The State of the Game Address
HorseRaceInsider is pleased that its loyal readership is willing to contribute intelligent discourse on horse racing's myriad issues in the HRI Readers' Blog. Today's installment is penned by friend and professional associate Cary Fotias, founder and President of Equiform, a handicapping data company in New York City providing performance figures we personally have used and endorsed for a decade. Fotias is the author of "Blinkers Off," a primer on the next level generation of sheets-style speed figures including the significant contribution of how pace informs the final figure. Cary has been an NTRA Players Panel contributor and a member of the Horseplayers Association of North America's advisory board. He has been a professional horseplayer for nearly three decades.
By Cary Fotias,
On Saturday, over 100,000 racing fans will gather at majestic Belmont Park as I’ll Have Another seeks to become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years. I have seen every Belmont Stakes since I moved to New York in 1986 - from Woody’s fifth straight with Danzig Connection through Ruler on Ice. In that span, nine horses have taken aim at the Triple Crown, only to come up short.
Believe me when I tell you; there is no sound in all the world of sports like the “New York roar” that builds to a climax as a potential Triple Crown winner enters the final furlongs.
Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, and Smarty Jones – some really good horses have failed the Test of the Champion. Will I’ll Have Another become our twelfth Triple Crown winner?
I guess we’ll have to see what Dullahan, Union Rags, Paynter and Street Life have to say about that. So, get out to Big Sandy on Saturday and see some history.
With all the excitement attendant to the Triple Crown generating the headlines, there are ominous signs for Thoroughbred racing that continue to lurk “below the fold”.
Item: In 2004, I was part of the NTRA Players Panel at the Handicapping Expo in Las Vegas that made over 60 recommendations (one of which was implemented) to the industry to improve the game.
Number one on my list was to lower the takeout dramatically but, unfortunately, this has not happened. The only meaningful takeout reductions have been in Pick-3, Pick-4 and Pick-5 pools.
Reducing the takeout in these pools does little to increase “churn” as the usually large payoffs are shared by only a few bettors who are unlikely to quickly plow back their profits.
It would be much better to lower the take on WinPlaceShow. Almost everyone would benefit from this, including the tracks. Churn would increase significantly and casual players would get more “value” for their entertainment dollar.
It’s so simple an economic concept that it probably has no chance of happening considering the panjandrums that control the game.
Item: In the last few years, total handle on thoroughbred racing in the US has dwindled to $10.6 billion from $15 billion. That’s a 30% decline in just a few years. As the powers that be continue to fight for a bigger piece of a shrinking pie, they should be looking to get a smaller piece of a much, much bigger pie.
The industry has taken the greatest gambling game ever invented and trashed it. It is a testament to “what the outside of a horse does to the inside of a man” that the game has survived the egregious and almost unconscionable decisions of its management.
Item: The aforementioned decline in handle has led to a severe liquidity crisis in the wagering pools. With money spread across so many exotic pools in addition to WPS, the effects of the overall decline are exacerbated. To wit:
In Saturday’s first race at Monmouth Park, widely regarded as a top-shelf venue, My Place Anytime was 3/5 entering the gate. He won, paying $2.60. In the second race at Monmouth on Sunday, Quiet Tiara was 8/5 entering the gate and won, returning $3.40.
There’s nothing fishy going on here. It’s just that a few big bettors, or one really big one, can cause these dramatic changes due to the paucity of money in the win pools.
The solution is simple: LESS IS MORE.
We need a lot less racing, and perhaps fewer betting options on every race, so that pools can attract large bettors with differing opinions. If we ran half the dates we do now, I guarantee overall handle would improve. Why?
Because people will bet more than twice as much on big, competitive fields than they will on a steady diet of five and six horse affairs you always see in Northern California, and recently in Southern California and even Churchill Downs.
Item: Preposterous is the only word that leaps to mind when describing Churchill Downs’ handling of the “late odds drop” phenomenon. Although the industry promised years ago that odds cycling would be reduced to 15 seconds, it has not happened. How has Churchill handled it?
The myopic managers at CDI have decided that rather invest money to help keep the industry’s promise, they simply “blank out the late odds” until they are final.
That way, the supposition goes, no one can complain about late odds drops during the running of the race. So, when you watch races from Arlington, Calder and Churchill, you won’t see odds until mid-race.
I have recommended for years that all final WPS pools and exacta payoff grids should be posted on the tracks’ onsite monitors and websites before the race goes off. That would insure the integrity of the pools.
Players would adjust to the earlier cutoff times and reasonable bettors would consider it more than a fair tradeoff. Time has come for the industry to respect the intelligence of its serious fans and players.
Item: After all the carry-ons at NYRA, the new board will consist of appointments from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the NYRA, including non-voting members for owners and breeders.
Has anyone ever considered the horseplayers? Hello? It disgusts me that the most vital constituency in the game is consistently given such short shrift.
Item: The New York State Racing and Wagering Board seems to just make up the rules as it chooses. I wouldn’t have a problem with the detention barn for the Belmont Stakes horses if it was also used for $20,000 maiden claimers.
I want to be betting on a “fair” game all the time. The money is just as green in the first race on Wednesday as it is for the Belmont.
And, if you can change the rules on a whim, why not allow I’ll Have Another to race with the nasal strip that is permitted in every other US racing jurisdiction? Lasix is OK, but not a nasal strip? Let’s get real.
Item: Dateline - North Randall, Ohio – Check out this beauty from Daily Racing Form. (Talk about manipulating the pools: I guess the perpetrators inflated the price of the favorite so they could collect more from bookmakers than they invested to drive up the price at the track).
“The intentions of the bettor or bettors who targeted Monday's (May 21) fifth race on Thistledown in Cleveland for $90,000 in late win bets remained unknown on Wednesday, according to officials who are familiar with the investigation into the wagers.
“Investigators have failed to determine how the bettor or bettors figured they would profit from the $15,000 win bets, which were placed on every other horse in the seven-horse maiden race but the 1-5 favorite within 90 seconds of the race going off. The bets drove the odds on the favorite up to 14-1 before a robotic wagering program targeted the favorite with an $8,359 win bet placed just before the race went off.
“The horse who had been the favorite, Eye Look the Part, won the six-furlong maiden race by 16 1/2 lengths. He paid $12.80.”
Sixteen and-a-half lengths! I guess they weren’t taking any chances. These guys better be careful. Bookies don’t take kindly to this type of activity. Baseball bats, anyone?
Even worse than this type of coup is the fact that most tracks allow the cancellation of large bets. This creates a “license to steal” for larcenous operators who pound a horse early (getting others off the horse due to deflated odds) and then pull money out at the last second to inflate the price. This is beyond chicanery and tracks should be very vigilant about this. But sadly, they are not.
Item: The Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) have shelved a betting exchange trial for at least a year. That’s right, these fools are fine with 5-horse fields where it’s easy to collect purse money but refuse to allow Betfair to begin an experiment with exchange betting in the U.S.
Betfair purchased Hollywood Park and TVG (Television Games Network) with the obvious intention of introducing exchange betting. Exchange betting has proven wildly successful in Europe.
As win betting accounts for only 20% of US handle, why not give it a try here? The game is dying and a betting exchange might just revitalize the industry by attracting the younger demographic it is constantly seeking.
In addition, a betting exchange solves pool manipulation issues--if you open a horse at 1/9, everyone will short it--and also solves the late odds drop problem. On the exchange, the price you “deal at” is locked in.
Winning at horseracing is all about getting the right price. Serious players only bet when they are “getting the best of it”. But when odds fluctuate so dramatically, except in the largest of pools, a very tough game becomes almost impossible to beat. That’s the point serious players consider fleeing to the safety of 10-year Treasuries yielding 1.47%.
There it is race fans; some of the good, the bad, and the ugly. And, so, as we contemplate and anticipate possibly being a witness to history late Saturday afternoon at Belmont Park, let's hope that more, well informed consideration is given to what is happening on too many other days of the year in Thoroughbred racing, the greatest game played outdoors.
Cary Fotias and John Pricci together will be co-hosting two Belmont Stakes e-seminars on Thursday and Friday nights this week. Please see SaratogaBets.com (Thursday presentation) and Equiform.com (Friday) for details
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