Category Archives: Opinions

Opinions and editorials

The End of Summer

It’s Labor Day weekend. The effective end of summer is upon us. Kids are back in school.  Night arrives a little earlier each day. Orion is already prominent in the southern sky.

The final races at Saratoga and Del Mar have been run. New York racing heads back to Belmont while out West Santa Anita gets ready for the Breeders Cup. I doubt I’ll make it to the Cup this year, but I’m glad Santa Anita didn’t have it ripped away by the anti-horseracing folks.  I’ve attended a BC at Santa Anita, and if the weather is cooperative it’s a great place to hold a marquee event.

My summer was hectic. I have no idea how many summers I have left, and I had a need to take some trips to see the many of the great friends I had made in racing.  When Lou Gehrig gave his famous going-away speech, despite having one of the meanest diseases on the planet, he said he felt like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.  I think I understand why he said that.

When I got sick I realized how many people cared about me and wanted to see me recover. It’s a shame how blind we can be, until something serious happens. There is no colder slap than the realization that even with amazing medicines, you can only dodge death for so long. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve accomplished. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fair or unfair. We came into a remorseless universe, and there is nothing we can do to stop time. We can only take advantage of the time we are given.

And here’s what I did in the summer of 2019.

I love New York City, and I don’t need much of a reason to go there. In June, I went to my favorite big city. I had John’s Pizza, Junior’s cheesecake washed down with with a chocolate egg-cream, and I topped it all off with a trip to the Belmont.  July took me to the British Isles. It was an opportunity to be together as a family. I’ll remember it always. It was a great reminder that I  really have great, successful,  kids. It was wonderful to enjoy a fresh glass of Guinness. Slainte. I like London almost as much as I like New York. There are spectacular sights in both cities and so much to do it could take months to do it. Same thing with Scotland and Ireland. They are truly beautiful countries. We happened to drive by the Curragh in Ireland and I seriously thought about bagging the Cliffs of Moher for Irish racing.

I thought about it, and I realized as interesting and beautiful as some foreign places are, we don’t really have to travel overseas to see great mountains and mighty rivers. What a great stroke of luck it was to be born in America.

After trekking through the best of the British Isles, I spent a week in Saratoga. From the time I was young, the closer I get to the track the faster I want to get there. I could not only see the grandstand, I could smell all the wonderful racetrack smells. I never feel so comfortable and happy as I am at the Spa. It is the womb that produced a lifetime love. It will always be the epitome of racing for me. In a life full of luck, I was most lucky to have Saratoga in my backyard.

I capped off the summer at Del Mar. Here’s my advice. Be careful if you go to that part of California. The scenic beauty, the slapping of the ocean waves, the whole lifestyle might just keep you there for a lot longer than you might expect.

I’m very happy I won a NHC qualifying contest and made it into the big show. It was a great validation of my handicapping/betting ability. Nothing has had the kind of impact on my play that contests have. I can’t stress loudly enough that a contest is a post graduate course in handicapping and betting. This year, at Saratoga there were 38 races I could have bet. I wound up betting 10 and hitting 2. I bet $30 win and a $30 exacta only. No place or show. No trifectas.  That may not sound like an exciting way to play, but the two races I hit had an $18 winner and a $46 winner. The exactas were exceptional as you might expect. Instead of betting $60 trying to hit a big trifecta, why not invest it in the simplest bets you can make?

Same thing happened at Del Mar. I watched a few and then popped a 33-1 shot. I haven’t given up on 5/2 horses, but if I use one it will be under a longer price. No more exactas with A over B, C, D, and E, and reverse..

This version of the contest betting is difficult because who doesn’t want to make some action bets. All I can tell you is that I learned how to pass a race. Go get an ice cream cone. Listen to the band playing. Go to the paddock and look at the horses. You can’t play a race to kill time, and you can’t get mad if a horse you wondered about wins. Play solid. Don’t let failure shake you up.  Stick with it and find your groove.

I got off on a tangent here. My main point is pretty simple. I may not have a lot of time, so I’m going to fill up my life as much as I can with family and friends. I also hope I can bet  horses until my final day.

I do feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I was given so many gifts and abilities. I hope I can continue to share them.

It’s Our Fault Too

A few years ago they banned dog racing in Iowa. I said we’re next. We’ve become inured to the thing that will decimate the number of racetracks – the continued loss of horses due to catastrophic injury. Beyond that, there just aren’t that many inveterate horse players left and we’re not likely to be replaced by younger generations. Oh, they’ll get gussied up and go to a Derby Party, but overall they would only lose one day of getting blackout drunk while yelling, who won?

We’re tired of the criticism of the sport we love.  But how many of us are willing to fight for that sport? We’re left out of decisions, but how hard have we tried to impose out interests on management? Instead of asking us what we think would improve the sport, track management is paying homage to a group of kooks who like animals better than people.

Do we really believe PETA cares about the billions of dollars bet on horse races? Do they care how many jockeys, trainers, grooms, breeders will be out of work? Do we believe PETA will control horse racing’s agenda?

How did we get here? We allowed too many people who don’t know much about how the sport works, except they think it kills horses. Aqueduct went through this during the winter meet a few years ago. They stopped racing, fixed the problems, and everyone was happy.

You can’t ask owners and trainers to do expensive pre-testing on every horse in every to make sure there isn’t a ligament stretched or a bone with slight chip. It would only accomplish making veterinarians and radiologists wealthy.

If you look at football, it leaves players crippled after their careers. There is a guy who played safety for Denver that comes to the golf course supported by two crutches. That’s his life from now on. Almost all players suffer some level of CTE later in life. Even Troy Aikman admits he’s out of it sometimes. It’s just that football players don’t die on the field. And obviously they make their own decision to play juiced on toradol or some other painkiller. I’ve both separated and dislocated my shoulder. There is no way I could have possibly continued after those injuries. But there are players who separate a shoulder, take a shot of some pain numbing drug, and go right back out. In baseball, the news might be that a player hurt his wrist but is using cortisone to play. No big deal at all. If you think it doesn’t happen in all sports, you had to have been living in a cave. But as humans we can make our own decisions while horses are dependent on their trainers to decide how to keep them healthy, so we don’t think about banning the collision sports.

People who play the races all the time don’t trust the trainers, or the jockeys. The criticism is steady about both. In the movie, Once Upon a Time in the West, Henry Fonda decides to eliminate one of his very overweight confederates. The large man wears pants with both a belt and suspenders. Before the killing shot, Fonda says, how can I trust a man who doesn’t trust his own pants. How can we bet when trainers are sending lame horses out or giving them some mysterious drug or both?

I think most of us know this. If there wasn’t betting we wouldn’t waste 10 minutes of our important lives watching horses run around. Too many people are loyal to the money they dream of making. Now we’re really being asked to support the industry we criticize. We’re being asked to say despite the problems we have faith that we will solve all the problems. There is no dream without all the people who make the horses go.

If we, and by we I mean anybody who bets horse, don’t make some noise, we’ll lose the sport one track at a time. We don’t have the time or we figure it will all blow over. I mean, they couldn’t close Santa Anita, could they? What have we done to prevent it, to demonstrate how valuable it is to the economy and how much some of us love the sport?

If horse racing ends, maybe I’ll bet Hong Kong or England or Japan. Or maybe I’ll just ride off into the sunset.

On the Edge Looking Down

I was reading something the other day that pointed out 8 million horses were killed in World War I. While it was a tremendous  tragedy (as were the human deaths), it stands as a great example of the importance and versatility of the horse.

They are brave in war, giving their lives in a conflict they couldn’t possibly understand.  They plowed fields so crops could be planted and people could eat. They run like the wind, not just for us, but because that is what gives them joy in life. In return, we have the responsibility of caring for them, keeping them healthy and happy. No one should ever be allowed to own a horse without making a vow to treat them as you would treat your children. and when they break that vow they should suffer an appropriate penalty.

The deaths of horses in the winter/spring meet at Santa Anita has become a story that some want to use to shut the doors on North American tracks. I have no problem agreeing that too many horses were put down in a short period of time. I don’t know for sure why it happened at the SA meet, but a few of the usual suspects were floated – drugs, previous injury, a lack of effective leadership from the track owners and managers – you know the ones. The track was even devoid of horses for a couple of weeks while the experts went over it with a fine toothed comb.

I was so lucky that the first track I ever saw from the inside was Saratoga. I felt totally at home. When the horses left for the first race I had managed to wiggle my way onto the fence, and when they come down the stretch it was like an impending tornado, hoofs pounding and dirt clods flying.  It was a ballet on four legs, and when I could get away, Saratoga was where I wanted to be. I love watching horses run.

I refuse to concede that horseracing should shutter its gates. I know some of the best times in my life have been watching horses run as they were born to do. It’s social, it fulfills dreams and just as easily crushes them. I will never give up going to the track, but despite my sincere belief that at the premier tracks in America, almost every trainer does his best to treat his horses well and follow the rules of racing, it is impossible to pacify the the kooks who believe humans shouldn’t own animals, much less race them. When racing truly lets me down,  or doesn’t take care of business the right way, perhaps then I’ll walk away. But for now, I still believe that 95% of the people in the racing business are ready to do what is necessary to prove that the anti-racing groups have no credibility.

Meanwhile we need to get assurance that the stewards, racing commissioners, owners and trainers that they are trying their absolute best to get over the bar horseplayers and the animal rights people have set for for them. And they need to do it now.

My Old Kentucky Home

If you are any kind horseracing fan, you know that the 2019 Kentucky Derby generated more comment than any Derby since…I don’t know. Maybe the Derby when Eight Bells tragically went down past the wire. Maybe Dancer’s Image, the horse who gave the public the opportunity to say phenylbutazone fast three times. Maybe Secretariat winning a Derby in record time.

I’m not going to talk about which horse did what in the Derby last Saturday. We all know the story, we’ve seen the video(s), and we’ve beaten it to death in public fora. It was like that internet thing with the dress that was either blue and black or white and gold or red and pink. One of those color combos was right. If the Churchill stewards had gotten involved, 27 minutes later the dress dispute would have been settled permanently.

Ok. I said I wouldn’t bring up the Derby thing.

Here’s the issue.  Every state picks its own stewards. In Kentucky the Governor gets to pick two of the stewards (that makes them state employees), but the third steward is appointed by the host track. Saturday it was a man named Tyler Picklesimer, racing secretary at Turfway Park.

Somebody suggested the stewards should get training. In Kentucky, state regulations say a steward must have attended one of the two “steward/judge” schools it recognizes: one at the University of Louisville, the other the University of Arizona. Stewards also must pass written and oral exams administered by those schools. I don’t know the details on how difficult the steward classes are or what they cover. You can make up your own mind on whether your favorite steward aced or flunked steward school, but at least Kentucky is trying to project a professional image.

Which reminds me of a bad joke. What do they call the person who finished last in their medical school class?  The answer is Doctor.

Stewards must also pass an eye exam proving they have “corrected twenty-twenty vision and ability to distinguish colors.” I like that requirement. It reminds me of something Ernie “The Big Cat” Ladd, a wrestler in the 60’s – 80’s who unforgettably mentioned his feelings about one of the referees by noting,  “he’s blind in one eye, and he cain’t see out of the other.”

There are a lot of arguments about who should be a steward or a racing commissioner. My experience is that it is hard to become a steward or commissioner without good connections. I don’t care how good you are at race-watching. If your competitor for a job as steward or commissioner worked on the Governor’s election campaign or was a beloved jockey, I have to inform you that your odds of getting appointed just went to 20-1.

There are questions that need to be answered. The biggest question is, how can the stewards be consistent  from state to state or even race to race? My suggestion is to have a national board that reviews the performance of the stewards (and/or commissioners) and then sends a report to the state Governor. Subsequently the Board can have an annual meeting with presentations on the findings for the year. This includes looking at every race where there was an inquiry or objection. Every steward (and potentially commissioner) has to be independently reviewed every three years (that would be around 30 tracks a year. I think that is very much doable.)  I don’t know why any state would resist such a board since the only power they would have is the power to report and recommend. They wouldn’t appoint any officials, and the decision as to which officials are replaced would still remain with the state appointing authorities. But – and this is a big but – the reports would be public.

There are only a few racing fans who are willing to spend their time working toward real change, change that will revitalize the sport. We’ve fallen into a pattern of too many patrons watching poor officials make wrong or inconsistent decisions and then doing nothing more than griping. This is unacceptable, and pushing for change is as much the the horseplayers responsibility as the horsemen. That’s why the National Evaluation Board makes sense. It leaves decisions to the states, but it makes sure the decision makers know whether or not their choices were good.

Regular racegoers worry that not only is racing being relegated to the back of the sports bus, we now have to compete head to head with sports betting. Every track has to be run properly, and Governor or no Governor, the people deciding that the winner of a $3 million race should be dropped behind all but two of the horses better be professionals beyond reproach.

One last thing. PETA would drool like a St. Bernard if they thought they could close tracks. Here’s my message to them. Don’t count us out quite yet.

I’m Back (for now anyway)

Somebody asked me why I stopped posting. My last post was a little over  year ago. Most of the reason was that I contracted an extremely rare type of bone marrow cancer called mastocytosis. Basically, it was like getting hit in the jaw with a Mike Tyson punch.

The disease is insidious. It replaces red blood cells in the bone marrow with mast cells. It produces a march toward death that is sort of like a snowball starting down a hill. At first the snowball is small and of little concern, but eventually it picks up power and smashes anything in its way. Red blood cells disappear and mast cells fill in. Your organs fail. Not a great death by any means.

Everybody has mast cells. They release histamine and other substances during inflammatory and allergic reactions. Hives are a good example of your mast cells going to work.

Healthy people have less than 1% mast cells in their bone marrow. I had 70%. The red blood cells and the oxygen they carry were being demolished by the mast cells. If you’re wondering how this happened, one of my genes, the one that controls mast cells, was corrupted. Instead of keeping me at the same levels as other people, the culprit gene was destroying me from the inside out. It had moved to the blood organs – spleen and liver – and eventually would have caused all my organs to fail.

I realized something was seriously wrong at the end of the 2017 basketball season. I was dragging myself up and down the court hoping nobody noticed. After I finished the season I went to the facility considered the best hospital in the world for respiratory problems – National Jewish Hospital. Trust me. You go inside, you see the ugliness of lung diseases. The oxygen tanks, people shuffling across the carpet with the little strength they could muster, small babies and their anxious parents.

I had ballooned in weight to about 230 pounds (I’m 5’10” tall). A lot of it was retaining excess water. My stomach was pushed out as the spleen and liver grew in size to almost double the normal size. I was an average size person hiding in what looked like a fat man.

I had a baseline physical and then they started testing. I had over 20 different tests. Poking and prodding and holding my breath. They asked me if I wanted to check in to the hospital. That way they could wheel me to another test at a moment’s notice. I’ve got a thing about sleeping in my own bed. I turned down the offer. Turns out they really wanted to keep me because they thought I might kick the bucket.

They moved me around to see a couple of other doctors. The doctor most familiar with auto-immune diseases posited that I might have a mast cell problem and decided to send me to the University of Colorado Cancer Center. Luckily, National Jewish didn’t have anyone on staff that could do a bone marrow biopsy.If I thought the waiting room at National Jewish was depressing, the cancer center had it beat by a city block. They drew blood – every cancer ward draws blood like the society of Nosferatu.

The result was grim. The doctor I was seeing at National Jewish had me come in for an appointment. He pulled no punches. My bone marrow mast cell level was 70% instead of the normal 1%. Without treatment he didn’t expect me to live more than four more months.

As far as the doctor knew, the only treatment available was the same as for leukemia.  A bone marrow transplant and chemo. Even so, the doctor warned me it wouldn’t give me more than two years. Better than nothing, but still too much time to worry.

Believe me. There were a number of times in my life something happened that should have killed me. I won’t list them, but cats were jealous of how many lives I had.

I went home and tried to figure out how I was going to tell everyone I had a terminal illness. Would it be best to be upbeat or dismal, casual or morose? As I thought about it the phone rang. It was a doctor from the University of Colorado. He said that there was one space open in a drug trial for a chemo medication called BLU-285, developed specifically for what I had.

Mast cell leukemia is highly uncommon. Maybe no more than a tenth of a percent of the world’s population had it. Out of that an even smaller number had it anywhere near as bad as I did. The second highest patient only had 20% mast cells compared to my 70%. Turns out most people with the disease don’t get to 70% because they die first.

They University of Colorado hospital retested me (I’ve had seven bone marrow biopsies to this point), confirmed the initial findings, and handed me 50 pages of paper that laid out my commitments to the study drug (like my family wouldn’t sue them if I died).

What the hell. I signed up. In May 2017.  I went to the hospital and took my first dose.

They started on 400 mg of the chemo drug every day. It seemed like I was in and out of the hospital every other day for a month. The chemo drug was powerful. I had daily nausea and threw up a few times. I didn’t want to throw up because if it happened too often I’d have to drop out of the study.

Sometimes the nausea was embarrassing. I went out to breakfast once. I ordered pancakes. The waitress put the plate in front of me, and I immediately bolted for the door and puked in the parking lot. Somebody came out and asked me if I was ok. I nodded and when my stomach settled I went back in and ate one pancake. I was happy about getting the pancake down, mainly because I had no appetite and a lot of food I loved to eat made me want to throw up. In five months I lost 40 pounds.

In October I went to New York. I love New York. I go a few times a year. I walked around and looked at many of my favorite places. I sat on a bench at Bryant Park and watched people play bocce ball. It was like I was a kid watching the adults throw bocce balls and argue. I finally decided the cure was far worse than the disease.

I got back to my room and picked up the phone to call my doctor and let him know I couldn’t tolerate 400 mg every morning. In addition to the physical effects, it was also affecting my mental acuity. It was like having Alzheimers. Imagine your brain was filled with filling cabinets, and when someone asked you a question you’d go to the right cabinet and pull out the answer. With me all the cabinets were locked and I couldn’t get into them. It certainly affected my ability to handicap. I couldn’t concentrate on a horse much less a race. I’d ask what day it was. Whether or not I ate lunch. Often I couldn’t sleep. Needless to say I couldn’t write either.

The doctor listened to all that I had on my mind and said, “Your last bone marrow test and MRI came in. Your mast cell count is back to normal and your liver and spleen have shrunk back to their normal size.” He allowed me to drop my dose to 200 mg a day and convinced the insurance company to pay for a daily anti-nausea drug.

I made up my mind that I was going to live a normal life. It was hard. I had done very little exercise, and I had spent a lot of time indoors mostly in bed or on the couch. One of the other horrible side effects of the drug is that I can’t go in the sun for 10 minutes without turning red. I would even get a sunburn driving the car on a sunny day. So in 2018 I wore long sleeves, gloves on my hands and a wide brim straw hat and went golfing. My arms and legs were like jello. It was going to take a long time to get into shape and I still have a way to go.

All the hair on my body turned white, at least the hair that didn’t fall out. I can still grow facial hair (but I’m clean shaven now) and enough of the hair on my head stayed so that I don’t have to wear a bandana.

I’m now considered to be in remission, but I still have to take chemo daily. 200 mg. I asked when I could get off the drug. The answer was one I didn’t want to hear. It seems the drug didn’t kill the corrupt gene. In simple terms, it keeps the gene from doing whatever it does to take you on a journey toward death. As long as I take the drug I’m protected. If I stop I only have a short time to live. Easy choice, but I try not to spend too much time thinking about living under the BLU regime or dying without it. I learned a lot about myself. It isn’t death that scares me. It’s dying leading up to death that does.

How did I get the disease? The doctors assured me it is not something that was programmed from birth. I was most likely exposed to something environmental that corrupted the gene. The doctors assured me my kids didn’t have a genetic predisposition to the same cancer I have.

I thought a lot of things we were all exposed to 50 years ago. Bad water, bad air, asbestos – who knows how I was targeted. But as I said, I’ve had plenty of experience dodging death. Maybe sometime I’ll write about all my escapes.

I’ve adjusted the best I can. I golf, I ride horses, I do my volunteer work with autistic kids, I walk the dog to give me an incentive to rebuild my muscles, I ice skate indoors, although I don’t play hockey. I ride my bike and I’m lifting light weight. I also do other things I’m too discreet to mention.

How long will I live?  Who knows. Still, given my test results I have reason for optimism.

One last thing. If not for Twitter and Pace Advantage I might have gone nuts. It was great that I could talk to people from my living room. I also realized how great my friends were. It all helped me to get through the worst of it.

I have two more blogs I want to write but not today. I’m not done spreading my opinions yet.

The Murray Rojas Decision

By now everyone should have read about the case of Pennsylvania Trainer Murray Rojas who was convicted of 14 counts of “misbranding” animal drugs in violation of federal law but found not guilty of seven counts of wire fraud. The outcome was certainly a mixed bag. Prosecutors didn’t get a conviction on the most serious charges, and Rojas still faces punishment for the misbranding convictions.

But this article is not about whether Rojas did it or deserved it or was singled out in some way.  Frankly, given all the testimony, something stunk over at the Rojas barn and she perhaps could have done a lot worse than a conviction for misbranding. Let me be clear – this is not about defending Rojas or anything she did that got her in the mess in the first place.

Rather, I want to talk about two things: a federal overreach in terms of the prosecution of wire fraud, and some shots at the HBPA that were taken by the well known racing writer, Ray Paulick. Let’s start with the wire fraud.

According to the website, wire fraud is “the crime of using an interstate wire, television or radio communications, or the Internet, in order to defraud someone.” In the case of Rojas, purse money in the races Rojas’ horses contested was paid by interstate (and it has to be interstate to trigger federal jurisdiction) electronic transfer of funds, and this was enough to trigger the federal charge. But make no mistake – if the feds wanted jurisdiction, they had to come up with a violation of a federal crime, and overages in race horses of veterinary medications haven’t made it into the United States Code. So they had to get creative and decided on wire fraud.

When the first mail fraud act was passed in the late nineteenth century, there was a proliferation of get-rich-quick schemes and shady land deals, usually promoted by city slickers, to separate rural rubes from their money. Fleecing someone was a crime, but the federal government cleverly made fleecing someone through the mail a whole other crime. The obvious extension of the mail fraud law was to make wire fraud equally illegal. This originally covered the telegraph and the telephone but eventually everything where communication is through the hard lines or air (it’s no longer just wire fraud), including the internet. These federal laws are pretty handy when authorities are targeting substantial crimes like racketeering and money laundering, but certainly more of a stretch for something like paying the winner’s share of a purse with a check from an out of state bank, especially when the “fraud” was ostensibly gaining an advantage by illegally dosing medications. I suppose you can argue somebody got defrauded – perhaps the connections of the second place finisher and the people who bet on that horse to win – even if it was only indirectly. Of course, it would seem that by the letter of the federal law, if Rojas had committed the same offense at Parx, she wouldn’t have been charged with wire fraud because the bank used to pay the purses at Parx is in Pennsylvania.

That begs the question, if an act at one track can be considered federal wire fraud, and the exact same act at another track wouldn’t be considered federal wire fraud, were the feds overreaching when they charged Rojas with wire fraud? And it further makes one wonder whether the federal fraud statute was appropriate as the primary law enforcement tool for dealing with therapeutic medication overages at racetracks primarily governed by the state they are in. Like a lot of laws, often the breadth of how the law should apply becomes a function of the creativity of the prosecutor. Even so, do we really believe the Congress of the United States actually anticipated the wire fraud law to apply in cases like Murray Rojas?

After reading an editorial from Ray Paulick in which he speculated on the motivations of the HBPA in this matter, I spoke with Eric Hamelback the CEO of the national HBPA about why the HBPA contributed to Rojas legal defense. Hamelback was very clear that HBPA financial support was not about “enabling,” as  Paulick suggested, the kind of violations of which Rojas was accused. It was because the HBPA was legitimately concerned that if the wire fraud charges stuck based on getting a purse distribution check from an out of state bank, then there was no violation that couldn’t be considered wire fraud, at least at tracks where purse checks were drawn on an out of state account. In a sense, the feds were looking to make new law with regard to violations of drug/medication thresholds. Overage of Ranitidine? Overage of phenylbutazone? Both could be considered wire fraud based on the thinking of the feds with regard to Rojas. Whether or not you like the HBPA position, it seems clear they had a legitimate concern, not “preposterous scaremongering” as Paulick suggested. It takes very little imagination to stretch the decision the feds made on wire fraud to include any violation that results in a purse being fraudulently paid.

Hamelback was direct in saying that the HBPA has always been in favor and supportive of penalizing those within the racing industry who break or abuse racing’s regulatory rules, and while there are some who won’t see any difference between defending Rojas from an overreaching federal government and defending Rojas’ actions to try to gain an edge, the HBPA position was not an attempt to find ways of having trainers like Rojas wiggle out from underneath punishment for the misuse of therapeutic medications.

Even if you believe the states have done a less than sterling job of cleaning up racing, you have to ask yourself if the answer is federal prosecution for wire fraud. There will certainly be an element who agrees with Paulick when he says

“I understand why enablers like Mostoller and Hamelback rejoiced when the jury found Rojas not guilty on seven counts of wire fraud and conspiracy. They are hoping the FBI will turn tail and let horse racing return to policing itself. They must believe the status quo was working just fine before the feds showed up. And maybe it was, for the cheaters and crooks, but not for honest horsemen, and certainly not for the betting public. This is a shameful chapter in the history of the HBPA.”

and they will miss the point just as Paulick did. Even if HBPA was pleased that the decision on wire fraud went their way, to imply there was some sort of sticking-it-to-the-fans rejoicing at HBPA over the decision was ridiculous. The characterization that this was somehow part of an HBPA effort to enable scofflaws to get off the hook is plainly off base. HBPA believed the feds had overreached when they applied the wire fraud statute and it turns out that based on a jury comprised of regular people they were right. The message was not that the FBI should turn tail, but that you charge trainers with the appropriate crime and adjudicate it in the appropriate jurisdiction, and if they are found guilty you give them the appropriate punishment. Paulick made the classic mistake of conflating a stance on a point of law with carte blanche support for the alleged lawbreaker. To use the word shameful is not even close to the HBPA position on Rojas.

Paulick could have done his due diligence and talked with Eric Hamelback (as I did) about the Rojas decision and he would have found out what I did. He also could have stayed to the end of the trial instead of leaving after the prosecution was finished presenting its case, and perhaps that would have given him a complete perspective on why Rojas chose to fight the wire fraud charge. Instead he chose to attribute to HBPA feelings (rejoicing) and motivations (covering for violators) that were off the mark. If the HBPA was satisfied with the verdict, it was because no other trainer will have to worry about a federal felony for any overage of a legal therapeutic medication.

If Paulick and others believe the states have proven themselves incapable of standing up to the horsemen, there are plenty of steps they can take before settling on creative federal prosecution. For one thing they could get people on racing commissions who know what they are doing, spend a lot more time on proactive enforcement of the rules, and don’t have close personal relationships with the people they are supposed to regulate. But you can be assured the Murray Rojas situation could never have proliferated if the stewards and the racing commission had been more vigilant. Pennsylvania is as much to blame for the involvement of the feds as the problem trainers are.

If the feds are the answer, then change the laws to put them in charge, but until then, how about we try to make the current system work the way it is supposed to.


Saving Santa Anita

Things are getting serious in Southern California.

Frank Stronach has sent Tim Ritvo to Santa Anita to save that track from potential demise.  For those who aren’t familiar with Ritvo, he has been the The Stronach Group’s Chief Operating Officer of the Racing Division since June 2012. He’s seen as uniquely qualified because he has been a jockey, trainer, and a racetrack executive, someone who can act as a bridge between the blue collar people who make the track go – the trainers, stable workers, and jockeys – and the corporate guys, people who Ritvo referred to as “guys with MBAs and lawyers who don’t know the first thing about racing.”

I don’t know about you, but it sounds to me like he zeroed in on the first really big problem — guys running the track who might understand the business end of things, but don’t really understand horseracing. From the anecdotal evidence, Santa Anita seems to have found more than its share of track administrators, including the stewards, who can’t seem to help but regularly incur the ire of various stakeholder groups. While Ritvo is kind to the existing management personnel in public, he must have heard the regular criticisms of them, and I’d say it’s time for him to have some frank discussions in private.

But Ritvo expresses the real motivation to get everybody on the same page –  the fact that Stronach owns a half billion dollar property that doesn’t return even 4-5%. Reading between the lines, at some point either Santa Anita becomes economically viable as a racetrack property, or Stronach either sells it (and if someone buys it, I don’t know why anyone would think they could do a better job of running a horseracing facility) or redevelops it. And while Ritvo doesn’t come right out and say it, horseracing in California is in as precarious  a position as it has ever been in. If all the players didn’t see the urgency before, unless Ritvo succeeds in a big way, they may be looking at a new place of employment/recreation in the near future.

To his credit Ritvo expressed an understanding of the importance of the bettors to the success of racing. Ritvo understands that without the bettors, there is no racing, but I’m not sure he understands exactly who his customers are and what they really want. Ritvo suggested that bettors want two main things: lots of options and field size. He went so far as to say field size was more important than   the quality of the racing. That’s an interesting perspective, but one I can understand. A 12-horse state-bred maiden field should be ripe for some major prices.

I’ve expressed my opinion on both those issues. For me, the issue in racing is not that there are too few betting options available to bettors. In fact, there are far too many bets on each event at most tracks. The second race at the NYRA tracks has win, place, show, exacta, quinella, trifecta, superfecta, daily double, pick-3,  and pick-4. It’s also the second leg of the pick-5. That’s 10 different pools in which to place your money. A bettor with some capitalization might get into a few of them, but how well can your $200 a day guy cover combinations in the more complicated verticals and for how many races? And that doesn’t even count the pick-6 that will be coming up two or three races later. Of course the more bettors get into the complicated verticals, the less they will be in the higher churn pools, the less they will win, and the less they will spend their gambling dollar at the track, and I would think that should be a big deal to a track looking to maximize revenues.

I get it. You line up 10 random people at the track and you’ll get 10 different favorite bets, and so the people running the racetrack believe they are obligated to offer as many of those bets as they can on a respective race. Based on horseracing board discussions, there are arguments to be made on both sides, and I’d certainly be willing to defer to any definitive study on whether the Cheesecake Factory sized betting menu is superior to a smorgasbord focused heavier on the higher churn bets. But I still think you can have the complicated verticals, just fewer of them.

The other issue is the size of the minimum bets. It’s blasphemy to say so, but I don’t favor 10 cent minimums on superfectas or 50 cent minimums on trifectas or the pick-3/4/5. There is no self interest. I simply believe the higher minimums will push people into the higher churn pools where they have a better chance of success and a better chance of staying in the game. I’ve heard the argument on the flip side – if they didn’t have the low minimums the modestly capitalized bettors wouldn’t be able to get into those pools, but raising the minimums is a bit like castor oil used to be for kids – it’s for their own good.

I’m reminded of the Andrew Beyer book, My $50,000 Year at the Races. That’s how much Beyer made essentially betting win and exacta, and that kind of potential would exist 40 years later if those pools were sized as if it was 1977. The horseplayer who is as much gambler as investor is going to struggle having to grind through a month with an expectation to make as much as he dreams he could with one sweet pick-5 win.

I will concede two things. One track deciding to readjust the betting menu while others stay with the really low minimums will likely not work. For something like higher minimums and fewer pools per race to work it really has to be an industry wide effort. Two, I fully understand tracks aren’t going to change as long as they figure they can direct a significant part of the bettor’s bankroll to the higher take bets. Of course in California, they raised the take on exactas to the point where you are probably just as well betting the complex verticals. If Ritvo has any sense about how take affects handle, he’ll quickly petition to drop the exacta take to no more than 18%.

Field size is a trickier issue. It’s clear that too many five or six horse fields is a huge turn-off to bettors. But do we really want more 14 horse fields, especially if six of those horses are outless? Think about the Kentucky Derby. For the last three years I’ve been able to eliminate 8-10 horses, and I’ve only had one of my eliminations finish in the top three. Too many horses may be as bad as too few, especially if we’re talking about lower price maiden races with a lot of inexperienced runners. If you have a 14 horse race and you can toss seven runners, what advantage do you have? Then weigh that against the disadvantages.

I think the ideal number of starters is between 10 and 12. This provides plenty of combinations, doesn’t put too much pressure on the universe of horses in a respective price range to race often, and it limits the potential your horse will lose as a result of bad racing luck or post position.

Ritvo mentioned the potential for Santa Anita to go to a three day a week schedule. I believe what he is really saying is that we need contraction in the sport. Although Ritvo has said that the issue is not a horse shortage but an owner shortage, his solutions to the problem are at the moment somewhat up in the air. The only thing he’s really offered is that more people should become owners because it is a great game, but as the old saying goes, the way to make a small fortune in racing is to start with a large fortune. Until it becomes more affordable (your horse would have to earn $4-5,000 a month to keep your head above water at Santa Anita), or there are significant tax advantages, it’s not going to be easy to attract new owners.

I’ve opined that racing is a three-legged stool consisting of the owners, the trainers and the bettors. Take any leg away, or make any leg longer or shorter than the others, the stool collapses.

We all appreciate Ritvo calling out the bettors as being the base of the racing pyramid, but the reality is that for years they have been at the bottom of the Santa Anita hierarchy, with the owners and trainers ahead of them. When Ritvo was asked about changes, he said, “I’m going to be the guy that goes to the TOC (owners), the trainers’ association, the breeders.” Did you notice any group missing, as usual?

If Ritvo is serious, the bettors will have the same seat at the table as the owners and the horsemen. To this point the bettors have not been well organized. There is no real equivalent of the HBPA or the Thoroughbred Owners of California for horseplayers, although perhaps HANA comes closest. The problem with horseplayers is that they’ve never had to adopt a groupthink sort of philosophy.  It will be very tricky for Ritvo to figure out how to embrace the bettors as he goes through the process of revitalizing the track, and he does so at the risk of causing the trainers and owners to become agitated if pleasing the bettors means the owners and trainers get any less money.

Ritvo has made his opinion on the importance of the bettors and the importance of a reasonable take very public. At this point, if he breaks faith with the bettors and doesn’t metaphorically put his money where his mouth is, he may wind up losing the whole thing.

One last point. For a while now, improvements to the barn area at SA have been the subject of discussion. Ritvo said, “It takes a huge amount of investment to maintain it and to upgrade it, and there is [no return on investment]. It’s a long term play.”

In another case of reading between the lines, what Ritvo is saying is, don’t expect us to invest in the backside until we know we’re going to be around for many more years. But, the most important thing is that nobody better give the slightest consideration to having the bettors pay for this. If anything, money to redo the stable area should come out of purses, which if Ritvo makes the right moves should be able to stay at least at current levels  In other words, since Santa Anita gets a percentage of handle to fund purses, if Ritvo can increase handle, he can have his stable redevelopment fund out of the increased revenue, while trainers and owners won’t have to accept lower purses.

Ritvo is certainly talking the talk. Let’s see given all the barriers he’ll have to break through whether or not he’ll be able to walk the walk.

The Continuing Saga of Turf Paradise

Well, Turf Paradise didn’t take to Twitter to complain about the story in the Arizona Republic. They turned to America’s daily paper, USA today.

The bottom line from Turf Paradise’s perspective: Tribal casinos and Arizona’s unfair gambling policies are to blame for any problems Arizona racing has.

To be fair, Turf Paradise has a point. There are 23 casinos in the state of Arizona, and four significant casinos within 28 miles of the racetrack, including Fort McDowell, Talking Stick (Casino Arizona), Wild Horse Pass and the one Turf Paradise has pointed to as a major impediment, The Desert Diamond  Casino, owned by the Tohono O’odham Nation, 11 miles from the track.

Let’s go through some of the history of that casino. In 2002, state voters approved a compact between Arizona and Indian tribes limiting the number of casinos and gaming devices in the state. The agreement essentially gave Native American tribes exclusive rights to the Arizona gambling industry. Among the more  significant requirements:

  • A maximum of 18,158 slot machines in the State, including transfer agreements. Currently, there are about 15,390 slot machines.
  • A maximum of 1,301 slot machines in any one casino. Slot machine wager limit of $29 for most tribes.
  • A maximum of 3,318 blackjack and poker tables in the State.
  • A combined maximum of 119 blackjack and poker tables in any one casino and bet limits for poker and blackjack.
  • A maximum of 43 casinos in the State. That includes a combined maximum of 29 casinos for gaming tribes that had casinos at the time the Compact took effect in 2003. It also includes a combined maximum of 14 casinos for non-gaming tribes that didn’t have casinos in 2003. If a tribe leases its slot machine rights to another tribe, which many have done, then the number of casinos the first tribe can operate is reduced.

In 2009, Tohono O’odham announced its plans to build a casino and resort on unincorporated county land they bought at 95th and Northern Avenues, a parcel surrounded by the City of Glendale . This caused some consternation in the City of Glendale, especially since the tribe didn’t have a reservation anywhere near Glendale.

Of course, there was some fine print in federal law. When the federal government built the Painted Rock Dam on the Gila River to protect non-Indian farmers, the dam caused flooding in the Tohono O’odham’s Gila River community, rendering 9,880 acres of unusable. A federal law in 1986 allowed the tribe to purchase replacement land in unincorporated areas and apply to have it designated as a reservation.

The Tohono O’odham tribe decided 135 of those acres should be at 95th and Northern Avenues. Who could have figured the federal law to make reservations whole would result in an enclave within a city becoming a Native American reservation?

By July 2010, the  Department of the Interior agreed to designate the land the Tohono O’odham purchased as reservation territory, based on the 1986 law.  This is where the story gets good.

In November of 2010 the Gila River Indian Community sued the Department of the Interior, saying the department did not consider whether the land was eligible for gaming. Glendale joined the suit, arguing the land should not be taken into trust because it was surrounded by the city. Glendale also tried to quash the casino by lobbying the state to pass legislation that would allow Glendale to annex the Tohono O’odham Nation’s land, making it ineligible for reservation status. In February 2011 Governor Jan Brewer signed the legislation. The Tohono naturally sued.

Two weeks later Arizona, the Gila River and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian communities sued the Tohono O’odham, alleging the tribe’s plans violated the 2002 Arizona Gaming Compact passed by the citizens of the state. They argued the compact implicitly capped the number of metro-Phoenix casinos. Reading the specific elements of the compact, that argument seemed to be a stretch, but it turns out the feds had bitten off more than Arizona wanted to chew. Not unexpectedly, both tribes joining in the lawsuit owned casinos in the Valley.

By July 2011 a federal judge issued rulings in favor of the Tohono O’odham on both lawsuits, the Department of Interior and annexation cases. The state and the tribes that had filed the suit appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Yes, that 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

But the state and the tribes had another card to play. In 2012 they got Rep. Trent Franks  to sponsor a bill to keep the Tohono O’odham from opening a casino on its West Valley land but the bill died in the Senate. Meanwhile, in May 2013 the 9th Circuit asked the Department of Interior to reissue its ruling on the Tohono O’odham’s reservation status, with deeper explanation.

In November 2013 Representative Franks once again got the U.S. House to pass legislation aimed at blocking the tribe’s Glendale casino. This measure banned tribes that take land into their reservations after April 2013 from opening gambling sites, putting a sunset date of 2027 in the bill. That bill also failed to clear the Senate.

Meanwhile, the 9th Circuit agreed to postpone the compact case until the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on a Michigan lawsuit. Michigan had sued the Bay Mills Indian Community for refusing to close a casino the tribe built without asking Interior or the National Indian Gaming Commission. The tribe, however, raised sovereign immunity. If the Supreme Court would have done away with sovereign immunity altogether, that would have impacted the lawsuit between Arizona and the Tohono O’odham, but in May 2014 the Supreme Court upheld tribal sovereign immunity, protecting the tribes from getting sued in most cases. The opponents to the casino suffered another loss in July when the U.S. Department of Interior reaffirmed its decision to make the tribal land at 95th and Northern Avenues part of the Tohono O’odham Reservation, meaning the tribe could build whatever it wanted on the land.

The City of Glendale decided to make a turn, and in a divided vote the Glendale City Council agreed to support the Tohono O’odham casino five years after expressing strong opposition to the project. At the same time the U.S. Senate finally decided to insert themselves into the fight when the Arizona senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, introduced a bill prohibiting new casinos in the metropolitan Phoenix area. The bills didn’t make it out of the session, but with the start of the next session in January 2015 McCain, Flake, Franks and also Paul Gosar reintroduced legislation to ban casinos in metro Phoenix. Really.

The federal maneuvering didn’t deter the Tohono O’odham. They broke ground on the casino in August 2014, inspiring new Governor Doug Ducey, Attorney General Mark Brnovich and Department of Gaming Director Daniel Bergin to let all the parties know a few months later that Arizona would not allow the casino to open because – this is a good one – they alleged the Tohono O’odham Nation committed fraud in negotiating the 2002 gaming compact. There has to be at least a little irony in the state claiming they were hoodwinked by the Indians. The tribe responded by filing a lawsuit asking for an injunction that would allow the casino to open later that year.

In something of a surprise ruling, the U.S. District Court of Arizona denied the tribe’s request for an injunction, ruling that the Tohono O’odham Nation failed to prove it would suffer irreparable harm or financial losses from the state’s attempts to block the casino. Apparently the judge was unfamiliar with the casino business, often known as a license to print money. Hard to imagine their lawyer wasn’t able to sell the idea that millions of dollars were on the table for the tribe.

I know. It’s hard to follow the lawsuits without a program.

By November 2015, the 9th Circuit affirmed the decision that the state law that would have allowed Glendale to annex the tribal property was unconstitutional on the basis that when it comes to tribal issues, federal law trumps state law.

The U.S. House failed to provide quick passage to the legislation sponsored by Franks and Gosar disallowing any new casinos in the Phoenix area, and on December 20, 2015 the Desert Diamond Casino opened with 1,089 slot machines, although without the ability to operate table games.

Negotiations between the state and the Tohono O’odham Nation continued until finally, a week ago the parties reached agreement on what officials described as a massive $300 million expansion project featuring slots, table games, as well as alcohol sale. Interestingly, the other Native tribes running casinos in the state said they wanted more gaming in their facilities. In exchange, they would let Desert Diamond become fully operational. Arizona not only didn’t get what it wanted – no new casino in the Phoenix area – it wound up having to expand gaming on other reservations.

So the long and tedious story of the Glendale casino finally came to an end, the only end anyone could have really expected. I have seen no evidence that Turf Paradise and Jerry Simms were part of the efforts to block the casino, but clearly it will have negative effects on the track.

While Turf Paradise peddles the economic impact of the track ($91 million dollars a year), that only represents .03% of Arizona’s GNP, and frankly will pale in comparison to the economic impact of the casino and the multiple thousands of jobs it will generate. Even given the limited amount tribal casinos contribute to state revenues, they contribute more than Turf Paradise.

Arizona, like many other states that were helpless to stop the proliferation of tribal casinos, has essentially lost any future opportunity to help Turf Paradise out of it’s downward spiral. For the principals of Turf Paradise who wish for reform, the tribal casinos have essentially tightened their hold on casino style gambling. Even if Turf Paradise is spot on in its analysis that the tribal casinos are pushing them off a precipice, they have not done the right things to help themselves to compete for their slice of the gambling dollar. Many horseplayers have ditched betting Turf Paradise because of the excessive take they impose. At the very least, the 20.75% win, place and show takeout makes it incredibly difficult for Turf Paradise to retain new fans long enough to convert them into horseplayers, and like many tracks, they don’t get that raising the take has the inverse effect on revenue.

Turf Paradise played the loyalty card – they’ve been here supporting Arizona for 61 years, aren’t they owed something? One stinking racino in  state that already has 23 casinos and room for 20 more? Turf Paradise tried to get voter approval of slots with Prop 201 and got shot down. Perhaps if voters knew what the future would hold for Turf Paradise they would have made a different decision, but I’m afraid at this point that the proverbial horses have left the barn.

It’s hard to imagine Turf Paradise getting any kind of slots or VLTs now that the state has basically given the tribes carte blanche over any gambling that isn’t horseracing. What the court cases proved is that states are at a severe disadvantage against the the federal laws that govern Indian Gaming. It also proved that gambling in Arizona belongs to the tribes. On May 17, 2017 the sound Turf Paradise heard was a nail slamming into the coffin where horseracing was reposing.

One thing Vince Francia, general manager of Turf Paradise, got right in his response to the Arizona Republic. It could be horse racing’s last straw.

Tumultuous Turf Paradise

Who says the print media is dead? An investigative report by the Arizona Republic, claims Jeremy and Ronald Simms, brothers feuding about the control of Turf Paradise Racetrack in Arizona, could be jeopardizing the future of the state’s horse racing industry by reducing track business and race purses. (The report is here

That’s a good one. Track owners killing racing. Who’d have thought?

I’ve been to Arizona many, many times, and I have family there. I’ve always had some difficulty trying to describe the politics in Arizona. They had a bad run of elected Governors  when Evan Mecham and Fife Symington were indicted, and one of the more underwhelming Governors in their history in Jan Brewer, who ascended to the governorship after Janet Napolitano bolted for the Obama Administration.

I have a funny aside about Governor Jane Dee Hull, the Secretary of State who moved into the Governor’s office after Fife Symington resigned. I was at a state dinner when, unknown to some of us, Governor Hull was called away after the speeches because part of Northern Arizona was on fire. Once the diners were finished, a band took the stage and the bar was open. Someone propped a smiling, life-sized cardboard cutout of the Governor on the side of the stage, looking at the band admiringly. A few songs and a few drinks into the festivities and one of the people with us says, “She hasn’t moved the whole time she’s been on the stage.” He wouldn’t believe it was a cardboard cutout until he got up close to the stage and saw it for himself. Anyway…

In a lot of ways Arizona is still a “good old boy” state (or good old gal if you count Rose Mofford, Jane Dee Hull, and Jan Brewer) and the Racing Commission fits that bill. The racing commissioners are probably more typical than not of the composition of racing commissions.  If you read their posted bios, you have to wonder how many long time race-goers are just as qualified to be a racing commissioner.  You have an estate planning/corporate lawyer who is a “fan” of thoroughbred racing. There is a financial advisor who has owned horses. A greyhound guy (which is not a bad thing if you are a state with greyhound racing). And another fan who owned horses. No medication experts. No veterinarians. But some good friends of Jerry Simms.

According to the Republic, “two commissioners — Tom Lawless and Jay McClintock — acknowledge close personal ties with Jerry. They socialize at Turf Paradise and one another’s homes. They hang out regularly at an off-track betting bar on Camelback Road, near their homes. A third commissioner, Chairman Rory Goreé, employed one of Jerry’s attorneys for personal legal matters.”

This is not so uncommon either. It’s not unusual for the qualifications of the racing commissioners to be thin, and the relationship between the racing commission and the track management to be, well, let’s just say very friendly.

And would people be shocked that Jerry Simms contributed $15-$20K a year to political campaigns, more in big election years?

You can’t make this stuff up. Again according to the Republic,

“Ron Simms points to his sibling’s past role in a California political-corruption sting, and to financial dealings with a former mob-tied casino operator. Ron alleges Jerry misappropriated millions of dollars from Turf Paradise while using Arizona courts, politicians and prosecutors in a “secret backdoor scheme” to cheat him.”

For his part, Jerry Simms managed to get his brother declared an undesirable with regard to track ownership by the racing commission over the findings of an administrative law judge who found Ron to be a decent man and a victim of a smear campaign by “the Jerry Group.”

Inspiring family, eh?

All I can say, is if we’re depending on a couple of racing fans and a greyhound guy to sort all this out, we may be placing unrealistic expectations on them.  But clearly something is wrong. By every statistic the Republic was able to provide, Arizona racing is in big trouble.

As might be expected, Jerry Simms and Vince Fancia, General Manager of Turf Paradise, offered the same explanations we hear from most track officials. Blame goes to an industry-wide slump that has closed many tracks, Indian casinos have siphoned away gambling dollars, and a shortage of thoroughbred horses has forced tracks nationwide to run fewer races.

But Turf Paradise also insists it is thriving with special promotions such as wiener dog races and a Kentucky Derby Party.  General Manager Francia added, “There is no impact between the Simms brothers’ litigation and the vitality of the Arizona horse-race industry and the future of Turf Paradise.”

I believe that is code for, of course a feud over the way the track is managed and by whom will have an effect on racing. It certainly stretches credulity to insist that sort of distraction is irrelevant.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest the weiner dog races are not the answer racing has been searching for.

Turf Paradise is not alone, either as a track in trouble because of the state of racing or as a place where the regulated and the regulators have unnaturally close relationships. We cannot expect the kinds of conditions at Turf Paradise – and plenty of other tracks for that matter – to always lead to decisions that are in the best interests of the horseplayers. In Arizona, there is at least the appearance that what Jerry Simms wants, Jerry Simms gets, and anyone who gets in his way, even his brother, may suffer as a result.

The money Arizona is spending on legal fees will ultimately result in the state wondering if it is worth it just to have horse racing in Arizona. According to the Republic, in just three years, the state has paid $739,248 to private lawyers representing the Department of Gaming in connection with the Simms controversy, according to agency records, with some of that money coming  from racing purses. It won’t take long at those rates for the State to get fed up with the situation, and it is hard to say how they will react when they do.

Arizona, and plenty of other states, need to come to a frank realization that as you turn over the racing commissions to people whose only chance to succeed involves overcoming a long and steep learning curve, especially when racing is in the midst of a crisis as bad as it has ever seen, is a surefire way to ensure the conditions that led to the crisis do not improve. We need racing commissions that are not so intertwined with track ownership that that they are unable to make decisions in the best interest of the other stakeholder groups – racegoers, owners, trainers – instead of reliably putting track ownership ahead of them. We need racing commissions that adequately represent the gamut of stakeholders. We need racing commissioners who come to the job with knowledge in the areas in which they are asked to make decisions.  We need racing commissions that can think outside of the box when that sort of thinking is necessary.

The situation at Turf Paradise may provide us with some comedic relief, but the issues are deadly serious. And if horseplayers and horsemen continue to put up with it, then they deserve nothing more than what they’ve been getting.

10 Ways to Fix Horseracing

One of the great ironies of racing is that the people in charge seem to be the only ones who don’t have the answer to “how to fix horseracing,” at least according to social media. Ask any serious racing fan and you’ll get a “slew” of suggestions on improving the sport. So here goes with my best shot at revitalizing horseracing, in no particular order.

1.Simplify the betting menu and you can drop the take and keep revenues constant or increasing. The question for the racing authorities is simple: how much will adding bets increase handle? If a player brings $200 to the track, will increasing the potential number of pools increase handle or revenue or is he just going to spend his $200 either way? The well known formula for gambling revenue is

Gaming Revenue = Volume x House Advantage

In the case of horse racing volume equals handle and house advantage equals the take. In very simple terms either you have to increase volume or increase the house advantage while keeping volume the same to increase revenue. But, as has been shown in numerous studies, raising the take has the effect of lowering the volume. So the less enlightened jurisdictions raise the take again and lose even more volume.

The ideal for horseplayers is to raise the volume while reducing the house advantage. This gives the good horseplayer a better advantage, while maintaining revenue for the house, a win-win. The problem is it is much harder to do when you have a Cheesecake Factory sized betting menu. Even if a track drops the take on a win bet, they may not realize a net gain in revenue unless people pull out of the other pools, usually pools with a higher take

My hypothesis? Reduce the number of betting pools and if the track does it right, (1) they’ll increase the volume in the remaining pools enough to increase total volume AND (2) increase the churn because people will be experiencing more collections. Increase the volume and you can drop the take and still keep revenue constant. In my opinion the two things have to be done coincidentally.

The fact is that the so-called jackpot bets, like the Pick-6 create little churn. Horseracing is not the lottery, and they are never going to be able to compete with the lottery. How do you compete against walking into a 7-11, saying quick pick and handing a clerk $2 for a chance to win a few hundred million?

If our $200 a day bettor decides to get into the Pick-6, he won’t be able to cover very many of the combinations (assuming there are 8 horses in each race, that’s 262,144 combinations) and he won’t be in a pool where the track picks up the churn. The track will get their percentage of the $200, the guy loses, and starts wondering what he’s doing at the track. Without some sort of addiction, nobody is going to play a game where they are mainly donating their money.

Here is my suggestion for a betting menu:

  • Win betting every race;
  • Exactas on every race, and no quinellas;
  • Combine the place and show pools into a single pool, but pay to the first three spots. This may also cut back on negative pools;
  • The take on win, place/show, and exactas would not exceed 14%;
  • Trifectas only on races with at least eight starters and superfectas only on races with at least nine starters, and the minimum bet is $1. No 50 cent or 10 cent bets. Lowering the minimums not only dilutes the prices, but it encourages people with no business betting into those pools to switch from the pools where they have a better chance of winning;
  • A maximum of five Daily Doubles, three Pick-3’s, one Pick-4, one Pick-5 and one Pick-6 a day, with a minimum bet of $1 on everything but the Pick-6 where the minimum would be at least $2, if not $3. At the very least, you’ll keep the undercapitalized out of the Pick-5 and Pick-6 pools. I used to know a lot of serious Pick-4 players who gave up the bet when it went to a fifty cent minimum. Yes, tracks can get more small bettors into the pool, but if it comes at the expense of the bigger players, the tracks are basically shooting themselves in the foot. The arithmetic is simple. 10,000 bets at 50 cents is less revenue than 6,000 bets at $1. Same for the superfecta. 100,000 bets at 10 cents is less than 11,000 bets at $1. Small tracks, at the least, figured out years ago that dropping the minimums doesn’t increase the volume. And when you hit a big superfecta it can be one of those life-changing collections.
  • Stagger the bets so there are not more than two horizontal exotics on a respective race. So Race 1 might be Daily Double/Pick-5, Race 2 — Pick-3, Race 3 — Daily Double/Pick-4, Race 4 — Pick 3/Pick-6, and so on.  This focuses the exotic money;
  • No take percentage on the combination/exotic bets should exceed 22.5%, and even that sounds like it should be lower.

And that’s it. Enough exotics to keep the professional player happy, but a focus on the bets the lower capitalized players can win. Increase churn, increase volume, lower percentage, and at least revenue neutral.

2.Cut operating costs. This entails at least two things. One, getting rid of, or at least redesigning, cavernous plants that were built when 15,000 people would attend the races on the weekend. It makes no sense to maintain a huge facility that is all but empty except for two days during the season. Two, automating to the maximum extent possible. There is no reason I should have to wait in a line at the track to bet – ever. If I have a tablet, I should be able to connect to the track ADW and bet, and funding/unfunding my account is as simple as walking to a window. There should be plenty of self-service machines for those without a tablet, and they don’t have to be the big clunky sort. It’s 2017 for goodness sake. I’ve been to restaurants where you barely have to interact with the wait staff once you sit down and there is no waiting to order. Someone brings you water, there is a tablet at the table, you order, you slide your credit card, your meal shows up a few minutes later, and the staff does the obligatory checking on you. You can’t tell me you couldn’t do the same thing at the track. Yeah, there are a few old guys and a few neophytes that the track might have to coddle, but if we’re talking about new customers in the millennial age group, they will love the technology.

3.Make the track a destination for more than racing. Realistically, how do you justify a facility that is used by the public only part of the year for five or six hours a day? You’ve got to have additional revenue streams, and I don’t mean a casino or upping the prices for parking, admission and programs. In fact, general parking should be free, the grandstand admission should be $5 and you should get a $3 betting only voucher in return.

I was at the South Pointe Hotel and Casino recently. It’s on Las Vegas Boulevard,  but about seven miles from the wall-to-wall casino part of the strip, so it has to be relatively self-contained. It had 11 restaurants, a big multiplex movie theater, a large bowling alley, a bingo parlor, meeting rooms, a show room – you could stay there for three days and never get outside, which thinking about it is probably the point. Tracks should have a great sports bar, a nightclub, some good shopping – and I don’t mean just the gift shop – for those who might bring someone who isn’t quite as interested in the horses, good restaurants where you would be happy to stay after the races and eat dinner, recreational opportunities for the kids that are out of any area where people are betting – you get the idea. Design a destination that will generate traffic from morning until late at night. And if people show up for lunch or dinner and only bet a few bucks, that’s still more than the track would get if they never showed up in the first place.

In the right location, a conference center would be a good revenue source. The shops and restaurants should have separate outside entrances, and if you spend any money at one, your track admission is free. The track makes money on a lease, people have a reason to go to the track other than horseracing, and you can accommodate people who wouldn’t go to the track unless they could induce family/friends to come along. The track also becomes a year-round destination if it is designed right.

One last thing. We’re all used to paying a premium at a sporting event, but how about making the prices just a smidge above the normal street price.

4.Standardize the medication list and thresholds nationally. If you believe the anecdotal evidence, a lot of people believe chemical substances are rampant in racing. Whether or not that is your opinion, it makes no sense to have 37 different permissible medication lists and thresholds. Get every jurisdiction together, have them agree on the list and the thresholds, and trainers will not be able to complain about not being aware of differing thresholds between jurisdictions. Same threshold in Arizona as in Florida, same in Nebraska as in California. Between the HBPA, ARCI, and the NTRA, there are plenty of opportunities to convene and facilitate the meetings. There is no reason to usurp the authority of the states to enforce the thresholds, if that is at all a concern, but if there is interest standardizing enforcement, that  can also be put on the table.

We have been enforcing medication/drug standards the same way for decades. To expect a different result is absurd. There are two obvious issues. One is that most of the thresholds are less related to performance enhancement than you might think. The nature of most thresholds is to identify a level which a horse should be below after dosing a certain period before the race. In other words, it is the residual after metabolization. The threshold doesn’t necessarily mean a level above which there is performance enhancement. There are certain medications that have no performance enhancing effect beyond their therapeutic value. While it is fine to set the threshold for those medications and call a positive, it makes more sense to treat those violations as a traffic ticket rather than a felony, and the punishment would not involve retroactive disqualification from the finish position and purse. Like traffic tickets, an accumulation of violations within a specified period of time upgrades the punishment. There is no essential difference between the level of violation for a single positive for omeprazole (Prilosec) and clenbuterol (a bronchodilator) in most racing commission rules, yet abuse of the later can be performance enhancing. Would it really be bad for racing to treat therapeutics that have no real performance enhancing impact differently than therapeutics that have the potential for performance enhancement, and to even treat those differently than illegal substances?

Second, the vast majority of enforcement money is spent on catching violations after the fact. The key for racing would be to prevent a horse likely to test positive from ever entering the starting gate. And no, out of competition testing is hardly the answer for legal substances because testing a horse 48 hours out from a race and finding the presence of a legal therapeutic isn’t of much value, and that is what almost all the tests will show. The very few cases of finding something illegal a few days before a race – and that would be pretty much only anabolics or Class 1 substances – could get the harshest penalties, but that may not be sufficient justification for a costly OOC testing program.

The answer is two fold. There needs to be an automated record keeping system that shows exactly which medicines a horse has been given by amount and time. Those records should be available to the track medical director, who would have the power to flag anything suspect. The medical director could order testing if there is time, or recommend to the stewards that the horse be declared. If the trainer is shown to have followed all dosing and withdrawal requirements any subsequent positive moves into the traffic ticket category. If the trainer and vet have altered the records, they both lose their license for some period that makes an impact and the owner is ruled off the track for a similar period. Any honest owner would tell his trainer that real “cheating” will not be tolerated.

Vigilance and investigation before the fact can go a long way to avoiding post-race positives.

Punish any violation that show a real intent to gain a chemical advantage harshly, but don’t make as big a deal over violations that aren’t performance enhancing, or where trainers made every effort to comply.

5.Consistency in evaluating inquiries or objections. This would only apply in cases where there is potential for disqualification. In my opinion, it would be fine for the stewards to call an inquiry or for the jockey to object, but much like major league baseball, there should be a central location that makes the decision to disqualify or not. If MLB can handle 15 games a night, racing could handle simultaneous tracks running. This is as close as we can come to consistency across the country and should quiet most of the critics. Nobody can successfully make the argument that there is a substantial difference between adjudicating a foul in Maryland vs Florida or Illinois. The only thing we know is that the stewards in each jurisdiction can take the same foul and make three different decisions. You want credibility in racing – it starts with consistency and having a reliable system for making the right call.

And for the most part, the stewards still have most of their responsibilities for enforcing the other racing rules. No doubt they will be irritated with the change, but it’s best for the fans and best for racing.

6.Information should be free. That includes basic past performances and whatever other data the tracks want to provide. If you don’t think simulcast racing forms that sell for $7 or $8 on track don’t keep people out of the game, you don’t understand simple economics. I used to joke that between parking, clubhouse admission, racing form, and a Pepsi, I was down $20 at Saratoga before I made a bet. The “nut” is too high, and tracks need to recognize they’ll get a lot more people betting money at the track if they subsidize information. And it can only apply to people who are attending the races in person so that the tracks aren’t subsidizing other venues.

Ever see the supermarket ads where some food item is on sale for half price? We know the supermarket isn’t making money on the product – it’s what they call a loss leader – but the purpose is to get you into the store so you buy things where they are making money.

Sell the premium products – the serious players will still probably use them –  but make it so that if someone shows up at the track (or my attached sports bar) they can get enough free (or really cheap) information to make an informed selection.

7.Increase customer service. Let me ask a question. Do most of you believe your track or ADW treats you as you should be treated based on your action? While many states do not allow for rebates, they certainly allow comps. I actually witnessed an official at Saratoga seek out a valued player and ask him how many of that day’s giveaways he would need. A small thing, but something that made him feel special. Too many tracks make customers feel like the track is doing them a favor by allowing them to bet the races.

Customer service for new players should be easily obtainable as well. Free betting and handicapping seminars should occur throughout the day. There should be somebody available to help people with betting machines. There should be a customer service representative available throughout the racing day. And they shouldn’t have an attitude.

While I’m thinking about it, POST TIME MEANS POST TIME AND TRACKS SHOULD COORDINATE POST TIMES WITH OTHER TRACKS. And if we make the automation changes, there is no reason to have 35 minutes between posts. 20 minutes should work just fine.

The racetrack has enough crusty characters. The people who work there shouldn’t be among them.

8.Start catering to millennials. According to the Motley Fool,

  • Millennials find games like the current slot product uninteresting;
  • Millennial gamblers want to be engaged and empowered, and to exert some control over outcomes;
  • Millennials prefer night clubs to sitting at a gambling table;
  • Millennials are more interested in online gaming, poker and daily fantasy sports (DFS);
  • Millennials want skill-based games;
  • Millennials want experiences;
  • Millennials want to be social;
  • Millennials demand fairness.

The question is, why would they not be a lot more interested in horseracing? It can’t be that picking a fantasy team is orders of magnitude easier than coming up with a winner. You want daily action? No problem. Skill-based. Check that box. Exerting control? You make all the decisions.

So what could horseracing do to compete for millennials?

Most of the suggestions I’ve already made fall into that category, like dropping the take or giving away information for free or having it be an entertainment venue.  Millennials still go to Vegas, but for nightclubs and entertainment. Horseracing could learn something about adapting. Do you have to pay for fantasy sports statistics? Of course not. I’m not sure how to get the take low enough to compete with things like fantasy sports, but the race tracks can have the advantages of being social and providing experiences, something you can’t get if your only option is on line.

Somebody has to figure out what creates “fairness,” because the current regime has done little to convince even ardent supporters that it is a clean sport.

9.Racing, like casinos and fantasy sports, has to disengage from the state. They have to become a for profit business that pays taxes based on profits and not a percentage off the top. That would help them they drop the take enough to make a difference.

The state can continue to regulate racing, as they do other gambling ventures, but you have to allow the business to function as a business. They would negotiate with the jockeys and the horsemen, just like other sports do.

What other business pays tribute off the top before accounting for all the operating expenses? Sounds like the old protection racket, doesn’t it.

10.There has to be contraction in terms of the number of racetracks. All things considered, most jurisdictions would be happy to be OTB’s or ADW’s. There are two reasons why that would be a problem. First, there are enough national ADW’s that most of the betting revenue might never stay within the state. Second, horsemen have strong influence, and they will work hard to fund a breeding industry in the state. Without sufficient revenues from handle (and purses), the breeding industry doesn’t survive. Horsemen have also been very effective in convincing legislatures that the breeding industry contributes a significant amount to the state economy.

I understand that, and believe it is a legitimate concern on the part of horsemen. But it has been the case for years that the pool of horses is shrinking. Small fields are too often the rule. On a nine race day, we should have at least 80 horses or so. Last Sunday at AQU there were 62 entries for the nine races. That’s slightly less than seven horses per race. Under my proposal for a revised betting menu, three races would have been trifecta eligible, and only one race superfecta eligible. That is totally unacceptable.

One obvious way to increase field size is to reduce the number of tracks available for racing. This may also have a tangential positive effect. It could be easier to put healthier horses on the track and allow horses with health issues more time to recover.

Contraction doesn’t simply mean watching the smaller, class C tracks close. That is not the problem. They are either the last stop for the marginal racehorses, or playgrounds for the state breeders. No, contraction means eliminating some of the mid-level venues too.

The ultimate outcome should be two-fold: increasing the handle at the remaining tracks – by a lot I might add – and increasing field size.

Have you ever read The Tragedy of the Commons, a famous essay written by Garrett Hardin in 1968? Say you have a common grazing area for cattle and you have one cow and another grazer has one cow. You realize the grazing area has unused capacity, so you bring in a few more cows. Your competitor sees the same thing and he also adds cows. This goes on until there are so many cows they use up the entire grazing area and instead of having long term grazing land, the grazers will have to move to a different area.

Same thing in racing. Each jurisdiction only functions in its own best interest with little regard for the commons, in this case the industry as a whole. No state has a real incentive to give up racing as long as they are making money and the horsemen are happy. In fact, in some states, in order to run a simulcast operation there have to be a certain minimum number of racing days.

But in order for some states to make money they do things that deteriorate the game, like raising the take. It can be a vicious circle.

How do we create contraction?

  • Revenue sharing. The tracks that keep running have to help keep the tracks that shut down revenue whole so that they can fund breeding programs. If it works out, volume increases at the active tracks and there should be sufficient revenues to share.
  • For those states that have an active track there is no problem running races for state-breds. For the states that don’t have an active track, they can run an abbreviated meet for “state-breds only”  and some of the major stakes in an adjacent state. For example, when Colonial Downs closed, the Virginia Derby became the Commonwealth Derby and was run at Laurel.
  • The formula for getting the simulcast signal to states that gave up racing should be at a favorable rate.
  • States that lose tracks should pass rules that set up an in-state ADW and that require all bets originating in that state to go through that ADW or be placed at OTBs.
  • FOR ILLUSTRATIVE PURPOSES ONLY, here is a hypothetical list of tracks that would remain active. This would not include harness or quarterhorse tracks. Albuquerque, Arlington, Belmont, Canterbury, Churchill Downs, Del Mar, Emerald Downs, Fair Grounds, Golden Gate, Gulfstream, Keeneland, Kentucky Downs, Laurel, Louisiana Downs, Monmouth, Oaklawn, Sam Houston, Santa Anita, Saratoga, Sunland, Tampa Bay Downs, Thistledown, Turf Paradise.  You’ll notice a number of the tracks with attached casinos were left off the list, probably to the joy of the casino owners. 23 tracks nationwide.

There you have it. My proposal to save racing. Not the only ideas and maybe not even the best ideas, but a place to start debate.