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).

A Requiem for a Different Saratoga Meet

Every once in a while, maybe every few years, I go out to dinner and have a weird internal dialogue with my subconscious. The last time I can remember this happening before Monday night was the week of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup. In addition to being the lone social media person for TVG at the time, the company was rebranding HRTV into TVG2, which meant redesigning what was then HRTV.com to fit the new brand, all while staying on top of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube during one of the four busiest weeks of the year.

That Thursday, I came into work at 6 a.m. and watched the sun rise on one side of the Howard Hughes Center. I left at about 8 p.m. after watching it set on the other side, and the first place of repute open on my way back to my then-apartment in Pasadena was a Denny’s in Culver City. I was running on fumes at that point, and it’s a miracle I didn’t pass out during that weekend’s TVG Extra broadcast (visions of overtime money danced in my head!).

My present-day corner of the world has a dimly lit dive bar next door. It’s called Vinnie’s, and after two long days of work Sunday and Monday, I wound up there as a local band was doing a sound check for a 10 p.m. set. The food isn’t fantastic, but it’s solid, cheap, and, most importantly to me on this particular evening, someone other than me was preparing it.

The best way I can describe Vinnie’s is this: Picture Sister Margaret’s, the bar in the “Deadpool” movies. It’s dark, to the point of being gloomy, and there’s sometimes strange stuff going on (on this particular evening, several people were shooting dice on the bar and sending the same $1 bill back and forth). It’s popular with bikers, but not the ones you need to be afraid of (think of the One-Eyed Snakes from “Bob’s Burgers,” in that they look menacing but are mostly harmless).

You may be thinking to yourself, “Self, I thought this was a horse racing column.” I’m getting there. The reason I was so winded tonight is because the 2018 Saratoga meet has come to a close after 40 cards of racing in upstate New York. It took me a little while to realize it, but I wound up at Vinnie’s for a reason. It’s a different kind of place, and this year’s Saratoga stand was a different sort of meet.

Sure, at its peak, it had the great racing Saratoga is known for. The meet hosted slam-dunk Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Monomoy Girl, who cruised to victory in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks. Top sprinter Imperial Hint ran roughshod over the field in the Grade 1 A.G. Vanderbilt. Fast-rising Marley’s Freedom galloped home much the best in the Grade 1 Ballerina for Red Jacket honoree Bob Baffert. Fans saw Saratoga County native Chad Brown set a single-season record for wins by a trainer, and were treated to a rousing rendition of the Travers, which found a way to stand out even without Triple Crown winner Justify (thanks, Catholic Boy).

There were certainly highlights, ones Saratoga produces every single year, and by the numbers, the track saw its second-highest all-sources handle in history. However, there were some bumps along the way. The first 20 days of the meet saw nearly 10 inches of rain drench the Saratoga area, and 50 races were rained off the turf. From a handicapping perspective, that often meant having to look at races twice, just in case the skies happened to open up.

There was also the infamous race run at the wrong distance. When Somelikeithotbrown waltzed home to break his maiden, it was going a mile and an eighth, not the race’s intended route of a mile and a sixteenth. Additionally, there were a few late scratches of horses entered as parts of entries, which meant that the remaining horses in those entries ran for purse money only and were not eligible betting interests. The worst-case scenario in that instance happened in one day’s opener, when half of a Joe Sharp-trained entry was ruled out and the other half won as much the best. Bettors who liked that part of the entry and bet accordingly got nothing for having a correct opinion, which is a situation that must be avoided at all possible times.

For me, this meet was weird in other ways, too. I started writing for The Saratogian in 2012, and stayed on as a seasonal freelancer after leaving for California in late-2013. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes at the newspaper. My two primary supervisors, managing editor Barbara Lombardo and sports editor Kevin Moran, took buyouts in 2015. David Johnson, who assumed Kevin’s post after his departure, left following the 2017 meet. This summer, the paper’s full-time sports staff consisted of two people: Editor Joe Boyle, whose primary job was to produce regular sports sections for both The Saratogian and The Troy Record, and Stan Hudy, who took the lead on producing The Pink Sheet. Compare that with the staff I walked into in 2012, which boasted a sports editor (Kevin), several full-time reporters (myself, David, Stan, Alex Ventre, and eventually Mike Cignoli), a few freelancers (Jeff Scott, who still contributes, and the great Mike Veitch, who retired last year), two clerks (Chris Maley and Tyler Michaud), and a dedicated sports paginator/copy editor (first Matt Donato, and then Ryan Hayner).

Even with a full staff, producing two sections a day for seven weeks is not easy (DRF colleague and former Saratogian sports editor Nicole Russo can back me up on that!). The realities of journalism are such that editors and reporters must do more with less on a constant basis. Joe and Stan put forth herculean efforts to get the paper(s) out as scheduled, and while I thanked Stan in my final bankroll blurb of the season, it’s worth doing so again here, in an area where I’ve got a bit more room to express myself. Thanks, Stan. Hopefully, I never held anything up!

From a handicapping standpoint, the meet was its own kind of difficult. Saratoga is always hard. The rule of thumb I’ve always used is that three wins per day is an admirable pace, and that 120 winners (three a day for 40 days) will yield a solid placing amongst other handicappers of that ilk. When I somehow came out on top amongst all print handicappers in 2017, I did so with 128 top-pick winners. John Shapazian, who won the crown this year, had 123. As I recall, one or two others were in the 115-120 range.

This year, Shapazian had 116 winners. Liam Durbin, who regained the Pink Sheet title, had 109. I had 108, and as far as I can tell, that was good for a clear third (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). These are incredibly low numbers compared to the ones that are usually needed to win, but that’s how hard this year’s meet was.

Put in other ways, consider a few of these facts: Talented but little-known trainers Chuck Lawrence, Gary Contessa, and Greg Sacco all won more Grade 1 races (one apiece) than longtime Saratoga maestro/future Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher (zero). Mark Casse, one of North America’s most respected horsemen, suffered through an ugly 0 for 48 streak at the Spa that ended when Fly Away Birdie came running late in the Labor Day opener. Gary Sciacca saw Casse’s streak and raised it 21 more, to 0 for 69 (special thanks to DRF’s David Grening for his note on the specific number). He hadn’t won a race at the Spa since 2016, but the drought ended when Sicilia Mike romped in Monday’s seventh race. Paraphrasing an Andy Serling remark from early in the meet, you’re nobody until you get crushed at Saratoga, and this year, the bakeries making humble pie did incredible business.

I look forward to Saratoga every year. I grew up going there every summer, getting autographs from jockeys, listening to Tom Durkin, and learning how to read the publication I’d eventually work for. There are changes every summer. More people I’ve rubbed shoulders with leave the business, for one reason or another. Durkin retired after the 2014 meet. Many people that populated the press box in 2012 and 2013 no longer work for those employers, and a few, unfortunately, have passed away (Paul Moran, Mike Jarboe, Matt Graves, and John Mazzie are all missed). We’re already preparing for one additional change that’s coming sooner rather than later, as longtime NYRA bugler Sam Grossman’s last day of work came and went Monday afternoon.

Saratoga provides a rush to be able to test my skills against other handicappers (for my money, some of the best ones around). As an incredibly competitive person drawn to horse racing not by fashion or Instagram photos, but by the very nature of pari-mutuel wagering (my money against yours), that’s always been something I value. Having said that, it’s also an incredible honor to produce content others can use as a tool to make some money, and that’s the primary reason I love doing what I’m privileged to do for seven weeks out of the year.

Personally, there are years where the Saratoga meet means something bigger. 2013’s meet was my way of burying myself in work to keep my mind off of other things in my life. 2017’s meet was about me proving several high-level doubters dead wrong, and I remain proud to say that that’s what I did (you can blame those doubters for me going into wrestling promo mode at times over the past year; if you find me, ask and I’ll tell you the story).

This summer wasn’t quite like that. It was an endurance test, handicapping’s version of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where hitting the wire brought with it its own special sense of relief (and, for a privileged few, some sense of accomplishment). It was a summer where a lot of creatures, both human and equine, had to navigate around situations that were far from ideal. To those that did: Congratulations. You made it.

God willing, I’ll see you all next year. I’ve got a title to get back!

THE DARK DAY FILES: Lessons from a Day Trip to Lake Tahoe

On my day off Monday, I drove three hours each way to watch horse racing on television.

Before anyone calls me an idiot (in some cases, again), I suppose I should explain. You see, I had casino loyalty points that were going to expire in mid-September, and rather than start from scratch, I opted to make my maiden voyage from my home in northern California to Lake Tahoe.

I make a few trips every year to Las Vegas, and there are some similarities between the journeys to the two Nevada locales. When I lived in Los Angeles, it took between three and a half and four hours to get to Sin City by car, and it’s a similar-length drive from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe. Additionally, there are agricultural inspection stops on both trips back that do nothing but inconvenience roughly 97% of motorists passing through.

However, that’s about where the similarities end. First, the drive from LA to Vegas is best known as a kind of competition. Everyone has a time they’re trying to beat (my personal best from Pasadena to a Vegas hotel is 3 hours, 32 minutes, and that’s without driving recklessly or hitting traffic), and everyone has a small town along the way they prefer to stop in for gas, food, or bathroom breaks (mine is Baker, which boasts a population of 735 people and, more importantly, an Arby’s).

The drive from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe is anything but a competition. The last road one takes to get there is Route 50, which is mostly a two-lane road with intermittent passing lanes scattered about on the trek through the Eldorado National Forest. In other words, the trip could take anywhere from two and a half hours if you don’t hit traffic to four hours if you’re unlucky enough to follow huge trucks down that road with a peloton of your closest friends also in pursuit. I got there in three hours with a quick stop in Folsom (not at the prison), and the trip home took four with a dinner break in Vacaville.

Having said that, though, if you’re traveling during the day, you probably don’t want to hurry. Route 50 is one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the United States, and there are several improvised spots to pull over for photographs. Once you wind your way through the forest, you come out in the rare kind of ski village that also thrives during the summer.

Of course, if you’re in the neighborhood to gamble, that’s prominently catered to as well. In fact, once you weave through the village and get to the state line, two casinos greet you. Harrah’s is on one side of the street, Harvey’s is on the other, and they sit literally inches beyond the California/Nevada border.

As one can expect, both places weren’t exactly bustling with activity at 9:15 on a Monday morning. As the day went on, though, I noticed a theme. Unlike Las Vegas, which thrives on providing sensory overload at all times, Lake Tahoe provides a relaxing environment that struck me as incredibly refreshing. The race book was quiet, with jovial tellers and wait staff. The casino floor had outgoing dealers, and each table had open seats and low minimums. Las Vegas is a wonderful place, but between the crowds and the elevated minimums at busy times, there are some circumstances that give gamblers major headaches.

Those didn’t exist Monday in Lake Tahoe. Instead, what I saw were fun atmospheres with people having a great time. Horse racing types, take note: Gamblers don’t necessarily mind losing if external factors provide some bang for their buck. It wasn’t Vegas, but it didn’t have to be.

I spent most of the day in the race book at Harvey’s, and for the last two races on Saratoga’s Monday program, I spent time chatting with a group of maybe five or six people. We all wound up on the same horse in the finale, first-time starter Surge of Pride. The Linda Rice trainee won on debut at odds of 7/2, and we were all pretty fired up as we headed to the windows (which, by the way, boasted no lines the entire day) to cash our winning tickets.

To tie all of this together: I’ve used this space a lot over the past few months to advocate for fan education, which I believe makes for a more attractive gambling product. Fans that feel comfortable with the product bet more, and they’re much more likely to recommend what they do to friends who are curious. Judging by what I see on Twitter on a daily basis, we have a large portion of the racing fan base that would not recommend the sport to those close to them, and that’s a problem that must be fixed (Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, are you listening?).

It’s great to provide all sorts of data to fans and handicappers, and if that leads to betting action, then a large part of the mission has been accomplished. That’s a large part of what I do for a living, and I hope I’m doing a decent job of that. However, what also works is to provide an atmosphere people feel comfortable in. We can produce that in really simple ways. We can fix timing issues that should not exist in 2018, both with the scheduling of races at different tracks and the times of those races themselves. We can test proposed rule changes by asking if novices would understand explanations of said changes made in 15 seconds or less. We can find ways to legitimately grow the game by marketing to the people who keep it going with steady action, as opposed to those who come to the track once or twice a year and don’t put money through the windows.

Nevada, of course, also has legalized sports betting, and that’s the elephant in the room. When sports betting becomes widely legalized, we need to present the best wagering product imaginable in order to stay competitive. There are steps we can take right now that aren’t huge ones. It’s my hope that we take them, improve the gambling atmosphere in this sport, and give horse racing an improved foundation moving forward.