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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Saratoga Casino Supporters Emerge

The battle has been joined in Saratoga, where a pro-casino group has emerged in response to the anti-casino SAVE group that we wrote about recently.  Destination Saratoga is the name of the new outfit, and if you think of have a notion of who is behind this, you're probably right.

 Destination Saratoga is a coalition of local officials, business leaders, small business owners, community members, and....... [ellipsis added by the blog administrator for effect]......Saratoga Casino and Raceway
Ah, yes.  Well, you didn't think that the harness track and its part-owner, and New York Gaming Association president, James Feathersilversteinamorenohaugh were going to take this sitting down, did you?

Here's their website, and their pitch is particularly insidious because it not only touts the economic benefits of jobs and potential revenue streams which they claim would result from what they call an "incremental expansion at a casino that has operated for decades, with a long-standing track record of responsible gaming," but it also details all of the horrible things that will happen to the town if the casino slated for the Capitol region goes to someone else.
 Q: What happens if the casino is built elsewhere in the Capital Region or goes to a developer other than Saratoga Casino and Raceway?

A: If the license for our region is granted to another developer, an out-of-state operator opening a behemoth Las Vegas-style casino in our community is a strong possibility. The residents of Saratoga don’t want that, and neither do we. If the casino goes elsewhere, then Saratoga Springs will not only miss an opportunity to reap the benefits, but our existing tourist attractions will actually be hurt by the competition. Saratoga Casino and Raceway will likely have to reduce its workforce – by as many as 240 jobs – and the City of Saratoga Springs would be in jeopardy of losing up to $700,000 and Saratoga County up to $240,000 annually.
And here we go. I mean, where should we start? Well, for one thing, I don't think that any gambling facility that is open from 9AM until 4AM every day of the year falls under the label of "responsible gaming." That's just nonsense, ridiculous.  And "a casino that has operated for decades?"  IT OPENED IN 2004!!! No, nobody is going to build a behemoth Las Vegas-style casino in the community, assuming that the harness track would keep its pledge not to. If Saratoga is chosen as the site, it will obviously be located there and not awarded to someone else. I wouldn't classify an alternate location such as, for example, Rensselaer as being in the community.  And the threat of job losses is just that; a threat, and a bullying and blustering one at that by the employer with the power to make that decision. And the small matter that the referendum was soundly defeated in the city of Saratoga Springs?  The question is actually raised on the FAQ page, and then totally ignored.  Because they don't care what the people decided.

As usual, we have, on one side, a grassroots movement talking from the heart about their concerns, based on real experiences in other locales, about the effect of a full-scale casino on their historic community and the local businesses therein.  And then, on the other side, we get the cynical bullshit from the guys with the money who want more. As I've been saying, I believe that this thing is in the bag for the harness track. But Jimmy Feathers is going to do what he can to sway public opinion, even if that takes threats and downright lies! Opeated for decades, seriously man, gimme a break.

 - Got in my email box the other day a link to this letter from Phil Langley, the president of the US Trotting Association, to Alex Waldrop, the NTRA president, in his Chairman hat at Racing Medication and Technology Consortium.  The gist of the letter, citing the frequency with which harness horses race and the different medication needs as a result, is that the existing rules for the use of clenbuterol and corticosteroids for standardbreds should not be changed because of the death and disarray turmoil in the thoroughbred and quarter horse industries.  And it gets a little pointed.
We certainly agree that Thoroughbreds need to be very careful in what they administer because history shows that breed of horse is very susceptible to catastrophic breakdowns.

Nonetheless, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved the standards set by Mid-Atlantic Uniform Medication Reform, and did so across all the breeds, which does not make the harness guys there happy at all.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Few More Things

Let's get back to the thing about The New York Times, and their claim that an average of 24 horses die at racetracks each week.  I called BS on that stat in this post, and I was wrong.  Two errors on my part caused that misstatement:  for one thing, I totally missed the memo that that particular stat was based on an actual compilation of incidents, and not from the Times' parsing language from chart comments which may, or may not, really indicate a serious injury, no less a fatal one.  Completely missed the boat on that one.   And secondly, I was responding specifically to the following characterization of the Times' statistic from the much ballyhooed piece by Arthur Hancock III on Paulick's site: "According to the New York Times, every week in the United States, 24 Thoroughbred horses die while racing."  I used a back of the napkin calculation to cast doubt on that assertion.  In fact, what Hancock wrote is not what the Times said.  I should have gone straight to the source instead.

The source, as stated by Joe Drape himself on Twitter, is this state-by-state chart provided by regulators below, which appears down the right margin in the first of the Death and Disarray articles.

So, if you add up all the deaths, using the high estimate for Florida, you get 3,562 horses.  The study covers the three years from 2009 - 2011; so, if you divide 3,562 by 156 weeks, you, 22.83 horses.  Well, that's almost 24.  I guess the Times added some in for the states without data....those hotbeds of racing Arkansas and Idaho.  Or maybe they figured a week off each year around the holidays, in which case you get 23.28, and I remember from third grade math that you always round up when counting dead animals.

So, a few points.  For one thing, if you accept the generally accepted notion that the fatality rate is 2 from every 1,000 starts (and I know some people who don't), I think my calculation that the number is closer to 12-15 who die while racing is probably fairly accurate.

Getting back to Hancock's piece, his assertion that the "Times reported that 24 Thoroughbred horses die a week while racing" is patently false.  The Times did not report that.  It reported that 22.83 horses a week died during racing and training from 2009 to 2011.  (And that stat no doubt includes quarter horses as well, given the high number for New Mexico and, especially, the fact that half of the article in which it appeared was about that breed.)  I got yelled at on Twitter for being heartless when I made the distinction between racing and training deaths.  But I didn't make it, Hancock did, and falsely.  It's perfectly fair for me to correct that.  Nobody else seemed interested in doing so, not Paulick, nor all the people who sung the article's praises.  Besides being based on a bogus analogy with dog fighting, Hancock's appeal was based on a falsehood.  Actually, on two falsehoods, but we'll get to that shortly.

Drape tweeted that he always reports the truth.  But, as I've written before, his version of the truth is sometimes different from mine.  And the truth can come in different shades of truthfulness.  For example, Drape is recently fond of reporting that a poll of horseplayers showed overwhelmingly that they tend to bet less because of suspected drug use.  It is true that there was such a poll.  What is not acknowledged however is that, as I reported here, the survey smacked of being a push poll, with leading questions asked to respondents directed there by HANA and Thoro-graph, sites where anti-drug sentiment flourish.  That makes this truth a dubious one.  I know two people who tell me that they would bet less if they didn't have juice trainers to follow, and that there are more where they come from with a similar outlook.  I imagine I could go around the Aqueduct grandstand, ask leading questions to selected characters and come up with poll results drastically different than the Jockey Club's.  If I published the result as fact, without the context, wouldn't that be as much of the truth as the Times' is (or isn't)?

Sometimes the Times reports truth that just isn't all that true.  The Aqueduct Task Force specifically refuted the paper's blanket use of the phrase "powerful painkillers" to describe all prescription NSAIDs.  Of course, you won't read that in the Times; especially considering that they published their article on the Task Force report the morning before it was released, no doubt to have it run on the front page on Friday rather than get lost in the weekend editions.  I wrote about that, and other mischaracterizations of the report in this post.

And then there's the 24 horse a week claim itself.  If Drape was really being truthful, he'd be reporting that a study based on fatality reports compiled from state regulators from 2009 - 2011 showed that approximately 24 horses a week died during that time, rather than repeatedly portraying it as a continuing and ongoing event, which it may, or may not, be.  In addition, the Times' reporting clearly infers that these fatalities are caused almost exclusively by the use of legal and illegal drugs and medications.  That brings me back to Mr. Hancock III.  His assertion continued that "24 Thoroughbred horses die while racing and countless others are broken down and maimed for the rest of their lives because they are being drugged to enhance their performance."

That is certainly not true.....though one can surely understand why one would conclude that after reading the Times' series.  Does drug use contribute to the number of deaths?  Probably.  But we all know that horses break down because it's a rough game.  As I've surely noted before, we exploit these animals for our own entertainment and profit, and we do with them what best serves us, not what is best for their welfare.  Otherwise, and only for one thing, the Triple Crown would be run on turf in the late summer and fall.  But egads, perish the thought.  So, it's actually quite convenient for a participant in the U.S. breeding industry like Arthur Hancock III to blame others for the problem, and to call for someone else, like the federal government, to deal with it!  As we know, U.S. breeders are not breeding these horses for durability.  They are breeding them for profit; for horses with the most "fashionable" bloodlines; for those who may, before their second biological birthday, be able to run a furlong in nine seconds under tack.  You don't have to be a pedigree expert to know that the breed is far less sturdy than it was a few decades ago.  Instead of pointing fingers, perhaps Mr. Hancock should be reflecting on his own role in the matter.

And maybe that goes for all of us.  Everybody who is involved in some way nurtures the status quo by their participation.  Only a few are actively trying to do something about it, and simply proselytizing on Twitter doesn't count.  Horseplayers will take action about things they are really passionate about - especially when they feel that their wallets are threatened.  I see people boycott tracks if their takeout is too high; shun synth races because they think it's too hard to win (and they took that attitude even at the beginning, when the artificial surfaces were being billed as a cure-all to the breakdown problem); or refuse to take their wife and daughter to Saratoga because it will now be too expensive to get in.  They'll also take action if their blessed traditions are threatened in any way - just yesterday saw people threatening to boycott Churchill tracks because they don't like their points system for the Derby.

But I don't recall any organized boycotts of Aqueduct during the breakdown spate there.  Do you?  I haven't seen any movements to boycott dirt races in favor of those on turf or synth because they are believed to be safer.  The issues of horse safety and drug use are not even amongst the criteria used by HANA in their top racetrack ratings.  Their #4 track for 2013 is Tampa Bay Downs, which recently came under scathing criticism for being too lenient on cheaters.  But hey, their takeout is low!

Believe me, I'm not judging anyone here (except for those, such as the members of the Joe Drape God Squad on Twitter, who would judge me for having the nerve to question what the Times reports).  Let's be brutally frank and honest here.  If someone said to me:  Look, you can still have this sport of horse racing and all the joy (and heartbreak) and economic benefits that it brings.  But despite our best efforts, no matter what we have tried, 22.83 horses are going to continue to die every week.  What do you want to do?

I know what my answer would be.  And I suspect that I'm hardly alone.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

NYRA Budget Admissable - For Now [UPDATED]

The NYRA Reorganization Board unanimously approved the budget for 2014 that we previewed here yesterday.  Not however without a caveat following a passionate debate on the admission and parking increases.  (And I apologize, I was wrong yesterday about Belmont grandstand admission, which is currently $3.)  To appease the opponents, Chairman David Skorton suggested that NYRA conduct some kind of "market research" on the increase before the next board meeting in March, and even Bobby Flay - who, at one point, helpfully declared that "whenever I need to raise prices in my restaurants, I just don't do it" - could see that was ridiculous.

Maybe I'm missing some point somewhere here, but I just can't imagine either of the following conversations ever happening: 1) Newbie: "I don't want to go to Belmont because $5 is too expensive to get in."  (My nonbeliever friends can't believe the entry prices at the track are so low.)  Or, 2) Regular racetrack customer: "I'm not going to Belmont anymore because it now costs an extra $2 to get in."  (The parking admittedly is a wild card; currently free for general parking at Belmont, who knows what they're thinking; costs ten bucks to park at Del Mar, for example.)  I could see perhaps less people forking over the additional three bucks to get into the clubhouse, but can't imagine any material effect on attendance, at least based on the admission increases alone.

Having said that, according to Teresa's aforelinkedto Bloodhorse piece, we're talking about trying to squeeze out an estimated measly $250,000. [Clarification/correction on this:  Teresa tweets today:  "Hike in fees of all kinds (admission/simulcast) meant to offset $1.8m deficit and carve out $250K surplus."  So it is not an insignificant amount at all.]  So Still, maybe it's just not worth the bad publicity.  Already we have the habitual NYRA-basher Odato with the lede: "As the New York Racing Association planned to raise admission prices for live thoroughbred horse races, it awarded raises to some of its top officers," as if the two events literally coincided.

In any event, again, New York City is a city with zero off track betting facilities, and I'm completely perplexed as to why NYRA isn't pursuing the opportunity to operate an off track teletheater as it is permitted to by law.  If they believe they can generate $9 million in additional handle at Longshots, I'd think a couple of well-placed snazzy off-track facilities in Manhattan could be a bonanza.

[Update: The Form's David Grening, who I'm sure was quite upset that he had to miss a day at Aqueduct to cover the board meeting, writes:

  One thing that was not brought up at the meeting was NYRA’s previously stated desire to re-enter the New York City Off-Track Betting market by getting into bars and restaurants in the city. At previous board meetings, this was identified as a potentially important new revenue stream, but it was not broached in the 2014 budget.

“We’re going to try and work on things for a while to get to a plan and then when we have a plan we can go to the right folks and see if we can get something done,” Kay said. “To be able to say on Dec. 4 this is going to happen sometime in 2014 is complete conjecture.”
I'm sure Hayward had a plan, maybe they can get it from him.]

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

NYRA Seeks Financial Independence from VLT's

NYRA has a plan to get to profitability without VLT money which involves increases in track admission and parking, a hike in simulcast fees (we could perhaps see some simulcast interruptions in response to that), closing the Aqueduct training facilities during non-racing months, and reducing legal and other expenses.  I think this is a worthy goal; but surely not because the governor or Robert Megna or David Skorton want it.  Nor because I think there is any particular or compelling reason why NYRA should have to do so, as opposed to all the other New York racinos; and nor do I think that NYRA is any immediate danger of having the VLT money stripped away.

It's just good business practice, for one thing, especially considering the uncertain future with the pending arrival of full-scale casinos.  And it would put NYRA in a far better business and ethical standing down the road to argue for VLT money to continue, should it ever get to that point.  It could then assert that its business stands on its own, and that the VLT revenue, rather than being a subsidy to keep an unprofitable business afloat, is instead an investment to keep purses and breeding incentives high, which, in turn, generates revenue and jobs for the state.

Unfortunately, it has ramifications more profound that a few bucks extra in admission charges: The section on the new budget in the agenda for Wednesday's board meeting [large pdf file] refers ominously to unspecified "headcount adjustments."

The new admission fees - $5 for the grandstand and $8 for the clubhouse (a $3 increase, except for Saratoga grandstand, which goes up by $2) - still would leave NYRA below, for example, Del Mar ($6 / $10, though reduced for the regular Diamond Club me!)  Still, it immediately attracted some criticism in Twitter-land as short-sighted and in contrast to free admission at casinos.  Personally, I've always thought it a little odd that people who come to the track to bet copious amounts of money on dumb animals would quibble over a few dollars in admission or the price of a Form.  Just doesn't seem that consequential in the scheme of things.  (Though it will be more so at Belmont regarding parking since many Saratoga fans park off track.)  Except for the Saratoga grandstand, which went up a buck, I don't recall prices ever going up in all the years I've been going.  So I hardly think that it's unreasonable.

NYRA is not estimating how much revenue the admission increase will generate.

 “Additional revenue from an admission increase is uncertain at this time,” [Dir of Communications Eric] Wing said. “It would obviously be a function of attendance.” [Saratogian]
But I would think that anyone who would not go to the track specifically over a relatively small increase in  overhead would not be high handle types that would significantly hurt business.....and chances are they would maybe bet via NYRA Rewards at home.

Now, having said all that, I would prefer a different approach, and note, hardly with any surprise, that the concept of NYRA-opearted off-track teletheaters to fill the void left by NYC OTB is not mentioned in the board meeting document.  That was a main priority of the former CEO Charles Hayward; and it was his concern over navigating the necessary political processes that led to the takeout snafu that unfortunately cost him his job.  Hayward is a racing guy.  Chris Kay is not.  But Kay knows from his experience consulting for Universal Studios Parks, where the admission is $42, that entry fees to the tracks are relatively cheap.  And he knows his bottom lines.

According to the agenda, the Longshots simulcast bar on the second floor of the Big A is now slated to open in April, right around the time that racing shifts to Belmont on May 1, thank you very much. The facility does figure into NYRA's revenues projections; the forecast is that it will generate an additional $9 million in handle, broken down, quite specifically, as follows: $2.2 million during Belmont spring, $1.5 million during Saratoga, $1.3 million during Belmont fall, and $4 million during Aqueduct.  Not sure exactly what they are basing those rather precise estimates on!  I mean, people already go to Aqueduct for simulcasting and live racing.  Sure, there will be a (hopefully) really nice cool new place to hang out, drink, and bet.  Whether people will now make the trip to Aqueduct specifically to go there, or whether those who already go will bet more because of it, remains to be seen.  Maybe they're planning cheap drinks with generous pours and other incentives to get horseplayers to part with their money! (But remember, they'll be those young women that Mr. Kay mentioned to distract the horseplaying men!)

A change in the racing schedule for Aqueduct this winter - dark days will be Tuesdays and Wednesdays from Jan through March, and there will be racing only four days a week in February (Friday - Monday).  They can't be loving that at Parx, or the other tracks that race on Mondays.

On page 20 of the agenda, NYRA details coming patron area improvements at the three tracks.  It curiously claims that "a significant amount of improvements were made in 2013" at Aqueduct.  I'd like to know what those are other than the murals on the first floor, and the sealing off of the passageway to the racino on the second floor [Update: this was sealed off by Genting last year]. Nothing else is planned there other than renovations to the escalators and third floor bathrooms, along with additional security cameras for patron and employee safety.  And, of course, the long-awaited Longshots bar.  Improvements to the sound system is slated for Saratoga, where I often have to resort to the iPod to drown out the blare from the backyard TV's, but none at the other two, where you can't hear a thing in many areas.

 - Over at the TimeformUS blog, I posted about the Remsen, and the slow early pace that is considered to be "peculiar" in this country.  Mike Watchmaker wrote disapprovingly at the Form of such races that are run in the European style of [gasp - ed.] slow early, fast late.  As we know, most racing people here seem to love high early speed and the spectacle of exhausted opponents digging deep for a little extra to prevail in the late going, like heavyweights laboring in the 12th round. Perhaps it's the fact that I started out as a harness guy that it all seems counter-intuitive to me.  The Remsen was an extreme case to be sure, but I personally prefer the sight of fresher horses going faster in the stretch.

And it just might be easier on the horses and better for their well-being too.  Everybody is just so concerned about that nowadays, but not of course when they would have to sacrifice their own beloved and hallowed (and dumb?) traditions.  And surely not if they perceive that it would effect their ability to handicap effectively. 

On that topic, in this spot and at this time, I was planning to pivot to address my assertion in the prior post that the Times' reporting on 24 horse deaths a week was BS.  However, that will now have to wait.  I've always been open to disagreement and willing to correct any errors or misstatements.  But I don't answer to anyone or operate on anybody's timetable but my own -  even (especially) the New York Times - as to when I post on this blog.  I do so whenever I have a chance, which is unfortunately far less than in the past, and more unlikely when I have my kids and family in town for an extended holiday weekend.  Don't worry though, I'll surely get to it in a far shorter time frame than the 20 months it took the Times to address their misinformation on WMD's in Iraq.