JC / Railbird

NYRA

Old Warrior

When NYRA tweeted a photo of the newly retired Stymie parading at Jamaica in 1949, it immediately called to mind one of the great pieces of turf writing — Joe Palmer’s “Common Folks,” about the popular horse’s final appearance.

Stymie was retired after finishing second in the 2 1/4 mile New York Handicap on October 1; he was found sore in the right front leg, in the same spot where he had previously sustained a sesamoid fracture. “He was just getting good,” lamented trainer Hirsch Jacobs of the 9-year-old. A month later, Jacobs reported Stymie was galloping sound, “but he doesn’t trot the way he should.” The next day, the trainer declared that Stymie’s career was over.

New York Times correspondent James Roach described Stymie’s last trip to the track before the third running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup like so:

It’s about time to make mention of the fact that old Stymie, racing’s money champion, was very much among those present for the third running of the Gold Cup. He’s on the retired list now. In a sentimental gesture that was appreciated by all hands, Hirsch Jacobs had him jog through the stretch before the race and then take part in the paddock preliminaries. It was his last public appearance in New York before he goes to stud in Kentucky.

Stymie, with pink and green ribbons braided in his mane and tale, got a fond farewell from Jamaica’s children. There was much beating of palms when a pony boy, Alton (Mickey) Finney, led him through the stretch and there was additional applause when he was walked back to his barn …

Some think he’s the most popular horse that has run in this theatre of turf operations since Exterminator’s day.

Palmer, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, put it this way:

… the racetrackers, I think, save most of their affection for the Exterminators and the Stymies and the Seabiscuits, who do it the hard way in the handicaps, pounding out mile after bitter mile, giving weight and taking their tracks wet or dry, running for any jockey, and trying with what they’ve got, even when they haven’t got enough. That’s why Stymie fitted a farewell better at Jamaica than a welcome in Kentucky …

This tourist … will long remember the way Stymie came around the turn in the Pimlico Cup Handicap, making pretty good horses look as if they had just remembered a pressing engagement with the quarter pole.

He was not a great horse, in the sense that Man o’ War and Equipoise were great. He isn’t versatile … [b]ut give him a field with speed in it, at a mile and a half or more, and horses had better get out of his way, even Whirlaway.

Anyway, another fine and ardent and satisfactory story of the turf was brought to a close at Jamaica. And it was happy to note, for all the the long campaign, it was not a battered and limping warrior which left us. Stymie never looked better with his bronze coat in great bloom, and the high head carried as proudly as ever.

As he stood for the last time, before the stands, people around the winner’s enclosure were shouting … “Bring him in here, for just for one more time.”

The groom didn’t obey, and probably was right. Stymie never got in a winner’s circle without working for it. It was no time to begin.

(I love those last two paragraphs.)

Stymie retired with a record of 131-35-33-28 and earnings of $918,485.

Last Word (This Year)

NYRA’s Martin Panza on why he’s not having conversations about changing the Triple Crown schedule by moving the Belmont Stakes into July:

“Right now if you look at the Triple Crown, a month or three weeks before the Derby is when the preps end and there’s really not another big 3 year-old race until a month after the Belmont.

“I’m not sure the rest of the tracks in America would be willing to give us a 4-month break with no big 3-year-old races and that’s what you would be asking for. I just don’t see how that could happen.

“It’s a much more complex situation than just those three races …

“And anything I do at Belmont, I’m also very conscious of not wanting to affect Saratoga. I’m trying to complement Saratoga, not hurt Saratoga.”

Dissipated

Dick Powell:

No matter what the reason for California Chrome coming up empty when it counted, I am convinced that had the Belmont been run a week earlier, two weeks after the Preakness instead of three, he would have won since he was full of energy then. I felt the same way with Funny Cide and Smarty Jones who also looked great the week before but came up short on the big day.

Running the Belmont two weeks after the Preakness would definitely not be traditional: One of the most striking things in Natalie Voss’ report on the race schedules of the 11 Triple Crown winners is that the Belmont is consistently three to four weeks after the Preakness. Citation won a race between the two, but his Triple Crown season stretched 42 days. Assault, the only horse to win the Triple Crown in 28 days, had three weeks between the two races.

Related: Matt Hegarty writes about the proposal to increase the time between Triple Crown races to four weeks. “Plainly stated,” he asks, “is it worth it for the racing industry to risk the significance of the one event that the entire sporting world rallies around when there is no evidence that the public is clamoring for change?” Of course not! What makes me hopeful that this scheme will fizzle for another year is that NYRA just set a record, handling more than $150 million on their new mega-Belmont Stakes day.

Commodities

Jay Hovdey on why it’s time to talk about the claiming game:

… there also remains the undeniable fact that claiming races, by their very nature, serve to weaken the inherent responsibilities of both ownership and animal husbandry. The demands of constant turnaround require short-term solutions in veterinary care. The claiming game also nurtures the ability to suppress any real emotional attachments to the horses involved. They are, after all, merely transients — poker chips, as one famous claiming owner called them — no more or less than means to an end.

What’s the future for claiming races?

That’s one of the questions I took away from reading the New York Task Force report, which determined that sharply increased purses “commoditized” lower level claiming horses earlier this year, and suggested reforming claiming rules so that claims may be voided if a horse is vanned off. “The voiding of a claim should not require the death of the horse,” the report’s authors write on page 60. Practical, humane — exactly the sort of rule change that’s necessary if claiming races are going to continue to be a significant part of the game. But while the imbalance in purses and claiming prices at Aqueduct may have led to the resulting claiming frenzy last winter, it didn’t actually commodify the horses, because they were already commodities. Most in racing don’t question the system — the claiming game has been a pretty elegant solution to keeping races competitive over the years — but it’s becoming harder to defend.

New York, New York

Huh:

Gov. Cuomo, in a startling move, has decided to “privatize” the running of the famed Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga thoroughbred tracks with a new management company that will replace the scandal-scarred New York Racing Association, The Post has learned.

I have no idea how this will play out, can make no predictions on how New York racing will be changed in the coming years, but do wish I could shake the unease and cynicism that comes with everything I read of Cuomo’s plans.

Five days until Super Saturday. Try to enjoy. (Maybe a little Kelso will help?)

9/25/12 Addendum: Tom Noonan gives three reasons why privatization isn’t such a hot idea. Cuomo walks back the report, according to the New York Times, saying privatization is just one option that might be considered.

9/27/12 All you need to read on the subject: “I don’t see this happening.”

Odds and Ends

In June 2011, Courier-Journal reporter Gregory Hall live tweeted the John Veitch-Life at Ten hearing. It was superb coverage. “My 140-word tweets give fuller picture of the Veitch hearing than my newspaper story tomorrow will,” he wrote then, a realization that helped lead to yesterday’s launch of Hall’s new blog, HorseBiz, which promises “inside baseball” for racing folk. I’ve already added it to my RSS reader. You should too.

Few use 140 characters as effectively as @o_crunk, who tweeted about Trakus:

Trakus could be so much more — efficient data distribution, an open API for developers, etc and this is what they come up with?

Trakus could be the group that leads industry out of the .pdf past performance dark ages. But here’s jockey efficiency ratings, have fun!

Trakus could be. Why isn’t it?

Also seeking answers re: New York racing …

Liz O’Connell pursues information on the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety and its delayed report on Aqueduct breakdowns (via):

On May 30, 2012, I made a freedom of information request to Racing and Wagering that was partially answered after the maximum number of delays allowed by law; then the information was mailed to the wrong address.

Frustrating. And the information she does get is illuminating only in what it reveals about the current state of New York’s racing stewardship.

In happier news: “After a period of time, IHA regained his calmness and he [grazed] in stately fashion just like a star.” Big Red Farm’s weekly I’ll Have Another updates are delightful (via).

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.

Good News Sunday

Doug O’Neill reports Square Eddie is looking good after his first race in a year:

“He came out fantastic, legs ice cold, jogging sound at the shed row and ate up everything,” Santa Anita’s three-time training king said.

Nice to hear! The Donn could be next for ‘Eddie.

This is Todd Pletcher gushing about early Derby fave Uncle Mo:

“Yes, I think he will get better,” Pletcher said. “And it’s kind of scary to think about that.”

The famously cool trainer just can’t contain himself, can he?

Jerry Bossert’s a fan of the Belmont Café:

It’s amazing, but in a month the NYRA put together a better OTB than NYCOTB, which opened its first parlor in 1971.

Almost makes me wish I still lived in New York so I could check the place out.

Odds and Ends

Blind Luck is raring to go for the El Encino Stakes next Sunday. She worked seven furlongs on Santa Anita on Friday in 1:25.20 and then galloped out another seven furlongs. “For a slightly built filly, she has loads of energy,” observed Jay Privman. On Sunday, it was The Factor flying over the Santa Anita dirt, going five furlongs in :58 flat. “He went a little too fast — he got away from the rider,” said trainer Bob Baffert of the 3-year-old colt.

Culture clash at the Big A? “I feel like I’m in an OTB! I feel like I’m in an OTB!,” LATG overhears an Aqueduct patron telling a security guard. Friday was the one month anniversary of NYC OTB’s closure. Funny, but the parlors already seem like something out of the far past, which I suppose says something about how removed from the mainstream life of the city they had become. (If you’d like to remember days at the OTB, here’s an unexpectedly poignant little video that captures the operation’s waning hours.) While there are some pains as the new element is absorbed into the track scene, NYRA’s efforts to attract displaced OTB bettors are paying off with higher ontrack handle and 2,434 new NYRA Rewards customers since December 8. On Saturday, the new Belmont Café took in a high point $137,889 in wagers from 325 players. “It just goes to show you that simple accommodations — a clean bathroom and a decent place to eat — can go a long way,” writes Jerry Bossert. There’s a still a significant shortfall in NYRA’s total handle, but the trend is positive.

So, the investigation into the l’affaire Life at Ten is ongoing, with the Office of the Inspector General in the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet being brought in “to have some independent review for certain aspects of it.” That’s KHRC executive director Lisa Underwood talking to Jennie Rees, who also reports that the KHRC has conducted 90 interviews regarding the Breeders’ Cup Distaff Ladies’ Classic fiasco. Ninety? Once this investigation concludes, how about another into what’s been a frustratingly opaque and slow process.

A New Year’s resolution particularly relevant to the above: “Protect the punter.”

Final handle numbers for 2010 were down 7.3% from 2009, to $11.4 billion from $12.3 billion. That’s the lowest annual total since 1995. “Obviously, we are losing bettors to other forms of gambling,” TRA executive vice president Chris Scherf tells Janet Patton. “We are in the midst of an unmanaged, market-driven contraction touching most aspects of the racing business.” Unmanaged is the key word, and nowhere is that more apparent right now that in the date dispute shaping up in southern Florida between Calder and Gulfstream. As for losing out to other games, sports bettors and poker players are pretty upfront about why they’re not paying much attention to racing.

Raises? Yes!

Are you kidding me? Of all the things to complain about when it comes to New York racing, NYRA giving 327 non-union employees average pay raises of 3% is pretty far down the list. In any other year or any other industry, such a raise would be a run-of-the-mill annual cost-of-living increase. But in New York, and at NYRA, it’s an outrage! It’s arrogance! Especially because NYC OTB just closed! The New York Post, which breathlessly reports that “top managers” are getting raises and fraudulently invokes the specter of a state bailout for NYRA, gives space to grandstanding politician Assembly Racing and Wagering Committee chairman Gary Pretlow to denounce NYRA as “bloated” and the raises as “an irresponsible act.” The Sarotogian headlines an editorial today, “Raises? Really?” and calls NYRA “tone deaf.” Nick Kling writes:

Non-union employees may get their additional money, but in the process NYRA has generated enough bad feeling to guarantee it will come back to bite the association when it wants something in the future.

That’s absurd. Here’s the thing: 3% — or even the average 5.5% given to 10 employees — isn’t that much money. NYRA president Charles Hayward, who defended the raises as the first given non-union workers since January 2008, told the Blood-Horse that the raises will cost NYRA approximately $600,000 in added payroll next year. That works out to around $1835 a year (or $153 a month, $35 a week) per employee, which raises the average salary of those workers from approximately $60,000 a year to around $62,000 a year. That’s $62,000 in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and at a time of great challenge to NYRA — with NYC OTB closing last week, and the Aqueduct racino opening in 2011, NYRA needs to retain its workers (and it really needs its workers to feel good about their jobs) if it’s not only going to survive what’s ahead, but come out thriving. Giving end-of-the-year raises to the rank-and-file is a strategic and morale-boosting move at a crucial moment in the organization’s history. Sorry, but there’s nothing outrageous about that.

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