Friday, April 17, 2015

Can Horsemen Contribute For Growth? Just Ask the LPGA

I stumbled upon this headline recently. "LPGA Head Michael Whan Gets a New Six Year Deal"
  • Under Whan’s leadership, the LPGA has grown dramatically. In addition to increasing the number of playing opportunities from 23 in 2010 to 33 in 2015, Whan has been instrumental in boosting purses from some $40 million five years ago to more than $60 million this year.
    Television coverage has also skyrocketed under Whan’s guiding hand, growing from 200 hours of mostly tape-delayed telecasts per year, to 400 hours, with 90 percent of that as live coverage.
The LPGA, from almost folding, is now the World's fastest growing golf tour. I wrote an article about the LPGA and racing over two years ago. It explains how they helped achieve this. The growth mostly came from internal actions, not external.

Last week, I, like many of you, opened up the email to find the Battle Royale between track operators and horsemen group heads fighting about funding a sport.

 It seems, like most things in racing, we have the dreaded status-quo stalemate.

It's no secret where I stand. I believe all of us have a stake in racing, whether we train, own, drive, groom or bet. So I am certainly biased towards Mr. Gural's point of view. However, I think it's more than just a bias. I think its good business.

In late 2010 the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) was severely on the ropes. Television ratings were down, sponsorship money was fading, and tournaments - which were already at an all-time low number - were being canceled for 2011. LPGA players, upset with the direction of the Tour, called for the resignation of then Commissioner Carolyn Bevins, with two years left on her contract. Tournament directors, long dismayed with her abrasive management style agreed, and she was relieved of her duties. Stepping into the job was a former executive with Proctor & Gamble, Michael Whan. Immediately things started to change. His management style was different, yes, but he also brought along a change in the culture of women's golf.

 It stemmed from his belief that the players needed to take ownership for the growth of their game. In fact, the letters of the word "growth" made up the bulk of his 2011 strategy. "G" was for getting involved. "R" was for reaching out to fans to make their day. "O" was for being open and honest to the fans and media. "W" was for "worldwide", where he sees the Tour going. "T" was for thank you's. "H" was for having fun, because when you're having fun, the fans are having fun.

Corny? Perhaps, but it was a big part of the battle plan moving forward.

Last year, the new commissioner ensured the participants followed these rules, gave them the tools, and they took up the challenge with a smile. For example, when perennial money leader Paula Creamer struck a fan with an errant drive at a tournament recently, she did not give out a customary signed ball, she gave the spectator her watch.

 On Tuesdays before an event, a "cheat sheet" is handed out to players, with bullet points about the sponsors complete with pictures of key personnel. They are then prepared what to say and do in front of a microphone, just like a NASCAR driver is. At the end of an event, players personally pen and sign thank you notes to the organizers.

And guess what? Shudder the thought - they gave up some purse money.

A tournament was created called the "Founders Cup" in 2011. The purse money for the inaugural event was nothing; zip, nada, zero. Yet golfers, from the stars to the journey-women, played. Any meager sponsorship money the event made went to LPGA junior golf and the rest went to charities chosen by the top ten finishers. It was a way to give something back to the greats of the game, while giving up something for the future of golf. In addition, the players taking ownership of the event hoped they'd spark some interest in the event itself.

 In 2012 it was announced this new tournament gained a sponsor, and gone are the days of no purse. It currently stands at $1.5M, thanks to the Donnelly Group. Give a little up, get a whole lot back.

This new professionalism and leadership with a vision has infected the tour with a huge
dose of optimism. Golfer Christina Kim told the Wall Street Journal this weekend, "Everyone
is very excited. It's been a roller-coaster ride, but we're past the dark chasm."

With optimism and growth, comes dollars. Two years ago tournament sponsors were dropping like flies. This season there will be over 20% more events than last year, and they all have good purses.

The players in the LPGA took ownership and pride in their game. They hired a true professional and did not dictate to him, but listened. They gave their time, patience and purse money. In the process they may have saved women's golf.

For those who say it's impossible for harness racing to achieve similar, I respectfully disagree. It can be done. It needs a budget, a leader, a new vision, and most of all, participants willing to take a leap of faith.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Horseplayers, Pay it Forward.

I was thinking about writing a post about some of the great horseplayers in this game awhile back, but Ed DeRosa's tweet finally got me to jot something down.
He is referring to the late Cary Fotias, a long time player who passed away recently, at an all-too-young age.

He's so right. Cary not only was a wonderful horseplayer, but he was indefatigably optimistic about the great game of handicapping. Cary advised HANA - the Horseplayers Association of North America - way back at inception in 2008 and I had a chance to chat with him a few times.

"This game can bet $100 billion a year if done right!!!!", he'd say.  He wasn't blowing smoke, he believed it. It was so infectious and he was so well liked; probably because he was so optimistic, and so in love with horse racing.

Rich Bauer, Mike Mayo, two fellas I got to work with on certain efforts both have left us, and they LOVED this game. Rich was a navy vet, and exactly the way you'd think one would be. Tough; and someone you wanted on your side. Mike was a businessman, but he too had some kind of fire about him. Both men were beyond willing to help you if you needed something, with regards to this sport.

I wish I knew the late Ron Rippey. It bothers me I did not.

What each of them had, and what others do in this great gambling sport, I think, is a willingness to pass on what they have learned in some way. I truly do respect that from some of our fellow horseplayers. It's strange, because it's a parimutuel game, but in my view, it's very, very real.

A couple of weeks ago I contacted Andy Beyer for something. He could not have been nicer, and more willing to share his thoughts. This man is a true legend - after all, how many of us 100 years from now will still have a speed figure named after us that everyone will use - and speaking with him was a complete pleasure.

Mike Maloney - arguably one of the sharpest horseplayers in North America - is as welcoming as a down blanket in a Canadian winter. I remember asking him once if he'd give some pointers to someone who wanted to learn more about handicapping.

"Sure, tell her to come to Keeneland and I'd be happy to", he said.

Mike is not only a true southern gentleman, but a man who wants to leave the sport of handicapping in a better place than he found it.

Barry Meadow? Ah, don't even get me going.

I'm forgetting a hundred people, no doubt, but you get the picture. Like Ed, I have a ton of respect for so many in this game. For a bunch of "degenerates" they're pretty damn good.

What I have learned from these great folks - and try to do as much as I can - is pay it forward, especially with new people. I thought about it today.

Nicolle was asking about small bankroll betting on twitter and I thought I might help. I grilled her, like she was a salmon, about her play, but she merrily played along. I found out she was a win bettor, and might get some help with bet sizing through unit betting, so I shared. I did so, because in my heart I want to see her do well. We all want to see people do well. It's a part of this game, and it's something built right into its fabric.

I think everyone who plays this game has something to share, and some good cheer to spread.

For newer players, find some folks and ask questions. People like @DougieSal, or @dinkinc are two that I have seen answer questions about an obscure pedigree or gambling tactic and do so with a smile. Many others have knowledge and are happy to lend a hand.

For those of us who have played for so long, congratulate folks on their wins; be happy for them. Winning is fun and its a social game. If someone new asks for an opinion, share what you know. You know darn well that Cary, Ron, Mike, Rich and those who have left us would certainly be doing the same thing. Carry that baton and pay it forward. The game is bigger than any of us.

Have a nice Tuesday everyone.

Monday, April 13, 2015

In Racing, Principled Stands Can Take a Back Seat

I recently whipped through the book Men in Green on my iPad. It was an entertaining look at the sport of golf, through some of its known, and lesser known, legends.

One chapter really fascinated me.

Back a few years now, Tiger Woods was playing the BMW Championship and hit a ball on a Friday round, behind the green. It landed in a treed area, with plenty of pine cones, twigs, and pine straw. The only people behind the green were Tiger, caddie Joe LaCava and a PGA Tour cameraman. As Tiger moved a twig from behind the ball, the ball moved, and it was captured on film. Tiger played the ball after it moved. That's a two shot penalty. Tiger did not call the penalty on himself, and signed a scorecard for a lower score.

The Tour official in charge of making a ruling was Slugger White, who just happened to be married to a relative of Tiger's caddie Joe LaCava. Tiger was the biggest name in golf and he signed for a scorecard that did not include a moving ball. This is the guy who pays their paychecks, who signs posters and autographs at events for certain charities. He's a guy who plays the tournament and might not come back again. He's the guy who has a pretty bad temper and can make your life miserable. "Hell, I'm married to his caddies cousin." It was a big thing. 

None of that seemed to matter. Tiger was penalized two shots.

The "Rules of Golf" are a big thing. But with money, power, and all the rest, this might have been a prime time to see something funny being done. The ducks were all in a row for it. But it did not happen. A penalty is a penalty.

In the sport of horse racing, principled stands like this seem unattainable.

If someone breaks a rule, other participants can sometimes be silent, their representatives sometime stand up for that person, as do some friends in the media, and things seem to break down. No other Tour players came to Tiger's defense at the BMW, because they would've called that penalty on themselves and it's bad for golf. A rider with a buzzer seems to get as many or more mounts (funny how the rider gets yelled at in social media, but the trainer who uses him never seems to), a trainer with a string of positives more often than not has a full barn. It's the way it is.

One of the good things in horse racing for customers the last few years - Andy Beyer talked about it in April's Horseplayer Monthly - is the lower takeout pick 5. This bet has been branded by all tracks who have created it, as a value bet for the smaller player. It's also a great bet to promote to others who might not be looking at horse racing very often. As an industry, 15% takeout is the standard, and it has worked really, really well. Just last week Woodbine created a pick 5 with a takeout that is well above the industry standard at 25%.

Stepping out of bounds like this, which can sully a brand by hurting an industry standard and 'hoodwinking' people to play into a higher juice, when they are expecting lower, is simply accepted in racing. There's no commissioner to twist arms to hold Woodbine accountable to the industry standard. Other tracks, which this can affect, don't say much. ADW's don't much care - it's higher rake for them. Big players can get rebated more, so they don't seem to care much. Someone might know someone, like Joe LaCava's cousin, and things bog down. Woodbine advertises, and we can't get them mad. Move along, nothing to see here.

Pick a topic, virtually any topic in the sport. You'll see this phenomenon. Principles can leave the building in a hurry.

Golf is a closely knit game and has been since it began, just like horse racing is. But golf, unlike horse racing, is guided by a golden rule. That rule involves the growth of the game, with a respect for its history. A meekly paid rules official in this closely knit game can call out a golfing icon billionaire, and if he's right, he's right, and he will have almost unanimous support. In racing, hurt the brand, annoy customers with fine print, charge more when you should be charging less, give groups like PETA more ammunition, or a hundred other things? It just doesn't seem to matter very much.



Friday, April 10, 2015

Juice is Loose, The Masters, Gural, Friday Notes

Good morning racing fans.

As we head to the weekend, we've had some interesting chatter the last several days. Horse racing is never uninteresting.

Woodbine announced a new pick 5, at 25% takeout, and that's caused some consternation. The rake is clearly high, one of the highest in North America. New pick 5's we've seen created the past few years were at Santa Anita, Pimlico and NYRA, which range from 12% to 15%. Players have been accustomed and expect that level, and I highly suspect (because this new bet's high takeout will not be promoted), they will think they're getting a deal and they won't be.

Players have been complaining, and Woodbine seems to be, well..... This player was told this when he complained:
  • Thank you for inquiring about the new Pick 5 at Woodbine. We regret that you are unhappy about our takeout rate. If you are not satisfied with how the takeout rates are being implemented, please feel free to voice your criticism to the Ontario Racing Commissions office (416-213-0520) or the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency (1-800-268-8835). 
That's interesting, because if you call the ORC, they will say "we don't set Woodbine takeout rates, so call them", and the CPMA will say the same thing. This whole episode smells really bad. Woodbine had been doing some good things since Nick took over. This is a step backwards, and in my view they deserve the bad PR this is bringing. Good for players who are standing up for themselves.

Conversely, a track that is making some positive noise leads the Horseplayers Association list this year - Kentucky Downs. This track was an afterthought. With instant racing revenue they've done what all tracks with that revenue - e.g. Woodbine when they had it - should do. Create great races for horse owners, with good fields for customers. Then, lower the takeout to the lowest in North America. That's how you go from $900,000 handles to those over $3,000,000 per day in only three short seasons.

The 30 page Horseplayer Monthly magazine was released Wednesday.  It's the de-facto "industry issue" with rankings for 62 tracks, set by nothing more than math, comparing field size, juice, signal fees etc. There are also some dandy interviews, with people like Andy Beyer, gambler "Dink", and track insiders. One of my favorite parts of it is the "7 Questions" segment, because it touches on different types of horseplayer and fan. This game is ridiculously big tent, and that should be an asset, but in my view it is not exploited. Download it and give it a read if interested. It's free.

There was a fun discussion last night on twitter as some folks who have been playing Keenelend were saying "I miss polytrack". Strangely, there wasn't even a flame war. Let's face it, those fields are short, and chalky. I have a column coming out on what I think is an ideal future for horse racing, so that it can drive handle and more players. It has nothing to do with surface, per se, but it does involve the types of races Keeneland used to serve us as bettors.

Jessica has a "doing it right" post up, which highlights a couple of areas that are good news. It is interesting, with racing so down in the dumps, with handle falling, new bets that make little sense etc, you can get bogged down and feel there is little hope. But there are things that are positive. There are some companies trying. It's just unfortunate that she could write a post like that only once a quarter or so.

I have been watching the Masters coverage and it strikes me how storied the event is. The Masters has made a conscious decision to embrace history and goes out of their way to preserve it. I saw player interviews from past champions. Nick Faldo talked about how he gets excited for three weeks before it, and he is not even playing - champions dinners, the par three, hanging out with Palmer and others. Pimento sandwiches are still $1.50, because they think that's a tradition worth losing a little money on. Fans and players are respectful. It's a real treasure and part of the brand that will go on as much as they want it to.

Conversely I look last year at the Derby complaints. I am not a corporate basher, never have been, and never will be. I understand CHDN has to beat a $XX EPS target, and I understand that they're a corporation. But I wish there was more Masters for the Kentucky Derby. Churchill is a business, but it is also the steward of the signature event for an entire sport. With that comes responsibility.

Jeff Gural responded to trainer Corey Johnson last evening in HRU (pdf). Johnson is currently under a 13 month suspension in Canada for blood gas, and raced a couple of starts at the Meadowlands last year, where two of his horses tested over thresholds for cobalt. In true Gural fashion:

"The fact that his horse won a Breeders Crown at my track made me feel sick, as I imagine what a horse injected with a toxic substance might feel."

Just a personal note. This last week or two I have had to talk to many people in the business about various things and it always strikes me how many have similar long term goals, and are, in general, just decent people; smart, engaging, and generally have a love of the sport just like everyone else. I never need reminding of that; however, because I am tough on them sometimes - I am unabashedly pro customer, because I believe more customers are more revenue, and deserve to be listened to in a sport that doesn't seem to - that bears repeating. Thanks to everyone I have spoken with the past while. You were a true help, and I never don't enjoy it.

Have a nice Friday everyone.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Gural Keeps Fighting & Wednesday Notes

At Chuck Hayward's site today, Dave Briggs has an extensive interview with Jeff Gural.
  •  “I say to myself, ‘Let’s see, I stand for integrity, I built a brand new building, I try to market it, I have good food,’” Gural said. “‘What am I doing that should be polarizing?’”
The polarizing argument is one that I often have a chuckle at. If Pete Rozelle wanted to clear up the dangerous rules in football; because one day concussions would be hurting ex players, if a czar wanted to clear up EPO in cycling, or a baseball commissioner steroids in baseball, they would not be polarizing. They'd be doing their job. Some, maybe in 30 years or more, would be credited in history books for saving a sport.

In racing, Jeff is "polarizing". I think that says more about horse racing than it does Jeff Gural.

The biggest complaint I've heard about Jeff is not that he's wrong - make no mistake, people know he's right - or that he's some sort of evil one percenter. No, it's that he "doesn't get along with people."

Let's see. These issues that he is tackling are not new. They've been around for 15 or more years. He's been 'getting along with people' for awhile, but when the people you are trying to get along with drag their feet, are unable or unwilling to make progress, well, sooner or later you break away and try a different tactic. It's insanity not to. Who wouldn't?

The interview is well worth a read on many fronts. Give it a look if interested.

Notes:

What Gural is dealing with: NZ labs send out bloods to test for Xenon and Argon gas, which is rumored to be used by trainers to performance enhance. 

Arizona investigating "abnormal" results.

It's not drawn yet, and I'm sure they'll get more horses, but right now there are four probables for the Lexington Stakes. Are we having fun yet?

March's handle figures were down. Reading the Paulick Report comments, it's only because of racedate cuts. Note: Cutting dates in half does not mean handle will be cut in half; handle is still a function of horseplayer bankrolls. That's why if Hong Kong doubled racedates, their handle would not double. Racedates are more on par with field size as a handle generator, or eliminator.

Average daily handle at Turfway was up 8.2%. Great meet for them, especially because even still, in this day and age with contrary evidence, we hear nobody likes polytrack.

The Horseplayer Monthly magazine should be out soon. From what I hear, it will be a solid industry issue, with commentary from customers about what's right and what's wrong on the demand side of the sport. It's also the track ratings issue.

Have a nice Wednesday everyone.




Monday, April 6, 2015

A Wild Weekend of Horse Racing

This weekend was, perhaps, the first weekend of the year where things felt alive. The Blue Grass Stakes, Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby were all run, and over at the harness races, an $847,000 Super High Five pool was paid out at Woodbine.

The Blue Grass Stakes, with an increased purse and the first time on the glorious dirt since 2006, was a short field, snoozy affair, with 2-5 shot Carpe Diem winning rather easily. I don't think we learned anything we didn't already know about that horse, or his opponents. The figure came back okay, but Carpe Diem really didn't seem to have to do much running. I don't make Derby selections until near the race, but I don't think he'll be on my tickets.

Handle for Blue Grass day was poor, and the fields surrounding the race were what we have come to expect at Keeneland in the new dirt age - short and tough to wager on. It looks like handle was down approximately 22% year over year. In the poly years, of course, 14 horse Blue Grass fields were prevalent.

The handle on the Blue Grass itself was down. The win, place show pools were the smallest since 1998, when there was only a five horse field with no show wagering (although last year's were not great either). The exacta pools were down to $712,000 from $905,000 last year, and were also the smallest since late the last century. I highly suspect Keeneland did not expect the handle to be down this much when they switched to dirt. Some also expected a fuller field with the $250,000 purse increase, but that was never really possible, in my opinion.

Of note, Nick Nicholson's last Blue Grass day at the Keeneland helm set records: Wagering of almost $22 million, attendance of 41,000 and a real buzz. Compared to the 25k and approximately $15M in handle Saturday, it's a big drop. Nick, in my view, was one of the best executives this business has ever had.

The Wood was a fun race, I thought. I, like some of you on the twitter, wanted to bet back Frosted, because he looked like he wanted to run home like a Pegasus Gulfstream statue in the Fountain of Youth, before clearly having something go wrong. Unfortunately, he was 2-1. Daredevil, the massive fig horse from last year did not fire a lick. Distance concerns aside, he was fried after 7 furlongs and had no go.

Wood day handle was down as well, and one of the reasons why was that last pick 4. There just weren't enough combinations. It felt like we were betting Yonkers. The business has to be constantly reminded that if we don't have good races to bet, we won't bet, no matter what the purse is.

Over in So Cal, the hype horse, Dortmund, got the job done nicely once again. He could be the Derby favorite. He's a big lumbering dude, who has been beating overmatched horses. I think he needs some seasoning so he won't be on my tickets either, more than likely in a month. I think he has a chance to be a really nice horse, win or lose on the first Saturday in May.

At Woodbine, the Super High Five paid out and it was the largest pool in Canadian horse racing history (about $3 million). The Queen's Plate has print and TV advertising, national TV coverage, Queen's themselves come out for a wave, the stands are packed and it's been a staple for like 130 years. But no single race handle came close to Saturday's final race with optional 30 claimer pacers in the snow. One day in the future, the powers that be will realize this game can thrive if it's a betting game.

The effective rake on the Super High Five bet was nil, and value was aplomb, so the money flowed and flowed and flowed in.



Here's a snapshot of just how good that payout was (standardized to 20 cent payouts).

I saw a neat conversation on the twitter today.


I gotta side with Bruno on this one. If Wise Dan was racing instead of a bunch of three year olds most have never seen, do people stay? I think so.Secretariat's Wood Day might've been an afterthought for a casual fan, but after the Belmont it was wall to wall people. It takes time for Zenyatta to be on 60 Minutes and it takes time for any horse to gain a following.

Have a nice Monday everyone.