For photos from the Meadowlands contact

Monday, February 28, 2011

Racinos, Are you Listening?

One thing which always escaped me was how racinos and horsemen refuse to lower their takeout rates to low levels, meaning to casino game levels, to stimulate interest in the racing product?  After all, how much of a purse cut will horsemen take when racino subsidies pay up to 95% of the purses being offered.  Just think, if you were racing for a 0% takeout rate, your $10,000 purse may become $9,500.  Is that too much of a sacrifice to stimulate interest in your livlihood?

Well, Hollywood Greyhound Track (Mardi Gras Racetrack and Casino) has realized it.  They just announced that the payout rate for win, place, and show wagering on their races will be up to 91% starting March 3.  That is right, a 9% takeout rate so payoffs will be between 90 and 91% of the total pool (takeout rates for other wagers are unknown).

Now granted, greyhound racing is struggling big time these days with small pools and the costs involved with putting on greyhound races is a fraction as it is for horse racing, so they really have little to lose by offering a 9% takeout rate but then again, what do horse racing racinos have to lose by offering takeout rates like this?

It will be interesting to see Mardi Gras Racetrack in Florida does with the reduced takeout.  If successful, will other racinos see the light and offer casino like takeout rates?  Time will tell.  My guess is Tioga Downs will be the first harness track to offer these rates as last year they indicated a desire to bring harness racing to a takeout rate equivalent to their slots.  Of course, it will require horsemen to go along with any such reductions.

Closing Up Shop in Chi Town?

After the shafting the horse racing industry received at the end of the last legislative system when the bill to permit slots at tracks was pulled by State Representative Lang on the last day; despite the bill apparently having the votes to pass (he now claims he didn't have the votes due to new taxes passed that day), a new bill is being fast tracked to get the legislation through the State Senate and in front of the Governor. Supposedly, the Governor was going to veto the original bill but we will see if he will sign a stripped down version of the slot bill.

Well, the dominos are getting ready to fall.  According to an article in the Chicago Sun Times, Illinois Racing is facing extinction, with Maywood Park likely to be the first to fall.  According to Duke Johnston, owner of both Balmoral Park and Maywood Park, Maywood Park will likely close by June if slots are not approved for the racetracks.  One can assume that Balmoral Park will remain open on borrowed time for a little bit longer before they end up closing.  Quad City Downs, which operates only as an OTB ceased live racing a long time ago and they had hoped with the new bill they could resume live racing.

But the problem is not restricted to harness racing; thoroughbred racing will likely face extinction as well.  Fairmount Park, which used to host harness racing will likely cease operation first and even Arlington Park, operated by Churchill Downs figures to be in jeopardy of discontinuing operations.

How bad is horse racing doing in Illinois?  Since 2002, wagering in Illinois decreased 62% on standardbred racing while the runners did slightly better with a decrease of 54%.  What happened to racing in Illinois?  The same as elsewhere, a state legislature which authorized casinos without allow racetracks the opportunity to do so.  The state had legislated 3% of riverboat revenue would go to racing to help support purses, but to this day, the riverboats have managed to stonewall the racing industry from getting this money.

Let's not kid ourselves, the qualify of racing at Balmoral and Maywood is horrible so bettors may not miss these two tracks, but the standardbred industry can't afford to lose exposure in a large metropolitan area.  In this respect, the closure of Maywood and Balmoral would be just as bad as a potential closing of the Meadowlands.

But while the legislatures in many states may be the cause for racing to decline, the industry shares an even larger portion of the responsibility.  The industry had the chance to innovate and it made the decision to do nothing and cast its future on slot machines.  As a result, the denial of VLTs to racetracks is almost always fatal to racing.  The sad thing is racing is still doing nothing to reversie its fortune, continuing to rely on income from VLTs which the Great Recession is almost certain to cut off.  It is almost as if the industry is on death row and other than throwing out a few token appeals here and there, it is resigned to its fate.
Dean over at Pull the Pocket talks about retiring the horse Stonebridge Gem.  No, I don't expect each stable to keep a barn full of horses that can't earn their keep, but if this sport had more owners who looked at horses as more than investments; an attitude which has been somewhat lost since the Meadowlands opened, the sport would be better off.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Solving the Elimination Dilemna

Almost everyone in harness racing knows elimination races are the bane of the sport.  You know those elimination races, those races where horses race in $25,000 eliminations to determine who qualifies for the $500,000 final the following week.  Tracks acknowledge the problem when they dangle the carrot of elimination winners getting to choose their own post positions or draw for the inside posts.  Only problem then is the tracks are in effect rigging the final by allowing elimination winners get a favored post position over their opposition in the final; after all, they don't face the possibility of drawing an outside post the following week while everyone else does.

A simple way to solve this problem would be to make the purses for eliminations more meaningful; make it hard for a horse to lay off in an elimination, saving themselves for the following week.  Make the eliminations worth 40% of a purse final.  Instead of a $1.5 million guaranteed Hambletonian, make it a $1.5 million (total purse) Hambletonian with the eliminations racing for a total of $600,000 and the final worth $900,000.  If you have three elimination races, let's see a horse lay off in a race worth $200,000 instead of the paltry $50,000 they current race in eliminations.  I would think everyone one would agree a $900,000 final is nothing to sneeze at.

However, if tracks and horsemen want to let horses earn post positions for the final, I have a better way to do it.  Let's have each horse eligible to compete in the stakes race go through an official workout the week before the stakes.  A horse who goes off stride in an official workout gets disqualified and then the fastest eight, nine, or ten finishers earn their post position in the final.  No purse money, just the right to race in the final the following week.

If we insist racing paltry eliminations, then make them non-wagering events where there is an open draw for the final.  Why are we letting horseplayers wager on races that even track operators fear horsemen may not be giving their best effort?  Sure the experienced horseplayer may factor this possibility into their wagering strategies, but novices actually are thinking everyone is giving their fullest effort in these eliminations.  The serious horseplayers have a legitimate advantage over novices in regular races, there is no reason to give them an illegitimate advantage over newcomers when it comes to elimination races. 

Why non-wagering events?  When was the last time you saw a judge give a driver of an elimination contest a fine or suspension for failure to drive a horse to the best of their ability?  Even the judges know what happens in eliminations and let it go.  I would love to see the head judge tell the drivers before elimination races begin, "Gentlemen (and Gentlewomen, if appropriate), we will be watching.  If you give your horse a less than 100% effort this week and you do real good next week, we'll be having a nice chat and you'll be getting a nice long vacation".  

Of course, there are other ways we can determine the entrants to race finals.  Here are some of them.

Each track will decide which of their events are to be considered major or minor.  Minor events will be raced in divisions with money divided.  No eliminations, no problems.  For those races considered major, the final field will be decided by one of the following methods:

  • Top money earners are seeded into the final where there is an open draw, with other horses being seeded into optional consolation races.
  • Win and you're in.  The track designates, depending on the number of positions on the starting gate, a specified number of key races.  If you are eligible to the race and you win a designated race you're in the stakes race.  If a winner of a key race is ineligible or otherwise decides to pass on the race, the remaining eligible horses will get into the race based on highest earnings, points earned based on their finish in those key races, or an elimination race.  If the designated races are selected properly there may be only two or three available entries available to the final so you know those horses will be giving their best to qualify for the final.
  • Total points earned.  The race sponsor designates qualifying races and eligible horses that earn points in these race based on their finishing position.  Come stakes time, the top eight, nine, or ten horses that have the highest number of  qualifying points draw into the stakes race.  This also ensures horses are giving their best effort on those races as anything but a best effort could have the horse on the outside looking in come stakes time.
There you have it, no horse being given preferential treatment.  No horses qualifying automatically when only eleven or twelve horses draw into a stakes race and the track wants to avoid short field eliminations.    Only horses lining up behind the starting gate because they had an equal chance to qualify.  The only thing we lose are races where drivers may not be giving their charges their best efforts in an effort to save the horse for the following week.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hats off to the NTRA and AQHA

In one of the most innovative events I have seen done, the NTRA, AQHA, Keenland, and the DRF are sponsoring a night school for beginner and advanced gamblers on the thoroughbred and quarter horse game in an effort to attract new gamblers to the sport.  This is no small time effort.  For forty Monday nights (it has already started), ninety minutes each, numerous websites connected to the horse racing industry will be having interactive online classes on handicapping and wagering on the runners and sprinters.  Racetracks, ownership groups and Xpress Bet will be participating in this school with each of their website presenting the school.

As the Jeremy Plonk indicated, "Tracks and entities have a legitimate self-interest, but they all have a common interest in attracting new fans. I want people in each racing market to feel comfortable in going to their local track website and feeling as though the home team is taking care of them, because that's the goal."

What is the standardbred industry doing to educate their fans?  Tracks like Tioga have handicapping seminars but they are nowhere as thorough as night school as on-track seminars tend to be geared to beginners.  For the harness industry, with tracks in only eighteen states, the need to educate more fans is even more important if there is any hope of making headway in obtaining standardbred gamblers in any of the thirty-two other states which don't offer live parimutuel racing.

Let's see if the standardbred industry can unite so we can go back to school.  All handicappers, novices and 'experts' and everyone in between can benefit from going back to handicapping school. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Betfair the Green Knight?

If Jeff Gural is the white knight in saving the Meadowlands, can it be Betfair becomes the green knight?  Harness Racing Update reports Betfair may be seeking to join the Gural team to obtain an ownership stake in the Meadowlands and if this is true, saving the Meadowlands takes a big jump forward as Betfair would be able to infuse a significant amount of capital into the project.

Why would Betfair want to become a partner in the Meadowlands?  While the Meadowlands is showing plenty of nicks in its armor of late, it is still the most recognizable harness racing track in North America and has an international reputation, sort of how Solvalla is recognized by industry people in the United States.  With exchange wagering coming to New Jersey, it further solidifies their persumed front runner status in running exchange wagering in New Jersey which will give them a heads up once exchange wagering becomes legal in California in 2012 (we tend to forget there are other companies that offer exchange wagering).  In addition, having the Meadowlands in their 'stable', will the Meadowlands become part of their international exchange wagering offerings?

As for the Gural consortium,  there are multiple advantages to having Betfair join the group.  First of all, you will have a partner with deep financial pockets which will help in obtaining the $100 million needed to establish their new grandstand and OTW sites.  In addition, it ensures the Meadowlands remains the prime exclusive harness track on TVG.  As joint partners in the Meadowlands, it is not unreasonable to see Tioga Downs (less likely Vernon Downs) become a more prominent member of the TVG wagering menu, improving the racing product at Tioga and help Tioga become a larger magnet for wagering.  Something else to consider, both Tioga Downs and Betfair are innovators.  Tioga in marketing the sport, Betfair in wagering.

To paraphrase an old slogan, "Gural and Betfair, perfect together".

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Freehold Buzz Cut; Time to Stop Being An Apologist

Note: Updated regarding Freehold Purse Cuts to specify some of the cuts.

Purses at Freehold Raceway are getting shaved once again.  Starting with racing on March 2, purses will be reduced 25%.  With a prior purse cut announced in January, purses at the Freehold oval will be reduced a total of 40% two months into the season.  The purse cuts are across most classes as $4,000 claimers will now be racing for $1,800 instead of $2,000. Open $10,000 claimers get their purse shaved from $5,100 to $4,400; nw8000L6 drop from $8,700 to $7,400.  In addition to purse cuts, certain classes such as the Trotting Preferred Handicap ($11,700) disappear from the condition sheet, despite a full field of eight horses entered for this week's contest.  The only light in tunnel is apparently the NJSEA still owes Freehold $500,000 from the expired purse enhancement agreement.  Should the NJSEA come up with this money, part of the purse reduction would likely be reversed.  However, with the problems the Meadowlands is having, it may be a long time before they see the money handed over; if at all. 

Last year Freehold had cancelled some stakes races to save purse money but still kept a few stakes races,  It would not surprise me to see Freehold shed a few more stakes races; or possibly offer overnight racing exclusively like Monticello.  Clearly Freehold is in trouble as once more Eastern tracks open up for the season, don't be surprised if the base claiming prices drops to $3,000 or $2,500 as the exodus begins. 

Lean days indeed for The Afternoon Delight" 

In other news, Mike Gulotta once again makes an excuse for Governor Christie's veto of legislation that would have allowed sales taxes on claiming horses to be used for breeding awards, understanding the
current economy.  I wish Gullota would stop being an apologist for Governor Christie.  Gulotta reminds everyone that instead of closing the Meadowlands, Christie is trying to privatize racing.  That's true if you consider throwing a life preserver two miles out in the Atlantic as attempting to privatize racing.  It seems Mr. Gulotta forgets the Meadowlands was two days away from being closed for good in December and unless the Gural consortium can swim out to the life preserver to save the the Meadowlands,  Christie has no problem of seeing harness racing in New Jersey go under quicker than the Titanic.  Gulotta cites the pro-racing legislation that Christie has signed this year, legislation he would have likely vetoed if he didn't need the Democratic-controlled legislature to pass his Atlantic City reform bills.

The fact is Gulotta and others were charmed and snookered by Christie on the campaign trail to get the horsemen to support him instead of Corzine.  It is time to admit it and recognize Christie is no real friend of racing.  He could care less if racing survives or fails.

News has come out that Betfair is looking at the possibility of purchasing Monmouth Park.  Why does this deserve mention on a harness racing blog? 

It may represent the future of racing in the United States and this would not surprise me.  In fact, this model is not that unusual.  If you go to a racetrack in Australia and New Zealand, the wagering at the track is handled by TAB, a wagering company that handles wagers down under at all the tracks (there are different TABs depending on the region of the country.  This is the same TAB that you can log on to your computer to make a wager with, walk into a store front to make your wagers and watch it on television.  So if TAB handles the wagering down under, how do the tracks get purse money?  From the commission on all wagers made on the racing at that track..  In effect, the track is owned by a harness racing club and they get their money from TAB for the purses.

Should Betfair taking over Monmouth Park, they can continue to offer a championship meet, though this year due to the lack of subsidies, Monmouth is scheduled to run a 104 day meet which will likely be a fiasco.  No doubt TVG will continue to have the exclusive on live racing from Monmouth and when negotiating the commission on exchange wagering which they likely will be offering in New Jersey, they would be able to keep the commission they need to pay on exchange wagering low from the track's perspective, ensuring the success of exchange wagering with regards to Monmouth Park.  As to the four OTWs, the winning bidder of Monmouth gets to build, these OTWs will likely offer traditional parimutuel and exchange wagering.

Ths means unless the NJSEA or action of the NJRC precludes exchange wagering from being offered in New Jersey until all tracks negotiate a deal, there is a possibility of only having exchange wagering available for thoroughbred racing, with the standardbreds cut out initially.

If Betfair is successful in obtaining and running Monmouth Park, it may be anticipated that more racetracks will be purchased by ADWs.provided they don't run into anti-trust violations.  This may mean the consolidation of racetracks may be controlled by the ADWs.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Racing Two Year Olds

With the first stakes payments of the year having been made, perhaps now would be a good time to discuss the wisdom of racing two years olds.  It may be early to start talking about this now, but there has already been some discussion elsewhere about it, so why not discuss it now?  Some people claim that racing two year olds ends up with a large number of horses tossed to the side in the rush to make it to the big money events.  Some of these people want to stop two year old racing completely, others want to limit the number of starts a two year old can make.  Of course, others say no changes should occur; it is the owner's right to do what they will.

It is a known fact that two year olds are not fully developed.  Many of the anti-racing groups for that reason call for banning horse racing or at a minimum, not racing horses until they reach their maturity.  Perhaps, this is part of the reason they are called baby races?

In the perfect world, I would like to see nothing more than us eliminating two year old racing.  However, this is not a perfect world, so there needs to be a realistic approach to racing two year olds which allows the industry to sustain itself, yet consider the health and well being of our two year olds.  A complete ban of racing two year olds would likely send most medium and small breeders to bankruptcy and may drag down some of the larger breeding establishments down just as well.  Why?  Right now some breeders are already being hurt with low yearling prices that don't cover their cash outlays.  If a yearling buyer has to continue to purchase horses as yearlings and incur the expense of maintaining two year olds without racing, some individuals will get out of buying yearlings completely and purchase ready made three year olds; or the additional expense will translate into further reduced yearling prices.  If breeders had to maintain yearlings another year, and incur the expense involved, how would they survive when they are barely covering their expenses now?

A middle ground solution may be the way to go.  My proposal would be for two year olds not be able to start in a purse race until July 1; cutting two months of their racing season.  Secondly, with the exception of sires stakes races for two year olds, I propose we eliminate all big money stakes races for two year olds; moving that money into four year old stakes races.  Instead of stakes races like the Breeders Crown for two year olds or big money stakes races like the Woodrow Wilson, I would suggest we schedule what can best be called 'trial stakes'; stakes races where purses can not exceed $50,000 and limit two year olds to no more than eight starts in their two year old career.  This would allow owners of two year olds the opportunity to recover some of their investment in purse races and see what they have, yet not offer purses which will induce some trainers and owners in keeping a two year old in training for that pot of gold when they would be better off turning the two year old out.

Make no mistake, even this proposal would reduce the prices people would be willing to pay for yearlings.  As part of this solution, it may worth considering reducing the number of mares a stallion can cover to reduce the supply of yearlings available to force yearling prices up enough to offset any potential decrease resulting from changing the rules for two year olds.  And lastly, two year olds have no business racing against older horses in overnight events. 

I would like to hear your thoughts on this subject.  What do you think, if anything, should be done regarding racing two year olds?

Two of my favorite things are horses and dogs.  This video gives us both.  It was filmed at the Standardbred Retirement Foundation Farm.  Warning:  Some people may find this video too cute.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Oh, the Irony of It All

It is time for a history lesson.  For most of Hialeah's history, they had the lucrative winter racing months in Southeast Florida, with Gulfstream and Calder picking up the crumbs.  Then the complexion of the Hialeah area changed and Gulfstream saw an opening.  In 1988, the Florida legislators decided that racetracks could choose their own dates without regulatory approval.  So in the winter of 1989, Hialeah and Gulfstream Park refused to blink and each track decided to race against each other for fifty days.  Of course, for two tracks so close together to operates with a dwindling fan base, it was a matter of time until one of the tracks cried uncle.

Needless to say, with the perception that the Hialeah area became unsafe (actually more of a Latin flavor) and the vow of Gulfstream to go into their cash reserves to offer better racing, Gulfstream was able to outspend for the better horses and jockeys and along with it; drew the customers away from Hialeah.  Needless to say after that year, Hialeah Park closed, unable to compete; and they remained closed until the hope of a racino got Hialeah to reopen back in 2009 to run quarterhorses.

As they say, unless you learn from it, history is destined to repeat itself and once again, Gulfstream is out to race against Calder, a track a mere eight miles away during the month of December.  Needless to say, this is going to end badly as you will have Churchill Downs (Calder) going against Magna (Gulfstream).  Jockeys and trainers are going to be pulled in opposite directions, risking consequences for making their choices.  Of course, the fan base and off-track wagering is going to be split between the two tracks.  Add in the fact that next year Hialeah may bring in some thoroughbred races under their quarterhorse license, there is going to be a two or three way pull on wagering dollars.  Both tracks will probably endure a bloodbath; but will it mean the end of one of the tracks?  That remains to be seen.

So what does this have to do with harness racing?  One of the reasons why the Meadowlands is in the mess it is in now is because Yonkers Raceway and the Meadowlands have been competing against each other since the Yonkers racino opened up.  Yonkers, which was down and out now had the financial power to attract some of the better horses and drivers to race at Yonkers, a mere fifteen miles away from the Meadowlands.  Sure, some horses didn't defect due to Yonker's half mile oval, but once again, Yonkers had a bettable product (assuming you are a half mile track fan); drawing some local gamblers over to Yonkers as well as some of the wagering action nationally.  While the handle at Yonkers has never gotten close to the Meadowlands', the fact remains wagering dollars left East Rutherford which contributed to the very losses which made Governor Christie decide it was time for the state government to get out of the racing business which brings us to where we are now (Chester Downs also has helped contribute to the financial loss)..

Yes, the NYSRWB could care less about the Meadowlands as the NJRC could care about Yonkers which is a problem in itself, but with the number of racing days Yonkers horsemen have in their contract there could not be anything but a date conflict between the two tracks fifteen miles apart.  In some ways, you could say the SOA of New York has indirectly become Gulfstream Park and the Meadowlands has become Calder.

Yes in our economy the free market rules.  But some states have learned to compromise in an effort to avoid mutual destruction.  For years, after killing each other running overlapping meets, Pennsylvania and Delaware used to coordinate racing dates so Liberty Bell and Brandywine didn't compete against each other.    I am not sure the Yonkers wants to coordinate dates with the Meadowlands, but even if they did, they are hampered by the number of racing days the SOA of NY has in their contract with Yonkers Raceway.  That's right, a contract negotiated by a horsemen's group led by Joe Faraldo. 

Let me point it out that Mr. Faraldo was looking out for his members, but by looking out for his members in a vertical silo, he may have helped kill off the Meadowlands; the track which is propping up the whole industry if you listen to the doomsayers.  If this is the case, wouldn't it be the ultimate irony if he becomes the Chairman of the Board of the USTA?

We will see on March 13.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Perhaps the Best Racing Commercial in the States

NASCAR started their 2011 season this weekend at Daytona (yep, there's a little red neck in me) and being Danica Patrick is on  the Nationwide Circuit, I went to her website today to see if there was a story about her NASCAR career best fourteenth place finish yesterday.  While I didn't see an article about yesterday's race on her website, it did have a link to her Go Daddy commercials.  After seeing her Super Bowl commercial (the version not shown at the Super Bowl), I looked at other Go Daddy commercials and I find myself asking one question.

Why do American harness racing commercials stink?  You have basically the following types, using the Meadowlands as an example (any track could fall into this category):

"Come out to the Meadowlands for the $1 million Meadowlands Pace " - Attracts the same people who follow big races and after this race, you won't seem them until the Hambletonian.  After the Hambo, you will see them next Meadowlands Pace Day.  Sort of like those who go to Church on Easter and Christmas.

"Come out to the Meadowlands for the $1.5 million Hambletonian and receive a free t-shirt with a paid admission".  - You get the same people who come to the big races and those people looking for a free t-shirt, amazingly many of them keep going back out and back in to get another t-shirt.  (Maybe selling them on E-bay?).  After that day, you'll see them at the next giveaway. 

"Come to the Meadowlands on January 7 for opening night of the 2011 harness meet" (assuming they had ran a commercial).  - The hard core gambler that shows up every night remembers its time to go to the track, or more likely time to make sure they have enough money in their ADW account by then..

These commerical do nothing to attract new people to the track.  At best, you may get some of the horseplayers who haven't been there in ages to come back for a big race.  Otherwise, you attract the people who come for the promotion who you won't see until the next giveaway.  What we are doing is running the same commercials we have run in the 1970's.  They haven't worked in the last twenty years but we keep running them still, if at all.

Now the folks at, keep coming up with the best commercials I have seen in the United States in a long time.  The last one I saw, the Horseshoe Giveaway used humor in an attempt to get people to the track.  This time, I think they hit gold.  

Granted, this commercial talks about both breeds of racing, but the key is racing is an afterthought.  They are selling entertainment and friendship.  You are not going to get people to come out to the track just for a night at the races anymore.  Sell them a place to have a great time where they may incidentally make money works; it is part of the current realization that racetracks need to be entertainment centers.  Of course, your local track needs to be able to live up to the promises in the commercial before you air such a commerical; otherwise you will lose the potential customer the first time they show up..

Now if we can get a commercial like this for harness racing only which can be used by local tracks, we can launch an advertising campaign that may be worthwhile.

Finally, Maharajah picked up the win in Paris this year with a win in the Prix de Paris in a mile rate of 2:01.4 for the 2 5/8 miles contest, the final leg of the French Triple Crown.. 

Of course, this week with Ready Cash not racing as he was tending to stallion duties, Maharajah was the heavy favorite.  I must confess, I like the vault starts; it takes the post position advantage out of the equation as the starter determines when the field is sent on their way, and there is no guarantee where the horses will be lined up when the word to 'go' is given. 

With any luck, we will see Maharajah in North America this summer.  That would be an interesting test against North America's best trotters.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Joe Faraldo, Chairman of the Board? Oh Vey!

The United States Trotting Association has announced that Joe Faraldo, leader of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York will be contesting existing USTA Chairman of the Board Ivan Axelrod in the upcoming election for officers for the USTA.  This is a repeat of the election of 2007.  All I have to say is Oh Vey!

This is the same Joe Faraldo who is a constant thorn in the side of Jeff Gural, the last hope for the Meadowlands to survive.  When Jeff Gural first started his efforts to save the Meadowlands, it was Joe Faraldo who wrote the press release that Gural was in it only for the potential of slots.  It is Joe Faraldo who represents the horsemen's association at Vernon Downs, the very organization that refused to accept a reduction in the takeout rate, despite the fact probably 80% or more of their purse account comes from slot revenue so even if the experiment to reduce takeout failed miserably, there would have been little if any impact on the purses paid. 

It is Joe Faraldo who accused Jeff Gural of attempting to cut racing dates at Monticello Raceway when they were negotiating a possible deal to take NYCOTB out of bankruptcy; those dates being dates in the dead of the winter.  Now does anyone really think Jeff Gural gives a hoot if Monticello Raceway races during the winter a time when Tioga and Vernon are dark?  Jeff Gural was the point man for Monticello's management in this case.

Now make no mistake, Joe Faraldo is a fighter for horsemen and owners at Yonkers and elsewhere in the state.  It is true that the SOA of NY has made attempts to increase interest in the racing product at Yonkers in an attempt to increase attendance and handle and for those efforts he should be applauded.  But Mr. Faraldo also is a person who is against cutting race dates and as we see from what happened at Vernon Downs is against a reduction in takeout rates.  When was the last time there was a takeout reduction at Yonkers Raceway; another track where the vast majority of the handle comes from slot revenue?

As for his opponent Ivan Axelrod, yes it is true that he sees the potential that harness racing will contract to five major all-breed tracks in the entire nation.  Note, he does not say there will be only five racetracks, but major tracks.  How can a CEO of the USTA feel this way?  Maybe it partially has something to do with the old school directors of the USTA who refuse to make any radical changes because this is the way things have always been done; something he has already stated in HoofBeats.  Axelrod recognizes major changes are needed, other directors and people in the industry can't or refuse to see it; the USTA's punting on whipping rules two years ago a perfect example.  Why can he possibly see only five major tracks remaining in ten to fifteen years?  Look at Gulfstream Park as an example, it is more than a racetrack, it is a complete entertainment center.  If you want people to come to racetracks, they need to be entertainment centers; a destination.  How many track owners of any breed have the financial means or ability to do this?  Certainly not tracks like Buffalo Raceway, Cal Expo, Harrington Raceway, and Lebanaon Raceway which are at fairgrounds they have no control of.

Let's not kid ourselves a Chairman of the Board, no matter who he is, can't make all the changes needed; it depends on the directors and the support of the industry.  But a person who continues to goad Jeff Gural, takes a strict horsemen versus track operator stance and refuses to allow takeout cuts in an attempt to get gamblers back, where ever they bet, sets a bad tone and may be sealing the fate the Axelrod has predicted.

Hopefully, the voters get past the emotion of the campaign and take a hard look as to who they want to lead the USTA.  In my view Faraldo, as well intentioned as he may be, represents the status quo.  Axelrod, represents the realization that the sport is broken and needs to change.  The voters need to decide which path they want to travel.  To me the path is obvious, let's see if it is to the voters.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Helping Standardbreds the Fun Way

I just want to make people in the New York City - Philadelphia corridor aware of some fun activities which allow you to help the standardbreds.

First of all, on President's Day, February 21, the Meadowlands is racing a special race card in the afternoon with a 1:10pm post time.  If you plan on attending, immediately after the races, the Meadowlands drivers and trainers will be manning the bar at Redd's for the benefit of the Standardbred Retirement Foundation starting at 5pm.  In addition the stars of the Meadowlands, some celebrity NFL and NHL players are expected to attend.  There is a $10 cover charge to benefit the Standardbred Retirement Foundation. 


If you fancy yourself as quite the bowling star, Standardbred Retirement Foundation is also hosting a Strikes for Standardbreds event on Wednesday, March 16 in Manalapan, NJ starting at 6:00pm.

For more information on both of these events, you may visit the SRF Website for additional details.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Post Script to a Column

I have heard some comments privately from several individuals about my last column, where they disagree with what I said. That's fine, as I have always said I don't have all the answers, but I hope to get people thinking.  Does North American harness racing need to look exactly like French or New Zealand harness racing? Of course not.

But it seems to me while we have this great debate about Yonkers racing an extra 1/16 of a mile in a race handle continues to go down, we lose customers, we deal with real or perceived integrity issues, we become less relevant.

In the scheme of all the problems we have in harness racing, we're getting all up in arms about an extra 1/16th of a mile?

Yonkers had a situation where the seven and eight hole horses were automatic tosses; horsemen were scratching out if they got post seven or eight.  Yonkers implements a 15 day penalty for those who scratch out.  So we have full fields with two horses going through the motions.  Yonkers decides to try 1 1/16 mile races giving outside horses a chance to get involved at the start.  The seven and eight horses now come in to win and show up in the top three more often.  The seven and eight horses are no longer automatic tosses; the product is better and hopefully handle rises.  What is wrong with improving the product?  At least they are trying something.

In the meanwhile, while this great debate about Yonkers extra 1/16 of a mile goes on, our proverbial Rome is burning. Does this make any sense? I would suggest we have bigger fish to worry about and a good place to start is by looking at every element of the game; there should be nothing sacred.  Maybe we can get this train back on the tracks.

I'm not the only one that feels this way.  For another view on this topic, take a look at Trackmaster's David Siegal's comments on Hoofbeats Blogs.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hello, Has Anyone Noticed?

News Item:  Yonkers Raceway changes the standard distance for racing at their plant to 1 1/16 except for stakes and late closing events.  You would think the end of the world has arrived based on the comments pro and against this 'radical' change.  Yet, the industry praises the quick start at Maywood, which if anyone has noticed has changed the distance of their races; they just decide to time the last mile of the race.  The purists are up in arms about the change at the Old Hilltop.  I for one don't think Yonkers went far enough.  If there was a need to change the distances of overenight events, why not change the distance on all your late closing events as well (I can understand your early closers and stakes took entries before the decision was made to change the distance, so until those races cycle off you're stuck)?

The purists are screaming how dare they change the distance of the race, isn't that why they are called standardbreds?  So I guess quarter horses should always run 440 yards (they don't).  This is the distance we always raced (with a few exceptions).  In other words, this is the way we always have done it.

News Flash:  What we are doing is not working.  The problem is not just high takeout rates which has caused the public to largely rejected the game.  Everyone seems to think it is because horse racing has lost its monopoly on gambling and the public has found other games more interesting.  Sure, these things haven't helped but I would like to suggest it goes far past this.  Other than Canada and the United States, harness racing looks a lot different.  Some countries like Germany and Holland harness racing has their problems too, but in other countries like France and Sweeden, harness racing thrives.  Yet, the North American industry concentrates only on how to get more people gambling; yet ignores the premise that the game itself is broken.

I understand the American psyche and while I am not expert on the Canadian psyche, I think it is safe to assume I can anticipate at least the Canadian horsemen's psyche.  The world revolves around us so what we are doing must be right.  Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the world does not revolve around North America; especially when it comes to harness racing.  After all, can you name me one other country where the closing of one track is being feared as if the four horsemen of the apocalypse have arrived?  How many other country's harness racing industry is on welfare like North America's?  What does that tell us?

What we are doing is not working and as far as I am concerned we can blow up the standardbred industry's preconceived notions of what harness racing should look like and a good place to start blowing things up is the idea of the standard mile.  Want to make the mile the 'classic distance for our big races?  Fine, but there is no reason why we can't have races of longer and shorter distances.  No reason why we can't be looking at mile rates instead of only mile times.  No reason why we can only have one tier of horses in a race or even horses being raced under saddle and even consider the vault start.  And maybe we need to look at tracks hiring a bunch of trainers to train horses at their tracks and drivers to drive at their tracks, paying salaries in addition to the 5% they get for winning a race.  As for owners, if you want to race at these tracks with the exception of early closing or stakes races, you need to use one of the approved trainers.

 Won't this anger the purists?  Well, I used to be one of the biggest purists around, but even I realize things are not going well and when they are not going well, you better be looking at everything to see what can be done to improve the product.  Yes, North American sires are considered amongst the best in the world, but if there is no place for their offspring to race, are they still the best?

This is not to say the sport needs to change 180 degrees overnight, nor does North American standardbred racing have to look like an exact clone of French racing, but we better damn be looking at what France, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, and what every other country is doing and adopt the best practices from those nations if there is any hope for harness racing to survive.

Make no mistake, the way we treat gamblers is a big problem, but if the game is broken does it matter?  If harness racing  is a game few people want to play does it really matter what it is priced at?

Yonkers has a problem with the configuration of their track and they are trying to fix a problem.  Rather than scorning them, the industry should be trying to accommodate their experiment.  After all, if what is being done at Yonkers is successful, you can be sure other tracks will be doing the same.

North American harness racing needs to realize they are not an island in the world of harness racing, but just one part of a global sport.  With the need for as much handle as possible, we need to make the sport as attractive to people in Europe and Down Under as much as we need to make it attractive to those in North America.

So take those preconceived notions of what racing should look like and throw them out the window.


Be Glad They Are Not Members of the USEF

All I can say is drug cheating trainers in harness racing should be glad they are not regulated by the United States Equestrian Foundation.  Yesterday, I happend upon a magazine which listed ruling by the USEF and let me tell you if a standardbred or a thoroughbred traienr got subjected to these rules, they would not be happy.

For example, last week at the Meadows, a trainer was fined $500 and ordered to refund any purse money for medication money.

In a ruling by USEF officals, it was determined a show horse was medicated with a probhibited substance.  The penalty?  A two month suspension from the sport, inhcluding not be allowed to attend as a spectator, a $2,300 fine, the return of any purse money or trophies earned and for the kicker, "Any horse or horses owned, leased, or of any partnership, corporation or stable of the trainer, or shown in their name or for their reputation, (whether such interest was held at the time of the alleged violation or acquired thereafter), shall also be suspended,..."  That's right. any horse in the stable is suspended even if the horse came into the stable after the infraction.  No transfer of horses from the stable to another trainer.  Horses are frozen out.

Now I understand the show world for horses is high society, but the question needs to be asked why can the show world have such stiff fines yet comparatively, where we have people wagering on our races, our fines are relatively light?.  Owners, get a free ride in horse racing other than losing the purse money, but no such way in the USEF world.

Maybe despite the protests of some that owners shouldn't be penalized, maybe suspending the horses should be looked at.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Realistic Look at Keeping the Meadowlands Open

The Record has an article today regarding Jeff Gural's attempt to keep the Meadowlands open.  Much of what the article reports is nothing new.  Perhaps the newest piece of information is Gural's belief that the purse enhancements the NJRC is allowed to give will likely never occur due to the Governor's veto power and the estimate to build the new grandstand now stands at $70 million (about a $20 million increase from what is previously reported).  Add in the reported $30 million for the 4 OTW sites, you are looking at financing $100 million.

Those who have been confident that Gural will reach a deal may be overly optimistic.  The unions realize what is at stake and will work with Gural.  The horsemen will work with Gural.  The question which may sink the whole deal may be where will the $70 million in funding required for a new grandstand come from?  Will Gural be able to get investment banks to provide this type of funding for a facility which will offer no casino gambling in the foreseeable future?  While the industry is willing to work with Gural on sentiment and reputation, Wall Street deals with cold hard facts which means numbers.  To convince the investment banks to provide funding for the Meadowlands, Gural will need to show the Meadowlands can make a profit once again.  As such, I give the possibility of the Meadowlands surviving after April 1 a 50-50 chance; and this may be optimistic assessment.

There has been a small group of people in the industry (primarily horsemen) who have suggested previously the SBOANJ go it alone without Gural and lease the track for the $1 a year.  Oh, if it only would be so simple.  The $1 lease a year for five years would only would give the SBOANJ the right to operate a meet at the Meadowlands, and not cover the expenses it would be liable for and who knows what the lease amount would be after year five?.  It would require the SBOANJ to continue to race with a large cavernous grandstand which besides being grossly underused and starting to run down, is very expensive to maintain and requires more manpower to keep it operating over the term of the lease.  With horsemen organizations' record of having success running horse meets (there are none in recent times), there is a good chance the SBOANJ would never make it through a five year lease; lucky if they completed the first season without filing for bankruptcy. The final nail in the coffin of this idea should be the SBOANJ was getting nowhere with their negotiations with Christie.  They were two days away from the Meadowlands being closed for good.  It took Jeff Gural to keep the doors open for the winter meet.  It will be Jeff Gural if the Meadowlands opens on May 7.

This current Meadowlands meet has wagering down quite a bit due to the poor quality of the racing in the fall.  Could you imagine how much further handle would go down if the SBOANJ attempted to go it alone?  The stanardbred industry would be on hold for the next five years as the Meadowlands attempted to scrape by and come year six we would be in the same situation.  With Jeff Gural, the industry will know pretty much where it stands in the next month or so and will be able to act accordingly.  Inaction for five years will only put the industry in a worse situation.

Like it or not, the key to the survival of the Meadowlands  depends on Jeff Gural.  Anyone who thinks a rescue can take place without Gurl does not understand the situation we are in.  If Gural fails, people will blame him for the end of racing at the Meadowlands, but without him, the Meadowlands would have been DOA in December.  This is the last best chance. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Would Ontario Condition Changes Work in New York?

Last week the Ontario Racing Commission came out with rules regarding the writing of racing condition for tracks in the province.  The idea behind changing the rules was to not only standardize conditions, but ensure competitive fields in the province at the various tracks; reduce the option for trainers to pick and choose where they race. 

In Ontario, there are basically three type of racetracks; Premier racetracks, Signature racetracks, Grassroot racetrack.  A Grassroot racetrack would be a track where the racing program is community based; a program of little interest outside of the community.  An example of a track like that would be a fair meet or a track like Thunder Ridge.  A Signature racetrack would be a track which has the interest on a national level; perhaps a track like the Meadows.  A Premier racetrack would be a track with international interest such as the Meadowlands.  With the tweaking of these terms to meet American standards (based on handle), could a system like this work in the United States, or at least in New York (where all tracks are racinos) to keep trainers from cherry picking spots; making the races less competitive?

Let's take a brief look at the standards under the Ontario rules:

1.  Canadian Preference - This rule is somewhat controversial even in Canada.  In the United State preference for racing is based primarily on the number of days since their last race.   In Ontairo, racing date is the second rule of preference, with first preference being given to horses that are stabled in Canada as of the entry date to the date of the race; an exception being made for OSS races.  The opponents argue this smacks of protectionism, the proponents argue it is a way to stimulate the Canadian economy by requiring horses to be stabled in Canada at least for three days before they race. 

I would imagine this rule would be controversial in the United States as well, and possibly be in violation of interstate commerce laws,

2.  Purse Limitations on Claiming (and Optional Claiming Races) - With the windfall of racinos, purses at some tracks in Canada are way over priced in relationship to their claiming prices.  For non-racino tracks, this is less of a problem.  With the implementation of this rule, you will never see a claimer racing for a purse equal or greater than the claiming price (or optional claiming price).    For grassroot tracks, the purse can not exceed 70% of the highest base claiming price in a race (in the event of a handicap).  For signature tracks and up, the purses can not exceed 80% of the highest base claiming price in the race.    Looking at New York tracks, a track like Monticello could offer no more than a $7,000 purse for a $10,000 claiming pace while a track like Yonkers would be able to offer a purse no more than $8,000 for the same class. 

3.  Minimum Claiming Prices - By limiting the minimum claiming price, you keep horses that would normally race at Woodbine from racing at a Hanover Raceway.  Under the rules, the minimum claiming price for a grassroots track like Monticello would be $4,000; a signature track like Saratoga or Tioga would have a $6,000 minimum claiming tag and a premier track like Yonkers would have a minimum claiming tag of $10,000.    Hence you would not see most Yonkers claimers racing at a Monticello like they are known to do now.

4.  Qualifying Statndards are based on the size of the track and from what track they are coming from. - However, instead of looking at the last thirty days, it would be a case of looking at the most recent clean line.  Using Tioga Downs as an example, if a horse last raced at Tioga or another 5/8th mile track, a pacer would have had to race in 2:01.  A horse coming in from Saratoga or Yonkers would have to have their last start's finishing time in 2:02.  A horse shipping in the Meadowlands would have to have raced at least in 2:00.  Of course, with Yonkers racing at 1 1/16 mile, the time would have to be different for them.  The idea is to keep the fields competitive.  The standards are also intended to make it easier for customers as well as horsemen. 

5.  Time allowances are standardized for all tracks (Overnight races only) - Again, this portion of the rule is to ensure each track uses the same allowances.  If a horse races during the colder months, they are given an allowance of one second.  Two year olds are given an extra 2 second allowance and three year olds are granted a one second allowance.

6.  Allowances for Ontario-sired horses, - Once again, the goal is to standardize racing conditions and make it easier for horsemen to know where to enter their horses.  If an allowance is given for a state sired horse it will be offered to the monetary conditions.  Currently, the Ontario rule offers a 50% allowance for  Ontario sired horses at tracks except on the WEG circuit.   If in New York, Yonkers could not offer a 25% supplement to NY Sired horses while Monticello offers a 15% allowance.  A non-winners of $6,000 last three starts would be known to be non-winners of $9,000 in last three starts for a NY Sired horse.

7.  Allowances for age and sex - In Ontario, on all circuits, conditions based on money will permit only a 25% allowance for fillies and mares over the colts and geldings.  Two year olds would only get a 50% allowance at WEG tracks and no allowance at the other tracks.  Once again, this avoids each track offering different allowances. 

8.  Conditions based on starts - All Ontario tracks will base their conditions based on three starts.  This means one track can't have conditions written as non-winners of X in last three starts and the other track as non-winners of X in last five starts.  The feeling is by basing the conditions on the last three starts of a horse, you will have more even fields as a horse is more likely to have the same form over three starts instead of five, six or seven starts.  The only time Ontario tracks are allowed to use a different number of starts is in the case when a race doesn't fill; then they may base the also eligible conditions on 4, 5, or 6 starts.  By having a rule like this, a horse that goes out of form will not be stuck in the same class an excessive number of starts.

9.  Also eligible conditions are limited - Some tracks you need to be a lawyer to figure out a class.  You may have a race with a main condition as nw6000l3 but have also eligible conditions of nw8000l4 or nw 7500l3 that are non-winners of 3 races lifetime or nw 5 races last time or $20,000 claimers.  Racing secretaries will be limited to three also eligible conditions per race.  Also eligible conditions will be standardized.  No longer will you need a law degree to figure out a condition.

10.Two Year Olds Automatically Drawing the Rail - In Ontario, where two year olds enter races with older horses they are no longer guaranteed to start on the inside.  Again, it standardizes it among tracks so some tracks can't offer the preference while others do.

With each state having a different situation with regards to racinos or not, it may not be easy to implement such standardization, but there is no reason why this can't be done in a single state like New York.  These rules will make it easier for trainers to know where to enter their horses as well as gamblers to assess the competition.

New Websites
Horse Rescue United has a new website:  You may check out their website by clicking here.
Dignity After Racing has a new website:  You may check out their webiste by clicking here.

Mixed Racing News Down Under

Perhaps those American connections panicked when they unloaded Auckland Reactor and sent him packing back to New Zealand.  To be fair, Auckland Reactor was supposed to return to stand stud and demand was not sufficient enough so he returned to the races so some of his own countrymen had doubts in him as well.  Yet, in his first parimutuel start since his exile, the Reactor set a New Zealand record of a 1:52.9 for the 1609m (one mile) contest in the $14,551 Magic Mile at Ashburton on Saturday, February 12 (Sunday morning Eastern Time).  For a replay of the race, you click here (Windows Media Player). 

While it was not a high profile victory, it should be noted one of the better horses in New Zealand, Monkey King was in the contest so the race was not a walkover.  The last 800m were contested in a moderate :54.9 but the last 400m was a brisk :25.4.  Auckland Reactor who drew post seen started from the six hole with the scratch of one of the contestants.  The winning margin was 2.3m over the second place finisher Raglan.

How do the new owners explain Auckland Reactor's poor efforts in the United States ("Cowboy Land")?  They contend his poor efforts were due to sickness.  Who is to say?  We did see him falter in his American starts, yet they probably can be explained by his surgery in the States before his return to New Zealand.    Whether or not an Auckland Reactor is as good as his backers originally claimed we never will know as the chance for a rematch is virtually non-existent.  But that is what makes racing special, the 'what ifs'.

Meanwhile, Natalie Rasmussen's dream of a fifth victory in the Inter-Dom has taken a likely fatal blow with Black's A Fake suffering from a bout of atril fibrillation for the second time in his career this weekend during training,  While not formally withdrawn from the Interdominion, odds are this set back will eliminate any possibility of a start in the biggest event in the Australasian harness racing calendar.  All indications are Blackie will be retired if he has not returned to his normal heart rhythm by his next examination early this week  


Friday, February 11, 2011

Let the Howling Begin

The International Division of RCI is reviewing their model rules with regards to urging for thoroughbred, quarter horse, and standardbred racing and it is reported that the urging rules adopted by the ORC are under consideration to become the standard.

Let the howling begin. 

Some of the old time horseplayers may not be happy should those rules be adopted, but the horsemen are going to be screaming about any change with whipping; after all, isn't that what we always did?  Like everything else in harness racing, tradition is held in high esteem, even if it negatively influences the popularity of the sport.  Just like the resistance to horses starting in the second tier; who cares if the gambler finds himself looking at five horse fields; we want our nose on the gate. 

The Ontario rule with regards to whipping is one of the most strict rules in all the states and provinces, and it may be time for the rule to be adopted on a national level,  I must confess, I myself have an uneasy feeling when a horse gets disqualified for certain violations of the whipping rule; I would prefer the driver paying a severe fine for a violation and mandatory days off instead of a disqualification.  Better yet, with an Australian study showing whipping does nothing in the later part of a race, perhaps driving without a whip would be a good idea.

People say  how can we go without whips?  It is easy.  The first thing to do is demonstrate how the whip is meaningless; it would require racetracks to statge some non-wagering events for their regular purses during the racing card so people can see for themselves that whipping has no impact.  Not just one event; gamblers used to whipping will not be convinced by one race; it needs to be a series of races.

However, I am getting ahead of myself.  Harness racing is too conservative to make that big a leap.  Let's get a standardized urging regulation in place, perferably the Ontario rule and move on from there.

Jeff Gural and the SBOANJ has shown the first drawings of the new Meadowlands grandstand and the pictures look very good.  Modern, stylish and a place that looks more than a typical racetrack grandstand.  One thing of interest is the sports bard looks like it is designed for sports betting.  However, no lease means no new grandstand, so pardon me if I withhold my excitement for another month.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Different Breed, Same Message

On the National HBPA blog yesterday, there was an opinion piece bemoaning how far horse racing has fallen in the public consciousness in the recent Harris Interactive Poll.  According to the writer, the biggest problem has been the marketing of thoroughbred racing, which is fractured at best.

Read this article and substitute harness racing wherever they talk about horse racing.  I wish I could tell you to substitute Harness Racing Communications where they talk about the NTRA but I can't; HRC does good work, but their mission has never been to provide national marketing nor provided a budget to even give them a chance to do so and to be honest, to even say everyone is going their own way on marketing is a stretch, unless you consider no marketing by some tracks going their own way.  The closest thing this industry does towards national marketing is the Hambletonian Society and the Meadowlands purchasing airtime to put the Hambletonian on television (it will be interesting to see if the Hambletonian even gets on television this year).

Some people will argue the USTA's Back to the Track event is our national marketing effort and have  complained about the event.  Well, unfortunately, the USTA is not the Federal Reseve so they can't print money to pay for a national campaign (well, realistically our campaign needs to be regional as there are only eighteen seventeen states with standardbred racing as it looks like we can write off Rockingham Park again this year).

Yesterday, Jeff Gural has challenged racino horsemen to dedicate 5% of their purse account towards advertising.  I am curious to see how many horsemen groups will agree to Gural's challenge (also curious to see if any racinos will use any of their advertising budget towards harness racing).  I'm even more curious to see how much of that money finds its way to the USTA/HRC for a marketing campaign. 

If not now, then when?

We Need More Darrin Zoccalis

Darrin Zoccalis, who is a track announcer at Tioga Downs, has decided it is time to take the bull by the horns and attempt to get more people to come out to the track.  Darrin is using Facebook and started a public event at the Meadowlands on Friday, February 18 called Youth Movement At the Meadowlands.  Here is his posting:

This is not an official Meadowlands event. As a 27 year old, who makes his living in the industry of horse racing, I am asking everyone I can find, under 40 especially, to come out to The Meadowlands Racetrack on Friday February 18th. You can enjoy fine affordable dining and drinks in Terraces, or enjoy drinks at Longshot bar and lounge, and find out how much fun, exciting and affordable gambling a bit on horse racing is! Less than a regular night out with your friends, and I will be there all night giving out as many winners as I can. Whether you have never been to the track, or are an old-pro, come out Friday February 18th!

No big planning, no large campaign.  Just using social networking in an attempt to get young people to come to the Meadowlands for a night of racing and socializing.  We need more people like Darrin to just step up to the plate and do something to get people to the track and show people how it can be a fun night with your friends.  That is something you can't do in front of your computer.

So if you are forty and under and live anywhere near the Meadowlands look for the event on Facebook and sign-up.  If not on Facebook, just show up on February 18 and bring a few friends with you.  Who knows, we may get some new fans out of it.  Let's all pass the word and help Darrin get a great turnout.

And for those regulars who do go to the track with regularity, a question for you.  What are you doing to introduce people to a night at the track?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Call to Invest in the Future. Will Anyone Listen?

Jeff Gural issued a release today talking about how people should nominate their horses to the Meadowlands Stakes races where the first payments are due February 15.  Sounds good right? 

But then comes the following: If there are other stakes at the same time as the Meadowlands stakes it might be a good idea to double stake your horse if the payments are not too great as there is certainly no guarantee that we are going to be able to work out a long-term lease. I think the Governor has made it clear that he will allow a six-day meet in August to insure that the Hambletonian and Oaks are raced per the contract with the Hambletonian Society and my guess is there will be several other stakes races during that same period depending on the availability of purse money.

The biggest problem, as I see it, is how you finance a racetrack that does not have slots when it is obvious that wagering on horse racing continues to decline as our older customers either die or become too old to come to the tracks.  And he goes on.  It is worth reading the whole release.

Certainly the leasing of the Meadowlands is no slam dunk.  We can only hope that Mr. Gural can make it work.  His hope is to know before the March 15 payments are due whether or not a lease for the Meadowlands can be done.

Lastly, in Mr. Gural's statement he offers advice to the industry; in particular to those who race at the racinos:

...if we are truly interested in the long-term future of our sport, would be for the horsemen at the tracks that have slots to take five percent of the slot money and use it to market the product with particular emphasis on bringing new and younger people to view the product. I think this is a small sacrifice to make in order to insure that the young people who work in our business have a future and do not find themselves without a career in 10 or 15 years.

Do the horsemen have enough love and faith in their industry to invest in their own business?  I hope so, but sadly suspect they are not; still in locked in the belief that promoting the sport is not the horsemen's responsibility.  Even if the Meadowlands doesn't survive, these horsemen better realize they need to invest in their own livelihood. 

A State in Denial

Surprise, surprise.  Genting New York, LLC, the group which will operate the racino at Aqueduct Racetrack has appeared in front of a legislative body in New York,  The reason why?  To discuss a possible constitutional ammendment to allow table games at New York  racinos.

Who didn't see this coming?  My guess is within two years there will be table games at Yonkers and Aqueduct and another dagger in the heart of Atlantic City.  But two years from now, unless the Meadowlands is closed, Atlantic City casinos and state officials will still be arguing how a casino at the Meadowlands will hurt Atlantic City interests; this as the tumbling tumbleweeds move down the Broadwalk.  In the meanwhile, the state will continue cutting services to the public and needy in the State as services provided to New Jersey residents will continue to shrink.  Some good may come out of it as they can tear down those bankrupt casinos and build a NASCAR track in Atlantic City, allowing NASCAR to make their entry into New Jersey.

Isn't it amazing how everybody but government officials in New Jersey can see what is happening?

Exchange Wagering = Assisted Suicide?

So says Vic Zast in his most recent blog entry for Horserace Insider.  According to Zast, Governor Christie's signing of a bill to permit exchange wagering in the Garden State was akin to signing an assisted suicide bill for racing.  Quite the contrary, if anything the exchange wagering bill should be referred to as a life support bill.

First of all, what needs to be pointed out is the New Jersey racetracks and horsemen asked for the state to permit exchange wagering, it isn't being imposed upon them.  Zast claims horse racing will lose gamblers that wager into the parimutuel pools; probably most concerned about the whales.  Well, the whales are already gone.  The vast majority of whales if they are still wagering on horse racing may be wagering into the pools, but not at the track; they are wagering via ADWs which are paying peanuts for the product already into the purse accounts.  The vast majority of horseplayers still wagering directly into the pools at the local racetracks are the casual bettors who are not the ones who are going to significantly impact the balance sheet at their local track.  If anything is going to happen is the whales will forsake their ADWs for exchange wagering, so what will happen is the pennies per dollar tracks are going to get from an ADW will now be coming from Betfair; the only difference being who is wiring the funds into the purse account.

If anything, tracks should receive more money as a result of exchange wagering.  Perhaps not initially when New Jersey is the only state that permits exchange wagering,but as other state adopt exchange wagering the model will work.  Exchange wagering will get more people into the racing mode as you will get hedge fund bettors, dare I say computer wagering involved with computers playing the exchange as they do the stock market, playing both sides of a bet to take advantage of minor differences in the pricing; all producing artificial churn.  You will also get the computer savvy youth who need to be pried away from their computers giving racing a chance.  And lastly, you will get the horseplayers who have been lost due to being tired of betting a 15-1 morning line that was 5-1 when they wagered it and then was 2-1 at post time and finally 3-5 half way through the race; willing to return as they will get fixed prices.  In effect, exchange wagering will correct the problems that the racing industry has been unwilling or unable to fix.

Zast fails to recognize that exotic wagers will not be handled by exchange wagering.  Racetracks and ADWs will be needed for people to play their exactas, trifectas, and other exotic wagers.  Winners through exchange wagering will have more money available thanks to the low takeout so they may be able to play the exotics with their high takeout rates.

Zast talks about the possibility of owners fixing races by laying their horses in exchange wagering and then stiffing their horses.  News Flash for Mr. Zast.  There have already been cases of race-fixing before exchange wagering ever came upon the scene and Betfair has already detected cases of owners doing what fears; something seldom done currently.

Vic Zast, claims the example Jeff Platt of HANA cited regarding the record industry proves his point in that record sales have dropped from $14.6 million to $6.3 billion over the last decade proves his point that exchange wagering will hurt.  Well, before you had iTunes and other sites selling music for $.99 a song, you had people trading music over the Internet for free.  No, the record labels and artists are not earning as much as they did before the file-sharing became the rage, but how much lower would record sales have been without iTunes.  A lot lower than $5.3 billion; it helped stem the decline.

Of course, if racing had fixed their tote system years ago and lowered the takeouts to keep their pricing comparable to other gambling games, we wouldn't be having a need for exchange wagering, would we?  Exchange wagering won't bring racing back to its glory days, but it will throw a lifeline to the sport; stabilizing the revenue tracks and horsemen receive from off track wagering  options that exist.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Promoting an Investment and How to Do Fluff Pieces

One of the complaints I hear from Breeders is why doesn't the industry tell people that owning a standardbred is a much better investment than a thoroughbred?  Well, this weekend on the USTA website, Bill Finley had an article which makes that very argument.  The only problem is this article is preaching to the choir.  What needs to happen is we need to get this message out in the mainstream.  Perhaps an article like this would be more fitting to be in an advertorial (paid placement of an article) appearing in USA Today or the Wall Street Journal.  Too expensive?  Then, perhaps an insert can be included in these publications in states surrounding racino tracks.  If that is too expensive, then I suggest the USTA needs to be better funded to undertake such efforts.

Horse racing is a gambling sport; no doubt about it; so it makes sense that gamblers are interested in hearing opinions regarding who was going to win the Super Bowl; I just don't know if they are interested in hearing from harness drivers their opinions on who is going to win.  After all, if you were looking for an opinion on who is going to win the Hambletonian, would you be asking a football player their opinion?  Yet this past week, the Meadowlands had a video of horsemen offering their opinions on the Super Bowl.    I understand at times everyone puts out fluff piieces, but they should be somewhat educational or at least promoting the sport.

With all the snow and cold weather we have been having on the East Coast, Heather Moffett in a recent Post Time show, interviewed drivers to see what they do to stay warm in this weather.

Yes, a little bit of fluff, but entertaining and educational.  More importantly, it is related to harness racing.  If you are going to do a fluff piece, this is the way to do it.

A Way to Prevent Cheating?

Many people in and outside of the industry feel illegal medication is a big problem in the sport.  How can we possibly clean things up?  Currently, the individual racing commissions license trainers (and drivers) and the license permits the individual to participate in the sport in the state.  Unless the track specifically rules a trainer off; a trainer is allowed to enter horses at the track, assuming the track is not publicly owned in which case, good luck trying to exclude someone licensed.  Even when privately operated, you can expect an excluded individual to head into court seeking to be reinstated.  When it comes to the racing commission suspending a trainer, it goes almost without saying that the trainer will ask for a stay and failing to obtain a stay, they head to the courts to delay the implementation of a suspension.  Even when suspended, there is a good chance a beard will be training the stable.

What if we changed the way things worked?  A license by a racing commission to train makes you eligible to be hired by a racetrack, it does not guarantee you the right to participate in racing in the state.  Sample Track decides it wants to hire fifty trainers for their upcoming race meet as contractors.  Each prospective contract trainer would be interviewed as if being hired for a job and will provide their schedule of training fees.  With this information and a review of a trainer's fines and suspension list, Sample Track will hire the trainers they want to hire for the year as contractors.  Those contract trainers will be the only ones eligible to enter horses in overnight and late closing events.  Part of the contract a trainer would sign is a provision that if a medication positive comes up the track has the right to dismiss them.  A contract for the current racing season does not guarantee a trainer will be hired for the following year.  The racing commission will still continue to issue fines and suspensions.

If an owner wishes to race at Sample Track, they must select one of the approved contract trainers and no one else.  If a horse comes from Another Track and was trained by an unapproved trainer,  the horse would have to be under the control of an approved trainer at least two weeks before starting in a race.  An owner not satisfied with a particular trainer for a horse?  They are free to move the horse to another approved trainer. For every horse started by an approved trainer, the track will pay the trainer the paddock fee.  At the end of each month, a copy of the bill being sent to the owner will be sent to the track for review to ensure the trainer is charging the quoted rates.  If a trainer does come up with a drug positive, the track will have the right to fire the contract trainer at which time an owner would have to choose another approved trainer or race elsewhere.

For early closing and stakes races, other trainers will be allowed to enter horses into those races but a horse being trained by an approved trainer may not be transferred to an unapproved trainer for the particular event.

The advantage of this system is a trainer will think twice before using illegal medications on their horses as the contract they sign may get them fired.  If fired under the terms of the contract, the trainer does not have the right to appeal to the racing commission or the courts for a delay in their firing and since owners will be able to transfer their horses to an approved trainer, the chances of a beard being used is greatly reduced. 

Once the trainer situation is straightened out, a similar process can be implemented for drivers; needing to be approved by the track before participating there  But that is a topic for another day.

Tioga Downs has indicated that they will be retaining the same takeout rates from last year.  To know one's surprise, Vernon Downs has not agreed to the same takeout reduction Tioga implemented last year.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Case Against Forced Contraction

Joe Nevills recently wrote an article on The Michigan Bred Claimer making a case against the presentation made by Churchill Downs CEO Robert Evans where he called for the contraction in the number of thoroughbred tracks operating in North America (rest assured no Churchill Downs tracks would be included) in order for thoroughbred racing to survive and thrive.  Evans claims racing will become stronger with fewer tracks, in particular by eliminating smaller tracks, such as bull ring tracks like Mount Pleasant Meadows.  It is no secret some involved with standardbred racing feel the same way; there are too many harness tracks in operation, spreading the simulcasting dollar to thin to allow the bigger tracks to remain profitable.

You can read Joe's Top Ten Arguments against Evan's plan and which pretty much states my opinion regarding consolidation.  Make no mistake, there will be consolidation, but any consolidation should be done naturally, not through forcing tracks to close.

We have people saying it is necessary to get rid of what would be best known as the 'C' tracks (The Thunder Ridges, Blue Ridge Downs, and other tracks with inferior product.  Some would say get rid of the half mile tracks; they are obsolete.  Nonsense.

One day I looked at the simulcast calendar at the Red Mile and found twenty one harness tracks on the simulcast calendar and there was the answer. It is not the number of tracks around; it is the fact they can’t schedule correctly by running seasonal meets. Run a seasonal meet and you will see attendance grow as people will attend those meets because they are virtually here today, gone tomorrow.

A problem harness racing has is there is little wagering interest through ADWs and simulcasting. Is this a surprise?  People in Montana will wager on thoroughbred racing because they get to see racing at Yellowstone Downs and the other bull rings.  They had a chance to experience racing in person and get to learn the game albeit with cheap racing stock.  This is why we don't get people from states that don't have or don't neighbor harness racing states wagering on the standardbreds.  Why would we expect these people to wager on our sport if they never see it in person?    People need to experience racing live before they will embrace it.  The purses may be cheap, the horses less than stellar, the handle minuscule, but they get to sample the sport and get caught up on the excitement, something which doesn't necessarily occur on a computer screen until you have experienced it live.  And those hated half mile ovals by the big gamblers?  What better way to get a novice excited by being able to stand outside and hear the hoof beats, watch the whole race without binoculars and see sweeping moves down the back stretch?

Now, we can't have twenty-one harness tracks racing at the same time as there is no demand for all that racing, but there would be nothing wrong with a one or two month meet at these smaller tracks to get people emotionally involved with the sport.  Racing fewer days at tracks will allow for bigger purses so maybe the racing stock won't be as inferior as it is now. 

Contraction will happen, that is a certainty.  But the problem is the number of racing days, not tracks.  Unless we get the number of racing days under control, we will loose many more tracks than necessary and they may not be the ones we want to see closed.

I am a member of Dignity After Racing and today I took a look at the list of members already signed up and I was pleasantly pleased to see some of the names of people who joined thus far.  People in the industry do care, but just need an avenue to express themselves and someone to take the lead.  The website is not yet completed, but if you are on Facebook, you can join the group and see that you are in good company.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Penalize the Tracks

Horsemen are frozen out of racing at Rideau Carleton as a result of the ORC's judges' stand being declared unsafe.   The track says the problems are minor and have been rectified but the Director of the ORC refuses to let his judges back in the stand claiming there are still serious structural hazzards.  Meanwhile, horsemen, who are only racing two days a week this time of year at the Ontario oval are not racing and losing money. While their horses are sitting in the stalls,  horsemen continue to pay their rent for these stalls.

The horsemen are angry and justifiably so.  As the horsemen sit and lose money, the slots keep running and the track makes money.  As with many racinos, tracks make more money by not racing.   A driver or trainer makes a mistake and the racing commission comes down on them (hopefully).  What is going to happen to Rideau Carleton when the situation is over; will they be fined and fined heavily?  We will see.

Many people know the winter has been rough on the tracks in the Northeast.  With the exception of Freehold, the non-racino tracks seemed to get back to operation much quicker than the racino tracks.  Coincidence?  Probably not and I dare say those racinos will not be looking to reschedule lost days.  It's no secret at many tracks, racing is a losing proposition and to these racinos, they are more than happy not to race the days they are scheduled and if a snow storm provides them the means to cancel, they will.  Certainly the day of the snowfall is justifiable, but the other days which were cancelled you need to wonder; especially when most of the wagering is done off-track.  But it goes past cancelling more days than necessary.  How many slot tracks have invested little in their racing facilities for customers?  The poster child for this would be Monticello Raceway with Yonkers Raceway's racing section of the clubhouse lacking as well. 

In Ontario, slot machines were put in by the government to support harness racing.  With a track like Rideau Carleton having slots installed by the OLG, a suitable penalty would be to order the for each day the track is not racing due to unmaintained facilities, the track's portion of daily slot revenue should be added to the horsemen's purse account. 

As for American racetracks, it was the joint lobbying of horsemen and track operators that got slots at the racetracks.  I often criticize horsemen for not doing enough to promote racing, and accepting changes for making racing more attractive.  However, horsemen along don't own all the blame.  Racing commissions should be looking at racetracks that have refused to do anything substantive to improve the facilities for horse racing gamblers that actually show up to the track.  A fresh coat of paint and throwing up some more television monitors does not make an improved experience to those who want to watch the races live.

Tracks will answer, "Why should we improve the facilities if no one is watching and wagering on our live product on track"?  Well, maybe if you did spend some money to make going to the track a pleasant experience, maybe, just maybe, you will get more people showing up and wagering.  And horsemen, why a new back paddock or owners lounge is nice and repairs to barns (if your track still has them) are important, they don't do anything to induce horseplayers to show up.  After all, when was the last time you heard a horseplayer say "Oh, let's go to [name the track], I hear they put in a new owners' lounge."  A grandstand that hasn't been changed since the 1970's other than walling off part of the building isn't going to induce horseplayers to show up.  An investment in upgrading the bathrooms, food service, and installing new comfortable seats may.

No one expects a racino to invest all their slot profits into fixing up their grandstand, but slots were approved under the guise of saving horse racing so an investment of a small but significant portion of the slot revenue is not uncalled for.  Perhaps threatening to shut down the slots at the racinos who refuse to invest in real capital improvements for the wagering public, may be a way to get some of our gamblers back to the track.  If racing commissions don't have to power to do so, perhaps some legislative changes to existing slot bills are necessary to give commissions this power.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Central New York is the Place to be This Summer

As you can see from the press release below, Central New York (and hopefully the Meadowlands) will be the place to be this summer as Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs puts on their strongest stakes calendar yet.  In addition to their regular stakes races, the two tracks pick up the Historic Stakes which previously were raced at the Meadowlands.  Also of note is that the Kindergarten Stakes, which had a leg raced at the Meadowlands in the past will now be divided between The Red Mile and Vernon Downs.  In addition to these races will be the full compliment of NYSS and NY Late Closing events.  For tracks of this size to have such a deep stakes calendar speaks a lot about the commitment Jeff Gural and company have to harness racing. 

Tioga & Vernon Downs Offer A Bounty Of Stakes In 2011

The 2011 stakes season at Tioga & Vernon Downs has something to offer everyone, from the top older horses in the game to early lessons for freshman trotters in the Kindergarten Classic.

Stakes racing begins with the John Simpson Memorials for three-year-olds, which have been positioned in mid-May as a prep for the Empire Breeders Classics.

The $1,000,000 Empire Breeders Classics (EBC) are offered at both tracks over Memorial Day weekend. Restricted to New York bred sophomores, the EBC also signals the start to the lucrative NYSS season. The trotters will have eliminations on May 21st and a $250,000E Final for each sex on Monday, May 30th at Vernon Downs. The pacers will race at Tioga, elims on Sunday, May 22nd and the $250,000E Finals on the next Sunday.

The excitement builds in June when the promise of riches brings the best older horses in the sport to Tioga Downs. The $200,000E Bettor's Delight (open) and $200,000E Artiscape (mares) will make Tioga the center of the harness racing universe on Sunday, June 12th.

Shark Gesture set the all-age track record of 1:48.3f in the inaugural Bettor's Delight last season, while recently crowned Canadian Horse of the Year, Dreamfair Eternal posted the first sub 1:50 mile in Tioga history (1:49.4f) in the 2010 Artiscape.

Just a week later, the top older trotting mares will make their annual appearance at Tioga Downs for the $25,000 first leg of the popular Miss Versatility series.

Tioga and Vernon will host the tradition laden Historic Stakes ($600,000E) for the first time in 2011. The 3YO trots will be held on Saturday, June 25th and the 3YO pacers will come a week later on Saturday, July 2nd. Both sets of 3YO races are at Tioga. The payments for those events remain with the Hambletonian Society.

The Grand Circuit rolls into Tioga with the time-honored Tompkins-Geers stakes ($600,000E) scheduled for July 14th - 18th. The Tompkins-Geers series has served some of the game's top stakes outfits as a solid place to start their prized freshmen in anticipation of rich summer stakes.

The best harness drivers in the world will convene at Tioga Downs to participate in the 2011 World Drivers Championships. Tioga will host a leg of this prestigious event on Monday, August 1st.

Sunday, August 28th promises to be the highlight of the season at Tioga as, for the first time, the Tioga Drivers' Championship will be contested on the same card with the $500,000 Zweig Memorial (Open & Filly divisions). The lure of the rich Zweig trots and the ever increasing popularity among the drivers of the Tioga tryst should insure a bang up afternoon at the Nichols, NY venue.

Thing heat up at Vernon as the Tioga season draws to a close in September.

Friday, September 2nd will bring the very best trotters in the world to Vernon Downs for the $200,000E Credit Winner (open) and newly christened $200,000E Muscle Hill (mares). That evening will be enhanced with all two-year-old divisions of the Historic Stakes.

Vernon hosts the 3rd leg of the Miss Versatility a week later on September 9th, with the $100,000E Final of the Miss V staged on the Delaware, Ohio strip as a part of the Jug day program.

As the leaves fall in central NY, the sport's top freshman will travel to Vernon for the two-year-old divisions of the Simpson Memorial stakes on October 14th & 15th.

Some of those trotting fillies and colts will stay for the last leg of the popular Kindergarten Classic series on October 21st, hoping to secure a spot in the $150,000E Final the following Friday. Just last season, the Kindergarten graduating class included the Breeders Crown 2YO Colt Trot winner, Manofmanymissions, who began his career in the series.

The Red Mile will host two legs of the Kindergarten in 2011, scheduled in September to provide timely racing opportunities for the youngsters.

Information on all of the above races, including nomination forms and racing schedules may be accessed at   (Tioga Downs)