JC / Railbird


Noted and Noticed

Penn National chairman Peter Carlino and CHRB vice chairman David Israel don’t agree on the value of supplementing purses, but they do on racing’s demographic. “There aren’t sufficient numbers of racing customers in the world anymore because they died,” Carlino said today in an investors and analysts conference call. “The average age of our ontrack customer is deceased, and the average age of our satellite customer is decomposed,” Israel told attendees of the UA-RTIP symposium last December. At least Israel went on to talk about reaching out to potential un-dead fans.

HANA president Jeff Platt, a racing customer very much alive, talks to Jack Shinar about the month-long players’ boycott of California. “Right now I believe there are a number of people in track management that are considering going to the CHRB to ask that it rescind the takeout increase,” said Platt, who took part in recent meetings with track executives. “The TOC is being very tight-lipped about this. This was a horsemen’s idea, after all, not a track idea.” No comment on the boycott from the TOC to Shinar. (Are they just considering, or have they already had discussions about rescinding the takeout increase? That’s an interesting question, considering the depressed handle and what must be growing concern re: the purse account.)

The equine California makes his debut in race eight at Gulfstream on Saturday in the first race at Gulfstream on Sunday. Trainer Todd Pletcher scratched the Madcap Escapade colt from a race that included barnmate Cal Nation, a half-brother to graded stakes winner Bluegrass Cat, and re-entered him in a race that came up a little less contentious. John Velazquez is named to ride on Sunday, instead of Ramon Dominguez, who had the mount in Saturday’s race.

2/7/11 Addendum: California finished third in his first start.

Meetings Taken

Santa Anita and Del Mar executives recently met with horseplayers to discuss the January 1 takeout increase and other concerns. Art Wilson reports:

A HANA-backed boycott of California races is believed to be a factor in Santa Anita’s declining handle numbers this meet. HANA president Jeff Platt and the group’s California representative, Roger Way, met with Santa Anita president George Haines and Allen Gutterman, the track’s marketing director, on Sunday at Santa Anita and with Del Mar president Craig Fravel and marketing director Craig Dado on Monday … Aaron Vercruysse, hired recently by the Thoroughbred Owners of California to advise the group on betting matters, attended Sunday’s meeting …

The meetings are evidence that horseplayers, as represented by HANA, have gained the clout to compel conversation about customer issues. And while conversation isn’t action of the sort that’s going to end the players’ boycott, it is a start, one that went over well with Andy Asaro, a California horseplayer who attended both meetings. I talked with Asaro last night and he was positive about the discussions, describing the Santa Anita and Del Mar executives as “very interested” in the bettors’ perspective and open to making adjustments. He was less appreciative of the TOC, represented by Vercruysse. Although Asaro found Vercruysse pleasant and knowledgeable, he felt his presence was perfunctory. “He was there for the TOC to be able to say they talked to us,” said Asaro, suggesting that wasn’t enough. “They need to show goodwill.”

1/31/11 Addendum: HANA president Jeff Platt answers questions about the meetings. Noted: “However, I think there might be at least partial support at this point within track management to rescind the takeout increase. I say that because they reached out to us. They are looking for solutions.”

More SA Numbers

Santa Anita executives went on the offensive over the weekend, releasing figures showing the handle decline isn’t as bad as numbers bandied about in discussing a horseplayers’ boycott suggest. Art Wilson reports:

While cold, hard figures show Santa Anita’s overall handle was down 17 percent through Thursday, track officials contended Saturday their handle was down only 8 percent if you use “comparable days” rather than “calendar days.”

According to Santa Anita director of mutuels Randy Hartzell, it’s “not fair,” for instance, to compare opening weekend last year to the meet’s first two days this year (something I brought up, somewhat in jest, last month). Handle on comparable days totals $97,086,816 for 12 days of racing this year, said Hartzell, down from $105,784,974 last year; that compares to an overall total of $79,085,032 this year, down from $95,191,018 last year.

I asked Wilson the source of the article’s totals, and he replied that the numbers are derived from DRF data, not the CHRIMS data recently referred to by Scott Daruty on the Paulick Report, which gave rise to questions about how the track’s total handle figures are determined. “I am told by more than one person (Santa Anita and the CHRB) that according to CHRIMS daily average handle is only down about 8.2%,” wrote a California bettor seeking an explanation of the differences in an email I received this morning:

If that is true then Equibase and DRF are putting out false handle numbers to the public and have been for years…. How do DRF and Equibase come up with the handle numbers they disseminate? Can someone from Equibase and DRF respond to this please?

Good question. But — and I write this as someone who would also like to know how the figures are derived and their accuracy confirmed — it’s a tangent here. I mean, hey guys, you’re arguing about how much your handle is down. Your handle is down, at the same time that Tampa is booming and Gulfstream is reporting gains. Aqueduct isn’t up, but that’s because NYRA was especially hard hit by NYC OTB’s closure, and they’ve admirably met that challenge so far by treating it as an opportunity to cultivate new customers, take over the OTB TV channel, and get live streaming video on the NYRA Rewards site.

Santa Anita’s handle is down, and track executives are debating by how much? Instead of admitting that customers might have a point — that maybe the product is overpriced, or not all that enticing — and considering how they might respond positively to reverse the slide, they’d rather defend how they’re running the business. The way things are going, that’s right into the ground.

Saturday Notes

Oaklawn Park opens today. Trainer Larry Jones, refreshed by semi-retirement and recovered from aluminum poisoning, is back. So is Lady Giacamo, one of the first winners for her sire Giacomo and one of the first additions to my juvenile watchlist last year. After going 3-for-3 at Lone Star early in the summer, the filly was brought to Del Mar, where she didn’t race, and returned to the work tab at Remington in November. The six-furlong Dixie Belle Stakes will be her first start since winning the TTA Sales Futurity last June.

Square Eddie, returned to training after a year at stud, set a track record of 1:13.11 for 6 1/2 furlongs winning at Santa Anita on Friday. It’s just the latest record set over the new dirt track, prompting Brad Free to wonder, “when horses run as fast as they have been running this winter at Santa Anita, one has to ask again — at what expense?” I very much hope not at the expense of aggravating the physical issues that sent Square Eddie to the shed. “He had a high suspensory strain and I’ll be very interested to see how he looks in the morning — if he’s knocked out or body-sore,” said trainer Doug O’Neill after. “Hopefully we’ll find an empty feed tub and a bright, happy horse.”

The chipmunks are attacking! How could they not, when provoked like this? According to Santa Anita executive Scott Daruty, handle on Santa Anita was up 5% on the first official day of the horseplayers’ boycott, not down more than 15%. Numbers from the CHRIMS database — numbers not publicly available or reported by Equibase, DRF, or the California stewards, and therefore unverifiable — say so. I’m not a member of HANA, and even though I’ve bet less than $20 on Santa Anita since the meet started, I’m not boycotting. (Short fields dominated by speedballs and favorites bore me.) I’m an observer, and my interests lie in having access to accurate numbers and trying to understand what those numbers mean. If the track handle numbers reported on charts and treated as standard by every trade publication (including the one Daruty is speaking through) are inaccurate, then we have a bigger problem than trying to determine whether Thursday’s Santa Anita handle was up or down — the quality of handle data, as well as all reportage based on it, is compromised.

California Jam

Why gadfly horse owner Jerry Jamgotchian is coming back to California:

… Jamgotchian said he feels California is a better place to race now because the “purse structure is higher” and smaller stakes fields increase the chances of his horses acquiring black-type than, for example, at Gulfstream Park.

“There are less horses in California to compete against. The new dirt track at Santa Anita is also an impetus,” he said.

At least someone sees a silver lining in the horse shortage plaguing SoCal. More than 2,400 horses stabled at Santa Anita and Hollywood, and Saturday’s Sham Stakes, the first of the track’s Kentucky Derby preps, only draws five — all maiden winners, but for Clubhouse Ride. What is really going on? Foolish Pleasure would like to know:

Can anyone explain exactly what is the real story behind California’s so-called “horse shortage”? Reading Steve Andersen’s piece in the DRF this morning it struck me once again that all we ever hear out of that state in recent years is excuses why they can’t fill cards.

Field size, reports Blood-Horse in an article on the horseplayers’ boycott of California, “is averaging 7.69 horses per race, down from 7.91 from the same period last year.” That’s with one fewer day of racing a week.

I’m not sure how much longer the higher purses drawing Jamgotchian will be around, if the boycott succeeds. It does seem to be attracting attention. It also may be making a noticeable impact. Thursday was the first official day of the action, and compared to the previous Thursday, handle was down 15.26% (from $5,454,129 to $4,621,858), despite steady attendance, the same number of races, and a difference of five starters. The decline was striking, after a couple weeks in which figures were down, but difficult to interpret.

Five for the Sham, but eight for Sunday’s El Encino Stakes, which features certain 3-year-old filly champion Blind Luck making her first start of the year. She’ll be running against the new dirt’s speed-favoring profile and front-runners Champagne d’Oro (the other G1 winner in the field) and trainer Bob Baffert’s Always a Princess, coming off a fourth in last month’s La Brea Stakes.

Reading the Numbers

Nick Kling on the first 11 days of racing at Santa Anita:

Through Sunday, on-track attendance at Santa Anita is down 9 percent. Total all-source handle is down $11.5 million, a decline of 13.4 percent.

On-track and intra-state (within California) handle is down 7.8 and 6.7 percent, respectively. The most significant loss is in inter-state wagering, which has fallen 19 percent.

The trend: After the first seven days of racing at Santa Anita, average handle was down 18%, out-of-state handle down 21.9% over the previous year. After the first two days, total handle was down 26.2%, out-of-state down 32.3%.

Things are going great at Gulfstream: Five days in, total handle is up 17.2%.

Monday Notes

What a difference eight months can make: An email arrived over the weekend pointing to this DRF interview that appeared with then-new CHRB chairman Keith Brackpool in January 2010. Brackpool opposed the Los Alamitos takeout increase, telling Steve Andersen, “It’s a slippery slope … I don’t like it.” In September, after California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the law that included the statewide takeout increase that’s riled up horseplayers, Brackpool was quoted by the Blood-Horse as saying, “We offer in California the premier racing product on a year-round basis, but we were offering our first-class product at a discount price. We’re changing the pricing model.”

Whatever the reason for Brackpool’s shift in perspective, the board’s decision to accept higher takeout on exotic wagers so as to boost purses by $25-30 million seems to be backfiring just days into the Santa Anita meet. Ray Paulick beat me to the numbers: Wagering through the first seven days is down an average of 18% over last year’s winter meet; out-of-state handle is down 21.9%. One big bettor tells Pull the Pocket that he’s not playing California, and that others are either wagering less or looking elsewhere:

“Out of the guys who I have told you about before, two are just dabbling nickels and dimes at Santa Anita, one is betting much less, I have stopped cold turkey along with another. The last guy is looking for a new circuit to bet and tells me he has been studying for that. It’s unlikely he’ll come back, unless something changes there. The ones who are still betting obviously operate on very thin margins so if they see their day to day results dropping [e.g. with the higher takeout], I’m sure they’ll quit and just go for carryover pools and I’m pretty confident that will be the end result.”

Re: thin margins, Ed DeRosa has posted a chart clearly demonstrating how takeout affects bankrolls, and makes the point that it’s not only bettors harmed by raising takeout, but tracks. Short-term gains have long-term costs. One track that’s earning kudos for getting it right is Tampa Bay Downs, which actually out-handled Santa Anita last Wednesday and is posting double-digit gains daily. Tampa, which has had much success with its program for Churchill-pointing 3-year-olds over the past few years, may also draw the leading Kentucky Derby prospect this spring. Trainer Todd Pletcher is considering the March 12 Tampa Bay Derby for likely juvenile champion Uncle Mo, who’s about three weeks away from his first breeze of 2011.

1/4/2011 Addendum: Takeout math from Trackmaster, using a Pick 3 wager as an example. Originally posted last August, newly relevant.

In the Red

How the pool totals looked through the card at Santa Anita on Wednesday:

Pool totals through race six at Santa Anita, 12/29/10
Edited screenshot from an anonymous player forwarded by Pull the Pocket. Player’s figures vary in amount, not trend, from the totals posted on Equibase.

There was a Super 5 carryover of $32,444 in the nightcap, to which bettors added $111,054, but that didn’t much help the day’s total. Only $4,038,178 was wagered on the eight-race card, 28.1% less than the $5,617,017 that was wagered on last year’s comparable eight-race Wednesday card. Reviewing the numbers, Bill Finley concludes:

There can be only one reason why Santa Anita has gotten off to such a wretched start — the takeout increase. It looks like horseplayers actually can be pushed too far.

I think he’s right that horseplayers are feeling pushed too far, although not to the extent that handle is off by so much due mainly to horseplayer action, which is likely magnified by several other factors influencing wagering. There were 50 betting interests at Santa Anita on Wednesday, for instance, compared to last year’s 60, a decline of 16.7%. Yesterday’s fourth race was scratched down to three starters — on which Santa Anita bizarrely allowed trifecta wagering — reducing the pool totals on that race to a third of what the fourth race took in last year. There also hasn’t been a ton of value in the pools since the opener: Favorites have won 13 of 26 races, at an average price of $4.50, and finished in the money in 20 of 26. I didn’t play Santa Anita on Wednesday, and it wasn’t because I was protesting — it was because there was nothing to play. Never mind the boycott — like the SoCal track surface argument of the past three years, the takeout debate obscures a deeper problem — for the most part, California racing just isn’t that compelling.

12/31/10 Update: Steve Davidowitz says it much better: “Given smaller fields dominated as they are by heavy wagering favorites, it even can be argued persuasively that the prescribed takeout increase will prove to be an unfair price for the product on display…. The net effect at the windows is sending a stronger message than any boycott.”

One Way to Spin

The weather* continued to hammer Santa Anita on Monday, with total handle for the second day of the meet totaling $5,529,285, down 34.5% from the $8,443,017 taken in on the second day of last year’s meet. For the first two days of the meet, total handle is down 26.2% compared to last year. “There is no way to spin this,” Bill Christine quotes bettor Andy Assaro saying of the opening day decline. I’m a bit disappointed Santa Anita didn’t even try to give the numbers a positive gloss. (Were they not paying attention to Del Mar and NYRA this past summer?) After all, the first two days last year fell on Saturday (usually the best day of the week for handle anywhere) and Sunday, this year on Sunday and Monday. Comparing opening day Sunday 2010 to second day Sunday 2009 yields an increase of 38.7% in handle. Comparing the first two days this meet to Sunday and Monday 2009 delivers an increase of 22.2% in handle. A brazen publicist could really run with those percentages.

*There is no horseplayers’ boycott, comrades. In fairness, though, Monday was a snow day for much of the frozen northeast, with no simulcasting at several tracks, and no betting through NYRA’s online or telephone services. [Also, left out above, comparing Monday 2010 to Monday 2009 shows a modest decline of 2.3% in handle. That’s with one additional race on the card.]

11:20 AM Addendum: Here’s a question: How much of Santa Anita’s opening weekend interstate handle did NYC OTB account for in 2009?

Speed Up, Handle Down

So, was the horseplayers’ boycott a success before it even began? I was among those who thought that anticipation for the first day of racing at Santa Anita in eight months and pent-up dirt demand would lead to a surge in opening day handle. That’s not what happened. From every angle (opening day last year, the last opening day on Sunday, the last opening day with a dirt track), handle was down across the board. Compared to 2009, attendance was off 4% (from 35,292 to 34,268), on-track handle down 15% (from $4,531,236 to $3,851,594) and total handle down 21.5% (from $14,913,953 to $11,707,276). Several factors surely affected the numbers: The track ran nine races this year, 10 in 2009; all the turf races were moved to the main track; there was no handle from now-closed NYC OTB; rain in California and snow on the East Coast may have kept some bettors away. But it also seems likely that a notable percentage of players held back bets, whether to protest the takeout increase or to watch how the reconstructed surface performed.

Santa Anita gave a brave spin to the day’s numbers, issuing a press release in which track president George Haines said, “I think it’s safe to say that we again demonstrated in a very profound way that our fans will continue to support Santa Anita in a big way on our big days. We’re very hopeful we can build on the momentum we generated today and carry it through the entire meet.” That might be difficult, if there are too many cards like Wednesday’s nine-race 61-horse line-up ahead. For comparison, Tampa drew 100+.

The new track looked like the Santa Anita dirt of old on Sunday, with California speed back in style and favorites winning four of nine races (and finishing in the money in eight of nine). “Southern California racing has been a soap opera the past few years,” writes Jay Privman. “Sunday made it feel even more so, as if the past three years at Santa Anita, under a controversial synthetic surface, had merely been a dream.” Trainer Bob Baffert, who might be more inclined to call the past three years a nightmare, was in the winner’s circle after the fourth race, posing next to a freakishly fast 2-year-old named The Factor. “If he’d have lost today, I would have quit training,” said Baffert. Going gate-to-wire, as did the winners of all three six furlong races on the card, The Factor set a new track record of 1:06.98 for the distance while winning a maiden special by 8 1/4 lengths as the 3-2 favorite, his time good for a Beyer speed figure of 102. Switch, the first of trainer John Sadler’s three stakes winners on the day, bested the stakes time of 1:20.45 posted by Mamselle Bebette in 1993 by winning the G1 La Brea Stakes in 1:20.33. Twirling Candy, finishing a nose in front of Smiling Tiger, broke the track record of 1:20 for seven furlongs set by Spectacular Bid in 1980 by winning the G1 Malibu Stakes in 1:19.70. That the Bid’s record was in danger was anticipated early in the day, and not with much joy. “I kind of have a problem with that,” said one of the house handicappers on the track’s feed, talking about Santa Anita’s decision to restore the old dirt track records, ignoring the differences in the surfaces and the synthetic interlude, and I kind of agreed. Twirling Candy is no Spectacular Bid, even if he — like Sir Beaufort winner Sidney’s Candy — is now an Omnisurface Star.

1:45 PM Addendum: Jay Hovdey posts re: Sunday’s lickety-splits: “Meanwhile, up in his booth at the top of the stretch, track superintendent Rich Tedesco was banging his head against the desktop, knowing full well that too fast is just plain too fast when it comes to protecting the frail infrastructure of the Thoroughbred racehorse from his own natural instincts to flee. He also knows that horses like Spectacular Bid don’t come along every 30 years.”

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