Thursday, February 25, 2010

Rachel v. Zenyatta: Where’s the Network Coverage?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, February 25, 2010--To paraphrase a convalescing Vito Corleone from Godfather I, who admitted to liking wine more than he used to, I feel the same way about the winter Olympics: Well, I’m watching it more, anyway.

Back in the day, I felt the same way present-day sports talkers feel: How modern era Olympics exist as a made-for-TV event, appealing to a contrived sense of patriotic nationalism performed by pro athletes, not the amateurs of yesteryear.

You could easily blame the old Communist bloc countries for that, especially the U.S.S.R., for subsidizing the Olympic program so their athletes could train full time to earn propaganda points they believed Gold medals provided.

Finally, when we sent Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson and John Stockton to Barcelona to play basketball in 1992, all pretense of amateurism was gone forever.

The age of innocence is long gone, too, and so is the time we ask modern day athletes to perform athletic feats that once were the purview of mere mortals. It’s not so much that modern athletes are better, which they are, but technology has made the achieving of excellence that much more difficult.

Forget about whether you think that Snowboarding or the Biathlon or Aerial Skiing are legitimate sports. The more relevant question is why would athletes subject themselves to such risks.

Was there really a need for the world’s fastest luge run? And won’t there will be a point where humans cannot ski jump any farther, traverse a Giant Slalom faster or perform a quintuple axel from the time you leave the ice until the time you return?

Anyway, I was thinking about all this as I watched the Olympics last week and this on NBC when late last week it occurred to a friend of mine to ask: “Where are the ads for the $5-million Apple Blossom starring Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta?

Then I started thinking about what my friend asked. Where were the ads, indeed? Is the NTRA so broke or so incapable about getting the most important match between two thoroughbreds on the same network that one month hence will broadcast “America’s Race?” And isn’t there some momentum for synergy there?

NBC also broadcasts the Preakness Stakes and ABC is in the last year of their deal with the New York Racing Association to broadcast the Belmont. And it wasn’t a rival network undercutting another.

The fact is that the cashed-strapped NYRA, even before the bottom fell out, jumped at the bigger bucks without inviting NBC back to the table. ABC took a shot that a Triple Crown bid would be a ratings bonanza; NYRA took the money.

This year’s Olympics has proven to be a big ratings winner for NBC, beating “American Idol” in the Nielsen Ratings for the first time ever. And it’s made money for the struggling network, some of which they are expected to spend on regaining the Belmont Stakes, whose contract with ABC is in its final year.

Against this background, why isn’t the racing industry doing everything it can to interest NBC in the Rachel-Zenyatta matchup for $5-million? Are they so happy with the disappointing treatment they’ve received after throwing racing’s eggs into ESPN’s basket?

And ESPN doesn’t even need the money, thank you. To be able to charge top dollar for advertising minutes while stuffing massive basic-cable dollars into the other pocket has helped make them one of the world’s most successful television networks.

If they wanted to, ESPN would be in position to help bring horse racing back into the mainstream. Why would they bother to do that? Because they could probably own the broadcast rights for an entire sport and they’d be able to do it for pennies on the dollar.

Some know-it-all sports-talk host this week berated Oaklawn Park for scheduling the race on a Friday when no one would see it. Perfect. Let’s knock the only racing organization to put considerable money where their marketing mouth is.

What Mr. Know-It-All didn’t realize is that people still go to Oaklawn to watch horse races. And any national media that would cover Rachel-Zenyatta I obviously would stick around for the following day’s Arkansas Derby.

The same host mentioned that Oaks Day at Churchill Downs was the perfect venue. I’m sure Churchill would love to host such an event, just not that weekend. They have spent a decade making Oaks Day the equal of Derby Day. That might never happen but they’re getting closer every year. Now thanks to Rachel last year, the Oaks really is on a roll.

And there’s one other consideration. No event ever will or could be the equal of the Kentucky Derby in that market. And to sandwich Rachel & Zenyatta between the Oaks and Derby would be a logistical nightmare does a disservice to all three events.

I don’t know what the NTRA could have done, or what they might be trying to do with this unique opportunity, one that puts thoroughbred racing back on sports map. But to not scrape up the money to buy time on the same network that broadcasts thoroughbred racing’s premiere event, or use that event as leverage with the network, is yet another opportunity lost.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Horse Racing and Government’s ONLY Answer

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, February 19, 2010--Received a private e mail the other day from loyal HRI contributor Dennis Dotson with a subject line so brilliant that I decided to give the issue an airing, for about the thousandth time.

The issue is the always regressive, counter-productive tax on horseplayers, parimutuel takeout, which is draining any remaining liquidity from the betting pools.

Want to stop those late-odds flashes, or at least slow them down? How about a pool the size of which cannot be adversely affected by a handful of large wagers?

Dotson’s introductory subject line was, in fact, so crystal clear at assessing this issue that you read it in the headline that introduced this piece. The only answer, indeed.

For his part, Dotson is fighting his own battle, one that has made him the bane of every New York Racing Association executive he has written to last year and this.

What Dotson wants to know, and what he feels is his privilege as a valued customer, is whatever happened to the “Survivor” contest, and why can’t he get a reasonable explanation as to why it was discontinued?

He might have received an answer had he refrained from his liberal use of colorful phrases. Frustration, it seems, saps patience from us all.

So, as he stated in his letter: “The Survivor contest attracted thousands of handicapping players from all over the world….

“[Fans] played the contest and many played the daily cards through their local and/or ADW venues. These are thousands that do not live in the state of New York….

“I have written this same e mail six times without one reply….

“The fact that yours was $10 per entry (unlimited entries) and the prize pool climbed upwards of $50,000 at nearly every NYRA track should be screaming volumes at you to bring it back…”

Dotson went on to list a number of tracks that offer this type of on-line contest for free, namely Santa Anita’s, which recently added “Winvivor” to complement its “Showvivor” contest already in place.

Of course, the prize pool at Santa Anita,, and other venues is much smaller--$2,500 was the common amount--than the one offered in the NYRA’s pay-to-play contest.

Digressing, and speaking of “fat chance” issues, is the hope that state legislators from Anywhere, U.S.A. will learn something about the laws of supply and demand that eventually put all those that ignore this axiom out of business.

Or, as Dotson reflected, quoting Einstein: "We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

Which brings us to a bill recently introduced by Kentucky House Speaker Pro-Tem Larry Clark that would tax bets made by Kentuckians through account wagering companies such as Churchill Downs Inc.’s

This genius believes that a 0.5 percent tax on advance deposit wagers made by Kentucky residents would generate as much as $400,000 a year.

Really? That much?

Clark envisions that the 400K would be split three ways among the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, whichever track is operational at the time, with the balance going toward that track’s purses.

Would someone please inform Clark that this amount buys the tracks about two really good allowances races--after first explaining what an allowance race is.

So I guess this means that the 400K would be collected about three times a year so that Churchill Downs, Turfway and Ellis Park could share the largesse. The alternative would be to let them fight among themselves for these table scraps.

But the best part of Clark’s reasoning as to why this kind of commerce should be taxed? “I think it’s something we need to do,” he said. “It’s the fastest growing betting we have now ... and we need to capture some of that revenue (to) put back into purses.”

The bill apparently is a compromise of the one Clark proposed last year that died in committee, calling for a 3.5 percent tax. The current tax rate would be similar to ones imposed by Illinois and Virginia on account wagering.

My question is why the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission needs a third of this projected $400,000. Could it be to pay for commissioners’ salaries?

A few years ago, something like that quietly occurred in New York when a portion of the parimutuel takeout was redirected by law to pay for Racing and Wagering Board operations. America in action: Create a regulatory agency then eventually allow horseplayers to pay for it.

I say go for it, Mr. Clark. Nip this growth thing in the bud. Kill any forward momentum online wagering has and the hope of salvation it provides. Kill it because the Internet is the only avenue for growth left, at least until the current model is scrapped. Fat chance of that, too.

So, as Dotson suggests from his research: “Have a little faith; let God go first.” Or this:

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it, and a moral code that glorifies it.”

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 12, 2010

To Survive, Horseplayers Need Complete Data

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, February 12, 2010--If some industry organizations are still wondering why handle continues to decline at a double-digit rate, they would do well to look inward for answers.

The decline we’re talking about is not about marketing. The reference here speaks to basic services that horseplayers need to make the best handicapping decisions possible and keep themselves liquid. God forbid anyone should actually win consistently.

Why is it that industry organizations, from data collectors to data suppliers to the racetracks--in short, everyone--need to be told when they’re not doing something right and are letting down their customers by not providing basic information and services.

On opening day of the 2010 Gulfstream Park meet, president Ken Dunn was interviewed on the track’s closed-circuit system which is seen by simulcast audiences throughout the country. Dunn was highlighting the changes that would take place at the current meet.

One of those changes, dividing Gulfstream’s expansive turf course into two separate courses, sounded like a good idea, and indeed it was. The move was well received by the professional players we spoke with and the weekend warriors, too.

Dunn explained that the temporary rails would still be utilized on both courses which serves to give the worn parts of the course a needed rest when atmospherics and extensive use deemed it necessary.

Indeed, there are several tracks around the country that utilize two courses. In a perfect world every venue should have two courses for just such purposes; to give one course a rest while also providing variety by giving fans/handicappers/fans a different puzzle to solve.

Given two courses, there are intuitive rules that even the most casual fans understand. On balance, an inner course with tighter turns would naturally favor rail hugging speed. Conversely, outer courses, because of their wider circumference, give late-rally types a better chance.

Whether or not the data providers believe these handicapping dictums to be true is not the issue. What is important is that the majority of bettors think so.

Horseplayers embrace the challenge of handicapping. It makes them part of the game’s process, not to mention it occasionally results in putting more money in their pockets than they had when they left home for the track or simulcast venue.

Because of its generally larger fields and the wide open results they often produce, turf races are very popular with the betting public. The tracks understand this, too, especially when they see the influence turf racing has on their bottom lines.

That’s what so vexing about making horseplayers bet on Gulfstream turf races with incomplete past-performance information. So where is Equibase, the sport’s official data collector, or the data disseminators Daily Racing Form and Brisnet on all this? Good question.

Apparently, none of these organizations think it’s necessary for tracks with more than one turf course to delineate in past performance lines the specific course on which a horse recently raced.

Yes, that information is included in the result charts, and in race-condition headers at the top of every turf race. But that‘s not the point.

With simulcasting accounting for nine of every 10 dollars wagered, time management is a major concern for even the most casual fan. Who has the time to consult a result chart every time he or she wants to dope out a turf race thoroughly? I know I don’t, and I do this professionally.

In New York, Belmont Park and Saratoga have two turf courses. Whether it’s the Widener or inner course downstate or the Mellon and inner in Saratoga, those designations are rightfully included in past-performance lines, just as the Aqueduct winter dirt is separated from the main track.

This was what I was thinking as I listened to the Dunn announcement. So I gave the data purveyors a few weeks, then a month, then six weeks, for horses to run back. And I’m still waiting to learn what Gulfstream course horses raced on last out.

It seems no one ever thinks about the horseplayer without first being asked to do so. If data organizations didn’t think to include this basic information in the running lines, it was in Gulfstream’s vested interests to remind them.

So, please, no spin about how the Gulfstream turf isn’t technically two courses. And if that technicality does exist, for arguments sake, then why not go all out and provide the specifics rail placements; 12 feet, 48 feet, or 72 feet, whatever. What’s one more symbol in a past performance running line?

I’d like to know going into a Gulfstream Park turf race that a particular horse’s running style might have been compromised or aided by the circumference of the oval. Size always matters.

Like almost everyone in America today, I’m a simulcast player now. So please stop wasting my time. Do your job correctly and completely, and provide all of us the information we need. With pool liquidity drying up by the day, we need all the help we can get.

Written by John Pricci

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