Thursday, April 09, 2009

Paragallo Incident Is a Disguised Blessing

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 8, 2009--If the Ernie Paragallo imbroglio--the sad tale of starving horses too weak to travel but well enough to be carried to a nearby kill pen--that resulted in warp speed industry reaction is any measure then those animals will not have suffered in vain.

Horse slaughter, known to HRI readers as equicide, is much in the news these days. The Thoroughbred Times recently published a comprehensive piece about how exercise rider Alex Brown raised a million dollars on the Internet, not only raising anti-slaughter awareness but saving 2,700 horses in the process.

On this site, HRI contributor and activist Marion Altieri has been writing recent exposes on how it first appeared that Montana Gov. Brain Schweitzer vetoed a bill that called for the construction of killing pens in that state.

Upon closer inquiry, however, Altieri learned that the governor’s veto would be reversed if certain amendments were added to the original bill protecting the company building the slaughter house from future litigation.

If the conditions that Gov. Schweitzer suggested are met, he would sign the bill permitting the construction of slaughter houses in Montana.

Additionally, Altieri learned that the Ag lobby is working closely with cattle ranchers to forge a plan for the ranching of horses that would ultimately create an American market for horse meat consumption.

Through the auspices of the website, a survey was conducted asking: “Would You Eat Horse Meat?” Marketers for the horse meat purveyors are trying to sell the notion that since horse meat is lower in fat content than cows, there are health benefits.

Altieri further learned that the “survey” was rigged. When three anti-slaughter activists, including Altieri, took the survey and answered “no,” they received an error message from the site indicating their response was inappropriate and unacceptable.

Last Saturday, the New York Times reported that the Paragallo horses were to be transported from his Center Brook Farm in Climax, New York to Florida for breeding purposes. But when the horses were found to be in such poor health, the transporter decided to take them to a New York kill pen instead. Fortunately, four horses were rescued.

The reaction of the industry was immediate and pointed. On Tuesday the New York State Racing and Wagering Board opened an investigation into the treatment of horses at Paragallo’s farm. The SRWB is also investigating ownership issues concerning Paranack Stables.

The Paulick Report then published a story reporting that Paragallo’s license was suspended in 2005 by the SRWB for “financial irresponsibility,” indicating that Paragallo’s two daughters now are the current licensed owners of the Paranack operation.

On balance, it should be known that Paragallo has donated seasons to his highly successful stud Unbridled’s Song to charities, and donated $1 million to NTRA Charities New York Heroes Fund following the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Unbridled’s Song will be represented by Old Fashioned in this year’s Kentucky Derby, and also Dunkirk if that colt can make the earnings cut.

On the same day the SRWB announced the launching of its investigation, the Jockey Club issued a news release with this statement from Chairman Ogden Mills Phipps:

“The Jockey Club fully supports and assists law enforcement agencies, the courts and racing regulatory authorities in the investigation of matters involving animal cruelty.

“Furthermore, pursuant to Section V, Rule 19A (4) of the Principal Rules and Requirements of The American Stud Book, The Jockey Club reserves the right to deny any or all of the privileges of The American Stud Book to any person or entity when there is a final determination by a court, an official tribunal, or an official racing body that such person has killed, abandoned, mistreated, neglected, abused, or otherwise committed an act of cruelty to a horse.

“The Jockey Club has invoked this rule in the past and will not hesitate to do so again when appropriate. The Jockey Club maintains a long-held conviction that owners are responsible and should be held accountable for the care, well-being and humane treatment of their Thoroughbred horses.”

New York’s Thoroughbred Breeders, meanwhile, are taking proactive measures to address this issue, especially in light of the poor economic climate.

The NYTB is proposing a task force to include themselves, the SRWB, the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and the New York Racing Association tracks and Finger Lakes Racing and Gaming, to assist owners forced to sell their horses…and to punish any owner, breeder or trainer that “directly or indirectly contributes to an outcome where a horse is knowingly sent to slaughter.”

And there was this from Alex Waldrop, NTRA President and CEO: “In the case of owner Ernie Paragallo, the alleged abdication of responsibility for the welfare of one's horses, either directly or indirectly, is unacceptable. Should the charges prove true, authorities should move swiftly to impose the most severe penalties applicable under the circumstances.”

There was no mention, however, that the NTRA was prepared to end its neutrality stance on horse slaughter and lend its full and uncompromising support to the anti-horse slaughter movement.

If the juxtaposed timing of the Paragallo incident and the advent of the 2009 Triple Crown series results in positive measures that goes beyond public relations and into the realm of meaningful change, the incident will have been a blessing.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Florida Stewards Choose Not to Acknowledge Big Drama’s Track Record

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla., April 1, 2009--Question: Which horse currently owns the track record for seven furlongs at Gulfstream Park?

Hint: It’s a trick question.

Hint II: He didn't run in Saturday’s Grade 2 Swale Stakes on the Florida Derby undercard.

Hint III: No horse has ever won the Swale Stakes.

The Gulfstream Park association stewards have decided not to recognize the track record clocking of 1:20.88 set by Big Drama last Saturday. The previous--and still--track record holder at the distance is Elusive Quality, timed in 1:21.11 in 2006.

The Florida state steward has not weighed in on the decision and will not. The state steward does not get involved in matters pertaining to racing records.

The stewards acted under Gulfstream Park’s Rules of Racing, Article III, section 2, sub-paragraph a., which states:

“In determining the extent of disqualification, the stewards in their discretion may: Declare null and void a track record set or equaled by a disqualified horse, or any horses coupled with it as an entry.”

“What I saw was a new track record and I got taken down,” Big Drama’s trainer David Fawkes said to Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch.

The disqualification was justified. Yes, the first contact was slight, certainly not as consequential as the second in which This Ones For Phil was sloughed badly by the winner, who bore out and knocked the place finisher off stride.

The argument that the second bump didn’t alter the outcome because it occurred right at the line with the leader a half-length in front is valid. But as I repeatedly watched the head-on view several times, I would have made the same judgment call.

But I also would have acknowledged Big Drama* as the Gulfstream Park seven furlong record holder. The asterisk would stand for “finished first, but was disqualified for interference and placed second.”

What would be the harm in that?

When I covered harness racing early in my career, I recall rules regarding lapped-on horses; those that finished within a length of the first-place finisher that broke into a gallop at the finish line. It also concerned horses that set personal lifetime marks.

In the first case, winners were disqualified and placed behind the horses lapped on it at the finish if there were more than one. In the second instance, lifetime marks were not acknowledged following a disqualification, however. That may or may not still be the case.

(Stan Bergstein, please weigh in).

Whether This Ones For Phil would have beaten Big Drama had the horses never bumped is arguable. Rick Dutrow and Garrett Gomez said their colt would have run Big Drama down.

I didn’t think he would catch him if they went around again. Not surprisingly, Fawkes made the same argument. But neither opinion could ever be confused with fact.

Another argument for recognizing the track record performance is that the significant bumping did occur right at the line. And who’s to say the incident didn’t prevent Big Drama from running even faster?

The best argument for allowing the record to stand is that running time--how fast a horse goes from point A to point B--is the only absolute truth in the game

Besides, it would have made a great trivia question.

It’s not surprising that the stewards have wide latitude in the administration of their duties. Some examples:

“A jockey shall not unnecessarily cause his/her horse to shorten stride so as to give the appearance of having suffered a foul.”

See Kent Desormeaux on Theregoesjojo in the Florida Derby. It wasn’t quite a “frivolous” claim that could have resulted in a fine for Desormeaux but Academy Awards have been handed out for less.

“When the stewards determine that a horse shall be disqualified for interference, they may place the offending horse behind such horses it, in their judgment, interfered with, or they may place it last.”

The last phrase seems a bit draconian but is necessary when a horse bears in or out so badly that it causes a chain reaction involving many horses. There’s no need to split hairs in that instance.

“A jockey serving a suspension of 10 days or less is permitted to ride in one or more designated races during the period of the suspension if: The race is a stakes race or any race with a purse of $75,000 or more, and… the jockey agrees to serve an additional day of suspension in place of the day he/she rides in a designated race, which additional day of suspension is to be determined by the stewards.”

This might seem like justice delayed but it‘s not. The rule is about safeguarding the rights of an owner that might have contracted a jockey to ride in an important race well in advance. Why punish an innocent party?

Besides, if they wanted, the stewards could choose a major race day well in advance which would prove a costly but just punishment.

“All horses shall be ridden out in every race. A jockey shall not ease up or coast to the finish, without reasonable cause, even if the horse has no apparent chance to win prize money. A jockey shall give a best effort during a race and each horse shall be ridden to win.”

Probably the most abused rules in the game. Whenever stewards are questioned about this after having taken no action, the standard response is “we spoke to the jock, gave him the what-for,” etc. etc.

Better the rider receive a very stiff fine so that he might remember not to do it again. His cavalier action could cost the customer a small fortune should some horses finish sixth by a nose.

“The stewards shall have the authority to interpret the Racing Laws and the House rules and to decide all questions of racing not specifically covered by either.”

That goes not only in Florida but anywhere in the country. But that’s also why stewards should be made to make rulings relating to decisions pertaining to parimutuel payoffs in writing, as is the case in Hong Kong, for instance. Transparency is essential if bettors are to have faith in the system.

And regarding Hint III? Only three-year-old colts or geldings can run in the Swale Stakes under current conditions. “Horses” are defined as males 5 years old and older. Fillies can run in the Swale, if they wish, but not “mares,” females 5 years old and older.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gulfstream Shines Despite Dark Magna Saga

Hallandale Beach, Fla., March 25, 2009--The crepe hangers have already targeted April 3, the day a bankruptcy judge in Delaware will determine the fate of Magna Entertainment Corporation.

Consequently one might surmise that the atmosphere these days at Gulfstream Park must be a corporate coupling of 1) doom, and 1A) gloom. But that‘s not the reality here.

Morale is better than I have seen it in the years since the “new” Gulfstream opened in 2006. That’s because this meet’s been a success even if some 50-1 shot makes a Grade 1 joke of Saturday’s Florida Derby.

And it’s because they’re writing the business story of Gulfstream 2009 in black ink.

With help from Mother Nature, Gulfstream has been bucking all the national trends. On-track handle is up 7 percent and all-sources is higher by almost 4. With good weather projected for Saturday, those numbers could increase.

Signature races are no guarantor of box office success Despite good weather that produced an attendance rise of 4 percent, on-track handle at Turfway Park’s Lanes End program was down seven percent. All-sources handle on 12 races was down an alarming 26 percent.

So it wasn’t surprising when Gulfstream Park President and General Manager Bill Murphy had spring in his step when he walked into the track kitchen. Murphy was on his way to a weekly meeting management conducts with the horsemen every Wednesday morning.

“Everybody’s happy with it,” Murphy said. “I think it’s really helped.”

At 58, Murphy been a racetracker for 45 years, getting baptized as a hot walker at Washington Park in his native Chicago at the ripe age of 13. He’s pretty much done it all ever since.

The Vietnam vet was track superintendent at Hialeah, the general manager at Thistledown in Cleveland. He dresses with casual Friday style and carries his work to and from home in a backpack. He doesn’t look like he’d be happy doing anything else.

Good weather and well received changes have paid dividends. Gulfstream has cut back to a five-day race week and new racing secretary Doug Bredar has reinstituted what fans and bettors have come to expect as one of racing’s winter jewels.

Turning the Fountain of Youth back to a one-turn mile is an obvious example of how common sense decisions can prove popular at the entry box and at the wickets. Rocket science this ain’t.

Two of the three Florida Derby favorites, Quality Road and Theregoesjojo, comprised the Fountain of Youth exacta.

Gulfstream is doing well in other areas, too. Poker room business is up, out-handling the slots. Slots business is healthier than it’s been in recent years.

Credit management for bringing in a new slots manager, Steve Calabro, who recognized that the machines in use were not well suited to Gulfstream’s needs. At the time they were considered the worst in the market.

Calabro must have found the right mix. Slots business is up 10 percent over last year while Gulfstream’s two major competitors, Mardi Gras Race Track and Gaming, the greyhound track, and Isle Racing and Casino at Pompano Park harness, are down 14 and 25 percent, respectively.

But racing remains Gulfstream‘s core business. “It bothers me when people say Frank [Stronach] cares more about casinos than racing. He’s heard the criticisms and he‘s responded. People wanted more outside seating; that’s the reason for the Tiki Bar.

“Next year more seats will be added. We’re increasing the existing seating area by extending the traditional box area outward over the apron.

“Between the living quarters for backstretch workers with air conditioning and terraces and Palm Meadows, it’s been state of the art all the way. And he’s leading owner or leading breeder every year.”

Chances are the trend will continue in 2010. “In our first year, slots revenues didn’t meet unrealistic projections and purses were overpaid in 2007. [Consequently] 2008 was a correction year. Because we’ve done well this year, our payments are down which means purses will be increased in 2010.”

For horsemen and the track, it’s all about purses, of course. Purses were underpaid last year; quality suffered. Wags were calling the meet “Calder at Gulfstream.” On balance, quality is back to Gulfstream standards and likely to be better in 2010.

And it’s not like racing is getting help from the state of Florida. Because of accords made with Native American tribes, the tracks have been placed in an untenable position long term..

“I don’t know how we compete with the Seminole Hard Rock when they pay no taxes, no purses, and are allowed to have table games.” According to Murphy, the effective tax rate for racetracks with slots is a blended 70 percent.

But legislative help might be on the way. On Tuesday a Florida Senate committee introduced legislation to allow blackjack and baccarat at Gulfstream and Calder, permitting the Seminole Tribe to keep those games, the payback being that the Seminoles also would get roulette and card tables.

Yesterday, a separate bill called for upgraded slot machines to be installed at existing pari-mutuel facilities in all other state counties. A third gaming bill would fix the tax rate at pari-mutuel venues getting upgraded slots at 35 percent while reducing taxes on existing machines at Gulfstream and Calder from 50 percent to 35.

Essentially, this is a Senate response to a pact made between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe permitting blackjack and baccarat, forms of gambling not presently legal in Florida. The accord came with an upfront payment of $100 million from the Seminoles to the state.

Another House committee, meanwhile, is considering legislation that would replace the Crist-Seminole accord.

Taking it all in context, between the increased purses slated for 2010, the expected completion of the upscale shopping complex on the grounds, things suddenly are looking up for Gulfstream Park after its very rocky start.

What it will all mean after next month’s bankruptcy hearing is another matter entirely.

Written by John Pricci

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