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Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Matter of Perception

Michele Obama has become the latest target of PETA.

The video is a part of a push by PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk to cut eggs from next Monday’s annual Easter egg roll, which Newkirk links to in a letter to the First Lady.

“I hope that after hearing their message, you will implement a new, humane tradition at the White House by using synthetic eggs that don’t require any animal to suffer,” Newkirk says in the letter.

Newkirk even takes a jab at Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” Initiative, saying “cruelly sourced, unhealthy eggs” are “primary contributors to some of our nation’s top killers, including heart disease and strokes.” [ABC News]
On their website, PETA has videos that document the treatment of egg-laying hens.  Now, we know full well that PETA crafts its videos to dramatize, proselytize, and propagandize to maximum effect.  However, there's no question that the practices depicted do exist, and it's rough stuff, tough to watch.  I'm not linking to it, you can find if you want.  However, as gruesome as it may be, if you're like me, it's not going to stop you from eating eggs.  Sure, the Head Chef buys only cage-free eggs, for whatever that may or may not be worth.  But, to be perfectly honest, I don't demand documentation of such when I go into a restaurant, like in a Portlandia episode.  And I would eat them in any event.  What can I say?  I'm not particularly proud, but like much of the world's population, I'm a carnivore.  It's a benefit from being blessed enough to be a member of the species that's at the top of the food chain.  Sure, sometimes when I'm eating meat, I do pause and think about it.  And then I chew the fat off the bone.  If you're Morrissey or Chrissie Hynde, or even just half as righteous on the topic as they, you have every right to judge me, and harshly.

But more towards the topic of this blog......I watched that, and thought - wow.  Now, THAT's animal abuse.  In case one still needs the context, it makes the stuff on the Scott Blasi video (not sure why it's referred to otherwise, Asmussen himself merely makes a cameo) look even more like what it largely is; as the Daily Racing Form's Jay Hovdey most succinctly put it, a confirmation of "the fact that men will say stupid things to try to impress women when they think no one is listening."  (And I'm still curious to know just exactly how she managed to inspire such intimate trust, and access.  Where is the oppo research on this woman?)  Even the innuendo in the video is hardly on the same scale of atrocity.

I think that if you consider, in this world in which we slaughter, eat, hunt - purely just for the sport of it - and otherwise disrespect animals as living beings, a global scale of animal abuse, on a scale of 1 to 10, the treatment of racehorses in this country might rank at about 1.7.  If that much.  Of course, we'd like it to be 1.  Unfortunately, when there are peoples' livelihoods at stake, that is never going to happen.  Still, my point here is that we in the horse racing industry are not such bad guys in the big picture.  Even including the bad guys that there no doubt are.  The problem, after years of getting hammered in the Times and now with the PETA video, is largely one of perception, the main point that Hovdey makes in his excellent above-mentioned column on Frank Stronach's new medication rules.
Those who believe perception is reality are duly alarmed. At the same time, those who believe perceptions can be incorrect and can be modified to more closely conform to reality have their work cut out, especially because it is becoming increasingly apparent that nothing of a unified nature will be done from inside the game about the darkening perceptions of horse racing, even in the face of racing’s more palatable realities.
So yes, initiatives like Stronach's are an important step towards reversing that perception; and so is....I suppose....the idea of releasing veterinary records for the Derby horses.  Personally, I have no interest in the latter, and to be perfectly frank, I myself don't lose sleep over the whole uniform medication rules and restrictions thing.  Sure, I draw the line at any practice that constitutes abuse or increases the chance of fatalities.  However, there will always be those who manage to bend the rules, if not outright skirt them, no matter what they eventually come to be.  And, I dunno, when I was first getting into the game all those many years ago, trying to figure out who was getting away with what and when was part of the challenge and - dare I say it?? - the fun.  As I've said, how much integrity can one really expect or demand when you are betting your hard-earned money on dumb animals?  Jeez, we're all so serious now.

But seriously, it's something that needs to be done.  It's an important element in fighting the prevailing perception.  Also because then we would no longer have to read columns like this one by Bill Finley.  I mean, I like Finley a lot, been reading him since he was covering the game for the Daily News.  But really, how many times can one write, and read, the same appeals over and over again?  In this particular column, the appeal was framed with respect to the silly suggestion that Asmussen should not come to the Derby.

I actually agree with Finley that he should come, but not for the same reason as he, and especially in a more perfect world in which racing would have the national spokesperson/PR machine that it desperately needs every bit as much as a national drug czar.  In the wake of the video's release, there were people on Twitter who posted photos of horses receiving tender loving care, and they were actually criticized by some who said they were missing the point.  But, with all due respect, it was they who were missing the point.  This industry urgently needs to fight back with some proselytizing and propagandizing of its own.

Assuming that NBC will do their duty and note the presence of the trainer amidst the controversy, it would be an amazing opportunity for somebody representing the industry in the absence of an official spokesperson - perhaps NTRA President Alex Waldrop, from whose somewhat less than full-throated defense some of the below points are taken from - to give and to spin as good as he gets.  Something like:

"Well of course we are concerned about any allegations of abuse such as the ones you mention.  But let me be clear:  We are proud of the fact that the overwhelming majority of our horsemen treat their animals with the utmost of care and compassion.  In fact, many owners go the extra mile to ensure, at their own expense, that their horses have a loving home after their racing days are over.

In the area of medication that has generated so much news, we have made great strides in the last few years.  Regulators in states that account for 80% of total betting handle are moving towards the adoption of uniform rules, reforms, and penalties.  In New York, which accounts for 20% of handle all by itself, adoption of just some of these reforms have already led to a 40% reduction in equine fatalities. And we have seen the rise of synthetic tracks which have proven to be far safer.  We are confident and determined to do even better, and with the help of our Equine Injury Database, and with the formation of the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance, we will.  

I would also like to point out however that, even in advance of these new reforms, out-of-competition testing of horses racing in states including New York, California, and Kentucky has failed to yield a single positive test for illegal substances from approximately 10,000 samples.  This proves definitively and beyond a doubt that the vast majority of our trainers and owners do indeed play within the rules.

And gentlemen, take a look around on this glorious day here at Churchill Downs.  [String music swelling.]  What a wonderful crowd we have on hand; over 140,000 here, and millions across the land, taking part in one of our great national traditions; the most exciting two minutes in sports. Horse racing is a part of our national heritage; an integral part of our American culture!   Be assured that we are working to ensure and maintain a horse racing industry that is safe, humane and prosperous, and which will continue to employ hundreds of thousands of people and generate millions in revenue for state and local economies!  

Or something like that.

Read more here:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Casino Bids All in the Details

Michael DeMasi writes in the Albany Business Review of the rather exacting demands of the casino application process.  Beyond the license fees of $20 to $70 million. 

165 different pieces of information, or "exhibits," including a business plan; market analysis; capital and financing structure; marketing plans; infrastructure requirements; internal controls and security systems; player database and loyalty program; construction timeline, affirmative action plan; and experience hiring the unemployed.
Well, that actually all starts like pretty basic information.  But you can read all of the 165 required pieces of information in the Table of Contents of the RFA itself here. Some of it is indeed pretty meticulous!
Submit  as  Exhibit  VIII.  C.7.a. - a  description  of  the  proposed  hotel(s),  including  the  types  of  rooms,  the  numbers  and  proposed  square  footage  of  each  type  of  room  at  full  build-out  and  for  each  phase,  if  applicable.    Describe  the  level  of  service  and,  if  known,  the  flag  or  brand  of  the  proposed  hotel.    If  more  than  one  level  of  service  and/or  flag  or  brand  is  intended,  describe  each  level  of  service  and/or  flag  or  brand  and  how  they  will  be  developed,  operated,  and  marketed  separately  but  may  be  operationally  combined. Provide  copies  of  any  arrangements  or  agreements  relating  to  branding,  franchising  and  hotel  loyalty  or  patronage  programs  planned  in  connection  to  the  proposed  hotel(s)  that  are  different  from  the  Applicant’s  or  the  Manager’s  branding  and  customer  loyalty  or  patronage  programs.
As gaming consultant John Boyd told DeMasi: "Unfortunately, for the casino operators--fortunately for the lawyers and regulators--this process will be longer in duration and much more expensive than it should be."  That could also be fortunate for the existing racinos, should the governor strongly suggest to his cronies who make up 2/3rds of the siting board that he wants the revenue flowing in as soon as possible; March of next year is the goal in his budget.  And a Gaming Commission spokesman confirmed: "New York's turnaround time--soup to nuts--will be under a year." While Empire Resorts and, perhaps, the Saratoga harness track, will be building new facilities, both could temporarily host table games at their existing facilities until the new ones are ready. 

 - According to a report by the New York State Commission of Public Ethics, Genting ranked 7th on the list of most money spent on lobbyists, with $1,368,500.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

E23 Casino Proposal Attracts Interest. And Opposition

The area around Exit 23 of the New York State Thruway, in Albany, is proving to be a popular location amongst prospective casino operators.  The proposal, being referred to as "E23," was devised by David Flaum, a Rochester shopping mall developer, in conjunction with Capitol OTB.  The site is on a parcel of land currently owned by the family of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and is off the beaten path enough to satisfy some of those concerned with urban issues related to casinos.  (And, like the proposal at the Concord, it also includes a water park.  Don't quite understand what is up with that!)  It was the subject of a meeting of the Albany city council (Common Council) on Monday night, where a resolution supporting the project was introduced, drawing the usual divided sentiment from the residents in attendance (though, according to this report, more against than in favor).

Patrick McCarthy, a spokesman for Flaum, said "somewhere around 10" different casino operators have contacted Flaum about the Albany casino project. A company with casino experience is a crucial factor in the proposals for one of the four casino licenses the state Gaming Commission will grant in three regions of upstate New York. [Albany Times-Union]
One of those operators, Pinnacle Entertainment, has met with Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan.  Pinnacle is the former Hollywood Park, Inc., before it sold the doomed racetrack of that name to Churchill Downs.  It currently owns Retama Park, Belterra Park (the former River Downs), and 14 casinos.

The developments in Albany are part of the flurry of activity in the Capitol District in reaction to the perception that the Saratoga Springs casino is dead.  That notion is a result of the Gaming Commission's announcement, as part of its request for applications, that local support of a casino is required.  In writing. 
Casino operators must submit a resolution from the host community showing support for granting the license.  That means the Saratoga Springs City Council would have to approve a resolution of support by the June 30 application deadline if the owners of Saratoga Casino and Raceway pursue a license to offer live table games in addition to video slot machines--a decision that the owners of the racino are still weighing. [Albany Business Review]
As you may recall, the Saratoga City Council passed a resolution against a casino last month.

However, it was reported last week on Twitter that Saratoga Casino and Raceway principal James Featherstonhaugh is stepping down from the NY Gaming Association to focus on casino bid. That tweet was linked to a story behind a paywall, and I haven't seen a single word about it elsewhere.  However, a look at the NYGA website shows this:

Presuming that Jimmy Feathers has not resigned in order to go frolic at water parks, we can only presume that, despite the apparent setback, he has something up his sleeve.  Whether that involves an attempt to reverse the sentiment in Saratoga, somehow circumvent it, or develop a casino at a different location, remains to be seen.

 - We haven't heard news of late concerning the dispute at Monticello, where the horsemen are blocking the simulcast signal over the provision in the casino law that caps VLT revenue to purses at 2013 levels at existing racinos that get a casino license.  But apparently, somebody in Albany is paying attention.  Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, the chairman of his chamber's Racing and Wagering Committee, has introduced a bill that would require payments towards purses and breeding funds above and beyond those levels.  The payments would begin once the casino achieves revenue 15% above its 2013 levels (that would trigger payments of 8% of total gaming revenues to purses; 1% to breeding), and are then based on a sliding scale with decreasing percentages based on higher revenue plateaus.  The bill would also require additional payments toward the marketing of racing.

Of course, it's just a bill in committee in the Assembly, so it would be a long road to it actually becoming law.  And one can be sure that the casino interests that have spent millions in lobbying and campaign contributions would rally their forces to oppose it.  But it's nice to see that at least one legislator is paying attention, and it hopefully provides at least a morale boost to the horsemen at Monticello.

 - Turf racing was scheduled to return to the Big A today, but the 6th race is now off the turf.  Probably a relief to bettors anyway, as only two of the 14 entrants had ever run on grass.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Wicked Wrong

I didn't mention Wicked Strong in any of my posts about the Wood because I didn't like him at all.  Guess I was wrong about that.  Perhaps my judgement was somewhat clouded by the fact that I liked him in the Holy Bull and picked him on this blog; and he ran just horribly, barely lifting a hoof.  I'll sometimes shut my mind to a horse that burns me like that, I must admit.  Not that I hold grudges or anything, but he just really sucked that day.

However, my antipathy towards the Wood winner went beyond that.  I liked Samraat and Uncle Sigh, thinking they could run back at least to their top figures earned in the Withers and Gotham (and, as always here, I'm talking about the TimeformUS figures.  We had those two colts rated pretty significantly higher than did Beyer, and in this particular case - and I think I've been pretty fair about this - our numbers were far closer to the mark.) So, Wicked Strong would have had to run an 18 point top to be competitive with the horses I liked, and I just didn't - and still don't - sense from his running lines that he had that kind of performance in him.  Sure, I know, he had his 'sneaky-good' 4th in Constitution's allowance race.  But I'm looking this time of the year for 3YO's who have shown development since two and look ready to explode, and I just didn't see that here.  I mean, his Holy Bull was so awful that I was thinking more in terms that he could run back to his Remsen, which wasn't that fast to start with, and is a race that wasn't looking all that great anymore between Wicked Strong, Honor Code's defeat in his return, and the indifferent performance by Cairo Prince in the Florida Derby.

What's more, a fair number of smart guys liked him - including our buddy Figless and, more significantly as far as the betting went, Andy Serling, who picked him second (and had the exacta box) - and he was bet down from his 15-1 morning line.  I perhaps would have considered him at twice the price that he went off.  Value, he was not, in my opinion.

So, I'm gonna go with 'Congratulations if you had him.'  You know, what you sometimes see someone write when you get the feeling that he/she is just a tad bitter and, worse yet, trying to say that you were lucky! Something I've seen Steve Crist write in the past, and all of our thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family at this time.

As it turned out, Wicked Strong ran a 25 point top on the TFUS scale (17 on the Beyers) and earned a figure of 117 which is top amongst three-year olds this year.  Beyer gave him a 104, compared to 107 for California Chrome, and the 111 that Social Inclusion got for his allowance win; so still a strong number if not the top one.  Is he a legitimate Derby contender?  I'd say definitely.  Could very well be that he just didn't like it in Florida and was maturing all along despite the lackluster performances in the afternoons.  His breeding is fine, especially in this year of lackluster pedigrees amongst the contenders.  He's by a Derby runner-up out of a dam by a Derby winner, and he has the mile and a quarter Grade 1 Pacific Classic winner Student Council in his female pedigree.  (The second dam of Student Council is the third dam of Wicked Strong.)

So yeah, if he once again gets an excellent post, an honest pace to close into (nearly a certainty), a nice uneventful inside trip around the first turn, no horses outside to hinder him when it's time to make his move, and a clear path down the lane, then sure, he could win the Derby.  But, at this point, a bit less than four weeks out, I'm thinking that I'd want something north of the 9-1 that he went off.

Anyway, I wrote more about the Wood at the TimeformUS blog here. And about California Chrome and his win in the Santa Anita Derby here. I got a little pushback in the office on my contention that the latter is the likely Derby favorite.  It was pointed out that the public has actually done a good job of identifying false favorites; and that they gravitate towards horses working well and/or with classic pedigrees.  But I don't know that there's anything about California Chrome that would make him a false favorite (as opposed to a beatable one, which I think he will be).  He's going to come into the race off four straight daylight victories with a total winning margin of 24 lengths, a resounding win over the Rebel winner (for comparative purposes), and the top Beyers in the field (unless Social Inclusion gets in).  [Should clarify here that I'm assuming that nobody in the Arkansas Derby jumps up to run an explosive number...and that I'm talking about dirt figures, in case someone in the Blue Grass does.] And while we know his pedigree is modest, who exactly are the 'pedigree' horses this year?  I don't see any horse with the depth of stamina that we saw in the pedigree of Revolutionary last year.  So, I do think that California Chrome is the likely post-time choice unless he works his way out of it and/or draws the 1 or 20 posts.

 - I didn't take any pictures of the new Longshots simulcast room/bar area when I was there on Saturday; but I'm sure you know the drill.  Tons of big screen TVs, with individual work spaces with their own TV.  Here's a photo from the NYRA site.

Over to the left as you walk in, there's a smaller room called the Elite Players Club (though nobody stopped me from walking in, and I surely do not qualify as such); and, to the right, the bar area.  A big rectangular bar surrounded by small (two-drink minimum) tables, and another big bank of big screen TVs.  Those of you familiar with the old Kelso and Man O'War rooms that used to be back there will surely recognize the footprint.  It's not particularly elaborate nor luxurious, but it's a solid job, just what the place has been lacking.  We could sit here and wonder what took so long, but I suppose that's between NYRA and Genting, and I would be quick to blame the latter.  As nice as it is, it's also obvious that it shouldn't have taken more than a few months to build....and, in fact, it didn't, once they finally got underway.

The $5 admission price (or free for NYRA Rewards members) will keep the crowd down.  There won't be a more crowded day at Aqueduct (approximately 12,000 fans on hand.....silly to announce precise numbers when you know it's inexact with people walking in and out through the casino); and while it was crowded with all the workspaces taken, there was seating available in the bar area and at the bar itself.  It was a good atmosphere, with people into both the racing and the sports; a big cheer went up when Ike Davis hit his game-winning grand slam HR. Yes, people were watching the Mets.

There are some kinks to work out.  There was no wifi (I was told it would be in place by Monday); no audio of race calls; and, despite the card on the bar tables picturing a variety of liquors (such as Knob Creek and Makers), the selection was limited (Jack Daniels the only bourbon, ugh).  But those are minor issues.  (Not much in the way of food options, and I'm not sure whether that is temporary, or not.)  All in all, I'd say it delivers what was promised and what we've been anticipating.  I could definitely see hanging out there with a group on a hot sultry August day, playing the races while they're up in Saratoga.

On the way out of the track, I overheard somebody saying "Why does everyone say this place is such a dump.  It's nice."  Aqueduct, nice?  But it is, for the most part. The renovation hasn't touched the seating outdoors on the apron or on the second floor, but otherwise, it's clean, freshly painted, and bright.  Charging $3 to get up to the Equestris level on Wood day made it a second option to Longshots as a haven from the crowd downstairs (and caused some audible grumbling).  And the bar in the Manhattan Terrace was actually open!  You could definitely sense the Chris Kay hospitality emphasis, as there was a myriad of smiling NYRA employees around the track to answer questions and direct people to where they wanted to go.

And last, but certainly not least, a big shout-out to anyone and everyone involved in preparing the track for this day.  It was as honest of a racetrack that one could ever ask for, as opposed to the nonsense we've seen at other tracks on their biggest racing days.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Wood Day (Early)

I did some of the early races on the Wood card and now I'm going out, so this could be it.  I also previewed the Bay Shore on the TimeformUS blog, and wrote about the Wood in these two posts here.  That race will ultimately be a game time decision based on the tote.  But I am enamored with these NY-breds as I've said.  I also did a preview of the Ashland for TFUS.  But if my Horses in Focus at Keeneland on Friday are any indication, you should probably stay far away from that!

In the 1st, Denzel (3-1) has improved since being claimed by trainer Rudy Rodriguez.  There's a surprise for you.  Cuts back to a sprint after trying two turns for the first time in his 14 race career. Prior to that was a sharp second, missing by a nose (to an uncoupled stablemate) from well off the pace at Laurel, at this seven furlong distance.  That race has produced three next-out winners.  It also featured a hot pace, and a muddy track. I know he's not getting the latter, but he could possibly get the kind of pace he would need.  The 5 and 6 horses have good speed, and Jacobson has a couple entry including a speedy steed in Stealth Steed.  And try saying that four times, no less ten.  Thing about this field is that none of them have won at the distance, and most of them have been going shorter most of the time.  So I see some weary horses in the final eighth, and Denzel, with the best late pace rating in the field, should be coming at the end.

In the 4th, Starship Captain (3-1) makes his first-ever start on the main track here, for Contessa.  He claimed this 5yo last month, moved him up in claiming tag, ran him back six days later and scored a game win, earning a TFUS speed figure of 94 which is better than any recent number earned by any of these.  In his last, he was three wide in futile pursuit of a leader allowed to set a slow pace, and faded. And we have the track that day rated as very speed favoring.  Pace Projector has this as a slow pace as well, but we have issues with the projected leader, Pleaseandthankyou (5-2), who was uncharacteristically lethargic coming off a layoff and now, after an additional 76 days, drops in class. Extra half-furlong could be a question for Starship Captain, but I think 3-1 is about fair.  And Wilmer Garcia, in the saddle for the win two back, returns to ride here.

In the 5th, Chilton (6-1) is an interesting one, returning three days after his first off the claim for trainer Michelle Nevin.  Over the last year, she is one-for-six, and three times in the money, with horses on running 1-7 days rest.  This 5yo gelding has been racing mostly long, but he won two races back when he cut back to six furlongs for his prior trainer, Bruce Brown; earning a TFUS figure of 88 which is quite competitive here,.  In that race, he tracked a pace which we have rated as fast, and went on to win by three.  Has some pretty good turf sprint efforts in his back form too.  On Wednesday, he debuted for Ms. Nevin in a flat mile, and showed early speed before fading to 4th. We'll see if he really goes, but surely this sharp barn sees some good reason to do so if he does.  Here Comes Tommy (5-1) has earned figures in his last two that can take this race.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Wood, Keeneland, and Nuance

The Wood drew a field of 11, and wow!  It's a far more complex picture than I simplistically contemplated the other day when jumping the gun. Social Inclusion drew the outside 11 post, and his having the lead going into the turn is far from certain.  Here's what the TimeformUS Pace Projector looks like; it's the projected positions after a half mile (with the field listed below it; I stole that from Bossert's blog in the Daily News).

1. Kid Cruz  Manny Franco  Linda Rice 20-1
2. Wicked Strong  Rajiv Maragh  James Jerkens 15-1
3. Noble Moon  Irad Ortiz Jr.  Leah Gyarmati 12-1
4. Harpoon  John Velazquez  Todd Pletcher 8-1
5. Los Borrachos  Cornelio Velasquez  William Mott 30-1
6. Kristo  Martin Garcia  John Sadler 6-1
7. Schivarelli  Javier Castellano  Eddie Kenneally 15-1
8. Samraat  Jose Ortiz  Richard Violette 7-2
9. Effinex  Rosario Montanez  David Smith 50-1
10. Uncle Sigh  Corey Nakatani  Gary Contessa 5-1
11. Social Inclusion  Luis Contreras  Manny Azpurua 2-1

Now, of course, Pace Projector is computer generated based on recent early pace figures earned by each horse, and it doesn't take into account the strategy involved with jockeys riding in a Grade 1 for a possible Derby berth jockeying and jostling for crucial position going into the turn.  And those early pace figures place Schivarelli in front early, and Social Inclusion 4th.  The Eddie Kenneally-trained colt has PPs that look a bit like those of Social Inclusion; a six furlong maiden win (albeit from off the pace) and a smashing wire-to-wire allowance win around two turns.  Of course, he didn't beat the likes of Honor Code in the latter race; but he did actually earn a TFUS speed figure of 114 that is tied with Social Inclusion's allowance effort for the best number earned by any three-year old this year. He gets Castellano for the Wood.  His freak race came in the mud, which he's unlikely to get here.  But his first race was on a fast track, and though he didn't have the lead, he had a horrible start, and the chart comment notes climb early, eager, pull bit.  So it definitely seems like he wants/needs to be in front no matter what the track condition.

As for the other horses shown in front of Social Inclusion, Noble Moon, the #3 horse on the rail behind Schivarelli, returns for Leah Gyarmati 91 days after his Jerome win.  He's also shown sharp early speed when he wasn't getting bumped at the start, and has a good inside post from which to make a run for the lead.  His trainer says "He appears to be ready," not the most effusive comment I've heard from a trainer before a race.  Uncle Sigh, I'll get to in a moment.

Social Inclusion's early pace figures are mitigated by those from his allowance win, which we have rated as quite slow.  Due to that lethargic pace that he was allowed to set, his raw speed figure of 119 was downgraded to his speed figure of 114 (which appears as 112 in the running line for the Wood because it's been adjusted down for the increased weight in this race. Frankly, I don't agree with that approach at all, but that's how it works.)  Reader kyle made a great point the other day in that the way Social Inclusion did finish so strongly indicates that he could very well be rated.  Given his post and the potential speed inside of him, he may have to be in order to get the first or second place finish that he needs to make the Kentucky Derby. His owner, however, doesn't seem to have any regrets about shipping him up here.
"Our plan was to come here for the Wood and then go directly to the Preakness, but last time he ran so good we started thinking about the Derby and the Triple Crown," owner Ronald Sanchez said. "This horse is really special. If you see the workouts he does, he's floating. Last Saturday he went in :46 4/5 and galloped out in :59 3/5, so easy. [BRIS]
Looking at the others listed at single digit morning line odds, I don't like Kristo or Harpoon at all, and hope they go off at those prices.  Neither seems fast enough on the TFUS speed figures, and I don't get the feeling that either is likely to improve enough on Saturday. I think 5-1 could be a great price on Uncle Sigh; but, as I said the other day, I think he's going to be ridden more to not lose, as in, not earn any Derby points.  4th place will probably do it, but I'm sure they'd love to be in the money. Well, they'd love to win, of course. But Contessa was extremely disappointed when Rydilluc missed out last year, and he really wants to get there in May. So I think he will instruct his rider accordingly to try and get a forward inside position from the ten post and not do anything rash. I'm sure he'd be happy to suck along for third if that's the best option. There's definitely a price that I'd bet him though.

And, for that matter, I think 7-2 would be a perfectly fair price for Samraat. He's undefeated, fast (at least on our figures), and has already answered some important questions. He stretched out, he's won on the lead, he's rated and won from a tracking position, he's looked horses in the eye and prevailed.  Neither he nor Uncle Sigh have yet answered the class question; the Wood should go at least part ways towards doing that.  Maybe I'm being provincial, but I really like both of these colts. It would be really cool if they resume their rivalry in the Wood with the others watching from far behind.

 - Keeneland is switching back to dirt, and I don't really even know what to say.  Well, I do know what to say, but I've just been too bent out of shape about it to now sit here and put it into words.  So I'll refer you to Pullthepocket, who sums it up perfectly - the big fields, the record handle, the competitive racing, he hits all the high points.  I mean, talk about fixing something that ain't broke!

A couple of additional points:  I remember when the synthetic tracks first came on the scene with great hoopla, Beyer wrote an article lamenting that the sport would become "boringly homogenized" because all of the synthetic surfaces would be uniform.  Of course, that wasn't the case, and I would now turn that argument around at the prospect of those surfaces largely disappearing. As Beyer wrote in that piece, eight years ago: "It is difficult enough to find edges in the modern betting game, and many of those edges come from detecting differences in racetracks." Eight years after synthetics were introduced, you can still always find underlays and overlays due to bettors ignoring switches in surface or failing to recognize a surface preference. Those routine betting opportunities will be gone once synthetics disappear, or virtually disappear, as seems inevitable now.

Then there's just the timing of all this. PETA released their video and the Times followed up with their coordinated hit piece, we see stats shortly thereafter that indicate that synthetic tracks are safer and cause less fatal injuries, and the next day - the very next day! - we have Keeneland telling us they're going back to dirt. I mean, seriously. Barry Weisbod is mad as hell and isn't going to take it anymore, Ogden Phipps says enough is enough with these negative media reports, and then we have, in the immediate wake of the synthetic stats, this clown at Keeneland struggling to explain why they'd be changing surfaces, babbling about top trainers and top horses not coming there while I'm handicapping the Ashland with 13 horses, when it's obvious that all they care about is the money and prestige that comes from the Breeders' Cup and maybe their feelings are a little hurt because the top Derby contenders prep elsewhere.

And sure, the commenters on my last post tell me that I'm wrong, bringing up valid points about those injury stats - that they are skewed because the cheapest racing takes place on dirt so maybe we shouldn't be lobbing apples and oranges into one basket and calling it significant and so on. They may very well be right. But meanwhile, Drape is already out there on Twitter with "This is horse racing: Stats show Synthetic tracks are safest by far. So Keeneland decides to go back to dirt," and you know what's coming in his next attack in the Times.  [UPDATE: Here it is, from Friday's edition.] And when somebody brings up the fact that those stats lack nuance, you know what he says?

This is the equivalent of a political campaign against the sport, and when politicians are reduced to trying to explain the finer points of nuance, you know they are on the losing end.  It doesn't work.  (Kinda like me trying to explain why Social Inclusion has a 114 figure in the chart but a 112 in the past performances.)  Perception is what counts, and nuance never makes for effective messaging.  Racing has been on the losing end of the media assault for years now, and it sure ain't getting any better with follies like this. We hear how the sport needs a national drug czar. I think it could use a national public relations czar. Where does one apply?

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Wednesday Morning News and Notes

Uncle Sigh worked out for the Wood; according to David Grening on his Twitter account, it was a 1-2 mile 47.61 secs, last 1-4 in 22.86 out 5-8ths in 59.99. The esteemed NY correspondent for the Daily Racing Form, whose insights are available for free on Twitter, continued:

Shortly after Uncle Sigh breezed, Social Inclusion had spirited gallop in blinkers; first morning on main track
We were talking in the office about who will be favored, and agreed it would be Social Inclusion. No doubt, actually, considering the big 111 Beyer he got in his allowance win, the best number earned by a three-year old this year.  Samraat and Uncle Sigh aren't anywhere on the Beyer leaderboard I'm looking at, and it goes all the way down to 97.  That came as a surprise for those of us going by the TimeformUS figs these days, as we have the two NY-breds amongst the fastest horses in the group. Only Social Inclusion and California Chrome got better numbers (114 and 111, respectively) than the 110's they earned in the Withers.  The Gotham was rated at 108, for both.  This difference of opinion is only partially due to the fact that our figures take pace into account; the assessment of the track variants are just different.  So I've been thinking in totally different terms than you guys using the Beyers may be.  Based on those numbers, I imagine that Social Inclusion is going to be 1-2.  It's also true that In Trouble, who finished just behind the two New Yorkers in the Gotham, disappointed in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn.  Still, I'm looking at this as being a more evenly-matched race than others may be.

 - Andy Belfiore of the NY Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association posted some photos of the Longshots bar on her Twitter account on Tuesday. Looks like they still have a good amount of work to do, but Ms. Belfiore reports that it will be open for Wood day.

 - Well, we were promised that we'd get a request for proposals from applicants for New York casinos in March. So, on March 31, we got at least a price list.
According to the casino application issued on Monday, a license in Orange or Dutchess County would cost a minimum of $70 million, and a license in the northern Catskills would go for a minimum of $35 million. But if no license is awarded in Orange or Dutchess, a license elsewhere in the Catskills would cost $50 million. Depending on the location, a license in western New York would cost from $20 million to $50 million. A license in the area between Saratoga and Albany would cost a minimum of $50 million. [NYT]
Details as to a required minimum investment will be disclosed after a conference for the bidders in April (probably April 30) and the applications, accompanied by a nonrefundable application fee of $1 million, are due by June 30 (of course). Perhaps by then, the Gaming Commission will have named the two other appointees to the Resort Gaming Facility Location Board.  Or, then again, since the three present members consist of 2/3rds Cuomo cronies and constitute a quorum, maybe we won't.  In any event, the longer this thing stretches out, the better case the existing racinos can make for being able to get revenue flowing by the beginning of next year, as comically forecast by the governor for March of next year.

 - Matt Hegarty reported on the latest racing fatality stats, and here's something that is becoming a regular occurrence:
  The 2013 fatality rate for artificial surfaces was 1.22 per 1,000 starts, according to the data, while the dirt-track rate was 2.11, 73 percent higher. The two rates have been sharply different in every year since 2009, and the difference became statistically significant three years ago. [DRF]
However, as Matt goes on to note, the trend these days is distinctly away from synthetics and back to dirt.  In addition to the already transformed Santa Anita, Del Mar plans to replace its Polytrack for next year's racing.  And there have been rumors buzzing that Keeneland, like Del Mar with its eye on the Breeders' Cup, may do so in the near future as well. [UPDATE: Well, what do you know, Keeneland announced they will make the switch by the fall meet.]  One thing that is definite - there are surely no plans in the works to change any tracks over from dirt, anywhere.

It's a funny little universe, this world of horse racing.  Here we are, under siege over issues of safety and animal cruelty.  Yet, the clear trend is away from something that is proving to have a statistically significant effect in the direction of saving equine lives.  The horsemen, breeders, and fans love the speed that the dirt surfaces provide.  Tracks want to host Breeders' Cups.  The criteria listed along with the latest HANA track rankings tell you where their priorities lie
Key factors including takeout rate, field size, wager variety, pool size, and signal distribution are analyzed track by track and weighted to produce a final composite score.
Nothing about safety records there.  Changing the culture of the game in this country is going to require commitment and sacrifice from all parties involved.  Despite all of the criticism and Times articles and PETA videos, the parties clearly have other priorities in mind.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

It's Wood Week!

This Saturday is the......I'm going to say this only this one time, here we go.......the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. 

"We are delighted to partner with on Aqueduct's premier race," said Chris Kay, President & Chief Executive Officer for NYRA.
And I'm sure that Chris Kay and NYRA will also be delighted when NYRA Rewards customers, perhaps attracted by their 'Wood Winback' promotion, give a try and maybe decide to switch.  Only in horse racing.

The race is shaping up to be an interesting one and, regarding the weather, let's just say that the forecast is not terrible and it's still early in the week.  (On the other hand, it's still early in the week..)

Haven't seen any official word from NYRA, but this is the weekend that the Longshots bar/simulcast center on the second floor is finally supposed to be open.  I was at the Big A a couple of weekends ago, and things were humming there.  The air conditioning from the new bar was blasting out into the clubhouse.  Workers were streaming in and out, and there were a lot of crates around, like this one.

I always figure that things are wrapping up when the Modesty Panels come out.  So I'm thinking and hoping that I'll see you there on Saturday.  Have to say that, for a place that's so dirty and dangerous, things have definitely improved at the Big A this year.  Get this Longshots open, do something about the seating in the common areas, and it might again be an accommodating enough place so that we'll be really pissed when they close the track down.

Social Inclusion has arrived by van.  He needs to finish first or second to nail down a Derby spot, and I wonder if his connections have any second thoughts about the decision to ship him up here instead of running in the Florida Derby.  The race did not come up particularly fast, at least on the TimeformUS speed figure scale, and the pace was moderate, well within his means.  On the other hand, Wildcat Red is probably not the kind to let most any horse get out on the lead by himself, so I'm sure the pace would have been far quicker has he been there.  (I wrote more about the Florida Derby here.)

In the Wood however, I don't know that either Samraat or Uncle Sigh, at least, have much incentive to risk getting involved in a suicidal pace duel with the speedy Florida invader. Especially the latter. Uncle Sigh only needs to finish third to insure getting in to the Derby, and I think he'll be ridden with that in mind.  Sure, he's a NY-bred so I'm sure his owners would love to see him win the Wood.  But not at the possible expense of blowing a Derby spot.

Samraat, who is clearly not a "need-to-lead type" despite what Joe Drape wrote in the Times on Monday (apparently Drape is too busy trying to tear down the sport to actually pay attention to what is going on in it), is already guaranteed a Derby spot.  Two of my biggest Derby scores were on horses who ran in, but did not win the Wood - Genuine Risk and Monarchos.  Both obviously used the race as a prep, and trainer Rick Violette has options here.  One of them could be to turn Samraat loose on Social Inclusion; let him get a little tired and gain some fitness.  But I'd think it's more likely that Samraat gets in some work and perhaps some situational education, as Mike Smith seemed to do with Intense Holiday at Fair Grounds on Saturday.  And/or, of course, Samraat - and Uncle Sigh as well - might just be better than Social Inclusion, perhaps we'll get a chance to find out.

Pros and Cons of Constitution

 - This post is also up, including videos, at the TimeformUS blog, along with the rest of my Today in Racing posts.

Constitution earned a TFUS speed figure of 101 for his win in the Florida Derby. That number, a prime cut below some of the top figures earned by other Kentucky Derby contenders, was downgraded from a raw final time figure of 105 due to the moderate pace. Additionally, the son of Tapit benefited from a perfect stalking trip tucked on the rail behind the two leaders, General a Rod and Wildcat Red. And he saved all ground when he was able to slip up the rail. And he also benefited from a slow pace, as well as a strong speed bias, when he won his prior effort. He certainly has not experienced anything close to the logistical issues that a 20 horse field can present, even with an ideal post draw.

Whats more, as you probably know, no horse who did not race at two has won the Kentucky Derby since Apollo in 1882. In addition, only two horses whose name starts with a 'C' has won the Derby since 1964. No horse with a single word name containing 12 letters has won it since Middleground in 1950, and nobody even remembers who the hell that horse was. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, has won only one Derby in its 139 runnings.

The point being: there are a lot of reasons to stand against Constitution when he goes postward in the Derby on May 3. Some of them are the usual nonsense, but some of them are quite real. However, there is one very legitimate reason to give him a big shot: this crop of 3yo's is, overall and for the most part, proving itself to be increasingly mediocre with each passing weekend, as horses at or near the top of many top ten lists continue to disappoint, and speed figures remain stagnant and/or moderate. Constitution is a horse with seemingly unlimited potential. He has won on the lead and has shown the ability to utilize his speed tactically to stay close and pass horses in the stretch. He has now shown that he can hook up with a rival and grit out a win over a horse who has proven to be a tough (if not particularly fast) competitor himself. He came home in 12.70 seconds for the final furlong; 36.87 for the last 3/8ths, which certainly qualify as "racehorse time."

Sure, he may - may - have to improve his TFUS speed figures to compete with horses such as Samraat (110) or California Chrome (111) who have run faster than he. But that raw final figure of 105 isn't too far off, and remember that our adjustments for pace are subjective. He won while facing stakes horses for the first time in only his third start, and did so in game and gutsy fashion. That's gotta be worth something that is not quantified in any speed figures.

Wildcat Red earned a figure of 100 in his grudging defeat. This is a horse who, with every increase in distance, I've been anticipating that his sprinter pedigree would catch up with him. He's proven me wrong in each case, and he has earned my admiration and respect. And I'll be making the same bet against him in the Derby, a race in which he figures to have plenty more company up front than just General a Rod (a 99 for his third).

Cairo Prince had little excuse for his flat 4th place finish. Sure the pace was slow and they came home quick enough to make his task difficult. But surely his connections expected more than a steady fade in the final sixteenth. Still, if he can sneak into the starting gate given his precarious position points standings, I'd consider taking a flyer should his odds fully reflect the disappointing performance.

In the Louisiana Derby, Vicar's In Trouble, another speedy type with a suspect pedigree, earned a 102 for his front-running win. It would be easy to dismiss the rest of them considering that he tired to a final furlong of 13.62 seconds, and nobody was able to make up appreciable ground on him. But I didn't at all hate the second place effort by Intense Holiday. He didn't need to win this race to qualify for the Derby, and it seemed as if Mike Smith took the Toddster-trained colt to school. He was closer to the pace than usual, took a lot of dirt in the face, raced between horses, was forced to check approaching the turn; but quickly recovered and made a nice move on the turn before flattening out. He was not abused late. Has a long way to go in the speed figure department - he earned a figure of 97, equal to his career high earned in his Risen Star win - but I believe he's a colt headed in the right direction who is better equipped for the Derby now than he was before the race. And that's what a prep is supposed to be for, right?

Palace Malice earned a career best 116 for crushing Normandy Invasion in the New Orleans Handicap. And man, I knew that the latter wasn't going to go off at his morning line odds of 7-2....but was pretty shocked when I saw that he was the even money favorite! As I mentioned in my preview of the race, he's one of those horses that the public just falls head over heels in love with, for whatever reason. And he still hasn't won around two turns.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Manipulated News in the Times - Shocking!!

I previewed today's Florida Derby on the TimeformUS blog here.  And took a look at the New Orleans Handicap, with Palace Malice facing Normandy Invasion, here.  I know everyone's focused on the Derby preps, but that seems like the most interesting match-up of the day to me.

 - Joe Drape reported on the Seamy Side of a Sport: Prodding Horses With Shocks.  What's interesting here is that Drape now refers to video clips that were not included in the original nine minute and 29 second trailer that was issued by PETA. 

To authorities, it provided another clip — viewed by The New York Times — of two Asmussen employees speaking about how the Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel frequently employs a buzzer to work out horses and to condition them to run close to the rail, including the 2010 Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver.

Jerry Hissam, the longtime agent for Borel, said the allegations were “ridiculous.”
So, I suppose that we can surely expect that the Times is going to milk this out to maximum effect.  Again, if the Times has seen all of this video, then c'mon, tell us what you got.   To dole it out over a period of time and coincide it with the Kentucky Derby is manipulating the information to further its agenda.  More like conducting a political campaign than reporting the news.

Drape also notes:
In the 2000s alone, there have been 53 buzzer cases at racetracks ranging from Lone Star Park in Texas and Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts to Delaware Park in Delaware and Penn National in Pennsylvania.
Hmm, 53, that sounds like a lot.  But what exactly is the context; how often does it really occur?  So I asked our guy at TimeformUS who produces wonky data if he could, without getting in trouble with Equibase, tell me just how many races were run in the 2000s alone.  It took him exactly four minutes to inform me that there, between 1/1/00 and 12/31/09, there were 579,313 thoroughbred races in the U.S. and Canada (including jumping races).  (If the Times can include New Mexico quarter horses in their 24 22.83 deaths a week stat, I can use jumps for this.)

That means that, in the 2000s, 579,260 out of 579,313 races were run without any official suspicion of buzzer use.  Or, assuming here that all of the incidents involved races, you can say that .009% of races raised concerns of electrical hanky panky; a percentage that the government might consider to be an acceptable level of cancer risk. 

Now, again, my intent is not to minimize the statistic, only to provide context that the Times does not.  53 buzzer "cases" (whatever that means, but let's presume it means an actual proven incident); that's 5.3 a year.  That's pretty messed up....and that's only counting when the perpetrator is caught.  Still, not only does Drape fail to provide the basic context of the statistic, by writing 'in the 2000s alone,' he is going out of his way to frame it negatively.  We're actually talking about something that is exceedingly rare in the scheme of things.  I would think that if doping incidents or breakdowns occurred at a similar rate, we'd all be extremely happy, and wouldn't be reading Death and Disarray articles in the Times.

And I'm not really sure what else, other than continue to dole out lengthy suspensions, "racing" is supposed to do about it, short of conducting wand and body searches of every jockey or exercise rider who steps onto a track.  As we know, there are bad apples in any profession cheating in order to get ahead, and only a certain number of them get caught.  Heaven knows that much of it involves things far more insidious than shocking a horse.  And it's also worth mentioning that we allow the same jockeys to beat an exhausted horse repeatedly with a whip; that's OK.  As Weisbod said in his TDN piece, "while we're at it, let's lose the whips too."

Drape also repeats the allegations against Ricardo Santana Jr., noting that "PETA has accused" him of battery use.  But we don't know whether this is based solely on the comments by Blasi in the video, or if PETA has something else on the guy that's in the documentation that the Times has seen.  Because, if not, then the Times is making a pretty prominent allegation based on some pretty flimsy evidence. Who knows, maybe Blasi was indeed being accurate.  But I'd just think that an accusation of that gravity made by a major newspaper should be based on more than some windbag babbling to a woman with whom he was apparently alone in his living quarters, and of whom we can only speculate as to what she was doing there.  For all we know, Blasi could have been drunk, bragging, and/or exaggerating.  If Santana is indeed innocent, perhaps he should take a page out of the Larry Saumell playbook.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

OK To Shoot The Messenger

I have to apologize, partly for the gap in posting (I'm trying to keep up, but I'm busy!), but more for writing last time that I hadn't started to watch the PETA videos.  You see, I was under the impression that there was significantly more than nine minutes and 29 seconds of it out there to watch.  After all, Joe Drape did write in his article that "The investigator used a hidden camera to record more than seven hours of video," so I ass-umed that the link attached to seven hours of video led to, if not actually seven hours of video, at least substantially more than the selected nine minutes and 29 seconds that we've seen, which is odious in both some of the behavior that it depicts, and the obvious selectivity and distortion in what is presented.

This is not an "edit" of the larger video, as it has been portrayed in the mainstream press, including on   That's like saying that the trailer for "50 to 1" is an "edited video" of the movie.  The PETA video is nothing more than a trailer.  It picks out selected highlights - the ones that they want you to see - sets it to ominous music and dramatic voice-overs to enhance its effect.  It's a sales job. (Unfortunately, the "50 to 1" trailer fails in its mission to make it seem like the movie won't suck.)  Ostensibly focused on its specific targets, it is filled with broad generalizations that are merely hearsay.  "Trainers will do just about anything to gain an advantage, regardless of the consequences to the horses."  "From birth to death, most horses used for racing are treated like disposable commodities."  "During nationally televised races, owners and trainers will wax on about how much they love their horses, here's what they say when they think the cameras aren't rolling."  Of course, in the video they is nobody other than Scott Blasi!

Now we're told that PETA will dole out more video leading up to the Derby, in an obvious and contrived attempt to maximize the impact.  Some have speculated that the Times will be complicit and report on any subsequent releases in lockstep.  However, we've also been led to believe that the Times has indeed reviewed the seven hours of tape.  To selectively report on other matters that it has already seen on a piecemeal basis would be so blatantly wrong that I have to believe that even a journalist who has acted as unethically as has Joe Drape would not stoop to that.  So I can only presume that will not be the case.

You may have seen the column on by Gary West, amongst a small minority of racing writers (along with Steven Crist), who called out the PETA video for what it is: "four months of furtive slinking around [yielding] just nine minutes and 29 seconds of video."

Actually, the video shows no abuse or mistreatment of horses. Nobody strikes a horse or hurts a horse. Nothing illegal takes place. For the most part, the video shows horses receiving injections, being scoped and examined. It shows, in other words, rather ordinary treatment and nothing sinister. Only somebody who looks with his preconceptions and not his eyes, somebody who gullibly believes -- or desperately wants to believe -- every word from the voiced-over narrator, could mistake this treatment for mistreatment.
While I agree with West's general sentiment in calling out PETA, he surely glosses over things here as well.  The clip about Nehro is stomach-turning, and I can't even watch it. I would like to hear some further explanation from a vet familiar with his condition.  (Though neither the video nor Drape make any effort to clarify that the colic from which the horse died may or may not have stemmed from his foot condition.)  Nor does West mention the matter of un- or falsely-documented workers being paid less than the minimum wage.  He also doesn't mention the buzzers that are referred to in the video either...but actually neither would I.  There's really not one iota of credible evidence in this tape to support a single actual and current use of them.  Blasi's "maquina" statement regarding jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. is presented without any context and is therefore meaningless.  (And, by the way and not for nothing, what exactly was this woman doing in what appears to be Blasi's living room as he discusses this?)  And two old war horses sitting at a dinner table amongst half-filled glasses of wine exchanging fish stories about the good ol' wild west days?  Seriously, that's supposed to mean something? (And what exactly was a supposed stablehand doing sitting at a dinner table with Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens?  How exactly did she obtain that kind of access?)

The prevailing sentiment, as articulated in Thoroughbred Daily News by Barry Weisbod, is that this "isn't the time to shoot the messenger."  I disagree.  We've been hearing that for quite some time now, and this industry has allowed itself to be battered by the slanted and distorted reporting by the Times for years.  It takes its toll.  Not only on public image, but on self-image.  Every time Drape opens his mouth, Ray Paulick and others lead us in a frantic retreat to the woodshed for self-flaggelation.  Not only is it unhealthy, it's contrary to human nature.  Weisbod is "mad as hell and he's not gonna take it anymore." But not at the manipulated video and the organization behind it. Chris Kay issued the standard vanilla response.  Would have been a good time for Kay to tout the recent improvements in NYRA's safety record; and perhaps point out that they still have not been reported by the Times.

PETA wants to destroy our sport.  Yeah, they tell us that's not the case, that they could oppose its existence but that they only want to rid it of drugs.  But then they tell people that when it comes to horse racing: don’t attend ‘em, don’t watch ‘em, and don’t bet on ‘em!  Unless they envision a future of racing as an equestrian event, sounds like a death sentence to me.  Now they are depicted in the New York Times as a mainstream organization that has delivered an objective report.  His only nod to their past of extremism is that they have "aggressively assailed corporations for the way they treat animals and has run undercover investigations."

Having said all of that, Weisbod, and others, are of course correct in that "racing cannot continue to simply react to another New York Times article every six months."  Something needs to be done.  However, the kind of changes being called for are not going to happen overnight.  It's easy for an observer to say 'oh yeah, just ban all medications like in other countries.'  But the economies of the business in this country is built on the present culture, and those who depend on it are going to slow changes that they perceive as threatening to their livelihoods.  And should the needed changes result in, as one might suspect, fewer horses making it to the starting gate, jobs will be lost and more unwanted and unneeded horses will be eligible for slaughterhouses.  There needs to be a plan for that as well.  This will all take some time, and nothing will happen until there until there is a single authority to oversee the sport.

While they're at it, that single authority should include an effective PR machine to counter propaganda and lies in the press and by PETA.  They are launching what amounts to a political-type operation, and this sport could use a single authoritative voice to respond in kind where necessary.  One can make changes and lash back at propaganda at the same time.  We've seen necessary alterations made to the Affordable Care Act, but Democrats still blast back as necessary at deceptions coming from right-wing organizations.  If PETA is allowed, with the help of its friends at the Times, to be seen as a credible and mainstream organization, who is going to question them when it decides that the industry isn't moving as fast as it likes, which is inevitable, and decides that horse racing has to go altogether?  Joe Drape?

 - And, an aside, it's been a week now, and we're still waiting for a response from Steve Asmussen, whose lawyer promised that he would "respond factually."  The silence is rather deafening.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thursday Night Notes..

 - Or perhaps you're reading on Friday!  I wrote about Social Inclusion and the speculation over his possible sale over at the TimeformUS blog here.

- Been meaning to mention this article from a few days ago in the Albany Times Union.  It generally concerns the buzz of activity in the Capital Region, apparently spurred by the anti-casino sentiment in Saratoga Springs.  Which once seemed like a lock, doesn't appear to be one anymore.  At least to eager developers.

Christopher Tague, a planner with Howe's Cave Development, said the owners of the Schoharie County tourist operation recently began marketing 330 acres for a casino. The late thrust came after observing the local opposition to the Saratoga racino site for a casino, Tague said.

"We didn't think we had a shot because we figured Saratoga was going to be the place; we thought it was a done deal," he said. "We find out it's not the case at all."
Still, I remain convinced that unless one's name starts with an F and runs some 16 letters long, he/she is not going to be the casino license holder for the region.  Now, Jimmy Feathers did, for the first time, indicate that he would accept input from the community.
"We're going to wait until the application comes out, assess what we feel we would need to do to bid for the Saratoga site, seek advice from the mayor and the county leaders and then make a decision," said Featherstonhaugh.
But he said he was "not prepared to comment" on whether he had a Plan B backup site.  You can be sure that he does.

 - This was an odd story from last week regarding a State Senate budget proposal that would permit slots - of sorts - at JFK Airport!
The Senate proposal would make video slots available to JFK visitors through their iPads -- there would be no actual machines in the airport, the Senate's Republican conference confirmed. The video slots could be accessed only beyond TSA checkpoints in departure terminals.  That provision would aim to block gamblers from descending on the airport just to play the virtual one-armed bandits.  [Newsday]
Seriously, man?  Talk about a captive audience!  Well, I guess that's easier than constructing an El subway line up Rockaway Blvd, one of the ridiculous proposals of past years that have deservedly gone by the wayside.  Just like this one.

 - The talk on Thursday was of course over Joe Drape's article in the Times about the PETA undercover investigator who infiltrated the operation of Steve Asmussen.  I imagine you've seen it, and I'm not going to go into the gory details here; and besides, I have not had a chance to watch the videos. Still, it's obvious from reading the article that Asmussen and Scott Blasi have some explaining to do.

It's important however that they have the opportunity to do so before judgement is passed.  As we've seen in the past, when groups with an agenda send people undercover to surreptitiously record videos, and then present the parts of them that they want you to see, it's important to let all of the facts come out before drawing a conclusion.  Having said that, in whatever context that we ultimately take what was said and done in the videos, I highly doubt that much of it is limited exclusively to the Steve Asmussen barn.  Whether that means that certain trainers - and not all of the them to be sure - are operating on the edge, or a giant step beyond it - remains to be seen.

 - In the second at Gulfstream on Friday, Flashy Brass (12-1) returns to the turf in her third career start after a dismal try on dirt.  Dismissed at 97-1 in her debut, this three-year old daughter of Flashy Bull was left at the gate in the one mile grass race, and then swung extremely wide into the first turn.  She was 2-3 wide on the second turn as well, before tipping out to the five path and rallying past all but the top three, earning a competitive TimeformUS speed figure.  Each of those ahead of her came back to win turf routes, improving their figures in the process.  Here, she wheels right back after the dirt non-effort, picks up Rosario, and drops in claiming tag, from the grass race, from 75K to 50K here.  Main problem with playing this filly is the poor starts in each of her first two races.  But she definitely showed ability in that grass race, so I think she'd be worth a play at those kind of odds.  Teeth of the Tiger (5-2) has the best TFUS speed figures and Castellano, and is the main threat.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

NYRA Admission (and Parking) Increases Announced (and Tweeted)

I wrote about the Rebel and some other stuff on the TimeformUS blog here.

Regarding, and expanding upon, what I wrote there about the Derby points system, the more I think about it, the less it makes any sense the way that the points value of the races goes up to 100-40-20 starting with the races the last weekend of this month.  I mean, it's basically win-and-you're-in at this point, whether the winner were to get 50 points or 25 points or 25,000,000 points.  So, it's absolutely meaningless how many points that the winner gets.  It would be different if the horses' positions in the standings actually meant something, instead of the #20 spot being as valuable as the #1 spot.  Like, say, if the Derby connections drew post positions in order of those standings.  Then it would really matter who had the most points, and maybe some trainers would think twice about training a horse who's already in up to the race instead of running and trying to move up.

Also, if some synthetic horse clunks up for third in the Blue Grass, it can get in with 20 points - surely a possibility.  And not only get in, but have the same shot at a favorable post draw as the horse with the most points.  That just doesn't make sense.  But neither do a lot of things about this.  Like why a race on Polytrack in Dubai would possibly be a race in which a second - and quite possibly even a third - place finish would get a horse into a race on dirt in Kentucky.  That's just ridiculous.

Also on the TimeformUS blog, we'll shortly we now have a post up about our speed figures in the Rebel.  Short version is that we have a different take on the race than some other figure makers.  With rain falling, and ample work done on the track prior to the Rebel, it seems to our guy that the track was faster than it was for the prior races.  It would seem unlikely that these three-year olds, bumping around down the stretch as they did, could really have run nearly as fast as did the older Golden Lad in the Razorback one race before, if the track was exactly the same.

 - NYRA officially announced their admission increases for Saratoga ($5 / $8 for grandstand / clubhouse, up from $3 / $5).  Also, the preferred and trackside parking goes up $2, to $7 and $12, while the general parking remains free (as does the street if you don't mind walking a few blocks).  The parking increases were not included in NYRA's press release on the topic of pricing for the Belmont Stakes and Saratoga.  I saw it in a response from NYRA's Director of Communications Eric Wing to a query on Twitter, where he also noted that the preferred parking at Belmont is going up a buck, to $3, and the clubhouse parking is going up two dollars to $7.  Thought they'd slip that one by, eh?  Belmont Stakes grandstand admission remains at $10 while the clubhouse goes to $30 from $20.

Now, as I've said, I really don't have a problem with NYRA raising admission prices at Saratoga.  (Though full disclosure is that that's easy for me to say since I get a media pass.  I am happy however to pay those kinds of prices, as well as $10-$12 to park, at Del Mar.)  I don't believe that most people who go to the track to bet a couple hundred bucks on horses will mind an extra few dollars spent to get in; nor should they.  I believe the new prices are perfectly reasonable.  At Saratoga.  Belmont is a different story.  I do have a problem with grandstand admission going up to $5, and there being no grandstand in which to sit or bet, with its scheduled closure for days other than the Belmont Stakes.  That's a case of people paying more, and getting far less.  I still can't imagine that that's going to stand, but I could be wrong, we'll see.

 - The reaction of the Monticello horsemen to the Adelaar casino plans, sans racetrack, was predictable. As reported by Bill Finley in Harness Racing Update, the horsemen association president Alan Schwartz said:

"According to the plans I've seen, I don't see a racetrack anywhere or even a mention of a racetrack.  The fact is they claimed at the presentation they've been working on these plans for two years.  They didn't just take the track out the other day.  I am going to assume they never had any intention of having a racetrack at the Concord.
Last year they invited the horsemen's association to a presentation....showing us a rendering of a new paddock, a new clubhouse, a new racetrack.  They put on a dog and pony show for us and I do believe that was to get us on board to support them in their casino proposal....We were certainly misled and I think they said what they said only to try and get our support."
Maybe Empire stole those renderings to show the horsemen from Louis Cappelli!  He was the developer who originally proposed to move the racetrack to the Concord as part of his plan to build an expanded slots parlor there.  In any event, Schwartz said that this will only harden the horsemen's position in the ongoing dispute over the cap on VLT revenues.

Can you imagine the outrage in the press if NYRA tried to pull something like this?

 - We're not allowed to brag about picks on the TimeformUS blog because it's unseemly and unprofessional.  But since this blog qualifies on both of those counts, did you see my preview of the Honey Fox at Gulfstream on Saturday?  :)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Empire's Destination Resort Plan Actually Does Include A casino

Empire Resorts announced, with great fanfare, the details of their planned casino at the old Concord site in the Catskills, to be called Adelaar (Dutch for 'eagle.'  Don't ask me).  The event took place in New York City, from where they hope to attract customers, making it clear that it's only 90 miles away.

Here's an illustration of the facility from their website that I'm sure they won't mind if I share.

One thing you'll notice right away is that there's no racetrack.  You know, the brand new Monticello Raceway with the 5/8ths oval that Jeff Gural, in no uncertain terms, assured us that Empire was going to construct to replace the current dilapidated plant.  Guess that was untrue.  Did he volunteer to take a lie detector test about that?  And I have it on good authority that the new track had been taken off the table long before the signal dispute began; more like around the time that the casino referendum was approved.  If you look at the plans and listen to how long they've been working on them, it's surely fair to wonder if it ever really was being contemplated, or if it was just a carrot to attract votes from the region and support from racing interests.

Here's the website for Adelaar, and if you scroll down to the video, you'll learn what exactly is being planned.  A destination resort in New York's Catskills region.  A cafe. A farmers market.  The famed "monster" championship golf course, redesigned for golfers of every level.  Amazing waterparks.  Superior hospitality offerings.  Indoor fun.  Outdoor adventure.  Over 1700 acres of beautiful Catskills landscape.  A village with shopping, dining, and movies.  A four-star hotel.  Substantial economic, social, and environmental benefits.  The destination in the northeast where people take their family and friends to.  Over and over and over again.

Oh, and yeah.  There's also.......[get ready].......a casino!  That word is mentioned exactly once in the video, and practically in passing, at the 1:48 mark.....while 'environment' or 'environmental' is mentioned three times.  'Gaming' and 'gambling' are mentioned zero times.  As if the casino is just another feature, and a rather minor one at that.  Definitely less of an attraction than the golf course, which gets its own 20 second segment.

Of course, without the casino, they're simply describing many of the things that comprised the business model that collapsed in the region decades ago, leading the local economy into the tailspin that has made the community so desperate for the lifeline that some believe casino gambling will provide.  (I'm surprised that they didn't promise a comedy club featuring Morey Amsterdam and Joey Bishop.)  But this of course is all about casino gambling, whether Empire and partner EPR Properties actually want to say so, or not.  It's all about getting people to sit their butts down at a slot machine or a blackjack table and gamble their money away.  That's the bottom line, pure and simple.  That's how Empire is going to make their fortune.  The rest of this is simply meant to gloss over and take the edge off the cold reality of gambling, and to portray it all as wholesome family fun.  It's a cynical lie.

And given their record with the racetrack, why should one even trust that Empire will deliver what they say?  In the last post, we heard an Empire exec say that they are "awaiting clarification pursuant to the New York State Gaming Commission Request for Application process to better understand if a new harness track may be required." Well, assuming that the Request for Application is similarly not going to require a championship golf course, a waterpark, a movie theater, or outdoor adventure, why should anyone believe that they will really follow through on those either?

 - I wrote about the unsuccessful/successful return of Honor Code over at the TimeformUS blog.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Gural Pleads Ignorance on VLT Cap

The dispute at Monticello goes on, and the result, thus far, is a 50 percent reduction in purses and 40 percent fewer races.

Both sides have used tactics ranging from petty to extreme. Management recently closed the main track to training from Friday-Sunday, a stunt that lasted one day, according to horsemen spokesman Alan Schwartz, after reporting it to the state Gaming Commission. Schwartz, the Monticello Harness Horsemen's Association president, says the paddock cafeteria has been closed.  Horsemen say races have been canceled for weather- and surface-related reasons that didn't cause cancellations in the past.
Wednesday's card had just 59 horses entered in eight races, with only two of those races worth more than $2,000. [Times Herald Record]
That's not gonna pay that many bills.  Management says that they've had to lay 12 people off.

Writing about the dispute in Harness Racing Update, Tioga Downs owner, and NYGA board member, Jeff Gural vehemently pushed back at the notion that NYGA had anything to do with the provision of the casino law which caps purse revenue from VLT revenue; the issue that the horsemen are blocking the simulcast signal over. Gural claims that neither he nor NYGA Executive Director Michael Wilton even knew that the law created a cap until the latter made some calls after the Alan Schwartz statements last month!  But the text of the casino law became public last June, which is when I pointed out the cap, which is right there in plain English.  So Gural pleading this kind of ignorance is rather amusing; and he's doing no service to the Executive Director of NYGA by revealing that he was totally ignorant of the law's implications for eight months. Gural goes on:
Mr. Schwartz can say anything he wants but I am prepared to put my hand on the bible, take a lie detector test or do anything anyone wants me to do to make it perfectly clear that the racetrack owners had no influence whatsoever on the legislation that the horsemen are so unhappy with.  Since this is costing everyone money I would hope that there is a way to resolve this dispute because I doubt if the legislature has an appetite to change the law when their focus is purely on upstate economic development.
Well, for one thing, I thought that the racing and breeding industry is a part of upstate economic development.  And Gural here is offering his hand on the bible and then speaking for the entire group. I haven't heard NYGA President James Featherstonhaugh volunteer to take a lie detector test. Would anyone believe that that veteran Albany lobbyist wouldn't know what his lobbyists are lobbying for?

Monticello management sure isn't talking as if they've just recently become aware of the cap:
"It's unacceptable that the Monticello Harness Horsemen's Association is attempting to leverage us into paying tens of millions of dollars beyond what is clearly stipulated in the Upstate New York Gaming Economic Development Act," [Exec VP Charles] Degliomini says.
Gural suggests that the horsemen would be better off supporting Empire Resorts' efforts to relocate the racing to the Concord, and to "build a new state of the art grandstand and a new 5/8ths track."
You would think considering the dilapidated condition that the existing grandstand is in that the horsemen would jump at the chance to have a brand new facility in which to hopefully attract new customers, new owners, etc.
Only problem with that is that Empire is now hedging on those plans pending the release of the Requests for Proposals.
"While the (state law allowing casinos) does not require us to build a new track, we are awaiting clarification pursuant to the New York State Gaming Commission Request for Application process to better understand if a new harness track may be required." [Times Herald Record
So I guess the horsemen may have to put up with those dilapidated condition if a new track is not 'required.'

 - With the Saratoga City Council having voted against the idea of a full casino, officials in Montgomery County are letting it be known that they'd be happy to host one.  Residents there voted in favor of the referendum in November, and resolutions in favor have been passed in the cities of Florida and Amsterdam.

And a Chicago gaming company has hired a lobbying group with an eye towards a possible casino site in Schenectady.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Searching for the Positive News in the Times

I wrote about the Santa Anita Handicap, Palace Malice, and a couple of three-year old stakes on my Today in Racing blog on the TimeformUS site.

Just got to watch the tape of the FOX/Jockey Club telecast of Game On Dude's win in the Big Cap.  The race was flexed in to the schedule when the matchup became apparent.  As we mentioned after the Donn, there are no more dirt races for the handicap division scheduled as the lead race on the series. So, should these three meet again, plus perhaps Palace Malice and Lea if we're lucky, the Jockey Club would have to add another telecast, or rely on tracks to change their stakes schedule (note that the Saratoga stakes schedule has not yet been announced).

I thought that the telecast was another solid job. Short and sweet at a half hour, it was therefore focused on the business at hand, with no superfluous human interest stories about the horse who ended up in Suzy's field who's running in the fourth (as described by Dean Towers in his column in Harness Racing Update).  There was a short feature with a Santa Anita executive talking about some of the amenities there, including food offerings such as a salad bar.  A friend at work opined that the words "salad bar" should never be a part of a telecast meant to promote horse racing to a young audience.  I would add "chandelier" to that as well.

Otherwise, we had an effective setup of the early season showdown by Greg Wolf and The Mig, and taped interviews snippets with Lukas, Gary Stevens, and Kathy Ritvo.  For a guy who is usually seated at a desk or in the paddock at Saratoga talkin' horses, Andy Serling seemed quite comfortable (and looked distinguished in a natty tie) holding a microphone and interviewing Bob Baffert. Of course, Baffert did his part to help.  Glad to see him looking well, and he was California laid back as he straightforwardly explained what had been going wrong, what the horse needed to do to win (an uncontested lead going into the first turn), and how he was doing going into the race.  The sport could do far worse should Baffert and Lukas be main players in televised races.

Good job with the post parade.  Nobody picked the winner; but Serling tabbed Blingo as his longshot stab, and gave a late shout-out to the value on Game On Dude (which was actually a prevailing theme throughout the telecast; he was 5-1 with five minutes to post!).

A note on the commercial by America's Best Racing: It's a great looking spot with some cool old footage.  But I just don't know how you promote the sport by wistfully recalling how racing "ruled the country," and how it "was the original madness."  I like 'Watch It. Play It. Love It.'  But I'm thinking that the idea needs to be how - and where - do you do so now, and not how people did it in the past.

A few more notes and observations on the news that came out of last week's NYRA board meeting:

 - People seem extremely upset about the grandstand being closed at Belmont, and that's just the people who know about it.  It hasn't really been publicized, and I'd bet it will come as a rude surprise to many come May when the track reopens.  Personally, I don't think this decision will stand.  I think NYRA is going to have to relent.  The idea that everyone who likes to hang out in the backyard - unquestionably, in my mind, the pulse of the place - is going to have to walk significant distances to go watch the races from bad seats in the clubhouse (that they'll probably have to pay for on weekends) seems radical.  Combine that with the admission going up to $5, and people are going to feel as if they are paying more and getting far far less. They're going to be pissed. And people in the clubhouse aren't going to be happy either.  Many of them are quite happy to pay a few extra bucks just to get away from the grandstand, and they won't be pleased that the grandstand is coming to them.  I think a compromise is in order wherein a certain number of sections in the grandstand remains open even while/if the betting windows and concessions are closed.

 - The subject of the sexual assault in the Aqueduct bathroom was brought up at the meeting; but not by Chris Kay, who then noted that such sordid incidents sometimes take place in other public places, such as Central Park. I happen to agree with Kay here, and I've noted that I think it's unfair to portray such an isolated incident as a symbol of the track's decline, as the Daily News in particular has continued to pile on.  Having said that though, with the promise of the opening of Longshots, we are hopefully looking at the nadir here, and the assault will no doubt and indeed come to be seen as a symptom of rock bottom.

 - Kay surely seems to be learning the political reality of his situation.

 “I would think that our charter would be to provide recommendations for what should happen” to Aqueduct....“It’s going to be decided, obviously, in Albany.” [DRF]
- I was interested to read Tom Noonan note in his latest post that the board Chairman David Skorton, referring to the next people who will run NYRA, said that they are "hopefully us."  That remark is now particularly puzzling given the announcement that Skorton has been named as the new director of the Smithsonian, starting in July, 2015.  That may allow him to serve out much of the rest of his term as Chairman before NYRA reverts to private control in October of that year. But he surely won't be around for the sequel.  And I don't know that that's what he meant anyway; as Noonan noted, nobody wants Cuomo sticking around the board room through his proxies.  Maybe he was trying to say that he hopes that NYRA reverts to being what it was, rather than being sold to the highest bidder.  Which is what I think is going to happen.

 - And there was some really good news.  As reported by the News: The death rate at NYRA tracks is now 1.5 per 1,000 starters, the lowest in the country.

Wow, that's excellent, and an impressive turnaround from when the 21 horse deaths in the winter of 2012 sparked enough outrage to get the indifferent governor involved.  Since Joe Drape and the New York Times are always so concerned about horse safety, and so quick to put negative stories on the front page, surely fair reporting demands some prominent placement of this news!  So, let's see what they published.

Hmmm, I entered NYRA horse deaths on their search page, but only got back these old, negative stories.

So I must be missing it somewhere.  Because, of course, the Times would be glad, if not ethically and journalistically obligated, to report on this happy epilogue to their Death and Disarray series; and do so prominently. Well, let's check Drape's Twitter feed.  Surely, the great man must have something on it.

Let's see.

Nope, that's not it.  I see he's been retweeting some really fascinating information.

Well, I wasn't, actually.  Here, he's rooting for his favorite wrestling team, enthusiastically if not grammatically correct. 
Ooooo, here's something!  
Oh, that's negative.  Well, now I'm back to February 1 in his feed, and I think this news was announced afterwards.  I dunno, maybe it was earlier, but I can't take reading this anymore. I must be mistaken, because Drape, who has assured us all along how fair and balanced his reporting has been, must have mentioned this somewhere.  Can somebody help us out here please?