Zero redefined: post time drag in perspective

The case for and against horse racing’s controversial post-time drag.

by Melissa Keith

On Nov. 12, an Ontario track announcer made a statement that would briefly rock North American harness racing Twitter: “At Rideau Carleton, you don’t have to wait another five minutes when it says ‘zero minutes to post.’ At Rideau Carleton, post time means post time.”

John MacMillan repeated the “zero minutes to post means zero minutes to post” Nov. 15 on the track’s live simulcast. His words evoked mostly positive reaction online, quoted verbatim on Twitter by the @USHWACanada chapter account, which this article’s author manages.

“I will name you another track that goes right at post time and does pretty well in terms of handle. That track is: Del Mar. They don’t mess around where the turf meets the surf,” replied Murray Slough, race-caller at Alberta’s Century Downs and author of “Bet Like a Chicken, Eat Like a Chicken: A Guide to Winning at the Harness Races.”

Former Northlands Park racing manager Les Butler responded, “Yes! Finally. Congratulations @RideauCarlton for not taking bettors for granted or pretending this continued ridiculousness of contrived urgency works to elicit incremental wagering.”

Sports betting Twitter account Crush the Bookie (11.6K followers) replied “GREAT JOB LOVE IT!!!! Woodbine post time 7pm ET means 7:08pm ET so you have to give credit to the rarity that Rideau Carleton has with them actually running when it’s post time. I don’t understand why it’s so hard for tracks to stick to a post time.”

The question of whether Rideau Carleton was actually implementing a no-drag policy was answered by racing manager Peter Andrusek. “It’s actually a funny thing. It beguiles me,” he told HRU. “[MacMillan] kind of mentioned it, but it really was not the case.” He said he avoids “the racing blogs,” but people contacted him about it. “They brought it to my attention: ‘Everybody’s talking about Rideau Carleton not dragging races!’ Well, I think every track needs to drag races to an extent, because at some point, if you try to go off right at zero, you are going to impair your handle.”

It’s a view similar to that expressed by Greg Gangle, raceway manager of The Raceway at Western Fair, in the Twitter conversation about Rideau eliminating drag: “Over 90 per cent of wagering comes in after 0 minutes.”

Andrusek said that drag is a fact of life. “I know this, because on a live night, I’m the mutuel manager here and the coordinator. I set the post times and coordinate the cards. Our horses used to come out of the paddock at two minutes [to post]; by the time they all paraded around, it was about zero; and the car used to sit there for two to three minutes, that I’d instruct, and then of course they’d marshall up the horses and go. So the total drag at zero minutes was about four.”

He added that Rideau Carleton had a past flirtation with drag-free racing: “I remember years ago, we used to have this thing where the clock would hit zero and the gate would open, but we’re talking 20 years ago.”

And there’s some ambiguity in the present: “As a pure coincidence, we did [recently] change our policy: Instead of bringing the horses out at two minutes, we bring them out at zero, and that drag went from four minutes to about six. Then I’ll tweak it, because, quite frankly, my priority at Rideau Carleton Raceway is to ensure that I don’t go off at the same time as Flamboro [on Sunday nights]. My primary goal, when I set post times, is that Rideau Carleton and Flamboro are separated as far as possible, and I try to stay off of Northfield too. It’s not so much of a coordinated drag; it’s me going, ‘I need two minutes here, because they have an inquiry at Flamboro,’ or maybe the other way around — I’ll pull the drag in a bit, because this will set up perfect with Northfield and Flamboro. When you’re going with Mohawk [Thursday nights], I can tell you: You want to cut your handle by four-fifths? Go off with Mohawk.”

Andrusek said it wasn’t rumoured adherence to a strict definition of “zero minutes to post” that sent his track over the top on the night of its all-time record handle Nov. 26. “I can tell you what’s behind that: I knew it was going to be an amazing day, because it was American Thanksgiving, and the American [thoroughbred] tracks all started early, at 11:30, and they were pretty well done by 4 o’clock, which was our post time,” he said, adding that COVID-19 restrictions on other sports and gatherings meant more attention for the tracks racing that night. “To be honest with you, we had a monopoly from 4 o’clock until 6:30, when Flamboro started. And we racked up numbers. The old record was from 1983: $477,000. So we broke the record by race six! The manager at the time, Glenn Pearson, he said to me, ‘You finally broke my track record!’”

Heavy fog obscured the 12 races; on-track attendance was not permitted. “We bet three-quarters of a million dollars, and I swear to you, if it wasn’t for that fog, we would have done over a million,” said the racing manager. “It was an amazing day, and I think it elevated Rideau Carleton onto another level in terms of reputation, and certainly added to our status as a Signature track.”

Why does drag persist?

“There was a time and a place for it,” said Les Butler. “PT Barnum said you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all the time. And I think that racetracks have fallen into the belief that they can fool all of the people all of the time, with a false ‘minutes to post’. I do think that there was a time when it would accelerate or allow for more betting, but I think those times have long gone.”

The days of standing in a physical line to wager had already been in steep decline before COVID-19. “I can queue a bet, I can cancel a bet; there’s no excuse for me to ever miss a post time. I certainly don’t need another minute to study the program,” said Butler. “When I managed Northlands, if we had a feature race that drew a lot of attention and usually a lot of incremental betting in the [win/place/show] pools, that’s when we needed more time.”

And more time there was, on demand when crowds packed the track that was then home to Canada’s highest betting per capita. “I knew lots of tracks that had signals; for example, we did,” said Butler. “We had a signal on the announcer’s booth. We’d phone the announcer, or the pari-mutuel manager could control it, to flip a light switch that would go on under the announcer’s booth. Nobody could see it except the harness racing starter, and then he’d say [to the drivers], ‘Guys, take another turn.’”

Drag accompanied certain races, not entire cards. “We had a trainer/driver, Steve Schedlosky, who was quite famous in Saskatchewan. Steve would stop his horse, get off, and adjust something, for no reason,” said Butler, who also managed racing at Queensbury and Marquis Downs. “He’d adjust it, and adjust it back. It was all designed to allow the limited number of tellers to process the extra wagers for that particular race. It wasn’t something done for every race; it was only done for big races. Invariably those were the times when people would misjudge how long the lines would be, and they wouldn’t get there soon enough.”

Butler told HRU that medication rules may vary today, but when he was at Northlands, “we had to be very cognisant that if there was an incident or a reason for a delay, the window of efficacy for Lasix is relatively narrow. If you were delayed 40 minutes — if you’re late for six consecutive races — you’re outside the window of efficacy for Lasix, and you’re cheating the bettors, cheating the horsemen, and doing a disservice to the horse.”

Yonkers Raceway’s long-time publicity director said that when “zero minutes to post” could mean anything, “nobody trusts what zero means.” Frank Drucker explained that “Even with the [countdown] clocks they put up, to me, you’re treating the people like idiots. Maybe you’ve trained them to be idiots, but the fact that Gulfstream now has to put up a graphic that says ‘we’re going to load them in at post time’, as if that’s some “man-bites-dog” news, that shows you where the industry is at.” (Gulfstream Park’s 2020-21 championship meet, now underway, introduced “zero minutes means zero minutes”.)

Drucker said that while horseplayers expect drag, it’s been taken too far as a strategy to boost handle. “It was always a given that you’d get a two-minute drag. That was okay, nobody ever thought anything of it. But now, they come out, and at a place like Northfield, when they put up zero, half of those horses haven’t even been sired yet. I mean, who are they kidding?”

There’s no reason to prolong the wait between races today, said Drucker, who remembered “misspending [his] youth” waiting in line at Yonkers to place underage bets for his father. “You can retrain people, and I suspect that’s what Gulfstream is trying to do: ‘We tell you we’re loading at post time’, except for stake races and carryover pools and whatnot. Did they lose people the first day? Perhaps, because Gulfstream were notorious: They’d drag it an hour-and-a-half.”

A consequence of drag is races going off at the same time, at undetermined minutes after declarations of “zero minutes to post.” Drucker said that Yonkers “for any number of years led the league in it, and invariably what also happens is you go on top of somebody else. You see everybody sitting on zero, and it’s: ‘When are you going?’ ‘I don’t know, when are you going?’”

Post time overlaps were tough to avoid when “zero” was undefined. “There were times we ran so many races on top of The Meadowlands, we might as well have contested our races in their infield,” said Drucker. “I think what Gulfstream is doing, at least among the thoroughbred people, is to try to get some semblance of trying to stay off one another, so when they say post time, they’re going to go at post time. If they say 3:51, they’re going to load them in at 3:51, save for stakes races, carryovers, and whatever TV commitments they may have.”

Bettors watching the board until the last minute don’t necessarily benefit from prolonged “zero minutes to post”, said Drucker. “What’s the definition of ‘late money’ if you don’t know what ‘late’ is? The casual guy might want to see what they’re betting late, because if they’re betting late, maybe they know something. Maybe they don’t want to bet early to kind of tip their hand, or they’ve bet early as red herrings, or whatever they’re doing, but if all the money is coming in late, what’s the definition of‘late’?”

Slough agreed that drag was a tradition that made little sense today. “I think it used to be thought that if you don’t drag, you were really hurting your handle. You weren’t playing the game the way the other tracks were, so that was going to hurt you,” said the Century Downs race caller. “You would really have to show that your handle dropped a lot when you don’t drag, to convince me that you should drag.”

He said drag was more for on-track players wanting action before the next live race, a moot point with the largely spectator-less racing of 2020. “They sit in front of a huge bank of TVs, and then they bet whoever’s next. Now with many tracks not being open, people don’t really have that option as much anymore.”

Except for special races, mandatory payouts or significant carryovers, “At the track I work at, Century Downs, we don’t really drag,” Slough said. “We have an extra minute or two. I know at Century Mile, for the thoroughbreds, they have a built-in drag there, because they’re trying to compete with the big thoroughbred tracks and they’re at night, but it’s more like a two- to-five-minute thing. It’s still, to me, too much, but it’s definitely not as egregious as the ten-minute drags we’ve seen at other tracks.”

“At Century Downs [harness], they’re basically at least going to the gate at zero, or shortly after zero; we have a countdown clock, like most places,” he said. “One thing about Mohawk is they drag like crazy, but at least when the countdown clock comes on, the gate is rolling and they actually go when that clock hits the zero. I don’t like to see tracks that have a countdown clock that gets to zero and then they still don’t do anything.”

He’s unconvinced that the sport’s top tracks need to rely on the old-fashioned strategy. In fact, drag leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy: “At a track like Mohawk, everyone knows they’re going to drag, so they can say, ‘This much money came in after it hit zero’. But you cannot tell me that if you went to post on time, and everyone knew you were going to go to post on time, that that money wouldn’t have come in earlier, if people knew that was the case, just like Gulfstream and Del Mar.”

“Everybody sees through it now,” said Slough. “Everyone knows what’s happening. I don’t think it’s that effective a tactic anymore, and it should honestly probably be abandoned across every track, and hopefully will be as things go on. A lot of the big thoroughbred tracks actually don’t, so maybe one day, The Meadowlands and Mohawk will follow suit, and I don’t think that would be a bad thing. It’s just another way that you can be up front with the bettor.”

Andrusek said that an average harness track following a “zero minutes to post means zero minutes to post” dictum would lose bettors. “You’re compelled somewhat to do the drag. I think what’s important if you are dragging is that you’ve got to be consistent, for those [late money] bettors.” He added that customers want predictable drag, rather than drag being eliminated. “If you’re regularly six [minutes drag] and then you go 12, the guy who makes his bets with six minutes drag has six more minutes, and he’s watching the odds change and change and change. They can cancel and redo, but I don’t think that’s a healthy kind of development.”

Rideau Carleton Raceway’s handle is up 51 per cent for the year, which started June 7. The racing manager said introducing High Definition (HD) video in November, plus re-securing the California market where it had been absent this September/October, brought renewed attention to the track’s wagering product. He said Del Mar and Gulfstream are so different from North American harness tracks that following their “zero minutes means zero minutes” example would decimate handle: “People are betting thousands of dollars [individually, per race] and want to have a damn good idea what the odds are that they’re getting” at both venues. (Del Mar’s five-week 2020 fall meet handled $195.9 million (U.S.).) “I think for some of the larger tracks that would attract significant bet, that goes a lot into their thinking on keeping post time tight,” said Andrusek.

Les Butler told HRU that he played Rideau Carleton Nov. 12 because he was motivated by what seemed, at first, to be a game-changing move. “I bet that track, that day, because I wanted to support them. I wanted to say to that announcer in Ottawa, thank you! I appreciate betting online on a track where they’re going when they plan on it.”