Thursday, March 26, 2015

Lessons From the Stronach Group

As you may have heard, the Stronach Group has been making changes in the thoroughbred world which could be used as a model for changes in the standardbred world.  In Florida, they in effect took over racing at Calder (while allowing Calder to retain the racino portion of the plant), creating a circuit between Gulfstream and Calder (now known as Gullfstream West).

Even more dramatic changes are occuring in Maryland where The Stronach Group operates both Laurel Park and Pimlico.  First of all, they are reducing the takeout rates at their an effort to improve the handle at their facilities.  In addition, to develop a year round circuit, racing at Delaware Park and in Virginia (wherever it may occur) will be controlled from a centralized race office.  Not only are horsemen benefiting by having a year round circuit, gamblers benefit by being familiar with all the participants (human and equine) and there are cost savings by having one central office.

Wouldn't racing in the New Jersey - Pennsylvania region benefit from such an approach?  Instead of competing with each other for horses, a coordinated schedule between Pocono Downs, Harrah's Philadelphia, and the Meadowlands would benefit everyone involved.  Imagine the Meadowlands racing primarily in the winter, November - February and then a three week meet leading up to the Hambletonian; Harrah's operating March - June; Pocono Downs operating July-October.  The tracks would have full fields with the best horses available.  With the Meadowlands operating in what has been their most lucrative months, they would. be able to increase their racing dates perhaps to five days a week.

Unfortunately, cooperation between the three tracks seems unlikely; with two of the tracks having slot revenue, why would they wish to cooperate with their poor cousin?  This leads me to wonder if it may be time to develop a circuit within the Gural-operated tracks.  As above, have the Meadowlands operate a winter meet and a three week super meet similar to The Red Mile with Tioga Downs book-ending the Meadowlands meet and Vernon Downs operating during the Summer,  Not only would this provide a circuit for the horses to race on all year, it would allow each track to be promoted in order to raise their profile.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Final Thoughts; The End of The Whip?

Some final thoughts regarding the need to change in harness racing and the resistance to change we are seeing.  The problem with the racing industry (it goes for all breeds), is all the individual interests have their own separate comfort zones and not only do they feel comfortable in their little boxes, they refuse to change their comfort zones because the risk they would need to take.

As an example, in my last blog entry, I raised a proposal of tracks adding races for four year olds and possibly reducing the value of stake races for two year olds and move that money into three year old and four year old events.  Now, I can't take credit for some divine inspiration as this proposal has been brought forth before and lord knows other proposals may work better, but soon after I published the last blog entry, I immediately got these comments (paraphraed):

  • "Our Owners are looking at buying yearlings with the idea of trying to his it big at two".
  • "Yearling buyers have no interest in racing four year olds, they unload their horses after their three year old campaign and buy new yearlings".
  • "Since the best three year olds will retire at the end of their three year old season, these four year old stake races will attract second class horses";
You know what, they are right.  They are right based on the current configuration of stake races.  Yearling buyers tend to be those who buy a horse for their two and three year old seasons and then get rid of them as they head off to life as an overnight horse.  They get rid of them because there is no real opportunities to make money as a four year because there are not enough lucrative stake races.  The best ones will go off to stud at four because there is no enough stake money available to offset the risk of their horse getting whooped at four and decreasing their stud's value.

They are right based on the way things currently are and they make their comments from their comfort zone.  They automatically see flaws in the idea floated (or for that fact any plan) because it will change their world and they fear change; they fear something might change in their comfort zone making things less comfortable.  

Yet the industry continues to suffer.  Instead of immediately shooting down any plan, why not talk to your customers and see what they would need to keep racing at four?  What would be the minimum amount of stake money they would need to see at two in order for the money to shift to three and four year old events?  Maybe yearling buyers would bail, others could return; we don't know.  Maybe the answer is keeping the stake races the way they are at two and just build up the value of four year old events, or develop a new proposal after speaking to your customers.. The point is breeders need to leave the comfort of their zone and investigate what life would be like with changes to stake races.  If it turns out they were right, so be it, but they may be surprised.

I am not trying to pick on breeders.  We could talk how trainers hate to enter horses into odd distance races and see why they refuse to enter.  Is it horses are bred for early speed?  Maybe a change needs to be made to how we breed, maybe it is a question of modifying the way we train them with more emphasis on stamina versus early speed?   What about the use of whips and drivers (see next story) or those who will resist RUS because they fear the 'change'?.

Everybody needs to get a less comfortable in their comfort zones and take risks, for taking those risks and stepping out of their comfort box is what is going to make racing live on in the future.


Whip Ban Coming to Australia?  A new study shows the horse's top layer of skin is as thin, if not thinner than human.  In addition, it is possible the horse has more nerve endings as well.  The result of this study suggests horses feel pain whenever they are whipped and it may result in the banning or severely restrict the use of whips in the Land of Oz.

If banned in Australia based on this study, one has to wonder how long it will be until this Australian study reaches North American shores and racing commissions reconsider the use of whips?  Rest assured the racing industry will be kicking and screaming should such an attempt be made.  After all, we have seen how quick the industry is to reject the status quo.

Bidding formally reopens for a casino in the Southern Tier of New York with Tioga Downs the only known bidder at  this time.  Of course, with only one region in play, new bidders or bidders who got rejected in the first round of bidding may decide to take a shot in the Southern tier.  Bids are due in July with a decision made in the fall.  

While everyone believes it is a formality that Tioga Downs will win the bid, I'm not as confident of that decision if others come in and develop new bids, ready to wow the site selection committee.

I hope I am wrong.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Where Do We Go From Here?

So, as people debate the aftermath of the decisions of the Hambletonian Society and WEG in addition to the response by Jeff Gural which resulted in the new policy at the Gural tracks regarding the off-spring of four year old sires which will apply starting in 2019 (as it would apply to those three year olds going to stud in 2016 without a medical exemption), the question to be asked is "Where Do We Go From Here?".

First, let's look at the reasoning for Gural's edict of going it alone.  As one of many people who have grown frustrated at the seemingly continuous state of inertia in the industry, I get extremely frustrated and feel at times like I want to hit my head against the wall arguing, "Don't these people get it?"; this a response from someone who at this time only has emotional skin in the game.  If I feel this way, could you imagine what a person who has invested million in this game feels like?  In fact, thanks to the excellent work of Gordon Waterstone at The Horseman and Fair World, you can get a good idea as to how Gural feels right now.  Couple his arguments presented in the article with the lack of support he receives by many horsemen at the Meadowlands, one can imagine he rues the day he acquired the lease to the New Jersey oval.  Life would have been much more simple for him had he let the Meadowlands go the way of Roosevelt Raceway.  I doubt few couldn't sympathize with his feelings right now.

As for me, I totally understand where Jeff Gural is coming from.  I also realize from past experience, he shoots from the hip initially and after some time passes, he often moderates his views so at this point I wouldn't be surprised if his total ban on the off-spring of four year old sires is modified.  Time will tell.  As I mentioned earlier, the million dollar question is where do we go from here?

Well, with the industry rejecting the stick approach, perhaps it is time to try the carrot approach which WEG is apparently going to do by offering races restricted to four year olds in an effort to keep the three year old sires racing the following year,  How can American tracks offer the carrot?

Each track, should break open the piggy bank (purse account) to offer a virtual pot of gold for at least one stake race each for four year old pacers and trotters to develop a circuit of races which would offer a potential fortune to tempt three year olds to remain on the track for at least one more year.  Tracks in non-slot states 'pot of gold' stakes may be relatively small but there is no excuse for slot tracks not to open their wallets to finance these races.

 There is no reason why we can't have horses stand stud and race; it's been done in Europe for years.   We should encourage the best of both worlds by allowing three year old to stand stud and race at the same time by offering at reduced stake payments for the off-spring of three year old sires who do double duty.  By offering the prospect of reduced stake payments to some stake races, the first crop of yearlings by such sires should command more at auction, thus providing financial incentives to breeders who would have reduced books while allowing horses to continue racing.

Lastly, and likely the hardest if not most impossible in the current environment would be changing the way we view stakes racing.  Instead of offering huge stakes races for two year olds, the majority of stakes money for age-specific events should be used towards three year old and four year old stakes races.  I am not saying there shouldn't be stakes races for two year olds, but two year old seasons should primarily be geared towards racing to learn as well as keeping more horses racing longer with less horses falling victim in the rush to cash out.  Instead of $600,000+ stakes, aren't $200,000 stake races sufficient for two year olds?

Maybe the approach Jeff Gural proposed wasn't good for breeders.  The challenge is now for breeders and racetracks to come up with an alternative which accomplishes what the Gural rule intended to accomplish.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Gural Goes it Alone

As expected, the Hambletonian Society is dropping the 'Gural Rule' starting with foals of 2018.  In addition to the Hambletonian Society, WEG is joining the Hambletonian Society in this decision as well, leaving the Meadowlands alone in keeping the rule in place.

In an act of both defiance and principle, the Meadowlands is changing its policies so any horse sired by a four year old will be banned from racing at all Gural tracks (with the exception of the Hambletonian) in all races; stakes, overnight, and even qualifiers (unsure of when it takes effect).   This will be a costly move for it will further reduce the pool of race horses available to the Gural tracks, especially the Meadowlands which is typically strapped for horses to fill its races.

This makes the need for slots at the Meadowlands even greater for less horses means less races which results in a smaller income stream, making it even harder to operate the track for the long term.  Hence if slots don't come to the Meadowlands, rest assure Gural will invoke the part of the lease which allows him to be reimbursed for building the new grandstand after which he will walk away.  Then we will see what happens when all Meadowlands stakes disappear.

In some ways, it appears Gural has thrown in the towel regarding the sport, worrying now about his tracks and doing what he feels is right for them while the industry continues with its 'grab the money while it's there' attitude.  One can't blame him.  It has been obvious for a while there has been a    backlash against Gural as he iss unwilling to join in the proverbial state of inaction which pervades the sport.  Hence, the Gural tracks are going their own way.

I support what Jeff Gural is doing.  I do fear, at least with the Meadowlands, it will basically become an island.  The question is how lonely it will be?

The platitudes for Jim Doherty keep on coming.  His hometown newspaper, The Guardian, discusses how much of a gentleman he was.  Considering how long it has been since he was in the Canadian Maritimes, it says something that The Guardian even mentioned his passing.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Thursday Briefs

And so it begins.  The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono (yes, a name change) is open and on Saturday, the Meadowlands dropped one race yet has only 8.25 starters per race on the card with five races at the bottom levels of the claiming and conditioned ranks.  Come next week when Harrah's Philadelphia opens, the average may drop further.

While getting horsemen to drop into the entry box  at the Meadowlands is a challenge, when it comes to amateur races, it doesn't seem to be a problem.  Two full fields of ten will be on the card Friday night, providing relief to in putting together the card.  Some will grown at the prospect of amateurs on the card, but there are some competent drivers racing.  In addition, these races will be competed at full throttle the entire mile.

You have to wonder what, if anything, the Meadowlands will do to mark the passing of Jim Doherty?  Being Doherty had raced at the Meadowlands since its opening through 2013, you would think something should be done to note his passing.  If the Meadowlands can have the Buddy Gilmour late closing series, naming the next late closer to be developed the James Doherty would be a fitting commemoration.

Later this year, the Meadowlands will host 13 days of Monmouth Park at Meadowlands thoroughbred racing on the turf course from September 24 through October 31.   The thoroughbreds were hoping to run 22 days of both turf and dirt racing but no agreement could be made on who would pay the cost to convert the track for thoroughbred racing and back to harness racing.  Based on what was mentioned when racing dates were first applied for, odds are expectations were for the thoroughbred horsemen to pay the entire cost, something they obviously were unwilling not to do.   This is something surprising because fall rains last year resulted in the cancellation of a few dates which meant no racing.  Having the dirt track available would mean no dates would be lost.

Friday night starts the Bluechip Matchmaker Series at Yonkers and an interesting possibility shows up in 5th race where Carolesideal figures to go off an overwhelming favorite from the rail.  However, on the far outside is co-Aged Mare Pacer of the Year, Anndrovette at 6-1.  Coming off two qualifiers, she is not to be disregarded.  It is a question of whether you can get value.

While the ladies take to the track on Friday, the boys kick off things Saturday night in the first leg of the George Morton Levv series and there is an interesting horse in the second division (6th race).  Polka A starts from the rail in making his first start in North America.  His qualifier was good and lifetime earnings in excess of $219,000; a respectable amount in Australia.  The qualifier at the Meadowlands shows the horse may ready at first asking.  At 5-1 he may be worth a look but lower than that threshold, I would pass.

In the third division, Foiled Again makes his season debut and lists a 3-1.  While not a walkover, there is a good chance he will score in his first start back but then it is a question of  value.  If you are looking for someone else, Apprentice Hanover is worth a look at 6-1.

West Virginia's budget proposal calls for $2 million in purse subsidies for racing (greyhound, thoroughbred) to be shifted to pay for Medicaid programs.  There is really nothing else to be said about this; it stands on its own.