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).

My 2018 Eclipse Awards Ballot: Selections, Explanations, and Abstentions

That the very fabric of horse racing didn’t burst apart at the seams when I was given an Eclipse Award ballot as a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters is a minor miracle, but here we are. This is my second ballot as an NTWAB member, and like last year, I’m proud to share it, along with my reasoning for several categories.

A screenshot of my ballot is below.

Screen Shot 2018-12-30 at 8.43.03 PM

As I’ve already written, Justify would’ve been my Horse of the Year regardless of what Accelerate did. He’s getting a bad rap because of what American Pharoah did in 2015, and I don’t think that’s right. I respectfully disagree with Accelerate voters who believe beating older horses is important (in large part because this crop of older horses may have been historically awful). I have no respect for logic containing the belief that we need to de-emphasize the Triple Crown, especially when those espousing that were begging for a Triple Crown winner just four years ago. That logic is inconsistent and best and outright hypocrisy at worst.

Many of the other categories were pretty simple for me, though I found myself casting two “hold my nose” votes. I believe the Female Sprinter category shouldn’t exist, especially given the last two years. Unique Bella won last year despite a single Grade 1 win going short (and against restricted company to boot). This year, I voted for Shamrock Rose given her Breeders’ Cup victory. Marley’s Freedom had a case, and she may have been best in the Filly and Mare Sprint given her exceptionally-wide trip, but I can’t vote for her when she didn’t win the big one.

Male Turf Horse was another head-scratcher. I went with Stormy Liberal, given his Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint win and exceptional campaign that also included a tough-luck second in Dubai. I know that may not be popular with some given his distance limitations, but with all due respect, it’s not like any other American horse consistently got a distance of ground this year, either. In fact, had Heart to Heart hung on in the Shoemaker Mile, he may very well have gotten the nod from me here. He’d have had three Grade 1 wins at three different tracks. Alas, he didn’t, and I couldn’t put him higher than third.

With that, we move to the abstentions. I can’t ever see myself voting for the Steeplechase category. I don’t follow that division closely, and I won’t bring myself to cast an ill-informed vote that counts just as much as that of a jump-racing enthusiast. I know I’m not alone in feeling that way, and I wish there was a better solution.

In that same vein, the Owner category has turned into nothing short of a mess. Partnerships have done a lot of good for a lot of people in the sport. Having said that, when we don’t know what stake each owner has in a horse, how can we effectively judge any of them? Is a man who owns 25% of four one-time Grade 1 winners a better owner than one who owns 100% of a four-time Grade 1 winner? How are we to judge these situations when zero transparency exists?

As I mentioned in a previous article, Sol Kumin reached out to me last year and gave me some information on his enterprise. I appreciate that attitude, and I wish more owners had it. Personally, I want partnership information readily available so that we can adequately judge the merits of the owners involved. Until that happens, or until the partnership craze dies down, I cannot see myself casting a ballot in this category.

A Christmas Eve Miracle

In what can only be seen as a staggering failure of a GPS system, a scroll was mysteriously found beneath a Christmas stocking in upstate New York Monday morning.

“Dear Bearer,

This scroll entitles you to one day as American Horse Racing Czar. Any decisions you make over the next 24 hours will take immediate effect. For the sake of convenience, please place this scroll next to the milk and cookies tonight, so I can pick it up and pass it along to its next destination.

Signed,

K. Kringle”

How fitting. I’ve got some ideas…

– We’re marketing to the customers we get, rather than the once-a-year crowd that looks great on social media.

I’m a social/digital media guy. I get it. The type of person that looks like he/she left a footprint on the grimy interior of Aqueduct trying to get a 10-1 shot home doesn’t look great on Twitter. It’s easier to publicize someone who spent hundreds of dollars on an outfit and wouldn’t be out of place at a high-society function.

Here’s the problem: That money would do immeasurably more good for racing going through the windows than being spent at a high-end clothing outlet. There’s nothing wrong with embracing fashion as part of the races, but there’s a middle ground that is being ignored. Social media posts that take the “horse” out of “horse racing” do nothing to grow the game.

So what are we going to do instead? We’re going to do something very, very simple. As I stated in a column I wrote a few weeks ago, the gambling side of racing needs to be marketed by smart, savvy gamblers that can convey what they know to a public that’s eager to learn. These people can’t be seen as expendable items on a profit/loss report. We’re going to turn them loose at each track, and use them as the marketing arms of each establishment.

In an age where the widespread legalization of sports betting is a “when,” not an “if,” the value of those people cannot be overstated. Why take -$110 odds on the point spread of a game that will last three hours when you can get the equivalent of +$200 on a post-time favorite in a horse race, with another race coming in a half-hour? Furthermore, how easy is it to market horse racing as the original daily fantasy sport, with a new draft every half-hour based on data from past performances? None of this is rocket science, and yet NOBODY is marketing the sport this way.

That’s the first change I’m making, and I’m not stopping there. I’m open to all suggestions that infuse good, clean fun into the sport, including a new online show called “The Apron” featuring myself, Joe Nevills, Gino Buccola, Pete Aiello, Danny Kovoloff, and Jason Beem and broadcasting from different defunct racetracks every week (think of it as a degenerate’s version of “College Gameday”). That sound you’re hearing is a panicked racing executive calling an emergency meeting upon realizing various combinations of this sextet regularly talk.

– We’re staggering post times.

The days of tracks thinking they’re the only option in town were over when simulcasting became possible. Some situations are unavoidable (technical issues, weather delays, late scratches, etc.), but gone are situations where tracks of the same level constantly run against each other, to the detriment of the wagering public.

The goal here is to set tracks of the same level (we can sort out which ones rank where later) to run races about five minutes apart. That minimizes overlap, while also providing some buffer in the event mitigating circumstances pop up. Having said that, “mitigating circumstances” does not mean “dragging post times for the sake of handle.” We’re going to recondition the betting public to expect calendar integrity from the tracks they wager on. All fines for violations of this rule go to either the PDJF or an accredited thoroughbred aftercare program.

– We’re breeding to race, not racing to breed.

Economic realities may make a complete reversal of this trend impossible. On paper, American Pharoah’s $200,000 stud fee meant he was generating roughly $40 million in his first year as a stallion, before anyone even knew if his offspring could run or not. Having said that, if I’ve got my way, we’re giving it a shot.

First of all, we’re eliminating any sale based on workouts of less than a quarter-mile, and any workouts longer than that are untimed and without whips. How a horse “breezes” a furlong (often under enthusiastic urging that renders “breezing” an inaccurate designation) has no bearing on long-term success, and I’d pay to see a study of high-priced horses, how often they ran, and what the average return on investment was. If there’s one out there, please alert me.

I don’t want us breeding for “brilliance” anymore. I want to breed horses that can retire sound after several full campaigns, ones that won’t be retired or given six-month breaks after having the nerve to run third in Grade 1 races.

Here are my initial steps: Any stallion prospect must run at least twice as a 4-year-old, or is otherwise ineligible for stud duty until the age of five. That’s not going to solve everything. Some may deem a year off to be a prudent investment for a horse like American Pharoah. However, if this means we get several more starts out of horses entering their primes, ones that enhance their resumes ahead of second careers, that strikes me as a win-win situation for everyone involved. Yes, this would pose problems for connections of “brilliant” horses that are retired after a handful of starts early in their lifetimes, but I’d argue many of those horses shouldn’t be standing at stud at all given obvious physical infirmities.

(Also, can we please stop using the term “brilliant?” It’s lazy, and often a synonym for a horse with huge potential that never realized it.)

Finally, I want an independent, non-partisan study on the effects of race-day medications such as Lasix. There are two camps: Those who say all horses bleed and Lasix works, and those who insist Lasix is the death of the breed as we know it. I think the truth is somewhere between those two extremes, and once we know what it is, I want one logical standard set at every track in the country for all race-day medications.

– There will be more transparency.

This is a uniform rule. The more information fans and gamblers have, the better the game will be. I want the complete destruction of barriers that currently obstruct the flow of information to those that help keep the game going.

It’s not like this would be hard in certain respects. I want cameras in steward’s rooms, and microphones on telephone conversations with jockeys involved in inquiries/objections. I want data to not be monopolized, and situations like the one involving the Handycapper tool (profiled in this excellent T.D. Thornton piece where he asks the most picture-perfect question I’ve seen in racing journalism in a long, long time) ending not with the tool being shut down, but it being made to be the best it can be, for the long-term betterment of the game.

– That applies to owners, too.

Partnerships are all the rage, and for obvious reasons. However, it has made analyzing the successes of owners very, very difficult. As a general rule, we don’t know how much of each horse partnership entities possess. That information is certainly available, otherwise how would racing offices know how to distribute purse money?

As an Eclipse Awards voter, I want that information in order to better judge owners come voting time. The current lack of knowledge makes it impossible to do that, and I plan to abstain in this category until a better solution is worked out.

(Full disclosure: When I expressed my displeasure with the system last year, Sol Kumin reached out and wrote an email he didn’t have to write. I applaud that sentiment, and I wish others had it.)

– Other small odds and ends.

Here are a few other rules and regulations we’re rolling out while we’re at it.

Free grandstand admission to all tracks, with $5 vouchers thrown in once a week to the first X amount of people that attend. Want to charge for clubhouse admission? Go ahead.

Stable public WiFi at all tracks that can afford it (and don’t even think about blocking ADW sites).

Either find a way to fix New York’s “purse money only” rule, or eliminate the concept of multi-horse entries entirely until one can be figured out (as described in this article from last summer).

Constructive criticism of handicapping methodologies is encouraged, especially if done in a respectful way. Destructive, empty, and/or sexist criticism is punishable by public flogging and/or publication of the offender’s lifetime betting record (whichever is more humiliating). In the words of Leo McGarry, we’re going to raise the level of public debate and let that be our legacy.

Bad ideas will be seen as bad ideas regardless of who has them. They will be dispatched immediately, and we will learn from them accordingly (hi, Breeders’ Cup Derby!).

Handicap races will be handicap races again. I’m done with weight ranges being four or five pounds in major handicap events. Going forward, the top weight is 126 pounds, and we’re going down from there. As a trade-off, those races get purse boosts to make them more attractive to connections that fret over their thousand-pound animals toting two or three more pounds than usual.

Finally (and as a journalist, this one’s important): All reporters, from all outlets, get whatever they want from tracks they cover. In an era where racing’s struggling for momentum in the public eye, I have no time for petty politics.

Now, Mr. Kringle, what kind of cookies would you like?