Ritvo: Late betting contributes to post-time drag

Tim_Ritvo_2_Benoit_photo
Tim Ritvo, COO of The Stronach Group, says that late betting contributes to the late starts of races. (Benoit photo)

Las Vegas

It has become an all-too-typical conversation every weekend at racetracks and racebooks.

“What time is the next race at Santa Anita?”

“It says post time is 4:10. So it’ll probably be after 4:15.”

What has come to be known as post-time drag – the growing number of minutes between the listed time and the actual start of a race – has become the bane of horseplayers betting multiple tracks. In truth, it is hardly new. But the current perception is that it has been taken to extremes by The Stronach Group in its running of races at Gulfstream Park and at Santa Anita.

It has gotten to the point – as things do nowadays – of being a cause célèbre on social media, where the complaints have mounted.

“I’m reading them, too,” said Tim Ritvo, the chief operating officer of The Stronach Group. “I don’t want to upset the customers. But everybody bets late. This started a few years ago when we were making sure we didn’t shut anybody out. That was the real premise in the beginning.”

Speaking to VSiN at his Gulfstream Park office last month, Ritvo also discussed the future of the Preakness at Pimlico and the addition of barns at Santa Anita Park. But it was the topic of post-time drag that may resonate the most from the 40-minute interview that may be heard in its entirety on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod.

“We’re conscious of the complaints and we’re trying to figure out how not to make that happen anymore,” Ritvo said. “There’s still this thing that the people just like to bet at the last minute because they want to see the (late) odds. I think the idea is if we can have more technology and more better real-time odds and Trifecta probables and all these new things we’re thinking about that would give the customer more comfort, they can make their bets a little bit earlier and then go from there.”

Ritvo also said that the time it takes to saddle horses and pony them out of the paddock has turned into a dawdling variable.

“Sometimes the horses get on the track at four or at five (minutes to post), and now we have to give them a little more time to warm up,” Ritvo said. “And we have to give the customers time to see them on the track and moving.”

The Jockey Club has led discussions on how to keep programs on time so that races at separate tracks do not start  simultaneously, especially on big stakes days. Ritvo has been in on those talks. But with a thought that sounds too good to be true, he concluded that “there has to be almost a council out there that says, ‘you go,’ ‘you go,’ ‘you go.’”

When it comes to the bottom line on just when races start, Ritvo put it succinctly when he said, “I think we’ve been successful driving more pari-mutuel handle to our facilities, so we’re doing something right.”

The truth is that this was a problem long before it was named post-time drag – and long before The Stronach Group racetracks were identified as the villains. Just ask anyone from overseas who watches U.S. racing every once in a while.

“Horses making their way down for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Only 15 minutes late.” That was what Irish journalist Peter Farrell wrote on Twitter – in 2015.

In a column for another website, I wrote that a particular post time was “not counting the tardy time always added in America.” That was 10 years ago.

It got to the point that when I was asked the question for the umteenth time on Australian radio why races started late in the U.S., I said, “It’s the same answer I gave you years ago. You care. We don’t.”

When I was not biting the heads off Aussie interviewers, my stock answer eventually came to be one version or another of “did you enjoy the race?” But I was being stubborn in guarding my home turf – or dirt. In truth, it is not right that listed post times are constantly wrong. Period.

Ultimately, this feels like a grab of every last dollar that may be bet on a race, and that is fine. But rather than showing a phony zero minutes to post or a start time that is about as reliable as a crowd estimate at a victory parade, how about starting a 12-minute countdown clock the moment the horses walk onto the track? And when the clock strikes zero, the electronic croupier locks out any late bets.

If that is too idealistic, maybe Ritvo had the right idea when he said, “Maybe someday we’re going to come to a point where we’re going to start at 12, end at 6. Then the estimated post time is this.”

Hey, on time or not, it’s a start.

Ritvo on Preakness and Santa Anita

* If the crumbling Pimlico Race Course is not rebuilt, Ritvo said “we could get the Preakness at Laurel in 2022. We continue to move down the path of architects and engineers and builders looking at Laurel. The prediction is to try to deliver the building to us the way we like it for a Preakness or a Breeders’ Cup around 2022.” Ritvo was quick to say that this is not a declaration that the Preakness is definitely moving out of the track that has been its home since 1873. “It’s just a capability thing. Even if they were to build us that building at Pimlico, we’d still have to run (the Preakness temporarily) somewhere else.”

* About that new building at Pimlico. The Maryland Stadium Authority went public in December with a plan to tear down everything standing there and replace it with a glitzy, $424 million grandstand, stable area and racetrack. “I believe the picture is a fantasy,” Ritvo said. “We can do that at Laurel maybe better for $125 million, and that’s (private) money that’s already earmarked with no additional state funding.” Asked if The Stronach Group would still go along with having the race at a new Pimlico if it did not have to invest a single cent, Ritvo said, “If they built it and we put no money up, we would have to take a hard look at that. But it would actually slow us down on all the other things we need to do at Laurel and Bowie.”

* Ritvo said the building of new barns at Santa Anita in what is now the parking lot north of the track should start this summer. “We’re looking at a permit date of somewhere around June or July,” he said. “We’ve been moving pretty forward with that. People want that racetrack to stay there. One of the things about building 850 stalls and $35 million is a true commitment that racing is going to be there for a long time.”

* Oh, yes. About those pesky, father-daughter lawsuits that Frank and Belinda Stronach have filed against one another over the handling of the family fortune. While Ritvo would not comment on the legal action itself, he was confident that the Stronach racing business would be immune from any outcome. “From a racing perspective, they’ve let me lead, and the growth has been good. It’s a family dispute that will get worked out.”

Racing notes and opinions

There are three Kentucky Derby points preps scheduled for the long, holiday weekend. They include the first of the 50-points-to-the-winner races – the Risen Star Stakes in New Orleans. To wit:

$400,000 Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes

Fair Grounds – 1 1/16 miles (dirt)

Saturday 7:02 p.m. EST

This is a virtual rerun of last month’s Lecomte Stakes, except it is 40 yards longer – and worth 40 more points to the winner, making it a virtual “win and you’re in” for the Kentucky Derby. Five of the top six finishers led by War Of Will (5-2) are back. What may shake things up is that War Of Will got stuck this time in post 13 (he actually drew 14, but Bob Baffert is scratching Kingly, so he will move in). He raced five-wide into the first turn winning the Lecomte, but that path may be wishful thinking this time for trainer Mark Casse and jockey Tyler Gaffalione. Hog Creek Hustle (8-1) needs a speed breakdown that cannot be counted on. Third-place Manny Wah (12-1) faded late in the Lecomte, suggesting he may be a miler out of his league. The two price plays worth looking at here are Plus Que Parfait (10-1) and Owendale (10-1). Drawn on the rail, Plus Que Parfait had a bad start and a terrible trip finishing fifth in the Lecomte. Owendale is one of two Steve Asmussen horses in here. When last seen he was gaining ground late in the slop of the Kentucky Jockey Club. Including both on boxed, vertical tickets could make for a memorable day.

$100,000 El Camino Real Derby

Golden Gate Fields – 1 1/8 miles (all-weather)

Saturday 6:45 p.m. EST

Look what the bad draw blew in from New Orleans. Actually, Baffert is shipping Kingly (2-1 morning line) from southern California to the Bay Area only in part because of the bad Risen Star draw. This could also be a confidence tester. In his first time going two turns, Kingly was a beaten favorite finishing second in the slop of a Santa Anita allowance. That was only 2½ weeks ago, but since it is Baffert, Kingly will command a lot of the handle. Price hunters would be wise to skip over Eagle Song (5-1), even though he is 2-for-3 on all-weather tracks like the Tapeta surface at Golden Gate. Those were sprints, so his move off the turf makes him little more than form candy. Jerry Hollendorfer is northern California’s answer to Baffert, so his decision to drop More Ice (8-1) in here after five races on the turf raises more than just eyebrows. He could benefit if the early speed from the likes of Kingly should break down. That could also play into a case for King Of Speed (10-1), an average 15-length loser in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and Los Alamitos Futurity. So yes, this Derby prep represents a class drop for this Jeff Bonde-trained closer. Searching for a price I will include King Of Speed with More Ice and, yes, Kingly. By the way, this race is a “win and you’re in” – for the Preakness.

$500,000 Grade 3 Southwest Stakes

Oaklawn Park – 1 1/16 miles

Monday

As much as this may look like the Asmussen Invitational with his four probables for the field, it is hard to look past Jinks Fires’s two-time stakes winner Gray Attempt. He finished a neck ahead of the Asmussen pair Long Range Toddy and Boldor in last month’s Smarty Jones, so this represents a rematch – with an extra half-furlong to run on the same track. There is a shipper worth watching and maybe wagering on, and that is Sueño. Keith Desormeaux saddles this horse whose Spanish name translates to “dream.” He followed up a stakes win with a narrow loss to Gunmetal Gray in last month’s mile-long Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. That was tough company. We will find out if this group is tougher, but the thinking here is that Sueño may carry a modest price worth betting.

As first reported by the Daily Racing Form, Coliseum is off the Derby trail after back-to-back losses as an odds-on favorite. Baffert indicated that the colt has turned into a real son of a Tapit by refusing to train, so he will be turned out for at least a month and then brought back in hopes of racing him again this year. Coliseum was still listed at 25-1 Thursday in William Hill’s Kentucky Derby futures.

In search of her 30th consecutive victory, Winx (1-10), rated the world’s best thoroughbred, is back on the track Friday night U.S. time, the odds-on favorite in the $117,690 Group 2 Apollo Stakes at Royal Randwick in Sydney. Five of her seven rivals are stable mates from the Chris Waller barn, suggesting that no one wants to race her. The second betting choice figures to be Happy Clapper (8-1), a Patrick Webster-trained, 8-year-old gelding that has raced three times since his last win in April in the Group 1 Doncaster Mile. At seven furlongs, this race will be shorter. Post time – and they tend to be on time in Australia – is Friday at 11:50 p.m. EST.

Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition features The Stronach Group COO Tim Ritvo discussing a wide range of topics, especially centered on Santa Anita Park, Gulfstream Park, Pimlico and Laurel Park. National Thoroughbred Racing Association COO Keith Chamblin talks about the growth of handicapping contests like last weekend’s National Horseplayers Championship. There is a preview of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby preps – the Risen Star Stakes and the El Camino Real Derby – and the feature Racehorses by the Letters considers the best horse starting with “O.” The RFRP is also available at providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.

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