The Response to the PETA Video is All About Not Overreacting and Not Underreacting

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Mitchell of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!


American Thoroughbred racing took a full-speed, unprotected body blow last week when undercover work done by an animal-rights activist group was published by the New York Times.

Recapping the story seems unnecessary as widely distributed as it was through social media, but here we go. A young woman representing People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) got a job in trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn. Over four months she reportedly recorded seven hours of video with a hidden camera (smart phone?), and PETA condensed the content into a damning 91⁄2-minute documentary. The highlights of the video include: callous and profane comments from Asmussen’s now former assistant trainer Scott Blasi about the horses under his care; a farrier discussing the apparently horrible condition of the feet of Nehro—Ahmed Zayat’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) runner-up while he was in training; and, a dinner conversation during which Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas joke about the use of “buzzers,” battery-powered devices created to shock horses into action.

The dramatic, sensational descriptions and characterizations in the PETA documentary were not surprising considering the video was created by an organization that is outspoken about its goal to end horse racing. The video and the comments spliced together, however, lack context while the overlaid narration makes nefarious connections to what is being shown though none may exist. You see a lot of footage of veterinarians with needles and comments about horses getting daily regimens of painkillers and performance-enhancing drugs.

Everything is poured into one bucket: all medications are bad and all horses are abused. The PETA investigator recorded seven hours of video but all we get to see is just over nine minutes of it, some of which is not related to Asmussen at all. Included is footage shot at an Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.’s under tack show a couple of years ago where a 2-year-old sale candidate unfortunately broke down. Sad and disturbing, but completely unrelated. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what’s in the other six hours and 51 minutes? What are the full conversations from which these inflammatory statements were lifted?

Embracing the story as the full truth about horse racing is wrong, but dismissing the story solely as the fabrication of radicals also would be wrong.

The industry needs to pay attention.

An over-reliance on medication is damaging the sport’s reputation. Owners complain about escalating vet bills, the use of furosemide exploded from an as-needed medication to one that is now given to 95% of starters, and the public hears increasingly about products like thyroxine, a hormone that accelerates metabolism and increases cardiovascular output by enhancing heart contractions. Veterinarians reportedly give thyroxine to overweight horses but the product was reportedly given as a regular dietary supplement by both Asmussen and, until recently, Bob Baffert.

Anti-inflammatory drugs for sore joints and muscles are legal therapeutic medications and have their place, but they cannot be used as short-cuts in conditioning. If a horse is not holding up to the stress of training, maybe it needs time off instead of treatment.

Owners have a responsibility here, too. Don’t just pay the bill. Ask questions about what is being given to your horses and why.

And for the owners and trainers who simply know no other way than to continually try to game the system, the industry must accelerate its efforts to cull these bad apples. The proposed uniform medication rules and penalties created by the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium and the Association of Racing Commissioners International include tougher sanctions—up to a five-year suspension and $50,000 fine for trainers caught with a third Class A offense; and for owners, a disqualification, loss of purse, $50,000 fine, and the horse suspended from running for 180 days following a third offense.

To state racing commissioners: You cannot implement these penalties fast enough.

It also cannot be stressed enough that the racing industry must find a way to promote the people who truly care. Put their faces in front of the public and tell the stories of how much their horses are part of their lives and their families. Show the sacrifices they make to keep their horses healthy and happy.

Luckily for racing, these stories are not marketing spin. Honorable owners, breeders, and trainers are out there, doing right by their horses every day.


PETA Video: Catalyst For Change or Extremist Propaganda Which Should Be Ignored????

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Gary West of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

A time for rational minds

A reasonable response would have been that since PETA produced the video that alleges “abuse and mistreatment” of thoroughbreds among other offenses, it should be ignored. After all, a PETA video could have no credibility but could only be propaganda created for no other purpose than traducing the sport and its competitors. But it’s too late for a reasonable response, and the now-famous video is too outrageous, too odious and too vile to ignore.

The New York Times, not surprisingly since it habitually dives for every line PETA tosses into the water, was the first to bite; the newspaper allowed itself to be used as a sort of legitimizer for a video that’s so deceptive in its distortions it would have been admired by the greatest of propaganda ministers. Various media then picked up the story, and as often happens, herd instinct took over. New York and Kentucky promised there would be investigations. And citing those pending investigations, the Hall of Fame, which at this point could do nothing else, tabled the nomination of trainer Steve Asmussen.

PETA, of course, depends for financing on its ability to incite the small minded into a paroxysm of donating. And the video, thanks to an assist from the Times, will no doubt accomplish just that with its sensational allegations of mistreatment, tossed not just at Asmussen and his top assistant, Scott Blasi, but at the entire horse industry. Given exclusive access, the Times reported that the video “showed widespread mistreatment of horses.” But does it really?

The video is supposedly the work of an undercover investigator who worked as a hot walker for Asmussen for four months in 2013. And so four months of furtive slinking around yielded just nine minutes and 29 seconds of video? That’s all? Who among us wouldn’t be thrilled if the accumulation of his bad moments added up to less than 2½ minutes a month?

Actually, the video shows no abuse or mistreatment of horses. Nobody strikes a horse or hurts a horse. Nothing illegal takes place. For the most part, the video shows horses receiving injections, being scoped and examined. It shows, in other words, rather ordinary treatment and nothing sinister. Only somebody who looks with his preconceptions and not his eyes, somebody who gullibly believes — or desperately wants to believe — every word from the voiced-over narrator, could mistake this treatment for mistreatment.

The narrator says: “Death and injuries are business as usual. … To train and race through all the injuries, exhaustion and pain, horses are subjected to an endless cycle of performance-enhancing medication and pain-masking drugs.” And, by the way, this comes from an organization that last year alone reportedly killed 1,792 cats and dogs at its headquarters/shelter in Norfolk, Va., and has killed more than 31,000 since 1998, not irrelevant facts when considered in the context of PETA’s motives. The Times even ran a piece in July of last year about the uproar these actions have caused.

Asmussen is barely present in the video. Most of all, it shows Blasi at his worst, behaving like a high school knucklehead who’s so eager to impress that he brags, with an alarmingly vulgar and weak vocabulary, about how tough and bad and smart he is. Sometimes his assertions are just mistakenly wrong. Sometimes he sounds like the same knucklehead boasting in the crudest terms about what may or may not have happened in the backseat of his Chevy. It’s not very unlike the hyperbolic boasting and bragging in any other workplace.

Blasi’s crude insensitivity and seeming disregard might be the most disturbing aspect of the video. Anybody who abuses horses should be banned from the sport, but that isn’t what this video shows. And leaping to any conclusion based on 9½ minutes of highly selective and deceptively edited video would be not just unwise but downright dumb. Were there moments during those four months when the undercover agent was slinking around that Asmussen and Blasi expressed or demonstrated their respect and affection for the horses in their care? Almost certainly, but those moments weren’t recorded, or at least weren’t included. Were there moments when overflowing compassion and admiration moved workers in that barn to gestures of genuine tenderness and kindness? Very possibly, but those moments weren’t recorded, or at least weren’t included. The video, in other words, makes no attempt to reach any truth.

That’s why a reasonable response would have been to ignore it. But it’s too late for that. And so there needs to be an investigation — of PETA.


2014 Big Cap Showcased Old Warriors

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Mitchell of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Dude the Redeemer

God love the seasoned warriors; the ones who rise up and reclaim glory in stunning fashion when everyone else has begun writing them off.

During the Sochi Winter Olympics, Austrian skier Mario Matt, two months shy of his 35th birthday, handled a tricky slalom course on challenging soft snow to become the oldest Alpine gold medalist in Olympics history. The course was so tough—termed brutal by some—that five of the eight top skiers from the first of two rounds failed to finish the course.

Matt’s experience, talent, and will to win allowed him to shine against some of the world’s most talented and much younger skiers.

“He’s a tremendous competitor, a game-day guy,” said U.S. men’s head coach Sasha Rearick.

Game On Dude gave racing the same type of performance March 8 in one of the most exciting Santa Anita Handicaps (gr. I) seen in many years.

Santa Anita Park is home base for the 7-year-old son of Awesome Again, but the Southern California track has been the site of as much heartbreak as triumph for him. Just four months ago Game On Dude was favored to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) after a sterling run of five consecutive graded stakes victories, including a 73⁄4-length romp in last year’s Big ’Cap. The gelding, however, finished ninth in the Classic, 11 lengths behind winner Mucho Macho Man and nosed-out second Will Take Charge. Game On Dude had been the favorite in the 2012 Classic, also at Santa Anita, and finished 15 lengths back in seventh.

The Dude ended last year with a good second to Will Take Charge in the Clark Handicap (gr. I), so a strong start this year would have restored the faith of many. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Game On Dude finished fifth in the grade II San Antonio Stakes against much softer competition than he would face in the Big ’Cap. The only other graded stakes winners in the field were Blueskiesnrainbows, who had just won the grade II San Pasqual Stakes, and Willyconker, who had won the grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile Stakes in 2012 but had not won or placed in a stakes all last year.

So the speculation began. Had the Dude lost his edge?

Trainer Bob Baffert took the heat for the San Antonio loss, saying he didn’t have Game On Dude prepared. Then he stewed over the naysayers.
“Bob’s proud of Game On Dude,” said jockey Mike Smith. “He’s like family to him. When you knock him, you’re walking on the fightin’ side of Bob, I guess, like it says in the old country song that Merle Haggard used to sing.”

The Big ’Cap wound up being the perfect stage for redemption: a rematch with Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge at Santa Anita along with the top three finishers from the San Antonio—Blingo, Imperative, and American Blend—and grade II winner Hear the Ghost from the always dangerous barn of Jerry Hollendorfer. The doubt hanging over Game On Dude made him the third choice in the field; the first time he had not been the post time favorite in 15 starts.

The Dude was ready, however. Smith took him right to the front and let him roll through sharp fractions of :22.91, :45.39, and 1:09.39, a brisker pace than what unfolded had when Game On Dude ran head-to-head with Blueskiesnrainbows in the San Antonio. Heading into the second turn, the fans got the showdown they’d been hoping for with Mucho Macho Man at Game On Dude’s right shoulder and Will Take Charge just outside of Mucho Macho Man.

“The stars are all aligned,” said track announcer Trevor Denman.

This time the Dude’s talent and will to win were unassailable. Mucho Macho Man faded and Will Take Charge was held at bay by 13⁄4 lengths. The Dude trifecta was priceless: He made history by winning his third Santa Anita Handicap, he broke the stakes record with his final time of 1:58.17, and he struck dumb his critics.

“It’s an emotional win,” Baffert said afterward. “It kills me when they knock on him, but we came in quiet and that’s the way I like it. We came in under the radar, and we were ready for them.”

The Big ’Cap was an important race for the sport as well. A compelling handicap division allows fans to make a connection with top horses and gives a chance for rivalries to develop. Keep putting such compelling contests on TV and perhaps Thoroughbred racing could start to savor some redemption of its own.


Has The Synthetic Era Ended For American Horse Racing???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steven Crist of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Tread wearing thin on synthetic era

The announcement last week that Del Mar will replace its Polytrack racing surface with natural dirt for the 2015 racing season may well signal the end of the synthetic-track era in American racing after less than a decade.

The number of important races run over various synthetic surfaces peaked in 2008 and 2009, when 38 Grade 1 races each year – more than a third of the nation’s Grade 1 inventory – were run on Polytrack at Del Mar and Keeneland, Cushion Track at Hollywood, or Pro-Ride at Santa Anita. There were still 31 synthetic Grade 1 races in 2010 when the Breeders’ Cup and its seven main-track Grade 1’s moved to dirt at Churchill. Then Santa Anita switched back to dirt in 2011, Hollywood closed its doors for good at the end of 2013, and now Del Mar is switching back to dirt.

So from that high of 38 synthetic Grade 1’s in 2008 and 2009, there are likely to be just six synthetic Grade 1’s in 2015, all at Keeneland – unless and until that track switches back to dirt, a move many in the industry believe is now inevitable.

Keeneland’s signature main-track races – the Blue Grass and Ashland in the spring, and the Breeders’ Futurity, Alcibiades and Spinster in the fall – have declined in stature during the Polytrack era, having been won largely by grass horses who have had little other success in Grade 1 races on the dirt. When Keeneland had the only synthetic Grade 1 races in the sport back in 2006, it was a pioneer. If it still has them in 2015, after the biggest venues that followed its lead have changed back, it might instead be perceived as stubbornly clinging to a rejected technology despite its longtime motto of “Racing as it was meant to be.”

The proprietors of both Del Mar and Keeneland have said that they want to host Breeders’ Cups in the future, and while the Breeders’ Cup has taken no official position on requiring a dirt main track, it became clear after the 2008 and 2009 editions on Pro-Ride that the future of the series was on dirt.

“There is no way we would have gone back to Santa Anita so many times if they hadn’t gone back to dirt,” said one Breeders’ Cup board member. “And I think it has been made very clear to Del Mar and Keeneland that any chance they have of hosting a Breeders’ Cup is contingent on having dirt tracks.”

Regardless of what Keeneland does, the other elephant in the room when it comes to synthetic surfaces is the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race. The World Cup was conceived as a dirt race and when it was run at Nad Al-Sheba from 1996 through 2008, it routinely attracted top American dirt horses, including the victorious Cigar (1996), Silver Charm (1998), Captain Steve (2001), Pleasantly Perfect (2004), Invasor (2007), and Curlin (2008).

Since being run on a Tapeta surface at Meydan in 2010, it has become a nearly meaningless race beyond the money, with no championship implications and diminished American participation. Changing the World Cup from dirt to Tapeta was clearly a premature move, probably based on the Maktoum family’s false impression that racing in America and perhaps elsewhere was headed for a synthetic future.

Now, with synthetic Grade 1 racing on the verge of disappearing from the sport here, and little movement abroad toward racing top-class horses over anything but grass or dirt, running the world’s richest race on a synthetic surface makes it something of a white elephant, little more than a rich novelty.

Del Mar is currently searching for the right kind and mix of dirt for its new main track, and that reflects an opportunity for other American tracks now that the synthetic age is passing: To take the time, effort and money that was spent trying to invent new racing surfaces into improving the safety and quality of dirt tracks in this country.

While there was plenty of politics and misinformation behind the introduction of the synthetic tracks, many of their advocates were well intentioned, trying to improve the welfare of horses and riders. Now that the sport has pretty much decided to keep its main-track racing on dirt in this country, that goal should be preserved, and the entire industry should work together to make dirt racing as safe as it can be.


Would a Formula One Style Race Series Be Successful???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Alan Aitken of South China Morning Post…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Idea for global ‘Formula One’ circuit fraught with risks

Snap, crackle, pop and there it was on Tuesday morning in a Sydney newspaper – an administrative heavyweight from Australia and the racing manager of a Qatari prince combining to push the proposition that a Formula One-style, global racing world series was the future of the sport.

There must be a whiff of something in the air in Sydney at the moment. First it was “The Championships” (surely the All England Lawn Tennis Club lawyers are having a look at that one); now the city’s racing is to be an integral part of a year-long world championship series to decide the best horses on the planet.

One word, to start with, Sydney – quarantine. And somewhere within a day’s march of the racing stage, thanks.

We could talk about “The Championships” all day, but this isn’t about them, or it, or whatever.

This is about Back To The Future: Part IV, in which the influence and extreme wealth of a Middle Eastern royal, this time Dunaden’s owner, Sheikh Fahad Al-Thani, gets behind a programme of races in different countries, with points scored as the elite gallopers take each other on throughout the year – yada yada yada, you know the rest.

The racing world has got better at travelling horses since Sheikh Mohammed’s World Series but, just thinking aloud, what was wrong with this last time?

We mean the time when it kicked off with all the best intentions in 1999, sponsored by Dubai’s airline, Godolphin got right into the spirit and actually trekked their best horses around the globe to take part and to try to win the thing. Fantastic Light and Grandera even carried it off, and Grandera did get as far as running in Australia, which probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

But despite the money, an airline, horses, and loads of goodwill at the kick-off, it was already ragged by 2003. Before then, Emirates Airlines had pulled out for “business reasons”, which may or may not have had a connection with the 2002 addition to the series of Singapore’s best race, sponsored by its airline, and the Dubai World Cup withdrew. The series wobbled on for a few more years, amid promises of new sponsorship just around the corner, then vanished.

So what was it that didn’t work out?

Just a few simple matters.

Horses: they just aren’t Formula One cars that can be thrown on a plane 19 times a year and turn up sparkling.

Race rules: they are different in different cities and regions, let alone different countries.

Drug rules: to assist or not to assist and when and how and how much.

Quarantine rules: in truth probably one of the lesser hurdles, given the travelling horses do these days. Oh, unless you’re including Australia.

Prize money: in the series concepts we have seen (the Global Sprint Challenge is apparently still going, too) wide discrepancies in stakes offered impact on the attraction to participate in cheaper legs.

Sponsorship clashes: see Singapore, or, if Emirates had been the sponsor still when Cathay Pacific came on board for the internationals here in 2004, what would have been the effect?

Stud values: do you really think the next Frankel will go in for this, risk having a bad flight or an off day in a far-flung field when he’s worth hundreds of millions to keep home and protect his record?

Horses: again, because if the Frankels don’t run then what does any of it mean to a public which knows the “world champion” actually isn’t?


Nothing Beats The Live Racing Experience

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jay Cronley of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!


Why go?

That’s a question sports fans everywhere seem to be asking themselves as NFL teams strain to fill early-round playoff seats, as Nebraska and Georgia play a bowl game in a stadium that appeared half empty, and as horse players pass on trips to scenic spa meets to bet at home, or at a simulcast joint with all the ambiance of a convenience store.

Why go and pay a small fortune for travel, for a ticket, and for the opportunity to sit next to a drunk? Drunks love to go to concerts and sporting events. Why? Who knows. Drunks can’t remember all that much. I attract drunks. If you’re sitting somewhere and up stumbles a drunk, don’t worry, the drunk is sitting first next to me, then perhaps on my lap. At the last concert I attended, a drunk woman threw up on my shoes. The situation is so out of control at major events, there should be drinking sections where drunks can go to fight and to throw up on each other.

Why go and sit in the stratosphere in an upper corner, or under the basket, when you can watch on a 100-inch screen TV in your living room? Have you noticed how people with food stamps sticking out of their pockets drive up in clunkers and leave with the latest in-home and shack entertainment centers? Few are entertainment poor anymore.

If staying home costs less, and is cleaner, and is safer, and is less depressing after a loss, and affords a better view, why go?

This is a question I have applied to horse racing as I review my year-end notebook. In my horse race journals, suitable for personal and IRS review, I try to list all wagers, along with a brief thought process behind some bets, the point being, some thinking is blatantly foul: increasing bet sizes to catch up, for example. Through a survey of these notes so far, I have clearly seen that getting robbed is destructive beyond the event itself. What I should do after being exposed to a rotten ride or a dopey steward is usually the opposite of what I have done, which is get mad and bet more. I seldom if ever make money after being blindsided. I should go home, go away, I should stop betting, as rotten moods make for bad handicapping.

One pleasant trend that stands out in the review of the 2013 notes is an expanded use of the “All” button. Some dont think playing the “All” tab is sound handicapping technique. Well, if horse race handicapping was easier, I wouldn’t use “All” so much either. But I have become more convinced than ever in 2013 that if you’re right about a horse, you have to get paid, either through a win bet on a long shot, or with an “All” touch on an exacta. What’s worse than being right about a 25-1 horse and not collecting? Being mugged in the parking lot after a big win would be worse. I’m the first to admit that I couldn’t pick second place if most races were frozen for a moment at the top of the swing for home.

So welcome one and “All.”

Why go to a live horse race?

According to my notes, here’s why: I won money more often last year at the live races, or lost less, than with the races on a screen.

True, sometimes even at the live races you watch on a screen.

But being there is worth the effort.

Heres why.

Company is positive. What characters that remain out of rehab are at the horse races. Drunks last as long as their money lasts, which isn’t long. Bad pickers abound at the live races. A sense of the brotherhood exists: us against them. They are track management and the crooks. Sure, online wagering sites will give you cash money if you’ll bet with them. But when you hit a 20-1 shot on the home wagering screen, there’s nobody but the dog to celebrate with. The horse races are not for hermits. Public displays of joy reinforce the ego and are important parts of horse racing.

You can see things live that you can’t see on a screen. Handicapping connections at the paddock is important. You want to bet a slob? And whereas horse body language is subjective, all you usually get on a screen is a backside trotting away. Some horse body language means something. Like a limp. Also, I have found that horses shaking their heads as if to say “No thanks,” repeatedly shaking their heads side-to-side, mean thanks anyhow, but I dont think Ill be running fast today.

Being at the live races slows you down.

One focus beats betting three tracks simultaneously.

And here’s an important universal notes theme about the live races.

Being there is fun.


Gaming Decisions Dating Back to 1999 Doomed Hollywood

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Matt Hegarty of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Losing bet on gaming doomed historic track

When Hollywood Park closes its doors for good Sunday, it will become the inevitable financial casualty of two bets reaching back to 1999. Those wagers worked out well for the two companies that tied their money to the track – a perverse turn of events considering the gaping hole the track’s closing will leave on the national racing landscape and the track’s deep history.

Hollywood Park was first targeted for a big payoff by Churchill Downs Inc., which bought the track in 1999 as part of a national expansion that had two goals: acquiring simulcast signals and planting stakes in potential casino-gambling markets. Six years later, however, frustrated by the state’s opposition to expanding casino gambling beyond Native American reservations, Churchill unloaded the track – at a $120 million markup from the price it paid.

The buyer in 2005 was a real-estate company, Bay Meadows Land Company, controlled by a California Democratic businessman with deep ties to the state’s legislature, Terry Fancher. His company, too, was betting on getting slot machines or casino games at the track, but unsuccessful efforts supported by Fancher and the rest of the California racing industry to improve Hollywood’s chances at reaping the rewards of expanded gambling failed miserably in the next three years.

Then the real-estate market collapsed.

That collapse was the only reason Hollywood Park held on until 2013. With the track located on valuable real estate, with quick access to nearby LAX and the city’s ports, Hollywood Park’s owners kept it operating solely because razing the facility and redeveloping the land wasn’t prudent until the real-estate market recovered. What’s more, it’s become apparent since a referendum failed in 2007 that the state has no interest in giving racetracks slot machines, and so Hollywood’s owners are finally cashing in their chips for the lucrative world of retail and housing development.

That reality might be off-putting to many local racing fans and historians, but the simple fact is that real-estate developers look at one crucial statistic in gauging the worth of a property: profit per square foot. Hollywood Park sits on a lot of square feet, 238 acres worth of sprawling property that includes a backside generating far more expenses than revenues and a spacious infield unused but by birds, a pretty park no one can picnic in, with value only as a backdrop for photographs that rarely make the papers these days.

Meanwhile, handle nationally on racing went into a free fall at the start of the 2008 economic meltdown after years of stagnation or small declines, although it has stabilized over the past two years. Handle at Hollywood’s summer meeting in 2008 averaged $11.8 million a day, a number that declined to $9.1 million in 2012, while average handle at its 2008 fall meeting was $8.3 million, below its 2012 fall meet average of $8.9 million. At the same time, real-estate values have been steadily creeping up.

“From an economic point of view, the land now simply has a higher and better use, so, unfortunately, racing will not continue here once the 2013 autumn meet is completed,” said the track’s president, Jack Liebau, when finally announcing the closing earlier this year.

Both Churchill Downs and Bay Meadows Land Company made no secret of their goals for Hollywood – slot machines. Churchill decided to bow out as the result of a breathtaking miscalculation by the state’s racing constituents in 2004 to support an industry-drafted referendum that would have forced Native American casinos to contribute 25 percent of their gambling revenues to the state and to local governments. Under the language of the referendum, if a single Native American casino refused to make the payments within 90 days of the referendum passing, the state’s racetracks and card rooms would get a backdoor right to operate as many as 30,000 slot machines.

The referendum was shot down by 84 percent of the voters. In defeat, the racing industry came off as petty and vindictive, eroding support for their efforts for expanded gambling while simultaneously serving up a stark reminder of the unbreakable political clout of the Native American casino lobby.

Frustrated by the vote and bowing to reality, Churchill reached its agreement to sell the track to Fancher’s company in 2005 for $260 million. Tom Meeker, Churchill’s chief executive when the company purchased the track for $140 million in cash from a company controlled by R.D. Hubbard, said after reaching the deal that the state “seems to have forsaken racing,” a reference to the company’s inability to get any authorization for casino gambling. That comment probably didn’t endear the state racing industry to lawmakers, either.

The sale allowed Churchill to retire nearly all of its long-term debt and post a $72 million profit for the quarter. Hollywood’s average handle when Churchill acquired the track in 1999 was $10.38 million for the summer meet and $9.66 million for the fall meet. When the company sold the track in 2005, those numbers were $10.42 million (little change) and $8.94 million (a 7.4 percent decline), respectively.

Fancher picked up right where Churchill left off, even if his language was coded in the type of business-speak that is familiar to anyone who has watched a racetrack set the stage for lobbying efforts to get slot machines. During a conference call to discuss the purchase of the track, Fancher said: “[We] will seek alternative uses for the current racetrack site, in collaboration with the city of Inglewood, in the event that our best efforts are unable to improve the underlying economics of the horse racing industry and stem the tide of horses leaving the state.”

Then he issued a warning to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: “It would be tragic to see racing fall off the landscape in California. Governor, you can do something about it.”

Fancher and supporters of expanded gambling wasted no time in pursuing their goals, working behind the scenes to try to strike a deal to bring slots to the state’s tracks. Those efforts failed to bear any fruit. In 2007, a referendum that would have nullified the state’s agreements with Native American tribes – and opened the door to slots at tracks – failed nearly as spectacularly as the 2004 vote. Efforts to revive the issue have fallen flat ever since.

Fancher had vowed to keep Hollywood up and running as a racetrack only until 2008, but any plans for redeveloping the property then faded in the wake of the dramatic pullback in real-estate investment when credit and land values collapsed as part of the recession. Just in case anyone had any lingering confidence in Hollywood’s future as a racetrack as a result of the delay, however, the owner quickly put those hopes to rest when Bay Meadows Race Course, the company’s other racetrack holding, located in an industrial area south of San Francisco, was torn down late in 2008 and promptly redeveloped.

The larger concern for the racing industry is whether Hollywood’s fate will be shared by other similar racetracks. While crosstown circuit member Santa Anita is probably safe from redevelopment over the short run due to a combination of its billionaire owner’s ability to absorb losses and the property’s few viable redevelopment options in a tony location already crowded with retail and housing, other tracks without expanded gambling will face the same pressures over the long term unless they receive the right to operate slot machines.

With casino-type gambling reaching into nearly every nook and cranny of the continental United States, tracks without gaming have now become few and far between. Tracks in Illinois, Arizona, and Washington fit the bill. Kentucky, surrounded by casino states, obviously stands out, but only one Kentucky track, Turfway Park, is in dire financial straits. Churchill has the cash-cow Kentucky Derby; Keeneland is a not-for-profit that has consistently posted record attendance and handle figures despite the recession (and has sales revenue to fall back on); and both Kentucky Downs and, to a lesser extent, Ellis Park are reaping revenues from Instant Racing machines, devices that so nearly resemble slot machines that they are hardly distinguishable from the real things.

But in Texas and Virginia, two states where casino gambling seems a longshot at best, the future is grim. Tracks in those states, each with its own long equine pedigree, opened in places where racing seemed a sure thing, and at a time when the national gambling expansion was beginning to carry racetracks with it to the land of riches. But that has changed, seemingly irreversibly. Unless racing finds a way to resurrect its fortunes – and wean itself from the slot-machine subsidies that have so distorted the economic and political incentives shaping its present and future – more tracks will go the way of Hollywood Park, white elephants whose once best uses expired long ago.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 122 other followers