There are a few certainties these final six weekends of the Kentucky Derby prep season.
Recency bias will turn each week’s flashiest winner into an underlay in future wagers. Beaten favorites will be written off prematurely. And with the hope that he stays healthy, Tiz The Law will continue to be the consensus favorite to win America’s biggest race – at least until he races again in the Florida Derby.
Unfortunately here in Nevada there is also a big uncertainty. It has everything to do with how the Derby may or may not be bet between now and May 2.
It was about a month ago when sources in both Las Vegas and Kentucky told VSiN that an agreement in principle had been reached between the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association, which represents racebooks, and Churchill Downs Inc., which owns the ball and bat known as the Kentucky Derby. This supposedly ended an impasse that began in October and locked horseplayers out of wagering in Nevada on races at Churchill Downs and Turfway Park.
The Turfway Park problem actually was settled. That snit over money specifically involved Roberts Communications Network, the Las Vegas company that owns the video rights for U.S. racetracks. Whatever. The betting switch was turned back on for Turfway Park early last month. Not that anyone really noticed.
Yet the thaw to melt the frost at Churchill Downs has not materialized. The deal between CDI and the NPMA has not been signed, and it looks like the agreement was more hope than reality.
In practical terms and barring a late development, this weekend’s third pool of the pari-mutuel Kentucky Derby Future Wager operated by Churchill Downs will, like the first two, be unavailable in Nevada. This is also the only weekend that Churchill futures will be open for the May 1 Kentucky Oaks, which currently does not have any other domestic option available to U.S. bettors.
The manager of one racebook that is part of the NPMA told VSiN that the bone of contention is a roughly 10 percent increase in CDI’s share of takeout in the state. The managers of two other NPMA books said that the right to renegotiate that percentage off any change in the takeout was also a point of disagreement. They all said that they thought the two sides had agreed to terms.
Apparently not so.
“It was that close,” one of them said Wednesday, holding his thumb and index finger millimeters apart.
So without further explanation, Churchill Downs betting activity is still dark in Nevada. NPMA executive director Patty Jones and CDI spokeswoman Tonya Abeln have not responded to repeated requests from VSiN for comment.
Clearly there is no sense of urgency to get this resolved. With William Hill offering fixed-odds futures every day for 177 horses and counting, the demand for Churchill’s pari-mutuels on 23 Derby hopefuls is virtually nonexistent here in Nevada.
Furthermore, live racing at Churchill Downs does not resume until April 25, and the Oaks and Derby are not run until the following week. As one sportsbook manager said, “They offer 363 days of inferior racing. Why should we pay more for that?”
At some point CDI will want a signature – and on its terms – before authorizing Nevada betting on the Derby. Remember that ball-and-bat reference? It boils down to this. Since CDI controls everything in and around America’s biggest race, Las Vegas will have to capitulate – or risk losing one of its biggest sports-betting parties this side of the Super Bowl and the NCAA Tournament.
“Yes, we will have to blink,” said one of those sportsbook managers, who like the others remains unnamed, lacking the authority to even flinch an eyelid publicly on behalf of the NPMA.
Whether the perceived embarrassment of caving in is holding up the agreement with CDI or whether it is some other matter that has not been revealed, horseplayers who bet $245 million at Nevada racebooks last year are caught in the middle. In a state where advanced-deposit wagering is illegal, where futures betting has become endangered and where screens showing races are shunted to dark corners of sportsbooks, this latest wrinkle is all too familiar in the new millennium.
There is one more potential complication here. William Hill has been running its Derby pool despite a crackdown last fall by the Nevada Gaming Control Board on improper futures bets. Its Derby and even Breeders’ Cup Classic markets were back up and running within two months and did not miss a beat.
This is where the CDI-NPMA impasse might have actually helped horseplayers. The same sportsbook managers who spoke anonymously to VSiN said that William Hill was emboldened to accept futures bets on this year’s Derby, because the state’s racebooks lacked a contract with CDI to establish legal boundaries. One said that it was no coincidence that William Hill resurrected its futures just after the impasse began last fall.
Since William Hill managers barely speak to the media about their racebook operations, we are left to watch and wait. If their futures go away at the same time as the CDI-NPMA agreement finally gets signatures, then the ipso will have a facto.
It is hard not to leave this subject without feeling that the horseplayer has been taken for granted by both sides.
First, there are the racetrack operators, whose product is the fuel that drives the betting engine. And it is not just CDI. The state’s handle took a 9 percent hit in 2019 largely because of the crisis at Santa Anita and its three-week shutdown last March. By the way, there has also been noise this winter about Pimlico – co-owned with Santa Anita – wanting a king’s ransom before letting Nevada bet on this year’s Preakness.
But casino operators are to blame, too. They are the stakeholders in the NPMA, which seems to be little more than a real-life equivalent of Frasier and Niles Crane obsessing over the rules of their wine club. Who really thinks that this consortium and the state’s regulation of racebooks are really working out better than the days when no-frills shops like the Rose Bowl and the Paddock and Harry Gordon’s version of Churchill Downs (no relation) were independently taking bets from Las Vegas horseplayers?
Legal horse betting in Nevada dates to 1931, the year that the state OK’d all forms of gambling. It peaked in 2007, when $596.5 million were bet on races. Now nearly 60 cents on every one of those dollars have gone away. The decline of the sport is responsible for most of that, but CDI and the NPMA are not helping.
Jerry Seinfeld may have been onto something 29 years ago, when he told George that Elaine’s father might “clunk our heads together like Moe.” That actually sounds like a productive and potentially entertaining way to resolve Nevada’s stalemate with Churchill Downs – and a few other problems with racing.
Three Derby preps and a Big ’Cap*
$400,000 Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, 8½ furlongs, Saturday 5:32 p.m. EST, Tampa Bay Downs
There is not much speed in this race at Tampa Bay Downs from which the winner will get 50 points, probably enough to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. That will not help morning-line favorite Sole Volante (2-1), a closer that won the Sam F. Davis Stakes on the same track. After being scratched from a poor draw in last week’s Fountain of Youth, four-time winner Chance It (5-2) starts Saturday’s from post 4 in his first trip away from Gulfstream Park. In his last month of training before becoming an agent for jockey Luís Sáez, Kiaran McLaughlin saddles front-running Spa City (10-1), a Street Sense colt that went nine furlongs to break his maiden. Spa City will be on top of my tickets with Chance It and Todd Pletcher’s debutant winner Market Analysis (8-1). The lack of speed has me tossing Sole Volante.
$300,000 Grade 3 Gotham, one mile, Saturday 5:42 p.m. EST, Aqueduct
Pace-chasing Swale winner Mischevious Alex (3-1) might find this one-turn race to his liking, but he has never won anything longer than a sprint. Maiden winner Untitled (4-1), a troubled fourth in the Swale, leads the four frontrunners. First Deputy (30-1) drew wide in the field of 11 and comes in off a 5½-length victory over six furlongs at Aqueduct. Coming off a fourth-place finish in a slowly run Remsen, mid-pack runner Informative (15-1) should find enough speed in front of him to make a competitive, late run. He is the focus of my plays in this race with Dale Romans’s maiden winner Attachment Rate (9-2), Curlin colt Sixto (8-1) and First Deputy filling out the exotics.
$400,000 Grade 2 San Felipe, 8½ furlongs, Saturday 6 p.m. EST, Santa Anita
Bob Baffert will corner the betting market with Authentic (6-5) and Thousand Words (9-5) bringing in a combined 5-for-5 record. Authentic and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Storm The Court (5-1) should set the pace with Thousand Words and well-rested maiden winner Honor A.P. (4-1) close to the early lead. If Wrecking Crew (12-1) can overcome the trouble he had in his last two starts, he could be a factor coming off two recent bullet workouts. Because of the lack of value on the Baffert colts, the lean here is to Honor A.P. over Thousand Words, Authentic and Wrecking Crew.
$600,000 Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, 1¼ miles, Saturday 7 p.m. EST, Santa Anita
Older horses are featured in this race that has lost a good deal of its luster since the now $12 million Dubai World Cup was created a quarter-century ago to steal some of the spotlight and most of the equine talent. Runner-up to eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Vino Rosso in the Gold Cup last spring, 7-year-old Gift Box (6-5) should bring legitimate early speed. The 5-year-old gelding Midcourt (2-1) comes into his first try at 10 furlongs off last month’s victory in the nine-furlong San Pasqual. Brown Storm (20-1) is a 5-year-old from South America that is moving from turf to dirt and also has experience at this distance. Endorsed (6-1) ships in from the east for McLaughlin coming off an allowance win at Gulfstream Park. Last fall he made a strong rally off a troubled start to finish fourth in the Travers. On the strength of that performance I will be Endorsed over Midcourt and Gift Box, and I will throw something at Brown Storm just in case he is finally the South American horse that does not offer false hope.
*Fair warning: As poorly as I have been handicapping races lately, my analysis should come with a warning from the surgeon general.
Racing notes and opinions
With the exception of Georgia, Hawai‘i, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Utah and, yes, Nevada, Churchill Downs reopens the pari-mutuel Kentucky Derby Future Wager from Friday at noon to Sunday at 6 p.m. EST. It also adds the only Kentucky Oaks Future Wager that is scheduled this year. Tiz The Law (8-1) is the individual favorite on the morning line; “all other 3-year-olds” than the 23 listed choices are 9-2. Nadal (10-1) and newly listed Été Indien (10-1) carry the next shortest odds. In the Oaks pool, Las Virgenes winner Venetian Harbor (8-1) is the top choice behind “all other 3-year-old fillies” (6-1). Charts comparing the KDFW and KOFW to William Hill, global and European odds will be posted from time to time this weekend at my Twitter handle - @ronflatter.
His last 1½ years were far more turbulent than the first eight, and they would appear to be the reason that Tim Ritvo is out as an executive with The Stronach Group. His exit as chief operating officer was announced in a TSG news release Monday. “I have a few things planned,” Ritvo said in a text message Monday without getting specific. Credited with increasing business at Gulfstream Park and Laurel Park, Ritvo could not duplicate that success at Santa Anita, where he was put in charge in May 2017. Under his watch there was a budget-cutting housecleaning that ridded the track of some popular, high-profile personnel in late 2018. Then came the deaths of 30 horses during the ensuing winter-spring meet. TSG and Ritvo were put on the defensive as the crisis boiled over. After TSG strategist Aidan Butler was promoted last summer to take over day-to-day operations at Santa Anita, and when Craig Fravel was hired away from the Breeders’ Cup last fall to become TSG’s chief executive officer, Ritvo’s days appeared numbered. That point may have been underscored in Monday’s news release, which said that TSG “has no immediate plans to fill the position.”
The top two finishers in last Saturday’s $20 million Saudi Cup will not race in this month’s $12 million Dubai World Cup. Connections did not say what would come next for Maximum Security and Midnight Bisou, but the message was clear. A $10 million victory for Maximum Security and a $3.5 million runner-up reward for Midnight Bisou took the financial urgency off a run in three weeks for another $7.2 million. Taking note of how one big race may cannibalize another, Jeremy Balan of BetAmerica put it best when he Tweeted, “Now the Dubai World Cup knows how the Big ’Cap feels.”
As if there were not enough for me to loathe about the Saudi Cup, stewards there – whoever they are – suspended Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith 11 days and fined him what may have been a record $210,000 for excessive use of his crop on Midnight Bisou as well as missing a weigh-in after an undercard race. Two-time Eclipse winner Írad Ortiz Jr. was suspended 10 days for crop violations in two races there last week, including his fourth-place finish on Mucho Gusto in the Saudi Cup. For an event that just burst onto the racing scene, the punishments are especially draconian. The bet here is that Smith and Ortiz will not be making a return trip to Riyadh anytime soon.
By the way, I vow to stop using the word “whip” in reference to a crop. In thoroughbred racing it is not a whip – except to those racing critics who pounce on the term to fan their self-fueled flames of misinformation. Please keep me honest on this.
The Breeders’ Cup is pumping up its purses by a combined $4 million in time for November’s renewal at Keeneland. The Classic goes from $6 million to $7 million, the Turf from $4 million to $6 million and the Dirt Mile from $1 million to $2 million. The Breeders’ Cup board also authorized a new process to identify horses that might be vulnerable to injuries before they get on the track for its championships. This was clearly in response to the fatal breakdown suffered by Mongolian Groom in last year’s Classic at Santa Anita.
Could the coronavirus lead to a cancellation of this year’s Kentucky Derby? That very possibility appeared to drive down the price of stock in Churchill Downs Inc. In tandem with the recent market plunge, it fell 24 percent on NASDAQ, where CDI is abbreviated “CHDN.” JPMorgan Chase responded with a display of confidence, upgrading the stock from neutral to overweight. In a letter to its clients, the investment bank called the cancellation of the Derby “unlikely.” It went on to declare Churchill “an increasingly compelling place for investors to hide out during the current wave of market volatility.” After reaching $164.37 on Feb. 19, Churchill’s stock price began to rebound with the rest of the market this week, moving from $125.64 last Friday to close Wednesday at $130.21. Then it fell 6 percent on Thursday to $122.51.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The current episode includes a preview of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby preps at Aqueduct, Tampa Bay Downs and Santa Anita. Trainer Linda Rice talks about her Derby hopes with First Deputy and Montauk Traffic in the Gotham Stakes. Sports writer Mark Whicker of the Southern California News Group discusses racing’s place on the southern California sports landscape and Santa Anita’s response to last year’s track-safety crisis. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by Xpressbet.