Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for ESPN.com, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, May 02, 2011


Extraordinary Extracurricula


(CHICAGO, IL – May 2, 2011) Except for a thinly-veneered treatise about the evils of government in the Daily Racing Form, horse racing’s commentariat has been short on its analyses of developments away from the racetrack in recent days. Kentucky Derby fever has cast its delirious effect on just about everyone. The Run for the Roses remains the lone horse race known by people experiencing life outside the shadow of America’s shedrows - thus, the pre-occupation.

Perhaps distraction was the goal of the messengers for the timing of two extraordinary extracurricular events that took place in the last seven days. Nevertheless, in the week that was – the week that had everyone glued to their tellies watching William and Kate instead of sitting in front of a laptop – the only place for horse racing news nowadays, they bear mentioning.

The most obvious, of course, was the announcement that two member of Congress were preparing a bill that would regulate race-day medications. The less obvious was a TVG-sponsored research study on what exchange wagering would do for the sport. As one would guess, the topic that is influenced by politics received the attention. Few observers chose to speak to the one that was politicized.

Regardless of how actively you want your elected officials to become involved in determining the common good, you should send U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM.) and co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) a thank you note. Change doesn’t occur in most situations, and especially in horse racing, unless the sky’s caving in. The politicians’ proposal to amend the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978 seems to many people a threat. Fingers crossed, having the Feds in their faces could be the shove that its donkeys need to get off their asses.

Knowing that the intervention was coming, the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI), The Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA), Kentucky Thoroughbred Association/Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders and the Thoroughbred Racing Association (TRA) began clamoring a week in advance of the pols’ grandstanding. They created the façade that work was seriously underway within the industry to address Udall’s and Whitfield’s concerns – that the bill wasn’t necessary. The leap to move forward was too little, too late, obviously. It was a nod, incidentally. But, at least, it took place.

The tax revenue realized from horse racing as a percentage of all money paid to government from gambling enterprises has fallen off so precipitously in the last several decades that, as tribute, the money's no longer worth chasing. Legislators see the stands empty, rarely read about the sport in the media, hear too often that the sport can’t support itself; they write it off as lost source of votes. What a relief it is now to know that there’s someone who cares, even if that someone is viewed as an enemy.

If you wish, give the back of your hand to Udall and Whitfield for meddling. Or embrace them for doing what horse racing’s grandees should have done long ago. Still, remember this. With the source of the proposed legislation being Washington, it’s okay, then, to say that you favor the bill but not its consequences. Republicans, who are voting for Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget plan, feel entirely within their rights to proclaim that they’re not voting against Medicare. Truth, be damned.

If, however, you truly enjoy politics, there was none better on view than the open-faced lobbying displayed brazenly by Betfair Group, Ltd, the world’s leading exchange wagering Internet bookmaker, posing as one its subsidiaries. Here, too, it matters not on which side of the issue you fall on. What was fascinating to witness was how skilled people were at employing the conceit of research to pull off a sales promotion and how gullible audiences became when told they were being let on to scientific findings.

Betfair’s TVG division commissioned Christiansen Capital Advisors, LLC to produce a 141-page “independent study” – wink, wink - that concluded that exchange wagering was all good; in fact, a must for the sport if it wanted to attract younger bettors and a compliment to the traditional tote system. If you saw the Academy Award-winning documentary Inside Job, Christiansen’s shameless report comes across like the film’s many examples of made-up reports written by professors and experts who were paid to pimp the questionable practices of financial institutions that led to recession.

If you come across Christiansen’s report cold, it will seem like a media guide. The report offers numbers, graphs and narrative ad nauseam. It is also jam-packed with factoids, probably to make it seem weighty. You can learn, for example, that all but two of 60 British racecourses were established before 1927. You can read an endorsement in support of exchange wagering from a former British Foreign Secretary that was proffered in 2004.

The report blames the recession for the drastic declines in British horse racing from 2008 to 2009 (figures for 2010 weren’t made available) and downplays a coincidental change in the way the UK collects taxes from bookmakers by claiming the significant rise in Levy Board revenues of prior years was connected to Betfair’s emergence. Everything you’d expect from a sales pitch is there. The material just isn’t presented to be that, and that’s what’s wrong with it.

Ironically, exchange wagering – a far more risky proposition for horse racing than drug policy adjustment – will be instituted almost immediately, while Udall and Whitfield’s bill will receive opposition until it’s beaten down – put to rest by the inclination of the majority to view the intervention of government into business as bogeymen stuff. In addition, all the alphabet soup organizations that rose collectively to say they were in favor of a ban on race-day medications are more likely to disperse than to organize.

The thought that Feds couldn’t do a better job than the industry at governing the sport is convoluted. In prior years, it made more sense to hire Christiansen instead of a car salesman for finding out the truth – but no longer. So, it is in the week that was.

Vic Zast posts daily on Facebook and often on Twitter. Find him there after you've commented on this column.

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