For photos from the Meadowlands contact

Monday, May 2, 2011

Is Horse Racing a Matter of National Security?

For those who have read this blog for any length of time know that I had proposed a rule change for a Fair Start in New Jersey which was rejected earlier this year (after taking more than a year to get from proposal to vote).  Sure I was disappointed, but we are all grown adults so I could accept the fact it was rejected; my curiosity is in finding out why it was rejected.  I don't believe I would bother going through the process again, but darn that human curiosity. 

On January 20, I received the following email in reference to a request trying to find out what happened with the rule proposal the day before and I got the following response (I have removed names because my point here is not to get anyone in trouble):

The fair start pole proposal was considered at yesterday's Racing Commission meeting and was rejected.  The reasons for the Commission's action will be provided to you in a separate document which will be filed with the Office of Administrative Law.

So a reasonable person would expect to hear something shortly about the rejection in short order wouldn't you?  Well, here we are about three and a half months later and nothing has been heard.  How long does it take to send out a document with the reasons for rejection?  Realizing how long it took the proposal to navigate the entire system, I guess I shouldn't be surprised.   Now, as a member of the public, I had the opportunity to attend the commission meeting in person, but being I mostly use a wheelchair and haven't really driven in six months, that was not practical.

 That being said, I figured what the heck and I contacted the NJRC yesterday by email once again asking for the reasons.  I'm not looking for exact votes or dialogue; just a general consensus of what was wrong with the proposal and the vote for and against (not even wanting to know who voted which way).  In addition, if the reason was for technical reasons, was the NJRC going to promulgate a new proposal to rectify the deficiencies?  I will let you know if I here anything, definitive (they do respond to email requests in reasonable matter of time).

Now an easy way to find out what happened would be to look at the minutes from the NJRC meeting of January 19, but they are not available on their website.  Geez, if I want to look at the meeting minutes from a meeting three months ago, I would need to file an Open Records Request (think Freedom of Information Act) and potentially pay a fee for the records?  Are the decisions of any racing commission a matter of national security?  The way I look at it is the gambler is a customer and the racing commissions have a duty to not only regulate the sport but protect the gambler.  Hiding one's minutes seems down right contrary to that duty.

Now to be fair, if you have a rule proposal, you can see it being filed and approved for public comment in the New Jersey Register, but after that, the rule seems to go into a black hole.  What goes in but doesn't get approved seemingly disappears.  Their website is not 100% bad, as you can see a history of fines and suspensions issued in the state, but when it comes to policy, you may as well be guarding the gold at Fort Knox.

So, for the heck of it I toured a few racing commission websites.  Perhaps the best of all of the sites is the New York State Racing and Wagering Board (NYSRWB) website.  There not only can you find official rulings (in full form), you can see meeting agendas, minutes (once approved), as well as video of past meetings so everything is in the open sunlight as it should be.  This is the way to treat a customer; self service at its best.  Another great site is the Ontario Racing Commission's website.  At the ORC website you see initiatives, the rule making process, rules, fines and suspensions, and even appeals (even if they are a bit condensed); still customer friendly.  As for the California Horse Racing Board, being scorned for allowing takeouts on exotic wagers to increase, they at least have a decent web page as well.  In addition to meeting minutes, they also provide transcripts of the meetings, they will tell you if a participant is licensed in the state, plus they provide actual steward and board rulings; something most sites do not offer.  Something really neat is the stewards report where they provide a weekly summary of things like handle, recalls, and rulings.  We may not agree with everything they do in California, but at least they are open about it.

The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission website isn't the most in depth, but at least there you can get meeting agendas and minutes; it is where I have been learning what is going on with Prairie Meadows.  Unfortunately, you do not get fines and suspensions there, but that can be accessed partially by the USTA fines and suspension list.  The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture which includes the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission also lists meeting agendas and minutes but lacks fines and suspensions.  The Michigan Gaming and Control Board also has a limited site with regards to racing.  Other than the listing of race tracks and rules, there are no listings of fines and suspensions or meetings at all.  Perhaps ominously, is that dreaded Freedom Of Information Act form which is available on the site.  However, I did learn there is a mixed-breed track called Mount Pleasant Meadows in Michigan so all is not lost.  Now, being only last year the Governor dissolved the Michigan Racing Commission and merged their duties into the MGCB, they get a slight pass. 

The point is, I realize the openness of racing commission information is often tied to the general attitude of the state.  Some states, like to act in secrecy, keeping the public as uninformed as possible, where other states believe in letting the 'sun shine in'.  However, racing commissions are there to regulate and protect the integrity of the sport for participants as well as the gamblers.  How can the gamblers be sure their interests are being protected if you can't even get a synopsis of commission meetings easily?  Don't want to go into specifics, as to who said what, fine; but at least tell people the commission discussed XYZ and decided against implementation because of objections from the horsemen's group and so on. 

This is another problem horse racing has.  We know horsemen have their own agenda and the wagering public has their own agenda with the racing commissions supposed to be the great arbitrater of these issues to balance the needs and wants of both groups of constituents.  How is the gambler supposed to have faith in the racing commission when their rulings are treated as state secrets and you must fill out Freedom of Information Act requests to get this information?  It is stonewalling plain and sure and as great a threat to the integrity of the sport as anything else.

Let the sunshine in. 

Atlantic City Boutique Meets Highlights Problems within Harness Racing:  Atlantic City raced day four of their six day turf festival and yesterday set a modern day record of 9,822 people on a Sunday afternoon for a six race card.  The on-track handle was $195,732 for a per-capita of only $20 which shows you get casual bettors showing up but the all source handle was $421,780.  Granted, you are not going to set the world on fire with those figures but when you consider how little advertising there was for the meet outside of the Atlantic City area, the overall handle was not bad, $70,296 per race all while you are competing against the Derby hoopla and many tracks having their best racing of the year taking place. 

But most troubling is how many harness tracks in the United States had attendance of more than 9,822 last year?  I can think of four days.  Meadowlands Pace, Hambletonian Day, Little Brown Jug Day, and I assume Breeders Crown Night at Pocono Downs (maybe Adios Day at the Meadows?).  Harness racing is being rejected by the masses and it is not just takeout rates.  The industry better take care of the problems which has caused this rejection.  The time for lip service is over.


The_Knight_Sky said...

I'd be wary of the 9,822 attendance figure. There are no turnstiles at the grandstand gates so (as always) the attendance is a "guess-timate".

Bonnie said...

Instead of whining about the NJRC not "letting the sunshine in", call by phone, to the NJRC and ask to speak to the Executive Director, Frank Zanzuccki. Register your complaints with him.
I would be very surprised if he did not call you back and provide some answers.

Pacingguy said...


I ha vea talked to Frank before and he is indeed very helpful but I shouldn't have to go that route each time I want an answer.

But it is not a question of going that route. Why should it be that difficult to get information when other states just put it all out there? Racing belongs to the gambler as much as it belongs to those that race so the information should be easily accessible.