Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Yonkers Swims Against the Current

Last April, the best horses, trainers and drivers currently racing in North America were assembled for a sparkling race card at Yonkers. The Levy and Matchmaker finals were on tap, and other fast class divisions and overnights were also carded.  Adding even more to the excitement, the Meadowlands, where most of the handle in the US goes, was off on a one week break, eliminating any real competition for horseplayers.

When tallied, $1,140,000 in purses were up for grabs, all in or near the largest metropolitan center on the Continent. The handle, however, was not many millions, it was just over $1 million dollars; less than the nightly purse.
This wasn’t surprising to me, or probably many of you. I don’t know one – not one – serious bettor who was looking forward to the Matchmaker and Levy finals. Some watched, like me, but none that I know of bet even one penny.

It’s been noted in articles by us on HRU, and on other sites like DRF Harness where Bob Pandolfo wrote about it here. : Half mile track racing has become an anachronism.
The reason handles do not approach mile track handles at Yonkers (or at other half mile tracks) is simply a case of choice.  Bettors are exactly the same as any consumer. If your company makes one type of ice cream, or cheese, or soft drinks, it’s best to add new flavors, packaging and more, because more choice means more sales. More betting interests, and chaos, means more handle.

This May the Kentucky Derby, with twenty betting choices, all with a perceived chance to win, will had more than $125 million in betting handle. Half mile tracks, at the other end of the spectrum, even with a $500,000 purse, can’t generate virtually any choice – beyond one or two entrants. Low handle follows.

Most, if not all, of this lack of choice comes from post bias. Here is an array of prices of the favorite at various posts on half mile versus five-eighths and mile racetracks, from 2011 to 2012 (Source: Ray Schell):

The favorite from the rail at a track like Yonkers is right around even money. For mile and five eighths tracks it’s almost $1.30 to the dollar – about 25 cents more. As the posts change we see the average odds change too. Posts one through seven on bigger tracks have about the same level for chalk, while on a half miler the blue bars sky to the moon.

This is reflected in the expected win value by post position, when standardized.

At Yonkers you are 42% more likely to win a race if you have the rail. At Grand River it’s 46%. At Flamboro Downs it’s 49%. From the outside the reverse occurs. You are about 125% less likely to win from the seven (or eight, where eight across) on average.

For mile tracks, like the Meadowlands, this post bias is mild. You are about 8% better drawing the rail, which is technically worse than post 6 where you are 10% better off than average. All posts are pretty fair.

If a horse is even money from the Meadowlands, he (in the absence of takeout) has a 50-50 shot to win, from the rail, or the seven post, and this gives all the other horses a 50% shot to win – the bettor still has choice. At Yonkers, this same even money shot has almost an eight in ten shot to win, standardized, which gives all the other horses a 20% chance to win, which is minuscule. 

Bettors are a smart lot. They look at those percentages and say “why would I bet such a place?” Even though a field size might say eight, it’s really much smaller than that.

You are probably saying “wow, inside posts are better on a half mile track, thanks Captain Obvious.” You’d be right, it is obvious. However, I don’t think the industry realizes just how bad this bias is in today’s speed game, and how much tracks like Yonkers are up against it when trying to attract horseplayers to bet their product. That Yonkers (and half mile track staples like Northfield) could even garner $1 million + in handle for a night – any night – is frankly fairly impressive.

For the industry as a whole this has vast implications. If a $1 million dollar handle night at a strong branded track like Yonkers with a million in purses, (with the Meadowlands taking the weekend off) is a ceiling, how is harness racing able to grow their customer base? Big races like the Levy should be watched, not avoided, if we ever hope to grow the sport. In addition, we all know how difficult it is to draw good pacers and trotters to half mile tracks even for good stakes like the Molson Pace or the Battle of Lake Erie.

What can be done to shake things up on a Levy stakes night to at least get bettors to think about playing your big race? With a little imagination, maybe a few things can help.

When the program was printed you’d be more than happy owning Razzle Dazzle (post one) or Versado (post two). They’d lead the merry-go-round for riches with post one 42% more likely to win, and post two not too far behind at 28%. That’s exactly what happened. If Foiled Again did not have a buddy in the race giving him a hole, he is likely first over the entire mile.  We saw a 56 half for almost a half a million dollars. Amazing.

What if the Levy had two semi-finals for $150,000 each in successive weeks where post positions were flipped, then a race off happened the following weekend? How about similar for the Matchmaker?

What if the finals have a staggered starting gate with a huge bend giving the outside horses a green light?

What if the final leg (after the rich semi-finals) was a mile and a half handicap, where you stagger a standing start like they do in New Zealand and Australia for some of their big races? With most of the money given away already it wouldn’t matter much to the horsemen and owners, but it could certainly draw some eyeballs (and betting dollars) with a unique and interesting Free For All final. It might be a must see betting event, as it would completely eliminate the post bias, and if you seed the pools maybe you’re onto something.

Half mile track racing is at a very distinct disadvantage, and no, as long as they exist post bias will never be completely solvable. If half mile tracks try to introduce more betting choice – more cheese, or ice cream - at least for big events like the Levy, they have a shot to gain some interest, and perhaps even more entries from horsemen wary of the bullrings. With a track like Yonkers, with all their purse money and the stars of the game filtering the entry box, imagination is needed; not just for Yonkers’ benefit, but for the entire sport.
This article previously appeared in Harness Racing Update and is reprinted with their permission.

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