JC / Railbird

Handle

Hollywood Beckons

Santa Anita meet’s closed on Sunday and its numbers don’t tell a happy story*. David Milch’s racetrack drama probably won’t either, but the “Luck” preview released by HBO on Monday generates a good kind of excitement:

As a setting for storytelling, you couldn’t ask for anything more,” said Milch.

The horses used in filming “Luck” were some of the first to test the restored dirt track at Santa Anita last December, the same surface on which 19 horses were fatally injured during the meet. With an additional fatality on the training track and six on the turf course, the total number of fatalities came to 26 (as estimated here). Santa Anita is funding a safety study: “We hope that data will be important to us and something that we can apply.” That is to be hoped! It was a real pleasure to watch Santa Anita for three years and rarely worry about seeing a horse go down. After this meet, I can’t say that — and I’m not alone.

How’s this for ugly? Fatality numbers were almost all that was up at Santa Anita. While attendance held steady, handle declined. The track announced a 9% decrease in average daily handle, but the raw CHRIMS data, available through CalRacing, showed a 20.7% decline in gross handle over the previous year, from $589 million (PDF) to $467 million (PDF). Adjusting for eight fewer days, and a decline of 9.7% in the number of races carded, the Blood-Horse found average daily handle was down 11.6%. Pull the Pocket has an interesting theory on why Blood-Horse, which originally reported the 9% decline straight, revisited the handle numbers so thoroughly and quickly.

As long as I’m linking bad news, here’s more: The national HBPA officially opposes the proposed RCI ban on raceday medications. Apparently, a five-year phase-out isn’t long enough. “Blah. Blah. Blah,” says Ray Paulick. Exactly.

*Not a happy story, unless you’re a horseman or owner, in which case, hooray! Total purses were up 5.1% for the Santa Anita meet.

California Complication

Oh, California. In an industry roiling coast to coast, the turmoil out west is something else. Handle is down more than $77 million at Santa Anita. Too few horses cause canceled days. Horseplayers are in revolt. “In my opinion,” bettor Andy Asaro told Art Wilson, “the CHRB leadership has failed California racing.” The matter of who’s leading is about to get more complicated: A new group called the California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association issued a press release last night challenging the standing of the Thoroughbred Owners of California as the official group representing owners’ interests in the state.

The Gaming Trade

Bill Finley on the approaching end of slots-supported racing:

… now things are starting to change. Where will the sport be when the slots money starts to go away? Whatever the answer is, it’s not a good one.

NYRA president Charlie Hayward speaking in support of full-fledged casinos:

“The racing industry will get 16 percent of the racino’s net earnings,” Hayward said. “We can take a little bit of pain in terms of reduced handle.”

In Hayward’s favor, NYRA numbers are strong post-NYC OTB.

Meetings Taken

Santa Anita and Del Mar executives recently met with horseplayers to discuss the January 1 takeout increase and other concerns. Art Wilson reports:

A HANA-backed boycott of California races is believed to be a factor in Santa Anita’s declining handle numbers this meet. HANA president Jeff Platt and the group’s California representative, Roger Way, met with Santa Anita president George Haines and Allen Gutterman, the track’s marketing director, on Sunday at Santa Anita and with Del Mar president Craig Fravel and marketing director Craig Dado on Monday … Aaron Vercruysse, hired recently by the Thoroughbred Owners of California to advise the group on betting matters, attended Sunday’s meeting …

The meetings are evidence that horseplayers, as represented by HANA, have gained the clout to compel conversation about customer issues. And while conversation isn’t action of the sort that’s going to end the players’ boycott, it is a start, one that went over well with Andy Asaro, a California horseplayer who attended both meetings. I talked with Asaro last night and he was positive about the discussions, describing the Santa Anita and Del Mar executives as “very interested” in the bettors’ perspective and open to making adjustments. He was less appreciative of the TOC, represented by Vercruysse. Although Asaro found Vercruysse pleasant and knowledgeable, he felt his presence was perfunctory. “He was there for the TOC to be able to say they talked to us,” said Asaro, suggesting that wasn’t enough. “They need to show goodwill.”

1/31/11 Addendum: HANA president Jeff Platt answers questions about the meetings. Noted: “However, I think there might be at least partial support at this point within track management to rescind the takeout increase. I say that because they reached out to us. They are looking for solutions.”

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