One of the most magnificent and beautiful racing venues in the world opened their winter championship meet this past Saturday, with all we have come to know and expect from Gulfstream Park. The electricity was present, the buzz was in the air, fields were large and competitive, and hope sprung eternal for the numerous three year olds with Classic aspirations and their connections. I have been a regular at both the old and new facilities and even “the tent” season and the place has always had that boutique meet feel. Even with purses on the small side for a meet and venue like this, especially with slot machines, there is no shortage of top outfits that choose to compete here in the winter.
Gulfstream Park, under the leadership of Tim Ritvo, has placed itself right in the top tier of racetracks that insist the game is not a dying one, and they do a lot more than most to insure that is an accurate statement. Frank Stronach’s vision, while not perfect, is a lot better than many thought it would be when he bought the place and started making changes to what was then a much loved winter institution. Personally I loved the old Gulfstream Park, and I love the new one just as much.
Despite all that Gulfstream Park has done to keep the dream and game alive and on the upswing, racing always seems to manage to shoot itself in the foot somehow. There were developments at both Gulfstream Park and its West Coast sister track, Santa Anita, also owned by Stronach, that are not consistent with the projections about the game these facilities are trying to promote. I am not going to go into my plea for a central governing body, uniformed and standardized rules, and all that I have been preaching for what feels like centuries. No, instead I will simplify one of the main reasons racing continues to shoot that foot.
For years racetracks have had a problem that finally caught up with them. They don’t know their customer. They never have. They always try to make them someone they’re not. Their customers are gamblers, bettors, nothing less. People who don’t bet are not coming out to watch these magnificent animals compete. Maybe for a day here or there when The Kentucky Derby is running or one of these glorious creatures is going for The Triple Crown. Now if you have Churchill Downs aspirations and really only want to run two days a year that is fine. If you actually want to run meets; however, then it’s a problem. You have to know your customer and how to treat them, especially when your customer is the gambler. Vegas knows how so it can’t really be that difficult, but racetracks have to be willing to acknowledge who their customer is. It isn’t the college kid, the shopper, the concert goer, the family on an outing, it’s gamblers. That doesn’t mean you can’t attract new customers from these or any other avenues, but if you don’t know who and what they are you’ll lose them.
They wonder why handle is down. They have summits on it with rooms filled with people who have no idea. They kick around formulas, statistics, and pat themselves on the back at their progress. Not a whale in the room. Not one. What does that tell you? To their defense, they probably have a harder time finding one at the races nowadays. With all we do and with all the progress, we are missing basic business principles of success. Know your customer. You can’t treat a horseplayer going into the racetrack like a fan walking into a football stadium. Now to the matters at hand.
“When this filly runs, you bet her. I mean it, you bet her, she is going to win”. I was never one to pay attention to anyone else’s opinion on the outcome of a horserace. None of my jockey friends, no trainers, no exercise riders, and certainly no owners. Another player, not a chance. This was long ago; however, and my rules were not as stern as today. Further, my exercise rider friend knew my ways, and in all the years we spoke at the races he had never given me a horse. I had seen him give horses to many others, some of which won, and some of which lost, but never to me. This time was different. Every couple of weeks he would remind me, “when that filly runs you bet her”. Her name was Lady Justice, and finally one day in July I believe, she showed up in a maiden special weight race at Belmont. She was a first time starter being ridden by Antonio Graell. My friend worked for the barn so I assumed he was her exercise rider. I never asked, and he never said.
She went off at 7 or 8-1. The MSW races at Belmont in July were littered with horses from guys like Leroy Jolly, Woody Stephens, and other pretty sharp outfits back then so she was taking her fair share of support. I bet to win and on top in exactas. Lady Justice flew out of the gate and never looked back. She won by maybe 3 or 4 lengths but it felt like more. My friend was happy, and so was I. After the race while we were having a celebratory coffee for me, and rum and coke for him I finally asked, “you get on that one?” To my surprise he said no, he had never gotten on her. Logically I said oh, you are friends with the rider who gets on her? Again no, I don’t even talk to him. Ah, I got it, you have seen her work and knew she could run. Again no, he said, adding nobody had seen her except the trainer and the exercise rider. I finally said so how did you know she’d win, and why were you so sure. He said listen, in all the years I work in that barn, they never worked a horse at 4:30 in the morning, in the dark before anyone is there. They did that every single time with her. (Her name was not Lady Justice) #Dragnet.
A sharp barn will always be able to hide a work. It’s part of the game we love and it will always happen. Consider it a perk. It is as old as racing itself. What is wrong though is for a training facility to enable such activity on a regular basis. Further, for a racetrack to knowingly allow this to happen would also be wrong and both facilities would be demonstrating a total lack of integrity towards the game and a complete disregard for the money of the bettor, the racetrack’s customer. This would not bode well for handle concerns.
In the weeks leading up to The Gulfstream Park Championship meet, a story broke that Palm Beach Downs would not allow private clocker Bruno De Julio access to their facility, citing private property restrictions towards independent clockers. Apparently Palm Beach Downs management disagrees with all the calls in the industry towards transparency and a fair and level playing field. While the facility may be private property, workouts of horses are not private and are required to be listed in the past performances for the horse. There should be no reason Palm Beach Downs shouldn’t want that. It was further reported that several of Todd Pletcher’s horses had worked and those works were listed on his website but not in official past performances.
To complicate the matter further, a prominent trainer with horses stabled at Palm Beach Downs apparently said something to the effect of he did not want his horses being touted, and he was tired of hearing about what was good for the horse player. I would suggest he take up training show jumpers or some type of horse that does not involve pari-mutual wagering. Then again he can always get up a little earlier like the trainer of Lady Justice did. When pari-mutual wagering, or any form of legal wagering is involved, then touting, transparency and certain rules are inherent to it and all its participants, even those stabled at Palm Beach Downs.
To their credit and as usual, Gulfstream Park and Tim Ritvo stepped up to the plate and tried to make things right. They were instrumental in getting Palm Beach Downs to allow Mike Welch of Daily Racing Form access to the facility and workouts are now reportedly being independently timed. Mike works for DRF, who sells his workout reports, so in fact if touting was the real issue it has not been avoided nor should it, but you have to ask yourself if there is another issue here. I would also venture that Gulfstream Park did not go as far as they could and should have. They can restrict entries from any facility that is not in compliance with their rules and obviously could have put more pressure on Palm Beach Downs although they should not have had to. Remaining cognizant of their need to get as many horses stabled where they can compete at the track, they needed to do more in this case. The integrity of our game can afford no more hits. The more clockers the better. It goes towards checks and balances. You can license them, screen them, limit them to a certain number but they should have access. Excluding Bruno or any legitimate clocker is not transparent and not in the game’s best interest.
While ‘tis the season and all that, the drama did not limit itself to the east coast. Greed knows no boundaries, as what else can you attribute Santa Anita raising the price on season boxes near the finish line from $3750 for the winter meet to $9500? They claim to want to re-energize that area of the track. I know I’d be appalled at receiving notice of an increase like that in the mail. I’d sooner your note said stay home. A lot of these boxes have been held by horseman for years and some can’t absorb that kind of increase. It’s not fair to ask them to. Horseman are some of the hardest working, most dedicated people in the world. Take care of them, take care of your own, or there will be nobody left. I can think of five ways off the top of my head to “re-energize” the area, and none involve tripling the price, and I am not even a racetrack executive. We have to stop the foot shooting.
Nick Zito gets a big high five this week for winning the feature race on the Claiming Crown card for the second year in a row. Nick is another of those old school guys you just can’t keep down. First time gelding Catholic Cowboy got the money under a strong ride by Luis Saez who deserves a high five of his own. This gifted young rider and fine young man is riding in great form.
We have a list; First, Palm Beach Downs, Second the nameless trainer who doesn’t want to have his horses independently clocked and doesn’t want to hear what’s good for the horse player, third, Santa Anita and whoever decided that size increase was doable, the HRTV announcer who will remain nameless that stated you can’t breed that type of heart into a racehorse after Tiz Midnight gamely turned back Warren’s Veneda, then promptly agreed with another HRTV announcer when they stated she had that heart just like her momma, well which is it?