06/11/2012 8:57AM

Bergman: Yonkers purse boost not the boon it seems

Yonkers recently raised purses by 35 percent.

There was a time before conditioned racing began that Yonkers Raceway’s longtime racing secretary Steve Starr had the job and authority to put competitive races together. During the era of “ABC” conditions, Starr had the power and option to review all horses racing at Yonkers and classify them at a level where he thought they would or could compete.

The Meadowlands happened and with it came the belief that “ABC” racing no longer worked. So Yonkers and many other racetracks slipped away from a system that relied solely on the views of a racing secretary towards one where trainers used their skills fitting into money conditions to classify their own horses.

Starr’s position as racing secretary has become more secretarial in recent years as he and his staff routinely put out the same condition sheet each week and simply collect the names of horses that meet those conditions. He does get a few races weekly to “handicap,” but essentially his duties are limited.
I bring up Starr because he appears to be the secretary who wasn’t in the room when the Standardbred Owners Association of New York and top management at Yonkers elected again to distort the system.

Excuse me, I meant raise purses by nearly 35 percent.

Actually the purse increase was the second in roughly four weeks to reach the 35 percent plateau. The announcement came before Yonkers took its annual two-week break. It spurred a rash of claims on closing night as shrewd horsemen correctly recognized that horses already in-to-go in claiming races were suddenly worth 20 percent more on paper than before they entered the box.

According to SOA of NY president Joe Faraldo, the decision to increase purses to this level is something that was planned by his group and Yonkers management. His argument was basically that the purse increase was required to continue to attract horses during the summer when more tracks are racing. This since Yonkers races year-round.

The argument is curious in that Yonkers no longer has to compete for any horses with its current purse structure. Those capable of getting around the four-turn oval haven’t left town to race for riches elsewhere. The purse increase is not likely to induce new blood into the game, but simply reward those lucky enough to have horses racing during the summer versus the winter.

The radical purse increase would be welcome by all if it actually came as a result of impressive handle numbers and was the unavoidable consequence of prosperity. Sadly we can’t claim that to be the reason since the main source of Yonkers purses, slot revenue from Empire City’s 5,300 slot machines, has been down nearly 15 percent since the Resorts World casino opened in Queens last fall.

On the surface any purse increase is positive news for horsemen. What’s wrong with this self-induced radical boost is that it has a negative impact both on horsemen and on gamblers. For horsemen the lack of balance changes the value of horses unnecessarily.

I had a friend who sold a competitive horse at Yonkers before either increase took place. He didn’t know purses would rise 35 percent and sold his horse based on “current value” at the time. Now due to current economics the horse is worth roughly 35 percent more and the buyer, if he were aware that purses would rise, took advantage of the situation.

On the betting side the huge purse increase distorts the current conditioned structure in such a way that it offers no incentive for certain horsemen to win races. Those tooth-fairy believers will tell you that all horses try in each and every race.To the contrary those trainers who want to see money under their pillows will seek out fourth and fifth place money for as long as possible.

The increased purses will penalize those who win in low conditions by forcing horses to move up two or three classes after winning at certain levels. This works against horsemen, but more importantly makes gamblers question if there is any incentive, based on a horse’s earnings level, for a horse to attempt to win.

All of those involved in this gambling game must understand the interests of horsemen and gamblers must be viewed equally before making significant and sudden, even in planned, movements.

The 35 percent increase at Yonkers will reward those horsemen lucky enough to be racing at this time of the year, while at the same time force those who raced earlier in the season to question the wisdom of such a strategy.

Sure, Steve Starr could spend his vacation time revamping his entire condition sheet to “refit” to the new purse structure, but that may do more to confuse horsemen and gamblers then just leaving it as is.

It’s hard to understand the moves behind the scenes at Yonkers when it comes to these purse decisions. The Woodbine Entertainment Group has been racing year-round for decades with purses infused from slot machine revenues. WEG, which is responsible for both Mohawk and Woodbine, keeps a balanced purse structure year round and increases or decreases purses in small percentages when business reflects a change. This rewards horsemen who race during the winter and the summer equally. This allows conditions to remain consistent offering a product that players can rely on from week-to-week, month-to-month and year-to-year.

For all the SOA of NY has done for its horsemen, it’s hard to imagine why they continue to ignore the obvious pitfalls of radical purse alterations. At this point because of five months of underpaying out purses there is no alternative but to move purses to the next level.

The sad part is that prior to slots Yonkers president Tim Rooney seemed eager to offer $100,000 invitationalswith aspirations of drawing more fans to the raceway. There also seemed to be interest in renewing the International Trot, a spectacle in its time that attracted the best horses and biggest crowds each year.

Instead, a few will become richer and a sport will become poorer from another missed opportunity to spend its money wisely.