For photos from the Meadowlands contact

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tightening the Screws on Racing in Michigan

I guess if you can't get the horsemen in Michigan to give up, you tighten the screws on them. The Michigan-Bred Claimer, a thoroughbred blog covering racing in Michigan, reports that the Michigan Gaming Control Board has upped the estimate as to what is costs to police the sport. In fiscal year 2009, it cost the state of Michigan $4,300 to regulate racing. In FY 2010, the cost was calculated as $5,923, an increase of 37%.

A 37% increase in regulation in one year. Makes you wonder what all the fuss over health care is about. More disturbing is the fact the MGCB will not provide horsemen with a breakdown as to what comprises this cost. According the HBPA, it appears this additional cost came to light only after the Michigan legislature increased the line item for regulating racing by 20%. According the MIHBPA, this will allow a total of eight more days of thoroughbred racing in Michigan allowing for three additional days of racing at Pinnacle Race Course. If the runners want to run their full meet, horsemen will have to come up with $367,000 from their purse account meaning thoroughbred horsemen will race for peanuts. If this happens to the runners, the same thing will be happening to harness racing. How little can standardbred horsemen race for? We may be finding out.

It may be coincidence, but notice how the cost of regulating racing has gone up 37% once the racing commission was eliminated and regulation was transferred to an agency that regulates casinos? I will leave it to those more familiar with Michigan politics to past final judgment but to an outsider, one must wonder if it is not coincidence. Atlantic City casino interests must be wondering why they didn’t think of this strategy. New Jersey horsemen better watch the New Jersey budget process play out to make sure the racing commission remains intact.

It took a while but finally there are harness tracks which will no longer allow trainers whose horses end up at slaughter through deliberate or indirect (by lack of doing due diligence) action, from participating in racing at their facilities. Bangor Raceway and Raceway Park has instituted this policy because Penn National Gaming was implementing this policy at all their tracks, emulating what is being done at other running tracks. Now that the wall has been breached in the standardbred world, here is hoping other harness tracks will implement similar policies.

News comes that Gefilte Fish will not be participating in the Passover Pace at Monticello Raceway on April 5 after ending up on the qualifying list at Flamboro Downs. Gefilte Fish raced in a qualifier in an attempt to get into the race but did not meet the qualifying standards at Monticello. Hunch players will have to wait until next year for the Gefilte Fish angle.

Good News Brief - Koshy's Kids

Despite all the problems standardbred racing has, there are good news stories to be had. One is the formal kick-off of Koshy's Kids, LLC. What is Koshy's Kids?

Koshy's Kids, LLC. is an organization that has been set up by the partnership of Slim Stables to raise awareness and funds for children with cancer. Based within the Standardbred racing industry, Slim Stables began as an ambition for an adult fighting cancer who desired to own a racehorse. Due to the efforts of many, he successfully pursued his dream and purchased his first horse, Kosher King. As Koshy became a part of Slim Stables, it was realized that the unconditional love and positive energy of this horse gave him a purpose beyond that of racing. After witnessing firsthand the intense comfort and soothing nature of the horse, it was decided to carry the good fortune forward and share it among children who are battling cancer.

The goal of Koshy's Kids is to raise the awareness of childhood cancer and to visit children who are suffering from the illness. The long term goal of this organization is to provide funding to help families dealing with the struggles of fighting childhood cancer. Not only is Kosher King an ambassador for the charity (his most recent appearance was at the DE Horse Expo), he races for the charity as well. In addition to Kosher King, there are other horses that race for Koshy's Kids. The board of Koshy's Kids consists of members of the standardbred community.  While doing this, the group brings good publicity to the sport of harness racing.

Koshy's Kids has started Koshy's Klub, a free club for kids of all ages to join. It is a fan club for Kosher King, the horse, and each child will receive a welcome packet from Koshy himself. Each month children will receive a newsletter to update them on the club and it will feature one child each month that needs some mail to cheer them up.

For more information on Koshy's Kids or on how your child may join Koshy's Klub, please visit Koshy's Kids, LLC on Facebook

Monday, March 29, 2010

The NY OTB Mess

What to do about NYCOTB? Will this parasite, who has done much to harm New York racing, once more seriously wound New York racing or is there a way out of this mess the bankrupt corporation has wrought? And what about all the other OTBs in New York State; what is to become of them?

OTB needs to go away. The question is how should it be liquidated in a manner which does not cripple racing? The immediate goal is to have an orderly shutdown of NYCOTB instead of an immediate liquidation in bankruptcy court which has been threatened as of the close of business on April 11. Were NYCOTB to just close up, a significant amount of wagering on Yonkers would vanish and quite honestly, the damage to NYRA would be so extreme that Finger Lakes may be the only thoroughbred track left running in New York.

I am not going to go into what OTB has done to New York racing, standardbreds in particular. This is well documented. The question is what should be done now?

The OTB storefront model is outdated and should be retired. The State of California is presently dealing with the problems of trying to sustain their satellite wagering model which is obsolete thanks to account wagering. The amount of money being wagered at storefront units simply does not cover the costs involved with operating them. The proposal to open kiosk operations in bars, restaurants, and bowling allies in lieu of storefronts is an expansion of gambling which most politicians in New York don’t want to see.

The assets worth anything are the OTB cable channels, their account wagering accounts, and their teletheatre network. These assets should be transferred to the racetracks where they should have been all along. The key is who gets what? Of course, many people want to hand the whole NYCOTB franchise to NYRA. This can’t be allowed to occur. If you think harness racing gets shortchanged now, can you imagine what would happen if the thoroughbred interests were given the assets of NYCOTB? To protect both breeds, there needs to be a fair and equitable distribution of the assets.

With Yonkers Raceway and NYRA both offering account wagering, the NYCOTB account wagering accounts should be transferred to the two racing associations in a fair and equitable manner. Since state and local governments are depending on fees from OTB, a percentage of the handle from these legacy accounts can be given to state and local governments for a phase out period of three years to allow the government time to wean off this revenue. The two tracks can jointly operate the OTB cable channels by showing all New York racing as primary signals and mutually agree on the other racing signals to be shown secondarily. As for the teletheatres, they should be auctioned off to whichever racing association wishes to take them over. If no one wants to take over the teletheatres, they should be closed. The storefront locations should be phased out over a three to six month period so the tracks off-track handle doesn’t drop immediately; hopefully these customers will transition over to account wagering or return to the track. If this means some of the statutory payments owed both breeds needs to be used to fund this transition period, so be it. After all, they stand to lose more if the wagering just disappears completely.

The other OTBs should follow a similar path. In the case of them, if there is only one racing association in their geographic area, the account wagering accounts should be transferred to them. Where there is more than one track operating in the area, the accounts should be split between those tracks. In the event there is an OTB region without any active racetracks, the tracks nearest to them should be given those accounts.

Of course, this is what should happen. Politics will probably dictate otherwise. Racing interests, regardless of breed need to work together to make sure no further harm occurs to racing as a result of these political decisions.

Race Caller Extraodrinaire, Freehold Reprieve

Sam McKee, race caller extraordinaire at the Meadowlands, is perhaps the best race caller in the business. As good as he is at the Meadowlands, he is even more impressive at The Red Mile where he not only calls the races, he handles the post race interviews which cuts into the time he has to prepare for each race.

On Saturday night, McKee had guests with him as he called the fifth and sixth races. To get a sense of how great McKee is, here is video of him calling the fifth race. Note the only time he seems to look down is when he checks the fractional times.

There is none better than Sam McKee.  If and when Roger Huston gives up the race call duties at the Delaware County Fair, here is hoping Sam gets first call on taking over.

We would be remiss if we did not discuss the latest round of purse increases at Freehold Raceway which takes effect on March 31. Thanks to a $4.8 million injection from the casino-fed Purse Enhancement Agreement, Freehold was able to increase purses another 30%, for an overall total of 60% for the year. It should be noted this is an overall increase as not all classes are being increased. For example, $4,000 claimers will continue to race for $2,200 (there are races written for NJ Sired and Owned which race for an additional 25%), maidens will continue to race for $4,000, and non winners of 2 races will still compete for $5,000. $20,000 claimers, which started the year racing for $6,400, will now be competing for $10,200. The Preferred class, which started the year racing for $8,600, will now be racing for $13,800. For a complete breakdown on the new purse structure at Freehold Raceway, you may click here. With purses being increased, Freehold should be able to offer full fields for the balance of their meet.

While horsemen at Freehold will once again be racing for decent purses, long term prospects are uncertain at best. Without any VLTs or future purse enhancement agreement on the horizon, horsemen would be best to make plans to race elsewhere next year if they race cheaper stock. Otherwise, if they wish to race in New Jersey for the purses they will begin racing for on Wednesday, they will have to be able to compete at the Meadowlands.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Classified Racing Expanding

In the April edition of Hoof Beats, there is an article on the pros and cons of the classified system. Under the classified system of racing, the racing secretary determines the class of a horse in an effort to make races more competitive. Win and a horse moves up into a higher class. Perform badly and a horse moves down to lower company. The classified system requires a racing secretary to make decisions in classifying a horse versus the conditioned system of racing where horses race themselves into different classes based on money earned.

Running Aces in Minnesota has used classified racing since they opened and Tioga Downs will be introducing it this year. Apparently, some other tracks are watching to see how classified racing is received at Tioga Downs. Can classified racing save harness racing? On its own, of course not but it can help make racing a more attractive product. While the number of favorites winning may not decrease significantly, favorites tend to pay more under classified racing. You can't attract people to gamble on racing when a lot of horses pay less than $6.00 to win. Higher paying favorites mean exotics tend to pay more.

Some people will argue a racing secretary can unfairly classify a horse into a higher or lower class than it belongs. I imagine in theory this could happen, but then again, have you never seen a conditioned race written with an also eligible condition which seems to have been written to allow a horse to fit the condition? If a trainer thinks a racing secretary has classified their horse incorrectly, there is always claiming races where the trainer and owner set the claiming price.

What about the fear that a trainer may instruct a driver not to race to win in order to remain in a lower class where it can continue to pick up checks instead of racing in tougher company or to drop into lower company so it can win? It would be naive to think this hasn't happened in the past, but it would be equally as naive to think trainers are not doing this with conditioned racing. This is a false argument as there are trainers who will attempt to game any system of race writing. I would argue classified racing provides a racing secretary a tool to discourage such gaming. A single win should not automatically require a horse to advance, and a poor effort should not automatically require a horse to drop. Knowing you may not be collecting a check for a few weeks in an effort to find a softer position should reduce the temptation to game the system.

Does classified racing encourage mediocrity? Granted with the racing secretary assigning classes, the likelihood of a horse being able to dominate a particular class is reduced; thus spreading the purse money further around amongst more horses but this does not encourage mediocrity. Like our lower conditioned horses, there will be more lower class horses as well so it will be harder to get those horses raced. Therefore it will be in the interest of the owners and trainers to either upgrade their stock or send their lower classed horses to other tracks where they would be more competitive.

A benefit of spreading the money around will be more owners will be able to show a profit which will encourage horse ownership. Having a sport where a few trainers and owners dominate a particular track does not provide a superior product benefit and is not in the sport’s best interest. With more trainers having success, owners may not feel it necessary to send their horses to questionable trainers in an effort to show a proft.

What we will have is a better product to offer our fans/gamblers. More evenly matched races with photo finishes will serve our sport well versus seeing odds on favorites winning by open lengths to often. Anything to make our product more exciting should be encouraged. We don't need ho hum races.

It should be interesting to see how classified racing is received at Tioga Downs. Clearly conditioned racing is not working; maybe classified racing is what we need. Hopefully, horsemen will be willing to give it a chance.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Judges' Explanations, Penalty Surcharge

Big steps are being taken into Ontario to make the judges more accessible to the racing public by having them explain their decisions.  In a pilot program announced by the Ontario Racing Commission, Standardbred Canada will be having a weekly feature on their website called "From the Stand" where the judges will discuss a call made at Flamboro Downs or Woodbine which has or may have attracted attention from the gambling public; explaining the factors that were taken into account in making a particular decision. 

The second part of this trial, and clearly the most significant part of the pilot, is the decision to have the judges/stewards at Woodbine explain their decisions to the wagering public when a violation occurres.  Not only will they explain what the violation was, the judges will identify who was involved.  This is a vast improvement over having the track announcer announce that a horse was disqualified for violation of a specific rule.

It is about time racing realizes the customers (fans/gamblers) deserve to know the specifics as to why a decision was made to disqualify a horse.  After all, if a gamblers is holding a winning trifecta ticket, doesn't he/she deserve to know why their winning ticket is about to become worthless?  The one change to the ORC pilot program I would make is in the event an inquiry (or rare objection) and it is determined there is no reason for a placing to take place; the judges/stewards should explain why the decision was made to leave the finish 'as is'. Knowing why no disqualification is taking place is just as important as to knowing why a DQ occurs.  After all, doesn't the wagering public deserve to know the judges are protecting their interests?    

Here is hoping this pilot program becomes permanent and expanded to all tracks in North America.  The people who support the sport deserve this.

So what redress does a gambler have when a driver commits a foul and gets disqualified, costing a gambler a winning wager? None. Shouldn't there be some type of redress in this type of situation? The judges should be able to assess bigger fines and suspensions when a driver gets disqualified which results in a change in the mutual pay-offs. One way this could be accomplished is by changing the fine/suspension schedule to require a penalty be surcharged in the event of such a situation occurring. Interfere with a horse in the stretch and get disqualified from first to third (or out of the money)? Add a surcharge of $500 and/or five day suspension for committing the foul which changed the mutuel results. Of course, this surcharge would not apply for lapped on breaks or a situation where a driver was forced inside of the pylons; it would only apply when a driver is found to have been negligent. This will not make a gambler happier when their winning ticket became worthless, but at least it would show the gambler the industry takes such infractions seriously.

Earlier this year we discussed the possibility of indexing fines so a fine would have meaning to a driver or trainer. After all, fining a driver a $100 when he earns less than $25,000 a year driving may have an impact whereas fining a driver that makes $200,000 a year the same amount is merely a cost of doing business. Fines and suspensions need to be a deterrent. In the same vein, how many states have not adjusted their penalties since VLTs came to them? A $100 fine when your average purse was $4,500 is one thing but does the same fine have the same impact when you are now racing for an average purse of $10,000? I would suggest racing commissions go back and revisit their fines and suspensions so the penalties mean something.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Levy Opening Round and Selections

As promised, here are my early selections for the Yonkers Raceway card for Saturday night, which features the opening round of the Levy Memorial FFA Pacing Series.  While there are six divisions this week, it is safe to assume next week we will have fewer divisions as it will become obvious to trainers that some of these horses will not be able to compete against the better horses in the series.   

This week's races are somewhat challenging.  Some of the better horses in these races are making their first start of the year so it remains to see if they are race ready.  In addition, some of last year's better three year olds are making their first starts against older horses.  It has always been my strategy in the early part of the year to see how a four year old does racing against older horses before playing them.  You can always get burned using this strategy but being many of these new four year olds have morning lines of less than 2-1, I will let them beat me.  That being said, there may be some value plays this week.

Here are the selections, plus comments.  As a reminder, these picks are before seeing the odds.  Selections may change depending on the actual odds.

1st Race - $12,500; Sagamore Hill Pacing Series (3 & 4 Year Old Colts, Horses & Geldings)
2 - Giddy Up Delight     7-5 Won last from eight hole; hard to beat from the inside.
1 - Saulsbrooks Fame   3-1 Nice effort in last.
4 - Bring The Heat      10-1 Share with trip.

2nd Race - $12,500; Sagamore Hill Pacing Series
3 - Double Jack             3-1 Looks to repeast in second leg of Sagamore Hill.
1 - Mr Rockford            4-1 With inside post and better trip may challenge top selection.
7 - Joey The Czar          5-1 Winner of Hopeful final hampered with outside draw.

3rd Race - $12,500; Sagamore Hill Pacing Series
4 - Save Me A Place     6-1 Finished second to Double Jack (2nd race); may be worth a play.
8 - He's Redhot             9-5 Could be a monster.  Low odds and bad post.
2 - Dr C's Z Tam           4-1 Finished third in last two starts; once more?
5 - Eragon                    10-1Can complete superfecta.

4th Race - $50,000; George Morton Levy Memorial FFA Pace
5 - Atochia                    5-1 Tough trip in return; can score the minor upset.
7 - Blueridge Western    9-5 One to beat but post may be undoing..
1 - Table And Chair     12-1 Draws rail; should ride the rail and complete the trifecta.

5th Race - $12,500; Sagamore Hill Pacing Series (No Show Wagering)
4 - Woodstock Hanover  6-5  One to beat.  Low odds.
2 - Bet the Town              5-1 Schnittker trainee may challenge top pick.
6 - Owen's Marker          4-1 Potential to win it all.
7 - Mr Massimo             30-1 May spice up superfecta.

6th Race - $50,000; George Morton Levy Memorial FFA Pace
2 - King Cat Anvil N      8-1 Expecting better; looking for an upset.
6 - Chasin Racin             8-5 Blistering Qua; first attempt against older horses
4 - Lislea Miles               8-1 Sharp in last; make land share.

7th Race - $20,000; Pace - Non-winners of $18,000 in last 6 Starts
8 - Image of Dawn          8-1 May eek out win.
1 - Special Joe                3-1 Can control from rail.
2 - Ghee's House            4-1 Completes trifecta from the inside.
6 - Eagle Real One         5-1 Has been improving.

8th Race - $50,000; George Morton Levy Memorial FFA Pace
7 - Jeremy's Successor   5-1 Sharp in return; overcomes post.
3 - Poker Hat                 4-1 Racing better than showing
4 - Smellthechlorine        8-1 Draws well; not out of it.

9th Race - $50,000; George Morton Levy Memorial FFA Pace
4 - Mccedes                  5-1 Needed last; expect better in possible upset.
5 - Wholly Louy            8-5 Second best in last at 15-1; moves inside and eligible to improve.
3 - Mr Wiggles              9-5 Launches 4yo career off two sharp qualifiers.

10th Race - $50,000; George Morton Levy Memorial FFA Pace
5 - Foiled Again             3-1 May go at first asking
3 - Winbak Fox             5-1 Super consistent gelding won last at the Spa
2 - Western Ace            5-1 Upset chance. 

11th Race - $50,000; George Morton Levy Memorial FFA Pace
6 - Handsome Harry         3-1 Looks best in field with question marks.
2 - Tidewater Tomahawk  6-1 Maybe able to grab second.
5 - Southwind Lynx           8-5 Raced well in DE specials.

12th Race - $23,000; Non-winners of $25,000 in last 6 starts
1 - Royal Man                  5-1 May control from the rail.
3 - Lindy's Bandit             7-5 Won last but will be overbet
6 - Diamond Stick Pin    12-1  Lands show position.
8 - I'm A Gordy Too      15 -1 Completes superfecta.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

WEG Cuts, Hunch Play

Starting April 1, horsemen on the WEG circuit will be racing for an average of 15% less due to decreased wagering.  A Woodbine spokesperson indicated racing a fifth day during the winter at Woodbine showed there was an oversupply of product. 

Some people are wondering if the revised urging rules have something to do with the decline in wagering.  One can't discount the possibility some gamblers have stayed away from Woodbine's product as a result, but to put all the blame on the urging rule is not fair.  For a good part of the year, Quebec residents were unable to wager on WEG's races as a result of the collapse of horse racing in their province.  In addition, racing an extra day during the winter didn't help things; there is only so much money available for gambling; if you divide the pie into more pieces, each slice is going to be smaller.  Lastly, let's not forget the economy is still soft and having an impact.

Are you a hunch player?  Then you need to circle April 5 on your calendar.  That is the day Monticello Raceway hosts their annual Passover Pace for Jewish drivers; part of their Heritage Driving Series.  Gefilte Fish, currently racing in $7,500 claimers at Flamboro Downs will be competing for driver/trainer/owner Sheldon Rose.  If a horse named Gefilte Fish racing in the Passover Pace is not a hunch bet, then you tell me what is?

Levy Overflow, Tote Fiasco, Kaplan Speaks

The entry box overflowed for the first round of the George Morton Levy Memorial FFA Pacing Series at Yonkers Raceway this weekend.  With forty-three horses dropping into the box, there will be six divisions of the Levy on the twelve race card.  In addition to the Levy, there will be four divisions of the Sagamore Hill for three and four year old pacing colts, horses, and geldings.  Overall, there will be $393,000 in purse money up for grabs Saturday evening.  As we get closer to Saturday evening, I will provide my selections for the Yonkers card. 

Racing fans in Edmonton, Alberta are fuming over Saturday night's tote failure at Northlands Park.  Winning gamblers waited an hour and twenty minutes after the race was declared official only to be told they would be getting refunds instead.  Losing bettors faired no better; after all the race was declared official so most of those tickets were thrown away.  People who threw their tickets away can fill out a form claiming they lost their tickets, but if you are a small time player, are you going to bother?  Am-Tote, the mutuel company who supplies tote equipment for Northlands Park finally identified a problem on Tuesday with their software which did not allow them to determine if they got all the wagers into the pools.  Can't help but wonder how many of these gamblers won't be returning to the races anytime soon, if at all.

Once again, it's another situation where we treat our gamblers badly.  When are racetracks going to press their tote companies to upgrade their systems to prevent these types of problems?  As bad as it is not to be able to pay off on winning wagers in a timely manner, it is simply inexcusable to tell gamblers after eighty minutes they are going to get refunds instead of being paid their winnings.  After a half hour, the fans should have been told there is a tote problem and tickets will be cashed the next time they come to the track.  I guess the customers are an inconvenience to the tracks.        

Yesterday, the USTA put on YouTube the presentation given by Standardbred Canada's Daryl Kaplan at the USTA annual meeting.  While you don't get to see the charts Mr. Kaplan is discussing, the message is still clear.  Every horseman needs to see Kaplan's presentation.

       Part I                                                                                      Part II

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stop DQs for Technical Violations?

North of the border in Ontario, the ORC has modified a decision made by the judges at Rideau Carleton Raceway against Yves Fillion with regard to a violation of the urging rules during the running of the seventh race on December 18 (you can watch the replay from Rideau Carleton’s website). While driving Quincy Bayama, the judges determined Fillion whipped the horse with the lines not being in both hands which resulted in the judges disqualifying Quincy Bayama from second and placing him ninth. The judges also fined Fillion $200 and handed him a three day suspension for the drive. Fillion appealed the ruling and as a result of the appeal, the commission modified the penalty. While Fillion was still fined $200 and suspended for the three days, Quincy Bayama was restored to second place. Good for the owners of Quincy Bayama, bad for the bettors who wagered on him and are not able to collect on their wagers.

I must confess, my knee-jerk response was to demand the urging rules be modified to remove the possibility of a disqualification for a violation of the rule. Then, after some reflection, is this any different from a disqualification as a result of alleged interference which is later reversed? The reality is judges are human and they make mistakes, be it in blowing a call or in misinterpreting a rule. This goes far beyond any specific rule; it boils down to how harness racing applies its rules and minimizes the possibility of applying or not applying a rule incorrectly to the detriment of the gambler.

The answer may be how our rules are enforced. I always thought one advantage harness racing had over thoroughbred racing was in its enforcement of the rules. In harness racing, if you interfere with another horse, you are disqualified, no ifs and/or buts. In thoroughbred racing, if you interfere, you are disqualified only if you impede the progress of the horse you fouled or otherwise impact the race finish. Commit a foul that does not impact the outcome of a race? The stewards will deal with you in the morning. In hindsight, perhaps the runners have it right. Why penalize the gambler for an infraction the driver committed if it has no impact on the eventual outcome of the race?

In the case of the race in question in the Fillion ruling, the violation of the whipping rule had no impact in the final outcome of the race (what appeared to have happened was Fillion accidently dropped the line from one hand for a moment while using the whip; he did not drive one handed); he did not improve his finishing position nor would the third place finisher have caught him. If we applied our rules using the runner’s standard as to whether or not the infraction changed the outcome of the race, there would have been no disqualification and the judges could have addressed the violation of the rules afterwards without penalizing the gamblers.

Years ago in a NYSS race at Monticello Raceway, Clint Galbraith was on a horse that won by twenty lengths. It turns out on the final turn, Galbraith passed a tiring horse but came back in a little too quick, technically interfering with a horse that was quitting badly. Galbraith’s mount was disqualified despite the fact it did not impact the outcome of the race, but whose interest was protected by this disqualification? Certainly not the gambler’s; you could debate if the horsemen’s interests were protected as well.

With a new standard as to when a disqualification may be appropriate, penalties may need to be toughened up so drivers don’t profit as a result of not being disqualified. I am not suggesting we don’t enforce rules, but we don’t serve our customers or our participants when there is a placing for a technical violation which does not change the outcome of the actual race.

Hats off to Rideau Carleton Raceway in general, and track announcer Norm Borg in particular for the way they handled the inquiry regarding the Quincy Bayama race. Norm’s professionalism and Rideau’s handling of the inquiry was the direct opposite of how a similar situation was handled at Windsor Raceway. At least at Rideau, the gamblers know what was going on.

Funding Marketing, Pleaure Horse Registration

During the final day of the USTA annual directors meeting, Daryl Kaplan from Standardbred Canada (SC) spoke to those in attendance with regards to the need for joint marketing efforts between SC and the USTA. Kaplan noted racinos, on the whole, don’t invest anything in promoting the sport. He called on horsemen to dedicate a portion of their purse money be dedicated to marketing efforts.

This is an idea which certainly has merit and should be implemented. If just 0.5% of each purse was dedicated to a national marketing account, a significant amount of money could be raised which would allow the USTA (and if a joint effort SC) to invest in promoting the sport. If the 0.5% surcharge was deducted from the purses account, would it really matter to the invitational horses racing at the Meadowlands if they were racing for $31,840 instead of $32,000? Would it matter to horsemen at a track in Michigan if they were racing for $1,791 instead of $1,800? I think not.

Of course, the argument from horsemen will be why should they give up purse money? Shouldn't the tracks pay for marketing? Perhaps, but the sad truth is most racinos will not spend money on horse racing. To the tracks, horse racing is a loss leader; the item they lose money on in order to have the slot machines. As far as they are concerned, if racing disappeared, their bottom line would do a lot better. The people with the real interest in racing's success are the horsemen. If they are not willing to invest in their own future, who will?

Of the rules changes approved, there were two changes which are worth noting. The first rule proposal requires a trotter racing with hopples be identified in the program as well as in the past performance lines. Hard to believe there are tracks not listing this information. The other rule proposal approved worth mentioning is the adoption of a ‘pleasure horse’ registration. A pleasure horse registration permits an owner, who has decided his/her horse's racing career has concluded (or never begun), to sell or give away a horse yet ensure the horse will never be used for racing purposes. A pleasure horse registration will allow the horse to be used in other disciplines (such as horse shows) which require proof of a horse’s lineage.

For more on day three of the USTA meeting, click here.

Monday, March 22, 2010

USTA Conclave Day 2 - Marketing and a Cautionary Tale

On the second day of the United States Trotting Association (USTA) Annual meetings, marketing and promotions were the primary topics of discussion. While the discussion concentrated on these topics, there were also discussions regarding the need for the USTA to work better with racetracks and the problem of unwanted horses.

The USTA will begin participating in the "Full Circle" program which will provide an avenue for horse rescue. If a breeder wishes to participate, a horse's registration papers will indicate the breeder's name and phone number so when a horse reaches the end of its racing career, the current owner has the ability to contact a breeder to see if they wish to purchase/take the horse back or contribute toward its adoption. The hope is by giving a horse owner the opportunity to contact the breeder about a horse’s end of career future, the breeder will ensure the horse’s post-racing career is secure.

Many readers of this blog and me have been arguing for horsemen to use part of their VLT money to reinvest in the business. Unfortunately, many horsemen groups have been retaining all their VLT revenue for purses. Royal Roland, a USTA director from Iowa provided a cautionary tale for horsemen in slot states which refuse to reinvest in their sport. Roland admitted the Iowa harness horsemen kept virtually all the VLT revenue for their purses rather than invest in marketing and promoting wagering. The end result is harness racing in Iowa is on the ropes; perhaps to the point of extinction. Horsemen have one last chance during a ten day race meet at Prairie Meadows this year to show track management and the Iowa Gaming Commission there is enough interest in the sport to obligate Prairie Meadows to continue hosting standardbreds. Results similar to last year's meet will result in the end of pari-mutuel racing for standardbreds in Iowa. Horsemen in other states would do well to not make the same mistake mades in Iowa.

But the major topic of the day was related to marketing and promotions. USTA Executive Vice President, Mike Tanner, announced plans for a National Day at the Races to occur in August. During the Day at the Races, USTA members will be encouraged to take friends with them to the tracks which will be offering special promotions where attendees will be given access to the paddock as well as ride in the starter's car.

While this is an effort to be applauded, I am disappointed that the USTA did not try to emulate Adrenaline Fest which Standardbred Canada held last year. The Day at the Races campaign will likely attract people from the current racing demographics and do little to expose a new generation to the races. Adrenaline Fest is geared towards the younger generation with activities outside of racing being used to encourage those in the younger demographic group to attend the festival and be exposed to racing. That being said, the fact the USTA is attempting any type of organized campaign to get people to experience harness racing is a refreshing change.

It was somewhat discouraging there was no discussion of high takeout rates.  Takeout rates are what draws the heavy hitters to any gambling sport and it was somewhat discerning that business remains as usual with respect to takeout.  Sooner or later, takeout rates need to be addressed. 

For more on the USTA meetings, including an Eye in Harness Report, you may visit the USTA website or click on these links for a summary of day one and day two.         

How will racetracks look like in the future?  Ray Paulick over at the Paulick Report has a story how the Gulfstream Park model may be the future of racetracks.  The answer may be 'mixed-use'. 

Sunday, March 21, 2010

So Who's Footing the Bill?

In New Jersey, State Assemblyman Fred Scalera is sponsoring a resolution calling for New Jersey to continue to hold the Hambletonian at the Meadowlands. The Hambletonian has been held at the Meadowlands since 1981 and after May 17, the NJSEA has the ability to automatically renew the contract to hold the event for another five years starting in 2013. If the NJSEA does not renew the contract, the race goes out to bid.

This is all and good, but who is going to foot the bill? In 2011, the NJSEA is guaranteeing a $1,700,000 purse for the Hambletonian and $850,000 for the Oaks. If less than $825,000 ($425,000 for the Oaks) of payments from the horsemen is received, then the NJSEA must match the horsemen's contributions. No matter how much the horsemen pay into the races, at least 40% of the purse must come from the NJSEA. The Meadowlands' contribution to the purses for these races comes from the horsemen's purse account.

The question to be asked is who's going to foot the bill to pay for the Hambletonian to remain at the Meadowlands under the current terms? It is easy for the Assembly to pass a resolution saying the Hambletonian and the Oaks should remain at the Meadowlands, but unless the state is willing to authorize VLTs or provide a subsidy, it is not realistic to expect the horsemen’s purse account to pay for these races; doing so will deplete a greatly reduced purse account at the expense of the horsemen who race in overnights. So assuming the state does not provide VLTs or subsidies, unless the legislature is willing to provide seed money to sponsor these great races, passing such a resolution is hypocritical.

Without VLTs or subsidies, the Meadowlands cannot afford the luxury of hosting the Hambletonian and Oaks under the current terms. The contract for the Hambletonian and Oaks needs to be renegotiated to reduce the guaranteed purses. A $1.7 million purse for the Hambletonian suggests a standardbred industry that is experiencing a boom; something which is clearly not the case. This is not to say I don't want to see the Hambletonian at the Meadowlands; I do. But not under terms that are onerous to the horsemen that support the overnight program. The contract for the Hambletonian and Oaks for the years 2013 and beyond needs to reflect the current economic realities of racing.

For those of you in the metropolitan NYC area, Meadowlands drivers and trainers will be tending bar this evening for the benefit of the Standardbred Retirement Foundation.  Click on the following commercial for additional information.

It is Time for Action

The first day of meetings at the annual United States Trotting Association conclave were held yesterday. It was distressing to learn that Standardbred Investigative Services (SIS) went out of business. SIS, which was run under contract by the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB) was funded by the Harness Tracks of America and the USTA to help protect the integrity of the sport. In addition to performing investigations, the TRPB provided training to racetrack and backstretch employees responsible for the day to day security at racetracks. Regardless of the reason for SIS's demise, it is important a mechanism be put in place as soon as possible to take over the responsibilities of the SIS.

USTA Chairman Ivan Axelrod told those in attendance that harness racing has up to now not taken advantage of the breathing room slot machines has provided to make the changes necessary to keep harness racing relevant. He warned the 'haves' (the tracks who have VLTs) that if things don't change, they will be joining the ranks of the 'have nots' within the next ten years. Axelrod indicated it essential for the industry to decide upon a marketing plan this year.

I can't agree more. The industry needs to come up with a marketing plan, not only to entice people to attend and wager on the races, but too make the product more desirable to the existing customers. Despite what some within the industry think, the product needs to change. We need to provide more wagering interests in each race (meaning a second tier) and we need to vary the distances of our races in order to make our races less predictable; you don't attract gambling attention by having a slew of favorites winning each night. We need to coordinate race dates so wagering pools are not diluted. With wagering becoming more global, we need to make sure our product is marketable in foreign markets so we can tap into these markets.

Racing needs to adapt to the account wagering world. Yes, wagers made through ADWs don't contribute as much to purse accounts as on-track wagers does but on-track handle will continue to decline as account wagering becomes more popular. The answer? Compete for your share of the ADW business by forming your own account wagering company.

As for increasing interest in the sport, the USTA needs to look at the initiatives Standardbred Canada has introduced and see if any of these programs would work here and if so, implement them. No sense to reinvent the wheel if there is a program already available. Funding of course will be a big issue. If breeders, horsemen, and tracks are serious in their desire to improve business, it may be essential for them to provide funding for any initiative the USTA comes up with.

We need to get past concepts and come up with specific plans and execute them. It is time for action.


Friday, March 19, 2010

Do We Even Need a Triple Crown?

In this month's edition of Trot magazine, Melissa Keith writes an article regarding the relevancy of the Triple Crown. The main point of the article is how many horses avoid the Crown races on a half mile track; either attempting to avoid the tight turns or drawing an outside post on the half mile oval. In the case of the Yonkers Trot, Yonkers Raceway is further penalized by typically being scheduled before the Hambletonian. With horsemen focusing on the Hambo, many owners and trainers seem to be unwilling to chance racing on a track other than the Meadowlands. Only because of the uniqueness of the Jug does the Little Brown Jug seem to be able to draw the big horses in most years.

Many people argue the Triple Crowns need to be revamped by replacing races like the Cane & Messenger Paces as well as the Yonkers Trot with races such as the North American Cup, Meadowlands Pace, and the Canadian Trotting Derby. I don't believe this is the way to go. First of all, if you are trying to use the Triple Crown to attract interest in the sport, do you think Americans and the media are going to be particularly interested in a race in Canada? Secondly, I don't think cheapening the Crowns by eliminating 'tougher' races (with regards to navigating a particularly configured oval) is the way to go; you are rewarding trainers and owners avoiding the challenge of the half mile oval as well as cheapening the accomplishments of our prior Triple Crown winners. This is not to say there can't be any modification to the Triple Crowns. Being the Cane Pace is at Freehold Raceway and things are precarious there, moving the Cane Pace to a five-eighths or a mile track is a valid modification to the Pacing Triple Crown. On the trotting side, any race before the Hambletonian is bound to be bypassed; moving the Yonkers Trot after the Hambletonian makes complete sense.

But maybe we should just consider eliminating the Triple Crowns altogether. Just because our running cousins have a Triple Crown does not mean we need to have one. Personally, I think awarding points for winning Grand Circuit events and awarding a 'Pacing Crown' or 'Trotting Crown' to the horse(s) who earn the most points competing on the Grand Circuit in three year old events would be more impressive. Rather than coaxing our top tier horses to show up at three different tracks, our best horses would have to show up at more ovals. Don't want to race on a half mile track? You do it at your peril as boycotting the smaller ovals may cost you the Pacing/Trotting Crown. Conversely, by not focusing on a troika of races, owners and trainers may be willing to send their best horses to the smaller ovals as any one race would not be a make or break situation. Being our best horses tend to show up at most of the same races, what is more impressive, a horse that wins three races over the same competition or the horse which outperforms his peers over a series of ten plus races? Maybe eliminating the crown altogether is the right thing to do. It is worth considering.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Focus the Message, Part Two

Andrew Cohen is the guest blogger today on the Newark Start Ledger's NJVoices Guest Blog regarding New Jersey's financial crisis and how the solution can save the state's horse racing industry.  His entry is an example of how the campaign for a casino at the Meadowlands should be presented to its residents, similar to the 'talking points' I mentioned when I said any such campaign needs to be focused in its message.

Sure there is mention of how a casino would save the New Jersey horse racing industry, but it is presented in a ‘by the way’ manner; the intent of a Meadowlands casino is to bring relief to the New Jersey taxpayer; something the New Jersey voter can relate to and appreciate. There is even a discussion on how the New Jersey Casino industry gets a sweetheart deal on its tax rate. While the article suggests the tax rate charged to casinos could be raised to be more in line with the tax rate charged in most states (something I think is not important to the debate), instead of other articles painting the casino industry as the evil empire, Cohen doesn’t focus on the unfair advantages the Atlantic City interests have; he mentions how a casino in the Meadowlands would actually benefit the casino industry.

What is Cohen’s main point in his guest blog?   Rather than taxing people more, let the state raise revenue from people who are more than willing to give it.  With this revenue you can help people, save jobs, and save businesses at the same time.  This is something the average tax payer in New Jersey can relate to.

Cohen also mentions it makes no sense for Atlantic City casinos to block a gaming/racing venture in New Jersey when they are actively promoting similar activities in Pennsylvania and New York (by the way taking revenue which could benefit New Jersey and giving it to other states); they say one thing and do another.  He also mentions how a casino at the Meadowlands makes can raise a large amount of revenue for the state allowing the government and citizens to help their most vulnerable citizens without a need to raise taxes.

The casino interests will make the argument that a Meadowlands casino is all about saving the horse racing industry; there is no need to reinforce the point.  The debate needs to center on how introducing casino gaming at a new location will benefit the taxpayer.  This is how you win the voters' support; promoting the taxpayers' interests first; your's last.   

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

NJ Horse Drain Begins, Lucky Jim Returns

The first condition sheet for Pocono Downs has been released and it spells bad news for the Meadowlands and Freehold.  Changes were expected in the purse amounts as a result of the reduction of the horsemen's portion of slot revenue, but purses still remain attractive despite the cuts. Here is a sample of the purses being offered as well as a comparison to the Meadowlands and/or Freehold.

Claiming         Pocono               Meadowlands                                Freehold
 $7,000           $6,400                                                                      $3,500 ($6,000clm)
$10,000          $9,800                                                                      $4,900
$15,000        $13,000                   $9,200
$20,000        $17,000                 $11,700
$30,000        $21,000                 $17,000                                        

Condition       Pocono (L5)         Meadowlands (L6)                       Freehold (L6)
nw1pm            $7,500                                                                      $4,000
nw2pm            $8,700                 $11,000                                         $6,250
nw5000cd        $9,000                  $9,200 (nw6000cd)                        $5,800 (nw6000cd)
nw7500cd       $11,000               $11,700 (nw8000cd)                        $8,300 (nw8000cd)
nw10000cd     $17,000               $15,000
Open             $28,000               $30,000                                          $11,000 (Preferred)

No doubt horses racing at Freehold and the Meadowlands will be heading to northeast Pennsylvania for the Pocono meet which starts on March 23.  While Chester Downs has not yet issued their first condition sheet, it is safe to assume horses will be leaving for Chester as well.  Hopefully, the cut back of the Meadowlands race week will help in securing enough horses to fill out their card.  Otherwise, expect short fields and $10,000 claimers at the Meadowlands.  As for Freehold, short fields and a reduction in the number of races on a daily basis is all but certain. 

Lucky Jim makes his 2010 pari-mutuel debut this Friday night in the 10th race Invitational at the Meadowlands, drawing the outside in the short seven horse field.  I expect he will pick up where he left off last year. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Focus the Message

As we discussed previously, the President of the SBOANJ wrote an op-ed piece regarding sweetheart deals the Atlantic City casinos have received in New Jersey and how they have been keeping VLTs from coming to the Meadowlands. Out of the roughly thirteen paragraph piece, only two paragraphs were worth anything in making the argument that a casino should be built at the Meadowlands. This is not to say the other paragraphs were incorrect, they just muddy the waters and obscure the issues which may get a casino or VLT parlor built at the Meadowlands.

Readers of this blog love horse racing. We may be interested in the unfair advantages the Atlantic City casino industry has which is costing New Jersey taxpayers. Like political parties, this op-ed piece may rile the rank and file into action, make monetary contributions to help fund a pro-Meadowlands casino campaign, and ensure their votes should a referendum actually come to fruition; the same way the casino interests are riling up their base.

Unfortunately, this battle will not be won alone with the help of the pro-racing base. The success or failure of a campaign to get VLTs or a full casino to the Meadowlands will be won by gaining the support of the electorate at large. Uproar by the voters will get the Senate President to allow a VLT bill to be posted for voting and get the legislators to approve a bill. Since an expansion of gaming in the state needs the approval of a referendum by the votes, it is the electorate who may determine the fate of horse racing in the State of New Jersey, and in the case of standardbred racing, perhaps the nation. We need to focus the campaign on the benefits to the electorate.

The vast majority of New Jersey residents don't care Atlantic City casinos are paying less tax in New Jersey than they pay in other states. As far as they know and will be told, the casinos contribute to the New Jersey economy; perhaps even told if their tax rate is increased, the casino industry will leave Atlantic City taking away the revenue they raise for the state. Even if some voters care the casino industry is getting a sweetheart deal, is this the focus of the SBOANJ and NJTBA campaign? No. Would racing interests be served if the casino industry had their tax rate raised? No. The goal is to get a casino at the Meadowlands. Talk about that; everything else is noise.

What will interest the taxpayers is how a casino at the Meadowlands will benefit them. The argument will be won by telling them about the potential of millions of dollars in tax revenue being recovered in New Jersey and telling them the expansion of gaming in the state will not hurt Atlantic City; the damage has already been done. The benefit to racing is actually a minor point. Sure you can mention it as a secondary issue but it is not going to win many votes; the reality is there are not as many people who care about racing like we do.

The following issues should be discussed in order of importance:

  1. Benefits to the Taxpayers

    • How much revenue is the state government losing to out of state governments?  Bring that revenue home.
    • The jobs which would be created, putting New Jerseyans to work.
    • If being run by the NJ Lottery, how the revenue will go to help schools; slowing the increase in school taxes which are the biggest portion of property taxes which happen to be the highest in the nation.
    • Reality is people are going to travel to the closest casino available.  Why are the casinos making NJ taxpayers spend their gambling and discretionary dollars in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware when they could be spending their time and money in New Jersey at a Meadowlands casino?

  2. The Myth of Atlantic City Casinos

    • The reality is the monopoly is already gone.  Look around our borders, we are surrounded by casinos; not just VLTs, card games have come to Delaware and Pennsylvania. 
    • If the casinos were so worried about Atlantic City, why were they first in line to open casinos in states competing against Atlantic City?
    • The casinos promised to rebuild Atlantic City into a destination place.  They failed; rebuilding Atlantic City is not just building new casinos and having them surrounded by urban blight.
    • Studies show VLTs in the Meadowlands would have a negligible impact on Atlantic City.

  3. How a Casino/VLT Parlor at the Meadowlands Benefits the Taxpayer

    • Brings NJ gambling dollars back in state where the treasury benefits.
    • By having a casino at the racetrack, it helps maintain green open space in the most densely populated state.
    • Maintains agricultural and ancillary jobs in the state; which brings in more tax revenue to the state.  Again, creates more jobs in the state.
The rank and file are properly motivated.  The purse enhancement agreement which is supporting New Jersey racing ends in roughly nine months.  A bill must be approved by the legislature in early August in order to get a referendum on the ballot for the November election.  If all goes well, there is less than eight months to get voters to approve a referendum.  There is no time to muddy the waters with rhetoric, the message needs to be clear and it needs to resonate with the voters.  Stick to the issues which matter to the voters.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Luchento Speaks, Minus Pools, Grand Criterium Repeat

SBOANJ President, Tom Luchento, wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Asbury Park Press regarding how New Jersey casino interests are fleecing the State of New Jersey. Not only do they receive generous tax incentives and one of the lowest tax rates of all casino states, they are using their might to impede the expansion of VLT gaming at racetracks like the Meadowlands. This from an industry which has not delivered the promised revitalization of Atlantic City. Luchento's op-ed piece is an indictment of the gaming industry in New Jersey.

Readers of this blog know I am not a friend of racinos as racetracks and horsemen tend to use the VLTs to merely fill their pockets; failing to do anything to improve the product. I am still convinced VLTs are a short term fix, merely delaying the inevitable because racetracks and horsemen refuse to change their ways; doing nothing to fix the racing product. That being said, it is time to bring VLTs or casino gambling to the Meadowlands.

There is no excuse for withholding VLTs at the Meadowlands, or for that fact, any racetrack (perhaps with the exception of Atlantic City Racecourse) in New Jersey. The Atlantic City casino experiment has failed. For whatever reason, the casino industry has not delivered on its promise to make Atlantic City a destination; a Las Vegas East. That opportunity has come and gone. Casino gambling used to be special product, a novel activity in the United States. Now with the proliferation of racinos and casino gambling throughout the United States, casino gaming has become a commodity. There is no real differentiation between the various racinos and casinos. Like any commodity, customers are more concerned with price.

In the case of casinos, price includes time and expense; the time it takes to go and come from a racino as well as the expense involved in traveling. Why drive three hours to Atlantic City when one can drive a mere twenty five minutes to get to Yonkers Raceway? Why drive two hours to Atlantic City when one can drive a half hour to Allentown, PA? Casino gambling used to be special, now with its availability close to home, it has lost its uniqueness; for many, it is like going to McDonalds for lunch; somewhat ho hum. Sure, if you live in Northern New Jersey and you are a table game gambler, there has been a reason to travel to Atlantic City. However, with table games coming to Delaware and Pennsylvania (and it’s only a matter of time till it comes to New York); table games are also becoming commoditized. Once the table games are running in our neighboring states, what will be the impetus for people to travel to Atlantic City to play the same games they can in their neighborhood casino/racino?

While the Atlantic City casino industry is demanding their investment in Atlantic City be protected, millions of dollars are being wagered by New Jersey residents in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York (to a lesser extent Connecticut); sometimes in racinos operated by casino companies in Atlantic City. With those millions of dollars lost to neighboring states, the potential revenue to New Jersey is filling treasuries in other states. Unless New Jersey passes a law banning New Jersey residents from gambling in other states and is willing to close their borders, New Jersey residents will continue to wager at the closest gaming facility; most often in other states. No, allowing VLTs in the Meadowlands or other New Jersey racetrack is not going to bring in any significant revenue from residents of other states, but at least we can recapture the dollars gambled by New Jersey residents elsewhere.

While racing will benefit from VLTs, I support VLTs at the racetracks primarily as a New Jersey taxpayer. VLTs or a casino at the Meadowlands is the best deal for New Jersey taxpayers. While the casino industry protests horse racing, a sport in trouble due to its failure to innovate, is trying to survive with casino gaming, they fail to tell you they had their opportunity to make Atlantic City a gambling destination but they failed. What they are trying to do is keep their own failed business model running at the expense of New Jersey taxpayers.

This is not to say I support VLTs at the Meadowlands blindly. Unlike other states which allow VLT gaming at racetracks, New Jersey must mandate a percentage of slot revenue be spent on revitalizing public interest in the sport (and not just by raising purses) and they must hold the racetracks and horsemen to it. One way to do this is by putting in the enabling legislation targets which take effect five years after VLTs are installed where the percentage of funds the racetracks and horsemen both receive from the VLTs can decrease on an annual basis if handle and/or attendance do not increase. This way both horsemen and track operators will have the incentive to invest and modernize the racing product to meet their customer demands.

Remember how racetracks would cancel show wagering whenever Muscle Hill raced last year? Well, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans had show wagering this past weekend when Rachel Alexandra raced in the New Orleans Lady Stakes as did Santa Anita when Zenyatta raced in the Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap. Interesting to note that over a million dollars were wagered on Rachel Alexandra for show and I am sure that a lot of money was wagered on Zenyatta for show as well. Fortunately for both tracks, they did not get minus pools but they certainly ran the risk of it. I can see the need for fair meets canceling wagering to protect themselves from minus pools, but if these two tracks could risk minus pools on these horses, why can't standardbred tracks?

On the European Grand Circuit, Meaulnes du Corta won the Grand Critérium de Vitesse for the second year in a row at Cagnes-sur-Mer driven by Pierre Levesque in a wire-to-wire effort.  With this victory, Meaulnes du Corta has won the first two legs of the Grand Circuit this year.  There is some talk of a North American campaign for this ten year old (horses are not able to race in France past the age of ten).  It would be interesting to see him against Lucky Jim once Meaulnes was acclimated.        

Saturday, March 13, 2010

George Morton Levy Series 2010 - Must See Racing

The nominations for the George Morton Levy Memorial Pacing Series have been released.  Fifty-two horses have been nominated for the series which kicks off on March 27 at Yonkers Raceway (28 mares have been nominated for the companion Blue Chip Matchmaker Series).  Among the nominees to the Levy are horses like Badlands Nitro, Blueridge Western, Corky Baran, Foiled Again, Mr Wiggles, Psiluvheartbreaker, and Southwind Lynx.  A full list of nominees is available here.  

The Levy is one of my favorite pacing series.  For a period of six weeks some of the best horses currently racing will be competing in the Levy and why not?  For five weeks, the horses will be competing for purses of $50,000 and the top eight horses will be racing for $460,000 in the final.  If a horse were fortunate enough to sweep the series, he would earn his owners a tidy $355,000.  Fans and gamblers are treated to strong Saturday night cards as the preliminaries tend to draw multiple divisions.

There will be those who will downplay the Levy series saying the race does not draw the best horses racing; no doubt sour grapes.   If a top horse is not competing in the Levy, it is because the horse is unable to handle the half mile oval.  Don't begrudge those able to handle the smaller oval.

We will discuss the Levy more once the series begins.  In the meanwhile, put Yonkers Raceway on your wagering calendar for six Saturday nights starting March 27.                 

Down in New Zealand, Monkey King closed out his campaign with a victory in the $500,000 (NZ) Auckland Cup.  Details of the race, including video may be found here.  Monkey King finishes the season with eight victories and three second places finishes out of twelve starts in New Zealand and Australia.  

Friday, March 12, 2010

Tioga Downs' Bold Move

Tioga Downs is one of my favorite tracks to wager on. Sunday afternoons they have decent programs and it seems Jeff Gural is able to attract some of the top drivers in the region to drive there on a day most tracks are dark. Tioga has great promotions for their fan base and attempts to make each day special; something which can occur with their short racing season. The track is fan friendly and while VLTs are important to their success, they truly make an effort to make harness racing an important part of their identity.

Yesterday, another reason has been added to make Tioga a 'must play' track. They are in the process of lowering their takeout to the minimum allowed in New York State. Pending regulatory approval, the takeout rate at Tioga this year will be 15% for Win, Place, and Show wagers (18% last year); 17% for Exactas (20% last year); 21% for Trifectas and all other exotic wagers (25%). To compensate ADWs into accepting a lower takeout, Tioga is reducing the fee charged to ADWs to 2% instead of 3%. Why not lower the rate even lower? Tioga management has indicated they would be willing to try an 8 or 9% rate if the state allowed it and the ADWs would be willing to carry their signal. For now, this is a step in the right direction.

Tioga Downs has always been a fan friendly track and now by lowering their takeout rate, they are being friendly to the bettors who wager on their product off and on-track. After seeing surveys conducted by HANA and the USTA, it became clear to Tioga management that takeout is a major issue. By lowering their takeout rate, Tioga is hoping to become the track of choice of price sensitive gamblers.

Will this move pay off for Tioga? Time will tell, but over at the HANA/Pace Advantage board, there is plenty of excitement from people who never played Tioga Downs before. I expect many heavy hitters to give Tioga a serious look and hopefully the gamble will pay off.

We would be remiss not to give credit to the Southern Tier Harness Horseman Association for agreeing to this one year pilot experiment; without whose consent this experiment wound not be possible. Clearly this is a horsemen's group interested in securing harness racing's future. Sadly the Harness Horse Association of Central New York which represents horsemen at sister track Vernon Downs is unwilling to go along with this experiment so takeout rates will remain unchanged there. Unfortunately, HHACNY’s response is not surprising. Whereas the STHHA has always treated management as a partner, the HHACNY has always had a seemingly adversarial relationship with track management. In many ways, the two horsemen groups are proxies for future of harness racing. STHHA understands the realities of the market while HHACNY is stuck in the past when horse racing was the only game around. Care to guess which track will be left standing when all is said and done?

Here is hoping Tioga Downs and their horsemen are rewarded for their willingness to change the rules for the betterment of the horseplayer. Hopefully, the gamblers will respond. The serious horseplayers have spoken. Now it is their turn to back their words up with action.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

More on the Monmouth Experiment and How It Applies to the Standardbred

John Pricci from wrote an article about the forthcoming experiment at Monmouth Park where he basically indicates the new schedule and purse structure at Monmouth may be what saves this industry.  Many of the things John talks about applies to the standardbred industry. 

Not only should the thoroughbred industry watch the Monmouth experiment; the standardbred industry better watch as well.  This experiment may very well be the salvation of harness racing as well.

NJ Thoroughbred Horsemen Understand It

New Jersey thoroughbred interests, through the Blood Horse, are responding to critics regarding the slashing of race dates in New Jersey which has been agreed upon for the 2010 racing season.  While John Forbes and Bob Kulina are addressing the thoroughbred world  regarding the decision, many of their comments apply to the standardbred world.  Make sure to read the article.   

Here are some comments from John Forbes, the President of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association:

One of the things we recognize is that with or without slot revenue, racing has to change. We’ve heard from the customer, and we’ve gone recently from a local sport to a national sport with full card simulcasting. 

There is no such thing as a local market.  You can no longer put on a race meeet which appeals to the local market; you need to put on a product which is attractive to a national market.  In a market full of signals, mediocrity is no longer acceptable to the wagering public.

The customer has spoken—he wants quality racing, larger fields, and we think it’s time that someone stepped up and gave the customer in racing what he’s looking for. This isn’t a survival issue; it’s an issue of responding of what we all know is most important—quality racing—and that’s what we hope to provide.

Short fields and cheap horses is not an attractive proposition.  If you put on an inferior card the wagering public is going to ignore you.  Racetracks and horsemen need to provide full fields of quality horses; something which can happen in New Jersey or any other state.  If you race limited days; you can offer a product which people want to wager on and follow.  No slot revenue (or even with slot revenue)? Race fewer days and you can offer purses which attract the better horses.  Race more days, your purses will be lower, horsemen with quality horses will bypass your meet and you will offer a product no one wants to wager on.  This is what will determine the success or failure of raicng in a particular state. 

If this is the death for the small horsemen, it’s because he doesn’t have the kind of horse that America wants to bet on.  But I don’t think it’s the death…I think it’s an opportunity for our horsemen to recognize that not to upgrade, not to improve the product for the consumer is a prescription to eventually be eliminated from the mix here in the Midlantic. We’re very concerned about our small horsemen, but we also want them to step up to the plate. If they can’t recognize that poor racing with horses that aren’t competitive is itself a death then none of us are responding to what the industry wants.

How about that; the customer matters.  The lack of VLTs is not what is going to kill racing in any particular state.  It is the unwillingess to provide a quality product.  The public is what finances the industry and we need to give the public what they want.  If it means racing fewer days, so be it.  Continuing to race 180+ day race meets is a prescrption to become irrelevant.  The boutique meet is the future of racing. 

NJ thoroughbred horsemen understand it.  Do we?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

They Still Don't Get It

Standardbred Canada in reporting on the agreement to revamp the New Jersey thoroughbred schedule by eliminating the thoroughbred meet from the Meadowlands and moving it to Monmouth Park where less days would be raced.  Their headline for the story?  More Harness Dates for the Meadowlands.  Apparently, additional harness dates at the Meadowlands is the payoff for the SBOANJ agreeing to provide financial support for the Monmouth Park meet. 

They still don't get it.  While removing the runners from the Meadowlands calendar allows more flexibility in scheduling the Meadowlands standardbred meet, the last thing we need for long term survival is more racing dates.  All more racing dates provides is a diluted racing product, diluted purses, diluted wagering, and more product in a market which requires less.  When you have twelve racetracks racing at one time, you have a predatory situation, where each track is attempting to pull wagering dollars from a common wagering pool.  Rather than having a number of successful tracks left standing, we will end up with two or three tracks.  For those complaining we will lose a significant number of people employed in standardbred racing, how many people do you think will be employed in the industry if we have only two or three racetracks remaining? 

Until horsemen accept economic reality, harness racing is going to continue the downward spiral, making any recovery even tougher.  It is time for horsemen to look at the big picture instead of just their own neighborhood.    

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Dream Race

It's Hambletonian Day at the Meadowlands. This is the day people have been waiting for the last three months since the race was announced. Over 40,000 people are in attendance at the track to see this matchup. This race is so highly anticipated that the regular media has been talking about this race for several weeks now and NBC has extended their Hambletonian broadcast an extra hour in order to cover this race. On ESPN and TVG they are talking about this race like it was Rachel Alexandra versus Zenyatta.

No, it is not the Hambletonian. It is a field of FFA Pacers which has grabbed the fancy of sports editors and the racing media. Not the U.S. Pacing Championship, a race which does not allow supplemental entries; that race was contested a week earlier than scheduled and has been used to help determine the field for this dream race. Auckland Reactor has lived up to his advanced billing since he arrived on our shores and has been able to defeat some of the best FFAllers in North America with regularity. However, there are old nemeses to deal with; horses not nominated to any of the big races. These nemeses have been racing in the Opens at the Meadowlands and Woodbine, taking care not to meet each other until the big race.

In a brilliant marketing move and good luck, North American racing interests have been able to lure Blacks A Fake and Monkey King to American shores to compete against Auckland Reactor and six of the best FFAllers North America has to offer in the newly minted World Pacing Championship. With the race occurring in the afternoon, the WPC is being simulcasted overseas to New Zealand and Australia. For the past couple of months, all has been well in the standardbred world with the build up to the big race being covered by ESPN, TVG and other racing outlets. There has even been regular coverage in the New York Times and Sports Illustrated. Having downsized their workforce due to decreased interest, the NJSEA had to bus employees from Monmouth Park and Freehold Raceway in order to handle the anticipated crowd.

The crowd is a buzz with anticipation. The television camera pans and sees wall to wall people along the length of the entire stretch watching the race. The race begins, with a cheer from the crowd. As the field passes the three quarters marker in 1:19.3 and reaches mid-stretch, it is Auckland Reactor, Blacks A Fake, Monkey King, and Won the West four across the track with less than a length between them and the crowd reaches a deafening crescendo

Then I wake up. It was only a dream.

But what if it wasn't?

As a side note, I came accross a segement on accupuncture on Post Time.  I must confess, while I have heard about horses being treated by chiropractors, this is the first time I have heard of a horse being treated by accupuncture.  You may find this segment interesting.  

Sunday, March 7, 2010

One for the Ages - Blacks A Fake

Early this morning (EST), Blacks A Fake marked himself as the king of Australasian harness racing with his victory in the $1 million (AUS) Inter Dominion Pace held and Menangle Park, winning the 2,300 meter race in a world record 2:42.6 (mile rate of 1:53.8), defeating Monkey King NZ (2nd), and Smoken Up NZ (3rd.).  Last year's victor, American Import Mr Feelgood finished ninth in this years final.

With Blacks A Fake victory, he sets himself as a horse for the ages, winning his fourth Inter Dominion.  As if to show this nine year old is in a class all alone, driver Natalie Rasmussen had Blacks A Fake racing three wide the last 800 meters.  Blacks A Fake has now won over $4 million (AUS) in his career.

For more regarding Blacks A Fake's victory, you may read a report provided by Harness Link.  While a complete replay of the Inter Dominion is not available as of now, here is a replay of the half mile of the race.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Worst Nightmare Strikes?

News reports indicate that search warrants have been executed regarding a possible race fixing ring at Hazel Park, Northville Downs and Sports Creek Raceway.  The reports indicate up to 30 owners, drivers, trainers, and gamblers may have been involved in the alleged scheme.  The racetracks have been cooperating in this year long investigation.

There is a possibility this scandal may hit the Ontario tracks as press reports indicate members of the Ontario Racing Commission have been involved in the investigation.  Since many Michigan racehorses often cross the border to race at the Ontario B tracks and vice versa, it is only natural that the ORC has become involved.

We are not here to prejudge innocence or guilt of any persons; certainly not without knowing who or what the charges may or may not be.  Suffice it to say, this has the potential of being a nightmare; killing the industry in Michigan; hurting the reputation of racing all over as well as influencing the public debate regarding VLTs and the future of racing elsewhere.

We trust should suspects be named, they will be suspended immediately pending the outcome of any legal proceedings.  Unfortunately, in an industry which depends on the participation of horseplayers, waiting until any criminal proceedings conclude is not an option.  Should any licensee be convicted of race fixing, nothing short of a lifetime ban is acceptable.

UPDATE: It appears the Michigan race fixing scandal may be spilling over the border into Indiana, Ohio, and Ontairo as there are suspicions of the gambling ring being invovled in these states/provinces. Anyone thinking this scandal will remain a local story is sadly mistaken. It also turns out this case came to the attention of regulators thanks to individuals withing the industry reporting the alleged scheme to regulators. It is imperative this part of the story gets told.

And now we wait......

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Tale of Two States

Well, not quite two states, but a state and a province.  In Quebec, pari-mutuel wagering has resumed thanks to a group of harness horsemen, ironically called the Jockey Club of Quebec, getting a permit to conduct a ten day harness racing meet in Quebec.  With the approval of their permit, the JCQ has partnered with WEG to offer account wagering over the Internet.  Once the JCQ obtains their permit for an additional 50 day meet, they will be able to resume wagering at the shuttered OTW locations.  Revenue from account wagering and the OTW locations will be used to fund the purses to be offered at the Quebec race meets.  It seems harness racing in the Belle Province will be rising like a Phoenix. 

Meanwhile, in Michigan, horse racing of all breeds appears to be in danger of extinction with a severe revision downward of racing dates in the state.  The flagship track, Hazel Park has had their race meet reduced from sixty-two days to just twenty-nine; racing Fridays and Sundays from April 30 thru August 6.  Northville Downs, which is currently racing will offer only thirteen more days of racing this year; eleven days now and September 24 and 25.  The pain is being shared equally with the thoroughbred and quarter horse interests as well..  Pinnacle Race Course which races thoroughbreds will race only thirty-one of eighty-four days originally assigned and Mount Pleasant Meadows, a mixed breed track, has been reduced to an eleven day meet.  At the present time, the MHHA and MHBPA are working together to come up with a funding method to restore the number of race dates back to the original number.    Horsemen in Michigan are involved in a real fight for their survival.  I realize Michigan is suffering severly economically, but it seems the Governor is bent on destroying the racing industry there.

Attracting New Owners

Recently I had written about the need to emphasize the fun of owning a race horse in an effort to attract new horse owners to the business. The question is how do we get new people to take the plunge and try horse ownership? Like finding employment, networking is the key. So how does those in racing network with potential owners? Many of the ideas listed here, while not new, are worth repeating.

As a trainer, how do you show appreciation to your owners? Ray Schnitker hosts a barbeque during the races every year during the Fourth of July holiday at Goshen. In attendance are stable employees, friends, acquaintances, and owners who enjoy the day socializing and watching the races. This annual tradition is a wonderful way for the Schnitker stable to thank everyone connected to it and show appreciation to the owners that pay the bills. You may not be able to throw a four day extravaganza, but you better do something to make sure your owners know you appreciate them. Have a barbeque one day at your training center or racetrack and invite your owners to attend; even if you need to partner with a fellow trainer or two. While you are at it, make sure you let your owners know they can bring a friend along. Since we all tend to associate with people in the same socio-economic group, odds are their friends can afford to own a horse as well. When a potential owner sees their owner friend being appreciated and treated with respect, it leaves the potential owner with a positive impression.

If you are a racetrack or training center operator, do you make it easy for potential owners to be exposed to racing behind the scene? If a trainer wants to have a thank you barbeque on your grounds, try to accommodate them. If someone wants to bring a non-licensed friend with them, don’t block that person from gaining access to the backstretch and paddock. No one is expecting you to let someone in who shows up unannounced that day, but if the trainer or owner lets you know who their guest(s) are going to be three days ahead of time, there is no reason why you can’ t let them in.

The best way to get someone into horse ownership is to let them try ownership before they go all in. Offer limited partnerships on a middle level horse or group of horses where for a specific commitment of money, a new owner can experience horse ownership with limited risk. At the end of the partnership period, the new owner can remain a full partner on the horse or group of horses or they can get out. The key is to get them in the door.

Also, partnerships are wonderful, but if you are trying to introduce someone to racing, try to limit the size of the group owning a horse. A new owner is going to have more invested in a horse where their name is listed in the program versus a generic “Horse Name Racing Stable”.

Ever think about offering a discount on a training bill for someone who introduces you to a new owner? I know you’re a professional, but let’s face it; a little incentive may be the encouragement your existing owner needs to introduce their friend(s) to you.

If you are an existing horse owner, it will also help if you make the trip to the track to see your horse race. What kind of encouragement are you providing a potential owner if you don’t bother visiting the track when your horse races? Sure, it is more comfortable being home on a cold or rainy night, but it is not the same as being there. It is the sounds and smells of racing which sells it; not a picture on a screen. Again, racetracks can help by having open house days where current owners are welcomed to bring friends along. Is it too expensive for a racetrack to have a proper open house for existing and potential owners? Partner with your local horsemen’s group. After all, you both have an interest in attracting new owners to the business.

As a racetrack operator, are you appreciating your owners or ignoring them? Horse ownership is part ego. Are you helping feed the ego by treating horse owners well or are you ignoring them? No one is going to bring a friend along to see them being treated poorly and if a friend sees their buddy being treated well as an owner they may want to take the plunge. Treat the owner well and not just when their horse is racing. Ownership should have its privileges. Being many owners lose money on their horses, is treating them well too much to ask?

As racing comes out of the winter doldrums, some of our renowned horses are in the final stages of getting ready for their eturn to the racing wars.  Today at the Meadowlands, Lucky Jim, Dr Mcdreamy, and Hypnotic Blue Cup made their seasonal debuts in qualifying efforts.  Lucky Jim won his qualifier by over eight lengths in an easy 1:54.4 (:26.4 final quarter) victory.   Dr Mcdreamy kicked off his season with a workman-like 1:57.4 qualifiying victory while Hypnotic Blue Chip finished second in his effort.      

The Meadowlands has cancelled the Strada Memorial for aged pacing mares.  It is never a good thing to see a race cancelled.  While no official reason was given for the cancellation, most of the times it is a sign of conserving the purse account.

The final of the $1 million (AUS) Inter Dominion is this Sunday, March 7 at 5:00pm local time.  For those on the East coast, the race will occur approximately at 1:00AM on Sunday.  My selections are Blacks A Fake, followed by Monkey King NZ and Changover.