A Christmas Eve Miracle

In what can only be seen as a staggering failure of a GPS system, a scroll was mysteriously found beneath a Christmas stocking in upstate New York Monday morning.

“Dear Bearer,

This scroll entitles you to one day as American Horse Racing Czar. Any decisions you make over the next 24 hours will take immediate effect. For the sake of convenience, please place this scroll next to the milk and cookies tonight, so I can pick it up and pass it along to its next destination.

Signed,

K. Kringle”

How fitting. I’ve got some ideas…

– We’re marketing to the customers we get, rather than the once-a-year crowd that looks great on social media.

I’m a social/digital media guy. I get it. The type of person that looks like he/she left a footprint on the grimy interior of Aqueduct trying to get a 10-1 shot home doesn’t look great on Twitter. It’s easier to publicize someone who spent hundreds of dollars on an outfit and wouldn’t be out of place at a high-society function.

Here’s the problem: That money would do immeasurably more good for racing going through the windows than being spent at a high-end clothing outlet. There’s nothing wrong with embracing fashion as part of the races, but there’s a middle ground that is being ignored. Social media posts that take the “horse” out of “horse racing” do nothing to grow the game.

So what are we going to do instead? We’re going to do something very, very simple. As I stated in a column I wrote a few weeks ago, the gambling side of racing needs to be marketed by smart, savvy gamblers that can convey what they know to a public that’s eager to learn. These people can’t be seen as expendable items on a profit/loss report. We’re going to turn them loose at each track, and use them as the marketing arms of each establishment.

In an age where the widespread legalization of sports betting is a “when,” not an “if,” the value of those people cannot be overstated. Why take -$110 odds on the point spread of a game that will last three hours when you can get the equivalent of +$200 on a post-time favorite in a horse race, with another race coming in a half-hour? Furthermore, how easy is it to market horse racing as the original daily fantasy sport, with a new draft every half-hour based on data from past performances? None of this is rocket science, and yet NOBODY is marketing the sport this way.

That’s the first change I’m making, and I’m not stopping there. I’m open to all suggestions that infuse good, clean fun into the sport, including a new online show called “The Apron” featuring myself, Joe Nevills, Gino Buccola, Pete Aiello, Danny Kovoloff, and Jason Beem and broadcasting from different defunct racetracks every week (think of it as a degenerate’s version of “College Gameday”). That sound you’re hearing is a panicked racing executive calling an emergency meeting upon realizing various combinations of this sextet regularly talk.

– We’re staggering post times.

The days of tracks thinking they’re the only option in town were over when simulcasting became possible. Some situations are unavoidable (technical issues, weather delays, late scratches, etc.), but gone are situations where tracks of the same level constantly run against each other, to the detriment of the wagering public.

The goal here is to set tracks of the same level (we can sort out which ones rank where later) to run races about five minutes apart. That minimizes overlap, while also providing some buffer in the event mitigating circumstances pop up. Having said that, “mitigating circumstances” does not mean “dragging post times for the sake of handle.” We’re going to recondition the betting public to expect calendar integrity from the tracks they wager on. All fines for violations of this rule go to either the PDJF or an accredited thoroughbred aftercare program.

– We’re breeding to race, not racing to breed.

Economic realities may make a complete reversal of this trend impossible. On paper, American Pharoah’s $200,000 stud fee meant he was generating roughly $40 million in his first year as a stallion, before anyone even knew if his offspring could run or not. Having said that, if I’ve got my way, we’re giving it a shot.

First of all, we’re eliminating any sale based on workouts of less than a quarter-mile, and any workouts longer than that are untimed and without whips. How a horse “breezes” a furlong (often under enthusiastic urging that renders “breezing” an inaccurate designation) has no bearing on long-term success, and I’d pay to see a study of high-priced horses, how often they ran, and what the average return on investment was. If there’s one out there, please alert me.

I don’t want us breeding for “brilliance” anymore. I want to breed horses that can retire sound after several full campaigns, ones that won’t be retired or given six-month breaks after having the nerve to run third in Grade 1 races.

Here are my initial steps: Any stallion prospect must run at least twice as a 4-year-old, or is otherwise ineligible for stud duty until the age of five. That’s not going to solve everything. Some may deem a year off to be a prudent investment for a horse like American Pharoah. However, if this means we get several more starts out of horses entering their primes, ones that enhance their resumes ahead of second careers, that strikes me as a win-win situation for everyone involved. Yes, this would pose problems for connections of “brilliant” horses that are retired after a handful of starts early in their lifetimes, but I’d argue many of those horses shouldn’t be standing at stud at all given obvious physical infirmities.

(Also, can we please stop using the term “brilliant?” It’s lazy, and often a synonym for a horse with huge potential that never realized it.)

Finally, I want an independent, non-partisan study on the effects of race-day medications such as Lasix. There are two camps: Those who say all horses bleed and Lasix works, and those who insist Lasix is the death of the breed as we know it. I think the truth is somewhere between those two extremes, and once we know what it is, I want one logical standard set at every track in the country for all race-day medications.

– There will be more transparency.

This is a uniform rule. The more information fans and gamblers have, the better the game will be. I want the complete destruction of barriers that currently obstruct the flow of information to those that help keep the game going.

It’s not like this would be hard in certain respects. I want cameras in steward’s rooms, and microphones on telephone conversations with jockeys involved in inquiries/objections. I want data to not be monopolized, and situations like the one involving the Handycapper tool (profiled in this excellent T.D. Thornton piece where he asks the most picture-perfect question I’ve seen in racing journalism in a long, long time) ending not with the tool being shut down, but it being made to be the best it can be, for the long-term betterment of the game.

– That applies to owners, too.

Partnerships are all the rage, and for obvious reasons. However, it has made analyzing the successes of owners very, very difficult. As a general rule, we don’t know how much of each horse partnership entities possess. That information is certainly available, otherwise how would racing offices know how to distribute purse money?

As an Eclipse Awards voter, I want that information in order to better judge owners come voting time. The current lack of knowledge makes it impossible to do that, and I plan to abstain in this category until a better solution is worked out.

(Full disclosure: When I expressed my displeasure with the system last year, Sol Kumin reached out and wrote an email he didn’t have to write. I applaud that sentiment, and I wish others had it.)

– Other small odds and ends.

Here are a few other rules and regulations we’re rolling out while we’re at it.

Free grandstand admission to all tracks, with $5 vouchers thrown in once a week to the first X amount of people that attend. Want to charge for clubhouse admission? Go ahead.

Stable public WiFi at all tracks that can afford it (and don’t even think about blocking ADW sites).

Either find a way to fix New York’s “purse money only” rule, or eliminate the concept of multi-horse entries entirely until one can be figured out (as described in this article from last summer).

Constructive criticism of handicapping methodologies is encouraged, especially if done in a respectful way. Destructive, empty, and/or sexist criticism is punishable by public flogging and/or publication of the offender’s lifetime betting record (whichever is more humiliating). In the words of Leo McGarry, we’re going to raise the level of public debate and let that be our legacy.

Bad ideas will be seen as bad ideas regardless of who has them. They will be dispatched immediately, and we will learn from them accordingly (hi, Breeders’ Cup Derby!).

Handicap races will be handicap races again. I’m done with weight ranges being four or five pounds in major handicap events. Going forward, the top weight is 126 pounds, and we’re going down from there. As a trade-off, those races get purse boosts to make them more attractive to connections that fret over their thousand-pound animals toting two or three more pounds than usual.

Finally (and as a journalist, this one’s important): All reporters, from all outlets, get whatever they want from tracks they cover. In an era where racing’s struggling for momentum in the public eye, I have no time for petty politics.

Now, Mr. Kringle, what kind of cookies would you like?

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