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, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, 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, March 14, 2011

Why Not Cheat?

(CHICAGO, IL – March 14, 2001) So much has been made of last week's Life At Ten ruling that another setback in the sport's quest for integrity seemed to pass by unnoticed. Perhaps it's because trainers are banned from the racecourse with alarming regularity. Being warned off for 90 days by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board the way Rick Dutrow, Jr. was recently for alledgely drugging a horse with an illegal substance doesn't seem like such a serious matter. An initiative on the part of the NTRA to improve the public's perception that horse racing is a legitimate competition has made headway, but it'll get nowhere until serious changes in practice are instituted.

Dutrow's latest flaunting of the rules came into focus sharply a couple Saturdays ago. The former trainer of such stars of the turf as Big Brown and Saint Liam saddled the winner of Gulfstream Park's Hutcheson Stakes. His productive work with Peachtree Stable's Flashpoint put the handy son of Pomeroy in some peoples' mind as a Kentucky Derby candidate. Nevertheless, if the horse ever got that far, Dutrow might be watching him race on TV from the hoosegow instead of Churchill Downs’ third floor clubhouse.

Many people might sympathize with this continuously-troubled man had this been the first time he's stumbled. But Dutrow has been charged with violating the rules 64 times in nine different states, including several dozen times on charges that should put a man down forever. If someone employed in another industry had as many run-ins with the law as he, they'd be rendered unemployable. In fact, Dutrow’s horse training business has felt no adverse effect from his troubles.

"Many owners prefer to look the other way," said a racecourse general manager who preferred to speak off the record about the relationship that exists between chronically ill-behaved trainers and blasé employers. "No trainer can win at a 30 percent clip by playing within the rules. Too much can go wrong with horses to have such a record," he stated. "There are some owners, and I admire them, that won't hire a guy that has cheated, but not enough of them."

Other than a small loss of some respect, owners who hire trainers with a suspension-riddled past lose little by employing the otherwise unemployable. They pay no penalty when these employees veer off course and gain much when their wayward path leads to success on the racetrack. When the trainers get caught doing something they shouldn’t have done, it is business as usual for their horses. Life goes on uninterrupted as an alter ego fills in while his exiled boss vacations. Customers representing the horse's future, namely breeders, and profiteers representing the horse's past, namely bettors, watch idly. By the sin of omission, they’re complicit in the crimes being committed.

"Why not cheat?" asked Peter Meder, an executive search consultant for some of the country’s biggest companies. He can’t understand why all the participants in an out-of-sorts racing experience aren’t penalized. “What a perfect game!” he exclaimed, adding disbelief that every owner didn’t avail himself of a guy who was willing to be hoisted by his own petard without exploding his co-conspirators into disrepute. Meder said that employers in industry are routinely held liable for the misdeeds of their employees.

“Every one of my clients does drug testing and criminal background checks,” Meder said, admitting that the tests are conducted because the liability is too great if a company hires a known offender. A chief financial officer of a company will lose his job if a person he brought on board is responsible for a violation that relates to fiduciary malfeasance. Even if a man made millions of dollars for a company, he would be fired for cheating on his expense account. Horse racing, being a gambling game, becomes fraudulent when people invest their money on predicting the outcome in races in which some participants are playing at an undisclosed advantage.

If the consequences of recidivism weren’t so prevalent in horse racing, the sport would be held up as a standard for finding work for ex-offenders. Cities and states all across America are trying to establish programs that encourage employers to hire people returning to society from prison. In the corporate world, employers see the potential for negligent hiring liability and public relations nightmares and ex-offenders have trouble finding jobs. In horse racing, the owners go Scot-free when their ex-offending trainers behave badly. The job market remains open to everyone, even egregious violators.

Uniform rules that impact owners and trainers alike across all jurisdictions would reduce violations and are a possibility within the context of a centralized authority or comprehensive compact. It would be unlikely for horse racing as currently organized to punish the producers of some of its biggest stars. The public thrives on the success of individuals, caring little about how it's attained. Major League Baseball's attendance soared when players were breaking records because they were abetted by steroids. Only golf seems to honor a code which insists that victory be achieved without taking shortcuts.

Some people believe that there's an imaginary line that creates a distinction between cheating and using the rules to one’s advantage. It’s in this context that good people get caught, causing further decline in the trust given the sport by outsiders. In truth, there is only one line. It is hard and plain – this is right, that is wrong, why not stick to the straight and narrow. If you do, you won’t worry what people think and where your next paycheck comes from.

“Somebody in the current system loves the way things are,” Meder hypothesized. He believes that the majority of horse owners could easily change what is going on if they wanted. “The owners will ultimately pay the price for not doing anything, because they won’t have a sport,” Meder concluded. “If you go to the track and you think that the deal is rigged, you’re not going to invest in the market.”

Vic Zast is on Facebook and Twitter. He invites you to learn about his plans for the summer at

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Monday, March 07, 2011

Human Resources

(CHICAGO, IL – March 7, 2011) From the blast of Internet news and commentary that followed the resignation of Greg Avioli from the Breeders’ Cup, a person reading the horse racing press this past Friday might have easily concluded that the ruler of Oman had stepped down.

People change jobs every day but this move was revolutionary. It wasn’t just that there was an abdication of the throne at one of the Sport of Kings’ top institutions. But the person wearing the crown was leaving at the bidding of a man with a hat size, and a reputation to boot, that are bigger than Barry Bonds’s.

Avioli has become overseer of the horse racing and gaming interests of Frank Stronach’s MI Developments, the owners of Gulfstream and Santa Anita among other equities. There’s been little to report on which of horse racing’s key operatives sent Breeders’ Cup chairman Bill Farish invitations to join their LinkedIn communities. But when a job that pays close to a million dollars a year opens up, it’s most likely that every guy with a suit and a laptop will chase it.

Someone will fill Avioli’s plumb spot – that is certain. Nobody’s irreplaceable. But it’ll be a tricky call because so much has happened under his management. Say what you will about how the Breeders’ Cup’s evolved in Avioli’s five Breeders' Cup years. The former CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is a man leaving his employer in far better shape than when he first met it. More importantly, Avioli re-energized an enterprise that was running on empty. To cause such a revival, a man needs an ego that can weather doubt and occasional failure – one that's forged from the same steely drive and thick skin that his new boss is made of. He has it.

When any administration comes to power, it often provides a contrast to the one it replaces. The big question is will the new Breeders’ Cup Board Chairman (to be voted in next year) want relief for his team from the energy that cursed through the organization like brushfire? Humans believe naturally that things can be improved upon, so the changes we make often end up in compromise. Still the least effective managers are people who believe that their job is to provide stewardship - the non-polarizing type. The world is a dynamic place that requires deft maneuvering.

Before Avioli stepped into his role, status quo was considered appropriate. Custodians, not architects, held the keys to the corner office – good men, but not men that wanted to rock the boat, ruffle feathers or re-define the program’s original character. After one year as president and CEO of the Breeders' Cup, Avioli had awakened the organization out of slumber. Four years later, he’s leaving the organization in a fashion that causes some fans discomfort, but not one that’s boring.

The record indicates that Stronach, in addition to being the consummate predator, is a poor leader of people – well, at least, he hasn’t many (any?) that have stayed long in positions reporting to him. He’s the textbook corporate autocrat, who preys on his chosen recruits with money and then casts them aside when they dare to do something he doesn’t agree with. Through countless iterations, Stronach’s business was a revolving door for one manager after another. Yet, that uncompromising side is what’s made him notorious. It’s not easy to see the world through Frank Stronach glasses, but that’s what's required if you work for him.

“Nobody has ever done what he’s done,” cited Tim Ritvo, the new manager of East Coast racing for M Developments, using Gulfstream as an example of Stronach’s maverick tendencies. “The racetrack, the casino, the Villages (a mall) - these were built to introduce new fans to racing. Frank understood the old way of doing things wouldn’t be good enough if we are to survive. Other people just splash some fresh paint on their buildings and leave everything else the same.”

Stronach’s dedication to growing the game is unquestionable, believes Ritvo, who is still in his employer’s good graces. “We are fifteen percent up on-track, five percent up nationwide without (New York City) OTB; we had 9000 people on Fountain of Youth day,” he boasted, acknowledging that weather’s played a part in the growth. “It’ll take time to develop a fan base, but we’re on the right track, I believe.”

At the time of the interview, Ritvo was unaware that Avioli would be his new boss or, at least, he didn’t let on that the change was coming. Yet, it seems that the two men, plus Stronach, for that matter, share the same opportunistic outlook. None wants to surrender to forces that will render the sport obsolete without fighting them with change.

For what it’s worth, Avioli told the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Jennie Rees that his new job was a “year-round opportunity,” as if he didn't work on the 363 days of the year when the World Champiuonship races weren't held and that teaming up with Stronach would be like hosting Breeders' Cup events daily. Rees reported also that Avioli said something that many people say when you ask them about Stronach – “You may not agree with all his decisions, but I don’t think anyone can question his commitment.”

Stronach’s the game’s biggest player and Avioli its most effective practitioner. Friday’s news might cause two of horse racing’s greatest institutions to improve immediately. At the very worse, only one might become hurt from it. The headhunters in search of Avioli’s replacement should check into each candidate’s heart to see if he has the courage it takes to press on. If the headhunters don’t find it, have the candidate move on – it’s that simple. Going backwards should not be an option.

Vic Zast has a Facebook page and stays busy with posts on You're invited to meet him there.

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Monday, February 28, 2011

Dumb Sizing

(MIAMI BEACH, FL -February 28, 2011)  Americans have lost their zeal for the good life. They've replaced the desire to live simply and well with an existence that's wanting and consumptive. On South Beach, the pace is frenetic and frantic and the days move alarmingly fast. Yet, they're decidedly empty of anything meaningful or fully enjoyed, as when Ernest Hemingway wrote novels and President  Harry Truman dealt poker hands in nearby Key West 60 years ago. 

A bit farther north, an experience that used to be mellow - a day at the races - has become numbing. Saturday, Gulfstream Park, the home of Florida's finest thoroughbred racing, hosted more than its typical number of sun-seeking visitors who like to play the horses and watch them in person. Never mind that most of the crowd huddled deep in the bowels of the building at slot machines or spent time stuffing mouths with high caloric fuel from an obnoxious buffet.  Understanding that eating mountains of food doesn't equate to satisfaction of the palate is a concept that sailed out to sea in a cruise ship.

Not much is accommodating about Gulfstream in terms of creature comfort. The lines at the parimutuel windows are tediously long because of their remoteness and number. The seats in the grandstand are limited and cramped by an architectural design that placed saving ahead of investing. Ingress and egress cause distress. It's near impossible to read the odds shown in the infield, especially when the sun takes a spot at your back and douses the toteboard with brilliance. If nature doesn't interfere with the display's readability, then the thick stucco pillars that lift up the roof block your view. 

As for the tone of the proceedings, elegance has been completely removed, eradicated like the Royal palms that used to cast shade on the gardens and parking lot. Some owners and trainers still grace the premises by dressing the part of ladies and gentlemen. But wife beaters and cut-offs are worn in the dining room with the same sense of propriety that previously accompanied seersucker suits. Gulfstream Park is a mall where anything goes - only the people pay money to eat, drink and gamble instead of to fill out a wardrobe.

Regardless, for as wildly as Frank Stronach's erred with his grand restoration, he's managed to get an important part right. Horse racing's no longer the "Sport of Kings" but the "Sport of the Proletariat." Redesigning a racecourse, or replacing one from scratch, requires an understanding of your audience. It's a skill that's not easily learned by people in ivory towers who don't walk the streets. The age of lavish plants, serving a privileged class in luxury, is apparently over. New York racecourses would kill to have as many warm bodies for next Saturday's Gotham as Gulfstream had for its Fountain of Youth, a stakes with a name that aptly describes how the czar of car parts has revitalized the sport by dumb sizing it.

There are racetrack properties that derive their popularity because they present the established, traditional experience. The most notable are Saratoga nd Keeneland. Observers used to believe that Gulfstream was that kind of racecourse, too. With its long history of Kentucky Derby preps compacted into three winter months, it was the sport's ultimate escape - a proper venue for assessing the relative abilities of the nation's best three-year-olds, a place deserving of reverential observance. What is is now - now that the world has become "let me be myself" lazy - is an equine pachinko parlor. Give Stronach credit to see us for who we are. Many people see us differently.

Burdened by obesity, we can't button a fancy shirt at the neck or cinch a belt on our waistline. Afraid to think because life doesn't require it, we fill our heads with cacophony, believing quiet is for those who are boring. The that dictates daily behavior has us believing that patience is time wasting. If something requires sacrifice, we pass on it. The value of enterprise rests in how much money can be made, and so businesses that are built to help people and serve customers are often plowed over.

It's a snap to write about what's wrong with Gulfstream; a little tougher to defend the features that have made it successful. You can begin with the weather. People simply want to be where it's warm when it's cold where they normally are. That's what brings the very best horses and trainers and jockeys here. This makes one wonder also why Stronach believes Gulfstream can race 'round the calendar. The dates fight between the owners of Calder and him merely makes him look bully-like - an image he can't seem to shed. The argument proves that he still hasn't learned the most basic lesson in luxury goods marketing - limit the supply of everything that's precious.

Like the old Gulfstream, most racecourses are wrong-suited for the sport's current constituency. Like the new Gulfstream, most racecourses should be smaller. Only people with over-starched attitudes, however, would prefer the pickled, un-democratized gathering places to one that's alive, albeit imperfect. Fans have become accepting of Gulfstream's foibles because they feel at home in the track's frat boy trappings. Stronach was smart to develop a village of retail establishments selling the same junk you can buy elsewhere next door. Familiar is preferred to the exotic these days. It may seem as though the horse is the least important ingredient in Stronach's brew, but it's not. Fans can cozy up to the action, if they care.

Whether you like Gulfstream or not depends on what you think a racetrack is. The worst part of leaving this Earth comes from leaving your memories. People who have been around racecourses for a long time treasure the flamingos at Hialeah and the street cars to Greenwood. It would be an enormous stretch to assume you'll remember anything fondly about being at Gulfstream - unless, of course, you remember it in green and pink, long and low to the horizon like an indigenous element, with the orchids in bloom and a Donn in charge.

Vic Zast is grateful to Dailyn at the Z Ocean Hotel on South Beach for assisting him in bringing this column to when his computer screen went black and he was left helpless without the use of technology.


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