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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, August 22, 2021—From a competitive perspective, the 2021 Saratoga race meet, even from afar, has been one of the most entertaining I can recall. And we’ve been at this full time–live and from afar–since 1977.

The competition among the deepest jockey’s room we’ve seen has been sterling. It wasn’t until yesterday before Luis Saez was able to open a double-digit lead on the Ortiz brothers, and that’s after visiting Arlington Heights on Million Day.

On the trainer’s side, it even took Chad Brown, odds-on at the beginning of the meet to win another Saratoga title, until Alabama day to catch frontrunning Mike Maker for the lead with 22 victories.

Now, all of sudden, Todd Pletcher is in third, only two behind the leaders entering Sunday’s program. On the racetrack, Essential Quality, Malathaat, Knicks Go, Jackie’s Warrior and a number of juveniles from both sexes provided many memorable moments.

But I’ll remember 2021 Saratoga for one glaringly important reason; the New York Racing Association doing something for local horseplayers which we’ve championed for years, in New York and elsewhere: They leveled the playing field for 99% of rank and file horseplayers who wager regularly on New York racing.

The only curious aspect is why the announcement took so long to make? In a development confirmed on August 19 by Daily Racing Form, NYRA placed time restrictions on the game’s biggest bettors who place bets via computer assisted wagering algorithms (CAW) 22 days earlier.

The NYRA policy began calling for CAW platforms to place straight win bets on its races prior to three minutes to post time. Consequently, those bettors have stopped wagering into the NYRA win pool entirely, a development NYRA management confirmed to DRF only last week

Resultingly, NYRA has seen handle in its win pool decline, which means the association was willing to take a financial hit to do what’s best for the overwhelming majority of players who now have a chance to react to large odds swings made by computer-assisted whales in the final minutes of wagering.

Odds will continue to fluctuate, of course, many of the live runners likely to go down, but at a far less precipitous rate. The concept of wagering value is, after all, in the mind of each individual handicapper.

Now bettors are far less likely to see 9-1 shots at post time finish first and pay off at odds of 6-1 or 7-1 after the race has begun. This happenstance has been embarrassing, bad-message-sending occurrence that gives the impression that the Drexel Gang 2.0 are alive and well, past-posting the rest of us.

The benefit is that now $10, $20, and even $200 players can assume that even if their horse’s odds drop, they will get close to the odds posted at the time their bet is made, odds they consider fair at minimum fair or even viable overlays if their handicapping turns out to be spot on.

The decision was made to address the perception that CAW programs capable of placing hundreds or even thousands of wagers virtually instantly, providing them with a huge advantage when it comes to taking rewards created by pool inefficiencies.

The NYRA does not have a parimutuel death wish thus the time restriction applies to win bets only. The special bet-processing access afford CAW bettors while at its core remains unfair, still works to a syndicate’s advantage in vertical pools.

Between that and sizably elevated rebates based on high volume discounts, as compared to the average “whale,” made possible by relatively high parimutuel takeout rates.

While exacta and super-exotic payouts can be affected significantly, those changes are likely to be far less dramatic because of the large number of permutations involved. That means Will-Pay information will be somewhat skewed but still looms a more acceptable consequence.

The game is difficult enough without having a solid idea of what your winning choice is likely to pay. Further, it makes explaining the nuances of the risk-reward value concept more easily to the casual fan, never mind the newbies.

Put another way “for the everyday player, dramatic late odds shifts are a frustrating side effect of high-volume wagers placed at the last possible second,” NYRA senior communications director Patrick McKenna via a prepared release.

Also confirmed by the DRF report was that NYRA banned CAW wagering programs from its Pick 6, late Pick 5, and weekly multi-track Cross Country Pick 5 such as yesterday’s All-Graded-Stakes X-C Pick 5 from Saratoga and Del Mar.

While win pool handle was affected adversely, overall per-race handle remained flat as CAW bettors arbitraged their wagers elsewhere. Saratoga’s 2021 meet handle remains on course to set an all-time wagering record.

While NYRA was not the first track to place restrictions, it stepped out by limiting time access to CAW bettors interested in wagering on North America’s most popular brand, Saratoga.

This policy change has performed a great service for present and future players by taking a long term view that helps horseplayers anywhere they place wagers, particularly those on-track who support live sport.

Without controversy, the NYRA has done as much for the fiscal health of the players as changes in medication and riding crop policies in California and New Jersey have done for the health of racing’s equine and human athletes.

By leveling the win-pool playing field for the benefit of those who wager on industry leading New York racing, straight wagering is in position to grow in the future, just as NYRA’s lengthy takeout reduction grew handle in the 1970s.

Betting marketers, especially those at Advance Deposit Wagering companies, have an incentive to promote more costly horizontal wagering given its “life-changing” message. But coupled with that comes a high degree-of-difficulty wagering product.

All businesses have an obligation, and a right, to grow their bottom lines. But giving players a chance to maintain bankroll liquidity is the best long-term gift that racing can give itself and its loyal fans.

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29 Responses

  1. Finally, some good news for the recreational bettor!

    Will this policy continue at NYRA’s downstate tracks?

    1. That’s a good question. I will ask. I assume so–then you know what they say about ass, you and me.

    2. I,

      Contacted Communications Director Pat McKenna. He said he will check. If this is not permanent, I expect to react to that eventuality.

  2. I agree 1000%–thank you for alerting your readership to this change. Rare for me to tip my cap to NYRA!

  3. Actually, have been a lot kinder to NYRA since I left New York, just worked out that way.

    I compliment management when they make decisions that I believe are good for the players and/or the game This is one of those occasions.

    When policy hurts the player or the sport, we write that, too. It’s about balance and fairness. Thanks for recognizing the effort…

  4. John,
    What surprised me most was that bettors did not make a big deal of this change in policy. I was there many years ago when some of the bigger betters at the track went to management to complain about the odds drop,especially on horses who broke well. Mr. O’Rourke should be commended. In my opinion this is really a big deal.

    1. I agree Aaron, thanks why I was compelled to acknowledge a positive change for the record…

  5. JP,

    Thanks for highlighting this change in NYRA policy. This is very positive in my view. It had gotten impossible to “read the board” when all the action that mattered occurred when they are loading into the gate. Plus, try to explain to new players that their $2 win ticket on a horse that was 5-1 on the board when gates opened is worth $7 – not $12 – because computer betting dumped money in at the last second.

    This is seemingly rare win for the little guy – and I applaud it big time.


    1. As do I. All that any of us should expect is at least an attempt to level the playing field for all…

  6. Always nice to read about positive changes at NYRA. Score one for all fair minded players looking for a more honest last flash.

  7. I disagree with NYRA’s policy. Any wagering pool open to the public should be open to ALL for any amount at any time while the pool is open. The new policy could have the effect of transferring those perceived distortions from the Win pool to the Place, Show and other pools – generating even greater anger from the bettors of those wagers. NYRA has chosen a carefully calibrated route that is intended to mollify the nickel-and-dime Win bettors while minimizing any negative effect on overall handle. My cynical guess is that NYRA acted only when the personal wagers made by people in management positions were adversely affected by a CAW play while the horses were being loaded into the gate.

    The “inefficiencies” just don’t materialize out of thin air. The odds at 1 minute to post time have been created by the wagering public. Can’t blame a whale for wanting to take advantage when the public appears to be getting something wrong (which the public often does). The public can fix the problem by making smarter wagers.

    Read “Free To Choose” by Milton and Rose Friedman, Chapter One: The Power of the Market and Chapter Two: The Tyranny of Controls.

    1. “Any wagering pool open to the public should be open to ALL for any amount at any time while the pool is open.”

      Do I hear the wail of a wounded whale whose edge has been withdrawn? LOL

      How about this modification to your mantra, DM:

      Any wagering pool open to the public should be open to ALL for any amount at any time while the pool is open AND the effective takeout rate should be the same for each pool participant.

      1. I agree with that modification. I am not a whale. Far from it. The sport needs more bettors, more handle, more fans. But a pool with a 16% takeout should be 16% for ALL.

        1. Correct Dan, the game needs a little more of everything–except takeout; 16% still too high but if applied to all pools that would be good.

          But special betting data and programmed arbitrage wagering at last minute, no, for obvious reasons. Sometimes those late flashes offer value-laden upticks.

          Most often, however, they rip off the value on horses that are the most live, in my experience…

        2. DM,
          Sorry about my erroneous speculation in stereo, no less. Unfortunately my IP address has apparently been locked into the “Comment Moderation Required” category, and I was just attempting to get around it with JP’s permission.

          I don’t know if you played the ponies prior to simulcasting, but the game was a lot kinder to the recreational bettor then because the playing field was level, i.e., to make money one had to accumulate payoffs in excess of wagers made.

          Rebating has institutionalized the professional players’ edge as they can now accumulate a percentage of their wagers — win or lose — sometimes tax-free. What I find most distressing, however, are the tiny graded stakes fields and rising percentage of winning favorites that no longer provide even the illusion that the game is beatable by Joe Average.

          1. I, short fields, sadly, is the new normal. I think that’s why turf racing is so popular these days as fields tend to be larger.

            One more time: As long as rebates are given, takeout will remain high to provide those funds.

            Just as in real life, the rewards will go to the top 1%

          2. The short fields are particularly infuriating. Last week there was a 3 horse race at Saratoga. With that type of offering, I may as well bet on the Tuesday night card at Hastings or Assiniboia.

    2. Was that the wail of a wounded whale whose edge was withdrawn? LOL

      How about “Any wagering pool open to the public should be open to ALL for any amount at any time while the pool is open” AND the “effective takeout” should be the same for each pool participant?

      1. I, your point on “effective takeout” is only lost on those who have the advantage. Lower takeout rates is the equivalent of a universal rebate for all…

  8. Dan, I’m a bit disappointed that you do not accept the special treatment given whales re unusual access to betting pool information and the ability to place 100s or 1000s of bets simultaneously at the last minute as being patently unfair to an overwhelming majority of fans and players. I suppose that as a $10, $20 or $50 player myself, I fall into the category of a nickel and dime bettor. Well, it is horseracing and all are entitled. Me, I’ll err on the side of the little guy at every just opportunity…

  9. Mr. Ed: In your distress comment above you make no mention of the FACT that the same three or four trainers are usually in the winners circle; such doesn’t bother you? And that the last placed blue blood who crawls across the finish line earns several thousand dollars for its owner(s), more than you and most other bettors will make in a year, two years, or a lifetime!

    1. Leading trainers by Wins: Maker 23, Brown 22, Pletcher 21, then a big drop off to a tie for 4th, Asmussen 13, Mott 13.

      Top percentages are a different story: Atras 32% (11/34), Cox 31% (10/32), Sharp 26% (6/23).

      This includes trainers with at least 10 starts.

      1. Per usual, thanks for the useful updates and your positive contributions, even when we’re on a different sides of a particular issue!

        1. Some useful information for you and your loyal readers as we head into the final 2 weeks at Saratoga:

          Leading Sires: (wins) so far at Saratoga 2021:

          9 – Into Mischief, Uncle Mo
          8 – Twirling Candy
          7 – Curlin, Kitten’s Joy
          5 – Distorted Humor, Freud, Hard Spun, Tapit
          4 – Blame, Candy Ride (ARG), Central Banker, Flat Out, Goldencents, Kingman (GB), Laoban, Lemon Drop Kid, Maclean’s Music, Noble Mission (GB), Orb, Palace Malice, War Dancer

          These 22 sires have 38% of the winners. The top 9 sires have 20% of the winners. The top 5 sires have 14% of the winners.

          Good Luck.

        2. I will have more on this subject going into the final week. Percentages break the tie for the top 2. Uncle Mo beats Into Mischief by a wide margin.

          Into Mischief 57 Horses 64 9 7 10 14.1% 40.6%

          Uncle Mo 27 Horses 34 9 8 3 26.5% 58.8%

  10. wmc,
    I would indeed prefer that excessive rewards for horses that don’t participate in parimutuel payoffs were replaced by lower takeout.

    I’m more concerned about common ownership across multiple entries that run uncoupled. IMO all entries for a common owner and/or trainer should be coupled and limited to 2 per race.

    If a trainer (and his team) are succeeding without cheating, then I believe owners are not unreasonable in wanting to use them, and must decide for themselves whether or not the inevitable sacrifice of opportunities for their horses to compete is worth it to them if they are not the stars of the stable.

    If HISA ever comes to fruition, it will be interesting to see how may trainers win percentages exceed 20%.

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