Sports Outside the Beltway

Was there race fixing at Hazel Park?

Last week I blogged about police and regulators in Michigan looking into whether races were fixed at Michigan area horse tracks. ESPN’s Bill Finley has an interesting take on the subject.

The thought of race fixing conjures up images of bad guys sitting in smoked-filled rooms deciding which horses are going to be stiffed, how they’re going to bet the bogus races and how they’re going to divide up the huge loot they’re going to make. It’s the last part that is the key. Race fixing involves greed and greed involves making money, usually lots of it. In Michigan, anyone in the race-fixing business would be lucky to make minimum wage.

Harness racing in Michigan is small-time stuff and the pools at the state’s track are pathetically small. The feature race Saturday night at Northville Downs, the only track currently racing in Michigan, was a conditioned race with a $5,600 purse. The best race on the biggest night of racing during the week, it attracted all of $8,782 in wagering in the win, exacta, trifecta and superfecta pools. After the takeout, roughly $6,800 was returned to winning bettors.

In order to fix a race, you’d have to have at least three drivers in on the scam, not to mention some gamblers and maybe even a trainer or two. At the very minimum, five people would have to be involved. Much of the pool would be taken down not by the race-fixers, but by gamblers who honestly stumbled onto to the winning numbers. Whatever the exact math is, there’d be nothing but a few crumbs left for the five or so bad guys after they divvied up their winnings. Anyone in on a fix would be lucky to walk away with a couple hundred dollars.

The betting figures out of Northville last Saturday were not an aberration. Hazel Park handles the most of any Michigan harness track. It averaged $89,612 per card in handle for 2008, according to the most recent Michigan Gaming Control Board report to be released. The average daily handle at Sports Creek in 2008 was $24,238, which comes out to about $2,000 per race. Imagine making your living fixing races at Sports Creek. You’d be on food stamps.

Would anyone fix a horse race, risk their career and jail time, for, at the most, $200 or $300? I suppose it’s possible, but it’s hard to believe anyone could risk so much for so little.

Finley goes on to wonder if investigators really understand horse racing.

If the take numbers Finley cites are accurate, I don’t see how fixing would be on these tracks for the same reason he does. That goes my usual inclination to believe if an investigation is under way in sports, that there has to be substance to it.

I grew up being taken from one Midwest race track or county fair to another*during the years 1971-1974. In late 1973 over 20 people(including some of the country’s most famous drivers) were arrested in the New York area for fixing superfecta races. I remember this huge scandal very well but it is almost forgotten today. The handles in 1973 by the way were many times bigger then today. Most of those arrested were found not guilty in court, but this and some of my father’s stories about drivers holding back, I’ve always taken a jaundiced rule when the possibility of race fixing surfaces. This time I want to see more and won’t jump to conclusions.

*- I grew up on Long Island but my father’s horses raced out of tracks in New Jersey, Ohio, and the Chicago area. New York city are tracks had strict rules about minors attending the races. In fact I can count the times I saw races at Roosevelt and Yonkers on on hand. Whereas I been to Freehold, Atlantic City, Brandywine, Scioto, Sportsmans Park, and a couple other tracks probably 200 times all combined.


Hoosier Park owner files for bankruptcy

It isn’t Centaur’s only filing in the last six months. From

Centaur LLC, owner of Hoosier Park Racing & Casino, announced Sunday, March 7 that the company has filed for bankruptcy in an effort to restructure and emerge with less debt. According to a company press release, Centaur and its subsidiaries, which include Hoosier Park, Fortune Valley Hotel & Casino in Central City, Colorado, and Valley View Downs & Casino, elected to file a voluntary bankruptcy petition under Chapter 11 to ensure that operations continue without interruption. Hoosier Park is slated to kick off an 80-day harness meet beginning March 25.


This is not the first bankruptcy filing for Centaur. The Indianapolis-based company missed a scheduled $13.4 million interest payment on a $400 million-plus loan in October 2009. At the time, two of the company’s affiliated entities in the Valley View Downs project, Valley View Downs LP and Centaur PA Land LP, filed for voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy to help retain a racing permit in Pennsylvania.

I don’t know what else to say about this news except that its consistent with the current trend in horse racing. The industry isn’t profitable any more on a stand alone basis,


Race-fixing claims investigated at 3 Michigan horse tracks

Search warrants were executed earlier this week. From the Detroit Free Press-

Authorities say they believe as many as 30 owners, drivers, trainers and gamblers conspired to fix the outcome of certain harness horse races run at three Michigan tracks.

The Michigan State Police and the Michigan Gaming Control Board executed search warrants today at three southeast Michigan homes as part of an ongoing investigation into fraudulent wagering at the tracks.

Police say the case involves races at Hazel Park Harness Raceway, Northville Downs and Sports Creek Raceway in Swartz Creek. The tracks themselves aren’t under investigation and have been cooperating with investigators.

People in Ontario aren’t investigating.

Horse racing in Michigan is in serious trouble. Racing meets were recently shortened due to lack of funds. This news, true or untrue, certainly can’t help. Who wants to gamble on something that could be fixed?


Meadowlands bettors to get more handicapping info

A betting establishment that wants to make customers happy. Isn’t that a oxymoron? From

Starting Wednesday, Feb. 24, Meadowlands bettors will be given additional handicapping information for each race. In most races, there are several drivers who are named to drive more than one horse when entries are made. Drivers have to decide which horse they will drive a few days prior to the printing of the racing program. A new television graphic will now show these choices.

If a driver was listed on multiple horses in a race, the graphic will list those horses and indicate the drivers choice.

“Many bettors feel driver choices are one of the most important handicapping angles at the track and several of our fans have requested a way to obtain that information,” said director of simulcasting and track announcer Sam McKee.

This is probably more related to simulcast rather than live racing. When I’ve been to the horse races, any change of driver or scratches were announced as betting opened on that particular race.

It is very important to know who is in the sulky when betting a harness race. In my early betting days, my father laughed when he heard I bet on a horse driven by Al Olori(?). Dad said to me “He can’t drive around the track without the help of a map.” The horse I bet on finished 6th or 7th and I learned an important lesson.


Larry Ellison Wins America’s Cup

BMW Oracle owner Larry Ellison lifts up the trophy after winning the 33rd America's Cup in Valencia, Sunday.  Heino Kalis / Reuters

BMW Oracle owner Larry Ellison lifts up the trophy after winning the 33rd America's Cup in Valencia, Sunday. Heino Kalis / Reuters

Oracle’s Larry Ellison won the America’s Cup yacht race Sunday, becoming the first American winner in fifteen years.

American software tycoon Larry Ellison won the America’s Cup yacht race in the Mediterranean Sunday, defeating the defending champion Alinghi of Switzerland.

It’s the first time a US team has taken home the cup since Dennis Conner lost it in 1995 to Team New Zealand.

Victory, as it often does in this race, went to the team with the technological edge.

Mr. Ellison’s tri-hulled behemoth vanquished bio-tech billionaire Ernesto Bertarell’s catamaran two days in a row, in the best of three races.

This is a rich man’s event, with this year witnessing the most expensive entries in the contest’s 159-year history. Each team spent more than 100 million ($138 million) in pursuit of the most advanced, state-of-the-art sailing technology.

Oracle’s captain, for example, wore dark glasses hooked to a computer that projected on the lenses information about the wind speed, direction, and sail loads.

Both boats tapped aeronautical and material science engineers to create carbon-fiber aquatic missiles able skim the surface of the ocean at three times the speed of the wind.

What’s interesting to me about this story isn’t the return of the Cup to the USA or even that Ellison won it. Rather, it’s that I was completely oblivious to the fact that the race was even underway until I saw it in my feed reader yesterday morning. (The baby’s waking postponed my blogging on it until I happened to see the open tab again this morning.)

It wasn’t always the case. Despite being “a rich man’s sport,” the quadrennial America’s Cup competition somehow riveted American news coverage. This, despite the New York Yacht Club winning it umpteen straight times. It really got interesting in 1983, when a foreign challenger (Australia’s Alan Bond) won the race for the first time, ever. But, while that temporarily made the next couple of races more interesting — we Americans wanted the Cup back! — the race also marked the beginning of the end.

While technology was always a key factor, as it is in any sort of mechanical racing competition, the races were theretofore among quite similar yachts, at least giving the illusion that superior seamanship and tenacity were the keys to winning. But Bond won with a winged keel. The 1987 race featured a novel fiberglass hull design. Subsequent races then became about crafting boats that were technically permitted under the rules but totally dissimilar to the ones against which they were racing. Viewers quickly lost interest. (It probably didn’t help that American teams were shut out of the finals for the 2000, 2003, and 2007 matches.)

There’s a lot of competition for the sports viewer’s attention. Quite a few sports that were truly big a quarter century ago have been relegated to niche status. Yacht racing, horse racing and boxing all come to mind.


Bump in the road- Jamie McMurray wins the Daytona 500

It was his 4th NASCAR Sprint Cup Victory. From AP-

Jamie McMurray has won the Daytona 500, holding off a hard-charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. over a wild, two-lap sprint to the finish of NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.NASCAR Daytona 500 Auto Racing

The race was stopped twice and delayed for more than two hours because of a pothole at Daytona International Speedway, and the setback nearly derailed the race. NASCAR struggled to patch the hole, and drivers knew the pavement could tear at any time after the final repair.

It meant they had to race hard the final 80 miles, and did they ever.

It was a great and crazy race like many other 500s. My personal favorite is the 76 edition where Richard Petty and David Pearson crashed coming down the home stretch. With a helpful push from his pit crew, Pearson got across the finish line first. If I remember right Benny Parsons(the 75 champ) was coming hard from 3rd place.

McMurray is wildly inconstent in his results. Just look at his 2009 Sprint Cup campaign. A win at Daytona is definitely career changing for a driver.


Formula One to use new points system

If the same points system had in place last championship season, Jenson Button would have still won the title but by a larger margin. From AP-

Formula One is set to formalize new regulations for the expanded 13-team championship that includes a points system that would reward the top 10 drivers while handing race winners 25 points.

Second-place drivers would earn 18 points, followed by 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 and 1 point, the sport’s governing body FIA said Tuesday. Since 1993, it went 10, 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1.

Jenson Button would still have captured the 2009 championship with the new system, but by a greater margin over Sebastian Vettel.

“It’s a good decision to change this points system,” Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost said. “The reason for it is we are pushing for more overtaking maneuvers. We just hope this will be the case.”

I think the news points system is better. A win should be worth more and have a wider points gain over finishing second. Three points just doesn’t seem big enough.

FIA is also proposing to have the top-10 race qualifiers start on their qualifying tires, while the rest of the field could use new tires. F1 will also reduce the number of dry-weather tires available to teams to “encourage teams to run during the Friday practice sessions.”

The tire change rule isn’t finalized yet. Is F1 trying to bring parity to its racing by taking away an advantage from certain drivers or trying to better define its best driver every season? I see a little bit of contradiction in their actions.


New Jersey committee report on horse racing states ‘the status quo is not sustainable’

It is not often that some aspect of Harness racing gets written up in the New York Times.

Meadowlands Racetrack has had some of the highest-quality harness racing in the country and dozens of the sport’s most important races. But in recent years, the track has become a money-losing drain on the state of New Jersey, which now threatens its survival.Meadowlands

A report issued this month by a committee put together by Gov. Christopher J. Christie before his inauguration to come up with solutions to the financial problems of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority made several suggestions that, if put in place, could all but gut the state’s racing industry. The suggestions included possibly closing Meadowlands Racetrack and drastically reducing the number of racing days at Monmouth Park.

The Sports and Exposition Authority is a state-run agency that owns the Meadowlands, Monmouth Park and portions of the state’s off-track betting system. The committee projected that the Meadowlands and Monmouth would lose a combined $22 million in 2010, a loss some lawmakers find difficult to justify given the state’s fiscal crisis.

In the report, the committee insisted that “the status quo is not sustainable” when it came to New Jersey racing.

“We know that the frankness of that report will have raised fears with certain interested groups and constituencies,” said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie. “In a sense, we’re glad that happened because if it wasn’t clear to everyone that these are the realities, it should be clear.”

I’m well aware of the financial realities the horse racing industry is facing at present. In spite of infusions of public money, or more often than that the addition of some form of casino gambling to race tracks, the sport continues to struggle. There just aren’t as many people interested in the ‘Sport of Kings’ as there were when my father took me and my other siblings to the races in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Deleware, and Illinois when we were growing up.

Here are just a few of the posts I’ve written on horse racing’s financial woes.

Kentucky horse racing ‘in serious jeopardy’
Florida horsemen say 2009 racing meet will end 3 months early
New York Racing Association files for bankruptcy
Owner of Pimlico racecourse defaults on loan*
Rosecroft Raceway ceases operations
Freehold Raceway cuts purses, Meadowlands could be next**

*- Like the Meadowlands which hosts ‘The Hambletonian, Pimlico hosts another one of the sports grandest events- ‘The Preakness. When tracks like these can’t make money, it should be a clear sign just how troubled the sport is.
**- This post which was about New Jersey horse racing difficulties, was posted on 1-22-08.

I’ve got many more posts like the six listed above. Since I began contributing at OTB Sports in May 2006, there have been 74 horse racing posts written. Over 30% of which we re on the sports’ dire financial condition.

Should the state of New Jersey bail out the industry? Absolutely not. I love horse racing but the industry if it can’t survive on its own should cease operations. The government shouldn’t be in the business of trying to prop up any business. Public resources should be used for something more fruitful, not be wasted on something that will fail eventually even with the assistance.

On a side note. Why did the NY Times use a thoroughbred racing photo to accompany an article that specifically states harness racing in the very first paragraph? Harness racing is to horse racing, what the LPGA is to professional golf, a Rodney Dangerfield. Harness racing, even when its greatest events are taking place, barely get noticed by the media. No one need look further than both sports 3-year-old Triple Crowns. Has The Messenger Stakes, always raced in the New York City area, ever been on network television. I know it hasn’t from 1970 on.


Pennsylvania Race Track asks for probe in horse deaths

Penn National Race Course is located 17 miles east of Harrisburg. From AP-

A central Pennsylvania racetrack is asking state officials to investigate a New Hampshire horseman after 10 of his horses were euthanized on the track in 13 months – two last week alone.

Penn National Race Course jockeys have refused to ride this week on or against horses owned by Michael Gill.

Penn National says eight Gill horses broke down last year and two more last week. Several jockeys tumbled Saturday when Gill’s Laughing Moon collapsed after a third-place finish.

Ten horses having to be killed is a lot but race horses are fragile animals being used at high speed. There is a good size element of risk involved.

Nevertheless, a investigation should be conducted. At the very least if Gill is innocent he should have his name cleared.


Hiawatha Horse Park shuts down simulcasts

A difference of opinion and lack of a permit(?) are the causes for the stoppage. From the Sarnia Observer-

Simulcast operations at Hiawatha Horse Park in Sarnia have been shut down while contract negotiations with the Ontario Harness Horse Association (OHHA) continue.

A notice posted Saturday on the Standardbred Canada website states that Hiawatha’s management has been unable to secure a contract with its horsemen.

“Due to the unsigned agreement, OHHA has decided to close down all simulcast and HPI wagering through Hiawatha Horse Park,” the statement reads.

“Effective January 1, 2010, Hiawatha Horse Park will not be permitted to simulcast and will have to close its doors to wagering on horse racing.”

OHHA President Darryl MacArhtur said the issue stems from “a difference in opinions.”

A difference of opinions that will lead many track employees to lose their jobs till racing begins again in May. Doesn’t the North America horse racing industry have enough problems? Lack of racing will even further bettors to stop betting on the ponies.

Note- Hiawatha, which is about one hour from Detroit, has live horse racing from May to October and other forms of gambling all year long.


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