Thursday, January 03, 2013

Fan Council Recommendations Mostly Get It Right, Part 1

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, JANUARY 3, 2012—If anything is clear from yesterday's recommendations of the New York Racing Fan Advisory Council to the State Racing & Wagering Board it’s that they heard what horse racing fans and some segments of the media have been saying for some time now.

The hope is that these recommendations will not come too little or too late. Much of the advice is reasoned and well-meaning; a means for correcting the problems that the game faces not only in New York but a template for Anytrack USA.

What was not addressed is whether or not the model itself is broken, out of step with the modern culture or whether the Council should have concentrated more on macro or micro recommendations, depending on one’s philosophy.

It appears the Council has done a little of both, which at once can be the good news and the bad news. A look, then, at many of weightier recommendations affecting the greatest number of people and the racing industry itself, presented in two parts:

Takeout Rates: The language here was surprisingly explicit, the Council stating that while non-NYRA tracks use VLT revenue to fund 71 percent of its purses, “there have been few serious attempts made to help out the bettors… It is time for [all] New York racetracks to reduce takeout on their customers.”

Reducing takeout is a win-win-win, of course, benefitting horse racing’s customers, the state’s coffers and the tracks themselves by making their product more attractive to the simulcast market that accounts for almost nine of every 10 dollars wagered.

It is hoped there will be none of those famed legislative half-measures necessitating the constant revisiting of the same issue. Recently, the SRWB extended the provision allowing for continued video streaming for another year.

I'm wondering if New York’s regulators could be more sophomoric? Is the wagering landscape about to change dramatically in 2014? The only good that comes from these short-term fixes is that the SRWB gets to hold on to a bargaining chip for future negotiations.

Track Partnership: “The Racing and Wagering Board should foster and facilitate a collaborative partnership among New York tracks, similar to how it coordinated an agreement on video streaming.

“The conglomerate of NY tracks would include NYRA tracks, Finger Lakes, and all Harness tracks in New York State. This would enable the parties to work together to market simulcasting measures and permit tracks greater bargaining power for simulcast races and help make sure New York races are carried elsewhere thus helping New York track handle.”

Long overdue, this makes so much sense the only questions that remain are why it took three decades to figure out that it’s about cooperation, not competition, and that there is bargaining strength in numbers. Perhaps, it was the industry’s poor cooperation past performances that snuffed out the notion that common sense solutions could work.

Enhancing Belmont Stakes Day Fan Experience: “Belmont Stakes Day typically features the highest attendance day of any track during the year and has had some of the largest crowds to ever attend a sporting event in New York State. Belmont Stakes Day is, for many fans, their only visit to a race track during the year.

"Belmont Stakes Day is an excellent opportunity to highlight and showcase every positive aspect of horse racing to entice fans to come back to the track on other race days.

“The experience should be improved by lowering the prices of food, beverages and souvenirs, as opposed to raising prices for such items. NYRA should also consider allowing fans to bring food and beverages to the track on Belmont Stakes Day.

“If safety reasons prevent this, prices at the track for these items should be reasonable to ensure fans have a positive experience. Finally, NYRA should consider a promotion to draw those fans in attendance on Belmont Stakes Day to return to the races on another day.”

What’s next, pinning smiley-face my-name-is buttons on the uniforms of mutuel clerks? (Sorry, just couldn’t resist… although it wouldn’t be such a bad idea, mind you).

Actually, what New York racing has come to is this: That a historic sports event capable of attracting a six-figure crowd is to be regarded as a marketing opportunity. Somewhat sadly, however, this is exactly right.

It can be argued, too, that some of the VLT money—if some statute needs adjusting then do it—can be used to lower prices every day, making a day at the races affordable, top tier entertainment in a well-manicured facility. Old can be charming [see Saratoga].

Further, casinos are known for serving good food at reasonable prices. There is no reason the New NYRA can’t do the same thing with some of the VLT largesse it receives. And given its huge expanse, picnicking for families should be encouraged by severely reducing--or even eliminating--admissions, for adults who bring their children.

Finish Line Placement at Yonkers: “The Racing & Wagering Board should review the placement of the finish line at Yonkers… to see if a change in the finish line location is feasible. Moving the finish further up the stretch would benefit fans by allowing them to more accurately see the finish… and permit the starting gate to release the field earlier so horses can jockey for position more before heading into the first turn… ideally reducing the impact of post position.”

Since I cut my teeth on harness racing and witnessed the great Speedy Scot break, make up an eighth of a mile, and still win the Yonkers Trot in under two minutes, a standard for half-mile track greatness back in the day, I feel qualified to speak on this.

While the idea of releasing horses sooner at the start before reaching the first turn to mitigate the effect of outside post position has merit, moving the finish line further up the stretch is a terrible idea.

As it is, if your horse is not at least a close-up third entering the Yonkers stretch, it has no chance. Lengthening the stretch gives more horses a chance to win and just might help slow down the dominance of short-priced winners.

WiFi: “Track operators should make WiFi available throughout the racing facilities so that fans can use tablets and other technology to download racing programs and access racing information.”

I have often made this suggestion often at my local track. If the venue is concerned that bettors will use Internet service to access other ADW companies, simply put a block on those competing sites. As it is, bettors can use cell phones to wager with competitors.

Saturday: Part ll of New York Fan Council Recommendations to the SRWB

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Eclipse Voting Transparency, Part II

SARATOGA SPRINGS, December 28, 2012—There isn’t another year I can remember in which the voting in many categories was not only close but, even after much deliberation, the final decision remains a conflicted one.

But soldier on we must and, hence, Part II of what one Eclipse ballot looked like:

The older female category, of course, was much more checkers than chess—actually, more of a no-brainer. That’s what happens when a defending champion, well, defends her title.

The runnerup spot was a little closer in that it matched a filly with traditional skills, albeit without a win outside its region, vs. a dominant specialist. We are a traditionalist at heart, but not when tradition is pitted against dominance.

Four-Year-Old & Up Female

1. Royal Delta
2. Groupie Doll
3. Include Me Out

As it usually does, just as in the juvenile categories, the sprint division usually comes down to the championship event. This year’s certainly did, as there was an early season leader vs. the budding champion of fall.

Now if one were to invoke what I would term the Dr. Fager rule, Shackleford is a very deserving sprint candidate, after all, the G2 Churchill Downs Handicap and the storied G1 Met Mile are both one-turn events.

Of course, if the G1 Clark were added for class points, there you have it. In the modern era, however, the thought is that there should be one championship win at 6 furlongs, America’s dominant sprint distance. I can’t say that I disagree.

Three-Year-Old & Up Sprinter, Male

1. Trinniberg
2. The Lumber Guy
3. Shackleford

As for the female sprinter of 2012, it’s no-brainer, Part II. In fact, had Groupie Doll won her fourth G1 of the season—the most by an American runner this year—against males in the Cigar Mile should would have received support for Horse of the Year, at least on my ballot.

The runnerup battle had to be closer, obviously, the late season surge of our third place finisher giving up some pause, albeit not for very long.

Three-Year-Old & Up, Female

1. Groupie Doll
2. Contested
3. Dust And Diamonds

In any other season, three Grade 1 victories, including one at the popular American distance, one at the classic distance and a third at the European classic distance within a 4-for-7 slate would be an automatic at the top.

Of course, that’s not the case this year given the dominant victories posted by Wise Dan, albeit none around two turns. We relented on a runnerup finish, taking his dominance over Point Of Entry, the biggest “loser” on the Breeders’ Cup program.

Three-Year-Old & Up, Turf Male

1. Little Mike
2. Wise Dan
3. Point Of Entry

Our top choice is this category does not make us ill at ease in any way given her accomplishments, but it was very close. Ultimately, a 5-for-8 record, all graded stakes, and a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, is the stuff of champions.

But there is considerable support for a filly that unquestionably had more natural ability but had her campaign cut short by injury after winning two of three graded starts in 2012, including a G1 win and G1 placing.

Then there was a third which was more accomplished than the talented runnerup but not nearly as consistent or talented. But she was very good, indeed.

Three-Year-Old & Up, Female

1. Zagora
2. Winter Memories
3. Tapitsfly

Since we’ve written on this subject previously, there’s no need to belabor the point that the category for Eclipse horseman is a three-trainer race among individuals that had extraordinary seasons. On that issue, at least, there can be no argument:

Champion Trainer 2012

1. Dale Romans
2. Todd Pletcher
3. Bob Baffert

The jockey category, in our view, is a layover, as our topic choice did it quantitatively and qualitatively, including the earnings category, doing so without “the big horse” or without the backing of a powerhouse outfit throwing its entire weight behind the rider. So, with apologies to Rafael Bejarano…

Champion Jockey 2012

1. Ramon Dominguez
2. John Velazquez
3. Javier Castellano

Having grown up on a top circuit, we’re a sucker for quality over quantity, historical achievement over parimutuel filler. Our top choice was easy; the runners-up, not so much.

There were about a half-dozen outfits that had excellent quality seasons, winning at least three Grade 1s. However, one outfit campaigned eight of them.

Champion Owner 2012

1. Godolphin Racing
2. Zayat Stables
3. Phipps Stable

As for the nurseries, about a half-dozen of them won three or more G1 races with horses it bred, but often with the same horse. Not so the boys in blue. So, with no apologies to Juddmonte (Frankel did not race in America)…

Champion Breeder 2012

1. Darley
2. Adena Springs
3. Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings

I confess that I did not see very much of non-New York-based apprentices but admit that I felt Irad Ortiz Jr., still an apprentice in February, showed immense talent last year and was wise beyond his years. He underscored that assessment by handling pressure as Questing’s regular rider.

Champion Apprentice 2012

1. Irad Ortiz Jr.
2. Jose Mantano
3. Angel Suarez

A synopsis of what we’ve written on the subject to date: Wise Dan has the most ability and, in the main, dominated the competition. But I abhor a season in which the history of the sport was never given its due by this talented runner’s connections. Racing’s a business? Fine. What isn’t?

Point Of Entry had his chance to win four consecutive Grade 1s, but didn’t. So, too, Groupie Doll, but she didn’t. So, with some reluctance, given a pursuit of great achievement forsaken, a vote for the perceived best in show…

Horse of the Year 2012: Wise Dan

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Eclipse Voting Transparency, Part 1

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 27, 2012—As is the HRI custom, we go public with our Eclipse Award choices in all categories, allowing the chips to fall. An aside: I don’t really understand the policy of not allowing vote splitting.

Unlike splitting the atom, this would not have an effect on the world at large, and would more accurately reflect voter’s opinions. Vote splitting certainly would have been appropriate when looking back on 2012:

As usual, we view the voting process as strictly business; not personal:

The Steeplechase category one’s very much like the turf category this year. In compiling our choices, we start by counting Grade 1s before getting into subjective analysis. So riddle me this:

Which is the more compelling resume, Demonstrative winning the G1 New York Turf Writers Cup Handicap and Colonial Cup, or Pierre Lunaire taking the Lonesome Glory and Grand National? We’re not sure either.

The tie breaker for us, then was the overall record which had the former going 3-for-6 on the year, including Saratoga’s restricted Jonathan Kiser and with higher earnings, as opposed to ‘Pierre’s’ 2012 slate of 2-for-5.

4-Year-Old & Up Steeplechase

1. Demonstrative
2. Pierre Lunaire
3. Spy in the Sky

While the overall crop appears a little disappointing on its face with respect to depth at this juncture, the Juvenile category boasts and definitive, worthy champion.

How can anyone argue with an undefeated, deep slate of five victories at four different venues including two Grade 1s and a Grade 2?

The runnerup in this division hails from the same barn, is also undefeated at 3-for-3 and owns two graded wins, a G1 and a G2. The second runnerup was nearly unbeaten at 6-for-7. Among the wins were three Canadian stakes—one listed, two restricted—and Kentucky’s G3 Iroquois and G2 Jockey Club Stakes.

Two-Year-Old Juvenile Colts

1. Shanghai Bobby
2. Violence
3. Uncaptured

The female category was a whole lot closer and I applaud the Executiveprivilege connections for rolling the dice and trying to nail down the championship on the racetrack rather than leaving it up to the voters.

No slight to Beholder’s connections, which ultimately won the title on the racetrack ad whose filly only lost to the likely champion by a nose in Del Mar’s G1 Debutante. And, lest anyone forget, the rubber match went formfully and Lasix-free.

Now So Many Ways, an undefeated 3-for-3 that includes the G2 Schuylerville and G1 Spinaway, and which could ultimately prove the better three-year-old.

I would not have casted a ballot for her because, no matter what the connections said, her non-participation in the Juvenile Fillies was about Lasix withdrawal going a distance of ground, even though the filly broke her maiden by 8 lengths in a Lasix-free debut.

Two-Year-Old Filly

1. Beholder
2. Executiveprivilege
3. So Many Ways

The only drama in the Three-Year-Old Colt division is whether it’s clear leader and very good race horse, I’ll Have Another, will be the Horse of the Year 2012. Indeed, there are two chances of that happening, and Slim is on holiday.

The runnerup spot gave me pause and even though Bodemeister wound up with twice as many seconds as firsts, one of his two wins was a 9-1/2 length Arkansas Derby romp and two winning efforts in the Triple Crown’s first two legs which, of course, he lost to the certain champion-to-be.

Second runnerup was a lot more difficult for me but I had to opt for a classics winner which went 2-for-4 including the G2 Fountain of Youth over the winner with a more compelling 4-for-8 slate that included the G3 Withers, G2 Jim Dandy and one-half of the G1 Travers.

Three-Year-Old Colt or Gelding

1. I’ll Have Another
2. Bodemeister
3. Union Rags

Actually, it is unlikely that even if My Miss Aurelia had won the G1 La Brea on Santa Anita’s opening day program, I would have voted her best in show. But I hadn’t thought about this situation that seriously and now there is no need.

The winner of the G1 Coaching Club Oaks and Alabama pulls far more weight than a head defeat in the G1 Cotillion while spotting her winning rivals seven pounds would have disqualified her from the top spot.

The candidacy of our third choice is, in our view, almost as legitimate as the two acknowledged frontrunners even without a two-turn victory of any kind. But two G1 victories in the prestigious Test and Acorn Stakes, plus a G3 score, is an impressive score card.

Perhaps the connections might have considered avoiding Groupie Doll and take on males in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. That certainly would have eliminated a blowout in the filly category and would have provided food for thought in the sprint division.

Three-Year-Old Filly

1. Questing
2. My Miss Aurelia
3. Contested

The first truly vexing category is that of older male: The more accomplished Fort Larned, given victories in the G1 Whitney and Breeders’ Cup Classic, or Wise Dan, with a voluminous 5-for-6 slate, all graded stakes, three of them G1, none of which were on dirt.

Tevye the Dairyman would be proud: Tradition broke the tie. The battle for second runnerup was just as perplexing, but two G1s vs. no G1s won the day, losing it for Mucho Macho Man.

Four-Year-Old & Up Males

1. Fort Larned
2. Wise Dan
3. Shackleford

Coming Saturday: Final Choices for Horse and Trainer of the Year plus all remaining categories

Written by John Pricci

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