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.

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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.