Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Memorial Day at Belmont Park: Land of Hopes and Dreams


ELMONT, NY, May 29, 2012—Fittingly, it seemed and felt a lot like the old days, when Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day and not, like what every American holiday has become, a day for commerce.

Indeed, the crowd at Belmont Park had a holiday vibe, more like the old Saturday vibe-- not a real holiday vibe when Aqueduct, yes, Aqueduct, drew about 60,000 New York sports fans to what in this town was a large patch in the middle of a red, white and blue Memorial Day quilt.

Sixty-thousand fans, a number that the NYRA would gladly sign for on a Belmont Stakes day in seasons when different horses win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

The only thing that truly was the same was the excitement and quality generated by another running of the Metropolitan Handicap, a.k.a. the Met Mile, and the race finish, typically always in doubt until the horses reach that final gut-wrenching furlong.

Inside the final furlong, a reference to my first ever visit to a Thoroughbred track in 1961, when the mighty Kelso erased a five length disadvantage inside the eighth pole with ground-gobbling, 130-pound toting strides.

Only yesterday, when Caleb’s Posse came flying with his usual, heart-stopping alacrity, and appeared on his way to victory, Shackleford wouldn’t let him by. Caleb’s Posse had him, only he didn’t.

These days I’m nostalgic for racetrack crowds. So, knowing that I can watch a replay in online detail, I enjoy watching a race live from the apron whenever possible; wanting to feel the energy that gets only from a dramatic stretch run.

Like on Monday, when Donnie Von Hamel’s horse came flying after Dale Romans’.

With temperatures in the 80s, the air hung heavy in the Elmont paddock and the big four players; To Honor An Serve, Shackleford, Caleb’s Posse and Jackson Bend, were circled by their handles in front of the saddling enclosures.

It appeared that either the heat had tempered their energy or that good horses are smart horses, knowing what they needed to do: Conserve energy until called upon. The big four were relaxed, almost somnambulant. A baby could have been on the other end of the shank to lead them.

Their demeanors remained virtually unchanged after they were tacked up, except for the 2011 Preakness winner. Horseplayers recall that before his races last year Shackleford was wildly exuberant, getting more rambunctious as post time drew near.

At 4 it’s the same, only different. Shackleford was the only one visibly up on his toes; not too high, but just high enough. And he puffs himself up, looking more like prize fighter than equine athlete, a horsey loaded gun. In a word; great.

And so it was that at the end of a mile raced in a worthy 1.33.30--compared to the 1:34.34 it took the rapid Buffum to get the same classified-allowance trip, or the 1:34.61 needed by Bob Baffert’s speedy Contested to take the Acorn—it was the boundlessly energetic Shackleford that would not be denied.

The best part was seeing it from the apron, right in front of you: Shackleford, with new rider Johnny Velazquez, through racing Saturday was stuck in a 3-for-50 slump, got his horse to lengthen and stick his nose out one inch, the precise difference in Met 116.

Or, as the official result chart fashioned by chart caller Danny Kulchisky and call taker Brian Affrunti:

“…Around the bend and under some coaxing at this stage, [Shackleford] led a tightly bunched group into the stretch and got cut loose, drew out to his biggest advantage in the ensuing furlong, but with Caleb’s Posse full of run and bearing down hard.

“[Shackleford] was given six hard shots from the left side and steadily drifted out towards the middle of the strip after each one, had the runnerup draw alongside in midstretch, but showed all heart to stave off that one’s stiff challenge and preserve the decision.”

Precisely: all heart…stiff challenge…Preserve the decision. Parenthetically, there might have been better chart callers throughout Thoroughbred history but none as thoroughly poetic as this team.

The prelude to the Met wasn’t too shabby, either. Contested, owned by the Baffert family, made a shambles of the Acorn over the speed kind surface. Playing catch me if you dare, not only did she take an aggressive lead beneath Javier Castellano but increased her lead to five lengths at the line.

Prior to that, It’s Tricky showed her affinity for Belmont Park with an equally Met-gutsy three-quarter length victory over a controlled pacesetter, Cash for Clunkers while heavily favored Awesome Maria, the defending Ogden Phipps champion, apparently showed her affinity for Gulfstream Park.

Uncharacteristically four lengths behind in the first eighth of a mile, it appeared that her best effort would not be forthcoming on this day, an observation that played itself out down the long Elmont straight.

There were over 10,000 in attendance on a sultry Memorial Day and it felt good to be among them, an afternoon where memories were, once and again, up close and personal.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Thoroughbred Racing Proving Bullet Proof?


BALTIMORE, MD., May 20, 2012—It’s the economy stupid, I thought when trying to make sense of what’s been happening in the business of Thoroughbred racing industry this year.

I couldn’t understand it when national handle figures kept rising each month this winter despite less than stellar racing in New York, even by winter standards, and a perceived decline of this year’s product at Tampa Bay Downs.

True, things were looking up at Santa Anita, where there was no horseplayer boycott this time, and at Gulfstream Park, which had a season reminiscent of racing’s glory days when champions routinely showed up in mid-week money-allowances.

Still, given the continued contraction of racing dates at tracks that were hemorrhaging money and those that hosted abbreviated race cards to accommodate a declining horse population, how could this be?

Then came the scandalous takeout story at the New York Racing Association; the sensational treatment the New York Times gave a “disreputable industry” and an on-going raceday medication controversy that has fair-minded practitioners lining up on opposing sides.

Despite all this, betting volume continued to rise this month when Churchill Downs posted double-digit gains on Derby weekend, a trend that continued in Baltimore on Saturday where Preakness business rose for a third consecutive year and a new attendance mark of 121,309 was set.

But from the Derby came stories that raised questions, making casual fans aware of the winning trainer’s checkered past. Further, the ink on the Preakness chart was hardly dry when a Louisville Courier-Journal story told how the owner of the colt that stands on the precipice of racing history had his company branded by the California Attorney General two years ago as a high-interest lender resorting to “loan-shark tactics.”

There are a number of sure bets to be cashed during the three week run-up to the Belmont Stakes. The woes of the event’s host will be recounted, again, as will Doug O’Neill’s milkshaking travails, again, as well as the strong-armed tactics of Paul Reddam’s company.

The one aspect of the NYRA situation likely to be unreported is the unwitting role that the state played in all this. Several of its regulatory agencies in an oversight role failed to detect the accounting error in a timely fashion. Despite that, the state took temporary control of the NYRA on Tuesday by altering the makeup of its Board of Trustees, an arrangement that will remain in place through Governor Andrew Cuomo's term of office.

Sadly, all of what is to come will prove a distraction to the historical matter at hand because other agenda unflattering to racing are at work here. The industry deserves much of what it gets from critics, but not all of it all the time.

Thoroughbred racing has been waiting for a moment like this to come to fruition for 34 years now and the organization charged with putting on the show is rudderless. It doesn’t have a best face to put forward; that face was fired weeks ago.

The faces responsible for moving the show along now are the trainer of a fun bunch surrounding a gifted, gritty and unflappable colt, and his humble from-out-of-the-blue jockey who allows his mount to do the talking despite giving two brilliant tactical performances under the glare of racing’s biggest spotlight.

On June 9, the huge ballpark on Long Island, a racetrack whose size has become anachronistic, will play host to 100,000 history-starved sports fans that will fill every corner of the behemoth track.

The noise these fans will make at Belmont Park if I’ll Have Another is in winning position at the beginning of a stretch run that begins in one county and ends in another will be positively scary.

The roar will shake the building to its foundation as yet another Thoroughbred attempts to boldly go where only 11 have gone before, and where 11 since 1979 have failed to tread.

For two and a half minutes, the only thing that will matter is who finishes first. If that horse happens to be I’ll Have Another, human warts and all, it will remove the bad taste left when a troubled Big Brown was pulled up with a quarter-mile left to run.

Smarty Jones and Funny Cide also shipped into Gotham with the same chance to make history but both were defeated, one via questionable riding tactics and home cooking, the other by the suitably pedigreed betting favorite. At least both were beaten on the square.

Even in victory, the chances are that I’ll Have Another won’t be racing’s savior. Last year, a study conducted by the austere Jockey Club found that the general public does not hold racing in the esteem it once did so who knows how long the afterglow will last.

The recent Times series added to racing’s current undesirable categorization and there is concern that an historic victory might advance this adverse perception of horse racing in this country because of the possible increase of negativity in mainstream media.

But all year the sporting crowd has been voting with their dollars so that any negative perceptions that exist are trending otherwise thus far. So is it an improved economy, increased and improved network television coverage, or is it something else?

Could it be that what makes horse racing great is that a society that has been tethered to the Thoroughbred since racing began over five centuries ago on the Plains of Hempstead, not far from Belmont Park, has and will remain loyal indefinitely?

Are we learning that the game might be bullet proof after all?


Written by John Pricci

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Monday, May 14, 2012


Three Belmont Trainers, Horses, Don’t Need No Stinking Lasix


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 13, 2012—In the wake of Saturday’s Peter Pan Stakes, it’s like that comparisons will be made between the tactics of Right To Vote in the local prep for the Belmont and Bodemeister’s attempted heist of the Kentucky Derby.

Each set an excruciating, enervating pace, and each hung on tenaciously for a game second-place finish. But there was one stark difference however. Right To Vote, even though he had a Right To Lasix, didn’t race on furosemide in the Peter Pan.

Right To Vote’s owner, Bill Casner, is making a statement: Check that, Casner already has made his statements on the subject of raceday medication. What Casner is doing now is practicing what he believes.

Casner, his personal views notwithstanding, must also know that Lasix does not extend racing careers. In fact, the opposite is true. Otherwise explain why the number of starts a horse makes per year is half of what it was 30 years ago, when Lasix use became a raceday standard.

Interestingly, the Eoin Harty-trained Right To Vote was not the only runner on Saturday’s Belmont program to race Lasix free. Actually there were three others, as “Trackfacts” co-host Nick Kling pointed out on his Sunday morning cablecast.

In the fifth race, trainer Dominic Schettino sent out Post Pattern, a 10-1 chance on the early line, going a mile and the sixteenth on the turf. The special-weights maiden came from far back to finish a fast-closing second.

In the seventh, the “Chief’ sent out turf sprinter Renzo Bertoni, 6-1 on the early line, that also came from far back after getting shuffled back at headstretch. But the Allen Jerkens trainee got up in the last strides to win the 7-furlong turfer going away.

In the Peter Pan, sprint-bred Right To Vote, outrunning the very quick Jerome Mile winner The Lumber Guy for the lead, set fractions of :22.71, :45.35, 1:09.52 and a mile in 1:34.92, forcing heavily favored Mark Valeski to reach down to beat him, the winner eventually going away at the end for a 1-1/4 length win in 1:48.31.

In the finale, Say Lancelot finished last after battling for the lead down the backstretch. His odds were 66-1.

Horses can race effectively without Lasix, of course, and that’s the way it was done in New York until the Kenny Noe Jr. administration came to town.

It matters not whether these trainers were experimenting or tipping their cap to what seems inevitable; might as well learn to deal with the variable sooner rather than later. Besides, as long as Lasix remains legal, the diuretic is readily available to any trainer with access to an endoscope.

But it does make one wonder why all those two-year-olds that never have been subjected to the stress of racing need to debut with an “L” printed next to their names in the official track program, doesn’t it? Need a quick answer?

Because they can.

Does this make sense, or should it be considered more negativism from one of racing’s “detractors” who agrees with those with skin in the game who prefer to see all horses compete without the aid of raceday medication?

Calling someone with an honest disagreement sounds to me a lot like the “love it or leave it” game played in the 60s and early 70s, and again in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. Personally, I never considered Hall of Famer Gary Stevens to be a detractor. Does anyone?

It’s people like Stevens and Casner and George Strawbridge, anyone you could name on the side of banning raceday medication, who deserve to be supported and not those advocates of the status quo.

Standing still has brought the sport to this precise moment in time. Isn’t it safe to say, without raising ire, that things haven’t worked out very well using that approach?

By now, everyone knows the problems on both sides of this issue, most of them centered on economics, money that makes the mare, and all the other horses, go.

Initiating a raceday ban is not that hard, really. Start with the juveniles of 2013, or the following year, and move forward. All other horses are grand-fathered in, providing that rules and punishment are made uniform.

Those who believe public perception doesn’t matter either are fooling themselves or being disingenuous. The fact that the Kentucky Derby set records for attendance and handle only proves that America still loves to party and gamble on a Super Bowl played with horses one day a year.

Anyone who underestimates the American public, especially those not attracted to racing, or sports of any kind, for that matter, are playing with fire, one that might not be extinguishable once the conflagration starts.

Written by John Pricci

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