Category Archives: Opinions

Opinions and editorials

Politics, Protests, The Police, and the Worst? Racing Season Ever

I was never going to use my blog to talk about politics or religion. I may break my pledge.

Politicizing Horse Racing

I was brought up in a small town. The current House member for the town is a guy named Paul Tonko. I’ll tell you why Tonko  is connected to horseracing below. He’s a couple of years older than I am but we both graduated from the same high school, the well known Wilbur H. Lynch Senior High (Grades 10-12). And I’m not going off on a “who was Wilbur Lynch jag.”

There’s a web site that lists famous people  born in a respective city. I only remember two from my small town. Kirk Douglas and Paul Tonko. I’m not on the list yet. Like most of us who were young in the sixties and seventies, Kirk Douglas skipped town as soon as he could. He was somewhat forced to return once because the town threw an A-1  celebration for him.  Poor Kirk was stuck with carrying the burden of being the most prominent ex-resident of Shitville, NY, USA. I look at it this way. At least we had one bona fide, famous person, which is one more than most small towns

That is until Paul Tonko was elected to Congress. Being a congressman is apparently considered famous. So he and Kirk Douglas are on the same list. That says all I need to say about the value of those lists.

I felt like it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to write a book that probably resonated with most of the people who lived in that small town on the Mohawk River. I have the article from the local paper pimping my book. I can’t wait to send Paul Tonko a copy of the book. I eventually got to know him a little. I think the funniest thing that happened was when I was talking to him in his office and he asked me if I was related to Sue Halvey (her actual first name would inevitably bring strange looks from people). She worked on Tonko’s campaign and even has a picture to verify that. I confessed she was my mother and that brightened Tonko’s mood. (My father had passed away well before she knocked on doors for Paul.)

Where was I? Oh yeah, Paul Tonko. He was the original sponsor of the legislation (H.R. 1754)  to set up a federal commission to regulate horseracing. The current version is at  https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/1754/text

The bill has roused interest in the House and 225 other Congressmen have joined Tonko as co-sponsors . It’s not a landslide but it’s enough to send the bill to the Senate. I have to wonder if Mitch McConnell wilI accede to the Water, Hay and Oats Alliance if for no other reason than it was sponsored primarily by Democrats in the House. After all, isn’t the job of the Senate leader to crap on every bill pushed by the opposing party? Still I suppose Rep. Tonko  deserves some credit for finally getting the House to consider the bill. After all, he’s introduced it in every session since 2015.

I think the key is that to Federal electees, Federal oversight may sound like a  great idea. I’d also bet that maybe 10% of the group voluntarily goes to the track to bet, or has an ADW. How can you vote on a bill when you know very little about the sport it covers? I’m sure in the 21st century being a winning horseplayer gives a Congressional candidate no advantage come election time. More likely it is seen as nefarious.

If you read the bill you’ll see the myriad of potential problems. For example, the Feds won’t be paying for it, nor will the Feds guarantee the debts of the Committee. I think you might see where I’m going with this. It seems like, unless they get a big fat grant from Stronach or CDI, tracks have to pay to be more regulated than they are now, Maybe commissioners will have to pay to be on the Commission.

I don’t remember seeing anything about rectifying the sloppy way in which residual standards were set. I’ve got stories from people who were there when some of the stultifying discussions took place (not to mention outside pressure to get something in place).

The bill also creates space for six people from the current anti-doping commission. Is that a big deal? Last I looked none of the members were recognizable horse people. Also, there are more than slight differences between humans and horses.

Read this paragraph closely. I am totally in favor of an effective, honest and a fair standard setting and testing system. I am not against that kind of regulation in the least. But some experts believe 19 of the 26 residual drug standards are malodorous. And we have to wait for funding from the tracks or will the philanthropists pay for that? Can you imagine a federal commission not funded be the feds? Can you imagine 30% rake on horizontal or vertical bets?

I ask you to look at the requirements that are duplicative of how things are managed now. But I want to know hat’s the role of the stewards and the State Racing Commissions have? I have absolutely no problem making the current system better, considering its increasingly tatterdemalion state.

Details, my boy. It’s all in the details.

I’ve generally lived by the rule that if PETA is happy with something, the horseracing community should be unhappy.

I’m wondering why bettors, owners and trainers haven’t marched on Washington to keep such an unnecessary  bill from getting a vote. Based on current marches, I suppose it wouldn’t do much good, and God knows nobody is interested in having their neck stepped on. I sent  letters expressing why I thought the bill wasn’t any good.  I offered to testify in front of the Congress (I’ve testified in the House and Senate three times, so I’ve got some experience. All I get back is a “thanks for your interest, blah, blah, blah, blah.”). Nobody seems to be listening to me. But I understand that almost none of the 350 million people who live in this fine country has any idea who I am.

And I have to add that as long as I can remember, a lot of the townsfolk my town (with apologies to Thonton Wilder) have spent a day or two or 28 at the Spa. There is even a race named after the town. Grade III, sprint, three year olds. Pretty good for a place where well over a thousand buildings are condemned and ready to fall down.

I have no idea if Tonko’s bill stands a chance once it hits the Senate, but he better make sure  Mitch McConnell’s friends from the horse breeding and racing state of Kentucky don’t decide they don’t like it. Just my opinion.

Protests

The other day one of my friends asked me what I thought about the marching that is going on  vandalism style. So I told him a story about something that happened in High School. I hope you get how this was like big national marches.

It was in the spring of 1971 that me and two other guys decided we needed to have a student strike. It was happening in colleges across the nation and we had dreams of making news. We drew up a list of our grievances, presented it to the principal and demanded action. The principal was a really cool guy and thought that it was great to see us get involved in the politics of a high school. When we looked at him, the read we got from him  was, you guys crack me up. We took that as unspoken support for the underprivileged students and we passed the word that in two days the strike was on. After second period, we all walked out of school. Lots of yelling, but no vandalism. Peaceful protest only. We were excited but we weren’t idiots. Eventually most of the hyped up crowd  got bored and just went home or wherever they went after school. But as I found out later, the teachers were really steamed. We never thought about that.

In retrospect there was nothing of great import on our list of changes, but strikes were the fashion of the day and we got most of the students out on the lawn.

The cool principal calls me and the two other guys to his office to negotiate. Then, because he was an adult and more experienced than us, he made us an offer to set up student/teacher committees. We thought that was great, but it wasn’t quite a done deal. The principal needed to tell the school board. Meanwhile I walked home.

My father had already heard about what I had done (I’m sure somebody ratted us out because the phone rang off the hook at my house) and was mad as hell at me. Remember Father Knows Best, a TV show from the 50’s? My father was the exact opposite of Robert Young’s portrayal of a dad. It was useless to talk to him. I was wrong, and that was that. Luckily the principal called and asked for me. He wanted the Triumvirate of the strike leaders to come to school to meet with the school board.

So I’m off to the meeting. We get there and the board members start  yelling and screaming and calling us names. We sat there, never really given a chance to present our bill of rights. I went home and told my father what happened. He went personally to each member, at their house and said something like, if you ever yell and belittle my kid again I’ll beat you like a drum. They all thought he could do it. I  knew he could. He was built like a bull. Big, muscled chest and arms. Well that isn’t an exact quote, but you get the idea.  Rule 1: only a parent can call his kid a fucking moron. If anyone else does it, there is hell to pay.

My father still thought I was wrong though. But things had gone too far to back away because my dad was angry. The next day we met with the principal and we agreed to bring all the kids back and let the student and teacher committee work it out. We would meet for two days. I’ll make this short. The teachers slaughtered us. They insisted on Roberts Rules of Order and we figured, sure. Naturally none of us had a clue what that meant.  They’d make a motion – like, kids must be in their seats before the second bell – get a second, and of course we thought it was reasonable so it passed unanimously.

Unfortunately, when we proposed a motion, they all voted against us. 4 to 4, a tie. Motion loses. Even when we caught on to their plan, we couldn’t win. We told the principal, he disbanded the committee and asked us what we wanted. We started to tell him and said pick the most important thing and I’ll give it to you. Then everything goes back to normal. We tried to put up a defense, but he pulled an ace out of his sleeve. You can try to go back on strike and I’ll make sure you don’t get a diploma, or you can accept my offer. Plus, cool principal said he would throw this in: I’ll give you a pass whenever you need one. I suppose we were so discombobulated we capitulated, shook hands with him, and walked outside to greet the anxious crowd. The other two guys looked at me as the class awaited the result. So I yelled, WE WON. The celebrating was on, and when I had a chance I yelled, BACK TO SCHOOl. Teachers still complained, but we won because we got the class one thing and the teachers got nothing. The principal got something from the school board. A pass out of the high school–after the school year ended.

The epilogue was that I was excused from physics class at least three days a week, ostensibly on business for the principal. I showed up for tests though. Physics was the class before lunch, me and one of the other guys grabbed a pass and we went golfing. By the way I aced the final and  nailed an A. The teacher couldn’t understand it. To be absolutely clear, I did not cheat. I read the textbook the day before and I guess it stuck with me.

I hated HS. But it turned out that college and graduate school were the best six years of my life. I’ll save that for another post.

The Police

Everything you see on the news is negative these days, except for heroic rescues of dogs in semi-frozen ponds. I’m not against police doing their job in the least. Let me make it clear. If someone is trying to illegally enter my house, first thing I’m doing is calling 911, and I expect a quick response. But just because the police have been given a power doesn’t mean every situation requires the use of that power. Remember the saying, if all you have is a hammer, all problems look like a nail?

One of the big differences between the modern police force and the cops a hundred years ago  is the availability of military type equipment. Men and women dressed in heavy riot gear and backed up with a tank-like vehicle are intimidating. Of course, they’re supposed to look intimidating. But we are not al Qaeda. Clearly, if they want our respect the need to make it clear that they only brought out the intimidating squad to handle vandals and robbers, not peaceful protestors. Let’s leave Tianamen Square tactics  behind. We are your neighbors, and our kids go to the same schools that yours do.

Maybe the police should hold up their own signs

It wasn’t all bad. On the news I saw police walking with marchers, and I saw some of them on one knee as the parade passed.

Still, it seems like the pot has boiled over for those who believe they have been kicked around for all the years they and their ancestors have been in the USA. Unfortunately, instead of backing away,  most places ordered officers to ramp up their show of force. Victory by intimidation. The fact that some people, who may have been outsiders, took advantage of the marches by breaking windows and looting, may have acted as a trigger for the police to take a step up. They may not have known exactly who did what, but they were sure it was somebody in the mob.

I don’t know how all this will end, but considering how many protests have been conducted since the 17th century, you think somebody would have had that black swan of an idea, In my lifetime,  the rhetoric has been the same over and over. from the Boston Tea Party to the outrageous actions of Sherriff Jim Clark in Selma, Alabama, to the Vietnam protests, to the protests of women and  BLM, Peaceful assembly is guaranteed to all Americans, and interdiction by the state during a peaceful protest is simply wrong. The 90% of police who understand how to keep protestors and police safe should not have to pay for those who only want to make a show of power.

Are the expectations so  high for a quick resolution  that we will always be two steps behind where we should be? After the long period of time we’ve had to work these problems out, I can only think of two things: we don’t know how to solve the problem or we don’t really care about the problems.

The only thing I know, is that the man with all the power in the military-type get up is sometimes overcome with a desire to let people know whom you better not mess with. Maybe it’s arrogance, maybe it’s just a lack of sensibility, or maybe it’s a message they want to send. Still there is the hint of a light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps a hundred years ago, a cop could kill an African-American who was  doing nothing more than driving while black and feel like nothing would happen to him. At least now we have video that leads to an indictment.

What makes people say,  this time we will succeed.

Enough of that.

The Worst? Racing season Ever

I’ve been in a rut for 40 years. I don’t know how much I’ve bet in my life, but I’ve collected enough that I never had to eat out of a dumpster or stare at a foreclosure or beg Sears for another month to pay. I’m one of those people who finds success far more joyful than failure, and the only way to do that is to work hard.

When the COVID-19 virus went pandemic, almost everything closed. For racetrackers that meant no betting at almost every track except Gulfstream  and eventually Fonner Park. Currently a number of tracks are running, all without people in the stands. But they still use the track announcer. “Desperately Slow all out and looking for the wire. Chucklehead Chuck coming like a choo-choo train. They  come to the wire and it’s…too close to call.”

To my amazement I didn’t miss it. I actually had time to do things I had been putting off for a while. The grocery store was open, albeit with a lot of empty shelves. I don’t know why, but right before the cry for isolation and hand washing hit us, I had stocked up big on toilet paper, canned goods, paper towels, and meat at Costco (note: their meats are great, but go somewhere else for fruits and veggies.)

The only problem I had was entertaining myself during the day. My normal  entertainment, the races, had closed, except for a few spots that ran without a crowd. I didn’t bet those tracks regularly and I really wasn’t interested in doing the research necessary to be a successful bettor.

I realized that to be successful betting the races, handicapping is not enough. You need patience. I can remember times when I made a nice hit early and by the time I got to the last race I was putting the remainder of my winnings on the last race. It would have been a lot better if I bet the four or five races I liked.

COVID-19 moved the most overrated – I meant well-attended race in America to September. Months and months of preparation washed away with a virus so small a powerful microscope was necessary to identify it.  No Preakness in May. No Belmont in June. You think two weeks from the Travers to the Derby works?

Horses were in their stalls going nuts because somebody messed up the regular routine.  Doug O’Neill actually shipped a claimer to Fonner Park for a race. It lost.

I’m not blaming anybody in America for spreading this pestilence, and if you tell me the Chinese had nothing to do with it I may laugh myself into a stroke.

All that COVID proved is that we were unprepared for germ warfare, and when it descended upon us it was horrendously managed. Information was sparse. Stay inside or die. Wear a mask. Wash your hands until the dryness starts looking like wadis in the desert. We only had Dr. Fauci to calm our fears.

The gyms were closed. That made sense. The golf courses were closed. Starbucks was open because it preforms an essential service.  You could walk your dog, but if another dog walker came at you from the opposite direction you strained to stay at least six feet away from each other. The supermarkets were open, but the number of people in the market was limited. There was a line and as one person left another was let in. I was lucky because old people were given an hour to shop before the young whippersnappers were let in.

Normally busy boulevards looked like Sunday morning at 6:00 am. Resources should have been rushed to cities where a lot of the population is living in apartment buildings. A playground for the virus.

Then, out here in the Western sticks, the bubble started to leak. 76 degrees and sunny was just to much to resist. The news was jumbled. We have an antivirus to kill COVID. Maybe. I don’t know anybody who had it round these parts. Neighbors began yelling across the street at each other. Great weather. Let’s go for a bike ride. I did and got a road rash on my knee when I fell off. They are right. It’s just like riding a bike has always been. Last week the restaurants opened, but they weren’t allowed more than 50% capacity.

More racetracks are opening without fans. It’s like all the screamers and the program whippers, and the finger snappers and the stookpers were out of work.  Store after store closed. I donated food and money to some of the people that worked at my golf course. If we didn’t have to stay so far away from each other we could have shook hands or embraced.

Just my luck that in December I had a piece of bone break off my spine and lodge in the nerve that runs down my left leg. For eight weeks I endured excruciating pain by eating Dilaudid like it was Pez. They tried steroid shots without success. Finally my back surgeon threatened to severe ties with the hospital. They extracted a large piece of bone from the nerve glued me back together and told me to start walking. Prescription: walk, walk walk.

I have to figure out ways to get my legs back. At the moment I weigh about 45 pounds less than I did in November. Mostly I lost muscle, which is one of the reasons I fell off my bike. If I put weight on my left leg it crumbles. Since my left knee is unsupported be the thigh and calf muscles I have to be careful about how I walk. Long way to go, but I’ll get there COVID free.

What the hell. The sun is shining. It’s a little warm, but after the winter we had it is a very welcome thing. I went to work last Monday. I rode around, said hello to everybody and then went home to eat this great green chile I made. Mild so everybody can eat it. I usually add some heat to mine. Let me know if you want the recipe.

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 legaldictionary.com, 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 http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-investigations/2017/05/14/turf-paradise-feud-jerry-simms-ronald-simms-horse-racing-thoroughbreds/97308762/)

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.