Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gulfstream Shines Despite Dark Magna Saga

Hallandale Beach, Fla., March 25, 2009--The crepe hangers have already targeted April 3, the day a bankruptcy judge in Delaware will determine the fate of Magna Entertainment Corporation.

Consequently one might surmise that the atmosphere these days at Gulfstream Park must be a corporate coupling of 1) doom, and 1A) gloom. But that‘s not the reality here.

Morale is better than I have seen it in the years since the “new” Gulfstream opened in 2006. That’s because this meet’s been a success even if some 50-1 shot makes a Grade 1 joke of Saturday’s Florida Derby.

And it’s because they’re writing the business story of Gulfstream 2009 in black ink.

With help from Mother Nature, Gulfstream has been bucking all the national trends. On-track handle is up 7 percent and all-sources is higher by almost 4. With good weather projected for Saturday, those numbers could increase.

Signature races are no guarantor of box office success Despite good weather that produced an attendance rise of 4 percent, on-track handle at Turfway Park’s Lanes End program was down seven percent. All-sources handle on 12 races was down an alarming 26 percent.

So it wasn’t surprising when Gulfstream Park President and General Manager Bill Murphy had spring in his step when he walked into the track kitchen. Murphy was on his way to a weekly meeting management conducts with the horsemen every Wednesday morning.

“Everybody’s happy with it,” Murphy said. “I think it’s really helped.”

At 58, Murphy been a racetracker for 45 years, getting baptized as a hot walker at Washington Park in his native Chicago at the ripe age of 13. He’s pretty much done it all ever since.

The Vietnam vet was track superintendent at Hialeah, the general manager at Thistledown in Cleveland. He dresses with casual Friday style and carries his work to and from home in a backpack. He doesn’t look like he’d be happy doing anything else.

Good weather and well received changes have paid dividends. Gulfstream has cut back to a five-day race week and new racing secretary Doug Bredar has reinstituted what fans and bettors have come to expect as one of racing’s winter jewels.

Turning the Fountain of Youth back to a one-turn mile is an obvious example of how common sense decisions can prove popular at the entry box and at the wickets. Rocket science this ain’t.

Two of the three Florida Derby favorites, Quality Road and Theregoesjojo, comprised the Fountain of Youth exacta.

Gulfstream is doing well in other areas, too. Poker room business is up, out-handling the slots. Slots business is healthier than it’s been in recent years.

Credit management for bringing in a new slots manager, Steve Calabro, who recognized that the machines in use were not well suited to Gulfstream’s needs. At the time they were considered the worst in the market.

Calabro must have found the right mix. Slots business is up 10 percent over last year while Gulfstream’s two major competitors, Mardi Gras Race Track and Gaming, the greyhound track, and Isle Racing and Casino at Pompano Park harness, are down 14 and 25 percent, respectively.

But racing remains Gulfstream‘s core business. “It bothers me when people say Frank [Stronach] cares more about casinos than racing. He’s heard the criticisms and he‘s responded. People wanted more outside seating; that’s the reason for the Tiki Bar.

“Next year more seats will be added. We’re increasing the existing seating area by extending the traditional box area outward over the apron.

“Between the living quarters for backstretch workers with air conditioning and terraces and Palm Meadows, it’s been state of the art all the way. And he’s leading owner or leading breeder every year.”

Chances are the trend will continue in 2010. “In our first year, slots revenues didn’t meet unrealistic projections and purses were overpaid in 2007. [Consequently] 2008 was a correction year. Because we’ve done well this year, our payments are down which means purses will be increased in 2010.”

For horsemen and the track, it’s all about purses, of course. Purses were underpaid last year; quality suffered. Wags were calling the meet “Calder at Gulfstream.” On balance, quality is back to Gulfstream standards and likely to be better in 2010.

And it’s not like racing is getting help from the state of Florida. Because of accords made with Native American tribes, the tracks have been placed in an untenable position long term..

“I don’t know how we compete with the Seminole Hard Rock when they pay no taxes, no purses, and are allowed to have table games.” According to Murphy, the effective tax rate for racetracks with slots is a blended 70 percent.

But legislative help might be on the way. On Tuesday a Florida Senate committee introduced legislation to allow blackjack and baccarat at Gulfstream and Calder, permitting the Seminole Tribe to keep those games, the payback being that the Seminoles also would get roulette and card tables.

Yesterday, a separate bill called for upgraded slot machines to be installed at existing pari-mutuel facilities in all other state counties. A third gaming bill would fix the tax rate at pari-mutuel venues getting upgraded slots at 35 percent while reducing taxes on existing machines at Gulfstream and Calder from 50 percent to 35.

Essentially, this is a Senate response to a pact made between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe permitting blackjack and baccarat, forms of gambling not presently legal in Florida. The accord came with an upfront payment of $100 million from the Seminoles to the state.

Another House committee, meanwhile, is considering legislation that would replace the Crist-Seminole accord.

Taking it all in context, between the increased purses slated for 2010, the expected completion of the upscale shopping complex on the grounds, things suddenly are looking up for Gulfstream Park after its very rocky start.

What it will all mean after next month’s bankruptcy hearing is another matter entirely.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

If Racing’s Under Attack, It Must Be Derby Season

Hallandale, Fla., March 20,2009--Admittedly, I had a knee-jerk reaction when I first read William Rhoden’s piece on the state of the racing industry on the New York Times website yesterday that began: “The death of Eight Belles at last year’s Kentucky Derby…”

My negative inclination was because reporters such as Rhoden jump in an out of thoroughbred racing coverage during the Triple Crown of spring and early summer and could care less bout it the rest of the year.

This is their prerogative, and nobody ever said life was fair.

Given its timing, I could have dismissed the commentary as Rhoden being opportunistic, again injecting himself into the Kentucky Derby storyline as he did last year when invited to appear on national television to lend perspective to the Eight Belles tragedy and talked about the indefensible practice of racing thoroughbreds.

In the piece Rhoden asks: “Are breakdowns the outgrowth of a meat-grinder industry, or evidence of a horse population spread too thin?”

On an intellectual level, this is akin to asking “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

Sadly, however, Rhoden’s question needed asking no matter how negative the tone and I have too much respect for Rhoden as a reporter to question his motives, even if there appears to be an agenda at work, especially in light of the season.

Rhoden’s story talked about the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection hearing last June that on its face wanted to help remedy racing’s problems: the on-track death of horses, over breeding, and over-medicating.

All the Subcommittee did was to effectively put the industry on notice--a good thing--that it must clean its own house over the government will clean it for them. The legislators didn’t seem to be grandstanding, at least not in the same fashion as is being seen today in the AIG scenario.

While it’s true the industry remains culpable with respect to over breeding and over medicating--even after making substantive changes subsequent to last year’s Derby events--the element that seemed disingenuous was there was no recognition of the fact that accidents can happen.

By definition, wrongdoing is determined by intent. Do reasonable people believe that the intent is for horsemen and women to inflict harm on their animals? Indeed, isn’t the opposite true?

Rhoden is right about this: The Thoroughbred Safety Committee and Racing Medication and Testing Consortium has yet to address the practice of giving racehorses the legal drugs that allow them to perform when not physically at one hundred percent.

He rightfully acknowledged, too, that spokespersons for the American Association of Equine Practitioners believe the industry needs to rethink the use of legal drugs for racing and training since they can mask the finding of veterinary inspection, that medicines should be confined for the treatment of diagnosed disease.

Rhoden made the same point that’s always made whenever horses die from something other than natural causes, that human athletes who suffer serious injury or worse voluntarily do so while no one speaks up for horses who cannot speak for themselves.

Actually, there are hundreds of people within the industry that speak for the horses, caring for them while they race and after their racing days are finished, ignoring the fact that racing is the reason they were born in the first place and actually enjoy running.

Horses were bred to carry the early settlers over the most rugged terrain to settle the West. Nobody believed that to be cruel or unusual. Animals have been serving man from the beginning and never was that somehow considered immoral.

Beyond being bred for commerce, they still serve the general public by helping to preserve the green space that enables the planet to survive--and that’s not a stretch.

I agree with Rhoden that watching horses get injured and die is unusual punishment. But the act of racing is not cruel in and of itself. Only the practices that keep them racing unnaturally are, and need to be addressed.

Progress up until the Eight Belles tragedy was mostly non-existent. But changes are being made, albeit slowly. But it takes time to undo the selfish practices of the past as today‘s economists can attest.

I would have been more impressed had Rhoden gone after members of the general public that steal horses, kill them for the meat, or sell them to the horse killers in other countries for the same purpose. This practice currently is epidemic in wide expanses of South Florida.

In recent months, according to a report Wednesday on the local NBC affiliate, hundreds of horses have been stolen from farms or private residences and killed, either sold to horse killers and transported to Mexico or killed on the spot for the meat.

These killers leave the ribbed carcasses, heads, manes and tails in the fields of southwest Dade, or they transport them to the Everglades for disposal. A disproportionate number of those killed have unusual markings or color, indicating there might be a thrill element involved. It was awful.

There was no mention of any well meaning people or organizations that have come along to save these horses. Now that would be a crusade worth fighting, a practice that deserves all the negative publicity it would get. Someone should drop a dime to the New York Times.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Across My Desk

Saratoga Springs, NY, March 11, 2009--Why is at that when the game finally starts to get good, news, big and small, comes flying from every direction? Some of it is late in arriving--an oxymoron, I know--but all of it, if it has relevance, is worth reinvestigating. To wit:

Item: A note from a regular HRI contributor, former thoroughbred trainer Doug Amos, which should be of interest to some of our fans:

“The Canadian Broadcasting Company show "The Passionate Eye" is running a documentary Sunday night, Mar. 15th, on the life of a thoroughbred jockey. They are usually very current and incisive. Fans should be able to link through news. Maybe we can start a movement to increase the scale of weights…give these people a life.”

This is something different than what he see on the Animal Planet series “Jockeys,” the reality horse opera we liked, lauded and was pleased to learn it was being renewed for a second season. It’s probably a lot different.

HBO did a piece on the plight of jockeys as athletes a few years ago on the practice of “flipping,” whereby jockeys force themselves to vomit undigested food in order to inhibit weight gain. HBO made the argument that raising the scale of weights was humane and a health issue for riders which, of course, it is.

Horsemen objected--Wayne Lukas being quite vocal in opposition--claiming it wasn’t in the horse’s best interest. That argument wasn’t logical then and doesn‘t make any more sense now. At that time jockeys were talking about raising the scale of weights five pounds. A healthier jockey is a stronger athlete, on balance in the best interests of human and equine athletes alike. The industry should revisit the issue.

Item: “Senator Leland Y. Yee, Assistant President pro-tem of the California State Senate, introduced Senate Bill 662 to ensure that the California Horse Racing Board establish a real-time transactional monitoring system for pari-mutuel wagering at all California horse tracks.”

Pretty timely considering the impetus for this was 1,300 “quick pick” bets placed at Bay Meadows Racecourse on last year’s Kentucky Derby superfecta that failed to include the “20” horse among the possible permutations. Of course, the “20” was the winning 2-1 favorite, Big Brown.

Bet processor Scientific Games cited a computer glitch that inexplicably excluded the highest numbered horse in every race from being part of the quick pick pool.

Yee said that consumers were entitled to know that the bet they make is fair and not being compromised; that the integrity of the sport must be protected. Yee sounds more interested in the plight of horseplayers than many industry executives and racing commissions.

There have been other glitches, of course, resulting in wagers being made after a race has started, known as “past-posting.” A famous big bettor gave testimony at a Kentucky integrity hearing stating he was able to bet on a Fair Grounds race nearly a minute after the race had begun. That was more than a year ago.

Late odds-drops continue to be tolerated for two conceivable reasons. In a pari-mutuel game, the bet taker gets a cut whether the player wins or loses. Second, providing wagering cycles in real time costs money for new programming. So it’s OK that racing’s infrastructure is in the same shape as the country’s, right?

Item: “CTBA Boardwatch, a grass roots movement that says it has the support of more than 500 California horsemen, continues to question the abhorrent practice of ‘warp-speed’ workouts at horse sales.”

Four horses in the recent Barretts March Sale of two-year-olds in training entered the ring boasting 1-furlong workouts in :10 seconds; one had worked in :09 4/5.

Three horses boasted 2-furlong workouts in under :22 seconds; one in :21 1/5, and another worked in in :20 4/5.

When HRI wrote about this practice last year, there was righteous indignation from many quarters saying many of these horses work faster than they’ll ever have to run in a race, putting tremendous stress on bones that haven’t had time to knit.

Then came Eight Belles, her unfortunate accident and all that negative publicity. And the congressional hearings that followed. And the new safety initiatives sponsored by the Jockey Club, NTRA, and every influential and well meaning horsemen’s group including the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

Reasonable and well intended measures all. But then come the breeze-up sales and it’s money that still makes the mares and horses go.

And go, and go, and go; fast, faster, fastest. We care, but then there’s the free market. So make what you can now and deal with the consequences later. But here’s where the Jockey Club and NTRA can do some more big picture good.

To its credit the proactive NTRA accreditation program has addressed 16 important health and safety issues. If implemented properly, the program will change the course of the industry for the better.

But there’s no good reason why the accreditation process cannot be expanded to include standards to which breeders, consignors and sales companies must adhere.

Item: “Eric Poteck, a Canadian grass roots activist and regular HRI contributor, asks: ‘Why is it when the official order of finish is appealed after a race is official, and changes are made at a later date, owners, jockeys and trainers are made whole but horseplayers get zip?’

Good question. The situation responsible for Poteck’s query refers occurred last fall at a Canadian harness track when a 1-5 favorite, hopelessly boxed in, took the short way home. The horse was guided off the racing oval, leaving the course and racing inside several pylons before re-entering the track by cutting in front of the leader, finishing first under the line. Obviously, this is in violation of the rules.

Not only was the race made official but, upon appeal, the result was allowed to stand, the commission saying it was the right decision to make. No further explanation.


But don’t take my word or Poteck‘s, mostly because there are no words to explain this. In case you missed the video and commentary on several sites previously, the links are below. Paste them into your browser and check it out. Seeing is still disbelieving.

Written by John Pricci

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