Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear

Ordinarily, I try to be a skeptic without becoming a cynic. The folks I live with like me better that way. Maintaining this stance with regard to the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and The Daily Racing Form (DRF) is getting harder and harder.

A couple of weeks ago, while reading The Paulick Report ( I came across a press release written by Dan Silver of NYRA which announced that the attendance at Aqueduct was up on April 7, the day of the Wood Memorial. I was skeptical about this because I was at Aqueduct that day. I did not have to buy a ticket, there was no paid admission, and I did not pass through any kind of turnstile. I wondered how NYRA came up with the statement, "This year’s attendance of 12,514 was a 3 percent increase from last year’s attendance of 12,144.”

I wrote to Silver and asked about the number. He replied a couple of days later (after some prompting) and said,  “Per our Director of Admissions, ‘Yes, we can estimate the attendance within 3 percent for live racing days. We use the daily percent of Post Parade programs sold to calculate Aqueduct’s attendance.’"

This struck me as a little thin and I wrote to Jerry Davis of NYRA with some follow-up questions about his methodology.

It seems from what Dan says that you believe there is a linear relationship between the number of programs sold and the number of people at the track. That is, for every X (number of programs sold) there is a corresponding Y (number of people at the track.)

Is the relationship really linear (not geometric or something else)?  Have you tested it?

Is it the same relationship on weekends and weekdays?

Is it the same relationship on big stakes days as on ordinary days?

Do you ever run out of programs? NYRA ran out of food in the deli and reportedly out of beer cups by the time of the Wood last Saturday.

Did you always estimate attendance that way or did you change when the casino opened?

Does the casino action affect track attendance? In a way you have measured?

Do you also estimate at Belmont and Saratoga where NYRA charges admission?

I just want to make sure I understand as much as I can before I go forward.

Thanks in advance.”

Davis did not choose to get back to me, so I was left thinking that at best NYRA uses a pretty poor estimating procedure, and at worst, they just make it up. Reporting an exact number to the public is not the same as calculating an estimate.

I looked around to see where else this “number” appeared. These things always used to appear at the end of the Equibase official charts of the races at each track, but do not any longer. I asked Equibase about this and they did not reply. I wrote to Brisnet, another supplier of data and analysis for horse races and asked where they got the number they printed in their results charts for Aqueduct that day. They got back to me and told me they got it from NYRA. I wrote to DRF and they told me they were forwarding my question to “editorial” for review.

So far, no answer from them.

Well, so what. Who really cares how many people went to the track that day? Maybe the NYRA marketing department does, or the folks who needed to order enough plastic cups for beer, but what’s the difference to the rest of us? Something in me did not want to let this rest. My feeling was that if I could not trust NYRA on something like this, maybe I could not trust them on things that really count. I was dissuaded from blogging about this by the feeling I would just come across as a sorehead (something I have been accused of before). After all, I only go to the NYRA tracks a half dozen times per year, my wagering is simple and very modest, and I lose more than I win. No skin off my nose.

Then came the revelations of the last few days.

At the Paulick Report I saw an article about a recent report titled,



Audits and Investigations Unit April 26, 2012

The report details the State’s inquiry into a situation already known to careful followers of thoroughbred racing. I first became aware of this some months ago. The specifics are pretty arcane, but to simplify, the “takeout” is the overhead each racetrack takes out of the money wagered on the races. This goes to pay for track operations, purses to the winners, payments to the state and the like. The percentage of each betting pool that the track “takes out” of what it pays the winning bettors is set by regulation in each jurisdiction, and typically varies by type of wager. The rest gets paid to the winners. The size and variability of the takeout from place to place and from wager to wager is a matter of fierce debate among some who wager on horse races. Bettors REALLY care how much return they are getting on their speculative investment.

The regulation in New York had a sunset provision affecting “exotic” wagers like trifectas and Pick Fours. After the middle of September 2010, without a change in the sunset provision, NYRA would take less and the winning bettors would get more. Given the size of NYRA’s operation and the fierce loyalty bettors have to their own money, any swing is important. In this case, the total amount that went to NYRA and not to the bettors was almost $8.5 million.

The report, which can be found in full at

says in part

“The Board’s review thus far has found the following:

Based on a review of NYRA’s emails, several NYRA personnel, including CEO Charles Hayward, were notified and/or were aware that the exotic takeout rate had expired. NYRA may not have lowered the rates due to perceived political and financial reasons. In an email dated September 1, 2010 NYRA Vice-President Liz Bracken informed a NYRA Manager that, “takeout legislation sunsets middle of September, but I have not heard that we intend to lower takeouts.”

The email was subsequently forwarded to two other NYRA employees.

Mr. Hayward was notified via email by a concerned bettor on September 28, 2010 that the law had sunset and the rates had expired. Mr. Hayward notified the bettor that he was
referring the issue to NYRA’s General Counsel Patrick Kehoe.”

And later,
“In August 2011 (almost a year after the rates had expired) the Daily Racing Form (DRF) publisher and columnist Steve Crist passed along an email from a DRF reader indicating the rates had expired and were outside the parameters of the Racing Law. Mr. Hayward emailed Mr. Crist on August 1, 2011 confirming that the reader was correct and requested that Mr. Crist keep the information confidential. Mr. Crist agreed.”

Read that last sentence again.

The publisher of the biggest American newspaper devoted to horse racing agreed not only to keep silent about NYRA’s defrauding of the public at large, but also to abet that fraud being perpetrated against one of his own subscribers.

The Paulick Report (May 1, 2012) has an item in which it reports,
“Crist and Hayward are former business partners who in 1998 put together an investment group to buy Daily Racing Form. They sold it six years later for a tidy profit. Crist remained with the newspaper as publisher and columnist, and shortly after the Form was sold Hayward was named CEO of NYRA, where Crist was employed as an executive in the mid-1990s. The friendship between the two men has spawned a cozy relationship between the newspaper and the racing association it covers.”

“Cozy”? That does not begin to describe the way I feel about the relationship between Crist/DRF, and NYRA.

As of today things stand this way -

NYRA has sanctioned Hayward and Kehoe by placing them on unpaid administrative leave.

Crist says “With hindsight, I regret that I didn’t follow up on the issue. But I personally do not believe Hayward knowingly overcharged his customers….”

The big bettors who use internet betting sites have mostly gotten their money back because they had an electronic trail of the bets and the payouts.

The ordinary guy, pushing his $10 bill through the mutuel window?
And no way to ever recoup.

Occupy Wall Street? How about Occupy Saratoga? Years ago, the late Tom Ainslie wrote “This is a game that punishes innocence.” It was not the only thing he had right, but it is the thing that is on my mind today.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Cheltenham Gold Cup Day 2012

Notes from Viewing The Cheltenham Festival on Friday March 16 2012

Tuned in early to TVG in advance of the 9:30 a.m. (EDT) start. Good thing I did. After watching endless TVG commercials about how much fun it would be to win the Pick 4 in the quarterhorse races at Los Alamitos, the signal went abruptly to England where the first race was just in progress. Since they had to restart there were a couple of minutes for the analyst to set the stage, but barring that, viewers would have had no idea what to expect.

These jumps races had in some cases dozens of starters and were run over 2 to 3 mile or more courses. Cheltenham is very hilly with both the hills and the jumps leading to strategic decisions by jockeys. The start was supposed to be a “walking” start, but it was preceded by several minutes of milling around. The whole field walks in tight circles over and over again before straightening out and proceeding to the starting line. It struck me that this requires extraordinary ability by the jockeys, but might respond to some herd instinct in the horses. At the finish, the jocks acted very collegially in congratulating the winner while still astride.

The opener, The JCB Triumph Hurdle was won by Countrywide Flame at 33 to 1. Far from the longest shot on the board. See what big fields can do? Then back to TVG stateside for some replays of old races, ads for services needed by people who refuse to pay their taxes, and races from two other English tracks.

The County Hurdles also featured a false start requiring all the horses to stand still at an imaginary line before being sent off. Winner was Alderwood (IRE) at 12 to 1. Show horse paid $47!

The third race was the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle where Boston Bob (IRE), the odds-on favorite made a great run from back in the pack to finish second to Brindisi Breeze (IRE). As I was browsing the web for more Cheltenham information, I saw on the official site that you could shop for odds among the bookmakers. What gives? Why would you take 8 to 1 when 10 to 1 is the same mouse click away?

The fourth race was the feature, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. At this point TVG did have some analysis by Jimmy Duggan, very helpful to those who lack a background in English jumps racing. The race featured one bad fall and the abandonment by the highly touted past winner Kauto Star. Winner was Synchronized (IRE) at 8 to 1.

The fifth race was the Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup, which I gather featured only amateur jockeys. Another messy affair with several loose horses running toward the front of the main field. The late race leader had several bad jumps toward the end allowing Salsify (IRE) to win from well back at odds of 7 to 1.

In the sixth race some more bad jumping at the end resulted in a very tightly fought finish. Attaglance came up on Toner D’Oudairies (FR) to win at 20 to 1.

The seventh race, the Grand Annual Chase Challenge Cup, was marred by several ugly spills and my long-suffering and ever more beautiful wife asked that we turn it off. As I looked at the results on line I saw that eight of the twenty one starters did not finish. That seems like a very large number. The on-line results showed two horses as PU, which must mean pulled up. Three horses were listed as F, which can only mean fell. I have no idea what UR or BD means, but those are the fates of the remaining three non-finishers.

Bellvano (GER) was the winner at 20 to 1.

For me it was a pleasant way to spend a cool and damp Spring morning, but I have to say TVG did about as little as they could have to educate an American audience about this aspect of the sport. Surprising, since they are owned by Betfair, an on-line sports betting “community” based in England. Betfair/TVG is angling to legalize this kind of computerized amateur bookmaking here in the US, especially California. Guess that accounts for all the Los Alamitos commercials.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

2012 Withers Stakes Photos

The sky was a little dark by the time The Withers was going off, but I wanted to post a couple of pictures to thank and inspire my fellow commenters at Dan Illman's handicapping blog on

                                                   Race winner Alpha for "Longchamps"

                  Second place finisher, the lightly regarded (!)  Speightcity for "Meathead01"

                      The very attractive (and my second choice) King Kid for "Stephen Taylor"

Thanks not only to Dan Illman for running this whole circus, but to "Annie" "SRVegas" and everyone else who makes the Derby Trail even more fun for dozens of fans.

Not Your Father's Aqueduct?

I went to Aqueduct Racetrack yesterday to see some promising three-year olds in The Withers Stakes. I was also mildly curious about the new casino attached to the track. While casinos themselves hold no interest for me, their potential support for horse racing does. In particular, I like the idea that the new gaming legislation in Massachusetts might save the racing operations at Suffolk Downs. Readers can see photos of and read about my experiences at Suffolk in earlier blog posts here.
The continued recession and the efforts of some sharks to further take advantage of the poor were both evident in all the “We Buy Houses” signs along Linden Boulevard. No surprise there. What did surprise me was the very large sign at the entrance to Aqueduct. No mention at all of the racetrack. The only signage on Rockaway Boulevard is for the casino. Even as you drive down the entry road, there is no mention of the track. This is when I knew things would be different.
The parking lots were full, the flea market was gone, Resorts World (owned by Genting New York) have built a multi-level parking garage next to the casino building and are renovating the elevated walkway to the subway station. If you had never been there you might be very surprised there even is a racetrack. It is not at all obvious that you could enter the track without first going through the casino. There must be a way to do this since minors are not allowed in the casino and are found all over the track side, often seemingly unattended.
It is the end of the Lunar New Year and both this event and the Malaysian corporate parent of the casino are obvious. The thought of Malaysia reminds me how much I liked Anthony Burgess’ 1950’s trilogy The Long Day Wanes. As good a book about a foreign culture as the Cairo Trilogy of Naguib Mahfouz. Red is the dominant color, costumed staff are walking about handing out give-aways, and it is very hard to find an English language menu at the Oriental restaurant outlet in the casino food court.
The casino itself is big. So big that the players in the jazz combo atop the round central bar on the main floor look like dolls. The vast room has the usual flashing lights and ringing bells associated with what folks used to call slot machines but are now properly termed video lottery terminals or VLTs. This operation takes up two levels. The third level (today) is devoted to a third-tier trade show, with performers, racks of coats, and show tables urging interested persons to call and “Ask for Uncle Lim.”
Now there is a set of patios on the back side of each casino level that allows patrons to go out and actually watch the horses come down the home stretch. The patios also allow patrons to go outside and smoke.
Since I know from experience that there is a racetrack here somewhere, I work my way through the sounds and lights to the track proper. Some things remain constant, mostly the demographics. The casino patrons and the track patrons do not seem very different. All of them on both sides are in the 99%. Languages (other than English) are mostly Spanglish, Jamaican patois, and what I guess is Cantonese. The track side has some Dads minding or not minding their kids. The casino food court has several sets of disabled adults from group homes with their caregivers. These caregivers are paying much closer attention to their charges. Surprisingly little Giants gear on either side.
Whatever racetrack improvements may be in the works as a result of NYRA’s cut of the take are not yet in evidence. The physical plant looks a little worse and the amenities have been reduced. Several small coffee/snack bars are shut, the bar on the upper level grandstand is not in operation, and to make matters worse, some very good elevated grandstand seating has disappeared entirely – eaten up by the third level of the casino. I thought this was going to be the perfect place to try out my new binoculars. No such luck. In fact the current layout drastically reduces the number of seats outside available to patrons, especially those who want to watch the stretch run.
People tell me that the bigger, casino-fueled purses have helped NYRA by attracting more and better horses. This is a good thing, but four months after the opening the average Aqueduct patron has little to like. I must give NYRA high marks for not letting the casino overwhelm their website. NYRA’s Aqueduct website is all racing all the time. A far cry from the second class citizenship of racing on sites like Gulfstream or Philly Park.
How about The Withers you ask? Derby hopeful Alpha went off as the odds-on favorite and did not disappoint. Me, I had the wrong longshot underneath and went home $1.20 lighter than when I started.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The last Last Hurrah

I had the opportunity yesterday to attend the public wake for the late Kevin H. White, Mayor of Boston from 1968 to 1984, and my former boss. It felt far less like a typical wake from Waterman’s than a co-production of Conventures (Dusty Rhodes) and Regan Communications, Inc.

At 2:45 the line of mourners stretched up Beacon Street from The Parkman House to just in front of the State House. When I arrived I guessed the event had not even started yet, because there was no movement in the line at all. “Late for his own funeral” was my first thought.  Not entirely unlikely.

Just after I got in line, we were joined by Tim Cahill, former state Treasurer and failed gubernatorial candidate. He attracted a lot of media and I was forced to listen to him bloviate over and over again.

In attendance were (among hundreds of others) Paul Guzzi, Bob Beale, Ron Druker and lots of folks I did not recognize. Let's just say none of the people who think they make up "The New Boston" were there. Of course I am old enough to remember at least one or two prior versions of “The New Boston” and those folks were well represented.  (It occurred to me later that Beale and Druker should have paid for the whole thing with all the money they  must have made during White’s administration)

The Mayor had, and has, a very charming and outgoing family - brother, sons/daughters, grandkids. Two of his grandsons were outside “working the line” like troupers, even though they looked too young to vote. More family members were outside the Parkman house entry shaking hands and listening thoughtfully to people’s stories. This, and the tight configuration of the restored townhouse, were the real reasons for the glacial pace of progress as the afternoon wore on through the bright and unseasonably warm day. 

When I finally got inside after 75 minutes on the sidewalk, and was about to talk with his daughter Caitlin, I (and others) were given the bum's rush by one of Dusty Rhodes' minions. "OK, step over here and sign the book, move into the next room, then get in line to go upstairs...."

Upstairs there were even more family and friends. The coffin was draped with the flag of the City and attended by strangely uniformed members of the "City of Boston EMS Honor Guard."

I said hello to former Deputy Mayor Micho Spring, who did not remember me, but I had no reason to expect she would. More charm, more family giving generously of their time and attention to all. Even to the least of us.

There really are special people and special families in this world. I feel lucky to have been tangentially associated with this one, even for a little while. All the waiting was worth it.

I got home and caught up on the Boston Globe, where I found the following Reflection for the Day.

"People are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them."
Marcus Aurelius

Kevin White did not suffer fools gladly, but he might have agreed that people were his proper occupation.