Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Photos from Hialeah Park

While spending a week in Florida I made a trip down to "the World's Most Beautiful Racecourse", the one and only Hialeah Park. As a Quarter Horse fan and Hialeah admirer, this trip was necessary for me. It just so happened that the time I was there lined up with Hialeah Derby day, the richest day on the Hialeah calender. It was a lucky coincidence. 

      Hialeah Park is easily the most beautiful place I have ever been to. Even in it's state of incomplete restoration, the entire facility screams class. With the big Quarter Horse stakes they hosted on Derby day, it was basically the ultimate racing experience for me. Regardless of your opinion on Quarter Horse racing, I encourage a visit to Hialeah. It is magnificent.

     Of course while I was there I took many photos. Here are a few to share. I don't know if they do it justice, but rest assured, Hialeah is a spectacular racetrack.
Overlooking the paddock from a 2nd floor balcony

The saddling paddock

Pm Runaway Dash (2) wins an open allowance

The Flamingo Fountain

Emperor Valerian (5) fights off a swarm of grey horses to win the 660 yard Moonstone Stakes

The Citation Fountain bathes in the South Florida sun

Admiring the clubhouse from the paddock

The administration offices

Outside near the clubhouse

The Hialeah grandstand

Pulling up around the clubhouse turn

Last Man Standin walks through the walking ring

Last Man Standin (2) winning the FQHRA Stallion Derby

Jessies First Down (9) wins the Hialeah Maturity in a frantic finish; the top 5 finishers were separated by 3/4 of a length

Seize the Win winning the Hialeah Derby easily under Shanley Jackson

The clubhouse

It's a large facility

The gate opens for the finale; a 110 yard dash

The Hialeah Park logo as the sun begins to set
     I love Hialeah. I think it's an absolutely amazing place and I would love to see it when the restoration is entirely complete. This is an amazing racetrack. Go to Hialeah.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Dangerous Living Conditions at Calder

As I'm sure you've all heard, hundreds of horses stabled at Calder Race Course have been kicked out of their stalls and moved into tents. I'm also sure you've seen the video online of the tents flooding. Obviously, people are not happy about these tents, but I think you need to see what they are really like.

Lots of posts and ropes in the ground

Check out the amount of space between the posts and ropes. Not much,

Very little moving space inside, made worse by the numerous poles

The terrain most of these tents are on is not ideal; very little grass, hard ground

Just a reminder about the posts and ropes

     One thing we all know about racehorses is that they get sharp. Some of them are pretty high strung, and sometimes they wheel and rear and kick. That's a reality of horses. It's never going to change. Look at the pictures again and ask yourself: "What if a horse wheels inside and hits one of those poles?" or "What if a horse spooks at something while walking between the poles and ropes?" Because these are very real possibilities. If anything like that were to happen, the horse, it's handler, and any other people or horses that are nearby are at risk of serious injury. These tents are an accident waiting to happen. These are not safe living conditions for horses.

    Other things you should take into account: despite the fact that the stalls have mats, the ground they are on is not level. There is very little grass around. There is no real designated parking area, so several vehicles are parked very close to the tents. 

    A lot of the discussion about these tents has been people playing the blame game. Most people are blaming Calder's owners, Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) for evicting the horses from their original stalls, while others are blaming The Stronach Group for not having a real Plan B in case Churchill wouldn't let them stay in the original stalls. At this point, who's at fault is not important. What's needed now is a real solution. CDI needs to be called on to just allow the fenced-off section of the Calder backstretch be reopened. Stronach should be called on to create a better stabling alternative at Gulfstream or Palm Meadows. Whatever needs to be done to get these horses out of these tents.

    Something needs to be done to fix this situation. These tents are not safe for anybody, human or equine, Our horses deserve better.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Florida Quarter Horse Racing Needs a Summer Meet

Since 2010, Hialeah Park has been holding Quarter Horse meets. "The World's Most Beautiful Racetrack" was shut down in 2001 after losing a dispute over race dates with Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course, but loose gambling laws regarding Quarter Horse racing in Florida allowed the track to reopen with a card room, which has since been expanded into a full casino.

      Hialeah is the home of the only American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) sanctioned, recognized pari-mutual Quarter Horse racing in Florida. The time for that to change is now.

      The Hialeah horse population comes from two groups of horsemen: shippers from other states, and locals. After the meet ends, the shippers go back home, and the locals are left with three options: lay up until the next meet, participate in phony pari-mutual "races" at tracks such as Oxford Downs or Gretna and/or run in match races at bush tracks throughout Florida and surrounding states. There are many match-racing facilities dotted throughout Georgia and the Carolinas that several Quarter Horses compete at between Hialeah's meets.

      Match racing in the bushes exists for one reason: people want to race. They aren't trying to be dishonest to the betting public, but if they are given a place to race their horses, then they're going to do so. However, this does lead to a problem come time for the pari-mutual meet at Hialeah, as bettors do not get any info about races that take place at places such as Eagle Rock Downs, Empress Downs, or Heritage Park. Some match racing facilities are recognized as training centers and some races may show up as workouts in a horse's past performances, but if bettors are not educated about the culture of match racing, they really have no way of knowing what that horse has actually been doing.

     The sham that is pari-mutual "racing" at places like Oxford Downs is a similar, but in my opinion more troubling problem. To understand it better, I strongly recommend watching these videos from Ray Paulick of The Paulick Report. In Florida, by holding at least 40 Quarter Horse "performances" in a fiscal year, an organization is eligible to operate a poker room. However, what exactly qualifies as a Quarter Horse performance or race is not specified at all, and it has led Oxford and Gretna to hold some very questionable events in order to take advantage of the law. Despite the fact that these races do offer pari-mutual wagering, they are not recognized by the AQHA.

     Although match racing will probably never be completely cleaned up and tracks like Oxford Downs can only be removed through changes to Florida law, there is a solution that can begin fixing Quarter Horse racing in the State: an actual pari-mutual meet in the summer.

     Summer Quarter Horse racing has not been held in Florida since 1991 at Pompano Park. With the current landscape of Florida racing, there are several venues that would be logical for a Quarter Horse meet. First and foremost, there is Pompano Park. The harness track races from October to June, leaving July, August and September available for a Quarter Horse meet. In fact, before it was decided that Quarter Horses would race at Hialeah, Pompano considered reviving their Quarter Horse meet. Secondly, there is Tampa Bay Downs. Tampa held Quarter Horse racing in the 1970s, and is also free in the summer months. They're an established, popular brand in Thoroughbred racing and do not have to worry about the track conversion that Pompano does. Third, there is Hialeah. They already conduct Quarter Horse racing, therefore summer dates would be logical. Finally, there is Calder, which seems to be the least-likely option. The facility is there, but the likelihood of Churchill Downs Inc. wanting to expand racing at Calder seems very low.

     Is there a demand for more Quarter Horse racing in Florida? It would seem so. The first eight cards of racing at the current Hialeah meet have handled $2,948,731, an average of $368,591 a day. In comparison, the first two weeks of the last meet, which started in November as opposed to December, brought in $1,090,151 over six cards, a daily average of $181,691. If we use the dates that directly correlate with this year, the handle was $1,997,918 over seven cards of racing, a daily average of $285,416. When Hialeah first started Quarter Horse racing, $100,000 in purses were paid out daily over 24 days of racing. This year, there are 40 days of racing with $140,000 being paid out daily. That is a 133% increase in purses over a five-year span. No matter how you look at it, pari-mutual Quarter Horse racing in Florida is seeing significant growth.

     The addition of a summer race meet in Florida has benefits for horseplayers, horsemen, and, most importantly, the horses. With the horses racing at recognized, recorded venues, the bettors can have more trust that they are getting completely accurate information about the horse they are planning on betting. Meanwhile, the horsemen will get to race for better purses than $2,000 per race. The horses will be racing over much safer surfaces, with far superior drug testing, plus there will likely bestabling at the track instead of the constant shipping required at "bush tracks." It seems like a win-win situation.

     There isn't much growth happening in North American horse racing anywhere. Florida Quarter Horse racing has grown substantially since it's revival, and it is now time for expansion. Summer racing is necessary in order to make Florida a major jurisdiction in the Quarter Horse world. The possibility is there. Someone now just needs to seize it.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy New Year for Ontario Racing

First off, Happy New Year everybody! I hope you all had a lovely 2014, and I hope 2015 is even better.

      Back to what I'm here to talk about.

      2014 was a pretty good year for racing in Ontario (surprisingly.) Let's talk about what happened.

     Thoroughbred racing in Ontario did not have a great year. The first month or so of the Woodbine season was disastrous. The horse population was tiny with several trainers staying in Florida and Kentucky a bit longer than usual, the handle was poor, and it was pretty concerning. However, the stalls began filling and things picked up. Overall handle for the meet was down a bit, 2.9% total decrease and 3.67% average handle/race decline, but it could have been a lot worse. There were several strong individual events: we had a Woodbine Mile record handle, Lexie Lou's wins in the Woodbine Oaks and Queen's Plate made her a well-known racing name (her second to California Chrome at Del Mar also helped), the CTHS Sales Stakes saw an increase in handle, and a new closing day handle record was set. The season ended strongly, and overall I think it was a successful season.
      Fort Erie saw a decline in total handle, however, average handle/race was up 3% on track and 2% off track. They also saw a 6% on food & beverage and program sales, indicating an increase in attendance. The second Twilight Tuesday Prince of Wales did $1,768,500, a terrific handle for the eight-race card. They had a significant lack of horses throughout the meet due to the fact that the racing season was not actually confirmed as a go until the day before racing started. The increase in handle/race is a very good sign.

     Harness racing in Ontario lost some dates this year, but there was growth in handle. In Canada, total handle for harness racing was $418,526,798, an increase of 5.27% from 2013's $397,583,083. Average handle/race was $31,608, up 13.66% from last year's $27,810. Lots of big things happened in the province, both Mohawk and Western Fair broke their single night handle records, Grand River Raceway saw a 6.7% total handle increase and a 17.8% increase in handle/race, a very impressive figure considering the Elora oval saw an 11.5% total increase in 2013. Georgian Downs revived one of their signature events, the $100,000 Earl Rowe Memorial Trot, Woodbine revived the Fall Four Stakes events. Southwestern Ontario developed a circuit of Dresden, Sarnia and Leamington, Kawartha Downs had a solid summer-fall meet with strong attendance. Overall, harness racing in the province seems to be moving in the right direction.

Quarter Horse
     Ajax Downs from an all-Tuesday schedule to Sundays for half the meet and Tuesdays for the other half. Revenue wise, I have no clue how this affected them; although Tuesdays drive much more handle, the on track handle on Sundays is significantly higher. It's weird. I worked for Ajax this year, and I was at the races as much as I could be. I thought the season overall was very strong, but I really have a tough time judging what success at Ajax is.

Moving Forward
     Ontario has made a lot of progress since the slots program was cancelled, but there is still a ways to go. The takeout in our province is still way too high. Only WEG, Fort Erie and Grand River offer WPS takeout under 20% (14.95% for Woodbine Thoroughbred, 16.95% for the rest) and at most tracks your only low takeout option is a 15% Pick 4 or maybe a Super Hi-5. There are not a lot of attractive options in the province. Of course, a complete reformation of the takeout structure would be nice, I'd like to see 10% WPS and 12-15% on all exotics, but I doubt that is going to happen anytime soon. If we could equal the North American lows, (14.5% WPS, 18.25% Exactors, 19% Tris and Supers, 12% Doubles, Pick 3s, Pick 4) I think the province would see significant growth quickly. In harness racing, I would love to see added distance races tried. Yonkers recently did 1 1/14 mile races with 12 horse fields; I think Ontario should try the same. I don't think it would hurt at all. Several of the smaller tracks need more simulcast and ADW exposure; I cannot watch or wager on Hiawatha or Dresden on HPI, or at any of my local racetracks. How can tracks like that grow without the added exposure? I hope Woodbine keeps a synthetic surface after 2015; I fear dirt will lead to handle declines similar to the ones Keeneland saw. I'd like to see our tracks get on TVG. I know WEG's races and Western Fair's Monday/Tuesday cards are aired on TVG, but getting Fort Erie, Grand River, Ajax, Georgian, Flamboro, etc. on air would be a big boost.

     I think Ontario puts on a great show for all breeds, and I think our racing has huge potential to be a top level product. Things have been moving in the right direction; the industry just needs to make sure they keep things going and take the necessary steps to make racing in Ontario the best it can possibly be. Hopefully 2015 sees a few of these steps taken.