Friday, June 26, 2009

Racing’s Problems and Government’s Role

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 25, 2009--As one looks around the racing industry and the country as a whole, the game’s troubles are very much representative of current big picture realities. So far, this millennium hasn‘t been the wondrous new age it was purported to be.

So it’s not surprising, then, that what’s happening presently in regions that always have been considered America’s leading circuits, those of California, New York and Kentucky, are also reflective of larger issues. There’s no other way to say it: the racing industry in these states are in a shambles.

No need to rehash what everyone seems to know as to the root causes: A general lack of cohesiveness, uniformity, proactive vision and fat cat entitlement has stunted whatever growth was possible when the game reached its zenith of popularity in the 1970s.

Just as racing’s growth stopped, other professional sports leagues were becoming more aggressive, and niche sports started to gain in popularity. Then came the advent of convenience market wagering, the resultant growth of various forms of off-track betting.

Simulcasting arrived on the scene and almost immediately handle grew significantly across the board. Shortly thereafter, in-home wagering fostered more growth--inevitable cannibalization notwithstanding--aided by the burgeoning popularity of the Internet, the ideal tool for taking advantage of racing’s statistical orientation.

With states becoming more dependent on alternative forms of revenue raising, casinos became the new gambling reality. Native American gaming, with its huge tax advantages; a paradigm shift that turned the Sin City of Las Vegas into Disneyland for adults; Lottery expansion, and the exponential growth of cable television that helped kill the notion of night racing as choice entertainment, have all conspired to compel an industry to look at itself from the outside in.

Should it have embraced off-track betting instead of hoping it would fail? Should it have put itself on television to a greater degree? Should it have educated the populace, changed the betting paradigm, lowered the cost of wagering and gotten out in front of the drug explosion? Everyone knows the answers now.

But the enemy at the door is not coming from within this time, from its own ineffectual leadership, complacency and greed, standards which never seem to go out of style. Instead of being audacious, the notion of hope for the industry now had become pusillanimous in the extreme.

The consequences are that racing has come under attack from without. During the 1990s, ideology subtly began to replace reason in this country, becoming so much a part of the sociological fabric that political chickens had no choice but to come home to roost.

Resultantly, America is currently getting the dysfunctional government it deserves. If unchecked, don’t be surprised if America’s elected representatives destroy the entire racetrack community and its way of life.

In California, Native Americans are using their competitive advantage to influence state government, using their pocketed tax dollars to buy favorable legislation. But don’t blame them; they didn’t invent the system. Northern California is all but lost now. Santa Anita’s storied past, from Seabiscuit to Shoemaker, is in danger of becoming ancient history unless the track is put on sound economic footing again, if it’s not already too late.

In New York, where onerous tax rates have chased companies across its borders for decades, state government is a sad joke that has allowed eight-year-old enabling VLT legislation to lay dormant while all but a handful of horsemen fail to make a living commensurate with a 365/24/7 work schedule because political values always trump the best interests of the people.

In Kentucky, the party of “no,” bereft of ideas, apparently prefers to allow it’s signature industry to the world to fade away rather than give its citizens what they want. Why? Because it’s what the other political party wants, and because they can. What could be more unconscionable than that? What could be more decadent than feigning morality, pandering to an extremist wing of its constituency?

What truly is outrageous is that the leader of the opposition is himself a person who goes gaming, taking his business to casinos in nearby states rather than throw his support behind his state’s largest industry; throwing it a lifeline that would cost nothing.

What Senate leader David Williams’ party proposes as an alternative to VLTs, ironic given the party’s brand identity, is legislation that would divert funds to purses via taxes: one on the state lottery, one on charitable gaming, and a third on out-of-state simulcasts of Kentucky races.

Apparently taxing church sponsored bingo games and such, and having horseplayers from other states make up for Kentucky’s shortfall were preferable alternatives; collecting pennies instead of dollars before seeing simulcast revenue eventually dry up when horseplayers figure out that the winners aren’t paying as much as they used to.

The thoughts of one independent thinker, David Trimble, an attorney from Georgetown, Ky., in his weekly News-Graphic column:

“The Kentucky State Senate under the leadership of Senate President David Williams seems to believe its role in Kentucky government is simply to say "No." Rather than coming up with viable and sensible alternatives, the Republican Senate serves as a roadblock to anything and everything proposed by the Democrats, good or bad, while exercising no realistic leadership toward fixing Kentucky's problems.

“Yet, just as in every wet-dry election, the opposition political action groups set up the false bogeyman of "family" concerns, which far too many of the populace buy into without ever questioning the facts. Shouldn't having adequate school buildings, education programs, and social services be "family" concerns, rather than inchoate fears that too many studies have proven false?”

Perhaps even more unacceptable was State Senator Damon Thayer (R-Scott County), a horse industry consultant and former Breeders’ Cup and Turfway Park executive, standing mute on the VLT issue, suggesting that the Senate’s tax measure was the better alternative. Apparently, political ambition knows no bounds, Thayer now a poster child for the government we deserve.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Religious Zealots Eschew Personal Freedom, Threaten Gambling Industry

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 17, 2009--I don’t know about you but I’m sick and tired of taking note of the double standard that exists in this country with regards to gambling. Actually, double standards don’t exist just in this one arena.

Religious zealotry is no longer a quaint notion limited to a handful of kooks, or those who would nation-build or nation-destroy in the Middle East. Just ask anyone associated with abortion clinics. In some cases, if you agree with Roe v. Wade, you die.

When it comes to expanded gaming, let’s temper the notion of zealotry down to religious fervor. Gambling, after all, isn’t a life and death issue. It’s abuse is a quality of life decision, just like the decision to use tobacco or abuse alcohol, which also are legal.

Why aren’t those who object to certain practices on moral grounds out picketing the fast-food burger joints that have been making America’s children fat and unhealthy for decades? I’m just so tired of all the hypocrisy.

I’m also tired of the fact that those wishing to curtail expansion of video lottery terminals on moral grounds have not to my knowledge demonstrated in front of state capitals that offer the lottery, a gambling vehicle that rips off the citizenry--especially those who can least afford it--by holding onto half of every dollar they take in.

Where’s the deserved outrage there?

In Kentucky, America’s thoroughbred nursery to the world, lawmakers are hoping that passage of VLT legislation can do for the Commonwealth what VLTs have done for Pennsylvania’s treasury, or help pay for the construction of badly needed modern schools, or just help put it on the same playing field as those in neighboring states.

But in the name of morality they fear VLTs will pray on old retirees hoping to get rich when they could be spending their money on food and medical care. They want to protect children from parents who would become addicted to gambling. Bingo, anyone?

As John McEnroe might ask: You can’t be serious? Or as Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Chip Wooley said relative to the eight-year delay between enabling VLT legislation and the construction of an Aqueduct racino: I can’t understand how states can sit by and watch gaming revenue cross their own state lines.

The other day I sat with a successful businessman who works with, and benefits from, his company’s association with the off-shore gaming industry. His associates are in states such as Delaware lobbying for an expansion of legal sports wagering. I asked “wouldn’t that be bad for your business and the off shore industry as a whole?”

“We want regulation, we welcome transparency, we want to open our books again and pour money back into the United States economy so in some small way we can help retire America’s enormous debt,” he said, adding:

“Of course this would be good for our business. We’re about future growth through the parimutuel pools. It’s about creating a win-win. With or without American regulation, online gaming will continue to prosper and grow worldwide.

“Last year, $2.5 billion was bet on sports in Las Vegas. This is a $400 billion business worldwide. Other legal entities and the off shores account for about $200 billion. The other $200 billion is handled by organized crime who still offer credit to their customers.

“But people who bet online cannot bet more than what’s in their account. For its own good, your horse industry had better be with us on this otherwise they eventually will become irrelevant. They must change their thinking on this.”

I live in what probably is the epicenter of New York State’s thoroughbred breeding industry which, like it or not, believe it or not, is one of the most successful in the country. But it won’t remain that way if the whispers we hear are more than rumor, that more than a few breeders have talked about pulling up stakes and moving their operations to nearby Pennsylvania.

That’s because in the last decade purses for Pennsylvania-bred races have nearly doubled while breeder awards have nearly tripled in that same period. Philadelphia Park not long ago was an empty, depressing place. Philly Park is now a hub of gaming activity.

Pennsylvania’s eight casinos have helped a relatively new harness track in Chester succeed, as has Presque Isle Downs, the new thoroughbred facility. According to published reports, Pennsylvania casinos have saved the state’s property tax-payers more than $1.5 billion and has helped create 8,000 new jobs.

Penn National Race Course, once the sleepiest little track nestled at the foot of the Blue Mountains in tiny Grantville, now has purses averaging $16,000 per race, per night. Resultantly, average field size has grown to more than nine runners per race, fueling double-digit increases both in live and, especially, simulcast handle. All because of the installation of the Hollywood Casino on track premises.

The fiscal problems in Kentucky are starting to adversely affect horsemen in New York State. With Churchill Downs and Ellis Park running fewer dates this summer, there has been a sizable increase in stall applications for the upcoming Saratoga race meet.

While this might be great news for horseplayers and the racing association, it’s bad news for the horsemen who support New York racing year-round. Horsemen have had their stall allotment requests downsized appreciably. Of course, the loss of two stabling facilities that are now detention barns hasn’t helped.

This year, racing dates at Hollywood Park have been reduced. Del Mar’s boutique meet will run one less day per week. And while Saratoga might be the short term beneficiary of this economic malaise, a look at today’s Belmont Park card will show that the early Pick Three, two maiden races and a claimer, attracted a total of 18 horses overnight. It had better not rain.

Hopefully, those who object to gambling on moral grounds will concentrate on bigger, more important fish, such as zealous prosecution of those who would commit hate crimes, or war crimes, and those who say this country doesn’t have the wherewithal to support what has become America’s biggest fiscal and moral dilemma: universal health care for all its citizens.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Altering Triple Crown Schedule Gaining Momentum

ELMONT, NY, June 11, 2009--The following was first proposed in a column written after the 2005 Triple Crown. The subject has come up every year since but nothing’s changed.

For the first time, however, there seems to be a burgeoning groundswell of support from every industry sector that time has come to alter the schedule of America’s most important thoroughbred racing series.

I’m a traditionalist, bound by old school values. But there’s a vexing issue that’s easy to fix. We’ve thought so for the last five years and it has nothing to do with fixing something that’s broken. The Triple Crown isn’t broken, just romantically anachronistic and rife with counter-productivity.

What this change proposes is to do something good for the modern thoroughbred--without which there would be no game and creating a larger fan base--without whom there would be no game.

And it’s about improving the series going forward, not devaluing it, as goes the myopic objection.

Two years after this proposal appeared in print, Carl Nafzger created a firestorm when he chose to skip the Belmont Stakes with Derby winning Street Sense after losing to Curlin by a whisker in Baltimore.

While all were disappointed with Nafzger’s decision, no one argued that he wasn’t acting in the best interests of his horse. He later validated his approach by sweeping Saratoga’s Jim Dandy and Travers. But the Belmont Stakes took a hit. Again.

Here are the thoughts of two trainers who accounted for two legs of this year’s classics: Among other factors, Tim Ice credited the victory of Summer Bird to his being fresh and having enough time to ship to New York early to train over the unique Belmont configuration. How did that make it easy for Mine That Bird?

Chip Woolley admitted that he wouldn’t have run in the Preakness if he didn’t feel compelled by history and a personal sense of obligation to the sport. MTB and Flying Private were the only two horses to run in all three races. There have only been five horses in the last four years to run in all three jewels.

The filly didn’t run back in the Belmont because she had two taxing efforts within two weeks. And if you believe Jess Jackson didn’t want to run, perhaps you don’t know him as well as you think. But if there were another week or two of recovery time, who knows? Which leads to several more questions:

Were any of these horsemen wrong for doing what they believed was best for their horses? Of course not. And just how does the present five-week schedule serve the history of the sport by not having these races be as competitive as they can be? And they never will be as competitive until the time between races lengthens.

As we said last year, we’re stuck at the corner of Disheartened and Disenchanted because when racing reaches a crossroads, it blinks, laments its fate but invariably fails to act. And this one is an easy problem to fix. Let’s consider some suggestions:

Simply adding another week between the Derby and Preakness is not good enough. That would make it a six week series--not the same five weeks traditionalists want and it’s not enough recovery time for the modern thoroughbred, especially after a fairly rigorous prep season.

And while Chip Woolley asked “Who am I to argue with Wayne Lukas?” when questioned about altering the schedule, nobody but Lukas wants to alter the distances of the three races to nine, nine and-a-half, and 10 furlongs, respectively. Personally I’d rather see the series eliminated than to bastardize it in such fashion.

The Triple Crown can be changed for the better just like other sports, only not by deemphasizing the traditional preps. Other sports have diluted the importance of their regular seasons with expanded playoff formats, when all they really wanted was to put more fannies in higher-priced seats and increase revenue from television.

Racing must embrace change and not be afraid to lengthen the series. A longer series does what’s best for the modern thoroughbred and places a greater emphasis on horsemanship. I would argue it is easier for a true alpha three-year-old to dominate over a five-week period than to extend that dominance over a greater number of stronger and/or late developing rivals.

Today’s thoroughbred is sleek, not stout. Gone are the days when old-school horsemen would get to the bottom of their stock to attain total fitness. They still can reach bottom, of course, only recovery takes longer.

Whether it’s too much speed in the pedigree, permissive medication, less forgiving surfaces or environmental pollutants, modern horsemen with an understanding of form-cycle analysis race today’s thoroughbred far less often. This is a fact of racing life at every track, every day, not just for five weeks each spring.

A Triple Crown of longer duration not only better serves the horse but makes promotional sense by keeping the series alive longer. The distances and venues should remain the same--if that’s possible given the Pimlico situation.

The Kentucky Derby has secured its traditional place on the first Saturday in May. Because of its distance, place on the calendar, field size, and overall degree of difficulty, it remains the most difficult of the three to win. As such, “America’s Race” should stay right where it is.

We originally proposed that the Preakness be run on the first Saturday in June. This makes it more likely that the Derby horses would run back in the Preakness, thus improving series continuity while raising the profile of racing’s glamour division with mainstream fans.

Further, it provides more time for late developers and non-Derby qualifiers to join the series. This makes the challenge for horsemen more daunting, not easier.

NTRA blogger Dean Arnold might have a better idea: Memorial Day weekend, which would allow a minimum of 3-½ weeks between the first two legs, likely closer to four if the weekend stretches into the first Saturday in June.

Memorial Day would give the race an identity with the American sports fan. Also, as previously stated, purses for both the Preakness and Belmont should be raised to match to Derby, paying back to eighth place to help insure continuity and defray costs, as Arnold suggests.

And what could be a more fitting conclusion to this uniquely American series than a Belmont Stakes on the 4th of July? This gives the entire series an identity that transcends sports, two national television holiday events run sometime during or after the barbecue and fireworks. If a Triple Crown is at stake, so much the better.

The longer schedule gives promoters nine weeks to bang the drum instead of five. And wouldn’t the accomplishment be even greater if the Derby and/or Preakness winner had to defeat a larger number of contiguous rivals? Find a sponsor and bring back a participation and winner’s bonus.

None of this upsets traditional Derby preps and allows horsemen more time to develop their still maturing stock. The early season preps would still have their rightful place and there would be no need for Monmouth Park and Saratoga to alter the dates of the Haskell and Travers.

A longer Triple Crown season simultaneously increases and decreases the degree of difficulty, brightens the spotlight, sustains and creates added interest and produces bigger and better wagering events, all while doing what’s best for the animal.

Even the mainstream media is getting into the act on this. senior writer Pat Forde has adopted the Triple Crown holiday scenario, correctly pointing out that the Belmont would be free of competition from the NBA and NHL finals. When will the time come for the industry to act with enlightened self interest?

Written by John Pricci

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