Monday, January 06, 2014

2014: Racing’s Most Important Year in Some Time

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 4, 2014—Before jumping into 2014 with both feet, a little leftover business from last year that needs addressing.
By now, everyone knows what the big stories of 2013 were.

Certainly, the sport had its share of negative storylines. From the routinely annual embarrassing New York Times Derby Week “expose,” to Washington D. C.’s hearings on medication policies, among other salient issues.

Then there was Penn National’s “race fixing” scandal and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, the “sudden death” of seven from the Hall of Fame barn of Bob Baffert.

How these events will affect racing’s present and future remains to be seen with the takeaway highly likely to produce a mixed bag resolutions:

Can’t wait to see what the paper of record has in store for Derby week, 2014. (It appears that the industry has made a preemptive response, as it were, awarding the Gray Lady with an Eclipse Award for its feature on Russell Baze).

Whether the feds ultimately institute the “Lance Armstrong” testing model for horse racing could make headlines in 2014.

There could be serious penalties, even jail time, for the alleged race fixers of Grantville, Pa. How will that all shake out?

Finally, and significantly, Baffert was cleared of any wrong doing by the California Horse Racing Board, surprising few veteran observers, leaving too many questions unanswered.

“What [the investigation] does say [is] there’s something wrong here,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB’s medical director, adding that “the ‘clustering’ of sudden horse deaths over such a short time is ‘undeniably exceptional’…statistically ‘extremely abnormal’.”

Not explained to anyone’s satisfaction is why every horse under Baffert’s care treated with a thyroid medication and why did it take a seventh horse to die to stop the practice when evidence of sudden equine death surfaced earlier.

This story may not make more headlines in 2014 and lovers of the game hope that the adjudication, however unsatisfying as it might be, will be the end of the saga. Gone, maybe, but never to be forgotten.

The closing of Hollywood Park was equally distressing in a different way. It's as if an important part of racing tradition was ripped right out its fabric.

My first and only visit, the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984, was memorable for myriad reasons. On a personal level, getting 32-1 Outstandingly, placed first via disqualification was one; the other was an outstanding job done by the stewards the following day.

It was a show-and-tell-all explanation to assembled media of the rough n’ tumble Classic stretch run of Wild Again, Slew o’ Gold and Gate Dancer. Had never witnessed anything like this, before or since.

The loss of Ramon Dominguez from the jock’s room was sad on any level and we wish only good things for the gentlemanly Ramon in his forced retirement.

The return of “the Coach” to the national stage with a certain-to-be three year old champion does an old heart good.

Interesting how Darrell Wayne Lukas is being hailed for managing Will Take Charge through an 11-race campaign after he had been vilified many times in the past for his aggressive handling of his stock. Time and perspective is a powerful entry.

The elevation of Kitten’s Joy to the highest levels of the breeding world, managed by a man who did it with his own money--generating dollars that often help fuel parimutuel handle--methodology, research, and tireless hours in handicapping research.

The devoted husband of Sarah, Ken Ramsey’s 2013 racing exploits were nothing short of a revelation.

The comeback of Gary Stevens after a seven year absence, the top story of 2013 in several polls, would also have gotten our vote. As stated here previously, to come back and win Grade 1s is one thing.

But to do it at 50, seemingly a better Hall of Fame rider than the retired version and to capture both the Distaff and Classic strains credulity. But it did happen and was our favorite story of 2013.

There’s another story that barely raised a national eyebrow compared to those above that could have implications not only for America’s flagship circuit but the future of how horse racing is perceived and proceeds going forward.

The hiring of Martin Panza as Vice President, Racing for the New York Racing Association might have been fortuitous for a soon-to-be out of work Hollywood Park executive but it was in our view the most significant executive hire of year.

Panza, experienced and highly accomplished, is charged with restoring to New York racing back to its forward eminence, one that is earned but in the present and not by traditional decree.

Under the former NYRA administration, the corporate imperative was to grow the bottom line by any means necessary. Resultantly, field size trumped quality.

Horseplayers also suffered. Handicappers too often needed to navigate a mine field of claiming conditions, sometimes three or four deep in order to assess the matchups, the kind of inscrutable mess that management—and NYRA is not alone in this—hopes will compel bettors to spread deeply in popular horizontal pools.

Turn pockets inside-out today; tomorrow’s liquidity will take care of itself. Never mind that simulcast players just concentrate their play on tracks which might give them a better chance to--you know--win.

I have reserved opinion on the short term stewardship of NYRA Chairman David Skorton and subsequent hiring of Christopher Kay as CEO. I have written positively about both in the past, preferring to point out the promise of positive change. I no longer feel the same way.

The open NYRA Board meetings have been transparent, indeed, but largely have been much ado about nothing. Controversial issues were brought up too late in meetings, limiting meaningful debate. Meetings ended promptly, as if Skorton had a train to catch.

Consequently, sensitive topics were decided “in committee,” typical of the Albany process, apropos of a gubernatorial appointee. Skorton is charged with getting NYRA’s bottom line attractive enough to lure 2015 franchise bidders.

The photogenic Kay was brought in to make use of his corporate talents, perhaps outside-the-racing-box thinking would result in fresh ideas. Aside from efforts to boost employee morale, if progress has been made in other areas they are not yet visible.

Some attendees at the recent Arizona Symposium thought his presentation a bit condescending, as if industry executives never heard of the suggestions that was perceived as original only in its packaging.

Embarrassingly, Kay identified Global Betting Exchange as the world’s largest online betting company, as if Betfair representatives were not in the room. It turned out not to be the best way to make a favorable first impression.

Many industry types are reserving judgment on both men until after a formal business plan is made public. The stakes for New York racing, and beyond Empire State borders, could not be higher.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 03, 2014

Voting Your Conscience

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 1, 2014—One of the privileges associated with being a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association—incurring the wrath of readers notwithstanding—is getting to fill out an Eclipse ballot each year.

I can’t speak for all but every NTWAB member I know take their responsibility seriously as unofficial watchdogs of the game. And that’s what it’s all about: the sport, not the business, not the betting but athletic achievement equine and human.

And rewards for those who pay the freight; the owners and, to a certain extent, breeders.

Reviewing past performances at season’s end provides a snapshot of not only what transpired between the fences but a benchmark for comparing present-day competitors with those from the past that distinguished their careers with championships.

While there always are memorable performances throughout the course of any racing season, including this one, on balance 2013 was not a particularly memorable year.

Of the 10 Eclipse categories on the flat, only four categories boasted definitive championship credentials; two on turf and one of with two dirt would-be champs just holding on.

Rules require that voters indicate three graded choices in each division or have the entire vote in that section voided. If voters choose to abstain, they must write in Abstain on all three lines. I abstained in two categories. Here’s one man’s opinion:

Two Year Old Male: A difficult division to predict likely will come down to either Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner New Year’s Day or the undefeated late developer, Shared Belief. I’ve been pondering the awards off and on for nearly a month.

When I voted in this category I changed my mind as I began to fill out my ballot. The vote went to an undefeated winner of three starts, two in graded company including a Grade 1, albeit on a synthetic surface.

Switch post positions in the Juvenile and the top vote getter likely would have been Havana. But the best record of all major players belonged to:

1. Shared Belief 2. New Year’s Day 3. Havana

Two Year Old Female: Most likely award winner, She’s A Tiger, which finished first or second in five graded stakes, finishing first in the Juvenile Fillies but placed second via disqualification. Chrisellium was brilliant in the Juvenile Fillies Turf:

1. She’s A Tiger 2. Chrisellium 3. Sweet Reason

Three Year Old Male: In a division that went from potential Triple Crown winner to chaotic in a span of five weeks, Will Take Charge, the highly likely champion, danced most of the dances and finished with a flourish, just missing in the Classic and beating Game On Dude in the G1 Clark. Absolutely loved and admired the versatility of Goldencents.

1. Will Take Charge 2. Goldencents 3. Orb

Three Year Old Filly: Another category in which I changed my mind when it was time to put a name on the ballot. Beholder was dominant in THE filly and mare race of the year, the Distaff, on her home ground.

But I decided I could not punish the body of work compiled by Princess of Sylmar in and out of her division: the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama are something of an equine holy trinity. Throw in the fact that she beat defending older champion Royal Delta before she completely went over the top and it’s not as if she didn’t split decisions with her only rival.

1. Princess of Sylmar 2. Beholder 3. Close Hatches

Older Male: Not the most memorable year in the handicap division, traditionally a dirt category. (It should be formally designated as such. Doing so does not preclude winning multiple titles when and where appropriate).

But it was the Macho Man that put two big ones together, including the race that every older horse—or three year old, for that matter—wants to win, the Classic, and in doing so beat every meaningful would-be handicap champion.

For his part, Wise Dan carried high weights but both of those wins came at the G2 level, beating four and five rivals respectively on his preferred surface. The voting will be very close but ‘Dan’ probably enjoys the edge.

1. Mucho Macho Man 2. Wise Dan 3. Game On Dude

Older Female: On balance, one of the weaker divisions of 2013. Any race with championship implications went through Royal Delta who tried Dubai again to no avail, the effort apparently exacting a toll at season’s end.

If every top filly in the division showed up with their ‘A’ race in the same event on the same day, the race would be for place.

1. Royal Delta 2. Joyful Victory 3. Tiz Miz Sue

Male Sprinter: A fairly open Eclipse race with the top of the division stringing together important victories—but not over a sustained period in 2013. The BC Sprint winner traditionally has had a huge edge in this category but winning Secret Circle had but a two-race campaign.

Sahara Sky was the most talented of the lot but he didn’t race beyond the Met Mile, an elongated sprint, on Memorial Day. Points Offthebench had the most brilliance in traditional G1s at 6 furlongs.

1. Points Offthebench 2. Sahara Sky 3. Secret Circle

Female Sprinter: Another category that was far from automatic due to the slow start of defending champion Groupie Doll. But she won when it counted as early and mid-season leaders started feeling the effects of spring and summer racing and she rose to the occasion, defending her F & M Sprint title.

‘Dolly’ did just enough, and the feeling is that most voters will agree. Dance To Bristol won seven straight before tailing off and Cluster Of Stars went 6-for-6 but only two G2s among them and did not step up when given a championship opportunity.

1. Groupie Doll 2. Dance To Bristol 3. Cluster of Stars

Male Turf Horse:
Finally, a slam-dunk automatic. Wise Dan is as talented as he is consistent; that’s how horses accumulate just shy of $6.3 million in earnings.

Magician won the traditional championship defining event but it’s not enough to dethrone a defending champion. Point Of Entry won two G1s then was injured, returning with a worthy effort in The Turf following a five-month layup.

1. Wise Dan 2. Magician 3. Point Of Entry

Female Turf Horse:
Since the best American bloodstock began filling stalls in Europe, the Far East and, finally, the Middle East, the best turf runners on balance race outside this country. Not even sure Dank came with her ‘A’ game, but it was still enough to handle our best turf distaffers in the F & M Turf.

1. Dank 2. Laughing 3. Kitten’s Dumplings

Steeplechase Horse:
As regular readers from Long Island to Saratoga know, I like the up-and-overs and enjoy the sport each week during the Saratoga meet. This year, however, no runner was able to put two important victories together. None of the finalists are worthy of a championship in our view.

1. Abstain 2. Abstain 3. Abstain

Outstanding Owner:
Don’t believe I’ve ever seen an outfit more dominant at the highest levels than the Ramseys were in 2013. They deserve to be heavy favorites. (I was thisclose to voting for Ed Stanco and company in this category. Clearly, Stanco is deserving of some equine Sportsman of the Year award; Willis Horton also stepped up big time.

1. Ken and Sarah Ramsey 2. King of Prussia Stable 3. Willis D. Horton

Outstanding Breeder:
Honestly, did anyone besides Ramsey think that Kitten’s Joy was capable of this?

1. Ken and Sarah Ramsey 2. Adena Springs 3. Juddmonte International

Outstanding Trainer:
It’s one thing to earn over $25 million for your owners because you have the most ammunition; it’s another to hit the bull’s-eye so often, so dominantly.

1. Todd Pletcher 2. D. Wayne Lukas 3. Shug McGaughey

Outstanding Jockey:
It’s one thing to make a successful comeback; it’s another to win the Distaff and Classic in the same year, among other Grade 1s. (Before he was injured, thought that Joel Rosario was a cinch; it’s now likely Gary Stevens will be).

1. Gary Stevens 2. Joel Rosario 3. Javier Castellano

Outstanding Apprentice
: Darn good year for young riders and another close call. Victor Carrasco is the likely winner with high accumulated earnings but Edgard Zayas has proven, the times we’ve seen him, to be wise beyond his years.

1. Edgard Zayas 2. Victor Corrasco 3. Emmanuel Esquivel

Horse of the Year
: As a sportsman, Morton Fink is a great businessman. If an owner insists on a horse’s preferred surface; that’s fine. But only once did Wise Dan try a distance beyond a mile and a sixteenth, Churchill’s Turf Classic on Derby day.

Instead the connections played it safe when the sport could have used a dramatic boost at season’s end. In his five pre-Mile victories, including two Grade 2s, he beat a total of 24 rivals.

Mr. Fink has a license to do what he wishes; I have a vote. No other horse this year compiled a compelling enough record to unseat a defending Horse of the Year. I’m sure most of the voters would agree and Wise Dan very likely will defend his Horse of the Year title easily.

As stated, it’s all about the sport for us when it comes to post-season awards. Consequently, we will pass.

1. Abstain 2. Abstain 3. Abstain

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, December 30, 2013

A Christmas Tale

HIGHLANDS, NJ, December 28, 2013—I’m no hum-bugger, nor Scrooge in training, but this was one of those Christmas seasons that was washing over me, something happening in the rest of the world, just not in my part of the universe.

It was the penultimate day before Christmas when the phone rang at 7 a.m. Good news seldom comes by phone that early in the morning. Form held.

I was staying with a good friend on Long Island, on my way to Highlands, New Jersey—where the Jersey Shore begins and the home of my daughter Jen, where the family was to celebrate Christmas day.

Toni already was in the land of Christie, up from South Florida to nurse-maid my oldest who recently underwent surgery. It was Jen on the phone, telling me that Toni had been taken by ambulance to the ER three hours earlier with chest pains.

I collected my clothes, and my thoughts, and made the drive from Deer Park, watching my speed, trying to stay focused, and positive.

Toni, with Jen alongside, was in Riverview Hospital in Red Bank, still in pain but very much alive. Morphine was insuring that the discomfort level remain manageable while she awaited a room upstairs.

The following day, Toni was administered a stress test, an echocardiogram and a sonogram of the carotid artery. Of course, the carotid is where strokes live.

Toni passed the stress test but it took over a day to get the other results. The hospital has a very good reputation and, in fact, Jon Bovi, whose house can be seen from Riverview on the east side the Navasink River, had his children delivered there, a fact I found somewhat comforting.

On Christmas Eve at noon, Jen and I were in Toni’s room awaiting her return from the testing area. Jen told me about a region above her left wrist where an I.V. was inserted that was tender to the touch. The red area appeared to be moving up her arm.

I looked at it and knew it was phlebitis, having dealt with it while in college. I told her to call her surgeon immediately. She described the symptoms and the doctor asked how far she was from Bayshore Community Hospital where he was making rounds.

We made the 25-minute drive from Riverview to Bayshore where her surgeon confirmed my suspicion. She was placed on antibiotics and was told that if there was no response, she would need intravenous antibiotics.

And if that didn’t work, it would back to Bayshore for surgery.

On Christmas morning at 9:30, the phone rang as I was having breaking at the Sheraton Eatontown, which happened to be the Breeders’ Cup media center the year Monmouth Park hosted the wettest event day on record.

“It’s a Christmas miracle, dad,” Jen said. “The infection stopped spreading and the redness is beginning to fade.”

One down, one to go; but, still, no word on Toni’s last two tests.

Shortly after I arrived at Jen’s, the phone rang. It was Toni saying that the cardiologist had been by to visit, that the last two tests were negative, and that she was “ready to blow this popcorn stand.”

The admitting doctor on staff followed the cardiologist’s visit, sounding like a college football analyst. “Not so fast,” he said. “That cardiologist is always doing those things. I need to talk with him. There’s something on the ‘echo’ that I want to check first.”

Prison break aborted.

Finally, about two hours later, I got a second call. “Get me out of here,” Toni said.

The emergency turned out to be an acid-reflux experience so bad that the chest pains sent Toni to the cardiac ward. She had a negative reaction from a generic replacement for Aciphex, the only medication that keeps her particular condition in check.

The generic drug that the supplementary-insurance company had recommended not only didn’t work but took Toni’s problem to the next level.

The following day, we spent two hours on the phone with the insurance firm after the doctor had written a new prescription for Aciphex with the initials d.a.w.—dispense as written.

The prescription could not be filled, however, because coding language between the drug provider and insurance company was in error. If it were not for CVS Pharmacist Judy Picinich taking mercy on us, intervening with Empire Mediblue, we still might be arguing our case.

Fortunately, the issue was resolved and I was never so relieved to purchase 30 pills, a 15-day supply, for the bargain price of $170.

For all the critics of the Affordable Care Act, I admit that there might be a reasonable case to be made. But one way or another, that issue will be resolved in the future. Until then, people will just need to deal with a badly broken healthcare system.

On Christmas Day, I received two of the best gifts ever, presents that only can be described as priceless. Sometimes, Christmas comes when least expected.

Written by John Pricci

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