For photos from the Meadowlands contact

Saturday, October 31, 2009

NJ Gubernatorial Election - An Act of Faith

Over the past few weeks, I have been trying to decide which gubernatorial candidate would be best for New Jersey racing interests and must confess, I have been befuddled. First of all, based on the political winds blowing in the statehouse, the chance of VLTs coming to NJ racetracks anytime soon is slim to none. In the opinion of this writer, the best NJ racing interests can hope for is a governor willing to hold the VLT sword over Atlantic City casinos to ensure the casino industry is 'willing' to continue subsidies to racing in order to keep racing on life support (though make no mistake, if there is another supplement, it will not be as generous as the current agreement). In fairness to all the candidates, I will discuss them in alphabetical order and let you make the decision as to which candidate you should support.

Christopher Christie (R)

Christie has told several newpaper editorial boards that he opposes an expansion of gaming in the Meadowlands, including VLTs. Some people in racing feel that Christie's anti-VLT position is not as firm as he states. Perhaps this feeling comes from a meeting Christie had with racing interests back in February; maybe it is more wishful thinking due to annoyance at Corzine for publicly coming out and opposing VLTs at the Meadowlands. The basis for my reasoning? On September 4, Assemblymen John Amodeo and Vince Polistina unveiled a 10-point plan to revitalize the Atlantic City region. Let me draw your attention to the third point of their plan:

Do not allow VLTs at horse racing tracks and end purse subsidies.

Who was in attendance at the press conference announcing this plan? Christopher Christie. You can read more about this plan and Christie's appearance at the press conference announcing this plan here. Based on his appearnace at this particualr press conference, I believe you need to take him at his word when he says no VLTs.

As to Christie's plans for racing? He has no record on racing to review nor has he said anything publicly regarding racing, pro or con. Based on his public statements, we don't know if he will support racing at all or be the one to put it out of business.

Jon Corzine (D)

No doubt racing interests have a right to feel they were thrown under the bus by Corzine. Anyone who thought he was an honest broker because he had established a blue ribbon panel to discuss the future of racing and its funding had to be disappointed when he vowed to oppose VLTs at racetracks, before 'his' panel had a chance to release their recommendations, Make no mistake about it, he threw racing under the bus in an effort to secure South Jersey votes in a tight gubernatorial election.

Some people point to a comment Corzine made where he indicated if anything were to be approved for the Meadowlands, he would favor a full casino over VLTs. However, being Corzine has already voiced his support for the casino industry, I suspect this possibility was offered just so pro-racing interests have something to hang their hopes on (he himself downplayed this prospect afterwards). Remember, for a full casino to come to the Meadowlands, it requires a change to the state constitution meaning an expensive referendum battle. Being New Jersey does not allow public initiatives, any referendum would have to first be approved by the state legislature. Being it appears a new senate president who is anti-VLT will be selected after the election, the chances of the legislature approving a referendum is slim. Realistically, the only way a full casino would be considered for The Meadowlands is if New York were to approve table games at Yonkers and Aqueduct. If you want to look for anything hopeful in Corzine's comments, it is his refusal to address purse supplements with the editorial board of the Press of Atlantic City.

Since Corzine has been governor, he does have a track record which can be examined. Until Corzine dropped the anti-VLT bomb, it could be said Corzine has been a friend of racing. Corzine did help engineer the current purse enhancement agreement which requires Atlantic City Casinos to provide $30 million in purse supplements to New Jersey racetracks for three years with the current agreement due to expire at the end of 2010. Without the current purse supplement agreement, Freehold likely would have closed, the Meadowlands harness program would probably be on par with Balmoral, and the thoroughbred program at The Meadowlands and Monmouth Park would remind people of racing at Penn National before VLTs were introduced.

So the question is, if Corzine is re-elected, what type of governor will he be for racing in his second term? Will he be the 'throw racing under the bus' governor or will he seriously consider the report his blue ribbon panel produces in 2010 to see if there is some middle ground and failing that, will he support another purse supplement agreeement and be willing to expend political capital fighting the South Jersey contingent in the legislature to push it through?

Chris Daggett (I)

Chris Daggett, who is running a strong 3rd party candidacy, has gone on record to indicate if he is elected governor, he would appoint his own blue ribbon panel to discuss racing. He is also the only candidate to suggest he is willing to consider VLTs at the Meadowlands only after 'a careful review'. Unfortunately, the chances of a third party candidate winning a statewide office in New Jersey is very remote. Even if he was able to win election, he would face a hostile legistlature which would do its best to stiffle any initiatves a third party governor may attempt to propose.

Three candidates for governor all with a lot of question marks regarding their racing stance. Voting for any of these candidates solely on their racing positions is an act of faith.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Time for A 'New Deal'

We all have seen articles which explain how a lower takeout would benefit racing, but it is a rare thing indeed when such an article is written by someone connected to racetrack management. John Berry, the publicity director for Pompano Park, wrote a column calling for a 'new deal' at racetracks. In his article, Berry correctly reports that racing blames everyone but themselves for the problems the industry has with declining attendance and handle and further explains that racetracks are quick to go to the legislature for help when the problem can be corrected by themselves. The problem according to Berry? Racetracks are bankrupting their customers with a high takeout.

Berry calls for a new deal in racing. His solution, 'take a tinge' of the VLT revenue and use it to reduce the takeout rate to stimulate wagering and possibly attract gamblers to the track. In his article, he shows how the track (and horsemen) would benefit from the increased churn. Many businesses, including the casino industry, have learned that discount pricing works. Take a little less profit on each item you sell to stimulate your business and you end up making more money overall on the volume. The same applies to racing.

We are not naive to think things are going to change soon with respect to takeout. Changes like Berry suggests won't occur until racing treats fans as customers instead of gamblers who can be used and abused. But, make no mistake about it, seeing a racetrack executive write a column like this is significant.

The question is how bad will things get before they see the light?

NYRA Takes A Stand, We Can Only Dream

The New York Racing Association has thrown the book at thoroughbred trainer Jeff Mullins. The trainer, was fined $2,500 and suspended seven days for administering a cough remedy to a horse in the security barn before the running of a race this past spring, necessitating a late scratch. For NYRA, this was not the end of the story. Apparently troubled by his lying about the incident and his previous record regarding medication violations, NYRA has decided to ban the trainer for a period of six months. Nothing new there, racetracks have had the right to exclude people for years. What is unique about NYRA's move is they will not allow the transfer of a horse in his stable to a relative, employee or a business associate to get around his ban. That's right, if a horse is in Mullins' stable, it isn't racing in New York. Period. Of course, other than keeping Mullins' horses out of New York, it is business as usual for the trainer and his owners.

We can only hope the day would come when this type of rule would be made on the state commission level and honored nationally. That would be the only way to seriously cut down on the cheating going on with medications. I am not suggesting if a trainer gets a two year suspension that all the horses in his barn get put in jail for the entire period of his suspension, and certainly not for the first violation. However, a ninety day to six month 'vacation' for the horses in the barn of a trainer who receives his third or more suspension may be just what the doctor ordered. Too many times we see owners sending horses to trainers with dubious medication records while other trainers who play by the rules are looking for horses to train.

We are not talking about a therapeutic drug given too close to race time; we are talking about performance enhancers and drugs which have no legitimate purpose in a race horse. We can't hold an owner liable for the first time the trainer gets nailed for a drug positive; being with a trainer when he has a second violation can be excused as giving the trainer the benefit of doubt. However, if you are keeping a horse with or sending a horse to a trainer with two violations you should consider yourself warned; keep a horse with such a trainer and you run the risk of paying for a horse sitting in a stable for three or six months if the trainer gets nailed again.

Maybe then, owners will take more responsibility when selecting a trainer for their horse. We can only dream.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Betting on Jockeys

A couple of weeks ago, I proposed the introduction of a proposition bet; betting which driver wins the most races on a particular race card. Now news comes that the Breeders' Cup will be having a Head2Head Jockey bet over the two day thoroughbred championship. As a spokesman for the Breeders' Cup said:

We think it's important to be able to come up with these types of products to stay competitive. The marketplace is going to allow us to move more in this direction in the future.

As much as many of us love the challenge of picking individual horses as well as playing exotics, we need to recognize that there is a significant part of the gambling population that have no desire to handicap races to the extent many current horseplayers do. Proposition bets are the way to get these people involved in horse racing. We need to start offering these types of bets; once we get people interested in racing, then they may gravitate to the serious wagers most of us currently play.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Time to Introduce Driving Standards?

Mark Hetherman, blogging over at Standardbred Canada, suggests we make the drivers the star of the sport instead of the horse. Mark feels making the driver the star instead of the horse makes sense, especially since our star horses tend to leave the racing scene after two or three years.

There is certainly a case to be made for this. For example, in NASCAR, is Jimmy Johnson the star or the car he drives? What about Danika Patrick? Can't we do the same thing with a Brian Sears or a Jason Bartlett? Unfortunately, there is a difference. A Jimmy Johnson fan isn't going to lose a $100 when he doesn't win a race where as Brian Sears not winning a race is going to cost some gamblers money. To the bettor, a driver is often as good as your last race. That being said, racing can do a much better job of taking advantage of a driver's celebrity. Tracks should require all drivers racing at their track be available for a certain amount of public relations activities, be it visiting children or veterans in hospitals, attending charity events (even if the track pays the fee) or help with promotional events.

Where Hetherman goes wrong, is with his idea of a track hiring fifteen drivers to become house drivers. His suggestion is to identify fifteen drivers and have the tracks sign them to contracts to drive exclusively at the track(s), only racing elsewhere for stakes races. Instead of the driver driving for their 5% commission, he proposes paying them an annual salary with an incentive tied to the handle increasing. Trainers would have to choose a driver from one of the fifteen drivers; the only time another driver could race at the track would be for a stakes race. As new stars arrive in the sport, the track could hire another driver and send someone who no longer cuts the mustard back to a 'B' track (fire them). The author admits there are issues that would have to be worked out with his proposal but he offers it as a starting point for a discussion.

This sounds a lot like jai-lai to me. If racing ever got to the point where the track hired trainers to train horses the track owned, then having track drivers would make sense. However, under our system of having individual owners of horses, this would be unfair to the owners and trainers. For the most part, trainers and owners should have the right to have any licensed driver drive their horse.

That being said, the proposal Hetherman offers does have some validity. Let's allow racetracks to set certain standards for drivers before they are allowed to drive at their tracks. For example, the Meadowlands could set a standard that a driver must have driven three years with at least 500 career drives and an overall UDR of at least .250 for the past year in order to drive at their track. As long as you meet this standard and are licensed, you are eligible to drive there. Come the following year, if you don't have an overall UDR of .250, you lose your privilege to drive at the Meadowlands, but if you get your UDR up, you can come back the following year. This way, while the track does not have a closed shop for drivers, it guarantees the betting public that they are only wagering on quality drivers.

By having a driving standard, it may open up driving opportunities to up and coming drivers plying their trade at the smaller tracks. As certain drivers are forced to the second division (pardon the soccer term), vacancies will open up allowing the best drivers racing at the second division tracks to move up and get a legitimate chance to drive at the best tracks; not just getting stuck with the horses no one wants to drive. A similar standard, perhaps a minimum of two years experience with a .200 UDR rating could be implemented at the second division tracks allowing similar movement of drivers from those tracks and third division tracks. Drivers will be racing with drivers of similar ability thus the racing will be more competitive. With drivers having a better chance to flourish in their local circuit, the tracks will have more drivers to promote the sport locally.

Driver standards, perhaps it is time. What do you think?

The New Aged Pacing Star, The $4 Million Horse

On Monday night at Harrington Raceway, we have seen the crowning of a new star in the FFA pacing ranks in Won The West. Despite being parked out first over the entire last half of the mile, Won The West was able to get past Foiled Again in the final strides for the victory in the $322,000 Bobby Quillen Memorial in 1:52.4 beating Foiled Again and Mister Big.

As you may recall, this is not Won The West's first big win this year. Earlier this season, he won the Winbak Pace at Delaware (defeating Mr Big) , the Breeders Crown Aged Open Pace at The Meadowlands (beating Mr Big, Shadow Play, Art Official and Shark Gesture) as well as capturing an elimination for the Canadian Pacing Derby. While WTW has always been a solid race horse, this five year old has really blossomed this year and will be a serious player in this division for a long time to come.

Congratulations to Mister Big who became harness racing's second $4 million dollar horse with his third place finish in the Quillen. Mister Big's racing career is coming quickly to an end so he may join the stallion ranks in Ontario. Hopefully, he will have a successful stallion career with breeders looking to bred to a stallion who shows the ability to race a long career, grinding out victories. As a tribute to Mister Big, we bring you one of his victories this year, the Allerage Pace at The Red Mile.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Australia Gets It

For those who need further convincing or are still in denial regarding the need to change our attitudes towards the urging of horses as discussed in our last post, permit me to offer a perspective from down under.

Harness Racing Australia (HRA) is implementing new whipping rules in pari-mutuel races starting January 1st after a two month trial period in their qualifiers. As part of their campaign to implement these rules, they are reaching out to their fans and horsemen alike to explain the whys and how the new rules will work via their website where they have a page dedicated to the revised rules.

Of interest to North American harness racing participants and fans is the video below. In this video, they discuss why the decision has been made to implement the new rules, specifically citing the situation in the United States and elsewhere. The video further goes into an explanation of the rules and penalties as well as a demonstration of the old and new way to whip. It is interesting to note that HRA is specifically banning loose lining (which may address some safety concerns); something not yet being done where urging rules have been changed in North America.

Our Australian counterparts realize society's attitudes demand a change to the sport's urging rules and are acting accordingly. When selling a brand/product, it is just as important to market to your non-customers as well as your customers; you want them to at least not have a negative view of your product. Australia gets it.

Isn't it ironic that those down under can read the American tea leaves better than our own industry leaders? We can adapt or become a pariah of society. That is our choice.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Pierce Speaks - Time to Spell it Out

Recently, driver Ron Pierce spoke to Standardbred Canada about his ten day whipping suspension in Kentucky and his general feelings regarding the new whipping rules. You can read his comments in full here. While I admire Mr. Pierce for having the courage to go on the record, I think it is time for those who are kicking and screaming about the new rules to face reality.

The old whipping rules are history. The old rules, even if enforced, are no longer valid for modern society. Attitudes regarding animal welfare have changed dramatically over the past twenty to thirty years; what was considered acceptable whipping in the past is no longer considered acceptable treatment to horses by a significant part of society. This is not just a North American phenomenon; it is global. Europe and Australia are instituting new whipping rules not only in harness racing but in thoroughbred racing. While there are only a few states/provinces currently with new whipping rules, it is just a matter of time before these rules become more widespread.

Yes, I know the argument regarding the threat of accidents as a result of the new rules which require drivers to use both hands on their lines at all times during races; the fear being loose lines are an accident waiting to happen. I also know that France and Sweden have been two countries that require drivers to use both hands at all times on their lines for years and they have fewer accidents per race. If there is an increased risk of an accident due to these new rules, it is nothing that can't be addressed by drivers changing their driving style.

Yes, I know the argument that drivers are being forced to change their driving style due to the new rules. You know what? Back in the 1970's a future Hall of Fame driver by the name of Lew Williams came upon the scene and he introduced a new way of driving which forced other drivers to modify their driving style in order to be successful. I would like to think our current crop of drivers have the intelligence and ability to adopt their driving styles to the new rules so after a relatively short period of time people are are not going to focus on how they are not whipping the horses like they did in the past. Who knows, maybe the races will become more exciting as a result of the new style of driving being developed as a result of the new rules?

Yes, I know we may lose some of the old big time gamblers who object to the fact that drivers are not 'beating the living daylights' out of the horses down the stretch despite the fact we know whipping some horses is a useless exercise. I also know we should not be making a decision based on a few months of lower handles because some of these bettors will be back once they realize the racing product is still worthy of their wagering dollars when they cool off.

I know if we don't expose a new generation to horse racing they will never become future gamblers of our product. I also know the vast majority of our new fans/gamblers are going to be introduced to racing by watching racing at the track where they will see and hear any whipping up close so we better cut it down. If they are turned off by the real or perceived cruelty of whipping they are not going to become consumers of the racing product.

More importantly, I know racing's survival in many ways depends on John Q Public's perception of racing more than it does on Joe Gambler gambling dollars.

VLT revenue and purse supplements come to racing thanks to the good graces of our legislatures. They can giveth and they can taketh away. At some tracks, gambling on harness racing may only account for 5 to 30% of the purse account. If the handle suffers a short term drop due to the new rules, horsemen may race for a little less each race. Take that VLT revenue away and then see how much horsemen are racing for; if racing at all. Cutting the VLT revenue sharing becomes a lot easier for a legislator who is being asked by John Q Public why the state is giving handouts to a cruel sport like racing instead of giving that money to education.

John Q Public can also vote to vote to outlaw racing (like done to the greyhounds in Massachusetts and elsewhere) if they feel racing is cruel. Reining in whipping will be a good way to fight this image (though we still have a problem with unwanted race horses). Make no mistake, the day will come where we need to fight this battle and while the runners have the same issues if not more, they are financially stronger to fight this battle so standardbred racing will be first in the cross-hairs.

It is time for our drivers, trainers, owners (and even our current fans/gamblers) to face reality. If you don't give a hoot about tomorrow, then keep doing what you are doing. The fact remains, like it or not, your ability to earn a living depends not only on developing new fans; it depends just as much on the person who never steps foot in a racetrack or places a bet. You better give a damn what the public thinks; as long as gambling is regulated by the government, they have a say in your ability to make a living. You may not like the new whipping/urging rules but this is what the public is demanding so you better accept it if you or your family has any desire to stay in the business.

The bottom line is just deal with it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Breeders Crown Recap

Breeders Crown 2009 is in the books. The races pretty much went according to form as it was one of the few Breeders Crown nights where there were no shockers. Brian Sears was the driving star of the night winning three of the eight events. With the curtain coming down on the Breeders Crown, we say good bye to a champion and based on the 2yo trotting and pacing colt and gelding races, it looks like next year’s glamour divisions will be wide open.

In the Breeders Crown final for 3yo fillies, Yellow Diamond held off my upset selection Ginger And Fred (costing me a nice daily double) to win in 1:51.2. Ginger And Fred was used several times in the race and quite honestly, surprised me with her last minute challenge to the eventual winner. Shanghai Lil finished third and Shacked Up was a disappointing fourth.

In typical Muscle Hill fashion, the 3yo trotting colt and gelding race was a walk in the park for Muscle Hill, the undisputed king of trotting. Muscle Hill stayed back in the early part of the race and slowly worked his way to the front down the backstretch. He trotted to the 3/4s in 1:24.1 and walked home in a final quarter of :30 to win in 1:54.1. Triumphant Caviar was a non-threatening second with Neighsay Hanover and Striking Lindsey being placed third and fourth respectively after Swan For All, who broke at the top of the stretch and finished third, was disqualified for receiving an unfair advantage racing inside the pylons after the break. While it may not have been a ‘spectacular’ ending to Muscle Hill’s career (none of his races were open length victories), make no mistake about it; Muscle Hill is a freak of nature. It is a shame we will not be able to see him race as an older horse; perhaps one day it will be more lucrative to keep our stars racing instead of watching them head off to the breeding shed.

The 2yo trotting filly race went to Poof Shes Gone in 1:56.3. The winner was able to race outside with cover past the half before she made a move to the front. The best way to describe the victory was business like, nothing spectacular about her victory. Ultimate Cameron finished second with Tequila Slammer and Costa Rica completing the exotics. I got burnt violating one of my own rules regarding playing a horse that broke in their previous start by playing Fashion Feline who promptly reminded me why I had that rule in the first place as she broke once she tried following the race winner. Fans who wagered on Action Broadway were luckier than I as they had their wagers refunded thanks to the fair start rule as Action Broadway was more than 200 feet back when the race began.

One thing for certain after the Crown for 2yo trotting colts and geldings; next year is not going to be the year of a dominate 3yo trotter. Pilgrims Taj raced patiently and tracked down the leaders to win the final in 1:57.1, defeating Lucky Chucky and Magic Fruit who were close behind at the wire. The difference in this race was the trip. Holiday Road may be the early favorite for the Hambletonian but after his disappointing start at The Red Mile and the emergence of horses like Pilgrims Taj and Lucky Chucky, this crop looks pretty even.

Fancy Filly took the pocket trip to win the 2yo filly pace in 1:53.4, taking advantage of the tough trip Put On A Show had. Put On A Show brushed three wide to take the lead at the half and then went a :27.3 third quarter which no doubt cooked her. To her credit, Put On A Show held strong to finish second with Ticket To Rock picking up the third spot. The big disappointment in this race came from Higher And Higher who never really got into the race and finished last.

The Breeders Crown for 3yo fillies was the race I looked forward to the most as I felt all along that this division was the most competitive one this year and the race lived up to its billing. Hambo Oaks winner Broadway Schooner came flying late to win the Breeders Crown in a 1:57 blanket finish edging out Elusive Desire and Seaside. Margarita Momma was somewhat disappointing finishing fourth.

All Speed Hanover and Sportswriter dueled down the whole stretch with All Speed Hanover nosing out the previously undefeated Sportswriter to win the 2yo colt and gelding pace in a snappy 1:52. Yes, Sportswriter was caught up in severe duel with 99-1 OK Commander (who actually did get his nose in front of Sportswriter briefly) which no doubt cost him the race but give credit to All Speed Hanover who went three wide towards the three quarters to get in the race. Kyle Major finished third. Clearly this was the most exciting race of the evening.

The ‘big’ upset of the night came in the finale, the Breeders Crown for 3yo pacing colts and geldings; as If I Can Dream scored the victory with a 1:51 mile. After getting the lead past the quarter pole, he was able to control the mile the rest of the way. Mr Wiggles took second with Vertical Horizon finishing third; Bay of Sharks was fourth. While the race was not an upset odds-wise, the shocking part of the race was how bad Well Said raced. While Well Said did not have a good trip, he was never heard from at all; I would not be surprised if it turns out he was sick. Vintage Master also threw in a clunker.

On the Breeders Crown undercard, Bigtime Ball was introduced to the American audience taking in the Breeders Crown races by winning the $100,000 Gold Cup Invitational wire to wire in 1:50.3 defeating Art Official and Shark Gesture. This was Bigtime Ball's third straight victory and his fifth out of his last six starts. He has stamped himself as a legitimate FFA pacer with his victory.

For those following Mister Big and his quest for the all-time earnings record for pacers, his next start will be Monday evening in the $322,000 Bobby Quillen Memorial at Harrington Raceway where he hooks up against Won the West and Foiled Again.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Running California into the Ground

They just don't get it.

Thoroughbred racing in California is in trouble. The runners have to compete against casinos and other gambling options so Oak Tree, Santa Anita and the Los Angeles County Fair go to the California legislature and ask for relief. The legislature is happy to oblige so they pass a law for the runners and agricultural fairs to increase the takeout on bets to help acquire and maintain facilities as well as increasing purses. That is right, the runners are being allowed to increase the takeout by 5%. Despite all the studies and basic economic principles which show a lower takeout will increase wagering, the tracks decide to soak their customers even more.

The only possible explanation? The tracks must think their customers are idiots. The casual fan who goes to the California fairs may not care much about the takeout rate but rest assured raising the takeout rate is going to chase the in state big gamblers to the casinos and the other gambling choices the tracks are trying to compete against. The out of state gamblers? They will take their gambling dollars and wager at other tracks with more favorable takeout rates. As for the casual fan who doesn't really care about the takeout rate? They will lose quicker and more often and decide racing is not the game for them.

I suspect the customers will teach the tracks a lesson. The question is can track management learn?

I fear not.

Breaking Stride and Fools

Prayers go out to Cat Manzi and Jason Bartlett who were involved in a serious spill at Freehold during the running of the sixth race. The two drivers got involved in an accident when All American Idol, who was on the lead at the top of the stretch went off stride. While no medical report has been released yet, Jason Bartlett was standing after the incident with Cat still on the ground.

One of my pet peeves has always been when you hear uninformed people claiming a driver made a horse break stride on purpose. They should be required to watch a race like today's race at Freehold to see what can happen when a horse jumps off stride and see if they still feel the same way. If they do, they should be shown the door and asked never to return.

Best wishes for a speedy recovery to Jason and Cat.

That Other Big Race

Note: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact the eliminations are held the same day as the final.

While the center of the North American standardbred world is tonight's Breeders Crown races in Toronto, there is a race upcoming next weekend of interest to fans. On Sunday, November 1, Explosive Matter races in the first elimination for the Gran Premio Orsi Mangelli in Milan, Italy. Explosive Matter draws the rail in his split. While I will not pretend to be an expert on the European contenders, the winner of the European 3yo Trotting Championship, Zola Boko is racing in the second division. With Zola Boko winning the championship in a track record 1:11.6 km rate for the 2,100m distance (a track record at Vincennes), next week's eliminations and final should be exciting assuming both advance. Hopefully, once the Crown is over, the North American racing media will be able to cover the race more fully as we will.

Tonight promises to be a great night at Woodbine. If you are unable to be there make sure you try to catch the races. Of course, your local simulcast center and ADWs are covering it but TVG in a rarity, will actually be 'on track' live to broadcast the races live (except the first Crown race on tape delay). Rarely does harness racing get this much coverage, we need to make the most of it. If you intend to wager on the card and happen to have a wagering account through TVG, try to make your wagers through them as the only way they will keep covering races like this is if it makes business sense.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Magic Man Speaks

On the latest installment of Trot Radio by Standardbred Canada, the legendary William O'Donnell responds to Jeff Gural's comments from the previous week where Mr. Gural indicated harness racing was in serious threat of disappearing from the North American landscape. Gural indicated a big part of the problem was the fact our breeders were taking our stars away at the end of their three year old campaign and horsemen were content on taking welfare from VLTs instead of attempting to improve the product.

In the interview, Mr. O'Donnell defends the right of breeders taking our three year old stars off the track to the breeding shed, pointing out to change that would be interfering with people's rights to cash in on the breeding income they can earn. O'Donnell also indicates that the top three year old runners seem to retire after five starts and it doesn't seem to be a problem in their sport. There is one big difference between harness racing and the runners, there are plenty of big money races for older horses with the runners when compared to the trotters. Hence, while they may lose their star horse to the breeding station, a lot more of their 'A' list three year olds keep racing to make their aged races more competitive and marketable.

No one is suggesting mandating our horses keep racing until they are four or five before they go to stud. We should be changing the economics to encourage owners to keep racing past three. All those added money races tracks are hosting? Take most of the added money and put it to races for aged horses. Have stake races for two and three year olds, but let them race for less money. Then, if owners want to send their three year olds off to the breeding shed they may still do so, but they do it knowing they are leaving a lot more money on the table when they walk away. We may still lose the top dog to the breeding shed at the end of their three year old campaign but we will end up with a better product of aged pacers and trotters who will become marketable.

Mr. O'Donnell was correct when he lamented the fact we just can't seem to get a V75 type wager going in North America; a lottery type wager which would benefit racing. Unfortunately, there are governmental issues which need to be addressed to allow this to happen; something which is not going to happen quickly.

Perhaps the most upsetting part of the interview was when it was suggested that people are wagering with offshore betting sites to get away from the high takeout rates and maybe reducing the takeout is the answer. The response to this question? Avoidance; that can't be the problem. O'Donnell cited how people spend $35 to attend the races in France and how the sport is big elsewhere in Europe; the inference being pricing can't be the problem.

Like many in the industry, it appears with respect to this point Mr. O'Donnell doesn't get it. Pricing matters. Racing appeals to two different audiences; the fan and the gambler. Both are impacted by high takeouts. The fan has no concern regarding the takeout per se, but a higher takeout will cause the fan to run out of money quicker and more often making him/her eventually come to the conclusion they can't win and leave racing to try some other gambling product. The gambler is sophisticated to know what the takeout means to them and will shop for the best deal possible when they wager.

Offshore wagering is here to stay and we need to recognize it. Want to compete against them? Reduce the incentive to wager with them and compete. Don't wait for the government to protect you. This is a world connected by the Internet and government has more important things to do than hunt down gamblers betting overseas. Even if they pass laws, there will be no one to enforce them meaningfully.

It's a new world out there for racing. The old rules no longer work. We need to deal with it, or it will deal with us.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Early Bird Preview of the Breeders Crown Races

Standardbred racing says goodbye to Muscle Hill Saturday evening in the Breeders Crown for 3yo trotting colts and geldings. Woodbine has put together a strong twelve race card which not only includes the eight Breeders Crown races for two and three year olds but a solid invitational field, featuring Shark Gesture, Art Official, and Silent Swing.

Heading into the evening, there are a few questions to ask. Do they finally let Muscle Hill trot to his full potential or do we see one of the biggest upset ever? Which Well Said shows up Saturday night? Does Lucky Chucky become the new early favorite for the 2010 Hambletonian? Sure some races are likely to be won by heavy favorites, but the possibility for a shocker always exists when racing for this type of money; after all many of these horses will be turned out for the year after this week. Either way, the racing promises to be exciting. If you can’t watch the races live, make sure you watch the replays.

As usual with races like this, I am providing my early selections for the Breeders Crown races. Remember these are preliminary picks, three days out; also eligible may still draw in (some of them meriting consideration). The order of selections may change depending on wagering; some picks may be just too over bet and other picks may become too under bet to ignore.

Second Race - Breeders Crown – 3yo pacing fillies

Ginger And Fred kicks off the evening with a chance for an upset win. This early season favorite seems to have hit her stride of late with her win in the Jugette final and Keystone Classic; sharp qualifier at the Meadows indicates she is still at her best. Yellow Diamond has been sharp; winner of ten races looks to repeat her last effort at Lexington. Special Sweetheart has been just missing behind top two picks; completes the trifecta. Shacked Up has been racing exclusively in Canada; weaker half of uncoupled Bulletproof entry.

Third Race – Breeders Crown – 3yo trotting colts & geldings

Muscle Hill says goodbye with an easy win; just a question of how big a victory. Swan For All finished second to Explosive Matter in the Bluegrass, logical choice to complete the exacta. Triumphant Caviar could be the surprise horse; winner of Old Oaken Bucket and Keystone Classic seems to finally have hit his stride; can take second with his best effort. Neighsay Hanover has been improving and figures in the exotics.

Fourth Race – Breeders Crown – 2yo trotting fillies

Fashion Feline was impressive in International Stallion Stake and seemed to be coming together before miscue in elimination; disregard last and look for an upset. Poof Shes Gone is the one to beat but will be odds on. Spicy Wings has been racing well and will be close at the wire. Costa Rica appears to have peaked

Fifth Race – Breeders Crown – 2yo trotting colts & geldings

Lucky Chucky stamps himself the winter favorite for next year’s Hambletonian with a victory here; has been racing well and appears to have only one to beat. Pilgrims Taj is the principle challenger to Lucky Chucky; completes a chalky exacta. Temple of Doom has been competitive against the top pick; must include in trifectas. Wishing Stone had two race win streak before running into Pilgrims Taj and must be respected in the exotics.

Sixth Race – Breeders Crown – 2yo pacing fillies

Higher And Higher has been lightly raced and is peaking at the right time; choice here. Put On A Show has been near flawless and can challenge for top spot; post only hindrance. Fancy Filly can’t be disregarded but may not offer value. Western Silk stepped up successfully in her elimination; still not sure she fits here.

Seventh Race - Breeders Crown – 3yo trotting fillies

Windsong Soprano is my long shot pick for the evening. Filly has been trotting well and she had no chance in last; can shock the field with a perfect trip. Margarita Momma is the horse to beat but offers no value. Yursa Hanover has been just missing of late; must consider in exotics. Elusive Desire is hard to gauge; beat Broadway Schooner in last but before that she had been racing against Ontario breds.

Eight Race – Breeders Crown – 2yo pacing colts & geldings

All Speed Hanover has been racing well of late; should be able to take this field. Malicious is main threat to the top pick but once again must deal with a poor post. Sportswriter is highly regarded and deservedly so. Undefeated pacer can take this field but odds will be poor. Rockin Image is best of the rest.

Ninth Race – Breeders Crown – 3yo pacing colts & geldings

The Crown finale presents the most intriguing race of the evening. Vintage Master has a horrible post but may be able to track Well Said to victory. Well Said has been an enigma all year. He has been the best of his class at times but occasionally throws in a clunker; expect a better race than last but may not get a decent price. Mr Wiggles is third best in field. Dial Or Nodial gets needed post relief and may be able to complete exotics.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Time to Plan for the Future

Racing is coming to a critical time. Horse racing (all breeds) in New Jersey is on the verge of becoming irrelevant if not extinct after 2010. Once again, the two major gubernatorial candidates have stated their willingness to sacrifice racing for the benefit of Atlantic City despite studies showing the state overall would benefit from VLTs at New Jersey racetracks; this time with Governor Corzine downplaying the possibility of a full casino coming to the Meadowlands. Make no mistakes about it, it appears the state is willing to subsidize the casino industry and the jobs that go with it by sacrificing tax revenue that VLTs at the racetracks would provide by recapturing New Jersey gambling dollars currently being spent at racinos in New York, Pennsylvania and to a lesser degree Delaware.

So what is racing, harness racing in particular, doing about it? For sure, New Jersey racing interests need to continue the good fight; perhaps there will be a game changing moment which will give the drive for VLTs or a casino new life (perhaps table games in Pennsylvania or New York), but nationally, what is standardbred racing planning for in light of the increasing possibility that the flagship harness track in the United States disappears or becomes the home of $5,000 claimers?

In California, harness horsemen have shown amazing resilience. Realizing their days racing at Cal Expo may becoming to an end because the Cal-Expo fairgrounds may be redeveloped for an arena, the horsemen are looking to have a harness meet at Fresno starting next year. The goal is not to abandon Cal Expo, but to race at the two tracks for six months each so they may ensure themselves of a year round circuit and hopefully have a strong presence in Fresono should the Sacremento arena plan come to fruition, possibly in 2013. That is right, they are planning for a contingency that won't occur for at least four years, if at all. Not only are they looking to secure their position in California, the horsemen are hoping to become stronger racing more, for more money and other benefits. They are being proactive and look to come out even stronger than they are now.

If California horsemen can plan for something that may never come to fruition, one would hope the sport on a national level is considering the possibility of life after the flagship Meadowlands which may come as early as 2011. Will there be a new flagship for harness racing or will we do without that one 'super' track? What will happen to the Hambletonian if the purse account at the Meadowlands will no longer support the race? Does the trend of racing on mile tracks reverse and all of a sudden the 5/8 mile track reign supreme or does Yonkers recapture the mantle as the center of the harness racing universe? Do we reduce the books of stallions to prevent the collapse of the yearling market?

The time to plan for the future is now. The possibility of losing the Meadowlands is too significant for last minute planning. Hiding one's head in the sand is not an option. The stakes are too high.

Illinois Joins the Online World, Entertainment Centers

As everyone knows by now, the 2010 Breeders Crown races scheduled for Pocono Downs will be held on Saturday, October 9 instead of the night of the Breeder's Cup races in November. The delay of The Red Mile Grand Circuit meet next year (due to the World Equestrian Games being held in Lexington) opened up a slot in the racing schedule where the Crown races (and eliminations) will be held. According to the press release, the Hambletonian Society "...worked with the existing stakes schedule and the Red Mile to optimize the situation for all involved."

Certainly the movement of the Crown races was a smart move. The Breeders Crown would have been swallowed up by the media frenzy of the Breeders Cup; similar to the interest a junior varsity football game would have received on the day of a varsity game. The Breeders Crown would have been an event few would have attended or noticed, even locally in the Pocono area. While interest in the Crown should be greater due to the date change, the delayed Red Mile meet will likely lose some of its luster; what were perfect stake races running right up to the Crown events may be bypassed by some of next year's Crown winners as being after the fact. With the Crown scheduled for late October in 2011 for Woodbine Racetrack, we trust this is a one year sacrifice.

This past week, online wagering was officially legalized in Illinois. Tracks and horsemen in Illinois have welcomed the official sanctioning of the ADWs (online gambling in Illinois was a gray area before) as it is expected to bring in up to $150 million dollars of additional wagers which will mean additional funds for the racetracks' operating budgets as well as the horsemen's purse accounts (the state welcomes the possibility of an additional $1.7 million in tax revenue). While it is hard to tell at this time how much this will benefit the standardbred tracks, the impact should be beneficial as with Illinois now joining the ADW fold, their tracks will get more exposure nationally.

Will racetrack attendance in Illinois suffer? Most likely, yes. It would be nice to keep all the handle on track as that is the place horsemen and racetracks make out best but you can't ignore the fact that the younger consumer demands convenience and convenience means being able to wager when and how they feel like it. Does this mean racetracks should become studios? Of course not; racetracks need to make their facilities a destination where racing is only part of the entertainment experience.

No VLTs? That does not mean you can't become a destination location. Have empty spaces in your grandstand and clubhouse? Have multiple restaurants with different price levels run by local restaurateurs with views of the racetrack instead of the typical dining options racetracks offer. Open on site a small movie theatre where parents can bring their children so they can watch movies while the parents are enjoying dinner and the races. Younger children? Consider offering a program where parents can bring their children to a supervised program.

Speed up your racing program so after the evening's live races patrons can choose to avail themselves of a comedy or musical show in one of your ontrack entertainment zones. Outdoor concerts when you are not racing. That's right, get people to visit your facility even when you are not racing; increase awareness of your facility; next time they may come when you are racing live. Have a real 'OTW' at your racetrack where you have simulcasting when live racing is not being conducted instead of just having people hang around in a half empty facility.

There is plenty of life left in the old racetrack; we just need to look out of the box.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

New Wager Idea

I want to introduce a new wager for consideration. Instead of betting the horse, let's bet the driver.

For illustration purposes, let's say we are at Yonkers Raceway. Take seven drivers drivers on the race card that have the most drives for the evening, plus another wagering option for another driver. To win the wager, your driver needs to win the most races on the card. You have a deadheat if more than one driver has the winning number of drives. When you bet the other driver option, you get all the other drivers on the card but each one is individual, their wins are not added together.

The advantage is the wager will go all night long so gamblers may stick around longer to see how they are doing. To a novice, it is a bet easy enough to understand yet it is not as easy as you think it may be. Two or three drivers end up with two wins on the card and it is the most wins on the card? You have a deadheat.

Just something to consider.

Friday, October 16, 2009

ADWs Share the Blame - Part 1

While we all want to increase attendance at the race tracks as racing will not benefit by becoming a studio sport, the die has been cast that ADW wagering will continue to be a big part of the wagering formula. The fact that people are pressed for time, live far away from a track, weather is lousy, wanting to bet on a big race at another track, and other factors makes ADWs a necessary to allow the sport to prosper. However, ADWs also are part of the problem. This column is the first of several where we will discuss issues related to them.

As a resident of New Jersey, my only option (via state law) for an ADW is 4NJBETS. For me, a person that is fan first, gambler second it works. Rebates would be nice, but quite honestly, it is not something I need. Make your initial deposit and you are in. No rebates, no fees. It's annoying that if you are outside of NJ you legally can't use your account (it is considered an extension of the track). Track selections are somewhat limited in they tend to carry only the signals that Freehold, The Meadowlands and Monmouth Park simulcast (more about that follows). I have TVG on cable so I have experienced the occasions where I would like to have made a wager but being 4NJBETs does not carry that track, there is no (legal) way to do it. Conversely, I would prefer to see some of the tracks 4NJBETs covers on TVG (larger picture) but for various reasons those signals are not covered by TVG. All in all, for a person who is primarily a fan, if 4NJBETS was ice cream, it would be vanilla. Nothing fancy but it works for me. If we were looking to just attract fans, a product like 4NJBETS is a good entry point. Sort of how AOL was for people starting on the Internet.

Of course, 4NJBETS does have challenges. Recently, they were forced to drop the live video feed of NYRA races from their site even though if you went to a NJ track you would still be able to see the races live via simulcasting. You can bet NYRA (Saratoga, Aqueduct, Belmont) and watch replays via 4NJBETS but unless you have TVG or another ADW on your cable system (though you can't bet through the ADW), it reminds you of the early days of NY OTB where you bet and after the race was over you got the audio feed on delay. The problem apparently is that NYRA finally came to realize that despite the fact the tracks are running 4NJBETS, it really is an ADW so while simulcasting can continue as is, NYRA wants (and may be contractually required) to get a fee for the use of their live signal on the 4NJBETS platform. This problem rose about a month ago and it seems like this is the way it is going to be, at least for awhile, probably because for 4NJBETS to pay for the signal would be admitting they are an ADW and may result in them losing additional signals they currently have due to exclusive contracts ADWs have with some tracks as well as having to pay additional fees for tracks they are already simulcasting.

On the other hand, if you live in a state outside of New Jersey, 4NJBETS is not available so you need to look at another ADW. This may lead you to TVG. TVG is a good channel, admittedly harness racing gets the short shift on their television network (we will discuss this more at another time) but it is an option people may want to use. So you are a new fan to racing and you want to open up an account with TVG. You have two options; one option is to pay $19.95 a month to get unlimited wagering, video, and replays; the other option is to pay $.25 per bet up to a maximum of $19.95 a month. If you are a big time bettor it may not matter; after all you are getting rebates in the form of their player rewards club. However, if you are a small time bettor or a fan, TVG's pricing may very well discourage you from signing up. If you are in a state where TVG is the only legal option, racing has lost a potential fan.

To me, it seems TVG is gouging the small time gambler and fan. Any money you have in your account is being invested by TVG on a daily basis so they are making money off of you even if you don't bet. If they want to charge a fee to be eligible for their rebate program or if an account is inactive or has very little activity is one thing. If I was a regulator looking to allow an ADW in my state, I would be addressing these fees; even if it was to ban fees for wagers being made on any local tracks.

Internet/ADW wagering is where most of racings gambling dollars will becoming from. We don't need firms like TVG discouraging newcomers to the sport by charging user fees.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Obituaries Are A Bit Premature

The International Simulcasting Conference was held this this week in Saratoga Springs, NY.

The mood was gloomy for certain. Some people were lamenting the fact that while racing still can be a viable product, certain groups refuse to adopt to the new world. Takeouts are a problem and when a few tracks have tried to cut the takeout rate to get people to wager more, other tracks drop their signal. We hear that there are less standardbreds being registered every year (not sure that is a bad thing in the long run). While we focus this blog on harness racing, the runners are not doing any celebratory dances either.

In spite of this, harness racing is not going anywhere. A lot of these comments are being made by good people, people who have poured their life into their respective sports but have been beaten up or frustrated too many times by those who resist change.

For sure there will be retrenchment; some of our racinos will eventually become casinos without the horses (as some had predicted when VLTs first came into vogue). Some tracks and breeders will close but despite this, racing will survive. In life, sometimes things need to get worse before things get better. There is a core of visionaries in this industry who will remain once the old school people (those who think we can whip like we did fifty years ago, we don’t need to cut takeout rates, there is no problem with unwanted horses, we can race at a track for twelve months a year, we can live with the cheats, don’t need a fair start rule to give people a fair shake, our customers are degenerate gamblers, etc.) get out; the visionaries will finally be able to get their voices heard and words put into action.

This new core of people will realize you need to give the public what they want, treat the customers right, make those racetracks that do survive places that people want to come to, embrace the Internet and other technologies to make racing special again. Standardbred breeders will survive by become more like quarter horse breeders, creating two markets; promoting standardbreds not only as a racing breed, but a breed which can be used for show and other purposes from the start, not just when a horse’s racing career is over. By necessity, the cheats will be pushed out of this sport once and for all; as those who remain in the sport will realize lip service regarding integrity will no longer do.

How will the industry look exactly, I don’t know. For sure there will be frustrating moments, times when things look hopeless; Governors selling out their horsemen (and not just in New Jersey); tracks closing; other things we can't even imagine, but these will be road bumps on the journey. Will the industry be as big as it is now with regards to the number of racetracks and race dates? Probably not, but the important thing is standardbred racing will still be here, bigger and better than most who are already writing racing’s (all breeds) obituaries can ever imagine. After all, don't people love sports and gambling?

And it is my attention to be here discussing the good as well as the bad as the journey continues. In the meanwhile, some last words on the subject:

If you think standardbred racing is dying, then step aside and let those who believe there is a future move forward.

Don't forget the Breeders Crown eliminations Friday and Saturday night at Woodbine. Once we have the final fields for next week's finals, I intend to cover them as I did with the races at The Red Mile.

Pompano Tosses a Bone; Time Out on Reducing Dates

Pompano Park has announced effective with the Friday, October 16 race card, racing programs for Pompano's live races will be offered free to on-track patrons. While a basic racing program should be available for all, on-track and off-track patrons, this is a step in the right direction. The investment by Isle of Capri is minimal and slot patrons may be more willing to invest a few of their wagering dollars on the horses since programs will be available for free.

While this is a welcome step, it is a long time coming and brings a little recognition to the horseplayer. After all, many racinos provide perks and superior facilities to their VLT players, but have done little to upgrade the racing side of their facility? A 'token' free program is the least track operators can do for the loyal customers who put up with being treated like second class citizens when they come to the track. Other tracks would be wise to follow Pompano's lead.

Meanwhile, north of the border, the traditional process of requesting racing dates is well underway. In Ontario, the various race tracks combined to ask for a reduction of 150 race dates for 2010. If approved, this would have returned the number of race dates back to the level of 1998. Understandably, this has caused a lot of concern to the horsemen in the province and the ORC has ordered a moratorium on cutting race dates this year pending a comprehensive study on the impact of reducing race dates.

The days of racing all or a good part of the year at one track needs to come to an end. There are too many tracks racing at the same time diluting the simulcast wagering as well as the horse population necessary to offer a superior product. Racing needs to go back to seasons where fans can look forward to the start of the race meet and have the meet conclude before the fans lose interest in the racing. Other than Woodbine/Mohawk, many of these tracks race two or three nights a week, some one night a week over an extended period of time. Perhaps the answer is to have fewer tracks opearating on any given day and accomplish this by having the tracks race four or five days a week and end their season in two months instead of prolonging it over a period of seven months. With regards to Woodbine and Mohawk, switch between the two tracks twice a year instead of once; keep things fresh. The key is to cut dates in a well thought out manner as part of a comprehensive plan rather than each track attempting to cut dates in isolation.

While this study is being done on Ontario, American racing interests would be wise to authorize their own studies, but on a regional level instead of locally. As you can see with the fierce competition for horses in the Northeast United States, the various race meets are intertwined. A study to reduce dates in a coordinated matter would benefit all.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Getting Horses to Race Longer - Just Do It

Two years after the first proposal was made to encourage horses to race past their three year old campaign no significant progress has been made. For the most part, the status quo remains; have a successful three year old campaign and head off to stud duty. The reason typically given is for retiring a horse after their three year old campaign is it does not economically make sense to race as there is more money to be made at stud than there is by racing. As typical with many issues within standardbred racing, we talk, we propose, we talk more and we propose more. While there are well-meaning people attempting to make changes, the industry just can’t get past the inertia. The time has come to ‘just do it’.

Let’s cut the purses for some stake races and late closing events we have for two and three year olds and start new stake races or series like the George Morton Levy Series at Yonkers for older pacers and trotters. For example, do we really need to have a $1 million Meadowlands Pace and a $1.5 million Hambletonian? Would a $750,000 Meadowlands Pace or a $1 million Hambletonian have any less importance than they do now? This year the World Trotting Derby and Filly stakes had $300,000 added money. What if they took $100,000 of that added money and had a race for older trotters? Let’s take some of that added money currently going to the two and three year olds and seed some late closing series for older horses.

No doubt some people will be upset at such a move. The argument breeders will make is that they will suffer from decreased yearling prices because the stakes programs for two and three year olds will not be as lucrative as they are now. On the flip side, yearling buyers will know if a horse doesn’t make it at two or three, there will be opportunities at four and older to make money. Smaller purses will make it easier for trainers to quit with horses during their two and three year old campaigns when a horse is not right because they know there will be more lucrative events for aged horses. The overall racing product will be stronger and easier to promote. Racing will have a better product to market as there will be star horses to promote once they make their name. Everyone knows about Muscle Hill, but now that he has achieved ‘greatness’, he will be leaving the scene. If purses were more lucrative for older horses, we may have been able to talk about Muscle Hill for another two or three more years. Racetracks would be able to have full fields of legitimate FFAers.

Harness racing is a sport based on gambling, not breeding. If the standardbred breed did not improve any further, we would be able to continue racing and fans would have a product to gamble on. However, if there are no racetracks operating, the breeding industry would collapse. It is up to the racetracks to keep the racing product strong by presenting the best racing possible and if that means encouraging our racing stars to race past three years old so be it. Remember the added money used to supplement many of these stake races belong to the horsemen that race overnight stock as the added money comes from their purse account. Therefore, diverting some of that purse money to older horse races will benefit horsemen on the whole as not only does it provide a better product to promote but if they have a horse that is a late bloomer, it gives them a chance to participate in some of these aged races.

Ideally, all parties in the industry should work together but the tracks are treating the breeders as if they were in control. Unless breeders operate more race tracks than The Red Mile or plan to bred horses exclusively for the show circuit, the tracks are actually in control. If the breeders won't play ball?

Sometimes you just need to say ‘Just Do It’.

Sold Out by the Governor

UPDATE: After this was written, it was learned that the Blue Ribbon Committee cancelled their monthly session after Governor Corzine's VLT comments were brought to light.

Well, after Governor Corzine's bombshell a couple of weeks ago regarding no VLTs in the Meadowlands, the question needs to be asked, what about his 'Blue Ribbon' panel? The answer is likely this panel was a means to avoid the issue until after election day. Here is an article from the Courier Post of Camden County which basically indicates the whole purpose of this committee has been undercut.

Being the Governor has basically tossed into the garbage the Rutgers study which shows the benefit of VLTs at the tracks and he has declared there will be no VLTs, what is the sense of this committee meeting? Other than saying continue with the subsidies which Atlantic City will not want to continue or if they do they will want to cut back, what else can they suggest that the governor won't ignore? Certainly looking for a handout from the state won't happen.

Racing officials can't say it, they depend on the government. From this perspective, racing in New Jersey is heading towards the dark ages. For sure it will be a slow steady decline, perhaps with some supplement money coming, but barring something significant changing in the next few years, harness racing will soon look like Monticello Raceway and thoroughbred racing in New Jersey will look like pre-VLT Penn National. It is not just the recent VLT decision. Ever read Corzine's welcoming letter in the Hambo program? It is basically a form letter which gets updated every year; change the date and it is good to go. Christie? He doesn't appear to be a friend of racing. Corzine campaign officials can gloss it up all they want but the bottom line is...

Governor Corzine has sold out racing for Atlantic City.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Despite What They Tell You Past Posting Occurs in Harness Racing

The first day of the International Simulcast Conference is in the books and the first panel discussion discussed the integrity of the wagering pools. One point which made is the wagering pools are secure; the reasons for odds changing after a race starts is not a result of past posting; just the processing of wagers already made.

Well, I am here to tell you this is a lie. Past posting is occurring every day in harness racing and I will explain why this is a case.

You bet a horse in a race and the starting gate moves. No sooner does the gate start moving that a horse goes off stride or refuses to race. The starting gate reaches the starting line and the field is released. Your horse is way, way back; more than 200 feet (2/3 of a football field) back. Do you get a refund? No. You lose your wager. How do you explain that? The only logical explanation is the race has started for wagering purposes. Well if that is the case, and the race has started, what do you call the wagering that is still going on once the gate is moving?

Past Posting.

That's right, every time a horse goes off stride once the starting gate moves and is hopelessly out of contention, there is past posting going on. The race has had to have started; otherwise how do you justify not refunding money to those whose horse did not get a fair start?

No doubt some people will say there is no past posting; the race did not start. If that is the case, we are cheating our customers. How do we justify not refunding money in a case when a horse is 2/3 of a football field back when a race starts? I have seen cases when a horse is closer to the paddock than the starting line when a race starts and there is no refund. Let's look at some other gambling products and let's say they did the same thing we are doing by not guaranteeing our customers a fair start:
  • You are playing blackjack in a casino and after the first card was dealt to everyone the dealer dropped the cards. The casino takes your wager away before you even saw your second card.
  • You play the maximum number of lines on a slot machine and the machine goes blank; it malfunctions. The casino keeps your original wager.
  • The thoroughbred you wagered on was cast (stuck on the ground) in the starting gate or the jockey was not on the horse before the starter releases the horses and the starter sends the field on their way. They don't refund your money.

If any of the these situations above occurred, what would happen? It would be an outrage and we would expect the gambler never to come back. Fortunately for those people who play these games, the people in charge know better. Well, how come harness racing doesn't know better?

If harness racing had a fair start rule, meaning a horse that was 200 feet or more back when a race started the horse would be scratched and the money bet on it refunded, we would be treating our customers correctly. You can make a case that a horse that is less than 200 feet back at the start is competitive, but if it is 200 feet or more back any chance of being relevant in the race is virtually impossible.

We know why there is no fair start rule. Tracks don't want it. Horsemen don't want it. No one wants to refund wagers because wagering contributes to the track's bottom line and the horsemen's purse account and their worst fear is having to refund any sizable amount of wagers due to a horse not being competitive before the start. This is why when the recall rule was changed, there was no provision for a fair start rule; where a horse must be within 2/3 of a football field distance from the starting line when the race starts in order for him to be considered a starter. I would like someone to explain how a horse that was that far back used to be considered uncompetitive under the old rule is now considered to be competitive.

Everyone says we need to get more interest (wagering) in harness racing, yet every time we have a horse that does not have a fair start we are chasing gamblers away, pushing them to other gambling games. All in the name of short term profit. Well, there may be a short term gain but in the long run racing is losing.

It is time for harness racing to treat their gamblers right by introducing a fair start rule. In the meanwhile, remember past posting is going on every time a horse does not get a fair start.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Buona Fortuna Explosive Matter

News comes that Explosive Matter is likely to bypass the Breeders Crown and instead race in the Premio Orsi Mangelli to be raced on November 1 in Milan, Italy. No doubt one of the factors involved in skipping the Crown is to get away from Muscle Hill, thus eliminating from the Crown the only horse with a remote chance to beat Muscle Hill, thus making it a virtual walkover.

While many would think this is just a case of a dodging Muscle Hill, this is a bold move. If Explosive Matter played it safe and raced in the Crown (likely there will be no eliminations), he would almost certainly pick up second place which means he could add $125,000 to his earnings for the year. By deciding to race in the Orsi Mangelli, Explosive Matter must deal with several obstacles; shipping and quarantine; racing against foreign horses; racing two heats; a different racing style (they have no qualms about racing parked out). Thus racing in the Orsi Mangelli is a gamble; especially when the purse traditionally has not been as large as the Breeders Crown final.

For sure, the stated desire regarding getting Explosive Matter European exposure will benefit him once he does begin his stud career; possibly even leading to a sale to European interests. However, this also provides another opportunity to compare the quality of our trotters versus the European trotters. Anytime we can have European horses racing in North America or our horses racing in Europe, standardbred racing on the whole wins. We should be thankful Explosive Matter's connections are not playing it safe. To Explosive Matter and his connections, we say "Buona Fortuna".

For those that have never seen the Premio Orsi Mangelli, here is a video of the 2004 edition won by Passionate Kemp.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Curtain Drops

So The Red Mile meet comes to an end. With the exception of the Breeder's Crown, the major stakes have come to an end (the Matron remains for the few hardy horses and horsemen still around). The best horses will soon be heading off to stud or taking a well deserved vacation to get ready for next year's campaign.

The Red Mile meet is the proving ground of champions. Champions are crowned and impostors are exposed. Muscle Hill leaves Lexington as the greatest three year old trotter ever and leaves us wondering what would have been if he continued racing as an older horse. Well Said, who some (myself included) considered a lock for Horse of the Year if not for Muscle Hill, has been exposed to be merely the best three year old pacer of the crop, who if he does not turn out to be successful as a stud will quickly be forgotten. Holiday Road, who many had already anointed as next year's Hambletonian winner, failed at The Red Mile twice (once in the Simpson before the Grand Circuit came in) leaving people to wonder if we may have already seem the best from him. The meet gives hope to others, not only for two year old trotters Lucky Chucky and Winning Fireworks in their quest for Hambletonian gold, but winners of late closing events; late bloomers who in victory give their owners hope for next year's racing campaign.

With the Allerage stakes, we see what racing can be if we would be able to get successful horses racing past their three year old campaign. Buck I St Pat has been reaffirmed as queen of her division and with the decision to return to the racing wars next year, a return engagement to Sweden may be in the cards. Mister Big caps a successful career with a win in the Allerage showing us what a great FFA horse he has been; hopefully he will be successful in his new career as a stallion; perhaps encouraging others to defer retirement. With Mister Big departing the racing wars we learn Vintage Master will return, perhaps to fill the void Mister Big will leave.

Another wonderful thing about Grand Circuit racing at The Red Mile is it is an un-official festival of racing for horsemen, a two week period where they get to enjoy racing the way it ought to be. For two weeks, all of racing's problems go away. However, as Andrew Cohen reports, the storm clouds are gathering as the various stakeholder groups for some reason are unwilling or unable to tackle the ills which face racing. Unless racing attends to the serious challenges facing it, there may be no sport to celebrate. You don't want to miss Cohen's column; make sure to read it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Death Blow to New Jersey?

Racing in New Jersey as we know it may becoming to an end.

Governor Corzine has now gone on record as opposing VLTs at the Meadowlands. This pronouncement has been made while his blue ribbon panel is still meeting on a monthly basis. Rest assured casino interests are popping open their champagne with Corzine's latest pronouncement. With Corzine now being on the record as anti-VLT along with his major party opponent Chris Christie and the anticipated new Senate President being anti-VLTs, the chances of getting VLTs anytime in the next four years is virtually zilch.

Racing in New Jersey, both thoroughbred and standardbred are approaching critical times. Even with the current purse supplement the Meadowlands has been receiving, they have not been able to compete against surrounding states for horses. With a governor and a senate president both opposed to VLTs despite studies which show NJ would benefit with VLTs being introduced at the Meadowlands (all tracks to be precise), how much mood for compromising will the casino interests be within the framework of the blue ribbon panel of gaming and racing interests? Purse supplements? New Jersey racing has been losing ground with the current level of funding from the casinos, how likely will Atlantic City interests be willing to continue funding at increased or at a level the same level as it is with this past agreement? You will be lucky to get gaming interests to agree to any supplements, if at all (Corzine has been non-committal with regards to supplements continuing). The state supplement racing? Highly unlikely considering the constant budget problems the state has every year.

The scenario in New Jersey is certainly bleak. The state, by heeding the call of Atlantic City lobbyists will not only be destroying the horse racing industry, but is forfeiting money which New Jersey residents are spending at racinos in New York and Pennsylvania. How can this play out? Here is one scenario of what can happen:

Expect Freehold Raceway to close after the 2010 season if not earlier. The Meadowlands will become the new Freehold with race cards full of $7,500 claimers, maidens, and non-winners of $3000 conditions.

Horsemen, who will be racing for much smaller purses, will no longer be willing to have the big stake races draining the purse account. The stakes program the Meadowlands currently has will be savaged with the Hambletonian being sent packing and many more of the stake races either cancelled, moved or have significant purse cuts. All of a sudden, all that bad mouthing of a half mile track will disappear, we may have leading trotters actually race in the Yonkers Trot. The strong NJSS program will become a shell of itself as not only will the funding dry up but all the remaining top tier sires will be leaving the state. Racing on a national level will go through a period of turmoil until the industry figures out how the dust will settle.

There was one morsel an extreme optimist could hold on to. Corzine did indicate while opposed to VLTs, if it was going to come, he would do it all the way, meaning a full casino. However, this likely was theoretical rather than reality.

Hopefully, the political winds will change but if not, winter is coming to New Jersey racing and it may never leave.

How Not to Promote Your Track

It is generally acknowledged that a company often makes their first impression by their website. Often, before a person ever contacts the company, the customer will check the company's website to learn about the company and see even if they want to do business with them. A horrible website, and an opportunity to connect with the customer is long gone. It is no different when it comes to racetracks. An attractive website may draw new customers in while a poor website may result in the racetrack losing business; they may as well not have a website.

One of the worst harness track websites has to be Freehold Raceway. I am not talking about handicapping information; the website is one of the most unimaginative websites out there. It is dull, lacking color, and the design has not been changed in years. Looking at this website, you can't even easily tell if there is dining available. The site is not being kept up to date as the last entry for publicity is September 7.

Yes, most wagering is done off-site through simulcasting or ADW wagering, but tracks should be at least trying to get some people to show up at the track. Let's say a couple is visiting the area and when they ask someone what there is to do, they get told there is a racetrack as well as several other entertainment options. Do you think after this couple checks out Freehold's website there is any real chance they are going to the track for an afternoon of entertainment? What about someone who lives in the area looking for a different entertainment option; is this website going to entice them?

On the other hand, let's take a look at Northfield Park's website. Here is another track that also has no alternative gaming but at least their website is inviting and colorful. Not only is there racing but someone visiting the website can easily see dining is available and other things are going on. The Northfield website not only provides information, it promotes the track. Someone visiting the area or a local resident looking for something to do may, after looking at the website, be tempted to come to the track. Their site promotes the sport and the racetrack. As a result of the website, Northfield Park is a valid entertainment option.

A website tells a companies story. Sometimes there is no second chance.

Side note: The Meadowlands has redesigned their website. There are a couple of glitches and is now geared towards the thoroughbreds for their season, but it is worth a look. You can take a look here.

Friday, October 9, 2009

France Says No to Betfair, The Grand Finale

In perhaps far reaching news news, the French government has revised their betting laws opening up for the first time their markets to foreign betting operators provided they pay revenue to the government and the sport producing the product. In effect, if a bookmaking company wants to accept wagers on harness racing at Vincennes, the track needs to be compensated. However, in an important ruling, the new legislation effectively outlaws Betfair as betting exchanges have been banned. While betting exchanges accounts for just under 10% of the wagering market it has been growing. The reason betting exchanges have been outlawed is that they don't contribute funds to the sport the wagers are being accepted on. This legislation can be far reaching as British interests are looking to get their government to outlaw betting exchanges as well.

This news will surely cause some turmoil. Some people were arguing betting exchanges were the wave of the future as it allows new wagering opportunities with minimal cost to the bettors. However, it is unreasonable to expect any sport to produce a product and have other people profit on their product without sharing part of the revenue. Yes, it may be old way thinking but it is a question of fairness. It is one thing to when Joe and John have a personal bet on their own on a sporting event; it is totally different when a company makes money facilitating this type of wager.

That being said, racing needs to offer new wagering opportunities to their fans besides the traditional win-place-show and exotic wagers currently offered; perhaps some proposition wagers like which driver will win the most races on a program. It is also important to get the takeout reduced so the need for betting exchanges is greatly reduced; the main reason the exchanges exist is to circumvent the onerous takeout rates. Rather than gloating, racing interests need to take heed as to why betting exchanges have been popular in the first place and correct the situation, otherwise people will flock to other betting alternatives.

Saturday not only brings the curtain down on The Red Mile grand circuit meet, it is the unofficial end to the regular season for the stars and upcoming stars of harness racing. After this week, the only major stakes races remaining for the year are the Breeders Crown eliminations and finals at Woodbine and The Matron Stakes at Dover Downs.

The Red Mile concludes with the strongest card of the meet. While Muscle Hill is taking the week off, Explosive Matter will be leading the Bluegrass Series for 3yo trotting colts and geldings. The Tattersalls for 3yo pacing colts and geldings features Well Said looking to complete the Little Brown Jug/Tattersalls double. Not to be out done, there are several divisions of the Allerage for older horses. Lanson leads the field for the Open Trot; Buck I St Pat leads the field for the Fillies & Mares Open Trot; Southwind Tempo leads the Fillies & Mares Pace; and a field of all-stars headlines the Horse & Gelding Pace. Even if you don’t wager on the card due to the likelihood of low pay-offs, if you are a fan of harness racing you want to watch this card if possible.

The third race is the first split of the Bluegrass. Russell Hill raced a credible fourth in the Kentucky Futurity elimination where he met Muscle Hill and Explosive Matter. He did scratch out of the second heat; no doubt because he had enough of the Hill and with the poor post draw his connections decided to call it a day. Russell Hill meets an easier field here and can start off the stakes portion of the card with a minor upset. Tom Cango finished fourth in his elimination of the Futurity and returned to finish third in the final; is the logical pick but draws poorly. Howthehaloareyou was victorious in a late closer; may be good enough to pick up the show position. Magic Carpet Ride raced against a very good field of aged trotters in last start. There is no Lanson in this race; must consider in exotics and is a possible long shot.

Lanson leads the field for the Allerage Open Trot (fourth race). Many of the same horses he beat last week return; no reason to think he can’t repeat. Gift Kronos finished second to the top pick in last race; completes chalk exacta. ABC Mercedes jumped last week when second; can pick up share if he minds his manners. Farifant may have enough to pick up the last position in the super.

Buck I St Pat is the overwhelming choice to win in a short field of five trotters in the fifth race, the Allerage for Fillies & Mare trotters; 1-9 is not impossible. Classic Lane is the choice in what really is a race for second. Diana Hall steps up but did show a decent line against Buck I St Pat in the Conway Hall at Vernon Downs. Dynamite Diva is the best of the rest.

In the Allerage Fillies & Mares Open for pacers (sixth race), Southwind Tempo is the horse to beat in another short field as she was very impressive in the Milton at Mohawk. Tug River Princess raced credible in her first start back against Southwind Tempo by finishing fourth after racing from the ten hole; lands second. Hana Hanover has been racing well all year; should complete trifecta. Apricot Brandy finished second in an overnight open here after a brief layoff; may sneak into exotics.

In the seventh race, the second split of the Bluegrass, Neighsay Hanover is a tepid pick to win. He is clearly the best but draws the worst of it. Photoforwin broke in last at Delaware but has a couple of third place finishes to Muscle Hill. If he minds his manners in his return to the larger oval and things don’t go Neighsay Hanover’s way he can deliver a shocking upset. Broadway Bistro draws inside and meets easier, completes the trifecta. Judge Joe’s best efforts are on the half mile racing on the lead; may improve this rating.

The eighth race, the Allerage for aged pacing horses and geldings brings the nation’s best aged pacers together. Being last week’s $10,000 elimination was raced to eliminate only one horse, don’t let last week’s races alone determine your picks. Shadow Play is one of the gutsiest horses around but unfortunately has soundness problems due to problem feet. In his first race back after a scratch-sick, he raced an uneventful fifth. Should be tighter this week if he makes it to the post; my pick with the money on the line. Mister Big is coming to a conclusion of a successful career. While the victories are spotty this year, don’t discount him with the ideal trip. Shark Gesture has been racing well; lands show. Art Official has lost a step from last year but can complete the superfecta.

The first division of The Tattersalls (ninth race) may be the more competitive of the two splits. Vintage Master seems to have bounced back from his performance in the second heat of the Jug; draws the worst of it but should be able to pick up the win position. Carnivore has turned into a nice colt; can once again pick up the place spot. Annieswesterncard has been racing out of the spotlight all year; I expect big things for this gelding as a four year old. In the meanwhile, my pick for show can improve with a trip to land second. Straight Shooting is the best of the rest.

The tenth race is another division of the Bluegrass. Explosive Matter may be 1-9 by race time and will show once again he had the misfortune of being born in the same year as Muscle Hill (no disgrace as he also earned over $1 million this season); romps as his connections consider racing him in the Orsi Mangell in Italy this November. Swan For All had to overcome problems as he has made only two starts this year. He has been undefeated in this shortened campaign. With his win in a 3yo open overnight in last, he may be fresh enough to pick up the second spot and add some value to the exacta. Calchips Brute has the back class to be a factor; can improve rating to compete for second. P J Clark had shown some success in Canada. Finished second to Swan For All, consider in exotics.

The second split of The Tattersalls (eleventh race) features the future pacer of the year Well Said. While I see him winning here, the Jug winner has shown he can throw a clunker in when his connections dip into the well once too often. If less than even money, watch and appreciate his abilities. If I Can Dream is the horse who can upset if the top pick is off. Hypnotic Blue Chip came out of the NYSS to finish third in Bluegrass against Vintage Master; possible If I Can Dream – Hypnotic Blue Chip exacta? Vertical Horizon has been racing well; draws the worst of it; completes the exotics.

Another great year of racing at The Red Mile comes to a conclusion on Saturday. Based on what we saw this meet, it looks like next year will be another great year of racing.