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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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Not Your Father’s Saratoga Press Briefing

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 29, 2011--I don’t normally feel sorry for executives who earn a half million dollars per year because their health insurance premiums cost $400 a month, especially when they are working at their dream job.

As anyone who works at their hobby already knows, just because you like what you’re doing doesn’t mean it’s not hard work. And when you’re the face of the New York Racing Association, expected to man up every time something goes awry, there’s nothing glamorous or easy about it.

Even before admitting “I made a mistake,” it wasn’t difficult to have empathy for NYRA President Charlie Hayward at the press briefing annually conducted on the last Monday of the month preceding the opening of the Saratoga racing season.

The normally glib Hayward was anything but this week, his tone measured, deliberate. This year’s welcome to the Saratoga racing season wouldn’t be business as usual. Even the usually benevolent local media were fresh out of softballs when the Q and A session began.

Hayward’s opening remarks were upbeat as he noted the positive momentum in NYRA’s recent fiscal fortunes: All sources handle on the Belmont Stakes was up 10 percent, the only Triple Crown track to experience any growth this year.

Then came an announcement that the 15 percent increase in net revenue was attributable to improved business spurred by the closure of New York City OTB.

That, coupled with the advent of its new “off track” facility, the Belmont Café on the grounds of Belmont Park, with projected handle of $75 million would make the facility the largest “OTB” in the state.

And finally how, after acquiring public access Channel 71 in the wake of NYC-OTB’s closure and creating the new “NYRA Television Network,” the volume of its phone business increased nearly 500 percent as 10,000 new accounts were opened while live attendance increased 53%.

But then, in words penned by the author of a New York State of Mind, Billy Joel, a summer in Highland Falls, or Saratoga for that matter, will be always what our situations hand us; either sadness or euphoria.

And so it turned out that NYRA failed to make timely provisions to deal with the increased volume, necessitating a quick fix via a collaboration with TwinSpires.com, Churchill Downs’ advance deposit wagering company in Oregon.

[Correction made July 1]***While the State Racing & Wagering Board eventually and reluctantly gave its approval to the TwinSpires deal, the refusal to divulge proposed salary increases for its top management was part of an inadequate accounting of why the company would lose $11 million this year.

The final straw for the state was Hayward’s failure to show before the Franchise Oversight Board, NYRA’s Chief Counsel and CFO appearing instead. Whether the omission was deliberate or unavoidable, it wasn‘t well received. It wasn’t the kind of tone a new franchisee should set a month before it opens the world’s most visibly successful extended race meet.

And so came the public apology to Robert Megna, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Budget Director, and what seemed a gratuitous tip of the cap to the SRWB for allowing orphaned OTB bettors to instantly sign up and fund their new NYRA Rewards accounts, and for permitting the video streaming of all tracks throughout the state. The public mending of fences had begun.

In a letter to the FOB chairman on the Friday prior to the press conference, Hayward disclosed the salaries of its executives and promised to cooperate with the board on a long term financial plan.

Shortly thereafter, Hayward then threw himself on the mercy of the court of public opinion by refusing to reveal the salaries publicly, saying the FOB was free to do so if it wished.

He also invited interested parties to watch a four-hour video of the meeting on the Division of Budget website or read the 41-page report which NYRA’s Media Director would make available; all you had to do was ask.

But then Hayward made some good points of his own, the NYRA President explaining how the association pays the highest parimutuel tax in the country to the state, twice that of runnerup California.

The seminar continued as attendees learned that NYRA’s reconstituted Board of Directors has 11 new members appointed by the state’s political leaders and how that Board approved the unpopular 2010 salary increases by a margin of 24-1 before noting that the same Board unanimously approved the 2011 budget.

Hayward was also correct to indicate that a sizable portion of last year’s $17.2 million operating losses was the result of NYC-OTB going out of business before it could pay the NYRA any of the $28 million it owed the association.

But there wasn’t much sympathy to be gleaned there since the NYRA has itself been forgiven hundreds of millions in state indebtedness at various intervals since its inception in 1955.

Hayward certainly earned his considerable salary on Monday and showed a measure of contriteness in the process. Hopefully, he and his organization has learned something from all this. The two sides will either learn to swim together or sink separately. Good faith is a two-way street.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Socrates: There is only one good; knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 26, 2011--It is often said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Whenever I hear that, I think as compared to what: The sweet oblivion of no knowledge at all, or that knowledge is power?

And if knowledge is power, how exactly does one develop paralysis by analysis? This becomes relevant when considering an issue that’s been a hot item in racing chat rooms this week.

Regarding the NBC Preakness telecast, fans have been remarking that while analyst Donna Brothers comments on a horse’s appearance were instructive, they came too late to help bettors looking to make an informed wager.

Now before an NBC spokesman spins this into “we put on a show for the general sports fan and not racing insiders or gamblers,” there’s no reason why the type of knowledge imparted by Brothers cannot be addressed by the industry.

It should be of no consequence whether or not any network thinks it has an obligation to supply this kind of information in a more timely fashion, if at all.

The idea is to help sports fans--whether they be loyal or casual in nature--by any media necessary. Given recent declining handle figures, it’s apparent that many of racing’s most dedicated enthusiasts are mad as hell and have decided not to pay attention anymore.

Racing always has done a woeful job in educating its fans which, given the scenarios above, falls into either the oblivion category of no knowledge at all, or the danger that studying long is studying wrong.

During the run-up to Kentucky Derby, Uncle Mo owner Mike Repole opined that full disclosure can do more harm than good since even racing’s most dedicated fans lack the sophistication needed to evaluate the physiology of any particular horse.

I can’t say I totally disagree. Horses lie as often as trainers do--sorry, couldn’t resist--in that their actions can belie their performance. But, at minimum, in the absence of full disclosure can come more disclosure.

Brothers spoke to two aspects of appearance; weight and profuse sweating.

With regard to the latter, “washing out” is most often a bad trait because it indicates nervous anxiety whereby the animal expends all its energy pre-race. But it can also be a sign that perhaps bad things are starting to happen internally. Maybe a horse is beginning to develop ulcers, many do. That's why they sell a lot of ulcer products on the backside.

For some horses, sweat can be like a boxer getting ready for a match, needing to warm up, to get good and loose. Horses that wash out and run well might not perform up to its potential if one day it comes out dry as a bone.

The opposite trait is true also. Some animals by nature are “non-sweaters” and only perform at their best in cooler climates. They must change venues from, say, Florida to somewhere in the Northeast, where temperatures are more moderate.

Brothers also referred to Mucho Macho Man’s apparent weight loss since the Derby, which apparently must have been an eleventh hour development.

It certainly was too late to help bettors adjust to the situation, just as a similar announcement about Super Saver last year also came too late to help. But don’t blame the talented Brothers. In this context, she speaks only when directed to.

A horseman friend stabled at Belmont Park, who I trust implicitly, told me that in Macho Man’s gallops the week after the Derby, he had high energy and looked better physically than when seen in Florida this winter.

The following week he breezed a half-mile then shipped to Pimlico. Maybe that breeze turned out to be too much? Horses are like strawberries and can spoil quickly counseled the great Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham.

At the post draw Wednesday night, I spoke with a relaxed and very confident Kathy Ritvo. But perhaps the racing gods invoked the Whittingham rule and things changed in a finger snap, just like that?

Assessing body language with regard to profuse sweating can be a tricky read. You have to know the individual intimately. By all accounts, trainer Dale Romans and jockey Jesus Castanon were not overly concerned by Shackleford’s pre-race appearance. They knew it was just Shackleford being Shackleford.

However, weight loss is never a good development. You hear horsemen refer to healthy horses all the time which “carried their flesh well,” “haven’t lost any weight,” “put on weight since its last race,” etc., etc.

At dog tracks, a whole handicapping cottage industry developed around weight gain or loss and that information is carried in the official track program. Dogs apparently have an optimum weight that often produces the best results.

Many horsemen, such as Jim Bond in Saratoga, has a horse scale at his private barn which he uses consistently to tell him what his horses may or may not need with respect to maintaining condition. Back in the day, Greentree stable had a scale outside its Belmont Park barn and horses were weighed once a week.

There is no good reason why a horse scale cannot be put in place at a holding barn to weigh horses before they race. Previous running weights can be included in the past performance data.

Raceday weights can be announced during the post parade for on-site fans. The same information can be disseminated via the track’s closed circuit system to service simulcast players. Let the fans decide whether or not that information is pertinent.

Where to fit this information in the past performances? That’s easy. Place it right in between the name of a runner’s attending veterinarian and the tongue-tie information.

Maybe it’s the industry and not the fans who need educating.

Written by John Pricci

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