Pleasanton: Opening Day Pick Four Analysis (6/19/20)

Friday is Opening Day at Pleasanton, and I’m excited for the 2020 meet to get underway. Pleasanton is one of my favorite places in racing. When the Alameda County Fair is rocking and rolling, this track is as good a place as any to go for a reminder of the charming aspects of the sport we all love and care about. Add in that I’ve become friends with many of the people at CARF over the past few years, and seeing them up and running becomes that much sweeter.

The fair is obviously not happening, and seeing Pleasanton without fans is going to be weird. However, I’m pretty pumped for one of my favorite tracks to be up and running, and I’ll be posting whatever content I can as the meet rolls on through June and July.

We’ll kick things off with a look at the late Pick Four on Opening Day. It’s a seven-race program, so the sequence starts in the fourth. The folks in the racing office did a really nice job putting together the card on short notice, and I think there are opportunities to make some money. Let’s take a look!

RACE #4: The first leg is a maiden claimer for older fillies and mares, and I think the morning line man got this one right. #5 SWEETENER figures to be a heavy favorite in her second start off the layoff. She showed speed against pricier company off the bench at Golden Gate, and anything close to her early-2019 dirt races would likely crush this group.

However, there’s a lot of early speed that could go with her early, so I can’t single her. With the possibility of the race collapsing, I need to have #1 BRITE TAN on my ticket as well. She’s been running at Los Al, which isn’t a surface that favors closers, and she’s got some back form there. Kyle Frey signing on is encouraging, and her best race could be good enough to win this at a price.

RACE #5: This race houses the horse that may be the shortest price of the sequence. He’s not infallible, but I can’t get too cute, as I do think he’s the most likely winner and I’m confident enough to single him.

That’s #5 DOUBLE TIGER, who drops in class off a layoff for trainer Jamey Thomas. Unlike many of these runners, though, he has form on dirt, having never finished worse than second in three starts on the surface. Thomas has had a lot of success this year, and this one has run Beyer Speed Figures that tower over those of much of this group.

Double Tiger is 9/5 on the morning line, and I think he’ll go off shorter than that. If he doesn’t win, I lose, and I imagine many other tickets go up in smoke as well.

RACE #6: Part of the reason I singled Double Tiger is that he looks like the class of the field. The other part is that I don’t have a clue in the sixth, a race without much experience signed on, and one where I can’t have any confidence in the shorter prices.

#6 CAROLINA MIA has run well at Golden Gate, but there’s nothing saying she wants dirt. The same can be said for #1 GET’EM TIGER and #2 SWEET REGARDS, and those three, in some order, will likely be the first three betting choices in this seven-horse field.

I’m hitting the “ALL” button. I wish I could narrow this field down, but between the overall inexperience and the lack of dirt form, I have no thoughts on this race other than that I want maximum coverage. With that said, I’ll buy the race and hope we get a price home.

RACE #7: We finish things off with a claiming event for older fillies and mares. I thought this was another competitive race, and I’m taking a bit of a shot by going against #7 DANIEL THE DREAMER, the morning line favorite. She’s taking a big drop in class, but she’s 0-for-4 on dirt, and those races came at Grants Pass Downs against suspect fields.

My top pick is #4 GIFTY, who hasn’t done a lot wrong to this point. She broke her maiden at second asking, and then found starter allowance company too tough when seventh in her first try against winners. However, she was beaten less than four lengths, and that day’s winner came right back to win again. I wish there was more dirt form on the page, but anything close to the last two efforts would make her pretty tough.

I’ll also use #5 STREUSEL and #6 ZELAIA. The former is a closer in a race full of early speed and should come rolling late, and the latter won on dirt at Turf Paradise earlier this year and is another dropping in class. One other note: If you want to spend a bit more money than me, #2 MAUI MAGIC may be live at a price. I love when runners are protected from the claim off of long layoffs, and she ran reasonably well twice on dirt last summer. She may want longer than this distance and this came up pretty salty for the level, but she may have more of a chance than the odds board will indicate.

R4: 1,5
R5: 5
R6: ALL
R7: 4,5,6

42 Bets, $21

Should They Run at Saratoga? A Unique Answer

I swore to myself I wouldn’t write an article on the likelihood of racing in Saratoga unless I could promise it would be different from anything else that’s out there. In a roundabout way, I got to that point Tuesday, when multiple Saratoga discussions populated my social media timelines and got my brain going.

Right off the bat, I’ll start with a disclaimer: This is not an impassioned article to go full-speed ahead, torpedoes be damned, and run at Saratoga. That may surprise you given my background, but I urge you to move forward with an open mind. On the other hand, this is also not something admonishing NYRA for still considering the possibility of a Saratoga meet.

Instead, this column focused on the most underused phrase on social media, and one I feel is as valuable as any in the English language. It’s a simple, three-word, three-syllable phrase that doesn’t reflect nearly as much weakness as it implies, and one a lot of people should have tattooed on a forearm as a reminder of what to say during tricky situations.

In a convenient plot twist, I’m also alluding to my specific feelings on the Saratoga conundrum. All of this can be summarized with this very sentence: I don’t know.

Let those words resonate for a moment, and let me tell you how hard it was to arrive at that conclusion. You may find people who love Saratoga as much as I do, but the list of people who love it more is very, very short. I’m an Upstate New York native who spent parts of every summer in the backyard picnic area and frequently travels back east from California to spend a few days there with my family and remaining friends within the industry.

I’m also not without a financial interest in this debate. As you’ve heard me shout from the mountaintops every summer, I’m the featured handicapper in The Pink Sheet, which is sold outside the track and distributed around Saratoga. I’ve also profiled Saratoga races for freelance gigs at entities such as The Daily Racing Form, The Saratoga Special, Oddschecker US, and Horse Racing Nation. Simply put, you’re not going to find many people in racing’s media contingent whose reputations are so tied to one particular high-profile track, and if races scheduled for Saratoga are not run at Saratoga, chances are I’m out a significant chunk of change.

On the other hand, there’s no playbook to fight back against what has happened over the past few months. When the coronavirus hit, it sent societies everywhere into panicked frenzies, and justifiably so. Even now, as some states prepare to cautiously roll out plans designed to achieve some version of normality, there’s a lot we don’t know, as evidenced by the healthy social distancing regulations in place even in states eager to “reopen.” Major sports leagues, for instance have already seemed to accept a reality where fans are not in attendance, which would’ve been a blasphemous thought just three months ago.

How does horse racing properly weigh all of this? I don’t know.

I’m friends with people who want tracks to reopen yesterday with protocols in place similar to the ones at Oaklawn, Gulfstream, and other locales currently open for business. They feel this way out of legitimate concern for both the industry and the people whose livelihoods depend on it. On the contrary, I also know people who wonder how we can justify racing at all, anywhere, for any amount of money, during the current pandemic. These reasons are understandable, too. They don’t want people possibly exposing themselves to a deadly virus when millions of people are following orders to shelter in place.

If we’re solely using those two standpoints, I’m going to lean to the side advocating for the reopening of tracks, provided systems are in place that protect all stakeholders involved. I can’t support denying people the right to make an honest living, especially when unemployment numbers are rising every day. If the protocol that has been rolled out by several tracks has been proven effective, let’s use it and, at a minimum, get an industry that employs a lot of people on the road to recovery.

Having said that, there are other factors in play when Saratoga is involved. Boutique meets at tracks like Saratoga, Del Mar, and Keeneland rely heavily on community support and on horses and their handlers shipping in from out of town. Even if New York wasn’t one of the areas hit hardest by the coronavirus, it’s almost impossible to see a pre-pandemic scene at Saratoga materializing anytime soon. Add in the dizzying numbers that have been coming out of the Empire State, specifically New York City, and things get even murkier.

What should they do? I don’t know.

None of the alternatives are attractive. No sane person wants a situation where New York’s horse racing circuit is done through the summer. The idea of running Saratoga’s races at Belmont during its designated time of year has been floated, but with all due respect to Belmont, that would feel like a cheapening of the product. One could also foresee a scenario where Saratoga runs its dates later in the year in hopes of attracting crowds after the public threat of the coronavirus subsides, but it gets cold early (anything after mid-October would be risky), weekday crowds would be non-existent since kids would be back at school, and for all we know, the virus may still be around at that point.

There’s no outcome that’s going to please everyone, and the stakes are high. If racing returns to Saratoga too early, one of the most beloved tracks in the country could take a substantial hit. If it doesn’t return at all, NYRA’s business gets clipped in the knees, and horsemen and horsewomen struggle to make payroll. Like everyone else in the world, racing executives in New York are at the mercy of a virus that doesn’t have a designated end date, and tough decisions are going to have to be made.

When I was thinking about writing this article, a close friend told me that my stance wouldn’t win any arguments, which seems like the real currency right now. I find it hard to disagree with him, especially in the culture that’s been created by experts in the “shout loudly and mobilize fellow loud people” field. Still, I’ve heard a lot of opinions by a lot of smart folks of late, and I’m left wanting a solution that almost certainly doesn’t exist.

How does New York make what seems like an impossible decision, one that has far-reaching effects on horsemen, horsewomen, the city of Saratoga Springs, and, by extension, the United States racing circuit at large?

I don’t know.

And I don’t know when, how, or why it became a bad thing to say that.

“Best Bets,” Public Handicapping Philosophies, and the Need for Education

It’s been quite a while since I’ve put pen to paper (or, more fittingly, text to a Word doc) and written something for this site. In typical fashion, though, members of the horse racing community provided the basis for something that kicks around in my head every so often.

Matt Dinerman, the track announcer at Golden Gate Fields, is a friend of mine. On Sunday afternoon, he asked the Twitterverse a question that I get asked at least once a year and one that a lot of public handicappers weigh on a constant basis.

 

I’m in a unique position to answer this question. I’m part of a rare breed of handicappers that still participate in “pick boxes” each season at Saratoga. Recently, though, I’ve also taken on a daily bankroll blurb inspired by the “Battle of Saratoga” section in old editions of The New York Daily News. This, of course, is in addition to everything else I do online for a variety of outlets, sometimes for no other reason than that I love this game and want to do what I can to offer content people enjoy.

With that in mind, this is a question where dealing in absolutes is a fool’s errand. There is a very vocal group of handicappers on Twitter that tees off on anyone who doesn’t act as though betting 1/5 favorites will give you coronavirus. While a small sect of those people needs to seriously re-examine its unjustified sense of importance, I like and/or respect most of these people a great deal for what they bring to the table (both strategically and in their financial support of the sport at the betting windows). However, what I’m about to lay out is going to make those people go apoplectic.

Here’s the concept: If you’re a super-advanced handicapper, the idea of a “best bet,” as it was laid out by Matt and as it’s understood by those who enjoy going to the racetrack…isn’t for you.

Before you put me in the same category as out-of-touch businesspeople who would prefer handicappers shut up and bet (copyright @InsideThePylons, all rights reserved), allow me to expound. If you hop into a time machine and go to Saratoga on a typical, pre-pandemic day, you’ll see thousands of people, most of whom make one or two trips to one of racing’s few remaining cathedrals each summer. An overwhelming percentage of these people aren’t looking for game theory, at least not when they walk through the door. They don’t want people talking down to them about ticket structure, takeout, breakage, or any number of other topics you’ll find racing enthusiasts complaining about on a consistent basis.

No, these folks just want to cash a few tickets, and they shouldn’t be judged negatively for that. With that in mind, if I think a heavy favorite isn’t going to lose, I’m not just going to put the horse second on principle. My job, in that pick box, is to pick horses to run first, second, and third. If I think an overwhelming favorite is the day’s most likely winner, I’ll put that horse as my “best bet” in the pick box without much hesitation (important note: We do have a “top longshot” designation as well).

This philosophy causes at least one of my Pink Sheet counterparts, who thinks we should be judged by ROI rather than total wins, plenty of frustration. I’d argue, though, that the infrequent track-goer buying the paper and betting the picks outlined within it doesn’t care about the average return on a $2 ticket over the course of a season. They’re here for a quick dose of fun before snapping back to reality. Betting winning horses is fun, so it’s my duty to provide as many of those as I can, short win prices be damned.

However, here’s where the bridge to the more advanced stuff comes in, and this is where I begin to repair relations with the more vocal, jaded horseplayers that are reading this. If someone is betting my picks and I’m having a good day, the chances of them wanting to learn more go through the roof. That’s when concepts like ticket construction and squeezing value arrive on the scene. Rolling that stuff out to a casual audience who has no patience for it is often a fool’s errand.

That’s why the bankroll section came into existence a few years ago. It provides another avenue for horseplayers to learn about money management and how to get the most out of your wagering dollar. If I like a horse who’s likely to be odds-on, perhaps I’ll punch a cold double or key it in exactas with bigger prices underneath, and I’ll use that section to explain why I’m doing that.

That strategy isn’t sexy, but if I successfully key a 3/5 shot in a cold double that pays $12 for a $2 bet, I’ve turned that 3/5 favorite into a 5-1 proposition. Instead of a $10 win bet that returns $16, the $10 double I’ve just hit returns $60. Even if I add a second horse in doubles in the second leg, that’s a 2-1 return on my investment, which more than triples the win odds of my key horse.

I’ll never bash handicappers for taking aggressive swings. It takes guts, strong opinions, and plenty of self-confidence to do that, and those are all qualities I respect that this game needs more of. However, what we also need more if is fans who go from the beginner, “once or twice a year” level to the intermediate, “have TVG on in the background more and more and begin reading books on the topic” level. It’s easier to cultivate that growth than it is to find new whales, and I wish people took that responsibility more seriously sometimes.

That’s my primary goal with everything that I put out there, and it’s my belief that lessons like the one I outlined with the cold double are ones we need to teach in order to drive growth in that area. Right now, there’s a gigantic gap in fan education between 101-level studies at Horse Racing State College and doctoral-level classes at the Andrew Beyer Institute. There isn’t a middle ground where we can teach beginning horseplayers more about how to optimize winners, and do so in such a way that isn’t condescending and rude, but welcoming and constructive.

Sometimes my efforts to do that work (cheap plug: If you haven’t subscribed to the new weekly “Champagne and J.D.” show, do so so you don’t miss any of our uploads!). Sometimes they don’t, and I welcome feedback from people who have the game’s best interests (rather than their own fragile egos) at heart. If you want to talk to me about this, I make it really easy to find me. There’s a “contact” feature on my website that will send me an email, and I read everything that comes in. I’m also around on Twitter at @AndrewChampagne, and as people around the industry will readily tell you, I’m on there a lot and reply to most things that come my way, provided we share the mindset of having a constructive conversation (I’ve come to the conclusion that engaging with fools is, well, foolish; life’s too short).

All of us want the same thing. We want horse racing to thrive and be around for our kids (and their kids) to enjoy. We just likely have different ideas about ensuring the growth of the betting audience, as evidenced by some of the conversations I’ve had lately.

Given the state of the world and the current status of social discourse, it’s my hope we can have these conversations at a racetrack near you shortly. Once this clears up, come find me. I’m 6’5”, so just look up.

Andrew’s Play of the Day: 1/3/20

RECORD: 2-0

I played horses at Santa Anita on New Year’s Day and had about the worst handicapping day of my life. It prompted someone on Twitter (a follower, no less) to message me and demand that I give up handicapping publicly, past accomplishments be damned. I responded in kind, saying that I’m going to be the same person until either horse racing goes away or I do.

The response that I got to that was mind-blowing. If you took the time to say something, know that I appreciate you. Part of being in my position is knowing there are going to be days where the only things I pick correctly are clothes that match. On the other hand, another part is having the confidence to trust the process and keep firing, which is what I plan to do.

To the person who tried to tell me to stand down: You’re not the first, you won’t be the last, and I’m not going to be intimidated by anyone like you. If anyone out there agrees with him…well, then go make your own website, with your own picks, and see how easy it is.

THURSDAY’S RESULT: Boston College simply did not show up to the Birmingham Bowl, and Cincinnati rolled to an easy cover en route to the team’s 11th win of the season.

FRIDAY’S PLAY: We’ll shift gears over to college hoops and head to the Colonial Athletic Association. 11-4 Delaware (a team you may want to get familiar with come tournament time) heads to Drexel, where the visiting Blue Hens will be just a one-point favorite. At that spread, give me Delaware, a team that is very capable of scoring lots of points very quickly.

A 50-Point Plan for Horse Racing’s Future

There are certain things one should not do. In addition to tugging on Superman’s cape, spitting into the wind, and pulling the mask off the Lone Ranger, you should never, ever challenge me publicly to put way too much thought into something.

As a preface: Bloodstock agent Bradley Weisbord publicly asserted his desire for racing to associate itself more with Barstool Sports, a controversial entity that has, in my opinion, been rightfully skewered by much of the racing community for its attitudes and actions towards women. I voiced my opinion in response to a comment by photographer Susie Raisher, and this is how Bradley reacted.

I’ve never met Bradley Weisbord in person. I’m not going to make any assertions about his motives or any of his thoughts or actions. This column is strictly business.

You see, I’ve been challenged, and I am going to rise to meet it. Here’s how, as Racing Czar, I would improve horse racing from the top down, in 50 easy steps.

1) Promote from within to account for many resignations across racing that would undoubtedly take place following the announcement of my appointment.

2) Any remaining spots would be filled by passionate young men and women who want to make a difference in the game. Their jobs will be to come up with innovative ideas and how to implement them for the sport’s long-term survival.

3) No idea is a bad idea, except for the Breeders’ Cup Derby, which is the worst idea in the history of the sport.

4) If we’re still short on people, we’re cloning Tom Durkin like Dolly the Sheep as many times as needed.

5) The horse comes first. We’re breeding to race, not racing to breed, and as such, breeders need to get with the program.

6) All, ahem, “breeze” portions of 2-year-old sales are eliminated. You want to gallop horses on the track? That’s fine. The days of an ability to “breeze” an eighth of a mile as a 2-year-old being more important, in some circles, than that horse going nine or 10 furlongs as a 4-year-old or 5-year-old are over.

7) Racing needs its stars to run for as long as possible. To promote this, any male horse retired to breed as a 4-year-old may only be bred to 50 mares. If stallion owners want to jack up stud fees to compensate for the restriction, that’s fine. We’ll let the market determine if it works.

8) We’re commissioning a long-term study on race-day medications by an impartial, unbiased group of equine scientists and medical professionals.

9) Whatever that study says, we’re going with, and all jurisdictions will follow the same rules.

10) If you’re a horseman and your horse needs Lasix or another medication to treat a legitimate issue, your horse goes on a list maintained by the neutral party and gets re-evaluated every three months.

11) If your horse needs Lasix or another medication because you think it’s a performance-enhancer, you can go train somewhere else.

12) Our medication policies have punishments with teeth.

13) Violations get grouped into “minor” and “major” infractions. Minor infractions (think overages by a few picograms or nanograms) are met by increasing fines, with the fifth violation and those beyond that being met with 30-day suspensions.

14) Major infractions are met by suspensions of 60 days, six months, and one year, followed by a lifetime ban for the fourth.

15) A national board of vets and horsemen get to decide which substances fit into which categories, and the standards apply to all tracks as part of the NTRA’s safety accreditation program.

16) The safety accreditation program also contains regulations pertaining to fouls and disqualifications, which will be drafted on the advice of jockeys, trainers, and stewards.

17) These regulations will apply across the board. The inquiry, “what is a foul that merits disqualification?,” is no longer a trick question. Every rider and steward at every track in the country now plays by and officiates the same rules, and bettors know for sure when a DQ could likely occur.

18) The same rules apply to all races regardless of status. We’re not making exceptions in Grade 1 events just because more eyes are on us.

19) If a track chooses not to comply with rules pertaining to overages and disqualifications, not only will it not earn safety accreditation, but it sacrifices graded status for all of its stakes races as well.

20) Optics matter.

21) Any trainer found to have directly sent a thoroughbred from a track to the slaughter pipeline gets booted from the game. No exceptions.

22) No organization whose stated goal is to end horse racing gets to help make decisions within the sport.

23) If organizations outlined in step 22 have strategies to hit racing hard, we hit back harder. The days of the sport being a punching bag for well-coordinated attack campaigns are done.

24) It is made clear horses on racetracks get far better care than cats and dogs at shelters run by one group that euthanizes thousands of them on a yearly basis.

25) It is also made clear that the head of a prominent organization striving for the extinction of horses had no problem profiting off of animals when he was putting the end products of them on pizzas sold at his restaurants.

26) We’re reopening the hill at Santa Anita.

27) We’re reopening Hialeah Park, by any means necessary.

28) We’re issuing moratoriums on the extension of meets at Saratoga and Del Mar. Boutique meets are boutique meets for a reason.

29) Tracks will work together to coordinate post times whenever it is feasible to do so. Instead of fighting each other for the same gambling dollars, we’re creating more opportunities for churn.

30) “Post time” means “post time.” Barring emergency situations (waiting for ambulances, technical/starting gate malfunctions, etc.), every effort must be made to run races at their listed times.

31) Penalties for post time violations will be mandatory donations to thoroughbred aftercare foundations. If you want to set up a day where you intentionally drag to set up donations for PR purposes, that’s just fine.

32) Fans that go to the track will receive vouchers at the gate. Grandstand admission is good for a $5 voucher. Clubhouse admission is good for a $10 voucher.

33) These vouchers are good for wagering only and cannot be cashed out. If a few first-time track-goers make money with their first bets, we’re convincing them to bet their winnings back, stay involved in the sport, and, most importantly to the future of the game, come back with their friends.

34) We’re optimizing the betting experience to make it easier for new players to understand what’s going on. If racing is marketed as the original fantasy sport, with a new draft taking place every 30 minutes, how much easier is that to understand than a set of past performances that, to a racing neophyte, may as well be Egyptian hieroglyphics?

35) We’re setting national standards for takeout and breakage. No track will institute rates of greater than 18% on win-place-show bets or 20% on exotics.

36) Tracks will be encouraged to find new wagers to try. Not all of them will work (hi, Horse Racing Roulette!), but some will (the low-takeout Stronach 5 is good, clean fun, for instance). We’re going to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.

37) Transparency is key. The more people trust our product, the more they’ll trust betting on it.

38) Partnerships in owning horses are fun. Not knowing how much of each horse is owned by which stakeholder is grating. Those numbers get published.

39) Reasons for trainer changes get published (Runhappy’s page would have been positively fascinating).

40) Replays of each race run around the country are made available at the end of each racing day to all fans, without restrictions.

41) Equibase data is made available to any individuals who want to use it, for a small annual fee. This prevents a repeat of the Handycapper saga and allows passionate fans another way to explore the sport.

42) Corporations are not individuals.

43) We will market the sport with both respect for the customer and enthusiasm that, as of now, is usually only reserved for big days.

44) Those big days will market horses and the humans around them above all else. Music and fashion can play secondary roles, but all marketing materials will have at least one horse in them.

45) Horse emojis do not count as horses within those marketing materials.

46) If and when a horse breaks down, we will be honest, forthright, and not hold back details.

47) If there are problems with breakdowns, we will find solutions, not scapegoats.

48) We will effectively police ourselves so that government officials with lobbyists in their ears have as little reason as possible to attack the business.

49) We will foster environments where healthy debate, constructive criticism, and hearty competition are welcome and encouraged. Racing is, above all else, a pari-mutuel game where bettors compete with one another for money in the pools.

50) We will not foster environments where those who degrade certain parts of the population can spread their beliefs to others, nor ones where those opinions are valued more than those of people who have spent years in the business.

– – – – –

If anyone wants to discuss any of this with me, you’re welcome to do so. My Twitter DM’s are open, and the “contact” feature of my site sends messages straight to my email. I read everything that comes through, and I respond to an awful lot of it.