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Monday, January 06, 2014


2014: Racing’s Most Important Year in Some Time


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 4, 2014—Before jumping into 2014 with both feet, a little leftover business from last year that needs addressing.
By now, everyone knows what the big stories of 2013 were.

Certainly, the sport had its share of negative storylines. From the routinely annual embarrassing New York Times Derby Week “expose,” to Washington D. C.’s hearings on medication policies, among other salient issues.

Then there was Penn National’s “race fixing” scandal and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, the “sudden death” of seven from the Hall of Fame barn of Bob Baffert.

How these events will affect racing’s present and future remains to be seen with the takeaway highly likely to produce a mixed bag resolutions:

Can’t wait to see what the paper of record has in store for Derby week, 2014. (It appears that the industry has made a preemptive response, as it were, awarding the Gray Lady with an Eclipse Award for its feature on Russell Baze).

Whether the feds ultimately institute the “Lance Armstrong” testing model for horse racing could make headlines in 2014.

There could be serious penalties, even jail time, for the alleged race fixers of Grantville, Pa. How will that all shake out?

Finally, and significantly, Baffert was cleared of any wrong doing by the California Horse Racing Board, surprising few veteran observers, leaving too many questions unanswered.

“What [the investigation] does say [is] there’s something wrong here,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB’s medical director, adding that “the ‘clustering’ of sudden horse deaths over such a short time is ‘undeniably exceptional’…statistically ‘extremely abnormal’.”

Not explained to anyone’s satisfaction is why every horse under Baffert’s care treated with a thyroid medication and why did it take a seventh horse to die to stop the practice when evidence of sudden equine death surfaced earlier.

This story may not make more headlines in 2014 and lovers of the game hope that the adjudication, however unsatisfying as it might be, will be the end of the saga. Gone, maybe, but never to be forgotten.

The closing of Hollywood Park was equally distressing in a different way. It's as if an important part of racing tradition was ripped right out its fabric.

My first and only visit, the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984, was memorable for myriad reasons. On a personal level, getting 32-1 Outstandingly, placed first via disqualification was one; the other was an outstanding job done by the stewards the following day.

It was a show-and-tell-all explanation to assembled media of the rough n’ tumble Classic stretch run of Wild Again, Slew o’ Gold and Gate Dancer. Had never witnessed anything like this, before or since.

The loss of Ramon Dominguez from the jock’s room was sad on any level and we wish only good things for the gentlemanly Ramon in his forced retirement.

The return of “the Coach” to the national stage with a certain-to-be three year old champion does an old heart good.

Interesting how Darrell Wayne Lukas is being hailed for managing Will Take Charge through an 11-race campaign after he had been vilified many times in the past for his aggressive handling of his stock. Time and perspective is a powerful entry.

The elevation of Kitten’s Joy to the highest levels of the breeding world, managed by a man who did it with his own money--generating dollars that often help fuel parimutuel handle--methodology, research, and tireless hours in handicapping research.

The devoted husband of Sarah, Ken Ramsey’s 2013 racing exploits were nothing short of a revelation.

The comeback of Gary Stevens after a seven year absence, the top story of 2013 in several polls, would also have gotten our vote. As stated here previously, to come back and win Grade 1s is one thing.

But to do it at 50, seemingly a better Hall of Fame rider than the retired version and to capture both the Distaff and Classic strains credulity. But it did happen and was our favorite story of 2013.

There’s another story that barely raised a national eyebrow compared to those above that could have implications not only for America’s flagship circuit but the future of how horse racing is perceived and proceeds going forward.

The hiring of Martin Panza as Vice President, Racing for the New York Racing Association might have been fortuitous for a soon-to-be out of work Hollywood Park executive but it was in our view the most significant executive hire of year.

Panza, experienced and highly accomplished, is charged with restoring to New York racing back to its forward eminence, one that is earned but in the present and not by traditional decree.

Under the former NYRA administration, the corporate imperative was to grow the bottom line by any means necessary. Resultantly, field size trumped quality.

Horseplayers also suffered. Handicappers too often needed to navigate a mine field of claiming conditions, sometimes three or four deep in order to assess the matchups, the kind of inscrutable mess that management—and NYRA is not alone in this—hopes will compel bettors to spread deeply in popular horizontal pools.

Turn pockets inside-out today; tomorrow’s liquidity will take care of itself. Never mind that simulcast players just concentrate their play on tracks which might give them a better chance to--you know--win.

I have reserved opinion on the short term stewardship of NYRA Chairman David Skorton and subsequent hiring of Christopher Kay as CEO. I have written positively about both in the past, preferring to point out the promise of positive change. I no longer feel the same way.

The open NYRA Board meetings have been transparent, indeed, but largely have been much ado about nothing. Controversial issues were brought up too late in meetings, limiting meaningful debate. Meetings ended promptly, as if Skorton had a train to catch.

Consequently, sensitive topics were decided “in committee,” typical of the Albany process, apropos of a gubernatorial appointee. Skorton is charged with getting NYRA’s bottom line attractive enough to lure 2015 franchise bidders.

The photogenic Kay was brought in to make use of his corporate talents, perhaps outside-the-racing-box thinking would result in fresh ideas. Aside from efforts to boost employee morale, if progress has been made in other areas they are not yet visible.

Some attendees at the recent Arizona Symposium thought his presentation a bit condescending, as if industry executives never heard of the suggestions that was perceived as original only in its packaging.

Embarrassingly, Kay identified Global Betting Exchange as the world’s largest online betting company, as if Betfair representatives were not in the room. It turned out not to be the best way to make a favorable first impression.

Many industry types are reserving judgment on both men until after a formal business plan is made public. The stakes for New York racing, and beyond Empire State borders, could not be higher.

Written by John Pricci

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