A Cup of Coffee at the Longshots Bar

Research over the years by social scientists in the laboratories at Elmont and Saratoga has confirmed the classification of the subspecies horseplayer as that of an idiosyncratic and semi-domesticated cat. Quite unlike the animals they bet on, the horseplayer is extremely resistant to herding. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that when the New York Racing Association recently offered up some community outreach, the horseplayer community responded by, mostly, passing.

We note here that the invitation was for 9:30 on a Saturday morning at a shiny new bar in Ozone Park, so perhaps time, if not place, was the reason the market consensus found this offer so downright resistible.  But Around2Turns has very low standards for resisting temptation, so a few Saturdays ago we joined twelve or so other (take your pick) stalwarts/saps/hopelessly-naive-romantics as guests of the New York Racing Association in the Longshots bar at Aqueduct.

Longshots_4

Early in his opening remarks (in this first of a series of quarterly “community” meetings) Christopher Kay pointed out that the 9:30 AM starting time was “convenient”, and I suppose it was for some people. Personally, I’d think most horseplayers would take their convenience a bit nearer to first post than three hours, but then I’m not the one running a racetrack so what do I know? At least there was a big urn of fresh coffee pointed customer-side on the unmanned bar. If, given the topics for discussion, anyone thought to make whiskey an option along with the milk and sugar, one of the other stalwarts or a NYRA suit swiped it before I got there. Still, with the frequency of any type of free drink from a racetrack being right up there with that of a triple dead heat, we will take the NYRA CEO at his word that this 9:30 start was convenient for someone and go from there.

Christopher Kay rightly likes to tout the safety initiatives that have occurred under his watch, and it seems as if these have extended to employee training, as I witnessed that none of the many senior managers in attendance ever got caught unawares between the CEO and an open mic. Kay noted our “relatively intimate group” (NYRA management in attendance seemed to outnumber the audience), hinting at his ability to read a balance sheet. Kay also added somewhat strangely (in that “CEO humor” way) that John Durso Jr was a natural for his NYRA PR job, given his experience at the New Jersey Transit Authority (presumably referencing the Super Bowl train fiasco and/or the George Washington Bridge scandal).

Eventually the floor was opened for questions, and things started out promisingly enough. A fellow asked why NYRA does not conduct more of its own handicapping contests, as these seem to generate a lot of interest and give the little guy a chance at  getting lucky and making a major score.  Apparently gaining approval from the (New York) gaming authorities had slowed progress here, but Racing Operations VP Martin Panza affirmed that larger and bigger-money contests were indeed on the horizon for 2015, gaining him a leadoff single in our scorecard.

Some of the obvious questions were asked, such as about the problems with the LIRR and WiFi service on Belmont Stakes Day, and the NYRA Rewards system crashing early on Breeders’ Cup Saturday. Kay had ready answers for these: the LIRR has promised new procedures including the staging of multiple “return” trains on the Queens Village line; a permanent cell tower will be installed on the Belmont grounds; and a new and improved Irish-bred betting platform is apparently just around the corner.

But as the session wore on and the coffee started to kick in, it became quite clear that – even with racing’s dwindling popularity – twelve people are nowhere near enough to constitute a valid statistical sampling of the New York horseplayer community. Someone complained that Aqueduct was not “family friendly”, but no one complained about takeout or the ridiculous withholding rules on large exotic payouts. There was another complaint about the ineffectiveness of the outdoor public address system at Aqueduct, but no one complained about the tough sledding betting on the midwinter racing product. As the clock inched closer to closing time (before Kay mercifully ended the session at 10:30 on the nose), the questions became more fanciful. A short spring meet at Saratoga? The Breeders’ Cup coming back to Belmont? Someone even confessed to liking giveaway days. These only hardened my suspicions that someone had indeed swiped the whiskey, and that NYRA management must be privy to statistical evidence that says hard core complainers prefer to sleep in on the weekends.

For the record, I did not ask any questions as it was my intention to merely observe and then report back here on the “host and guest” interactions. Had I asked one, it would have been a two-parter along the lines of “did NYRA management stop by Rudy Rodriguez’s barn to congratulate him on his tremendous showing on Jockey Club Gold Cup day, and did you also remember to bring along bloodhounds and chemists?”, but, alas.

Leaving the racetrack and crossing the parking lot towards the subway platform (I needed to head upstate that afternoon), one of two early-arriving racegoers smiled and called out to me “tapped out already?” I was still flush, down only one Metrocard swipe and a few ZZZs on the day, but I did feel somehow poorer. How much hope should we have for this game, I wondered, when the best and biggest circuit in US racing invites its customer base to a freewheeling discussion of its business and only twelve people bother to show up? No one complained about move-up trainers. No one bitched about higher admission charges at Belmont and Saratoga. Why shouldn’t Christopher Kay feel like he is doing a heckuva job -the recent declines in handle aside – given NYRA’s community outreach and the horseplayer community’s seeming lack of any substantive complaints?

It’s understandable that at this late date the horseplayer community just might be feeling a little beaten down and frustrated. Horseplayers and other racing people say many things about Christopher Kay on Twitter and message boards, and not many of these are nice things, so I give the CEO props for showing up to face some high heat, even if he was thrown only cream puffs. And even if you are among those who view him as a well-paid stooge providing lip service on behalf of a certain governor said to possess an antipathy to racing and believe that it’s hopeless to think that showing up to complain will make any real difference, well, that’s also a valid point of view.

Fifteen months to the day before Christopher Kay’s shootout at the Longshots saloon (and a few days before Kay got his job), NYRA held a similarly styled bitch session at Belmont Park. One of the first questions that day was about the pitiful state of NYRA’s television monitors. “Your television sets are 20 years old!” the complainer noted, as people chuckled and heads nodded up and down. Today you can’t crumple up and throw a losing ticket at a NYRA track without hitting a brand new flat screen TV. See! Horseplayers just need to show some patience.

Another complaint that day in June 2013 was about how when you have a runaway winner in a race the camera invariably zooms in and pans away from the battle for the minor placings, causing exacta, trifecta and superfecta-wagering players to wonder why they even bother to watch. Simple to fix, right?

That Saturday at Belmont was marked by a noisy protest from NYRA workers and their union brothers and sisters, complaining about low wages and years without a contract. Then there were individuals with products to sell (a jockey cam, ad space in a community newspaper) or axes to grind (the mayor of Floral Park had infrastructure issues!). There were even, eventually, some good comments and questions from horseplayers about racing and the racetrack experience. But in the year-and-a-half that has passed since then, I don’t think horseplayers sense that much has changed for the better. The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association just reelected a president who thinks that if horseplayers want competent drug testing they should be the ones to pay for it. Meanwhile, the powers that be squabble over a relatively innocuous matter like Lasix, while the usual suspects continue to win races with horses that were too sore or too slow for somebody else.

The beat goes on. Handle continues to drop. The highest court in our land has ruled – in a head decision – that money is speech. Which means, I guess, that horseplayers are speaking. Only it’s by way of keeping the rubber band taut around the bankroll. If people don’t want to come out at 9:30 in the morning to complain to NYRA management about the racing, they can always make their feelings known in the afternoon. If they don’t want to bet your races, there’s no way you can stop them.

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