Op/Ed: Some Ideas for the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation

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A pick six ticket at Saratoga | Sarah Andrew

By Bill Finley

The newest organization among the sport’s list of alphabet organizations is the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, which is more or less a think tank. The idea is this: smart people work together, listen to the input of others, come up with ideas to improve the industry and then hope their ideas will be heard and implemented.

They’re not going to pretend they’re the smartest guys in the room and they’re not going to go after the issues where, realistically, there’s no reason to hear from them. That includes Lasix and other medication, the Horse Racing Integrity Act, or a system that allows for a national racing license. They also plan to back up their ideas with facts and thorough research.

It’s the brainchild of Craig Bernick of Glen Hill Farm, who sat on numerous boards and got tired of seeing nothing substantive getting done to solve the industry’s problems. He has hired Pat Cummings as the executive director. Their offices open today, Aug. 1.

This won’t be easy. This is a sport that resists change and each fiefdom looks out for itself first and the overall good of the sport second. Will anybody listen to what they have to say?

I don’t know exactly what tops their agenda, but here is a handful of issues I hope they take a serious look at.

1. Examine the Effects Horizontal Wagers Have Had on Handle

Once, there was just a daily double. Now we have every conceivable “horizontal-type” wager imaginable, from the Pick Three through the Pick Six and beyond. It appears that fans love these bets, as there are more of them every day and the players are jumping at the chance to make $400 or $500 off of a $4 ticket. Gulfstream’s Rainbow Six leads the way and has produced monster handles, like the $16 million that was bet on the wager on Florida Derby Day, a mandatory payout day.

Handling $16 million on a single bet is something to cheer about.

Or is it?

The factor no one wants to explore or talk about is, what are these bets doing to churn?

Churn is a racetrack’s best friend. It is what happens when a bettor keeps cashing tickets and keeps putting that money back into the pools. Even if he or she is doing nothing more than breaking even, every time they cash a bet they have available funds to bet on the next race. Someone could come to the track with $100, lose $40 on the card, but put $500 through the windows on the day.

When you play the horizontal bets, you are likely to lose because they are so difficult to hit, which means a depleted bankroll for the remainder of the card and less money to churn through the windows.

Even when you do hit, your money has been held up for as long as the horizontal bet takes to conclude. That same person who comes to the track in 2018 with $100, might bet $40 on the first Pick Four of the card. That leaves just $60 for the rest of the day and it’s also unlikely they’ll put much money through the windows in Races 2, 3 and 4 because they’re worried about tapping out.

The genie is never going back in the bottle when it comes to the horizontal bets, but someone still needs to look at how they affect churn and whether or not they create less handle.

My guess is that they do more harm than good. The TIF needs to get together some people who can do a quantitative analysis of horizontal bets and figure this out. There is every chance that racing has shot itself in the foot by adding so many of these wagers to the betting menu and needs to start scaling back.

2. Encourage the End of Whipping

If you step back for a minute and look at horse racing from an outsider’s point of view, here is what you will see: Horses, animals, are whipped in an effort to make them go faster. You can try to twist that sentence around all you want, but you can never escape what is a fact–jockeys hit horses with whips.

The insiders see it as “part of the game.” Most everyone else sees it as barbaric.

There might have been a time when racing could get away with this. In the 1950s and ’60s, people were not that sensitive to animal rights issues. We’re living in an entirely different world in 2018 and horse racing is constantly trying to fend off animal rights’ activists. If whips were a necessity, they might be worth fighting for. They’re not. Racing would do just fine without them and banning them would be a huge public relations victory.

There are so many problems in racing that cannot be solved. This one could be solved with a snap of a finger. To placate people who argue that there’s a safety issue or that the world would come to an end if we didn’t hit horses, let’s start by having one race a day where the jockeys carry whips, but cannot use them unless there is an emergency.

3. Coordinate Post Times

Everyone knows this is a problem, tracks tripping all over one another, oftentimes two or more running races at the exact same moment. It drives the bettors crazy and depletes handle at the tracks that are racing simultaneously.

This problem isn’t as easy to solve as most people think. Last Saturday, 22 racetracks that are taken by most ADWs were running. Around 5 p.m. Eastern, when the East Coast tracks have yet to conclude their cards and the West Coast tracks have begun theirs, there are simply too many tracks going at once for there not to be overlap somewhere.

Still, there is a better way.

Start by hiring a national post time coordinator to work with all tracks. The key is to keep the three or four biggest tracks from running against one another. Let’s say the coordinator designates four tracks as “A tracks.” They should get together and agree to schedule their races on a rotating basis so that there is a seven-to-eight minute gap between races going off at these tracks. They also have to stick to their scheduled post times. That means you, Gulfstream. If you tell everyone your race is going to go off at 2:12 and it goes off at 2:19, then the whole system will break down.

This will help the A tracks, as Belmont won’t have to worry about running at the same time as Santa Anita and Gulfstream won’t get in the way of a race at Aqueduct. It will also help boost handle at the smaller tracks. It still won’t be possible for each one of them to find a two or three-minute window where no one else is running, but the main thing they have to accomplish when it comes to simulcast world is to avoid running against the premier signals. Finger Lakes will get killed if it runs against Saratoga. It will barely register if it runs head-to-head against Ellis Park.

4. Make Payoffs Uniform

Minor thing, but it drives me crazy. Now that many bets can be played in denominations of 50 cents or lower, when they list the probable payoffs or the final payoffs, you’re never quite sure if your trifecta that is paying $61 is for a 50-cent bet, or $1 or $2. No two tracks seem to share the same system. It would be so much easier if all payoffs for every bet were posted with the traditional $2 value.

5. Fixed-Odds Wagering

This is another one that will take some study and some experimenting, but there’s no reason not to give fixed-odds betting a try. You can do it on Betfair, but only if you are a New Jersey resident, and that outlet hasn’t gotten any traction.

Racing officials in Australia credit the advent of fixed-odds betting for a major uptick in overall handle and believe that younger bettors much prefer fixed odds to the pari-mutuel system.

Fixed odds would also help do away with what is becoming a major problem for this sport. We recently saw the winner of the GIII Dwyer S., Firenze Fire (Poseidon’s Warrior), drop from 5-1 to 5-2 during the running of the race. That sort of thing happens way too much and is the result of the computer players waiting until the very last second to send their massive wagers into the pools.

Though no one past-posted the Dwyer or did anything illegal, those sorts of late odds drops are destroying people’s confidence in the system and even leaving the winners bitter. It doesn’t feel good to cash a $7 ticket when your expectation was that your winner was going to pay $12.

6. Find More Ways to Reward Small and Medium-Sized Stables

With the top six or seven trainers in the country so dominant, everyone else is getting squeezed out. A lot of trainers with 12 or 13 horses in their barn are close to going out of business because they never get any top horses anymore and they can’t make ends meet. The sport can’t afford to have its middle class wiped out, so any sort of races and innovations that help them are needed.

The Stronach Group has already come up with some new concepts, like races restricted to trainers with 20 horses or fewer. Recently, Del Mar ran a $150,000 maiden claiming race. The $43,000 purse offered a nice pay day and none of the major barns would dare risk losing a top horse, even for $150,000.

There are more things that need to be tried. How about writing races with good purses for trainers who have not won a graded stakes in the last year or have never won a Grade I event? So that people don’t shift a horse around for one race, write another condition where the entrant has to have been under the trainer’s care for at least 90 days.

They do something similar in the horse show world and for the same reason, to give new people a better chance of earning money and staying somewhat competitive with their opponents who have better stock.

Have your own idea? Visit the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation at www.racingthinktank.com and let them know.

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