Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Preakness Story Begins in Florida

By John Pricci

HALLANDALE BEACH—Adages become old because they’re true: The best horse doesn’t always win the Derby but usually wins the Preakness is one. Here’s another: There’s no place like home.

Feeling a form of reflected pride Sunday morning because I spent Preakness Day at my home county racetrack, which very much was fitting considering the results of Preakness 144.

My first thought was for a 24-year-old third generation race rider, Tyler Gaffalione, born 20 minutes up the road from Gulfstream Park in Davie.

For those unaware, Davie is horse country, located square in the middle of an urban sprawl that is modern-day Broward County, specifically, situated between Hollywood and Plantation, my latter-day home.

Once again, the local racetrack and, specifically, the Florida racing community is where both “winners” of the 2019 Kentucky Derby and the Preakness hero either raced, trained or spent time here this winter.

Ocala, a five-hour drive north of Gulfstream by heavy foot, is true Florida horse country, a place where major horses are bought and sold and home to many Thoroughbred farms. One of those farms belongs to War of Will’s trainer, Canadian Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse.

The one element absent from an otherwise Hollywood script, in which a seriously impeded, brave and athletic animal, who fought valiantly at the top of the Churchill Downs stretch before tiring, returned two weeks later to redeem the reputation he built this winter in New Orleans.

And no one should be more acquainted with a Hollywood script--a Hollywood California script--than owner Gary Barber. While he was winning his first classic, he was an ocean away in Cannes France, home of the world’s most prestigious film festival. Go Figure.

Of course, Barber can be wherever he wants after collecting a $260-million buyout from MGM, the schism the result of creative differences between Barber and an investment banker who lorded over the MGM board of directors.

It’s not like Barber doesn’t recognize talent. He begat Mark Casse, who begat Norm Casse, who begat War of Will, who begat Tyler Gaffalione, and he thought it a good idea to switch War of Will from a moderately successful turf career to dirt. That move wasn’t the first of Barber’s success stories.

The Preakness winning trainer is also second generation, his father being the legendary Norm Casse, a top horseman and a man who knew how to cash a bet. Casse, who passed three years ago, built the Ocala farm that helped make the Florida breeding program the success it is today.

As MGM CEO, he brought the company back to respectability by bringing successful television producers into the MGM fold. That move begat successful properties such as Survivor, The Voice, Shark Tank, the television series Fargo and the multiple award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale.

All Barber's entertainment ventures eventually evolved into the Spyglass Media Group, launched earlier this year.

A quarter-billion will buy lots of good horses, including a son of War Front, from a Sadler’s Wells stakes-producing mare, for the bargain price of $298,550 at a 2-year-old breeze-up sale, haltered by Justin Casse, who grew up in Saratoga. Today War of Will is worth a whole lot more.

It’s a fact that too often these days, horsemen toss around the term “special horse.” Well, whatever anyone thinks of the talented War of Will, horse lovers only need look at this magnificent beast to know that he’s special. On looks, he’s the perfect racehorse.

“I just wanted him to get his chance to show everyone how good he is because he is a super horse,” said his South Florida-based rider, who added “I’m very happy for Mark to get his first Classic and happy for the horse…he’s so special.”

Louisville Kentucky native Dale Romans did an extraordinary job coaxing the kind of explosive effort he got from runnerup Everfast: “Second in any Classic is great…You could see he had the momentum. I thought we were going to win it for a minute.”

Brad Cox, who also grew up in the shadow of Churchill 51,573 and $22.28 million, respectively. The betting mark was 19+ percent higher than the previous mark set in 2017. A total of 28 races were contested over the two days.

But the sudden death of stakes-winning 3-year-old filly Congrats Girl upon pulling up after the G3 Miss Preakness cast a shroud over the day.

The tragedy compounded what happened that morning at Santa Anita when Commander Coil, not asked for speed during a routine gallop, fractured his shoulder and had to be euthanized. The Los Angeles- and New York Times ran with the breakdown stories which included strong comments from PETA Vice-President Kathy Guillermo.

Horses Don’t Set Track Records, Track Superintendents Do

Covfefe, who raced 6 furlongs in 1:07.70, shattering a 19-year-old track record set by older male Northern Wolf, was not the only horse in record breaking terrain Preakness weekend.

Later on the ‘Suzy’ card, 4-year-old filly Mylady Curlin, like Covfefe in the care of super trainer Brad Cox, was in stakes-record territory in the G3 Allaire DuPont, posting nine furlongs in 1:47.64, 44/100s off male Private Terms’ track record 1:47.20.

In the Sir Barton on the Preakness undercard for not-quite-ready-for-prime-time 3-year-olds, returnee King for a Day eclipsed Deputed Testamony’s stakes record of 1:41.80, getting 8-1/2 furlongs in 1:41.40.

Further, most races developed in the manner of bygone Pimlico days when horses racing closest to the rail, on or in contact with early leaders, enjoyed a distinct edge.

Plethora of Good Performances on Entertaining Undercards

Chalon was extremely sharp in her 5-year-old debut, taking the Skipat in an authoritative 1:09.46, good but not in the same league with younger Covfefe a half-hour later… Most times you don't know when Tenfold will show up, but he answered the bell affirmatively in the Pimlico Special; interesting to see what he does next time.

Meanwhile, place and show finishers, You’re to Blame and Cordmaker, both came with strong late runs and might have entered the circle with better trips--especially the latter, racing extremely wide from impossible possible in the back of the 14-horse field.

Missing the Kentucky Oaks wasn’t in the plans for Point of Honor’s people, but it might turn out to be a blessing for the G2 Black-Eyed Susan winner. Oaks winning Serengeti Princess runs next in the Acorn. Should she win that and, say, Point of Honor wins the Mother Goose, a great match-up could happen in Saratoga’s Alabama.

Who do you want going a mile and a quarter..?

Another terrific team effort by Steve Asmussen and Ricardo Santana Jr., taking the G3 Maryland Sprint with New York Central who continues to develop at 4, extending his unbeaten record at six furlongs to three straight; no excuses for perfect tripper Proforma.

Ickymasho is a very talented turf marathoner for legendary Roger Attfield but the competition all but led her into the circle as they allowed her to set a laughably slow pace [51.62, 1:17.18]. Second favorite Homeland Security was a terribly disappointing 3rd.

Country’s House
’s older sister is an excellent turf runner for Bill Mott. Keen but no runoff beneath Joel Rosario, Mitchell Road spread out the G3 Gallorette field but kept right on going, looking very much a Grade 1 prospect, continuing strongly despite her early exertions.

Can’t say enough about Catholic Boy, not wound tightly for his 4-year-old debut but the classy dual surface Grade 1 winner is what you want in a racehorse; tactical speed and late kick. Javier Castellano, who won one for the thumb Friday, was a little rough at the break, sawing off Inspector Lynley. Returning to dirt, the Brooklyn is next for Catholic Boy.

Gary West has not necessarily covered himself with glory in the wake of the Derby disqualification; first with video leading to litigation and the now infamous $20 million sore-loser challenge. But give him this: West texted congratulations to Mark Casse right after the Preakness. Good for him!

copyright John Pricci, HorseRaceInsider, May, 2019

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Derby 145 Aftermath: What Bad Publicity?

By John Pricci

HALLANDALE BEACH--In the wake of the Maximum Security disqualification from first in Kentucky Derby 145, the chairman of an International Federation of Horseracing committee suggested that America’s foul adjudication process should be changed, more closely aligned with a process used worldwide.

That standard, known as Category 1, also has support from the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, racing’s newly created think tank. That reasoning states that horses should be disqualified only if the stewards decide the impeded horse would've finished ahead of the horse who caused the interference.

Depending on interpretation of rules followed in 38 disparate racing jurisdictions, America adheres to Category Two standards, one that sustains objections if the guilty horse costs the impeded horse(s) an opportunity for a better placing.

The offending horse then is placed behind that runner(s), thus Maximum Security was placed 17th behind Long Range Toddy, severely impeded by the “veering out” Maximum Security and after significantly interfering with eighth finisher War of Will and 14th finisher Bodexpress.

Based on logic and ethics, HorseRaceInsider for years has championed the cause of uniform standards and punishment for any rule-breaking practitioner on the front-side, backside and between the fences of America’s racetracks.

The rest of the world may have everything else right, but not this issue.

Do I believe that Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress would have finished ahead of Maximum Security had they not suffered interference? No. Do I think he might have cost War of Will victory as that rival attempted to move up outside the winner at the five-sixteenths pole? Possibly, but I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.

The area of the track at which the incident occurred, near the five-sixteenths pole, is the place where most races are won or lost. Of greater significance, it is the point where forward momentum is everything and it’s nearly impossible to regain momentum at that point.

The truth is that only God knows how everything would have turned out but nevertheless is the stewards’ responsibility to make the call based on video evidence and their best judgment. These are the facts, supported by video evidence, as stated in the official chart footnote:

“Maximum Security was disqualified from first and placed seventeenth for veering out and stacking up War of Will, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress.” No more or no less indisputable in light of the “stacking up” that occurred.

The stewards post-race explanation: "The riders of the 18 (Long Range Toddy) and 20 (Country House) horses in the Kentucky Derby lodged objections against the seven horse, the winner... We had a lengthy review of the race, interviewed affected riders, and determined that the seven horse drifted out and impacted the number 1 (War of Will), who in turn interfered with the 18 and 21 (Bodexpress).

“Therefore, we unanimously determined to disqualify number 7 and place him behind 18. That is our typical procedure."

Sunshine is the only disinfectant. The disqualification process in the Commonwealth should have been questioned and explained in greater detail, beginning with “why no inquiry?”

Instead, a teachable moment for the fans and public alike was lost, a chance to inform a national audience that regulations designed for the safety and horse and rider and in the interests of integrity matter whatever the prevailing circumstances.

What should be apparent to all is that whether there was interference or not wasn’t at issue; three horses were severely impacted to varying degrees, the stack-up costing them any chance for whatever placing they might have been able to earn.

As a result of Derby 145, I no longer am in the Category 1 camp and now believe, as do most U.S. jurisdictions that a foul is a foul when any impactful interference occurs. Who among us is equipped to say where a bothered horse would have finished with certitude? Only God knows and what technology can show. The rest is heated conversation.

Putting fairness aside for the moment, times have changed for horse racing in America. It’s a sport under a Griffith-sized microscope. For all its wealth and influence, racing has powerful enemies. It cannot send the message that because it’s an important race, anything goes.

Horse racing is a dangerous sport, a fact that everyone recognizes but one that nobody wants to have a serious two-way conversation about. Shaking up the status quo always means a different set of winners and losers. The devil you know is not always the best way to proceed.

How can the sport expect people to invest their time and treasure to learn the nuances of handicapping so that they might participate in the pastime of Thoroughbred racing and help support the game’s economic structure—never mind understand the concept of needed raceday medication?

How can racing entertain and educate people when in the name of commerce it is unwilling to show how officials deal with racetrack incidents? Of course the process has shortcomings and can be improved. But adjudicating fouls is about more than cashing a bet. It’s literally a matter of life and death.

Too Many and Too Soon

The post-race reaction to Derby 145 again has raised the question of field size and whether it should be whittled down to a manageable 14-horse field. First, this aside:

For years we have made a case for spacing out the Triple Crown events, positing that it would make the task harder because today’s Thoroughbreds are more likely to give their the best effort if allowed more time, say the first Saturdays of May, June and July.

It’s the kind of modern schedule that gives a trainer no justifiable reason to duck any of the legs, most notably the Preakness.

Fifty years from now, no one will think any less of the next Triple Crown winner compared to American Pharoah, Justify or any other legend of yesteryear.

Field size? Churchill Downs is never going to reduce the size of the 20-horse field but with all the money it makes from America’s Race, it owes it to the horses, the horsemen and the sport to have a single 20-horse gate constructed—even for just this one event.

Controversial Decision Heightened Horse Interest

Never shy to share his opinion, War of Will’s trainer Mark Casse took on the role of horseman activist at Friday’s NTRA teleconference. What a refreshing breath of fresh air and candor. This week, Casse sought the thoughts of many horseman, including jockeys, re Derby 145 and shared with the media:

“I’m not sure our [recent] Triple Crown winners got this much attention. I read a lot about it this week and I would also like to respond to a question someone asked Mike [Smith] earlier, about why Tyler [Gaffalione] didn’t claim foul.”

On jockey’s objections: “I’ve had a problem with this sport for a long time,” Casse would go on to explain:

“I don’t think jockeys should have to make an objection. I’m not sure that on regular days four or five inquiries shouldn’t be put up by the stewards. These rules were put in 50, 75 years before there was instant replay.

“[A stewards’ inquiry] should have went up when they crossed the [Derby] finish line… Our stewards need to be told to stop waiting for jockeys to make an objection and put up the inquiry on their own,” before adding this:

“While I have everybody here I want to say that I’m not opposed to a 20-horse field. A 20-horse field is what makes the Derby what it is. But I am opposed to the current starting gate. Too many problems happen early on. Pressure needs to be put on Churchill Downs to make a starting gate that holds 20 horses…

“They run 20 horses is Japan, they run 20 horses in Hong Kong. I had a nice talk with Johnny Velazquez the other night. Johnny said that over there horses are not allowed to change lanes for the first eighth of a mile.

“I wish that Churchill Downs would give us a 20-horse gate, and if horses had to stay in their lanes for an eighth of a mile, we’d have a much safer race and less horses would have excuses.”

Triple Crown Ratings: Preakness Week Edition

When you peer at the ratings, the first question you may have is “where is Omaha Beach?” His absence from HRI’s Triple Crown Rankings is because he will not make the Preakness or Belmont Stakes.

And neither will the first four finishers Derby finishers run in Baltimore. This week’s parameters were that the top five or six horses should reflect Derby results with the bottom five possible Preakness and/or Belmont projections.

Thankfully there still will be a Preakness Stakes even if 2019’s Middle Jewel is a bit tarnished. But it’s still a classic and that makes it one of the best horses racing events this country has, indeed one that often is a lot more formful than the Derby.

If the Pimlico starting gate is not full when entries close but will come close enough to be an excellent betting race. The talented young horses, Improbable and War of Will, will be the likely favorites and will prove tough customers to run down.

Three-year-olds raise their game throughout the entire season and growth spurts are still common until after the Triple Crown is completed. While Country House was not the best horse on Derby day, he raised his game significantly and there’s no reason why he can’t develop further. It’s why races are run on dirt, not on paper.

But all racetrackers and fans know the only important thing is that all Preakness horses bring their best game and come home safely.

Current HRI Triple Crown Ratings:
1- Maximum Security (60)
2- Country House (44)
3- Tacitus (41)
4- War of Will (34)
5- Game Winner (26)
6- Improbable (25)
7- Code of Honor (24)
8- Long Range Toddy (8)
8- Bodexpress (8)
10- Bourbon War (6)
10- Roadster (6)
Also: Mr. Money (4) Vekoma (4) Alwaysmining (2) Master Fencer (2) Owendale (2)
[Ratings are based on a point-scale of 12 for 1st, 9 for second, 8 for 3rd, etc., etc.]

© John Pricci,, May 12, 2109

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 05, 2019

Brutal Derby Beat But Tough and Proper Call

In less time that it took the Kentucky stewards to make their decision, the phone began to ring and texts pinged with 22- and 44-type speed. What happened? What do you think? Was it the right call? Was it fair?

Let’s start at the beginning: Maximum Security was the best horse on Kentucky Derby day, finishing first and remaining undefeated in five career starts.

In doing so, and with no malice aforethought by his rider, Luis Saez, the gate-to-wire leader, Maximum Security, likely spooked by 150,000 screaming fans, veered out a minimum of two paths and started a dangerous chain reaction. Stuff happens.

Almost simultaneously, War of Will, moved off the rail into the two-path and began to challenge the leader as Code of Honor shot up the fence to join the party while Country House, closer than anyone could have guessed, circled up menacingly.

There was going to be a four horse war of the roses from the top of the Churchill Downs stretch to the finish line, racing’s grandest stage was now set for another eventful renewal of America’s Horse Race.

But jumps before that table was set, Maximum Security jumped out into the path of Tyler Gaffalione’s mount, forcing him to check War of Will to avoid clipping heels with the leader and possibly worse.

The secondary effect occurred when War of Will, forced into and in front of the path of rallying Long Range Toddy, bidding to give his trainer, Steve Asmussen, a four Grade-1 Oaks-Derby145 weekend.

However, that impossible dream ended when Jon Court was forced to check Long Range Toddy so as to avoid War of Will’s heals. Yeah, there was a lot going on. Fast.

Split-second decisions, at 40 miles per hour, with rivals racing thisclose, is what jockeys risk every time they go out there. But safety comes first and often a jockey will take care of his horse first, hoping that, in turn, the horse will take care of him.

Cool athletic reflexes prevailed, both equine and human. No one got hurt. But as far as posterity is concerned, the real drama of Kentucky Derby 145 started to unfold and curious things followed.

If there was to be a claim of foul, it should have come from Gaffalione, not Flavien Prat, aboard the surprisingly agile Country House. After all, Maximum Security and Country House were nowhere near each other.

Prat had been the victim of a minor chain-reaction headstretch bump, not the kind that takes horses down, but he took his best shot. Hey, if Tyler won’t compel the stewards to look at the video, then he would.

Prat later admitted that the contact was minor but believed that the stewards needed to look at the incident because of what happened to “the other two horses.”

On NBC, the human connections said what you thought they might say.

Saez talked about his horse still being a baby, which is true, and horses react when the crowd roars from its belly as the horses reach headstretch. And so he “corrected him,” which he did. Some might say over-correct as Code of Honor was in tight along the fence.

“Winning trainer” Jason Servis was asked the same question and he basically answered what-he-said, restating only that the Saez straightened out Maximum Security as quickly possible.

Analysts Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss were all over it and while no one knew what would happen—there never had been a Derby disqualification based on a racing infraction, although perhaps there could have been one in 1933--another-day story.

It shouldn’t matter that it was the Derby, as Mott said, and he’s right. Neither should it matter that 23 horses died from injuries in Southern California this winter and some animal rights groups want to eliminate all this “inhumanity” once and for all.

Yesterday, three stewards in the Commonwealth made a tough, proper call, whatever the motivation. In a quick social media survey in the immediate aftermath, sentiment was running about 55-45 in favor of the DQ.

Even that is stunning given that a horseplayer’s default position in these scenarios tend to go the other way.

It was the proper call, an indication that racing is not rigged, that its officials can be fair, unbiased arbiters, impartial because for whatever reason, those that unwittingly put rivals in danger should not be rewarded. Saez should be held blameless. The crowd did the damage; they deserve the days.

The stewards got it right, making possibly the most difficult decision in the 145-year history of the race. Tragedy was avoided and Thoroughbred racing fans will have Derby145 etched in memory the rest of their sporting lives.

Cell phone photo of NBC Sports Telecast

And this is not the way that Bill Mott wanted or could have envisioned his entrance into Kentucky Derby history, but he’ll take it because both Country House, the official winner of Derby145, and stablemate Tacitus, elevated to third, made him proud.

At first, Mott was concerned that justice might not prevail: “If it were a maiden 10 claimer, he would come down. You’re supposed to keep a straight line when you’re riding and there shouldn’t be a difference between a maiden 10k and the Kentucky Derby. It’s not supposed to matter between the two.

“There was definitely a foul in the race. My horses didn’t get bothered terribly. Country House got bumped just a little bit, but there were a couple jocks who almost went down in there.

“There’s over 100,000 people here and they don’t want to make that call, but it’s [the stewards’] duty to do the right thing... I think they want to be fair but there were a couple horses who nearly went down in the race and I think those horses, it eliminated all chance for them.

“There were a couple jocks who had to stand straight up at a very critical time in the race. I can’t say that he bothered my horse that badly and I’m not going to moan about that. It’s really between the horses that he bothered and the winner…

“It’s bittersweet and I’d be lying if I said it was any different. You say you always want to win with a clean trip and everyone recognizes the horse as the great athlete he is and due to the DQ, some of that is diminished.

“Two horses lost all chance to win a Kentucky Derby and they were in a position at the time to hit the board…

“People bet on these horses and millions are bet on these races. I know the stewards had a very difficult decision. With that being said, I’m damn glad they put our number up.”

Someday all of racing would think about this Derby, the decision that was made, in this place at this time, made them damn glad the put up Mott’s number, too.

Not So Easy Like Sunday Morning...

I heaped much praise on the stewards for making the correct decision, but on two other matters they cannot be held blameless. First, a stewards inquiry should have been posted before a jockey's objection.

Second, they had an obligation to the sport to talk with the press post-DQ. (And, please, no nonsense about possible future litigation and the like). #Transparency

After the inaugural running of the controversial Breeders' Cup Classic deep-stretch run, the media was invited to watch the films with them the next morning and they explained the reasons for making their decision. It's too bad that this teachable moment was lost in Louisville.

To explain the incident, the SoCal stewards looked at the head-on view that simulated running lanes that show on the monitor, indicating if Wild Again, sandwiched Slew o' Gold, and Gate Dancer outside, were guilty of lane violations jumps from the finish line.

The superimposed visual aid gave a clear indication of the paths taken; it was 1984 and the media got a chance to watch racing's Big Brother at work.

Parenthetically, perhaps NBC can contact the Kentucky stewards for a pre-Preakness interview segment a week from Saturday.

Those of you on Twitter (@johnpricci) will find two tweets of Mark Casse's backstretch interview this morning: A class act and with sincerity informing the sunlight, it was a breath of fresh air to be sure.

Also props to Bill Mott who, under pressure and live, spoke honestly from the mind and heart. Never have been prouder of two of the game's best practitioners...

Proof positive that it was a proper call? This morning, the President of Ten Thousand Lies said that it was a bad disqualification, blaming political correctness.

©John Pricci,, May 4, 2019

Written by John Pricci

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