Thursday, April 16, 2009
Musical Jockeys as Agents Sing Different Tune
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 15, 2009--The Oklahoma training track opened here this morning under far more temperate skies compared to the place from which I’ve just returned: Elmont, New York.
There’s a racetrack there, too, and it’s going to open soon, even as hale stones made an appearance on tax day. Fortunately, the event waited until we were well clear of the Westchester-Putnam line.
On the backsides of both downstate New York tracks, and in Lexington, and Stickney, Illinois, too, a familiar backstretch drama has been playing out for the past month and, in one case, even going back to last year.
It’s the familiar musical jockeys/musical agents go-round that would make for a different looking reality show than the one recently renewed by Animal Planet for a second season.
Anyway, perhaps you’ve seen a Dave Grening report in Daily Racing Form in which jockey agent Drew Mollica, who back in the day helped make the late Chris Antley a star, said that “he’s never been so personally and professionally embarrassed.”
The source of Mollica’s embarrassment was the result of his leaving jockey Richard Migliore to work for Eibar Coa, after Coa fired Matt Muzikar. Over the weekend, however, Coa and Muzikar, whose prior relationship was not without its moments, kissed and made up.
With Coa’s relationship with Muzikar now back on, Mollica was left at the altar and what I assume was an equally embarrassed and agent-less Migliore. Muzikar was a little cryptic about it all, saying only “nothing’s really changed. I got back together with him.”
Earlier this year, Coa credited Muzikar for helping him become only the fourth jockey in New York racing history to win more than 300 races in a single season. The other three are in the Hall of Fame. “This is since last year when I’ve been working with my new agent,” Coa said.
But despite winning all those races with his new agent, Coa felt compelled to place calls to super-agent Ron Anderson, apparently wishing to be elite level and rich at the same time.
These things happen, even among elite riders. Ultimately, of course, it’s about the Benjamins.
While Coa wasn’t returning Muzikar's phone calls since mid-March, the agent suspected he might on his way out. So he placed phone calls to Edgar Prado in Kentucky, who apparently also has a serious case of the Ron Anderson’s.
Prado wouldn’t commit to Muzikar, so the agent went back to talk with Coa after learning he had hired Mollica. When celebrations are held on the backstretch, party planners know not to invite Mollica and Muzikar to the same dance.
Where this leaves Prado’s current agent, Bob Frieze, known for his successful associations with Prado and Jerry Bailey--before Bailey fired him and hired, well, Ron Anderson--is not knowable at this time.
Meanwhile, it probably was pretty smart of Coa to hire Mollica, knowing it likely would light a fire under Muzikar.
Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
What’s really interesting is that while Coa and Muzikar were at odds, pre-Mollica, Muzikar had secured winning mounts on Musket Man in the Illinois Derby and General Quarters in the Blue Grass Stakes.
The jock’s share of those two pots represents for most people a year's pay for less than four minutes work. A top rider is worth his weight in Benjamins. Coa has committed to ride Musket Man in Kentucky. Julien Leparoux is likely to pick up the mount on General Quarters.
The Coa/Muzikar chatter over morning coffee wasn‘t the only jockey story that had training track railbirds chirping. Observers took time between gulps to cheer a jockey who's trying to get in shape for the Woodbine thoroughbred meet.
But it wasn’t a newcomer who was attracting encouragement from the railbirds. It was 63-year-old retired jockey Jorge Velasquez, a member of the Racing Hall of Fame since 1990.
Ironically, Velasquez had been working as an agent since his retirement and apparently has learned that 75 percent of 10 percent is greater than 25 percent of the same amount.
As it turns out, Migliore would not take Mollica back. He hired Roger Sutton, who guided up-and-comer Rajiv Maragh‘s recent fortunes. Maragh fired Sutton and hired the coveted Richard DePass, who left Cornelio Velasquez for Maragh.
Velasquez will now be handled by Kevin Meyocks, son of former NYRA President and current Jockey's Guild vice-president Terry Meyocks.
Revision made to this post on 4.16.09 correcting current status of 2009 Woodbine race meet
Written by John Pricci
Saturday, April 11, 2009
What Ever Happened to Juan Valdez?
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 10, 2009--Some things, you know, are kicky. Such as when I received an e mail from Andrea Murta requesting an interview.
Murta is the New York correspondent for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo
and is writing a story on American horse racing which will appear in Sunday’s edition of her newspaper.
Since the paper is printed exclusively in Portuguese, I thought I’d share the interview with you because a) racing issues never get old for HRI’s audience and b) I'm assuming that, like me, your Portuguese might be a little rusty. Here goes:
Q: When do you think the sport began losing its audiences and why?
A: Attendance and handle began to flatten at the start of the last decade then showed shows of decreasing noticeably in the last few years. Actually, on-track attendance might have begun to lag earnestly in the 1980s with the proliferation of simulcast wagering. When the point of ticket-purchase changed, so did where the fans went to wager. It became a convenience market.
Current Internet wagering adds to this dynamic. In terms of developing new fans, there was a lack of leadership in the U.S. because there’s no central authority. The states and individuals tracks thought--and probably still think--of themselves as competitors. The states show no appreciation for this agri-business, only the revenue it raises. The rash of catastrophic breakdowns in our signature events this millennium has hurt the game significantly in terms of how racing is perceived by the general public.
Q: Is the current situation dangerous for the future of horse racing in the country?
A: Racing is at a crossroads. It must find ways to keep fans/bettors engaged and to attract new ones. In crisis there is opportunity. The industry has begun to make some strides. The hope is that it isn’t too little, too late.
Q: When was horse racing in its prime and what was different then?
A: In pre-World War II times, events like racing, college sports and boxing were king. In modern times, the golden era for racing was the 1970s as three American Triple Crown winners emerged. There was far less competition for the wagering dollar. Later, the growth in leisure time activities didn’t include going to the races.
To appreciate the beauty of thoroughbred racing is easy but to sustain it by teaching the audience how to appreciate it through the art/science of handicapping comes with a steep learning curve.
As the desire to learn waned as America turned its attention to money and consumerism, that lifestyle didn’t lend itself easily to the patience needed to learn anything. Better marketing practices would have helped here, but that’s too easy to say without proposing a solution to the problem.
Q: Have (cq) the economic crisis affected the races much? I have some numbers that show that the wagering is lower now than it was last year, when it already wasn’t ideal...
A: As stated, wagering flattened then started to decrease. Actually, racing was doing fairly well when compared to other industries after the market crash of September, 2008, including the first two months of 2009. Handle was down but not as low as the economy in general. But March was an eye-opener; down over 10 percent compared to 2008, the first double-digit decrease I can remember.
Q: Would a different model for horse racing, one that didn’t depend on bets, be feasible?
A: A different wagering
model would be feasible but not the elimination of wagering altogether. Wagering dollars sustain purses. Without either there would be no industry. Besides, a big part of racing’s allure is that it’s a participatory sport.
Q: In Brazil there is a large discussion on whether horse racing is a real sport, because of the betting system. What do you think of that discussion, is horse racing a sport for you?
A: That same conversation is being held here as well and there is passion on both sides. In my heart of hearts, I don’t understand it. For me, the love of the contest as theatre, the appreciation of thoroughbreds as magnificent creatures, my personal enjoyment and need for wagering as an adjunct means of income, and the gratification that comes from correctly “predicting” future outcomes are not
mutually exclusive events. I will never accept such limited thinking.
Q: Are the jockeys athletes like in any other sport?
A: Jockeys are the most underappreciated athletes in all of sports. Are golfers athletes? Race car drivers? Those games are tests of skill and physical stamina, which for me defines what athletics are. Not only is a jockey’s job inherently dangerous, but 110-pound people guiding thousand-pound animals through narrow openings with proper timing and strength without the benefit of being able to call a “time out” to strategize at 40 miles per hour is appreciated not nearly enough.
Q: How does the wagering, if so, interfere with the sport side of horse racing?
A: It only “interferes” with the sport side when that becomes the perception observers choose to see. Actually, wagering is an enhancement by providing a truly meaningful rooting interest, helping successful bettors identify with their favorite horsemen; the jockeys and trainers, an appreciation for their skill sets. Every person who ever wagered on a horse will tell you that the wager helps intensify interest by narrowing the focus and appreciation for the athletic event.
Q: Finally, have you heard of a female jockey from Brazil named Maylan Studart? If so, what do you think of her?
A: From the little I’ve seen, horses run for her, so, obviously, she’s able to communicate with her hands through the reins what she wants from her mount. As far as athletic X’s and O’s are concerned, I don’t follow winter racing in New York closely enough on a daily basis to have a firm opinion of her skill set. They’ll be plenty of time to observe her at Belmont Park and Saratoga later this summer.
Written by John Pricci
Friday, April 10, 2009
Mullins Case Has Messengers Shooting Messengers
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 9,2009--I must admit something up front. I don’t have any sympathy for the trainer of the protem favorite for Kentucky Derby 135. How am I supposed to regard someone in the same business who refers to me as an idiot because I bet on the outcome of horse races?
Jeff Mullins said he made an “innocent mistake” because he didn’t know the rules regarding New York’s detention barn, meaning that he hasn’t read a trade paper, magazine, blog or the rules of racing for each jurisdiction in which he races.
But I certainly hope he’s aware that horseplayer dollars make the mares, and the horses go, too. Since, in that context, I make a contribution to his livelihood by helping to provide for purse money and, it should be noted, have put more than my fair share of children through school, I resent being called stupid.
Of interest to me is how some of the Internet media has lined up on the issue of Mullins’ entering the NYRA detention barn to administer an item sold in many tack shops around the country for $12 and which, by definition, is not a banned substance.
Internet media reaction has run the gamut from throw-the-book-at-Mullins to Kool-Aid-spewing apologies, arguing that the media shouldn’t complain about racing getting bad press when it’s the press who are fanning the flames, especially during a high profile season, for that would do more harm than good.
Let’s assume for a moment that the latter stance is correct. Then who is supposed to speak for horseplayers and the public at large?
Here’s my question: Would it be unreasonable to expect that the men and women who care for the animals on which I bet, and who guide the destiny of their horses and mine, to know the rules?
Forgive me, but I don’t I don’t think so.
The product that Mullins was allegedly going to give Gato Go Win, called “Air Power,” is described as a “horse cough medicine.” But that’s where it begins to get fuzzy for me. If a horse has a “cough,” should it be racing? And aren’t the chances good that the rest of the barn would be coughing, too?
In an advertisement for the product that appears on Equidaily.com, there is an illustration showing that Michael Matz of Barbaro fame uses and endorses the product. And Matz has no history of medication violations, unlike Mullins.
Last year Mullins received a “mepivacaine” violation and in 2005 one of his horses failed a pre-race blood test when excess amounts of sodium bicarbonate was found in one of his horses. This mixture, euphemistically called a “milkshake,” is universally banned because it‘s suspected to act as a masking agent and artificially prevents horses from tiring quickly.
New York racing rules allow for the use antibiotics, vitamins, electrolytes and food supplements, as long as they are administered orally and do not contain any drug or any properties acting as such.
The rules also state that medication may not be given to a horse while it is in the detention barn. That in part is why Mullins has hired defense attorney Karen Murphy who owns an excellent record defending horsemen in previous cases against the NYRA, as was the case some years ago involving Dr. Michael Galvin.
“We feel that this substance isn’t something that should be used on race day. We view it as having drug-like properties,” Joe Mahoney, Public Information Director for the State Racing and Wagering Board, told HRI yesterday in a phone interview.
“The [apparatus] used to administer the substance has been sent to the laboratory at Cornell. It could take weeks before this issue is resolved. We’re still gathering information. We want to be complete and thorough, that’s our number one obligation.
“As far as what [Mullins] told the media [in printed reports regarding a search prior to his entering the detention barn], it’s in conflict with the information we’re receiving from the association. It wasn’t in plain view.
“But, at the end of the day, the detention barn procedure worked.”
In a Thoroughbred Times post yesterday, Steve Blanchard, vice president of sales and marketing for Finish Line Horse, the maker of “Air Power,” said that Jeff Mullins misused his company’s product when the trainer administered Air Power in the detention barn to a horse about to race.
“My position is to train all of our employees in presentation and explanation of all our products,” Blanchard told T.T. “They have all been trained that you tell trainers not to bring our product into a detention barn. I do believe that even without our direction, all trainers know that.”
So, while it is true that not every rules violation is “cheating,” and that the racing media must explain the difference between the two to those who don't follow the sport regularly except for racing’s high profile events, neither should we knee-jerk into a defensive posture when incidents like the Mullins case occurs.
The racing industry, like politicians, uses the media when it’s to their benefit. At times like these the media is a double-edged sword. This story and, more so, the Paragallo case, has drawn swift reaction from racing’s regulators. This is a good thing: Acknowledge the problem; work to fix it.
But like it or not, it’s the media’s job to police the police. It’s the public’s job to police both. Perceptions notwithstanding, the media does want to be fair. All it needs is a good reason.
Written by John Pricci