Racing Had Momentum After the Kentucky Derby. Now What?

In the aftermath of the Kentucky Derby, I firmly believed that there was a chance for racing to capitalize on mainstream attention.

Everyone was talking about it, and Maximum Security and Country House, forever linked by a disqualification among the most controversial in racing history, could lock up again in the Preakness. Such a rematch would be one of the most anticipated in the game, and the sport would have two weeks to market to an intrigued fan base eager to know more about it.

Swing and a miss.

Maximum Security is being held out of the Preakness. Country House got sick and is now being pointed to the Belmont. As a result, public interest for the Preakness is at a low, and the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown has a decidedly “meh” feel to it among prospective fans the sport cannot afford to lose.

Please don’t get that statement twisted. The Preakness could be a fun betting race, with lots of different directions to go in if you’re not crazy about likely favorite Improbable. Preakness week also features an array of high-quality races that provide plenty of attractive wagering options for handicappers like me (and, I surmise, like most of my audience).

However, the general public could not possibly care less about the makeup of the Preakness, nor could they care less about the cornucopia of graded stakes races on Friday and Saturday at Old Hilltop. Saying otherwise is naïve, at best.

Casual fans of the sport have likely heard of four or five horses over the past year and a half: Justify, Accelerate, City of Light, Maximum Security, and Country House. The first three are retired, and the other two are on the bench. Stars make racing much easier to promote, but when horses run less and less (due to radical changes in the ways horses are bred and managed), there has to be a fallback plan in place.

Therein lies a bigger problem nobody is talking about. While the debate following the Kentucky Derby was endless, vicious, and unnecessarily vile at times, debates about how to actually grow the game in the wake of it have drawn crickets on social media. It shows a distinct lack of focus on what should be the biggest focus in racing: Getting new fans, drawing them in, and educating them so they have the most chance of coming back.

What are we, as a sport, doing to ensure that such a plan is in place? This question holds doubly true now that two of the biggest racing days of the year are without any sort of a Triple Crown storyline. We can talk about concerts, and food trucks, and hat contests, and things that look pretty on social media, but how does any of that affect racing for longer than one afternoon? More bluntly, how does any of that affect handle, AT ALL?

Now that Maximum Security and Country House are both out of the Preakness, I challenge you to find a bigger public interest storyline than, “The Stronach Group wants to leave Pimlico behind and move the Preakness to Laurel.” Meanwhile, the Met Mile on Belmont Day could draw McKinzie, Mitole, and Coal Front, which for my money makes it the main event on that program (as opposed to a race for 3-year-olds going a distance they are not at all bred to handle). Tell that to the general public, and the response is, “why should I care?”

What are we, as a sport, doing to answer that question? We did a lot in the 72 hours after the Kentucky Derby to try to convince people that the DQ was either the right call or the wrong call. If we channeled half of that energy into actually marketing the sport the way it should be marketed, I’m convinced we’d see substantial results long-term. Combine that with breeding horses for stamina and soundness instead of pure speed, and we may actually have ways to market both the sport and the best horses in it.

It’s naïve to think the Preakness matters as much as it did to the novice racing fan before Maximum Security and Country House defected from the field. It doesn’t. We can be as positive and optimistic as we want about how it still holds historical significance as the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown, but such statements fall on deaf ears to a public conditioned only to care about the sport on its biggest days. That isn’t me being negative, or pessimistic. That’s a fact, one that racing has brought onto itself as top-notch horses transitioned from running 10 to 12 times per year a generation ago to running four to six times per year while their connections said, “We’re training him up to…”.

The answer to the, “now what?,” question should be, “well, this coming week has a lot of really good horses in action that you could see later this year.” Except it doesn’t. There are five stakes races Saturday at Belmont Park, and they boast a combined total of 31 entries. Only one of those races (the Man o’ War) will have more than six horses going postward.

I’ve worked in marketing at a number of different businesses. The keys to a successful campaign are capitalizing on momentum created from prior steps in the process. Racing had chances to do that this time around, and it didn’t.

I’m worried about how many more chances the industry will have to do that.

Country House, Maximum Security, the Kentucky Derby, and the Question Nobody’s Asking

“What is a foul that merits disqualification?”

Like everyone else, I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around what happened Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs. It’s something we’ve never seen before: The winner of the Kentucky Derby was disqualified for interference during the running of the race.

As the social media age dictates, reaction to the decision has been mixed and loud, and it’s not expected to quiet down anytime soon. Many people I like and respect voiced support for the unanimous decision that disqualified Maximum Security and elevated Country House to the top spot. Many people I like and respect also thought it was a terrible, awful, no-good, very-bad call that disgraced the biggest race of the year.

My opinion is that the DQ was warranted. We can go on and on about this, but while Maximum Security didn’t bother Country House, his drifting nearly caused War of Will to clip heels, and Long Range Toddy was sandwiched as a result. Maybe neither horse was winning, and maybe Country House was never getting by, but I don’t think any of that matters.

However, I’m writing this not to take one side or the other, but to put forth an alternate hypothesis. With all due respect to the writers, handicappers, and pundits that have voiced their opinions…I don’t think it matters what any of us think of the decision.

Why? Because there’s a bigger elephant in the room nobody wants to address that was front and center Saturday afternoon.

“What is a foul that merits disqualification?”

Ask that question to officials in Kentucky, New York, Florida, and California, and you’re going to get four different answers. By the letter of the rules in each state, infractions that merit disqualification in one state don’t necessarily merit disqualification in another. This is even before the human element of the story comes into play (as a former TVG colleague states often, horse racing is the only sport where officials consult the athletes on whether or not to call a penalty).

If you bend or break the rules in any other sport, you know the penalty. If you’re a basketball player and you steamroll a defender whose feet are set, you lose the ball. If you’re a catcher on a baseball team and you inch up to where the batter has no chance to hit the ball, the batter gets first base. If you’re lined up on the football field and move before the ball is snapped, your team loses five yards.

“What is a foul that merits disqualification?”

Four states.

Four different answers.

One big problem.

A national racing commission is not the answer to horse racing’s abundance of issues. There are logical questions about who would run such a commission, and what groups would or would not be represented within it (any idea being floated around about this seems to shut out bettors; consciously done or not, that’s a big problem).

However, there is no reason why circuits cannot come together and implement one consistent code with regard to how races are ridden by jockeys and policed by stewards. At a time when racing is under a microscope for a variety of reasons, enacting such a code in the name of consistency, transparency, and fair play could only serve to benefit racing in any number of ways.

Gamblers would know what to expect in every single situation involving an inquiry or objection. Jockeys would know what not to do on the track, and how they would be punished for breaking the rules. The general public would see an effort to protect horses and riders, at a time when many concerned with safety are holding their collective breath every time fields go postward.

If circuits don’t trust one another (and let’s be honest, if they did, race scheduling would never be an issue), let the NTRA handle it. Put such a code into the guidelines of the safety accreditation process that every establishment goes through each year. If you’re a track, and you want that accreditation, you’re going to play by these rules. If you don’t want those rules in place, that’s fine, but members of the public are going to know where you stand and draw their own conclusions.

My issue isn’t whether or not Maximum Security deserved to come down. My issue is that there was no clear, concise answer about how to attack this situation. By the count of Horse Racing Nation editor Jonathan Lintner, it took 10 times longer to decide the outcome of the inquiry than it did to run the race. If there’s a code in place that everyone has to follow, from jockeys to stewards, there’s no subjectivity to the process, we all know what’s going to happen, and everything becomes much easier.

Following the race, one steward at Churchill Downs read a statement. She did not answer questions from the media or the public, and I do not have an issue with that. Stewards should not be spokespeople, just as referees should not speak to media covering their respective sports. Leave that stuff to the suckers in marketing and public relations (hi, Ed DeRosa!).

Having said that, in the scrum of unanswered questions involving such entities as Kentucky taxpayers, to the best of my knowledge, nobody asked the one question I wanted answered.

“What is a foul that merits disqualification?”

Your guess is as good as mine.

Isn’t that a problem?

My Unofficial Mission Statement

For those who don’t know, I took a job last month working as a Copy Editor/Multimedia Content Producer at Life Chiropractic College West. It’s a great gig, and I’m working with a lot of wonderful people.

One of my first assignments was covering Champions Weekend, one of the school’s admissions events. In the introductory speech, Mary Lucus-Flannery, the dean of enrollment, challenged prospective students with an important, but daunting-sounding, question.

“What is your why?”

I wasn’t the target audience for that question, but it’s been in my brain for a week and I can’t get it out. Horse racing may be a side hustle for me now, but it’s something I’m still incredibly passionate about. Whether some in the sport want me to be or not, I firmly believe I’m as good an ambassador for the sport as there is. My goal is to use the platforms I have to communicate, educate, and drive people to want to know more about the game.

To be honest, I am not racing’s target audience, in many ways. I bet, but not outrageously. I’m young, but I don’t go to the track to party. I respect people and companies within the industry, but that’s not going to stop me from calling a spade a spade (hi, Breeders’ Cup Derby!). I can come across as conceited sometimes (at some point, I REALLY need to tell the full story of how Gimmick Andrew was born; if you hate it and you’re curious, find me), but my actual approach to handicapping is very nuts-and-bolts.

My background, and the way I approach things, means I can communicate to people on a variety of levels. That’s what I’m striving to do. What comes next are the pillars of that platform, ones that answer the, “what is your why?,” question. This acts as an unofficial mission statement of everything I’m trying to do and why I’m trying to do it.

1) Passion.

Without this, everything falls apart. I’ve been passionate about horse racing since my dad took me to Saratoga when I was very young. For better or for worse, by the time I was in middle school, I was able to interpret PP’s as stories, not as overwhelming numbers and figures that looked more like hieroglyphics.

I learned right away that there’s money to be made in this game if you put in the work. I also learned that you have to be REALLY passionate in order to put forth the amount of work needed to be successful. What’s more, successful bettors bet more, which means that smarter fans are what keeps the sport going.

I don’t charge for anything on this website. If people can take something away from the content I create and use it in their own ways moving forward, that’s infinitely more valuable to me than whatever money I could make. I’ve got a steady job. Right now, racing needs the churn more than I do.

2) The challenge.

Picking horses is hard. It’s similar to hitting a baseball, in that if you’re successful three out of 10 times, you’re one of the better people in your chosen profession. Even the best handicappers go through prolonged slumps where horses seem to lose in the most improbable of ways.

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of “beating the game.” I imagine it’s the same thing that drives a lot of professional poker players, which explains why I was pretty good at that for a while, too (before the U.S. government decided online poker players were criminals, that is). Put a challenge in front of me, and I’m going to do everything in my power to overcome it. That’s just how I’m wired.

3) Transparency/honesty.

I put my name on everything I write, and my face is generally in there, too. I’m an easy guy to find. Don’t like something? The contact feature of the site is right here, and I see/respond to every piece of email I get.

I have no patience for “handicappers” that give people like me a bad reputation. I’m not talking about the outspoken folks that put their names/likenesses beside what they write. I may not agree with them, but I respect them having the guts to attribute their thoughts to a name and face. I’m talking about folks who come up with fake names, don’t put their faces on their profiles, don’t post picks, and blast those who are putting in the work. Furthermore, some members of this crowd impersonate others for no good reason, and sling vicious, unprovoked abuse towards others solely because they can. People like that can take long walks off of short piers.

When I write something, or say something, or pick a horse and say why I like it, you’ll always know where it’s coming from. There are times where this has worked to my detriment (more in my memoirs!), but I value this. I wish others did, too.

4) Competition.

The very nature of pari-mutuel betting hit me right away, even at an embarrassingly young age. It’s my money against your money. If I’m right, I win. If you’re right, you win. Either way, there’s another race coming up in a half-hour, so we’ll do it again in a little while.

The premise of handicapping, to me, is as simple as that. It’s looking for an edge on everyone else betting into the same pool you are. It’s being able to acknowledge when the heavy money is right, and being able to capitalize when it’s wrong. I don’t need fancy hats, or overpriced cocktails, or any of the ridiculous accessories tracks try to market on big days to people who don’t bet. When I go to the track, it’s a business trip (though I will never say no to a well-made sandwich from a carving station).

This also covers one of the things I really enjoy doing. Every summer, I’m one of five handicappers in The Pink Sheet, which is produced by The Saratogian. In that pick box, I go head-to-head with a number of people I genuinely like and respect. We’re not the only paper that does this, and I have an obsession with keeping track of everyone else and seeing where I stand.

Bottom line: I want to win. I want to be considered one of the best in the game at what I do, and I’ve got enough in the way of results to where I should be in the conversation. That leads into the last pillar…

5) Respect.

There are people in high, HIGH places who would prefer if I stayed far away from the sport. That may seem like an outlandish statement. It’s not, and I’ve got experiences that back that up (this site was born in 2017 as a direct result of one of them).

Like I’ve mentioned, I’m not a marketing department’s target audience. My existence isn’t the idea of some decision-maker somewhere. What I am, however, is one of the better handicappers in the country, and I’m not going anywhere. I’ve put in too much work to allow that to happen.

I’ll be filming DRF Bets Formulator Angle videos, producing Saratoga content for The Pink Sheet, guest-starring on Northern California handicapping seminars/preview shows, and calling into podcasts for as long as their respective hosts, editors, and managers will have me. My mere presence makes people who don’t like me go absolutely crazy (for proof, see the Twitter war I was in with a troll a few weeks ago; muting him was fun, but ultimately I had to block him once things went too far), and that’s how I like it.

I was the leading handicapper across all media at Saratoga back in 2017. I had a chip on my shoulder for a while, one that I’m sad to say wasn’t around for the last few months for various reasons (there’s one person you can blame for that, and that’ll be in my memoirs, too). Having said that, that chip’s back now.

I want to hear from people. I want to know what you’re looking for so that I can provide whatever high-quality content I have the resources to produce. I’m an easy guy to find, and as I’ve mentioned, I respond to everything that comes my way.

To those that have read my stuff for any length of time: Thank you. I’m going to continue being the best handicapper I can be. I owe it to my audience, as well as to a sport that, whether it wants to admit it or not, needs me (and people like me).

Keeneland Selections and Analysis: 4/11/19

Best Bet: Talk Veuve to Me, Race 8
Longshot: Proud as Punch, Race 9

R1

Fashion’s Touch
Miss Harry
Saints’ Girl

#5 FASHION’S TOUCH: Romped against weaker last time out and takes a significant step up in class, but seems like the main speed in the Thursday opener. If left alone on the lead, he could be tough to catch; #2 MISS HARRY: Rallied to win by a neck earlier in the meet and will look to sit an ideal stalking trip once again here. It’s a quick turnaround, but this is a logical next step; #7 SAINTS’ GIRL: Hasn’t won in a while, but improved on the drop in class last time out and could take another step forward second off the bench.

R2

My Cadet
Morning Social
Into the Breach

#7 MY CADET: Was purchased privately after his debut, where he rallied to finish fourth for a barn that rarely has first-time starters cranked up. His workouts since have been sharp, and I’m hoping (but not confident) that we get the 8-1 morning line price; #1 MORNING SOCIAL: Has run well in three prior starts and comes back to the dirt for this event. He’ll have to work out a trip from the rail, but the Beard course’s distance shouldn’t be a problem; #4 INTO THE BREACH: Comes off a long layoff for Michael Dilger and will look to shake a case of seconditis. He has some strong past Beyer Speed Figures, but it’s tough to have too much confidence in a horse with six seconds in 11 starts.

R3

Tabia
Paladar
Believeinholidays

#2 TABIA: Stretches out to two turns and has the running style, pedigree, and connections to suggest he’ll love the added distance. The faster they go early, the more he’ll like it; #3 PALADAR: Woke up in his first start for Richard Baltas, a front-running score at Santa Anita. The chance of a regression off of a career-best race does exist, but a repeat of that effort would make him tough; #6 BELIEVEINHOLIDAYS: Put it all together last time out in the slop at Fair Grounds. He generally runs the same race every time, and such an effort would likely be good enough for a piece of it here.

R4

Handsome Honey
Firewater Jake
Quarky

#11 HANDSOME HONEY: Has run well in several recent turf routes at Fair Grounds and could get an ideal setup here. Many contenders in this full field want to be on or near the lead, and if this 8-1 shot can save some ground, he could come running late; #10 FIREWATER JAKE: Wired the field as a 6/5 favorite last time out and tries winners for Brad Cox, who’s gotten off to a big start this meet. He’s logical, but it’s tough to imagine him getting an easy lead from a less-than-ideal post; #15 QUARKY: Graduated in a swift time going much shorter at Tampa, but is bred to like two turns and could be coming around. He’ll need some luck to draw in, but he’s a contender if he does.

R5

Komrad
Odie
Knight Disruptor

#5 KOMRAD: Has run well since being dropped to this level and is a likely favorite here. He’s the main speed in this spot, which otherwise seems light on early zip; #6 ODIE: Takes a big drop in class after a disappointing run at Turfway Park. He was second in his debut over this track, and several of his races last year came against much better horses; #1 KNIGHT DISRUPTOR: Has not run since October, but could have enough speed to secure position along the rail. Such a trip could conceivably move him up.

R6

East Moon
Shackleford County
Weneedtotalk

#7 EAST MOON: Hasn’t run in a while, but looms large in this spot given her strong local form. Her dirt sprint races have been solid, and the steady work tab indicates she’s ready to go; #8 SHACKLEFORD COUNTY: Returns to Keeneland, which doubles as the site of her lone career win to date. She’s got some speed, and a run over her favorite track could wake her up; #1 WENEEDTOTALK: Just missed at this level at Fair Grounds last month. She figures to be going well late, but the rail draw isn’t usually ideal for a closer.

R7

Connectivity
Desert Ride
Mission From Elle

#4 CONNECTIVITY: Bounced last time out in a Grade 3, but has every right to return to her debut form. She was an impressive winner in her unveiling, and may get an ideal pace situation given the ample early speed surrounding her; #14 DESERT RIDE: Has hinted at considerable talent despite a pair of rough trips. She needs two scratches to run, but I think she’s a must-use if she gets in; #8 MISSION FROM ELLE: Much like my top pick, she won her debut impressively before faltering in a graded stakes race. Her two most recent workouts were sharp, and there’s reason to believe she can run to that form.

R8

Talk Veuve to Me
Upset Brewing
Awestruck

#1 TALK VEUVE TO ME: Was one of the better 3-year-old fillies in the country last year. She makes her 2019 debut here, and while she may need a race, she has tons of sprinting form, and a repeat of one of her runs from last year is likely more than enough; #5 UPSET BREWING: May be the lone in-form closer in this field, and if she gets a good setup, she’ll likely be going well late. I don’t know if it’s good enough to beat my top pick, but she’s a must-use in vertical exotics; #2 AWESTRUCK: Hasn’t won in a while, but takes a pretty big drop in class and likely gets a fast track for this event.

R9

Exult
Proud as Punch
Lake Nakuru

#9 EXULT: Has run second in both of his career starts, and his most recent effort came against a next-out winner. If he can transfer his Gulfstream form to the Keeneland turf course, he’ll be tough to beat; #2 PROUD AS PUNCH: Comes back to the grass after faltering as a 4/5 favorite in an off-the-turf event. He’s another that may be moving well when the field turns for home; #5 LAKE NAKURU: Has run second in all three starts and adds blinkers here. This barn is due to get going, and the presence of Joel Rosario is a plus.

Keeneland Selections and Analysis: 4/10/19

Best Bet: Keep Quiet, Race 5
Longshot: Buggy Brown, Race 8

R1

Champagne Affair
Merchants of Cool
Alec and Arthur

#7 CHAMPAGNE AFFAIR: Is one of two in here for Wesley Ward, whose record with first-time starters is one of the best in the game. Her sire, Daredevil, was a Grade 1-winning 2-year-old; #4 MERCHANTS OF COOL: Is the other Ward runner, and he’s been working consistently here. I think the race comes down to which of the barn’s runners is more ready to run; #6 ALEC AND ARTHUR: Comes in with a few solid gate works for a trainer that can get debuting runners ready to go.

R2

Coworker
Moti
Market Garden

#8 COWORKER: Has shown speed against better groups, and drops back in for a tag in a race light on early speed. He figures to go to the front early, and he could be tough to catch if he gets comfortable; #1 MOTI: Was a good second at Fair Grounds in his first start on dirt, where he made a decent move before flattening out. He was wide that day, and covering less ground could help; #5 MARKET GARDEN: Drops in class for a barn that knows how to win races here. This is his first start going long on dirt, and it comes against a suspect field.

R3

Stefanie On Fleek
Tula
Catsoutofthebag

#7 STEFANIE ON FLEEK: Has improved with each start to this point and faces winners for the first time. She came home very quickly last time out at Gulfstream, and trainer Todd Pletcher is off to a great start at the meet; #1 TULA: Put it all together last time out at Tampa against a weak field. She has back form, and must be respected even on the big jump up in class; #11 CATSOUTOFTHEBAG: Draws a very tough post but seems like the main speed in this race. Early speed is often formidable at Keeneland, and she could play a big role here at a price, especially if she clears.

R4

Marie’s Mandate
Duches of Grace
Miss Hannah

#4 MARIE’S MANDATE: Debuts against what seems like a suspect group after a string of solid local workouts. Brad Cox has already won three races at the meet, and he could have this filly ready to go; #5 DUCHES OF GRACE: Merits respect off of an OK second in the mud at Oaklawn in her debut. She’s the likely favorite, and she could conceivably improve at second asking; #1 MISS HANNAH: Was one-paced in her debut at Gulfstream, but this barn’s runners tend to improve with experience.

R5

Keep Quiet
Cuestion de Tiempo
Another

#6 KEEP QUIET: Has run well in both starts this year and returns to a turf course where he won a Grade 3 in 2016. He’s won just once since then, but his best race would make him very tough; #5 CUESTION DE TIEMPO: Merits respect at a price second off the layoff. He almost certainly needed his most recent race, and a repeat of his two-back win at Arlington makes him a contender; #2 ANOTHER: Won two back at Gulfstream and finished a credible fourth at this level last time out. The faster they go early, the more he’ll like it, and Jose Ortiz sees fit to ride back.

R6

Trappezoid
Day Dreamer
Nottoway

#9 TRAPPEZOID: Drops to his lowest-ever claiming tag and has tons of back class. His lone race here came against eventual stakes winner Promises Fulfilled, and the outside post should be a big help; #6 DAY DREAMER: Won for fun against weaker at Fair Grounds, and has since been claimed by Eddie Kenneally. He’s facing tougher company here, though, and regression off of a career-best race wouldn’t be surprising; #3 NOTTOWAY: Takes a big drop in class in search of his first win since July. Luis Saez hops aboard for a barn that’s due to heat up.

R7

In the Lee
Dynatail
Cartabianca

#4 IN THE LEE: Makes her seasonal debut, and while this race isn’t the goal, she’s been working well ahead of this event. She’s a graded stakes-caliber mare, and anything close to her best beats these; #8 DYNATAIL: Broke a long winless drought last time out in a race here in October. She’s got plenty of tactical speed and should be prominent early; #2 CARTABIANCA: Has won five races overseas and gets Lasix for her American debut. It’s tough to say much about what she beat in France, but the workouts here are very sharp.

R8

Buggy Brown
Parade Blue
Unbridled Outlaw

#9 BUGGY BROWN: Will almost certainly not be 8-1 given his high-profile connections, but has worked very well since being claimed by Tom Amoss. He’s got plenty of speed and will likely be urged hard from the gate; #2 PARADE BLUE: Drops in for a tag after two starts at Gulfstream against better horses. His two prior starts against claimers this winter were both wins; #5 UNBRIDLED OUTLAW: Takes a big drop in class off of a failed run in a minor stakes race at Gulfstream Park. A repeat of his efforts two or three back would make him a player.