Tuesday, April 01, 2014
Conservative training tactics could bump top colts out of Derby
Cairo Prince belongs in the Kentucky Derby despite running fourth in the Florida Derby. Candy Boy also should be at Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May but might not be if he doesn't run at least third in the Santa Anita Derby. If either or both miss the cut, blame the trend to extremely conservative management by their trainers.
MIAMI, April 1, 2014--The Kentucky Derby could be run this year without two colts considered the best in the East and West most of the winter not because they are hurt or arenât good enough but because of overly conservative training tactics. It was bound to happen sooner or later.
After his disappointing fourth in the Florida Derby, it is more likely than not that Cairo Prince, who didnât race for nine weeks after dominating the Holy Bull, his only previous race this year, will be shut out. This also could happen to Candy Boy, who has been idle since winning the Robert B. Lewis almost two months ago, his only start in 2014.
It would be a shame if either or both fall short of the points necessary to get into the Run for the Roses. But in the big picture, it could be a good thing. Trainers in future years will be more inclined to race--the name of the game-- than nurse their 3-year-olds up to the Derby.
Candy Boy is in the better position. He controls his own destiny in Saturdayâs Santa Anita Derby. If he finishes in the first three, heâs as good as in. Fourth would give him an outside shot but he would need help in the form of the usual late Derby attrition. Right now, the only horse in the top 20 who is improbable for the Derby, but not entirely ruled out, is United Arab Emirates Derby winner Toast of New York.
Cairo Prince is in a truly precarious position. Kiaran McLaughlin put all his eggs into the Florida Derby basket and the 10 points he earned gives him 24, enough for a tie for 16th and 17th now. But there are four big points races this weekend and next, and the fields will be loaded with more than a dozen hopefuls who need only the 20 points they would get for running third to vault over Cairo Prince. Another early favorite, Strong Mandate, with 11, is in this position going into the Arkansas Derby.
Some, such as Uncle Sigh in the Wood, who is tied with Cairo Prince, need only a fourth in the final round of preps. The same goes for Harryâs Holiday, second in the Spiral, and Sam. F. Davis winner and Tampa Bay Derby runnerup Vinceremos in the Blue Grass.
The much hyped Social Inclusion could crash the Derby field with a first or second in the Wood Memorial. His owner, Ron Sanchez, might be making the biggest bet in the history of the Wood. Reportedly, he has been offered as much as $5 million for 75% of the son of Pioneer of the Nile. Sanchez opted to wait until after the Wood to make a decision.
If Social Inclusion wins impressively, his value could double, thanks to Derby fever. If heâs up the track, he reverts to being just a winner of an entry level allowance against a short field over a speed favoring track. Five million dollars could turn into zilch in about a minute and 50 seconds.
California has its own second coming, Bayern, who could push his way into the Derby field with a win or second in the Arkansas Derby.
In other words, we are not talking about unlikely longshots knocking out bigger names. However, there could be a few of those, too, especially with the Blue Grass giving 100-40-20-10 to its customary field of turf and synthetic specialists, who would have little chance on dirt in the Derby. Unfortunately, this wonât keep owners from wanting to go. The lure of that walk from the barn in front of 150,000 fans and millions on TV is irresistible.
Bobbyâs Kitten, for example, might be the best 3-year-old in America on turf. Grass form translates well to Keenelandâs kitty litter. If Bobbyâs Kitten, who has never raced on dirt, wins or places, itâs 1-to-9 Ken Ramsey takes him to the Derby.
Turf races do not earn Derby qualifying points. There is enough of a body of evidence now that synthetic and conventional dirt are two different worlds to adopt the same policy for artificial tracks.
Any horse only a few points short of Derby qualification also has the April 19 Lexington on Keenelandâs fake dirt to steal a berth in the Derby starting gate, even though the raceâs allotment is only 10-4-2-1.
McLaughlin said after the Florida Derby that none of this is an option for Cairo Prince, who currently ranks seventh among all 3-year-olds in earnings in unrestricted stakes. âIf we get in, weâre going. If not, weâll look for another race.â
McLaughlin, one of the class acts in racing, has been proposing that a couple or three Derby berths be determined by a panel of racing experts, ala the Breedersâ Cup, for instances in which a clearly deserving colt such as his (two Grade 2 wins and a Grade 2 place) is shut out by the points system.
Even "American Idol" has a âjudgesâ saveâ for when an extremely talented singer comes up short in fan voting.
This is not sour grapes. McLaughlin said this before Cairo Prince ran fourth in the Florida Derby.
There are arguments pro and con on this. How many spots? Would this be reserved for years only when an outstanding horseâa Cairo Prince or Candy Boy, for exampleâmissed the cut? Or would it be extended to a couple or three horses, who are merely the best of the rest?
The best solution is not to let it come to this. Iâm going to go out on a limb and predict that in future years, McLaughlin and John Sadler, who trains Candy Boy, will never put themselves in this position by babying an exceptional colt through Derby prep season.
This is the way it should be.
Written by Tom Jicha
Friday, March 28, 2014
Racing’s Worst Nightmare: Asmussen at the Derby
Unless and until Steve Asmussen clears himself of the PETA allegations, his presence at the Kentucky Derby would be the worst thing that could happen to racing. It would shift the focus from the race to Asmussen. If he were to win, headlines would read, "Disgraced Trainer Wins Derby."
MIAMI, March 27, 2014--Racing is staring at its worst nightmare: Steve Asmussen at the Kentucky Derby.
Make that its second worst nightmare. The worst would be if Asmussen were to win the Derby with Tapiture, who is a genuine contender.
Thanks to the PETA allegations, which allege the Asmussen barn is guilty of mistreatment and drugging of horses as well as encouraging a jockey to ride with a buzzer, the spring classics would become secondary to the Asmussen controversy.
Media will jump all over the story, knowing that any piece involving mistreatment of animals is a guaranteed ratings and reader magnet. Asmussenâs past drug suspensions will be dredged up...if there is enough time to discuss all of them. Before itâs over, Michael Vick would be more popular among animal lovers.
The damage to racing will be incalculable. In the wake of the Asmussen controversy, God forbid a horse breaks down in one of the televised races.
What will go largely unmentioned is the vile history of PETA, which disingenuously claims to be all about the welfare of animals. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reports that PETA killed more than 29,000 animals during an 11-year period. In 2013 alone, 1,792 dogs and cats were put down, 82% of those who came under PETA control. Thatâs one state. What is 50 times 1,792?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture once branded PETA a terrorist threat.
PETA contributed at least $45,200 to the Rodney Coronado support committee in 1994-95. Coronado was convicted in federal court of arson for fire-bombing a Michigan State University research lab in 1992. A sentencing memorandum by U.S. attorney Michael Detmer expressed the opinion that Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder of PETA, was connected to the crime.
PETA has given financial support and has common members with the Animal Liberation Front and Environmental Liberation Front, which the FBI has labeled domestic terrorist threats.
PETA distributed reading material to the children of fishermen competing in a tournament that read, âYour dad is a blood-thirsty murderer and he loves killing animals.â PETA is as opposed to fishing and hunting as it is to horse racing, zoos, circuses, rodeos, eating meat and dairy products and wearing any clothing that comes from animal hides or fur. It is even opposed to guide dogs for the blind.
These are the people the New York Times unquestioningly jumped into bed with.
The Asmussen contretemps could be avoided with some common sense. The reason it wonât be is epitomized by the statement David Fiske, racing manager for Ron Winchell, owner of Tapiture and Oaks favorite Untapable, gave to the Racing Form. âI think itâs just too close to the second and third of May to take these horses away from the people, the routine, the feed and everything theyâve known for the last two years and put them someplace else. Thatâs not in the horsesâ best interests.â
The best interests of the sport apparently aren't a consideration.
Fiskeâs statement epitomizes why racing might never have uniform standards or produce any united action to move the sport forward. Whether itâs owners, trainers, tracks or state legislatures, the attitude is âItâs all about me. Nothing else matters.â
Whatâs more, Team Winchell isnât thinking things through. What they haven't considered is if their horse wins, the story won't be Tapiture, it will be along the lines of âDisgraced Trainer Wins Derby.â They will be lucky if the horseâs name is mentioned in the headline.
The Fiske statement is nonsense. Horses move from barn to barn every day without negative ramifications. Bob Baffert didnât get War Emblem until three weeks before he won the 2002 Kentucky Derby then encored in the Preakness.
Is Fiske saying a Baffert, Todd Pletcher or Kiaran McLaughlin, to name just a few world class trainers, couldnât bring Winchellâs horses up the Derby and Oaks at the top of their game?
It might seem unfair, even un-American, to penalize Asmussen. We are supposed to have a presumption of innocence until convicted in a court of law. But this is due to a misinterpretation of the Constitution similar to the common one about free speech.
The First Amendment prohibits the government from prosecuting an individual for something he or she said or wrote (with the traditional "Fire!" in a theater exceptions). This freedom doesnât extend to the workplace. Say or do something that embarrasses your employer or puts it into a bad light and you probably will be gone. Likewise, Asmussen has a presumption of innocence only as it pertains to criminal prosecution, which might be coming.
Asmussen didnât extend any presumption of innocence to his top assistant Scott Blasi, who made most of the most outrageous comments on the PETA video. Letâs not overlook that the video contained more words than deeds and very little Asmussen. Within two days of the controversy erupting, Asmussen fired Blasi, who had worked for him for 18 years and, according to Blasi, was his friend as well as his boss.
Asmussen must not have realized how self-indicting this was. Itâs inconceivable that the two worked side by side for almost two decades and the trainer was unaware of any of the outrages Blasi described. If Blasi deserved to have his career thrown into tatters, what about the man himself?
The only way this disaster in the making can be avoided is for Asmussen to be replaced as the trainer of Team Winchell's horses. The Hall of Fame did the right thing in tabling Asmussenâs nomination. The Zayats did the right thing in moving their horses out of his barn. Team Winchell needs to reconsider and follow suit.
Written by Tom Jicha
Friday, March 21, 2014
Asmussen charges must be dealt with immediately
Racing has a tendency to bury its head in the sand when it comes to scandals, hoping that in time the issue will go away. This cannot happen in the latest allegations against Steve Asmussen. The stakes are just too high.
MIAMI, March 19, 2014--This week's column theme was going to be an update on the Kentucky Derby trail as it reaches the crucial stages. But sometimes events overtake intentions.The sensational allegations published in The New York Times, with the assistance of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), against Steve Asmussen cannot pass without comment.
The charges against Asmussen are disgusting--if proven. This qualifier should not be taken lightly. Certainly there is what seems to be damning evidence, including video, but the source is agenda driven and so is The New York Times. That said, if proven, without mitigating circumstances, Asmussen should suffer penalties as severe as can be allowed. A lifetime ban should not be out of the question.
But before leading a torch light and pitchfork brigade, I want to hear everything.
We have to keep in mind that PETA is a bunch of lunatics not above terrorist tactics. It is dedicated to ending not only horse racing but rodeos,circuses and horse-driven carriages in Central Park. All horseback riding, too.
PETA wants everyone too become vegetarians. They want to outlaw leather shoes and the clothes that will keep us warm. It has engineered similar smears against every industry it wants to shut down, in short, every industry in which animals are involved.
Likewise, The New York Times has launched its holy war against horse racing, publishing scandal-mongering stories in proximity to major events (Triple Crown, Breedersâ Cup, etc.) It knows PETAâs tactics and goals, yet used it as a source.
Not only that, the paper granted anonymity to the accuser. What has happened to the basic tenet of justice that a person, in this case Asmussen, has a right to confront his accuser?
The story also potentially destroyed, or at least severely damaged, the career and reputation of young jockey Ricardo Santana by making it seem that his success is due to riding with a buzzer, even though absolutely no evidence was produced other than an off-handed comment.
But, certainly, the cavalier conversation on the subject between Hall of Famers Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens does not cast a favorable light, even in jest.
Lest I seem naive, I want to point out I was one of the few to point out the problems with Asmussen's Hall of Fame candidacy (see HRI archives).
This is not the first time Asmussen has been accused of serious improprieties and he has served countless days on the sidelines because of them. He still deserves a chance to defend himself, the sooner the better.
I commend the Hall of Fame for tabling his nomination until this matter is adjudicated. But I also question the timing of the publication of the charges against him as Hall of Fame voting is taking place. It seems clear the intent is to hurt him and racing.
Most of the events described in the video took place seven or eight months ago. Why the delay? Why now? You can bet that if his nomination didn't come up when it did, the video would have been perfect Derby week fodder.
If this forces racing to step up and finally take meaningful action to clean up the game, it could be worth this latest embarrassment. The question is how.
First and foremost, no more slaps on the wrist. First offenses should carry stiff penalties, up to and including suspension of entry rights to owners of horses who come up positive. Make owners absolute insurers, just as trainers are. Many, if not most, owners have no idea what goes on in the barn, even with horses that cost millions of dollars.
This would force them to investigate a trainer's reputation that goes beyond win percentages and numbers of Grade 1s won.
A second offense should bring at least one year on the sidelines--and I wouldn't be reluctant to extend this to owners, too.
A third strike and you're out for good.
If racing doesn't take actions such as these, the movement to involve the federal government will gain unstoppable momentum. This would be a disaster. Activist groups such as PETA would apply enough political pressure to compel congressional investigations every other week.
The sport cannot ignore the reality that there are far more well intentioned animal lovers who could be swayed by tactics such as PETA's than there are racing fans. When push comes to shove, what politicians care about most is how many votes they can glean from any situation. Racing would finish a distant second.
Now on to our regularly scheduled column.
A variety of Derby prep winners
Gulfstreamâs Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth; Santa Anitaâs Sham, Robert B. Lewis and San Felipe; the Le Comte and Risen Star at the Fair Grounds; Oaklawnâs Smarty Jones, Southwest and Rebel; the Tampa Bay Derby and the El Camino Real at Golden Gate have something in common besides being points-awarding Kentucky Derby preps.
Theyâve all been won by different 3-year-olds.
Throw in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa and the Gulfstream Park Derby, which should offer qualifying points, and you have two more distinct winners. The Sunland Derby and Spiral Stakes this weekend, the final two races of the 50-point phase two of Derby qualifying, could produce two new shooters.
To put it another way, no Derby hopeful has been able to win more than one stakes at the traditional proving grounds. To be fair, the ranking horses on both coasts, Candy Boy and Cairo Prince, have each only had one race in 2014. But this is not the case for most of the rest.
Samraat has wins in the Withers and Gotham. (Noble Moon won New York's other 3-year-old prep, the Jerome.) But itâs hard to get enthusiastic over Samraat in the light of history. Apollo won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old, albeit more than a century and a quarter ago. There has never been a Derby winner who prepped exclusively over Aqueductâs inner track against the lesser stock who winter in the Big Apple.
Every Derby season is a war of attrition as much as competition. This year is no exception. Many of those who are still in training have disappointed. Honor Code is the latest to stub his toe, going down by 10 lengths in a five-horse allowance race in his belated season debut at Gulfstream a week ago.
The winner, Social Inclusion, looks like he might be special. However, he did have things his own way as lone speed on a track that has favored this style all season. Also, other than Honor Code, who clearly wasnât fully cranked and didnât have the best of trips, the other three were over-matched sacrificial lambs.
Reportedly, there have been offers as high as $5 million for 75% for the colt. If his owners donât jump at that, they ought to be committed.
Last Saturday brought more of the same. Tapiture, Strong Mandate and Kobeâs Back were the headliners in the Rebel but Bob Baffertâs Hoppertunity, with only a maiden win in three starts and coming off a seven-length defeat in the Risen Star, ran them all down.
Strong Mandate and especially Kobeâs Back might have been exposed as horses who wonât want any part of ten furlongs. Strong Mandate has distance breeding but Cigar had turf breeding. He has now lost ground or position between the stretch call and finish in his three two-turn races. He also backed up in the stretch of the one-mile, one-turn Champagne, which was his longest career race at the time.
D. Wayne has a knack for getting horses to fire their best shots on the first Saturday in May and you know he will be there but Strong Mandate is going to have to come up big in the Arkansas Derby to pique my interest in him in Louisville.
However, itâs too early to abandon the Tapiture ship. He showed a lot of guts blasting his way out of a trap on the rail--which might have gotten him DQâed if he had won--then rallying between horses to just miss while being pinballed between a wobbly Strong Mandate and Hoppertunity. Other than the winner, Tapiture was the only one doing any serious running at the end.
Meanwhile Cairo Prince has seen his status as Derby favorite soar without ever leaving the barn, even though his 2014 stakes resume isnât any stronger than 17 or 18 others. His win in the Holy Bull was flattered when show horse Intense Holiday won the Risen Star but the second, fourth and fifth finishers have all been off the board in their next start. There probably will be two more by Sunday night.
This is something to keep in mind as you ponder jumping into the final Derby futures pool next weekend.
3 cheers (1 boo) for NYRA
A chill could be felt through the phone line when NYRA CEO Chris Kay said during a conference call to trumpet the super-sized Belmont Stakes Day that prices would be in line with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Speculation has been rampant that a cheap seat would run three figures and the most coveted locations could approach four figures. A long-time race-going friend predicted grandstand admission would double from $10 to $20 and entrance to the clubhouse would be at least $50. I took the over.
What a pleasant surpriseâshock would be more like itâthat the price scale unveiled this week is far more reasonable. Most commendable is that the grandstand will remain $10. This is taking care of the little guy, something racing rarely does. Also praiseworthy is the modest increase for the clubhouse, from $20 to $30.
More good news: some grandstand reserved seats on the second floor have actually been reduced from $120 to $95. Third floor grandstand seats can be had for $20 to $65. According to NYRA, 30 percent of the seats will cost less than last year or remain the same.
The heaviest reserved seat tariff will be âonlyâ $300, still quite a hit but a bargain by prime sports standards in New York.
In another piece of welcome news, NYRA has backed off its intention to raise admission at Belmont on mundane race days from $5 to $8 for the clubhouse and $3 to $5 for general admission.
Not all the news is good. That same increase for Saratoga will take effect with opening day in July.
Why the status quo at Belmont but an increase at the Spa? Simple, because NYRA can. Driving away even a handful of price-conscious fans from Belmont would make the cavernous facility even more depressing.
Saratoga remains the summer place to be. It probably has more once or twice-a-season fans than any track in America other than, perhaps, Keeneland or Del Mar, which also host short boutique seasons. So an increase isnât likely to keep very many people away.
Still, itâs likely that there will be a noticeable drop in total attendance because there will be substantially less âspinningâ on giveaway Sundays, unless NYRA steps up the caliber of the premium items to make them worth the effort at $5 apiece.
Written by Tom Jicha