State of the Game Address
By Cary Fotias
This Saturday, over 100,000 racing fans will gather at majestic Belmont Park as I’ll Have Another seeks to become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years.
I have seen every Belmont Stakes since I moved to New York in 1986 - from Woody’s fifth straight with Danzig Connection through Ruler on Ice. In that span, nine horses have taken aim at the Triple Crown, only to come up short. Believe me when I tell you, there is no sound in all the world of sports like the “New York roar” that builds to a climax as a potential Triple Crown winner enters the final furlongs.
Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Smarty Jones – some really good horses have failed the Test of the Champion. Will I’ll Have Another become our twelfth Triple Crown winner? I guess we’ll have to see what Dullahan, Union Rags, Paynter and Street Life have to say about that. So, get out to Big Sandy on Saturday and see some history.
With all the excitement over the Triple Crown grabbing the headlines, some ominous signs for thoroughbred racing continue to lurk “below the fold”.
Item: In 2004, I was part of the NTRA Players Panel at the Handicapping Expo in Las Vegas that made over 60 recommendations (one of which was implemented) to the industry to improve the game. Number one on MY list was to lower the takeout dramatically. Unfortunately, this has not happened. The only meaningful takeout reductions have been in Pick-3, Pick-4 and Pick-5 pools. Reducing the takeout in these pools does little to increase “churn” as the usually large payoffs are shared by only a few bettors who are unlikely to quickly plow back their profits.
It would be much better to lower the take on WPS. Almost everyone would benefit from this, including the tracks. Churn would increase significantly and casual players would get more “value” for their entertainment dollar. It’s so simple an economic concept that it probably has no chance of happening considering the panjandrums that control the game.
Item: In the last few years, total handle on thoroughbred racing in the US has dwindled to $10.6 million from $15 million. That’s a 30% decline in just a few years. As the powers that be continue to fight for a bigger piece of a shrinking pie, they should be looking to get a smaller piece of a much, much bigger pie. The industry has taken the greatest gambling game ever invented and trashed it. It is a testament to “what the outside of a horse does to the inside of a man” that the game has survived the egregious and almost unconscionable decisions of its management.
Item: The aforementioned decline in handle has led to a severe liquidity crisis in the wagering pools. With money spread across so many exotic pools in addition to WPS, the effects of the overall decline are exacerbated. To wit, in Saturday’s first race at Monmouth Park (supposedly a top-shelf track), My Place Anytime was 3/5 entering the gate. He won and paid $2.60. In the second race at Monmouth on Sunday, Quiet Tiara was 8/5 entering the gate and paid $3.40.
There’s nothing fishy going on here. It’s just that a few big bettors (or one really big one) can cause these dramatic changes due to the paucity of money in the win pools.
Again, the solution is simple. LESS IS MORE. We need a lot less racing (and maybe less betting options on every race) so that pools can attract large bettors with differing opinions. If we ran half the dates we do now, I guarantee you overall handle would improve. Why? Because people will bet more than twice as much on big, competitive fields than they will on a steady diet of five and six horse affairs you always see in Northern California, and recently in Southern California and Churchill Downs (without slot money) as well.
Item: Preposterous is the word that comes to mind when describing Churchill Downs handling of the “late odds drop” phenomenon. Although the industry promised years ago that odds cycling would be reduced to 15 seconds, it has not happened. So, the bozos at Churchill decided that rather invest money to keep their promise, they will just “blank out the odds” until they are final. That way, no one can complain about odds drops during the race. So when you watch Arlington, Calder and Churchill, you won’t see odds until mid-race.
I have recommended for years that all final WPS pools and exacta payoff grids should be posted on the tracks’ onsite monitors and websites BEFORE the race goes off. Now, THAT would insure the integrity of the pools. After awhile, players would adjust to the earlier cutoff times and consider it more than a fair tradeoff.
Item: After all the shenanigans at NYRA, the new board will consist of appointments from Gov Cuomo and NYRA along with non-voting members for owners and breeders. Hello! Has anyone ever heard of HORSEPLAYERS? It disgusts me that the most vital constituency in the game is consistently given such short shrift.
Item: The NYSRWB (New York State Racing and Wagering Board) seems to just make up the rules as it chooses. I wouldn’t have a problem with the detention barn for the Belmont Stakes horses if it was also used for $20,000 maiden claimers. I want to be betting on a “fair” game ALL THE TIME. The money is just as green in the first race on Wednesday as it is for the Belmont.
And, if you can change the rules on a whim, why not allow I’ll Have Another to race with the nasal strip that is permitted in every other US racing jurisdiction. Lasix is OK, but not a nasal strip? Get real, already.
Item: Dateline - North Randall, Ohio –
Check out this beauty below. Talk about manipulating the pools. I guess the perpetrators inflated the price of the favorite so they could collect more from bookmakers than they invested to drive up the price at the track.
The intentions of the bettor or bettors who targeted Monday's (May 21) fifth race on Thistledown in Cleveland for $90,000 in late win bets remained unknown on Wednesday, according to officials who are familiar with the investigation into the wagers.
Investigators have failed to determine how the bettor or bettors figured they would profit from the $15,000 win bets, which were placed on every other horse in the seven-horse maiden race but the 1-5 favorite within 90 seconds of the race going off. The bets drove the odds on the favorite up to 14-1 before a robotic wagering program targeted the favorite with an $8,359 win bet placed just before the race went off.
The horse who had been the favorite, Eye Look the Part, won the six-furlong maiden race by 16 1/2 lengths. He paid $12.80.
Sixteen and-a-half lengths! I guess they weren’t taking any chances. These guys better be careful. Bookies don’t take kindly to this type of activity. Baseball bats, anyone? Even worse than this type of coup, is the fact that most tracks allow the cancellation of large bets. This creates a “license to steal” for larcenous operators who pound a horse early (getting others off the horse due to deflated odds) and then pull money out at the last second to inflate the price. This is beyond chicanery, and tracks should be very vigilant about this. But sadly, they are not.
Item: The Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) have shelved a betting exchange trial for at least a year. That’s right, these myopic morons are fine with 5-horse fields where it’s easy to collect purse money, but refuse to allow Betfair to begin an experiment with exchange betting in the US. Betfair purchased Hollywood Park and TVG (Television Games Network) a while back, with the obvious intention of introducing exchange betting. Exchange betting has proved wildly successful in Europe. As win betting accounts for only 20% of US handle, why not give it a try here? The game is dying, and a betting exchange might just revitalize the industry by attracting that “younger” demographic it is constantly seeking.
In addition, a betting exchange solves pool manipulation issues (if you open a horse at 1/9, everyone will short it) and also solves the late odds drop problem. On the exchange, the price you “deal” at is locked in. Winning at horseracing is all about getting the right price. Serious players only bet when they are “getting the best of it”. But, when odds fluctuate so dramatically (except in the largest of pools), a very tough game becomes almost impossible to beat. Imagine that you thought you were buying Apple at $550 only to find out you actually bought it at $600. You might also flee to the safety of 10-year Treasuries yielding 1.47%.
So, there you have it, race fans. The good, the bad and the ugly.
Let’s hope the racing industry gets a brain, the state racing commissions get some courage, and the fans have the heart to keep playing.