Thursday, October 30, 2008

Belmont Park vs. Breeders’ Cup: Act II

ARCADIA, Calif., October 28, 2008--The rumors began to surface in Saratoga about a week or two in advance of Breeders’ Cup 25. Racetrack rumors can be especially viral, so my first thought was to place it on my pay-no-mind list.

But when the same rumor resurfaced in California, twice, and from different sources, it deserves an airing.

If it turns out to be untrue, I’m sure it will denied at length and in detail sometime in the near future by an official spokesperson. And so we’ll pose it in the form of a question.

Is the New York Racing Association planning to stage a Fall Championship Day at Belmont Park in direct competition with Breeders’ Cup?

It’s useful to recall that on the final day of the Saratoga meeting in a press box news conference, NYRA President Charlie Hayward revealed that the Breeders’ Cup had backed out of a handshake agreement that the 2010 Breeders’ Cup program would be held at Belmont Park.

Subsequent to that statement, Breeders’ Cup Chairman William Farish was quoted in the media, saying only “that may be [Charlie’s] version of the story. I’d rather not comment.”

At the time Hayward made his statement, he announced that Churchill Downs would be awarded the 2010 Thoroughbred World Championships.

One month later, the heads-up turned out to be fact. In a joint press conference widely attended by Kentucky officials, Breeders’ Cup announced jointly with Churchill that Louisville would be the site of the event two years hence.

Both organizations left the door open for hosting the event back-to-back, as was the case for the first time this year and in 2009 at Santa Anita Park.

The question is was the “agreement” with NYRA a wedge by Breeders’ Cup to bring Churchill Downs back to the bargaining table? Churchill Downs has drawn six of the largest seven crowds in Cup history.

The publicly held CDI made no secret that it wanted a larger share of Breeders’ Cup revenue. Apparently Churchill got its wish in return for lobbying the Commonwealth to waive the tax imposed on outside events held at the Downs, the equivalent of a licensing fee.

The track, in conjunction with the city of Louisville, successfully argued that the fee, approaching six figures, in no way compensated for a projected loss of $50-60 million in tourism revenues. Indeed, the “Breeders’ Cup waver,” about to sunset, needing extending before the 2010 event could be staged in the bluegrass.

The back-story doesn’t end there. HRI sources claim also that Breeders’ Cup management was put off by having to negotiate with Gavin Landry, the NYRA Vice-President of Marketing and former president of the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau, knocking heads over sponsorship issues. Landry recently resigned under pressure.

Landry’s failed marketing policies and personality left the NYRA with little recourse with respect to his responsibilities. Indeed, his departure was deemed imminent late in the Saratoga meet, but didn’t occur until after racing returned downstate to Belmont Park.

Sources tell HRI that the 2009 NYRA stakes schedule, which will be formulated next month and subsequently submitted to the new state mandated Board of Directors will be incomplete with respect to the fall stakes schedule.

It is anticipated that NYRA will counter-program against Breeders’ Cup, either by putting major races in direct opposition on the same weekend, or by scheduling them so close to the event that high-profile Grade 1 horse flesh couldn’t possibly run back on such short rest.

The domination of European and California-based horses at last weekend’s silver anniversary edition of Breeders’ Cup would be a large temptation to have Eastern-based runners remain close to home, next year or any other in which championship races are scheduled on a synthetic surface.

For many dirt horses, all-weather tracks present a tremendous challenge, as Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen would attest. Shipping Eastern horses to West Coast racetracks was a daunting obstacle even before all-weather surfaces were mandated in the Golden State.

This tack would strike at the already tenuous balance of power within a fractured Thoroughbred industry that lacks a central authority. It would seem now that the ball is in NYRA’s court, and Hayward picked it up.

“We have no intentions to schedule against the Breeders’ Cup in 2009,” Hayward said. “There are some interesting questions about the prep races, and we might make some adjustments to our stakes schedule prior to getting it approved by our board in December.”

If the NYRA eventually decides to pay the Breeders’ Cup back in kind, the association would inflict serious damage to an industry on the brink, undermining one of the sport’s defining events. “We‘ve gotten a lot of suggestions to run against the Breeders’ Cup,” said Hayward.

Does that mean it‘s on the table, or off? “We have to make this industry healthy. We don’t root for each other enough.”

Written by John Pricci - Comments (26)


Sunday, October 26, 2008

This Breeders’ Cup Changed the Game Forever

ARCADIA, Calif., October 25--This time the crowd, who welcomed back its heroes all afternoon long, as it did Friday, applauded before the race. That’s because the nine horse was the champ. He goes by the name Curlin.

And with five furlongs remaining to run, and with the pace strong, Robby Albarado asked Curlin for his life, as the jockeys say, and the reigning Horse of the Year responded, sweeping up on the outside to take command. On 11 other occasions, the tack worked.

The momentum might have carried Curlin to the lead but it might not have sustained his run at a second consecutive championship. It could be worse than that. The legacy that his connections were crafting for him might have wilted in the heat of the California sun, over a surface that seemed unkind.

“It was a turf race,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “It absolutely was the Pro Ride surface that got him beat. “Maybe he’s not a synthetic surface specialist. I don’t know," said the main on his back. "He was paddling around.”

The rest of Robby Albarado’s explanation rang true as well. “Curlin did what he does, going by horses. He made his run but got a little late [tired] in the stretch. I can’t answer whether or not the track had anything to do with it.”

Whether or not the long season, punctuated by a trip to Dubai, took its toll is another potential explanation. But he simply remained one-paced after getting the lead. He kept trying, like champions do, but simply was outrun in the late stages.

A rival jockey was saying this about the mighty Curlin this week: “He’s a big, lumbering individual,” the rider said. “This surface doesn’t help horses like that.”

Clearly, it didn’t help him yesterday. When his rivals closed in, pressuring him to run faster, he struggled. He strained into his bridle but the fleet closers were coming faster now. The Europeans came loaded and laid it on the entire home team.

Five wins plus five seconds equals dominance.

And if you think this year was tough on the home team, wait until 2009. The Breeders’ Cup is coming back to Santa Anita as will the Europeans, en masse. Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator, the Classic Euro exacta, are just the beginning.

And maybe invaders will come from the other direction. Not all Far Eastern-based runners are handled as curiously as Casino Drive.

Twenty five years ago, the Breeders’ Cup was created as an end of year series of races to crown champions in competition, further defining themselves against some of the world’s best.

Synthetic surfaces are going to change all that. They are the great international equalizer. Yesterday, at the Great Race Place, the American Thoroughbred game changed forever.

America was the place where you could find the best bloodstock on the planet, before the Europeans and the Japanese and oil rich sheikhs figured they could bring money and raid the cupboard. Now, with the help of artificial surfaces, they will come and raid the purse coffers, too.

American racing had better start thinking about a way to reinvent itself. By all evidence, the best horses in the world may not live here anymore.

Best Breeders' Cup Ever?

Immediacy makes for strange perspective. Unlike a handful of my colleagues who’ve covered every one, this was my 21st, Breeders’ Cup, missing only Woodbine, Hollywood and two at Churchill.

But even if the one conducted this weekend at the foothills of the San Gabriels wasn’t the best, it clearly was my favorite.

Maybe it was the low expectations, given the surface controversy. And it’s such a difficult event to cover. So many horses, so many superfectas, so little time. But there was a certain sense of foreboding. The specter of Eight Belles lingers.

And the panacea, the artificial surface? There were five catastrophic breakdowns during the Oak Tree run-up to Breeders Cup, four during training hours. To appreciate that impact, consider that in 36 days of racing at Saratoga this summer, there was one fatality. It came during a race, on turf, a horse’s natural, kinder surface.

The founders envisioned seven defining events. The branders upped the ante double. And the added races were not all of championship caliber. Six races are ungraded. It was worship at the altar of parimutuel handle.

But it was more, too. I failed to appreciate the notion of a festival atmosphere that two days can generate. That one the branders hit clear out of the park. And who could have known that both days would be marked by such high performance levels.

And say this for the synthetics. It sure brings most of the horses together, although if speed is your thing you might consider taking up another pastime. Me? I’m planning on attending my 22nd, looking to repeat something like this:

Most thought a European would win the Marathon. They were right And wrong. But what most American bettors didn’t appreciate, class notwithstanding, was that Sixties Icon was too slow and ill suited to the prevailing pace scenario. But not Muhannek, the fresh, sharp, pointed and faster invader, who, perfectly positioned, fired, then withstood late finishing Church Service. Patrick Smullen, who could do know better than fifth in seven previous Cup rides, is off the Breeders’ Cup duck. “Everything went to plan,” Smullen explained. “I wanted to put myself in the position that I could go on the back turn. The horse fought all the wire to the wire. It worked out beautifully.” It was the first Cup win for trainer Ralph Beckett.

* * *

You could almost see the arm pumps at Aqueduct just as Desert Code crossed the line. Richard Migliore had this one coming. He was supposed to win another Breeders Cup turf race, the Mile, on Artie Shiller, but an injury sidelined him and Garrett Gomez picked up the mount and the win. So it was some fated karma when Gomez, who rode Desert Code for David Hofmans in the G3 Morvich Handicap last out, opted for Idiot Proof yesterday and Migliore, who rode Desert Code to his most recent win down the hill here last March, reunited with the 4-year-old and timed the winning run precisely, nailing Diabolical right on the post. For Migliore, the 14th time was the charm, his best previous finish a third on the Irish filly Mourjane 23 years ago. The hill makes this race what it is. Around one turn, It would be just another turf sprint. Good show.

* * *

The favorite could have been luckier. Well Armed found himself in a jackpot virtually the whole way, especially when jammed and forced to steady wide into the first turn, but it wouldn’t have mattered. He raced empty throughout. Meanwhile, Two Step Salsa outran some very quick older horses early, repulsed challenges, and at headstretch kept going and going, even though you knew the pace would take a toll. Garrett Gomez must have known it too. Third to the favorite in in the G1 Goodwood, Gomez bided his time until launching his mount into high gear a quarter mile from home, Albertus Maximus grinding out the win all the way home; Gomez’s second Cup score in two days.

* * *

Goldikova was supposed to be over the top, ill suited to the ground and course configuration, too short for her late brilliant turn of foot. Better make that electric turn of foot. Daytona had mid-moved to the lead and the race was on in earnest. Kip Deville, not as keen early on as you’d like to see him, was ground saving behind Goldikova. But at headstretch Cornelio Velasquez tipped the defending champion wide and looked a winner midway home. But the French filly found a seam and Olivier Peslier guided her through and she exploded, opening two lengths in an instant. Trainer Freddie Head, who trains her and rode the first dual Breeders’ Cup winner, the great Miesque--the filly he’d been comparing Goldikova to all week--was correct in his assessment. Next year she turns 4, Can’t wait to see her kick when she, you know, matures. Head became the first person to ever ride and train a Breeders’ Cup winner.

* * *

All week, the West Coast wise guys were questioning the quality of the horses coming out of the Norfolk. Don’t think they will any longer. How good was Midshipman? Sent away from the 11 post by Garrett Gomez, the colt battled on a strong pace throughout, opened a little more daylight into the stretch, then withstood a game, re-rallying Square Eddie. Indeed, the Pro-Ride had been playing glibly these afternoons but anytime a baby runs a mile and a sixteenth in 140.96, that’s a serious run. And so GG rode a natural double, giving Bob Baffert six BC wins, including his second Juvenile (Vindication in ‘02). At this rate, Baffert might become a synthetic fan after all. Not quite sure, however, Midshipman nailed down an Eclipse title. He owns two victories to one over Street Hero, the Norfolk winner. But it will depend on how voters view dual G1 winner Vineyard Haven, who skipped this dance, and which horses come back to dance again in the Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood in December.

* * *

The Breeders’ Cup committee must have known something, scheduling the Juvenile Turf after the Juvenile. With Aidan O’Brien’s Westphalia on the inside beneath Johnny Murtaugh, and John Gosden’s Donativum on the outside, Frankie Dettori up, the head-to-head final yards battle was a beauty, Donativum winning the sprint home. Perhaps Westphalia was best, given the trip, breaking sideways and losing valuable forward position. Midway of the backside, however, Murtaugh asked Westphalia to move closer, which he did, but was forced to wait, again. The combination of all this might have been the difference in the losing head margin, taking nothing from the winner. It was a grand welcome home for Gosden, who came from Great Britain to California, enjoyed a successful career, then returned oversees. He has a reputation for not firing many blanks when pointing for an engagement. It was well earned. Donativum fired a big one all right.

* * *

A triple for Gomez, a double for Baffert, a repeat victory by defending Sprint champion, and a Breeders’ Cup Sprint record of 1:07.08. The disappointing news? It didn’t threaten the Santa Anita record of 1:06.53 set by Bob Black Jack in February, a period when all records fell. The situation was so dire then that racing was cancelled while the track was repaired, eventually leading to the installation of Pro-Ride. The pace was fast, of course, but this behemoth would have run down the group under any circumstances. His mid-turn momentum carried him extremely wide into the lane and, despite the ground loss, you knew he’d win. As the official was posted, there still was no word whether Baffert removed the plate protecting Lute’s quarter crack. But this much is clear. It wasn’t the Midnight Lute that raced at Del Mar this summer but more like the version who inhaled the sloppy competition last year at Monmouth Park.

* * *

In the early days of Breeders Cup, provincial Americans had a jolly time poking fun of European riders. “Hey, could you stand up just a little taller, please?” “Hey, could you stop trying to imitate a monkey doing the nasty with a football?” Well, they put on quite the show yesterday. Smullern could not have timed it better in the Marathon. Murtaugh and Dettori looked like Cordero and Velazquez out there. This guy Ryan Moore isn’t too shabby, either, finally winning a G1 for Conduit, the budding three-year-old’s fourth victory in six starts this year. Credit Michael Stoute, a.k.a. Sir Michael Stoute, for that. Moore timed Conduit’s run perfectly, the Irish-bred colt pounding the firm ground to victory, benefiting from a strong pace that frankly saw Murtaugh moving aggressively and prematurely with a half mile still left to run.

Written by John Pricci - Comments (20)


Friday, October 24, 2008

Building the Breeders’ Cup Brand

Arcadia, Ca., October 23, 2008--The waiting is over. But not the work. The conditions couldn’t be any more perfect for the silver anniversary of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Or could they?

No anabolic steroids? A good thing, in the main, but a variable completely unknown in relation to some of today’s competitors. Good, not so much.

No dirt? No problem. Providing, of course, you have experience, preferably with a favorable result, over the current Pro-Ride synthetic surface now in place at Santa Anita Park.

No moderating temperatures? That’s a problem. For those animals that have begun growing winter coats, or for non-sweaters like Forever Together, rated at 6-1 for the Filly & Mare Turf, and, probably, for any European in general.

For the Euros, however, it’s a tradeoff: I’ll see your heat wave and raise you one all-weather track!

Talking mid-90 temperatures for Ladies Day and Men’s Day. Extreme heat can wreck havoc during Saratoga summers, much less calendars approaching November.

No seven inches of rain, like for Breeders’ Cup 24, is a good thing, right? Well, here’s the thing. If we had that kind of rainfall here yesterday there would have been no need to shut down the San Diego Freeway due to brushfire smoke.

And the surface would have been rated “Pro-Ride,” anyway. It would not have been rated sloppy or muddy or wet-fast or even dry for that matter.

That’s the purpose of this drill. Never having to race in slop again. Never having to worry about sloppy-track specialists anymore. Just the Pro-Ride specialists and the Tapeta specialists and the Polytrack specialists and…

From what I’m hearing, maintaining these synthetic tracks hasn’t been as inexpensive as advertised. And then there’s this:

According to a recent LA Times story, there have been five catastrophic breakdowns since the meeting began Sept. 24, four occurring in the morning, when the track is the way most horsemen prefer it: not melted.

Can you say boondoggle?

But more than the positive PR seemingly engendered by the move to synthetic surfaces, CEO Greg Avioli put in succinctly at Tuesday’s post draw, Act 2, when he gave the reason why Santa Anita was chosen as the Breeders’ Cup venue this year and next, telling the media: “Turn around and look out the window.”

Sure enough. No rain, no smog, only the San Gabriels and a shade of green vegetation indigenous only to this land of milk and glitz, the other reason for bringing the circus to town.

So anxious to sell the notion of racing as entertainment to the masses that Breeders’ Cup openly is courting celebrities, preferably A-listers. Check your local listings for time and station.

This year’s media party, a.k.a. the B-list party, is in one locale. But A-list celebrity horsemen and actual real celebrities will be partying like it’s 1999 at the Hollywood Palladium, where the currently hot Maroon-5 will rock the house.

There are two reasons why this wasn’t such a good idea, though. First, the traditional press party, where wretched journalists got to mix with A-list horsemen, was a good thing.

Both parties relaxed, cocktail party rules applied, and you can actually learn stuff, the kind off-the-record information you can pawn off on unsuspecting readers as your own inside scoop.

But this is a good thing: Identities are protected and the public gets to know things, a good three-sided deal. But now, what’s the point?

Further, I’m told a DJ was scheduled to appear at 9:30 pm, with Maroon-5 making their entrance around 11. Figure that all European exercise riders will be in attendance. But set the over/under for trainers at 3.

Look, everyone’s trying, and deserve credit for that. They’re just not thinking things through so good. And here’s where I get to vent a little.

I return to New York on the red-eye from Burbank Sunday night. I made those plans prior to the credential-request deadline of late summer, allowing time to attend the post-event press breakfast Sunday morning.

This press conference, for me, always has provided interesting, fresh material that might last a week, as horsemen respond to individual performances, championship implications, and react to any possible controversial events.

After the deluge of 2007--sneaky Jackson Browne reference here; this is LA after all--the Sunday morning press conference came disguised as empty chairs. So, let’s cancel this one, due to lack of interest. Thanks for the scoop.

Here’s an idea. Compel the appropriate horsemen to show up, or demand they send a spokesperson. Why? Because horsemen are no better than the media. They want to complain about negative press coverage, then fail to step up to promote their own damn sport.

It’s not always the messenger’s fault.

Avioli was saying, too, that he wants to give this 14-race, two-day experiment a few years to take root, how it might be nurtured into a true world class event.

Here’s an idea right off the top, since 14 races are so overwhelming that I no longer can think straight. If you had to expand the format, why not have the races match actual Eclipse categories? We don’t give out one for turf sprinter, or marathoner, or two-year-old filly turf champion.

And if more races are an answer, how about Grade 1s with purses and horses that matter in a true championship context, instead of this orgiastic betting feast geared only to the bottom line? If the idea is to build a brand, how about one that features a product truly worth branding?

Happy Ladies Day Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.

Written by John Pricci - Comments (1)


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