Friday, July 16, 2010


The NYRA Gets One Right


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 15, 2010--The mood on the Oklahoma training track this morning was upbeat, as several of the horsemen we spoke with in the wake of the New York Racing Association’s decision to shutter the detention barn in favor of stringent new security policies with tougher penalties were happy about recent developments.

We followed up briefly with some of those same horsemen who gave us their input on a June 12 column that called for the closure of the controversial detention facility.

The good mood, however, doesn’t reflect continuing concerns about the leveling of the playing field. “You know cheaters will find a way if they want to badly enough,” said one. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” said another. “I’ve been around this place a long time.”

All the horsemen we spoke with were willing to give the new process a chance, happy that new robust testing regimens will be accompanied by equally stringent penalties that punishes cheaters who come up with “positives.” Every one were in favor of the new three strikes and you’re out policy.

Most of the procedures put in place are scheduled to commence starting July 23, opening day of the Saratoga race meet. The rules are consistent with the uniform regulations authored by the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI).

Trainers of horses testing positive for Class A drug violations will face a minimum mandatory one-year disbarment from entering horses or being allocated stalls at NYRA racetracks for a first offense. A second mandatory disbarment for a second violation will last for a duration of three years. A third violation will result in permanent disbarment.

Of particular significance is the measure stating trainers serving disbarments will not be permitted to transfer their training responsibilities to family members or current employees, a common practice that has made a sham of the suspension process in the past.

According to a statement published by the NYRA, an ongoing effort to further enhance the new policies and procedures over the next 12 months will closely monitor the re-instituted procedure of allowing private veterinarians administering Lasix to horses on race day.

Further measures call for re-examining TCO2 testing policies with respect to historical TCO2 levels, assessing appropriate penalties for violators, and regular reporting on the results and impact of the elimination of the security barn to the Special Oversight Committee of the NYRA Board of Directors.

Regrettably, the NYRA missed an opportunity to list on the official track program, right alongside the trainer’s name, the name of the attending veterinarian. Some horsemen use more than one vet, but making the name of the vet available allows the betting public to track who dispenses medications when certain horses show sudden and dramatic improvement.

“The out-of-competition drug testing program combined with the new assembly barn and ‘in-today’ procedures will provide NYRA with potent tools to confront today’s challenges of detecting performance-enhancing substances and allow us to stay one step ahead of potential abusers,” said NYRA president Charlie Hayward in the release.

“The science empowering cheaters has changed since 2005 and these new procedures will ensure that NYRA’s countermeasures keep pace in order to preserve the integrity of the sport.” Racetracks have always had a difficult task trying to keep pace with Big Pharma’s R & D people. But continue trying they must.

On its face, the measures taken by NYRA more than compensate for the elimination of the detention barns--not that the barns didn’t serve some purpose. Suspected abusers left New York soon after they were instituted, or after they stopped winning with their normally dramatic regularity. Other suspected abusers who took up residence in New York, mostly during the Aqueduct sessions, left after learning it wasn’t as easy to win at 35 percent as it used to be.

The elimination of the detention barn coupled with new testing policies, procedures, and sterner penalties for violators, is the most comprehensive action we’ve seen NYRA take on any difficult issue in the modern era. For that, they are to be commended.

The proof, however, ultimately will reside in the execution of its plan, employing the fine tuning needed after noting what works and what doesn’t. Continued vigilance is not an elective. In the morass that has become New York racing, track management has devised a plan that surprisingly provides a reason to feel optimistic going forward.

In considering the sport’s survival, all have a vested interest in rooting for the contraction model put in place in New Jersey, hopefully reversing recent fortunes in the Garden State and provide the industry with a viable blueprint. At once, what happens on this side of the Hudson counts, too. If successful, real security measures taken by the NYRA will have a positive effect on the entire industry.

In matters of security and integrity, all who are tethered to the game reside in the same fox hole. Suddenly, achieving unity in this fractured sport doesn’t seem so impossible. The NYRA has done a good thing here. If it’s truly sincere about effecting change, it could once again occupy the role of true industry leader. For the time being, anyway, it appears all the dogs and ponies have been laid to rest.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010


NYRA Whacks Detention Barn, Clearing Way for Rachel-Zenyatta Summit


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July14, 2010--In a victory for common sense over window dressing, the New York Racing Association announced that its highly controversial security barn would cease operations as of July 23, opening day of the Saratoga race meet.

In doing so, it avoided the embarrassment of a horsemen’s boycott of the entry box Thursday morning, when entries will be taken for Sunday‘s card, the final program of the Belmont Park summer meet.

In making the announcement in a press release late Wednesday, NYRA chose to bury the lead, trumpeting that there will be expansion of the in-house drug testing program. The question remaining in the face of this well timed declaration is: What took so long?

As a member of Pat Lynch‘s NYRA press staff in the 1970s, I learned that as a general rule anything that’s good for the horsemen usually turns out to be a defeat for horseplayers. Today’s development just might turn out to be a victory for both.

The event also should provide relief for NYRA Director of Racing and racing secretary P J Campo by making it easier to fill racing programs at the upcoming meet by eliminating a huge concern for visiting trainers; the unfriendly environment of the detention facility.

The perceptionthat a big hurdle impeding the ultimate quality of New York racing has been cleared should have NYRA bean counters and Saratoga Chamber of Commerce members dancing and high-fiving on Union Avenue.

Of great significance to the sport’s fans, eliminating the detention removes the only significant barrier preventing a summit between racing’s two great race mares; defending Horse of the Year champion Rachel Alexandra vs. 2010’s leading candidate for that title, the mighty 17-0 Zenyatta.

Zenyatta’s trainer John Shirreffs has been an outspoken critic of the detention facility, having had a bad prior experience. But now, the Personal Ensign at 10 furlongs and at scale weights at meet’s end eliminates any excuse that would keep either filly in the barn.

Conditions for Zenyatta could hardly be more favorable for her to take her show on the road for only the third time in her career. While Zenyatta obviously needs to ship here, she might find the weather a bit more refreshing in late summer. Meanwhile, Rachel would have to run farther than she ever has before. Yin, say hello to yang.

As exhilarating as the thought of a summit might be, ending the detention barn era has more immediate benefits. And for those who would argue to the contrary; that the facility helps level the playing field for horsemen, what is its ultimate effect on the player? What about horses that don’t lift a hoof after suffering a literal or figurative meltdown on a hot afternoon or becomes highly strung in an unfamiliar place?

For the horseplayer, having an animal improve its performance artificially is no worse than having an honest rival go off form for no apparent reason. How does that help anyone?

Of course, diligent scrutiny is not only welcome, it’s entirely necessary. Horse Race Insider has campaigned against the detention barn editorially and has suggested that security would be better served with the installation of web cameras at strategic intervals throughout each barn, a security person required to monitor and report all activity that deviates from the norm, doing so at regularly timed intervals. If that fails, video can substantiate later what may or may not have occurred.

The NYRA release stated that its soon to be implemented expanded program includes random out-of-competition testing designed to deter the use of blood doping agents such as Erythropoietin (EPO), bronchial dilators, and other illegal substances. That's about time, too.

“Out-of-competition testing will focus primarily on claimed horses, horses shipping in and out of NYRA tracks, horses running in stakes races, and other random occurrences.” the question is why should enforcement be subject to any limiting factors? Why not state that any horse can be tested at any time, with the record of those findings made public?

According to the terms of the agreement that gave NYRA back its franchise, it agreed to operate in a more transparent manner. So there is no excuse for not publishing these findings for the record, even when a test is passed. Wouldn’t that serve as a deterrent, too?

As stated in the release, "NYRA will initiate an 'in-today' process which will identify all horses, in their stalls, running in a NYRA race within 24 hours. This will afford NYRA the ability to monitor horses the day prior to and in the hours leading up to a race through the deployment of a stronger backstretch presence of NYRA veterinarians and security officers.

"Further, NYRA will continue testing for illegal levels of total carbon dioxide (TCO2, known as 'milkshaking') through an 'assembly barn' where all horses entering a race will be required to report just prior to moving to the paddock for saddling."

More welcome news is that the testing operation will be administered and supervised by Dr. George Maylin, director of the New York State Racing & Wagering Board’s drug testing and research program at Morrisville State College in upstate New York.

The program of thoroughbred and standardbred testing currently overseen by Dr. Maylin in New York is already the most advanced and comprehensive of any jurisdiction in the United States, the release said. It is widely accepted that Dr. Maylin‘s experience and reputation are above reproach. This development is a good thing for the customer.

TOMORROW, Part 2: Enforcement, Punishment and the Big Picture

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 09, 2010


New York City OTB: New Face, Same Old Process


As a good friend and trusted HRI source said the other day, this is our government in action: Larry Schwartz, New York Governor David Paterson’s chief of staff, is the new and current Chairman of the New York City Off Track Betting Corporation.

In his first significant act, he appointed Greg Rayburn new NYC-OTB President and CEO Grey Rayburn after a 4-1 vote by the NYC-OTB Board of Directors. It’s not a stretch to think that he did so with the blessing of the state’s chief executive.

And since City-OTB is now a ward of the state, that means the process of finding new leadership for the beleaguered corporation was pretty much business as usual.

To be completely fair, however, Rayburn deserves the benefit of the doubt. He just might be able to lead NYC-OTB out of bankruptcy and ultimately achieve a good result. He’s done it before, this “turnaround pro,” so dubbed by the Wall Street Journal.

Rayburn’s portfolio includes terms as both CEO and COO of several corporations. He also had a cup of coffee as interim CEO of Magna Entertainment Corp., where he reported to Frank Stronach.

As a full time CEO at troubled mainstream corporations, Rayburn implemented new models and did plenty of streamlining. Figure that there will more job cutting at NYC-OTB straight away.

City OTB already has cut 30 percent of its workforce and is even down to about only 50 company cars in its fleet. Amazing what can be accomplished when nose is applied to grindstone.

If it were my responsibility, I’d be inclined to give Rayburn this chance, too. His specialty is restructuring bankrupt companies. Any man who can reorganize Magna, allow Stronach to remain in charge and retain his flagships Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park, deserves a crack at the OTB mess.

Even in the real world of the Great Recession, $125,000 a month is probably commensurate with the task. However, NYC-OTB is light years from the real world.

Frankly, this kind of money for a chief executive whose company is shorting the New York Racing Association--which provides OTB with its most popular product--$2-million a month, and owes it $20 million-plus, is beyond the pale.

What’s really obscene, however, was the manner in which the appointment was handled by Board Chairman Schwartz and three other two-legged rubber stamps in the board meeting at which Rayburn was nominated and approved.

The only NYC-OTB board member who lived up to his fiduciary responsibility was Steven Newman, a State Assembly appointee. Newman suggested a two-month trial period in which Rayburn’s restructuring plan could be evaluated before making the appointment permanent.

Newman, who favors merging the NYRA with all six of the state’s OTB, pointed out that Rayburn will make as much money in six weeks as outgoing President Ray Casey made in a year.

[You can watch Wednesday’s entire meeting, which took all of 13 minutes].

Parenthetically, Rayburn will earn as much as Neil Getnick gets from NYRA. Getnick is the red herring creator that helped save the NYRA franchise by taking the focus off corruption and shining a light on security issues, both real and imagined.

Getnick’s firm, along with NYRA security, monitors the controversial, largely unpopular, and questionably functional detention barns.

NYRA Chairman Steven Duncker applauded the appointment, saying he fully supports it, citing Rayburn’s experience at implementing viable reorganization plans. NYRA is NYC-OTB’s largest creditor.

Here’s hoping that Rayburn is worth every penny. He likely will start by implementing some of the recommendations made by Sandy Frucher, the Board Chairman who Schwartz replaced.

Frucher proposed that numerous betting shops be closed [none to date] and replaced by self-service betting machines in mainstream venues such as sports bars. Newman later said that he hopes that’s exactly what Rayburn will do.

While it’s not a novel idea, Newman wants to see elimination of redundancies, especially in the area of contract services for phone, tote and advanced deposit wagering operations.

It will be interesting to see if this proposed streamlining will include continuing to pay retail prices for consulting services and public relations, or whether those practices will be eliminated entirely.

Since November of 2009, OTB has been billed nearly a half-million dollars by a high-powered PR firm, absurd given the present reality. So, to paraphrase the great sage, Sarah Palin, “how’s that imag-ee thing been workin’ out for ya’?”

Written by John Pricci

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