Monday, June 17, 2013

Media Star Wars

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 17, 2013—Unfortunately--and not for the reasons you might surmise out of hand—the battle between various segments of the racing industry and the racing media in all its forms is alive and well.

The newspaper business is in as much trouble as the racing industry these days, but if racing doesn’t think it needs media coverage, pro or con, it is sadly mistaken: Any business that does not court media; traditional or otherwise, cannot expect to survive, much less prosper:

ITEM: New York Post Fires Racing Staff on Belmont Stakes Eve

It is no secret that the racing industry—and sports leagues to some extent—no longer believes it’s necessary to at least co-exist with mainstream media of which Internet coverage is now part.

The word blogger, whatever the industry, has become a curse. Yes, many bloggers do not feel it necessary to fact-check before writing. Indeed, shooting from the editorial hip can be highly counter-productive and in some cases patently wrong.

But there are two realities about this that needs acknowledging: First, the information explosion created by 24-hour cable news and the Internet has kept the populace informed as never before. How much it cares beyond the state of Kanye and Kim’s newborn child is another matter.

Secondly, and of greater significance, is that all organizations have become proficient in obfuscation and the spreading of disinformation. Resultantly, honest research doesn’t always unearth the real story, although that’s no reason to stop trying.

The good and bad news about social media is that everyone has an opinion, but it is up to traditional and new media sources to supply opinion that yields perspective. If the population truly cares about the subject at hand, it will Google all about it.

Soon after a New York Post story critical of the New York Racing Association was published during the 2012 Saratoga race meet, the company pulled all its advertising.

That is NYRA’s right, of course. But given that the Post was a mainstream daily that extensively covered horse racing in its market, was it in the association’s best interests to do so?

Apparently it thought it was and that the publishing of daily entries, reporting, commentary and handicapping be damned. Never mind that the Post was the most recognizable source of horse racing coverage in the media capital of the world.

Deserved or not, NYRA always has had a reputation for arrogance: The belief that the Post needed them more than they needed daily coverage of racing would seem to support that notion.

Ironically, there was some meeting of the minds between representatives of both organizations with respect to the lost advertising revenue; no matter.

Once News Corp. decided to place its properties in different pockets of the same pants to please the marketplace or make the Post more attractive to sell, it cut costs and pulled the plug.

The fact that the Post pulled its coverage on Belmont eve obviously was intended to send a message. Mission accomplished; everyone noticed and horse racing took another hit, this one in America’s biggest market.

ITEM: Twitter Wars; Industry Organizations Circle Wagons

In case you missed this recent item, there is a war of words in the Twittersphere between Bob Baffert and Ray Paulick, gentlemen who need no introduction to this audience. The issue was seven mysterious deaths of horses from Baffert’s barn within an 18-month period.

The problem started when Paulick referenced the seven deaths in the wake of the quarter-horse death of the Ruidoso Futurity winner.* It escalated after 2012 Haskell Stakes winner Paynter made a miraculous recovery then underscored his return to health with an impressive victory. In a post-race TVG interview, Baffert gratuitously remarked: “Ray Paulick, if you’re watching, put this is your pipe and smoke it.”

The phrase is a well-known cliché, of course, but not to anyone inside the business who perceived the comment to be nothing less than a pointed jibe meant to discredit the messenger.

Regrettably, Baffert’s fit of pique does not appear to be spontaneous but rather part of an anti-media campaign forged by Baffert and family against anyone who raises questions about the Hall of Famer’s training practices.

Baffert’s wife Jill has been her husband’s staunchest public defender dating back to the misunderstanding that surfaced at Del Mar surrounding the sale of Richard’s Kid, a dual Pacific Classic winner formerly trained by Baffert.

This latest dust-up was a war of words between Jill Baffert and Paulick that followed the "Ruidoso death" comment.

There also was a circulated e-mail from Baffert to industry insiders re: horseplayer advocate Andy Asaro who has had problems with Baffert since the trainer’s owner, Mike Pegram, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, lobbied for a parimutuel takeout increase.

Baffert used a similar tack to smear Asaro, referring to him as “bankrupt.” Asaro has demanded an apology which, at this writing, was not forthcoming. Today, Asaro learned that "apparently someone has asked Attorney Ryan Enderle to look into my past, beyond 10 years ago, and is threatening to post a past Bankruptcy of mine online unless I back off."

On the same day the Post fired its racing writers, I received a call from a Baffert associate defending the trainer and questioning my role as executive editor for allowing former jockey agent Harry Hacek to occasionally post commentary at HRI under the “Backside View” flag, some very critical of Baffert. The contact asked if I would speak with Bob. I agreed.

We had a respectful conversation in which we disagreed about his handling of the horse death situation. Baffert’s tone changed somewhat when he discussed the credibility of both Hacek and Asaro. I offered Baffert equal time and confirmed our conversation with this follow-up e-mail:


It was good that we had a talk on the phone this afternoon.

To reiterate, you will have equal time to say whatever you wish, without editing that would alter context in any way.

I will write a precede (cq) that introduces the issue to readers who might be unfamiliar with the subject matter.

Your story will lead HRI for a two-day period and, of course, will live forever in the archives. Take your time with it.

I will e-mail you to advise when the story will run and, of course, if I have any questions.

May all your horses have a safe trip tomorrow and every day.

John Pricci, executive editor”

I have not yet received Baffert’s retort and sincerely hope that I will. What seems obvious—my conversation notwithstanding—is that there has been a campaign waged by Baffert’s supporters against racing media or anyone taking a differing view. That is their right, of course.

But for TVG--which promised to give Paulick equal time to react to Baffert’s remark--to rescind its invitation due to a “scheduling conflict” appears little more than another industry media organization favoring the game’s powerful practitioners rather than report on the story or provide a serious, fair-minded editorial is embarrassingly inexcusable.

* correction made to clarify original source reference, made at 6:12 p.m., 061713

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Chasing the Dream Is What Really Matters

ELMONT, NY, June 10, 2013—I don’t know why but at no point during the 2013 Triple Crown run did I experience some sense of urgency about how it would all turn out. I was content to allow it to wash over me.

I like 3-year-old racing for the excitement it brings to the sport, the good betting opportunities it affords, and the teachable moments about the process that helps to understand the contestants.

I like the fact that repetition and experience informs the process to better understand the practitioners themselves. I’ve trained hundreds of horses on this word processors over the years and never have lost a race.

I never won one, either, but I’m seldom in doubt. For some reason, But this Triple Crown season was different. It wasn’t gee whiz, wide-eyed business as usual.

But from the day after Orb’s Kentucky Derby to the day after Palace Malice’s Belmont Stakes, I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a Triple Crown chase more.

Then it hit me: This was about a Triple Crown won by people, with horses in a supporting role. It was a chase that looked promising for a while but once again did not produce an equine with true charisma, much less one for the ages.

After seeing how this year’s series was received, racing’s decline due to a perceived unpopularity with the public might have more to do with mainstream media apathy than the notion that horses have become irrelevant.

Every year, the Triple Crown, whether the quest is lost or won, is an event that celebrates a sport’s history, making it possible to revere the past the way sports fans embrace Ruth’s Yankees, Lombardi’s Packers, Russell’s Celtics or ‘Rocket’ Richard’s Canadiens.

What made this Triple Crown run so enjoyable for so many is because it celebrated all that came before, what it is now, and how it portends for the future.

Time’s baton was passed, from Derby to Preakness to Belmont, endlessly through time, from the steadfast Wheatley domain, to Triple Crown-dominant Calumet, to ground-breaking Dogwood, racing’s original syndicator.

The 2013 chase also celebrated horsemanship in all its disparate forms; from Kentucky-bred trainer indentured to a family dynasty to a renaissance trainer with special vision to forever turn a sport into big business, to a protégé that would take the original model and raise it to levels unknown.

Watching Shug McGaughey realize his dream and enjoy the entire process despite the disappointments that followed was to see a good man who gets it, that a Kentucky Derby victory is a blessing, more than enough to last a lifetime.

Seeing his rider, a young Joel Rosario win the two biggest prizes in the world in a span of five weeks, become one of the sport’s best human athletes was a revelation immersed in the knowledge that he’s still learning.

Watching Wayne Lukas, a revolutionary who forever changed the way the game is played break a record for Triple Crown victories lent historical perspective to the 2013 chase.

Watching 50-year-old Gary Stevens, out of the competitive saddle for seven years, put on a riding clinic to win the Triple Crown’s middle jewel then seeing him celebrate on the gallop-out befits a time capsule moment.

Watching Todd Pletcher, who has raised his mentor’s game several notches on his way to becoming the sport’s most prolific winner, tweak Palace Malice’s development with the skill of an old school master to turn a talented underachiever into a classic winner was the kind of moment fans can only hope to see again.

Seeing Mike Smith, no youngster himself, work out a perfect trip aboard a horse he helped run off to lose America’s Race decisively, only to return and guide that same horse to victory in the champion’s test.

Finally, enjoying Cot Campbell, the man who made it possible for 40 men to own one horse instead of the other way around, enjoy the moment, as he watched the fruits of his labor succeed was the stuff smiles are made of.

Every one of these 2013 Triple Crown winners are old enough, wise enough, and secure enough to know that what they achieved is a blessing that few people get to experience.

There was no Triple Crown to celebrate this year. But to see the process unfold and enjoy the satisfaction derived by some of the game’s best and brightest, will have to do until the next history maker comes along. Until then, what happened in the Triple Crown 2013 was plenty good enough.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, May 27, 2013

Horse of the Year Wise Dan Deserving of Higher Profile

SARATOGA SPRINGS, MAY 27, 2013—It must be a sign of elongating teeth that I cannot recall if it was the late, great Charles Hatton, or the late, great Joe Hirsch, who would rattle off a list of Thoroughbreds that made the running of a particular race especially memorable.

“The previous winners of [big race here] read like a roll of drums,” they would write. If either were alive today, some of the names they might drop in advance of the storied Metropolitan Handicap, better known as the Met Mile, would be as follows:

Kelso, Carry Back, Gun Bow, Buckpasser, Forego (a horse so nice he won it twice), as did Gulch.

And they might have followed those up with underappreciated Criminal Type, the brilliant Ghostzapper, and a pair of super-fast three-year-olds; Holy Bull and Conquistador Cielo--a winner of the Met Mile five days before stretching out his noted speed the mile and a half of the Belmont Stakes.

Well, there are no Derby-aged runners in the Memorial Day renewal and probably--no disrespect intended--only one, Flat Out, has won a true world class event, even if it only took place in Elmont.

And not even would this uber game seven-year-old—"hickory," as those legendary Daily Racing Form writers might have described him--gets racing hearts a-pumping.

Today’s race would have been a perfect spot for defending Horse of the Year Wise Dan to raise his sporting profile but, since he’s a gelding, his connections, primarily owner Morton Fink, thought only of long term big bucks.

Call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. It simply would be better for the industry if owners--who wouldn’t be invested if at first they couldn’t afford it--played the game as if it were a just that and not a business.

A reason not to would be fear of having their gallant gelding exposed as something less than--and there’s been no evidence that's true. It's only a little sad that he’s not treated like the real Horse of the Year deal. At the end of last year, there was talk of a higher profile for Wise Dan, even a 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic run.

Trainer Charlie LoPresti said he wanted to make amends for last year's unlucky Stephen Foster trip: "I would like to win that race," LoPresti recently told Blood

But then this: I'd like to win that race and then do everything I did last year and then make the decision if we get to the Breeders' Cup whether we go in the Mile or the Classic.”

Five days after Wise Dan won the Maker's 46 Mile in his 2013 debut on the grass, becoming the first horse in Keeneland history to win five graded stakes races, LoPresti confirmed that the Foster on Churchill Downs dirt would most likely be the next target. But after winning the Woodford Reserve, the Firecracker became the next target.

Bye-bye Stephen Foster; say hello to Dave, or Bernard Baruch.

For LoPresti and Fink, especially the 84-year-old owner, the successful brother act has been an embarrassment of homebred riches. In addition to Wise Dan, older half-sibling Successful Dan, a prominent handicap player himself, will take his famous kid brother’s place in the Foster.

Neither LoPresti nor Fink needed to run in the Met Mile. They can do as they please, and have, keeping the two separated, planning to get the money with Wise Dan by winning the same races he won last year while Successful Dan tests the waters in the Foster and Whitney, a race he was pointing toward last year until suffering a ligament injury. “We don’t want to have to run them against each other if we can help it,” LoPresti said.

“[Successful Dan] never has had a chance to run in one of these good races other than the Alysheba last year," the trainer continued. "He never got a chance to run in the Whitney [or] in any Breeders' Cup races. [But] right now he's good, and as long as Dr. Bramlage says 'OK'…"

"...Who knows, maybe we would toy with the Woodward at the end of [Saratoga] as a race for Wise Dan, but it all hinges on what Successful Dan does," Lopresti said. "I would love to have a chance to put one in the Classic and one in the grass race again, the Mile. That would be a good thing to have, two horses in the Breeders' Cup."

Wise Dan clinched Horse of the Year honors by winning the Mile and likely would repeat as best in show if he runs the lower profile table again--unless, of course, some three-year-old goes wild and runs his table, beating elders in the process.

The Horse of the Year didn’t need to run in the Met Mile, but easily could have. “Those two races took nothing out of him,” Lopresti said, referring to the Makers 46 Mile and Woodford Reserve.

All those 1s in the past performances look great but what’s more impressive are the names of the races alongside the running lines. That's what keeps the drum rolls beating.

A horse for two Breeders’ Cup races is a nice thing to have. But how much fun would it be to see brothers possibly finish 1-2 in the Classic? The chances of that happening are better than seeing siblings race against each other in some Classic to be named later.

If the horses are healthy, there's no good reason not to try. After all, weren't Kelso and Forego geldings, too?

Written by John Pricci

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