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.








Thursday, August 8, 2013

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



 The following article was originally printed in Harness Racing Update.  It is being reprinted with their permission.

There are a couple of schools of thought when it comes to marketing your product. One, try and find people who are prequalified to be your customer, and go get them. Two, try and land new customers by being different; the Seth Godin “Purple Cow”. 

The people targeted using the former, (when it comes to harness racing) might be Thoroughbred bettors. Harness racing is racing, just like Thoroughbred racing is; it has times, and form cycles, and layoffs. 

And the obvious: Standardbreds are horses.

What’s even better is that any horse racing customer of any breed already knows how to bet. Harness racing occurs at night, too, where weekend warriors might be enticed to move over to the pacers and trotters after a day at the races, or on a Thursday evening, when Gulfstream or Santa Anita are long over. It makes some sense.

In that vein, I decided to ask some very dedicated Thoroughbred customers a simple question: Why don’t you play and watch the harness races?
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The first person I chatted with was Jeff Platt. Jeff is a long time bettor who is the creator of Jcapper, a software program that helps his customers sniff out some winners. He is also President of the Horseplayers Association of North America.

Jeff and I began talking about Derby weekend, where we were both amazed at the contentiousness of the cards, and the Derby itself. At one point I proclaimed “what a freakishly interesting game we play”.  That started him off:

“The ‘freakishly amazing’ is what makes me a Thoroughbred player. I once considered harness racing before I entered the Thoroughbred realm. I looked at the data points and the factors that go into winning and losing race in both sports and I could see much more chaos and variance in Thoroughbred racing. Harness was sameness – same distance, same horses, and very few ship-ins. I could not get the data I needed like I could at a place like Brisnet, as well. I expected there would be more overlays in thoroughbred racing because of it and that ended up being correct. In addition, the takeouts were higher in harness compared to thoroughbreds so that made my decision a no-brainer. But, really, the biggest thing for me was the ability to look at tons of data – and datamine it – in thoroughbred racing. Harness was just not up to snuff.”


Ed DeRosa, now doing the marketing heavy lifting with the aforementioned Brisnet, is a huge fan and everyday bettor, and he said a few things that I thought were interesting, when we relate them stakes season, and the ‘immersion’ that does occur more with the Thoroughbreds.
“Growing up in Cleveland, I was as interested in harness as Thoroughbred racing. The first major racing event I covered as a journalist was the Jug, and I miss going each year.”
“I worked at Thistledown summer of 2000 and joined Thoroughbred Times in May 2003, and in that period through early 2004 I'd say I was still betting harness regularly to the point that I was the subject of some good-natured ribbing by my Thoroughbred-only colleagues. I remember one August afternoon at the Big T betting the Adios from the Meadows while live racing was going on outside. In Lexington, trips to The Red Mile after work were not uncommon in my single days.”
 “As I got more immersed in my job at Thoroughbred Times, immersion in the culture came with it. No longer was I a weekend warrior picking my spots for a full day (or night of gambling). I was handicapping races 2-3 times a week now, and it was always Thoroughbred racing. I still look at the Hambletonian and Jug week and visit Northfield when I'm in Cleveland, but for me as a [larger] bettor, there's just no time to do harness racing on a serious level when I'm balancing Thoroughbred handicapping from the standpoint of both a horseplayer and industry professional.”
Norm, who runs the Knight Sky Blog, like Ed, did follow both harness racing and Thoroughbred racing, but the runners won out.

 “As one who was weaned into horse racing at The Meadowlands harness, there are several reasons why I do not participate as much on the standardbred side.

“The learning curve is so steep for new fan that I decided on one major course of study while I was in college: Thoroughbreds. There is much more handicapping and historical literature on the thoroughbred side. From legends like Ainslie and Beyer texts, I had to class down to Nick Cammarano and Barry Meadow on the Harness side.”

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.”

“Pool sizes are a major reason, too. I grew up as a $2 player. Having graduated to the size where Plainridge or Monticello pools easily would reduce the payouts on a $10 or $20 combo. Those tracks are not worth the time to follow in-depth when there are better products available.”


Melissa Nolan is a Kentucky resident who lives, eats and breathes Thoroughbred racing. For her, it’s a matter of accessibility and information.

“I honestly don't know much about harness, though I'd like to know more.  The standardbred business in Kentucky is much smaller than it used to be and even though we have The Red Mile, community awareness of it is low.  Additionally, it runs the "Grand Circuit" the same weekend in October as Keeneland's FallStars so that makes it tough to attend.”

“In terms of simulcast betting I wouldn't know where to go for past performances of harness, and if I did I probably couldn't interpret them.  Accessibility to information to learn from is probably the single biggest obstacle to me betting harness.”


Seth Merrow runs the popular Drudge-like horse racing link site, Equidaily.com, and is also seen on Capital OTB TV in the New York region. Like Ed, Seth cut his teeth in harness racing.

 “I became a fan of horse racing by going to the Saratoga harness track. While I still follow harness racing to some degree - and I still make a handful of visits to the track each season -- I did float away and shift far more of my attention to thoroughbred racing as time passed.”

“I still tell people that harness racing is a great way to break into the sport - because there are fewer variables. Races are typically limited to eight horses - and virtually all of the races are one mile. That limits the intrigue - which makes the handicapping puzzle a little bit easier. In turn however - that probably also dampens the value.

“We've all been there: When you first become interested in horse racing, turning your two dollar win-bet into $5.20, or six, or seven dollars is exciting. So is a fifteen or twenty dollar daily double. But as you gain more experience - and particularly with the various type of wagers available now - you shop for more value. My sense is -- and it's only anecdotal -- that harness racing doesn't offer the same value on a daily basis that t-bred racing does.”

“Part of that I'm sure is 'sameness'. Varied surfaces and distances in t-bred racing add handicapping 'intrigue', in turn making races more challenging to handicap, and making the results less predictable. Again, at least anecdotally, offering more value.”




Seth Merrow runs the popular Drudge-like horse racing link site, Equidaily.com, and is also seen on Capital OTB TV in the New York region. Like Ed, Seth cut his teeth in harness racing.

 “I became a fan of horse racing by going to the Saratoga harness track. While I still follow harness racing to some degree - and I still make a handful of visits to the track each season -- I did float away and shift far more of my attention to thoroughbred racing as time passed.”

“I still tell people that harness racing is a great way to break into the sport - because there are fewer variables. Races are typically limited to eight horses - and virtually all of the races are one mile. That limits the intrigue - which makes the handicapping puzzle a little bit easier. In turn however - that probably also dampens the value.

“We've all been there: When you first become interested in horse racing, turning your two dollar win-bet into $5.20, or six, or seven dollars is exciting. So is a fifteen or twenty dollar daily double. But as you gain more experience - and particularly with the various type of wagers available now - you shop for more value. My sense is -- and it's only anecdotal -- that harness racing doesn't offer the same value on a daily basis that t-bred racing does.”

“Part of that I'm sure is 'sameness'. Varied surfaces and distances in t-bred racing add handicapping 'intrigue', in turn making races more challenging to handicap, and making the results less predictable. Again, at least anecdotally, offering more value.”




Mike Dorr, a twenty-something handicapper from Tennessee was succinct, and said something I think we can all relate to:

I don't bet harness because I really haven't had anyone to teach me. I got into handicapping thoroughbreds through my wife's family; her dad and his friends taught me the basics, bought and lent me handicapping books when I showed deeper interest, and continued to invite me to the track and simulcast.”

“Lack of teaching, mind share, perceived betting opportunities, and time have prevented me from embracing harness, but cannot say that will always be the case. For now, I'm happy concentrating on the higher classes of thoroughbred racing.”


Jarod Dinkin, an almost yearly participant in the National Handicapping Championship or Horseplayers World Series at the Orleans in Las Vegas, echoed what Mike and others touched on:

“Because I didn't grow up with it, I don't have that positive experience to draw upon. I'm a Penguins fan because my grandfather took me to the Igloo in 1987 and Mario dominated. I'm a horse racing fan for the same reason. I just don't have the harness foundation. “

“When I started to learn about the thoroughbreds, I did what most prudent wannabe handicappers have done over the years: read everything I could get my paws on (books, magazines, newsletters), watched all I could find on TV, and sneaked into OTBs at a premature age to watch and make a wager or two. In doing this "research", 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.”

“It's my perception, whether justified or not, that harness racing is full of high percentage drivers that dominate at a tiny ROI. I have no idea if that’s true, it's just my perception from the days when I knew of guys like Palone.”


Dan Needham of Thorotrends is a social scientist and long time horseplayer. He also mentioned the big event theme.

I came of age as a player at Thoroughbred tracks. There were no harness tracks as convenient to visit. Combine that with the history, TV, and big events of Thoroughbreds and it was no contest.  I can't imagine being enticed to bet harness while Thoroughbred’s are an option.”


Bill Weaver, like Jeff, is a board member of the Horseplayers Association of North America. He was simpatico with Dan on the proximity angle:

“When I got into horse racing I was in Houston and there were no chariot tracks in sight. California and Ohio were the closest, so I guess I saw them as two different sports.”