JC / Railbird

Horseplayers

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).

Stalemate Update

Paul Daley reports on the Suffolk Downs-New England horsemen dispute:

It is Frisoli and the NEHBPA’s contention that shortly, if a contract cannot be ironed out, other HBPA’s around the country — such as Gulfstream Park — will block their signals from being sent to Suffolk out of solidarity to the New England horsemen’s plight. Stay tuned for that one.

Pity the horseplayers, caught between.

Noted and Noticed

Penn National chairman Peter Carlino and CHRB vice chairman David Israel don’t agree on the value of supplementing purses, but they do on racing’s demographic. “There aren’t sufficient numbers of racing customers in the world anymore because they died,” Carlino said today in an investors and analysts conference call. “The average age of our ontrack customer is deceased, and the average age of our satellite customer is decomposed,” Israel told attendees of the UA-RTIP symposium last December. At least Israel went on to talk about reaching out to potential un-dead fans.

HANA president Jeff Platt, a racing customer very much alive, talks to Jack Shinar about the month-long players’ boycott of California. “Right now I believe there are a number of people in track management that are considering going to the CHRB to ask that it rescind the takeout increase,” said Platt, who took part in recent meetings with track executives. “The TOC is being very tight-lipped about this. This was a horsemen’s idea, after all, not a track idea.” No comment on the boycott from the TOC to Shinar. (Are they just considering, or have they already had discussions about rescinding the takeout increase? That’s an interesting question, considering the depressed handle and what must be growing concern re: the purse account.)

The equine California makes his debut in race eight at Gulfstream on Saturday in the first race at Gulfstream on Sunday. Trainer Todd Pletcher scratched the Madcap Escapade colt from a race that included barnmate Cal Nation, a half-brother to graded stakes winner Bluegrass Cat, and re-entered him in a race that came up a little less contentious. John Velazquez is named to ride on Sunday, instead of Ramon Dominguez, who had the mount in Saturday’s race.

2/7/11 Addendum: California finished third in his first start.

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.”

The Disconnect

From Matt Hegarty’s must-read on the state of the racing business:

But continuing to fatten purses is a solution that directly serves horsemen, not bettors. In a macroeconomic sense, it’s hard to argue that the $318 million in subsidies distributed to purses in 2009 made the game better. The U.S. foal crop cratered, the bloodstock market remained in its doldrums, and handle continued to decline at unprecedented rates.

Slots are the subject above, but unleavened takeout increases are similarly flawed. We’re seeing the results of a horsemen-first view in California now.

More SA Numbers

Santa Anita executives went on the offensive over the weekend, releasing figures showing the handle decline isn’t as bad as numbers bandied about in discussing a horseplayers’ boycott suggest. Art Wilson reports:

While cold, hard figures show Santa Anita’s overall handle was down 17 percent through Thursday, track officials contended Saturday their handle was down only 8 percent if you use “comparable days” rather than “calendar days.”

According to Santa Anita director of mutuels Randy Hartzell, it’s “not fair,” for instance, to compare opening weekend last year to the meet’s first two days this year (something I brought up, somewhat in jest, last month). Handle on comparable days totals $97,086,816 for 12 days of racing this year, said Hartzell, down from $105,784,974 last year; that compares to an overall total of $79,085,032 this year, down from $95,191,018 last year.

I asked Wilson the source of the article’s totals, and he replied that the numbers are derived from DRF data, not the CHRIMS data recently referred to by Scott Daruty on the Paulick Report, which gave rise to questions about how the track’s total handle figures are determined. “I am told by more than one person (Santa Anita and the CHRB) that according to CHRIMS daily average handle is only down about 8.2%,” wrote a California bettor seeking an explanation of the differences in an email I received this morning:

If that is true then Equibase and DRF are putting out false handle numbers to the public and have been for years…. How do DRF and Equibase come up with the handle numbers they disseminate? Can someone from Equibase and DRF respond to this please?

Good question. But — and I write this as someone who would also like to know how the figures are derived and their accuracy confirmed — it’s a tangent here. I mean, hey guys, you’re arguing about how much your handle is down. Your handle is down, at the same time that Tampa is booming and Gulfstream is reporting gains. Aqueduct isn’t up, but that’s because NYRA was especially hard hit by NYC OTB’s closure, and they’ve admirably met that challenge so far by treating it as an opportunity to cultivate new customers, take over the OTB TV channel, and get live streaming video on the NYRA Rewards site.

Santa Anita’s handle is down, and track executives are debating by how much? Instead of admitting that customers might have a point — that maybe the product is overpriced, or not all that enticing — and considering how they might respond positively to reverse the slide, they’d rather defend how they’re running the business. The way things are going, that’s right into the ground.

Saturday Notes

Oaklawn Park opens today. Trainer Larry Jones, refreshed by semi-retirement and recovered from aluminum poisoning, is back. So is Lady Giacamo, one of the first winners for her sire Giacomo and one of the first additions to my juvenile watchlist last year. After going 3-for-3 at Lone Star early in the summer, the filly was brought to Del Mar, where she didn’t race, and returned to the work tab at Remington in November. The six-furlong Dixie Belle Stakes will be her first start since winning the TTA Sales Futurity last June.

Square Eddie, returned to training after a year at stud, set a track record of 1:13.11 for 6 1/2 furlongs winning at Santa Anita on Friday. It’s just the latest record set over the new dirt track, prompting Brad Free to wonder, “when horses run as fast as they have been running this winter at Santa Anita, one has to ask again — at what expense?” I very much hope not at the expense of aggravating the physical issues that sent Square Eddie to the shed. “He had a high suspensory strain and I’ll be very interested to see how he looks in the morning — if he’s knocked out or body-sore,” said trainer Doug O’Neill after. “Hopefully we’ll find an empty feed tub and a bright, happy horse.”

The chipmunks are attacking! How could they not, when provoked like this? According to Santa Anita executive Scott Daruty, handle on Santa Anita was up 5% on the first official day of the horseplayers’ boycott, not down more than 15%. Numbers from the CHRIMS database — numbers not publicly available or reported by Equibase, DRF, or the California stewards, and therefore unverifiable — say so. I’m not a member of HANA, and even though I’ve bet less than $20 on Santa Anita since the meet started, I’m not boycotting. (Short fields dominated by speedballs and favorites bore me.) I’m an observer, and my interests lie in having access to accurate numbers and trying to understand what those numbers mean. If the track handle numbers reported on charts and treated as standard by every trade publication (including the one Daruty is speaking through) are inaccurate, then we have a bigger problem than trying to determine whether Thursday’s Santa Anita handle was up or down — the quality of handle data, as well as all reportage based on it, is compromised.

California Jam

Why gadfly horse owner Jerry Jamgotchian is coming back to California:

… Jamgotchian said he feels California is a better place to race now because the “purse structure is higher” and smaller stakes fields increase the chances of his horses acquiring black-type than, for example, at Gulfstream Park.

“There are less horses in California to compete against. The new dirt track at Santa Anita is also an impetus,” he said.

At least someone sees a silver lining in the horse shortage plaguing SoCal. More than 2,400 horses stabled at Santa Anita and Hollywood, and Saturday’s Sham Stakes, the first of the track’s Kentucky Derby preps, only draws five — all maiden winners, but for Clubhouse Ride. What is really going on? Foolish Pleasure would like to know:

Can anyone explain exactly what is the real story behind California’s so-called “horse shortage”? Reading Steve Andersen’s piece in the DRF this morning it struck me once again that all we ever hear out of that state in recent years is excuses why they can’t fill cards.

Field size, reports Blood-Horse in an article on the horseplayers’ boycott of California, “is averaging 7.69 horses per race, down from 7.91 from the same period last year.” That’s with one fewer day of racing a week.

I’m not sure how much longer the higher purses drawing Jamgotchian will be around, if the boycott succeeds. It does seem to be attracting attention. It also may be making a noticeable impact. Thursday was the first official day of the action, and compared to the previous Thursday, handle was down 15.26% (from $5,454,129 to $4,621,858), despite steady attendance, the same number of races, and a difference of five starters. The decline was striking, after a couple weeks in which figures were down, but difficult to interpret.

Five for the Sham, but eight for Sunday’s El Encino Stakes, which features certain 3-year-old filly champion Blind Luck making her first start of the year. She’ll be running against the new dirt’s speed-favoring profile and front-runners Champagne d’Oro (the other G1 winner in the field) and trainer Bob Baffert’s Always a Princess, coming off a fourth in last month’s La Brea Stakes.

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