Sunday, 24 February 2013

What a Weekend!

This has been quite an interesting weekend in the racing world, hasn't it? Let's take a look at all the fun stuff that's happened.

All American Derby estimated at $2.8 million
A press release on the AQHA website has announced that the 2013 All American Derby's purse has been estimated at $2.8 million, making it the richest race in the history of Quarter Horse racing. It's also interesting as this will be the first time ever that the All American Derby will have a greater purse than the All American Futurity, which is estimated at $2.6 million. Ruidoso Downs is the only racetrack in North America with 2 races worth more than $2 million on their annual stakes schedule. I believe this is an attempt by Ruidoso Downs to make their racing more "mainstream" by making a Derby their greatest race, as opposed to a Futurity. I have nothing to base that on, I'm just going to say that.

Gary Stevens has anger issues
Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens was unhappy when blogger, journalist and horseplayer Adam Hickman posted this tweet after Stevens, to the surprise of many, sent Proud Strike to the front in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds:

Stevens was clearly unhappy, later responding:

Twitter immediately went up in a firestorm of people either taking Stevens' side, claiming that Hickman has no right to criticize a Hall of Fame Rider, or people who clearly understood that Stevens messed up.
      But this shows a whole new dark side of Gary Stevens, the angry egotist who can't handle criticism, and will be put into a terrible rage when his methods are questioned. Adam should be happy he didn't say anything to Stevens' face, he may not have survived if he did. Also, Gary Stevens has some issues with Grade 3 level spelling.

Quarter Horse blogger wins handicapping contest
Fans of Quarter Horse blogger L. Doug McPherson, A.K.A me, were put into tears of joy when they found out that he won the handicapping contest of the Stakes races from Fair Grounds and Gulfstream on Saturday. I want to thank Danonymous Racing, and encourage everyone to play his free contest. He holds them every weekend, they're free to play and very fun. Also, follow Danonymous on Twitter at @DanonymousMan.

Zia Park Quarter Horse Championship earns berth to Champion of Champions
Los Alamitos has made a wise decision, giving the Grade I Zia Park Quarter Horse Championship winner a berth to the Grade I Champion of Champions, replacing the Refrigerator Handicap. This makes sense as the Zia Park Championship is an invitational race that collects a higher quality field than the Refrigerator. Los Alamitos fans can looks forward to seeing one more actual Champion in the Champion of Champions this year.

Todd Pletcher is a big baby
Todd Pletcher has secured a nomination for the "biggest baby in racing" award. Ray Paulick tweeted this dandy Pletcher quote on Sunday afternoon:

Really, Todd? You're implying that Lasix, a drug that almost every horse at every bush track who couldn't win for $2,000  runs on, is the reason that Orb won the Fountain of Youth? Give me a break, Todd. I do feel bad about Violence's injury and the fact that his career is likely over, but just accept it Todd. You weren't the best here. And one more thing: Violence raced on Lasix too.

It's been a fun weekend, very fun indeed. Let's hope for some more interesting stuff next weekend.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

What's age got to do with it?

It's funny how we think of horses as they get older. Everybody loves to see a nice, consistent 8 or 9 year old running regularly and winning races. At the same time, there are tons of horses who start tailing off at 5 or 6 and people will say "I guess he's just getting too old." In a very cliche sense, some horses are like fine wine; they get better with age. On the other hand, some horses are like a loaf of bread in the cupboard; they go bad fairly quickly. Most people will tell you they've had more bad loafs of bread than bottles of old wine.
     Back in November I wrote a post about 2011 All American Derby winner Llano Teller, questioning whether or not he was tailing off after a disappointing 6th place finish in the Zia Park Quarter Horse Championship. He then finished 9th in the Championship at Sunland Park. The once tremendous Llano Teller seems to be another has-been in this racing game. The sad thing? He's only 5. His racing career seemed to be cooling off at the end of his 4 year old campaign. He's a young horse with a long life ahead of him but in the racing game he doesn't seem to have much time left. Now, he can easily rebound and prove that this is just a period of bad form. It happens to many horses, they'll go bad for a while and come back eventually. But is Llano Teller getting old? Is his age starting to get to him? We'll see. There are hundreds of examples I could have used to get this point across.
     Now, I don't know about you but I don't like bad bread. Let's get to the fine wine. On Sunday night, Quarter Horse fans tuned into the Grade I Los Alamitos Winter Championship and were impressed by Rylees Boy's late rally to score the victory. The 8 year old had won the 2012 Bank Of America Challenge Championship and Champion of Champions and showed no signs of slowing down. His victory in the Winter Championship made him the oldest horse to ever win the race.
      I spent some time watching his replays yesterday afternoon, and I was amazed at how much better he's gotten since he was 2 and 3. At the beginning of his career he was a minor player in some Futurities and Derbies in Arizona. He never won a Stakes race at 2 or 3, only a Maiden, a claiming event, and a few Allowances. Then in his 4 year old campaign he took off. He won 5 consecutive races, one of which was a Bank of American Championship Challenge at Turf Paradise. He then finished 3rd in the final at Los Alamitos. The horse that couldn't win some small Futurities at Yavapai Downs was all of a sudden a Graded Stakes winner and Grade I placed. Since February of 2009, he's finished out of the money twice, both times caused by bad racing luck. He's won several of the most major races for older horses at 6, 7 and 8 years old. He keeps getting better.
      So what's age got to do with it? It all depends on the individual. The once wonderful bread that you ran to for your sandwich will eventually go bad. A bottle of wine may not be too great at first, but as it ages, you'll pull it out after a stressful day at the track, have a glass and you'll love it. The horse that you won tons of money on in the Derby will cost you so much later that you'll curse his name. But eventually you'll cash a few tickets on an 8 year old and you'll have a big grin on your face that makes you look like you drank a bit too much of that wine.

Fun Fact: Los Alamitos race-caller Ed Burgart was the race caller in Rylees Boy's Maiden victory at Yavapai Downs in Prescott, Arizona back in 2007.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

State-breds highlight Sunland weekend

I love New Mexico racing. I love the Quarter Horses, I love lightning fast dirt tracks, and I love frog juice. One thing I'm not a big fan of, and I'm not a fan of it anywhere, is state/province-bred racing.
     But sometimes state-bred racing can be exciting, competitive, and intriguing when it comes to betting. Sunland will be hosting two Stakes races for New Mexico-breds this weekend; the Peppers Pride Handicap (previously the Sydney Valentini Handicap) on Saturday for Thoroughbred fillies & mares going a mile, and the NMHBA Quarter Horse Stakes on Sunday for 3 year old Quarter Horses going 400 yards. Both races have a purse of $85,000.
Peppers Pride wins the 2008 Sydney Valentini Handicap
     The Peppers Pride Handicap is named after the most famous New Mexico-bred ever. Peppers Pride went undefeated in her 19-start career, earning $1,066,085 in the process. Enough to warrant a Stakes race named after her. A field of 7 will go to gate, and an argument can be made for almost every one of them. Perhaps the most notable of the bunch is Hennesey Smash, the only 4 year old filly of the group. Hennesey Smash has only been beaten once in her 7 race career, but has yet to travel farther than 6 furlongs. She has class, and it was proven last time in her win against open company in the Bold Ego Handicap, but she may have a tough time overcoming the anti-speed in route race bias at Sunland. Hennesey Smash's trainer, Todd Fincher, also sends out Rose's Desert, who's won 7 of her 10 lifetime starts and has never finished worse than 2nd. She's earned over $400,000, which is more than anyone else in the field, and she will likely go off as the favorite, as she has in her last 9 starts. The other interesting horse in the race, and the one who will likely be my top pick when I get to fully handicapping the race, is Iplaytricks, who's 2 for 2 at the mile distance, 4 for 8 at Sunland and 8 for 18 lifetime. Like I said, very competitive field of mares and potential an interesting betting race.
     On Sunday, the RGII NMHBA Stakes will showcase a group of 10 talented 3 year old Quarter Horses. Last year's winner, Fury of the Storm, later won the RGI Zia Derby at Ruidoso Downs, and this race will likely produce several Zia Derby runners this year as well. The obvious horse to beat is Slew by You, who is exiting a win in the RGII Shue Fly Stakes. Although she was slow into form in the summer, she's gotten better with experience and is looking for her 4th consecutive win. Hottest trainer/jockey combo in the country Victor Rodriguez-Flores and Esgar Ramirez are looking for a win with One Blazin Kimbo, who finished 4th by a 1/2 length in the Shue Fly after being forced out at the break, rallying strongly. In a sense it's a race between them, but in a Stakes with no trial races, it won't surprise me if a horse shows up from an Allowance that may be overshadowed by the Shue Fly runners. These are some very talented horses, several will be Restricted Graded Stakes winners in the future, and some will be open Graded Stakes winners as well.
      Horses bred in New Mexico, Thoroughbreds at least, may not be the most incredible horses in the world, but you have to be proud of what you've got. Take some time out of your weekend to see some talented horse from the Land of Enchantment.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Sad State of Canadian Racing Pt. 2: Ontario

Last Saturday I talked about racing in Western Canada and the fragile state it's currently in. Now it's time to discuss the place everyone cares about: Ontario.
      Everyone remembers about a year ago when the Ontario Government and the OLG announced they were ending the Slots At Racetracks Program (SARP) and the industry flying into panic mode immediately after the announcement was made. As you may have read on Standardbred Canada, the SARP was 'highly successful' and ending it was completely unjustified according to every harness horsemen and many thoroughbred people I've talked to. Oddly, I've heard nothing from the Quarter Horse side of things.
      For the first few months after the SARP cancellation announcement, I took the Standardbred Canada side of the argument, spewing all the garbage about how 'highly successful' the SARP was. But I started reading more than SC, and realized this program wasn't so successful after all.
      The idea of the SARP was to rejuvenate racing in Ontario for both horsemen and bettors. The horsemen got what they wanted, purses in Ontario are great. The bettors got basically nothing.
      Let's take a look at what harness bettors in Ontario have to deal with.
      WEG takes only 13.65% from WPS and 17.2% from exactors and doubles. That's not too bad. Then you look at the Tri and Pick 4 and you begin to shake your head at the 21.7% taken from those. Every other wager, which at WEG is Supers and Pick 3s, 23.0%. WEG is a major circuit who made a lot of money from their slots over the course of the SARP. They gave bettors the cold shoulder, taking their status as a major circuit as an excuse to not care for the bettors who play their product, taking them for granted. That's a theme that's common when discussing WEG, and many other track operators.
     Now, onto the B harness. Grand River: WPS: 20.7%, All others: 21.6%. Flamboro & Georgian: All wagers: 21.4%. Hiawatha: All wagers 21.3%. Kawartha: WPS, EX, Tri, DD: 18%, All others: 21.3%. Rideau Carleton: All but tri: 20.75%, triactor: 21.95%. Western Fair: WPS: 18.1%, Pick 4: 15%, All others: 23.0%. In shorter terms, the rake is high. Along with the high track, many of these tracks will race against each others, making their small handles smaller and smaller. The bettors got NOTHING from the SARP, even though 10% of the money generated by the program was supposed to go towards improving the racing PRODUCT. Not just the purses, but the product. Needless to say, the harness tracks are in a panic as to what they'll do come when their racing will be surviving on handle only.
     Now, onto Ajax Downs, the home of Quarter Horse racing in Ontario. Ajax was transformed from Picov Downs, a bush track where 3 digit purses were common, into what it is now when the owners came to a deal with the OLG to put in slots and create and actual race track. All of a sudden, the low level Quarter Horses that raced for tiny purses started racing for some of the best overnight purses in Quarter Horse racing at a very nice facility.
     I've been to Ajax Downs a couple of times, and both times the crowd was a very good size. People do go to Ajax, and enjoy the races. However, Ajax is only simulcasted on Tuesdays, and there are very few bettors anywhere outside of Ontario who care about Ontario Quarter Horse racing. Go look at some Equibase charts from Ajax. Take a minute so you understand the handle we're talking here. The fact that the takeout on every single wager is 21.3% doesn't help. What's worse is that they have done NOTHING to make themselves a legitimate product. No one from Ajax has taken advantage of any form of social media. Go search for Ajax Downs onTwitter. There's nothing there. The only semi-Ajax Downs related person on Twitter is me. Most bush tracks have taken advantage of social media. Look at Marquis Downs or the Rocky Mountain Turf Club. They have Twitter pages, and most of you probably haven't heard of them. I am in full support of growing Ontario's Quarter Horse industry, but apparently the Quarter Horse track isn't. That's a problem for an industry that I believe has a great facility and a serious potential to grow into something more respectable than what it already is.
     Now finally, the Thoroughbreds. Woodbine has been successful at creating handle, mainly because they're a major track in a major city with important races. Note that all WEG Thoroughbred takeouts are the same as WEG harness, with the exception of triactor wagers. Thoroughbred triactor take out is 19.7%, 2% lower than harness. Woodbine has done a good job creating a greater interest in their product, with large Pick 4 guarantees and decent field size. Even without slot money, they'd be able to retain a fairly stable purse structure. Nothing compared to the current purse structures, but it would still be respectable. But like I said earlier, WEG does nothing for their bettors. They would be able to attract a lot of new handle if they would just lower the rake to something more reasonable.
     Then there's Fort Erie. Fort Erie is standing on the last toe on the foot of it's last leg. It's sad because it's a very scenic place with a long and storied history. For a while during the SARP, the Fort really did well. The purses were good, the handle was good, attendance was good. Then politics made it tougher for Americans to come over and spend some time at the Border Oval. Bettors and slot players began spending their time at Batavia Downs and Buffalo Raceway. It didn't help that Fort Erie really wasn't doing much to save themselves. The backstretch there is awful. The grandstand isn't too well kept. Their big experiment to try and increase handle was introducing Quarter Horse racing, which makes no sense for an Ontario Thoroughbred track but I enjoyed it so alright. Needless to say it didn't work. I heard nothing from the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium about lowering the 22.9% takeout of every bet but WPS. I didn't spend any time at the backstretch there in 2012, but from what I heard it was no different than it was the previous year when I was there frequently. The FELRC did nothing but complain and make it sound like there was nothing but doom and gloom ahead.
      And that's the sad state of Ontario racing. Not ONE race track has said anything about how they will make their racing product prosper and grow in the future. They've whined about the loss of slot money on and on. The grand solution to these tracks was to sign 2 year lease agreements with the OLG to keep slots at the tracks on a rent payment system. They're clinging to their slots like a scared child afraid of losing their mother. It's sad and pathetic. If the racetracks don't smarten up and do something about the state of their racing product, racing in Ontario will come to a screeching halt. Hopefully we don't let it get to that point.

Note: all harness takeout rates taken from a WEG Harness program from November 10th, 2012. All Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse takeouts taken from a WEG simulcast program from September 23rd, 2012.

Sorry this was so long. There's a lot more to be said about the current state of Ontario racing but I'll leave it here.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

The Sad State of Canadian Racing Pt.1: The West

2013 is going to be a very interesting year in the racing world. We get to watch the Road to the Kentucky Derby with the brand new points system and see Stronach try and get year-round racing at Gulfstream. We get to watch Hollywood Park for what will likely be the last time. It's going to be fun to see some big industry changes.
     Up here in Canada, racing isn't at it's strongest. 2013 will test industry leaders and see if this game can survive on it's ability to support itself. 
     This post is about the current state of affairs in the Western Provinces. Ontario needs it's own full post, which I'll put up either tomorrow or on Monday. Anyway, let's begin.
     British Columbia is a place where things look good. In 2012 Hastings Park and Great Canadian Gaming lowered takeout on a few of their bets, got in with Twin Spires, and it worked out. Handle went up by 5% from 2011. It was a successful meet. The B.C. horsemen began shipping their horses into the Hastings backstretch and they're ready to get rolling.
     Next up, it's time to take a look at Alberta. Racing there has been troubled ever since Stampede Park in Calgary ended in 2008. Previously, Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds alternated between Northlands Park and the Stampede. Then, after Stampede ended, Northlands decided to race Thoroughbreds in the summer and give the Harness people the winter dates. There was a harness meet in Grande Prairie in 2009, but that was unsuccessful, and Alberta Downs in Lacombe opened up to take over the summer harness meet. But without the Calgary market, racing has shrunk in Alberta. For years a planned racetrack in Balzac, a small town very close to Calgary, was stalled. It finally looks as though the Balzac track will be built, as Century Casinos announced they would put up the funding to help build a 5 1/2 furlong track for Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse and Harness racing. Until that happens though, and it very well could be stalled again, racing in Alberta will continue to be divided for dates, and will be standing on the one leg it's been balancing on since 2009.
     Now we move onto Saskatchewan. To be honest the 'industry' there can hardly be called an industry. Thoroughbreds race in Saskatoon at Marquis Downs for rock bottom purses for a few months in the summer, and then most of them are brought back to the farm until next meet. Same deal for the harness people, although they race at West Meadows in Regina and at the Yorkton Exhibition. In 2012, the Saskatchewan Government announced they ending the subsidy they give to racing. Unlike in other provinces, Saskatchewan racing is given an ACTUAL subsidy. Marquis Downs, however, did something smart in response to this. They respectfully asked the Government to stop taxing wagers placed in the Province. And the Government agreed. The problem; the racetracks still won't get enough money. Purses will dwindle to even more ridiculous lows then they already are, and the 6-horse fields will become 4 or 5 horse fields instead.
     Now we need to discuss Manitoba and Assiniboia Downs. ASD is where my dad began his training career in 1977 before coming to Ontario in 1990, so this place is important to me. Last year, ASD had it tough. Average field size at the Downs was only 6.9, and even though they lowered their Pick 4 takeout from 29% to a low 15%, the ridiculous takeouts on other bets as well as the small fields led to an 8% drop in overall handle. To make matters worse, it was revealed this week that the Government of Manitoba is likely to reduce the size of the racing's grant from the Downs' slot machines. Not good news for a track with poor purses and small handles. There's also talk of ASD being taken over by the Red River Exhibition Association, who want to make the Downs an entertainment facility, and also want to reintroduce Harness racing. Harness racing in Manitoba consists of a fair circuit in small towns that no one has ever heard of. If it ever wants to become notable, it needs a city venue, and the RREA thinks ASD is the place. Harness racing at Assiniboia has been tried more than once, and it's yet to be successful, but the RREA wants to try it. More racing costs more money, and Assiniboia can't afford it. Hopefully ASD can figure something out, but the future is unclear. 
     So that's racing in the West. It's not pretty looking, but nothing in this game usually is. Like I said earlier, I'm going to make a post about Ontario tomorrow or on Monday, because this post is long enough as it is. 

P.S. yesterday in my post about Los Al's possible expansion, I said the planned expansion was to have a 1 mile track. That's incorrect. The plan calls for a 7 furlong and 190 feet track. 

Friday, 1 February 2013

The future of SoCal racing lies in the hands of Los Al

It's kind of funny to think about, but Los Alamitos currently has the future of racing in Southern California in it's hands. It's like saying the future of New York racing depends on Finger Lakes, it's not a thought that comes to mind.
     But it's true. With Betfair Hollywood Park most likely closing to be developed after the 2013 Fall meet, SoCal Horsemen will need a new place to stable about 1,200 horses. Last summer, when a replacement for Hollywood was brought to public discussion, Fairplex Park seemed to be the leading candidate, with a plan to expand the 5/8ths of a mile bullring to a 7 1/2 furlong dirt course with a turf course (presumably 6 1/2 furlongs) along with greater stabling capacity. Soon after, Los Alamitos got into the expansion talks, as it had previously in 2005 when Hollywood was purchased by the Bay Meadows Land Co.
     To be honest, I figured Fairplex was going to be the replacement and Los Alamitos was just tossing out ideas. As it turns out I was completely wrong. Yesterday there was an article published on BloodHorse announcing that Fairplex is out as a Hollywood replacement candidate, with Fairplex President Jim Henwood stating "I'd suggest that Los Alamitos is the better alternative at this time." DRF reported yesterday that Los Al would soon begin meeting with the city of Cypress, where the track is located, to discuss expanding the current facility. The plan includes the addition of 1,000 stalls and expanding the track from 5/8ths of a mile to 1 mile. A turf course is not included in the plan. If everything works out, the expansion will be completed in 12 months and Los Alamitos will be ready for Thoroughbred racing by 2014.
     There are several positive implications in this plan.
     This is good news for bettors who dislike the synthetic surface at Hollywood. As a Quarter Horse meet, and a very prominent one at that, Los Alamitos has a natural dirt surface. Ed Allred, the owner of Los Al, has been quoted as saying "I would like to do things to keep Los Al viable for Quarter Horse racing." That likely means that the dirt will stay.
     Handle-wise, Los Alamitos already has a very large following. The large Pick 4 pools have attracted about 99% of all Quarter Horse fans and brought quite a few Thoroughbred bettors to the Quarter Horse world. Sure, it would be nice for handle if the California takeouts would be lowered, but I'll leave takeout discussions to @InsideThePylons and @PullThePocket.
     This could be good news for the Quarter Horse people of Los Alamitos. Currently the Quarter Horse population at Los Al is too low. Having Thoroughbred racing at Los Al for a few weeks every year may attract more Thoroughbred bettors to Quarter Horse racing. With more betting on Quarter Horse racing, purses could be increased, which would lead to more owners buying more horses, which means bigger field sizes. I saw Thoroughbred bettors playing Quarter Horse races at Fort Erie this October, and the larger QH handles at Fort Erie than Ajax showed that. Hopefully Los Alamitos will be able to use Thoroughbreds to benefit their Quarter Horse product.
      As I said earlier, the Los Alamitos expansion does not include a turf course. This may concern owners of turf horses and bettors who are turf fans. However, the Los Alamitos Thoroughbred meets will be shorter than the Hollywood meets, with several dates being given to Santa Anita and a few more being given to Del Mar. So those who are concerned about turf racing shouldn't be too worried or disappointed.
      With the future not entirely clear, hopefully SoCal racing can successfully transition from Hollywood to Los Alamitos, and both Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing can thrive.