Friday, January 22, 2010

While Racing Fiddles, Rome Is Burning

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 22, 2010--I received a personal e mail from a friend of a friend, a faithful HRI contributor, on Tuesday. It read:

"I watch Sports Center two times a day. An hour in the morning when I am on my treadmill or stationary bike and an hour at night when I go bed.

“Yesterday was one of the racing industry’s biggest days as far as the press is concerned. It was horse racing's Oscars, its Golden Globes, horse racing's awards night.

“In the 60 minutes this morning it received eight seconds of time when they announced in passing the Horse of the Year.

“That was it – less than 10 seconds. A snowboarder scheduled to be in the Olympics had more air time because he crashed his three wheeler and was now out of the games."

The note went on about lost opportunities for racing, about how the sport doesn’t promote itself properly, etc., nothing anyone hasn’t heard before. And, of course, racing has gotten used to receiving short shrift from television. Pick a network.

I have a wonderful idea for the good folks at NTRA, no charge. Of course, it likely won’t be given serious consideration for two reasons; it wasn’t proposed in-house, and the source of the suggestion.

I don’t know how much NTRA has in its promotional budget anymore. Tough times for everyone, obviously. But if they have the wherewithal, I’d like to relate a story that should compel NTRA to seriously consider the proposal.

During Derby Week two years ago, I was pulling into the driveway when I heard an interview on nationally syndicated sports talk radio program out of Los Angeles.

When I heard that the host would be interviewing John and Brad Hennegan, who I watched grow up summers in the Saratoga press box, I knew I wouldn’t be exiting the car anytime soon.

The brothers had recently completed a documentary on horse racing, following the exploits of six horsemen who tried to win what eventually became Barbaro's Kentucky Derby.

The documentary, in limited release in various smaller markets around the country, was getting good word of mouth and print. They had made excellent use of their full-access backstretch pass.

The youthful host, an excellent broadcaster with a strong journalistic sense and the kind of audience demographics racing has coveted for decades, is smart and hip, almost to a fault, say his critics.

Well, he just loved the Hennegan brothers’ documentary. So did the industry, awarding the production the 2008 Media Eclipse in the national television feature category.

The host was fascinated with the notion that two brothers would travel 150,000 miles for a year and half to provide an inside look at six trainers who were following their dream. He was effusive in his praise of “The First Saturday in May.”

The host related his own background, explaining that he wasn’t a gambler, didn’t know much about horse racing, nor did he care all that much about it.

Then a friend introduced him to Billy Koch, grandson of successful Hollywood producer Howard W. Koch, who, in 2001, formed a racing partnership group known as Little Red Feather Racing.

Three years later, Little Red Feather Racing won the Breeders’ Cup Mile with Singletary at Lone Star Park.

The host explained to the boys that he and his wife went to the races, took a backstretch tour, the full treatment, and both fell in love with all of it, the horses, the sport, the ambience, everything.

He had no idea how exciting and fascinating the world of horse racing could be. He spoke about how his wife fell in love with the animals. His excitement was palpable and infectious.

The first time I became aware of the broadcaster, he was co-hosting a television talk show On SportsChannel with a friend and former Newsday colleague, Wallace Matthews, who later became a star as the Olympics boxing reporter for NBC Sports.

I liked Matthews, of course, but the other guy, not so much. He was incessantly hip and far too acerbic and argumentative, even if that was the purpose of this new sports-talk still in its infancy.

Now, it’s two decades later. He’s matured but is still young and hip, and seems genuinely loved by not only his audience but the sports figures he interviews from every corner of the sports world. The respect shown on both sides of the microphone seems genuine.

Twenty years ago, I was old school, and haven’t gotten any younger in terms of values or appreciation for media. The host has mellowed but has never lost his edge, and I find myself agreeing with his takes far more often than not.

I’ve come to respect his ethos, allowing for better understanding of his generation and where his audience is coming from. I might not talk the talk, but I get it now. It no longer offends my sensibilities.

Busy with my HRI duties, I don’t listen to his show very often. But whenever I’m running midday errands he is a companion, even if his audience bends toward tedium.

He’s a lot more involved in Little Red Feather Racing now than he was when he interviewed the Hennegans. When talking his horses, win or lose, he never fails to convey his love of the game and the horses. He often shares their performances via Trevor Denman race calls. Not even the mighty Francesa does that.

This host talks straight, his takes are credible, even when he's in someone’s face, earning the respect of guests and audiences alike, given the dialogue I‘ve heard. He even has a show on ESPN’s television network.

He talks street and he talks smack. He probably knows the lyrics to “Pants on the Ground.” As much as I love Rip Torn, this guy won’t be listening for Secretariat by holding clumps of turf up to his ear, nor is he the kind of hip that Lori Petty was supposed to be in the failed “Go Baby Go” campaign.

I’ve never met Jim Rome, nor appeared on his show, but he’s the kind of spokesperson who can cross-over. At least think about that. Talk to him, gauge his interest and, if it makes sense, do everything you can to get him.

And if you think you can muzzle him, then don‘t bother. Let him write his own material, say what he wants about the game, all of it, from the heart. He gets it. He puts his passion for racing on the line. If he’s becomes a lightning rod, so much the better.

Jim Rome automatically makes an often staid pastime cool. When was the last time younger generations thought horse racing was, you know, dope?

Who knows? He might even be able to breathe some life into the Eclipse ceremonies.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (19)


Friday, January 15, 2010

Racing’s Problems Effecting Quality of Life in New York State

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 15, 2010--The thoroughbred industry downstate from here is now in its ninth year of waiting for the state to approve a licensed franchisee for a Video Lottery Terminal operation at Aqueduct Racetrack .

Since racetracks were granted approval for VLTs, Finger Lakes, a thoroughbred track in upstate Canandaigua, and Saratoga Gaming and Raceway and Empire Gaming and Raceway at Yonkers Raceway, have done very well. Purses are up in all locations.

What has happened in regard to the Aqueduct scenario has been well documented. The situation has been described as, in the most charitable terms possible, highly irresponsible. In the vernacular, it’s unethical, criminal.

In the same week Gov. David Paterson gave a State of the State address calling for stricter ethics rules, the president of the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation announced plans for a new business model--if only it were given an opportunity to pay its bills based on net receipts, not gross revenues.

Before thinking “yeah, that’ll work and who do they think they‘re kidding,” never underestimate what can happen when one government agency works with another to solve a mutual problem.

After NYC OTB made its pitch before a joint Senate and Assembly hearing board, the president of the New York Racing Association called for an NYC-OTB-NYRA merger, under the track’s control.

Downstate, where I was born and lived most of my life, they have a word for both proposals. That word is chutzpah, which the dictionary defines as impudent rudeness or lack of respect. Either way, the odds that this parlay would work as presently constructed are extremely high.

The New York legislature’s unconscionable foot-dragging borders on the criminal for the harm it has caused the state’s taxpayers. The lawmakers are, by definition, a “citizen legislature,” part-time lawmakers entitled to have other sources of income.

Talk about a model rife with temptation for conflict.

Anyway, members of both houses were on local network news Wednesday night proudly announcing how they had passed ethics reform legislation, the first step in a long process. On the long process part I would bet.

Gov. Paterson didn’t necessarily agree, calling it “window dressing in an election year,” because it didn’t address two significant issues: campaign finance reform and term limits.

The logjam that is Albany politics would benefit from the imposition of term limits, an excellent idea on a national level, come to think of it.

It certainly would have been a good idea in the matter of recently convicted Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Saratoga, once the most powerful figure in state politics. Ironically, the VLT issue just might have been settled by now if he were still in power.

Term limits would have worked nicely in the case of House Leader Sheldon Silver, too, a Democrat who has played obstructionist-in-chief during the VLT discussions.

The inefficiency which is the current NYC OTB model has been so well documented as to become legendary. The NYRA, which volunteered to take over their operations, has been only slightly less so, and far less transparent.

Only recently did it grudgingly surrender its books to the state comptroller’s office. Until then, the association wasn’t doing a very good job of living up to the spirit of the agreement it made with state government.

New York State extended the NYRA franchise and gave it $105 million to emerge from bankruptcy protection. In return it gave title of its three racetrack properties to the State. But the state never did make it possible for VLTs to be up and running in 2009, as was part of the agreement.

There’s no shortage of black hats here.

But the VLT impasse is more than about dollars and cents. As with all gambling revenue, declines have a negative effect on education funding. Moreover, declining gaming revenues adversely impacts the quality of life and topographical character of the state itself.

VLTs is also about the preservation of the green space made possible by New York State breeding program.

There are approximately 400 breeding farms in the state but, as a result of falling purse revenues from declining handle and NYC-OTB’s inefficiency, the NYS Breeding Fund is owed $1.8 million by NYC OTB, and the figure keeps growing.

Resultantly, 21 breeding farms have been closed, including two of the state’s three largest commercial breeders, Sequel and Sez Who Farms. The estimate of farms that have moved breeding operations to VLT-enriched Pennsylvania ranges from 12 to 15 percent.

Foal size, which reached its zenith in 2004, has been reduced by 21 percent. Last year, there were 3,302 mares bred, producing 2,209 foals.

A crop reduced by one in every five horses foaled just five years ago will have a dramatic effect on field size this year and beyond, continuing racing’s downward handle spiral. The situation might not be as dire as Kentucky’s, but wait five minutes.

Even if overall simulcast handle on New York racing grows, and online wagering suddenly goes through the roof, it will not provide relief for the current situation. The New York breeders’ share of simulcast revenue is zero.

All these machinations that make up the state of the game in 2010 begins and ends in Albany. And the issue is greater than only the state of the industry. The entire population of New York has a vested interest in VLTs.

It’s way past time for the Governor and Legislature to agree on a slots operator for Aqueduct so that building can begin immediately. There’s just too much riding on the outcome.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 01, 2010

Meet the New Year, Same As the Old Year

Saratoga Springs, NY, December 31, 2009--It’s the end of the year, the end of a decade Time magazine called “The Decade from Hell.”

As for the last year, 73 percent of all Americans said in a recent poll that it was a bad year for the country. Remarkably, 72 percent said they were optimistic about 2010. Based on what, exactly? That things can’t get worse?

Be cautioned that that last rationalization might fall into the “careful what you wish for” category. Sadly, in fact, it might apply more meaningfully in the case of the racing industry.

With the exception of two remarkable female equines that helped elevate the sport back into the consciousness of mainstream news and sports organizations, what is there to feel optimistic about, especially as it concerns the thoroughbred sport?

Politicians have raised the level of contributions they accept from vested individuals and/or organizations to shameless proportions. Today, “the loyal opposition” means no anything that might benefit the citizenry. If it helps the party, fine.

On the other side of the aisle, meanwhile, they like to believe that they’re taking the high road, or are making chess-like two-moves-ahead decisions. The result has added up to a big, fat zero for its constituents and American public alike.

Aside from a healthy Horse of the Year debate, the only positive the industry can point to is the continued growth of the Advance Deposit Wagering market.

ADWs, of course, comes with a sword that cut both ways. Someday they will be the source of measurable growth. Until then, online betting platforms will continue to cannibalize a market currently in double-digit decline as convenience will continue to trump real engagement.

Racetracks used to be fun, and can again be places of social, intellectual, and occasional monetary reward. And it’s not so much that this lesson is lost on anyone as an entertainment option.

It’s that no one in the industry has any idea how to send an effective memo to the masses.

You might recall that in November, on Thanksgiving, we reprinted the uplifting tome of Max Ehrmann, originally written in that period in the last century referred to as “The Roaring Twenties.”

Appropriate that this decade in some quarters should be referred to as “The Naughties.”

Exactly right for a decade that was, on balance, good for nothing.

Today, with a little help from the good folks at the National Lampoon, a spin on Ehrmann’s encouraging words that lend a far different, albeit realistic world view attitude; a measure of how things are, not the way we wish they were.

The following, then, is fair warning for the new year contained in an abridged version of a piece the Lampoon calls “Deteriorata.”


“…Go placidly amidst the noise and waste, and remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof.

“Avoid quiet and passive persons, unless you are in need of sleep.

“Rotate your tires.

“Speak glowingly of those greater than yourself; and heed well their advice, even though they be turkeys.

“Know what to kiss - and when.

“Consider that two wrongs never make a right, but that three do.

“Wherever possible, put people on hold.

“Be comforted that in the face of all irridity and disillusionment, and despite the changing fortunes of time, there is always a big future in computer maintenance.

“…Whether you can hear it or not, the universe is laughing behind your back.

“Remember the Pueblo.

“Strive at all times to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate.

“Know yourself. If you need help, call the FBI.

“Exercise caution in your daily affairs, especially with those persons closest to you... that lemon on your left, for instance.

“Be assured that a walk through the seas of most souls would scarcely get your feet wet.

“Fall not in love therefore; it will stick to your face.

“Gracefully surrender the things of youth: the birds, clean air, tuna, Taiwan - and let not the sands of time get in your lunch.

“For a good time, call 606-4311, ask for Ken.

“Take heart in the deepening gloom that your dog is finally getting enough cheese.

“And reflect that whatever misfortune may be your lot, it could only be worse in Milwaukee.

“…Whether you can hear it or not, the universe is laughing behind your back.

“Therefore, make peace with your god, whatever you perceive him to be: hairy thunderer or cosmic muffin.

“With all its hopes, dreams, promises and urban renewal, the world continues to deteriorate.

“Give up.”

Sound advice, until tomorrow that is, when the Count Fleet Stakes, the first Kentucky Derby prep of the 2010 season, will be run at Aqueduct Racetrack.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (2)


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