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

Podcasts, Videos, and the Return of the “Wacky-Capsule”

Over the weekend, in a desperate search to keep my mind occupied following the death of my grandmother, I found myself going down a social media rabbit hole. When I got on Twitter and saw my timeline, I was taken aback by the sheer volume of audio/visual content produced by the people I follow.

There were podcasts, live streams, and quick video hits galore, all hitting a bunch of different tones for different subsets of the racing fanbase. In one way, I was pretty happy, because it meant I was following the right people. In another, I couldn’t help but remember some of the reactions I got when part of my job was doing this exact sort of thing.

From mid-2012 through late-2018, I was a driving force behind the social and digital media strategy at several racing networks and publications, including The Pink Sheet in Saratoga, HRTV, TVG, and The Daily Racing Form. At each stop, social media reach and engagement grew considerably (sometimes far more than that), due in large part to strategies that brought content horseplayers wanted to access to them in more convenient ways. I say this to establish that I know what I’m talking about thanks to years of experience appealing to people like myself.

When I did that stuff, though, there were times where the reactions were far from positive. When I did live chats in Saratoga and filmed daily editions of The Pink Sheet Insider, some print-oriented folks at The Saratogian made no secret that they thought I wasn’t using my time wisely. When I started filming video hits for social media as part of my job at TVG, at least one person took to calling my makeshift studio the “wacky-capsule,” as a take-off of the old “handi-capsule” that became the TVG2 studio.

Just a few years later, everyone’s doing the same exact thing, from “wacky-capsules” of their very own. Life comes at you fast, huh?

I’m not looking for a pat on the back or some admission that I saw things coming (though if you’d like to give me one, or in some cases admit you were wrong many years ago, I won’t object). I’m bringing this up because, during the COVID-19 crisis, parts of racing’s establishment have finally accepted that there are other ways to reach their most important audience. Not everything has to be put on a television, or micromanaged by someone sitting behind a big desk. Give your handicappers a phone or a video camera, make sure they have a place to sit with a cool background, and let them go nuts by showing their knowledge, handicapping skills, and passion for the sport.

I could tell a lot of stories about stuff I did and how we improvised on the fly. Jeff Siegel and Aaron Vercruysse gave me a shot on HRTV’s streams from Belmont and Santa Anita in the final months before that network was acquired by TVG, and I loved it. Most of all, I enjoyed seeing the analytics that showed we weren’t a competitor to pre-existing offerings, but a complementary piece of content for horseplayers who wanted a little extra. That the prevailing reaction among most of my colleagues who watched was, “I thought you were going to be goofy, but you can actually do this,” was merely a bonus.

When TVG hired me on, I kept that concept going under the “TVG Extra” name for as long as I was allowed to, but also took things a step further with some concepts many of you enjoyed. First, I somehow got the approval for the aforementioned “wacky-capsule,” which featured a one-camera setup, a switcher, a lighting rig, and a computer to edit on. I’d call Paul in the graphics department, he’d shoot over the fields his crew had produced, and after a few minutes of filming, I’d have everything I needed to create stuff like the video below (which was our most-watched YouTube video the week before the 2016 Breeders’ Cup).

I also started a weekly online show called the “Pre-Game Periscope” every Saturday morning. I grabbed my iPhone 6, set it up on a makeshift stand that consisted of phone books arranged thickest to thinnest, laid out my past performances, hit “go live,” and streamed for a half-hour to 45 minutes. The production values were non-existent, but you know what? Nobody cared. That little show got hundreds of live viewers each week, and pushed past 1,000 a few times on big days. No graphics? No music? No b-roll? No television distribution? No problem.

“TVG Extra” died the day of the 2016 Santa Anita Handicap. The Pre-Game Periscope, and the hits I did for TVG’s social media audience, died about a year later (the full stories on all of these will be available in my memoirs, which will come out when I’m in desperate need of Pick Four money). Now, just a few years later, those formats are back, and EVERYONE is doing them. Barstool Sports runs a handicapping stream wherein they’re airing race calls as they happen. I remember when my then-boss (one of the best people I’ve ever worked for) had to talk a major organization into not shutting down a “TVG Extra” stream because they hated we were using their video feed.

Times change, and as an industry, horse racing needs to change with them. It’s no secret that this isn’t something the sport has traditionally done well. I’m encouraged that so many organizations are finally letting their talented people loose with this stuff, but that’s only half the battle. What happens if and when COVID-19 subsides and people start going back to offices, race tracks, and TV studios?

Production of this content shouldn’t stop simply because some things are closer to being back to normal. I’ve seen a lot of content out there that’s creative, imaginative, and never would have gotten approved before the word “coronavirus” entered our collective vocabulary. We’ve changed our minds on a lot over the past few months. Let’s look at the landscape and allow ourselves to realize we need to evolve, okay?

As a content producer, a digital media expert, and someone who desperately wants to see horse racing and its current and aspiring on-air talents grow, I’m using this space to send a simple message to anyone who’s producing content or wants to produce content: Don’t stop. Take whatever’s inspiring you and run with it. If someone’s complaining, chances are they’ll be copying you in a few years. Use it as fuel, and as affirmation what you’re doing is almost certainly working more than the busybody-in-question wants to admit.

If you need some guidance, or advice, or someone to vent to, fill out the “contact” form. What you send goes to my email, and I see everything that comes in. You can also tweet me at @AndrewChampagne, where you can find all of the content I produce on a regular basis.

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: 1/14/20

RECORD: 10-3

Friday night is a special night in horse racing. It’s the annual Beemie Awards, a smorgasbord of smartassery for racing fans on social media, and it’s always a blast. It’s organized by Jason Beem and a trio of his friends (who take pride in going unidentified), and whether the Beemies are your thing or not, there are a few concepts they hit on that I think we can all agree with.

Sports, and the discussions they foster, are diversions. At their best, they provide an escape from all of the struggles real life brings to the table, ones that seem to grow more and more daunting every year (seriously, just turn on the news). Every once in a while, someone hits on something that works and is able to provide people moments of laughter and joy. Those moments come around far too infrequently, and I think they should be celebrated when they do.

Jason Beem (and, for that matter, at least one of his unidentified friends) probably didn’t like me a whole lot for a while, but I’ve always liked him. I’ve always appreciated his passion for horse racing and the drive he has to play a positive role in its future. He’s a darned good announcer, but an even better person. I’m grateful for the role the Beemies play in bringing everyone together for a few hours every year, and it’s why I’ll get suited up, hit the Beemie Awards red carpet, sit in my seat, get shut out of all of the awards, and entertain folks at the after-party.

(PS: As much as I like Jason, and as much as I’ll appreciate everything the Beemies do, I’ve never forgotten getting passed over for the 2017 Mike Joyce Award for Handicapping Bravery and Excellence. “Bet With Kevin” winning that award was a crime akin to “Crash” winning Best Picture.)

MONDAY’S RESULT: LSU didn’t get off to the best of starts against Clemson, but when the SEC champs turned it on, the ACC champs didn’t have answers. As an aside, not being able to use team mascots because both teams are the Tigers is a real problem.

TUESDAY’S PLAY: This section is going to be dominated by college basketball over the next few months. I’m headed to Big 10 country and focusing on Iowa’s trip to Northwestern. The Hawkeyes can be streaky, for sure, but the homestanding Wildcats are one of the lesser teams in the conference, and they’re only getting 5.5 points. I think Iowa’s got way too many weapons, and that they should win comfortably.