Friday, July 09, 2010

The Uninspiration of July Horse Racing

I, along with three friends, Ms. Carryover among them of course, meandered into The Stadium Café on Broadway here in lovely Saratoga Springs.

Once seated, we looked up to find LeBron James in mid-interview with a bunch of pimply-faced kids in the background. Soon enough he announced that he would sign with the Miami Heat. He said it with as much excitement as a man at the alter saying, “I do.”

It made for good television, I suppose, but what did Zenyatta say when she came back? That’s right. Nothing. Strange, since she’s a woman.

I kid, I kid.
But you know who did a lot of talking? Jockeys. Don’t you love it when 5-foot-nothing jockeys talk about 6-foot-something athletes? Thank you New York Racing Association.

In a video showcasing the opinions of several NYRA jocks, Rajiv Maragh had James at even money to go to the Heat. Channing Hill, also had James going to the Heat. Hill may know a thing or two about jumping ship: he moved his tack form New York to California not too long ago, but finds himself back in New York. Just leave the door unlocked for him.

“Somebody’s gotta take on the Lakers and if they (the Heat) get LeBron, they are the only people that can take on the Lakers,” Hill said.

NYRA even hit up Jean-Luc Samyn, the same jockey who just keeps on keepin’ on.

“I wish like all of us that he would come to New York,” he said, “my source says that the Miami Heat is where he’ll end up.”

For all of ESPN’s coverage and bantering on this topic, couldn’t they have just tapped into this relatively unknown jockey colony down in Elmont? The answer, of course, is no, because who really cares what jockeys have to say?

Unless it’s Ramon Dominguez. This guy is positively in the zone. He is in the money 56 percent of the time at Belmont Park and has all but sealed up yet another Leading Rider Title.

“I like LeBron to go to New York Knicks,” Dominguez said.

Hmmm, stick to riding horses.

Can you imagine any other athlete garnering this kind of attention? Well, in a way, Curlin did when owner Jess Jackson announced that he would be making his triumphant return for a 4-year-old campaign. Curlin’s Dubai World Cup ranks as one of the all-time great races. He never had a quicker turn of foot than he had in that race. He was never quite the same after (though still head and withers above any other North America horse).

At this time of year there lacks a true thread, anything to hang one’s hat on. Sure, there’s the action at New York City OTB but really, is that exciting? Nah, not so much.

Saratoga is just a few furlongs away and that too is nice, but to do some sort of a “Saratoga Preview” is both trite and boring. Who really cares who may be running in the Travers? Dumb. That’s right. Dumb.

First Dude to the Haskell? That’s something to write about. He nearly stole the Belmont Stakes this year. Couldn’t have asked for a better ride from Dominguez.

“I like LeBron to go to New York Knicks.”

Stop it, please.

But with that asphalt they run over there at Monmouth on Haskell Day, First Dude should have first run at $1 million.

There is at least one thing I’m happy about: the Rachel Alexandra v. Zenyatta talk has, at last, ceased.

I’m throwing the hammer down. No. More. RA v. Z commentary until both their names are in the entry box for the same race. Done.

With that said all the tired talk of NBA free agency, MLB All Star Game snubs, and the argument for best mare in America can end for a while.

Uninspriing? Perhaps, but that’s the state of the sport in this month leading up to Saratoga and Del Mar.

In the meantime, I’ll borrow a line from The Most Interesting Man in the World: Stay thirsty, my friends.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Here, have some Zoloft

Horse racing is depressed.

That cannot be confused with ‘depressing,’ though that is often the case, Ernie. Think about it: What other sport’s media commentary is so mired in ‘what the sport can do to get better.’

Poor sport. Perhaps all it needs is a friend, a willing ear, a pat on the back, a shot of Jack, a gaming summit!
There has been lots of talk at the New York Gaming Summit. Most of which seems somewhat boring and acting like the ice in a tumbler of good scotch: chilling and watering down the product with every waning second.

But one such note, that your very own John Pricci writes about in his Morning Line column, that expanded gaming is tantamount to the success of horse racing in New York.

A full-scale casino is in the works for the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, which, as Mr. Pricci says, rests just a few furlongs away. If that doesn’t seem like a threat, know that where I grew up in southeastern Massachusetts many people made trips to either Mohegan Sun or Foxwoods for a fun night and that was hours away, not just one hour away.

So what is the Empire State to do? And, more importantly, what will become of the Triforce of racetracks: Big A, Big Sandy, and the Spa?

For one, identify horse racing for what it is: a legalized gaming sport, just another game of chance, albeit somewhat more calculated.

I’d like to see the tracks turn into casinos with table games, roulette wheels, poker tables, and black jack tables. Horse racing will just be another game to play and collect dollar bills.

There will be high roller rooms and just think, Saratoga’s Curlin Café could be put to good use with $1,000 minimum black jack. Hit me. 16. Hit me. 18. Hit me. 23. And if some of these tables overlook the track maybe they’ll get distracted and hit on 19.

The Connecticut Sun, yes a WNBA franchise, play at a casino. Why can’t horse racing be the same sporting event that takes place in and among the morally lecherous activity of gambling, excuse me, gaming? Think of the crossover potential. That annoying loose change in your pocket after you cash that winning Daily Double ticket? Throw it into a slot machine. Everyone wins! ... except you, because you just got hosed. But did you? You’ve been imbibing Heineken and gin and tonics all afternoon. You hit the Pick 3. You lost your shirt and won it back.

The rewards potential is awfully enticing as well. Sitting down at a table with a losing horse racing ticket can be a voucher for X amount of dollars per ticket. Or the other way around. Sitting down at a black or poker table grants you betting vouchers at the windows.

Better still would be the legalization of sports betting. As someone who spends most of his mornings in a Las Vegas sports book a few days every March, having sports parlays available while playing the races is what YOU do.

There’d be nothing like playing the Late Pick 4 at Belmont ending with the Jockey Club Gold Cup and snaking in a parlay with Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and USC football on the same day. Women’s field hockey? Why not, just give us an honest line.

But then again, we won’t, because things in New York State move as fast as Chip Woolley in his crutches.

So the money will drip out of New York like an IV bag into its neighbors’ veins. New York needs some serious dough and people will be willing to make it rain outside its borders.

So horse racing remains depressed. And, really, what better way to build up one’s self esteem than by giving it a bunch of tokens, a free drink, and saying, ‘Go have fun.’ It’s fool proof!

Beats medicating.

Brendan O’Meara blogs about horse racing here at HRI and at The Carryover. He also blogs about narrative nonfiction and his book project “Six Weeks in Saratoga” at The Blog Itself. His Web site is

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Friday, June 11, 2010

The ‘Mouth hath spoken

Ben and Jerry’s have it right. They’ve always had it right.

Since their inception they have always had the vision to say that less is more. The pint is the largest unit they serve. How often have you wished for there to be half-gallons of Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream or Hannah Teter’s Maple Blondie? Yet when you want more, they give you less, and you keep coming back having never reached your saturation point.

This is the mantra I’ve adopted and proposed for horse racing in pieces at both Carryover 2.0 and Carryover Classic (the original recipe). Why is it necessary to race five days a week especially when the racing product smells worse than a pre-mucked stall?
At long last Monmouth Park has stepped into this role and what a time to do so. Monmouth is in its final year of a $30 million purse supplement from the New Jersey casinos and it had to prove to the casinos that it was viable. Monmouth could have carded out the same conditions with the hope that Rachel Alexandra would bolster its big day. Or it could cut Wednesday and Thursday off the program altogether. It saw its excess belly fat and said enough is enough and put its meet on the elliptical.

Now a leaner meet is stronger, richer, and dammit, a whole lot sexier. Honestly, I’d call Monmouth for a second date. Hell, I’ll pick up the tab. That’s the quality person I am. Coffee upstairs? Please excuse my place, it’s a tad messy.

With $50 million in 50 days, just look at who is in the Top 11 of the trainer standings through June 10.

1. Todd Pletcher
2. Richard Dutrow, Jr.
4. Nicholas P. Zito
11. Steve Asmussen

Wasn’t it Deep Throat who said, “Follow the money.”?

Monmouth Vice President Bob Kulina, contributing a column for The Blood-Horse, writes, “The experiment being carried out now at the Monmouth Park spring/summer meet is exceeding our best expectations. Very conservatively, we had hoped by racing only three days a week and boosting the purses, we could increase everything—handle and attendance—by 20 percent. After the first five days of the meet, ontrack handle is up 51.8 percent ... Total handle on our races sent to other tracks is up 137 percent to $36.4 million, and attendance is up 26 percent to 64,946.”

Monmouth is like the hot and strangely sexy exchange student. By any normal stretch this exchange student isn’t very attractive, yet the mystery, the accent, the newness of her allows you to look past the stained teeth and strange shoes. Maybe Monmouth can teach us some new swear words.

But if the shimmer doesn’t fade, they may have smashed a drive 325 yards right down the middle of racing’s fairway. When the New York Racing Association decided to add four days of racing to its seemingly perfect 36 days, I squirmed. It’s like light beer, the product is watered down.

Take it further: Why not race just two days? Create anticipation throughout the week and increase the purses even more. In essence, you can have a mini-Breeders’ Cup every weekend.

People clamor for the NFL to add games to its schedule. Stop! A guy I work with said he can’t wait for football season and he wishes the season were longer. It’s when that wish is realized that we get Bud Light instead of Boston Lager.

When demand is high, if anything, show restraint. When people want more, give them less. What makes anything special if everyone can have it? Keep the velvet rope locked. Don’t you want what you can’t have?

With 64,946 people clicking through the turnstiles at Monmouth, the exclusivity and the quality product on the dirt makes it special to go the track again. Why else are the Washington Nationals having a hard time filling seats, but when Steven Strasburg starts they sell out? The product on the field matters.

The everyday gambler will argue this into the ground, that the times of the $10,000 claimer aren’t that much slower than a stakes race run at the same distance with supposedly better horses. They will say it doesn’t matter how good the athlete is and that racing, at its root, is a gambling sport better left to the OTB caverns tucked into seedy districts all over the country.

Nickle-claimers are like the Pittsburgh Pirates and the stakes horses are the Red Sox. Both teams have pitchers that throw 90 miles per hour, both have big-league hitters, but, ultimately, one puts on a better show.

Even when we eat, our tongues are most sensitive at the start of a meal. The first bite is the best, the rest is largely empty.

Keep horse racing in pints, and, while you’re at it, serve me up a Guinness, I’m going to Monmouth.

Brendan O’Meara blogs about horse racing here at HRI and at The Carryover. He also blogs about narrative nonfiction and his book project “Six Weeks in Saratoga” at The Blog Itself. His Web site is

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

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