Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Rotation Issue Goes Round and Round
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 17, 2010--Someone asked the other day who I think will host the Breeders’ Cup festival in 2012. I guessed “probably New York” since I’m sure Breeders’ Cup Ltd and the New York Racing Association would like to put that dust-up they had over this issue behind them.
The one sentiment that seems to be clear is that Breeders’ Cup would like to have a permanent site. In fact, I had been told by one of its trustees some time ago that it was a done deal: A permanent site, and that site is Santa Anita.
Much has happened since. The Commonwealth of Kentucky has been sagging under the weight of slots and casino-based competition from neighboring states, New York has been given a lease on life with the impending arrival of VLTs and California racing is in political disarray. At Santa Anita, synthetics are out, dirt back in.
While the latter might be good news for horseplayers and Bob Baffert, it’s not the greatest news for international horsemen. For them, Santa Anita synthetics was a kind of neutral ground, suitable to the running and training styles of their stock--compensation for shipping into a warm weather climate.
Europeans, without whom there would be no semblance of an international championship event, find Churchill Downs and New York suitable; the former for its neutral territory and climate, the latter for its fall season and wide, sweeping expanses of Belmont Park.
For the most part, the heat and humidity of Florida makes its tracks likely non-starters and the artificial surface at Santa Anita gave foreigners an opportunity to excel on a surface other than turf. But bettors and trainers of speedy athletic types are very pleased with the switch back to dirt.
While we await an impact study from Breeders’ Cup on the effects a meaningful expansion of fractional wagering had on 2010 handle, the dirt surface certainly was a major factor in a whopping handle increase of 13 percent year over year.
Without foreign participation, however, not only does the event lose much of its quality depth and competitiveness, but much of its aesthetic appeal as well, even with the participation of many of the best American horses in training.
Of greater import, the lack of European participation hammers a nail into Breeders’ Cup dreams of international expansion, dulling the prospects of growing the bottom line. In the wake of recent withdrawals of financial support, increased handle becomes a weightier issue.
American horsemen are split almost down the middle on the notion of permanent site vs. rotation. At the pre-entry teleconference hosted by NTRA several weeks ago, trainer Todd Pletcher, as an aside and without prompting, offered this:
“I like [the rotation concept]. I think it’s what the founders had in mind. But Churchill Downs is a perfect site. It's centrally located for the Americans.
“It's not an advantage to the East Coast-based guys. It's not an advantage for the West Coast-based guys. It's a good neutral surface and has cool weather suitable for European horses.”
California-based Jerry Hollendorfer had a stronger take on rotation: “There shouldn't be a permanent site because there are race fans all over America that deserve to have a chance to watch these horses run.”
But western colleague John Sadler said he'd like to see the event in California permanently, “where warmer weather is more common and there's a better chance for a fast track.”
European trainer Henry Cecil added that a permanent site would allow foreign trainers to become accustomed to one track which, of course, would encourage more repeat visits from equine competitors, too.
None of this breaks new ground but every idea has merit. Breeders’ Cup honcho Greg Avioli believes that if the right site can be found all other objections would fade in the stretch.
I’m straddling the fence. Selfishly, I’d love to visit the foothills of the San Gabriels every year. But the people of Kentuckiana really know how to make racing visitors feel welcome, as they do in Saratoga. No upset there.
But Santa Anita has a certain aura when you’re on the grounds, inside the building. There’s history there, and the sense of excitement on event days is palpable. And going where the weather suits your clothes is never a bad thing.
Belmont Park is big, beautiful and big time. The expanse, at least in theory, allows for truer racing; the animals have more room to roam between the fences.
The crowd is typical of New York sports fans; knowledgeable, opinionated and with a low failure threshold. But the metropolitan area is so big, with so many entertainment options, that the enormity of the event can get lost in a New York minute. But the Breeders’ Cup needs to play Broadway every so often. Gun to my head, I prefer a rotation. But whatever works best I would support so, what to do?
I’ve got it. I’m going to send an e-mail to the Racing Commissioner. He’ll know what to do.
Written by John Pricci
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Integrity Left at the Post
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 11, 2010--If only I didn’t love this game, if only I had another means of earning a living, I, like so many others in the last five years, would walk away and never come back. In fact, if you’re not totally immersed in this, or make your living from it, you might consider doing the same.
This game, at least the way it was conducted in Kentucky last weekend, is an insider’s game rigged against you, the horseplayer. It’s not that Kentucky racing officials were not qualified or incompetent. To the contrary. They know better and apparently don’t give a damn about the people who pay the freight for all of us; the horseplayer.
Mainstream media treat us all as if we’re non-entities, as if we don’t matter. Our demographics just don’t skew the right way. We’re only a bunch of degenerate gamblers whose sport is going south anyway. What’s the difference if they get screwed. They deserve it. Open the gates and they will come. What choice do they have?
I don’t play poker online, but maybe taking two touchdowns with the Cowboys and their new coach against the Giants is a way for me to go this weekend. Then I can make my bet offshore, without any guilt, and when I make a deposit into my account, depending on the day of the week, I’ll get a bonus, too. They want me to lose, of course, but they treat me like a valued customer.
Unless Kentucky Racing Commission chief steward John Veitch and Commissioner Lisa Underwood lose their jobs or, at the very least, suspended without pay for, say, 90 days, and fined heavily, then this whole process is a charade, a sham. Life At Ten didn’t need to be scratched from the Ladies Classic? What we really need is a rule prohibiting jockeys from being interviewed on horseback pre-race?
They’re off! Screw you, loser!
While I enjoy it, I’m no fan of the pre-race horseback interview. As a player--and, I’m sure, a majority of owners, trainers, and jockeys would agree--I want my rider focused. In the case of the Ladies Classic warm-ups, kudos to Johnny Velazquez for telling the audience what he was feeling through the reins aboard Life At Ten. Too bad he would screw up royally later, but at least he had the guts to be honest. In my view, he was the only one who did.
Unless the powers that be, whoever they are, do something about this, never, ever tell me again how you have the racing fan’s best interests at heart. This utter and complete travesty of justice and lack of transparency cannot stand, cannot go unpunished. For $7-million-plus fans literally didn’t get a run for their money. So what? They’ve lost bets before; they’ll lose again tomorrow. Who cares?
When Allumeuse was wrongfully disqualified at Saratoga in 1986--an honest
mistake--none of those stewards were allowed to keep their jobs. By what standard should Veitch keep his, or the rest of the Kentucky stewards and Commissioner for that matter. Being born into the business doesn’t give you the right to ignore the betting public.
Of course, the game doesn’t have a commissioner, a leader, an organization, or a league office with teeth. But unless those powers, whoever they are, act, and act swiftly, I can only infer that they don’t give a damn about their fan base. If the racing community keeps this up, the government just might get involved and shut the whole thing down. In this context, racing would get exactly what it deserves.
So, please, no more press releases from the Jockey Club or the NTRA bringing me up to speed on the newest member to join the racetrack safety accreditation program, or whatever the hell it’s called. Obviously the safety of the jockeys and Thoroughbreds are paramount. But what about the people in the stands, at the simulcasts, at their computers, betting? Who has their back? Certainly not Veitch or Underwood.
This game is one nationally televised breakdown away from extinction. Does anyone in this industry for the record believe otherwise? Does it really believe that bad news can be spun ad infinitum, that it can keep anti-racing zealots away from its doors forever? Every time the industry stands mute and fails to act, another nail is hammered into that coffin. For blame, try looking in a mirror.
Beyond the Jockey Club, the NTRA, breeders, racetracks--anyone and everyone having a vested interest in the health of the sport--who is it that would speak up on behalf of those bettors that poured more than $7-million into a sinkhole one week ago?
The culprits, ultimately, might not be Veitch and Underwood but a pervasive culture of permissiveness, deception and cover-up that holds no one accountable. In this, there is plenty of blame to spread around.
I love Johnny Velazquez to death and I think he knows that. But he screwed up big time here. Jockeys have the right to request that a horse be scratched if he or she believes that, for whatever reason, it is incapable of performing to the best of its ability. At minimum, he should have taken responsibility and refused to ride the filly. The wrong jockey apologized last weekend.
When asked several minutes before being loaded into the gate if Life At Ten--clearly acting and failing to stride out in a manner suggesting she was ill prepared to give optimum effort--was warming out of her discomfort, Velazquez frankly answered “not really.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher told two different stories: An earlier one about the filly’s being lethargic, perhaps suffering from an adverse reaction to the legal medication Lasix or, as she appeared to all who watched her in pre-race warm-ups, “tied up,” severely cramped. The following morning we were to learn that her temperature was well above normal and she had an elevated white blood cell count.
Velazquez tried to do the right thing by the trainer and the owner. Pletcher tried to do the right thing and protect Velazquez. Did anyone--especially the stewards, who were informed by ESPN that something was amiss with the Ladies Classic second favorite--think about the public, the integrity of the game, racing’s image or, ultimately, the filly herself? The answer is a categorical no.
Arguably, these horsemen were only making business decisions; bad ones, but business decisions nevertheless. The last line of defense, then, must be the racing official. And despite what they were being told by a creditable source, why did they not at least delay the start sufficiently to investigate further?
Dr. Larry Bramlage said the filly was observed by three veterinarians at the gate and again after the race and that “no physical problems were observed.” So then Velazquez simply wraps up immediately after the start and eases his filly to the finish for no reason. In light of what had just occurred, his response was an insult to intelligence and reason.
There was a Hall of Fame jockey and a world class reporter on the ESPN set. Does Jerry Bailey, one of the great race riders of all time, and Randy Moss have no credibility with them? A minute or two after Velazquez made his “not really” observation, ESPN reported that none of the veterinarians were aware of the situation involving the rider and his filly.
Of the people immediately contacted by the stewards when their investigation first began, Velazquez wasn’t one of them. Where was he, in Italy with Frankie Dettori? Life At Ten was not drug tested after the race, though TCO2 testing was performed. Ironic that “milkshakes” are an illegal antidote for severe cramping. So why not err on the side of caution? Where was the concern, the urgency? If actions speak louder than words, there was hardly a whisper. Need we always follow the money?
The media needs to step up here. I have confidence that some members of the mainstream media will do just that and demand a measure of justice for their constituency, the racing fans. But industry media need to take a position on this, too, stating one way or the other where they stand; with industry members who acted so capriciously, or the public. Unless, of course, they decide to make a business decision and stand mute.
The late Joe Hirsch, a founding member of the National Turf Writers’ Association, rarely wrote editorials for Daily Racing Form but whenever he saw rank injustice, he spoke out. Hirsch never would have let this pass without commentary. One of the best friends this industry has ever had, Hirsch’s words meant something. Who will take the lead now?
Or will it be, as the new DRF ownership group clearly has demonstrated, business first?
Further, it’s time for grass roots organizations such as the Horseplayers Association of North America and Thoro-Fan to stand up and demand a better explanation. They should poll membership and send the results to the industry leadership they deem appropriate. If the response they receive is inadequate, then they should forward their findings to the feds.
Richard Hamilton, a retired official, started that phase of his career at the New York Racing Association in 1979, first as a paddock and patrol judge then later as NYRA steward from 1988 to '95, said this in a phone interview Thursday:
“This situation must be resolved. Somebody has to be held responsible for the [horsemen’s] actions and the lack of a reaction [by racing officials]. The public has suffered and someone needs to take responsibility for that.”
Written by John Pricci
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Zenyatta: In Their Own Words
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 10, 2010--The great Winston Churchill had it right when he said: “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.”
Women might be included in this, too, of course.
Among the arguments made here several weeks ago about voting for Zenyatta as 2010 Horse of the Year regardless of what happened in the Breeders’ Cup Classic; that transcendent horses need to be recognized.
Recall that there is no Horse of the Year guidebook to consult.
There will be no expounding further on what a Horse of the Year resume is; voters need to settle that question within their own conscience and let the heavens fall.
I’ve surfed the Internet for Thoroughbred storylines in the wake of Zenyatta’s “Quest for Perfection,” and it’s been heartening to see all the positive reaction following such heartfelt disappointment.
Because of Zenyatta‘s hulking presence, the lead-up to this year’s Classic was unprecedented.
Photo spreads in two national magazines plus a “60 Minutes” love-in does something for your image. Even in the best of times, presenting racing in a favorable light to the masses is a challenge.
And these are far from the best of times.
All this preamble led to 6:45 pm last Saturday. The latch was sprung and in less than an eighth of a mile most feared that this time it might end differently.
Even the Hall of Famer on her back was having doubts. The Classic wasn’t a quarter-mile old before Mike Smith briefly considered easing her, protect her. She was traveling uncharacteristically poorly, clearly uncomfortable with the going under foot.
But out of loss came not despair but adulation, the kind of feelings that Churchill understood enough to try to describe. And it came from everywhere.
A sampling, then, from all who were touched by Zenyatta’s class and courage, moving those owning word processors to tell her story in only the most glowing terms. So, it begins:
“As the horses were about to be loaded into the gate Saturday for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, three light blue and reddish bands of light took shape in the sky directly overhead.
“It didn’t require much imagination to associate these bands with Zenyatta’s salmon and teal colors, and to see them as a sign that perhaps the hopes riding on her extended further than people knew…” --Jeff Scott, for The Saratogian
“My interest was piqued and I tuned in to watch the chance for history to be made. As I watched Zenyatta "dance" on her way to the track, weaving her way through the massive crowd in the paddock area, I was mesmerized…” --Blogger Al Stephenson
“Her most important success probably came off the track, as she single-handedly revived the flagging interest in U.S. racing...” --Sam Walker, for The Racing Post.
“If horse racing had a Mount Rushmore, [Zenyatta’s] image would be there, alongside Secretariat’s and Man o’ War’s and Citation’s...” --Gary West, for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“Zenyatta was a gift from heaven and God further blessed us by giving her to John Shirreffs…” --Art Wilson, for the San Gabriel Valley Tribune
“Zenyatta endeared herself to millions of Americans and helped raise the profile of racing in the same way that Seabiscuit and Secretariat did before her.” --Reuters
“She’s the greatest filly I’ve ever seen. She may be the greatest of all time…” --Steve Haskin, for The Bloodhorse
“She is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, not merely a superb racehorse… It is hard to imagine that a [Horse of the Year] vote could go any other way. Zenyatta hasn’t just won lots of races and attracted lots of interest to a sport whose piece of the general fan pie is a sliver, she has created a buzz that made its way to mainstream America…” --Bill Dwyre, for the Los Angeles Times
“So ends a truly great career for the most talented older race mare I have ever seen…” --Steve Davidowitz, for GradeOneRacing.com
“Rarely, if ever, has a thoroughbred so thoroughly exuded greatness while enduring such a monumental defeat…” Ed Gray, for the Boston Herald, retired
“Zenyatta demonstrated in a clear, unequivocal manner she is the best Thoroughbred in America…” --Nick Kling, for the Troy Record
“Her legend was enhanced in defeat…” --author Bill Nack, for ESPN.com
“Zenyatta’s first defeat served to complete the legend rather than diminish it...” --The Independent [United Kingdom]
“…The weight of the loss was on us… I heard turf writers whom I would have sworn didn’t have a sentimental bone in their bodies say in bewilderment, ‘I can’t believe how bad I feel…” --Blogger Teresa Genaro, Brooklyn Backstretch
“She was--and is--far bigger than her one defeat…” --Tim Layden, for Sports Illustrated
“I saw people crying at Churchill Downs Saturday evening, I saw middle-aged women wiping tears from their faces. I saw college-aged girls doing the same… --Tim Wilkin, for the Albany Times-Union
“I didn’t cry until Sunday morning… It wasn’t because Zenyatta lost; it was because an era was at an end…” --Blogger Jessica Chapel / Railbird v2
“I’ll say that I saw Zenyatta…” --Chapel
Written by John Pricci