Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Macho Man by Day, a Wise Dan by Night

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 18, 2014—Who would have thought that the period spanning 2004 to 2007 would, in Breeders’ Cup Classic/Horse of the Year terms, be regarded as the good old days?

Dean and Patti Reeves
Photo by Toni Pricci
Dean and Patti Reeves have much to smile about
At that time, it was possible to secure racing’s ultimate prize by parlaying a Classic win into a Horse of the Year title. After all, the achievement was good enough for Ghostzapper, Saint Liam, Invasor and Curlin, the last horse to win consecutive Horse of the Year championships.

But sorry, Raven’s Pass, your Classic score wasn’t good enough, even though you beat eventual Horse of the Year Curlin and avenged your only 2008 defeat to Henrythenavigator at Santa Anita. And the G2 score before that? Small potatoes, apparently.

Zenyatta? The Classic belonged to the behemoth filly but the year belonged to Rachel Alexandra. Blame? Sorry, again, but the voters apparently felt that they owed Zenyatta one.

Drosselmeyer? Even though he won the Belmont Stakes and the Classic, I’m not sure I know anyone who marked their Horse of the Year ballot that way.

Fort Larned? Ever hear of girl power? How soon we can forget a filly named Havre De Grace.

Mucho Macho Man? Sorry, but where’s your turf resume?

Should the Breeders’ Cup folks scrap the 2014 Classic due to a lack of respect?

Of course, Wise Dan had a deserving Horse of Year resume, limited and turf specific as it was, But in repeating last year's feat, he became only the sixth horse Eclipse history to win consecutive Best In Show titles, the seventh to win multiple Horse of the Year championships.

Wise Dan was also honored with older male and turf championships, the only horse to win three championships in consecutive years. This year, Wise Dan might shoot for the three-peat, especially if a very humble Morton Fink successfully can convince his trainer, Charlie LoPresti, "to run on dirt and to run long," first reminding those in the audience and watching on HRTV that 'Dan' owns a track record at nine furlongs.

Two words, Mr. Fink: Whitney and Woodward.

As far as the Florida Millions feature was concerned, it was as if the Macho Man know that the Sunshine Millions Classic would be the only prize he would win this day, so off he went to obliterate five seriously overmatched rivals by 14 lengths with partner Gary Stevens appearing not the least bit interested in running up the score.

The Big Hoss is back
Photo by: Toni Pricci
The Big Hoss is back
How do you like me now, the proud six year old might have thought? When the first poll for America’s leading horse is released in March, Mucho Macho Man’s should top that list off his Millions Classic performance.

Winner of the 2013 Vox Populi Award as America’s most popular race horse, an appreciative crowd followed the gigantic colt’s every move around the walking ring and out on to the fast Gulfstream Park surface.

“I’m gonna’ need a friggin’ ladder to get up on this guy one day,” Stevens, more passenger than pilot, quipped as he dismounted in the winners’ circle after guiding ‘Macho’ through nine furlongs in a snappy 1:48.76, a bit more than a second off the track record.

A fourteen-length smile from trainer Kathy Ritvo
Photo by: Toni Pricci
A fourteen-length smile from trainer Kathy Ritvo
But if the day belonged to Mucho Macho Man, the night, and the 2013 racing season, belonged to three-time champion Wise Dan; Javier Castellano, whose $26-million in earnings and win percentage of 22 was good enough to eclipse the remarkable comeback of co-finalist Gary Stevens.

Castellano’s acceptance speech, honoring the forcibly retired Ramon Dominguez, was perhaps touching moment of the night, followed closely by Pletcher’s emotional tribute to his parents and tragically injured barn favorite, Caixa Electronica.

And, of course, there were the characteristically upbeat words of “the coach,” Merit Award winner Wayne Lukas and his owner, Willis Horton, whose unforgettable speech went on longer than Jacqueline Bisset’s at the Golden Globes but no one seemed to mind. In fact, the crowd loved it.

The saga of the Comeback Kid continues
Photo by: Toni Pricci
The saga of the Comeback Kid continues
Congratulations to all remaining winning practitioners; Pletcher, who stands alone as the sport’s only six-time Eclipse-winning trainer; Castellano; the Ramsey’s, the sport’s outstanding owners and breeding; and apprentice Victor Carrasco.

Juveniles Shared Belief, undefeated in three starts with nary a win on dirt or turf, and She’s A Tiger, who compiled the most comprehensive among the juvenile fillies; Beholder, who stepped up on the big stage, narrowly defeating a filly who compiled an impressively diverse body of work, Princess Of Sylmar.

Of course, there was Royal Delta who did more than enough before tailing off at season’s end, winning an Eclipse for the a third straight year, and kudos to sprinters Points Offthebench and the filly, Groupie Doll; Dank, the best turf mare seen in action in America in 2013, and steeplechase champion Divine Fortune.

But the most memorable campaign waged in 2013 perhaps belonged to a horse that closes like the wind; on the racetrack and in his peer group. It took Will Take Charge virtually an entire year to get his act together but, when he did, the results were extraordinary. The top three year old of 2013 was the 25th Eclipse champion coached by Darrell Wayne Lukas who warned his younger rivals that he’s coming after them in 2014.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Gulfstream Sport’s Best Long-Running Race Meet

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 12, 2014—The timing could not have been better. The escape from New York was delayed but went along as planned. After a few miserable weeks in the Northeast, golden sunshine proved good for the soul.

So is being back on the “good horse circuit” and, in that context, our arrival in South Florida could not have been better-timed. I found this out when Phil Janack, formerly of the Schenectady Gazette and now a member of Gulfstream’s publicity staff, informed me that Saturday's card was the best card of the season.

Christophe Clement
Photo by Toni Pricci
Christophe Clement reminds Joe Bravo that Summer Front needs patient handling
Janack was not making use of hyperbole here, just simply telling it like it is and proved to be. Special-weight maidens were everywhere, going long on turf, going short on dirt, including a not-so-secret Todd Pletcher first-timer.

There were allowance races galore, two graded stakes, one on each surface, and a NW3 allowances featuring the 4-year-old debuts of two 2013 Kentucky Derby runners, including also-ran Falling Sky show and show finisher Revolutionary, the latter earning his way to the big dance via scores in the Withers and Louisiana Derby.

They ran 1-2, Revolutionary’s win more impressive than his half-length winning margin suggests. And either he was showing his freshness or he's a lot handier now than he was on the 2013 Triple Crown trail. If that’s the case, the War Pass colt will be a tough out in the G1 Donn next month.

Two races later, after the Ramsey’s Charming Kitten, equipped with his new blinkers, made his successful 4-year-old debut, Pletcher completed a personal Pick 3 with the highly touted newcomer Constitution, owned by the WinStar people of Revolutionary fame, along with Twin Creeks Racing.

Constitution broke very slowly from the gate, pulled Javier Castellano through the field, lucky to get through unencumbered by traffic while moving up on the fence. But then things got tougher as he engaged a fast, experienced Juba that gave no quarter, keeping Constitution in close quarters through the long stretch run.

The final time of 1:23.36 was very solid off a half-mile in :44.82, the final eighth in an understandably pedestrian :13.65. But the takeaway was that he impressed by passing the eyeball test, showing class in the process.

Three races later, another 2013 Triple Crown trail-er, Elnaawi, made a successful 4-year-old debut against a field of preliminary allowance types, setting a controlled pace beneath Joel Rosario before coming away with a 1-1/4 length win that can be described as a useful return for To Honor And Serve’s half-brother.

Parenthetically, this gave Kiaran McLaughlin a very good day, who also saddled promising turf runner Macaroon to victory, all after 3-year-old Cairo Prince had an excellent company work with an older horse. It was his second consecutive five-eighths in :59.80. A soft half-mile breeze next weekend should have him set for the following week’s Holy Bull.

Summer Front proudly returns
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Summer Front proudly returns to Gulfstream winner's circle
Christophe Clement had Summer Front ready for his 5-year-old debut after suffering a nose defeat in Hollywood’s G2 Citation last tine out. Joe Bravo gave him the patient, covered-up handling to show his best as he won the G2 Ft. Lauderdale.

Meanwhile, in his first start for Bill Mott, Lea was a revelation in taking the G3 Hal’s Hope, attending the pace of defending Hal’s Hope champion Csaba, opening ground quickly beneath Luis Saez soon after entering the straight, separating himself from the competition in what should be an ideal prep for he and several of his rivals, notably tough-tripping third Neck n’ Neck and wide-tripping fourth, Uncaptured.

Last year, we wrote glowingly of Saez after it was learned the Calder regular would switch his tack to New York. Saez gained national prominence as the partner of certain-to-be 2013 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge and took the Hal’s Hope occasion to annex career win #1,000. Fittingly, former Calder president Ken Dunn was on hand to present the trophy to the accomplished 21-year-old.

Lea's first graded dirt win
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Lea's first graded dirt win and Luis Saez's career win 1,000
GULFSTREAM RETURN SOMETHING OF A MIXED BAG: With apologies to Saratoga, Del Mar and Keeneland, Gulfstream Park in recent years has emerged from winter capital of East Coast racing to the best sustained Thoroughbred meet in the country at any time of the year.

Wags will quickly note that now one must include the remaining year-round dates before making that observation, but we don’t think so. Their decision to race year-round was straight economics based gaining on a bigger share of off-season simulcast revenue, at that time the exclusive province of Calder Race Course.

Tampa Bay Downs also added to its schedule last year toward that same simulcast end. To us, prime time Florida racing begins when juveniles become 3-year-olds on New Year’s Day and ends when the last Florida Derby entrant crosses the finish line.

To accommodate this schedule--while having the added benefit of attracting horses away from the track in Miami Lakes--Gulfstream built two full-size barns to handle the equine overload. It’s no wonder that, poor early-week weather notwithstanding, there were no fewer than 211 horses on Saturday’s work tab. That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that the new barns obstruct from view the start of races out of the 7-furlong and mile chutes. In order to see the break from the gate, fans must watch the track’s closed-circuit monitors. However, present camera angles do not provide pan views.

Hall of Famer Bill Mott
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Hall of Famer Bill Mott's excited about new pupil Lea's future
The start of the one-turn mile is viewed head on, great for seeing the occasional stumble or rough-and-tumble start of colliding equines, but poor for establishing depth perception. Did your horse break 2-lengths or 4-lengths slowly away from the barrier? This makes answering the question very difficult if not impossible.

The 7-furlong view is a bit better with a quasi-head-on view that provides some pan context. But in both cases there is an abrupt switch to the traditional view. Horses race more than a furlong out of the mile chute before traditional sightlines become available.

Thus far, veteran observers have taken the transition in stride but newcomers—on any given day there are many at the popular destination venue--doubtlessly are scratching their heads. Hopefully, some new technology, short of binoculars that can see through walls, eventually will correct the problem.

Written by John Pricci

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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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