Saturday, May 23, 2015

Six Thoughts on the Excellent TDN Whipping Series

Today in the TDN several industry and media types looked at the whipping issue in Thoroughbred racing. This issue, primarily rekindled with Victor Espinoza's use of the whip in the Derby, is one that never seems to go away. It's this sport's elephant under the big top.

The series of articles, from different perspectives, is good and every one of the people who shared their opinion had some good points, in my view. I'll take a look at a few of them here:

1. It hurts the horse, so it's bad - I remember being at Woodbine one evening for the harness races.  A three year old colt stormed home nicely to come third. His gait seemed a little off but it was a stout effort. After the race, in the paddock, the horse collapsed and had to be put down. He had blown both front tendons during the race. I don't think whipping 'hurts' a horse at the time it is done, and the Aussie study by animal behavioural experts seems to convey that.  I suspect it may hurt later and looks like it hurts, and I realize the animal groups can make hay that it does hurt. But horses run through brick walls in the heat of battle, and I think that's not an issue.

2.  Lazy horses need it - I know we live in an Oprah world where everyone gets a ribbon, but sports is merit based and only the strong survive. If your horse bleeds too bad to race, or needs to be beaten mercillously because he's lazy, his problems lie in his gene pool, and he probably needs to be a pleasure horse.  

3. We know best - I've heard "let the participants decide what to do, the jocks know best". I think that opinion matters, but it should be taken with a huge grain of salt. If football players made up the rules, clotheslines and leading with a helmet would be legal and more and more players would be eating through a straw.  Participants hate change because it means they have to change the way they have always done things. The culture, as Chris Mac notes in his piece, is very strong and these folks need to be listened to for their experience, but they need to be led, not appeased. 

4. One Reminder or two are fine, more is overkill - I think common sense and the Aussie studies confirm this. If you yell "fire!" it's startling and you run. If you yell fire 32 times, you get a cry wolf response. Bang, bang, bang, bang successive times probably does nothing and looks terrible.

5. Bettors and owners think you're not trying - This has been proven to be much ado about nothing.  Vociferous bettors or owners might think like that, but not the masses. Racing in Ontario has little whip usage. In harness racing you can barely tap them anymore. No one is complaining, handle is not down, and more and more track records and lifetime marks are set each year. It's a scare tactic that's used for the status quo, with no empirical evidence to back it up.

 6. They're horses, they know what they're there for - I remember hearing from the trainer of Bettors Delight, a really good horse and sire in harness racing. He was a terrible trainer, at times unable to train in company in 2:25, no matter what you did. On race night he got his game face on and would be almost unbeatable. In Thoroughbred racing, bad morning trainers no matter what whip use, are very common, but on raceday they were new horses. I think this explains why track records are set without much whip use. The crowd, the other horses, pack animals and being conditioned, over and over and over again for that moment trumps a few whacks almost every time. Horses are horses, they're bred to race in packs, and they and animal physiology experts that tell us this fact should not surprise us.

Have a nice weekend everyone.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Big Days, Mo Money and Poltics

Good day racing fans.

The Gulfstream Park Pick 6 jackpot thingy is not a jackpot thingy today. It's mandatory payout day, and should provide some good value. I'll throw the hat in the ring.

Charlie Hayward examines "big days" in New York racing land.
  • If racetracks devoted the same time investment to researching the efficacy of their betting menus and estimating optimum takeout levels as they did planning “Big Days,” I believe the time spent analyzing wagering options would yield a higher return. Well-balanced race cards with good field sizes may not be as glamorous as “Big Days,” but I believe that they – combined with lower takeout to improve the economic return for customers, tracks, and horse owners, and more effective drug testing and stronger penalties for cheaters – would go much further in improving the future for Thoroughbred racing.
The whole article is quite good. I agree with much more of it than I disagree with. Big days water down every other day, and the last thing horse racing needs is to water down already watered down days that no one seems to watch much anymore.

Speaking of Big Days, CDI's Derby betting is good - I think we can all agree that slice of Americana can sell itself  and is really hard to mess up - but after an increase in juice and about a 25% drop in handle other days last season, this season is not faring too much better. Field size is up about 9%, handle is down about 5%. There goes the ol field size was the reason for a 25% drop excuse last season.

It's being reported that CDI has joined the online poker market in California. It will be interesting to see if their partner will let them raise juice to 22% if they want more profit. Likely not.

The online poker fight in California is pretty interesting, and according to Adam 'there will be no bill until all the lobbying money is spent'. Groves estimates the profit (for the entire industry) will not be big - $8-$12 million per year - but getting a foothold in this market is more important, as the online gambling market could or should expand more. Currently the racetracks seem to want a share, and so do the native casinos. It looks like a typical lobbying minefield. According to that twitter feed, the odds of this passing in 2015 is 2-1 against. Regardless, whether horse racing gets a small share or not, it's likely peanuts, and I can't see any possible rationale that this can help horse racing in the state.

Some rumor was shared on the HRRN radio show yesterday. One of the hosts disclosed that Carpe Diem bled pretty bad in the Derby. If so, you can draw a line through that race, and if you like the 12 furlong breeding, you might get a price.

It's neat to me that two horses that won the Belmont Stakes the last two years - Tonalist and Palace Malice - are favorites for the Met Mile. Also supposedly in the race is Bayern, a winner at 10 furlongs in last years smash up Derby, Breeders' Cup Classic. I am more and more convinced that distances over 8.5 furlongs are not a preference for any horse in America anymore.

In harness racing update last evening, the historical look at racing at four is tougher than racing at five meme was again spoken about. It's not 1985 any longer, when this was almost prevalent. Nowadays, 2 year olds can scorch an oval in 1:49. Seasoning in harness racing is overrated. If your horse is fast enough he can win at four, if your horse isn't, he won't. The problem in harness racing is that with stakes at three, some horses who are not very good on a stand-alone basis, get headlines.  When they fail at four, it's supposedly because they're four, not because they weren't fast enough to begin with.

Have a nice weekend everyone.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Nice Ideas, but Not the Desired Results & Notes

Back in 2009, Evian Water's ad agency released a video on YouTube. The "Roller Babies" ad was quite successful, so successful in fact, it made the Guinness book of World Records as the most watched viral video for a brand of all time. With 50 million views in 2009 alone, all for the most part free advertising, it was quite the coup.

Or was it? In the same year, Evian sales went down by 25%. 

This is not uncommon. If your ad, or video, or the patrons you bring in to your establishment are not linked in some way to the product itself, the product's sales often do not follow. No link, or reminder, no sales.

This phenomenon was explored today in the TDN.  Will bands and food trucks convert into handle? Like water purchases, I just don't think so.

Flipping over to marketing the real product, Pompano Park set a handle record last night; with about 80% of the nightly betting on one race one bet.  The $202,000 Super High Five had a mandatory payout. With a negative 1.5% effective takeout, the bet was again a winner, with over $1 million of new money.

That bet and those like it are successful because they provide value, and a chance at a score. North American bettors are conditioned to take advantage of such pools, and they've been responding (it was not always like this, some tracks have tried to seed pools earlier on, to no avail). In Australia, they might have 0% rake bets that they are conditioned to bet that garner $3M pools, here we have 0% rake bets that garner big pools, too.

With so little value out there - high takeout and field size, along with ADW messes and signal fee problems - a lot of people have been chased away. I, for example, have bet four days this month - Derby Day, Oaks Day, and two days at Pimlico. The only other two bets I made were the carryover Super High Five Monday at Western Fair (-10% takeout) and the Super High Five last night. There's so little value every day (horse racing must understand that playing every day is a second job, and people don't take the time if there is no value), so like many, I just mess around when a good bet pops up. Too bad there aren't more of them.

Last up: I guess it's started. We were waiting for something to pop up in the news for the Triple Crown trail and I guess we've got it. Joe Drape examines the legal issues regarding the primary owner of American Pharoah.

Have a nice Thursday everyone.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

7 Reasons Why the Triple Crown Buzz Is Muted

We're less than three weeks away from American Pharoah entering the gate for a Triple Crown try. Maybe it's just me, or maybe I am wrong (no jokes about the frequency of that please), but it just doesn't really feel like it. The buzz feels muted.

Here are a few reasons why I think that may be.

1. Someone around the horse might be a dumbass partner, but they ain't a majority owner - Last year Steve Coburn was the figurehead for California Chrome. The man who could play the lead in a CBS remake of the Beverly Hillbillies was a part of the Triple Crown; maybe as much as the trainer and horse were. This drove some eyeballs for sure, because it was the ultimate fish out of water story. Hollywood has made blockbuster movies with that genre, so it's likely that worked for the Triple Crown buzz too.

2. The horse looks like Big Brown, might be as good or better than Big Brown, but right now he's no Big Brown - Big Brown won his preps like Pharoah did but the superhorse buzz surrounding him was much more stout; in my view anyway. Maybe it's the margin of victory in the Derby, the fact that almost the entire field in the Preakness seemed to throw in a clunker, or the easy preps, but Pharoah still seems to have to prove himself to some.

3. Bob Baffert is not the Devil - A couple of recent Triple Crown trainers that created buzz had some serious stuff swirling them. If someone wrote a New York Times article about Rick Dutrow spending vacation time on Baffin Island at a seal hunt, people would believe it. Doug O'Neill - the John Calipari of horse racing - had some wondering if he was smiling while he googled milkshake. The anti-steam those boys brought - fair or not - encapsulated the insider buzz. Baffert has some detractors, but in the end he's vetted, he's been here before, everyone knows him. Plus, when a guy who looks like your fifth grade history teacher plays you in a movie, you can't be half bad.

4. Zayat's - People can go on about the Zayat's on the twitter, but really. They just seem like your average every day rich people who own horses. There's thousands of them around, we're used to it. Plus, when I brought a new owner into racing ten years ago, he was cheering for a five claimer for his first live race (he scared everyone around him) exactly like these guys cheered for Bodemeister. Don't lie, we can relate to that video no matter who we are. It's why we buy horses - any horse. As much as some want a villain, there just doesn't feel like there is one this year.

5. The New York Times has taken a month off - Joe Drape is hanging around, chatting about the Triple Crown like a regular horse racing fan. No Times writer has found evidence of something they find really bad, like positive tests, or trainers who have bad carbon footprints. It's just kind of blah out there in legacy-media land.

6. The Golden State didn't latch on - Last year it felt like there was one horse the massive state of California could get behind. This year there were several - Dortmund and Firing Line but two. It had to have made a difference.

7. It's Early - Maybe there will be some buzz to come, that will trump other tries, like I'll Have Another or Big Brown, or California Chrome. Maybe it's just early.

Enjoy your Wednesday folks!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Wanna Bet? Sure, if You Can Find a Way

Handle keeps going down, but sometimes I wonder how it isn't down even more.

Today it was announced that Churchill Downs is suing the Daily Racing Form because they took bets on the Derby. Why it is an alleged crime that a major, 100 plus year old business with an accredited ADW, powered by Xpressbet, can't take a bet on the major raceday in all of horse racing tells you about all you need to know about racing's handle growth, or lack of handle growth.

Eight years ago now Ellis Park with help from the late Cary Fotias, wanted to create some buzz for the sport with a 4% takeout pick 4. Unfortunately, bettors had to navigate the protectionist, bizarre minefield that is racing. Some major ADW's didn't accept it, the Woodbine hub in Canada didn't accept it, some tracks didn't accept it. After bouncing a ball on your nose like a trained seal, some bettors did find a way. Average handle for the bet was $42,000, up from a shade over $15,000 a year earlier. Mission accomplished. Sort of.

In 2007, the 10 day mini-takeout experiment at Laurel was tried. Handle didn't get a bump. It's hard to get a bump when myriad tracks shut your "low takeout" signal out, rebate shops say take a hike, Canada says no through Woodbine, and says we ain't allowing our players to play it.

Back in 2001 or 2002, Nick Nicholson, the visionary head of Keeneland, wanted to drop Keeneland WPS rakes to 12%. The NYC OTB's rejected that, because they'd only make about 9% on that signal. Think about that. The NYC OTB's - the politically driven, bankrupt mess that is now defunct had control over what Keeneland wanted to do. 

Most recently one of the better bets offered out by a track - the Pimlico 12% pick 5 - is not accepted north of the border. If you are from Canada and want to sign up somewhere else to enjoy that takeout it's like you are exploring the life of an international smuggler. Oh, you can happily bet into the 25% takeout pick 5 at Woodbine though.

Do you want to play the Derby at your ADW? Chances are you couldn't. Do you play at an accredited ADW that has done everything right and want to play all tracks so you don't need multiple accounts? Fat chance.

Horse racing cannot and will not break free from its monopolistic roots. It's not a monopoly any longer, but it clings to it, like some sort of life preserver, while being battered by the waves of non-protectionist, market-driven, customer-focused gambling enterprise.

Handle will not grow from policy that's driven by fear. Handle will not grow by inconveniencing your customers. If you expect the betting base to bounce balls on their noses to play your product, you will continue to be disappointed. They happily move on to something else, just like any rational customer does. In the long run these inconveniences add up.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Round Up, Racing Dichotomies

Saturday's Preakness is in the books and the usual racing divergence of opinion is out in full-force.


Depending on who you ask, American Pharoah's Preakness win was dominant, fast, slow, a joke, brilliant. There are probably ten or twelve more opinions I forgot. 

I suspect it was pretty brilliant, simply because you don't see too many horses push hard in the off going like he did in the first quarter, try and grab a rest, start back up and dominate a race. Sure, maybe Tale of Verve is a "future 25 claimer", Dortmund and Firing Line had horrible outings, Divining Rod is just no damn good, and the rest of them aren't in the same league; ergo American Pharoah stumbled home in a slow time beating nothing. But I am having a little trouble believing all of it.

I don't have a problem with opinion like we've seen because that's what racing is - opinions. With the infrequency the horses race, along with the fact there are different distances and surfaces and everything else, opinion can, will, and probably is assured to be all over the map. In a few weeks we'll find out how good the horse is, because the field should be quite stout. Winning a Triple Crown ain't easy, obviously.

Racing Is Not Dead
Racing Is Dead
The dichotomy between some fans/insiders and those who play the game seriously is so, so wide. It never ceases to amaze me.

Free American Pharoah Poster Giveaway!

NYRA sent out an email today talking about the Triple Crown.
Leaving aside the typo, NYRA is pushing i) The Triple Crown attempt and ii) The concerts.

Hint, when you have a triple crown attempt, have capped attendance at 90,000, you don't need to speak about the concerts any longer. Rumble in the Jungle, 40 cent hot dogs,  Free seat cushion day for game seven of the World Series, Cal Ripkin sets the iron man game record tonight, come get your bobblehead; not really needed.

I understand that they had to plan, and concerts are a good way to promote an event that without a triple crown try suffers, but I found it kind of ironic. We're here for the horses and history, and you could offer a promotion where everyone who enters gets poked in the eye with a hot stick and you'll fill the place in three weeks. I think a case can be made to not want people coming for a concert. The American Pharoah Triple Crown try should be left to the true fans, to enjoy in peace.

The Goo Goo Dolls at the Belmont to push attendance where history is ready to be made says a lot about the struggles of modern horse racing. 


Marketing triggers for horse racing were discussed on page six in Harness Racing Update. Also, a feature on Bee a Magician, who has come back sound and beat the colts last night in the Cutler, is the lead. 

Have a great Sunday everyone.