Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Horse Owner Ref

After watching Pam and Jim have their baby on “The Office” Thursday night I stayed on for another fifteen minutes. I wanted to see part of “The Marriage Ref” from executive producer Jerry Seinfeld.

Tina Fey was a guest judge, so too was Eva Longoria-Parker, joining Seinfeld on the stage. The three watch a dispute between a marriage, season the discussion with observational humor, and then the Marriage Ref rules in favor of the husband or wife.

It was funny, but I still went to bed to read the fantastic “The Breaks of the Game” from the invincible David Halberstam.

The Marriage Ref could be used with this story by Bill Finley about the Medusa-ugly saga of I Want Revenge, which is hairier than Frank and Jamie McCourt’s divorce.

I can see one of these owners taking a power saw and dividing this colt in two.
The allegations are downright nasty, everything from I Want Revenge’s troubled ankle being injected with a potpourri of drugs, “antibiotics, synthetic joint fluid, and corticosteroids.” Finley writes these are “legal but controversial methods to get an ailing horse into racing shape.”

After Big Brown’s marvelous sophomore year and the continued success of IEAH’s other horses like Kip Deville and Benny the Bull, IEAH president, Michael Iavarone, was out for yet another home run. He had just bought Stardom Bound, who tanked worse than a supernova, so he put I Want Revenge in his crosshairs.

David Lanzman, owner of I Want Revenge, sold shares of this colt after the its explosive win in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. Smelling a Derby contender, IEAH stepped in with $3,75 million plus a $1 million bonus after I Want Revenge’s marvelous Wood Memorial triumph. The rich get richer.

I Want Revenge was scratched the morning of the Kentucky Derby. Then the manure hit the fan. His value fell faster than Tiger Woods’ reputation. IEAH said it would pay $550,000 for the colt. A deadline passed. No money. Lanzman sued.

Lanzman, as quoted in Finley’s article, said, “People have told me that I have a dispute with these guys. Using that word is like saying Bernie Madoff’s investors had a dispute with Bernie Madoff ... Every time I turn the other cheek, I get punched again on the other side.”

It was said that IEAH sold more than 10 percent of the colt to investors, breaching the contract Lanzman and IEAH had signed. Lanzman sued. IEAH said that Lanzman had knowledge of the colt’s injury prior to IEAH’s purchase. IEAH countersued.

“The whole thing is disgusting,” Iavarone told Finley. “Then he brings a lawsuit against us to create negative media surrounding us in an attempt to get money. He’ll get his day. I promise you that.”

What to do?

The celebrity panel of marriage judges has listened to these horse owners squabble. They’ve listened to them fight over the soundness of a horse, the millions of dollars involved, and Rick Dutrow is nowhere to be found!

Tina Fey, “Whatever happened to the old days when men just put a beer your hand, a stripper in your lap, and you called it even?”

Eva Longoria-Parker, “I’d do that.”

Jerry Seinfeld, “What’s the deal with airline peanuts?”

Fey, “Jerry, what ... what does that mean?”

Seinfeld, “Do you like slow-pitch softball? Because I hit a whopper the other day!”

Marriage Ref, “I can see this is going nowhere, so let’s settle this once and for all.

“Mr. Lanzman, I have determined that you had prior knowledge to the colt’s health before you sold shares to IEAH. You must renege your lawsuit and be happy with your $4.75 million.

“Mr. Iavarone, sure you’ve gotten a bad rap over the last couple years, some deserved, some not. You will pay Mr. Lanzman $300,000 for the colt instead of the previously-agreed-upon $550,000.

“For the pair of you, neither is allowed within 500 yards of I Want Revenge. He will be placed in a foster home where he will be the next Harry Potter.

“The Horse Who Lived.”

Case. Dismissed.

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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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Time for Olympicization

The Olympics pull in big numbers. This past Wednesday Lindsay Vonn (blonde babe) and Julia Mancusa (tiara-wearing brunette babe) took gold and silver. Shani Davis (thigh master) took gold in the 1,000-meter long track. Its ratings blast those of other networks. This is the Winter Games, after all. NBC is corralling 25 million viewers for the Games. Not too bad.

Many men who follow sports don’t pay too much attention to the Olympics, summer or winter. Other sports slice into the pie and one’s attention. The Olympics cross over, often getting more women involved in the telecast.

And isn’t the problem with horse racing that it has problems crossing over and getting on television to an audience who hasn’t gnawed down their cigar like it was a Jumbone. Why not pitch horse racing as an Olympic sport, say the next time it comes to Los Angeles?

With all the horses bred around the world there is no shortage of foreign horses. Mine That Bird could wave the flag. (Now there’s a Budweiser commercial.)

The card could play out much like the old Breeders’ Cup card ending with a 1 ¼ mile Grade 1 Olympic Classic.

The summer games take place in August. The only meet that would suffer would be Del Mar and Saratoga (and yes, other smaller meets) in that window. Frankly, it’s an experiment worth trying for long-term growth at short-term expense.

A global system could take effect in the Olympic year to standardize the horses from Australia to Japan, from the United Arab Emirates to the United States. There could never be qualifying heats so the races around the planet will have to serve as “qualifiers” with a point system accordingly weighted.

There is the gambling issue to consider as well. Would Santa Anita take bets on an Olympic event, or would it be best to let Las Vegas or other “off shore” companies take the bets and pay them out? I know in my yearly foray to Las Vegas, usually around Dubai World Cup time, some sports books take wagers on it while Dubai does not.

What about purses? Well, these are games usually played by amateurs, so money wouldn’t be parceled out. Winning a gold medal for the country should be enough. This isn’t the Dream Team. Though the Grade 1 Olympic Dash would likely include the mighty Digger in its inaugural year, second-place finisher in the Grade 2 General George.

Who do the jockeys ride for? Is the competing country the horse, the rider, or both? It would have to the horse, but would Edgar Prado think about riding a Peruvian-bred over a Kentucky-bred? Does Frankie Dettori ride for the UAE?

To answer that perhaps there should be a jockey competition, much like the Shoemaker Award for Breeders’ Cup weekend, where medals are handed out at the end of the day for the rider with the most points. Everybody wins!

Of paramount importance should be an education seminar prior to the running of the races. Not too far back while I was talking to Dr. William Wilmot of Stepwise Farm here in Saratoga Springs, he suggested that on the big race days, like the Kentucky Derby, that there be a roundtable to discuss and educate the public about the reality of “destruction cases.”

Put a veterinarian, a trainer, a jockey, and anyone else who can aptly relay the reality of an Eight Belles or a Barbaro. These animals are professional athletes who make contact with the earth harder than a $5,000 claimer. The forces they impart—and withstand—are far great than other horses. Their threshold for pain is better. The great ones run through a little discomfort. Couple that with the concussive forces on the ground and it may be easier—or at least less of a surprise—to stomach a Pine Island or a George Washington.

The casual fan needs to know that a horse is destroyed to help it, as paradoxical as that sounds. The doctors are professionals who commit their lives to saving racehorses and ensuring their comfort while competing and after.

The beauty of making horse racing an Olympic sport is NBC. NBC covers the Derby and Preakness every year and routinely wins awards for its coverage. They understand the sport and can handle a big race day. Tom Hammond, Bob Neumeier, Bob Costas, Donna Brothers, and Gary Stevens all have vast experience. Get Randy Moss and they’re set.

With these strategies in mind and the ability to strike a well of 25 million viewers seems too good to pass up. There is equestrian, lets throw in its bastard equivalent. Michael Matz would approve.

What does the sport have to lose? Popularity?

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Curse

Congratulations Steve Asmussen, you officially lost the 2010 Kentucky Derby! Well, the odds were against you to begin with, but especially now.

Eclipse Award-winning trainers, in recent history, don’t win roses, don’t buy roses, aren’t fit to say, ‘Stop and smell the roses.’ In the last decade, three conditioners have been named Champion Trainer—think about that—Asmussen, Todd Pletcher, and the late Bobby Frankel: two, four, and four.

Going back nearly 20 years to 1993, only six different trainers have won the award. When you’re hot, you’re hot.

The last trainer to win the Derby in the year he was named Champion Trainer was Bob Baffert in 1998 with Real Quiet, the same year he missed the Triple Crown by a booger.

Nineteen ninety-seven was the last year a trainer, also Baffert, won the Champion Trainer award and then went on to win the Derby the following year. That doesn’t seem that long ago, but that was thirteen years now gone.

Since the Eclipse Awards’ conception in 1971, just 18 trainers out of 39 renewals have won the award. Frankel has won the most (five) with Pletcher, Laz Barrera, and D. Wayne Lukas sit one back.

Eighteen Kentucky Derby’s spread out among the eighteen trainers over 39 years.

Here’s the decade-by-decade breakdown:
The Seventies: Six

The Eighties: Five

The Nineties: Seven.

The Eunucks: Zero.

Baffert and Lukas dominated the nineties with six Derby’s from the Eclipse winners. Carl Nafzger won the other in 1990 with eventual uber-sire Unbridled.

The ’80’s alone had seven different winners of the award and Lukas was the only trainer to win the Eclipse (1987) and then win the Derby the following year, that being 1988 with Winning Colors.

The ’70’s saw six trainers win the ward and Lucien Laurin had a decent baby in Secretariat in 1972 and a movie deal in 2009. The only horse to do that.

Laz Barrera won the Eclipse in 1977 and then won the Derby in 1978 with the last (the last?) Triple Crown winner, Affirmed.

This suggests three things:

1. That winning the Kentucky Derby doesn’t necessarily make a trainer a champion.

2. That there is validation and evidence to a calendar year than extends itself beyond the Triple Crown.

3. That the Eclipse Award winning trainer is cursed.

There’s the Sports Illustrated Curse, the Madden Curse, and now the Eclipse Curse.

Just look at the winning trainers of the past few Kentucky Derby’s alone: Chip Woolley, Rick Dutrow, Jr., Nafzger, Michael Matz, John Shirreffs, John Servis, and Barclay Tagg. No Eclipses, yet they posses the rose where others the thorn.

Aside from Nafzger (who had already won a Derby, albeit 17 years separated) and Dutrow (who trained 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam), all the names were obscure. And during this stretch of obscure names only three well-known names won Eclipses: Asmussen, Pletcher, and Frankel.

Take Asmussen, would he have been a slam-dunk to win Champion Trainer were it not for Curlin and Rachel Alexandra? Perhaps, because he did win 1,200 races over two years (think about that). But Scott Lake on the Maryland circuit and Gary Contessa in New York win hundreds of races and are never in the discussion.

No wonder why Asmussen says he’s as blessed as he is because he was handed both these super horses from other trainers.

He still had to train them, and he could have faltered. What Curlin and Rachel Alexandra did was shine a light on his operation and management that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. Just think of the pressure.

Pletcher’s Derby draught has reached the level of comic tragedy. He may be the best trainer never to win one. Golfers get slammed and pegged as the ‘Best to Never Win One’ moniker until they do, but Pletcher has escaped this ire, all trainers for that matter. At least Pletcher has proved to be the best all-around trainer in the country and that can be his scapegoat in all this. His program isn’t centered solely around the Triple Crown and dirt. He runs on the turf. He runs long. He runs short. He runs in the prestigious filly and mare races.

If anything, the Pletcher’s and the Asmussen’s have proved that even when you own the haystack, it’s still damn hard to find that needle.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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