Friday, August 14, 2009

Better for the Bettor: A Different Take on the Handicap Division

Brian DiDonato, Special to NTRA.com

Bullsbay's 18-1 upset of last Saturday's Whitney further fueled complaints by fans and media types that this year's handicap division suffers from a serious lack of talent. Many pointed out that of the six Grade 1s for older horses run this year at a mile and beyond, only one has been won by a competitor with a prior Grade 1 victory.

That lone previous Grade 1 winner is Santa Anita Handicap hero Einstein, a talented turf horse who has benefitted from a dearth of real competition on the main track as well as the advent of synthetic surfaces, which have proven more to the liking of grass horses than traditional dirt.

Prior to the “The Big 'Cap,” all of Einstein's Grade 1 successes had come on the lawn. He did, however, take the Grade 2 Clark with a lowly 101 Beyer Speed Figure.

In 2008, Einstein was beaten easily by 4 _ lengths in the Stephen Foster by Horse of the Year Curlin in that one's first outing back from Dubai. This year Einstein went off as the 6-5 favorite in the same race and probably would have won if not for a brutally rough trip.

The detractors are correct - this year's group of older males simply isn't as good as it has been in years past. On the other hand, however, those who complain fail to recognize what this year's division does have to offer.

The Breeders' Cup has become such a popular event because it brings the best horses and their human connections together from across the world to compete in contests where every horse is talented and where virtually every competitor in every race seems like a viable contender. Those inclined to wager on the event have the opportunity to make life-changing scores in massive pools where live longshots abound.

But since it is impossible to duplicate the same level of racing and the wide-open nature of Breeders' Cup throughout the year, fans must decide what they would rather see: short, predictable fields with one or two very good horses or larger, slightly weaker fields where almost anyone can win. I'll take the latter any day.

Even though major races for older horses in 2009 have not featured star-studded fields of steeds who would be competitive against those next to whom their names will be engraved on winners' trophies, what we have this year is a racing product far more intriguing to those looking for drama or just a good bet.

We're not forced to endure watching Bernardini lead three overmatched challengers along on a merry chase at 15 cents on the dollar (see 2006 Jockey Club Gold Cup). We get to watch races where the outcome is not all but predetermined, even if it's a little less likely to produce a 117 Beyer.

In a year when talent has seemingly gone downhill, field sizes and average pay-offs have risen.

This year's Grade 1 races for older routers have featured an average of 10 _ runners and a win pay-off of $17.82. In the same races in 2008, 2007, and 2006 the mean field size was only nine with an average mutuel of $10.35 when Seek Gold's data-skewing 91-1 shocker in the 2006 Stephen Foster is removed from the figures.

The numbers are even more telling when we consider the field sizes and win odds in Grade 1 routes on dirt/synthetic (excluding the Breeders' Cup Classic) in which the last three Champion Older Horses - Invasor, Lawyer Ron, and Curlin - competed during their championship seasons. In those 10 affairs, the victor's average win pay-off was a yawn-inducing $7.80 and the number of opponents he faced was just over seven.

Such uninspiring contests aren't limited to the handicap division. Remember Rachel Alexandra's drubbing of only two - that's right - two foes in this year's Mother Goose?

Or think back to Belmont on Oct. 7, 2006: a day that will live on in chalky Grade 1 infamy. The Beldame for distaffers, the Flower Bowl for turf mares, the Vosburgh for sprinters, the Turf Classic for male turfers, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the older dirt males were all run in succession on that fateful day.

Fleet Indian kicked things off at 9-10 over five foes. Then Honey Ryder, a relative longshot in the quintet at a little more than 2-1, took the Flower Bowl against just four others. Three-year-old sprinter Henny Hughes paid $3.90 in the five-horse Vosburgh, followed by English Channel's open-length $3.30 score. And, for the finale: as mentioned above, Bernardini won the historic 1_-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup by almost seven lengths against three other horses. According to the results chart he “galloped away under wraps” and paid $2.30 to win.

The $1 Pick 4 starting with Honey Ryder and ending in the Jockey Club paid $16.50.

The figures clearly demonstrate that what this year's crop lacks in relative ability it more than makes up for in what is so often missing from high level races. Very good horses scare off the competition, and it's usually for good reason. But in a year where there are no world-beaters to be afraid of, the cliché, “That's why they run the race,” finally rings true.

These types of races should be preferred by fans, horseplayers, and racetrack management alike.

It's no secret that there is a direct correlation between field size and handle because larger fields offer better wagering opportunities. That's covered in Racetrack Management 101.

People are more apt to place their hard-earned dollars into a pool that offers a more significant return on investment. Nobody wants to bet a four-horse field where all that's left to figure out is which overmatched also-ran could clunk up for second to complete a paltry $8 exacta.

And with more handle, of course, comes a healthier industry. You learn that in Racetrack Management 201.

It's not as if the sport doesn't have its share of talented stars to meet the needs of those who would prefer to see great horses than great races. Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have that covered and turf monster Gio Ponti isn't far behind.

There's something for everyone along the racing landscape in 2009. It's nice to catch a glimpse of greatness, but it's also nice to walk up to the IRS window once in a while.

1 comment:

D.S. Williamson said...

I'm with you on having a field where anyone can win. Those races with a surprise win are what makes the world go round. I'm a firm believer than some people will complain just because then can and no matter what happens, they will never be satisfied.

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