Friday, December 18, 2009

Maryland Racing Needs Grass Roots Support Right Now

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 17, 2009--For those racing fans in and around the Beltway, you need to show your support for Maryland racing. And how can citizens of the Old Line State accomplish that?

By showing up at Laurel Park tomorrow and lending your support to the people who put on the show who will be demonstrating at a rally inside the paddock.

There is certain to be media coverage expected so help Laurel out by providing some bodies for whatever photo or electronic opportunities that may develop. Arrive before noon and the admission is free.

At the beginning of this decade, I could never conceive that I’d be writing a story like this about a state that plays host to the second jewel of a Triple Crown, but here it is.

Almost makes you happy that Jim McKay wasn’t around to see this, although I’m probably wrong about that. Given McKay’s character, popularity, charisma and appreciation of history, he might have made a difference.

The skinny is this: Laurel is scheduled to be auctioned on January 8, but on Monday the Anne Arundel County Council will vote on whether to approve zoning for slots at nearby Arundel Mills Mall.

If approval is granted, Laurel Park's property value will sink like a stone. The most likely buyers in that case would be housing or commercial developers, not people or organizations interested in thoroughbred racing’s survival.

At issue are county council members who say that they would like to have slots at Laurel, but that’s not the topic on the table.

This week, council members were no-shows at a Maryland Jockey Club function that presented architectural plans, environmental and grading permits and a timetable demonstrating Laurel’s new licensed owners could have VLTs revenue flowing in less than a year. It would take Mall interests over four years just to secure the permits.

Isn’t it interesting that the notion of VLT revenues, long needed by Maryland to compete with circuits in surrounding states, took so long to gain approval because of protests by anti-gambling factions, but suddenly is now OK for mass consumption?

It’s OK when money might be made available to deep-pocketed developers and speculators to further their interests with lawmakers. And it’s no problem if gaming facilities were within eyeshot of children shopping at Toys R Us with mommy.

How America works these days is all so ugly, whether the issue is health care for human beings or whether people in other racing states can burn while governors and legislators fiddle with their futures--think New York, home of the third jewel, where services are being cut because in part a suitable VLT operator can’t be found in eight years.

There’s only one word for all of it: Criminal.

In Maryland’s case, racing interests are seeking a NO vote from county council members so that the state’s Lottery Commission can reopen bidding for a VLT license after new owners take over Laurel Park. Waiting three weeks doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.

Maryland racing began in the county in which Laurel resides. But what can anyone reasonably expect from a local government that puts the kibosh on a State Horse Park; green space, quality of rural life, and animals be damned.

Maryland voters gave permission for VLTs because they were told the license would go to an existing racetrack, namely Laurel Park. The track’s plan, eight years in the making, has the approval and support from a community that has indicated it doesn‘t want slots at Arundel Mills Mall for various reasons.

But it appears some members of the council want to rush for a Monday vote rather than wait until Laurel is sold just like, for instance, the current administration in Washington, for which I voted, wants a health care passed by Christmas for no good reason.

According to the latest statistics provided by the MJC, horse racing and breeding account for 15,000 jobs within the state having an economic impact of $1.5 billion, making it Maryland’s third largest industry. And the only American racetrack older than historic Pimlico is Saratoga.

Some would argue that this down-to-the-wire emergency could have been avoidable had Laurel Park submitted a required $28 million licensing fee application last February.

It didn’t because it was unable to receive a guarantee that the fee would be refunded in the event Laurel failed to receive a zoning permit. That’s one deal Frank Stronach can’t be blamed for taking a pass.

The reality is that Magna Entertainment overpaid for the tracks because it believed VLTs would become a reality. That timing was too late to help Stronach. But there’s no good reason why some capricious deadline has to be too late for Maryland, not after more than three centuries of racing has become part of the fabric.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Zenyatta’s Classic an NTRA Moment of the Year Cinch

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 10, 2009--Let’s dispense with the drama right now. So, what was the NTRA 2009 Moment of the Year as voted on by the fans? What else could it possibly be?

Zenyatta remains undefeated and becomes the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

How do I know I’m right? Because the event probably was the moment of the year. And you can always depend on the public, led by the “Zenyatta Zealots,” to carry the day. How do I know this? Because, apparently, what happens last happens best.

And how do I know that? Just take a look at the HorseRaceInsider Horse of the Year poll on this same page. Go ahead, click on it. You won’t believe the margin.

Hear this: I have no problem if Zenyatta were to be voted Horse of the Year 2009.

But her margin of would-be victory according to the HRI poll--61% to 27% as this is written--is laughable, having no basis in objectivity. Who, in their heart of hearts, doesn’t truly believe that the current margin and future result will be a lot closer than this indicator suggests?

(And to the ZZ on-toppers, please, no more hate mail. I’ve been beaten up enough on this subject. Yes, by now I have removed all doubt about what an idiot I am. But, no, I never did drink that steaming hot cup of STFU).

Speaking truth to power, and the powerless, no matter how warped my judgment might be, is my job. And no one’s ever accused me of having a poor work ethic. Ever.

Paraphrasing the late, not-so-great, Joey Zasa, “I don’t guarantee that I have a great work ethic but I guarantee I’ll kill anyone who says that I don‘t.”

As years go, 2009 was a hell of a year between the fences, and the NTRA has compiled some very worthy moments, indeed. Here they are, my reaction in italics below:

Well Armed blows away the field in the Dubai World Cup:

Hey, the Sheikh’s had a tough year, so this would be a nice gesture. But c’mon. Uncontested speed is dangerous at any track, in any race, on any day of the week.

I Want Revenge overcomes a horrific start to capture the Wood Memorial:

Great drama? Yes. Great performance? Yes. Great ride? Yes. Moment of the Year? That’s a very long stretch, and we’re not referring to the one at Aqueduct, either.

Rachel Alexandra runs off with the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20 lengths:

An amazing performance of historic proportions, one of the great Oaks efforts of all time? Absolutely. But that’s what happens when mundane stakes fillies are totally outclassed by one great rival.

Mine That Bird posts stunning, 50-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby:

A definite contender for Moment of the Year. Great shock value; S.I. material. Superb, death-defying race ride. Was time capsule material, especially from the blimp camera.

Rachel Alexandra turns back the late charge of Mine That Bird in the Preakness:

Coulda’ been, shoulda’ been, a contender. Great drama and achievement. Historical performance. Boy vs. Girl. Post 13. Wet track. But not the deepest Preakness talent ever assembled.

Presious Passion fires out to a 20-length lead en route to course record win in United Nations:

Stretch II, but a definite wow moment. But a Sham-Wow compared to his ultra-game, doggedly determined run in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Rachel Alexandra toys with the boys in the Haskell Invitational:

For a few seconds on the far turn, there was some drama. But her acceleration into the stretch was, for her, only routinely amazing. But I watched the race from inside the rail on the racetrack. You just had to be there.

Gio Ponti captures his fourth consecutive Grade I score in the Arlington Million:

A wonderful performance. But I remember thinking at the time that this wouldn’t even make the top three most exciting Arlington Millions. Coming up with 12 moments isn’t easy.

Rachel Alexandra holds off her male elders in the Woodward Stakes:

Another had-to-be-there moment, unless, a) you saw it on TV, b) know something about how pace makes the race, or, c) were inside the building or standing on the track apron when the building and ground began to shake.

Linda Rice becomes the first woman to win the Saratoga training title:

Very, very inspirational. Great efforts from her charges virtually all meet long. Her horses made a great appearance. A Saratoga training title is a great accomplishment for any gender. But the training title also was the product of a condition book favoring the types of horses (read turf sprinters) living beneath the Rice shedrow.

Summer Bird registers historic triumph in the Jockey Club Gold Cup:

A paean to the great event and for historical achievement by a three-year-old. But the effort was not significantly better than his Belmont or Travers. [Sincerely hope he makes a full recovery and comes back bigger and stronger. Don’t believe Tim Ice ever reached the bottom of this guy].

Goldikova wins her second straight Breeders’ Cup Mile:

Given the trip, a truly remarkable win, topped this year only by Zenyatta’s Classic. But for some reason I was more impressed by the turn of foot on display in the 2008 Mile. Go figure.

Conduit runs down the stubborn Presious Passion for a repeat score in the Breeders’ Cup Turf:

Really? A life and death score as an equivalent to a magic moment? Sorry, Presious Passion in defeat was the star of this show.

Zenyatta remains undefeated and becomes first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic:

Home surface advantage notwithstanding, she answered every conceivable question, erased every pre-race doubt, won with deceptive ease and authority and, like Sinatra, did it her own way. The effort makes her a deserving favorite--and worthy winner.

But I'm curious about two things:

Does the public get to vote for Co-Moments of the Year?

If they were coupled in the voting, does three Rachel nominations equal one Zenyatta?

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 04, 2009

For NYC-OTB: A New Beginnng or Delaying the Inevitable?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 3, 2009--The best news regarding restructuring the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation via a petition filed under Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code announced yesterday is that it won‘t cost the taxpayers money.

What this might mean for horseplayers down the road in the form of, say, raising parimutuel takeout, may be another matter entirely.

According to Thursday’s press release from NYC-OTB, debt restructuring is so that the organization can implement a transitional business plan to make the necessary changes to the present business model and position it for future growth.

During this period, the full array of OTB services will proceed uninterrupted. OTB hopes “to devise a compelling strategy to expand business, by attracting new consumer segments by improving the NYC-OTB experience for existing customers and accessing new sources of revenue,” as a sound basis for operations going forward.

It is envisioned, the release continues, that the new business model would “reinvent the old storefront shops by using a new bricks and mortar strategy, while creating new modern flagship attractions in select city locations.”

The business plan is being touted as a potentially dramatic overhaul of a failed business model. OTB says it intends to use new technologies to enhance customer service, at once, increasing efficiency and cutting costs.

The key to insuring that OTB will outlive its present debt load is a variable over which it exerts no control. OTB needs the New York State Legislature to make the necessary statutory revisions to state racing law regarding the distribution of the betting dollars it handles.

In short, they want help from Albany, home of the same Legislature that’s been ruminating eight years about who should receive a franchise to run VLT operations, slated for Aqueduct Racetrack since 2001.

OTB’s edge may be that the organization itself is a political animal that often gets what it wants. Short of a complete takeover by the state, new legislation that would change current wagering law is not unreasonable.

What this really could be about ultimately is changing outdated laws for the good of the entire industry, not just the OTBs. What OTB wants is that they pay the state’s racetracks from the net receipts, not the gross.

This is known as a sound business practice; income is supposed to cover operating expenses. The problem, of course, is that OTB is also choking under the weight of its own well documented excesses and inefficiencies.

And its being disingenuous, and playing political hardball, which may be redundant.

“NYC OTB will not be asking for any changes to the legislation as it relates to payments to the City and State,” meaning OTB is cherry picking the terms to better get what it wants. Under their proposal only the tracks must wait. “Without this change, NYC OTB may be forced to cease operations,” the release went on.

The notion that the new business model will allow OTB to access capital in the financial markets, and paying all its obligations, seems unreasonable in this new economy. Not to mention overcoming the stigma of a bookmaker that loses money. All this may be a moot, anyway.

“Without necessary statutory amendments, NYC-OTB will close, which will have an adverse impact on the New York horse racing industry and the State economy.”

The business plan states, as noted, “that NYC-OTB make calculations and payments to the horse racing industry based on Wagering Commission revenue it actually receives after allowance for costs of NYC-OTB’s functions have been met.”

Through the years, City OTB’s contributions to the City, State and racetracks have been significant. Since 1971, the company has provided--according to its own calculations--$1.4 billion to New York City, $600 million to the State and $2.2 billion to the racing industry. It currently provides 1,365 jobs throughout the City’s five boroughs.

Whether this tack in the long term proves more than just a survival mechanism remains to be seen. A compelling strategy to attract new customer segments sounds good, but the entire industry has been working on that one since the 1990s to little avail.

A new brick and mortar strategy for storefront shops appears a Titanic deck-chair solution. The only bright spot might be modern flagship locations. Today’s serious fans, those who bet their money, whatever the amount, love new simulcast facilities with its Vegas race-book ambiance. The concept has worked well everywhere, and is working nicely at present for the Suffolk and Nassau OTB regions.

NYC-OTB’s monthly deficit “is no longer sustainable.” Declines in wagering, outdated practices and facilities and unfavorable legislation are the linchpins of its insolvency. They hope the Bankruptcy Court will buy them the time needed to raise $250 million privately so they may survive and advance.

But even as the press release was discovered late this morning, I already had missed a teleconference scheduled for 11 AM. The conference announcement didn’t arrive in my inbox until 8:47 AM on the same day as the event.

Meet the new company, same as the old company.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (21)


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