Saturday, April 26, 2014
The Asmussen Saga: My, My
LOS ANGELES, April 26, 2014--Frank Sinatra’s life helped popularize Jimmy Webb’s song, "That’s Life
," but Steve Asmussen’s perhaps has epitomized the up-and-down of it all.
"You're riding high in April, shot down in May."
Actually, it was a month earlier when the New York Times and PETA – now to be referred to collectively as the ADHR (Alliance to Destroy Hose Racing) – released the ignominious video that suggested massive misconduct within the Asmussen operation.
At that point, the winningest active trainer had been nominated to the racing Hall of Fame. That nomination was withdrawn, of course, with the four worthiest inductees of 2014 announced Friday, April 25.
"Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race."
Asmussen already had bounced back from a long suspension with the accomplishments that led to his nomination. This is a trainer who not only won with Horse-of-the-Year quality stock but also compiled huge numbers with his far-flung operation, amassing nearly 6,800 career victories.
How many other trainers have worked with so many different horses and have been involved in addressing such a diversity of issues? It’s time to see how he and others fare if asked to compete on a level playing field.
My guess is that he would still be successful; to what degree is the nagging question.
"I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king."
An aside: Remember how early hackers were recruited by their corporate victims to improve the security of the computer systems they once exploited? I wonder if Asmussen, now that he has been accused of egregious acts, fairly or unfairly, might be persuaded to assist in establishing rules that would thwart the kind of behavior allegedly attributed to him.
"Some people get their kicks stomping on a dream."
Among those committing aggravating--if not aggravated--assault on Asmussen’s Derby dream is Steve Davidowitz
The handicapping icon offered a curious analogy between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s alleged undermining of his underlings to Asmussen assistant Scott Blasi’s abuse of owners and the English language. Davidowitz believes that Asmussen should step away and spare the sport "the maelstrom of negative publicity that will dominate Derby week coverage …"
The problem with that is even with Asmussen on the sidelines, what’s to prevent another suspected "cheater" from filling the void? There’s going to be a "maelstrom" regardless of what Asmussen does on Derby Day. In fact, there is a story in the April 26 edition of the NY Daily News on this issue.
The only way the Asmussen storyline doesn’t overshadow traditional Derby coverage is if critics can be convinced that pro-active steps are taken to prevent foul play by the edge-takers, whether it be owner, trainer, jockey, track executive or even bettors.
That would occur only if creditable professional turf writers work cooperatively in support of that objective.
Apparently "Bill Finley
would. In fact, he wants Asmussen’s horse in the Derby so that the story doesn’t go away:
"… It needs to stay alive and force some self-reflection on the part of the sport … so that the industry can't run and hide but, instead, finally deal with a problem … that a culture exists in this game where far too many trainers and owners believe that the way to get to the winner's circle is best accomplished with a needle."
Mr. Finley’s "culture problem" may be too limited in scope. It goes back to the debate about whether racing should be promoted as a sport or gambling game. Many think it’s a mixture of both.
Others regard playing the races as a game of skill, but few seem willing to call this skill what it really is; "edge-taking." Indeed, that’s the basis of parimutuel wagering, gaining an edge on the wagering competition as opposed to other luck-dependent games of chance. Purely and simply, rebated batch bettors are taking an edge with the public.
But putting the lives of horses and riders at risk is reprehensible edge-taking but can we expect those focused on the bottom line to give up whatever edge they think they have while others refuse to give up theirs?
Who can rightfully determine whether a particular edge is legal or not, moral or not? The handling of financial and informational edges remains largely conjecture. The game is always changing. New edges turn up every day.
To his credit, what Davidowitz has contributed to the game was effective instruction to horseplayers as to the importance of using one’s mind to create tools that give them an intellectual leg up over the crowd.
While edge-taking has become pervasive on the backstretch, so has awareness, due in no small part to the efforts of the ADHR’s making use of tactics culled from a Dick Francis novel. The late jockey-turned-author’s cumulative works contain every edge ever attempted, plus a few from the novelist’s fertile imagination. Going undercover was a common tack.
In "Dick Francis’s Refusal," by his son, Felix, there were developments analogous to the Asmussen situation whereby the main character had to fight charges brought against him based on manufactured visual evidence.
Further, the story’s villain extorted cooperation from another character by using staged photographs suggesting scandalous behavior. It was press coverage that was instrumental to the malefactor’s initial success because human nature is ever willing to believe in the worst capabilities of their fellow man.
PETA has raised questions of employee loyalty with all horsemen, be it the prospect of potential undercover agents or those willing to address some grievance by planting evidence. Sadly, the general public seems to be buying into PETA’s claims of widespread abuse. Livelihoods are at risk throughout the industry.
The only cure is cooperative comprehensive change with common goals and objectives. That change will come from within--or with coercion from without.
“And if I didn't think it was worth one single try, I'd jump right up on a big bird and fly”
Written by Indulto
Friday, April 11, 2014
To Bet or Not to Bet, That’s the Game-Saving Question
LOS ANGELES, April 7, 2014--Not since the “Fix Six” scandal over a decade ago have I been so fascinated with racing-related commentary as I’ve been with some of the opinions expressed in the wake of the taped revelations from the PETA undercover agent working in trainer Steve Asmussen’s barns at Saratoga and Churchill Downs.
The c-word then was “crook.” Today it’s “cheater.” The “Drexel Frat Boys” broke laws and went to jail. The current excessive edge-takers operate within winking distance of inconsistent rules with inconsequential penalties.
Today’s c-worders are enabled by incompetent and/or agenda-driven regulators, laissez-faire racetrack management, greedy and self-serving horsemen and uninformed and unorganized customers.
The only reason for which I can remember someone facing criminal charges for abuse of race horses was starvation and neglect to animals that no longer were in competition.
One thing I gleaned from the content was that very few people are in a position to confirm equine abuse inflicted by others and far fewer who are willing to do something about it.
This doesn’t mean the widespread apathy doesn't exist. But until now little concerted effort has been made to discourage it beyond New York’s decision to limit purses in the wake of a rash of winter breakdowns several years ago and efforts made to establish uniform rules by tracks operating in the Northeast and Delaware Valley.
There is a National Uniform Medication Program in place in four states with 10 others reportedly in the process of doing likewise. Ten other racing jurisdictions have begun taking a serious look at adoption. The sport cannot afford any more foot-dragging on this issue.
With Kentucky Derby rapidly approaching, racing officials have begun to plead in earnest that the industry adopt the NUMP immediately. Meanwhile, there are 10 more jurisdictions yet to be heard from. What's up with that?
Amidst the usual hand-wringing, PETA-bashing and status quo defending, several other familiar potential solutions were recycled. Some were eloquently expressed but predictably few seemed to generate much agreement.
A possible exception was a piece by Andrew Cohen that seemed to touch many individual consciences but precious few among the entrenched establishment.
While referred to by other media contributors the commentary has not yet spurred collective action. Indeed, the longer the discussions continue, the less likely change seems possible.
The only person that appeared to strike any fear among commenters was NBC’s Bob Costas. Perhaps he should become racing’s first commissioner or the vehicle by which one is created.
What he has to say on the Kentucky Derby telecast--if indeed he plays the role of host given NBC's recent hiring of Josh Elliot--viewed by millions of viewers could go a long way in motivating actual reform. It would help if he could report there is massive support for change among the sport’s bettors and fans.
One way to accomplish this would be to boycott a subset of the pari-mutuel pools for races preceding the Derby that did not involve exotic multi-race bets, i.e., eschewing straight wagers and vertical exotics.
Another race could be used to heighten interest and increase impact. Either way, it would send a clear message to the widest possible audience without ruining an entire day or crippling the sport.
(Other suggestions for accomplishing that objective are most welcome).
What is needed for this is a temporary organization -- one with a name like BETCARE, Bettors for Equitable Treatment and Care of All Racing Equines -- that could construct such a message to help raise the funds for spreading the word through media in preparation for such a demonstration.
Surely the authors of opinion pieces advocating pro-active change as an appropriate response to PETA and the NY Times would be willing to lead this charge. How about it, Messrs. Casner, Cohen, Irwin, Pricci, Weisbord, et al … will you accept supportive/constructive input and draft the message for confirmation in an on-line petition?
Will you be willing to place ads enlightening bettors and instructing them how to speak with a single voice on this issue? Could HANA provide resources to enable such an endeavor?
Everyone knows what the obstacles are; acknowledging a crisis exists, the need to overcome the inertia in fixing it and, of course, the kneejerk resistance to change in the status quo. The many must not be thwarted by the few any longer.
Those who know in their hearts that the status quo cannot continue must assert themselves and clean up the game in the face of fifth-column opposition to existing alliances that destroy racing. Take-charge leaders must prevent the greatest gambling game known to man from being ground to a halt by the arrogant and corrupt.
We have the opportunity on May 3 to effectively hold a national referendum on how U.S. racing should be conducted at a time when the whole world is watching. It is a chance for horse owners and horseplayers to demonstrate respect for each other by addressing mutual concerns.
The time has come to stop looking backward with recrimination and deliver a positive statement about how racing intends to move forward in harmony with a single goal; truly doing our best for the horses and the humans who care for them.
Written by Indulto
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Only an Organized Horseplayers Group Can Insure Racing’s Survival, Growth
LOS ANGELES, March 16, 2014—A New York State Gambling Commission press release proved that when horseplayers get “mad as hell,” they can spur reform in thoroughbred racing:
Stated the release: “At its March 12 meeting, Commissioner John A. Crotty noted that there had been considerable controversy surrounding the disqualification of a winning horse at Gulfstream Park on February 22 in the last leg of the Rainbow Six wager…
“The disqualification led to rampant allegations of collusion which brought into question the integrity of the decision.”
“Commissioner Crotty’s notion that we can do even more to demonstrate to the public that New York’s pari-mutuel racing is open, honest and fair is right on target,” said Commission Chairman Mark D. Gearan.
The preceding came on the heels of a similar one by Gulfstream Park in response to the groundswell of frustration and criticism expressed by racing fans in social media and on discussion forums. Gulfstream CEO Tim Ritvo said that any additional changes “will be based on what is best for our bettors” and “if these changes work at Gulfstream, we will roll them out across all Stronach Group tracks.”
The commission also said that it supports the development of “uniform rules to govern disqualifications” and will “reach out to the … Racing Fan Advisory Council and to the wagering public … for further recommendations on how to best increase transparency and public confidence.”
All this is very good news indeed, but the best part is that it demonstrates the power that horseplayers can wield collectively when properly motivated.
The question now is: How do we build on this?
One critical aspect was that turf writers reacted as strongly as recognized activists. Another was that social media facilitated expression and distribution of horseplayer emotion. It wasn’t just a “bad beat” for one bettor. Every race on which people bet their money is important.
The bad news is that foul adjudication might have diverted focus from ever-present takeout concerns. It is commendable that Commissioner Crotty was pro-active. Hopefully, the pursuit of transparency will shine more light on the issue of excessive takeout. Lowering takeout effectively rebates all, not just high-volume bettors.
Increased fairness could be further promoted in New York by no longer restricting participation at Fan Advisory Council meetings to those able and willing to attend on-track or at other locations that are at best inconvenient, if not impossible.
NYRA’s customers make up 20% of total national handle and not all of them live in New York. These FAC meetings should be held on-line with feedback from the nation’s bettors and ideally need to be interactive in real time.
These public sessions can be conducted on dark-days with agenda set and thoughtful questions from concerned players submitted in advance.
Real dialogue in real time. What a concept.
The sad reality, however, is that the discussions likely will continue to be limited to New Yorkers, the issues filtered through state appointees. Given that, how would contributors know whether their input was considered constructive, if at all, and what priorities were addressed? There needs to be an interactive process that’s timely, meaningful and truly transparent.
What if these meetings were conducted on-line and hosted by horseplayers from a newly created National Horseplayers Organization, or through the auspices of the existing Horseplayers Association of North America?
A respected panel of horseplayers could set the agenda and publicly invite industry organizations involved with the issues being addressed, with an implied obligation to show up and relate just how the industry’s “best practices” deals with a particular concern.
In a public online forum, industry groups; tracks, horsemen, NTRA, etc., etc., would have a public responsibility to participate or risk being exposed as disingenuous or obtuse. Betting handle, or lack of same, provides horseplayers with leverage here.
The vehicle that would enable horseplayers to speak with a single voice cannot be operated on a voluntary basis. Even horseplayers have lives, but should be prepared to be as committed in the same way demands are made of the industry.
We have just witnessed what can be accomplished by serendipitous player discontent. Should we be satisfied with that, or encouraged that further organized action will result in horseplayers becoming an influential force whose common concerns no longer can be ignored? More progress needs to be made.
Whether the issue is standardized medication rules, optimal takeout rates, or consistent foul claim adjudication, a level playing field must be created for all--by all. If not, how can the game possibly grow? How much entertainment and increased betting handle can be generated by a participatory sport that institutionally tilts the game against horseplayers, professional and novice alike?
Establishing a level playing field probably would require an interim board comprised of prominent and trusted horseplayer/communicators with the advocacy credentials of an Andy Beyer, Steven Crist, Len Friedman, Barry Meadow, John Pricci, or others of similar stature.
How do we motivate these individuals to get involved? Perhaps enthusiastic endorsements of those willing to step forward via an on-line petition could get the dialogue started. It might require a pledge drive to pay any individual for his time and expertise.
As opposed to those on handicapping and wagering, think of a player advocacy panel as a seminar on the best ways to increase collective horseplayer influence by nationally recognized advocates.
I would gladly pay a nominal amount, say $25 in yearly dues, to get a national horseplayers organization off the ground. The question is how many other horseplayers care enough to do the same?
Written by Indulto