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7 Days ’till Del Mar

Next Thursday I will embark once again on an exciting journey, this time to California and Del Mar’s elite summer meet! It will be a “workcation” : for 8 weeks I will be an intern in the marketing/media department. I’m excited to be in a place with a nicer temperature too – this Arizona desert heat is no joke, people.

I’ll also be able to spend some time on a real, sandy, ocean beach! maybe I’ll even get to surf ūüėČ

I’ll be posting occasional updates here throughout the adventure, and you can also check out and for the scoop on the track’s events.

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Racing Depends on Bettors — Here’s WHY

In a recent blog posting on the Blood-Horse, Tom LaMarra called for a “Tea Party” for horse racing, a grass-roots effort to fix the problems in racing headed by a “Sara Palin”-type outsider.¬† I tend to agree that somebody needs to shake up the industry in a big way, and though I’m personally not the Palin/Tea Party type politically, I have to admire their ability to grab headlines and followers.¬† What I found most interesting about the blog, however, were the comments.

About half of the comments came from people who said they loved racing and the horses but never, ever bet when they went to the track.  As much as I appreciate and can relate to them, they are naive about the way our sport actually works.

I used to be one of those people, who loved the horses and the sport and the history but would never think about actually betting on it.¬† Then, I went to the track for the first time, and “just had to play along” and placed a few $2 bets.¬† After winning a couple of those bets, I could see why people enjoyed wagering.¬† But I could take it or leave it; just seeing the horses race was enough for me.¬† Not too long ago, I began to wonder where the money came from for the purses.¬† I had a vague idea that they were paid out by the track, but that was about as far as my understanding went.

Boy, was I clueless!

Here is how the pari-mutuel system works.

Pari-mutuel is the French term for “betting amongst ourselves”.¬† This means that the odds are set, and controlled, by the amount of money that goes into the pool from the bettors.¬† The track does not set the odds*.¬† The players do.¬† The track acts as a clearing house for the bets that the players make.¬† The track hosts the tote system that does the calculations for the odds and payouts, which makes for a fairer, consistent game. All of the money that is wagered is called “handle”.

Of course, anything that has to do with wagering is an interest of the state where it occurs; states use wagering as a revenue stream, like a “sin tax” on cigarettes and liquor.¬† The state itself is not the only stakeholder in racing.¬† There are also breeders, horsemen and the tracks themselves.¬† The state legislates a percentage of the handle must be taken out as a sort of fee for the privilege of wagering.¬† The average “takeout” in the US is 20%.¬† It varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and even between wagers.¬† Some straight w/p/s bets have as low as 16% takeout and some exotics (like ex/tri) have as high as 25% takeout.¬† For this blog, I will use the average 20% rate.

This fee is taken when the bet is placed.¬† This means that the player pays the fee, and the track gets its share, before the race is run.¬† The track does not care what the outcome of the race is, because it has already gotten its fee.¬† Winnings at the track come from the other 80% of the handle that bettors have contributed.¬† This is THE big difference between casinos and race tracks; the casino player only pays the takeout when he wins, and the winnings come from the “house”.

So, the race is run, the 80% in handle is paid out to the winning ticket holders.  What happens to that 20% takeout?

In this example, 1.5% of the handle goes to state pari-mutuel taxes.¬† Another 3.5% goes to a state breeders’ fund, which goes toward year-end awards and other benefits for the horse breeders in the state.

The remaining 16% is split 50/50 between the race track and the horsemen.  That means 8% goes to the track, and 8% goes to fund the purses.

The 8% is the MAJOR source of funding for the prize money the horsemen win when they enter their horses.¬† Some of the breeders’ fund may go to state-bred purses, and there may be funding from Breeders’ Cup or sponsors for stakes races, but the majority of purse money comes from handle directly wagered on-track.

If you think of it in dollar terms, only 8 cents of each $1 bet goes to the purses.  The track only gets 8 cents to run the facility.

The admission and concessions and souvenirs and programs that are sold at the track are a fraction of a track’s revenue.¬† Something around 95% of the track‚Äôs revenue is from handle.¬† Tracks depend on handle to stay in business.

What about simulcasting?  The way the handle is split in that arrangement is even more convoluted.

The track where the race is run is called the “host” track.¬† The track where the simulcast player is watching on TV is called the “guest” site.¬† When a bettor places a bet at the guest site on the host’s race, he pays the host track’s takeout, because the pool of wagers is “commingled”, or, bets from the host track and all of its guests are combined.¬† This makes it easier to calculate odds and payouts.¬† It also increases the number of bettors and the amount of money wagered, which can make for higher win payouts.¬† The same 20% takeout is done at the guest site, and it is split in this way:

1.5% to guest site’s state

3.5% to guest site’s breeders

4% to host track

12% to guest site’s track/horsemen = 6% track/6% horsemen

The difference in the simulcasting example is the 4% paid to the host track for the privilege of broadcasting its races.

That 4%, in turn, is split even more by the host track:

2% to host state/breeders

2% to host track/horsemen = 1% to track/1% to horsemen

As you can see, it pays to be a guest track in the simulcasting business.

OH!¬† But this is not the end of the story — what about TVG and other advance deposit wagering outlets, called ADWs, like, you ask?

Those distributors of racing also pay 4% to the host track.¬† They also may pay a small percentage in state taxes and to breeders’ funds.¬† But TVG and other ADWs get to keep the remaining 12%.¬† These outlets do not have horsemen, they do not have large facilities, and so they generate an enviable profit.

The majority of handle is wagered off-track, via simulcast outlets or ADWs.¬† The host track, which puts on the show, is earning only a small amount of the handle wagered on its race.¬† Its horsemen are only getting pennies on the dollar for their purse account.¬† With on-track attendance falling each year, this makes for a serious problem because tracks are not generating the revenue necessary on-track to stay in business.¬† Instead of 8 cents, they are getting less than 2.¬† Host tracks, of course, also act as guest sites for other tracks, but they still only make around 6%.¬† The ‚Äúbest‚ÄĚ bet is the one made at the track on a live race.

Now that I understand this, I have become a regular horseplayer.¬† Every time I am at the track, I place bets.¬† I‚Äôm no whale or high roller, but I do bring enough to make some good exactas.¬† I feel that to go to the track and not place a bet is akin to stealing cable.¬† It may not be illegal, but you are still getting a valuable piece of entertainment for free.¬† And you are also not contributing to the care of the horses ‚Äď training, vet and feed bills are paid by the horse owners who win the purses that are funded by the takeout from the handle wagered on the race.

I hope that readers now understand how important it is to wager on the races.  Wagering is the lifeblood of the sport.  It is fantastic to go to Oaklawn and cheer for Zenyatta, to enjoy her magnificent presence and outstanding performance.  But it helps her more to bet on her.

*The morning line that the track publishes with the entries is not what the track wants the odds to be.¬† It is an estimate of what they believe the odds will be at post time, as determined by a formula.¬† The morning line can does often does change, how dramatically depends on how well the track’s handicapper has “read” the habits of the bettors.¬† It is done to help novices decide how to wager.

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#1 Millennial Moment: The Ultimate Payout

Now for The Infield’s #1 Moment of the Decade:

2009 Symposium on Racing & Gaming

For 10 years, I had only experienced racing as a fan, standing in the infield or as a railbird, or even as a vicious bench-warmer at the paddock.¬† At the Symposium, I was part of the action: hostess, reporter, photographer, student attendee!¬† I talked promoting racing to new fans with Churchill Downs’s chief marketing officer, met Mike Smith & got his autograph, worked the registration booth and checked in many of the speakers, had cocktails with exhibitors and fellow students…

The Symposium is really just the climax of a 5-month memorable moment marathon.¬† The reason I felt like I’d wasted so much time this decade is because I can’t believe it has taken me so long to find the place, the program and the people who care about the sport as much as I do. I have classes on racing regulation!¬† Exams about track configuration!¬† Projects on odds calculations!¬† Field trips to Turf Paradise!¬† Guest lecturers whom I’ve read about for years in the Blood-Horse!¬† Professors who own thoroughbreds, have first-hand experience as a racing secretary or have run a state racing commission!¬† I have learned so much and now feel empowered to make an impact on the world.

As the calendar flips to 2010 and a new decade begins, I find myself at the cusp of a career in racing, with a full field of new friends and several prospects for internships and future employment.¬† I’ve finally got an answer to the question my high school guidance counselor asked me 10 years ago:

What Career Track Are You On?

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Top 10 Millennial Moments in The Infield

I was reading Slate about a month ago and stumbled on an article fondly recounting the panic surrounding Y2K on its ten-year anniversary.¬† Confusion swirled in my mind:¬† **headdesk**¬† “WHAT?¬† Y2K was a decade ago?¬† How’d that happen?!”¬† Day ruined after realizing how much time I’d wasted over 10 years, I settled down with a bottle of my favorite Woodford Reserve and did the only thing that really makes me feel better in those bourbon-soaked moments: watch horse races on YouTube!

As I relived the 2002 Kentucky Derby, I had to laugh at my initial melancholy.¬† I hadn’t wasted the ’00s at all.¬† Heck, I was sitting in an apartment in Tucson, Arizona watching those races, a place 1999 me would never have imagined visiting, let alone making a home.¬†¬† I thought about all of the great times and amazing people I had met since leaving the ’90s, and the things I’d learned and experienced over all of these years.¬† The Aughts have been good to The Infield, and here are my personal Top 10 Moments.¬† I’ve kept a blog of some sort for the entire decade, so I’ve pulled excerpts from them to help flesh out the list.

10. Blood-Horse Magazine Subscription:¬† Sure, it’s not exactly an “event”, but this magazine changed my life once the first issue came in my mailbox in March 1999.¬† I had saved my allowance for a month to afford the outrageous subscription price, $52 (it was on a special).¬† I even remember that first issue: Free House’s Santa Anita Handicap win.¬† The hard copy edition was supplemented by the online version, which I checked religiously and still do. I have all 10 years of Blood-Horse issues in boxes in my parents’ attic.

9.¬† 2003 Ashford Stud Open House:¬† A fabulous farm I’d wanted to visit ever since reading about the “Open House” in the Blood-Horse stallion ads.¬† Convinced parents to make the drive in their brand new Ford Explorer.¬† It was frigid up in Kentucky.¬† I remember the snow blowing around like sand on the street.¬† And the gorgeous horses!

They’ve got Thunder Gulch, the 1995 KY Derby winner & the horse who got me into racing (he’s also the sire of “Power” Point Given, 2001 Horse of the Year, yeee). They’ve got European champion, “Iron Horse” Giant’s Causeway & Johannesburg, a world champion. And (drumroll please)… Fusaichi Pegasus lives at Ashford, too. FuPeg won the KY Derby in 2000. He’s a stunner! God, it was amazing. Ashford’s farm office was bigger than my entire house, made of stone with a slate roof. Heck, it was bigger than most homes in Memphis. And the barns…like castles, with high, pointed roofs and arched doors made of heavy oak and bronze hardware. It was freezing but sunny and bright, and the whole place, I swear, looked like it was smiling.

I met the stallion manager, who asked me if I had some mares. I told him I was simply a fan, and then he asked me if I wanted some pictures. Heck yeah! With the clap of his hands, the grooms scurried to bring the stallions out. I felt like I was visiting the O’Haras at Tara at that moment…

My Dad got the trophy for dumbest question. Y’see, the farm is owned by Irish millionaires, as an affiliate of their Coolmore racing organization. Everybody there was either from Europe or Mexico; heck, even the african-american guys had a little bit of emerald isle to their speech. So as the stallion manager is telling us about a horse, my Dad says: “I detect an accent. Are you Irish?”

*rolls eyes*

8.¬† Horse Mania 2000 in Lexington:¬† As a newly-minted high school graduate, I travelled to Lexington for the annual Breyerfest, but ended up going far beyond the Horse Park’s boundaries in search of the life-sized models scattered around town.¬† I got a map of the 75 artists’ horses and tracked them all down, snagging a picture of each in its ‘natural’ habitat.¬† These horses were the forerunners of the “Painted Ponies” that you can get in Hallmark stores today.¬† Even in my pre-digital camera days, I must say I took some niiice pics, and if you know me well you just might have gotten a card with one of them on it.¬† This trip showed me more of the city known as Horse Heaven, a place I someday hoped to live.¬† Boy, did things change!

7. Oaklawn Park 4-Exacta Weekend:  In March 2008, I took a weekend trip to Hot Springs with a friend from work who really needed a break.  The track was unusually empty due to a snowstorm that coated the mountains in a beautiful, icy powder.  My luck ran blinding hot, though!

You can just call me a cashier, because I’m the Lady they had to Pay today at Oaklawn! ¬† I hit 4 Exactas, beginning in the 3rd race and a share of the $68 payout!¬†¬†Malengi/Air Corredor¬†was the play of the day, but not the last.¬†¬†Before the 5th race, I eavesdropped on a man sitting behind¬†me talking¬†on his cell phone¬†& asking the person on the other end what number horse he/she liked.¬†The man said, “Six?¬† Ok, I’ll bet $2 on six for you.¬† He’s got a good jockey.”¬† SO I looked and saw that yes, 6, Run For Shelter, had a great jockey in Calvin Borel.¬† So I used Run For Shelter & a proven off-track horse, Star of the Day in my box.¬† It was a thrilling run, as those 2 dueled in the stretch.¬† I won $12.50 on that one.¬† In the 6th race, I repeated with another exacta, this time with the hunch bet of the year.¬† I picked Smarty Matt Jones, not only because of the similarity to the famous Derby winner, but because of a nice gent I work with named Mott.¬† Smarty Matt won, my 2nd choice Pitton’s Road was 2nd, and I won ANOTHER exacta!¬† that was 2-in-a-row!¬† I couldn’t believe it, and still don’t even now.¬† A lull in the action, a couple of close calls later, and then the 10th and final race.¬† In a thrilling stretch run, Riproarious held off Port Hueneme to clinch my 4th exacta ticket of the day.¬† It was the shortest-priced ticket¬†and so only paid¬†$7.50.

6. John Henry Memorial 2007:¬† Saying goodbye to the most accomplished, legendary horse I’d ever met that October afternoon was like going to the funeral of an old friend.¬† John Henry welcomed me with a snort the first time I visited the Horse Park and was an enduring presence for all the years I made the pilgrimage.¬† A bagpiper played the mournful strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” as the wind picked up and bent back the floral arrangements standing around the horse’s final resting place.¬† All of the people he’d touched throughout his long racing career and the many workers at the Hall of Champions who’d dodged his teeth during his retirement stood and remembered the big heart in the small, brown gelding who persevered against all odds.

John Henry was an icon of the bluegrass, and I will miss seeing him.¬† He was the greatest horse I ever laid eyes on, including perhaps Seattle Slew.¬† As the speakers regaled us with their tales of John on the track, I looked up at the brilliant blue sky and those fantastic, cottony clouds, and imagined the old horse cantering over them, finally challenging the other greats —¬†Secretariat, Slew, Affirmed, Forego– to the race he always dreamed of winning in life

5. Kentucky Derby 2007/2008:¬† I group these together because they are so hard to separate in terms of excitement and wagering luck.¬† 2007 was Street Sense and the Queen, ’08 Big Brown and Eight Belles.¬† The year Street Sense won, I was camped out along the backstretch fence under a big, blue tarp tent, praying that it wouldn’t rain.

I stood pressed against the fence, facing the backstretch, craning my neck to see the horses. I heard them first – the thunder of their hooves drowned out the roar of the raucous drunks all around me.¬† ¬†Suddenly, I saw them.¬† From my post I could just see their muscled necks and the tips of their ears, and the brilliant colors of the jockey’s silks all in a blur.¬† The field of 20 whipped past, and my heart skipped a beat when I recognized the yellow and blue colors of Street Sense at the back of the pack — and he was ON THE RAIL!¬† I pumped my fist in the air and screamed, “Go!¬† Go!¬† Go!¬† He’s on the RAIL!¬† He’s on the RAIL!¬† STREET SENSE!”

Big Brown’s Derby was the best ticket-building year, as I had Big Brown, Eight Belles and Denis of Cork in my Exacta box.¬† I am still kicking myself for not making it a straight-up tri, but alas, I still chased out ahead.¬† Eight Belles’s tragic death turned cold what had been a jubilant day, and I was very torn up over it.

THE FILLY — Of course I wasn’t going to go through this entire blog without saying something about EIGHT BELLES.¬† I wore her button all day long & touted her as I waited in the betting lines.¬† I was ecstatic with her performance after the Derby.¬† She had come in 2nd to Big Brown, beating all of those other colts & looking fabulous.¬† She’d also given me $141!¬† But my mood plummeted as I heard on my radio that she’d gone down.¬† I stopped singing and listened, hoping they’d got it wrong, that she was OK, that it was another horse & that it wasn’t bad.¬† I searched the jumbotron with my binocs, looking for some glimpse of news or shot of her waking off the track.¬† But it was futile.¬† She was gone.¬† I had to leave the track right then.¬† I couldn’t stay any longer with the filly’s brave effort still flashing in my mind.¬† I had to go be quiet for a while.¬† I felt bad for Big Brown, too, as his Derby will always be marred by the loss of Eight Belles.¬† She was one of the best of her class, both colt or filly.¬† Later that night, I went out to Cracker Barrel with Jim & Mary, and I saw Larry Jones, Eight Belles’s trainer, with his group.¬† It was a somber table.¬† They talked quietly and I could see the pain in their faces.¬† I wanted to go up & say something to them, as I still had on my Eight Belles button, but I thought it may be too intrusive, too soon.¬† They left shortly after, but I know it was a long, hard night for them all, and a sad, empty stall for them to wake up to this morning.

4. Breeders’ Cup 2006:¬† My first Breeders’ Cup and the first event I attended with Jim & Mary Gaffney.¬† I took over a bench near the paddock rail and took pictures of every horse that stepped into it.¬† It was cold, kind of damp, very crowded but I loved every minute of it!

By far the best race of the day was Ouija Board in¬†the Filly & Mare Turf.¬† She is the first horse to win that race twice, and one of only 5 horses who have won 2 BC races.¬† The English filly, owned by Lord Derby, and ridden by the hot Italian Frankie Dettori was simply, honestly, brilliant.¬† She made her entrance in the paddock to ooos and ahhhs and with an entourage that would rival some rock stars (though nothing like Bernardini’s would be later, more on that).¬† She made several laps of the saddling ring with a quiet confidence, a rock in stormy seas.¬† I tried my best to get pics of her, but mainly I simply took her in.¬† The race was won for me right there, but on the turf¬†she turned in a¬†dazzling performance.¬† Ouija Board stalked the pace and then rushed by the leaders to win going away, ears pricked, jock mostly still.¬† The 5 year-old mare goes out a winner in the best season of her career.

3. Secretariat Bronze Installation 2006:¬† After nearly 10 years of fundraising, the Secretariat Bronze was installed in April 2006.¬† I was there, front-row, for the dedication, because I had purchased a paver with mine & my horse’s names on it.¬† I also met someone who I am still friends with today, and who encouraged me to follow my dream of being in racing, Jim Gaffney:

The Sec Foundation people were still setting up the tables.¬† Lots of nice schwag: photos, prints, magazine covers, posters, bronze sculptures, tees and hoodies, Ron Turcotte bobblehead that bares a striking resemblance to the guy in the wheelchair over by the Coke machines…oh wait!¬† It IS Ron Turcotte by the Coke machines! A smiling gentleman asks if Mom & I are sisters…it’s Jim Gaffney, who was Secretariat’s main exercise rider!¬† He liked us, and took pictures with us and even gave me an autographed photo.¬† Awesomeness.¬† I promised to write him and then gave him an Elvis Week pin I carried along just for such occasions.

2. Kentucky Derby 2005:¬† The first time I camped out in the infield.¬† The first time I had a mint julep.¬† The first time I got lunch meat thrown on me while watching a race…My First Kentucky Derby!¬† I started counting down before my departure:

I can’t believe I’m leaving in 3 days! My heart rate is up way past what is healthy, I can’t sleep, am easily distracted, and have a permanent case of hoofbeat tinitis…I’m counting down the hours! At 9AM Thursday I leave for Louisville!!!!!! Whaaaaa-hoooooo! … It’s Cinco de Mayo, and my-oh-my am I stoked! I am leaving in about 10 minutes for DERBY CITY!!! YESSS!!!

And then, after Giacomo’s 50-1 shocker:

I had a blast!

4 Days in Louisville, 2 whole days at the track, plus the museum, and the Tour de Louisville, the Cracker Barrels, the Detroit kids, the Super Hero Kill-a-Thon, the tunnel of death, the furlong hike, the hats, the beer, the hellish nightmare porta-potties, the longshot, the show bets, the brownie woman, ‘Big Pedro’, the juleps, the bluegrass, the paddock so crowded with people you couldn’t stir ’em with a stick, the Pecan Divinities, the most outrageous, unforgettable, amazing, incomparable, unbeatable experience I SURVIVED KY DERBY 131!!!!!!

So, what’s #1?¬† Tune in later for my best racing moment in the decade!

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From the Infield to the Boardroom

So it’s been a while, blogland.¬† Nearly 5 months since my last post?¬† For shame.¬† Especially since I was churning out such enlightening posts.¬† Expert commentary.¬†(whatever, chief)¬†

What have I been up to, you ask? 

Being the glutton for punishment I am, I’ve gone back to school.¬† But there is so much more to it than that.¬† In August, I quit my job (the one I had loved for 5 years!) and picked up and moved 1500 miles away to Tucson, Arizona, to attend The University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program (RTIP).¬†

I’m moving up in the world.

Every single day, I learn something new and interesting about racing —¬†stuff I never even thought about before in the areas of regulation and track management.¬† I’ve learned more about quarter horse racing, too, and harness racing.¬† Greyhounds are still fuzzy.¬†

My professors are awesome.¬† They come from the industry, have seen the way things work first-hand, have dealt with the problems and lived to tell about them.¬† They’re always sharing their stories with students, and I’ve heard some doozies in the past few months.¬†

The guest speakers this semester have been amazing, too: Rob Terry, of RGS, Inc.; Roxy Roxborough, the legendary linesmaker from Vegas and Lou Raffetto, CEO of the National Steeplechase Association.¬† I’ve met the man in charge of bringing foreign horses to the BC, Nick Clarke, who did a great presentation on international racing.¬† Every day, every class, is like a dream.¬† I have¬†exams about¬†horses!¬†

I also work for the program.¬† I’ve been updating the RTIP Facebook & Twitter pages, as well as writing and editing press releases and working on the program’s newsletter, the Update.¬† I’m trying to learn everyone’s name and have made some great friends already.¬† The students come from all over the country, and have as varied experiences in the industry as one could imagine.¬† There are total civillians like me, who came into the sport as fans and horse lovers, and then there are students who grew up on the farms I’ve toured and who have been around racing, hands-on, all their lives.

The main event for the fall is the Symposium on Racing and Gaming, which will be Dec. 7-10.¬† The list of attendees grows by day, and it is shaping up to be a great event.¬† There will be many panels on marketing and promotion of racing.¬† That is where I hope to find my place.¬† I think racing is the greatest sport on the planet and have some ideas to help convince others that I’m right.¬† After all, if they can keep Elvis popular for 32 years after his death, then surely a sport that renews itself each spring can grab some attention.

So that is what I’ve been up to since June.¬† I’m moving up, from the Infield, where it’s been fun, to the Boardroom, where it’ll be real.


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Last month I was in a car wreck. I am fine, but my car was totalled. Also, the busy season has started at work with a vengeance. One thing’s for sure, ELvis is recession-proof! I am so sorry, all 3 of you loyal readers, for leaving you hanging. I will have some cool stuff up soon. Stay tuned.

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If Frank Caliendo was a race caller…

Watch this vid. This is Frank Miramahdi, caller at Turf Paradise, in the 2009 Hasta La Vista Handicap. The race is a 1 7/8 mile “marathon”…needless to say, there’s not a lot of lead changes over that span…see how many “celebrity guests” you recognize!

…and God Bless the soul of Luke Krytbosch!

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