Category Archives: Opinions

Opinions and editorials

Should Wi-Fi be Offered at Every Track?

If you don’t want to read any farther, the answer is, hell yes.

I remember just a few years ago taking my laptop to Saratoga. There was one spot in the clubhouse where you could snag the wi-fi signal that they were using in the offices upstairs. Last year I went and there was wi-fi pretty much anywhere in the racing plant. Why is that a big deal? Because there is a lot of on-line information available to handicappers, including the relatively new

One of the big selling points of Timeform was that unlike the “unwieldy” Daily Racing Form, all you would need to bring to the track was your tablet. It was supposed to represent the 21st Century of data and was especially meant to appeal to younger people who weren’t stuck on the idea that you had to walk into the track with a hard copy of the Daily Racing Form. You could circumnavigate the Timeform version of past performances right there on your tablet.

Permit me a quick tangent. Craig Milkowski, the chief figure-maker for Timeform, got into the figure-making business by starting a site called Once Craig perfected his pace/speed algorithm, he offered membership in the site. My recollection was that the first offering was to have the site limited to 100 members who would each pay $100 A YEAR to have access to his figures. Pretty much every race at every track. The amounts went up each year, but most people stuck with the site. It was especially fortuitous for lifelong pace handicappers like me. I’ve pretty much bought into the idea of energy distribution determining a horse’s ability to run a specific speed number for my entire handicapping career, and with PaceFigures I was able to save myself a lot of work.

Anyway, one year I didn’t get a renewal notice for the site. The reason was that Craig had decided to move the operation to Timeform, which was looking to expand into the U.S. market. The rollout sputtered a bit, and frankly it was a number of months after the rollout before the site had some of the capabilities Craig had on PaceFigures, but eventually they got things smoothed out. Of course those of us who had been with PaceFigures since the beginning went through a bit of depression once we realized the whole world would have access to the El Dorado of figures.

The same thing happened after the Racing Times took its ill-fated run at the Daily Racing Form. The innovative elements in the Racing Times eventually found their way to the Racing Form, and people then had access to information previously only available at a price. It just gets harder and harder to stay one step ahead of the crowd.

I give people like Craig Milkowski and Andy Beyer all the credit in the world. The worked hard to develop an innovation, and they deserved to cash in.

Most serious horseplayers I know use both the Racing Form and Timeform. It isn’t just habit. Most of us have learned to read the Racing Form in a particular way and it is comfortable to zero in on the information that is most important to you. Oh, the same information is in Timeform, but it is in different formats or different places. Like the first time  you use an Apple computer the minimize button is on the left instead of the right. The Racing Form has the Moss  pace figures, although they are calculated differently than the Timeform numbers. The final Timeform number is supposed to represent more of an ability time. I don’t know how well Timeform is doing, but the Racing Form is a pretty muscular when it comes to selling past performances. I hope both publications prosper.

So last year it was great to have the Racing Form in my hand and all the Timeform information right there on my tablet. Unfortunately, not every track has wi-fi. It definitely is a disadvantage for me. I have my way of handicapping, and if I am live at the track and I can’t follow my patterns, it is disconcerting.

I keep harping on a lot of the same themes.

*  Tracks are currently in competition with low overhead betting sites.

*  Figure out what will get people to the track and offer it.

If I am betting at home in front of my computer, I have access to any piece of information I might use in my handicapping. If you want people to come to a live meet, you have to make it just as comfortable as betting at home. Offering wi-fi is not some luxury. It is a necessity, whether you are trying to accommodate the Timeform users or cater to younger patrons. It is an incredibly small investment to keep at least part of the fan base happy.

That’s the problem at a lot of tracks. They are slow to adopt any modern innovations for handicappers or bettors. Of course, other than the very successful, it’s rare to see fans band together to wake track management up.

NYRA had some limitations. You could access Timeform, but not most online betting sites, except for their own betting site. That meant if you wanted to bet something using an online account because your on-track bankroll was dwindling you were out of luck. Frankly, that was fine for me. Usually if I go to the track, I bring plenty of money and focus on that track, checking out horses in the paddock, watching the exotic pools.

The on track experience can be wonderful, especially at places with character like Del Mar or Saratoga. But when you have to sacrifice your handicapping requirements, you’re going to stay away.

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?

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.

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.





Players Boycott at Churchill Seems to be Working

Churchill Downs recently announced they are increasing the takeout on both the win/place/show pools and the exotic wagering pools. In an amazing show of irritation, Jeff Platt, Lenny Moon and others formed www.playersboycott.orgasking players to not only stop betting Churchill Downs, but the CDHN owned tracks (Arlington, Fairgrounds, and Calder) and to not use the TwinSpires betting site.

All I can say is wow! It only took 150 years to finally get pissed off enough to exercise the power of betting public. But better late than never.

There is no doubt that in the hierarchy of racing, players are on the lowest rung of the ladder, well behind the state, horse breeders, owners and trainers, and track management. I’m not including jockeys and backstretch workers because they might actually be treated worse than horseplayers. The greatest impetus to the players’ boycott seems to be a startling 340% increase in executive compensation from 2012 to 2013. Churchill essentially concluded that they had to pay executives $19.7 million more even knowing they needed $8 million more in revenues for purse increases. I’m not saying the executives don’t work hard, but if your boss came to you and said, I’m cutting your pay so I can get a raise, I’m pretty sure some sort of revolt would be discussed. And in essence, that is what they are doing. Asking the bettors to fund increases in salaries and purses.

I don’t know what they might have asked the owners and the trainers to kick in, but if I were a betting man (wait, I am a betting man), I’d wager the last thing on their list of options was additional entry or stall fees. Think about it for a minute. Who exactly is the customer at the race track? For every disgruntled punter who screws up enough energy to let management know how he feels, there are scores of owners and trainers who are griping daily. True story. I once witnessed a group of trainers confront a track general manager, and when they didn’t seem to be making headway, decided that a punch in the head could more clearly make the point. Amazingly, they got what they wanted. I don’t recommend trying the punch in the head approach unless you have a hankering to eat baloney and white bread sandwiches three times a day at the local hoosegow. Trainers and owners are like the Empire compared to the average Luke Skywalker horseplayer when it comes to management’s ear. When the tracks try to cater to horseplayers, it is usually by giving away bobbleheads or a foil lined thermo-lunch bag. Don’t take this as ungratefulness, but the only people who show up for the bobblehead are people who think they’ll be able to sell it on ebay or people who can’t resist a freebie. Saratoga is famous for its Sunday giveaways, and plenty of people show up, buy six admissions, grab six t-shirts or mugs or whatever, and leave without ever betting a nickel. If you want to make a regular happy, how about a comped comfy seat on Breeder’s Cup day as a reward for showing up every day and being 1% of your total handle.

One of these blogs I’ll talk about the history of Churchill Downs, a track that somehow stumbled and bumbled through its first half century by regularly flirting with bankruptcy, and its irascible founder, Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr . But that is for another day.

Which brings me to the state. Is there a business other than gambling that pays its “taxes” before calculating its profit, and with no chance of a “refund” if it loses money? As Vito Corleone noted, “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” Think what a whole statehouse full of them might do.

Bettors are also expected to pay for state breeding programs. Every state with horseracing designates a percentage of the takeout for the breeders’ fund for horses bred in that state, ostensibly to promote breeding and racing. The concept is to create an economic stimulus to breeding horses in that particular state. I’ll rant a bit more on this topic in a later blog, but I have real questions about the forced relationship between bettors and breeders.

It feels like there is a hierarchy of middle men taking their cut from the same, no the only, piece of pie out there. The pari-mutuel bettor. The only analogy I can think of is the old protection racket. Pay us and we’ll let you keep betting horses, and if it gets to be too much…well, too bad.

When I first started writing for Horseplayer Magazine I did a rant where I told this story. I was at the driving range hitting some balls and who should decide he also needed to work on his swing but the track general manager. In an occurrence that at least made you wonder about the reality of divine intervention, it started to rain and the two of us found ourselves waiting out the weather in the nearby shelter. We got to talking and I said something like, “and how about that 25% take on the exotics?” He said, “I know. That’s the maximum amount the state lets us take.” Truly a case of one person zigging while the other person is zagging.

Back to the players’ boycott. It seems to be working. As of June 22, 2014 average  field size is down 0.62 starters per race. (-8.13%). If you exclude Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks days, total handle is down $45.6 Million (-26.90%),  handle per race is down $111,316 (-21.68%), and average handle per day is down $1,424,385 (-26.90%).

I’m going to weigh in on the side of the players boycott, mainly because it’s about time horseplayers got noticed. But I’m also going to say, even if Churchill rescinds the increase, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. The current model hasn’t worked for decades and the problems of live racing have only been exacerbated by universal off track wagering, rebates and state laws crafted either by owners or track management in their own best interest.

So what do you think? If you were the czar of racing, what would you do to bring the sport all the way into the 21st century?

The Killer Whales

Fellow Denverite Derek Simon, blogging for, wrote an interesting piece about horse racing whales, those ultra-big money bettors. He seemed to make three important points. First, whales are not necessarily good handicappers. The second point was that whales survive by wagering large amounts of money often. So if a whale bets an average of $250,000 a week for 50 weeks out of the year, and sees a 2% return, he finishes the year $250,000 to the good. Now that amount is a good year for most people, but it seems like a lot of risk for a fairly small reward. You still have to be a 2% winner, assuming there are no intervening factors. Of course if making money was that easy, a lot more people would be whales. The third point is questionable – whales limit their play to the larger tracks and leave the action at smaller venues to the minnows. It doesn’t get much smaller than Arapahoe Park, and I’ve seen plenty of whale sized bets there. Same for Turf Paradise, Tampa Bay Downs, Mountaineer Park and a host of other small tracks. Simply put, 5% is 5% is 5% whether it is at Santa Anita on Breeder’s Cup day or Turf Paradise on a Tuesday in February, and a bettor is guaranteed at least 5% return on a winning ticket. Why would you avoid betting at Turf Paradise because you felt limited to, say, $10,000 bets? In fact, I might argue that at some of the smaller tracks the certainty factor is even higher than at larger tracks. Don’t laugh, but there are people I know who specialize in crushing Arabian and mule races at tracks like Delaware, Retama, Arapahoe Park and Pleasanton and are deliriously happy with a cold $7.40 trifecta, which by the way pays $7.40 because they have a substantial percentage of the pool. Ask any Wall Street investor if he’d take 5-2 on a 90% shot. The conclusion of the blog is don’t get too hung up on the action of the whales because mostly they are betting against each other. Derek also suggests that the rebates are irrelevant and that is where I want to zero in.

In 1968, Richard Carter using the pseudonym Tom Ainslie, published the seminal work, Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing. On page 38 he talks about The Magic Number. Basically Ainslie suggests that no one should lose more than the track take on the win pool. So if the take is 17%, at worst, even if you are betting randomly, you should lose no more than 17% of your bankroll in the long run. He goes on to say that if you only bet favorites, you can reduce that loss to around 8%. Now imagine you are a whale getting a 10% rebate. Betting only favorites to win, you do two things. First, you skew the pool by making the favorite all but unbettable. Second, you still make a 2% profit. Think about it. You are an 8% loser making money, and the more you bet the more you make. If you are any type of handicapper, or if you are using a sophisticated betting program, you might erase half of that 8%, making you a 6% winner. Our same $250,000 a week whale would net a cool three-quarters of a million dollars.

Back when Ainslie wrote his book, favorites were winning at about a 32% rate and one of the first four choices won around 78% of the time. Today, the dilution of the racing product has resulted in smaller fields and a higher percentage of favorites winning. The modern percentage is close to 35%, and at the smaller tracks it seems like there are an increasing number of days when favorites win all the races.

Rebate whales affect the pools and sooner or later they are going to make your return on investment lower than it would be otherwise.

That is bad enough, but they negatively impact the industry as a whole. Ten years ago the New York Times published a short piece on how rebate whales affect the industry. They documented that since the advent of the rebate shops, purse money was declining even though handle is increasing. Is there another viable explanation? It doesn’t seem likely. So what do the tracks do? They think about raising the take, and guess who suffers the most? That’s right, the millions of patrons who aren’t whales. According to the NTRA, money is leaking out of the system and it isn’t going back to live racing. Instead, low overhead operations pay for the signal, make their profit on the volume of bets, and cater to the big money whales.

What’s the answer? I’m going to ask you to tell me your thoughts. Tell me what you think about whales, rebates, and how tracks are dealing with them.