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Balmoral Park

Balmoral Park (5/5/12)

Contact: Tom Kelley
(708) 672-1414

Rating the Harness Racetracks and What Makes the World Go Round

By Dean Towers

A few weeks ago the Horseplayers Association of North America released their annual Thoroughbred Racetrack Ratings. Designed by a horseplayer and retired engineer (and a whiz with spreadsheets!), data points that were directly correlated to betting handle were weighted, numbers were crunched and the tracks were rated from 1 to 69. For the fourth consecutive year, Keeneland was ranked number one.

In the first year of those ratings there was plenty of chatter from fans, players and the industry itself. Everyone had their opinion on what tracks they liked and what tracks they didn't. If Tampa was ranked 10th, a player would lament the 25.7 percent takeout on trifectas and disregard the rankings. When Hollywood Park was 14th, a player was sure to say how wrong that was, because maybe he found that the food on the second floor was awful. When Keeneland was ranked first, polytrack haters were out in full force saying "Keeneland, how could you?"

Bill Weaver and the crew designed the ratings as they were, because there are determinants to handle that are both theoretically and empirically proven; and they are beyond reproach. We have spoken before about them in this column, but as a refresher, they include the types of bets, takeout rates, field size, race contentiousness, signal fee level, and pool size. Types of food, the rider colony, or quality of the horses played no bearing on the ratings for two reasons: Either they were non-measurable, or they had little meaningful correlation to betting handle.

This season - four years after it was first rated #1 - Keeneland set some handle and attendance records. The ratings are probably not too bad. Currently HANA is looking to do similar with harness racing, with a racetrack rankings system complete hopefully soon. I imagine when the ratings are released, there will be similar grumbling from people in and outside the industry. It's simple, really: What you may like in a racetrack will differ from others, and vice versa.

A couple of weeks ago in Harness Racing Update I wrote about Balmoral Park, and its explosion onto the scene, to land with the big boys like the Meadowlands and Woodbine. They've done so by carding good betting races, distributing their signal and doing it at a decent price. This spawned a letter to the editor from a gentleman that disputed Balmoral's status, because of the driver colony and horse population. Those are characteristics that are clearly important to him in a racetrack. The bottom line, though, is that betting customers are saying something completely different about the driver colony and horse population at Balmoral, and they're saying it loud and clear: "We don't really care".

Case in point, last Saturday night, Balmoral Park carded their usual array of Saturday races - a maiden, a nw2, an Invite, a couple of $4000 claimers, among others. For the entire card they gave away $99,100 in purses. A thousand or so miles away, another track was carding their Saturday races. Yonkers had the Levy Final and the Matchmaker Final, with several other solid tilts. They had Foiled Again and See You At Peelers battling solid foes, and the best drivers on the planet behind nice horses each race.

They gave out over $1.1 million in purses. A lot may have really liked the Yonkers card to watch (I did). However, what pays the bills in our sport, betting handle or me watching on TV? Yonkers, with all those purses and top horses and top drivers, handled $1,191,000. Balmoral Park, with no huge purses or big-name drivers, handled $1,332,000. This prompted a comment on my blog this week from along-time horseplayer, Eric Poteck. "Wow, horseplayers are talking. Is anyone listening?"

This is not a Yonkers phenomenon only - they don't do a terrible job with a very predictive oval, and a lot of it is out of their control - we see this at other venues as well. A year or two ago, Chester was hosting a huge stakes card. If memory serves (it is almost impossible to get handle statistics in harness racing, which is curious, as it is how we keep score), they gave away about $2.4 million in purses, and handled less than $400,000 at the windows.

Balmoral proves that surveys like the Horseplayers Association's are probably correct, and indeed horseplayers are talking. The determinants of betting handle are the most important thing for us as a gambling business, and everything else is noise. Until we get paid millions by television networks to show our sport, or we start selling Foiled Again T-shirts and Brian Sears helmets for big money, we have to rely on customers betting our races for purse revenue. From the owning side of the business it's probably not bad either. The more people who bet the races are watching the races. The more people watching the races are visiting racetracks. The more people who visit racetracks and get exposed to the sport, can be likely horse buyers.

The key question for this sport is the following, in my opinion: How do we marry what Balmoral is doing, (and has done) for the bettor, with other tracks who are carding better quality races for fans? How do we make our product both better to watch and a better bet? If we answer that question properly (and market it) we might just be on our way.

Sunday Players Guide

An inside look at Chicago harness racing

By Michael Antoniades, Chicago Racing Analyst
Available on the web at

Welcome to the Players Guide

We will give you an informed look at tonightís racing program in Chicago. We have tailored the Players Guide for several types of betting style. What is your style? For me personally, it means being a contrarian and taking some chances. I will bet against the favorite whenever possible, if I think there is VALUE in another selection. Sometimes the play is to key a favorite on top of the overvalued horses in exotics. If you are going to show a profit in this game, you must get value when you are investing your money. In the long run, creating this discipline is the difference between winning and losing.

The ratings list our top selections in order of their probability of winning. These ratings give no credence to the odds, although horses with value are included in these selections throughout the evening. It is our opinion of the top contenders, listed in order of their probability of winning. If you are a risk taker or value player, then Michaelís Plays should be of considerable interest to you. I will take calculated chances, selecting horses with more wagering value and higher odds. My plays may select fewer winners than my top-rated selection, but in the long run, I believe Michaelís Plays will give you a higher return on your investment.

In closing, I remind you that the name of the game is not selecting the most winners. The name of the game is making money. Our goal is to have a profitable year. For the serious player, we know that is your goal as well.

Sunday, May 6 Balmoral Park selections

No. Michael's Ratings Top Rated Horse (Conservative Choice) Michael's Play (Speculative Opinion)
1 4-1-3-6 4 Ants Iner Pants 6 Tsunamichick
2 5-7-1-3 5 Fox Valley Helen 1 B Fly McQueen
3 2-4-8-1-10 2 Derby Day Starzzz 8 Taylorís ATM
4 7-6-4-2 7 Boiler Heidi Ho 6 Osage
5 3-4-7-8 3 Thrills Sugar Buzz 7 Squonk
6 1-3-7-5 1 Maximus Meridius N 5 Johnny B Cool N
7 1-8-7-4 1 Odds On Jan
8 9-6-1-5 9 One Last Chance 5 Hickory Hawkeye
9 8-3-7-5 8 Easter Teka
10 1-3-2-9-10 1 Bauerís Z Tam 2 Who

$15,000 Guaranteed 50 cent Pick 5 pool starts on Race 2

$30,000 Guaranteed Pick 4 pool starts on Race 7 - 15% Takeout

Free program pages are available at the USTA handicapping section.

Free program pages are available at the USTA handicapping section.

My selections and harness racing news are available at

For more information visit or call (708) 672-1414.

About Balmoral Park: Located in Crete, IL just 12 miles south of 80/94; Balmoral Park has been one of the nation's premier horse racing facilities since 1926. Balmoral Park features live racing every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Admission and parking is always free.

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