Sunday, May 28, 2017


Open Letter to Martin Panza, NYRA Senior Vice-President, Racing Operations


Dear Mr. Panza,

I’m writing to you on behalf of the racing fans of America and especially your constituents in New York’s metropolitan area.

We are in the midst of a three-day holiday weekend that celebrates true American patriots, especially those who paid the ultimate price for service to their country--this also includes our battle-scarred veterans who returned to their families.

Please don’t misunderstand me, sir. My request on behalf of Thoroughbred enthusiasts in no way compares with, or in any other manner minimizes the sentiment expressed above. Nothing can be compared to the horror of war.

Political correctness, even in the current environment, still has a deserved place where reverence for ideals and ideas must be maintained.

Tomorrow, Memorial Day, will mark the 56th anniversary of the first time I ever witnessed a Thoroughbred horse race.

Like many other New York racing enthusiasts, the only time I went racing was to after-dark harness tracks. Roosevelt Raceway and Yonkers Raceway were teeming with fans in numbers that the present-day NYRA would go to extreme measures to replicate.

And so it was on this revered American holiday that I was given my first opportunity to attend the races. Every seat in the Aqueduct house, stretching from Conduit to Rockaway Boulevards, was filled with racegoers.

I arrived in time to see one of my television heroes; a horse called Kelso. I watched from the grandstand apron and the ground literally shook because “Kelly” was erasing a five-length deficit in the final furlong. In that moment I went over-the-moon, hooked on the sport.

“The version of the Metropolitan run on May 30, 1961 attracted a field of seven and was led postward by Kelso, who somehow managed to be Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old in 1960 without going anywhere near one of the Triple Crown events. Their loss.

“In that ’61 Metropolitan, Kelso was making his second start as a 4-year-old for his trainer, Carl Hanford. He carried 130 pounds, most of it Eddie Arcaro, and beat All Hands, who carried 117, by a nose. Woody Stephens trained All Hands.”
-- Jay Hovdey, DRF, 2011

The Met Mile had become for me, and still can be for others, the kind of race that can attract a holiday visitor to Belmont Park to see a special horse run. And maybe that newcomer can feel the same connected excitement I felt at the end of a holiday weekend.

Of course, I went back the following year to see if a small but mighty Carry Back, a Jack Prince home-bred by ‘Nobody out of Nothing’ and three-year old-champion of 1961, could make his patented late rush and win the Met Mile at 4. He did and he did.

In that first year at the track, 1961--a future Met Mile winner was getting another future author tethered to the game, and she remembered a quote from trainer Jinks Fires. -- Leslie Knauf, “The Rail: New York Times Horse Racing Blog,” 2011, wrote:

“In the week leading up to this year’s Kentucky Derby, 70-year old Jinks Fires, the trainer of Archarcharch, described Carry Back’s memorable victory over Crozier as the first Derby he witnessed.

“That was the race that launched the remarkable story of Carry Back as “the people’s horse” — the same one that ignited a lifelong passion for racing in the heart of one young second grader 50 years ago.”


In 1977, I became Newsday’s first Thoroughbred handicapper. Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown and Forego won the Metropolitan Mile. All was right with the world--until Slew was shipped to California and Forego accepted his weight challenge in the Suburban.

As a result of Forego’s Met Mile win, legendary Racing Secretary Tommy Trotter assigned the giant dark bay highweight of 138 pounds for the Suburban Handicap. Forego lost by a neck to Quiet Little Table, who carried 114 pounds to victory.

“Horse players received another major shock to their wallets yesterday when the great Forego was beaten at Belmont Park a day after Seattle Slew suffered his first defeat in California.

“It is likely a Forego victory in the $106,400 Suburban Handicap would have solidified his chances at a fourth straight Horse‐of‐the‐Year award. Instead, he fell victim to the immense difference in weights he toted.

“When a valet slung the pouch loaded with 44 pounds of lead over his back, Forego's trainer, Frank Whitely Jr., standing on the other side of the horse, shouted, “Don’t miss.

“Trotter said he could not recall the last time a horse in this country carried so much weight. “We assigned that much to Kelso once,” he said, “but his owner refused it."
–- Jerry Eskenazi, The New York Times, 1977

There have been other unforgettable Met moments for racing fans, Mr. Panza, the next one coming for me 17 years later. Three weeks before that year’s Met, a big gray power-ball speedster called Holy Bull failed miserably as that year’s Kentucky Derby favorite.

But on Memorial Day, 1994, my wife Toni and I celebrated this unique American holiday on the Belmont Park apron watching Holy Bull dominate older rivals in gate-to-wire fashion to beat Cherokee Run, later to become 1994’s champion sprinter.

“Three weeks after he was battered and beaten in the Kentucky Derby, the big gray colt Holy Bull revived his ranking as a speed demon yesterday when he outran older stars from wire to wire and won the $500,000 Metropolitan Handicap by 5 1/2 lengths over Cherokee Run.

“It was his first performance since he ran 12th in a field of 14 in the rain and the rough-house of the Derby, and it was memorable. He led every step of the way against a distinguished cast, he ran the third-fastest Metropolitan Mile in the 101-year history of the race and he became only the 15th horse to win it at the age of 3.”
–- Joe Durso, The New York Times, 1994

Then came the unforgettable Ghostzapper 11 years later.

“When Bobby Frankel was a young trainer claiming cheap horses, he watched Secretariat and Affirmed sweep the Triple Crown and wondered what it would be like to condition the best horse on the planet.

“He found out yesterday at Belmont Park. Ghostzapper, the reigning Horse of the Year, effortlessly captured the Grade I $750,000 Metropolitan Mile by six and a quarter lengths.

“A crowd of 15,066, witnessing his first start in seven months, seemed to give him a reverent ovation. Many of the fans had probably passed up other holiday plans in the hopes they would catch a glimpse of greatness.

“They were not disappointed.”
– Joe Drape, The New York Times, 2005

Mr. Panza, I’m imploring you to consider this: Please restore the Metropolitan Handicap to its rightful place on the NYRA racing calendar. For all that it has meant to the history of the game—not to mention that of New York racing—the event rates a day unto itself.

If you would, please bring this subject up with your fellow executives and NYRA Board members when they convene for the 2018 stakes schedule. For those who want to run farther, the 1-1/2 mile Brooklyn, older companion of the Belmont, is there in two weeks.

If nothing else, the Met Mile still can be a nicely spaced bridge to the Suburban on the July 4th holiday weekend, either at its present distance or shorter. Now that there no longer is a Handicap Triple series to consider, reconfiguration is possible, yes?

Indeed, sir, I live in the real world. I acknowledge and have applauded your vision for American racing, trying to place it on an international footing, just as you first envisioned the scenario when you created the American Oaks during your tenure at Hollywood Park.

This international, stamina-rewarding goal was and still is visionary as a future focus, helping American racing in its struggle to regain the popularity and prestige it once enjoyed beyond the five days of Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup.

The Belmont Stakes and July 4th weekend racing festivals not only are an aesthetic success but have succeeded in creating racing events that horsemen and horseplayers worldwide are eager to support. All the metrics support this notion.

Further, I would like it to be fully understood that I long have been a supporter of the New York-bred program--although I’m not sure that having two special event days for state-breds has not blunted the impact of the original Showcase Day somewhat.

When it was a one-day fall event, it was New York’s second largest, only to Belmont Stakes day. However, state-bred races do not merit the attention of people who might like to give racing a try by setting aside one day on a holiday weekend to see a special attraction.

Quite obviously, racing is a game steeped in tradition and history by offering great opportunities to its known stars or to those it helps to create.

If given an opportunity and free time, early impressions made on novice racegoers matter because they can last a lifetime. In acknowledgment to the bottom line, Monday’s six New York-bred stakes would have been a great betting prelude to a true showcase event.

Winning the Met Mile, a true New York fan favorite and every breeder’s dream.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017


Good News Flash: Racing’s Popular Again


The notion that racing may be undergoing a resurgence in the eyes of the sporting public comes as a surprise to me and, yes, the asterisk appearing in the headline is recognition for the fact that when it comes to sports we have become a big event society.

The daily fare, apparently, is regarded as simply the SOS regardless of the sport. Still, the 2017 Triple Crown series has been, to date, an immensely popular happening.

Whether it is in person or on TV, people seem to be warming up to horse racing again, however brief the episode may be.

World class events that feature attractions at the highest levels of performance that draws national over-the-air coverage sends a message that somehow resonates most favorably:

There’s something happening here that’s worthwhile. Sports fans seem to be saying something here, even if the overall message ain’t exactly clear.

Nearly a half-million people went to the races on Kentucky Derby and Preakness weekends, resulting in through-the-roof attendance for the first two jewels in racing’s crowning event. Of course, the Derby, “America’s Race” is the linchpin for all of it.

Between the Derby and Preakness, over 307,000 people either drove, bussed, walked or limo’ed their way into racetrack clubhouses, grandstands and infields of Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course.

The Derby’s 167,000-plus was the second highest attendance of all time, just 3,000 short of the record in spite of a washed-out weekend. Preakness attendance of 140,000-plus was a record-breaker, eclipsing last year’s all-time standard of 135,000.

Oaks Day, meanwhile, was the shortfall in four mega-days of racing yet still attracted 105,000-plus on a rain-filled, 51-degree Friday. You have to go back to 1940 to find an afternoon that was colder.

Pimlico started their record-breaking weekend when 50,000 people plunked down their cash to see all the stakes action, including the nominal feature, the Black-Eyed Susan, a number that topped 2016’s record mark of 47,000. By any measure, these numbers are startling.

When you follow the money, the happy story continues. Total handle on Derby day was more than $192 million, where racing conditions were a lot worse than the intelligence insulting, historically inaccurate and sophomoric “wet-fast” designation.

On Preakness day, a record $97 million was wagered, or 3 percent higher than 2016’s record total, which had eclipsed the previous year by an eye-opening 14%.

More notable perhaps is the resurgence of racing’s popularity in Maryland, in part due to the positive strides taken by The Stronach Group’s $22 million-and-climbing investment in Laurel Park, where the racing is successfully following the Gulfstream Park playbook.

The newly polished image of racing in the Free State resulted in a Preakness weekend handle increase of 7 percent year over year, an improvement of 3 percent 2015’s numbers. And this is at old ‘Old Hilltop’, badly in need of refurbishing if not replacing.

What appears inescapable--even if handle is not the be-all, end-all metric it once was--is that the sporting public, and not just racing fans and horseplayers, is becoming engaged.

The giant publicity boost provided by the Kentucky Derby and the positive, resurgent status currently enjoyed by The Maryland Jockey Club, has been very good for the sport in the overall.

It will be interesting to see what trends portend for New York, compared to other non-Triple Crown years. On balance, given the spacing of the three events and the positive nature of the first two, the orgiastic Belmont Day stakes fest should produce a positive apples-to-apples comparison. Anything less would be a disappointing momentum killer.

To be honest, we’re not certain that New Yorkers have the same passion for racing that it once had. We would love nothing better than a sun-shiny day on which we could be proven dead wrong about that notion. It’s up to you, New York, New York.

CLASSIC EMPIRE #1? Yes, that’s the ranking the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby winner and Preakness runnerup enjoys today, supplanting the dual G1-winning Kentucky Derby champion Always Dreaming atop of the NTRA national three-year-old poll.

I was one of 21 members of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters to vote Classic Empire #1 and Always Dreaming, who was ranked first on 15 of the ballots, at #2. I’ve been getting trolled ever since, expecting the same from some of the HRI Faithful.

For the record, I voted Cloud Computing third. The Preakness winner garnered three first-place votes.

Understand that I struggled mightily before casting my ballot for the Top 10 Three-Year-Olds, a separate category for a second poll that ranks the best of the older “handicap divisions,” an inclusive category that does not delineate male from female, dirt from turf.

When the NTRA Poll was first created, I asked for guidelines and was told that the poll is an amalgam. Like the “rules” governing Horse of the Year Eclipse voting, there are no rules. I was informed that votes are based on accomplishment an opinion, the object being to project end-of-year championships.

Most times I err on the side of accomplishment and even then it’s tough, especially in the open category where no delineations are made, as explained above. Conversely, I admit that, this week, considerations other than “the record” were at play.

I’m no math whiz but have no difficulty counting to two, as in two Grade 1s, including the prestigious Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby for Always Dreaming to one Grade 1 for Classic Empire.

Pardon my parsing but the judgment is based on the fact that Classic Empire is a defending champion, which may not be applicable by definition but a strong consideration given that it is a measure of the same generation.

Always Dreaming and Classic Empire have gone head to head twice, with each taking a turn finishing ahead of the other. Parenthetically, I get that Always Dreaming actually won his race by a wide margin while the other suffered a final-strides runnerup loss.

Qualitatively, I believe their performances were relatively equivalent; a perfect-trip bias aided blowout Derby victory vs. a got slammed so hard that he could have given up the ghost right there, and justifiably so.

But Classic Empire didn’t, of course. Instead, he spotted Always Dreaming about eight or nine lengths of ground (75 feet wider trip), raced on the slower portion of the CD surface, and finished fourth of 20, beaten by 8-3/4 lengths.

Making his third start in five weeks, it was no contest between the two as Always Dreaming reacted, bouncing badly from two consecutive huge lifetime bests, which was to be expected.

Always Dreaming ran a lifetime top in the Derby on the Thoro-Graph scale, which is a first for us, likely due to relatively short rest for all and the mile and a quarter trip.

But he gave no signs of regression in his training for the Preakness. To the contrary, he was doing so well that trainer Todd Pletcher made an out-of-character knocking-on-wood gesture when interviewed 25 hours before the Preakness.

In my view, Classic Empire appears to be the tougher and likely better of the two horses. The only way anyone will know for sure is for them to meet again on a fast surface when they are both fresh and given good no-excuses trips.

Until then, we voted for the colt we think is the “better horse.” Let the debating begin.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 21, 2017


“Horses Make Liars of Us All”


What makes this game fascinating, what keeps handicappers and players coming back for more, is the challenge of knowing that one can never learn enough to conquer the unconquerable.

What’s the old expression; that you can beat a race but you can’t beat the races? Actually, that racetrack cliché applies to horsemen, too. The latest example took place in Baltimore yesterday.

Shame on me for not remembering who I learned one of my early lessons from—think it have been Billy Turner when we were brand spanking new to big-time turf writing and were in awe of Turner’s eventual 1977 Triple Crown champion, Seattle Slew.

“Horses make liars of us all,” was my first backstretch lesson from a horseman, one that unfailingly continues to be taught every day that horses race.

Today’s modern message is subtly different. When trainers are asked when and where a horse will run next, the trainer-speak response most often heard is “we’ll let the horse tell us.”

Well, what Always Dreaming was telling trainer Todd Pletcher, and anyone who watched video of him train every day in the run-up to Preakness 142, was a lie.

Indeed, he was settled, relaxed and enjoying himself, in the relative calm of Pimlico Race Course, but he remained a hellion when he went out for his morning exercise.

Exercise rider Nick Bush and the draw reins were still in evidence as the horsemen around the colt tried to keep his energy level bottled up, saving his strength for Preakness Day and a chance to return to New York with a chance to win racing’s 13th Triple Crown.

“He keeps checking all the boxes,” Pletcher told everyone who asked, even those unwilling to believe their own lying eyes. The late bloomer appeared indefatigable, unbeatable, possibly on his way to becoming “one of the ones,” a great race horse.

In the end, however, he turned out to be merely equine--“merely” the 143rd equine winner in Kentucky Derby history and horses make liars of us all.

The first time I learned a hard lesson about what can happen to a strong Derby winner on his way to a possible assault on the Triple Crown came 16 years later in Baltimore.

Sea Hero, benefiting from a great ride by Jerry Bailey, found room along the insider soon after straightening away and powered passed everyone, winning with something in reserve.

The long-striding colt gave Hall of Famer MacKenzie Miller his first Kentucky Derby and owner Paul Mellon a trophy to match one for England’s most prestigious race for 3-year-olds, the 1974 Epsom Derby with a 50-1 shot, Snow Knight.

That spring in Baltimore, I decided to attach myself to the hip of the late Danny Furr, “Mr. Mack’s” trusted top assistant and we walked to the track every morning behind Sea Hero.

The colt appeared to be doing great and there was great expectation they’d return home to New York with a Triple Crown in their sites. I made the walkover with them Preakness day, a time when almost all Preakness horses were saddled in the infield.

Like Always Dreaming, Sea Hero was checking all the boxes, too. I remained in the infield to watch the Preakness from the outside fence of the turf course and it was thrilling. The only disappointment was Sea Hero, who at no time did any serious running.

I re-attached myself to Furr and was standing with him as Bailey walked by on his way back to the jock’s room to prepare for the next race. The rider never broke stride, only slowing down long enough to say “I was empty all the way.” I was stunned.

Furr nodded to Bailey that he got the message and headed back to the Preakness barn to attend Sea Hero. I stood there, my thoughts my only companion, left to wonder “what the hell am I going to write now?”

It’s nearly a quarter-century later now, but this time I knew exactly what to write about what I saw from 940 miles away from Baltimore, in Suite 21 that serves as a press box high atop Gulfstream Park racetrack.

As Pletcher put it, “I was a little concerned coming by the wire the first time. He was there but it wasn’t like he was dragging Johnny there, actually. It felt like he was on a loose rein by the time they turned up the backside.”

Concurred Johnny Velazquez: “He just got beat, that's it. Not much to say. I knew I was in trouble on the backstretch when the other horse got to him, almost head to head, and engaged him. I knew he didn’t have it… that's horse racing.”

The rider was asked whether the Preakness pace was too fast on what had become a tiring, drying-out wet surface: “Look at the horse that was next to me,” was Velasquez’s only and appropriate response.

Classic Empire didn’t deserve to lose, indeed taking the race to Always Dreaming, just as Mark Casse and Julien Leparoux promised they would for the past 10 days.

And while an obvious case can be made that the Derby, especially when paired up with his big Florida Derby effort, sapped Always Dreaming’s reserves—note that Classic Empire’s Preakness was his third start in five weeks.

And after his troubled and enervating Derby, which followed an all-out Arkansas Derby score, he likely proved that he is the better, tougher of the two Preakness favorites.

“I said to Julien second doesn’t mean anything,” Casse explained. “I said ‘let’s go and try to win this thing.’ We were going to be aggressive and that’s what we did. It ended up getting us in the end.”

Said Leparoux: “The only thing is Always Dreaming backed out of the race early so I got to the lead early, maybe too early. I got to the lead early and the winner just came at us at the end. He ran a big, big race.”

No doubt. “I was hoping that horse came to him earlier,” Casse later said of Cloud Computing. “He tried to kick back, but we were second best today.”

Clearly, Cloud Computing was telling Chad Brown, who won his first Classic, the truth. The horse told Brown with his outstanding training and six weeks rest that he would run his best lifetime race at Pimlico.

So in the end, new school did get the money. Brown, always quick to complement his staff, did listen to his horse. Cloud Computing had enough points to enter the Derby but, with Practical Joke already in, Brown did not allow Derby fever to dictate his schedule.

“I’m not going to dispute that running a fresh horse was part of our strategy,” Brown told NBC’s Bob Neumeier. “Classic Empire and Always Dreaming are two outstanding horses and our strategy was if we’re ever going to beat them let’s take them on two weeks rest while we have six, and it worked.”

Given proper time and circumstance, all plans work, old school and new school. Because one can never learn enough to conquer the unconquerable.

Written by John Pricci

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