Saturday, September 06, 2008
The blush fades from the Saratoga rose
A meeting at Saratoga bookended by Commentator winning the Whitney Handicap a second time and Curlin taking the Woodward saw the six weeks unfold with a magnificent effort by the best mare in training, Ginger Punch, another by three-year-old Proud Spell in the Alabama and a truly memorable Travers in which Colonel John prevailed by less than an inch over the developing star Mambo in Seattle, was overshadowed by steady declines in betting receipts and attendance that were truly alarming.
Some three thousand miles to the west, the meeting at Del Mar saw a similar reversal of fortune.
While weather was not an issue at Del Mar the relentless rain at Saratoga provided a handy and entirely plausible excuse early in the meeting, but perfect weather during the second half produced essentially flat receipts and attendance figures yet did nothing to subdue what amounted to a daily decline in handle that averaged about $1 million, year over year. Certainly, the weak economy was part of the equation and, in the view of Del Mar officials, the primary cause of business declines in another heretofore bulletproof market.
All things considered, I put less money than usual at risk during the meeting, but being a spot player who was finding relatively few spots, this was seen at first as no more than a matter of circumstance. It was the observation by others, inevitably complaining about the low level of racing being offered, that they too were risking less money than usual during the meeting that suggested a wider trend that was a large part of the deeper problems.
A diluted racing product was not embraced by horseplayers who operated from afar. NYRA ran races it seemed for the sake of running races, expanding almost every card. Cheap maiden claiming races fill and NYRA is now more concerned with attracting large fields than maintaining a level of competition suitable to Saratoga and for that matter Belmont.
Not so long ago, the bottom claiming level at Saratoga was $25,000 and no selling races for maidens were offered even at that price. Not so long ago, there were no claiming races offered for New York-breds at any NYRA track. Not so long ago, a large portion of the horse population in residence at Saratoga this summer would have been sent to Monmouth Park or Finger Lakes while the centerpiece meeting of the New York season was in progress.
But there was more to the story of Saratoga ’08.
Perhaps the predatory nature of the hoteliers, merchants and restaurateurs of Saratoga Springs and the New York Racing Association has finally reached the point of diminishing returns. This would explain the flat on-site meeting and a tough six weeks for the Chamber of Commerce, but betting declines were most pronounced off-site, which nowadays means the rest of North America.
Observations by others shed some light on the current state of the summer-destination resort meeting, Every Saratoga experience is different but this year far too many were less than idyllic.
This from Alydarjk, a frequent commenter:
“ … I have been coming to the Spa for thirty years and I attended for four of the six weekends this summer and there was a different feel to the whole experience. It probably had to do with the economy, the gas prices and the weather. Lots of for rent signs, for sale signs and it was never easier to get an Albany hotel any cheaper. No question that the racing cards had some very good moments (Travers, Alabama, etc.), but there were a lot of ordinary cards with ordinary racing. NYRA does need to change some of its approach to getting the attention of the young and established, but it is distressing that even with a lot of publicity, only 22,000 would show up to see Curlin this past Saturday. It would be too simple to drop it all at the feet of NYRA. I would like to say that I know the answer, but I think that it will take some time to be clear for all of us.”
From “Former Citidiot:”
“… as for the headline.....sees you next year, well I'm no longer sure.
I have been going to Saratoga for the last 10 years. And while I was able to put up with the outrageous hotel and food prices, I am no longer sure I want to. $500 for a night at a Residence Inn? And it's still a cab ride to the track and main street? Holiday Inn or Hilton for 400 a night if you can even get a room? No thanks. About the only place where they don't hike the price is the diner. I am saying Uncle, enough. No more Saratoga. Maybe they can extend the meet another few weeks to dilute the product and drive the price down. And the nerve of the lame residents. Calling the tourists "citidiots" and how they can't wait to get the town back. Go ahead "Saralosers" have your town back for good. You won't see my annual $5,000 donation to your overpriced town next year.”
Seems that more than one derisive element is at work here that when combined boil down to poor if arrogant decision making in the face of an obviously weak marketplace driven in great part by external economic forces.
In a recessionary economy, simultaneously raising prices and diluting quality is not a sound business model.
Written by Paul Moran
Check out Paul Moran on Blogspot At the Races
Sunday, July 20, 2008
The tragic, unfortunate and the clueless
After having taken of few days off before the annual pilgrimage to the Spa, returned to news of funeral plans for Luke Kruytbosch, who was not only an extreemely talented race caller but a genuinely nice man and disturbing reports of the dismissal of Larry Stewart and Bob Mieszerski by the Los Angeles Times, which leaves at most three full-time racing writers remaining in the employ of American general-circulation daily newspapers, to find this really bizarre juxtaposition: The newly-formed Horseplayer’s Association of North America, which follows on the heels of the Self-Appointed Horseplayer’s Committee in what shows signs of becoming a grass-roots movement with legs, issued a thoughtful and thorough statement on its website listing goals, concerns and priorities.
The New York Racing Association, on the other hand, has taken it upon itself to form its own horseplayers’ (they're called "fans" by NYRA) organization, which clearly illustrates contempt for the bettor with an overt insult to the collective intelligence of its customers.
Now, racing fan, you might consider membership in NYRA Nation, perhaps the most egregious insult ever of the North American horseplayer. Oh, sorry, they’re calling this a fan club.
Annotated news release:
NYRA Nation, a free club for fans of the New York Racing Association’s tracks, will hope to unite fans of Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park and Aqueduct through their love of Thoroughbred racing’s greatest circuit. (Isn’t that special? Last time I checked, NYRA was widely despised and not unjustly. Aren’t these the same people who brought you raw sewage and mass public elimination of waste on Belmont Stakes day? And who in this organization is arrogant and self-important (delusional?) enough to come up with the term: NYRA Nation?)
Enrollment into NYRA Nation is free and easy, as members will be able sign up on-track at Saratoga or by simply going online to NYRA.com once the Saratoga meet has started. (Unlike the new glass VIP facility, where the poor people get to see the rich folk drink and eat, which is $15,000.)
Among the items NYRA Nation Members will receive are:
NYRA Nation membership card. (Will it have a blank that says, “First …Last … Middle?”).
NYRA Nation Lapel Pin for on-track sign-ups only. (NYRA’s version of the pocket protector and cheaper than the secret decoder ring.)
NYRA Nation welcome letter from NYRA President Charlie Hayward. (In the mail, or does Charlie deliver both letters personally?)
Discounts on items at the official NYRA store. (Nothing says 'I'm alive in the pick-six' like a NYRA umbrella)
Subscription to On The Lead, NYRA's monthly e-mail newsletter. (The Mensa journal of New York racing)
Automatic entry into random drawings to win a VIP Day at the Races, NYRA Gift Packages, and much more. (Hey, they’re gamblers.)
The Horseplayers Association of North America has other things in mind: No need for annotation to the statement of its site.
Our immediate goal is to recruit as many members as soon as possible. The first step was the construction of this website; initially funded by a group of concerned members of the Paceadvantage.com racing forum.
To continually encourage participation in HANA, our founding principles are:
1) Membership will always be free and never require more information than a valid e-mail address to participate.
2) Ideas and opinions will always be welcome, and we will attempt to respond to every productive e-mail we receive.
3) Operating funds required for advertising, off-line communication, etc., will be voluntary, and a full open accounting will be provided to members quarterly.
4) Anyone wishing to expand their support and/or involvement will be able to engage individual staff directly.
5) Keep membership advised of organizational developments as frequently as possible.
6) Survey membership regularly to keep our goals and priorities in alignment.
Upon achieving our immediate goals, we will pursue tasks including:
1) Maintain a ranking of horseplayer-friendly tracks for wagering consumers.
2) Continue to inform horseplayers of the problems that exist within the industry, and formulate strategies for addressing them.
3) Petition the various Other Industry StakeHolders (OISH)
4) Establish a dialogue with OISH
5) Report progress/problems in addressing HANA’s concerns with OISH
6) Exert collective influence as appropriate.
7) Encourage increased participation in the game as well as increased handle through horseplayer-friendly treatment
8) Support the establishment of a central governing authority over the racing industry that includes direct horseplayer representation.
The following sequence of issues reflects HANA's current priorities:
1) Effect a reduction in direct takeout to uniformly lower levels at all tracks or else allow ADWs and tracks to rebate competitively.
2) Make it possible for every in-home bettor to bet all tracks from a single account at his ADW vendor of choice.
3) Support the institution of uniform rules of racing including medication use policy.
4) Establish a central governing authority for the industry to effect uniformity of rules and their enforcement, to ensure cooperation among tracks, and to create and maintain a customer-friendly environment for both offtrack and ontrack bettors.
5) Institute IRS withholding reform
6) Maximize the number of races that can be viewed "live" without conflicts.
7) Incentivize breeders to emphasize soundness and stamina over speed and precocity.
8) Provide the public with greater transparency regarding the physical status of each entrant.
9) Eliminate the arcane practice of breakage.
10) Promote an overhaul of the parimutuel systems employed to ensure the integrity of the pools.
See what I mean?
Written by Paul Moran
Check out Paul Moran on Blogspot At the Races
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Curlin’s turf debut in Saturday’s Man o’ War at Belmont and a handful of races in Delaware, Florida and California the only thing diverting attention from the annual pilgrimage to Saratoga Springs, where adult summer camp opens in less than a fortnight.
In addition to a good deal of uncertainty surrounding the 36-day stand at the Spa, most of this having to do with the economy, which coupled with gasoline prices appears destined to result in fewer horseplaying vacationers in upstate New York, the summer meeting is a bit different this year, specifically the third week.
There appears to be a surplus of rental accommodations and unreserved hotel rooms, which suggests a widely spread downsizing of travel plans to what is a famously overpriced destination. For those still Spa-bound, the meeting’s third week is a good one to avoid if racing is the focal point of the trip.
This is most assuredly unSpa-like. During the entire week that begins on Aug. 6 and ends on the 11th there is not one graded stakes that will be run on the flat. Surrounding the A.P. Smithwick, a Grade 2 over hurdles, the entire week is given over to New York-breds and pair of ungraded open stakes – two days on which New York Stallion Stakes are billed as loosely termed “features,” the restricted Yaddo and West Point Handicaps, which anchor the Saturday and Sunday programs, and two $80,000 open races, the Waya and Troy on Friday and Monday respectively, inevitably stakes in name only.
This would be a pretty strong lineup of races in February, but this may be the competitive low point in quality of Saratoga racing history.
Until now, it was impossible to book a week’s stay at Saratoga and see not one race of consequence. But while the five other weekends of the meeting are typically well-larded with important races, the third week of Saratoga ’08 in no way merits the expenditure required of a week under the elms. The hotels are still $300-a-night and up, $50 in tips will still get a good – ok, not so good, but still in the building -- table for lunch at the track where the foot-long chili dog with cheese will set you back $15.95 on top of the seating charge, the cheapest glass of wine at Mrs. London’s is $15, a can of beer in the backyard at Siro’s is still $8 and the dinner tab comes with a defibrillator, the best race you might see is the Yaddo Handicap and then -- you get to go back to your job.
Thanks for coming.
Written by Paul Moran
Check out Paul Moran on Blogspot At the Races