Preakness and Belmont Stakes futures in doubt
FRIDAY, 14 MAY 2010 13:54
Two thirds of horse racing's Triple Crown series in serious financial trouble
BY EVAN WEINER
Gary Pretlow says there will be horse racing this fall at the Belmont Park. Wait one second, the home of one of thoroughbred racing crown jewels and Triple Crown event — the Belmont Stakes — may not have racing this fall? And who is Gary Pretlow that he is in the know?
The short answer is that it is quite possible that (the New York Racing Association, NYRA-run) Belmont's September 11-October 31, 2010 Fall Championship Meet is in jeopardy because of the meltdown of New York State politics in the both State Senate and Assembly and the leadership of Governor David Patterson. Not only is the Belmont Fall Championship Meet but the Saratoga Race Course July 23 through September 6 dates could also be in peril.
The Democrat Pretlow is the Chair of the New York State Assembly Racing and Wagering Committee. He has been in that post since 2005 and is in the middle of all the crises that are enveloping the thoroughbred horse industry in New York
There will be the running of the Belmont Stakes on June 5th. The Belmont is the oldest of the Triple Crown races and started in the Bronx in 1867. The race has been run on the Queens-Nassau County, New York race track since 1905 with the exception of two years, 1911 and 1912 when politics shut down the race. The New York State Legislature banned betting in those two years. Politics has a long history of involvement with racing in New York State. Neither New York Democrats nor New York Republicans have been able to solve thoroughbred racing's fiscal problems.
The basic problem of 2010 can be solved according to Pretlow if New York City's Off Track Betting cuts a $15 million check to the New York Racing Association but Pretlow said OTB chairman Sandy Frucher has refused to do so. The New York City OTB is bankrupt.
But that is not the long term solution for an industry that is reeling in New York. It is just a temporary fix.
Two of the three venues for thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown are in financial trouble. The Preakness at the Pimlico Race Course has been in business since 1873 but there have been suggestions since 2005 that the Preakness might be moved elsewhere because Maryland didn't have the money to keep racing in the state going.
At the end of April, the bankrupt Pimlico Race Course owner MI Developments reached an agreement with the state of Maryland that they will not move the horse race from Pimlico. The Kentucky Derby remains the gold standard for the thoroughbred industry but the glory days are long gone. The Triple Crown like the Indianapolis 500 is pure Americana from the days of Norman Rockwell paintings. Those events still resonant but is seems the events are more suited for the Smithsonian than modern day sporting events that catch the public's attention.
For the time being, the Preakness is going nowhere. But the thoroughbred and standard horse racing industry is in real financial trouble. In 1950, Americans favorite sports were baseball, boxing and horse racing. Six decades later, baseball is still extremely popular but it is no longer the lone "superstar" sport and trails football in popularity according to pollsters. Both boxing and horse racing have bottomed out.
Horse racing tracks were the only legal venue to bet outside of Nevada back in 1950. But horse racing within 15 years would come under assault as politicians attitudes toward gambling changed. Politicians decided to tap into a new revenue source, gambling, through a variety of lotteries. In New York, you can play Keno in pizza parlors and go to a local 7-11 and play about 20 different scratch off games or lotteries. Gambling is everywhere and it took a toll on the horse racing industry.
In the early 1970s, Yonkers Raceway would draw as many as 40,000 people on Saturday nights. Within two decades, a good many standardbred racetracks were ready to go out of business. Lawmakers in various states including New York approved a form of a one armed bandit, video lottery terminals (VLT) or video slot machines, and opened up gambling venues in failing standardbred tracks. Yonkers is now a casino which features standardbred racing. The horse racing industry and casino operators can be at odds in terms of promoting a "racino" and what is more important, horse racing or slot machines. But the casinos cannot open without the horses and the horse racing industry desperately need proceeds from a casino to keep their industry going in the United States.
In many corners of America, horse racing is a dead sport.
In 2001, the New York State Senate and Assembly passed legislation which was signed into law by Governor George Pataki that allowed the VLTs and that kept Yonkers Raceway, Monticello, Batavia Downs, Buffalo Raceway, Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs in business along with the thoroughbred Fingers Lakes Race Track. But for some reason, State Senate Majority Leader Republican Joe Bruno said no to thoroughbred tracks in Saratoga and at Belmont and Aqueduct Race Tracks in Queens.
In 2007, Tim Rooney, who owns Yonkers Raceway, said without the "machines" as he called the VLT or slots, Yonkers Raceway would be a shopping mall.
Eventually, Aqueduct was allowed to install VLTs but the process of awarding a license to a company to build a Queens-based casino near John F. Kennedy International Airport has been bungled by Governor David Patterson. But Patterson is not the only New York Governor that is responsible for the dismal state of thoroughbred racing in New York. Pataki and Eliot Spitzer could not get a "racino" in Aqueduct.
Whether state sponsored gambling is ethical and causes more problem gambling is an argument for another column. The point is that politicians of both sides of the aisle, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, are using gaming as a way to raise revenues. Government-sponsored gambling, whether it is video lottery terminals, slot machines, video table gaming or real table gaming is here and is not going away. Gambling revenues replace the need to tax. The Republican Pataki and the Democrats Spitzer and Patterson have dropped the ball when it comes to the thoroughbred industry which consists of jockeys, trainers, horse farms and ancillary businesses connected to thoroughbred racing.
Last winter, Paterson backed a deal that would have seen Aqueduct Entertainment Group run Aqueduct's racino. The state Division of Lottery refused to grant AEG a gaming license, saying it failed to provide some of the required background information. An industry insider called one of the main partners in AEG a "bottom feeder" with a history of problems. Patterson is hopeful that a gaming license will be issued to another group soon. Patterson though has weakened his credibility by giving the Aqueduct license to AEG, a group that was rejected by the state lottery.
There is a suggestion that New York State cannot help fix the thoroughbred industry's fiscal problems until 2011 when a new governor will be sworn in.
Patterson seems to be the lamest of lame ducks.
New York's thoroughbred industry is falling far behind states that have "racinos" which feature gambling and horse racing. Pretlow said that even though New York has fallen behind neighboring states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut in the gaming industry along with Delaware and West Virginia, he is convinced that getting the OTB payments to the New York Racing Association and slots in Aqueduct and possibly Belmont and Saratoga will make New York a horse racing destination again. Right now, the thoroughbred industry can get more money from race purses in other states and Philadelphia Park is becoming a better bet for horse owners on the east coast in terms of purses because of Parx Casino.
The TV glitz of the Triple Crown is just that glitz. The thoroughbred industry in the United States has some severe financial problems on a day-to-day basis. The tracks are empty, there is far too much betting competition starting at the local 7-11 and even in local pizza places. Jockeys used to be household names, Willie Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro were major celebrities, even the track announcers were well known like the New York announcer Freddie Caposella who was lampooned in standup bits by comics. Horses like Secretariat, Seabiscuit, Man O' War and Citation were treated like celebrities as well. Secretariat was immortalized on a US postage stamp in 1999. But much of thoroughbred racing's glory came before 1950 when Americans listed baseball, boxing and horse racing at the top of their most popular sports lists.
The Triple Crown of Horse Racing is not the Triple Crown anymore.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio-TV commentator and lecturer on "The Politics of Sports Business" and can be reached for speaking engagements at email@example.com