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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Few Things

A few things:

We went to the reception for the Aqueduct Murals on Saturday night.  I've been at the Big A too many times to even speculate on the number, and can't recall a more interesting, unusual, and bizarre visit.  Interesting because the art is quite fantastic.  Not gonna post photos here (except for one, below) because you can see them elsewhere and I have other things to get to in the short time before we all get gobbled up by the holiday.  The three-sided piece by Chris Stain is worth the price of admission getting there itself.  Located in what was previously the grim passageway to the racino side behind the paddock, it's an epic three-sided work that is poignant and powerful, inviting one in to become part of the grand history of the sport that it evokes, as if its better days were not so long ago.

Unusual because when's the last time you were at an art opening, complete with DJ and a wine/beer bar (two drinks for a nominal contribution of $5 to benefit the TAKE2 Second Career Thoroughbred Program) on the first floor of the Big A?  Nice wine too, with a generous pour.  And there was a vodka and scotch tasting to boot!  

Bizarre because the track was also open for the late night simulcasting.  So there was an odd mixture of the hardest of hardcore horseplayers, along with the artsy crowd.  I saw some who were obviously there for the event wandering warily amongst the betting crowd to see the murals; and a few bettors taking advantage of a rare good deal on alcohol.  But mostly the groups kept comfortably to themselves, not quite sure what to make of each other.  A NYRA official told me that there was discussion of shutting down the simulcasting, but that he would have none of that!  Great decision.  It added a bit of a performance art aspect to the affair!

 - On the same night, the first racing program was conducted at the new Meadowlands grandstand, and an overflow crowd of 15,000 packed the joint!  Made for some hassles getting in from what I've read; the parking lot seemed small and people apparently had to shuttle bus over from the other side.  People seemed impressed with the Victory Sports Bar and Nightclub, which wasn't open when I was there last Friday.  As I mentioned, it was no frills, first-floor only for the simulcast, so I have an open mind for a night of live racing, especially when the rooftop lounge is open next spring.  I read one customer comment about the outdoor seating - 1,800 of them according to this guy - and how they will go to waste during the cold weather months.  If that number is true - and there did seem to be quite a bit - and the total seating capacity is 2,200, that doesn't leave many seats from which to watch the races live during the winter.

But I have an open mind, as I've said, and I'm looking forward to checking it out.  (I'll probably have to book a table at the fancy-schmanciest restaurant choice in order to get the Head Chef there on the racing nights while they're limited to Fri-Sat.)

 - It seemed that everyone on Twitter was all-a-twitter over the piece that owner/breeder Arthur Hancock III wrote last week for The Paulick Report. If you missed it, here it is.  In brief, Hancock calls for the federal government to get with the program and, exercising its power to regulate interstate commerce (as per the out-of-state simulcasting permitted by the Insterstate Horseracing Act) crack down on abusers, as they did with Michael Vick for engaging in dog fighting.  I think I got that right, yes? This appeal was in conjunction with the annual exercise of industry folks appearing before a House Committee and begging to be regulated by the federal government, as if they are unwilling, unable, or just disinclined to do something themselves about drugs, and, worse yet, as if federal regulation would be some kind of magic elixir that would make the cheaters disappear.

OK, four points on Hancock's piece.  First of all, other than the fact that they both involve animals, I don't really see an analogy between dog fighting, an illegal exercise of, by nature, deliberate cruelty and intended death to an animal beloved and treasured as a family pet by tens of millions, and cheating by a distinct minority involved in the legal sport of horse racing.  I mean, if you equivocate the two, then maybe you should be reading a PETA blog instead of this one.  Secondly, if Hancock is trying to make the point that federal regulation has brought relief to these animals beyond the single, high-profile arrest he cites, then you should Google "dog fighting" under 'News' and see how totally out of control the practice apparently is.

Third, Tom Noonan points out in his latest post that the arrests at Penn National by federal agents is really exactly what Hancock is calling for - a federal prosecution of suspected drug cheaters by virtue of the interstate commerce clause of the IHA.  So maybe he didn't have to spend the time writing it.

Finally, and worst of all, is this:
According to the New York Times, every week in the United States, 24 Thoroughbred horses die while racing and countless others are broken down and maimed for the rest of their lives because they are being drugged to enhance their performance.
Ah yes.  The already well-worn New York Times' 24-a-week stat.  The funny thing about that statistic is the way that number has become a mantra of sorts, both for the Times and for those who cite it to make a point.....while what has apparently been forgotten in the 20 months since the first of the Death and Disarray articles, is that the Times compiled breakdown information based on terms searched for in chart comments, including those like "vanned off" and "lame" that don't necessarily mean death or serious injury.  I don't know if the Times has ever been exactly clear what the 24 is based on.

But in any event, hasn't anyone ever done a basic reality check on that number?  I haven't seen one.  It's easy to do, we can do it right here.  I counted 85 race cards from last Saturday through Friday (not counting Woodbine, you don't get to play!);  I'll round that up to 90, figuring that some tracks that normally run on Thursday don't on Thanksgiving.  Let's say that the cards average nine races of eight horse fields - which I'd guess is an overestimation, but let's do that to be conservative relative to my point.  That's 72 horses times 90 cards = 6,480 horses.  If 24 of those die, that makes the rate 1 in 270 starts.  That's as opposed to the 2 in 1000 starts statistic which I think is generally accepted as a ballpark figure - 1.92 in 1000 was the 2012 rate according to the Jockey Club.  1 in 270 translates to 3.7 in 1,000, which is almost twice the Jockey Club's number.

So I'm calling bullshit on the Times and their 24-a-week stat, and I welcome anyone to prove me wrong, I'd be happy to acknowledge that if so.  And people like Arthur Hancock III, as well-intentioned as he may be, are spreading misinformation when they cite it as fact.  I know that there are those who root Drape on, think he's a crusader for cleaning up the sport.  You won't think he's so great when you're watching some government hearing on banning horse racing and people are testifying how the Times says that 24 horses a week die while racing.  Think I'm exaggerating (or being hysterical)?  Yes, I am.  But it's a valid point that misinformation in the New York Times is capable of leading to consequences profoundly worse that horses getting doped.

 - And finally, and as long as I'm crabby, here's an article about the situation in Saratoga, where, as we've reported, opponents of a casino at the harness track are well-organized and armed with what they consider to be a mandate from the clear defeat of the casino referendum in the city of Saratoga Springs.  However, Saratoga Raceway principal James Featherstonawilsonhaughsmithandwessonstein seems unimpressed.  And undaunted:
"We believe we have the best site: historically, economically, socially and in every other way in our region.....And we expect with the help of our friends and colleagues in Saratoga and in consultation with the community to make a bid that brings the casino license to our facility." [Albany Times Union]
Well, there's a big flip of the bird to the voters and the community there. As I've been saying, this thing is in the bag for the Saratoga harness track by virtue of a backroom deal between Cuomo and the NYGA, and it will take quite a tide of opposition to undo what already is done if this guy is not interested in how the community feels.  Have a great Thanksgiving everyone.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Partial Review for Partially Opened Meadowlands

I checked out the new Meadowlands grandstand on Friday afternoon. There was no live racing of course - that resumes on Saturday night.  It was really weird being on the other side of the racetrack like that, facing the stadium and the old grandstand, slated to be demolished after the Super Bowl.  And it will be weirder I'm sure when I get back there for some live racing.

As for the building, only the first floor simulcast area was open.  It was fine.  It actually reminded me a lot of the original, especially on nights/days when I would go for simulcasting and only the first floor would be open, and everyone would be packed in there.  Same vibe, just smaller and spiffier; with familiar looking features like the Raceworld room with the individual workspaces with TVs - not $3 well-spent on my part, as I was wedged between two idiots - an open-air teletheater, a food court, a bar, a little studio for the simulcast hosts; except all compressed compared to the original.  It's highly functional to be sure, with plenty of TVs, betting windows/machines (the betting machines are definitely not new), and seating, both indoors and outside.  There was a fancy looking restaurant not yet open, and more dining options on the upper floors which will open with live racing.  Coming in the spring is a rooftop lounge and an outdoor area with a music stage.

I certainly didn't think it was anything special, at least what I saw on that one floor.  I'd have taken more pictures, but there isn't really much more to it.  It's a track.  Think there would have to be more to it upstairs if it's really going to be something to attract people to come to the races, as Gural intends.  Having said that, I suppose the idea of a new structure at a racetrack that's actually totally devoted to racing is a bit of a novelty these days.  Sure beats that mess at Gulfstream.

I go to these simulcasting palaces ready to plunge into all the action but often end up just overwhelmed by all the different tracks going on.  So the best I can say is that I didn't lose close to my whole bankroll for the weekend.   Ended up betting more harness races than thoroughbreds.   Had one really close call/tough beat, in the 12th at the Meadows, boxed the 1-3 exacta, and it came in 1-2-3, with my horse falling short by a long head.  I swear, I bet the race with zero minutes to post, and the 1 was 5-1.  But by the time the race actually went off, the 1 had soared to 14-1, and I didn't have a win bet.  That'll teach me to bet that early.  Really have to watch the exacta pools for a hint at what the ultimate win odds will be at these tracks with so little money in the win pool.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Saratoga Residents Hoping for a Big SAVE

Voters in Saratoga County voted against the referendum and now there's an active grass roots movement in Saratoga Springs opposing the siting of a casino at the harness track.  (Which of course already has a racino which is almost a casino.)

SAVE is the rather contrived acronym (Saratogians Against Vegas-Style Expansion), and here's their website.  Here, they cite the usual concerns; most significantly to me in this particular case considering that there is already gaming and entertainment there, the worry that converting the racino into a grand "destination," complete with a hotel and even more dining and entertainment options, will damage businesses in downtown Saratoga and forever alter the nature of the 'historic' town.  

Local establishments in Iowan cities couldn't compete with casino subsidized drinks, meals and hotel rooms, taxable retail sales in Iowa cities without casinos grew more than five times faster than sales in cities with casinos, leading researchers to conclude, “the operation of a casino in a mid-size city, far from contributing to economic development, creates a measurable drain on the economy of the city.”
They also point to neighboring Massachusetts, where individual localities get to decide on their own fate (which didn't help the voters of East Boston, who rejected a casino at Suffolk Downs, since that track straddles two voting districts and the other one approved); emphasizing that voters in the city of Saratoga Springs rejected the referendum by an even higher margin (57 to 43) than did the overall county (54 to 46).

Opponents gathered at a meeting on Monday to express their concerns.  All of this must be causing consternation for the Saratoga Casino and Raceway owner James Featherstonberghaughsteinamatoberg, the head of NYGA, which ultimately agreed to support the referendum.  I've long speculated here that he helped seal the deal for a casino at the harness track in a backroom deal in exchange for the organization's tacit support.  Local opposition could surely throw a wrench into his plans, though it doesn't guarantee anything.
  But Saratoga's 27,000 residents can't stop a casino. That's because when Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature crafted the law they refused to provide a local veto — common in states like Massachusetts, where two communities rejected casinos last week.

The law does say casino operators seeking a license must win "public support in the host and nearby communities," which could take the form of local laws, putting the question of support in the hands of elected officials, or through public comment. [AP]
Already, the opposition has led to the cancellation of a vote by Saratoga County leaders to endorse a casino.   But supporters of a casino will be able to state their case at a forum in Saratoga Springs on December 16.

The effort in Saratoga is the kind of groundswell of opposition that we just didn't hear about prior to the vote. I wonder if we would have seen such movements in NYC if casinos were imminent here instead of [supposedly, ha ha] seven years away. I also wonder if Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio still would have said he was in favor.  As I pointed out in this post, I think the concept of casinos is a contradiction of his main talking point of income inequality and the "tale of two cities."  But he was able to keep a low profile on the issue, and came out quietly in favor, no doubt in part to curry favor with the governor from whom he'll need support to pass the tax increases that he seeks.

About a half hour south of Saratoga, the city council of Rensallaer, where county voters narrowly approved the referendum, voted unanimously in favor of building one on the waterfront.

 - Yes, I'm old enough to remember.  I was in elementary school, and I recall being dismissed early without an explanation.  I recall the sight of the yellow school buses all lined up to take us home.  I recall being on the bus amidst the usual din of kids at the end of a school day, amplified in this case by the unexpected early end to the day.  And then I remember - quite vividly, as if....and I know we're reading this phrase a lot just happened yesterday, the bus driver turning around and shouting: "Can we please be quiet and have a little respect!  President Kennedy was just killed!"  And I remember the silence as we headed home.  It's the only memory whatsoever that I have of whatever school that was.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Queens Losing And Gaining a Street Art Canvas

This is a link to the Artists page on the Aqueduct Murals site.  There you can read about the artists who will be creating murals on the walls of the first floor, and see some of their work.  Obviously, this is quite a serious art event.

Chris Stein

Seems just completely out of left field as a marketing event by NYRA, totally out of the box.  Very excited to check it out.  (And this is the website of the curator, Joe Iurato.)

In addition to the novelty of the event, interesting that it corresponds to the developments at the 5POINTZ site in Long Island City just a couple of blocks away from the office.  If you're not familiar, 5POINTZ is a building on which the owner has allowed graffiti artists to ply their trade freely for years, with quite stunning and distinctive results.  But now, he wants to cash in and construct luxury apartment towers.  Yeah, I'm all for art and free expression, and who needs another luxury apartment tower around here; but honestly find it hard to find to argue much.  It's his building after all.  In what the artists claim was an attempt to nullify their efforts to have the building declared a landmark, he had it painted over on Monday night.  I was there for an event a few months ago and this was just a partial view, just a tiny sliver of the canvas.

I walked over yesterday and this is the sad scene.

So, Queens is losing a cool street art site, but gaining what looks like will be another one, albeit indoors.  The buildings however may very well be facing similar futures.  The fate of 5POINTZ is now quite clear.  The fate of Aqueduct is not, but we all suspect that the future is not rosy.

However, as I said yesterday, the racing there has been superb, and the 7th is another inscrutable betting race, with a field of ten (which I personally find to be a perfect field size).  A couple of interesting contenders from trainer Linda Rice, both of whom about she's thought highly enough to reacquire after losing them at the claim box.   Quick Money (6-1), who she retook from Jacobson last winter, comes off a couple of disappointing efforts on dirt after a series of mostly good grass efforts. I'm willing to excuse the race two back because it came on a muddy surface which was favoring speed.  In his last, he dueled inside of a quick pace and faded to 5th.  That effort came after just 20 days, and this six-year old seems to prefer some longer spacing than that at this point in his career, which has spanned 42 starts.  Gets 40 days before this one, with a crisp half-mile work a week ago. Also switches back to jockey Cornelio Velasquez, who has ridden him with ample success in the past. The TimeformUS Pace Projector shows him again vying for the lead, in a race labeled 'Favors Horse On/Near Early Lead; and while I don't necessarily expect/hope for that to be the case for a horse who has done best stalking, and in a race with no clear early speed type, he has back figures well fast enough to take this and would represent good value at his morning line.  [UPDATE: Quick Money is scratched.]

The other Linda Rice entry is Wee Freudian (5-1), who she just claimed back after losing him for one race to Bruce Levine.  The latter barn has been ice cold around here of late, so just the re-change of scenery may do him good coming off a disappointing try at 5-2 for Levine.  Having tried him unsuccessfully on grass before losing him temporarily, Ms. Rice now switches him back to dirt.  His efforts on the main track at the Big A have been uniformly excellent; last two on the oval came last winter, earning TFUS figures against better horses that would handily beat this field.  Can't really decide which one of these I like better; will watch the tote and check out the exacta will pays.  Non Stop (8-1) has been quite keen since being claimed by David Cannizzo.  Majestic Number (3-1) is the Jacobson claim and the one to beat.  Best of luck and have a great day.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tale of Two Tracks

OK, I'm back, will try to keep up better.  Been busy with life and work, and been writing a semi-regular feature for the latter called Today in Racing over at the TimeformUS blog.

We were also in Florida last week.  Visited my daughter in school in Miami and then we drove across the state to my mom's place near Sarasota, where we hung in mid-80's temperatures for a few days, nice!  On the way, we stopped at Gulfstream Park.  It was the first time I was there since the real Gulfstream was razed and replaced by order of Frank Stronach, and I wrote about that, as well as the late Paul Moran, in a Today in Racing post last week.  As I'm sure I've mentioned numerous times, Gulfstream held a special place in my heart; I'd say that only Saratoga ranks higher in my esteem, and that only because it's Saratoga.  Made regular trips there way way back in the day, and then, after an absence of about ten years, made annual pilgrimages up until its final year in 2004 (Cyndi Lauper was the last of the backyard concerts I was there for)

But I swear, I really did go back with an open mind.  It's been nearly a decade now, and I was in the mood for a little racing action in the middle of a non-racing trip.  The first sign of trouble was when we happened upon the paddock.  I always thought it looked kinda cool and classy on TV, but I found it contrived and tacky, and not because it's located in the middle of a shopping center, Frank's ploy to attract ordinary citizens to come and play the slots, oh, I mean, horses.  The black rubber "walking ring" didn't help.  The highlight was seeing Serling's mug on the big simulcast screen overhead!

It really didn't get better from there once we went out front.  I know people who like the place.  None of them had ever been to the original, so they don't have perfection to compare it with, as I do.  So I know they simply can't relate to my experience.  But I can't really understand how anyone could think it's a good track to go to, unless you prefer to watch all the races on TV, in which case the simulcast room seemed like a lively place.  Precisely as I'd read, there are very few places where you can really see the races.  The apron is so narrow, constricted in length, and close to the racetrack surface (the Head Chef was excited that she was so close to the starting gate) that you're practically watching a head-on shot for most of the stretch run.  I guess if you nab one of the small number of seats, it could be OK for the day, but it's still not a great perspective.

Worse yet, and maybe because it's not yet the prime winter racing season, it was just glum and depressing.  It was pretty empty outside on a perfect weather day.  The beach bar area was closed - it looks like it could be cool, as long as you're just watching races on TV.  The racing was dull; a full card of Florida-bred stakes races, which made me better appreciate NY-bred races.  (Though maybe the action picked up, as I only lasted about an hour.)  I was reminded for some reason of a mid-1970's visit to Buffalo Raceway, which was the last time I was so profoundly depressed by a racetrack visit.  And I snapped at the Head Chef when she dared to suggest that it wasn't so bad.

When I posted on Twitter from the sad scene, Pete Fornatale, writing a column these days on handicapping contests for our good friends at the Daily Racing Form, responded: Am I exaggerating to say imagine if they replaced Saratoga with Aqueduct?  To which I responded that that was an insult to Aqueduct, where at least there's an entire clubhouse devoted to racing, and an apron from which you can actually watch the races, even on the casino side.

I've been to the Big A three times already since it opened for the big fall-winter-spring meet (it's all one

big meet to me), and hardly a surprise I'm sure when I report that there is next to nothing new to report on its physical condition.  Looks like they might have improved the lighting on the first floor.  The second floor is now completely sealed off from the racino.  And, towards the back of that second floor.....where the Longshots bar/simulcast spot is supposed to be built, it's sealed off and quiet; no sign of construction.  Signs for the old haunting spots that used to be there are poignant reminders of better days, even the ones of recent years when they showed the signs of wear, tear, and neglect.

The last I heard regarding completion of Longshots is some indefinite date in 2014, but even that is starting to feel like a longshot.  Surely wouldn't be a surprise if it's never built given the uncertainty over Aqueduct's future.  I would think that the great governor of our state, and the master of the New York Racing Association, could use his office and influence to help persuade a company seeking a casino license from the state to do us this one favor; just this one little itty bitty thing for the racetrack which they pledged so sincerely to be a good neighbor to.  C'mon, guys.  Please?

Well, the racing has been consistently fabulous, anyway.  Full, competitive fields, and the turf course holding up great as we move into late November, handling three or four races a day.  Great stuff.

And the first floor is actually about to get a makeover of sorts, in the form of 'street art' murals to be painted on the walls.  Aqueduct Murals opens to the public on Saturday.  What that means for anyone attending the races between now and then, I'm not sure, and I don't intend to find out.  There's a reception from 6 until 10 that evening, and it sure would have been nice if it could have been held at a cool new bar at the back of the second floor.

 - Jeff Gural has already broken ground on an expansion at Tioga Downs, one which be even expand-ier should his track get a casino license.  Gural bristled at a potential competing bid in the immediate area: “I put a lot of time, effort and money into getting Proposition 1 passed."  Well, for one thing, I don't think he really did.  More significantly, Gural's indignation and sense of entitlement hints at the backroom quid pro quo between the NYGA and the state with respect to the former not opposing the referendum that we all suspect.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Orb Goes Bye-Bye

Yeah, I flaked on doing picks for Saturday's Breeders' Cup, sorry, whatever, I didn't really like anyone anyway.  I wrote about how happy I am that it's all over at the TimeformUS blog.

In all the many years I've been writing this blog, I don't know if I've ever been more right about a horse than I was about Otb.  Not that that's necessarily saying that much; and indeed, I was convinced, prior to and in the immediate aftermath of his Derby win, that he would win the Triple Crown, which I don't think I ever put in writing here.

Nonetheless, I had him in the Derby.  I did like him in the Preakness though didn't bet him at 3-5. Afterwards, I bought the excuse that he was trapped on the worst part of the track, and I credited Oxbow for a better performance than some others did.  But I soured on him as the Belmont approached, and cleverly used him only at the very bottom of my winning trifecta tickets.  A few weeks later, I wrote that he won't win another race this year.  Probably somewhere I wrote, or at least thought, that he'd be retired before he ever won another race.

So, now, Orb has indeed been retired.  Used to be that owners would at least offer some lame excuse, usually in the form of a minor injury, to justify a retirement which has no justification from a sporting sense. But, that is surely no longer the case.

"He is sound, looks about as good as he ever has in life, if not better," McGaughey said by phone. "They just felt like it was the right time to maybe retire a young horse to go to stud.
"The decision to retire Orb was made with mixed emotions," Janney said in the press release announcing the retirement to Claiborne. "While I believe he would have had a very successful 4-year-old campaign, and Phipps Stable and I would have loved being a part of that, Orb is a wonderful stallion prospect." [USA Today]
I have to say that I thought that Shug was different from the rest, and that he wouldn't sacrifice this horse's long-term prospects in an attempt at Triple Crown glory.  But I guess I was wrong.  Well, it's too bad - I was especially looking forward to betting against him in the Cigar Mile - but we're used to it, and what does it matter anyway?  Would take an extreme change of culture to keep these horses racing and produce the kind of long-running rivalries that are a relic from the past.  We don't really even hear the "keep the stars on the track" mantra much anymore, mostly because of its sheer futility I suppose. And what difference does it make anyway, when network coverage is virtually non-existent (we'll see what the FOX broadcasts do next year), the entire post-Triple Crown season is reduced to a prep by the BC, and the ultimate showdown takes place on a freak show of a dirt track at a time on a Saturday night when nobody is watching.

 - In the 4th at Aqueduct today,  In the Beat (5-1) looks to rebound off a poor effort at Parx for trainer Bruce Levine.  This barn struggled at Belmont, but did pop a winner at 13-1 here the other day, so perhaps some better fortune is in store.  Claimed four races back, In the Beat gets some class relief here after a futile effort on turf, a close third after a wide trip chasing better at Monmouth, and the fast-paced Parx race for
which I'm willing to give him a pass; winner Red Doctober would be a distinct favorite against these.  Gelded son of Street Sense has some good numbers at this six furlong distance on dirt, and the TimeformUS Pace Projector predicts a fast pace into which In the Beat (#1) should be in good position to close into.  Running Tap (5-1) looks to be the best of the speeds, and trainer Steve Klesaris has good numbers second time with the barn.  Be tough if he can shake loose.  Dan and Sheila (15-1) tries a distance as short as six furlongs for the first time, but has some good back figures and good liven up the exotics.  Best of luck and have a great day.