Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The Fourth of July and the Horse: An American Metaphor

Today is Independence Day, a time when we celebrate America’s existence as both a sovereign country and an ideal. And I am thinking about what I always think about; horses, the animals that made America great.

This recollection is different, way different I think because it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to look over the land and recognize it as the one most of us old horseplayers grew up in.

I’m thinking about the horses that still run wild and free out west and how their existence in under attack in modern day America. I think about those equines that helped conquer the west, so that our borders may extend from sea to shining sea.

I’m thinking about the horses who helped us win wars, including wars of our own choosing because of the immorality of slavery, a way of life in half the country, should be no more.

And I’m thinking about a spirited rider-less steed, the iconic Black Jack, who led the procession for an assassinated President who reminded us that “this nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal.”

And that “the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” It just doesn’t get more American than that.

I’m thinking about all the horses that were but no longer are part of the landscape of a recognizable America, race horses that symbolize the spirit of competition, a sport that was organized five centuries ago.

I’m thinking about horse racing history in America on this historic day of declarative independence, how it all began on the Plains of Hempstead in 1665 when the first race meet in this country was supervised by New York’s colonial governor.

The Hempstead Plains is the modern day region where Westbury and Garden City collide, not far from Belmont Park where today’s listed Manila Stakes for three year old turf milers will replace the middle jewel of a once celebrated handicap triple crown, the Suburban.

But the Suburban will be run, but not until Saturday, which is fine, but Gov. Nicholls, under whose aegis the first race meet was conducted, is replaced by a present day Governor who acts as if he hates horse racing, and that’s not very American.

So at a time when we remember celebrating horse racing on the Fourth of July, I’m one week removed from reading about the trial of a trainer from a nearby state, a state like so many others that used horse racing as entrée into lottery and other forms of gaming.

In this trial, at least two trainers and four veterinarians testified that therapeutic medications were illegally administered on race-day by “95 to 98 percent of the trainers at the racetrack [Penn National].”

Also acknowledged was how medication requests by trainers were back-dated by veterinarians, drugs misbranded, espionage that helped the guilty beat the testers and how samples from different horses were combined to obfuscate the findings.

The takeaway from the story is that the testing system in place was gamed by racing’s practitioners. Further, the trainers and vets testified that electrical devices were in wide use at that track, “just like at every racetrack in America.”

Now that state, like the other racing jurisdictions that helped grandfather slots and the like into law, is looking for ways to renege on its compact with a sport that has become a niche activity in the minds of today’s culture that widely considers racing a relic.

Like most everything in today’s one-off society, tradition is discarded in the name of progress, just another word for commerce. Like every horseplayer and racing practitioner that lives in the real world, raceday medication eventually will sound the death knell.

The realities associated with latter-day horse racing has effected the way horseplayers handicap and bet their money, how horsemen place their horses, avoiding certain races when they think that trying to defeat horses conditioned by super-trainers is a futile ask.

The times, they are no longer changin’. They have already changed and will continue to do so beyond recognition of the ideals and institutions made America, and a sport, great in the first place.

Americans and horseplayers with common sense should root, root, root for the home team; the institutions and check-and-balance procedures that attempt to level a playing field for all.

It’s fine that rich and powerful have edges the masses don’t enjoy, but the shame of it is that too much never seems to be enough. Boundaries and rhetoric that has been stretched beyond reasonable limits, in all things, are no more.

There is much evidence to suggest American norms have eroded and are continuing spiraling downward.

Racetrackers are fond of saying that no man is bigger than the game, just as the Founders believed no man is greater than the ideals upon which a nation was built. Now both institutions are under attack and never believe that the unthinkable can’t happen here.

The latest polls show that of the 36 richest countries in the world, America is the only one lacking universal health care. It’s the only issue that all Americans seem to agree on anymore, partisans notwithstanding.

It is America’s middle class--the ever-shrinking majority of every stripe and color—that remains under attack daily by the power elite because they have succeeded in pitting America vs. Americans. And recalls what happens to a house divided against itself.

In politics, present-day attitudes are a distortion of how Americans are supposed to treat each other. The philosophy was advanced and popularized by a novelist by a Russian born and educated American, Ayn Rand.

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed,” said Frederick Douglass.

What moves me this Independence Day are the lyrics of a ballad penned by one of America’s great blues guitarist and lyricist, Albert Castiglia, born of a Cuban mother and Italian father in New York City, 1969.

Castiglia prides himself on writing from his heart. To wit:

“What’s this world coming to when kindness has become a crime?
And you don’t answer when your brother needs a dime…
Can someone answer this simple question for me
Who are the brave, Where are the free?
“It’s a cold, cold feeling when you walk down the street
Without noticing the sadness at your feet.
It seems okay, if you’re a stray without a bone
But you’re looked down upon, if you’re a man without a home.
“Why can’t we make it, how can we survive?
It’s hard work every day just trying to stay alive,
But we won’t give up, we won’t bend and we won’t bow…
And I know we’re gonna make it somehow
“What’s this world coming to when you don’t see children smile,
When a woman’s frowned upon for trying to feed a child.
Take a look around, tell me what you see,
Look in the mirror, are you brave, are you free?
“Time to pay attention to your fellow man indeed
Time for sharing and caring…planting love’s seed.
Pray for a better… for your children and for mine,
Pray we find the answer while we still have some time…
“The hungry get blamed for the hunger,
The poor get stuck with the bill.
The weight of the world is on our shoulders,
It’s enough to challenge our will...
Yeah, but I know we’re gonna’ make it somehow…
And I know we’re gonna make it… somehow.”

Written by John Pricci

Comments (12)


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Triple Crown Change? Time for Horsemen to Walk The Talk

Horses are not machines! Write that on the blackboard 500 times—and write it across, not down. This assignment should be at least as hard as, say, winning the Triple Crown. I jest, of course, but it’s kidding on the square.

With 2017 Kentucky Derby horses ducking this year’s Preakness and Belmont Stakes left and right for various reasons, and with the only horse that raced in all three legs finishing progressively worse over the series, cries for lengthening the sequence have resurfaced.

Let’s get this out of the way now: Yes, American Pharoah was special enough to end the most recent draught and, yes, it takes a special horse to do it, and continuing the Triple Crown’s five-week span honors the legacy of those dozen Triple Crown winners.

The problem is that most of horse racing’s prime demographic does not have another 37 years to wait for the next one. And for those who lament the lack of interest in horse racing in the modern mainstream, it’s an opportunity lost to possibly creating new fans.

I am as old-school and as traditional as the next septuagenarian but the idea that lengthening the series weakens it is simply untrue.

By attracting more Derby runners back for the Preakness and Belmont, how does that make the Triple Crown easier to win? By getting those horses back for a rematch with a better chance to be close to the top of their game, how does that cheapen the prize?

Most of those who would lengthen the Triple Crown would be satisfied to simply bring the Preakness back in three weeks while leaving the Belmont in its current place on the Classics calendar.

Moving the Preakness back one week would make a great deal of difference. In all likelihood, it would prop up a race in need of a boost. The Belmont will always remain popular at the entry box because 1-1/2 miles is the great unknown, worthy of shot-taking.

As for tradition --and with the surging popularity of international racing--a look at the British Triple Crown is useful. Its third leg, the Gr.1 St. Leger Stakes at 14 furlongs, is run in September and they’ve been doing it longer, since 1776. How’s that for convention?

Like the American Triple Crown, the British Triple Crown has had its dates and distances altered over the course of time. There is plenty of precedent for change that would be good for the horses and the sport--maybe not now but another 37 years from now.

The five-to-six weeks spacing so prevalent today is because the majority of horsemen at the highest levels now concede that the modern thoroughbred on raceday medication, primarily Lasix, needs time to rehydrate, recharge, and get his mind and body right.

Time always has been in a horse’s best interest.

There’s nothing wrong or less-than about this concession to reality. If all Triple Crown horses have a chance to show up on the day at tops, how does this make the task easier? Blind adherence to the past has put racing in many of the straits it finds itself today.

I had an idea that was roundly booed when first proposed three years ago: Spacing the series over a longer duration around traditional American holidays. It was pooh-poohed because the feeling was that excitement and interest could not be sustained over time.

My proposal was to card the Derby on the first Saturday in May as always, a branding of America’s race that should never be altered.

But the Preakness should be run on or in very close proximity to the Memorial Day weekend. With all due respect to the ideals for which the day was created—is the summertime lid-lifter.

How can associating horse racing with American heroes be a bad thing? It can be a teachable moment for youngsters should learn about the role horses played in making America great.

Staging a Memorial Day weekend horse-racing event should be a marketer’s dream. Of course, it would also provide at least one more week’s freshening, longer when the calendar dictates.

Finally, the conclusion of the Triple Crown should provide added fireworks and added promotion of horse racing on the country’s July 4th holiday festivities. A July 4th Belmont still leaves enough time for a Haskell or Travers run.

Back in the day, the word was that Pimlico would never move the Preakness out another week because all of those collegiate infield revelers would have returned home for the summer.

But modern entertainment marketing accentuates events and their exclusivity which comes at a cost; pricing many out of today’s leisure market. So that timeworn excuse no longer flies.

Another obstacle to Triple Crown change comes from the fact that the new NYRA has taken great pains to create an international weekend of racing surrounding the July 4th holiday with their Stars and Stripes festival, an idea worth applauding.

No reason why the Belmont couldn’t be part of that, perhaps even drawing greater international interest from those already coming for a world-class grass and distance-racing festival?

“Doing what’s best for the horse” has become a popular mantra when today’s horsemen discuss future scheduling. Maybe those groups could apply subtle pressure on The Stronach Group and NYRA to consider altering their Triple Crown events for that very reason.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (40)


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Hey Dad, Have You Ever Taken Your Kid to the Races?

In the 50s, 60s and 70s, when horses still had a presence in everyday life, there was a lot more advertising about bringing dad out to the track on Father’s Day. But that’s not really the case anymore.

Back in the day, dads and uncles took their sons and nephews to the track on a Saturday, providing a fascinating wide-eyed introduction to the spectacle of Thoroughbred racing.

This, of course, was prologue. Betting off-track did not exist, neither did simulcasting, the Internet, or even cable TV as we know it today. In the minds of youngsters, the racetrack was an exciting wide-eyed spectacle of sights, sounds and colors, and it still can be.

But the advertising we see today is left to in-house invitations via a closed simulcasting loop because racing coverage, right down to entries-and-results agate, no longer exists in mainstream media, special big events notwithstanding.

Ergo, it doesn’t make sense for local racetracks to market en masse because sports fans in the main are unaware of the sport beyond the Triple Crown and in places outside of Saratoga, Del Mar and Lexington. Consequently, young people never get the message.

Racing’s omni-presence went out with high-button shoes. And what’s left to promote is no less controversial. Are we selling a grand, colorful, upscale entertainment experience, or a gambling game played with expensive animals?

New fans can be created only by their live introduction to racing’s grand spectacle. If it is meant to be, it will happen only after seeing horse racing’s unique blend of color, excitement and chance.

A message must be sent that racing is a pastime worthy of immersion by some of the world’s most influential people; much more than simply a thinking man’s gambling vehicle.

I’ve written this often, so please indulge me once more. When I was 16, I was compelled to accompany my parents and aunt and uncle to Roosevelt Raceway one Saturday night.

It was the second International Trot and the mile-and-a-quarter event was won by Holland’s Hairos II, with Italian and American horses completing the trifecta. We were a family of five that summer night in 1960. There also was another 50,332 in attendance.

My father gave me $6 for three $2 wagers and so I picked out three names I liked, printed in the Daily Mirror’s bold type. I went 3-for-3: Count Pick, Speedy Pick and Garnet Queen. I turned $6 into $13. I was rich.

But this wasn’t meant to be a Father’s Day tale—I miss you, dad—rather as an expansive reply to a comment made by one of the HRI Faithful at the bottom of Indulto’s latest column, a man who goes by the handle of McDuff.

His surname is inconsequential in this regard and I barely can remember Dennis’ face but we had a thread in common, the late, great turf writer and dear friend, Paul Moran.

Moran was the conduit by which I met McDuff. First and foremost, it was clear he loved the game, a recreational bettor who enjoyed talking horses with a couple of Newsday guys at a local pub.

Horses and the racing was the thread that bound us all. No one was bigger than the game which unfortunately is not so much the case these days. Tangential but appropriate, incivility hurts the racing dynamic, too, a fact also pointed out in the comment section.

But there was for McDuff a more disturbing aspect, the result of Mark Berner’s column on veterinary reports in his Belmont Stakes Tuesday wrap-up.

Berner wrote on the veterinary report released by the New York State Gaming Commission regarding how many and which horses were treated with medication prior to competing in the high profile races run on the Belmont Day program. Wrote McDuff:

“Mark Berner's comments had me so annoyed regarding the lack of common sense within the industry, I just lashed out. When viewing runners in the paddock before a race, I always liked to view the field to see who looked clean, excessive sweating, bandages, etc., etc.

“To learn that every runner in the Belmont Stakes was on raceday meds just blew me away. What have they done to our sport? I gave up on baseball so many years past over the steroid issue…

“For the overseers of the sport, I guess it all comes down to the money to be made today…

“Trainers like Mack Miller and stewards like John Rotz are no more apparently. Just look at what the current day governance did for, or better yet, to Dutrow..?

“At times I suspect it must be difficult for you to prevail through all of it. Especially the personal swipes and attacks levied at you on the HRI comments board. So many old and angry…

“‘Somebody stole my passion, somebody stole my zeal’ [song lyrics] captures all of [racing’s] empty seats quite well. Berner’s Vet Transparency article was quite disturbing to me.

“As a small recreational player, I have not been so much concerned with issues like whales and takeout as I am with the lack of honesty, integrity and sincerity of stewardship of the sport.

“…The animosity, negativity and harshness of the commentaries, and lack of civility of late found at HRI, only further convince me that it is time to quietly walk away.

“I will continue to read John’s Feature Race Analysis and no doubt still wager a few bucks on the feature, but for the most part I will become more a member of the empty seats.

“Should same-day racing medications be eliminated, I will look to return but for now, ‘somebody along the way stole the passion’ indeed. Just not as much fun any longer. In closing I want to thank the featured bloggers and I hope for more positive change in the sport.”

When racing loses the passion of a lifetime fan, just as it had when Dr. Steven Roman, the father of Dosage theory, walked away completely and shuttered his chef-de-race website last year, the trouble for the sport is real and ongoing.

As for wagering, there is gambling game if this sport ceases to exist, even given its weakened status and standing.

With the exception of racing’s myriad problems, that always have existed in one form or another, modern big pharma and the emergence of the dominant “super trainer” have made the modern game less competitive in nature.

The irony is that the sport at its highest levels, on balance, never has been better in our view. Today’s breeding industry, in catering to the market, is cranking out more good horses.

The fact that most are not as durable is a multi-faceted issue, not the least of which is over-medication, legal and otherwise.

Good racing, coupled with fewer racing days, can be maintained at its present level, especially since the sport is becoming more international by the minute. This can only grow the sport in America by heightening interest worldwide.

But without the passion of the every-day fans, and even the game’s practitioners, mainstream media will remain indifferent and racing’s slow slide into an abyss is likely to continue unabated, slowly but inexorably.

The Triple Crown will be popular every year, as will places like Saratoga and Del Mar, and the Breeders’ Cup series of qualifying races, plus the events themselves, along with a handful of Super Saturdays, will keep the sport relevant to its true lovers.

Horses are no longer a part of America’s daily fabric; the price of progress. In the near future, automobiles will be driving themselves and online shopping will continue to be the bane of the big-box stores.

So dad and Uncle Joe, if your kids have not taken you to the track today that may be on you. But one sunny summer Saturday, introduce them to a racetrack near you. Two things will happen: They will get it about the racing experience, or they won’t.

The sin is in not knowing such a wondrous pastime even exists.

June 18, 2017

Written by John Pricci

Comments (21)


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