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This vision’s too big for your brain

Published:Thursday | May 28, 2015 | 12:00 AMGordon Robinson, Contributor
TIMEFORARMS, ridden by Omar Walker, securing a 1 3/4-lengths victory over MILITARY MOVE (Shane Ellis) to win the Lotto A Ticket to Your Dream Trophy over 1820 metres on May 23.

It's time to find out if Cliff Williams, despite the ravages of anno domini, remains educable.

It doesn't appear so from his May 10 article ('Gordon Robinson galloping above his handicap') in which he rambled; failed to address the issues; and, in a desperate attempt to blame all horse racing's ills on the 'claiming system', continued to look at the industry through the roseate chimera of a cloud of ignorance. If his prescribed medicine opus could be boiled down to gravy, it would recommend: "This is how it has been and, therefore, this is how it must always be." So limited is his grasp of the business of horse racing that he's not just locked into a 1980s box, he's locked into a box inside that box.

He wrote: "Mr Robinson betrayed a lack of understanding of a handicap system where weights are allotted based on current ratings, but trainers or owners having the option to declare with a claiming tag in exchange for a pull at the scales or to simply offer their horses for sale." But what he describes are hybrid races offered within claiming systems, NOT a handicap system.

In seeking to refute my assertion that handicap systems breed corruption, he became almost incoherent: "Elsewhere in the column, his reference to corrupt handicapping is a further betrayal of a lack of understanding of handicapping, its purpose and methodology. Mr Robinson, and many others, think handicapping is done after nominations. A handicapping exercise is undertaken at the time of a horse's last race and the rating remains unchanged and is then applied to its next race."

He's again confused this time between 'handicapping' and 'rating'. I don't know where he saw in my column the thought he attributes to me, but I suppose mind reading is just another one of Cliff's many imagined talents. 'Purpose' and 'methodology' are nice concepts, but he's living in a fools' paradise with his innocent view that they can't be corrupted. Let me try to educate Cliff regarding how corrupt 'handicappers' manipulate rating systems. A horse is rated, say, 78. He wins in a manner that should attract an additional 10 points. Instead, the 'handicapper' adjusts him upwards 5lb and starts saving to bet on that horse next time out.

One more example, Cliff: this time a true story from somewhere in the world. A horse, after a lay-off, comfortably wins his first race for new connections. He's given a 10lb upwards rating adjustment. The new owners, excitable sorts, enter him in a Grade 1 race instead of continuing handicapping in a higher grade. Before declarations are closed, the handicapper visits the owners and suggests the horse be entered in a suitable handicap race coming up so all and sundry, including the handicapper who has deliberately under-adjusted the horse for his victory, can make huge gambling profits. The owners reject his proposal. Because of unusual track conditions, the horse places in the Grade 1 race and is promptly reassessed by the handicapper to ensure he can never win another race for years.


financial fundamentals


If Cliff deigns to speak to the teeming hundreds of stakeholders who, in 1993, demanded the end of the handicapping/rating system, he'll hear many, many more examples of corruption endemic to rating systems.

Cliff writes, "I now turn to Mr Robinson's five-point 'financial fundamentals critical to profitability', and he puts divestment as the top. I wonder very seriously if Mr Robinson is fully aware of the current status of the industry as it relates to the decline of the crucial ownership base, horse population for racing, and the real prospects of the promoting company achieving profitability at current sales turnover."

I am, Cliff. Are you aware that failing companies are often turned around by new ownership, especially ownership unburdened by red tape or obsolete thinking? Junior Power Pair partner Ainsley 'Jimmie' Walters, whose ability to publicly embarrass himself seems bottomless, followed up your dismissal of divestment with his own letter to the editor three days later in which he declared Caymanas Park's divestment impossible based on the following inanity: "... If the Government ... owns and operates CTL at a loss, taxes unpaid and all, how in the world would divestment to a private entity, which will be required to pay taxes, sustain profitability?" Anybody else hear the 'pee, pee, cluck, cluck' sounds?

Just seven days later, The Gleaner reported DBJ's publication of CTL's divestment RFP. It appears at least two groups are considering making bids, including Supreme Ventures. Additionally, Government is already in possession of an unsolicited offer from racing stakeholders backed by a commercial bank.


American invention


So, the Power Pair's argument of 'once a failure, always a failure' is just arrant nonsense. Government is limited in what it can do and CTL's current management well below corporate standard. In 2013, CEO Cedric Stewart, during a radio interview, assured punters that slot machines would be in every OTB by August. Two years later, we're still waiting.

Finally, Cliff's assertion that the principle of 'churn' is a foolish American invention is incredibly inept. It's a principle that governs how totes and real Bookmakers (none in Jamaica) operate worldwide. The simple facts are the more you return to punters, the more they bet and the more the promoter retains in the long run. In competition (and Jamaica is now subject to global competition), it gets worse as punters will gravitate to tracks paying better dividends and this magnifies the churn effect. If the 'churn' is so foolish, Cliff, why can't you find a single advanced tote in the developed world with a takeout in win/place/show pools in excess of about 15%?

Finally, Cliff regurgitates the payments CTL must make to establish that the takeout can't be reduced. Cliff needs to take his head out of the Caymanas racetrack sand and research why it's possible to have a 15% takeout elsewhere. The answer appeared in the article I partially reproduced from Italy that he dismissed without addressing a single point it made. Likewise, he dismisses Andre Baptiste's assertion that Trinidad purses were paid late by referring to an error allegedly made by Baptiste regarding Jamaica's Racing Rules. Cliff, stop avoiding the point. Was Baptiste correct or not when he reported Trinidad purses were paid late? BTW, Cliff, optional claiming races are conditions races, NOT handicap races.

If Cliff does some research rather than limiting his vision to the length of his nose, he'll soon realise that those countries with 15% takeouts and successful industries have tote monopolies (or independent bookies who pay high rights fees AND huge contributions to purses); no (or very few) OTBs; and point-of-sale commission costs of less than 2%. Why can't Jamaica likewise modernise its model, Cliff? In 1989-90, when the great Danny Melville introduced OTBs, it was revolutionary. Previously, off-track betting was conducted in a separate pool, hence had to cease 15 minutes to post time for security and collation of information. After the race, TWO different dividends were declared. Danny Melville introduced a new, computerised tote system that linked every bet placed islandwide into the tote, as a result of which pools grew exponentially and sales were revolutionised.

That 1989-90 revolution is a 2015 albatross because receivables, expenses for maintenance and customer inconvenience render OTBs a perennial source of problems for CTL. A phased plan by private-sector owners to replace OTBs (save for maybe four in big 'city' centres) with Internet betting will eliminate the middleman and enable CTL to cut the tote takeout accordingly. Established, compatible businesses like gas stations, cafes, or bars could become micro point-of-sale agencies at minimal commissions. Government can be lobbied to understand the reason why pool betting duties worldwide are below 2%. It's because governments understand the positive effect on crime and the value of back-end taxes generated by horse racing.

Cliff, you won't draw me into an argument about handicapping versus claiming. My position is that it's irrelevant to financial viability. However, I can try to educate you, Cliff, that the system you despise so much (in vogue since 1993) is NOT a claiming system. It's a selling system and that'll have to change if the choice is claiming over handicapping.

I hear you, Cliff. You can't comprehend how CTL could be turned around. Be still. It can be done by young, forward-thinking entrepreneurs with real knowledge of horse racing and information technology. They can transform wherever hosts racing into a 24/7 revenue-earning operation. Horse racing twice per week will continue, but in order to make horse racing work, new owners must see a bigger picture. You can't. They will.

Peace and love.

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to