New York's thoroughbred racing industry has always regarded the midsummer meeting at Saratoga Springs as its fountain of youth. Traditionally the best and brightest potential stars among juvenile horses are revealed then in rich events.
The green summer splendor of upstate New York only adds to the aura of grace and tradition. Saratoga's streets are lined with magnificent, old oak trees that guard row after row of Victorian-style houses. The quaint downtown district is ringed by red-brick buildings and is the former home to a casino. The area vibrates with the activity of an appreciative crowd. City dwellers from metropolitan New York and around the world visit this charming, small town and are rewarded with an invigorating relief from claustrophobia, graffiti and daily rush hours.
Sitting in the green, wooden grandstand at the Saratoga race track for one of the great stakes races such as the Travers or the Whitney, you can almost forget the decline of modern thoroughbred racing. Women wear cotton dresses and fine hats, as a reminder of glory days gone by. Yet for most of the 11 months of racing at Aqueduct and Belmont near New York City, there is little romance and history. Except on a handful of showcase days, the competition at these facilities is presented as fast-food gambling for a few hundred professional horseplayers and several thousand other bettors. The quality of the sport at Aqueduct and Belmont is decrepit, the atmosphere is somnambulistic and business is generally lousy.
In the past two years, the decline and decay of downstate racing has begun to overwhelm racing's consumers--the fans and the bettors. Professionals, like myself, are increasingly unable to grind out a reasonable living, and casual fans do not find the sport compelling. Saratoga's importance as an elixir for the racing industry's dwindling customers is even greater than in the past. As a result, the pressure on the track to produce its summer magic this year was acute.
With some trepidation, the pros headed north in August to try their hand and skill at the track. While there were dozens of races to explore and handicap, I've chosen two days at the track to illustrate how hard it has become to eke out a living wage.
My partner, Marc Siegelaub, studied filmmaking at New York University. I am a lifelong student of military history. We offer advice on buying horses to others and bet on races for ourselves. We are most successful when our different approaches to handicapping (evaluating races) lead to the same conclusion. Marc watches race replays dozens of times hoping to spot the subtle or multiple movements that indicate an equine athlete approaching top condition. Most bettors wager on short-priced favorites who have already reached their peaks and are actually more likely to tail off than to win. Professionals attempt to anticipate, rather than react to, explosive performances while being rewarded for the risk taken by high odds and large potential returns.
I analyze races from a tactical standpoint and look for horses who figure to gain advantage by the way events should unfold. Detailed knowledge of horses' abilities and jockeys' styles gives serious players a reasonable chance of predicting who will get the best position in a race. Since many events are contests among relative equals, the issue is often decided by each trip down the track rather than overall ability.
On this day, we liked a grass race entrant named Glorious Purple. Marc felt that the traffic trouble she got into in her last start was far worse than indicated in the Daily Racing Form and track program. He was also confident that the smooth-moving and lightly raced filly would improve with experience. I believed that her rail post position and tractable running style would put her in a prime spot to pounce on a suspect pacesetter in the stretch. I also viewed Glorious Purple's father, Lord Gaylord, as a greatly underrated sire of turf runners.
The biggest mistake made by recreational horseplayers, and many professionals, is accepting potential returns that are lower than a bet's actual chance of winning. Marc and I feared that this race, like so many New York events, lacked enough quality contestants to sufficiently spread betting support. We would not wager on Glorious Purple at only 5 to 1. Harsh experience had taught us the patience and discipline to realize that such a price merely reflected her true value and gave us no long-term advantage. Luckily, the public chose to dismiss our choice at 11 to 1. Why?
Glorious Purple has poor speed figures. Figures, or numbers, are handicapping aids that attempt to quantify the quality of a horse's performances by measuring how fast or slow her past running times are relative to the speed of the racing surface. Decades ago, when speed figures were in their infancy, the few who used them enjoyed lucrative profits. Today, however, they are mass-produced, with the result that horses who might have been 6 to 1 bargains 10 years ago are now losing propositions as 2 to 1 favorites.
The purveyors of speed figures generally market them as a quick, easy-to-use, highly sophisticated and infallible means to beating the races. In truth, they are only as good as the handicapper using them. The average 12 year old can be taught to make good figures in about 30 minutes. Yet promises of "quick" and "easy" draw consumers like moths to light. As a result, thousands of horseplayers interpret figures in a strictly literal fashion and have become so preoccupied with reducing a complex sport to slight numerical differences that they ignore more important questions. The key to successful handicapping is understanding why, beyond raw ability, a horse ran fast or slow in the past, and how that will affect today's performance.
Most figure players did not watch Glorious Purple's previous race closely enough to fully understand the seriousness of her traffic trouble or appreciate her athletic movement. They did not have the imagination to see her scope for improvement or the knowledge to appreciate the full value of her rail position, especially when two turf races earlier in the day were dominated by inside-running horses. Most successful speculations are stances taken contrary to the masses. Examples like this race, when conventional handicapping theory proves vulnerable, are prime situations for Marc and me.
We bet on Glorious Purple to win at 11 to 1 and hedged by putting her in the second slot in exactas (a wager requiring the top two finishers be selected in exact order) with the other contenders. We were playing a horse we thought was worth about 6 to 1 just to win, but structured the total bet in such a way that we would receive between 7 to 1 and 9 to 1 net return should she finish either first or second.
When the expected front-runner, Sunshine Lindajane, left the gate poorly, Glorious Purple's inside stall allowed her to fall into an easy lead. She led into the stretch, where she was passed by a filly named Cut the Pot. If Glorious Purple held second, this was fine for Marc and me because the Cut the Pot/Glorious Purple exacta combination was one of our strongest plays. Then, a rival named Skip One moved up along the inside to challenge Glorious Purple. The two were almost even, but the closer began to flatten out and could not make the pass. Suddenly, Skip One's rider pulled sharply on the reins, as if he had been cut off, and Glorious Purple went on to be second by daylight.
Almost immediately, the numbered lights on the tote board blinked at us in mockery, indicating that the stewards were viewing videotapes to determine whether Glorious Purple had committed a foul. If they judged that she had, our "winning" bet would become a losing one. Not only would we be denied boom profits, but we would also lose all of our original investment.
All gamblers know that luck, good or bad, influences just about everything. Many comfort themselves by believing that fortune arrives in streaks and evens out in the end. Sure. That is like saying that someone is destined to hit the lottery for millions in 1996 but will be run over by a truck in 1995. Marc and I never have been moved to a winning position via disqualification but have been taken down twice in crushing fashion. After the lights stop blinking, it became thrice.
Horseplaying is a game of momentum that feeds on bettor confidence. Winning fuels the sharp decisions and aggressive wagers that lead to huge scores. Losing fuels the hesitant questions and scared wagers that are the slow road to ruin. Nothing wreaks more havoc in a player's mind than being right, but still wrong.
August 20 (Travers Day)
Ten years ago, "overlays" similar to Glorious Purple at 11 to 1 came along in New York five or six times a month. With the decline of horse quality and quantity, however, such opportunities may occur only once every two weeks. Marc and I were hopeful that the elite Saratoga meeting might prove an exception to the Aqueduct and Belmont trend, but we were not surprised when it did not. To build our betting volume to a sustaining level, we planned to selectively play a complex wager called the Pick 6.
The Pick 6 requires a bettor to choose correctly the first-place winners for races three through eight. Serious bettors do not attempt to hit the Pick 6 by playing only one horse a race for a single $2 wager. Instead the general strategy is to invest relatively large sums and use a number of contestants in most events. If one plays three horses in three races, four horses in two and two horses in one, the total cost is $1,728. Many victorious favorites can mean a payoff less than the "winning" bettor's investment, but a few long shots mean a six-figure prize.
Every dollar wagered to win on a New York Racing Association race is taxed at 17 percent (called takeout) before it is distributed to winning bettors. In addition, successful bets at most OTBs are surcharged at either 5 or 6 percent. The takeout on Pick 6 wagers is an astronomical 25 percent. Furthermore, high-paying Pick 6 scores are also subject to a 28 percent federal withholding tax. The feds regard a winning Pick 6 combination as a single $2 bet and do not take into account the reality that a bettor's total investment in the wager might be much greater. Therefore, a player who bets $1,728 to win a $6,000 Pick 6, pays withholding tax on a "profit" of $5,998 when the true gain is actually only $4,272. These odious state and federal taxes are counterproductive to the general public and highly destructive to the racing industry because they remove money from circulation that would otherwise be rechurned through the betting windows to the benefit of everyone--including government.
Marc and I thought that a carryover of more than $100,000 (the Pick 6 was not hit the previous day) and the large, free-spending crowd on hand for the important Travers Stakes would combine to create a Pick 6 payoff large enough to offset the effects of high taxation. With a bankroll strengthened by some silent partners, we were confident that we could attack the wager aggressively.
In the first leg of the Pick 6, we bet that two experienced fillies would be able to dominate their more lightly raced rivals at seven furlongs (a significant distance for two year olds to run in August). Most players would do the opposite and use many horses in what was, on the surface, a risky event. In the final leg, we "singled," or used alone, a long shot named Sentimental Moi. We gambled that the heavy favorite would be compromised by rain-softened turf and that our choice would benefit from it.
Rarely do six consecutive races go exactly the way even the best or hottest handicappers expect. Using only three picks in two events gave us the leverage to play virtually all the entrants in the three races we believed were most wide open. We made reasoned guesses about where "chaos," or unexpected long shots, would win over logic and constructed a ticket that, if successful, could give us a huge payoff. In the Travers, we used the favorites, Holy Bull and Tabasco Cat, but also threw in a lesser animal named Concern, who we felt had a chance to upset if the other two hooked up prematurely and became vulnerable to a stretch runner.
After the first four legs of the bet, although our ticket was still "alive," Marc and I were losing our gamble. All favorites or near favorites had won in horribly logical fashion. We needed big prices in the final two events to justify the size of our investment. The failure of "chaos" to occur in seemingly competitive contests is all too typical of New York racing and a direct result of a horse population lacking depth and ability.
The Travers almost bailed us out. Concern charged alongside Holy Bull in the stretch and, for a fleeting moment, actually looked as if he would blow by and win. However, the favorite exerted his will like a bloodied heavyweight champion dominating the final round on sheer class against a game but spent challenger. Holy Bull won by a neck, but the margin of victory would have been a half mile if they had gone around again.
The last leg of the Pick 6 was almost anticlimactic. Even if Sentimental Moi were to triumph, our net profit would have been less than if we had waited and put our entire Pick 6 investment on him to win at almost 9 to 1. He ran decently but finished fourth.
Marc and I were not terribly bothered that Sentimental Moi had lost. We knew that, in the long run, good handicapping would yield enough winning "singles" to allow plenty of Pick 6 victories. What truly disturbed us, though, was the larger picture. The New York horse ranks were so thin, even at Saratoga, that the racing was not contentious enough to provide consistently fair value in the Pick 6--much less in individual contests.
That evening, we had dinner at a restaurant called the Turkey Trot. We had become friendly with Donna LoPresti, one of the owners, and told her about our failed Pick 6. "My sister-in-law hit one of those a couple of weeks ago," Donna told us. "She doesn't know much about racing and just played numbers."
"What did her Pick 6 pay?" we asked.
In the weeks following the 1994 Saratoga season, Marc and I examined our handicapping and betting records. We had not lost every wager we made. On the contrary, we had hit a decent percentage. However, consider that our living expenses had been close to $10,000. The poor state of racing in New York had boxed us into a corner where we had regarded the Saratoga meeting--from an income standpoint--as virtually our entire year. Our major problem had been insufficent investment opportunities. The betting fields of Saratoga are no longer rich enough in quality or quantity to yield consistent value. Our net result was similar to the Glorious Purple disqualification: we had won, but still lost.
We have noticed a recent decline in horse quality and betting value at Saratoga as racing executives, intent on milking every last drop of the track's restorative power, have gradually lengthened and diluted its traditional 24-day season. The 1994 meeting of 34 days was the longest yet. This not only cut racing quality, but also sapped the sport's vitality because fans were unable to sustain their enthusiasm or attendance over a long period. This deprives Saratoga of the elements that make it special in the first place.
New York finally seems to have taken a serious interest in the thoroughbred industry after years of neglect and falling revenue. There has been talk of change, yet so far nothing has happened. Things move slowly in government and--aside from the track--even slower in racing. Meanwhile Marc will work on a children's book, and I will study history. Maybe we will become racing executives. Will either one of us be at Saratoga next year? I don't know.
Brad Thomas is a free lance writer and a thoroughbred industry consultant living in New Jersey.