Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Thoroughbred Racing 2008: At the Crossroads

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 30, 2008--Had Charles Dickens lived today instead of two centuries ago and looked at the thoroughbred racing landscape, he might have written, again, that “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

“For good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

On the racetrack this year, the memory of Big Brown’s Kentucky Derby and Big Brown’s Belmont Stakes will endure. As will Curlin’s Dubai World Cup, and Curlin’s Breeders’ Cup Classic; studies in contrast.

It was a three-year-old class in which the early Derby favorite, War Pass, was retired before he could win a single stakes race but also one which saw a pair of sophomores complete a Breeders’ Cup Classic exacta.

And it was a class in which a filly, Eight Belles, made for the worst conceivable headlines that resulted in a federal inquiry, forcing an insular industry to take a hard look at itself and finally make some baby steps in a war on drugs, permitted and otherwise.

It was a year that showcased promising young talent but also one that saw the two leading juvenile Eclipse finalists and early Derby favorites whisked off to Dubai, demanding that they make history if they are to win America’s most coveted prize.

It was a time when an undefeated female and Horse of the Year finalist Zenyatta was as dominant on dirt as she was on the synthetic surfaces of her home state, finally defeating the deepest field of talent assembled in any of Breeders’ Cup 25‘s 14 events.

The year 2008 had its usual share of premature retirements but was also one in which 10-year-old, Evening Attire, won a graded stakes and a seven-year-old, Commentator, won the G1 Whitney for a second time.

It was a year when the trainer of a reigning Horse of the Year also saddled more winners than anyone in history, setting the bar so high as to be unreachable ever again, but won’t be handed an Eclipse trophy by acclimation because of a career mired in controversy.

It was a time when synthetic surfaces continued to change the face of the sport and provided the impetus for one of the most aesthetically appealing Breeders’ Cups ever, but did little to provide definitive answers relative to horse safety and jockey health concerns. Better had someone in authority advocated a return to hay, oats and water on race day.

It was a year when European dominance of an event created by and for American breeders did more to advance the cause of international racing and possibly altered mating practices away from speed and--for the better--toward stamina influences.

It was a time when the notion that gambling was recession proof was dispelled.

It was a year when steeplechase horseman Jack Fisher guided champion Good Night Shirt through an undefeated five-race, eight-month long, Grade 1 campaign to become the first jump trainer to earn $1-million in purses in a single year.

It was a time when thoroughbred track owner Richard Fields saved a storied venue, revived an historic handicap, and made horsemen who would sell animals to horse killers persona non-grata on the grounds of his racetrack, Suffolk Downs.

It was a year when a true sportsman named Jess Jackson demonstrated love for his horse, his sport, and racing’s fans by keeping Curlin in training despite having to shell out $3-million in insurance premiums.

It was a year when the New York Racing Association got its groove back, staying alive by mortgaging its future so that racing’s history and traditions could be preserved and perhaps even prosper once again.

But, like Wall Street’s bankers and brokers, it was a year when the public was bilked, again, when the cost of the product (takeout) kept increasing while its quality waned, the result provincial greed, over-saturation and a lack of central leadership--still.

It was a year when horsemen followed suit by demanding a larger share of a shrinking pie, withholding permission allowing for the dissemination of simulcast signals because it was time to draw a line in the sand instead of acting in good faith.

And when private Advanced Deposit Wagering companies and racetracks did the exact same thing.

It was a time when grass roots organizations were founded and/or continued to grow because taxation without representation will lead to greater erosion and possibly ultimate failure, and because horseplayers need a voice.

It was a year when the NTRA decided to remain neutral in its support for legislation criminalizing the transportation of horses for slaughter by withdrawing its support of H.R. 6598.

Is there any possible way to justify such a callous response, especially in light of unprecedented negative publicity left in the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy?

Clearly, it was a year when the industry continued to talk a better game than it walked as the abolition of steroids is a good thing but not the drug thing that concerns players and plagues the industry most.

It was a time when late-odds fluctuations, whatever the cause, after a race begins continues to send the wrong message and when betting wouldn’t end at post time because the bottom line must be served at all costs.

It was another year gone by when antiquated statutes governing the industry were allowed to continue as the law of the racing land killing any chance of reorganization and growth.

A time when the continued lack of a central authority has helped further erode mainstream media coverage, hastening the demise of a gambling sport in the eyes of an American sporting public.

Or, as Dickens wrote: “We had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Giving the Gift of Hope

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 16, 2008--The holiday bowl season is approaching and I have a new hero. His name is Pete Carroll, head football coach and twice national champion at the University of Southern California.

It was last Sunday and afternoon was turning into evening. The NYRA racing program was long over and wouldn’t return to Aqueduct again until December 26.

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger was scrambling around inside my TV set and finally made something happen on the last drive of the game to defeat the Ravens. It wasn’t Affirmed-Alydar, but pretty damn good, anyway.

I just got a scoreboard update and noted that HRI resident sports handicapper Marc Lawrence had another undefeated week with his underdog NFL plays. He went 4-0, bringing the season slate to an otherworldly 25-10.

I spent three years as a sports handicapper for the defunct Racing Times, and then Daily Racing Form, barely showing a profit every year. So I know how difficult handicapping sports can be.

You might think it‘s easy; just take one side or the other. But that’s what everybody who helped build those glitzy buildings in Las Vegas thought, too.

I’ve seen the Lawrence database, which dates back to 1980. I’m sure there might be better, more comprehensive statistical team-sports studies, but I’ve never seen one is all I‘m saying.

I understand that what sports bettors refer to as technical analysis is not to everyone’s taste. But Lawrence’s permutations bring trend analysis to thoughtful new levels by adding a blend of current form and matchup analysis.

Couldn’t be happier Marc Lawrence is part of the HRI team.

Speaking of football, I always liked Pete Carroll, the coach. Yes, I know about his failed NFL career. But I followed him closely during his rookie season with the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets.

I remember that Carroll’s Jets were in most every game. It impressed me that his players continued to play hard for their rookie coach despite a disappointing season.

I see the way some of today’s coddled athletes have no problem tuning out even their winning mentors. But his team played hard. On any given Sunday, they were simply outmanned.

What I like most about him now is what I saw on “60 Minutes” last weekend. Their coverage of Carroll, the newest “Prince of LA,” was about what he does in his spare time--his night job.

And I marveled that he’s been doing this since 2006 and I never had a clue.

Because this Carroll wasn’t about Pete Carroll. It was about his love, dedication and gift for reaching young people, youth that much of society gave up on a long time ago resulting in a triumph of do-nothing status quo over the promise of hopeful, decisive action.

Several nights a week, Carroll visits LA‘s toughest neighborhoods. No entourage. No security. No fear. Just confidence that his communication and motivational skills can make a difference to youngins’ that had never seen a gridiron except perhaps on TV.

When Carroll showed up with reporter Byron Pitts and a CBS film crew, he asked that they remain in the background as best they could, explaining that he didn’t want to violate the trust he received in this war zone of urban America, didn’t want to exploit them for publicity‘s sake.

When Carroll began following his heart three years ago, he was appalled that there were 300 gang killings in LA alone.

It was 1 AM, Pitts reported, and he was standing in front of a Watts housing project with about a half-dozen members of the Crips when lights from a helicopter illuminated the scene. “Ghetto birds,“ a gang member called it.

“Think about what you can do?” Carroll said to a member of his would-be street team. “You can be the one who puts a stop to this whole thing. It’s never been done before. Think about how awesome that would be?”

In the next scene he met with several members of the Community Intervention Training Institute, former gang members who turned their lives around and are dedicating themselves to today’s youth gangs.

Carroll was asked to speak to some of the young people, and it was chilling.

“I’ll probably wind up dead, or in jail,” one said. “I don’t know why,” said another, a 16-year-old, “but sometimes when I go to sleep at night I see myself inside a coffin.”

Carroll has put up some of his $4-million annual salary, recruited businessmen, celebrities, community and police groups to form “A Better LA,” where bands that previously worked separately are now working together.

Pitts asked Carroll if he thought his efforts were more than a naïve exercise.

“I tell those who disagree that it’s OK to have that opinion but just keep it to yourself for a while and give us a chance. Change isn’t easy. I think it’s important that you go out and try to create hope. I know it works. I‘m living it.”

Pete Carroll, twice national champion and an even better man. Who knew?

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Thoroughbred Racing: Study This

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 9, 2008--”This game has been studied to death,” New York Racing Association vice-president, the late Pat Lynch, told me while I was enjoying a cup of coffee at NYRA nearly four decades ago.

Little has changed. And everything has changed.

Given that, I’m always interested to see the proposed agenda at the annual University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming.

According to blogs posted on the Thoroughbred Times and Bloodhorse web-sites, the goals were to identify the perception young people have about racing, and the realities and pressures associated with changing the face of the sport.

“How to speak to racing’s diverse demographic target market,” is the subject of a panel discussion entitled “Gen Y and Baby Boomers.” Horse safety and tote security are two factors that seriously impact how the game is perceived.

There will be a strong Jockey Club presence vis a vis safety and welfare, it was promised, with discussions on the reporting and prevention of injuries, and an updating of industry initiatives.

Good thing those JC officers are pulling double duty. These days they need to justify those hefty paychecks reported in circulated e-mails authored by those pesky boardwatch folks over at the California Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association .

I have some thoughts that might help, too.

The first is, what youthful perceptions? It’s hard to find any more than two youths at a racetrack at any one time. Can’t remember the last time a young person stopped me on the street to ask the time of day.

Horse racing doesn’t exist for young people. Maybe some of the old people would have taken some of the young people to the track with them when they were a lot younger themselves.

But you lost them long ago when you failed to fix the “juice” issue, you priced your product too high because you didn’t understand what business you were in, or you just flat-out gave them bad service.

And since no one is likely to say something like that in public for four days in Tucson, I thought somebody should.

But that’s not just me talking. It’s what your customers talk about all the time. They’ve given up on you paying them more than just lip-service at about the time they stopped bringing their children to the racetrack--when they learned they couldn’t in good conscience tell their kids that being a participatory racing fan was such a good bet.

Of course, the breakdowns are the worst of it. And I don’t think that any informed, fair-maiden person would accuse the industry of not doing its best with respect to reporting and prevention.

But the industry has done nothing about the medication issue for so long that even reasonable lovers of the game have lost faith that the industry can once again exist as sport. Some are still out there, but you’re scaring them half to death.

The trouble now is that the ones you’ve take for granted--those who bet their money and make all manner of livelihoods possible, including mine--are beginning to walk.

And what is the public’s perception of what the industry is doing to fix it? That powerful factions in racing would rather shut out some of its best customers and alienate the rest because they want a larger ADW-share of racing’s shrinking pie.

Great timing.

So far the good news is that the American race horse is outliving the American iron horse, but not by much. And, since no one asked, allow me to contribute something of a positive nature based on recent events.

Bettors are leaving the racetrack to play poker on the Internet. Guess they didn’t see the recent “60 Minutes” segment showing how hackers cheat online players by looking at everyone’s hole card.

Will racing exploit this fact? Don‘t bet on it. Will they do something to counter the ever shrinking fan base? They had better.

Could there be a better opportunity than in these desperate times to market investing in the horse market to the young and engaged, telling them how they could teach themselves how to fish for life? So, how do you reach them?

Through Internet, television and radio media. Like the sports touts, only with dignity, intelligence and class. This is a niche. Appeal to it.

Advertising must teach that despite its high cost, horse-race investing offers tremendous opportunities to earn big with a small investment--if people are willing to devote the time to learn the handicapping discipline.

Because who are you going to trust your future to? Government? Corporations? Teach them how the takeout might be better on Wall Street but that there are far fewer crooks on Union Avenue, at the corner of Birdstone and Bird Town.

Change the paradigm. One of the symposium Internet speakers had it right: “chase the concept, not the dollars.”

But there’s no one in charge to stop the madness.

Like we said, so far, the American race horse is surviving, but on life support. However, if the end should come, after we shut all the lights we can say that at least we left behind a considerably smaller carbon footprint.

Written by John Pricci

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