For photos from the Meadowlands contact

Friday, December 30, 2016

A Look Back, Reviewing Progress (Part 2)

Continuing on our discussion on how the various parties involved in harness racing have changed over the last seven years, we resume talking about racing commissions.  Part 1 of this entry was posted yesterday.

Like many governmental agencies, the racing commissions tend to be friends of industry participants, seemingly considering the wagering public as an afterthought.  When proposals are made by the general public, the road to consideration of rule adoption is a circuitous route to travel, typically defeated if tracks and/or horsemen oppose it regardless of the validity of the proposal.  However, if a proposal comes forth from the tracks, they tend to travel at high-speeds to adoption.

Love the Canadian fair-start rule?  You better stick to Canadian tracks because such a rule in the United States will not happen, racetracks and horsemen groups will not allow such a proposal to get adopted.  Oh sure, they will go through all the motions required of them but with no representation by the wagering public on the commission board, it is a foregone conclusion it will be defeated despite the fact it would be beneficial to all in the long run.  As long as the composition of racing commissions is limited to racing insiders, nothing will change.

With regards to the racing public, the industry continues to fail the majority of the public.  Sure, there may be a few changes in the game, but typically, the moment tracks attempt to put a horse in the second tier or have added distance racing, you will see drivers squawk and trainers reluctant to enter their horses in those races (an exception being Yonkers when their races being sent to Europe for simulcasting) despite the fact these races offer more wagering value to horseplayers.  Rather than having a trailer or two in a stakes race, we offer the public two or three elimination races of of five horses or less for their wagering consideration.

Exchange wagering, only in New Jersey despite the fact it is legal in California.  Tracks fear new forms of wagering to the point of embargoing exchange wagering despite the fact it may pay horsemen and track operators twice what they get now.  

Horseplayers want large payoffs so the tracks give them new wagers which offer high rewards to whales but otherwise sucks the money out of the gamblers' hands which kills churn and speeds the eventual departure of most players.  Yet, while tracks offer these jackpot wagers, there is no attempt to offer new wagering propositions which would allow horseplayers to make more money and recycle those wagering dollars through the wagering pools.

It's no secret racing is not the fastest game around with the breaks between races so what does the industry do?  It drags the races out even longer with post crawl that only those with the patience of Job are able to watch a single racing program. 

Is racing on its deathbed?

As I said seven years ago, harness racing is hurting but not on its deathbed.  Tracks have closed during these seven plus years but for the most part, it is business as usual for racing operations.   There will continue to be some downsizing and the sport will go through some heaves, but when all is said and done it will remain albeit changed and smaller in size.  So what will racing look like?  Let's take a look at some items through my futurist hat:

National Regulation -  The feds will mandate a national effort to regulate drug testing and the industry will comply.  Cheating via medication violations will be treated seriously with nationwide bans for those cheating multiple times.  As for the rules of racing, cost savings for the states will give rise to a national regulatory agency to establish and enforce the rules of racing which may eliminate the presence of individuals in one state after they have been banned in others.  

Animal Welfare - It may take some kicking and screaming but eventually animal welfare will become the rule.  Whipping if not banned will be restricted more than ever.  Feet will remain in the footholds on sulkys and the industry will be forced to deal with the unwanted horse problem, far more than it does now.  This effort will make racing more palatable to the American public.

Wagering Changes - Exchange wagering, now restricted to New Jersey will be expanded into other states.  Don't be surprised to see fixed-odds and other new wagering options to come to North America's shores as wagering will be outsourced to TAB organizations.  Eventually you will see sports wagering in the United States expanded and with gambling becoming more acceptable, tote companies will be cutting takeout rates to compete.

Less Racing - Depending on TAB for wagering, racing dates will be cut.  With fewer races, purses will be more lucrative and meets will become more boutique instead of run of the mill.  Becoming events, attendance will recover (though the large crowd of yesteryear will never be seen again) while handle will increase as wagering will be focused on fewer tracks at any given time.  

International Racing - Racing will be imported into and exported from North America to maximize the infrastructure of TABs.  Domestic racing will need to change to conform to the tastes of foreign markets to maximize revenue.  This means races of variable distances and more horses per race meaning second tiers.

These are scary times for horse racing, but the future will be exciting for those willign to conform to the changed environment.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Look Back, Reviewing Progress (Part 1)

This week is often a week for being nostalgic and as such, I went back and looked at some blogs entries.  In particular, I came upon my first blog entry from May 18, 2009; hard to believe it has been more seven and a half years since I started this blog.   In particular, these part of the entry are worth re-exploring.

"Harness racing, as other forms of pari-mutuel racing, faces many problems. While many people in the industry are offering suggestions to deal with issues the sport is facing, they are approaching the issues from their own perspective. Breeders, owners, trainers, drivers, racetrack owners, and gamblers are representing their segment of the industry as they should, but without concern for other stakeholders. This is a problem; to work through the problems harness racing has requires cooperation".

"I refuse to believe harness racing is on it's death bed. Yes, there are problems but there are great horses and stories to be told".

So what has changed over these seven plus years?  Breeders still seem to be out in the cold with little concern for them other than an attempt to attract new owners; though the effort seems to be involved with ready to race horses.  As a result, foal crops continue to decline in the United States.  In fairness, the effort to get new owners is young, it is going to take more than a year or two to develop a base of new owners, it takes success for owners attracted to relatively low cost/low risk racing syndicates before they graduate to individual ownership and hopefully on to yearling buyers.  While some tracks have increased purses for lower level non-winners, purses are still too low when compared to claiming races; there is a need to offer more reward in maiden, non-winners or 2, 3, or 4 races to give yearling owners a chance to recoup much of their investment before they move on to big stakes, or if necessary, put their horses up for sale at auction or via the claiming route. Until then, foal crops will continue get smaller, forcing smaller tracks to close, chronic horse shortages, and poorer racing.

At some tracks there seems to be a genuine partnership between horsemen and track management in an effort to improve interest in their racing product, Yonkers Raceway being one which comes to mind.  Whether those efforts will be successful remain to be seen but the fact they are trying is encouraging, but don't be misled.  While efforts are being made, they tend to be superficial, avoiding some of the more serious issues, such as too much racing, takeout rates, new wagering options, post time lag (very annoying), and to some degree whipping and kicking.

Now before anyone sees red about whipping and kicking, I realize I left an important segment of the industry out of the initial article; the regulators.  While I think the industry has to go further with respect to whipping, it is true a big part of the problem racing has is regulators which refuse to enforce the rules consistently.  When it comes to whipping and kicking, judges must be unwavering and consistent in their enforcement of existing rules and penalties must be increased.  As long as the potential penalties fail to be significant, drivers will look at the risk of being called on kicking or excessive whipping as a 'cost of doing business'.  

I would argue contrary to public opinion, having judges who are former drivers is not a good thing, what we need are judges who are professional from the first day they are in the industry.  While I believe many of the judges try to do their best, being a former member of the racing fraternity unfortunately leads to giving drivers you formally raced with a break, whether conscious or not.  Judges should be hired from colleges, perhaps students from those colleges which offer racing programs; learn the rules and how to judge in the classroom with internships in the judges stand and upon graduation start judging at B-tracks, working their way up to the A-tracks.

Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.    

Sunday, December 25, 2016

VFTRG Classics - December 24, 2010

Courtesy of Grand River Raceway and Standardbred Canada is their version of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

BTW, when I said "Plug Your Ears", I was referring to the off-key singing.  It is still cute.  I loved it.

Have a Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

VFTRG Classics - July 14, 2015

Admittedly not a title for Christmas time column, but while it a little less than a year and a half old (it would be unreasonable to expect many changes thus far), it is worth repeating.  I'll try to find a more suitable column for Christmas Day.

"Our Product Sucks"

"The ultimate problem is our product sucks" said Hanover Shoe Farms' Murray Brown at yesterdays USTA summit regarding the alarming decline of foals bred and the number of owners in the standardbred game.

Well, I don't think I would say the product 'sucks' but make no mistake, the product is severely boring, flawed, and quite honestly those who run the business abuse its customers, the gambler.  On second thought, 'sucks' may be an appropriate description.

Boring in it is the same thing every race, every week.  Same drivers, same horses, same basic race strategies, and long race meets where by the end of the season gamblers are thankful it is over for the year.  For an example, if you live in the market of Yonkers Raceway and are a patron of their product, you are thankful for the late Spring and Christmas breaks which are typically the only time you get to recharge your batteries.

The product is flawed.   Gamblers want larger fields, larger pools to wager into, variety in race distances, anything which makes the handicapping game tougher.  Not impossible, but tough enough so the rewards of selecting the winner is rewarded with more than an odds-on price.  Gamblers want larger pools to wager into so a $500 wager doesn't drop a 3-1 shot to 3-5.  The horseplayer wants to see something more (and less) than a mile race; anything to make the product less tedious.  In addition, odd distance races need to be properly reported in past performance pages so the data is more useful to the gambler.  How about a totally different style of racing, RUS?    I am sure RUS racing would be popular with punters if given a proper chance by track operators and horsemen with the approval of racing commissions to offer wagering.  Perhaps the ultimate in flawed is the infamous elimination races and post position preference to winners.  Racing just to qualify and giving preferential post position in the final, penalizing the horse who raced much harder out of an outside post to qualify?

The gambler is abused.  With the exception of a few wagers, the horseplayer is subjected to high take-out rates necessitating them to depend on ADWs which offer rebates to cut the real takeout rate, slowing their rate of burn (gambling money); and the industry wonders why you can't gamblers in front of their screen to the track?  If someone is a relative newbie unaware of ADWs, the burn rate is much higher, likely costing the industry a customer, and yes, possibly a new owner.  There is the refusal to offer free programs on websites as done in Canada.  No one is saying to provide 'enhanced' programs, provide the basic program patrons used to get in the 1970s.  Perhaps the ultimate abuse, nay insult is the playing with post times; the infamous post time drag with a race going off anywhere between 2 to 10 minutes after the listed post time.

Up to now, what has the industry done to solve these problems?  Too many tracks operate at the same time causing dilution of wagering pools thus guaranteeing small pools at all but a select few tracks.  Horsemen revolt at the idea of racing longer distance races (kudos to the horsemen at Yonkers for agreeing to this for those races being exported to France), owners revolting over the thought of racing with a second tier though harness racing was able to deal with it for many years.  Yes, it costs more to race these days but if racing at a slot track, horsemen are typically racing for far more money than they would have ever dreamed of years ago.  If willing to race at an added distance, the impact of the second tier is even less.  

Variety?  Forget about it.  Other than a rare odd distance race, it is vanilla as can be.  One mile, one mile, and you guess it, one mile.  The reaction to RUS, the one thing which has increased horse ownership both for RUS and traditional racing?  Some states show interest but many states look at it not as another form of racing for standardbreds, but a threat to their livelihood or are unwilling to invest the time needed to get racing commissions, and in some cases legislatures on board to approve that new style of racing.  

What ever happened to the heralded Exchange Wagering?  Cal Expo was supposed to debut it about a year ago; nothing.  In NJ, where it was approved by the legislature, it is still in the rule making process, a process taking so long, it is clear racetracks are not exactly clamoring for it.

Medication issues?  No easier way to get a newcomer playing the horses than having to figure out which trainers may be using 'the juice'.  When one track operator hires his own investigator and excludes trainers he feels doesn't deserve the privilege of racing at his tracks due to infractions, the mob is ready to draw and quarter him.  No, maybe the methodology isn't perfect but it needs to be asked why doesn't any other private track operator take similar actions.  

Cooperation between the states?  Forget about it; each state is an island to itself.  There's no coordination of race dates with a track 12 miles away in a different state.  Want to be an island is fine, that is if you want to be like trottingbreds with racing only in one state.  See how much wagering you will have then.

As Mark Loewe said, it begins with the gambler. Treating the gambler right is what makes him a horse owner which increases the demand for horses.  Racing has a lot to do in order to get racing into a desirable product for future owners and gamblers.  The time to act is now.

There were other great points brought up in the summit yesterday.  Read what was discussed.  If you love harness racing like me, you want to see this committee be successful.

Friday, December 23, 2016

VFTRG Classics - May 16, 2011

With the holiday season upon us, I will run a few oldie but goodie columns from years past.  This column originally ran on May 16, 2011.

The Feds Getting Involved In Racing

Steve Zorn, racing manager of Castle Village Farm, wrote a story in the New York Times on Saturday talking about how racing's drug problem is more complicated than it looks.  While he talks about the short comings of the legislation proposed by Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, which by the way is supported by some prominent horse owners, he admits racing's drug problem has gotten out of control.

Yes, being Steve Zorn is a thoroughbred person, the article is written from the perspective of thoroughbred racing.  However, make no mistake, standardbred racing has its own share of drug problems.  One issue Zorn brings up is Lasix's bad effects on a race horse.  Specifically he says,

But Lasix also causes a horse to lose 20-30 pounds immediately before a race, an obvious performance advantage, and that weight loss, in turn, requires more recovery time between races, perhaps accounting for some of the reduction in the number of races per year that horses run. Also, Lasix is reputed to be effective in masking the presence of some other drugs in post race testing

Zorn also cites how the career of thoroughbreds has been greatly reduced.  The average season of a thoroughbred has been reduced to six races a year down from eleven fifty years ago and the average racing career of a thoroughbred is only eleven races down from forty-five races in the timeframe.  Well, not mentioned in the article is the average number of starts a standardbred makes.  When I started following this sport, back in the 1970's it was not uncommon to see a standardbred race forty plus starts a year and they tended to maintain their class level a lot more longer.  Now you are lucky to see a horse race thirty times a year and when they re-appear the following year, how many times do we see that former $20,000 claimer racing for $10,000 or less?  As for the our top three year olds, we're lucky to see them race between thirteen to twenty times during their sophomore year.

What happens to these horses with reduced racing careers?  If they are lucky they head to a career at the stallion barn, but far too often, we find them working all too fast down the chain of race tracks to outposts like Thunder Ridge Raceway, or they find themselves in sales; a precursor to a possible road trip to Canada or Mexico.

My guess is a ban on medication would result in a couple of things.  Some of the super trainers will be finding new careers outside of racing.  While horses who are hurting will find themselves in the barn recuperating instead of racing through the pain, the overall population of available races horses will increase and horses will have longer, more stable careers.  Race times will decrease, and we will find some of our stallions will end up being frauds as their speed will not be passed on becasue their speed was chemically enhanced.  On the other hand, less of our future stallions will run into fertility problems at stud as the use of less medications will mean a reduced impact on horse fertility.

No, the Whitfield-Udall legislation is somewhat simplistic and needs refinement.  As Zorn indicates, it does not provide for environmental contamination.  But for how many years has racing looked away from the medication problem and continued to allow horsemen to continue operating with minimal penalties and allow stables to remain intact with horses just being transferred to a beard?

Maybe time has run out on the racing industry to police itself and it is time for the federal government to do what the industry has lacked the will to do.  Rather than fight federal legislation, it would be better to work with the bill's sponsors to educate them on the realities of regulating medication so things like incidental contamination and thresholds are accounted for.  The rooster has come home to roost.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What I'd Like For Christmas

Dear Santa,

Yes, I know I am late with my list this year, but you are Santa Claus. how much time do you really need to get me these things?

What?  Yes, it is harness racing  I know things don't get done quickly in the industry.  Okay, I am an adult, how about getting it done before Christmas of 2017?  You'll try?  Great.  Well, in this case, here is my wish list for harness racing (in no particular order).

  1. Reduced takeout - I know I ask for this every year but one day they are bound to listen.  I am not asking for a 5% takeout, but something more reasonable than current rates.
  2. Hand the racetracks a dictionary of wagering terms - Highlight the meaning of the term 'post time' and strike out the term 'post crawl'.  While you are at it, can you whisper in their ear a suggestion to assign a time for each race and list it as '1st (19:15) Race' and adhere to it?  Sure, they can coordinate post times but it does no good if races don't go off at the stated time.
  3. Distance racing - I like it and it makes for larger payoffs.  While you are at it, please give the USTA the wisdom to approve the proposal for mile rates.
  4. Tracks allowing exchange wagering - Hey, it's a great way to play the horses.  Why not allow your signal to be used for exchange wagering, if only because you will get two times the commission you get for regular wagering.  While you are at it, maybe get states to consider allowing exchange wagering in-state?
  5. Develop racing networks -  Here is a great example for one.  How about a Meadowlands, Tioga Downs, Vernon Downs racing network?  Post times would be coordinated so races would take place every five minutes.  You would have racing analysts located in studio with reporters at each track to report and conduct interviews at the individual tracks.  
  6. Free programs in the United States - I am not saying give away enhanced racing programs but there is no reason why tracks shouldn't be allowed to offer for free your grandfather's racing program.
  7. Foreign wagering - I want to be able to play the standardbreds when there is no live domestic racing.  Can we get racing from Australasia and Europe to wager on in North America?
  8. New wagers for the regular guy - Yes, churn-dwindling wagers are all the rage but in the long term, they are hurting the game.  How about some new wagers for the regular guy?  No, it may not be a life changing payout, but it will be a nice payout considering the amount a horseplayer will need to wager to have a reasonable chance to win.
  9. Eliminate show wagering - While you are at it, let's eliminate show wagering and modify place wagering where it pays the top three finishers if seven or more horses race; the top two finishers if six or less starters.
  10. Courageous track operators who establish and/or expand their own ADWs nationally to compete against the big ones - After all, tracks talk about not getting a fair cut from the existing ADWs, but nothing is going to change unless they do something; just willing a change in rates is not going to cut it.  If the track operators don't want to go 'all in'?  Fine, help them form partnerships with other racetracks.
  11. While we are talking about ADWs, can you work on eliminating state laws which grant monopolies for ADW wagering within their borders?  Let bettors choose a licensed ADW which meets their particular needs (rebates, tracks covered, etc.) and let ADWs compete for my support.  Good ol' American competition.
  12. An exclusion policy at the Meadowlands which is black and white, administered so know one can question its propriety.
  13. Track operators who realize racing their own stock in overnights at their own tracks really isn't in their long-term interest.  There are plenty of other tracks to race at, race there.
  14.  More support for racing under saddle. - It really can complement traditional racing, but only if it gets support from horsemen and owners.  
  15. Drivers getting in the saddle - There is no reason why drivers can't race under saddle.  Tell those drivers who give it a go to tell those who tease them about competing against 'a bunch of women' that those women have more courage than the razzers have.  That should shut them up.
  16. A new USTA President - There will be a new USTA President elected this February in Las Vegas.  May the winning candidate have the mandate and ability to make some courageous changes and get the support of the membership.  BTW, thanks for having three candidates with diverse backgrounds running for the office; after all, it is a thankless job so having people step up and run says a lot about them.
  17. Another great campaign for Wiggle It Jiggleit.  The sport needs a horse like him and he lives up to the hype.
  18. More amateur racing - The Meadowlands has shown amateur racing is acceptable.  The key is getting these drivers exposure.  You can't expect gamblers to support amateur racing if the drivers make an appearance once or twice a year.  Having them race regularly gives gamblers the confidence they need to wager.
  19. World Peace - Hey, it's not like I am asking for the end to the Faraldo-Gural feud.
  20. Coordinated racing schedules where tracks schedule racing days to maximize the available horse population.  Hmmm, maybe ending the Faraldo-Gural feud is easier.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

When an Exclusion Policy is Self-Defeating

Let me preface this up front, I support the owner's right to exclude certain people from participating in racing.  After all, anyone who has private property has the right to deny access to their property (we are talking about American constitutional law).

Sure, some people will claim anyone the state licenses to participate in racing should be able to participate at any racetrack in the state.  This is not the case.  The state licensing a person to participate in racing means as far as the state is concerned, the individual may participate in racing.  Were the track be operated by the state or receive state funding, then you could make a case the rule of exclusion would be restricted but failing this, the track operator of a private track still retains the right to deny someone access.

Look at this way, if your town issued a permit to a salesperson to canvas door to door, does that mean you have to let this person into your house?  Of course not, you have the right to close the door on the salesperson, permit or not.  Both the horseman and the merchant make a living doing what they do but you, the owner of the private property, is the final arbiter as to who gets in and who doesn't.

This all said, doesn't mean the rule of exclusion can't be abused and when it does, even the most well-intentioned policy can become a mockery and when it does, it hurts the credibility of the stated reason for the policy.  When you are a homeowner, you may not care, but if you run a commercial enterprise, you better be concerned for your success depends on the views of your customers.

One way the stated goal of exclusion can be torpedoed is when the operator races in overnight events at a track they operate.  Let's say you have a personal trainer who gets a positive.  The whole racing world will be watching what you do.  You decide to let your trainer continue to race at your track for all the right reasons; reasons you can substantiate.  There is a reason why trainer A gets to race and trainer B gets the boot.  The problem is with the rules of exclusion, you will never say why trainers are banned versus why others continue to race.  Hence, the rising voice of the horsemen can be heard claiming 'playing favorites', 'not applying the rules fairly', etc., loud enough so the customers with cash start wondering what is going on.  After a while, your customer is going to wonder if you let 'this cheat' (their words) continue to race, how up and up is your racing?

Of course, if the operator doesn't race at the track he controls, no one will be able to claim favoritism and the integrity of the exclusionary policy remains intact.  This is why track operators do a disservice to their own facilities where they race.  Best to race at tracks you don't own so no one can claim favoritism.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Harness Racing Australia Giving the Whip the 'Heave Ho'

HRA has announced effective September 1, 2017 the use of whips in racing or training of standardbreds will be banned in Australia.  As per the Australian Broadcasting Corporation report, Harness Racing Australia Chairman Geoff Want said:

"There'll be no whips allowed on training tracks, on racetracks, stables, in any other application in our industry."
"There is compelling evidence these days that society will not tolerate continued cruelty towards animals."
"We are doing it for the image of our sport, we are doing it for the sustainability of our industry, we're doing it to secure our future."

Congratulations to the HRA for taking such a bold step.  They are absolutely right; if the sport is going to survive, whips need to be given the 'heave ho'.  The public has no desire to see whipping and it is one of the reasons why it is hard to get new punters to take interest in the sport.  Aside from the lack of growth, the pressure from anti-racing camps will surely cause the industry to collapse from the eventual lack of public and governmental support.
Of course, there are those who point out what will drivers use as an 'emergency' tool in a race; such as an unruly horse, a horse who shies away from a crowd or a shadow.  Apparently this is being taken into account.  HRA will be working with the RSPCA in developing a tool which drivers will be able to use in such situations.  Plans are for such an instrument to be ready for use by the time the whip ban comes into place.
North American harness interests should embrace this plan to get rid of the whip and start planning for its demise as soon as possible, but recognizing the unwillingness to try new things, the best we can hope for is Standardbred Canada and the USTA to keep tabs on the Australian ban and if indeed the results are as good as expected, quickly adopt a similar ban in North America.  Of course, it will be a little more difficult as the battle in the United States to ban the whip will need to take place in each racing jurisdiction, but endorsement of the ban by the USTA will make it easier to win over racing commissions who tend to support horsemen and tracks over the public interest (despite what they may say).  I would expect the soonest you would possibly see a ban in North America would be mid-to-late 2019.
We should look forward to the time the whip gets the 'heave ho' on our borders.  The sport will be better off for it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Tuesday Briefs

Ake Svanstedt has been handed a 30 day suspension and a $1,000 fine for a couple of positives over Hambletonian weekend, most notable the disqualification of Resolve from the John Cashman Jr. Memorial Trot.  His suspension starts on January 2.

Some question the timing of his suspension, feeling a suspension in January is a gift for Svanstedt.  I would disagree.  Make no mistake, a suspension during the summer would be a lot more severe as stakes season offers higher purses but a suspension this month would be a gift as there are fewer racing opportunities for a stable which includes raceway and stakes stock; serving a suspension while Freehold Raceway (December 11) and Yonkers Raceway (December 19) take their Christmas hiatus.  Holding the suspension over for when Freehold and Yonkers reopen would deny Svanstedt more racing opportunities.

Once again, the lunacy of Florida's parimutuel laws is exposed with the operation of Hamilton Downs, an excuse of a track created in the name of operating a poker room and in the future possibly a casino (you can click on this link to see a picture of the track).  At least the operator of this track claims his plan is to build a proper track down the road, unlike the operator of the track in Gretna.  How a state can operate racing in such a laissiez-faire approach boggles the mind.  Florida is a case story of how not to regulate horse racing.

The Gaming and Racing Symposium started yesterday in Arizona, and a number of industry leaders spoke.  They all said the right thing and in the room I am sure they all agreed.  Call me cynical but I suspect for the most part they will return next year with nothing changed.  There are too many differing interests at play here.  Racing dates will not be cut meaningfully, takeout rates will remain high, and racing certainly can't afford to offer entertainment between races to keep racegoers entertained on more than a few days a year.  Quite honestly, what needs to be done is for someone to blow up the entire racing model as we know it now and rebuild it from day scratch; something which would take extreme courage.  Perhaps things need to get a lot worse before things can get better.  All I know is dramatic change is required and it needs to happen soon.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

ARCI Press Release - The Results are In...Stakeholders Support Central Rule Making for Drug Rules.


Stakeholders Support Central Rule Making for Drug Rules.

Lexington, KY -   The results of twenty-eight focus groups and an in-depth survey of a industry stakeholders reveal widespread support for the creation of a centralized rule making entity accountable to the existing racing commissions reorganized into a multi-jurisdictional entity (interstate compact).

With input from approximately 3,000 people, the top problems to be addressed are perception (19.2%) and competition (23.8%).    These are followed by the lack of uniformity in rules (17.8%) and doping (14.1%).

80% of respondents indicated that the lack of uniform rules was either a “problem” or a “big problem”.   81% indicated a similar response when asked about inconsistent penalties.

A strong majority (68%) would prefer the creation of a central rule-making entity whose rules would apply to all.   When combined with those who “could live with” this approach, the acceptability number jumps to 92%.

While the concept of anti doping policy being handled by a private entity (i.e. USADA or the proposed THADA) received support from 44% of respondents, an overwhelming majority of those respondents (87%) found it unacceptable to have the private entity accountable to a US federal agency.   73% found it unacceptable to not have the entity accountable to a government entity.

Of those preferring a private entity an overwhelming majority (80%) wanted that entity accountable to an interstate compact.   A strong majority (62%) supported accountability to individual state racing commissions.

33% rejected the private entity option to support the government option.   25% indicated it didn’t matter whether it was government or private.

Of those supporting a government option, 87% indicated that they would favor or could live with the entity being an interstate, multi-jurisdictional compact of state racing commissions.  Only 35% indicated they could accept the status quo.

“We don’t have a horse in this race,” said Ed Martin, President of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, the umbrella group of the state racing commissions in the US, as well as the provincial and national racing regulators in Canada.  The ARCI Canadian members operate under a federal government structure to regulate and test for drugs while our US members operate on a state by state basis.  The drug testing policies are similar and testing results are comparable.

The ARCI launched its 2016 Industry Input Project specifically to identify possible ways industry issues can be addressed through a broad based consensus rather than through divisive and conflicting political advocacy efforts.

“When pursuing legislation, either on the state or federal level, initiatives resulting from a general consensus tend to minimize potential opposition and have the greatest possibility of success.  We believe this project has identified ways to build that consensus on a breed by breed basis.  Only the industry can decide whether to do that or not,” said Martin.

The ARCI is facilitating a meeting of industry leaders to encourage them to decide upon a consensus path based on the results of industry input.

Survey Respondents:

By Breed: 
Thoroughbred - 54%
Standardbred  - 34%
Quarter Horse - 12%

By Involvement:
Owner/Breeder - 40%
Horseplayer -  19%
Trainers - 14%
Horsemen-other - 9%
Racing officials - 6%
Veterinarians - 5%
Track Operations - 5%
Other -  2%

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Of Drones and Blind Men

On Friday, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario conducted a trial using drones to watch what the drivers were doing during qualifiers at Western Fair Raceway.  The purpose of the experiment was to see if using drones would aid in judging races.  While there was a problem with data transmission, the test shows promise.  Further tests will be done with the thoroughbreds and quarter horses before a decision will be made as to whether or not to use drones on wagering events.

If used on a regular basis, would drones improve the judging of races for gamblers and owners alike?  It is questionable.  Make no mistake, having an above view would give judges unprecedented access which would show more clearly whether or not a horse interfered with another horse as well as other infractions but what good is all using drones if the judges don't know or won't enforce the rules as written?  Until judges are enforcing the rules as expected, drones would be like putting an expensive pair of glasses on a blind person; it won't help.

Maybe a drone would haive been helpful Friday afternoon at Freehold in the 6th race where the judges disqualified #6 Brickyard Classic from first to third for interference to #4 Schoolhouse Rock.  The judges claimed Brickyard Classic struck the wheel of Schoolhouse Rock near the half.  I must confess, I don't see it but then who knows what the judges saw, after all gamblers were spent watching six minutes of dead air before an announcement was made.  Wouldn't it have made sense to have the customers see what the judge were looking at?  Did the judges make the right call?  I would be interested in hearing your opinions of the decision.

By now, you have read or heard of Rob Key's appeal to reorganize the USTA in Harness Racing Update.  It is no secret I feel the USTA does a good job, all things considered.  True, they are going past their mandate of being the breed registry with little funding for all they do, but then who else is going to do what needs to be done?  After all, if members are complaining how much they are paying the USTA for its services and programs, how forthcoming are they going to be to pay for programs managed by other groups?

Sixty directors are too many, especially with their individual parochial interests; wouldn't it be better if the tracks, breeders, and horsemen each selected two or three of their brethren to represent their interests on a reconstituted board?  Shouldn't the board have owner representatives (it should have gambler representatives as well, but who are we kidding)?  Even if the board was streamlined, unless they are willing to acknowledge the sport depends on horseplayers as much as it does slot revenues, they will not enact steps which are customer friendly.

I will be the first one to acknowledge there is a need for fresh blood on the board as directors seem to be appointed for life, which means new ideas fail to get the proper airing, if aired at all.  However, I learned at a recent at a USTA district meeting the problem is not the fact 'old timers' don't want to relinquish their positions; it's they are forced to remain a director because none of the younger members want to become directors.  This is not a problem unique to harness racing, Gen Xers and Millenials seem not to want to volunteer their time, perhaps because they feel too pressed for time.  Until younger members are willing to step up, it will be hard to get new ideas addressed.

This doesn't mean one throws their hands up and say 'Why bother?'.  Things worth having are worth fighting for so it is important to keep on plugging.  Maybe things have to get worse before people are willing to change, hopefully not.  One thing is for certain, there needs to be someone special to come forth either from within or outside the industry who has the gravitas to get the various interests to see the need to make changes, otherwise things will continue on its current course and continued decline.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Can't Beat the ADW Experience

Over at there is an interesting column titled "A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the ADW" and it highlights some of the reasons why it is better to bet with an ADW when at the track, something which is the bane of most tracks.  After all, tracks earn a pittance on those wagers as compared to wagering through the windows at the track.  Here are several of those reasons:

  • Don’t have to stand behind a guy buying $40 worth of 10-cent Superfectas
  • Can wait until the last minute without worrying about being shut-out
  • Don’t have to stand in line again to cash
  • Can cancel your bet with a couple of clicks
  • Rebates!

While the column talks about people using their phones to wager at the track, it could have just as easily been titled "Reasons Why it is Better to Stay Home and Play the Horses" and it highlights a big problem racetracks have to deal with, one admittedly they will be unable to overcome.  Racetracks can't compete with ADWs when it comes to the wagering experience, the only difference is the ability to see the horses 'up close'.  Unfortunately, for most gamblers, after they've seen the races live a couple of times, nothing beats the convenience of wagering from home.

So if racing were to cede wagering to the ADWs what is racing to do?

Racing needs to change the funding source for purses.  The only way this can be done is to form their own (or in partnership) ADW so they are able to keep a larger portion of the wagering dollar which up to now has been given away to the existing ADWs.  I have talked ad nauseam about this recently; just refer to my recent columns for more about this.

So what does one do with the racetrack now that you concede the gamblers to the ADWs?  Time to hold festival-type racing; where you appeal to the fans instead of gamblers.  Will there still be wagering?  Of course there will but it will be done at a much lower level so you would downsize your tote operations accordingly.  In fact, with the exception of some tellers, you would farm the wagers to an ADW to operate as the hub.

As to the on-track action, racing would be a piece of the entertainment puzzle.  Since most of the wagering is done off-track at ADWs, why are we sticking to our 15 minute (plus crawl time) between races formula  With everyone now acting as their individual OTB facility, the amount of time between the races can be reduced to no more than 5 to 7 minutes between races (perhaps longer on major stakes days).   Once a race is official, head back to the paddock and send the next field out for their score and then directly to the gate and repeat.  There is no reason while a 12 race card can't be completed in two hours.  Conduct other events before and after the racing program to complete the entertainment package for the day if you are not part of a racino; alternative gaming options would complete the day otherwise.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Trainer Trends

Here’s a look at how the top 20 trainers are faring through Monday, November 14 as compared with their stats through that date in 2015.

Ron Burke tops the earnings list, again, but he has 91 fewer wins—10% less—and is short more than $2.8 million—13%. He made it past the $20 million mark for the fourth consecutive year on Monday night, Nov 14. At the close of the 2015 season his money was off by 12%--$3.4 million. He finished 2015 almost $12 million ahead of Trainer of the Year Jimmy Takter and is $10 million up on him right now. Burke’s number of starts dropped 4% between 2014 and 2015 and that number is down 3% since a year ago this time. Hannelore Hanover, Southwind Frank and Check Six have all been big time check cashers, but Frank didn’t dominate his division as expected, and Mission Brief missed the season due to injury. Burke is the leading trainer at The Meadows, The Meadowlands, Hoosier Park and in the NYSS. He’s number two at Harrah’s, three at Pocono and five at Yonkers and Scioto Downs. Hall of Fame anybody?

Hall of Famer Jimmy Takter, who was also second at this point last year, is off by 18 wins and more than $2.5 million—20%. His UTRS is up from 0.339 to 0.363. He trains the new world record holder, Always B Miki, as well as Ariana G, Pure Country and Bar Hopping. Last year his six wins on Breeders Crown night, as well as the 11 other checks his starters presented him with, locked down his year-end honors. Perhaps Miki makes up for the lack of anything like that? Regardless, both Burke and Takter are off their recent highs and the Trainer of the Year award is up in the air.

Rene Allard, who unlike Burke and Takter grinds out most of his money on the overnight circuit, is back at number three. He has 11 fewer wins than at this point a year ago but his earnings are up by 9%--more than $439,000. Allard is number one at Yonkers and number two at Pocono Downs.

Tony Alagna is fourth again. Last year he made the jump from seven to four and has held on to that spot. Tony has 11 fewer wins but his money is up by more than $439,000—9%. His colt Racing Hill is number two on the all-horse earnings list. His starts were down 8% between 2014 and 2015 and are down 9% since a year ago: less is more.

Ake Svanstedt, who was at nine in mid-November of 2015, is at five. His wins are up by 20% and his money is 28% better--$1.2 million. His UTRS is off from 0.305 to 0.293. Ake moved up nine spots to number eight last year and continues to advance in NA. Resolve was his top performer. He is number eight at The Meadowlands, seven at Pocono and five in the NYSS.

Erv Miller, who dropped eight spots to number 11 last year, is up five to number six from mid-November of 2015. He only has one more win but his earnings are up by 23%. Miller trains BC winner Someomensomewhere.

Linda Toscano, the trainer of world champion Walner, jumped nine spots to number seven. She shows 19 more wins and 32% more money—a million dollars. Linda is second in the NYSS and fifth at The Meadowlands.

 Chris Oakes stepped up seven spots to number eight. The trainer of Luck Be Withyou and Homicide Hunter has 73 more wins and is up a million dollars—30%. Oakes is the leading trainer at Pocono Downs, where he forms a dynamic duo with leading driver George Napolitano Jr. He’s number six at Harrah’s. His UTRS has risen from an impressive 0.414 to a dominant 0.441.

Julie Miller is down two spots to number nine. She has a dozen more wins but is short $195,000—6%. She finished in sixth in 2014 and seventh last year. The trainer of Sutton is fourth in the NYSS and seventh at both The Meadowlands and Harrah’s.

Jeff Bamond Jr fell from five to ten. His earnings are down 30%--$1.2 million. His crack group of older pacing mares is showing their age and mileage: he got more than $900,000 out of Venus Delight and Anndrovette last year, but the pair has accounted for only a fraction of that in 2016. The former was recently sold in Harrisburg. The toughest mare on the planet, Krispy Apple, and open mainstay Mach It So are still going strong.

Richard Moreau, Canada’s Trainer of the Year the last three years, jumped three spots to number 11. He has eight fewer wins but his earnings are up 11%--more than $296,000. Moreau, who recently recorded his 5,000 win, is the leading trainer on the WEG circuit and was number four in the Ontario Sire Stakes this year.

Gilbert Garcia-Herrera, who was at six a year ago and finished 2015 there, has dropped six spots to twelve. He has made 250 fewer starts this year. He has 120 fewer wins—down 40%--and is short $1.4 million—37%. Gilbert is the leading trainer at Harrah’s, fourth at Pocono and sixth at Yonkers.

Richard Banca moves up seven spots to number 13. He has 17 more wins and is ahead $504,000—10%. Banca grossed under a million dollars in seven of the eight years prior to 2015, when he blossomed at Yonkers Raceway.

Brian Brown dropped five spots to number 14. His win total is off by 20% while his money is down 30%--a million dollars. He’s number four at Scioto Downs. Color’s A Virgin and Lost For Words lost their way in 2016, however Downbytheseaside looms on the horizon.

Casie Coleman, who reduced her starts by 58% between 2012 and 2015, moves up seven spots to number 15. The trainer of LBJ and Cup winner Betting Line only shows one more win, but her earnings increased by 21%--$488,000. Her UDRS increased from 0.306 to 0.423. She was number four back in 2014.

Thomas Milici, 61, who never won more than 45 races or $305,000 prior to 2016, continues to dazzle us at Yonkers Raceway. He has accumulated eight times as many wins and eight times as much money as he did in all of last year.

John Butenschoen, who turned all his young stock into gold, leaped from 28 to 17. His wins are up 19% while his earnings are 31% ahead of one year ago. PASS champ Giveitgasandgo and NYSS champ Funknwaffles are a couple of his standouts.

Chris Beaver stepped up 14 spots to number 18. His wins are up 33% and his earnings 30%--more than $637,000. He has Moonshiner Hanover, Muscle Up The Goal and Il Sogno Dream, among others.

Number 19 Clyde Francis went from 25 wins at this point last year to 56 now. His earnings are up 5%. Wiggle It Jiggleit accounts for half his wins and 80% of his 2016 money. He had no earnings as a trainer in 2014.

Number 20 Jim Dailey wasn’t in the top 50 last year. The Ohio trainer has nine more wins than he had in all of 2015 and he has earned more than $2 million this year—45% more than in all of last year. The resurgent Ohio Sire Stakes program has been a godsend for him. Dailey collaborated with Josh Sutton to win three of the $250,000 Ohio SS finals with Rose Run Spanky, Scotch McEwan and My Tweed Heart.

Joe FitzGerald

Friday, November 18, 2016

Driver Trends As The Season Winds Down

This is a comparison of where the top 25 drivers stood on Monday Nov 14, 2016 as compared with where they were on Nov 14, 2015.

Yannick Gingras, the unanimous choice for Driver of the Year in 2014, is on top of the money tree, just as he was last year. The number one option for leading trainers Ron Burke and Jimmy Takter has 21 fewer wins than a year ago and his earnings are down $139,189—about 1%. His UDRS is 0.324 as opposed to 0.349 last year. He has dominated the senior mare divisions with Hannelore Hanover and Lady Shadow.

Last year’s DOY David Miller is number two in earnings, just as he was on Nov 14, 2015. He has 23 more wins and his money is up by 5%--$558,173. Miller, who has prospered after taking last winter off, has seen his UDRS rise from 0.278 to 0.325. The Buckeye, who benefits from his association with world champion Always B Miki, appears to be the favorite to repeat as Driver of the Year.

Four time DOY Tim Tetrick is in third, just like last year. He has 102 more wins than he had at this point in 2015 and his earnings are up 3.5%--$388,328. He’s number two at The Meadowlands and Harrah’s. Tim will be looking to dominate next year’s sophomore colt divisions with Walner and Huntsville.

Scott Zeron is having a career year: he moved from eleventh at this point last year to number four. The driver of Triple Crown winner Marion Marauder has seen his win total jump by 5% and his money increase by 22%--$1,866,372 more than he had in mid-November of 2015. Scott was the leading driver at The Meadowlands this year.

Jason Bartlett, who topped the earnings list for the first half of the year, is in fifth, one spot lower than a year ago. His win total is up by 70—12.5%--but his money is off by 12%--$1,107,900. The leading driver at Yonkers Raceway has upped his UDRS from 0.347 to 0.371. He’s number four in the NYSS.

Brett Miller, who got off to a slow start and was in twelfth at the halfway point, is in sixth, three spots better than last year. Brett’s UDRS is about the same and he has just two fewer wins then a year ago, but his earnings are up by $491,863, or 7%. Racing Hill and Pure Country have helped account for that.

Matt Kakaley, who was at 13 a year ago, and finished the year there, is in seventh. He has 23 more wins and $963,459, or 11.6%, more in earnings. Matt’s UDRS is up from 0.220 to 0.236. In addition to being one of Ron Burke’s go to drivers, he’s number four at Pocono Downs and was the runner up in the NYSS.

Our newest Hall of Famer Brian Sears is at eight, down from five a year ago. His win total is off by 16%--54—and he’s more than 18% short money wise--$1,608,715.  Sears has tried to augment his regular gig at Yonkers—where he’s second to Bartlett—with success on the Grand Circuit, but the wins have been hard to come by this year. Bee A Magician is back, but most of the stakes dollars have dried up at this point.

Last year’s dash champ Aaron Merriman, who is a shoe in to repeat, has moved up from twelfth to ninth. His win total is off by four while his money is up by $141,435, or 2%. He holds a 100 win lead over George Napolitano, who loses Pocono Downs from his calendar very shortly. Aaron is number two at Northfield and in third at The Meadows.

Corey Callahan, who just joined the 5,000 club, is at number ten, down from six last year. His win total is off by 33% from mid-November of 2015 and his earnings are down by 24%, or more than $2 million. Corey’s UDRS is down to 0.264 from 0.319. He’s working off of 10% fewer starts.

George Napolitano Jr, who is second on the dash list, is at eleven, down from seven. His win total is off by 16%--122—and his money is down by 17%--$1.3 million. George’s UDRS dropped from a heady 0.403 to 0.351. He’s the leading driver at Harrah’s and Pocono Downs.

Sylvain Filion, the top driver on the WEG circuit, moved up five spots to number 12. He has three fewer wins, but his earnings are up by $760,008—13.5%. Sylvain was the leading driver in the Ontario Sire Stakes, finishing more than a million dollars ahead of second place James MacDonald.

Chris Page jumped ten spots to number 13. He has 110 more wins and his money is up 27%--$1.4 million. He was number two at Scioto Downs and Miami Valley. The Ohio Sire Stakes and Ron Burke’s stock were both key factors in his success.

Mark MacDonald, who recently won the Breeders Crown with Obrigado, like Page, jumped ten spots, to number 14. His win total is up 30% and his earnings have increased by 29%--$1.5 million. His UDRS is up to 0.240 from 0.198. Mark is number six at Yonkers Raceway and was number three in the NYSS.

Trace Tetrick, the leading driver at Hoosier Park, winning at a 21% clip, moves up from 20 to 15. He had 62 more wins—up 14%--and increased his earnings by $664,032—more than 12%. Trace’s UDRS dropped from 0.304 to 0.246. Freaky Feet Pete didn’t have the sort of year many expected him to.

Jordan Stratton, who was very successful in the Levy and Matchmaker series, stepped up eleven spots to number 16. His win total is up 30% and his money has risen by 27%--$1.3 million. Stratton is number five at Yonkers.

Marcus Miller made a giant 15 spot leap to number 17. Marcus is number six at Pocono Downs and number eight at Harrah’s. His win total is up by better than 33% while his money has risen by 32%--$1.6 million. He won the Breeders Crown with Someomensomewhere.

George Brennan, the number three driver at Yonkers Raceway, has fallen ten spots to number 18. His win total is off 30% and his earnings are off by 29%. His UDRS is down to 0.257 from 0.276. George, who has made fewer than three dozen starts away from Yonkers, has driven in 11% fewer races this year.

Dan Dube is another Yonkers regular who fell hard—from nine to nineteen. He has 55 fewer wins and is short $2 million. Dube is number four at the Hilltop track.

Ronnie Wrenn Jr, who won the dash title in 2013 and 2014, moved up one spot to twenty. His wins are down 17%--115—but his earnings have stepped up by $353,256. The leading driver at Northfield, he made a strong showing in the Ohio Sire Stakes.

Josh Sutton, the leading driver at Scioto Downs and Miami Valley, moved ahead 13 spots to number 21. He has 33 more wins and his money is up by 30%--$1.4 million. Like Page, Merriman and Wrenn, he has benefitted from the new and improved Ohio Sire Stakes program.

All time dash leader Dave Palone dropped from 16 to 22. The top driver at The Meadows is down 61 wins and $516,202—12.5%.

Aussie Andrew McCarthy stepped up five spots to number 23. He’s number seven at Pocono, eight at Harrah’s and eleven at The Meadowlands. His win total is up 25% while his money rose 12.5%--$516,202.

John DeLong, who was second at Hoosier Park, jumped 23 spots to 24. He has 151 more wins—up 41.5%--and more than 42% more money—up $1.6 million. His UDRS rose from 0.266 to 0.300.

Jim Morrill Jr, the top driver in the NYSS by more than double, dropped eleven spots to 25. He had 89 more wins and saw his UDRS rise from 0.388 to an eye opening 0.425, but his earnings were down by $1.4 million.

Joe FitzGerald