Wednesday, July 03, 2013

A Tale of Two Champions

ELMONT, NY, July 2, 2013—Last Saturday at Churchill Downs, anyone tethered to the game got a few stark examples about how Thoroughbred racing's the owners and trainers can approach the business differently.

That morning, defending Filly & Mare Eclipse Sprint Champion Groupie Doll had her first quasi-serious workout since her extended freshening. It was only a 3- furlong move, albeit a quick one, but trainer Buff Bradley needed to start somewhere, anywhere.

There was a schedule for her 2013 campaign that it changed drastically when, in South Florida this winter, the champ was very lethargic in her training. Rather than force the issue, Bradley turned her out, allowed her to be a horse for a while before finally got her back to the racetrack last weekend.

Originally, the mare was to include a month freshening then train in Florida for a spring/summer campaign. The layup was ordered by Bradley, who co-owns Groupie Doll with his father and clients Brent Burns and Carl Hurst, came immediately after her heart-thumping, gut-wrenching, nose defeat to 2011 Travers-winning Stay Thirsty in the Cigar Mile—a race that Bradley hoped would make the filly a serious Horse of the Year finalist.

Saturday's workout was of little consequence in the big picture but it served its purpose. “The big thing today was that she was willing to [train] and she wasn’t at Gulfstream,” Bradley said Saturday at Churchill Downs. “Fillies are a little temperamental and they might not come back as good as you had hoped…”

Fillies can be that way, of course, but so could any race horse forced to reach down deep to all their talented and courage, especially at the end of a full campaign. Last season, Groupie Doll's record included five straight graded stakes wins, three of them Grade 1, from April through November before her courageous effort on Thanksgiving weekend.

This was a case of four owners that woke up when morning after their filly just won the Vinery Madison, her first incursion into Grade 1 company, and began to think really big. They had a good filly that could have won plenty of life-altering money but they began to think big, to see what their horse could really do.

And she did plenty. Freshened for the fall, she came out and dominated the Presque Isle Downs Masters and did the same thing in the TCA at Keeneland before nailing down the championship in the Breeders' Cup F & M Sprint. Their dream got them this far but they dreamt bigger still and got thisclose to winning a possible Horse of the Year title.

As destiny would have it, the actual Horse of the Year would run on the same day and win but under adverse conditions and under a lot more pressure to do so in what was supposed to be easy bridge race. The Firecracker Handicap was anything but easy.

But what was Wise Dan doing in that race in the first place? The defending Horse of the Year has won over three different surfaces and there was an opportunity at the recently concluded meet to get revenge for last year’s nagging loss in G1 Stephen Foster.

In hindsight, running in the Firecracker turned out to be fortunate. Maybe trainer Charlie LoPresti had watched Fort Larned train up to the Foster. The Breeders' Cup Classic winner won in breathtaking fashion, a spectacle of speed that was on display every step of the nine furlongs. It’s doubtful any horse in the country could have beaten Fort Larned on that night.

Running in the Firecracker was fortuitous in that context, but only that context. The race was run over a turf course that became boggy from a brief but furious downpour. Wise Dan did not handle the footing particularly well. And if all the jockeys and horses in the race were counted as separate entities, it was eight against two out there on the Louisville turf course.

Johnny Velazquez wanted to save as much horse and ground as possible but it turned out to be Jack in the Box all the way from gate to wire. It looked like a hole would never open.

But Wise Dan and Johnny showed class and courage, bulling their way through a narrow opening inside, brushing the hedge soundly in the process before bobbling significantly near the sixteenth pole prior to striding away for the win.

And recall—how could one forget?—that he was carrying a steadying 128 pounds. Is that a lot weight? By today’s standards, sure, even if it was of little consequence. The race did little to alter Wise Dan's place in racing history.

The Horse of the Year, who’s been pointed to the Bernard Baruch on the Saratoga turf course all season but LoPresti is now considering run in either of Saratoga's prestigious dirt events, the Whitney or Woodward.

But that would might not be as sporting as it appears. LoPresti would love to win a Grade 1 on dirt this year and keep Wise Dan unbeaten for the remainder of 2013, racing on the turf thereafter in an effort to have Wise Dan repeat as Horse of the Year without having to run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, one of the original stated goals.

There's little doubt that the physical issues currently compromising stablemate Successful Dan has required rethinking Wise Dan’s schedule. But how come it turns out that Wise Dan's schedule is usually risk averse? How can he avoid the 2012 Classic winner all year and be worthy of the accolades sure to come his way if he runs the table from this point forward?

If that’s the case, Wise Dan would likely go the Bernard Baruch-Woodward route. Is that good planning? Yes. A sporting gesture? Not a chance.

If I were conjuring a future path forward for Wise Dan for the remainder of 2013, I’m asking myself one question: What would Buff Bradley do?

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Celebrate Saratoga 150 with Return to True Quality

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 26, 2013—It’s not that I don’t wish Saratoga 150 to be a huge success, I do, but I hope the upcoming race meet doesn’t break any handle records this year.

Now I didn’t move my tack from Long Island to Saratoga over a decade ago because I wish either the racetrack or the community any harm; just the opposite. But I don’t want to see handle records fall if it means that quantity again will out-finish quality.

Now I am a fan, and have been booster of, the New York-bred program since its inception. But a slow horse is a slow horse, whether it’s bred in New York, Kentucky or Florida.

In other words, please, Mr. Racing Secretary, no maiden claiming sprints for New York-breds going 5-1/2 furlongs on the grass this year, OK?

I know that such a race will draw a limit field, and I agree that small outfits have the same right to Saratoga success as those of once and future Hall of Famers. But there's a limit. It’s like the pool hall owner told the hustling Fast Eddie Felson: “This is Ames, mister.”

Quantity should not trump quality in New York, especially here. Commander Kay may not be aware of such nuances, but he is said to be a fast study. The previous administration justified their jobs and salary increases by growing handle.

But increasing handle should be Priority #2 at the new NYRA. No longer should the racing office be pressured by executives looking over their shoulders; there no longer should be a need to use the Sub-9 to make an 11-race card go.

At Monday's annual Saratoga press conferences, NYRA executives said that, in a spirit of cooperation with the town’s entrepreneurs, efforts will be made to end the day's race cards earlier.

Last year, the average Saratoga racing day was insufferably long, an occurrence made worse by a six-day racing week. Actually, a five-day week might bring some of the specialness back to a time when less was more, a time when Saratoga was the August Place to Be.

Of course, no one is attracted to or wants to bet on five-horse fields. There were many stories on that very subject in cyber-land last week, including one on Saturday’s Mother Goose Stakes.

The Grade 1 attracted five 3-year-old fillies, including 1-5 Dreaming of Julia, a gutsy but dull, never-in-it runnerup to the talented Close Hatches.

Considering that no one likes five-horse fields, what if this year’s Travers attracted only five runners; Orb, Oxbow, Palace Malice, Verrazano and Normandy Invasion. Explain to me how that would not be a great betting race.

Like everyone, I live in the real world, one where change isn’t an option but the way it is. Fine. But that doesn’t mean that every now and then an effort shouldn’t be made to turn back the clock.

And is there a better time than the present, as the community and racetrack celebrates 150 years of the best extended race meet on the planet, to make such an attempt?

The first condition book has yet to be published so there's still time for New York racing to re-dedicate itself to quality Saratoga racing beyond its 34 graded stakes and 16 Grade 1 events.

Whatever the number is, now or in the future, Albany leadership is never going to be impressed by a couple of percentage-point handle increases, not while the bottom line measuring stick is racing vs. a run-of-the-mill sino.

Any member of the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce should be able to reason that a five-day race week in the future date can be good for business; another more day to cruise the shops, do brunch, or just relax after one more night of reveling.

“It’s not the 24 days of Saratoga that get you,” often said the late, great Joe Hirsch, “it’s the 24 nights.”

In addition to those once-and-future Hall of Fame outfits, there will be plenty of out of town support for Saratoga 150. With the exception of scrutiny-averse Larry Jones, every major outfit east of the Mississippi with any interest has been granted stalls.

Of course, Saratoga means juvenile racing. There haven’t been many 2-year-old maiden races at Belmont Park this spring owing to, among other things, 12 inches of June rainfall thus far. That, and the 8-horse limit for juvenile sprints, should mean plenty of high class babies will be on display. Recall that all the Triple Crown heroes of 2013 were stabled here last year.

It’s too late to do anything about a five-day race week this year. But an effort can be made to card not more than nine races daily, except steeplechase days and weekends. Betting handle on bigger and “better” fields will more than compensate for fewer races. There's only so much betting money to go around, even in Saratoga.

Track prices, already high enough, will not increase this year. Coolers will be permitted in the backyard. NYRA executives have been told that hotel reservations and advance ticket sales are strong. Weather permitting; a successful season already seems assured.

There's no good reason for quantity to trump quality this year. This is Saratoga, Mr. Campo.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, June 24, 2013

It’s Opening…er…Closing Day at Gulfstream Park

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 24, 2013—At once, Tuesday marks the dawn of a new era and same story-different year for Florida Thoroughbred racing. Can’t we all just get along?

For the first time ever, Gulfstream Park, widely regarded as this country’s premier race meet each January through March, will conduct racing in June when eight races are contested on June 25 beginning at 12:50 p.m.

It is especially strange to post this story on the same day the New York Racing Association confirmed its 2013 stakes schedule and announced a series of events that will mark 150 years of Saratoga racing.

It’s much too early for me to know how I feel about the Florida situation. There are so many variables to consider on either side of the Calder/Gulfstream schism, especially when you know people on both ends.

But this much seems clear about Gulfstream’s expansion: Thoroughbred racing in South Florida could not be in better racing hands, nor can it be better positioned for the future.

No matter which parties are involved, conventional wisdom says that racing in the long term will always be better off in private hands than it would be with a publicly traded corporation.

Tuesday’s closing-day start—84 horses were entered in eight races—is being conducted so that Gulfstream can share in simulcast revenues throughout the year as its own hub. The strong turnout of horses doubtlessly reflects $4,000 purse increases for all races and a $1,000 appearance fee per starter.

Parenthetically, Tampa Bay Downs is hosting a similar “closing day” program next month. Again, this posturing by the three tracks is all about sharing in simulcast revenues.

The Gulfstream “summer meet” begins July 1. Since Tuesday’s program officially closes the 2012-13 meet, there will be mandatory payouts in both the 10-Cent Rainbow Six and 50-Cent Pick 5 pools.

Carryovers will resume when the 2013 season begins next month. Recall that the Rainbow Six produced multi-million-dollar carryovers including a record $3.5 million won by a single New Jersey-based bettor in February.

To prepare for summer racing, Gulfstream spent one million dollars of its 2012-13 record handle to improve its drainage system in advance of the biblical summer rain storms of South Florida.

A gutter was installed between the inside dirt rail and outside rail on the turf course to move and drain rain runoff faster. The project was deemed successful when, after 14 inches of rain fell on June 7, horses trained the next morning.

In summer, the surface will have a sandier base; in winter, more loam. When the racing surfaces were changed several years ago, the turf course was raised 11 feet higher so the tide doesn’t come into play as it once did. Thirty-six pipes to facilitate drainage installed under the turf course also hastens the drying process.

Tuesday's Gulfstream feature race goes as the seventh, an allowance/optional claiming event headed by a Kirk Ziadie-trained entry. It also features a starter from Team Ward/Rosario, Wesley and Joel hooking up to win the Norfolk last week at Royal Ascot.

Second to repeat leading-rider Javier Castellano, Rosario rode 89 winners in his first full Gulfstream winter campaign which included victories aboard subsequent Kentucky Derby-winning Orb.

Meanwhile, the Calder/Gulfstream rift comes down to the amount of compensation Gulfstream is willing to remunerate Calder for the dates in question and what Calder is willing to accept; that and a negotiated split of simulcast revenues.

As a matter of course, we’re never in favor of one track dominating a market if that market has proven it can support disparate entities. But when it comes to survival--in Florida and everywhere—tracks are better served by cooperation, not competition.

While Calder has de facto deemphasized racing in recent years, Frank Stronach’s devotion to the sport is paying dividends. The Gulfstream brand is very strong nationally; the reason it can charge a 9 percent host fee, the highest in the country.

When the Hallandale Beach track expanded into December two years ago, Gulfstream’s all-sources handle was four times that of Calder’s. In April, Gulfstream’s dates were twice those of comparative dates at the Miami Lakes track.

Blessed with great weather last winter, the 10 percent on-track gains of 2011-12 expanded in 2012-13 to an on-track increase of 25 percent.

According to data supplied by Gulfstream, on-track handle has grown 35 percent in the last three years, while all-sources increased by 10 percent. Even with three more days of racing, 87 days to 90, average handle per race in 2012-13 grew from $734,000 to $843,000.

Insiders have volunteered that Gulfstream’s ultimate goal is to race unopposed four days per week, Thursday through Sunday. Management feels that being disruptive will prove to be a good thing for Florida racing and its horsemen.

I hope that it never will come down to racing head-to-head. But as for which South Florida track is positioned to have a profound, positive effect on the future, the two-track battle looks more like a one-track race.

Written by John Pricci

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