Between The Lines

Does a driver colony impact handle?

November 23, 2017

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by Brett Sturman

Whenever the topic of handle is discussed, the most common things heard as contributing factors to changes in handle are changes in takeout rates and field sizes. Statistical analysis has shown change in handle to be more responsive to these two factors more so than lesser ones that include caliber of horses racing and size of the purse.

This brings us to comments made by Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural in his letter published in HRU last week. In the letter, Mr. Gural says that the quality of his driver colony is important to the Meadowlands product. He also says that without slots, his income is derived entirely from his Meadowlands product. Putting the two statements next to each other, there’s an inference being made that a quality driver colony is important in generating revenue.

Of all factors that can have an impact on handle, the quality of drivers is one that’s seldom heard but is something worth exploring. Forget for a moment the debate of Gural even having a right to dictate the conditions in which drivers drive (which as you may expect I don’t agree with), but this is rather about strictly the notion that drivers can impact revenue.

Thinking about it common sense-wise, I could see the rationale as to how a higher quality set of drivers would be better for the product, and better for handle. Those wagering on the product have a higher degree of confidence in placing their hard-earned cash on drivers who are professionals and know what they’re doing and will drive the races to form, as opposed to lesser quality drivers that are more unpredictable and can throw races into chaos, as often is the case in some of these amateur races.

For an analogy, the logic probably goes along the lines of a serious gambler in a casino playing blackjack. Would that person be more likely to play at a table of seasoned bettors who play the game by the book, or play with a bunch of amateurs who are splitting ten’s and playing reckless. Of course it would be the former, which would be my reason for being able to get behind the thought that a higher quality set of drivers inspires more confidence and thus more money from the betting public.

This all sounds nice in theory but in my estimation, it doesn’t play out this way in reality.

One only has to go back a few days to illustrate this. Last Saturday, the Meadowlands had everything it wanted as far as a November driver colony. In addition to major stakes eliminations and predominantly full fields, drivers from that card included Tetrick, Gingras, a rare appearance from Sears, Miller (all four of them), Zeron, and so forth. With seemingly favorable conditions including an A-list set of drivers, handle for the 13-race card just made it past the $2 million mark. It’s still an industry-leading handle, but one that isn’t particularly high for the Big M.

Why, despite all top drivers, was handle just so-so by Meadowlands standards? The reasons for this are nearly endless and speak to a far larger set of conditions, but to say that any of it is based on who is driving seems to be unfounded.

In the winter of 2016 at the Meadowlands, it seemed like every single racing card produced a $3 million handle. The driver colony back then wasn’t much different than it was early in this year as the top drivers typically take time away during those winter months, yet year over year this was an obvious decline in handle. And in some cases, handle from the winter driving colony earlier this year outpaced handle from the summer driving colony featuring top drivers.

If there were any correlation between an improved product vis-à-vis quality drivers and handle, then why did the 12-race Meadowlands Pace eliminations card this year from July 8 with all the best drivers from all over handle $2.6 million?

Now on the opposite side, you could note that historically on a week to week basis handle drops at the Meadowlands when the entire set of drivers go to another track such as Mohawk to drive in their stakes races. This does occur, but it’s clearly more a reflection of bettors redirecting their gambling dollars to where the highest level of racing action is and not abandoning the Meadowlands solely because of changes in drivers. Also, this only happens when almost the entirely colony goes and we’re left with drivers who are all fill-ins; the removal of only a Tetrick or only a Gingras doesn’t have the same effect.

To its credit, the Meadowlands has been resilient when you think that it still generates far more handle than any other track considering that the lesser quality horses that fill the majority of races there. Many of the horses racing at the Meadowlands would be eligible for Freehold conditions and if the Meadowlands product were related to horses – let alone drivers – handle would be far less than the level that it has maintained.

The drivers are the least of the problem. With low purses and a racing stock in which 90 per cent of the horses wouldn’t have been good enough to race at the Meadowlands 10 years ago, people still wager on the product. But knowing that the product is already diluted, drivers alone wouldn’t have an impact on handle and recent numbers support that.

The larger problem of course is that because of the lesser quality of racing, some races are frankly un-playable. I understand that Mr. Gural may have a greater likelihood of landing his choice of drivers at the Meadowlands than landing his choice of top quality horses racing for greater purses at other tracks, but it remains to be seen how better drivers would lead to more revenue.

Like many, I want what is ultimately best for the industry. But I think anyone would be hard pressed to show in a tangible way that a top set of drivers can be responsible for changes to handle.

Fall Final Four stakes analysis

$381,200 Three Diamonds Final: Just to make things interesting YOUAREMYCANDYGIRL lands post 10 following a bye, although it still may not make a difference. The Breeders Crown champion has been untouchable this fall and a win here would put her just shy of $1 million for her freshman campaign. KISSIN IN THE SAND has impressed mightily in her recent pair of races at the Meadowlands and now gets another shot against #10; will start off with a big post edge. REIGN ON ME is one that I’ve started to chase the last couple of weeks; gets another new driver and will offer a good price should she be able to come through a big one. RAINBOW ROOM is an obvious short priced alternative to the favorite; went off at 5-2 when last seen in the Crown for connections of Holloway and Dave Miller.

Picks: 10-6-2-9

$420,750 Goldsmith Maid Final: PIRANHA FURY broke last out on the driver change to Miller but still gets another shot since everyone from that elimination made the final anyway. 0 for 10 maiden has a shot and will obviously offer a very square price. PLUNGE BLUE CHIP sprinted home with an eye-opening :26:.2 final quarter last week for Svanstedt; Matron champ will be going right to the front. HEY BLONDIE won on cruise control here three weeks ago and opted for a bye into the final tonight; her 1:53:1 win time from Lexington is the fastest mark of anyone in here. SEVIYORUM took a ton of money last out in a race where it was obvious she would be at a disadvantage; not sure she would have caught #6 anyway. SWING IT CATHY may be capable at a big price with a flat mile.

Picks: 5-6-3-2

$411,700 Governor’s Cup Final: Don’t let the drama and the Simon Allard taunt from the end of last week’s mile to distract from the fact regardless of who the trainer is, SPRINGSTEEN is a serious horse. He followed up his crushing win in the Matron with a confidently handled score last week and to the chagrin of some, he rates a strong chance in this race. NUTCRACKER SWEET couldn’t stave off the eventual race winner last week but it was still a top effort; sets him up well for Saturday. STAY HUNGRY makes his first start since the Breeders Crown nearly one month ago and apparent closer lands post 9; will be interesting to see how McNair plays this from out here as the likely favorite. LOST IN TIME is assured to be raced more aggressively tonight than he was last week; seeking a return to that form leading up to the Crown final. AMERICAN HISTORY is another that never had a shot in his elimination last week; maybe these waters are a bit too deep.

Picks: 5-9-8-3

$464,650 Valley Victory Final: FOURTH DIMENSION absolutely jogged last out and made any attempts to play against him in that race look silly. He was the beneficiary of an early breaker that may have contended otherwise, but aside from that he proved that his underperforming Breeders Crown race was a fluke and he’s clearly the one to beat once again. FASHIONWOODCHOPPER was clearly using last week to prep for this week’s final; goes second start since the qualifier and could be heard from. TITO made a brief bid last week before flattening; that was a big longshot in KINDA LUCKY LINDY that beat him out for second in that race. SAMO DIFFERENT DAY won here very early in the 2-year-old season.

Picks: 5-7-3-2

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