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: 2/11/20

RECORD: 25-10

Happy news is always appreciated around here, so it’s with great delight that I use this space to wish my big sister, Alex, a happy birthday. As I said in a toast at her wedding several years ago, she’s a tough act to follow. She got her J.D. from NYU, made partner at a high-powered law firm in New York City, and has two beautiful daughters…while her goofball brother made a living writing and reporting about horses turning left.

My sister’s always encouraged me to be me. She’s one of my biggest fans, and I hope she knows I’m one of hers, too. Love you, Alex! Go play “Chutes and Ladders” with the kids.

MONDAY’S RESULTS: The return to this space was a good one. Underdog Colgate won outright over BU, Baylor covered by a half-point at Texas, and both plays wound up in the left-hand column.

TUESDAY’S PLAY: I’ve only got one play for Tuesday’s college basketball slate, and it comes in the Big 10. Red-hot Penn State travels to Purdue in a game that could have big bubble implications for the Boilermakers. The number that intrigues me here isn’t the spread, but the total. Both teams can score, so the 134.5-point total seems a bit low to me. I’m taking the over and rooting for lots of offense.

Andrew’s Play of the Day: 2/10/20

RECORD: 23-10

As some of you know, I got in a pretty bad car accident last week where I was t-boned by a pick-up truck. Before I dive into my analysis, here are some things I learned from that experience (or, in some cases, things that were reinforced).

1) Don’t get t-boned by a pick-up truck.

2) If you must get t-boned by a pick-up truck, do it in a Nissan Altima. The car’s almost certainly totaled, but I walked away from the accident with no major injuries.

3) Life’s short. I was t-boned on the passenger’s side of the car, and I was thankfully alone. If I get hit on the driver’s side, the best-case scenario is that I’m seriously hurt. The worst-case scenario, well…

4) Sports are diversions.

5) There are lots of good people in the world, as evidenced by the outpouring of well-wishes I received last week. If you sent me something, know that I appreciate it greatly.

This leads to how I’m going to approach this section for the next week or so. Because I’ve been juggling other stuff (not to mention a busy time at the real job), I haven’t offered anything since the Super Bowl. However, I decided to concentrate on a “play of the day,” rather than several plays each day, largely because I believe concentrated, focused gambling strategies are what pay off in the long run, so I can’t, in good conscience, give out seven plays and be back on track.

With that in mind, I’ll middle this a bit. I’ll be offering two plays a day until I’m caught up, barring a situation where I simply only like one game. I’ll hopefully be back on track sooner rather than later, and with a little luck, it’ll be with continued success.

MONDAY’S PLAYS: My primary action comes in the Lone Star State. #1 Baylor heads to Texas and is giving just 6.5 points. I understand that it’s a road game, but the Longhorns aren’t exactly setting the world on fire and the Bears may be the best team in the country. I’ll take the visitors to cover the spread.

In addition, there’s a fun Patriot League matchup in New England, as Colgate travels to Boston University. The visiting Raiders have quietly put up a 19-6 record to this point in the season, including a 10-2 mark in conference play, and beat the Terriers by nine earlier this year. With all that said, why are the Raiders 1.5-point underdogs? I’ll take Colgate here and hope they complete the season sweep.

Andrew’s Play of the Day: 1/30/20

RECORD: 20-9

Larry Collmus is out as the head announcer at the New York Racing Association. The change was made after Collmus served five years in that post after replacing Tom Durkin and, for my money, did as good a job as anyone on the planet could have in that capacity.

I’m not here to speculate on what happened. However, a lot of people on social media were quick to do just that, and many of those posts did something that I take plenty of exception to. If you made a post along the lines of, “I think Larry should wind up at (insert track that already has an announcer here),” pay close attention: You were wrong.

If Larry Collmus (or any other announcer, for that matter) gets a job somewhere where someone else is currently employed, it means the second person lost it and has to find an opening on a carousel that seems to have fewer and fewer spots each time it turns. Rooting for that to happen, at a time when a lot of people in racing have lost their jobs for reasons that have nothing to do with talent, stinks to high heaven. It’s one thing to wish for Larry (an excellent announcer and a really good guy) to land on his feet, but this behavior was several steps too far.

WEDNESDAY’S RESULTS: We split yesterday’s action after a too-busy Tuesday kept me off the grid. Seton Hall and DePaul went under, but Navy covered an 11-point spread against Holy Cross to salvage the day.

THURSDAY’S PLAY: I’m headed to the Big 10 for a clash in Champaign. The Illinois Fighting Illini host the Golden Gophers of Minnesota, and the spread here puzzles me. Illinois is red-hot, has home-court advantage, and yet is only a five-point favorite over a team that’s shot better than 38.3% from the floor just once over its last four games. Give me the Illini in this spot, as I think they cover pretty easily.