2016 Kentucky Derby – Handicapping the Field

2016 Kentucky Derby – Handicapping the Field

This year’s edition of the Kentucky Derby promises to be one of the most wide-open in recent memory, despite having the undefeated champion 2-yr-old, Breeders Cup Juvenile, and Florida Derby-winning Nyquist as the race favorite. Yet this favorite is not without question marks, and will likely go off as a higher price than either California Chrome or American Pharoah did in the last two editions of the race.

What makes this year particularly interesting is that no horse, including Nyquist, has established dominant form coming into the race. Only two horses, Gun Runner and Destin, can claim wins in 50+point prep races, and only the former may be single-digit odds. Last year, the 3 favorites – American Pharoah, Dortmund, and Carpe Diem – had swept their final two preps heading into the race. 3 of the 5 major US prep races were run on surfaces that were anything but FAST. All this is to say that every horse in this year’s Derby has question marks, and that makes for an interesting race. It’s not impossible that this year’s trifecta is made up of three horses that will not be among the top 3 favorites, and that should lead to some big payouts.

The Favorite

Nyquist (Estimated Post-Time Odds:7-2)
Uncle Mo x Seeking Gabrielle (Forestry), trained by Doug O’Neill
This fellow has done nothing wrong in winning all 7 of his starts and $3.3M to boot. He’s fast, he tracks the pace, and he’s beaten many contenders in here. His first-year sire Uncle Mo has placed 3 Derby starters this year, but was never a winner beyond a mile and a sixteenth. His dam was also more sprint-oriented, as was his damsire. I also note that his fastest races, based on BRIS Speed figs, were around one turn, not his routing wins. I recognize Nyquist as a horse I must use in exactas and trifectas, based on his record to date, but he’s not one I want to play much on top. He’s tier 2 for me, because I see his unbeaten record coming to an end.

Tier 1 (Prime win candidates and key exacta/trifecta horses)

Gun Runner (Est PT 8-1)
Candy Ride x Quiet Giant (Giant’s Causeway), trained by Steve Asmussen
This lightly raced colt has a running line that I really like to see:Gun RunnerHe has improved every race with increasing distance. He stalks the pace, which should allow him to avoid most trouble in the large pack. He has a pedigree stuffed with stamina influences and appears to be training forwardly. He’s a major contender and should get a square price.

Exaggerator (6-1)
Curlin x Dawn Raid (Vindication), trained by Keith Desormeaux
This is what most people are going to like when they see Exaggerator in PPsExaggeratorHe has been consistently fast, even in losing efforts. His victory in the sloppy Santa Anita Derby looks freaky, based on his win margin, but his performance was completely consistent with earlier efforts. His sire Curlin has consistently passed on his speed and stamina influence and Exaggerator’s dam side is solid enough. He does not need a muddy track to win, but if the Churchill dirt is anything other than fast, Exaggerator may get bet to favoritism.

Creator (12-1) – THE PICK
Tapit x Morena (Privately Held), trained by Steve Asmussen
Do these running lines look like the PPs of a Derby winner?CreatorThere’s some slow races in there, and only two wins. What if we eliminate the first two turf races? Now, eliminate the two FG races that had really slow early paces. We are left with efforts of 91-93-95-100, the best being at his longest distance yet. He’s by super-sire Tapit, who has yet to place a Derby runner but has a Belmont winner (Tonalist) amongst his progeny. More intriguing is Creator’s dam, Morena, who was a champion in Peru. Many of the highest class races in Peru are 10f+ races, so stamina is highly prized. Creator likes to come from off the pace, and requires a swifter pace to set him up. The Derby pace is almost always above-average fast, so Creator should be running late. I rate him the equal of Gun Runner and Exaggerator, but his price should be much better. I’ll be playing Creator to win.

Tier 2 (Include with key horses in exactas/trifectas)

Nyquist (see above)

Mohaymen (12-1)
Tapit x Justwhistledixie (Dixie Union), trained by Kiaran McLaughlin
Mohaymen’s final prep, the Florida Derby, was a bit of a head-scratcher. He finished 4th on a GOOD surface that his trainer said he simply didn’t like. It was by far the slowest race of his career, and even finished behind previously unheralded horses Majesto and Fellowship. I’ve another theory: I don’t think McLaughlin trained him to win the Florida Derby. His previous race took something out of him and he backed off his training a bit, knowing Nyquist was coming to Florida to claim a $1M bonus for a win. Mohaymen gave his best effort that day, but he wasn’t peaking. He might be now – he certainly has the talent, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him turn the tables

Danzing Candy (25-1)
Twirling Candy x Talkin and Singing (Songandaprayer), trained by Clifford Sise, Jr.
Do you remember last year’s Derby, when the top 3 horses were all within a few lengths of one another the entire length of the track? Speed often holds up really well in the Derby, and DC is (in my opinion) the fastest of the speed horses (Outwork being his main pace competition). He certainly went out too fast in the Santa Anita Derby, but veteran jockey Mike Smith will know how to rein him in the Derby, and the forecast calls for a dry track. Holding on for a piece, even a win, is not impossible

Suddenbreakingnews (25-1)
Mineshaft x Uchitel (Afleet Alex), trained by Donnie K Von Hemel
There’s a lot to like from this late-running gelding, starting with his pedigree featuring a Breeder’s Cup Classic winning sire and dual classic winner Afleet Alex as a damsire. He’s another that looks like he’s improving with age and distance, and will be another closing from the back. He may not be best, but he’ll be an excellent exotic price if he hits the board.

Tom’s Ready (20-1)
More Than Ready x Goodbye Stranger (Broad Brush), trained by Dallas Stewart
Dallas Stewart runners have completed the Derby exacta at long odd 2 of the last 3 years, a fact that will not be lost on many Derby handicappers. More Than Ready is not really known as a distance sire – turf milers are what he seems to specialize in producing – but Tom’s Ready’s damside has considerable distance influence, including Broad Brush, Deputy Minister, and Sham. He’ll need to work out a trip, but are we really going to ignore Dallas Stewart in our trifectas another year? No we’re not.

Note: There are no Tier 5 horses this year (my T5 horses in 2015 finished 14th, 16th, and 17th), and there’s very little difference between Tier 3 and Tier 4 on ability. My preferences are based on expected price and my perceived differences in class.

Tier 3 (3-4 spots in minimum bet trifectas, superfectas)

Note: my Tier 3 plays this year are more price-based than a clear delineation of ability above Tier 4 horses

Mor Spirit (12-1)
Eskendereya x Im A Dixie Girl (Dixie Union), trained by Bob Baffert
It’s virtually impossible to leave out a Bob Baffert trainee, especially one that’s finished no worse than second in his seven starts. I’m not in love with his pedigree (the Storm Cat curse on the sire side remains) but it’s hard not to recognize his ability. The Baffert angle will keep the odds down on this one, so he’s unattractive to me relative to his competition, but I recognize that a top 2-4 position for him is not unlikely.

Majesto (40-1)
Tiznow x Unacloud (Unaccounted For), trained by Gustavo Delgado
It wasn’t until I read this article that I really considered Majesto for a top spot. He is a half-brother to Arkansas Derby winner (but Kentucky Derby also-ran) Overanalyze. The main point is that he has kept some classy company and will be long odds. He might be good to pair with Nyquist in some bets, if you think the Florida Derby was better than its speed figures indicate. Won’t ignore at a long price.

Trojan Nation (40-1)
Street Cry x Storm Song (Summer Squall), trained by Patrick Gallagher
So, why might I suggest betting a maiden – he’s never won – that ran 2nd in the Wood Memorial at 81-1 odds? Well, I think he may actually be good. The pedigree screams Derby – both sire and damsire have produced Derby winners (Street Sense and Charismatic, respectively) and he’s training forwardly. He’s been running on the left coast, which probably has this year’s strongest runners, and is likely to improve with distance. He should be a huge price. He’ll make any trifecta with him in it a huge score.

My Man Sam (25-1)
Trappe Shot x Lauren Byrd (Arch), trained by Chad Brown
Another closer in a race stacked with closers, in My Man Sam you have a solid runner with a reasonable pedigree (especially from his damside) that has a good jockey and will be twice the odds of the horse that beat him in the Bluegrass Stakes, Brody’s Cause. I think he’s as good as Brody’s Cause, but a better bet at the higher odds.

Mo Tom (25-1)
Uncle Mo x Caroni, Rubiano, trained by Tom Amoss
Mo Tom has these chart comments in his last three races: “hit gate, bumped early”, “Checked sharply 3/16”, “Checked badly 3/16”. And he still had 3 good races and speed figures. I’m not sold on Uncle Mo in the pedigree, but his damside has Rubiano, Caro, and Nijinsky. That’s geared for stamina. If he can work out a trip, he’s another that threatens the trifecta.

Tier 4 (Big budget players can include these on some tickets)

Destin (15-1)
Giant’s Causeway x Dream of Summer (Siberian Summer), trained by Todd Pletcher
I really liked Destin’s full-brother Creative Cause in the 2012 Kentucky Derby but am less a fan of Destin. Having not run since the Tampa Bay Derby is a questionable decision to me and I’m not sure he’s beaten much in his wins. The odds won’t be there on this one

Lani (30-1)
Tapit x Heavenly Romance (Sunday Silence), trained by Mitsio Makunaga
I want to like Lani and his stellar pedigree, but the UAE Derby route has just been so bad when it comes to Kentucky. But yes, what a pedigree with Derby Winner and Japanese super-sire Sunday Silence as damsire. I’ll have a little Lani in the mix, but prefer others.

Outwork (15-1)
Uncle Mo x Nonna Mia (Empire Maker), trained by Todd Pletcher
The Wood Memorial winner has some things going for him, including an excellent damside stamina pedigree and a early runstyle that many others do not have. I’m just uncertain that he’s a top contender, not sold on the strength of the East Coast horses this year. I’m not sure he’ll beat Danzing Candy on the front, or be able to repel pressure from his back.

Brody’s Cause (15-1)
Giant’s Causeway x Sweet Breanna (Sahm), trained by Dale Romans
The Bluegrass winner shook off a poor seasonal debut in the Tampa Bay Derby but didn’t exactly dazzle with his finishing time in his final prep. The Derby’s strange in that 15-1 is viewed as a short price, but I don’t see indications that he possesses any true standout qualities that would elevate him over other contenders.

Shagaf (20-1)
Bernardini x Muhaawara (Unbridled’s Song), trained by Chad Brown
Lightly-raced runner has a strong enough pedigree but hasn’t run particularly fast in any win. His regular rider Irad Ortiz has chosen My Man Sam over him, and some social media chatter has the trainer favoring MMS over Shagaf. He’s as close to a toss for me as I come

Whitmore (40-1)
Pleasantly Perfect x Melody’s Spirit (Scat Daddy), trained by Ron Moquett
Consistent closer has earned his way into Derby by being second- or third-best in Arkansas all season. He gets Victor Espinoza (winner of last two Derbies) as his jockey, but he may just be too slow to make a big splash. Pencil him into a top 10 finish, but I don’t have a lot of hope for his hitting the board.

Oscar Nominated (40-1)
Kitten’s Joy x Devine Actress (Theatrical), trained by Mike Maker
This horse has run on, and won on, solely turf or synthetic surfaces. But he’s never been fast. This isn’t an Animal Kingdom situation, where the pedigree and training really supported a move forward on dirt. This is a turf horse, and we’ll see him back on it sooner than later.

Visiting Kentucky Downs? Make Nashville Your Home Base

Kentucky Downs and its racing meet have grown in stature over the years, so many horseplayers and fans have begun to explore the option of visiting the one-of-a-kind track in tiny Franklin, Kentucky. While the former Dueling Grounds track races under the rules of Kentucky racing, the tracks far turn sits about 3 furlongs from the border with Tennessee, only 45 minutes from Nashville. With its airport the logical place to disembark, and with Kentucky Downs running non-consecutive days, it makes perfect sense to combine a trip to the historic track with a visit to the honky-tonks, and everything else Music City has to offer.

Nashville has developed something of an “It City” reputation recently, and rightly so – our recreational and cultural options, including food and music and art, have exploded in the last five years after a steady build the decade before. There are dozens of “things to do in Nashville” or “places to eat in Nashville” lists easily found  in Google. You should read those. But, if I were planning to come to see races at Kentucky Downs on, say, September 10 and 12, this is how I’d plan my trip.

Thursday, September 10

10 AM – You’re landing in Nashville, handicapping materials studied on the plane. BNA – the B stands for Berry, not important – is one of easiest, most convenient airports in the US. You’ll be able to walk with your carry-on right into the car rental garage, no shuttles required. You’ll exit the airport area and briefly point your nose to toward Nashville before taking Briley Parkway North, headed towards Kentucky.

11 AM – On Briley Parkway headed North, you’ll begin to see signs for Opry Mills, the Grand Ole Opry, and the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. This would be a fine place to exit for lunch – Opry Mills (a huge mall) has plenty of chain restaurants that you’re familiar with and you’re in race mode. Park near the north end though so you can take the short walk to the Grand Ole Opry. Go peak your head in – it’s cool. Nothing will be going on, but cross it off your list. Another time perhaps.

12:15 PM – You’ve eaten, seen the Opry and you’re back on Briley Parkway N. Take I-65N toward Louisville. You’ll be in Franklin with 30 minutes to spare.

1:05 PM – Post time is in 30 minutes. Check out the casino, the source of all these purses. Decide if you want to be near the clubhouse (top of stretch) or the temporary area near the finish line. You’re at the race track – I don’t need to tell you how to enjoy your day.

5:30 PM – Time to roll back to Nashville. You’re going back against traffic so it won’t be too bad. You’ll pity those going the other direction, though.

6:30 PM – Check into your hotel. If you’re more of a downtown guy (gal, or couple), enjoying tourists and country music and people-watching, there are plenty of fine options, of which the Omni or Hilton are the best (but priciest). If you’re more low-key, and prefer more low-key nightlife options with locals and grad students in the crowd, I’d find a spot in Midtown near Vanderbilt. The Hutton or Hotel Indigo have a boutique flair, but you can find a Courtyard Marriott or Hampton Inn to your liking as well. I’m more the latter, so Midtown it is.

8:00 PM – Thursday night is popular, but people eat early in this town, so any place you find on those Googled lists should be able to seat you. After a travel day, though, I like to stick close to my hotel. Start off exploring Midtown with a craft cocktail at Union Common and enjoy it’s great service and Art Deco decor. I love eating there with a group, but you’ll also find a well-spirited crowd just up the street at Tavern on Broadway, and they’ll have the NFL opener between the Steelers and Pats on their big screen.

11:00 PM – If you haven’t retired for the night, a half dozen places in Midtown will have open-air patios and lively crowds to continue the night. Red Door, Losers, Winners, Soulshine, Rebar, Corner Pub; all have their charms. Red Door is the longest-tenured establishment but will have the most difficult-to-navigate crowd. Losers, Winners, and Rebar are all in a row and you can see what’s your speed. But if it’s one last beer or late-night bar food I want, I’d hit the Corner Pub Midtown for a local Yazoo brew and their famous cheese beans.

Friday, September 11

7:00 AM – Dude(tte)(s), you’re on vacation. Snooze button.

8:30 AM – You’ve snoozed, showered and changed and you have a whole day to check out Nashville. But, you’ve got the Kentucky Downs handicapping contest tomorrow and need to fit some study in the day. Hopefully you have printed out some materials because the DRF is hard to find in print in Nashville. Your Googled guides are going to tell you to head to Hillsboro Village to have breakfast at Nashville’s most famous breakfast spot, the Pancake Pantry. I do not love 30-minute waits to sit, so if you’re like me, you’ll want to head one block further to Fido, a locally-owned coffee shop with a fantastic breakfast menu. I love breakfast burritos but there’s plenty for every taste – being so near to Vanderbilt and Belmont Universities, half the people in here will be studying. You and your PPs won’t be out of place.

10:00 AM – Your breakfast burrito was substantial and, faced with the day ahead, a little exercise may be in order. Nashville has a ton of parks and walking trails within minutes of downtown, but the two most popular are Radnor Lake and Percy Warner Park. Both are an easy drive, but Radnor’s the more naturally beautiful and smaller. Head south on 12th Avenue/Granny White Pike (the average number of names for any given road in Nashville is 1.5) and turn left on Otter Creek Rd. There are no signs (we like it that way).

11:30 AM – After your walk, you’re faced with a choice. You could head south, toward Franklin, TN, and make an afternoon of walking around its neat downtown area then driving out to some amazing countryside in every direction. Heading west will take you through Nashville’s Forest Hills and Belle Meade communities, with tree-lined boulevards passing by palatial homes, several occupied by stars of country music. I’d suggest heading back up Granny White/12th Avenue and into the up-and-coming 12 South neighborhood and its mix of restaurants and boutiques. Consult your lists again for stores (Imogene+Willie is most popular), but I definitely recommend Edley’s BBQ for lunch. It’s one of two superlative BBQ shops in town, sharing that distinction with Martin’s two blocks over on Belmont Blvd. If you’re so inclined at this time, you may enjoy a Bushwacker (basically a chocolate milkshake for adults) on the Edley’s patio and study some more. You can hop around several places in the neighborhood before heading back to your hotel for a nap.

2:00 PM – Nap time. Have I mentioned you’re on vacation? For those less inclined to midday slumber, though, you could use this opportunity to tour around Nashville’s downtown in a less crowded fashion. I highly recommend the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum – it really is more a museum of music, full stop, because “country” had so many influences and has influenced so many other genres. It’s awesome. Not four blocks away is the Ryman Auditorium (“The Mother Church”), which is as revered a music venue as any in the world. Seeing a show there is a bucket-list item, but that’s another trip.

4:30 PM – Before heading out for your evening, I might suggest strolling over to Vanderbilt University and briefly walking around the campus. The main campus is a National Arboretum and could easily lay claim to being the most beautiful urban campus in the country, with red-brick buildings nestled amongst magnolias and century-old oak trees. One hundred feet in, you’d never know you were in a city of a million people. It’s something else.

6:00 PM – Tonight’s the night to get out a little bit. Uber and Lyft are your friends in Nashville, because the cabs here tend to congregate at the airport and downtown, where the tourist density is highest. If you decide to make the trip to Nashville, make reservations at your Friday and Saturday night destinations as soon as you can, ideally after reading this. Three neighborhoods are great for going for dinner and drinks on a Friday night – Germantown (North Nashville) and Five Points and Eastland (East Nashville). If you want to try multiple places in a night, almost every restaurant has dinner service at the bar, which is great for trying multiple places. I dig all these places

  • Germantown – City House, Rolf & Daughters, 5th & Taylor, Butchertown Hall
  • Five Points – Margot
  • Eastland – Two Ten Jack, Rosepepper Cantina, Eastland Cafe

10:00 PM – Hopefully, you did a little bit of everything tonight but a big race day and handicapping contest is ahead. You may find a craft cocktail nightcap to your liking at Patterson House back in Midtown, or just something back at the hotel. Get some rest – there’s a big race day and contest tomorrow.

Saturday, September 12

8:00 AM – Wake up, get ready then walk two blocks to Noshville on Broadway, a classic diner/deli that is well-known for its breakfast offerings. It may only be there a short time longer, as Midtown is transforming in a hurry. Try the kosher pickles; yes, even for breakfast.

10:00 AM – You’re ready to retrace your steps back north to Franklin. It’s worth getting there a little early to get registered for the contest, get your space just right, and start simulcasting. It’ll be a big day.

6:00 PM – Time to say goodbye to Kentucky Downs, and hopefully you’re in the mood to celebrate. Downtown Nashville is the perfect place to do so. Head back to your hotel and get ready for the night.

8:00 PM – Take a short Uber ride or cab to the area known as the Gulch, about 4 square blocks of restaurants, bars, shops, and venues. The highest concentration of restaurants is on McGavock Street, and places like Adele’s (Southern), Moto (Italian), Virago (Sushi), and Kayne Prime (Steakhouse) require advance reservations. I recommend each of these places, but there are several more casual options in the same area.

10:00 PM – After dinner, take a cab or Uber to Nashville’s downtown, Broadway between 2nd and 5th Avenues. While you can find good country music in any of half-a-dozen honky-tonks, my favorite destinations are Tootsie’s, Robert’s Western Wear, and The Stage. The big secret to avoiding the long lines to get into these places? Go around back to the alley between these bars and the Ryman Auditorium. All the honky-tonks have front and rear entry/exit for safety reasons, and lines in the back won’t be very deep. There’s plenty to explore on Broadway and Second Avenue, so no need to stay in one place for too long.

1:00 AM – Head back to the hotel – I hope you’ve booked a mid-afternoon flight, and requested a late check-out.

Sunday, September 13

10:00 AM – Wake up and get ready – today will be about taking it easy before heading home.

10:45 AM – Walk the short distance from your hotel to the corner of Broadway and 19th Avenue to Hattie B’s. It doesn’t open until 11, but it’s popularity has meant a line out the door during most lunch hours. Getting there early will reduce your wait for Nashville’s most famous food item, hot chicken. Basically fried chicken with varying amounts and mixes of chili powders included in the batter and spice paste, hot chicken has exploded from a few small (but famous) purveyors a decade ago to a staple on restaurant menus in Nashville and throughout the South. Hattie B’s has found a niche in Midtown, and it’s a convenient place for you to try this uniquely Nashville meal.

12:00 PM – Nashville has a lot to see, so grab a Coke refill and drive around before heading to the airport. Centennial Park has Nashville’s full-size replica of the Greek Parthenon. Head south to check out some remnants of the Civil War’s Battle of Nashville or (further south) the Battle of Franklin. If there’s any little thing you missed

2:30 PM – Head to the airport, drop off your rental car, and check in. I hope you enjoyed your stay. Come back soon and do it all again.


2015 Kentucky Derby – Handicapping the Field

Anticipation for the Kentucky Derby has never been higher since I’ve been a fan of the sport. It appears that this year’s group of three-year-olds has the potential to be very special, especially at the top. Even if there are two or three “freak” horses in here, the challenge of handicapping the Derby remains high. Favorites have won the Derby the last two years but >30-1 longshots have rounded out exotic tickets making for huge exactas and trifectas. What I want to look at are three things:

  • Which favorites are fairly rated or overrated
  • Which horses beyond the favorites could win if the race shapes up favorably for them
  • Which longshots could impact the exotic bets, especially the trifecta and superfecta

This year, we can turn these three statements into questions that will attempt to solve the handicapping puzzle.

  • Are American Pharoah and Dortmund lengths better than the rest of the field?
  • If so, is American Pharoah significantly better than Dormund? (AP will be the fav)
  • Does the race shape up to have a fast pace, potentially hurting the favs, who usually run close to the lead?
  • If so, who stands to benefit with stamina and a late closing kick?
  • What longshots have unique characteristics (pedigree, running style, improving form, etc) that make them competitive?
  • What do you think specifically about Carpe Diem, Mubtaahij, Materiality, and Upstart?

Tier 1 (Prime win candidates and key exacta/trifecta horses)

The Favorites

One Derby betting angle that I’ve promoted recently is the “Storm Cat-curse” wherein no horse with that great American sire in his pedigree has won the Kentucky Derby. The angle is 0-60 – even more than the Apollo curse. This year is a huge test for it as the top 3 betting choices will all be curse-breakers. In the win pool, I will be betting against the favorites because I believe I will get very good odds on the horse I like. In exotics, however, where I play $0.50-$2.00 tickets, I will be keying Bob Baffert’s charges in either first or second  on most tickets. I do think they are standouts and I’m excited to see them run.

American Pharoah (Est PT Odds: 3-1)
Pioneerof the Nile x Littleprincessemma (Yankee Gentleman), trained by Bob Baffert
The great horses in recent memory have been, in one way or another, winners of a genetic lottery. California Chrome, Wise Dan, Afleet Alex, and Smarty Jones among others have pedigrees that look decidedly average on paper but their athletic performance confounds expert pedigree analysis. American Pharoah looks like he should be a sprinter or middle-distance runner. His performance so far suggests he can run as far as he wants. Keen observers are tossing around the word “freak” with regard to his racing and training. Dominant Arkansas Derby winners of the last decade have all hit the board in the Kentucky Derby (Smarty, Alex, Curlin, Bodemeister). I give AP the best chance to break the curse, but I will bet him in 2nd and 3rd as much as on top.

Dortmund (PT: 4-1)
Big Brown x Our Josephina (Tale of the Cat), trained by Bob Baffert
The list of things to like about Dortmund is long. He’s undefeated, 6-6. He has a Graded Stakes win over the Churchill Downs surface and two G1 wins besides. He’s an imposing colt, standing 17 hands, with an enormous stride. His sire won the Kentucky Derby. He’s trained by 3-time winner Bob Baffert. He’s beaten twice several in this field including the well-regarded Firing Line. His BRIS speed figures have improved in each of his last four races. The big question: “is Dortmund the best horse in his own barn?” Baffert has kept Dortmund at Santa Anita while shipping American Pharoah to Arkansas, and they’ve easily captured more than a million in purses between them. His pedigree doesn’t scream improvement with distance. He’ll see a much faster pace than the one he’s set in all his efforts so far. He’ll be a deserving 2nd choice behind AP, though, and I love his chances. I’ll be using him on a lot of tickets.

My Pick

Frosted (PT: 12-1+)
Tapit x Fast Cookie (Deputy Minister), trained by Kiaran McLaughlin
I love Frosted for reasons most people do not. In the Fountain of Youth, he stopped at the top of stretch then came back with a huge run in the Wood Memorial, getting the top BRIS speed figure of any prep (a 107. Dortmund has a 106). This pattern, many say, could produce a “bounce” in the Kentucky Derby. I’ll ask this – what if the Wood was a bounce? The FoY pace was faster than the Wood, and he was rolling around the turn. Then, all of a sudden, Frosted couldn’t breath. He had displaced his palette, limiting airflow to his lungs. He galloped on for 4th. He had a very common throat surgery and he won the Wood under no urging. His pedigree is fantastic; he’s by Tapit, the best dirt stallion at stud today. His damsire is Deputy Minister, who I would argue is the best source of stamina in pedigrees today (damsire of Curlin and Rags to Riches, among others). He can make a mid-pack run as well, like he did in the Wood. I expected him to be only 12-1 or so, but the steam on the favorites is substantial and he could drift up. I love him at anything double-digits and will be my main win play.

Tier 2 (Include with key horses in exactas/trifectas)

Danzig Moon (ML: 30-1)
Malibu Moon x Leaveminthedust (Danzig), trained by Mark Casse
This colt’s name is a decoder ring as to why I like him a lot for the 2015 Kentucky Derby. His sire is Malibu Moon, sire of Orb, Derby winner in 2013. He’s the best son of champion AP Indy at stud and a great stamina influence in his own right. Danzig, his damsire, has consistently one of the best speed and stamina influences in recent years, with great colts like Big Brown (by Boundary) and Hard Spun in his line. Not to be outdone, his 2nd damsire is Mr Prospector, the most common name found in Derby pedigrees the last 25 years. (When I look at pedigrees, the closer the “marker” for success, the better) His female family includes greats Inside Information, Educated Risk, and the recently-deceased Smuggler. From a racing standpoint, he certainly looks to be improving, passing horses to close the gap on Carpe Diem in the Bluegrass. His jockey Julien Leparoux has a reputation for being, shall we say, overly patient in his riding style but that may actually help in a race like the Derby. I like his chances to hit the board, and will use as a key exotic play.

Materiality (PT: 15-1)
Afleet Alex x Wildwood Flower (Langfuhr), trained by Todd Pletcher
This potential Apollo-curse-breaker exits a strong win in the Florida Derby that gives him one of the top speed figures (105 BRIS) in the field. Usually Todd Pletcher’s lightly-raced speedballs boast pedigrees that suggest more success at sprint/mile distances, so to see Afleet Alex siring a half-brother to MGSW dirt router My Miss Sophia makes me believe Materiality isn’t another Verrazano. He’s beaten good horses in Upstart and Stanford and has already run twice at nine furlongs. I don’t see him breaking the curse this year, but he’s faster than most in here.

Mubtaahij (PT 12-1)
Dubai Millennium x Pennegale (Pennekamp), trained by Mike de Kock
Mubtaahij may be the best horse to come to Kentucky via the UAE Derby in a long time, maybe ever. He’s a horse that his connections thought would be good on grass but proved only average. He totally woke up on dirt – the only issue is that his competition in Dubai all had the same characteristics. He’s already run twice at 9.5f, just 110 yards shorter than the Derby distance. He beat his competition impressively, and his fractional times in Dubai make him competitive (within 2-3 lengths) with top US horses California Chrome and Lea in the 10 furlong Dubai World Cup. Renowned international trainer Mike de Kock doesn’t d*** mess around when it comes to shipping to the US – his charges are 6-6 to hit the board stateside. Mubtaahij is one of those in-or-out type horses that you will either decide to toss or have to include in spades, because his odds will be in the 10- to 15-1 range. He’s in for me on most of my exotic tickets, and will use sparingly on top of some.

Upstart (PT 15-1)
Flatter x Party Silks (Touch Gold), trained by Rick Violette
I’ll fully admit to not knowing what to do with Upstart. Several handicappers I respect really like him and he’s finished races really well. (The Fountain of Youth DQ was more a jockey issue, in my opinion). He’s been running at Gulfstream, and there’s been a pattern of horses improving as they ship north. He missed a little training a couple weeks back, but doubt his fitness is really in question. I don’t love the depth of his pedigree – Touch Gold hasn’t been as good a distance influence as his sire Deputy Minister and 2nd damsire Housebuster is a sprint sire. His odds, however, will be right for inclusion in exotics. Definitely a factor because he always turns in the effort.

Tier 3 (3-4 spots in minimum bet trifectas, superfectas)

International Star (PT: 15-1)
Fusaichi Pegasus x Parlez (French Deputy), trained by Michael Maker
This horse has improved dramatically since his two-year-old season, and has a pedigree that makes sense for that development. (Fusaichi Pegasus debuted late in his 2yo season, and steadily improved before winning the 2000 Derby). This is reflected in his speed figures, and might expect a 101-102 BRIS fig if trend continues. That seems like it’d be good enough for 3rd or 4th this year (Commanding Curve ran a 101 for second last year). The one thing many handicappers don’t like was jockey Miguel Mena’s aggressive use of the whip in the Louisiana Derby stretch drive. If he was all out to beat front-running Stanford there, do we see him going eye-to-eye with much better. This Ken Ramsey runner seems usable to me, but only for a minor piece.

Bolo (PT: 30-1)
Temple City x Aspen Mountain (Chief Seattle), trained by Carla Gaines
Connections believe this one to have more potential on grass, but he has requited himself with two 3rd-place finishes in Derby-qualifying races. The most appealing quality to Bolo for me is that the same pedigree that makes him a better grass horse makes him a better distance horse as well. If he can work out a trip, stay out of trouble, I expect him to be in contention for an in-the-money finish.

Carpe Diem (PT: 8-1)
Giant’s Causeway x Rebridled Dreams (Unbridled’s Song), trained by Todd Pletcher
Once-defeated Carpe Diem is Todd Pletcher’s big horse this year, and looks to be the third betting choice behind the Baffert tandem of American Pharoah and Dortmund. The main issue for me is how much Carpe Diem fits the profile of a typical Pletcher Derby horse: speedy, precocious, lightly-raced. Pletcher’s atypical Derby horses seem to be the ones that run well: Super Saver, Revolutionary, Danza. Those colts all sported stamina-favoring pedigrees and a mid-pack running style. Carpe Diem really likes to be close up. Similarly, his pedigree has a lot of brilliance in it (Storm Cat line crossed with Unbridled’s Song), but not a lot of depth in stamina. There’s some evidence (gate issues) that he’s a bit high-strung. Still, hard to knock his results so far, and his inherent speed. I think he folds in the stretch here, but I could be really wrong about him.

Far Right (PT: 25-1)
Notional x Zindi (Vindication), trained by Ron Moquett
I cannot say that this horse has done anything wrong thus far on the Derby Trail. He won the Smarty Jones and Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn to announce his presence, then had a clear second-best finish in the Arkansas Derby. The only problem was the eight lengths he finished behind American Pharoah. I expect the betting public will love that Mike Smith, the best big-race rider in the business, will continue to ride Far Right in the Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, Far Right’s pedigree is not one I see stretching out to the 10F. Notional is a relatively unknown sire, but this sire line (incl Caro, In Excess, Indian Charlie) has had little Derby success – it’s much more oriented to sprinting and shorter routes. Still, I like how this colt gives his best every race. Not a win contender to my mind, but a patient ride could position him for an exotic score.

Stanford (PT: 30-1)
Malibu Moon x Rosy Humor (Distorted Humor), trained by Todd Pletcher
Stanford has two interesting races on his PPs that are worth considering. The first is the 9f stake on March 6, in which he lost by almost 6 lengths to stablemate Materiality. He still earned a solid speed fig (94 BRIS) for the effort. He came right back and got a 99 fig for his front-running 2nd in the Louisiana Derby, staying on against a very good horse in International Star. His pedigree suggests that he should like the Derby distance – both his sire and damsire have sired Derby winners. His early speed is his best asset, but he won’t get the lead easily Saturday evening. Best case for him is to control a modest pace through ¾ of a mile then tap into his stamina to hang on for a piece. I would not consider that the most likely scenario, but it’s not impossible. I’ll use underneath on bigger tickets.

Tier 4 (Big budget players can include these on some tickets)

Itsaknockout (PT: 30-1 – underlaid b/c of connection to Mayweather-Pacquiao)
Lemon Drop Kid x Stormy B (Cherokee Run), trained by Todd Pletcher
Here’s a horse who hasn’t finished in front of others since early January, but has shown speed in the past. I wonder if Pletcher wasn’t gearing down Itsaknockout while gearing up Materiality in the Florida Derby, knowing he was already qualified for Louisville. 3rd place may have been the best case scenario that day, so why not point to May 1? Again, no major disqualifiers on this one from a pedigree standpoint, but Pletcher seems on the fence about running him and Madefromlucky and Stanford. Maybe he saves one for the Preakness – hard to get a read on these prep flops. My gut tells me this horse is better than his last race and hasn’t missed training. Horses coming from the track at Gulfstream have been running faster times/figs elsewhere. He’s a price bounce-back contender in deeper exotics.

Keen Ice (PT: 50-1)
Curlin x Medomak (Awesome Again), trained by Dale Romans
The last to draw into the race, there’s a great deal of buzz surrounding Keen Ice making his way into the Derby field. Most of that buzz is related to the 2nd-place finishes garnered by Louisiana Derby placers Golden Soul and Commanding Curve hitting the Derby exacta the past two years at long odds. Keen Ice has a great distance pedigree and a plodding style that would seem to suggest a top 10 finish is reasonable. I contend, however, that this son of Curlin is not as fast as either Golden Soul or Commanding Curve, and would need more improvement than they needed to get a Derby placing. I understand what everyone’s getting at with Keen Ice, but I’m not in love with chances relative to others.

Mr. Z (PT: 40-1)
Malibu Moon x Stormy Bear (Storm Cat), trained by D. Wayne Lukas
This well-bred colt has run 4x this season, accumulating enough points from 2nd- and 3rd-place finishes to earn his way into the Derby starting gate. His 5f work on 4/22 got mixed reviews, barely catching an average turf router in a company drill. Malibu Moon has sired a Derby-winner but Storm Cat has never appeared in a Derby-winning pedigree, despite passing on a penchant for fast routers. His female line includes the dam of Mr Prospector, Gold Digger, making him inbred 3×3 to that mare in addition to other pedigree superstars Secretariat and Bold Ruler. His pedigree has more appeal than his current form, but I have to consider both. Lukas’s charges have been finishing mid-pack in the Derby recently, but keeping fit for later-season runs. A cut below here.

El Kabeir (PT: 25-1)
Scat Daddy x Great Venue (Unbridled’s Song), trained by John Terranova
I’ll just flatly say I don’t think this horse will get the Derby distance. The soft-paced Wood offered a perfect setup for him but he could only manage third. From a betting perspective, the inclusion of Calvin Borel to his team guarantees he’ll get bet more than he ought, and will be hugely underlaid in the win pool. I think he’s a strong contender for a bottom five finish – it doesn’t mean he’s a bad horse, he’ll certainly win his fair share going forward if he stays sound, but I don’t see him having the stamina to contend. A toss for me.

Firing Line (PT: 20-1)
Line of David x Sister Girl Blues (Hold the Gold), trained by Simon Callaghan
Firing Line’s biggest qualification is that twice he went toe to toe (eye to eye, nose to nose) with Dortmund in the LosAl Futurity and the Robert Lewis, both two-turn races at 8.5f. Then, he destroyed the Sunland Derby in the easiest effort of any prep race. He likes to stay pretty close to the pace, but probably does not need the lead. Firing Line is actually the horse that I will disagree with most other commentators on – I think his pedigree will restrict him from being a factor much beyond the mile pole. The Sunland win at 9f was simply too easy to count as a distance test. I’ll allow this one could surprise me, but I’m going to apply my pedigree filter like I am with El Kabeir, and leave this one off my tickets.

Tier 5 (Only bet when the ticket says ALL)

Tencendur (PT: 30-1)
Warrior’s Reward x Still Secret (Hennessy), trained by George Weaver
His surprise 2nd-place finish in the Wood probably had more to do with a favorable pace setup than anything else. Despite a relatively slow pace, he was the primary closer (even though winner Frosted moved even later). Frosted moved by him with ease. Though a hot pace may seem to favor his style, I suspect his sprinty pedigree won’t allow him to track that pace closely enough to be effective late. A toss for me.

Ocho Ocho Ocho (PT: 50-1)
Street Sense x Winner (Horse Chestnut), trained by Jim Cassidy
By Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, this colt seemed one to follow last fall after a nice Super Derby win. He just doesn’t seem the same horse at 3, qualifying with a unthreatening 3rd to Carpe Diem and Danzig Moon in Lexington, but getting trounced out west before that. I wouldn’t disqualify him on pedigree, but can’t place him in the top 5 for any good reason. Think his connections are there for the party. Leaving off my tickets.

War Story (PT: 50-1)
Northern Afleet x Belle Watling (Pulpit), trained by Thomas Amoss
There are some things to like about this horse (running style, hot connections), but this horse has been pretty slow relative to this field and was pretty far behind Stanford and International Star in the Louisiana Derby. A recent lackluster workout had trainer Tom Amoss saying that was pretty typical for the horse, but it didn’t improve any opinions. His pedigree does not have a ton of depth (Pulpit as damsire solid, but Housebuster as 2nd damsire is not) that would suggest a breakout at 10 furlongs. Commanding Curve turned a 3rd place LA Derby finish into a Kentucky Derby exacta finish last year, but he showed more speed than this one going into the race. War Story is a pass for me.

Payoffs?! We’re Talking ‘ Bout Payoffs!?!

“We’re just trying to win the game!” (This article appeared in two parts in the September and December HANA Magazine)

A common refrain I’ve seen on Twitter recently, spurred by the popularity of both the Saratoga and Del Mar meets, is “X [Exotic Bet] payoff amount seemed a little light”. Many culprits are to blame: the sharps, the computers, the $0.50 or $0.10 minimums, the obscene takeout. The only bet avoiding this fate seems to be the low takeout Pick-5s that accompany the day’s first [flat] race in both New York and California. Many players consider it the best bet in the game – I am one of them.
Still, there are dozens of exotic bets each day that are not the Pick-5 and their payoff math seems to confound even seasoned horseplayers. Perhaps that group especially has seen exotic pools diminish as a source of value over time, another side effect to the macro trends driving horse racing. The culprits identified above are all legitimate if not the biggest reason exotic payoffs appear slim these days. Let’s look at an example of what might happen on an exotic bet in this modern era.

7-horse race, 18% takeout in the Win Pool – 3 logical (evenly-matched) horses, 4 longshots. The odds board looks like:

Alpha Red 2-1
Beta Orange 2-1
Gamma Yellow 2-1
Delta Green  30-1
Epsilon Blue 30-1
Zeta Indigo 30-1
Eta Violet 30-1
You are certain from your handicapping that the three favs are going to make up the trifecta and you’re excited to get a 30-1 shot in for 4th of your superfecta. Your $1.00 superfecta ticket (1-3/1-3/1-3/4-7) costs $24. The race runs exactly to your script – 2-3-1-6. You do some quick math in your head (2x2x2x30 = $240 – $40 for takeout) –> $200 BOOM!

The Race is Official – the $1 superfecta payoff flashes – $18.24. You turn to your friend – “Man, that superfecta came up light…”

What happened? Well, math happened, and several things about this hypothetical race show why payoffs can often look small.

It’s obvious, in retrospect, what happened to our dumb-luck player – he projected the win pool odds of a longshot of 30-1 to be the same for any given place in the exotics. However, the probability for any one of the longshots to be in the superfecta is a little over 25%. There’s a 100% chance that at least one of them will. So, instead of 30-1 for 4th, he’s getting maybe 5-2. You wouldn’t play four horses at 5-2 each in the win pool.

In the first three slots of the trifecta, there were only 6 combinations of horses; there were just 4 outcomes for the 4th spot – at no takeout, payoffs would only be $24.00 for a $1.00. Take 24% off the top, and he has lost money on his ticket.

This may be a “perfect storm” case of bad betting, but it does highlight several reasons why exotic bet payoffs are shrinking, both in reality and perception. Today, I’ll look at what I think is the biggest issue; Part 2 in the next issue will deal with the other culprits (takeout, minimums,computers, etc.)

Field Size is a Bigger Factor in Exotics than Straight Bets

In HANA’s Track Ranking metrics, takeout is the biggest factor in a high ranking and field size is second (takeout is about 40% more important, in the algorithm, for the three of you interested). For exotic players, however, field size may actually be the much more important factor.

A very popular theory about exotic bets is that they mitigate high takeout because you make 2+ bets but only have a single takeout (this theory is mostly applied in Pick-X wagers compared to a win parley). Thought of another way, an exotic bet can improve your price per opinion, meaning for an exacta bet you pay one takeout for your opinion on the winner and one for your opinion on the second place horse.

It’s that dynamic that shows why exotic bet payoffs are especially susceptible to field size. Let’s compare a race with 8 runners to one with 7:

Win Pool: 8 outcomes vs 7, a decrease of 12.5% in the options the betting public has in a race
Exacta Pool: (8×7=56) outcomes vs (7×6=42) outcomes, a decrease of 25%
Trifecta Pool: 336 outcomes vs 210 outcomes, a decrease of 37.5%

The total potential outcomes matter very much because the win odds do not reflect the probability of a horse rounding out an exotic bet, like in our bet above. Longshots in larger fields (9+) will continue to provide large multipliers nearer to their win pool odds.

If you ask yourself the question “Is this vertical exotic bet likely to payoff near a multiple win pool odds?” subtract 5 from the race’s field size, and only play verticals where positions required is less than or equal to the difference, i.e.
Field Size 6 or less – payouts won’t be multiples
7 – Exacta only
8 – Exacta/Trifecta
9 – Exacta/Trifecta/Superfecta
In horizontal bets, the situation is the same. A Daily Double with two 7-horse fields has 24% fewer combos than two 8-horse fields. Even the prevalence of a single short field in a horizontal bet can hurt payoffs – a 10-horse field paired to a 6-horse field has only 60 potential combos vs two 8-horse fields getting 64.
Other Negative Factors causing Lower-than-Expected Payout
1.       Smaller Pools – A small pool size can often lead to negative price distortions and pay out less than win-pool multiples. Let’s say a small-track P4 sees 4 10-1 horses winning. Some quick estimation says a $10,000 for $1 is not an unlikely potential payout. Small tracks, however, may not attract enough handle to fully pay out combinations at the likely multiple. If there’s only $7000 in that small-track P4, that’s all you can win (and you might even have to split that!)
2.       Higher Takeout – We’ve been saying it for years. If there’s less money available to be returned to bettors, less money will be returned to bettors. (And they’ll bet less next time)
3.       Lower Betting Minimums (with Multiple Longshots) – Lower betting minimums ($0.50 Tris,P3-4s, $0.10 Supers, etc) have long been lamented as having decreased average payouts, and it’s true to some extent. Since many exotic sequences will feature at least one price horse, being able to more easily spread bets on a single ticket means those pools will be hit by multiple tickets. When the pools are big enough, some large bettors can structure and play tickets at low minimums that allow them to “crush” chalky sequences and simply “hit” longshot sequences while still having a positive return in either scenario.
4.       Whales & Rebates – This is probably a bigger deal than I may give it credit. In the quest to find value in pari-mutuel pools, gamblers with an edge often go into the exotic pools to capture it (exacta pools are frequently larger than win, for example). If you’re on the same horses as a shark, you’re going to see lower payouts than you might think. Also, since exotics have some of the highest rebates in the business (because they have the highest takeout), many large bettors will play into these pools to eek out a small return that will be amplified by their rebate.
5.       Machine Betting – Computer players and automated programs especially can take advantage of any mispricing they see in certain pools, like doubles and exactas, for which the tote operator provides information. For example, a computer can quickly compare Win pool odds to Daily Double Will-Pays. Frequently, a Double pool will be mispriced relative to a win pool. Say the computer’s most likely winner is 2-1 but can see from the Will-Pays that the Double pool is averaging a 3-1 return, a 33% increase in payout. The computer can play a weighted 1-ALL ticket into that double pool to get exactly that 3-1 return, regardless of who wins the next race. In so doing, they reduce the potential payout for everyone else. This is called arbitrage.
Positive Factors for Higher-than-Expected Exotic Bet Payouts
1.       Carryovers (Non-Jackpot) – Carryovers most often occur in the large Pick-6 pools in California and New York, but they can be found elsewhere. The carryover gets added to the pool, which has a similar impact to reducing takeout. They make for really good bets – carryover payouts will quite frequently “beat the parlay” and frequently have an effective takeout below 10%.
2.       Larger (and Guaranteed) Pools – An exotic pool often needs to be of a minimum size to pay off the combination of horses that go into it. Large pools will, more often than not, pay out near or over the expected odds (based on win pool %s). Guaranteed pools usually take advantage of this fact to attract betting dollars. On the other hand, a missed guarantee can be great for bettors
3.       Lower Takeout – We’ve been saying it for years. If there’s more money available to be returned to bettors, more money will be returned to bettors. (And they’ll bet more next time)
4.       Lower Betting Minimums (in chalky sequences) – If lower minimums cause longshot sequences to generate low payouts, the converse must also be true – low mins help chalky sequences have higher than expected payouts. If players play lots of longshots that don’t hit, their handle goes to the more commonly-held chalky sequences. Here’s the thing: those payouts may only be 5-10% higher than they should be, but they are held by more people. When a big longshot sequence misses by 30% of expectation, that’s a negative surprise for a few. When a chalky sequence pays $15 than you think it should, that’s a cheeseburger and a beer. Bonus – the track will withhold 25% of your winnings on $600 payouts less often.
5.       Public Money – The opposite of swimming with the sharks, when the public throws their money at longshots in every pool, it’s time to feast!

Is the $2 Win Wager a Thing of the Past?

This post appeared in the Horseplayer’s Association of North America’s June 2014 Newsletter. It is reproduced here by the author.
The official stance of HANA on betting minimums effectively comes down to “the lower the better”. In the North American track rankings, our algorithms give bonus points to $0.50 pick-Xs and trifectas, and $0.10 superfectas. The strongest reason for lower minimums is the IRS – if you have two $0.50 Trifecta tickets for $550 each, you’re getting $1100 back from the windows. If you have a single $1 Trifecta for $1100, you’re getting $825 back after formally letting the US Treasury Department know you’ve won that money and them keeping 25% aside for that privilege.
There’s a downside, however, to lower betting minimums in that, in some instances, they can lower payouts of exotic bets. Lenny Moon (of @Equinometry and HANA) debated this briefly around Preakness weekend. He’s a staunch advocate of higher minimums on some bets (namely pick-5s and 6s with carryover conditions) where lower minimums enable strategies that cover more combinations in these bets, frequently lowering payouts. I countered that it’s a two-way street – spreading will frequently increase the payout on higher-likelihood combinations (multiple favorites winning) while reducing the payouts when two-plus longshots win. Lenny – always on the search for great value horses in these horizontal wagers – would be negatively impacted more often than not, and his advocacy for higher minimums is reasonable. Joe Chalk, who likes to play dime super keys 20x , might rightly enjoy more dead money in his pools without having to notify Uncle Sam.

I want to take a third position, however, that a certain betting minimum may be much too low. The $2 Win bet has been the staple of North American horse racing since pari-mutuel betting was legalized in 1927. Most jurisdictions retain the $2 straight bet (Win/Place/Show) as their minimum, but some like NYRA and Keeneland have $1 minimums. Many commentators (including me) have cited the low minimum bet as a way to enjoy gambling on horses with low risk and keeping bet size low is necessary for attracting new fans to the wagering side of the sport.

I have changed my mind. Now, often when I take a controversial stance, I’m just being contrary and argumentative. Not in this case – I genuinely think the $2 Win bet may be hindering the growth of wagering on racing. The phrase that best summarizes how I arrived at this conclusion: “skin in the game”. Allow me to explain:

1. History and inflation: In 1948, when Citation won the Triple Crown, a $2 bet was worth $20 in today’s dollars. In 1937, when betting on Seabiscuit, a track attendee would have been placing the equivalent of $33 on his nose. A $2 bet was a non-trivial sum of money to bettors in racing’s heyday – in 1937, that was a day’s worth of meals. The modal bettor was more invested in the outcome of the race because more dollars were on the line, there was more skin in the game. Wins were also much more exciting because the payouts represented a meaningful haul. A $2 win bettor today – again, still the most common kind – isn’t as excited from the win because the typical payoff amount to a Lincoln and 2 Washingtons – not the equivalent of a Benjamin.

2. Comparison to Casinos: Go to any major casino on a weekend night and they typical table game (Blackjack, Craps, Roulette, etc) will have a minimum of $25. Ten years ago one table in ten would have a $5 minimum. Now it’s one in ten for $10 – casinos figured out, effectively, that patrons will push their limits just to sit at a table and end up betting more.

Have you ever considered what the “handle” of a craps table is? In racing, handle is total bet, and the takeout is track/ADW/purse revenue. In craps, however, every role of the dice can be considered the equivalent of a race. At a $25 minimum craps table with 12 players, it would not be unreasonable for handle per roll to be $2000 or more. And those rolls are coming every 45 seconds or so. To that end, casinos don’t try to calculate their craps “handle”, just reporting their net revenue/take at the end of the month.

Now I know people (not naming names) who frequently attend big race days and may handle $40 total betting $2 Win and Show bets, just for a little action. This is mind-boggling to me – hard to win anything that way. Those same people, however, would not blink twice having $150 of chips spread out on a craps table, eagerly anticipating the next roll. It might be there’s a group of gamblers out there that need higher minimums at the races to feel invested and, if they win, have enough returned to actually have more than just pocket change. The conversion rate of $2 bettors to $10 bettors need not be very high (20%) .to pay off with an increase in handle.

3. Higher minimums would greatly reduce the impact of breakage: Since most jurisdictions round down win bets to the nearest dime, the breakage versus true odds can be as much as $0.09 of $2.00, or 4.5%. If the minimums were $10 and dime rounding still in place, breakage impact would be reduced by 80% (as the maximum breakage would be only 0.9%)

4. Helping bettors optimize wagers: You’ve probably heard the utterance more than once – “I’m a good handicapper but a bad bettor” or “If only I had a bigger bankroll, I could spread more to hit that [fill in the exotic bet]”. Rule one of betting, however, is try to find the winner. If I’m better at picking winners but frequently squander that advantage by chasing longshots in exotics or spreading tickets to hit them, then I am not optimizing my play. If, however, higher straight betting minimums encourage a greater investment in win pools, I may actually win more more often.

5. Increase the ROI of bet-takers: Compare Costco to Walmart – the average sales per employee at Costco is 3x that of Walmart’s because the sales per trip at Costco are much higher. Apply this logic to the racetrack – by upping minimums, the ROI of tellers increases even if there are fewer people at the windows

6. Reduce the longshot bias: Longshots are universally overbet compared to their real odds, a phenomenon most prominently seen in wagering on the Kentucky Derby. This is probably from lots of people “taking a shot” with a small bet and depressing payouts – higher minimums would discourage this.

7. Take it from Hong Kong: The world’s most successful racing organization is the Hong Kong Jockey Club – their minimum bet is $HK10. They do not have the long history of $2 minimums the US does, and they have approached the idea rationally, even if there minimum bet is equivalent to less than $2 US

8. The most common sports betting ticket is $110 because that’s how the odds are expressed – 110 to win $100 – $2 minimums likely seem ridiculous to most serious sports bettors

All this leads me to the conclusion that betting minimums should be higher. I’m sensitive to the IRS issue so, for the time being, I think betting minimums on exotics should be kept low until such time as the current “300X & $600+” rule is changed. Straight bets (WPS), however, almost never pay 300-1 so there are no withholding concerns.

I’ll plant a flag saying that the minimum wager for Win, Place, and Show bets should be $10 as a starting point but potentially higher. If ultimately the industry wants winners to win more, then a good place to start is asking them to bet more. It might have side effects, like driving small (but frequent) players to exotics only. It would be a truly audacious move and one that prompts an immediate reaction, but I predict it would increase both handle and engagement from the casual segment if implemented properly. We were braver bettors 75 years ago; time to increase the stakes.

2014 Kentucky Derby – Handicapping the Field

This Derby year is different from any since the start of this site in that the Derby will have one clear favorite. Handicapping often comes down to taking or trying to beat the favorite, or finding ways to get value out of the favorite. That’s why California Chrome is the “Decision” horse of this Derby, and the rest follows from there.

(One note: for my handicapping, the post-position draw and track condition are about 5-10% of the equation. I might discount a horse more drawing post 1 but not any other. Also, I believe distance considerations outweigh track conditions more in classic races, so the 20-40% chance of an off track doesn’t really factor into the Derby as much as other races. Thus, I’m comfortable that the following reasoning will hold for me throughout Derby week)

The Decision

California Chrome (Post-Time Odds Estimate: 5/2) (by Lucky Pulpit out of Not for Love mare)

 If your handicapping is limited to two factors – watching races and looking at speed figures – then California Chrome is an absolute standout. He has not been seriously challenged in winning three times this year and horses he has beaten straight up (Hoppertunity, Candy Boy and Chitu) have in turn beaten numerous other Derby contenders. He is a well-deserving favorite.

 Yet betting the Kentucky Derby often requires looking deeper into handicapping factors that would highlight a runner whose chances of winning are better than his odds indicate. On California Chrome, those deeper handicapping factors do not appeal to me. His pedigree suggests that his best distance is shorter than the 10 furlong Derby distance, all his stakes wins are in California, and he has not faced much adversity in his wins. To the last point, CC has been classier than all the speed horses he’s faced, and speedier than the class horses he’s faced. In the Derby, the frontrunners will be able to hold their speed longer than their California counterparts.

 All that said, I can’t argue that he’s the horse to beat. I think he will go off at odds of 5/2; if you think CC wins 30% of the time, these are fair if not great odds. 30% sounds about right to me, so he’s a top pick, but California Chrome winning is not the bet I want to make. I have opinions on the rest of the field that should be very different than the public’s, and these differences of opinion are what I want to put my money on.

 If I’m right on these, and California Chrome runs well, I’ll have a good day at the track.

 If I’m right on these, and California Chrome does not run well, I’ll have a great day at the track.

 If I’m wrong on these, I’ll lose (but there are no bad days at the Kentucky Derby).

 Tier 1 (Prime win candidates and key exacta/trifecta horses)

 When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, I consider myself a pedigree x performance handicapper. This means that, of horses that have shown some ability and class in the Derby preps, I want to pick horses whose pedigrees suggest success under the conditions of the Kentucky Derby. This is mainly distance aptitude but also includes finding influences that have had past Derby success. My top 3 picks have all had solid recent performances but their pedigrees suggest that their best runs remain ahead of them.

  Wicked Strong (PT Odds est: 6-1) (by Hard Spun o/o Charismatic mare) – Wicked Strong will be the sentimental favorite of this year’s Derby based on his name alone. (In lieu of long explanation, his owner’s first choice of name was Boston Strong). The Derby being a 20-horse race, there are always enough horses to ensure a fast early pace. This usually means a horse that runs faster later and is experienced at passing rivals has a very good chance of winning. Wicked Strong has the best resume of this style of runner, and his pedigree supports it. His sire Hard Spun ran 2nd in the best Derby field of the 21st century. His damsire Charismatic won the Derby, and his 2nd damsire was a world record holder for a distance longer than the Derby. I rate his fair odds at 6-1 but the sentimentality of Derby bettors may make him lower on May 3rd.

 Hoppertunity (PT Odds: 8-1) (by Any Given Saturday o/o Unaccounted For mare) – The Bob Baffert’s trainee was last seen running a few lengths behind California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby. Hoppertunity won the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn three weeks earlier, securing his spot in the Kentucky Derby lineup. It’s possible, even likely, that Baffert had Hopp geared down for the SA Derby with eyes on the bigger prize. He won the Rebel from off the pace, and his SA Derby 2nd came after passing horses. Hopp’s sire is Any Given Saturday and his sire is Distorted Humor, who sired Funny Cide and was the grandsire of I’ll Have Another; Hoppertunity is half-brother to top filly Executiveprivilege, sharing classic influence Danzig as a 2nd Damsire. Hopp did not race as a 2 year old, which makes him subject to the “Apollo curse”; thing is, Baffert has late-developing stars every year and his home track (Santa Anita) opens its winter meet a week before New Year’s. He aims to break the curse and Hoppertunity is his best chance since Bodemeister in 2012.

 Medal Count (PT Odds: 20-1) (by Dynaformer o/o Unbridled’s Song mare) – The main knock against Medal Count is that his best performances have thus far been on turf and Polytrack and not the dirt surface of Churchill Downs. It’s actually why I like this horse so much – he’s likely to be ignored as a turf/AW specialist. Still, this is a horse that won his first race on dirt and has trained primarily on the Churchill Downs main track. Medal Count is THE pedigree standout in this race. His sire Dynaformer was Barbaro’s sire and a tremendous distance influence besides. The Unbridled line influence is a huge indicator of Derby success, both through sire and dams, and last year’s winner Orb was out of an Unbridled mare. His third dam is by the greatest sire of the 20th century, Northern Dancer. If Medal Count can settle mid-pack, he’ll be positioned to get first run ahead of the closers.

 Tier 2 (Include with key horses in exactas/trifectas)

 Ride on Curlin (PT Odds: 12-1, b/c of Jockey Borel) (by Curlin o/o Storm Cat mare) – There are three things I like about this horse: he has improved every race, his pedigree suggests further improvement with age, and has shown ability to pass horses. Two things I don’t like: 1) He hasn’t actually won many races, which I actually think is important; and 2) He gets the jockey services of one Calvin Borel, three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby. While I think Borel gives him as good a chance for success as any jockey (but no better), the public really thinks he’s magic and will bet Ride on Curlin much below his true win odds. RoC has a great chance to inflate an exotics ticket

 Danza (PT Odds: 20-1) (by Street Boss o/o French Deputy mare) – I was surprised as anyone in attendance when this Arkansas Derby longshot won at 40-1. I’ve since gone back and watched the race and was quite impressed by the way he patiently tracked the leaders then quickly accelerated and continued to move. Todd Pletcher has been awfully quiet on this one, but he was only a nose behind two of the top 2-year-olds at Saratoga and has come back well this year. I have heard people questioning his pedigree, as his sire Street Boss was primarily a sprinter, but his damside has some more classic distance influence from French Deputy and Tanks Prospect. Plus, one thing I’ve noted about in the past about sires – sprinters sired by classic oriented sires often pass on both speed and class to their offspring. This seems to me doubly true of the Mr Prospector line; Distorted Humor, Speightstown, Elusive Quality, Midnight Lute to name a few all were sprinters/milers but have seen sons fare quite well in classic distance races. Street Boss’s sire Street Cry counts Derby winner Street Sense and all-time great mare Zenyatta among his progeny; I won’t let Danza surprise me again.

 Dance with Fate (PT Odds: 15-1) (by Two Step Salsa o/o Saint Ballado mare) – Similar to Medal Count, Dance with Fate is probably going to get pegged as a AW specialist following his Blue Grass win. He does have some dirt form (placing in Santa Anita’s Frontrunner Stakes), though his best attribute for the Derby is his late running style. I’m not sold on his pedigree, but Two Step Salsa comes from a branch of the Mr Prospector line considered more hardy than brilliant. His damsire Saint Ballado reinforces those attributes, and I expect Dance with Fate to contend late with a narrow shot at winning.

Tier 3 (3-4 spots in minimum bet trifectas, superfectas)

Chitu (PT Odds: 20-1) (by Henny Hughes o/o A.P. Indy mare) – Normally I would exclude this runner based on his sire Henny Hughes, a great grandson of Storm Cat (whose line has no Derby wins despite it’s prominence). I add Chitu for two reasons: 1) Female champion and future HOF distaffer Beholder also has HH as a sire and her staying ability really impressed me in two nine furlong performances. 2) Chitu has several distance influences on his damside including A.P. Indy and Zilzal as damsire and 2nd damsire, and his dam and 2nd dam were both distance runners on turf. Chitu will race near the front of the pack, which will lower his chances to win, but I could see him holding on at a price.

AE-Social Inclusion (PT Odds: 15-1) (by Pioneerof the Nile o/o Saint Ballado mare) – This horse has shown a lot of brilliance in his three lifetime starts but could only warrant a 3rd in the Wood Memorial. His first two wins at high speed figures means he’ll get play on Derby Day. His connections have been champing at the bit to run in the Derby and are only awaiting one or two more drops. Good pedigree for the distance with the Unbridled line crossed to Saint Ballado. Definitely a player

Commanding Curve (PT Odds: 30-1+) (by Master Command o/o Lion Hearted mare) – The other CC could be this year’s Golden Soul (2nd last year) having drawn in with recent defections. Another late runner who has shown improvement in every start, his biggest appeal will be the odds that he would contribute to any exotic bet featuring him. Sometimes you have to get lucky in the Derby for a big score, and he has the profile of one that could “blow up the tote”.

Candy Boy (PT Odds: 18-1) (by Candy Ride o/o In Excess mare) – It could be that 3rd place in California might be better than the rest of the US, but he did not prove better than Hoppertunity in the Santa Anita Derby, so I have a hard time putting him higher. Nine furlongs or less is probably his best distance, and it’s likely he also wasn’t fully cranked in the Santa Anita Derby. His trainer John Sadler is a good one and his jockey Gary Stevens has a few Derbies on his Hall of Fame resume. Prefer others.

General a Rod (PT Odds: 25-1) (by Roman Ruler o/o Dynaformer mare) – Third in the Florida Derby after a couple of seconds, this is another one who could threaten late. He has a decent pedigree for the longer distance, as Roman Ruler has sired a Belmont winner and Dynaformer has the aforementioned Derby and distance influence. I have heard his recent training has been solid if not spectacular and I’m not certain he’s top flight.

Tier 4 (Big budget players can include these on some tickets)

Uncle Sigh (PT Odds: 25-1) (by Indian Charlie o/o Pine Bluff mare) – Even though he’s been running behind others in New York, I think he has the style (near front, not the lead) and enough pedigree, especially beneath, to threaten at the top of the lane. Not one I see accelerating from there, though, but hanging on for a piece.

 Intense Holiday (PT Odds: 20-1) (by Harlan’s Holiday o/o Unbridled’s Song mare) – I really like this colt and hope he runs even enough here to take a shot at the Preakness, where I think this pedigree will be well-suited. No Storm Cat-line horse has won the Derby and I think that history is not likely to be broken here. This Pletcher trainee will have a good career, I expect, but not threaten for the Derby win.

AE-Pablo Del Monte (PT Odds: 40-1) by Giant’s Causeway o/o Bring the Heat mare) – Currently 21 in standings, will need to draw in. Was the only speed that held in the Bluegrasss Stakes, and that lists includes some higher profile horses. Giant’s Causeway is the best of the Storm Cat line for distance influence, but his progeny have not done much Derby Day.

Samraat (PT Odds: 12-1) (by Noble Causeway o/o Indian Charlie mare) – While this one’s only loss is to Wicked Strong while running 2nd in the Wood Memorial, I don’t think this one’s pedigree (Storm Cat line w few distance influences underneath) suggests going any further. I think he’ll take some significant play, however, and will go off as the day’s biggest underlay

Tapiture (PT Odds: 25-1) (by Tapit o/o Olympio mare) Think he has hit his distance limitations while running 4th in Hot Springs. Still, has shown some ability to handle adversity, but not enough to overcome a preference for a shorter distance.

Tier 5 (Only bet when the ticket says ALL)

Vinceremos (PT Odds: 35-1) (by Pioneerof the Nile o/o More than Ready mare) – Earned his way in with a 1st and 2nd in Tampa, but didn’t do much in the Blue Grass Stakes. His odds make him somewhat appealing but not sure that his wins over suspect competition have held up this year.

We Miss Artie (PT Odds: 25-1) (by Artie Schiller o/o Fusaichi Pegasus mare) – Now We Miss Artie actually does seem like a turf/AW specialist to me, but I’can’t deny that there’s potential for an upset from this one. Would compare to Animal Kingdom, also a Spiral Stakes winner, but this one does not have the great distance influence from the dam that AK had.

Vicar’s In Trouble (PT Odds: 15-1) (by Into Mischief o/o Vicar mare – The other Ken Ramsey entrant, with We Miss Artie. Hard tryer, good horse, needs the lead. Staggered home to win Louisiana Derby, will be way too short here.

Wildcat Red (PT Odds: 18-1) (by D’Wildcat o/o Miner’s Mark mare – A Storm Cat line sprint sire gives us Wildcat Red who has definitely been impressive in his wins and seconds. See this one being way too short on pedigree to be a factor for more than a mile.

Harry’s Holiday (PT Odds: 40-1) (by Harlan’s Holiday o/o Orientate mare – A Polytrack runner by a miler out of a sprinter. By all rights, should be the longest shot on the board, but the blessed public will give him a much better shot than he actually has.

Wagering Strategy

As always, I’ll be keeping my eye on the odds Derby Day for my final bets. Right now, I’m leaning towards win bets on Hoppertunity and Medal Count and potentially Danza (if he gets ignored in betting again). I suspect Medal Count will be my only Place and Show bets, if he goes off at 15+ odds. Mostly, I will try to hit exotics with California Chrome heavily weighted with my Tier 1 horses then longshots mixed in with my top 4 at the minimum bets. Good luck!

Unfinished Portrait: Official Data on Equine Injuries

The Jockey Club’s press release summarizing the finding of its Equine Injury Database (EID) paints an incomplete picture of the impact of racing surfaces on injuries to racehorses. The headline conclusion is impressive: the synthetic surfaces in North America had a fatal breakdown rate of 1.22 per 1000 starts versus 2.11 for dirt surfaces.

The conclusion above is an undisputed fact given the data collected. What is not indisputable is the following statement: “synthetic surfaces prevent 0.89 racehorse deaths (per 1000) versus dirt tracks”. Another common phrasing might be “if all dirt surfaces in North America were converted to synthetic, we could reduce on-track breakdowns by 40%”.

The reason I cannot say the second sentences are indisputable is because other factors  come into play. These factors that  need to be isolated include track policies impacting horse safety, track personnel responsible for implementing policies, and the racing class of horses running amongst many others.

What has been most frustrating about the discussion around this, and Keeneland’s switch to dirt, is that the full Equine Injury database has not been made public so that a true, transparent, investigation into horse safety can be made. The Jockey Club has hired an equine breakdown specialist, a well-respected epidemiologist named Tim Parkin, to parse the full data. I have no doubt that Dr Parkin can do the job in question; however, I believe a stronger result would come out of a public and/or peer-reviewed process.

The ultimate goal would be to provide a magnitude, within a range of confidence, for the impact of track surface on breakdowns and also a magnitude for the other factors that are also important, policies and personnel and racing class at the front of the line. I firmly believe that synthetic surfaces play a (statistically) significant role in equine safety. I believe, with equal fervor, that the impact is not 0.89/deaths/K – I believe it is lower than that.

Why? Because I have run some numbers. As part of the 5-year summary of the database, TJC provided the same summarized breakout for tracks that were willing to make their breakdown rates public, 28 in all. (This includes all NYRA and California tracks, Keeneland and Gulfstream – all these tracks should be praised for sharing their results). Of course, TJC released these stats only in summarized PDFs by track; while very data-unfriendly, this is more granularity than we have seen.

Not one to let a file format get in my way, I imported the granular data from all 28 public tracks PDFs to create a public-reported EID. Fortunately for our number-crunching exercise, all Synthetic tracks save Arlington Park were represented in the public data. There is a lot of data to crunch through, but two results from the data have jumped out at me and I wanted to share. Moreover, I want people to have access to this data and either confirm or refute my results and also find things on their own.  I am making the data available here:

TJC – Public EID on Google Docs

Public Equine Injury Database Summary Results

Preface: It is important to note that this database has a lot of variance. There are 204 separate triads [?] of Track-Surface-Year in the data – the public dataset has a weighted average of 1.72 DPK for all surfaces, but equally weighting each track comes out to 1.96. More importantly, the Standard Deviation for this sample of 204 datapoints is 1.27, which is 65% of the mean. My rule of thumb is that a std dev of 25% of mean is “normal”, so the EID data would be higher variance. Higher variance generally weakens the strength of causation for any one variable. This alone gives me pause when drawing conclusions from a dataset.

1. Tracks with Synthetic Surfaces also have safer turf courses

Turf DPK
All Turf 1.54
Tracks w Synth Main 1.39
All Other 1.58

Since synthetic mains were so well-represented in the data, we could actually breakout the results of their turf courses separately. While it’s a small relationship (12% lower), tracks with synth mains had safer turf courses than all other turf courses reported. I have not tested for statistical significance, but 132000 turf starts are in the summary.

This indicates to me that perhaps there are policies and personnel in places at these tracks that contribute to overall racehorse safety, and the magnitude could be as much as 0.20 DPK.

2. The relationship between distance and DPK persists on a synthetic sample

Turfway Park and Presque Isle Downs are two tracks in the public dataset. What makes them uniquely valuable to the analysis is that they have no turf course, and therefore their distance-to-DPK relationship is isolated to synthetics. (Again, TJC data could totally isolate this for each track and surface, but we’re using what we have)

<6f 1.22 1.22
6.0-7.5f 0.95 0.96
8f+ 0.98
Total 1.02 1.02

Over 66,000 races, races run at less than 6f were 25% more likely to have a fatality than 6f+ at these two tracks.

If distance – or, more importantly, if some other variable (class) for which distance is a proxy – were not a factor, then we would expect the racing surface to reduce or eliminate the relationship of distance. (<6f is 20% higher for all races). This factor, be it distance or class, may have a DPK magnitude of 0.24 when applied to the higher AW DPK stat

3. When looking at a certain class level on dirt in the public database, shorter distances are not less safe than longer (i.e. the distance relationship disappears)

California Racing Fairs all report data and all run at a similar class level – basically lower level claimers topping out with an infrequent allowance or overnight stake. Plus the majority have only dirt tracks. Look at the data:

<6f 2.31 2.31
6.0-7.5f 2.42 2.17 avg
8f+ 1.72
Total 2.21 2.21

I grant that this says little about the safety of dirt vs synthetic. A statistician might conclude from this data, nonetheless, that the observed relationship between distance and DPK is not as strong when controlling for a certain class level. Therefore, class and not distance is strongly viable as a dependent variable. Mainly, it reinforces the need to look at the data more closely


I will not make claims that what I have provided above definitively shows what I claim. That’s why I’m making this database publicly (again, here) available so others can test these claims and look at the data more robustly. There are definitely other interesting observations in the public dataset that I think both strengthen AND weaken the synthetic surface claims. The Jockey Club needs to do something to get the full dataset in front of more eyeballs. But I’m pretty confident that three conclusions, which are really no-brainers, are true:

  1. The best racetracks do more than install synthetic surfaces to ensure equine safety. I believe installing synthetic surfaces, for a time, were a credible additional commitment to safety. People and policies matter a lot, perhaps more than surface.
  2. Racing class is an important predictor of likelihood to breakdown – the link needs to be investigated and quantified
  3. Synthetic races do indeed reduce fatal injuries vs other surfaces, but not by 40%, and not without a pre-established commitment to safety from the track and its personnel

My statistical instinct tells me the real preventative value of synthetics is in the 15-25% range, which is still really great, about 65 horses/year, more if we factor in training. I would love to know for certain – this is a call to make sure that happens as soon as possible.

The Decade Double

Here’s a Daily Racing Form headline from 2024 (yes, the future):

North American Racing Handle Doubles Over the Last Decade

Do you find this headline completely unbelievable? It shouldn’t be. Let me ask this: how much would betting handle have to grow year-over-year for 10 years for that headline to be true? It’s not large – it’s only a 7.2% growth rate, compounded annually. In terms of growth above normal economic growth, it’s only a 3-4% adder to normal national growth trends.

Doubling handle would mean that contributions to track earnings and purses would also double during that period. (Neither earnings nor purses would double, since those are supported now by other sources like admission, concessions, and slots) I think most observers, seeing that handle was at an historic high, would no longer say that “horse racing is dead” but that racing was as good as it had been in 30-40 years.

Now, here’s two alternative beginnings to the article that accompany the headline. Which do you find more plausible?

1. Industry officials celebrated the 10th consecutive year of handle growth, noting that wagering on thoroughbred racing has doubled since the US marked the unofficial end of the Great Recession in 2014. Attendance and off-track wagering both doubled, track revenues increased 80%, and purse accounts increased by 60%. The purse account increase reflects that purse subsidies from other sources (racino/slots revenue, sales, supplemental fees) remained flat during this time. Tracks and horsemen used the windfall to increase races by 35% while the average purse went up 18%. Breeding finally reversed a two-decade long decline as the 2023 foal crop of 40,000 returned to levels not seen since 1991.

Most track officials credited their marketing and promotional efforts to get fans back to the track as the main source of success, but acknowledged that Jess’s Dream – the first foal of popular 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra – winning the Triple Crown in 2015 kick-started their efforts. When “Taco” came back to race in 2016 and dueled in a cross-country campaign with the late-developing Cozmic One (Zenyatta’s first foal), the Breeders Cup Classic at Belmont Park featuring their final duel (won in a late nose by Cozmic One) set betting and ratings records for a non-Triple Crown race and energized the sport…

2. Industry officials acknowledged that the 2014 “Decade Double” initiative pioneered by The Jockey Club, NTRA, and a consortium of racetracks and other racing industry groups has met their goal of doubling betting handle on North American races in 10 years. The Decade Double initiative began with the premise that the $23 billion target for wagering on throughbreds would represent an all-time, inflation-adjusted, high indicator of interest in the sport. The leaders of the “Decade Double” campaign credit its focus on customers and getting buy-in from tracks and horsemen on how to share gains.

” We knew that the sport couldn’t grow without customer support,” said Jeff Gural, Jockey Club board member and head of the Decade Double Initiative. “Significant gains had to be realized by the customer – the bettor – and ultimately that meant lowering the price of betting on racing.”

“Working with our horsemen and tracks, we concluded – and believe me, it was a tense fight at times –  that bettors needed to see the lion’s share of gains, with tracks and horsemen splitting the rest. We settled on a 40/30/30 split, and that’s when efforts to reduce takeout by 40% began.”

This year, the average on-track takeout for a Win bet was 10%, which horseplayer’s Decade Double representative Andy Asaro noted was “much nearer betting the LA Jaguars and the points in the Super Bowl.” Exotics averaged 12-14%; in 2014, however, the typical takeout on exacta or trifecta pools was 20-25%.

The Decade Double and industry groups like NYRA and the CHRB aggressively promoted the takeout decreases, at first in hopes to keep track revenues and purse accounts level. Most groups acknowledge that the success was unexpected: track revenues have increased by 48% and total purses by 36%, despite the lower takeout. Racing days and total races have remained flat in response to a lower profile DD initiative meant to prop up field size in response to low foal crops. Even those have since recovered to a “healthy level” of 35,000, what many breeders consider sustainable at this level of betting…

It truly is amazing how growth can positively impact everyone while stagnation leads to tribalism and in-fighting and decision-making based on the fear of loss as opposed to the hope of gain. That’s unfortunately where horse racing is today.

Article 2, even if the numbers aren’t exact, shows that broad-based gains are possible if they accompany a plan and a target for growth. If we collectively bet $20B on racing, no one could rightly claim that racing was dead. It is, however, hard to envision that future if customers do not share in those gains. And again, the numbers are not daunting:

  • To double in volume, handle needs to increase by 7.2% a year.
  • To decrease takeout by 40% over 10 years, takeout needs to decrease by 5% a year.

The key, of course, is to offset the short-term revenue decrease from pricing with 2 other Ps of marketing.

  • Promote the heck out of the sport emphasizing lower prices (and other promotions)
  • Product quality needs to stay high /  improve (larger fields, showcase racing days, etc.)

The time element is the hardest part, because it’s not an overnight fix. Nothing worth doing ever is.

Racing’s Target Segments, Part 3 – Handicapping as a Serious Pursuit

Parts 1 and 2 found here.

In part 3, I’m going to concentrate on what I believe to be racing’s most important segment – the serious handicappers and professionals that make up the vast majority of wagering handle in North America. They are the segment that supports the sport outside of its biggest days, betting millions on races Sunday-Friday somewhat in the name of fun but more as an opportunity to make money by applying their intellect to the game.

This segment has significant overlap with the sports betting market generally, though that market is technically illegal outside of Nevada. Horse racing remains unique in that it can be bet without being present at the track, typically online through an Advanced Deposit Wagering service or at a simulcast outlet. Most readers of this site  – mostly the horseplayer community on Twitter – are familiar with the basics of how this works. This segment truly values one thing – a positive expectation bet (or the perception therein). Handicappers call these opportunities overlays.

In order to increase interest from the serious/professional gambling segment, horse racing must increase the number of overlays, or positive expectation bets, in its races and racing cards that attract this class of bettors.

The mechanisms for creating more overlays in racing are well-known but largely boils down to increasing the size of betting pools, increasing the number of combinations that can be played, and increasing the payoffs of winning bets. Several factors can go into this, but there are three main ones with pari-mutuel betting:

  • Increase play from casual gamblers / non-handicappers
  • Lower the price of betting (the takeout rate)
  • Increase field size

Having “less informed” money bet into the pools – from casual gamblers – was largely the subject of the first two posts, but it helps explain why bigger race days have better betting opportunities. It also explains the growth of poker to a degree – the early days of the boom, pros had a field day with casual players coming in. When casual fans “play numbers”, play “names”, “bet favorites”, “bet longshots”, “box superfectas” – those benefit the dedicated players by increasing the odds on everyone else.

Which leaves takeout and field size. The digital literature on why field size and takeout rate and their impact on payouts/overlays is voluminous, so I’ll try not to belabor the point too much. My thoughts on takeout can be found here:

Takeout – The Price Isn’t Right: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

To sum up, takeout decreases will naturally increase handle thru the churn mechanism but most likely will not increase track revenue because of how the takeout is shared amongst the track, bet-takers, and purse accounts. To truly drive gains, handle (price) decreases must be tied to a strong marketing plan that includes promotion on and off-track and alignment with horsemen. There is, however, a takeout rate (below 12%, I believe) where parimutuel bets on racing become competitive with sportsbooks. This price level will attract more large sports bettors (whales) to the pools and racing will see handle gains greater than that produced by churn.

Field Size

Field size is equally, if not more important, to serious horseplayers in the search for overlays. Having more horses in a field allows the handicapper more data points to seriously consider (or dismiss) in search of a winner. Consider, for example, what happens when a 20-1 shot scratches from a race at the gate. If the handicapper gave the 20-1 horse (public gives 5% chance of winning), only a 1% shot (true odds of 99-1) to win the race, then losing that horse is effectively a 4% point increase in takeout for the bettor.

It works in reverse as well – full fields are a tremendous place for a handicapper to find value as, if she can identify a number horses that are overbet, the bet she makes has a positive expectation. It’s why I especially love the Kentucky Derby; the combination of a 20-horse field and, since Mine that Bird’s win, a betting public that won’t let any horse go above 50-1 again. You only need eliminate 6 horses from contention to make the Derby win pool a positive expectation bet.

The Average Field Size Metric is Misleading, Especially for Horizontal Players

Many horseplayers find their value by betting into horizontal pools like the Pick 3, 4, 5 and 6. The allure to these bets, versus straight betting and parlaying the results, is that takeout only happens once. More often than not, the horizontal return exceeds that of a similar parlay despite being, theoretically, of similar difficulty to hit.

Tracks often tout average field size (total starters / total races) as an indicator of the quality of their fields for betting purposes. And it is, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Take, for example, two theoretical racetracks that boast an average field size of 8.0. One track got that AFS score by carding two competitive 8-horse claiming races while the other paired an 11-horse turf race and a 5-horse main track clunker. One has 64 possible double combos but, for the same AFS, the second track has only 55 – 14% less. Almost all horizontal players will tell you the presence of multiple small fields in a sequence will depress payouts – this is why.

Is there a metric that can quantify the combo-killing nature of regular small fields? Yes. If we take the square root of the above scenario, we see that the two 8 horse races contribute an average of 8 combos to the double whereas the 11-5 double only contributes 7.4 on average. It’s easy to calculate this across multiple sequences as well – take these identical 8.0 AFS cards of 8 races:

Average Field Contribution to Horizontals (AFCH)

For any X number of races, multiply the field sizes together and take the Xth root [Field Size Product ^(1/X)] to come up with AFCH. For example:

Race 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 AFS AFCH
Track 1 8 9 6 8 7 10 7 9 8.0 7.9
Track 2 6 10 4 8 12 8 5 11 8.0 7.5

So, here we have a metric that allows to not just look at the number of horses run but also look at how the cards are constructed to produce value for the horseplayer.

The important thing here is that AFCH is probably more important for serious horseplayers in the search of overlays at a track than just field size. Since spreading tickets is a popular horizontal strategy that introduces overlays in those pools, minimizing the number of “free squares” is distinctly to the track’s advantage.


Thus wraps up 4,000 words on the target segments of the horse racing market that used “Racing as Entertainment” as a starting point and veered into other discussions where that “meme” didn’t fit as well. Thanks for reading.

Racing’s Target Segments, Part 2 – Gambling on Racing is Entertainment

In Part 1, we teed up the idea that racetracks – or racing associations, like NYRA – have three distinct customer segments: 1) those that are entertained by racing as a sport, or special race days as “events”; 2) those that enjoy gambling, and have fun betting on the races; and 3) those handicappers that gamble tens of thousands a year or more as a profession or semi-serious pursuit. Thus, racing has three target markets (or channels) that requires distinct strategies to reach, though there is obviously some overlap in the means industry groups might employ.

1. Racing is a Sport, Sport is Entertainment – Part 1 can be found here

2. Racing Has Wagering, Wagering is Entertainment – How does racing convert causal fans into bettors and dedicated fans?

3. Racing Has Handicapping, Handicapping Makes Wagering on Horse Racing a Viable Pursuit – How can racing attract more wagering from the serious sports betting market?

Statement: Gambling is a National Global Source of Entertainment Value

The casino industry understands its customers as well as any on earth. Big gaming companies like Harrah’s and MGM are pioneers in using data to understand their players’ habits and then tailoring their offerings to optimize (if not maximize) the revenue provided by their customers. They know that some of their customers will depart McCarran Airport celebrating their winnings while the majority will leave with lighter wallets; however, they need the vast majority of those customers to feel entertained during their stay at the casino, win or lose. Vegas is in the business of creating repeat customers, and they’re very good at it.

In the last fifteen years, too often the response of racetracks and their owners to compete for the “gambling as entertainment” dollar has been to attach actual casinos to the track buildings. That trend has benefited some in the industry but to a large extent has mostly created distortions in how gaming revenue is shared across purse accounts, tracks, and states. Little of it has been used to promote the sport because, frankly, that was the more difficult path to have taken. Why? I imagine it’s because the casino experience has been frequently replicated and is well-understood. What makes a race fan into a horseplayer is not.

Thoughts on Converting Casual Fans of Racing Into Bettors and Dedicated Fans

1. It’s hard. – I’ll put this first since I think it’s important. There is no single solution or strategy that a racetrack or industry group can employ. There’s going to need to be lots of trial and error. Successes will often take time to develop and implement while failures will be more quickly identified and subject to scrutiny, even ridicule. They won’t come without investment of both time and money and will frequently require reaching out to groups that have been in the past been held at arms length (horseplayers, horsemen). The short-term ROI of a new bank of slot machines will usually be greater than your new idea; long-term benefits are more uncertain.

2. The racetrack competes less with professional sports and more with watching sports on TV and other free/already-paid-for leisure activities. – I don’t think I’m going out on a limb saying that horse racing’s target market is “sports fans who like to gamble”. Racetrack executives have largely chosen two strategies for reaching this rather large customer segment – “racetrack as ballpark” and “racetrack as casino”. The problem with these strategies are that they describe an experience that is strictly worse than the comparable experience. When compared to professional sports, horse racing is rarely at a high enough level to appeal to sports fans alone. On most race days nationwide, the the level of racing is comparable to watching church-league softball in Fenway Park. In racing, wagering makes the sporting experience interesting.

On the flip side, racetracks have a very hard time emulating the casino experience. There are literally acres and acres of space dedicated to a one game at a racetrack. 40,000 square feet (~1 acre) of casino space features hundreds of tables and video machines for dozens of different games and bets. Bets get made and paid off in less than 45 seconds – at a track, 30 minutes is the minimum time between races. Concessions are sold in stands, like the ballpark, and little can be had for free; not admission, not drinks, and rarely information on the horses running. In racing, the sporting experience makes wagering interesting.

I’d propose an alternative vision that is more “racetrack as sports bar”. The idea here is that the best racetrack experiences feature groups of people coming together to the track that have a mix of racetrack veterans and first-timers and men and women. Tracks need to recognize, however, that their sports fan patrons face a significant opportunity cost by going to the track, especially on weekends, with regards to watching more popular sporting events. This would involve transforming one or two general admission areas – and probably one club level area – to larger restaurant-style spaces with large video screens, table service with ample wait staff, and a large bar with multiple service points. The goal is to provide a “home base” for more casual fans that improves their experience for the time between races. Right now, the alternative is usually stare at an empty racetrack for 25 minutes. Parenthetically, I believe that Churchill’s “Downs after Dark” promotion comes closest to creating this vibe – combining a social event with exposure to racing.

3. Improve the racing program – what you buy for $2 at the track –  by placing an emphasis on new bettor education. – I swear I waste $2 every time I buy a program at the track. For a serious handicapper, the program provides no additional information to the Daily Racing Form (or self-provided handicapping materials). For the novice bettor, however, the information in the program provided remains almost entirely inscrutable as a guide for picking horses and making bets. There’s a lot of info “density” but often the novice wants/needs summaries, quick comparisons that guide decision making.

My hypothetical program “detail”  for each race would be an exactly two-page summary, left and right to view as a single spread. The left page would resemble the current Equibase track detail, but with only as much info as can fit on a single sheet. On the right page would be multiple top 5-8 lists with the entries on each list rank-ordered. The lists would be typical handicapping angles like “speed last race”, “trainer last 6 months win%”, “early pace/late pace”, “jockey win%”, “sire mud/turf pedigree”, and so on. At the very bottom of the page, put in the precise language for making a bet with blanks for dollar amounts and program number, emphasizing high-churn strategies. A sample instruction:

Betting Guide

  • If odds on your horse are 2-1 or lower –> “race 1, I’d like to bet $____ to WIN on the ____ horse.”
  • If odds on your horse are 2-1 to 6-1 –> “race 1, I’d like to bet $____ to WIN and PLACE on the _____ horse.”
  • If odds on your horse are 6-1 or higher –> “race 1, I’d like to bet $____ to WIN, PLACE, and SHOW on the _____ horse.”

4. Provide “quick-pick” terminals for players who like lottery games – There is definitely segment of the gambling population – rhymes with “plots slayers” – that will eschew all interest in the handicapping side of the game but may be attracted to the large payoffs that frequently occur in racing. It would not be difficult to create terminals that generated random tickets – say, for example, 100 dime superfectas for $10 – in an attempt to hit a jackpot each race. The machine logic could even be weighted to more likely outcomes – based on current (or ML) odds – to improve the hit rate of those plays.

On carryover days for multi-race bets (Pick 6s, usually, but also Pick 5s or Super Hi-5s), these terminals could theoretically generate positive expectation bets for those willing to play them. If you can prove the concept on the track, then expansion of these lottery-style machines outside of the track could be a potential windfall, since the money from them goes into pools.

5. Bundle, bundle, bundle – Product quality is important for attracting and keeping customers, so having them witness the best racing possible is important. It’s not the top of the list for most racing observers, but stakes racing is too spread out across the calendar. A track with two graded races running on consecutive weekends may attract 6,000 each Saturday. However, a single Saturday with two or more graded races may well attract 12,000 on its own. Classier race horses get more press between races which allows for the continuation of the handicapping process for the next one – the more horses a new fan remembers, the more likely he or she will be to return to a subsequent race.

6. Keep important prices low – What are the “important prices” at the track, especially for new patrons and novice bettors? Admission, programs, concessions, and WPS takeout.

  • Admission we handled in Part1 – tracks need not raise barriers to attendance save where demand is inelastic, which are only big race days.
  • Programs are an important informational and educational tool – do everything possible to get one in the hands of all your patrons.
  • Concessions means eating and drinking – your customers are there to have fun and fun is enhanced when the track offers value compared to other outlets and extra money is available to play the races.
  • WPS Takeout – The price of placing a bet is quite important and none more so in the simplest betting pools. Lower takeout in WPS pools means that winning bets return more. The implications are not only that winning bettors go home with more money but that there are more winning bettors. Simplifying assumptions, on an 8-race card with 18% takeout betting WPS only, 20 out of 100 people will go home ahead on average; at 15% takeout, that number rises to 27%. That 20% drop in takeout results in 35% more winners – creating winners is a fantastic way to get people back to the track.

I could easily write 1500 more  words on other ideas, but they would all re-emphasize the need for tracks to focus on the customer experience geared toward producing customer growth and increasing customer spend. These are, certainly, ideas focused on long-term growth when so many in the industry are focused on short-term survival. The industry and its players cannot continue to neglect this important segment, even if efforts are concentrated elsewhere.

In Part 3,

3. Racing Has Handicapping, Handicapping Makes Wagering on Horse Racing a Viable Pursuit – How can racing attract more wagering from the serious sports betting market?