Saturday, May 31, 2008
Racing imitates Wall Street
Barron’s, last week, asked this question: “This economy keeps dispensing with decades of statistical precedent. We have a 23-year-high inventory of unsold homes, a 49-year-low in per-capita home sales, a 28-year-low in consumer confidence, and an all-time high in inflation-adjusted oil prices. With it all, is it impressive of inexplicable that the Standard & Poor’s 500 is merely at a one-month low, and just 12% below an all-time high?”
Impressively or inexplicably, racing mirrors the financial markets. Quite fittingly, Michael Iavarone and others from IEAH Stable and the New York Racing Association were on hand last Wednesday to ring the bell that signals the opening of trading on the New York Stock exchange, a place, it turns out, with which the suddenly high-profile ex boiler-room penny stock dealer was altogether unfamiliar. By then, Bloomberg News and others had exposed Iaverone's claim to have come from the hedge fund world as ... well, a lie -- and hardly a little white one.
Scoffing as decades of statistical precedent embraced by those who made cases against his Kentucky Derby prospects based upon long-cured, Big Brown remains undefeated less than a week before he will attempt to sweep the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. Like those holding short positions in the S&P 500, who await the return of cold reality on Wall Street, they observe the current events in and around Barn 2 at Belmont Park and attempt to weigh their potential to thwart Big Brown.
Until his left foot cracked, Big Brown’s road to an engagement with destiny in the 140th Belmont Stakes had been smooth as glass and uninterrupted by detour – straight from post 20 to the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs; the express lane to a decisive to a Preakness victory. Inevitably, there came a bump.
On a Friday afternoon,with the end of the Triple Crown two weeks and a day away, a groom called trainer Rick Dutrow’s attention to the aforementioned bump, which is located on the inside of Big Brown’s left-fore hoof -- cause for alarm and a phone call to Ian McKinlay, a specialist in hoof repair who is familiar with the colt’s well documented history of foot problems. “I knew,” Dutrow said, “he was developing something I didn’t want to see.”
By the next morning, a quarter crack – a fissure in the upper area of the hoof wall -- had blossomed.
A horse of Big Brown’s stature is conspicuous by unexplained absence and when the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner was not sent to the track on Saturday or Sunday, the clockers took note and soon the Belmont Park backstretch was rife with rumor confirmed late in the morning by Dutrow, who said he is confident that the undefeated toast of the racing world would return to a normal training routine by Thursday. “This is nothing like what happened before,” he said.
On Monday morning, McKinlay said, Big Brown’s hoof was on the mend. “A lot of heat had come out, which is an excellent sight. “As usual, just a little bit of movement in that heel is enough to warm up the foot. He is not as sensitive on the coronet band. Now, we just basically made a little trench and got him down to the wall, just about to the laminae; that’s the sensitive part of the hoof and put in one set of sutures, stitches made of stainless steel wire, and we drew that crack together. Probably tomorrow, he’ll be in much better shape. What we’re trying to do is stabilize the heel so we can get quicker healing.”
One problem, Dutrow said, may help to heal another.
“This could be a very good thing because he burned his heels [at Pimlico] and it gives his time to get over that. We can most likely jog him, but I don’t want to do that. If he looks great [on Tuesday] I still won’t jog him. It’s a little hiccup on the way over there, that’s all it is. The time he’s missed means nothing to me or him.”
On the next morning – Tuesday, the day Dutrow said in the previous paragraph he would not go for a job – Big Brown went to the track and jogged.
Optimism notwithstanding, a shadow of doubt hangs over the so-far unchallenged Big Brown. No hoof, no horse, the old saying goes. Still, horses race every day on patched, cracked hooves and McKinlay said has seen horses suffering from far more serious problems than Big Brown’s run the races of their lives. He treated Touch Gold’s sore hooves before that colt denied Silver Charm’s Triple Crown bid in the 1997 Belmont and River Keen, who he described as, “a mess,” before his victories in the Woodward Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1998. McKinlay is also the authority on Big Brown’s hooves, which he has treated since the first problems surfaced last year.
The hoof maladies that limited Big Brown to a single start last season and reoccurred last winter in Florida, Dutrow said involved separation of the hoof wall caused by infection, a far more serious condition than a simple quarter crack. Big Brown also developed an abscess in a hoof two days after his Florida Derby victory that was not disclosed until last Sunday.
All these niggling problems are ingredients of the roux that thickens the Belmont’s plot.
Two weeks out, the favorites always-suspect feet have begun to crack. He burns his heels in every race. He will most certainly burn them more severely at Belmont, which is particularly unkind to horses prone to running down. A mile-and-a-half. Whatever Dutrow believes, Casino Drive will be running at Big Brown in the stretch. Tom Durkin’s vocal chords will need some time off after this.
“This is nothing that’s going to stop him from being where he has to be,” Dutrow said. “This happened, but it happened at a good time. This has nothing to do with his ability to finish what he started. I just don’t see that the [training] days he’s missing will amount to anything. I could have sent him out there today. If the race was today, this horse would go out there and kick ass. [The hoof] would not be an issue.”
McKinlay characterized the crack, which is approximately five-eighths of an inch long, as slight and the treatment as straightforward. “We’re dealing with something that heals itself,” he said. “This is a very minor crack; easy to deal with.”
Every severe crack begins as a minor one. Lingering doubt and expectation of the worst are virtues at the racetrack. --PM
Written by Paul Moran
Check out Paul Moran on Blogspot At the Races
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Big Brown’s Belmont: At what price?
The New York Racing Association issued a press release after the Preakness announcing the availability of tickets for the June 7 Belmont Stakes, in which Big Brown will attempt to sweep the Triple Crown, an accomplishment that had evaded 10 other Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners since 1978.
Before that release was transmitted, however, the tickets were sold.
The largest crowd ever assembled for sporting event in New York, 120,139, stood in stunned silence while Birdstone thwarted Smarty Jones’ bid in 2004, the last time a the Triple Crown was at stake in the Belmont. War Emblem’s failed bid in 2002 drew 103,222 and 101,864 braved an all-day downpour in 2003, when Funny Cide was denied by Empire Maker.
The Belmont, when a Triple Crown is possible, is always a hot ticket and distinct possibility that Big Brown will become the 12th horse successful in that quest is almost certain to result in a new record crowd on June 7. For those currently without tickets, however, admission will not be inexpensive.
Already, more than two weeks from the event, gotickets.com has set the price on a table for 10 in the Garden Terrance, lunch included, at $16,000 and the best-located clubhouse seats are priced at more than $3,000. Grandstand preferred seating is being sold at $1,830 a copy. The bidding for tickets on e-bay is also robust. As of Thursday morning, clubhouse seating offered at auction was bid up to $2,000 and grandstand preferred seats near the sixteenth pole were offered at a buy-it-now price of $1,000.
The difference between a Triple Crown being on the line and virtually any other Belmont scenario is stark. The Kentucky Derby is run independent of circumstance, as is the Preakness. But the Belmont is dependent entirely upon the first two to create the high drama that draws a six-figure crown in Elmont.
A year ago, with the Derby winner, Street Sense, absent, 46,870 – the smallest Belmont-day crowd in a decade -- saw Rags to Riches upset Curlin. This time, after two powerful performances in the Derby and Preakness, Big Brown on his own, assures a crowd that will rival if not surpass that drawn by Smarty Jones. The addition of the unbeaten, Japan-based Casino Drive raises the Belmont’s profile exponentially within the Asian community. More than 100 credentials have been issued to Japanese media outlets, which makes this the first truly international Belmont.
The size of the crowd, ultimately, is dependent upon weather, which determines the sale of walk-in general admission and it is difficult to estimate exactly how many people can be shoehorned into Belmont Park. There is a point at which the NYRA would be forced to lock the gates. That has never happened. So, there is more than one bit of history at stake on June 7.
Written by Paul Moran
Check out Paul Moran on Blogspot At the Races
Sunday, May 11, 2008
We have met the enemy and ….
The shrill noise in the background comes from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which claims a membership of 1.8 million habitués of the lunatic fringe and is planning a demonstration at the Preakness.
Caution: The neighborhood adjacent to Pimlico is not exactly Rodeo Drive or one of those other neighborhoods where PETA’s most caustic and disagreeable members enjoy throwing paint as women wearing fur. Some of the demonstrators could find themselves treated less than ethically by the locals, many of whom will doubtless be armed with more than paint.
A PETA demonstration, prompted by the fatal injuries suffered by Eight Belles after she finished second in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday staged in the far more genteel setting of Lexington this week was countered by an equal number of racing supporters. Go figure. In Lexington? PETA could use a bit more judgment in picking its spots, but zealots often suffer a want of rational behavior. This is an organization that protested the nickname of the football team in Green Bay, Wisconsin, because the term Packers has roots in the meat-packing industry. Meat, after all, comes from animals. The Green Bay team held its ground. Redskins was taken.
Over the years, I have owned, in part, two horses, one a month-old, injured mortally while galloping in pastures. One, we bred, a very nice Louis Quatorze colt whose leg was broken as he ran free alongside his mother. The other, many years ago, was impaled on a post when he attempted to jump a fence on an Ocala, Florida farm. It was January 1, the day he became a yearling. Horses, from the moment of birth, are fragile creatures prone to injuries that often defy explanation and often, it seems, determined to commit suicide.
A small group of partners of which I was one claimed a two-year-old for $20,000 from a race at Calder on December 24, 1997. I watched the race from an OTB parlor in Buffalo, N.Y., while spending the holiday with family. The horse, named Wamed, finished fourth, an unremarkable effort. A few hours later, as the family sat down to Christmas Eve dinner, a phone call from the trainer brought the news that the colt had dropped dead while being unsaddled after the race. Merry Christmas.
Few who have been involved in racing, even at the most modest level, are without such stories but suffering a loss of a proven, top-class horse, like Barbaro, Eight Belles or the fallen stars whose deaths have shocked the sport’s hard core and horrified the casual observers, is, unless you’ve had the experience, unimaginable. But, as Leroy Jolley once noted: They don’t play this game in short pants. The game and its people press on because that’s what they do.
Racing will never be without its tragic moments and tragedy happens far more often in the quiet moments, to unknown horses than on the great stages that attract wide audience. Tragedy is, albeit grudgingly, an accepted part of racing that may in some way be alleviated in the future but will never be eliminated. At the moment, a broodmare in which I am a partner carries a foal by Anasheed. Without resilience, the reality will overwhelm those who play the game. Without a horse, the dream that propels the sport dies. Anyone who has ever owned a racehorse and won a race – any race – you know why there will always be a next horse, but that feeling, too, is indescribable. The horse forever remains at the center of racing’s universe, around which all else is in perpetual orbit. The rank and file of PETA has never spent time around racehorses. I suggest that they form a partnership and buy a two-year-old.
Within an hour or so of the Kentucky Derby, Eight Belles trainer, Larry Jones, said the filly’s death may ultimately be the catalyst for action on critical issues. The first of these, if it is indeed a vehicle that fosters progress rather than a knee-jerk symbolic reaction to a bad public relations situation, is the group formed with great haste by The Jockey Club.
“The Thoroughbred Safety Committee is a major step that will provide the examination of the horse welfare and safety issues so badly needed in the wake of recent catastrophic injuries,” said Alex Waldrop, National Thoroughbred Racing Association CEO. “The NTRA supports the committee’s work and plans to work closely with it to build support for the committee’s recommendations with the many constituencies we represent. At the same time, we will redouble our efforts to promote thoroughbred racing to core and target fans as the safe, responsible sport that it is. Now more than ever, no practice, policy or tradition is more important than those that best protect and promote the health of the thoroughbred athlete."
We shall see, but at this point, lack faith. None of this is new. Catastrophe sheds new light on old problems but rarely fosters solution.
In the days when horses were more sturdily made, raced often and suffered fewer catastrophic injuries, horses were bred by people who raced their produce and valued stamina and soundness as well as speed. This, with few exceptions, is no longer the case. The commercial breeding establishment sees the horse as a catalogue page and the rise of sales offering two-year-olds in training only puts unnecessary pressure on young animals. In the days to which racing people long to return, young horses were trained more prudently and began their careers when they were prepared. There were no pinhookers, who bought yearlings at auction, subjected them to stern training regimens to meet deadlines for resale. Sales companies see only commissions or there would be no auctions of two-year-olds in training, no “breeze shows” in which soft-boned juveniles rattle of 11-second furlongs.
Dirt racing surfaces were not sealed, scraped and rolled. Steroids were not administered to make young horses more muscular and imposing in an auction ring – unnaturally so-- than would be the case were they allowed to mature physically and without chemical or hormonal enhancement.
Track maintenance is a lost art and the root cause of much of the criticism of contemporary dirt surfaces and there is a marked tendency to make them harder and faster on big days. Stop. Even the Oklahoma track at Saratoga, once renowned for its kindness to horses and conditioning attributes, is now rolled and sealed regularly, as is the main track and those at Belmont and Aqueduct. This is the mark of a lazy, incompetent track superintendent. It matters that tracks are safe. Fast is a secondary consideration.
The most imposing problem is that everyone recognizes the problems without addressing solutions. Begin with the lack of a central authority and end with permissive medication rules, which facilitate the use of illegal medication by some; absence of transparency, particularly insofar as identification of attending veterinarians is concerned. None of this is apt to instill public confidence in a sport that suffers deep, self-inflicted wounds to its image and credibility.
Calls for banning race-day medication are opposed by horsemen and the groups formed to advance their interests. Support for more judicious breeding practices will fall upon the deaf ears of bottom-line oriented commercial breeders with tens of millions of dollars tied up in stallions who raced while on steroids and medication. There is no support for disclosure of veterinary information. The widely held stance toward problem solving is the circling of wagons.
Now, a filly largely unknown outside racing circles last week, died after the Kentucky Derby. This is not good television. The Kentucky Derby winner, who may very well sweep the Triple Crown, is in the hands of a notorious violator of even the permissive medication rules now in place. PETA is at full screech.HBO, on Monday, jumps into the fray with an investigation of the exportation of horses, some failed or infirm racehorses, for slaughter, something PETA could sink its fangs into with more productive results. The industry is up to its ears in damage control and when all this blows over, nothing is likely to have changed. The racing industry did not reach this point by accident. As the great philosopher, Pogo, once said: “We have met the enemy and it is us.” --PM
Written by Paul Moran
Check out Paul Moran on Blogspot At the Races