Pricci's Saratoga Diary
For the next 40 days of New York racing, Executive Editor John Pricci will provide his insights on all things Saratoga for the 35th consecutive year in his original "Saratoga Diary." It debuted in 1977, the year Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown and Jatski was placed first in the Travers Stakes following the disqualification of Run Dusty Run. So keep up with the cold exactas, hot issues, and build your own stable of live horses, all from John's unique perspective, exclusively at HorseRaceInsider.com.
 

Friday, August 19, 2011


Industry Gets Plenty of Food for Thought


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 18, 2011--When it comes to tweaking the good folks over at the Jockey Club, I’m as guilty as the next turf writer. Words I’ve used to describe the organization in the past, words like exclusive, anachronistic, elitist, remain appropriate.

Indeed, some members would take those similes as a compliment, a badge of honor. They exist to “improve the breed,” a haughty notion once, but now having little to do with conceit or arrogance. The concern now is for the game's survival. The word I would add to describe the body is relevant.

The notion that stood out regarding the project they commissioned is that they pointed consulting firm McKinsey & Company in the right direction, had them ask the right questions. Racing fans and the media have called out for cooperation among factions with disparate agenda. More than that, they just want someone to step up and lead.

On that front, things are going to get real interesting, and very soon. The irony here is twofold; that an organization largely ceremonial in nature has begun to shake the trees as it efforts to improve the breed by ridding the sport of race-day medication.

And they will taking their backyard fight across the East River, to America’s flagship circuit, where they figure to meet strong resistance from the horsemen at a time when, paradoxically, things are about to change for the better. Sometimes this game just can’t catch a break.


However, the Jockey Club is focusing on issues that it can change without encountering resistance from within its own house. For one thing, the organization has committed funding to implement many of its recommendations over the next five years. a primary focus will be getting racing on television, over the air or with a prime cable outfit.

There has been a positive development in this area with the cable-casting of Saratoga racing on Versus, an imprint of the NBC television network, to be known next year as the NBCSports Network.

The marriage of Saratoga racing--and the Saratoga experience--to a big time cable outfit has been an aesthetic success. Versus recently singed a deal with Keeneland to broadcast two of its Saturdays this fall. A terrific idea, one featuring a wonderful venue and great racing. What better way to introduce new people to racing than showcasing two world class racetracks?.

With talent from its Triple Crown coverage, the Versus shows very much have had a network feel, all the way down to the feature stories. Regulars don’t have a lot of patience for features, but they’re wrong. This game has a learning curve and viewers won’t become interested to learn unless they have a reason to care. Getting up close and personal is one way to do that.

Television can do so many things for racing; to wit:

The public has a strong negative perception of racing; only 22% of the public agrees that it’s an All-American sports as opposed to 93% who relate more to the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and NASCAR. Consider what television, or the lack of it, has impacted these pastimes.

Sixty-seven percent of sports fans believe that sports benefit the local communities as opposed to 16% who disagree. If that’s not an indictment of the poor job racing does to communicate to the public how racing and the revenue it generates is good for a community. Ask anyone who pays taxes in Saratoga, or anywhere else for that matter.

Of the fans who promote the sport, 91% feel proud enough to do so. Of fans who do not promote Thoroughbred Racing, the percentage falls to 22. Also, those fans, only 20% say they have respect for the spokespeople who represent the game.

Parenthetically, either of these groups are way ahead of me. I cannot identify who that spokesperson is or if the game even has one. In this space over a year ago, I suggested broadcaster Jim Rome, who would provide “instant cool” and a bridge to a younger demographic.

Rome freely admitted on his popular syndicated radio show that once used to say “racing isn’t a sport, it’s a bet.” But now that he’s a member of Little Red Feather Racing, it has become a family activity and that he loves, loves, loves it!

Whenever Rome talks about any of his horses on air, his passion jumps right out of the speaker. Sit on his doorstep, throw money at him, and convince him how much the game needs him--only because it’s true.

We’ve already discussed how race-day Lasix is a complex issue that could bring the sport to its knees. Lasix proponents that according to Google and Factiva statistics, search results on horse welfare has risen 37% since 2002, long before there was a Barbaro and an Eight Bells.

While I could not discover whether or not there was delineation between legal, illegal or all medications, 78% of stakeholders feel the medication issue adversely affects Thoroughbred Racing. Again, more television with all those teachable moments to fill.

Perhaps it was two years ago when I suggested that races be identified with their post times as is done in Europe for what should be obvious reasons, we learn that 77% of all races occur within five minutes of each other; 36% within one to two minutes of each other.

Talk about your basic death wish. The study gave an example of how increasing the time between stakes races on a Saturday negatively impacted the handle at Oaklawn Park, Keeneland and Aqueduct and how adding about six or seven minutes would increase handle at all three, especially Keeneland’s which was run between the other two.

This problem is exacerbated on prime time Saturdays from May to September, when chronologically there‘s racing at 36, 43, 41, 36 and 34 racetracks, respectively. And as it is, on any racing day, 49% of all racetracks can’t cover the cost of putting on the show based on betting handle. It’s a wonder more tracks aren’t out of business already.

There were lots of facts and figures bandied about relative to the success of Monmouth’s Elite Meet. The Jockey Club study shows that by dropping the number of racing days by 47%, purses rose 123%, field size increased by 26%, handle increased by 117% and, in the all important revenue category, Monmouth saw gains of 58%. Less was more.

And, finally, the fan experience. Twenty three percent of those questioned said that the food available wasn’t good enough; 37% were put off because the buildings weren’t well maintained and 42% complained that the bathrooms were dirty.

If racetracks can’t hire another one or two low salaried employees to make sure that the bathrooms were clean enough not to disgust those customers who were using them, then maybe those six-figure executives aren’t earning their pay. What do you think?

Written by John Pricci

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