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Some takeaways from Saratoga Institute racing panels

Some takeaways from Saratoga Institute racing panels

Horse racing continues to grapple with equine deaths, how to attract new fans and bettors, and a variety of other issues
Some takeaways from Saratoga Institute racing panels
Horses run around the grandstand turn at Saratoga Race Course.
Photographer: Erica Miller

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- For 40 days of the calendar year (well, 39 this year), the dreaded earworm for me is "New York State of Mind" by Billy Joel, which they play at the end of every Saratoga Race Course card, and which keeps rattling around in my head until it doesn't.

It's a privilege to cover the track, but it does have its occupational hazards.

On Tuesday, there was a new earworm, "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor.

That's because three of the seven panel discussions at the annual Saratoga Institute on Equine, Racing and Gaming Law included "... survive?" in their titles. As in, "The New York OTBs: Can They Survive?", and "Equine Welfare: Can the Sport Survive?"

Pretty ominous, and the terrific panelists didn't try to paint a rosy picture of any of it.

It's useful to listen to experts talk about these subjects, especially halfway through the meet, because it's easy to settle into Saratoga's Shangri-La experience and insulate yourself from the problems in the big picture, even with two anti-racing protests so far and more to follow.

My main takeaways from the discussions I attended are:

-- Off-Track Betting in New York state will need some significant changes to the 50-year-old patchwork of state laws that govern it if OTB is to stay in business in the long run.

-- The New York Racing Association is well-equipped to move into the future under new president and CEO David O'Rourke, but it faces some challenges shared by the racing world in general -- particularly attracting new fans -- for which there is no easy solution.

-- California racing is still in big trouble, and the potential for a constitutional amendment to shut down the sport there is very real.

-- Nobody likes the re-designed Triple Crown trophy (other than the person who designed it and the person who commissioned it.)

On the OTB front, there are five chapters, including Capital OTB that serves our region and beyond.

Because of how the rules are written by which they operate, and the emergence of advance deposit wagering by phone and laptop taking business away from brick-and-mortar OTB shops, OTB faces an existential threat.

"Can they survive? Not in their current iteration," O'Rourke said. "The laws are layered. The economics are confusing. I spent five or six years on the finance side of this business understanding how we settle loan payments going back and forth. It honestly feels like I have some form of a Ph.D. in failed economic theory.

"The New York OTBs are unique. It's the second-largest market for simulcast, I believe, and it's the ability to have brick-and-mortar locations in communities. It meant something in the '70s, and it worked for a very long time. Then it began to not work."

Capital District Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. president and CEO John Signor pointed out that one encouraging sign is a recent change in New York law that allows OTB to make its profit payments to counties annually instead of quarterly, which has put them in position to "kind of stop the bleeding." He also thanked New York for implementing track payout prices with no surcharge on bets taken at Rivers Casino, which has increased handle there.

On the NYRA front, O'Rourke said some traditional formats are probably obsolete with regard to attracting fans to the track or getting new ones to bet on racing, on whatever platform, even though a place like Saratoga make that model work, with the advantages of a short meet with high-stakes-racing in a fair-like setting.

But NYRA races most of the year at Aqueduct and Belmont Park.

"Day in, day out, it's a pretty hard sell, and it's a pretty expensive business," he said. "But how do you make year-round racing work? One, get it back on television. Get it back in the public's eyes.

"For years, our theory of television was TVG, which is good for somebody who's already converted, but you're not in the mainstream. We feel that getting on FOX Sports begins the process of the long game. Because it is the long game, there's no fix. There's nothing we're going to come up with where, a year from now, we've brought in millions of millennials.

"There's definitely potential here, but we have to map it out and play a long game and look at what's the real potential for this to evolve into. It doesn't necessarily need to be what it was, or even at that scale. But there's something there. Go down to the track this week. There's something there."

On the California front, one of the more compelling speakers was Jack Jeziorski, who lives in Louisville but works for Monarch Content Management, which runs simulcasting for The Stronach Group. TSG has been in the news all year because, among the many tracks under its ownership umbrella is Santa Anita Park, where 30 equine deaths in the winter and spring became the pivot point for the forces that oppose racing and want it abolished.

He referred to the classic Micheal Ray Richardson quote from 1982, when Micheal Ray was playing for the New York Knicks: "The ship be sinking."

The 2019 Breeders' Cup will be held at Santa Anita, after some discussion of moving it to a different track because of the safety concerns and bad publicity.

"The next thing that's going to happen that's going to be a problem for us is a Go for Wand incident where the horse is in the stretch in a nationally televised race and breaks down," Jeziorski said. "And right beforehand, that jock is going to use that whip. And all the general public is going to see is a horse being beaten before it dies. And I'm being strident about it because that is the reality we're in.

"And you'll hear complaints that the California horse industry is talking to PETA and talking to the Humane Society and we're working with the fringe. But the reality in California is, if you get 600,000 signatures, you can get a referendum to ban horse racing. And believe me, if it gets on the ballot, it will pass, in my opinion. Because that's the general public. We are a very small sliver, in our bubble, in the industry."

"The fringe cannot be appeased," said Chris Wittstruck of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York. "Until horses roam free, find mates and are given the right to vote, the fringe will not back down."

Oh, and on the Triple Crown trophy front, Jeziorski reinforced his belief that O'Rourke is the right person to lead NYRA forward by firing a zinger at former NYRA president and CEO Chris Kay, who resigned in January under pressure for using NYRA employees to landscape his yard.

Kay is also the one who took it upon himself to hire his friend to create a new Triple Crown trophy that nobody wanted, even though the previous one was gorgeous and had tradition behind it.

So we'll leave you on that note. It's not all doom and gloom.

"Growing up in Louisville, we literally would go on field trips to the Kentucky Derby Museum," Jeziorski said. "Bourbon distilleries and the Kentucky Derby Museum, that's field trips in Louisville. And I would see this beautiful, elegant trophy designed by Cartier in 1950, literally designed as a work of art. And American Pharoah got that trophy. Then, we got this 40-pound, 3-foot tall monstrosity that was given to Justify.

"Something only a Toys 'R' Us executive would come up with."

Great, now I've got "I don't wanna grow up ..."

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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