Sunday, April 22, 2012

“No Comment”

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 22, 2012—I’ve been putting this off because I’m in denial—the anger stage, I think--but mostly sad; a time when that knot in your stomach just won't go away.

At this juncture, I’m starting to get used to losing family and friends. Check that: You never get used to it; only concede that loss is inevitable and more a part of life than it used to be, way back before you lost no one and knew everything.

Richard (Dick) Hamilton was so many things to me: a one-time colleague; a one-time adversary--the way a New York Racing Association steward and newspaper columnist working-different-sides-of-the-same-street are natural competitors.

I didn’t mention friend because he was a friend to everyone he ever met and spent quality time with. Maybe it’s because I’m green-eyed about it; he had so many friends but you wanted to be his best friend because that’s the way he made you feel.

Special people make other people feel special.

Dick Hamilton was a very bright man but never hit you over the head with that. He’d use playful humor to put your idea down or point out the kind of prejudice that comes natural to anyone who’s plenty longer than 15 minutes on the planet.

He could always disagree because he loved to spar on various subjects; the game, people, politics, sports in general, especially, hailing from Lowell, Mass., his beloved Red Sox. In fact, he was one Red Sox fan this Yankee fan suffered gladly.

Indeed, Hamilton could disagree but never was disagreeable. We had many philosophical differences and with age I admit that I came around to his line of thinking after shunting my ideas aside, for whatever reason.

There was an incident one day involving a jockey that I didn’t think put forth his best effort. In fact, I sought out Hamilton to express my displeasure. He said he hadn’t thought about it in that context but would check it out.

The next day, he sought me out, said that my observations might have been on the mark, that all three stewards watch the video patrol with the rider to the effect that he would receive a warning, and to consider it the only warning he get.

I wanted to report that meeting in Newsday and Hamilton said he would have no official comment on the stewards’ actions. That might have been the only time we disagreed so that other people might notice but I respected his wishes for several reasons:

First, it would be betraying a confidence. Second, Hamilton was under no obligation to tell me about the meeting since it was an “internal matter” between the rider and the stewards but thanked me for bringing the situation to their attention.

Finally, there are times a reporter must go off the record. If he doesn’t--especially in this business--he will be frozen out of information needed to do his job which would also put his newspaper at a competitive disadvantage. It’s a fine line.

The next morning I was getting some coffee in the press box lounge when Hamilton entered the room. I turned around and said “good morning, judge.” Hamilton said: “I have ‘no comment’ on that.

From that moment, "no comment" became our personal greeting whenever we saw each other.

After accepting early retirement from the NYRA, Hamilton became the communications officer for the National Museum and Racing Hall of Fame. Politics notwithstanding, no one ever loved his job more than Hamilton loved his time at the Hall of Fame.

He helped conceptualize and author the Hall of Fame induction ceremony each August, a tradition that has become an SRO event open to the racing public.

Hamilton also created free handicapping seminars for the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup events at the Museum, organized bus trips to the Belmont Stakes, and personally conducted backstretch tours at Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track.

“Dick Hamilton was an invaluable contributor to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame both during his years here as our communications officer and also in recent years as a volunteer,” said current museum director Christopher Dragone earlier this week.

“His knowledge of thoroughbred racing and his passion for the sport and the Museum were evident to all who knew him. He was one of the true gentlemen in racing and was beloved in the Saratoga community. Dick was a wonderful ambassador for the Museum and the sport in general.”

Through the years, Hamilton was careful never to inject his opinion into the controversial aspects of the game but made one exception: “There is just no excuse for not protecting the public,” Hamilton told HRI at the time of the Life At Ten investigation.

“All the chief steward hadd to do was pick up the phone and ask the state vet at the gate to take a close look at the filly. [The stewards] should be fined the amount of money the public lost.” It was the only time I ever saw him angry.

I would see him every month I went for blood tests at Saratoga Hospital, where Hamilton volunteered. But I won’t anymore because, at 76, he’s gone.

He might shake his head in disgust but Dick Hamilton never uttered a disparaging word except that one time. Equally, we strenuously try to avoid the use of clichés, except this one time: They broke the mold when they made Dick Hamilton.

Written by John Pricci

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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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