Friday, November 27, 2009

“Shhhhh, Do You Want to Know a Zenyatta?”

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 27, 2009--The electioneering that the Oak Tree Racing Association is doing on behalf of the Zenyatta for Horse of the Year campaign is obvious and a little unworthy of what‘s ultimately at stake.

When it was announced about a week ago that Santa Anita was going to be giving Zenyatta her own day at Santa Anita Park, I thought it a great idea, worthy of a perfectly great filly of singular accomplishment.

It was also timely, before being sent home to be bred. She earned this recognition the old fashioned way; between the fences.

In my view, it was certainly more appropriate than the award given her recently by the Turf Publicists of America, a hosanna to the people in the sport who were generous of spirit, giving their time in service to the game and by making themselves and their horses available for promotional opportunity.

But I must admit, in the language of the Internet, I did an LOL when I considered that Team Zenyatta were given an award called the “Big Sport of Turfdom.”

Yes, the Mosses and the Shirreffs were always available in service to the industry without equivocation. But when I think “Big Sport,” I think it should mean what that means. To me, the meaning traditionally reserved for that kind of nomenclature is when people accept big challenges in the name of sport.

But what was sporting about taking a path of the least resistance possible, a four-race campaign in which she beat 22 of mostly-the-same rivals, essentially public workouts for pay, even if her entire year was predicated on, and culminated with, an unforgettable career finale on a non-dirt surface?

The only reason Zenyatta raced in the Classic was because it was her only chance to catch a three-year-old rival she never met, one that compiled what appeared to many as an insurmountable lead in the quest for Horse of the Year honors.

And if the early polling on this site is any measure, the decision to run in, and win, the Breeders’ Cup Classic might prove the winning gambit after all.
But in terms of the rest of her Horse of the Year “season,” it was a campaign devoid of meaningful challenges. No points are scored for shipping to Churchill Downs for her season’s debut only to scratch when the Louisville dirt came up a sea of slop.

As I recall, Zenyatta’s connections began making scratch noises days before the race and, at some point, had she remained in the East, she might have found a dry surface to race on, like the dirt surface over which she was so impressive at Oaklawn Park in 2008.

It that context, Zenyatta retires as a one-dirt wonder. Ultimately, however, Team Zenyatta earns a pass as no one truly knows what motivation people have when they do the things they do. But neither does it allow for having things both ways.

So, then, what’s my beef? It’s this week’s press release from the Oak Tree Racing Association which reads, in part:

“In the wake of what many consider to be the most dramatic performance in Breeders' Cup history, the Oak Tree Racing Association has announced that the undefeated superstar mare Zenyatta, a devastating last-to-first winner of the million Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) on November 7, will be honored by having the name of the race she won in both 2008 and 2009, the Lady's Secret S. (G1), renamed the Zenyatta, effective next year. The Lady's Secret, which was inaugurated in 1993, is for fillies and mares and run at 1 1 1/16 miles.

"When the history books are written, we feel that what Zenyatta accomplished here on November 7 will go down as one of the all-time great achievements in American racing," Oak Tree Director and Executive Vice President Sherwood Chillingworth said.

"Lady's Secret was a great mare herself. She won the (Breeders' Cup) Distaff (G1) here in 1986 and went on to be named Horse of the Year but what Zenyatta did here against the best horses in the world is something none of us who witnessed it will ever forget.

"At first, Jerry [owner Moss] was reluctant to accept our offer of renaming the race because he was a personal friend of Gene Klein, [Lady’s Secret’s owner]" Chillingworth added.

"But after he and Ann thought about it for a couple of days, he called back and said they thought Zenyatta would be flattered by the comparison and to know that she was held in such high esteem."

I can remember two decades ago when the New York Racing Association, capable of being as overzealous as the next racing jurisdiction, in the heyday of Easy Goer vs. Sunday Silence (in alphabetical order, please note) it never electioneered as Oak Tree did so zealously this week.

“Most dramatic,” “superstar,” “devastating” in the first 32 words of the release--and that’s including articles.

"It is particularly appropriate,” Chillingworth continued, “in that she won the Lady's Secret two years in a row, and like Lady's Secret, we feel strongly that Zenyatta should be Horse of the Year. Her brilliance is undeniable and we are proud to rename this prestigious race in her honor..."

It’s not so much that an aspiring Horse of the Year should replace the honored memory of another great filly who already had earned the ultimate prize, that was tacky enough.

But it’s timing, with Eclipse ballots about a week away from distribution, appears a very thinly veiled attempt to keep the Zenyatta brand in the minds of Eclipse voters, perhaps hoping to sway the fence-sitters.
The great filly that was shunted aside this week was the 1986 Horse of the Year. Six years later she was in the Hall of Fame. A winner of 25 of 45 career starts, she finished worse than second only 11 times. In her Horse of the Year season she won EIGHT Grade 1s and raced against males four times, winning the Whitney.**

Fourteen-for-fourteen is, as previously stated, a singular achievement. But it doesn’t earn you the title “The Iron Lady.”

If the intent truly was to honor the mare at the site of her greatest triumphs, Oak Tree could have consulted with the Los Angeles Turf Club, perhaps co-sponsoring a race in Zenyatta’s memory at the winter-spring meeting since only one G1 for fillies and mares is available in non-Breeders‘ Cup years.

Renaming the G1 Santa Maria Handicap would have meant just as much for her fans. That race is run under the same conditions as the Lady’s Secret. Another option might have been to change the distance of seven furlong G1 Santa Monica which also might have required an adjustment to the stakes calendar.

If you didn’t want to take that tack, given the political or business considerations, Oak Tree at least might have waited until Horse of the Year voting was closed.

**Correction to the original post made Nov. 29

Written by John Pricci

Comments (84)


Friday, November 20, 2009

Love at the Racetrack

SARATOGA SPRINGS, November 19, 2009--The first thing I do each morning after opening e-mail is to visit I’m sure gives its creator and webmaster, Seth Merrow, goose bumps.

Actually, for racing fans, bettors, and racetrack industry types, it should be everybody’s way to start their Internet day. (Next stop is HRI, of course).

Aside from keeping up with racing news via Equidaily’s headline format, it’s a great source for blog and column material. Writers can add, subtract, agree or disagree with stories written by colleagues or independent bloggers.

In doing that this morning, and feeling a bit whimsical, the first story I clicked on was from what appears to be a free-lance travel scribe, who wrote a piece for the of New York.

When in the mood, Seth can be playfully cheeky. So, this morning, he sucked me right in to reading a story he introduced with, “Love is in the air,” before adding, “[sniff sniff] geez, is that love?!?” Well, don’t sat I didn’t warn you about Merrow.

Anyhow, the rest of the Equidaily teaser headline went: “Golden Gate Fields is the last horse racing venue in the Bay Area and a perfect place for a romantic date.”


The following is a sampling of some of what author Karla Erovick wrote for the SF Romance Travel Examiner, begging two questions: “Do you actually get paid for this kind of work and where do I sign?” (To any potential boss, for this I’ll work cheap).

The trailing commentary is Erovick’s. The reaction and italics are mine:

“If you are like most people and have never been to the horse races, you are missing out on a whole a lot of fun… [see, I told you].

“…[Golden Gate Fields] is one of the best entertainment deals in town. The amount of enjoyment that you can have for the cost of a movie ticket is unsurpassed. Arrive before post time of the first race. As the day wears on the attendance increases, so does the enthusiasm of the fans…” [Hey Erovick, ever been to Aqueduct in February?]

“…If you want to impress your date and hot-dogs and beer won’t do.. make a reservation at the Turf Club.. Each table has a small television to better watch both live and simulcast racing…” [But a visit to Equestris Restaurant high atop the Big A would ease some of that bracing chill from Jamaica Bay].

“…Contrary to public perception, horse racing isn’t the seedy environment that many people think. This is safe, clean and suitable for families. In fact, many families spend an afternoon at the races as their form of recreation. One of the few instances where the athletes pay the fans…” [Never heard it put that way; good point].

“…The horses are brought from the stables to the paddock prior to the race. Regardless of whether you are placing bets, take a look at the horses. Which ones look like they can win the race? An experienced viewer can learn a lot from the horse behavior while in the paddock…” [Postman worked in forty-eight, goin’ to the races, goin’ to the races now].

“…Depending on where you have chosen to view the race, watch at least one race track-side. It is fascinating to be so close to the action. For information on placing bets refer to the program guide [or] ask one of the fans…” [If doing so in New York, wait until you get to Saratoga].

“…Unless you are going to the turf club for one of the Kentucky Derby races…” [OK, she’s a novice, so cut her some slack, and anyone who thinks they can find romance at the racetrack is cool with me!]

“…There is no need to wear your fancy hat and ensemble. These days the races are casual and most people wear jeans or “smart casual” dress…” [If fancy hat and ensemble are your thing, wait until you get to Saratoga].

“…After a day at the races, you are certain to have learned a little about the track, horses and the people who love horse racing and had a whole lot of fun, not to mention scoring some points for romance…” [That works for me…].

There was this smokin’ hot co-ed at St. Johns, my alma mater. (You could say that back then and it would be taken as a compliment, not sexist misogyny).

I figured I’d impress the hell out of her so on our first date I took her to “the world famous Copacabana” to see Bobby Darin, who was in his blue jeans “If I Were a Carpenter” phase. An enormous talent.

[Sat at a table next to Donnie Burks, the talented St. Johns two-guard who was now a cast member in the Broadway musical “Hair.” He introduced us to the female lead, a singer actress named Melba Moore. More cool points for me].

That Friday night went so well that I asked if she would like me to pick her up for lunch the next day. She agreed. (My metallic gold Mercury Marquis was pretty cool, too). “Where're we going?” she asked as she slipped into my ersatz Lincoln Continental. “It’s a surprise,” I said.

Per usual, the Belt Parkway was a mess that day, and we missed the daily double at the Big A. But I introduced her to some friends, we ate clams on the half shell and had some of that famous Harry M. Stevens clam chowder, and actually picked four of the remaining eight races on the card. Eddie Belmonte rode two or three of them.

My date picked a winner, too: “I like the name Oglethorpe,” she said, “James Oglethorpe was a settler who founded a colony for debtors in Georgia.” She bet her money and, damn, if that horse didn’t win! Paid about $18.00, as I recall. She was ecstatic. I was in like a porch climber.

That night, we celebrated dinner at chic restaurant. It was adjunct to a radio station right alongside the Long Island Expressway; don’t remember the call letters.

A year later we were married and, so far, it’s lasted 40 years.

“Hey, Toni, remember what Oglethorpe paid?

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Breeders’ Cup Suffering From Identity Crisis

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 13, 2009--Was it me, or did you also get the sense that this year’s Breeders’ Cup didn’t feel like the usual championship event until Goldikova unleashed that powerful kick midway through Saturday’s program?

Whether this perception is accurate or not, Breeders’ Cup Ltd. Ultimately must decide whether it wants to stick with the original model and mantra, “Racing’s Crowning Event,” or whether it wants to be the Breeders’ Cup International Racing Festival.

As currently structured, it falls a bit short of achieving either goal.

Don’t misunderstand. Breeders’ Cup will crown its share of champions again this year. It never has failed to do so. But unlike in the early days of the event, the overall quality in majority of the races was lacking.

The only notable progress--which may be the only measure that interests current organizational hierarchy--has come in the area of betting handle.

Just as expansion has reduced the overall quality of the four major sports leagues, large-market Major League Baseball teams notwithstanding, so, too, has expanding the championship format to two days and doubling the number of the original seven events failed to achieve the desired results.

It remains early in the Filly Friday experiment but thus far it’s been much ado about very little, except for the negative publicity generated by the renaming of the Distaff to Ladies Classic. In my view, the name isn’t as politically incorrect as it is pedestrian.

The filly concept hasn’t really caught on or ignited a fire under the brand. Ironic, too, that in 2009, “the year of the filly” featuring the two best thoroughbreds in America, one was a no-show and the other raced on Saturday--and gave the boys a fine spanking, at that.

Was I the only observer that found it curious that Filly Friday began with an open 14-furlong marathon? Facetiously, did Breeders’ Cup run out of fillies or only filly races? And, come to think of it, why is the Filly & Mare Sprint seven furlongs and not six?

Why does that race even exist? Very Subtle’s 1987 victory at Hollywood Park gave that renewal of the Sprint a special excitement. And even if she were lucky to take advantage of the gaffe made by shadow-jumping Dayjur, was anyone at Belmont Park, bettors notwithstanding, upset when Safely Kept became the Sprint beneficiary?

And was a F & M Turf really necessary? All can surmise the answer but that’s still not a good reason. So maybe Miss Alleged wasn’t all that compelling when beating the boys at Churchill Downs in 1991, but Pebbles Turf victory at Aqueduct in 1985 was an unforgettable Breeders‘ Cup moment.

Wouldn’t the Turf renewals of 2004 and 2006 been better off with Ouija Board than without her? And what about Banks Hill in 1991? Certainly, Midday would have been a welcome addition to this year’s Turf, easily the weakest running in recent memory.

The Dirt Mile was not run this year although history will recognize Furthest Land as the 2009 winner. The notion was a poor conception from the outset. Two-turn milers simply don’t enjoy the same stature as one-turn milers but most tracks lack a mile chute.

Sprinting eight furlongs proves something, especially to potential breeders. Two-turn milers might appear black-type attractive in sales catalogues but the uninitiated don’t know any better. Maybe that was the point all along.

Turf sprints are fun unless, of course, you spend summers in Saratoga where the novelty wears off in a few weeks. Why any “championship race” exists without a nominal champion in that category is lost on most fans, myself included.

Juvenile turf racing, however, like grass racing in general, is easier on the youngsters and can help predict the success of future campaigns. It probably will have its own Eclipse category before long although it’s not critical to the success of this program.

As long as future Breeders’ Cups are held at venues in Lexington or Chicago or Southern California or Toronto, for that matter, Eclipse Awards should recognize accomplishment on all three surfaces; dirt, turf and synthetics.

“Dirt” horses went zero for the last two Breeders’ Cups. Until and unless some venue can offer championship racing on all three surfaces, or concurrently at different locales, many of America’s best dirt horses will continue to avoid Breeders’ Cup day, especially if the following year’s campaign is predicated on winning traditionally prestigious dirt fixtures.

Finally, it is hoped that the tweaking of the wagering menu--following the lead of handle-hungry racetracks--will cease. Back in the day of the original seven-race event, the Sprint opened the program and the Classic closed it; the Turf has always been the penultimate race and it followed the Distaff every year. Races were set in stone and fans could name them in order. So much for building tradition.

And so Breeders’ Cup Ltd. must decide what it wants to be. CEO Greg Avioli has said the event could remain in a state of flux for the next few years until planners can grow the brand going forward, hopefully recapturing the excitement of its early days.

If this truly is its aim, to give Breeders’ Cup an identity with sports fans that it doesn’t enjoy now because of seasonal competition from the World Series and college and pro football, it has an enormous opportunity to shake itself and the sport out of its lethargy come next November.

Call it “The Breeders’ Cup: Late Night Filly Friday” or “Breeders’ Cup Friday Night Lights” as a prelude to the next day’s program. Or simply go all out for two days and call it “Breeders’ Cup Prime Time.” With clever promotion and unprecedented support from horsemen, wouldn’t this grand one-time experiment be worth the risk?

Written by John Pricci

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