Tuesday, November 05, 2013
Track Bias Unfair to Horses, Horsemen and Bettors Alike
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 4, 2013— “Apparently, bias is not limited to extremist wings of political parties. The inside portion of [the track], especially lane #1, has been carrying speed horses to victory in an aberrant fashion…
“A bias is unfair to horsemen who are powerless to meet such challenges and to bettors who often are forced to guess which horse(s) will be sent to the lead at all costs, badly skewing race dynamics and taking horses out of their best game...
“Some jockeys are quick to recognize a bias, [some just the opposite]. The point, however, is that horses should determine the outcome of races, not track superintendents…”
The italicized precede, edited for brevity and context, first appeared in this space October 19. The racetrack was Belmont Park, where too many races on too many fall racing days were dominated by front-end speed horses racing on or closest to the rail.
The description, however, easily could have been referring to Santa Anita Park on Breeders’ Cup weekend.
At the Great Race Place, the California sunshine helps to keep the racing surface very dry and very fast, the winter rainy season notwithstanding.
It’s bad enough when post positions on the one-mile main track and 7-furlong turf course lend themselves readily to a logistical bias. Outside posts in two-turn dirt races, for example, are extremely difficult to overcome. For those horses and their connections, call it the un-luck of the draw.
But when an extreme speed-favoring surface is in play, the task of outside runners becomes doubly tough to overcome. Post positions are what they are, an unlucky fact of life for some that’s apparent as soon as the overnight comes out.
A track bias, especially one with a predisposition to inside-speed, is correctable--not always easily, but certainly do-able. Consequently, there certainly were no good excuses for the condition of the main track for Breeders’ Cup 30, especially Friday’s.
The NBC Sports Network broadcast team discussed the fact that jockeys were complaining about the dry kick-back. It went beyond stinging, they said. “It hurts,” said one, adding that the chances of the trailing horses were being severely compromised.
As a practitioner who makes the game go, you choose a Breeders’ Cup race for your good horse(s) in January and you plan a racing schedule working backward from the first weekend in November.
So you manage your horses, train them, prep them against other top class horses hoping for optimal results from minimal effort if possible, then you train your horse some more, careful not to go over the top of peak condition.
On race day, you load your best mid-race mover or late runner into the starting gate for a race in which a lively pace, especially at Santa Anita, is almost guaranteed, and your horse is beaten even before the latch is sprung.
How is that fair to the owners and trainers who make and mares and the horses go and who have worked diligently to get their animals right on the day only to see it become an Abbott and Costello comedy routine: “They’re off. You lose.”
And it’s not like anyone would seriously consider how this affects the horseplayer whose betting dollars pay for all this. It’s not like one is being born every minute anymore, although the player is often treated that way.
Surely, there must have been some evidence of the stinging nature of the kickback in, say, the 48 hours leading up to the event.
Why didn’t somebody, a racing official, exercise rider, jockey, trainer say something to somebody about the condition of the surface?
And why wasn’t the betting public, those who didn’t have Friday afternoon free and could tune into the broadcast, informed via other forms of media? Twitter was all abuzz Friday night, but only after serious consequences had become apparent.
The Breeders’ Cup is a monumental betting event not for the faint of heart or those handicappers who think they can get away with a quick perusal of a set of past performances before they plunk down their cash.
For any serious fan or bettor, it’s a lot of hard work jammed into a relatively short period of time. Not that any consideration is given to that part of the process, either.
I never have made this known publicly but one reason Breeders’ Cup races are drawn a day earlier could be due to a serious discussion I had with a Breeders’ Cup official re the plight of the handicapping horseplayer. The official was empathetic and informed those above his pay grade that if bettors had an extra day to study past performances, betting handle might increase.
An aside: Since almost all practitioners are virtually certain they will run after the final round of preps are run a fortnight before the event, maybe the pre-entry stage could be moved back to Monday instead of Wednesday, allowing for two extra days of research. Is there an obvious reason why this cannot be?
Following Friday’s races, the Twittersphere was abuzz with comments and pictures about the bias and the heavy maintenance to correct the situation. According to a representative from the Horseplayers Association of North America, Breeders’ Cup officials weren’t pleased and asked Santa Anita to put on a full court press to slow down the stinging main track for Saturday’s races.
Parenthetically, no mention was made whether that included turning up the water sprinklers on the rock hard turf course that was producing record fractions all weekend. If this was an example of further honing the home track advantage, someone forgot to tell the Europeans.
As a result of the heavy maintenance, the surface was better on Saturday and Sunday, giving non-speed horses a little better chance.
Subsequently, HANA rightfully chided Santa Anita and/or Breeders’ Cup officials for not informing anyone
interested in betting their money that measures had been taken to correct the problem, what they were, and that the track condition would be a little more honest.
As one prominent HANA member stated in a widely circulated e-mail after the problem was addressed, “fairness to gamblers outweighs any potential embarrassment… from too much kick-back/sandblasting.”
Atmospherics aside, the principles of solving the problem of track bias are fairly straightforward: Add a lot more water, harrow a little deeper, more uniformly.
And as far as keeping bettors informed about the surface over which their betting choices will race, whether it be Santa Anita, Belmont Park, or Wherever Downs, next time see if Keeneland will lend you a page from their Polycapping handbook.
FOR THE RECORD, A CORRECTION
Due to a miscommunication, my post-Breeders’ Cup ballot is incorrect in the polling section on the NTRA website. Below is my final ballot as it was intended to be tallied. What appears in its place is a poll that currently ranks this year’s 3-year-olds. Mea culpa to all for any inconvenience.
(The following cut and pasted below was the original confirmation received from NTRA)
Voter: John Pricci
Your Thoroughbred Poll vote was received at Nov 4, 2013 9:18 AM.
Your votes are shown below:
TOP THOROUGHBRED POLL
1. Wise Dan
2. Mucho Macho Man
3. Will Take Charge
4. Groupie Doll
6. Secret Circle
7. Game On Dude
8. Princess Of Sylmar
9. Royal Delta
Written by John Pricci
Saturday, November 02, 2013
Hollywood Ending Written in Arcadia
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 2, 2013
Whether you consider yourself a thoroughbred racing fan or grizzled gambler, if the result of Breeders' Classic 30 didn't put a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye for the cosmic karma of it all, then you might want a mate to check your pulse.
Kathy Ritvo, the first female and heart transplant survivor to win America's biggest horse race, ridden by a 50-year-old unretiree who booted home a baby huey of a late June foal who, at 5, had finally become a man, a Mucho Macho Man.
The race went according to Hoyle, as the speediest of the speed; Moreno, Fort Larned and Game On Dude, dominated the Breeders' Cup's crowning event from flag-fall to that's-all. The best of the three, Mucho Macho Man was allowed to take charge of the race by the brilliant Gary Stevens from the three-path in the middle of the final turn.
Urging his mount intermittently in early stretch, Stevens allowed the Macho Man to sneak away in mid-stretch, the daylight opened between himself as his charging rivals just enough margin to insure a victory. In the end, the largest horse in the field defeated a horse of equally large proportion two years his junior.
Will Take Charge can now be considered the budding handicap star of 2014, coming thisclose to adding a Classic trophy to a collection that includes a Travers and Pennsylvania Derby bauble; Will Take Charge, trained by an ageless legend of 78 years who did the near impossible--again.
Perhaps the best line ever spoken about the runner-up's trainer came when NBC Sports Network reported that a rival trainer said of the Hall of Famer: "If you're looking to kill Wayne Lukas, you had better use all six bullets."
The Macho team did everything right. After some niggling issues followed his Gulfstream Park debacle, he was placed in the equine protection program located in Fair Hill, Maryland and rather than chance the wet tracks of New York, which the huge colt clearly cannot handle, they decided to ship to SoCal, where it never rains, as the song says.
After deciding to prep him in the Grade 1 Awesome Again, as he continued to chase the illusive Grade 1, they made the wisest decision when they put the reins in the hands of Gary Stevens. Two mounts; two Grade 1 victories, and a 10-gallon hat to be thrown into the Horse of the Year ring, a consideration for another day.
If the victory by Mucho Macho Man turns out not to be enough for a Horse of the Year title, his five-year-old resume certainly has earned him older male Eclipse title. The runner-up's narrow defeat probably will be good enough to earn Will Take Charge an Eclipse in the year-long topsy-turvy world that is this year's three-year-old campaign.
And, so, it was a job well done by all who labored in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, but turned into a story better suited crosstown, an L.A. neighborhood that elevates fanciful dreams but after this fall horse racing will live no more.
For those of little faith, not to worry. Wise Dan, despite a bobbling break, a bit of a wide run chasing a world record pace, the 2012 Horse of the Year threw his four hooves into the ring for a consecutive Best In Show title. Until the results of the Classic are made official, it's his title to lose.
Brillliantly ridden by Jose Lezcano, replacing the injured Velazquez, was thrown heavily when his mount Secret Compass fractured her ankle in the Juvenile Fillies, Wise Dan repeated last year's victory, running the fastest Mile renewal ever, this event one of the original seven carded at Hollywood Park in November of 1984.
At this moment, it's 38 minutes to post time for the Classic, in which Game On Dude opened the 2-1 favorite with Mucho Macho Man a close second choice at 3-1.
* * *
Godspeed to Johnny Velazquez, who suffered internal injuries in a spill. He is currently in the operating room having his spleen removed.
Bob Baffert, who broke his Breeders' Cup maiden in the Sprint two decades ago, won his second race within an hour when Secret Circle came roaring off a red hot pace to capture the Sprint and withheld the flying finish of improbable longshot Laugh Track--that's if any runner can be considered a Breeders' Cup improbable beneath Mike Smith, a yard away from working on his next 20 Breeders' Cup mounts.
When the Brits created their Champions Day program to be contested in October, it was feared that it could have a negative effect on the Breeders' Cup. Well, Europeans finished 1-2 in the Turf, a classy 3-year-old, Magician, pulling some magic out of his hooves to defeat highly regarded The Fugue in the very last stride.
That would give foreign interests their sixth victory in the two-day event--and they might not be done yet.
Seems that the speed-biased racetrack is forcing riders to react to the prevailing conditions, sometimes overreact and moving a bit too soon. There probably was very little Gary Stevens and Joel Rosario could do, especially from the outside posts with the short run to the first bend for the Juvenile.
But the track carried Strong Mandate, used hard on a fast pace throughout, and he earned a good chuck of the purse. And it appeared that Havana was home free, Stevens moving to the lead at what looked like the opportune moment. But the track didn't carry him all the way, the ground saving New Year's Day surging late for the win. Perhaps Havana has distance limitations after all--but more evidence is required.
Well, Mizdirection, with Mike Smith getting his 3rd win in BC 30 and 20th in history, made it 7-for-7 on grass and 6-for-6 on this course. And trainer Mike Puype, having the mare sitting on ready off a six month layup. Amazing.
Another feel good story, a filly beating colts--the first ever to repeat in this race--and interesting, too, that the two feel-good story fillies are shipping to a horses of racing age sale on Sunday. And with Reneesgotzip dead-heating for place with Tightend Touchdown, it's fillies going 1-2 against the boys. Greatest show on turf, indeed.
At the moment Mizdirection is the 2-1 favorite in the Turf Sprint. Considering no horse has repeated in this event, she's an obvious underlay. Unbridled's Note is bet smartly at 5-1; Chips All In is very fair at 7-1 and Capo Bastone, no turf experience, never mind on the downhill course, is 8-1, which I would categorize as interesting.
Even if the Pletcher sprinter takes to the grass, he will need the pace to melt down completely for him to run them all down. Very interesting contest indeed.
If Groupie Doll's gutsy repeat in the F & M Sprint is not the feel-good story of the day then I'm not sure what could challenge the notion.
Of course, a case can be made that Dance Card might have been the best horse, given the speed nature of the surface. Joel Rosario had no choice but to go wide at head-stretch, so he is not to blame.
Now turf racing is a European specialty, as everyone knows, but as many turf races as are run in this country, you'd think the home team would be a little more formidable. Circumstances took Dank out of her game and she still won. Through the stretch, it looked as if Romantica would be very hard pressed to hold the place late. She was, and she did, Euros going 1-2.
The fillies have put on quite a show in the first three events of the day, now we'll see if the boys can match the distaff fireworks.
Awful news regarding Secret Compass who was euthanized after suffering a condylar ankle fracture and Johnny Velazquez, seem clutching his left arm after landing heavily, was taken to the hospital. In the upcoming F & M Turf, Javier Castellano replaces Velazquez aboard Alterite.
Tough decision but SA stewards absolutely made the correct call--killing my Pick 4 play, incidentally--when they disqualified She's A Tiger from first and placed her second in the Juvenile Fillies.
Clearly, 'Tiger' drifted out several paths, making enough contact only jumps before the finish to make a difference in what turned out to be a nose photograph. Further proof it was correct came later when Ria Antonia galloped out ahead of the filly that finished in front of her.
I don't know enough to say for sure, but I'm aware that the California stewards take a lot of heat. However, they got this one right.
* * *
For those who purchased my "Breeders' Cup SCOREcard" there is an egregious omission in the Classic.
As indicated in today's Feature Race Analysis on HRI, FORT LARNED was meant to be an inclusion on the top of your betting mix.
Mea culpa, but stuff happens. As all know, this is a monumental event to cover and this one fell into the cracks.
I could have saved some embarrassment and not mentioned this and rooted against; sorry but I don't roll that way.
Please inform any of your friends and colleagues that might have purchased the product.
It might not matter but I've learned when handicapping or betting, it's the mistakes of omission that are really costly.
Juvenile Fillies post time in 9 minutes. Win or lose, Scandalous Act is too big a price at the moment
Written by John Pricci
Friday, November 01, 2013
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 1, 2013--
And so, the race didn't match up with the hyperbole. But, then, how could it?
Princess Of Sylmar, with her owner Ed Stanco, in an uncommom display of sportsmanship, rolled the dice, lost his money, and possibly a championship that was hers for the asking right after she won the Beldame. But yesterday, she bobbled at the break and wilted beneath the California sun. The heat got to a lot of horses yesterday. She probably was one of them.
Some voter will shortly make the point that the Princess beat up on a champion who gave signs that she might be going the other way, the wrong way. Sadly, that became all to clear at sweltering Santa Anita, the heat baking the track dry and fast. And unless the rail is heavy and deep, it's still the best way home.
Royal Delta has been a great defending champion but she probably has run her last. Thanks for the memories.
This Year of the Jockey started with Mike Smith rolling a natural double to add to his record winning Breeders' Cup resume and ended with a 55-year-old Hall of Famer underscoring a widely held opinion that he possibly is riding in the best form of his career. Certainly for the last month, anyway.
Then there's California legend Richard Mandella, who won his eighth hometown-based Breeders' Cup event, his fourth with a filly. She had been doing amazing things in the mornings leading up to Breeders' Cup Distaff 30. Mile and an eighth? No problem.
And in winning this country's most anticipated race for fillies and mares in 2013, Beholder didn't beat her competition, she crushed it, perhaps all the way to a championship of her own. But that's a story for another day..
Bill Mott has won three Distaffs in his Hall of Fame career, two with three-year-olds. He came closer than anyone not named Mandella to doing it again. Runner-up Close Hatches ran a great race. And the glib surface did her no favors.
The Breeders' Cup Distaff was a pluperfect example of why they run races which, try as all of us do, are not contested on a printed page. It's done with flying hooves and flashing leather as excited fans scream for their favorites athletes in contests run between a set of fences.
It's horse racing, and even when an event like the Distaff doesn't step up to meet the hype, it remains the greatest game played outdoors.
Post time for tomorrow's Juvenile Fillies, the first of nine Breeders' Cup events, is 3:05 p.m., EDT.
Spiritually and intellectually, I'm there.
In the most anticipated race of the day, Breeders' Cup Distaff 30, the opening odds virtually matched early line odds. The Queen opened at 8-5, the Princess is 2-1 and Beholder 5-2. Even the outsiders held their early quotes, with Authenticity at 9-1, Close Hatches at 8-1, and Street Girl, 30-1.
To be honest, those are very fair odds on whichever filly you fancy. We're rooting for the Queen. If a plausible price play is your idea of fun, Bill Mott's 3-year-old, Close Hatches, is, on performance figures, the equal of her contemporaries. But if the champion comes with her 'A' race, in will be three-peat time--and royalties for Pat Riley.
Meanwhile, the track is carrying speed but Goldencents was very, very good. Had a right to regress and didn't.
Chriselliam for Horse of the Year! Well, Horse of Formerly Filly Friday. That was a tremendous display of acceleration; price wasn't too shabby, either. The fillies and mares are nearing their approach to the ring; Beholder, thus far, has been acting like her high-strong self. We'll see..
Leaving the paddock and no surprise that a European, Vorda, remains a 3-1 favorite. The surprise, however, is that the other highly regarded Euro, Chriselliam is 8-1. We're on record stating that this is the toughest of all 14 Cup events. As such, a filly such as Street Sailing, should not be ignored at 40-1. We know she's up in class but her performance figures give her a puncher's chance in this. And Testa Rossi, 12 post notwithstanding, is fair value at 10-1...
Two races, and Mike Smith has now won 19 Breeders' Cup races. Probably getting tired reading all those props for Gary Stevens. He timed it perfectly with Outstrip, making the last run with giant strides.
The strategy with Bobby's Kitten looked like the correct one, but :22 2/5 on the turf? Stuff happens.
Ryan Moore was right, choosing Giovanni Boldini, who looked the winner off the super hot pace until Outstrip came along with a furious run. Meanwhile, our preferred first-flash longshot, Shamshon, lost too much ground; no excuses, just fact. Problem is where and when can I bet the European back?
Verrazano opened at 5-2, fairly predictable. Goldencents, susceptible to a regression, is a very fair 9-2. Pants On Fire is 12-1 and Fed Biz (10-1) is way too much price at this juncture.
Bobby's Kitten severe underlay at this point--even money on the first flash. Opening odds on Shamshon way out of line; 40-1, win or lose, is just too much price. Five minutes to post the Kitten still only 7-5. Interestingly, the longer of the O'Brien pair, Wilshire Boulevard, offering good value at this point. We'll see if stable rider Ryan Moore made the right choice with 'Giovanni'...
Euro guys hated this horse so what happens? London Bridge gives Mike Smith a record 18th winning Breeders' Cup ride. Imagine that, a New York-bred starts the festivities. Get with the program!
And, in the end, all the egos and smart cash came tumbling down. Interesting re: the kickback. David Flores kept Worldly very wide throughout, moved prematurely into a three-horse battle. He did very well to finish third.
Even with the perceived inside bias, Blueskiesandrainbows was super game, pressured all the way and right there at the end of 14 furlongs.
. Not good to hear from NBCSN analysts saying that the jockeys are complaining that the dry, sandy kickback is stinging the trailers, the jockeys saying that "it hurts." Two extreme longshots won early on the card, front end all the way.
With 10 minutes to post, grass specialist Old Time Hockey was 5-1--on the dirt. He will run all day. The dilemma is that closers have a big edge in this race, but you don't know where the pace will come from. Gary Stevens, with a little help from his mount, will probably win. But we liked the way Tom Proctor's 'Hockey' looked on the track. Think Jose Lezcano a good fit.
Also liked Worldly, the fastest on performance figures, the only rub, perhaps his last was too
fast. No knocks on Indian Jones. Tread very lightly.
Started Breeders' Cup Friday with a winner. Hope the karma lasts.
Got home about an hour ago after spending three hours at my Subaru dealer. When I started the car this morning, it was buck-jumping like a two-year-old.
The feat was that I wouldn't make it one exit up the Northway but I did. Thought I might have gotten the feared watered-gas and sure enough, my car, in the language of the day, got into a good rhythm.
After three hours, "there will be no charge, Mr. Pricci," said service manager Tim, handing me the keys. He said something about a coil and a frayed wire that needed replacing. Both were warranty items. Yeah team.
The games are about to begin and I'm bleary eyed already. Past performances, pedigree work, video (races and workouts), Euro research, contacting insiders on site...am I leaving anything out?
Oh, yes. Sleep.
Breeders' Cup is always challenging, as everyone knows and accepts. But damn if this edition isn't the hardest in my bad recent memory. So many live horses in big fields. And Santa Anita is a big post-position track.
I was thinking, for instance, that Havana might be a Pick 4 Saturday night single. Then post 13. See ya'. Absolutely can win, of course, but...
Anyway, we're here throughout the day, trying to read and react to real time developments; odds, paddock, post parades, the usual. And you pray your favorite ADW has enough bandwidth to avoid a new malady known as Affordable Car Act Syndrome.
An aside: I voted for the President twice, but somebody has to pay for this. This was one of the worst roll-outs ever. And I've been involved in any number of start-ups.
I'm going to pull a Lukas now; that's Wayne Lukas, the man who made the 7-minute nap famous.
Upon regaining consciousness, I will pre-bet the day's Dime Supers.
Betting on horses is a fluid process--a little more difficult for public prognosticators that go one record in advance. I always feel guilty when I make a last minute change, although I never apologize for avoiding my top choice if it means taking a bad price.
And this coming from a guy who thinks it's possible to get, say maybe 8-5 on Royal Delta? But I won't have to make that decision until around 7:25 p.m.
Wind rustling up pretty good now, a good call by the weather handicappers. Please, no power outages today. Please?
Written by John Pricci