For photos from the Meadowlands contact

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Keeping Things Civil

While this blog has been around for only nine months, we have discussed a wide range of issues.  Certain topics I have discussed you have agreed with; others you may have not.  I always welcome the opportunity to have a discussion about the things I write; it is one of the reasons this blog exists.  Differing opinions allows us to discuss the issues important to harness racing.  I have never said I know it all.  By having this conversation, we all learn.

That being said, one thing this blog has prided itself on is being a place where we may have these discussions in a respectful manner.  I realize there are times passions may be raised, but there is no reason the conversation can't take place without name calling or otherwise getting abusive.  We all can get our points or frustrations expressed without going down that path.    

Since I have not stated this policy before, I have allowed certain comments which have straddled the line to be posted.  In the future, this will change.  Comments will either be edited (and noted as such) or no longer posted when they cross the line. 

Again, this policy is not intended to stiffle the conversation.  This blog has and will always welcome your feedback and comments.  It is a question of respect.  I ask you to give the same respect to others you would want from them.   

Thank you in advance.  I look forward to our future discussions.   


What can I say? There are times you just have to scream. I found myself in this position this weekend when I came across comments from a prominent individual within the sport who seemingly has run up the white flag. No, this person is not happy about the current situation, but is seemingly resigned to the fact this is the way it is.

It reminds me of the opening of Annie Hall when a young Woody Allen is being seen by a psychologist, apparently depressed after reading an article which indicated the sun was going to blow up and destroy the world. The psychologist, attempting to comfort the young Woody Allen, explains to the boy that the sun will blow up millions of years from now long after he is gone. To which the young boy shrugged and responded “What’s the use?’

In the comments from this individual was an explanation of why certain suggestions can’t work; they will upset the status quo. Not, how can any of these suggestions work or be modified; just they can’t work. Why upset a perfectly good product?

Newsflash: Our product is broken. Declining interest and less wagering suggests we are producing not only too much product, but a defective product. Keep on feeding the customer the same product is not going to turn things around. Change is needed; some of it may be painful.

Have we gotten to the point where all is hopeless; it’s “As good as it gets”? I certainly hope not. For if this is the case, all is lost; racing’s strategy should remain do nothing, just make as much money as you can while the states are willing to subsidize the industry with VLT revenue and then one day we will just close up shop and go home.

Fortunately, there are those who think there is a future for harness racing. What we need are the “No” people to stand aside and let the “Yes” people lead. If the sport ever does die, let it be said it went out with a fight and not a whimper.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Inter Dominion Final: Blacks A Fake vs Monkey King

It looks like next week's $1 million (AUS) Inter Dominion Championship will be a face off between Blacks A Fake and Monkey King.  In this week's second round, Blacks A Fake defeated defending 2009 Inter Dominion champion Mr Feelgood in a track record mile rate of 1:55.3 for the 2,030 meter race.  Monkey King was impressive in his heat as well.  For a recap of the four heats this week, you can check out the Inter Dominion website and/or check out Harness Racing Australia's website for replays.  The replays of the four heats from this week can be found here (races 4 thru 7) 

After the two rounds of preliminaries, the following horses will compete next week in the final (post positions to be drawn).  The horses are listed in order of points earned during the Inter Dominion preliminaries:  Monkey King, Blacks A Fake, Bondy, Washakie, Atomic Ark, Our Awesome Armbro, Smoken Up, Mr Feelgood, Changeover, Baileys Dream.  Also eligibles are Sammy Maguire and  Be Good Johnny.
Much has been made about the Meadowlands now showing driver selections before each race so the wagering public will know which horse a driver went with if named on more than one horse.  Any effort to make information available to the gambler should be applauded.  However, we need to be careful that we don't overload our novice fans with too much last minute data.  Perhaps posting information like this on the Meadowlands website would be better.  This way those, who subscribe to this angle can access the information when they want it.     

Friday, February 26, 2010

Modifying the Meadowlands (and Yonkers) Schedule - A Proposal

In Thursday's editions of the Star Ledger of Newark it is reported that a possible overhaul of the thoroughbred schedule in New Jersey may be forthcoming.  Under this proposal, which would require legislative action, the Meadowlands would become a standardbred only track.  The thoroughbreds would race a fifty day meet from Memorial Day to Labor Day at Monmouth Park, racing three days a week (Fri-Sun) with a daily purse payout of $1 million.  From mid-September through November 23, there would then be another meet of twenty-three days with a daily purse account of $250-$300,000; likely to provide an opportunity for the cheaper Jersey-breds to get raced.

Should the thoroughbreds depart the Meadowlands, it would provide a unique opportunity to alter the landscape at the Meadowlands for the standardbreds.  One thing which should not be an option is adding days to the standardbred meet (nor do I think anyone would seriously suggest it).  There needs to be a contraction of race dates at the Meadowlands, especially when you consider the likely loss of supplements and the lack of VLTs.

So how could the Meadowlands racing calendar look like?  I have come up with an idea for a schedule which is predicated on certain assumptions (and hope that horsemen in different states can work together).  These assumptions are:

  1. Meadowlands and Yonkers work together to come up with a schedule that gives each of them a period of 'prime' time; allowing for increased wagering on their races.
  2. Allows Chester and Pocono Downs to have most of the overnight action during their race meets.
  3. Provides the Meadowlands with a true championship meet, similar to the two week Grand Circuit meet at Lexington. 
  4. Yonkers has the ability to scheduling racing during the Meadowlands' down time.
Under this proposal, the Meadowlands would roughly race 110 days instead of the current 184 days. 

Winter Meet (40 days)
January - Thursdays thru Saturday nights
February and March - Thursday thru Saturday nights; twilights on Sundays

Under the winter meet proposal the Meadowlands would race three nights a week in January and expand to a fourth night after football season by adding a twilight Sunday program.  The Meadowlands will offer a higher daily purse distribution during this meet than they will in the fall.

Yonkers Raceway would race during these three months on Mondays thru Wednesdays.  During this winter meet, the Meadowlands would race the Open and FFA classes.

Summer "Championship" Meet (40 days)
Third week of May thru first week of August - Thursday thru Saturday

During the championship meet, the Meadowlands would race only Thursdays thru Saturdays, running their Grand Circuit, early/late closing, and NJSS races.  Basically, for two and a half months, the Meadowlands will become The Red Mile with the best horses racing.  The stakes would be coordinated with other tracks that run during this time with the meet ending so the top horses can go on swing thru the Mid-West and Delaware, Ohio and Lexington.  The daily purse distribution will be similar to the winter meet with additional money for the stakes and early/late closing series.  

Yonkers would race Sunday thru Tuesday and Saturday.  Both tracks can run the caliber of horse they want (the stakes each track run would determine who gets what horses). 

Fall Meet (30 days)
Third week of October thru third week of December - Monday thru Wednesday

This would be the Meadowlands B meet.  During this time, the Meadowlands would race Monday thru Wednesday evenings and race a primarily overnight meet.   The daily purse distribution would not be as great as during the winter meet.  The only exception would be if the Breeders Crown came to East Rutherford.  In that case, the first two weeks of the meet would have the eliminations and finals of the Crown.

Yonkers would get the prime nights of Thursday thru Saturday with the Open and FFA classes racing there.

Could a schedule like this work?  A lot of it depends on the willingness of horsemen in New Jersey and New York working together as well as giving up the concept of more racing is good.  All I know is something has to give.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is Anyone Watching Out for the Gambler?

So the driver took the inside route gaining clearance in early stretch and commenced a vigorous urge.

Upon drawing even if not actually by the pacesetter some yards before the wire he abruptly ceases his urge and to the unskilled eye could be accused on pulling up.

But once no longer in apparent danger of actually winning, he visually reinstates his vigorous urge and finishes a safe second.

Of course there could be all sorts of explanations for what transpired many of them totally innocent regardless of how suspicious it may have appeared,

The problem is left to their own devices anyone who wagered on the driver’s horse is odds on to think the worst.

A percentage of those may elect not to bet on horses any more joining the vast graveyard of former horseplayers not all of whom are languishing six feet under.

Sounds familiar? Anyone who has followed the standardbred sport for any length of time has seen situations like this. As the author explains, there may very well be a legitimate reason for the driver's action. Did the horse take a bad step or feel like he was about to jump? Did the horses just stop for a moment? Could it be as simple as the driver blowing it? The problem is the wagering public often never knows. And then the horseplayer's mind goes into overdrive and an innocent event takes on a more sinister meaning. Will this be the final straw which causes the gambler to never return? What can be done to prevent this?

Maybe we need to treat the gambler with more respect.

This means the judges holding off on making the results official long enough to take another look at the stretch drive to make sure nothing was missed. You have the video tape; look at it before you make the results official.

For track management, it means showing a head on shot of the stretch run so gamblers can gain a different perspective of the stretch run (hard to believe some tracks don’t show the head on shot). Show an inquiry or objection even if there is no disqualification. Explain why or why not a placing occurred. Interview a driver after a race to ask him what went wrong in the race. Did the horse throw in a couple of bad steps or did something else happen? Put comment lines back in the program. How come a past performance line of a greyhound, thoroughbred, and quarter horse can have a comment line explaining what happened in a race but few harness tracks bother to provide comments? Not every person can see every race. Do you think it is in the wagering public's interest not to list comments like 'blocked in stretch' in a past performance line? Lastly, post fines and suspensions on the track website. At least then the public may see people are trying to watch out for them.

Drivers need to lodge objections if fouled. We know judges don't see everything. No, I am sure you don't want anyone to lodge an objection against you either. However, the moment a gambler places a wager on a race, he/she in effect becomes your employer. You have a duty to the gambler as well as the owner and trainer to protect their interests.

Maybe if we acted like we were watching out for the gambler, the gambler will not always think the worst. Perhaps we should give it a try?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Another Voice: Seeding and Taking Back

Interesting comments from Bob Marks' (of Perretti Farms) Trotlines, which may be found on the Perretti Farms website.  While Trotlines discusses primarily issues of concern to breeders and yearling buyers issues, the column does discuss issues facing racing.  In his most recent installment of Trotlines, Bob discusses two issues of particular interest to the horseplayer, both professional and novice.  Thanks to Bob Marks for allowing me to reprint his comments here. 

So they card two divisions of the same class and lo and behold all the tough ones are in one division while the weaker horses go in the other division.

Conveniently an end result can be two evenly matched betting races. Or so it seems.

Unfortunately the end result is often two “unbettable” betting races for the following reasons.

 One is that the so-called weaker division is comprised of inferior and/or off form animals that on paper at least would be lucky to finish the mile rather than actually beat anybody.

Not a good betting scenario, unless someone knows or suspects certain horses have been waiting for class relief and are eligible for sudden wakeups.

Now the other division is comprised of the toughest and/or sharpest horses in the class, the connections of which may perceive that while they’ll be lucky to get a check in this one-they’d be first or second best in other division.

Not a good betting scenario unless one knows or suspects just which horses will be well meant and which horses might be raced easy in lieu of making the “other” division next week.

Have wondered why the purses aren’t commensurate with the levels of ability within these two class divisions.

But then that would be confirmation that the process of such a thing as seeding actually occurs.

Bob is not talking about seeding races like Saratoga Raceway's Open I and Open II classes.  While there is always a possibility someone may try to 'work' their way down to the Open II, they will be leaving money on the table as the Open II races for $3,000 less money than the Open I.  The problem comes when a racing secretary tries to take a group of conditioned or claiming pacers and puts the best ten in one division and the bottom ten in the second division.  As well intentioned as the racing secretary may be, it may be best to allow the luck of the draw determine which race a horse ends up in.  This way, there is no assurance that a poor effort this week will be rewarded by a draw into an easier division next time. 

So it was suggested to the driver that perhaps taking back would be the prudent course in this particular race seeing as how one more dominating victory might just get the horse out of the class and in this case off the grounds in that it’s current open class was as high as it could go.

We all know this never happens or at least we can’t admit that it does but given the ultimate ramifications one must wonder why it is so often sanctioned.

Generally the horse in question loses or better yet fails to win only to come right back and decimate similar rivals the very next week.

Of course those who unwittingly bet him “that night” are out of luck and who knows what “taste” they come away with.

Seasoned pros know its part of the game and while they don’t like it have unfortunately learned to live with it.

The rest of the crowd-left to their own devices, are odds on to think of all sorts of diabolical things some of which are not that far from reality.

If we didn’t need betting to drive the engine, there’d be no problem but unfortunately until we’re totally funded by artificial methods, it is a problem.

As with a horse winning out of competition at a racetrack, if we had fewer tracks racing at a given time, there would be a bigger pool of horses to draw from making it harder to win your way out.  As for others just wanting to find their way into an easier class, reading comments like this makes me wish for the good old days of classified racing, only this time with racing secretaries who are not going to let a trainer drop his horse down in class so easily.  This way, if you want to race three or four starts without earning anything to get into a lower class, go right ahead (Conversely, one win should not automatically promote a horse to a higher class).  Failing a return to classified racing, we need to come up with a way to make it economically unfeasible for a trainer to resort to such tactics. 

But for those who may employ such tactics, is there any wonder why we are racing in front of empty grandstands?  Do you care?

Andrew Cohen, writes for The Atlantic regarding the lawsuit Jeffrey Brooks recently filed against the United States Trotting Association.  Here is his take on this lawsuit and the potential ramifications to the sport. 

Monday, February 22, 2010

Changing the Focus of Horse Ownership

Many people in the sport lament the lack of new owners coming into the business. After all, if people are unwilling to purchase horses to race, no matter how many horses are bred, we will continue to experience horse shortages. While decreasing race dates and the eventual right-sizing of the industry will help reduce the shortage of horses, we need new owners anyway. Just like the sport’s fan base, the ownership base is aging as well. We need new owners to replace those who are leaving the business out of attrition. Don’t forget, new owners are also a source of increased wagering as well as potential ambassadors for introducing potential fans to the sport.

Some may ask why we should attempt to attract new horse owners while the business is in a period of high uncertainty. First of all, like other businesses, horse racing does not have the luxury of addressing one issue at a time so while issues such as over capacity, takeout rates, integrity and others are being addressed, we need to keep working on the development of new owners. This is not to say we should lie to potential owners and tell them everything is wonderful. If asked, we need to be upfront. Yes there will be contraction, but we are not going away. We need to change the focus of what it means to be a horse owner.

The focus of horse ownership changed dramatically with the opening of the Meadowlands, not all for the good. While owners have always hoped to make a profit racing horses, a major component of horse ownership was sportsmanship for some, a hobby for others (it helped the IRS was more liberal regarding when a racehorse was a business investment versus a hobby). In other words, owning a racehorse was fun. Perhaps it was being too close to New York City, but with the early success of the Meadowlands, Wall Street came to harness racing, commoditizing the race horse. Fewer and fewer people bought race horses to have fun; the horse became an investment product to make money off of, changing the game forever (Ask trainers these days how easy it is to tell some owners their horse needs to be turned out. Not race a horse at two?). As a result, with things taking a change for the worse (for reasons I will not repeat here), owning a race horse as a pure business investment no longer makes sense, hence the dearth of new owners.

What is the solution to attract new owners to harness racing? Horse ownership needs to be de-commoditized; we need to return the emphasis on having fun, a hobby, sportsmanship, with the possibility of making money being the last selling point. Quite frankly, we have no choice but to change our focus. After all, the upcoming retrenchment facing horse racing is going to necessitate the change in focus. For once, we may as well get ahead of the curve instead of trying to catch up.

Now that we have a ‘new’ angle to promote horse ownership, what can be done to help encourage others to take the plunge into the world of horse ownership? I will discuss some options in another blog entry shortly. Suffice it to say, everyone needs to pitch in and help.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

2010 Inter Dominion Under Way - Why Not Here?

The first leg of the 2010 Inter Dominion was held Friday night at Harold Park in Australia with the running of four divisions.  Details on how each division was won may be seen at the official Inter Dominion website or you may click on the following links for a recap of Division 1, Division 2, Division 3, or Division 4.   For replays of the four divisions, you may go to Harness Racing Australia's website to see the charts and replays.  The four divisions of the Inter Dominion were races 4-7.  In the top right hand corner of each race, there is a link to click on to see the replays of the respective race.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Inter Dominion, the Inter Dominion Pacing Championship are the races of the year in Australasia. The series rotates between the harness racing states in Australia and New Zealand. This year, the races are being hosted by New South Wales.  The conditions call for the top forty ranked horses to compete in the first two rounds of championship using the mobile starting gate. Since the first round, contested at 2,100 meters, on February 19 was held at Harold Park, the race had seven starters in the first row and three horses drawing the second tier (take note North American racing interests). The second round to be held at New Castle on February 27 and the $1.5 million (AUS) final will be contested at Menangle on March 7 which will have been narrowed down to the top ten point earners competing in the preliminary heats. A consolation race will also be held.  Like North American races, there are nominations, sustaining and entry fees required with supplemental entries allowed. If come the first round a horse does not fall into the top forty contenders and qualify, all fees except the nomination fees are refunded to the nominators.

So the question needs to be asked, why can't we have a series like the Inter Dominion in North America for both gaits as a means to encourage older horses to race longer? The answer is there is no reason it can’t be done except for the lack of will. Here is a proposal on how we can have a similar event.

We will call our series the Can-Am Pacing/Trotting Championships. Horses will represent Canada and America based on who owns the horses, not where a horse is sired or foaled. If a horse is owned by both American and Canadian owners, the horse will compete under the banner of the country where majority ownership resides. Like the Inter Dominion, horses that compete overseas may be invited to compete.

The Can-Am will be raced in different regions of the United States and Canada each year with pari-mutuel wagering. The events will be raced at different tracks within the region. There is no size limitations with regards to which track can participate. Since there will be ten horses in each race, there will be a need for two tiers on a half mile oval. However, since races will be at different distances, between 1 1/4 and 1 1/2 miles, being in a second tier should not matter as much (though an attempt to schedule the final on a mile track should be attempted, if possible).

Modify the Grand Circuit. While not necessary, attempt to add additional Canadian tracks to the Grand Circuit. Require each Grand Circuit stop with pari-mutuel racing to offer a Grand Circuit event for Open Trotters and Pacers (Horses and Mares compete together) with a purse of at least $100,000 each (to avoid eliminations, a track may permit entries based on earnings) for each gait. If this rule was in place for 2010, it would mean fifteen races for older horses in each gait making at least $1.5 million in purse money available for our older horses; that before you even consider the Can-Am Championships.  Points are awarded at each grand circuit race with the highest point earner being the grand circuit champion.

Like the Inter Dominion, winners of the previous year Can-Am, current year Grand Circuit champions for the Open division get automatically invited to the championship series. If there is a worthy foreign horse to be invited, they get invited. After that, the balance of the forty horse field gets determined with points being awarded to winners of grand circuit races and by inviting horses that may not have won a grand circuit start but have represented themselves well in grand circuit races with particularly tough fields. Like the Inter Dominion, the two weeks of preliminary races will have horses seeded to offer equally competitive fields with post positions being an open draw (there will be an attempt to have horses compete against different horses in the second week). Each preliminary will have a purse of $100,000. The top ten point earners in the preliminaries advance to an open draw final with a purse of $1.5 million.

Think of the advantage of having a Can-Am championship.  First of all, there will be an incentive for older horses to keep on racing.  With the Grand Circuit older races become in effect become a combination of the NCAA's March Madness and NACAR's Chase to qualify for the Can-Am Championship, the best horses will compete at more tracks which will help draw interest to races at the local tracks and may draw increased media attention.    By allowing different regions to host the event each year, you allow each region to have the opportunity to showcase their standardbred product.  By having a competition between Canada and the United States, you draw the interest of people from both country, cheering on their favorites to defend their country's honor; a natural media event. 

Should we have an event like the Can-Am Championships?  Can we afford not to?

As a side note, you may be aware of new whipping rules in effect in Australia.  News reports indicate a driver filed a claim of foul against another driver in a race for the opposing driver using his whip fourteen times.  The steward indicated it was "it probably the worst breach" of the rules and it was "easy to uphold" the protest.  Regardless of what you think of the whipping rules, if it was the worst breach of the rules, how did the judges misss the offense in the first place?  Apparently stewards make mistakes down under as well.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Winter Late Closing Finals, Reunion Weekend

This weekend at the Meadowlands marks the conclusion of four late closing events, marking the end of the deep winter portion of the meet.  Friday night brings us the final of the Cape & Cutter for Open Mares; Saturday night brings us the finals of the Exit 16W (4yo and under non-winners of 3 or $100K as of November 15, 2009), Junior Trendsetter (3yo and non-winners of 2 or $20,000 as of November 15,200), and the Aquarius (4yo Open).  With no horse standing out in any of these races (Native Bride was scratched from the Cape & Cutter), I don't believe we will be seeing any odds on favorites winning. 

Here are my early selections for this quartet of finals:

Meadowlands - Friday, February 19, 2010
5th Race - Pace; $80,000 Cape & Cutter Final (Open Mares)
7 - Ginger and Fred     (4-1) - Pulls off minor upset.
3 - Chancey Lady        (3-1) - May be overbet and is beatable.
1 - Ramona Disomma  (5-1) - Completes trifecta; steady sort can improve finish.
Scratched: 5 - Native Bride

Meadowlands - Saturday, February 20, 2010
6th Race - Pace; $88,000 Exit 16W Final (4 year olds & under, stallions and geldings) 6 - In Over My Head   (3-1) - Undefeated since his return.  Should go 3-3 this year.
10 - Real Joke              (5-1) - Good recovery from break.  Post no hinderance; completes exacta.
 7 - Majestic Jackpot    (6-1) - Beat by top choice in last; use in exotics.

8th Race - Pace; $76,500 Junior Trendsetter Final (3 year olds, colts and geldings)
3 - Rush of Fools     (15-1) - Can shock in very competitive race if overland route is avoided.
7 - Native Treasure  (10-1) - Made two moves before faltering in last; threat with better trip.
6 - BG's Folly            (9-2) - Can win if top choices falters.

10th Race - Pace; $80,000 Aquarius Final (4 year old Open)
2 - Keep It Real     (3-1) -  Just missed in last; picks up JC.
4 - Riover Shark    (5-2) - Completes chalky exacta.
7 - Go Go Solano  (5-1) - Best of rest.

Saturday night also kicks off the Roosevelt Raceway reunion weekend at Pompano Park. While the formal reunion event is Sunday evening, Saturday night brings nostalgia to Pompano. The racetrack will be showing racing highlights from Roosevelt between their races and will be featuring drivers and trainers from Roosevelt signing autographs and selling souvenirs for the benefit of the Standardbred Retirement Foundation. With a large population of New York transplants living in the area, it should be a busy evening at Pompano.

Pompano also has two divisions of the Mildred Williams Ladies Driving Championship on Saturday night. Being a person who feels women (given the opportunity) can drive as well as a man, hopes the day comes when we have women driving regularly at our major racetracks; making events like the Mildred Williams series unnecessary. The thoroughbred industry has embraced women jockeys, why we haven't embraced women drivers puzzles me. We have women training at the highest levels of our sport, we should be encouraging women to drive and earn their way to compete at our major tracks. Not only is it the right thing to do, women drivers also helps us promote the sport to women.

NEWS ITEM: Christie Vetoes SBOANJ BudgetGovernor Christie has vetoed a 5.6% increase in the budget of the SBOANJ and a 19.8% increase in the budget of the TBOA (thoroughbred).  These budgets were approved in the January meeting of the NJRC.  Being a significant portion of the funding comes from the takeout on wagers placed, the racing commission needs to approve the respective breed association budgets.

Winning the Battle in New Jersey, Losing the War?

Some people have been wondering why I have not discussed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's recent statements which have provided wiggle room regarding his previous position of no VLTs at the Meadowlands. The reason I have not discussed this possibility is simple. It is not going to happen. Even if Governor Christie were to come out for VLTs, the bill will never see the light of day. Why? The Senate President, Democrat Stephen Sweeney has stated he will not post a bill permitting slot machines outside of Atlantic City. Sweeney also indicated his belief that the casino industry should not subsidize racing.

In hindsight, one must wonder if horse racing made a mistake in supporting Governor Christie for election instead of then Governor Corzine. If the election for Governor was done in a vacuum, the choice to support Christie may have been correct; I myself believe Governor Christie does want a strong racing industry, albeit 'self sustaining'. The problem is the gubernatorial election was not done in a vacuum. If Corzine had won, the legislative leadership would likely have remained intact. With the Democratic defeat at the polls, it induced a coup in the legislature leadership. The Democrats unseated a friend of racing (Richard Cody) as Senate President and replaced him with a staunch opponent of racing, Stephen Sweeney. For those who were looking for VLTs to come to the Meadowlands, could it be by winning the battle, they lost the war?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Horseplayer is a Customer

For a moment, let's leave the tundra of winter and step into the VFTRG's time machine and land at the Meadowlands on a Thursday evening in June. Prior to the first race, there is a non-wagering event; a sire stakes race for two year old trotting colts. Management, realizing the wagering public has no desire to wager on a field of unproven trotters, correctly decided to card the race as a non-wagering event. The horses get to race for purse money and the horseplayers are not offered a race of little interest to them.

Stepping back into the time machine, we return to the Meadowlands on February 18. There we find out thirteen horses dropped into the entry box for the second leg of the Tender Loving Care late closing series which necessitated the race to be split into two divisions. As a result, the first division will race in the first race with seven starters (assuming no scratches) while the second division will race in the third race with six starters.

Granted, we are talking about three year old pacing fillies, not inexperienced two year old trotting colts but how much wagering interest is there going to be in a six and seven horse field on a mile track which normally has ten starters? How appealing is exacta and trifecta wagering going to be with so few horses? Odds are the serious horseplayers at the track and home will be switching tracks or grabbing a snack during these races. It would have been one thing if the race was split and you were looking at eight horse fields, but to split the race so you have three and four empty slots on the starting gate before any scratches, wouldn't it make sense to card these races as non-wagering events and card two additional overnight races instead?

Now, if you didn't split the race and you had a race with thirteen starters; that would attract wagering interest. Most serious gamblers will concur one of the problems with racing is there are too few wagering interests per race. With thirteen wagering interests, payoffs have the potential of being much bigger which would attract additional wagering. What we have are conflicting interests. The gambler wants as many wagering interests as possible and the owner/horsemen wants to have their horse's nose on the starting gate. So who gets their way? The owners of course.

What is wrong with this picture? Taking slot revenue out of the equation, how long would racing survive if no one was wagering? Not very long. With the exception of a monopolized industry, economic theory indicates the customer gets what they want. Failure to give the public what they want typically results in a company eventually going out of business. Just in case anyone missed it, racing lost its monopoly a long time ago; you need to give the horseplayer (customer) what they want. If you don't give the horseplayer what they want, there are other forms of gambling which are more than willing to give the customer what they want.

It's one thing if only six or seven horses drop in the entry box for a race. However, if a race has more entries than there are positions on the gate, but not enough to card divisions with sufficient wagering interests, you better race with a second tier if you want to offer wagering or you better race as a non-wagering event. It needs to be what the customer wants, not what you want.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Fun Day at the Races

What can you do to attract families to the racetrack on a winter day? Northlands Park in Alberta held a Family Day where they had activities for the kids, including ice skating, face painting, cookie decorating, and snowshoe races.  According to sources, over 400 children and parents attended the races.
Not only did the children get to participate in snowshoe races, but drivers, female and male grooms participated as well.  Here is video of one of those races.

So what does this have to do with racing?  You have a bunch of children running around the racetrack ground along with parents who probably are not betting very much so what is the point of having such an event?  If you take a look at this link you will see how much fun the kids (and parents) had.  Sure the snowshoe races were silly, but everyone had a blast.  Children were ice skating in the outdoor paddock, playing in the snow, and after the races, they had a chance to run on the track wearing snowshoes.  The parents got to watch their children having a blast.  You also see child and parent alike watching the races.

Okay, maybe it is not practical to have ice skating at the track.  Yes, there is an expense to have snowmaking equipment to make snow if needed.  Don't have snowshoes available?  Let the horsemen run without them.  Let the kids run on the track (a lot of professional sports let children on the field before or after a game), in mini-races.  Our racetracks are empty enough that setting up a section of the apron for the kids and their parents should not disrupt the regulars.

Why should we do be doing something like Northlands Park's Family Day?  Rest assured these parents and children left Northlands having a positive experience and if any of these people had negative views of the track beforehand, those views disappeared. Some of these parents will have had such a good time that they will be back, without their kids.  The kids who got to run on the racetrack may develop a memory they never forget (I still smile about the time my grandfather took me to the circus when I was six years old); Events like this help start the process of developing a future generation of racing fans; something we need to do.  The sooner you expose children to the racetrack the better chance you have of developing a new fan.

If nothing else, how bad would it be to have a feel good day?  We don't have too many of them.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Learning from the French

We all have seen how our big races are promoted to potential on-track attendees (if at all).  There is an advertisement in the newspaper and/or there is a radio/television spot telling people to come to Hoboken Downs to see the $300,000 Battle of Secaucus and get their free commemorative baseball cap.  Yes, we may get people to come out but are we really promoting the sport or the freebie?

Take a look at an advertisement for yesterday's Prix de France at Vincennes-Paris.

There is drama, there is excitement.  It is all about the race.  Maybe if we started promoting the race, instead of the freebie, we would be better off in the long run.

As for the Prix de France, Prix d' Amerique favorite Meaulnes du Corta bounced back from his defeat to win the 2,100 meters (1.3 miles) $525,00 Prix de France for the second year in a row in a kilometer rate of 1:11.7 (mile rate 1:55.2).  This ten year old joins an exclusive club of back to back Prix de France winners which includes the famous Ourasi.  When you watch the replay of the race, notice the style of racing is very different from our single file approach to racing; it is a style which is more exciting for the spectator.  Like a thoroughbred race, each horse appears to try to make things happen for them rather than waiting for things to go their way.  I can't help but think if we raced this way, we would be able to attract more people to standardbred racing as we would be presenting a more exciting product.   

Another thing to note is the winner is a ten year old racing on the European Grand Circuit. Not a gelding, but a fully intact horse. The French have the right idea when they have their horses race and breed in the same season. While you will not find a major North American breeder subscribe to this practice at this time, I do believe the time will come where breeders on this side of the Atlantic will be forced to adopt this approach. Once the VLT induced bubble bursts, breeding fees will be cut to the point where it will make economic sense for stallions to do double duty.

Racing is still big in France.  They must be doing something right.  I realize horsemen are resistant to change but if it is working for the French, maybe we can learn from them?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Forfeiting Exposure

Monday is Presidents Day in the States. Racetracks normally dark on Mondays are scheduling special holiday racing programs. After all, why wouldn't you be open? If you schedule a special daytime race card, fans that normally don't have the opportunity to attend the races during the week may attend and who knows? You may expose horse racing to new fans. If you are a racetrack which already races on a Monday, it is even better. That is, unless you are Monticello Raceway.

Monticello Raceway normally races on Monday afternoons. Yet, as Monticello typically does, they have decided to be dark on Presidents Day. The reason? Monticello races for simulcasting. With other tracks (primarily thoroughbred) racing on a typically slow day, it is harder for Monticello to get on the racing menu at simulcast locations. Even if Monticello get space on the menu, there is a good chance some of the gambling dollars normally wagered on Monticello will find their way to Aqueduct and other tracks.

And we wonder why we have a hard time getting people interested in harness racing. By not racing on a holiday, Monticello forfeits the opportunity to give people living in the Monticello area who typically don't get the occasion to attend the races an opportunity to do so (they don't race on weekends). Who knows, perhaps a few holiday slot players would be exposed to the races as well.

I understand racing on Presidents Day may be a money loser for Monticello. Certainly the simulcast handle will be lower. The track may lose money racing on Presidents Day. The horsemen's purse account will take a hit due to the meager handle; though with VLT revenue does it really matter? On the other hand, by not racing on a normal racing day, what is Monticello telling their loyal players? Their loyalty doesn't matter; go find another track to play? Is business so good at Monticello that they don’t need to take advantage of a holiday to attract new players?

Harness racing needs all the exposure it can get. To willingly cede exposure by closing due to competition from other tracks on one of the few holidays during the year, a day where you can actually get more people to show up at the track is being penny-wise and dollar foolish. Let's not blame track management solely for this decision. Have the horsemen told management they rather race on the holiday even if the purse account takes a hit or do they look at the dark day as an extra day off?

The Meadowlands races on Sunday afternoons in the winter and spring despite an anemic handle which is worse than it would be if they raced on a Tuesday evening. The Meadowlands is racing on Presidents Day even though attendance and the handle will be poor, even racing against Freehold. During the warmer months when Jersey residents are at the shore, the Meadowlands will even race and have promotions on Memorial Day despite the fact it will not be a financial success. Even Freehold, a track that is in dire straits is racing on Presidents Day (a normally dark day), competing against the thousand pound gorilla in East Rutherford.

The Meadowlands and Freehold realize you have to give people a chance to sample your product when it is convenient for the customer.  Maybe someday Monticello will learn this lesson as well. 

Friday, February 12, 2010

Empower the Gambler

Horseplayers have become more sophisticated than they were years ago.  Yet, we still treat the gamblers like they don't know what they want.  Sure, we offer new multi-leg wagers, yet in many ways we have not been given the gambler what they want.  With advances in technology, there is things track management and the tote companies can do to empower the horseplayer who is helping finance the "improvement of the breed".  Here are a few suggestions:

The Coupled Entry Dilemma - If we are going to continue to have coupled entries, let's protect the horse player from getting stuck with a horse they didn't want. Many of us have had the situation where you came upon a two or three horse coupled entry and there was one horse you liked a lot and quite honestly, the others really had no business being in the race. Come post time and the horse you wagered on is a late scratch and you are left holding a ticket on a horse you feel has no chance. Sure enough, you just made a donation.

With the technology available, there is no reason why a person can't make a wager on a particular horse they liked. Let's say there is a three horse entry and the bettor likes the 1A. The gambler should be able to wager the 1A and if the horse races, the bet is treated like it is now, a bet on all the horses in the entry. If the 1A gets scratched and the wager is not a multi-race proposition, the gambler get's his money refunded.

The Multi-Race Scratch - Another dilemma most of us have encountered at one time or another. You have bet the Pick-6 and after the first leg of the wager, a horse you selected is scratched in the third leg. You wish you could change your wager to your second choice in the race but the rules indicate you get the post time favorite. Sure enough, the horse you were thinking about wins and the post time favorite runs up the track.

There is no reason why someone should be stuck with a horse they don't like. If you bet via your computer or at a self service terminal, the horseplayer should be able to select an alternate or two for each leg of the wager. If you select an alternate, if your horse is scratched, your top alternate should be substituted for your original selection. If all your alternates in a race are scratched or you don't pick an alternate and your original selection is scratched, then you should be given the post time favorite. If you are wagering with a teller, then you need to fill out a bet slip or you will be given the post time favorite.

The Parlay - Like many people, you may handicap the race card of your favorite race track the day before the races. Well, tonight you have a family function you need to attend but there are three horses you like tonight in different races. Why can't a bettor wager a $10 parlay where if he/she wins on the first race, all the proceeds get wagered on the next race selected and so on? After all, if Louie the bookmaker offers this service, shouldn't a track offer the same opportunity? A side benefit for the tracks is by allowing a parlay; your handle has the potential of increasing. Let’s assume the gambler was sharp that night and all three horses won. Without a parlay, the gambler may bet $10 to win on each race. He contributes $30 to the handle. With the parlay, the gambler would have contributed $130 to the handle ($10 bet on the first race, $30 on the second race, $90 on the third race)

Conditional Wagering - Some ADWs offer this option so tracks should be competing against them. You like the four horse in the second race but not enough if the odds are less than 2-1? Ever thought a long shot had a chance, but didn't want to wager on it unless the odds were more than 10-1? Condition wagering is what the doctor ordered. Much of the last minute wagering takes place because the bettors want to make sure they get a good value for their wager. If you offered conditional racing, wagering could stop at post time and you avoid the situation where a horse’s odds change twice during the race, removing the perception that people are betting after the fact. If racetracks offered conditional wagering, it may reduce the demand for fixed odds wagering or market agering occurring in offshore accounts.

While racetracks at present can't compete against ADWs when it comes to rebates, they don't need to force our sophisticated horseplayers to the ADWs because they offer options tracks are unable to provide. 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ignoring the Customer

Why does racing need to do without VLT revenue? The people from the Horseplayers Association of North America (HANA) inadvertently make the strongest argument for racing to be cut off from VLT revenue. In today's blog entry, HANA points out what has happened at a major fast food pizza chain. Faced with producing a product their own customers were trashing, did this pizza chain sit there and do nothing? No, what they did was totally revamp their product. They had to. There was no VLT revenue supporting them. If the customers rejected them, they were going out of business.

Racing refuses to make fundamental changes to meet their customers' needs. Why should they? Horsemen and owners racing at racinos are doing better than ever without any customers. With only 5% of the purse money coming from wagering, racing can and has pretty much dismissed the customer; the gambler is a nuisance to deal with. Until horsemen and owners are in a position of having to race for what their customers wagered, things will remain the same; high takeouts, long time between races, pools too small to wager into by the heavy hitters, odds changing a couple of times after the race starts, no fair start rule, and so on. This is not to say there is no one in racing who wants to see changes. Unfortunately, with no incentive to make changes, far too many people are saying "You're right" and promptly go back to business as usual. Until racing starts going hungry, things will not change. Once slot revenue is cut off, maybe those giving lip service will actually start working to please the customer. As much as standardbred racing will suffer greatly in the short run if New Jersey Governor Christie sticks to his guns regarding racing having to become self-sustaining, he may be doing racing a favor in the long run as racing finally will be forced to listen to their customers and make the changes needed to produce a product people actually want to consume. Like the pizza chain, there is a market for racing. The question is will racing listen to their customers?

Dean over at Pull the Pocket talks about having to combat PETA.  Here is another situatuion where racing has been ignoring the customer.  No, we don't need to appease PETA with their extreme views, but we must face the reality that the mainstream public will no longer tolerate business as usual when it comes to animal welfare.  As Dean points out, we don't need to treat racehorses like the family dog, but just the same, we have an obligation to treat them properly.  Check his entry out.    

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Musings for a Snowy Morning

It seems everyone has a problem with Governor Christie's latest commission regarding racing and entertainment.  The racing industry claims they have no representation on the commission.  The gaming industry claims they have no representation on the commission either. 

Of course, no one expresses any concern that the customer is not being represented from either side.  Casino customers can explain why they are not visiting Atlantic City and horse racing fans can explain why they have been abandoning the race tracks.  But then again, no one really wants to hear from the customer.  Heaven forbid the casino industry hears from their customers that Atlantic City is not a destination worth traveling to when they can go fifteen or thirty minutes from their home to a slot parlor (soon to be full casino in Delaware and Pennsylvania); the racing industry hears from their customers that their product is too expensive to play with respect to takeout and their facilities leave much to be desired.  After all, if the customers were heard, the casino industry may have to deal with the reality that they need to expand gaming in the state to go where their customers are and racing may actually have to cut the takeout and spend money to make the racetrack a place people want to visit.  For the benefit of both industries, there should be consumer representation; in the case of racing, a representative from HANA would be appropriate.

It turns out Christie's transition team did consider the possibility of gaming at the Meadowlands site.  However, due to the fact the transition committee had three representatives from the casino industry versus the one racing representative, reference to a gaming facility with VLTs at the Meadowlands was stricken from the final report. This prompted standardbred breeder, Mike Gullotta to issue a minority report. Regardless, it is being reported that Christie has not ruled out or ruled in VLTs for the Meadowlands. The horsemen are hopeful and the casino interests are slowing starting to seethe. That being said, I wouldn't be holding my breath. The New Jersey legislature has already made it clear that VLTs are a non-starter.

I can't help but wonder if horse racing spent even a fraction of the effort it is spending trying to get slots on improving the racing experience for customers (pricing, shorter time between races, improving facilities, etc.) if we would be in the position we currently are. My guess is no. There are plenty of people who love the sport and the challenge of playing the horses; we just have been chasing them away.

In the February 3 edition of The Horsemen and Fair World, the magazine reports on a contentious Illinois Racing Board meeting. During the January 26 IRB meeting, the board voted unaminously to limit the interstate commission fee to a maximum of 5%. As a result, of this decision, no out of state track could charge an Illinois race track more than 5% to carry their simulcast signal. TrackNet, owned by Churchill Downs (owner of TwinSpires and future owner of Youbet) wanted the limit set to 9%. Before the decision was voted on, the Tracknet president indicated if the proposal was approved, he would immediately terminate the transmission of TrackNet track signals to Illinois Racetracks or raise other fees to make up the difference. IRB President Joseph Sinopoli's response?

This sort of antitrust monopolistic activity that you are engaged in is so bad for horse racing when you combine with a bunch of tracks and use your muscle to demand various things for various racetracks.

It is refreshing to see a regulator come out and call it the way he sees it. TrackNet wants to charge 9% for their signal but you can be sure they don't want to pay that much to bring an outside signal into their own facilities or their ADW. Barring an anti-trust court fight, the only way to solve the problem regarding fees being charge for importing or exporting signals is for regulators to set a limit which will allow all parties to earn a reasonable return on wagering.  If no one is willing to take the case to court, the only answer is for other tracks to form their own consortium and set up their own ADWs to compete against the existing ones. 

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Look at the Future

As readers of my blog already know, I have been advocating for racing to get off the VLT and subsidy fix; it is time for racing to make the hard decisions necessary to become self-sufficient so it may survive. Needless to say, this position has not been very popular. Horsemen argue when VLTs were first put in at racetracks they were installed to support racing; in effect, an entitlement. This may be so. However, knowing how government works, the industry should have known support would be temporary. A prudent business decision would have been to use VLT revenue as a bridge to allow the industry to “right size” itself in light of the current marketplace.

Unfortunately, the industry has done little to make the sport more marketable and financially sound. Perhaps being a regulated industry gave the sport a false feeling of security. Maybe, it is just human nature not to do anything until you have to. As a result, thanks to simulcasting and the Internet, there is an excessive amount of product for the actual demand. Now that state governments are beginning to turn their back on the racing industry, right sizing may be more severe than it had to be.

For those who wonder how the states can renege on their promise of VLT revenue for racing, just look at General Motors and Chrysler. In the past, the government had bailed out the auto industry. Since the auto industry did not take advantage of the bailout to change the way they do business, they found themselves in a similar situation by the end of 2008. Rather than throw good money after bad on a faulty business model, the government made the decision to let General Motors and Chrysler go into bankruptcy, forcing them to redo the way they did business. How many horsemen were in favor of letting General Motors file for bankruptcy instead of having the government continue to provide aid for a failed business model? Why should racing be any different than GM and Chrysler? If we can't expect the government to keep bailing out companies like the automakers, why should we expect them to keep bailing racing out? Like the auto industry, racing needs to make the tough decisions and figure out how to improve their product so it may survive on its own in the marketplace.

So what would racing look like without VLT revenue? Let's take a look at the crystal ball and see how racing may look like in ten to fifteen years. Of course, this assumes the industry is willing to reinvent itself.

The days of extended race meets (four months and longer) will be history. With the loss of VLT revenue (and supplements), horsemen will be racing for purses derived from wagering only. As a result, were tracks to race long meets, horsemen will be racing for purses of $1,000 or less for the cheapest classes. By racing short meets of two or three months at the most, purses will be much better as the horsemen will be racing for money earned on wagering throughout the year.

Tracks will be closing. Now, I know this is not news, but what is news is not as many tracks will close as some people think. Some tracks which have been losing money will actually find it possible to make money by racing only two or three months a year and finding other uses for their facilities the rest of the time. With less tracks operating, more money will be bet into formerly minuscule pools raising the caliber of racing at some of these B tracks. With limited race meets, some of these tracks will be offering purses higher than they are at present. In some states, you may even find new tracks opening or training centers being used for pari-mutuel meets. With the vast majority of wagering taking place at profitable OTW sites and in the home, there is no longer a need for grandstands holding 5,000 or more people and the resulting overhead costs so the days of larger racetracks are over. Smaller racetracks designed for festival meets and tailgating will be ‘in’. Horses that can race successfully over the mile tracks will fall out of favor as horses will have no choice but to race over the smaller ovals (mile tracks take up too much expensive real estate). Look for more tracks to be like Woodbine, able to race multiple breeds at the same time.

Horsemen will be traveling regional circuits. With short race meets, horsemen will once again be taking to the road to race most of the year. No longer will the best horses be able to take up residence at a track like the Meadowlands eight months out of the year. There will also be a resurgence of the trainer/driver. With smaller purses, it will be harder for trainers to make a living just training. Many of these trainers, in order to make a living, will be sitting in the sulky when race time comes. Same goes with drivers. If you are not one of the top catch drivers, you will need to train again to make a living in this business.

North American racing is going to look more like European racing. Faced with the reality of having to provide gamblers with higher payoffs, the sport will have to make adjustments to make itself more challenging from a wagering perspective. In order to make the sport more challenging, we will find more than ten wagering interests (meaning two tiers) in a race and with the exception of two years old racing, races of various distances will become the norm.

As for the gamblers? Harness racing will be available virtually 24 hours a day. Racing truly goes international as the racing day will start in Europe and end in Australasia. After all, a wager made on a race abroad will help build up the purse account back home and make the investment in new technology more economical. The various racing authorities will standardize racing information so gamblers in any country will be able to wager knowledgeably. With less tracks racing at any given time, pools will be larger, allowing professional gamblers to wager without killing the odds.

The ADW business will be changing. Racetracks, realizing they depend on account wagering, will attempt to take back the business. Racetracks on a regional basis will form consortiums. These non-profit consortiums will be in charge of scheduling the race meets of member tracks so no more than two racetracks will be operating at the same time. Tracks will coordinate post times and multi-track wagers will become commonplace. These consortiums will also start their own ADWs to benefit the tracks and their horsemen. If a wager is made on a particular track in the same home state of the gambler, the wager will be treated the same as being made on track. All wagers made on a consortium member track by an out of state resident wagering through the consortium will be treated like a regular ADW wager, but with a higher commission being paid to the host track. Wagers made on non-consortium tracks or through a non-consortium ADW will be handled commission-wise as they are now. Exclusivity will be history. Anyone willing to accept wagers on a race will be able to show the race live. OTW sites will be owned by the consortiums. Since these consortium ADWs will be non-profit; the takeout kept by the ADWs will be used solely to pay for the expense of running the ADW and OTWs; thus allowing more money to get funneled back to the tracks and horsemen.

Thanks to the emergence of consortium ADWs, tracks will finally be able to cut the takeout rates to stimulate wagering. Currently, ADWs and racetracks typically drop a signal when a track attempts to cut their rates, but since these consortium ADWs will accept wagers from out of state customers, the other ADWs and racetracks will no longer be able to freeze out low cost racetracks.

Ironically, gaming companies, the same companies who now would like to get rid of horse racing, may actually try to buy into some of these races tracks as all of a sudden, while not as lucrative as a standalone casino, racetracks may actually become profit centers once again.

This is not to say there won't be costs as a result of this retooling. Some of the marginal drivers and trainers will likely find themselves no longer involved with racing or be involved on a part time basis. With the reduction of race dates and racetracks, the sport cannot handle as many horsemen as we have now. With more wagering occurring off-track and via the Internet, fewer mutuel clerks and ancillary workers will be needed. Those working at the tracks will find employment seasonal.

More of our racing stars will continue to race past the age of three as there will be an oversupply of breeding stock. To address the excess production of yearlings, the standardbred will be marketed similar to the quarter horse; horses being marketed not only as a racing breed, but as a breed acceptable for pleasure riding and other equestrian activities, not just after their racing career ends. To keep yearling prices from falling too far, and to keep the breed from becoming too inbred, we may find new restrictions on breeding with additional limits on breeding books. With stallion fees not being as great and fewer mares being covered, we may find the North American breeding industry looking more like it does in France with stallions racing and breeding within the same year. Unfortunately, many of the small breeders will find themselves out of business.

Will these predictions come true? Only time will tell. With visionary leadership, anything is possible. By making the product more customer friendly, the sport will be able to secure its own niche in the marketplace and sustain itself. Those who think racing can only survive with slot revenue and subsidies are consigning the sport to failure. It is time for individual horsemen to decide if they want to contribute to the sport’s success or its failure. Those who think there is no future should step aside and let those who believe there is a future lead the way.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Looking Back at Forrest Skipper

One of my favorite horses of all time is Forrest Skipper.  As with many of the top horses, after a few years away from the track, people tend to forget about them.  Thanks to Post Time, Lucien Fontaine recollects some of his experiences with Forrest Skipper for show hostess, Heather Moffett.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Reprieve at Freehold, Those Rascally Rabbits

Horsemen at Freehold received a lifeline at Freehold with word that Pennwood has agreed to take purse supplement money for the remainder of the 2010 racing meet.  Beginning this Thursday, purses for most classes will increase 30%.  Of course, this being the final year for the purse enhancement agreement, who knows what 2011 will bring? 

Those rascally rabbits at Northland Park have done it again.  If you recall on December 9, a rabbit got close enough to the inside rail in the stretch that it caused a horse to spook, resulting in an accident which caused injury to his driver.

NP Race 9, Dec. 9 from on Vimeo.

Well, last night those rabbits were at it again.  This time a rabbit decided to play a game of chicken.  The rabbit was on the track and when it saw the horses coming, it ran off the track and then decided to dart past the field as the horses were approaching.  Fortunately, this time the horses ignored the rabbit.

Rabbit scare - Feb. 5 from on Vimeo.

Perhaps it is time for the track to put up a small fence to keep those rascally rabbits of the track?  I don't think we need to wait until a driver gets killed. 

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Brooks Trial and Impact in a Nutshell

Harness racing owner and commentator Andrew Cohen has written an article for the Atlantic regarding the current David Brooks trial and the possible impact it may have on standardbred racing.  If you are not familiar with what has been going on with the Brook's trial and the possible impact it may have on standardbred racing, the column is worth a read. 

Quick Start Raises Questions

Maywood Park is experimenting with a "Quick Start" where the starter is releasing the field roughly 175 feet before the start of the race in the hope of giving outside horses a better chance to get involved in the race.  According to Maywood's own press release, the quick start has increased the frequency of the seven and eight horse being involved in the trifecta.  While Maywood should be applauded for attempting to do something to mix things up and give the outside horses a better chance to win, it does raise some concerns. 

By releasing the field 175 feet before the start, the field is actually racing .03 miles more even though the timer doesn't start before the field reaches the starting line.  Granted it is not a big difference, but since the field is released earlier, horses have the potential of racing faster at the start of the race than they can at other half mile ovals which may result in faster miles.  It is one thing if horses race only at one track, but since horses can race at different tracks, is it putting handicappers at other tracks at a disadvantage when one of these horses show up at their local track? 

The quick start raises other questions.  Should the race be denoted in the past performances as being approximately one mile?  If listed as approximately a mile, should the timer be started earlier to include the additional distance?  In the event a race goes in a world record time, should it be recorded as such?  To avoid dealing with such issues, racing officials should quickly assess if giving the horses an extra 175 feet of straightway at the start is a true benefit and if so, reconfigure the track to move the starting pole/finish line up the stretch 175 feet so the race start and timer sync up. 

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Christie for Proximity Award

Though I am not a member of the United States Harness Writers Association (USHWA), I would like to suggest New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as a nominee for the USHWA's Proximity Award, an award presented annually to someone who made an outstanding contribution to harness racing.  That's right.  The same person who is saying 'No' to VLTs, "No' to subsidies, wants to cut the number of racing days, and possibly close the Meadowlands should be considered as a candidate for the Proximity Award. 

How could someone willing to reduce the number one 'A' track in the United States to a 'B' track be considered for an award honoring a person making an outstanding contribution to the sport?  Before you think I have gone stark raving mad, let me explain my rationale.  If Governor Christie gets his way, at least there will be standardbred racing in the New Jersey.  The same can't be said for some other racing states.  In the short term, horses may be heading in caravans to race at other tracks, in the long run they will be back.

Sixteen years ago, Iowa approved slot machines at the racetracks to save the greyhound racing industry.  As long as the tracks agreed to contribute money to the purses of the races and race a minimum number of days, they could have slots.  Thanks to this legislation, Harrah's is contributing $12 million a year to support the greyhound meets as wagering accounts for only 4% of the purse account at the tracks.  Sounds familiar?    Well now, as reported in the Des Moines Register, Harrah's is offering Iowa $70 million over seven years if they allow the racetracks to drop greyhound racing.  A bill has been introduced to allow Harrah's to do so.

If successful in Iowa (or not), how long do you think it will be before Harrah's offers an incentive to the state of Pennsylvania to discontinue harness racing at Chester Downs, something they have made no secret they would like to do?  After all, the same arguments Harrah's is making in Iowa can be said in every other state with racinos.  If Harrah's gets the okay to drop racing at Chester, it will be the death of the sport in Pennsylvania as Pocono and the Meadows would get the same option.  Then how long until this happens in Florida, Maine, or New York? 

At least they will still be racing in New Jersey. While in the short term Governor Christie will be causing pain for horsemen, in the long run the sport will be better off as he will be forcing the sport to make the changes it needs to remain competitive and self sufficient. Rather than fighting the Governor's plans, horsemen would be better off trying to get the two commissions dealing with racing to address the simulcast and ADW issues which cause signals to be boycotted when a track attempts to lower takeout. Explore the possibility of the Mid Atlantic Racing Cooperative coming up with their own ADW to break the stranglehold that TVG and Youbet/Twinspires has on signals and pricing. Explore coordinating race dates within member tracks of the cooperative and come up with a meaningful simulcast schedule to maximize wagering on the tracks open.

The longer the industry waits to try to solve its problems the harder it will be to survive. By turning off the supplement tap now, Christie is giving the sport a chance by forcing it to deal with the problems now, not fifteen years from now when the sport is in an even weaker condition. For this, Christie should be given our thanks.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Gov is Serious

As a result of Governor Christie's transition team's report on gaming and racing, the Governor issued Executive Order 11 which establishes a seven person commission to review what should happen to the NJSEA.  This committee is to report back to the Governor with their findings no later than June 30th.  As Governor Christie indicated in his press conference discussing the new executive order, the Meadowlands is the most valuable piece of property in New Jersey and he was not going to let any one special interest determine how to best utilize the property.  In the same executive order authorizing the new commission to look into what should happen to the NJSEA and the Meadowlands site, Christie has charged the blue ribbon panel former Governor Corzine established to determine a way for racing to be 'self-substaining' (no subsidy).  This committee has until April 1st to report back to the Governor at which time the committee will be dissolved.

This new executive order clearly indicates the transition team's report on racing is not being dismissed by the Governor.  The Governor appears to be sticking to his commitment of no slot machines in the Meadowlands, and no casino purse subsidies as well. 

While it is only February, it is certainly starting to look like racing in New Jersey is going to be a totally different looking product in 2011.  Horsemen may very well be faced with sticking to the requirement to race the number of days they currently are racing for and finding themselves racing for perhaps less than half the money they are racing for now, or cutting their race days and race with a 25% purse cut.  I realize horsemen will be continuing to fight for VLTs and/or subsidies but if they fail, hopefully they will realize it is in their best interest to race less days for more money; it would be best for the industry on the whole.

In other news, the NJRC has revoked the licenses of those involved with the current David Brooks fiasco.  Hopefully, other states will follow.

Dragged Through the Mud

Harness racing is getting plenty of press these days.  Press it does not need thanks to the David Brooks trial in New York concerning insider trading and other related charges.  As a result of this trial, the general public which if at all familiar with harness racing, is treated to news of standardbred trainers testifying for the prosecution (last week it was Carl Conte and it is now reported that Brett Pelling will be returning from New Zealand to testify as other harness-related people are expected to do).  While this case does not include charges of race fixing or drugging, to the uninformed (our target market) it may as well have.  All they hear is the phrase 'harness racing' discussed within the context of a criminal trial.  To many of the general public, it may as well have been race fixing. 

So once again, harness racing's reputation is dragged through the mud.  What happened before the indictment was issued was unavoidable but what about after?  Could something have been done to minimize the bad publicity we are now seeing (after all, if there was a major stakes race last year, odds were Bulletproof was picking up a check)?  Was the transfer of horses from stables controlled by David Brooks to stables controlled by others in his family investigated to make sure these were legitimate transfers? Where David Brooks' family members fit for licensing?   Based on the recent action by the Ontario Racing Commission which was then honored by the USTA, I suspect the answer may be 'No'.

Since the USTA is a breed registry and some states don't require USTA membership, the problem lies with the state regulators; they have the ability to investigate and enforce any decisions.  Here is where a national racing compact can help.  Right now, it is up to each state to conduct an investigation.  If a compact is set up correctly, one organization with the financal ability to launch an in-depth investigation will be able to do so to help protect the racing industry.

What has happened has happened.  The key is to learn from history in order to avoid similar problems in the future.

As a side note, some people are wondering what the problem is with regards to harness racing; why has Bulletproof been put 'on ice'?  After all, there is no allegations of race fixing or illegal drugs being used.  It boils down to integrity.  For an industry where gambling is involved, integrity is paramount, so even if the crimes are alleged in an indictment, a suspension until the issue is resolved is warranted.  Other sports do it, why shouldn't we?

Monday, February 1, 2010


The horsemen in New Jersey have finally responded to the Christie transition team's report on racing; a week after it was first discussed here.   Why it took so long for the industry to respond puzzles me; perhaps they were trying to get a feel where the Governor stood on this report (after all, this report was only recommendations for the Governor) and wanted to present a united front when they responded.  After all, being the Meadowlands is the center of the harness racing world in the United States, what happens in New Jersey likely will domino into other states.

Whether the transition team's report is implemented in full or not, big changes are coming; it is unavoidable. The law of economics always wins out; the subsidy racing has received has only delayed the inevitable; especially when you do nothing to improve your lot. To be fair, racing has been somewhat hampered by being a heavily regulated industry by the individual states. Any type of change they wish to implement needs to be approved by a racing commission and/or legislature; required to race more than they should in an effort to raise income for state governments.

I understand horsemen's desire to keep supplements and VLT revenue flowing. After all, no one wants to take a pay cut, relocate, or have to deal with the unknown; there is comfort in stability. However, the attitude that racing can only survive with assistance means you really don't believe in the product.

Poppycock. Yes, racing missed the boat, losing a generation to other gaming activities by failing to adapt to new technology. People forget at its simplest form, racing is an exciting product. Our problem is we need to give the public what they want from racing, not what we want to give them. Once we accept this fact, racing will be on its way to self sufficiency.

View from the Racetrack Grandstand favorite, Andrew Cohen received an O'Brien award this weekend for an article in Trot Magazine. He had some interesting comments this weekend regarding racing's situation, including the on-going Bulletproof debacle. For those of you who have not yet read the article or seen the interview, it is worth a look.

Harnesslink reports that Auckland Reactor is on his way to the United States for an assault on the all time world record this summer.  If all goes to plan he will be arriving in Los Angeles tomorrow and then off to trainer Kelvin Harrison's stable in New Jersey after a three day quarantine.  Hopefully, the Reactor will live up to his reputation and become a major story line this summer racing in the FFA ranks.