Sunday, December 22, 2013

Things I Would Like to See in 2014 (But Probably Won't)

The following post comes from View From the Racetrack Grandstand and is being used with permission.  Since the list is long, it has been edited (and renumbered) for brevity to focus solely on the gambling angle.  If you want to read the entire list, you can check the complete blog entry here. 

1.    Some track(s) to reduce takeout rates on something other than Pick-4s or Superfectas
2.      Exchange wagering to finally come to California harness racing, and then quickly come to New Jersey.
 
 3.  Free ‘basic’ program pages available on American Racetrack websites.  I have no problem with people having to pay for advanced programs but if we want people to even sample the sport, we need to give them something to look at.   Names don't cut it.

 4.  4NJBets.com (or put in your ADW) to cover some additional tracks (such as Fraser Downs).  While we are at it, how about some foreign harness racing.  No, I don’t expect it to be on television, but over the Internet, how expensive can it be?  At least the classics such as the Prix d’Amerique and the Elitlopp. .

 5.  A Fair Start Rule (Definitely not holding my breath on this one).


 6.  Legislators coming to their sense in Illinois and pass the ADW bill.  Why we are at it, why do you insist on a sunset provision?
 

  7.  Racetracks and their own ADWs show some love to the little player.  Look, I understand the larger players pay the bills but the smaller player deserve some type of rebates.  Instead of 3% back, give them 1% back.  Instead of crediting them it back daily, do it quarterly.  The point is give them something tangible back; something to let them know you appreciate their business.  And please, make it a wagering credit, a free program after spending $250 doesn't cut it. 

  8.  Stop this nonsense of having state governments assessing domestic market fees on out of state ADWs to get the customers YOU LOST back.  If your ADW offered rebates like the out of state ADWs, you wouldn't need the state to get your customers back.  Compete for your customers and win them back.  Instead of having the state tax out of state ADWs, lobby them to give you a percentage of the pari-mutuel tax for rebates. 

  9.  An understanding of the criteria for getting licensed in California.  Do they check on prior records or are they that desperate for warm bodies that a warm body is the criteria?

10.  How about a percentage of the takeout going towards horse retirement/placement in second careers when they are done and publicize the fact it's being done.  In some jurisdictions some money is being used exactly for that but it's treated like a state secret; that's not smart.

11.  Horsemen who worry more about how many people are in the stands than they do about how much slot revenue they may get or not get.


12.  Require horsemen to wager.  Of course, not on their horses but they should be required to wager at least $1,000 over a year using a card which can be used to track the wagers.  You would be surprised how many horse owners and others don't bet the races.  I won't speculate why but maybe if they wagered on the races they would appreciate what the gambler goes through.  Maybe then they would understand why we are not happy with the way things are.


13.  Judges to finally recognize the lunacy of transferring horses to a second trainer when the regular trainer gets suspended and stop approving them.

14.  The end of seeing horses consistently race lackluster in eliminations and then turn into bear cats the following week.
 

15.  Get rid of earning your post position based on your finish in the elimination.  You say it's not fair to draw the outside when you win the elimination, but you had no problem when someone else drew the outside in the elimination and had to race their heart out hoping to advance to the final.  Earning post positions is utter bull, well you get the idea.  If a random draw is good enough for an elimination, it should be good enough for the final.  

16.  Consistency when it comes to exclusions.  I'm all for a private track operator to show 'undesirable' people the door, but while it is a good tool for the operator, you can't help but wonder why one person gets to race while someone else is banished to the hinterlands when the individuals seem to be having similar situations.  It gives the appearance of playing favorites which hurts credibility.
 
17.  Cooperation between area tracks so that simulcast viewers could watch a race every 5 minutes, instead of 3 races going off at the same time and then waiting 15 minutes for another 3 races that go off at the same time.

18.  Continuing on a cooperation and coordination theme, do we need to have Harrah's, Meadowlands, Pocono Downs, and Yonkers Raceway all racing at the same time?  First of all there is not that much demand for the product and secondly, you are watering down the racing stock available at each track.  Coordinate the meets instead of slugging it out against each other and not only will the racing be better but your handles will increase (especially if you get rid of your extortion-like takeout rates Pennsylvania).
 

19.  Races to go off at post time with the countdown clock like they have in Sweden and the WEG tracks.  If the race is held up, it should be no more than two minutes (Remember USTA Rule 16 Section 10?)
 

    § 16.10 Holding Horses Before Start.—Horses may be held on the backstretch not to exceed 2 minutes awaiting post time except when delayed by an emergency.. 

20.  Exciting camera angles like they have in France.  Gosh, if there is anything less exciting in sports presentation-wise than horse racing, I would like to know it.  How about some camera angles from the inside of the track and close ups of horses in the turns.  Make the presentation of the race like the bettor is actually in it.

21.  Free Wi-Fi.  Block the wagering sites except your own if you wish, but maybe I want to be able to check on things at the other tracks.

22.  In the future, should any more tracks get alternate gaming, have racing and/or gaming commissions require permit holders to upgrade the racing-side of the facilities and not just backstretch improvements.  No, I don't expect each track to make the grandstand look as luxurious as the casino part of the facility but just the same, some amount of upgrading of the grandstand is reasonable.  I'm sick and tired of walking through some beautiful casino into a grandstand that looks like Newark, NJ after the race riots.  Remember, you sold alternative gaming as a way to save horse racing so asking you to do something more than applying a fresh coat of paint is not unreasonable.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cal Expo - Late Action at a Good Rate

Did you know since Cal Expo opened it's 2013-2014 harness meet, horseplayers have been able to take advantage of low takeout rates and reduced minimums?

That's right.  Horseplayers have been able to play Trifectas and Pick-4 wagers in 20-cent denominations.    This move follows the success WEG Entertainment Group has had with reduced minimums in Ontario.  In California, these reduced denominations are offered only on racing at Cal-Expo, not the thoroughbred tracks in the Golden State.

In addition to the reduced minimums, Cal Expo is continuing to offer a low 16% takeout rate on the Pick-5, Pick-4 and Super High-5 wagers, while continuing to offer 10-cent minimums on the Superfecta and Super High-5.

This week, Cal Expo will be racing only on Saturday evening.  Starting November 1, racing resumes its Friday and Saturday night schedule.

 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Now I Get It

The following us adapted from an entry which appeared on the View From the Racetrack Grandstand blog. 

Living in New Jersey, I didn't appreciate the frustration of gamblers not being able to play their favorite track.  After all, 4NJBETS.COM was run by the state and the general rule was what the tracks and OTWs had on their calendar was what was available for the only legal ADW in New Jersey.  Why worry about what you can't control?

Then TVG came in 'to power' 4NJBETS.COM, basically making NJ's legal ADW system another flavor of TVG.  Now that I see what TVG provides and 4NJBETS.COM doesn't provide, I am beginning to understand the frustration gamblers in other states deal with and why many of them have multiple wagering accounts to play their favorite tracks.  To be honest, the situation may be worse because my interest falls more into 'blue collar racing', wagering on minor league tracks.  So far, this is what I have observed.


  • Gold Cup and Saucer card at Charlottetown not carried.this year after being available for two years.
  • Delaware County Fair (Little Brown Jug).  Available for wagering at the tracks and OTWs in state but not on 4NJBETS.COM.
  • Fraiser Downs.  The regular TVG website shows wagers accepted on the British Columbia racetrack as long as you are not in New Jersey.  To be fair, it was never available in New Jersey before but I would love a West Coast harness track to play.
  • Cal Expo.  NJAW has had Cal Expo on their card for years and with a friend's horse racing last night, I went to place a bet only to find 'No Live Racing' today on Cal Expo while a friend in California is able to wager on the races.  If you were at the Meadowlands or their OTW location, you could play the Sacramento track.
 Why this transpires in New Jersey, I am not sure but I find it particularly frustrating.  After all, why can my fellow harness fans play these tracks in other states while New Jersey players are denied?  Making it worse, being 4NJBETS.COM is 'powered by TVG', why can certain tracks be shown by TVG in one state but not another?  Why can a NJ racetrack and OTW network carry a certain signal but NJ's only legal ADW not carry it?  Good questions indeed.

So those of you who find similar situations in your states or just have an ADW refuse to carry a signal you want, requiring you to have multiple accounts, I finally understand your pain and now appreciate the lunacy of it all.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Announcing Breeders Crown Handiapping Contest



The Breeders Crown, in cooperation with 1-2-3 Racing is sponsoring the 1-2-3 Breeders Crown Challenge, a free handicapping contest where the winner can earn a cool $2,000 with additional prizes being awarded for the second, third place finishers as well as the person with the most winners selected.

Enrollment in the contest is now open with selections due no later than 30 minutes prior to the first Crown event on October 19.  The contest site is http://www.breederscrownchallenge.com.






The Breeders Crown logo and brand is owned by the Hambletonian Society, logo used with permission.  123 Racing is owned by 123racing.com, their logo is used with permission.  All rights are reserved.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Blood Passports and Testing: The Sport Should Rally Around Jeff Gural






I was surfing the web last week and came across an ad on Equine Now for the drug ITPP. The rather creepy looking drug that is long-banned was brazenly being advertised for all to see. As if a picture and description wasn’t enough, this “reputable” business also lets you know in the ad that they sell “party powders, bath salts, and pills”.   

Wonderful. Not only do we have to look for their products on backstretches, but in America’s neighborhoods, too.


We’ve read stories the past few weeks here in Harness Racing Update and elsewhere about Jeff Gural’s new initiative with a hired investigator, and the problems some have with it. I agree with some of the criticisms, but I must say after reading that ITPP ad it got me to thinking: This is what Jeff Gural is up against. I think his plan to add a deterrent, any deterrent, whether it be out of competition testing, investigators, barn searches or good old fashioned police work can help. Or at the very least it certainly can’t hurt. 


Cycling has played a cat and mouse game with drugs like this for many years.  They tested, and tested, and interviewed and interviewed. Cyclists were mum and the tests were always one step behind.  In addition, there was no way to test for a blood transfusion, causing even more consternation for the sport. Modern cycling, as the Lance Armstrong affair pointed out, was pure poison.


Over the last several years cycling began to tackle the problems differently. Yes, they developed an EPO test, not unlike the one used in racing, but they also added a biological passport. 


According to Sportsscientists.com, the biological passport concept “is that regular measurements of certain blood variables, like the percentage of reticulocytes, hemoglobin, and a calculated score called the Off-score, can point towards blood doping. The principle is that it is possible to detect the effects of doping without ever having to find the drug."

Through out of competition testing, a profile of each rider is constructed, and any huge peak or valley triggers an investigation.  There was no guilt, no smoking gun, but the riders knew that someone was watching.


What happened was fascinating. After years of cat and mouse, the cat opened its jaws and started catching some mice –and never once with a positive test 

This graph shows completed tests in cycling since 2001, broken down in several ways.  The green bars represent the probable presence of EPO. The pink bars represent blood doping via a transfusion. As you can clearly see, in 2001 and 2002 the bulk of samples indicated EPO. In 2003, directly after an EPO test was developed, the green lines were replaced by pink ones. It’s surmised that cyclists changed their behaviour from EPO to transfusions in response to the new EPO urine test. What perhaps is most interesting is that the gross number of potential dopers remained virtually unchanged after the EPO test was developed; these riders just moved on to something else illegal.


Then in 2008, in came the blood passport. Both EPO and transfusion positive indicators fell precipitously. Because the riders had nowhere left to turn, no matter what drug they used, they had to stop.


In three separate instances, cyclists changed their method of operation, and it seems to have gotten to the point where the end is finally near. Not only are there fewer and fewer cloudy tests, cyclists are no longer being silent. Racers like Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, along with a reluctant Lance Armstrong, have told the world their stories. The passport not only has reduced drug use, it has started to change the culture.

This progression has not seemed to come full circle in racing like it has in cycling. If bad trainers were using EPO, maybe they could switch to Aranesp. After EPO/DPO testing had been perfected, maybe then they could switch to ITPP. Maybe tomorrow it will be something else. It’s still heavily cat and mouse. 


Out of competition testing and blood passports would probably help close this circle, but some horsemen groups seem to be against this ideal, in an “us versus them” brotherhood of sorts, which is curious since everyone should be on the same side with this issue. Some farms are not overly happy with an investigator on the grounds, too. Unlike in cycling, there are clear, concise roadblocks.


So, what’s a guy to do?


Jeff Gural does not have a multi-million dollar budget, nor does he have the finest scientific team on earth working up in Pegasus in a secret lab. He does not have the backing of an industry or horsemen groups. He doesn’t have a blood passport to encourage clean racing, but he does have an investigator and a will.  I suspect that he is hoping that adding another arrow in the quiver will help change behaviour – just like the biological passport does - whether a farm stands by him or not. I suspect he’s hoping that if someone wants to race at the Meadowlands who is doping, they’ll go somewhere else to race. I suspect he’s hoping that if it works, other track owners and jurisdictions will follow suit, and the game will get cleaner. 


I say good for him. Without a blood passport and a sport willing to get its hands dirty and air its laundry for all to see like cycling has, it’s all the guy has left. This sport should be behind him.


This article originally appeared in Harness Racing Update and is reprinted with permission.

Why Don’t Thoroughbred Fans Embrace Harness Racing & Can Anything Be Done About It? Part II


This article originally appeared in Harness Racing Update and is reprinted with permission of HRU.

In Part I we interviewed some dedicated thoroughbred players, or those who only dabble in harness racing, and asked them why they don’t play harness racing, or watch it more often. If you missed it, it’s here. The answers were interesting and eye-opening. In Part II we’ll analyze those answers and look at some of their suggestions. 

I was visiting Keeneland several years ago and had dinner with Mike Maloney, the professional player interviewed in part I of this series. Mike and I got to talking about how racing might grow. He told a story about meeting several twenty-somethings at Keeneland who told him about their casino experiences in Indiana, a not-too-far drive from Lexington, where they would spend some weekend’s gambling. They enjoyed it; with free drinks, pay for play, entertainment and a rip-roaring good time.
Mike said to me something I thought was poignant: ‘Horse racing cannot out casino a casino. We should never try to be like them, because we’ll lose.’

In this vein, when speaking about turning Thoroughbred players into harness bettors, I think the same applies. Harness cannot out-racing Thoroughbred racing by simply being more like them.  Any changes need to be nuanced, and stay true to what harness racing is.

Let’s tick off several common themes of last week’s article and dig a little deeper into them.


“The Big Event”

Dan Needham from Thorotrends and Ed DeRosa from Brisnet talked about big events, “being immersed in the culture”, and how much of a draw it is. I tend to agree.
Harness racing has big events, too, but they seem to have nowhere near the pull of the big Thoroughbred events, and are few (e.g. The Jug, Hambo or Gold Cup and Saucer). 
Harness stakes “season” is not really a season at all. Races are not graded, so casual fans do not have any idea which are most important, or where they lie in the calendar. Half the people in harness racing could not even tell you the dates, or which tracks are hosting the Pacing Triple Crown. Promotion of these events is substandard.

Conversely, America’s Best Racing, a marketing arm funded by the sport’s de-facto commissioner’s office, pushes each Thoroughbred Grade I event like it’s the place to be; a place to tune in and an event to bet.

Big events drive eyeballs. They introduce fans – new and old – to the horses who they may be watching down the line, perhaps at their local venue. Harness racing, probably through some sort of funded league office, needs to do better in this regard. It’s an important part of the sales funnel.


“Handicapping Literature, Data & Software”

Newer players like Mike Dorr, and seasoned veterans like Norm from the Knight Sky Racing Blog both mentioned the lack of availability of harness racing handicapping literature.  Jerod Dinkin specifically wrote:

I don't recall coming across a single harness racing book of note. It's very possible they are out there (although I suspect not in great numbers), but I only read the Quinn, Quirin, Davidowitz, Beyer, Ainslie, Sartin, and Brohamer types and they weren't talking harness. As such, I don't know the first thing about handicapping harness.”

Charlie Davis and Jeff Platt mentioned the lack of availability of data and racing software that can be used to gain an edge.

From Charlie Davis:
“The main reason I don't play harness to a large extent is because I can't get past data into a database in a reasonably priced manner.  I would pay a few thousand bucks to have a database of the past few years, but I can't even find that.  If I want to do that for Thoroughbreds, I have many choices of software that does more than just provide a database.  I'm not going to bet if I don't have a positive expectation, and I can't find out if I have a positive expectation without a database of historic information.”

I don’t think you or I know one serious bettor who has not read, or does not read what they can get their hands on when it comes to handicapping literature. When we do read of a new angle, or handicapping method we immediately want to try it and doggedly want to make it work, tweak it, or modify it. Sometimes the easiest way to do that is with a database of back data.

In harness racing these avenues are simply not there. Currently the narrative regarding that is ‘we cannot create these products because there are not enough people wanting them’. But is it the chicken or the egg?

Perhaps some supply side economics is needed: Create these products and then sell them. Give potential players who want to learn the sport the tools needed to learn it, and let’s see if they stick with it.

It’s not like other businesses don’t do this. Blackberry pays developers hundreds of thousands of dollars to build native apps for their platform, so they can sell their phones. Harness racing needs to invest, so it can sell the sport. It takes funding and a requisite leap of faith.


“Value and Sameness”

Seth Merrow and Jeff Platt spoke eloquently about the intricacies of handicapping Thoroughbreds with surface changes, breeding, stretch-outs, turnbacks and breeding. It’s a big kettle of fish.

Standardbred racing, as we all know, is “standard” at a mile. This makes the handicapping puzzle less complex, and for searchers of value on the tote board, much more difficult.

Like Mike Maloney noted in our conversation, racing is not going to out casino a casino, and standardbred racing is not going to out Thoroughbred Thoroughbred racing either. Sameness is what it is, and you can’t run away from it.

But that doesn’t mean one cannot add value to a tote board, or embrace the sameness angle as an advantage, not a detriment.

Value can be added to a field by increasing its contentiousness, like the Meadowlands is doing with their ABC classification system. For end of series events, like the Levy at Yonkers, trying new things like handicapping the start can be a means to an end to up tote board value and eliminate a post bias. 

Like Seth and I spoke about this week on his very good Capital OTB Television show, bets can be created that add value, like a V75. Seeded pools also create value.

In addition, where in Thoroughbred racing one might physical handicap by visiting a paddock and looking for a horse walking short, then following him to the post parade and watching him there, harness provides an inescapable interesting avenue that these players would love: Warm ups and score downs. The off-past performance betting advantage of those two elements makes going to the track not an experience where we need face painting for the kids to draw a crowd, but one where we as players can make money through a tremendous gambling edge.

Harness is a different game filled with ‘sameness’ yes, and it is a part of the core of this sport. It should not change, but it can be modified by embracing the elements of added value.


“Pool Size”

Norm, Alan Mann and a couple other respondents mentioned the tote, and pool size. Their points were bang-on. A ten to one shot at three minutes to post who ends up at 5-2 is not compelling. Betting a $20 exacta and knocking the payoff down to $18 from $30 is not either. Harness racing needs to worry about pool size and it needs to take it seriously.

The USTA, through the fine work of two players, Chris Schick of Cal-Expo and Seth Rosenfeld (a sharp gambler and breeder), have pushed the Strategic Wagering Initiative, where pools are guaranteed for various wagers. I would estimate this one change has helped harness racing handles the past two years more than any other. Harness needs to do more of it, they need to fund it and it needs to be promoted with verve.


“Respect for Gamblers Hard-Earned Money”

Norm from the Knight Sky Blog spoke about the control that trainers and drivers have in a race outcome.

Norm wrote:
Handicappers say standardbred form is more stable. That may be true but that is often negated by questionable driving strategy. Some leave, some go first over, other drivers sit chilly when they shouldn't. With the thoroughbreds I think I can handicap and know exactly where my horse should be placed on the track (at least in the opening stages) and that's why I often comment on riding skills or the lack of. That's not always done consistently with harness drivers. Drivers control the game. That along with racing luck, getting shuffled back or trotters breaking stride and causing interference is not the kind of chance I want to take.”

Thoroughbred racing outcomes are dependent on race shape and running styles. A sprint with four “early or ‘E’” horses with 6 or 7 or 8 Quirin speed points allows one to handicap to it, and the result will be formful. “E” horses have to go hard, and rarely does the jockey have a choice on where he or she will be at the quarter pole.

In harness racing a driver can strangle a 3-2 shot to last, and not try a lick. He or she can sit in with a four to five shot to “school the horse to race off a helmet”. These things are infuriating to customers and we can count on a thousand fingers how many people have left betting the sport of harness racing because of them.

As a trainer or driver of a favorite or well bet horse, it is incumbent upon you to try; to give that person slugging away at a $14 an hour job who takes time out of his or her day to bet $20 on you a fair shot.

Harness racing will never ‘fix’ being boxed, or breaking trotters, because much of that is a part of the sport and beyond anyone’s control. But there are things that can be fixed that are in control. Being more respectful to customers’ hard-earned money is one of them.


“The Hodge Podge”

A few of the players said something obvious and it is something we all face in 2013 life: A lack of time to do what we need to do. On a Saturday afternoon there may be thirty thoroughbred tracks going off along with some harness tracks, too. It’s very difficult for harness to get its product in front of willing bettors. Better scheduling of the events and timing of off times should be explored.

Seth Merrow quizzically asked “why do harness saddlecloths differ from Thoroughbred’s and why can’t they be the same?” Funnily enough I wrote this exact same thing in an article years ago. I could never understand why a sport which is attracting near the same clientele would be so different. I received an email from Moira Fanning not long after the article telling me that “harness was first, and the Thoroughbreds were the ones who changed.” I did not know that.

It does beg the question: Why not change as Seth asked? Harness racing probably should. It makes the simulcast experience easier for customers who are not looking at harness racing. If you are trying to land a new market, the easiest way to turn them off is to confuse them.


Conclusion

Harness racing is harness racing. It is not Thoroughbred racing and never will be, nor should it be. However, trying to attract new bettors from a $12B betting game who are already pre-qualified to be interested in you, or who have bet and watched the sport before, is an important market. Trying to gain some of that market share should certainly be a priority.

As well, many of the Thoroughbred patrons comments, concerns, and criticisms echo the ones from former harness players who’ve long left the sport for other games or vocations. Fixing a few of the above issues not only attacks a Thoroughbred market, it helps bring people back to harness racing.
I enjoyed talking with my friends in Thoroughbred racing and I thank them for taking time out of their day to help. We all share a common bond: A love for the horse, a love for the majesty of the sport, and a love for the unique, sometimes infuriating, but never boring game of handicapping.  I sincerely hope you enjoyed reading their answers as much as I did.