Friday, February 20, 2009

Racing Industry Making Progress on Difficult Issues: Part 1

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 19, 2009--Little by little, there is evidence that the racing industry is beginning to clean its own house.

Trainer Christophe Clement said in an interview last month that the ban on steroids will make a profound difference in the way horses are trained and raced, that stamina now has a chance to overcome speed.

And so it would appear that the steroid ban, the proliferation of synthetic surfaces, and more conscientious maintenance of conventional dirt tracks are making it harder to maintain frontrunning speed (empirically, see Gulfstream and Aqueduct this winter) and, in a good way, places a premium on strength over speed.

Not long after Clement made his comment, Roddy Valente, a successful New York owner, told a racing audience on the Capital-OTB “Trackfacts” program that his trainer, Bruce Levine, has wrestled with the notion of steroids as performance enhancer for the last few years and concluded it didn’t make a big difference one way or the other.

Ackowledging this difference of opinion, it's interested to note that many regulars think Levine’s high winning percentage in most categories puts him in the category of the so-called “super-trainer.” Unfortunately, for both Levine and the industry, the perception that "super trainers" exist is reality.

The fact is most horseplayers can name a circuit’s “super trainers” without consulting the track program. Resultantly, many heavy bettors have walked away from the game believing the “magic factor” has rendered the traditional handicapping paradigm moot.

From a business and moral perspective, this is racing’s biggest problem. The handicappers that remain have learned to factor the “30-percent trainer" into their handicapping. Either that or ignore them to your bankroll's peril. At minimum, most players believe they must use these super-trainers in a defensive betting posture.

As a consequence, “super trainers” are overbet. But if they win 30 percent of the time, does that definition fit? Savvy horseplayers know that the cleaner the punch, the better the value. Betting defensively can be very costly. Between the short odds and added expense of including unwanted horses into the wagering mix, finding betting value has become extremely difficult.

It’s no wonder, and no coincidence, that so many big players have walked away. And this is before addressing the nature of high parimutuel takeout rates that yield a short-term revenue fix but calamitous long term results for the player and the industry.

Good news for the industry been a long time coming, but not this week, when vested interests began to address their problems purposefully. There were two important developments; one from the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the nation's vets, and the other from the Jockey Club.

The AAEP recommendations are forward-looking, will take time to implement and require an almost unprecedented level of cooperation. But the Jockey Club announcement that it will fund a frozen sample and retrospective testing program, beginning in April, 12 months after the establishment of the Thoroughbred Safety Committee in the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy--represents warp speed movement.

Not only will the freezing of samples at designated facilities act as a deterrent to the use of illegal substances, but an accumulation of positive results by the same owner, trainer or attending veterinarian would be considered “aggravating circumstances” in the determination of how fines and suspensions would be levied in accordance with existing Racing Medication and Testing Consortium penalty recommendations.

This is important news and a significant step forward. For it to work effectively, of course, there must be transparency regarding what those penalties are or should be. And they had better include possible lifetime bans for habitual violators. This is a brave new world we have all entered, one in which dishonesty and greed have forced us to peer into an abyss. The time for wrist slapping is over.

Also significant this week was an AAEP white paper that contained recommendations to protect the safety and welfare of the racehorse. Much in this nine-page paper has been discussed before but this time some new wrinkles acknowledged current racetrack realities and public perceptions.

Finally, there is acknowledgement that racing’s basic business model must change. Racing is a year-round sport conducted in 38 disparate jurisdictions, a situation lending itself not only to chaotic inefficiency but policies that place the racehorse in stressful situations, some of which can be ameliorated or eliminated altogether with thoughtful rule changes.

As claiming races comprise 70 percent of the average wagering menu, and with field size directly tied to revenue, the AAEP recommends that the practice of racing secretaries applying pressure on trainers to race be abolished. Racetrack and racino executives, especially, must be educated as to the health and welfare of the horse.

There is acknowledgement, too, that the racing model has evolved whereby peak earning potential for racehorses is late in the two-year-old year and in the three-year-old season, with less potential for earnings as horses age, the highest classes notwithstanding. Recognizing that some degree of training and racing is good for two-year-olds, the AAEP acknowledges that racing juveniles is preferable for long term health and quality of performance.

Additionally, the AAEP wants owners to be brought into the decision process of race horse care in consort with the trainer and vet. Pre-race testing procedures and the uniform reporting of injuries, including those sustained in workouts, long overdue, must be standardized. And the current reporting system which varies from state to state must be made uniform.

TOMORROW: Claiming races, the welfare of horses, and public perception

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

New York-Bred Program Has Come of Age; Commentator Best in Show

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 11, 2009--Back in the early days of the New York-bred industry, when Dr. Dominic DeLuke’s Assunta Louis Farm and the great Mike Hernandez were winning everything in sight, led by a horse that turned out to be one of the program’s foundation sires, prolific Fratello Ed, 2008 might be the year that Big Apple breeding pioneers dreamt about.

No one is confusing the relatively young New York breeding industry with traditionally established powers in Kentucky and Florida yet, but no longer is the local program considered something less-than either. When Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby in 2003, everyone had little choice but to finally get with the program.

This year, 45 New York-breds, 22 males and 23 females, were nominated in nine different divisional categories, 10 including New York-Bred of the Year, and all but a few of them made their bones in open company. If the purpose of the drill is improvement of the breed, New York horse people are doing their fair share.

The 45 nominated horses stepped outside the restricted stakes ranks on 109 occasions this year and earned more W’s than L’s. New York breds won a total of 22 open non graded stakes and placed in 12 more, finishing out of the money only eight times in 42 attempts.

Buzz-kills might argue this is an indication that overall quality of the modern thoroughbred has fallen dramatically. But then it can’t be argued that New York breds overachieved nor can the judgment of the owners and trainers who picked out those open company spots be disparaged.

But New Yorkers tried the graded ranks, too, and fared just as well. New York breds won 14 graded stakes, including the Carter, Black-Eyed Susan and the Whitney, placed in 27 more, and finished off the board only 26 times.

Two of the losses came in the Kentucky Derby, one each in the Preakness, Belmont and Pennsylvania Derby, while two fillies were blanked in the Black-Eyed Susan and Alabama, respectively.

In all, New York-bred horses were entered in a total of 109 open company stakes and won 83. Contextually, this year’s nominees placed a cherry on the cake that Funny Cide helped bake.

The winners among the 45 equine nominees--some qualified in several categories--will be honored by the New York Thoroughbred Breeders in the near future. Unlike the Eclipse Awards, there is no voting for horsemen and women. Those winners are determined by statistical tally.

Voters, New York-based turf writers, are required to make three selections in each category in order to have their ballots validated. Here, then, is one man’s opinion:

Two-Year Old Filly: Grade 2 Matron winner and G2 Adirondack-placed Doremifasolatido
over Mother Russia and R Betty Graybull. A very difficult category after getting passed the Adirondack winner.

Two-Year Old Colt: Flip a coin, the accomplishments were so disparate. Dagnabit off his Tremont win, over Trinity Magic and Cribnote. (Sorry, Haynesfield, the Count Fleet was run in 2009).

Three-Year Old Filly: G2 Black-Eyed Susan winner Sweet Vendetta won half her six starts, over Weathered (6-for-11), and late starting Under Serviced (4-for-6 with two state-bred stakes).

Three-Year Old Colt: G2 Indiana Derby winner Tin Cup Chalice went 6-for-8 in one of the feel good stories of the New York season, over G3 Tampa Bay Derby winner, Big Truck, and G3 Discovery winner, Wishful Tomcat.

Four-Year Old Filly or Mare: Redoubtable multiple graded-stakes winning J Ray, easily, over Chestoria and Love Cove.

Four-Year Old & Up Male: Multiple graded stakes and G1 Whitney hero Commentator over undefeated G1 Carter winner Bustin Stones and hard hitting Stormin Normandy.

Female Turf: J Ray earned her older mare portfolio on this surface, over possible heir apparent I Lost My Choo and Chestoria.

Male Turf: Wishful Tomcat ended season with three straight stakes, 4-for-5 in all, including a graded and open class score, over hard hitting Banrock and lightly campaigned Pays to Dream.

Female Sprinter: Open stakes winner and G1-placed By the Light, over Keep the Peace and Under Serviced.

Male Sprinter: G1 Carter winner Bustin Stones retired (via injury) undefeated in six lifetime starts, over Ferocious Fires and Stormin Normandy.

New York Horse of the Year 2008: Commentator, who this year will attempt to win his third Whitney, over Bustin Stones and Tin Cup Chalice.

The winners will be announced and feted in ceremonies at the Gideon Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs, the night of April 13.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 06, 2009

If Racing Doesn’t Tend its own Garden, Feds Will

New York City, February 5, 2009--According to a Thoroughbred Times Internet report, racing regulations were uppermost in the minds of racing executives as the joint annual meeting of the National Thoroughbred Associations and Harness Tracks of America concluded Wednesday.

What was clear is that racing has no wish to be regulated by the federal government which is, of course, the good news and the bad and also begs the question: So who asked you, anyway?

The economy continues to swirl deeper into the toilet. Our elected leaders are acting like they lost; the losers are taking their obfuscation positions, making the cure for our ills none too stimulating, insuring the audacity of the status quo.

The goal should be to keep these people as far away from racing as possible, unless...

Modern deregulation started with Reagan, continued under Bush 1, was kicked up a notch during the Clinton years then was left to fester, like everything else, during Bush 2. It hasn’t worked--probably because the term “free enterprise” was too liberally interpreted to mean steal anything that’s not nailed down.

“We don’t need the federal government to tell us how to run our operations,” said American Horse Council President Jay Hickey. Congress would disagree, of course, believing the federal Interstate Horse Racing Act gives them license to do whatever they want.

Thus far, Beltway types have engaged only in questioning a handful of racing’s leaders by a House committee in the wake of Eight Belles’ catastrophic Kentucky Derby but, like Schwarzenegger, promised they would be back.

“This industry can get up and move when it needs to,” said Scot Waterman, D.V.M., according to the Thoroughbred Times report, adding that he is pleased with how the industry responded since the first phase of its model drug rules were rolled out in 2005.

It’s almost four years later and the ban on anabolic steroids--a phase 3 measure whereby an agreement between the Association of Racing Commissioners International and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association required tracks to ban its use as a condition of races earning graded status--is the one development that has made an impact.

“Polls show that the less someone knows about racing the less they think of its integrity, and that has to change.” And where are the educational programs that not only would educate the public but the very legislators who rule on industry matters? Anyone who saw the House hearings last June knows education is elementary.

NTRA President Alex Waldrop updated the attendees on the progress being made on phase one of last year’s rollout of the Safety and Integrity Alliance, saying later that wagering security is an area the alliance could address in the future.

In the future? The integrity of the pools, a disconcerting issue for several years, is first now going to get some attention? Hopefully it will be more than a half measure. Waldrop said later that the alliance’s goal is to implement change but not act as a regulator. He’s for giving tracks the option of self regulation, which suggests the NTRA has no ambitions beyond the realm of trade organization. Back to square one.

The next step, to streamline post-race testing procedures, is the next logical course of action. But with labs scattered throughout the country and with many states hamstrung by various forms of a proposal process, economic sense might not yield the desired level of quality assurance.

Another attendee, RCI president Ed Martin, wants to see an end to redundant overregulation, believing the U.S. could follow the Canadian model where industry money pays an independent agency to conduct testing and research. He doesn’t think the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, the enforcement arm of the TRA, is suitable. “Racing cannot self-police itself,” he said.

So racing turns 360 degrees once again. How long do you think it will be before the feds figure out that if these racing guys think they can’t police themselves, and since none of their organizations seem willing or able to step up, we might not have a choice but to intervene?

Next time the industry’s leaders should agree to lock themselves in a room and not emerge until smoke wafts skyward from the fire that burns during this winter of racing’s discontent. There might be more to agree on than not.

Written by John Pricci

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