Kallas Remarks by Steve Kallas
THE BREEDERS CUP
It was, frankly, premature (to steal a word from racing expert Steven Crist) to race the Breeders Cup at Santa Anita on the relatively new synthetic surface. But the horses came (especially the Europeans), the crowds came, the gamblers came (or so it seems) and almost everyone seemed to have a good time. If, as some say, this new synthetic track is much safer for the animals (no catastrophic injuries in two days of racing does not a conclusion make), then it will be here to stay. If, as others say, it’s the same statistically versus races on the dirt, then it’s a waste of time and money and a headache for the serious handicapper.
Just take a look at Curlin’s defeat in the Classic. On the one hand, people say the race should be a throw-out because Curlin “didn’t like” the surface. Yet others say that he made a stirring run (which he clearly did) around the final turn to take over the lead, only to be run over with 200 yards to go by the winner, three-year-old Raven’s Pass, considered a legitimate contender by some experts. In addition, two other horses beat Curlin in the stretch: Euro invader Henrythenavigator, a 19-1 longshot and Tiago, considered to be a horse who could not possibly run with Curlin on the dirt.
So, what does it all mean? Does Curlin lose Horse of the Year to the undefeated superfilly Zenyatta, who won all but one of her races on a synthetic surface? Is Curlin still the Horse of the Year because he actually showed up here and just didn’t “take” to the track? Or, since Curlin was run over by a three-year-old and clearly “took” to the track as he rolled by a bunch of horses to the lead around the last turn, is Zenyatta the winner?
It says here that Curlin is still the Horse of the Year. And, if he’s not, look for top U.S. horses to avoid the Breeders Cup like the plague next year (in its return to Santa Anita), especially if they are considered the favorite in their division or for Horse of the Year honors and haven’t raced on the synthetic surface.
From a gambling perspective, it was clear that somebody with deep pockets pounded the European horses in exactas. For example, the 1-2 European finishers in the Classic, the $29 winner, Raven’s Pass, combined with Henrythenavigator, the 19-1 second-place finisher, combined for a woefully low $159 exacta. In a race where Curlin was 4-5 and four other horses were bet more to win than the winner, an exacta like that (in a 12-horse race) would easily pay $100 more, maybe even double the $159 payoff.
Another example occurred in the Juvenile Turf. The hot European horse coming in was Westphalia, who was bet down to 3-1 favoritism. The fourth choice, at just under 6-1, was another Euro invader, eventual winner Donativum, who got up in the final strides to beat the favorite. A just under 6-1 fourth choice over a lukewarm 3.30-1 favorite in a 12-horse field would usually be good for about a $40 payoff. Yet with the winner paying $13.60 and with horses like Bittel Road and Grand Adventure being bet more than the winner, the exacta only came back $23.60. Some people who really like the Euro invaders made a killing at the windows this past Saturday.
Finally, if the races were run on a dirt track and it poured making the track a quagmire (see Monmouth Park, 2007), would Curlin and others have a built-in excuse? Well, some say yes, but others say if you’re great, you win on any track in any condition. The debate continues, but it says here that, unless there is proof positive that these new surfaces prevent injuries to horses and jockeys, they should be nipped in the bud and limited to very few, if any, tracks. And no matter what anybody says, as a serious handicapper, you just don’t know if a horse will take to it or not until they do or don’t. It’s that simple. And it’s that complicated. But then, again, that’s the beauty (and the frustration) of the game.
THE TV COVERAGE
There are only two things that the $2 ($20, $200, $2,000) bettor cares about when he watches a race: 1) where his/her horse is during the race and 2) what is the exact order of finish with prices as soon as the race is over (that means as soon as the race is official — not one or two minutes later, an eternity at the track).
Virtually all networks covering these big races simply don’t get that. For example, a few years ago, somebody came up with the brilliant idea of showing a race from above (maybe a blimp camera or something). Originally shown after big races (you really understand, for example, how lucky Street Sense was to win the Derby as he passed about 17 horses on the inside on his way to a Derby win), you could follow the race winner to see his trip – stunning stuff. But now, somebody got the incredibly stupid idea of using this camera DURING the actual running of the race – where everybody looks like an ant and you can’t possibly pick up your horse (see Rule 1 above). Networks insist on switching cameras and angles six or seven times a race – you have virtually no chance to follow your horse.
Why can’t networks take a tip (no pun intended) from the track operators who have been doing this forever? Most tracks have gone to a split-screen: the bottom half on the leaders and the top half a wide shot of the whole field. Then, at the top of the stretch, they show the whole field racing to the finish line. It’s the ONLY way that you can pick up your horse early and stay with your horse the entire race.
This simple truth has escaped everybody who is in charge of showing races on national TV networks. It’s really not that difficult. And the blueprint for it is at virtually every track on virtually every day.
Now the race is over and the excited $2 bet winner is waiting for the results … and waiting … and waiting. It’s as if the TV networks forgot why people are watching. Many (most?) of them are watching to see how much they won (if they won. Otherwise they are ripping up their tickets and cursing the screen).
This simple truth also escapes TV executives (see Rule 2 above). For example, the undefeated filly Zenyatta was, without question, the star of the Friday filly races (sad that she got buried on a Friday afternoon TV spot, but we’ll discuss that later). She lagged behind the field, as always, and then burst from last to first (as always) to remain undefeated in a stunning, maybe Horse of the Year performance. It was the last race on TV and the TV coverage was on ESPN (or was it ESPN2?) for another just-under 11 minutes. YET, THE PRICES OF THE RACE WERE NEVER POSTED. Can you believe that? Stunningly, they went off the air and, if you waited until Sportscenter (minutes late, hours later, the next day?), then the prices were given. It doesn’t get worse than that.
On other networks, sometimes they go to a commercial break after the race without posting the prices. It’s stunning stuff but that’s the state of horse coverage today. And, remember (you know if you’ve ever been in that position) that a minute feels like an hour when you are waiting for a photo to see if your horse was second or third or, if you know you won, what the payoffs are.
It’s scary stuff, but easily correctable. Just follow the two rules set forth above and everything else will be gravy.
THE SCHEDULING OF THE THOROUGHBRED RACING SEASON
Thoroughbred racing is such that much could be done to improve its public face and chance for success with the casual watcher. For example, even people in the business are starting to understand the absurdity of the Triple Crown being three races in five weeks and are now calling for change. The breakdown of Barbaro after just two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness and Big Brown’s being pulled up in the Belmont this year aside, nobody races good horses three times in five weeks anymore (unless it’s now what appears to be a misguided effort to win the Triple Crown).
Changing the schedule, while keeping public interest alive and giving a modern day horse a real chance to win the Triple Crown, is easy to do: Have the Derby the first Saturday in May (even non-fans know that day); then have the Preakness on the first Saturday in June and then the Belmont on the first Saturday in July. It’s so simple and makes so much since that it will probably never happen. Throw in the Travers at Saratoga at the end of August and you’ve set the schedule for every top three-year-old for the top races.
The sport could then stay in the public eye for a much longer period. And, if you do have a Triple Crown potential winner, the build-up will be enormous. And, hey, some horse might actually do it.
As for the “new” Breeders Cup, well, 14 races in two days is quite a bit. But if you’re going to be able to attract most of the top horse in the world, then by all means make it on consecutive Saturdays. A two-day buzz becomes a two-week buzz. Look what happened to the great filly Zenyatta this year – who saw her, buried on TV on a Friday afternoon? She should have been the feature on a Saturday the week before the male horses stepped on the same track. Logistically a problem, some will say. Maybe, but work it out. Have some lesser stakes during the week; have a week-long (Saturday to Saturday) celebration; have a chance to have a huge crowd both Saturdays and have coverage for the week in between the big races.
The above is a blueprint to put horse racing in the public eye for a number of months, not just the few days it’s in the public eye now. Too little, too late? I don’t think so, but nobody will ever know if they don’t try it.
© Copyright 2008 by Steve Kallas. All rights reserved.