By Richard B. Shapiro
A racetrack operator, who shall go unnamed, recently said to me, "It isn't that I don't like you personally, but frankly, I think you are dangerous for the sport." He went on to tell me that I talk too much at the California Horse Racing Board meetings and that I would be better off if I didn't push so hard and just backed off. His view is that I have ideas that won't work for the most part, and I am causing too much dissension in the industry.

Perhaps it is time for me to do some self-reflection, now that I am halfway through my term as chairman of the CHRB.

Do I talk too much at meetings? Probably so. I am passionate about the horse racing industry. I do my homework. I love the game. So, yes, I have opinions and I speak my mind.

And if I am impatient, well, let's face it: we are not flourishing; we have a tough row to hoe. On-track business, with rare exceptions, has been down, down, down. We've lost our focus. Earnings per share have replaced win, place, and show. Our field sizes are at historic lows, our quality of racing is dipping, and our purses aren't going to keep up with racino states. I'm dissatisfied with the status quo. And yes, I am impatient.

Dissension in this industry? You bet! On nearly every issue, it seems we have acrimony, controversy, infighting, self-interest, and short-term thinking. Have I thrown fuel on the fire? Probably. I'm upset. I'm ticked off.

I am not willing to accept where we are today. Go to any track on a weekday--any track--and you'll be disappointed by what you see. We've traded fans for dollars. It won't last. We must realize we need to serve up a product people want to see, and wager on--at facilities they will enjoy. How can anyone enjoy going "alone" to a sports park? Walk into any restaurant at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night. If it's empty, you'll leave! It doesn't matter how good the food is.

Everyone thinks the silver bullet is slot machines. I don't agree. We need to fix our game. Don't misunderstand me. I want slots, too. Why? Because we need them to raise purses and compete for horses nationally, that's all. They do nothing else for us. What I really want is something to cheer for. We've misplaced our binoculars.

So how do we do this short of slot machines? We need to create larger fields with more competitive racing that people want to gamble on. We need stars, not studs. Let's start with safer surfaces, so that our horses and jockeys have longer racing lives. Look at the injuries and fatalities. Look at poor Barbaro, our great hope for a star--that says it all. The answer is synthetic surfaces. Look at the data--the stuff works!

We need people! Fans! Let's deregulate the tracks and let them come up with new wagers that appeal to both experts and novices. Let's make it simpler to enjoy and cash a ticket. We must allow the tracks to compete and beat the illegal offshore wagering companies that steal our customers every day. Yes, let's find a way to reward customers for staying with us. I'm ready to say the "R" word. Let's try and expand our simulcast wagering system into bars, restaurants, country clubs, Timbuktu. Let's not focus just on racetracks across town. If you build it, they will come? Sorry, not here, folks. We need to go out and get them.

I'm not satisfied that the way we are doing advance deposit wagering is best, either. There is another mouth to feed, so less is left for the rest. Our stands are empty; our tracks are in jeopardy of becoming shopping malls. I feel like the Donner party. I think TVG, HRTV, and Youbet are great. I just think the economic model--duplication, separate wagering platforms--is costing the industry too much. Let's cut the costs, build the profit, and create a win-win-win.

Whether you are a horse owner, trainer, backstretch worker, jockey, track employee, or a fan, go to the whip, speak up, be mad as hell. We need to save the game. If we don't, no one will.

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