Tuesday, January 25, 2011
When Parables Won’t Do
LOS ANGELES, January 25, 2011--News flash: Parables are passe. Take my word for it. Life itself has forced parables to put up a "Going Out of Business" sign.
Try this: The New York Times home-delivery department sent my wife Pat an offer in the mail, 26 weeks of the paper at half-price. Since I have already been getting the Times for years, at full price, this piqued my interest. I called the 800 number and bought Pat a subscription at the cut rate. I told her that this was an early Valentine's Day gift, but that's another story.
Then I called again and, deftly disguising my voice, told the Times that I wanted to cancel my own subscription, the full-price one. Hey, the Times is no longer the low-ticket item it used to be. It practically costs as much as the Daily Racing Form. At least on Sunday, when the cover price for the Times' national edition is six hoops.
The woman at the other end of the line wanted to know the reason for my cancellation.
"Price," I said, telling the truth and lying at the same time. I did have a problem with the price, but I was also going to finagle into qualifying for my wife's half-price subscription.
"Can I put you on hold for a minute?" she said.
She came back and said that she was prepared to give me a year's subscription at half-price.
"Sign me up," I said, and then it was time to confess my chicanery. She didn't say anything about pressing charges, and said she would try to cancel Pat's subscription.
Then she said: "You've done all this so quickly that your wife's subscription hasn't hit my screen yet. But I'll cancel it as soon as it does." So my beautiful falsetto on the second call was a waste of deception.
After bringing the New York Times to its knees, I said to Pat: "Why, at the start, were they so nice to you, a perfect stranger, while they treated me, a loyal customer for many years, like I would be around forever, no matter what the price? Why did I have to back into a half-price deal? I've never negotiated a newspaper subscription price in my life, but I guess now anything is possible."
Stay with me, there's a racing connection here. What the New York Times was doing reminds me of far too many race tracks, stumbling over themselves to bring in new faces while letting the old faces wrinkle up and fade away. I have a good friend in the Midwest who's been going to his local track for more than 50 years. Let's call him Milt, because if I used his real name, he might lose his table in the dining room.
Milt's total bets, every time he goes racing, are conservatively three times the average daily per capita at this track. Milt bets with both hands, and on occasion I've seen him shovel in a bet or two with his feet. But if the track knows this, they've never given him a pass for free admission. The general manager of the track barely knows him; he says hello to him some of the time, other times acts like he's never seen him. Milt pays to get through the turnstiles every time, but lately he hasn't been going as much as he used to. He's been making more trips to Las Vegas, where he can bet a lot of other things besides horses and where they keep track of his play and throw hotel rooms and meals and drinks at him with endless abandon.
Now I know there are some tracks that have launched loyalty programs, but tracks in toto need to do more, and do a better job of identifying their well-heeled customers. You have to find fresh customers, that's the case in every business, even embalming, but don't let the regulars grovel while you're at it.
Phil Dunn died the other day. Phil was an executive at the New York Racing Association, and he was a guy who got it. At one time, according to Dunn, the handle at Aqueduct was carried by about eight substantial bettors.
"We should be sending limousines for these eight," Dunn said, but they didn't. "If one of them wakes up with a cold, we know why the handle is off."
It might be too late for racing, but it's not too late for the limousines. Even cab fare would be a start.
Written by Bill Christine
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Zenyatta At Last
LOS ANGELES, January 18, 2011--The night of the Eclipse Awards belonged to two old broads--Marylou Whitney, a latter-day unsinkable Molly Brown, and Zenyatta, who in case you haven't been paying attention is a horse. Marylou, probably richer than the Queen of England, was 85 the day before Christmas, and Zenyatta, who has a few bucks herself, turned 7 on New Year's day, which is getting up there in the hippic world. They both got Eclipse Awards that were a long time coming, Zenyatta's for Horse of the Year and Whitney's for lifetime contributions to the sport. Tears of joy followed the woman and the horse's handlers around a banquet room in the fancy-schmancy Miami Beach hotel.
They stood and cheered when Whitney delivered her acceptance speech, and they stood and cheered again when Jerry Moss and his wife Ann accepted the elusive mounted gold-plated horse on behalf of their brilliant racemare. Zenyatta had won all 19 of her races before inches separated her from an undefeated career in the Breeders' Cup, and there were voters, dozens of them, who reckoned that that was enough to deprive her of the championship. A year ago, a win in the same race hadn't been enough to catapult Zenyatta into the throne room, and her legions of supporters--58,000 alone on Facebook, according to the New York Times--were girding for another disappointment this time. But the final vote was Zenyatta 128, Blame 102, and for the third straight year the winner of the Breeders' Cup's $5-million race didn't capture the title. There must be something about lucre that's a turnoff for Eclipse voters.
Like Zenyatta, Blame had also lost one race last year. "He could have won every race," said Al Stall Jr., Blame's trainer, "but I'm not sure that would have made any difference, anyway. It's no disgrace, running second to Zenyatta. I wasn't surprised. The Mosses did a tremendous job bringing her back to race a third year, and they were rewarded."
For many voters, a ballot for Zenyatta was a vote that made certain she wouldn't become The Best Horse Never To Be Horse of the Year. There are usually some strange results in a breakdown of the Eclipse voting, and the Horse of the Year totals bore this out. One voter abstained, and two cast no vote at all. The remaining five votes went to Goldikova, the French mare who's come to the U.S. and won the Breeders' Cup Mile three straight years.
Zenyatta was probably asleep in her stall, at Lane's End Farm in Kentucky, when the news of her conquest broke in South Florida. Even the tabloids haven't been able to root out the identity of her first suitor in the breeding shed. At the dinner, the Mosses said nothing about pitching woo, but the announcement is imminent, because the optimum breeding month is February, which allows for the standard 11-month pregnancy and a foaling in January. If the newborn amounts to anything, in theory he or she will be as fully matured as the rest of the early foals who make it to the Kentucky Derby. There are rumors that the Mosses are dickering to breed to A.P. Indy, another Horse of the Year, whose advertised stud fee is $150,000. If it happens, that romance would be a May-to-September affair. A.P. Indy is 22 if he's a day.
Standing next to Marylou Whitney as she made her speech was her husband, 40 years her junior. Her late husband, the tycoon C.V. "Sunny" Whitney, received a similar Eclipse 26 years ago. As the song went, I remember it well. That was the night we were up against a tight deadline, and Whitney began his speech about how he had founded Pan American airlines in 1928. By the time he moved along to 1984, and they subsequently made the Horse of the Year announcement, readers of the Los Angeles Times were assured that they weren't going to read about John Henry's title in the next morning's paper.
"My husband introduced me to this sport in 1958," said Marylou Whitney, who has recovered from a stroke she suffered a few years ago. "These horses have given me much more than I could ever give them. I feel most alive when I am around my horses. They are my family." She also spoke of fighting "to insure that there will never be another horse slaughter in America," and caring for backstretch workers so they can "improve their lives" and "we can improve their dignity."
A year ago, at the dinner in California, Jerry and Ann Moss sat at their table in stunned silence when it was announced that Zenyatta had been outvoted by Rachel Alexandra, whose record was impeccable but whose owner kept her out of the Breeders' Cup. This time, the Mosses kissed and hugged at their table before heading for the stage. Jerry Moss collected himself, thanked everybody in the room but the busboys, and eventually read a poignant passage that was written by Priscilla Clark, who runs a sanctuary for retired horses in California.
Behind the Mosses on the stage was Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs. Both she and her men have had no small part in the Zenyatta phenomenon. Dottie has been the Mosses' racing manager for 25 years; her husband John Shirreffs trained Zenyatta; and her son, David Ingordo, was able to buy Zenyatta for the Mosses for the relative chump change of $60,000. At the auction, the unnamed, unraced filly had scared away several bidders because of a bad rash.
At the farm, Zenyatta got over her rash, was broken and was introduced to the clock, the measure of all fledgling racehorses. "You better get a good name for this one," somebody said. "Because either this one is very, very fast or else we've got a farm full of very slow horses."
When Zenyatta's name was called out in Florida, a look of relief filled Mike Smith's face. Smith was the jockey who rode for the last 16 of Zenyatta's 19 wins, but after the Breeders' Cup he was pilloried in some quarters for a faulty ride. Smith had been hard on himself for that ride, and with Zanyatta's racing career over, there was only one absolution possible. "After she got beat, this makes everything okay," Smith said. "Now I'm fine."
Written by Bill Christine
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Thar She Blows! Santa Anita!
LOS ANGELES, December 21, 2010--The late Jim Murray, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times, used to root for the worst weather on New Year's Day, when they would play the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Murray was well beyond a rain dance, he did a flood dance for New Year's. "I don't want all those Easterners coming out here," he would say. "And if they see on TV that the Rose Bowl is being played in 80-degree sunshine in January, they'll come. Our freeways are crowded enough."
Most of the time, Murray never got his wish. The Rose Bowl would be played in brilliant weather and snowbirds from all of North America would order moving vans. It's the same way with Santa Anita, with its traditional season opener, the day after Christmas. The weather gods might frown for a week, but on opening day at Santa Anita, you can bring the suntan lotion and the beach umbrellas. This year appears to be no different. There's been so much rain in these parts lately that there was a wild story about Richard Tedesco, the track superintendent, going into the hospital to have his barnacles removed.
Santa Anita's traditional winter dates jibe with the rainy season in California. In 1998, 38 days, almost half the meet, were conducted over an oval that looked like a hot-fudge sundae, and played just as sticky. That's the record for number of mud days at the track. Of course, in recent years, at considerable cost, Santa Anita installed a synthetic track, to go along with the California Horse Racing Board edict that dirt was a dirty word. The artificial surface, made out of things left over from your attic, the trainer Nick Zito once said, went through much tinkering, and still wasn't the ticket. Last year, while there were only five days of off-track racing, Santa Anita had to cancel five days because the track didn't drain properly. Now dirt is in vogue again. The racing board recanted, and Santa Anita has the distinction of becoming the first California track to leave the synthetics behind.
Even though opening day is several days away, it's a likelihood that the first races over the new dirt at Santa Anita will be in the mud. The track got six inches of rain in a 72-hour period recently, and more storms were in the forecast. Hollywood Park was unable to run a full card of races on its final day due to the deluge. But for three days prior to opening day, the forecast called for partly cloudy skies, with no rain. But some weather forecasters I know are a cut below some handicappers; only right about a third of the time.
In honor of flagging business, Santa Anita will raise its prices, something that they couldn't have learned in Business 101. I'm not talking about hotdogs and beer (although they may cost more as well), I'm talking about the tax bite the horseplayer will feel on his bets. With the racing board's approval, because low purses have been driving owners and their horses out of state, takeout for exactas and daily doubles will be almost 23%, and the off-the-top charge for other exotic bets will be close to 24%. In the lending business, rates like that used to be called usury, but not anymore, and Santa Anita must figure that what's good for the credit-card industry is good for its fans. Members of the Horseplayers Association of America are in a tizzy, and there has been widespread talk of a betting boycott, but as the pundit Bill Finley wrote, "Most people who bet the races pay no attention to takeout, which is what the (racing board) is banking on." What 23% means in simplest terms is that when you bet a dollar, you're really only getting a 77-cent bang for your buck. I'm not an economist, and every time I tried to study the subject in college I went to sleep, but I believe that this means in theory that horseplayers go broke faster. Let's hear it for the racing board, if that was their goal.
Steve Davidowitz, another pundit (the woods is full of them), favors an eventual boycott, but he says that Santa Anita should be allowed to get off the ground first. "If clearer heads were to prevail," Davidowitz wrote, "a betting boycott actually would make sense if it were to be initiated a month or so after Santa Anita wagering trends are set in place." It would be then, Davidowitz went on, that "solid points (by the horseplayers) actually might be made--not only on behalf of racing fans in southern California, but for beleaguered bettors throughout America."
Bruno DeJulio, a respected clocker and handicapper, questions whether a boycott will even fly. "Dirt is in," he says, "the track is doing massive marketing on the return to dirt, and do y'll think this is going to deter the player from sending (money) in with both hands on opening day? Some players won't even know of the takeout hike, or won't care. It's Santa Anita, the Great Race Place. That's all they hear, calendar, Santa Anita. This boycott is a delusional cause. It won't happen."
The wall calendar has been an opening-day Santa Anita giveaway since the flood (a timely reference). The 2011 edition may be especially treasured--it features 12 movies that have been shot at Santa Anita. Most everybody knows that "Seabiscut" was filmed there, as well as its unfortunate prequel, but how about "Charlie Chan at the Race Track" and "Goin' to Town," a 1935 Mae West vehicle. Sometimes, even though the locale is Santa Anita, the track might be identified as a track somewhere else. Santa Anita has been a stand-in, for example, for Hialeah, a mythical track in Buenos Aires and Cahokia Downs. OK, so I'm kidding about Cahokia Downs. No track is that good of an actor.
Written by Bill Christine