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.

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?

The Virtual Sheik: A New Fantasy Horse Racing Idea

This article appears in the latest issue of the HANA Monthly, found here. Published and republished with mutual permission.

In my last post, my critique of current fantasy horse racing games centered on their formats that mirrored the experience of handicapping and betting instead of horse ownership. Improved variants allow for picking a small stable of horses for a season, perhaps adding jockeys and trainers to a fantasy team that earn points over the course of a season. Those games work, introducing an element of scarcity and valuation that can make for a successful contest. MyFantasyStable.com is one such game, though there are others. If those games have a flaw, it’s that many horses, trainers, and jockeys are either running for larger purses, start more runners, and ride more entries than other picks, thus overweighting luck versus skill in a given contest.

To this point, this evolution is more like successful games like Fantasy Golf or Fantasy NASCAR – fun games with clear rules and where an understanding of relative value can help a shrewd player succeed. The most successful fantasy games (football and baseball, then basketball) more closely replicate the experience of ownership. No horse racing game truly does this, but I think they could.

With that, I introduce my idea: the Virtual Sheik, so-named for the biggest-pocketed owners in the racing world. Here’s how I envision such a game would work:

1. Players start with a fixed pool of dollars to spend, say $1M, on horses currently in training who have run at least one race (with one exception).

2. Players would earn additional dollars for their stables by the purses that their runners earn.

3. The value of a given horse is determined by multiple factors, but the heaviest weighting would be on the value of the purses for which they have most recently run.

  • For example, to get Orb or Oxbow or Palace Malice, you’d have to pony up (pun intended) $1.5M or so to bring them into your stable. It would not be easy.
  • Maiden (MSW) runners could be had for $40-75K typically. These purse levels typically hold for other allowance runners.
  • Lower graded stakes or listed stakes runners would go for $75-300K
  • Most importantly, runners in claiming races would go for their most recent claiming price.

4. As the claiming game makes up the majority of races, this is where most of the action will occur. Just like the real game, if one of your horses runs in a claiming contest, it can be claimed by a competitor within the game. Similar rules would apply to the real claiming game:

  • For all horses, the claim must be put in before the race is run. This includes first-time starters in maiden-claiming races (which is the exception noted in 1. above)
  • If your horse is claimed, you get the claiming price added to your account. Its purse winnings for the race are yours.
  • If multiple claims are put in for a horse, the new owner is determined randomly.

5. For all non-claiming races, if a horse is not owned and a player tries to buy the horse for its calculated value, there is a short window for a “Monopoly-style” auction. Details:

  • In Monopoly, one of the least well-known rules is that, if you land on a property and don’t buy it for face value, it goes to auction among all players where it goes to the highest bidder. No one plays this way, but it’s in the rules of the game. Anyway…
  • After a player makes a bid for a non-claiming horse, there would be a 1- or 2-day “auction” for the horse where it would go to the highest bidder. It could be a live updated auction or a straight “second-price” auction like that on eBay. In this last scenario, every one who wants the horse can submit their maximum bid and purchases the horse for the 2nd highest bid + $1000.
  • The auction mechanism assures that no horse go below its true value (say a dominant MSW winner in a $40K race) and also allows for proper pricing on top-level stakes horses.

6. If a player wants to sell any horse to another player, all other players will be notifies and the auction rules above will apply.

7. To replicate the experience of ownership, dollars will be deducted monthly for each horse in a stable, based on their class. For example, $1000/month for a claiming horse up to $5000/month for a stakes horse. Owners would be required to maintain a minimum value of 3 months of expenses in their account.

8. Owners will get, say, $25000 per month added to their account to make sure total funds levels are sufficient to keep the game going. To mimic the breeding game of ownership, some special rules, apply, however to horses that are retired.

  • If a colt is retired sound and intact, at some point in the future, dollars will be credited to their account in some multiple of their 1st-year published stud fee. For example, if that stud has a first-year fee of $20K, his “retirement” value in the game might be $2M (a multiple of 100)
  • If a filly or mare is retired, the player is credited with a portion of their lifetime earnings. For example, a future broodmare with lifetime earnings of $300K might get an account credit of $150K.
  • Geldings would not get additional funds upon retirement.
  • I’m not entirely sure how to handle breakdowns and the like, perhaps a 10% insurance value. Like real life, that’s tough.

What I like about the above structure is that it creates a persistent game, which is what horse racing ownership is – there are no ownership seasons, no drafts, just auctions, claims, strategy and luck. It provides a framework for structuring games on multiple levels by simply varying how much money you have to start then pursuing different strategies to success. There could exist one big game, with thousands of players virtually owning most of the horse population and accumulating purses over time. Players could try to find the next Derby horse or build up their stable with multiple claiming level horses. Transactions, interactions, would be many. Or there could be multiple smaller games, with players starting with smaller budgets trying to build a stable on a budget. The opportunities are numerous.

On the technical side, this would be a much more involved game than those out there today. It is complex, but so is the world of horse racing. To me, it sounds like a lot of fun. There are at least three (Equibase, Brisnet, DRF) groups that have all the data to manage the game. Each would need an experienced company or partnership (Yahoo / NBC Sports, perhaps the new Fox Sports partnership with The Jockey Club) to pull it off and market it properly. It would require a lot of tweaks and experimentation. But I think it would be a tremendous amount of fun, and spur engagement from a base of sports-loving fans that don’t yet know what to make of horse racing. This would be an entree into our world – let’s give the proper amount of support it deserves.

As you may be able to tell from the last 2,000 words on the subject, an improved fantasy racing game is a passion of mine. Should an industry group or other interested party be interested in expanding this idea, I would love nothing more than to help bring it to life. The best way to contact me would be through Twitter (@mikedorr77), where I will see all racing-related inquiries. Thank you.

The Reality of Fantasy Horse Racing

Fantasy sports have been an enormously successful means of increasing fan engagement for the Big 3 professional sports organizations in the US: the NFL, the NBA and MLB. Fantasy baseball started the trend with the popularity of “Rotisserie” baseball, which has been around since 1980 (with a few predecessors), and I can remember playing a modified version as early as 1992 (I was 14). Fantasy football was the game that exploded the phenomenon, as its 4-month season with a weekly cadence, book-ended by a draft and playoffs, expanded its audience, being less time-intensive than its baseball counterpart.

Several racing industry organizations (the NTRA, Churchill Downs, the Breeders Cup, WinStar Farms, among others) have all launched and promoted “fantasy racing” games with the intention of attracting a new audience to the sport. I am not going out on a limb by saying that all these efforts that have thus far mostly failed to garner significant engagement from existing fans and have utterly failed in bringing fans of other fantasy sports to fantasy racing. This post’s title buries the lede – the reality of fantasy horse racing is that it sucks.

Successful fantasy sports games put the player in place of the owner.

For the most part, fantasy racing games fail because they replicate some other element of the sport, usually the handicapping and betting aspect. The current fantasy racing game being promoted is the Breeders Cup Fantasy Challenge; if you follow the link, you’ll see that the BC challenge is basically a weeks-long handicapping contest that is free to enter. It utilizes a few successful elements of fantasy football – weeks-long competition, free to enter, form up leagues – but the basic premise remains “pick a winner”.

The Churchill Down Road to the Roses contest tries to replicate the ownership experience somewhat by picking a stable of Derby contenders then earning points for their placing in Derby preps. The contest, however, almost infamously, spectacularly failed when one entrant picked Verrazano for all 6 spots in his stable, having an easy lead going into the Derby. Orb’s win prevented any major egg on CDI’s face, but still…

Successful fantasy sports games put the player in place of the owner by recreating situations that owners face.

In my estimation, good fantasy sports games do three things well: create scarcity, create differential value, and create interactions between players. These are all constraints faced by, say, an NFL owner. Bud Adams (a Nashville resident, I’m a Titans’ fan) can only employ 53 players, pay them a total of $123M, and can’t try to offer a player under contract with another team more money to play for him. A good QB is worth more than a good kicker, and The Blind Side taught us the value of left tackles. Still, players can be released, picked up, and traded and NFL general managers are constantly on the phones with their colleagues as they assemble their team.

Successful fantasy games create scarcity

In fantasy football, a player can play for only one team. A team can only have so many roster spots. A team can only start 1 or 2 players at each position.

I’m unaware of any fantasy racing game that actually prevents someone from picking a horse if it’s already been picked. It’s not really ownership if multiple people can “own” the same horse for purposes of a game.

Successful fantasy games create differential value

In most fantasy sports, differential value is created via draft – the players that are drafted earlier have greater value than those drafted later. In a draft format, luck has a big role – if there are, say, three clear-cut top picks, whoever gets the top 3 draft slots has a huge advantage. The innovation in response to that is the auction draft, where each team has a fixed pool of funds out of which to bid on players. Draft order doesn’t matter – if you want the top pick, you’ll pay for him but at the expense of filling out the rest of your roster.

Again, most fantasy racing games make little attempt to make one horse more “expensive” to own than another, largely because there is no scarcity in the first place

Successful fantasy games create interactions between players

The absolute best parts of fantasy football are, in order: the draft, the mid-week deals, the trash talk. Trying to improve your team is the essential element of the game, trying to win by acting as your own GM. A typical deal in FF might be a top wide-receiver and back-up running back for a top running back – the success or failure of a trade depends on the difference in opinion of value.

Have you ever traded/bought/sold/claimed a horse in a fantasy league? I think not.

Fantasy racing games simply do not capture the essential elements that make other fantasy sports compelling and fun. This is because they do not attempt to replicate, in any serious manner, the experience of owning and managing a racing stable. But here’s the great thing:

They could.

The Retro-Graded Stakes Formula

A considerable amount of racing chatter recently has been about the quality of certain graded stakes races and how their winners have been little more than (well-)paid workouts for the horses and their connections. I’m inclined to agree – top class races should attract many horses of a certain caliber but the graded stakes field size is, on average, one of the smallest in the sport. (Allowance races are not far behind – claiming and lower-level turf races attract the largest fields).

What’s at issue here is “black-type”: when a horse (or his/her progeny) go to sale, having placed in a graded-stakes race can mean a considerable premium to their auction price. This makes total sense – thousands of horses of all ages are sold each year and the bold, sometimes ALL-CAPS,  font in the sales catalog allows buyers to assess the potential class of the [yearling/two-year-old/mare/stud prospect] they are buying at a glance without reviewing a lifetime of past performances. It’s an elegant solution to a problem that existed before the Internet and electronic data was a thing, and retains some value to this day.

The American Graded Stakes Committee (AGSC) is the “be-all-and-end-all” determiner of what races get the vaunted Graded Stakes designation, those that can get the BOLD CAP font in a sales catalog. The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) controls this designation, of which their policies can be found here. To their credit, the AGSC has been quite responsive to upgrading the designation of races that have shown considerable improvement in the quality of horses running in them over the years. The best example, given my familiarity with them, is the upgrade of the Arkansas Derby for 3 year olds to Grade 1 status and its preps (the Rebel and Southwest) to G2 and G3 status, after the likes of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin used the Oaklawn route to prep for later classic wins.

My main criticism of the AGSC is that, while they have been responsive to upgrades, they have been much less so to downgrading races that haven’t been as good. It’s a natural response for well-meaning decision-makers: demonstrable class deserves and upgrade, suspect class deserves just one more chance. That bias has produced what I would call class “creep” whose end result is too many graded stakes with too small fields and, frankly, too many horses earning graded black-type. The AGSC uses “gut feel” more than data to determine the top quality races, which has contributed to the bias.

The main trend driving this is the declining North American foal crop, which has shrunk from a high of 40,000 in 1990 to 25,000 this past year (Source). The number of Graded Stakes has remained steadily above 450 for the last seven years despite the falling foal crop and the number of races run in North America. This means its roughly 40% easier today to earn black-type than it was just a few years ago. The AGSC has not been responsive enough to these trends; the impact is that black-type means less and less.

The fix I propose leverage the unique power of the age in which we live – use the vast information collected about races, and the past and future performance of the horses that run in them, to determine black-type. More importantly, tie the total number of graded stakes to a reasonable estimate of the foal crops eligible for those races. Lastly, tie the earning of black-type from placing in a graded stakes not to the horse’s placing, but the number of contenders the placing horse beat to earn it. What results is what I call the Retro-Graded Stakes Formula. These are the guidelines I’d suggest:

  • In 2006, roughly 100,000 thoroughbreds (3 years of foal crops) would have been eligible for graded stakes eligibility, or roughly 1 GS for every 210 born (100K/475) . Let’s be generous and say that a GS win should be available for every 200 foals.
  • Black-type is especially valuable for fillies and mares, but their graded stakes representation is outsized compared to the open races for which they are eligible. If fillies and mares are eligible for all graded stakes, but colts, geldings, and horses are eligible for all, then gender-restricted graded stakes should represent just one third (33%) of all graded stakes – currently, 41% of Graded Stakes are gender-restricted.
  • Many graded stakes are age-restricted, so tying them to the eligible foal crop makes sense. For 2- and 3-yos in a foal crop of 24,000, that means just 120 graded races to split between the 2- and 3-year-old races, and only 40 for fillies and mares. Currently, there are 184.
  • Open company races, having a larger eligible foal crop, would get a majority of the graded stakes races. This aligns with the industry desire (supposedly) for keeping horses running at a later age.
  • Field size matters in a stakes race – it is easier to place in a 5-horse field than an 8-horse field, naturally. To earn black-type, require that a horse beat at least 60% of the field they are in. For a 4-horse race, only the winner earns black type. In a 5- to 7-horse race, top 2. Only in a field of 8 or more can an ITM guarantee black-type.
  • The total number of graded stakes would shrink to the foal crop of 3-4-5 year olds/200 (roughly 360, based on 2011-2013)  but distributing those more to open company races versus any kind of restriction. If there are 120 age-restricted races, there would be 240 without.

The above proposals are conditions that the AGSC could implement today. The biggest change, however, would be to use the past and future performances of race horses to determine the true class of a race. This would take some doing. The RGSA would assign a provisional class to a race before its run based on its current historical standing, determined by prior class of the horses in it. For example:

  • A race could be graded a PG[1,2,3], meaning a Provisional Grade 1 (2 or 3) based on the level of horses who have run in it, and their subsequent performance. Minimum purse sizes would be required – the AGSC gets this right.
  • After a suitable period of time, probably 3-6 months, the race would be graded RG[1,2,3] , again based on both the past and subsequent performance of its entries. The total number of RG races will be tied to the eligible foal crop for that race.
  • One revision to a races grade would be allowed should multiple horses from the race go on to greater things.
  • Ungraded stakes could get bumped to RG status (and future PG status) if multiple performers win subsequent RG contests.
  • Allowance level races with multiple past and future RG performers could get special “Key Race” status that could be noted in a catalog page.

I am not suggesting that the AGSC adopt these changes; though that might be ideal, it would be too radical a change. I’m saying that any group with data and sufficiently publicity could use the RGSF to challenge the status quo with regard to the class of sales horses. The AGSC has no competition – it’s time they had some.