06/10/2013 11:07AM

Jay Bergman: Can you trust the statistics?

Fred J. Brown
Camille wins the Artiscape in 1:48 3/5 on Sunday.

Statistics don’t always tell the complete story.

Take, for example, the on-track numbers at Vernon Downs and Tioga Downs last month. The two upstate New York harness tracks saw handle figures plummet in May when compared with the same month in 2012.

On the surface, it was startling, especially in the wake of other tracks’ successes throughout North America. Just last week we enjoyed the news that Hoosier Park has seen its handle skyrocket this year when compared with the last.

Like Hoosier, Vernon and Tioga enjoy slot-machine revenue, so some might say that no matter what the figures are on the racing side, there is always slot money to bolster purses.

That’s where the puzzlement begins.

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At Tioga and Vernon, Justin Horowitz, the marketing manager for both facilities, tried to explain the disappointing start to 2013 with a brief yet potentially accurate analysis.

“At Vernon, as you know, we had the EHV-1 outbreak, which forced several race-day cancellations, and when we were able to race, we had shorter fields and fewer races,” Horowitz said. “So, overall, we've run fewer races year-over-year.

“At Tioga, the weather has been poor, to say the least. Outside of ideal weather on opening night, we've suffered through unseasonably cold and rainy weather, particularly on one specific weekend that featured temperatures literally in the low 30s for the entire race weekend, with rain and even flurries at one point – in May!”

The Tioga figures in May showed a 17.4 percent drop in live handle to $278,619 from $337,289 in 2012. The off-track numbers in May were considerably better, with $1,076,242 wagered on the Tioga product from afar, up from $893,955 in May 2012. The increase is 20.4 percent, but to be fair, no horsemen’s group would wish to exchange on-track numbers for off-track numbers.

At Vernon, on-track handle for May dropped $109,872, or 14.3 percent, in 2013. Off-track handle increased by $88,875, or 8.8 percent. Clearly, the Vernon numbers are more distressing than Tioga’s, but considering the EHV-1 outbreak, there’s ample reason to believe things should improve.

Perhaps these statistics are inconsequential. Perhaps they have no meaning whatsoever. Perhaps the weather had limited to no impact on slot handle, which increased in May at Tioga. Why even bother to attempt to draw meaning from a small sample of data?

Numbers are easy to bend and skew. Tioga averaged about $110,000 in total handle on each racing day in May but nearly tripled that total ($314,971) on Sunday afternoon, when it carded two major stakes (the Roll With Joe and Artiscape). The announced crowd numbered 1,220 on Sunday, compared with 725 the previous day.

Does this mean that if you card better races, then handle and attendance will always rise? Vernon also ran a pair of rich stakes Sunday night and handled $239,839, nearly triple its total ($89,434) from the previous day, when half the people (610 vs. 1,340, according to its website) were in attendance.

Is there a correlation between great racing and attendance? Well, it depends on which numbers you choose to examine.

Horowitz told us that Tioga was investing the same amount of money on marketing this year’s edition of the Artiscape and Roll With Joe (For the record, since we’re comparing last year to this, the Roll With Joe was called the Bettor’s Delight in 2012). The question is why?

If this year’s edition of the Roll With Joe included the returning 4-year-olds Sweet Lou and eventual race-winner Pet Rock, shouldn’t Gural, who basically demanded owners of 3-year-olds to bring horses back to race at 4, want to shout to the rest of the world that his vision of great aged racing had reached fruition?

Couldn’t these races have received additional television coverage? Shouldn’t some extra funds be used to promote great races?

The presence of 4-year-olds Sweet Lou, Pet Rock, A Rocknroll Dance, and Warrawee Needy in this stakes made the race a compelling watch for fans and would-be fans.

This isn’t just about those in attendance at Tioga. If those now in charge of helping this sport find its way back to popularity (at least with their public face) can’t find ways to promote our best races to the masses, we are doomed.

On paper, and in actuality, the Artiscape (won by Camille in an upset) and the Roll With Joe (taken by a deserving Pet Rock) were great races.

The Artiscape featured more action in one 1:48 3/5 span than any pacing mare race the sport has seen: the fact that Jody Jamieson was so determined to make a name for himself that he parked the favored Anndrovette through a 25 1/5-second opening quarter, then had the audacity to pull the pocket on her in a 52 3/5 half.

That the champion Anndrovette made fast food out of Big McDeal was a surprise to no one, with the exception of Double J.

The Roll With Joe pitted those top 4-year-olds against wily veterans like the favored Betterthancheddar and the ageless warhorse Foiled Again. It was beautiful to watch not just Pet Rock get his due, but Foiled Again rally past horses despite following cover fourth over.

That two horses of the caliber of Sweet Lou and Betterthancheddar went at each other as hard and fast as they did is proof of what the sport can accomplish with enough horses of equal and exceptional ability and drivers and trainers who aren’t wishing to wait until next week.

If there is to be a renaissance coming, leaders are going to have to decide whether they are willing to back our most prized athletes, the horses, above and beyond everything else. If not, the slots will put us all out of business.