Archives for February 2011


On December 4, 2010, a grim headline read:  “Louisville Orchestra Files for Bankruptcy.”  Days later, on the very same night, a pair of college basketball games at separate arenas in Louisville, Kentucky, together drew nearly 40,000 people.

Symphony orchestras, like racetracks, were hugely popular long before James Naismith invented basketball in 1891.  Now the two former entertainment top dogs are battling for attention and patronage in a mass and social media era where star-player names from major sports teams are immediately recognizable to the public, just as the names of leading classical-music composers and legendary racehorses once were.

Even the premier symphony orchestras and the most famous racetracks have had hard times.  In the past few years, for example, the New York Philharmonic posted record deficits, the Philadelphia Orchestra edged close to bankruptcy, and the Cleveland Orchestra instituted deep budget cuts.  Similarly, the prominent racetrack companies have had steep declines in handle and one went broke.

Whether classical music and horse racing, after hundreds of years, have finally reached the end of their lifecycles and will become increasingly irrelevant is yet to be determined.  The answer to this question depends on whether they can be made attractive enough to current and successive generations, by a combination of persuading more people to appreciate the centuries-old forms of entertainment as they are and simultaneously adapting to modern tastes and lifestyles.

Racetracks have reacted to their dilemma by downsizing and diversifying.  Robert Evans, CEO of Churchill Downs, told the 2010 University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming that the North American racing industry may see half as many major racetracks in the future, but ones offering higher purses.  Judging from the bankruptcy of Magna Entertainment Corporation, the deep problems in New Jersey and Maryland racing, and the promising results of Monmouth Park with a curtailed calendar, what Evans projects is not a long-term proposition.

A perilous fact of life shared by classical music and horse racing is that they are subsidized.  Much of the revenue of the former comes from donations by patrons, foundations, and governments, whereas support for the latter ever more derives from slots contributions and various state breeder-incentive programs. 

While it would be tempting to lament a society in which relatively Johnny-come-lately sports are all the rage, while more intellectual historic icons like classical music and horse racing are tepidly supported, it would be a waste of time to do so.  A person running a business must approach things as they are, rather than as he or she wishes they were. 

Productive time needs to be spent on figuring out how to present such icons in the 21st century in order to compete in the new reality.  The pari-mutuel aspect of horse racing, in particular, is ideally suited for an era of proliferating mobile communications devices, the Internet, and contracted consumer leisure time.  The overriding structural issues that plague horse racing are inordinately high takeout–a turn-off to well-informed large-scale bettors–and too many races.  These are solvable problems, which is sweet music.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

Originally published in the Blood-Horse.   Used with permission.


Zenyatta’s narrow defeat in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic was the only blemish on her stellar record.  This prompted me to identify and rank the five best American racehorses that finished their careers with a single loss…and then rank them from one through five. 

 1.  Man o’ War (1917-1947 by Fair Play and out of Muhabah by English Triple Crown champion Rock Sand).  Nicknamed “Big Red.”  He is arguably the best racehorse in history, in the United States and elsewhere.  In fact, a panel assembled by Blood-Horse magazine ranked him the number 1 American racehorse of the 20th century.  His career record was 20 wins from 21 starts.  His loss came as a 2-year-old in 1919 in the Sanford Memorial Stakes at Saratoga to the appropriately named Upset.  In those days before mechanical starting gates, Man o’ War was poorly positioned at the start.  He made up all but a half-length by the wire. 

2.  Native Dancer (1950-1967 by Polynesian out of Geisha by Discovery).  Nicknamed “the Gray Ghost.”  Native Dancer was the first racehorse to become a fan favorite as a result of the then-nascent technology called television.  He won 21 of 22 starts, with his loss coming to longshot front-runner Dark Star in the 1953 Kentucky Derby.  Native Dancer came running in the stretch–after being roughed up during the race and getting a roundly criticized ride from Eric Guerin—to come up short by a nose.  This race, of course, deprived him of the Triple Crown as he won the Preakness and the Belmont.  He is number 7 on the Blood-Horse list of greatest American racehorses of the 20th century.  The official chart read:  “DARK STAR, alertly ridden, took command soon after the start, set the pace to the stretch under steady rating, then responded readily when set down in the drive and lasted to withstand NATIVE DANCER, but won with little left. NATIVE DANCER, roughed at the first turn by MONEY BROKER, was eased back to secure racing room, raced wide during the run to the upper turn, then saved ground entering the stretch and finished strongly, but could not overtake the winner, although probably best.”  [click here to view the 1953 Kentucky Derby]

3.   Sysonby (1902-1906, English-bred by Melton out of Optime by Orme).  When he died prematurely in 1906, the New York Times obituary read “possibly the greatest race horse of the American turf.”  He was champion 2-year-old of 1904, champion 3-year-old of 1905, and Horse of the Year in 1905.  His only loss in 14 starts came in the Futurity at Sheepshead Bay, New York in 1904 to the fillies Tradition and (the great) Artful.  He was beaten by 5 lengths by the former and a nose by the latter.  Subsequently, Sysonby’s groom confessed to drugging the colt before the race.  Sysonby is ranked number 30 on the Blood-Horse list of greatest 20th century American racehorses.

4.  Zenyatta (2004-present, by Street Cry and out of Vertigineux by Kris S).  This mare won 19 of 20 races, including 17 graded races and 13 Grade I races.  She won on dirt and synthetic surfaces and beat both male and female horses.  She won the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic and was barely beaten by Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic when she could not quite get up at the wire.  Zenyatta won over $7 million in her career.  She is a certain Hall of Fame inductee and arguably is the best American filly and mare racehorse of all time.  [click here to view the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic]

5.  Majestic Prince (1966-1981 by Raise a Native out of Gay Hostess by Royal Charger).  He was the highest price yearling sold ever sold at public auction in 1967, for $250,000 at Keeneland.  Majestic Prince won nine of ten races.  After he won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 1969, his trainer, Johnny Longden, wanted to take the colt back to California rather than run him in the Belmont (Longden is the only person to both ride–Count Fleet–and train a Kentucky Derby winner).  Majestic Prince had sustained an injury to his right front ligament in the Preakness.  Under a barrage of criticism from the press and fans, Majestic Prince’s owner, Frank McMahon, overruled Longden.  Majestic Prince lost the Belmont by 5 ½ lengths to Arts and Letters, coming in second.  He never raced again.  Majestic Prince is number 46 on the Blood-Horse list of greatest American horses of the 20th century.  [click here  to view the 1969 Belmont Stakes]

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business


Whether one appreciates the architecture of a particular building is subjective, a matter of personal opinion.  In my view, Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida is an aesthetically attractive racetrack with sweeping lines and pleasing colors. It is located adjacent to the very upscale The Village at Gulfstream Park, a shopping mall containing fine restaurants, nightclubs, and retail establishments.  Modern high-rise condos frame the Gulfstream Park background as one watches races from trackside.  A comfortable and clean casino is integrated into the racetrack and offers simulcasting, video lottery terminals, and a poker room.  Walking from the casino to watch a race live can be easily and quickly accomplished.  The Gulfstream paddock is surrounded by chair-back seats that permit people to watch the horses be saddled and paraded before they exit to the racetrack.  Moreover, a few pari-mutuel clerks walk amidst the crowd to take bets on handheld devices,  so a bettor literally does not have to leave his or her seat.  The paddock announcer provides information, insight, and handicapping angles on the entries.  Parking is convenient and plentiful.

The racetrack is immaculate throughout and there is a variety of food and drink—from champagne and shrimp cocktails to beer and pretzels–that actually tastes fresh and good.  A unique offering, as racetracks go, is low-fat food, such as fresh yogurt, for more health-conscious patrons. 

In spite of all there is favorable to say about the Gulfstream Park facility, the downside is that the seating is very limited.  Most recently, I was at the racetrack on February 5, 2011, when several stakes races were featured, including the main event—the Donn Handicap.  Although the relatively small number of upper-level box seats were about half full of people, the track was very crowded on the main level.  Tables scattered throughout the track were occupied, so most patrons had to stand.  When the decision was made to tear down the old Gulfstream Park facility and rebuild, Frank Stronach, the chairman of the now-defunct Magna Entertainment Corporation, which put up the new facility, must have known that Gulfstream would never again be able to accommodate a Breeders’ Cup.  He evidently felt that what was gained with the new Gulfstream in terms of architecture and ambience was worth the loss.

It looks as though that Gulfstream Park emphasizes customer-service training for their employees.  The racetrack personnel generally go out of their way to make the racetrack experience fan friendly.  There are specifically assigned staff members who help neophytes handicap and bet.  The pari-mutuel and concession employees are, as a group, courteous and efficient.  During my 5-6 hours at the racetrack, only once did I encounter a concession employee who was curt.  She needs to learn how to say “thank you.”  One pari-mutuel clerk committed what seems like a minor error but is not insignificant because it sends a signal about how a company looks upon its customers.  This clerk did not have enough nickels to precisely cash out a ticket so she told the customer that he could either accept five cents less than he had coming or else go to another clerk who might have the exact change.  What she should have done was short the track five cents rather than suggest that the customer make up for the track’s mistake or be inconvenienced.  Racetracks should always make sure the clerks have enough change or instruct the pari-mutuel clerks to unfailingly favor the customer when the difference is a dime or less, so that the proper signal is conveyed to the folks who support the show. 

The two Grade I stakes on the February 5th card—the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap and the Donn Handicap—as well as the Grade III Suwannee River, were very competitive and entertaining to watch, won by Teaks North, Giant Oak, and Cherokee Queen, respectively.  However, the most impressive and most intriguing winner on the program was WinStar Farm’s first-time-starter Cal Nation in a $48,500 maiden.  He is by Distorted Humor and out of She’s a Winner by A. P. Indy.  Thus Cal Nation and 2006 Kentucky Derby runner-up and promising stallion Bluegrass Cat have the same dam, the same owner, and the same trainer, Todd Pletcher.  This inexperienced but talented colt might be a force to be reckoned with by mid-to-late summer.   Cal Nation would undoubtedly be a huge favorite of the legion of followers of the University of Kentucky basketball team in that he appears to be named for the UK fan base and for coach John Calipari. 

Overall, Gulfstream Park is a well-designed racetrack that offers a pleasant day watching high-quality races.  It is a “boutique” racetrack and is not intended to be a Churchill Downs or a Belmont Park.  Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Further, debating about whether the new Gulfstream Park is an improvement on the old version is pointless and a waste of time.  The new track is built and therefore is a sunk cost.  The owner is not going to demolish it and start over, so the objective must be to leverage its strengths, which are plentiful.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business