As the Eastern U.S. dug its way out of a blizzard and most of the West was upended by severe wind and rain, weather conditions were spring-like for the opening of Santa Anita Park’s Classic Meet on the day after Christmas in Arcadia, California. The track attracted more than 40,000 visitors and record-breaking first-day handle of $26.3 million.
For better or worse, horses trained by Bob Baffert, who endured perhaps the most challenging year of his career, won five of the 11 races on the card, including the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes. One of those wins came with Frankie Dettori aboard Country Grammar in the San Antonio Stakes, affording the decorated international jockey the first of three opportunities to perform a “Dettori Dismount” in the winner’s circle.
And we’re off… 😉 pic.twitter.com/PbPPTmcI9Q
— Frankie Dettori (@FrankieDettori) December 26, 2022
More than 1,000 miles to the north in the Seattle suburbs, there was no racing on the rain-soaked track at Emerald Downs. But the fifth and sixth floors were humming with simulcast action — not only on Santa Anita, but on races at tracks like Fair Grounds, Gulfstream, and Golden Gate. A group of men in a spacious suite ran a show parlay pot up to $700, only to see it zero out when a portly, middle-aged man with a whole lot of Santa Claus salt in his beard (that’d be me) touted a horse that wound up running fifth.
“Every time I see days like that from Emerald and Santa Anita and around the country, it gives me hope for our sport,” one of America’s top trainers, Doug O’Neill, told US Bets on Wednesday.
The group at Emerald quickly moved on to handicapping the next opportunity for success. When betting on horses, there’s always another colt, always another race, always another chance for elation or heartbreak — and 2022 saw plenty of both.
February: a pair of high-profile suspensions
A week and a half after the National Thoroughbred Racing Association disqualified Jonathon Kinchen from the National Horseplayers Championship, the organization suspended him from NHC competition for two years. The prominent handicapper and broadcaster was accused of having his selections for the competition made by a surrogate in Las Vegas while he attended the Pegasus World Cup in Florida, which violated the NHC’s rules.
Elsewhere, while a necropsy conducted by the University of California-Davis found that no foul play or illegal drugs were involved in the December death of 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, the horse and its trainer — Baffert — were subsequently stripped of their Derby title due to Medina Spirit’s positive test for the outlawed steroid betamethasone. Baffert was also suspended by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, a punishment that would prevent him from entering a horse in the 2022 Run for the Roses.
March-April: breakage for the dogs
March saw the Kentucky Legislature do away with the controversial concept of breakage, which is the practice of rounding down to the dime instead of the penny for parimutuel payouts. Upon passing the bill that broke breakage by a vote of 33-1, Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer called it “an antiquated method of payout that actually costs winning bettors.”
Speaking of antiquated, FanDuel-owned TVG ceased taking wagers on greyhound racing in early April. The move was in large part motivated by a new Oregon law which took a dim view of the sport and greatly diminished the potential for simulcast wagering due to the state’s designation as a multi-jurisdictional hub for advance-deposit wagering (ADW) platforms.
May: striking it rich, but just once
After one of the more stunning victories in Kentucky Derby history as an 80/1 longshot, Rich Strike was held out of the Preakness Stakes by his owner, Rick Dawson, squashing any hope for a Triple Crown winner.
“Obviously, with our tremendous effort and win in the Derby, it’s very, very tempting to alter our course and run in the Preakness at Pimlico, which would be a great honor for all our group,” Dawson said. “However, after much discussion and consideration with my trainer Eric Reed and a few others, we are going to stay with our plan of what’s best for ‘Ritchie’ is what’s best for our group, and pass on running in the Preakness, and point toward the Belmont in approximately five weeks.”
Rich Strike went on to finish sixth in the Belmont and failed to finish better than second for the balance of 2022.
June: fixing odds, implementing HISA
One of the knocks on horse betting in the post-PASPA era is that parimutuel wagering is too confusing for younger bettors who are accustomed to the fixed odds offered on many other sports. Led by New Jersey, a few states have taken concrete steps toward offering fixed odds on horse races, including Colorado. But horse racing traditionalists and those who benefit from the sport’s current wagering structure have been loathe to clear a path for widespread implementation of fixed odds.
Likewise, the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Authority was created with the best of intentions. Yet good intentions failed to lead to national adoption, mainly due to requirements considered by many to be too unwieldy or expensive for the sport’s state-by-state patchwork of regulatory bodies to put in place.
August: economic immunity and a Travers star
Well-heeled horse enthusiasts shrugged in August at signs of economic slowdown and spent a record $66.9 million to purchase 143 yearlings during Fasig-Tipton’s annual Saratoga Sale.
Later in the month, 3-year-old Epicenter won Saratoga’s prestigious Travers Stakes, positioning himself as a viable Breeders’ Cup Classic contender alongside older horses like Flightline and Life Is Good.
September-October: rivals bury hatchet
Early autumn saw mobile sportsbooks get a lot cozier with the sport of horse racing.
First came September’s news that longtime rivals FanDuel (owner of TVG) and Churchill Downs had buried the hatchet by announcing a partnership involving advance-deposit wagering, sports betting, and broadcast rights. The following month, PointsBet announced that it would launch an ADW in partnership with 1/ST, following FanDuel, Caesars Sportsbook, BetMGM, and PlayUp into the space.
November-December: fearsome Flightline, shared wallet
Epicenter failed to even finish in November’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Instead, undefeated Flightline prevailed by a record 8-1/4 lengths, establishing himself as the most dominant horse since (at least) Secretariat. Shortly after the race, Flightline was retired to stud, with a lone buyer paying $4.6 million for a 2.5% stake in the horse, thus valuing him at an astonishing $184 million.
Later in the month, DraftKings announced that it would be launching its own ADW, DK HORSE, through a partnership with Churchill Downs. But toward the end of December, FanDuel achieved the ultimate synergy between horse and sports betting by becoming the first U.S. sportsbook to offer both types of wagering through a shared wallet.
Photo: Matt Stone/Courier Journal