Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gulfstream Night Racing: Max Out After Dark?

ELMONT, NY, September 22, 2010--Taking a page from rival Churchill Downs’ playbook, it appears that MI Developments, parent company of Gulfstream Park, wants to get into the Friday Night Lights business.

Night racing, long believed to be a possible savior/future of the sport, is on a mini-roll. Even the not-quite-night twilight programs, such as the one offered the last two years in Saratoga, have been a positive experience.

Hollywood Park has done pretty well with its Friday night programs, too, and when Oak Tree-at-Hollywood opens September 30, Thursdays and Fridays nights will offer concerts after the last race.

Historically, racetrack concerts have not been home runs, but the notion that modern tracks are inspired to become destination venues with special events driving the action is sound, especially if the idea is to get new blood into the building. Once inside, racetracks must figure the sexiest way to sell its product.

Based on results, Churchill seems to have figured something out. Their “Downs After Dark” Friday programs drew nearly 30,000 fans per night on the three cards held under temporary lighting last year.

This spring, over 27,000 supported each of four Friday nights. More programs are scheduled for Fridays this fall, the first coming two weeks after Breeders’ Cup, November 19.

Now MID wants to target Thursday and Friday nights. And why not? The racing will be top class, or a reasonable facsimile, the Villages will provide an alternative to those who would rather shop while their mates partake of casino or racino action.

Or it just might be a good way for people, especially sun-tanning snowbirds, to become familiar with the facility after first having dinner at one of the many trendy Village restaurants: Anything to raise awareness beyond racing’s aging fan base.

Gulfstream Park will need a change in the state law prohibiting Thoroughbred racing after 7 p.m. And there’s some support in Tallahassee to do so providing there’s something in it for all other parimutuel entities in the state.

If the legislature grants permission for night Thoroughbred racing in Hallandale Beach, it would require permission from the Thoroughbred horsemen, which cannot happen without a new contract.

Both sides will have plenty of time to work out any issues since the legislature won’t discuss the possibility of night Thoroughbreds until the 2011 session opens in March. Gulfstream opens January 5, but light stanchions could welcome the opening day crowd nevertheless.

MID has figured correctly that it might be useful to make the game more accessible to a wider audience. Toward that end, it’s the reason they’re considering Thursday and Friday programs when Gulfstream opens in 2012.

When the subject of night racing at Gulfstream Park was broached in the past, the Florida HBPA leadership said that many trainers, including those from New York, New Jersey, Canada and the horsemen have no interest in racing at night.

But considering that those trainers don’t have a vested interest in Florida racing the other nine months of the year, maybe it shouldn’t be their call, no matter how influential or politically connected they might be.

More likely, the real concern is that the big ship-in outfits might consider winter racing at the Fair Grounds instead. There already has been some not so subtle pressure put on trainers that call Churchill Downs home.

Dennis Mills, MID Vice-Chairman and CEO, is on record as having been influenced by the overwhelming success of Churchill’s Downs After Dark program, and how MID indeed would be derelict of duty if they didn’t at least consider the option.

And everyone knows what his boss, Frank Stronach, thinks of racing’s current model. When it comes to increasing shareholder value, not much has gone right for them. That they have a duty to be creative in this area is to seriously understate the case.

Meanwhile, Calder Race Course, a CDI property, thus far has sat back, stalking the nightline pace set by Gulfstream while Tampa Bay Downs to the north is unlikely to have a dog in this fight.

The Oldsmar, Florida track has been transformed into a highly attractive simulcast product after taking advantage of the window created by Fair Grounds’ closure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But as the fictional Gordon Gekko has already instructed; money never sleeps, pal, and now greed is apparently legal.

There are plenty of other parimutuel industries; Florida’s dog, harness racing and jai alai frontons, and even the Seminole Tribe’s gaming operations, that have something to gain from legislation enabling night Thoroughbred racing.

The jai alai and dog racing interests currently are suffering from a malaise even deeper than the one effecting the Thoroughbred industry. With palms open, they will find their way to the negotiating table.

Gulfstream and its horsemen should embrace the opportunity to present night racing. The Monmouth “elite” and Churchill’s “night” experiments have provided something of a workable template for racing’s future. Big time Florida racing would do well to follow their lead.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, September 10, 2010

One Small Step for Delaware, One Giant Leap for an Industry?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 9, 2010--There’s a lot Delaware Park doesn’t have. It doesn’t have New York’s classy horses or the horse population of neighboring Pennsylvania, and it’s purses are nowhere near current New Jersey levels. What it has is the courage to try new things.

To get people into its racetracks last year, tracks in Delaware hoped to do so through sports betting. But after the hypocritical anti-gambling lobbying from the sports leagues and other gaming organizations, it had to settle for parlay wagering on NFL games, combining at least three teams. Sorry, no college sports.

As one might expect, it was no home run. But during its two months of operation in the fall of 2009, it handled nearly $6 million. The net was approximately half that, better than the proverbial sharp stick but no bonanza for either the state, the tracks, or the horsemen.

Year two of parlay betting started today, so it follows that handle is likely to grow, the same way it did as the 2009 season lengthened. Toward that end, the state’s three tracks, including Delaware Park, will introduce a new wager.

The new bet combines the traditional element of football betting--beating the spread--with an end-of-season contest with a sizable grand prize. It probably was the only way the Delaware Lottery people could do it legally and not incur the ire of the leagues.

To play the contest, a fan must be willing to wager $250 for an entire season’s play. Players then choose from a slate of six NFL games each week, trying to pick the winners against the spread.

Whoever picks the most games correctly wins a $50,000 first prize at the end of the regular season. The leading handicapper at the end of each four-week period, and one five-week period, collects $5,000.

It’s a good, relatively inexpensive way to keep players engaged for an entire season with a chance for a top sports handicapper to make a tidy score. Entries must be made each Sunday on track by 11 a.m.

The weekly parlay cards demand a minimum of three teams to win. Obviously, the more teams included on a parlay card, the higher the degree of difficulty and the higher the payoff. Players can choose from a variety of six different types of parlays.

Bettors can also try to sweep the card, picking the winners of all 15 games against the spread. Get that right and collect $100,000. That parlay card costs $5. The bet was not hit last year, although one player did pick 14 winners. Tough beat, that.

What’s going on at Delaware Park is far from a perfect wagering world. But at least it is trying to bring people into the building, bettors not tempted by horses or slots. It’s working, albeit on a small scale.

This year, Delaware created an incentive for horseplayers which, if it caught on at other tracks in America, could be one answer to attract stay-at-home horseplayers to the track.

Delaware Park currently is offering a sizable 10 percent rebate for on-track-only exacta players. This is a huge tax break on one of racing’s most popular wagers.

Simulcast players would be able to bet on and cash winning exactas, of course. In order to get their rebate, on-track fans need to take winning tickets to designated windows where the payoff is increased by 10 percent. Logistically and practically, this is the only way the exacta rebate can work.

The following is not an original thought, but this mechanism can be used by racetracks wishing to offer rebates to all their customers who bet live at the track.

Not only is it a good way to reward their loyal customers and possibly attract new ones but it’s a great way for tracks to market wagering in general, especially in the multiple pools with their higher rates of takeout.

Billed as a promotional tool, the exacta, trifecta or Pick 3 rebate would be a way for tracks to minimize the influence of state government mandates. Takeout rates are set by state law.

“Promotional rebates” in certain pools might be a clever way to conduct new business. It very likely would be able stand up in court if a challenge was made. Of course, this would require a pair.

Even if it were allowed to, racetracks could not conduct sports betting given existing legal mechanisms. Why? Because the house could lose and state‘s only play games that are rigged in their favor.

To avoid losses, legal bet-takers move the point-spread or make bettors pay a premium to lock-in a certain price. It’s how they avoid “exposure.” It’s not so much book-making as it is book-balancing. The other way is to conduct wagering through the parimutuel process.

But it’s good to see that at least one racetrack is trying its best by introducing new wagering elements in the hopes of attracting a wider audience. They apparently recognize that there is some symmetry between football bettors and horseplayers, via the process of handicapping.

Wouldn’t it be good if more venues tried an outside-the-box approach, not by creating new models but by tweaking existing ones? Everyone knows that organizations don’t change as much as they entrench.

If the industry is seeking bold innovations, all it needs to do is take a baby step or two.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 20, 2010

At Santa Anita, It’s Back to the Future

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY--August 19, 2010

Hosanna In Excelsis Deo.

No disrespect intended, to either the Deity or Frank Stronach.

Say this for Frank: You can often question his methodology but never his love for the game.

But I thought replacing Pro-Ride with God’s dirt was supposed to cost $10-million? Turns out it was half that. So what took so long?

Can other tracks be far behind? Good question, but first things first.

Don’t really know what Stronach intends to do about Golden Gate Fields, which reopens August 25. But I do know that the dirt track there was awful.

Actually, I’ve never heard much of an outcry from the Northern California crowd about anything. I like those people; they seem more reasonable, less defensive.

I don’t expect the move back to dirt will be hailed everywhere. Some will speak to the issue of horse safety. That, combined with human safety, comes first, they will say. They are right about that, but how long does this jury have to remain out?

Oaklawn Park has proven that you can measure the surface for safety through testing. Maybe the California Horse Racing Board will insist on something like that, something they should have thought about sooner.
If they decide to do that now, after the synthetics fact, they should pay for it. They’ve already cost a hurting racing industry in the Golden State too much money and grief already.

But they shouldn’t deregulate the whole thing. It was a disaster when it was tried in Florida. There’s one word to describe the effect deregulation would have with respect to racing dates: Chaotic.

And how’s that Wall Street deregulation thing-ee working out for ya’?

What effect will converting to dirt have on future Breeders’ Cups? Clearly BC Ltd/ has been trying mightily to raise its international profile, and betting handle, too, not necessarily in that order.

I’m setting the over-under at 35 percent, the number of fewer foreign entrants in the next Breeders’ Cup hosted by Santa Anita.

Just thought about this: What if Zenyatta had been racing on Santa Anita dirt all along? Would anyone, myself included, demand that she go on some kind of tour then? I’m just sayin’.

If last year’s Classic were on dirt, would Rachel Alexandra have run in the Woodward, and pointed toward the Classic, or the Ladies Classic, instead? And in which race would Zenyatta have run?

Would the Europeans have finished one-two ahead of Curlin in 2008?

Good thing that the sales market has been in decline or there might have been a rush to breed more horses whose families crossed over to synthetics successfully.

Know that we’re all in favor of stamina in the pedigree here at HRI. We’re not, however, a big fan of s-l-o-w. That’s downright un-American.

The bad news would be that we might not see Bullet Bob make as many forays into New York in order to get off the plastic. “I’m sitting on good horses here but I can’t race them on this surface,” Baffert told the San Diego Union Tribune earlier this week re: the Del Mar Poly.

In case you were unaware, two horses broke down in the Del Mar homestretch last weekend, raising the total to five at the meet. There has been one breakdown in a Saratoga, and that came on grass.

The problem is that the Del Mar dirt was god-awful and even more dangerous. Too bad they don’t conduct aquatic horse races. Where the turf meets the surf, for real.

What does Santa Anita’s return to a dirt surface do to overall form on a circuit that‘s mostly contiguous--not that it was easy making sense of Pro Ride to Cushion Track to Polytrack?

And now we’re going to inject dirt into that already confusing handicapping scenario?

It looks like Frank really intends to open his gates whenever he wishes and thinks that the competition from his dirt track will drive Hollywood Park right out of business.

Of course, Hollywood’s been on life support for some time, thrown a lifeline--if you want to call it that--by an ailing economy. But there’s a problem having only one track in the same geographical area. Like people, dirt racetracks get tired.

Unless there are plans to expand the Fair season significantly beyond Fairplex, Santa Rosa meets and the seven weeks of Del Mar, will it be all-Santa Anita all-the-time for the remainder of the California racing year?

Meanwhile, the synthetic track debate continues to rage in California. Some trainers say the horses are healthier; others insist they’re seeing more hind end injuries. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Meanwhile, Stronach has not filed the necessary paperwork that would set aside the surface switch mandated not long after Barbaro’s tragic breakdown.

It’s likely that after some kissing of rings, permission will be granted for a racetrack owner to do what a majority of his horsemen and horseplayers want.

With as much money as Stronach’s invested in the industry, he’s entitled to do the right thing by a situation that steadily had gone from bad to worse.

Written by John Pricci

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