Saturday, December 29, 2012

Eclipse Voting Transparency, Part II

SARATOGA SPRINGS, December 28, 2012—There isn’t another year I can remember in which the voting in many categories was not only close but, even after much deliberation, the final decision remains a conflicted one.

But soldier on we must and, hence, Part II of what one Eclipse ballot looked like:

The older female category, of course, was much more checkers than chess—actually, more of a no-brainer. That’s what happens when a defending champion, well, defends her title.

The runnerup spot was a little closer in that it matched a filly with traditional skills, albeit without a win outside its region, vs. a dominant specialist. We are a traditionalist at heart, but not when tradition is pitted against dominance.

Four-Year-Old & Up Female

1. Royal Delta
2. Groupie Doll
3. Include Me Out

As it usually does, just as in the juvenile categories, the sprint division usually comes down to the championship event. This year’s certainly did, as there was an early season leader vs. the budding champion of fall.

Now if one were to invoke what I would term the Dr. Fager rule, Shackleford is a very deserving sprint candidate, after all, the G2 Churchill Downs Handicap and the storied G1 Met Mile are both one-turn events.

Of course, if the G1 Clark were added for class points, there you have it. In the modern era, however, the thought is that there should be one championship win at 6 furlongs, America’s dominant sprint distance. I can’t say that I disagree.

Three-Year-Old & Up Sprinter, Male

1. Trinniberg
2. The Lumber Guy
3. Shackleford

As for the female sprinter of 2012, it’s no-brainer, Part II. In fact, had Groupie Doll won her fourth G1 of the season—the most by an American runner this year—against males in the Cigar Mile should would have received support for Horse of the Year, at least on my ballot.

The runnerup battle had to be closer, obviously, the late season surge of our third place finisher giving up some pause, albeit not for very long.

Three-Year-Old & Up, Female

1. Groupie Doll
2. Contested
3. Dust And Diamonds

In any other season, three Grade 1 victories, including one at the popular American distance, one at the classic distance and a third at the European classic distance within a 4-for-7 slate would be an automatic at the top.

Of course, that’s not the case this year given the dominant victories posted by Wise Dan, albeit none around two turns. We relented on a runnerup finish, taking his dominance over Point Of Entry, the biggest “loser” on the Breeders’ Cup program.

Three-Year-Old & Up, Turf Male

1. Little Mike
2. Wise Dan
3. Point Of Entry

Our top choice is this category does not make us ill at ease in any way given her accomplishments, but it was very close. Ultimately, a 5-for-8 record, all graded stakes, and a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, is the stuff of champions.

But there is considerable support for a filly that unquestionably had more natural ability but had her campaign cut short by injury after winning two of three graded starts in 2012, including a G1 win and G1 placing.

Then there was a third which was more accomplished than the talented runnerup but not nearly as consistent or talented. But she was very good, indeed.

Three-Year-Old & Up, Female

1. Zagora
2. Winter Memories
3. Tapitsfly

Since we’ve written on this subject previously, there’s no need to belabor the point that the category for Eclipse horseman is a three-trainer race among individuals that had extraordinary seasons. On that issue, at least, there can be no argument:

Champion Trainer 2012

1. Dale Romans
2. Todd Pletcher
3. Bob Baffert

The jockey category, in our view, is a layover, as our topic choice did it quantitatively and qualitatively, including the earnings category, doing so without “the big horse” or without the backing of a powerhouse outfit throwing its entire weight behind the rider. So, with apologies to Rafael Bejarano…

Champion Jockey 2012

1. Ramon Dominguez
2. John Velazquez
3. Javier Castellano

Having grown up on a top circuit, we’re a sucker for quality over quantity, historical achievement over parimutuel filler. Our top choice was easy; the runners-up, not so much.

There were about a half-dozen outfits that had excellent quality seasons, winning at least three Grade 1s. However, one outfit campaigned eight of them.

Champion Owner 2012

1. Godolphin Racing
2. Zayat Stables
3. Phipps Stable

As for the nurseries, about a half-dozen of them won three or more G1 races with horses it bred, but often with the same horse. Not so the boys in blue. So, with no apologies to Juddmonte (Frankel did not race in America)…

Champion Breeder 2012

1. Darley
2. Adena Springs
3. Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings

I confess that I did not see very much of non-New York-based apprentices but admit that I felt Irad Ortiz Jr., still an apprentice in February, showed immense talent last year and was wise beyond his years. He underscored that assessment by handling pressure as Questing’s regular rider.

Champion Apprentice 2012

1. Irad Ortiz Jr.
2. Jose Mantano
3. Angel Suarez

A synopsis of what we’ve written on the subject to date: Wise Dan has the most ability and, in the main, dominated the competition. But I abhor a season in which the history of the sport was never given its due by this talented runner’s connections. Racing’s a business? Fine. What isn’t?

Point Of Entry had his chance to win four consecutive Grade 1s, but didn’t. So, too, Groupie Doll, but she didn’t. So, with some reluctance, given a pursuit of great achievement forsaken, a vote for the perceived best in show…

Horse of the Year 2012: Wise Dan

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Eclipse Voting Transparency, Part 1

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 27, 2012—As is the HRI custom, we go public with our Eclipse Award choices in all categories, allowing the chips to fall. An aside: I don’t really understand the policy of not allowing vote splitting.

Unlike splitting the atom, this would not have an effect on the world at large, and would more accurately reflect voter’s opinions. Vote splitting certainly would have been appropriate when looking back on 2012:

As usual, we view the voting process as strictly business; not personal:

The Steeplechase category one’s very much like the turf category this year. In compiling our choices, we start by counting Grade 1s before getting into subjective analysis. So riddle me this:

Which is the more compelling resume, Demonstrative winning the G1 New York Turf Writers Cup Handicap and Colonial Cup, or Pierre Lunaire taking the Lonesome Glory and Grand National? We’re not sure either.

The tie breaker for us, then was the overall record which had the former going 3-for-6 on the year, including Saratoga’s restricted Jonathan Kiser and with higher earnings, as opposed to ‘Pierre’s’ 2012 slate of 2-for-5.

4-Year-Old & Up Steeplechase

1. Demonstrative
2. Pierre Lunaire
3. Spy in the Sky

While the overall crop appears a little disappointing on its face with respect to depth at this juncture, the Juvenile category boasts and definitive, worthy champion.

How can anyone argue with an undefeated, deep slate of five victories at four different venues including two Grade 1s and a Grade 2?

The runnerup in this division hails from the same barn, is also undefeated at 3-for-3 and owns two graded wins, a G1 and a G2. The second runnerup was nearly unbeaten at 6-for-7. Among the wins were three Canadian stakes—one listed, two restricted—and Kentucky’s G3 Iroquois and G2 Jockey Club Stakes.

Two-Year-Old Juvenile Colts

1. Shanghai Bobby
2. Violence
3. Uncaptured

The female category was a whole lot closer and I applaud the Executiveprivilege connections for rolling the dice and trying to nail down the championship on the racetrack rather than leaving it up to the voters.

No slight to Beholder’s connections, which ultimately won the title on the racetrack ad whose filly only lost to the likely champion by a nose in Del Mar’s G1 Debutante. And, lest anyone forget, the rubber match went formfully and Lasix-free.

Now So Many Ways, an undefeated 3-for-3 that includes the G2 Schuylerville and G1 Spinaway, and which could ultimately prove the better three-year-old.

I would not have casted a ballot for her because, no matter what the connections said, her non-participation in the Juvenile Fillies was about Lasix withdrawal going a distance of ground, even though the filly broke her maiden by 8 lengths in a Lasix-free debut.

Two-Year-Old Filly

1. Beholder
2. Executiveprivilege
3. So Many Ways

The only drama in the Three-Year-Old Colt division is whether it’s clear leader and very good race horse, I’ll Have Another, will be the Horse of the Year 2012. Indeed, there are two chances of that happening, and Slim is on holiday.

The runnerup spot gave me pause and even though Bodemeister wound up with twice as many seconds as firsts, one of his two wins was a 9-1/2 length Arkansas Derby romp and two winning efforts in the Triple Crown’s first two legs which, of course, he lost to the certain champion-to-be.

Second runnerup was a lot more difficult for me but I had to opt for a classics winner which went 2-for-4 including the G2 Fountain of Youth over the winner with a more compelling 4-for-8 slate that included the G3 Withers, G2 Jim Dandy and one-half of the G1 Travers.

Three-Year-Old Colt or Gelding

1. I’ll Have Another
2. Bodemeister
3. Union Rags

Actually, it is unlikely that even if My Miss Aurelia had won the G1 La Brea on Santa Anita’s opening day program, I would have voted her best in show. But I hadn’t thought about this situation that seriously and now there is no need.

The winner of the G1 Coaching Club Oaks and Alabama pulls far more weight than a head defeat in the G1 Cotillion while spotting her winning rivals seven pounds would have disqualified her from the top spot.

The candidacy of our third choice is, in our view, almost as legitimate as the two acknowledged frontrunners even without a two-turn victory of any kind. But two G1 victories in the prestigious Test and Acorn Stakes, plus a G3 score, is an impressive score card.

Perhaps the connections might have considered avoiding Groupie Doll and take on males in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. That certainly would have eliminated a blowout in the filly category and would have provided food for thought in the sprint division.

Three-Year-Old Filly

1. Questing
2. My Miss Aurelia
3. Contested

The first truly vexing category is that of older male: The more accomplished Fort Larned, given victories in the G1 Whitney and Breeders’ Cup Classic, or Wise Dan, with a voluminous 5-for-6 slate, all graded stakes, three of them G1, none of which were on dirt.

Tevye the Dairyman would be proud: Tradition broke the tie. The battle for second runnerup was just as perplexing, but two G1s vs. no G1s won the day, losing it for Mucho Macho Man.

Four-Year-Old & Up Males

1. Fort Larned
2. Wise Dan
3. Shackleford

Coming Saturday: Final Choices for Horse and Trainer of the Year plus all remaining categories

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Chairman Skorton and the New NYRA Board: Perfect Pitch

NEW YORK, 12.12.12-- "I really do not know much about horse racing." That quote from David Skorton the day before the President of Cornell University was officially elected Chairman of the Board at the new New York Racing Association raised plenty of eyebrows in the racing community for obvious reasons.

But hasn’t that always been the common wisdom; that the people who run the Thoroughbred industry don’t know enough about how to manage the business they’re in? Is racing even a sport, or is it strictly a betting vehicle meant to sustain itself while simultaneously filling the coffers of state government?

Everywhere in this country, especially here, New York was universally regarded as the nation’s capital of American Thoroughbred racing. But much has happened to and in the gambling business in the last 55 years. No one thinks that these are the good old days.

It was against this backdrop that Skorton was introduced to not only the racing world but to anyone with an interest in Thursday’s NYRA Board of Directors meeting in Manhattan, held in open forum and webcast via the world wide web on the NYRA’s own website. The association’s founders never could have envisioned anything like this.

When NYRA was conceived 55 years ago, Thoroughbred racing was the Sport of Kings and the moneyed class. Back in the day, the only lottery anyone talked about was the Irish Sweepstakes, betting off-track was still 20 years away, casinos only could be found in the Nevada desert or Monte Carlo.

And the NFL, the current 2000-pound entertainment and wagering gorilla, was nowhere near becoming a national pastime that would supplant baseball, where it says “no betting allowed” in every locker room.

Today, no one waits for a horse-drawn cart to deliver ice or sharpen kitchen utensils and now an entire country awaits the result of a national Powerball lottery--especially when there’s a carryover, just like in racing--nine of every 10 dollars are bet away from the track and there are mom and pop casinos on virtually every street corner in states that permit it and more money is bet illegally on football than is wagered legally on horse racing. The new normal seems to be anything but.

While it might help, it’s unnecessary for Skorton to know anything about horse racing to fix what’s wrong with the racing business in New York. Admittedly, he knows nothing about race horses but doesn’t that beg a question? Why is an industry that’s been run by experts in New York and everywhere for so long falling from favor so precipitously?

Skorton does not get paid to find the answer to all these mysteries, only to come up with practical business solutions for a local agribusiness that survives by riding the backs of American Thoroughbred racehorses--healthy ones--animals that can’t refuse to take an aspirin even if it wanted to. Gov. Andrew Cuomo thinks he was the right man for the job. And he just may be right.

Handicapping qualifications notwithstanding, who would be more qualified than the President of Cornell University, an academician who enlisted Michael Kotlikoff, Dean of Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, as a special advisor to provide a knowing set of eyes to see that a new, shorter version of the NYRA Mission statement that includes the welfare of the animal in the front row stays the course.

At the Board meeting, it was suggested the mission should be “meeting the highest standards of racing and horse safety,” which is what it was in the glory days. Skorton then said that the statement wasn’t a notion he wanted to ram through and asked for feedback. At that point, a board member was heard to say “perfect.” And it was, an appropriately short and correct response to an appropriately short and correct idea. Standards matter.

Even amid server interruptions, the web coverage provided more than was ever previously witnessed at a NYRA Board meeting in about 67 years. One sensed a spirit of cooperation free of ego and acrimony, as if the newness of transparency would provide a light to lead the troubled organization out of the wilderness and on a path to a brighter future for New York racing, the animals, and, by extension, the Empire State. Alas, political theater at its finest.

Skorton, who said he was honored by Cuomo’s suggestion that he head the Board, strongly suggested that NYRA make its third-quarter receipts available to the press, a sharp right angle from the secretive manner the association most often conducted itself in the past. When business is conducted according to the State Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Law, good things can happen.

Other agenda items were approved such as prohibiting NYRA officers from making political contributions and even making a bet. The same applies to horsemen's groups but Board members may continue doing both. At first, the prohibition of wagering seemed a bit overwrought until Skorton explained that NYRA officers represent the state which is charged to serve the public. He hinted that betting could be a distraction.

Transparency and accountability together might take some getting used to.

Apropos, too, is the idea that the new NYRA should no longer do business as a “not for profit” institution but rather as a public benefit corporation, at least for three years when, as promised by Gov. Cuomo, NYRA becomes eligible for privatization. New York racing will need those three years. There’s much to be accomplished before profit again can incentivize good racetrack management.

The issues discussed were both quantitative and qualitative: How to restore New York racing to preeminence instead of being “somewhere in the middle,” according to a board member who added that an infrastructure needed to be built in support of the racing product sooner than later. “We have this money, let’s use it well.”

After having very little to smile about following the takeout scandal, Thursday’s board meeting was a promising start, a new beginning with hope that the positive energy, spirit, and cooperation on display Thursday will not lose momentum. The Board knows it must be ready for the next legislative session. There’s no time to waste in what promises to be a long, difficult road.

So far, I’m inclined to bet that Mr. Skorton and friends are capable of getting the job done. It’s day one at the new NYRA and everyone starts out even.

Written by John Pricci

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