Monday, September 17, 2012
What, Me Worry?
Sometimes it seems to me that lots of horseplayers of my generation must have at one-time been readers of “Mad Magazine,” and some eventually became disciples of its “What Me Worry” character, Alfred E. Neumann.
Not so racing columnists Nick Kling, Paul Moran, and John Pricci, whose recent pieces reflected their author’s worries that this year’s Saratoga meet might not only have worn out writers and workers, but playing race watchers as well.
In It’s a wrap at Saratoga 144
, Mr. Kling wrote, “It's over. The 144th Saratoga Thoroughbred meet concluded Monday, 1,104 hours and 417 races after it began.
… Everybody loves the Spa season, and it beats the pants off most of the racing in the rest of America. Nevertheless, many have a guilty feeling of relief the meet is over.
The common theme is that were too many races, punctuated by an overabundance of cheap class levels which is not what Saratoga is supposed to be about. Several people have told me how they were worn out before the end of the card. Fans exiting early became a common sight this year.
… The seeming contradiction between on-track and total handle is evidence of the aforementioned on-track fatigue.”
In Where does Saratoga go from here?
, Paul Moran opined, “… this meeting was one of overextension in every sense; far too many races, days too long, and six-day weeks do not lend themselves to a festive atmosphere…
“By the meeting's fifth week, Labor Day could not come soon enough. Based upon the standard nine-race weekday and 10-race weekends, NYRA crammed the equivalent of more than 47 days of racing into 40. It did not pay off unless the point was to clear the grounds early and alienate both fans and staff.”
In Vox Populi and Streams From the Subconcious
, Mr. Pricci suggested, “… when compared to a typical downstate race-week, five days per week with 10 on weekends—Saturdays, anyway—it was as if 7-1/2 weeks were condensed into 6-1/2.
“… For the most part, despite one additional day this year, attendance was flat.
“... We were dead wrong about the projected handle. It’s the sense we had by watching people leave the track in significant numbers two or three races before the finale.
This, in a sense, underscores the belief of many wagering theoreticians that there’s a finite amount of betting money to be spent in any one session, whether that time frame is nine of 12 races long.”
I submit that what these gentlemen witnessed was a combination of the effects of 1) the extended life expectancy for aging horseplayers, 2) the likelihood that many attendees among the locals have a life outside the racetrack, and 3) the psychology of the unrebated player; the relevancy of which can be expressed by paraphrasing Amanda Mc Broom in her song, “The Rose:”
“When the losses are too frequent
And the bankroll is too small
And you think winning is only
For the lucky and the rich...”
I can speak with some authority on the loneliness of the long-distance horseplayer. One year during the ‘60s, I attended every day of the Saratoga meet -- losing over the first two weeks, and winning over the last two, but unable to show a profit with the costs of travel, parking, admission, Past Performances, and programs factored in. My rent for August had already been paid, and I would have had to eat my own cooking that month no matter what. When it was over, I decided to show up for my new job as planned.
Almost a decade later, I took a vacation during the last 2 weeks of Saratoga and stayed on for Belmont until my winning streak ended. Even after expenses, I flew home with more than I left with, and a memory that time seems to have enhanced. The IRS, however, eventually made short work of the former since I had little free time available to lose some of it back that year.
Do Winners Get Weary?
Unfortunately, others here will have to testify. I haven’t been back to Saratoga since, and I’ve never had another opportunity to immerse myself in the game for more than a weekend nor enjoyed the same extended success.
Fatigue wasn’t a factor over four weeks and some 200 interesting handicapping puzzles for a fellow in his 20s or 30s but these days I can’t even handle two successive days of immersion into the Breeders’ Cup races. Luckily, however, Zenyatta raced in the Saturday events the last two years of her career.
Last year, the racing gods seemed determined to frustrate what could have been my best-ever performance as a handicapper. Does Turallure – ALL mean anything to you? Fortunately, Drosselmeyer enabled me to end the day on a high note.
Had I actually achieved such a score in my younger days, I hope I’d have immediately started handicapping the next day’s Pick Six. But wait! That wager didn’t exist back then and NYRA didn’t race on Sundays.
I suppose that I would have had to be single as well: A woman’s wariness can be a greater obstacle than a man’s when it comes to extending unexpected winnings.
I’ve since learned that too much racing, with too many wagering options, subject to a too-high takeout rate that requires too large a bankroll doesn’t represent opportunity for the recreational player. Worse, it leads to wariness among would-be wager makers.
Was Bob Ehalt’s column, “More Saratoga would be a good thing
targeting the tiring, turf-writing trio above, or was he trying to titillate his readers with tongue–in-cheek testimony? Whatever his motivation, his willingness to alliterate is always welcome.
“Another sensational season at Saratoga has slipped away…and there’s one particular question begging for an answer.
“Could there be too much of a good thing?
“…The final attendance and wagering figures reflect that the Spa’s charm is hardly growing old.
“…So what will Team Cuomo do with a track that attracts 22,526 fans a day and handles $14.7 million a day in wagers? They’ll no doubt try to maximize or enhance revenue from the Spa …
“…So why not dispose with the pretense and make Saratoga the summer-long home of New York racing, and conduct the meet from the Fourth of July through Labor Day?
“…Horsemen and track workers may not like being away from home for two months, but it’s the fans that propel the sport …”
Even if a) Saratoga were somehow able to balance the demand for its resources for all its attractions during that period, b) the bankrolls of unrebated bettors were able to go the distance, c) the eyes of the young at heart didn’t glaze over at the sight of PPs for NY-breds, d) the turf course held up for eight weeks of turf sprints, and e) Mr. Pricci’s Diary remained a daily resource, the gains from Saratoga could be offset by losses at Belmont -- both pre- and post-Saratoga -- once something really special became commonplace.
Anticipation is defined as “an emotion involving pleasure, excitement, and sometimes anxiety in considering some expected or longed-for good event.” It is synonymous with enthusiasm, eagerness, and hope. It’s what Saratoga is all about. It’s what Aqueduct had going for it when horses still migrated South with the birds in winter.
I wouldn’t say that Mr. Ehalt’s proposal is for the birds, but it might just kill the Golden Goose.
Written by Indulto
Thursday, September 06, 2012
As we await the details of the implementation of “New NYRA," a few updates to some topics already discussed here are in order:
Neil Milbert of the Chicago Tribune
reported that Churchill Downs rejected Hawthorne’s appeal to include its Illinois Derby among the qualifying races for the Kentucky Derby.
“We flew down there for a meeting and it was suggested that moving the date would be of significance," Carey said. "We were willing to move (from the first Saturday in April) to March to be part of it and we got back to them. About three days later we got a letter from (Churchill track President Kevin Flannery) saying 'No, we can't do it.'"
What strikes me as self-defeating about this “redistricting” of horsemen is that -- unlike most UAE Derby starters -- Most Illinois Derby starters have Kentucky Derby aspirations. Can anyone name any U.S. horseman likely to ship to the UAE and back in order to qualify? Couldn’t Aiden O’Brien just as easily ship here to qualify, and get better results to boot?
Media focus resumed on the hopefully soon-to-be-announced “New” NYRA leadership. One could almost hear the “Star Wars” theme blasting in Paul Moran’s reference to the State’s chief executive at ESPN
, where he discussed the “… void left by the overthrow of a hapless board of trustees larded with those due political consideration and the announced intent to replace it with a hapless board almost purely composed of those due political consideration, the immediate period, post Saratoga, is critical.
“It is important that the inevitably inept be able to recognize and hire those who are highly capable, a difficult equation to balance. This will reveal immediately much concerning the intent of Gov. Andrew (Darth Vader) Cuomo regarding the future of racing and breeding in New York.
“For starters, NYRA needs a battle-tested chief executive officer with chops and the authority to carry out the remainder of a stem to stern retooling that results in more real production and fewer vice presidents. If a nation can function with one vice president, so can NYRA.”
Unfortunately no individuals were identified to play the Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo roles Mr. Moran subsequently defined. Others, however, did mention some possibilities.
On August 15
, Vic Zast blogged, “… Lou Raffetto, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California and a person with 30 years experience of operating racetracks successfully in Maryland, New Jersey and Boston, was on the grounds, looking snappy. If the appointment of a new general manager for Saratoga was left up to fans, he’d be the selection.”
: On August 19
, HRI Executive Editor, John Pricci, wrote; “Do I have any special knowledge about who will take the reins? No, but I hear rumors like anyone else. As for former President Charlie Hayward’s replacement, the names heard most often are Lou Raffetto’s and Bill Murphy’s, by a margin of about 2-1.”
In comment #18 to the preceding, Sean Kerr, who leads a group of increasingly influential supporters of a National Horse Racing Commission called “Bladerunners,” opined; “We need a Jeff Seder - we need someone who has succeeded in taking a business and turning it into an innovative success.
“We need audacity: but that word is antithetical to the political world for the most part. And without audacity - NY racing is doomed.”
I assume Mr. Kerr was referring so passionately to the gentleman interviewed here
On August 28
, Bill Finley wrote; “There are a handful of terrific racing executives out there who would likely accept the job, even though the head positions at NYRA have always paid way less than they should. He could hire someone like Lou Raffetto, Bill Nader or Nick Nicholson and the future of New York racing would be in the type of good hands that would immediately ease the worries so many have for the sport.”
While Nader and Nicholson would come from two of the world’s most successful racing operations in Hong Kong and Kentucky, respectively, Raffetto would come from dysfunctional circumstances he did not create, but did not improve.
Some would argue that his credentials prior to his current stint in California have been compromised by his controversial role in continued concert with the organizations that control racing in that state in overwhelming deference to horsemen at horseplayer expense. Nader and Nicholson do not suffer from an anti-horseplayer perception.
Nader might be the best long-term choice, especially in New York where he is already a popular figure among NYRA customers. However, it is that very connection with the past that makes his approval by Gov. Cuomo, a longshot at best despite this statement
by Bennett Liebman from March, 2007: “Without Bill Nader, is there a soul at NYRA with any significant management experience?”
But here is where my research got really interesting because the same Google search that found the preceding Liebman article, also found an earlier one
from June, 2005.
Is a villain’s helmet the appropriate headgear for the governor considering it wasn’t exactly a NYRA baseball Cap that Mr. Liebman was wearing when he wrote; “… everyone knew that Bill Nader and Charlie Hayward were good guys. Why wouldn’t a rational State of New York want these guys to run the racetracks?”
“… There should be an effort made to make the majority of the current trustees leave the Board. There may not be a formal basis for removal of these members, but there should be an effort made to persuade the NYRA Board members who have been on the NYRA board since before 2003 to leave the Board.
They have saddled the NYRA with financial, political, and legal problems that are nearly insolvable. If the State sees NYRA as the Board that sat back and did nothing while letting Barry Schwartz’s son-in-law get NYRA’s web contract without a bid, it doesn’t matter how nice Charlie Hayward and Bill Nader may be. For the good of NYRA, these people should go on their own.”
Was Liebman also referring to Hayward and Nader? Why was Hayward not subsequently attributed with “significant management experience’ more than five years ago?
Finally, Belmont survivor, Street Life, was injured in the Travers and has been retired. Like Bob Dylan asked; “How many times can a man turn his head pretending he just doesn’t see?”
Alpha’s sweep of the Jim Dandy and Travers was the second in successive years, but last year’s winner and Derby/Belmont survivor, Stay Thirsty, never won again. Will this year’s co-winner, Golden Ticket, whose victory followed a nearly three-month layoff, be the most likely three-year-old to annex the Breeders’ Cup Classic? Will he try to do it without a prep again?
Written by Indulto
Monday, August 27, 2012
Safety for Three Year Olds: Several Suggestions
The inspiration for this piece was provided by fellow HRI commenter, Don Reed, whose commentary on racing spans multiple websites. Not only is he usually good for a chuckle or three, but also for cryptic remarks I enjoy trying to decipher.
In response to Bodemeister’s announced retirement at the “Paulick Report
”, and the subsequent comments mourning the dearth of this year’s Triple Crown survivors, he wrote, “The ‘stars’ of 2012 look like the New York Mets.”
I ‘m not sure what he meant, but any mention of the Mets always reminds me of their much-maligned catcher, Clarence “Choo-Choo” Coleman, whose career was extended by MLB expansion. Those Mets filled the void created by the carpet bagging Dodgers and Giants and provided the necessary alternative to the enormously successful Yankees.
It now seems that racing’s 3-year-old stars are also disappearing into the sunset, but not to compete against other equine athletes in California. Rather they’re headed for the sidelines and early retirement; ostensibly due to injuries that appeared after their Triple Crown event appearances. The list includes the winners of all three legs and the second place finisher in the first two.
Paynter, who finished 2nd in the Belmont Stakes before winning the Haskell, was sidelined for the Travers, as was Hansen, the Breeders’ Cup juvenile champion who barely beat eventual Belmont winner, Union Rags, in the 2011 Juvenile.
Both horses subsequently were uncompetitive in the 20-horse cavalry charge on the first Saturday in May. Then so were 13 others. Derby survivors Alpha and Liaison started in this year’s Travers, as did Belmont third, fourth, and fifth place finishers; Atigun, Street Life, and Five Sixteen, respectively.
But there were no participants from the Preakness participants Optimizer, who started all Triple Crown races, returned to the turf on the Travers undercard while the Derby pacesetter, Trinniberg, sprinted in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop.
Gov. Cuomo appeared sufficiently concerned about injuries to $7,500 claimers to initiate an independent study on the issue. Shouldn’t he or his racing staff be scrutinizing what seems to be a career-cancelling circumstance surrounding our classiest competitors, and mandate a first safety step, in what is quickly becoming the Cripple Crown?
A few months ago, HRI executive editor John Pricci once again opined that Triple Crown races needed better spacing. I and a few other HRI regulars took a position against “fixing what isn’t broke.” Indeed, had this year’s Derby and Preakness winner been able to win the Belmont – or even compete in it – the situation might not seem as critical.
But now that so many Triple Crown horses are winding up on only three good legs of their own, people might be more ready to reconsider extending the time between TC events and preps. This is, after all, not a one-season phenomenon.
Despite creating a rivalry resembling that of Affirmed and Alydar, I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister both failed to show up for the Belmont after three races in six weeks for the former and three in weeks for the latter.
Changes to eligibility for next year’s Kentucky Derby may relate to this issue. Starters are expected to be more accomplished as a result of being forced to compete in fewer qualifying events -- in particular the major 9-furlong preps three to seven weeks prior to the Derby.
Will the “lucky” qualifiers be less likely to suffer loss of limb and/or life?
Churchill Downs could force a change just by moving the Derby back to give an extra week’s from the preps offering the most points. Hopefully, Pimlico and Belmont would widen their respective intervals to accommodate a schedule change.
Imagine if racetracks were willing to protect the careers of their athletes? However, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for Churchill Downs to lead the way while they are the biggest beneficiary of the status quo.
If there’s going to be any movement on spacing, it will have to start with the “New NYRA”. Are you listening, Gov. Cuomo?
Innovation that preserves tradition as needs arise
is in order. When the same horse wins the Derby and Preakness, the Belmont would remain at 12 furlongs; even if the candidate scratches.
Otherwise, it could be shortened to 9.5 furlongs; the second leg of a bonus-incentivized New York Championship Series for three-year-olds (NYCS) that starts with the 9-furlong Wood Memorial.
When a less likely classic Triple Crown attempt is scheduled for a Saturday, then the Discovery would be run at 9.5 furlongs as Leg 2 of the NYCS on Sunday. If the Classic candidate does not start, the purse for the 12-furlong Belmont would revert to the Grade 1 minimum.
The 3rd leg of the proposed NYCS would be the Travers at 10 furlongs with spacing similar to that between the first two. The first three finishers in legs two and three would receive bonuses based on in-the-money finishes in prior legs. Once the series proves successful, the Jockey Club Gold Cup at 12 furlongs for 3YOs & Up could be added as a 4th incentivized leg in October.
Eventually, the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Whitney could also comprise a bonus-incentivized NYCS for 3YOs & Up, with in-the-money finishers in the Gold Cup being rewarded for all their “money” placings in any of the six preceding events. Such a progression of races would make 12 furlongs at Belmont the true test of champions and stamina.
The immediate advantage to NYRA would be that a berth in the Wood Memorial starting gate would become at least the second most sought-after in racing; likely requiring special eligibility conditions of its own.
Another would be the occasional opportunity to host a 3-day festival anchored by a Brooklyn-Belmont-Discovery sequence that could be expanded to a mini-Breeders’ Cup type series.
Still another is the potential for the Gold Cup to challenge both the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Kentucky Derby as the most important race in North America.
Owners of championship caliber 3-year-olds would immediately benefit from a potentially safer, realistically more lucrative, alternative path to a divisional championship. It would also lessen the control imposed by CDI through its new Kentucky Derby qualifying process.
Finally, it would keep their horses, and the organization, in the public limelight from April through August.
The much-needed benefit to the industry would be the opportunity to promote the positive steps being taken to offset the recent wave of charges against it of insensitivity to--if not lack of concern for--the welfare of thoroughbred horses.
At the very least, there would be more well-known older talent available to race in subsequent years; possibly fueling an NYCS for older horses. Consider the following scenario:
The Wood winner prevails in both the Derby and Preakness, and his connections start contemplating the appropriate course of action. Not since the Zenyatta–Rachel Alexandra controversy are fans so passionately divided.
Traditionalists square off against the progressives, dominating the media as they await the decision.
Written by John Pricci