For photos from the Meadowlands contact

Monday, February 29, 2016

Harness Racing Fan Zone Lives and Televising Races

Good news from the USTA Annual meeting as funding for both the social media initiative and monetary support for tracks which wish to televise their races has been approved.  As I mentioned in my last posting, it is essential to continue the social media initiative if harness racing has any hope of gaining new gamblers and owners.

With regards to monetary support for televising races, I will be the first one to say harness racing needs to be on television.  The problem is it tends to appear on second tier cable channels.  I realize this is done is due to college football; these channels know where their bread is buttered so it leaves little room for harness racing.

Broadcasting the Hambletonian on CBS Network is fine as it is raced before the college football season but when it comes to the Little Brown Jug or the Breeders Crown, placement on television is somewhat troublesome.  While the Jug occurs in the late afternoon, it is a time when people are coming home from work.  With the Breeders Crown, the last time it was at the Meadowlands, only one night could be accommodated due to the football season.  Racing the Crown on Friday and Saturday will have it competing with football.  Odds are with the Jug and the Breeders Crown, the majority of the audience will be hardcore harness racing fans, not reaching out to a new audience.

Instead of broadcasting the Jug and the Crown, it would be better to broadcast races in the spring or early summer when there is no football to compete against.  Then there will be a chance to get on a first-tier cable channel when non-harness racing fans may be inclined to watch.  Of course, it may require a made-for-television stakes race as there are no high profile races in the spring.

Speaking of television, it has been reported the USTA initiative to get a harness racing channel on the Internet is proceeding with plans to make this pay channel available to Roku users.  I realize the need to go slow and have no problem with Roku being the first platform to get the channel, but soon after it is rolled out, applications to make this channel available on other platforms such as Apple TV and Fire TV is necessary to accommodate all who wish to subscribe to this channel as it is not likely people are going to jettison their current viewing platform just to get the racing channel.

This Internet channel will initially appeal to existing harness racing fans, especially those who are frustrated by the inability of getting racing on television as well as any new ones which may be created.  While this will be a pay channel, the ability to have one channel to watch racing should attract customers.  With races being on television, handle should increase on those races televised as customers with ADWs will be wagering on these races instead of others.  Yes, most ADWs offer races over the Internet already, but the ability to watch the races on the 'big' screen will be preferable to many. The key is to get the number of subscribers required so the overall costs are covered and the subscription fee reasonable.

USTA Needs to Fund Harness Racing Fan Zone

Sometime this morning, the USTA Budget Committee will vote on whether or not to fund the third year of the Harness Racing Fan Zone, the USTA's social media initiative.  Make no mistake, at $250,000 this is a large expenditure for the USTA to make.  If you look at it purely financially, at a cost of $16 a member (almost 23% of the annual dues a member paid), can the USTA really afford it?

However, if you look at the state of harness racing, can they really afford not to?  A lack of any cohesive industry-wide marketing strategy and lack of television presence has made harness racing a micro-niche sport with little knowledge (at least positive) among the general public and little appeal among the American punter although guaranteed pools do seem to attract some crossover.  Despite the appeal of guaranteed pools, there is little evidence these bettors are otherwise wagering on harness racing.  As for ownership, the USTA's drop in membership and the decreasing foal crop tells the story about attracting new owners.

The social media initiative has been getting harness racing noticed among the general public and those already prone to wager on horses.  As for getting new owners for the sport, last year a pilot program was put in place to attract new owners, something which can be built upon.  Of course, new or not, any program that is such a large budget item needs to have metrics to meet for one doesn't want to waste money on a program which doesn't work.  If the metrics are not met, either the program needs to be modified to hit its target or if the metrics are not met in subsequent years, then the plug can be pulled.  Hopefully, it never will come to this.

The sad thing is the USTA shouldn't even need to discuss this issue.  If each racino contributed $5,000-$10,000, depending on their profitability towards the effort, the USTA wouldn't even have to debate this issue.  Sadly, few racinos would be willing to invest in such an effort.

Speaking of new owners, the USTA should encourage horsemen about supporting racing under saddle (RUS).  When RUS began, people who had no connection to harness racing bought horses so they could participate in RUS events.  Some individuals introduced to the sport by participating in RUS have expanded into traditional racing and have bought more horses.  RUS is a means to attract new participants and should be given every opportunity to thrive.

RUS in America is basically in a holding pattern waiting for the first state to authorize wagering and is approaching the fork in the road; will it thrive or die?  A lack of support by many horsemen associations unwilling to approach legislatures or commissions to get RUS approved for wagering or just outright hostile to it is self-defeating.

Horsemen need to know RUS will not replace traditional harness racing; it will supplement it.  As for breeders, if RUS takes hold and stakes races are developed, breeders will be able to market their stallions and broodmares for their breeding success of RUS performers possibly increasing demand for yearlings.  As for existing breeding stock, some sires and broodmares may produce great RUS performers while producing average regular performers.

RUS must be supported.  It is time everyone gets on board.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Lionel Denies Bold Eagle's Triple Crown Bid

On the other side of the pond, the Norwegian Lionel, denied the precocious 4 year old Bold Eagle the French Triple Crown by just over a length in the Grand Prix de Paris on Sunday.  The time for the 4,150 meter (approx 2 9/16 miles) trot was 5:10.32.  While it may be considered an upset, one should not dismiss Lionel's race effort.

Here is the replay. For those of us who are not fluid in rapid-fire French, Mike Bozich provides the call.

While it is true Bold Eagle raced on the outside for almost the entire race, he raced with cover, covered up by yes, Lionel.  Perhaps the gruel of his winter campaign cost Bold Eagle the race, but that shouldn't take anything away from Lionel who raced super and was simply the better horse this week.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Spectacle of the Prix D'Amerique

by Marv Schundiler, VFTRG correspondent

Approaching the racetrack.
  Photo Credit for all photos: Mav Schundiler
Many people consider the Prix D'Amerique to be the greatest trotting race in the world.  After attending this year for the first time, I agree.

Here in North America, we have many high profile races.  For harness racing, we have triple crowns on both the trotting and pacing gaits (though arguably, many of those races are nothing special given that several can't find a permanent home), the Breeder's Crown series of races as well as the Meadowlands Pace and North America Cup.  The thoroughbreds have the triple crown races, Breeder's Cup races and a smattering of prestigious stakes at some beautiful tracks (Saratoga, Del Mar, Monmouth).  Over the years, I've been fortunate to have attended most of the above races with the glaring exception of the Preakness and the Gold Cup and Saucer. 
The crowd early in the racing prograam.

For a general primer on French harness racing, see my previous article.  

The Prix D'Amerique was created in 1920 to thank the United States for participation in World War I.  Ironically, given the race's name, very few American horses do well in the race (some notables who have won: Moni Maker, Delmonica Hanover, Muscletone, Walter Dear).  The distance, volte start and much different style of racing pose a challenge for American trotters.

Thus, the theme of the day is "Americana" or at least a European perception of it.  And to me, that is what gives the race and racing day a charm unlike any other.  There are American flags and other "stars and stripes" decorations everywhere.  The day starts with a parade with everything red, white and blue featuring a "marching band" (more like they are walking and playing, but no one does true marching bands like the US).  This was followed by a parade of Harley Davidson motorcycles.  There were men on stilts, men dressed as various animals/aliens, and cheerleaders (or as they were called, pom-pom girls).  There was a performance by the French Republican Guard, which is a band and synchronized equestrian team akin to the RCMP Musical Ride.  The featured food was hamburgers, hotdogs and french fries -- all of which was underwhelming.

The crowd in the spirit of the day.
The Prix D'Amerique is a 1 million Euro single-heat race at 2700 meters (1 and 2/3rds miles) for horses aged 4 to 10 and is held at Hippodrome de Paris-Vincennes, the leading trotting track in Europe located just east of Paris.  The race is held each year on the last Sunday of January.  Geldings are excluded -- only "intact" horses and mares are eligible.  The race uses a volte/walking start ("turn and go") and not our "autostart".  The race is limited to 18 entrants.  Horses can qualify for the Prix D'Amerique by either winning one of two qualifying races (the Prix Tenor de Baune at 2700m or the Prix Criterium Continental at 2100m using autostart) or by earning points in the 4 "B" Prix (Prix de Bretagne, Prix de Bourbonnais, Prix de Bourgogne and the Prix de Belgique) which largely take place in November and December.  Other horses can qualify based on lifetime earnings, which are adjusted for age.  The Prix du Cornulier -- the top monte race in the world -- is held the week prior.   Very few of the top monte horses are as good under harness.  In fact, only two horses have ever won both races.

The post parade for the big race is led by a harnessed horse wearing a huge American flag and a driver wearing colors from the blue and stars portion of the flag.  That made for quite a spectacle.
A horse heading on to the track before the race.
The race itself has been extensively covered elsewhere.  It was an impressive showcase for 5-year-old Bold Eagle.  Timoko put in a nice race as well finishing second.  After the race, the American flag draped lead horse took Bold Eagle on a victory pass in front of the 35,648 people in attendance under drizzly skies.  The crowd clapped enthusiastically for the 9-5 winning favorite.
Getting ready for the post race celebration in the winners circle.
The winner's platform was drawn onto the track near the finish line by a team of 6 horses adorned in -- you guessed it -- American flags.

32.5 million Euros were bet on the 10 race card (1.6 million bet on track).  Compare that to $6.7 million total bet on Hambo Day last summer for 16 races with attendance of 22,000 at the track.  (1 USD equals about 1.1 EUR.)  Incidentally, the Prix D'Amerique was race 6 on the card and race 8 was the Prix de Meadowlands.

What would I compare this experience to in North America?  Not much.  The Hambletonian and Little Brown Jug Days are some of the few that have some level of spectacle, but both have more of a country fair feel.  The KY Derby is a 120,000 person party filled with lots of drinking and debauchery in the infield and high society in the clubhouse. 

What made this event so special?  A number of things.  A large, enthusiastic, knowledgeable crowd akin to the Red Mile in the fall.  More red, white and blue decor and American flags than at a Ted Cruz rally.  Making an event out of the entire day, as opposed to just a celebrated race (or races).  Not loading up the card with every conceivable stakes race -- the Prix D'Amerique didn't have to compete for attention with other major stakes (think the Hambletonian card which features a stake for just about every class).  A well marketed and media covered event (we saw an ad for the race by the Pompidou Centre).  Equidia, the horse racing channel, started coverage at 9 AM on race day for a 4:20 PM race.  Also, a giveaway of free flags (American, French and Prix D'Amerique Opodo flags), buttons supporting each of the horses in the race, and trips to NYC.

It felt like a special event moreso than just another horse race.  It was an experience.  One thing North American racing suffers from -- we do not make many things truly special.  Which makes every race just another race with different purses and horses.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

There is Something Wrong with This Model

The Meadowlands continues its streak of $3 million handle days and some ask why purses aren't increasing.  Well, let's take a look at the math using this past Saturday's racing card.

The Meadowlands handle for the day from all sources was $3,283,111.  Approximately 12% ($393,973) of the handle comes from on-track sources so using a blended rate, approximately 6% gets credited to the purse account meaning $23,638 gets credited.  This means $2,889,137 (88%) is bet through ADWs and OTWs and using the standard 1.5% horsemen typically get (this can vary), the purse account is credited with $43,337 meaning the total contribution for the night to the purse account is $66,975.  Total purses for the evening were $152,000 meaning there is a deficit of $85,025

Now to be fair, the purses do get a boost from what is wagered at the Meadowlands on other harness tracks where they get the lion share of the funds for the purse account (and track) in addition to the thoroughbred signals they take (the majority of which gets funneled to the thoroughbred horsemen at Monmouth Park),

But let's go back to the original handle from this past Saturday night.

  • $393,973 wagered on-track generated $23,638 for the purse account
  • $2,889,137 wagered off-track generated $43,337 for the purse account

The off-track money wagered on the Meadowlands card is seven times what is wagered on-track yet it only generates less than two times as much towards the purse account.  Clearly the model is broken.

While changing the model with regards to wagering conducted at other tracks and OTWs, it is essential for the tracks to take control of a significant share of the ADW handle.  I realize this is an unpopular position with many horseplayers but it isn't as bad as some may think.  Existing ADWs will continue to exist (at least the larger ones), because of anti-trust laws.  Tracks will continue to offer their signal to ADWs, not only for legal reasons, as some people will continue to wager through them and getting something is better than nothing.

In addition, since tracks won't have a monopoly, they will need to compete with existing ADWs by offering rebates and other benefits to woo customers to use their ADWs.  The bigger gamblers will still seek out the largest rebates.  So where do tracks and horsemen benefit if they need to offer rebates?  The profit the ADWs makes will now be available to be returned to the horsemen and tracks.  Because of the expense in running an ADW, horsemen may not get the full 6% (using the blended Meadowlands rate) they would get if wagered on track, but it is conceivable to get 4%, a big improvement over the 1.5% they currently get.

Now, don't get me wrong.  It would be silly and prohibitively expensive if each harness track (and for that matter possibly thoroughbred tracks) had their own ADW but if a consortium of tracks ran their own ADW economies of scale would kick in, reducing the expense of running it.  The USTA is looking at having their own racing channel of live harness racing.  Imagine what a harness-track run ADW could do with a dedicated harness racing web-channel.

Don't get me wrong, an ADW run by harness tracks will not solve all the problems racing has.  High takeout, medication and integrity are still issues which need to be dealt with, but getting a significant amount of the ADW business back from existing ADWs through competition would be a step in the right direction, enough to allow tracks to reduce their takeout rates, something they can't do now.

Speaking of the Meadowlands, if you play the races there, you may want to check out Harness Trip Notes, now improved as it provides an explanation of terms, something helpful for the less-experienced punter.  If you don't have the time to watch the races, it is a great way to get information about their performances.  The only shortfall is it only reports on races run at the Meadowlands, Tioga Downs, and Vernon Downs but for the price (free), you can't go wrong.  Make sure to check it out and see if it will help you with your handicapping.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Where Did Mack Lobell Come From Anyway?

The death of the great Mack Lobell at age 32 reinforces the top line demise of the mercurial and very fast branch of the Victory Song line running through Noble Victory and his son Noble Gesture. Another branch running through ABC Freight, Garland Lobell and his very relevant trio Andover Hall, Angus Hall and Conway Hall, is still very much alive, but short an obvious extender, unless Donato comes across with a son to match his high flying daughters.

Mack’s great great grandsire Victory Song was a world champion son of Volomite. He was refined and almost feminine in appearance, as was his son Noble Victory. Victory Song was the first horse to be voted Horse of the Year by the writers. He was very fast, taking a mark of 1:57.3, but unsound.

Victory Song had the fertility issues that have plagued his descendants, including Mack Lobell. In 13 years at stud he produced 473 registered foals, which included quite a few pacers. He was a nervous type and also passed that along; Stanley Dancer once said that a lot of the Victory Songs were “a little fruity.” He died at age 19 in 1962, not long after the birth of his extender, Noble Victory.

The latter was an all-time great as a freshman. His mama, Emily’s Pride, won the Hambletonian and the Kentucky Futurity. She was voted Horse of the Year in 1958. Noble Victory won 18 of his 19 starts at two and equaled the 2:00 colt record shared by Titan Hanover and Scott Frost. Going them one better, he was the first colt to trot in 2:00 at night.

Noble Victory was a star at two and productive at three and four. For example, he was the first to win the American-National at Sportsman’s Park three times, and set track records in doing so at ages two, three and four. He won three times at a mile and a quarter as a four-year-old, equaling Speedy Scot’s track record at Roosevelt Raceway.

Noble Victory, who passed in 1987 at age 25, sired 895 offspring in 17 full years and three diminished years at stud. Doug Nash, who managed his feisty grandson, Balance Image, said the two qualities the modern breeder looked for in a trotter—early speed and endurance—were readily available from the Noble Victory line. He attributed the latter to their substantial skeletal and muscular structure. These are attributes Balanced Image himself possessed in spades, but it’s interesting that Noble Victory, who could be mistaken for a mare, somehow passed that along to his heirs.

Stanley Dancer said Noble Victory was the greatest trotter that ever lived. And Alan Leavitt seemed to agree, syndicating him for a record one million dollars. (Nevele Pride came along three years later and changed Dancer’s opinion.) He was never a high volume, top dollar stallion like Super Bowl or Speedy Crown, but he averaged 50 a year and made his mark on the breed.

Noble Gesture, from the first crop of Noble Victory, was fast and flaky. The sire of Balanced Image and Mystic Park took Dancer’s “a little fruity” characterization of his grandsire Victory Song’s offspring to a new level. He was a problem eater, shipper and sleeper. Chasing his tail, watching television and kicking the walls of his stall were his favorite activities.

He won 8 of his 10 starts at two and trotted the second fastest mile ever by a freshman. His behavioral issues caught up with him at three and four when he won only 7 of 25 starts. Noble Gesture, who died from a heart attack at age 14, sired nine crops consisting of 282 registered foals.

He sired the night and day duo, Balanced Image and Mystic Park. The former did not possess the flash of his daddy and grandpa on the track, but he was a high volume sire specializing in long lasting types that won races and money. Not many of his headstrong sons avoided being cut. He sired 21 crops and while his personality left plenty to be desired, he experienced none of the fertility issues that plagued his ancestors. Balanced Image sired 1828 registered foals. Unfortunately, none serves as an extender.

Mystic Park, the sire of Mack Lobell, on the other hand, was brilliant on the track and a nightmare to breed. He won 13 of 16 starts at three, including the Yonkers Trot, Dexter Cup and ATC. He crushed the best of the FFA set in the latter. He was a big favorite to win the Hambletonian but broke in his elimination.

Alan Leavitt syndicated Mystic Park for a record $5.2 million in 1982. The previous high was $4.5 million for Incredible Nevele. After being retired he caught Potomac Fever and lost almost a year to recovering from that. The fertility issues that plagued his sire and grandsire also came calling, and he only produced 141 registered foals—50 of them with standard records—in six years at stud in North America. Mystic Park was exported to Sweden where his fertility issues continued and he passed in September, 1992 at age 13.

Mack, who was born April 28, 1984, was from Mystic Park’s first crop. Delvin Miller, who had competed in 26 Hambletonians when he passed at age 83 in 1996, once made a list of the ten best trotters he’d seen: Mack was number one. He certainly possessed the speed and smooth gait, bereft of wasted motion, that Victory Song bequeathed to him from afar, but he also got the ADD grade lack of focus that came along with it. John Campbell said Mack, who he considered to be the best horse he ever sat behind, had a quirky nature and a wandering mind that often reared its head at inopportune moments on the track.

Mack did not need a big track to get it done. He set a world record in the Standardbred at Delaware, Ohio at two, and the following year he equaled the world record in the Yonkers Trot. Of course, a big track was also fine. Mack trotted the fastest mile ever in a race when he won the Review at Springfield in 1:52.1. He was the first to win the Breeders Crown three times and he won the Elitlopp twice. At one point he held world records on all three size tracks, and he retired as the fastest on 5/8 and mile tracks.

Despite their many issues, Victory Song sired Noble Victory, and he in turn gave us ABC Freight and Noble Gesture, and the former produced Garland Lobell, while it was Balanced Image and Mystic Park from the latter. But the string ran out with Mack. Broodmare credits aside, the crops were small—only 84 registered foals, 18 with standard records, in NA—and there was no son, here or abroad, who could impersonate an extender.

Nevele Pride, who retired as the world record holder on all three size tracks, is in the conversation with Mack when it comes to the best ever in North America, but unless 17-year-old Kadabra gets on the ball, he will also disappear from the top line. It happened to Albatross, Good Time, Bye Bye Byrd, Florican and others. The difference is that they all had a good run before the curtain came down. Poor Mack went to war with an empty gun.

Joe FitzGerald



Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mack Lobell Passes at 32

 The great trotter Mack Lobell was euthanized yesterday at the age of ripe old age of thirty-two in his adopted home country Sweden.  You have no doubt read about his exploits such as winning the Hambletonian, Yonkers Trot (yes, great horses used to race in the Yonkers Trot), Nat Ray, Statue of Liberty, and Breeders Crown as well as being the horse of the year in 1987 and 1988.

 In tribute to the champion, I am going to offer you some of his races in Europe.

Here is Mack Lobell in winning the 1988 Elitlopp final.  You will note he raced against some other horses who raced in North America such as the tough mare Grades Singing, Sugarcane Hanover, and Napoletano.

Here is Mack Lobell winning in Hamburg, Germany (apologies for the voice over interfering with the race call).

Here is Mack in a 1991 appearance at the Åby racecourse 

But perhaps one of his most impressive victories in Europe came at Hilversum in Holland in the second heat of the Grote Prijs der Giganten in 1989 as Express Ride takes it to Mack Lobell in a game of hardball.

Goodbye Mack Lobell.  Thanks for the memories.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Hitching Your Cart to the Wrong Horse

Horsemen are screaming foul in Florida with the likelihood decoupling (pardon me, partial decoupling) will be taking place, essentially wiping out the standardbred, quarter horse, and jai-lai industries as well as reducing racing opportunities for thoroughbred racing.  After all, with all the money the casino industry is making, why can't they afford to supplement purses, especially since their gaming licenses were issued on the promise of maintaining racing?

Make no mistake, the gaming industry got their slot machines on the promise of maintaining racing and you can make an argument they made their bed and they should sleep in it; don't want racing, give up your slot license.  The proposed legislation being considered along with the Indian Gaming Compact is also biased against racing in that two years of no racing at a track like Pompano kills the standardbred license in Florida and doesn't give someone else willing to try the option of bringing harness racing back.  Clearly the goal is to reduce competition for gambling dollars.  Make no mistake, the pari-mutuel industry is getting the short end of the stick.

But what if racing hitched its cart to the wrong horse, a horse which acts like racing; being comfortable with the way things are until the wheels show signs of falling of the cart?  While the focus of the racing world is the fact there will be decoupling, truth is there is more to the story.  For example, taxes on slot machines will drop from 35% to 25%.  Knowing the government doesn't like giving money away, one must wonder what gives especially as it allows the industry to shed racing.

Truth is, while profitable, the casino industry had gotten too complacent, thinking slot machines would be enough to keep the money flowing.  Turns out, the casino industry suffers from the same demographic problems horse racing has, an aging audience.  Millennials are not finding slot machines or casino games attractive as they have other entertainment options available and we know how they love their digital devices.  The fact they have a lower rake is why the casinos are able to maintain profitability, for now.  For an industry which is highly leveraged, one can imagine why the casino industry is looking to divorce itself from racing as it seeks to cut costs to maintain their profit margins. While many of these gaming companies may have in good conscious promised to support racing, it may be a case of not being able to afford it any longer.

There are other parallels as well between racing and casino gaming.  Too many racetracks?  Well, there are too many casinos, not only in individual states (the Florida proposed legislation allows for more casinos), but across state lines.  Whereas the racing industry could if desired coordinate racing dates, you are not going to have casino seasons so the same pie is being cut into more pieces as more casinos are for all practical purposes going head to head against each other.  Hence, casino resorts are going to suffer stagnation and while they are for the most part good for now, the time will come when they will be forced by the market to right-size or as in Atlantic City's case, forced to close.  So while there is hope for the Meadowlands to get a casino, what is going to happen when a new mega casino opens up in Manhattan (the same question can be asked of Yonkers for that matter)?  Any renaissance of racing at the Meadowlands may be short-lived.    

Unlike the racing industry, the casino industry knows it needs to innovate if there is any hope in regaining millennials and younger gamblers but it needs legislators to make laws flexible so they can get new games and products out to the market as quickly as it can, something up to now in most jurisdictions has not been possible.

No doubt racing will do its best to keep the slot money coming in.  However, the question to be asked is it going to solely hitch its cart to the same horse until the cart breaks or is it also going to seek flexibility from legislators to innovate and get new ways to present racing to its potential market as quickly as possible (think V75 and new wagering propositions)?  Racing needs to do something because sooner or later, the market always fixes itself.

Let's head to Woodstock!   Not that Woodstock but Woodstock, VA as it appears harness racing's new home in Virginia will be at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds for the next five years.  If all goes to plan, there will be eight days of pari-mutuel wagering this year (up from four days last year) with hopes to expand racing days over the next few years.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Getting Shown the Door in Florida

The march towards decoupling continues in Florida as two bills worked their way out of a Senate committee, allowing all parimutuel facilities with the exception of Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Park to decouple.  In the adding insult to injury department if Pompano Park decouples and ceases harness racing, they would be required to subsidize the remaining thoroughbred dates in Florida; no money going to harness racing interests (or greyhound for that matter).

I guess this shouldn't surprise anyone being harness racing has always been a poor relative to the runners in the Sunshine State.  Where legislation had guaranteed thoroughbred interests a portion of slot revenue up to now, the bill originally passed didn't require any contribution to the standardbreds.  Harness racing was always number three in the state, behind the runners (quarter horses) and the dogs.

If harness racing does get shown the door at Pompano Park, one would hope standardbred horsemen will find another place to winter.  After all, if the state won't lift a finger for the trotters, why should standardbred horsemen contribute one cent to the state economy.

Of course, thoroughbred horsemen shouldn't feel too snug.  How long do you think it will be before legislators and casino operators come back and decide to end the subsidy to racing at Tampa and Gulfstream?  Death may happen quickly to the standardbred horsemen but the thoroughbreds will eventually die a death of a thousand cuts.

It may not seem that low but the Meadowlands has a 32.26% winning favorites rate which is the lowest of all harness tracks and even some major thoroughbred tracks.  Even when favorites win, they are paying well, well enough to account for horseplayers flocking to the races there, explaining the $3 million handles for the last five nights of racing.  

Credit goes not only to the horsemen who enter but racing secretary Peter Koch who every week works his magic in getting the racing cards assembled with creative conditions to make sure winners don't get to languish in the same class week after week as well as keeping horses from plunging down multiple classes into easy races.

There is no secret racing at the Meadowlands has taken a hit with lower purses and the carding of cheaper horses, but once again it shows gamblers care more about competitive racing than it does high quality racing.

Bernie Noren who has been working with Ake Svendstadt has announced he is returning to Scandanavia as apparently the American culture and lifestyle is not what his family wants for their children.  Before people get too offended, it should be noted several Canadian drivers left the States and headed back to Canada for the same reason.   Contrary to what some may suggest, it has nothing to do with the current slate of Presidential candidates.  Here's wishing Bernie much success as he returns to Europe. 

A few more trainers have been named as allegedly having positive due to Glaucine.  Since no formal changes have been brought yet, I will not be mentioning these trainers though one has to wonder who is leaking names to the press?  At least those in the media reporting on this story are now making it clear no trainers have been formally charged.    

While Racing Under Saddle (RUS) continues to languish in the United States due to the lack of parimutuel wagering, where is a RUS participant or fan supposed to look for action?  North of the border in Ontario is where as there is a slate of 16 races scheduled for the 2016 season (2 dates finalized).  Qualifiers begin on March 17 with the first parimutuel contest slated for May 15 at Flamboro Downs.

This is not to say there is no RUS action in the States, RUS-NY continues their circuit of exhibition races primarily at the fairs but there are a few parimutuel track races as well.  However, until the first state gets parimutuel wagering on the races, or in the case of New York, even legalized, races will be spotty.

In Alberta, Northlands has announced they will be getting out of the racing business after 2016.  How fortuitous that Century Downs finally opened last year after a long delay. It remains to be seen if harness racing will return to Alberta Downs which last received standardbred dates in 2014.  If not, harness racing in the province will be restricted primarily to the one track, sharing the plant with the runners.

Post Time's Heather Vitale has put together a documentary on the 2015 Vincent Delaney Memorial which is contested in Ireland.  If you have 18 minutes, it is worth a look.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Days Gone By

My introduction to harness racing, what a special moment it was.

It all started with talking to my father one morning while I was looking at the racing pages of the New York Daily News.  When I was twelve I knew my parents would go to Yonkers Raceway once in a while on a Saturday evening so I knew of the existence of harness racing as a concept.  Anyway, at the bottom of the harness racing page (they covered Yonkers/Roosevelt, Freehold, Monticello, and that bastion of harness racing Atlantic City) I noticed with the Atlantic City entries with terms like Pace and Trot.  Asking my father, he explained to me they were different gaits.  I was intrigued.

Well, the next Saturday came and instead of getting someone to watch me, I was off to the races for the first time, going to Yonkers Raceway (the Meadowlands was just a concept back then) and to say I was hooked was an understatement.  Oh, the pageantry of it.  The colors the drivers and trainers wore, the regal procession of post parade, and the sound of the hoofs hitting the track and the wheels going over the track.  Before long, it was time for the race.

What a wonderful spectacle it was as the horses raced around the track.  Watching the race, it was amazing to see those three-wide moves down the backstretch the second time around as drivers like Abbatielo, Dancer, Dokey, Filion, Haughton, Insko, and Steal did their magic and the field stormed home in a thundering stretch drive with horses crossing the wire three across.

The crowds were part of the excitement as well.  Not just the sound of the thundering crowd, but the lines.  At times, winning was a curse because if you thought your horse won you had to make a mad dash to the cashing lines if you had any hope of getting on line and placing your bet for the next race.  Even if you didn't cash a ticket, you were wise to get on line quick.  People talk about too much time between races; you wouldn't have said it in those glory days.

A full grandstand at Roosevelt Raceway.  In the mid-1970s weekend
brought  full grandstands at both Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceway
(source unknown)

The visits to Roosevelt Raceway, while not as frequent were exciting as well, especially the three week period beginning with the American Trotting Championship to determine America's entry into the Roosevelt International the following week and concluding with the Challenge Cup.  To see Europe's best horses and drivers do battle against America's best was a treat.   

Technology and inaction has decimated attendance and alternative entertainment options attract racing's target audience.  What was considered speedy in those days is now considered slow.  I can't help but feel sorry for that wide-eyed twelve year old who never will be exposed to what racing used to be for it was the sights and sounds of racing up close which made me love the sport.  For most, their first exposure to racing if it happens at all will come at the age of 18 in front of a screen, reducing racing to a video game.

Oh, those days gone by.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Sleeping with the Wolf

One thing about state legislators.  They see an idea being floated elsewhere and they say "Why not here?", and that is the case in West Virginia where a proposal to appropriate the greyhound breeding fund for general use has the additional clause to allow all racetrack operators (greyhounds and thoroughbreds) to maintain their alternative gaming options while jettisoning horse racing if they desire.

As gaming companies seek to shed their money-losing businesses, you can be sure they will ask for decoupling.  How long do you think it will be until Harrah's in Pennsylvania, a company which has already made clear its disdain for supporting racing will be looking to shed themselves of their obligation to race (fortunately, Mohegan Sun up to now appears to be supportive of racing)?  Then what other states will get the idea to relieve these generous donors of lobbying and re-election funds from the burden racing?

New Jersey horsemen better be careful of what is being proposed in the constitutional amendment to expand casino gaming to Northern New Jersey for unless a share of the the revenue is memorialized in a constitutional amendment, how long do you think it will be until New Jersey finds itself looking at decoupling?

Unfortunately, track operators seeking the funds to open casinos at their facilities either sold out or now share a bed with casino operators so few tracks operating racinos have owners dedicated to horse racing.  Hence, we have a situation of a chicken sleeping in bed with the wolf.  It is only a matter of time until the wolf decides it had enough of the chicken.

Harness racing better start planning for life without the wolf, when racing will once again go on its own.  It should be looking at the possibility of racing of farms or small tracks where little wagering will occur and the majority of wagering will be done off-track.  It should consider setting up its own ADW to not only handle wagering but to put up the funds to race at these facilities.  It will be a whole new world out there and with some forward-looking people it can work.

Or we can lay in bed with the wolf and wait for the inevitable.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Why a Separate Out of Competition Policy?

It is no secret many in the industry are not thrilled with the way horsemen are excluded from the three Gural tracks based on some 'secret' criteria which they claim allows track management to toss some trainers while allegedly allowing others to continue on their happy way for similar records or infractions; the not so subtle insinuation of favoritism.

For example (without using names), one may look at the current 'scandal' regarding Glaucine involving two high profile trainers (and others).  In this case, management has indicated it will wait until due process is played out before deciding what, if any sanctioning should take place, yet recently an individual caught in the Meadowlands out-of-competition policy was excluded without due process.   Is this a case of playing favoritism?

There is a big difference between the Glaucine incident and the other case involving testing done in Hong Kong.  The Glaucine positives were the result of post-race testing done by the NYGC, a governmental agency.  Since a state agency is in charge of testing and establishing the rules all racetracks in the State of New York must operate under, the constitution guarantees due process.  In the case of the Gural tracks' out of competition testing and exclusionary practices, these are house rules and thus not guaranteed the right of due process, though one would hope those found to be in violation would have the opportunity to speak on their own behalf before being banished.

This is similar to the constitutional right of free speech which is commonly brought up when someone is fired for speaking unpopular and often controversial thoughts.  What people fail to realize is the constitution states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.".  Note it is the government shall not be allowed to deny a person of free speech, an employer has the right to fire someone for speaking their mind and in the now infamous Dixie Chicks incident, the public punished the musical group for comments the lead singer made.  The same is with due process.  Due process is not guaranteed on private property.

One may and it has been argued since the NJRC licenses the Meadowlands, they should not be able to exercise private property rights and exclude people but that argument failed in a court challenge over the exclusion of another trainer; the judge in that case ruled the Meadowlands is private property.  In addition, when applying to race at the Meadowlands, the trainer agrees to their out-of-competition testing policies.

What about the right to someone being able to earn a living?  A ruling by a racing commission can ban someone from all racetracks in the state and conceivably elsewhere with reciprocity thus another reason why due process is important.  However, being excluded from the three Gural tracks still allows a licensee to race at other tracks  within the state and and elsewhere as it will become obvious once the eastern Pennsylvania tracks open up, many  trainers will not be looking to race at Gural's tracks anyway.

Don't get me wrong.  I wish Gural's policies for exclusion were spelled out to ensure everyone who may run afoul of the rules may be assured of being treated fairly under the policy but the fluidity of new drugs being uncovered requires the policy to be a living breathing document, subject to change as different situations arise.  To assure all of justice being handed down fairly, it would be a positive step if Jeff Gural would hire an independent monitor to ensure the policy was administered fairly.

But why should a track operator need an exclusion rule and its own out of competition policies in the first place?  It is obvious the current drug testing procedures by racing commissions is ineffectual, largely due to limited budgets which have commissions only testing for certain substances while ignoring others.  The lack of financial resources also limits the development of new tests to keep ahead or even with the cheaters.  In addition, racing commissions are often to quick to make deals rather than defending decisions in the courts.  Also, while constitutionally guaranteed, the due process afforded to those charged can be abused, delaying the imposition of penalties for years.  An exclusionary process, albeit with its flaws, seems to be the only way to keep the playing field as level as possible for the customer.  

Until racing develops a comprehensive standard policy towards medication violations and out of competition testing with a means for justice to be handed down in an expedited manner with due process, it seems policies such as the Gural out of competition testing policy is the only tool in the tool box which works.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Drug Allegations Shock Industry; Hold the Horses

The entire harness racing has been shocked by a report in Harnesslink which alleges leading trainers Ron Burke and Julie Miller with having had horses testing positive for the drug Glaucine.  Making these allegations more interesting is these are Meadowlands-based trainers who train or have trained horses for Jeff Gural and especially in the case of Burke, a large supplier of horses which fill the entry box.

Weekend Preview goes into further detail with a statement from Howard Taylor Esq., who is representing trainers who received positives.  In Taylor's statement, he claims the trainers are cooperating with the NYGC.  Depending on the results of the investigation, we may have a major drug scandal, or much ado about nothing.  Time will tell.  The best thing everyone can do is hold the horses, admittedly with baited breath.

If the positives turn out to be valid, the question many have been asking is "What will Jeff do?"  Many critics of Jeff Gural are expecting him to find an excuse to let these trainers continue to race at his tracks.  However, from his statement today it is clear he will allow due process play out until the NYGC issues a ruling and contamination is ruled out.  In addition, he wants to see if the lab in Hong Kong can test for the medication from prior out of competition samples from the named trainers and on horses owned by him.  It becomes evident if the charges hold water, the critics will be disappointed to find out the prematurely named trainers will indeed be on the outside looking in despite the harm it will cause the Meadowlands when they struggle for entries.  For despite the embarrassment this would cause Gural, he is probably the most prominent person in all of racing to take on an anti-drugging stance.

Only in harness racing do we find someone who is trying to improve the sport, albeit at times in controversial manners, the subject of such gleeful speculation by his detractors, hoping to find him a hypocrite and twisting in the wind.  Such divisions only hurt the sport.

Indiana harness racing ...

by Peter Lawrence, Contributor to VFTRG

... in a video apparently produced by Purdue University. Outstanding overall job, outstanding shots, out
standing interviews.
Outstanding grasp of the nuances of the sport and business. Outstanding production and story line.
Also, good to see faces - Eash, Wilfong, etc. - of people I've only previously known by name.
Not the least of whom are the senior Tetricks, who one presumes are the sire and dam of the famous drivers, Tim and Trace.
Interesting, and more than a little ironic, is where it's noted that Indiana harness horse people once had to race out of state, because fair racing was all they had at home. Now, many Illinois harness folk from the state next door make their way TO Indiana (and Ohio), in a reverse migration in search of racing opportunity.
I've been to and raced at the Indiana state fairgrounds out there in Indianapolis in the '70s, '80s and even '90s, but have never experienced Hoosier Park or Indiana Downs in person.
Love to get back out there sometime to see old friends like Ernie Gaskin, Bruce and Brooke Nickells, Mark O'Mara and others.
But back to the video ... check it out. You'll enjoy it.
P.S. - I never knew the Hoosier Park barn area was on the same side of the track as the grandstand. Interesting, sort of like The Red Mile's setup in Lexington, with stables at the top of the stretch.
PPS - This video is brand new to me, though I'm not sure when it was produced.

Grand Prix de France 2016 which I used to simply call the Prix de France, is Sunday at Vincennes.
Prix d'Amerique winner Bold Eagle is entered, as is arch-rival Timoko.
Plus others, of course. Post time for big European feature races tends to be around 10:20 a.m., Eastern time.
These were two of the European trots we Americans were following Maven through last year.
Time flies, huh? A year ago, already.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Does Anyone Pay Attention or Care?

In the traditional winners circle photo, you get your usual visitors to celebrate the victory.  Only problem is the people are allegedly owners of a different horse in the race.  Doesn't this strike you as weird?

Supposedly this has happened more than once.  At the best, this is poor judgement by the individuals involved, at its worst, it would give people the idea that 'Something is Rotten in Denmark'.

If other claims are to be believed, it gets somewhat worse (nothing which would suggest race fixing) but let's just stick with the winners circle photo.  Granted, the casual horseplayer wouldn't be able to identify one owner from another, but certainly horsemen and track officials should be able to.

The question I have is maybe once, maybe twice this may not raise an eyebrow but certainly after a little while, shouldn't someone have noticed and reported the issue to the appropriate racing commission for investigation?

Have we gotten to the point where people aren't doing their jobs properly or is it they just don't care anymore?  Then we wonder why harness racing is less popular than ever?

Florida Getting Ready to Cut the Cord (Partially)?

Yesterday in Tallahassee, a House committee approved a bill which would decouple greyhound racing, quarter horse, and standardbred racing while still requiring the thoroughbreds to race at Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs.  If decoupling comes to Florida's harness racing industry, there is little doubt what will happen one the current contract with the FSBOA expires.

While the Senate committee has delayed action due to amendments, harness racing participants in Florida shouldn't get hopeful as one of the amendments would in addition to the above, allow for the decoupling of thoroughbred racing and jai-lai (remember that?).

Unless racing can rally legislators, a questionable prospect at this time, they better hope to run out the clock on the legislative session which concludes March 11 and even then, it would only seemingly delay the inevitable.

As for those states where the coupling of racinos and racing are not guaranteed in state constitutions, racing interests of all breeds ought to be getting nervous.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Exchange Wagering Closer to Reality in the Garden State

According to HRU, exchange wagering is set to debut in New Jersey late March or early April.  The Meadowlands will be the first track exchange wagers will be accepted on with wagering limited to New Jersey gamblers.  There are talks with out of state tracks to allow for exchange wagering but quite honestly, until a trial period takes place, only a small number of tracks (basically those who have nothing to lose) will likely be willing to participate.

While the rake will be 12%, much larger than elsewhere in the world, but for now, the best deal in horse racing (minus rebate shops), expect savy youthful gamblers to make up the majority of participants.  Racing has always had a fear exchange wagering will take away dollars from the mutuel pools so they have been reluctant to adopt this form of wagering (California was the first state to adopt rules for exchange wagering, but no track is willing to take up the mantle).  The larger takeout in North America will mean a larger payment to tracks and horsemen so hopefully once people have had time to 'kick the tires', other tracks will be willing to allow their races added to the menu.  

Assuming past precedent, once a trial period is over, expect California to finally come on board with other states attempting to get this form of wagering approved.

Once exchange wagering goes live in New Jersey, I plan on kicking the tires myself and will offer my opinion of this wagering option.

Super Bowl Warm-Up: If you are looking for something to do before the Super Bowl today and want to play the trotters, you need to go to the Canadian west coast as Fraser Downs is the only track running.  First race is at 3:45 EST.  As all Canadian tracks, programs are free and in this case available for download here. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Friday Morning Briefs

With winter finally showing up to the Northeast, it is time to look ahead to spring and beyond.  Looking for a place to race this summer?  In an effort to bolster the racing stock available to race at Tioga Downs, Tioga is offering a 15% bonus to owners and a 5% bonus to trainers on overnight earnings starting with the horse's fourth start at Tioga.  To be eligible, a horse must be stabled at Tioga or an approved local training facility.  Granted, if you have a horse eligible to race at a track like Harrah's or Yonkers, the 15% bonus may not mean anything to you but if it is a question of racing at one of the upstate tracks in the Empire State, the bonus and lack of (or greatly reduced) shipping fees is a great incentive.

At the HBPA convention this week, thoroughbred interests had a discussion about large gamblers and how they are not understood, a common theme which transfers to the standardbred industry.  The Meadowlands has been criticized last year about wagering being done by syndicates and how little they add to the purse accounts.  While they may get rebates to make their wagering more profitable, the fact is they provide liquidity to the market making it attractive enough to allow other horseplayers to tip their toes into wagering waters.

Don't get me wrong, it does seem unfair when someone who makes their wagers the old fashioned way have to go up against computer programs which seek every inefficiency to ensure they make a profit; the same way it works on the stock market.  It seemingly stinks to the retail investors but without those who arbitrage the market, investors would have a hard time finding liquid markets to buy and sell in.

One can cut out these large players with a technical advantage, as long as one doesn't mind wagering pools at the Meadowlands which rival Freehold.

A meeting regarding standardbred aftercare is scheduled for this weekend.  I am hopeful some concrete steps towards a true aftercare program will come out of this meeting.

Elsewhere, a bill to allow parimutuel wagering at the Far Hills steeplechase meet has been introduced.  The bill requires wagering to be handled by an existing permit holder, either the Meadowlands or Monmouth though I would assume Monmouth would get first crack at it.  I expect this bill to sail through the legislature as it had in the past only to be conditionally vetoed.

The only reason I bring this up is perhaps some time in the future, standardbred meets could be held on a fair circuit, perhaps allowing wagering there.  Yes, this bill is specific in only allowing it for Far Hills, but once in place and (hopefully) successfully executed, another bill could open it up at a fair(s) in the state.

In Florida, legislators are considering 'partial decoupling' apparently in an effort to thread a needle which will be acceptable to horsemen and race track interests.  Such a plan would allow the dog tracks to stop racing yet continue with their poker rooms and/or slots and allow Calder and Hialeah to cease wagering with Gulfstream Park continuing to race, presumably adding quarter horses to their menu; no word on where Pompano Park falls into this plan.  

Horsemen are not going for this threaded approach as they realize their ties to racing in Florida would be down to one or two precarious strings, Tampa Downs and Gulfstream Park.  With regards to standardbreds, the link would be even more precarious as there is only one facility offering wagering.  Depending on how the legislation is written, the standardbred industry in Florida may all be eliminated.

It's not decoupling, but racing at Dresden, Leamington, and Sarnia may be coming to an end in an effort to divert purse money from these Grassroot tracks to the Raceway at Western Fair District.  Make no mistake, it is expensive to race horses and purse hike at Western Fair would be helpful, but should it come at the expense of the smaller tracks shutting down?  It would be easier to make the case if these three tracks had access to the simulcast market to see if the demand is or isn't there, but it seem like the powers to be in the industry have made their mind up.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wagging Tongues

Looking at the Fines and Suspension list from last week, the eyes of some people opened wide when a horse of a prominent owner who has a reputation of doing good things for people within and outside the industry (as others do as well) apparently came up with two positives. "Ah ha", they said; perhaps what they were saying is "Gotcha! Another one (respected person in the industry) tore down".

I won't be mentioning names, and admittedly, the facts are not fully known.  Some interpret the fact the owner paid back the purse money without an appeal as trying to bury the issue as quickly as possible, never considering the reason why the purse money may have been paid back quickly may be respecting the blood test results and after consulting with his trainer, found out the positive was legitimate.  As someone on the outside, I don't know if it was a case of deliberately trying to sneak one past the judges or a case of messing up withdrawal times, but as far as some people were concerned, it was 'tried and convicted', likely without knowing all the facts.

What we do know is the horse in question was shipped to another state and since he was going to be there for a couple of races, was given to another trainer for those starts, then returned to original trainer once those engagements were honored.  While trained by the 'guest' trainer, the horse raced only to later test positive for those starts.  The regular trainer has no major violations against him so one may assume he didn't tell the local trainer to cheat.  So the local trainer may have decided to cheat or more likely messed up medication withdrawal times.

I'm a firm believer you get to know the character of an owner by the company he keeps, and that includes who trains for him.  This means at best, not using a trainer with a record of positives or at a minimum, firing the trainer if you get an inexcusable positive.  It gets fuzzier when you ship somewhere where you need to use a temporary trainer.  It's one thing if it is where you normally race, but when your horse is traveling to a state where you don't know the trainers and depend on who you regular trainer makes arrangements with, the onus falls on the person who made the arrangements, the trainer.  So in my book, the owner gets a pass here.

Make no mistake.  Doping of horses is a problem in all of racing which needs to be seriously attacked, this is why I favor having standardized medication rules overseen by a national organization with the ability to sanction wrong doers.  Rather than wagging their tongues at someone who does much for racing off the track inadvertently getting caught up in the net, it would be a better use of their time to contact their elected federal officials to support the US Anti-Doping Association.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

2016 Grand Circuit Handicapping Challenge Seeks Sponsors

Plans are underway for the 2016 Hambletonian Society Grand Circuit Handicapping Challenge being run by HANA Harness.  As such, HANA Harness is seeking financial sponsorship from various facets of the standardbred industry to build up the prize fund which goes to standardbred rescues.  Whether a racetrack, horseman association, breeder, racing stable, or a supplier to the industry, HANA Harness welcomes your participation.

The Grand Circuit Handicapping Challenge's goal is to promote the Grand Circuit as well as support standardbred rescues.  All funds pledged to the competition are donated to the standardbred rescues chosen by the handicappers.  Canadian sponsors will be given the right to donate funds to the standardbred rescues of their choice in honor of the winning handicapper.  Since the contest began, over $12,000 has been donated to standardbred rescues.

Sponsorship levels are available from $500 to as low as $100 with various benefits.  If interested in additional information, contact 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Freddie Hudson Talks SAFE Act

On yesterday's Sunday Morning Fun House, harness horseman, Freddie Hudson and a few others talked about the SAFE Act, otherwise known as the Safeguard American Food Exports Act, which bans the slaughter of horses for meat for human consumption as well as ban the transport of horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.

While I am a supporter of the SAFE act, regardless of your stand on the legislation, it is worth your time to listen.