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Sunday, January 13, 2013
Executive indecision

By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com

A racetrack president once explained that because he didn't want to confuse the public he was opposed to including too much information, especially all that folderol about Lasix and blinkers and workouts, in the track program. And can't you sleep more peacefully now knowing there's a racetrack executive who wants to spare you confusion?

Another racetrack, believe it or not, refused to pay off on a winning bet, arguing that because the simulcast signal went down the bet was void.

A racetrack general manager, after a long procession of winners from inside post positions, once said there could be no such thing as a track bias and the only bias, if there was one, existed in bettors' minds. Doesn't it warm your heart to contemplate such a place, one that's completely free of bias? Then there's the general manager who thought he had created the fourth jewel of the Triple Crown, or quadruple crown, which, absurd as that sounds, isn't nearly as foolish as the racing commissioner who fell asleep during a meeting or the president who banned jockeys "now and forever" from his racetrack. Remember the incomparable Horse Wizard, and did you know that a racetrack once ran a stakes race twice during the same season, and it wasn't even a good race? Another racetrack, believe it or not, refused to pay off on a winning bet, arguing that because the simulcast signal went down the bet was void. Then there are all those overlapping dates and high takeouts and virtually simultaneous post times. And did you hear the one about the dog that was licensed as an owner? Or was the dog a licensed groom?

Another general manager, a compassionate soul who probably dated the homeliest girl in his class just so she wouldn't be lonely on weekends, once argued against lowering the cost of exotic wagers by explaining that he didn't want to encourage oh-so-risky behavior. And don't you think it's admirably warmhearted of a racetrack executive to be so concerned about your risks? You think he might sell life insurance on the side?

Or, whenever you contemplate such things, whenever you consider, in other words, the obtuse management and harebrained ideas at many racetracks, do you wonder if perhaps the time has come for you to begin what George Saunders calls Hatred Abatement Breathing?

Well, if you're like me, you're working on that Hatred Abatement Breathing. And you needed it Saturday if you were at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, where the program, from the first race to the 13th, lasted nearly 7 1/2 hours, or about the time you would have needed to watch Les Miserables, The Hobbit and Gangster Squad; or two extra-innings baseball games; or three basketball games. Post time was 7:10 p.m. for the 11th race, 8:15 for the 12th and 9:21 for the 13th. No, the 12th race wasn't a half-time show for an LSU vs. Tulane volleyball game; barnyard animals and other creatures were racing, in addition to horses, of course. So if you played the late Pick Four you had to wait nearly three hours to find out if you won.

Horse racing has many problems, such as its inconsistent medication rules and its distorted perception in the culture, but one major problem that skips along largely unrecognized has really become a cluster of problems: Most racetrack executives and regulators these days don't understand the game, don't appreciate the sport, can't identify their audience and know very little, if anything, about the product they're selling.

This, as you probably know, has been a problem for a while. Years ago, I suggested to a Director of Mutuels that he introduce a new wager, a Pick Four. At the time, no racetrack in America offered a Pick Four. I explained the bet's virtues and told him that if it was presented with an especially low takeout, say 14 percent, that within a month every horseplayer in the country would be looking at it.

Well, he didn't think a Pick Four would ever catch on, but he would bring it up at the next meeting of the Something-or-other Committee and, by the way, he said, his favorite wager was the quinella. The quinella? That's like a master distiller's saying his favorite cocktail is the Shirley Temple.

But that's the problem, and it's getting worse. Racetrack executives often know little or nothing about betting on horses, and, even worse, they don't care. You didn't think all those vice presidents at CDI spend their lunch hour cobbling together a Pick Six ticket, did you? Some of them probably don't even know how to figure up the cost of a ticket.

That's why the morning line at most racetracks is worse than worthless and downright misleading, why accurate information can be hard to come by, why takeouts are high and why some programs seem indifferent to the interests of bettors. Such considerations are unimportant to people that don't understand they're selling gambling opportunities.

(Excuse me while I take a moment for my Hatred Abatement Breathing … OK.)

Tim Ritvo at Gulfstream Park and Scott Wells at Remington, both former trainers, have steered those racetracks in encouraging directions. But have other racetracks followed those examples by hiring executives that actually know something about racing? Of course not. The corporate maw usually spits out racing experience as indigestible. A person whose expertise is summarized by his ability to plug in a slots machine is much more likely to run a racetrack than somebody with knowledge of racing. As for people who actually understand betting and bettors, they're virtually absent from the executive offices.

I've come to regard a racetrack's simulcast signal as indicative, even defining. The simulcast signal can reveal a racetrack's attitude towards its audience and the sport. In this regard, the NYRA signal, I believe, is by far the best. While celebrating the sport and its outstanding performers, it also focuses on the handicapping puzzle. In short, it can remind a viewer why this is a truly great sport and game.

The simulcast signal can reveal a racetrack's attitude towards its audience and the sport.

Andy Serling always has an informed opinion that's based on observation and research, not just a quick perusal of the past performances. It's obvious he has done his homework. And from the paddock Maggie Wolfendale offers insightful observations. Most of all, the presentation is informative, which means this racetrack, whether it's Saratoga or Belmont or Aqueduct, respects the sport, its fans and its serious horseplayers.

Many other simulcasts are worth watching, notably those from Woodbine, Del Mar, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Remington. But, frankly, you could watch and listen to some simulcasts for hours, days even, without coming across something you didn't already know, which is why there's a mute button. When a paddock host simply reads the conditions of the race -- "The fourth race is a $25,000 maiden race for maidens" -- and then goes on to summarize the recent running lines of the favorites, he's basically saying he thinks the audience is incapable of reading. And that must be the racetrack's attitude as well, that its customers don't deserve anything better than a reiteration of what's available and obvious. And when a host says, "My first pick is … and my second pick is … and my third pick is, … " he's saying, in effect, that the game is about him and his picks, not about the horses, the competition and the intellectual challenge, and that also seems to reflect the attitude of some racetracks, which seem determined to subordinate racing to other interests.

Yes, the simulcast signals reveal much about the racetracks that originate them. Some of them are capable of recalling all the best elements of the game. And others, because they recall all the worst elements, might leave you in need of Hatred Abatement Breathing.