Friday, January 30, 2015

What Will New York's PETA Investigation Say?

Good day everyone!

New York's PETA report is due out very soon. Will it point to the future or just deal with the present?

New York is in an interesting position, and to change racing (hopefully for the better) they are a jurisdiction that can certainly, and probably has to, lead. The Aqueduct issues, politics; things are very real in New York State. It's an opportunity to move forward.

Here are a couple of things I hope happens:

The first thing I did after the Kentucky Report was published was congratulate Steve Asmussen's lawyer on twitter. As has been my opinion from the beginning (and as much as I am flamed for it at times), this episode has nothing to do with Steve Asmussen. He does not need to be "made an example of" and it's an injustice if he even serves one day for being the fall guy for the sport. He's had to hire lawyers, go on TV (where he was clearly not at home), and some owners have questioned him. All for a video where you have to extrapolate, guess, or nitpick to find a violation. Enough is enough. Take down the Horse Racing Most Wanted posters and let him go back to work.

The Life At Ten episode was something this sport had to go through. It's brutal that a 110 pound jock has to make a decision about a horse on the track, with no consultation with a trainer and the horse's owners, while readying for a $2M race. It's a situation that there was no SOP, in need of an SOP. That investigation was not about "convicting" anyone, but about the future, and that made the investigation worthwhile. I hope we see that here.

As for new policies, with vets, meds and all the rest, I suppose that is left for another day. But in this report it is a fine time to springboard towards discussion of that kind of reform. New York has some fair minded, smart people - vets legislators and others - who are clearly capable of navigating the minefield of reform. I hope this is not the end, but the beginning of the discussion of new policy to make this better for our owners, investors, and most importantly the horses.

I fear not long after the report is released the focus will be on Steve Asmussen, because, after all, that's what the report is dealing with. But I think that's missing the entire point. The last six months were about horse racing, not one man. How the sport moves forward - beginning with this New York report, which I hope deals with big issues, not micro-issues - will tell us a lot about the sport itself.

    Thursday, January 29, 2015

    What Kind of a Game Does Horse Racing Want?

    PETA has filed an appeal request of the KHRC's report in Kentucky today. As I noted before, the whole "exoneration thing" is troubling on a couple of counts, i) exonerated of what exactly? Asmussen was not jacking horses with rocket fuel or beating them with a stick; he did nothing wrong, and was just playing the horse racing game and ii) the giddiness inside the sport with the "exoneration" was so short sighted and so horse racing, it was once again an excuse to embrace the status quo.

    It's the latter that most of us seem most concerned with.

    Case in point, which I have not heard from anyone is untrue (although, that might not matter, this could be in almost any stable. Regardless, please let me know if this is challenged and I missed it): Teardrop (it's on page 6).

    Teardrop was an Asmussen trained two year old filly who seemed to be having lameness issues. June 18th, Blasi says the filly is lame. June 20th, she is walked the shedrow and lameness seems to be there too on video.  Despite that, she's put in the Debutante Stakes at Churchill, and two days later passes (Kentucky) vet inspection and comes 7th by 25 as the 2-1 race favorite. You don't have to have a phd in animal science to surmise she raced lame.

    That, according to the KHRC, is some sort of "exoneration".

    The horseplayers who bet her down to favorite, don't feel they had a fair shake. In fact, the "she's trained nice since her maiden win" quote in the DRF would've told them everything is hunky-dory.

    Teardrop, presumably raced lame, probably doesn't feel like she had a fair shake.

    If she broke down, it would've been an "unfortunate occurrence" and someone would've filed several stories about how polytrack might've saved her.

    If it was in Hong Kong, it would've never even happened.

    With the Kentucky report filed (and New York report pending), this business needs to understand that this has nothing to do with someone's Hall of Fame ballot, or if they should be working with horses, or in turn get some massive suspension. This has absolutely nothing to do with Steve Asmussen. This is about what kind of game horse racing wants moving forward. It's about the way horse racing always has done business versus what it needs to do in modern society to remain relevant (and to keep the slot money rolling in). It's about the horses, the people who work with them, and the future of the sport itself.

    Wednesday, January 28, 2015

    Hey Bartender, When Even Necessary, Losing History is a Bad Thing

    "How are the kids", Mr Black Box?
    It was reported today (h/t to the Paulick Report), that Churchill Downs is stocking 16 owners suites with a contraption that serves mixed drinks. Its name is not Phil or Patti, but, well I don't really know. It's a big black box, that (presumably) doesn't talk.  There's no word if this spring the owners will be watching Trakus chiclets underneath hologram Twin Spires while sipping their gin and tonics. But maybe that's in the works.

    I am a bit of an enigma when it comes to history. I think we lose it far too fast, and it's not a good thing, yet I work and admire disruptive technologies that make our lives better, more cost-effective, and our society more efficient. I think we might've gone too far, and forgot where we came from.

    Sure it's only the age-old bartender-customer relationship that's no more at Churchill, but it's just one example of many. The scenes between Richard Dreyfuss and Robbie Coltraine in Let it Ride which exemplified the customer-bet taker relationship are now replaced with a chat with your computer screen, mobile phone, or a machine at the track that our tickets get jammed into. Hell, most of us don't even go to the track any more.

    The racetracks themselves are becoming newer and have lost a lot of what they were. Downtown racetracks like Greenwood in Toronto, where you jumped off a jammed streetcar with hundreds of others, getting yelled at by tip sheet sellers is long gone. Greenwood Raceway is a housing development now. Beantown is one of the US's great cities. Working class, true, and historical. Their racetrack is gone. These tracks are summarily replaced with "racino's", some in places where racing has about as much history as a One Direction fan.

    Many of the racetracks that have no history, are trouble with the fan or bettor, too. I don't know too many that even look at Chester (I think they changed the name) in harness racing, which once gave away over $2 million in purses in one day, yet barely cracked $300,000 in handle. It's more than just their awful takeout rates that fans are not embracing.

    This is an age where the venerable and historical Maple Leaf Gardens was closed and renamed after an airline. The Forum in Montreal, where my Bruins would get throttled throughout most of my childhood in the playoffs, is now the "Bell Centre". That's named after a media conglomerate, one which I was on the phone with for hours last year - to a guy I think in Costa Rica - because they could not get the horse racing channel on my TV menu.

    If they rename Fenway Park to Yum! Brands stadium in the coming years, it's probably time to call it a day.

    In the big picture, Churchill Downs and other gaming companies have to run their businesses for their immediate shareholders. End of year bonuses, stock options and everything else rule the day. That's the way the world works and they don't run a charity. But in horse racing, when we lose history, we lose a little bit of who we were, and are. And to me anyway, it just doesn't feel very good.

    Monday, January 26, 2015

    UK Racing Is No Longer Doing What it Does Best

    What do you think of when you hear the words "a UK horse race"? I think of big fields, and being able to bet a horse with a decent shot at 6-1. Maybe you do, too.

    For what seems like forever, the UK racing product's space in the market was win betting - whether at a bookmaker or exchange. When you picked up a book like the excellent Dave Nevison's No Easy Money you read about his replay watching and his "tissues", where he would be focusing on one thing and one thing only: Win betting. No exactas, or scoop sixes, nothing of the sort. 500, 1000, 2000, on the nose please.

    If you study marketing, you learn that being first in a prospects mind is most important. For others, doing what you do best very well, is a way to stand out in a crowded market. For horse racing, slices, not the mass market is most important, simply because of the variety of gambling games offered, especially in Europe. Horse racing will not outcasino a casino. The UK racing fixtures, with win betting and big fields, with low juice, were a big winner for that sport. It was first in any racing prospects mind, had been for generations, and offered gamblers a solid product to bet on.

    Since then, these very things that make UK racing UK racing, are being attacked. And it is not going well.

    The pink line is the UK. On the left, the number of races have grown fairly dramatically, on the right, we can see the quality of these races were poor, where average wagered per race sunk like a stone. Field size - a big draw for bettors - was close to 12 horses per race in 2001. In 2012, it was a shade over nine.

    Fewer racedates does not automatically mean lower handles (don't let the US racing media tell you this; Australia cut dates and increased handle in 2007 and Canadian harness racing is in year two of the same thing. It's used as an excuse in North America) . Conversely, more races does not mean higher handles. The UK proves the latter; handle has been down and continues to be.

    What is bothering the UK is the same thing spoken about regarding the NFL and horse racing in the TDN this weekend. They have lost their way. They are in the process of losing their entire edge with customers.  The UK does not need to diversify into exotics like they have, nor do they have to keep expanding their offerings. They need to remember who they are in the prospects mind.

    In the 1950's Pepsi was getting slaughtered by Coke, earning less than 20% of the entire share. There was not much they could do, so they thought, but they developed a new strategy. This entailed not going after coke but going after a slice of the market - teenagers. This strategy began to work, and using 80's pop icons like Michael Jackson it continued. After one generation (no pun intended) Pepsi closed the gap where coke's market share was only 10% more than Pepsi's.  At that time Pepsi pivoted again, going after the mass market. That backfired.

    It's this writers opinion that if UK horse racing wants to earn back gambler market share, they have to return to what they were best at. They're not going to win trying to sell higher rake exotics. They're not going to win racing more races with shorter fields. They're going to win being the best at what they've always been best at: Win markets, low rake, and big fields.

    Upstart, Relaxed Horses, Dez & the NFL

    Good morning everyone. Here are a few items that caught my eye.

    Upstart was a very handy winner of the Holy Bull on Saturday. This looked like a really nice horse last year, but after his tough Juvy and time off, you just never know how sound and happy they come back. As his trainer said "They need to leave horses at some point, and he kind of did that yesterday". I'm a big fan of this horse but I can't help but think last week's 40-1, which looked like an overlay, this week will be an underlay.

    Upstart got a good trip, moved and separated when asked,  ran a good number (a 107 TFUS number), did so willingly and like a good horse should, and looked sound afterwards. There's simply not much not to like. 

    With some closings on the east coast, GP's handle on Saturday was good. 

    I was very interested to read Don Swick's comments in HRU (page 7, pdf) this weekend. Don, a long time harness trainer, moved to the thoroughbreds as well and now trains both. Harness horses are constant work - rigging, shoeing, equipment - and keeping them sound because they race so frequently teaches one to be a damn good horseman.

    On what's more difficult about training Thoroughbreds: "Reading the condition book"
    On their soundness: "Their ankles can't handle it [hard training]"

    He also has some fantastic comparisons to how thoroughbreds are constantly , "clamped down" rather than relaxed like is so important with harness horses. "Vets and blacksmiths are amazed how that within two or three weeks in my barn they act like normal horses, not Thoroughbreds".

    A trainer training horses to be relaxed, happy and "normal". Sounds like a harness trainer.

    In HRU Friday (page 5, pdf) the judges in other sports versus racing was looked at. Racing's are better.

    Story in the TDN this week looking at how serious the NFL gets regarding anything that weakens the fan link when it comes to integrity. It went on to compare how racing did not stick to its core principle (a gambling game you can win at) and has suffered for it. The NFL, a violent sport, in a society that is hell bent on weather warnings, safety seals, and tearing up monkey bars in playgrounds, continues to buck convention by thriving; $17B TV deals, in a sport that does not have a world stage to fall back on. The NFL has been teathered to the modern American sports fan like no other sport this side of the pond. It took a long time to do that.

    Flipping over to racing, one of my favorite dudes on the twitter (Dougie Sal) often posts racing links from 1912, or 1918, or 21, regarding the gamblers of the day. Tim Mara took $2,500 he probably made from booking the card at Belmont and bought the New York Giants (how is that for irony today), pros were alive and well, earning a living at the track.

    One sport went from very little to everything, and one sport went from everything to very little. It has a lot to do with "KYC" - know your customer.

    The NHC winner pocketed $800,000. Congrats to Mr. O'Neil. A little bird told me Mr. Dinkin will be writing about the NHC in this month's HANA Monthly emagazine. That should be out this week.

    Have a great Monday everyone.

    Thursday, January 22, 2015

    The Judges Do Things Right

    In tonight's Harness Racing Update, there's a column looking at how our judges judge, and how other leagues do things wrong. You can read it here 

    Also in what I thought was a very good edition was Gural not allowing Traceur Hanover to race in the Meadowlands Pace, and news on Maven and her quest for a Prix D'Amerique.