Saturday, 28 March 2009

Well Armed first, the rest nowhere

Talk about a horse answering doubts about his ability to handle the dirt track. The way Well Armed took the lead from the gate and just unleashed in the stretch, Eoin Harty might kick himself for wasting this horse on the closer-friendly California circuit. Still, the overall result is a little odd for a race that in the past years had been a true test of champions.
Not only did Well Armed's stunning performance come off three rather mediocre races, but the horses finishing behind him were surprising too, to say the least. Gloria De Campeao is a Nad Al Sheba veteran whose (Dubai) forms have been highly consistent throughout the years, and who had already been beaten decisively by half the field, including this season. Paris Perfect hasn't been too impressive in his native South Africa, starting above G3 level only once, finishing fifth. This winter he turned in three solid but not stellar forms from Saudi Arabia. He narrowly lost that country's biggest race to today's fourth-place finisher Muller, a former top horse in Peru, who has spent the last two years winning 2-from-9 in Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile none of the legitimate contenders ever recovered from the pace, some probably beaten by the speed bias the track showed today. Hard to put this race into perspective and therefor hard to announce Well Armed the best horse in the world just yet, one more brilliant performance would help. And luckily, he's a gelding.

Friday, 27 March 2009

German Racing, Part III: The Ugly

In my intro post ("First Things First") I mentioned that I hardly follow (or at least bet on) German racing. Readers of the first two parts of this miniseries on German racing might rightfully wonder why I wouldn’t, given that the problems I’ve pointed out aren’t necessarily worse than those found in British or American racing. The simple answer is: it’s hard and expensive to follow German racing. Internet age? Age of free information? Not when it comes to German racing. By and large, betting information for German races works precisely the way it did 50 years ago: You go to the nearest newsstand that sells the "Sport-Welt", the country’s racing (race)daily, and fork over 2 bucks 50 (Euros, of course) for a paper that can be as thin as a dozen pages, containing nothing more than today’s racecard, the results for last raceday, a news page of questionable value and sometimes an editorial piece about as hard-hitting as an investigative report on Frank Stronach, written by Frank Stronach. Meanwhile, German racing’s web presence is such that it’s still almost impossible to find as much as a pattern race schedule online.

Until last season, at least live streams were available for free for customers of the many horsebetting websites around, that is until the Direktorium thought it should charge those websites several times more money for providing the betting public with the only free means of watching the races, essentially forcing the betting sites to cancel those streams or demand a fee for watching them. The Direktorium's main motivation, I guess, was to increase the income of its own foray into the wild world of the net, where for as little as 300 euros a year (plus taxes) you have access to live streams, race replays and sketchy formcards, all of these a shadow of those that several British & Irish websites offer for free for racing on the isles. Wonder why the off-track handle for German racecourses keeps shrinking?

The only television exposure (except for the Derby and possibly the Grosser Preis von Baden) is a mixed harness/thoroughbred format every Sunday afternoon on a sports channel, which may sound pretty good unless you know that it’s a paid-advertising format sponsored and run by a betting website with so little regard for the presentation of racing as a sport (the actual grade and significance of races goes largely unnoticed) and so transparent a focus on luring in the most dim-witted of viewers, milk them for every cent and move on, that all it does for racing is diminish the public perception of the industry.

It’s not like television hasn’t tried, though. With continually healthy on-track attendances (as mentioned in the post below), there has been many a TV station trying to market the sport during the last two decades. There was Sat.1, one of the country’s major stations, which in the 90s tried to establish a “race-of-the-week”-type format on Saturday afternoons. It failed as decisively as other station’s attempts to broadcast the entire card from 2 or 3 tracks on weekend afternoons or to establish an hour-long format showing the major races from several tracks live. All of these attempts were doomed because of another unique feature of German racing: the delay.

Until very recently, by the time the eight race was scheduled, German tracks would've been glad to have the the 7th started, delays for the last race on a card usually totaled over 30 minutes, thus making it almost impossible for any TV station to fit racing into its schedule. It’s a pain for the on-site public, too. People frequently have to wait 40 minutes or more between two races. On multi-track broadcasts, starting times that were 15 minutes apart on paper would regularly conflict in practice, so either one race couldn’t be shown or that track had to be put on hold, further increasing its delay. I once watched an hour-long format featuring the G1 Europa-Preis, the most important race that program was to broadcast all year. The race was supposed to start at 16:30, but viewers were lucky to even see the end of it, at 17:02. A major handicap scheduled for 16:45 couldn’t be shown. At the end of that year, the TV station struck racing from its lineup.

P.S. Speaking of ugly, Bremen Racecourse once managed to put down an injured horse by shooting it, in plain sight, right in front of the grandstand, on children's day. Ouch.

German Racing, Part II: The Bad

Overseeing a breeding environment uniquely geared towards the production of sound turf stayers, the Direktorium (Germany’s national racing association) largely fails to use this vast potential. On the contrary, the only races that have seen their purses and status increase over the last two decades were those for juveniles and 3-year-olds, segments already entirely oversupplied in all other European racing nations. That’s even more incredible if you think about what other racing nations would give for the name recognition and marketing potential of equine stars that run at least to the age of 5.

A disturbing trend swapping over from British racing in recent years is the emergence of sales restricted races for 2 or 3-year-olds, finally promoting the destructive breeding bias towards premature performers and speed horses to the country, not to mention the damage done to the season schedule. Where horsemen once tried to win prestigious stakes races, they’re now prepping to win the next BBAG Auction Race, races that regularly offer much higher purses than a Listed or even Group III race, but mostly attract horses that would have otherwise started in the next 5k race. About 10 of those races, restricted to horses sold at the Baden-Baden auction, exist. Consider this: In Dresden, my hometown, there now is a BBAG Auktionsrennen worth 50k (just to demonstrate their disdain for racing’s traditions, they didn't even bother to individually name most of these races), while the prestigious Sachsenpreis, a 10-furlong event for older horses, has seen it’s purse decrease from 50 to 20k during the last decade and the even more historic Preis der Dreijährigen (run for sponsorship reasons as Freiberger-Premium-Preis, a Derby prep used by both Laroche and All My Dreams prior to capturing the Big race) went down from 50 to 30k. Needless to say that the two traditional highlights still offered much more quality.

Unlike in the US or UK, most of the problems of the German game aren’t motivated by greed or lack of oversight, but by the inability of the Direktorium to recognize the needs of today’s sport. An Old Boys club if there ever was one, the Direktorium’s ranks consist almost entirely of wealthy seniors who still run the sport the way they did 30 years ago, in the age before the internet, before the advent of International simulcasting and generally before they had to worry about competition.
When questioned about their achievements and strategies, the Direktorium usually presents the International success of German-bred horses as their own achievements. Since it’s full name translates to German Board of Thoroughbred Racing and Breeding, they’re technically correct, although one might feel that this breeding success can be credited more to the individual contributions of the handful of breeders who breed and mostly own Germany’s top performers. That the other part of its mission, the racing, is losing ever more ground to International competition; that they should wonder why the best older German horses hardly ever start in Germany, or why they were unable to translate generations of equine superstars into any public interest for the sport, are aspects largely lost on the Direktorium.

One could go on and on about their blurred perception, but one example might be enough: When a single German horse won two undercard races at Auteuil, France’s jumps racing mecca, the Direktorium rated the development of German jumps racing as very positive in their annual review. A little perspective: When I first attended the races in 1992, both racecourses in my state of Saxony would feature two hurdle races per raceday, by 2000 both had abandoned their hurdle course. Since 1992 the number of annual jumps races in Germany has decreased from decisively over one hundred to barely several dozen, most of them close to the French border. One might not like jumps racing, but in any case the above is hardly a success story.

The overall health of the sport is somewhat difficult to assess. While racing plays almost no role at all in the media, most tracks have solid attendance figures. Dresden, for example, averages between five and six thousand patrons without running any major events (although that is above average), major races are usually run in front of a five-figure audience. Why this doesn’t translate into any meaningful media exposure (especially given that horse racing is a staple both on television and in the newspapers in France, Britain and Ireland) is a phenomenon partially covered in Part III.

German Racing, Part I: The Good

I’ve heard the best way to start off a delicate topic is by paying a compliment, which is why I’ll start a three-part miniseries on Thoroughbred racing in Germany by pointing to the proudest feature of the country’s sport: the tradition of quality breeding. For decades now, a handful of breeders have been able to consistently produce world-class racehorses without resorting to a Dubai-style checkbook strategy. Among them the names of Gestüt Fährhof, Gestüt Schlenderhan, Georg Baron von Ullmann and Gestüt Hof Ittlingen stand out. One might add names such as Röttgen, Auenquelle, Ammerland and Park Wiedingen.

There is a lot to like about the German breeding industry. And because I’d run into certain embarrassment evaluating it myself, I’ll let the Bloodhorse do the talking for me:

Few of the major racing nations are further removed from the United States in their approach to racing than Germany. Where miler speed is the name of the game here, Germany has a long tradition of breeding for the stamina to win top-level events at the European classic distance of 12 furlongs (...). Soundness, too, is prized; conformation inspections for prospective stallions are required, and horses that have raced on medications have not been permitted to enter stud in the country since 1997.

During the last two decades, German horses have included the likes of Lando (a seven-time Group I winner, including the 1995 Japan Cup), 2002 English Oaks and 1000 Guineas winner Kazzia, 2005 BC Turf winner Shirocco and 2007 IFHA Horse of the Year Manduro (although he was trained in France from the age of 4). There is however one tiny little problem to that strength, which is that German racing offers few top races actually accommodating its potential. A case in point is Silvano: The impressive 2001 winner of the Arlington Million had his previous starts in Singapore (winning the Singapore Cup), Hong Kong (winning the QE II Cup), Dubai and Singapore again. Probably the most prominent (although not best) German horse in training is 7-year-old gelding Quijano. His PPs coming into this Saturdays Dubai Sheema Classic show 3 starts at Woodbine, 3 at Dubai, 2 at Hong Kong, 1 at Milan and precisely 1 from Germany. The pattern repeats itself again and again, once a horse is both good enough to regularly compete on the highest levels and older than 3 years, German racing fans will hardly ever see it, even if most of those horses will continue being owned, trained and even ridden by German-based horsemen. Which brings us to Part II...

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Paulick Distort

Pull the Pocket has an interesting article on the all too close-knit relation between racing press and industry. From computer gaming to wine, from model rail roads to fashion, the problem that the special interest media is both too personally connected with and too financially dependent on the industry it covers to really take a critical point of view is one found in every area. What really caught my eye though was not the topic itself but one of the comments.

In it, web journalist and former Bloodhorse editor-in-chief Ray Paulick, mentioned in the article as having a considerable bias towards the interests of horsemen, pleads "guilty as charged", adding that "without the horsemen, there will be no horses" and that "we need to do more for fans and horsemen...if we do that successfully, the tracks will succeed".

There is good reason for the coziness between racing journalists and horsemen. Everyone who spent decades in the sport will have become friendly with a large number of horsemen, so on a personal level it's understandable that racing columnists wouldn't want them to get hurt. Also, with the possible exception of Andrew Beyer, no racing journalist has the standing not to risk his job when confronting the industry. Since the racing media is financed almost exclusively by industry advertising, who do you think they would ultimately side with in a standoff between horsemen and a columnist. Still, there is a difference between avoiding a losing battle and actively lobbying for the horsemen’s interests, especially where it conflicts with the interests of the sport (and fans).

Mr. Paulick's claim that not siding with the horsemen would leave the sport without horses is an oversimplification to the point where it becomes an insult to the reader’s intelligence. Is he actually proposing that the sport couldn't exist with a lower number of horses and race dates than we have now? How then does he explain the success of Hong Kong’s two race tracks, each running less than 10 races a week? Or the existence of successful tracks in South American countries, all of them with a much smaller pool of horses and horsemen than in the US.

Horse racing, after all, isn't a welfare system, it’s a professional sport/entertainment industry. Does Golf succeed because it sees to it that wannabe-pros who regularly miss the cut on the Northern Arizona tour still make enough income to give them a living? It doesn't. Horsemen are professionals just like actors or baseball players, which means that either they’re good enough to pay their dues or they’ll have to search for another profession. The interest of racing jurisdictions and the racing media should be the well-being of the sport, because that’s the one thing everything else ultimately depends on. In the long run, tracks succeed only when the sport succeeds, which won’t happen as long as it ignores the most basic rules of supply and demand in order to keep every horseman's boat afloat.

First Things First

I should probably start by pointing out that this blog is called so because I live in Dresden, Germany and couldn't think of a more appropriate title that wasn't already in use. It's not named for the book & TV series, which I've neither read nor seen.

I became a blogger more or less by accident. After I registered to be able to comment on other blogs I realized my username showed up as a link to an empty Blogger profile, suggesting to other readers that the person leaving such ghastly remarks might have the integrity to stick his head out with a thought or two of his own, which I had no intention of doing. Anyway, as the seasons came and went, I finally, after a couple of weeks, decided to give it a try and put one little piece that was just too long (and off-topic) for a comment up into the blogosphere.

I give people who might stumble upon this site the above information to make sure they understand that this blog is a small hobby, it isn't meant to become a newscenter for all things in its scope and might go for long stretches without being updated.

A longtime fan of Thoroughbred racing, I've developed a number of strong opinions on the matter (some of them based on fact) which I might feel the need to rant about. Although I live in Germany, I hardly follow German racing at all (except for the occasional visit to my beautiful hometown track). Instead I concentrate on racing from North America and the British Isles. This is largely due to convenience, my actual favorites would be Hong Kong, Japan and Woodbine, but I can't legally bet on those from Germany (and in the case of Japan can't fully follow it because of the language barrier. Apropos: as I'm not a native speaker of English, readers will have to live with the odd slip in grammar, orthography or vocab, feel free to correct me.)