Thursday, January 24, 2013

Danger Is Their Co-Pilot

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA, January 22, 2013—It can happen just like that, an accident on the race track that can leave a jockey permanently disabled, or worse. Race riders are’ after all, the only professional athletes that have an ambulance trailing them on the field of play. Serious danger is the reality that the practitioners never speak about.

What happened to Ramon Dominguez last weekend was an accident in the true sense of the term, his mount clipping the heels of the horse he was trailing, unseating Dominguez and throwing him down heavily.

Of course, the fact that thousand-pound beasts racing 40 miles per hour in the closest quarters imaginable is at once a testament to seamless skill and an accident waiting to happen.

It’s the love of the horse that first draws these men and women to the competition. Then it becomes about the adrenaline rush, the thrill of victory, fame and fortune and, at the end, always bringing you and your horse home safely.

Dominguez is a man’s man, not only for what he does athletically but because his family comes first. There were all those years in Maryland when his talent screamed New York but his soul remained free. Dad and mom didn’t want to pull their children out of school, choosing family life over a brass ring.

Of course, fame and fortune has come. Tireless, caring, and as quiet on a horse as you can be with great touch and timing, he stands at the very top of his professional, as a third Eclipse Award as America’s top rider can attest.

Last year Dominguez also earned the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award at Santa Anita Park for “demonstrating high standards of personal and professional conduct, on and off the racetrack.” He is, as is said, the complete package.

But now he has been moved to New York-Presbyterian Hospital with a displaced skull fracture, a result of being unlucky on the job. The reports say that he has been showing improvement, a little each day. What that means in this scenario one can only guess.

To say that I admire the courage and skill of jockeys who perform their athletic feats without benefit of the occasional time out is to understate the case. Even if I weren’t 150 pounds over, you couldn’t pay me enough to do what they do. Ramon Dominguez is a man who must truly love his work, otherwise he wouldn’t accept as many mounts as he does.

As an owner for a short time, I experienced what everyone says about him, that he’s classy, accommodating and doesn’t like to disappoint his customers, of whom Dominguez has more than his share, riding for outfits big and small alike.

To his credit, Dominguez has remained a home body. Even after moving family and tack to New York, he doesn’t leave home except for the stakes mount that takes him to Anytrack, USA. So he puts up with the New York winters, rides six, seven or more horses a day. And he doesn’t just win; he dominates.

Dominguez will be 37 in November, Given his lifestyle; he could easily ride at the highest level for another decade or longer. Mike Smith, single and living in Southern California, is still going strong and will celebrate his 48th birthday in August. Bill Shoemaker won the Kentucky Derby at 54.

But while Dominguez has won his share of Derby preps, America’s Race has eluded him. While, like Shoemaker, he may be only a phone call away, he hasn’t yet found many serious Derby prospects in South Ozone Park, and that will be especially true these days now that the safety of Aqueduct’s winter track has come into question.

The “inner track” could be considered one of racing’s first synthetic surfaces, a special blend of sand and freeze-retardant chemicals. However, last year’s alarming number of breakdowns resulted in state intervention, but it was determined that is was overly aggressive horse placement in races with disproportionately large purses, not the surface.

While nowhere near the number of catastrophic injuries as last year, there has been a spate of breakdowns recently, and over-racing is no longer considered the major culprit. In fact, a recent study indicates the opposite is true, that the number of starters is down.

Since the first of the year, in fact, Aqueduct has had the fewest number of starters per race in the Northeast, an unacceptable 6.98 runners per race compared to more than nine at Penn National and eight at Charles Town and Parx.

Like Aqueduct, purses at these tracks are fueled by mandated shares of casino revenue. And despite the disparity in number of starters between New York and Pennsylvania, New York’s purses are more than double those at Penn National.

Like people, racetrack surfaces grow old and tired. The winter track has been in existence for more than three decades and has withstood long, hard winters admirably.

But the constant adding of chemicals, known by horsemen to be very abrasive to a horse's lower extremities, especially when dirt wedges beneath bandages meant to protect and support. The inner dirt surface has become a painful irritant.

If Aqueduct Race Track has any future in the current political and economic climate, time has come to bite the bullet and invest in a synthetic surface, notably Tapeta, which has a reputation for translating form better to dirt tracks more than any other synthetic blend. Horseplayers appreciate that.

As a handicapper who takes betting the races seriously, I abhor synthetic tracks. Racing on it is not what most gamblers, trainers, breeders and jockeys want, but the time might have come for New York; winter time.

(I wager with a small degree of confidence on Tapeta at Presque Isle Downs and at Betfair Hollywood Park with its Cushion Track surface, the closest of any of the synthetics to dirt racing. However, I generally avoid top tracks such as Arlington, Woodbine, and even the mighty Keeneland, where my play is limited mostly to turf racing. I am not alone in this).

As for winter racing in New York, synthetic tracks--as opposed to chemically altered dirt--might be the only alternative to curtailing the winter season significantly or eliminating it entirely. And it serves the health interests of both horses and riders.

According to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, horses racing on synthetic surfaces are nearly 28 percent less likely to break down than horses racing on dirt.

And the current inner track, be it the chemicals or atmospherics, is greasy, the ground cupping out beneath the hooves while racing. Having difficulty gaining traction often results in that “bad step” that leads to injury, and worse.

Considering the data produced by more than three-quarters of a million starters, consideration must be given to synthetics for the winter track. Further, the surface allows for safer training in inclement weather. The only isue is that synthetics must be maintained diligently to insure uniformity.

Unlike what happened to Dominguez, not all spills are accidental. Most are the result of injuries, fatal or otherwise. The Deity has been sending Dominguez signs in the past year; a neck injury, followed by a foot injury, now a displaced skull fracture, the result of getting struck in the head by a trailing horse.

According to the most recent Jockeys Guild data, there are 1,700 riders in North America, of which 1,200 are active. Every year on average, two will die as a result of what happens between the fences and two more will become permanently disabled. Over 2,500 injuries are reported each year, making the chances of accidental injury odds-on.

So maybe it’s time for Dominguez and his agent, Steve Rushing, to lower the quantity and up the quality and commute weekly like the movie stars do, making dark day trips between JFK and FLL. Chances are better he’ll find his Derby colt at the good-horse meet in South Florida. But first he needs to recover fully. Godspeed, Ramon.

Written by John Pricci

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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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