"Players Up" blogger Indulto is a retired computer programming residing in SoCal and has been betting Thoroughbreds since the days of Kelso, cashing his first ticket at Saratoga while in college.

Indulto is well known in racing's cyber world as a participant on the Ragozin Sheets message board, the PaceAdvantage Forum, Paulick Report, and has made important contributions to the industry's audience as an HRI Readers Blog contributor.

Indulto was active in the formation of the Horseplayers Association of North America and with former HANA colleagues worked on the Players' Boycott of California racing when takeout rates were increased by the legislature there.

Taking his nickname from the King Ranch color-bearer of the 1960s, Indulto now devotes his time to advocate for the recreational player and hobbyist, but prefers lower takeout rates for all rather than subsidized rebates for the few.

Indulto supports the creation of a centralized racing authority to establish uniform rules for racing and wagering and for those standards to be enforced consistently.

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Sunday, July 28, 2013

On Staggering the Stakes Schedule

LOS ANGELES, July 19, 2013—Horseplayer advocates were amused when the" target="_new">Pull The Pocket Blogger asked who his readers thought said the following: "… I want to discuss … your future and what it depends on. It is more than about the money, it is about the customer. Your future depends on how many people are coming to the track and how many people are coming to the track and betting. … Everyone, collectively, has to think about how you attract bettors and customers to the track and regain interest in the industry."

My question to HRI readers is "What is most likely to bring you out to the track?" In my case, it’s the appearance of racing’s equine and riding stars facing one another in large, competitive fields and the opportunity to get together with friends.

This new focus on customer satisfaction comes on the heels of another failed opportunity for crowd-pleasing competition on the last Hollywood Gold Cup ever when many customers, on-track and off, bemoaned the five-horse fields that "headline" Saturday’s cards virtually everywhere.

Traditional divisional scheduling conflict has always cannibalized the best races, the handicap division usually hit the hardest. Recently, smaller foal crops have exacerbated the problem, especially considering commercial breeding prefers brilliance to stamina and soundness.

For years, turf writers and horseplayers have called for industry cooperation in coordinating divisional events that would create more competitive contests with larger fields – the time-tested tonic for anemic attendance and handle. The latest to do so was Bill Finley, who stated the problem as follows:

"There aren't nearly enough good horses around to be able to have so many major stakes at so many different racetracks and hope to attract the type of fields with quantity and quality that customers demand."

Then the writer offered this possible solution:

"Once a month, and once a month only from January through October, racing will have a mini-Breeders' Cup Day.
… There will be one championship race per month for every division … The races will all be Grade 1's and no one will be allowed to schedule any other major races with big purses to compete with the championship events.
… The championship events will be held on the same day but at two racetracks."

He further proposed that "By getting rid of [races such as] the Suburban and so many other stakes races across the year, the NYRA could afford to make all of its races on championship days with huge pots."
I’m not convinced that staggering stakes races by itself is sufficient to attract increased trainer participation. I believe the current mindset of extended rest between starts and large barns avoiding competition between stablemates needs to be countered not only with fewer black-type opportunities but also with incentives that reward horses capable of high-level performances across multiple events rather than one-hit-wonders.

In essence that would involve 1) reducing the purses of all graded stakes to specified minimums for grade level adjusted by field size, and 2) allocating the remainder to bonuses that reward top-four-finishes in specific multiple-stakes sequences on a sliding scale.

An additional grade level -- Grade Zero (G0), perhaps -- would reflect the top level of open competition, e.g., the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Turf, Mile, Sprint, and eventually perhaps the Dirt Mile and Turf Sprint. The remaining Breeders’ Cup races would remain G1 or below, as would prep races for the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup.

It seems to me that Finley’s multiple mini-Breeders’ Cup days at more than one venue would dilute enthusiasm for the concept as surely as expanding the original single-day’s card into two days with overlapping divisions diluting the competition. What would the attraction be for the remaining weekends and holidays each month? The handicapping puzzle can be enhanced by an undercard of varying levels of races with competitive if not full fields, but only a hard core player would stick to a non-stakes diet day after day.

Single-venue stakes buffets like Haskell Day or Jockey Gold Cup Day are already served prior to Breeders’ Cup Fridays. It could be argued that Travers Day and Pacific Classic Day already function like back-to-back mini-Breeders’ Cup days.

In lieu of monthly mini-Cup days, Grade 1s for each non-juvenile division could be organized into one or more bonus-incentivized three-race series with one culminating in a Cup event. Each divisional series should then be scheduled independently within a ninety-day window to ensure top-quality racing on a weekly basis throughout the year.

Consider the following non-overlapping possibilities for the Classic division with some creative rescheduling:

1) Clark H.(Nov)--Awesome Again S.(Jan)--Donn H.(Feb)
2) Santa Anita H.(Mar)--Cigar Mile(Apr)--Metropolitan H.(May)
3) Stephen Foster H.(Jun)—Whitney(Aug)
4) Woodward(Sep)--Jockey Club Gold Cup(Oct)--BC Classic(Nov)

A series for the Turf division might include:

5) Gulfstream Park Turf H.--Woodford Reserve Turf Classic--Manhattan H.
6) Arlington Million--Joe Hirsch Turf Classic--BC Turf

The following are viable candidates for the Mile division:

7) Frank Kilroe Mile--Maker’s Mark Mile--Shoemaker Mile.
8) Woodbine Mile--Shadwell Turf Mile--BC Mile

The Sprint Division could be represented by the following:

9) Santa Anita Sprint Champ.--Triple Bend H.--Bing Crosby S.
10) Vanderbilt H.--Vosburgh Inv.--BC Sprint

The reader is encouraged to check out this sortable spreadsheet and come up with examples of their own for other divisions.

My other question to HRI readers is "What would induce you to watch and wager on thoroughbred races almost every Saturday?" For me it would be the opportunity for a relatively large payoff on races I enjoy analyzing without having to risk amounts that would take me out of the game too early if I got off to a slow start.

How about a multi-venue, all-graded-stakes, non-carryover Pick Six every weekend televised as a one-hour broadcast?

Imagine the popularity of such a product nationwide with low-takeout and a 25-Cent minimum wager--a dime minimum could be made available at tracks with live racing starting 30 minutes prior to the first leg. No need for life-changing scores, just inspirational reward for inspired handicapping.

Expanding the visibility of the best racing while creating additional opportunities for enrichment should expand the number of promotable winners. Free on-line Past Performance for these raves, together with early bird betting available at least two days in advance, would stimulate participation. The increased positive exposure should lead to greater awareness, interest, and enthusiasm for the game. No one track or state can do this on its own.

Racing needs a new perspective. Somewhat ironically, the Blood-Horse stakes calendar now reflects the rescheduling of the G2 Hawthorne Gold Cup from an unproductive Classic prep to Thanksgiving weekend in conflict with the G1 Cigar Mile--a race that already competes for runners with the G1 Clark. I assume they expect to attract a few Classic also-rans, but the possibility of a Grade 1 win elsewhere might prove irresistible.

Written by Indulto

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Beware the Invasion of the Track Snatchers

LOS ANGELES, July 13, 2013--In his recent redirection of attention, Vic Zast focused on the planned consolidation and privatization of racing in New York state: "There’s a franchise to sell … the media should ask questions, e.g. was Kay’s appointment impacted by New York’s very public decision to replace NYRA with a private operator in three years?

… If [Kay’s] bonus provides standards connected to maximize an end result when time rolls around to get Frank Stronach or Churchill Downs to step in – watch how quickly the tracks get a facelift."

This is a good time to recall that the last time those two titans tried to "step in," slots revenue was still the primary attraction for would-be track operators. Churchill Downs Inc. and the Stronach Group allegedly were represented by a group called "Friends of New York Racing" (FONYR), which later morphed into a bidding entity called "Empire Racing Associates."

That organization had the blessing of the powerful former State Senator Joseph Bruno, now a convicted felon. Once it was clear that the anti-NYRA confederation was not going to succeed, CDI and Magna backed away.

Some think that Stronach lost any chance of acquiring Saratoga following his appearance before the State’s "Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing" early in 2006, and that any attempt on his part to do so would be futile. At the time, Stronach advocated separating racing from slot franchise bidding. Actually, that’s exactly what New York State wound up doing.

Any protection for Saratoga from Mr. Stronach’s vision might lie in strong and sensible historical landmark safeguards. But will the present Governor and legislature step up and create them? And who will enforce this as time marches on? Wouldn’t the master of bankruptcy manipulation likely find ways around it anyway?

If procurement procedures such as those policed by NYRA watchdogs fulfill their promise of fairness and neutrality, how can a court-savvy owner of several successful corporations including racetracks be denied ownership of an entity he seems eminently qualified to operate?

As for Saratoga, which belongs to the sport as much as it does New York racing, there’s more than just the physical plant and ambiance to consider. Will the focus be on improving the racing product or increasing the venue’s luxury accommodations? Will high takeout rates continue to punish non-professionals while masking rebates that reward high-volume professional? Will exotic wager minimums be reduced to allow all customers to compete on a level playing field?

As for CDI, their attitude toward Florida horsemen is now on display for all of New York to see, as is the chilling result of their willingness to sell Hollywood Park to a land developer and the emasculation of the Illinois Derby. The success of their only non-slots property is solely due to Kentucky Derby weekend.

And what does the current free-for-all between South Florida’s two formidable rivals say about the wisdom of having either company operate racetracks in New York, anyway?

If and when the properties put up for grabs again, the current franchise operator likely will be one of the bidders. Kay just told the Daily News that he ’… will rely on the expertise of his own team of employees, who are well-versed in the sport. "There’s already a great team here," he said. "But I’m going to bring in a variety of talented people and promote and encourage the talented people we have… somebody with that racing experience very well may be one of those people."’

Under the present legal structure, the question becomes can this group legally form a private company? Despite the obvious déjà vu of it all, what else could successfully motivate such "talented" people to increase attendance and handle, extending their careers in the process?

It seems that in the absence of gaming’s involvement, there will have to be a partnering of racing stakeholders. Wouldn’t it be great if that entity finally included horseplayers, at least as stockholders. Can you conjure up a horseplayer who represents bettors sitting on the new NYRA board?

Let’s face it. New York’s racing elite became obsolete when they permitted their Sport of Kings to become the Gambol of Governors. Now the pastime that still can’t even coordinate post times is in danger of becoming more remote, strictly recreation for retirees and rest home residents that can hardly remember when racing was run rationally.

Written by Indulto

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Gladiators, Alligators and Volunteers

LOS ANGELES, June 27, 2013—Upon reading" target="_new">John Pricci’s piece about the squaring off in Florida between North American thoroughbred racing’s two corporate titans, I immediately thought of this.

The author acknowledged having his own perspective:
"… this much seems clear about Gulfstream’s expansion: Thoroughbred racing in South Florida could not be in better racing hands, nor can it be better positioned for the future.

No matter which parties are involved, conventional wisdom says that racing in the long term will always be better off in private hands than it would be with a publicly traded corporation."

Eventually the dust will settle and a single, bloodied combatant will be left standing, but how can we really say one is preferable to the other?

In one corner, we have Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI), led by the very well compensated five-million-dollar-man, Robert Evans, CDI’s heavy-handed, competition-crushing decisions suggest representation by King Kong.

In the other corner, we have the Stronach Group (SG), headed by gazillionaire Frank Stronach, who may envision himself racing’s savior much as Godzilla, portrayed by its Japanese creators as the savior of the earth against forces from outer space.

On SG’s side of the ledger we have:
1) Purchasing racetracks for apparent and alleged personal benefit using corporate funds at expense of Magna shareholders.
2) Rebuilding Gulfstream Park with little regard to its existing on-track customer base.
3) Acquiring racetrack properties for cents on the dollar through bankruptcy causing losses to Magna/MEC shareholders.
4) Elimination of the charitable fund-raising Oak Tree operation at Santa Anita through bankruptcy.
5) Creating on-shore rebate-shop ADW giving high-volume players overwhelming advantage over non-rebated players at their indirect expense.
6) Hiring former CHRB Chairman following beneficial rulings under his watch allocating Oak Trees dates to Santa Anita and granting a waiver from the mandated use of synthetic surfaces
7) Hiring former Breeders’ Cup Chairman preceding multiple assignments of Santa Anita as host venue for the BC.

On CDI’s ledger is:
1) Selling Hollywood Park to a land developer
2) Forcing the Illinois Derby off the Derby Trail
3) Strong-arming horsemen at Calder to prevent them from running elsewhere
4) Eliminating competing ADW operations
5) Freezing ADW bettors out when negotiating signal fees with tracks
6) Refusal to accept dime superfecta bets on Derby day (as opposed to restricting them to bet-taking processes that would not jam up betting lines on-track). This denies small-volume/casual players their best opportunities to score on racing’s biggest day.

Take your choice, but be prepared to watch out for the alligators – in Florida and elsewhere! And even if one prefers to liken them to gladiators the corporate culture is likely to emerge. Check out this parody "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

"I, Miles Gloriosus,
I, slaughterer of thousands,
I, oppressor of the meek,
Subduer of the weak,
Degrader of the Greek,
Destroyer of the Turk,
Must hurry back to work"

Maybe the Santa Anita of Charles Strub, the Hollywood Park of Marge Everett or even today’s Oaklawn Park of Charles Celia exemplify the kind of "private hands" embraced by Mr. Pricci, but in my opinion, neither conglomerate is sufficiently concerned with customer satisfaction or the welfare of the horsemen under their control. Without competition, the situation is likely to become worse.

Horseplayers and horsemen content to watch these proceedings from the sidelines will suffer the consequences. Surely there must be common ground to get an organization off the ground to protect the interests of non-professional horseplayers and horsemen with smaller stables.

I was reminded of gladiators when, once again, the Pull The Pocket (PTP) blogger provided a humorous take on the goings-on in California here; including his tenuous relationship with fellow horseplayer advocate, Andy Asaro, in the course of the blogger’s own advocacy work.

With great respect for both individuals, I can only say that reform is not possible without standing up together and forcing the issue. Our collective voice must clearly reach and reflect the concerns of the most common denominator among us--not the least, not the elite.

Asaro’s real voice is starting to become familiar due to his frequent appearances as a guest on the Roger Stein radio show which at times seems to approach co-host status
last Sunday.

But if not Asaro, then who?

How many others are willing and able to stand up to racing’s powers-that-be and do it face-to-face and at their own expense if necessary?

Racing’s powerful and privileged give up nothing unless forced to do so. Without organized opposition, they will continue to exert their authority with the same arrogance that invariably drives more people away from the game than it attracts.

The takeaway here is that new blood is needed. It would be helpful if they had Asaro’s drive, commitment, and savvy.

Candidates would need the skills to organize the strength of traditional racing organizations in order to move the industry forward. Once you get the alligators’ attention, you have to go in and wrestle him.

Written by Indulto

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