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The Era of Big Derby Payouts is Over

I wrote this last year but never posted it – but here we are again with a high-chalk Derby result, so here goes:

 

Hope you had a piece of that Giacomo Derby, where the Mike Smith-piloted grey won at 50-1 by a nose over the 75-1 Closing Argument. Ditto that California Chrome/Commanding Curve Exacta that paid for your summer vacation. The era of big Derby payouts is over – and it’s all Twitter’s fault.

The 2015 Kentucky Derby returned a paltry $101 for a $1 Trifecta, the lowest in 25 years. The $1 Superfecta wasn’t much better, paying out a modest $634.10 for the 18-10-8-15 combination that included the 5-2 Favorite, American Pharoah, his 9-2 stablemate, Dortmund, Firing Line, at 9-1 and Frosted, the priciest of the bunch, at 10-1. Danzig Moon would have been the “bomber” had he hit the Super, but at 21-1, he was far less of a longshot than many past bombers – remember 37-1 Golden Soul in 2013?

This year could be the bellwether to big change in Derby betting trends – and it won’t be fun for the regular gamblers who keep the game afloat throughout the year. What happened? The main driver of this change is technology – and the access modern communication devices have given racing fans to the horses that make up the Derby field.

Twenty years ago, Thunder Gulch won the Derby at odds of 25-1. That year, he was considered the third-stringer to trainer D. Wayne Lukas’s more highly regarded colt, Timber Country, and the super filly, Serena’s Song. Thunder Gulch was no slouch, however, having won speedy editions of the Fountain of Youth stakes and the Florida Derby early in the season. The main knock against his otherwise solid record was an unimpressive third in the Blue Grass at the old, inside-speed-biased Keeneland. It is safe to say that had the chestnut colt, ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, been in yesterday’s field, he would have been one of the favorites.

In 1995, there was no such thing as YouTube, where free race replays are easily found to analyze the preps. There was no Twitter, where early-bird clockers routinely opine on the morning workouts happening at tracks from coast to coast. There was no Facebook, where fans get first-hand, official news updates from the racing stables themselves. And there was certainly no instagram, where anyone with a phone posts pictures of the horses in the lead-up to each stakes race. This just scratches the surface of information fans and bettors had – all of it free – before the 141st running of the Derby. And this information lead to the truest final odds ever in the race.

My back of the napkin calculations are thus:

social media + points system + animal welfare-influenced med rule changes + declining foal crops + loss of many big-money betting syndicates due to unfavorable takeout/field sizes/etc = true odds = low Derby payoffs

 

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Two Races

Before the Kentucky Derby 2015 preps really get serious, I want to take a moment to talk about the two races in 2014 that I will never forget.

3-8-2014

Game On Dude – Santa Anita Handicap

Game On Dude is one of the best horses to never win a year-end championship. He also never won a Triple Crown race or a Breeders’ Cup. But he absolutely owned one of the most storied races in America – the Big Cap. Look at the history of the race: how Seabiscuit tried 3 times over four years to even win it once; how the legendary John Henry won it on a DQ to get his second victory; how Triple Crown winner Affirmed set the original speed record back in 1979.

Then take a look at the Dude’s contributions: Chantal Sutherland became the first female jockey to win the Big Cap when she rode the Dude to victory in 2011; how he became the first horse to win the race in non-consecutive years in 2013; and finally, the third victory, in stakes-record time, at the ripe, old age of 7.

The Dude has a lot of fans, but many “experienced handicappers” had written him off as an over-the-hill, fading frontrunner. It wasn’t hard to get that impression after his poor performance in the San Antonio the month before. The Dude was also facing Champion Will Take Charge, 3 yrs his junior, and BC Classic winner, Mucho Macho Man, two worthy rivals. I watched the race from HRN HQ and cried when he flashed under the wire 2 lengths ahead of Will Take Charge.

He would not win again, but he always gave his all, and when he retired to Old Friends in November, I made sure to visit him as soon as I could. One day, he will stand among the other immortals in bronze at Santa Anita.

 

5-3-2014

California Chrome – Kentucky Derby

Early last year, I heard a song on the radio, and a few of the lyrics stuck out as particularly suited to describe what it means when you have a really good, potentially life-changing horse. I looked up the complete song, and as I read over the words, more of them seemed to fit the mood of the Derby trail. The song was Counting Stars. The very first few lines are what got me – “I’ve been losing sleep/dreaming about the things that we could be/… no more counting dollars/we’ll be counting stars…”

Horse owners invest countless hours of time and vast fortunes to get to the Derby. When a young horse has that breakthrough win, that eye-popping workout, that’s when the Derby fever sets in and the counting stars begins.

No horse since Smarty Jones a decade prior has embodied this feeling more perfectly than California Chrome.

I was standing at the rail on Derby day at Churchill Downs, directly in front of the winners’c circle, surrounded by 150,000+ racing fans under a fantastic, blue sky on an instagram-worthy spring day as California Chrome galloped to victory. I had taken video of the stretch drive, but by the time he thundered by me I had completely forgotten the camera was running.

 

 

 

 

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End of the World as We Know It

About a week ago, I started referring to it as “the end of the world.” Today — Belmont Day, June 7, 2014 — the End of the World.

As a racing fan and participant, I can’t help but think of today as a kind of fulcrum, and no matter who wins, things will never be the same as they were yesterday. Waking up tomorrow, I will have a hangover, and the world, at least the tiny fraction of it where horse racing resides, will have shifted.

If California Chrome wins today, the world will once again know what it’s like to have a Triple Crown winner. Racing fans will be elated (even those who never bet a dime on Chrome), and all of us who have lived in the dark ages will finally have seen the light.

What’s more, should California Chrome win today, the powers that be in racing need to take a long, hard look at what they’ve been doing over these last 36-odd years. Nobody in 1979 would have believed that a Triple Crown hopeful was a Cal-Bred who started his career on synthetic surfaces and ran sans Lasix in his first 3 starts. Heads will be exploding in Lexington, for sure.

But if he loses, things won’t exactly be the status quo, either. Even now, there are those who would use their power to change the Triple Crown as it stands, add an extra week between the Derby and Preakness, even shorten the Belmont distance. Should he lose today, they will have another arrow in their quiver to strike on a heartbroken fan base.

All of this is just a distraction from the real issues in racing that won’t be solved with a Triple Crown winner. And those who have the keys don’t have the will or the backbone to make actual progress. So instead, they’ll fiddle with the superficial aspects that they do have control over, and smile and stand for photos when they push these changes through. But it will be a Pyrrhic victory.

I’ve been a California Chrome fan all along, even wore purple to the Derby. There is no question I’m rooting for him today. After all, it’s the end of the world as we know it. Whether we wake up at the top of the see-saw or sitting in the dirt is up to California Chrome. But hey, I feel fine.

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Revenge Of The Dude

My favorite older horse, Game On Dude, returned to the races a winner today in the G2 Californian. He only faced 3 other rivals, but they were proven G2 horses: Morning Line, highly-regarded winner of the G2 Mervyn Leroy; Prayer For Relief, G2 Super Derby winner, and Kettle Corn, an up-and comer from the Sadler barn. Arizona-bred Uh Oh Bango scratched. It was expected that Game On Dude should run well in this spot, but only his die-hard fans could have predicted just how stellar he’d be.

With Chantal Sutherland in the irons, Game On Dude took the lead from the start as he usually does, but he was flanked by Morning Line in the early stages. On the backstretch run, Sutherland gave rein and the Dude drew off from the rest, leaving Morning Line in his wake. Prayer for Relief battled late-running Kettle Corn for second, but it wasn’t even close. Game On Dude hit the wire 7 lengths in front, easily.

People are saying Game On Dude is the best older horse in the country, possibly only behind I’ll Have Another in top rank of all active horses.

My, how far they’ve come. At this time last year, to suggest Game On Dude was a top tier older male was to be subjected to ridicule. Remember, Tizway had won the Met Mile & was at the top of the heap. Then, First Dude, next, Flat Out.

Game On Dude’s talent was viewed with suspicion. He’d won the Big Cap by a short margin and despite a long inquiry. Many felt he’d been the one to cause the squabble at the top of the stretch, when it was the “better horse” Twirling Candy who grew leg-weary and began the bumper cars.

When Game On Dude ran second by a scant nose to the (big-headed, roman-nosed) First Dude in the Hollywood Gold Cup, some saw it as not a confirmation of Game On Dude’s true ability, but proof that the California contingent as a whole was weak. Dude didn’t do much to change that view when he ran second in the slop at Charles Town, and he simply hated the polytrack at Del Mar.

But I had seen his grit in the Big Cap, loved his run in the HGC, and kept him among my top horses all last year. The eastern-based Tizway flaked out, Flat Out got beat by Havre de Grace, and First Dude got injured and retired. But all the while, Game On Dude kept on running, and trying, and getting better and better.

By the end of 2011, the older male division was in shambles. But when the SoCal circuit returned to Santa Anita for the final Breeders’ Cup preps, Game On Dude had his official coming-out party in the Goodwood. Facing Haskell winner Coil, old warrior Awesome Gem, and the filly, Miss Match, Game On Dude strutted his stuff on the lead in scintillating style and in a wicked time to match. It was a performance very like the one he gave today in the Californian. He entered the Breeders’ Cup the only older male to win multiple G1s, and a serious threat for Horse of the Year.

Of course, the Breeders’ Cup Classic was not supposed to be for Game On Dude – that race was Havre de Grace and Uncle Mo’s to win… except… Game On Dude, in his signature move, led the field from the gate, turned back challenges from Uncle Mo, To Honor and Serve and So You Think, then drew off in deep stretch… Only to get passed at the wire by Drosselmeyer. The Dude had proven without a doubt that he was the real deal.

Before the Triple Crown, Game On Dude was the most exciting horse in America. He had the trainer, Bob Baffert, a telegenic jockey, Chantal Sutherland, and among his ownership group was  baseball great, Joe Torre. I began planning my dream HOTY campaign for him… Instead, he went to Dubai and had a disastrous run in the World Cup.

There is a long-held belief that horses don’t come back from Dubai the same as when they left, that it takes something out of them that they never get back. SO it was with bated breath that I waited for Game On Dude to return to the worktab after Dubai, and hopefully, to racing. Would he still be that sharp, gritty front running gelding I’d grown to love?

I shouldn’t have worried. And should I’ll Have Another fail at his quest to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, I will root for the gelding to take the year-end championship crown that he so richly deserves.

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Plenty to Be Thankful For 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

I can’t believe I am celebrating my second Thanksgiving in Tucson, far from the comfortable familiarity of the craziness that is my hometown and family, friends & MiniHorses.  It has been an exciting journey the past year and a half, with ups and downs that have made me question why I am still so dedicated to this sport – but in the end I look at the things I have learned, people I’ve met and experiences I’ve survived, and I am filled with wonder. As I sit at the Thanksgiving table this year, I will bow my head in gratitude for those who have stood with me this year, gave me advice and a helping hand when I most needed it, and provided a shoulder to cry on and a sense of humor to laugh with me in my foibles.

I will also give a nod of thanks to these things in racing that have made the sport sparkle in 2010:

Zenyatta – Of course I must start this out with the mare who’s saga has been the top story all year.  Despite her unsuccessful run at a 2nd BC Classic, Z had a fabulous year where she paraded, danced, bowed, posed and thrilled every racing fan who had the pleasure of watching her run.  I was fortunate to see her race live 2 times this year, in Arkansas and at Del Mar, where I spent a week following her every move.  Say what you will about her connections, campaign or overzealous online fankids – Zenyatta is a unique personality among horses whose love for humans is rarely seen and appreciated, even among the most jaded horseplayers.

Secretariat on the Big Screen — The movie was a candy-coated marshmallow of the original rich dark chocolate story, but audiences seemed to embrace the homage to Penny Tweedy’s Triple Crown winner.  The movie got mostly positive reviews from RTIP students and a surprisingly rousing recommendation from Roger Ebert.  The film has held steady in the top 20 since its release on October 8, even out-grossing more heralded films like The Social Network and Hereafter the longer it stays in theaters.  Big Red is my favorite TC winner, and Jim Gaffney was a great friend.  I know he is smiling about the movie, because he believed in it like he believed in Secretariat from the very beginning.

Lord of Misrule, new Lord of Fiction — I used to get picked on because I read a lot of horse books in school and would write elaborate stories about their lives and careers.  It is nice to see that one day all that might pay off.  The National Book Awards honor the best American literature, and this year’s winner for fiction is a tale of the characters, both human and equine, who populate the backstretch of a small-time track in West Virginia.  It has only recently been released, but the early reviews are strong, even from the racing community, which we all know is the toughest critic.  That mainstream writers of contemporary fiction have embraced the unique culture of the backside bodes well for future works about our sport.  Also, many schools use the NBAs for their reading lists – who knows, a future SkipAway2000 could be inspired by Lord of Misrule in an English class.

NTRA Live — Sure, its first live streaming broadcast crashed, but that was because they had underestimated the number of fans who would tune in.  Got that? UNDERestimated.  Meaning, they thought there would be fewer watching than actually did.  This is a fantastic problem to have.  Once the server issues were fixed, the NTRA Live program was a well-produced piece of online racing coverage.  With fewer major stakes getting the network broadcast, NTRA live is a critical piece of fan relations and promotion.  Not everyone has TVG, and many young racing fans are just not old enough to open accounts with TwinSpires of other ADWs for the live streaming those sites offer.  It also strengthens the link between thoroughbred racing and the NTRA, the sport’s supposed promotions & marketing organization.  Too many people knock NTRA, but with this program, they are getting back to their roots as well as embracing new technology to help spread the magic of horse racing.

Out-of-the-box Thinking — In NJ and CA, legislation was passed that opens the door for exchange wagering to begin in limited form here in the US.  This would be the biggest advance in American horse race wagering since the invention of the pari-mutuel system.  Are there important questions that need to be answered, and issues settled before exchange wagering takes off here? You betcha.  But if done correctly, this will generate the new revenue racing desperately needs.  This could even stop the spread of racinos.  Tracks would be able to operate off the revenues from their own games instead of being subsidized by others.  NJ and CA are not the perfect places to try this new way of imagining racing, but it’s a start.

I’m also thankful for:  Valiant Effort, Da Boomer, The Pamplemousse, Taking A Shot, Tall Texan, Hey Elvis, She’s All Revved Up, Blame, Rachel Alexandra, Lookin At Lucky and Goldikova 🙂

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

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Big Hits from Little Guys … Breeders’ Cup 2010 Day 1

Whoda thunk the most action of the first day of BC 2010 would be in the MARATHON?  The race so boring people wish they’d cancel it was the scene of some crazy riding and major dumb-assery.

At the top of the stretch in the 1 3/4 mile Marathon, Javier Castellano, riding Prince Will, I Am spied a tiny space that just so happened to be in front of Martin Garcia on Romp.  Castellano steered his horse into that hole, cutting off Garcia and causing Romp to clip heels with Prince Will I Am.  Romp nearly went down, and Garcia flew completely out of the saddle.  Only by his sheer athleticism (I’d like for the guys who claim jocks aren’t athletes to watch this race & try to make their argument again…) did Garcia manage to not get killed.  Unfortunately, when Romp stumbled, he took out Calvin Borel’s horse, A. U. Miner.  Borel & A. U. Miner weren’t hurt but they lost all chance at the race, in which A. U. Miner was one of the favorites.  Meanwhile, Castellano on Prince Will I Am made it out of the pack and challenged Eldaafer in the homestretch.  Eldaafer drew off to win with Prince Will I Am second.  If the drama on the track wasn’t enough, the thrills and spills continued in the winner’s circle.

As Eldaafer got his wreath of flowers and IEAH got their trophy, a scuffle broke out.  Borel went after Castellano like a wildman.  The two jocks got to scrappin’ right on ESPN!  Two or three security guys pried Borel off of Castellano, but the ragin’ Cajun nearly broke free and went at it again!  Finally, security was able to get Borel out of the winner’s circle and into the jock’s room.  At that point, the press was kept from the area, so we can only guess what went down behind closed doors.  As viewers of Jockeys know, all the jocks share the same room (the ladies have their own area), so it’s like all the players of every NFL team sharing a locker room at the same time.  As Borel was dragged away, he flashed some damn-scary looks at Castellano.  The rest of the day, Borel was accompanied by guards.

This was either the final nail in the coffin of the Marathon, or its saving grace.  While I hate when dumb stuff gets press over the horses, this type of behavior is not uncommon among other sports players.  For a game that continues to distance itself from the average Joe ESPN watcher,  this incident will be broadcast all over SportsCenter for years to come, and someone, maybe even some of those “jockeys aren’t athletes” folks, may tune in next time to see just what gets these guys so hyped up.

The most unfortunate part of the post-race antics is that they overshadowed the accomplishment of Diane Alvarado, the 31 year old trainer who becomes only the 4th woman to condition a BC winner.  Alvarado joins Jenine Sahadi, Laura de Seroux and Carla Gaines with BC winners.

Castellano was rightfully DQ’ed from 2nd in the Marathon, and he should face serious riding penalties, possibly even suspension for the careless, dangerous actions.  Borel will likely face fines and possibly suspension for the fight.  The resident regulator I watched the race with said Castellano would have harsher penalties than Borel, because his actions affected the outcome of the race & threatened lives.

 

The other incident on BC Day 1 was the Life At Ten fiasco.  It highlights the pitfalls of such a fragmented sport – who gets to scratch a horse and what is cause for a scratch?  I sat in the RTIP office watching with concern as jockey John Velazquez told ESPN viewers that his horse was not acting right.  Why he didn’t signal to a vet that something was amiss is beyond me.  Why didn’t a vet watching the action on-track scratch the horse?  Why wasn’t a steward watching the ESPN broadcast and scratch the horse?  Obviously, the on-track patrons, who contribute the most of each of their wagers to the sport, were completely in the dark as to the condition of one of the top fillies in the race.  Everyone watching at OTBs or playing from home got the opportunity to cancel their wagers before the lackluster performance by Life At Ten.

Then there’s the issue of the pre-race exam: she passed the vet check in the morning, so there wasn’t any reason for Pletcher to scratch early.  Though he said she was unusually calm in the paddock, what reason could he have given to stewards to scratch her there?  The filly had passed the vet check.

To prevent this from happening again, and also prove the sport really does care about the health of its athletes, the rules should make it easy for trainers to scratch in times like this.  It’s common knowledge that bettors do not like late scratches, but I am sure they would like a horse scratched rather than what happened today.  At least with a scratch they have an opportunity for a refund.  Instead, a favorite ran last and put the integrity of the entire sport under serious scrutiny.

I’m also sure that Life At Ten’s owners would much rather have their horse out of the race than severely injured.  Thankfully that didn’t happen – Velazquez didn’t ride her past the first few strides- but think of the consequences of the opposite outcome.

All in all, I enjoyed Day 1 of BC 2010.  My favorite winner is Awesome Feather, the Juvenile Fillies winner from Florida.  Her sire stands at Legend Farm in Oklahoma for $1750!

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ZENYATTA at Del Mar

She sort of surprised us, as nobody was expecting her to even arrive until later, but then there she was, galloping in all of her glory!

Zenyatta takes her first trip around Del Mar's oval this morning, August 4, 2010

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