What We Learned This Weekend
A performance like what we saw from Wise Dan in Sunday’s $1 million Woodbine Mile would be tough to beat in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Of course, we know this to be more than speculation, seeing as Sunday’s course-record-setting time of 1:31.75 around one turn in Ontario was practically identical to the course-record-setting time he ran in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile going two turns at Santa Anita – 1:31.78 – when he won the $2 million championship by 1 ½ lengths.
In the weekend’s other Grade I race with major Breeders’ Cup implications, Alterite, making her North American debut, easily won the Garden City Stakes for 3-year-old turf fillies at Belmont Park. The field included a couple of classy Grade I winners in Emollient and Discreet Marq. The winner, a French-bred daughter of Literato, is not the first European import to find Grade I success fresh off the plane this year, especially among turf females, as British-bred Dank did the same winning the Beverly D at Arlington Park. When you also consider Irish-bred Laughing, the last three North American Grade I events for turf females have been won by horses that started their careers in Europe. All three are believed to be candidates for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf.
A Pari-Mutuelly Beneficial Relationship
The new Belmont – Penn National Thursday Pick 4, which made its debut last Thursday, represents more than just an attractive reduced-takeout offering for devoted weekday gamblers. The bet, which comprises the last two races at Belmont Park and the first two from Penn – is a fine example of new frontiers in pari-mutuel pools and what can be accomplished with a little bit of creativity and cooperation.
The Bel-Pen Pick 4 isn’t necessarily a landmark first, in that we’ve seen plenty of multi-race wagers connecting various tracks in distant jurisdictions, from the old Big 3 Pick 3 (the Wood, Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby) to the Magna 5 (a weekly offering at Magna tracks coast to coast) to the 60-Minute Pick 6 (with several Northeast tracks) to the NTRA National Pick 4 and Pick 6. Meanwhile, plenty of tracks have embraced reduced takeout on specific pools as an incentive, returning more to winners than typical three- or four-leg exotics with takeouts above 20%. And in Ohio, alternating races between tracks in different parts of the state on a combined program was once the norm, although that was by necessity as much as any sort of visionary thinking.
Yet the Bel-Pen offering stands out as an innovation for not being like any of the above examples. It’s not centered around a major raceday, or even a Saturday, and was executed at the track level by a few clever executives with almost no budget for marketing their creation.
The idea started with New York Racing Association Vice President of Corporate Development, David O’Rourke, who expressed interest in collaborating with his former colleague Dan Silver, now Penn National’s Director of Racing Operations. The first conversation took place when Silver visited this year’s Belmont Stakes.
“[David] brought up the idea of a Pick Four like this, combining some of our races with some of the races at Belmont,” Silver said. “I thought it was a great idea and went back and started seeing what it would take to make it a reality.”
The landmines that await those forging ahead with innovative ideas, though, are plentiful, especially in the highly regulated world of horse racing. O’Rourke and Silver first sought the green light from their bosses.
“Typically, with any new promotion, the question is going to be, ‘What’s the cost and what’s the return?’” Silver said. “If we’re spending money on something we’ve got to show that there’s going to be a return. But in this case, there’s really not a lot of money that goes into it.”
Dan Silver, one of the masterminds of the combined Belmont – Penn National Thursday Pick 4 (Photo courtesy of NYRA).
That was only the beginning. Next up were their respective state racing commissions, which, in turn, either expressly or implicitly, usually need approval from horsemen.
“Our commission approved it the first time we put it in front of them,” Silver said of the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission. “They’re very encouraging anytime we want to try to do something to market our product.”
Even having received the proper blessings, they would each need to consult their new tote companies – United Tote for Penn and AmTote for NYRA – to determine who would run the pool and whether the systems could communicate properly. On top of all that, we presume there was also some haggling over how much of the 15% takeout would go to each track.
“It was a real team effort in terms of folks here and at NYRA,” Silver said.
Early results were encouraging. Thurday’s total Belmont – Penn National Thursday Pick 4 pool of just over $59,000 represented the third-largest Pick Four pool ever involving races from Penn National. If not more important, though, was the residual effect on the entire card, which handled $1.36 million, well above average and the track’s highest Thursday in two months.
“Certainly Belmont has a larger audience on a daily basis than Penn National does so we’re hoping that this will expose some of the people that love betting Belmont to a new track that maybe they haven’t thought of before,” Silver said. “We’ve got a really nice surface, a turf course, a good group of trainers and jockeys, and pretty competitive racing on a nightly basis. The new Pick Four not only created this additional handle on the wager itself, but I think more people were probably looking at the Penn National races.”
With better weather – Thursday’s program was off the turf with a sloppy main track and multiple scratches in the majority of the races – it likely would have been Penn’s best Thursday of the year. And none of that made the bet any easier – a 26-1 winner in the first leg, at Belmont, keyed an $8,358.40 return on the 50-cent wager.
Oftentimes a new addition to a track’s wagering menu doesn’t have a significant impact on total handle, as it simply diverts money away from existing pools. In this case, though, it appears that the regular Pick Fours at both tracks are as solid as ever. Instead of cannibalizing from what was already there, this offering has filled a niche, bridging the gap between prominent afternoon and evening signals. The handle being generated is new money that people are pulling from their accounts and wallets because the product is appealing.
The icing on the cake for Silver and O’Rourke, though, would be to see other tracks forming unlikely but mutually (or pari-mutuelly?) beneficial alliances.
Even if they only broke even, Silver said, “we thought it was worth it to show that two very different tracks can work together.”
A Useful Tweet
Wondering if your favorite horse is BC Nominated? here's the link; BCL means yes, R1 R2 - no; https://t.co/CjZe7aHuFa— Byron King (@DRFByronKing) September 16, 2013