Thursday, April 12, 2012

Gulfstream Park Reminiscent of…Saratoga?  Really?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 12, 2012—All roads, it seems, leads home, to Saratoga where, quite coincidentally, the Oklahoma Training Track across from the big ballpark opened for housing and training today. Call it the New York route on the “Good Horse Circuit.”

Oklahoma and, for that matter, the legendary racetrack across the street looks the same, which is to say, just great. Unfortunately, training hours were over when I rolled up on the entrance, but the weekend’s coming and I can see a container of coffee and a stopwatch in my immediate future.

Of course, it’s good to be home. But I have another home now, too, South Florida. Call it my favorite spot on “The Snowbird Circuit.” It’s nice having a small piece of that rock, too, even if I only got to Lauderdale Beach twice in the past three months.

I like South Florida even if it is part of a state in which “justifiable homicide” is permitted and rigorously defended; where foreclosures run rampant, unemployment is higher than the national average and a place where any moron can call someone a communist because he or she sits in 70 or 71 or 80 seats across the aisle from theirs.

Looking back on a winter racing season recently past, it’s almost impossible to recall all the good things that took place between the fences near the corner of Biscayne and Hallandale Beach Boulevards.

The meet started with Discreet Dancer’s track record performance on opening day, the beginning of a meeting to remember for Todd Pletcher whose 72 winners gave him a ninth consecutive training title, a milestone 3,000th victory, his support allowing Javier Castellano to ride a record number of meet winners, 112, also joining the ranks of 3,000 win club.

Yes, the Pletcher shedrow is extremely powerful and deep, seemingly having a runner for every condition. But it’s one thing to enter the “best horse” and another to win with such consistency at the sport’s highest levels; Pletcher’s good horses aren’t beating up on a bunch of equine tomato cans.

It was a meet in which thrice-Kentucky Derby winning Calvin Borel left with his riding crop between his legs only to return and upset the consensus Kentucky Derby favorite in Gulfstream Park’s signature event, the Florida Derby, the linchpin of the best racing program seen in 2012.

The 2011-2012 Gulfstream Park race meet was a box office success as well. Horses such as Awesome Feather, the 2010 Juvenile Fillies champion, Mucho Macho Man, Awesome Maria and Hymn Book saw to that, especially Maria and the Macho Man.

But the best part is that the new Gulfstream Park—when does it just become Gulfstream Park, I wonder—is that it was reminiscent of the older venue, where on any given day, champion might show up in some mid-week allowance race.

Of course, given the calendar, it’s all about the three-year-olds, and there were plenty of those. Ten horses comprise the NTRA 3-yrear-old pole; half based in the East and the other half based in the West or Midwest.

All the Eastern based 3-year-olds were stabled in SoFla this weekend. Only Alpha didn’t race at Gulfstream Park, but Union Rags, Gemologist, Hansen and Take Charge Indy did. Might as well throw in Risen Star winner El Padrino, at the moment graded earnings challenged, and the sidelined Algorithms, a Holy Bull revelation.

The 2011 Eclipse Award female sprint champion Musical Romance returned to form in the Grade 2 Inside Information. Animal Kingdom returned to win an allowance race but was reinjured and 2011 Louisiana Derby winner Pants On Fire also returned an allowance winner. Preakness winning Shackleford also showed up, as did irrepressible Jackson Bend.

As you might expect, it was all very popular at the box office. The early December opening accounted for an addition $80 million in handle receipts, according to Gulfstream, with on-track handle going over the $50 million mark for the first time in the new facility, which opened in 2006.

In addition to the on-track numbers, all-sources handle set a new standard for the meet that included a record $26.7 million on Florida Derby day, $2.9 million of that on track. It’s easy to attract record handle given top-flight talent and an average field size of 9.25.

The Gulfstream betting menu leaves nothing to the imagination and the fairly friendly takeout rates in multi-race pools and the availability of incremental multi-race wagering, including 50-Cent trifectas and Dime Superfectas, pretty much standard everywhere these days, all helped.

The Dime Rainbow Pick 6 is successful by any fair measure even with its high takeout rates because it allows everyone into the pool. A 10-Cent Pick Six paying $1,800-plus personally insured a profitable meeting. But there is still work to be done.

While Gulfstream and Aqueduct worked hard to coordinate post times so as not to be in conflict, all too often on Saturdays, or so it seemed, Gulfstream post times conflicted with its sister track, Santa Anita.

Competition, not cooperation, with intrastate rival Tampa Bay Downs, was both obvious and a little distasteful. Horses for Gulfstream’s Saturday feature on March 10 seem to lollygag for an exceptionally long time near the starting gate, insuring that Gulfstream’s feature would conflict with the Tampa Bay Derby.

Additionally, on self-service betting machines, where the more popular simulcast signals often share a space on the same line with the host track, with secondary track relegated to the “More Tracks” button, are routine.

But self-service bettors had to go three deep to find Tampa Bay Downs, which certainly qualified as a featured signal that afternoon given its strong supporting stakes program. Away from the press box, I had some difficulty finding a monitor that carried Tampa Bay.

Gulfstream Park is a class operation from top to bottom, but this tack is bush league and beneath the stature of the best winter signal in the country, bar none. But there’s another element about Gulfstream that, for all its New Millennium design, is reminiscent of my other home track.

I like to watch the races from a television viewing stand directly behind the winners’ circle and opposite the finish line. The stand is about 10 feet high, providing an unobstructed view of the action as you stand watching that day’s feature race in the crowd.

Like Saratoga, Gulfstream’s fans like up five deep at the rail to get a closer look at the horses and feel the energy as the field races toward the finish. People on a racetrack apron straining, up on their toes, to get a better look.

People at the racetrack. What a concept.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Does the Name Monarchos Strike a Familiar Note?

BOYNTON BEACH, FLA., April 2, 2012—Since sports analogies often are the easiest way to express an opinion, Todd Pletcher, after referencing basketball tournaments when asked about prep races and which horses he thought were the top four Kentucky Derby prospects, said on Tuesday’s NTRA national conference call:

Phone photo by Frank Tufariello
“I would have to make Union Rags a #1 seed, Gemologist a #1 seed, Hansen a #1 seed, and Creative Cause a #1 seed.”

Apparently, Pletcher learned more from the old ball coach and mentor, Hall of Famer Darrell Wayne Lukas, than just the X’s and O’s of running of Division 1 Thoroughbred racing operation.

Had Pletcher, now in New York to saddle his own #1 seed, Gemologist, in Saturday’s Resorts World Casino Wood Memorial wanted to, he could have paid homage to the Wildcats of the Commonwealth by rating Union Rags the top overall Kentucky Derby seed.

If he had the chance to see Union Rags inside barn 7 at the Palm Meadows training center on Monday morning, surely he would have considered doing so, loyalty to Gemologist and WinStar Farm notwithstanding.

What we saw, and what Pletcher would have seen, was a colt with his head buried in a feed tub, peering out only occasionally to check the scene outside his stall. He would have seen Union Rags respond to the whinny of another Barn 7 occupant before again burying his nose into a hay rack, ripping off chunks of digestive aid with wide-eyed attitude and purpose.

“He was really tough early this morning when we got him out [into a paddock pen],” said trainer Michael Matz.

Horses love to get outside, romp around a bit, graze a little, just be a horse, doing what horses do. And this is a guy who loves to do what they were all born to do; run, something he never got a chance to do two days earlier in his final appearance before American racing’s biggest game and Kentucky Derby title.

This was the second straight morning that Union Rags displayed this kind of demeanor. On Sunday morning, the colt was “frisky,” according to Matz; “really tough” the following day.

Throughout our 40-minute visit, his ears were busy as he took in the sights and sounds outside his stall, but mostly the ears were up. From what we could see, his legs were pristine, his eyes bright, as he took a turn at leading the Victory Farm whinny chorus.

His manner made it difficult, if not impossible, to believe he had been in a horse race not 36 hours earlier.

This is a happy individual, one who can be forgiven his early a.m. hissy fits. He is engaged at all times, more than happy to play a little cat and mouse with a stable-hand who was showing the colt plenty of respect while trying to lay alfalfa on the ground inside the stall.

Insead of some equine coronation, the Florida Derby turned out to be a coming out party for the winning Take Charge Indy, a rebirth for his trainer, Patrick Byrne, and redemption for his partner, Calvin Borel, who received little early support from South Florida’s top horsemen, hit the road to Oaklawn Park, then returned to steal Gulfstream’s biggest prize.

“It was a learning experience for Union Rags and hopefully Julien, too,” said Matz. “Julien has to know that there’s a target on his back.

“Javier [on El Padrino] was race-riding and that’s fine. But once he got himself in that position, Javier was more interested in beating Union Rags than the other horses.

“Julien has to be aware of where he is at all times,” Matz continued. “The good thing about it is he will put himself in a better position where he won’t let that happen again.”

Trainer Mike Harrington, who will saddle Creative Cause, the #1 seed in the West Regional, a.k.a. Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby, pretty much saw the Florida Derby the same way.

“[Union Rags] ran a good race,” Harrington said. “I don’t think his people need to be too concerned. It’s just a stepping stone and all he had to do was get a lot out of the race. [Take Charge Indy] got trip, [Union Rags] didn’t.

“That’s just like the Derby; with twenty horses you’ve got to get the trip.”

Creative Cause, the presumed Santa Anita Derby favorite, will race Saturday without blinkers. “The last time [San Felipe] he got to wandering around, so maybe the blinkers off may help him. I certainly don’t want to wait until the Kentucky Derby to find out.”

Ramon Dominguez, who separated his collarbone on the last day of the Aqueduct winter meet, will return to the saddle Friday and will ride Alpha in the Wood. He feels confident that Alpha’s earlier gate issues are behind him.

“He was an angel in the gate last time, and the [Aqueduct] gate crew has been working with him a lot. They tell me he won’t be a problem,” Dominguez said. “The Derby might be different, but with 20 horses it’s the same [concern] for everybody.

As for Union Rags, Matz needs to keep him as happy as he was Monday and squeeze him just right as Derby day approaches.

John Calipari got his first championship later that night. Matz will be looking for his second title a month from now. For Matz, Leparoux and the colt, that day can’t get here fast enough.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Memo To Industry: Be Very Afraid

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., March 22, 2012--The fact that there have been 32 program scratches from 144 entries the first two days of main-track racing at Aqueduct Race Track is alarming, and it should be.

That’s a shade over 22 percent on a surface rated fast for the first two days of racing at the new meeting, and the New York Racing Association tack of scratch-me-if-you-can is raising eyebrows everywhere.

It is fresh sand and loam that horses are racing on now--and this after every horseman we spoke with in the last 10 days said to a man and woman that there was nothing wrong with the winter track over which there have been 18 breakdowns since November 30, 2011.

As we speak, the New York Times is preparing a series on horse fatalities. As Turo Escalante might say--if he still had a voice, that is--“what a surprise,”—yet another negative story from the paper of record just in time for Kentucky Derby Madness.

The sad part is that that the impending series is timely and newsworthy, and it comes a time when the industry is being buried under an avalanche of bad news. For anyone who loves this game—and that’s everybody associated with it, on any level—that pit in your stomach is a.k.a. fear.

The scratch of 32 horses in two days when field size is already on the small side is not a coincidence and, despite the protestations of the New York Racing Association, it is unusual and way above the norm given ideal racing conditions.

But erring on the side of caution--whether or not the Big Brother in Albany is on your case--is a good thing and the right thing to do. And everyone had better pray to God Almighty that all the Triple Crown horses come home safely!

Here’s the pity of it all: No athletes are under as much scrutiny as the Thoroughbred race horse, especially the Triple Crown horses. But, damn it, accidents do happen.

In a partial study released by the Jockey Club this morning involving 1,160,045 starters, the fatality rate among injured horses last year was 1.88 per thousand, the exact same ratio as in 2010, and better than the 1.98 recorded in 2009.

Here’s some A-B-C type information for the people who want to see the sport of Thoroughbred racing die: While one fatality out of one trillion for those tethered to the Thoroughbred is too many, a less than two percent mortality rate is realistically not beyond the pale.

If NYRA said that its examiners were doing anything differently for the last two days, it would be an admission that they have not been doing enough since November 30. And that would be unacceptable, of course.

But to have a leading racing organization qualify its actions, for erring on the side of caution in a game as well monitored as this one in regards to animal welfare, is beyond sad.

After all, it’s not as if horsemen are placing bounties on the horses of rival trainers just to win a purse.

Instead of celebrating the fact that Havre De Grace, the third consecutive female Horse of the Year, is ranked #1 in the latest official NTRA poll and well on her way to a title defense, the industry and the media covering it has been distracted by what’s happening off-track.

For one thing, there are those casino-yes, racing-no statehouses that are more interested in bottom lines than jobs, green space or an American way of life.

For another, the cancellation of an entertaining HBO drama series because a horse reared up, fell over backwards, and struck its head the ground, necessitating that it be euthanized, is another hit in the battle racing has with the mainstream, whether the arena be sports or gambling.

In an excellent piece of reporting, Ray Paulick of Paulick Report wrote a comprehensive story that left little doubt as to the agenda, both real and imagined, of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals group.

Paulick’s story went a long way in exposing the animal-rights group for the frauds they are, their real agenda being the checks they cut for themselves in the form of salary.

One of their stated objectives is to bar animals from participating in the entertainment industry. Just this past Tuesday, “Late Show” host David Letterman complained to a guest about how PETA has made his life, and those of his staff, difficult regarding the show’s occasional but long-standing and popular feature, “Stupid Pet Tricks.”

As any Letterman viewer knows, these are harmless, amusing stunts taught the animals by their devoted owners. Does any reasonable person truly believe that asking a dog to perform a sophisticated equivalent of sitting up and begging is somehow harmful?

If that’s the case, parents should be required to avert the gaze of their children when the circus rolls into town. And perhaps you had better think twice about teaching your old dog any more new tricks, stupid or otherwise. Hypocrisy knows no bounds.

Written by John Pricci

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