Jason Beem's Thursday Column for Mar. 10, 2022

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March 10th, 2022

"Hey Jason do you do the morning line at Tampa? How about Colonial? Grants Pass Downs?" The answer to all three is a resounding NO! On Monday I wrote about thankless jobs at the race track.  Well I forgot to add morning line maker to that list! It's actually a job I think would be really fun and a mathematical and analytical challenge. But I still don't want to do it just cause when you're wrong everyone gets on your case.  

That being said though, today I'm very happy to welcome Tampa Bay Downs morning line maker Mark Luther. We talk about doing a line, his background in racing, and much more! Enjoy! 

Jason Beem: How did you first get interested in horse racing? 

Mark Luther: This is a story that I love to tell, because you just can't make something like this up. I became interested in horse racing because my childhood church was located next to a farm and harness racing training facility in mid-Michigan which was utilized by a member of the well-known and established Sweeney racing family. On the day of our outdoor picnic, I saw the horses training and I was immediately mesmerized. I wandered across the property line at 8 years old and stood in the brush (which was as tall as I was) to watch them go by. The horses were often shying away from me, and I learned later that the trainer didn't know why, because he couldn't see me. Finally, he discovered me and my blonde hair, and grew tired of dealing with the swerving. He stopped a horse named Commander Time and yelled out "hey kid, do you want a ride". I couldn't believe it, and that side saddle ride on the sulky led to me being taken in by the family, and eventually a job as a groom, assistant trainer, and I even drove in county fair harness races, all before the age of 16. I couldn't wait to sleep in tack rooms at Hazel Park, Detroit Race Course, and "up on the hill" at the very cold Northville Downs (winter racing) during breaks from school, and wake up and train/compete with the big stables of that time. Since then, my interests switched more to Thoroughbred racing after I relocated to northern Ky. I have stayed as close to the game as possible primarily as a handicapper, but I have also done some bloodstock agent work, and I have been active at the Kentucky & Florida sales helping others develop short lists, all while maintaining a corporate sales career.

JB: This is your first season doing a morning line at Tampa Bay Downs, had you ever done the line for a track before? 

ML: Yes, but not publicly. I have always considered line making as a bucket list occupation once I retire, which is still a few years away for me. However, early last season I heard what turned out to be a false rumor that Tampa Bay Downs had suddenly lost their morning line odds maker. With a great deal of uncertainty of how he would react, I immediately contacted TB Downs GM, Pete Berube, and I expressed interest. Much to my surprise, rather than sending people for me with strait jackets, he informed me that the position was not available, but that he would allow me to submit lines for the remainder of the meet. Without any knowledge of how to properly balance a board, via the points system, I submitted nearly every racing day. I also made practice lines on the weekends during the off-season and tested my abilities against others at different tracks. During this time, I was happy with my results, and I proved to myself that I could do this as well as most current odds makers, except for one. I would like to say that I learned that David Aragona in New York is the Almighty in my book. He was one that I simply could not keep up with. His accuracy at Belmont and especially Saratoga are truly mind boggling, especially with 2yo first time starters and horses with European form. Anyway, those efforts lead to me being chosen to fill an emergency need at Tam this season.

JB: I think a lot of people think the morning line is your picks in order, but it's really not right? Can you explain what you're trying to do with the morning line? 

ML: Yes, and this is by far the most misunderstood aspect of odds making. Even many in the horse business don't seem to understand this. My mission is to accurately predict how the public will react to each race. This means that the morning line favorite and first three picks are NOT necessarily my picks as a handicapper, although sometimes they are very similar. That said, when a ML favorite wins a race, which the public did not make the favorite, I often receive text messages from people in my racing network, who should know better, with comments like "great pick, should have listened to you" ... and full disclosure, I often verbally root for these horses and against favorites which I did not lay down as the ML favorite, even though it is totally irrational to do so. I guess I've learned that there is a certain ownership that goes along with the morning line favorites and first three picks which I have to live with.

JB: Is it hard to separate you as a handicapper vs. what the public is likely to do in a race? 

ML: Quoting a line from the movie Moneyball, when Billy Bean is trying to convince Scott Hatteberg that a transition from catcher to first base will not be hard, and he is immediately corrected by Ron Washington with "IT'S INCREDIBLY HARD"... I have found this to be the toughest part of the job. As much as I understand my role of public speculation, I find that my handicapping beliefs sometimes lead me to decisions that I feel the public will follow, and often they do, but sometimes they don't. Also, I need to mention that my overall betting results have honestly taken a nose dive since I started doing this professionally. I am attributing this to having difficulties looking back a second time, 3-4 days later, on races which I have already evaluated numerous times to determine public odds, and then trying handicapping them again using my traditional methods, angles, etc. As a result, I have really backed off personal betting until I feel that I have adjusted to this new process successfully.

JB: Have you noticed any subtleties at Tampa so far with how the public bets? Maybe any trainers or jockeys that take more money than you'd normally think?

ML: It has surprised me how loyal the public is by and large to Beyer speed figures, especially when it involves distance and/or surface switches. I really had to learn this lesson the hard way via ML misses, which I under laid horses (odds too high) going sprint to route, turf to dirt, etc. The public really doesn't seem to care if a horse runs on railroad tracks at any distance. If the Beyers compare with the others, the horse will get supported accordingly. Also, you must learn to adjust for the top trainers and riders, and the big betting ownership groups, especially when they are utilizing previously successful angles, by as much as 50% (4/1 = 2/1, etc.),  The other big one is pedigree analysis, especially with first time starters and horses trying turf for the first time. I have found this aspect to move the board from long shot range (10/1+) to contender range (4/1)

JB: It's a job that's almost impossible not to make a few mistakes on a card and even in most races, how have you dealt with the times when you maybe are off on a line? 

ML: I am new in the position, so I take these very, very disproportionately hard to the point that it makes those in my racing network laugh. I track something that I have named myself the "bad line percentage", and I am currently over 95% for the season, and I am holding steady with an accurate morning line favorite percentage at nearly 80%, which is typically 7 of 9 races. However, I have quickly learned the morning line odds makers are treated much like major league umpires. We can lay 70 horses down accurately in a row, and it goes largely unnoticed, but a single severe miss will cause boos from the crowd. The first bad miss that I remember occurred early in the meet, when Maria Bowersock ran a horse named Happy in Heels for the second time. My first quick glance, reflected a horse that had ran once and PID (where form usually doesn't hold that well here) went off a long shot first time out, made the lead and finished near last, beaten double digit lengths. Without much thought, I laid her down at 12-1 in a 7 horse field. I couldn't attend the races that day, but I was working at home, and listening to TVG, and it wasn't long before I felt that I had made national news with this mistake. They quickly picked up on the "speed and fade" angle, and pointed out that Happy in Heels set opening 1/2 mile pace of I believe 44 change before she tired, Matt Carrothers called my line "A JOKE", and I felt like he might as will as published it on the neon sign in Times Square, NY. I was so embarrassed that I felt the need to explain my myself on social media, to all my friends, and even knock on a few of my neighbors doors and explain myself, none of which I did. Happy in Heels went off at 5-2, and she finished 2nd. Since then, I have learned to absorb these better. I take notes to look back on these later, etc., but they still seem to occur occasionally, and every one of them makes me neurotic at some level. 

JB: Tampa Bay Derby is coming up this weekend, do you feel a lot more pressure to be right for the big races? Do you spend a little more time on those? 

ML: Yes and yes. I also felt this way on Sam Davis day. I feel a special accountability to be accurate in all stakes races, and so far I have done reasonably well. I have blocked out anywhere from 8-10 hours to do the card, which will need to be done on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning. In addition to the usual analysis, I am going to look back on historical runnings of these races and analyze how the public reacted to those with similar profiles. I am also concerned about European form appearing in the Hillsborough Stakes and Florida Oaks turf races, and I could go as far as reaching out to experts at this, such as David Aragona in New York and others for special guidance, if needed.

JB: How long does it generally take to do a morning line?  And do you watch a lot of the races during the day to see how the odds shake out during betting or just look back at what they closed at? 

ML: The time has shortened some with a little experience, but I still need approximately 4 hours at night and an hour in the morning to proofread, make final adjustments, and submit. I also watch the board for every race, every day, from anywhere by phone, computer, or on site. I record the results, and I take notes for the future for anything that I think needs to be remembered.

JB: Do you have a favorite race or moment from this first season working at TBD? 

ML: The accuracy of the first two stakes races, The Inaugural and The Sandpiper, were very important to me, and I was very happy that day. But, I'm going to fall back on the very first race of the season. I laid down Robert O'Connor's She Dazzle as a very confident 5-2 favorite. However, when the betting started, she her odds varied anywhere from 5/1 - 8/1, and she was a 3rd choice at best. This continued all the way until a couple of minutes to post. Seeing this was pure torture, and it had me thinking all kinds of irrational thoughts such as "this is harder than I thought", "what have I gotten myself into" etc. .... but in the final 2 minutes she dropped in like a well thrown Peyton Manning pass to right on the money at 5-2 as they loaded in the gate, she won the race at 8-5 after her priced dropped at the final flash.....I'll never forget the smile on my face :) 

JB: I know you're a horseplayer, do you have a score you're most proud of at the windows? 

ML: There have been many fantastic moments, and many occurred last season, during which I had one of my best handicapping runs of all time. I attribute this success to an enhancement that I was allowed to make to my handicapping efforts last year. Simply, to get out of the house that we were confined to, because of the pandemic, I made the decision to get up early and attend the morning workouts in the grandstand. During this time, I developed a passion for clocking, and I was fortunate to sit close to all of the jockey's agents, because they were not allowed on the backside last year. Many trainers also come to the front side to watch their horses breeze. It really surprised me how many betting leads (some good, some not) developed from what I saw and heard in the mornings. There were many happy moments, but if I had to pick one, it would be when I was there for a work by Keith Nation's Amber Paradise. I've forgotten the final time, but it was the most visually impressive work from the gate of the entire meet. Also occurring at a similar time, was an agent's excitement over a horse that his jockey was working for a farm in Ocala .... anyway both of these horses drew in together as first time starters in the last race on a Friday, and I believe both were 10/1+ on the morning line. I rushed out of work, and boxed these two with a couple of others in a trifecta. Amber in Paradise won the race at 8/1 and the other led the whole way, and hung on by a nose for 3rd at 34-1. The trifecta was $1100 for $1, and I remember taking a picture of the 11 hundred dollar bills and sending it to my wife from the car. Of course, I gave her one when I got home. I've cashed tickets for much more than this, but the thrill of my efforts in the morning paying off was something that hadn't really experienced before, and it provided a special newly found type of satisfaction.