Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Celebrate Saratoga 150 with Return to True Quality

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 26, 2013—It’s not that I don’t wish Saratoga 150 to be a huge success, I do, but I hope the upcoming race meet doesn’t break any handle records this year.

Now I didn’t move my tack from Long Island to Saratoga over a decade ago because I wish either the racetrack or the community any harm; just the opposite. But I don’t want to see handle records fall if it means that quantity again will out-finish quality.

Now I am a fan, and have been booster of, the New York-bred program since its inception. But a slow horse is a slow horse, whether it’s bred in New York, Kentucky or Florida.

In other words, please, Mr. Racing Secretary, no maiden claiming sprints for New York-breds going 5-1/2 furlongs on the grass this year, OK?

I know that such a race will draw a limit field, and I agree that small outfits have the same right to Saratoga success as those of once and future Hall of Famers. But there's a limit. It’s like the pool hall owner told the hustling Fast Eddie Felson: “This is Ames, mister.”

Quantity should not trump quality in New York, especially here. Commander Kay may not be aware of such nuances, but he is said to be a fast study. The previous administration justified their jobs and salary increases by growing handle.

But increasing handle should be Priority #2 at the new NYRA. No longer should the racing office be pressured by executives looking over their shoulders; there no longer should be a need to use the Sub-9 to make an 11-race card go.

At Monday's annual Saratoga press conferences, NYRA executives said that, in a spirit of cooperation with the town’s entrepreneurs, efforts will be made to end the day's race cards earlier.

Last year, the average Saratoga racing day was insufferably long, an occurrence made worse by a six-day racing week. Actually, a five-day week might bring some of the specialness back to a time when less was more, a time when Saratoga was the August Place to Be.

Of course, no one is attracted to or wants to bet on five-horse fields. There were many stories on that very subject in cyber-land last week, including one on Saturday’s Mother Goose Stakes.

The Grade 1 attracted five 3-year-old fillies, including 1-5 Dreaming of Julia, a gutsy but dull, never-in-it runnerup to the talented Close Hatches.

Considering that no one likes five-horse fields, what if this year’s Travers attracted only five runners; Orb, Oxbow, Palace Malice, Verrazano and Normandy Invasion. Explain to me how that would not be a great betting race.

Like everyone, I live in the real world, one where change isn’t an option but the way it is. Fine. But that doesn’t mean that every now and then an effort shouldn’t be made to turn back the clock.

And is there a better time than the present, as the community and racetrack celebrates 150 years of the best extended race meet on the planet, to make such an attempt?

The first condition book has yet to be published so there's still time for New York racing to re-dedicate itself to quality Saratoga racing beyond its 34 graded stakes and 16 Grade 1 events.

Whatever the number is, now or in the future, Albany leadership is never going to be impressed by a couple of percentage-point handle increases, not while the bottom line measuring stick is racing vs. a run-of-the-mill sino.

Any member of the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce should be able to reason that a five-day race week in the future date can be good for business; another more day to cruise the shops, do brunch, or just relax after one more night of reveling.

“It’s not the 24 days of Saratoga that get you,” often said the late, great Joe Hirsch, “it’s the 24 nights.”

In addition to those once-and-future Hall of Fame outfits, there will be plenty of out of town support for Saratoga 150. With the exception of scrutiny-averse Larry Jones, every major outfit east of the Mississippi with any interest has been granted stalls.

Of course, Saratoga means juvenile racing. There haven’t been many 2-year-old maiden races at Belmont Park this spring owing to, among other things, 12 inches of June rainfall thus far. That, and the 8-horse limit for juvenile sprints, should mean plenty of high class babies will be on display. Recall that all the Triple Crown heroes of 2013 were stabled here last year.

It’s too late to do anything about a five-day race week this year. But an effort can be made to card not more than nine races daily, except steeplechase days and weekends. Betting handle on bigger and “better” fields will more than compensate for fewer races. There's only so much betting money to go around, even in Saratoga.

Track prices, already high enough, will not increase this year. Coolers will be permitted in the backyard. NYRA executives have been told that hotel reservations and advance ticket sales are strong. Weather permitting; a successful season already seems assured.

There's no good reason for quantity to trump quality this year. This is Saratoga, Mr. Campo.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, June 24, 2013

It’s Opening…er…Closing Day at Gulfstream Park

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 24, 2013—At once, Tuesday marks the dawn of a new era and same story-different year for Florida Thoroughbred racing. Can’t we all just get along?

For the first time ever, Gulfstream Park, widely regarded as this country’s premier race meet each January through March, will conduct racing in June when eight races are contested on June 25 beginning at 12:50 p.m.

It is especially strange to post this story on the same day the New York Racing Association confirmed its 2013 stakes schedule and announced a series of events that will mark 150 years of Saratoga racing.

It’s much too early for me to know how I feel about the Florida situation. There are so many variables to consider on either side of the Calder/Gulfstream schism, especially when you know people on both ends.

But this much seems clear about Gulfstream’s expansion: Thoroughbred racing in South Florida could not be in better racing hands, nor can it be better positioned for the future.

No matter which parties are involved, conventional wisdom says that racing in the long term will always be better off in private hands than it would be with a publicly traded corporation.

Tuesday’s closing-day start—84 horses were entered in eight races—is being conducted so that Gulfstream can share in simulcast revenues throughout the year as its own hub. The strong turnout of horses doubtlessly reflects $4,000 purse increases for all races and a $1,000 appearance fee per starter.

Parenthetically, Tampa Bay Downs is hosting a similar “closing day” program next month. Again, this posturing by the three tracks is all about sharing in simulcast revenues.

The Gulfstream “summer meet” begins July 1. Since Tuesday’s program officially closes the 2012-13 meet, there will be mandatory payouts in both the 10-Cent Rainbow Six and 50-Cent Pick 5 pools.

Carryovers will resume when the 2013 season begins next month. Recall that the Rainbow Six produced multi-million-dollar carryovers including a record $3.5 million won by a single New Jersey-based bettor in February.

To prepare for summer racing, Gulfstream spent one million dollars of its 2012-13 record handle to improve its drainage system in advance of the biblical summer rain storms of South Florida.

A gutter was installed between the inside dirt rail and outside rail on the turf course to move and drain rain runoff faster. The project was deemed successful when, after 14 inches of rain fell on June 7, horses trained the next morning.

In summer, the surface will have a sandier base; in winter, more loam. When the racing surfaces were changed several years ago, the turf course was raised 11 feet higher so the tide doesn’t come into play as it once did. Thirty-six pipes to facilitate drainage installed under the turf course also hastens the drying process.

Tuesday's Gulfstream feature race goes as the seventh, an allowance/optional claiming event headed by a Kirk Ziadie-trained entry. It also features a starter from Team Ward/Rosario, Wesley and Joel hooking up to win the Norfolk last week at Royal Ascot.

Second to repeat leading-rider Javier Castellano, Rosario rode 89 winners in his first full Gulfstream winter campaign which included victories aboard subsequent Kentucky Derby-winning Orb.

Meanwhile, the Calder/Gulfstream rift comes down to the amount of compensation Gulfstream is willing to remunerate Calder for the dates in question and what Calder is willing to accept; that and a negotiated split of simulcast revenues.

As a matter of course, we’re never in favor of one track dominating a market if that market has proven it can support disparate entities. But when it comes to survival--in Florida and everywhere—tracks are better served by cooperation, not competition.

While Calder has de facto deemphasized racing in recent years, Frank Stronach’s devotion to the sport is paying dividends. The Gulfstream brand is very strong nationally; the reason it can charge a 9 percent host fee, the highest in the country.

When the Hallandale Beach track expanded into December two years ago, Gulfstream’s all-sources handle was four times that of Calder’s. In April, Gulfstream’s dates were twice those of comparative dates at the Miami Lakes track.

Blessed with great weather last winter, the 10 percent on-track gains of 2011-12 expanded in 2012-13 to an on-track increase of 25 percent.

According to data supplied by Gulfstream, on-track handle has grown 35 percent in the last three years, while all-sources increased by 10 percent. Even with three more days of racing, 87 days to 90, average handle per race in 2012-13 grew from $734,000 to $843,000.

Insiders have volunteered that Gulfstream’s ultimate goal is to race unopposed four days per week, Thursday through Sunday. Management feels that being disruptive will prove to be a good thing for Florida racing and its horsemen.

I hope that it never will come down to racing head-to-head. But as for which South Florida track is positioned to have a profound, positive effect on the future, the two-track battle looks more like a one-track race.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

At Last, the Future Is Now

NEW NYRA CEO: Chances that the next President of the NYRA will come from inside the industry are 2-1 against. HRI has learned that the executive search committee will have submitted a list of three names to the NYRA Board in advance of the next public meeting, June 10: Two are from outside the industry, one has industry experience.

It would seem state politics likely is playing a huge roll in this. However, a fresh perspective--provided that person is surrounded by the best and brightest advisers--might be a welcome change. After all, didn’t it take a horseplaying whistleblower to point out that the increased exotic takeout provision in the law had already sunset, leading to the dismissal of two top NYRA executives, including its CEO?

*from HRI post, June 2

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 19, 2012—Let the new era begin.

Whether Christopher Kay is the right man to guide the future of New York Thoroughbred racing at its highest levels remains to be seen. After all, if his ultimate compensation is performance-based, so should any assessment as to whether he’s the right man for the job. Tell will tell.

Anyone who believes that racing in this state is the linchpin for the overall future of the sport in general probably has their minds right. And anyone who thinks that the new New York Racing Association needs to be able to play a mean game of chess is also on target. Especially with what Gov. Cuomo has in mind.

In Cuomo’s state of the state address, he talked about how a healthy racing industry is important for his state; for its coffers, for prestige, for tourism, and for the overall desire to affirm that New York still has what it takes to call itself the Empire State. That, too, is a wait-and-see proposition.

What’s been troubling in state racing matters since the Governor’s address is that you don’t have to listen all that carefully to hear him walk back the racing rhetoric, that’s it’s about the almighty Benjamins, that full-blown casino gambling is the destination where the public’s discretionary dollars can do the state the most good and that, frankly, he’s not too pleased with the remunerative deal racinos have carved out for themselves.

Now that grandfather has lovingly patted casino gambling on the head, what can we do about racing’s very high costs of putting on a show? Electronic games don’t call in sick and never ask for a raise. But for racing, it’s even more dire than that.

This new accord with Native American tribes meant to balance the state’s books and extract more money from Native American gaming now and in the future--money that they can afford and which the state badly needs—could be the beginning of the end of the fiscal partnership between racinos and the state. The Governor’s accord puts a restraint a future racino trade.

If racing is to have a successful future in the Governor’s view, it, like casinos, must also have a destination worth supporting. Enter, hopefully, Christopher Kay, the new NYRA Board, and any advisors that come aboard in the future. It was heartening to see that some of the early cut from the Aqueduct casino has gone into make living standards for Saratoga stable-hands acceptable, long overdue.

Said Kay after his official installation as President and CEO: “The organization [I worked for most recently] was the Trust for Public Land… [that has] been able to acquire over three million acres of land converted into local, state, or federal parks. As far as the issue of Aqueduct is concerned, David [Skorton] and the committee say it’s one of the things we should look at.

“…The Board has provided us with a three-year strategic plan so I’m going to follow that strategic plan and execute it…Number one is going to be to enhance the guest experience…and to recruit others to become new racing fans. The second is the re-privatization…and the third is just to improve the quality of racing and purses at every racetrack we operate.”

And then he offered this: “I’m aware of the conversations [in Albany]. I do not have a position to express today. I am comforted by the fact that Governor Cuomo has selected a great Board and has expressed an interest in making sure that horse racing is very successful today and for years to come. I look forward to working with this Board and with state government to make sure that happens.”

If racing is to have a prayer of succeeding, Kay’s final observation would be the Great Amen. Fortunately, while Saratoga might need some tweaking here and there, it is in very good stead as one of the world’s greatest racing destinations.

But the future of Aqueduct as a racetrack must be addressed. It’s impossible to envision that it will live in perpetuity. And that probably would be just fine with the Genting folks. What happens to all that money ultimately might be Cuomo’s vision, not NYRA as a racing franchise.

And what of “beautiful Belmont Park?” What happens to it? What does its future look like? Clearly, given its proximity to JFK, its location on the Queens/Nassau County border, and its unique layout as a racetrack, it should be the destination that will be the envy of racetracks anywhere in the world.

Kay’s qualifications make him a superb choice for the job. But whether he will be able to go the distance is a matter of more than pedigree.

Written by John Pricci

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