Friday, January 09, 2009

Rhetoric Won’t Fix Precipitous Slide

Saratoga Springs, NY, December 8, 2009--On it’s face, the wagering numbers for the final month of 2008 would give the abysmal retail figures a run for its money. Double digits are one thing; over 20 percent are quite another.

Looking inside the numbers provided by Equibase on the chart below, however, the findings are less grim. With the number of fewer races approaching 10 percent, double-digit losses for the month of December, the decline is mitigated somewhat.

We’ve made the point before and it’s worth repeating. If betting handle is the measure, the racing industry is not doing badly compared to many major industries throughout the United States.

Recall that Chrysler corporation’s revenues were down an astounding 53 percent in the final month of 2008.

The question becomes, however, what does this mean for 2009? A story in USA Today Thursday indicated that the American economy will shrink 200 percent this year.

It was enlightening, very surprising and somewhat scary to learn the lessons of 2008 reducing a time honored belief to the status of mythology: Gambling no longer is recession proof.

And, so, what measures can be taken to reverse downward spiraling handle in the immediate future? The evidence seems to indicate one inexorable truth: Nothing will be done.

What I’d like to know is why racing doesn’t go to Washington D. C.? Not for a hand out but for a hand up.

Then I remembered. The racing industry is not only in denial but remains rudderless. No one person or organization can go to the nation’s capital and provide legislators with a history lesson:

That last year alone, with a blended takeout rate of 20 percent, over $2.7 billion came right off the top of betting handle on U.S. races, dollars the federal government didn’t need to provide those states in which parimutuel horse race wagering is conducted.

According to the results of an impact study commissioned by racing organizations, data released in 2005 indicated that the horse industry had a total impact on the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $101.5 billion.

Not to mention how the horse agribusiness helps preserve green space, green being the environmental and economic buzzword of the day.

Congress has bigger fish to throw into the current economic frying pan. But keeping the horse industry vibrant is in the country’s best interests. And the country’s preservation of the horse industry is in its own best economic interests.

But are legislators from non-major racing jurisdictions even aware of how the horse industry can play a meaningful role in America’s recovery? Indeed, do they even know, in a big picture context, that racing even exists?

Of course not. Who’s to tell them? Only in the name of political expediency did Congress last June hold hearings on racing.

Only because of the Eight Belles tragedy, only because she was a filly running in the only race America truly cares about, and only because the use of steroids is such a lightning rod did they take an interest.

And only because the thoroughbred industry feared federal intervention did they act so quickly to keep the legislative wolves out of the equine hen house, seizing an opportunity to jump on the steroid bandwagon which, in so many respects, is the least of racing’s problems.

Cortisone abuse is the more immediate problem.

But who’s to speak on the game’s behalf? The NTRA, whose president addressed racing’s failing fourth-quarter numbers, pointed to the “worldwide economic slowdown and other internal factors.”

Internal factors?

“There were bright spots, including many spectacular performances on the racetrack and progress on the equine safety and integrity front.”

Equine safety? Like more synthetic surfaces? Check out Santa Anita and Turfway lately? Integrity? Industry leaders should be required to wager. Late odds drops are still with us.

Simplistically, if windows were locked at post time, before horses are loaded into the gate so that bettors would know the odds before the actual start, would be an improvement.

Halting wagering after the first horse is loaded was tried and discontinued at Churchill Downs. It didn’t, and won’t, stop late-odds drops from big, last-minute bettors. Only technology can. But at least it wouldn’t send a bad past-posting message.

“The new year brings renewed hope… we must continue to vigorously promote our game… remain focused on retaining and growing our fan base… [racing] remains one of the great values in all of sports.”

Hope is what you sell. Only action gets results. Promotion is needed to illustrate racing as an exciting entertainment alternative and interesting gambling vehicle.

Racetracks can help themselves and the industry. They don’t need federal regulation to initiate their own stimulus packages.

Lower the takeout. Every time that‘s been done handle goes up. You can look it up.

Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators For December 2008
December 2008 vs. December 2007
December 2008
December 2007
% Change
Wagering on U.S. Races* $820,358,357 $1,029,358,904 -20.30%
U.S. Purses $60,123,263 $69,451,825 -13.43%
U.S. Race Days 330 365 -9.59
Annual 2008 vs. Annual 2007
Annual 2008
Annual 2007
% Change
Wagering on U.S. Races* $13,670,196,938 $14,723,993,055 -7.16%
U.S. Purses $1,160,313,672 $1,175,924,289 -1.33%
U.S. Race Days 6,095 6,168 -1.18%
* Includes worldwide commingled wagering on U.S. races and separate pool wagering in Canada on U.S. races.

Written by John Pricci

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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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