Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Sunday, November 7, 2010
Friday, September 17, 2010
Thursday, September 2, 2010
Sunday, August 22, 2010
But first, congratulations to New York Racing Association chairman Steve Duncker, who managed to include three really good points in his brief presentation.
First, Duncker ended his Power Point slide show with a sincere, and very prominent, "Thank You" to the owners and trainers who, by sending their best horses to race in New York, help maintain the state's position as the country's pre-eminent racing venue. (As an example, 36% of all the Grade 1 stakes races in the US are run at NYRA tracks.) Even for those who ofrten disagree with NYRA management, it's nice to be appreciated.
More substantively, Duncker pointed out that our product -- betting on horse racing, is grossly overpriced, and has been getting more expensive. From a blended takout rate of 15% a few decades ago, NYRA's takeout is now at a level of 19.8%. That's undoubtedly one of the factors causing the rankings of NYRA tracks by HANA, the Horseplayers' Association of North America, to be well below what would be suggested by the quality of New York racing. In those ratings, Saratoga ranks 16th of 69 rated tracks (Keeneland is rated No. 1), and Aqueduct and Belmont languish at 26th and 27th, respectively.
In contrast to the nearly 20% that NYRA charges the bettor, Duncker pointed out that the price of other forms of gambling is much cheaper. The "takeout" on craps averages 2%, on blackjack 3%, on slot machines, 6%, and on casino poker tournaments, 8%. No surprise that we're losing the business of the numerate younger generation.
Duncker acknowledged the problems with reducing takeout -- how to accommodate rebates for the "whales" who provide a large share of total handle, how to fairly split the pie among purses, track operators and off-track bet takers, etc. But even raising the issue in public represents a huge step forward, especiallly at the same time that California seems to be moving in the wrong direction with a major takeout increase.
Duncker's other really smart point was to analyze race track results by how much in handle is generated by each dollar of purse money. It's a great metric, one that I've used myself in looking at how the Saratoga and Monmouth meets compare, and one that would certainly be expected of a former Goldman Sachs partner, as Duncker is, but it's the first time I've heard this sort of rigorous quantitative analysis from a racetrack official. Just compare this approach to the blatherings of, say, Frank Stronach.
NYRA, unsurprisingly, is way ahead of the rest of US race tracks on this measure. Each dollar of purses at NYRA tracks, according to Duncker, generates $22 in total handle. That's twice as much or more than at any other track, and, with slot machine revenue finally in the foreseeable future in New York, augurs well for the continued viability of racing in New York. (According to data presented by Duncker at the Round Table, a "conservative" estimate of slots revenue from the Aqueduct racino would add $13,000 to the average overnight purse in New York. Who knows, it might even be possible to think about breaking even with a good horse.)
I'm sure there will be lots to disagree about in the future, but for now, Steve Duncker and NYRA seem to have gotten a few things right.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Friday, June 18, 2010
Monday, May 24, 2010
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Monday, May 10, 2010
Horse racing is full of suspicion. “All trainers are drug-wielding cheats.” “All the races are fixed.” “The trainers and vets get away with murder.” And those are just the versions that are printable in a family blog.
Now, I’ve been around the race track for a while, and I know it’s true that some trainers are probably using illegal chemical help, though that’s far more difficult to do these days, with super-sensitive testing devices, than it was a decade or two ago. But this is a story about state racing officials more concerned with their public image than with fair dealing, and about an honest trainer, trying to play be the rules, who’s getting a very raw deal all because he did exactly what he was told by people who should know.
Like most racing jurisdictions,
Case in point: This past Monday, May 5th, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board suspended trainer Bruce Brown for 30 days, and fined him $1,000, for two drug positives. [Disclosure: Bruce trains two horses for my Castle Village Farm partnership. I’ve watched him in his barn at
The drug in question was hydroxine, sometimes referred to as hydroxyzine. It’s an antihistamine that’s been around for more than 50 years, and is used to treat hives and other allergies in humans as well as horses. Here’s how and why Bruce used the drug:
Back in early March, two of his horses were suffering from hives. He attempted to deal with the problem by changing their stall bedding from straw to wood shavings, since the allergy (hives) was probably caused or aggravated by the straw. When NYRA refused to allow the use of wood shavings (something about a track-wide contract that requires straw, which is sold for use in the mushroom industry), Bruce went to Plan B, calling the vet. His vet prescribed the hydroxine, and told Bruce what the safe time would be to stop using the drug before each horse’s race. Bruce did stop the treatment as directed, and the horses, their allergic reactions under control, went on to finish first and second in their respective races. But apparently the vet’s instructions weren’t cautious enough. Post-race testing found traces of the drug in each horse’s system. Not enough to have any effect on their performance, but enough to cause a positive test.
Racing has an astonishingly long list of prohibited drugs. (Of course, two of the most egregious drugs, Lasix and, in
And when the regulatory agency has the attitude that all trainers cheat, as is the case in New York, the chances of getting a fair hearing are, to say the least, minimal.
So, Bruce Brown gets a 30-day suspension, two owners, through no fault of their own, have to repay purses that they thought they’d won, and the whole episode does nothing to clean up racing. It does, however, lend some urgency to the ongoing efforts to at least have uniform drug rules in all 37 states where there is horse racing. I don’t know if a uniform rule with a reasonable threshold level for hydroxine would have helped Bruce Brown in this case, but it couldn’t have hurt.
Some owners say they’ll drop a trainer the minute he or she has a drug violation, as Team Valor did with Ralph Nicks back in 2004. But it’s just not the right thing to do to a trainer who’s done well for you and who tried, to the best of his ability, to follow the rules. So, Castle Village Farm will be waiting for Bruce Brown to be back in the barn at
Thursday, April 29, 2010
With the Kentucky Derby coming up and with the overpaid and largely unrepentant thieves from Goldman Sachs in the Congressional hot seat, it seems an appropriate time to renew a question that I initially raised some 15 years ago, in an article in that well-known handicapping publication, The Tax Lawyer. Namely, why does the Internal Revenue Code treat the ordinary schlub’s horse racing and casino gambling winnings and losses so much less favorably than it does the much more dubious gains and losses that those Wall Street’s masters of the universe receive from trading in billion dollar derivative bets?
[For those who want to explore the legal arguments, the full text is at 49 Tax Lawyer 1 (1995), available on Lexis and Westlaw or in your favorite law library.]
That tax treatment is hugely different. Just for a start:
● Gambling losses cannot be deducted against any other income, only against gambling winnings. In contrast, net losses from Wall Street trading are deductible against the trader’s other income.
● Any excess gambling losses that are not deductible in one year cannot be carried forward to the next tax year, even to offset gambling winnings in that later year. Non-deductible derivatives trading losses in one year, in contrast, can be carried forward or backward and used to offset income in other years.
● Racing and poker tournament payoffs in excess of $5,000 are subject to withholding, at 28%, when the bet reflected odds of 300-1 or greater. And the Internal Revenue Service considers each combination a separate bet. So a Pick Six ticket that contains, say, 1,500 separate combinations and that returns $5,000 is treated as paying off at 2,500-1 (on a $2 bet), even though the bettor actually put up $3,000 and so got net odds of only 2-3. With 28% withholding, the bettor actually gets back only $3,600 for his $3,000. No such rules apply to bettors in that big casino on Wall Street.
● Even if they hold the contracts for only a day, Wall Street speculators are allowed to treat 60% of their gains from many kinds of derivative contracts as long term capital gains, which qualify for lower tax rates. Racing and casino winnings, in contrast, are all just ordinary income, taxable at higher marginal rates.
● There’s a 2% federal excise tax on gambling transactions, but none at all on financial market transactions. The mere mention of one – even a proposal for a tax as tiny as 0.1% or less -- causes the Wall Street propaganda machine to spew out dire predictions of the end of the world as we know it (not that that would necessarily be a bad thing).
“Gambling” and “wagering” are not defined, for income tax purposes, anywhere in the Internal Revenue Code or the Treasury Regulations. I guess it’s like Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography: we know it when we see it. Merriam-Webster, though, says that gambling is to stake something on a contingency or to bet on an uncertain outcome. Isn’t that just what the hedge funds guys and Wall Street traders were doing when they bought and sold credit default swaps and other opaque instruments of mass destruction?
To my surprise, there’s very little in the tax law literature or in the case law that addresses these definitional problems, except for a couple of recent articles arguing that bets on “prediction exchanges” (“I’ll give you 10-1 that Sarah Palin won’t be the next President of the US”) are more like tax-favored futures contracts than they are like sports bets (“I’ll give you 10-1 that Todd Pletcher’s Derby jinx continues”). A serious search of the law and literature (one has to do something when there are four dark days between Aqueduct and Belmont) shows not a single article or judicial decision in the past 15 years – since my piece way back in 1995 – arguing for better treatment for sports and casino bettors.
Perhaps we could get Mitch McConnell, in his role as the Senator from horse racing, to introduce a few amendments to the pending “financial reform” bill. Oh, I forgot, McConnell, majority leader of the party whose motto is “just say no,” is also the Senator from Wall Street. Guess that little conflict of interest isn’t going to get us very far.
But, seriously, wouldn’t it be some sort of victory for Main Street over Wall Street to amend the tax code so that bets placed on Wall Street get the same (unfavorable) tax treatment that I get for betting the Pick Four at Belmont? Who knows, if they had to think about the tax consequences of their misbegotten bets, perhaps those masters of the universe wouldn’t be risking quite so much of our money.
And on another topic: for the Triple Crown season, I’m also blogging on the New York Times site, The Rail. Here’s a link to my first piece, which was on Zayat Stables and Eskendereya.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
NYCOTB management is bloated, expending over $12 million per year in payroll. I recommend reducing the annual administrative payroll to $1,300,000, inclusive of fringe benefits, thus resulting in net savings of $8,300,000 in salaries and $1,700,000 in fringe benefits.
Since NYCOTB is no longer the property of New York City, it is my recommendation that the 2% surcharge which currently is paid to New York City be retained by the state. This change will generate an additional $10-$15 million in revenue.
The lease at 1501 Broadway currently serving as headquarters for New York City OTB must be abandoned, to result in a net savings of $2.5 million in rental payments. The Manhattan office currently houses the telephone operations, which should be moved to Aqueduct Racetrack along with the scaled-down management team.
NYCOTB should discontinue its television production to yield a net savings of $2 million. I've spoken with Capital OTB management and they are willing and capable of sending the signal they produce to the city to be shown on channel 71, at virtually no cost.
The city of New York has over 40,000 police officers who do a capable job of patrolling the entire city. I would urge that we eliminate the security forces employed by OTB, with the exception of those necessary for transferring of money. Allowing the city police to do their job would result in a net savings of $2 million.
NYCOTB currently operates 54 branches. It is my recommendation that the three branches on Staten Island be consolidated into one, which would result in the saving of over $1 million. I am also advocating the closure of at least five unprofitable OTB branch locations, including 991 2nd Avenue, which alone loses over $1 million per year and is attached to another OTB with a restaurant. These closings would generate an additional $5 million in savings.
Overtime at NYCOTB has run rampant. In an effort to save on overtime payments it is my recommendation is to work with the unions to achieve work rule changes. Currently individuals receive double time on Sundays if they work a Saturday. My recommendation is to eliminate Saturday-Sunday work assignments and reduce the number of part-timers. I would recommend that branch OTB clerks' work schedules consist of 3 successive 12 hour days, being Sunday- Monday-Tuesday or, Thursday-Friday-Saturday. Wednesday should be staffed by part-timers or per diem workers. The same should hold true for managers at the OTB parlors. This change would save $3 million in OTB clerk's payroll and $2 million for OTB management's payroll, for total saving of $5 million in overtime.
Also recommended is that the State Office of General Services examine all leases with the intention of renegotiation. If a landlord is uncooperative, NYS should consider closing that location. I estimate a savings of at least another $1 million from renegotiated leases.
NYCOTB currently operates a 50,000 square foot warehouse in Queens. Not seeing much need for this warehouse, my recommendation is to close the warehouse and retain five employees which should be assigned to the Aqueduct location. This would generate a $3 million savings.
NYCOTB currently employs approximately 15 individuals per branch, an extremely rich staffing pattern. With the work rule changes I am urging, the numbers can be limited to no more than nine OTB employees per location on average, in order to save several million dollars.
NYCOTB should reduce the usage of out-of-state tracks by at least 50% and show more in-state races. This will mitigate the eliminated payment for hold harmless and generate a net savings of $7 million. New York City OTB currently spends $37 million on simulcasting. Given its financial distress and continued impending closure, the contracts OTB has for receiving telecasts ought to be considered eligible to be renegotiated to generate a saving of approximately $3 million more.
NYCOTB currently has 80 vehicles. It is my recommendation that at least 60 of them be immediately sold at an average of $15,000 per vehicle. This and the annual cost of up keep savings of $6,700 would generate a $1 million cash infusion from the sale and a $400,000 annual savings on maintenance and insurance.
Payroll should be handled by the state comptroller's office or outsourced, creating additional savings of $1 million.
The common sense in these proposals is obvious. Even a fraction of them would be sufficient to allow NYC OTB to be profitable. Beyond that, Pretlow also suggests that there be a statewide tote company, collectively owned by the six OTBs, and that there be statewide TV coverage of racing, rather than a different show for each of the six OTBs. And, while he suggests that the amounts that OTB currently owes to NYRA and other tracks be repaid, he does suggest stretching out the repayment over, in NYRA's case, 10 years. I'd love to see that money (some $15 million for NYRA) in the purse account now, but 10 years is better than never.
Probably all far too sensible for Pretlow's ideas to be put into practice, but one can only hope.
Oh, and by the way, Albany, we're still waiting for those slots at Aqueduct, in case you've forgotten.