Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Derby Dreams Do Come True

Twenty--that’s the number of times you should view the Kentucky Derby replay if you want to know everything that happened in last Saturday’s feature race at Churchill Downs.

Or you could take our word for it: The best horse won and reversible bad-luck trips by others were not going to change Saturday’s outcome. It only would have made things a little more interesting. Here are some cliff notes:

is a very good horse and if he keeps this up he could become a great one; no hyperbole intended. Did he have a perfect trip? Of course, but it was one of his own making.

No need to watch him in replay. If you remember his Florida Derby, then you’ve seen his Kentucky Derby: Speed from the start, establishing position, then moving to a stalking position in mid-backstretch.

He took the lead when his rider pushed the button, was set down at headstretch and drew off, under pressure until the conclusion was foregone, winning with something left.

The only thing you possibly should review is the gallop-out. As Vic Stauffer might intone, he was straight and strong, very strong.

LOOKIN AT LEE was given a perfect trip by Corey Borel, err, Lanerie. He hugged the fence, went around one tiring rival at mid-far-turn, accelerating while he cut the corner into the lane.

That is highly unusual for a supposed one-run deep closer, and he continued his strong rally to the wire. This should have surprised no one. He’s made up ground in the stretch in top company all his two-turn life: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

IRISH WAR CRY: I think Graham Motion probably has it figured out but doesn’t want to say, at least not yet but for the second time this year his horse bounced off big efforts. First in the Fountain of Youth, now the Derby.

Still can’t get over how Irish War Cry, with Rajiv Maragh sneaking a peak backward curling into the far turn, went from loaded to empty in a matter of three jumps: Never saw anything quite like it, missteps notwithstanding.

The reason we think Motion has it figured out is because in the immediate aftermath of the heated battle, he mentioned a next possible target: The Haskell, which makes perfect sense.

This gives Irish War Cry recovery time and would be the shortest van ride for a million-dollar Grade 1 he will ever take from his Fair Hill base, the Pennsylvania Derby of fall notwithstanding. The colt was not a happy pre-Derby camper.

The distance, surface and natural bias favoring speed at Monmouth Park makes perfect sense, especially considering that, assuming good health, the Brooklyn Boys et al are likely to take the Jim Dandy route to the Travers.

Saratoga would be a great spot for a possible rematch between these Derby favorites unless, of course, Motion decides he will await the Pennsylvania Derby in the fall before a presumed challenge of his elders where the surf meets the turf in November.

Well, it wasn’t quite Seattle Slew’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, but after the gate wipeout, to recover, re-rally while losing ground, getting bumped again by inside rivals coming out for the midstretch drive, to keep coming was an amazing effort.

Clearly, the 2016 juvenile champion is one classy and tough sonuvabitch.

With a clean trip we don’t believe any horse was capable of handling Always Dreaming on Saturday, although the stretch run would have been a lot more exciting.

Let’s hope that the colt recovers from an eye injury sustained during the race—it improved markedly on Monday--sufficiently to make a trip to Baltimore.

BATTLE OF MIDWAY deserves some love. On the engine and stalking three wide throughout, he put pressure on the winner bending into the far turn while Irish War Cry put pressure on him, and he stayed well for show.

Yes, the wet track kept the speed alive throughout the day and that the slow last half-mile is the result of a fast first half-mile.

The following horses had their chances compromised by circumstances during the running. So draw a line through your troubled horse of choice and is deserving a chance to win next out given proper spotting:

Girvin (clobbered and eliminated), J Boys Echo (clobbered and eliminated), Thunder Snow (propped, buck-jumped, or as rider Christophe Semillon put it post-race: “I don’t know what happened after the start”).

To a lesser degree, Untrapped, Tapwrit, McCraken, Patch and State of Honor’s disappointing runs were mitigated by circumstances.

As a fan, I’m hyper-sensitive to the recognition that horse racing gets from the public and media. This is written in Vegas. Here, in New York, and back in SoFla, it was as if May was missing its first Saturday. There was an astonishing lack of buzz surrounding this year’s Derby in mainstream-sports America.

So it’s nothing short of amazing the numbers this event generated on a number of metric scales. Handle, despite rainy-dark-day sloppy conditions was through the roof—all-sources wagering at record levels of $209.2 million for the day, up 9% year over year, $139.2 million of it on the Derby, an 8% increase over the previous record.

All-sources handle for Derby Week also set a record of $284.1 million, a yearly increase of 7%.

On-track handle figures were not made available. Attendance for the week of 349,455 was down 7% from last year’s record total, spearheaded by rainy Oaks Day’s 15.6% decrease with temperatures the lowest since 1940.

Derby Day attendance of 158,070, the seventh highest figure in track history, was also eye-opening. Having covered 18 Kentucky Derbies and all but one Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, I was happy to be comfortably ensconced inside the Orleans Race Book.

Overnight ratings also were quite surprising given the lack of advance equine star power. The overnights were strong and much improved at 10.5, a 9% gain over 2016. It was the second-highest rating in the last quarter-century.

Additionally, Equibase.com reported record pageviews of 3.8 million according to Google Analytics, an 18 percent increase over 2016. Traffic on the Today’s Racing app had 5 million screen views, a 6 percent increase.

On a personal note, I did not meet a single staff member of the Orleans staff who did not make us feel like valued guests, from the registration desk to race book staffers. The registration desk quickly resolved issues and provided professional top grade service.

If there is anything lamentable, it’s that the Orleans--horse racing’s first best friend in Vegas and still home to the Handicapping World Series Tournament each March--has de-emphasized horse racing in their product offerings.

Given that sports betting has trended higher in recent years and, in light of the numbers generated by classics like the Derby, other major event days and prestige race meets meets such as Saratoga and Del Mar, the Orleans should make a concerted effort to recapture a brand identity horseplayers have long related to.

Since my last visit in 2016, Boyd Gaming has invested heavily in the property and has given the Orleans a tasteful and much appreciated facelift. We understand they intend to continue making upgrades.

Should further improvements happen, we hope and recommend that the Race Book and the services provided therein are included. Horseplayers are loyal gamblers that show their appreciation for amenities with faithful economic support.

May 8, 2017

Written by John Pricci

Comments (25)


Sunday, May 07, 2017

Todd Pletcher by any other name: “Carnac the Magnificent”

LAS VEGAS--After all the calculations, the special training techniques, the gooey going--all of it--in the final analysis the best horse won. The notion that Always Dreaming is the best of his generation no longer is up for debate.

Just as he had in Tampa, and twice in Hallandale, Always Dreaming reaffirmed his ability to go a distance and win with authority. He took his talents to Louisville and did it again in front of the whole world.

As much as it was validation for the scary good colt and his band of believers, the cheering led by a couple of boys from Brooklyn, it was confirmation that his trainer is a certain future first-ballot Hall of Famer.

#oneforfortyfive #not

In fact, let’s call it one-for-one--as in the only time the public thought Todd Pletcher should win the Kentucky Derby.

Appropriately, his second Derby victory came with long-time collaborator Johnny Velazquez, A Hall of Famer who still finds the sweet spot anytime he’s in the tack.

And so their colt went from rank and tough to control one weekend to Kentucky Derby champion the next. Being obstreperous is a big issue.

Just ask Graham Motion about the headstrong Irish War Cry before yesterday’s race. Ask Mark Casse about the history of Classic Empire. A horse’s mind is a terrible thing to waste. Sometimes it needs reining in.

Too tough to control? No problem, get exercise rider Nick Bush on the phone--and get me a set of draw reins.

In less than a week, Always Dreaming was still his good-feeling self but was much more comported in the parade postward, his energy evident but controlled.

Just as the 49-year-old showed a master’s hand four years ago with Palace Malice, he did so again with Always Dreaming.

Recall that the 2013 Belmont Stakes winner, a virtual runoff in Derby 139, Pletcher used the five weeks between classics to manage his colt’s speed by removing blinkers. Similarly, his latest project literally needed handling.

Last Monday, Bush and the new reins were in place and by Saturday the colt was in Churchill’s winners’ circle, surrounded by all the connections and his emotional trainer, overwhelmed by the moment.

Tears of joy could not be hidden behind rainy-day sunglasses, as if the normally measured Pletcher did not want to allow visitors a peak into his soul.

“These were not crocodile tears,” NBC’s Kenny Rice later confirmed. “He was flat out, seriously, big-time crying.”

Pletcher’s unflappability is legendary. There is the all-too familiar trainer- speak that’s employed on the racetrack every day, then there’s Pletcher-speak which deals much more in specifics.

Always thoughtful, most often illuminating, he turns pre- and post-race interviews into teachable moments for fans, horseplayers and media alike.

Yes, Pletcher’s equivocating is sometimes maddening, “sort of.” But it’s as if everything in his equine world is just fine and he doesn’t want to run the risk of inviting bad karma by tempting racing’s fickle gods of fate.

We have stated this before, as have many others. If he were not a horseman, Todd Pletcher would be the CEO of a company in any field of his choosing.

He has taken the lessons earned from his stewardship as a Wayne Lukas assistant and raised that art form to another level, becoming the most emulated horseman in the game.

We don’t remember exactly how many years ago it was when we noticed that he worked his willing and able horses precisely every seven days.

A lot like NFL coaches, owners with other trainers must have noticed the same thing and now seemingly all trainers have established regular training schedules, many of them at the highest levels of the sport.

Without good and sound horses this would not be possible, of course. But now all successful trainers employ routine workout patterns that work best for them; every six days, or every eight days, or a combination of the two.

Pletcher’s attention to detail is obvious; any observable moment in the walking ring is proof of that.

Make no mistake: He is as guilty as any horseman when it comes to adhering to racing’s prime directive: Establish share-holder value by winning the proscribed events then say all the right things to protect that reputation.

His young pupils are almost cookie-cutter types, as almost each one is a fine, athletic-looking individual. In the main, there never seems to be a hair out of place. But it’s more than just that, too; it’s job performance.

In Uncle Mo’s three-year-old season, as the 2010 juvenile champion was being prepared for his assault on the Kentucky Derby, we drove north to Palm Meadows one Sunday morning to watch him work.

Back then, Pletcher’s horses were stabled in Boynton Beach, a very long stone’s throw from his current winter stabling address, the more bucolic and much quieter Palm Beach Downs.

It was a beautiful morning and we were on the clocker’s stand awaiting his arrival when all those teams of workers bearing the initials T A P on the saddlecloth entered the backside of the hectic PMM training track.

Team after team breezed by. Pletcher would follow them on the gallop-out before finally removing the binoculars from his eyes to peer down at his watch, conferring and verifying the time with assistant trainer Tristan Barry.

Virtually a minute or two later, the next team would begin their trials and that’s how his morning went, just like clockwork.

Meanwhile, I was around Uncle Mo only once in 2010 and then from a distance, the press box at Churchill Downs for the 2010 Breeders’ Cup. I confess that I would never be able to pick him out of a lineup.

In a break between sets, I leaned over and, in practically a whisper, I asked the trainer to tell me when his star pupil was on the racetrack.

Without averting his gaze through the binoculars and without hesitation, he said “he’s in the third set coming out now, he’s the one on the outside.”

Having had barely enough time to notice, I said “whoa, how’d you know that?” He put the glasses down, turned around, looked me in the eye and said: “I know everything,” before turning trackside and raising his binoculars again.

You’ll just have to take my word on this: There wasn’t a hint of braggadocio in his words, only reassurance, confident that he’s in control. Ask his owners and they probably will tell you the same thing.

I’ve known Pletcher since he was Darrell Wayne’s assistant and was at Gulfstream Park in February of 1996 when he saddled his first career winner, Majestic Number.

There have been well over 4,000 more since, including seven Eclipse Awards as America’s leading trainer. Clearly, he must know something.

As Paul Cornman and I passed away the time awaiting the Derby 143 horses to step onto the track to the strains of “that song,” as the jockeys call it, Paul told me a story.

“You remember the late clocker, Cole Rosen? Well, it was toward the end of his life. He no longer was working and was having a tough time of it.

“I have a friend who knows them both, and he’s very close with Todd. He told me that Todd called Cole, asked him what he needed, anything at all, and that he would be highly insulted to learn that Cole had reached out to someone else first.”

Just know that if Rosen had, Pletcher, the man who sees everything, would have known that, too. That’s the part no one sees behind the imperturbable exterior.

May 7, 2017

Coming Tuesday: Our take on Derby 143 itself and other thoughts from the desert

Written by John Pricci

Comments (20)


Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The 96-Hour Entry Box: Confident, Informed Players Bet More Money

I don't know if it's myopia, personal inconvenience, or attitudes that prevents races from being drawn 96 hours in advance.

If you value your own business interests by providing excellent customer service to horseplayers, the benefits are obvious.

Because “it’s-always-been-done-this-way” notwithstanding, is there a good reason why the Kentucky Derby could not have been drawn today, or the Oaks card on Monday?

Most of the industry is on a 72-hour entry schedule so that racing officials can have one whole and entire day off. And that’s certainly fair. They have lives like everyone else.

And it also allows horsemen and backstretch workers to duck out a little early one day a week. And that’s not too much to ask considering their 24/7/365 work schedule.

Nothing changes for the racing office except for the fact that early in the process, entries may be harder to fill. That’s the nature of horses and horsemen; waiting until the last minute until making the decision to run, also not a bad thing.

But entries should be drawn 96 hours on a daily. Many smaller tracks already do this. They must think that by getting their product out earlier it gives them a better chance to compete with the big boys.

And this does not suppose that major tracks, who compete with each other all the time, couldn’t do the same thing.

Isn’t it in racing’s best interest to get the product out as soon as reasonably possible so that customers can decide where they want to invest their labor-intensive handicapping time and their betting money that weekend?

Handle has decreased precipitously in the modern era for various and sundry reasons. Betting dollars at every level of play are finite.

If horseplayers and racing is to survive, what’s needed is a little more time to create personal-best betting menus, those that not only play to their handicapping and betting strengths and by having the time to prepare without having their brains go on data tilt.

I’ve heard the reason why this can’t be done many times before: There’s medication involved and in cases of a late scratch, medication thresholds could prove an obstacle if a horseman wanted to enter another suitable spot a day or two later.

Filling a card is no given, not even at major tracks, as we learned last week at Santa Anita. Obviously there are too many dates, too few horses, licensing accords--all standing in the way of progress.

Another obstacle is the greed factor, not wanting to close entries until every eligible horse on the grounds has a program number to match that day—as if there weren’t another card to fill tomorrow.

Has anyone noticed there are far more 12-race Saturday cards than there used to be, programs that make it possible to card three Pick 4 and/or other mega-race wagers that are expensive to play and difficult to win. Twelve-race cards have their place: Event Days.

But let’s be honest. There’s been no real urgency to cater to rank-and-file players or concerted efforts to create new bettors by expanding. i.e. simplifying, betting menus.

Promotionally, either in-house or via national broadcast, players are urged to “get involved,” that the quarter-million dollar carryover is just sitting there waiting for you to scoop it up, begging the question whether all horseplayers are a minute old.

Unfortunately, making scores may be the only way to survive the high-takeout, high-risk modern game long term because the greed genie has been out of the bottle for decades now.

On balance, today’s bettors lose more money than their bankroll justifies and do not win as often; consequently, there is less betting-money to churn. Turnover in any gambling session anywhere is critical to successful wagering operations.

What is so frustrating is that management realizes this but they seem to prefer the champagne-wishes and caviar-dreams approach in pursuit of topping last year’s metrics.

Ten or 11-race midweek cards are counter-productive if the goal is to put on the best daily show possible. People will bet that same C-Note or two on an eight or 9-race program than they would on 10 or 11. Haven’t considered simulcast into this, either.

In case track officials are unaware, serious bettors at every level of betting strata specialize. Some players only bet stakes and allowances, or claiming sprinters, or turf. Many specialize in maiden first-time starters--wherever they’ve had the most success.

These days, that may mean two races from Belmont, three from Churchill and three more from Santa Anita. The turf maven will play races anywhere where those events remain on the grass, etc., etc.

Catering to horseplayers is the farthest thing there is from rocket science.

With respect to Churchill Downs Inc., why is it that I was doping out the Louisiana Derby past performances on the Saturday before the race? If it works at Fair Grounds, why not Churchill proper?

But for the biggest race, all must wait until Wednesday before knowing Kentucky Derby post positions ad what the great undercard will offer. Is there any real good reason for that? A 30-minute TV program, or building the suspense, really?

But there’s no good reason why racing, for the thoughtful convenience of its betting public and its own bottom line, shouldn’t go to a 96-hour entry box. Horsemen eventually will accept it, especially if given no alternative.

Can’t racetracks in every jurisdiction makes this simple commitment to the public and, by extension, its own fiscal health?

I realize that after decades of trying, the sport has been unable to coordinate post times, for whatever reason. But there are uncontrollable outside factors that come into play on raceday.

This is an easy, extremely helpful change to the current system for the benefit of all. So could someone please bring this up at the next national gathering of racetrack practitioners?

We all need the most sensible time-management possible. A better prepared player makes more informed choices and needs the time to construct betting strategies. A confident horseplayer bets more money. It’s no more complicated than that.

So, please, take this into consideration.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (9)


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