Friday, September 19, 2008
European “Derby Challenge” Good Idea but Earnings Rule Still Needs Reform
Saratoga Springs, NY, September 18, 2008--On September 17, Churchill Downs announced plans to stage a Kentucky Derby prep race at Kempton Park in Great Britain. The inaugural race, the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes, is scheduled for March 18, 2009 with the idea of increasing European participation via a “win and you’re in” format that guarantees the victor a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
Big Brown’s Kentucky Derby was the sixth consecutive year that the Derby failed to draw a foreign participant. In 2002 there were three; two from the powerful Aidan O’Brien string, the other a Dubai-based entrant. The freaky Venezuelan Canonero II, in 1971, was the first and only horse to ship from a foreign country to win America’s most celebrated race.
Should the winner of the KDCS decide to accept the challenge, his automatic entrance means that the routinely over-subscribed 20-horse field would have room for only 19 American-based starters. While on the surface this might seem unfair, in terms of a single automatic berth, it’s not like every entrant in these 20-horse renewals truly belong.
Unless, of course, you take the view that America is still the land of opportunity and anyone who “earns” his way in deserves to run, even if he or she doesn‘t race here.
I don’t have a problem with the concept. With the burgeoning popularity of international racing and, hopefully, with our future medication rules becoming more stringent, foreign participation adds another level of interest from both a sporting and wagering perspective. The more money in the pool, the merrier for everyone, host track and horseplayer alike. Simulcasting the KDCS into the United States probably would prove a popular parimutuel event as well.
By staging a race in Europe guaranteeing the winner entrance into the Derby, it would be the one race that European horsemen can point toward to get some line on their horse’s non-turf form. The date insures enough time for the winner to come to America for his final prep, if his connections so choose. There’s a $100,000 bonus to the owner to insure participation and help defray costs.
While this is a step in the right direction to improve the quality of Derby competition, it doesn‘t go far enough. The American earnings rule remains flawed and needs to be changed.
Participation in the Derby that depends on earnings as a measure doesn’t insure that the best 19 American three-year-olds available will compete in the Churchill feature on May’s first Saturday. Do we need yet another year of watching the winner of the million-dollar ungraded Delta Jackpot get his head handed to him in Louisville? Indeed, has a Delta Jackpot winner ever won anything important after he turns three?
Last year, there were several well conceived suggestions in print and online on how the Derby qualification process could be dramatically improved via the use of a weighted point system based on finishing positions in traditional graded Derby prep races at distances of a mile or more. The Grade 1 Champagne yes; the Grade 1 Hopeful no, for example.
Earnings, especially in the era of created ersatz stakes with inflated purses, many fueled by slots dollars, is not a criterion for quality. Success in the sport’s tradition rich events, where prestige matters at least as much as the size of the purse, should be more valued. At the sport‘s highest levels, there should be some quality assurance measures in place based on performance, not the size of one’s bankroll.
In trying to insure that the Kentucky Derby attracts the best available three-year-olds, the KDCS is an interesting step forward. It should take a very good horse to win it, just like it takes a very good horse to win the Florida Derby and Santa Anita Derby, the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass, just to name a few important sophomore fixtures.
Hasn’t the time come for the races comprising what’s traditionally referred to as the Road to the Kentucky Derby, those races that produce a preponderance of Derby winners, become overtly recognized as such, possibly including their own “win and you’re in” designations? And shouldn’t the runners-up earn credit, too, in the form of point values weighted according to grade, for being competitive while racing at the sport’s highest levels?
Written by John Pricci
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Three-Year-Olds: Racing’s Best Box Office
Saratoga Springs, NY, September 17, 2008--Before the recently concluded Saratoga meeting completely fades from view, I’ve had an idea that’s been nagging at me since the final week of racing leading up to the meet’s conclusion on Labor Day.
This year, the usual hum-drum of closing week was enlivened by the anticipation of seeing Horse of the Year Curlin run in the Woodward Stakes on the final Saturday of the session.
That week the New York Racing Association put on a full court press to get people to come out to see one of racing’s two American male stars. Perhaps, the full court press was in response the heat it took when Curlin raced in the Man o’ War at Belmont Park, a Grade 1 that was scarcely attend.
Somewhat a victim of circumstance, much of the criticism heaped on NYRA at the time was unjustified. So they tried to make up for it with an over-the-top promotion that included a presentation of the Keys to the City to Curlin’s human connections, trying to take advantage of the positive business gains being made in the final three weeks.
For the final Saturday of the meet, 22,000 was a good crowd, eclipsing the 2007 numbers, but disappointing considering the circumstances.
If next year the late Secretariat and Seattle were to return for a match race, Saratoga might draw another 5,000 fans, even though every wise guy in town would set an over/under at 30,000. Why?
It’s because every year, no matter how hard anybody tries, the air escapes the Saratoga balloon immediately following the final race on Travers Day. It’s like everyone begins to breathe normally again. There’s no logical explanation for it, it just happens despite everyone‘s best efforts.
You hear the publicists and television hosts sell the last week as a great time to visit Saratoga. “The crowds are gone,” they say. “No standing in long lines to make a bet or buy a hot dog.” But, unfortunately, the crowds remain gone.
Week six at Saratoga might be the longest week of any meet anywhere, with the possible exception of the final week of racing in New York and LA prior to Saratoga and Del Mar openings. People create buzz, excitement. No people; no buzz.
In the traditional end-of-meet press conference in the Saratoga press box, Director of Racing P.J. Campo talked about how every year shortly after the Breeders’ Cup, the NYRA executive team gathers around a table to discuss a game plan from which a racing schedule would be constructed.
I have a proposal, announced as a one year deal whose future depends on a complete evaluation of results indicating whether the experiment was a success or failure: For one year, couldn’t we just flip-flop the Woodward and Travers?
Let me explain, for the umpteenth time. In my soul, I’m a traditionalist. In my heart of racing heart’s, I’m a romantic pragmatist who wonders how good things might be in a perfect world.
Here are the pluses: By moving up the Woodward by a week, you allow another seven days for horses planning on racing back in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. In the modern era, horsemen would rather have, on average, five weeks instead of four. The Woodward’s no longer a part of the Belmont fall championship calendar. In fact, the fall championship calendar by definition no longer exists. No real harm done.
Moving the Travers back a week gives the Jim Dandy horses another week of recovery time. Of greater significance, it now makes the time between the Haskell and Travers four weeks instead of three. Horsemen would be much more inclined to ship north, no longer claiming spacing as an excuse.
And New York might have a better shot at stealing a horse or two away from the $1-million Pennsylvania Derby, which slowly grows in stature each year. If horsemen cross-enter, they possibly could be shipping out at the peril of future stall allotments, which is how that game is played.
The argument that people leave the meet during the final week because children need to get back for the beginning of school? Who, and just how many people exactly, are affected by this?
Of that relatively small group, isn’t it more likely that day-trippers would ship into Saratoga if the Travers were run on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, a card that follows the popular Friday sunset program?
A Labor Day weekend featuring four days of exceptionally strong racing, topped by the Midsummer Derby, should provide Saratoga’s final week with all the buzz it can handle.
Here are the minueses: Tradition.
The appearance of Triple Crown three-year-olds at Anytrack USA for the balance of the racing season is a Grade 1 draw. Even the star of a weak three-year-old class has more drawing power than a Horse of the Year. Three-year-olds sell better than anything else. Three-year-olds are box office.
Otherwise, how does one reconcile 22,000 fans showing up on the final Saturday of Saratoga to see a true champion, when 17,000 went to Monmouth to see a Kentucky Derby winner run in a “meaningless” prep in which he isn’t supposed to get down on his belly to win the race at all costs?
Written by John Pricci
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Racing Has Problems? Compared to What?
Saratoga Springs, NY, September 16, 2008--Compared to Wall Street, racing’s financial difficulties pale. I wonder now if Phil Gramm, famed financial adviser, still believes that Americans are whiners, that the economy is on sound footing, and that the ultimate political strategy is the one that wins, truth be damned?
(OK, so that last part was mine, but you get the idea. So send in the clowns, the pigs, and get me someone from the Revlon company on the line, stat).
Actually, despite the bad economic news contained in a chart provided by NTRA and Equibase reprinted here last week (see HRI archives), racing isn‘t doing nearly as badly as many other American businesses, including its major competition for the wagering dollar.
As another aside, following the lead of Churchill Downs Inc., Equibase unfortunately no longer will provide quarterly handle summaries beyond daily handle figures noted at the bottom of result charts. And this is despite requests from media outlets that they continue doing so for the sake of reportage. So much for transparency.
To the point, it’s ironic that the Video Lottery Terminal form of casino wagering that has injected fiscal life into struggling racetracks is, along with traditional forms of casino wagering, also suffering the effects of a failing American economy. Sobering that not even gambling, long considered as being recession proof, no longer is.
According to a story in Sunday’s New York Post--forget the political agenda; their business section is solid--casino revenue on the Las Vegas strip decreased 15 percent in July. And it was the seventh consecutive month that Sin City casino business declined.
Las Vegas visitation has flattened or has been declining for months, with projections indicating that the slide will continue at least in the near term. Air travel to Las Vegas is on the wane not only domestically but from foreign sources as well, especially the Asian market, and that‘s been a much bigger problem.
Despite the progress on display during the recent Olympics from Beijing, Asian economies have slowed down. Between the deceleration of Asian economies and competition from glitzier Macao-based casinos, many of which were built and owned by household American gaming-industry giants, the whales have been lured into staying closer to home, afforded more and more perks.
Macao-based casinos have made serious incursions into Hong Kong’s horseplaying market, too, a longtime staple of the Asian betting community, where handle on a single program can reach an unthinkable nine figures in Hong Kong dollars.
But compared to racing’s slide here and elsewhere, casino receipts for high-roller gaming have fallen at an alarming rate. According to the Post story, table revenue in Las Vegas is down nearly 19 percent, while the exclusive baccarat action is down more than 26 percent. Nowhere is racing’s losses as dramatic.
Casino business in Atlantic City isn’t much better. Since travel to AC commonly is done by auto, steep gas prices have taken a toll. For slots players, the cost of a full tank is tantamount to pulling a lever for an entire afternoon. Staycation for slots players means having to stay and play joker poker at the local tavern. Be still my heart.
Atlantic City receipts are down a comparably acceptable 5.2 percent through August, which includes both table games and slots. What’s troublesome is that the downturn reflects not only high rollers but mom and pop slots players, too. If this trend doesn’t abate soon, Atlantic City gaming receipts will be down for a second straight year.
Along with gas prices, competition hasn’t helped. Connecticut casinos have been cutting into Atlantic City visitation for years, but competition from Pennsylvania and Delaware, especially the former, has been devastating to not only New Jersey and Maryland racetracks but to shore-based casinos as well. And it doesn’t figure to improve when a 100 percent smoking ban begins October 15.
Parenthetically, Maryland has been playing politics with slots for almost as long as Albany has been delaying construction of a racino at Aqueduct. For the last seven years over-burdened New York taxpayers have not gotten any relief from VLT revenues. What’s the definition of criminal negligence, anyway?
And now the Pimlico barn area is closed, and their racing dates have been cut drastically except for the traditional spring Preakness meet. Even if a slots referendum passes this November, it’s doubtful whether Pimlico, which this year marked the 70th anniversary of the celebrated Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race, ever will race year-round again. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2008/09/13/AR2008091302213.html?hpid=sec-metro
But as we all learned upon awakening Monday morning, horse racing and gaming are only the tips of an economic iceberg whose bottom cannot be seen below the murky waterline.
Written by John Pricci