Monday, March 19, 2018

2YO Sale Season Gets Started

The two-year-old sale season has returned, with neither a bang nor a whimper. In contrast to prior years, when the Fasig-Tipton South Florida sale led off the calendar, this year the Ocala Breeders Sales Co.'s March sale was first, with the elite Fasig-Tipton sale, now hosted by Gulfstream, moving to the end of the month.

Whether the timing change affected results is unclear. Overall, the OBS results were pretty similar to last year's OBS March sale: 261 of the 573 horses originally catalogued were sold, for a 45.5% clearance rate. Those 261 include 44, an unusually high 17% of the total number sold, that were bought privately after failing to attain their reserve in the auction ring. Those "post-sale" purchases, as the sales companies describe them, are almost all for a price less than the sellers wanted, i.e., below the reserve, but were enough to convince the sellers not to take the horses home and try again later.

One hundred and two of the horses that actually went through the sale were listed as RNAs (reserve not attained) and did not sell privately before they left the sales grounds. That number was 17.8% of the total catalog. Using the sales companies' preferred measure of success, that meant that the "buy-back" or RNA rate was 28% of the horses that actually went through the ring. But another 210 horses originally catalogued for sale were scratched, many after poor breezes or after they failed to attract enough potential buyers to take a look at them in the days before the sale. So, looking at the catalogue as a whole, of the 573 horses originally listed, 45.5% sold (including "post-sales"), 17.8% were RNAs and 36.7% were scratched. Those numbers are roughly in line with the higher-quality sales in 2017.

The average price for horses sold at OBS March was $164,854, a decline of more than 12% from last year's $187,741, but the median price increased from $95,000 in 2017 to $105,000 this year, a 10.5% jump. The decline in the average reflects a slight weakening at the top of the market. At last year's OBS March sale, five horses sold for $1 million or more, and another four went for between $900,000 and $1 million. This year, the top price was $875,000 (for a Scat Daddy filly).Those million-dollar babies pulled the average up last year, but this year there were comparatively more sales in the $200,000-$400,000 range, pulling the median up.

As always at the two-year-old sales, blistering quarter-horse speed was at a premium. An astonishing 95 horses breezed an eighth of a mile in 10.0 seconds or less, 17 of them recording a time of 9.4. Another 11 "stretched out" to a quarter of a mile in less than 21 seconds. Reminder: a dozen years ago, The Green Monkey recorded one of the first-ever 9.4 breezes, at the Fasig-Tipton then-Calder sale. He sold for a record $16 million -- after Godolphin's John Ferguson and Coolmore's Demi O'Byrne engaged in conspicuous displays of masculinity for some 15 minutes -- and never won a race.

Nine of those horses with sub-10 furlongs or sub-21 quarters ended up in the list of the top 20 highest-priced horses at the Ocala sale, including the $875,000 sale-topping Scat Daddy filly. While it's true that, in the aggregate, the horses that breeze faster at the two-year-old sales do better on the race track than those that don't breeze well, it's also true that pressuring a horse to run faster than it ever will again, at a time when some of the horses aren't even 24 months old, can't help but contribute to unsoundness and shorter careers. Everyone knows this, but the buyers -- and especially the agents -- with the big bucks still want to see speed. As the late Pete Seeger said in another context, when will they ever learn?

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

CDI - The Darth Vader of Racing?

It's no surprise that corporations act in the interest of their shareholders top executives. Other constituencies or stakeholders -- employees, customers, cities and states where the corporations do business -- are just obstacles to be placated or overcome on the way to ever-higher profits. That's called capitalism.

But still. One hopes, dreams, deludes oneself that perhaps racing is different. So many of us are in the game for reasons other than profit-making. If we wanted to make money, there are a lot of better ways to do it. But we love the horses, we love the thrill of the race, we love the radical democracy of the racing world, where the opinion of a dark-skinned immigrant working a minimum-wage job has just as much value as that of a white male Wall Street lawyer. Yes, we need someone to run the tracks (although perhaps a not-for-profit model of some sort would be better than corporate ownership anyway), but this really isn't a game for unbridled (sic) capitalist greed.

So what happens when a corporation does own race tracks? The most egregious example is Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI, to distinguish the corporation from the eponymous race track), about whose foibles I've written quite a few times. CDI's latest move, reported in the Paulick Report and on, is to obtain a jai alai permit for its Calder property in South Florida. That would allow CDI to dispense entirely with messy, inconvenient horse racing at Calder and substitute something that's a lot cheaper -- though of course no one bets on it -- as a means of retaining what it really wants, the slot machines and other "gaming" at the site. CDI has already demolished the grandstand and the barn area at Calder, and merely rents the track out to Frank Stronach's Gulfstream to keep the racing dates that are required for it to maintain its gaming license. But even that seems too much for a corporate executive suit(e) so narrowly focused on the bottom line their bonuses and stock options. To a corporation like CDI, racing is a necessary evil, because many jurisdictions foolishly, in CDI's view, condition the award of the slot machine and other gaming licenses on running actual real live horses at least a few days a year.

We've become inured to outrages from CDI. Buying and selling race tracks as if they were lifeless interchangeable machine parts, raising takeout on bettors, treating horse people as unwelcome interlopers in the horsefolk's's own world, etc. etc. But it wasn't always so. Perhaps a little history is in order.

Today's CDI is the inheritor of the fabled Churchill Downs track in Louisville created by one Kentucky Colonel, M. Lewis Clark, and made famous by another, Matt Winn, whose never-ceasing public relations efforts made the Kentucky Derby (presented by whoever this year's paying sponsor might be) into the one horse race that almost everyone in America knows about. While in its early years, Churchill was loosely affiliated with other tracks, especially Latonia (now Turfway) in northern Kentucky, it ran from 1875 until 1991 as pretty much a stand-alone operation whose business, whose only business, was horse racing.

Matt Winn

Starting in 1991, as full-card simulcasting seemed to be the industry's new savior, CDI went into expansion mode, buying the Louisville Downs harness track, which it converted into a simulcast and training facility. Then in 1994 it bought Hoosier Park in Indiana, in 1995 Ellis Park in western Kentucky, in 1998 Hollywood Park in California and Calder Race Course in Florida, in 2000 Arlington Park near Chicago (by way of merger) and in 2004 Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Just looking at the acquisitions, one might be forgiven for thinking that CDI was actually interested in horse racing.

Not so, and certainly not so after Bob Evans became the company's CEO in 2006. Evans does breed a few horses, as do most rich folks in Kentucky, but all his pre-CDI business experience had nothing to do with racing; he was an executive at Caterpillar and involved in a number of investment firms. (Rather like current New York Racing Association CEO Chris Kay, who also knew nothing about racing when he got the job, having worked at Toys R Us and Universal Studios.)

Beginning with Evans's reign, CDI stopped being a horse racing company and became what it is today, a casino and online betting company that still, because of those pesky state lawmakers!, has to operate a few race tracks. CDI sold Hollywood Park, which was later torn down to make way for a new football stadium. By the end of 2006 it had also sold Ellis park and Hoosier Park. At the same time, it started opening up race track slot machine parlors, beginning in 2007 at Fair Grounds and then in 2010 at Calder. In 2007, it also launched the Twin Spires online betting platform, which now makes more money for the corporation that does actual horse racing. CDI even bought a couple of stand-alone casinos in Mississippi between 2010 and 2012. And while it did acquire another race track, the Miami Valley harness oval, that was only because the Ohio legislature had just authorized slot machines at that state's tracks.

Evans's move away from racing has pretty much been endorsed by his successor, Bill Carstanjen, who took over in 2014. Carstanjen did reverse the 2014 purchase of Big Fish Games, which distributed such online hits as Gummy Drop!, and he did oversee the purchase this year of Presque Isle Downs in Erie, PA, but apparently that was to acquire Presque Isle's slots license more than for its under-the-radar racing program.
Does this look like a race horse?

Along the way, CDI has managed to enrage horsepeople, with its my-way-or-the-highway approach (something I saw first-hand after CDI bought Calder); bettors, by raising takeout; horse owners, by treating the owners of Kentucky Derby hopefuls as cash cows and not welcomed guests, and even other race tracks, as in  its ham-handed efforts to squelch the innovative Kentucky Downs track.

Carstanjen, the current CEO, has been with CDI since 2005. Before that, he was at General Electric, not known for its horse racing expertise, but well known for its executive pay packages. In 2016, he made a mere $5.5 million in cash and company stock (eat your heart out, Chris Kay!). The numbers for 2017 aren't out yet, but are likely to be higher.

Under both Evans and Carstanjen, Churchill Downs Inc. has acted like a corporation. And that's a pity.