Aqueduct December 31

Last analysis for the year. It’s been a good year and I’m hoping 2015 will be even better. I had a lot of time given this was a dark day at the track, and it was below zero in Denver, so you’re getting a lot of bonus analysis today.

Race 1

This doesn’t look like a great betting race. If Bert Stone runs and wins, the payoff will not be very attractive. The two first time starters are not awe inspiring, but I don’t think you can eliminate Norman’s Hero the Levine horse. You’ve got four horses dropping in price. I’m sticking with my selections, but I’ll think before I spend a lot of money on this race.

  • 4 Bert Stone – in this $30K MCL Bert Stone is the stick out of the horses that have started. He is far speedier and either of his first two races is better than anything else in this field. It’s a little concerning that he couldn’t put away his last field, but this one is weaker.
  • 6 Norman’s Hero – in this race you can look a long time at the horses that have started and not come up with a logical exacta horse behind the 4. This first time starter is trained by Bruce Levine who wins at 19% with firsters. I like the workout pattern where the horse has some fast works early in the pattern, and some strength building works after. He’s bred decently for the distance and the dirt. Dylan Davis is not inspiring but not alot to beat in this field. And no, he wasn’t gelded four days ago. The connections reported it when he was entered.
  • 7 It’s Perfect Too – has a decent race on 10/17 at BEL, and perhaps  you can excuse him for being in over his head the last two.

Race 2

This was another uninspiring race. I sometimes think trip information can be overvalued. Rhody Rendezvous has had 6 starts, and has had trouble at the start in 5 of them. This is either a horse with incredible bad luck or a bad actor, and in either case it diminishes whatever figures he’s earned. It is always a tough call when you have a horse with a competitive figure and excuses every race, but regardless of the trouble, this horse has never made up a length in the stretch. And if he has a troubled start again he’s dead from the one post. Still, given the field, he’s not totally outless. You’ve also got the winter mix of price droppers – all but one are dropping with three dropping out of MSW – equipment changes, and excuses. I thought long and hard about Little Nell. She drops slightly in price and had a double excuse last time – steadied start and a sloppy track. But she was 32-1 (which means she was not well thought of), she’s not really bred for a short sprint, she didn’t run a step in the race, and Contessa is only average with second time starters. She could improve enough to win and I won’t say I’m shocked if she does, but you have to make some leaps to put her on top of the 2. The point – this is another race where unless you believe you have some insight and you get good odds it may be worth sitting on your hands.

  • 2 Dulce de Leche – showed a lot of speed at FL but came to AQU and ran a clunker on the turf. Dropping way down in price today and has a couple of works since his last. Should be the pacesetter.
  • 8 Gethot Stayhot – David Duggan trainee wound up running wide in her muddy debut but showed some interest, closing a few lengths in the stretch. Next out she ran into an inspired nine length winner. She drops in price and barring another inspired performance from one of the other runners, looks very competitive in here.
  • 1 Rhody Rendezvous – making her 7th start for James Ferraro. Troubled start and ran wide last out, so the poor finish can be excused. Has shown enough talent to be a factor.

Race 3

The races don’t get any easier as the card gets deeper. I’ll admit in cheaper maiden races – and state breds are cheaper – I tend to look for horses with experience that haven’t shown themselves to be chronic losers. Fenwick Hall fits the bill, but there are some obvious negatives – no heart in the stretch seems to have been an issue in her first three starts. But she looks like good speed even if the first timers run to the front. I didn’t use Beating Heart Baby, but she is another excuse horse. Squeezed at the start and very wide in the stretch. She actually did make up lengths and if the first timers are duds and Fenwick Hall is really heartless, she’s got a good chance at a medium price. Again, this may not be a great betting race unless you have a strong opinion and get some good odds.

  • 4 Fenwick Hall – looks best of the horses that have started. Although this is her fourth start, Bruce Brown keeps her in the MSW ranks and that is a positive. Workout two weeks ago was a good one, workout 4 days ago more of a leisurely gallop.
  • 7 Paradise Peak – Eddie Kenneally has been doing well with limited starters at AQU. Congrats is decent with debut runners and is decent with sprinters. Nice workout pattern, especially the last blowout. Having Jose Ortiz aboard should help.
  • 2 Ginned Up – first time starter for Gary Contessa who is only 7%. Still, I like Indian Charlie debut runners, especially at the sprint distances. Eye catching workout four days ago.

Race 4

This one was a bit maddening. You can’t ignore the Pletcher horse and you’ll be lucky to get 2-1 on him. Same with the McLaughlin horse. They are basically saying these horses have no place in their barns. At least I believe in this race I’ve got the right runners, but the prices might be thin. Update: Pletcher scratched the 1 so I’ll just stay with the 4 and 5

  • 1 Lawmaker – Frankly, this looks like Pletcher doing some late winter cleaning. He drops the horse way down today, and I’m reading it as looking to pick up a purse on a horse he doesn’t see as being part of his 2015 plans. He’s got the figures to beat this field. Would be no surprise to see him win and get claimed by Jacobson.
  • 4 Empower – looks to be the best front runner and can be excused for not beating a stakes field on the synthetic. Actually broke his maiden on the AQU inner last January. McLaughlin is 28% with the long layoff sorts, and although the drop to $25K is drastic, it may be the same strategy Pletcher is using – snag a purse, lose the horse, and move on. Clearly they think less of him than they did last year since he was gelded between March and this race. Perhaps a bit ambiguous, but has enough positives to be interesting.
  • 5 Speeding Comet – Another Kenneally runner. This one was claimed last out at CD from the well-regarded Mark Casse. His maiden win was impressive, battling the whole way down the stretch. Improvement is certainly possible. Another with some ambiguity but plenty of positives.

Race 5      The Bay Ridge      1a-5-8

This is a really nice field. 12 horses and you could make a credible case for half of them. The two not in my top three that may be interesting are Macha and Storied Lady. Macha is a horse that looked talented but never really blossomed. If she wins I wouldn’t be shocked, but I’m not betting that way. Same with Storied Lady. I went back and forth between her and Miss Da Point, but in the end I went with the 8. I expect this will be a good race.

  • 2 Jcs American Dream – won his last on a muddy track. Of course there were only four starters in that allowance affair. Her figures are not quite as good as a few others in here.
  • 1 Dreaming of Cara – the weaker half of the Mitchell Friedman entry. Hasn’t won this year and it doesn’t look like today is the day.
  • 3 Little Rocket – Puts the blinkers on today. Has been running well at FL, but definitely would have to move forward today to be a factor. Looks more like a sprinter so might be part of the early pace.
  • 1a Carameaway – good figures and has been running well most of 2014. Good at the distance and likes to do her running on the front end. Gets the nod in a competitive affair.
  • 4 Macha – hard to get an accurate read on the horse. Was in the G1 Santa Margarita in March but was obviously overmatched. Shipped to BEL and did nothing in a mile state-bred race. Then went back to Fresno and finished third in a stakes sprint. Now trained by RuRod who has given her a steady series of December works. Interesting horse, but I’m going to take a stand against her today.
  • 5 Flipcup – a little bit of seconditis this year, but until last race was 7 for 7 in the money in 2014. Her out of the money finish was the G3 Comely and it looks like she was just overmatched. She looks like she is at her best distance and definitely has win potential. Solid second choice.
  • 6 Miss Narcissist – 0 for 6 with one second this year. Looks up against it in this field.
  • 7 Get Gorgeous – Pulled up last race, but in any case doesn’t look fast enough.
  • 8 Miss Da Point – Nice second in an allowance race on the inner last out in an excellent time. Very nice work five days ago. Perhaps a little beneath some in this field, but has the talent and has the running style to win here.
  • 9 Hot Rendezvous – She has 3 wins in 4 starts at the AQU inner, and her loss was a state-bred stake. She did finish second in the Broadway but has been on the shelf since May. Contessa is 17% with the long layoff, and he’s been giving her longer workouts, likely to give her some condition. Probably not the winner, but it is not beyond her capability to finish in the money.
  • 10 Storied Lady – won an OC $40K last out but before that was struggling against horses similar to this field. Is 3 of 5 on the inner and looks like another that may not have high win potential but has chances to finish on the board.
  • 11 Royal Suspicion – 6 for 46 mare looks over her head against this field.

Race 6

Cheap race but another full field. There are some question marks – Benny’s Bullet could certainly win the race, but I’m fairly solid with my picks.

  • 2 Jubilant Vision – Kenneally is certainly prominent today. This horse broke her maiden as a two year old for Steve Asmussen at Churchill, and raced pretty well in her allowance start this June. Has a somewhat spotty workout pattern and that is of concern. Two in July, one in September, one in November and two in December. Has good figures and if she is in shape she will be tough.
  • 9 Kleptocrat – broke her maiden  at BEL but has been off two and a half months. Has a good workout pattern for her return. Competitive last race figure.
  • 6 Missy Bay – Spent all of 2014 on the turf until her last race where she ran a good second at this class on the inner. If she duplicates that effort she is in the mix.

Race 7

I struggled a little bit after I got by the 1 and 3. Just Catty is one of those horses that always gets my attention, especially at the odds. I think when you are doing public selections you have to be pretty solid when you put a 12-1 shot on top, and I couldn’t put her ahead of Sherifa, but I’m expecting I’ll get a run out of the horse. I also had a difficult time with the third slot, and I vascillated between Graceful Gal and Moves Your Soul, finally settling on the latter. I just liked that the horse finally got a break after being a competitor all year. Still, Graceful Gal is one of the horses that has had some good two turn success, albeit on the turf. She apparently didn’t take to the dirt last out and if she beats me she beats me.

  • 1 Sherifa – dominant figures, should be the pacesetter, and a good effort last out on the dirt. ML favorite and looks best here.
  • 3 Just Catty – Had been running well at FL and came to AQU where she was overmatched in the Stallion Series. Two wins at a mile, and some good maintenance works getting ready for this. At 12-1 ML she could be the value play of the day.
  • 5 Moves Your Soul – lots of seconds and thirds at FL this year. This is her 19th start of 2014 but her first in five weeks. She may have been tired in her last start when she looked ready to roll to the lead at the top of the stretch but hung.  She should be pressing the leading group and if she is back in condition she could be the danger.

Race 8      Alex M Robb       4-3-1

This is another really competitive race. I think you could make a case for at least 5 of the 8. Big Business is a horse that has run well all year, but has a touch of seconditis, so I discounted his chances at the top spot. Awesome Vision just doesn’t seem to be as good as he was in 2013, but he’s still a decent animal. Beautyinthepulpit is one of those horses that drives me crazy – a plodder early in the race but makes a furious move in the stretch. I think the 4 has a distinct pace advantage, and I like the other horse with a trainer switch, Effinex.

  • 1 Big Business – Was not going to beat Private Zone or Secret Circle in the Cigar Mile. Lots of seconds this year, including one in the G1 Forego. Has consistently run good figures and should be in a good position turning for home. One of the contenders.
  • 2 Awesome Vision – only win this year came last out in a non-conditioned allowance. Despite the 4-1 ML looks too slow to finish in front.
  • 3 Effinex – ambitiously placed in the Hawthorne Gold Cup last out but ran a decent fourth despite a troubled break. The switch to Jimmy Jerkens seems to have helped him – his last two races have been his best in terms of figures. Major player in here.
  • 4 Read the Byline – switch to Nevin got the gelding to run his best lifetime figure last out. Has the best early speed of this group and will take some catching. Very dangerous today.
  • 5 West Hills Giant – Another one that is very consistent but has not been able to win at this distance. A contender but lower on the win probability list.
  • 6 Gridley Here – Looks up against it in this field.
  • 7 Sinistra – Perhaps better than 20-1 but still doesn’t look like top 3 here.
  • 9 Beautyinthepulpit – Beaten by Effinex two back. Irad gets the reins here and that may help the horse a bit. A minor contender in my opinion

Race 9

The last race is another unsettled affair. I couldn’t make a case for the 1, 3, 4, 6 or 7. That left the 2, 5, 8 and 9. Given the record of the 9, I went with 2, 5, 8 in the top slots. But again, I don’t think this is a race to bet the farm.

  • 8 Rockjaz – First time starter for RuRod and he is a decent 13% with debut runners. Has been steadily prepping on the inner for his debut. Rockport Harbor’s have not been world beaters, but given the strength of this field I’m inclined to look for a horse that hasn’t developed a down side on the track yet.
  • 5 False Positive – didn’t break well last out but finished with a rush. Has been competitive in his last four starts and has the right to improve, but at the odds I’m looking for better value.
  • 2 Black Friday Rush – had been very disappointing on turf but showed some life when switched to a MCL on a sloppy inner track. Could improve today although at the odds is not likely to stimulate a win bet.

And It’s One, Two Three Whips You’re Out

When a problem comes along

You must whip it

Before the cream sits out too long

You must whip it

When something’s goin’ wrong

You must whip it

Whip it good

–  Devo

Unlike my old editor (oops, I mean my former editor) at Horseplayer Magazine, Frank Scatoni, I haven’t been able to completely shake off the magnetic field that seems to surround New York, tugging at ex-pats like they were so many iron shavings. Perhaps it occasionally tilts my blog eastward, so when I asked for some feedback on issues pertinent to California, Frank suggested the new rule that limits jockeys to only three consecutive whips, and then a pause to give the horse a chance to respond before they can start cracking that whip again. Oh, and the CHRB rule also changed the name of the offending implement to “riding crop,” which makes absolutely no difference if you are the horse.

This rule had the support of the Jockeys’ Guild and such distinguished members as John Velasquez, Gary Stevens and Kent Desormeaux. And it was interesting to hear most of them say they minimized their use of the whip, meaning it was those OTHER guys that the rule was meant to target. CHRB chair Chuck Winner said

“This is an important issue. We are making every effort, working with the industry, to try to do what we can to protect the integrity of this sport and the horses and the riders. It’s a long time coming, and it’s a big step in my view.”

Then he proceded to explain how the CHRB was also protecting the integrity of the sport by giving Bayern a pass for his start in the Breeders Cup Classic.

Well perhaps the timing of the two statements was not quite that proximate, but it’s comforting to know everything the CHRB does protects the integrity of the sport, even when it arguably didn’t protect the integrity of sport in the BC Classic. It reminded me of the famous “safety clause” that the Colorado legislature used to stick at the end of every bill. The safety clause stated that the prospective new law was “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety.” The beauty was that they didn’t have to prove it, they just needed to add the clause to the end of a bill. This innocent sounding language Constitutionally prevented any law containing that phrase from being petitioned by the people for referendum. Without that language a few signatures could have had the public undoing legislation left and right. Pretty slick, eh?

And trust me. There were plenty of bills where protecting peace, health or safety was a stretch. They still use the language, just not every time.

Jockeys whip horses for various reasons: to control the horse (given the jockeys’ position in the saddle they can’t really use their legs to control the horse), to get the horse to change leads, or to inspire the horse to give a maximum effort. Anyone who has been around horses knows that many of them will not extend themselves without…reinforcement from the whip. Many trainers and jockeys believe that when a horse feels a sting in its rump it will run faster to get away from it. Eventually it becomes a conditioned response. The horse gets the whip and understands it is now time to run. It doesn’t work for every horse, but it certainly works often enough that owners, trainers and jockeys don’t want to completely remove it from the toolbox. One other critical point. Anyone who knows horses also knows that if the horse was being injured by the whip, it would react with fear when seeing a jockey approach, and would show clear signs of stress after a race. Animal rights people, on the other hand, are against whipping a horse under all circumstances because….well because it sounds cruel. For Winner to suggest this was an important issue was to imply many jockeys were often whaling away indiscriminantly on their mounts and injuring them, since if it was just a few scofflaws riding at the margins the rule change would have been of small consequence.

It’s too bad this wasn’t a rule when I was growing up and I could have told my father a fine would have been in order if he spanked me more than three times without taking a pause.  Like THAT would have made it more tolerable.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, the three whip rule is more perceptive than substantive, especially considering the punishment for exceeding the protocol is most likely not going to be more than a fine. Rather than hyperbolic statements about protecting the integrity of racing, I suspect the truth was closer to, we need to get the animal  rights people to back off and this is an easy compromise. It cetainly didn’t appear to be a wave of complaints from the people paying the bills – the bettors. Organized thoroughbred horseracing has been going on for hundreds of years. I haven’t come across studies showing horses were being injured by the whip to the point it was requiring serious treatment or interferring with their ability to run, especially considering the modern riding crop is designed more to slap than to cut. If you’ve ever stood at the rail as the horses approach the wire, you know there is a distinctive and loud popping sound, but as I said above we don’t see a fear or stress reaction from the horse. Jockeys will very occasionally mishit the horse causing it to jump away, but that is not a regular occurrence. In reality there may be the slightest sting that lasts briefly, but there is not an acute pain associated with the crop. Most jockeys with any skill know when whipping the horse is getting a response. They also know when whipping the horse will cause it to sulk. To suggest jockeys were behaving otherwise was a not so subtle slap at the Guild.

Which brings me to the reason I thought this topic was timely. The ride Martin Garcia gave Dortmund in the Hollywood Futurity at Los Alamitos. Garcia gave Dortmund a strong left-hand whip entering the stretch and the went to a vigorous hand ride in the early part of the stretch, giving him an occasional whack on the shoulder to inspire him. Dortmund was apparently not giving Garcia the desired response because inside the 16th the horse still had about three quarters of a length to make up. At that point Garcia appeared to start rapidly hitting Dortmund on the shoulder and once he started getting to the front two made sure to show him the whip. It was a little hard to tell exactly from the pan shot because it is easy to misperceive hitting the shoulder for showing the horse the whip, but it certainly looked to me like Garcia hit Dortmund a few more than three times without pausing..

The message after watching Garcia seemed to be clear. Regardless of the three whip rule, when a horse needs to make up ground in a Graded race the jockey will do whatever seems to be working to get him there. There was somewhere around $30,000 on the line for Garcia and no fine the stewards might levy was going to keep him from riding the hell out of the horse. If the “riding crop” felt like it was going to get Dortmund or any horse over the top, no top jockey would have given it a second thought. And no jockey would be willing to go back to the barn and tell the trainer, I thought the whip was working and I wanted to keep it going but you know, that three whip rule sort of discouraged me.

This rule is not the armageddon for racing and it is not a completely harebrained idea – in fact, it is unlikely to have an outrageous impact on race results – but the jockey has one overriding responsibility – get the most out of the horse that he can. He owes that to the owners and the bettors. THAT is what the integrity of racing is all about. For hundreds of years jockeys learned that the whip was part of that. No doubt there were jockeys who garnered a reputation for the an overenthusiastic use of the whip. Ted Atkinson was known as “the Slasher” and Jorge Chavez was given the nickname “Chop-Chop,” in part because of their aggressive use of the whip. Since both jockeys were very successful, trainers and bettors rarely complained. This generation of jockeys has to unlearn years of developing a winning style, and frankly it will be an uphill struggle for a few years at least. The next generation of jockeys may fully embrace the rule and bettors may ultimately adjust, but in the meantime you can expect to see more rides like Garcia on Dortmund when the jockey reverts to training and instinct.

Aqueduct December 28

Race 1

  • 8 Rose Quartz – yes, she has 9 starts but 7 of them were on the turf and she has at best average turf breeding. Since switching to the dirt she had a third on a sloppy track and then made a big middle move but flattened badly. She’s bred well enough for the distance and considering it is only her third start on the dirt, she has the best figures,  and she is taking a big drop in price, we’ll give her top billing.
  • 7 Papous Mia Bella – second start maiden has a nice third at today’s class and distance despite being squeezed at the start. Has a lot of upside.
  • 6 Senso – nine starts with four seconds and a third. Certainly has the figures to compete but still waiting for her to show the heart to win.

Race 2

  • 8 N.F’s Destiny – I don’t know what to do with Jacobson. Friday he was unstoppable. Saturday he was radioactive. This one looks more typical of the Jacobson winners. Five good races and then he slices the claiming offer in half. As much as you might hate backing these horses, he has the best figures and rarely runs a bad one.
  • 1/1a Wild Finish/Carolinian – both horses have spent time at Finger Lakes but have competed with the big boys too. Wild Finish is more of a pressing type while Carolinian should be the one pushing the 8. They both have competitive figures and have been stabled at BEL for a while so they should be acclimated. Like the workout pattern and at 8-1 ML they are worth watching.
  • 5 Pretension – throw out the last race and he’s right in the mix. Has a lot of good races on the fast dirt. He landed at the end of the selection list only because there are no workouts since Nov. 30

Race 3

  • 5 The Lewis Dinner – on a two race win streak including a state-bred stakes last out. Can’t argue with the figures but at 3/5 on the ML she’s not likely to warrant my win money.
  • 2 Kathy’s Humor – Good debut but a little concerned there have been no works in the last month. Gets Irad for the trip and that is a positive. Violette is fair with 2nd start maidens and 2 year olds.
  • 6 Omagoddonna – won a $50K starter last time and adds blinkers today. May give the 5 some competition today.

Race 4

  • 7 Pitched – Assaf Ronen grabbed this one two back for this price, jumped her up and brings her back for the original claiming price. Given Ronen’s record it is a little bit of a stretch to look at this one in the win slot, but the 6-1 ML makes the horse interesting.
  • 2 Reckless Move – is the 8-5 ML favorite and while she may have the best figures, she’s only the favorite because the field is not strong and while I think she is very vulnerable it’s hard to come up with a lot of alternatives.
  • 6 Prove It All Night – Lots of speed and two starts on the inner. I think the 1 may compromise this one on the front end, but she has the potential to set a comfortable pace and wire the field.

Race 5

  • 3 Disco Partner – one start, one win and in a very good time. Junior Alvarado continues his comeback and he looks to have recovered from his injury nicely. Steady workouts since his debut.
  • 7 Chasing Bubbles – wired a field last out on the inner. Stepping up quite a bit from that one, but he is a legitimate front runner and his figure jumped way up last race. With continued improvement he has a shot in here.
  • 4 Deputy Busterstone – Tried Saratoga first time out, ran a fair race, moved to FL for a couple of state bred stakes and broke his maiden last out in dominating fashion. Back with the big boys again today with some useful racing lessons behind him.

Race 6

  • 7 Mighty Zealous – hasn’t run a bad race in his career. I like the pressing style in this one – there is some decent speed signed on and that may be to his advantage. Fast work a couple of weeks ago. Seems to have a preference for the fast track, and might have been looking for his second win in a row had it not been for some traffic coming into the stretch last out. Not the fastest figure but close to the top and the running style may be enough to get the win.
  • 5 Giantinthemoonlite – Puts the blinkers on for Bruce Brown, but he is 0 for 17 with that move. Another that hasn’t run a bad one, Lots of speed, but doesn’t look like a need to lead type.
  • 1 Between the Lines – ran in a few 5 1/2 furlong affairs last winter. Has won off the layoff and the works look positive. Perhaps a bit of a stretch given Lostritto is the trainer, so I would say watch the board and see if he looks live.

Race 7

  • 6 Cosmic Coincidence – Last win was at this level two back. Has a lot of speed and the ability to wire this field at a bit of a price.
  • 5 Horatio – should be one of the trackers. Claimed two back and then jumped up to $35K NW3. Finished a close second in that one and is back to $25K today. Shouldn’t have any trouble with the distance. Two wins in 21 starts a little thin, but 13 second and third place finishes should put him in the mix.
  • 2 Salisbury Knight – was stuck at the NW1X level for 7 starts but won last out. Drops in for a tag today, not a substantial drop in class but perhaps enough to give him some outs. A little concerning both his wins have come on a sloppy track and he is 0 for 6 on the fast dirt. Certainly would be no value at his ML odds of 2-1.

Race 8

  • 2 Amulay – After a win in the mud at SAR Bruce Levine shipped the horse to Parx where she won an allowance and finished second in two OC $25K. Has been working steadily at BEL for this return. Her figures make her competitive in this group.
  • 7 Dear Mama – finally broke through at the NW1X level. The clear speed of the field and will have to be caught to be beaten. Farthest she’s gone but she did take to the one turn route at AQU.
  • 6 Lotsa Noodles – veteran mare has had a good 2014 with six starts, two wins and three seconds. She was claimed last out by Steve Klesaris and runs for a tag in this OC $60K event. Like the step up today and like the tracking style. Has the figures to be competitive here.

Race 9

  • 2 Beyond the Green two second place finishes in a row, including one on the inner. Ryerson is having a good inner meet with limited starters. Good maintenance work a week ago. Will need a first class ride from Franco to get good position to unleash a stretch kick
  • 3 Swivel – Finished right behind the 2 in his last. Another that comes from the back of the pack. Alvarado takes the mount and he is familiar with the horse having ridden him in his maiden sprint at AQU. Exceptional breeding for the distance and really a co-choice with the 2.
  • 7 Space Oddity – ran well in his first dirt route after being wide throughout. Steady series of works including a Christmas Eve blowout. First time on a fast dirt and if he takes to it, could be home free.

Aqueduct December 27

Race 1

This is not a particularly good race and coming up with a confident contenders was no easy task. There are a few horses that could finish in the money that I downgraded in terms of win potential.

  • 6 Here’s Trance – only three lifetime starts and looks like far and away the best speed. Takes the blinkers off which may help him relax a bit and gets first Lasix, which given his fading tendency could help. The horse is 30-1 on the ML but he’ll almost certainly go off lower.
  • 11 Constantine – the ML favorite for Jacobson who came out of the holiday break with a vengeance. He’s another of those horses who show up in the Jacobson barn after being cast off by another trainer, in this case Bob Baffert. He has the fastest figure, although not by a lot. He’s making a substantial drop in claiming price and would be no surprise at all.
  • 4 Scully – has actually been improving and ran his best race when put on the inner. Adds blinkers today and with some improvement could be in the mix.

Race 2

The scratch of the 11 leaves me with a bit of a dilemma. Wicked Irish has some big figures – from 2012 – and Peter Chin looks like he might be in a race himself – for worst trainer at AQU. In that spirit Johnny Star doesn’t look horrible, but he is trained by the current worst trainer at AQU, Leslie Hinds. Grandpa Len will pick up some action but he is 1 for 27 with a lot of seconds and thirds making him a dicey win bet but one to use in the combinations.

  • 6 Brother Ralphie – showed a liking for the inner and really may only have to contend with Wicked Irish on the front end.  The latter has been off for two years and could be any sort. Linda Rice has been having an unispiring meeting so far, but sprinting claimers on the dirt are her best game.
  • 7 Blue Chips Only – Came off the turf to run second in the same race as Brother Ralphie. He has a nice pressing style and should be coming at the leaders in the stretch. Certainly has as good a chance of winning as any horse in the race.
  • 11 Giant Jo – puts the blinkers on for Schettino. Faded badly in his last in the mud after leading for a half but that can be excused. Ran some good figures on the turf, and in this field if he could duplicate one he would be the winner.

Race 3

  • 2 Aleander – broke poorly last out but managed to close by all but the first two. Drops from MSW to this $30K claimer. Has the best lifestime figure in the field and unless the track is severely speed biased, he should be the winner.
  • 1 Marble Falls – last two races were on wet surfaces where he showed speed before fading in the stretch.  This six furlong trip is as short as he’s gone and that is probably to his advantage. Junior Alvarado is back riding in NY and he has had some history with the horse. A couple of good maintenance works should make this his best effort.
  • 4 On the Curve and 6 Read the Mirage finished second and third last out and are really inseparable here. Read the Mirage has a bit more speed and adds blinkers today. On the Curve showed a nice pressing style and a little better closing ability. I think you can make an equal case for either of them and while I don’t think they’ll defeat Aleander, they can be factors.

Race 4

RuRod scratched the 1a Treasury Devil but left Springcourt in the race. Springcourt is a useful runner and has bounced between stables his last few races. Jumps up in price, but certainly looks a lot more interesting as the remaining runner for Rodriguez.

  • 2 Golden Itiz – best last race figure and making a drop from OC $62K. Has run well at the distance, although his record on a fast dirt is not very inspiring. Still, he should have no trouble finding the front and has pretty decent staying power.
  • 1/1a Snake Pit/Treasury Devil – Snake Pit has two seconds on the inner and is one of the horses Chad Brown left in New York. Has run well on lesser circuits and has some competitive figures. Treasury Devil goes for RuRod. He’s had all his success on the turf and has some competitive figures.
  • 3 Nubin Ridge – hasn’t seen a fast dirt track in months, but the versatile runner has been effective on turf and the fast dirt. Fits at this level and is appealing at 12-1 ML

Race 5

  • 2 Maximus Mike – only six races into his career and has already been claimed twice. Broke his maiden at second asking at a mile and an eighth after running a pretty fair race in his debut on the inner turf. Ran ok as the favorite last out in a race won by Artemus Paperboy who won yesterday. That race was a sprint and he is back at his preferred distance today. This is as low a price as he’s seen and if he is ready there is every reason to expect a first rate effort.
  • 3 Face the Race – makes a big drop but already has 16 starts under his belt, most of those on the turf. Always seems to be close but hasn’t gotten to the winner’s circle this year. Maybe the drop and the switch to the inner will be what he needs.
  • 10 Kodiak Kody – another that hasn’t been anywhere near this level. Has a win on a fast dirt, but hasn’t seen that track condition since April. If he runs to his best figure he has a real shot at the win.

Race 6

  • 3 Waco – pace presser has run consistently competitive figures. Should be the front runner and has wired a field before.
  • 5 John’s Island – best last out figure. Only has four races at this distance and has a win and a second. Also has a second in three tries on the inner. Best closing kick and should be coming at Waco at the end.
  • 7 Leilani’s Ticket – won his last on the inner for Contessa in a OC $40K. Good enough to keep that streak going.

Race 7

  • 5 Zippity Zoom – was very wide into the stretch but made up good ground at a distance that may have been a little too short. City Zip filly jumps up from MCL ranks to MSW. I think at 8-1 she’s the interesting horse.
  • 8 Bossy Boots – best last race figure and with only four starts still has eligibility to improve. Looks better suited to the six furlong distance.
  • 2 Stonely Heart – finished behind Bossy Boots last out and adds blinkers today. Fast work on Dec 15 and may improve enough to find the wire first.

Race 8

With the scratch of Spa City Fever some of the early speed is gone, and this may benefit Irsaal. Moneyinyour Pocket also moves up a bit. Overall, I thought this was a race where you could make a case for a lot of horses.

  • 10 Irsaal – coming off two mediocre races in stakes but is three for three in the money on the inner. Drops in for a price and the last time he did that he won. On a positive note, he did show some front running ability in his losing stakes efforts, and that is enough for me to have some optimism. Can’t imagine you’ll do worse than get the 3-1 ML.
  • 5 Erik the Red – two wins, a second and a third in four starts on the inner. Seems to be better suited to the fast inner dirt. Only his second race back off a six month layoff and Linda Rice is 18% with these runners. More of a closing style, but it looks like there should be plenty of pace to run at.
  • 7 Spa City Fever – one of the more experienced runners. Rarely doesn’t give a good effort. Top figure and probably the one to catch.

Race 9

  • 3 Cay to Pomeroy – Plenty of speed and a winner on the inner. Michelle Nevin claimed him for $12,500 in October, and he has been working steadily for her since then. Could wire the field off his best.
  • 5 Island Sunset – hasn’t been out since last January but Jacobson just can’t be ignored. His figures at his best are tops here. Steady works since October for this return.
  • 6 Tummel – was in with a pretty decent group of $12,500 claimers last time on the inner and ran a strong second. This is the second off the claim by Abby Adsit and she has been excellent with her claims.

Is Shared Belief Unbeatable in the Malibu?

Before you say, no horse is unbeatable, he certainly looks to be the strongest of the contenders, but if he goes off at 4/5 I’d suggest he was unbettable. Let’s look at the field for the Malibu.

Conquest Two Step won a 6 1/2 downhill on the turf last out, and that was his first win of the year. Even off of his best, he looks nowhere good enough to win this race.

Chitu is a horse that prefers running near the front as he demonstrated in his races leading up to the Kentucky Derby. He hung around in the Derby for a little over a mile, ultimately finishing in the middle of the field. I think Baffert smartly gave him a break until the Damascus Stakes where Chitu comfortably beat a decent field, including Midnight Hawk. Based on his past performance and that last race, he looks like a seven furlong horse. He’s likely to have the jump on Shared Belief and that makes him dangerous. Baffert normally works his horses fast, and if the quick works tip the horse’s form, he is in good condition.

Indianapolis had no chance in the BC Sprint after a sluggish start, but he did manage to pick up some lengths in the stretch. He’s normally been a tracking horse, and in this field he is likely to do the same. His number from the sprint is somewhat artificial, especially considering his 10th place finish, but he did run the last quarter in 23 2/5, which  is real racehorse time. Still, he lack some of the experience of the others, and his win in the San Pedro had to be downgraded due to the very short field. At best it looks like he is there for a while, but unlikely to hold off the classier animals.

Rprettyboyfloyd is another that seems destined for no better than a lesser award. He’s been fair at the distance, and at 30/1 ML there aren’t too many offering the horse a reasonable chance. I think he’s better than 30-1 but I have reservations about using him today.

Pimpenel ran well in an OC$62 last out -in fact, it was a lifetime best for him. He’s the lesser of the Baffert runners, but you can never discount where BB places his charges. He’s a three year old with a lot of upside and is likely the front speed out of the gate. Interesting at 10-1.

Midnight Hawk peaked early in the year, barely losing the Illinois Derby to Dynamic Impact. That one has only come back once and did not run a particularly good race. Midnight Hawk had no chance in the Damascus after bobbling at the start and running wide, but did come back with a fair race at Del Mar in the late fall meeting. Probably the least of the Baffert runners and at 6-1 ML, sitting at optimistic odds.

Tamarando has spent a career on the turf and synthetic, and would be a big surprise here today.

Shared Belief has shown a lot of versatility, winning from 6 furlongs to a mile and a quarter. If not for the trouble in the BC Classic ( Shared Belief had a chance to remain undefeated. He is inarguably the fastest and most accomplished horse in the race. If you are trying to make a case against him it may be that he’ll be dependent on the pace setup from the Baffert runners, but bet against him at your own peril. He has an accelerator button that few others in here can match.

Diamond Bachelor is 20-1 on the ML and he looks outless at any odds.

Frensham is an interesting entry for Doug O’Neill. He’s mostly started on the turf and really hasn’t distinguished himself. Nothing I see recommends him.

In summary, Shared Belief looks head and shoulders above this field, but the Baffert runners, Chitu and Pimpernel, both look interesting. Mike Smith will need to keep Shared Belief clear because if he has an open run in the stretch it is hard to imagine he doesn’t get by everyone.

Aqueduct Decemer 26

I hope everyone had a good holiday. Back to the grind today.

Race 1

  • 9 Really B Cat – came out last March on the inner as a 9-5 favorite in a $16K maiden. Was claimed out of that one by Linda Rice and she immediately jumped him to a MSW where he didn’t raise a gallop. He took a break until December 15 and came out running, tracking close and finishing 6 lengths back in 3rd. The move from open $12,500 maidens to state-bred $25K really isn’t a class rise. Not the fastest figure in here, but a lot of upside considering it was his first race in 8 months.
  • 7 American Hero – where was this guy on Veteran’s Day? Making his 9th start for low percentage trainer Patrick Quick. Ran pretty well in his last, finishing only a head behind the winner but 9 lengths in front of the third place runner. Should be midpack and closing late.
  • 5 Blue Collar Cat – represents the best of the speed but has not shown great heart in the stretch, especially at this distance. Still he’s dropping enough that his speed may hold up longer

Race 2

  • 1a Ring Knocker – Came out of the Frizette to finish second on the AQU main as the favorite. First time around  two turns but being a Birdstone she shouldn’t have trouble with the distance. Has to overcome the tendency to finish second.
  • 7 Doukas – has the top figure at the distance, but is another that seems to have trouble passing the last horse. Has gotten a couple of works since her last and looks competitive here.
  • 4 Been Here Before – is first time Lasix for McLaughlin. Had a lot of trouble at the start of her last and a little bit of improvement puts her right in the mix

Race 3      Gravesend Handicap      3-2-4

  • 1 Green Grotto – two starts already on the inner dirt this winter. His last was a really good effort dueling all the way around the track and only losing by a length and a quarter. He is the best speed in the race but he is only 3 for 28. If the track is speed favoring it ups his chances but otherwise he looks slated for a minor award at best.
  • 2 Dads Caps – will have to deal with the 1 on the front end but he is not a need to lead type. He’s 5 for 5 first or second on the inner, and has looked good in each of his last three. He’s got good sprint breeding, and a useful series of works since his last.
  • 3 Mewannarose – best on a fast track and is tough at the sprint distances. Has a win in two tries on the inner. Has shown improvement lately and had a great workout seven days ago.
  • 4 Salutos Amigos  – the star of the field after a decent run in the BC sprint. Came back to win the Fall Highweight convincingly and drops 9 pounds from that effort. However, that was on a sloppy main and he is 4 for 4 on the wet track. Lots of talent and lately at the top of his game, but I’m looking for a higher odds result.
  • 5 Crafty Dreamer – a solid runner but perhaps a bit up against it in this group. Still, only four horses to beat and he has had some success on the inner.

Race 4

  • 8 Socialsaul – has the best figures in the race and is a 30% winner lifetime. Since getting claimed by Jacobson on September 1, he’s raced seven times, with good success. In fact, his worst race was his last when he jumped up to $20K and was soundly beaten. He’s back for $10K today and if he holds together he could start a fresh streak.
  • 1 Felons Only – has been hanging around Finger Lakes and Presque Isle this year with moderately good success. He’ll almost certainly be ignored in the betting, but he’s had a win at this distance and at a higher level and isn’t without chances today.
  • 4 I Want You to Know – The quality of this field is not high, so you can’t automatically pitch horses with early foot. This pick is listed at 10-1, pretty juicy odds.. This horse has been racing at this level for quite a while now, and although he only has 1 win in 16 races this year, he looks like he is in good condition. He has good figures and a front running style and I’ll give him a shot today.

Race 5

  • 5 Traipse in Utopia – broke her maiden for $40K and jumped up to a state-bred NW1X. She down to a $50K starter today in search of a win. She looks to have far and away the best speed in the race, and there is every reason to expect she’ll establish a lead on her own pace. Her breeding suggested dirt, and once Hennig switched her she woke up. If she is anything close to her 8-1 ML she could be an excellent bet.
  • 4 Maura’s Pass – she made a mild improvement when shifted from the turf to a sloppy BEL track, but then took a leap forward when moved to the AQU dirt. None of the races that day were particularly quick and she never had to extend herself, winning easily in hand. Even given the loping way she came home her time is competitive. The fact that Jason Servis moves her up to a $50K starter looks positive.
  • 2 Wraith – one of those horses that finishes in the money a lot, but has trouble cracking the winner’s circle. She’s certainly good enough to win the race on figures, but I’m going elsewhere for the win today.

Race 6

  • 9 She’s All Even – Contessa is 13% with 2nd time starters.  She broke from the rail and looked good to the stretch, but faded on a rail that wasn’t particularly kind to front speed. She was 31-1 first out and will be substantially less than that today. The rider switch from Serpa to Jose Ortiz is a big plus. She is far and away the best speed and has a figure that puts her on top of this field. Finally, she is dropping to MCL from MSW and that should allow her to carry her speed to the wire.
  • 5 Golden Starlet – raced well when switched to the inner dirt and a sprint. Her figure is second only to the 9. A little improvement today puts her on the board.
  • 6 Accelebrate – dropped from MSW to $40K claimers but broke last in the field ran fairly evenly around the track. If she breaks this time she should be more of a factor.

Race 7

  •  1 Slan Abhaile – first, kudos to Imbriale for getting a tough pronunciation right (Slawn Awallya). It means “safe home” and I’m looking for this one to make it home first in this race. His maiden start was on a sloppy track that didn’t play well to horses on the inside. He actually broke from the outside post, worked hard to get the lead and faded in the stretch. He has been with better horses recently, dropping from an OC $62 to an open $40K. He looks to be a better fit for the six furlong distance and should be in a good spot turning for home.
  • 8 Luckysdream – Pletcher snagged this horse from Jacobson in March for $50K and drops him to $40K today, an interesting move. He is another with a preference to run to the front, and has some massive figures from 2013. Pletcher usually has his horses ready to roll of the layoff, and given the steady workout pattern it looks like this one fits.
  • 4 Regulus – he looks ideally slotted for six furlongs and given the surplus of speed in here he may be the one to benefit.

Race 8

  • 2 Misszippityslewda – first off the claim for Jacobson. She fits the distance and the price level and has competitive figures. Pretty much gives a good effort every race. . Six furlongs is probably to her advantage.
  • 5 Make the Moment – just missed on the sloppy AQU main last out and should be one of the horses closing in the stretch. She has the best last race figure as well.
  • 4  Irish Whisper – dominated a NW1X field last out. Ran well on the inner earlier this year, likes the distance and likes a fast track. should be the front runner today.

Race 9

  • 3 False Positive – ran into wet tracks his last two but has shown enough front running ability to be a factor here.
  • 11 Wild Freud – has the best last race figure and a good race over the inner. The outside post could be an issue, but if he gets into the race early he has a good shot.
  • 5 Masterkey – first timer for Rudy Rodriguez has a regular set of works on the inner and at 15-1 is worth watching.

Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Happy Chanuka, Happy Holidays

It’s been an amazing year for me.

I had a great job working for a group of state governors, but I decided I wanted to devote myself full times to two things I enjoy more than anything – writing and horseracing – so I left my job, took a deep breath and decided I’d put my new found free time to good use.

I wrote a fictional novel (that had nothing to do with horseracing) and  about six months ago started my blog, It’s a crowded field, but I decided in every field there is always room for someone that provides a good product. On my site I publish handicapping and betting articles, selections for NYRA, and opinions on a variety of horseracing topics.

Around September I published some pieces about Doug O’Neill. As a result of that I got to meet, Glenn Sorgenstein, owner of Goldencents, and then talk directly with O’Neill, a  personable guy and a caring horseman. It was a great break for me. I became friends with both Glenn and his partner Josh Hanson, two of the nicest, most generous and sincere people I’ve ever known. It led to me spending one of the most incredible days in my racing life sharing the experience of winning a Breeders Cup race. I’ve promised to write about that, and I will keep that promise.

I’ve written a lot about how racing commissions have handled medication violations and I will continue to zero in on that in 2015. I’m actually working on an important story involving a mid-Atlantic trainer and the fairness of racing commission actions.

I focused on selections for NYRA and I believe I’ve developed a good reputation for selecting winners. It’s a lot of work every day, but given the feedback I’ve gotten, it is worth the time and energy.

I managed to talk myself into a job as the paddock reporter/handicapper at Arapahoe Park, and did well enough to be invited back next year. Funny anecdote: I was talking to my brother the other day and mentioned the Arapahoe Park gig. He said, yeah I was going to bet some races and I looked up at the screen and said, that looks like my brother, which made him happy until I picked the horse he was interested in.

Most of all, I think it has been amazing finding so many great handicappers and great people on Twitter. Colorado is not the center of the horseracing universe, and it has been incredible to be able to interact with so many first-rate horseplayers. It’s an honor to be able to call these people my colleagues. I hope I eventually get to meet them all.

A year that started out with me wondering how the next chapter of my life would unfold ended with me feeling great optimism for the future. There is still plenty of work to do and stories to write. I want to be around long enough to write them all.

Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Happy Chanuka, Happy Holidays to everyone who reads the blog. I wish you all a prosperous and healthy 2015.

The Hunt for Customer Care or, Customer Care the Adventure Begins

You arrogant ass. You’ve killed us.

     – Andrei Bonovia in The Hunt for Red October to Captain Tupolev.

A Twitter topic that is sure to stimulate discussion is the obliviousness of tracks and ADW’s. I think oblivious is the right description because the alternatives are to conclude they are either incompetent, arrogant or purposely ignoring problems, and I simply don’t want to believe that is the case. I’ll point out a few things that are seriously hurting the game.

Odds Manipulation

On May 21, 2012, one (or more) bettors manipulated the pool in the fifth race at Thistledown Racetrack, pulling off a pretty neat betting coup. The favorite, Eye Look the Part, was a 1-5 favorite in the win pool until 30 seconds before the close of betting, ultimately winding up at 5-1. What the manipulators did was bet $15,000 on every horse, except Eye Look the Part, through Lien Games, a legal ADW in North Dakota. This maneuver drove the other starters down to around 9-2. The manipulators then bet a large amount using Euro Off-Track, a service based on the Isle of Man, and one that does not pool bets with the tracks in the United States, instead running a separate pool that pays track odds.

On a typical Monday Thistledown expects to handle $9,000 in the WPS pools, but in the 5th race the pool was $128,010.

The Thistledown Racing Secretary said, “Our people did everything correctly. The wagers were not illegal. Thistledown verified the money had been transferred into the race pool before approving the payoffs.”

Yes, that is what the bettors wanted to hear. It’s perfectly legal to manipulate a pool. How about showing a little disgust at this reprehensible behavior?

I don’t know all the racing rules in Ohio, but to be fair I expect there is some language that requires tracks to pay off on all legal bets once a result has been declared official. Even so, the high road would have been to simply refund all bets on the race, calling it a non-event for betting purposes. The manipulators would not have made a dime, and I really believe the bettors would have supported the decision. Euro Off-Track apparently cancelled the associated accounts, but that is not the point, especially if the manipulators collected first. The track and ADW  had no incentive to make a refund regardless of the rules, because whatever percentage Lien Games or Thistledown was getting, it was a lot bigger number at $128,000 as opposed to $9,000. The greedy betting brokers were willing to essentially send the message that they have no scruples when it comes to their share of the pie. Arrogant? Powerless? Idiocy? You can decide.

Two years later, on Sunday August 17, 2014 in the fifth race, Missjeanlouise was a 1-2 favorite until about midway through the race when the tote board flashed 3-1. The rest of the horses also dramatically changed odds so that every other starter settled between 3-1 and 5-1. For example, the outless longshot Dusty Lily dropped from 35-1 to 9-2.

It wasn’t quite the pool manipulation from 2012 – the average WPS pool was only $14,000 that day – but the 5th race had a pool of over $45,000. Someone put $4,000 on each of the five starters not named Missjeanlouise through – that’s right – Lien Games in North Dakota.

It certainly looks like a case of fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice it’s because I learned nothing. The Ohio State Racing Commission had two years to fix this problem, including working with Lien Games to try to keep pool manipulation from happening through their hub. They could have adopted a rule that said in the case of obvious pool manipulation, bets may be cancelled, although horses could still be paid their purse money.

North Dakota said all the right things. We’ll work with Ohio, we’ll develop methods to prevent odds manipulation in the future. I’d feel a little better if it wasn’t the second time the manipulators used the same ADW and picked on the same track. It takes a lot of faith to believe THIS time they’ll get it right. It’s a week from 2015. Software is pretty sophisticated. It shouldn’t be tough to find pool manipulators BEFORE a race is official.

This sort of thing hurts racing in inestimable ways. Every group that thinks the game is dirty is handed confirmation, not because an unscrupulous few try to manipulate pools, but because the racing commissions have looked completely impotent against them. If you aren’t smart enough to identify pool manipulators, I’d argue you aren’t smart enough to manage racing.

Track Take and Rebates

I shouldn’t have to talk much about track take, but there are jurisdictions that still insist on gouging betters on some combination bets. It’s not unusual for tracks to snag around 25% for trifectas and superfectas, but Pennsylvania takes it to a new level. At Penn National the take on trifectas is 31% and superfectas 30%. Parx is almost as bad with 30% on both the trifecta and superfecta.

Pennsylvania as much as any state doesn’t care about pool size. The vast majority of their gambling revenues are associated with the casinos, and it isn’t rare to see the pool size LESS THAN the purse. Casinos subsidizing racing is common, and in Pennsylvania the horsemen feel certain the state will never sever the tie between horseracing and casino betting. You know, just like Massachusetts gave the casino franchise in Boston to the Wynn group that never promised a continuation of racing instead of the Foxwoods group that promised to keep Suffolk alive.

The Horseplayers Association (HANA) has tried to create pressure by organizing players boycotts, but it is hard to convince millions of what are essentially independent contractors to all move together in the same direction.

Study after study has shown that decreases in handle are directly related to increases in take. How racing commissions and track management can operate against their own best interest is as mysterious as some DaVinci Code-like novel.

That’s only half the problem. Even with the 25% “normal” take on trifectas, whales betting through rebate operations can be offered as much as 17%. I’ve written about The Killer Whales and the damage they do, but the states are inarguably complicit here.

If I’m betting $5 million a year on trifectas and I’m a 12% loser, I can still make $250,000 profit for a year. The take kills all but the best bettors, and having to compete against big money players getting huge rebates is making the game almost unplayable. Hey racetracks, IT’S PARI-MUTUEL. It’s not like football where the amount bet doesn’t change the payoff. In an NFL game f you bet $5 or $5,000, you get 10 to 11 odds. Horse bettors are forced to figure out a way to win starting out 15-25% in the hole due to the take. Let me pass this message along to track management. IT’S REALLY, REALLY HARD TO CONSISTENTLY MAKE MONEY WITH A BIG TAKE.

Tracks have little incentive to raise the signal cost to the point where whales start pulling out of the pools. Tracks are agnostic about everything other than pool size because the more bet the more they make, even if it means eventually tracks will only be left with whales betting against each other as they push more and more small-time fans out of the game. Tracks WANT the whales, and perhaps they even believe they NEED the whales. Good luck surviving while you try to compete for the small number of plus-sized bettors out there. It is not like casino gaming where the whales have no impact on payouts. You still get 3-2 on your blackjack no matter how much the whales are betting. Casinos can and do cater to both the seniors sitting at the penny slots and the Phil Ivey’s who bet (and apparently win) millions.

It is also doesn’t make sense for tracks to offer a rebate like the ADW’s. Rational economic behavior indicates they should charge no more than they need to cover costs (with a reasonable profit for those tracks that are not non-profit corporations). Rather than offer rebates, if costs went down, they would just drop the take. But still, how can they compete against ADWs that offer money back to their customers? If racing wants to work on a big problem, whales, signal cost and rebates has to be pretty high on the to-do list.

Answer Your Tweets and Emails

This came up because a few people have mentioned to me not getting responses from ADWs and the regular complaints about one of the NYRA public handicappers.

I’ve only had a couple of “problem” people on Twitter, but 99.9% of the people I’ve interacted with are pretty reasonable folks.  When I hear about people who have been blocked by one of NYRA’s public faces and I know those people to be not only rational and informed players but big supporters of NYRA, it represents the epitome of arrogance. How in the world can a circuit treat good customers like irritants? If you are smart enough and sophisticated enough to become a public handicapper for the biggest circuit in the country, you have to be able to handle all sorts of people.

Nobody should have to tolerate abusive people, but like any good performer, you recognize they inevitably and occasionally show up, 99.9% of the audience doesn’t like them any more than you do, and there are clever ways of handling them without being abusive yourself. A thousand people who like and respect you offsets the one that doesn’t. If you are a public figure and you think you need to block someone, be sure it is a person the rest of us would block in your position.

I’ll pass along my best advice. Nobody is too small. And you never know if the person you blocked in a petty snit, or you are too good to answer will one day be important to YOUR success. You’re a public figure. You already know you can’t please everyone, no matter how hard you try. Don’t let the haters bother you so much, and figure out which people appreciate you and make sure they keep appreciating you. It’s good for you, it’s good for NYRA and it’s good for your fans.

Same with the ADWs. If someone has a problem and they ask about it in a respectful way, respond quickly and with an equal amount of respect, whether the person bets $100 a month or $100 a race. There are always options.

Track Improvements

I’ve written about this during the year, but it’s worth reminding tracks.

  • I’ve had high-def on my TV for ten years. Having high-def TVs at the track, or sending an HD signal to people betting at ADWs is not some new fangled innovation. It’s catching up with where you should have been five years ago. And stop being so parochial and only making it available to people who bet through your hub. You’re vending a product and you’ll sell more if you offer a better product at a better price than the next track.
  • There should be enough public seating for everyone who would rather bet the $5 than hand it to the person at the admissions booth. You want to pay extra for a special seat in the clubhouse, great. But just because you don’t shouldn’t mean you have to stand up for four and a half hours.
  • There should be enough betting machines and tellers windows so nobody has to wait more than a minute or two to make a bet, even close to post time. Getting in a line with five minutes to post and not getting your bet in should horrify racetracks. They just lost whatever the take was on your action. If you are track management and you just said, they should get in line earlier, drop me a note and I’ll be happy to chat with you about missing the point.
  • If you aren’t already doing it, on track racing programs with past performances should be subsidized, just like a lot of ADWs do. Trust me, you’ll get it back in the extra action it can generate. Knowledgeable bettors are willing to risk money. People who are guessing won’t be quite as willing to part with the Benjamins. Racing Forms are up to $7.50. It’s simply too much if you aren’t a serious bettor. With parking, admission, Racing Form and Timeform, the nut at SAR is close to $20 a day BEFORE food and drink. If you think that is no problem, once again I’ll go with oblivious.
  • Every track should have wi-fi. Again, this isn’t Buck Rogers stuff, it’s just catching up to where you should have been five years ago. Timeform U.S. openly touts the beauty of being able to open your tablet and have hundreds of pages of past performance available on the screen. DRF touts its Formulator program as being able to put together data analysis on the spot. Why should I not be able to use those tools on a whim at the track?
  • I love going to Saratoga, not just because I grew up there and broke my pari-mutuel maiden there, but because the place is a party with plenty of food and drink options. Every track should have real restaurants, even if they aren’t four star. They should have bars that people would come to even if they weren’t at a track, and they should stay open until the track closes at the end of the simulcast day. Show baseball or football games or whatever sport happens to be on  TV. If someone comes out because they don’t have to miss their team play and they make a bet, the track is ahead. Even if they are only drinking top shelf liquor and not playing the ponies you are ahead. If you have places that would be destinations if they were out there in the real world, perhaps people that normally wouldn’t make their way out to the track would show up.
  • While I’m thinking about it, a restaurant in a strip mall that was charging $9 for a frozen hamburger on an institutional bun with a plastic packet of ketchup and frozen french fries along with a $5 diet soda that goes for $1.29 at 7-11 would go out of business in a month. Actually, they’d never be able to find a bank willing to give them a loan. Admittedly we’re all captive, but does that mean you have to gouge us like workers in a company town? I could stomach (no pun intended) paying $9 for a burger made fresh with quality beef and french fries I watched you slice, and even though it would cost you more, I’ll bet you’d sell a lot more of them. Otherwise I’m stuffing myself before I go to the track and waiting until after I get out to eat again.
  • If you cannot identify your best customers (read that largest bettors) within one week of starting a race meet, you should be replaced as general manager. And once you do you should decide how you are going to treat them better than the average twice-a-year player. If someone tells you it’s not fair, tell them that fairness is treating special anyone who bets ten times the average per person handle.
  • Listen to every suggestion and thank whoever offered it. If it is a silly suggestion have a laugh privately in your office after the races. If not, figure out how to implement it.
  • Finally, race tracks are inherently better than casinos from a betting perspective and everyone knows this. The two reasons why casinos flourish is that (1) the skill level to play most games (slots being the best example) is minimal; and (2) the action is fast. Players get caught up in it. Tracks need to do a lot more promotions related to the betting aspect of the game. Sure, that bobblehead of Fourstardave is great to add to my collection of cheap, useless crap I’ve picked up from Saratoga over the years, but is that the best way to spend your promotional budget? How about this idea. Print the comprehensive Saratoga statistics book and give that away the first weekend. It can’t be that much more expensive than the bobblehead/poster/umbrella/lunch bag you were planning on giving away and it will actually help people to bet, not to mention getting them into the track. If you can’t convince people that they should be parting with their money at the track instead of slots-a-plenty, it’s time to start thinking outside the box. Instead, tracks are selling out to the casino companies as a way to inject dollars into purses. This only works until the market is saturated and as they found out in places like Delaware, it is no guarantee of profit. Racetracks need to start thinking like this:

Remo Williams: “Chiun, you are incredible.”                                                       Chiun: “No, I am better than that.”                                                                           (from the movie, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins)

Racing Commissions

I used to work for state governors. I can personally attest that they care about every interest in their state and they want to see those interests, and the citizens, prosper. They believe the people have an absolute right to competent government.They make appointments to literally hundreds of boards and commissions. They cannot know every single person that is recommended for appointment by the staff people who vet them, but they can demand that anyone appointed to the racing commission be free of conflicts of interest and have real experience and qualifications. “I like horses” or “I worked on your campaign” are not sufficient to qualify a person to sit on the Commission. I haven’t gone through every person on every commission, but I have gone through commission membership in a few states, and I can tell you that based on the available biographies, a scary percentage are not what I would term qualified to be making rules and adjudicating violations. The other side of that is they often cede enormous power to the Commission staff, or allow the staff to exert enormous influence over the final decision. Some of the problems I cited above are directly the result of part-time, unpaid, marginally qualified political appointees being in charge. That absolutely has to change.

That is enough for this week. If you managed to read this far in the blog, you are either a close relative or someone with world-class perseverance. In any case, thank you. I’ll have my Christmas message out for Thursday morning and I promise it will be a lot more upbeat.

Racing Symposium, Hong Kong and Making Racing Stronger

Another successful Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming concluded last week. By successful I mean they got through the entire agenda, more or less on schedule. There are a number of insightful people who have great perspective on racing’s problems, but in racing things change at a glacial pace. We’re great at talking about what ails racing; we aren’t nearly as adept at fixing it.

First, I’m tired of hearing about Hong Kong. Hong Kong has huge fields. They handle $11 million per race. Their handle has increased 47% since 2006. They have the greatest drug policy in the universe. Why can’t we all be more like Hong Kong?

I’ll give you a few reasons. The have two racetracks. North America has well over 100 if you include harness tracks. Hong Kong has one authority running the whole show. North America is a hodgepodge of state and provincial commissions run by people who were appointed and not necessarily for their expertise in making and enforcing racing rules. Hong Kong has 83 racing days a year. North America has that in a half a month in August. Hong Kong has a virtual monopoly on gambling. The nearest casinos are in Macao, an hour away by ferry. The Hong Kong Jockey Club controls the lottery. They control sports betting. There is no hometown football or basketball or baseball to distract the racing fan. 80% of residents have been to the track, and 20% characterize themselves as regulars. It’s like America in the 1920’s when racing topped sports attendance by far.

Horses based in Hong Kong start an average of 7.4 times a year. That’s comparable to higher quality horses in North America. Why can horses be pampered the way they are in Hong Kong? The purses. Average earnings per horse are a little over $78,000, which means most horses more than pay for their upkeep. If you wanted to own a string of horses and were told you were all but guaranteed to make money, you think the number of owners and horses being bred might go up?

The Hong Kong Jockey Club is effectively a self-perpetuating not-for-profit corporation, much like NYRA or Keeneland, but unlike the for-profit Churchill Downs or the Stronach tracks. Unlike North American tracks the HKJC is the alpha and the omega. It puts on the races, owns the facilities, employs just about everyone in the business except for horse owners and trainers (even the grooms and hotwalkers are HKJC employees), runs the vast network of OTBs and phone and online wagering, and is its own regulator, setting the rules, running the testing laboratory and meting out punishments. How does that sound all you fans of due process?

Oh yes, and the grooms who work for the HKJC (and not the trainers), are earning $5,000 a month, plus their cuts of purse money, and they don’t have to tend to more than three horses. I know some trainers who would be happy clearing that amount every month. That whole situation has to be an intersting dynamic. Oh, and when the government comes to collect its share of the taxes, the maximum they get is 15%.

We’re not Hong Kong, and we’re not going to ever be Hong Kong. The Hong Kong model works because there is one central authority and everybody buys into it. They don’t have to worry about filling races. They are running 830 or so races a year, so if the average field size is 12 horses and the horses run their average of 7.4 races a year, arithmetically 1,400 horses could get them through a season. Even at Arapahoe Park they would need 4-600 horses to get through two weeks of racing. I also expect if 1,400 horses could get us through the entire racing season, being drug free wouldn’t be nearly the challenge it is today. On the other hand, if you can keep the rest of the 10,000+ horses we need to keep racing going in a summer season race-capable without medication, unlocking the secret of the universe prior to the Big Bang should be child’s play.

So enough of Hong Kong. That tangent on Hong Kong spun on a little longer than I thought it would.

Back to the Racing Symposium.

Robert Evans the CEO and President at Churchill Downs listed his five reasons to be optimistic about the future of racing. Number one was the expansion of “alternative gaming” at tracks. This sounds a little bit like dating someone else because your current partner is a little stale. I get that in the short term the injection is like a B-12 shot, but what happens when the gaming people do what they did in Iowa and say they are tired of essentially burning money subsidizing racing, in this case the greyhound tracks?

Second was that balance sheets are improving because operations emerging from bankruptcy are shedding debt and are being bought by stronger, casino companies. I can tell you based on the Colorado experience that the casino companies hope to use the tracks to expand their gaming operations, and if that doesn’t happen, racing can be dropped like a bad habit. It’s not a bad thing, but it only works as long as the casino companies don’t see racing as a drag.

Evans was proud of how Churchill is using technology to increase handle. I think high def feeds are a nice feature for tracks and ADW’s but I hope that’s not the best you’ve got to try to suck my money in (disclosure: I won’t bet Churchill or on Twin Spires since they’ve raised their take to cover executive salaries).

Fourth was an emphasis on quality racing. Yes, the Kentucky Derby, the Travers and the Breeders Cup generate huge handle, but how many more of those days can we squeeze in without adding lower quality horses? The Kentucky Derby already has 20 starters, and every year there are five or six that have absolutely no chance and are running just so their owners can claim a Derby starter. More quality racing is a great idea, but we need to quickly move beyond ideas to collaboration and implementation. When half of the creme de la creme  of horses in America are trying to win a race at Saratoga in August, what’s left for the other few dozen tracks?

Finally was the offer of innovation, which given the slide Evans used, seems to be stuff that has already been tried with some success, like expanding the meeting at Saratoga, although his suggestion of exchange wagering would in fact be a great innovation.

The reality of the presentation was that it was a rehash of the same problems with most of the “solutions” things that are already being tried while racing continues to decline. Innovation is not finally adopting technology I’ve had on my TV for 10 years.

Ray Paulick argued in a recent editorial that tracks must come to grips with the idea that there are too many racing days, and this leads to smaller field size which in turn leads to smaller handle. Jennifer Owen, an Australian racing consultant said her research shows that if you can increase the average field size in the U.S. from the current 7.86 per race to 10 horses per race, you could increase handle by 43%. In this calculation, Ms. Owen projects that if a track went from10 races a day to eight, redistributing the starters from the two cancelled races across the remaining races, handle would go from say, $5 million to $7 million. Unfortunately, all I have are the summary articles and not her actual calculations, but I’m guessing she used the same calculus that CHRB and Churchill Downs did when they calculated raising the take would result in higher revenues. How did that work out anyway? If she argued that the PER RACE average would go up by 43% I could buy it, but cancelling two races and seeing daily handle rise by that much assumes a lot of people yanking a slot handle (I know, you push a button these days) must be shifting over to racing. The handle on a given day cannot be greater than the total amount people are willing to bet, and perhaps it is the case that bettors have money in their pockets they are not pulling out because of field size, but 43% sounds like a pretty difficult number to embrace. Still, the point is well taken. Short fields suck from a pari-mutuel perspective.

Ray Paulick asks what needs to be done for stakeholders to see the light. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of suggestions floating around that would get those stakeholders to change directions. It may be a little more destructive, but the market will eventually sort this out. We’ll see more Suffolks and Hollywood Parks and Rockinghams until all that is left are the tracks that live because of slots or because their handle can sustain their existence.

As Buzz Lightyear said, to infinity and beyond.

Welcome Back Doug O’Neill

December 19 marks the day Doug O’Neill’s suspension is finished and he’ll be back training his string. Welcome back, Doug. Racing is better with you participating.

Doug O’Neill would be the first to tell you that he’s made some mistakes, but I believe he’s worked as hard as any trainer to run a clean operation. I’ve talked extensively with Doug, with some of his owners, and the people who work with him. I haven’t found one who believes in anything less than running a totally clean operation. Doug even signed the petition to the CHRB asking for the installation of security cameras on the backstretch. That doesn’t sound like a guy with something to hide.

The current suspension was related to in incident in New York involving a positive test for Oxazepam on the horse Wind of Bosphorus. I won’t go into detail – you can read about the case in one of my earlier blogs – but the whole thing really underscored some of the problems with racing rules, especially the absolute insurers rule. We still don’t know how the Oxazepam got into the horse’s system, and ironically the one guy who wants to know the most is Doug O’Neill.

Before I launch into the rest of the blog, let me ask you to remember this. I firmly believe that a trainer who knowingly cheats in an effort to gain an advantage is reprehensible and should be dealt with harshly. I am not nor will I ever defend any dishonest trainer or jockey.

Twitter has been buzzing with opinions on trainers, and these days David Jacobson seems to be the most common target. He fits a lot of the criteria for garnering suspicion. He’s successful, seems to improve horses dramatically after a claim, and often races them hard until he drops them to a level low enough to induce another trainer to take them off his hands. The one thing Jacobson hasn’t done is have a horse test positive for seven years, despite being scrutinized microscopically by NYRA.

The list goes on. Bob Baffert had 7-11 horses expire suddenly, and although the CHRB could find no explanation that would put the blame on Baffert, the cloud still hangs over his head. Dick Dutrow is gone for ten years. Tom Amoss, one of the cleanest guys in racing, has had to spend a substantial sum fighting a positive in Indiana. When a trainer can’t comply with the rules when he tries as hard as as humanly possible to keep a horse honestly healthy and clean, you have to wonder if the issue is something other than the trainers.

It’s a common story in racing. Once a trainer is labelled as one who will use chemical means to get an edge, the stain is pretty much indelible. Once a trainer enjoys what some will label unnatural success, the cloud is inevitable. Just as Doug O’Neill and David Jacobson.

I’ve been looking at this issue for quite a while now. I’m far more convinced that the absolute insurers rule needs an update and it is not due process to have one body be judge, jury, appeals court and executioner. I’m convinced that racing commissions are no different than other rulemaking bodies, finding more and more ways for trainers to become lawbreakers, setting standards that may or may not get to the heart of racing’s real problems. I’m convinced that people like Dr. Rick Arthur, Joe Gorajec, and Chris Kay have become engorged with the power they’ve cultivated over the years, becoming almost imperial under the cloak of protecting racing from everyone but themselves.

In a highly publicized 1987 case, former labor secretary Ray Donovan was indicted and tried in New York for larceny and fraud in connection with a project to construct a new line for the New York City Subway. He was ultimately acquited and famously asked, “Now where do I go to get my reputation back?”

More than a few trainers are wondering the same thing.