Sunday, May 24, 2015
A Tale of Two Franchises
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 24, 2015—In the last two weeks, it has been the best of times for a couple of Stronach Group racetracks.
It began a week ago Saturday night after all of Pimlico’s final numbers were fully digested. The Preakness metrics were off the charts, which flew in the face of national television rating that were down slightly.
Not sure what these counter-intuitive results mean in the overall, considering here was a budding superstar that delivered on U.S. racing biggest stage which drew a huge national audience, yet two weeks later American sports fans weren’t glued to their HDTVs.
Surely, that won’t be the case a fortnight from now, or will it? As my good friend, the late Jack Wilson constantly counseled, “better say maybe big Johnny.”
Keeping in the spirit of the latest television commercial that continues to amuse, the Preakness numbers were “stupid good.”
It started on Black-Eyed Susan day when attendance of 42,700, representing a 23% rise. And handle of nearly $18.5 million was the highest in a decade, up an astounding 63 percent from 2014’s $11.3 million.
Now attendance and handle metrics may not hold the weight they once did, it’s still the fastest way to know how a track is doing: Thumbs up or thumbs down.
While mainstream America might have yawned at American Pharoah’s attempt to stay alive in a bid for racing immortality, they truly love their Preakness in Baltimore.
Thanks to an aggressive betting menu, a 14th race, and good weather--until the Preakness horses started their Maryland-My-Maryland parade, that is--handle was up a tad, from $83.7 million to $85.1 year over year.
Parenthetically, imagine what the handle might have been if bettors were allowed to churn a little more money but could not in the face of high takeout rates, and we’re not talking crab-cakes-to-go here.
Despite a 12% takeout in the Pick 5, the equal of Sam Houston Park’s, the lowest in North America, the blended rake at Pimlico is an extremely high 23.69%, which ranks it 35th of 62 tracks rated by the Horseplayers Association of North America.
But trust that management is duly aware of the takeout issue, but the priority remains, as it should be, to make Maryland racing the success it once was and a leader in a Mid-Atlantic region badly in need of a leading light.
Meanwhile, the Preakness crowd of 131,680 was a whopper, a record gathering that filled Old Hilltop from Turf Cub to apron, from corporate tent to bandstand. The previous standard of 123,469 was set last year.
After two weeks of living on the edge, Baltimoreans and Marylanders badly in need of something to celebrate. And the resilient citizenry bounced back, the same way New Yorkers and the country did 14 years ago.
But the business of America still remains business, and business has been good for another member of the Stronach track family.
Gulfstream’s Rainbow Pick 5 remains a phenomenon. There is no comparing Friday’s Rainbow 6 handle to last year’s since there was no racing on the comparative day, management choosing to remain dark Friday in advance of the 2014 Memorial Day weekend.
However, compared to Friday of the previous week, with handle for two of nine races was virtually flat, the other seven races showed a combined increase of 36.35% on handle of $5.16 million, compared with last week’s $4.18 million.
With a scheduled mandatory payout, Gulfstream guaranteed a pool of $350,000 from a jackpot pool roughly half that amount--in other words a real guarantee as opposed to the often ersatz promises whereby tracks certify that the betting pool will be roughly the same as it ever was.
On a terribly mundane and extremely difficult sequence, littered with bottom-level horses producing some implausible results, even with the benefit of red-board hindsight, bettors spent over $900,000 in search of a score, which is exactly what they got.
There were two lone-winner combinations alive that didn’t come to fruition. However, multiple winners cashed tickets worth $36,652, a hefty payout even when the minimum bet is $2, 10 times the cost of a Rainbow combination.
CHANGE IN THE WIND AT NYRA
In an April 28 press release, the Hong Kong Jockey Club announced that Bill Nader, its executive director and Chairman of the Asian Pattern Committee responsible for growing the local Far East sport into a major international player, is leaving his current position.
With his present contract due for expiration, Nader has pledged to stay through Hong Kong’s annual international racing festival in December, and will leave the Orient in January 2016 after helping with the transition and participating in the Asian Racing Conference.
While no future racing plans were announced, his return to the New York Racing Association was the talk of the Pimlico press box during Preakness week according to a highly placed Pimlico official.
The smart money has Nader returning to the New York Racing Association where his tenure as vice president and CEO was widely hailed throughout the industry and in the racing media as an overarching success.
NYRA’s current CEO Chris Kay has had his contract renewed for another year and Director of Racing Martin Panza’s contract is set to expire later this year. That same smart money is betting against that agreement being renewed.
For the first time in years, NYRA showed profits from its 2014 racing operations, somewhat improved the deplorable conditions that existed at Aqueduct Racetrack, and has fashioned plans to upgrade legendary Saratoga Race Course in time for the 2015 opening.
Despite all that, New York racing and its management team has been under siege, for reasons ranging from changes to its admissions policy, skyrocketing food prices for middle-of-the-road fare to the biggest issue of all, failure to change the perception that America’s most important franchise has been in steady decline.
It may not be the worst of times for New York racing, but it remains to be seen whether the reconstituted Board of Directors, constituted principally by Albany appointees, state government that oversees NYRA’s present and future, can turn things around under the direction of a new elected board chairman.
One thing is certain: If and when Bill Nader returns home to the New York Racing Association, morale will improve starting day one. Checking the native New Englander’s PPs, don’t bet against it.
Written by John Pricci
Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Ready, Aim, Firing Line
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 12, 2015—It’s anticipated that Saturday’s Preakness field will be relatively small although we suspect it will turn out slightly larger than many expect when entries are taken May 13.
In a pre-Derby column, we asked whether Bob Baffert would cost himself a chance at Triple Crown immortality by winning America’s Race with either American Pharoah or Dortmund then run both colts back in the Preakness, which is expected to happen later today.
This was pre-supposing that he had the best horses going into Louisville and the best two horses coming out. That might still be the case, something we will all know with some certitude late Saturday afternoon.
Nearly two weeks ago, American Pharoah not only validated his thrashing of overmatched Arkansas rivals but proved that he was the best of his generation; unknown class quantities such as Competitive Edge and Kentuckian notwithstanding.
American Pharoah showed guts to match his undeniable brilliance, proved he could survive a fetlock-to-fetlock battle, and that when Victor Espinoza would finally ask him to reach bottom, there would be more there, there.
However, we think something remains to be seen relative to true greatness, that he is the equal of legends past, most notably Seattle Slew, the magnificent Hall of Famer to which many observers have been more than willing to draw a comparison.
To paraphrase the irascible Lee Corso, not so fast my friends.
There is no denying Pharoah’s brilliance and courage, not after what he showed in Louisville, and not after the speed clinic he put on in Hot Springs, where he made the surface act like a trampoline beneath his hooves.
It could be that the Michael Jordan comparison was more apt than those which likened him to the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in history, no matter what happens in the next 3-1/2 weeks.
But while he remains the “best horse” going into Baltimore, we’re dubious as to whether American Pharoah will move forward with that same air of invincibility--especially after Firing Line turns the tables on him Saturday at Pimlico.
After all, it wouldn’t be modern day horse racing, and it wouldn’t even be gambling, if the best horse ALWAYS won.
Races are won by the horse that proves best on the day. And that will be the Arnold Zechter-owned, Simon Callaghan-trained, Gary Stevens-ridden son of Line of David which, ironically, traces himself back four generations to Seattle Slew.
In terms of the American Thoroughbred, handicapping and training preferences aside, the modern race horse runs better and holds his form better when he has sufficient recovery time between starts.
This is attributable to one of the negative by-products of the diuretic Lasix on race day because it most often results in excessive urination and, when combined with exercise, dehydration.
Hitting the animal with extra electrolytes thereafter is not the panacea that a five or six-week freshening can be.
On Saturday, American Pharoah will be making his fourth start in 63 days; Firing Line his fourth in 84. Doesn’t seem like much of a difference, does it?
However, when it comes to last-three-outs spacing, the difference is exacerbated: Saturday was will AP’s third start in 35 days, but will be FL’s third in 55 days; the same level of freshness but in a shorter timeframe.
Two races separated by six weeks each, then a third start back in 14 days, can do one of two things; turn a young racehorse into a man, super-fit and on edge, or it will take its toll, physically and mentally. So, which will it be?
“The two weeks will help us because we had the six weeks [off] and [another sux weeks],” Callaghan said on last week’s NTRA conference call.
“We love the way he came out of the race, he’s eating up, very bright, takes these big races in his stride. I doubt if anyone came out of the race any better than us.”
“He licked up his feed tub completely by 9:30 that night,” added Stevens later in the call. “We like where we’re at,” the Hall of Famer said. “We don’t know about the other two horses, it’s none of our business.”
But since it is ours, we’ll hazard a guess. The Baffert team needed an extra day of walking post-Derby before going back to the racetrack for exercise; not so the fresher Firing Line, back to galloping before Baffert’s two colts.
We also like the idea of a little tweak to his training regimen, open galloping a few days this week, which figures to maintain his sharpness while keeping his energy level high.
Of course, should he again fail to change leads, it won’t have to be American Pharoah or Dortmund that finishes ahead of him on Saturday. But since he had not shown that tendency previously, we’ll regard it as an aberration and expect him to switch over in time.
And somewhere in the neighborhood of 7-2 is a lot more appealing than around 3-5 at come Saturday.
If weather handicappers are correct, the track likely will not be fast at post time, given their call for late afternoon thunderstorms at 80%. American Pharoah has proven affinity over a sloppy track; Firing Line never has raced on one. His pedigree is adequate but doesn't scream slop. Alas, we shall see.
Written by John Pricci
Saturday, May 02, 2015
Oaks Lessons for Derby Players
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 1, 2015—Witnessed by the largest crowd ever to attend the running of the storied Kentucky Oaks, Johnny Velazquez was asked post-race to describe his trip aboard sixth place finisher Angela Renee.
“Down the lane the first time she was perfect,” he said. “The way she was running around there, I was thinking they were going to have to run hard to pass her. But at the quarter pole, she just didn’t fire. It was bizarre."
Bizarre, which was kind of the way the whole day played out for some of us. The Churchill Downs surface appeared a little quirky yesterday. Speed did well, the inside seemed better than the outside, yet it was demanding.
Stalkers were in the best position to win throughout the afternoon, and if the winner did come from off the pace, it had to make a mid-race move, saving ground at some point along the way. Wide trippers just seemed to flounder out there.
And apparently, the kickback was vicious as the fast surface cupped out beneath the hooves of the horses. Trips are almost always important; on Oaks day it was everything.
Ultimately, Angela Renee didn’t stay the entire eight furlongs, shortening stride perceptibly in the final hundred yards. But not Lovely Maria. She ran great, showing her preference for the surface with a quick blowout for the most important race of her life.
Her victory who old hat for Larry Jones as he took his third Kentucky Oaks and seems to be working in earnest on a Hall of Fame resume. He saddled the third finisher, too, I’m A Chatterbox, a tough tripper that did well to finish as close as she did.
Speaking of bad trips, and a little questionable handling, too, favorite Stellar Wind got jammed up at the break, racing wide into the first turn, victimized at the draw when she drew the#12 slip.
Trainer John Sadler was very unhappy that she was as far back as she was early on, given the speed-kind going, and she never seemed to get into any rhythm going down the backside.
“I tried to stay up to the horse next to me but we were getting outrun,” explained Victor Espinoza, who will also ride the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. “Then when we went into the first turn and the dirt was flying back, she started jumping up and down. It wasn’t her day.”
Sadler saw it differently: “You can’t be that far back today. She was way too far back. She was last around the first turn and the winners were all up close all day so she never had any position. Sometimes you get a bad trip, there’s nothing you can really do.”
Dale Romans, who saddled second favorite, Birdatthewire, was more philosophical: “It was a good bunch of fillies and she didn’t get beat very far. I think the best filly won.”
For Oceanwave, it wasn’t the surface as much as the trip: “Rafael [Bejarano] said she wouldn’t run between horses. When he wanted her to go, she got intimidated and put on the brakes,” explained trainer Wayne Catalano.
But the surface and position were responsible for Puca’s poor performance: “The post didn’t help us,” said trainer Bill Mott.
“We were hung up a little wide going into the first turn and he didn’t have enough to go on with it and it wasn’t easy to get back [in the race]. Junior [Alvarado] thought she might be spinning her wheels.” Alvarado confirmed: ‘I don’t think she was comfortable today.”
What the Derby horses will be in for Saturday likely will be more of the same, with atmospherics expected to identical with Oaks day: Clear, fast, pleasant temperatures. It will be interesting to see if the surface tightens up with some manicuring from track maintenance.
We shall see if after two defections, American Pharoah will be helped by moving a little more insider, into the 16th slip but from the 17th post positions as the rail horse, Ocho Ocho Ocho, is expected to leave one stall over from the pole position.
As for the cupping out surface and stinging kickback, I wonder if Mr. Baffert will entertain the idea of having a little chat with track management who might mention something to the track maintenance department. It’s not like trainers of the big horse haven’t done things like that before.
We see a number of things that could happen by what’s known going in. If the American Pharoah of the Rebel and Arkansas Derby, particularly the latter, shows up, his brilliance, despite the pedigree and soft-prep regimen, will win the day.
But good horse doesn’t mean good bet. At the close of advance Derby betting Friday, the early line favorite was 5-2 in real time. Conversely, his undefeated, tested stablemate, leaving from a better position is a square price at 9-2.
We thought the very wide draw would be a big hindrance to Upstart. And while he’ll be at least half this price ante post, 32-1 on Upstart is astonishing. Equally, 6-1 odds on Mubtaahij is seriously undervalued.
There appear to be two wise guy horses that many fancy and that enthusiasm was seen early on; Firing Line was 10-1 at end of betting Friday; Frosted, 9-1.
Moment of truth: We think the steam on Frosted is well warranted. Taking Kiaran McLaughlin’s brand spanking new Wood-winning gray to repeat in thoroughbred racing’s most prominent world class event.
Written by John Pricci