Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Federal Intervention Weighs Heavily as Glamour Season Begins


SARATOGA SPRINGS, July 17, 2012—Boutique season has arrived. Del Mar opens tomorrow and the fabled Saratoga will host its 144th summer meet beginning Friday-- and that’s a powerful lot of history and tradition.

I mention this to our friends in the sports world because yes, Virginia, and Maryland, and Kentucky, and California, and here in New York, too, horse racing was thriving long before the advent of organized baseball, football, basketball and hockey.

Never mind that the automobile wasn’t yet a gleam in Henry Ford’s eye.

With decade-awaited VLT legislation finally arriving late last year, this will be the first season that Saratoga’s purses, already America’s highest, will be slots-infused.

With $930,000 per day in purse distribution on average, it’s not very hyperbolic to refer to Saratoga 144 as “Racing’s Million-Dollar Meet.”

Given the money available in the Empire State, and the 25 percent bonus Del Mar will pay horsemen for ship-and-win forays to the Great Surf Place, America’s most popular handle leaders figure to enjoy memorable seasons, economic climate and all.

But there’s a thousand-pound Thoroughbred in the room and it’s the federal government. The action it will take in the future hangs over these meets as if it were a sword wielded by Damocles himself.

And no matter what side of the medication debate racing factions sits, no one can argue that the industry didn’t bring the specter of government intervention on itself.

In our view, Federal intervention would be the best thing for the industry if it is to survive the present and prosper in the future. When reason gives way to expediency and greed, only a third party with heft can flex the inflexible.

The irony here is that if the industry were given marching orders and immediate action was taken, it still would be the better part of two decades before the gene pool was cleaned out and what happens between the fences again would more meaningful that what transpires in the sales ring: Horseracing as end product; not marketing tool.

However, late breaking bulletins notwithstanding, I’d like to put all this away for a spell and concentrate on the beginning of the sport’s championship season, earning while I learn which the fairest animals of them all are.

Starting today, and again on Friday, I won’t have the time to sit before the computer and watch three more hours of Senate hearings; been there, did that, and it was as predictable as it was instructive.

Archival footage of the event is all over the Internet, and racing’s mainstream media has broken down the testimony and the reaction of legislators to the affidavits they witnessed.

But assessing the event for me was a little like “Playing the Red Board.” Even the analysis was predictable; reactive, picking at snippets of thought free of visceral, inflective context. The pictures as they were streamed live were worth thousands of words:

Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on “Medication and Performance Enhancing Drugs in Horse Racing,” appeared to react reasonably, attentive and relatively agenda-free.

It may be argued that he harbored some pre-conceived notions, thanks to reports in the New York Times that were at once comprehensive and flawed. Still, Udall appeared to make an honest effort to seek out the truth.

If Udall’s queries appeared to lead any of the witnesses, he did so on both sides of an extremely complex issue.

One witness was Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, a sponsor of the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act which would amend 1978’s Interstate Horseracing Act by banning performance-enhancing drugs on raceday, providing for stiff penalties for violators.

Of course, the severity of the punishment would be suitable to the crime and this is where the thousand-pound Thoroughbred reenters the room: What is the definition of a performance-enhancing drug, exactly?

Other witnesses were the industry’s practitioners, representing both the business and sporting aspects of the game, including testimony that addressed health safeguards for racing’s equine and human athletes.

The industry people were forthright and passionate, and all seemed to be speaking from their mind and heart. But depending on whom they were and who they were representing, their schemata began to show.

What was it that these people wanted? Did they just want to help make the current issues disappear? Do these hearings really matter, or is this just for show? What are the goals and what shoud they be, short or long term?

I will need until tomorrow to think this through. Right now I'm distracted; both divisions of the Oceanside Stakes require my undivided attention.

Wednesday: This Is the Business We Have Chosen, Part II


Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012


The NTRA Poll: On Getting It Right


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 11, 2012—For a game that makes progress at a snail’s pace, when it makes any progress at all, things sometimes can change quickly.

A fortnight ago, we wrote that we couldn’t understand why Bodemeister was rated over Union Rags in the weekly NTRA Poll, reasoning that two runnerup finishes does not equal one classic victory in the world of accomplishment.

In my view, opinion as to which is the “better horse,” or which has the better chance to earn a divisional or Horse of the Year title at year’s end is not germane: Opinion is not fact; accomplishment should be the barometer.

I asked an NTRA representative about voting guidelines and was informed that the only hard and fast “rule” is that a horse must have competed within the calendar year and that the organization did not want to impose restrictions on its voters.

Recently, Steve Haskin of Bloodhorse.com wrote that I’ll Have Another, retired last month, ranked #1 with on his list because no horse in 2012 accomplished as much as he did. I for one certainly can’t argue with that line of reasoning.

As a result of Haskin’s comments, the Twitterverse came alive with opinions that came in all shapes and sizes, from voters and non-voters alike. This prompted an e-mail response to voters from NTRA with suggested guidelines, which we’ve culled below.
“…Votes should be loosely reflective of who might be voted Horse of the Year. Voters are to select their top 10 choices on a 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis. First-place votes will appear in parentheses, as well as year record, total points, age and sex…

“Voters are to select horses that have raced at least once in North America. Horses can be of any age or sex. The vote should not be based purely on how much money the horse has earned. A vote can be cast for a horse who may have retired during the current calendar year.

“Ultimately, the last NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll of the season should be representative of who may be selected as Horse of the Year,” concludes the advisory.

Final results from the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll – July 9, 2012:

Chart includes Rank-Name-Age-Sex-Starts-1st-2nd-3rd-Points-First Votes-Previous Week

1 Game On Dude 5 G 4 3 0 0 415 (18) 3
2 Ron The Greek 5 H 4 2 2 0 394 (10) 1
3 Mucho Macho Man 4 C 4 3 0 1 360 (4) 15
4 Shackleford 4 C 4 2 0 1 337 (4) 2
5 Royal Delta 4 F 3 1 1 0 252 (5) 5
6 Wise Dan 5 G 2 1 1 0 209 4
7 I'll Have Another 3 C 4 4 0 0 164 (8) 6
8 Acclamation 6 H 1 1 0 0 115 7
9 Bodemeister 3 C 6 2 4 0 106 (1) 10
10 Union Rags 3 C 4 2 0 1 70 11

Other horses receiving votes:

Alternation (66), Caleb's Posse (52), It's Tricky (36), Successful Dan (27), Groupie Doll (23), Hymn Book (17), Nates Mineshaft (17), Awesome Feather (15), Richard's Kid (14), Fort Larned (9), Awesome Maria (8), Musical Romance (7), Turbo Compressor (7), Amazombie (4), Caixa Electronica (4), Paynter

To illustrate, and for the record, my top six horses this week were: Game On Dude; Ron The Greek; Shackleford; Mucho Macho Man; Royal Delta and I'll Have Another. (I will rank I'll Have Another #1 next week).

The guidelines provided this week were a bit different than what I was led to believe earlier; no harm, no foul. The recent clarification gets us all closer to truth, the meaning of what a “Top Thoroughbred Poll” should be.

Parenthetically, the NTRA Poll shouldn’t be simply an interesting list for mainstream sports consumption but also a guideline for horsemen into the thought process of most voters; an approximation of where their horse’s rank in the championship picture.

Serious questions remain, of course: Shouldn’t It’s Tricky, e.g., the presumed leader of the 3-year-old filly division, be ranked somewhere in the Top 10 with the likes of I’ll Have Another, Bodemeister and Union Rags?

An orange shouldn’t suffer discrimination because it’s not an apple and, in my view, accomplishment trumps opinion every time.

Should Acclamation’s one victory this year, albeit a big one, count more than Alternation’s winter and early spring campaign? Shouldn’t all divisional leaders somehow be acknowledged in any compilation of top American Thoroughbreds?

Unfortunately, that must be taken as a “no.” Mainstream media doesn’t care about 3-year-olds after the Triple Crown, and it will only provide space for one list.

On Monday, 50 media members voted in the NTRA Poll. Haskin and seven others ranked I’ll Have Another #1. But others, however, left him off entirely which seems completely unfair because not including him in any Top 10 list apparently is more an indictment of the trainer than the horse.

And, sorry, until there’s some kind of evidence that I’ll Have Another won any or all of those Grade 1s with a performance-enhancing substance coursing through his body, this terrific race horse does not deserve to be disrespected in such a manner.

In the future I will vote accordingly, with a “loosely reflective” on the Horse of the Year leader in the clubhouse and whose accomplishments on the racetrack get him/her closer to that goal.

Right now, and until season’s end, opinion and perception has an edge on accomplishment, as that barometer can only be known when all the year’s racing is done. It will still be opinion, of course, but backed by the record.

Besides, even non-fans know it’s a difference of opinion that makes a horse race.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, July 09, 2012


Handle Helper: An Open Letter to NYRA, Racing & Wagering Board


ELMONT, NY, July 9, 2012—To Whom It May Concern:

If I had the name of an actual person or organization I can speak with, I have an idea that might help increase betting handle in New York unless, of course, no one is interested in spending money to make more money.

I know that’s a radical concept these days but I wish someone would try it.

I was at Belmont Park Saturday for the Suburban Handicap, a race I described in an advance story as a Grade 1 masquerading as a Grade 2. The Suburban did not disappoint as Mucho Macho Man came up with one of the top performances of 2012.

Anyway, a veteran New York turf writer told me that for the first time in his career covering the New York Racing Association, he didn’t know who to call in the event of an emergency or with a big-picture question.

Since the firing of former President and CEO Charlie Hayward, there’s no longer an absolute go-to person when any serious issues arise. This doesn’t surprise everyone since many say that the NYRA has been on automatic pilot for years.

Sadly, that has a ring of truth: If it were not for the fact that NYRA owns some of the best support staff in the industry--from officials to administrators to backstretch personnel to security—all departments, really--the show could not possibly go on.

However, sometimes you need to speak with someone in charge. The only one I can think of would be NYRA Board Chairman C. Steven Duncker, but he’s been virtually invisible since he assumed the role in 2005 after helping NYRA retain its franchise.

I have something I’d like to see done, and it’s a little thing, really, but one that has a positive effect on the bottom line. It helps all customers, really; fractional wagering.

Now before anyone’s underwear gets twisted in a knot, we’re not talking about the anything new here; nothing to send in, no box-tops to clip. And even if the bottom line didn’t benefit, customer service is priceless, right?

I mentioned the following issue to Hayward in Saratoga a few years ago; he said he would look into it but apparently never found the time. Like I said, it’s a little thing, but one that can have a positive effect once on-track players know they have another option when making certain simulcast bets.

The issue is why offer simulcast wagering if you have no intention to offer the same betting menu in place at the simulcast venue? The issue re-surfaced on Saturday but I first became aware some years ago when I tried to place self-service 50-Cent trifecta wagers on Arlington Million day but couldn’t; the reason I sought out Hayward.

Even though 50-Cent trifectas are available at some of NYRA’s simulcast partners, their full betting menu is not available at New York tracks. Why?

I can think of two reasons: Either NYRA does not want to make an investment in writing new computer code allowing such wagers to be placed on self-service betting machines, or they don’t want to give an edge in a competitive betting marketplace:

The fear that the casual bettor, the customer racing covets, might not invest in $1 NYRA trifectas if his dollars can go twice as far in a 50-Cent pool is typically short-sighted. Or perhaps it’s strictly business; NYRA gets a larger slice of the take from the live product.

Or maybe it’s because NYRA can’t offer the wager by statute because it doesn’t offer 50-Cent trifectas on its races. If that’s the case, it’s more parochial thinking but all parties concerned.

The benefit of fractional wagering is that it puts bettors in pools they might normally avoid due to the link between cost and degree of difficulty.

If NYRA has the will, all that it needs to do is make a simple request to the State Racing & Wagering Board permitting it to offer any fractional wager at simulcast tracks with which NYRA does business. Recall that New York bettors were allowed to wager on Dime Superfectas before they were available locally.

It’s instructive to note there was a time when I asked a former NYRA executive about why superfecta wagering at the time was not allowed in races with stable couplings when trifectas were: If both members of an entry finished in two of the top three positions, the trifecta was completed by the horse that finished fourth. I asked whether he thought horseplayers were unable to count to five.

He said it wasn’t a logistical issue but that such “favors”--like changes to its betting menu--were granted if there were some quid pro quo for the state, such as, say, a rise in takeout. I asked a SRWB operative the same question. He explained it was more about “setting agendas,” that there might be more urgent matters to discuss, etc., etc.

After a while, I stopped asking.

When Dime Supers began to become popular, bean counters explained that the bet was wasn’t good for them because it only cannibalized money from the trifecta pool. At first, this was true, but Superfecta handle has grown considerably and the Trifecta remains as popular as ever.

Why shouldn’t a 50-Cent wager help increase Trifecta handle in the same way Dimes did the Super?

Handle is important not only for bottom line considerations but for pool liquidity. Without sizable pools, sizable bets cannot be sustained. It lessens potential payouts for big and small bettors alike. Fractional betting grows the game and keeps bettors liquid longer.

So that’s my issue: I want to bet simulcast tracks as if I was there and at a rate I can afford. Keep me liquid and I’ll keep betting.

Is there anyone alive out there who can help me and my fellow horseplayers with this?

Respectfully,

John Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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