Thursday, August 12, 2010

Provincial Campaign Will Deny Zenyatta Her Rightful Place in History

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 10, 2010--I’ve tried, I’ve pleaded, I’ve cajoled, just short of begging. I’ve written pieces such as “Can’t We All Get Along?” Go back in the archives and read one if you doubt that.

Other stories have been written, too, stories that posited how unfair and shortsighted it is that a compliment of either Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra is to disrespect the other.

You might be glad to learn that, like most of you, I’m sick of reading and writing about the two mares, no matter how great they are. And until they race again, or new news develops, I no longer will stoke this insatiable fire.

First, this heads-up to Webmaster Mark. Get ready for an onslaught of invective, character assassination, or worse. It could get ugly quickly. But I’ve had enough. Now it’s time to allow chips to fall.

Running Zenyatta in the Zenyatta is a disgrace.

At least when New Mexico-bred sprinter Peppers Pride remained in state-bred company to complete an unbeaten streak at 19, the connections never promised a whirlwind campaign. They placed her where they expected her to win.

This year, the Zenyatta camp have done the same. Only their Perfect Campaign has done a disservice to the legacy to the great race mare.

Is Secretariat or Seattle Slew or Spectacular Bid or Man o’ War any less than because they got beat? Since when is losing a race some big disgrace? Horse racing is a game in which if you’re wrong two out of three times you’re considered a genius.

The true disgrace in all this is saying one thing and doing another. The connections promised they would share Zenyatta with all her fans. I wasn’t aware that all of them lived in California.

Detractors disparaged Rachel Alexandra because they felt Jess Jackson ducked the 2009 Breeders’ Cup. Beating Grade 1 males thrice, including elders, just wasn’t a world class good enough. But they can’t say it came as a surprise.

Jackson announced he wouldn’t run on “the plastic” well before the Woodward. No one was surprised that another very successful businessmen had become a control freak. By definition, control freaks get what they want. What’s the good of having all this weight if you can’t throw it around?

The rescheduled, lengthened and enriched Lady’s Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park is an example of this. It was no less tacky than the road being taken by Zenyatta‘s people.

The wraps finally are coming off the defending Horse of Year’s 2010 campaign. Resultantly, one of the hottest mares on the East Coast, ironically named Malibu Prayer, will duck Rachel and head to Monmouth Park for the Molly Pitcher instead.

But the Personal Ensign will be no walkover. Life At Ten and Unrivaled Belle are more than capable Grade 1 rivals.

When the undefeated mare recently went after 18 straight and pulled it off, no one noticed. After tying Cigar, Zenyatta’s every move should have been chronicled in mainstream sports media. Nothing fires the imagination like a little imagination.

Instead, it all happened with a whimper. The only people who knew what was happening were racing’s true fans, some of whom waited until 9:30 on a Saturday night to see her on a delayed simulcast feed, if one were even available.

I cannot forget how excited I was to hear that Zenyatta would race again at 6; a clear challenge against all odds. She would be shared with all of racing’s fans and the rest of America, too, not just those in her own backyard. Finally, a win for racing. Instead, we got 2009 all over again.

As a sports fan and lover of this greatest game played outdoors, I can no longer root for Zenyatta’s human connections and, by extension, their mare to win #19. They had a chance to perhaps make a small difference but instead placed greater emphasis on their own local celebrity and “the streak.”

If the Zenyatta camp had a true sense of history and tradition, they might have recalled how a great West Coast champion beat a great East Coast champion in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. And they might have remembered, too, how it was the vanquished Seattle Slew that won the day. His greatest performance came in a losing effort.

I can’t think of anything more deliciously appropriate than to see Zenyatta suffer her first defeat in a race named in honor, a made-for-the-moment Grade 1 event that disrespected another great mare, Lady’s Secret, who never ducked, who sought new worlds to conquer and not challenges to avoid.

And would a defeat in Zenyatta the race make Zenyatta the horse any less than? Of course not. Would it mean that she would have no chance for redemption a month later with a Classic repeat at Churchill Downs? Again, no. And isn’t that truly the stuff of legend?

“If we go to New York, that will mean she’ll be away from the barn for over a month,” Shirreffs told the Daily Racing Form early this week. "The only thing that concerns me is if I go to New York, do I go directly to Kentucky?

“How long do I stay away from the [California] stable? I'm not a good telephone trainer. We have to decide the best decision. We'll follow the script as much as possible as we did last year," he said.

And so any trainer who successfully ships around the country apparently is a good telephone trainer. I thought he might be just good horsemen, perhaps even a sportsman.

Following last year’s script is not a bad thing and is common practice in this business. But we all could have saved lots of time if we were told that right from the beginning.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 16, 2010

The NYRA Gets One Right

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 15, 2010--The mood on the Oklahoma training track this morning was upbeat, as several of the horsemen we spoke with in the wake of the New York Racing Association’s decision to shutter the detention barn in favor of stringent new security policies with tougher penalties were happy about recent developments.

We followed up briefly with some of those same horsemen who gave us their input on a June 12 column that called for the closure of the controversial detention facility.

The good mood, however, doesn’t reflect continuing concerns about the leveling of the playing field. “You know cheaters will find a way if they want to badly enough,” said one. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” said another. “I’ve been around this place a long time.”

All the horsemen we spoke with were willing to give the new process a chance, happy that new robust testing regimens will be accompanied by equally stringent penalties that punishes cheaters who come up with “positives.” Every one were in favor of the new three strikes and you’re out policy.

Most of the procedures put in place are scheduled to commence starting July 23, opening day of the Saratoga race meet. The rules are consistent with the uniform regulations authored by the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI).

Trainers of horses testing positive for Class A drug violations will face a minimum mandatory one-year disbarment from entering horses or being allocated stalls at NYRA racetracks for a first offense. A second mandatory disbarment for a second violation will last for a duration of three years. A third violation will result in permanent disbarment.

Of particular significance is the measure stating trainers serving disbarments will not be permitted to transfer their training responsibilities to family members or current employees, a common practice that has made a sham of the suspension process in the past.

According to a statement published by the NYRA, an ongoing effort to further enhance the new policies and procedures over the next 12 months will closely monitor the re-instituted procedure of allowing private veterinarians administering Lasix to horses on race day.

Further measures call for re-examining TCO2 testing policies with respect to historical TCO2 levels, assessing appropriate penalties for violators, and regular reporting on the results and impact of the elimination of the security barn to the Special Oversight Committee of the NYRA Board of Directors.

Regrettably, the NYRA missed an opportunity to list on the official track program, right alongside the trainer’s name, the name of the attending veterinarian. Some horsemen use more than one vet, but making the name of the vet available allows the betting public to track who dispenses medications when certain horses show sudden and dramatic improvement.

“The out-of-competition drug testing program combined with the new assembly barn and ‘in-today’ procedures will provide NYRA with potent tools to confront today’s challenges of detecting performance-enhancing substances and allow us to stay one step ahead of potential abusers,” said NYRA president Charlie Hayward in the release.

“The science empowering cheaters has changed since 2005 and these new procedures will ensure that NYRA’s countermeasures keep pace in order to preserve the integrity of the sport.” Racetracks have always had a difficult task trying to keep pace with Big Pharma’s R & D people. But continue trying they must.

On its face, the measures taken by NYRA more than compensate for the elimination of the detention barns--not that the barns didn’t serve some purpose. Suspected abusers left New York soon after they were instituted, or after they stopped winning with their normally dramatic regularity. Other suspected abusers who took up residence in New York, mostly during the Aqueduct sessions, left after learning it wasn’t as easy to win at 35 percent as it used to be.

The elimination of the detention barn coupled with new testing policies, procedures, and sterner penalties for violators, is the most comprehensive action we’ve seen NYRA take on any difficult issue in the modern era. For that, they are to be commended.

The proof, however, ultimately will reside in the execution of its plan, employing the fine tuning needed after noting what works and what doesn’t. Continued vigilance is not an elective. In the morass that has become New York racing, track management has devised a plan that surprisingly provides a reason to feel optimistic going forward.

In considering the sport’s survival, all have a vested interest in rooting for the contraction model put in place in New Jersey, hopefully reversing recent fortunes in the Garden State and provide the industry with a viable blueprint. At once, what happens on this side of the Hudson counts, too. If successful, real security measures taken by the NYRA will have a positive effect on the entire industry.

In matters of security and integrity, all who are tethered to the game reside in the same fox hole. Suddenly, achieving unity in this fractured sport doesn’t seem so impossible. The NYRA has done a good thing here. If it’s truly sincere about effecting change, it could once again occupy the role of true industry leader. For the time being, anyway, it appears all the dogs and ponies have been laid to rest.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

NYRA Whacks Detention Barn, Clearing Way for Rachel-Zenyatta Summit

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July14, 2010--In a victory for common sense over window dressing, the New York Racing Association announced that its highly controversial security barn would cease operations as of July 23, opening day of the Saratoga race meet.

In doing so, it avoided the embarrassment of a horsemen’s boycott of the entry box Thursday morning, when entries will be taken for Sunday‘s card, the final program of the Belmont Park summer meet.

In making the announcement in a press release late Wednesday, NYRA chose to bury the lead, trumpeting that there will be expansion of the in-house drug testing program. The question remaining in the face of this well timed declaration is: What took so long?

As a member of Pat Lynch‘s NYRA press staff in the 1970s, I learned that as a general rule anything that’s good for the horsemen usually turns out to be a defeat for horseplayers. Today’s development just might turn out to be a victory for both.

The event also should provide relief for NYRA Director of Racing and racing secretary P J Campo by making it easier to fill racing programs at the upcoming meet by eliminating a huge concern for visiting trainers; the unfriendly environment of the detention facility.

The perceptionthat a big hurdle impeding the ultimate quality of New York racing has been cleared should have NYRA bean counters and Saratoga Chamber of Commerce members dancing and high-fiving on Union Avenue.

Of great significance to the sport’s fans, eliminating the detention removes the only significant barrier preventing a summit between racing’s two great race mares; defending Horse of the Year champion Rachel Alexandra vs. 2010’s leading candidate for that title, the mighty 17-0 Zenyatta.

Zenyatta’s trainer John Shirreffs has been an outspoken critic of the detention facility, having had a bad prior experience. But now, the Personal Ensign at 10 furlongs and at scale weights at meet’s end eliminates any excuse that would keep either filly in the barn.

Conditions for Zenyatta could hardly be more favorable for her to take her show on the road for only the third time in her career. While Zenyatta obviously needs to ship here, she might find the weather a bit more refreshing in late summer. Meanwhile, Rachel would have to run farther than she ever has before. Yin, say hello to yang.

As exhilarating as the thought of a summit might be, ending the detention barn era has more immediate benefits. And for those who would argue to the contrary; that the facility helps level the playing field for horsemen, what is its ultimate effect on the player? What about horses that don’t lift a hoof after suffering a literal or figurative meltdown on a hot afternoon or becomes highly strung in an unfamiliar place?

For the horseplayer, having an animal improve its performance artificially is no worse than having an honest rival go off form for no apparent reason. How does that help anyone?

Of course, diligent scrutiny is not only welcome, it’s entirely necessary. Horse Race Insider has campaigned against the detention barn editorially and has suggested that security would be better served with the installation of web cameras at strategic intervals throughout each barn, a security person required to monitor and report all activity that deviates from the norm, doing so at regularly timed intervals. If that fails, video can substantiate later what may or may not have occurred.

The NYRA release stated that its soon to be implemented expanded program includes random out-of-competition testing designed to deter the use of blood doping agents such as Erythropoietin (EPO), bronchial dilators, and other illegal substances. That's about time, too.

“Out-of-competition testing will focus primarily on claimed horses, horses shipping in and out of NYRA tracks, horses running in stakes races, and other random occurrences.” the question is why should enforcement be subject to any limiting factors? Why not state that any horse can be tested at any time, with the record of those findings made public?

According to the terms of the agreement that gave NYRA back its franchise, it agreed to operate in a more transparent manner. So there is no excuse for not publishing these findings for the record, even when a test is passed. Wouldn’t that serve as a deterrent, too?

As stated in the release, "NYRA will initiate an 'in-today' process which will identify all horses, in their stalls, running in a NYRA race within 24 hours. This will afford NYRA the ability to monitor horses the day prior to and in the hours leading up to a race through the deployment of a stronger backstretch presence of NYRA veterinarians and security officers.

"Further, NYRA will continue testing for illegal levels of total carbon dioxide (TCO2, known as 'milkshaking') through an 'assembly barn' where all horses entering a race will be required to report just prior to moving to the paddock for saddling."

More welcome news is that the testing operation will be administered and supervised by Dr. George Maylin, director of the New York State Racing & Wagering Board’s drug testing and research program at Morrisville State College in upstate New York.

The program of thoroughbred and standardbred testing currently overseen by Dr. Maylin in New York is already the most advanced and comprehensive of any jurisdiction in the United States, the release said. It is widely accepted that Dr. Maylin‘s experience and reputation are above reproach. This development is a good thing for the customer.

TOMORROW, Part 2: Enforcement, Punishment and the Big Picture

Written by John Pricci

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