Monday, May 24, 2010

NYRA Rescue Passes State Senate

I've been advised that the New York State Senate has approved the $25 million loan (not bailout) that will tide the New York Racing Association over until either NYC OTB starts paying what they owe or the state finally approves a slot machine operator for Aqueduct. The loan was tacked onto the weekly bill extending the state budget, since the legislature failed to meet the April 1 deadline for a new fiscal year budget. The measure now heads to the Assembly, where it should pass.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

There He Goes Again

Frank Stronach just can't help himself. Fresh from his bankruptcy court success at the end of April reneging on his promise to sell the Maryland Jockey Club, he's now managed to throw the Santa Anita fall meet in doubt, to bring in a partner in Maryland that's not exactly known for its commitment to racing, and to have waved goodbye to yet another experienced industry executive passing through the Magna revolving door.

Beginning with the latest news, Santa Anita track president Ron Charles abruptly resigned, announcing his departure on Tuesday and clearing out his desk on Wednesday. As Brad Free pointed out in The Daily Racing Form, Charles is the sixth chief executive at Santa Anita in the 12 years that Stronach has owned the track. He was preceded through the revolving door by Bill Baker, Cliff Goodrich, Lonny Powell, Jack Liebau and Jim McAlpine.

After four years on the job, Charles had probably had more than enough of trying to deal with the Stronach ego, not to mention being tired of trying to figure out why none of the synthetic surfaces installed at the Arcadia track seemed to work. Still, the lack of continuity, a common feature at all Stronach tracks, is troubling.

Even more troubling is Stronach's decision to use the Magna bankruptcy as a pretext for voiding the contract between Santa Anita and the not-for-profit Oak Tree Racing Association. Oak Tree has run the fall meet at Santa Anita since 1969, and had a contract with Santa Anita that was supposed to run through 2016; any profits from the meet are poured back into the thoroughbred industry. But Stronach apparently thinks he has a better idea, although, typically, he hasn't yet told us what that idea might be. (Good coverage of the Oak Tree story here and here.) While Oak Tree is still saying that it hopes to negotiate a new deal with Stronach, Del Mar and Hollywood would both be delighted to play host to the fall meet.

Meanwhile, the cancellation of the Oak Tree agreement may have rudely awakened the Breeders Cup board from its wet dreams of a perpetual West Coast BC festival. Before the latest Stronach salvo, the BC Board was reportedly very close to deciding that, after this year's event at Churchill, the BC would return to Southern California for the next five years, coinciding with the final years of the Oak Tree lease. That would have peopled the big day(s) with B-list celebrities, many of whom, it turns out, are paid for out of BC promotional funds, but who, we're told, juice the event's TV ratings. Now that October racing in California may be happening somewhere other than Santa Anita, it'd be pretty hard for the Breeders Cup board to stick to that unpopular plan. In a way that's a shame; I was really looking forward to an anti-BC fall dirt-racing championship day at Belmont.

Earlier this month, Stronach announced a "partnership" with Penn National Gaming, Inc. to operate the Maryland tracks. Details of the partnership are as yet unknown, if they've even been agreed between the parties, but the deal suggests a shift of focus away from horse racing and toward greater emphasis on slot machines. Penn National does operate three thoroughbred tracks (Zia Park in New Mexico, Charles Town, and the company's eponymous track in Grantville, PA) as well as three harness tracks (in Bangor, ME, Freehold NJ, and Toledo, OH). But its principal business is running low-end casinos. In addition to the slots at four of its six tracks, the company also owns 14 stand-alone casinos, almost all of which are in the South and Midwest. I've been in one of the company's casinos, in Biloxi, MS, and even by the undemanding standards of that town, it is, to say the least, an inelegant operation. Hard to imagine that Penn National will do much to help improve the tone of Maryland racing. (For details of the company's operations, look here and here.)

The latest bit of bad news for Stronach is the lawsuit filed by some disgruntled shareholders in Magna Entertainment, who quite rightly believe that Stronach lied to the bankruptcy court in order to avoid having outsiders bid on the Maryland Jockey Club and other properties. As extensively outlined in The Paulick Report, Magna Entertainment shareholder Willam Bayne Jr. and his co-plaintiffs allege that Stronach deliberately ignored bids that would have provided more money for creditors, and maybe even some for the shareholders than did the inside-the-company bid from Stronach puppet MI Developments. It's tough to win that sort of challenge to a bankruptcy judge's decision, especially, as here, where the creditors announce themselves satisfied, but the depositions should be fun.

Broken contracts, broken promises, unsavory partners, a revolving door for executives. Funny, the new Magna sure looks a lot like the old one.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Honest Trainers Get Drug Positives, Too

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, New York makes the trainer the insurer of a horse’s condition. Whether an illegal substance was given to a horse by a vet, a groom, or some guy in a trenchcoat who sneaks into the stall, it’s the trainer who’s held responsible when that horse tests positive for a drug. In the grand scheme of things, that’s probably a good idea, since it’s a lot easier to police a finite universe of trainers than it is to track down those errant vets, grooms and guys in trenchcoats. But every once in a while, the trainer suffers through no fault of his or her own.

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 Belmont, I’ve talked with him extensively, and each of the two horses he trains for me has won this year. Everything I’ve seen confirms to me that he plays by the rules.]

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 Kentucky, Bute, aren’t on the list, but that’s another story.) You'd think the list would make a distinction between a major dose of the drugs and a small trace that can’t possibly have an impact on the results of a race. Some jurisdictions set threshold levels, below which a trainer isn’t penalized. Some don’t. But few listen to any kind of explanation from a trainer once traces of a drug have been found.

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 Belmont on June 7th. We’re looking forward to more drug-free wins this year.