February 22, 2019
Get Out of the Way
By: Jonathan Stettin
Race callers have always had their trademark calls. Some we like, some we don’t, and track announcers are a matter of personal choice. That said, the trademark calls become almost a part of the racetrack experience. We learn to accept the ones we don’t like as they are part of the venue’s branding.
One of the more famous calls was Dave Johnson’s “and down the stretch they come.” Just about every racing fan recognized those words and knew the horses were in the stretch. Trevor Denman’s “and they’d need to sprout wings” was a personal favorite of mine especially if I had the horse on the lead.
I grew up listening to Fred Caposella, one of the greatest race callers of all time. He called the races at the New York tracks for a long time. Like Harry Henson from the Southern California circuit, Fred had the right voice for a race caller. Some of his calls were, “and they race down the backstretch that way.” Of course, “It is now Post Time,” and “they’re off. “
Luke Kruytbosch also had a race callers voice. It is an art, and a difficult one at that. There have been many great track announcers, and some not so good ones as well. The best of the bunch either had great signature lines or the classic race-trackers voice. Some were fortunate enough to have both.
The current Gulfstream Park announcer recently introduced a signature line into his calls. "Easy money," he’d say when a horse appeared home, often at a short price. Trust me when I say like it or hate it, the call has no impact on the outcome. Yes, some found it annoying, especially I’d imagine if they went against the chalk as many of us so often do. However, to complain about it to the point good ole Pete had to scrap it, well that is just plain silly.
I am not sure whether the powers that be at Gulfstream ordered the scrap, or Pete caved to the social media pressure. Either way, he caved, and no lion concerns themselves with the opinion of sheep. If that was a signature call, he should have owned it in my opinion. Easy for me to say, sure, but I have walked that walk my entire life.
While the whole race call thing is not that important and really doesn’t warrant much discussion or attention, I bring it up for another reason. It shows the lack of a fan connection and the inability of tracks to focus on keeping their people coming to the races. Branding, and creating a unique experience is a part, albeit not the biggest part, in keeping people coming and identifying with the venue. Nobody is going to stop going to Gulfstream or listening to calls because Pete occasionally says, “easy money.” People will sour however when management shows a disconnect with bettors and fans alike. I mean Gulfstream recently promoted the Pegasus World Cup by highlighting Snoop Dog would perform. I am the only one I saw mention we had two same year Breeders’ Cup winners squaring off. That is a disconnect.
Apparently, the disconnect is not limited to the US. Edgar Prado recently returned from Saudi Arabia where he was denied a license because of his age. Nobody looked into this before he came? Edgar is still a capable rider and younger than a Kentucky Derby winner I believe. Seriously?
Hoping tracks work together to improve the game seems futile at this juncture. Maybe we can hope they somehow just stop getting in the way.
February 15, 2019
By: Jonathan Stettin
To a large extent, the future is always uncertain. You can escalate that when you talk horse racing. Today, more than ever, the future of the Sport of Kings faces serious questions about how it will survive.
Let’s look at what we know. Saratoga has become a watered down meet not even closely reminiscent of the boutique high-quality August place to be it once was. NYRA has extended it to be a summer-long event and the fields you see on the large majority of days could be run at Aqueduct in the winter.
Aqueduct faces closure. The inner track for winter racing is gone. The casino is the focal point of the plant with racing a mere backdrop. The grandstand and clubhouse are dated and falling apart.
Belmont is undergoing renovations, maybe as no ground has been broken yet, but a hockey arena is apparently moving in. The old Belmont will be another Paradise Lost soon.
Hollywood Park is barely a memory.
Calder is not even a memory.
Pimlico is so run down it is in danger of losing the Preakness. If it does they will be a memory also.
Suffolk Downs. Gone.
Hialeah is like it never existed.
Santa Anita despite being home of one of the games powerhouse stables, Bob Baffert’s, struggles to find entries for their races.
Illegal drugs are seemingly prevalent. Legal drugs are overused and misused. Stewards are inconsistent at best. Super trainers are driving small barns into the ground.
Slaughter and aftercare are a serious issue. Perception of the sport is more negative than positive.
You can fire a cannon at most tracks during the week, and on plenty of weekends and not hit a soul.
Tracks can’t work together to the point of staggering post times, let alone any uniformity on significant matters.
Some of the things we don’t know can have even more ramifications.
Nobody really knows how sports wagering is going to impact or interact with horse racing. Many of the scenarios are not looking that good for our game. Why do any books need to share any revenue with horseman and or racetracks? I don’t know but if they don’t have to a good bet is they won’t. Hardcore horseplayers who feel alienated by the tracks are likely to be exposed to sports wagering. Even if sports wagering is not promoted, sports get mainstream coverage, and that will attract some players. I am not sold on us attracting any hardcore sports bettors. They have already been exposed to our game and landed where they did for a reason.
One of the most interesting things developing is the Stronach Trust lawsuit. While there have been reports on it, nobody I have seen is really looking at the scenarios that may unfold.
Stronach owns Santa Anita, Gulfstream and Pimlico amongst other tracks and assets. They own Adena Springs. These are major players in the thoroughbred industry. We know from the preliminary discovery all these tracks and the farm are losing money. Belinda, Franks daughter is claiming it is the result of Frank’s poor management and expensive whims.
Back when Gulfstream transitioned from the old facility to the new one I was still attending the races daily. I was there every day at the tent meet and the first few years in the new facility. I remember shortly after the new venue opened there was talk of a Magna bankruptcy. The 10 Palms staff, many who were my friends were worried about paychecks bouncing. It seemed that all went away, but now it seems that possibly it didn’t or may return.
I don’t know the financial situation of the Stronach holdings nor does it matter from where I sit. I do know that none of us know how this litigation will play out and what a settlement, verdict, or court order will do to the game.
What if Belinda wins and decides to sell off the racing assets? What is the court or Judge orders some type of asset dispersal? What is a settlement is reached which gives Frank the racing operations and they can’t sustain themselves? A lot of what ifs in that lawsuit and they almost all create uncertainty for the sport we love.
I think the potential is there for this lawsuit to have some major impact on horse racing. Maybe not tomorrow but down the road. Most of the scenarios look iffy at best.
February 8, 2019
First Things First
By: Jonathan Stettin
Following an article released by the newly formed Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, I found myself engaged in a conversation on social media with some fellow racing people. While I do not always agree with the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, I do support them and appreciate their efforts.
The article that prompted the conversation was about improving and growing the sport, keeping up with the recent sports wagering legislation by embracing fixed odds wagering amongst other things. Most would agree it is probably a good idea for our industry to stay ahead of this curve.
The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation also promotes lowering take out, reducing the cost of handicapping data and embracing technology. All good ideas any horseplayer would welcome, myself included. Despite that, I see it as more of a chicken or the egg scenario, and frankly I think the answer is obvious.
I have written several articles about the disconnect between people who run racing and those who actually wager on it, their customers. I have written about embracing fixed odds wagering and exchange wagering well before sports wagering was for the most part legalized. All of this ties into many of us wanting to improve and grow the game, or maybe more accurately restore it to when it was the most popular spectator sport and truly the Sport of Kings.
It is my experience and opinion the perception of horse racing amongst those who play it, and even those who don’t is that the playing field is not level. There is a good reason for this. As much as I agree with all the good points to improve, restore, and grow the game, first things first. Level the field. Get rid of the drugs, cheating, and take care of the horses who can no longer compete or who never could or we continue down the steep hill. I see no way around that. Racing execs are satisfied to remain in their respective bubbles without working with other venues, jurisdictions or groups attempting to bring uniformity. To have a level field with minimal cheating, as it can never be eradicated, you need cooperation and uniformity.
During the aforementioned conversation some interesting points were brought up, but to my surprise eliminating cheating was not the number 1 across the board priority. Interestingly, simultaneous to this conversation Jason Servis won the second race at Gulfstream Park’s Championship meet with an off the claim runner who found some new speed to annihilate a field including one horse who had whipped him twice before. The Servis horse was odds on. As the conversation continued Jorge Navarro won the third race at the very same meet with a barb change to him for the first time. This horse also went wire to wire at odds on. Maybe they were both just the best horse, but perception is everything.
Also at the same time you can rest assured there were many ex racehorses, and horses who were never fast enough to compete awaiting horrendous fates at kill pens and slaughterhouses. In a game played by billionaires, multi-millionaires, millionaires, comfortable people, working-class people, struggling people and brokesters you’d think we’d want and insist on a fair game, level playing field and take care of our own. We don’t.
In reality, whatever we do to try and improve the game will not restore it or grow it unless we minimize cheating. Cheating is killing the sport on many levels.
It increases injuries and breakdowns thus sending more horses to slaughter and stressing the rescue organizations.
It decreases handle by driving bettors away and leaving a sour taste in their mouths.
It forces gamblers to seek other options.
It drives both small and honest barns out of business.
It allows for super trainers and barns that attract owners who will feed them horses and starve honest outfits.
It kills owners who employ honest trainers who do not cheat and robs them of purse opportunities.
I can go on and on but if you don’t get it by now, nothing I say is going to change that.
I can’t prove or accuse any trainer of cheating but I know plenty are and if you are a true student and lover of this game so do you. Cheating is not only done with illegal drugs, but also with the misuse, overuse, and not used as intended with legal drugs. There are many ways to push that envelope. Much less to get caught under our current systems. A week or so ago a top Australian trainer was caught with batteries in his barn used for shocking horses to run faster. Don’t all these other improvements regarding take out, technology, wagering options, free forms and programs, staggering post times take a serious back seat to the hardcore issues plaguing what once was the top spectator sport in the land?
Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die. Everybody wants to grow the game, but nobody wants to step up and handle first things first.
January 31, 2019
Things Do Happen
By: Jonathan Stettin
Forgive the redundancy from previous articles, but if I were to ask you to believe that not that long ago people were betting pick 6’s after say four of the six races were run, and doing this on the Breeders’ Cup, you would probably have laughed at me. Can you imagine the expert industry talking heads response? I’d be dismissed as a crazy no doubt and put on the pay no mind list. They would be right about the crazy part, but I have never claimed sanity as a defense of anything. They would have been dead wrong about the pick 6 though, wouldn’t they?
Some years back a good jockey friend of mine, who I was with up at Saratoga, rode a horse in the last race who went off at 30-1. He went to the lead and by about two lengths and held that until deep stretch. At that point the favorite at 8-5 changed leads and kicked in. He was being ridden by one of the leading riders. He nailed the longshot on the wire. A nose separated them.
The next day was a Tuesday which was a dark day. The other rider came over to my friend who was barbecuing a steak on the grill. He said;
“Why didn’t you tell me that horse was live yesterday? I could have got in trouble, and we all make money.” It seemed like half a joke and was laughed off as such. It likely was.
Just last week a top Australian trainer who is a Melbourne Cup winner had their barn raided by law enforcement. The Melbourne Cup is one of the most famous and difficult races in the world to win. It has prestige on a par with a Kentucky Derby, and the same level of scrutiny. Darren Weir and two other “licensees” were taken into custody by the Victorian Police’s Sporting Intelligence Integrity Unit after four buzzers or batteries were found in the barn. A sporting intelligence integrity unit. Can you imagine if we had one of those in the states? Weir won the Melbourne Cup in 2015 with Prince of Penzance. Weir has two training locations, and both were raided. He was released and no charges have been filed yet. While the absolute rule may or may not apply to a licensee, in a criminal case possession would likely have to be established. Nevertheless, it would appear on the surface the batteries were present.
If you asked industry insiders if they thought a Melbourne Cup winning outfit was using batteries, I’d wager most would say no way. Maybe they are right, and maybe they are wrong, but the question is not ridiculous at all, is it?
I wonder how people in the industry would respond today if they had to live and work through the race fixing scandals of the ’70s. Pretty much the entire list of leading jockeys on the NYRA circuit was involved on one level or another even if it was just being subject to questioning. One rider, Mike Hole, committed suicide under what was considered questionable circumstances back then. Another rider was asked on the stand if he ever heard the expression “to hold or pull a horse?” He said simply, no, he never heard that and didn’t know what it meant. Con Errico in another scandal went to prison. In Europe, a top rider was actually put on trial for race fixing not long ago and was acquitted. Things happen. Questions are not crazy nor are those who ask them when money is at stake.
Most of us know how difficult it is to detect some of the illegal performance-enhancing substances in professional sports. Athletes get caught in major mainstream sports with at least some degree of regularity. Our game is not mainstream. Nor does it have mainstream resources. Does this mean every 40% trainer is using “something?” Probably not. It also means asking those tough questions is far from unwarranted. Having some skepticism in many cases is not foolish. Pretending it is preposterous or the thought of a crazy is, well is just plain crazy. Things happen.
January 24, 2019
The Morning Line
By: Jonathan Stettin
One of the things that have come to me over time is looking at a field and knowing two things almost off the bat. One is the likely or approximate post time odds. The other is the odds a horse should be, based on their likelihood of winning. It just comes to me after looking at the past performances and more times than not I’ll be spot on. Yes, I look at the morning line, but I don’t have to to get my feel for the probable odds.
A true morning line is not indicative of the oddsmakers opinion of the horses and their chances. Not at all actually. It is reflective or at least should be of what they think the odds will be at post time. They are handicapping how we will bet more than the horses themselves. A lot of people think if an oddsmaker puts a horse at say 9-5, they must like that horse or think the horse has a good chance. That may or may not be the case. They may think the horse has no shot, but feel the public will bet the runner to 9-5. It is important to understand this when you look at a morning line.
Most line makers use a formula. It goes something like this:
Use a base of 100 and then add points to correspond with the win takeout, say 15%. Therefore, by adding 15 to a base of 100, we arrive at 115 points. Then, by designating an additional point per horse, the morning line will generally balance between 123 and 127 or something like that for fields consisting of 8 to 12 horses.
Once a race is assigned a point value, the oddsmaker must now balance the field of horses to add up to the designated total or at least as close as a point or two.
This is pretty much the formula that is used, or perhaps a close variation of it. If you like to make a fair odds line for yourself to spot overlays and underlays and bet accordingly, you probably use a similar formula. Personally, I don’t make a fair odds line. As I stated earlier when I study a race I know what I think the post time odds will be, and also what I think are fair odds on a horse based on my opinion of their chance of winning. I’m comfortable with that. I also don’t let it affect my betting as much as some might. I don’t bet against the horse I think will win regardless of price, and I don’t bet a horse I think won’t win just because they are long odds. That said if I think a 30-1 horse will win I will bet them the same as I would a 6-5 horse. I’ve singled long odds horses on expensive tickets. It’s just how I play. There is no value in a losing bet.
The morning line has less of an impact today than it did maybe 20 years ago and prior to that. There are far more sharks in the water today. I think it has the most significant impact on payoffs in multi-race wagers. Those are bet without knowing the odds of the advance legs. Those are the races you can easily take advantage of bad morning lines. Once live race betting begins the sharks will balance the line more often than not.
I don’t let odds dictate to me, so I surely would not let a morning line affect my play too much, or my opinion on a race at all. That works for me. It might not for you, and that’s fine. Whatever works for you is what matters.
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.