Wednesday, July 14, 2010

NYRA Whacks Detention Barn, Clearing Way for Rachel-Zenyatta Summit

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July14, 2010--In a victory for common sense over window dressing, the New York Racing Association announced that its highly controversial security barn would cease operations as of July 23, opening day of the Saratoga race meet.

In doing so, it avoided the embarrassment of a horsemen’s boycott of the entry box Thursday morning, when entries will be taken for Sunday‘s card, the final program of the Belmont Park summer meet.

In making the announcement in a press release late Wednesday, NYRA chose to bury the lead, trumpeting that there will be expansion of the in-house drug testing program. The question remaining in the face of this well timed declaration is: What took so long?

As a member of Pat Lynch‘s NYRA press staff in the 1970s, I learned that as a general rule anything that’s good for the horsemen usually turns out to be a defeat for horseplayers. Today’s development just might turn out to be a victory for both.

The event also should provide relief for NYRA Director of Racing and racing secretary P J Campo by making it easier to fill racing programs at the upcoming meet by eliminating a huge concern for visiting trainers; the unfriendly environment of the detention facility.

The perceptionthat a big hurdle impeding the ultimate quality of New York racing has been cleared should have NYRA bean counters and Saratoga Chamber of Commerce members dancing and high-fiving on Union Avenue.

Of great significance to the sport’s fans, eliminating the detention removes the only significant barrier preventing a summit between racing’s two great race mares; defending Horse of the Year champion Rachel Alexandra vs. 2010’s leading candidate for that title, the mighty 17-0 Zenyatta.

Zenyatta’s trainer John Shirreffs has been an outspoken critic of the detention facility, having had a bad prior experience. But now, the Personal Ensign at 10 furlongs and at scale weights at meet’s end eliminates any excuse that would keep either filly in the barn.

Conditions for Zenyatta could hardly be more favorable for her to take her show on the road for only the third time in her career. While Zenyatta obviously needs to ship here, she might find the weather a bit more refreshing in late summer. Meanwhile, Rachel would have to run farther than she ever has before. Yin, say hello to yang.

As exhilarating as the thought of a summit might be, ending the detention barn era has more immediate benefits. And for those who would argue to the contrary; that the facility helps level the playing field for horsemen, what is its ultimate effect on the player? What about horses that don’t lift a hoof after suffering a literal or figurative meltdown on a hot afternoon or becomes highly strung in an unfamiliar place?

For the horseplayer, having an animal improve its performance artificially is no worse than having an honest rival go off form for no apparent reason. How does that help anyone?

Of course, diligent scrutiny is not only welcome, it’s entirely necessary. Horse Race Insider has campaigned against the detention barn editorially and has suggested that security would be better served with the installation of web cameras at strategic intervals throughout each barn, a security person required to monitor and report all activity that deviates from the norm, doing so at regularly timed intervals. If that fails, video can substantiate later what may or may not have occurred.

The NYRA release stated that its soon to be implemented expanded program includes random out-of-competition testing designed to deter the use of blood doping agents such as Erythropoietin (EPO), bronchial dilators, and other illegal substances. That's about time, too.

“Out-of-competition testing will focus primarily on claimed horses, horses shipping in and out of NYRA tracks, horses running in stakes races, and other random occurrences.” the question is why should enforcement be subject to any limiting factors? Why not state that any horse can be tested at any time, with the record of those findings made public?

According to the terms of the agreement that gave NYRA back its franchise, it agreed to operate in a more transparent manner. So there is no excuse for not publishing these findings for the record, even when a test is passed. Wouldn’t that serve as a deterrent, too?

As stated in the release, "NYRA will initiate an 'in-today' process which will identify all horses, in their stalls, running in a NYRA race within 24 hours. This will afford NYRA the ability to monitor horses the day prior to and in the hours leading up to a race through the deployment of a stronger backstretch presence of NYRA veterinarians and security officers.

"Further, NYRA will continue testing for illegal levels of total carbon dioxide (TCO2, known as 'milkshaking') through an 'assembly barn' where all horses entering a race will be required to report just prior to moving to the paddock for saddling."

More welcome news is that the testing operation will be administered and supervised by Dr. George Maylin, director of the New York State Racing & Wagering Board’s drug testing and research program at Morrisville State College in upstate New York.

The program of thoroughbred and standardbred testing currently overseen by Dr. Maylin in New York is already the most advanced and comprehensive of any jurisdiction in the United States, the release said. It is widely accepted that Dr. Maylin‘s experience and reputation are above reproach. This development is a good thing for the customer.

TOMORROW, Part 2: Enforcement, Punishment and the Big Picture

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 09, 2010

New York City OTB: New Face, Same Old Process

As a good friend and trusted HRI source said the other day, this is our government in action: Larry Schwartz, New York Governor David Paterson’s chief of staff, is the new and current Chairman of the New York City Off Track Betting Corporation.

In his first significant act, he appointed Greg Rayburn new NYC-OTB President and CEO Grey Rayburn after a 4-1 vote by the NYC-OTB Board of Directors. It’s not a stretch to think that he did so with the blessing of the state’s chief executive.

And since City-OTB is now a ward of the state, that means the process of finding new leadership for the beleaguered corporation was pretty much business as usual.

To be completely fair, however, Rayburn deserves the benefit of the doubt. He just might be able to lead NYC-OTB out of bankruptcy and ultimately achieve a good result. He’s done it before, this “turnaround pro,” so dubbed by the Wall Street Journal.

Rayburn’s portfolio includes terms as both CEO and COO of several corporations. He also had a cup of coffee as interim CEO of Magna Entertainment Corp., where he reported to Frank Stronach.

As a full time CEO at troubled mainstream corporations, Rayburn implemented new models and did plenty of streamlining. Figure that there will more job cutting at NYC-OTB straight away.

City OTB already has cut 30 percent of its workforce and is even down to about only 50 company cars in its fleet. Amazing what can be accomplished when nose is applied to grindstone.

If it were my responsibility, I’d be inclined to give Rayburn this chance, too. His specialty is restructuring bankrupt companies. Any man who can reorganize Magna, allow Stronach to remain in charge and retain his flagships Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park, deserves a crack at the OTB mess.

Even in the real world of the Great Recession, $125,000 a month is probably commensurate with the task. However, NYC-OTB is light years from the real world.

Frankly, this kind of money for a chief executive whose company is shorting the New York Racing Association--which provides OTB with its most popular product--$2-million a month, and owes it $20 million-plus, is beyond the pale.

What’s really obscene, however, was the manner in which the appointment was handled by Board Chairman Schwartz and three other two-legged rubber stamps in the board meeting at which Rayburn was nominated and approved.

The only NYC-OTB board member who lived up to his fiduciary responsibility was Steven Newman, a State Assembly appointee. Newman suggested a two-month trial period in which Rayburn’s restructuring plan could be evaluated before making the appointment permanent.

Newman, who favors merging the NYRA with all six of the state’s OTB, pointed out that Rayburn will make as much money in six weeks as outgoing President Ray Casey made in a year.

[You can watch Wednesday’s entire meeting, which took all of 13 minutes].

Parenthetically, Rayburn will earn as much as Neil Getnick gets from NYRA. Getnick is the red herring creator that helped save the NYRA franchise by taking the focus off corruption and shining a light on security issues, both real and imagined.

Getnick’s firm, along with NYRA security, monitors the controversial, largely unpopular, and questionably functional detention barns.

NYRA Chairman Steven Duncker applauded the appointment, saying he fully supports it, citing Rayburn’s experience at implementing viable reorganization plans. NYRA is NYC-OTB’s largest creditor.

Here’s hoping that Rayburn is worth every penny. He likely will start by implementing some of the recommendations made by Sandy Frucher, the Board Chairman who Schwartz replaced.

Frucher proposed that numerous betting shops be closed [none to date] and replaced by self-service betting machines in mainstream venues such as sports bars. Newman later said that he hopes that’s exactly what Rayburn will do.

While it’s not a novel idea, Newman wants to see elimination of redundancies, especially in the area of contract services for phone, tote and advanced deposit wagering operations.

It will be interesting to see if this proposed streamlining will include continuing to pay retail prices for consulting services and public relations, or whether those practices will be eliminated entirely.

Since November of 2009, OTB has been billed nearly a half-million dollars by a high-powered PR firm, absurd given the present reality. So, to paraphrase the great sage, Sarah Palin, “how’s that imag-ee thing been workin’ out for ya’?”

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 02, 2010

Quality Equals Quantity

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 1, 2010--For skeptics requiring more proof that good racing is good business, two tracks have shown that not every venue need follow the national trend of double-digit declines so prevalent throughout most of this year.

On Wednesday night--yes, Wednesday night--Indiana Downs hosted its richest race of the meet, the $200,000 Oliver Stakes. The result was handle records for a single race and a single card; $379,220 and $2,140,490, respectively, gains of $75,000 and $304.000 per category.

Located at 4200 N. Michigan Blvd. in Shelbyville, it probably doesn’t hurt that Indiana Live!, “the closest casino to Indianapolis,” stands at 4300 N. Michigan. Although called a casino, slots are the only action available for bettors preferring not to allow thinking to interfere with their gambling.

Said Indiana Downs general manager Jon Schuster: “This is exactly how it’s supposed to work on the racing side. Higher purses bring higher quality racing...” For the record, Indiana downs does not make attendance figures available.

Still, handle of $2.1 million on a Wednesday night in a small town in Indiana is impressive no matter how many people were in the building: No wonder neighboring Kentucky is concerned about its own economic future in the gambling business. Indiana slots are killing them.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, Monmouth Park keeps rolling right along. Judging the ultimate success of the “50-day for 50 million” session won‘t be known for months, but the numbers continue to be other worldly. Over 14 days of racing, total handle is up almost 130 percent.

Handle on track has more than doubled, based on attendance gains of 24 percent. Cynics point to the low per capita figures, significantly below triple digits, but Monmouth officials say it’s to be expected when trying to introduce a new audience to the racetrack. Makes sense.

This week, a team appointed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to analyze the synergistic components of racing, gaming, and entertainment in the state was to have its results ready for review. Instead, it was granted a 30-day extension. The new deadline is August 1, Haskell Day, featuring Monmouth’s signature event.

Monmouth Park’s aggressive profile is being matched by the state itself. Two pieces of legislation were recently introduced in the legislature, one allowing online sports wagering, the other permitting betting exchanges, popular and very successful in Great Britain.

Leading betting exchange company Betfair, trying to make inroads inn this country, purchased the racing network/advance deposit wagering platform TVG last year. The tandem is co-sponsoring Monmouth’s second biggest event, Saturday’s prestigious United Nations Handicap for older horses on turf.

Legislation allowing betting exchanges passed this state Assembly unanimously this week. Exchanges have been viewed as too controversial here because in this form of head-to-head wagering, money can be made when horses lose. That has the industry scared to death.

What is not known is whether they fear possible collusion or whether they’re afraid they wouldn’t be able to recognize it when they see it. The system has been abused occasionally in Britain, but the perpetrators were dealt with severely and quickly.

The popularity and success of betting exchanges is based on its low commissions. Two bettors agree to play, or lay, a certain horse in a particular race after one has set the win odds to win. The loser pays nothing; the winner as much as 5 percent, or lower based on high volume.

Supporters believe that the exchanges could benefit racing by expanding the menu of available bets that attract new players to the sport. On its face, a horse-vs.-horse wager is easier for new bettors to understand while savvy players appreciate the lower takeout rate.

Whether it goes the exchange route and/or gets permission to conduct online sports betting, it is clear that New Jersey has bought into the model that tracks market the sport and gambling while the money comes from a distribution network that includes phone betting, state sanctioned simulcast venues and Internet wagering. Those monies will allow the state to fund the racetracks.

In the main, quality has not been as good as was originally projected. Despite huge purses being offered in the allowance ranks and racing dates that were halved, the horse shortage created by the downturn in the yearling market the past two years has hurt the sport’s higher classes nationwide.

Monmouth and Belmont Park have struggled to put on a top class show on a consistent basis. What’s in store at the upcoming prestige meets of Saratoga and Del Mar at this juncture is anyone’s guess.

Early July marks the beginning of racing’s busiest period. Controlling the supply side has helped Monmouth thus far and they are about to get into the prime portion of their meet.

The money they’ve saved on high class allowance races now can be used to lure better horses, such as Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra who will race at Monmouth next Saturday instead of the Grade 1 Ruffian in Saratoga the following weekend.

Monmouth jacked up the purse of the ungraded Lady’s Secret by $250,000 and lengthened the distance to nine furlongs. Unlike Indiana Downs, you can bet you’ll find out just how many more people a Horse of the Year champion is worth.

Written by John Pricci

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