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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Monday, June 17, 2013

Media Star Wars

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 17, 2013—Unfortunately--and not for the reasons you might surmise out of hand—the battle between various segments of the racing industry and the racing media in all its forms is alive and well.

The newspaper business is in as much trouble as the racing industry these days, but if racing doesn’t think it needs media coverage, pro or con, it is sadly mistaken: Any business that does not court media; traditional or otherwise, cannot expect to survive, much less prosper:

ITEM: New York Post Fires Racing Staff on Belmont Stakes Eve

It is no secret that the racing industry—and sports leagues to some extent—no longer believes it’s necessary to at least co-exist with mainstream media of which Internet coverage is now part.

The word blogger, whatever the industry, has become a curse. Yes, many bloggers do not feel it necessary to fact-check before writing. Indeed, shooting from the editorial hip can be highly counter-productive and in some cases patently wrong.

But there are two realities about this that needs acknowledging: First, the information explosion created by 24-hour cable news and the Internet has kept the populace informed as never before. How much it cares beyond the state of Kanye and Kim’s newborn child is another matter.

Secondly, and of greater significance, is that all organizations have become proficient in obfuscation and the spreading of disinformation. Resultantly, honest research doesn’t always unearth the real story, although that’s no reason to stop trying.

The good and bad news about social media is that everyone has an opinion, but it is up to traditional and new media sources to supply opinion that yields perspective. If the population truly cares about the subject at hand, it will Google all about it.

Soon after a New York Post story critical of the New York Racing Association was published during the 2012 Saratoga race meet, the company pulled all its advertising.

That is NYRA’s right, of course. But given that the Post was a mainstream daily that extensively covered horse racing in its market, was it in the association’s best interests to do so?

Apparently it thought it was and that the publishing of daily entries, reporting, commentary and handicapping be damned. Never mind that the Post was the most recognizable source of horse racing coverage in the media capital of the world.

Deserved or not, NYRA always has had a reputation for arrogance: The belief that the Post needed them more than they needed daily coverage of racing would seem to support that notion.

Ironically, there was some meeting of the minds between representatives of both organizations with respect to the lost advertising revenue; no matter.

Once News Corp. decided to place its properties in different pockets of the same pants to please the marketplace or make the Post more attractive to sell, it cut costs and pulled the plug.

The fact that the Post pulled its coverage on Belmont eve obviously was intended to send a message. Mission accomplished; everyone noticed and horse racing took another hit, this one in America’s biggest market.

ITEM: Twitter Wars; Industry Organizations Circle Wagons

In case you missed this recent item, there is a war of words in the Twittersphere between Bob Baffert and Ray Paulick, gentlemen who need no introduction to this audience. The issue was seven mysterious deaths of horses from Baffert’s barn within an 18-month period.

The problem started when Paulick referenced the seven deaths in the wake of the quarter-horse death of the Ruidoso Futurity winner.* It escalated after 2012 Haskell Stakes winner Paynter made a miraculous recovery then underscored his return to health with an impressive victory. In a post-race TVG interview, Baffert gratuitously remarked: “Ray Paulick, if you’re watching, put this is your pipe and smoke it.”

The phrase is a well-known cliché, of course, but not to anyone inside the business who perceived the comment to be nothing less than a pointed jibe meant to discredit the messenger.

Regrettably, Baffert’s fit of pique does not appear to be spontaneous but rather part of an anti-media campaign forged by Baffert and family against anyone who raises questions about the Hall of Famer’s training practices.

Baffert’s wife Jill has been her husband’s staunchest public defender dating back to the misunderstanding that surfaced at Del Mar surrounding the sale of Richard’s Kid, a dual Pacific Classic winner formerly trained by Baffert.

This latest dust-up was a war of words between Jill Baffert and Paulick that followed the "Ruidoso death" comment.

There also was a circulated e-mail from Baffert to industry insiders re: horseplayer advocate Andy Asaro who has had problems with Baffert since the trainer’s owner, Mike Pegram, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, lobbied for a parimutuel takeout increase.

Baffert used a similar tack to smear Asaro, referring to him as “bankrupt.” Asaro has demanded an apology which, at this writing, was not forthcoming. Today, Asaro learned that "apparently someone has asked Attorney Ryan Enderle to look into my past, beyond 10 years ago, and is threatening to post a past Bankruptcy of mine online unless I back off."

On the same day the Post fired its racing writers, I received a call from a Baffert associate defending the trainer and questioning my role as executive editor for allowing former jockey agent Harry Hacek to occasionally post commentary at HRI under the “Backside View” flag, some very critical of Baffert. The contact asked if I would speak with Bob. I agreed.

We had a respectful conversation in which we disagreed about his handling of the horse death situation. Baffert’s tone changed somewhat when he discussed the credibility of both Hacek and Asaro. I offered Baffert equal time and confirmed our conversation with this follow-up e-mail:


It was good that we had a talk on the phone this afternoon.

To reiterate, you will have equal time to say whatever you wish, without editing that would alter context in any way.

I will write a precede (cq) that introduces the issue to readers who might be unfamiliar with the subject matter.

Your story will lead HRI for a two-day period and, of course, will live forever in the archives. Take your time with it.

I will e-mail you to advise when the story will run and, of course, if I have any questions.

May all your horses have a safe trip tomorrow and every day.

John Pricci, executive editor”

I have not yet received Baffert’s retort and sincerely hope that I will. What seems obvious—my conversation notwithstanding—is that there has been a campaign waged by Baffert’s supporters against racing media or anyone taking a differing view. That is their right, of course.

But for TVG--which promised to give Paulick equal time to react to Baffert’s remark--to rescind its invitation due to a “scheduling conflict” appears little more than another industry media organization favoring the game’s powerful practitioners rather than report on the story or provide a serious, fair-minded editorial is embarrassingly inexcusable.

* correction made to clarify original source reference, made at 6:12 p.m., 061713

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Chasing the Dream Is What Really Matters

ELMONT, NY, June 10, 2013—I don’t know why but at no point during the 2013 Triple Crown run did I experience some sense of urgency about how it would all turn out. I was content to allow it to wash over me.

I like 3-year-old racing for the excitement it brings to the sport, the good betting opportunities it affords, and the teachable moments about the process that helps to understand the contestants.

I like the fact that repetition and experience informs the process to better understand the practitioners themselves. I’ve trained hundreds of horses on this word processors over the years and never have lost a race.

I never won one, either, but I’m seldom in doubt. For some reason, But this Triple Crown season was different. It wasn’t gee whiz, wide-eyed business as usual.

But from the day after Orb’s Kentucky Derby to the day after Palace Malice’s Belmont Stakes, I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a Triple Crown chase more.

Then it hit me: This was about a Triple Crown won by people, with horses in a supporting role. It was a chase that looked promising for a while but once again did not produce an equine with true charisma, much less one for the ages.

After seeing how this year’s series was received, racing’s decline due to a perceived unpopularity with the public might have more to do with mainstream media apathy than the notion that horses have become irrelevant.

Every year, the Triple Crown, whether the quest is lost or won, is an event that celebrates a sport’s history, making it possible to revere the past the way sports fans embrace Ruth’s Yankees, Lombardi’s Packers, Russell’s Celtics or ‘Rocket’ Richard’s Canadiens.

What made this Triple Crown run so enjoyable for so many is because it celebrated all that came before, what it is now, and how it portends for the future.

Time’s baton was passed, from Derby to Preakness to Belmont, endlessly through time, from the steadfast Wheatley domain, to Triple Crown-dominant Calumet, to ground-breaking Dogwood, racing’s original syndicator.

The 2013 chase also celebrated horsemanship in all its disparate forms; from Kentucky-bred trainer indentured to a family dynasty to a renaissance trainer with special vision to forever turn a sport into big business, to a protégé that would take the original model and raise it to levels unknown.

Watching Shug McGaughey realize his dream and enjoy the entire process despite the disappointments that followed was to see a good man who gets it, that a Kentucky Derby victory is a blessing, more than enough to last a lifetime.

Seeing his rider, a young Joel Rosario win the two biggest prizes in the world in a span of five weeks, become one of the sport’s best human athletes was a revelation immersed in the knowledge that he’s still learning.

Watching Wayne Lukas, a revolutionary who forever changed the way the game is played break a record for Triple Crown victories lent historical perspective to the 2013 chase.

Watching 50-year-old Gary Stevens, out of the competitive saddle for seven years, put on a riding clinic to win the Triple Crown’s middle jewel then seeing him celebrate on the gallop-out befits a time capsule moment.

Watching Todd Pletcher, who has raised his mentor’s game several notches on his way to becoming the sport’s most prolific winner, tweak Palace Malice’s development with the skill of an old school master to turn a talented underachiever into a classic winner was the kind of moment fans can only hope to see again.

Seeing Mike Smith, no youngster himself, work out a perfect trip aboard a horse he helped run off to lose America’s Race decisively, only to return and guide that same horse to victory in the champion’s test.

Finally, enjoying Cot Campbell, the man who made it possible for 40 men to own one horse instead of the other way around, enjoy the moment, as he watched the fruits of his labor succeed was the stuff smiles are made of.

Every one of these 2013 Triple Crown winners are old enough, wise enough, and secure enough to know that what they achieved is a blessing that few people get to experience.

There was no Triple Crown to celebrate this year. But to see the process unfold and enjoy the satisfaction derived by some of the game’s best and brightest, will have to do until the next history maker comes along. Until then, what happened in the Triple Crown 2013 was plenty good enough.

Written by John Pricci

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