Friday, February 05, 2010

It’s On, Kinda’ Sorta’

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, February 5, 2010--In what has been described as the boldest move yet to bring Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta together in a race and the greatest sporting event in the history of Arkansas, Oaklawn Park president Charles Cella as expected announced yesterday that the purse of the April 3 Apple Blossom would be raised to $5 million if both horses showed up.

Cella certainly put his money where his aspirations are. Recall that several years ago he raised the purse of the Arkansas Derby to $1-million and created a $5 million bonus for a horse that would sweep the Southwest Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby.

So he knows how to throw a party and get noticed. Ultimately, the attention he brought to Oaklawn Park’s centerpiece event for three-year-olds resulted in the race earning Grade 1 status. And, yes, the rating was long overdue.

The race, to be called the Apple Blossom Invitational, will have its distance lengthened a half-furlong to 1 1/8 miles. The event for fillies and mares, 4-year-olds and up, was a handicap but now all horses will carry scale of 123 pounds.

Should the matchup fail to materialize, the purse will revert to the original $500,000. No word on whether the Apple Blossom would return to handicap status at its original distance.

Clearly, Oaklawn is trying to think positively. As scheduled, the summit would have the largest purse ever offered fillies and mares and matches the Breeders’ Cup Classic, dollar for dollar. The added money will come from Cella and the Arkansas Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

At yesterday’s press conference, Cella said he has had multiple conversations with Jess Jackson, the owner of Rachel Alexandra, and Jerry Moss, Zenyatta’s owner. "Both of them have told me they embrace the idea," Cella said.

As has been widely reported, Oaklawn Park is neutral ground. Both horses have won there. The 2008 Apple Blossom was Zenyatta’s first Grade 1 win and only start outside California. Last year, the Martha Washington and Fantasy Stakes hinted that Rachel Alexandra would be a very special three-year-old.

On Wednesday at her Hollywood Park base, Zenyatta breezed five furlongs in 1:01 3/5. She’s had two serious works since un-retiring but never was out of training, having breezed three times to “take the edge off” before being sent to the breeding shed.

And, then, well, it was cold in Kentucky, so she remained in Southern California and on the Saturday prior to the Horse of the Year announcement the news that Zenyatta would race as a six-year-old became official. But it wasn’t a huge surprise.

Following her un-retirement, Zenyatta’s connections mentioned two possible spots, throwing down a gauntlet that stretched all the way to New Orleans. Jerry Moss wants to win the Apple Blossom again, and the camp thought that the Santa Margarita on March 13 looked like an excellent spot to get started.

Of course, Rachel Alexandra hasn’t run since winning the Woodward on Labor Day weekend. It has been well documented that her training this year was delayed owing to poor weather conditions and too many wet Fair Grounds surfaces.

Rachel Alexandra had her first work last weekend, a slow and easy half mile in :52 seconds. Even given the poor weather, it never appeared that the Rachel camp was in a big hurry to get started. Consequently, some have speculated on her nursing some injury, real or imagined, then hustled off to a date with Curlin.

When it was known late last year that Rachel Alexandra would winter at the Fair Grounds, management announced they would create a $200,000 race for fillies and mares at a mile and a sixteenth, an accommodation that had the added benefit of putting fannies in seats. Ironically, that race is scheduled for March 13.

Coming back at four after the most ambitious three-year-old filly campaign in modern history, in which she met and defeated males thrice, including a Classic two weeks after winning the Oaks by 20, could be a tricky proposition.

Just like newly turned three-year-olds, some horses don’t transition well from three to four, so there is no knowing for sure how Rachel Alexandra will run as a four-year-old until she does so.

Rachel’s layup has been lengthy, but she never has given an indication that she needs a whole lot of training to get ready. She has been galloping and hacking around virtually all winter to maintain her fitness.

To meet Zenyatta, one must be 100 percent. Anything less wouldn’t be fair to Rachel, or Zenyatta, or to all the people that have been clamoring for a summit between--thanks to a hanging chad--two unanimous champions.

Shortly after Cella’s announcement, Jackson said “as you have heard me say many times, a number of factors must be considered when deciding where to race a horse, the number one factor being the condition of the horse. Rachel will tell us when she is ready to start, and we humans must agree she is in top form.”

"We’ll do our best to make the race, but obviously, it all depends on Zenyatta, and how she’s doing,” said racing manager for the Mosses, Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs.

If they want one, both camps have an out, especially Rachel’s. So the next quote you might hear one of the humans say might sound something like: “We can’t get her ready in time for her prep, and we won’t meet Zenyatta without at least one race under our belts.”

The sad truth is that two months might not be enough time to get ready for a Breeders’ Cup Classic champion at nine furlongs, no matter how much the filly might like Hot Springs. This deal is far from done.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

This Time, Lawmakers Must Not Fail New York Racing

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 28, 2010--In the long history of the racing industry in New York, never before have the stakes been so high. At issue is the game’s existence, and the stars are beginning to align.

In 2009, eight years after enabling legislation permitted VLTs at the state’s tracks, there were interminable delays in announcing the winner of the VLT franchise race. The Governor’s office announced a handful of dates throughout the year, none of which materialized.

In a closely related development Monday, a state task force released a report recommending how to overhaul the state's six regional off-track betting corporations, including New York City OTB, which has threatened to close its doors permanently following a March 30 deadline.

Among the task force’s many recommendations was a proposal that account-wagering operations outside New York, known as ADWs, be required to pay the same amount to horsemen's organizations and local governments via licensing fees that OTBs do.

The report further suggested that the state's six OTB regions consolidate its business and marketing functions and streamline its management. There also were references to having the New York Racing Association and the OTBs merge under one umbrella. Nothing new there.

Given these machinations, however, the franchise-naming delay by the current sitting Governor, David Paterson, is beginning to make sense. Efforts of conflicting lobbyists notwithstanding, the VLT decision might finally come only after the OTB situation is resolved in some meaningful way. OTBs want into the VLT business, also not a new development.

The interminable VLT-franchise delay doesn’t make sense unless one considers the NYC-OTB situation that necessitated Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. Given there are 62 counties in New York that depend on OTB revenues, it is no wonder Albany’s eyes haven’t been focused on VLTs.

Whatever is decided relative to these issues, it will have a profound effect on the industry and its customers. And it is those fans, like taxpayers everywhere, who could wind up footing the bill. One involves the ADW scenario. The other, parimutuel takeout.

If the trifecta of legislators, racetracks and OTBs decide that raising takeout and requiring out-of-state ADWs companies to pay licensing fees are the only ways to go, it will hasten racing’s demise in this state. If you don’t believe a revolt is going on in this country, ask Martha Coakley.

There’s a recent example of the debilitating effects of takeout on handle that New Yorkers should heed. Two weeks ago, HorseRaceInsider, backing the play of the Horseplayers Association of North America, implored readers to e-mail the California Horse Racing Board requesting it not raise takeout on races from Los Alamitos.

According to HRI sources, the CHRB received 169 e-mail responses. Apparently horseplayers didn’t take the request or the threat seriously enough, and so neither did the CHRB. By a vote of 6-1, a takeout increase was passed to bail out struggling satellite betting shops in California, the Golden State’s OTB equivalent.

Four days of results is in no way a defining measure, but it is indicative of a trend. The numbers were nothing short of alarming. Comparing handle figures from January 21 through January 24 to Thursday-through-Sunday receipts from the previous week, handle was down $644,240, according to HANA President Jeff Platt.

Platt and fellow board members are unpaid individuals in a grass roots organization dedicated to fighting for horseplayer’s rights. Aware that torrential rains probably were a contributing factor, Platt also compared numbers with corresponding dates from a year ago to gain more perspective. Those figures were worse; the shortfall was $868,171.

A 20.75 percent drop year over year and a 16.27 percent loss suffered the week after a tax increase is enacted is significant. Poor weather is one thing but these numbers are indicative of something else.

Because of the work done by the Horseplayers Association of North America and other Internet sites that post takeout rates from tracks throughout the country, today’s educated horseplayers are aware of the inequities of takeout and have been betting their money at venues where dollars go farther.

It should be clear to those who control New York’s destiny that horseplayers no longer can be taken for granted. The player is voting with his dollars, concentrating on tracks with a good product at a fair price. Still others are voting with their feet and walking away for good. This on top of a demographic that skews older by the minute.

In his e-mail to HorseRaceInsider, Platt recalled that the CHRB promised tracks and the legislature that handle would remain flat. In the long term, a higher takeout NEVER does, although generally it takes time to make an impact. That’s what makes the Los Alamitos numbers so startling.

At whatever price point horseplayers are taxed out of the game, that consequence is a day-to-day reality. Whatever short term fixes worked in the past will destroy what’s left of the industry if repeated today. Past performances are not promising.

Anyone with sense agrees that the OTBs and tracks need to streamline operations and eliminate redundancies in bet-taking and marketing. Time has come to eliminate measures such as “dark-day payments” that reward tracks for not opening their doors. Unrestricted in-home simulcasts are long overdue.

There should be no restrictions on Internet video streaming, and counties should provide public access cable stations for horse racing broadcasts. Again, none of this qualifies as new ground but the time to act is now.

Harness tracks should compete for market share, just like flat tracks do, and they no longer should enjoy protectionist status to the further economic detriment of the OTBs and taxpayers. OTBs and tracks must, of course, reduce overhead and market creatively in tandem.

The current simulcast-rates model is broken and an attempt must be made to fix it. But ADWs shouldn’t be confused with the majority of rebate shops. Racing and Gaming Services is an example of a rebate shop that gives back to the industry, big-time.

And how were their contributions to NYRA purses in the form of simulcast fees rewarded in the past? NYRA responded by cutting its signal to RGS when putting on its dog and pony show while efforting to retain its own franchise. That’s not the kind of transparency anyone needs.

If the state demands licensing fees from out-of-state ADWs that take bets on New York racing, propping up OTBs by restraining trade, the tack is odds-on to backfire. Don’t legislators read newspapers?

Don’t they know that if fees are increased significantly many tracks and ADWs might not want to pay for New York’s races? Don’t they realize that interstate wagering is where the money is? Has anyone seen the New York product recently? Would you pay a premium for it?

Does the New York trifecta think protectionism will help corner the betting market within the state? Are they not aware that’s what New Jersey did when it enacted off-track betting, but recently reversed course after realizing it was a handle killer?

But what if you did this and made New Yorkers criminals by forcing them to bet illegally with their preferred ADW should that company fail to pay New York State a licensing fee? Don’t they realize that bettors will better-deal them, possibly betting offshore or leave the game completely?

There was a word for this early in the last century. It was an impetus for criminals to organize and syndicate their activities. It failed and eventually was repealed because it proved impractical and ineffectual, turning citizens into resentful “criminals.” Prohibition didn‘t work. Neither will protectionism and higher taxes in the new order of world class racing.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 22, 2010

While Racing Fiddles, Rome Is Burning

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 22, 2010--I received a personal e mail from a friend of a friend, a faithful HRI contributor, on Tuesday. It read:

"I watch Sports Center two times a day. An hour in the morning when I am on my treadmill or stationary bike and an hour at night when I go bed.

“Yesterday was one of the racing industry’s biggest days as far as the press is concerned. It was horse racing's Oscars, its Golden Globes, horse racing's awards night.

“In the 60 minutes this morning it received eight seconds of time when they announced in passing the Horse of the Year.

“That was it – less than 10 seconds. A snowboarder scheduled to be in the Olympics had more air time because he crashed his three wheeler and was now out of the games."

The note went on about lost opportunities for racing, about how the sport doesn’t promote itself properly, etc., nothing anyone hasn’t heard before. And, of course, racing has gotten used to receiving short shrift from television. Pick a network.

I have a wonderful idea for the good folks at NTRA, no charge. Of course, it likely won’t be given serious consideration for two reasons; it wasn’t proposed in-house, and the source of the suggestion.

I don’t know how much NTRA has in its promotional budget anymore. Tough times for everyone, obviously. But if they have the wherewithal, I’d like to relate a story that should compel NTRA to seriously consider the proposal.

During Derby Week two years ago, I was pulling into the driveway when I heard an interview on nationally syndicated sports talk radio program out of Los Angeles.

When I heard that the host would be interviewing John and Brad Hennegan, who I watched grow up summers in the Saratoga press box, I knew I wouldn’t be exiting the car anytime soon.

The brothers had recently completed a documentary on horse racing, following the exploits of six horsemen who tried to win what eventually became Barbaro's Kentucky Derby.

The documentary, in limited release in various smaller markets around the country, was getting good word of mouth and print. They had made excellent use of their full-access backstretch pass.

The youthful host, an excellent broadcaster with a strong journalistic sense and the kind of audience demographics racing has coveted for decades, is smart and hip, almost to a fault, say his critics.

Well, he just loved the Hennegan brothers’ documentary. So did the industry, awarding the production the 2008 Media Eclipse in the national television feature category.

The host was fascinated with the notion that two brothers would travel 150,000 miles for a year and half to provide an inside look at six trainers who were following their dream. He was effusive in his praise of “The First Saturday in May.”

The host related his own background, explaining that he wasn’t a gambler, didn’t know much about horse racing, nor did he care all that much about it.

Then a friend introduced him to Billy Koch, grandson of successful Hollywood producer Howard W. Koch, who, in 2001, formed a racing partnership group known as Little Red Feather Racing.

Three years later, Little Red Feather Racing won the Breeders’ Cup Mile with Singletary at Lone Star Park.

The host explained to the boys that he and his wife went to the races, took a backstretch tour, the full treatment, and both fell in love with all of it, the horses, the sport, the ambience, everything.

He had no idea how exciting and fascinating the world of horse racing could be. He spoke about how his wife fell in love with the animals. His excitement was palpable and infectious.

The first time I became aware of the broadcaster, he was co-hosting a television talk show On SportsChannel with a friend and former Newsday colleague, Wallace Matthews, who later became a star as the Olympics boxing reporter for NBC Sports.

I liked Matthews, of course, but the other guy, not so much. He was incessantly hip and far too acerbic and argumentative, even if that was the purpose of this new sports-talk still in its infancy.

Now, it’s two decades later. He’s matured but is still young and hip, and seems genuinely loved by not only his audience but the sports figures he interviews from every corner of the sports world. The respect shown on both sides of the microphone seems genuine.

Twenty years ago, I was old school, and haven’t gotten any younger in terms of values or appreciation for media. The host has mellowed but has never lost his edge, and I find myself agreeing with his takes far more often than not.

I’ve come to respect his ethos, allowing for better understanding of his generation and where his audience is coming from. I might not talk the talk, but I get it now. It no longer offends my sensibilities.

Busy with my HRI duties, I don’t listen to his show very often. But whenever I’m running midday errands he is a companion, even if his audience bends toward tedium.

He’s a lot more involved in Little Red Feather Racing now than he was when he interviewed the Hennegans. When talking his horses, win or lose, he never fails to convey his love of the game and the horses. He often shares their performances via Trevor Denman race calls. Not even the mighty Francesa does that.

This host talks straight, his takes are credible, even when he's in someone’s face, earning the respect of guests and audiences alike, given the dialogue I‘ve heard. He even has a show on ESPN’s television network.

He talks street and he talks smack. He probably knows the lyrics to “Pants on the Ground.” As much as I love Rip Torn, this guy won’t be listening for Secretariat by holding clumps of turf up to his ear, nor is he the kind of hip that Lori Petty was supposed to be in the failed “Go Baby Go” campaign.

I’ve never met Jim Rome, nor appeared on his show, but he’s the kind of spokesperson who can cross-over. At least think about that. Talk to him, gauge his interest and, if it makes sense, do everything you can to get him.

And if you think you can muzzle him, then don‘t bother. Let him write his own material, say what he wants about the game, all of it, from the heart. He gets it. He puts his passion for racing on the line. If he’s becomes a lightning rod, so much the better.

Jim Rome automatically makes an often staid pastime cool. When was the last time younger generations thought horse racing was, you know, dope?

Who knows? He might even be able to breathe some life into the Eclipse ceremonies.

Written by John Pricci

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