Crisis has a way of focusing the attention. And so it was that in a matter of minutes, during an emergency meeting of the New York State Racing and Wagering board held Wednesday in the wake of NYC OTB’s closure (audio), it became possible for New York horseplayers to sign up instantly for online wagering accounts instead of in person as previously required. The process was streamlined in an attempt to capture shut-out OTB players. “This is a crisis situation and we’re trying to react because people will find their way to a barber shop or the corner bar [to bet], and that helps no one, not the racing industry or the state,” board chairman John Sabini told the Associated Press. (The silver lining to this mess may be that things get a little easier for horseplayers, although it doesn’t sound like that will be so re: streaming video of races. Disappointing. And dumb.)
David Grening reports in DRF that 61 new NYRA Rewards accounts were opened on Wednesday, presumably by OTB customers who made their way to the track. Aqueduct attendance figures were up, compared to Thursday, December 2 (NYRA canceled racing on Wednesday, December 1) and Wednesday, November 24; handle numbers were down, according to figures reported by the Thoroughbred Times. While average total handle decreased “only” 4%, no doubt aided by a lack of racing in California, Florida, and Kentucky on Wednesday to distract simulcast players, intrastate handle was down more than 36% over December 2 and almost 47% over November 24. A number that didn’t show much of a change was on-track handle. Despite a 26% spike in attendance, on-track handle was up a mere 1.65% over December 2. One of those attending, and probably not betting, was Jesus Leonardo, an NYC OTB stooper profiled in the New York Times earlier this year. In a phone interview with the Times on Wednesday, Leonardo said he plans to keep on stooping, at Aqueduct and other tracks in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.
“OTB was horrible, and horribly run, in many many ways. But the OTB parlors were places like no other and I, for one, will miss them,” writes the blogger Fat Al on The Half-Empty Glass. I will too. There’s no getting around that the storefront parlors were often as unpleasant as their critics alleged, but OTB was a distinct New York City subculture and — this probably reveals something about me I’d rather conceal — the dingy little shops with their oddball collection of characters were some of the few places I ever felt at home in the four years I lived in the city. On particularly unhappy days, I’d slip into a parlor downtown, and enjoy the anonymous companionship of others staring intently at programs and talking horses and hoping for that one big win. “I liked to watch people come in,” Bill Barich wrote in his classic horseplayer’s memoir, “Laughing in the Hills”:
They were intent, blind to their surroundings, and they all looked terrific, at least until the first race had gone off. Optimism put a bloom in every cheek. Anything might happen, could happen, probably would happen, that was the notion being entertained at OTB.
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.
Forgive the self-promotion; it’s not every day I can say that you can find me twice on the New York Times web site …
On the City Room blog, I reply to comments left regarding Sunday’s OTB story. Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the exchange, except for one mistake on my part — I realized this morning that commenter El Barto was referring to the amount retained by OTB, not the surcharge on winning bets. Oops! It’s still a fine reply, just to another question.
On the Rail, I write about history and preps, how the races have changed, how tradition may still matter. After I’d already sent this piece off, I read Jay Hovdey’s post on Derby defections, in which he refers to Eskendereya’s “porcelain handling.” I suppose there’s some truth to that, but consider: Last year’s field averaged 6.4 lifetime starts, down a bit from the 7.05 of the 2004 field (the first of the 20-horse Derby era). A light record is just the way of things these days — this year’s likely field averages 6.5 starts — making the 3YO prep season all the more important.
It’s back: I’ve updated the Kentucky Derby historical criteria spreadsheet with this year’s top 25 likely starters, by graded stakes earnings. Post positions and columns 1 and A-C will be updated after the field is drawn. Re: column 15, “key Derby preps” refers to the dozen races that have proven historically to be most significant for serious Kentucky Derby contenders. More on this factor (and how it’s changed, even in the last five years) next week.
On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of visiting two Manhattan OTBs with New York Times reporter Ariel Kaminer for a City Critic piece that will appear on Sunday. It’s her story, so I’ll refrain from saying anything about the day for now, but would like to thank @PreemieD for recommending the W. 72nd Street branch, which was “fancy” and modern, with marble floors and flat screen TVs, and mention that the Times is doing a Q&A on their City Room blog about “OTB, horse racing, betting — from off track or on — and anything else related to the sport of kings.” They’re taking questions and comments through the weekend, answers and replies to follow on Monday.
“Prado is hot,” I overheard a bettor say before the first race at Aqueduct on Wednesday. He knew what he was taking about: Edgar Prado won two that day (one after falling from his mount, who stumbled badly out of the gate, in the sixth) and then five on Thursday. The jockey took the third, the fifth, and swept the final three races on the card; the Prado Pick 3 paid $883.