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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


As fans and gamblers reflect on what transpired at Saratoga Race Course Saturday afternoon, if at day’s end they were left feeling that their hometown team had just lost the Super Bowl, they are racing’s true fans.

These Thoroughbred fans care about the Eclipse Awards that signify divisional championships. Thereafter, racing stakeholders, privileged to vote on Hall of Fame elevations, delineate between champions and equine deity.

It’s called a pantheon for a reason.

But as Philadelphia Daily News’ Dick Jerardi dead-panned to me minutes after Blame handed Hall of Famer Zenyatta her lone defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, “this game will break your heart and that’s what keeps us coming back.” #SMH

Indeed, the horseplayer in us are suckers for punishment; we keep getting disrespected yet we keep coming back, many of us anyway, albeit fewer with each passing day.

But as fans, foisted by the hyperbole of electronic media that create unreasonably high expectations–guilty as charged–we often suffer crushing disappointment.

Midnight Bisou’s head defeat in the Personal Ensign is horse racing’s equivalent of “wide right.”

Having some experience with it, television analysts must better manage expectations, especially while catering to a new racing audience that needs educating. Nuance, after all, is something that’s lost on many veteran’s as well. This game humbles kings.

Not every good horse that comes along needs godding-up; not every trainer “does a great job”; not every great jockey is “the best in America”; not everything one watches “is a lot of fun.” But I digress.

At least Midnight Bisou showed up, something she does virtually every time. Yesterday, improving Vexatious showed up a few inches better, running as fast as the Whitney winner, last year’s Kentucky Derby favorite, did two hours later.

Considering that the measure of great achievement in this game is reached when equine and human practitioners only miss their mark twice in three chances, Midnight Bisou’s slate took a hit. She’s now [22] 13-6-3 lifetime, in the money again.

By comparison, Vexatious elevated her lifetime record to [23] 4-3-7. Six pounds, 124 to 118, helped the lighter burdened upsetter, and it took a magnificent race ride by Jose Lezcano who took his mount out to give his mount an opportunity to win a battle of wills.

Indeed, he came close to the kind of intimidation that results in disqualification. But close is good in horse shoes, not in horse racing. The merits of the rule is another conversation; it was a proper “as is” result.

My heart sunk when Tom’s d’Etat, who gave a damn good impression of the best handicap horse in America all year, went to his knees at the break.

If the late Don Meredith were calling the Whitney, he would have broken into “Turn Out the Lights” before Improbable completed the short run to the first turn. A projected perfect stalking trip turned out to be a nightmare for Tom’s d’Etat.

I know, “taking nothing away from the winner…” but the reason we downgraded Improbable’s chances was due to his well documented gate issues and we don’t like 10-furlong winners, however impressive, turning back with better rivals.

But how were we to know that he would stalk a glacial mile and a quarter-like pace of 25.12 and 49.74, opening gambits that were far more suitable to turf than dirt racing.

Improbable proved clearly best on the day, sprinting the final five furlongs in 58.91, real racehorse time. Clearly, he has made the physical transition from 3 to 4 in a big way. A respectful tip of the cap to the controversial Mr. Baffert.

The defeated favorite, co-highweight with Improbable and Code of Honor–a colossal Whitney underachiever, deserves honorable mention for a worthy finish, cutting a 5-length headstretch deficit in half, losing place by a half length after angling out untenably wide into the lane.

Down the road, Vexatious, even at 6, will need to prove that the Personal Ensign was no aberration. All Midnight Bisou has to do is show up and give her usual account.

Must admit new and improved Improbable will take reckoning for the rest of 2020 and would appear appropriately ranked atop the division after wins in the Hollywood Gold Cup and Whitney.

The mile and a quarter of the Classic might not flatter either one ideally but I will anticipate the rematch with both getting clean starts. That’s unlucky to happen until November, a long three months away.


Even though the pace was contested, don’t believe that was No Parole‘s best go. A big effort and subsequently difficult Jerkens dynamics, a freshening might be in order… Echo Town showed surprising late power yesterday. We expected his best go but never anticipated drawing away late as he did.

The disqualification of Sadler’s Joy, benefitting our win wager, value call Cross Border, but cost use a winning exacta and trifecta was the proper call.

While the NYRA stewards have a reputation for inconsistency, they’ve had some tough calls at Saratoga this season and, on balance, got them all right in our view. Credit when it’s due…

Cariba gave Christophe Clement a meet leading 14th win taking the Caress, this won with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the boot, completing his home run on the day.

If speed killed–not in a good way in the Jerkens–it was the same story on the West Coast where a fierce pace battle in the G1 Bing Crosby set the table nicely for the rally types.

Flavien Prat guided Collusion Illusion to the fence and Lexitonian came storming down the middle to finish in a photo as close as the Personal Ensign.

At the end it was the three-year-old on the rail that got it done, punching his ticket into the Sprint and denying Jack Sisterson a “win-and-in” Breeders’ Cup double. Sisterson engineered the upset of Midnight Bisou earlier.

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39 Responses

  1. Not about Whitney day, John, but still significant….the Shared Belief. What a bummer. I knew HAP wouldn’t be fully cranked, but even at 85%, he should have won. My concerns before the race were that John went too easy on the colt, never asking him for any speed at all. No wonder Mike said he was off the bridle …he really just ran in spots, and was overall dull. It’s depressing because HAP is a very competitive colt who loves to run – for him to be so lethargic speaks volumes. He WAS slammed at the start, admittedly, so that didn’t help anything….and, I like that even on his worst day by far he still closed pretty well, spurred on by the horse closing in on him. I haven’t lost any faith in him in the sense that I still think he’s special, but I do have my doubts about the Derby.

    1. Haven’t heard from you in a while Bets and hoped all was well. I worried about HAP being short, too, it wasn’t a graded stakes so no reason to crank on him. I look for a sharp training schedule because yesterday would get him fit, as a bridge race, but he needs to be sharpened badly.

      Meanwhile, saw Uncle Chuck’s Los Al–most impressive for young green horse–and yesterday’s work. He’s a long legged, long striding black beauty! But I’m sure TTL will be ready. It’s exciting, pretty good Travers shaping up.

  2. All is fine, thanks, John. I haven’t been on-line that much – had serious DVR catching up to do, lol.

    I do wonder how much HAP got out of this race, to be honest….but, I suppose even if he only ran in spots, it’s still more effective than any number of works. A friend of mine who also loves HAP said he galloped out well, so that’s a good thing. Apparently the DM track was still deep and tiring – and John said before the race that he hoped it wouldn’t be like that, that it would be more like it was the week before the San Diego Hdcp. So, while I hate to use track as an excuse, it’s possible Honor A.P. didn’t really handle it. I’m just a fan, so I’m emotional about it, but since the racing media seems to be all of one mind that the colt will be fine, and aren’t jumping off his bandwagon so to speak, I should probably just let it go. It’s one race, even the greatest lose races.

    Chuck is very talented, no doubt……he certainly is long and lanky, with a very long stride. He and HAP eat up more ground in one stride than most horses do in two or three, lol. I think he’ll run very well on Saturday. As you know, my eyes will be on Max Player. My thoughts previous to today were that he would run a big race, but Linda Rice made a very odd comment today.

    ***“He’s doing very well,” Rice said. “He was training brilliantly into the Belmont. I don’t know that he’s moved forward, but I was very happy with him coming into the Belmont. So we’ve basically just been staying the course into the Travers.”***

    It’s not necessarily negative, but it’s not positive. She really hasn’t been able to drill him because it’s been so hot down here, so maybe she can’t tell – we’ll see in his last work, at the Spa. If he’s the same as he was around Belmont time, that’s ok, but I was expecting improvement……so, we’ll see. I guess we’ll also see how well a mile and a quarter race serves as a prep for a mile and quarter race, lol.

    1. Lot to chew on here. Not sure who said it Bets but a credible racing source said the track was playing one to two seconds slower; might have been Baffert, Gary Stevens, maybe even Shirreffs, but it was pre-race. Yes, a race is worth many works and he was going in the right direction at the end, albeit slowly and without pop.

      Wouldn’t read too much into the Linda quote. She can be circumspect at time or was lowering expectations, though I’m not sure why that would be necessary. The pressure’s on the favorite and Uncle Chuck to a degree.

      1-1/4 mile preps work for olders into the BC Classic; guess we’ll find out how it works with 3YOs this year–after Derby is run.

      1. I think the track was definitely slow and tiring – and I just read this morning, John, that Flavien Prat had commented about the inside being far better. I WAS worried after the race, but after reading several analyses and seeing that the racing media is totally blase about the loss, I’ve decided that I overreacted and that HAP will be fine. Of course, that’s based on John tightening the screws and not playing around, lol. For all that everything went against HAP and he wasn’t really prepped to run a winning race, he did well to hold his own and still keep plugging away; that shows that he’s not a horse who will shine when everything goes his own way and sulks/doesn’t put in an effort when it doesn’t.

        I follow HAP’s workouts religiously. HAP is a horse that loves to run, he’s usually fighting his rider to pull up and always gallops out well. Before and through the SA Derby, he always looked good, even in his slower works. I didn’t think so in his DM works. I think John might need to sprinkle more drills in between his slower works to keep HAP happy.

        You’re probably right – and I’m sure the comment was made in an offhand way. Max worked today, worked nicely and……well, we have less than a week to find out. I think he’s talented and wants to run long; I will be very happy if he runs well, and I expect him to.

    2. Bets, believe you may be in overreact mode, Linda’s comment meant, to me, he trained great and ran great in Belmont and I’m doing same thing to get him the the Travers. If his figures moved forward big time–don’t know yet–she’s wise to keep him fresh.

      It might be HAP hated DMR, didn’t like the surface. and didn’t extend under pressure. With no pressure on the gallop out, and accommodating himself to the surface, he did better, that’s a good thing.

      In any case, if he’s there, he should probably go to Kentucky a little sooner. Besides, probably all will have to be there 14 days in advance, which would turn out to be fair for everyone.

      1. Nah, as my last comment indicates, I agreed with you that I probably overreacted. Max had a nice work yesterday, and I think he’s going to run well in the Travers.

        Good points, John …I think fore sure that HAP didn’t like the deep, tiring DM surface. Hopefully he’ll do just fine at CD….I’m about to read your article on the jockey situation. That is really rough on them.

        1. Bets, It is indeed. If jockeys are required to stay for a long duration, perhaps Saratoga based riders will not ship if those horses at the top look too strong. Well, you know for sure that Manny Franco will do whatever is required!

          1. I wouldn’t blame them since they’d be giving up possibly many quality mounts… but if they have a real chance to win the Derby, I think I’d have to go. Franco for sure….and ultimately I can’t imagine Mike Smith giving up the ride on Honor A.P. ..l

  3. I feel like it’s the same old story again, but it would be dangerous to not continue to point it out: In yesterday’s 9th race at DMR, Awesome Drive sat at 13/1 literally when the horse was already in the starting gate. The first flash of odds on the screen once the race started, and he’s suddenly now 8/1. The pools are pretty fat at DMR, and similarly to what seemed to take place daily at BEL, the fat pools translated into no protection from this occurring.

    The guys on TVG were stone silent on this, and i can only assume with the way the tracks have splintered off into different TV deals, this is some ‘see/hear/speak no evil, of don’t bite the hand that feeds you variety’.

    Not that the FS1/MSG+ guys said much, if anything, about it during Belmont. It’s becoming increasingly frustrating to spend hours handicapping and setting odds lines, only to be playing in the dark when it comes to what is and isn’t going to be an overlay.

    1. To follow up on your point re: Midnight Bisou, yes she absolutely ran a great race. The Whitney timing out at 1:48.65 with Improbable being coronated as the 2nd coming after a perfect trip after his main competition was finished out of the gate, while Bisou lost by a neck in 1:48.82, while being forced out super wide down the lane, validates her performance. Vexatious, who I have to admit I tossed, as I fully expected to bounce as a 6yo coming off that top, just ran a phenomenal race and deserves all the credit.

      1. Pace not only makes the race, but the final time and subsequent performance figure.

        That’s why we point out that Improbable ran the final five furlongs–on dirt–of a 1-1/8 mile race in 59 4/5.

        After winning the Whitney, following the Hollywood Gold Cup score, it is clear that this colt is now a man.

    2. This is why Doc, as we’ve written and suggested for years, the time for fixed odds wagering has come, and why, unless something is done about it, not only will the industry continue to lose current bettors and fans, it will fail to attract any new fans who won’t accept what they will be going up against.

      You want to win converts by telling people they only need to cobble four or five or six consecutive races together, win racks on racks, it it only costs 20 Cents or 50 Cents?

      OK, under which of three shells is the pea hidden?

      1. Right, exactly. With the return of team sports phasing back over the next year or so, pivoting over to DFS becomes an attractive alternative for people who approach racing though handicapping and setting odds lines. Many of the same skills in terms of data analysis, assessing and under-weighing ‘noise’, understanding variance, the fallacies of being results oriented, etc. translate pretty seamlessly. It is never as much fun for me as I get from the races, even when winning a DFS tournament, but there is just so much you can take of – to steal your use of this – the shell game.

        I admittedly have not thought through the fixed odds solution thoroughly, but on its face I do like the idea very much.

        It is a uniquely strange feeling to have your 8/1 come home in front, while both knowing you would not have bet that horse without at least 10/1, and still feeling like you just got jacked. I like cashing, but I don’t like betting what i feel to be underlays. I like to know I made a good numbers based play pre-race – this is impossible to even know now.

        (debating the thought of getting the TG for the back half of the Colonial card as I type this)

  4. You conspiracy theorists are something. Quit blaming odd changes once the race is off for your plodder finishing up-the-track. Don’t the real horseplayers , who bet serious money, wait until the horses are loading to send their bet in? All the ADW hubs’ bets across the country can’t all be reflected in all pools precisely as the gate opens. Do these supposedly bettors wagering after the race is off really know if their plater is gonna win? BTW, how many times has the odds on your selection gone up after the gate opened?

    I mentioned here at HRI a while back that NYRA at one time cut off all wagering with three minutes to post and warned all horseplayers via a flashing screen in large type about the cut off at three minutes to post; this was at the time NYRA was proudly displaying a notice that they ‘have returned to bettors X millions of dollars’ when they reduced the win bet percentage. Find it odd that I am the only one who recalls the flashing screen announcement. NYRA went back to accepting bets right up until the gate opens because they could not note any odd changes that appeared suspicious

    As mentioned already here at HRI, the pari-mutuel system works against a bettor attempting to ‘buy-the-pool’ as when the odds go down on one entrant the odds go up on all the other entrants. What large bettor is going to knock the odds down on the horse he bets? Cutting his own throat. Want fixed odds? Try Keno or Craps.

    Why don’t y’all try to capture a geek or whale who is post-betting?

    1. I’m not in any way results oriented in assessing wagering gripes. So to your point about the ‘plodder finishing up the track’, to me it is irrelevant. And in case you still don’t find it irrelevant, the horse in question yesterday happened to win the race (which to me is still irrelevant for the purposes of discussing the issue).

      I have no doubt that many people bitch and moan after they lose a wager, and retrofit a bogeyman to explain why they lost. I am only looking at the numbers on the board dispassionately and wondering how much longer i am supposed to wait to make my bet when the next to last horse is already being loaded in.

      1. But Doc, the final flash from various hubs into the pool comes when the gate closes and doesn’t cycle/appear on screen for another 20-30 seconds so, even without past-posting, with computer playing hundreds of wagers or more at 30 seconds or a minute to post, you’ll be shut out…

  5. WMC,

    Yes, there may be some past-posting going on, but that’s suspicion, not fact. Who’s the conspiracy theorist on that?

    To a larger point, I consider you an intelligent man, the equal of anyone posting or working here. But having said that, I can’t believe you don’t understand the nature of arbitraging parimutuel fields.

    Here’s how the computer gangs work. Take a field of 10, they eliminate 2 or 3 no-hopers that requires eyeballs and an IQ in the low triple digits.

    The computer does the rest. The suckers, all of us who pay retail–no rebates–make a value play based on last-minute odds that are no longer available once the field is halfway down the backstretch.



  6. I simply can’t comprehend how these geek programs can work in a pari-mutuel system. In the stock market each stock stands on its own, meaning if I purchase a stock I am not affecting the price of other stocks. In the pari-mutuel system if I bet on a horse I am affecting the price (payoff) of all the other horses in the race. Only one horse can win the race so the geeks lose on all their other bets. How can rebates recoup the losses incurred on other horses bet? You got me really puzzled.

  7. TTT

    “All the ADW hubs’ bets across the country can’t all be reflected in all pools precisely as the gate opens.”

    This is a ridiculous statement. The technology has long been available for “real time” odds posting, they refuse to upgrade the system because they care nothing for the betting public.

    It is because of such ignorance and apathy that we continue to be abused.

    1. Let me be more precise, “can’t all be reflected in all pools precisely when the gate opens…” Feel better now? Can’t make a statement about industry apathy without first shooting the messenger.

      Final bets are made at the bell and at PRESENT, the final odds cycle 20 seconds later, after the race has begun. If it weren’t for precipitous odds drops, no one would even notice.

  8. Yeah it’s not as much the fact that odds always changed slightly at the last tick, only seen after the gates opened; we always had horses drop or rise a little bit on the final seconds action. The problem is now that so much is being jammed in at that last tick that the odds are often not even closely resembling what they were for the whole time between races, up until that final tick.

    In other news, the Timeform ratings were posted for Saturday’s winners, and Vexatious leads the way with a 125. Other SAR dirt stakes winners were Improbable with a 123, Echo Town with 118.

    This would be another source validating Midnight Bisou’s effort.

    1. When Keith’s GSR ratings come out tomorrow, you’ll have another basis for comparison either way. I’m very curious, too. The pace between the races was vastly different, that’s why I’m curious about the overall performance of MB and Improbable…

  9. John: I don’t wish to interfere with the ruminations of the Anti-Vaxxers, Flat Earthers, or Grassy Knoll types but they’re unifying characteristic is a fundamental refusal to compete with the relentlessness of Logic. I have spent a lifetime attempting to analyze the pari-mutuel pools, especially at the NYRA tracks. Unfortunately, I was exposed to the legendary “Doc” of Harvey & literary fame, as a teenager. A common “friend” told me back in ’77 that I should watch him do his thing. I watched him chart the board, and the Exacta will-pays ( there were only 3 in those heady days) like nobody’s business. I can assure you, and all of your loyal readers, that there was, and still is, a relentless logic to the “Doc’s”methods.
    What does this have to do with the current crisis in horse racing? Everything! Did you notice last week’s frenzy over the Del Mar Pick-6 fiasco? The old charting of the board, and will-pays, which the Doc did with a pen and graph paper ( How old school), is now accomplished with an AI algorithm in micro seconds. The added advantage that the computer people have is that they have unfettered access to the pari-mutuel pools. In the old days, you had to go to a teller and have the tickets punched out. Now, the computer-assisted wagering outfits can place over 8600 pick 6 bets in seconds. While they did nothing “illegal” insofar as the ADWs give them their preferred access, unless this process is severely curtailed, there won’t be a “game” left for anybody to bet on.

    1. The “Doc” you speak of was a cardiologist. Would pal around with “Martha Washington,” an older woman with striking white hair. She was the wife of famous trainer, William “Buddy” Hirsch (Hall of Fame) who was the son of Max Hirsch, very famous trainer also. A friend of mine who knew Doc from track brought a friend of his who had no money to see him at his practice. Doc did not charge the woman anything. Yes, I would see him with his clipboard in hand charting. But my friend told me that Doc had already done his homework on the race and had an idea to begin with. Would go to Harvey’s office to hang out.

  10. Totally agree, that’s been my argument for the last two years, maybe longer. Un-level playing field to begin then, as you say, it’s not a question of odds up-ticking or down-ticking.

    Sometimes, it’s not even close to odds with 1 or 0 on the clock. I know of three people personally who quit. And, you’re right again. This keeps up there will be no game left to play.

  11. What’s killing my enthusiasm is the tiny graded stakes fields with minuscule vertical exotic payoffs (the HAJ Mem. being the welcome exception).

    Perhaps the wmc mantra “Takeout only matters when you win” should be supplemented with “Takeout never matters when playing against whales with last-minute access to graded stakes vertical pools in short fields.” LOL

  12. C: I was also acquainted with Mrs. Hirsch, as she was a friend of the friend who directed me to watch the Doc. I think that, back in the late 70s, you and I must have been hanging out in the same vicinity, to wit, the third floor of the old Belmont clubhouse. You also reminded me that the Doc always carried that old clipboard around with him. Courtesy of the Doc, I found the greatest space at Belmont, i.e, the 4th floor clubhouse, next to the restaurant. It was the only place at Belmont where you had TVs and could also see the track live. The Doc usually planted himself in the second row of the middle section, in front of a TV, and I would sit a couple of rows behind him. Those were great times with so many great horses like Forego, Slew and Affirmed/Alydar.

    1. Yes, the time line is the same so we must’ve crossed paths. Slew was purchased at a yearling sale for $17,500.00. He won the Triple Crown undefeated. He supposedly looked funny as a yearling and people passed on him. A veterinarian, Dr. Jim Hill, saw something that he liked and purchased with Karen and Mickey Taylor. They called their partnership Tayhill Stable. This may have been the “Deal of the Century” in horse racing as Slew became a successful sire of many black type winners. I did not know Doc personally but knew of him and would see him with Mrs. Hirsch. Her husband’s father, Max Hirsch, trained Assault, another Triple Crown winner. Check out Max Hirsch online. Some really good horses trained by him.

  13. Did you gents know that Doc the cardiologist sired Sue Bird, the UCONN champion and WNBA star??

    1. Did not know that but thanks for sharing. My friend sees the Player’s Club list and, while Doc never shows up anymore, his name is on the list because of his “handle.” My friend is a member and says he has had conversations with Jorge Velasquez about Alydar inside Player’s Club at Big A. I will share what you shared about WNBA star with my friend who knew Doc back then. I went online to see both Wm. Hirsch and his father, Max Hirsch. We’re talking big league trainers with big league outfits (King Ranch, Greentree Stables, Vanderbilt, etc.).

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