Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tuesday Headlines

Hello racefans!

Churchill Downs wants dates that Kentucky Downs wants. I know, I know, this is like the Death Star against Alderaan (with the princess with that goofy hairdo), so when Paulick calls it a "battle", one must wonder. However, giving Kentucky Downs those dates makes sense. They are slowly but surely creating a brand in September. Where else has instant racing machine money worked better - big fields, horsemen love it, lower takeout (lowest in North America, according to HANA) for customers. Handle has increased by about 300%. What's not to like? Expand it and keep working hard.

Handle at Churchill Downs was down again, also noted on the Paulick Report.  In the spring, where handle was down quite a bit, Churchill talked about declining foal crops as a reason, and this fall they did too. A few years ago when tracks raised takeout, or did something anti-customer and lost business, they would talk about the bad economy. I think "foal crop size" is this year's bad economy. From the media you'd think foal crop size only affects a square mile in Louisville, and is likely responsible for unrest in the Ukraine, ISIS, and pop group One Direction.

Two year olds in training sales in harness racing were not very well received. It seemed some colts and fillies were rushed, hurting them, and it was more about fast times than anything else (it's different than throughbred racing with times). In HRU, Tony Alagna says he is starting a pinhooking business, where they are buying several yearlings for sale, and selling them all, no matter if they're the best or worst in the barn. That's the way to do this right.

The sale in Lexington is well under way and it should be up once again; there are certainly some excellent colts and fillies selling. Despite partnerships, high costs and other barriers to entry, yearling numbers have been fairly good in harness racing. It's still a tough business for those who breed horses, however.

The disconnect between the hype and substance with the Captain's send-off is noticed. Not in a particular case like this, but overall in the big picture, I think it's good for harness racing to hash this out. Horses will race at four, they will have to prove themselves at four. The big yearling purchasers and syndicators must change the way they look at breeding stock at a younger age because of that. Quite simply: the modus operandi must change.

Enjoy your day peeps!



Monday, September 29, 2014

Lasix, Handle, Fast Horses and Politics

Good day everyone.

Dr. Larry Bramlage's comments caused a bit of a stir on social media last evening.

He said:

“Let there be no doubt about what I am saying,” Bramlage said. “I believe furosemide is valuable to the horse when racing. But there are too many reasons we can’t keep it. The general public can’t understand it and the continual drumbeat of journalists, most of whom truly have no idea what they are talking about, will become a death knell if we don’t stop it. The connotation that has been created is unsavory to the general public because they can’t discriminate between furosemide and cocaine, they just read the headline ‘race-day medication’ and feel racing is proving itself ‘unsavory,’ if not ‘dishonest’ again."

There's a lot right and a lot wrong with that quote, in my opinion. The lasix narrative that it's a performing enhancing drug, allowing racehorses to compete which should not compete in the first place, is probably true. The incendiary prose that it's "like cocaine" is probably over the top, but I get his point, as well.

The problem pro-lasix folks have with their arguments is that other places do not use it, and things are just fine. It's like many of our problems in horse racing. A bogeyman is painted, sometimes made of straw, but in this interconnected, increasingly aware world, it's a bogeyman that's easily torn down. "Well, horses are not dying in the streets in Europe", is a stab in the heart.

I believe both (the fervent, and dogmatic) pro-lasix and anti-lasix foes are using bumper sticker arguments, when the policy that's needed is much more nuanced. If lasix is banned, other means will be used to achieve the same medicinal effects, but they will be done in the background, with everyone unaware. If lasix is not banned, purse strings - increasingly held by politicians - will be held back in subsequent rounds of slot subsidies and other help from statehouses. "We're not supporting this "drug culture" any longer, while our kids need better schools," says the bumper sticker politician.

As much as people want to seem to make it, it's not a my way or the highway argument. There are no off-ramps to some sort of lasix or no lasix promised land. 

Maybe horse racing is becoming more nuanced as time goes on. Maybe the trainers signed up to the no lasix use on two year olds, or the drum beat of graded stakes one day being lasix free is evidence of that.  Maybe we are moving at a slow but steady pace to some sort of resolution.  But in a world of dogma and demagoguery, politics, one side against the other, and wanting things done not over time, but yesterday, maybe that's simply not enough.

Notes:

Speaking of nuanced, Dan Needham looks at the breakdown statistics and writes a heady piece about them. Dan usually looks at things dispassionately and we need more people like that in horse racing.

Greg got his hands on the Churchill Downs handle numbers and they aren't good, down 16%. Churchill raised the juice this spring and has had a tough time gaining handle in the wake of it. The Churchill Downs press release did not mention the numbers, but because it read like an excuse book from a member of congress, we could probably figure out on our own they got walloped.

In HRU today, a look at some fast horses and other items at the Red Mile (pdf page 4)

The Espinoza suspension.  Politics? Backbiting? Fair or unfair? I don't know, but I suspect it was not done to "protect bettors". Bettor protection is about priority 1,100 on a list of 1,104 things in this sport.

Yesterday the US lost the Ryder Cup by five points, which is tantamount to getting slaughtered. Phil Mickelson, in a cringe-worthy moment (especially for a gentleman's game like golf) threw team Captain Tom Watson under the bus. I was stuck with a horse racing reference at that point. Just like drivers get too much credit when a horse wins, and take too much blame when a horse loses, it's usually about the horse, and when your team gets beaten that badly, it usually about the players. Daniel Dube might be captaining your horse and you didn't like the way he did it, but since you backed up by 12 off a pocket trip, it doesn't matter if another captain loses by only 9 3/4; your horse still needs to go to the scope barn.  The Euro's out-birdied the Americans 117-72.

There's a brouhaha about the new whipping rules in Pennsylvania, with some thinking this policy is new. It's not. Arguments made before were made in Ontario and Indiana. Consultation and public and participant discourse has occurred. It's old news, and I suspect every major harness racing jurisdiction will have the same policy within two years.

Have a great day everyone.



Sunday, September 28, 2014

Saturday Notes

Good morning everyone.

A few thoughts:
  • Shared Belief did well enough yesterday to become a solid chalk for the Classic, winning the Awesome Again. For bettors (that's what we kinda do here), this was welcome news. The hype he will receive from his record and his connections should make him solidly overbet. The win pool at least, should lean towards us.
  • The JCGC was marred by an incident to what seems to be a nice guy and a really nice horse - Rajiv Maragh and Wicked Strong. Word is they are both fine, thankfully. Those who liked Tonalist were worried we'd see an over the top reaction on being too close last time, by him being too far back, and early on that looked correct. He was, pinned and surrounded by bombs. We see that so often in horse racing. He won like a good horse should though.
  • At the Red Mile, Artspeak won easily again, only under modest tip taps. He looks like he is still learning and is a very nice horse. He has not raced anyone; which is rare for this time of the year. And the two year olds will start to get faster (as witnessed in the last race at the Red Mile last evening, with a solid 49 and change winner). So, the hype is probably unwarranted at this point. Until he gets some adversity in a race with big speed, he's a question mark for me.
  • Speaking of hype, the press and insiders who don't handicap every day like we do, tend to look at who wins races, rather than how they are winning horse races. He's Watching and others have had the press, but we know after the Meadowlands Pace, there is one three year old pacer who stands out talent-wise. Last night Always B Miki opened some eyes with a performance that we rarely see in the sport. He's had some greenness issues, steering problems, and maybe a soundness issue or two, but he is truly the most talented three year old we've seen in quite some time - probably since Somebeachsomwhere. He's not owned by harness racing royalty and is not bred like a champion, but if he puts it all together and keeps progressing, we as harness fans are surely in for something special. He's a complete freak who looks like he could time trial in 146.
  • Late in the year horses start to make moves who had huge speed, but had physical issues. Odds on Amethyst is one. He always had a giant motor but last evening he looked as sound as a horse could look (for new handicappers, watch the replay - that is exactly how you want your horse to look on the racetrack). Father Patrick has another foe, in a crop that is really sneaky good. By the way, Father Patrick races today.
  • At Scioto, Sweet Lou looked poor for the second (some might say third with the drift) race in a row. He has been a horse throughout his career that does have lulls and he looks to be in one. Last year this crop was stupid-good, but this year (despite what you read in some press releases) it's much softer. Who is the best older horse right now? Will anyone run the table late in the year? 
  • Another horse who was capable of making some noise in the older division didn't have it last evening at Mohawk. State Treasurer, of a couple week break for last week, had little zip in the lane. 
  • What's with these 29.4 first quarters at the Red Mile? It seems there are a lot of horses prepping this meet so far. In one race yesterday they came their back three quarters in 121.1 of a 30 second first quarter in a pretty nondescript race.
Enjoy your Sunday everyone.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Harness Tries to Creep Out of the Dark Ages & World Class 4 Year Olds

There's quite a bit going on in harness racing this week. And a few of them are things that should've been done long ago.

It looks like there is more discussion on a marketing fund for harness racing in Ontario, from purses. Over the next few years the decision the sport in Ontario makes (outside Woodbine Thoroughbreds, which will last no matter what), will likely make or break harness racing in the province. Lotteries, better bets, more customer friendly wagers, and marketing and scheduling are vital to any long-term harness success.

In HRU today, Alan Leavitt, a Kentucky based long time breeder and owner, proposed a new set of kicking rules for the sport. The fines proposed are on a graded scale, where after a certain amount of repeat violations, up to a six month suspension can be handed out. Now if the USTA could penalize judges who look the other way when it happens (and it happens a lot), the sport would be getting somewhere.

Stories like Hollywood Bob's today in HRU about four year old's - in this case Captaintreacherous - don't sit well with a lot of historians, or those of us who love great horses who've proved it on the racetrack at 4.

I loved Real Desire. He had to play second fiddle for most of his 3YO season against Bettors Delight (for thoroughbred readers, this was Sunday Silence-Easy Goer), but was a top pacer with electrifying talent. It's not that he did not do well at three, he did, winning $1.6 million. But when there is another colt so good, it's tough to run the table. The connections were forced to race at four to try and get a better stud deal and the horse was magical, winning 10 of 13 with three close seconds. He pretty much ran the table, winning every free for all event that season.  No hype, no bull, 100% racehorse.

Art Major had to race Mach Three, McArdle, Red River Hanover and others at three. He was more than fine - he was excellent - winning 20 of 31 against that group, along with $1.8 million. Choosing to race at four, he proved his place in history, going 11-8-3-0, winning almost all major stakes and over $1 million. His fights with Four Starzz Shark Mini Me, Gallo Blue Chip and others, including the always underrated McArdle, were amazing races.

The list this century is not short, but long. Rainbow Blue before being injured was dominant, winning all her starts. Art Official and Shadow Play, both well less than 100% off injuries, won Open stakes and money against top multi-millionaires like Mister Big. Last year's four year old crop - probably the best we've seen in many years - were flat-out awesome. The only problem with Pet Rock or A Rocknroll Dance and Warrawee Needy and others, were that they were born in the wrong year. Market Share beat salty Euros in the Breeders Crown, and ironically, Bee a Magician has not come back well, but horses like Classic Martine have, and have pretty much dominated (in the Miss Versatility last week, 4YO's went 1,2,3).

Four year olds in history, both recent and modern can do just fine at 4, providing they're good enough. Those who are - like those listed above - should be held in high regard, and forever be remembered for what they were - solid, hard knocking, tremendously fast racehorses.



Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sebastian, Polls, & Wagering

Good Thursday everyone.

Sebastian K's off-track loss last weekend didn't budge him from atop the Hambletonian Poll this week. He still leads the venerable Sweet Lou and Father Patrick - two very good horses. I was happy to see that result, because Sebastian has been the story this season. He's probably the best older trotter to set foot on North American soil since Varenne, and could likely beat 99.8 out of 100 pacers week in and week out. He seems to get beaten by only himself, or his shoes, when the track gets soupy.

The Hambo Poll has been skewed to only wins and losses - a horse could get hit by a flying beer can, go offstride and lose, and lose votes - and I guess that makes some sense. However, when all the top horses have losses, it's pretty easy to ensure we have the best horse on top.

Similarly, yesterday was an odd day that started with a twitter conversation if Captaintreacherous was near as good as his sire, Somebeachsomewhere. Yes, you read that right. The Beach is an odd duck with some. He, still to this day inexplicably to me, never sat atop the Hambo Poll until October of his three year old year; comfortably in an average second place to Deweycheatumnhowe. Only after Dewey began losing, did he budge. I would like to think the night he beat Shadow Play off bell boots flying and a park job in 52 in change in the Messenger in that storm (a night where Foiled Again went two seconds slower and the fillies in the comparable 3YO stake went 4 seconds slower) might've made some take notice, but I really don't know.  People had, and continue to have, a tough time judging horseflesh - not so much pure handicappers, but certainly the press.

Regardless, there are similarities between the Beach and Sebastian K. Despite having to race some excellent horses, like world champions Shadow Play, Art Official, or multiple millionaires Market Share, each of their races are not races, but exhibitions. When they are in the box we're not handicapping, we're wondering how much they will win by, will they shatter a world record, or how much the track record will drop. There are very few of those horses in this sport's history. They are the ones that are not compared to others, but others are compared to them.

The only way we'll see Sebastian lose the number one spot - and rightfully so, in my opinion - is if him beating himself is a trend, not something that sparks $50 show prices.

Notes:

A hearty congratulations to Kentucky Downs. The track that bucked convention and offered the lowest takeout in racing, rather than the government allowed top level (what Churchill is charging),  had a stellar, record meet. Although they've had tremendous growth - well over 300% in only a few years - it will be interesting to see if they can take it to the next level next year. With some improvements, I would not count them out. It's a place where an exacta with a chalk onto third choice can easily pay $50 - and with a lower two horse exotic rake, that's very attractive.

The Ron Rippey handicapping article award has been sponsored by Brisnet. Do you know of a good article that should be nominated?

Have a super day everyone.




Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Last Kentucky Downs Card Today, and Santa Anita Raises Takeout

Good day horse racing peeps!

Kentucky Downs puts on their last card today. As usual, there are some good betting races, and 113 drew in before scratches. It looks like the meet will be up for the third year in a row - and not by a tiny amount. Doug has a synopsis on their handle this meet here.

On the flipside, Santa Anita announced their betting menu for the upcoming meet and it includes a 2% takeout hike for their daily double pools from 18% to 20%.

One track is going the right way; the other hopes you don't notice.

The two largest entities in racing which own the most tracks are Magna and CDI. Both have shown a willingness to increase takeout, or offer pools that are egregious to betting bankrolls, like the Rainbow Six. Although my Frank-love for some of his proactive measures on horse welfare and medication is documented (I might even change my twitter avatar to my favorite Austrian-Canadian auto magnate again), we sure see some short-sightedness on all-important pricing.

Being a customer is hard. And any companies, or tracks that make it even harder, are doing a disservice to the game. Racing must make it easier to be a customer, and until that happens the obvious will occur: Racing will continue to lose them.

Have a great day folks!