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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Cap This

Here's the latest bit of hilarity from NYRA CEO Christopher Kay (at least before Wednesday's board meeting - with this being posted a few hours prior - which is likely to include even more yuks):

"Anyone familiar with Saratoga Race Course will understand the impact of the promotional giveaway days in influencing attendance numbers, which renders inaccurate a direct comparison to today’s gate numbers.

Two years ago, Saratoga hosted four giveaway days and recorded each “spin through the gates” by guests to secure multiple souvenirs as paid attendance. Each of these days yielded an average attendance of anywhere between 50,000 and 55,000. Contrast this to last season when the New York Racing Association discouraged spinners, resulting in an accurate promotional day count of between 25,000 and 30,000 guests during each of the four giveaway days – as opposed to totals of between 100,000 to 120,000 “phantom” guests for the entire Saratoga meet in the prior year. And data from earlier years indicated even larger discrepancies due to the counting of spinners." [Saratogian]
This coming from the man who presided over an equally - if not an even more insidious - padding of attendance numbers last summer, when season pass holders were counted as attending every day of the meet whether they were there or not.  With a total of 6,370 passes sold (though not from day 1), and 40 days in the meet, you can do the math to determine what the potential exaggeration was last year. May, or may not, have been 100,000 to 120,000, but I'd guess that it wasn't tremendously far off those numbers. Of course, Kay did not allude to that little bit of accounting wizardry.  This goes squarely in the category of you can't. make. this. stuff. up.  And I say it's possibly even more insidious than the spinning numbers because, at the same time, this NYRA regime was trying to tell us just how transparent they are.

Kay also announced that, should American Pharoah run at Saratoga - possibly in the Jim Dandy on August 1 - attendance at Saratoga would be capped at an unspecified number.

Oh boy.  Well, as you probably know by now, NYRA capped the attendance on Belmont Day at 90,000, though, as I contended in the last post, they quite obviously didn't even manage to sell that many admissions; all one needed to do was look at StubHub the morning of the race to know that was the case. (And that, by the way, was a major fail.  Can you imagine if the prior regime couldn't sell out a Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown possibility with a limit of only 90,000?   As was the case last year - and as they bragged to the NYRA Board - NYRA saved money on marketing, letting the news-worthiness of the event do the advertising for them.  Apparently, that publicity did not outweigh all of the terrible publicity garnered by the way they mishandled the bigger crowd in 2014.)

Now, I've seen people who were there say, 'well, I was opposed to capping the attendance, but it worked out!'  Well?  Of course, if one is at a big event and there are not all that many people there - say around 87,000 people in a plant which has handled as many as 120,000 (and better that year than this "big event" team handled a smaller crowd in 2014) - they're going to think 'hey, that was great!' By that logic, why don't they limit the crowd to 60,000, imagine how convenient everything would be!  But, in my opinion, that's hardly the point.  Big racing days draw big racing crowds, and the challenge is for management to accommodate everyone who shows up and make them as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.  The attendance cap was nothing but a copout by a NYRA team that proved itself incompetent the prior year, and which was unwilling to step up to the plate to make the necessary improvements.

Horse racing has been conducted at Saratoga for some 150 years and never, at least as far as I know, has the attendance been capped.  Some of those days have sucked for some people, whether from it being too crowded or too hot or too wet or too whatever.  Yet the track's reputation has never emerged worse for the wear, at least in my experience.  The worst day I can personally recall was the Travers in 1978 when Affirmed and Alydar converged on the old track after slugging it out through the stretch in the Belmont.  Yet, it was a historic day about which I have only fond memories (other than the unfortunate circumstance of the race itself).  I think that people come to Saratoga on big days with tempered expectations as to their comfort level, and with a forgiving attitude.

Harvey Pack used to warn racegoers on rainy days that "You're not going to have a good time today." Yet, how many times have any of you that have been there ever seen a single unhappy face, no matter what the conditions?   And besides, over the years, with advances in technology and the wisdom of experience, the Spa has proven to be perfectly able to handle huge throngs with relative ease.  The fact is that the all the seats are sold on a weekend day anyway no matter who is running, and, as I've discussed and documented here in the past, the overflow crowd is perfectly content to simply hang out in the backyard and watch the races on television.  It's fine.  Always.  (Especially before this NYRA team started to usurp areas where people used to hang out with merchandise tents and hall of fame buildings.)

I can guarantee you that NYRA would piss off far more people should they deny them entry to see a Triple Crown winner than those who might gripe because they couldn't buy a Bud Light.  (And, unlike on Belmont Stakes day, everyone is free to bring in their own swag as long as it's not in a glass bottle.)  And, as far as I'm concerned, anyone who whines about an inconvenience at Saratoga is someone who we don't want there anyway. It's Saratoga.  Just deal with it.  We don't need these ridiculous know-nothings, who came in here bragging about their ability to stage big events - to come in and tell us that only a certain amount of people can come to the track.  It's just ridiculous.

And you know what else?  If, by some chance, 100,000 people descended on the track (extremely unlikely given historic attendance numbers and the geographical and logistical limitations in the area), causing the fire department if no one else to say enough is enough and turn people away, the news stories reporting that turn of events would be the absolute greatest bit of publicity this sport has experienced since just about ever!

 - I've seen some great concerts lately.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Now What?

These are my daughters, Chelsea and Kayla, at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

I was not there.  Partly because I had such a miserable time there last year, and mostly for reasons that I'll get into later in this post.  Anyway, if anyone had told me 10-15 years ago that my daughters would be at the Belmont and I wouldn't - especially with a horse going for the Triple Crown - I would surely have figured that it was part of some kind of memorial ritual for their old man!

The big question - considering how bad of a time so many people had there last year - is: did they have fun?  Let's see.

Guess we'll take that as a resounding 'yes!'  Along with two friends including Amanda (the Panda), pictured in the middle here, they headed to Jamaica station to catch the Long Island Railroad at around 2. They arrived at the track around an hour later with no problems.  They immediately hit the bathroom, no doubt due to consuming all of their drinkables on the train (I offered help in sneaking in alcohol); and reported that the line was long but moved quickly.  Apparently, they had no problem purchasing additional beverages at the track.  After the races, they enjoyed the harmless, though pointless, wimpy pop of the Goo Goo Dolls, and then headed back to the LIRR.  Prepared for the worst by railroad officials and by their dad, they instead walked directly onto a train with no wait, and even got seats.

The combined gross betting handle for the four of them on the day was $1.....though Kayla generously allowed NYRA to retain the $1.75 that her ticket on American Pharoah was worth at the time (it's now apparently worth around $25 on eBay; more if you include some finish line dirt [looks more like a dime bag]).  Kayla is actually a fan; along with my stepdaughter Chloe, she has attended the races with the Head Chef and I on more than just a few occasions, including at Saratoga and Del Mar. They're usually good for about ten bucks a day each (generously supplied by you-know-who) based largely on paddock observation.  Chelsea is not a fan, nor is Amanda (the Panda); but, based on this experience, no reason why they wouldn't go to the Belmont again, especially if a comparable wimpy pop or faux-punk band is playing.  (Or, especially, Diplo, but I don't see that happening anytime soon.) Unfortunately, there were no coupons issued for free admission in the future, guess that's too complicated of a concept for NYRA.

From what I've read, theirs was a pretty typical experience.  Unless I've missed something, aside from a few complaints about bathroom lines (women in the mens room again) and wifi (the girls had no issues with that), seems like everything went pretty smoothly.

That does not mean, however, that I'm here to praise NYRA for the effort. Chris Kay and his minions came into town touting their ability to stage the "big" events.  On that count, they failed miserably last year; both in the execution and the aftermath.  I find it pretty hysterical that the main strategy from this "big day" team was to make their biggest day significantly smaller, by capping the attendance at an alleged 90,000.  To me, handling a big day at the races means being able to accommodate the largest crowd possible by anticipating the worst and having the contingencies in place to deal with an overflow.  Under these controlled conditions, the task was made far easier. Sure, some credit is due; it was still a big crowd; and the music surely helped in controlling the outflow after the races, so that was a good plan. But it was also a huge copout, and the easy way out. And NYRA doesn't actually care if my girls or the other 86,998 or so paid attendees had a good time; only in the sense that they can take a PR victory lap and go before the board with their hands out for raises and bonuses.

And yeah, about that crowd, I don't believe for a single second that NYRA really sold 90,000 admissions; I think they're full of it.  I looked at Ticketmaster late on Friday night, and there was still no 'Not Many Left' designation.  And then, suddenly the next morning, they're sold out? Meanwhile, the prices on StubHub dropped precipitously throughout the morning, settling at around 7 bucks by 1PM (as opposed to the actual face value of more than $22, including all the Ticketmaster fees; great business when you can charge over 50% of the ticket price in fees).  Not only that, the number of admissions available on StubHub was actually increasing; there were some 2600 grandstand admissions and 500 clubhouse admissions available as of 1:30, when I left to join those millions of New Yorkers who couldn't care less about the Triple Crown for a day in Manhattan (while all of the supporting stakes that I couldn't care less about were being run).  Little doubt in my mind that a good portion of that inventory was NYRA's itself; I could picture Chris Kay himself sitting at his computer trying to sell them off.

As for me, I did not suffer from any FOMO; and nor do I have any regrets about not going.  Maybe I'm just too old at this point in my life to deal with big crowds and drunken preppies at a dilapidated racetrack.  One thing I was definitely wrong about though:  I figured that even if American Pharoah won, it would be due more to the mediocrity of the competition rather than the kind of greatness I witnessed when I saw Seattle Slew and Affirmed win their Crowns from excellent vantage points right around the finish line.

However, American Pharoah's Belmont win was nothing short of spectacular.  His final time of 2:26.65 was easily the fastest since Baffert's Point Given in 2001 (2:26.56).  Since the "tremendous machine" stopped the clock in 2:24 in 1973, only Risen Star (2:26.40), Easy Goer (2:26.00), AP Indy (2:26.13), and the aforementioned Point Given ran faster.  And, in this day and age, for a horse to complete the mile and a half by getting his final quarter in 24.32 - faster than any quarter mile of the race save for the opening one - is virtually unheard of.  By comparison, it took Easy Goer and Affirmed/Alydar 25 1/5 seconds to finish the race; Empire Maker 25 3/5; Afleet Alex 24.50.  (Rags to Riches/Curlin came home in 23 4/5; those horses were pretty damn good.  Secretariat got home in 25, but he was just loafing.)  This was truly a race for the ages, and we didn't need the track announcer to punctuate his call by yelling at the top of lungs to hammer that point home.

So now, you have your Triple Crown winner, after all these years and all the anticipation of the day when we would finally see this happen.  Which leads to the inevitable question:

As for the horse, happily, the connections apparently intend to continue his three-year old campaign; though the skeptics who are expecting some kind of benign career-ending injury to soon pop up can surely be forgiven. Baffert has mentioned the Haskell at Monmouth, and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar as possible races leading up to the Breeders' Cup.  That would be awesome.  However, the chances of American Pharoah following in the footsteps of Seattle Slew and Affirmed, and affirming his greatness beyond this year seem remote, to be sure.

As for the industry, the buzz will persist for awhile - obviously, the longer he continues to race, the better - before it dies down and "racing" turns back to the brooding and hand-wringing that has dominated over the last several years.  It's also possible that the hoopla over the Triple Crown will die down (been there, done that), and that this Crown will actually turn out to be a net negative over the next few years as far as publicity goes, as compared to what would have been had the streak started to approach 40 years. But no time for negativity right now.

As for me and my current status as a horseracing fan, bettor, and blogger (and if you care).....the truth is that I haven't been much into the racing game of late, for reasons both professional and personal. I went to Belmont a few weeks ago; it was the first time I'd been to a racetrack since last September, some eight months prior.  I was actually hoping that there, a spark would light and I would rediscover the joy that made me a regular railbird for some 40 or so years.  But, alas, it was not to be.  Belmont Park can do that, as depressingly empty as it tends to be even, in this case, on a pleasant Sunday afternoon; and especially if one ventures inside the mostly-unused plant, where the echoes of the crowd's roar in better times has long since evaporated into the filth and grime that serves to amplify the void. Can't say if I'll be back there anytime in 2015.

I've been involved in the industry due to my involvement with TimeformUS over the last few years. They say that one shouldn't work in a field that one loves, because you may end up hating it.  I wouldn't go that far, but I'm surely disillusioned.  Not free to go into the details here, but let's just say that a lot of industry people talk about what the industry needs, but when it comes down to it, they're full of shit and only interested in themselves.  (Though surely, that does not make horse racing unique....surely!)

And on the personal side, and without going into too long of a spiel (as I've written much of this in the past)....let's just say that I used to find this game a lot - and I mean, a LOT - more fun when it was accepted - and embraced - for what it is. And that is: a game.  And a game in which at least some, if not many, of the participants are scoundrels and rascals who flaunt the rules and push the boundaries of what we consider to be acceptable, both in terms of honesty, and how they treat the animal athletes.  When I first got involved, making the trips to Roosevelt and Yonkers back in the 70's, that was all OK.  In fact, it was part of the appeal.  Nobody I knew really wagered their money with the expectation that this was a totally honest enterprise, and any notion that we might have been scammed was met with smiles and smirks (at least the day after the latest Oscar or Frankie Martin claim won by five, or Herve won six on the night as the other drivers seemed to be pulling back on the reins).  It felt like we were doing something that was more than just a little on the disreputable side, a bit dirty; and I personally found that to be rather thrilling and liberating. Racing Forms were hidden behind the counter of the local newspaper store; and the lack of any pay phones at tracks lent to the feeling that we were in our own private little den of iniquity, cut off from the more legitimate outside world. (Now we cry and whine if we lack total connectivity to the outside world for even a single minute.)

Of course, now I'm much older, so I can't expect to experience those exact feelings at this point in my life. However, it's also largely due to the internet and social media that that kind of perverse joy is gone, in my opinion.  It's funny....I remember as we approached the year 1984, how we were obsessed about the notion of Big Brother watching over us to keep us all in line.  And though that's still a big concern (though one wonders how much we'd know about it today were it not for Edward Snowden), it seems that we've all established our own Big Brother in the form of Twitter and other social media.  Anyone who even approaches the line of what is considered to be immoral or unethical, or who is unfortunate enough to commit even the slightest misspeak, is immediately brought into line, and can easily have their careers or lives ruined immeasurably.

So, now I go on my Twitter timeline and read people bitching about which trainers are cheating with which drugs and how we should cut off their heads!  (So to speak, and probably a really bad metaphor to use at this point in time.)  We must have 72 hour pre-race detention and access to vet reports (snore).  We read multiple live tweeting from the latest conference or seminar regarding levels of cobalt, whether or not Lasix should be banned, how many horses died last week and who/what is to blame.  We read how horrible and cruel it is that a ten-year old gelding is being forced to - gasp - do what he was actually bred to do, and what he looked to me to be perfectly happy doing in winning his last three races before he was effectively ruled off the track by the ethicists who know what is best for everyone.

And we read people agonizing, insufferably in my opinion, about the ethics of the sport.  If I love animals, how can I love horse racing, pondered my friend Teresa (who I hope will still be so after she reads this).  If I was still going to the track, I'd have to discuss that with her at her upcoming birthday BBQ at Belmont over the hot dogs and hamburgers that she generously serves.

Now, perhaps you find it distasteful for me to be trivializing these things. But, to me, none of this is particularly serious in the scheme of things.  It's just a game!  Not only is all of this a bummer, it's boring too.  Not that the industry should not be attempting to cut down on cheating (it will never be completely eliminated, in any endeavor involving money or politics). However, this industry needs to be spending most of its conference, seminar, and hand-wringing time on: How Do We Make This Game Relevant Again Beyond Three Races a Year (two if there's no Triple Crown possibility).  As long as it's spending time on anything other than that at this point, it's a losing battle, as far as I can see.

And as far as the animals go, I wrote here about how, on the scale of cruelty to animals in this world, these horses have it pretty damn good.  In fact, the vast majority of these horses receive more love, care, and respect than a significant portion of the human population.  So I'm not going to repeat myself; you can read that post if you'd like. (Though I will link here with no further comment to the unfortunate tale of the late Allan the rabbit, clubbed to death with a bicycle pump by a Danish radio host in order to make a point; a very fair one in my opinion.)

Look, we are all put on this earth for a short time, and I figure we need to get as much enjoyment out of it as we can.  Fortunately for us humans, we're at the top of the food chain.  As the zookeeper who advised the abovementioned Danish radio host on how he clubs rabbits to death before feeding them to the snakes said: “It’s the animals who are there for us.....Not us who are there for the animals.” That's life; that's the way it is.  And, after all, since video serves as proof these days, we all know for an absolute fact what would be the case if it were indeed the other way around.

Oh, wrong clip (though I couldn't help it).  Here we go:

So, we can just accept this game for what it is - and after all, as I've said many times, if you've gotten past the fact that we breed this animals solely to exploit them for our own entertainment and enrichment, then you really already have - or you can agonize and moralize about it online.  The preponderance of the latter has really turned me off.  Maybe the answer for me is as simple as just not being on Twitter anymore.....or to unfollow all of my racing friends and peeps (but then I'd feel bad!). In any event, the fact is that I was due for a long, long break from this, so maybe it's really just that. Used to regularly take at least a couple of months off every year, but that went by the wayside for many years since I started this blog in January of 2005; not to mention my recent involvement with TimeformUS, in which play becomes work.  So, perhaps it's just fatigue.  And part of it is definitely my distaste for the current cynical corporate know-nothings running my favorite NY tracks. They'll be out of here at some point relatively soon!  Right? Right??  

The Head Chef and I will be venturing out to our favorite spot in Southern-most California this August, so perhaps a couple of days at Del Mar will do the trick (assuming I can tear myself away from the spectacular beaches).  In fact, we'll be there on the day of the Pacific Classic, so, if all goes well, maybe seeing the latest Triple Crown champion will bring me back in full force.  If he's not retired by then.