Category Archives: RTIP classwork

Night of the Living Racinos

To me, the scariest thing in horse racing is not breakdowns, synthetic surfaces or Frank Stronach.  The darkest horror in horse racing is that which began with the best of intentions, but like Dr. Frankenstein’s  monster, it has gotten out of control and threatens to destroy the industry it was promised to save —

RACINOS

(cue shrieking)

I came to this conclusion after doing a research project about Penn National Gaming.  The company has grown and flourished despite the economic downturn, and has even begun expansion into Las Vegas, the ultimate gaming market.  However, the company that began as a pari-mutuel horse racing organization has all but forgotten its original mission.  In the company’s 10-k, there are pages about its casinos, but the whole of the racing report is condensed to 2 paragraphs.  As you can imagine, the company is not planning on building a race track on The Strip.

When first pitched to regulators, adding casino games was to be a much-needed injection of cash to struggling racing jurisdictions.  The revenue from slots and other “dummy games” (as my mom calls them) would go into the dwindling purse accounts and help keep the horses from fleeing the poorer states for better racing areas.  With success, the higher purses could even attract better-quality horses to the racino states, or so went the line of thinking.

What actually happened, in many cases, was that racing became the red-headed stepchild to the more profitable slot machines.  The purses grew, yes, but the quality of racing remained the same – $5,000 claimers running for $10,000 purses.  There aren’t any Bafferts or Pletchers sending horses to Penn National.  The track doesn’t even run a graded stakes race.

Earlier this year, scandal hit Penn National when a series of horrific breakdowns caused a jockey strike – some blamed the horses’ controversial owner while the horse owner blamed the condition of the track itself.  This incident did not reflect well on the track by any angle – why would a track allow unscrupulous people to race there?  Why would a place seemingly raking in the dough with its slots be skimping on track safety?

Because racing by itself is not paying the bills.

It costs much more for a track to maintain stabling and the racing surface, and also pay into purses, than it does to purchase & plug in a slot machine.    The slots also generate much more revenue than pari-mutuel handle.  Why invest in a weaker product?  Just get by with what you can get in the starting gate.

Racino states are parasitic.

Nothing illustrates this more vividly than the crisis in Kentucky.  Yes, KENTUCKY, the Horse Capital of the World, is on the brink of losing its signature industry to surrounding states with racinos.  Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia are seeing an influx of former Kentucky-based owners, breeders and trainers due to their slots-fattened purses and state-bred bonuses.  The dummy gamblers have left Kentucky’s beautiful race tracks for riverboat casinos, and the state’s horse industry has cried out to its legislators for an equal footing.  They want slots in Kentucky.

I just can’t stomach the thought of going to Keeneland and having to schlump through a room full of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Lucky 7s” to get to the track.  The two types of gaming are total opposites: dark, artificial, smoke-filled casinos vs. bright, outdoor, scenic racing.

But aside from asthetics, adding casino games does not solve the deeper problem racing faces.

What can be done to boost racing itself, which will increase handle?

I can see a day in the not-too-distant future where some of these racinos will lobby to dump racing completely to focus on the money-making slots and table games.  This worst-case scenario is playing out in Rhode Island, where Twin Rivers Racing and Casino, a greyhound facility, has lobbied the state for permission to discontinue dog racing and become a full-fledged casino.  True, greyhound racing has faced tremendous pressure from animal welfare groups that has shut it down in most other New England states.  But the same forces are working against horse racing as well.  A business that is successful is a lot easier to fight for than one operating with huge losses.

There are a few racinos that have reinvested their windfalls into racing.  Sunland Park in New Mexico hosts the Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby, which Mine That Bird used as a launching pad to his Kentucky Derby victory.  Prairie Meadows in Iowa hosts the Iowa Festival of Racing, with three graded stakes that attracted full fields of competitive, quality horses in 2010.

But these success stories don’t lessen the greater worry about racinos – a quick fix that ignores the core, a beautiful, wonderful game that has much to offer on its own.  In my next entry, I will describe my ideas to boost racing itself and stave off the creeping menace of racinos.

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Filed under racinos, rants, RTIP classwork

Favorable Conditions

Once again, I have left my dear readers hanging for another unforgivably long span.  It’s hard to keep up a blog as well-written as this one (ha!) in the middle of a stressful semester of school.  But since people have been begging for an update (yeah right!), why not explain a little bit about what I’ve been learning this year?  I mean, I’ve talked up the generalities of the RTIP, but the specifics are really cool, and have increased my enjoyment of (and irritation with) the sport tremendously.

First off, let me tell you what I have been working on this past week: creating a matrix to write a condition book.

YIKES. Sounds like a bunch of words just stuck together, like, “beating parabolas to edit a banana tree”.  But in reality, the matrix and the condition book are two crucial elements to putting on the racing show each day.  Those readers who are experts on racing, or who are RTIP alums, forgive me for delving into this ultra-basic concept.  I find that explaining stuff out loud helps me learn the material, too.  And hey, if you’ve never written a condition book you may find this blog entry enlightening.

“Conditions” are the requirements for entry in a race, such as claiming price, age, sex, number of wins, distance and

The Condition Book, or horseman's Bible at the track.

surface.  The condition book is a listing of all the races a track has to offer for a period of time.  Most condition books come out a few weeks in advance of the race meet and only cover a few weeks of the meet.  This allows the racing secretary to make adjustments to the offerings based on the number and class of horses at the track. There is an art to writing a condition book, and this semester I’ve been learning the basic strokes to create my own masterpiece.

Figuring out the amount of purse money a track can offer is the first step in making a condition book.  Purses are determined from the percentage of takeout from the handle wagered through the track.  I could write pages on how the takeout is divvied up between the tracks, horsemen, states, and account wagering facilities, so let’s save that for another blog.  In the end, the total amount for purses I have to work with is about $10.2 million.  I take 22% of that for the stakes races and the rest must be spread out among the rest of the races, or overnights.

The big question I had before I started this project was, how do you know how many races to run?  The track and racing secretary decide the total number to be run each day, and on my calendar the track runs between 9 and 12 races.  Another step in determining how many races to offer is figuring out what kinds of horses you will have on the backside.  Of course, they’re all going to be thoroughbreds (or QH or STB or both if it’s a mixed meet), but the number of horses in each class category determines how many races of a type you can offer.  The vast majority of race horses are older, mid-to-low-level claimers.  My track has a pretty good mix of horses, though, so I can write some pretty juicy allowance races, too.

The next part is actually scheduling the races.  My track has a 33-day meet spread over 2 months. I scheduled my stakes races first, placing my big-money events on closing weekend.  Then working backward, I scheduled allowance preps about 30 days prior. This was the easy part of matrix creation.  Claiming is on a whole ‘nother level of complexity.

Scheduling claiming races begins with determining the claiming prices.  Many jurisdictions have a “jail rule”, where a claimed horse cannot run back within 30 days unless it races at a 25% higher price.  Therefore, the racing secretary sets up claiming prices in 25% intervals, for example,

$8,000 -> $10,000 -> $12,500 ->$16,000 -> $20,000 ->$25,000 ->$32,000

…and then there’s the “ladder” of claiming.  This is so much easier to explain in pictures, but since I don’t have a whiteboard, here’s the best I can do in words:

On the first day of the meet, you schedule the lowest-level claiming race.

On day 2, you schedule the next highest level claiming race.

Day three, the next highest, and so on.

On the matrix grid, the group of races would look like this:  /

Then you count out about 25-30 days later to start your ladder again.  The concept of “authentic anticipation” is important when making the matrix — trainers know how long between races so they can point their horses for the right ones.  Racing secretaries who go along with the authentic anticipation concept write condition books that make trainers happy and also allow bettors to become familiar with the horses racing at a track.

There may be some modifications to the ladders depending on if the day the race should be run is a dark day, or if the race conflicts with another, similar race. Sometimes tracks have a truncated claiming ladder, where the claiming prices are offered every other time.  The distances of races are “flip-flopped” to give horses a fair chance at their best distance at their claiming price.

Even though the card you play only has 9 races, the racing secretary most likely wrote between 12-15 races for the day.  The final card is determined by the entries taken a few days before the race.  Since not all races fill, and some overfill, the racing secretary keeps this in mind as the meet goes on, and can offer extra races that fit the conditions of those overfilled ones later in the meet.

A good condition book is one that covers everything well so there is no need to write many extra races.  It takes experience and a good relationship with horsemen to create such a successful condition book.  In the past, it took years of working under a racing secretary, catching bits of expertise as it trickled down, for people to learn how to write these things.  But this weekend, I will be doing it after only half a semester of classes!  YIKES!  Whatever unholy set of conditions comes out of this project, I will have gained a totally new appreciation for the racing officials who do all this work before my silly self goes to the track to play.


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Filed under career track, Handicapping, Race Track Industry Program, RTIP classwork, University of Arizona