Whitney Day at the Spa was great as always. It would have been even better if Eric Guillot, who put a big stain on last year's Travers with his irresponsible accusations, didn't train the winner, the purses were more rational and the Whitney didn't try to pass itself off as a handicap. Meanwhile out west, California stewards continue to dither over what to do about a horse, who was drugged in his debut, then won by 14 at Churchill on Derby Day after opening odds-on.
All hail Moreno, a gutsy horse who proved he belongs in the conversation of best older horses. This debate was reopened by the inexplicable dud thrown in by Palace Malace.
Four straight graded wins, including the Grade 1 Met Mile, is enough for Palace Malice to retain the top spot for now, in spite of the Whitney. However, like the other hopefuls, including Moreno, Palace Malice might have to win a prestigious race in the fall and the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic to seal the divisional and Horse of the Year deals.
Getting back to Moreno, I applaud the horse but abhor the fact that Eric Guillot was celebrated with him. I can neither believe nor accept there have been no sanctions after the trainer, in a fit of irresponsibility after last summerâ€™s Travers, tried to take down the sport that provides his livelihood as well as that of tens of thousands of others. At the very least NYRA should have denied him Saratoga stalls.
By virtue of its total non-response, NYRA has forfeited the right to ever penalize any jockey for a frivolous claim of foul.
As for the Whitney, it provided the latest evidence that handicap racing is both a misnomer and an anachronism. Palace Malice went into the Whitney on a four-race winning streak, all graded stakes, and was assigned the same 124 pounds he carried in the Met Mile, one of the most coveted stakes in the game. Granted, he was going another eighth of a mile but this is a horse who as a 3-year-old won the Jim Dandy at nine furlong with 123 pounds and the mile-and-a-half Belmont with 126 pounds.
Even more absurd than Palace Maliceâ€™s impost was the 124 given to Will Take Charge, who had one win in five 2014 starts, carrying 123 pounds in each. I would love to hear an explanation for how four straight graded stakes wins, including a Grade 1, bring about not even a single pound increase but one win in five starts, a Grade 2, does.
That said Iâ€™ll join the chorus that no Grade 1 race should be a handicap. Moreover, in an era when tracks are hurting for star attractions, we should do nothing to discourage a big horse from runningâ€”not that the kind weights routinely assigned do that.
Also, the fact that the Whitney purse was elevated to $1.5 is an abomination. Thatâ€™s $250,000 more than the Travers, which packs the joint every summer. The race would have gotten the same field for $1 million or even $750,000. Maybe half a million.
I applaud Martin Panzaâ€™s efforts to create new event days but every Saturday at the Spa is an event day. Just throwing money at a race wonâ€™t do it. How many extra fans do you think showed up because the Whitney had an inflated purse?
But it wasnâ€™t just the Whitney. By goosing the purses of a couple of optional claimers to $105,000 and $100,000 and staging a trio of maiden races for $98,000 apiece, NYRA might as well have hung out a banner for legislators: â€śHey, look at us. We have more money than we know what to do with.â€ť
In case NYRA hasnâ€™t noticed, New York State seems to be chronically on the verge of bankruptcy. Several other states that fortify racing with slots dollars have begun to chip away at those subsidies. Itâ€™s only a matter of time until schools or bridges or some influential politicianâ€™s pet project come up strapped for cash before they begin looking at the money the state pours into NYRA purses. (I know, itâ€™s the law. Laws get changed every day.)
After Whitney Day, I wouldnâ€™t want to be a NYRA executive asked to explain why racing canâ€™t surrender some or all of those dollars for more pressing social needs.
More to the moment, if NYRA is so flush with cash, why did it jack up admission prices this season? Of course, we know the answer: â€śbecause it could.â€ť Based on past attendance figures, the amount NYRA will garner from the increases at the gate could have been covered by more rational purses last Saturday.
For shame, California
As long as Iâ€™m on a rant, racing officials in California are more derelict in their duties concerning the connections of a horse named Masochistic than NYRA has been with Guillot.
Iâ€™ve touched on this before. To refresh memories, Masochistic made his career debut on March 15 in a maiden allowance for Cal breds at Santa Anita. He ran fifth of eight at 8-1. The Racing Form comment was, â€śAngled in, no rally.â€ť
However, it appeared to the stewards and fans who pay attention that jockey Omar Berrio didnâ€™t allow Masochistic to run to his best ability. The stewards called him in to talk about it but took no action. In their defense, itâ€™s near impossible to prove a riderâ€™s intent.
In Berrioâ€™s defense, maybe he knew or could feel what he had under him. Post-race testing found the tranquilizer Acepromazine at nearly 40 times the normal dosage. The stewards ordered the $1,120 Masochistic earned forfeited and paid to the sixth place finisher.
Coming off that one dull maiden start against Cal breds, Masochistic was entered in an open maiden allowance on the Kentucky Derby undercard. The ship made no sense, even more so in retrospect since Masochistic returned to California after the race. The purse at Churchill Downs was $60,000. The same day, Santa Anita carded a $56,000 maiden special for Cal breds, a much less challenging race with zero shipping expenses.
Nevertheless, Masochistic opened at odds-on, which takes an incredible amount of money on Derby Day. But you can bet (and cash) an incredible amount on the day when more money is bet than any other.
The ship made a lot of sense when the gates opened and Masochistic ran to the betting action, crushing the field by 14 lengths. People in the know must have scored out more than anyone in Kentucky that day other than the owners of California Chrome.
This is when the California stewards should have called in Berrio, trainer A.C. Avila and Masochisticâ€™s owners to explain what happened on March 15.
My new heroes area couple of owners I know nothing about, David Frankham and Brian Carmody. When they noticed Masochistic was entered in the same race on July 31 as their horse, Smogcutter, they ordered their trainer, Dan Blacker, not to bring him to the paddock. They werenâ€™t going to run against what they perceived to be a cheater. (Masochistic won laughing again.)
In a letter published by the Paulick Report, they wrote, â€śIt is unconscionable that a violation this egregious is left unresolved 4 Â˝ months later, while the trainer A.C. Avila is allowed to continue training without any ruling by the (California Horse Racing Board). As owners we believe wholeheartedly that we have an obligation of fairness to the betting public. If the governing bodies do not enforce and uphold that obligation and trust, then we will rightfully continue to lose the betting public and owners alike.â€ť
The CHRB has finally scheduled a hearing for Avila on Aug. 12 and, according to the San Diego Tribune, the Berrio investigation is still open.
Almost five months after the fact, the CHRB has been shamed into doing its jobâ€”or at least giving the appearance of doing its job.