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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Thursday, March 08, 2012

Inside the Headlines

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., March 8, 2012—It’s been an especially busy news cycle of late, dominated, of course, by anything slugged Derby or prep or Dubai. Often, however, news is made outside the fences, in state houses, stewards stands and the like. To wit:

CALIFORNIA SPORTS BETTING BILL INTRODUCED: Due to the nature of handicapping, there is a synergy between picking winners on a diamond or gridiron with those athletic events that take place over a mixture of sand and loam.

Since the Californiasports betting bill will require legal sports wagers be placed at existing gambling facilities throughout the state, the hope is more people will come out to the racetrack to make a bet on the Dodgers.

But be careful what you wish for. In New Jersey, where legislation permitting online wagering with some of the proceeds earmarked for racing, was also approved, the measure subsequently was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie because he had “concerns” about the racing provisions.

So a new bill, deleting the racetrack language, was submitted and this one is expected to gain the governor's approval. Recent lobbying by horsemen apparently has been too little and too late.

Even if the bill ultimately becomes law, can any legislator--or casino owner--be trusted to fully endorse a compact with Thoroughbred racing? Unfortunately, everyone knows that answer already.

Never mind that racing was the cornerstone upon which gaming was built in various states across the country. The entry of ethics and loyalty will usually finish a bad second to the bottom line.

NYRA HITS THE JACKPOT: Actually, it’s the horsemen who have. The infusion of VLT revenues only serves to get the New York Racing Association off the fiscal hook while taking away an incentive to grow the game internally by using its own product: parimutuel wagering on Thoroughbred racing.

However, what’s good for NYRA is not necessarily what’s good for the industry as a whole. Slots revenue has taken an already uneven playing field to a new level, tilting it severely in favor of the haves: Racinos; not the racetracks.

It’s not NYRA’s fault that racing is in California, Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland is under pressure, some more seriously than others.

If horsemen—whether or not they are threatened by future loss of stalls in their home state--decide to flock to New York so that their maidens can have a chance to run for an $85,000 pot, what is the trickle down from that?

New York’s huge purses provide a great incentive for horsemen stabled elsewhere to support New York racing while helping themselves at the same time, but with potentially terrible implications for the industry in those abandoned states.

The existence of smaller venues in states across America is marketing that the sport cannot afford to lose; it’s invisible in too many states already. Racing needs to fight for every inch of recognition it can get.

In every sport, the belief is that when New York teams are competitive with the best in the game, that sport benefits. New York is the tide that lifts all boats. But that was back in the day—pre racinos. NYRA’s cup presently runneth over. The question is whether the rest of the industry will drown in its wake?

MILLION DOLLAR CHARLES TOWN CLASSIC: Perhaps Hollywood Casino Charles Town Races, conducted by Penn National Gaming, could have found a better way to spend some of its 2012 budget. Next month the Charles Town Classic will celebrate its fourth running. The track is even bringing in Triple Crown race caller Larry Collmus to give the event a little more star power, a little more heft.

The race usually attracts a full field going nine furlongs, which makes it a three-turn affair. It attracted such a strong field last year that it was upgraded from Grade 3 to G2 for this year's renewal.

However, if you want to be big time player, you have to act like one. Toward that end, Charles Town management should have declared the recent notorious one-horse finish “No Contest,” paid off the winner, and given refunds to ticket holders in all other pools. If West Virginia’s rules of racing don’t cover such a contingency, then rewrite the rule book, now.

Clearly, slot revenue has provided a surplus for purse money and that’s fine, but the good will and positive publicity this action could have provided would have been priceless. Charles Town: They did the right thing by their fans and players!

How much money is bet on a sealed sloppy track on a rainy Wednesday night at 10:33 p.m. in Charles Town, West Virginia, anyway? But then racinos, owned or managed by large corporations, are all about the bottom line, so this might qualify as an unrealistic expectation.

Once again, the industry was lucky to dodge a bullet, but only because the incident that would have had PETA members protesting horse racing outside Charles Town’s gates wasn't a national event. What if the accident had happened during the West Virginia Classic instead?

Horseplayers understand that betting on the races is a zero sum game. Practitioners understand that a potential winner is never a sure thing under any circumstances. And accidents happen, that’s why they’re called accidents.

No one wants or plans them; but there should be plans for them to better serve and protect the public. And perhaps the stewards at Charles Town Races might have erred on the side of caution and when a horse named Disclosure broke down in the seventh race, they might have taken a closer look at the surface instead of having the next race go off in the normal timeline of approximately 30 minutes.

“This was not an issue of the track condition causing an accident,” said Chief Steward Danny Wright. “This was a horse breaking down during the race that unfortunately took the field with them.”

So then we know for sure that it was a coincidence that Sharp Beauty broke down in roughly the same spot as Disclosure 33 minutes earlier, correct? Race charts indicate that a horse went lame and was vanned off an hour before the first breakdown.

The ninthand final race was cancelled, perhaps more owing to the fact that five jockeys were sent to the hospital after six horses fell over a stricken Sharp Beauty. Thankfully, none of the riders suffered serious injuries.

But to say definitively that the track was “not an issue,” is disingenuous and shows a disregard for the audience. Here’s a question for Mr. Wright, or anyone else to ponder: Why is it that about 90 percent of scheduled morning workouts are cancelled when the racetrack comes up a sea of slop?

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Look of Eagles

HALLANDALE, FLA., February 28, 2012—Did we all see the Kentucky Derby’s future while watching the performance of Union Rags in his impressive sophomore debut Sunday in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes?

Sharp start for Union Rags (7) and Csaba (8) lucky to avoid injury
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Sharp start for Union Rags (7) and Csaba (8) lucky to avoid injury
If we did not, then, let’s assume for the moment that he’s the most gifted 3-year-old on this side of the Mississippi and all that may be left is determining which West Coast Derby prospect is willing to audition for the role of Sunday Silence.

A Baffert trainee to be named later, perhaps?

I promised that I wouldn’t get ahead of myself on this. Since arriving in the land o’ sunshine, I get this a lot: “So, who’s your Derby horse?” Not many accept my answer readily but I tell them the following:

I long since have stopped trying to be the first kid on my block to predict the Derby winner and that, if I knew, I wouldn’t utter a word until I could get a future book bet down. I might have taken a few flyers in Pool 1 for fun and, perhaps, a small windfall.

Either way, life will not change. Besides, the futures are really meant for people with a strong inside opinion who can bet enough to make a half-year’s pay should they be prescient enough to divine a Derby winner. But I digress.

The performance of Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth was a high class exhibition from start to finish. For openers, he entered the ring looking like your run of the mill 4-year-old. He had the creases of conditioning, a gleaming coat, controlled energy. He appeared pluperfectly prepared by trainer Michael Matz.

Then he went out on a surface that was somewhat tiring--probably a bit dried out, even after overnight rains, because of winds that gusted to 35 mph at times, variably from the east and northeast. But he ran to his looks.

Now it might be that the formerly undefeated Discreet Dancer has a future best served by one-turn races up to a mile. And runnerup News Pending, while stoutly bred, had yet to win on dirt in three starts. The four also-rans all had troubled starts. So we need to be a guarded here.
Union Rags in Winners' Circle still with running on his mind
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Union Rags in Winners' Circle still with running on his mind
The colt runs like a 4-year-old, too. If you need speed, he’ll give it to you, like on the first turn Sunday when Julien Leparoux, riding as if he broke him to saddle, asked the colt not to allow Discreet Dancer to establish an easy, uncontested lead. Then he waited for another cue.

When you ask Union Rags for something, he apparently gives it to you instantly. When Leparoux asked him on the second turn, he powered past the leaders effortlessly and with graceful acceleration. When he passes you, he doesn’t hesitate--he sets sail to the finish.

Had he been asked to run to the traditional finish line further down the stretch, the four length winning margin might have been doubled. Leparoux only waved his stick and never used it earnestly. His gallop out was strong; not run-off strong but deliberate and straight.
Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo presents trophy to  Mrs. Wyeth, conversing with her jockey as trainer Michael Matz looks on
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo presents trophy to Mrs. Wyeth, conversing with her jockey as trainer Michael Matz looks on
Union Rags has a loyal following; at least he did on this day, greeted by whoops and shouts on his entrance into the winners’ circle. “You showed him who’s the boss,” one yelled, which was precisely right.

Perhaps the most impressive part of all is that he walked into the circle as if he owned it, flicking his ears and peering around, both. His eyes were bright; maybe that’s what the old-time show-horse people meant by “the look of eagles.”

He was heaving a bit as he posed for his close-up, as any horse that had just run a mile and a sixteenth in 1:42.68, with a final sixteenth in a sharp :6.40 He didn’t walk out of the ring as much as he danced his way back to the test barn.
Next stop Florida Derby
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Next stop Florida Derby
The sense was that this isn’t just any horse.

The word special is thrown around a lot these days by owners, trainers and jockeys but it often sounds like it’s more about creating mystique than offering an honest assessment. I don’t know if Union Rags is a special horse; it’s too early to tell.

But if he is one of the ones, he already looks the part.

Written by John Pricci

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