RSS Feed for this Blog

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mangled Journalism

A bit late to the game (as has been the case on this blog of late) on the NY Times article entitled Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys that graced the front page of the Sunday edition. Was up on a mountaintop on Sunday (Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, MA) and got a late start! I'll post a couple of photos more pleasant than the ones in the Times.

So I don't know what I can add to what's already been discussed thus far. The consensus, at least amongst what I've seen, seems to be that, despite the obvious sensationalism, the article makes legitimate points and addresses issues that we all wish that the industry was addressing instead of the NY Times. And I would wholeheartedly agree with that. But even if we agree with the message, the end doesn't always justify the means when the press manipulates facts and twists the truth to fit its own agenda. So if I repeat ideas expressed before, it's for a good cause. So, with that, a few comments and observations:

- As has been mentioned by others before, the most insidious thing about the article is the way is flows back and forth between issues affecting the thoroughbred industry, and graphically tragic stories involving mostly quarter horse racing in New Mexico. There's little attempt to distinguish the two here - only one of the incidents is specifically identified as being a quarter horse race, even though all but one of them was (I Googled them). For one thing, that makes for a clumsily constructed article; as if there are really two different stories. And, in my own opinion, they probably were. Seems to me that the Times had this story about racing in New Mexico in the can for awhile, but for some reason found it unfit to print. It refers to accidents that occurred late last year, and was probably - again, just my impression - written around that time (and thus the multiple writers it is attributed to). Could be that when the Luck cancellation and the Aqueduct breakdowns became news, it was dusted off - either to add some sizzle to these new stories, or to make the old one more relevant.

Either way, and even if my notion about the construction of the piece is wrong, it's an obvious and blatant attempt to skew the figures and inflame the emotions. It's like writing an article on steroid use in baseball while including a section on alcohol poisoning in some beer league softball circuit. As others have pointed out, if this was a story about horse racing in general, then why not also discuss harness racing? That, of course, would have tilted the article in the other direction given that sport's better record when it comes to safety. So I guess that wouldn't have worked for the Times.

The rest of the article is mostly non-news; Joe Drape's usual rantings - not at all unjustified in themselves, mind you - about the evils of medication and their contributions to the prevalence of fatalities in this country as opposed to jurisdictions with stricter rules; along with criticism of the industry for being unable, in its fractured state, to deal with the problem in a comprehensive manner, and a recap of the recent record of industry dysfunction. Nothing new there. There are however two new twists here....but both of them are bogus in my view:

- I guess NYRA can call off its investigation of the inner track breakdowns and instead just submit this article to the governor's office. Because Joe Drape seems to have concluded in his ultimate wisdom that the problem was caused by owners and trainers being induced by outsized racino-fueled purses to run their unfit animals in the lower claiming ranks. I'm attributing this to Drape because it's not the first time he's jumped to an unfounded conclusion to make his point - recall the article last year in which he declared, based on the scant evidence of a couple of Triple Crown races and visual observations, that the banning of steroids had already resulted in slower but sounder horses. (That article was also deemed worthy of front page placement by the eager Times editors.)

The theory that the large purses is behind the breakdowns at Aqueduct is a logical one and it may (or may not) be supported by the statistics from the Big A, and from the Times' own flawed study, which we'll get to momentarily, that indicate that horses in cheaper races are more likely to break down. But it remains, for now, just a theory, and a relatively recent one at that. One spate of injuries over the course of three months does not make for any conclusions to be definitely drawn, and it is in fact irresponsible to do so. The inner track deaths could have been a statistical quirk...or maybe it was indeed the track despite NYRA's protestations otherwise. Let's allow the investigation to run its course.

- And then there's the Times' study itself which, as I'm sure you've already read, was based not on careful study, but rather by uploading chart calls into a computer and spitting out the ones with comments like 'broke down,' 'lame,' or 'vanned off.' The last two in particular of course do not necessarily indicate a catastrophic injury, or even, necessarily, a serious one. However, though these are referred to as "incidents" rather than "breakdowns," nowhere in the article is that point emphasized. While this analysis may still be useful in pointing out overall trends in a specific state (assuming that vanning standards in that jurisdiction have remained the same over the years), its use to compare problems amongst different states may be flawed. A buddy pointed out to me that "NYRA is extremely cautious in this regard vanning off any horse in distress." If they are indeed more vigilant than in other states, than the Times' method becomes less meaningful in making state-to-state comparisons. Indeed, NYRA in response cited the more comprehensive Jockey Club study that indicated that Belmont and Saratoga were below the national average in fatal injuries.

Whatsmore, there's little analysis or discussion of the Times' statistics other than the one mentioned above regarding claiming races. Not a single word as to how many "incidents" occurred on what kind of track surface? What serious article about racetrack safety these days would not include a single mention of the words "synthetic track?" This is even more glaring considering the mention of the impressively low incident rate at Woodbine, which races only over turf and Polytrack....not to mention the Jockey Club study which indicated that the artificial surfaces may be safer. Instead, we got death and destruction from New Mexico. More than anything else here, that omission clearly shows that this is not at all a serious piece of news reporting intended to analyze and discuss, but rather an example of schlock journalism intended to shock and alarm. And a pretty clumsy one at that.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


I wrote yesterday that nothing will have changed at Aqueduct on Wednesday other than the switch to the main track, but that was not quite the case as it turned out.

Eighteen of the 73 horses carded for Wednesday’s nine-race program, or 24.6 percent, were scratched – a high number considering conditions were dry and the track was labeled fast throughout the day. [Daily Racing Form]
NYRA of course tried to portray this as business as usual.
NYRA president Charles Hayward, in an e-mail, stated “any vet scratches that are announced are the direct result of the NYRA vet pre-race physical exams, a procedure that has been in place for some time.”
Well, what else is he going to say? Only human nature though for everyone involved - not just NYRA, but the horsemen too - to take a more proactive approach given the circumstances. Five scratches were said to be the track vet's decision according to David Grening's above-and-belowlinkedto piece in the Form. Not clear whether or not that includes the two that David Jacobson withdrew "in consultation with the veterinarian."
“We both agreed these two horses needed to be scratched today,” Jacobson said. “They’re not being scratched for any other reason.”
That doesn't sound like business as usual to me.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

White Knuckle Time at the Big A

There are going to be some white knuckles for sure in the executive offices at NYRA today as racing at the Big A resumes, and moves to the main track two weeks earlier than originally planned. Of course, everyone involved will be watching a little closer, and most other than Andy Serling won't even have a bet; this in the wake of the bizarre spate of catastrophic equine injuries that we saw on the inner track, 18 in total, which doesn't count a fatal heart attack, nor a horse who suffered a fracture on Sunday, about which Jerry Bossert writes in the Daily News, NYRA didn't reveal the horse’s fate yet. Who knows, maybe even Governor Cuomo, who barely knew racing existed before the issue was brought to has attention, might be watching on the Capitol OTB station. (Or maybe not.)

NYRA officials, as well as jockeys and trainers, insist that the inner track is as safe as can be, and had nothing to do with the deaths. But I can't help but think that, at least at some level, they're going to be hoping that they're wrong about that as they nervously watch the races today. Because the change of track surface is the only thing that will be different today and until April 4. That's when a new condition book comes into effect that will eliminate the lowest claiming class and cut purses for races with claiming prices of $20,000 or less in an effort to dissuade trainers from running unfit horses for outsize purses, the reigning theory of what's behind the problem. So, if it's indeed not the track, then what other than some self-imposed restraint and respect by owners and trainers and the law of averages will prevent the tragedies from continuing?

As a matter of fact, the very first race on Wednesday is exactly the kind of race that is being blamed - a $7500 claiming race with a $29,000 purse, which means that the horses are racing for a winning purse more than twice as much as the horses are theoretically worth. You'd think that maybe NYRA would have instead scheduled something safe in that spot. Like, maybe, a steeplechase race.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Big A Fatalities Draws Unwelcome Attention

Hillsboro Bay, euthanized following the 9th race at the Big A on Wednesday, was the 16th fatality thus far on the inner track, and the 7th since Feb 25th. Jeez! It's actually the main track about which I've heard safety concerns in the past, but NYRA officials now can't wait to get back on that surface, moving its date of operation up by two weeks. That announcement was termed as "coincidentally" by the Form's David Grening, but I'm not so sure about that. NYRA insists that the inner track is safe, and personally I have little reason to doubt that. These unfortunate streaks happen, and are, more often than not, a statistical oddity that's bound to occur from time to time.

The bizarre spate of catastrophic injuries has even captured the attention of Governor Cuomo, who sent a letter to Charles Hayward demanding that NYRA conduct an investigation into the breakdowns. Really? I mean, how the hell did Cuomo even know about this? Is he following Grening on Twitter while he's not working on the budget, pension reform, DNA databases, and giving in to the Senate Republican goons and the laughable redistricting lines he'd previously pledged to veto?

The letter, on Cuomo stationery, was signed by Bennett Liebman, Deputy Secretary for Gaming, and Robert Megna, Director of New York State Division of the Budget. Megna is also the chairman of the Franchise Oversight Board, which oversees NYRA's operations. [Daily Racing Form]
Ah. Been wondering what Ben Liebman has been up to since he disappeared into the Cuomo Administration. Hadn't heard from him lately, but good to see he's helping to look out for the governor's political interests. Because the governor, while he might be a nice guy and a family man who's for equal rights and world peace, surely doesn't give a rat's ass about dead horses at the track. If you look a bit closer at the letter (without even having to read between its lines), you'll see that this all fits in with his narrative questioning the viability of the sport and the slots revenues currently being diverted to it.
"Everyone understands that horse racing poses risks....but that cannot be an excuse for our inaction. The status quo in all aspects of horse racing is not working, and we need to develop procedures now that work for the horses, riders and the racing public in New York."
Additionally, the letter states that NYRA should pay for the investigation, pointing to the fact that it has received some $15 million in slots revenues from Resort World thus far. That fits right in with Cuomo's recent comments that questions how much, and if, the state wants to 'quote-unquote' subsidize the industry. This governor has shown more outright hostility towards the sport than all of his recent predecessors combined, and, as far as NYRA and horse racing in the state goes, his expected run to succeed President Obama in 2016 can't come soon enough.

- The agreement between the legislature and the governor on casino gambling calls for the addition of up to seven non-Indian facilities across the state. So it surely should be quite interesting how the New York Gaming Association (NYGA) of the existing racinos reacts, because that math doesn't add for them. You see, NYGA has been advocating for casinos to be located at their nine facilities. So, even if these existing facilities are tabbed as the casino locations, two of them are going to be left out. So there surely could be some infighting within what has heretofore been a tight-knit group, at least outwardly. Can't quite see Genting going: "Oh, it's OK Yonkers and Jeff Gural, you take it." The governor says that decisions on the locations won't take place until next year....and I'd guess that's at the earliest. So, this should be fun.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Going to the Dogs

There was an article in the Times late last week about dog racing, and the efforts by their associated racino ownership to eliminate it.

Complaining that they are being forced to spend millions of dollars a year to subsidize a pastime that the public has all but abandoned, greyhound track owners in Iowa, Florida and Arizona have been lobbying for changes in the law that would allow them to cut the number of races, or even shut down their tracks, while keeping their far more lucrative gambling operations. [NY Times]
Well, that's the doomsday scenario for horse racing I've long expressed fears for on this blog...the day that owners of the racinos that were spawned by the tracks start to question exactly why they're "subsidizing" a money-losing business. Dog racing is of course way further along in its decline than horse racing; and, in fact, I do not believe that our sport will ever reach the edge of extinction that the greyhound industry has reached.

However, it took all of about three days after this article was published for a comparable situation to present itself in horse racing, as the province of Ontario announced that it will be ending payments to racetracks through the slots-at-racetracks program in March 2013. [Bloodhorse] That's in addition to moves to cut slots money for tracks in well as the recent comments by New York's Governor Cuomo that seemed to question racing's viability while he supports the notion of expanded casino gaming.

The Times article also explores the reasons (that we all know) behind the decline in racing's popularity as compared to the mindlessness of slots.
“All live racing is declining in popularity,” [some gambling "expert"] said. “It’s just not as impulse-oriented, as convenience-oriented as most gambling is today.”
“You really have to pay attention to the background and history of the dogs,” [some slots addict] said. “That’s a lot of work to do. You won’t see very many guys my age up there.” [NYT]
The Daily News reports that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver would not be supportive of the constitutional amendment to permit full-fledged casinos outside of existing Indian facilities, unless it specifically spells out where such casinos would be located. The governor prefers to punt that question to a separate measure which presumably wouldn't be dealt with until after the main question is settled by a referendum in November 2013 (much to the delight I'm sure of the lobbyists involved, as well as politicians seeking campaign contributions).
That's not good enough for Silver, who fears such a move would make it easier for the state to add more New York City casinos in the future, those close to him say.
"He's very concerned about having a casino in Manhattan," one source said. "That's something he would not want to see."...Silver says he supports a single casino as long as it's located in a less densely populated area such as the Aqueduct racino in Queens. [NY Daily News]
Writing the casino locations into the amendment would send groups like NYGA and the associated lobbyists into an absolute frenzy, effectively compressing what would be a two-year process into a matter of months or even weeks. And it seems hard to believe that Manhattan would remain a "no-fly zone" for casinos indefinitely. As the dependence on gambling revenue grows, the fact that it's a densely populated area only makes it more attractive, and the idea that those in Manhattan need more "protection" from the dangers of gambling than those in Ozone Park will start to fade away.