Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In the Great Lasix Debate, the HBPA Proves Too Big To Fail

April 9, 2013, South Ozone Park--When it comes to the policy reversal governing the conduct of its 2013 event with respect to the use of raceday Lasix, one can hardly blame the Breeders’ Cup for being pragmatic and reversing field.

After all, hasn’t everyone?

First, the Association of Racing Commissioners cut bait a few years ago on the raceday ban although, to its credit, it did ramp up efforts to establish a uniform set of rules—so long as raceday prohibition of Lasix was not part of the mission.

About the same time, the Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders of America was on board with the view that graded status would be removed from juvenile stakes not run medication free.

It sounded like a good idea at the time but later was jettisoned.

Of course, the GSC determines which races are the country’s most important, giving those events Grade 1 status. Win those races and your stud horse or broodmare is a lot more valuable, virtually overnight.

Last year the Committee was prepared to deny graded standing to any stakes in which raceday Lasix was permitted. A few months later it contracted a case of the never-minds.

The Jockey Club, the organization that verifies all the sport’s equine athletes to be Thoroughbreds, also capitulated, a reversal that was a decisive blow to raceday Lasix abolitionists.

The Jockey Club’s new guidelines define how and when legal therapeutics can be administered; a key element in the uniformity process. The tradeoff was taking the raceday Lasix ban off the current table. The organization remains on record as still supporting the raceday Lasix embargo, but their actions spoke at a much higher volume.

While in no way is any of this comparable, but doesn’t it seem analogous to Congress saying that it recognizes the will of the people [read bettors] but ultimately would filibuster the issue rather than vote a sensible measure into law.

At a Breeders’ Cup board meeting this winter at Gulfstream Park, the raceday Lasix ban began to unravel. The first news to emerge from that summit was that there was no news, until finally it was decided only the juvenile ban would stand and that the Juvenile Sprint was history.

Given the abdication of previously stated goals of the ARCI, TOBA’s Graded Stakes Committee and the Jockey Club, coupled with a threat to boycott the Lasix-free entry box, the Breeders’ Cup cave-in was inevitable.

And if any of the above wasn’t enough, prominent owners threatened to file suit challenging Breeders’ Cup’s authority to change California’s medication policies, while a few high profile trainers lobbied for raceday Lasix with friendly media willing to provide an unchallenged setting.

At that point, the pressure on Breeders’ Cup had reached a boiling point.

The predictable pushback from horsemen and unsuccessful abolitionist lobbying were not the only reasons Breeders’ Cup wilted under the burden of all this weight.

Ultimately, It came down to what it always comes down to in this or any industry; Benjamins. There’s just no time, money or willingness to take the long view of what’s best for the sport, not when the game’s 2% wield all the power and influence.

And it’s a difficult sell given the reality that field size would shrink and handle suffer.

Last year field size and handle for five juvenile races was down by over 20%. Breeders’ Cup economists projected that a total Lasix would cost the company a minimum of $5 million.

That kind of loss for a company whose nominations’ revenue was down significantly, coupled with falling handle, would not be sustainable.

Maybe the Lasix issue is one reason why there’s been a delay in recent years to name future sites in advance. What if Lasix exploded in the same manner anabolic steroids did in the wake of Big Brown’s Belmont?

Resultantly, would states enact their own Lasix bans because of negative publicity and public relations?

Kentucky tried to make progress in this area but was undercut by the Kentucky division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Assn. From that point forward, dominoes began to fall.

There has been pressure from outliers as well. Great Britain is getting into fall action more meaningfully with a new meet in October. Will that siphon runners away from Breeders’ Cup?

And what will prove to be the significance of the strategic partnership between China and Dubai? Recall that Darley representative Oliver Tait resigned from the Breeders’ Cup board due to the Lasix policy change.

Of course, Darley is the nursery of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum who recently lauded the new agreement saying that China will be a great addition to the international racing scene and a major player.

That was around the same time he stated that the UAE conducts the world’s best racing.

Provincial pride notwithstanding, international racing seems to be trending away from America and its “world championships,” mostly because it believes that world class international sport and raceday Lasix are mutually exclusive.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Racing Hall of Fame Vote: Guilty As Charged

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 26, 2013---It shouldn’t be this way but I often dread the Hall of Fame ballot I receive each year. No matter what criterion I choose, I’m always uneasy after responding.

Must be the Catholic guilt thing.

The “problem” is that inclusion into racing’s pantheon is largely a matter of perception. So when ballots arrive, it’s a matter of delineating one potential immortal from the next. No one knows better than a professional handicapper what an inexact science assigning values to horses and horsemen can be.

It would serve voters well if there were some objective standard against which subjective opinions could be measured. Indeed, Hall Of Fame ballots are sent to people that have made a life’s work out of horse racing. And if “professionals” aren’t qualified to judge, then who?

Not having some objective standard makes it easier for voters to be swayed by prejudice; politics, region, personal relationships good or bad.

Sometimes people can be in racing their entire lives and their opinions never improve, which is why the combined wisdom of the many that comprise a consensus is often better than singular opinions, no matter how well informed.

A suggestion for the appropriate Hall of Fame committee: In the stat package that goes with each year’s nominees might be included some bellwether statistics. For instance, what is the average number of races won by a Hall of Fame jockey? Does the average Hall of Fame horse win 70 percent of its starts? If nothing else, stuff like this would be interesting to know.

For years, there was some rancor among voters with respect to how votes determined inclusion. A number of years back there was the “75%” rule, when that percentage needed to be attainedfor inclusion.

Then came a time when nominees were listed by category; male and female horses, jockeys, trainers. So what happens if there are three great fillies, but no jockey you believed to be an immortal? What to do?

For the last four years, voters have been submitted a list of candidates from which to choose. There are 10, including five jockeys, four horses and one traine this year. Vote for any--or all--10 nominees and the four highest vote getters are elected regardless of category. In the event of a tie, both individuals are in.

This would be irksome if you believed that all 10 merit inclusion; since a vote for all would be the equivalent of a vote for none. So, in the end, it does come down to the personal smell test.

Now, do we judge Chris Antley for his on-track performances or his off-track demons? This is an easy one for me. I invoke the Ty Cobb rule; it’s what happens inside the lines that matter--no bad pun intended.

A winning rate of 18 percent on major circuits from coast to coast without a super-trainer’s support is worthy of special merit. Becoming the first rider to win nine races in a day, and winning a DiMaggio-like 64 races on consecutive days are immortal achievements. Two Derbies and a Preakness among 3,480 career victorie don't hurt.

Now that Calvin Borel has reached the 5,000-win career plateau to add to his three Derby victories in a four-year span, isn't he an immortal? Only three riders have won the Derby more than thrice and Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack and Willie Shoemaker have their place in Saratoga. Calvin was, of course, Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra’s regular partner and has won riding titles at seven different tracks in Arkansas, Louisiana and Kentucky.

Lure, 14-for-25 overall, was the first horse to earn repeat wins in the Breeders’ Cup (Mile), nine graded stakes overall on turf and dirt including four Grade 1s often carrying high weight in handicaps. He was a dominant miler on either surface.

I was set disparage Invasor because of an insufficient body of work but a record that includes 11 victories in 12 lifetime starts, nine of them Grade 1, the Uruguayan Triple Crown, and a Horse of the Year title in an American campaign debut is impossible to knock.

Housebuster won 15 of 22 career starts including 11 graded stakes and three Grade 1s. He was the first horse in over a quarter-century to repeat as Champion Sprinter. As a 3-year-old, he lost the Metropolitan Mile to Horse of the Year Criminal Type by a neck, finishing a length and a half in front of future Hall of Famer Easy Goer.

Ashado won 12 of 21 lifetime starts, seven Grade 1 stakes, and was the repeat Filly Champion of 2004-05, winning her first at 3 after defeating older in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Trainer Gary Jones retired after winning 1,465 races at a worthy rate of 18.5 percent, taking 17% of the graded stakes he entered. Based in California, Jones had a national reputation after developing the champion careers of Turkoman, Best Pal, and the popular win machine Meafara, a top class filly sprinter.

Garrett Gomez, Alex Solis and Craig Perret are not unworthy. Just didn’t want to “punish” the seven listed above. If there is a better alternative to the current system I don’t know what it is. Wish I did.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Go Ahead, Make Our Day

HALLANDALE BEACH, Florida, February 26, 2013—The news emanating from the Golden State this year has been so bad on so many levels that I can’t even begin to count the ways. Alas, since I am paid to try, let’s concentrate on this for now.

According to a Daily Racing Form report last week, the takeout rate on the popular and successful Players Pick 5 could rise sharply at the Betfair Hollywood Park April 25 unless the track and the Thoroughbred Owners of California can reach an agreement on revenue distribution.

Jack Liebau, the fan-friendly Hollywood Park president indicated that without such an agreement, the promotional 14 percent takeout rate could rise to the standard exotic takeout scale of 23.65, a tax increase of 59.19 percent.

While Liebau did not break down figures specifically, he stated a majority of the 14 percent goes toward purses and that the track receives a nominal share. He was quoted to say that he is “hoping there will be a fairer arrangement in respect to the spread.”

Lou Raffetto, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, told DRF in the same story that he’s “confident we will work it out… based on our discussions we’ll come to some sort of agreement.”

Of course, it’s expected and acceptable that the two sides in a negotiation should play their cards out of public view, but two things would seem apparent just looking at those numbers.

At 14 percent, the track very likely is being under-compensated at best if it’s indeed the case that the major share of the split is going to purses. Even as a horseplayer with a vested interest in takeout, I admit there’s not much wiggle room at that rate.

Raffetto’s statement seems an admission that there probably is some inequity because of the special rate and, of course, the slice of the pie cut by the state of California exacerbates this revenue issue because it further reduces the amount that goes to the track and horsemen.

Everyone with an interest in Thoroughbred racing understands the problem and is trying to be fair-minded. But when looking at past performances, certain patterns emerge.

First, low takeout promotional wagers, from Tampa to Los Angeles, are an unqualified success when handle is the measure. Churn notwithstanding, low takeout bets are among handle leaders wherever they’re offered, a tribute to their popularity.

Of greater significance might be that because of the wager’s complexity and higher-cost nature, the amount of work that bettors put into handicapping the wager has resulted in increased handle on individual races within a given sequence; and a trickling more into sequential sub-sets--Pick 5 into Pick 4 into Pick 3, etc.

Low-cost wagers that allow handicappers to win a lot for a little if they consistently outwork their parimutuel opponents are the greatest gift ever given horseplayers. Horseplayers, also known as customers.

Without customers, of course, all those fancy pedigrees, the horse sales, well-heeled owners and bloodstock commissions--the good living made by even the most middling of practitioners--would fail to exist.

All industry factions know this and all factions either pay homage or lip service to the plight of these customers. Now to delve a little further into the PPs.

As everyone has known for some time, Hollywood Park is thisclose to closing its gates forever. And anyone who has paid attention has come to learn that Mr. Liebau seems to understand the economics and politics of takeout and the dire consequences when takeout rates are abused. But already on the brink, his track needs more revenue.

There are two places from which this revenue can flow; one is from the purse account, the second is from the customer’s pocket. The fairest answer probably is--as much as it pains this horseplayer to say so—that it will need to come from both. Everyone takes a haircut.

This sounds great except for this: Of all the groups; from powerless customers to successful but hurting tracks to owners whose pockets only run so deep to horse trainers with a finite amount of sweat equity left to give in their 365/24/7 lives, it is horsemen whose sense of entitlement will bring this whole thing down.

A look at the PPs of the TOC and its horsemen indicates that for some, purses and commissions can never be high enough. Prove to them and colleagues everywhere that, when adjusted for inflation, national handle is half of what it was less than a decade ago, they won’t care, their sense of entitlement beyond all reason.

Build it and the suckers will come worked 50 years ago. But the suckers have been bled dry and the numbers of those that have stopped coming are growing by the day. And the cure for this is what, higher taxes?

To increase takeout almost 60 percent on a wager that in a measurable way has helped stem the tide of decline inevitably will prove to be the end of California racing as the sport’s history has known it. A takeout increase at this point in time is not just bad business; it’s gluttonous insanity.

For grassroots horseplayers, this will not stand. Keep giving horseplayers the economic equivalent of a raised middle finger and reap the ill wind of boycott.

And who knows, maybe this will be the final straw for remaining players to join their brethren who’ve already moved on for the action available in a casino, sports book or card room, where the rake is much, much lower.

So, tell us, are you feeling lucky?

Written by John Pricci

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