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
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Stardom, Champagne and Caviar
Arcadia, Ca., October 22--Stardom Bound, undefeated in two starts at the Grade 1 level, and 2-1 early line favorite for Friday’s mile and-a-sixteenth Juvenile Fillies, is sales bound.
Stardom Boundphoto from breederscup.com
But that's after the race and gets way ahead of the story surrounding this big, scopey, beautiful gray filly.
Her tale can be traced back six decades when her owner, a young man named Charles Cono, put all his belongings in the back of his car and drove cross country from Washington D. C. to Southern California in search of champagne wishes and caviar dreams.
Whatever the plan, he made good. He worked hard and with a couple of partners formed Hanken, Cono, Assad & Co. in 1974, a real estate investment and management firm based in La Mesa. Today, the company owns or manages thousands of Southern California properties.
After making an unsuccessful foray into harness racing, Cono got into the Thoroughbred business and enjoyed a measure of success, hitting his high-water mark in 2004 when he won a trio of stakes at the prestigious Del Mar summer meet.
Cono now has about 20 horses in training at Hollywood Park and a dozen more mares and babies at his trainer’s farm in Kentucky. “But we’re not into breeding too much,” Cono said. “I like starting with two-year-olds and going from there. That’s more exciting to me.”
Cono had two juveniles worthy of Breeders’ Cup participation, but neither his filly nor colt were able to hit the board. But this year he's hoping to win it all with Stardom Bound, a filly who leaves the starting gate very slowly, but finishes very, very fast.
The genesis of Cono’s current success was the result of a chance meeting with trainer Christopher Paasch at Del Mar seven years ago. They soon began a successful racetrack relationship which could culminate with an Eclipse title this Friday. But their connection as owner and trainer could end as soon as next year.
Paasch, a 52-year-old native of Rochester, NY, was introduced to racing by his father, ironically, as a trainer of Standardbreds, but Paasch became interested in Thoroughbreds after visiting Finger Lakes Racetrack while home on leave from the Marine Corps when he was 19.
After leaving the service, Paasch began a training career in Arizona before eventually settling in Northern California, where he labored for five years. In 1994, however, he was diagnosed with a rare leukemia-like illness that kept him debilitated until 1999, spending his time going from one hospital to another.
Finally, he landed in Sloan-Kettering, the famed cancer-treatment hospital in New York, where he was told it would be prudent "to have his affairs in order” before checking himself in. Indeed, it was the third time he heard that suggestion. But, quite obviously and happily, Paasch is still with us and will saddle the favorite in Friday’s fifth race on the Santa Anita Breeders' Cup program.
Christopher Paaschphoto from breederscup.com
If Paasch prides himself on one thing it’s an ability to pick out young horses, both at the sales and on the racetrack. This March in Ocala, Paasch spent $375,000 of Cono’s cash for a Tapit filly from the Tarr Road mare, My White Corvette.
“I name all the babies myself and I’ve come up with a lot of bad ones,” Paasch told “Down the Stretch” in a Breeders' Cup interview on the Capital-OTB television network. “I think I finally got one right.”
So far, so good. Stretching out to seven furlongs in the Del Mar Debutante, the long striding gray came from last, blowing past 11 rivals despite a sustained, wide rally. Despite the ground loss and the lengthy run, she completed her final furlong in :11 4/5 and drew off dramatically for the score.
Next out, in the Oak Leaf Stakes on the surface she will run over Friday, Stardom Bound ran by 10 of 11 rivals late, a carbon copy of her Debutante score only she even wider and needing to sustain her run around a second turn, the exact conditions she’ll encounter tomorrow.
For rider Mike Smith, his mount’s swoop-the-group style should provide a useful prelude to what will be expected of him when he’s given a leg up on undefeated handicap star Zenyatta an hour after the Juvenile Fillies. In four lifetime starts at graduating distances, Stardom Bound never has taken a backward step on the Equiform performance-figure scale.
Despite her imposing credentials and an invaluable race over the new Pro-Ride strip, the race is far from a walkover. The equally promising and undefeated Sky Diva is just as fast and has the benefit of a better inside draw. European filly Pursuit of Glory, a synthetic-surface winner at Dundalk and Group 1 placed in the Cheveley Park at Newmarket, has the pedigree for the surface and distance. It figures to be a beauty.
Win or lose, Stardom Bound will be sold at year's end. Paasch, who owns the farm in Kentucky where Cono boards his horses, wants to retire from training, spending quality time with his family and doing what he enjoys best; buying young horses for his clients.
In sports the saying is that coaches coach. In this game, trainer’s train, until the regimen becomes too overwhelming. Perhaps Stardom Bound will provide Paasch with his share of champagne and caviar. It’s never too late for that.
Written by John Pricci
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Big Time Is As Big Time Does
Arcadia, Ca., October 21, 2008--I don’t mean to complain. Not really. After all, it was 28 degrees in Saratoga Springs this morning and the weather handicappers were talking about a dusting of snow in the north country tonight. Brrrr.
But you know, it gets down to a bracing low 60s here in the mornings where the palm trees grow and that’s pretty bracing, too. Tomorrow I must remember to don a light windbreaker over my favorite Stone Pony Tee. So off-putting, really.
The rest of the morning--I’ve been up since 3 AM and have had a full day--was spent immersed in Friday’s five races for Breeders’ Cup horses of the female persuasion.
At this point I’m thoroughly familiar with the group and can state, unequivocally and with confidence, I’m probably in big trouble. Everywhere I look, there’s another Euro laying in the weeds whose mission it is to separate me from the dinero.
The shower was refreshing but did little to shake the cobwebs from the cerebral attic where I store the junk that comes in so handy on occasions like these. If I had one really good betting idea for Friday I still wouldn’t know how to play it, exotic or straight. Not yet, anyway, because I’m still gathering information.
It warmed up considerably as I jumped into the limo that would take me eight miles East on the 210 to the Baldwin Ave. exit. And I should have told the limo driver--actually he wasn’t a limo driver but the wheel-man of the shuttle bus that Breeders’ Cup provides visiting media.
Since I was the lone passenger, I told James to take me to Santa Anita. And make it pronto. The post-position draw was starting in 25 minutes and I didn’t want to miss a thing.
For all I learned at the draw, I should have had James drop me off at the Arboretum instead. And there was no rush, as it turned out. The draw began about a quarter-hour late in a room where about 400 people gathered in a space meant for half that number.
It was so crowded and warm up inside that room I wished I were back at the hotel four hours earlier smoking Shermans in my favorite Stone Pony Tee. Couldn’t these wacky Angelinos start going green next week, when all the old handicappers leave town?
But that wasn’t it. Not really. It’s just that no one seemed prepared to service that many horsemen and media in a room ill equipped to handle it. And it’s not like they hadn’t done this 24 times before.
I overheard an official saying the idea was to draw 10 races for horsemen in the first room and have the media gather in Location Two, the clubhouse’s Frontrunner Room, on the opposite end of the track.
The four remaining Bigger-Than-Big Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championship races: the Ladies Classic and the Men’s Classic, the Sentient Flight Group Breeders’ Cup Sprint and the Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Turf, were drawn in the clubhouse, to be followed by interview opportunities and lunch.
Given the amount of time it took, what with walking to two locations, the introductions, thank yous, the waiting in between, who had time for lunch? They could have thrown us some copacola sandwiches football style and saved a lot of time and a few bucks, too.
As it turns out, there was a dearth of horsemen available. I did see Steve Klesaris, who’s shipping in a pair of fillies, a longshot named Miraculous Miss for Filly & Mare Sprint, and Sky Diva, who might special, for the Bessemer Trust Juvenile Fillies.
Bill Mott was there, I heard, and I did see Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert. John Shirreffs was holding forth for a lengthy time although I never could find him. But that probably was my bad. I was so disoriented from rushing through the draw, scribbling furiously the positions and jockeys onto the page. Actually, there was no time for anyone to write down the riding assignments.
Had the event started promptly there might have been time to prep the entry clerks on the proper pronunciation of the world’s most famous horsemen. Admittedly, one was tricky. It’s spelled Peslier but pronounced Pell-e-a. Those French, and their freedom fries! And Pyro’s jockey is named Bridgmohan, as in Bridge-Mo-Han. If stars can’t get recognition, then who?
It’s not very Christian to poke fun of the ill prepared. But we think it permissible to tweak the rude. What was the hurry? Would an extra five or 10 minutes have mattered all that much? Especially since the media needed to dally about 30 minutes to finish the task; providing readers and viewers with information, promoting the event in the process.
For years I’ve requested that equipment and medication changes be included at the draw in addition to jockey assignments and early line odds. Reporters serve the wagering public, who require as much time as possible to thoroughly handicap 14 extremely difficult races, twice as many as the founders envisioned.
Equipment and medication information must be supplied to the racing office at time of entry. And I read this week that Bobby Frankel would run Champs Elysees in blinkers, and that Bob Baffert might remove the protective bar shoe worn by defending sprint champion Midnight Lute, etc., etc. Will they? I don’t know… Third base.
I’ll let you know after I acquire a second, up-to-date set of past performances. This is a wagering game based on data. But too often those whose livelihoods depend on betting handle act as if they’re doing you a favor by providing you with that information. What’s left to do but complain?
Please don't think this is inside baseball stuff, and that it doesn't trickle down to the fans. It's about the thought given to servicing their needs. Hope it begins to get better, in earnest, and real soon. The game's beginning to run out of racetrack.
Written by John Pricci