Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Sorcerer's Apprentices

Over the course of this week, the DRF’s Jay Hovdey wrote a great article about Zenyatta; the BC revamped its Win-And-You're In list (again), and Rachel Alexandra is preparing for a paid breezer in the *tongue-in-cheek* Grade 1 middle jewel of the Triple Tiara *giggle*. Meanwhile, the never-ending slots story went into the next couple of rounds in Kentucky, where racing’s corporate welfare mommies were successful in begging the State House for money, but were ultimately turned down by a non-representative Senate committee. A questionable process in a “Commonwealth”, I grant you, but I find it hard to join in the chorus of those crying about the injustice. Even if it was one, that it could happen was the Kentucky racing industry’s own fault.

Probably nothing characterizes the debate better than that in the Paulick Report article linked above, you have to go through 25 comments before #26 is the first one putting the finger on one of the underlying problems: that the Kentucky breeding industry has profited from a market bubble for the last few decades and will finally have to downsize to a level the sport can actually support.

Apart from this, the Kentucky slots drive was marred by several shortcomings. If you want to play up the heritage angle, you shouldn’t allow for the charge to be lead by a company like CDI, which has a long track record of giving an airborne turd about any kind of heritage they can’t directly translate into cash on the first Saturday in May. If your company just sacrificed a track like Hollywood Park (and by extension California racing) after that property turned out to be useless for your thinly-veiled aspirations to become a general gambling enterprise, you’re in no position to present yourself as the Temple Guardian of racing heritage.

However, CDI’s namesake property would have been the main beneficiary of any slots bill passed in Kentucky, a bill that was presented as being about Kentucky’s future as a breeding center, but ultimately was about helping Kentucky tracks and lower-level breeders. Unless huge limestone deposits are discovered in Central Pennsylvania or Indiana, the Bluegrass will remain the main region for top-level breeding in America, especially if Kentucky breeders return to breeding for the racetrack rather than the auction ring. The breeders who will indeed have a problem are those breeding livestock for Turfway and Ellis, tracks that can’t keep up with slot-subsidized purses and statebred bonuses at Mountaineer or PA. Without slots, Ellis is left for dead, while Turfway and Churchill face a major problem.

But, oops, we may have touched on a weak point in the Kentucky industry’s argument right there: It’s largely because Kentucky breeders and CDI have for decades supported the overexpansion of racing that those tracks ever could grow to be a threat to Kentucky racing. Kentucky wouldn’t have “competition” from places like Presque Isle Racino, Hoosier or Mountaineer today if the same industry tycoons that come begging for a bailout today hadn’t spent decades successfully fighting a much-needed regulatory body, which could have prevented such destructive trends as slots racing or overblown statebred bonuses from developing in the first place. Here’s a pointer for all those Kentucky industry members who so obviously missed ECON 101: free markets are dog-eat-dog markets, which is why every other sport of notice avoids them. You wanted it, you got it, don’t come crying when one of the puppies has outgrown you.

Without Slots, these are the most likely prospects for Kentucky tracks:

* Kentucky Downs holds a boutique meeting without any major races it has to bolster, it shouldn’t need a year-round casino to survive.

* Turfway Park is a winter track, and I’m not a friend of Thoroughbred winter racing in places where the most common name is neither Bubba nor José. It might fall by the wayside, but the sport isn't helped by two dozen Winter tracks in the Northern states anyway.

* Keeneland doesn’t need slots, and won’t need them in the future.

* As for Ellis Park, racing will have to downsize eventually. Unless you live in the vicinity of Florence, Ky., what’s the difference if Ellis, Beulah or Fairmount is the first one to go?

* Churchill Downs may have to cut off further race days. It might ultimately be forced to give up its status as a top-tier track and (except for a certain weekend in Spring) become a provincial track, which it actually was for most of its history. Having done little to improve racing's appeal while being one of the most influential powers in the industry, CDI exemplifies the problem of initiating the very problems that will come to haunt you later.

"From the spirits that I called, Sir, deliver me!" (Goethe)

Ultimately, the Kentucky story is representative of a racing industry that for decades has developed a sense of entitlement, a distinct conviction that no matter what problems they assemble (over-expansion, failure to attract customers, lack of direction and integrity etc.) it’s always someone else’s responsibility to bail them out (slots, states, customers etc.). Unlike with Goethe's sorcerer's apprentice however, I doubt that rescuing them now would serve as lesson for them to do better in the future.

1 comment:

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