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Horse Racing / Bill Christine : Sport’s Dilemma: A Small Group Bets Big

Ever since off-track betting--the legal kind--started in New York in the 1970s, on-track attendance has suffered at the state’s three major tracks--Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga.

Something else has happened with the dwindling of live crowds in New York. An alarmingly small number of people is doing much of the betting.

Phil Dunn, an executive at the New York tracks, talked about the situation this week at the University of Arizona’s symposium on racing. For 15 years, the university’s race track industry program, which is part of the College of Agriculture here, has been giving racing executives a December forum for discussing their businesses.

Dunn said that fewer than 2% of the racing patrons in New York account for about 40% of the handle. These are roughly 200 daily players who pump about $960 a race through the windows.

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“When one of these guys gets a cold (and stays home), we get pneumonia,” Dunn said.

There was hope in the beginning that off-track betting would help increase purses in New York, plus develop new fans for the sport.

Overall betting is up, but not enough to give New York tracks much optimism about the future.

“We aren’t developing any new customers, either on- or off-track,” Dunn said.

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A different form of off-track betting--a dozen or so satellite-television locations with seating, eating and drinking facilities instead of the hundreds of walk-in corner betting parlors with no amenities in New York--came to the San Francisco area in 1985 and spread to Southern California by 1987.

The results have been mixed and California racing executives--doubtlessly benefitting from the shock value of the New York experience--are already rethinking how they might broaden their fan base.

Bay Meadows recently completed a $10-million plant improvement program and its new general manager, Jim Conn, would like to attract the more casual fan, who might be capable of betting $100 on 9 or 10 races instead of $960 a race.

Conn is conceding that big bettors will generally go to the nearest satellite site, rather than travel farther distances to be at the track that is actually running the races.

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“I would like to get corporations thinking about coming to Bay Meadows,” Conn said. “I want people to think in terms of coming here for a good lunch or dinner--and being entertained by seeing a day of racing as well.”

Tony Diaz, a jockey who was recently suspended through 1990 when he was caught using an electrical device--a battery--in a race at Bay Meadows, is appealing the ruling.

One of his arguments is that Kip Didericksen, a quarter horse jockey, was suspended for just a year when he was caught with a battery at Hollywood Park a couple of years ago.

Diaz told a hearing board that he had used the battery on the winning horse in the post parade, but not during the race.

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Hearing that, Scott Wyskocil, a member of Santa Anita’s public-relations department, said: “Does that mean that he just showed the battery to the horse during the race, to give him the idea that he ought to run faster?”

At the seminars here, a member of the Oregon Racing Commission remembered an incident involving a jockey with a battery several years ago. The rider, knocked unconscious in the race, was taken to the track’s first-aid room. A nurse, trying to remove one of the jockey’s boots, received an electric shock and discovered the battery.

Several years ago, Lane Suire was riding with a battery at Hawthorne, near Chicago, when his horse broke down at the top of the stretch. Suire was sent flying and when he got up he threw his whip, which contained the battery, into the infield.

Only about 5,000 fans and 3 stewards saw him. A track security man dashed to the scene, fetched the illegal whip and Suire received a lengthy suspension. Suire’s argument was that the whip belonged to another rider and that it had been left in the infield in a previous race.

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Jerry Lawrence, the general manager of Churchill Downs, says that the record Breeders’ Cup day crowd of 71,237 was legitimate. There were suggestions, including one in the Daily Racing Form, that the crowd was less than announced and included no-shows.

Lawrence said that Churchill Downs will apply to hold the Breeders’ Cup again in 1990. Gulfstream Park in Florida has the races next year. Another applicant for 1990 will be Oak Tree at Santa Anita, which had the Breeders’ Cup in 1986.

“It can rain in places like California and Florida in November, too,” Lawrence said. “I’m kind of glad it rained on Breeders’ Cup this year, because it showed that we can handle bad weather and still make the track good for the horses.”

For the first time in the 5-year history of the Breeders’ Cup, horsemen at the host track gave up their share of the inter-track betting money, which would have gone into the Churchill Downs purse fund.

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Lawrence said that the Churchill Downs horsemen agreed that they weren’t running horses in the Breeders’ Cup races, anyway, and reasoned that they would benefit from the extra betting during the week of the cup and on the 3 other races on cup day. Their share of the inter-track betting would have been about $1.4 million, according to Lawrence.

Horse Racing Notes

Santa Anita is shopping for an assistant general manager. . . . Howard (Buddy) Jacobson, the former top New York trainer who is serving a term of 25 years to life for murder in the Attica prison, still hopes to win freedom on an appeal. “It won’t make any difference,” says a friend of Jacobson’s. “Buddy’s dying of cancer.” In “Big City D.A.,” a recent book about the late Mario Merola, who prosecuted Jacobson, Merola says that his people “were acting like Keystone Cops” at the beginning of the case.

The field has been narrowed to three groups competing for the 20-year lease to run racing at Del Mar, starting in 1990. Besides the current operating group, the other finalists are the Ogden-Nederlander group and John Brunetti, who owns Hialeah. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if I lost my job after our business (betting) went up 70%,” jokes Joe Harper, Del Mar’s current general manager. “I know guys who are down 20% and they’re still hanging on.”

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A suit by Tony Ciulla, a convicted race fixer from the 1970s, against the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, has been dismissed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Ciulla claimed that the national security group revealed the new identity that had been given him for cooperating with the federal government. The ruling was handed down after Ciulla, who wound up representing himself, failed to comply with the court’s discovery order.

King Glorious, the undefeated 2-year-old colt who has run just 4 times, is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, who kept the horse on the shelf for almost 4 months because of a fever. Hollendorfer’s caution was understandable, because one of his horses with a similar problem died in October.


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