Saturday, December 03, 2011

Tis the Season

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 3, 2011—Unofficial winter is here. Gulfstream Park and Tampa Baby Downs opened, today also being the first Saturday of racing on the Aqueduct winter track. Add Fair Grounds to the mix and the change of season is complete.

At Gulfstream Park, the Spectacular Bid, now a race for two-year-olds with the meet opening in December instead of January, was won by favored Ancient Rome in a photo over For Oby, whose rider appeared a tad overconfident leaving the furlong grounds.

The time for six furlongs was 1:08.95 over a surface that produced a track record setter at 5-1/2 furlongs earlier on the card. It was a Delaware production as the colt was trained by Tony Dutrow and ridden by Joe Rocco Jr.

At Aqueduct, meanwhile, Dutrow’s brother Rick won the six furlong Garland of Roses with turnback C C’s Pal, coming back on short rest--decidedly anti-profile for Dutrow—and hitting the finish in full stride after finding his best pace inside the final sixteenth.

At Tampa, where the featured Lightning City attracted a full field of turf sprinters going 5 furlongs, Rosemary Homeister Jr. timed Jenny’s So Great’s late rally perfectly, making her move to the lead with 100 yards to go and holding off Supreme who came with a flying finish for the place.

In the Crescent City, five Claiming Crown races were run with It Happened Again taking the centerpiece, the Claiming Crown Jewel, over a fast Fair Grounds strip. Steve Asmussen gave a leg up to Shane Sellers, the veteran pushing all the right buttons to get the job done.

The series once was very popular when first instituted at Canterbury Park, drawing oversized fields form all over the country for horses that had run for a tag sometime during a specified timeframe. The day’s five races featured but 36 betting interests combined.

TRAINERS IN THE NEWS: Long since retired jockey Robbie Davis, with his daughter Jackie in the boot, won his first career race as a trainer when 39-1 Sandyinthesun got home first, breaking his maiden, too, at 1-1/16th miles on the turf. Lots of smiling people were seen observing an especially happy winners’ circle gathering...

“To me, it’s better than any win I ever rode” Davis said. ”It was just an incredible race. It’s unimaginable, the feeling. We got him at Saratoga, paid $700 for him. We’ve kind of been nursing him along.

“We put the blinkers on him and he responded well with them. He looks around. He plays around – he’s a real slow learner. I don’t remember racing on the turf in December, so I thought, we have one last shot on the turf so let me get the blinkers on him.”


After six decades as a trainer, Ramon “Mike” Hernandez hung up his stopwatch at age 86 earlier this week. His departure left Hall of Famer Frank Martin as the oldest active trainer in New York. Martin celebrated his 86th birthday today.

Hernandez helped put state-bred racing on the map in New York as trainer for the Assunta Louis Farm of Dr. Dominic DeLuke, a pioneer in the New York breeding program. In the early days, the filly Vandy Sue and colt Fratello Ed were earning the headlines and divisional championships with Hernandez calling the shots
The legacy he leaves behind is twofold: No one ever I ever heard questioned his ability as a horseman, and everyone he’s met has had nothing but good things to say about the man: A real old school horse trainer and true gentleman.

Hernandez compiled a worthy 603-644-706 slate from 5,418 career starters, his horses earning $18,820,126.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Down Is Up

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 6, 2011--Must have something to do with that “lies, damn lies and statistics” Samuel Clemens warned about, but statistics often confuse me. Take Thoroughbred racing economic indicators for the month of June, for instance.

Wagering for the month of June 2011, compared to 2010, was down 5.21%. I figure this is a good thing. Why?

Because the number of race days declined almost double that, at 9.67%. With $887K (rounding up) bet this year on 542 programs, compared to last year’s, when $936K was bet on 600 U.S. race days, this is a good thing, right?

See where am I going with this?

The proportion of loss is lower, so this means the bleeding is slowing, Yes? But here’s the thing that really confuses me. Purses declined by 3.27%, from $100 million in 2010 to $97 million this year.

I understand how purses can decline at a slower rate because with less races carded, there’s more money to be spread around in the races that remain.

But since purses are based on parimutuel handle, how can purses be down 3% when betting is down 5%?

But that wagering decline of 5.21% is good because at this time last year betting was off 7.67%. If the rate of decline is slowing, doesn’t that mean we’re getting closer to the bottom?

And if we’re getting closer to the bottom we will reach the nadir before too very long and then, there’s no place to go but up, betting trends will start to look good again.

Now, actually, if the number of race days continue to shrink, this contraction will result in less bleeding all around, bringing supply more closely in line with demand, right?

Want more good news?

Looking at the whole year, the number of race days have contracted from 2,644 to 2,481, which translates to a decline in racing days of 6.16%. But purses went up. UP! From $447 million year over year to $482 million.

With people betting less money, even if it is less less-money, how is there more money available for all purses?

I should not have cut Economics 101 in favor of the Aqueduct daily double back in the late 60s. (Yes, that was the daily double, accent on daily, as in one opportunity to link one race with the next race).

Which, as an aside, was one opportunity at the time that effectively lower takeout since there is only one rake spread over two races.

Understand? Good, because misery loves company. Why should I be the only one who’s a little confused. OK, maybe more than a little.

So the lesson here seems to be that contraction’s working. If fewer racing dates can result in more purse money, even when handle for the year is down 7.67%, we’re bringing supply more closely in line with demand, correct?

There may be more good news, if memory serves. The rate of decline last year, when compared to 2009, was higher than this year’s 7.67%. If that’s not a decline in the rate of decline, or a slowing down, anyway, that’s another indicator that the bottom is getting closer.

Is this what’s meant by supply-side economics?

Then--and here I go again--I keep hearing the warning of Lawrence Garfield, a.k.a. Larry the Liquidator of the 1991 classic “Other People’s Money” who said:

“...We're dead alright. We're just not broke. And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure...”

Garfield might have been right with his buggy whips analogy, but he would have been wrong about American Thoroughbred racing. First, more pain; then, back stronger than ever.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

State and Industry Cannot Afford Another Wasted Opportunity

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 4, 2011--With the possible exception of the those who make a living on the Great White Way or Hollywood and Vine, no one does dog and pony shows better than politicians, especially those who reside in the state capitol 35 minutes south of here.

This time I hope that characterization is wrong, because the decision of New York’s State Racing & Wagering Board to create a Racing Fan Advisory Council marks the first time anywhere the game’s bettors and the sport’s fans will get to talk with regulators before policy decisions are made.

Despite the fact that the five-member Council will have no authority to formulate policy decisions, it can make recommendations to insure that players will be heard before any rules and regulations about the game are made.

The Council also can report to the Wagering Board on the day-to-day operations of the tracks and offtrack betting facilities, how those operations affect the fans, and it can even help to develop an I Love New York Racing promotional campaign.

SRWB Chairman John Sabini will appoint three of the five members with one each coming from the Senate and Assembly committee chairpersons. Each member of the Council, to be named during the Saratoga meet, will serve for a period of five years.

While this marks the first time racing fans and players will have to interact with representatives from state government, it’s not the first time horseplayers were asked for their input.

Using the Breeders’ Cup “Fix Six” scandal of 2002 as an impetus, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association created a Players Panel in 2003, a blue ribbon group of some of the game’s most respected horseplayers and industry experts on wagering and business.

Authors Barry Meadow and James Quinn; renown professional horseplayers Paul Cornman, Cary Fotias and Mike Maloney, simulcast expert Ken Kirchner, and noted economist Maury Wolff were a few of the representatives who helped craft the most comprehensive list of recommendations on how the industry can best serve players and fans alike.

There were eight areas of study, including pool integrity, takeout rates, taxes, rebate policies, customer service and uniform medication and drug testing policies. Do any of those issues sound familiar? Has anything really changed?

In all, 44 recommendations were made, some of which contained sub-text with additional suggestions. In February of 2004, the NTRA condensed the list to three areas that it could take to the industry. It was hoped that would be the beginning of meaningful change. It wasn’t.

What the NTRA proposed was that data information and odds changes be cycled every 10-to-15 seconds, that federal withholding on winnings be increased from $5,000 to $25,000, and that seminars on the history and effect of changes in takeout rates be conducted with legislators, track officials and horsemen.

One out of three--getting change in the federal withholding rates--isn’t bad, but it isn‘t very good, either. NTRA also planned to launch a track-based education program, hoping to eliminate the perception that the races could not be beaten. That was 2005.

The lack of progress in improving the plight of horseplayers and fans is not all on the NTRA: Only a handful of tracks even bothered to respond to its recommendations. Maybe it’s because the tracks have no juice in their state houses, or is in business only to please horsemen, or only care about their own job security.

Horseplayers are optimists by nature so there is a chance, however slim, that something good might come of all this. Having the ear of state government whose big league tracks are about to get an infusion of casino cash can make good things happen for the horse industry in New York, and that might help jump-start the industry nationwide.

Here’s some free advice to both sides, asking you to take the very same approach. Go back and study the recommendation of the 2003 Players Panel the industry never gave the intellectual time of day.

Everything that needs to be done, everything, with the exception of promotional suggestions, is contained in that report. Study their recommendations and begin implementing what’s in those pages. There’s no need for further study, it's all been done.

The blueprint for racing's success in the modern era has been in the Players Panel report for eight years now. It took nine years to finally get VLTs on line in New York, so the Council is a year ahead of schedule in that regard.

Not very much has changed for the good and the same problems remain, in New York and everywhere. But New York can be a real leader again, a force for good, but only if it wants to.

Otherwise, the Chairman can announce the names of the five members next month, the state can take no action, before it trots out the dogs and ponies for an encore presentation. The hope is that, this time, it will be different.

Written by John Pricci

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