Elevating Turf Racing in America

Bob Ehalt wrote an interesting piece (linked here) on whether there should be a turf triple crown. Mr. Ehalt points out that with the addition of the Belmont Derby this weekend to the perennially run Secretariat Stakes at Arlington in August, we already have two legs of a potential three race series.

HIs point is very well taken. Racing needs to constantly find ways to generate fan interest.

The great thing about the Derby, Preakness and Belmont is that even casual fans have an interest in those races, in part because for close to a hundred years they have been part of American sports lore, like the World Series or the Superbowl. The Triple Crown races are a tradition. Do you think 150,000 fans show up at Churchill Downs because of the importance and popularity of horseracing? No, it is always a milestone event and a helluva party. And if one horse manages to capture the first two legs, the Belmont even gets a mention on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters, usually four guys who together watch fewer races in a year than I watch in a week.

Any series of races would have to fill a hole. That is exactly what the Breeder’s Cup did. It settled a lot of the arguments about which horse was best in which category. It was also a great made-for-TV event.

Perhaps to racing enthusiasts a turf triple crown makes sense, but to all those people who are horseracing fans two days a year (Kentucky Derby and Breeder’s Cup) what reason would they have to care about it? To a degree this sort of thing regularly pops up. Remember the handicap triple crown in New York – the Metropolitan, the Brooklyn and the Suburban? They still run those races but they are not really linked anymore. Remember the Strub series – the Malibu, the San Fernando and the Strub. Those races don’t attract nearly the depth they used to. How about the Triple Tiara (the old filly triple crown) – the Acorn, the CCA Oaks and the Alabama? There is only one Triple Crown, and they pretty much hold the patent on the three race series.

I’m not decrying the idea. I think this is exactly the sort of thing horseracing fans need to do – suggest ways to give the sport greater exposure. And there is certainly nothing wrong with doing it as soon as a third leg is identified. If the point is, we need to elevate 3 year-old turf racing, as my previous two posts indicate, turf racing overall is second class in America. If it is going to be elevated, breeders need to stop ceding turf breeding to the Europeans, tracks need to build better turf courses, and fans need to be just as excited about turf racing as they are about the well-known dirt races.

Handicapping Factors for the Turf

Because pace and speed are very different from turf to dirt, it is important to develop a more specialized approach to turf handicapping. The following principles should go a long way toward making you more successful as a turf player

  1. In graded races, class is critical. To put it another way, Grade I horses beat Grade II horses, and Grade II horses beat Grade III horses. I have a fairly simple method of assessing class level. A horse must have finished first or second in a respective Graded race where at least a third of the runners would qualify at that grade level. So in a nine horse, Grade I field, at least three of the runners should have Grade I credentials. The exception to this rule is the rapidly improving three year old. A three year old that has steadily and impressively moved through his conditions should be given every consideration once he enters a graded race.
  2. Once a turf runner gets into shape, he tends to stay there for a while. In fact, it is not unusual to see a turf horse run the same figure over and over for five or six races in a row. As a general rule, once a turf horse establishes an ability level during the season, it is obvious and predictable. As I noted above, since turf racing is less destructive physically on a horse, it is easier to maintain a regular training and racing regimen.
  3. Monitor where the inner rail is set on the turf course. Tracks regularly move the inner rail to prevent the turf course from wearing down on the interior lanes. For example, the inner turf rail at Saratoga was set at nine feet the second weekend of the 2010 meeting and 18 feet the third weekend. This change obviously makes comparing times more difficult. On a turf course of one mile, moving the rail out nine feet means horses will have to run about 30 additional feet. This translates to about three and a half lengths or seven tenths of a second. More than that, the extended rail exacerbates the advantage the inside or fast-breaking horses have.
  4. Turf races are run at a much different pace than dirt races. High-octane speed horses such as Presious Passion are the exception on the turf. Turf runners are much better at relaxing during the race, generally making their moves in the last three-eighths of a mile, which is why it is common for turf races to finish with most of the field within a few lengths of each other. Most handicappers look for horses with the ability to run impressively in the final three-eighths. This is important, but you have to be careful not to overrate this statistic. It may not matter if a horse can run a final three-eighths in 30 seconds if you believe he will have 10 lengths to make up at that point. Determine how the race is likely to be run and assess each respectively horse accordingly. Don’t let ability to run a fast final fraction wholly drive a betting decision.
  5. Ratable lone speed is even more dangerous on the turf, regardless of the distance. In fact, the longer the race, the bigger the advantage. Presious Passion was a freak in the 2009 Breeder’s Cup turf, but a good example of how speed can change a race. I’ve caught some great prices on horses who establish a three length lead on a 1:15 pace on a firm turf and stubbornly keep the closers at bay.
  6. When you are considering an experienced dirt horse starting for the first time on the turf AT SIX FURLONGS OR LESS, don’t worry about turf breeding as long as the horse has shown quality front-running ability on the dirt. There are three reasons for this. First, most dirt races have a faster pace than most turf races, so the front running dirt horse has that advantage. Second, turf sprints are just too short to have the differences between the dirt and turf surfaces be as significant. By the time the advantages of breeding kick in, the race is over. Finally, as I previously mentioned, horses will hold their speed longer on the turf.
  7. Anyone who spent time around New York racing has heard the phrase “Samyn on the Green.” This was a reference to long time rider Jean Luc Samyn’s attributed skill riding the turf. I’m not knocking Samyn’s riding ability, but I do have a suspicion that if his name had been Jean Luc Picard he would not have garnered quite the same reputation. In horseracing, if reputation gets a jockey some better mounts, more power to him, but handicappers should maintain a healthy skepticism about living on legend. In any case, I do believe that a jockey is important in turf racing, but neither horses, jockeys, nor trainers should get extra points because their name rhymes with turf, lawn, sod, green, or grass.

A good jockey creates one specific advantage: he knows how to keep his horse clear of trouble when it is time to move. Remember I mentioned how turf horses will often race under cover? Mediocre riders will turn that into a horse being blocked while premier jockeys always find a lane. But whether talking about the turf or the dirt, the best jockeys usually get the best horses and wind up with the best statistics.

While this is not an exhaustive survey I checked jockey statistics for the 2013 Saratoga meeting. The table below generally underscores that good jockeys are good jockeys whether the surface is turf or dirt, although Javier Castellano and Jose Lezcano did seem to find the turf especially to their liking, but then again they seemed to be the choice of the top trainers. One thing seems to reinforce the other. The bottom line—feel good if you have a competent rider on your horse, but start with believing the horse is a likely winner.

Jockey Wins Main Wins Turf
Javier Castellano 28 38
John R. Velasquez 30 16
Joel Rosario 23 18
Irad Ortiz, Jr. 14 14
Junior Alvarado 13 14
Jose Lezcano 5 19
Jose Ortiz 13 11
Cornelio Velasquez 10 13
Rosie Napravnik 14 5
Luis Saez 7 8
Jose L. Espinoza 7 10
joseph Rocco, Jr. 10 5

 

  1. There is a great story told about Elston Howard, a catcher for the Yankees in the 50’s and 60’s. In 1963 he was having an MVP season. He credited hitting coach Wally Moses with his success. When pressed about that he said, “Wally don’t make you hit like him. He makes you hit like you.” In the same way, a good trainer figures out how to get the most out of each of his runners by using the horse’s natural abilities to their greatest advantage.

Great trainers are great trainers regardless of surface, but there are definitely trainers who specialize. In California, Neil Drysdale and the late Bobby Frankel were well known for having stables loaded with turf runners. On the east coast, Bill Mott, Jonathan Sheppard and Christophe Clement garner most of their wins in turf races. Do these trainers have an advantage? Sure. If you own a good turf horse it makes a lot of sense to give the horse to a turf specialist. They get good turf horses because they have good reputations and they have good reputations because they get good turf horses.

While there is temptation to overvalue a horse trained by a turf specialist, my advice is always to assess the horse first, then the trainer, then the jockey. And never feel bad about favoring a first rate turfer with a first rate trainer, even if that trainer isn’t a so-called turf specialist.

Up above I mentioned a trainer angle I look for based on the knowledge that grass racing is physically easier on a horse. Sometimes trainers with sore-legged dirt runners will move them to the turf for a few races. They have no interest in permanently switching surfaces, but this move will keep the horses in condition while giving them a chance to heal. When they move the horse back to the dirt, don’t ignore them just because there are a few clunkers on an unfavored surface in their past performances.

Racing on the Turf in America

In America, turf racing has long been secondary to dirt racing. Consider the following facts:

  • Of the 111 listed Grade I races in 2014, just 33 are run on the turf. That’s about 30%.
  • Just about all American turf courses do not have proper drainage systems. Whereas in Europe turf races are run in all conditions, a soaking rain causes most turf races in America to be moved to the main track, inevitably causing a slew of scratches and a ridiculous ploy to fill the field by including “Main Track Only” runners. It is very frustrating for trainers to map out a turf season only to have the weather too often intervene.
  • The American breeding industry focuses on producing runners with a focus on speed (see my blog on whether route races are going the way of the dodo). In the same respect, the most promoted races are invariably on dirt (or synthetic). Ask the average racing fan to name the ten top races of the year (other than the Breeder’s Cup) and it is unlikely there will be a turf race included.
  • It is well known that the best turf horses are better off racing in Europe where the purses and prestige are much greater. Conversely, many European horses that come to America do so for softer competition, not to mention the availability of Lasix and the lighter weights American runners carry.

I haven’t seen a survey on this, but based on my experience, handicappers who have a preference for turf racing would be ecstatic if the daily numbers of dirt versus turf races were reversed. Why? It isn’t that turf races are more predictable or easier to handicap. I think it is the inherent idiosyncrasies of turf racing. For handicappers, uncertainty leads to value, and the idiosyncrasies of turf racing create enough uncertainty that prices still abound. I believe the same factors that make turf racing America’s racing step-child also create opportunity

The Difference Between Turf and Dirt 

Grass is a better surface for horses. Period. The reason is that ON DIRT OR SYNTHETICS HORSES TEND TO SLIDE. The surface on the dirt track is fairly loose, and when the horse’s foot hits the ground it skids forward. This skidding, subtle as it may look during a race, places additional stress on the ligaments and joints in the leg, inevitably leading to soreness and injury. On the firm turf, on the other hand, the horse’s foot will start to slide but will quickly be stopped by the roots of the grass, giving the horse a solid hold and reducing the strain on the leg. In my next blog piece I will tell you how some trainers use this difference when dealing with some sore-legged dirt horses.

A second difference is that turf courses have multiple (and sometimes strange) configurations, and certain horses demonstrate a clear liking for those configurations. There is no better example than the six and a half furlong turf course at Santa Anita with its downhill run, right hand turn and stretch that crosses the main track. Horses that have demonstrated success on that course have a decided advantage. Tracks can also change the circumference of the course by moving the inner rail in and out. That NEVER happens on a dirt oval.

Some tracks (Saratoga and Belmont come to mind) also have inner turf courses. These configurations with their tighter turns give a decided advantage to horses that can gain position on the first turn.

A third difference is that turf runners do not have to suffer clods of dirt pelting them in the face throughout the race. This is critical because it allows runners to travel closer to their rivals. In fact, the ideal turf trip is to “cover up,” drafting behind horses much like harness horses do and then looking for a lane for the stretch run. Dirt horses either back off the front runners to avoid the bombardment of dirt, or simply look for clear lanes in which to run. How often have you watched a turf race where all the runners are bunched? It only happens because it is not uncomfortable to be in close quarters on the turf.

Finally, turf courses do not have “lanes, ” and thus biases. The turf tends to be far more even than the dirt from rail to rail. A horse that is clear in the lane will win or lose based on running ability, not whether he found the golden part of the track.

The Turf Horse

Everybody recognizes that certain sires produce superior turf runners. Horses such as Dynaformer, City Zip, El Prado, and Giant’s Causeway are well known as superior turf sires. This fact is critically important—once or maybe twice. Once a horse has proven turf ability, it doesn’t matter if it has a 221 Tomlinson number or is by Mr. Ed out of My Friend Flicka. As Groucho Marx once quipped, “Who are you going to believe? Me or your own eyes?”

Trainers do not all agree on the characteristics that make certain horses take to the turf, but the two most often discussed are stride and foot size. Horses with a higher action (an up and down stride as opposed to a longer, sweeping stride) are favored by many trainers. Horses with this high stride are often thought to be “skipping” over the turf (sensible live, but a strange visual to imagine). Many years ago I heard an even simpler explanation, which I’m not sure is true but certainly sounds good—horses with a higher stride avoid dragging their foot through the grass, thus expending less energy. That very efficient long, sweeping stride on the dirt is a major disadvantage on the turf.

Foot size is a bit more difficult to evaluate, but there is a still a pervasive belief that horses with larger feet run better on the grass or wet surfaces. This may be because the larger feet create better stability for the horse, or perhaps because they better absorb the shock of each stride. Regardless of these interesting differences, it is still most important to remember that once a horse has proven its ability, Tomlinson numbers, stride or foot size are of far reduced importance.

Finally, faint-hearted horses on the dirt will often forget to stop on the turf. My general rule of thumb is that horses can usually coax an extra furlong of speed going from dirt to turf.

The next blog will talk about factors that will help your turf handicapping.

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 Timeformus.com.

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 PaceFigures.com. 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 PlayersBoycott.com, 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?

Late Pick-4 Belmont June 29

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

RACE 6

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

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

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

“A” Horses -2, 6

“B” Horse – 4

Race 7

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

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

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

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

“A” Horse – 5

“B” Horses – 1,3,4,9

“C” Horse – 2

Race 8

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

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

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

“A” Horses – 2,3,6

“B” Horses – 1,4

“C” Horses – 5,7

Race 9

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

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

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

“A” Horses – 8,10

“B” Horses – 7,9

“C” Horse – 2

Maybe Dumbass Has a Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Route Races on the Way Out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betting Menus Approaching Cheesecake Factory Size

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out this great blog on exotic betting by Ray Paulick

http://www.paulickreport.com/news/ray-s-paddock/exotic-bets-are-racetracks-headed-down-the-wrong-path/