Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Life At Ten: Justice Delayed, Will It Be Denied?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 6, 2010--It’s been over a month since racing fans lost millions of dollars on a horse that had no business entering the starting gate for the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic.

If it weren’t so shameful, it would be laughable that the non-effort of Life At Ten is likely to still be under investigation when the next scheduled meeting of the Kentucky Racing Commission takes place next week.

L’Affaire Life At Ten will have required more than six weeks of study when post race blood testing, which could have been performed in a matter of hours with results known in a matter of days, was deemed not important enough to solve the vexatious logistical issues of a testing barn.

We have no problem doing our jobs just as long as it’s not too inconvenient.

It was bad enough there was an utter disregard for the betting public given the inaction of officials in the minutes before the Ladies Classic. But then to insult everyone’s intelligence with self-serving, conflicting reports of the events only added to the frustration.

Fans and media are expected to believe that it will take six weeks to talk to the 11 veterinarians on the grounds during Breeders’ Cup weekend, when the need was to talk with only one, state veterinarian Dr. Bryce Peckham whose job it is to safeguard the horses, riders and betting public.

What were we all to believe? That jockey Johnny Velazquez asked Peckham to look his filly over carefully because: (a) he had just told a national television audience that his filly was not warming up properly after trainer Todd Pletcher told him Life At Ten was unusually “quiet” and to warm her up vigorously; (b) that he couldn’t follow those instructions because his filly was severely cramped and not striding normally or (c) that the conversation with Peckham never took place at all?

Was Life At Ten fit to race because when observed by the three veterinarians stationed at the gate she showed no signs of being lame and was racing sound?

Any jockey will tell you there’s more to “racing soundness” than simply the absence of lameness. And there is no excusing the stewards, after being informed what Velazquez said on ESPN by a veteran producer, for not picking up the phone and asking the state veterinarian to examine Life At Ten closely.

Unfortunately, the scenario gets worse.

Not long after the fact, a spokesman for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission said chief steward John Veitch, a former trainer and Hall of Famer, interviewed Pletcher, Peckham, Churchill’s head starter and an outrider--but never interviewed Velazquez?

How could Veitch not have spoken with Velazquez earlier? Was it because, according to the KHRC, Velazquez did not bring the filly’s condition to the attention of the three veterinarians at the starting gate? But Pletcher said Velazquez did speak to the vets. Was the KHRC covering for the vets and chief steward? Was Pletcher covering for Velazquez? Both?

The KHRC spokesman confirmed that ESPN producer Amy Zimmerman called the stewards prior to the start and told them about the Velazquez’ horseback interview with analyst Jerry Bailey, an all-time riding great.

The spokesman also said that when the stewards watched the feed, the interview was ending and only heard Velasquez say that the filly wasn’t warming up well, and that no mention was made by ESPN to the stewards of issues that would have necessitated a post time scratch.

ESPN analyst Randy Moss, with three decades of industry experience, and Bailey were on the set interviewing Velazquez on horseback pre-race, trying to inform the audience what it all meant.

Reporting was their only responsibility. Advising the stewards on how best to perform their jobs in real time would have been totally inappropriate on several levels. This is known as shooting the messenger, only in reverse.

Zimmerman informed Moss that she called the stewards and was led to believe they were watching the ESPN feed. Moss surmised that between Velazquez’s “not really” reply to Bailey--when asked if the filly was warming up any better-- and Veitch’s response to Zimmerman’s call, that a conversation between the rider and vet certainly would take place at the starting gate. Moss was “stunned” to learn that that conversation never took place.

Veitch contradicted himself by indicating he hadn’t spoken to Velazquez when he questioned everyone else then indicated Velazquez told him the filly was dull warming up but thought she'd pick up when she got to the starting gate and the adrenaline took over.

Obviously that’s not what happened. "She didn't want to run today," Velazquez said immediately after the race. "I tried to get her to go in the warm-up and I couldn't even catch up to the pony. She was never interested in running at all." Because the stewards did not err on the side of caution when apprised of the Life At Ten scenario, we had a series of events in which many bad decisions were made. There has been so much conflicting testimony that it’s near to separate fact from fiction.

Allegedly, neither Pletcher nor Velazquez expressed serious concerns to racing officials or any racetrack personnel. Chief steward Veitch neither observed Life At Ten on the track nor did he inform Dr. Peckham what he had learned about the filly’s condition from the Velazquez interview. And it wasn’t a refund situation because, said Veitch, “[Life At Ten] got a fair start…a horse must be impeded on some way,” completely missing the point.

Three veterinarians stationed at the gate didn’t see ANYTHING out of the ordinary with Life At Ten, and can’t be held accountable because “not acting well is a gray area,” difficult to define in terms of scratching, said prominent equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission issued a statement that said it takes seriously the safety of horses and jockeys from the time it enters the track until the race is over, stating that its veterinarians and stewards “acted properly in all instances…”

Where does the betting public figure in this equation? And if the KHRC is as serious as they purport themselves to be, how does it exonerate its stewards and veterinarians before conducting an investigation that will take five weeks to compete? Makes you wonder whether this can turn out to be anything other than a whitewash.

The Breeders' Cup issued a statement explaining that its races are conducted under the aegis of the host site and the racing rules of the state in which the event is conducted. Fair enough.

But if the KHRC fails to mete out justice in this case, Breeders’ Cup Ltd. must put a framework in place for acting unilaterally, or in concert, changing protocols so that it shares responsibility should an adjudication process become necessary.

It’s too late to help the bettors of Life At Ten. But owner Candy DeBartolo should have her starting fees refunded. It wasn’t her fault, just as it wasn’t the public’s, that three strata of professionals who should be a last line of defense--the jockey, the state veterinarian and, most significantly, the state steward--abdicated their responsibility.

Fairly or not, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission will make a jurisdictional decision that will extend far beyond its own borders. At stake is nothing less than the perceived integrity of Thoroughbred racing nationwide. The hope is that the KHRC will take a macro view, not a myopic one.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

Improving the Bottom Line Not Rocket Science

ELMONT, NY, December 1, 2010--Location, location, location, is the mantra of any successful business enterprise. In this economy, there’s another: Pricing, pricing, pricing.

Irresponsibility and officiating notwithstanding, the success of the recent Breeders’ Cup World Championships was a perfect storm. Call it when tenets collide.

Attendance and wagering on the 2010 festival at Churchill Downs increased by double-digits over the 2009 event at Santa Anita Park. How can that be?

The fact that there were 16 more horses over the two days to wager on, and that dirt is a more popular wagering surface than synthetics, cannot be overstated.

The Thoroughbred industry in Kentucky--nursery to the world doesn’t seem so apt these days--is in trouble but Louisville, not your average tourist destination like, say, Southern California can be, does know how to make fans and punters feel right at home.

Face it, because of their size, and apathy, LA and New York just can’t or doesn’t want to get behind a racing event the way the Derby City does. It’s not more complicated than that. That’s the location part.

In total there were 163 starters in 14 races, a Breeders’ Cup record. The common and separate pool handle for Saturday’s 11-race card was $118.6 million, an increase of 23% year over year. The $54.7 million wagered on Friday was an increase of 8% more than was bet on the 2009 Ladies Day program.

That’s all good, but there’s more.

The real interesting increase was in international handle. Despite the decline in international starters from a record 35 in 2009 to 24 this year--a trend likely to continue at dirt venues--pools outside the U.S. and exchange betting in the UK totaled $196.3 million.

Total attendance for two days was up 8.5% from 96,496 in 2009, reflecting Friday gains of 11 percent and almost 24 percent on Saturday. In addition to betting revenue, Breeders' Cup and Churchill Downs attracted 11-million ancillary dollars.

Looking inside the numbers, it’s reasonable to posit that the increased number of micro wagers received a warm response. Pricing is very important to parimutuel viability. The more the merrier, no matter what the level of play.

Breeders’ Cup followed the betting menu available at Churchill Downs, as it did for the first time in 2007 at Monmouth Park. The hope is that wherever they go in the future, they will insist on menu that includes fractional wagering.

In addition to the now commonplace Dime Super, 50-Cent wagers were available in the Pick 3, Pick 4 and trifecta pools. There were handle increases in every pool except the Pick 3s, which was flat or down slightly. Considering gains in the Double and Pick 4 pools, something had to give. It was the Pick 3.

One of the statistics that stood out were percentage of handle figures in races where fractional wagering was NOT available. Consider:

In Friday’s centerpiece event, field size increased from eight starters last year to 11 in 2010. While Ladies Classic W-P-S handle increased by over $500,000, the percentage of straight handle for the day decreased from 35.1 to 32.2 percent. There is no fractional wagering in the W-P-S pools.

Saturday’s Classic had 12 starters, the same as last year. Total straight Classic handle was up $2.5 million, but percentage of W-P-S handle for the day slipped from 35.0% to 32.5% of the grand total. What could this mean?


Nowhere is fractional wagering more significant than in pools with a higher degree of difficulty. While the trifecta is a long standing exotic familiar to all horseplayers, trifecta betting featuring a 50-cent minimum increased from 16.3% to 17.3% on Friday, from 16% to 17.3% Saturday, as percentage of total play.

On balance, the Pick 4 is America’s favorite super-exotic horizontal wager. On Breeders’ Cup weekend, the 50-Cent Pick 4 showed percentage-of-handle gains; from 4.9% to 5.8% Friday and from 4.6% to 5.4% on Saturday, increases of 15.6 and 14.9 percent, respectively.

The common thread with respect to the success of micro wagers is, of course, the leverage a lower base wager provides, allowing all players to compete on equal footing with the bankroll endowed in high risk-reward scenarios.

No one wants the big players to be ignored; that‘s foolhardy. But the only way to grow the popularity of the game is to make it more affordable for the rank and file to compete.

There’s no reason for the masses to be at a disadvantage in a zero-sum parimutuel game. The marriage of a racing extravaganza to a player-friendly betting menu helps to grow the game.

Wouldn’t it be great if the results of this year’s Cup at the bottom line helps point the way forward for an entire industry?

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Plethora of Eclipse Storylines, Including Leading Rider

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 28, 2010--If by now you’re still unaware of the major storylines permeating Breeders’ Cup 27, here for your edification is a brief recapitulation:

Of course, Zenyatta’s continued pursuit for perfection and dual victories by a female in the Classic, ultimately determining her place in racing history.

Goldikova, in her quest to become the first three-time winner in Breeders’ Cup history, would evolve into an international star of the first magnitude, a genuine legend.

The clash of young titans: Undefeated juvenile Uncle Mo versus uber impressive Boys At Tosconova, whose only loss came in his debut, a graded stakes over the Breeders’ Cup track in which he was a strong second.

But there are others; storylines of interest for racing’s true fans not to be ignored. To wit:

Whether the Europeans, despite fewer numbers given the switch back to dirt from two consecutive years of all-weather racing, will continue their recent dominance of America’s best runners. Foreigners won six races in 2009.

And, whether they continue that dominance or not, will an Arc de Triomphe winner finally break through and parlay that victory into a Breeders’ Cup Turf score.

Can the three-year-old protem filly champion Blind Luck make her sixth transcontinental a successful one for the fifth time, this time against a deep field of elders?

Will this renewal rank as Breeders’ Cup’s best ever? On Monday, a record 184 horses were pre-entered. As a group they have won 865 races and over $125-million in purse earnings.

Can Espoir City, Red Desire, or both, become the first Japanese runners to win a major American race, appearing in the Classic and Filly & Mare Turf, respectively?

Will Todd Pletcher, with 11 pre-entrants, dominate the event in the manner of Richard Mandella, who won four Breeders’ Cup races in 2003.

Who’s better at a mile and a quarter at level weights; Quality Road or Blame?

Will this year’s event--with Friday’s races carried on ESPN2, the first three Saturday on ABC, and the heart of the program, the final five, on ESPN, attract anything resembling a good-sized audience?

And, finally, will a successful two days of race riding break the blockage atop the list of America’s most successful jockeys? The latter is really interesting.

I am old school, but not old school enough when it comes to the fact that Eclipse Awards for leading rider invariably, almost automatically goes to the jockey who has accrued the most earnings.

I think this honor should a little less about dollars and a little more about sense. Rather the award should go to the rider who’s won more than his share of high profile races. He should have a winning percentage north of 20 percent, and there should be a return-on-investment statistic indicating the rider was much more pilot than passenger.

Not sure the top riders would think this a good idea; as a group they are extremely covetous of their “customers.” Every good jockey presumably can win on the favorite.

So wouldn’t it be preferable if voters and fans had another way to measure the kind of season the sport’s human athletes had, where it might be surmised that the rider was the difference between victory and defeat?

Clearly, it’s too late for this idea to take root immediately. But an ROI for jockeys seems an acceptable statistical measure of Eclipse worthiness sometime in the future.

Anyone who follows the game regularly probably can name North America’s top money riders, whether it’s literal or figurative: Bejarano, Castellano, Dominguez, Garcia, Gomez, Husbands, Leparoux, Lezcano, Rosario and Velazquez.

I couldn’t name a single one I wouldn’t want on my horse based on his ability to win a horse race.

But if purse earnings alone is considered THE measure, then a Breeders’ Cup Classic score coupled with another major victory will determine this year’s Eclipse Award winner.

According to the most recent statistics on the NTRA website, $4.2 million dollars separates the leading Ramon Dominguez, $13.7 million in purses, to seventh ranked Martin Garcia, at nearly $9.6 million.

Last year’s defending Eclipse champion, Julien Leparoux, is $1.2 million behind Garcia.

The real logjam is at the top where less than $100,000 separates, Dominguez from his closest pursuer, Johnny Velazquez. And a mere $400,000 separates current show finisher Rafael Bejarano from fifth place Joel Rosario, with Javier Castellano sandwiched between. Garrett Gomez is $800,000 behind Rosario.

Competition between riders in million dollar races is always fierce, of course. This Breeders’ Cup not only provides a stage for jockeys to show their talents but truly has Eclipse implications as well.

Now if only the racing gods can provide the right answers to just a few of these storylines, 27 might just turn out to be the 1.

Written by John Pricci

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