Friday, June 18, 2010

What’s Working, What’s Not, and What Will New York Choose?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 17, 2010--As of 10:26 AM this morning, as I clicked on the Equidaily web-site, three of the top-section story-links posted focused on the recent news out of Southern California and South Jersey.

And the differences between them were as wide as the distance between the East and West coasts of this great natural resource called America…before one of the multi-nationals began befouling it, that is.

The experiment at Monmouth Park this summer was the clearest example of how less can mean more, how the absence of something makes the heart and, by extension, the wallet, long for it even more.

However, the less-is-more concept at Hollywood Park and Buellton, California were, unfortunately, examples of how less should be taken quite literally, and where, for the moment anyway, bad news is the only thing that California racing has in abundance, the big mare notwithstanding.

Live racing was canceled at the Inglewood track for the second time this year due to insufficient entries. According to a Daily Racing Form story, officials were “guardedly optimistic” that they can complete the spring-summer meet that ends July 18 without losing another day of live sport.

Meanwhile, 125 miles to the north and west, up the majestic California coast line from Hollywood Park, Marty and Pam Wygod decided to shut down their River Edge Farm and move their entire breeding operation to Kentucky. Resultantly, 110 head, including 50 broodmares, will be sold at auction later this year.

What does that say about the present and future state of the game in the Golden State when California’s leading breeders for three straight years, 2006 through 2008, decide to take up stakes and get out of Dodge?

Wygod was one of the first computer whiz kids in the early 1970s who took an interest in racing while living in the New York metropolitan area. He developed a friendship with noted handicapper Mannie Kalish of the New York Post who introduced him to trainer Victor ‘Lefty’ Nickerson.

Nickerson, who mentored two California-based Hall of Fame horsemen, Ron McAnally and Richard Mandella, began training horses for the Wygods. Later, Wygod would start a new life in California, where he devoted his attention to racing and breeding full time.

Nickerson died six years ago and is best remembered, of course, as the developer of the great John Henry, whose reputation turned to legend soon after owner Sam Rubin moved the remarkable gelding to the Southern California circuit from New York.

Nickerson recommended to Rubin that McAnally should be ‘John‘s’ new full time trainer. Nickerson remained the trainer of record whenever the gelding would ship back to New York for occasional stakes foray.

Explaining his decision, Wygod told the DRF that “we’re going to focus on breeding in Kentucky. That’s where the top end of our stallions and broodmares [including 2009 Broodmare of the Year Sweet Life] are. We just reached a point after 35 years that it made sense to focus our interests there.”

Three of River Edge Farm’s four stallions, Bertrando, Benchmark, and Tribal Rule presently rank among California’s top seven sires. A fourth, Dixie Chatter, stood his first season this year.

As California breeders, the Wygods bred stakes winner Pirate's Bounty, later the state’s leading sire three times, producing 63 stakes winners, 44 of them born at the Wygod’s nursery.

Replicating a scenario that’s currently being played out in New York because of bureaucratic bungling in the Empire State, California is about to lose a breeding operation it can ill afford, such is the state of California racing.

At Hollywood Park, temporarily granted a reprieve from the shopping mall developers because of the current deep recession, the bad beats continue. Lopping off a handful of days at the beginning and end of the current race meet hasn’t worked because of a circuit-wide horse shortage.

“We thought we cut enough but maybe we didn’t,” Eual Wyatt Jr., vice president and general manager of Hollywood Park, explained this week. Despite the loss of two live racing days, two race-weeks shortened to four days, and eight-race programs, field sized has dropped, albeit marginally, to 7.86 runners per race.

A total of 49 horses raced on Wednesday’s eight-race program, attracting handle of $4,623,846 from all sources which, in better times, is the equivalent of a three-day Pick 6 carryover pool. Tonight’s popular evening program has drawn only 69 horses into the body of eight races.

This current reality is playing out against a backdrop of financial catastrophe in the state and the uncertainty of what will happen to date as a result of landlord Santa Anita kicking the Oak Tree Racing Association session out onto W. Huntington Drive.

By severely cutting back dates at Monmouth Park this summer, attendance there has increased nearly 21 percent over comparable 2009 dates through the first 11 days of racing. While it is far too early to tell whether the Monmouth’s success will extend through the balance of 2010, trends clearly are headed in the right direction.

Of greater import perhaps is the notion that the current perception of New Jersey racing is positive, not the doom and gloom being played out virtually everywhere else.

Whether or not perception is reality in this scenario, the shift of focus has created buzz. And if the current scene in New Jersey ever becomes reality nationwide, the mainstream might change its perception that racing is a dead sport.

Even with nationwide handle off 10 percent this year, the bottom line is that $12 billion will be pushed through the parimutuel pools by New Year‘s Day. That’s a number that cannot be ignored in today's economy.

The only way to change negative perception is to create a new one. Next week in Tarrytown, New York, a Gaming Summit will host industry leaders from throughout the state.

The keynote speaker will be Jeff Gural, prominent realtor, owner of Vernon Downs and Tioga racetracks, and part of a group with SL Green Realty Trust and Hardrock Entertainment bidding for the VLT franchise at Aqueduct.

Gural’s philosophy is that there’s too much racing, that other sports have seasonality, and that tracks like Saratoga work because it’s fun to go racing there. Among the topics on the agenda is “The Troubled State of Horse Racing and Off-track Betting in New York.” Good or bad, there will be no shortage of examples.

Written by John Pricci

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