Friday, November 09, 2007

New York Politicians Playing Dangerous Game of Franchise Compromise

Saratoga Springs, NY--

Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.--Michael Corleone

Just when I was prepared to write happy thoughts about a recent visit to Santa Anita, how I still prefer legit dirt tracks to synthetic surfaces, and all other things racing, a story threw the New York franchise issue right back into my face.

I had given up commenting on the franchise dilemma, even if every SoCal racetracker I met asked what was going to happen in New York. My answer was that not even Governor Eliot Spitzer or Senator Joseph Bruno could riddle that, especially after Bruno proposed the creation of a racing and gaming super agency shaped from his own vision and likeness.

My considered position was that all involved parties; Democrats, Republicans and the New York Racing Association--given that its prosecution-deferred guilty plea made it a criminal entity--should find a diseased yak in their collective beds. After all, it was NYRAs machinations that hijacked New Yorks world class sport in the first place.

The history of the process of awarding of the franchise began in earnest when Gov. Spitzer agreed to extend the NYRA franchise 30 years, forgive their debts, give them more taxpayer money to get started, in exchange for the deeds to the Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga properties. But that a separate entity would run the VLT gaming operations.

The State House of Representatives, under fellow Democratic leader Sheldon Silver said, lets do it, with the proviso that Aqueduct would house the only VLT facility downstate, presumably so that Nassau County would not compete with Silvers County of Queens for gaming revenue. He said the House would oppose any further extension of gambling in New York State. A moral pillar, obviously, is Mr. Silver.

As expected, Republican Senate Majority Leader Bruno let out with a resounding: Whoa back! Not on my watch you dont. Instead, Bruno proposed the creation of a new super agency--11 political appointees including an overwhelming majority of Republicans--that would decide if and when the new franchisee could order those new paper clips, and from whom.

In short, there was the Spitzer solution: Make everything go away, but mostly NYRAs problems. And Brunos response to the Spitzer plan: Drop dead.

Then there was the Bruno plan, an offer no one could accept, but far enough from the Spitzer proposal as to guarantee huge concessions when seats were filled at the bargaining table. Spitzers Response: Your mama.

And, of course, there was Silvers plan, which doesnt exist now and is unlikely to in the future, Unless, of course, his boys get a pay raise. Dont laugh. That could be a part of a brand new franchise agreement that began circulating earlier this week, also including tax cuts and monies for construction projects. As if a multi-billion dollar industry werent enough of a concern.

Under this new compromise, it is proposed that three separate racing entities run each track; one franchise for Aqueduct, another for Belmont Park and a third for Saratoga, most likely the NYRA since it has stewarded the growth of a six-week race meet into a world wide destination venue.

And even if hes unfamiliar with Northway Exit 14, not even Silver would trifle with Saratogas success.

Such a change could reverse the course of major racing in New York. The NYRA was created in 1955 to eliminate all the little fiefdoms that sprung up with the opportunity to make a buck. Back in the day, racing was the only legal action around. Tracks were always a loggerheads over dates, purses, stakes programs, and the competition to curry favor with the sports biggest and best outfits.

Under NYRAs flag, New York racing became, on balance, the worlds best year-round circuit and host of this planets best extended race meet at Saratoga. But when you stiff the feds, the state, the horsemen, and your own pensioners, you open Pandoras box and run the risk of closing the entry box. Which leads us to a sorry state of affairs, pun intended.

I have no bulls in this rodeo nor am I taking a position on the plans viability. But this three-tier approach doesnt have to be a bad thing. We all know the knocks; intramural competition for the same equine and human populations, no stakes schedule flexibility, logistical and stabling issues, disparate purse levels, etc., etc. But, keeping an open mind, this might be the only damn plan that could work in this politically charged, dishonest environment. To wit:

In the main, Aqueduct exists in a vacuum. Like it or not, its the winter-racing tail that wags this dog, operating for four of seven months from December through March. This period is the reason God invented Santa Anita, Gulfstream and Fair Grounds. (Cant trust Hot Springs until April, either).

When quality New York racing is discussed, seldom is Aqueduct included in the same conversation with Belmont Park and Saratoga.

Belmont and Saratoga need each other. Belmont spring transitions from last stop on the Triple Crown trail to Saratoga preview. The two-year-olds begin to debut, the Dwyer helps produce a second-season Travers three-year-old, and grass racing hits its full turf stride. Saratoga is, well, Saratoga, standing alone until it transitions into the Belmont Fall Grade 1 prep season.

The stalls issue is resolvable between the tracks, their racing departments and local horsemen. It can be delineated by the quality of the meet and the kind of horses needed to put on the different shows. Dates and purses can be legislated into racing law. There should be enough VLT purse money to go around for all three, including Saratoga. There still can be a common pool of employees from which to draw, but also a demarcation point for seasonal needs and economic realities. Think of it: One suit, three pockets.

Of course, how this or any plan can happen before the December 31 deadline is a huge unknown. Right now, the favorite is that a resolution will not be found in time. And its off to bankruptcy court we go. Thats another crapshoot but with NYRA ruling a slight favorite.

The skinny is that Spitzer is moving off his plan and closer to a compromise. Bruno thinks its 50-50 that a deal can be struck by the end of the month, leaving December to flesh out the details. Silver? Well, just make it worth his while and hell pack the car and drive back up the Thruway.

But to compromise in good faith to emerge with a workable resolution is fraught with a dilemma. Its like the old joke about a man who learns that, finally, tonights the night. Then he finds out he can make love to either Roseanne Barr or Rosie ODonnell.

In order to settle the franchise issue, I hope that all involved parties would heed the advise of the fictional Lou Mannheim to Bud Fox in the movie, Wall Street. Man looks in the abyss, theres nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that's what keeps him out of the abyss.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

When Assessing Breeders’ Cup Performance, Past Is Prologue

The information contained in the following thumbnail historical sketches of the eight Breeders Cup events on October 27 at Monmouth Park does not trump current condition, reason, or a horse sitting on an explosive effort. But its a good start.

The sketches are meant to separate contenders closely matched in ability and odds. The Cup races are, on balance, the most competitive staged all year. To that end, with input from HRI researcher Brad Morgan, weve chosen eight common variables for the purpose of noting the differences in results as determined by surface, age, sex, preparation, etc.

Obviously, there is no data on the three new Breeders Cup events to be run Friday, October 26. There figures to be, however, great similarity in respective categories, vis a vis surface, age, sex and prepatory considerations, between the old and new events. Are there commonalities? You decide.


Current Form: Find the now filly, one peaking right on top of the race. Demand an in-the-money (ITM) finish in the final prep race. A winner coming off a career top performance figure is acceptable in this event.

Dosage: Stamina is an important variable. Prefer fillies with a dosage index of 2.80 or less.

Key Preps: The Frizette, Oak Leaf and Alcibiades. While a win in any of these races is highly desirable, any previous stakes victory is mandatory.

Style: Off-the-pace is the dominant winning style. Race shape favors fillies with kick racing within five lengths of the leader. Remember, of course, that Monmouth Park is generally speed favoring. How that surface plays in the fall at this summertime venue could be another matter. With three days of racing prior to the big dance, there is amply opportunity to go to school on prior results.

Spacing: An overwhelming majority of winners came off layups from 21 to 28 days. On balance, 2-year-olds of either sex thrive and often improve when racing back on relatively short rest.

Racing Schedule: While juvenile fillies develop more quickly than colts, experience is invaluable. But try to avoid over-raced fillies to win if having six or more starts.

Post Position: Regardless of surface and/or distance, middle posts 4-to-9 have fared best.

Beyer Scale: 95 or higher. Equiform Scale: 75


Current Form: A win or second in final prep is key.

Dosage: Relatively insignificant. Winners generally not as stamina oriented as Juvenile Filly winner.

Key Preps: Lanes End Futurity, Champagne horses have edge, but any Grade 1 or Group 2 win is highly desirable.

Style: Mid-pack runners with kick have enjoyed a tactical advantage.

Spacing: While 21-to-28 day layups are prominent among winners, the recent trend has swelled to 39 days, reflecting popular modern training techniques.

Racing Schedule: Both lightly raced and relatively heavily raced individuals have fared well. Four previous starts seems ideal.

Post Position: Historically, positions from outside post 8 are at a tactical disadvantage in two turn races.

Beyer Scale: 95 or higher. Look for improving trends, a new top or paired tops are desirable. Demand a jump as horses stretch out from a sprint to a route. Equiform Scale: 77


Current Form: The newest Breeders Cup race on main event day has been dominated by horses racing in career form. Repeaters have fared very well. Demand a sharp in-the-money finish in the final prep.

Dosage: Prefer stamina oriented pedigrees, an index of 2.80 or lower.

Key Preps: Flower Bowl, Yellow Ribbon.

Style: Extremely difficult to wire the field in three-turn events. High turn of foot runners desirable over grinder types.

Spacing: Optimum layoff for American runners has been 35 days. Europeans, because they race less frequently but trained harder, have responded better with 45 days between starts.

Racing Schedule: Prefer successful shippers over one-circuit/surface performers. Turf success is always predicated on the ability to handle the ground. Course condition is key, more important than proven form at the distance or farther.

Post Position: Routinely meaningless in three-turn events.

Beyer Scale: Insignificant sample size. Equiform Scale: 77.5


Current Form: Victory in a graded stakes is a must, as is a win at six furlongs. The relatively tight turns at Monmouth Park hinder horses breaking from extreme outside positions.

Dosage: Proven ability trumps pedigree.

Key Preps: Ancient Title, Kentucky Cup Sprint, Bay Meadows Sprint Handicap, Summit of Speed Sprint. [Vosburgh winners have been a historical negative but that is changing since the race was shortened to 6 furlongs].

Style: Wire and stalker types have been the most successful. Deep closers generally have been a historical negative at 6 furlongs, true almost everywhere. Saving ground at some point is key.

Spacing: Recent sharp performers and classy returnees both have enjoyed a high degree of success. Demand one bullet work pre-race and a stamina workout of 6 furlongs or more for horses returning from lengthy layups. As a general rule, the fresher, the better.

Racing Schedule: The ideal campaign has been from 4 to 8 starts during the year. More starts are OK but these heavily raced types have been more effective in exotic positions.

Post Position: As in all sprints at 6 furlongs, the rail and extreme outside is least desirable. European sprinters generally have done their best racing from outside positions.

Beyer Scale: Demand 109 or higher. Equiform Scale: 80


Current Form: A horses record at the distance is key. Demand multiple wins at one mile on grass during the course of a season. Also demand an ITM finish or better in a horses final prep, at minimum a finish within 4 lengths of the winner.

Dosage: Ideally, look for an index below 2.85.

Key Preps: Queen Elizabeth II, Prix du Moulin, Oak Tree Mile. While New Yorks Kelso Mile produced three Mile winner early on, it has not been a reliable predictor in recent renewals. U.S. runners must come in with a stakes win, preferably graded. Successful Euros must own a Group 1 win, preferably at one mile.

Style: Stalkers and mid-pack closers dominate all money results. Historically, front-runners going a mile in top company are up against it; best to avoid in win position. Americans have filled many more exotic positions than have the Euros. The most talented miler in either side of the Atlantic usually wins this. The newly installed turf course at Monmouth never has been used in the fall. It figures to be less than firm by U.S. standards but yielding ground here would be considered almost firm by most European standards.

Spacing: Americans have done best with 21-to-28 days between starts. Europeans, again because of stouter training regimens and facing routinely superior competition, thrive best with layups of 40-to-65 days.

Racing Schedule: Ideally, milers should compete in 4 to 7 races prior to this event. Historically, successful 3-year-olds have had experience vs. older horses.

Post Position: If the speedy Lure could win from post 14 at tight-turned Hollywood Park and Royal Academy can come from last of 13 at Belmont Park, anything goes. Ability, race shape and running style trump position.

Beyer Scale: Demand 109 or higher for older; 105 or more for 3-year-olds. However, it has been best to avoid new career tops. Equiform Scale: 80


Current Form: Most Distaff winners have raced within 28 days of this event and proven class is a key. To that end, look for multiple Grade 1 or Group 1 winners. A win at 9 furlongs is key.

Dosage: Look for a stamina oriented pedigree, an index of 4.0 or lower. Two keys to note: the more stamina in the pedigree, the better. Ideally, seek fillies with more points in the Classic Wing than the sum of the Speed, Intermediate, Solid and Professional wings combined.

Key Preps: The Spinster (dominant history), Ladys Secret. Note that the Beldame has been a historical negative. Due to the installation of Polytrack at Keeneland last fall, its effect on the Distaff is not yet knowable. Empirical evidence has been confusing. While it suggests that it may be best to forgive uncharacteristically poor performances, there is also evidence to indicate that its a great surface over which to prep for an upcoming dirt event. This years Kentucky Derby exacta of Street Sense and Hard Spun each prepped on different Polytrack surfaces; Keeneland and Turf Park, respectively.

Style: Both speed types and closers with tactical speed have dominated the results.

Spacing: As stated previously, the majority of winners raced within four weeks.

Racing Schedule: Most winners raced between 6 to 8 times during the year. Layup runners should come equipped with at least one bullet move and a workout at 6 furlongs or farther.

Post Position: Since most of the races have come around two turns, positions 9 and wider have been decidedly disadvantaged.

Beyer Scale: Demand 107 and higher for older; 103 or more for 3-year-olds. However, avoid a new career top in final prep. Equiform Scale: 78.5


Current Form: While current condition is paramount, it need not be winning form: Horses repeating a prior victory on Turf day are in the minority, although not be much. Never has the Turf been won by a horse older than 5.

Dosage: The ideal is an index less than 3.0, with at least 2 points in the stamina wings (either solid or professional points).

Key Preps: Turf Classic (best BC results at Belmont Park), Clement Hirsch (none in last 8 years), Arc de Triomphe. In the past, also-rans were preferable because the Arc never is easily won and is contested later in the season. The immensely talented Dylan Thomas won this years renewal on Oct. 7 and makes his final career start in the Turf. Vexing proposition, that.

Style: As a matter of rote, three-turn routes are rarely won in wire fashion. But uncontested speed at this level is especially dangerous. Stalkers are a worthy 14-for-23 in this event. Per usual, race shape and trips will prove the keys.

Spacing: Ideally, the final prep should come 35 days before the event and accompanied by a win or place finish.

Racing Schedule: Although recent winners have been more lightly raced, a 5 or 6-race campaign has been ideal. Demand a win at 12 furlongs and that the final prep be a quality event at 10 furlongs or farther. The Turf winner must have winning experience at the Grade 1 or Group 1 level.

Post Position: Because of the distance, there is no discernable position bias. As the Europeans will tell you, the key to victory for any turf horse is the condition of the ground. That variable cannot be overstated.

Beyer Scale: Demand 110 or higher, and prefer horses with multiple Beyers of 105 or better. Equiform Scale: 80


Current Form: Unlike the Turf, a win at the classic distance is not mandatory but, as the name suggests, class is. Over 80 percent of Classic winners won one or more Grade 1 events during the season. Late development is key, whether it be older blue-collar types or 3-year-olds, especially those with Triple Crown experience. No horse 6-years-old and up has ever won the Classic.

Dosage: While the ability to get 10 furlongs successfully is needed on race day, many winners have had speed-oriented pedigrees. Any index below 3.8 is acceptable.

Key Preps: One would infer that traditional Eastern fixtures like the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup would dominate, but thats not necessarily the case. A good horse can come from anywhere, making Santa Anitas Goodwood and Churchills Stephen Foster just as significant.

Style: Im sure they have, but Ive never seen a mile and a quarter race at Monmouth Park. It may be advisable, per usual, to look askance at deep closers. Generally, stalkers from close range have not fared well in this race. But this is, after all, Monmouth Park. Further, the extremely deep and talented field of 2007 is replete with speedy stalkers and deep closers. Somethings got to give here.

Spacing: There has been a more favorable relationship between the preps of late August and early September than those of late September and early October. Six weeks has been ideal.

Racing Schedule: No one prep race has dominated the Classic results. But note that the campaign of the average Classic winner has been anywhere from 4-to-8 starts.

Post Position: At 10 furlongs, ability, style and race shape trump position. (Still dont know how Unbridled could win at Belmont Park from a position closer to the parking lot than the inside fence)!

Beyer Scale: Demand 110 for older horses, 107 for 3-year-olds. However, avoid a new career top in final prep. A forward-looking performance figure pattern is most desirable. Many horses earn career tops on Breeders Cup day regardless of age, sex or surface. Equiform Scale: 80

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, October 12, 2007

NYRA Right To Play Hardball With State Senate

Saratoga Springs, NY--Bennett Liebman, acting director of the Albany Law School racing and wagering program, said it best last month when he appeared before the State Senates Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee on the subject of New Yorks racing franchise.

To paraphrase: No one is wearing a white hat in this scenario.

At the fourth and final Senate hearing this week before the entire Legislature reconvenes Oct. 22, officials of the New York Racing Association warned that unless both houses approve Gov. Eliot Spitzers recommendation to extend NYRAs franchise for 30 years in exchange for ceding the title of its racetrack properties to the state, thoroughbred racing in New York would shut down upon expiration of the current franchise at midnight, Jan. 1.

At the heart of all this is, of course, is the future installation of Video Lottery Terminals and Aqueduct and possibly Belmont Park. Under the auspices of the New York State Lottery, VLTs at Aqueduct are expected to raise $600 million in revenue in the first year, a projection most experts believe is not too overzealous.

The association believes that a bankruptcy judge would not allow the claims of NYRAs creditors to be placed in jeopardy due to a loss of control over its revenues and assets. The Republican controlled Senate believes that a state oversight board created two years ago could step in and run the tracks by installing an interim management company.

As far as racing is concerned, such an occurrence would be an unmitigated disaster. It would not only place New York racing in serious jeopardy but has the potential to interrupt a major flow of revenue to New York State.

The logistical problems created by such a temporary solution would be nightmarish, involving all manner of goods and services. Both the front-side and back-side of the racetrack would be effected. So would thousands of people who work in the industry throughout the state, not to mention the economic hardship visited upon owners, trainers and backstretch workers.

While the downstate tracks operate seasonally, Aqueduct and Belmonts horse population and workforce act interdependently. A smooth transition between the tracks is required for racing to be conducted at all, much less at the level associated with New Yorks industry leading status.

The NYRA is absolutely within its rights to shut down racing in the face of what would amount to as a state takeover. The NYRA went into the franchise process ready and willing to play the land-ownership card. It cant now back away from that tack by allowing interim management overseen by politicians who cant get out of their own way in Albany, much less pull the strings of a business it clearly doesnt understand nor has the inclination to learn.

There are no white hats in this process, and that includes NYRA. Remember, we are talking about a company that didnt pay its taxes and received deferred prosecution after pleading guilty to criminal charges. Those charges were sealed in the report of the state appointed monitor. That monitor, the law firm of Getnick and Getnick, received a no-bid contract, paid for--then and now--by the NYRA.

Of this entire smoking gun scenario and inherent conflict of interest, said Liebman last month, if you believe NYRA is transparent, you have blinkers on.

Gov. Spitzer clearly wanted the state to gain secure title to the three tracks without having to suffer through a lengthy and costly litigation process, an argument the state could lose. New Yorks leading Democrat said as much in a visit to the Saratoga press box last August.

Resultantly, the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding between the state and NYRA amounted to a windfall for the racing association. The percentages of VLT revenues afforded NYRA are high, especially considering the state is forgiving $130 million in existing debt and fronting them another $75 million for operational costs until the VLTs are up and running. The Senate has proposed to lower NYRA's percentage share of VLT revenues and pass the difference on to the casino operator.

But while New York racing fiddles, Albany burns.

As expected, House Majority Leader Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, backed Spitzers plan that included VLTs for Aqueduct but not Nassau Countys Belmont Park, a financial good thing for New York Citys Queens County.

When Spitzer learned that interest in attracting a casino operator would all but evaporate without Belmont Park in the VLT mix, he shifted gears. But not Silver, who said he would oppose any further extension of gambling in the state. Belmont Park is located approximately seven miles east of Aqueduct Racetrack.

Meanwhile, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, Joseph Bruno, embroiled in a feud with the Governor whose staffers allegedly assigned state troopers to monitor Brunos activities, said that he opposes the Spitzer plan and wanted the organizations involved in the original Request for Proposals process to run the tracks.

It has been well documented that Bruno has close ties to the Empire Racing group that last year lost the franchise bid to Excelsior Racing. Federal authorities currently are investigating pre-existing relationships between Bruno; Tim Smith, Empire investor and former head of Friends of New York Racing, said to be a stalking horse for Empire, and Jeff Perlee, Empire CEO and former Director of the New York Lottery. VLTs operate under auspices of the Lottery commission, whose delaying tactics during the Pataki administration stalled VLT construction at Aqueduct.

The awarding of the franchise to Excelsior Racing last year was considered a major upset. Empire Racing, which had the support of New York horsemen, several Bruno associates, and the financial backing of a consortium of major industry organizations were considered the odds-on favorites.

Empire suffered a major blow when it lost the support of the New York horsemen, followed this week by the withdrawal of Churchill Downs Inc., Magna Entertainment, as well as the financial support of its honorary chairwoman, New York socialite and horse owner Marylou Whitney.

Delaware North, which operates casinos at New Yorks Finger Lakes Racetrack and Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, is expected to follow suit. Empire is said to be in negotiations on a merger with rival Capital Play, according to a post on the Bloodhorse web-site.

If VLTs are approved at Belmont Park, Excelsior is the leading candidate to run the casino--fitting since they made the most comprehensive and generous proposal to win the original RFP process (see HRI column archive dated 09.13.07 for details). Without Belmont Park in the mix, Excelsior is out.

Upon being awarded the franchise last year, soon thereafter it was learned that Richard Fields, a major Democratic booster, had extended the use of his private jet to Spitzer for a political fundraiser in Kentucky. Spitzer later paid for the trip but the political harm had been done.

Fields, developer of the highly successful Hard Rock Casino in South Florida, recently purchased a majority interest in Suffolk Downs. Suffolk is considered a likely future site for one of three casino operations in Massachusetts. This week Fields dropped out of the Excelsior group. A political obstacle having been cleared, Excelsiors chances of again being awarded New Yorks VLT franchise improved dramatically despite Brunos expected protestations.

But unless Spitzers plan, or a facsimile, is approved by years end, it wont be a Happy New Year for New York horseplayers. Worse, it could prove an industry disaster of seismic proportions.

Written by John Pricci

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