Sunday, November 24, 2013

In Hollywood, Truth Always Stranger than Fiction

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 24, 2013—If you’re a fan of NCIS, America’s top rated television series, then you probably know that its lead character, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, does not believe in coincidences.

Neither do most horseplayers, albeit to a fault on many occasions. Well, here’s what’s happened over a three-day period this week , Wednesday through Friday.

On Wednesday, the state of California, shocked to discover that horse racing was being conducted back East, got out in front of Thursday’s Congressional hearings on horse racing by joining their Mid-Atlantic brethren and others in the Uniform Rules for Medication and Drug Testing consortium. This follows the lead of Illinois which only recently came on board, and Kentucky is thisclose to joining the confederation in short order.

As trainer Turo Escalante would say after saddling one of his improbable longshot winners: “What a surprise.”

Escalante, of course, is a fictional character from the late HBO horse racing series “Luck” which--truly coincidentally--was canceled by the cable giant because, they said, it was afraid to incur the wrath of animal rights activists who might boycott their network after learning that three horses died on the set as the series was being made.

Last month, the California Horse Racing Board completed its investigations into unexplained sudden death of horses. Yet, it took until Thursday morning when in advance of the hearings it was announced that Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert had been exonerated of any wrongdoing in the sudden deaths of seven horses in his care within a 16-month period ending last March.

It was determined that five of the seven died of cardiopulmonary failure and that five of the seven were stricken in morning workouts or gallops, a sixth during a race, and the seventh immediately after racing.

“We couldn’t find anything,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the CHRB. “It doesn’t change the fact we don’t have an answer. It does say there is something wrong here.”

It has been widely reported that following the third sudden death, CHRB testers began to look for blood doping agents. None were found, but the bronchial dilator clenbuterol, legal for therapeutic use but illegal on raceday and a source of great controversy, was found in 25 percent of the horses tested.

All seven of Baffert’s sudden-death horses were treated with thyroxine, a hormone used to treat hypothyroidism. When questioned during the investigation, Baffert told Arthur that he treated all his horses with it but stopped after the seventh death.

Arthur said it was rare for the medication to be used that extensively, and hasn’t found a barn that uses it on all their horses, but that the hormone was legally dispensed, adding that the trainer was not in violation of the rules.

Some of the known side effects of thyroxine and its derivatives are difficulty in breathing, shortness of breath, chest pain, excessive sweating or intolerance to heat, and fast or irregular heartbeat.

According to a recent New York Times report, Baffert asked his veterinarians to prescribe thyroxine, which is against American Association of Equine Practitioners policy that states treatments are to be based on specific diagnosis.

It is unknown--nor does it matter--if Thursday’s Congressional hearing was a kneejerk reaction to a damaging Times series during Kentucky Derby week or whether the Jockey Club made good on its threat to seek federal regulation if racing states were dragging their feet on having their join the Uniform Rules group.

In either case, federal Constitutional law supersedes the state statutes that govern horse racing because of possible unlawful interstate commerce activity which, by definition, is the essence of simulcast wagering.

Possible legislation, the third of its kind in the last two years, would give the feds oversight in the areas of medication use, testing, and punishment. Testing would be placed under the auspices of the United States Anti-Doping Agency which oversees the misuse of drugs in sports, including the Olympics.

The Uniform Rules organization is hoping to head off federal legislation in the shadow of the most recent regulatory wire.

Alan Foreman, chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, was insistent on Capital-OTB’s “Loose on the Lead” program Sunday morning that concerns regarding Clenbuterol and corticosteroid abuse have been addressed and that a point system has been established for rules violators, doling out punishment depending upon the severity of the offense.

The sticking point will be whether Salix will continue to be allowed on raceday. Predictably, horsemen’s groups are in uniform agreement, wanting the status quo to be maintained. The congressional bill wants to see raceday use phased out within two years of a bill becoming law.

On Friday, three Penn National–based trainers and a racetrack clocker were arrested and charged with committing fraud in connection with horse racing at Penn National. The news release came from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Harrisburg. Coincidence?

Somebody cue Escalante.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 22, 2013

The More Things Change

“Did you every grow anything in the garden of your mind?

You can grow ideas, in the garden of your mind.

All you have to do is think, and they’ll grow”

--Mister Rogers

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 22, 2013—It is the question on everybody’s lips today, an infamous day for any American alive in this country 50 years ago. It was the first time I can remember when the music began to die: Where Were You?

It’s virtually impossible for anyone to forget where they were on November 22, 1963. Unfortunately, it’s proven to be more than possible to forget the why.

What is it, exactly, that creates an atmosphere in which men believe it reasonable to take another’s life because of disparate views of an ideal, or a lack of same?

What is the underlying factor that, from time to time, causes a misguided individual to commit murder and alter the course of history in the name of God and country?

Why, because of political irrationality, must a man who, reaching for an ideal, stands his ground and it costs him his life?

The events of this day two score and 10 years ago in all likelihood began when the 16th President of the United States gave a short speech seven score and 10 years ago on a hallowed patch of Pennsylvania ground, two years into a war waged because not everyone believes that all men are created equal.

Parenthetically, I wonder what he would think about a faction of individuals from his own party being motivated not by peace, or by equanimity, or by equality, or humanity, but by self-interest dedicated to the proposition that what makes this country great is its wealth and the power it can buy.

How much have things really changed in 150 years after a national battlefield was dedicated because of a war that pit neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother which began, ironically, on a July 4th in 1863?

The essence of the American ideal was expressed by a man who believed that the memory of the men who lost their lives in battle would be remembered long beyond the words dedicated to the memory. Those 272 words are as meaningful today as they were 150 years ago. Remember:

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.

“We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

“The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.

“That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

What is it about American karma that consumes its destiny every 50 years? Recall that it was 100 years later when a great preacher from Georgia wrote a speech intended as homage to the address at Gettysburg and as commemoration of a doctrine proclaiming emancipation:

“I have a dream…” he said.

“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred…

“I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream...

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."

“My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring..."

“So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

“Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

“Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

“Let freedom ring from the snowcapped mountains of Colorado.

“Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

“But not only that...

“Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

“Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

“Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountain side, let freedom ring …”

The ideal began as an idea that grew in the garden of his mind.

The lives of great men, including the one we remember today, were taken because they stood their ground, dedicated in large measure to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Has anybody here seen these old friends, or must their ideals, like flesh and blood, also be snuffed out by the assassin’s bullet?

I can tell you exactly where I was on this day 50 years ago. I was right here, right now.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, November 09, 2013

Here’s To You, Paulie

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 9, 2013—The phone rang at 9:01 a.m. It was Fran telling me that Paul had been taken to Saratoga Hospital Friday night and that the inevitable could be only hours away.

Not many people, if any, beat Stage 4 lung cancer--certainly Cary Fotias didn’t. But despite Paul Moran’s promise to me two years ago that “I will beat this thing,” the disease ultimately proved stronger than the flesh.

But never the spirit.

Mercifully the end came for Paul six hours later, my colleague at Newsday for 17 years and a man who I sat three feet away from in press boxes stretching from Aqueduct to Hollywood Park, with all the stops in between, for longer than that.

When I was writing a column as Newsday’s first public handicapper, the time had come for Ed Comerford to retire. “Whitey” was a former Newsday sports editor who spent the waning days of a distinguished newspaper career covering Thoroughbred racing.

It was a time when the New York tabs, and the Gray Lady, too, had two or three people on the racing beat. Newsday covered horse racing mostly because the Belmont Stakes is run on Long Island, and because there were drawing board plans to make an incursion into New York City.

Dick Sandler, the great Newsday Sports Editor, instructed me to go out and find a replacement for Comerford. A week or two later, Mark Berner, a friend and Newsday consensus box colleague, brought me a clip of a piece Paul had written on harness racing.

After serving his country in Vietnam, Moran went to work at the Buffalo News, his hometown paper, and eventually found his way to South Florida and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel where he covered Thoroughbreds and Pompano Park harness.

I took the clip into the Newsday office, gave it to Sandler who read it and gave it to Deputy Sports Editor Jeff Williams. They looked at each other, looked back at me, and Dick said “get in touch with Moran and have him call me.”

The rest is Eclipse Award history.

In many ways, Paul and I were polar opposites, especially politically. While we had many disagreements, somehow we managed never to go to bed angry, figuratively speaking, of course.

Even when we weren’t on the same page, my present duties require that I devour everything that’s written on racing and when I noticed one of Paul’s recent contributions to, his was the first story I opened.

There have been many great wordsmiths to labor as turf writers; Palmer, Smith, Hatton and all the rest.

But Bill Nack and Paul Moran were contemporaries, both at Newsday and in life, and were my literary turf heroes. I wish I had the proverbial dollar for each time I blurted out: “Hey, Toni, listen to this one… Wish I wrote that.”

Nack, of course, had the great mystical style of the old masters. Paul’s tomes were more adversarial, but could he ever turn a phrase. As he wrote his column, he sometimes would laugh at his own jokes. The next day, invariably, I laughed, too.

Paul not only was creative on the printed page but was inspired whenever he filled out a Newsday expense report on our return from Saratoga each summer.

One afternoon Sandler called Newsday’s private line in the Belmont press box. Moran answered it and was laughing when he hung up the phone.

I asked “what was that all about?” “Dick told me that he went over my expense report and said that ‘I assume you’re now the same size as Pricci’.”

In the tradition of the great wordsmiths who labored at their craft whatever their field, Paul often would unwind at night with a few pops at local watering holes wherever racing was conducted.

Back then it was Esposito’s Tavern across from Belmont Park downstate, and Lillian’s on Broadway in Saratoga.

One year Paul rented a house on East Avenue. He was ambling home about 3:30 a.m. when Mitch Levites of NYRA’s closed-circuit TV department rolled up on Paul and lowered his window.

“Give you a lift?” Paul walked over, got in and exchanged pleasantries as Levites put the car in gear and began to slowly roll forward. “Where to?” Levites asked. They went about 40 feet, two or three houses passed where Paul climbed into the car.

“Right here,” he said to Mitch. He got out, put the key in the lock, and disappeared into his Saratoga rental.

Paul won two Eclipse Awards, the Red Smith Award for outstanding coverage of the Kentucky Derby, one from the Associated Press Sports Editors, among others.

At that time Newsday had the best seats in the Belmont Park press box, closest to headstretch. Our perch provided a perfect view of the grotesque scene playing out in front of us, the tragic breakdown of Go for Wand in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

The late Willie Shofner, a.k.a “the Black Prince,” worked the press box lounge back then. He fed us on race days and kept some liquor behind the lunch counter in case one of the scribes had an “emergency.”

Grown men were crying everywhere in the press box and many of us took a time out and a couple of pops before regrouping to report on what had just transpired.

As we started writing, a reporter from another paper came into our office and made the mistake of asking who I liked in the next race. It was a good thing there were no open windows. Paul screamed the guy right out of the room, to say the least.

Then he sat down and wrote a stirring account of the breakdown on deadline, earning him the second of two Eclipse Awards.

Paul Moran was practiced in the art of the give-and-take, rarely without the perfect wisecrack suitable for any occasion.

The perception might have been of a man in conflict with himself, but this was also a man who had pictures of four poor children he helped support through charitable organizations on his refrigerator door. At the end, much of his money was willed to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

“I can understand my getting sick,” he told a friend after roaming the halls of Sloan Kettering one afternoon following surgery two years ago. “But what did these kids ever do to deserve this?”

Paul probably would be embarrassed to think people might learn about this quiet generosity--not the carefully crafted image of the curmudgeonly contrarian he worked so hard to perfect.

Befitting his half-Irish, half-Italian heritage, he went out as he lived. Paul Moran was a man’s man, right to the very end.

Written by John Pricci

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