls.
Exotics and super-exotics no longer are about competing with lottery or casino jackpot payouts, although that thinking prevails. Handicapping is an intellectual exercise, not unlike poker, only horses are used to beat other humans, not a deck of cards. So to compare betting on horses with other forms of gaming, sports betting notwithstanding, is to insult the handicapping process.
The digital age, with its quality-of-information explosion, coupled with the shrinking pie phenomenon, has made grinding out profits all but impossible.
Most successful horseplayers today take a portfolio approach to wagering. They begin with their preferred wager, usually a high risk-high reward bet, and use surrounding pools to grow profits via arbitraging. That’s horseplaying in the modern age.
Even for the recreational player, the game demands a long term approach. Straight betting, mind-numbing simplicity notwithstanding, will not sustain players in the long term under current market conditions and given the current blended tax rates.
Making a score no longer is cause for calling a travel agent, it’s simply the path to fiscal survival. But only if the would-be winning horseplayer insists on increasing his knowledge, honing his wagering skills and--I almost forgot—focus, focus, focus.
Written by John Pricci
Thursday, January 24, 2013
Danger Is Their Co-Pilot
HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA, January 22, 2013—It can happen just like that, an accident on the race track that can leave a jockey permanently disabled, or worse. Race riders are’ after all, the only professional athletes that have an ambulance trailing them on the field of play. Serious danger is the reality that the practitioners never speak about.
What happened to Ramon Dominguez last weekend was an accident in the true sense of the term, his mount clipping the heels of the horse he was trailing, unseating Dominguez and throwing him down heavily.
Of course, the fact that thousand-pound beasts racing 40 miles per hour in the closest quarters imaginable is at once a testament to seamless skill and an accident waiting to happen.
It’s the love of the horse that first draws these men and women to the competition. Then it becomes about the adrenaline rush, the thrill of victory, fame and fortune and, at the end, always bringing you and your horse home safely.
Dominguez is a man’s man, not only for what he does athletically but because his family comes first. There were all those years in Maryland when his talent screamed New York but his soul remained free. Dad and mom didn’t want to pull their children out of school, choosing family life over a brass ring.
Of course, fame and fortune has come. Tireless, caring, and as quiet on a horse as you can be with great touch and timing, he stands at the very top of his professional, as a third Eclipse Award as America’s top rider can attest.
Last year Dominguez also earned the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award at Santa Anita Park for “demonstrating high standards of personal and professional conduct, on and off the racetrack.” He is, as is said, the complete package.
But now he has been moved to New York-Presbyterian Hospital with a displaced skull fracture, a result of being unlucky on the job. The reports say that he has been showing improvement, a little each day. What that means in this scenario one can only guess.
To say that I admire the courage and skill of jockeys who perform their athletic feats without benefit of the occasional time out is to understate the case. Even if I weren’t 150 pounds over, you couldn’t pay me enough to do what they do. Ramon Dominguez is a man who must truly love his work, otherwise he wouldn’t accept as many mounts as he does.
As an owner for a short time, I experienced what everyone says about him, that he’s classy, accommodating and doesn’t like to disappoint his customers, of whom Dominguez has more than his share, riding for outfits big and small alike.
To his credit, Dominguez has remained a home body. Even after moving family and tack to New York, he doesn’t leave home except for the stakes mount that takes him to Anytrack, USA. So he puts up with the New York winters, rides six, seven or more horses a day. And he doesn’t just win; he dominates.
Dominguez will be 37 in November, Given his lifestyle; he could easily ride at the highest level for another decade or longer. Mike Smith, single and living in Southern California, is still going strong and will celebrate his 48th birthday in August. Bill Shoemaker won the Kentucky Derby at 54.
But while Dominguez has won his share of Derby preps, America’s Race has eluded him. While, like Shoemaker, he may be only a phone call away, he hasn’t yet found many serious Derby prospects in South Ozone Park, and that will be especially true these days now that the safety of Aqueduct’s winter track has come into question.
The “inner track” could be considered one of racing’s first synthetic surfaces, a special blend of sand and freeze-retardant chemicals. However, last year’s alarming number of breakdowns resulted in state intervention, but it was determined that is was overly aggressive horse placement in races with disproportionately large purses, not the surface.
While nowhere near the number of catastrophic injuries as last year, there has been a spate of breakdowns recently, and over-racing is no longer considered the major culprit. In fact, a recent study indicates the opposite is true, that the number of starters is down.
Since the first of the year, in fact, Aqueduct has had the fewest number of starters per race in the Northeast, an unacceptable 6.98 runners per race compared to more than nine at Penn National and eight at Charles Town and Parx.
Like Aqueduct, purses at these tracks are fueled by mandated shares of casino revenue. And despite the disparity in number of starters between New York and Pennsylvania, New York’s purses are more than double those at Penn National.
Like people, racetrack surfaces grow old and tired. The winter track has been in existence for more than three decades and has withstood long, hard winters admirably.
But the constant adding of chemicals, known by horsemen to be very abrasive to a horse's lower extremities, especially when dirt wedges beneath bandages meant to protect and support. The inner dirt surface has become a painful irritant.
If Aqueduct Race Track has any future in the current political and economic climate, time has come to bite the bullet and invest in a synthetic surface, notably Tapeta, which has a reputation for translating form better to dirt tracks more than any other synthetic blend. Horseplayers appreciate that.
As a handicapper who takes betting the races seriously, I abhor synthetic tracks. Racing on it is not what most gamblers, trainers, breeders and jockeys want, but the time might have come for New York; winter time.
(I wager with a small degree of confidence on Tapeta at Presque Isle Downs and at Betfair Hollywood Park with its Cushion Track surface, the closest of any of the synthetics to dirt racing. However, I generally avoid top tracks such as Arlington, Woodbine, and even the mighty Keeneland, where my play is limited mostly to turf racing. I am not alone in this).
As for winter racing in New York, synthetic tracks--as opposed to chemically altered dirt--might be the only alternative to curtailing the winter season significantly or eliminating it entirely. And it serves the health interests of both horses and riders.
According to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, horses racing on synthetic surfaces are nearly 28 percent less likely to break down than horses racing on dirt.
And the current inner track, be it the chemicals or atmospherics, is greasy, the ground cupping out beneath the hooves while racing. Having difficulty gaining traction often results in that “bad step” that leads to injury, and worse.
Considering the data produced by more than three-quarters of a million starters, consideration must be given to synthetics for the winter track. Further, the surface allows for safer training in inclement weather. The only isue is that synthetics must be maintained diligently to insure uniformity.
Unlike what happened to Dominguez, not all spills are accidental. Most are the result of injuries, fatal or otherwise. The Deity has been sending Dominguez signs in the past year; a neck injury, followed by a foot injury, now a displaced skull fracture, the result of getting struck in the head by a trailing horse.
According to the most recent Jockeys Guild data, there are 1,700 riders in North America, of which 1,200 are active. Every year on average, two will die as a result of what happens between the fences and two more will become permanently disabled. Over 2,500 injuries are reported each year, making the chances of accidental injury odds-on.
So maybe it’s time for Dominguez and his agent, Steve Rushing, to lower the quantity and up the quality and commute weekly like the movie stars do, making dark day trips between JFK and FLL. Chances are better he’ll find his Derby colt at the good-horse meet in South Florida. But first he needs to recover fully. Godspeed, Ramon.
Written by John Pricci
Friday, January 11, 2013
Just Say WHOA
HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., January 10, 2013—The following is an except from a recent release from the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance:
“The future of the American horse industry, particularly the horseracing segment that is by far its largest employer and economic engine, is bleak for precisely the same reason that the nation cannot stem the rising cost of the world’s most expensive health care system. Both are locked in a business pattern where the controlling interests benefit at the expense of the powerless players. And just like the check writers in the human health care system, the very foundation of the horse business-the owners and breeders-are finding the endeavor increasingly unaffordable and out of their control. Only the horses are more helpless.”
The assumption is that members of the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance (WHOA), authors of the above, will be called alarmist do-gooders, or worse, by the majority of Thoroughbred racing practitioners.
Don’t these people realize that national handle was up in 2012, racing is on its way back, that the slide has been stabilized? WHOA’s critics would be correct about that, but what of the 25 percent of nationwide handle lost since 2006? Forget them as sunk costs to be ignored? Isn’t that the first rule of management?
Indeed, but what of public perception? Doesn’t that demand that the business model be improved or changed altogether? Or do we all just wait change to get up on its own in the final strides and beat extinction by a nose?
Besides, everything’s OK, now that it appears trainer Rick Dutrow, barring a federal appeal to come, will be put out of business. “We will not tolerate cheaters,” said former State Racing & Wagering Board chairman John Sabini upon hearing that Dutrow’s second appeal before the New York State Court of Appeals will not be heard.
What a relief, the scourge of Rick Dutrow, the only trainer to ever take an edge, will be gone, along with racing’s drug problems; as for the drug culture on the backstretch of American’s racetracks, maybe not so much.
Earlier this week, WHOA reiterated its support for federal legislation that would amend the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 to prohibit the use of raceday medication.
In the main, WHOA’s critics have been treated like so many messengers to be shot. These ivory towered rich are simply out of touch with reality, are they not?
Drugs have always been a part of the game; there’s no foolproof way to stop cheaters; raceday medication is humane treatment; there’s no public perception issues and other lies and half-truths.
What’s more, they’re hypocrites. When their grand No-Raceday-Lasix experiment failed, their horses were put on the diuretic. Never mind, say the majority. As long as it’s legal, I won’t even try. How can I compete with those taking an edge, etc., etc?
WHOA correctly pointed to positive steps taken; curtailing the use of anabolic steroids and growth hormones; how the Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders and Breeders’ Cup “finally stepped up to at least express a willingness to change things... But at this rate, real reform will take years to accomplish.”
Change in a democracy, as we’re reminded every day, is a slow, tedious process. Just like current second amendment issues, racing’s equally powerful majority argues that if you want to treat our racehorses differently you’ll have to rip the syringe from my cold, dead hands.
Proposed drug reforms have been adopted in some some states but denied in others, and it’s no secret that these efforts will continue to be opposed by most trainers and veterinarians who “just like insurance companies and human health care providers, do not believe reform to be in their best economic interests.”
The continued use of an ultimately debilitating diuretic, and attendant painkillers, remains unresolved, and a real concern is that unless the issue is resolved internally, some powerful outside group put an end to racing altogether. Unfortunately, this “fix” won’t go away on its own.
The economic reality is that the shuttering of racetracks in states allowing casino gambling would be best for the bottom line and is good political theater because it protects helpless animals from the acts of a “cruel industry.”
Deep-pocketed political parties backed by deeper-pocketed individuals might not be the only power base to lose its economic and political might if it continues to ignore the will of the American people, in this case the sporting public.
To date, only the Commonwealth of Kentucky has supported initiatives created by Breeders’ Cup, TOBA’s Graded Stakes Committee and the Jockey Club calling for a cessation of race day medication.
WHOA correctly pointed out that this is par for the industry course; a continuation of the status quo in which veterinarians call many of the training shots when it comes to the care and conditioning of race horses.
For horsemen, this potentially means the loss of mega-millions. But do WHOA critics really believe that these people want to kill the baby because it believes that it’s time to clean the bath water?
Trainers, however, bear none of the cost for veterianary services or medications. They have their own economic concerns, of course, as it relates to workmen’s compensation issues and the like.
There is no easy fix or clear blueprint for anyone seeking a future in this business. But the calculus seems clear: Change now or die a slow, irrelevant-to-the-world death.
With or without the approval of horsemen, change in some form is inevitable. The only way to fix potentially fatal problems is to deal with current issues by getting out in front of them.
No one is naïve: Taking an edge with medication, legal or otherwise, has always been part of the game. And there’s no way that some individuals outside the United States, who need not fear the rigors of American testing technology, are not beating system.
Not that we should care about other cultures that eat horsemeat but they’ve stopped doing so because the horses that come off our racetracks are full of drugs.
Whether members of WHOA get their wish or not, federal legislation will be forthcoming. And this does more than just put a way of life at risk. It risks the jobs of every group tethered to the race horse, millions of jobs, in fact.
Some food for thought for both sides: Beginning in a reasonable period, say two years, January 1, 2015, two of the aforementioned organizations need to go all in.
The Graded Stakes Committee, once and for all, must eliminate grading from any stakes race in which raceday medication is permitted. For its part, the Jockey Club must use the only real authority it has; its power over the stud book.
Commencing with the juvenile class of 2015 and beyond, the Jockey Club should not recognize any stallion that has run on raceday medication. All three-year-olds and older at that point are excluded, grandfathered in.
The majority of today’s trainers, including some present and future Hall of Fame horsemen, learned their craft by knowing how to lean on veterinarians and the satchels they carry to get their horses to win races.
Two years is enough time for real horsemen to relearn their craft through better horsemanship and holistic approaches based on the latest in anatomical disciplines. They need to break free of their drug dependency.
All Americans are learning to adapt their skill sets to a new world order that finds much of their talent obsolete--and that includes former full-time journalists.
If the racing industry doesn’t take steps to get out ahead of today’s drug issues now, or waits for inevitable federal intervention, it will rue the day it failed to act. And that day is at hand.
So just do it, and do it now.
Written by John Pricci