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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.


Artax57 said...

This was a really enjoyable read. I feel you!

Steve in NC said...

Agreed. I feel that way about lots of things in human society these days. It seems whatever institutions one looks halfway closely at look really overripe, decadent, and function in a stupidly self-destructive way. Being with the kids and focusing on relationships helps a lot.

And for me, the game is still a nice escape from the other more important things with all their warts approaching the point of malignant tumors. If racing were my job, well, it would be my job, not an escape, so I'm not surprised to hear the way you're experiencing it.

It isn't concern about animal treatment that makes me complain about the high level of legal and impermissible drugs given the horses, although I do worry about danger to jocks from horse breakdowns. I hate the drugs because certain trainers make it harder for me to handicap (Dutrow wasn't a problem for me - I found him more predictable than certain others still in the game).

Having Rudy R and Jacobson dominate NYRA on top of small fields means that if NYRA is your primary racing experience, I agree, mostly it isn't much fun. I rarely bother with NYRA anymore, although I'll give Saratoga a try.

The issue for horseplayers worse than doping is that the sport won't unite to limit the number of race days and structure the racing calendar to force larger and more competitive fields at all levels of ability. No other sport is so blind to modern realities and to its own health.

But I don't carp about it too often anymore. Instead I shop for the tracks that tend to have larger, decent fields with fewer supertrainers. And mostly handicapping is still fun.

I miss your blogging, Alan, but don't do it if it's not fun. Look at those daughters of yours, follow their example and find what's fun. I hope that turns out to be horseplaying again - may the horse return to you!

QQ said...

"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 or so years.But, alas, it was not to be.
... However, it's also largely due to the internet and social media that that kind of perverse joy is gone, in my opinion...."

Oh, Alan. I feel your pain! You might note that I've not posted on my blog for years - and my tweets are pretty far between. One reason: Mountie, my dear MNR, continues to feel shabbier, much like your description of Belmont. It's been months since I visited. It's just too darn depressing, since they modified (badly) the indoor live racing space to fill it with apparently unused table games options. It's been at least two years since I last attended the WV Derby - the King (who is our long range driver) refuses to go to the West VA Derby since it's so uncomfortable. The last year we went, they ran out of Derby glasses two hours before the first race!

Meanwhile, re:social media, the folks I follow on social media seem to have all turned professional, leaving this casual, amateur fan feeling somewhat inadequate in my woefully uninformed observations. I used to enjoy gushing about unsung "heroes" and the small joys of racing at small tracks. Now, I'm sure that my amateur love of the game would be mocked at every turn. Twitter has no mercy.

Is it that we're older, and no longer the target audience of ABR et al? Everyone laments that track-goers are aging, and are seeking the new fans. And yet, it seems to me that we seasoned folks wager more actual dollars. It's kind of like they want to increase their on-track business without doing a thing. For example, MNR has fewer seats for racing (I'm counting indoor seats with access to the paddock) but they want to draw bigger crowds for big race days? How does that work?

In summation: glad to hear it's not just me. But sad to think that I am still wagering on my BC13 winnings. (Remember: I'm not that good.)

kyle said...

That was great. Much like the modern Thoroughbred, you apparently fire your best with plenty of time between efforts. Disagree with one thing, though. AP's effort in The Belmont, for me, failed to impress. He might have come home faster than Affirmed and Alydar, but he was always clear and didn't have to throw in a 23.2 fourth quarter. In fact, I would venture, it's been a long time since a Triple Crown winner didn't have to run a sub 24 meaningful quarter. Anyway, don't let the idiocy get you down.

jk said...

Thanks for sharing Alan. You are going out on top! Thanks for all of the information and entertainment you have provided us over the years! You are the Secretariat of horse racing reporting/blogging, leaving the Times, DRF, Paulick etc in your wake.

I wonder if Tom Durkin wishes he stayed on for another year?

I was at the track for the Belmont did not get too excited over the triple crown. I enjoyed it more when the horse loses the third leg for some reason. My participation in the sport is way down to 1-2 days/year.

I will throw a little cold water on the handling of the crowd, specifically the LIRR ride home. If you had a seat it was fine, standing room was brutal. Cars were packed to maximum standing room capacity, beyond anything you would experience during rush hour on the subway. Yes Chris Kay you were able to move more people out faster by dangerously overcrowding the trains, congrats on another job well done!

Dan said...


I always enjoy your blogs. I enjoyed watching the Belmont Stakes. I was thinking about Tom Durkin. I was waiting for someone online to say "Durkin" was cursed. I tell my wife that it was good the internet was not around when we grew up. It must be tough for kids with facebook/twitter. Everyone has an opinion these days & it was nice not knowing all this stuff when I was a kid.

Hopefully Delmar gets you back in the game. Just go out & enjoy & don't get caught up with all the BS of the world. When I go to the track that is my 4 + hours of peace from the outside world.
Be good Alan & may the horse be with you.

Figless said...

I experienced a similar feeling about social media.

The Belmont was one of the most exciting moments in my sports fan life, and the ethicists essentially censored me from posting about it on my Facebook. I have "friended", and try to support, a number of animal (mostly horse) rescue folk over the year, some which are good "real" friends, and IF I posted that I attended the Belmont my page would have been berated with anti horse racing comments (and horrible videos). Worse, when my mare gave birth to the 2018 Acorn winner, I could not even post a picture unless I first "unfriend" all these people, which would be easier if we weren't "real" friends with some of them. So I am forced into the social media shadows almost living a double life.

I have written before that anyone involved in this "sport/game" is by definition a hypocrite if they claim to love horses. I acknowledge my hypocrisy but for all the reasons you state I have learned to live with it, contribute what I can when I can, and try my best to find good homes for the horse I bring into this world as a small time breeder.

Ultimately fault can be found with any endeavor and I am not going to spend my short time on this planet being overly concerned with things that are out of my control. Some wish to play the martyr roll, and I commend them but I am just too selfish I suppose in wanting to enjoy the time I have left.

Figless said...

As for my Belmont experience except for the aforementioned rest room issues, which are never going away as long as 50% of the attendees are female in an old building not designed for that scenario, I had a great time. It might be helpful to post someone there, or put a simple sign up, that portable rest rooms are available in the back yard, because by the 3rd race the porto potty option was more attractive than the regular rest room.

My lone (other) complaint was the usual inability of the day hired "ushers" who couldn't be bothered to take their eyes off their technology long enough to verify tickets, especially at the end of the grandstand where the LIRR commuters entered the track. Almost every one of them, I presume presuming General Admission included a seat, made an immediate left for a picture taking session and grabbed an empty seat.

To NYRA's credit by the 7th race they had reinforced the overwhelmed "ushers" with supervisors and it really wasn't that bad from that point forward.

The point being that if you are going to charge major league sporting event prices for a seat, the patron should not have to be removing freeloaders from that seat all day long, much less be slept on by a drunk frat boys in shorts, bow ties, and fedoras.

But refreshments remained available all day and the LIRR line immediately following the race did not seem as bad as prior years.

I missed last year but folks that attended both years told me the experience was much better this year including the traffic which seemed to be handled better as well.

Dan said...


Way to many people on social media have their agendas. If someone posted an animal rights story or video on my facebook page I would remove them as a "friend". I do understand why some people are not using facebook anymore. I like to see how old high school buddies are doing but don't care about their political agendas. It gets old really fast.

Figless said...

Dan thanks its a complicated situation, some of these folks have helped me find homes for horses and I do support their causes but not as passionately. It seems, not just on my page, but in life lately, passion for a cause sometimes trumps civility. But at some point I will cut bait with them.

Figless said...

Dan, and yes I was thinking poor Tom Durkin as well would have loved to have heard his call.

Figless said...

jk I think blaming NYRA for the train overload is a bit rough, once the patrons exit the park and enter the LIRR station responsibility is with the agency. When 40k people arrive by train, staggered during the day, then leave all at once, its a tough situation. The Super Bowl was a disaster despite much planning. Its going to be crowded.

Alternately you can walk to the Floral Park station or Queens Village station as two of my friends did, no worries.

Same thing with the rest rooms. Long lines upstairs, much quicker to go down to the porto potties which at that point were actually cleaner and had little to no lines all day.

There really is no good answer to either problem, except limiting the crowd size even further.

Figless said...

PS Alan if you decide to stay away for good just want to concur with the above that really, really, enjoyed the blog. I hope you remain, or at least find another forum for your excellent writing skills.

Dan said...

Yes, Alan should post something even if its once a month. Always enjoyed seeing a new post.

I did see an article online from the Times Union that said Tom Durkin made over $400K in year 2015. Was that more than the CEO last year? That seems high plus he only worked a few months last year for NYRA- April-August. FYI- I always enjoyed his calls & see it made him a good living.

Dan said...

Sorry In year 2014 not year 2015.

jk said...

I will not give the NYRA CEO a pass on the train service. It is an area where he can improve the customer experience he claims to be so concerned about when he is not busy cashing 6 figure bonus checks.

Figless said...

When I leave Madison Square Garden I don't hold MSG responsible if the LIRR platform down below is overcrowded. I judge my customer experience by the time I spend at the venue, not the transportation. Maybe its just me.

Alan Mann said...

Thanks everyone, appreciate it! You haven't heard the last from me, but where/when and in what context, can't quite say for sure right now.

Anonymous said...

"Now, perhaps you find it distasteful for me to be trivializing these things"
What, the lives of innocent animals like horses, cows and pigs? NOT AT ALL...You know, is it all possible that you fell in love with a deeply flawed and morally corrupt sport and it's OK to admit that and no longer be a fan of it? People can evolve.

Dan said...

Anon- What sport or anything now a days is not flawed and morally corrupt? I can't name one.

Figless said...

Society is morally flawed and corrupt, and sports mirror society.