Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Beware the Invasion of the Track Snatchers
LOS ANGELES, July 13, 2013--In his recent redirection of attention
, Vic Zast focused on the planned consolidation and privatization of racing in New York state: "There’s a franchise to sell … the media should ask questions, e.g. was Kay’s appointment impacted by New York’s very public decision to replace NYRA with a private operator in three years?
… If [Kay’s] bonus provides standards connected to maximize an end result when time rolls around to get Frank Stronach or Churchill Downs to step in – watch how quickly the tracks get a facelift."
This is a good time to recall that the last time those two titans tried to "step in," slots revenue was still the primary attraction for would-be track operators. Churchill Downs Inc. and the Stronach Group allegedly were represented by a group called "Friends of New York Racing" (FONYR), which later morphed into a bidding entity called "Empire Racing Associates."
That organization had the blessing of the powerful former State Senator Joseph Bruno, now a convicted felon. Once it was clear that the anti-NYRA confederation was not going to succeed, CDI and Magna backed away.
Some think that Stronach lost any chance of acquiring Saratoga following his appearance
before the State’s "Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing" early in 2006, and that any attempt on his part to do so would be futile. At the time, Stronach advocated separating racing from slot franchise bidding. Actually, that’s exactly what New York State wound up doing.
Any protection for Saratoga from Mr. Stronach’s vision might lie in strong and sensible historical landmark safeguards. But will the present Governor and legislature step up and create them? And who will enforce this as time marches on? Wouldn’t the master of bankruptcy manipulation likely find ways around it anyway?
If procurement procedures such as those policed by NYRA watchdogs fulfill their promise of fairness and neutrality, how can a court-savvy owner of several successful corporations including racetracks be denied ownership of an entity he seems eminently qualified to operate?
As for Saratoga, which belongs to the sport as much as it does New York racing, there’s more than just the physical plant and ambiance to consider. Will the focus be on improving the racing product or increasing the venue’s luxury accommodations? Will high takeout rates continue to punish non-professionals while masking rebates that reward high-volume professional? Will exotic wager minimums be reduced to allow all customers to compete on a level playing field?
As for CDI, their attitude toward Florida horsemen is now on display for all of New York to see, as is the chilling result of their willingness to sell Hollywood Park to a land developer and the emasculation of the Illinois Derby. The success of their only non-slots property is solely due to Kentucky Derby weekend.
And what does the current free-for-all between South Florida’s two formidable rivals say about the wisdom of having either company operate racetracks in New York, anyway?
If and when the properties put up for grabs again, the current franchise operator likely will be one of the bidders. Kay just told the Daily News
that he ’… will rely on the expertise of his own team of employees, who are well-versed in the sport. "There’s already a great team here," he said. "But I’m going to bring in a variety of talented people and promote and encourage the talented people we have… somebody with that racing experience very well may be one of those people."’
Under the present legal structure, the question becomes can this group legally form a private company? Despite the obvious déjà vu
of it all, what else could successfully motivate such "talented" people to increase attendance and handle, extending their careers in the process?
It seems that in the absence of gaming’s involvement, there will have to be a partnering of racing stakeholders. Wouldn’t it be great if that entity finally included horseplayers, at least as stockholders. Can you conjure up a horseplayer who represents bettors sitting on the new NYRA board?
Let’s face it. New York’s racing elite became obsolete when they permitted their Sport of Kings to become the Gambol of Governors. Now the pastime that still can’t even coordinate post times is in danger of becoming more remote, strictly recreation for retirees and rest home residents that can hardly remember when racing was run rationally.
Written by Indulto
Sunday, June 30, 2013
Gladiators, Alligators and Volunteers
LOS ANGELES, June 27, 2013—Upon reading http://www.horseraceinsider.com/On-The-Line/comments/06242013-its-opening-er-closing-day-at-gulfstream-park/#comments"
target="_new">John Pricci’s piece about the squaring off in Florida between North American thoroughbred racing’s two corporate titans, I immediately thought of this
The author acknowledged having his own perspective:
"… this much seems clear about Gulfstream’s expansion: Thoroughbred racing in South Florida could not be in better racing hands, nor can it be better positioned for the future.
No matter which parties are involved, conventional wisdom says that racing in the long term will always be better off in private hands than it would be with a publicly traded corporation."
Eventually the dust will settle and a single, bloodied combatant will be left standing, but how can we really say one is preferable to the other?
In one corner, we have Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI), led by the very well compensated five-million-dollar-man, Robert Evans, CDI’s heavy-handed, competition-crushing decisions suggest representation by King Kong
In the other corner, we have the Stronach Group (SG), headed by gazillionaire Frank Stronach, who may envision himself racing’s savior much as Godzilla
, portrayed by its Japanese creators as the savior of the earth against forces from outer space.
On SG’s side of the ledger we have:
1) Purchasing racetracks for apparent and alleged personal benefit using corporate funds at expense of Magna shareholders.
2) Rebuilding Gulfstream Park with little regard to its existing on-track customer base.
3) Acquiring racetrack properties for cents on the dollar through bankruptcy causing losses to Magna/MEC shareholders.
4) Elimination of the charitable fund-raising Oak Tree operation at Santa Anita through bankruptcy.
5) Creating on-shore rebate-shop ADW giving high-volume players overwhelming advantage over non-rebated players at their indirect expense.
6) Hiring former CHRB Chairman following beneficial rulings under his watch allocating Oak Trees dates to Santa Anita and granting a waiver from the mandated use of synthetic surfaces
7) Hiring former Breeders’ Cup Chairman preceding multiple assignments of Santa Anita as host venue for the BC.
On CDI’s ledger is:
1) Selling Hollywood Park to a land developer
2) Forcing the Illinois Derby off the Derby Trail
3) Strong-arming horsemen at Calder to prevent them from running elsewhere
4) Eliminating competing ADW operations
5) Freezing ADW bettors out when negotiating signal fees with tracks
6) Refusal to accept dime superfecta bets on Derby day (as opposed to restricting them to bet-taking processes that would not jam up betting lines on-track). This denies small-volume/casual players their best opportunities to score on racing’s biggest day.
Take your choice, but be prepared to watch out for the alligators – in Florida and elsewhere! And even if one prefers to liken them to gladiators the corporate culture is likely to emerge. Check out this parody "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
"I, Miles Gloriosus,
I, slaughterer of thousands,
I, oppressor of the meek,
Subduer of the weak,
Degrader of the Greek,
Destroyer of the Turk,
Must hurry back to work"
Maybe the Santa Anita of Charles Strub, the Hollywood Park of Marge Everett or even today’s Oaklawn Park of Charles Celia exemplify the kind of "private hands" embraced by Mr. Pricci, but in my opinion, neither conglomerate is sufficiently concerned with customer satisfaction or the welfare of the horsemen under their control. Without competition, the situation is likely to become worse.
Horseplayers and horsemen content to watch these proceedings from the sidelines will suffer the consequences. Surely there must be common ground to get an organization off the ground to protect the interests of non-professional horseplayers and horsemen with smaller stables.
I was reminded of gladiators when, once again, the Pull The Pocket (PTP) blogger provided a humorous take on the goings-on in California here
; including his tenuous relationship with fellow horseplayer advocate, Andy Asaro, in the course of the blogger’s own advocacy work.
With great respect for both individuals, I can only say that reform is not possible without standing up together and forcing the issue. Our collective voice must clearly reach and reflect the concerns of the most
common denominator among us--not the least
, not the elite.
Asaro’s real voice is starting to become familiar due to his frequent appearances as a guest on the Roger Stein radio show which at times seems to approach co-host status
But if not Asaro, then who?
How many others are willing and able to stand up to racing’s powers-that-be and do it face-to-face and at their own expense if necessary?
Racing’s powerful and privileged give up nothing unless forced to do so. Without organized opposition, they will continue to exert their authority with the same arrogance that invariably drives more people away from the game than it attracts.
The takeaway here is that new blood is needed. It would be helpful if they had Asaro’s drive, commitment, and savvy.
Candidates would need the skills to organize the strength of traditional racing organizations in order to move the industry forward. Once you get the alligators’ attention, you have to go in and wrestle him.
Written by Indulto
Sunday, June 23, 2013
Journalististic Values Help the Sport
LOS ANGELES, June 22, 2013-- Kudos to the executive editor for opening a window
for us West Coast wing-nuts. I have a feeling there will be a price to pay, even from 3,500 miles away.
The piece noted that the media and cyber-skirmishes between California trainer, Bob Baffert, and two of his more prominent and persistent Internet critics, Ray Paulick and horseplayer advocate Andy Asaro, had recently taken on a personal note when Baffert began making references to the private lives of his opposition.
The irony here is that Paulick and Asaro have previously publicly employed, if not exchanged, similar unpleasantness themselves, so none can claim to have taken the high road here.
It will be interesting to see whether those two adversaries, being on the same side of an issue for a change, can actually effect the change they advocate.
Baffert’s shot at Paulick took place on TVG which has yet to give the latter equal time. This is no impediment to Paulick who -- through his popular website -- has become the Oprah Winfrey of Internet racing discussion forums. His posted response
to Baffert was greeted with rousing audience support.
I respect Mr. Paulick as one of the most talented writers and communicators on racing-related matters. The continued success of his website mirrors his ability to present issues that fuel reader participation like the one mentioned.
However, I’m a little skeptical re his simplistic addiction-as-disease stance which elicited overwhelming sympathy from the audience. Some diseases can cause suffering beyond the immediate victims; to family, caregivers, society and even victims of unexpected and unintended consequences as a result of those actions.
Alzheimer’s is one such disease but one that is not self-inflicted as addiction caused by substance abuse can be. I’m not suggesting that’s the case here but I feel compelled to raise the awareness of those who have never experienced such tragedy in the life of a loved one.
The comment thread was reminiscent of a referee, i.e. the majority of posters calling a foul on a player who reacts to the foul that the ref didn’t see. In this case, the original foul was Paulick’s news piece on Quarter Horse racing that led with a seemingly gratuitous shot at Baffert, deserved or not.
Toward the end of that 200-plus comment thread, Paulick finally pointed his finger at the real villains in the piece: "… The Thoroughbred Owners of California and California trainers that have fought efforts calling for more transparency--even when it comes to mandatory release of veterinary records for horses that die in racing or training.
It pains me to say this but California racing is sinking under the current leadership of the CHRB and TOC."
While it has indeed been a series of tragic events accompanied by regulatory malfeasance that are dimming Baffert’s bright light, triggering suspicion and constant criticism in cyberspace, some of it is warranted. The comments made by this Hall of Fame icon speak to an arrogance that, in Sheets parlance, is a “new lifetime top.”
Some SoCal horsemen maintain that the 80-20 rule is alive and well in this state; that 20% of the horsemen are receiving 80% of the purse money. (I doubt we'll ever learn what portion of that 20% Baffert earns as the trainer of highly successful owners, and as an owner himself, but I suspect it is substantial).
The fact that Baffert sits on the TOC board, an organization that effectively controls the rate of takeout charged racing’s customers to fund those purses, strongly suggests a conflict of interest.
That he, or any trainer, could have seven horses in the same shed die suddenly within an 18-month period and be allowed to continue to train before the cause of those deaths are revealed, speaks to the regulatory agency involved.
At best, the California Horse Racing Board is overly influenced by this iconic figure and his powerful owner, the influential TOC board member Mike Pegram. At worst, it suggests that the CHRB is incompetent, corrupt, or both.
These two men have been subjected to continuous cyber-scrutiny by people such as Asaro, a horseplayer willing to speak out against the inequities imposed by the arrogantly influential and powerful, even in the face of intimidation that includes threats of legal action and an investigation into his private life.
That might explain why, up until now, only a few others have been willing to step forward and openly challenge these agents of privilege and power.
Perhaps, beginning with the efforts of Paulick and Pricci, more journalists, if there any left among industry media, will be willing to step up and call for broader-based, transparent leadership in California and elsewhere. Rubber stamps do the sport no good.
Written by Indulto