Out of Left Field
Horse Racing Has a New Game:
Sudden Death Madness
If it worked on basketball,
could it work on racing?
By STAN ISAACS
BILL NADER, a New York Racing Association executive, was sitting around one day thinking about the popularity of what is called March Madness, the month-long frenetic goings-on of the NCAA basetball tournament. It gave him a smashing idea.
For all the popularity of college basketball, one of the biggest boons to the short pants carnival on TV is the betting action on the tourney. Namely, pools in which people fill out brackets trying to select the winners of games in each round leading to the Final Four and the eventual winner. People who dont know Brown from UCLA, Hofstra from Coppin State put up a few bucks and fill out sheets posted in offices, coffee shops, schools and bars. Even if they dont win they enjoy the pleasure of being involved in the month-long action.
Nader wondered how he could adapt the NCAA pools idea to racing. The NYRA already had instituted one kind of fan involvement. Patterned after rotisserie baseball competitions that have instilled new interest in major league baseball, Nader offered people the chance to put together their own stable made up of jockeys, trainers and horses at the New York tracks. Points were awarded on the basis of first, second and third-place finishes by the jockeys, trainers and horses. This copied the baseball formula in which competitors buy a complete squad of players from different big league teams and are awarded points on the basis of home runs, stolen bases, victories, saves and the like.
The rotisserie format, good as it is, doesnt have the dynamic of keeping players constantly involved as the NCAA pools do. Nader, a determind NCAA pool competitor and rotisserie man (full disclosure note: he and I are in the same baseball rotisserie league) put on his most creative thinking cap and came up with, voila, the Sudden Death competition for the current Saratoga meeting.
This is how what could now be called Sudden Death Madness works: the idea is to pick a horse that will finish in the money--first, second or third--from the entire Saratoga card of races every day. If the horse you pick finishes in the money, you are alive in the competition to pick the next day. If the horse you pick does not finish in the money, you are out. The winner will be the person who stays alive the longest in the 36-day Saratoga meeting or, if there is a tie or ties, the winner will emerge from some tie-breaking rules. The prize is a voucher for $5,000 betting money at New York race tracks.
The competition is free. It is conducted on the internet; a person must have a computer to compete. Not everybody is computer literate, yet, of course, but still the availability of the internet allows people from all over the country to click on and into the competition. People from Kentucky, Texas and California have already won the New York fantasy games with winning stables. (The Saratoga races are available live on various cable racing shows around the country.)
The Sudden Death Madness started with a field of 5,121 internet players. By Saturday, after 10 days of the Saratoga meeting, the field was down to 369 players.
Sudden Death has tremendous appeal. It is disarmingly simple. By rewarding even a third-place finish it appeals to the most timid horse players who screw up their courage at the track just to make $2 show bets. Even the least sophisticated horse bettor thinks he/she can pick a horse that can finish at least third.
On the first days action, almost 2,000 of the more than 5,000 players fell by the wayside. The strategy is simple: try and pick odds-on favorites and the shorter the fields they run in, the more likely they are to finish in the money. Nevertheless, 1296 fell out the second day when a horse trained by the highly successful Wayne Lukas finished out of the money. After that there were these victims on successive days: 325, 165, 638, 162, 106, 102 and 64. Most of the odds-on favorites have been finishing in the money, but comes a day when a 3-5 shot winds up out of the money, there will be many bridge jumpers, the term for people who consider suicide after betting on such so-called sure things.
Nader, whose title is senior vice president of the NYRA, says, Its fun. Thats what racing is. We have taken what makes this sport so much fun and taken it to cyberspace. If people have fun and are paying attention, we think we are accomplishing a lot and are invigorated by the positive energy. We think because it is easy to comprehend, we could get new racing fans from this.
He said, We hear a good deal of talk around Saratoga about it. We are particularly pleased because even people who have been eliminated are talking about it. Some people think the winner will emerge in only a few more days, others say it wont end until about the time of the Travers Stakes toward the end of the meeting, some even predict that it will take the whole 36 days before all but one player is eliminated.
Racing is constantly trying to win new fans. The New York tracks have even had rock bands play at the tracks to attract the young, but after they put away their dancing shoes, they didnt return in any large numbers to the track. The number of cyberspace players has increased since the NYRA introduced the fantasy stables in the spring of 2000. Nader said, We havent decided yet, but we are leaning toward running Sudden Death at the next Belmont meeting this fall.
The NYRA website address is www.nyra.com. From the Redwood Forests to the Gulfstream waters, from California to the New York Island, this contest was made for you and me.
© 2001 by Stan Isaacs. The graphic is from the official New York Racing Assn. website.
You can comment on this column or contact Stan Isaacs with an email to: email@example.com
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