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Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Thoroughbred Racing: Study This


Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 9, 2008--”This game has been studied to death,” New York Racing Association vice-president, the late Pat Lynch, told me while I was enjoying a cup of coffee at NYRA nearly four decades ago.

Little has changed. And everything has changed.

Given that, I’m always interested to see the proposed agenda at the annual University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming.

According to blogs posted on the Thoroughbred Times and Bloodhorse web-sites, the goals were to identify the perception young people have about racing, and the realities and pressures associated with changing the face of the sport.

“How to speak to racing’s diverse demographic target market,” is the subject of a panel discussion entitled “Gen Y and Baby Boomers.” Horse safety and tote security are two factors that seriously impact how the game is perceived.

There will be a strong Jockey Club presence vis a vis safety and welfare, it was promised, with discussions on the reporting and prevention of injuries, and an updating of industry initiatives.

Good thing those JC officers are pulling double duty. These days they need to justify those hefty paychecks reported in circulated e-mails authored by those pesky boardwatch folks over at the California Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association .

I have some thoughts that might help, too.

The first is, what youthful perceptions? It’s hard to find any more than two youths at a racetrack at any one time. Can’t remember the last time a young person stopped me on the street to ask the time of day.

Horse racing doesn’t exist for young people. Maybe some of the old people would have taken some of the young people to the track with them when they were a lot younger themselves.

But you lost them long ago when you failed to fix the “juice” issue, you priced your product too high because you didn’t understand what business you were in, or you just flat-out gave them bad service.

And since no one is likely to say something like that in public for four days in Tucson, I thought somebody should.

But that’s not just me talking. It’s what your customers talk about all the time. They’ve given up on you paying them more than just lip-service at about the time they stopped bringing their children to the racetrack--when they learned they couldn’t in good conscience tell their kids that being a participatory racing fan was such a good bet.

Of course, the breakdowns are the worst of it. And I don’t think that any informed, fair-maiden person would accuse the industry of not doing its best with respect to reporting and prevention.

But the industry has done nothing about the medication issue for so long that even reasonable lovers of the game have lost faith that the industry can once again exist as sport. Some are still out there, but you’re scaring them half to death.

The trouble now is that the ones you’ve take for granted--those who bet their money and make all manner of livelihoods possible, including mine--are beginning to walk.

And what is the public’s perception of what the industry is doing to fix it? That powerful factions in racing would rather shut out some of its best customers and alienate the rest because they want a larger ADW-share of racing’s shrinking pie.

Great timing.

So far the good news is that the American race horse is outliving the American iron horse, but not by much. And, since no one asked, allow me to contribute something of a positive nature based on recent events.

Bettors are leaving the racetrack to play poker on the Internet. Guess they didn’t see the recent “60 Minutes” segment showing how hackers cheat online players by looking at everyone’s hole card.

Will racing exploit this fact? Don‘t bet on it. Will they do something to counter the ever shrinking fan base? They had better.

Could there be a better opportunity than in these desperate times to market investing in the horse market to the young and engaged, telling them how they could teach themselves how to fish for life? So, how do you reach them?

Through Internet, television and radio media. Like the sports touts, only with dignity, intelligence and class. This is a niche. Appeal to it.

Advertising must teach that despite its high cost, horse-race investing offers tremendous opportunities to earn big with a small investment--if people are willing to devote the time to learn the handicapping discipline.

Because who are you going to trust your future to? Government? Corporations? Teach them how the takeout might be better on Wall Street but that there are far fewer crooks on Union Avenue, at the corner of Birdstone and Bird Town.

Change the paradigm. One of the symposium Internet speakers had it right: “chase the concept, not the dollars.”

But there’s no one in charge to stop the madness.

Like we said, so far, the American race horse is surviving, but on life support. However, if the end should come, after we shut all the lights we can say that at least we left behind a considerably smaller carbon footprint.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 07, 2008


Breeders’ Cup 25 Served Sport Well but Failed Horseplayers


Saratoga Springs, NY, November 6, 2008--Philosophical differences that Thoroughbred fans and the media had with Breeders’ Cup Ltd. regarding the evolution of World Championship event days notwithstanding, fair minded observers cannot argue that the recent silver anniversary edition was an artistic triumph.

For every defeat of Curlin there was acknowledgment of the sporting gesture made by his connections and the emergence of a pair of young European standouts on America’s biggest stage.

And for every lament regarding the creation of a racing program dedicated to equines of the female persuasion, there was a star named Zenyatta who remained perfect, stepping up to save the day, and a concept.

Zenyatta gave the architects something to build on. Her performance was a rousing one, indeed worthy of a Saturday showcase. But was there not some symmetry in having the stage all to herself, an award-winning actress in a leading role?

But there was no getting away from the notion that expansion, the past and present reality of sports, dilutes specialty and excellence. That was a prevailing theme among the opposition for creating races having no real significance beyond their existence in support of a two-day event.

There certainly are enough good horses stationed around the globe to make a racing festival truly worth celebrating, the American racing industry playing host. And only through international participation does the term World Championships have meaning. Before an idea takes root, you start somewhere first.

Until Breeders’ Cup reaches that point--perhaps when races named Breeders’ Cup would reflect only Eclipse Award categories, or perhaps when an expanded program truly represents championship Grade 1 status--expansion serves one function; to grow the bottom line.

Parenthetically, Breeders’ Cup must consider how further expansion could seriously dilute established championship events. The Filly & Mare Sprint is redundant but I understand why it exists, serving Eclipse recognition. But while great milers may be regarded as having the makings of a superb stud, the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile is a tweener, neither sprint nor classic. And unless it‘s a one-turn mile, what‘s the point?

But what added races do for growing parimutuel handle, synthetic surfaces do in reverse. The wagering public remains confused by them, mostly because early speed loses its efficacy--not on all synthetics, but on most. Only the Juvenile produced a speed-laden result, but maybe Midshipmen and Square Eddie just were the best horses, too.

Handle was down significantly in the Classic likely owing to the pre-publicity surrounding Curlin’s ability to handle an artificial surface, or lack thereof. Pro-Ride plays like grass, over which he suffered his only previous 2008 defeat. One great synthetic-track workout is no guarantor of winning performance. Those concerns probably adversely affected Pick Six and Pick Four handle as well.

As long as Breeders’ Cup is not shy about wanting to grow its handle, it must do much better servicing the wagering public. Over the years I have made repeated requests that equipment and medication changes be announced when the final fields are set at the post position draw. It’s never happened.

Why this is not standard operating procedure is disgraceful. Wagering information is not the exclusive province of the racing office or past-performance disseminators.

Most Breeders’ Cup venues have house rules governing this issue. Blinker, shoe, and medication changes are vital, especially regarding first-time or re-addition of Lasix. Breeders’ Cup, through the auspices of the Santa Anita racing office, did a terrible job at BC 25.

The first nine races were drawn so rapidly, in fact, that literally hundreds of media lacked sufficient time to write down final jockey assignments. Think that’s critical information? Think you might want to know if your choice would be racing on the diuretic in 90-degree heat? To wit:

The enormously gifted and prolific Aidan O’Brien seldom, if ever, ships from Europe to the U.S. without putting his horses on Lasix. And why not? It’s within the rules, levels the playing field and, as everyone knows, is a harbinger of improved performance.

At entry time Tuesday of Breeders’ Cup week, O’Brien entered his horses without requesting Lasix, according to Mike Marten, spokesperson for the California Horse Racing Board, who circulated an e-mail to columnist Nick Kling of the Troy Record. However, either Marten was misinformed, or was misleading.

The e-mail stated O’Brien was “unfamiliar with California authorized bleeder medication procedures.” But O’Brien’s actions and personal past performances belie that statement. Ultimately, O’Brien was granted permission to add Lasix and was fined $2,500 by the stewards for missing the deadline.

On Friday, Bloodstock Research Information Services reported that O’Brien’s Heart Shaped was scheduled to race with first-time Lasix whereas his other starter, Halfway To Heaven, was not. The official track program reported the same information.

After Heaven To Heaven apparently bled, O’Brien approached the stewards to request that all four of his Saturday runners be allowed to race with Lasix. Yet, on Friday, BRIS reported that U S Ranger and Henrythenavigator would race with Lasix, but that Westphalia, Soldier Of Fortune, Red Rock Canyon and Duke Of Marmalade would not. The track program had the same information. The problem is that time-lines don’t jibe.

Early in the day, Trevor Denman announced the late changes, but that’s far from an acceptable system with such a large crowd on hand. In fact, betting information was sloppy all weekend. No less than Zenyatta, a regular Lasix user, was listed as running without it until the announcement corrected the error.

As bad, Sprint winner Midnight Lute, the subject of much speculation regarding his physical condition, had a protective plate removed from a sore hoof. I learned this from Ed Fountaine of the New York Post over post-race cocktails, who said he heard the announcement on the television broadcast. It was not in the program nor do I remember hearing Denman announce it.

There is no event that provides as much information to the racing media for public dissemination than does Breeders’ Cup Ltd. And it’s been that way from year one. But if they truly want to cash in on BC’s popularity as a wagering event, they must remember they’re in the gambling business and do their job correctly.

Breeders’ Cup commendably staged its first steroid-free event this year. Now it’s time to institute another rule. Even if equipment and medication changes are a house rule, make it a Breeders’ Cup rule to avoid confusion that’s costly only to the betting public. Inform the media at the post draw. They’ll take care of the rest.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008


As with Presidential Politics, Horse of the Year Narrative Has Changed


Saratoga Springs, NY, September 10, 2008--“It’s the Classic, babe. That’s where you have to go to win a championship.”

Those were the words of trainer Rick Dutrow when he was asked by the Bloodhorse whether the Breeders’ Cup Turf ever was under consideration after Big Brown had an impressive final workout for Saturday’s Monmouth Stakes, his first start against older horses.

Entries for the purse enhanced grass race will be taken Thursday morning and it’s not expected to be a large field. Win or lose--and the Derby/Preakness hero is expected and supposed to win--the race clearly is a bridge to the Breeders’ Cup’s first synthetic track Classic.

Just like presidential candidates who get a bounce from a favorable statement du jour, so might Dutrow, insofar as the Horse of the Year title is concerned. To wit:

Consider a scenario whereby Big Brown and reigning Horse of the Year Curlin run the table in their next two starts. For the former, that means Saturday’s race and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But for the latter it’s the Jockey Club Gold Cup, then what? And that becomes the Horse of the Year question.
Everyone knows and agrees how sporting it was for Jess Jackson to keep his horse racing at 4. The purses, no matter how large, hardly can keep pace with the insurance premiums. But it isn’t about the money, Jackson has said, it’s about Curlin’s place in history.

Toward that end, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was under serious consideration until the Man o’ War happened and those plans were dashed. Then there was talk of the Japan Cup in December with its humongous purse and dirt surface. All this because Curlin’s connections (read Steve Asmussen) doesn’t want to run Curlin on a synthetic surface.

This apparently stems from Curlin’s experience with Polytrack when preparing for the 2007 Kentucky Derby at Keeneland. But he’s was a young and quite inexperienced then and is a big, bruising four-year-old now. Then there’s the matter of his apparently being a slow learner, how he’s much better the second time he does anything.

Recently there has been some speculation, engendered by Curlin’s people when they failed to completely shut the door on a possible Classic run, that the Horse of the Year will seek a Classic repeat, which certainly wouldn’t hurt Curlin’s legacy. Been there, done that, is not a suitable explanation.

Given that Asmussen sent Curlin half way across the world to get a prep for the Dubai World Cup, you would think that if the Classic were a real possibility, Curlin would be racing in Santa Anita’s Goodwood and not Belmont Park’s Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 27.

Like a presidential candidate, Jackson said the JCGC decision was payback for the great support New York racing and its fans displayed during the run-up to and in the days following the Woodward Stakes. Curlin loves Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track and, therefore, they’re just happy to stay here.

There’s been talk on both sides that there could be racing life after the Breeders’ Cup, but it might be just talk. Economically, keeping both horses in training after October 25 makes little sense with the potential downside far outweighing the potential upside. But not if a Horse of the Year championship is at issue.

We’ve stated this a million times. A Horse of the Year can be anything. It can be the horse that compiles the most impressive resume on the racetrack, period, or a blend of racing accomplishment and favorable impact on the sport.

In terms of resume, it’s defending champion Curlin in front. But don’t underestimate a dual classics winner (read Kentucky Derby) that, at the moment, owns one more Grade 1 title this year than does his only adversary.

While it’s acceptable that Big Brown has beaten up on an undistinguished three-year-old class, it must be noted, too, that, the Dubai World Cup notwithstanding, Curlin’s other Grade 1s were defeats of a grass specialist (Einstein) in the Stephen Foster and a secondary-allowances winner (Past the Point) at Saratoga. Either way, a case can be made.

As in the 2008 presidential campaign, the narrative has changed. The incumbent party, concerned with his legacy, apparently won’t take the Breeders’ Cup challenge because of a prior experience with an artificial surface. Of course, he might not “have to” run.

Further, the Horse of the Year title is determined by voters and, like this presidential election, may devolve into a popularity contest, the issues be damned. Right now, Dutrow and Michael Iavarone are odds-on to lose a popularity contest to Jess Jackson.

But here’s the only way this Horse of the Year voter can look at the 2008 Classic. This is not about Curlin’s legacy or his perceived ineffectiveness over artificial surfaces. Champions overcome adversity. The Classic is, after all, Big Brown’s synthetic debut as well.

Since the Classic has been on the three-year-old’s dance card since before his Belmont debacle, if the reigning four-year-old Horse of the Year doesn’t meet Big Brown for all the marbles on what clearly is, for both, neutral ground, then he’s the one who’s ducking a challenge.

So, will be it about the issue of their records, or will it be about the perception of which is the better horse? Can’t have it both ways, babe.

Written by John Pricci

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