Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Angelos Joins Jeff Seder in Maryland Bid

Blow Horn Equity LLC, headed by Jeff Seder, who founded and runs the bloodstock advisory firm EQB, Inc., has just announced that Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos and family will be joining forces with Blow Horn Equity to bid for the Maryland Jockey Club properties now owned by Magna Entertainment. The auction is scheduled for January 8th in federal bankruptcy court.

According to a press release issued this afternoon, the joint Blow Horn Equity - Angelos family bid will go forward despite the ongoing uncertainty over whether the slot machine license earmarked for Anne Arundel County, where Laurel Park is located, will be awarded to developer David Cordish's Arundel Mills shopping center, just up the road from Laurel. The slots license had been intended for Laurel, but Magna generalissimo Frank Stronach decided he could ignore the rules and didn't pony up the required deposit with his application. As a result, the state had no choice but to accept the competing bid from Cordish, a decision that has now been confirmed by the Anne Arundel county government.

While the bidders would certainly like to have the slots decision overturned -- and Angelos is a prominent player in Maryland Democratic circles -- they say the bid is based on racing, not slot machines. Of course, the MJC properties -- Laurel, Pimlico and the Bowie training center -- are worth a lot less without the operator's share of the slots revenue.

Angelos is a Baltimore trial lawyer who got rich representing plaintiffs in major asbestos, tobacco and diet-pill cases. In 1993, he led the investor group that purchased the Baltimore Orioles, and in 1998 he bought the 237-acre Ross Valley Farm in Baltimore County for his thoroughbred breeding and racing operation.

With Angelos' financial muscle, plus the private equity funds pulled together by Jeff Seder in Blow Horn Equity, the group seems in position to make a credible bid at the bankruptcy auction.

Let's hope so; they're the only potential bidders I can see who actually know something about racing.

Monday, December 28, 2009

There They Go Again - NYRA Takes on NY State

New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, the state's chief fiscal officer, has subpoenaed the books and records of the New York Racing Association (NYRA), as first reported in the NY Daily News, and later in the Blood-Horse. Like many others, DiNapoli is presumably curious as to how NYRA spent the money that it received from the state as it came out of bankruptcy in 2008.

As NYRA points out in its press release, hurried onto its website late this afternoon, the Comptroller's apparent surprise that NYRA is now running out of money is a little disingenuous. The original bankruptcy rescue plan anticipated that slot machines -- approved by the NY Legislature back sometime in the Jurassic (well, actually, it was 2001) -- would be up and running at Aqueduct by April of 2009. As we all know, that hasn't happened, and the blame lies largely in Albany, where the hapless "leadership" of the State Senate, together with the incompetence of the Governor's office and the business-as-usual non-action by Assembly Speaker Shelley Silver has meant that we don't even have an operator named for the Aqueduct slots operation, much less shovels in the ground or slot machines actually operating.

So it's not surprising that money is tight at NYRA. Handle is down, as elsewhere in the country, and purses are being cut, beginning with the upcoming 2010 Aqueduct meet. NYRA CEO Charlie Hayward may well be correct when he says that NYRA will run out of money sometime this Spring; the Belmont spring meet always loses money, because of the expensive stakes schedule that makes the meet such an artistic success. Over the years, NYRA's big money-making meets have been Saratoga and, somewhat surprisingly, the Aqueduct winter meet, the latter probably because purses are low, and the meet has an excellent off-track following, at OTBs and across the country at other tracks and ADWs. So it's likely that NYRA will limp through the winter (I certainly hope so; my partnership has two nice NY-breds who'll be running at Aqueduct), and maybe even make a small profit. But, come April, with the Belmont opening in sight and no slots at Aqueduct, another transfusion of dollars seems inevitable.

But if that's so, then why can't Charlie Hayward and Steve Duncker (NYRA Chairman), just open up the books to the state comptroller and show the reality? The state has been a very good friend to NYRA, and it seems, to say the least, a bit ungrateful not to cooperate with a perfectly reasonable request to take a look at the books and see what happened to the state's money since NYRA emerged from bankruptcy.

In its press release -- obviously drafted by a lawyer, not anyone with the slightest political sense -- NYRA makes three points: (1) the money it received from the state through the bankruptcy process wasn't a "bailout," but was really payment for the land underneath the race tracks; (2) NYRA's already regulated by lots of different agencies, so there's no need for the Comptroller's office to poke around in the books, and besides, 11 of the 25 NYRA Trustees are, one way or another, appointed by the government; and (3) there's a NY constitutional prohibition on the Comptroller's auditing of not-for-profit corporations; that job falls to the state's attorney general (Andrew Cuomo) as part of his responsibility for supervising charities.

Let's take these one at a time. First, the land. In the bankruptcy proceedings, NYRA always claimed that it owned the land. The state, through its lawyers, originally took the position that, thanks to prior bailouts, NYRA was already, in effect, a state agency, so that the land already belonged to the state. That issue was never decided by any court. In the end, NYRA agreed to turn over the real estate deeds to the state, and the state agreed to pump lots of money into NYRA. That's all. How each side characterized the transaction doesn't mean that's the legal reality of it. At best, NYRA's claim here is unproven.

Next, what about the claim that NYRA is already regulated enough? The simple answer is, so what? In its press release, NYRA notes that it's subject to oversight and regulation by the NY State Department of Taxation and Finance, by the State Racing and Wagering Board, and by a mostly comatose organization called the State Franchise Oversight Board. You know what, I don't see any reference to, say, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the State Lottery Division, or a whole host of other possibly irritating state agencies. That's not to say that NYRA should be regulated by more entities, but, hey, you're in the gambling business; regulation comes with the territory. Presumably NYRA does have financial records, and presumably they show that it's been conducting its business in a reasonable fashion. If not, then the $125,000 a month that NYRA has reportedly been paying its "integrity monitors." the law firm of Getnick and Getnick, would represent a colossal waste of money. Saying no to the Comptroller just makes you look guilty; if NYRA has nothing to hide, why not just open the books?

Third, NYRA relies on a recent decision by the NY Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, that said the Comptroller did not have the authority to audit the operations of not-for-profit charter schools, even though those schools were receiving public money. That may well be correct, as a matter of law. As a matter of politics, it's among the stupidest positions NYRA has ever taken, perhaps rivaled only by the decision in the 1970s not to operate off-track betting. As every decent lawyer knows, just because you may be right on the law doesn't mean you should go to court. Sometimes the best policy is the one that improves your long-term position, not the one that vindicates every single legal "right" that you might claim.

Cooperating with the Comptroller will, if I'm right about NYRA's finances, show conclusively that NYRA does need more money -- a situation attributable entirely to the state's own delay in getting the slot machines started. I can't imagine why NYRA would not want to do that. Unless, of course, there's something to hide. And, if NYRA's right on its legal claim that the proper oversight authority is the Attorney General, not the Comptroller, will NYRA then comply with a subpoena from Andrew Cuomo for the same books and records that it says Tom DiNapoli can't have? Somehow I doubt it.

Charlie and Steve: you guys have got to stop listening to the lawyers. Just do the right thing.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Bid That Could Save Maryland Racing

Details have not yet been made public of the initial bids, submitted last week, for the assets of the Maryland Jockey Club -- Laurel, Pimlico and the Bowie training center. And the final auction -- assuming anything's ever final in the ongoing saga of the Magna Entertainment bankruptcy -- won't be held until January 8th. We know that bids are in from real estate developer Carl Verstandig, partnering with a California gaming company, from the Cordish Co., which operates the Arundel Mills mall near Laurel, and from the De Francis family, whose prior stint at the helm of the MJC was somewhat less than stellar. And we suspect that, one way or another, Farnk Stronach will try to hang onto the tracks, either using his personal money or, if he can get away with it, using funding from one of his tame subsidiary corporations, at the usual expense of minority shareholders.

For those of us who would like to see racing continue, and even thrive, in Maryland, none of these bids exactly makes the heart go pitty-pat. Stronach and Joe De Francis have already demonstrated their incompetence, and both Cordish and Verstandig are completely unknown quantities in racing; one always suspects that a developer buying a race track is a lot more interested in its real estate value than in the racing itself.

But there is one bid that might actually make a difference. Blow Horn Equity LLC, headed by Pennsylvania horseman Jeff Seder, announced today that it had submitted a fully funded bid for the MJC properties. It's one of the more exciting ideas that I've seen for actually reviving racing.

Jeff is the founder and CEO of EQB, Inc., a racing advisory service and bloodstock agent based in southeast Pennsylvania. EQB has pioneered the use of a number of scientific techniques for analyzing race horse prospects, including heart scans and, for the two-year-old sales, gait analysis using slow-motion video. Jeff and his colleague Patti Miller have advised most of the country's leading owners, and have selected for purchase many many Grade I and Breeders Cup winners. There's more on EQB, Jeff and Patti here.

[Disclosure: I'm a friend of Jeff's and Patti's and, for the past several years, have played a minor role in their selection of yearlings at the Keeneland September sale.]

he Blow Horn Equity proposal -- the company is named for the highly dangerous Blow Horn Corner near the EQB office -- is funded by private equity, and, like the De Francis proposal, is based on having slot machines (or, if you prefer, video lottery terminals) at Laurel Park. Both bidders assume that the award of a slots license to the nearby Arundel Mills mall can be derailed, either by having the county government refuse zoning permission or by the state's reopening the licensing process. The only reason the license wasn't awarded to Laurel in the first place is that Frank Stronach thought he was above the law and didn't bother to submit the required cash deposit with his bid. Even without specific knowledge of the bids for the MJC, there's substantial opposition to awarding the license to Arundel Mills, which already has a pretty high incidence of crime, not likely to be lessened by the presence of the slot machines.

Under the Blow Horn Equity proposal, a temporary slots facility, with 2,375 machines, could be up and running within six months' of the award of the license, and a full-scale casino would be ready within three years. Considering that New York has now been waiting more than eight years for slot machines at Aqueduct, that's not a bad timetable. Estimated revenue from the slots, to be shared between the state, purses and the breeding program, would be $350 million in the first two years and up to $500 million once the full-scale casino was operating. Even a modest portion of that for purses and for breeders would probably keep Maryland racing alive and healthy.

What makes the proposal exciting, though, is that Jeff is one of the few people in racing who's able to think outside the very small box of received ideas. He's had substantial business experience, as CEO of a textile company and of a Southern California department store chain, in each case engineering turnarounds that left floundering companies newly profitable. And he has a far better record as a money manager, for trusts and pension funds, than most of the folks on Wall Street. He's also a pretty smart guy, with a B.A., a law degree and an M.B.A., all from Harvard, and over 30 years of involvement in scientific analysis of race horse performance.

Jeff's also the founder of the Big Picture Alliance, a foundation that trained over a thousand inner-city Philadelphia teens in video and film techniques and produced over 250 films, not to mention the effect it had on keeping a good number of those kids in school and on the path to productive lives. One can guess that he'd have some useful ideas for involving the similar population in Baltimore that lives around Pimlico.

At this point, I haven't discussed with Jeff any specific ideas for upgrading the Maryland tracks, or for attracting new racing fans. I do know that, if any of the bidders for the MJC properties are able to come up with new ideas that will reinvigorate the spot, he's the one most likely to succeed. Let's hope the bankruptcy court comes to the same conclusion.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Bids are in for Maryland Tracks

Yesterday was the final date for interested parties to submit bids for the Maryland Jockey Club piece of Frank Stronach's bankrupt Magna Entertainment empire, comprising Pimlico and Laurel race tracks, the Bowie training center and an OTB. According to the Baltimore Post, one of the bidders is none other than the same DeFrancis family that owned the tracks prior to their sale to Stronach in 2002 and that, to be kind, is viewed with less than total love and affection by most in the Maryland racing community.

The names of all the bidders will be forwarded to Maryland state officials on Monday, but we already know that there's a competing bid from real estate developer Carl Verstandig, in partnership with an unnamed California gaming entity. Among other possible bidders are the family of Peter Angelos, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, and a group headed by a well-known racing industry figure from Pennsylvania. And there's always the specter of Frank Stronach himself cobbling together some kind of bid, using either his own personal money -- which he may have more of now that General Motors has cancelled his deal to buy Opel -- or once again using his various controlled corporations to pony up the needed cash, at the expense of minority shareholders.

Other potential bidders have been mentioned from time to time, but as of now there's no definite information that any of them submitted bids by Friday's deadline. The actual bankruptcy court auction is scheduled for Friday, January 8th, which will give Maryland a bit of time to exercise its right to match the winning bid. Not that I could imagine any state government paying to buy racetracks in the current economic squeeze. But the state's primary concern is keeping the Preakness in Maryland, and that should be reasonably secure with any bidder -- except, of course, Stronach himself, who, to borrow a term from cycling, is "beyond category" when it comes to unpredictability.

I've raced horses at Laurel and Pimlico, and I've been to the Preakness a few times. For those who don't know the tracks, Laurel is a workmanlike, perfectly satisfactory second-tier race track on the Baltimore-Washington corridor, near enough people to make a go of it with fewer racing days, better promotion and, of course, a share in the slot-machine revenue that will start flowing relatively soon.

Of course, Stronach managed to screw up the slots deal too, by deciding that he didn't have to comply with the rules saying his slot application for Laurel should be accompanied by a check for the deposit. You know, like putting some money down when you buy a house or a car. Oops, sorry, I guess people don't do that much anymore, but you get the idea. As a result, the license for nearly 5,000 slot machines went instead to the Arundel Mills shopping center, just up the road from Laurel, although that deal is currently mired in zoning conflicts. Shopping center tycoon David Cordish, who heads the group that's tentatively been awarded the slots license, was also rumored to be among the potential bidders for the Maryland Jockey Club assets in the bankruptcy court auction.

But let's assume -- which I know may be unreasonable in Maryland politics -- that a deal can be worked out whereby some of the slots revenue goes to support Maryland racing, which is on life support and which might well die without some sort of cash infusion. Lots of Maryland horse farms have already been sold or converted to other crops, and stallions have been leaving the state for the greener pastures of Pennsylvania, and along with those farms and stallions go the jobs of the people who take care of the horses and the traditions of Maryland racing that go back at least to the 18th century. Shame on both Stronach and Joe DeFrancis for letting things reach this point.

Pimlico is, to put it kindly, a bigger challenge than Laurel. The track is located in an African-American neighborhood northwest of downtown Baltimore, and affluent white would-be racegoers use the location as an excuse not to go, just as whites in Miami stopped going to Hialeah once the neighborhood around that track became predominantly Hispanic. And the track itself needs a total makeover; the barns and backstretch are run down, and the grandstand makes Aqueduct look like a luxury resort.

But with a bit of vision, a little of the slots money, and a reduced racing calendar, Pimlico might well be brought back to something approaching its glory days. There's decent public transportation, a glorious history, and a neighborhood where jobs aren't all that easy to come by. A smart track operator would make Pimlico more a part of its community, engaging the people who liove near the track as both employees and racegoers, and making going to the races once again the thing to do for Baltimoreans. That probably means running only on Friday nights and weekends, but that's a whole lot better than closing the place down.

Presumably we'll see in the next few days what the various bidders are offering, and how the legal issues surrounding the slot-machine revenue will play out; DeFrancis managed to get Stronach to give him a share of future slots money, when Stronach bought the Maryland tracks in 2002. That deal, if it's not undone by the bankruptcy court, would severely hamper any new owner's attempts to rebuild racing in Maryland. Let's hope the court does the right thing and cancels the contract. If it does, then a new operator -- i.e., someone other than the discredited DeFrancis and Stronach -- might have a chance to make Maryland racing respectable again.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Why Does Anyone Bet on the Races?

Interesting piece in the New York Times yesterday, about Jesus Leonardo, a 57-year-old New Yorker who makes $45,000-$50,000 a year as a professional "stooper," picking up discarded parimutuel tickets and cashing in the winners. Leonardo, who collects the tickets at various OTB parlors in the city, rather than the race track, appears to be doing far better than most bettors, or for that matter, than NYC OTB itself, which is the latest racing-related entity to fall on the mercy of the bankruptcy court.

That got me thinking about why any of us bet on the races at all. In my own case, I've noticed that I hardly bet these days, certainly a lot less than I did, say, 10-15 years ago, even though I'm still as much, or more, of a follower of racing.

It seems to me that there are two likely reasons, in my own case. These may be merely personal, but perhaps they shed some light on the death spiral that racing as a whole seems to be in.

First, I've become involved in owning horses -- in fact, in managing a partnership operation, Castle Village Farm, that makes it possible for lots of racetrackers and handicappers to become thoroughbred owners at a reasonable cost. The more I've become involved with the tremendous ups and downs of having our own race horses, the less the desire to bet on other peoples'. Of course, buying race horses might also be considered betting, and at a far larger scale than that of the average recreational handicapper, but if you go into the ownership game with your eyes wide open, knowing that you're not all that likely to make money, but that you'll get a lot of thrills along the way, the risk aspect seems to become less important.

Second, and perhaps most relevant for the general state of racing today, I've found that it's just too hard to beat the takeout. According to the Horseplayers' Association of North America (HANA) ratings, hardly any tracks take out less than 15% on win-place-show wagering or 19% on exactas and other multiples. Even if one is quicker and smarter than most of the other bettors, that's a huge hurdle. Now, if I bet a few million a year through a rebate shop, reducing my effective takeout to the single digits, it might be another story. But, alas, I don't have the kind of bankroll necessary for that, nor the patience for the mind-numbing computer-assisted search for miniscule overlays that's the heart of many big bettors' operations.

Fortunately for me, and for many others who might, in earlier times, have stayed with the race track because it was the only game in town, there are some much more attractive options for satisfying the gambling urge. For those who find all that handicapping too hard, and just want action, slot machines will do just fine, and they have a takeout that's usually below 10%. Of course, you don't have half an hour between plays at the slot machine, so the $20 that takes a whole afternoon to lose, in $2 bets, at the track can go in 15 minutes at the casino, even with the lower takeout. But millions of folks seem to find the mindlessness of the slots quite satisfying, and, if and when we ever get slots at Aqueduct, I'll be very happy to see some of their money make its way into the purse account.

But the real gambling rival to handicapping is poker. The game combines many of the same elements as trying to pick a winner at the track -- knowledge of the odds, good math skills, and an acceptance of fate -- you can make make a brilliant overlay bet in racing and see it ruined by a stupid jockey mistake, or you can make all the right bets in a hand of Texas Hold-Em and lose when some moron who shouldn't even have stayed in the hand gets the one card in the deck that could beat you on the river. So, in either case, you have to be satisfied with having made the right bet, even when you lose. Another similarity is that it takes stamina and determination to play the game well. Just as you have to put in the time handicapping to have even a shot at beating the races, so too do you have to put in the time at the poker table, whether real or virtual, to convert your advantage in skill into real money.

And, most important, poker has takeout rates that are far, far better than those in racing. The most you'll ever pay, in a low-stakes game at a casino, is about 10%, and the number is much less than that as the stakes rise, or in online poker, where the takeout ("rake") is generally only a couple of percent.

If we're looking for the racing fans of the future, I've seen them, and they're not coming to the races; they're at the poker tables. If racing could capture a tenth of the 20-somethings who are playing poker online or at casinos and card rooms these days, we wouldn't have to worry about declines in handle any more.

Those who argue against cutting takeout in racing say that most bettors don't even know what the takeout rates are; if they did, would anyone at all bet at NYC OTB, with its ludicrous 5% surcharge? But that argument is false even for racing; the big bettors go to the rebate shops, where they can get takeout reduced to a reasonable level. And all those young poker players are certainly conscious of the odds and the takeout rates. They're good at math, and they know what they're buying into, whether it's a lower rake, better "comps" from the casino, or a bigger jackpot (cf. Pick Six carryovers).

So, if we ever want to see those kids at the track, we have to give them a product they'll buy. And, given the competition from poker and, to a lesser extent, slots, that means reducing takeout to somewhere around 10%.

Now, the trick is to figure out how to run a race track and put enough in the purse account to keep the horsemen in the game, all the while relying on a 10% cut of the betting dollar.