Ten or more ways to make racing better

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Transparency in takeout rates and better promotion of handicapping contests are just two ways to improve horse racing. (Santa Anita Park photo)

Las Vegas

While we wait for Saratoga and Del Mar next month and even the first Grade 1 race of the summer this weekend, there is time to fill – not to mention this column.

Cue the swishing picture and harp music to take me to a dream sequence, the one in which I am the grand panjandrum of thoroughbred racing – if only for a day.

1. Force racetracks to post takeout grades. The Horseplayers Association of North America annually posts a ranking of racetracks based on the percentage they take out from each winning bet. With other sports the juice or vig is easy to figure out. It is not so easy in racing, what with more than two competitors per race and horizontal and vertical options. Even the HANA ratings look as complicated as a government tax form. So why not a letter grade – a big, huge, letter grade – posted at every betting window in the country and on each track’s page on ADWs?  Make it like those grades in the windows of every New York City restaurant. You can’t miss ’em. Places like Ruidoso Downs, Turf Paradise, Fair Meadows and the California fair circuit should have to display a big, scarlet letter to warn bettors of their heavy takeouts.

2. Make a bigger push to promote handicapping contests. I have attended and covered a few of these things, and they are great fun. (One day I will actually try to swim up stream and compete.) Moreover, they appear to be the most durable, new bridge linking the stereotypical older horseplayer with millennials who are using modern technology to crack the winning code.

3. Sell racing. Actual horse racing. I understand the plot to coerce non-racing fans to come to the racetrack. It is a numbers game. But whenever I see tracks promoting infield concerts or food trucks or pony rides, I feel like I have walked into a grocery store that had nothing in the aisles but cigarettes and pastries. Funny. Real grocery stores have vegetables, and they somehow manage to sell them. If past performances and bloodlines and condition books are racing’s vegetables, there must be a way to sell those, too. If only I were in a smarter dream.

3a. Ban concerts during races. How about a little respect for the reason the track was built? From the time the horses arrive at the starting gate to the time the prices are posted, the band should take a pause for the cause.

4. Make ADWs legal everywhere there is gambling. Nevada, this means you. This one is fresh, because the one thing I repeatedly heard last week during Royal Ascot was “too bad you can’t bet it here in Las Vegas.” Lacking a valid mailing address from a state that allows advance-deposit wagering, this is true. In a place where gambling advocates routinely point out the hypocrisy of lottery states that resist sports betting, how about looking in the mirror?

5. Give me fewer races. This one seems simple. If there are not enough horses to fill races, then write fewer races. The Jockey Club estimated that the foal crop this year would hit a 53-year low. The number of races has come down proportionally over the years, but it clearly is not enough when there are still four- and five-horse fields on weekdays. This means less value for bettors. I understand that more races mean more jobs, but jobs just for jobs’ sake are a dead-end proposition. So are races with dwindling fields.

6. Make stewards’ reviews more transparent. This would involve running some cable to put cameras and microphones into stewards rooms so that we may see what they are saying and how they are voting on the disputed outcome of races. Let us hear the trainers and jockeys speaking live. Impractical? Then why is this already done in England, Australia and Dubai?

7. Tell us more than “L” and “b.” Furosemide and phenylbutazone. Lasix and bute. They are all we routinely get when it comes to medication updates for horses. As long as we accept that horses are getting more than hay, oats and water – and I wish that was all they got – why not have a goal of reporting everything that is put in a horse? Trainers and veterinarians tell me that we would not be able to deal with the complexities of this information. Well, how about letting us bettors figure that out for ourselves? I am not naïve enough to think that horsemen will stop hiding some of the drugs they are shooting into horses. But establishing daily medication reports from each track would be a step in the right direction.

8. Respect the turf. There is the Breeders’ Cup. And the Arlington Million. And Belmont’s Stars and Stripes Day. Even this weekend’s United Nations card at Monmouth Park. But turf races are too often pushed to the back of the cupboard. If trainers like Chad Brown, Christophe Clement and Wesley Ward keep up their success on turf, maybe others will follow, and we may see more good turf horses being bred here in America. In the meantime, how about pouring a little TurfGro into places like Gulfstream Park, where the grass looks like the tee box at a public golf course.

9. Put some reality into post times. I worked in Australia from 2004 to 2007 and have contributed to the Melbourne racing station RSN927 in the years since. One refrain that still rings in my ears is the complaint from down under that U.S. races do not start on time. It became obsessive and compulsive – and ultimately made sense. This is not an airline. If a race is supposed to start at 2:07 p.m., start it at 2:07 p.m.

10. Abandon the thought of a national racing czar. There is a fallacy in the thought that a single set of rules with a single authority would cure all that ails racing across the country. Really? How is that working out with the federal government? One size cannot possibly fit all. The challenges of Santa Anita Park are far different from the challenges of Sunland Park. This is not to say vive la différence. Just accept it.

There. That felt better.

Racing notes and opinions

Money Multiplier (5-2) is the morning-line favorite for $300,000 Grade 1 United Nations Stakes, the 1 3/8-mile turf feature Saturday at 6:01 p.m. EDT at Monmouth. The winner of last month’s Grade 2 Monmouth Stakes is one of four horses that Brown has in field of nine. Joe Bravo, who has won four of the last six runnings of this race, has the ride. Oscar Nominated (4-1) was seventh in the UN last year and comes back from a two-month break with Eric Cancel, his third rider in as many races. Silverwave (6-1), an import to Brown’s stable from France, and One Go All Go (8-1), the likely pace-setter, are two 6-year-olds that are my picks to box with Money Multiplier in exotics. Hot and sunny weather is expected as is a firm track.

Plate Trial winner Telekinesis (5-2), Kentucky Oaks runner-up Wonder Gadot (3-1) and Woodbine Oaks winner Dixie Moon (4-1) are the top morning-line choices in the $1 million Queen’s Plate, a 1¼-mile race for Canadian-breds on Woodbine’s Tapeta track. Sprint winner Inge (30-1) is the only pure speed horse in the field of 16. Strike Me Down (10-1), a beaten favorite in a turf stakes early this month at Monmouth Park, is a Tapit-sired stalker trained by Graham Motion that is worth a look here. Post time for the Queen’s Plate is Saturday at 5:36 p.m. EDT.

Triple Crown winner Justify could get his first timed workout next week since his Belmont Stakes victory. Trainer Bob Baffert has said that he will not declare when and where Justify will race next before he gets a breeze at Santa Anita. He has said that the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational on July 29 could be a target. Baffert has won the Haskell eight times. Monmouth Park boss Dennis Drazin is trying to finalize a $5 million bonus that would go to Justify if he were to win the Haskell, Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic. One significant question: who will show up to challenge Justify?

The Wynn Las Vegas shortened Justify from 5-2 to 11-5 to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Why anyone would touch him at this price is beyond me. But good luck if you do.

Two horses not widely seen since they finished up the track in the Kentucky Derby will not be racing again for a while – if at all. Arkansas Derby winner Magnum Moon, next-to-last at Churchill Downs, suffered an unspecified leg injury last weekend in a gallop at Belmont Park and has been retired. The 3-year-old colt trained by Todd Pletcher was undefeated in four races before the Kentucky Derby. Solomini, 10th in the Derby and a beaten favorite in the Grade 3 Affirmed Stakes three weeks ago, has been sent from Baffert’s barn to be turned out at Ashford Stud in Kentucky.

Owner Charles Fipke was ordered by the California Horse Racing Board to pay a $110,000 fee to jockey Joel Rosario, who was abruptly removed from the riding assignment in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Del Mar aboard Forever Unbridled. John Velázquez wound up with the winning ride and will keep his $110,000. Something did not smell right when Fipke was evasive and vague after last November’s victory. When asked about the rider change, he only said that “John got hurt, then Rosario rode her. Then Rosario got hurt, then got back on the horse, but then he got a call from Todd Pletcher, who he rides for.”

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Guests this week include longtime Philadelphia Daily News sports writer Dick Jerardi and retired ESPN sportscaster Jeannine Edwards. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.

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