Friday, January 11, 2013

Just Say WHOA

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., January 10, 2013—The following is an except from a recent release from the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance:

“The future of the American horse industry, particularly the horseracing segment that is by far its largest employer and economic engine, is bleak for precisely the same reason that the nation cannot stem the rising cost of the world’s most expensive health care system. Both are locked in a business pattern where the controlling interests benefit at the expense of the powerless players. And just like the check writers in the human health care system, the very foundation of the horse business-the owners and breeders-are finding the endeavor increasingly unaffordable and out of their control. Only the horses are more helpless.”

The assumption is that members of the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance (WHOA), authors of the above, will be called alarmist do-gooders, or worse, by the majority of Thoroughbred racing practitioners.

Don’t these people realize that national handle was up in 2012, racing is on its way back, that the slide has been stabilized? WHOA’s critics would be correct about that, but what of the 25 percent of nationwide handle lost since 2006? Forget them as sunk costs to be ignored? Isn’t that the first rule of management?

Indeed, but what of public perception? Doesn’t that demand that the business model be improved or changed altogether? Or do we all just wait change to get up on its own in the final strides and beat extinction by a nose?

Besides, everything’s OK, now that it appears trainer Rick Dutrow, barring a federal appeal to come, will be put out of business. “We will not tolerate cheaters,” said former State Racing & Wagering Board chairman John Sabini upon hearing that Dutrow’s second appeal before the New York State Court of Appeals will not be heard.

What a relief, the scourge of Rick Dutrow, the only trainer to ever take an edge, will be gone, along with racing’s drug problems; as for the drug culture on the backstretch of American’s racetracks, maybe not so much.

Earlier this week, WHOA reiterated its support for federal legislation that would amend the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 to prohibit the use of raceday medication.

In the main, WHOA’s critics have been treated like so many messengers to be shot. These ivory towered rich are simply out of touch with reality, are they not?

Drugs have always been a part of the game; there’s no foolproof way to stop cheaters; raceday medication is humane treatment; there’s no public perception issues and other lies and half-truths.

What’s more, they’re hypocrites. When their grand No-Raceday-Lasix experiment failed, their horses were put on the diuretic. Never mind, say the majority. As long as it’s legal, I won’t even try. How can I compete with those taking an edge, etc., etc?

WHOA correctly pointed to positive steps taken; curtailing the use of anabolic steroids and growth hormones; how the Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders and Breeders’ Cup “finally stepped up to at least express a willingness to change things... But at this rate, real reform will take years to accomplish.”

Change in a democracy, as we’re reminded every day, is a slow, tedious process. Just like current second amendment issues, racing’s equally powerful majority argues that if you want to treat our racehorses differently you’ll have to rip the syringe from my cold, dead hands.

Proposed drug reforms have been adopted in some some states but denied in others, and it’s no secret that these efforts will continue to be opposed by most trainers and veterinarians who “just like insurance companies and human health care providers, do not believe reform to be in their best economic interests.”

The continued use of an ultimately debilitating diuretic, and attendant painkillers, remains unresolved, and a real concern is that unless the issue is resolved internally, some powerful outside group put an end to racing altogether. Unfortunately, this “fix” won’t go away on its own.

The economic reality is that the shuttering of racetracks in states allowing casino gambling would be best for the bottom line and is good political theater because it protects helpless animals from the acts of a “cruel industry.”

Deep-pocketed political parties backed by deeper-pocketed individuals might not be the only power base to lose its economic and political might if it continues to ignore the will of the American people, in this case the sporting public.

To date, only the Commonwealth of Kentucky has supported initiatives created by Breeders’ Cup, TOBA’s Graded Stakes Committee and the Jockey Club calling for a cessation of race day medication.

WHOA correctly pointed out that this is par for the industry course; a continuation of the status quo in which veterinarians call many of the training shots when it comes to the care and conditioning of race horses.

For horsemen, this potentially means the loss of mega-millions. But do WHOA critics really believe that these people want to kill the baby because it believes that it’s time to clean the bath water?

Trainers, however, bear none of the cost for veterianary services or medications. They have their own economic concerns, of course, as it relates to workmen’s compensation issues and the like.

There is no easy fix or clear blueprint for anyone seeking a future in this business. But the calculus seems clear: Change now or die a slow, irrelevant-to-the-world death.

With or without the approval of horsemen, change in some form is inevitable. The only way to fix potentially fatal problems is to deal with current issues by getting out in front of them.

No one is naïve: Taking an edge with medication, legal or otherwise, has always been part of the game. And there’s no way that some individuals outside the United States, who need not fear the rigors of American testing technology, are not beating system.

Not that we should care about other cultures that eat horsemeat but they’ve stopped doing so because the horses that come off our racetracks are full of drugs.

Whether members of WHOA get their wish or not, federal legislation will be forthcoming. And this does more than just put a way of life at risk. It risks the jobs of every group tethered to the race horse, millions of jobs, in fact.

Some food for thought for both sides: Beginning in a reasonable period, say two years, January 1, 2015, two of the aforementioned organizations need to go all in.

The Graded Stakes Committee, once and for all, must eliminate grading from any stakes race in which raceday medication is permitted. For its part, the Jockey Club must use the only real authority it has; its power over the stud book.

Commencing with the juvenile class of 2015 and beyond, the Jockey Club should not recognize any stallion that has run on raceday medication. All three-year-olds and older at that point are excluded, grandfathered in.

The majority of today’s trainers, including some present and future Hall of Fame horsemen, learned their craft by knowing how to lean on veterinarians and the satchels they carry to get their horses to win races.

Two years is enough time for real horsemen to relearn their craft through better horsemanship and holistic approaches based on the latest in anatomical disciplines. They need to break free of their drug dependency.

All Americans are learning to adapt their skill sets to a new world order that finds much of their talent obsolete--and that includes former full-time journalists.

If the racing industry doesn’t take steps to get out ahead of today’s drug issues now, or waits for inevitable federal intervention, it will rue the day it failed to act. And that day is at hand.

So just do it, and do it now.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, January 05, 2013

Give Fans What They Need: Educate, Entertain, Enrich

On the New York Fan Council Recommendations to the State Racing and Wagering Board, continued from Thursday, January 3

Track Televisions for Live and Simulcast Racing: “Track operators should take an inventory of where TVs are located and ensure that sufficient TVs of adequate quality (HD, large screen) are available where patrons are located.”

Tracks and simulcast venues need to be told this?

Web sites: “Raceways should review their Web sites and determine what additional information would better serve their fans and make that available… information such as: Simulcast schedules; claims and equipment changes; beginner handicapping information; cancellation and refund polices; takeout rates and public transportation information…”

Tracks and simulcast venues need to be told this?

Simulcast Patron Accommodation: When tracks remain open for simulcasting after the conclusion of racing, steps should be taken to ensure that fans can easily exit the facility, access their automobiles and exit the parking lot.

This is code for safety and security. Ever leave Aqueduct Race Track in the dark after simulcasting? That’s when the real excitement begins.

Scratches & Equipment Changes: “The Racing and Wagering Board should review its rules and regulations regarding scratches and equipment changes. Fans feel that lack of this knowledge in sufficient time undermines racing integrity…”

This is code for poor service and the lack of knowledge about what the customer—read bettor—really needs.

Automated Teller Machines/Customer Service: The issue of automated teller machines (SAMs) was brought up at each track. While it seems track management has encouraged SAM usage to speed up transactions and reduce the number of live tellers needed, there were complaints at each forum about a lack of sufficient live tellers…

“SAM use could be even better encouraged by having available staff nearby to fix machine problems and tutor new and struggling users until they feel comfortable with the technology. At Saratoga Race Course, in particular, fans complained about nonfunctioning machines.”

Tracks need to be told this? In 2013, Saratoga will celebrate its 150th anniversary. Some of those SAM machines could probably use a tune-up.

Rewards Programs: “Track operators should investigate possible implementation of rewards programs for patrons similar to casino rewards programs… While NYRA does have an existing rewards program, it should be reexamined to ascertain how many fans it actually rewards. The Council believes that fans should be rewarded not only for substantial wagering but for regular attendance… and some degree of moderate wagering.”

Meaning: To grow the betting economy from the middle-class out?

Fan Education: Track operators should take education of their fans seriously… ‘Racing 101’ courses for beginners, handicapping aids, new owner seminars...”

Some of this already is being done, and rank-and-file bettors, the lifeline to the racing industry, need to become further sophisticated. There’s no such thing as too much information; show bettors the best way to access data that best suits their style of play and betting comfort zones.

Facility Upgrades: “…Racing fans deserve comfortable areas with modern services to watch races and handicap so that they stay engaged in the sport.”

Tracks and simulcast venues need to be told this?

Signage: “…For example, the customer service office at Belmont Park does not appear to have a sign on it.”

Hard to imagine, I know, but accurate.

Implementation of an “I LOVE NY Racing” promotion: New York State Department of Economic Development focuses on a number of “I Love New York” campaigns.

“The newest initiative, launched earlier this year by Governor Cuomo, expands the “I (heart) New York” campaign to include other activities (e.g. “I (camp) New York,” “I (fish) New York)… New initiative is readily adaptable for horseracing and should be implemented (“I (horserace) New York”).

“The Racing Fan Advisory Council suggests that a small, fractional portion of revenue from wagering handle could be dedicated to develop and support the “I Love New York Horseracing” Campaign.”

Absolutely not to the last portion of this recommendation. The advertising campaign cannot come out of a fractional portion of the betting revenue. You cannot lower takeout and add expenses at the same time.

Besides, New York horseplayers already pay the salaries of SRWB members. If by lowering takeout handle rises, then the state benefits as well from a healthy racing industry. New York State, in its own self-interest, must make an investment in horse racing; that money should come from the state’s advertising/promotional budget that already exists.

As for the campaign’s thrust, I cannot think of a better use of a television campaign than one that promotes world class racing. There is no international sport; diverse, colorful, engaging and intellectually challenging. And what other brand of entertainment offers an opportunity to leave an event with more money than when you arrived?

Is that difficult? Of course. Impossibly difficult? Hardly.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, January 03, 2013

Fan Council Recommendations Mostly Get It Right, Part 1

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, JANUARY 3, 2012—If anything is clear from yesterday's recommendations of the New York Racing Fan Advisory Council to the State Racing & Wagering Board it’s that they heard what horse racing fans and some segments of the media have been saying for some time now.

The hope is that these recommendations will not come too little or too late. Much of the advice is reasoned and well-meaning; a means for correcting the problems that the game faces not only in New York but a template for Anytrack USA.

What was not addressed is whether or not the model itself is broken, out of step with the modern culture or whether the Council should have concentrated more on macro or micro recommendations, depending on one’s philosophy.

It appears the Council has done a little of both, which at once can be the good news and the bad news. A look, then, at many of weightier recommendations affecting the greatest number of people and the racing industry itself, presented in two parts:

Takeout Rates: The language here was surprisingly explicit, the Council stating that while non-NYRA tracks use VLT revenue to fund 71 percent of its purses, “there have been few serious attempts made to help out the bettors… It is time for [all] New York racetracks to reduce takeout on their customers.”

Reducing takeout is a win-win-win, of course, benefitting horse racing’s customers, the state’s coffers and the tracks themselves by making their product more attractive to the simulcast market that accounts for almost nine of every 10 dollars wagered.

It is hoped there will be none of those famed legislative half-measures necessitating the constant revisiting of the same issue. Recently, the SRWB extended the provision allowing for continued video streaming for another year.

I'm wondering if New York’s regulators could be more sophomoric? Is the wagering landscape about to change dramatically in 2014? The only good that comes from these short-term fixes is that the SRWB gets to hold on to a bargaining chip for future negotiations.

Track Partnership: “The Racing and Wagering Board should foster and facilitate a collaborative partnership among New York tracks, similar to how it coordinated an agreement on video streaming.

“The conglomerate of NY tracks would include NYRA tracks, Finger Lakes, and all Harness tracks in New York State. This would enable the parties to work together to market simulcasting measures and permit tracks greater bargaining power for simulcast races and help make sure New York races are carried elsewhere thus helping New York track handle.”

Long overdue, this makes so much sense the only questions that remain are why it took three decades to figure out that it’s about cooperation, not competition, and that there is bargaining strength in numbers. Perhaps, it was the industry’s poor cooperation past performances that snuffed out the notion that common sense solutions could work.

Enhancing Belmont Stakes Day Fan Experience: “Belmont Stakes Day typically features the highest attendance day of any track during the year and has had some of the largest crowds to ever attend a sporting event in New York State. Belmont Stakes Day is, for many fans, their only visit to a race track during the year.

"Belmont Stakes Day is an excellent opportunity to highlight and showcase every positive aspect of horse racing to entice fans to come back to the track on other race days.

“The experience should be improved by lowering the prices of food, beverages and souvenirs, as opposed to raising prices for such items. NYRA should also consider allowing fans to bring food and beverages to the track on Belmont Stakes Day.

“If safety reasons prevent this, prices at the track for these items should be reasonable to ensure fans have a positive experience. Finally, NYRA should consider a promotion to draw those fans in attendance on Belmont Stakes Day to return to the races on another day.”

What’s next, pinning smiley-face my-name-is buttons on the uniforms of mutuel clerks? (Sorry, just couldn’t resist… although it wouldn’t be such a bad idea, mind you).

Actually, what New York racing has come to is this: That a historic sports event capable of attracting a six-figure crowd is to be regarded as a marketing opportunity. Somewhat sadly, however, this is exactly right.

It can be argued, too, that some of the VLT money—if some statute needs adjusting then do it—can be used to lower prices every day, making a day at the races affordable, top tier entertainment in a well-manicured facility. Old can be charming [see Saratoga].

Further, casinos are known for serving good food at reasonable prices. There is no reason the New NYRA can’t do the same thing with some of the VLT largesse it receives. And given its huge expanse, picnicking for families should be encouraged by severely reducing--or even eliminating--admissions, for adults who bring their children.

Finish Line Placement at Yonkers: “The Racing & Wagering Board should review the placement of the finish line at Yonkers… to see if a change in the finish line location is feasible. Moving the finish further up the stretch would benefit fans by allowing them to more accurately see the finish… and permit the starting gate to release the field earlier so horses can jockey for position more before heading into the first turn… ideally reducing the impact of post position.”

Since I cut my teeth on harness racing and witnessed the great Speedy Scot break, make up an eighth of a mile, and still win the Yonkers Trot in under two minutes, a standard for half-mile track greatness back in the day, I feel qualified to speak on this.

While the idea of releasing horses sooner at the start before reaching the first turn to mitigate the effect of outside post position has merit, moving the finish line further up the stretch is a terrible idea.

As it is, if your horse is not at least a close-up third entering the Yonkers stretch, it has no chance. Lengthening the stretch gives more horses a chance to win and just might help slow down the dominance of short-priced winners.

WiFi: “Track operators should make WiFi available throughout the racing facilities so that fans can use tablets and other technology to download racing programs and access racing information.”

I have often made this suggestion often at my local track. If the venue is concerned that bettors will use Internet service to access other ADW companies, simply put a block on those competing sites. As it is, bettors can use cell phones to wager with competitors.

Saturday: Part ll of New York Fan Council Recommendations to the SRWB

Written by John Pricci

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