Sunday, November 19, 2017

So Which Is It: Race Results or Body of Work?

Today’s thought started out as a thread on Tom Jicha’s most recent offering where the topic was: Which horse might be this year’s rightful three-year-old champion?

The discussion later talked about the relative merits of the Kentucky Derby vs. the Travers Stakes as to which is the more influential race with respect to end-of-year championship titles.

In TJ’s defense—not that he needs any from me—he did not make up a false equivalency when he talked about how trainers, when met by non-racing fans, are never whether they ever won the Travers.

On this, you don’t have to take Jicha’s word. It’s trainers themselves, when asked as first-time combatants or Derby winners, the first question is always "have you ever won the Kentucky Derby?".

It’s the same for jockeys, that's because there’s nothing quite like it in this country or anywhere in the world. America didn't raid Europe or the Far East in the 1970s when seeking the best livestock, it was the place where most of the best horses in the world are born.

There may be more prestigious races in the world; the Arc de Triomphe, Melbourne Cup, etc., but none with the worldwide cache of the Derby.

And even foreign fans concede that no event is as glitzy and gaudily as packaged for mass consumption. It’s an American fairy tale, that once-in-a-lifetime-in-a-lifetime-of-chance horse race.

In a qualitative sense, the Travers on is a much better horse race because the cream has risen to the top by then. There are the Triple Crown achievers that show up, the Haskell winner, or a late developing phenomenon such as Arrogate.

If Tesio were alive today he’d find the Derby’s timing abhorrent. For three-year-old Thoroughbreds in the spring, a savagely contested mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May is way too much and way too soon.

But as Confucius often said: It is what it is.

Many horsemen have told me over the years that three-year-olds should wait until June to run that far, virtually the same time we ask then to win the mile and a half Belmont. As a people, patience never has been an American virtue.

The Derby gets more consideration in end-of-year balloting because voters know that a Derby victory is a horseman’s most sought after prize, an outstanding achievement for trainers, jockeys and owners alike.

Of course, not all Grade 1s are created equal. While the brainchild for a breeding industry that never takes its eye off the bottom line, grading nevertheless is the most practical way to define class. On balance, a G1 horse will beat a G3 rival most every time.

In the case of Always Dreaming, back to back winner of the 2017 Florida and Kentucky Derbies, he brought a near insurmountable divisional lead into racing’s second season but it appears that those consecutive wins emptied the tank.

Then the announcement was made that the Travers disappointment would not target the Breeders’ Cup Classic and focus on a four year old campaign instead, widely hailed as the right thing to do.

And that made sense, especially considering the $16-million Pegasus will be run over a surface and at a distance he loves; a no-brainer.

But now his return has been delayed, the target now a late spring/summer campaign which presumably targets the Met Mile then either or both of Saratoga Grade 1s, the Whitney and Woodward.

However, it also raises the question how much of the Derby-winning version Always Dreaming has left, and it’s only fair to ask.

But as far as the 2017 Eclipse title is concerned, is there really a need for discussion?

West Coast’s second season was as impressive as Always Dreaming’s first, perhaps more so since he defeated all who were title aspirants at one time or another

And he ended his season with a solid third behind his elders, protem Horse of the Year Gun Runner and the streaking, accomplished Collected. His resume clearly is the most title worthy.

Leading Juveniles Vie for Eclipse Title

Next year’s three year olds remain juveniles for another 43 days and that division also has inspired debate. In our view, this divisional puzzle is a lot more vexatious.

It’s the age old Eclipse question: Which is more righteous? The head to head match-up result or is it the body of work?

And that’s what makes Bolt d’Oro vs. Good Magic so interesting.

Good Magic won their only meeting when he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in which Bolt d’Oro was a trip-compromised, good third.

An aside: We personally do not consider trips as either a qualifier or disqualifier of championship status. As they say in court, it's “let the record show...”

The question is this: Is a placing in the G1 Champagne and Juvenile victory more or less impressive than Bolt d’Oro’s two Grade 1 scores and his Juvenile third?

Personally, we’re still mulling the question over and I won't beat myself up whatever I decide.

One of my first Eclipse litmus tests is to count Grade 1 wins and go from there. In that context, this is an open and shut case.

Which carries more prestige and value; a second in the Champagne or a win in the 7-furlong Del Mar Futurity? Sorry, we believe there’s no comparison; the former.

But ‘Bolt’ also won the G1 FrontRunner and that’s a serious victory, which made him 3-for-3 into the Juvenile. Good Magic went into the Juvenile a maiden.

So it’s two G1s and a G1 placing vs. one G1 win and placing, but the one was the big one. I’m a huge believer in the Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies should be regarded as championship defining events.

Choosing the “best horse” is often subjective in horse racing, so it matters not that I believe Good Magic will make the better three year old. But there is plenty of time for that.

It is likely that both camps will sit and await the results of the balloting but there is a clear tie-breaking opportunity next month that would still give these two plenty of time to freshen for a Derby campaign, especially if their trainers take the two-prep tack.

CashCall Futurity, anyone?

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Industry Powers Need to Lead or Get Out of the Game

I first met Dave Gutfreund at the turn of the Millennium while I was having a cup of coffee at New York City Off-Track-Betting. After three decades as a public handicapper, I wasn’t exactly anxious to meet a colleague who called himself “The Maven.”

Well, my preconceived notions were unfounded, which most such notions are. We met on the NYC-OTB racing channel set in a makeshift studio located just off the paddock at Yonkers Raceway.

Don’t ask.

Anyway, the man wasn’t at all as pretentious as his alter ego would portend. He was hard-working and imaginative, had an excellent opinion borne out by his performance as a public handicapper and later his success on the handicapping-contest circuit.

Gutfreund’s name surfaced online and on social media this weekend when he was asked to comment on the controversy surrounding last week’s Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, the million-dollar live-money contest staged at Del Mar, Nov. 3-4.

It was alleged that the winner colluded with other players re: the number of entries permitted. Contestants are limited to a maximum of two contest cards. Breeders’ Cup has withheld the winning purse until it concludes its own investigation.

At once, it’s ironic and interesting that uncoupled entries might become as controversial via grandstand machinations as it is viewed inside a racing-office entry box. Could it be that when big money’s at stake, the front side may be no different than the backside?

Gutfreund was asked his opinion: “Let's just say, as gingerly as I can put this, I have absolutely no faith in the people involved making these decisions. Those are some people who, despite my success in horse racing, are the reason I got out of a game I played for 39 years.”

It does appear that wherever horseplayers turn, the chances are that if they’re not already up against it, the perception that they are never seems to abate.

In the third race at Del Mar Saturday, there was the photo finish process that looked like it would never end. By some estimates it took as long as 12 minutes to separate an 11-10 favorite from a 54-1 outsider at the finish.

As I watched TVG, curious about the result of the photograph, the upshot was that the California stewards could not decide which horse won, and eventually posted the result as a dead heat.

There probably will be more news on this coming out of California today so, in a sense, the question still may be open to debate as to what took so long.

The overarching concern is that this wasn’t the first time a controversial photo finish was posted in Southern California. The question is why it had to take so long? If the finish was thisclose, shouldn’t have been readily apparent to three sets of eyes?

As fans waited to see whether Ishi clung to his tenuous lead or whether Minoso nailed him on the final bob of a head, the amount of time spent in review drew rare criticism from TVG analysts who wondered how, in the digital age, a picture is worth 720 seconds.

Several months ago jockey Kent Desormeaux wondered aloud about the credulity of the photo finish process. While his concerns were justified, it did take a fair amount of chutzpah for him to raise questions considering his penchant for not riding his mounts out to the finish.

Following the race, Steward Scott Cheney was interviewed by TVG and gave a somewhat curious, circuitous answer, one lacking definition and clarity. Cheney told the audience it was so close that the judges wanted a hard copy of the photo to be sure they got it right.

Presumably I wasn’t the only one needlessly confused by Cheney’s explanation that high-definition resolution wasn’t enough to separate two horses, that the judgment was so difficult they had no choice but to declare it a dead heat.

If indeed that were the case, the official sign should have been lit a lot sooner. It’s not the kind of unclear message you want to send to gamblers.

Cheney said that the Stewards want complete transparency. If that’s true, their decision-making process should not be conducted behind closed doors. In countries that walk their transparency talk, stewards’ deliberations are shown in real time.

This incident doesn’t speak to possible malfeasance as much as it speaks to competency or lack thereof. It was unnecessarily embarrassing and only serves to feed ever-present, oft-justified horseplayer paranoia.

Gutfreund had other remarks that he made during an interview while he playing in the Monster Stack tournament, one of 6,700 poker players.

The former professional horseplayer turned professional poker player didn’t give up the game because he wasn’t any good at it. “[Last year] I finished fifth in the biggest handicapping contest, and sixth in the second biggest…

“I was the maven,” Gutfreund exclaimed with embarrassed enthusiasm. “[The handicapping contests] seem like a long time ago. I’ve just had enough. I think poker is the answer, not horse racing.

“The game’s changed so much. It isn’t as good from a gambling aspect. I’m pretty sour on horse racing.”

And what makes this so?

“The computer programmers, the odds changing at the end, certain trainers just dominating--Baffert, Chad Brown, Pletcher. The value that used to be in horse racing just isn’t there anymore.”

The question for racing is how many defections will it take before the message hits home? Racing leaders are going to talk about why handle has remained flat and how to tweak it at the annual University of Arizona industry symposium next month.

In the last year, we have written about how Dr. Steven Roman gave up the game. And we’ve written about some of the HRI Faithful; one that moved from Thoroughbred racing to Harness racing, and how a weekend regular now focuses on big event days only.

Some of these issues are fixable but that would take action, not words. Improved video technology has been promised to Californians for several years. It hasn’t happened. Officiating can be standardized countrywide and still leave room for judgment calls.

Locking computer-arbitrage programs at one or two minutes to post would allow non-programming horseplayers to react to late-odds changes AFTER wild fluctuations. That makes sense on several levels; here is where a post drag really could come in handy.

Whales are given special access. I understand giving your best clients the best service. All businesses try to do that. But how about leveling the playing field for the majority of customers?

And, of course, there is the need for more rigorous out-of-competition testing; no third-party Lasix administration; no raceday medication at all. The latter of course probably will be a non-starter forever. But the rest are easy, common sense fixes.

Racing needs its own coalition of the decent or the game will be lost and never recover. Industry leaders need to lead or get out of the way. When I first met Dave Gutfreund, neither one of us would have believed it would ever come to this. Yet, here we are.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, November 12, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 05, 2017

“Breeders’ Cup: The Horse Racing Event That Never Fails to Fire”

I write the same headline every year. Why? Because, on balance, truer words were never written. The overall quality of racing in this annual two-day event is unparalleled in this country.

Kentucky Derby/Oaks weekend some years might pose a kind of early season challenge, and the new-fangled monster Belmont Day probably comes closest in that top horses from nearly every division comes to Long Island, including a sprinkling of Europeans.

Something else we say every year is that the Kentucky Derby, America’s Race, is the best racing spectacle this country has. Through it Americana still lives, even in these unnecessarily wretched days. The Derby is the stuff of legend; Breeders’ Cup more clearly defines excellence.

Eight championship categories were decided this weekend, six definitively or highly likely, and most probably two more.

But I must say that this renewal, considering the number of highly regarded horses and prior champions—with many of which were absurdly over-bet—did not leave me with the same warm and fuzzy racing emotions as many past event days have.

As an unabashed equine sentimentalist, both Lady Eli and Arrogate deserved better than they got or, in the latter’s case, gave, in their career finales.
In Arrogate’s case, fans and handicappers are best to remember two things, and you need not to take this from me. But you should trust in what Jerry Bailey and Richard Migliore have to say on the subject:

There are only just so many miles in the legs of a race horse, especially those that compete at the top level that often are required to reach the bottom of their ability to win a race.

Or consider what Mike Smith said after the Classic, about hating to blame the racetrack, about believing that the Del Mar surface could have had such a negative effect on the horse that swept the Travers, Classic, Pegasus and Dubai World Cup with such devastating power.

The feeling is that Bob Baffert suspected as well, but didn’t finally admit it to himself or the public that those races emptied out his star colt, leaving little in his competitive tank. Works and gallops are fine but nothing brings out the worst like the stress of competition.

When Arrogate broke out of hand at the start, never getting into the race at any point, I could not help but flash back to how the great Lady’s Secret pulled herself up on the Saratoga backstretch; equine body language for no mas.

Lady Eli, meanwhile, found herself in a jackpot before the field reached the first turn, jostled about between fillies so repeatedly that Irad Ortiz had no choice but to yank her out of the logjam. Thereafter or during, she suffered the worst “superficial” cut we’ve ever seen.

An aside: Ortiz embarrassed himself and insulted the intelligence of the viewing audience by insisting he had a good trip; he got her covered up, found room, but she offered no kick. It wasn’t his fault that he was slammed inside and out as the large field entered a tight turn. Why not use that legitimate excuse?

Instead, every winning rider talks about his good trip, just as every trainer always liked his charge from the start and couldn’t be doing better. But maybe it’s not all their fault; maybe the racing media should ask more pointed questions? Rant over.

But the whole terrible seen just wasn’t what you wanted to see from a mare who overcame so much just to survive founder to become the horse racing story of this or any other year.

That’s why her defeat was so deflating; she never got the chance to show what she had in her last competitive run.

Most alarming, however, were the complete no-shows that raced in Del Mar’s initial Breeders’ Cup. We may find excuses later, real or contrived, but notable horses such as Mor Spirit, Stellar Wind, Lady Aurelia, Unique Bella and Drefong were awful.

To a lesser degree, so were Ribchester, Elate, whose development stopped abruptly, Moonshine Memories and Heavenly Love. Defeat is one thing but virtual non-efforts, even in this game, are another. We’ll get to Bolt d’Oro later.

But all of this is not to say there weren’t other warm horse racing moments: The excitement of Dallas Stewart who, showing a master’s hand with the sparingly campaigned Unbridled Forever, hit his target dead on.

And there was the Peter Miller trampoline act, sans trampoline; an emotional Mark Casse, overcome with the pride-and-joy of family, and Steve Asmussen, who’s rooting Gun Runner home willed a Horse of the Year title, in the works since the day he returned from Dubai.

In addition to the protem Horse of the Year and champion older male, other highly likely Eclipse titlists include sprinter Roy H; three year old male West Coast; three year old filly Abel Tasman and turf champion World Approval.

Will have to do more critical thinking with respect to juvenile championships of both sexes. I will vote for Caledonia Road and Good Magic in the final NTRA poll of 2017 as I believe Breeders’ Cup should define juvenile championships, at minimum tie breakers in vexing categories.

While Bolt d’Oro may or may not prove a better horse than Good Magic at 3, it has little to do with their overall juvenile seasons. But the colt had help in defeat; the Juvenile was not one of Corey Nakatani’s best moments on horseback.

He appeared to hesitate going into the first turn, getting his colt hung out to dry from a wide post, losing any serious chance to prove he was best. One simply cannot lose that much ground and expect to overcome it, even on a track favoring late outside runners.

However, I do believe the term “strong bias” was an over-exaggeration of the conditions. What I do believe is that Del Mar’s narrow layout is unworthy of an international event—not the venue, just the track’s dynamics.

The main track is OK but the turf course compromises true world class turf racing. In our view, all one-mile main tracks should come replete with chutes on both sides of the course, somewhat mitigating the tight turns that by its nature places horses and riders in tight quarters.

But all of what happened over Breeders’ Cup weekend did nothing to minimize the excellence of the event. In fact, given the overall success of the Europeans, the term World Championships never has been more apt.

Written by John Pricci

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