For photos from the Meadowlands contact

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Does Anyone Invest in Themselves Anymore?

Freehold Raceway opens tomorrow and already there seems to be a problem with filling races.  While the opening day has ten races with eight starters, Friday and Saturday has eleven races each with numerous seven horse fields, meaning the entry box is not exactly overflowing.  If we need proof of this, the SBOANJ is reminding horsemen that there are entry opportunities at Freehold and if you enter there is a 'high probability if you enter, you will race';  never a good sign when you are starting a race meet especially when you are racing only three days a week.  Of course, this is no coincidence as Chester Downs opens a week from Friday and horsemen and their owners are eyeing higher purse opportunities there.  Make no mistake, if Chester opened this week, the opening weekend card would look a lot worse.

I know the answer already and the reason why, but I need to ask.  Does anyone invest in their long term future anymore, or is it all about now? 

We know Freehold Raceway will reap the advantages of slot machines in a few years when a casino opens at the Meadowlands; this assuming there is still a Freehold Raceway around.  Everyone also knows the quickest route for Freehold's demise is the inability to fill their races as unfilled races leads to even smaller handles  which translates into mounting losses for Penwood Racing.  At some point, Penwood is going to say 'Enough' and shut Freehold down, possibly for good.

Then, when the slot money is ready to be divied up and horsemen with the 'not ready for the Meadowlands' racing stock are looking for racing opportunities, there may not be a local option; especially as Harrisburg is already clawing back slot revenue from the Pennsylvaina tracks, unknown at which point the Pennsylvania government will stop.  Then, the owners and horsemen alike will be bemoaning the lack of racing opportunities in New Jersey wondering what they have done.

I will say one thing about the SOANY, they were able to convince their horsemen and owners to keep the races filled at Yonkers Raceway when they lacked slot machines.  Granted, the quality was inferior to what is racing there now; with purses starting at $2,500 (Freehold's minimum is $2,300), but they kept filling those races.  Yes, they sacrificed, but they kept the track going, buying time until slots eventually came to New York.  Now the New York horsemen are reaping the rewards of keeping the track open.

You may say the Rooneys were going to keep the track going anyway hoping for slots to come, but you can't say for sure.  If Yonkers had short fields and suffered from a continuing decline in handle and mounting losses they may have gone out of business.  Remember, it wasn't soon after Brandywine Raceway closed that Delaware approved slots.  Each track operator has their own threshold for saying 'enough'.  Do you really want to gamble what Penwood's threshold is?

I know everyone is saying let the other guy be the one that takes one for the team and continue to race at Freehold, but there is one problem; everyone is saying that.  You are the other guy.

I earlier asked, "Does anyone invest in their long term future anymore, or is it all about now?"  Sadly, the answer is now.  There will be regrets if Freehold closes, but no pity from me for the owners and horsemen who down the road bemoan the lack of local racing opportunities for their cheaper stock. 

Meadowlands Quietly Makes Changes for the Customer: Derrick Giwner in his blog talks about his race calling debut at the Meadowlands on Thursday evening.  In addition, he goes into changes being made to improve the customer experience at the track. Sometimes it is the smaller things which matter; at least it shows the customer is appreciated.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Pompano Park Selections for February 28

For today's entry, I am going to ignore racing's ills and admittedly give my blood pressure a break.  I decided I am going to do what racing fans like to do the most; handicap races.  I find handicapping races to be a very relaxing activity when you have enough time to do it. 

So with no further ado, allow me to provide my fearless selections for tonight's racing card.

1st Pace - $3,500; Maidens (5YO and Under)
6 - Bet On The Law (Pavia, 3-5)
2 - Red Feather (Hennessey, 7-2)
3 - Espee Express (Hoffman, 5-1)

2nd Trot - $3,500; NW 1 PM LT (5YO and Under)
5 - Lyrical Lindy (Brown, 5-1)
4 - Puss In Boots (Clements, 3-1)
3 - My Friend Justin (Sells, 4-1)

3rd Trot - $4,000; NW $2,001 Last 5 Starts
7 - BK's LUV (Dillander, 3-1)
6 - Julius Secret (Micallef, 4-1)
8 - Victory Connection (De Stasio, 12-1)

4th Pace - $4,000; NW 2 PM LT (5YO and Under)
2 - Sweet Fancy Moses (Napolitano, 3-1)
8 - To Tell The Truth (Henry, 7-2)
6 - Maid Of Silver (Hoffman, 5-1)
5 - Le Sang Royale (Schaut, 6-1)

5th Pace - $3,000; $4,000 Claiming
6 - Vic The Brick (Hennessey, 6-1)
2 - Mattern Miracle (Paquet, 3-1)
1 - Awesome Way (Ranger, 9-2)

6th Trot - $4,000; NW $2,001 Last 5 Starts
9 - Streetwise Hall (Napolitano, 10-1)
3 - What About Brian (Sells, 3-1)
2 - Rompaway Brandon (Maier, 4-1)

7th Trot - $4,100; $6,000 Claiming
1 - Sir Valahad (Pennacchio, 5-2)
7 - Lucky Hit (Dillander, 5-1)
3 - Cisco Hall (Sanzeri, 8-1)

8th Pace - $3,000; FM $4,000 Claiming
1 - One More Molly (Maier, 5-1)
2 - Misdori (Plano, 3-1)
8 - Angel Of Victory (Macomber, 6-1)
4 - Indianridge  Sophia (Ranger, 4-1)

9th Pace - $3,000; $4,000 Claiming  that are NW 1 Race in 2012
1 - Trulyinconceivable (Hoffman, 8-1)
6 - Gotta Go Moe (Clements, 4-1)
8 - Twin B Impact (Paquet, 5-2)

10th Trot - $3,000; $4,000 Claiming
2 - Catamount N (Ranger, 3-1)
6 - Cheers To Chip (Simard, 5-1)
8 - Bit O Lavec (Ingraham, 6-1)

11th Pace - $3,000; FM $4,000 Claiming
1 - Passion Starlet (Dillander, 3-1)
7 - Kikiskissinkousin (Clements, 4-1)
5 - Carole's Bullville (Hennessey, 5-1)
8 - No Mo Parking (Plano, 6-1)

Who Didn't See this Coming?  Penn National Gaming is threatening that Rosecroft Raceway may close after this season unless they get some type of alternaate gaming.  While there is some talk about getting casino gambling in Prince George County, the County Executive wants to put it at the National Harbor.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Guarantee Rises and Harness Racing on Television

Officials at Cal Expo were so pleased with the response to their late Pick 4s this past weekend that they have now increased their guarantee to $20,000 both on Friday and Saturday with the 15% takeout except on Friday, if you wager on track or through a particular ADW, you get a bonus to offset the takeout if you have a winning ticket.  This past Saturday, with a $15,000 guarantee, the total mutuel pool for the late Pick 4 which was shown live on TVG was $37,406.  I expect this week with the higher guarantee, the pool will be even higher.

Thanks to Gina who discovered this video gem which is on YouTube.  When you watch this clip you are sure to get a chuckle over it. 

I remember there was an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies where Mr. Dreysdale convinced Granny to buy a trotter because she wanted a horse and Dreysdale wanted a horse that could earn money.  All I remember is Granny was upset because she couldn't get the horse to do anything but trot. 

Then there was an ABC television movie called Leave Yesterday Behind from 1978 starring Carrie Fisher and the late John Ritter played a paraplegic who eventually ended up helping training standardbreds with Carrie Fisher. 

And finally, on the original Bob Newhart Show there was an episode where it was Christmas Eve, cold and snowing, and Emily and Bob were seeing what was on television and they came across harness racing from a Chicago track.  You don't see the race but you hear the call.  If memory serves me correctly, Bob deadpanned "They don't stop for anything do they?" 

Does anyone else remember a television show or television movie with standardbreds in it? 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Closed for the Holiday

Time for a little catching up as I was under the weather last week...

Last Monday was President's Day in the United States so what a perfect opportunity to play the races during the day.  That was fine if you wanted to bet thoroughbred racing but if you were looking for a harness track racing, you were out of luck.  The earliest an American track was racing was Dover Downs and they had a 4:30pm post time.

Is this how far harness racing has fallen that no one wants to race on a holiday afternoon?  Yes, there were more thoroughbred tracks racing on the holiday so it was probably a lot harder to get any interest by racetracks for simulcasting including harness tracks.

Yes, the pools would have been smaller than usual and the tracks likely would have lost money for the day, but how do tracks expect to attract new customers when you give up the holiday matinee where you have the opportunity to attract people when they have the day off?  Granted it was winter time (or supposed to be), but it seems to me an opportunity lost.

Last week the Kentucky Senate defeated a bill which would have authorized a referendum regarding casinos in the state.  No doubt lobbying from casinos in surrounding states contributed to the bills defeat, but what really perturbed me is the arguments from legislators regarding the morality of casino gambling.  The arguments being used remind me of arguments used when they imposed Prohibition in the United States.  Do they think not allowing for casinos in Kentucky is going to stop Kentuckyians from crossing the state's borders to gamble out of state?  I am no fan of casino gambling or slot machines, but don't try to enforce your morality on other people.  The senators should have allowed the citizens of Kentucky to vote on the referendum.

The Meadowlands experiment with the 1 1/2 mile race series didn't pan out as the final for the $7,500 claimers didn't fill for a few weeks, including the final.  The reason cited was one horse dominated the series that horses wouldn't drop in.  Perhaps that was the case, but racing can't survive if we continue racing just mile contests.  Hopefully the Meadowlands will give it a try again later in the meet.

Nominations close on March 1st for the George Morton Levy Memorial and the Blue Chip Matchmaker this week (March 1st).  The Levy is my favorite series as it is lengthy series (six weeks, including the final) featuring top horses instead of most of these short series for overnight horses.  For me, the 2012 racing season begins with the first week of the Levy.  Remember in 2011, Pacer of the Year Foiled Again competed in the Levy. 

Help Heather Moffett Freeze - Harness racing's own Heather Moffett is currently attempting a publicity stunt in order to raise funds for Wells For Ghana, an organization attempting to drill wells in Ghana so those who live there can get fresh water.  If enough people pledge so she has $5,000 in pledges Heather, along with horse owner Susan Ehlers will be taking a "Polar Mare Plunge" into the lake on her family's farm. If you wish to help Heather freeze, visit her website for additional information.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Introducing the United States Standardbred Association

I assume many of you have seen the article about how standardbreds were involved in the Whitney Houston funeral providing security. These horses came from the Standardbred Retirement Foundation and are now part of the Newark, NJ Police Department. Great story to promote the versatility of standardbreds and show how they can be used when they come of the racetrack. My problem with the article is in its placement. We all know how versatile the standardbred is but what is the value of putting it on the USTA's website and other racing-related sites. The story needed to be put on non-racing sites.  People interested in the standardbred as a pleasure horse are not looking at racing sites.  As a result we are not effectively promoting standardbreds for its versatility.

To accomplish this, I would suggest a restructuring of the USTA on the corporate level. If you look at the AQHA, they basically have two sites within one; a site to promote the quarter horse and one to promote racing. One of the missions of the USTA is to promote the standardbred and if we are trying to truly promote the versatility of the standardbred, I would suggest the USTA be renamed to the United States Standardbred Association (USSA), this way it would be clear to the world that the USSA is trying to promote the standardbred as a truly versatile breed of which racing is only a small part of the horse's attractiveness. This way, by promoting the breed under the USSA banner, a market can be developed not only for retired racehorses but for those yearlings or horses who clearly are not racing material. This may help breeders develop another market for their yearlings as well as help with developing a market for the off the track standardbred which doesn't involve slaughter.

Thus, to promoting the versatility standardbreds as both non-racing horses as well as racing horses, I would set up two branches under USSA Inc; the previously mentioned USSA which would be charged with promoting the standardbred breed and maintaining the stud book and registration, and USSA Racing which would provide the functions required for racing.

If we truly want to get away from the notion standardbreds are only good for racing, then there needs to be an organizational change to match it. That time has come.

I am sure the threatened cuts in several racing states/provinces have woken almost everyone up regarding the sanctity of slots entitlements. But for those who still think racing is entitled to slot subsidies because that was the deal when the slot machines were first installed, I give you this article from The Hamilton Spectator.

People can protest the cuts all they want, but the reality is they are going to happen. It is a question of governments spending other people's money like a drunken sailor for years and having to pay for its largess and having to pay the piper. As New Jersey horsemen were lulled into complacency with Atlantic City's subsidies, horsemen where racinos were established were similarly lulled into complacency. No blame game in this post. But the question is now that racing has been awakened, will it spend all its time fighting to maintain what slot revenue it can or will racing use some of that time to innovate?

That is the million dollar question.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

...and Yada Yada Yada

This is (hopefully) my last article for a while regarding the Ontario and Pennsylvania 'crisis' because I must admit I am getting sick of this subject and rather deal with some racing.

I get Google news alerts for harness racing and the one thing I am seeing constantly is messages of solidarity from different horsemen groups to Ontario horsemen in their struggle against the Provincial Government which is threatening to take away the support horse racing is getting by having OLG slots at the tracks as well as the messages on how much the local racetracks provide to the Ontario economy and the number of jobs dependent on horse racing.  All I can say is Yada Yada Yada.  We've heard it all before and continue to hear it now. 

A word of advice to these tracks and horsemen groups.  All jobs are not created equally. You are not going to win on the jobs argument.  This is not a knock on people who may be blacksmiths, grooms, or farmers growing hay.  Not a knock on trainers, drivers, or breeders.  When it comes to government, they are making distinctions on jobs with regards to importance to society and the benefit it provides.

Who is more important to society?   A teacher or a harness driver?  A police officer or a trainer?  A college professor who will help educate the next generation of medical researchers or doctors, or the person who grows hay for horses?  This is not to say any government relishes putting people out of work, but in these days of over extended budgets and excessive debt, a value judgement needs to be made where government is going to spend its precious resources.

I understand the potential unemployment argument, but racing is not the only industry that makes this argument.  This argument about maintaining jobs is being made by nurses, construction workers, police officers, union workers, and countless others; all looking for a piece of the government's budget.  Racing looks at its needs in a silo, government doesn't.  The government must look at the big picture.and what they are seeing is an industry that is seriously ill and unwilling to do anything to help themselves.  This is what Hugh Mitchell is trying to say and what Jeff Gural has been saying for several years now and it seems the industry on the whole ignores them with everyone looking at their own individual interests without looking at the big picture on how to strengthen the industry nationally.

To paraphrase what an American President once said, "Ask not what your state/province can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your state/province."  This is the argument you need to make.

Yada, Yada, Yada didn't work in New Jersey as Governor Christie was hell-bent on getting out of the business of horse racing regardless of how many jobs were lost.  Were it not for Jeff Gural, the Meadowlands would be finished.  Same thing for Monmouth Park. Yada, Yada, Yada may or may not work in Ontario, but do you want to depend your livlihood on it?  Relying on the same old arguments are a formula for disaster because after a while the government becomes immune to hearing it.

Why is there no solidarity unless an immediate crisis is occuring.  Why can't this same group of people offering support to Ontario horsemen show this type of solidarity in solving racing's ills?  Maybe if they spent more time do that, we wouldn't be in these crisis situations now.

Yada, Yada, Yada.  Maybe it is time for racing to help themselves for once instead of waiting for the government to help them.

Time for Horse Racing to 'Confront Reality'

Says Hugh Mitchell, the CEO of the Western Fair District in an interview with published in the Guelph Mercury.  Mitchell goes on to say  “We can’t continue to tread down the same road we’ve been treading and accept status quo as a business plan going forward, because it’s not going to work.”

I believe we have found the Jeff Gural of Canada here and as in the United States, it may be the operator of a small track which may make a big difference in Canadian racing, not only in Ontario, but throughout the entire country. 

One thing which will likely not endear him to the horsemen is that he found the rally yesterday in Ottawa to be 'counterproductive'.  Based on his other comments in the interview, it would appear he feels it re-enforces the belief with the Provincial Government that all the horsemen want to do is to keep the status quo; a failed business plan with the feeling that racing is entitled to the support the OLG's lottery machines have been providing.  That is a losing strategy.

So what does Mitchell think racing needs to do?  Racing needs to work together to develop business plans which are customer focused, not horsemen focused.  For far too long horsemen have been content to race with declining handle and fewer people in the grandstand (and on the computers) because quite frankly, the slot machines have either provided a nice supplement to the purse account in the case of WEG, and is providing most of the purse account at the smaller tracks.  In the United States, in those states with racinos, subsidies provides almost the entire purse account.  Unfortunately, those days are coming to an end.

We have said it before but it bears repeating, what is a customer-focused plan?

Destination Racing.  There needs to be more than attending the races to watch the horses go around the track to attract customers and that doesn't mean only slot machines.  It means restaurants run by private restauranteers at the racetrack, nightclubs for the younger generation for after racing fun.  A place where gamblers can bring their children and have them entertained while the adults play the horses. 

Realistic Expectations.  The year-round drone of racing in certain areas wears the customer base down (and out).  Let's face it, most horseplayers lose in the long run.  Not only does the gambler get sucked dry by the takeout; you leave them no time to recharge their bank accounts and wallets.  The demand for the product is not there so why are twenty-one harness tracks running on the same day in the summer?  Shorter coordinated race meets are the way to go to avoid dilution of the wagering pools and more importantly improve customer retention.  If you race a shorter meet your long term customers who are getting beat for whatever reason are more likely to look at the next race meet with anticipation while those tracks who operate long meets are more likely to find customers dropping out for good after they have been sucked dry.

Realizing Customer Expectations.  Customers want a faster paced experience.  While you may not be able to meet the speed of video games, there is no reason why you should expect a customer to wait twenty minutes between races, to stare out at your track.  Partner with another track to run alternating races so every ten minutes a race goes off or better yet, have an inner track and a mixed meet with a different breed, alternating races.   Use smart phone technology to allow people to wager from their phones if they want to instead of dealing with a teller or self wagering machine.  Your potential customers don't want to see horses 'beat' (their perception) so get rid of those whips.  They want to see the horses treated humanely so they don't want to see freezebrands on those horses either so start microchipping them instead.  Develop formal adoption programs for those horses who can have a meaningful secondary career and keep horses out of the slaughter pipeline.  In the name of humane treatment of horses, perhaps we need to go back to building stamina in horses instead of speed to reduce career ending injuries and extend their racing careers.  Customers don't want monotony so adopt the European style of racing with varying distances and include monte racing.  Perhaps some of the older gamblers may be lost but not making changes will mean you have no chance to replace existing customers.

Rethink the Gambling Model.  The parimutuel model in North America is broken.  No, you may not be able to go down to single digit takeout rates, but the days of 35% and 25% takeouts need to end.  There should not be any takeout rates higher than 15% (ideally 10% ) and that includes win, place, and show wagering.  Pool integrity is a must.  Exchange wagering, which most of California racing recently rejected needs to be implemented  to get the video generation and day trading crowds attracted to racing; they will still need the parimutuel pools for other wagers.  Tracks need to recoup some of the business lost to outside ADWs and develop a non-profit ADW to compete against the existing ADWs.  Rebates should be phased out if possible; if you lower the takeout rates enough you shouldn't need rebates.  I think rebates are in impediment to developing new fans.  Most people start at the tracks as little fishes when compared to the whales.  How many little fishes are you going to get hooked on racing if they hear that they are paying 10% to play while others are paying only 5%?   Gambling is a retail business and while volume purchasing power is great on the wholesale side of business, it is poison in the retail business.  How would you feel if you bought something for $10 and the person next to you bough the same thing for only $5?

Integrity is #1.  How long do you think a casino would remain open if word came out they knowingly had a rigged roulette wheel?  Not very long.  Again, this is a retail business and there is no reason to expect customers to stick around if they find the racing game 'rigged'.  Every scandal sucks a little more of racing's lifeblood out.  Rules need to be strict and violations need to be costly.

Some of this is radical, and you are probably arguing why would a racino track even consider such changes when they race only because they have no choice?  Perhaps if you build a business plan that makes sense and may make horse racing a profit center instead of a cost center, management may be willing to listen.  Casino operators like making profits, anyway they can.

Like it or not, subsidies are going to go away.  As Hugh Mitchell stated, it is time to confront reality.  Maybe if racing can show that it is taking the steps to be run like a real business with the gambler being the customer, it can be weaned from subsidies in a controlled manner instead of having them yanked from suddnely from under them. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Some Changes for Bettors at Cal-Expo

There are some chnages for bettors this weekend at Cal Expo.  First of all, the promotion which has been conducted on Saturdays, moves to Friday night starting this Friday, February 24.  Starting February, any late Pick 4 winning tickets purchased at Cal Expo itself or through will have a 0% takeout (all others will have a 15% takeout).  In addition, the guarantee for the late Pick 4 has been increased to $15,000 with the late Pick 4 being televised on TVG.

As a result of this change, Saturday night's late Pick 4 will revert back to a 15% takeout, but will also have its guarantee raised to $15,000 as well.  So those gamblers looking for a good deal will need to look at Cal Expo on Friday and Saturday nights.

There is some good news regarding the potential change of operators as there has been some interest from multiple parties in taking over the Cal Expo meet.  As you recall, the Cal Expo Fair Board will no longer operate the meet after this winter-spring meet, so hopefully racing will continue after the California State Fair.

For horsemen/horsewomen considering moving out to California, Cal Expo is offering reimbursement for shipping costs to get qualifying horses out to California.  For those who may be interested in this offer, more information may be obtained by clicking on this link.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Auckland Reactor Rolling Along

Auckland Reactor is now two for two in the 2012 Inter Dominion being held at Gloucester Park in Australia after last night's second round, winning an easy victory in a mile rate of 1:55.1 (converted to the North American's fifths) over a good track for the 2,100 meters (race replay available here; look for race number 4).  Of course, Auckland Reactor is not the only horse to be two for two as Themightyquinn and Smoken Up scored victories as well as they both won in identical 1:55.2 mile rate timings.  For those interested, you can follow the Inter Dominion at this website ( also has an article with the race replay also available).

This season, as a seven year old, Auckland Reactor has simply blossomed as he has won four of six starts and approximately NZ$186,000 thus far which leads me to think we got short changed when the Reactor had a disasterous experience in North America.  I know some people blame his North American trainer Kelvin Harrison for the disaster or claimed the Reactor was a bomb.  On the other hand, I think we never had the opportunity to see the real Auckland Reactor in the Northern Hemisphere as he launched his campaign in the heat and humidity of the summer, something which he really didn't experience in his homeland..  Then it was discovered that he was flipping his palate and before he was shipped back down to New Zealand, he had surgery to correct the problem.  Upon his return he has been racing well, though he has been sidelined at times due to injury.

I realize it is all speculation, but if Auckland Reactor had his surgery and resumed his campaign in the winter, I suspect he could have raced much better and by the summer we may have seen the real Auckland Reactor racing in the United States and Canada instead of a horse that was having problems.  Unfortunately, the owners who had brought him to the United States took a gamble hoping to develop a champion for whom they could have stood at stud.  Once that fell through, they were in a rush to get rid of him and sent him back to New Zealand.

I just wish the North American ownership had tbe patience to give Auckland Reactor another chance,  Unfortunately, that was not the case and I think we were truly deprived of the opportunity to see the New Zealand super horse at his best and for that, we are poorer for it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Monday Headlines

We try to stay out of politics, but U.S. Representative Andy Harris (R-Maryland) has run afoul of his fellow Republicans for putting a ban on double decker trailers for horse transportation in a massive transportation bill pending in Congress.  His fellow Republicans who disdain onerous government regulation are not pleased as are farm and rodeo interests.  Members of his party are wondering why this needs to be in the bill in that the USDA bans double decker trailers for transporting horses which are often used to transport horses to slaughter..  One problem is the USDA has no funding to enforce the ban which leads us to a situation I learned in my Freshman Business Law class Day 1 - "Nothing is illegal until you get caught".  Of course animal-rights groups have bene complaining about the double decker trailers in that they are not high enough for horses to stand up and results in horses falling.  All I can say is good for Mr. Harris.  If giving a horse enough head room for safe transport is onerous regulations, then so be it.  Apparently, anything which costs business money is onerous.

Ontario racing interests are rallying to counter the recommendations of the Drummond Report which calls for cutting subsidies for racing in the province.  A letter campaign and a rally are being scheduled as are other activities.  This is similar to what happened when Governor Christie decided New Jersey was getting out of the racing game.  The industry can certainly react when they are threatened, but heaven forbid it be proactive.  Maybe being proactive and make changes to make the sport more appealing would eliminate the need to react in a crisis.

John Brennan of The Record provides an update on horse racing in New Jersey.  It does indeed look like the New Jersey Thoroughbred horsemen will be running this summer's meet at Monmouth Park and come springtime, the Meadowlands will be rolling out promotions to get casual fans to the track when the weaher turns better.  Brennan feels it will be tough to get the casual fan out; I disagree.  If you give them a reason to come out, they will be there and I am sure Michael Newlin and staff will be busy with some great ideas; especially by not being shackled by the NJSEA which was bleeding money,

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Time for Some Mass Resignations

Regular readers of my blog will forgive me if I pat myself on the back today.  Reading today's edition of HRU, I can't help but feel vindicated regarding what I have been saying since I began this blog.  Where has everyone been?  Did it take the double whammy of threats in Pennsylvania and Ontario for people to wake up and go "holy crap", what have we done?

While I may give myself a pat on the back, I get no joy from this.  It should never have come to this.  Believe me, if you had common sense and didn't have your head in the sand, you could have seen what was coming if you looked.  In fact, there are times I felt this entire industry was in self denial.  It was not just me, bloggers like Pull The Pocket and others have also been warning of what was going to happen.

There are a few people in the industry that deserve credit.  As Bill Finley indicated, the PHHA deserves credit and to some degree the DSBOA deserves credit as well for sponsoring PostTime with Heather Moffett.  Track operator, Jeff Gural, Jason Settlemoir, Moira Fanning, Tom Charter, Greg Blanchard in Canada and a few other people deserve credit for the few good things which have been going on in harness racing, but basically most people are living like it was 1950 or seemed resigned horse racing is heading towards extinction without any chance of survival.

People will try to blame the people at the USTA for the problems, but that is not the case.  Taking direction from a board of 62 directors who can't get past their own self interests or living life in self-denial and being underfunded, it is amazing what they do get done.

Harness racing kicked out of Prairie Meadows because there was no interest in the sport despite it being at the fairs for years; at least one racetrack openly stating they would get rid of harness racing in a moment if they could;  tracks in Ohio being moved around like checkers, not to increase interest in the racing product be it thoroughbred or standardbred, but to maximize slot revenue; an industry that could not see what was going on with ADWs until it was too late and is still refusing to compete against them, resulting in tracks  taking a minuscule amount from those who do nothing to put on the show.  Yet, we get USTA directors who keep refusing to change the game to keep up with modern times.  Isn't it ironic that Chris Schick, a USTA director from California; the island of harness racing that has been fighting for survival for years and has no hope of getting a racino is the one that comes up with the idea of the Strategic Wagering Initiative? 

The USTA directors can't seem to come up with plans to revive a moribund industry.  They punted two years ago on the whipping controversy, no doubt because 'this is the way things have always been done'.  It seems these people can't seem to get out of their own way, forgetting the old adage that "The worst decision is making no decision".  Unwilling to make changes which may temporarily go against their own interests for the betterment of the sport on the whole?  What is the annual USTA director meeting for in the first place?

Lets not forget where many of these directors come from; the horsemen groups.  The very same groups who are thinking "the track provides the track and we provide the horses"?  The people who oppose a fair start rule?  Some of these leaders do good work but many of them have been in power so long that they treat their horsemen's association as their private little fiefdom?  What are they doing to help promote the sport?  It is state against state and racing as many days as possible even if they race for so little money.  At least the trainers can bill the owners.

Then we get tracks like The Red Mile who last year had a relatively successful harness meet during the Grand Circuit racing at night except on Saturdays and Sundays so what do they do this year?  They go back to day racing during the day exclusively which has been less successful so they can directly compete against Keenland Racecourse?  What is the reason?  Most likely because the horsemen and breeders treat the Lexington meet as a convention where they work during the day and go out to dinner with friends before the sales at night, clearly forgetting racing's customers are the horseplayers.  After all, who needs those interlopers around?

There is a lot of blame to be thrown around and it seems like Pennsylvania and Ontario's threats, whether they go through with their plans or not, are a wake up call.  To see Ontario, probably the strongest racing juristiction in North America for harness racing, be blindsided is unacceptable.  To see the lack of imagination of those who lead harness racing in the United States resulting in them sitting complacent with their livlihood totally dependent on slot revenue is unacceptable.  Reacting only when the tap might be turned off is unacceptable.

It seems to me it is time for some mass resignations of people starting with many of the directors of the USTA on down to those horsemen associations who have fiefdoms and organizations that spend more time worrying about racing subsidies than improving the product; resisting changes in how racing is contested.  Let these people stand downs and allow those who still believe in harness racing and are willing to make the tough decisions in an effort to make racing a better product.  After all, if harness racing is going to die, die trying to fix the sport, not just sitting there putting your own head on the chopping block.

The Error of Slots Legislation

It is clear now that the biggest problem slot legislation for racetracks has is the virtual lack of accounting where the money goes to.  Now we are speaking in general terms here, but for the most part racetracks get money for operating the slot machines which goes to the bottom line; horsemen get money for their purse account; breeders get money for their breeders awards.  While racino legislation is always intended to support the horse racing industry and the state, the problem is it is left to  everyone to spend the money the way they see fit; which for the track is their bottom line; horsemen to purses; breeders to their pockets instead of where it needs to be spent.

What is wrong here?  While racino legislation is intended to support the industry, it is basically a welfare program with little, if any, accountability.  This makes the tracks care less about horse racing as they put their money where they make money; the slots.  Horsemen are just interested in better purses and breeders are looking for their awards.  All this does is perpetuate a flawed product with no requirement of improvement.

Any future legislation for slot machines must require a certain percentage of each stakeholders share to go towards marketing programs for horse racing (not slots) on a local, regional, or a national level; capital investments on the racing side of the business (meaning improved tote equipment); and customer retention (rebates, lowered takeouts, etc.).  This would allow the parties to contribute to local and national marketing initiatives to make horse racing more popular, capital investments meaning capital to form their own or join in a cooperative ADW, and improve outdated tote equipment and the development of new wagering options as well as provide funds for seeding mutuel pools and offering rebates.

In any states considering a racino, these requirements should be drafted into the initial legislation.  For those states where existing laws are in place, horsemen need to go to legislators and seek amendments to existing slot legislation to fix the flaws in their programs, though admittedly it will be tough to get breeders and racino operators to go along with such changes.  However, the one advantage horsemen have is they would have the ability to show legislators they are serious about fixing their products and tracks can be reminded this is why they supposedly were given slots, to support their primary product which is supposed to be harness racing.  Such a dedication to specific allocations may buy the industry time before the states come back to further cut their subsidies; it buys the industry time.

Time which is running out.

This is the way subsidies are supposed to work.  Money given to fix the problems of a particular industry, not just for stuffing the money into everyone's pockets.  No one is suggesting money can't be used to boost purses and cover operating expenses, but unless something is done to improve the product, you are destined to failure as the support you are receiving is artificial and will someday be withdrawn at which point you are worse off than you were originally.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Spring Awakening and other Things

While the calendar says we are about a month away from spring, spring is awakening here in the Northeast though admittedly, you can argue we went straight from autumn and skipped winter this year.  With news that Chester Downs, Freehold Raceway, Rosecroft, and Saratoga Raceway are scheduling qualifiers, it won't be long until those stables which (needlessly) stabled in the South this year will break camp and head back north to complete their final preparations for their 2012 campaigns.

It will be interesting to see how many horsemen will be deserting the Meadowlands for Chester Downs (Pocono Downs opens in April).  Of course, a big factor will be the purse structure which is not yet set.  Will they wait until a budget is finalized before cutting purses or will  they reduce purses in anticipation of some type of shave in order to avoid a massive purse cut later in the season?

Looking at the USTA's fines and suspensions list this week, it amazes me of the number of people who get caught falsifying their state license applications by forgetting their arrest record.  Many of these people get a small fine of $100 and continue to be licensed.  Let's face it, there are people in the industry that have made stupid mistakes in their life (be it drugs, shoplifting, bar fights, etc.) which could be called youthful indiscretions but were caught and arrested.  Hopefully, they learned from their mistakes and there is no reason why they shouldn't be licensed.  However, I have a problem when people falsify their arrest record, for they are not owning up to past mistakes.  Eventually, the racing commissions get around to running criminal checks and that is where the problem is detected.

Now let me make it clear up front, there are a lot of people who work with horses as grooms who are honest working people who do it for the love of it; I am not suggesting grooms work with a den of thieves.  I also realize in today's world, many employers shy away from people with minor criminal records so the racing industry may be one of the few places where these people can get employment often as grooms where the pay is not exactly rewarding.  But these people, having seen these seemingly minor arrests keeping them from employment opportunities in the non-racing world are tempted to hide the facts as they  figure these offenses may keep them from getting licensed in racing.

Rather than forcing these people to lie to gain employment, I feel horse racing needs to make it clear that most minor youthful indiscretions will not keep someone from being licensed but they need to be upfront with their arrest records.  Then if they are caught lying, it should result in a minimum six month license revocation because if they are willing to lie under those conditions, what else are they willing to do?

So last week California thoroughbred horsemen are putting the kibosh on exchange wagering along with most of the racetracks.  What else is new?  Tracks and horsemen once again afraid of changing the broken business model.  I understand the fears and the concerns, but with no risk, there is no gain.  What I would like to see is New Jersey approve exchange wagering for a two year trial period and if there are concerns which don't get addressed, the experiment can be pulled.  You can have all the fears you want in your mind, but unless you try it out, that's all they are, fears.  You need evidences to look at to decide if those fears have any truth to them.

Friday, February 17, 2012

How History Has Recorded The Events of the 1990s-2000s

Imagine we were able to go in the future and searching the archives, you came upon an entry regarding the history of business of harness racing in the 1990s through the 2000s and you came upon the following entry:

Since the first racino opened at Mountaineer Park in 1990; the racing industry sold its soul to the devil for slot money. Instead of investing in its business, the racing industry, excluding most track owners who due to the large capital investment required thanks to state licensing fees had no choice but to sell out or partner with those casino operators whose only concern was keep racing going along as required to keep those slots, and in some states, table games going.

Of those harness tracks that had slot machines, perhaps the only ones that seemed to be run by owners who cared for harness racing were Tioga Downs, Vernon Downs, and Yonkers Raceway. If Plainridge Racecourse was lucky enough to win their bid for a slot parlor, they may have been added to this list as well. As for the New Meadowlands, if the Governor had woken up and allowed slots at the Meadowlands, they would have be added to this select list too.  However, at virtually every other harness racino in the United States, those track operators who loved the sport had long left the scene to be taken over by casino gaming companies. This became obvious when virtually every harness racino gussied up their gaming area and left their racing areas looking like they did back ten or 20 years in time.

Perhaps if horsemen looked at those dilapidated grandstands and wagering areas, the lights may have gone off in their heads. Some horsemen may have noted it and said something when those areas never got upgraded, but they were racing for great money, so who cared? After some lean years, the gravy train has arrived. When horsemen looked over to the grandstand and the apron and saw fewer and fewer people, they should have been concerned. Were they?   It didn't appear so.  When track handle declined to the point where 95% of the purse account came from slots, were they concerned (It should be noted the SOANY gets credit here because they worked with Yonkers Raceway to get handle increased)? Not likely; after all why should they? Life had never been better.

Of course, horsemen and their associations noticed racetracks were putting the bare minimum into maintaining racing to keep the slots going. No advertisements for horse racing, only for the casino. It became clear that the track operators were not interested in racing anymore; slots were their gravy train. If horsemen were concerned enough, they would have realized the days of racetracks promoting racing and the horsemen providing the horses were over. Thoe tracks were not going to spend a dime on racing that they didn't have to.

Clearly, if racing was going to thrive, changes were going to have to been made and it was in the horsemen's interest to do the marketing, lower takeouts, and make changes to the business model to keep racing going. However horsemen kept saying, it was up to the tracks to make the changes and the horsemen to provide the horses. The horsemen didn't realize for all practical purposes, 'the industry' no longer included racino operators. The industry for all practical purposes consisted of non-racino track operators, horsemen, breeders, and owners.

But, why should horsemen have changed things? Horsemen were rolling in the green while racing in front of no crowds. Things were good. Thanks to slots, the state or racino operators became like Atlantic City Casinos, paying horsemen and breeders money to just be quiet and race. Perhaps the only thing that ever got horsemen upset at racino operators was when tracks charged rent for stalls on the backstretch and/or just closed them.

So the spiral downward continued; fewer and fewer fans, lower handle, and so on but the horsemen really didn't care at racino tracks and they devastated the non-racino tracks, but those were horsemen in other states, so the attitude was why should we care?  
Then the signs started to show up. It may have been a perfect financial storm to cause it, but some states started to whittle away at the amount of money the horsemen got. First a one-time reduction, but then they became permanent. The occasional legislator would question why they were propping up an industry that won't help themselves? Horsemen grumbled, but things were still relatively good.

Then the provincial government in Quebec finally said 'enough'; the sport was not getting better and they cut the tracks and horsemen off. They realized the industry wasn't doing anything to improve their lot. In one single move harness racing in the province collapsed overnight. The result was racing in Quebec became a short season event racing for much smaller purses. Did any other horsemen think that could have been them? Apparently not, as the sport could not get together to make the changes necessary to revive the actual betting business.

Then cuts continued in certain states, always 'temporary' but temporary seems to never end. Horsemen were not happy and fought to minimize the cuts and were somewhat successful. Yet, horsemen were resistant to change. "At a minimum, the tracks should contribute" was the complaint, but the tracks wouldn't care or gave a little so nothing really changed. The state or racino operator kept handing over the money and the racino operators were just biding their time.


Let's now return to present times and see what is going on....

The standardbreds were kicked out of Prairie Meadows due to no interest in the product.  In Iowa, casinos are willing to pay the state $70 million to get rid of the requirement of racing greyhounds and even are willing to pay to help the greyhound breeders transition to another job. A legislator in Florida is proposing legislation to allow poker rooms and racinos to remain open without racing. Pennsylvania is now facing a potential 30% cut in purses which, in the ultimate irony, may have some horses racing in racino-less New Jersey. The trial balloon in Ontario to get rid of racing subsidies in one swoop has been proposed. The breeders and the horsemen are arguing about the jobs that would be lost in Pennsylvania and Ontario, but does this argument win with the general public? No, no one wants to see someone out of work, but if it comes to a teachers losing their jobs or breeding farm workers and horsemen losing their jobs, who do you think John Q Public will decide has to lose their jobs?

Some amount of money will come out of the Pennsylvania horsemen's pockets and perhaps in Ontario this trial balloon is blown up, but will the industry make changes? Racinos for the most part have no problem writing the check to the horsemen or the state treasury but sooner or later the state governments will be forced to say 'teachers' or 'horsemen'. Guess who they are going to decide in favor of?

Remember Quebec! should be the battle cry in the industry. No, in the United States it won't be an exact replication, the racino operators will be alright. What will happen is the sport will either be evicted from the track or they will be forced to race for what they earn in the purse account. It is the action of the industry in the next few years which will decide if that will be $800 or $8,000 a race.

Yes, the SOANY is working with Yonkers to improve handle, the Tioga horsemen agreed to lower their takeout rate as did Plainridge.  The USTA has kicked in with the Strategic Wagering Initiative which has helped, but the fact remains the product we offer is still in the 1950s.  While ADWs continue to take business away from the tracks, only The Red Mile has formed their own ADW.  You would think the industry would attempt to form a non-profit ADW consortium in an attempt to recoup some of the business lost to the ADWs by taking only a cut for marketing (rebates, etc.); talk of reducing the takeout rate to stimulate wagering; the debate over whips complete with the cry of "This is the way we always did it" despite the fact it turns off potential future gamblers; the need to shorten meets and have fewer tracks racing at a given time to concentrate the gambling dollars which remain in the sport and raise the purses; the need to have states give up control of the sport to a regional entity under a national 'league'; take control of sports' future away from the casino operators; make the sport appeal to the masses.

Is the industry willing and able to make the changes necessary or will we see one by one each state with gaming at tracks become Quebeced?  Quite honestly, I am not sure they are.  Sadly, I believe there are those horsemen who feel the death of the sport is unavoidable and rather than invest in the business, they are grabbing all the money they can with the time remaining.  Then there are those horsemen in denial who sincerely think their state governments will never kill their industry off; that subsidies are a divine right.  Hopefully the news from Pennsylvania and Ontario, whether implemented or fought off this time, hits home and sounds a clarion call to wake the industry up.  If not, we may be approaching the point of no return.

I wonder in the future, how history will record the history of harness racing from the 2010s on?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Amazing Horse Story (At Least to Me)

This posting goes well off the beaten path for this post as I want to tell you a story about a man and a horse, so please indulge me.

The particular person involved so happens to be me.  For those who know me personally, they know I have more than my share of health problems.  As a result, one day a week I go to a barn to work with horses.

Today I worked with Cheyenne, and I was to lunge her.  Cheyenne loves to lunge but for some reason she was a little slow in getting started as I lunged her to the left.  I was then going to lunge her to the right but she refused to move one inch, no matter the type of urging attempted.  As a result, the person with me tried to get her to lunge and as soon as she got her started I was going to take over so  I needed to stand by her.  I must confess, I had a hard time keeping up with the other person and then I got a little light headed and sat down.

We tried again to lunger Cheyenne and once again she refused to move, except to stand between the two of us.  There was no way she was going to lunge again so we gave up so we brought her back to her paddock..

I was slightly winded afterwards but didn't think anything about it.  After I got home, a little later I didn't feel too good and all of a sudden, it hit me, I knew what was wrong; a bout of A-Fib (Atrail Fibrillation).  Son of a gun this mare sensed something was wrong with me before I knew it and she protected me from having a problem (at least there).

To me, it's not that big a deal; A-fib happens enough to me (If you develop the problem and never had it before, you need to get to an emergency room fast) that I know what to do.  A few days of rest and a lab visit and it should break on its own.  When it happens often enough to you, you don't panic as you know what to do.

I told the person I was with today about it and she confirmed for me that horses often can sense when someone is about to have a health problem and Cheyenne's getting between me and her was Cheyenne's way to keep me from even trying to lunge her again and have who knows what problem.

Cheyenne the wonder horse
All I know is next week, someone is going to get a big hug and some apples.

To me, it another example of how amazing and intelligent these horses are.  How we can even think of sending such wonderful animals to slaughter boggles my mind.  Yet, it happens.

This is a feel good story.  No comments will be accepted on this story.   Thank you for indulging me.

Why Is Anyone Surprised?

With all the talk of cutting subsidies in Pennsylvania or even taking them away completely in Ontario, my question is why is anyone even surprised we have reached this point?  What made anyone think the good times were going to last forever?  More importantly, the question needs to be asked during this period of subsidies, what has the industry in your state/province or nationally really done to improve the sport to make it self-sufficient or at least less reliant on subsidies?

The answers to the questions are in order; Denial, The legislation said so; Nothing (in slot states).

It may have taken the perfect storm but welcome to reality.  With the severe economic decline, states are having problems meeting their obligations which they committed to before the economic downturn.  Medical expenses, at least in the United States continue to climb.  Labor contracts signed before the downturn need to be honored.  In many states/provinces they have borrowed money to pay for programs so the debt needs to be paid and you can't get more money out of what remains of the middle class and the lower class and there is a reluctance in some states (especially, Republican) to raise taxes on the higher wage earners.  Something has to give.

So Governors have to present their budget and they need to rob Peter to pay Paul and they make evaluations.  Eventually it comes to racing and the question is Teachers or racing subsidies?  Cuts to colleges or racing subsidies?  Cuts to providing health care to the most vulnerable or in Ontario the residents or racing subsidies?  You get the idea.

Yes, there are jobs behind racing, but you can't deny the fact teachers, college, and healthcare are necessities.  To most people, racing is an entertainment option.  If you are the Governor or a legislator with no connection to racing, which would you choose to cut?

Racing loses out and it is a lot easier to make that decision when handles continue to decline (though there seems to be some turnaround at some tracks this year thanks to guaranteed pools), and grandstands remain empty.  The decision gets easier when the government, such as was done in Quebec realizes racing was not going to change their business model and remain forever dependent on slots.  In Quebec, the decision was easily made; the heck with racing and they pulled the plug and subsidized breeders for a period of time to change over to another type of farming.  Now racing is coming back in a much smaller format.

In Pennsylvania, they are looking at cutting purses 30% if the budget proposal goes through.  In Ontario, the result to the racing industry is unknown if the casinos are pulled out; it will likely be some tracks not surviving and purses being cust massively at other tracks.

If these proposals come to fruition the horsemen are going to ask "How Could This Happen"?  I suggest they look at the first three questions above when answering these questions.  Yes state and provincial legislatures introduced slots to help the state and support the industry, but I am pretty sure the expectation was the industry was going to work to help their own situation at the same time.  Are legislators breaking their deals with racing?  Absolutely, but the question remains what has racing done to to help itself up to now; did they live up to their end of the deal?

I suspect the answer is no.

Remember these are tentative proposals and they may be beat back or modified.  Other states are still working on slots such as Kentucky and Ohio; Illinois may get some type of subsidy.  Those states are behind the curve and while they may not face cuts right away, down the road they may be coming to them as well.  The question is if these proposals get pushed back or modified, what is the racing industry going to do?  Will they go back into their slumber and come back to fight the next time the state comes for a little more of the subsidy?  If so, that is a plan for suicide because sooner or later you are going to get a Quebec-style response of "Racing is hopeless; it is time to pull the plug".

If you fight back the assault, you will likely be fighting the same battle for a few more years as it will be a long time until the government can go to its taxpayers to pony up to cover the debt.  It will be onslaught upon onslaught with cuts likely each year.

Racing needs to form a small committee to revamp how the business is run.  Ways to attract new people, ways to get people back to the tracks and how to get some of that ADW business back (at least the Red Mile set up their own ADW).  Don't look at the USTA to do this; with sixty two directors you are going to get sixty two different opinions, including opinions saying things are hopeless.  Let the USTA do what they do best.  Unfortunately, New York harness interests won't be getting involved because things have been going swimmingly for them, but you can't wait for them to sign on; sooner or later they will get hurt and when their lobbying machine doesn't work; they will come around.

We have reached a crisis situation and it is time for the leaders to rise up and get things changed and relatively fast.  Otherwise, you will be racing like they do in Quebec and no one wants that.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Era of Opportunity Lost Coming to an End?

Apparently fiscal issues are impacting our neighbors to the North as Ontario is looking at the C$345 million subsidy to racing through the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation's (OLG) operation of slot machines at racetracks.  Like in the lower 48, the question is how long can subsidies go on?  According to MPP Dwight Duncan, the Ontario Finance Minister, in trying to eliminate the provinces deficit with regards to the OLG's program of having slots at the tracks:
“That kind of money would pay for over nine million hours of home care or insulin pumps and supplies for five years for almost 17,000 people,” Mr. Duncan said.

“We are reviewing every program, every asset and every function of government. We are considering if government should be in a specific line of business or service delivery.”

If you ask the Ottawa Citizen, they ask what's there to think about?

Of course, horsemen in Ontario are making the same arguments horsemen in the United States makes when threatened with subsidy cuts.  How do you decide which is more important, keeping the racing industry strong or providing home care and/or insulin pumps?  Most likely by looking at how the voters are going to respond to whichever decision is made.  If a MP or an American legislator is trying to weigh which way to go, odds are they are going to look at the grandstands of the racetracks and/or the profitability of racing for their answer.

If the slot subsidies are eliminated as being considered, the question will be asked "Since the first slot parlor in Ontario opened up at Windsor Raceway in 1989, what has Ontario racing done to improve or market racing to the general public? "

Sadly, if the Finance Minister's threat comes true, historians of racing will look at this twenty-three year period not as the Golden Era but the Era of Opportunity Lost.

What is the story about Hollywood Heyden?  Was he fired, did he retire or what?  According to the SBOANJ, he took a buyout from the NJSEA and was hired as a part-time television host.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Good Old Days

Jay Bergman in the DRF claims in his latest column, that this is the best time for harness racing.  He claims the good old days were not so good; reminding us that the good old days were full of racing scandals.  He's right; just Google race-fixing and see the list of race-fixing scandals, not limited exclusively to harness racing.  A thoroughbred scandal at Pocono Downs resulted in the eviction of the thoroughbreds as did problems in quarter horse racing which eliminated them from Pompano Park.

For the most part I agree with his column except where it comes to the style of racing in the good old days and our modern form of racing.  I like the horses closing from last and winning races.  I find the typical type of racing we have now to be boring.   No, I don't expect us to be racing two minute miles any more, but perhaps with purses now being infused with welfare (slot) revenue, drivers are playing it too safe, looking to pick up a certain second or third place check instead of going for the win and risking running out of the money.  There was nothing better than half mile racing where there was action all throughout the race including those bold three wide moves in the backstretch.  Drivers took chances and risked a sure check to win a race.  The way we are racing now, where we have races where drivers are clearly racing for second, why don't we just have a one mile straight track and have the race become a purse speed duel?

Removing the hub rail was a great step towards driver and horse safety.  The passing lane allowed racing to become boring.  Race along the rail and wait for the passing lane to make your move.  It makes for a boring product.  Does anyone consider the reason we don't see new people at the track also includes races looking alike.  Maybe the whales like the style of racing we have now, but when you are trying to attract new customers, they want excitement which comes from races with constant action.

No, the good old days were not necessarily as good as we remember, but don't discount everything from the past.

Follow up on my Wendy Ross blog entry.  While not in the blog, I got responses from people regarding my support for Wendy Ross.  As you recall, I indicated Wendy Ross' introduction to the in-house and replay show is an attempt to get younger people interested in harness racing.  Isn't it funny how everyone argues the sport needs to attract a younger audience and when someone makes such an attempt, such outrage breaks out?  Making changes means everyone has to make changes.

Prepare to be Disappointed

When Jeff Gural received his awards last night at the USHWA annual awards presentation, Gural indicated he would be disappointed if someone could not get horsemen to dedicate 5% of the slot revenue towards marketing, claiming out of the $500 million earned in slot revenue, this would provide the industry with $25 million a year towards ridding the sport of drugs, marketing, and getting harness racing on television numerous times.

I agree horsemen and owners should donate 5% of their purse account towards marketing.  However, breeders should be expected to kick in 5% of their breeder award funds as well.  No, I don't expect racetracks to kick in anything; they lose bundles of  money on racing already.  That being said, be prepared to be disappointed.  When Standardbred Canada asked horsemen to donate 5% of their purse accounts towards marketing; Ontario horsemen responded with a resounding 'No'.  Sadly, what would make anyone thing American horsemen say 'Yes'?  First of all, horsemen who were racing for small purses up to now are going to be stuffing their pockets and mattresses full of dollar bills; half of them thinking racing is doomed so they may as well grab it while they can.  Question number one starting in New York will be "Why should the horsemen contribute money?  It the track's responsibility to market the sport" (I have heard them say it personally at a meeting). 

Secondly, horsemen can't look past their state's borders.  Heaven forbid horsemen in New Jersey and Pennsylvania work together.  Horsemen groups in states doing well with welfare payments could care less about their starving counterparts in another state.  Universal to states with purse accounts flush or bone dry is race, race, race; the more the better.  To think horsemen in New York are going to donate marketing money to a program which will benefit horsemen in New Jersey as well as their own state would be giving horsemen credit for forwardthinking which sadly would be giving them too much credit.

Remember the concept discussed two years ago in Canada by Standardbred Canada, called Canada One?  You haven't heard anything further about it since.  For those not aware of Canada One; it was a concept where tracks across Canada (excluding WEG), would coordinate schedules and starting times so you would not have multiple tracks operating at the same time and allow for a single simulcast channel which could be exported and marketed.  In theory, having one signal and one track racing at a time would allow for bigger wagering pools which would be helped by having Pick x wagers where if not hit at track A would carry over to the next track racing and so, on allowing for jackpot pools. 

Before we worry about marketing the sport, we need to get progressive thinkers in charge of horsemen groups who can convince their membership that working together with track management and other horsemen groups in other states is in their best interest.  Whereas the Zielinski Report said racing was basically the same as it was in the 1950s, horsemen groups are stuck in the 1950s as well.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

In Defense of Wendy Ross

If you read Harness Racing Update and no doubt various message boards, people are ripping the New Meadowlands for the 'retirement' or 'firing' of Bob 'Hollywood' Heyden and replacing him with Wendy Ross.

Make no mistake, Hollywood Heyden will be missed from the nightly handicapping and replay shows as he is very knowledgeable in harness racing and the history of the Meadowlands.  In a perfect world, Heyden would have continued on with his job as he was a welcomed voice for the track veteran customers. 

There lies the reason for Hollywood's 'retirement'.  Doing things as they always were doing was no longer going to work for the Meadowlands.  With all do respect to those who love Hollywood (and count me as a big fan of his), he unfortunately doesn't fit the demographics the Meadowlands is aiming for, new gamblers; more important, the younger gambler.  With all do respect to all those involved, getting a female involved with the show is going to appeal to the new and younger gambler, hence the arrival of Wendy Ross to the Meadowlands team and the departure of Hollywood Hayden.

Does Wendy Ross have the credentials of Hollywood Heyden?  Of course not.  Would retaining Hollywood help attract new, and the younger gamblers to harness racing and the Meadowlands in particular?  Sadly not.  Will Wendy Ross improve as time goes on?  Most certainly.  Will the presence of Ross help attract the demographics which the Meadowlands is hoping to attract?  Most definitely.

Let's face it, those who have been complaining about Wendy Ross are long established horseplayers.  Are you going to stop playing the Meadowlands because one of their television personalities have changed?  Probably not. 

I understand the anger of Heyden's reduced role at the Meadowlands; it is as if someone has taken your favorite pair of sneakers and tossed them out.  The comfort level is gone.  Unfortunately, for racing to survive at the Meadowlands and elsewhere, comfort has to be sacrificed for new things to make the product more relevant to a new generation.

Just a clarification:  I would love to see Heyden and Ross paired together; this way they could appeal to both established and new horseplayers.  However, if that was done, it may have resulted in one of the track announcers having been released; remember right now, one calls the races; the other one does the handicapping show.  Assuming they only have a duo doing the handicapping show, which person goes?  Another option would have been to have one person doing post race interviews in the paddock.

It's the same thing with The Red Mile.  The Grand Circuit was always raced during the day when the horsemen could have their little get together in a relative empty grandstand before the sales in the evening.  Last year, horsemen were thrown into disarray when the races were carded at night and they were calling for the return of their beloved day time racing.  So in The Red Mile's case, they have gotten their old shoes back but at what cost?  Losing the gains in attendance and handle they made last year?  Is The Red Mile going to be better off for remaining a comfortable place so a trip to Lexington is an affternoon of racing, dinner and drinks with friends before the sales at night?  Hardly.

To develop the racing product further at The Red Mile, changes need to be made to accomdate the market you attempt to attract.  You don't tell your potential audeince to change their thinking in the name of tradition, tradition sometimes needs to change to grow the product.

The same thing applies to the Meadowlands.  You don't attract new people by serving them the same old failed model in the name of tradition.  Things need to change to attract the younger gambler.  It is unfortunate that Heyden was replaced but someone who the younger generation could relate to needed to be brought in despite the tradition of knowing Heyden was going to be on your television set each racing evening.

No one said change was easy.  There won't be another Bob Heyden so don't be looking for Wendy Ross to step into his shoes.  Wendy will establish her own style as time goes on and if you keep an open mind it will seem like Ross has been there forever.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Telling It Like It Is

In todays Harness Racing Update, Bob Mark's answered a week later the question of "Where Have All the Bettors Gone?'  All I can say about Mark's comments are "Bravo".  I have touched on similar topics in the past as well, but to read such remarks from a respected member of the Harness Racing fraternity, it should hit home.  Should seasoned gamblers figure such activity takes place? Perhaps.  But we don't tell the novices to racing about these things and that is how we get dumb money wagered.  It is one thing when we get dumb money as a result of a person betting a horse that is a favorite for no real reason; it is one thing when we get dumb money from hiding the facts.

Obviously 'the facts' as Marks eloquently spells out are not the type of thing you would be proud about.  I would suggest if you wouldn't tell such a fact to a future mother or father-in-law, we shouldn't be doing it.  I am not saying horses should be gutted to win a race, but if a horse is not trying to win, he shouldn't be on the track.  Figuring if a horse is trying or not, should not be part of the game for anyone.  

I like The Raceway at Western Fair District, or more specifically Greg Blanchard and his staff.  Blanchard would be the first one to admit the slots keep racetracks operating but it is his goal to make racing self-sufficient; at least at The Raceway.  How can you not like a track operator who thinks this way.  With their $300,000 handles in the afternoon (unheard of in Ontario with the exception of WEG), you can say Blanchard's hard work is paying off.  They may still be relying on slots at present, but the efforts they are making at The Raceway, are steps in the right direction.  It's nice to see track operators such as the ones at The Raceway, The Meadowlands, and WEG a re working towards this goal.  Now if we could get a few more operators thinking this way.,...

Hit Them Where it Hurts Award:  Out at Cal Expo, a driver is fined $200 for "carrying a horse out".  Now, $200 may seem small, but at a track where most of the races go for $2,000, $200 is a significant amount of pocket change; that's just under what a driver would earn in the top class.

Slap on the Wrist Award: Goes to The Meadows where a driver is fined for $200 for "interference/causing another horse to break" which is less than the amount a winning driver would earn in the bottom class.

Which driver do you think will earn a lesson sooner?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What I Would Want to See in a Program

Remember the days of the good old fashioned programs?  You got the program at the track and you handicapped off of it.  Quite honestly, there are days I still handicap off of programs like that though I must admit I am a recreational horseplayer, not a heavy hitter.  Even though I am a recreational player, given the opportunity, I want to see additionally the horse's individual fractions, the trainer for each start, and a race comment for each horse.  This is the bare minimum I want to have and think any handicapper should get in a program.

Now, if I was designing the race program, there are some more things I would want to see.  I would also want to see the mile rate for each race; which being 99% of all harness races are at one mile would be the finish time, but it would really be  handy for those tracks that do throw in those occasional odd distance races as it makes it easier to compare horses and unless my crystal ball is fractured, there will be more odd distance racing in the future.  Speaking of time, each horse should be individual timed and instead of fifths, timed in tenths.  I know some people who would like to see races timed in hundredths, but realistically, does it matter if a horse finished in 1:54.81 or 1:54.83?  I think 1:54.8 is sufficient.

 Being it is appears classified racing is not going to make a comeback anytime soon, I would want meaningful conditions listed; something like 'nw3/$20kLT' standing for non-winners of 3 races or $20,000 lifetime.  Being most horses tend to race only at one track at a time, I would also have the race secretary define their list of race conditions where a maiden race may have a race rating of 1 and a FFA race would be rated at 10 with the other classes being ranked in between so the newcomers would have an easier way to interpret the quality of a race.  If an also eligible condition(s) is used,  the classes would be averaged out to come up with a race class.  When it comes to claiming races, put the race's base claiming price in the past performance line. If it is a claiming handicap, I want to see the bottom and highest base claiming prices for the race listed such as $10/$20Hdcp. You want to know if the horse was in for $10k, $15, $20k? Put it at the start of the comment line.  If claimed, list the claim at the base price (without the allowance for easier comparison).

I don't mind for early closing and stake races seeing the name of the race listed as the class, but with tracks having late closing events more frequently than ever who was the person who decided to put the series' name in the past performance line?  If a late closing series is for nw4 or $50,000 lifetime, put it in the program as nw4/$50,000LT and a race class of LC.  If I am a gambler at Dover Downs, am I going to know what the Mayflower at Pocono Downs is? 

Why in America can't we use the circle indicating parked out to indicate if parked with cover or without cover?  Fill in the circle if parked with cover and leave it empty if a horse was parked without cover.   Now we know the parked out symbol doesn't tell you how far a horse raced.  If the track uses a Trackus type system, they should show how many extra feet over the mile the horse raced as all parked outs are the same.  Speaking of additional symbols, once in a blue moon you will see a bk to indicate a horse was blocked in coming down the stretch.  Why can't the use of that symbol be mandatory?

This would not necessarily make the program too wide.  There is no reason we can't put a horse's mile rate in the program instead of the final time. Many of the other changes would go in the actual past performance line for the actual race.  But a program like this would give the typical horse player enough information to be successful gambling.

Anything you would want to see in the program that I missed?  Do you think something is overkill?  Let me know.

We hear a lot about the bad news in Illinois, but we don't here the good.  PTP reports on how Balmoral Park's handle has been increasing over time.

Also, found an article on how Northville Downs has been surviving over the years.  It is a good read.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Horseman or the Gambler?

There is still a debate on Facebook about The Red Mile deciding to race their Grand Circuit meet in the afternoon instead of at night during the week this year.  It all seems to prove my point that harness racing doesn't seem to know who their customers are.

Are the customers the yearling buyers and horsemen who like the idea of going out with friends for dinner and a drink before going to the yearling sales (or partying the night away) or are the customers the people that go to the races and wager on them?  Well, I suggest if the yearling buyers and horsemen want to treat the two weeks at Lexington like it was Old Home Week, why not close the doors at The Red Mile to outsiders and race these stakes races as non-wagering events.  The public won't notice anyway as they will all be busy over at Keenland

 It seems The Red Mile is so successful that they sold 10 acres of land where the old sales pavilion was to the University of Kentucky and are redeveloping 80 acres of their property for mixed use.  I look at the plans to redevelop those 80 acres and you know what I see?  Atlantic City Race Course; not the level of deterioration, but the way it is shoehorned by box stores and housing.  It also makes me wonder how long it will be before the track is redeveloped.  But never mind, management has apparently decided having Old Home Week is more important than having gamblers in the grandstand.

You may ask why I bring this up again?  While the situation at The Red Mile is more obvious, at every racetrack in the United States, there is a quiet battle as to who the customer is.  The horsemen think the owners are the customers because they pay the training bill.  But ultimately, it is the gambler who matters and they are voting on the way they are treated by staying away from the tracks and not wagering..

What do Pennsylvania and New Jersey horsemen have in common?  They both backed 'friends of racing' for governor and got burned.  In Pennsylvania, their governor is using the racehorse development fund as a picnic basket for non-racing budget items and in New Jersey, they picked a governor who came thisclose to shutting down the tracks.  I don't know who the New York horsemen picked; based on track record my guess is Cuomo,  It seems the Governor of New York is now wondering about the efficacy of the payments are made to the horsemen. Apparently, this is why the horsemen and agricultural industry is worried about a future casino gambling bill.  The Governor may have a few surprises for the racing industry.

Maybe the gambler matters after all.

Monmouth Park Deal All But Done - The New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen Association has a tentative deal to lease Monmouth Park starting next year.  The deal calls for 51 days  of racing at Monmouth.  A six day meet at the Meadowlands in the spring like at Woodbine (thoroughbreds during the day on the turf and standardbreds at night).  In the fall a 14 day meet would be run either at the Meadowlands, Monmouth or split between the two tracks.  The assumption is the fall meet at the Meadowlands would be another turf only meet.  Purses for the 51 days would be an average of $400,000 a day and the fall meet will run for whatever the purse account will allow.  The only thing is the deal must be finalized by the end of the month.  This year's meet will still be operated by the NJSEA.  The NJTHA is in good shape if the deal gets done this way.  It is conceivable that they could build additional OTW locations and have them ready to open once they receive the license to conduct the meet.  It is unknown if the NJTHA will get the thoroughbred license for the Meadowlands or if the meet would be a Monmouth Park at the Meadowlands meet.  While the thoroughbreds are not my game, I am happy to see Monmouth Park survive as well as the New Jersey thoroughbred industry.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Pennsylvania Horsemen About to Take Another Shave?

The Paulick Report reports that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett is proposing to give the racing industry another shave.  Under the Governor's budget plans, the Governor plans to take from the Race Horse Development Fund $72 million for each of the next three years to fund the state's Universities.  This cut would be on top of an already planned cut for this year of $47 million.  If the Governor gets his way, thoroughbred and standardbred purses and breeder awards will be cut $119 million for the fiscal 2012-2013 fiscal year.

Who said slot subsidies are a divine right for horse racing?  This may work to the benefit of the Meadowlands depending on how Chester and Pocno Downs cut purses if the budget cuts are approved.  They can either race for regular purses until July 1 and then take a massive cut or the tracks can reduce purses at the start of their meets in anticipation of the cuts to keep the purse cuts reasonable.  If purses are cut ahead of time, the horse population at the Meadowlands may remain stronger than anticipated. 

As for breeding, the price of Pennsylvania yearlings may go down if the state gets a reputation of using horse racing slot funds as the state's piggy bank.

Slots are a double edged sword.  Pennsylvania horsemen are learning that lesson now.

I mentioned in an earlier posting a couple of other items which bear repeating.  The Meadowlands and the DRF announced a strategic partnership for 2012 as well as announcing how progress is being made at the Meadowlands in their goal to get more people and money wagered at the track.

The Raceway at Western Fair District is a small track in Ontario, Candada, but darned if they don't keep trying to improve their business.  They announced starting next week, their guarantee on their Pick 4 for their daytime cards is increasing from $4,000 to $5,000.  Small potatoes?  Perhaps, but for a track like The Raceway, it is a major commitment.  In addition, The Raceway tries their best to get known in the community.  Recently, they paid a visit to a London Lightning basketball game.  Any racetrack that doesn't get out into the community to promote their racetrack is destined to fail.  Is your track making similar visits to community events?  If not, it is time to ask why not. 

Cal Expo cancelled the February 16 race card.  Another Thursday card goes out the window.  They will be racing Friday and Saturday night that weekend.  The stated reason for the cancellation was a shortage of horses.

Cutting the Winter Season

This weekend, I couldn't believe it.  A thoroughbred racetrack was holding a Kentucky Derby Prep race.  A what?  Here we were the first weekend of February and the thoroughbred media and even the regular media to some extent are talking about a Kentucky Derby Prep race.  Now, I realize thoroughbreds have a lot more time between starts, but a Derby prep race three months before the big race?  In harness racing, a prep race is the last start before the big race.

Now make no mistake about it.  If you were not heavily interested in horse racing, these preliminary races would be likely ignored.  To make things even more frustrating, about a week after the Belmont Stakes has been run, these people are talking about the Breeders Cup.  Of course, thoroughbred racing is blessed by having a virtual lock on racing in the Southern states which allows tracks to keep racing quality horses all year whereas harness racing is for the most part relegated to the typically frozen tundra of the Northeast United States and Canada..

Now make no mistake, I am not suggesting the top three year olds standardbreds should be racing already; those that are lucky are enjoying their time in Florida or Georgia.  Those smaller stables have their horses wintering up North which realistically has not been that bad this year.  But we collectively have a problem with our winter racing. It goes on too long.  Basically from November through April, six months, we are in what we call winter racing season.  I understand the business issues, but let's not kid ourselves winter racing is like watching reruns on television.

That being said, I think this down time needs to be reduced.  There is no reason we can't get the top three year olds heading North in March and start the stakes season in April.  It would mean a little less off time for the horses and an accelerated prep schedule, but it would allow us to get out of the tedium of the winter doldrums much sooner.  We can't do that?  That's not true, as top standardbreds are being treated like the runners with fewer starts and well managed seasons, many harness tracks now have the 45 day rule before requiring qualifying instead of the traditional 30 day rule.  This would allow harness racing to get out of the winter doldrums much sooner, with only four months of down time.  It would also allow time for horses to earn significant winnings so the major stakes can eliminate elimination races and restrict entry to more stakes towards highest money earners, if they choose.

If we insist on racing all year, we need to get more quality racing and eliminate the not ready for prime time racing.  Starting stakes season earlier is imperative if we ever hope to get more attention for the standardbred sport.

Meadowlands-DRF announce strategic partnership for 2012 - Details available here.

The Raceway Pick 4 Guarantee Increases - Starting next week, the Raceway at Western Fair District will be increasing their Pick 4 Guarantee for daytime cards from $4,000 to $5,000.