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Fear of synthetic betting just a myth

Bettors don't hate synthetic surfaces. It only took a calculator, a No. 2 pencil and a legal pad full of handle figures to debunk the widely held myth that horseplayers are running away from synthetic tracks in droves. Combined, all-sources handle on the nine North American tracks with synthetic surfaces did, in fact, fall in 2008, but tracks with traditional dirt surfaces did even worse.

Here's the bottom line: The nine tracks handled a combined $4.281 billion in 2008, a decrease of 4.16 percent from the $4.467 billion they handled in 2007. On the surface, those numbers, which add up to a decline of $186 million in handle, aren't good. But, according to Equibase, total wagering on all U.S. tracks, which were hammered by the reeling economy, declined by 7.16 percent in 2007.

Of course, these aren't perfect apples-to-apples comparisons. The synthetic numbers include racing in Canada at Woodbine, while the Equibase numbers are for U.S. tracks only. You also have to factor in the increase in handle Santa Anita got from hosting the Breeders' Cup for two days and the fact that Presque Isle Downs and Golden Gate Fields had longer meets in 2008 than they did in 2007. The numbers at all tracks also include grass races, which have no bearing on the synthetic-versus-natural dirt debate.

Here's another way of breaking down the figures: the average combined daily handle for the nine synthetic tracks was $69.836 million in 2007 and $64.988 million in 2008. That's a drop of 6.94 percent, or almost identical to the 7.16 percent overall drop in American betting handle in 2008.

Any way you look at the numbers, there's no doubt that the synthetic tracks more than held their own versus the dirt tracks in 2008. Bettors still want the same things they've always wanted -- quality racing and big fields. It seems they don't care one bit whether the races are run on dirt or synthetics.

Harness racing ahead of the game

The movement to keep stars on the track beyond their 3-year-old years is gaining steam, at least in harness racing. Key executives from that industry met last week at the Harness Racing Congress in Las Vegas and discussed a proposal that would ban horses from major races who are by sires who were 4 years old or younger at time of conception. The theory is that if horses by 4-year-old sires were unable to compete in several major races, then owners would have increased incentive to keep their stars racing at least one more year. The sport had two 3-year-old superstars in 2008, trotter Deweycheatumnhowe and pacer Somebeachsomehwhere, both of whom have been retired to stud.

While not everyone agrees with the proposal, the sport's biggest track, the Meadowlands, appears ready to jump on board. With so many rich races on its schedule, the Big M can have a major impact on people's decisions to retire their horses. And, hopefully, other tracks will follow.

Unfortunately, harness racing continues to be more proactive than the thoroughbred game, where bold initiatives never have been and probably never will be a part of the industry.

Magna 5 offers value

If you're not betting the Magna 5, you should be. For whatever reason, the bet continues to offer the best value in the sport. The second week produced a payoff of $12,268 for $2 when the $2 win parlay on the five winners was just $6,859. The week before, the payoff was $52,709 for $2 and the parlay value was just $11,129.

The only knock on the Magna 5, which combines five races from the Magna-owned tracks in one bet that takes less than an hour, is that they continue to throw in maiden races with several first-time starters. Those races become a guessing game, something no one wants when playing multiple-race wagers.

Not so fast, Haynesfield

So much for Haynesfield being the fastest 2-year-old of 2007 around two turns, which would have been a significant accomplishment. Originally, the folks who do the Beyer speed figures in the Daily Racing Form gave Haynesfield a 101 for his win in the Dec. 7 Damon Runyon at Aqueduct. At the time, the number made no sense. Previously, Haynesfield had never run better than an 82 and he didn't exactly beat a field of Secretariats in what is a minor, restricted stakes race.

Lo and behold, the number has been changed and the Beyer people have, effectively said, "never mind." The figure has been knocked all the way down to a 93, a significant change. Shouldn't they have gotten it right the first time?

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.