10/20/2009 12:00AM

Taking a ride through the haunted house

Email

TUCSON, Ariz. - With Halloween close at hand, there are a lot of skeletons rattling around and much whistling in the dark in North American horse racing. And there are governors acting like goblins.

The whistling was done by some important people.

Alex Waldrop, CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, wrote in his blog, Straight Up, about the Thoroughbred industry's "bright future."

The Blood-Horse whistled in a blog entry titled, "Blood in Corpse Still Pretty Warm," noting a "bright spot" at State Fair Park in Lincoln, Neb., where the track charged admission but gave away free programs and asked if that might be part of the reason ontrack handle increased 17 percent.

Despite those dark night whistles, the skeletons were real and on display.

In Quebec, there is no more horse racing. It is gone.

Attractions Hippique, which owned the province's three tracks that were awarded to it three years ago, filed for bankruptcy last week and closed all three, in Quebec City, Aylmer, and Montreal. The company actually dropped live racing at Hippodrome de Montreal months ago, ending a hundred years of racing at the track better known to many in racing by its former name, Blue Bonnets. Attractions Hippique had hoped to build a new track north of the city. That ambitious idea went nowhere. Instead, Montrealers saw a "for sale" sign go up on busy Decarie Boulevard, a heavily trafficked main thoroughfare in Montreal where the huge track sprawls along some of the most valuable land in the city.

Woodbine Entertainment president and COO Nick Eaves said Woodbine might be interested in restoring Internet wagering in Quebec, but not live racing, so the blood in that corpse is as cold as a Quebec winter. Quebec horsemen, meanwhile, are starving, moving out, and sending horses to other tracks or worse.

In Saratoga Springs, N.Y., last week, attendees at the 13th annual simulcasting conference conducted by the TRA and Harness Tracks of America heard some scary noises in broad daylight.

The whistling there was from speakers like racing writer John Pricci, who said racing offered "the ultimate video game." Program management analyst Mike Dorr agreed, saying the game is not being marketed to people who are used to manipulating data.

Jeff Gural, the New York City real estate magnate who owns Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs in midstate New York and breeds and races horses, really rattled the bones, calling racing "doomed," saying the establishment was "very happy to be a welfare recipient." He said once a racino opens, the casino company looks at racing as a loser, and he predicted the lobbyists who worked to get racinos at tracks will begin lobbying for casino companies to keep them but get rid of racing. He said breeders controlled racing, and it was unlikely they would opt for change.

Gene Christiansen, a gambling analyst and adviser, agreed with Gural, calling chances of change "slim to none." He said racing "was more resistant to change than anything we've ever dealt with" and said if it doesn't voluntarily try to rebuild its customer base, with lower takeout a must, there will be fewer tracks, less racing, and disastrous declines in purses.

All that from the prognosticators. But there also was blood in the streets.

In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine, facing a tight election race next month, told Atlantic City editors he would not approve slots for New Jersey tracks. Tom Luchento, president of the state's harness horsemen and a member of the governor's commission on finding solutions for racing in the state, called the governor's commission's efforts "an exercise in futility, intended to be a distraction to keep us away until after the election." Denis Drazin, an attorney who heads the Thoroughbred horsemen, took a gentler view, believing he saw a crack in the door because the governor did not rule out a full-blown casino at some future time at the Meadowlands.

The governor, apparently angered by Luchento's straightforward outburst, canceled a meeting of the problem-solving commission set for the following day.

In Michigan, there was even more draconian action. The governor there, Jennifer Granholm, abolished the state racing commission, assigned its duties to the gaming control board, and vetoed appropriations totaling more than $5 million for the racing board's former budget and for financial support of Michigan's vigorous county fair racing program.

In California, Art Wilson, a staff writer for the Whittier Daily News, quoted trainer John Sadler as saying, "I've preached for years to the blind that if we don't cut our dates a little bit we're going to be in trouble."

Welcome to Halloween. Those scary guys Gural and Christiansen spoke on a panel that conference planner Chris Scherf of TRA titled, "Change - You can run but you can't hide."

Good call.