Friday, June 24, 2011

On the Newmarket

In case you haven't seen my latest posts for the Paulick Report from England and Ireland, click here for my trip to Royal Ascot, a trip the gorgeous training and breeding farms in central England and a journey to the Headquarters of Horse Racing at Newmarket.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My bookie is a middle-aged woman

I've landed in the UK for two weeks of horse racing adventures that I'm chronicling for the Paulick Report in a series called Tattersalls presents An American Invader in the UK.  Read my day one diary from London here.  Among other things, I talk about my first bet with a bookie and the differences between the wagering systems in the U.S. and Britain.

A couple of non-racing things I didn't mention in the piece:  I stopped at the Household Calvary Museum, which highlights the Royal Horse Guards, who provide the Queen's escort on ceremonial occasions as well as serve in battle.  These young people - some of whom have never even ridden a horse before - go through 20 weeks of intensive training on horseback, and it is not uncommon for them to be thrown several times before getting the hang of it.  Most of the horses are black, and there's a reason for this.  Apparently, King Charles II, who was very instrumental in developing the modern sport of horse racing, thought black horses looked more intimidating in battle, and so his royal horses were black.  The tradition continues.



While at the House of Parliament, our group from the University of Louisville's Equine Industry Program also sat in on a House of Commons session.  There are 650 members in the House of Commons, which is Britain's equivalent to the House of Representatives.  There are another 789 members of the House of Lords - a rough parallel to the US Senate, although the Lords aren't elected.  Can you imagine if Congress, instead of 535 members, had 1,439??  Somehow, the system seems to work for the UK, I guess.  But I thought it was interesting that Commons members can only spend 12,000 pounds each on their election campaigns (about $24,000 U.S.).  No TV ads for these ladies and gents!  Just good ole fashioned door-to-door campaigning.  Attention Washington...

We spoke with a member of the House of Commons, Bill Wiggin, who shared stories of Parliament's Westminster Hall, which was built in 1099.  I stood in the very spot where King Charles I was sentenced to death in 1649 and then taken a few blocks away for his beheading.  Wiggin also told us that during a renovation of the Hall, they found tennis balls hit by King Henry VIII.  The history is so thick in these places, you can almost feel the ghosts.

Wiggin's assistant got us passes to sit in on the Commons session, and Wiggin himself told us we shouldn't stay any longer than the point where we'd "lost the will to live" from the boredom.  Turns out, that was about 20 minutes.  Unlike the US Congress, where the seating is semi-circular, in the House of Commons, the two parties sit directly across from each other, which was by design.  They found it facilitated more direct discussion and confrontation.  We witnessed an example of this when a woman from the Labour Party argued with a member of the Conservative Party over the length of their speeches earlier this week.  After the woman commented on the length of the man's speech, the Conservative argued that no, no, his speech was definitely shorter than hers.  The woman shot back that while, in length, her speech was shorter, it lasted longer because it was more engaging than her opposite's speech, soliciting more opinions from others.  The pressing matters of the British government could certainly wait while this dispute was resolved. 

The day was topped off by a plate of lasagna that I can say with complete certainty resembled lasagna the way Bill Clinton resembles George Bush.  The pasta slices were filled in with salad, beets and broccoli. 

I'm counting the hours until we visit Royal Ascot Saturday.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Preakness Picks

After predicting the Derby trifecta, I'm sure the racing gods will punish me royally with an 0-fer in the second leg of the Triple Crown, but let's give it a shot anyway:

1. Mucho Macho Man.  I know a lot of people don't like him to win, but I have a feeling this could be his coming out party.  He always shows up (9 for 9 in the superfecta), so he's at least a good key horse.  But I think he's learning and growing (remember, he was a June foal), so he could take another step forward in the Preakness.  Rajiv Maragh is an underrated rider. 

2.  Animal Kingdom.  I won't like his odds, after getting him at 20-1 in the Derby, but he's a well-bred, well-trained, well-ridden "animal" in peak form.  The Preakness is normally not a longshot- fest like the Derby can be - runners who score in the Derby usually come back with another good performance in the Preakness.  Between Kingdom and Dialed In, I like the Kingdom better.

3.  Sway Away.  He's the "new shooter" with the best chance, in my opinion.  He missed getting into the Derby because Uncle Mo's connections waited until after the post position draw to scratch.  He comes out of the best Derby prep race - the Arkansas Derby.  His dad, Afleet Alex, won the Preakness.  He's been training very well leading up to this for an underrated trainer in Jeff Bonde.  Plus, he gets a very clutch jockey in Garrett Gomez.  Lots to like.

4.  King Congie.  My "bombs away" longshot play.  He should be at least 20-1 because his only two races on dirt were terrible.  But they were his first two races, and they were both sprints.  In his four longer races since then, he's hit the tri every time, and he has a pretty decent dirt pedigree (by Badge of Silver).  If there's enough speed early on, don't be surprised to see King Congie moving swiftly in the stretch.

Good luck today and enjoy!

Monday, May 9, 2011

My journey to get to Derby 137

This is a piece published on the  Paulick Report Monday about my experience at Kentucky Derby 137 (complete with video):


My journey to get to the 2011 Kentucky Derby started and ended with a trifecta.

I was living in Los Angeles in May of 2006, when I decided it might be fun to go to Hollywood Park and bet the Derby.  I had watched its annual running my whole life and always enjoyed the idea of trying to pick the winner, but I had never even been to a racetrack.  It's funny how a simple Saturday morning decision like that can change everything.

One of the first bets I placed was a straight trifecta on one of the live races at Hollywood Park.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I just looked at the program and picked three horses in random order.  I could hardly breathe when I saw them cross the finish line one-two-three for a $400 payoff.  Little did I know, horse racing had just sunk its teeth into me forever.

I started going to the track on a regular basis and quickly discovered that I had been a "victim" of beginner's luck.  Duplicating the trifecta score proved impossible, so I scoured the bookstores and Internet for every book I could find on handicapping.  While I home-schooled on "Betting Thoroughbreds," "The Winning Horseplayer" and "Exotic Betting," my interest in the game grew in other ways as I waded deeper into racing's history and culture with another set of books - "Three Strides Before the Wire," "Laughing in the Hills," "Scared Money" and many others.

In 2009, while Animal Kingdom, Nehro and Mucho Macho Man were still yearlings frolicking in their pastures, I was thinking about Kentucky Derby 137.  My passion for racing had blossomed into what I'm sure many would consider an obsession.  I was working as a host for the public radio business show, Marketplace, but my heart was drifting from my broadcast journalism career to what I believed might be a second calling.  I researched the possibility of going to school (could there be such a thing??) for a career in horse racing.

It turns out there were two programs that offered what I was looking for.  One was at the University of Arizona; the other at the University of Louisville.  I'm more of a Midwesterner/Southerner at heart than a desert guy, so I told my future wife, Megan (who discovered the Louisville program), let's go for it.

The next year was filled with a lot of online classes, anticipation and angst in preparation for a move to Kentucky that held great uncertainty.  I entered the Louisville Equine Industry program in August of 2010 and have worked non-stop ever since to reach my goal - graduation and the Kentucky Derby in May.

So, on Saturday, when I stood on the balcony of the press box and heard My Old Kentucky Home performed live at Churchill Downs for the first time in my life, it was a tearful moment I will never forget.  Thanks to my affiliation with the Paulick Report, I had the opportunity to go onto the track during a couple of races and capture on video the beauty, excitement and tradition that is Derby day.


While I had been to Churchill many times over the past year, I felt like I was in the tear-jerking sports movie "Rudy" when his father walks into Notre Dame's football stadium for the first time: "This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen."


I was getting swept up in the emotion of Derby day, but one thing I'd learned losing lots of money on big racing days was to stay focused, think practically and have conviction when it came to betting.  With that in mind, I finalized my Derby picks.  After months of watching prep races, talking to people on the backstretch, reading and hearing many opinions, I could not let ruinous last-minute doubts creep in (as they had many times before) and throw me off.

My friend and fellow equine student Michael Vesce (the Paulick Report's new weekend editor!) had been going over the field for weeks together, and we had settled on five choices:  Archarcharch, Nehro, Mucho Macho Man, Animal Kingdom and Shackleford.  We felt the Arkansas Derby was the strongest prep race, and the performances of Shackleford and Animal Kingdom in the Florida Derby and Vinery Spiral were eye-catching.

I decided to go with Nehro on top because it simply made sense - Jockey Corey Nakatani looked in the zone, Nehro had the right running style for the way the track was playing, and while he appeared to be a "wise guy" play earlier, he wasn't getting overbet on Derby day.  I put Mucho Macho Man in second because despite him being a June foal and looking like a still-developing colt, he just always showed up, and I like those kind.  I slotted Animal Kingdom in third.  True, he hadn't run on dirt, but he looked fantastic on the surface in the mornings, and veteran clocker Bruno De Julio had been talking him up since last October, and I respected his opinion.  At 20-1, it was worth a win bet and some other plays.  I decided Archarcharch having a first-time Derby jockey and the one post were too much to overcome.  But I would use him and Shackleford underneath.

I posted my trifecta pick on the Paulick Report live blog and placed my bets online.  But I realized with about two minutes to post that I hadn't done a simple trifecta box with my three choices - an instinct born of frustrating past experiences no doubt.  So I went to the self-service machine in the press box and punched it in.  Another one of those little decisions...

I stood out on the press box balcony and took a deep breath as the horses loaded.  I had done it.  I had put in all that work to get here.  I was about to graduate from the equine program.  I had secured a job in the industry and was embarking on a new career.  My wife had taken a leap of faith with me, neither of us knowing how this crazy idea would turn out.  And the gates were about to open on the Kentucky Derby I'd been fantasizing about for more than two years.

I wasn't even thinking about my bets.  I was going to feel like a winner regardless.  But as they turned into the stretch, and track announcer Mark Johnson was belting out Nehro's strong move into the lane, my heart leapt into my throat.  Then, I heard "Animal Kingdom."  I could barely see what was going on, but I knew something good was happening.  When they crossed the finish line in my first live Derby, I was overcome with emotion.  And oh yeah, I probably made a nice little score with the win on Animal Kingdom and the exacta with Nehro.  I couldn't see who finished third.

I went back into the press box and sat down to start writing the story, too overwhelmed with the moment to think straight.  I asked Brad Cummings, by the way, who was third?  Mucho Macho Man, he said.

I had called the top three finishers and had the trifecta twice.   Every Derby I had ever bet before Saturday, I'd never hit a thing.  I had watched other people make big scores, dreaming that one day, it would be my turn.  And to have it happen on this particular day and this particular Derby, was more satisfying than I can put into words.

I later learned that Michael Vesce, the Paulick Report's newest employee, had pooled money with a couple of friends and played the superfecta with our key horses.  They hit it for $24,063.

Like me, Vesce had followed his passion and had worked tirelessly in the Equine Industry program and in other ways to start a career in the business.  Needless to say, we celebrated the next two nights and for the first time since I abandoned my comfortable radio salary in California to pile on school debt, I wasn't worried about the check.

The Paulick Report must bring good karma.

And I guess that old saying is true: "The best things in life come in threes, like friends, dreams, and memories."

Coming here to Kentucky, I definitely hit that trifecta.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How many mint juleps will it take?


It's starting to get a nuts here in Louisville, and that is fitting for Kentucky Derby 137 because this Derby field is driving everyone crazy.  I'm beginning to wonder how many mint juleps it'll take to make the 2011 crop of three-year-olds look good to anyone.

Last night, we had a Derby handicapping session at the University of Louisville Equine Business program, where I am at the eighth pole (graduating in mid-May).  Our panel of guest handicappers included Churchill Downs track announcer Mark Johnson and paddock host Jill Byrne, and the overwhelming consensus was that the Derby ought to consider allowing donkeys into the race this year because they might run faster. 

Personally, I think it's a bit premature to characterize this entire lot of three-year-olds as a bunch of of mules, but the prep races certainly haven't inspired a whole lot of confidence.

And it's still the Kentucky Derby, the world's most famous horse race.  So here's a week-and-a-half-before-the-race breakdown of the Derby contenders, based on the panel discussion, my own opinions after having watched every single Derby prep more than once and on having access to observers closely watching the workouts at Churchill (in no particular order except the first two):

Dialed In:  If there is a Triple Crown winner in this group, he is it.  Mark Johnson said every once and while he has a "tingly" moment where the hair stands up on the back of his neck while he's calling a race, and he had one of those moments during Dialed In's maiden race last fall at Churchill.  Sure, the horse looked as green as a shamrock, but Johnson could see Dialed In's natural brilliance.

Dialed In has since learned how to be a racehorse, and perhaps his most valuable race was his only loss - against older horses, which is a very clever move when most three-year-olds only run against their own age.  Trainer Nick Zito has kept his colt in Florida, and it may be because he knows he's sitting on a volcano of talent.  He doesn't want to screw things up training over the mudbath that is the Churchill Downs racetrack in late April.

Dialed In likes to come from way back, and that is not easy in a field of 20 runners, but he does seem to be a special colt.  I like his chances in this field.



Mucho Macho Man:  Cue the sentimental music - this guy is the "story" of Derby 137.  He was believed dead at birth at the end of the foaling season in June, and he has miraculously recovered to become a solid Derby contender.  His performances so far have been nothing short of all-out, gutsy.  While he looks terrific in workouts, he still appears to have some growing to do, and guess how many June foals have won the Kentucky Derby?

Zero.  Still, I like his toughness.  He lost a shoe in the Louisiana Derby and still finished a tight third.  He's the type who will run over cut glass, and I'm betting he'll be right there at the finish in the Derby.

Uncle Mo:  I went to this shindig a couple weeks ago in Lexington with fellow equine students and other horse industry folks (Bobby Flay showed up for desert, although he didn't prepare it).  We all took turns naming our Derby horse, and I was astonished that only one of about 35 people named Uncle Mo.  If the dinner had been held two weeks earlier, I daresay 80% of the room would have picked Uncle Mo.  How far the mighty have fallen since finishing third in the Wood Memorial.

The quote of the night came from Tim Capps, one of the professors in the Equine Business program.  After someone mentioned that Secretariat also finished third in the Wood, Tim said:  "Yeah, but a lot of horses have finished third in the Wood, and only one of them was named Secretariat." 


Booh-yah.

There's good reason to doubt Uncle Mo, despite the giant expectations that accompanied him on the Derby trail.  His pedigree screams Churchill Downs (Indian Charlie and Arch progeny seem to love it), but the same pedigree shouts:  "I really don't want to run 1 1/4 miles!  Please don't make me!!"  Besides, trainer Todd Pletcher has not put enough foundation under this colt, and he just looks like he needs more time.  He might crush the Travers in August, but I'm not so sure he's ready for the first Saturday in May.

Archarcharch
:  That's Arch Arch Arch in case you go cross-eyed trying to read the name.  He's pretty gangly and leggy, and if they gave an award for "worst action" to a Derby contender, this might be him.  Still, he has shown up consistently of late, and you could do worse in picking a Derby longshot.

Comma To The Top:  Seriously, if this horse wins the Kentucky Derby, I will eat a huge plate of beef Beef Stroganoff, which I find to be the most repulsive of foods.  As somebody put it, Comma is a lock to win a 350-yard Quarter Horse sprint at Los Alamitos on a Friday night, but the Derby?  Forget it.

Pants On Fire:  The name suggests he does not have the dignity to be a Kentucky Derby winner.  However, his rider will be Rosie Napravnik, and she has been fantastic.  A victory would make her the first woman to win the Derby, and it's hard not to root for that.  But his running style suggests he will be sucking wind at the top of the stretch and begging to lay down in the infield with all the drunk college kids.

Master of Hounds:  Now that's a name that sounds regal.  In fact, he would be this year's only European horse in the Derby if he runs, and guess who is being talked about as his jockey???  Yes, that would be Calvin "Churchill Downs is my bitch" Borel, who has won three of the last four Derbies.  Master of Hounds was impressive finishing second in the UAE Derby in Dubai, and if he comes over, look out.

Shackleford:  If you like Dialed In, you have to take note of this guy.  He ran his guts out in the Florida Derby and just got beat by the horse that closes from another zip code.  If the pace is "slow" by Derby standards, he might just be around at the end.

Animal Kingdom:  While I know some folks who love this guy, he absolutely hated having the Polytrack kicked in his face during the Vinery Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park.  How much will he be moaning about Churchill dirt being tossed into his snout?  Of course, he won that race at Turfway, and he hasn't run on dirt yet, so those who dismiss him too quickly might be eating crow.

Santiva:  The comment that stood out from the panel discussion on Santiva:  He still looks like a two-year-old.  But I know a few people who are high on him.  He just hasn't proven worthy yet.

Soldat:  This fellow might be a turf horse, but I cannot count him out.  Until his last race, he looked pretty brilliant, and War Front has proven to be a phenomenal sire so far.  I don't know that he'll love 1 1/4 miles, but I have a feeling he might show up with better on Derby day.

Nehro:  This is without a doubt, the "wise guy" horse for Kentucky Derby 137.  He's getting all kinds of love after his impressive performances in the Arkansas and Louisiana Derbies, and perhaps with good reason.  He's a Mineshaft colt, and there's nothing wrong with that.  He should be coming late.  I wouldn't toss him.

Decisive Moment:  If Nehro isn't the wise guy, maybe this one is.  I hear he's looking great over the Churchill Downs surface, and he has a bold jockey from Louisiana.  The question is - will he get cooked in the Derby speed duel?  I'd consider him for underneath in the exotics.

I'll leave it at that for now.  There are others who might get in, and we still have the post position draw, which is a significant factor in choosing a Derby winner.  But we're getting closer, and even though this field might leave something to be desired, you just never know when a horse might step up and make his mark on history.  Personally, I can't wait for May 7!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Black Caviar = Dominance

The four-year-old Australian filly, Black Caviar, is quite simply the best horse in the world at the moment.

Saturday, in the Group 1, $1 million Darley T.J. Smith Stakes, she got her 12th win in 12 lifetime races.  She won by nearly three lengths when, in mid-stretch, she pulled a Zenyatta and looked like she wasn't going to get there.  But she did, resembling a horse bred on Jupiter or perhaps a planet outside of our solar system.

Once again, the Australian fans turned out in extraordinary numbers, proving that Black Caviar is indeed, the Zenyatta of Australia, as I pointed out in a recent post.

Some responded to that post by questioning Black Caviar's ranking as the world's best because she's a sprinter.  At the time, she had also run mostly on straightaways instead of turns.  Those were valid questions.  But her last two races have both been on turns, and both have been romping victories.  Not only that, but Saturday, she ran a clockwise turn and in her previous victory, she won going a counter-clockwise turn.

Her dominance, as measured by the public, is remarkable.  At post time of Saturday's race, in the US pools, $95,264 had been bet into the win pool.  Black Caviar had $87,903 of that!  Here's what that kind of dominance looks like.  Even Zenyatta never claimed this kind of tote board:



The exacta pools were equally comical.  I think you can tell that Black Caviar is number 7 in the screen shot below.  Honestly, I couldn't believe Hay List's exacta price (#1) - he's only the best male sprinter in Australia.  It was a fat payday for this blogger, since Hay List finished a well-crushed second.



The question now is whether Black Caviar could get a longer distance - say a mile?  That's the province of Goldikova as of now, but I would love to see that matchup.  For now, just enjoy and tell your friends about Black Caviar:

video

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Totes McGotes


While the title is an homage to the soon-to-be-classic film, "I Love You, Man," our topic today is not bromances (sorry, Paul Rudd fans) but instead, the pari-mutuel tote system.

Our speaker this week in the Equine Business program at the University of Louisville was David Ruffra, vice president of sales for United Tote, one of the three companies that process the bets made on U.S. horse racing every day.

The tote system gets its share of criticism, and I'll address that in a moment, plus we'll look at some of the fancy new wagering gadgets the company has developed, but first, let's discuss how the tote (totalisator) system actually works.

When you hand your two bucks to the teller at the track or feed it into the self-service machine or click the mouse at Twinspires.com, your money is transmitted electronically into a complex web of switches, routers, hubs and redundancies.  It looks something like this: 


Each track controls how often the system is "refreshed" for bettors.  United Tote has the capacity to update the odds every second of every race, but at the track, that would look like the tote board was exploding or maybe like Joshua's video meltdown in the 1983 movie, War Games.



Instead, the pools are refreshed every 20 to 30 seconds, so you can actually read the odds.  Each odds update is known as a "flash."

The stewards at a given track also have control over when the betting stops.  Each stewards' room has a symbolic, if not literal, "red button," which instantaneously ends the wagering.  This is why at some tracks, you'll notice you can bet right up until the gates open and at other tracks, you get shut out while they're still loading.  It all depends on when the stewards press that button.

You've probably also noticed that the odds change after the race has started.  Example:  They're running down the backstretch, and the 2-1 favorite suddenly becomes 8-5.   This is not because people bet after the gates opened.  That is the final 20-30 second "flash."  Those wagers came in before the stewards pushed the red button.

However, in very rare cases, the pools are accidentally left open too long.  I frequently read criticism by bettors and other parties who seem to think this is a significant, common problem.  But the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau's Wagering Security Office screened more than 88,000 races over a year and a half and found 16 examples of past posting, mostly the result of operator error (someone forgetting to push the button or not pushing it hard enough).  While one instance is too many, that issue is way overblown by some people.

It could certainly be resolved by every racing jurisdiction agreeing to stop wagering as soon as the first horse loads into the gate.  So, at every track, the wagering would stop at precisely the same moment.  But there would be none of this waiting until just before the gates open to bet.  Is that what bettors want?  I'm guessing a lot of bettors like throwing their wagers down just before the gates open.  You can't have it both ways.  If you don't have a uniform pool closure time set well before the gates open, there will always be the rare mistake that leaves the pools open too long.

I also hear people calling for a complete overhaul of the tote, with a goal of combining all of the tote companies, all of the ADW's like Twinspires and many other functions into one gigantic system. It sounds great in theory to streamline things, but any call for eliminating competition and creating ONE of anything kicks my monopoly/anti-trust radar into high gear.

Our speaker, David Ruffra, made some interesting points.  He said the tote companies have the capacity to do virtually anything the industry wants.  Whether it's adding proposition betting, "rolling odds" (wagering while the race is going on), instant rebates - the tote companies can do it right now.  Ruffra said United is operating at a maximum of seven percent of its CPU capacity.  It has 93% left!  But any major changes to the way the tote system works will have to be approved by the states.  The tote companies have no say in that stuff.

But they are creating new technologies, designed to make the racetrack a more pleasant experience for bettors or to increase security and integrity.


At one point, Ruffra said:  "In this business, everyone, given a chance, will steal from you."  That's why United Tote has developed biometric recognition software for the teller machines at racetracks.  Under this system, the teller must press their thumb into the machine to log on.  When they take a break, they give another thumbprint to log off and no one else in the world can log on to that machine.  This safety measure was clearly created because the old system left things wide open for pilfering, and when you're handling thousands (or millions) of dollars in wagers a day, it can be awfully tempting for some people.

Another new technology that hasn't even hit the track yet is the Quick Jack Ez Tote.  This is for cashing out.  Finally, you won't have to stand in a teller line to cash your winning tickets.  Just slide them into the Quick Jack and out comes your money.

The newest self-service betting machines recognize when a person is standing in front of it.  They also now show the win bet payouts, as opposed to just the odds, as you see below.  Those red and green arrows tell bettors how that horse is trending in the last 30 seconds.  In this example, when the next flash comes, Shescominumdone will likely be 3-1, while Toby's Baby will probably be 10-1.



When Keeneland opens Friday, United Tote will be testing a new application called FastBet, which helps people wager on their smart phones.  Because Apple still doesn't allow gambling "apps," FastBet will work more like a website than the applications you find in the apps store.  Ruffra said his company is trying to convince Apple to allow straight-up betting applications, but so far, they haven't budged.

The goal of these technologies is to get with the times and reduce lines at the betting windows. Bet from your seat, instead.  Cash out at an automated kiosk. Swipe a card. Ruffra says one of the Churchill Downs tracks, probably Fair Grounds, will be fully automated in the not-too-distant future.

One difficulty the company has had is getting racetrack patrons to sign up for "loyalty cards," which may be a requirement for using some of this new technology.  Ruffra says, for some reason, racing patrons don't seem to trust the card system, while bettors in other gambling forums have no problem with it.  Paranoia and the racetrack tend to go hand-in-hand, I guess. 

Slowly, but surely, though, racetrack wagering technology seems to be headed in the right direction.


Monday, April 4, 2011

Kentucky Derby Dosage explained, debated

With the Derby picture still somewhat muddled, it's time to bring out those arcane statistical tools to try and figure out who the heck might win Kentucky Derby 137.

One of the tools that always pops up during Derby season is the Dosage Index.  When I first started falling in love with racing a few years ago, I kept seeing this Dosage Index mentioned in articles about the Derby, but I had no clue what they were talking about.  Even as I learned that it was a measure of the proclivity for a horse to get a certain distance, I still didn't understand exactly how it worked.  I just knew it was a number.

But as a student in the University of Louisville Equine Business Program (graduating in May!), one of the many benefits is a much greater understanding of things like the Dosage Index.  So, I shall try to explain the Dosage Index here to those who may not have a complete grasp on how it is measured.  And for others who couldn't care less about such statistical measurements, you can at least see the names of the top Derby contenders and start thinking about whom you might want to bet on.

The original idea of Dosage was developed by French cavalry officer JJ Vuillier, who believed that certain sires exerted extraordinary influence on Thoroughbreds.  Since he was French, he called them "chefs de race."  Later, the Italian Dr. Franco Varola followed up on Vuillier's theories and categorized these sires as Brilliant, Intermediate, Classic, Stout (now Solid) and Professional.  Essentially, Brilliant means sprinter.  Classic means 1 1/4 miles, the distance of the Kentucky Derby.  And Professional suggests a two-mile distance pedigree, something rarely seen in the U.S. these days.  Sprinters almost never last 1 1/4 miles.  Professionals can rarely go fast enough to compete at 1 1/4 miles - you get the idea.

An American adherent to the theory was Dr. Steve Roman, who has continued to update the "chefs de race" lists and Dosage Index to this day.

So here's how to calculate a runner's Dosage Index:  First, access his five-cross pedigree at Equineline.com.  Type in the horse's name and the pedigree will appear.  Look through the horse's pedigree for four generations and mark the chefs de race, which can be found here.  Beside each chef de race name will be a B or an I or a C or S or a P, which signifies the categories listed above (Brilliant, Intermediate, Classic, Solid, Professional).  Some horses have two categories listed.

Early Derby favorite Uncle Mo's pedigree looks like the following.  Uncle Mo is in the far  left blue block.  His dam and sire take up the two blocks to the right, with the sire on top.  Their parents take up the third block.  With Dosage, you are only concerned with the blue blocks (the sires), and while you probably can't read the names, look it up for yourself and you'll see the sires in his bloodlines.  For Dosage, you only go back four generations, so the right-most block here is ignored.


The formula goes like this:  The first generation (Uncle Mo's father) counts for 16 points.  So, if Indian Charlie is a chef de race, he gets a 16.  In this case, Indian Charlie is not, so the score is zero.  The second generation is allotted 8 points each (sire's sire and dam's sire).  Again, in this case, neither is a chef de race.  Same for the third generation, where each sire counts for 4 points.  In his fourth generation, he has four chefs de race (two points each):  Caro, Roberto, Danzig and Northern Dancer.  For each sire, the two points are divided up by their proclivities as mentioned above.  So Uncle Mo's chart looks like this:



Caro's two points are distributed:  One point to Intermediate and one point to Classic.  Roberto is a pure Classic runner, so he gets two points in Classic... and so on.

To calculate the Dosage Index, you add the Brilliant plus the Intermediate plus 1/2 the Classic divided by 1/2 Classic plus Solid Plus Professional.  In other words, B + I + 1/2 C/1/2 C + S + P.  In this case, the result is 1 + 2 + 2.5 divided by 2.5 + 0 + 0 = 2.20.  So, Uncle Mo's Dosage Index is 2.20.

The idea is to get as close to 1.0 as possible because that indicates a perfect balance of speed and stamina.  It is virtually impossible to achieve a perfect 1.0, and that is why winning the Kentucky Derby is so difficult.  The 1 1/4-mile distance of the Derby is essentially the point at which horses cross the barrier of speed to stamina.  It is extremely, extremely difficult for a horse to run for two minutes at a sprinter's speed because sprinting is an anaerobic activity and running a longer distance is an aerobic activity.  The buildup of lactic acid fatigues the muscles and by two minutes, horses get too tired.  This is why you can't "buy" the Derby.  The combination of speed and endurance is almost impossible to predict, and that's why Secretariat only comes along once in a generation, if that often.

The Dosage Index has been criticized as bunk, and as a handicapping tool, it is essentially useless.  But, contrary to its continued usage in the Daily Racing Form and other places, it was not designed to predict the winner of races.  It was designed to calculate the probability of a certain horse to get a certain distance.  That is all.  I repeat, that is all.  And in that respect, it is still a decent measurement.

A second tool is the center of distribution.  I will not bore you with the calculations of that one, but the important rule of thumb for that statistic is that the closer you get to zero, the more in balance speed versus stamina.

Finally, Roman introduced the concept of "dual qualifiers," meaning horses that were within ten points of the top-weight in the Experimental Free Handicap (or EFH) in their two-year-old seasons AND had a Dosage Index of 4.0 or less.  The EFH gives a rating to the top two-year-old runners in an attempt to assess their potential for the Triple Crown the following year.  For many years, Roman touted the fact that no horse with a Dosage Index of higher than 4.0 had won the Kentucky Derby, and this proved true for a while, but in recent years, a few horses have debunked that theory.  Plus, many of the recent Derby winners haven't even been weighted on the EFH, so these tools have seriously come into question.

However, since they were never intended as handicapping devices and since they still give some indication of a horse's proclivity to get a certain distance, they are still useful in the proper context.

So without further adieu, here are the Dosage Index results and Centers of Distribution for this year's top Kentucky Derby contenders, ranked in order of the most recent Paulick Derby Index:


It's very difficult to draw conclusions based on these statistics alone, but if one were to weigh them against the performances so far, Uncle Mo still looks pretty darn impressive.  Dialed In's numbers don't scream DERBY WINNER, but his visual performances have been of high quality so far.  And the numbers on Archarcharch and Santiva are certainly intriguing.  Not to mention Animal Kingdom, who has yet to run on dirt.  Food for thought?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

My New Crush

Dear Zenyatta:  I know this is hard to accept, but I need to move on with my life.  It's not you, it's me.  We've had so many great memories together, and I'll always cherish them, but I feel that I should tell you - there's someone new. 

I'm sorry.  It just kind of happened.  You wouldn't know her.  She lives in Australia.

I was watching the races from Down Under one night, and there she was, sprinting to the wire like a winged goddess.  I got all flush and felt the butterflies.  She stirred emotions I haven't felt since - well, since the Breeders' Cup Classic.  I know it's terrible, bringing that up.  But it was hard.  It took months to get over you losing by a head after being so far behind. I didn't think I'd ever see another like you.

But this filly, she reminds me of you.  She's undefeated, just like you were for so long.  And you should see the crowds she attracts.  It's just like when you were racing - girls waving pink flags, joyful faces, thousands cheering.  Here, take a look (just watch the first minute or so):



And the way she runs - it's just so effortless.  Watch today's race and see what happens when she hits the 200 meter mark (the 2 sign). 



Did you see that?  All the jockey had to do was whisper, and she was gone.  He barely moved a muscle.  She slowed up before the wire and still had the second fastest time for this course in more than 150 years!  She equaled the world record for most weight carried by a mare.  Who knows how fast she really is?  She's never been all-out.

Her last race was just as remarkable.  I know you're a racing veteran, Zenyatta, but for others who might be reading this, pay close attention to the horse with the cross on his blinkers.  That is Hay List, probably the top male sprinter in Australia.  Again, at about the 2 sign, watch how hard the jockey is working on him to try and keep up with Black Caviar and notice what her jockey is doing.  Virtually nothing!



Maybe you can see now why I'm so smitten.  Besides, you don't have time for me anyway.  You need to focus on being a good mom.  Congratulations, by the way.  I'm happy for you and Bernardini.  I look forward to seeing your foal next February.  What will the name be?  Zentini?  Bernyatta?  Zen Master?  Since you were named for a Police album, I'm kind of partial to Can'tStandLosing, after one of my favorite Police songs.  It's fitting, too, because your one loss out of 20 races stung for so long.

Anyway, I hope this finds you well and that everything goes as planned with your pregnancy.  A healthy foal is all that matters.

Since I have a new crush, I've finally been able to watch your Breeders' Cup Classic again.  It truly was one of the most inspiring efforts I've ever seen.  Even a flashy young thing like Black Caviar can't erase that memory.

All the best, Z. 


Friday, February 25, 2011

Maybe the racing industry should listen to us

We've been doing some brainstorming in my "equine marketing" and "current equine issues" courses, and we've come up with some pretty good ideas for marketing horse racing.

Some of these may not be new, some of them might be unrealistic, but we need more positive idea creation in this industry, and since we are eager, unjaded Equine Business students, this is what we do in class.  So here goes:

Get on Sportscenter:  I try to catch the Top 10 Plays just about every day, and with the exception of the Kentucky Derby or Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup, horse racing is never on it.  They show plenty of soccer.  There's lots of hockey.  Hell, there's quite a bit of high school basketball.  But no horse racing.  Dialed In comes from a hopeless 15 lengths back to win the Holy Bull.  That's visually impressive, even to a racing novice.  Two other Derby hopefuls, Anthony's Cross and Riveting Reason, battle neck-and-neck to the wire as they fight for a spot in the big event in Louisville.  That's exciting to watch, and it'll get the masses interested in the Derby before the first Saturday in May.  Getting on Sportscenter more often would be huge for the sport.

ESPN Ads:  While we're on the subject of Sportscenter, how about getting ESPN to do one of its This Is Sportscenter ads with a horse?  The logistics might be a bit tricky, but there's a way to do it.  How about:  Sportscenter anchor Kenny Mayne pulls into the ESPN offices, and on his parking space sign, his name is scratched out and instead, it says Uncle Mo (or whoever wins the Derby).  The horse is standing in his space.  They have a stare-down.  Mayne mutters, "Think he's own the place now," and drives off in a huff. 

Why not?  I mean, they have ducks on, for crying out loud:



All-Star Weekend: I happened to catch some of the NBA all-star stuff, and they do a great job of creating a fun event with lots of celebrities involved.  It just so happens that quite a few celebrities enjoy horse racing, and some of them actually own Thoroughbreds.  Let's have a weekend of all-star racing that includes celebrity handicapping contests, musical performances and other fun events involving celebrities.

Racing during other sporting events
:  Since NBC has the Triple Crown deal this year, I'll use them as an example.  The Triple Crown coincides with the NHL playoffs, which will also be on NBC.  NHL games have pretty lengthy intermissions between periods.  On Derby, Preakness and Belmont Days, NBC could air some of the undercard races between periods, as a way of building up to the main event.  That kind of thing could also work with other sports - say, during college football games on Breeders' Cup day.

More Reality TV:  I thought Jockeys on Animal Planet was pretty good.  Too bad it only lasted a couple of seasons.  With a gazillion cable channels thirsty for more reality TV content, horse racing should step up with some new productions.  Racing is such an emotional roller coaster of a game with so many vivid characters - jockeys, owners, trainers, horseplayers.  It's tailor-made for reality TV.  Here's a clip from one of the Jockeys episodes:



Focus on the owners:  There are so many Thoroughbred owners who are highly successful business people.  Jess Jackson of Kendall Jackson winery.  Jenny Craig.  Record producer Jerry Moss.  Mike Repole of Vitaminwater fame.  A guy like Repole is an energetic character, too.  Get these people out in front of the sport.  How about a CNBC show or special that profiles the economics of racing through the lens of some of these highly successful business people?

Racing + Entertainment:  We've talked a lot in class about how racing markets itself going forward.  Are we trying to sell the sport?  Are we selling betting on horses?  Or it increasingly about gaming, with racing being a part of a larger package?  Woodbine Racecourse in Toronto is planning an entertainment complex to go along with its racing and its casino.  It'll include shopping, movie theaters, restaurants, etc.  Gulfstream in South Florida already has a similar concept going.  The future may well be in packaging other forms of entertainment along with the racing product, and there's nothing wrong with that if it brings the crowds.

Move the Breeders' Cup:  Racing is like the endless summer, except that half the time, it's the endless winter.  Every other sport has a season.  Racing just keeps going and going and going.  Create a season around the Derby trail, the Triple Crown, the major summer races and the Breeders' Cup.  How about February to Labor Day?  The Breeders' Cup could be moved to early September.  There's no reason why it has to be so late in the year, competing with pro and college football, not to mention the baseball playoffs.  Late summer is down time in the sports world and could be a ripe opportunity for racing.  Packaging it as a season with a definite culmination would be more TV-friendly as well.

Match Races:  For all of racing's history, match races have been some of the most-watched events.  60,000 people turned out to watch a North-South matchup between Eclipse and Sir Henry - in 1823!  The stands were filled for 20th century match races, too - Man O' War vs Sir Barton, Nashua vs Swaps and of course, Seabiscuit vs War Admiral:



Unfortunately, the last prominent, nationally-televised match race, between the colt Foolish Pleasure and the great filly Ruffian in 1975, ended in tragedy as Ruffian broke down and had to be euthanized.  That obviously soured many people on the idea of match races, and it was tough to get over.  But there were dozens of match races before and since that went fine.  It was just a horrible combination of events that day.  These days, some graded stakes races only have four horses in them.  Might as well just make it two.  It'd be more interesting.

My fellow students and I care about the sport, and the people and the horses in it.  Our discussions are lively and passionate, and our goal, upon graduation, is to turn some of these ideas or others like them into reality.  I'd love to hear your thoughts and your own ideas...