Not all of this year’s headlines have been negative

Dec 12, 2000 10:09 AM

Dissident Tracks Present Case to NTRA Board
Garden State Sold to Developer
Six Enter Guilty Pleas in Penn National Race-Fixing Case
Pair Found Guilty of Racing Scam in England
Trainer Eddie Gregson Takes Own Life
World-Famous Jockey Chris Antley Found Murdered
Chemist: Drug Super Test Could Create Nightmare
Integrity Described as Critical to Survival of Racing

All of racing’s headlines this year were not disturbing. It just seems that way.

There was a semblance of good news, but that’s not conducive to headlines. Good news generally is relegated to the last sports page, with the agate junior college basketball scores and the penile implant ads.

Racing’s corporate schmoozers can boost the economy and satisfy their egos with seminar after seminar, meeting after meeting. They can produce spin doctors to weave their convoluted perceptions of what ails the game. But no matter how you slice baloney, it’s still baloney. Racing’s 21st century ills can be summed up in three words: too much racing. Any candid horseman will admit to that.

A random sampling of opinion from three of Southern California’s leading trainers is unanimous in that holding.

"If I was the czar of racing, the first thing I would do for California is go to a four-day (racing) week," said Darrell Vienna, a former rodeo rider who holds a law degree from Loyola University and a psychology degree from UCLA. "The rationale for that is to increase field sizes by reducing the population in races that are available.

"Then I would reduce simulcasting. We have fewer and fewer horses and fewer and fewer people on track. To get more horses, we have to increase purse money, and to accomplish that you need large and competitive fields. That’s what will bring people to the track and increase wagering.

"At one point, people were coming to the races, but we broke them by giving them so many gambling opportunities that they ran out of money. Simulcasting hurts us rather than helps because California horsemen receive significantly less than from on-track wagering. Tracks offer simulcast wagering because they’re not here for the long haul, regardless of what they say ”” and history shows us that. The tracks milk this cow until her udders are raw and when she starts to kick them, they sell her to somebody else. That’s what’s going on here.

"We need someone to take charge who cares about the future. We can’t expect leadership from the state ”” at least up to now ”” because it appears that to this point, most of the (California Horse Racing Board) commissioners have followed directions of part-time or short-term owners. Whatever they’ve wanted, the commissioners have acquiesced to, and in fact, a number of commissioners have said, ”˜We can’t shorten the racing calendar; we need to increase it. So who’s in charge? Up to this point, it’s short-term owners without long-term interests in racing, looking for a business appreciation without any real concern for the underlying industry.

"Owners used to be here for the long haul, but they can’t take it any more because of how racing is structured. Basically, what’s left are trainers and their employees, who have been here through various jurisdictional ownership changes. The trainers have seen it all and really have very little input. I would cut the racing calendar, significantly reduce simulcasting, or make the purse money the horsemen receive the same as it is for on-track wagering. That’s the only way I would support continued simulcasting.

"We know money for that is available, because off-track venues are giving rebates that are double what we get from them in purse money. They’re giving 10 percent rebates and we’re getting 1 1/2 percent from them. Think about it. Someone can bet $1,000 and get $100 back. If they bet $1,000 at the track, horsemen get $15."

Whether Vienna’s waltz will ever come to fruition, the 54-year-old trainer may never know.

"I can’t make a prediction with regards to (Frank) Stronach or Churchill Downs (racing’s two super heavyweights, jockeying for position to become the industry kingpin)," Vienna said, "because I haven’t seen them enough, but I would suspect, given investments they have made in (buying) race tracks across the country and gaining networks for simulcasting, they’re going to continue going the same way. It may work for them. It isn’t going to work for us."

Bobby Frankel makes the late Howard Cosell seem reticent when it comes to calling things like he sees them. He says racing should follow the lead of Las Vegas.

"I’d let everybody in for nothing, give them free programs and everything ”” they’ve got advertising in the programs ”” and give them good food at low prices, not crap food at high prices," the 59-year-old Hall of Fame trainer said.

"Honest to God, I don’t know what the answer is to the criticism that there’s too much racing. I’ve got a lot of horses to run, but I guess I’m the only one. There aren’t enough good (quality) horses in California. We’re in a unique situation in that we don’t have other tracks to draw (horses) from. Back East, they’ve got five, six, seven different tracks to draw from, but they get small fields, too.

"I think we’d get small fields no matter what the meeting. But at Hollywood’s autumn festival meet, I think they should race just on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. And instead of running all their stakes races in one day or so, spread them out over the weekend, add in some good allowance races, and fill in with a cheap race or two when they need them. Forget racing on Wednesday and Thursdays. Just go to a three-day race week. They can’t be making money on a Wednesday when there’s 4,000 people on track. If they cut back two more days a week, fans would be anxious to come out. The reason tracks don’t cut back is because they want them to come out to bet on simulcast races. They’ll never cut back on simulcasts. It would be like asking them to cut back on exotic wagering.