WALK IN THE MILL TO LAND IN THE 2020 GRAND NATIONAL

The Grand National is an iconic steeplechase known as “a race that stops a nation,” in reference to avid fan attention in Great Britain. With 40 horses in the field, the race draws interest from dedicated bettors to non-fans who just pick a name they like, and office sweepstakes are popular.

The 2020 edition of the Grand National is scheduled for Saturday, April 4 at Aintree Racecourse, near Liverpool, England.

Aintree Racecourse

Over the years, there have been some eye-catching performances and many fairy-tale stories: from victorious longshots to trainers and jockeys winning for the first time.  In 2020, the back-to-back winner in 2018 and 2019 Tiger Roll is looking for an unprecedented threepeat. 

Tiger Roll, owned by Ireland-based Gigginstown House Stud and trained by Gordon Elliott, is the ultimate stayer over jumps and he makes it look so easy.  In 2018, Tiger Roll delivered a superb display winning the Cross Country chase at Cheltenham over 3 miles and then a month later, followed up with a masterful performance in the Grand National—prevailing under a savvy ride by Davy Russell.  The Cheltenham Festival–Grand National double nicely rewarded the bettors who backed the horse in both races.

In 2019, Elliott had Tiger Roll in prime order to have a go at defending the Cross Country race at Cheltenham Festival, which the horse easily won by 22 lengths.  This set the stage for the Grand National at Aintree.

Tiger Roll was well backed into a short favorite of +400 in the Grand National and bettors were right.  He cruised around the difficult course to be in an ideal position to pounce when he was a few fences out.  As in 2018, Tiger Roll got to the front and went on to win by 2 ¾ lengths.  Magic of Light finished second and is likely to have another run in the race this year.

Can Tiger Roll win a third Grand National in a row?  Bettors say “yes.”  At +600 in Bovada (bet $100 to win $600), Tiger Roll is the clear favorite.  However, he will face stiff opposition from a number of talented horses.

Walk In The Mill is one of the challengers.  The Robert Walford-trained horse has twice won over the tough Aintree fences, notably winning a Grand National trial called the Beecher Chase in December 2018 and 2019.

The Beecher Chase requires horses to jump over the Grand National fences, so they have first-hand experience on the Grand National course.  Thus Walk In The Mill could very well dethrone Tiger Roll.  The principal difference between the Grand National and the Beecher Chase is that the former typically has over twice the number of starters.

Grand National

Second in the 2019 Beecher Chase was Kimberlite Candy, who ran well and is +2000 to win the Grand National this year.  The Beecher Chase performance gave the gelding’s backers a reason to believe he has a live shot in the Grand National.

A few veteran horses have also been entered in this year’s Grand National.  For example, One for Arthur and Anibale Fly (runner up in the Gold Cup) can be backed at +3300.

Tiger Roll has a formidable task ahead to win the Grand National a third time.  Walk In The Mill looks to be the horse to beat him; his two wins over the Aintree fences indicate that he is capable of winning a 4-mile race at +2000.

DRAFTKINGS, FANDUEL, SPORTS BOOKS AND THEIR THREAT TO PARI-MUTUEL WAGERING

The American Gaming Association estimates that 26 million Americans will bet on the 2020 Super Bowl, up 15% from last year. This includes bets through brick-and-mortar casinos, legal online sports books, and illegal offshore websites. Estimated revenue is $6.8 billion versus $6 billion in 2019. The main reasons for the increases are the rapid expansion of legal sports betting in the United States and a buoyant economy.

Recently, I was listening to a radio call-in sports show in Cleveland, Ohio.  One of the announcers was lamenting that Ohio has not yet legalized sports betting and therefore, in order to bet on the Super Bowl, he intended to drive 40 miles and cross the Pennsylvania state line, where online sports betting is up and running.  (In fact, the Churchill Downs-owned Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Erie, Pennsylvania has a sports book.)

The talk-show host said that as soon as he enters into Pennsylvania, he will be able to use his app (either DraftKings or Fanduel) to place his wager because Pennsylvania is one of five states that permit online sports betting.  In all, about 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized sports betting and seven more are about to do so. Of the 20, 14 are operational. But only five states so far allow online betting: Indiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.  The radio host also said that if he wins his bet, the online sports book will credit his account, which he can withdraw money from without traveling back to Pennsylvania.

Until now, horse racing has had legal remote wagering, via phone or internet, to itself.  Now the competitive advantage has eroded. 

Horse racing has two competitive disadvantages versus sports betting:

First, sports betting is much easier to understand than handicapping horse races.  Second, the house cut on sports betting is about 5% in comparison to the 15%, 17%, or even 35% on pari-mutuel wagering, depending on the state and racetrack and type of bet.

The state of Ohio has seven horse-racing tracks, plus wagering at county fairs on harness racing.  At present, an Ohio resident living near the border of Indiana or Pennsylvania or West Virginia can take a short drive and bet on sports.  And Ohio will likely legalize sports betting in the near future.  Other states with racetracks are in a similar situation.  For example, Louisville, Kentucky residents can cross the bridges over the Ohio River into Indiana and bet online or travel about 14 minutes to Caesars casino and bet at its sports book.

The battle for the gambling dollar has heated up and horse racing’s takeout rates are detrimental like never before.  The dilemma is that racetracks cannot survive on takeout rates anywhere approaching the house cut on sports betting.

(More on possible responses by horse racing interests in the near future.)

 Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business

THE SANTA ANITA CONUNDRUM

In the wake of another horse death at Santa Anita Park on January 19, 2020, Los Angeles racing writer John Cherwa wrote: “There is…the possibility that an amendment could be placed on the California ballot that could outlaw horse racing in the state.  However, at this point, there is no indication that the anti-horse racing factions have the signatures to get it on the ballot.”

Sunday’s fatality was not the result of a catastrophic breakdown, but rather of a collision during training hours.  It was the third fatality in three days and the first to occur on the main dirt track in 2020, with the others taking place in turf races.

Since December 2018, Santa Anita has experienced 42 horse fatalities.  And there have been five fatalities from the track’s opening for racing on December 28, 2019 to the present.  This compares to six fatalities at this time a year ago.  Therefore, the pace of 2020 incidents is similar to 2019. Horses are dying and the negative publicity threatens horse racing’s image and viability not only in California but nationwide.

An article on HorseRacingBusiness.com on April 19, 2019, said in part:

“Fact: The unsafest surface at Santa Anita is the downhill turf course (the track has two turf courses) with 2.58 fatalities per 1,000 starts in 2018 and over 3.0 per thousand starts in 2017.

Question: In view of 23 recent horse deaths, why is Santa Anita still holding races on its riskiest surface?

Facts: In 2009, races on the main track at Santa Anita were run on a synthetic surface. Ownership tore out the synthetic surface in mid-2010 and replaced it with the dirt surface that has resulted in the majority of horse fatalities in 2019.  On the newly-installed dirt surface, the number of horse fatalities spiked in 2011 to double digits and continued to remain high (compared to the fatalities on the older synthetic surface) every year since, escalating to 23 horse deaths so far in 2019.”

Upper-level executives at The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, have obviously been unable to do much to vastly improve racetrack safety, despite consulting experts.  While the dangerous situation at Santa Anita likely is the confluence of several causes, track safety, on both dirt and turf, is a major contributor.  Data from the Equine Injury Database are quite convincing in this regard. 

The Stronach Group has two realistic but unattractive choices.  First, it can continue with the 2020 meet and gamble that the horse fatalities so far in 2020 are an aberration.  Second, it can halt the meet, install a Tapeta synthetic surface to replace the main dirt track, abandon racing altogether on the downhill turf course and continue to work on the other turf course.

The second option would be costly in terms of financial loss, in the immediate term, but it would almost certainly enhance horse safety and have the secondary effect of staving off a statewide ballot initiative that could very well outlaw horse racing in California, just as dog racing was banned in Florida. Premier races like the Santa Anita Derby could be relocated temporarily to Golden Gate Fields, a Stronach Group track in San Francisco, similar to how the Belmont Stakes and other important races were moved to Aqueduct when Belmont Park was undergoing renovation.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business