Friday, January 01, 2010

Meet the New Year, Same As the Old Year

Saratoga Springs, NY, December 31, 2009--It’s the end of the year, the end of a decade Time magazine called “The Decade from Hell.”

As for the last year, 73 percent of all Americans said in a recent poll that it was a bad year for the country. Remarkably, 72 percent said they were optimistic about 2010. Based on what, exactly? That things can’t get worse?

Be cautioned that that last rationalization might fall into the “careful what you wish for” category. Sadly, in fact, it might apply more meaningfully in the case of the racing industry.

With the exception of two remarkable female equines that helped elevate the sport back into the consciousness of mainstream news and sports organizations, what is there to feel optimistic about, especially as it concerns the thoroughbred sport?

Politicians have raised the level of contributions they accept from vested individuals and/or organizations to shameless proportions. Today, “the loyal opposition” means no anything that might benefit the citizenry. If it helps the party, fine.

On the other side of the aisle, meanwhile, they like to believe that they’re taking the high road, or are making chess-like two-moves-ahead decisions. The result has added up to a big, fat zero for its constituents and American public alike.

Aside from a healthy Horse of the Year debate, the only positive the industry can point to is the continued growth of the Advance Deposit Wagering market.

ADWs, of course, comes with a sword that cut both ways. Someday they will be the source of measurable growth. Until then, online betting platforms will continue to cannibalize a market currently in double-digit decline as convenience will continue to trump real engagement.

Racetracks used to be fun, and can again be places of social, intellectual, and occasional monetary reward. And it’s not so much that this lesson is lost on anyone as an entertainment option.

It’s that no one in the industry has any idea how to send an effective memo to the masses.

You might recall that in November, on Thanksgiving, we reprinted the uplifting tome of Max Ehrmann, originally written in that period in the last century referred to as “The Roaring Twenties.”

Appropriate that this decade in some quarters should be referred to as “The Naughties.”

Exactly right for a decade that was, on balance, good for nothing.

Today, with a little help from the good folks at the National Lampoon, a spin on Ehrmann’s encouraging words that lend a far different, albeit realistic world view attitude; a measure of how things are, not the way we wish they were.

The following, then, is fair warning for the new year contained in an abridged version of a piece the Lampoon calls “Deteriorata.”


“…Go placidly amidst the noise and waste, and remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof.

“Avoid quiet and passive persons, unless you are in need of sleep.

“Rotate your tires.

“Speak glowingly of those greater than yourself; and heed well their advice, even though they be turkeys.

“Know what to kiss - and when.

“Consider that two wrongs never make a right, but that three do.

“Wherever possible, put people on hold.

“Be comforted that in the face of all irridity and disillusionment, and despite the changing fortunes of time, there is always a big future in computer maintenance.

“…Whether you can hear it or not, the universe is laughing behind your back.

“Remember the Pueblo.

“Strive at all times to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate.

“Know yourself. If you need help, call the FBI.

“Exercise caution in your daily affairs, especially with those persons closest to you... that lemon on your left, for instance.

“Be assured that a walk through the seas of most souls would scarcely get your feet wet.

“Fall not in love therefore; it will stick to your face.

“Gracefully surrender the things of youth: the birds, clean air, tuna, Taiwan - and let not the sands of time get in your lunch.

“For a good time, call 606-4311, ask for Ken.

“Take heart in the deepening gloom that your dog is finally getting enough cheese.

“And reflect that whatever misfortune may be your lot, it could only be worse in Milwaukee.

“…Whether you can hear it or not, the universe is laughing behind your back.

“Therefore, make peace with your god, whatever you perceive him to be: hairy thunderer or cosmic muffin.

“With all its hopes, dreams, promises and urban renewal, the world continues to deteriorate.

“Give up.”

Sound advice, until tomorrow that is, when the Count Fleet Stakes, the first Kentucky Derby prep of the 2010 season, will be run at Aqueduct Racetrack.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Maryland Racing Needs Grass Roots Support Right Now

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 17, 2009--For those racing fans in and around the Beltway, you need to show your support for Maryland racing. And how can citizens of the Old Line State accomplish that?

By showing up at Laurel Park tomorrow and lending your support to the people who put on the show who will be demonstrating at a rally inside the paddock.

There is certain to be media coverage expected so help Laurel out by providing some bodies for whatever photo or electronic opportunities that may develop. Arrive before noon and the admission is free.

At the beginning of this decade, I could never conceive that I’d be writing a story like this about a state that plays host to the second jewel of a Triple Crown, but here it is.

Almost makes you happy that Jim McKay wasn’t around to see this, although I’m probably wrong about that. Given McKay’s character, popularity, charisma and appreciation of history, he might have made a difference.

The skinny is this: Laurel is scheduled to be auctioned on January 8, but on Monday the Anne Arundel County Council will vote on whether to approve zoning for slots at nearby Arundel Mills Mall.

If approval is granted, Laurel Park's property value will sink like a stone. The most likely buyers in that case would be housing or commercial developers, not people or organizations interested in thoroughbred racing’s survival.

At issue are county council members who say that they would like to have slots at Laurel, but that’s not the topic on the table.

This week, council members were no-shows at a Maryland Jockey Club function that presented architectural plans, environmental and grading permits and a timetable demonstrating Laurel’s new licensed owners could have VLTs revenue flowing in less than a year. It would take Mall interests over four years just to secure the permits.

Isn’t it interesting that the notion of VLT revenues, long needed by Maryland to compete with circuits in surrounding states, took so long to gain approval because of protests by anti-gambling factions, but suddenly is now OK for mass consumption?

It’s OK when money might be made available to deep-pocketed developers and speculators to further their interests with lawmakers. And it’s no problem if gaming facilities were within eyeshot of children shopping at Toys R Us with mommy.

How America works these days is all so ugly, whether the issue is health care for human beings or whether people in other racing states can burn while governors and legislators fiddle with their futures--think New York, home of the third jewel, where services are being cut because in part a suitable VLT operator can’t be found in eight years.

There’s only one word for all of it: Criminal.

In Maryland’s case, racing interests are seeking a NO vote from county council members so that the state’s Lottery Commission can reopen bidding for a VLT license after new owners take over Laurel Park. Waiting three weeks doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.

Maryland racing began in the county in which Laurel resides. But what can anyone reasonably expect from a local government that puts the kibosh on a State Horse Park; green space, quality of rural life, and animals be damned.

Maryland voters gave permission for VLTs because they were told the license would go to an existing racetrack, namely Laurel Park. The track’s plan, eight years in the making, has the approval and support from a community that has indicated it doesn‘t want slots at Arundel Mills Mall for various reasons.

But it appears some members of the council want to rush for a Monday vote rather than wait until Laurel is sold just like, for instance, the current administration in Washington, for which I voted, wants a health care passed by Christmas for no good reason.

According to the latest statistics provided by the MJC, horse racing and breeding account for 15,000 jobs within the state having an economic impact of $1.5 billion, making it Maryland’s third largest industry. And the only American racetrack older than historic Pimlico is Saratoga.

Some would argue that this down-to-the-wire emergency could have been avoidable had Laurel Park submitted a required $28 million licensing fee application last February.

It didn’t because it was unable to receive a guarantee that the fee would be refunded in the event Laurel failed to receive a zoning permit. That’s one deal Frank Stronach can’t be blamed for taking a pass.

The reality is that Magna Entertainment overpaid for the tracks because it believed VLTs would become a reality. That timing was too late to help Stronach. But there’s no good reason why some capricious deadline has to be too late for Maryland, not after more than three centuries of racing has become part of the fabric.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Zenyatta’s Classic an NTRA Moment of the Year Cinch

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 10, 2009--Let’s dispense with the drama right now. So, what was the NTRA 2009 Moment of the Year as voted on by the fans? What else could it possibly be?

Zenyatta remains undefeated and becomes the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

How do I know I’m right? Because the event probably was the moment of the year. And you can always depend on the public, led by the “Zenyatta Zealots,” to carry the day. How do I know this? Because, apparently, what happens last happens best.

And how do I know that? Just take a look at the HorseRaceInsider Horse of the Year poll on this same page. Go ahead, click on it. You won’t believe the margin.

Hear this: I have no problem if Zenyatta were to be voted Horse of the Year 2009.

But her margin of would-be victory according to the HRI poll--61% to 27% as this is written--is laughable, having no basis in objectivity. Who, in their heart of hearts, doesn’t truly believe that the current margin and future result will be a lot closer than this indicator suggests?

(And to the ZZ on-toppers, please, no more hate mail. I’ve been beaten up enough on this subject. Yes, by now I have removed all doubt about what an idiot I am. But, no, I never did drink that steaming hot cup of STFU).

Speaking truth to power, and the powerless, no matter how warped my judgment might be, is my job. And no one’s ever accused me of having a poor work ethic. Ever.

Paraphrasing the late, not-so-great, Joey Zasa, “I don’t guarantee that I have a great work ethic but I guarantee I’ll kill anyone who says that I don‘t.”

As years go, 2009 was a hell of a year between the fences, and the NTRA has compiled some very worthy moments, indeed. Here they are, my reaction in italics below:

Well Armed blows away the field in the Dubai World Cup:

Hey, the Sheikh’s had a tough year, so this would be a nice gesture. But c’mon. Uncontested speed is dangerous at any track, in any race, on any day of the week.

I Want Revenge overcomes a horrific start to capture the Wood Memorial:

Great drama? Yes. Great performance? Yes. Great ride? Yes. Moment of the Year? That’s a very long stretch, and we’re not referring to the one at Aqueduct, either.

Rachel Alexandra runs off with the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20 lengths:

An amazing performance of historic proportions, one of the great Oaks efforts of all time? Absolutely. But that’s what happens when mundane stakes fillies are totally outclassed by one great rival.

Mine That Bird posts stunning, 50-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby:

A definite contender for Moment of the Year. Great shock value; S.I. material. Superb, death-defying race ride. Was time capsule material, especially from the blimp camera.

Rachel Alexandra turns back the late charge of Mine That Bird in the Preakness:

Coulda’ been, shoulda’ been, a contender. Great drama and achievement. Historical performance. Boy vs. Girl. Post 13. Wet track. But not the deepest Preakness talent ever assembled.

Presious Passion fires out to a 20-length lead en route to course record win in United Nations:

Stretch II, but a definite wow moment. But a Sham-Wow compared to his ultra-game, doggedly determined run in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Rachel Alexandra toys with the boys in the Haskell Invitational:

For a few seconds on the far turn, there was some drama. But her acceleration into the stretch was, for her, only routinely amazing. But I watched the race from inside the rail on the racetrack. You just had to be there.

Gio Ponti captures his fourth consecutive Grade I score in the Arlington Million:

A wonderful performance. But I remember thinking at the time that this wouldn’t even make the top three most exciting Arlington Millions. Coming up with 12 moments isn’t easy.

Rachel Alexandra holds off her male elders in the Woodward Stakes:

Another had-to-be-there moment, unless, a) you saw it on TV, b) know something about how pace makes the race, or, c) were inside the building or standing on the track apron when the building and ground began to shake.

Linda Rice becomes the first woman to win the Saratoga training title:

Very, very inspirational. Great efforts from her charges virtually all meet long. Her horses made a great appearance. A Saratoga training title is a great accomplishment for any gender. But the training title also was the product of a condition book favoring the types of horses (read turf sprinters) living beneath the Rice shedrow.

Summer Bird registers historic triumph in the Jockey Club Gold Cup:

A paean to the great event and for historical achievement by a three-year-old. But the effort was not significantly better than his Belmont or Travers. [Sincerely hope he makes a full recovery and comes back bigger and stronger. Don’t believe Tim Ice ever reached the bottom of this guy].

Goldikova wins her second straight Breeders’ Cup Mile:

Given the trip, a truly remarkable win, topped this year only by Zenyatta’s Classic. But for some reason I was more impressed by the turn of foot on display in the 2008 Mile. Go figure.

Conduit runs down the stubborn Presious Passion for a repeat score in the Breeders’ Cup Turf:

Really? A life and death score as an equivalent to a magic moment? Sorry, Presious Passion in defeat was the star of this show.

Zenyatta remains undefeated and becomes first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic:

Home surface advantage notwithstanding, she answered every conceivable question, erased every pre-race doubt, won with deceptive ease and authority and, like Sinatra, did it her own way. The effort makes her a deserving favorite--and worthy winner.

But I'm curious about two things:

Does the public get to vote for Co-Moments of the Year?

If they were coupled in the voting, does three Rachel nominations equal one Zenyatta?

Written by John Pricci

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