January 17, 2019
It Wasn't Broke
By: Jonathan Stettin
We have all heard the saying if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There was a time not really all that long ago when racing was not a broken sport, but somehow the industry tried to fix it, and that left us with what we have today.
For those who have only been interested or exposed to the game for say the last 15 years or so, you really don’t know what you missed, and if you like the game today, you’d have probably loved it back a ways.
When I first started writing Past the Wire, I made an effort to stay positive and focus on the ups. Always one to call it as I see it that has become increasingly challenging and at times just difficult.
I’ve talked and written about many of the issues plaguing the Sport of Kings recently, and I won’t be making any shopping or laundry lists today. We all know the issues. Today I’ll touch on reporting and coverage and the erosion of horse racing journalism and media coverage. We have more coverage than ever thanks in part to social media and some dedicated networks, but do we have quality reporting and coverage? You tell me.
The Kentucky Derby attracts as much media coverage as any horse race in the world. A few years back a top contender trained by a top trainer, Bob Baffert was in danger of scratching in the days leading up to the race. The horse, Dortmund, had a bout with Colic following a workout on April 25th. He overcame it and raced despite the setback. I’m sure he was good if Bob ran him and he, in fact, ran a credible third. That’s not the point. You’d be hard pressed to find any media coverage of this pretty significant development anywhere before the race. If you bet Dortmund you’d have to feel a bit slighted. After all, you read which way American Pharoah was facing when he got his morning bath until you were blue in the face. Everyone with a press credential had to tell you countless times what a long flowing, beautiful stride he had. However, there was not a peep about Dortmund almost scratching from a bout with colic. That wouldn’t have happened in the 70’s or 80’s and we are more advanced now, have more access and more coverage.
99% of racing writers write about the same things with the same take as just about everyone else. Very few tackle the hardcore issues or address certain issues with candor and true journalism and reporting. Slaughter, sales, illegal drugs, and race fixing are off-limit topics for the most part, and the industry itself is complicit in that. Sponsorship, advertising, credentials, and access are all dangled as carrots to keep the reporting where the industry prefers it stays.
Back to the Kentucky Derby. Do you really need to read more than one Derby contender list? The same horses, pretty close in order is on each of them. Occasionally, I’ll do one and when I do you’ll always find at least one outside the box horse not on anyone’s radar. That makes it interesting and fun.
Now, I get there is only so much racing news on a daily basis. But all the publications regurgitating the same takes on the same topics all day long via email, social media and whatever other means they can is not helping to grow the game or keep those already engaged interested. Many in the game do not welcome the influx of so-called bloggers. I am not opposed hoping some more of them bring new perspectives and are not handcuffed from writing about the things it seems the industry doesn’t want any of us talking about.
Playing ostrich by keeping one's head in the sand doesn’t fix anything or make it go away. If our most serious issues are brushed under the rug by our reporters how will the industry solve them? On their own? Take a look at the past performances on that and let me know how you’re betting.
Of course, there are exceptions, but they are few. You can count on us to be one of the few. We’ll take you Past the Wire. Stay tuned.
January 11, 2019
Those Who Know
By: Jonathan Stettin
Is a tip ever a tip at the racetrack? If you ask a hundred bettors, I think you might be surprised at the assortment of answers that you get. I’ll come back to that. Most of you who know me know I spent many years going to the racetrack every day, without missing a beat, first in New York, and then in Florida. I’m talking decades. I once broke up with a girlfriend, or I should say she broke up with me because I had to bail on her sister’s wedding. Yes, she was in the bridal party, and it was a big deal. That said her sister chose to get married on the first Saturday in May. I did not miss many days.
For several seasons at the Gulfstream meet my Dad and I sat with a dear friend of ours Joe T., may they both rest in peace. My Dad would always make Joe laugh hysterically when he would ask us if we liked any of the horses we had running with Peter Walder. My Dad, also Joe, would say, “those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.” They would laugh together, and Joe T. would wave his finger and say, "You are right." Of course, Joe was never cold-shouldered out of any horse we liked, and I spent years chasing pick 6’s with him, and generally I don’t do partners.
Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know. Interesting. Does anybody ever really know at the races. Sure, there are a number of times a year where I feel I know the outcome of a race, but there are intangibles, as A Raving Beauty showed early in the last Saratoga meet. You can know, but they still have to run the race.
Once I claimed a horse named Am Flippy from of all people The Chief, Allen Jerkens. She had run a big number on the rags at two, and Peter and I grabbed her for $62,500. Obviously, we had some good expectations for her. She did not train as well as we hoped, but we were limited as to where to run her back. We used to win at a killer rate off the claim back then, and she would have taken money wherever we ran. With limited options, we ran back in an allowance race.
I remember walking into the track that day and almost immediately being approached by a well-known race-tracker. The man asked me if I liked anything and I said not especially. He then said he had some good information on a horse. He said he knew the owner, and he was a big bettor who flew in from New York to bet and watch his horse run. I honestly had no interest, and frankly could care less. I do and did my own thing and go by only my opinion. Nonetheless, to be polite I asked who is the horse? Am Flippy he said. Yes, he gave me a tip on my own horse, and he didn’t even know it.
Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know. This guy obviously didn’t know but he absolutely said. Am Flippy didn’t win that race. She was one of the few horses we never did any good with. Claiming from The Chief, not such a good idea.
One time in what seems like a lifetime ago, a well-known rider who is now a pretty well-known trainer, told my brother Joe DiMaio and I that he loved his horse at Belmont and was going to win this race the next day. The horse ran badly, and we didn’t even ask him, he volunteered the “info.” The next day when I saw him, I asked what happened, he looked at me with a degree of sincerity and disappointment in his face and said I should have read the form. What? Those who know don’t say and those who say don’t know.
If you have spent a degree of time on the backside of the racetrack you learn fast it is different than the frontside. It is a world all its own. Generally speaking, trainers and riders (both exercise and jockeys) don’t like to share insight they may have into how horses are doing with just anyone. Bettors are often viewed as outsiders who don’t understand the backside, and there is really no upside for people on the backside to share what they may know about a horse. Often, they know of problems a horse may have that aren’t public knowledge and don’t appear in past performances. This information is good to have when you can get it, but you usually won’t.
Trainers have a tendency to talk about their horses like people talk about their kids. They may like their horse, and know he is training excellently, but can they rate and rank the competition as objectively as a sharp handicapper?
The most solid type of in the know information at the track, with the exception of knowing who will not win for one reason or another, is when a trainer cheats, and I don’t mean with illegal drugs, or doing anything illegal at all. I am referring to those scenarios where a trainer runs a horse worth 50K first time out for 20K knowing they will jog, and nobody will claim them. Sure, you can catch someone better in there, but for the tag as opposed to a Maiden Special Weight, you probably won’t. If you are fortunate to know about one of those, that would be a real “tip” or edge. Most of us likely won’t know until after the race when it becomes very visible.
Sometimes a horse will overcome an issue that was hindering them, knowing can be an edge, but will you? Probably not but things even out in the long run, as the competition can always be tougher.
Tips, or inside information, is not a prerequisite to success at the races. Can it help, maybe at times but remember, those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.
December 28, 2018
Are You Talking To Me?
By: Jonathan Stettin
I have always felt if you can’t say something better yourself, then use a good quote. Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver comes to mind for this one. It’s a classic film, and the quote is “you talkin' to me.” It’s a great scene and line, and I could not do it justice here. That said I think we can put the quote to some good use and it definitely fits. At least for me.
Right up front, I’ll say I am not going to call out anyone individually. No names. No networks or racetracks either. If you know who I am referring too that is great but no names.
I can sort of, but not really, give some major networks a pass for their coverage of our classic races. Sure it is terrible for true players and Racetrackers, but at least there are some casual once a year people watching those broadcasts. During the course of the year, however, the only people tuned in watching horse racing channels are bettors or horseman. I have to ask, who do they think they are talking to? “Are you talking to me?”
The other day on one of the racing networks the subject of the pick 6 came up and how some people prefer the $2 version as opposed to the 20 cent jackpot version. The analyst said, "well they could always play it for $2 if they prefer that." The other analyst agreed. Neither bothered to discuss the ramifications of that advice or solution or what is involved in it. Theoretically, you could do this, but the gripe is based more towards the jackpot format than the denomination although it is a factor. That part of it was ignored.
Another day an analyst was discussing a carryover in a multi race wager. The pool had climbed obviously in increments to just over 700K. The analyst said the pool goes up to 700K in one flash. That’s a deceptive statement geared towards someone who has no clue what’s going on. “You talkin to me?” Well, we’re the ones watching and listening so who are you talking to? They then go on to state once the pool hit a cool million that for 50 cents you are playing for a life-changing million dollars. Come on, seriously. You probably have about the same chance of hitting power ball as you do of hitting the only ticket on a 50 cent play in a multi race wager with a large carryover. You can’t be talking to me so who are you talking to?
For some reason, ADW’s and racetracks love to push and focus on multi race wagers. Pick 3’s 4’s and 5’s is all you hear. Very little about win, exactas, triples or superfectas. I guess they forgot those wagers generate more churn thus handle. All day long another multi race wager is starting. Are they talking to you?
This was a classic also. Truly an all time social media racing moment. A high profile guy attacks a tout for selling their picks. He points out anyone who picks winners doesn’t sell picks. He blasts all who sell picks and identifies touts as ones who charge. Hey, it’s their opinion, and they are entitled to it. Shortly thereafter this same industry person plugs a tout and their picks. Interesting. It gets better. This same person then offers to sell their picks because they are that good and offers a money back guarantee if no positive ROI is reached by playing. Well, we know how this book ends. No positive ROI and guarantee canceled. Nonetheless, the tout basher is, last I heard, a full-blown tout. Who are they talking to?
The other day an announcer called a $6,250 claimer who went out in 22,45 under pressure as not having gone that fast. What? "Are you talking to me?" Idiot, I singled the horse in a multi race wager, and I knew I was cooked turning for home, and he had opened about 5. Nailed of course. Not that fast.
What I am trying to illustrate here is part of a bigger picture. There are so many more examples of our industry just disconnecting with their core customer, the gambler. People following racing coverage don’t want to be spoken too like they don’t have a clue by people who make it sound like they don’t have a clue, and I don’t know maybe some of them don’t, but some do. Those that do should act accordingly in my opinion as it would make the coverage all the better for who matters, their gambler customers.
December 27, 2018
Success or Failure
By: Jonathan Stettin
The Pegasus and the unique purse structure it carries with it have only been around a few years. Thus far, I have been to all the runnings, and I intend to go again this year. The race has received some criticism about the depth of quality in the fields, and the buy-in slot system of the purse. The cost of attending has also come under criticism. While I think the current purse system may at some point have to change, overall I have to call the race and concept a success.
Any big money race with a decent size field is good for the game. Racing is built around gambling and having to put up a nice chunk of cash to buy a slot in a race is a gamble on a whole different level for owner/investors. It allows for wheeling and dealing including sponsoring a horse and competing for the big prize. You can do this without actually having a horse of your own if you are willing to take a shot, buy a slot and then sell or share it with an owner who actually has a horse. Most who have tried this approach have lost some money thus far, but the race and concept are still in their very early stages or infancy.
One of the many goals of the race was to keep some of the top horses around a tad longer. I think most in the sport are in favor of that. The timing of the race allows horses to compete and still hurry off to make the breeding season. It worked for California Chrome, Gun Runner, and appears it will for Accelerate as well. City of Light is also scheduled to run giving us two Breeders’ Cup winners competing against each other. I find that tough to knock.
Despite the hefty purse the race never garnered much international interest. Being run on dirt in late January likely has a lot to do with that, but this year Mexican Triple Crown winner and champion Kukulcan is scheduled to run. The addition of a turf race to go with the dirt edition will be unveiled this year. If it continues, the Europeans and others will start looking at it as an option. Big money will bring big horses even with this unique structure. For the Stronach Group it is a win as long as it lasts, as they are hosting a major purse race and not footing the whole bill.
Gulfstream is a beautiful venue. Unfortunately, it is just too small to host a Breeders’ Cup although it would be an ideal location. The high prices of the Pegasus have kept crowd size very comfortable so far. You can pretty much wager late and move comfortably around the facility taking in the horses without being too cramped. This is good but they do have to figure out a way to get the every day two dollar bettors in the door also. Maybe free entry vouchers or something to regulate Gulfstream attendees. That would be a nice and welcomed thank you.
The Pegasus is the last race on the card laden with supporting stakes. It anchors the late pick 4,5, and of course the Rainbow Pick 6. Last year Gun Runner won as the favorite, but the multi-race wagers paid well. There will be a lot of great wagering opportunities on the card, and you can count on decent field sizes and generous pools.
In the inaugural running Arrogate in the midst of his powerful string of races beat California Chrome so in only two years the race has quickly developed a little history. With two Breeders’ Cup winners squaring off with a Mexican champ thrown in we should have an interesting running again.
Gulfstream is and has been a speed favoring racetrack. Because of that mile and an eighth horses can get the Pegasus distance of a mile and a quarter over it. That will help City of Light the Breeders’ Cup Mile winner against Classic winner Accelerate. He might not have as good a chance over some other racing strips.
Remaining cognizant the whole purse system may change, thus far I have to call the Pegasus a win or success for the sport. I am looking forward to another strong running. I think we will see one.
HIGH FIVE: Racing is finally going to digital tattooing. Better late than never. Luis Contreras a nice 1000 win milestone.
LOW FIVE: It is the Holidays. Everyone gets a pass. I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!
December 14, 2018
The Feature Race
Plus my take on the Horse of the Year debate and Santa Anita’s new wager
By: Jonathan Stettin
At the very least, on just about every weekend day of racing the “major” racetracks had a feature race. This was almost always a stake, often a graded stake, and was carded towards the end of the program. In New York, way back when, it was the seventh race of nine but later on moved to the eighth of nine, or customarily the next to last race. This gave the racing fans, and bettors alike, something to look forward to.
Horse racing is a fantastic sport to view live. It is exciting, competitive and features both phenomenal equine and human athletes. The top horses and riders who competed at these high level meets developed strong followings and people came not only to wager but to see them compete.
Along with a changing and evolving world, the Sport of Kings has changed. The history and traditions of the game are evaporating or being brushed aside. I’m all for change for the better. For the worse not so much.
Today the feature races, for the most part, have been combined into what we now call super Saturdays. I was middle of the road on this concept as it developed. I was initially against moving the Metropolitan Mile from Memorial Day to Belmont Stakes Saturday. I’ll admit on the first Saturday they ran it that way I loved the card and thought I saw the light. I was wrong.
While these super days are great when we run them, they leave a sour wake for days and even weeks to follow. The Sunday feature, often a stake, is now usually an optional claiming race if we are lucky. For example, last Sunday three major tracks ran the following feature races:
Aqueduct, a starter allowance race for horses who previously ran for a claiming price of $16,000.
Gulfstream Park- Claiming $16,000 and have never won three races.
Los Alamitos- California breds which have never won three races other than maiden, claiming, or starter, or which have never won two races or a claiming price of $20,000.
Obviously, racing secretaries have to get creative to fill races. Back in the day conditioned allowance races would fill without all these innovations to the condition book. Today we have to accept these newer types of races, but do we really have to cram the stakes into the big days and leave a void for up to weeks following? Is this the way to get people coming to the races, or have tracks folded their hands? Many may not mind the lack of a stake most days. However, I think history shows the interest and excitement they generate, and that spacing out as opposed to cramming it in looks more like a recipe for growth. The competition and athletes are our strengths, we need to show them off more not less, and stakes do that.
So there is a horse of the year debate. I think the Eclipse awards have lost luster and significance due to some shall we say, weak voting. Nonetheless, people are talking and voicing their opinions. It comes down to Justify and Accelerate. I found it on the border of silly when Bob Baffert and John Sadler were interviewed about whom they thought deserved it. Seriously. Bob likes Justify, and John likes Accelerate. What a surprise. Did we really have to ask that?
I am with Bob on this one. John Sadler brought out a great point in that Accelerate was good enough to get him his first Breeders’ Cup in over 40 tries, but that isn’t enough. Accelerate had a great year, a championship year for sure. I’m not arguing who I think would handle who on the racetrack. That’s a different discussion and will always be subjective. The Triple Crown is one of the toughest things in all sports to accomplish, not just the Sport of Kings but all of sports. Add doing so without racing at two, which broke a very old streak that goes back to Apollo, and you have to give the nod to Justify. Historically, there are so few Triple Crown winners for a very good reason. Sadler did a fantastic job and plotted a great course, and they executed beautifully. They just did it in a Triple Crown year. History is history. Sure Justify retired sooner than we would have liked. He still won the Triple Crown. It was but a few years back when all the talk was to change the sequence, it is too hard. We won’t see another one. It is hard indeed. Horse of the Year hard.
Santa Anita has come up with a new Roulette wager. Kudos for trying but this sounds like a silly bet to me. Apparently, they will group horses into three color categories, red, black, and green. You bet a separate win pool on the color and thus the horses in that group, and if one of those wins so do you. We’ll see I guess.
December 10, 2018
Nobody is Listening
By: Jonathan Stettin
We have all heard that old silly question about if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? That is what the recently concluded Global Symposium on Racing reminds me of. Salud to Pat Cummings, Steve Byk, and some others for accurately pointing out some of the issues plaguing the Sport of Kings but all due respect given, identifying the problems has never been the issue. Dealing with and eradicating them has. I don’t see where having even a thousand symposiums will help if nobody is listening — nobody who calls any shots anyway.
Several issues are hurting the game that can literally be fixed by post time today if we had the right shot callers. For example, how difficult is it to stagger post times between racetracks? It is not hard, I assure you but you need people who care enough about their customer to do something more than check the direct deposit of their paychecks. Unfortunately, we have way too many of those just galloping out to the finish not even knowing where the finish may be. Remember objects in the mirror may be closer than you think. Although I did not attend the symposium, I did follow what was discussed as best I could and also tried to gauge who was listening, and more importantly who was responding. It would appear nobody is listening.
One of the obstacles not related to blatant mismanagement and a lack of caring about and knowing your customer is racetrack ownership and governing bodies. Racetracks are owned for the most part by different entities and operate in different states. This enables multiple jurisdictions and sets of laws and rules that govern the game. It is difficult to get people on the same page, especially when they have different goals and interests. Somehow all the racetracks must be brought under the same umbrella to see meaningful changes.
Today, we have racetracks scrambling to posture themselves to the reality of having to find other revenue sources to survive. Slots or “racinos” are the low hanging fruit. Sports bettors are also a focus. Looking past that what do you think happens when tracks tap into those streams to the point where they support a diluted weakening product. Everyone has read that book and knows the ending.
D. Wayne Lukas made a statement recently validating what many of us know. Far too many people in the game don’t know, or worse don’t even care who butters their bread. Wayne stated that racing is not fueled by gambling. That is just plain wrong. Without betting they would run for blue ribbons. How long do you think that would last?
Racing has operated for years like they were the only game in town, and in some cases they were. Not so today. The gambler has many options. Many of those options are games of skill and not chance. Poker, blackjack, chess, backgammon, and others are as much, if not more, games of skill than horse racing and are played for big money with a far more equal and controlled playing field. There are many other options as well. Craps, roulette, slots, and of course sports to name a few. More and more bettors are literally being driven to these options by the very racetracks they have frequented. Shun your gambler customers enough they will go elsewhere.
Look at it like this. The game cannot survive without the bettor, but the bettor can indeed survive and continue to bet without the game. It is simple really. Who needs who more?
Wayne’s comment is consistent with what seems to be the thought process of most of the racetrack management, with a few welcome exceptions. Oaklawn Park despite their growing casino operation applauds the bettor and racing alike. Keeneland does it, and so do a select few other venues. The problem is more and more focus strictly on the off-track handle and other revenue sources and cringe at the thought the gambler is their core customer and driving force of the sport. Once, or rather, if these tracks are successful in transitioning to multiple option gambling houses, things will become much worse for both the horse and horseplayers.
If you think the added revenue will go towards improving the game, I’d suggest looking at past performances. This is horse racing and you are a bettor so you will have to buy them.