Tuesday, December 08, 2015

PVal’s Legacy: Tragedy or Triumph?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 8, 2015--- It was the winter of 1996-7. I had just taken a buyout from Newsday and went to South Florida looking for work on the racetrack, possibly as a jockey agent.

At that time, Patrick Valenzuela was beginning one of his many failed comebacks. He was exercising horses in Florida that year and we met by chance one morning outside of Nick Zito’s Gulfstream Park barn.

I gave him my credentials and Zito vouched from my bona fides. Valenzuela was warm and very engaging but not interested in hiring me. He wanted an experienced agent to jump-start his return.

Actually, I struck out as an agent three times that winter. Another talented jockey was riding at the meet but had been struggling big-time, having fallen out of favor after he decided to change agents a short time prior to his shipping south for the winter.

The rider was very polite, thanked me for my confidence and interest but, in the end, it was no thanks. Strike two.

I took one more shot at the backstretch brass ring. After the Gulfstream meet I ventured Midwest to Turfway Park for the Spiral Stakes. I met with a rider who was enjoying some success but should have been doing a lot better.

“Come back to New York,” I said. “I have some television contacts there and you would be a natural on TV.” I got a beautiful note of appreciation shortly thereafter, but no job offer.

Eventually, Mike Smith became a world class sports figure thanks to a filly named Zenyatta, Donna Barton eventually married Frank Brothers and wound up on NBC, Valenzuela was back in rehab and I wound up here at HRI.

For now, I assume that all God’s children are happy.

Patrick Valenzuela has been and remains a lightning rod that many in the racing establishment believe the sport can do without. All I can fathom is that these critics must have never placed a serious bet.

If they had, their parimutuel paths would have crossed at one time or another and they would have had many occasions to celebrate PVal’s athletic prowess.

Valenzuela became a true household name as the rider of dual classics winner Sunday Silence in 1989, nine years after winning his first Santa Anita Derby when he barely was old enough to drive.

Four years ago, Valenzuela announced his retirement. Many believed he did so rather than potentially fail yet another drug test. Always having issues making weight, it no doubt was a contributing factor to his developing a cocaine habit. At that time, he reportedly had gall bladder surgery.

Aside from the usual suspensions jockeys receive for careless riding and the like, he never has been cited for any serious racetrack violations. He loved riding too much to jeopardize his career in any way.

Has he been a bad boy? Sure, probably nine times a bad boy. But when is it ever the right time to give up on an individual?

Whatever your politics, all reasonable people must agree by now that alcohol and drug addiction is a disease; climate change deniers, standing in seawater up to their ankles, notwithstanding.

Personally, I’ve never been compelled to live my life one day at a time but I’ll say this: I’m not very sure I would excel at it; I’m just glad that my own demons don’t require daily monitoring.

PVal has tried to return many times and failed. Will he fail again? Line-makers likely would make the chances of a regression an odds-on favorite. Not me, I prefer to stay positive.

The only thing I hope Valenzuela gets hooked on again is winning races on a regular basis.

Does Valenzuela’s presence in a race represent a clear and present danger to other riders? Maybe, maybe not.

I’m kidding on the square when I posit that a slightly impaired Valenzuela would be no more of a threat to rival jockeys than the average 10-pound bug boy. There is no evidence that he ever has ridden in a race while impaired.

Age doesn’t make one smarter but it almost always makes people wiser. At 53, let’s hope that Valenzuela takes a been-there-done-that attitude on substance abuse and that it’s of a thing of the past.

As it stands, Valenzuela, has visited the winners’ circle several times at the Fair Grounds recently, and he is not the only current rider dealing with personal demons. Then that’s what regularly scheduled random drug-tests are for.

At his age, maybe the next time he falls off a wagon should absolutely be his last by decree—better to fall off a wagon than in the path of an oncoming horse and rider for all parties concerned.

For the time being I’m rooting like hell for PVal and his presence in the saddle will be for me, all else being equal, an invitation to bet on, not against.

Substance abuse has not kept other riders out of the Hall of Fame. If Valenzuela can stay clean and sober and resurrect his career in a reasonably successful way, his resume would speak volumes for his legacy.

He could even become a role model in the future, the poster boy for never giving up on a dream.

Godspeed, Patrick.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Angst of Bloodhorse Has It Right on CRW

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 22, 2015—When I first learned that the Jockey Club was buying a controlling interest in “Bloodhorse” magazine, I feared the worst.

My initial reaction was that the austere organization would follow the lead of many racetracks which limit media credentials in an effort to manage the news, making reporters more dependent on information disseminated via press release.

Then I took a different tack, that The Jockey Club, whether you agree with its policies or not, yields immense influence, e.g., their laudable efforts on the discontinued use of raceday medication.

I now believe my initial concerns were unfounded, especially if the "new" editorial policy permits a column such as the one authored by Frank Angst five days ago. After all, creating a commotion isn't the Jockey Club's default position.

But you know an item is on point when it stirs controversy, considered a dirty word inside the industry--even when its point of view is trying to correct something that is unfair on its face, and that's computer-robotic wagering.

Like changes in medication policy that may negatively impact handle in the short term, so would the elimination of computer aided batch-wagering that gives unfair advantage to bettors placing wagers at near exact odds milliseconds before post time.

That leaves the other 99% of bettors completely in the dark by comparison, allowing the majority little or no time to adjust to a significant odds shift.

On balance, computer-robotic wagering, CRW, has hamstrung the search for “value,” real or imagined, for the individual handicapper.

Empirically, I can attest that my winning straight wagers yield lower payoffs, after making my within-three-minutes-to-post-time wager, eight or nine times out of 10. Eliminating myself from the equation, sophisticated bettors who recognize true value when they see it can’t react because time doesn't allow for it.

If that regularly happens to double-and-triple-digit-per-race bettors, they will walk, if believing they’re playing a game that’s rigged against them, even without possible chicanery.

(Recall that several large, highly sophisticated Wall Street trading firms had to skuttle their last-second automated orders or the unfair advantage their modeling created).

Angst made two key points: That race betting has become less attractive to sophisticated new bettors who wager significant amounts, and that recent actions taken by lawmakers against fantasy sports companies whose activities may be illegal because it tilts the playing field dramatically.

According to the author, one of every five dollars wagered on horses last year came from CRW and if the practice were made illegal it would have a devastating effect on short term handle.

But like the elimination of permitted use of race-day medication, it is in the industry’s best interests long term that betting becomes as attractive as possible to gamblers.

And gambling in this country is as omnipresent as gun ownership: Gambling doesn’t create degeneracy, people do.

As Angst demonstrated, instantaneous knowledge of probable payout and the ability to wager thousands of different combinations in milliseconds before the race give CRW bettors an unfair advantage because of their special access.

Lack of time does not afford the 99% an equal opportunity to adjust to odds shifts. In a skill-based game like handicapping, knowledge is power, and the power to take advantage of precise information is a way for privileged players to prevail long term.

As presently constructed, the chances of converting new players into regulars is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Recognizing overlays is the staple of successful race wagering. If horseplayers--old or new--tap out, they’re gone. Want-to has nothing to do with it.

In order to accommodate those who account for 20% of present handle, the industry can't or won't fight statehouses over high takeout rates that enables rebating of well financed CRW types, or whales in general. Neither group has stemmed the tide of decreasing handle.

Whales eat a lot of things, but they don’t buy hot dogs, drink beer, or buy past performance programs at the track. There’s a lot more to successful racetrack life than simply catering to the 1%.

Racing’s best marketing, recruitment, and socialization tools are still tied to a day at the races, not sitting in a living room in pajamas betting online or on the phone.

The youthful gambling demographic is not scared away by critical thinking. Young people have lots of ways to spend their money; losing money at the races doesn’t occur to them because, among other things, it’s a costly pastime.

Winning poker players are matched against a handful of peers, a “game of people, not cards.” In racing, thousands of bettors depend on the same basic information.

It's no secret that horseplayers who win consistently are better informed. Coupling knowledge with special technological access and rebates give privileged bettors an inside track to attain true value, which becomes more illusive with each passing day. The betting market is choking on high takeout.

Fantasy sports players, meanwhile, study voluminous stats which are provided free, as opposed to fans who spend $8 for racing’s paper of record just to stay informed about the sport.

Angst points out that state’s attorney’s general have referenced unfair advantages to a handful of well healed fantasy players who gain most of the winnings because they can create hundreds of lineup cards, not dissimilar to the way CRW works.

To his credit, the author suggests that “it’s time for racing to shake its unfair model” and it should do so before law enforcement decides to get involved.

Angst’s best idea was to offer optimal takeout rates so that all players can compete on equal footing. Not a single study ever refuted that lower takeout results in greater handle and revenue over a sustained period. Optimal takeout is akin to a universal rebate, the only way to grow the game.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Jeff Gural: HRI’s Executive of the Year

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 17, 2015--Jeff Gural and I have had only two brief conversations in our life, one of a social nature the night New Meadowlands celebrated Tom Durkin, their former longtime harness announcer. It was shortly after Durkin announced his intention to retire.

But we celebrated the Lord of The Meadowlands long before that night in East Rutherford. I never met a racing executive who walked his talk more than Gural, from his unabashed love for the game to putting up his own $120 million to revive a track that had lost much of its luster.

We’ve written about how he takes integrity matters into his own hands by hiring a former state trooper to bolster track security by instituting an in-house integrity program at the glitzy venue a 25-minute ride from Manhattan’s lower West Side.

He had trainers suspected of using illegal drugs which were being administered at a Jersey Turnpike rest stop before they exited at 16W and entered the new receiving barn he built to house and monitor all horses racing that night.

He’s shipped split drug samples to Hong Kong on his own dime after instituting an unannounced out-of-competition testing program because he believes that “if you’re not doing out-of-competition testing, you’re not testing at all.”

Gural takes full advantage of private property provisions of the law, something all tracks could do if they truly had the will to do so and were willing to put the customer first. His policies are in place at his other harness tracks, upstate New York’s Tioga and Vernon Downs.

A horse owner, he believes that horsemen and tracks should be subservient to the good of the game. Citing an apparent lack of will and dwindling state budgets, Gural, a member of the Water, Hay and Oats Alliance, recently called on Thoroughbred tracks to follow his lead.

While he thinks USADA would be an effective, independent regulator, the simplest solution is for track owners to follow his initiatives, challenging the operators of America’s top five Thoroughbred venues--Churchill Downs, Gulfstream Park, Keeneland, Santa Anita and Saratoga--to make a game-changing impact.

Here are some excerpted remarks he made at a recent address: “…The only solution is real simple, for track owners to step up and say: ‘Enough is enough. We have a moral obligation to our customers and to these animals. It’s as simple as that’…”

“I haven’t solved the entire problem but I can tell you that by and large there are no known drug trainers at the three tracks I own. There may be people using drugs that we don’t know about, but we keep trying, keep testing, and keep sending samples…

“We’ve tried using hair samples, have done surveillance, found a reliable lab. I guarantee if the five track owners got together, hired a couple of retired FBI and DEA guys and found a reliable lab, we would not be talking about this anymore…

“If the track owners don’t do something about it, the fact of the matter is that they simply don’t care. They can say what they want…

“I lose $3-million a year. If I can afford to spend $150,000 a year to try to keep the drug guys out, I would think Keeneland, NYRA, Churchill and Mr. Stronach–he loves horses, he knows what I am talking about–can afford to do it and that would be it. We’ll worry about Lasix [another time].

What Gural is talking about, then, is greater reliance on existing laws to be used as a deterrent.

Gural doesn’t stop at the needle’s edge. An owner, he handicaps, bets his money and follows the races closely. At his track Friday night, Gural saw something he wouldn’t allow to stand: Brian Sears’ drive behind Bee A Magician, the 1-2 favorite in the TVG Open Mare Trot [see Meadowlands 2nd race replay, Friday, Nov. 13].

Reportedly driving to instructions, Sears drove his mare conservatively to a fault, making no attempt to be aggressive at any stage, which flies in the face of accepted, albeit unofficial, harness practice to drive odds-on horses aggressively. Trainer “Nifty” Morgan instructed Sears to not race her on the lead because the mare ties-up after racing.

In slow splits of: 28 1/5, 59 1/5, 1:25 4/5, Shake It Cerry moved out from a perfect, pocket-trip third on the final turn and won “wrapped up” in 1:53 3/5. She is a defending trotting champion with career earnings of over $2.3 million.

Bee A Magician was allowed to trot through the lane, finishing fourth under little or no urging from Sears.

Outraged, Gural met with Sears the next day. Presiding Judge John Tamasello later suspended Sears 15 days for the drive and his "lack of judgment in his driving performance," on Bee A Magician.

To be fair, Gural and Sears have a history. Sears was barred from driving at any of Gural’s tracks last year for perceived disloyalty to The Meadowlands in favor of racing at Yonkers Raceway for bigger racino-infused purses. To date, Sears has driven 9,398 winners with lifetime career earnings of $168.4 million.

The following night all drivers were summoned to “a required meeting for horsemen wishing to compete at The Meadowlands… It is important that all parties who will be competing at The Meadowlands this year attend this meeting,” the track stated in a release.

In his effort to protect the betting public, Gural met with several trainers and together worked to cobble out a new house rule:

Going forward, every trainer will be obligated to give the racing office an update on how the horse they are entering has been training so that information can be provided to the public. The information will be printed in the official program and available on the “race review” section of the track’s website.

“This policy is being implemented to protect the betting public as they are the reason we are all here,” said Gural in a statement. Indeed, how many Thoroughbred track owners can say the same with the credibility to match?

HRI will continue to laud any racetrack executive who, like Gural, demonstrates an unfailing willingness to provide a clean product and a clean sport, particularly those willing to do so at their own expense.

Jeff Gural is HRI’s Racing Executive of the Year because in the end it’s deeds, not breeds, which matter most.

Written by John Pricci

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