Friday, February 06, 2009

If Racing Doesn’t Tend its own Garden, Feds Will

New York City, February 5, 2009--According to a Thoroughbred Times Internet report, racing regulations were uppermost in the minds of racing executives as the joint annual meeting of the National Thoroughbred Associations and Harness Tracks of America concluded Wednesday.

What was clear is that racing has no wish to be regulated by the federal government which is, of course, the good news and the bad and also begs the question: So who asked you, anyway?

The economy continues to swirl deeper into the toilet. Our elected leaders are acting like they lost; the losers are taking their obfuscation positions, making the cure for our ills none too stimulating, insuring the audacity of the status quo.

The goal should be to keep these people as far away from racing as possible, unless...

Modern deregulation started with Reagan, continued under Bush 1, was kicked up a notch during the Clinton years then was left to fester, like everything else, during Bush 2. It hasn’t worked--probably because the term “free enterprise” was too liberally interpreted to mean steal anything that’s not nailed down.

“We don’t need the federal government to tell us how to run our operations,” said American Horse Council President Jay Hickey. Congress would disagree, of course, believing the federal Interstate Horse Racing Act gives them license to do whatever they want.

Thus far, Beltway types have engaged only in questioning a handful of racing’s leaders by a House committee in the wake of Eight Belles’ catastrophic Kentucky Derby but, like Schwarzenegger, promised they would be back.

“This industry can get up and move when it needs to,” said Scot Waterman, D.V.M., according to the Thoroughbred Times report, adding that he is pleased with how the industry responded since the first phase of its model drug rules were rolled out in 2005.

It’s almost four years later and the ban on anabolic steroids--a phase 3 measure whereby an agreement between the Association of Racing Commissioners International and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association required tracks to ban its use as a condition of races earning graded status--is the one development that has made an impact.

“Polls show that the less someone knows about racing the less they think of its integrity, and that has to change.” And where are the educational programs that not only would educate the public but the very legislators who rule on industry matters? Anyone who saw the House hearings last June knows education is elementary.

NTRA President Alex Waldrop updated the attendees on the progress being made on phase one of last year’s rollout of the Safety and Integrity Alliance, saying later that wagering security is an area the alliance could address in the future.

In the future? The integrity of the pools, a disconcerting issue for several years, is first now going to get some attention? Hopefully it will be more than a half measure. Waldrop said later that the alliance’s goal is to implement change but not act as a regulator. He’s for giving tracks the option of self regulation, which suggests the NTRA has no ambitions beyond the realm of trade organization. Back to square one.

The next step, to streamline post-race testing procedures, is the next logical course of action. But with labs scattered throughout the country and with many states hamstrung by various forms of a proposal process, economic sense might not yield the desired level of quality assurance.

Another attendee, RCI president Ed Martin, wants to see an end to redundant overregulation, believing the U.S. could follow the Canadian model where industry money pays an independent agency to conduct testing and research. He doesn’t think the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, the enforcement arm of the TRA, is suitable. “Racing cannot self-police itself,” he said.

So racing turns 360 degrees once again. How long do you think it will be before the feds figure out that if these racing guys think they can’t police themselves, and since none of their organizations seem willing or able to step up, we might not have a choice but to intervene?

Next time the industry’s leaders should agree to lock themselves in a room and not emerge until smoke wafts skyward from the fire that burns during this winter of racing’s discontent. There might be more to agree on than not.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Joe Hirsch: Legend and Friend to All

Saratoga Springs, NY, January 21, 2009--In Joe Hirsch speak, tributes from the people and organizations wishing to honor his memory and service to the sport he loved read like a roll of drums.

"There has been no more respected figure in horse racing over the last 50 years than Joe Hirsch…" said Alex Waldrop, NTRA President and CEO.

“He was a kind man, a friend to everyone... truly one of racing’s giants,” said Joe Aulisi, Director of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

“He was a great man and a racing journalist the likes of which we will never see or read again…” said Charlie Hayward, NYRA President & CEO, former President & CEO of Daily Racing Form.

“Joe was a great ambassador for our sport. He had the best interests of horse racing at heart at all times…” said Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of The Jockey Club.

“He was a role model and mentor to so many...set a high standard of excellence…we are honored to be the recipient of his guidance, generosity and leadership,” said Tom Law, President of the National Turf Writers Association.

Despite his gift for story and language, it is unlikely that you ever would have read a Joe Hirsch blog. Snarky attitude never was one of his attributes.

Unequivocally, racing was a major sport when Joe was in his prime. It was a time when a sports writer traveled with the team he covered, more confidant than watchdog.

Hard reporting wouldn’t come until later on, with the “chipmunks,” writers and reporters such as Stan Isaacs, Dick Young, Larry Merchant and a handful of others.

But don’t confuse Joe Hirsch with an apologist. When he saw something he didn’t like, he wrote about it. His was an unquestioned voice of authority.

Issues solved.

Following tributes that appeared almost instantly the day Joe died came recollections of what he had written, or said: “Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso, but only once.” That Racing Form lead became the stuff of racetrack lore.

There was the story about a reporter who prior to a big race lamented to Joe, “it’s a shame about the sloppy track…” His quip “it was a shame about Marie Antoinette” was quintessential Joe Hirsch.

And there was the time when a young Newsday reporter was concerned about how he would cover news emanating from a then jam-packed four weeks of racing at Saratoga:

“It’s not the 24 days you have to worry about, it’s the 24 nights,” he counseled.

Joe often made a personal impact on the lives of his fellow turf writers, too.

My wife and I were married on January 12, 1969, the day the old American Football League gained parity with the older, established NFL when an upstart quarterback “guaranteed” a victory by his Jets over the mighty Colts.

Post time for the church wedding was 5 p.m. Of the 150 invited guests, over one hundred came disguised as empty pews. Father Anthony Praetano didn’t enter Immaculate Conception Monastery until approximately 5:10. Just couldn’t tear himself away from the car radio.

Eventually this story would be documented in an Andy Beyer Super Bowl column and later in Readers’ Digest, coincidentally a property of the Walter Annenberg media empire that also owned the Racing Form.

Twenty years later, Super Bowl XXIII was in Miami, as was Joe Hirsch, covering the Gulfstream meet. Toni and I decided to celebrate our 20th by watching the Joe Montana-led 49ers vs. the Boomer Esiason-led Cincinnati Bengals.

The Niners won; the Bengals covered.

Hirsch’s Manhattan roommate of 11 years also happened to be the same upstart quarterback who engineered the most significant upset in professional football history.

Hirsch initially was doing a favor to Sonny Werblin, who was Johnny Carson’s theatrical agent, a Broadway producer, master of Elberon Farms and owner of the New York Jets who had invested a then ungodly sum of $400,000 in a quarterback from the University of Alabama via Beaver Falls, Pa.

On the Friday of Super Bowl weekend, Toni and I, along with race-caller Tom Durkin and his friend, went to the races. The feature was split divisions of the Joe Namath Handicap for fillies and mares on the turf.

By mid-afternoon, Hirsch was in the trackside restaurant presumably to say hello but really to lead us to the box area where Namath, then a spokesman for Gulfstream Park, awaited.

Namath walked over, Hirsch introduced us, Namath gave my wife a kiss, pretty much ignored me and presented her with an autographed football that read:

“Toni, sorry I missed your wedding but I had to make good on a guarantee.”

As post time approached, Hirsch escorted us to the paddock where he enlisted track photographer Jim Raftery to take a picture of the anniversary couple with Joe Willie Namath.

That will always be Joe Hirsch to us.

Professionally, Joe would sometimes throw me a storyline and once helped me riddle a personal dilemma regarding my 1988 Horse of the Year ballot.

Ferdinand was favored to win the honor despite his somewhat pedestrian 4-for-11 record. The certain-to-be turf champion, Theatrical, had dominated his division, the winner of six Grade 1 events.

“Horse of the Year can be anything,” Hirsch advised. So I voted for Theatrical. Ferdinand won the title, but my conscience was clear.

Now Hirsch, like the storied thoroughbred nurseries he enjoyed writing about--the Greentrees, Calumets, and all the rest that bred to race, not sell, are gone. As is much of the romance.

Perhaps it’s better that Joe isn’t around to witness the virtual disappearance (pun intended) of mainstream turf writing as modern thoroughbred racing continues to devolve more into the realm of game than sport.

Maybe now’s time has come for the sport to acknowledge not only his legacy, but those of Joe Palmer, Red Smith, Audax Minor and countless others, who elevated the sport with the kind of word pictures that make race horses come alive on the printed page, providing a lasting presence for a sport that was first introduced on the Plains of Hempstead nearly four hundred years ago.

As a founder and first president of the National Turf Writers Assn, Joe Hirsch was a trail blazer. Perhaps he can be again.

Correcting an oversight that has existed for too long, the sport needs to construct, in his memory, the Joe Hirsch Turf Writers’ wing of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Written by John Pricci

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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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