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Monday, December 31, 2012

Horse Racing - Still Classic

The Head Chef and I recently saw an exceptional performance by Max Richter, a German-born neo-classical composer who has crossed over into the indie-rock/ambient-techno spaces in the past.  His latest release came on the classic classical Deutsche Grammophon label.  Recomposed by Max Richter - Vivaldi-The Four Seasons is pretty much what it says - a re-worked, re-imagined version of that seminal composition, with some modern syncopathic touches and a generally more urgent and, at times, dour take.  He performed the work in its entirety at the eclectic club Le Poisson Rouge, one of my favorite spaces in the city; where else could one see both the Emerson String Quartet and F**ked Up within a 12 month period!?

Mr. Richter was accompanied by Daniel Hope on violin, and a new in-house symphony which goes by the name of Ensemble LPR, an elite assemblage of the finest NewYork-based concert musicians, according to their website.  It doesn't specify is that they are the finest "young" New York-based musicians; but that's what they are, and they performed the piece with youthful gusto and flair, hitting every note perfectly.  (As somebody who is "blessed" with perfect pitch, I'm quite sensitive to the slightest mis-step, and would know.  Don't take me to a high school orchestra recital, to me that's the musical equivalent of fingernails on the blackboard.)

A flier distributed at the venue by Ensemble LPR muses that "a newcomer to classical music might be forgiven for wondering:

    Why, in the year 2012, is the work of classical music so little a part of the larger cultural dialogue?

    Why, in a city like New York, is the work of orchestras and composers of so little relevance to the lives of people who follow the arts, and to people who do not?

    Why, among its peer art forms, is classical music the least nimble and most conservative in its patterns of thinking?

    When did a genre dominated by genius and virtuosi become sclerotic, rigid, unresponsive?"

Hmmm.  Well, that sure seems familiar to us horse racing enthusiasts, don't it?  ‘Genius' surely wouldn't apply to our sport in the same sense it would to Vivaldi or Beethoven or Haydn.  But I suppose there's something virtuosic about, say, training five Belmont Stakes winners in a row, isn't there?

But a sclerotic (I had to look it up too), unresponsive, non-nimble, industry which has become largely irrelevant to the cultural dialogue?  Yeah, that sure fits.

Ensemble LPR laments that classical music is seen as being anachronistic; but it is to me.  There’s very little in the way of “modern classical” that interests me.  And even that which does hardly compares to the mastery of the Baroque era.  However, while one can surely argue that the best horses of today don’t compare to the best horses of the past, the essence of the game of horse racing itself lives on.  Sure, the product is diluted, the grandstands are often deserted, the purses artificially propped up by a revenue stream that is already being pecked away at, and which will continue to come under attack.  But the buzz as the horses head towards the post and horseplayers scramble to get their money down is as electric as ever at tracks like Saratoga and Del Mar and Keeneland and Churchill.  Because the game is the game.

As I reach the end of my 8th year writing – or, occasionally writing, as the case may be – this blog, my views on how the game should be marketed have evolved.  Horse racing is a gambling game.  Period.  It is not at all a sport in the sense that many would like it to be.  Forget about the notion that we need stars and rivalries.  We put too much emphasis on stakes horses, and on these "big" days with short-field Grade 1’s.  Nobody cares about divisions and standings and Eclipse Awards.  The Breeders’ Cup is an unwieldy mess.   We spend months obsessing over the Kentucky Derby, which is a terrible race with which to attract new fans who can’t even pick out their selection amongst the 20 horse melee; and often just a terrible race, period.  This game will live or die by its ability to attract people who want to wager money on horses running around a track, and it doesn’t matter if they are Grade 1 – whatever that even means nowadays – or $10,000 claimers who have never won three races lifetime.  (And personally, I much prefer to bet on the latter.)

And the irony is that, as a gambling game, horse racing is better than ever, a thousand times more so than just a quarter century ago.   One has an endless choice of betting options on every race, and races from all the country to choose from that you can bet and watch from your living room, or even on the go on your tablet or cellphone.  So why isn’t horse racing thriving at a time when seemingly every other form of gambling is?   

In large part because the industry is…well, sclerotic.  The lack of a national organizational structure means that it lacks the nimbleness to move past the hand-wringing and criticism over breakdowns and drugs that it has been distracted with for the last several years.  You can say what you want about what you think about Joe Drape and the NY Times’ sensational and decidedly one-sided front page coverage….and I’ve said plenty.  But the fact is there wouldn’t be a Breakdowns – Death and Destruction and Chaos and Whatever-The-Hell-They-Call-It series if the industry was able to police itself in a common sense manner.

Unfortunately, despite incremental steps taken in jurisdictions such as New York over the past year – and only when forced to do so by clueless politicians and influential newspapers with an agenda - this seems unlikely to change anytime soon.  Surely not by the time the next Four Seasons pass in 2013.  

Perhaps there’s an Ensemble Horse Racing out there with an infusion of young blood ready to attack the matter with gusto and flair.  Myself, I’m now long past that stage, and just enjoying the game and all of its modern conveniences while I can.  The thrill lives on for me as much as it ever has.  And despite all its problems and challenges, I’m sure that the game will far outlive me.

 - And now, while we're partially on the subject, I turn back to my other favorite pastime - music - and present my favorite records of 2012.  They’re in alphabetical order, but with the ones that were particularly special to me highlighted in CAPS.  (And a hat tip to whoever it was I’m stealing that format from).

Animal Collective – Centipede Hz (Domino)
Bob Mould – Silver Age (Merge)
Dinosaur Jr – I Bet on Sky (Jagwarwar)
Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)
El-P – Cancer For Cure (Fat Possum)
Hauschka / Hilary Hahn – Silfra (Deutsche Grammophon) 
Metz – Self-Titled (Sub Pop) 
The Shins – Port of Morrow (Columbia)
SWANS – THE SEER (Young God)
Pete Swanson – Man With Potential (Type)
The Walkmen – Heaven (Fat Possum)

Honorably Mentioned

Titus Andronicus – Local Business (XL)
Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music (Williams Street)
Japandroids – Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)
Disappears - Pre-Language (Kranky)
PS I Love You - Death Dreams (Paper Bag)


Crystal Castles - III  (Fiction)
Andy Stott - Luxury Problems (Modern Love)
Kevin Drumm - Relief (Editions Mego)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Casino Referendum to be a Guessing Game

Governor Cuomo made it exceedingly clear that the locations of casinos will not be determined before the expected referendum on the subject next fall. 

  “I would like to see a competition where we have the ability and opportunity to attract the most exciting, aggressive proposals from the best operators in the world. And then we get to pick among the best options and my druthers would be a more flexible, open process to get the best applications, the best plans that we can."  [Buffalo News]
That's classic Cuomo-ese.  Rather redundant, often rambling, and clumsily verbose without ever approaching elegance.  Druthers, lol. 
  “They could know regions or parts of the state, but I wouldn’t limit it by picking a location because that assumes you’re picking the best location from a market point of view. I would leave it to the operators, the experts, to say you tell me within these regions of the state where you think the best market is, where would you site it to maximize economic opportunities, maximize job growth, etc,’’ 
  Huh?  What the fuck is he even talking about?

The cynic in me immediately directs me to think of all the casino-related campaign contributions that will be flowing into the coffers of legislators of both parties and to the governor himself.  Of course, that would never be on the mind of this governor.  But his decision will certainly give plenty of time to allow the special interest influence game to be fully played out, and probably create a few lobbying jobs as well.  I'm sure the good government groups will be thrilled.

That's all well and good for the lobbyists and politicians, but the voters will be left in the dark.  I would think that people in the Catskills region, teased for years by the prospect of casinos that would presumably revive its long-dormant tourist industry, have a vested interest in knowing whether they are voting for gambling there or to merely be disappointed again.  Similarly, a voter with mixed feelings about the benefits of gambling revenues to the state and the effects of casinos located near populations that may be vulnerable to the addiction of gambling would want to know where they are.  Might keep a fair amount of people away from the polls, which could very well favor proponents.  And maybe that's the idea.

 - Senator John Sampson is finally out as the leader of the Democratic conference, and the new Leader of the Majority Conference That's Still in the Minority is Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins.  Sampson has nobody to blame but himself (and, should Republican George Amedore ultimately prevail in the still-undecided contest upstate, turncoat Senator Simcha Felder), for his party's plight in the Senate.  Democrats won at least 32 of the 63 seats at the ballot box, yet still find themselves on the outside looking in, with the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) teaming up in coalition with the slimy Republican Leader Dean Skelos.  It was Sampson's leadership - or lack thereof - that initially prompted four Democrats to break away from the conference not long after the release of the Inspector General's report that skewered him for his role in the AEG/Aqueduct scandal.  And that was in addition to the coup and the debt that resulted from his stint as Majority Leader in 2009-10.

The Democrats no doubt have their eye on eventually luring the IDC back to the fold with the change, though its Leader, Senator Jeff Klein, asserted that his coalition with the GOP remains intact for now.  Klein has assured nervous Democrats that he favors a progressive agenda, so we will see what happens down the road should Skelos attempt to prevent matters such as the minimum wage, stop-and-frisk restrictions with respect to marijuana, and campaign finance reform from coming to the floor for a vote.  (Where the result of the Amedore-Tkaczyk (no relation to this guy) race will go a long ways towards determining their ultimate fate.)  Klein has always had leadership aspirations of his own, and now that he has turned the three men in a room into a quartet, he may not be so quick to give that up no matter what happens.  He's an Albany politician like the rest of them after all, so he's full of it too, as clearly evidenced by his welcoming of Senator Malcolm Smith into the IDC.  Smith was very much a part of the corruption and dysfunction that prompted the formation of the IDC, but I guess Klein is willing to overlook that in order to add some racial diversity into his conference.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The New NYRA Bored

These are the aging white guys that make up the New York State Senate Republicans ....Mayor Bloomberg's inner circle of advisors....the new NYRA Board of Directors. (I think there's actually a (white) woman on the Board, but she must have been busy in the kitchen.)

So, lemme ask you....if word does finally come down from up high to depose Ellen McClain, these are the guys who will inform a black woman that she's fired? That would make for a pretty picture....and some nice fodder for a Hillary or Al Sharpton ad for the primaries.

The Governor Cuomo-controlled Board had their first meeting last week, and if you didn't read any news about it, it's because there wasn't really any.  Sure, there was symbolic stuff demonstrating new transparency, like the meeting being open to the public (via a faulty streaming feed), and financial statements now being posted quarterly instead of annually.  (And to those who declared that the latter helped to usher in some kind of new openness, maybe they were unaware that a link to NYRA's annual financial statements has been on the homepage of their website for several years now, and does anyone really care if they're updated quarterly?)  Also, approval of a new mission statement:  “Meeting the highest standards in thoroughbred racing and equine safety.” Yippee.

Then there was symbolic stuff that is just idiotic....most prominently, the banning of political donations by NYRA and NYRA officials.  I mean, NYRA has always been overwhelmed in terms of donations by those who oppose and compete, and by those who sought to win its franchise, so I hardly think that any donations have ever been very persuasive.   Besides, I don't ever recall seeing names of NYRA officials - aside perhaps from modest donations from board members - as contributors to politicians.  And it seems blatantly unfair to me that NYRA would be prohibited from such donations while those with conflicting interests such as NYGA and companies seeking casinos lavish money upon politicians who will help determine the future of the sport in the state.  (Note however that the ban does not apply to party organizations or PACs.)

Additionally, NYRA corporate officials are now prohibited from betting.  Ha, are you kidding me?  Wagering is the business of horse racing; isn't that like banning the CEO of General Motors from driving?  That sure would have been a good way to get Hayward out if he was still hanging around.

Having said that however, there were some positive signs, specifically the talk about updating technology and, most urgently to this one-time winter railbird, the decrepit condition of Aqueduct. 
  Len Riggio, a horse owner and holdover from the previous board, said succinctly, "I won't go to Aqueduct" because it's so dirty and unkempt.

Added trainer Rick Violette, a non-voting member of the board, representing the horsemen: "Aqueduct has never been in worse condition at the beginning of a meet." [Daily Racing Form]

  Ms. McClain informed the board that Genting has failed to live up to promises to keep the racing side clean, and has delayed groundbreaking for the promised sports/simulcast facility on the 2nd floor.  None of which should be a surprise despite Genting's lofty promises to be a good partner.  Remember this?
“Moving forward, Genting is eager to work closely with NYRA to transform the current facility into a casino and racetrack that will be the envy of the country.”  [the late, not-so-lamented Thoroughbred Times, Oct, 2010]
By meeting more frequently and out in the open, and presumably having the governor's ear (if he's still about 'Dear Genting, Live up to your commitments at Aqueduct or no casinos for you, Love, Governor Cuomo'), perhaps the Board can spur some meaningful physical and spiritual changes around here.  That would be good.  However, the profound issues affecting the industry will instead be determined at the ballot box next fall when voters will presumably decide about full-blown casinos, and in the legislature, where any measures affecting racetracks' shares of VLT revenue would be decided.  On those matters, the Board can merely wait and watch just like the rest of us.

 - Obviously haven't posted here lately....taking an end-of-year break to refresh and to deal with all the busy matters of life that pop up around this time.  And, taking a pause from the game as well.  I've always written here that racing is not a 12 month sport for me....I mean, you gotta take some breaks to clear your head, don't you?  Still don't know how the professionals in the industry can keep it up year round.  It's "relentless," as Ellen McClain described the task of running the tracks virtually without interruption other than the current week break for the holiday.  So, I'm freshening up, hope to get back to it and turn my attention to racing in warmer climes after the New Year.  Hope everyone is having a good run-up to the holidays, and I'll speak to you soon.