Industry Trends: Bragging Rights

Cal Expo Fantasy Harness league puts bettors’ eyes on California

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’: Members of the Cal Expo Fantasy Harness league gather in the winner’s circle at the track where they make picks against players nationwide. Photo courtesy of Azarik Sivatjian

When an idea is spawned that helps generate more than $400,000 in handle at one track during a season, it is worth taking notice and a pair of California residents think they have found a winning formula.

Like many great ideas, this potential game-changer for California started off as a thought shared between friends Steven Lake and Azarik Sivatjian. The pair enjoyed crunching numbers and betting the ponies, so the idea to combine the two while having some fun with their home track of Cal Expo in Sacramento was born into the Cal Expo Fantasy Harness League (CFHL).

Their idea was to create a set of rules and a format that was iron-clad for themselves and competitors to join into a fantasy competition that pitted them against each other over the course of the 54-date Cal Expo harness racing season. The Cal Expo season starts in late October through the first of May with Sivatjian and Lake regular handicappers on the live action.

“I love harness and I love Cal Expo,” Lake, a resident of Imperial Beach in southern California, said of his motivation to start the league in 2016. “I love doing all the prep for it and I have a good reputation as a winner.”

The format for the league has the racing season split into three league seasons with 17 dates in league season 1, 17 dates in league season 2, and 20 dates in league season 3. The CFHL was originally restricted to 12 players for the first league season.

Chris Schick, general manager at Cal Expo, liked the idea and tossed in a modest prize of $100 to the winner of each of the first two seasons with $50 going to second place and $25 for third. Players earn points based on how much their wagers pay out on each night with the top point-earner crowned champion at the end of each league season.

Lake and Sivatjian thought the competition of the league would be enough to keep the players fired up about doing their best handicapping on a nightly basis.

“While exchanging ideas and strategies, it became evident that the two of us shared many of the same thoughts and processes,” Sivatjian said of the birth of the league idea. “Including replay watching, chart and past performance review, finding hidden value among not-so-popular horses, and determining the most-likely trip that each horse would endure during its race. The partnership evolved more and more into a friendship where we started talking about more than just betting angles.”

Prior to the start of each race card, each member sends in their fantasy picks with $50 in play money for the program. Each member has $38 to spend on win bets with a limit of eight total win bets on a night with every dollar needing to be spent. The other $12 is to be used on a Pick-4 ticket with just one 20-cent version of the ticket allowed. 

“Steve threw out an idea where we could build upon the unseen popularity of the handicapper’s ego by creating a competition among competitive guys who want to prove that they are consistently the best,” Sivatjian said. “The CFHL concept was born, and it developed into something special.”

The only thing left to do was to see if people would want to play.

“We were hoping for 8-10 players, and originally sent out about 14 invitations across the nation along with the rules via Facebook,” Sivatjian said. “Within a couple days, we had 10 players. We actually had to expand it to 12 for season one, and start a waiting list. We sold it as a bragging-rights league with no money involved, and no one objected.”

KEEPING TRACK: Each player in the Cal Expo Fantasy Harness League must submit $50 in wagers, $38 of which is on win bests with the other $12 on a single 20-cent Pick-4 ticket.

Although the league does not directly put money into the betting pool, Lake estimated the group of now 15 players spends more than $400,000 on wagers during the Cal Expo season with the members spread across the continent. Sivatjian was the only member to live in Sacramento.

“When you’re perusing the program to make your selections for the fantasy league it helps solidify your thoughts for your actual wagers,” Lake said. “Cal Expo is opening up in October then the Facebook page will get busy. That is a fun part of it; there is a lot of trash talk and banter back and forth between the members.”

The racetrack has been kind to the group with Lake hearing the league mentioned on the live air show frequently and a pair of races being sponsored during the Cal Expo season. Dave Weaver of TVG and Dave Brower, formerly of Cal Expo, were both vocal about the league on simulcast broadcasts leading Lake to believe the popularity of this idea is just in its infancy.

League standings are kept throughout the Cal Expo race meet, with the players meeting in a private Facebook group to “talk trash.”

Lake said the league was quite simple to set up, with the rules and format already working quite well and getting handicappers from across the country invigorated about the California harness racing scene and putting money into the betting pools. He envisioned an online ‘home base’ for the league with hopeful expansion to other tracks across the U.S. and perhaps the world with players able to sign up online and drop their picks into the virtual league. Sponsorships and advertisements could be built into the site as a potential high-traffic area of harness racing’s online presence.

“That’s our miracle future outcome and we just need to figure out how to get there,” Lake said. “We put together the idea and put together the rules. There are no gray areas with the rules and we have players that have played and players anxious to join. I think as it worked for Cal Expo it could work for other tracks.

“Let’s get our sport improved, starting at Cal Expo.”

by Nicholas Oakes

Photo and charts courtesy of Axarik Sivatjian

To see more from the October 2017 issue of Hoof Beats, click here.

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