Has Soccer Passed Horseracing in the U.S.?

This is a pretty new blog, and at this point I am willing to say about anything to generate some comments. The headline is partially misleading. This is really about soccer and not horseracing. But there is an interesting juxtaposition of a sport that seems to be on the way up and one that is on the way down.

I think one of the marks of the successful horseplayer is an inner voice that is constantly saying, my opinion is solid. If you go to the window with no confidence, get ready to make a lot of trips to the ATM. In the case of soccer, even if you disagree with my opinion, I’m starting from the perspective I’m on to something here.

Every four years at World Cup time, sports pundits all over the country get soccer fever, and boldly predict soccer has turned a corner. They are right, but not for the reason they think they are right. They are right because American football will stop getting all the best athletes.

Football is like smoking was in the 60’s. The parallels are frightening. Smoking executives denied the link between smoking and cancer much in the same way the NFL downplayed the effects of multiple concussions. But just as 50 years later smoking makes you a pariah in restaurants, office buildings and other people’s houses, eventually the players in the NFL will be limited to the desperate who only see gladiatorial combat as a way out of their poor circumstances, or those who ignore the mountain of evidence on the physical severity of football. Most parents will not run the risk of watching their kids get permanently injured and at best will limit them to flag football. The best athletes will have to turn somewhere. Perhaps basketball and baseball will prosper more, but soccer will receive the boost the ruling bodies have predicted since the 70’s.

Soccer is thought of as “the beautiful game.” It is flawed in obvious ways, yet the soccer traditionalists believe they have achieved perfection. They can think of nothing that needs to be fixed, that is until they fix something.

Take the goal line technology. Soccer resisted the idea until England had a clear goal disallowed in the 2010 world cup, the second time England had been involved with a controversial World Cup call. When a sport thinks that wrong calls are just part of what makes the game beautiful, they are asking for rejection of their sport. Just ask baseball whether they thought replay was a great idea or they were backed into a corner by fans tired of bad calls affecting the game. Just ask Armando Galarraga his feelings on replay. Ask Cardinals fans what they thought of Don Denkinger’s call in the 1985 World Series. An overturned call here and there, and potentially history changes.

Let me emphasize this point. This is not about changing soccer to fit some model of what makes Americans play or watch a sport. It is about fixing the clear flaws. Here is my list of fixes that will bring soccer to greater prominence.

  1. Soccer has the same problem football does when it comes to concussions. I played soccer in high school, and I can tell you that when a high ball came someone’s way, you stopped it with your feet or maybe chest, but nobody was going to take a hit in the head. A high speed soccer ball to the head does no less damage than a sweet right cross. You can’t take headers out of the game, but perhaps you can develop some protective headgear that doesn’t screw up the game. Football, hockey, lacrosse were all helmetless at one point. Now they have headgear and face masks.
  2. Soccer fields are around 115 by 74 yards and are covered by one referee on the field and two “assistant referees” who roam the sidelines. Hockey rinks are about 200 by 84 feet (66 by 28 yards) and are covered by two referees and two linesmen. That’s one more official in a quarter of the area of a soccer field. There are four umpires in baseball, three officials in basketball and seven officials in American football. I’m a certified basketball official, and I can tell you that if I am watching one thing, I’m not watching the other stuff going on. But I can take comfort in the fact that the other officials do. That’s less likely in soccer. If the ball is moving up, the referee and an assistant referee have to ball hawk to watch for offsides and fouls. At best the other assistant referee has all the rest of the players. Three officials in a game that large and fast is absurd and the only thing adding a referee or three can do is make the calls better.
  3. I’ll admit it. The difference between a legal play, a foul, and an egregious foul can be maddeningly subtle. Not a game goes by when the commentators don’t criticize a a referee for missing a dozen calls. It is especially arbitrary in the penalty box where referees seem hesitant to make a call knowing it probably means a goal. And in soccer, one goal is the equivalent of five runs in baseball. It is a game changer. I like hockey’s rule. If a player is on a breakaway and gets fouled, you get the penalty shot. Otherwise it is just two minutes in the box. A penalty shot in soccer should only be given when a player is denied a clear scoring opportunity in the box, and not for just any foul committed in the penalty area.
  4. The red card thing is far too harsh a penalty. Sure there are things that should get a player ejected. Football has a death penalty, hockey has a game misconduct, and in baseball you can get ejected for saying “good evening” with an attitude. But ejecting a player and not allowing a replacement gives referees too much power to decide the game instead of the players. I know the counter argument. If that was the case, scrubs would be sent into a game to knock out the other team’s star. But it doesn’t happen that way in football and hockey, and to suggest it would in soccer just confirms the weakness of the game. Hockey players know if you come after my star, we’ll come after yours. Even football players say, I’m not going to hurt a man on purpose because what comes around goes around. You mess with YOUR livelihood when you goon it up. So maybe do it like hockey – play down a man for ten minutes. That should make the point.
  5. Speaking of replacements, three substitutes a game? I was watching a game where they thought a goalie has dislocated his shoulder and since the team had already used its substitutes, the option seemed to be putting a goalie jersey on one of the other players on the field. If you really think a team would risk pulling its number one goaltender by feigning an injury, you’ve never been part of a team. The rule that once you’re off the field you can’t come back on is fine. I believe you should be able to substitute for the goaltender once for any reason, and you should be allowed at least six other substitutions. The way to deal with the numbers is to limit active rosters. If you only have 18 active players (16 field players and two goalies) you can’t make more than the seven allowable substitutions. Pretty much the same as baseball. Once you’ve used all your bench personnel that’s it. Or basketball. If players have fouled out and you had to use all your bench players and one gets hurt, you play down a man.
  6. Fake injuries. I know soccer has tried to deal with this issue by dealing a yellow card for floppers. But it is rarely applied. I think a lot of the fake injuries are to get a clock stoppage to rest or to break the other team’s rhythm. In a play that would have been comical if it wasn’t so egregious, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez bit an Italian player, and Suarez hits the ground and starts howling that Chiellini hurt Suarez’s mouth with his shoulder. My solution is the same as for the basketball games I referee. If you have to stop the game for an injury and the attending personnel come on the court, you must remove that player as quickly and safely as possible and start playing again. None of this, “I’m ok now that I’ve rolled around on the ground for ten minutes like I was shot”. Stop the game, and you leave the field and you don’t get back on until there is an appropriate stoppage.
  7. Stoppage time. I guess it is six of one, half dozen of the other, but if you don’t dawdle for injuries and you stop the clock after a goal to allow for celebrations that make Chad Ochocinco look as pumped up as a Southern Baptist at church, you can stop a half at the 45 or 90 minute mark. None of this, add five minutes to the half. And why is it always a whole number? What if it was really three minutes, 32 seconds? Seriously, if it isn’t really 45 minutes a half, then what is wrong with a stop clock? Wouldn’t that make it less arbitrary and more accurate?
  8. Finally, my biggest complaint. The offsides rule. I get that you need some sort of offsides rule in most of the field. In hockey the players can’t precede the puck into the offensive zone. But when the guy with the ball is six yards from the goal line and the defense jumps up to put the guy three yards from the goal line offsides, all you’ve done is reward a team for not playing defense. Can you imagine in basketball a guy with the ball standing at the foul line and the defense all taking a step up so the guy standing next to the basket is ineligible to catch and shoot? I know. It sounds absurd to me too. The old NASL (Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer on one team) experimented with a 35 yard offside line, meaning when the ball was inside that line there was no offsides. It was great for the game, but the stuffy grumps at FIFA pushed the NASL into abandoning it. The NASL offside rule accomplished a lot of things. It opened up the game. Teams could no longer safely sit on a one goal lead. It extended the careers of players because they didn’t always have to come up past the midfield line every opposing possession. It emphasized the skill of the better players. Look, the game has changed. The players are faster and run more than when the current offside rule was adopted. This rule has been changed a few times in the past. The game has evolved. So should the rule.

How Does Your Track Treat You?

Horseplayers can be schizophrenic. Sometimes we want to be left in our own bubble, sometimes we want recognition, and sometimes we want both at the same time.

Most casinos and racetrack/casinos have some version of a players card. You know, one of those things that gives you redeemable points for spending your money at their place. You can use those points to get anything from the chicken fingers and fries plate (I’m just guessing, but I believe that is around five million points) to an LCD TV (at least a billion points, and it is generally a TV brand you’ve never heard of). However, it is hit or miss whether your racetrack only has such a system, and believe me, a lot of them don’t. Unless they have some version of the NSA software I’m not aware of, I don’t think most tracks are paying very close attention to my bets, even though they can get instantaneous feedback on what is being bet at a particular mutuel machine. “Hey Harry, some guy just bet $400 at mutuel 82.” Or, “Gee Bob, someone just got a $500 voucher. Maybe it’s a big bettor.”

There are, of course, the infamous rebate sites where you just get some money back from each bet. It’s pretty exciting watching my balance go from $63.20 to an even $64 after I get credit for my losing bets.

Back to schizophrenia. Most horseplayers who bet significant amounts of money don’t really want anyone involved in their business. Especially the IRS, which seriously frowns when you forget to enter one of your W2-G forms. It may take them a year and a half to get around to sending you a letter, but trust me, they’ll get around to it. The worst part is the inefficiency of the tax collection agency also winds up costing you an extra year and a half worth of interest and penalties. I have no solid proof of this, but I’m pretty sure they also hold the letter until the day after you find out your leaking roof will cost $8,000 to fix, your car needs a new engine, and your doctor tells you you need an operation that is not covered by insurance.

No, the idea of being tracked by the casinos, tracks, or the NSA doesn’t settle well with most of us. Let’s face it. When someone who hasn’t even bought so much as a lottery ticket in their lives asks you how much you bet last year and you say, about $80,000, the most common response is not, “good for you!” It’s, “how long have you had this gambling problem?” It doesn’t help to explain that most of the $80K was just winnings we couldn’t stand to keep.

On the other hand, we would like some trustworthy track official to just know that we are a preferred customer. The logic goes something like this. I see you here every day, I know you walk up to the betting windows, so I’m going to give you the VIP treatment.

My brother, a good friend and I used to regularly attend the races together. One year they actually gave us parking and entry passes and a table in the clubhouse right behind Penny Tweedy’s table. Very nice, gracious woman by the way. I’m not exaggerating when I say on some weekdays the three of us were 1% of the handle. Think about that. 300 people like us and everyone else could have stayed home. They actually did a movie about us called 300 where Gerard Butler played me. They changed the venue from the racetrack to Greece, gave us all rock hard, six-pack abs, and fiddled with some details in the way only Hollywood can fiddle with details, but otherwise it was generally accurate.

The next year we were offered nothing. So we hunted down the General Manager and he simply said that someone in the corporate office just decided such privileges were no longer necessary. So we sniffled a little bit, paid for admission, and moved to a spot in the track where they had set up some cheap tables and chairs and a few 20-inch TVs, no charge. It was sort of like being banished to the corner, only we could go to the betting windows whenever we wanted. One or all of us sat in that spot every single day of the meeting. We refused to even take vacations while the live meet was running. On Breeder’s Cup day we got to our appointed table early, spread out our racing forms and paraphernalia (and we had lots of paraphernalia including books and charts – we had more printed material than Chico Marx in that scene from Day at the Races where he is touting Groucho), got our vouchers and waited for the first race. About an hour later one of the the minions of the GM showed up with a very  nice couple and said he just sold them our seats, because they had made reservations and they actually ran out of the seats that normally were put up for sale and, you know, they felt guilty and wanted to accommodate the couple. Naturally we refused to move and tried reminding them that we were going to bet more on the first race than the 800 people who show up at the track two days a year (the Kentucky Derby and Breeder’s Cup) were going to bet all day. Rather than calling security over, which in retrospect he would have been well within his rights to do, the minion said, ok this time, but don’t forget we’ve done you a great favor. I cleaned up and shortened the story quite a bit, but the point should be clear. They should have escorted us to a plush table with our own betting machines and a comp on the roast baron of beef buffet instead of asking us to stand around with our library bags full of racing junk.

Instead, like a lot of tracks, the attitude was almost, if it wasn’t for us you wouldn’t have any horses to bet, so just be grateful we run a race meet here. Somehow it seemed like the symbiosis should have been clearer, like we needed each other to survive.

I try to make it to Monmouth every year. On most days they have a free outdoor grandstand where you can take advantage of the great ocean breezes and not have to worry about rain drenching you. But they have a sign that says something like, these seats are not free on Haskell Day. Frankly, I respect that. By golly we’re going to fill the track up a couple of days out of the year and we’re going to make enough money to subsidize most of the other days. As long as you know who you are bumping out of those seats, and you are accommodating them, why not grab a few bucks from the people who only show up on special occasions? If my track had given us some warning, we would have simply marched down to the office, said good for you selling those seats, now where would you like to accommodate us at no extra charge.

So here are my questions. Could the racing folks at your local track identify the 10 or 20 or 100 biggest bettors by sight? Have they instructed all the track employees to recognize them as well? And if they have a clue, what are they doing for these loyal patrons? Free passes? Free racing forms and programs? A nice place to sit? Maybe some modest food and beverages? What are they doing for you anyway? And let me say, anyone who came up to management and said they deserved the comps probably doesn’t deserve the comps. Management should have a scheme for identifying the best customers and rewarding them without making a big deal about it. And it doesn’t have to be tellers feeding you grapes as you lounge on a plush couch. It’s amazing how little we would take for a modicum of recognition.

I’m not talking about the owners and trainers who get all that and more. I’m talking about the people who are for all intents and purposes paying the bills.

I get it. Mostly we’re going to show up no matter how we are treated. But when all you seem to hear is how racing is dying, does anyone but me think one of the nails in the coffin is apathy toward at least the reliable, stalwart fans?

Late Pick-4 Belmont June 29

Every time I think the pick-4 is an indecipherable mess, the longest price in the sequence is 3-1. At first glance this looks like a pick-4 with plenty of upset possibilities, but here goes.


In my opinion, there is no stickout in the 6th. #2 Sacred Ground is listed as the morning line favorite off a 42 day rest and a drop to the lowest claiming level he’s seen since January 2013. Sacred Ground is a 7 year-old horse who has been a steady earner in the low claiming ranks. He is placed correctly in this race and the distance should be no issue, but he may lack enough pace to run at. He certainly has a chance but I wouldn’t make him better than a 20% probability.

#6 Seeker should be the speed here. There is no reason why the five year-old gelding shouldn’t be able to establish his own fractions and hang on in the stretch. He won a $20,000 claiming mile race on May 23 in front running style, came back on the turf, and is back on his favored dirt surface today.

The #4 No Brakes had zero wins from 13 starts in 2013, but already has two wins this year, albeit at Charles Town and Pimlico. The hard-knocking nine year-old gelding wouldn’t be a complete surprise.

“A” Horses -2, 6

“B” Horse – 4

Race 7

This race is another tricky event. In the nine horse field there are only a couple of horses I don’t think have a chance of crossing under the wire first.

#5 The Brothers War shipped over from Europe in 2013 and finished third in a turf sprint at Saratoga. The well-bred son of War Front clunked in a minor stakes sprint at GP and faded to third after setting the pace in a 7-furlong OC turf sprint in his last. He looked like he needed the conditioning, but could get seriously compromised if he tries to stay with some of the other speed in the race.  Still, at 6-1 he could make the pick-4.

#1 Hear the Footsteps is at his correct level today and should find the distance to his liking. His closing style shouldn’t hurt him in this field. #3 Morpheus, half-brother to the great Frankel, is another shipper from Europe making his third start in the States. The 4 year-old still looks like he has some improve left in him, and wouldn’t be a total surprise. #4 Marriedtothemusic has the best figure in the race but has never started on the turf. He is another with early speed and could wind up setting the race up for a closer. #9 Spring Sky as only won once in his last 13 starts, but did just miss at today’s class and distance on May 16. He is another one who looks like he wants to prompt the pace.

# 2 Honorable Dylan get a look simply because he is at the right level, and he raced well in his turf sprint debut on May 16. Perhaps today he turns the tables on Hear the Foorsteps and Spring to the Sky.

“A” Horse – 5

“B” Horses – 1,3,4,9

“C” Horse – 2

Race 8

This race is super-competitive and even the longest shot on the morning line, West Coast Chick wouldn’t be a total shock. Five of the seven starters appear to be front-running types, and the other two are more pressers than closers. Only one of the starters has ever won a Graded stakes, Miss Behaviour.

#3 Milam is the morning line favorite, and although her pace figures put her near the bottom of the field, she may have an advantage because of her running style. She comes out after finishing a close second in the 8 Belles on Derby Day. The winner of that race, Fiftyshadesofgold, is multiple stakes-placed and would be 5 for 7 if not for some horse called Untapable. #2 Miss Behaviour comes off a front-running victory in the Ms Preakness and seems to be able to run without keeping her nose in front of a field. Todd Pletcher’s #6 Red Velvet wired a short stakes field in her last and has every right to keep improving.

#1 Isabelle has yet to face open competition, but was impressive in winning a state-bred stakes last out. #4 Street Story has to be considered because if the front runners falter she is most likely to pick up the pieces.

“A” Horses – 2,3,6

“B” Horses – 1,4

“C” Horses – 5,7

Race 9

The nightcap is one of those typical NY state-bred maiden races on the turf where horses either look possible or horrible, but nobody sticks out.

I’m going to look for horses who don’t have many starts, but have at least shown some potential. My choices are the #8 Zafiro Azul and #10 Josie’s Prospect. Both ran competitive figures in the same race on June 12, Josie’s Prospect on the front and Zafiro Azul making an impressive closing run. Of the two other horses coming out of that race, #2 Nanoon was strangled in the early going and had nothing left for a stretch drive, and #5 Sweetest Peach showed nothing at all.

#7 Transplendid was approaching professional maiden status when she fell and was vanned off in her last start of 2013. If she returns to her best form she has a chance to finish in front. Lil’ Zilla is also returning off a nine month plus layoff with a new trainer in tow. She is dropping from straight state-bred maidens, should have no problem with the distance and has a better pace figure as a two year-old than any other horse has as a three year-old. At 6-1 it is tough to ignore her.

“A” Horses – 8,10

“B” Horses – 7,9

“C” Horse – 2

Maybe Dumbass Has a Point

By now everyone who has a sniff of interest in horseracing has weighed in on the comments from Steve Coburn, co-owner of California Chrome. after his horse was soundly whipped in the Belmont.

The response has pretty much uniformly berated the self-labelled “Dumbass,” and I’m not going to pile on. He knows that no matter what was actually running through his mind, the right response was, “my horse tried his heart out but came up short. It’s been a hard campaign and it’s time to give Chrome a break and come back later in the summer. Tonalist is a great horse, and I want to congratulate him and his connections on a great win.”

While Coburn did himself no favors with the rant, perhaps some good will come out of it. The days of horses racing every two weeks are long gone. As I noted in my last blog, modern thoroughbreds simply aren’t up to the rigors of the Triple Crown campaign, and it’s about time we recognized it. Just because Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed all won three races in five weeks doesn’t mean it has to be that way until the end of time.  If tradition is the best reason you have not to progress, just call yourself what you are – lame. Things change, and either you change with them or go extinct.

Would it really diminish the accomplishment of the Triple Crown to have the Derby the first Saturday in May, the Preakness on Memorial Day weekend and the Belmont on the 4th of July? You extend the Triple Crown hype from five weeks to two months. How can that be bad for horseracing? You don’t force young, physically immature horses to do something they’ll never do again in their careers – race three times in a month. With pressure coming from more than PETA to treat horses better, what move could be better than not punishing young horses?

Horses can still have plenty of time to get ready for the Travers and the Breeder’s Cup. It generally addresses Coburn’s complaint. California Chrome is a much fresher horse in an Independence Day Belmont and can better deal with the fresh challengers. Seriously. Do you really think the accomplishment of winning three Grade 1’s in two months is tarnished because  the horse didn’t do it on the same schedule as Secretariat? Do you honestly believe that some good but not great horse will win a Triple Crown? Maybe we could do a Roger Maris and put an asterisk on his Hall of Fame plaque.

The likelihood of horseracing adjusting has about the same probability as stability in the Middle East. But, hey,  stranger things have happened.

Are Route Races on the Way Out?

For 52 years the Mother Goose Stakes was run at 1 1/8 miles; however, in 2010 the distance was cut back to 1 1/16 miles. Are there any reasons other than horses are less sturdy and more and more being bred for speed at shorter distances?

The development of the thoroughbred breed was done with the idea of producing animals with both speed AND stamina. The thoroughbred was a unique cross – the fastest land animal at the distance of one-mile. Indeed, until the 1870’s thoroughbreds would regularly run best-of-three four mile heats. John Eisenberg’s The Great Match Race was a beautifully written chronicle of the famous four-mile race between Eclipse and Henry.

In the last 50 years do you recall a race that actually increased in distance?

The phenomenon of running shorter distances seems to be more common to America than Europe where stamina is still a desired characteristic. The question is, should the betting public care?

My opinion is, yes. First, races beyond 1 1/16 miles require not only speed and stamina, but strategy. Often a short sprint overvalues how quickly a horse breaks and leaves horses who break poorly with no winning potential. Run fast, don’t get caught is less a strategy than a default for too many horses. How sad is it when your horse runs a 46.2 half in a 6-furlong race and gets passed by three horses at the eighth pole? How frustrating is it when the best horse breaks a beat slow from the one post and loses all chance 50 yards into a race? On the other hand, how great is it when you watch jockeys mete out a horse’s energy so he gets the maximum from that horse?

Second, breeding for faster and faster horses inevitably weakens the breed. Top flight thoroughbreds who once could comfortably race 10-15 times a  year are now carefully managed to race 5-7 times.  The great Secretariat came to the Kentucky Derby having run 12 races. He fit 12 races at seven different tracks into a three year-old schedule that lasted only eight months. Today you run a horse 12 times in eight months and you picque PETA’s interest.

Just for fun I looked at the Belmont card for June 28. 73 horses went postward. Exactly two of them had 12 or more starts in 2013, and if I had chosen 14 starts instead of 12 that number would have been zero. In the featured Mother Goose, the TOTAL number of starts for the five three year-old runners was 30. That’s an average of six starts for an entire two year-old and half of a three year-old season. My local track, Arapahoe Park has eight thoroughbred races tomorrow. One is at a mile, two are at five furlongs, three are at 5 1/2 furlongs, one is at seven furlongs, and one is at six furlongs. And that is typical of most small, western tracks.

My point there is, at shorter distances in shorter fields, it’s hard to find something that outsmarts the crowd. The puzzle at five furlongs is more likely going to be easier than at 1 1/8 miles. It becomes far more difficult to find overlays.

There was a time when it was pretty much a given that a horse off more than 30 days was a throw-out. Now, if a horse comes back in less than 30 days, it is too quick. You tell me. Is it easier to handicap races where horses have plenty of recent form, or where they’ve all been off one to six months?

Horse ownership is down by a quarter since its peak. Is it any wonder given how few races a thoroughbred is likely to win? Even with bigger purses, a horse still eats 365 days a year.

We’re not likely to go back to the good old days. Handicapping, like everything else, is Darwinian. Adapt and survive. Get used to it. More fragile horses running shorter and shorter distances less often is the future.

Betting Menus Approaching Cheesecake Factory Size

Are you thinking about betting the second at Belmont today? If so, you have the choice of win, place, show, exacta, quinella, trifecta, superfecta, pick-3, pick-4, AND a double. That’s 10 separate pools into which you can spread your money. If that isn’t enough, you can get into the pick-5 in race 1, the pick-6 in race 5 or perhaps the coolest bet in racing, the Grand Slam in race 6. I guess the theory is that all those choices cover every type of bettor who might show up,  and for large tracks with large handles it may work, but at smaller tracks it’s a bad idea all the way around.

And remember. Most people don’t have a computer program identifying pool inefficiencies. The vast majority of the race day crowd relies on habit or experience to get into a pool.

When Arapahoe Park reopened in 1992 after an eight year hiatus they made a great decision when they decided to drop the quinella and instead offer a $1 exacta box. Same two dollar bet and a collection as long as your horses finished first and second in either order, and it accomplished something important. It made the exacta pool larger than it would have been otherwise, and at smaller tracks pool size is critical. At that time dog racing in Colorado was king, and the king of dog racing bets was the quinella. People were literally flummoxed by the absence of the quinella, complaining to the point where Arapahoe was forced to eventually bring it back. It’s been downhill from there.

As someone once said, you can’t save people from themselves.

Even if you couldn’t make a $1 exacta bet, quinellas shouldn’t be offered. How many times have you seen the longer shot win the race and have the quinella pay $20 and the exacta $60? The point is that when the longer shot wins, you want a premium for your combination bet. With a single first/second pool, you have a much better chance at getting a fair pay. Plus you don’t have to go through the mind numbing exercise of checking the payoffs in two pools to figure out where the inefficiencies are (assuming you don’t have some software doing that for you). The last point is that at the smaller tracks, too much of the action happens in the last five minutes and the pools can be highly volatile as bettors search for the overlays. At least if there is only one pool there is a chance the pool might stabilize a little sooner and you’ll come closer to getting the payoff you expected when you bet.

Frankly, the quinella should go the way of the horse and buggy. Tracks should weather the storm and eventually people will forget the quinella.

The next bet they should get rid of is the show bet. The show bet caters to two segments of the betting public: people who go to the track with $20 and want to come home with $20 and the big dollar bettors who are happy to take 5% on their money. It’s a 19th century bet, which makes little sense considering we are well into the 21st century. You want to make the stingy bettors happy? Have a win pool and a combined place/show pool like you see in venues outside the United States. Again, at the smaller tracks, this can only help stabilize pools.

Other bets can be offered based on track handle.  Saratoga, Belmont, and Santa Anita can pretty much offer as many bets as they please, even though they still dilute pools unnecessarily. Still, remember that most of the super-exotic pools are dominated by the rebate sharks, and most of the betting public is simply donating to their cause. I would argue all day long that one gigantic exacta pool benefits big and small bettor alike.

The larger tracks have a built in dilemma when it comes to which bettor to cater to. The small player has a much better chance at hitting the easier combinations – doubles, exactas, maybe even trifectas. But as you get to the more exotic bets such as the superfecta or picks-4,5,6, small bettors are most often just donating money to the pool. For every “small guy hits pick-6 with $32 ticket” story, there are a hundred where some whale investing $15,000 hits it. There are 5,040 combinations in a 10-horse race superfecta. Even if half of them are improbable, who has the bankroll to cover 2,520 combinations, even at 10 cents a ticket?  This problem is exacerbated at the small tracks.

At Arapahoe Park yesterday, the total handle was around $68,000 for 11 races.  That’s not $68,000 a race. That’s $68,000 total. The superfecta in race 11 paid $627.60 for a 7-3-ALL-ALL ticket of which there was exactly one $2 (or two $1) ticket holder. Arapahoe doesn’t have 10 cent superfectas because, as they discovered, the total pool would be about $200. This also means if  you had the 7-3-5-ALL or the 7-3-5-4 you  would have collected…that’s right, $627.60. How much money should you put into a pool where you will collect $627.60 if you snag the whole thing? Arapahoe offers superfectas because everybody else does, but frankly they would have been better off  just building the trifecta or exacta pools.

I know this is unkind, but I have pretty much never run into an ardent racegoer who doesn’t complain that management may understand the actual operation of a track, but precious few actually understand the pari-mutuel aspect. The standard answer to any question is, because that is what the fans/owners/trainers ask for. They are helpless against the onslaught of those who demand 10 betting pools a race.

Offering a ridiculous number of pools is not in the interest of the average bettor. The only time they prosper is when the favorites come in. Otherwise most bettors are just feeding the anti-Robin Hoods – stealing from the poor to give to the rich.

Ray Paulick quoted Charles Cella, Oaklawn Park track owner in 1988 opining that exotic wagering was the worst thing in the world. That’s a silly opinion, but the larger point is well taken. Too many bets pull money away from the pools where the average bettor may have success. I’d challenge the larger tracks to undertake an experiment. Take a Wednesday and have win and place/show betting, exactas, and trifectas on every race, three pick-3’s, one pick-4, two daily doubles, two superfectas and a pick-6.

Check out this great blog on exotic betting by Ray Paulick



Belmont Early Pick-4 Saturday June 28

With Untapable looking like a a very short-priced single in the fourth race, the question is whether we can come up with some price horses in the other three events to make the investment worthwhile.

The second race is a bottom level maiden claiming dirt sprint where five of the nine runners are NY breds and there are two first timers. I feel fairly confident pitching Naughty Matilda, Chichita,  and Desert Valentine.

#9 Tordita is almost certainly going to be the post-time favorite. She seems more suited to the dirt than turf or synthetic, the combination of trainer Bruce  Brown and jockey Javier Castellano is hitting at a 30% rate, and her figures are tops in this field.

#7 Moon Map has done her best running on a fast dirt track, and has figures slightly below Tordita. She should be one of the runners coming at the end.

#1 Discreet Malena is the interesting horse. I don’t think she’ll go off at 10-1, but she does seem to be racing into shape. She had two total clunkers on the turf in 2013, but came out on the dirt in 2014, showed some front in her first start and held her speed well in her next start, beating #2 Hot On Ice in the process. If she’s rounding into the top of her form she may just wire this cheap field.

“A” Horse – #9 Tordita

“B” Horses – #1 Discreet Malena, #7 Moon Map

“C” Horses – #2 Not On Ice, #5 Home to Carrowkeel, #6 Untiltherewasyou

The third race is one of those open $40,000 claiming toughies at 6 furlongs on the turf. Eight runners are scheduled to start, and I’m not sure anyone is completely outless. #1 Chelsea Road is listed as the 2-1 favorite, but I’m going to give the nod to #4 Harbingerofthings. The 5YO mare is well suited to the turf and in 2013 was a steady earner with 6 of 11 in the money. Her last two races showed approaching condition, even though she was racing on a muddy Pimlico surface and the synthetic at Presque Isle.  I think today she is back on form and I’m expecting Michael Trombetta to have her wound up and ready to run.

There is not a lot of pure speed in the race.  #2 Kilknockagain and #3 Starship Gambler will probably inherit the front, with the rest of the field following in close order. It should be a wild finish and I’d just be guessing if I offered a cold trifecta.

“A” Horse – #4 Harbinger of Things

“B” Horses – #2 Kilknockagain, #1 Chelsea Road

“C” Horses – the remainder of the field

The last leg of the early Pick-4 is a $40,000 Maiden Claiming event for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. It is another mess of a race, and a case can be made for a number of runners. #5 Winner’s Legacy is listed as the morning line favorite. She has the past performance of a horse with physical issues,  and her last three races appear uninspiring at best. I’m going elsewhere for this race.

In this sort of race I look for horses that have a small number of starts and something positive going for them. The closest prospect is the #1 Acrostic. In May 2013 Acrostic gave a bang-up effort in a $65K maiden claimer, and then spent a year on the sidelines. She returned a month ago in a six furlong sprint, breaking slowly but making an encouraging five-wide move around the turn and finishing with decent energy. Acrostic’s chances may depend on the break, but if she  establishes a good tracking spot going into the first turn, she has every right to wind up a winner.

#2 Lifeguard on Duty also has the pattern, although she seems a step behind Acrostic. She ran a good race in her last run of 2013 at Laurel, and Anthony Dutrow is a high percentage trainer who does well with horses coming off long layoffs.

#8 Shaikha and #4 Kevin’s Kool Kat both have the look of professional maidens. Too many starts, and a high percentage of second place finishes, although Shaikha clearly has the best numbers of the field.

None of the remaining runners has much to recommend.

“A” Horses – #1 Acrostic, #2 Lifeguard on Duty

“B” Horse – # 8 Sheikha

“C” Horses – #5 Winner’s Legacy, #4 Kevin’s Kool Kat

Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont

Six horses are scheduled to contest the 2014 renewal of the Mother Goose Stakes this Saturday at Belmont. The overwhelming and deserving favorite in this field of six is the Steve Asmussen trained Untapable, listed at 1-5 on the morning line. 1-5 translates into an 83% chance of winning. If you are intrigued enough by the other horses to take a stand against Untapable, you are assured of a decent return for an upset. The problem is, nobody seems to be in Untapable’s current league.

Untapable made an auspicious debut at Churchill Downs last June as the 2.40-1 second choice, comfortably winning a 5.5 furlong race. She wheeled back two and a half months later, taking the Grade 2 Pocahontas. She followed that with a disaster in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Fillies, and finished 2013 with a rather dull effort in the Hollywood Starlet.

What a difference 2014 brought. Untapable has won three consecutive Graded stakes, the last win coming at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Oaks. Nobody has been closer than four and a half lengths at the wire. Untapable should be fully primed on Saturday. She is a versatile runner and has shown the ability to press or track and leave a field in her wake.

Are there any negatives? Not many. Rosie Napravnik, Untapable’s regular rider, is out with a shoulder injury and has been replaced by the very capable Johhny Velasquez. She has never raced on the Belmont surface, and it is occasionally the case that a horse will find the Big Sandy less to their liking.

So if you want to play the race, what do you do? There is no show betting, but I don’t think the bridge jumpers will have any hesitation about slamming Untapable in the place pool.  That leaves a few combination bets – the exacta, trifecta, pick-3 and early pick-4. In an article I wrote for Horseplayer Magazine, I mentioned that if you can turn a 1-5 shot into an 8-5 or higher shot by playing a cold exacta, or an even longer shot by playing a cold trifecta, it’s worth taking a plunge.

So who would you put on the bottom of an exacta or trifecta with Untapable? Let’s go through the other runners. House Rules needed four tries to break her maiden, but then finished second in a pair of Grade 2 races at Gulfstream, finishing ahead of other runners America and Stopchargingmaria in the process. However, she showed  very little in the Grade 1 Acorn at Belmont. Her closing style may work in her favor but given she’ll likely be bet a little, I’m going to look elsewhere.

Princess Violet is a lightly raced New York state-bred with three sprint races under her belt. She should bolt to the front, but otherwise I’m not really finding a reason to consider her in the back hole.

America is still eligible for a NW2 race and has been beaten by both Stopchargingmaria and House Rules. I can’t see why the tables might turn on Saturday.

Stopchargingmaria is a solid Grade 2 horse and her win in the Black-Eyed Susan showed a lot of growth. She raced as a two-year old at Belmont, finishing a respectable third in the Frizette, so I don’t think the track will be a problem. You can’t ignore the Pletcher-Castellano combination. They consistently hit at 30% or greater in stakes races. She seems fairly clear as the second best runner, but it’s hard to imagine more than a $4 exacta with Untapable on top. Still, it’s a long way better than 1-5.

The horse that intrigues me is Aqua Regia, and if Princess Violet wasn’t in the race I’d be inclined to really hit the Untapable-Aqua Regia exacta. She just won her NW1X race at Belmont, pressing from the second spot and finishing well. She has plenty of tactical speed, but doesn’t seem to be a “need to lead” type. If she doesn’t let Princess Violet burn her out early, she may have a couple of lengths on everyone but Untapable turning for home, and have enough heart to hang on to the place. She has the feel of one of those horses that still has a lot of room for improvement, and fits a pattern that has historically been successful at Belmont. Plus, she is likely to go off somewhere near her 20-1 morning line.

I don’t think there are a lot of decisions in here. If Untapable runs her race, everyone else is competing for second, and the Untapable-Stopchargingmaria exacta will probably pay a miniscule price. Unless something intervenes, I’m inclined to try to make money by betting a straight Untapable-Aqua Regia exacta.

I’ll blog tomorrow about the pick-3 and pick-4 prospects.

How Can Racing be Saved?

Ah, the good old days.

It was the early twentieth century. The industrial revolution had modernized the world economy. Workers not only had more money to spend, for the first time they had the leisure time to spend it. Baseball filled stadiums from Boston and New York to Chicago and St. Louis, propelling one George Herman “Babe” Ruth to the top of the “A” celebrity list. Jack Dempsey regularly fought in front of 100,000 rabid fight fans. And the sport that led the universe in attendance was horse racing. Four legged runners were superstars in every sense of the word. The incomparable Man O’ War had as much press as any actor and private protection that rivaled that of the President.

Horseracing was not only the sport of kings. It was the king of sports.

So what happened?

The list of mistakes made by horseracing is lengthy and well known. In a sport primarily controlled by America’s pseudo royalty, there were few visionaries and an arrogance that created denial of the steady but sure decline of racing’s dominance.

Racing is under attack from a variety of quarters. The relationship between “gambling” moralists and horse racing has always been uneasy. More puritanical interests have always frowned on the idea of betting on any type of sporting event. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) makes no secret about its desire to plunge a dagger through the heart of horseracing. When the New York Times published the results of an undercover PETA investigation involving mega-trainer Steve Asmussen and his top assistant, Scott Blasi, the anti-horseracing folks started salivating like Pavlovian dogs. It was the same old accusations. They subjected their horses to cruel and injurious treatments, administering drugs to them for nontherapeutic purposes, and having one of their jockeys use an electrical device to shock horses into running faster. PETA filed complaints with federal and state agencies in Kentucky and New York saying Asmussen “forced injured and/or suffering horses to race and train.” When you read that, was your first thought, we need to do something to fix horseracing, or did you just figure it was one more “business as usual” moment?

Remember the Pick-6 scandal at the 2002 Breeder’s Cup? More definitive “proof” that horseracing is riddled with corruption, despite the fact it was only three greedy morons who were exposing a flaw in the Amtote system. Check out this article on banking scandals to read about the 10 biggest banking scandals of 2012. That’s ten big scandals in one year. Do you hear anyone talking about shutting down all the banks?

Do I think there isn’t cheating? Of course not. There is cheating in almost any industry where lots of money is changing hands. If you believe racing is corrupt but the stock market is 100% on the up and up, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you.

Do I think that there isn’t cruelty being inflicted on animals, especially at smaller tracks, by marginal trainers? I know for a fact such cruelty occurs, often being accepted as a necessary evil to fill races. And sometimes it is not limited to marginal trainers. The enormously successful trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. was suspended 10 years in 2013 for repeated violations. If you follow the stewards activity at any track there are plenty of rulings, most of which are for petty transgressions. The problem is that while the rulings are public, for the most part the public is generally unaware of the activity. Most often the only time punishment makes the news is when something like Dutrow occurs, and it gives the appearance of an endemically corrupt business.

The New York Times had this to say. “It’s foolish, though, to think that horse racing — a dying sport on which billions are wagered every year and which features silent, compliant athletes — is clean when sports with much less at stake are not.”

Horseracing is dying, and the sport has no one to blame more than itself. The number of thoroughbred foals has declined from more than 51,000 in 1986 to around 22,000 in 2014. This leads to fewer horses available to fill races and more pressure on trainers to keep their horses race-available. The number of race starters has dropped by almost 25% since 2007. The number of registered owners has decreased by 25% in the last 10 years. It is a vicious circle . Fewer horses to fill more races leads to more drugs leads to fewer horses to fill more races.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, some in the racing industry are looking to Congress to provide them with enough credibility to sustain racing. We all understand the frustration, but do we really want the current Congress to be inserted into the game? Does the NFL or NBA turn to Congress when they have a problem? That is the last thing they would want to do.

I don’t know that I have a unique solution, so let me reinforce the one that seems best.

Horseracing needs to follow the model set by the other professional sports. A single governing authority with an appointed commissioner who has the same type of powers granted to the other major sports commissioners. Any track that doesn’t want to join gets penalized by being refused any simulcast signals. There would be uniform agreements with owners, trainers and jockeys, and jockeys would be treated more like valued employees rather than disposable plug-ins. The consortium would issue uniform drug rules and enforcement, including a three strikes rule for violations of drug policies. There would be uniform rules for fouls and disqualifications and suspensions, and mandatory training and certification for the stewards who have to make on the spot decisions. Every member track would be given assigned operating dates. A reasonable and uniform take for all tracks would be set and a uniform division of that pie would apply. Yes, that would limit the ability of tracks to “compete” with each other, and that is the point. Tracks need to be competing with casinos, state lotteries, and poker rooms, not other race tracks. The charge for simulcast fees for the low budget rebate shops would be a premium, meaning rebates could be in the more tolerable 3-5% range. We wouldn’t see the rebate whales skewing pools just to elevate their action. They’d actually need to become competent handicappers. No more “off the top” revenues for states. The state taxes the tracks as they would any business by making them pay a percentage of their profits. The state slice off the top is done under the guise of needing to pay for state oversight, but if there was a national governing body, they would take over all those functions and the state wouldn’t be in the testing, judging or veterinary business. Race tracks become just another business in the state, and policing would be just like the pro sports leagues. And the biggest thing of all. Remember that any decision has to have the best interests of the betting public in mind and not just track management, owners, and trainers.

Enough with the piecemeal approach currently in place. Someone comes up with an idea to have a uniform drug policy, and then they have to sell it to 38 separate jurisdictions. Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of the Jockey Club, noted that the current state by state approach is going slowly. In this case slowly means, not at all. One consortium with one set of rules is the answer.

The Jockey Club has suggested “thoughtfully” reducing the number of racing days. I love those kind of qualifiers. Thoughtful, expeditious, efficient – they only mean what those in control need them to mean. Remember the famous Garrett Hardin essay, The Tragedy of the Commons? Just like those who might graze cattle on an open range will keep adding cattle until the range is exhausted, race tracks will operate in their own self interest to the exclusion of the good of the sport as a whole. But how does the National Football League avoid this problem? They limit the number of teams that can be part of the league and they do the most important things of all – they share revenues and cap personnel costs. Hardin calls this, “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” And pretty much every team, big market or small, makes scads of money. In 2013 race track handle was almost $11 billion. With the right number of tracks and the right revenue sharing formula tracks and simulcast facilities should be able to figure out a way to prosper.

There needs to be an effective marketing branch, and more often than the Kentucky Derby and the Breeder’s Cup.There needs to be a concerted educational effort. It is really hard to be a good handicapper, and most people give up before they get started.

These are not the only ideas. Why don’t you tell me your ideas for bringing horseracing back to prominence. If we don’t fix horseracing now we may not have a sport to fix.





Arapahoe Institutes Drug-Free Bonus

Who’da thunk it?

The first track to offer bonuses to trainers for racing their horses free of medication on race day is…Arapahoe Park right here in colorful Colorado. Essentially the only medication covered is Lasix, the ubiquitous diuretic designed to control nasal bleeding that results from extreme effort during a race, since in Colorado it is the only drug allowable on race day, but, hey, it’s a start.

There are a few conditions that must be met before a horse can receive the $1,000 bonus for winning a race. Only trainers keeping their stable at the track for the entire meet are eligible, and the money doesn’t get distributed until the meet is over, which I suppose is extra incentive to actually stay until August 17, the last racing day.

In the press release from Arapahoe, Mile High Racing and Entertainment (Arapahoe’s parent company) Executive Director Bruce Seymore said,“The future of racing is going to be race-day medication-free, and we at Arapahoe Park want to be ahead of the curve.”

Take note of that statement because it might be the first time the words “Arapahoe Park” and “ahead of the curve” have been used in the same sentence. Now if they will only replace the ancient betting terminals with something a bit more modern….

You’re right. That was sort of a cheap shot. Give them credit. They have a hard enough time filling fields and attracting horses, so it was a fairly brave move on their part. Now, let’s see how many trainers take advantage of the opportunity.

It’s easy to be cynical about the idea of medication-free race days. Remember that New York held out on Lasix until 1995, but buckled under the weight of horsemen who refused to race their stables there. Nothing has changed, and when Sen. Adriano Espaillat tried to introduce a bill in 2013 banning performance enhancing drugs, including Lasix, at New York tracks the horsemen were close to unanimous in their opposition.

The drug discussion is really a surrogate for the real issues. Tracks cannot fill fields with horses that are totally healthy. Trainers cannot afford to fill limited stable space with runners who can’t earn on the track. The problem is simply that the balkanized racetrack model creates a demand for horses and there are not nearly enough healthy runners out there. So trainers hold their horses together with liniment, bandages, bute, Lasix and drugs with names you need to be a pharmacist to pronounce, and help make a race go.

The discussion is centered on absurd things, like bringing in the U.S. anti-doping agency to monitor race horse drug testing. It is centered around statements made by pretty much every state racing commission that maybe there is cheating going on somewhere, but not in my state. It centers around getting Congress to intervene. I’ve said this before, but when you are so exasperated you think a Congress that can hardly agree on what day of the week it is is the answer, you bet you have a major problem.

The discussion needs to center on the real problems. How do we improve the racing product? How do we make racing rules and drug policies universal given there are 38 states with 38 sets of rules to herd? And my favorite question, how do we stop treating the racing fan like a cash cow that is suppose to take anything tracks want to shove down our throats?

Feel free to contribute your answers. In my next blog I’ll talk more about how racing can be saved. And here’s a hint. It doesn’t involve Congress.