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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?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Weekend Stakes - Game On Dude, Palace Malice, And More

So there certainly appears to be ample life in the old boy Game On Dude. He was dismissed at odds of 7-2 in the Santa Anita Handicap....and dismissed is certainly the correct way to describe those odds.  Baffert's seven-year old gelding had not gone off at odds higher than 8-5 since the 2011 Breeders' Cup Classic, when he finished second to Drosselmeyer at 14-1. He had a three-race losing streak coming into the race - his first since the fall of 2011 - and his 5th place finish in his seasonal debut didn't inspire much confidence.  Nor did the fact that he finished some 11 lengths behind Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge over the same track, and at the same distance, in the Classic just a little over four months prior.

But on Saturday, Game On Dude did not have to deal early on with the speedy likes of Moreno and Fort Larned as he did on that Breeders' Cup day.  Other than a futile early charge by Hear the Ghost, which fizzled out when that one went wide on the turn, Mike Smith pretty much had things his own way.  I think that his third and fourth quarter splits were the decisive ones here.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 10.50.52 AM

That split of 24 seconds flat represented a nice breather on the backstretch. Then, when Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man were trying to close ground around the turn to the quarter pole, he was able to pick up the pace to 23.18, forcing the others to respond in kind, and effectively bottoming them out.  Even as Game On Dude tired to a final quarter of 25.60, only Will Take Charge - bless his little equine heart - was able to make it respectable with his usual honest and gallant effort.  The runner-up's speed figure was upgraded a point from a raw final time number of 124.  As we know, that upgrade is based on pace, but I'd give him an extra point just for trying hard.

Game on Dude earned the top speed figure of 2014 with his 127, and it was his best dirt figure since the 132 he got for winning this race last year.

Please continue reading at the TimeformUS blog..

Friday, March 07, 2014

Saratoga City Council Fighting the Good Fight. FWIW.

The Saratoga Springs City Council voted 5-0 against a casino at the harness track, for all the good it will do and for whatever it's worth.  Which is not a helluva lot, in my view.  Community support is, by law, supposed to be just a 20% component of the siting decision-making process.  The Council cited the usual concerns about a casino's potential deleterious effect on downtown businesses and the culture of the town.  (And I'm pretty sure that's the first time I've used the word deleterious in the 4,780 posts herein.)

But Saratoga Racetrack and Casino principal James Featherstonhaugh didn't seem to get the message. Michael DeMasi reports in the Albany Business Review:

 Yet, James Featherstonhaugh, a longtime Albany lobbyist and minority owner of Saratoga Casino and Raceway, told me today the resolution is directed at the state law allowing upstate casinos, not specifically at the racino's desire to become a full-scale casino.

"The resolution, at least as I read it, doesn't say anything negative about us," Featherstonhaugh said.
Oh jeez.  Seriously dude?  I mean, you're really gonna make me go and do Michael DeMasi's job for him and quote directly from the resolution to show what a creep you are?  What do you think this is, The Daily Show or something?
 NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the City Council expresses its opposition to the Upstate New York Gaming Economic Development Act as it relates to a destination resort casino being placed in the City of Saratoga Springs, due to the following concerns...
OK, well that settles that.  And even without having read that, and without having been at any of the hearings that have taken place in Saratoga, I'm pretty confident that I'm correct in that this debate has, all along, been fully in the context of a casino in Saratoga.

Dan Hogan, a co-chairperson of the racino-funded Destination Saratoga, chimed in too.
 The resolution, Hogan, said, "is exactly what we've been calling for throughout this debate: reserving judgment on expanded gaming at Saratoga Casino and Raceway until the state's request for applications is released and the details of the casino's bid are finalized."
 What a bunch of crap.
 "We are confident that once the facts are available, the city council and the public alike will see the benefits of an enhanced Saratoga Casino and Raceway and also recognize the negative consequences of sending those benefits to another nearby community, and the choice will be clear."
Hogan must have spent...I dunno, an hour, maybe two crafting this language.  He could have saved himself the time by just writing:  Fuck you Saratoga and stick your City Council vote.  And while he's warning the city of the "negative consequences of sending those benefits to another nearby community," Jimmy Feathers very publicly went to scout possible alternative locations to "provide himself with options.”  So he apparently would have no qualms about being the person responsible for the negative consequences of sending those benefits to another nearby community if the beneficiary of those benefits is himself and his partners at the harness track.

As I've been saying, Saratoga Casino & Raceway is gonna get this casino license, whether it's located in Saratoga or Rensselaer or wherever. Clearly, they could care less about what the community thinks, or about the effects of a casino on the city, whether it's located at the harness track or elsewhere.  Meanwhile, it's March 7 as I write this, and the siting committee that is supposed to issue Requests For Proposals by the end of this month is not even fully appointed.  (Though, as we've mentioned, the three that have been selected do presently constitute a quorum.)  The longer this thing drags on, the more the existing racinos offer the advantage of expediency, given the governor's stated desire to see revenues flowing by early next year.  That would conveniently slot in to the "economic activity and business development factor" that counts for 70% of the siting decision.  The fix is in.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Belmont Bombshell

Here's NYRA's press release detailing the planned capital improvements at the three tracks; both ones that already are in place, and those yet to come. The announcement comes after all of the recent bad publicity over Aqueduct, as described in the prior post; and as board member Len Riggio piled on, speaking to David Grening in the Form.  “It’s dirty, it’s dangerous, it’s just really not good.”

Well, we've already established that it's not dirty nor dangerous.  As far as it being good, it could be if there was a nice new place to hang out.  NYRA still says that the Longshots bar on the second floor will be open for the Wood. Could be, but they are going to have to rally to make that happen based on what I saw on Sunday.

A lot of the rest of the list for Aqueduct are things already in place, such as some fresh paint, Trakus, HD, and improved lighting.  More is promised to come, including "airport-style seating" on the second floor, hopefully in place of those desks, which remove any sense of camaraderie and community.  (Ah yes, the community of horseplayers!)  Feels more like a library now, people off by themselves in their little spot reading to themselves.  Also on the list is an "on-track extension of the Aqueduct Murals project," which hopefully will include giving the existing works some more respect by not placing trash bins and equipment in front of them, and providing proper lighting where needed.

A generous and exciting list of improvements for Saratoga, as you might can see those in the press release.  Let's get to Belmont, because that's where the big bombshell is.  Which you wouldn't even know by reading that press release, because it's not mentioned at all.  It's mentioned by Grening in his article, and quite casually.

 At Belmont Park, the grandstand will be closed...
 At Belmont Park, the grandstand will be closed...
Whoa.  Obviously, this does not mean that the outdoor areas of the grandstand will be closed.  The backyard is getting a new music stage; the paddock a new video board (hooray!) and they'll be a new paddock concession with a patio seating area.  Something along the lines of the paddock bar at Saratoga might be fun.  The front apron will remain open and the picnic area towards the top of the stretch will be expanded.  So you'll be able to walk through the grandstand building on the ground floor. But I'm told, by a highly reliable source, that the seating on the 2nd and 3rd floors will indeed be closed.  (I am assuming that everything will be open for the super duper Belmont day.)

I'm kind of stunned, I must admit.  Not that I didn't expect some kind of reduction in the use of the grandstand given its overwhelming size and underwhelming crowds.  It is obviously not needed on weekdays with a couple of thousand people on hand.  But I didn't expect such an abrupt and total shutdown.  The place is not overflowing on most weekends to be sure; but there are certainly enough people to make for what I'd think would be an unpleasant experience, with fans who want to watch races live from seats all jammed into the clubhouse (where most of the seating is well beyond the finish line).  How about the Super Saturdays, and Father's Day?  Will there be windows added in the backyard to handle bettors displaced from indoors?  (Not that I care personally.....I haven't seen a betting window or machine since I started bringing my iPad to the track.)

Chris Kay talks a lot about the guest experience. "We want our guests to have a great experience when they visit any of our three racing venues."  I don't know how great of an experience that is going to be for some.  And there's no wonder it's glossed over in the press release.  Not sure how one would equate a "great experience" with eliminating three-quarters of the inside space and cramming everyone in the clubhouse where you get a crappy view of the races that are supposed to be the main point of being there in the first place.

Kay also said that the initial "online market research" of the proposed admission price increases support them (I'd be curious to see how those questions were worded), and that they will announce pricing for Belmont Stakes day in three weeks.  I think NYRA needs to be careful there. Though I've expressed my own indifference towards the extra stakes races that day, I seem to be in the minority.  However, attendance for the big day is already in a downward trend since the ban on alcohol was instituted; and exacerbated by the draconian security last year.  I think there's a pricing level that could very well mitigate whatever gains that the extra hoopla may bring (of which I remain dubious).  Unless perhaps  they are planning a serious upgrade from Big Shot on the musical entertainment menu, which they may be, we'll see.

 - Post time at the Big A moves to 1:20 starting today.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Big A Under Siege

 - I wrote about No Nay Never and the Swale, as well as the Gotham, in my Today in Racing post on the TimeformUS blog here.

The News reported last Friday that the robberies at Aqueduct were an inside job; and of course they were.  Or of course they were at least something other than your run-of-the-mill break in.  It just seemed too weird that the paper's 'The Big A is a den in disrepair' story first appeared on February 22, and then the next day we're reading about Breeders' Cup trophies and TV monitors disappearing.  The latter were taken from an office that I'm told would be more easily accessible to Spiderman.  Surely seemed like part of an effort by someone for some reason to contribute to the portrayal of the Big A as a lawless place.

To be honest, I didn't even read the News article when it first came out. I've been following the exploits of Jerry Bossert and the pigeon droppings over his head in the press box, and in the stairwells, and pretty much knew what to expect.  And given the timing, I figured it was little more than an attempt to exploit the sexual attack that occurred in a bathroom - a horrific but, given the general lack of crime at New York racetracks over the years, a totally isolated incident - and create a news story where there really isn't one.

Of course, that didn't prevent some Assemblyman - flanked by burly union guys for some reason I'm not sure of (unless maybe they know where the Breeders Cup trophy is) - from going to the clubhouse and grandstanding for NYRA to put more money into the facility.  He told us how the Big A is a "serious danger." (I don't seem to recall him appearing on the racino side to warn of the danger of flying bodies after the recent suicide there.) But, don't be too mad; he was just doing what politicians in New York have always done - use NYRA as a whipping boy, generate some good sound bites to use the next time he's up for re-election.  And you thought we wouldn't see that anymore now that Governor Cuomo took over?

Well, the situation with the pigeon droppings that Bossert had been complaining about all meet sounds disgusting, surely a health hazard, and I'm glad that NYRA finally remedied the situation to his satisfaction. And I surely agree with the sentiment that the track, in its present state, reduced to a clubhouse just a fraction of the size of the original plant, and without any major renovations in a couple of decades, is depressing.

But let's be clear: It's easy to take a photo of a single dirty table, a leak in the roof, some paint peeling from a ceiling - hardly uncommon sights in any facility the size and age of Aqueduct - put them in an article that calls a place "dirty," and create the impression that the entire place is in similar condition.  Aqueduct may be called many things; besides depressing, there's dowdy, drab, dingy; they would all be fair.  But the public areas are not dirty.  That's not at all why I don't go there as much as I used to.  My issue is that all of my old haunts have, over the year, been either shuttered entirely or filled with the desk seating that makes them much less appealing, to me.  There's just no good place to hang out.

But it's not dirty (and again, at least not in the areas that the public frequents when they're not sneaking into offices and stealing stuff), and hardly a "serious danger."


The first two floors have new coats of paint. (Yeah, those desks, I know.)

There's a touch of the tropics up on the Equestris level.

There's even some signs of life where the Longshots bar is supposed to be (and which will hopefully make the place fun again).....but April? That's next month, seems quite a stretch.

The Manhattan Terrace, which was closed the prior time I was there, is now reopened with a new floor and new TV monitors (and Aqueduct in HD if I'm not mistaken).

One highly negative note I must report regarding the murals on the first floor. The masterpiece of the collection, in my view, is the three-sided Chris Stain work opposite the paddock viewing area. Unfortunately, that area does not have the proper lighting by which to appreciate the work. And now it's become a storage area.

Well, at least those machines are used to keep the floors clean.  But they could find another spot for them, maybe down at the other end where the Rasta guys are getting wasted.

The funny thing is that back in those good ol' days that the News article is so nostalgic for, the packed grandstand and clubhouse were filled with cigarette and cigar smoke, butts, and ashes, discarded tickets, newspapers, gobs of spit, and trash generally strewn about. If you wanted to see some filth at Aqueduct, you should have been in the grandstand then!  To me, that's the cruelest irony of the decline of horse racing as a spectator sport. In a lot of ways, it really sucked being at the track.  Besides the smoke and dirt, there were the long betting lines (different windows for different bets) that one could very well spend half the day standing on.  You had to put up with quite a bit, and pass a lot of time if there were races you didn't want to bet.  Now, only a fool gets shut out, the air is smoke-free, there's plenty of places to sit, tons of tracks to bet on, constant action, never a dull moment. And nobody wants to go.  Go figure.

 - Capital Confidential reports that Robert Addolorato, the new chief investigator of Governor Cuomo's Moreland Commission on public corruption is a "Cuomo vet."
 Robert Addolorato worked as an investigator for Cuomo during his years as attorney general, and in 2011 jumped to the Inspector General’s office.
Addolorato replaces Danya Perry, who denies that she left over frustration with gubernatorial interference in the panel's work.  The new chief presumably won't have the same qualms.  Recall that we reported last month that two of the first three selections to the Resort Gaming Facility Location Board are similarly connected to the governor; for one thing, both had key positions in Cuomo's 2010 campaign.  So Cuomo is used to having his loyal pals serve on committees that are supposed to be independent.

By the way, we are still awaiting the appointments, by the Gaming Commission (comprised of Cuomo appointees), of two more members of the siting committee. Of course, the three already appointed do constitute a quorum, and the governor may like the makeup of the committee just the way it is.

 - We're happy to report that our favorite governor, David Paterson, had his portrait hung at the state Capital, taking its place next to that of George Pataki, since Eliot Spitzer doesn't have one. Suddenly, with just this small passage of time, the tenure of Governor Paterson didn't look so bad.
But on Sunday, Paterson was remembered for his administration's austere budgeting in a time of fiscal crisis and for the 2009 repeal of a provision of the Rockefeller Drug Laws that instituted harsh mandatory prison sentences for certain drug crimes in the 1970s.

"Tens of thousands of New Yorkers were forced to serve mandatory minimum prison terms for non-violent crimes," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. "Governor David Paterson's reforms cut the number of black New Yorkers going to prison by half. That's what Governor David Paterson should be remembered for." [Journal News]
Cuomo also cited Paterson's innovative use of budget extenders issued by executive decree to get around inaction by the legislature.  Paterson “shifted the balance of power so the governor was no longer subject to the legislative spending whims." [Capital New York]

And, of course, through his bumbling and stumbling through the selection process for the Aqueduct racino, Governor Paterson also brought us Genting.  It was only due to the delays and his ill-fated selection of AEG (with ample help from the now-indicted [though for other reasons] Democratic Senate leadership) that Genting was able to get into the running.  So, we can add that to Paterson's legacy too.  Thanks governor.