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Wednesday Odds and Ends: Blind Luck and Havre de Grace Square off in DelCap

LOUISVILLE, KY - APRIL 30:  Rafael Bejarano atop Blind Luck celebrates after winning the 136th running of the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on April 30, 2010 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KY - APRIL 30: Rafael Bejarano atop Blind Luck celebrates after winning the 136th running of the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on April 30, 2010 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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I've been a huge baseball fan most of my life (and despite that fact that I'm a born and raised Seattle Mariners fan), and the All-Star break always feels like one of the longest three day stretches of the year. The Home Run Derby and All-Star Game itself used to be "must see TV" in my house, but know I try to find a way to pass the days until the games that "matter" (and I use that term loosely in the case of my Mariners) start up again.

The days in between the end of the Triple Crown season and the beginning of the Saratoga and Del Mar meets are a somewhat similar stretch for me (although there are plenty of great races that matter during that time). Most of my wagering action is fairly meet specific (Gulfstream, Keeneland Spring and Fall, Emerald Downs, Del Mar, and Saratoga) or event specific (Triple Crown, Arlington Million, and Breeders' Cup), which ends up causing a few lulls in my handicapping each year. Right now is one of those lulls for me. From January through May, my head is buried in racing forms; in July I have to actually get out and mow the lawn once and a while.

Some thoughts on this Wednesday:

-Havre de Grace and Blind Luck will square off in the $750,000 Grade 2 Delaware Handicap on Saturday.  While their male counterparts take turn failing as favorites on the big stage, the distaff division is loaded with a bunch of quality fillies and mares.

PP Horse Jockey Trainer ML
1 Life At Ten D. Cohen T. Pletcher 5/1
2 Thundering Emilia J. Pimentel M. Matz 20/1
3 Havre de Grace R. Dominguez J. Jones 4/5
4 Love's Blush T. Dunkelberger R. Jenkins 20/1
5 Blind Luck G. Gomez J. Hollendorfer 7/5

The five-filly/mare field for the Del Cap is a bit of a disappointment when you consider that this is a Grade 2 race sporting a purse of $750,000. The reason for the small field is clear - nobody wants to mess with Havre de Grace and Blind Luck. I suppose you really can't fault that line of thinking but an eight or nine horse field would have been a lot nicer.

-Another go-around for Life At Ten on Saturday in the DelCap. I'd love to see her turn in a solid performance but given what I've seen so far this year, she doesn't appear to have a huge desire to compete at the highest level. As has been stated by other commentators around the industry - she's six years old, what more does she need to prove at this point?

-The Grade 1 American Oaks will run at Hollywood on Saturday; entries and post positions should be available later on today.

-The rest of the card at Delaware Park on Saturday is very nice from a field size perspective.  Twelve races will fields of 8, 7, 9, 8, 11, 6, 10, 13, 7, 5, 12, and 8 betting interests.  The track will offer two $0.50 Pick 4's on the day - Race 1-4 and 5-8.

-Parx/Philadelphia Park will run the Greenwood Cup Stakes on Saturday, a "Win and You're In' race for the Breeders' Cup Marathon.  The 1 1/2 mile race will feature a field of 10 horses led by 8/5 morning line favorite Birdrun.  The field also contains A.U. Miner (9/2), Ponzi Scheme (5/2), and a holdover from last year's Triple Crown series, Schoolyard Dreams (12/1).

-Reader Noir Jim Tressel penned a FanShot the other day inquiring about handicapping tournaments/contests and strategies. JP Fanshawe, an avid contest player, chimed in with some excellent thoughts on his philosophy.

-I don't play Ellis Park a whole lot (I've played it when I used to travel to Arlington Park for a week every year and I was simulcasting during the afternoon), but they tend to put out some good cards with very full fields.  Take Friday's card: eight races featuring fields of 12, 12, 12, 7, 12, 12, 8, and 12 (not including the alternate entries). If you are looking for big fields, Ellis has got them.

-I had a quick FanShot up about Uncle Mo the other it was noted that he has yet to have a published work since going back to trainer Todd Pletcher.  He's a step closer to that today after galloping 10 furlongs at Saratoga yesterday morning, but you get the impression from Pletcher's quotes to the DRF that he's not going to be pushed much over the next few weeks.  We'll have to wait and and see how long it take for Uncle Mo to get his fitness levels back to a level to handle a Grade 1 race.

-A major pet peeve of mine is the manner in which data is displayed on the results charts by tracks, Equibase and the DRF.  Exhibit A is Monday's Late Pick 4 at Prairie Meadows:

$2 Pick Four Paid: $17,458.60
Wow! Look at that! a $17k Pick Four payout!

Pick Four Pool: $10,920
Oh..uh, what?

No, Prairie Meadows didn't decide to give out an extra $7k for fun; the amount displayed on the chart represents a $2 bet when in fact the wagering minimum for that play is $0.50.  If you do the math, the most likely scenario is that there were two winning tickets that paid something like $4,364 for a $0.50 bet. I guess that's not as sexy as $17,458.60!!! even if the reported amount is impossible to actually pay out.

Everybody does it, and it's absurd every time.

-There was a brief piece in the Daily Racing Form yesterday noting that handle at Emerald Downs is up 1.2% and on-track attendance is up 16%.  The attendance numbers really surprised me given the fact that we've had a pretty awful spring here in Seattle in terms of weather. (I know, I know, you're probably thinking, "isn't it always rainy and awful in Seattle?"  In truth, there are some years where we see the sun before the Fourth of July...but not many.)

In all seriousness, while the handle increase is extremely modest, it's much better than what had been occurring the past few years. At a minimum, it's a sign that perhaps the bottom has been reached. I'm sure that's the hope.

For an illustration as to how tough things have been at a track like Emerald, take a look at the historical summary of Pari-Mutuel Handle as documented by the Washington Horse Racing Commission.

Below is a snap shot of total handle in Washington state since 1996 when Emerald opened:

Year Days Pari-Mutuel ADW Total Handle
1996 217 $144,345,693 $144,345,693
1997 252 $172,254,176 $172,254,176
1998 164 $177,344,068 $177,344,068
1999 123 $158,454,428 $158,454,428
2000 159 $165,366,921 $165,366,921
2001 116 $148,366,445 $148,366,447
2002 111 $144,510,834 $144,510,834
2003 112 $142,092,467 $142,092,467
2004 110 $137,148,014 $2,750,891 $139,898,905
2005 121 $154,891,044 $34,059,860 $188,950,904
2006 109 $136,660,966 $36,689,351 $173,350,306
2007 110 $142,722,278 $44,449,120 $187,171,398
2008 110 $134,858,128 $49,461,378 $184,319,506
2009 110 $114,383,570 $47,196,236 $161,579,806
2010 110 $100,599,145 $48,679,267 $149,278,412

And here is a chart showing the total handle per day of live racing:

Year Days Handle/Day
1996 217 $665,188
1997 252 $683,548
1998 164 $1,081,366
1999 123 $1,288,247
2000 159 $1,040,044
2001 116 $1,279,021
2002 111 $1,301,899
2003 112 $1,268,683
2004 110 $1,271,808
2005 121 $1,561,578
2006 109 $1,590,370
2007 110 $1,701,558
2008 110 $1,675,632
2009 110 $1,468,907
2010 110 $1,357,076


The years include racing dates at since-closed Yakima Meadows, and some other small track around the state.  Furthermore, these likely include pure simulcast dollars on days when there is no live racing (but that is just a guess on my part). Regardless, the point of the data is to take a high-level look at handle in terms of trends over the past ten-plus years.

These two charts combine to paint a pretty telling picture of life at a small horse racing track in the United States. 

First, ADW activity has gone from a blip on the radar screen in 2004, to accounting for around a third of total handle.  Going back to TTFTribe's FanPost on ADWs (and the fact that a track gets less of a cut from wagers than those made on-track), and you can already see that handle can stay flat (or go up) and yet the track take in less due to the type of dollars brought in.

Second, it's hard to deny the impact this recession has had on wagering dollars.  As is clearly shown on both charts, handle tanked after financial meltdown in 2008 (EMD's 2008 meet ended in September).  Since that time, total annual handle has dropped by $30 million, and average daily handle by $300,000, just based on raw estimates.

While there is no doubt that racing had it's issues with growth and handle before the current economic problems, much of the sever handle declines occurred after things got ugly.

Third, Emerald Downs was making some nice year-to-year gains on the handle front until the economy blew out.  Handle in Washington state went from an average of $665,000 per live day of racing to over $1.7 million ten years later in raw, unadjusted dollars.  In adjusted dollars, $665,000 in 1996 is the equivalent of $914,758 in 2010, still good for an 85% increase in average daily handle.  But the economy, and the increase in ADW dollars, created a more difficult financial situation.

So while a 1.2% gain (so far) might not appear to be something massive to celebrate, I hope it's a sign that a) the bottom has been reached, and b) there can be some sort of recovery going forward.  Unfortunately, handle gains alone done solve the issue of on-track vs. ADW dollars, nor the issue of an overall reduction of discretionary spending, but at least on-track attendance is significantly up this season.  That's a starting point and a credit to the work being done by the folks at Emerald.