Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Provincialism Taking a Toll on Rachel, Zenyatta Match

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 30, 2009--For the current darlings of Thoroughbred racing, it’s game on. Unfortunately it’s not the game anyone wants to see.

In contemporary racing history, the game we’re seeing played out now goes back to War Admiral and Seabiscuit, the battle of East vs. West.

In the older version of the game, the man from out West, Charles S. Howard, believed he had the best horse in the country. So he shipped Seabiscuit everywhere, taking on and beating all comers.

Thoroughbred racing, college football and boxing were the most popular sports of their day. But it took the egocentric connections of the country’s two best horses a long time to reach a compromise and create a sports event for the ages..

Samuel D. Riddle was the owner of the Triple Crown champion, leading candidate for Horse of the Year 1937. Riddle believed it unnecessary to accept a challenge leveled by an upstart, some nouveau riche car dealer from California.

Finally, however, Howard pushed the right button, the public clamored for the matchup and the press played it up big time. The result was the most famous renewal of the Pimlico Special ever.

There are similarities now. Justly or not, it’s the three-year-old Rachel Alexandra which, in the minds of many racing fans and the Horse of the Year voters who vote in the weekly NTRA thoroughbred poll see Rachel Alexandra as this country’s leading race horse.

There are reasons for the perception: Rachel Alexandra was purchased by the high profile owner of Curlin, Horse of the Year 2007 and 2008, who kept his promise to raise the filly‘s profile by seeking her rightful place in racing history.

As such, she was entered in the Preakness Stakes and, not only did she win, she was ridden by Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel, who opted to ride her instead of the Derby champion because he believed the filly was the best horse in the country.

Then, in her next start, she went out and ran the fastest Mother Goose Stakes in history, faster than at least four winners of the old filly triple crown, by a margin six lengths farther than Ruffian’s victory in the same race.

Wide margins, a combined 39-½ lengths, are extremely rare on the level at which Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose fillies compete. She dominates the competition and beats the clock, too.

Zenyatta is already a champion. She’s never lost a race, which counts for a hell of a lot, and she’s won virtually all of them with dominating style.

And that includes the 2008 Apple Blossom in which Zenyatta defeated a defending champion, Ginger Punch, among others, most impressively proving she’s more than an All Weather wonder.

But that’s what makes the decision of her connections not to leave California, again, all the more quizzical. Then there’s something else.

Thus far, the camps surrounding both fillies have eschewed trash talk. Jackson’s only knock has been the “plastic” surface at Santa Anita. In fact, he even said he doesn’t hold it against any owner for doing what they think is best for their horse.

Neither did Zenyatta’s owner, Jerry Moss, who said only that no one would dictate the terms of a future meeting between two females that have dominated the racing landscape in 2009.

After the defense of her Vanity title, Moss said he’d like the two fillies to meet somewhere, that it would be good for the fans, for racing. On Sunday he said he’d like to challenge his filly a bit more, too, like Jackson wanting to define her place in history.

And this was after trainer John Shirreffs said they probably would leave California at some time this year.

The trash talking was left to turf writers, Horse of the Year voters who favored one side or another, coming down mostly along geographical lines. The tenor, it seemed, was beginning to shift.

Suddenly, Shirreffs ended any speculation saying that Zenyatta would race next in the Clement Hirsch, now run under allowance conditions. If they stuck to their original plan, she need not carry the grandstand again.

It’s apparent that Jackson’s making the decisions for Rachel while Shirreffs seems the prime mover of Zenyatta’s future.

Surprisingly, between Sunday and Monday evening, the Moss message changed: They would stick to the original Breeders’ Cup schedule which, if all goes according to Hoyle, would result in undefeated career victory 14 on Breeders' Cup day, a modern record for major race horses.

What changed Moss’s mind?

At Monday’s press conference previewing the upcoming 2009 Saratoga racing season, New York Racing Association President Charlie Hayward, playing to the local media, good-humouredly referred to Del Mar as the “minor league Saratoga of the West.”

Sometime later, Chief Operating Officer Hal Handel picked up the ball, lightheartedly identifying Del Mar as “our Triple A affiliate.”

Non-racetrackers who may be reading this need to know: From who’s dating whom, to how many positives any racing department might be stonewalling at the time, there are no secrets on the racetrack.

And for a game that demands a sense of humor from its participants, it’s a bear market. Suddenly, Zenyatta's possible appearance in the Personal Ensign, Ruffian or Beldame doesn’t seems impossible.

Moss has second thoughts now, recalling how his Derby-winning Giacomo freaked out in New York’s despised detention barn, finishing seventh in the 2005 Belmont.

It seems certain that the best way to make a meeting between the two moot is for either filly to step out of their division and meet males, Rachel for a second time.

Should the three-year-old filly beat the Derby and Belmont winners in the Travers, it would be game, set and Horse of the Year match, even if Zenyatta were to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Unless, of course, they met after the Breeders’ Cup.

Moss said he would consider meeting Rachel Alexandra somewhere after the Breeders’ Cup. But if she wins #14, that’s unlikely to happen. The bottom line is that Moss and Jackson have to make like Howard and Riddle and find a way to make it happen.

It’s the only race the fans really want to see. If it doesn’t happen, what remains of racing’s image as a sport in this era would take a hit from which it might never recover.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Racing’s Problems and Government’s Role

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 25, 2009--As one looks around the racing industry and the country as a whole, the game’s troubles are very much representative of current big picture realities. So far, this millennium hasn‘t been the wondrous new age it was purported to be.

So it’s not surprising, then, that what’s happening presently in regions that always have been considered America’s leading circuits, those of California, New York and Kentucky, are also reflective of larger issues. There’s no other way to say it: the racing industry in these states are in a shambles.

No need to rehash what everyone seems to know as to the root causes: A general lack of cohesiveness, uniformity, proactive vision and fat cat entitlement has stunted whatever growth was possible when the game reached its zenith of popularity in the 1970s.

Just as racing’s growth stopped, other professional sports leagues were becoming more aggressive, and niche sports started to gain in popularity. Then came the advent of convenience market wagering, the resultant growth of various forms of off-track betting.

Simulcasting arrived on the scene and almost immediately handle grew significantly across the board. Shortly thereafter, in-home wagering fostered more growth--inevitable cannibalization notwithstanding--aided by the burgeoning popularity of the Internet, the ideal tool for taking advantage of racing’s statistical orientation.

With states becoming more dependent on alternative forms of revenue raising, casinos became the new gambling reality. Native American gaming, with its huge tax advantages; a paradigm shift that turned the Sin City of Las Vegas into Disneyland for adults; Lottery expansion, and the exponential growth of cable television that helped kill the notion of night racing as choice entertainment, have all conspired to compel an industry to look at itself from the outside in.

Should it have embraced off-track betting instead of hoping it would fail? Should it have put itself on television to a greater degree? Should it have educated the populace, changed the betting paradigm, lowered the cost of wagering and gotten out in front of the drug explosion? Everyone knows the answers now.

But the enemy at the door is not coming from within this time, from its own ineffectual leadership, complacency and greed, standards which never seem to go out of style. Instead of being audacious, the notion of hope for the industry now had become pusillanimous in the extreme.

The consequences are that racing has come under attack from without. During the 1990s, ideology subtly began to replace reason in this country, becoming so much a part of the sociological fabric that political chickens had no choice but to come home to roost.

Resultantly, America is currently getting the dysfunctional government it deserves. If unchecked, don’t be surprised if America’s elected representatives destroy the entire racetrack community and its way of life.

In California, Native Americans are using their competitive advantage to influence state government, using their pocketed tax dollars to buy favorable legislation. But don’t blame them; they didn’t invent the system. Northern California is all but lost now. Santa Anita’s storied past, from Seabiscuit to Shoemaker, is in danger of becoming ancient history unless the track is put on sound economic footing again, if it’s not already too late.

In New York, where onerous tax rates have chased companies across its borders for decades, state government is a sad joke that has allowed eight-year-old enabling VLT legislation to lay dormant while all but a handful of horsemen fail to make a living commensurate with a 365/24/7 work schedule because political values always trump the best interests of the people.

In Kentucky, the party of “no,” bereft of ideas, apparently prefers to allow it’s signature industry to the world to fade away rather than give its citizens what they want. Why? Because it’s what the other political party wants, and because they can. What could be more unconscionable than that? What could be more decadent than feigning morality, pandering to an extremist wing of its constituency?

What truly is outrageous is that the leader of the opposition is himself a person who goes gaming, taking his business to casinos in nearby states rather than throw his support behind his state’s largest industry; throwing it a lifeline that would cost nothing.

What Senate leader David Williams’ party proposes as an alternative to VLTs, ironic given the party’s brand identity, is legislation that would divert funds to purses via taxes: one on the state lottery, one on charitable gaming, and a third on out-of-state simulcasts of Kentucky races.

Apparently taxing church sponsored bingo games and such, and having horseplayers from other states make up for Kentucky’s shortfall were preferable alternatives; collecting pennies instead of dollars before seeing simulcast revenue eventually dry up when horseplayers figure out that the winners aren’t paying as much as they used to.

The thoughts of one independent thinker, David Trimble, an attorney from Georgetown, Ky., in his weekly News-Graphic column:

“The Kentucky State Senate under the leadership of Senate President David Williams seems to believe its role in Kentucky government is simply to say "No." Rather than coming up with viable and sensible alternatives, the Republican Senate serves as a roadblock to anything and everything proposed by the Democrats, good or bad, while exercising no realistic leadership toward fixing Kentucky's problems.

“Yet, just as in every wet-dry election, the opposition political action groups set up the false bogeyman of "family" concerns, which far too many of the populace buy into without ever questioning the facts. Shouldn't having adequate school buildings, education programs, and social services be "family" concerns, rather than inchoate fears that too many studies have proven false?”

Perhaps even more unacceptable was State Senator Damon Thayer (R-Scott County), a horse industry consultant and former Breeders’ Cup and Turfway Park executive, standing mute on the VLT issue, suggesting that the Senate’s tax measure was the better alternative. Apparently, political ambition knows no bounds, Thayer now a poster child for the government we deserve.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Religious Zealots Eschew Personal Freedom, Threaten Gambling Industry

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 17, 2009--I don’t know about you but I’m sick and tired of taking note of the double standard that exists in this country with regards to gambling. Actually, double standards don’t exist just in this one arena.

Religious zealotry is no longer a quaint notion limited to a handful of kooks, or those who would nation-build or nation-destroy in the Middle East. Just ask anyone associated with abortion clinics. In some cases, if you agree with Roe v. Wade, you die.

When it comes to expanded gaming, let’s temper the notion of zealotry down to religious fervor. Gambling, after all, isn’t a life and death issue. It’s abuse is a quality of life decision, just like the decision to use tobacco or abuse alcohol, which also are legal.

Why aren’t those who object to certain practices on moral grounds out picketing the fast-food burger joints that have been making America’s children fat and unhealthy for decades? I’m just so tired of all the hypocrisy.

I’m also tired of the fact that those wishing to curtail expansion of video lottery terminals on moral grounds have not to my knowledge demonstrated in front of state capitals that offer the lottery, a gambling vehicle that rips off the citizenry--especially those who can least afford it--by holding onto half of every dollar they take in.

Where’s the deserved outrage there?

In Kentucky, America’s thoroughbred nursery to the world, lawmakers are hoping that passage of VLT legislation can do for the Commonwealth what VLTs have done for Pennsylvania’s treasury, or help pay for the construction of badly needed modern schools, or just help put it on the same playing field as those in neighboring states.

But in the name of morality they fear VLTs will pray on old retirees hoping to get rich when they could be spending their money on food and medical care. They want to protect children from parents who would become addicted to gambling. Bingo, anyone?

As John McEnroe might ask: You can’t be serious? Or as Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Chip Wooley said relative to the eight-year delay between enabling VLT legislation and the construction of an Aqueduct racino: I can’t understand how states can sit by and watch gaming revenue cross their own state lines.

The other day I sat with a successful businessman who works with, and benefits from, his company’s association with the off-shore gaming industry. His associates are in states such as Delaware lobbying for an expansion of legal sports wagering. I asked “wouldn’t that be bad for your business and the off shore industry as a whole?”

“We want regulation, we welcome transparency, we want to open our books again and pour money back into the United States economy so in some small way we can help retire America’s enormous debt,” he said, adding:

“Of course this would be good for our business. We’re about future growth through the parimutuel pools. It’s about creating a win-win. With or without American regulation, online gaming will continue to prosper and grow worldwide.

“Last year, $2.5 billion was bet on sports in Las Vegas. This is a $400 billion business worldwide. Other legal entities and the off shores account for about $200 billion. The other $200 billion is handled by organized crime who still offer credit to their customers.

“But people who bet online cannot bet more than what’s in their account. For its own good, your horse industry had better be with us on this otherwise they eventually will become irrelevant. They must change their thinking on this.”

I live in what probably is the epicenter of New York State’s thoroughbred breeding industry which, like it or not, believe it or not, is one of the most successful in the country. But it won’t remain that way if the whispers we hear are more than rumor, that more than a few breeders have talked about pulling up stakes and moving their operations to nearby Pennsylvania.

That’s because in the last decade purses for Pennsylvania-bred races have nearly doubled while breeder awards have nearly tripled in that same period. Philadelphia Park not long ago was an empty, depressing place. Philly Park is now a hub of gaming activity.

Pennsylvania’s eight casinos have helped a relatively new harness track in Chester succeed, as has Presque Isle Downs, the new thoroughbred facility. According to published reports, Pennsylvania casinos have saved the state’s property tax-payers more than $1.5 billion and has helped create 8,000 new jobs.

Penn National Race Course, once the sleepiest little track nestled at the foot of the Blue Mountains in tiny Grantville, now has purses averaging $16,000 per race, per night. Resultantly, average field size has grown to more than nine runners per race, fueling double-digit increases both in live and, especially, simulcast handle. All because of the installation of the Hollywood Casino on track premises.

The fiscal problems in Kentucky are starting to adversely affect horsemen in New York State. With Churchill Downs and Ellis Park running fewer dates this summer, there has been a sizable increase in stall applications for the upcoming Saratoga race meet.

While this might be great news for horseplayers and the racing association, it’s bad news for the horsemen who support New York racing year-round. Horsemen have had their stall allotment requests downsized appreciably. Of course, the loss of two stabling facilities that are now detention barns hasn’t helped.

This year, racing dates at Hollywood Park have been reduced. Del Mar’s boutique meet will run one less day per week. And while Saratoga might be the short term beneficiary of this economic malaise, a look at today’s Belmont Park card will show that the early Pick Three, two maiden races and a claimer, attracted a total of 18 horses overnight. It had better not rain.

Hopefully, those who object to gambling on moral grounds will concentrate on bigger, more important fish, such as zealous prosecution of those who would commit hate crimes, or war crimes, and those who say this country doesn’t have the wherewithal to support what has become America’s biggest fiscal and moral dilemma: universal health care for all its citizens.

Written by John Pricci

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