Thursday, March 25, 2010

One Easy Fix to Help Horseplayers and the Industry

ELMONT, NY, March 25, 2010--As this is written it’s Wednesday morning and I’m preparing to leave for New Orleans on Thursday. Looking forward to Saturday’s Louisiana Derby, a great betting race, and a loaded undercard at the Fair Grounds.

Because of their entry schedule, which appears to be a 96-hour draw on most days--it was five days in the case of their signature event day--if I get my parimutuel head handed to me it won’t be for lack of preparation.

The entries for Saturday’s card have been out since late Monday. I’ve long since printed out the past performances and, by taking an advance overview, have an excellent feel for the races that interest me.

When the performance figures arrive, I’ll be good to go from a handicapping perspective, too. Then, at approximately four minutes to post time, I’ll finalize the process. Which horses am I betting on? Who am I taking a position against?

But the chances are that--even if I hadn’t planned to be at the Fair Grounds on Saturday--I’d be playing some of the races there anyway, just as I would any other weekend. Why?

Because in the era of modern information dissemination where time is precious, the Fair Grounds entry schedule has allowed me much more time to scan the past performances for potential bets. In this business, that’s called great customer service.

Alas, not all tracks want my business and chances are they won’t get it. Why’s that? Well, for instance, it’s not like I’m disinterested in Saturday’s Santa Anita card but the track makes it very difficult to get my preparation done.

Apparently, in the interests of accommodating their horsemen, the racing office or the program printing department, early program scratches and early-line odds are not available to me until late in the day Friday, EDT.

So, with the exception of Santa Anita’s stakes program, I don’t bother perusing the past performances of their other races. With any of three or four other tracks to choose from on the simulcast docket, why bother. I just don’t have the time, sorry.

Now forget that I have made a living in this business in one form or another my whole adult life which, of course, is both blessing and curse. (I wouldn’t want it any other way).

Racetrackers say that no horseman dies if he has a real good two-year-old in the barn. Well, with every fresh set of past performance data, it‘s the same for horseplayers.

Santa Anita isn’t the only track that doesn’t seem to want my business, or that of any simulcast player who needs time to scout the PPs for potential bets. Oaklawn Park doesn’t seem to care that much, either.

Even though I’m locked in 24/7/365, time does not allow for full time wagering. Finding storylines and keeping up with the news is a full time job. Resultantly, I’m more of a weekend warrior, like most other customers: Saturdays, Sundays and the occasional opening day of a boutique meet.

And, so, Oaklawn is just as inconvenient to play because of the late posting of past performance data.

Note to Mr. Cella: I know that you’re a traditionalist, in a good way. But this is the information age; too much information, too little time. So your occasional stakes notwithstanding, I don’t have time to catch up with your past performances.

And that’s too bad. The Oaklawn product is, on balance, quite bettable, and the takeout rate is better than most which, of course, in this game is not saying much.

I am aware of the logistical inconvenience a 72-hour entry box causes horsemen. There’s the lead time required before legal medications to worry about, track conditions change, or a horse could suffer a minor injury in the interim and might not find another suitable spot for a month.

But it’s horseplayer dollars that make this game go. In that context tracks should err on the side of the player. Given everything else a fan of this sport has to endure to continue his engagement, isn’t this a relatively easy do-able price to pay?

Philadelphia Park makes it easy for me to play their races. Again, it is Wednesday morning still and Sunday’s past performances are available. But here’s the other problem.

I prefer the vertical pools to the horizontals. But a 30 percent rake in the trifecta and superfecta? As they say out West, Pasadena.

The gap between the industry and its customers has widened to the point that many players have walked, and those who have stayed are in revolt. When will this industry do its level best for its customers?

The small policy change above doesn’t require legislative approval. It’s an easy fix that makes the game easier to play for all, people like me and those less fortunate who must work for a living.

So make past performances available as soon as possible. If the Fair Grounds and Philadelphia Park can do it, so can every track in the country. Set a 72-hour entry schedule, at least, and move up scratch times so that early lines are posted ASAP.

Give yourself the best chance to improve your business with this baby step. Or not. Then continue to lose market share, even within your own industry, and poll your customers to ask what you can do better. Then kid yourself into thinking you’re paying customers more than lip service.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Concerned New Yorkers Can Save Racing Industry and Their Communities

ALBANY, NY, March 19, 2010--As the Concerned Citizens for Saratoga Racing were conducting a grass roots rally outside the State Capitol to save the 2010 Saratoga race meet Wednesday, it quickly became apparent that it was about much more than the health of the thoroughbred racing industry.

“I don’t want to see Saratoga wind up a ghost town like other manufacturing cities in America. Racing at Saratoga Race Course is our manufacturing industry,” said local breeder and horse owner, Tom Mina, speaking on behalf of New York-based horsemen.

“I’m here as a citizen of Saratoga Springs and New York State and can tell you this is about more than the Saratoga race meet,” said event organizer Kelly Zanella. “We don’t want owners and breeders to continue to move to other states.

Adding “this is about the health of an industry, 35,000 jobs, and a $2.4 billion revenue stream. It’s about the long term viability of those jobs and the strength of an entire industry.”

While the rally took place outside, Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari was inside where, adjunct to a meeting with industry leaders, he was interviewed by veteran local ABC reporter, John McLoughlin:

“Can you tell us why places like Pennsylvania were able to get VLTs up and running to help their thoroughbred industry but here it has taken nine years and New York still doesn’t have them?”

At first Canestrari seemed taken aback by the question, before smiling wryly and responding “in New York things are different. We’re very deliberate.”

And so there it is, a sound bite that underscores how New York State has become a template for dysfunctional government.

Had three executive administrations and legislators acted deliberately but with purpose the last nine years, there would have been a need for a rally at all.

If New York lawmakers had taken this responsibility seriously, the state would not be in default to the New York Racing Association for approximately $40 million since, as proscribed in the new franchise agreement, VLTs were not up and running by March of 2009.

Neither have the state’s legislators addressed the New York City-Off Track Betting crisis, for which it is responsible as its new owner. NYC-OTB, seeking bankruptcy protection and statutory changes, is preparing to shut its doors, March 31. Employees were given termination notices earlier this month.

The OTB issue requires immediate remedy. A large measure of its annual billion dollar handle is bet on NYRA’s races. That revenue stream is active. Should the stream dry up, the NYRA will run out of money before the Belmont Stakes, much less Saratoga.

Among other creditors, NYC-OTB owes the NYRA $15-million and the New York Thoroughbred Breeders’ Fund $2-million.

Once a VLT operator is approved--again--the franchisee will step forward with $300-million in hand. The state needs that up-front money, as does the NYRA. That money helps solve immediate and long range issues for both the industry and state.

Albany’s indifference to the thoroughbred industry is nothing new. Whatever the issue, nothing gets done there until the people’s business reaches crisis mode. The meantime is spent not making enemies by making a decision, a.k.a., doing your job. Never know where that next campaign contribution coming’s from.

At the behest of Sen. Roy McDonald, Assemblymen Canestrari and Tony Jordon were in attendance. Gaming and Wagering Committee Chairman Sen. Eric Adams and Democratic Conference Leader Sen. John Sampson were there, too, assuring Saratoga County Supervisor Joanne Yepsen that they’re prepared to choose a VLT operator among the four remaining bidders.

Canestrari favors a whole new process, however, saying the crisis is “overblown fear mongering by the NYRA.” To her credit, Yepsen stood with the citizens, advocating for the operation of VLTs as soon as possible, explaining “lack of action [resulted in] horses leaving the state for other areas. This is about being here in the long term.”

Demonstrations have only just begun. This Sunday at Belmont Park, the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and the New York Thoroughbred Breeders have organized a rally of track workers from every strata to walk in silence to send a message to the lawmakers.

Next week at Saratoga Race Course, about 10 miles from where 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide was foaled, fans, businessmen, horsemen and breeders will gather to send the same message, that the crisis will have dire consequences beyond the upcoming race meet.

Concerned citizens in the state, tired of the politics of abdication, can show their support not only for an industry but for the fiscal health of their state no matter what county they are from.

“When I appeared on television the night before last,” said Zanella Wednesday morning, “four state senators called the next morning. They act when they hear from private citizens. Grass roots works.

“If people want to write a letter and don’t have the time, they can e-mail me at and I’ll send them a letter they can forward to their representatives. It’s going to take a grass roots effort.”

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Beyond Provincialism, Audacious Monmouth Plan a Blueprint for Saving an Industry?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, March 9, 2009--If New York racing knows what’s good for it, and if the racing industry in general wants to grow instead of subsisting, withering and, eventually, disappearing, it had better wish Monmouth Park and New Jersey racing all the luck in the world.

Virtually since the day after hosting the Breeders’ Cup, Monmouth Park and its horsemen began thinking about a new model that would ensure its existence going forward. Like every other racetrack in this country, big and small, it’s in survival mode.

But that’s what happens when you fall out of favor, are no longer a part of the fabric, and betting revenue drops nearly 25 percent in the last two years. To be provincial about Monmouth’s grand experiment this summer would miss the point at best, myopic at worst.

This is bigger than whether Monmouth can effectively compete in a racing environment in which it finds itself surrounded on all sides by slots-infused competition. It is bigger than seeing how negatively Monmouth Park’s incursion into the high end of the “good horse circuit” negatively impacts Saratoga Race Course this summer.

And so all with a vested interest in this industry needs to root for New Jersey to succeed in 2010. If it doesn’t, there won’t be a 2011 in the Garden State. If it doesn’t, then the rest of racing has no future, either. Monmouth Park has created a new paradigm, a model that finally--finally--addresses the state of the modern game.

As Monmouth Park vice president and general manager, Bob Kulina, and trainer John Forbes, president of the New Jersey Horsemen’s Association, expressed so clearly on an NTRA conference call Tuesday afternoon, the public has spoken: “Racing has got to change.”

“We’ve gone from a local sport to a national sport with simulcasting,” explained Forbes. “Fans want larger fields and better horses. We decided to concentrate on the big picture rather than worry about the provincial aspect, focus on what the customer wants.

“After the 2007 Breeders’ Cup, we knew we needed a future to survive,” Kulina added. “Our customers want a better product and we’re going to give the players what they want. We’re in the entertainment business. We had to try to provide [a picture] of what racing in this country should look like.”

To accomplish the goal, Monmouth Park, with the help of its horsemen, have come up with an audacious model, a 49-day summer meet that will be held on Friday, Saturday and Sundays only, including three additional holiday Mondays.

A Monmouth racing weekend basically will package 12-race programs with an average daily purse distribution of $1-million, or about $250,000 more than Saratoga-based horsemen raced for last year.

Special-weight maidens at Monmouth Park this year will race for a purse of $75,000; a three-other-than allowances will go for $90,000; an overnight stakes, $100,000. There will be an average 2.5 Jersey-bred races per program. Their state-bred maidens will race for a $75,000 pot. Any Jersey-bred that finishes 1-2-3 in an open race earns a 20 percent bonus from the New Jersey breeding fund.

In the modern era, thoroughbred racing in New Jersey has embraced innovation. Because of its proximity to New York, it had to. The graphics packages on the nightly “Racing From the Meadowlands” cable program were always a step ahead of the competition. I was there. I know.

The bundling of thoroughbred stakes on a single card also broke new ground. It led to the special-event days that are so prevalent nationally today. They were the first track I know of to refer to their customers as “guests,” and treated them accordingly. They served gourmet fare in their tony Equestris restaurant, also a racetrack first.

Now thoroughbred racing at the Meadowlands will be no more, shifting to Monmouth Park for 22 days after Labor Day. They will race Saturdays and Sunday only, for purses reverting to a more New Jersey-like $250,000 daily. Standardbred racing will fill the gap in the Meadowlands schedule by adding three-day-weekend harness programs.

For Monmouth Park and the New Jersey thoroughbred industry, this enormous gamble could be a last hurrah. Kulina and attorney Dennis Drazin, a horse owner and former president of the NJHA, knew they had to come up with a product that the public wanted, one that bettors would embrace. They’re betting that quality racing will do that.

“This is a one-year plan,” Kulina said. “With proper funding to attract better horses and with the proper number of [racing] days, we could then go out and secure more funding. But we need to prove that it will work. We made some soft projections and are taking a gamble we can double our handle.”

Obviously, if you put up that kind of purse money, they will come, from all over the Mid-Atlantic and New York, especially New York. Kulina mentioned that in recent years Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin and Bruce Levine have had sizable divisions at Monmouth Park.

Linda Rice, Saratoga’s leading trainer in 2009, also has enjoyed successful Monmouth meets in the past. It’s easy to understand why local horsemen, and the NYRA, are anxious.

“Of course, we’re very concerned about smaller horsemen, but our sense is that we have to look toward the future,” said Kulina. “We’re in the middle of five states with slots revenues. Small horsemen don’t have the kind of horses that America wants to bet on. [If they can’t compete] they will have to go by the wayside.”

Before anyone thinks that’s cruel and unusual, the alternative is worse. “When Dennis and I had to come up with a plan, we thought about the glory days of the 50s, 60s and 70s and how racing was back then, a series of 30-day and 40-day race meets. Horsemen were moving all the time.

“Obviously you can’t do that today. But if you reduce the number of opportunities for live racing you can put out a better product, and that helps everyone. We learned at the Meadowlands that when fans showed up at for daytime simulcasting from Saratoga and Keeneland, it hurt our live racing at night… And simulcasting at the Meadowlands was very successful.”

What Monmouth management and its horsemen have created is a formula for success but the consumer, in Kulina’s words, “needs to embrace this.” And so this is much bigger than a provincial issue between New Jersey and New York, between Monmouth Park and Saratoga Race Course.

One proven way to boost handle and generate interest in Monmouth’s past performances would be if, during this experimental period, the track received permission from the state to lower parimutuel takeout, at least in a few featured betting pools. Lowering the rake is also what the customer wants.

And what will it all mean when Saratoga opens its extended 40-day race meet, July 21? “We think that Saratoga is still the best summer meeting on the East Coast,” said Monmouth Park’s general manager. “I know there’s a place for both of us to survive.”

Written by John Pricci

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