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
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Fan Wants Media To Be Part of the Solution
Saratoga Springs, NY, September 12, 2008--His Internet handle is Indulto. I may or may not know him. I can say for sure that I don’t know his given name. But I know that he’s a racing soul mate, a kindred spirit who addresses issues that concern him with intelligence and passion. So maybe we all should listen up.
Indulto might be pleased to learn that I know his namesake was a King Ranch runner, trained I recall by the venerable Max Hirsch. I remember him as a versatile stakes winner whose best game was late running sprint speed, the kind that seven-eighths of a mile usually hits right between the eyes. If memory fails I’m certain the two-legged Indulto will let me know.
I might have done this once before--reprinting a comment in its entirety on the lead page--after which I will react. But it’s reproduced here because Indulto has something important to say; to the industry, to Breeders’ Cup and to turf writers; the entire gamut of racing society.
And the parties should listen because my sense is that Indulto speaks for all loyal racing fans/horseplayers. So we’re clear, the slash indicates that racing fans--loyal followers of a sport--and horseplayers--the complimentary practitioners, are different entities, which makes racing the best game played outdoors. The groups can be mutually exclusive or exist as a hyphenate. But their goals, even with different agenda, are as one.
Indulto’s comment followed a piece I wrote: “As in Presidential Politics, Horse of the Year Narrative Has Changed.” (If you missed it, you can read the story in HRI’s archives. If you read it, perhaps you should revisit it, as I did, to draw your own inferences).
12 Sep 2008 at 04:17 am
…I did read [your] pieces which is why I was taken aback by what appeared to be your sudden enthusiasm for a BB-Curlin meeting on a synthetic surface, as well as by your suggestion that Curlin’s camp would be the ones doing the ducking if that didn’t happen.
Just because they built it doesn’t mean anybody has to come. HOTY doesn’t have to be decided on October 25 just because it’s in the BC’s interest that it does. And it probably won’t be. IF BB doesn’t run in the JCGC because his connections are concerned with BB’s ability to handle Belmont, then fine, nobody’s quacking. Owners of Champions are good guys when they don’t let bettors take risks when they themselves have doubts. Same for Curlin in the “Classic.” But if both win or lose their respective events and then either refuses the Clark as well, then Daffy and/or Donald has a permanent home.
As to my inferences, if you are not a fan of synthetic surfaces and not in favor of running the BC at a venue with a synthetic track (at least in the near future), then why did you lend credence to this misguided endeavor and promote risking a less-than-optimal performance by either or both contestants in an event on which few will be able to bet with confidence? Consistency is a quality valued in turf writers as well as equine competitors.
Perhaps I’m overreacting, but it doesn’t seem enough just to recognize the colossal blunders committed by BC 2008 planners that created this frustrating situation; missteps that so many turf writers have brought to their readers’ attention. I’ve never seen so many comments from readers so up in arms about anything related to racing that wasn’t accidental like the Eight Belles and Barbaro tragedies.
Frankly, I don’t understand why people aren’t falling over themselves to send a message like the following to the BC so that both they—and the industry as a whole—will start listening to their customers: “Stop diluting interest and enthusiasm for the game by putting on races we don’t want to watch or wager on, and start cooperatively planning and scheduling those that we do. Keep faith with the sport’s competitive traditions. Start growing participation and handle by leveling the playing field for both players and owners, and universally reducing the high takeout that continues to shrink racing’s share of the gambling dollar.”
So, JP, my question to you and your colleagues is: ‘Are you going to help seize what appears to be an opportunity to influence the changes needed to turn the sport around and preserve the game? Are you collectively willing to lead the way as some of us have requested, or are you all going to remain “journalistically neutral” and simply report on what happens after having raised our awareness?’
What was it Ed McMahon said when he had money? “You are correct, sir.” The Horse of the Year championship does not have to be decided on October 25, and with both Big Brown and Curlin facing retirement at the end of the year, why not the season-ending Clark at Churchill Downs for the whole thing?
Would I love to see that, over a track both horses like? Absolutely. Will it happen? Maybe, but probably not. But I’ve seen this movie. Both horses need to have something to gain to make the risk worthwhile. My experience is that one would back down. But you’re right. There’s no good reason both shouldn’t try.
Why am I lending credence and promote risking a less-than-optimum performance? Good question. It’s because I honestly believe the Classic is the best way to get these two together; glare of the spotlight, whole world watching, et al. Doesn’t make it right, just pragmatic.
Again, you are correct. I should have more respect for the fans, the viewing audience and my fellow horseplayers who seemingly don‘t want to see this matchup on anything but legit dirt.
However, racing on a surface that has been given high marks in Australia for training, but is an unknown for racing, provides an up-front advantage to neither. It may not be the race bettors want, but it wouldn’t do the sport any harm. True champions, as we’ve stated before, shouldn’t court excuses.
Finally, we’ve been painstakingly outspoken on the negative effects that high takeout rates have on the health of the bettors and the industry; in this context, one and the same.
State government operatives do not grasp takeout’s negative effects on handle via the churning of betting dollars, or simply refuse to acknowledge it because they have no interest in long range results, only those from election cycle to election cycle. The industry has done an awful job educating those who control their destiny.
Finally, turf writers can always do a better job. But I would argue that most independent writers who don’t work for media companies in league with, and dependent upon, racetracks for their own financial well being, do a good job at trying to keep the industry honest, albeit there are sycophants in every corporate society. Backstretches and front offices of racetracks are no exceptions.
It’s not that the messenger doesn’t deserve some blame but, Indulto, you might be giving the media too much credit. It can make suggestions but lacks the power to make things happen. Often, it has the opposite effect.
On days when a turf writer has done his job well, he earns a cold shoulder from track executives. No one is immune from criticism and that goes both ways. The media’s best ideas are seldom implemented because if they were, it would tantamount to track's admitting failure of some kind.
The best way I know to lead, as you suggest, is to identify and offer solutions to fixable problems, and to make the general racing public aware of issues. Then it’s up to the racing public to act. They are starting to build grass roots organizations.
If the racing public is willing to fund it, and find a voice to lead on issues, perhaps they can one day organize on a grand scale and be a force for change. The question then is whether they really want to make an effort.
Meanwhile, HRI staffers will continue to observe, comment, and keep the pressure on racing‘s leaders. Without any real power, that’s all any of us can do.
Written by John Pricci