JC / Railbird


Wednesday Notes

NYC OTB closed at midnight last night after the New York state senate failed to pass a bill that would have allowed the company to continue operations. That means no more Channel 71 for racing fans watching at home. Much more seriously, it means more than 800 people out of work, an as-yet-unknown amount of lost wagering dollars, and more than $600 million in added state debt. The situation really couldn’t have been handled any worse. “As bad as OTB was, this was not the time to kill it,” observes Bill Finley. It certainly wasn’t the right way to kill it. But, is this the end? “I’m not ready to write the epitaph quite yet,” writes Alan Mann in his analysis of what happened yesterday. I suspect he’s right. The impact of the shutdown will be felt immediately, giving the state and industry plenty of incentives to revive New York City off-track betting, and maybe even in a form that benefits the game.

Churchill Downs CEO Robert Evans isn’t feeling the gloom. In his keynote address at the UA-RTIP Symposium on Tuesday, Evans found reasons for optimism among horse racing’s challenges, including this stat:

Evans said that racing’s customers still respond to quality, and that if the downsized industry keeps more of the quality product and reduces the poor end that the industry should thrive. To illustrate that point, Evans noted that handle on the top 25 races actually increased 18% in 2009 versus 2003, even as total handle during that period declined 19%.

Interesting. If you think you know the 25 big-event races Evans was referring to, Ed DeRosa has a contest for you. The TDN has Evans’ presentation, which includes his outline for a potential viable business model (PDF).

Dirt racing fans aren’t alone in loathing synthetic surfaces. Turf racing fans also hate synths, and for reasons that are familiar. Alan Aitken writes of the Hong Kong all-weather surface, “a purulent sore on the otherwise peach-like complexion of racing,” on Saturday: “Despite the course running fast, leaders staggered home in very slow sectionals but still held on as if by magic.” Everyone hates it when pace doesn’t play as expected.

The Sheer Magnitude

From Part 2 of the Thoroughbred Times’ interview with Breeders’ Cup consultant William Field:

“I knew that American horse racing had to work in a complex, often out-dated, multi-jurisdictional legal environment. I knew there were a number of different industry bodies, with seemingly overlapping remits. I knew there were many tracks, quite a few of which ran low-quality, sub-scale race days in front of very few fans. But what I didn’t appreciate when I started this was the sheer magnitude of these factors. So, put simply, the sport is even more fragmented than I expected.”

(Part 1 of the interview with Field.)

An observation by Secretary Crickmore, of the Monmouth Park Association, as related by the Thoroughbred Record of April 29, 1893:

There is too little system and method in the conduct of American race tracks.

Links for 2010-03-11

Locked Up

Ray Paulick has posted a piece this morning on the possible expansion of the Jockey Club into the tote business that includes a bit on Equibase and its practice of locking all data up behind a paywall, unlike most major sports. “It’s short-term thinking,” says an executive quoted by Paulick. “If our objective in racing is for the horseplayers to win, we should do everything we can to help him, and increase the churn. That’s where the revenue for our business should come from, not from the statistics the horseplayer needs.” Heck, yes.

On the topic, here’s a bit from a post on June 5, 2008:

The Supreme Court squashed Major League Baseball’s attempt to maintain exclusive control of player statistics, turning down its appeal of an Eighth Circuit Court ruling that allowed fantasy baseball leagues to use the data without paying a licensing fee. “The information used in … fantasy baseball games is all readily available in the public domain,” said the appeals court, “and it would be strange law that a person would not have a First Amendment right to use information that is available to everyone.” Well, this is interesting … and most definitely relevant to the industry. Applied to racing, this ruling could be interpreted to mean that almost all data and statistics in the past performances and results charts are in the public domain (which makes it ridiculous that Equibase buries historical charts behind a paywall), but not presentation of the data or statistics [so no straight re-posting of PDF charts], or analysis derived using proprietary methods (such as speed figures).

CBSSports.com responded to the Supreme Court’s decision by launching a new site that makes available data for baseball, as well as football, basketball, hockey, and auto racing. I’d love to see a similar initiative in racing. As baseball stats wizard Bill James said,

People take information and build knowledge. When you give them new information they will create new knowledge, absolutely and without question.

Free data and historical stats, that’s the way to build the fan base.

“If you look back to 1990 and see what information was available and how it was made available, we’ve accomplished a lot,” Equibase president Hank Zeitlen tells Paulick, and that might be true — but it’s not enough.

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