THE DARK DAY FILES: A Struggle with Perceived Irrelevance

Sean Clancy’s a better writer than I am. I take no shame in saying that, nor do I feel a sense of defeat, because he’s better than just about everyone. My name is on the extensive list of former interns at The Saratoga Special that went on to long careers in the racing business, and as I half-joked on Twitter a few weeks ago, I sincerely hope I’m not the Eric Mangini to the Clancys’ Bill Belichick.

Sean’s annual “I’ll miss/won’t miss” column is a must-read, and it was published Sunday. There’s a line in there that hit me like a ton of bricks, though, as good writing is prone to do.

“I’ll miss the enthusiastic interns, their futures ahead of them,” he wrote. “I won’t miss the jaded veterans, their irrelevance grinding away at them.”

I’m not taking this as a shot against me. I haven’t been to Saratoga yet this year, so I’m not in a position where I could be someone Sean would mention in that regard. However, that one line made me think more than just about anything else I’ve read in a long time, and this column spawns from that train of thought.

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Those who followed me last year may remember a column I filed upon the completion of the 2018 Saratoga meet. It came hours after I fell one win short of Liam Durbin, largely due to three lost photo finishes in the last two days, and was written following a soul-searching meal eaten at a local dive bar.

Two days later, after working 36 hours over the course of Labor Day weekend (largely thanks to a situation involving gunfire at Del Mar), I was informed that my full-time position at The Daily Racing Form was being transitioned to part-time. This came a few weeks after a satisfactory evaluation, and was a continuation of layoffs at the publication that came earlier in the summer. When I left that part-time position for a full-time role at a non-racing company in November (the less said about my four months at that job, the better), that position was not filled.

Over the past year, racing has done a tremendous job of scaring off passionate people. The Stronach Group laid off a bunch of them late last year, and DRF had a widely-publicized round of cuts earlier this summer that claimed a number of visible writers and content contributors (several of whom I consider friends).

It’s brought about a real identity crisis for me, one that I wrote about back in November. If we’re mostly in agreement that racing needs knowledgeable handicappers who can make the sport more fun for novices, which in turn drives handle and adds repeat customers, why are such people being forced out?

I grew up reading the New York City papers and spending the lion’s share of drives to Saratoga pulling out the racing sections of The New York Daily News and The New York Post. This was a time when major newspapers had racing writers and full-time handicappers, as well as space for content contributors to expound on what was going on. Like many other racing enthusiasts, I worshipped Russ Harris, laughed at the antics of the participants in the annual “Battle of Saratoga,” and strained my eyes to read the small, blocky text that was found in the Post’s racing section at the time.

I’d wind up sharing press boxes with those folks, and many of them became my friends. Now, it’s an effort to see where they’re at. I sat behind Paul Moran, John Pricci, and Jerry Bossert (among others) for two summers at Saratoga. Paul is dead, John spends most of the year in Florida, and Jerry was laid off by the Daily News not long after I left for California. The Post laid off its racing team as well, indirectly sparking one of the weirdest sagas of my life involving a $70 Kentucky Derby future bet (P.S.: John paid up).

HRTV, the network I moved 3,000 miles west to work for, is long gone, having been purchased by TVG in early-2015. I was hired over as part of the acquisition. The first two years of my tenure there were some of the most enjoyable times I’ve had at any job (those close to me know why). The last two months were some of the least enjoyable times I’d had up to that point (again, those close to me know why), and that experience prompted a move over to DRF.

It’s 2019 now, a year after I was informed of my change in employment status at The Daily Racing Form, and Saratoga is the one time where I get to test my skills against some of the best handicappers in the game on a daily basis. For 10 months out of the year, I’m a semi-professional handicapper who uses racing as a side hustle. For the other two, I go 15 rounds with some of the smartest, sharpest horseplayers I’ve ever known, and every once in a while, magic happens (as it did in 2017, when I topped all public handicappers with 128 top-pick winners). That’s why it means so much to me to be a part of The Pink Sheet’s pick box, as I have been for seven seasons, and it’s also why I take what I do incredibly seriously.

I know that I’m fortunate to have had my experiences, and it’s not like I’m detached from the racing industry. I still freelance for DRF with two Formulator videos per week, and I’ve been able to pick up writing assignments for Horse Racing Nation, Trainer Magazine, Granite Media, and a few other outlets. I maintain my ballots for both Eclipse Awards and racing’s Hall of Fame, and I consider both of those to be tremendous honors.

Having said that, Sean’s words hit me hard. I’m 30 years old, passionate about horse racing, and eager to teach people who want to know more about it. However, I don’t care about the social side of racing. As a goofy guy with no patience for those who are blind to the necessity of gambling money in this sport, I’m never going to be the focus of one of those “I Am Horse Racing” videos. I don’t bet enough to be considered a big player, and my emergence as a handicapper/content producer wasn’t necessarily anyone’s idea. I know that doesn’t sit well with at least one person in power at a major company, and I’m sure there are some in the sport who would like nothing more than for me to sit down, shut up, and do something else.

Does that make me irrelevant? Does that make those similar to me irrelevant? Are people like me simply shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic as foal crops decline, field sizes shrink, and handfuls of trainers get most of the top-tier horses? All of these are really tough questions, and they’re ones I’m now pondering a lot as I prepare to venture east later this week.

– – – – –

This Wednesday, I’ll be spending lots of time in the air en route to upstate New York. Over the course of a week or so, I’ll be seeing my family (including my two adorable nieces), mooching lots of free food, and, of course, making several trips to Saratoga to watch horses turn left.

I’ll be at the track Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and if you see me walking around, don’t be afraid to say hello. I greatly appreciate anyone who takes the time to read my stuff (either in print or online), and I see that as validation for the effort I put into trying to solve 10 or so handicapping puzzles each day. Each puzzle, by the way, has become incredibly important. I’m locked in a three-way battle for top honors in The Pink Sheet, and have two wins to make up on Liam Durbin with six cards left in the meet.

I don’t know if I’m irrelevant. Maybe I always have been. Maybe we all are (we certainly will be if protestors have their way). Here’s what I know: I enjoy the hell out of this game. I love reading the past performances and trying to find things others don’t see. I’m going to keep doing this for as long as racing’s media outlets will have me, and for as long as people keep reading my stuff. Want to reach out? Tweet me at @AndrewChampagne, or email me using my site’s “contact” section. I try to respond to everything I get (just don’t use the term Runhappy on Twitter; I’ve muted it, so I won’t see your tweet if you do that).

The people who don’t like me aren’t going to change their minds. I’ve been at peace with that for a pretty long time (it’s sort of a family curse). Maybe I’m irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but it’s not for a lack of trying to grow the game. I’m going to be around for as long as people will have me, and I’m always going to believe I’m one of the better ones at what I do.

As far as writing, though…yeah, Sean’s better than me.

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.