Monday, June 24, 2013

It’s Opening…er…Closing Day at Gulfstream Park

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 24, 2013—At once, Tuesday marks the dawn of a new era and same story-different year for Florida Thoroughbred racing. Can’t we all just get along?

For the first time ever, Gulfstream Park, widely regarded as this country’s premier race meet each January through March, will conduct racing in June when eight races are contested on June 25 beginning at 12:50 p.m.

It is especially strange to post this story on the same day the New York Racing Association confirmed its 2013 stakes schedule and announced a series of events that will mark 150 years of Saratoga racing.

It’s much too early for me to know how I feel about the Florida situation. There are so many variables to consider on either side of the Calder/Gulfstream schism, especially when you know people on both ends.

But this much seems clear about Gulfstream’s expansion: Thoroughbred racing in South Florida could not be in better racing hands, nor can it be better positioned for the future.

No matter which parties are involved, conventional wisdom says that racing in the long term will always be better off in private hands than it would be with a publicly traded corporation.

Tuesday’s closing-day start—84 horses were entered in eight races—is being conducted so that Gulfstream can share in simulcast revenues throughout the year as its own hub. The strong turnout of horses doubtlessly reflects $4,000 purse increases for all races and a $1,000 appearance fee per starter.

Parenthetically, Tampa Bay Downs is hosting a similar “closing day” program next month. Again, this posturing by the three tracks is all about sharing in simulcast revenues.

The Gulfstream “summer meet” begins July 1. Since Tuesday’s program officially closes the 2012-13 meet, there will be mandatory payouts in both the 10-Cent Rainbow Six and 50-Cent Pick 5 pools.

Carryovers will resume when the 2013 season begins next month. Recall that the Rainbow Six produced multi-million-dollar carryovers including a record $3.5 million won by a single New Jersey-based bettor in February.

To prepare for summer racing, Gulfstream spent one million dollars of its 2012-13 record handle to improve its drainage system in advance of the biblical summer rain storms of South Florida.

A gutter was installed between the inside dirt rail and outside rail on the turf course to move and drain rain runoff faster. The project was deemed successful when, after 14 inches of rain fell on June 7, horses trained the next morning.

In summer, the surface will have a sandier base; in winter, more loam. When the racing surfaces were changed several years ago, the turf course was raised 11 feet higher so the tide doesn’t come into play as it once did. Thirty-six pipes to facilitate drainage installed under the turf course also hastens the drying process.

Tuesday's Gulfstream feature race goes as the seventh, an allowance/optional claiming event headed by a Kirk Ziadie-trained entry. It also features a starter from Team Ward/Rosario, Wesley and Joel hooking up to win the Norfolk last week at Royal Ascot.

Second to repeat leading-rider Javier Castellano, Rosario rode 89 winners in his first full Gulfstream winter campaign which included victories aboard subsequent Kentucky Derby-winning Orb.

Meanwhile, the Calder/Gulfstream rift comes down to the amount of compensation Gulfstream is willing to remunerate Calder for the dates in question and what Calder is willing to accept; that and a negotiated split of simulcast revenues.

As a matter of course, we’re never in favor of one track dominating a market if that market has proven it can support disparate entities. But when it comes to survival--in Florida and everywhere—tracks are better served by cooperation, not competition.

While Calder has de facto deemphasized racing in recent years, Frank Stronach’s devotion to the sport is paying dividends. The Gulfstream brand is very strong nationally; the reason it can charge a 9 percent host fee, the highest in the country.

When the Hallandale Beach track expanded into December two years ago, Gulfstream’s all-sources handle was four times that of Calder’s. In April, Gulfstream’s dates were twice those of comparative dates at the Miami Lakes track.

Blessed with great weather last winter, the 10 percent on-track gains of 2011-12 expanded in 2012-13 to an on-track increase of 25 percent.

According to data supplied by Gulfstream, on-track handle has grown 35 percent in the last three years, while all-sources increased by 10 percent. Even with three more days of racing, 87 days to 90, average handle per race in 2012-13 grew from $734,000 to $843,000.

Insiders have volunteered that Gulfstream’s ultimate goal is to race unopposed four days per week, Thursday through Sunday. Management feels that being disruptive will prove to be a good thing for Florida racing and its horsemen.

I hope that it never will come down to racing head-to-head. But as for which South Florida track is positioned to have a profound, positive effect on the future, the two-track battle looks more like a one-track race.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

At Last, the Future Is Now

NEW NYRA CEO: Chances that the next President of the NYRA will come from inside the industry are 2-1 against. HRI has learned that the executive search committee will have submitted a list of three names to the NYRA Board in advance of the next public meeting, June 10: Two are from outside the industry, one has industry experience.

It would seem state politics likely is playing a huge roll in this. However, a fresh perspective--provided that person is surrounded by the best and brightest advisers--might be a welcome change. After all, didn’t it take a horseplaying whistleblower to point out that the increased exotic takeout provision in the law had already sunset, leading to the dismissal of two top NYRA executives, including its CEO?

*from HRI post, June 2

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 19, 2012—Let the new era begin.

Whether Christopher Kay is the right man to guide the future of New York Thoroughbred racing at its highest levels remains to be seen. After all, if his ultimate compensation is performance-based, so should any assessment as to whether he’s the right man for the job. Tell will tell.

Anyone who believes that racing in this state is the linchpin for the overall future of the sport in general probably has their minds right. And anyone who thinks that the new New York Racing Association needs to be able to play a mean game of chess is also on target. Especially with what Gov. Cuomo has in mind.

In Cuomo’s state of the state address, he talked about how a healthy racing industry is important for his state; for its coffers, for prestige, for tourism, and for the overall desire to affirm that New York still has what it takes to call itself the Empire State. That, too, is a wait-and-see proposition.

What’s been troubling in state racing matters since the Governor’s address is that you don’t have to listen all that carefully to hear him walk back the racing rhetoric, that’s it’s about the almighty Benjamins, that full-blown casino gambling is the destination where the public’s discretionary dollars can do the state the most good and that, frankly, he’s not too pleased with the remunerative deal racinos have carved out for themselves.

Now that grandfather has lovingly patted casino gambling on the head, what can we do about racing’s very high costs of putting on a show? Electronic games don’t call in sick and never ask for a raise. But for racing, it’s even more dire than that.

This new accord with Native American tribes meant to balance the state’s books and extract more money from Native American gaming now and in the future--money that they can afford and which the state badly needs—could be the beginning of the end of the fiscal partnership between racinos and the state. The Governor’s accord puts a restraint a future racino trade.

If racing is to have a successful future in the Governor’s view, it, like casinos, must also have a destination worth supporting. Enter, hopefully, Christopher Kay, the new NYRA Board, and any advisors that come aboard in the future. It was heartening to see that some of the early cut from the Aqueduct casino has gone into make living standards for Saratoga stable-hands acceptable, long overdue.

Said Kay after his official installation as President and CEO: “The organization [I worked for most recently] was the Trust for Public Land… [that has] been able to acquire over three million acres of land converted into local, state, or federal parks. As far as the issue of Aqueduct is concerned, David [Skorton] and the committee say it’s one of the things we should look at.

“…The Board has provided us with a three-year strategic plan so I’m going to follow that strategic plan and execute it…Number one is going to be to enhance the guest experience…and to recruit others to become new racing fans. The second is the re-privatization…and the third is just to improve the quality of racing and purses at every racetrack we operate.”

And then he offered this: “I’m aware of the conversations [in Albany]. I do not have a position to express today. I am comforted by the fact that Governor Cuomo has selected a great Board and has expressed an interest in making sure that horse racing is very successful today and for years to come. I look forward to working with this Board and with state government to make sure that happens.”

If racing is to have a prayer of succeeding, Kay’s final observation would be the Great Amen. Fortunately, while Saratoga might need some tweaking here and there, it is in very good stead as one of the world’s greatest racing destinations.

But the future of Aqueduct as a racetrack must be addressed. It’s impossible to envision that it will live in perpetuity. And that probably would be just fine with the Genting folks. What happens to all that money ultimately might be Cuomo’s vision, not NYRA as a racing franchise.

And what of “beautiful Belmont Park?” What happens to it? What does its future look like? Clearly, given its proximity to JFK, its location on the Queens/Nassau County border, and its unique layout as a racetrack, it should be the destination that will be the envy of racetracks anywhere in the world.

Kay’s qualifications make him a superb choice for the job. But whether he will be able to go the distance is a matter of more than pedigree.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, June 17, 2013

Media Star Wars

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 17, 2013—Unfortunately--and not for the reasons you might surmise out of hand—the battle between various segments of the racing industry and the racing media in all its forms is alive and well.

The newspaper business is in as much trouble as the racing industry these days, but if racing doesn’t think it needs media coverage, pro or con, it is sadly mistaken: Any business that does not court media; traditional or otherwise, cannot expect to survive, much less prosper:

ITEM: New York Post Fires Racing Staff on Belmont Stakes Eve

It is no secret that the racing industry—and sports leagues to some extent—no longer believes it’s necessary to at least co-exist with mainstream media of which Internet coverage is now part.

The word blogger, whatever the industry, has become a curse. Yes, many bloggers do not feel it necessary to fact-check before writing. Indeed, shooting from the editorial hip can be highly counter-productive and in some cases patently wrong.

But there are two realities about this that needs acknowledging: First, the information explosion created by 24-hour cable news and the Internet has kept the populace informed as never before. How much it cares beyond the state of Kanye and Kim’s newborn child is another matter.

Secondly, and of greater significance, is that all organizations have become proficient in obfuscation and the spreading of disinformation. Resultantly, honest research doesn’t always unearth the real story, although that’s no reason to stop trying.

The good and bad news about social media is that everyone has an opinion, but it is up to traditional and new media sources to supply opinion that yields perspective. If the population truly cares about the subject at hand, it will Google all about it.

Soon after a New York Post story critical of the New York Racing Association was published during the 2012 Saratoga race meet, the company pulled all its advertising.

That is NYRA’s right, of course. But given that the Post was a mainstream daily that extensively covered horse racing in its market, was it in the association’s best interests to do so?

Apparently it thought it was and that the publishing of daily entries, reporting, commentary and handicapping be damned. Never mind that the Post was the most recognizable source of horse racing coverage in the media capital of the world.

Deserved or not, NYRA always has had a reputation for arrogance: The belief that the Post needed them more than they needed daily coverage of racing would seem to support that notion.

Ironically, there was some meeting of the minds between representatives of both organizations with respect to the lost advertising revenue; no matter.

Once News Corp. decided to place its properties in different pockets of the same pants to please the marketplace or make the Post more attractive to sell, it cut costs and pulled the plug.

The fact that the Post pulled its coverage on Belmont eve obviously was intended to send a message. Mission accomplished; everyone noticed and horse racing took another hit, this one in America’s biggest market.

ITEM: Twitter Wars; Industry Organizations Circle Wagons

In case you missed this recent item, there is a war of words in the Twittersphere between Bob Baffert and Ray Paulick, gentlemen who need no introduction to this audience. The issue was seven mysterious deaths of horses from Baffert’s barn within an 18-month period.

The problem started when Paulick referenced the seven deaths in the wake of the quarter-horse death of the Ruidoso Futurity winner.* It escalated after 2012 Haskell Stakes winner Paynter made a miraculous recovery then underscored his return to health with an impressive victory. In a post-race TVG interview, Baffert gratuitously remarked: “Ray Paulick, if you’re watching, put this is your pipe and smoke it.”

The phrase is a well-known cliché, of course, but not to anyone inside the business who perceived the comment to be nothing less than a pointed jibe meant to discredit the messenger.

Regrettably, Baffert’s fit of pique does not appear to be spontaneous but rather part of an anti-media campaign forged by Baffert and family against anyone who raises questions about the Hall of Famer’s training practices.

Baffert’s wife Jill has been her husband’s staunchest public defender dating back to the misunderstanding that surfaced at Del Mar surrounding the sale of Richard’s Kid, a dual Pacific Classic winner formerly trained by Baffert.

This latest dust-up was a war of words between Jill Baffert and Paulick that followed the "Ruidoso death" comment.

There also was a circulated e-mail from Baffert to industry insiders re: horseplayer advocate Andy Asaro who has had problems with Baffert since the trainer’s owner, Mike Pegram, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, lobbied for a parimutuel takeout increase.

Baffert used a similar tack to smear Asaro, referring to him as “bankrupt.” Asaro has demanded an apology which, at this writing, was not forthcoming. Today, Asaro learned that "apparently someone has asked Attorney Ryan Enderle to look into my past, beyond 10 years ago, and is threatening to post a past Bankruptcy of mine online unless I back off."

On the same day the Post fired its racing writers, I received a call from a Baffert associate defending the trainer and questioning my role as executive editor for allowing former jockey agent Harry Hacek to occasionally post commentary at HRI under the “Backside View” flag, some very critical of Baffert. The contact asked if I would speak with Bob. I agreed.

We had a respectful conversation in which we disagreed about his handling of the horse death situation. Baffert’s tone changed somewhat when he discussed the credibility of both Hacek and Asaro. I offered Baffert equal time and confirmed our conversation with this follow-up e-mail:


It was good that we had a talk on the phone this afternoon.

To reiterate, you will have equal time to say whatever you wish, without editing that would alter context in any way.

I will write a precede (cq) that introduces the issue to readers who might be unfamiliar with the subject matter.

Your story will lead HRI for a two-day period and, of course, will live forever in the archives. Take your time with it.

I will e-mail you to advise when the story will run and, of course, if I have any questions.

May all your horses have a safe trip tomorrow and every day.

John Pricci, executive editor”

I have not yet received Baffert’s retort and sincerely hope that I will. What seems obvious—my conversation notwithstanding—is that there has been a campaign waged by Baffert’s supporters against racing media or anyone taking a differing view. That is their right, of course.

But for TVG--which promised to give Paulick equal time to react to Baffert’s remark--to rescind its invitation due to a “scheduling conflict” appears little more than another industry media organization favoring the game’s powerful practitioners rather than report on the story or provide a serious, fair-minded editorial is embarrassingly inexcusable.

* correction made to clarify original source reference, made at 6:12 p.m., 061713

Written by John Pricci

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