Monday, July 8, 2013

Schoolers, First Time Geldings, & Much More: Not In a Program Near You

The following was published in Harness Racing Update and is reprinted with permission.

Pete from Brooklyn goes to work from 9 to 5, gets 32.4% taken from the tax man or various other fees, pays the mortgage, throws $40 in the kids’ college fund, and after all that, he pops $100 from his paycheck in the wallet to actually do something fun for himself.

When Pete and others like him head to the track with that $100, they sure are up against it. Some tracks have 30% takeouts, others have short fields where they have no chance at making any money. Sometimes there’s something funny going on (thankfully this happens much less than in the old days). Sometimes their trotter breaks in what seems like thousands of feet behind the gate, and racing happily takes their money.

“Sorry Pete, it’s part of the game. See you next week, I hope.”

Breaking trotters, high rakes, short fields and many of the big issues are not immediately fixable. They might never be fixable. But there are things that can be fixed that will help the customer experience, if we put our minds to it.

Over the last several years we’ve seen more and more horses win off 30 day breaks in their schedule, or off longer layoffs (Bob Pandolfo wrote a column about the change recently in the DRF).  It’s not like it was in the 1980’s or 1990’s where you’d see a four week break and the horse was an auto-pitch because he needed a tightener. Nor is it an automatic throw out seeing a trotter come off a 4th by 4 qualifier two weeks ago, with six seconds to drop to be competitive.

Times have changed. But once again, as times change, the industry doesn’t.

What’s happened in harness racing with layoffs is not magic, nor is it a sinister plot to mess around with its customers. Horse’s still need to be trained to race at race speeds, they need to be ready and fit, they need to be qualified to win off a layoff. What is different is that it has become a practice in harness racing to “school” horse’s between starts, at race speeds most times, and in company, just like a qualifier. That 158.2 reported qualifier on March 16th, was followed by an unreported 155.3 scorcher a week later.  For the horse’s March 31st race, he’s ready, despite the line being unreported.

Before the Meadowlands Pace, twitter and the industry press was abuzz that Sweet Lou schooled (or trained) in 149. It wasn’t reported, so no one knows for sure, but that was the scuttlebutt. I guess we should figure as handicappers that Ronnie Burke would do something like that going into a $600,000 race to have Lou ready, so maybe that’s just fine.

However, what about the other times it is not reported, or times we need that information. Say when a $15,000 claimer has been off a month, with no qualifier. He wins by five and Pete from Brooklyn says “what just happened?”

We may have seen this in the Breeders Crown elimination for three year old colts this past fall at Woodbine.

Panther Hanover raced on September 8th and won in 149.1. Then it seems he had several issues. He was off 35 days and entered October 13th in an overnight, but was scratched sick. He was then entered 7 days later in the Breeders Crown elimination.

Unbelievably (the late Tom Ainslie would have trouble figuring this out), off a vet scratch and 42 days between starts, he was on green from the get-go and came second in 149.4.

What happened?

No one knows for sure I guess, but on a chat board after the race I read the colt “schooled” really fast the week before his elim. It was also noted driver Jody Jamieson, who took some flack from bettors for sitting behind Panther Hanover with the very-fast Warrawee Needy, was in the same schooler and knew the horse was ready. That might’ve explained why he sat the two hole.

The horse was 12-1 and a trip handicapper’s nightmare, so if the above was true, Pete from Brooklyn was out of the loop.

No matter if this chat board rumor was valid or not (it really doesn’t matter either way), James Dean, Sylvain Filion, Jim Carr and Jody Jamieson did nothing wrong – and I want that made perfectly clear. They, in fact, did everything right from a training and tactical driving perspective based on the knowledge it appears they had at hand. They didn’t fail Pete from Brooklyn in the least by doing their jobs right, harness racing failed Pete from Brooklyn by not doing its job right.  

Saying “Pete should’ve known he was ready or he would not have been in the box” is not a response, it’s an excuse. Any decent handicapper could’ve easily expected a tightener, trying to get 5th to qualify for the final, not a front end scorch with a horse off 40+ days and a vet scratch.

When I ask myself tough racing questions like the above, I think “what would Hong Kong Racing and Bill Nader do in a situation like this.” Hong Kong, as most people know, takes things pretty seriously when it comes to wagering. Vet reports aren’t “none of anyone’s business”, they are published in the racing form and on the HKJC website. Penalties are not minor or hidden, they are published in the newspaper. “Schooling” races are unreported works, and they’d take that seriously too. I would wager they’d have a policy in place about workouts, and if a trainer tried to pull a fast one by ignoring said policy, he would be on a boat to Thailand in the morning.

While an industry response to this article in North America might be “how  do we find a way to publish these unrecorded workouts in the past performances; it’s impossible”, Hong Kong would be asking “how do we not find a way to publish an unrecorded workout in our past performances; we have to make it possible”. There are only a few words different in those two sentences, but they are an important few words for our customers. One is a dodge, the other shows respect for a customers’ hard-earned betting bankroll.

Figuring out logistically how things like schoolers, or first time geldings, or vet work, or fifty other things our customers complain about are recorded and published is not an easy task. It certainly is well above my pay grade. But when we ask ourselves “how do we make the game of handicapping better for Pete from Brooklyn” we might stumble upon a solution that does make it better for Pete from Brooklyn. And I think we can all agree that harness racing needs more Pete’s from Brooklyn, not fewer.

No comments: