Friday, June 11, 2010

New York Horsemen Term Detention Barn a Failed Strategy

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 10, 2010--The time has come for the detention barn at New York Racing Association tracks to be eliminated. It’s a huge unnecessary expense that has more to do with image than reality.

The detention barn has proven a hardship to horseman, an unnecessary expense, has been bad for NYRA’s business, and has been an ineffective deterrent in relation to what was expected. That is the consensus opinion of a dozen New York-based horsemen we spoke with this week, an opinion that is also shared here.

Before communicating some of their thoughts--we spoke with a half dozen trainers in Saratoga this week whose horses in 2009 alone earned $38,949,766 and several more downstate by telephone. Before sharing those observations, some historical background.

Following an investigation initiated by the indictment of two mid-management executives and four mutuel clerks in December 2003, the New York Racing Association was ordered to pay a $3-million fine after pleading guilty to felony charges of money laundering and racketeering.

Further, it had to allow the U.S. Attorney to appoint an Independent Monitor to oversee its operations under the terms of a Deferred Prosecution Agreement and was required to restructure its senior management and six departments within the company. During this time period, then NYRA President Kenny Noe Jr. retired to his South Florida home.

Neil Getnick was appointed Independent Monitor and rather than concentrate on money laundering and racketeering charges, he focused instead on backstretch issues. Resultantly, security was tightened to absurd levels, that overkill including the detention barn concept. After the DPA period ended, Getnick’s law firm was hired by the NYRA for five years at $1.5 million per year.

All this occurred at a time when the NYRA franchise was about to expire and, with Getnick‘s oversight, it embarked on an integrity campaign that included the use of a detention barn.

This enhancement of image, along with agreeing to end its longstanding ownership claims to its three racetrack properties, resulted in NYRA having its franchise extended for 25 years, from September 12, 2008 forward. It also received $110 million to operate from the state until the installation of VLTs, originally expected to be on line by 2009.

The detention barn is operated by NYRA security and Getnick personnel and has been, on balance, a failure. Milkshaking, one of the major reasons it was instituted, is no longer done by tubing but by the injection of alkalizing agents at concentrated levels to achieve the desired effect.

Publicly, the detention barn to date has stopped two trainers in three years; one is a bad actor currently in jail; the other, with a record of medication abuses, stupidly entered the off-limits area and administered what he called a cough medication to one of his entrants via a dosing syringe. Subsequently, he was banned from racing at NYRA tracks for six months.

NYRA has continued to trade on the integrity issue via the detention barn scenario and has continued to pay the Getnick firm exorbitant fees for its contributions in helping NYRA retain and extend its franchise. With one exception, every horsemen we spoke with believes that the playing field still isn’t level, as some trainers continue to win at abnormally high rates.

In order to receive honest feedback from horsemen, free of recrimination and without fear of damage to their livelihood and those of backstretch workers, we allowed trainers to speak with HorseRaceInsider off the record.

“You don’t need a detention barn to detect milkshaking,” said one trainer. “At Keeneland they have a simple pre-race test they take about 40 minutes before a race.”

“It’s 50-50 whether it does any good at all and 50-50 that a horse will leave his race there. And let’s not forget that NYRA got us into this in the first place,” said another trainer before driving off.

“For stakes horses shipping in, they first go to a receiving barn then the detention barn,” said another. “You have to move twice. It’s easy o understand why a lot of trainers don’t want to ship their good horses here. Today you can race for good money almost anywhere.”

“I feel bad for the owners,” said yet another. “I have to pass along the costs to them after absorbing some of it myself. And I’m not sure it’s much of a deterrent. If you want to cheat, you can always find a way.”

Only one trainer we spoke with thinks it works. “It costs me about $100 per horse in added expense and I started 400 horses last year. But I feel a little better knowing that [the detention barn] is there.”

“When it first began two years ago, I was a hundred percent for it,” said one world class horseman. “But now I wouldn’t support it because it’s been ineffective. it’s not fair to bettors because a lot of horses don’t handle the move well.

“I asked a gambler I know ‘how many big bettors do you know who believe that some very successful trainers have an edge? All of them,’ he said.”

“When I run out of town and I’m running on horse on Lasix, I have to be there four hours in advance. Here it’s a lot longer. If you’re shipping in and running in the first race, you have to leave at about two o’clock in the morning.

“And they’re strict about it. You have to be in the detention barn for six hours. If you’re just one minute late,” holding up his index finger, “it’s a $500 fine.”

The detention barn then is a structure that says about NYRA: “See, we’re good citizens and we’re doing all we can.” The only ones who believe that are non-savvy politicians who almost ran New York racing completely into the ground with their draconian rules, institutionalized indifference and lack of vision.

Here’s one crude idea that would save the association [and taxpayers] millions every year, act as a more effective deterrent, wouldn’t punish horsemen logistically or economically and help insure that horses will perform without undue compromise to their established form.

How about the installation of small web-cams in each corner of every barn and in other strategic areas of the shedrow and have security personnel observe a bank of TV monitors a la the casino eye-in-the-sky model?

Then, when an egregious form reversal is observed empirically--even after the fact-- there would be video of the culprit doing the deed. If video cams are good enough for banks, large convenience stores, and the like, it should be good enough for the barn area.

With the money the NYRA will save by not paying the firm Getnick and Getnick for questionable services that are inefficient at best, they might be able to save some of their own employees from the unemployment lines. They might even save enough to allow the air conditioning to be turned back on in those brick structures that house backstretch workers on the Oklahoma training track.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tradition is Killing the Triple Crown

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 19, 2010--I don’t know about you feel about it, but I’m getting a little tired of reading the opinions of general sports columnists on the future of the American Triple Crown series.

These people show up on three racing days a year, maybe five, and have a take on how the Triple Crown is not broken, how any change desecrates the past, and what a ludicrous idea it would be to try to change any of it.

Well, that’s a lot like saying the sport isn’t broken and there’s no need to fix it, either. I’m not the world’s biggest bettor, but until these columnists bet 10 cents for every dollar I put through the windows, they would do all racing fans a favor if they ignored the sport the other 362 days, too.

Until these geniuses went on record, you might have noticed during the run-up to Preakness and Belmont that sentiment for elongating the Triple Crown series started to gain some momentum. It was about trying to make each event better which, of course, helps the entire series.

And so, at this point, for the third time in the last 60 years, the Derby and Preakness winner won’t rubber-match on Long Island and, with the defection of Dublin, no three- year-old will have started in all three races. Does that sound like a series that’s working?

Before examining current realities, which industry executives seldom do enthusiastically if at all, let’s take a look back. For openers, can we all stop god-ding up the horses of yesteryear?

They were almost a different breed. They were tougher, but they were slower, too. It was a time when stamina was valued over speed, when racing was valued over the auction ring. It seems we can’t have an abundance of both traits these days. On balance, speed and stamina are mutually exclusive gifts.

And how many Man o’ Wars, Citations and Secretariats can this sport expect to see? As many as baseball gets to see a Ruth, Cobb, Cy Young and Rivera? As often as basketball sees a Mikan, Oscar, Magic and Michael? About a handful per century?

The tide of sentiment has begun to change as more veteran observers are calling for a schedule more in sync with the physiology of the modern thoroughbred that bears no resemblance to the Triple Crown winners of the 1970s, never mind those from 1919 to 1948.

Traditionalists who believe that lengthening the series does a disservice to past Triple Crown champions are wrong. Since 2006, we have written that lengthening the series makes the task more difficult, not less. Consider:

Prior to this year’s Preakness, Daily Racing Form correspondent Marcus Hersh asked a dozen of the sport’s leading horsemen about the degree of difficulty training an aspiring classicist for a period of five weeks, especially the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness.

"I seldom run them back in less than a month," said Funny Cide’s trainer, Barclay Tagg. "I found that if you came out of the Derby all right, [two weeks] was actually perfect timing," said Billy Turner, trainer of the legendary Seattle Slew.

"Usually, a horse that wins the Derby is a good horse that's peaking and in the zone… The Preakness, it's the easiest of all [Triple Crown] races," said Bob Baffert, who proved it by winning his fifth middle jewel with Lookin At Lucky.

"The two weeks is not hard to do because you're already there," said Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger said. "Longer would be worse… Then you'd have to worry." "You get to the Preakness on momentum," said Neil Drysdale, trainer of Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus.

"In those days a horse that was doing well, the timing was to run every two weeks,” added Turner. "Years ago, I'd run back in a week,” volunteered Tagg. But these days, horses racing back without sufficient recovery time are the exception, not the rule.

The Preakness should be moved back two weeks, despite Pimlico’s predictable objection on economic grounds, to increase the chances of getting more Derby horses back for the second leg. That would require moving Pimlico's opening day up a week, easily do-able.

With the present five-week schedule, most Derby horses either skip the last two legs entirely or choose one or the other, but not both. Why? Because most championships are still won in the summer and fall. There is neither money nor Eclipse style points in horse racing for trying to make history.

If, then, the Belmont Stakes is moved back to July 4th weekend, the chances of horses running in all three events would increase significantly. And there would still be sufficient recovery time for subsequent starts in the Haskell and/or Travers.

As was suggested in the DRF survey, an eight-week series would make it more difficult for trainers to sweep all three, even with a superior animal. As for series continuity, skipping the Preakness in favor of the Belmont no longer would be an attractive option; two months is a very long time between starts, especially for one at 12 furlongs.

Since 1886, there have been 12 winners of the English Triple Crown and the 14-furlong-plus St. Leger Stakes is run in September. Does that timing cheapen the accomplishments of Nijinsky, Bahram and Gainsborough? And is that somehow less than the accomplishments of Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat?

America’s fascination with the Kentucky Derby makes the day feel like a national holiday. On the first Sunday in May, “Sports Reporters” panelist Mike Lupica, no fan of racing, talked about how he loved the Derby spectacle because of it’s link to the sport’s glory days. That feeling will never change.

Then, two weeks ago, disappointed because he hoped New York would get a chance to host a Triple Crown bid, Lupica said he loved watching the drama of the Preakness stretch run unfold before adding “unfortunately, the racing season ended yesterday.”

A scheduling change extends racing’s only enduring event by a month, and Memorial Day and July 4th ARE a national holidays. It gives the connections of Derby entrants time to run back in the second leg and almost another five weeks until the Belmont.

The compressed promotional campaign of a five-week series might provide momentum for keeping the interest level high but isn’t that a sensible trade off for extending racing’s most popular event another month, giving the Preakness and Belmont national holiday identities that could help both events stand alone better than they do now?

And doesn’t this--as the popular phrase thrown around by horsemen for the public’s consumption, especially in times marred by tragedy--really do what’s best for the horse? The series can no longer, nor should it, exist solely as a paean to the past.

Tomorrow: How the Triple Crown’s past can better serve the present and future

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Despite Lifeline, Saratogians Still in Deep Water

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 19, 2010--That howling whoosh you might have heard coming from the North Country on Tuesday was the huge sigh of relief emanating from people living in New York‘s Capital District, especially in this “city in the country.”

For the last two months, this community, from breeders to horsemen to the merchants on Broadway, has been in a full court press trying to make certain that this July and August would be no different than last summer’s place to be.

The wish was simple: To be sure that the land of “history, health and horses,” wouldn’t become, well, history.

“I was afraid this town was going to look the way it did in the 1970s,” said Jackie Clark, owner of Broadway Salon in downtown Saratoga, after hearing that the race meeting would proceed as scheduled.

Canceling the Saratoga session, still the most prestigious race meet in the country, was unthinkable. “There will always be a Saratoga” went a popular refrain. But in the last week to 10 days, that speculation sounded more like a prayer than fait accompli.

The situation came to a head within 72 hours. On Sunday, New York Racing Association president Charlie Hayward said the NYRA was considering closing down on June 6, the day after the Belmont Stakes. “When we run out of money, we stop,” Hayward said about the possibility.

"That's not going to happen," Gov. David Paterson told the Associated Press two days later. "We have a plan to loan NYRA, in the short term, money to get through Saratoga, and we're working on a long-term plan to help beyond that."

The long and winding road to the Aqueduct Racino has been lined with broken promises and aborted timetables. Until a loan accord is signed, no one should rest easy.

“Before any taxpayer money is used we would like to know how much money NYRA actually has,” said Austin Shafran, spokesman for Senate Conference Leader John Sampson. “We’ve heard conflicting reports as to whether they have the money to continue operations through the Belmont Stakes.”

As they say on the racetrack: Whoa!

Maybe Mr. Shafran should have said something like: “This isn’t supposed to be about taxpayer money; it’s really about a $17-million advance on the $300-million up-front money to be paid by the VLT franchise awardee.”

Or, he might have asked rhetorically: “Aren’t we [state government] in default on an agreement that was supposed to fund NYRA’s operation starting in April of 2009 if the VLTs weren’t on line?

“Wasn’t that part of the franchise deal in which we got title to three racetrack properties valued at about $2-billion?” So don’t we owe them $30 million?”

“And another thing: We’re responsible for New York City Off Track Betting now, right? Does that mean we’re on the hook for their $17 million, too? And we‘ve stopped giving them a piece of the handle action, right?”

Let me answer those statements and hypotheticals for you, Mr. Shafran: You bet your hindquarters you do.

The New York Racing Association, its horsemen, employees, and citizens from Albany to Schroon Lake are no longer waiting to exhale. But neither can they breathe easier. Despite Paterson’s assurances, this is no done deal. No wonder NYRA executives have had no comment since the announcement.

When the idea of a $17-million front-money loan first surfaced, it sounded like a no-brainer. It is, after all, free money from the private sector against future VLT earnings and not a “taxpayer bailout of rich horse owners.”

If that were the case, it would have been better categorized as a taxpayer bailout of hard working underpaid backstretch personnel.

Any monies fronted NYRA would have “bailed out” hundreds of backstretch families which without racing would be forced from their palatial backstretch barracks and into nap-sacks lined up outside the gates on Hempstead Turnpike and Union Avenue.

The Saratoga race meet, the only NYRA session where significant profits are still possible, needs the town to prosper as much as the town needs the NYRA tax monies and tourism that horse racing generates.

Hotel reservations and home rentals, understandably slow at this juncture, might have dried up completely had the latest fiscal impasse lasted any longer. With the Monmouth summer meet set to begin Saturday with daily purses averaging a million dollars, the battle for quality horseflesh already is being waged.

Well healed horseplayers could opt for a shore thing instead of their favorite mountain racing retreat. With its three-day weekend schedule, Monmouth Park becomes a very attractive destination option.

Paterson’s fix, announced at a Tuesday press conference, is a temporary patch. The oft-started and stopped search for a VLT operator is now being conducted by the State Lottery via gubernatorial decree. Former Gov. George Pataki tried that tack five years ago, but that political football wound up getting kicked wide right.

Based on projected handle from the Aqueduct racino, $3.65 billion would have been wagered since enabling legislation was enacted. With 90 percent returned to winning players, that’s a $365-million shortfall to the state and the NYRA. That excludes $90 million the state already gets in franchise fees and taxes from on- and off-track interests annually.

From the very beginning, all anyone needed to do were their jobs in the public interest. But, per usual in the Empire State, if a proposal doesn’t fly politically, it remains grounded until a situation becomes dire. And then, even when they fix it, it’s never completely right. Stay tuned.

Written by John Pricci

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