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Racing's 'millionaires' hit Vegas for a little R&R

Feb 3, 2009 5:03 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

The racing crowd is in town this week, at Bellagio, trying to do what the president is trying to do – solve the problems of the universe.

There is no shortage in either department.

On the racing front, with on-track attendance down, budgets get first attention. That out of the way on Tuesday, the 500 or so gathered for the five-days of meetings handle some lesser but still troublesome problems in committees before gathering for a little nerve easing libations Tuesday evening.

Thus fortified, they listen to others whose wisdom is worth hearing, in four-hour sessions Wednesday and Thursday mornings.

One of the early speakers was Dennis Robinson, now president and CEO of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. His domain, besides the Meadowlands Racetrack that is home to both the world’s best trotters and pacers and thoroughbreds at its sister track Monmouth Park, also has included the New York Giants of the NFL, the New Jersey Devils of the NHL, and the New Jersey Nets of the NBA.

Robinson served an earlier stint as head of the Meadowlands, then left and drove through the Lincoln Tunnel a few furlongs into Manhattan and took up duties as vice president of business and league operations at the National Basketball Association. Appropriately, he is talking to the track owners gathered en masse about "Lessons from the NBA and Other Professional Sports Leagues."

After he is finished, hard-hitting Lee Amaitis, who runs Cantor Fitzgerald’s vast operations in London and learned the game of horse racing as a kid at tracks in his native New York, discussed where racing is headed. If anyone knows, Amaitis does, with his mastery of computer technology as applied to stocks and gaming.

Also speaking of and on technology and racing was Marc Smith, formerly a senior research sociologist at Microsoft and now chief social scientist for Telligent. Smith thinks the future – in racing and in social life – lies in collective group action on coming technological breakthroughs in telephones. This one was fascinating.

Nevada was represented by three experts: Bill Eadington, the dean of academic gaming experts as professor of economics and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno, who debated the role and future of racinos with Nick Eaves, president of Woodbine Entertainment in Toronto. Jack Schribrowsky, professor of marketing in the College of Business of the University here, appeared on a panel discussing Marc Smith’s ideas on telephone group socializing as an attraction vehicle for racing; and mayor Oscar Goodman spoke as well. Who knows more about the history of gambling?

A unique speaker on the agenda this week was Greg Peck. His profession, at least until The Horse came along, was lecturing Fortune 500 company executives how to handle themselves in tight quarters and with right responses with media. He also happens to train harness horses, and last year he selected and got to train a 2-year-old trotter named Muscle Hill. The colt proved virtually unbeatable, narrowly losing his first race and then winning his next eight against the best in the sport, winning $817,301.

Last week, a New York owner named Jerry Silva, who also is in town for the convention, paid $3 million for half-interest in the colt. As the lotteries love to say, someone has to win.

Silva, who studied pharmacy and now makes more than $800,000 a year as head of his own pharmaceutical firm that specializes in selling medications to institutions, has developed a new approach to success in horse racing.

He does not buy many yearlings. He does not claim horses, which means to buy them out of races in which they race available for a price the owner sets.

What he does is wait until champions develop, and then offers whatever it takes to buy them.

It works, as will be evident when harness racing’s Night of Stars honored the owners of the champions of each division from last season. Silva is here, to pick up his hardware in 5 of the 12 championship categories.

His newest acquisition, the Muscle Hill colt trained last summer by Greg Peck, now is worth $6 million, regardless of what he does down the road. If he wins the $1.5 million Hambletonian at the Meadowlands in August, as everyone expects, his value will double as a stallion prospect.

Things are not as bad as you hear in racing. Ask the new millionaires or half-millionaires in town to pick up trophies at Bellagio. There are wealthy men like Jerry Silva. There also are little guys who were struck by lightning. What a great game racing is for those dreamers who hit it big.