Category Archives: Opinions

Opinions and editorials

National Handicapping Championship

First, congratulations to Paul Matties for winning the 2016 NHC. Given the odds against the players, it is a spectacular accomplishment. I also believe it takes a special kind of horseplayer to thrive in that environment. 53 races over four days, and multiple tracks. While I’ve learned to make money by staying in my element – primarily win and exacta betting at the NYRA tracks – doing well at the NHC would be highly unlikely for me, or anyone, without an incredible amount of preparation. The discipline and commitment it takes to break into the top tier makes the winners more than deserving of the recognition they get.

I was thinking about the NHC during the Super Bowl this weekend. 100 million people were distracted with what can be alternatively called the National Football Championship, or if you are concerned about the NFL suing you for some sort of copyright infringement, The Big Game. On the other hand, other than horseplayers nobody knows or cares about the NHC. I did a “man on the street” survey where I asked random people on the street if they knew who won the National Handicapping Championship. The answers were unsurprising.

Most people thought it had something to do with handicapped people, at least those who didn’t think it was some “goddamn gummint” attempt to raise taxes. The most common response – “Is that like the wheelchair Olympics?”

Obviously expecting anyone outside the community to pay attention to horseplayers would be a massive longshot, but it does point out how horseracing has become a niche sport. It also points out that the common meaning of the word we use to describe the selection process – handicapping – has a generally lame connotation, excuse the pun.

It also is the description of only half the equation. When horseplayers talk about handicapping, they are talking about the process of coming up with selections. The other half is betting. Of course, changing the name of the contest to the “National Horseplayer Selection and Betting Championship” would be even more lame than the current incarnation.

National Handicapping Championship doesn’t have the same brand identity as Super Bowl or World Series or March Madness. If you’re going to come up with a brand name, alliteration is always a good way to go. Horseracing Hootenany is still available.

I know history is on the side of the word “handicapping.” In the old days, like the 70’s – that’s the 1970’s – racing secretaries regularly used weight to even out the ability between horses, essentially giving them a “handicap.” In one of the greatest races of all time, the 1976 Marlboro Handicap, the mighty Forego slipped by Honest Pleasure in the last stride under 137 pounds. Today, if a racing secretary wanted to give a horse 128, the trainer would threaten to pull out. There are no real handicap races anymore. Most races for the best animals are stakes races with fixed weights based on age and sex.

The term handicap is an anachronism. Tracks rarely handicap horses enough to really make a difference, and whatever it is that we do to find horses to bet, it has nothing to do with handicapping a horse. We analyze, we select, and we bet, and we use an archaic term to describe it. It’s a term that came into vogue in horseracing when there were other descriptive words for people with disabilities, and now that there is an entire federal act to cover the disabled, maybe it’s time we came up with our own special word.

What do you think? Are you happy being a handicapper or do we need to come up with a new word for what we do and a new name for the Championship?

Stop Playing Games with Gaming

The latest state to parlay with Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) is Florida, and this time the mighty mavens of DFS are looking for a deal instead of a fight.  Rather than going to court again, they are uniting to do what all good Americans with and ax to grind  and money to spare do – buy themselves some legislators.

The big hitters – Draft Kings and Fan Duel – as well as some of the upstarts have banded together to push $220,000 in the direction of some key legislators. All the DFS operators ask in return is the ability to run their games without the interference of government regulation.

Remember the famous words spoken by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address?

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation,  conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Inspiring words, but when Lincoln talked about equality, he must have known it to be a celestrial ideal, an abstraction, because it can never be an absolute that applies without limits to all. If everyone and everything was equal, we would have never developed the Bell Curve and the Supreme Court would have come down on the other side of Citizens United. No constitution can change the immutable law of politics: money talks, and bullshit walks.

This isn’t about whether DFS is a game of skill versus gambling. Anyone who decides it is or isn’t a game of skill is right. Anyone who decides it is or isn’t gambling is right. DFS is whatever you want or need it to be.

There is no aspect of life that comes completely risk free. And there is no betting game that doesn’t have an element of chance. The best poker players, horseplayers, or DFS players will always rise to the top in the long run, but that makes no difference to those who want to equate betting and gambling. Skill becomes irrelevant if it is your mission to make sure everyone “pays to play.”

In the case of DFS, the going rate in Florida would be an initial license fee of $500,000 and an annual renewal fee of $100,000. The best part would be no government interference in the activites of DFS. Are you kidding me? Horseracing is supposed to compete with that?

It gets even better. The Seminoles, who would like a gambling monopoly in Florida, sent $500,000 to Gov. Rick Scott’s political action committee called Let’s Get to Work. It should be more fully titled, Let’s Get to Work Getting Rick Scott More PAC Funding. According to a column by well known Florida writer Carl Hiaasen, Scott recently signed a new gambling compact that would give the tribe’s seven casinos exclusive rights to roulette, craps and blackjack. In return, the state would be guaranteed at least $3 billion from profit-sharing over seven years, beginning in 2017. Of course, the deal is contingent on the legislature approving it, but another few hundred thousand should take care of that.

The best part for Florida legislators looking to fill their campaign war chests is that the Seminoles oppose DFS. This means both sides will spend freely to support or oppose the tribal compact. In the meantime, horseracing gets no help, no equity.

Equality means all the gambling groups – Indian casinos, DFS, horseracing tracks – should all be regulated and taxed so that one doesn’t get the competitive advantage over the other. Let the market decide who succeeds and fails the old fashioned way. As long as horseracing has to pay up front to do business, they will always be at a competitive disadvantage against the other groups. And if DFS and the Seminoles get their deals, the uphill climb for horseracing just got a little bit steeper. What we need is fairness for all, but as long as we are reliant on having to line the pockets of governmental executives and legislators before they decide which laws and compacts they’ll support, horseracing is at a clear disadvantage. Horseracing cast its lot decades ago when the sport was king and profit was plentiful. It’s time to revisit the deal in light of the broad expansion of gambling markets. Forty years ago if you wanted to play table games your option was Vegas, and betting football in the rest country was limited to coded phone calls and conversations with local bookmakers. The times, they have a’changed.

Horseracing will not survive in its current incarnation without some relief, and I don’t mean slot machines or instant racing. I mean internal and external structural relief. Some companies, like CDI, have decided to join the casino business, and other tracks, like the Pennsylvania tracks, Delaware, and Charles Town, have simply become casinos with a side of horseracing. They will all tolerate the horseracing only as long as they have to. Starting with Florida would be fine, especially considering they are apparently wide-open for business, and someone like Frank Stronach may just have the clout to pull it off.

Horseracing simply cannot survive if it is forced to compete on an uneven playing field. If the industry doesn’t get smart and play the game that creates wins for all the stakeholders, then it will continue to deteriorate while DFS and Indian casinos prosper.


Proactive Enforcement

The New York State Gaming Commission has adopted new rules aimed at repeat violators. Essentially, they adopted the same sort of point system other states use to target trainers with multiple violations. Each violation will accumulate points, with the humber of points per violation dependent on the severity of the offense.  Reaching certain point levels will result in suspension. For example, accumulating 3 1/2 to 5 points would result in a 30 day suspension, while 11 points would bag the offender a year off.

Nobody seems to have any serious opposition to this sort of rule, and I expect you won’t hear any until someone gets pinched for multiple violations of the same medication, much like what happened to Bill Brashears. ( In any case, if the rule snags offenders looking to gain an edge, it’s a good tool for the toolbox.

What may be more interesting are the proposed rules still under consideration.

This includes an idea to reduce exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage incidents. The NYSGC wants to more specifically use episodes of epistaxis (bleeding from the nostrils) to restrict horses from racing. This includes mandating disclosure of such cases to future owners, and requiring endoscopic exams after such episodes. I’m not how the rule will work out in practice, but it doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

The proposed rules also call for something I have advocated for a long time – requiring a log of all medications given to a horse, both by veterinarians (already required in NY) and trainers and their employees. According to an article in the Blood Horse,

“The package of proposed rules also include efforts to eliminate “the unnecessary administration of metabolism-modifying drugs,” [state equine medical director Scott} Palmer told the board, as well as new requirements involving drug prescription renewals, and the effort to ban the administration of drugs “in the absence of an actual medical disorder.”

That last part was targeted at trainer Steve Asmussen who was accused by PETA of unnecessary administration of the thyroid medication thyroxine.

While the medication log is an excellent step, I’ve suggested that for the strategy to be most effective it has to be accompanied by an audit requirement. One of the problems with enforcement is that most of the money and effort goes to post-race violations. By doing, say, monthly audits of the medication log, you have a real opportunity to catch a problem before it manifests in a race result, and this should be priority one. After a result has been declared official, the horseplayer is already screwed if one of the horses has a violation level. I don’t know what the exact division should be between pre-race and post-race testing and investigatory funding, but it currently is too heavily weighted toward getting offenders after the real damage is done.

Putting away bad guys may keep them from committing crimes, and that is one element of enforcement, but I will continue to push for the idea that tracks need to increase proactive efforts to find violators before the bettor is taken advantage of. They need to hire real investigators and not incompetent hacks ( I’ve outlined a series of proactive efforts in the article about Kirk Ziadie’s suspension ( and if tracks are serious about protecting bettors, they will start taking the proactive part of enforcement more seriously.

What everyone who works in enforcement knows is that a violation prevented is far better than catching someone after the fact. Make the bettors believe the races are being run fairly and you are on the road to helping the sport rebound, but if all we ever read about is suspending a Kirk Ziadie after 18 violations, racing may have won a battle, but unless it uses all the potential tools, it will never get the necessary public confidence or win the war.

Kirk Ziadie

Kirk Ziadie, to the surprise of almost no one, had an administrative law judge in Florida recommend that he be suspended for six years and fined $18,000 for a series of clenbuterol violations.

Clenbuterol is a legal therapeutic medication in Florida. It functions as a decongestant and bronchodilator, and can have anabolic (muscle growth promoting) effects. Clenbuterol has long been a controversial medication in horseracing. It’s even been banned in some places (New  Mexico).

Ziadie was cited for multiple violations, and in his defense he pleaded stubborn.

In 2013 horsemen were told by Florida to increase their withdrawal time for clenbuterol from five days to 14. Despite the “advice” Ziadie continued to run his horses five days after he gave them clenbuterol, and subsequently had six positives.

In testimony, Ziadie said he chose not to change to the new, longer withdrawal time.

Ziadie said to the law judge, “I was still stuck on the five days, your honor. I was stubborn. I know I did wrong. I know that there was a rumor and I know there was a brochure going around—14 days—but I was trying to do the best for my horses. I thought that if was the medication that they needed at the time when we were racing and I take blame for being stubborn and making a mistake, but I did keep it at five days.”

Ziadie made an effort to get the samples thrown out, and succeeded for the blood samples. But the urine samples stayed in and revealed 18 violations. Ziadie was pretty much up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

I’m not seeing any way he wiggles out of this one. He called it stubborn, it just as easily could have been called arrogant, putting his head in the sand or something more nefarious. His statement showed that he really didn’t measure his actions with the same sense of gravity that the administrative judge noted. In his decision, the administrative judge said that while clenbuterol has some therapeutic value, its adverse effects and excessive use present a danger to racing thoroughbreds.

You can’t have it both ways. It’s either a useful therapeutic or a dangerous drug. The administrative judge can believe whatever he wants, but as long as the drug was legal, limit the commentary to the relevant facts of the case. As for racing, make up your mind about whether clenbuterol should be legal, let trainers know, and let’s move on.

Where I want to zero in is with the responsibilities of track management and enforcing authorities. Ziadie made the decision to engage in wrongful behavior, but all of Ziadie’s violations were as a result of post-race testing and not anything proactive.

Ziadie was ultimately charged with 18 violations. You can see Ziadie as a serial cheater – you don’t commit 18 violations and claim it was totally unintended – but how does the violation count get to 18 before someone takes action?

At the end of the day, a violation that never occurs is infinitely better than having to take an enforcement action after the fact. Racetracks can do so much more to prevent violations than they are currently doing. Let’s start with the obvious.

Closed circuit cameras should be mandatory on the backside. Not every track has them, and even when they are available the storage times are not always long enough to ensure a violation can be matched with a video record. It does no good to recycle tapes every 15 days if it takes 30 days to notify a trainer of a violation. Regardless of trainer responsibility rules, if a trainer has video evidence that a horse was tampered with, that should form an affirmative defense if a violation is measured.

The stewards should be conducting regular, unannounced inspections. You cannot convince me that authorities are totally in the dark about what goes on in the stable area. When A.C. Avila was investigated for an acepromazine violation for the horse Masochistic, investigators found a plastic bin full of medications/drugs, many of which were unmarked. They may have never found the bin without the prompting of Masochistic’s violation. That sort of thing needs to be cleaned up before it gets out of hand, and regular, unannounced inspections would go a long way to help trainers pay closer attention.

The authorities need to have trained, professional investigators available. Many of the cases I’ve looked at had poorly trained and barely competent investigators. While some may argue the burden of proof after a positive test rests with the trainer, I believe the track owes it to the betting public and other trainers to get to the bottom of some cases, especially cases where there was no way the trainer could have administered the offending substance. You will never fully gain the public trust when you leave too many questions unanswered or you fail to punish the right people.

Random drug testing should be mandatory for workers on the backside. Given the number of potential cases of environmental cross-contamination that occur, the authorities need to know potential sources of the contamination. And obviously tracks should help establish and fund support groups for those with drug problems.

Pre-race testing programs should be established, especially for trainers who have had previous positives. As I said, a violation prevented is infinitely more valuable than a post-race positive.

All medications/drugs should come from a single track pharmacy, and veterinarians should be required to keep detailed records on medications purchased and used, and there should be regular audits on those records. This is really the most important thing tracks could do. When people ask how we can be more like Hong Kong, an obvious answer is that we can make sure every regulated compound given by a veterinarian to a horse is catalogued, the records are kept permanently, and the track has unlimited access to the records. If Florida had Kirk Ziadies’s records and had seen that he was dosing horses with Clenbuterol five days before a race, they could have intervened before things got so far out of hand. Or maybe Ziadie would have never been “stubborn” had he known he was on record. What happened to the administering veterinarian in all this? Did he not know about the new clenbuterol advice? Did he tell Ziadie? Did he refuse to administer clenbuterol because he knew it would likely result in positive post-race tests? And if the vet (or Ziadie) was required to buy from a single source and the amounts being bought were documented, wouldn’t the racing officials have the necessary heads-up to investigate? And any horse that shows up with a drug/medication that is not in the official log could earn the trainer additional penalties. Veterinarians could also be subject to penalties for not properly logging medications.

Perhaps you haven’t thought about it in that way, but the fact that tracks are not as proactive as they could be means the number of violations is higher than it has to be. For those who are indignant about drugs in racing and rail about trainers, there are more solutions than just waiting for the trainer to come up with a positive post-race test. For all the people who “knew” Kirk Ziadie must have been doing something to gain an edge, did you also call for the track to do more than just wait for Ziadie to get caught?

If you believe drugs in racing are a scourge, why would you not favor stopping as many violations as possible before they happen by using technology, proactive intervention, and tighter control over how horses are being medicated? The trainer may get the ultimate blame for a medication violation, but track management and the enforcing authorities are not without opportunities to keep at least some violations from ever becoming news. Let’s hold them all to a higher standard.

Random Thoughts

Not much going on in the racing front, so just to stay in practice a few other things I’ve heard.

A policeman in Georgia shot a naked black man while he was acting deranged. According to the story,

Police were responding to a call about a suspicious person. Bystander videos and photos show Hill was naked, climbing on the sides of his apartment building prior to the shooting. Police have said that Hill then charged at Olsen, who shot and killed him. “The caller reported a male acting deranged, knocking on doors, crawling around on the ground naked,” DeKalb County Police Chief Cedric Alexander said at the time of the shooting. “When the male saw the officer he charged, running at the officer. The officer told him to stop while stepping back at which point he drew his weapon and fired two shots.”

I don’t know about you, but the first things going through my head when I see a naked guy trying to climb an apartment building are (1)PCP or (2)mentally ill. Now that isn’t to say he couldn’t be dangerous, but I’ve watched Locked Up and there is apparently a way to handle someone who flips out without shooting them, as long as you have numbers, the right equipment, and  are trained. That is especially the case when that person doesn’t have a weapon.

What could have been going through the officer’s mind to think this guy was going to stop when he shouted at him? I think if you showed a video, stopped it at the point the naked guy started charging and the police officer yelled stop, and then took a poll of 100 people, I’m not sure there is one who would have taken 1000-1 the guy was going to stop. The guy was apparently having some sort of psychotic episode, and the idea that he would suddenly come to his senses when a police officer yelled stop is at best ludicrous. So the question is, was there any other option available other than shooting the guy? Was the man an immediate danger to other people? Could the officer have waited for numbers before confronting the man? Did he have the time or the ability to use something less than deadly force, the Taser or a night stick for example?  I honestly don’t know the answers, but based on some other recent cases, the presence of a threat that may inflict bodily harm and the fact that training often makes the response autonomic, usually seems to be enough to decide in the police officer’s favor.

I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. I mean, the officer should not be subject to physical assault but this sort of thing has to happen often enough that the police should at least have a Plan B for how to get out of the situation with minimal damage to the officer and the naked guy. I’m not taking sides. If anything I’m blaming inadequate training for dealing with the mentally ill, an issue that has been the subject of discussion in many communities. I’m reminded of what Clint Eastwood said as William Muny in Unforgiven:

It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever gonna have.

The second thing is the weather in California. The weather gods seem to have it in for the most populous state. Drought followed by torrential rain. I was listening to the radio and someone was talking about the problems caused by the heavy downpours. One of the problems is the homeless, who apparently prefer to live near the water, which in SoCal is concrete riverbeds or the beach. Riverbeds are a bad idea when water is rushing, mainly because if you happen to be in the channel you might drown. So California is looking at ways of dealing with the homeless during the wet weather.

There was a point in the story where I thought the person being interviewed said that homeless people have rights. This is the sort of thing that makes Fox News heads explode. I think what she meant was, hey, if you want to be homeless, go ahead. We can’t stop you. In other words, everyone has a right to be homeless. Not, that goddamn Obama just changed the Constitution to give special rights to the homeless. I just thought it would have been a great debate topic for Sean Hannity versus Rachel Maddow. The rights of the homeless.

The third thing was a doozy. A Florida Atlantic University professor named James Tracy who apparently believes the Sandy Hook shooting was staged and who publicly quarreled with the parents of one of the victims, was fired for not filling out some forms on outside employment required by the University. The strangest thing isn’t that he thought the Sandy Hook massacre was staged, but that he wanted us to believe an inept and cynical government could actually pull it off. Pretty ironic, eh? Apparently, the government hired actors to play victims, replete with fake blood and other special effects. The eventual outcome was supposed to be gun control legislation, which as we all know didn’t happen. So, the government has had to regularly stage fake shootings, like San Bernardino, in an effort to get that gun control bill passed.

This proves my theory that some people have far more education than brains.

I’m not sure what the percentage is of people who believe this, but the fact that anyone thinks it’s true is…well frankly the naked guy climbing the apartment walls may have been of sounder mind.

What may have been more outrageous was Tracy going after the parents of one of the boys killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. He used a photo of Noah Pozner on his blog, which got the attention of Noah’s parents. The Sun-Sentinel described it this way.

When the parents took steps to prevent their son’s photo from being used on conspiracy websites, Tracy sent them a certified letter demanding proof they were Noah’s parents and that their son ever lived, the family wrote in a Sun Sentinel opinion piece. Tracy fired back online, calling the Pozners “alleged parents” and accusing them of cashing in on Sandy Hook and fabricating their son’s death certificate. “If Noah actually died, there would have been no reason to fake it.” Tracy wrote.

The incredible cruelty of that act is without peer. No parent should live to see the death of their children, much less in a senseless way, and make no mistake about it. Noah Pozner’s death was real as is the pain of his parents and every parent who lost a child at Sandy Hook. I can feel no kindness toward James Tracy. The fact that this is America allows him to get away with believing whatever insane thing he wants with impunity, and he can even tell the rest of us what he thinks as long as it isn’t seditionist or the equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theater. But there is always a cost to extreme speech. It is villification by those who have seen the true horror of the violence that occurred in Boston, and Newtown and San Bernardino and who will not give credence to any who are outwardly cruel and purposely ignorant. If James Tracy had the sense of a two year old he would have kept his rantings to the small group of wing nuts who find life in reality not satisfying enough.

The truth is not optional. His opinion counts for absolutely zero in this country. He is as irrelevant as someone who would argue that the earth is flat. He is, to state the obvious, as wrong as wrong can be.

Tracy is especially sad because he was educated enough to know better. His delusion is inexcusable. This is what we all should hope. That he fades into the obscurity he deserves and that we honor and remember the lives of all who died at the hands of madmen.

Handle at Santa Anita

The sky is falling and it isn’t just raining. The latest example was the opening day per-capita handle at Santa Anita. 44,873 people bet an average of just $78 each. That’s down from $84 last year and down from $152 in 1986. Let me posit a question. If you were the CEO of a company that is showing those sorts of trends, do you think you are doing a good job?

There are a couple of different ways to look at this. One is that a lot of people are showing up at the track just to hang out with real horseplayers I guess. But a more positive way to look at it is, there there is a lot of money staying in people’s pockets, and the track needs to figure out a way to pry it out without limiting the choices to gambling.

Not everyone agrees with me, but I believe tracks need to make themselves over. Oh, I know Santa Anita spent $30 million a few years ago, but while fresh paint is important cosmetically, it doesn’t increase per capita betting. If you want to get more money from the patrons, either you have to make the gambling part more attractive or you have to have other ways to getting them to part with their money. Of course, nothing wrong with doing both.

I recently did a  piece on attracting millennial gamblers to horseracing and cited how Las Vegas is looking to appeal to them. In the casinos, slot and table revenues are down, to a great degree because millennials prefer games where skill is more important than luck. Horseracing fits that bill, but simply isn’t doing what it needs to do to attract the millennials. Even though gaming revenues are suffering, visitations to Vegas are still healthy. Why? Because Vegas can attract people for reasons other than gambling. Millennials will go for the shows, the nightclubs, and the restuarants.

Racetracks make a lot of the same mistakes other businesses make. They focus too much on getting new customers and too little on taking care of the customers they have. Vegas doesn’t make that mistake. The best customers are treated like royalty. Even the little old ladies playing the slots can earn free meals or other perquisites. Too little of that goes on at racetracks.

I was in Vegas betting at a sportsbook once. At a point, two guys in suits come up to me and offered me an embarassing amount of consideration if I’d keep my action in their book. Even after I told them I was only in town for the day, they still wanted to sign me up. In 40 plus years of going to the track, I can count on one hand the number of times anybody gave me any sort of special consideration.

My advice is two-pronged. Sign everybody up for some sort of rewards card, and when their action reaches a certain level, give them…a reward. You know how on-line places say, spend so much and get free shipping? You’d be surprised how many people try to spend enough to save a $10 UPS charge. Make $100 in bets and get a free soda, and you’d be suprised at how many of those $78 betters will come up with another $22 so they can get twenty cents worth of carbonated beverage (yes, it’s a bit of hyperbole but I’m making a point). Each track should provide every patron with a free version of the past performances, but just for their track. If you want the simulcast edition you can pay for that. Parking, admission, and seating – three other things on the list of rewards. Special days – the “A” customers don’t have to play second fiddle to the throngs that only show up on special days. You get the idea.

The second part of the idea is to refurbish the track to create venues that will further induce people to part with their money. Yes, I know there is a shopping center adjacent to Santa Anita, but it might as well be in Bakersfield for all the good it does. You want shopping that makes it convenient for a guy that just hit a nice Pick-4 to buy something on impulse for himself or the family. You go to the Forum shops in Caesars Palace, and you don’t see a bunch of cheap novelty stores. They have more upscale stuff. I think you also design it so you can enter all the higher end businesses from outside the track (with no admission) or inside the track. You don’t get from inside to the track without a stamp or something. There should be an upscale restaurant that is open the same hours as other restaurants. Maybe a movie theater. There should be a good sports bar, also open normal hours, and maybe a nightclub. After the races the entrance from the track into the bars/restaurants would be locked so you don’t have people wandering around the racing plant. How about a picnic area, like at Saratoga? Patio dining or watering holes. A food court. Free entertainment, and I don’t mean the post race concerts. Saratoga has a daily lineup of anonymous small bands. How about an indoor event venue so businesses can have corporate parties or Christmas parties during the day or at night? Design something so you can take the family to the track and make your bets without having to get a hall pass. I’m just spitballing here, but I’m sure you see the concept.

Instead of the track being a five hour hangout, make it so that patrons can continue the day. The track that comes closest in my mind is Saratoga, with its picnic grounds, food trucks, and the Carousel, plus breakfast at Saratoga, continuous entertainment during the day, and event venues. But even Saratoga doesn’t attract people once the races are over. They head to off track venues to have a nice dinner, drinks, or enjoy some nightlife. You have someone that just won a few hundred or a few thousand dollars and you’re going to let him spend it on a nice time somewhere else? Brilliant.

The people who manage tracks are not noted for thinking outside the box and they especially don’t get the new millennial gambler. Things have to change in a big way. You know what they say. Doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

Low Take, Full Fields

Most discussions of how we can improve horseracing start with lowering take and having full fields.

Lowering take is a no brainer. Actually, that may be a poor turn of phrase since tracks that lower take seem to be few and far between. Apparently you do need more brains than we are witnessing. While the majority of horseplayers recognize that lowering take will increase handle, and ultimately profits, most tracks resist the idea. The well known formula for gaming revenue is

Gaming Revenue = Volume  X  House Advantage

Thus, if you want to make more money you have two choices. Increase the house advantage while keeping volume the same, or increase the volume. Unfortunately, increasing the house advantage (or raising the take) usually has the effect of decreasing the volume. The arithmetic is the same whether we are talking about horseracing or table games or fantasy sports, and in the case of horseracing has been well documented. The more you take, the less you make. Unfortunately the only people who don’t know this are the legislature and the racing commission.

No sense in going through this again. I believe the horseplaying community is of one mind on lowering the take.

The full field discussion is a little more complicated. I totally agree that there are too many 4-6 horse fields, but would 12-14 horse fields in every race really be  an advantage for most horseplayers? What exactly do people mean when they say they want more full fields, and why do they believe it would be an advantage for THEM? I suspect it would make the more exotic horizontals (Pick 4/5/6) completely out of reach for the average player (there would be over 7.5 million combinations in a Pick-6 with all 14-horse fields and a hardly more manageable 3 million combinations with six 12-horse fields) and make trifectas and superfectas substantially more difficult to hit. Why? As I noted in my article, Risk Intelligence, most players are poor at handicapping for positions other than win and as you move down from win, the chances of even the longest shot in the race increase. In other words, a horse with a 5% chance of winning may have closer to a 15% chance of finishing in one of the first four slots. In a 14-horse field, there are over 24,000 combinations in the superfecta, half that many in a 12-horse field. In a 10 horse field there are only a little over 5,000 superfecta combinations. Most people can only cover a small subset of the possible combinations, and given a series of 12 or14 horse fields, it’s more likely people will be discouraged and opt out of those pools. You can’t make it too easy, but you can’t make it too hard either.

Yes, it’s likely the average payoffs will jump up with the larger fields, but it’s small consolation if you are one of the majority of players without a ticket. Anyone who has tried to hit superfectas in the Breeders Cup races knows exactly what I mean. Inevitably there is some 50-1 shot that finishes third and forces the overpay.

Frankly, I think the sweet spot for most races would be eight to ten starters, with most races closer to ten than eight. There is no reason to expect that a guy who goes to the track with $100 will suddenly start going to the track with $200 to cover more combinations. Eight to ten starters still gives the average player a fighting chance to hit horizontals and verticals.

Beyond that, I think the number of starters should be limited to ten per race (except stakes) because I believe that will increase churn. Slightly smaller payoffs, but more wins for the average player. The key question is, will larger payoffs attract more players when they are less likely to hit them, or will more frequent, but smaller collections have a greater impact on attracting players and increasing handle? Racing has been trying to compete with the lottery for decades, not understanding that their solid customer would be more likely to be loyal if he was winning more than occasionally. The game is better if it appears beatable with the right amount of skill. Ten starters is the best compromise between looking for big payoffs and making the game hittable enough to keep people churning.

I believe the problem is too many short fields, not too few full fields, if that makes sense. If you want to get into most of the horizontal and vertical fields you should be arguing to get rid of races (except stakes I suppose) with less than eight starters. And at 10 starters tracks may be able to more often split entries into two races instead of having 14 starters and six also eleigibles.

I’d be interested in counter arguments regarding why 12-14 horse fields would be better for racing.

Daily Handicapping

One of the people who follows my blog asked me about how I prepare for a daily card. Interestingly, the first article I ever wrote for American Turf Monthly was on that subject. I used the example of a golfer preparing to hit a shot. The best golfers have a routine they go through on every shot, and the routine doesn’t vary much from shot to shot. That consistency allows them to execute with maximum results. The advice I gave horseplayers – develop a routine that works and stick with it.

Here are some brief thoughts on various handicapping elements and how I view them.

If you need to spend two hours handicapping a card, either spend the time or don’t bet. Looking at past performances for two minutes before a race is a surefire formula for losing in the long run.

Before you dig into the race study the conditions and determine which horses fit the best. Know the class risers, the class droppers and be able to tell the difference between a positive drop and a negative drop. I love to look for horses with back class that are cycling up after being down for a while. Improving horses rising in level shouldn’t be discarded without proper consideration.

First, every race is it’s own puzzle and there is always a key to the race – just not necessarily the same key. Second, there’s nothing wrong with being a specialist – like only doing turf routes – or avoiding certain races – I know people that avoid maiden races. To be a good handicapper you have to be able find the right key in the race you are handicapping. I think of myself like Michael Phelps. His main stroke is the butterfly – mine would be turf races – but he can still kick butt in the individual medley. I believe I am just about as proficient at maiden races of all sorts, two year olds, and dirt routes. If there are races where I am weaker, it would be dirt sprints, but I’m still pretty good. Finally, if you are too mechanical in your handicapping you will miss a lot of opportunities. You have to be flexible and open to be a great handicapper.

I’m not going to tell you there is a single right way to handicap. I’ve been a pace handicapper for most of my career. Before handicappers had the depth of information available today, I custom made par times for the tracks I bet. It took hundreds of hours, but it was a great project for the winter. Par times allowed me to make daily variants, which allowed me to compare fractional times from one race to another. It allowed me to know that a horse that ran a 1:11 on a day that was four fifths slow was faster than a horse that ran 1:10.3 on a zero day. It allowed me to see that horses that ran adjusted times of :44.1 for the half and finished in 1:11.1 were likely better bets than horses that ran :45.3 and finished in 1:11, especially when all the crowd could see were the raw finish times in the Racing Form.

One of my favorite angles – the hidden fraction. Horses that run superior interior times – say from the quarter call to the stretch call in a sprint – without winning or fading disastrously are great horses to upgrade.

It has always been my approach that the final time a horse runs is a function of the interior pace of a race. That is why I believe the best friend a pace handicapper has are final time figures. Taken without context, they may or may not have value, but they often wind up pushing horses to lower odds. I love betting against horses that have good finish times off soft fractions.

When I first started handicapping there were no Beyers figures. The Daily Racing Form published a speed figure based on track records and a daily variant. I had some amazing years betting horses that I believed were the best in the race, but were ignored by the crowd. It was so much easier to beat the races back then!

Even if a figure gives you a leg up, you still have to handicap the race. I use two products to do my handicapping: DRF Formulator and Timeform. I print out the DRF past performances and the Timeform condensed sheet. I only buy one formulator card and one Timeform card because I only handicap one track in a day, almost always a NYRA track. I wind up spending less than people who have to buy an $8 racing form with multiple tracks.

I’m not going to talk anybody in or out of playing multiple tracks in a day, but I learned (the hard way) that I can only effectively handicap a certain number of races in a day. I also decided that being an expert at one track gives me an advantage over being merely above average at multiple tracks. I know the trainers, the riders, the biases intimately.That gives me an edge, and if there is one piece of advice I believe is critical it is that you have to have an  edge over the other players. I get why people like to play multiple tracks. When I did it I loved the action, but I also realized there were too many races where I was throwing money away. I remembered early in my career when I was winning consistently, I was only betting one track. I guess I’ve come full circle and I’m winning consistently again. If you can bet 20 races a day and stay afloat, I tip my hat to you, but I can’t.

You have to make up your mind. Is the payoff for you profit or the thrill of the action?

When I was a teaching Introduction to Geomorphology in college, one of the modules was mapping. If you’ve ever seen a USGS map, it has elevation countour lines that define relief in an area. I found people fell into two categories – those who could look at the map and actually “see” the landscape, and those who just saw lines on a page. The DRF works like that for me. I can scan the page and “see” different things, including patterns. I believe it is simply a function of having looked at thousands of racing forms. It’s an old habit and one I’m not likely to change. I also like that you can view charts and race replays with a click.

Remember pattens. I ask two questions: how fast is a horse, and do I think it can run that fast today? You can’t tell that simply by looking at the last race. You have to look at all the races, and decide which one is most representative of today’s race. I’m trying to figure out the race my horse is most likely to run today and whether that will be good enough to win.

I look for horses that are what I call “win types.” I often dismiss horses that are 2 for 36 out of hand, even if they have good figures. Usually 10% wins is the minimum I’ll accept on a horse. In maiden races I’ll often start by looking for horses that have four or fewer starts. And as horses get up to 10 starts without a win, I’ll downgrade them substantially, even if they have good figures. Same for winners – as they get to zero for their last 10, they’ll get downgraded regardless of numbers.

While I don’t consider myself much of a trip handicapper, there are two things I especially look for – trouble at the start and horses that break slow, rush up, and fade in the stretch, but not disastrously. Horses that have trouble out of the gate often are left with no winning strategy. That’s usually visible by looking at the comments and the running line. One of the best recommendations a horse can have is that it tried hard during the race, especially if he had the kind of trouble that would discourage most horses.

Still, it helps to watch replays of every race. You can often pick out subtle things that don’t show up in the comment line. During the 2015 Saratoga meeting I kept a daily log of horses to watch based on the replays and it produced some high priced winners. If nothing else it makes it easier to determine when the track is biased with regard to speed or running path.

I like the Timeform condensed printout because it allows me to see patterns at a glance. I can immediately spot a horse that ran figures in a recent race that don’t seem to fit, either way above or below its ability, but are likely to influence the crowd. I also think the Timeform pacefigures are as good as any numbers out there. But just like the Beyers, the horse with the highest figure doesn’t always win, and that is why you have to handicap. I also like that with Timeform you can see actual interior fractions for a respective horse at a glance.

I do look at the trainer. Trainers like Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher win a high percentage of races, and you have to make an evaluation of any horse they enter. There are also trainers that are consistently poor. Some trainers are great first off a claim. That will upgrade a horse. Some trainers do very well with first time starters, others rarely win with first timers. I’ll pretty much ignore Bill Mott first time, unless his horse is getting unusual action. Most trainers, like most people, will find patterns that they think are successful and repeat them, and it is up to the handicappers to identify them. Jockey switch, fast pre-race work, sprint to route – any of them could be the key to identifying a respective trainer pattern. Formulator can be great for finding those stats. I will upgrade or downgrade a horse based on the trainer.

I don’t place a lot of stock in who is riding a horse. I will look for jockey switches from a low ranked rider to a higher ranked one, but mostly for purposes of gauging trainer intent. You don’t engage a top rider unless you think your horse is live. But I have always believed it is 90% horse and 10% jockey, and that the jockey is more likely to lose on a live horse than win on a lesser animal. I’ve asked the question, how many jockeys could have ridden American Pharoah to victory in the Belmont? I suspect the answer is in the dozens. Pretty much the same with Runhappy in the Malibu. On the other hand, I don’t care who you put on Frosted in the Travers. He wasn’t beating AP. And giving Junior Alvarado more than 10% of the credit for Moreno’s victory in the 2014 Whitney won’t do. Plenty of jockeys could have sat on that horse on easy fractions and won the race.  If there is an advantage the best jockeys have, it is that they get the best horses, and vice versa. I would agree that the best jockeys don’t make as many riding mistakes – in other words, they don’t lose on horses that should be there at the wire. They can be physically superior – sitting chilly on a horse or helping it hold a line – but I still won’t overestimate the contribution of the jockey. In general, riders in the top 5-10 at a meet are indiscriminately backable if you think the horse they are on is the best in the race. One other thing I might consider – when a jockey has his choice of horses, I upgrade the chances of the horse he selects. I also believe any jockey that has successfully ridden a horse in the past can be backed regardless of where he is in the standings. In short, bet the horse, don’t worry too much about the jockey.

I always look at workouts, not so much for the times, but to demonstrate the health of a horse. There are trainers that like to work fast, and trainers that like to work moderately, and you have to know their patterns. One pattern I look for in first time starters is to see a quick work early in the sequence and conditioning works later. That tells me the horse has speed and should be in condition.

In turf races I give extra consideration to horses that have done well on a respective surface. Pace is also less important on the turf. The final fraction is important, but you have to be careful not to overrate it.

I like to assess where horses are in their form cycle. Horses cycling up get extra consideration.

Post position may or may not be important. I’ll downgrade horses breaking from the inside  that are likely to get buried on the rail. I don’t mind speed horses on the outside in sprints. They have a lot of run to get into position. I might downgrade outside horses on tight courses like the Saratoga inner turf.

Lone speed is still dangerous, turf or dirt. And track biases do develop on dirt. Pay attention to the early races and adjust for the later races if necessary.

I look for races where I can get down to three contenders. If I have five or six contenders in a race, it’ s not likely to be a good race to bet. Once I have my contenders I assign them win probabilities. Probabilities will vary based on the field. For example, the three horses may be assigned odds of 6/5, 3-1, 5-1. In that race, I think the top horse is very likely the winner  and I may be looking more at vertical bets, unless the crowd misses the top choice. The three horses may also be 5/2, 3-1, 7/2 on my line. In that case I’ll be looking for an overlay on any of the three horses.

I’ve said this on many occasions, but if you are selection oriented instead of value oriented, you have a far smaller chance of making profit. You have to be willing to bet the overlay even if it is not the top choice. I’ve had plenty of huge hits where my odds were 3-1. 7/2, 4-1, and the crowd sends the horse off at 2-1, 4/1, and 13-1 respectively. I’m pounding the 13-1 even though I think two horses have higher probabilities of winning. A lot of people don’t get this, but it is purely mathematical. If you are good at assigning probabilities (and after 40 years I’m very good at it) you are simply playing the odds. If your pick goes off at 13-1 and it has a 20% chance of winning, you have to win money in the long run. Stop trying to pick one horse and bet the overlay.

I’ve advised average players to distribute their bankroll 50-25-25, win-exacta-any other pool. You may not get rich quick, but you can win in the long run. The win and exacta pools are usually the largest pools in a respective race and have the lowest take. The final 25% allows you to get into some higher paying horizontal pools, but the overal ratio makes for much better bankroll management. Frankly, unless you are highly capitalized, you have no business in most of the Pick-5/6 pools. Betting this way, you don’t need a huge bankroll to play from week to week, and you can focus your money better. I’d much rather have $100 in the win and exacta pools on an overlay than have it in a Pick-4 pool that I have a 10% chance of hitting.

Handicapping a race requires a lot of what I think of as muscle memory. They say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, and there is no substitute for putting in the time. It is also frustrating. You’ll have a lot more failure than success, but if you stick to it eventually that turns around. You have to learn to see things that others do not in the data, and you need to put the information together in ways the crowd doesn’t in order to separate yourself.

My hope for the new year is that everyone gets better at handicapping and betting. If I can help I’m glad to.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays

This will be my last blog for a while. Not because I have run out of things to say – that’s not likely to ever happen – but because for a few days I won’t be in any shape to see the page. Don’t worry. I won’t be gone long.

It is ironic that the theme of Christmas is Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men. Based on world events, it feels like we’ve never been farther from those ideals. There are many reasons why we find ourselves in what seems to be a depressing time, some obvious some mysterious, but the solutions involve radical commitments from everyone on all sides. I’d give up all the Christmas presents and my favorite meal of the year – spiral ham and lasagne with Sicilian Cassata for dessert – for just a few things on my world Christmas list:

Tolerance. As long as you believe anyone with an opposing view is wrong and deserves to be villified, you will resolve no problems. It is trite, but you can disagree without being disagreeable. And you can certainly disagree without mass shooting innocent people to make your point.  There are far too many sins committed in the name of intolerance, and far too many times we embarass ourselves by our poor behavior toward others. Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. That being said,

Facts must count for more than opinion and ideology. If there is anything that can be put in the “just plain dumb” bin it is arguing that facts and opinions are equivalent. History is full of such examples, and modern people laugh at the foolishness of our ancestors. Galileo proved the earth revolves around the sun, but that did not stop the Church from threatening him with heresy for publishing such lies. The earth was proven round at a time when the vast majority of people believed it was flat. The list goes on and on, and had the people who believed that evil spirits caused disease prevailed, we may have never realized modern medicine. In the world today, discussions surrounding the possibility of long term climate change regularly deteriorate into name calling diatribes; yet in this case there are observations and facts that should form the basis for any debate. And a snowball brought to the floor of the Senate in the middle of winter does not consitutute relevant fact or observation. Do I have a solid idea whether the national debt will destroy America? Am I certain raising the minimum wage will increase or decrease unemployment? Do I have a clue whether bombing ISIS into dust will solve all of America’s security problems? No, but I believe there are some really smart experts who would provide facts to inform a debate, if not give us a definitive answer. If you’ve closed your mind to facts because they conflict with your opinion, then you are the problem. That being said,

Education and training are the answers to a lot of problems. Look, the educational system in America is not broken beyond all repair. We still turn out some incredibly bright and capable people. Foreign students still come to America to study. But what we don’t do is prepare every student for the world in front of them. We are finally coming to the realization that you cannot test kids into performing better in school. What we haven’t realized is that school does not have to be so heavily focused on preparation for college. How about a system where after a student’s high school sophomore year, he or she gets to declare for the final two years, either college prep or a vocation? Now we know if we had the school districts be fully responsible for vocational training the options would be as limited as they are now. Instead, how about we use the existing private technical schools and community colleges that offer a wide suite of options. If you’ve ever watched daytime TV (which apparently the unemployed do) there are lots of commercials for schools offering just about everything you can think of, including free placement. Even if only two students in the school district want to be dental hygienists, they can go to the vocational school that offers it. The school district makes a deal with the vocational school to pay a per pupil fee, and it certainly would be a lot less than normal tuition. Here are the plusses:

  • The student has the absolute ability to decide which path he/she takes. The interminable testing is irrelevant. You want college prep? You’re in. You want to be a legal assistant, you’re in.
  • Let’s say 25% of the kids opt for the vocational path. That’s potentially fewer teachers (I won’t say 25% fewer because it can correct poor teacher/pupil ratios), fewer buildings to maintain, fewer school busses, and maybe even lower taxes.
  • The dropout rate has to decrease substantially. Those last two years when students turn 16 are the critical times. If they see school as a waste of time, they will drop out with no skills and lower prospects. By offering them vocational training you have a chance to make their futures much brighter.
  • School districts could offer specialized arts schools that are beyond current budgets. In larger metro areas multiple school districts can combine on schools for dance, music, art or theater.
  • The vocational students can get training without undertaking the burden of crushing debt.
  • Classrooms can become more challenging places because the remaining students will be highly motivated to be there. Teachers can challenge students more. They can better prepare them for college, or even offer more college course so they can graduate from college in less than four years with less of the debt students are accumulating.

You see the point. Under that sort of system you cater to closer to 100% of the kids than just the college prep students. What could make more sense? Doesn’t cost more, has better overall results.

Education is the great equalizer. It opens doors and creates opportunities. But you cannot force everyone into the same channel. You have to create options. There are many really good jobs that don’t require a college degree as long as there is opportunity.

Of course the greatest value of education and training is that it is harder to be purposely ignorant. You up your chances of making better decisions. Chances are increased that people will see which solutions to problems are best. And you up your chances of not having to rely simply on rote ideology to drive your positions.

This is no less the solution in places like Afghanistan or Syria. You are going to have a much harder time recruiting someone to die if they have potential and opportunity. Regardless of how you figure it out, education from kindegarten to college should be affordable enough that no one who wants the opportunity would be denied based primarly on cost. That being said,

Do not let fear drive you. Yeah there are people in places like the middle east, Pakistan, Afghanistan and even in our own country who wish us the worst, and we should be serious about keeping ourselves safe. But how likely is it that you’ll make a good decision when you are in the throes of fear? It has been said many times that the object of terrorists is to instill fear, to make us give up our rights as Americans, and to act out of panic. If we choose to let non-specific, over the top rhetoric drive the disccussion we are likely to create more problems than we solve. Yes, anything can happen to anybody at any time, and it is good to be aware, but it is far more important to show fanatics that they will never win by scaring us into abandoning the values that still make America the destination for those seeking a better life. And those mongering in fear should be seen as far less concerned about the forces of evil than they are about gaining or expanding their own power. You cannot kill an idea with all the guns and armor in the world, especially one as strong as that embodied by the poem on the statue of liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

And that being said, finally,

Remember you aren’t here all by yourself. I hope you aren’t one of the people who will have a rough Christmas because of some adversity, but especially at this time of the year it is important to remember the less fortunate. There are so many great ways to share your good fortune with others and I hope you take the time to show someone less fortunate that the Christmas spirit is alive and well.

For all those who enjoy following my blog, I wish you a wonderful holiday season, and health and prosperity in 2016. Be back soon.

Betting Horses for Profit

Good horseplayers bet to win. Bad horseplayers bet not to lose.

Statistically fewer than five percent of regular horseplayers win in the long term. There are two things within the horseplayer’s control that determine winning or losing: handicapping and betting. In this book there will be very little discussion about handicapping. There are many horseplayers who are adequate, if not very good handicappers, and in my opinion handicapping deficiencies are secondary to betting deficiencies. If nothing else, there are scores of exceptional public handicappers that publish selections daily if you’d prefer to get a head start on the selection process. Bankroll mismanagement, being in the wrong pools, and poor betting strategy are far more responsible, in my opinion, for money loss than poor handicapping.

There are also things beyond a horseplayer’s control that can affect the outcome of races: the ride a jockey gives the horse; illegal, performance enhancing medication; decisions by the stewards; and something I’ll call bad racing luck. Even given the presence of these external factors, the greatest part of winning and losing is within the control of the horseplayer.

The first part of the book will deal exclusively with external factors. Some of America’s best jockeys will talk about race riding and answer these and other questions all horseplayers have. How much of success or failure goes to the horse versus the jockey? How often are winning horses stymied by poor racing tactics? What are the differences between the top riders and the ones lower in the standings? What are the differences between riding on the turf and the dirt?

Racing stewards from different jurisdictions will discuss how decisions to disqualify (or not disqualify) are made and what they look for during the running of a race.

Owners, trainers, racing officials, veterinarians, scientists, equine pharmacologists, and veteran horseplayers will provide the basis for a discussion of drugs in racing, including the most discussed medication, Lasix.

Bad racing luck – stumbling at the start, losing a jockey, taking a bad step – is nothing the horseplayer can control, but I’ll talk about how often those sorts of things affect a race outcome.

The second half of the book will focus on bankroll management, which pools are best for your bankroll, and the most effective way to bet once you’ve selected a pool – everything you need to turn yourself into a consistent winner.

I’m busy working on the background now and I hope to have it to the publisher by late spring. For now, anyone who has questions they’d like to see answered or input on any of the topics feel free to contact me.