Racing and Poker

Racing was my first gambling love.  Poker was my second.  Racing, I was pretty much always terrible at.  Poker I was ok.  Just like a million other teenage kids in the late 90s, when I saw Rounders I was so intrigued by the idea of playing poker.  Here was a game that if you put in the work and made good decisions you could make money at.  I bought all the books, Super System, Theory of Poker, Caro’s book of tells, and like 20 others.  I studied, I played, I lost, I studied, I played, I lost some more, I studied, I played, I won a little, and so on.

My summer job was as a surveillance operator at my mom’s poker room.  I had 8 hour shifts to sit and watch hands and guess what I thought players would turn over for their hand.  It was great practice.  Then after college I started going back to horse racing (you can see how that went HERE) .  I occasionally played poker after that but never in any serious way.   Getting to the rooms was too inconvenient when you could just get all the racing action on youbet and TVG from home.

My first years working in racing, 2004 to about 2009, I remember there was always the constant talk of “poker did this (insert idea) and boomed!”  Almost every decision I heard management make was related to what poker did to create popularity during the explosion of 2002 to 2005.  Remember there was a time poker was EVERYWHERE.  In racing they tried, but it clearly never took off to the degree poker did.   I remember there was NHC coverage for a bit that was kind of similar to how they showcased the World Series of Poker.  I think I still have a DVD of it somewhere.  But it just never exploded or even really left the ground in terms of excitement and popularity like poker.

What poker did wasn’t all that complex.  They showcased the game, they talked of the mathematics, and they showed everyday people and pros winning lots of money.  Me and every other punk kid watching on TV said “I can do that!”  They didn’t shy away from the complexity of the game, but rather showed guys agonizing and considering all the dozens of factors that would lead to a fold or call.  I remember them talking about pot odds, implied odds, and concepts like that.  ON TV!  There was some dumbing down, but they never avoided going into the intricacies that really made the game interesting.  You could see people winning and if you wanted to look up a player’s results you could go to Hendon Mob or CardPlayer or other sites and look up all their results.  If I Google the Top 10 results from the NHC the first two links I get are from the National Homebrew Competition.

Part of the difficulty of being able to showcase winners in racing, is I don’t think there are many.  With the high takeout and other factors, it’s just hard to get over the hump to be profitable, let alone make a living at it.  I think I know two people who genuinely make their living betting the races, and I know a lot of people who bet the races.  I remember one racing entity I worked at once and asked how many of our VIP’s made money.  The answer was zero.   There are more pro poker players making a living in poker in a 1 mile radius around the Commerce Casino in LA or the Bellagio than there are pro-horseplayers in the entire country.  I really do believe that.   I’m not talking just about millionaires or anything.  Just someone trying to grind out 50 or 80k to make a living at it.  In racing it’s a huge achievement just to end the year in the black, let alone enough to make a living.  Obviously the many diverse participants in poker and racing have different goals.  Some just enjoy a day betting every so often.  Some are weekend players.  Some are serious amateur players.  Some are action junkies (holla)  Some want to be pros.  There is certainly room and need for all those kinds of players in both poker and racing.  Not everyone wants to be a pro and that’s fine.

But that brings me to something else I’ve noticed different about poker and racing and kind of what spurred on this post originally.   Some friends were discussing on twitter yesterday people talking about ticket structure.  A couple said it was annoying, and a couple said it’s helpful.  It’s actually something that’s not really talked about in racing circles hardly at all, whereas in poker, betting decisions are dissected CONSTANTLY and in many ways.  Hand analysis videos by people like Doug Polk have hundreds of thousands of views.  Go to Two Plus Two Forums and there are literally tens of thousands of hand breakdowns and conversations.   Poker Youtube star Andrew Neeme (highly recommend his vlogs) spends his videos discussing hands and working how he can get better at playing them.   There are also facebook groups like Hand History Lounge where the whole purpose is to get group feedback on how you played a hand.  My experiences have been in Poker, players actively seek out bettering their betting and play.  In racing, almost nobody does.  People seek out becoming better handicappers, but not so much better bettors.

In poker, most people are going to win with pocket Aces a decent chunk of the time.  In racing many people will be able to hit a Pick 3 or Pick 4 on occasion.  But did you play the Aces properly if you only got 4 bets from other players when you could have possibly gotten 6 if you played it differently?  Was your Pick 4 ticket a good one because you won and profited $200?  Or could you have played it smarter for less and still hit?  Or could you have hit it 3 times if you backed up your strongest opinions and were right?

In poker it seems that if you bring questions on strategy to players they will have a dialogue with you, and are excited to do so.  In racing, people think you’re just attacking them.  And in some ways I get it.  People post their tickets hoping to get encouragement from others and maybe have others follow along.  I always root for my friends tickets on social media, even if I think they’re making a bad play from a structural standpoint.  In my experiences, questioning their ticket structure has just led to them getting pissed, especially coming from me, who, well, you know.

I think good betting dialogue would be a good thing in general for racing and for people who are participating in betting.  But from what I’ve seen the desire to have those conversations, at least on social media, seem to be pretty dismal.   Maybe the thing to do is to create a forum or place where people can actively seek out advice and exchange thoughts on plays, as opposed to a more open forum like twitter.  And again, in many ways I understand why people don’t want to engage in those conversations.  People want to play the game, try and pick some winners, and have some fun.  Or they think they’re already great at it, despite what I’m sure their numbers would say.  Plus they don’t want to be corrected by know it alls, or pros, or anyone else.   As I said, I know many have different goals with playing the races or poker.  Just have been really curious to see why there’s such a massive difference in how poker players and horse players seek out/value those discussions.

Just thinking out loud, would love to hear folks thoughts in the comments.

Behind the Mic—Guest Jonathan Horowitz

Jonathan with Michael Wrona at Hollywood Park in 1999

Jonathan with Michael Wrona at Hollywood Park in 1999

Jonathan Horowitz was calling races at big national and international tracks like Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Lone Star Park, Gulfstream, Goodwood and many others at the young age of 14.  After going to college at USC and pursuing graduate work at the University of Maryland, Jonathan has returned to announcing as the full-time racecaller at both Zia Park in New Mexico and Arapahoe Park in Colorado.

How did you catch the horse racing bug?

JH: Going to the racetrack was a Horowitz family activity for both my father and his father and then for my parents, brother, and me.  I was fascinated by how the announcer was part of the live experience at the racetrack by giving a running commentary as the race was unfolding.  There’s no way to rehearse what to say ahead of time like an actor or actress.  So I used to bring binoculars and a tape recorder to the racetrack and see if I could commentate the race.  And I discovered my passion.

You had the unique experience of getting to call races at the track when you were just a kid.  How’d that all come about and tell us about getting to call races at some big tracks before you were even allowed to drive a car!

JH: My first race call was at Los Alamitos Race Course in October 1999 when I was 14 years old, and I became the youngest person ever to announce a horse race in the United States.  About five months before, the Los Alamitos management had first noticed me practicing announcing with my family in the Vessels Club.  I thought they were going to tell me that I was disturbing people.  Instead they were inquisitive about such a young person who wanted to announce.  I met owner Ed Allred, general manager Rick Henson, announcer Ed Burgart, publicity director Orlando Gutierrez, and guest relations head Julie Farr, and I am so grateful for their giving me my start.  They asked if I would like to announce the American Quarter Horse Youth Association Stakes for horses owned by kids who were 18 and under on Challenge Championship Night.  Having a young announcer fit with their goal of getting youth involved in horse racing.  What I remember most about that first race is that the headphones were too big for my head and fell off in the middle of the race.  I still see the image of my catching the headphones out of midair and finishing the call.

 After going to college you took the helm at Arapahoe Park.  Tell us about that track and your first announcing job!

JH: I was in the final semester of my master’s degree program at the University of Maryland and accepted the job at Arapahoe Park on my birthday, March 30, 2011.  I could not have asked for a better first full-time race calling position than Arapahoe Park.  The feeling among everyone—from the fans to the horsemen to the management—is like a family.  The racetrack is expanding, and I take tremendous pride in being part of a growing racetrack through my announcing, writing articles about the races, teaching “Wagering Do’s and Donut’s” classes, and starting our social media presence.  Last year Chips All In became the first horse that has ever raced in Colorado to compete in the Breeders’ Cup.

You’re also the announcer at Zia Park in Hobbs, NM.  Is there actually anything to do in Hobbs other than go to the track?

JH: One of the most rewarding benefits of being an announcer is getting to travel and live in parts of the United States that I never thought I would visit.  The area around Hobbs has some attractions that I think epitomize Americana.  There’s the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, Texas about the rock-n-roll pioneer who created a sound that subsequently influenced The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and so many others.  Carlsbad Caverns shows the beauty that can sprout in the Southwest deserts.  Hobbs is a growing city with some of the friendliest families I’ve ever met.

You have a few months off in the wintertime, what do you do when not announcing horse races?

JH: For the past three years I worked at the Library of Congress Publishing Office in Washington, D.C.  I wrote a book with Susan Reyburn and Athena Angelos titled Football Nation about 400 years of history of football in American life that was published last October.  I have also authored a set of sports trivia cards titled The One and Only and contributed to the publication of books about presidential campaign posters and Hebraica at the Library.  I love the idea of being creative through both my writing and my announcing.

Are you a handicapper and bettor?  If so, what are some of your most memorable scores at the windows?

JH: In general I don’t bet on horse races.  However I do have to handicap the races and give my top-three picks on camera for each race at Zia and Arapahoe when the horses are in the paddock.  I want to see my picks do well, especially when I have family, friends, and fans following them.

Most of us have one memory or another about the great Luke Kruytbosch, what do you remember about him?

JH: I still have the program Luke Kruytbosch autographed for me when I first met him on November 27, 1998, when I was 13 years old.  Looking back, that first meeting set off a tremendous chain reaction.  Here was one of the best announcers of his generation encouraging me to pursue my passion at a young age.  The way he selflessly welcomed my family and me into his booth was the impetus for me to contact other announcers and give this my all, and within a year I called my first race over a public address system.  I guess we never really know how tremendous an impact a smile and a friendly face can have on the world.

In 2014 you have a “Call Any Race You Want” card, which race would you cash it in to call?

JH: The race right after the Kentucky Derby.

As a Southern California native, what were your best memories of Hollywood Park?

JH: The Hollywood Park press box is where I learned to announce.  Hollywood announcers Michael Wrona and Vic Stauffer also became friends and mentors for me at a very young age.  I could not have asked for a better boost in confidence than having two top announcers at one of the best racetracks in the country open their doors to me.  My favorite part of Hollywood Park was being really quiet in the announcer’s booth and imagining all the racing legends that ran there and the distinct raspy voice of legendary announcer Harry Henson when the booth shook in the wind.

If I’m in Denver at Arapahoe and the races are done, where are you sending me to get a great meal for dinner?  Same question with Hobbs!

JH: In Denver, Eastside Kosher Deli, and mention my name.  In Hobbs, our Centennial Steakhouse at Zia Park.  Patrick Leckrone, the director of food and beverage, and Mark Cowgill, the executive chef, put together a tasty new menu last year.  And I would be happy to invite anyone who visits me in Denver or Hobbs over for a home-cooked meal.

Jonathan in present day form...on a cake

Jonathan in present day form…on a cake

Behind the Mic—Guest Vic Stauffer

Vic and I in the booth at Hollywood Park, 2009

Vic and I in the booth at Hollywood Park, 2009

Our guest today is Vic Stauffer.  Vic has been announcing here in the States for decades and was the announcer at the much beloved Hollywood Park which closed it’s doors this past December.  Vic’s called at tracks like Gulfstream Park, Hialeah, Golden Gate Fields, Detroit Race Course and I believe even a few days at old Yakima Meadows!  I’ve gotten to know Vic personally over the years and he’s always been very gracious and a great mentor.  He’s also been able to call some of the best horses over the last decade including Ghostzapper, Lava Man and of course the great Zenyatta!  His call of Cesario in the 2005 American Oaks is still my favorite race call ever!

We all remember our first race call, what do you remember about yours?

VS: My first live call was at the old Caliente racetrack in Tijuana. I was working for the Racing Form calling charts. The regular announcer didn’t show up. They asked my to call at about 10 minutes to post. I didn’t have time to get nervous. It went well enough and they let me call the entire day.  

Most announcers have had to move a lot to pursue this dream, how has that part of the business been for you?

VS: I was never a big fan of hopscotching around the country. However, I knew very well if I expected to reach my goal of calling premiere races at an elite facility I would have to travel. In 2000 that all changed with the stability of long meets at Gulfstream and Hollywood. Now at 54 I’d rather kiss a buffalo’s butt than go on the road again. That part of my horse racing career is over.

You were a big part of Joel Rosario’s career during his rise in Southern California as his agent.  He’s become one of the premier jockeys in the States and the World for that matter.  Did you see this coming?

VS:  Joel has immense physical gifts. He began to struggle in So. Cal because his work ethic and commitment began to wane. He was making very good money but lacked the drive to be special and dominant. In 2009 the light clicked on and the rest is history. 

You’ve been active on racing chat boards over the years. What are the pluses and minuses of being able to interact so easily with bettors/fans?

VS:  The message boards are very frustrating. I participated because I want to share our great game with people who are true fans and appreciate an insiders perspective. However, the internet as we all know is an anonymous sanctuary for morons and worse yet people who hate. People who can only feel good about themselves when attacking others. It takes all the fun away. Now that I’m a racing official I’ve scaled my participation back drastically. I’m still there lurking and watching. Hopefully answering a question or two to help real fans.

Zenyatta..you got to call her several times…which race and call were the most memorable for you?

VS:  Queenie!! What a debt of gratitude I owe to her. Calling 8 of her 19 wins was a privilege I will always cherish. My two favorites are her 2nd career start when it was so obvious she was ‘once in a lifetime’ special. Also her Vanity when she ran down St. Trinians. No way she gets up that day and somehow she found a way to nail a filly who was running a truly huge race herself. Goosebumps!!

Barbaro…you got to call him multiple times and I believe you picked him in the Derby, what was it about him that you saw that made him so special? 

VS: Barbaro could have played for the Oakland Raiders. Just win baby! Calling and watching him, although physically they didn’t look alike, reminded me a lot of Affirmed. He was all racehorse. You just knew whatever it took he was going to find a way to win. Then came the Kentucky Derby and he showed an entirely new dimension. Total domination. That day for the first time he showed he could be a horse for the ages. I strongly believe he had the stuff to win the Triple Crown. In my opinion the class and fight he exhibited after the injury solidifies that take. Another great champion that I personally owe so much. 

You’re a handicapper, what’s one of your most memorable scores at the windows?

VS: Don’t remember what year. Calling the last at Hollywood Park. I was alive to two horses in the pick six. Flip The Penny who was paying $6000 and Twin Fin coming back at $117,000. Only two with a chance turning for home. Locked together the entire final furlong. Inches apart all the way to the wire. By virtue of the fact this story is the answer to question #7 I think you can guess who won it.  Called the photo too. NICE!!!

You’re known for having lots of guests up to the booth.  Any crazy guests or situations you’ve had up there during a race?

VS: I loved sharing the booth with people. Almost all of the wacky situations were a result of people rooting for horses they’d bet on. Of course you remind them they must remain totally quiet. However, the adrenaline rush of cashing a ticket can cause even the most controlled to lose it. Had a guy at Gulfstream jump right in front of me and block the field just they were turning for home. That time my adrenaline kicked in. I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and threw him to the floor like I was King Kong Bundy. Another time I had THE JERSEY BOYS up to watch. I spent so much time trying to be cool and show off before the race I didn’t properly prepare and called the wrong winner. NICE!!. Not.

We all have memories of Luke Kruytbosch, what’s one of your favorite memories of Big Luke?

VS: I learned so much from Luke. While a great race caller indeed, it was how he treated people that made him so special. From an excited fan to any member of the staff he worked with. I’m convinced it was that as much as his talent that helped him advance to the pinnacle of his profession. Walk in any place within a ten mile radius of a track he was working and it was just like Norm walking into Cheers. One of the best people and announcers I ever had the privilege to know. RIP.

Tell me about that last race at Hollywood Park in December.  What was going through your mind just before, during and after that last call?

VS:  The last race at Hollywood Park was a culmination of 6 months of careful thought and introspection. I was keenly aware of how important that call was. It went though many incarnations leading up. I thought about it every day. I have many people to thank for their input in helping me make final decisions regarding what to say. Ron Charles, Rick Baedeker, Bob Miserski, James Ough, Rolly Hoyt, Frank Miramahdi, Larry Collmus, Kip Hannon, Mike Tanner, Michael Wrona, Ed Burgart and my great wife Tina who was so sick of me pining over that call she’d have signed off on closing the track two days earlier. I was running through what I wanted to say in the minutes leading up. It got worse and more disjointed with each rehearsal. Really bad. As they were going into the gate I suddenly remembered something I always reminded myself before any big race or nerve wracking call. This is exactly where you always wanted to be. Have fun. When I thought of that a calmness came over me enough to know it wasn’t going to suck. My very first thought after turning off the mic was I’d like another chance to do better. Not long after a relief set in that it was good enough to not embarrass great fans and a great racetrack. Not long after that the sadness of knowing Hollywood Park was gone overwhelmed me. I’m still waiting for that to go away.

What’s next for Vic Stauffer?

VS:  There’s a good chance I’ve called my last race. I want to stay in California with my family. If you haven’t noticed we are blessed with some of the greatest callers ever in this state. Frank Miramahdi, Ed Burgart. Michael Wrona and Trevor Denman. Don’t think calling here is a viable option. Definitely not going on the road again with one possible exception. If and when the legendary Tom Durkin hangs em up in New York I would covet the opportunity to take my shot at calling the next Triple Crown Winner. As for the immediate, I’m currently a California State Steward and intend to follow that path. Bout time I gave something back to this sport which has given so much to me.

Thanks Vic!