With Cancellations, Less is the Only Option

This past Sunday, October 27, Belmont Park ran its first race on the card, but heavy rain and high winds forced cancellation immediately thereafter. Weather was also poor at Monmouth, but conditions held up a little better there, with the entire card running to completion.

Three Belmont races were included in the Sunday Featured schedule which, with the cancellation, reduced the number of races in the schedule from the usual 12 to nine.  But this total still represented 75 percent of the original number, above the 70 percent threshold to constitute a valid schedule per the Official Rules. Thus, the Featured schedule carried on.

The above scenario is not unheard of…but it’s relatively rare. We estimate that 3-5 Featured schedules a year are either reduced or cancelled, most of them happening either in the deep winter months or July/August when extreme temperatures can invade the northeast.  October or November?  That’s pretty unusual.

The Twitterverse and our email inbox was unusually ablaze this time, however.  Some players were not satisfied that they were forced to participate in a truncated schedule.  We speculate that this was partly to do with the fact that qualifiers to the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge are winding down, and players are eager to earn seats to the coveted event.

Trust us, we get it.  We really do.  We hate race cancellations just as much as you do.  It’s a pain in our butts to handle and, on top of that, we lose money on the deal.

Before we move on, let me say that, at the risk of tooting our own horns, I am certain that we spend far more time in constructing multi-track schedules than anyone has or ever will in the tournament space.  Eric Wing, as part of his role, is responsible for putting these together. He takes this duty deadly seriously, and I know of no one more qualified to do this than he.

Having handled this myself for many years, I can attest that this takes much more time than one would imagine.  We look at every race available and take into account multiple factors in crafting a schedule that we think best serves our players.  Weather, timing, race quality, field size, et al. The variables are too numerous to list fully.

For Sunday, we anticipated the bad weather in the northeast, and purposefully excluded any grass races there.  And, since Belmont stood to have the worst weather, we limited its usage to three races, so that a cancellation wouldn’t force us to scrap the schedule entirely.  We didn’t actually expect that Belmont would cancel (especially with an Empire 6 forceout scheduled)…but, in some ways, things actually happened according to plan.

I can probably go back over the years and point out a bucket full of instances where proper planning prevented schedule reductions or cancellations.  We feel it’s our job to plan ahead. This time we avoided a cancellation (by not using more than three Belmont races), but not a reduction.

On to the issue at hand.  The complaints and suggestions generally centered around two areas.  We’ll take them one by one:

  • HorseTourneys should be able to add races to a schedule in the event of cancellations

Currently, our policy is that we will never make changes to any Featured schedule on the actual day of that schedule.  If a track cancels the evening before, we’ll endeavor to make changes and communicate those, but once the morning comes, adding or changing the schedule is out.

Why do we draw such a hard line?

It’s important to understand the habits of tournament players.  One of the wonderful things about online tournament play is that one doesn’t need to be following along in real time.  Generally speaking, players understand that they are not at a disadvantage by preparing early, making selections and walking away.  And that’s exactly what they do—in very large numbers.

Of course, this is easy to do in Pick & Pray events, but our data shows that even in Live events, no more than 50 percent of entrants are actually participating in real time.  They’re playing (and winning) while still being able to enjoy the other things that weekend life offers.  We think that’s terrific and one of the key selling points of the product.

So imagine you’re someone with religious or family obligations on a Sunday; you prepare for the schedule and make your picks either the night before or early morning.  If changes are made, in the vast majority of cases, you’re not going to be able to adjust in time.

And communicating changes is practically impossible.  Our email open rates are about 20 percent at their highest (which is actually very high), and that’s within a day or so of being sent.  (Nevermind if they are actually read.)  Alerts on the website don’t do any good if the players aren’t around to see them.  It’s unlikely we’d be able to reach any more than 20-30 percent of those entered if changes were made.

So making changes to a schedule on the day-of is highly problematic.  It’s impossible to conclude that this would be anything but unfair.

OK, so if that’s out, what about an alternative?

  • HorseTourneys should include a number of “alternate” races (say 3-4) in the schedule that would be activated in the event of cancellations

This sounds pretty good at first blush.  Could we do it from a technical perspective?  Sure, it might be a bit messy, but it’s doable.

But is it something that solves the issues inherent in introducing changes?  We don’t think so.  And this isn’t a matter of not wanting to make the effort.

It’s human nature not to extend effort toward something that has a very low chance of occurring.  Let’s go back to our estimate of 3-5 Featured schedules a year being impacted by cancellations.  If we look at Saturday and Sunday only, that’s 3-5 schedules impacted out of a yearly total of 104 a year.  If we include Fridays, that’s 3-5 out of 156.   That’s 3.2 percent at most.

Adding 3-4 races would increase prep time by at least 25 percent.  Do we really believe that most players are going to prepare for those races ahead of time, for a 3 percent chance that they’ll be needed?  Meanwhile, the same communications challenges remain.  Even if this were offered, a meaningful percentage of players will not have even looked at those races.

Some might say, “That’s tough, the player knew they were available…it’s his responsibility.”  Again, that stance might sound good, but it doesn’t take into account the disenchantment that a large number of those players would feel by not having prepared for those races — especially if their inclusion materially affected their results.

Here’s the kind of exchange that we’d likely receive under these circumstances:

PLAYER:  Hi, HorseTourneys.  I know that some races were cancelled today and the alternate races were used in their place.  Unfortunately, I was tight on time last night and didn’t get a chance to prepare for those or make selections.  I would have won this tournament if those races hadn’t been used.  I think you should have just gone with the other races.  I’m pretty upset and would like you to refund my money or give me the prize I would have won.

HORSETOURNEYS SUPPORT: We’re sorry, but the rules are clear that in the event of cancellations, the alternate races are used.  It’s the responsibility of all players to prepare for those races.  There’s nothing we can do.

PLAYER: Yeah, I know what the rules say, but nobody thought that Belmont would cancel today.  This was a total surprise.  I feel like I got screwed here.  Please give me my money back.

In cases like this, we’d have the choice of sticking to our guns and pissing someone off, or providing refunds out of pocket. Obviously, neither of those options are good ones.

Barring an exception, Featured schedules on weekends contain at least 12 races.  This means that a Featured schedule is guaranteed to have nine races on Saturday or Sunday in order to meet the 70 percent threshold.  While we’d certainly prefer more, we think that this is still a number acceptable to the vast majority of players and that it is far preferable to an outright cancellation.  Moreover, having a set threshold gives us something to plan against when taking contingencies into account.

But most importantly, adherence to this rule allows players to know that they will never have to worry about late additions.  Picking winners is never easy, but at least it’s fun. Dealing with last-minute curveballs…not so much.