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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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Thoroughbred Racing 2008: At the Crossroads

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 30, 2008--Had Charles Dickens lived today instead of two centuries ago and looked at the thoroughbred racing landscape, he might have written, again, that “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

“For good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

On the racetrack this year, the memory of Big Brown’s Kentucky Derby and Big Brown’s Belmont Stakes will endure. As will Curlin’s Dubai World Cup, and Curlin’s Breeders’ Cup Classic; studies in contrast.

It was a three-year-old class in which the early Derby favorite, War Pass, was retired before he could win a single stakes race but also one which saw a pair of sophomores complete a Breeders’ Cup Classic exacta.

And it was a class in which a filly, Eight Belles, made for the worst conceivable headlines that resulted in a federal inquiry, forcing an insular industry to take a hard look at itself and finally make some baby steps in a war on drugs, permitted and otherwise.

It was a year that showcased promising young talent but also one that saw the two leading juvenile Eclipse finalists and early Derby favorites whisked off to Dubai, demanding that they make history if they are to win America’s most coveted prize.

It was a time when an undefeated female and Horse of the Year finalist Zenyatta was as dominant on dirt as she was on the synthetic surfaces of her home state, finally defeating the deepest field of talent assembled in any of Breeders’ Cup 25‘s 14 events.

The year 2008 had its usual share of premature retirements but was also one in which 10-year-old, Evening Attire, won a graded stakes and a seven-year-old, Commentator, won the G1 Whitney for a second time.

It was a year when the trainer of a reigning Horse of the Year also saddled more winners than anyone in history, setting the bar so high as to be unreachable ever again, but won’t be handed an Eclipse trophy by acclimation because of a career mired in controversy.

It was a time when synthetic surfaces continued to change the face of the sport and provided the impetus for one of the most aesthetically appealing Breeders’ Cups ever, but did little to provide definitive answers relative to horse safety and jockey health concerns. Better had someone in authority advocated a return to hay, oats and water on race day.

It was a year when European dominance of an event created by and for American breeders did more to advance the cause of international racing and possibly altered mating practices away from speed and--for the better--toward stamina influences.

It was a time when the notion that gambling was recession proof was dispelled.

It was a year when steeplechase horseman Jack Fisher guided champion Good Night Shirt through an undefeated five-race, eight-month long, Grade 1 campaign to become the first jump trainer to earn $1-million in purses in a single year.

It was a time when thoroughbred track owner Richard Fields saved a storied venue, revived an historic handicap, and made horsemen who would sell animals to horse killers persona non-grata on the grounds of his racetrack, Suffolk Downs.

It was a year when a true sportsman named Jess Jackson demonstrated love for his horse, his sport, and racing’s fans by keeping Curlin in training despite having to shell out $3-million in insurance premiums.

It was a year when the New York Racing Association got its groove back, staying alive by mortgaging its future so that racing’s history and traditions could be preserved and perhaps even prosper once again.

But, like Wall Street’s bankers and brokers, it was a year when the public was bilked, again, when the cost of the product (takeout) kept increasing while its quality waned, the result provincial greed, over-saturation and a lack of central leadership--still.

It was a year when horsemen followed suit by demanding a larger share of a shrinking pie, withholding permission allowing for the dissemination of simulcast signals because it was time to draw a line in the sand instead of acting in good faith.

And when private Advanced Deposit Wagering companies and racetracks did the exact same thing.

It was a time when grass roots organizations were founded and/or continued to grow because taxation without representation will lead to greater erosion and possibly ultimate failure, and because horseplayers need a voice.

It was a year when the NTRA decided to remain neutral in its support for legislation criminalizing the transportation of horses for slaughter by withdrawing its support of H.R. 6598.

Is there any possible way to justify such a callous response, especially in light of unprecedented negative publicity left in the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy?

Clearly, it was a year when the industry continued to talk a better game than it walked as the abolition of steroids is a good thing but not the drug thing that concerns players and plagues the industry most.

It was a time when late-odds fluctuations, whatever the cause, after a race begins continues to send the wrong message and when betting wouldn’t end at post time because the bottom line must be served at all costs.

It was another year gone by when antiquated statutes governing the industry were allowed to continue as the law of the racing land killing any chance of reorganization and growth.

A time when the continued lack of a central authority has helped further erode mainstream media coverage, hastening the demise of a gambling sport in the eyes of an American sporting public.

Or, as Dickens wrote: “We had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

Written by John Pricci

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