Friday, June 12, 2009

Altering Triple Crown Schedule Gaining Momentum

ELMONT, NY, June 11, 2009--The following was first proposed in a column written after the 2005 Triple Crown. The subject has come up every year since but nothing’s changed.

For the first time, however, there seems to be a burgeoning groundswell of support from every industry sector that time has come to alter the schedule of America’s most important thoroughbred racing series.

I’m a traditionalist, bound by old school values. But there’s a vexing issue that’s easy to fix. We’ve thought so for the last five years and it has nothing to do with fixing something that’s broken. The Triple Crown isn’t broken, just romantically anachronistic and rife with counter-productivity.

What this change proposes is to do something good for the modern thoroughbred--without which there would be no game and creating a larger fan base--without whom there would be no game.

And it’s about improving the series going forward, not devaluing it, as goes the myopic objection.

Two years after this proposal appeared in print, Carl Nafzger created a firestorm when he chose to skip the Belmont Stakes with Derby winning Street Sense after losing to Curlin by a whisker in Baltimore.

While all were disappointed with Nafzger’s decision, no one argued that he wasn’t acting in the best interests of his horse. He later validated his approach by sweeping Saratoga’s Jim Dandy and Travers. But the Belmont Stakes took a hit. Again.

Here are the thoughts of two trainers who accounted for two legs of this year’s classics: Among other factors, Tim Ice credited the victory of Summer Bird to his being fresh and having enough time to ship to New York early to train over the unique Belmont configuration. How did that make it easy for Mine That Bird?

Chip Woolley admitted that he wouldn’t have run in the Preakness if he didn’t feel compelled by history and a personal sense of obligation to the sport. MTB and Flying Private were the only two horses to run in all three races. There have only been five horses in the last four years to run in all three jewels.

The filly didn’t run back in the Belmont because she had two taxing efforts within two weeks. And if you believe Jess Jackson didn’t want to run, perhaps you don’t know him as well as you think. But if there were another week or two of recovery time, who knows? Which leads to several more questions:

Were any of these horsemen wrong for doing what they believed was best for their horses? Of course not. And just how does the present five-week schedule serve the history of the sport by not having these races be as competitive as they can be? And they never will be as competitive until the time between races lengthens.

As we said last year, we’re stuck at the corner of Disheartened and Disenchanted because when racing reaches a crossroads, it blinks, laments its fate but invariably fails to act. And this one is an easy problem to fix. Let’s consider some suggestions:

Simply adding another week between the Derby and Preakness is not good enough. That would make it a six week series--not the same five weeks traditionalists want and it’s not enough recovery time for the modern thoroughbred, especially after a fairly rigorous prep season.

And while Chip Woolley asked “Who am I to argue with Wayne Lukas?” when questioned about altering the schedule, nobody but Lukas wants to alter the distances of the three races to nine, nine and-a-half, and 10 furlongs, respectively. Personally I’d rather see the series eliminated than to bastardize it in such fashion.

The Triple Crown can be changed for the better just like other sports, only not by deemphasizing the traditional preps. Other sports have diluted the importance of their regular seasons with expanded playoff formats, when all they really wanted was to put more fannies in higher-priced seats and increase revenue from television.

Racing must embrace change and not be afraid to lengthen the series. A longer series does what’s best for the modern thoroughbred and places a greater emphasis on horsemanship. I would argue it is easier for a true alpha three-year-old to dominate over a five-week period than to extend that dominance over a greater number of stronger and/or late developing rivals.

Today’s thoroughbred is sleek, not stout. Gone are the days when old-school horsemen would get to the bottom of their stock to attain total fitness. They still can reach bottom, of course, only recovery takes longer.

Whether it’s too much speed in the pedigree, permissive medication, less forgiving surfaces or environmental pollutants, modern horsemen with an understanding of form-cycle analysis race today’s thoroughbred far less often. This is a fact of racing life at every track, every day, not just for five weeks each spring.

A Triple Crown of longer duration not only better serves the horse but makes promotional sense by keeping the series alive longer. The distances and venues should remain the same--if that’s possible given the Pimlico situation.

The Kentucky Derby has secured its traditional place on the first Saturday in May. Because of its distance, place on the calendar, field size, and overall degree of difficulty, it remains the most difficult of the three to win. As such, “America’s Race” should stay right where it is.

We originally proposed that the Preakness be run on the first Saturday in June. This makes it more likely that the Derby horses would run back in the Preakness, thus improving series continuity while raising the profile of racing’s glamour division with mainstream fans.

Further, it provides more time for late developers and non-Derby qualifiers to join the series. This makes the challenge for horsemen more daunting, not easier.

NTRA blogger Dean Arnold might have a better idea: Memorial Day weekend, which would allow a minimum of 3-½ weeks between the first two legs, likely closer to four if the weekend stretches into the first Saturday in June.

Memorial Day would give the race an identity with the American sports fan. Also, as previously stated, purses for both the Preakness and Belmont should be raised to match to Derby, paying back to eighth place to help insure continuity and defray costs, as Arnold suggests.

And what could be a more fitting conclusion to this uniquely American series than a Belmont Stakes on the 4th of July? This gives the entire series an identity that transcends sports, two national television holiday events run sometime during or after the barbecue and fireworks. If a Triple Crown is at stake, so much the better.

The longer schedule gives promoters nine weeks to bang the drum instead of five. And wouldn’t the accomplishment be even greater if the Derby and/or Preakness winner had to defeat a larger number of contiguous rivals? Find a sponsor and bring back a participation and winner’s bonus.

None of this upsets traditional Derby preps and allows horsemen more time to develop their still maturing stock. The early season preps would still have their rightful place and there would be no need for Monmouth Park and Saratoga to alter the dates of the Haskell and Travers.

A longer Triple Crown season simultaneously increases and decreases the degree of difficulty, brightens the spotlight, sustains and creates added interest and produces bigger and better wagering events, all while doing what’s best for the animal.

Even the mainstream media is getting into the act on this. senior writer Pat Forde has adopted the Triple Crown holiday scenario, correctly pointing out that the Belmont would be free of competition from the NBA and NHL finals. When will the time come for the industry to act with enlightened self interest?

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sparring at the Draw, Good Time Had by All

ELMONT, NY, June 3, 2009--As post-position draw press conferences go, Wednesday morning’s at Belmont Park was pretty fun. Lots of bon ami and irreverence being thrown around, as it should be. People bet serious money on the outcome of these races but it still should be fun.

Even though it doesn’t appear on any of the logos I’ve seen, Saturday’s Belmont Stakes is the oldest of the Triple Crown events, having its 141st renewal, something to be proud of, indeed. Wayne Lukas on several occasions tacked on another decade but, no harm, no foul, coach.

At 74, Lukas is having the time of his life again. With several new clients, one who apparently was not too adversely effected by the events of Sept. 15, Wayne has reason to go back to the sales, looking for more cats beneath the hides of thoroughbred yearlings.

But the winner of four Belmonts is enjoying it more because he is more relaxed, “nothing more to prove” to the people with notebooks asking questions at the barn the Sunday morning after a high profile defeat.

“Yeah, I’m having more fun. I don’t feel I have to explain it all. We’ve got some of these and, at this stage, I’m happy to be enjoying this experience. I have no grand illusions but I think they’ll both be competitive in here.”

I told him that I shouldn’t say this because I‘m afraid it would go to his head but I reminded him he was approaching that legend status, still hiding behind the foster grants and looking good, of course. The old ball coach usually does.

Speaking of athletes, he’s very high on a linebacker from the Air Force Academy. “Watch him, number 44,” he said. “In high school he was all-everything in California.” No one usually questions his ability to spot talent, whether the athlete had two legs or four. He was talking about Jeff's son. His grandson.

Still trying to change the Triple Crown--aren’t we all?--but he knows his plan has little chance. “A mile and a quarter is the classic American distance but it’s not likely the Belmont will be changed after 151 years [sic],” he answered Tom Durkin.

Actually, Chip Woolley, trainer of the Kentucky Derby champion and 2-1 early line favorite for Belmont 141, had a question for Durkin earlier.

Before leaning into his crutches and set to leave the podium, Woolley said he had a question for Durkin. “Do you know what my horse looks like yet?”

The question was greeted with laughter and some applause from an appreciative audience.” The question was referencing Durkin’s late pickup of Mine That Bird who in midstretch squeezed through a narrow hole on the rail as if shot from a gun in the sloppy gloaming at Churchill.

That question could have been posed to anyone who watched the race live or on TV. If they were honest that’d admit they didn’t know who the hell it was either. I think I’m pretty good, and I know I checked MY program.

Nick Zito was up next and asked Durkin the same question, but the line fell flat a second time. Durkin turned immediately turned to the audience and asked the crowd if there was someone out there with a hair-shirt that he could borrow. Skate save, a beauty.

Almost all camps were represented which was a good job by all involved, producers and participants.

It was Wednesday and Charitable Man’s trainer still doesn’t want to trade places with anyone. Kiaran McLaughlin’s confidence level is very high. Todd Pletcher, meanwhile, STILL believes Dunkirk is a good horse and hopes to prove it. Can’t blame him.

On the way up to the podium Lukas stole Woolley’s crutches and took a couple of strides, but gave them back. Eoin Harty gets credit for candor saying he has absolutely no idea how Mr. Hot Stuff will handle a dry, dirt track.

Up came Tim Ice, trainer of the other bird, Summer Bird, another son of Triple Crown denying Birdstone, himself acting like he wants to be a very good sire, if he’s not already. Mary Lou Whitney thought that he would be and so far she’s been proven right.

Of course, there’s a triple crown at stake (note lower case) and this year, too. Calvin Borel‘s.

Pletcher probably had this right when he told the Daily News “it won’t go down in the history books as a Triple Crown winner, but he will be.” Right on two counts:

“Racing history” won’t be fast to embrace it because it’s always supposed to be about the horse, not the rider, a serious discussion for another day should Calvin win the Jockey Triple. Got to call it something, right?. We’ll see how that plays out.

I referred to Borel by first name although I’ve never met the man. But Calvin Borel is easy to root for. You can tell that every time you look into his face. There’s 4,500 winners and 4,500 mucked stalls in that face. “Levon Helm Goes to the Races.”

He’s perhaps perfect for our time: “Every-man Journey-man Wins Belmont.”

I’m buying it all because this is supposed to be fun. So I’ll be smiling when he does it, which he “guaranteed” by the way. And lately he’s been a lot smarter lately than me. I know the Derby camp is happy to have him back and they should be. When was life better?

After the conference, the media rushed toward Woolley and I followed the other bird’s trainer Time Ice.

“Didn’t you say before the Derby that you were pointing for the Belmont?” “Yes, he said.”

“What made the Belmont more important than the Derby,” I asked. “The distance,” Ice said.

“And why the blinkers?” “They’re for focus, it’s not meant to put speed into him.”

“And the second workout,” I wanted to know, “the one with Kent, they were with the blinkers? “Yes.”

“Was it the tighter track, the experience, or the blinkers that made the second workout here better than the first?” “A little bit of everything.”

“And the karma is good for a Cajun to tap a Cajun to beat THE Cajun right now?”

“I think Kent makes a lot of sense for this horse,” Tim Ice said.

Things can get real interesting on Saturday. And fun. And what could be better than that?

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Eclipse Voters, Bloggers Want Same Matchup: Rachel vs Zenyatta

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 26, 2009--It’s been my experience that unless the names of a particular distaff deity is invoked, fillies just don’t excite racing fans the same way colts do.

It’s no one’s fault that there aren’t enough Ruffians or Bushers or Twilight Tears to go around. It’s just the way it is:

There are not enough tomboys like Shuvee, or bullets like Moccasin, a Horse of the Year at 2, or Derby winners like Winning Colors and Genuine Risk or perfectionists like Personal Ensign. These exceptional females proved great is great, gender be damned.

Today it's the Preakness heroine Rachel Alexandra and perfectionist Zenyatta that has elevated the female race horse in stature. Everybody might love the itty-bitty gritty Derby winner that could, especially after he stamped himself genuine in Baltimore.

But it’s the ladies that are the buzz and they’re on a collision course. Not, however, on the racetrack any time in the near future, but in the Eclipse voting booth.

To prove the point, it will take a little hypothesizing. Because nobody knows what any of the camps are going to do, perhaps not even the handlers themselves.

But after reading the quotes, then the tea leaves, here is one voting scenario to ponder.

Let’s say that, by Sunday, Rachel Alexandra is kicking down the barn door and if she doesn’t run soon, she’s going to hurt herself by acting out in her stall. Jess and Steve huddle. “We’re running in the Belmont,” Jess says.

Somehow, enough water is found on Long Island--ground water, not rain, please--to spray Big Sandy, making the track nice and tight. And Rachel is able to skip over it like it’s Churchill Downs. She wins the Belmont.

In this corner, Rachel Alexandra, the only filly in the history of the universe to win two legs of racing’s Triple Crown.

On the other coast, and only on that coast, Zenyatta does exactly what she did last year, winning the Vanity, Clement Hirsch, Lady’s Secret and Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic. This final just in: Zenyatta 14, Personal Ensign 13.

And in this corner, the record holding winner of 14 straight races without defeat in top class competition, and still, distaff champion of the world, Zenyatta.

May I have the envelope, please. And the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year 2009 goes to ???

Talk about splitting hairs. Where’s a BCS computer when you really need one?

In the blogosphere, fans already are choosing up sides. Said one blogger about Zenyatta’s proposed schedule: “It would be the equivalent of driving your Ferrari around a cul-de-sac.”

Said another: “I’d hardly call Zenyatta’s plans defending her title, more like maintaining her perfect record.”

I’ve got one, too, with apologies to John Shirreffs and Peppers Pride: “It’s like pummeling New Mexico-breds 19 straight times.”

In defense, one said that “anyone who feels they have a horse that can beat Big Z can put their horse on a plane and go take their shot. The champion never comes to you, you go to them.”

And another: “I LOVE Zenyatta… LOVE. But I seriously hope they take her out of the cul-de-sac at least once. There’s always hope that maybe they’re just playing coy… fingers crossed on that one!”

And finally, this: “The ultimate goal…is October. To get there you map out a plan. Appeasing people is not part of it. You decide the best way to give your horse the best chance… It might not make everyone happy, but it’s the right one according to the people who know the horse best.”

The camps have been talking, too. Shirreffs on the mile and a quarter Hollywood Gold Cup. “She’s never run that far… And against the boys? Let’s make it even harder.”

And “when it gets closer to [Breeders’ Cup] time, you don’t want to ship around too much. Saratoga is a long way.”

Then this from Jess Jackson: "If [Rachel] runs at all on the plastic [Santa Anita‘s Pro-Ride], it will be because she's so damn good that she can beat the boys in the Classic, not the Ladies' Classic," adding he would love to take on Zenyatta at some point.

If Zenyatta ends her career by eclipsing Personal Ensign and if Rachel Alexandra were to win the Belmont, my Horse of the Year vote will go to Rachel Alexandra.

Why? Because, in my opinion, her achievement would have greater historical significance. If she skips the Belmont, targets and wins the Travers, that might accomplish the same thing. For me, beating males twice means more.

Otherwise, like that blogger said, Zenyatta’s the champ, you come to her. And that puts the onus on Jackson to chase Zenyatta..

I have a compromise where both camps give something up. Jackson already has a real estate agent hunting for places to rent for the Saratoga meet, so Rachel will spend the summer here.

Saratoga is a long way, but there are such things as airplanes. Board one of those and meet the younger Rachel in the Personal Ensign on the last weekend in August. Running in that spot has a little extra symmetry, too.

Beyond that, most observers believe that the three-year-old cannot beat the older mare, no matter how fast or slow the pace. To this point, I agree.

August is still early in the season for three-year-olds vs. elders--advantage Zenyatta. And it allows more than enough recovery time before Zenyatta's penultimate start, the Lady’s Secret, at Santa Anita in October.

As for her legacy, she will have beaten the filly who beat the boys in the Preakness--instead of the outmanned group she beat last weekend. For Horse of the Year, it would be: Race, Set and Match.

Even Zenyatta’s biggest fans want to see this, thereby eliminating all those nagging questions. Wrote another Zenyatta blogger:

“I won’t ‘love her any less’ if she never gets a chance to prove that’s she’s one of the all-time greats by defeating any and all potential competition. But I’ll definitely think it was a damn shame and waste of talent.

Written by John Pricci

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