February 21, 2018
Three Blind Mice
By: Jonathan Stettin
I have written and spoken a lot about steward decisions in the past few years and frankly thought I was done with it. What is the point, they make decisions that impact our money based on subjectivity with little to no accountability? There have been so many poor and illogical decisions in recent years that the whole thing just gets old. When a number is blinking who knows what will happen.
It doesn’t matter if it is a small circuit or our biggest of stages. We all remember Bayern and the sucker punch he threw coming out of the gate. Arguing that didn’t affect the outcome or a better placing shows two things: 1) you do not understand horseracing and what goes on when they leave the gate and 2) you have never been hit with a sucker punch and tried to recover from having the wind knocked out of you while running or recover from the pain and disorientation a square shot to the nose brings with it.
I am sure being a steward can be a thankless and tiresome job. You are almost always going to leave someone unhappy. Subjective decisions do that and also lend to favoritism and biases. This is why I am for one set of rules equally applied that define a foul, and if you commit one you come down. All this not affecting the order of finish or costing a better placing is way too subjective to ever be fair. The proof is I the pudding.
I think we can all agree that if one jockey deliberately or even accidently strikes another be it with their whip, hand or even a rein, it should be a foul. I would go as far as to say it should be an automatic disqualification and even automatic suspension and fine for the culprit rider. I fail to see how you can debate that, you can get a rider or horse killed, never mind the outcome of the race.
This is the very reason I am once again compelled to write about stewards. There have indeed been some fights between riders on the racetrack. One even occurred in the Kentucky Derby. You may have heard of Colonel Bradley, a prominent owner who has had stakes named after him. You may not know he owned the only maiden ever to win the Run for the Roses. Yes, a maiden named Broken Tip owned by the Colonel won the Kentucky Derby. Broken Tip didn’t just win the Derby, he did so with a fighting finish not just with his rival Head Play who he turned for home inside of but also with his rider Don Meade going at it with Head Play’s rider Herb Fisher. Thus, we had the Fighting Finish Kentucky Derby, one of the strangest and most exciting ever run.
It took a photo to separate the two horses at the wire. There were no cameras at the finish line back then however, so a discussion was had, and Broken Tip was declared the winner. There was also an inquiry and the stewards let the result stand. Whether it was favoritism to Colonel Bradley or they truly believed their justification we will never know. They ruled there were so many deliberate infractions because both riders wanted desperately to win the result would stand. This makes some of our rulings today seem reasonable.
Fighting still goes on, and I’d like to think most of us would have liked to see the stewards advance the intellect of their ruling regarding Broken Tip. They haven’t as evidenced by the 5th race at Delta Downs on February 16th, 2018. The head on replay clearly shows jockey Robert Morales on the second-place finisher Delicious repeatedly striking Eddie martin aboard Chaosmos. Worse, Morales “appeared” to do this intentionally as he looked over at Martin before the strikes began. The stewards made no change. If you can I encourage you to watch the head on replay of this race. You will see clear as day why we need accountability with our stewards.
I tried in vain to capture what I could in a still shot. See below:
We have already accepted as players that just about anything out of the gate goes. A lot of times the stewards won’t even look at a left or right turn out of the gate. Are they now asking us to accept jockeys striking other jockeys and horses during the race? I say no thank you.
February 6, 2018
Know Your Customer
By: Jonathan Stettin
In any business to be successful you have to know your customer. This is basic business 101. You have to know who they are and what they want. The old saying “if you don’t take care of your customer someone else will” is as true today as it was when it was first said long ago.
One of the things I think most racetracks make an effort to get right, but ultimately get wrong, is knowing their customer. Just this past summer I heard a shot caller for a major racing circuit make the statement on television that the owners are the backbone of our industry, in an effort to celebrate them. I took that as a partial truth and slight at the same time. It also displayed a disconnect from identifying with who their customers are.
While the owners and bettors are the only two groups putting money into the game as opposed to just taking it out, I think it was a slight to all the bettors or customers to refer to the owners as the backbone of the industry without mentioning the bettors. It is the bettors who pay the shot callers salary, including the bonus, and without bettors the owners would be racing for blue ribbons. How long do you think that would last?
For many years racetracks operated like they were the only game in town. They seemed to look at the horseplayer as a necessary evil. They were not celebrated or embraced. It seemed like nobody wanted to embrace the older guy with a cigar in his mouth and a program and racing form rolled up in his back pocket. He was treated as if he was a degenerate gambler who would put up with anything from bad coffee, paying for everything, and no perks just to bet on a horse. He was never treated like a customer and for a long time that worked. Tables turn however; and things change. The entire landscape changed along with a changing world. Poker exploded with a loud boom, simulcasting offered options, and ADW’s gave us the convenience from wagering at home, or anywhere without having to visit a racetrack that did not welcome us with open arms.
It is interesting to look at the poker boom, and how it coincided with two key factors; 1) the celebration of their top players, and 2) the promotion of it as the skill game it is. It wasn’t until the ship had sailed and the horse was out of the barn that racing attempted to celebrate some players and show the game as one of skill with a poorly produced and short-lived television show that indeed had never realized potential. The show was geared towards attracting new customers, which you cannot do until you learn who your current customers are and take care of them first.
Tournaments have helped move in the right direction with celebrating players and promoting the game as one of skill. Unfortunately, I think there are way too many tournaments with the $2 win and place format as opposed to cash tournaments, which in my opinion are more of an example of handicapping prowess than the win place format. Tournaments also take away the money management and knowing when and how to bet aspect which is essential for long term survival in this game.
This past weekend we had the NHC or National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas. It gets industry coverage but very little, if any, mainstream coverage. It is not in the league of the World Series of Poker which has made it to ESPN. Vegas itself is a good example of where racetracks are missing the boat. In Las Vegas you are rewarded with perks for playing. Free drinks, rooms, buffets, lunches, and if you play enough free stays, flights, shows and almost anything else you want. It used to be more, but even Las Vegas has succumbed to a more corporate mentality and that has cut into the perks smaller players receive. The whales are still coveted, and the smaller players still do better than they would at a racetrack.
Racing management has also moved to a corporate mentality with a “Big Day” philosophy. This started with the Kentucky Derby, the Breeders’ Cup, and rolled into the Belmont Stakes, the Travers, and now the Pegasus. These days are treated as major sporting events which they are and to some extent should be. That extent should not include pricing things, so the everyday $2 bettor is boxed out. This is your customer and bread and butter. That is who you produce these days for, not the non-betting stars who show up because they are paid or for photo opportunities. The major difference between our major sporting events and mainstream sports is that our attendees are gamblers who are there to feed money into the handle and takeout. They are not just there to watch but to bet. We should facilitate this and justify the takeout with free admission, parking, programs and racing forms. That money just goes back into the pools anyway. The more perks the better. If you are in the zone betting and watching a card, do you really want to wait on line for crummy coffee and pay for it? I don’t think you should have to. There are many ways to make your customer feel welcome of you know them and want to.
Granted a lot of racetracks do this for certain players they get to know, and I am not one to complain about any of these things as I am treated very well by the tracks I attend. Some are like extended family. But to stabilize our game, which we need to do before we grow it, every customer needs to be made to feel like I do.
We can certainly do a lot better promoting the game as one of skill, which it certainly is. Those who think it is a horse race and ultimately all luck do not understand odds, value, and how to bet. If you master that along with money management, and are a good handicapper with discipline, you can beat this game if you put in the work. Having people who don’t bet or who bet small occasionally strictly give out multi-race wagers is a mistake. It is a mistake for many reasons. It ties up money from the churn so racetracks and networks that do this are actually hurting themselves. A lot of people don’t play the individual races while they are alive in a multi-race wager.
Learn from real bettors who have a history of beating the game. Racing has their Amarillo Slim’s and that would be an interesting pre-race seminar to attend. We all constantly learn in this game, I’d suggest learning from people who actually have played it not just watched it. Changeup who gives the daily seminars. Have real players, some of the daily faces you see up on the podium. Teach people different perspectives and angles and let them see others success if you have people who are willing to share it.
I went to the track just about every racing day for close to 35 years. Maybe more. When I didn’t go every day, I went most days. I went to bet and beat the game. If a racetrack manager said to me what would it take to get you to come every day again my answer would be simple. Make it easy and let me not have to think about or worry about anything except what I am going to bet. Not where I am parking, sitting, eating, waiting or anything else. Make sure the TV at my table is HD, a decent size, and works perfectly. For a true gambler I think that is all it really takes.
February 6, 2018
Derby Fever & Derby Preps
By: Jonathan Stettin
Kentucky Derby fever engulfs the Sport of Kings each year around February or March, and with it comes the Kentucky Derby prep races. I imagine if you have a two-year-old or three- year old that looks to be Derby quality, the fever can set in earlier.
Even with the Breeders’ Cup, Dubai World Cup, Pegasus World Cup and many other great races and programs, the Run for the Roses remains the anchor of our game and as they say, “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” It is one of the few times in today’s landscape horse racing crosses over and becomes mainstream.
Picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby is challenging, exciting, and financially rewarding for us bettors. Most of us start watching the contenders early. Many contender lists are compiled early, with none more popular than Steve Haskin’s Derby Dozen. What I always found to be a flaw in these early lists was how people, both writers and handicappers included, look at the Derby preps.
Not surprisingly, most of the lists have the same horses, albeit in different order, but the same horses who are usually the recent winners of the prep and relatively new point system races. I think that is a mistake. While the new point system has changed things a tad, in that as a trainer you almost have to tip your hand at least once to make sure you have the necessary points to make the gate, you’ll also have to have your horse peak again the first Saturday in May. The Derby is the goal, and the trainers that win it usually know how to point for a race and have their horse peak on that particular day. That does not always equate with winning big in the preps and I tend to look for horses a bit under the radar that are likely to emerge. I will get into that in a moment, but first let’s look at how I fared in some recent Kentucky Derbies.
2017- Always Dreaming - didn’t have him.
2016- Nyquist - liked him, respected him, but didn’t really have him good.
2015- American Pharoah - had him but so did everybody else.
2014- California Chrome - didn’t have him, but everyone else did.
2013- Orb - loved him and had him good. (Shug is a master at getting a horse to peak when he wants, his Florida Derby was a progressive race, not a peak one)
2012- I’ll Have Another - loved him and had him good. (Another that was coming to a peak)
2011- Animal Kingdom - really loved him, great day at the windows. (Showed his athleticism at Turfway park and his work coming in along with his sire said dirt would be no problem)
2010- Super Saver - not for me.
2009- Mine That Bird - not for me.
2008- Big Brown - had him.
2007- Street Sense - loved him and had him. (His Blue Grass might be the best Derby prep I ever saw)
2006- Barbaro - loved and had him. (Was standing by the rail on the apron at the old Gulfstream when he and Sharp Humor passed me, my first thought was Derby winner and maybe more)
That puts me at 7 of the last 12 with two very nice prices in Animal Kingdom and I’ll Have Another. A big part of both those selections along with Street Sense was watching replays and analyzing the preps. Everyone can see the obvious, and everybody knows who won the preps, what I like to do is see who looks like they are progressing and coming to a peak.
Before getting into exactly what I look for let’s talk about American Pharoah as he was an obvious winner, and on top of many people’s lists, but there is something about his Derby win that rarely gets talked about except by the most astute students of the game. American Pharoah was so good he won the Kentucky Derby a short horse. Yes, you read that correctly. If anyone can train up to a race Bob Baffert can, but you can’t ever get out of a workout what you do from a race. The Kentucky Derby is a grueling race at a distance longer than almost all the horses have ever run before. American Pharoah prepped for the Kentucky Derby at Oaklawn Park and was so superior to everyone he faced he ran about 100 yards combined in all his preps. That is all he had to run. He just toyed with the competition and could not have gotten much out of those races. Sure, Bob’s training helped come May, but did you before or after the Kentucky Derby, ever see Victor Espinoza use the stick on American Pharoah like he did that day. That wasn’t coincidence, and if American Pharoah wasn’t immensely talented he would not have overcome the lack of seasoning.
Another one I’d like to mention is Street Sense and his Blue Grass. If you really want to see what a perfect Kentucky Derby prep looks like watch that race. You can see Calvin Borel measuring his horse against the rest of the field and saving his horse for when it counted. All you have to do is watch Calvin closely in the last furlong, and you will know both he and Carl Nafzger had a different race in mind.
We saw a few Derby preps this weekend in the Holy Bull, the Withers, and the R.B. Lewis. Personally, I don’t think the horse that will emerge as the best three-year-old was in any of those races. Maybe he was in a maiden race and didn’t win it.
The horse that caught most people’s eye and picked up a bandwagon and a spot on most people’s early Derby lists was Audible in the Holy Bull. He didn’t wind up on my Derby Radar.
Audible ran very good in the Holy Bull and drew away from a nice-looking field in his two-turn debut. While he drew a lot of raves, and not to take anything away from him, I looked at it differently. I saw a Todd Pletcher horse run big at Gulfstream. We should all be used to that and that is not intended to take anything away from Todd. I saw a fast horse win in a short stretch race with the finish line at the sixteenth pole. I saw a horse with recent races beat horses coming in off layoffs. None of that jumps out and screams Kentucky Derby to me.
Again, I look for horses who are improving. Horses who look like they will want more distance. I look for athleticism and the ability to take dirt in your face, go wide or face some other adversity and still show guts. I look for heart. I don’t look for easy winners per se, not that they can’t or don’t win, but when trying to find those Animal Kingdom’s and I’ll Have Another’s you have to look outside the box and the obvious. You also do not need a lot of them for it to pay off. I like to focus on trainers who point for races and get their horses to peak for those races.
The horse who caught my eye this weekend was Once on Whiskey. This may not have been an official Derby prep, as it was only a maiden race, but this horse showed me what I like to see in a Derby contender. He obviously needed his first start, which came against a fast sprinting type named Curly’s Rocket, who also happens to be trained by Bob Baffert. Curly’s Rocket lost by a nose to the well-regarded Nero, also trained by Bob in his last start. Once on Whiskey was making his debut. So, while Curly’s Rocket ran away and hid, Once on Whiskey went wide, finished strong and full of run looking like he was crying for two-turns and more distance. He galloped out well and looked like he got a lot out of the race.
Timing wise it might be tough for Once on Whiskey to make the Derby, as he would have to likely break his maiden next out, win a prep and then be doing good enough for Bob to send him to Louisville. That may be just a bit too much to ask for, but if anyone can do it Bob Baffert can. If Once on Whiskey is in the gate for the Kentucky Derby, Apollo should be watching with concern. If not, he might be making a lot of noise down the road.
January 31, 2018
Gun Runner, A True Throw Back Horse
By: Jonathan Stettin
People talk a lot about growing the game and returning it to the glory days it has seen in the past. There were indeed glory days and a big part of that was twofold; large crowds at the races, and stars on the racetrack. That is what the crowds came to see. Horses stayed in training longer, and that created rivalries. The Sport of Kings was a game of rivalries for many years. Today we long for rivalries between great horses to the point we are willing to call even two races against each other a rivalry at times.
The just retired Gun Runner was a breath of fresh air to those of us who remember the old rivalries and the excitement they produced. He would have fit just fine in that era. Commercial breeding, different philosophies, a new landscape, and of course money has changed all that.
Great rivalries were not just great for attendance, they were great for the player as well. It poses a handicapping challenge to know which day Easy Goer might beat Sunday Silence or Alydar might beat Affirmed. You were rewarded if you knew Hedevar was the one who could get Dr. Fager beat by Damascus. He proved it not once but twice. The great Kelso had a few rivalries, there was Beau Purple, Gun Bow, and Carry Back.
If for no other reason, the Pegasus World Cup is a success for keeping at least some horses in training longer. The breeding industry gobbles up the three-year-olds who are successful in the Kentucky Derby faster than a world class sprinter runs their first quarter mile. This is just when fans and bettors alike are getting to know these horses well. It is good for breeding but bad for racing.
Today the economic reality is a horse like American Pharoah becomes too valuable to race. He is worth much more at stud. Most of us know horses really come into their own at four and five years of age and that only leaves us to imagine how good American Pharoah might have been. It is a safe assumption that despite our witnessing him win the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic, we likely never saw the best of what American Pharoah had to offer. Racing lost him to breeding at three-years old, like so many others who would have and could have been great. You really can’t fault the connections; how do you take a chance with that kind of money at stake?
We did get to see how good Gun Runner was, and how great he became. This was a special racehorse for many reasons, his talent was only one of them. In today’s game, horses, especially the top ones run sparingly. Not Gun Runner, he danced all the dances. He was top tier throughout his career and went out the best in training at five-years old. You just don’t see that in today’s game. He was a great example of how horses develop and get stronger and faster at four and five years of age. Another example I love to mention is Forego. Most people believe Sham, a very good and fast horse in his own right, was the best horse behind Secretariat in the 1973 Kentucky Derby. Have you ever heard of Forego I’d ask? Forego went on to become a true great of the game. True he was gelded, but he also stayed in the game and matured and became one of the most versatile and best. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do on the track.
We all knew Gun Runner was a good horse when he was two, and that he was Kentucky Derby caliber when he was three. He ran well in the Derby and even looked like he had a shot to win it at one point. I personally didn’t know how special he was however until he ran in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Although top tier, The Breeders’ Cup Mile, like the Met and Cigar Miles is run more like an elongated sprint. Gun Runner seemed to prefer longer distances and in addition to thinking it was a curious spot for him, I thought he had never seen the types of fractions he would in there. It was questionable if he was fast enough to be competitive in that type of race. The two-turn configuration helped but he still had to run fast.
I had the chance to ask Steve Asmussen about it a few months ago and I saw firsthand what a truly great horseman Steve is. Steve thought at the time of year, with the next year’s campaign in mind, that the mile would be easier on him, and take less out of him than the Classic at a mile and a quarter would. He felt he was indeed fast enough to compete, but more importantly would leave him a stronger better horse the following year. Talk about knowing your horse, you won’t find many better examples. Gun Runner ran a bang up second in the Mile and showed he had speed enough to hang with sprinters and could also carry his speed as well.
Steve campaigns his horses aggressively. Gun Runner was no exception. After the Breeders’ Cup Mile effort, he pointed to the inaugural Pegasus World Cup, but due to quarantine issues at the Fair Grounds he had to miss the race. He went to Dubai where like Seattle Slew and Zenyatta before him ran one of the best races of his life in defeat. Gun Runner’s effort in the Dubai World Cup was over shadowed by the herculean effort of Arrogate who was left at the start and made up a ton of ground to win. Gun Runner on the other hand set the pace in the desert, sans Lasix, on a track where all the winners came from off the pace. Gun Runner held on for second without much fanfare for his effort against the bias, whereas Arrogate was lauded for his effort that was bias aided. Taking nothing away from Arrogate and his spectacular race and tear of 4 incredible races, both horses ran huge that night in Dubai.
Gun Runner would not lose another race after Dubai, nor would he duck anyone, including Arrogate who spotted him a pole and ran him down.
Gun Runner went on to win the Stephen Foster, the Whitney, the Woodward, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic reversing his losses to Arrogate in the Travers and Dubai World Cup. All Grade 1’s all won easily with speed carried from a mile and an eighth to a mile and a quarter. Jockey Florent Geroux rode like he had the best horse every time and he did. This was an old school campaign, fit for an old school horse. From the start of his campaign at four at Oaklawn Park in the Razorback, to the trip to Dubai, to the Breeders’ Cup Classic romp, Gun Runner never tailed off, never bounced or regressed, and actually got better with racing and maturity. Keeping horses like this in training and racing when they are able just might be a big part of the solution all the racing shot callers are looking for with concerts and the like. This is when you see the true ability, not with babies. This is what creates rivalries and maintains interest of fans and bettors. This is what racing needs more of.
It was only fitting Gun Runner would get his chance at the world’s richest race, the Pegasus World Cup, a race he missed the year before due to no reason of his own. He deserved it. He earned it. Racing deserved it as without Gun Runner the Pegasus was just another stake. With him it was the sendoff of a true champion and Horse of the Year.
The biggest questions going into the Pegasus were, would the wide 10 post hurt the champ, no way, and would he finally regress or tail off? That nobody knew.
If you listened to Gun Runner you might have known. You can watch below Gun Runner walking back to Steve Asmussen’s barn a few days before the race and walking into the paddock to be saddled on race day. This is a horse touting himself and looking more like a budding star three-year old than a five-year old making their final start.
Gun Runner stalked the pace in the Pegasus under a firm hold by Florent Geroux. When given his head he showed us all the heart of a racehorse, he did the Pegasus name proud and will be missed. We can only hope these inflated purses, regardless of how they are funded, keep more of our stars around longer...and in the near future we see a race with a few Gun Runner’s in it, like the old glory days.
Watch Gun Runner heading back to his stall
Watch Gun Runner arriving at the paddock to be saddled for the Pegasus