HRU Feedback (2017-02-12)

Gural responds to Katz and Segal

Let me begin by making it perfectly clear that I have the utmost respect for George Segal and Marvin Katz and consider them friends. On the issue of the “Gural Rule” (February 5) and (February 10) we simply do not agree.

The only reason I implemented the rule is because I feel that industry leaders have a moral obligation to insure that the sport has a long-term future. There are hundreds of young people working in the sport, including some of the best drivers like Yannick Gingras, Tim Tetrick, Scott Zeron, Jason Bartlett, Joe Bonjorno, Jimmy Marohn, Jordan Stratton and Matt Kakaley. All of these young people deserve to have a career that lasts longer than another 10 years when, in my opinion, it is very unlikely that we will have a viable industry that would allow these young people to stay employed. We have mistakenly taken all of the slots money and used it for purses and simply assumed that this money will be there forever. Over the next few years, we will see purses at slots tracks increase dramatically as the number of races and race dates slowly decline because of the horse shortage. Unless we find a way to get younger people interested as older people like myself age out, we will reach a point where the handle and the live attendance will be so miniscule that the politicians will have no choice but to pull the plug. The only way I know of that could get younger people interested is to create a better product and to hopefully persuade the horsemen that it is in their best interest to use five per cent of the slots money for marketing and get us on TV on a regular basis and hope that we can duplicate what happened with poker years ago when they suddenly became a TV hit.

For Marvin to say that he and George have lost a couple of million dollars may be accurate, although I would think that because there are so few Father Patrick yearlings in the sale that the price will be sky high as it was when Valley Victory had fertility problems and had a limited number in the sale. I think the races last year between Always B Miki, Wiggle it Jiggleit and Frisky Pete showed how exciting the sport can be when you have that type of product. I just hope I am wrong, but I think anyone can see the handwriting on the wall. To pretend that just because purses are so high that everything is fine is very short sighted.

At least 10 years from now, when these drivers are unemployed, hopefully they will look back and say at least Jeff Gural tried. There is no other reason for the rule. I just want to give these young people a chance at a long-term future.

— Jeff Gural / chairman Meadowlands, Vernon and Tioga Downs

Racing at four is mandatory for greatness

I support the Gural Rule. No one was a bigger fan of Captaintreacherous than me, but he didn’t have success as a four-year-old.

With so many stakes races all over the country, someone has to win them. Does that make them great horses? Should that guarantee them a great stallion career?

Great athletes have a career, not a season or two. Are there any baseball players in the Hall of Fame after two great seasons?

A champion is someone that builds a record over time. Flash in the pans happen all the time. Horse racing has become a breeders’ sport. There aren’t many stars. Most that are, are geldings. What sports survives without stars?

Horse racing needs fans, but, more importantly, needs stars. People come to see stars, not the sons or daughters of stars. I have never heard anyone say, let’s go to the track to see Artspeak’s son race tonight!

Captaintreatcherous to me was a great horse. Was he an all time great, no. His achievements as a two and three-year-old was tremendous. Not many ever have achieved what he did. But an all-time great? No. Longevity is the key to greatness. The four-year-old season is mandatory in achieving greatness.

Someone has to win two and three-year-old stake races. Those wins do not prove greatness and deserve millions in the breeding shed.

— William Hartenstine via HRU Facebook page

The Curmudgeon weighs in on Gural Rule

I wrote the following letter after reading the Feb. 5 edition of Harness Racing Update (full story here). As a courtesy to Jeff Gural, who is a friend and someone I consider to be, overall, a great benefactor to the sport, I sent him a copy of the letter before sending it.

Although I have on more than one occasion disagreed with his policies, I have never doubted that Jeff has always acted on what he believes to be best for the sport — emphasis on “what he believes.”

After a little give and take with Jeff, he wrote that although he felt that his intentions were up front, from the beginning, he could see where they might have been misinterpreted or that they were not clearly stated from the onset.

Thus he modified the rule to allow for participation for those horses previously barred from his racetracks, to just participation in stakes events.

That, at least in my mind, put to rest the notion that Jeff is totally inflexible. Inflexible, he might be. But its totality is not a definite.

I understand where Jeff is coming from on the rule. In theory, it sounds fine. However in reality, it just has not worked. It has not helped racing. Yet it has hurt several owners, most of them being Jeff’s friends and fellow investors in The Meadowlands

I would hope that going forward, Jeff will reconsider the rule and allow the marketplace and the individuals who own these horses to determine whether or not they should continue to race. Here is my original letter:

To The Editor:

I have no skin in this particular game.

However, I have reached the point where these intramural, suicidal duels between major participants in the sport, such as the recent episode involving Howard Taylor and Jeff Gural, do not do much more than just piss me off.

Christopher Fenty, in his recent letter regarding the quarrel has his facts wrong.

He comes across as saying that the cancellation of the New Jersey Classic and Miss New Jersey is the same as the decision by the PHHA and Pocono Downs to discontinue the major events at Pocono Downs this year. THEY ARE THE FURTHEST THING FROM BEING THE SAME!

The New Jersey Classic races are stakes events — races into which money has been paid by owners and breeders.

The Pennsylvania events are Late Closers — races which are or are not carded on a year to year basis with nobody, to my knowledge, having paid any money to support them.

They are two separate entities.

Should the dispute between Taylor and Gural have reached the point where it is now? Of course not. They should have sat down and reached a reasonable and satisfactory conclusion. The two operative words are “reasonable” and “satisfactory”. But this is harness racing in the 21st century. What else can we expect?

With regard to the so-called Gural Rule, Jeff Gural asked his close ALLIES, PARTNERS and FRIENDS, the Hambletonian Society and WEG to support his efforts to at least give the rule a chance. I might add that many, if not the majority, of the directors of the Society are also investors in The Meadowlands and have been among Jeff’s greatest supporters and good friends.

They agreed to give the rule a chance on a two-year trial basis. Jeff Gural was apparently in agreement. He at least voiced no objections to them when the trial was instituted. Everything was up front. For whatever reasons, the Society and WEG decided not to carry on with the restrictions. Jeff Gural, as was his right, decided to continue the rule.

Here’s the rub! The rule as originally implemented by Mr Gural to me and everybody who I have discussed it with forbade the foals from the first crop of stallions not in sync with the rule from participating in stakes and closers at his tracks. To my knowledge, there was never any mention of these horses not being allowed to race in overnights, qualifiers or even denied access to these tracks.
I’m sure I’m not alone, but this comes across to me and I am sure others as being done for reasons of pure spite.
The shame of this is that the people that Mr. Gural is causing the most harm to are his investors, his strongest supporters, both financially and otherwise and perhaps most importantly his friends.
If this is the way he treats his friends and supporters, I’d sure as hell hate to be his enemy.

— The Curmudgeon / Hanover, PA

Marvin, don’t blame Gural

Nice that Marvin Katz (full story here) wants us to feel sorry for him since both Captaintreacherous and Father Patrick were failures in the aged ranks. Of course, if either had had a monstrous Horse of the Year type season at four, like a Matts Scooter or Artsplace, he would have put a million plus in purse money in his pocket in addition to increasing the stallion values. They didn’t, so let’s lay blame on Jeff Gural.

Speaking of blame, when is the Hambletonian Society going to drop three-year-old divisions of the Breeders Crown? Why can’t three-year-olds face older horses in November like the thoroughbreds do?

Wouldn’t there have been some juice to see a healthy Betting Line put his 14-race streak on the line against Always B Miki and Wiggle It Jiggle It?

— Caesar Fiorini / Maywood, NJ

Where is the loss Katz laments about?

I read the article in which “Katz speaks out” (full story here) and decided to do some further research on the subject.

Father Patrick raced as a four-year-old in 2015 and had a record of 5 1-2-0 and 121K in earnings to total $2.6 million lifetime. He also has 46 foals produced as a four-year-old. At $20,000 a breeding he earned another $920,000.

Captaintreacherous raced as a four-year-old in 2014 and had a record of 7 2-2-1 and 177K in earnings with lifetime earnings of $3,153,541. He did NOT breed any mares as a four-year-old. Why not? That was not a good business decision, which has nothing to do with the Gural Rule.

Breeding and racing is an accepted practice in Europe where the sport is much healthier then here in North America. They have many stars that compete at the highest levels and well beyond their years. These horses have a large fan base and loyal following which can be observed when they race.

The numbers here (foal crop, attendance and handle) indicate that we have an industry in decline, yet the establishment believe the status quo will fix every thing.

We seem to be our own enemies when solutions to our problems are put forth with the usual infighting.

The point is, what are we arguing about here? Why are these four-year-olds not being bred and raced at the same time? Where is the economic loss that Katz is lamenting about?

Comparing harness to thoroughbred racing is much like comparing Nascar to F-1 racing. Both attract a significantly different clientele. A much better and more accurate comparison would be our harness industry to Europe’s.

Finally I was not satisfied with WEG’s reasons to not go with the Gural rule. Jamie Martin (full story here) stated two reason’s why and the first was that the Hambletonian Society did also? How is that a valid reason? Because they did, we did?

REALLY? Would someone at the Society have a conflict of interest?

All I see here is people arguing to argue and make life difficult for others. The Gural Rule is unequivocally the way forward for the industry.

— Norm Brunet / Ottawa, ON

Dante returns serve

Mr. Gural, the letter I wrote (January 29 Feedback) that you responded to (February 5 Feedback) was written and sent by me on January 27 and related to the evening prior, which would have been January 26.

A good softball game could not have been played by the people in the building that were there as it was that empty.

I will not comment on the dozens of people you had in the restaurant on the following Saturday night as none is necessary. Did you ever have dinner on a Saturday night at the old Pegasus Restaurant 20+ years ago? I’m not trying to live in the past, but it’s inevitable for me to compare today and yesterday in my mind, and, well, you can figure out how that goes.

The product that is being offered on Thursday nights is, at best, not very good. If you were honest, you would agree.

My purpose is not to throw rocks at your operation. I respect what you have tried to do, and while your grand vision of a casino in East Rutherford may not be realistic at this time, it is a plan that will one day come to fruition, no doubt.

You and your “team” have done some good things to try and advance harness racing.

Here’s something that you have not done very well: Reach out to the guys that are left who were there years ago when the Meadowlands was the greatest harness track ever seen.

Never has any of your management or staff (those that I did not know personally) approached me or introduced themselves to me or my friends, nor asked my opinion about anything.

I don’t pick up garbage tickets off the floor, I don’t scour the garbage cans, and I don’t beg for dollar bills as quite a few do on site.

I don’t dress as though I climbed out of a dumpster, and I don’t arrive and leave on a NJ Transit bus.

I pretty much expect nothing and as a result I get nothing.

A business that is trying to survive would probably need to cultivate and keep EVERY customer that walks in with cash yet I’ve never seen that.

I do see a push to try to bring in 25-year-old kids who seem to be more interested in “wowing” the nightclub crowd than in betting consistently on harness races.

Yes, they will be around long after I’m dead. I understand that, but I’m still very much alive and I’m still a good number of years away from retirement, which makes me an extremely viable customer to you.

I root for you and your staff to succeed. I root for the survival of harness racing, but I am a realist and I know that without slot machines and casino games that harness racing would have been done 10 years ago. For that reason, I would think it would behoove any business owner to hold onto (with a tight fist) any regular customer.

In any event, I continue to hope that you will figure it out and keep one of the last tracks alive that people care about.

— Vic Dante / Belleville, NJ

I see growth in harness racing

I have always followed harness racing, meaning I knew where the tracks were, knew about The Hambletonian and The Little Brown Jug and some of the other events that the sport offers. I never ignored it, but I didn’t follow it on a regular basis.

Last summer, I really dove in and became enthralled with the sport. Events like Hambletonian Day with its 10 stakes races, the International Trot at Yonkers and the Breeders Crown brought me in. I am a feature race guy. Sure, I like the small purse races, but I look for the features and keep my eye on them at the big tracks. I think harness racing offers plenty, both for bettors and those who love sport for sport.

We all know that every sport has its problems. Baseball had The Steroid Era, and as we have seen recently with the NFL, The Concussion Era has raised some concerns about “America’s Game.” But, those sports have always tried to both retain and grow its fan base, something harness racing needs to do more of.

That said, why does harness racing spend so much energy on the negatives? We read about Jeffrey Gural and his struggles at the Meadowlands; the infighting that takes place between those who race and those that breed. And, of course there are the critics who point out the halcyon days of the sport “back in the day,” when it and boxing were at the height of popularity. There are those who also point out that sports like harness racing and boxing will be extinct in the not-too-distant-future.

We know that society can be full of negativity and most recently, hatred. It seems like you can’t like more than one of anything. If the Yankee fan doesn’t hate the Mets, something is wrong with them. If you like thoroughbred racing, you can’t like harness racing. If you like the New York Jets, then you can’t admire the brilliance of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, and if you do, here comes the venom.

Harness racing is a sport that to me is well-suited for the future. Many harness tracks are at casinos and racinos. At Saratoga, there are far more patrons playing the video gaming machines then there are watching and wagering on the races. And, we know that a portion of VGM revenues goes to support harness racing; in fact what would happen to harness racing if the casinos weren’t there? To me, this is where our great sport drops the ball. These racinos offer a little bit of everything. At Saratoga there is a casino, a steakhouse, another restaurant, a night club and harness racing. It’s the perfect venue; something for everyone. The harness tracks should be doing more to get young people to come on out and enjoy a day/evening at the races AND the other things that a Saratoga Casino Hotel can offer. Too often racing is the forgotten stepchild of the operation.

The key is not to get one person to a harness track 12 times a year; it’s to get 12 people there three times a year. Young people like to go out. They like good food, they like to dance and yes, they like to consume (responsibly, of course) alcohol. Harness racing needs to plant the seeds to the youngsters so the racino becomes an option for them. The goal is for a 20-something to say, “Hey, let’s go to the Racino tonight and have some fun.” We all know if they go, bet on a few races, they will enjoy it. We also know if they win, they’ll enjoy it more. We just want a racino to make it into the rotation of what young people like to do. Why can’t they travel, go to a football game, a movie or a road trip AND go the racino two to four times per year?

I truly believe that there is room for growth for harness racing. As life becomes busier and busier, the need for “one-offs,” increases in importance. We need not look any further than Super Bowl. It’s the most-watched event of the year, because it happens once a year. The Kentucky Derby gets the most watchers in horse racing. No matter what happens there, the one certain is that ratings for the Preakness drop. Even when the Triple Crown is on the line at The Belmont, the Derby ratings are still a bit higher. Why? Because Americans like traditions and big events and though the Preakness is a big event, the Kentucky Derby is a bigger one. The Breeder’s Cup is a big event, but not as big as the Derby, or for that matter — ratings wise — the Preakness. Why can’t harness racing showcase its big events? Let’s do more to lure the casual sports fan.

Young people are the future. They need to be exposed to harness racing. If they aren’t we know that the numbers will decrease over time. Young people don’t watch baseball games from beginning to end anymore, but they’ll go to a game or two each year. If they do that, why can’t they go to the harness track once or twice per year?

The answer is they can and they will if those who own the tracks go out, get them and bring them in. It’s all about marketing and creating a quality product. There will always be tracks like Yonkers that race five times each week all year long, but some are cutting back their racing days. This can create demand and a sense of urgency. One of the reasons the Saratoga Race Course does so well is that you only have 40 chances to get there. Buffalo Raceway runs Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and when the weather warms, Sunday. You can’t sit home and say, I’ll go tomorrow, or next week, because before you know it, the horses are off to Batavia, 45 miles to the east. Less means more but it also means that the time is now.

Harness tracks of course, can’t be like Saratoga Race Course; they need more than 40 days. But, they could use more special nights, more events and more one-offs. Sure they have stakes races and features, but those need to be marketed and packaged better. Why not incentivize the masses? If they bet $5 on the feature race, they get $5 to spend anywhere in the racino. I’m not a marketing genius, but I know there has to be a way to get people more interested in the racing. This isn’t 1979, when the diehards had to go to the track to for live racing and for simulcasting. Today, there is more to do at these harness tracks but why not market the live sport, not the electronic machines in the room where there are no windows?

I came back to the sport, but there aren’t enough people like me to make the sport flourish and more importantly, survive long-term. But, there is a market out there, I can feel it, but it needs be tapped and prodded correctly and it is time for those who run the harness tracks to get that done. It’s a bet that they can win.

— John Furgele / Glenmount, NY

Why does 0MTP mean 12MTP?

I know that to some, this critique of harness racing might seem petty and/or trivial when it comes to the subject of how to improve the sport, but believe me when I tell you that the one thing that drives me bat-s— crazy is never knowing when the race is going to start. Can ANYONE please tell me why the race doesn’t start when there are zero minutes to post? Woodbine Racetrack is the only track where this happens. There are a few more that come close, but for the most part, most of the American tracks seem indifferent about the actual post time clock. In fact, on several occasions, the horses are just coming on to the track when the clock says zero minutes to post (Northfield being the worst offender). ALL tracks should adopt the Woodbine policy and procedure of starting the race when the clock says to. It would make betting so much easier. I can’t count the number of races I’ve missed (which would have translated into revenue for the particular track). Please adopt a universal policy which would have ALL races start when the clock says 0 min to post. Again, can anyone tell me why they don’t?

— Robert Hunter / Barrie, ON

Potpourri of suggestions

My father once told me, “there are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same!” In the case of harness racing, that could not be any clearer. As a harness racing enthusiast and a customer of the business, I feel compelled to speak to these paths if the leadership ever intends to make it again to the top. Of course, any path might get you there if you do not know where you are going!

For starters, practice transparency, get the names of the performance enhancing chemists (trainers and their beards) out in the open. I am sure the owner of the Meadowlands, Tioga and Vernon has an inclusive list of who cannot race at his tracks. It needs to be published to eliminate some of the negative press which really hurts this sport’s future. And for those that are caught, naturally the sulky chasers will petition for a stay, so initiate a stop on these trainers USTA Online Entries until such time as the outcome is adjudicated. Let the owners feel the pain, they are the benefactors and subsidizers of their trainers unethical and illegal practices. And then if found guilty, the USTA needs to ensure they are not issued licenses. I realize that there is the contentious issue of state sovereignty and that many of these characters leverage that along with the head in the sand attitude of racing commissions to allow them to race in their respective states. They are bad for your business. Give them the door for a going away present and be done with them.

Your racing product as presented by the Director of Racing and/or Racing Secretary is at times (at some tracks it is all the time) mediocre at best. The sport is long overdue for a paradigm shift on this path. If change is so hard, then focus on innovation plus knowledge with a dash of customer satisfaction (translate increased handle) of your product and you just might be heading on the correct path. Most of the time you could use the acronym SALY… Same As Last Year to describe the conditions for each race card presented weekly. Now I know that claiming races are another matter, but that is not the issue because a card of claiming races is not going to generate the handle to get you to the top of the mountain. And stakes races are not included here either. An example is Dover Downs. I watch the races there regularly and it must be frustrating to the horsemen racing there to have to put up with the crew that hide behind the moniker of Director of Racing/Race Secretary. I was told that this office is supposed to classify the horses so that there are competitive and exciting racing which attract gambling dollars. In this day and age with all the technological tools available and you have one horse winning by 5-10 lengths and the rest of the field is left scrambling is not conducive to anything positive for the sport. I could understand a once-in-a-while occurrence, but this is nightly. And, oh by the way, it seems to be always the same driver/trainer combo at 1-5. How many Super Bowl tickets would be sold if every year the winning score was 55-10 with the same coaches, teams and quarterbacks? And the real laugher for me is that the fillies and mares open races for $10,000 less than their male counterparts. And why is that the case? I suspect the answer follows the path of that is the way we have always done it. (By the way, give me the tools to classify horse races and let’s see how long it would take me to improve the bottom line on handle, those daily open lengths winners would find the following week classifications created to handle that situation).

Lastly, where is the marketing initiative? All of the racinos have enough money to support a national marketing initiative for harness racing. It would only take a small percentage (1-2 per cent) to promote this great sport. You need new owners, you need more horses, you need to increase the membership, it all goes hand-in-hand with marketing. Today, at least two states pay state owned or bred horses a 20 per cent and 50 per cent stipend in addition to purse money won and yet no funding for marketing. Yikes! And while you are at it, throw in a dash of transparency so that anyone interested in participating in your sport hears the unabashed truth and knows what the risk and rewards are associated with participating in harness racing. Look at the The Stable which is marketed as a way to participate in harness racing. One can go small or big depending on the degree desired. And you know what, the trainers associated with The Stable have publicized what it costs and what one gets for their investment. Now I realize you might not get to stand in the winner’s circle at the Breeders Crown but who knows, at least you are enjoying the moment and feel like you belong to a viable organization. And winning/success brings more customers to the table. Exactly what is missing in the business today.

So, in your ascent to victory, bear in mind that I am your customer who could be a participant in your great sport if moved to do so. But for now, I will wait and see if you again make it to the view at the top.

Good luck!

— Barbara Kuellmer / Carlisle, PA