Archives for October 2011

WHY FRANK STRONACH IS GOOD FOR RACING

The Austrian-born Canadian entrepreneur Frank Stronach is a real-life Horatio Alger success story. Coincidentally, Alger’s first book was titled Frank’s Campaign.

Stronach is well-known in worldwide business circles and the mere mention of his name can provoke controversy. Depending on who is doing the evaluating, opinions about Stronach’s contributions to Thoroughbred racing can be as different as night and day. One might wonder: “Are you sure we’re talking about the same person?”

Most notable on the plus side, Stronach has built a hugely successful breeding and racing empire. His Adena Springs has won the Eclipse Award as champion breeder in the United States seven times since 2000. Additionally, Stronach was the leading owner in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2008 and his homebreds have won classics and sired classic winners.

Negative opinions about Stronach’s efforts arise mostly from his participation on the retail side of the industry. For example, his failed Magna Entertainment Corporation was roundly criticized for missing out on the down-payment money for racetrack slots at Laurel Park. Gulfstream Park in Florida is another focal point, owing to its controversial architectural design and placement within a shopping area and casino.

None of this is surprising. Any major entrepreneur or company leader is going to be a lightning rod for criticism and second-guessing. That comes with being a mover and shaker. Donald Trump, for instance, is a highly successful real estate developer and TV show host, who also destroyed a lot of shareholder wealth with his ventures in Atlantic City casinos and a defunct airline shuttle service. The late Steve Jobs was once fired from Apple.

It is certainly fair game and to be expected for customers to weigh in on Stronach’s racetracks or for investors to lament his stewardship of the former Magna Entertainment Corporation. However, the cut-to-the-chase question is: Would the North American horse racing industry be better off or worse off without Stronach’s involvement? If you could turn back the clock and change history so that Stronach never became involved, would you do so in the best interests of racing?

People who run businesses are inevitably going to make mistakes and their actions will not be universally applauded. But these should be considered within the context of the bigger picture. Racing needs much more investment from extremely wealthy individuals, who are passionate about the sport, rather than less. Auction sales need more buyers, racetracks and partnerships need investors, and geographical areas like greater Lexington and Ocala need organizations such as Adena Springs that employ hundreds of people and pump money into the local economies.

Most of all, because the pari-mutuel product is in deep trouble relying on the traditional business model, significant departures from past practices—personified, for example, by Gulfstream Park–are essential. As Albert Einstein remarked, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Entrepreneurs are the straws that stir the drinks, the people who are willing to put their money behind new approaches. Old-line industries like racing inescapably stagnate without innovation and experimentation. Someone needs to do the disruption and not many in racing have stepped up. Frank Stronach is an important exception to the rule. Leaders like him are going to provoke plenty of negative emotion but are invaluable. (The key indicator of Stronach’s “outsider” status: he is among the most instrumental figures in American racing and the most prominent Canadian in the sport since the late E. P. Taylor, yet he is not a member of the U. S. Jockey Club.)

President Theodore Roosevelt talked in one of his most famous speechess, in 1910, about “the man in the arena”:  “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Horse racing needs more disruptive-innovative entrepreneurs in a shrinking arena. Mike Repole might be a younger version of Frank Stronach in the making.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

SILVER ANNIVERSARY OF THE WEST VIRGINIA BREEDERS CLASSIC

Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races is located in Charles Town, West Virginia and is one of two Thoroughbred horse-racing tracks in the state, the other being Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in Chester. The Charles Town track is about 63 miles from Washington, DC and is proximate to both the Maryland and Virginia borders.

The late Bill Hartack, one of the outstanding jockeys of all time, got his start at the track. The racetrack fell on hard times but was rescued by the addition of alternative gaming and the purchase by Penn National Gaming, Inc. Another boost was the creation of the West Virginia Breeders Classics in 1987, thanks to co-founders Sam Huff and Carol Holden–who breed Thoroughbreds on a farm near Middleburg, Virginia–and are the co-hosts of Trackside on Radio. They remain today the Chairman of the Board and President, respectively, of the West Virginia Breeders Classics.

On Saturday night, October 15, 2011, Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races will host the 25th anniversary of the West Virginia Breeders Classics, with $1.345 million in purses going to West Virginia-bred horses. Every annual edition save one has been held at Charles Town (one year it was hosted by Mountaineer).

To qualify, a horse must be registered with the West Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders Association and meet one of the following requirements:

“(1) The breeder of the West Virginia bred foal is a West Virginia resident; (2) the breeder of the West Virginia bred foal is not a West Virginia resident, but keeps his or her breeding stock in West Virginia year round; or (3) the breeder of the West Virginia bred foal is not a West Virginia resident and does not qualify under #2 above, but either the sire of the West Virginia bred foal is a registered West Virginia stallion at the time of cover, or the mare was covered by a registered West Virginia stallion following the birth of the West Virginia bred foal.”

The 2011 West Virginia Breeders Classics has nine stakes races carded; the feature is the $500,000 West Virginia Breeders Classic for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles on dirt. A $250,000 7-furlong race for fillies and mares 3-years-old and up is the next richest offering. Seven additional races are worth $85,000 each.

The West Virginia Breeders Classics stands as a model of what can be achieved with passionate and capable leadership and strong participation by a state’s breeding and racing interests.

Click here to see the West Virginia Breeders Classics website.

Click here to see the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races website.

Click here to see the Trackside on Radio website.

Click here to see the West Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders Association website.

Click here to read an ESPN bio on Sam Huff.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

THE BANE OF FLAGRANT IN-RACE WHIPPING

“You can use it, but not abuse it. I don’t like to use the stick too much. You never know how the horse will react. Some of them don’t like it. Some resent it. Some stop running.”

Jerry Bailey, Hall of Fame retired jockey

Saturday, a friend and I were watching on television as Cape Blanco barely held on to win The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational. Tom Durkin, the Belmont Park announcer, remarked in deep stretch that Irish jockey “Jamie Spencer is all over Cape Blanco,” which was a cosmetic way of saying that Spencer was aggressively working on him with a whip. My friend somewhat angrily commented: “I hate to see these horses being whipped.”

The next day, an on-air personality at TVG correctly said that Spencer’s whipping of Cape Blanco would have gotten him suspended had the race been run in England under the British Horseracing Authority’s revised whipping policy, which is going into effect as of October 10, 2011.

The British Horseracing Authority stipulates that a jockey cannot administer the whip more than seven times in flat races and eight times in steeplechase races. Moreover, a horse cannot be hit more than five times in the last furlong in flat races or past the last obstacle in jump races. This is a reduction of about half from the previous rules. A jockey found to be in violation of the new rules will, at the minimum, be suspended for five days and the jockey must pay his or her own fine if one is levied (in the past, the horse owner could pay it for the jockey).

The race won by Cape Blanco occurred, of course, at Belmont Park in New York and therefore was conducted under New York whipping rules. In part, the rules state:

“Although the use of a whip is not required, any jockey who uses a whip during a race is prohibited from whipping a horse:

(1) on the head, flanks or on any other part of its body other than the shoulders or hind quarters;

(2) during the post parade or after the race except when necessary to control the horse;

(3) excessively or brutally causing welts or breaks in the skin;

(4) when the horse is clearly out of the race or has obtained its maximum placing; or

(5) persistently even though the horse is showing no response under the whip.

Correct uses of the whip are:

(1) showing horses the whip before hitting them;

(2) using the whip in rhythm with the horse’s stride; and

(3) using the whip as an aid to maintain a horse running straight.”

The New York rules appear to be ambiguous as to whether Spencer’s ride was a transgression. What would have to be determined in particular is whether his whipping of Cape Blanco caused welts or breaks in the skin.

Horse racing in the United States is not well regarded by the general public, as shown in findings from the recent Jockey Club-sponsored McKinsey & Company study. Incidents of excessive whipping—such as in the case of Cape Blanco—only reinforce this negative image.  People who say that in-race whipping is usually not nearly as bad as it seems to spectators miss the point:  if the public perceives it as bad, it is.

The sensible path forward for American horse racing is to keep the whip in racing but more tightly limit its use—in line with what the British have done. However, one possible outcome must be precisely accounted for. Suppose that the Kentucky Derby is won by a horse whose jockey hits his mount twenty times during the race, including eight times in the final furlong. In this case, the horse must be disqualified for the jockey’s flouting of the rules or else the rules will not be much of a deterrent.

Public perception aside, the main reason that whipping rules in New York and other American jurisdictions should be stricter has to do with human decency and respect: a gallant racehorse giving his or her all should not be subjected to mistreatment like repeated whipping so that an owner can net a purse or a bettor can cash a ticket.

An acquaintance of mine used to own Standardbreds. His trainer had orders to instruct drivers of this fellow’s horses not to whip. The driver could shake the whip but was forbidden from actually having the whip touch the horse. The owner may have lost a few drivers and purses along the way, but he had peace of mind.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

Click here for the video of the 2011 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational.