Archives for August 2013

SARATOGA’S UNLIKELY BEGINNING

Saratoga Race Course has endured for 150 years through wars, depressions, occasional neglect, and the New York gambling law that shut it down for two years. And not so long ago it was more of an afterthought for the New York Racing Association, which focused much more attention on Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack.

What is remarkable is that “The Spa” was founded by a former street-gang hooligan in the wake of unfathomable bloodshed on Pennsylvania farm land turned battlefield and lethal mayhem on the streets of New York City.

John Morrissey emigrated with his family from Ireland to Troy, New York, at age two. Morrissey’s involvement as a young man with gang warfare in Manhattan enabled him to perfect the pugilistic skills that made him the world’s heavyweight bare-knuckles boxing champion.

Morrissey’s fame led to a career as a casino and racetrack impresario and as an elected official, serving in the New York state legislature and the U. S. Congress.

On August 3, 1863, Morrissey and several patrician investors held the first Thoroughbred card at Saratoga, on the site of what was known as the “Trotting Course.” Today, it is difficult to envision what it would have been like to be there, with the epic and awful events of July 1863 reverberating across the land.

On the first of July, the Battle of Gettysburg began. The carnage culminated on July 3rd with the immortal but failed Pickett’s Charge, which was the beginning of the end of the South’s quest for independence. Then, on July 13, the four-day-long New York City Draft Riots erupted, claiming the lives of approximately 119 people, mostly African Americans, in what remains the deadliest episode of civil unrest in American history.

Against this backdrop of turmoil and killing, Saratoga Race Course emerged and grew into an elegant sporting refuge attractive to generations of people of all ages. And it never has been more valuable to NYRA as a business entity and its most recognizable brand.

Copyright © 2013 The Blood-Horse. Used with permission.

SIGNERS OF THE MEDICATION-FREE RACING PLEDGE

The Blood-Horse reports that the following 43 racehorse owners (as of August 1, 2013) have pledged to forgo race-day medication for their 2-year-olds during 2013:

Josephine Abercrombie
John Amerman
Anthony Beck
Amy Bondon
Albert Brewster
Carrie Brogden
James Bryant
Bill Casner
Claiborne Farm
Dennis Dale
Darley
Adele Dilschneider
Karl and Andrea Donaghy
Carl Gessler Jr.
Amy M. Gill
James Gorski
Arthur Hancock
Dell Hancock
John Haran
James E. and Marilyn Helzer
Ronna Hoffman
Stanley Inman
Gretchen and Roy Jackson
Stuart S. Janney III
Corey Johnsen
Aaron and Marie Jones
Juddmonte Farms
Jon and Sarah Kelly
William Koester
Ted Maher
Helen Masek
Michael McMahon
Ro Parra
John W. Phillips
Ogden Mills Phipps
Hiram Polk
Fred Seitz
Shadwell Stable
George Strawbridge Jr.
Frank Stronach
Team Valor
Stephen Wignore
Peter S. Willmott

A POTEMKIN VILLAGE AT FASIG-TIPTON?

Prince Potemkin supposedly (it is disputed) had villages of cardboard constructed in the Ukraine and the Crimea in 1787 in preparation for a visit by Catherine II. The phrase “Potemkin Village” came into usage over the years to describe (Dictionary.com) “a pretentiously showy or imposing façade intended to mask or divert attention from an embarrassing or shabby fact or condition.”

Potemkin Village came to mind earlier this week when the results of the first night of the Fasig-Tipton yearling auction was described by the Blood-Horse as “Saratoga Sales Soars During Opening Session.” Similarly, the Thoroughbred Daily News wrote: “Bright Start to F-T Saratoga Sale.”

While no one could have orchestrated this showy sign of strength in bloodstock markets to cover deep problems in the racing industry, the results did convey a Potemkin-like effect, especially when considered in the context of stagnant pari-mutuel wagering trends in North America.

The day after the outstanding opening night sales outcome at Fasig-Tipton, the Blood-Horse issue of August 10, 2013 (available digitally on August 6) had a headline that read:  “Economic Indicators July 2013 compared to July 2012.” The table under the headline showed that pari-mutuel wagering was basically flat, as compared to 2012, for both July 2013 and for the first seven months of 2013 (July showed a slight percentage increase and 2013 has had a slight percentage decrease).

North American pari-mutuel wagering, of course, has been in a long downward spiral.

The big money spent on horses at Fasig-Tipton is both a cause for celebration and a cause for concern. While the bloodstock side of the horse racing industry is showing bullishness, the retail side is struggling mightily just to maintain the status quo. The intoxicating night air and elegant atmosphere in Saratoga Springs at the Fasig-Tipton sales, coupled with the buoyant cash flow, tend to obscure the problems that the vast majority of racetracks are having just staying afloat.

The obvious disconnect between what is happening in racing’s bloodstock segment vis-à-vis its racetrack segment is Potemkin in nature. Take someone unfamiliar with racing to many typical North American racetracks on an August weekday afternoon and ask him to describe what he sees in terms of economic vitality. Take another racing neophyte to the Fasig-Tipton pavilion to watch the bidding on opening night and see how she describes racing’s economic condition. This would likely be a tale of two worlds.

Somewhere in the future these worlds will collide…unless the economic underpinnings of pari-mutuel wagering can be improved. A Potemkin Village can’t stand forever.

Copyright © 2013 Horse Racing Business