JC / Railbird


Save Horses! Mug Horseplayers!

Let’s stop this idea in its tracks now:

Violette said there has been discussion about dedicating one-tenth of one percent of New York’s handle to retirement programs, which would need legislative approval. This would generate about $2.2-million per year.

“That way everybody that participates in racing — handicappers, tracks, jockeys, trainers, owners — would be giving something,” he said. “Yes, it means an increase in takeout. But I can’t think of a better reason for a takeout increase than the protection of our race horses.”

Raise takeout? An unfortunate necessity. Mandate that everyone who registers a foal pay $25 toward racehorse retirement? An impossible dream.

I’ve given money to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and other retirement groups in the past; I’ll surely do so in the future, because horses deserve a decent quality of life after the racetrack. But like most horseplayers, I don’t breed horses. I don’t own horses. And until those who do breed and own horses levy a similar burden on themselves to help cover thoroughbred retirement costs through registration, sales, or earnings — all possible sources of funds — then I’m not going to see a takeout increase, for the horses, as anything other than what it is — a politically palatable passing of the buck.

3/25/11 Note: There’s an excellent conversation going on in the comments about takeout and funding racehorse retirement, to which Violette thoughtfully replied this afternoon. “I will go even further; let’s not raise the takeout and take the same .001 from the existing levels,” he writes. “NO INCREASE. A solution must be found, this is for the greater good.”

Later Today

Suffolk Downs and the NEHBPA will resume talks, reports Lynne Snierson:

Frisoli said on Feb. 16 that a conference call among the negotiating teams for both sides has been scheduled for late afternoon on Thursday (Feb. 17)….

“We want to race this year and we want to have a good relationship with them,” said Frisoli. “We have been flexible and they have been rigid. But now they want to talk to us, and that is a good sign.”

Regarding revenue lost to simulcasting signals blocked as part of the dispute, NEHBPA lawyer Frank Frisoli told the Blood-Horse: “Although we believe that Suffolk caused this dispute and should therefore equitably be held accountable for the loss, we are still agreeing to share the loss.” That’s magnanimous.

Elsewhere: A Saturday Afternoon Horse praises the NEHBPA, chastises Suffolk:

Isn’t it the responsibility of the business owner to keep his customers happy? And with that in mind, didn’t management know that the simulcast signal would be pulled if they weren’t serious and sensitive to the horsemen’s interests and concerns? Of course the fans are unhappy, but that’s managements’ problem to resolve.

No, it’s not. We’ve heard several times during this dispute that the track should treat the horsemen as equal partners. If equal applies to revenue, then it applies to taking care of customers. Bettors fund purses — in slots-less Massachusetts, it’s as simple as that — and each time a simulcasting signal is cavalierly cut, or a bet is blocked on an ADW because of a squabble, revenue is lost not only at that moment, but later, because fans leave the game. The more customers alienated, the smaller purses paid — making unhappy horseplayers a problem for the horsemen as much as for the racetrack.

More on Tuttle’s Tuesday letter: “… little to endorse and much to dispute …

New Proposal, Laurel Cut

The New England HBPA’s response to Suffolk Downs’ proposed terms for the 2011 meet was presented to the track this morning and posted to the group’s website this afternoon. You can read the whole thing — it’s a two-page letter (PDF) — the gist of which is that the horsemen will race for the number of days required by state law for an equal split of the simulcasting revenue, “without the guarantee made in previous agreements as to the total amount of purses to be paid during the course of the meet.” No purse guarantees is the concession* — the rest of the proposal is what both sides stumbled over earlier in negotiations, leading to the breakdown in talks. Suffolk confirmed that it received the new proposal, but declined commenting until management reviewed it. My sense is that a breakthrough isn’t in the offing.

Suffolk’s simulcasting menu shrinks again on Friday. The Laurel Park signal will be blocked beginning tomorrow. The action, being taken by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association in solidarity with the NEHBPA (joining the Florida, Ohio, and Oregon horsemens’ groups), brings the number of blocked tracks to six and could be taken as another sign that the impasse isn’t about to end soon. Here’s one Massachusetts bettor mad about the mess.

10:35 PM Addendum: Funny, I didn’t expect confirmation that the situation wasn’t on an upswing to come so swiftly. “[T]he racetrack threatened legal action against the horsemen and demanded they remove their office trailers from the grounds,” reports Lynne Snierson. At issue, apparently, is the NEHBPA’s fact-sheet posted yesterday (and which I delved into a bit below).

*2/11/10 Addendum: Additional info on what the NEHBPA projects for purses:

The proposal requires racing for the minimum number of days required by statute which is presently 100 days of racing. Daily purse distribution would be determined based upon available revenue. Assuming revenue consistent with 2010, the NEHBPA projects a daily purse distribution of about $95,000 per day would result from implementation of its proposal, with the prospect that the daily purse distribution could increase to $100,000 per day based on increases in simulcasting revenue consistent with increases experienced for the month of January 2011.

Assuming that 2011 revenues will remain consistent with 2010 seems risky, considering the downward trend in handle across the industry, as well as at Suffolk Downs, which is down more than a third since 2007.

Negotiations to Resume?

After days of stalemated negotiations, the New England HBPA plans to present Suffolk Downs with a counter-proposal to the track’s January 26 offer. It’s a bid to end an impasse that has led to the blocking of simulcast signals from Florida, New York, Ohio, and Oregon, and threatened the running of a 2011 meet. During a closed meeting on Tuesday, after financial information the NEHBPA had been seeking from Suffolk was provided, the board “authorized submission of the new offer which will be issued to Suffolk Downs no later than tomorrow,” said NEHBPA lawyer Frank Frisoli this morning.

Frisoli declined to discuss the details of the proposal or whether resuming negotiations would result in the blocked signals being made available once more to Massachusetts bettors. “I will not address the terms of the offer until after it has been made,” he said, noting that the horsemen’s group only has control of the New York signal. “The NEHBPA had no involvement whatsoever relative to the Tampa Bay signal,” said Frisoli, “and it is entirely inappropriate to demand action beyond our control as a condition to further negotiations.”

Related: There’s been some confusion about whether Massachusetts statutes only allow ADWs to take wagers from state residents on tracks that simulcast through Suffolk Downs. TVG has closed off betting on the blocked signals to customers, but TwinSpires has not. “We will continue to offer wagering on these tracks to Massachusetts residents because the dispute does not involve us or our contracts,” said a company representative. Sounds like a reason to sign up, if you don’t already have an account!

2/10/11 Addendum: More on the counter-proposal from Lynne Snierson, as well as notice that Suffolk plans to reduce hours and staff due to lost revenue.

Suffolk Scene

Winter weekdays don’t draw crowds to Suffolk Downs. A stalwart gang of regulars mill around the first floor clubhouse. The solitary and serious settle upstairs where the air has the heavy, warm stillness of a reading room and conversations in the terrace dining room seem murmured, words swallowed by the emptiness of the open grandstand.

If the loss of popular simulcasting signals from New York and Florida dented attendance at the track this afternoon, it wasn’t immediately obvious. But there was something missing, a lack of energy, the usual rise and fall of excited chatter as races went off. “Why isn’t there racing from Gulfstream?” asked a frustrated fan, standing in front of TVs that showed Laurel, Freehold, and Monticello, the three tracks then available for betting.

A mutuel clerk leaned against a counter before which no customers were lined up. She said to no one, “Isn’t it going to get busy here?”

After the finish was made official in the third from Laurel, a man standing next to me said, “I had the tri!” He showed the ticket, the 4-5 favorite keyed on top, for a payoff of $51.20. “That’s the first time I played Laurel,” said the man, who told me his name was Danny. I asked him what he usually bet. “I like Aqueduct. I like Tampa. But I can’t play them today, can I?” I asked him what he knew of the dispute between Suffolk Downs and the horsemen. “Listen, I don’t pay any attention to that stuff. It takes two to fight, right?”

I asked the same question to another fellow, who declined to give his name, saying that he had owned horses in partnership at Suffolk and wanted to do so again. “It’s the HBPA, it’s part of negotiating,” he said. I asked if he agreed with the tactic of blocking signals. “No,” he replied angrily. “This leadership was never elected,” he said, referring to the NEHBPA board elections canceled last November. “They don’t speak for most of the owners and trainers.”

While watching a harness race from Monticello, I talked to a man named Bill. “I’m a thoroughbred guy,” he said. “But I’m here for half an hour, and this is what’s on, so I’m betting it.” The horses came in 3-2-4. Bill had lost the race. “I think I’ll go to Rockingham on Saturday,” he said.

The Impasse, Cont.

As the dispute over terms for a 2011 Suffolk Downs meet continued, the union representing the racetrack’s workers warned of possible job losses and the number of bettable tracks available to Massachusetts horseplayers declined by one when the Oregon horsemen blocked the Portland Meadows signal in support of the New England horsemen on Monday. That’s in addition to the loss of New York last month and the Ohio and Florida signals last week.

Unless bettors travel to the simulcasting halls at Plainridge or Raynham, which are not affected by the dispute and retain signal rights, leave the state, or open an offshore account or ADW account with an out-of-state address — options discussed by horseplayers on forums and Facebook — they won’t be able to play Aqueduct, Gulfstream, or Tampa races on track or by ADW beginning today, a shut-out Suffolk called “a slap in the face” to fans.

I asked NEHBPA lawyer Frank Frisoli on Tuesday morning what the horsemen would like horseplayers to know about why the signals have been blocked. He replied that he was unable to provide a response at that time, but would have one by mid- to late-afternoon. No further reply was forthcoming*.

How long before the dispute is resolved and what resolution might look like is uncertain. Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle told Matt Hegarty that there was no progress in negotiations as of Tuesday afternoon. “We’re still waiting on a counterproposal to the proposal we offered on Jan. 26.” The NEHBPA board met in a closed meeting last night.

Suffolk management considers itself “free to discuss parameters of the 2011 season with any individual owners, trainers or organizations” (PDF), and a new organization representing Massachusetts horsemen, the Thoroughbred Horsemen of Massachusetts Association, is reportedly being formed, although those who may be involved in it are reluctant to speak publicly about the group or its positions on purses, days, and revenue splits. The Facebook page for the group that has been viewable on-and-off since late last week is on again, but has no followers or messages other than the original posting, reported here on Sunday. “If this association were to become a reality,” said a horse owner who approved of the group’s apparent stance, “I would pledge my support to them to keep racing at Suffolk Downs a reality.”

The most visible support for a new group came from horsewoman Laurine Barreira on Monday when she wrote on the Suffolk Downs Facebook page, “I am more than glad that people are working on making a mass hbpa! we as horseman need someone representing us that actually cares about the future of racing in massachusetts!” Barreira is the granddaughter of horseman and breeder Lloyd Lockhart, the third generation of her family involved in Massachusetts racing, and a co-owner of Ask Queenie, the exceptional Mass-bred retired last fall with 27 wins and $780,365 in earnings.

The effects of the impasse are being felt among the Suffolk community, scattered to other tracks for the winter, reports Lynne Snierson:

“I can’t believe what a nightmare this is,” said one trainer currently stabled in Florida who requested anonymity. “We need a contract in place and it’s already late in the game if we’re going to be able to ship in and start racing again at the beginning of May. We need to submit stall applications and firm up plans. It won’t be easy to get stalls at other places because all of the other tracks on the East Coast offer higher purses and space there is at a premium. Even if we could get in, we don’t have the horses to compete.”

Or, as a horseman succinctly said to me when I asked for impressions of the situation, “If they can’t get it together, we’re fucked.”

*11:45 AM Update: Frisoli replied this morning, stating that “action to deny permission for transmission of the NYRA signal was taken as authorized by state law only after all other alternatives were exhausted” (the NEHBPA does not have control over the other blocked signals), and provided a fact-sheet produced by the NEHBPA in response to one posted by Suffolk Downs earlier (PDF), which includes additional details about the purse structure in dispute.

“A Slap in the Face”

The Thoroughbred Times reports on weekend developments in the Suffolk Downs-New England horsemen’s dispute, making mention of an open letter placed by the track in the Sunday edition of the Daily Racing Form:

The tone of the letter reflects the bitterness of the dispute, calling the horseman’s decision to block simulcast signals “a spiteful, punitive action toward Suffolk Downs, NYRA and its horsemen, and a slap in the face to the bettors of Massachusetts whose wagering dollars supply the purses.”

It’s a smart move by Suffolk, stepping up as defender of bettors. Much like the TOC with the takeout increase in California, the NEHBPA board has made a crucial mistake in pursuing its agenda by taking Massachusetts horseplayers for granted. When the full impact of the blocked signals from New York and Florida are felt on Wednesday, bettors won’t be interested in parsing the dispute’s fine points — blame will fall where it lands easiest. And to the extent that this story has any legs beyond Massachusetts among racing fans, it’s that yet again, it’s the horseplayers who pay when horsemen and tracks fight.

When Bukowski was horse racing’s customer, the perpetual maltreatment of horseplayers didn’t have much power as a meta-narrative. In an era in which most of the game’s customers are online (and increasingly organized), it does.

2:30 PM Addendum: Another take, from a commenter on the Suffolk Downs Facebook page: “If Suffolk really thinks fans will blame the HBPA on this, that’s crazy. They own the signal(s) and it’s really the only card they have to play.” True, that the signals are the most significant leverage the horsemen have, but the NEHBPA hasn’t sold the story of why such drastic action — and the resulting losses, along with the inconvenience to bettors — is necessary.

2/8/11 Addendum: The full text of the letter published in DRF (PDF).

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