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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Delayed and Blocked

We've been down at my mom's house in Florida the last few days. And though the wireless is fixed, I had no inclination in the heat and humidity for work of any kind, so sorry for the lack of posting during that time. We're now at Tampa Airport, waiting for our delayed flight home. Last time we flew home from down here, our Jet Blue flight was canceled, so it's the second consecutive snafu courtesy of that airline. Hopefully, we won't meet a similar fate!

Anyway, went online via the airport's free wireless service, and saw an email with a link to an article on with the subject line Hayward Addresses Criticism of NYRA. Eagerly clicking on, I got the following message:

This domain is blocked.

Site blocked. is not allowed on this network.

This site was categorized in: Gambling
Hmmm....that seems a little harsh, doesn't it, especially considering the billboards I saw on the way here for the nearby Hard Rock Casino featuring blackjack, roulette and slots. (I can't access their website here either.) Not like this is Mormon country around here or anything. A similar foray to the Form's site met with similar results, so so much for passing the time handicapping tomorrow's races. However, I was able to access an article on Hayward's remarks on the Wall Street Journal's site. Because, after all, playing the stock market is NOT gambling, right?

Hayward defended the executive raises criticized last week by the state Budget Director Robert Megna.
The 3 percent raises that took effect in January were justified because the executives haven't had raises in three years, while their health insurance payments have doubled over that time,
Hayward cited some of the challenges the organization has faced, including an overall decline in interest in racing and last December's collapse of New York City's off-track betting operation, a move that left NYRA being owed some $28 million. He said NYRA reduced its operating expenses from $146 million in 2009 to $142.7 million last year.

"NYRA hasn't had a profit since 2002," Hayward said. "I don't think the raises should be determined necessarily by profit alone." [WSJ]
Personally, I think that there wasn't really a significant issue here, and that Hayward should have just have left it at that. Sometimes, when one replies to petty accusations they can end up sounding petty themselves. I'm sure that nobody wants to hear anyone complain about their health insurance costs, and not all of us have gotten raises to cover them. Besides, the state was some $10 billion in the hole before the budget was passed, and I don't recall anyone demanding the details of Megna's salary (though it is public record...he makes $178,000 as the Budget Director, vs. $127,000 as Commisioner of Tax and Finance in 2008).

More significantly in my view, was Hayward's succinct response to Megna's assertion that he couldn't see how NYRA could make a profit even with revenues from slots. "We will definitely be in the black in 2012." NYRA expects to lose some $11.7 million this year.

- Well, if I can't access a "gambling" site here, the morals police may accost me if I dare write about same-sex marriage here. Suffice to say that its an issue whose time as come, and I think its legalization in New York will serve to hasten its spread. While the four Republicans in the Senate whose votes put it over the top - Sens. Roy McDonald, Stephen Saland, Mark Grisanti, and James Alessi (their websites are blocked here - This site was categorized as: pornography and perversion) - deserve full praise - as does, though more grudgingly on my part, Majority Leader Dean Skelos for allowing it to come to a vote (not doing so would have been a crass slap at the democratic process that conservatives claim to know and love), there were ample financial inducements for them to do so which they hope will soften any political implications. The Times had a great article about the whole process over the weekend (presented here via the Boston Globe for those of you who may not be able to access the Times these days.

And, of course, Governor Cuomo was the driving force behind the whole thing. No question that there was a fair amount of arm twisting on his part. There were reports of several meetings between he and Skelos. No doubt that he reminded the Majority Leader of his own soaring approval ratings and the fact that the unwritten rule that governors don't get involved in state Senate campaigns is just that - unwritten, and a rule made to be broken.

OK, that's about it from Tampa, time to hit the bar (as the flight as just been delayed by an additional eight minute, time for another shot). Speak to you when we get back.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Oversight Chairman [Insulting Verb] NYRA

Lambastes is the word that the Times Union's Capitol Confidential uses to describe the figurative tongue-lashing delivered to NYRA in a letter to Charles Hayward from State Budget Director (and chairman of the Franchise Oversight Board) Robert Megna, issued after a contentious meeting of the Board during which NYRA officials (though apparently not including Hayward himself) were not as forthcoming as he'd like. You could also use words like excoriates, berates, pummels, rebukes, reads the riot act to, eviscerates, drags over the coals, flays, or whatever. Let's just say that Mr. Megna is not happy.

Our oversight ability depends on your willingness to be forthright with information......Unfortunately, there remain significant and unacceptable gaps in our ability to analyze the NYRA budget. Specifically, state law grants the FOB the authority to review management and employee compensation plans, but your budget provides no detail on the compensation of senior management. However, it has been widely reported that raises have been granted to NYRA senior executives, as well as other employees. In fact, wage compensation at NYRA is projected to increase by more than 5 percent in total. Given current fiscal realities, and with NYRA projecting an $11 million deficit, the Board believes that your actions in this area warrant justification.
I continue to have substantial concerns about NYRA’s ability to bring racing operations into the black. Your budget assumes that overall handle on NYRA races will drop by 1.4 percent, while total operating expenses will increase by 7.9 percent. Even with VLT revenue beginning to flow, it is not clear after extrapolating current trends that racing operations are sustainable without significant restructuring. As Chairman of the Oversight Board, I am asking that NYRA submit a plan to bring racing operations into long-term solvency.
Megna additionally reminds NYRA that "a finding of a material breach, or repeated non-material breach of performance standards" could be grounds for the Franchise Oversight Board to recommend terminating the franchise. Pretty harsh stuff.

Well, I can't really comment on the financial assumptions at the crux of the letter, though it was reported that NYRA officials indeed refused to divulge salary figures at the meeting. And NYRA has yet to respond with the report having been issued late in the day. But you know where I stand on NYRA. Part of it is a natural bias after....many joyful, if not profitable, years of attending its races (I'm done specifying the number of years, look at some old posts and do the math if you care). But aside from that, I just happen to think that NYRA is run by thoroughly honest folks who have the best interests of the game squarely at heart. Not to say that they don't make mistakes, but I don't believe they stem from deception or malice of any kind.

So, having said and acknowledged that, just a few comments. For one thing, I tend to give NYRA the benefit of the doubt when it's attacked by a politician. However, Megna holds an appointed position, so unless he's gearing up for a future run for Comptroller, he's apparently not being motivated by the usual promise of cheap political gain. He seems genuinely and thoroughly pissed off about something! Still, the most venal offense that Megna could come up with is a lousy 5% increase in the wages it pays its employees? Really gotta wonder what all the bluster is about. While I can't say for sure without seeing specific figures (wages are not broken out on some old financials I have), I would also wonder just how material an increase of that level could possibly be.

Additionally, though Megna expresses concern about NYRA's finances, he doesn't mention the effect of the closure of NYC OTB which was ultimately a result of the state's failure to resolve the issues. Nor does he acknowledge the aggressive efforts by NYRA to attract more business to its track and its online wagering platform. Whatsmore, given the past performances, my guess is that NYRA's response will go towards highlighting the lack of familiarity and knowledge of the details by elected (or, in this case, appointed) officials. And that if Hayward "chose to not attend today’s meeting" even though it "was rescheduled at [his] request to accommodate the NYRA racing calendar," then he had a pretty good reason, be it personal or merely posturing. One would surely expect that there would be an adversarial element in the relationship between NYRA and a board created by politicians to oversee it. But this sounds like it's already turned personal.

- Genting was also represented at the FOB meeting, and they told the Board that the racino might not be ready until October, rather than the long-promised late summer soft opening of 2,500 machines.
Workers have spent longer than expected on things such as roofing and asbestos abatement at Aqueduct, Genting Chief Financial Officer Christian Goode said.

“There are a lot of challenges with an old building,” he said. [The Saratogian]
Well, that's no surprise here; I've been skeptical about that target date from the start. I mean, it just seemed obvious from the naked eye, seeing the state of the construction there in late April, when the meet ended. It rarely pays to be so overly optimistic; just raises questions and criticism. One of the biggest mistakes that the Obama Administration has made was saying that unemployment was going to drop to 7.9% by last year. Makes it so easy for opponents to frame the economy as a failure on the part of the White House. The NYRA situation is surely less profound, but you still have to wonder if Genting is setting itself up for more questioning by even mentioning October 1. Indeed, Resorts World President Michael Speller declined to identify a definite date.

News, Notes, and Ramblings

- Looks like they did some pretty brisk business out at Belmont this past weekend with over 20,000 in attendance over Saturday and Sunday. Of course, the figure was helped by Father's Day, which always draws the second largest crowd of the spring meet (if not, sadly, including the once-decisive fall meeting as well). 12,863 turned out, which, to the best of my recollection, is more or less in line with pre-OTB days....and that would make sense. Hopefully, not too many dads chose to spend their big day with the family picnicking on the floor at the local OTB parlor. That would be pretty depressing. But 7,819 turned out on the Saturday after the Belmont, which isn't too shabby these days.

- Nehro underwent surgery last week for an injury apparently suffered in the Belmont. He's said to be a possibility for the Breeders' Cup, but we'll see. If he comes back, he does have an excuse for his Belmont, so he'll probably get bet and we can throw him out again. And Animal Kingdom himself also suffered what is said to be a very minor injury. It's one which will barely intrude upon his training schedule, but which will also likely serve to keep his odds down once he returns; good news as well.

These are the latest three-year old to suffer some kind of infirmity; a pretty extensive list which also includes The Factor, To Honor and Serve, Archarcharch, Premier Pegasus, and Toby's Corner (not to mention Uncle Schmo and his supposed gastrointestinal problem). And this comes with the reduced racing schedules that are employed today too. So, going back to Drape's article about slower Classic times possibly being related to the banning of steroids, John Ward was quoted as saying: "But we’re also beginning to see a sounder horse that will last longer.” That statement went unchallenged by the writer. Yet, it seems pretty clear that there's no evidence supporting it, at least not based on this bunch of three-year olds. In fact, since, we're told, that steroids allowed trainers to train their horses harder, for all we know, maybe the effect of their ban is the opposite? Just sayin.

- The NY Post reports that Genting is interested in building a convention center next to their racino at the Big A.

"They want a convention center to rival Javits," said state Sen. Joe Adabbo (D-Queens), who's been briefed on the proposal.
The city's business and tourism leaders have long complained that Javits -- the city's only convention center -- lacks adequate space to host large-scale exhibitions.
But there is no major space to hold big exhibitions anywhere in the outer boroughs, said Jack Friedman, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce. [NY Post]
The idea would seem to make some sense considering the location's proximity to JFK. Surely, it would require hotels, and that makes a whole lot more sense in this context than prior such plans did with respect to a racino alone. And surely, convention goers could be easily led over to piss away some money at the slots.

Genting is a pretty diverse company whose interests are not limited to gambling, as one can see from their corporate website. The company recently purchased 14 acres of prime space in downtown Miami, and plans to proceed with a convention center/hotel/entertainment/retail/residence/etc complex whether they are able to obtain a casino license, or not.

Indeed, these diversification plans in New York may very well be with an eye toward what seems like an inevitable, at some point, expansion of Indian casinos into the New York suburbs.

- Yonkers also has plans, though their $40 million project is limited to expanding their gambling facilities (well, gambling other than that on horse racing anyway)....and surely with an eye towards the looming competition from Genting's gambling property in Queens.
Empire City officials said the project will involve construction of a new east wing (one story and a mezzanine) totaling some 60,000 square feet. About 30,000 square feet will be used for new gaming space, 20,000 square feet will be dedicated for new food and beverage operations and 10,000 square feet will be used for office space and storage/mechanical rooms. Also part of the expansion is a 6,600-square-foot covered entrance to the casino used for valet parking. [Westfair Online]
They'll have room for 400 more slot machines (for a total of 5,710), for more "seats" for the electronic roulette, which was introduced around the new year, as well. (They have a great TV ad with a giant roulette ball bouncing around the city which unfortunately I can't find online.) [UPDATE: Here it is, thanks Chris!]

They recently also announced the introduction of video craps, as more traditional "table games" are adapted as a permitted virtual activity in New York. Of course, there's no doubt that they are also thinking about making some room for the real table games' inevitable arrival at the racinos.

And needless to say, this racino continues to be wildly successful.
In April and May of this year, Empire City posted net revenues of $56.7 million each month and sent a total of $56.5 million to the education fund. In June 2007, the racino contributed $20 million to Yonkers and each June thereafter has sent the city a check for $19.6 million.

Empire City is by far the most successful racino of the eight gaming venues in operation in the state. In April and May, net revenue for all eight facilities totaled $208.5 million. Yonkers Raceway’s net revenue was $113.4 million.
- Made it to our first free outdoor music event of the summer. As part of the Celebrate Brooklyn series at Prospect Park, producer Hal Willner, who has a long history of presenting interesting theme-based concert programs, presented his Freedom Riders Project - Music of the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to the expected crack band, there were appearances by Toshi Reagon, Lou Reed, Todd Rungren (!), and Rosanne Cash, whose interpretation of Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready was the musical highlight of the evening.

A couple of things that came to mind during the show: Eric Mingus did a version of 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,' by the late great Gil-Scott Heron, who left us just a few weeks ago. Man, talk about a song that's now outdated; and the 31 years since its release is really just a drop in the bucket in the scheme of things. The Revolution will (and has) not only been televised, but Twittered, You Tubed, and Facebooked too!

And secondly, seems hard to believe that it was just in my lifetime that so many people in our free nation had to fight and, in some cases, die for their basic and inalienable rights and freedoms. The fight goes on for some, most relevantly in New York State at this time as the gay marriage bill continues to stall as of this writing in the Republican-controlled State Senate. Of course, gay marriage is -- or at least should be -- a relatively minor matter which really would have no effect whatsoever on any of the petty and small-minded people who are campaigning against it. It seems as if their argument is strictly down to religious ones, which is not much of an argument of all.

In any event, Monday was supposed to be the final day of the legislative session, but the session will go on as this issue, as well as the expiring NYC rent control laws, are still to be resolved. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos has still not committed to allowing the bill to proceed to the floor for a vote, where it would, by all counts, need one more vote to pass. Several Republicans are said to be the possible deciders, but the GOP is holding out for more protections and indemnifications for religious institutions which don't want to participate. That seems kind of odd. This is a secular state after all; the government makes the rules, and religions follow it. We tend to fight wars against those who believe it should be the other way around.

In fact and however, it's a pretty sure bet that all Skelos really cares about is whether his party can still retain its majority in 2012 should the measure pass with a few GOP votes. If he ultimately decides that it cannot, he will surely not allow a vote; it's as simple as that.

- The Head Chef has more on the Celebrate Brooklyn show on her Grapes and Greens blog.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Back in the Picture (x2)

The decision by the Interior Department to suddenly reverse its standing regulations, instituted by the Bush Administration in 2008, to prohibit Indian tribes from operating casinos outside of "commuting distance" of their reservations, still leaves obstacles in place to tribes wishing to do so.

The change...does not guarantee that the casinos will be approved; the department will still take into account the views of local residents and elected officials, Mr. Echo Hawk said.
Under federal law, a tribe wanting to build a casino on nonreservation land must first have the parcel transferred to the Interior Department, into a trust. The tribe must also obtain a federal determination that the planned casino would be in the best interests of the tribe, and not detrimental to the surrounding community. [NY Times]
Already however, talk of a Catskills casino operated by the Wisconsin-based Stockbridge Munsee tribe, approved by former Governor Paterson in the waning days of his administration and subsequently rejected by the feds, has already been revived.
US Senator Charles Schumer, who pushed for the decision reversal and the Stockbridge Munsee casino proposal, plans to keep the heat on.

“I will be meeting with the Interior Department and obviously they will probably have to lay out guidelines and other things to see where they are headed and will be working hard to see that the Catskills are treated favorably in that regard,” he said. [Mid-Hudson News]
Also back in the picture these days in that part of the state is Louis Cappelli and his grand plan to build a racetrack and racino at the old Concord site. The plan had seemed dead as Cappelli was unable to get the financing during the abyss of the financial crisis.

Now he's back, but, according to this piece by James Odato in the Times Union, he's competing for an 8th and, at this time, final available harness license with Thomas Wilmot, a developer seeking to construct a track and VLT parlor in Syracuse.
Cappelli received a favorable letter last month from Racing & Wagering Board Chairman John Sabini which indicates that his project is on the path to getting licensed. The document is helpful as Cappelli seeks financing.

"I have a comfort letter," Cappelli said, adding that he is busy resolving several mechanics liens that his opponents point out to reporters as an example of his alleged financial instability. They also express outrage that he has attempted to improve his potential VLT deal with the state by seeking to retain even more VLT revenue to help market the Catskills. [Times Union]
As you may recall, Cappelli - with some help no doubt from some influential lobbyists - managed to obtain an unprecedented 75% retention rate of VLT revenues (based on certain benchmarks of spending and employment). That's more than twice the rate that most of the other racinos in the state get. Now, he additionally wants a new 8% marketing allowance.
Assemblyman Gary Pretlow (D-Westchester), chairman of the Racing and Wagering Committee, doesn’t think that will be approved.

“The Cappelli group is looking for an eight percent marketing allowance because when they were partnered with Empire, they were going to use Empire’s marketing allowance, and now they are two separate entities." [Mid-Hudson News]
Empire, which operates Monticello, is threatening to sue Cappelli over the Concord project, which would land a competing harness track just a few miles away.
"Is there anyone who thinks it makes sense to put another racetrack within three miles of an existing racetrack?" asked Empire spokesman Joseph DePlasco.
Of course, that concept is no stupider now than it was when Empire was a partner with Cappelli in the project, which originally envisioned "moving" the track to the Concord. With this and the Stockbridge-Munsee project, Monticello is now facing existential threats on two fronts which both seemed dead not long ago.

- How about a shout-out to the State Senator from our favorite upstate city. Senator Roy McDonald became the second Republican in the chamber to declare his support for gay marriage.
"Now, you might not like that. You might think me very cynical about that. Well f--- it; I don’t care what you think."
"I’m tired of Republican-Democrat politics. I’m tired of blowhard radio people, blowhard television people, blowhard newspapers. They can take the job and shove it," he said. "I come from a blue collar background, and I am trying to do the right thing. And that’s where I’m going with this." [Saratogian]
Well, right on, Senator McDonald, and in many respects there. His declaration puts the measure a single vote away from passage in the Senate which, with the Assembly and Governor Cuomo on board, would make it the law of the state.

Mayor Bloomberg was in Albany trying to get that one more vote, no doubt with promises of continued financial support for Senate Republicans....and he expressed confidence that the votes are there. The question now is whether the Republican leadership will allow the bill to even come to the floor for a vote. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos had previously and repeatedly declared that, though he personally opposed the idea, he would surely allow his members to vote their conscience on the Senate floor.

Of course, Skelos also signed Ed Koch's redistricting pledge when he was in the minority, and then reneged on it when he was back in the majority; instead insisting it be part of a constitutional amendment which could take ten years, long after his desperate party can use their present position to try and overcome their fading demographics in the state. So it's hardly surprising that he now seems to be hedging, and, as of this writing, has still not committed to allowing a vote, with the session scheduled to end on Monday. Despite holding only a bare 32-30 majority in a single chamber and with the Democrats controlling the Assembly and the Governor's mansion, Skelos still seems to be holding all the cards. That's democracy in Albany for you.

- And here's a good one. With the Senate Democrats slowing matters down in the bitterly divided chamber, one Senate Republican had a question.
With Democrats grilling Sen. John Flanagan over a local fire district bill, Ball had enough when Sen. Eric Adams stood up. Ball stood, according to Senate sources, and asked if he could inject a question. He then proceeded to ask Adams the status of the AEG investigation. [Daily Politics]
Yeah, actually, I've been wondering about that myself.
Federal law enforcement are known to be looking into the deal, which was consummated when Senate Democrats were in power. Adams was one of several Dems heavily criticized in a scathing Inspector General report last year that ripped the bidding process.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Medication in U.S. is a U.S. Issue

Interesting to read of a respected trainer like Graham Motion speaking out in favor of the use of Salix (fka Lasix) as a race-day medication at the International Summit on Race Day Medication, EIPH and the Racehorse.

“I certainly know I would have horses in my barn who would not be able to race if we took away Lasix,” Motion said. “Is that right or wrong, I’m not sure.”
“I do think Lasix may be the lesser of the evils,” Motion said. “If we take it away, everyone is going to be looking for something else to control the bleeding. This is more controlled.”

During the veterinary panel, racetrack veterinarian Foster Northrop said he had a problem with people characterizing Salix as a “performance-enhancing drug.”

“I’ve never had a trainer come up to me to say I want to improve this horse’s performance, let’s give him Lasix,” Northrop said, noting that giving a horse too much Salix can hurt performance. “It’s hard to come up with right dosage. Too much can hurt a horse.” [Thoroughbred Times]
Not surprisingly, these remarks were not reported in the New York Times by Joe Drape in his article on the subject on Tuesday. Imagine, his golden boy Graham Motion, who he's repeatedly lauded for his squeaky clean record (and the trainer of his equine hero Animal Kingdom), actually coming out in favor of a medication which Drape otherwise holds greatly responsible for the industry's decline? Guess he'll just ignore that. All the News That's Fit to Print As Long As It Fits Our Agenda.
Veterinarians and racing officials here from England, Ireland and Hong Kong, backed by data from jurisdictions across the world, told their American colleagues that they were medicating horses who did not need it. There are not that many severe bleeders, and the ones who are are being kept on the track with Lasix and should be not be racing, anyway.
Dr. Anthony Stirk, the senior veterinary adviser to the British Horse Racing Authority, said that it would benefit American horsemen to get in step with the rest of the world, not only in medication policies but also in racing less frequently. [NY Times]
Matt Hegarty, writing in the Form, also emphasized the difference in medication rules between here and elsewhere, noting that The United States and Canada are the only major jurisdictions that allow for the raceday use of furosemide.

It makes me chuckle when I hear the notion that we should be more like the Europeans in this particular regard. Since when are we in the habit here of emulating our friends overseas? I mean, Europeans also have socialized medicine, and I don't hear much call for that these days; in fact, quite the opposite! I imagine roughly half of you equivocate that with the end of civilization as we know it.

Besides, our racing culture and industry is markedly distinct from that of other countries, and what might make sense there may not here - significantly less racing probably doesn't work; all grass racing is definitely taboo. Drape writes of Hong Kong:
Over the past five years, it has had only eight sudden deaths among 45,000 runners, or one per 5,692 starters. The American fatality rate is 2.14 per 1,000 starters.
However, Hong Kong has only 83 racing dates, so the economics of the industry is vastly different from that over here. So it just might be that a higher death rate constitutes acceptable collateral damage, unfortunate but necessary to keep the vast number of people who make their living in the industry employed. Oh, does that sound cold? The concept of collateral damage seems OK after all when it comes to innocent human Afghans caught up in NATO night raids.

In fact, this country seems to have a more callous attitude overall towards human life than in Europe. After all and for example, unlike in the vast majority of Europe, we execute convicted criminals over here, despite the fact that it's been proven that not all of them are actually guilty. And we've been known to start wars that led to tens of thousands of deaths for no good reason at all. So all of this sudden hand-wringing over horses seems rather incongruous to me. As I've said before, if you're a racing fan or participant, you've already checked your morality at the door and signed off on the fact that these animals are bred and brought to this earth for no other purpose than their sheer exploitation for our pleasure and commerce; and that some of them inevitably and unavoidably become casualties along the way.

None of this is to say that we should totally ignore feedback from overseas, especially when we're told by foreign buyers that they are shying away from American auctions "because we view the performances of U.S. horses with skepticism because of the medication policies." And I'm surely in full support of steps to make the sport safer - including the synthetic experiment that many have derided due to nothing but their own selfish interests and superfluous personal preferences. However, American horsemen need to figure out what works for them and for their industry in this country, and put the views of those from other jurisdictions in the perspective that they belong.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Shmegegee Belmont

When I get home from the Belmont, there was a voicemail from my mom.

You wait three hours for them to all line up, and talk and carry on; then a minute and a half, and some shmegegge horse wins. Did you ever? I thought that poor Animal Kingdom was going to fall. However, that's how it goes.

(Did you really go? It's disgusting out!)
Well, first of all, yes, we really went. But it wasn't really that bad, though there was barely a moment when there wasn't at least a fine mist descending upon the area. Didn't seem to dampen anyone's spirits in the crowd of 55,779. That figure was below the 60,000 that NYRA was hoping for, but I think they did extremely well considering the elements, and the lack of bling in this year's big race. The crowd was up over 23% from last year, and ontrack handle was up by nearly 33% to $10,098,573, from around $7.6 million last year. (And the overall numbers were up as well.)

Of course, much of that on-track increase is due to the closure of NYC OTB which, as Matt Hegarty succinctly suggests, has limited the options for New York City residents to wager on races. Nonetheless, NYRA deserves much credit for the way they've filled that vacuum by providing transportation options - including and especially their deal with the LIRR to bring back the Belmont Express - and promoting and growing their lucrative online wagering platform. And not to mention, once again, the efforts by the energetic marketing department which continues to do a great job.

Now, shmegegge is a Yiddish term meaning, according to, baloney; hot air; nonsense. Of course, the connections of Ruler On Ice may dispute those characterizations. After all, not like he was a bad horse; in fact, he'd never finished out of the money in the five races since his debut, ran third in the Sunland Derby (just behind Preakness show horse Astrology), and second in the Tesio at Pimlico on Derby day, his last start. As Teresa pointed out, he was the only horse in the field with a win in the slop (a fact which, back in simpler days, might have been enough to bring me to land on him; now, I didn't even notice amongst all the other handicapping noise). Had a couple of really sharp five furlong works for this at Monmouth too.

On the other hand, Ruler On Ice is not that fast (ha ha to his 100 Beyer for the Belmont), and had significant questions of class to answer. Who was he facing? was the skeptical question in the Form's Closer Look blurb. (And that's probably what racing scholars of the future will ask about this Belmont field.) Whatsmore, he's a son of Roman Ruler, not exactly considered to be a source of stoutness.

However, that's how it goes. So while we won't disparage tho horse, I think we can say it was a Schmegegge Belmont. Baloney (Test of Champions); Hot Air (Animal Kingdom vs. Shackleford, blah blah blah); Nonsense (single digit odds on Nehro, Mucho Macho Man, and Master of Hounds [no redboarding here, disparaged each one's chances before the race]). The race and its results carry no implications for anything, be it divisional honors or the results of three-year old stakes races to come, especially having been run on a sloppy racetrack which threw an already muddled field of horses running an unnatural distance into utter handicapping chaos.

What it was, was a big fun stakes race on a big fun racing day, with the kind of result which makes the game the confounding paradox we all know and love. And that's about it (though isn't that enough?).

(The Shmegegge Exacta returned $928 on a $2 bet.)

- We can all surely understand John Velazquez's frustration at being knocked offstride on Animal Kingdom by Mucho Macho Man courtesy of Isn't He Perfect; but those are some really serious charges he leveled at Rajiv Maragh.
Before the Belmont, Maragh lost the mount on Mucho Macho Man to Ramon Dominguez. Velazquez said he thinks Maragh was looking for payback against the Mucho Macho Man camp, and Animal Kingdom, the Kentucky Derby winner, wound up being an innocent victim.

“That’s what I think, and that’s why I was so frustrated,’’ Velazquez said. [Times Picayune]
That's quite an accusation; the idea that any jockey given a chance to ride in a classic race (even on a truly shmegegge horse like Isn't He Perfect) would instead take the opportunity to endanger the health and welfare of fellow riders over a matter of petty retribution. We know about things said in the heat of battle, but these remarks took place the next morning. The three jockeys involved have a meeting with the stewards on Wednesday, and if they don't have a credible case against Maragh, they should have a few extra words for Johnny V.

Barry Irwin seemed more sensible, absolving Maragh ("I think that horse is a tough horse to ride."), but criticizing the owners for running the horse in the Belmont in the first place.

Irwin also said that Animal Kingdom will now remain on dirt.
“Now is no time to be adventuresome,” Irwin said. “We need to win the 3-year-old championship to increase the value of this colt for the partnership. We got to stay on dirt.” [NY Times]
It's certainly not unusual for these decision to be based purely on economic considerations. At least in this case, it works out for the best. Not only will the Derby winner (hopefully) forge on to the Travers, now we can bet against him as the favorite again too...especially given the excuse he had in the Belmont (even as he had none whatsoever in the Preakness). Funny how some people who stumbled upon him in the Derby just really really got hooked on this horse. Not just enough for some to have the Derby winner; I suppose it feels more legit if it doesn't turn out to be a fluke. And we'll just see about that.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Saturday Morning Notes

Master of Hounds is a virtual co-favorite along with Animal Kingdom in the will-pays for the Brooklyn Handicap-Belmont daily double. So looks like an excellent call by El Angelo on that. Shackleford is actually 5th choice in that betting, and may very well be sent off at well above his 5-1 morning line.

Rain in the area overnight, and both the main track and the grass course were listed as good as of around 7:30 this morning. Unfortunately, there's some scattered areas of green stuff on the weather radar heading this way. So it's hardly an ideal day (though it should be dry for the most part), which may hold down the crowd.

- I was absolutely shocked that the editors of the NY Times saw fit to give front-page placement to Joe Drape's way-premature victory lap piece, in which he speculates, based on little more than the times of this year's Derby and Preakness and a visual observation by Randy Moss (known more for his expertise on pace than on equine physiology), that the banning of steriods has resulted in slower and thus more sound horses. It seems to fit Drape's agenda more than constitute solid journalism based on convincing evidence over a significant period of time.

"The time posted by Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby is viewed by some as evidence that horses are not running on steroids," reads the caption under the photo. Really? That seems like pretty scant evidence. I mean, I just thought it was because these horses suck so badly that a turf/synth horse who had previously won a slowly-run Turfway stakes over a class C field was able to win. Of course, it's entirely possible that Drape will be proven to be right. But I think that several years and a comprehensive study of racing of all ages and stripes - not just a couple of three-year old stakes in the spring - would be necessary to reach such a conclusion.

Trainer John Ward is quoted as saying:

“Now we do not [have steroids] and maybe that’s why they are slower. But we’re also beginning to see a sounder horse that will last longer.”
And gee, that's funny, because that's the same outcome that many forecasted when synthetic tracks were introduced - that the surfaces would de-emphasize speed and eventually lead to breeders having to cater to stamina rather than precociousness. And most people rejected that notion out of hand as an affront to the traditions of the game, and a disaster for Kentucky breeders who had built their livelihoods by catering to buyers looking for 10-second furlongs in under-tack shows. Now, I guess the idea may be gaining acceptance. So maybe the demise of steroids should go hand in hand with a new attitude towards synthetic tracks and a possible second wave of their installation.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Belmont Notes

I was surprised that NYRA's oddsmaker Eric Donovan tabbed Nehro as the 4-1 second choice in the Belmont, leaving Shackleford as the third choice at 9-2. I'd been assuming that the Derby and Preakness winners would be favorite and second choice respectively. But it's true that the pp lines show Nehro passing Shackleford at a mile and a quarter. So the natural assumption gives him the edge at a mile and half. That's often the way the money goes in this race, as most recently evidenced by Ice Box being 9-5 last year(!) Of course, we've seen many such horses flatten out from, rather the thrive on, the added ground.

In any event, it shows some independent thinking on Donavan's part from his employer's narrative of the matchup of the Derby and Preakness winners. Even the NYRA press release announcing the post position draw and despite those morning odds reads:
It's Animal Kingdom vs. Shackleford, 10 Others, in Belmont Stakes.

I really don't like Nehro here, especially so at second choice! And, as I explained in the last post, nor do I like Animal Kingdom as the favorite. Makes it almost a race that I have to bet in some way then on principle, even though I don't really care for it much. Besides the top two, I also don't at all like Mucho Macho Man, one of the 10-1 third choices; and if you like the other, Master of Hounds, at that price, well then why, at least based on their Derby performances, wouldn't you take a shot on Santiva or Brilliant Speed, both of whom finished virtually even with that one, at more generous prices instead.

I would totally take a shot on Shackleford if the bettors go for the closers, and he drifts up to 5, 6-1. No way I think he's a mile and a half horse, don't get me wrong. But he seems to be on the improve and man, look at this race....this is a field that he could open up some meaningful lengths on the main contenders. The only horse who has shown a hint of early speed of late is Prime Cut, who has some serious class issues here, besides the fact that he's been stalking the pace of late. If Shackleford can get to the quarter pole up by open lengths - and that at a time when much of the field is likely to already have put in their best run - who knows, he could be tough to catch even as he's staggering towards the finish line.

So, I have no pick at this time. Will probably fool around in some Pick Whatevers with all of those top five betting choices other than Shackleford eliminated; and keep a eye on the tote as post time approaches for some spontaneous ideas. The kind that I would usually try to resist for a normal race.

Fortunately, there are 12 other races, so I'm gonna go look at those, and hopefully get some thoughts on some of them up here on Friday night sometime.

First a couple of other things:

Versus will have two hours of Belmont-related programming on Friday afternoon. (And anyone who's been watching Stanley Cup action on the network over the past few weeks is well aware that they have coverage around the event.) An hour of "Belmont classics" starting at 4, and then an hour from the track with coverage of the Brooklyn Handicap and the Poker Handicap (and, regarding the latter, be sure to check out the status of grass racing on Friday after some torrential rain this evening. I know they'll try to keep a stakes race on, but they will also be thinking about Saturday which, ominously, has the chance of rain in the forecast too).

I dunno actually what kind of impression that TV coverage from Belmont on a Friday afternoon will make on a national TV audience. I imagine that NYRA would prefer to be directing the coverage, avoiding any long pan shots of the empty grandstand.

There's a full day of music on Saturday, though a long ways from the commercial wimpy pop fare presented at Pimlico on Preakness day. I'll just print the whole schedule as provided by NYRA here:

* 8:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. – The following strolling musicians will perform for fans:
o Buddy Merriam’s Bluegrass Trio (Grandstand entrance)
o Harvey Schneider’s Dixie-land Trio (West end entrance)
o Vocalese Barbershop Quartet (Clubhouse entrance)

* 10 a.m. – noon – Sean Dolan Band (Backyard stage)
* 10 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. – Ernie Munick will perform for fans throughout the Grandstand
* 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. – “Augie” the Belmont Park mascot will greet fans
* 11 a.m. – NYRA Controller Jelena Alonso performs “The Star-Spangled Banner”
* Noon – 2 p.m. – Godfrey Townsend Band with Joey Molland and Mitch Ryder (Backyard stage)
* 2:15 p.m. – Buglers Sam Grossman (“Sam the Bugler”) and Ryan Resky perform “God Bless America ”
* 2 – 6 p.m. – Southern Exposure Band (Backyard stage)
* 6:25 p.m. – Frank Sinatra’s recording of “ New York , New York ” will accompany the Belmont Stakes horses onto the track (the Belmont is race 11 with a 6:35 p.m. post time)
Don't think we'll be seeing any of the above playing in Williamsburg anytime soon. But I'm sure it will be fun, especially after some bourbon that I'm not allowed to bring in. Joey Molland was in Badfinger, and Mitch Ryder had a #4 single in Devil With the Blue Dress with the Detroit Wheels back in the 60's. Seems kinda like a random pairing; like Ray Davies and Mary Wells, or Wayne Fontana and John Mayall.

Anyway, NYRA seems to be most excited about playing Frank Sinatra's New York, New York during the post parade - it got its own press release! I guess they're delirious after the flap over Jay-Z and Alicia Keys last year. However, if I was Joey Molland or Mitch Ryder....or Ernie Munick for that matter....I don't know how I'd feel upon reading the article on NYRA's Belmont Stakes site with the headline Sinatra’s “New York, New York” Headlines Belmont Stakes Day Tunes.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Sizzle or Fizzle?

Can't say I'm all that hepped up for the Belmont Stakes. I'm psyched for the day of course; the event, the excitement of having a bunch of people in the place no matter where the crowd figure falls on the scale of NYRA's hopes and expectations; and hopefully a bunch of excellent betting races. But, Animal Kingdom vs Shackleford? Always a certain amount of interest in a matchup of the Derby and Preakness winners in the Belmont. But, I wouldn't call this one compelling. And when I see a headline like this, I'm thinking it doesn't really qualify as a "showdown," and the only "sizzle" around here is likely to be the temperature the next couple of days. I'd rate the excitement level at around 5.5 out of 9 on Jay Hovdey's scale.

But you gotta work with what you got, and it's the only angle the race has to offer, given the lack of any other horse of any real particular interest scheduled to line up (unless you're particularly interested in a horse who's finished second three time in a row, and which is eligible for entry-level allowance company). And, it's certainly better than if one or both didn't show up. So NYRA's gotta try and build it up, and nice to see the press at least try to.

It's surely no rivalry though, at least not yet. As I've often said, you can't manufacture a rivalry in the press or through promotion; it grows naturally as horses encounter each other on numerous (or at least a few) occasions over a period of time. (Or maybe I should phrase that in the past tense.) The two colts haven't as much as made eye contact in either of the (only) two races in which they've both run, unless Animal Kingdom shot him a disdainful glare as he blew by him in the Derby.

Now, finally getting back to what I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, when DiscreetPicks and steve in nc, two of my oldest (not agewise I don't think) and most loyal readers, took issue with my contention, made without my usual cautious qualifiers in this case, that Animal Kingdom is a turf horse. My point there was not that he's not a capable horse on the dirt. However, when I look at his breeding, I'm thinking turf horse, a conclusion which was surely supported by his first four races, one on grass, the others on Poly. Then he switches to dirt, and I'm thinking he's gotta show me that he can handle it (which is why I never for a second considered betting him in the Derby).

OK, he handled it pretty fine. But, as has been pointed out, it was a strangely-run race as far as Derbies go, and one which closely simulated the pacing of a grass race. In analyzing the pace after the race, noting that Animal Kingdom was able to keep contact while not having to exert himself too much early, I wrote:

But we can't assume that a quicker pace in the Preakness will automatically make things easier for him. Might not show such a keen closing kick if he has to run 24 second splits just to keep up.
Didn't go exactly that way; but, after running the first half in 49.1, slightly quicker than he did in the Derby, his third quarter was a sprightly 23.1 as Johnny V sought to get back in the race. And there's no question in my mind that Animal Kingdom hung in the Preakness stretch; he had no excuse as far as I'm concerned for not catching the tiring Shackleford. The past performance line is deceptive; makes it seem like he closed gangbusters, but it doesn't look that way to be visually. There was no guarantee he'd have passed him in the proverbial 'nuther time around' the track.

So, unlike some other folks, I personally don't see his futile rally in losing to Shackleford as an indication that he will necessarily benefit from the added distance, nor go on to win the Classic, as Joe Drape tweeted in what to me is another example of why Twitter has added absolutely nothing worthwhile or positive to American culture (we'll get to another shortly). I mean, at this very point in time, Animal Kingdom has accomplished not one iota more than had Mine That Bird - beating a flawed Derby field under ideal conditions and racing luck, and rallying for second in the Preakness. In fact, as much as I liked to dis Rachel Alexandra, Mine That Bird's Preakness gets the nod over Animal Kingdom's in the respect of their respective competition. And we know how Mine That Bird turned out. So, hold your horses with this horse, in my opinion anyway. He may very well win the Belmont - a capable horse as I said - but I hardly think he's a lock and will play the odds accordingly once I get to see the pp's.

As for Shackleford, I originally came to bury, not to praise him; but I have to say that he's grown on me. Personally, I think he's a more likely winner of the race than Animal Kingdom. (I agree with Dale Romans; it was a dumb, if jovial, remark by Barry Irwin to say he's more worried about Mucho Macho Man, who should be resting up for the late summer and fall at this point.) I counted this horse out after seeing him blow the Florida Derby to that dog Dialed In (easy for me to say now, but I did correctly toss him in both Triple Crown legs, one of the few things I got right about either race). But Shackleford held fairly well in the Derby; his slow pace was a double-edged sword, allowing others to stay close yet save their closing kicks. And sure, he slowed down considerably in the second half of the Preakness. But he showed the ability to stalk the pace and win, continued his improvement on the Beyer scale (though I'm a bit skeptical of the Preakness figs), and hey, he didn't get caught, did he?

- And sure, I'll talk about Anthony Weiner. I actually live in his district, so I've (surprise!) voted for him for each of his Congressional terms. And I've always loved the guy. The Democrats need people like him who are willing and unafraid to address the lies and hypocrisy of the Republican party in the incredulous and caustic tones which they rightly deserve. Now, it turns out that Weiner is a liar too. Well,for one thing, at least he's not a hypocrite. I imagine his wife would disagree with that remark; but I'm referring to the Republicans caught in similar, or worse, situations who had previously tried to impose their idea of family values on the electorate even as they had none themselves.

But I suppose that's a minor distinction. Stupidity is a bipartisan trait. Weiner is supposed to be a 'technophile,' yet he really thought he wouldn't at some be exposed (in his underwear or not)? And, as is usually the case, the coverup was worse than the crime, whether there was one in the technical sense, or not. I could care less what he does with his Twitter account; and, contrary to the spirit of some of the comments I've gotten, I don't really much care about comparable personal indiscretions of any political stripe. While I've called them idiots, I've never demanded they resign no matter what the party. And in fact, I wrote the following in the case of the Republican Chris Lee, which also sums up my feelings about the reaction of the press and public to this current affair as well.
What an idiot. However, on the other hand, I find the current environment in which everyone and anyone's private affairs are subject, at the slightest slip, to this kind of viral hysteria to be chilling and disturbing. A site like Gawker could just have easily told the woman who sent the photo and emails, thanks, but no thanks, it's really none of anyone's business. And it's not news. Because it's really not...It's just cheap titillation for a society with seemingly nothing better to do but spend mindless hours sitting in front of computers and smartphones texting and twittering about absolutely nothing. They should try going to the track.
Hopefully, enough people will be able to put this matter aside and focus on a big day at the races on Saturday.

(And yes, though I do not think that Weiner will survive this, I would, under certain circumstances surely consider voting for him again.)

Friday, June 03, 2011

Belmont Friday

In the 6th, Proenza (6-1) stretches out and makes her second start off a layoff for Shug McGaughey (22% and 23% in those two categories respectively). I recall that this barn had had a rough stretch at Gulfstream, but you can't keep a good trainer down for too long, and these things always seem to have a way of evening out. Shug has cooled down a bit here after a blazing start to the Belmont meet, but still has a record of 16-5-2-1 overall. This three-year old daughter of Rahy had an inauspicious juvenile season in the UK, but showed signs of life late in her six furlong return on the Keeneland Poly in April, rallying for 4th from way back as they left the backstretch. The second and third place finishers won their next races; and winner Jealousofmyboogie shortened up even further and rallied for a nice third in her first against winners. Solid numbers for the added distance on both the Tomlinson and dosage scale....and Proenza, out of a Sadlers Wells mare, has some ample grass distance influence on her distaff side, with two winners of the 1 3/4 mile San Juan Capistrano - Meteor Storm and Raintrap - as well as runner-up Sunshack.

Warm Hugs (8-5) was beaten at 7-10 in an off-the-turfer at Churchill after just missing on the lawn at Gulfstream in her debut for Mott. Barn is off to a slow start here at 2 for 24, but this daughter of Rock Hard Ten seems the one to beat. Wet One (2-1) is another logical contender, but seems to be spinning her wheels a bit after four starts this year, and may be an underlay in this spot. Best of luck and have a great day.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

New Era in Jersey Begins (Tentatively)

The card is out for Friday at Monmouth even as a deal to lease the track to Morris Bailey has not quite been finalized (nor has one with Jeff Gural at the Meadowlands). John Brennan reports on his Meadowlands Matter blog that today's June 1 deadline (which I've seen characterized as "tentative") for agreements with both tracks is not quite expected to be met.

But Jeff Gural, who is on track to take over at the East Rutherford harness racing mecca, tells me he is seeking to soon be put in charge of decision-making while the attorneys and regulators figure out how the changeover will work specifically. Morris Bailey, a friend of Gural’s who is expected to run Monmouth Park, likely is not even as far along as Gural is, since he got started months later. [Meadowlands Matters]
While Gural has a master plan to stanch the red ink, the centerpiece of which is the razing of the existing grandstand to be replaced by a smaller one across the way, we haven't heard anything comparable from Bailey. I guess he's depending on some new marketing magic (good luck with that) and, better yet, OTB facilities to be built in conjunction with Gural.

In any event, I know this is a Friday card and I haven't seen the weekend purses yet. but Monmouth will have to do better than what it's (presumably) offering that day. There are 11 races on Friday's card for total purses of $300 million thousand; an average of just under $27,500 a race. There haven't been any Friday cards for direct comparison, but just for fun, last Saturday's card at Monmouth had purses of $545 million thousand for 12 races (over $45,400 per race). More relevant-ly, Belmont on Friday is offering $363 million thousand for just 9 races; a bit over $40,000 per race. And we all know that NYRA's purses have only one direction in which to go at this stage. It's likely to be a far different story this summer than last, when Monmouth's purses (though not the races) far outshone those at Saratoga.