Falcon Points

Sam Houston Race Park is primed for one of its best years yet when live racing returns on Friday

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Live racing will return to Sam Houston Race Park this Friday night, and the 26th season of racing could be one of the best yet. The thoroughbred meet kicks off with a 10-race card filled with more purse money, solid sized fields and better quality racing than we have seen in past years.

Thanks to the state Legislature actually helping the industry by earmarking $25 million annually for purse money throughout the state this year, 2020 has a chance to be the best quality of racing since the track's dynamic opening season in 1994.

Trying to compete

Purse money is simply the dollars paid out to the jockeys, owners and trainers. The more money, the better quality of racing. The better racing, the more people will bet. The more people bet, the more money goes into purses. It's the circle of horse racing life.

Sam Houston and the other Texas tracks have had trouble competing for horses with neighboring states. Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arkansas are supplement their tracks with additional forms of gaming, mostly casinos, where most of the money is being bet by Texans. So the purse boost will help level the playing field.

Big races

Sam Houston has done a terrific job of staying relevant by going to shorter race meets, and building up purses through simulcasting the rest of the year. The thoroughbred meet will have 39 days and run through March 28. The quarter horses start shortly thereafter and run through May. The higher purses should bring better horses in both breeds, and bring more national attention to the track.

The biggest race day will be a special Sunday card on Jan. 26, with over a million dollars paid out in purse money, headed up by the $300,000 Houston Ladies Classic, which has become an early season national staple for fillies and mares.

That same day, the track will host a qualifier for the NTRA Handicapping Championship. The event will award two spots to the championship in Las Vegas, with an option for 2020 or 2021. It will be a $1,000 live bankroll tournament.

Most weeks races will be held on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Post times are noon Wednesday, 6:45 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. In March, the track will add three Tuesday cards as well. When the quarter horses start on April 13, they will run on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays

The most important thing...

Let's face it, as much fun as the races are to watch, gambling on them is what makes the world go round.

Betting on the ponies is one of the most fun ways to gamble. As in the past, the track will provide free tip sheets, and SportsMap will also provide free picks.

Sam Houston's racing surfaces are two of the safest and most fair in the country. Thoroughbred races are held on both dirt and turf, although weather sometimes forces races off the turf course. The track will run rain or shine, unless the weather is deemed dangerous. In the past, when the main track is listed as sloppy, horses on or near the early lead tend to fare very well.

Also, the Blitz will be broadcasting live several times throughout the meet, including opening night.

Fun ways to gamble

If you have never bet on the ponies, there are multiple wagers available in each race. Most are designed to bet a little to win a lot. If you want to learn how to gamble on the horses, the audio book Acing Racing 2016 is the perfect place to start. If you are a poker or sports gambler, the book explains things in ways you will easily understand.

In addition to live racing, Sam Houston has simulcasting from tracks so you can bet places from all over the world. However, there is nothing like live racing. It is a good family night out, and if you go, make sure you watch at least one race from the rail outside to get a feel for the power and majesty of the animals. There will be also some of the regular attractions if you aren't into the racing - .50 beer nights on Fridays, camel and ostrich racing, and more entertainment.

If you have never been, make it a point to check it out at least once this meet. You will be entertained.

Sam Houston Race Park is located at 7575 North Sam Houston Parkway West. For more information, check out shrp.com.


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The numbers show a concerning trend. Composite image by Brandon Strange

Michael Brantley signed a two-year, $30M deal with the Houston Astros prior to 2019 to little fanfare. The then 32 year-old was coming off of yet another injury riddled season with the Cleveland Indians, and the signing was seen as a safe gamble (if there is such a thing). Brantley would produce if healthy, but would he ever be healthy?

Brantley went on to have two of the healthiest seasons of his career, putting up big numbers for the Astros. Across two seasons, Brantley slashed .309/.370/.497 with a 134 wRC+. The Astros got the best version of Brantley, who had slashed .295/.351/.430 with a 114 wRC+ during his tenure with the Indians.

Brantley is set to hit the market once again, and the Astros face a couple of questions. One, is Brantley worth bringing back? Two, is Brantley worth a qualifying offer?

Hard Hit % - 37.3%

Barrel % - 4.9%

K % - 15%

BB % - 9.1%

Chase % - 20.1%

(All numbers from 2020)

Brantley's greatest skill is controlling the strike zone. He forces pitchers to come to him, and he's only getting better at it. His chase % was the best of his career, and it was 6% better than his 26% mark in 2019. Brantley was t-19th in MLB in chase % with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Yasmani Grandal. Brantley combines this enviable level of plate discipline with another enviable trait: he doesn't swing and miss. His 16.4% whiff % was in the 93rd percentile of MLB. By comparison, Acuña and Grandal were in the 29th and 26th percentiles respectively. Those two don't chase often because they keyhole one spot that they know they can drive. Brantley forces pitchers to come in the zone similar to those two, but he usually doesn't swing and miss when the pitchers do come to him.

However, there are some alarming trends for a hitter now well onto the wrong side of 30.

His 15% K% was the highest it's been since 2011, when he was a 24-year-old in his first full big league season. It was a 4.6% increase in K% over last season. Brantley's 16% whiff % is far and away the worst it's been in his career, and it's 5.6% worse than it was in 2019. That 5.6% is the difference between swinging-and-missing the second least in MLB and swinging-and-missing the 11th least. That's a steep drop over one season. Remember, Brantley chased pitches outside the zone the least he ever had in his career. That increase in whiff % mostly came on strikes. His contact % on strikes dropped 4.8% from 2019.

A big indicator of age is the inability to catch up with the fastball. Brantley's 13.2% whiff rate against fastballs in 2020 was the worst it's been in his career. The second worst? 7.5% back in 2011. On the surface, Brantley performed fine on fastballs in 2020. He batted .295 with a .438 SLG against them. But it gets a little uglier just one level deeper. Brantley's xBA on fastballs was .242. His xSLG was .410.

Compared to his 2019 performance against fastballs, it was quite the downturn. Brantley batted .320 against fastballs in 2019 with a .311 xBA. He slugged .501 with a xSLG of .506. Lastly, Brantley had an 89.3 average exit velocity on fastballs in 2019 compared to 87.4 in 2020. The downturn in fastball productivity is alarming.

Brantley performed great against breaking balls and offspeed pitches in 2020, but once pitchers realize that he can't stay on the fastball like he used to, Brantley will be setup for failure, not success.

Brantley doesn't run well either. His average sprint speed of 26.2 ft/s was in the 34th percentile in MLB. Brantley did perform well defensively by nearly every metric, but he was in the 39th percentile in outfielder jump. He really can't afford a downturn defensively, and with Yordan Alvarez returning as the full time DH next season, they won't have the ability to give Brantley the occasional day off his legs at DH

The qualifying offer has been set at $18.9M for the 2020 offseason. Considering Houston's lack of draft picks due to their punishment for technological sign-stealing, recouping some of that draft capital would be helpful for the club. $18.9M would represent a $3.9M raise for Brantley, which is exactly the price of not being able to bring back Brad Peacock.

It's unlikely that Brantley will regress so quickly that he'll be unplayable in 2021. He will likely be a productive ballplayer. Considering that the Astros can afford to pay the raise in salary if he accepts the qualifying offer, it is worth giving it to him. If he declines the QO, however, it isn't worth giving him a multi-year deal. There are too many signs of regression, and anything more than one year is a risk. If Brantley demands a multi-year deal, the Astros should let him walk and take the draft pick compensation.

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