2014 Kentucky Derby – Handicapping the Field

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

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

The Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tier 5 (Only bet when the ticket says ALL)

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

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

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

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

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

Wagering Strategy

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

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The Decade Double

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

North American Racing Handle Doubles Over the Last Decade

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Racing’s Target Segments, Part 1 – Racing as Entertainment

Recently Chris Kay, the head of CEO of the New York Racing Association (NYRA), defended the planned admission increases at Saratoga and Belmont (from $3 to $5) by comparing the relative affordability of a day at the races to a Yankees game, placing the sport of racing into the same entertainment category as professional baseball. By extension, racing is therefore competing with other premium-priced sports experiences that includes the NFL, NBA, NHL, and NCAA Football and Basketball.

Other commentators (and one or two NYRA board members, thankfully) pointed out the obvious difference between horse races and those events is the ability, at the track and online, to legally wager on their outcome. Racing is a gambling game and, for better or worse, derives most of its revenue from the takeout on wagers. Higher admission will inevitably lead to lower attendance and on-track handle; therefore, whatever gains you planned from raising admission will be somewhat offset by lower revenues from wagering. Hard to say how much, but multiplying last year’s attendance at Saratoga and Belmont by the $2 increase in admission is not a sufficient forecast for revenue gains – it’s one or two levels more complicated.

Yet the contrary claim that racing is not entertainment is equally untrue. If gambling was not entertainment, Las Vegas would not exist – very few people can make a living gambling, and may only do so based upon the contributions of those who play for entertainment. Poker, sports betting, and horse racing are the games that a dedicated few can beat because the public likes to play for fun. I know for certain that I am one of those bettors. I track my ROI, and despite having learned a lot about racing over 3-4 years, my expected value is not much above the takeout. I play for fun (as my income allows) and the chance at the big score one day.

All this discussion led me to tweet this:

Racing has 3 “modes”.  1.”Day at Races”->Entertainment 2. Gambling->Entertainment 3. Gambling->Serious/Pro | Racing needs strategy for all 3

— Mike Dorr (@mikedorr77) December 5, 2013

I thought the idea worth exploring further with a longer series of posts, the first of which is below the fold: Continue reading

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.

Towards a Better Handicapping Contest – Part 2

If you asked most professional poker players what World Series of Poker (WSOP) event they would be proudest about winning, I think few would say the $10K buy-in No-Limit Hold-Em (NLHE) main event so popularized by ESPN. The large crowds and the nature of NLHE means that luck plays a much larger role in a successful outcome for those seasoned veterans. (They might say any schmo can suck out a straight on the river to beat my set, in the parlance).

I think most would say they would prefer to win the 50K HORSE event. HORSE combines, in a rotating tournament, five different types of poker that test different skills and play-styles. (That’s Hold-Em, Omaha, Razz, Stud, Stud-Eights or Better). I’m a fair Hold-Em player (positive lifetime ROI) and I can honestly say I’d have a better shot at winning a 10,000 person hold-em tournament than a 100 person HORSE tourney. I simply haven’t studies the other four games – I would very much be the dead money at the table.

Given the stakes and the multi-game skill involved, the WSOP HORSE tournament winner very rightly deserves the prize earned. I think the HORSE model is one that could be implemented for a skill-determining horse racing handicapping contest. The idea would be to combine the structures of different contests while introducing novel scoring mechanisms. Below, I have some suggestions that might get racing contests closer to that outcome.

  1. Combine the two types of Win-Place contests today, live scoring and upfront picks – if 50% of your score is determined by who you really think will win 2-4 hours in advance and the other half determined by assessing conditions, picking logical longshots, or reaching for a score, you have diminished (but certainly not eliminated) the element of luck inherent in either scenario.
  2. Utilize the win parlay – A frequent argument from contest players is that they want to be rewarded for picking winners. A parlay component would aid that. Say, for example, 20% of a hypothetical contest bankroll was bet on each race. With live scoring, contestants who picked winners early would be able to wager additional dollars on their next pick. (If you have $100 to start, bet $20 on a 2-1 horse that wins, the next round (with $160 in bank, you may bet $32). First-race losers only have 20% of $80 to bet ($16).
  3. Bowl for picks – Inspiration can be found in the most unlikely of places. Bowling (that of the ten pins and an alley) has one of the very best mechanisms for rewarding streaks and consistency: a strike adds the next two rolls to your total; a spare one. Apply the same to your handicapping contest – a win gets you 50% payout of your next two races, a place your next one (or some other percentage)
  4. Devise synthetic pick-Xs –  Allow a portion of the contest bankroll to be dedicated to picking potential winners of a set of races. If in an 8-race contest, have 2 potential Pick-4s that the contestant try to hit with a hypothetical (say $200) bankroll. This would identify skill in ticket-making (very valuable in handicapping, generally) but would lead to an interesting set of choices. Should you heavily lean on favorites for more than the minimum (say $1) or spread? The payout would be determined by a simple parlay of the four winners.
  5. Show Parlays – Again, portion the bankroll for a show parlay over all races. Rewards consistency for identifying competitive horses, but not producing huge multiples.
  6. Rolling Doubles, Pick 3s – Like options 3 and 4, rewards streaks and consistency.

Without a doubt, these scoring ideas trade simplicity for rewarding skill. To implement properly, the holder of the contest must be very thoughtful about how to weight the various elements. A lot of trial and error will probably be involved. That said, I have been tossing around a handicapping contest design around for some time. This is a first iteration, but I believe it would be a fun contest to play.

  1. 40% Weighted Upfront Picks, Win-Place-Show, Uncapped – This is designed to reward handicapping in advance of the event. The show payoffs reward identifying longshots that may figure into payouts, but may not win. Uncapped winnings reward identifying horses whose morning line do not reflect its eventual payout – a handicapping skill in and of itself.
  2. 40% Weighted Live Scoring, Win-Place, Capped (20-1, 10-1) – The traditional handicapping design. Allows players to change picks to changing conditions and longshot players to get back in, but with a lower chance of catching up to those who handicapped correctly in the first place.
  3. 20% Parlay, Live Scoring – Win, Capped (20-1) – Rewards consistency of picks in order to maintain a bankroll. Picks can be changed to reflect conditions. Multi-winners should have larger bankrolls into final races. Cap evens out impact of large longshots.

Given the ubiquity of free tools, like Google Sheets, to track this information, such a contest would not be too difficult to coordinate. It may be somewhat difficult for a 10th place contestant to figure out how exactly to bet the final race to make the top 5. You know what, that’s okay – the simple designs make it too easy.

If my work and life allows, I may inaugurate a contest like the above. Do stay tuned.