Thursday, May 24, 2007

An Open Letter To New York Governor Eliot Spitzer

Dear Gov. Spitzer,

Please say that the proposal to shutter and sell off Aqueduct Racetrack and divide the franchise holders entrusted to run New York racing into disparate groups is a trial balloon. Please say that it was launched to gauge reaction from everyone tethered to the industry and to get a measure of how it would all play out politically because in New York the game always has been to satisfy as many groups as possible. Please say that you wont do what your predecessors have done; play downstate against upstate, let the chips fall, and follow the prevailing wind.

If we know one thing in New York its this: When we try to please everyone, we please no one. And please say that you lofted this balloon because the advisers you entrusted to advise are not. Obviously, you must rely on input from the state budget office, the Empire State Development Corporation and the State Racing and Wagering Board.

I claim no expertise in two of these areas. Fortunately, I dont need a job at the moment. But I know something about how racing and wagering works. Did you know that for years New York officials have been asking the SRWB to expand superfecta wagering because by not doing so the New York tracks remain at a competitive disadvantage in the simulcast marketplace and that the windfall payoffs from the wager are popular with the customers and keep them liquid longer? No?

Well, permit me to be of service. The SRWB is supposed to act in the best interests of all the states citizens but historically has made decisions based on political expediency rather than those based on sound business practices. The average horseplayer could give you better advice. But I digress.

The franchise issue is far more complex, of course. The stakes are extremely high. Racing is defined as a niche sport--if niche means total U.S. handle of $15 billion annually. The New York signal is the industrys simulcast leader and drives handle annually, not seasonally. Simulcasting makes up 85 percent of total handle and that percentage grows every day. The international market is set to explode, so the product matters. To segment local racing would be to weaken the continuity of the product dramatically. While other venues grow the sport via slots revenue, New York would lose market share.

Racing is a niche if you consider that $2.4 billion generated by New Yorks agribusiness and a community that accounts for 40,000 jobs is an industry of no consequence. Racing without a healthy New York would be like major league baseball without the Yankees, the NFL without the Giants, the NHL without the Rangers and NBA without the Knicks. History and cultural fabric matter, too.

So dont do this, Mr. Spitzer, not if you really care about the working men and women who make a living in New Yorks horse business. Dont jeopardize the stature of New York racing. Yes, competition is healthy. Its what had made this country great. But not when it works at cross purposes. Weve already seen what happens, for instance, when on-track and off-track interests compete for the same customers.

Neighboring states with VLTs already are beating our brains in. We have lost major portions of the states horse population to other states and will continue to lose them every day we delay a decision on the franchise. And if you havent heard that the $1-million Pennsylvania Derby will have a negative impact on this years Travers Stakes, the Midsummer jewel of the Saratoga meet, you havent been getting relevant advice.

A large part of the on-track versus off-track problem has been the creation of senseless competition and duplication. Do you realize that downstate tracks share the same pertinent staff with Saratoga and much of the parimutuel and track maintenance equipment, too? Do you know that Saratoga is the worlds best race meet because the best of the downstate racing stock, with no live racing there, ship north for six weeks every summer? That without that kind of quality, the worlds best race meet ceases to exist as such?

Racetracks, like people, are living organisms. They get tired. Do you realize that if Aqueduct is sold you would need a second dirt surface at Belmont Park, one suitable for winter racing? Even if Polytrack were installed, it wasnt meant for 46 consecutive weeks of operation. And not all artificial tracks are create equal. There have been problems with extremes in temperatures, hot and cold. Even Polytrack creator Martin Collins has admitted as much.

For Belmont to work well as a stand-alone downstate facility, you would need five different surfaces over which to race and train; a spring/summer/fall surface, a winterized track, two turf courses, or two enlarged into one extremely wide course to allow for the movement of the temporary rails to preserve the course for the safety for horses and jockeys, and a year-round training track.

Of course, there already is a separate training track at Belmont. But I was thinking of the 550 head currently stabled at Aqueduct. Where would they train? Where would they live? Would they leave New York altogether? What about the trainers and grooms and exercise riders and hot walkers and veterinarians and feed company personnel and track kitchen employees and seasonal employees? Where do they go? Where would they live?

If perhaps you were thinking about Saratoga as a possible solution, think again. With burgeoning growth of the town and region comes a growing dearth of affordable housing. The additional stall space provided by the Oklahoma training track environs was already needed to insure a quality product.

This year, Saratoga has lost much of its off-season horse population because trainers of good-horse stables, the ones that come to New York from Kentucky, Florida and California for its cache, have stayed behind because the artificial tracks there are safer and more consistent for training.

Actually, the quicker an artificial surface is installed at Oklahoma the better. Without one that portion of the Saratoga boarding and training experience will become irrelevant as an eight-month facility. Would downstate franchisees be prepared to prop up Saratoga instead of the other way around?

Ill allow your appointed staffers to advise you on just how disparate franchise holders would revenue share, and on real estate ownership, and on intellectual property matters. As Virgil Sollozzo once admitted, Im not that clever. But I was wondering how all those workers who barely can afford to live in Queens will pay rent in Nassau County; how all the horsemen without a big horse in their barn can continue paying the help, feed their own families, and have enough leftover to pay state and local taxes. Unlike W. C. Fields, they may decide theyd rather be in Philadelphia.

So, please, Governor, take these things into consideration. I know you want to find as much new revenue as possible, much of it upfront. You owe that to all New Yorkers. But a major industry and prominent taxpayer that provides jobs and priceless prestige has been waiting five years for help that was promised long ago. This is not a time for trail balloons, sir, only decisive action. Why not simply go back to the RFPs already provided and make a decision, before a dire situation becomes worse than it already is.


John R. Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Street Sense Will Pass His Toughest Test

Saratoga Springs, NY, May 17, 2007 -- Compared to the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness is perceived by many as just a horse race. But for Derby winning Street Sense, it certainly is a lot more. Its the next stop on the road to racing immortality.

By temperament, talent, training and surface, he had an edge at 10 furlongs two weeks ago. But the dynamics change Saturday in Baltimore. The colt must adapt. And so, too, must Calvin Borel, the X on his back having become much larger, more pronounced.

For Street Sense, Saturdays classic is more than another horse race alright. Returning in two weeks over a new track after his huge mile and a quarter without any water, the Preakness will be the biggest test of his career.
A look at the Preakness 132 participants, listed in alphabetical order, with post position and early line odds in parentheses:

Circular Quay #3 (8-1): Perhaps lifting a page from Carl Nafzgers book, it appears that Todd Pletcher allowed the colt to dictate his Preakness course. Having no intention of running his Derby horses in the Preakness, Pletcher began having second thoughts last weekend and after a satisfactory Monday workout, the diminutive late runner rejoins the classics chase. Circular Quay appeared uncomfortable over the wet-fast Churchill surface and, despite encountering some trouble on the far turn, beat 70 percent of the field, losing by just over nine lengths. The problem is eight of those lengths were made up by Street Sense and Hard Spun. A strong pace and a fast track would help immeasurably. At his best, the only horse capable of out-kicking the favorite late.

C P West #9 (20-1): Suffers from the same affliction that hindered Nobiz Like Shobizs season, perhaps only more so: He has not developed sufficiently as a three year-old. Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito would like nothing more than to win another classic, consequently he doesnt over-race his two-year-olds. But this colt was so advanced that Zito ran him in the Breeders Cup Juvenile, in which he was trounced by Street Sense. Pointed toward this in his third start at 3, he was a willing second in the Grade 3 Withers, the same race that produced Preakness winner Bernardini last year. But thats where the comparison ends.

Curlin #4 (7-2): More impressive in defeat when third in the Kentucky Derby than he ever was winning his first three starts by an aggregate 28- lengths. His connections worst fears were realized when an inside post compromised his position, resulting in a less than desirable Derby trip. While he is sure to benefit from the experience gained and Saturdays smaller field, the Preakness will be his third race in 35 days and fifth in 97, all without benefit of a juvenile foundation. Thats a lot to ask from a new millennium thoroughbred even one as talented as the attractive son of Smart Strike. Will race close to the early pace.

Flying First Class #6 (20-1): Demonstrated he was more than your typical three year with a watch-busting romp in his second lifetime start at Oaklawn Park. Following that sprint victory, he chased Curlin around Oaklawn Park a couple of times in the two-turn Rebel and Arkansas Derby, both graded events, and races to which he was ill suited at the time. Returning to one turn in the Derby Trial, he showed speed throughout the 7--furlong race, taking on all challengers before blowing the race open in midstretch. Now on the come for five-time Preakness-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, he punched his ticket to Baltimore with a rapid five-furlong breeze in :58 3/5. He is the Preakness pace and holds the key to Hard Spuns winning prospects.

Hard Spun #7 (5-2): Incredibly, the Kentucky Derby runnerup never has taken a backwards step on performance figures and generally there is no reason to assume a regression in that context now. His Derby effort was first rate, obviously, setting a strong pace and holding extremely well. The presence of Flying First Class could either help or hurt him here, providing a target for Mario Pino to stalk. Should Flying First Class prove more than a sprinter/miler, he could compromise the chances of this talented and well-bred racehorse. Rock, or hard place?

King Of The Roxy #5 (12-1): The only runner in the field that has had the Preakness circled on his dance card for months. Not ready to run in the Derby, he was pointed here by Todd Pletcher soon after finishing second to Tiago in the Santa Anita Derby. Always fast, he showed a distance-racing aptitude at Santa Anita to the surprise of many. While not quite as fast as the upper echelons here, hes primed for a career best effort. Will it be good enough? Even Team Valor spokesman Barry Irwin admitted his colt could be up against it. Money prospects at best.

Mint Slewlep #1 (30-1): The Preakness usually attracts a hopeless local. Trainer Robert Bailes returns to the Maryland classic with a gun two bullets short of his previous Preakness runnerup, Scrappy T. The colt showed some improved late foot when unplaced in the Withers but remains eligible for secondary-allowance conditions. Way out of his element.

Street Sense #8 (7-5): A most deserving favorite off his Derby tour de force, he never has failed to fire. But the second jewel could be more difficult than the first. Still relatively fresh off a two-prep Derby schedule, this nonetheless will be his third start in five weeks and the Preakness is run at Pimlico, not Churchill. But he has run very well elsewhere and continues to train strongly for Carl Nafzger, working fast but with energy in reserve. Borel has extreme confidence in his colt, a huge plus, and he knows he will get a response anytime he asks the question. Todays pace scenario coupled with a slightly shorter distance is a dynamic that, with luck, could actually help. The one to beat, again.

Xchanger #2 (15-1): This local has a punchers chance. Won the traditional Preakness prep, the Federico Tesio, as easily as horses win races, and he has trained extremely well since over the deeper training track at Fair Hill where Barbaro was prepared. He won the Grade 3 Sapling at 2 from off the pace and will have to take a similar tack here as he doesnt figure to grab the lead against Saturdays faster rivals. Ramon Dominguez is a huge plus, and it will be interesting to see who leaves the rail first, Ramon or Calvin? With a perfect trip and luck, the longshot might land a superfecta share.

Most Probable Winner: Street Sense

Best Value: Circular Quay

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

It All Made Perfect Sense In Throwback Derby

Saratoga Springs, NY, May 10, 2007--Theres something about the Kentucky Derby that makes the heart sing, that rises above the din of NBA and NHL playoffs, a near perfect game by a New York Yankees pitcher and, yes, even red carpet b-list celebrities.

There are several obvious things about this event; the atmosphere, among the most electric in sports; the site, even beneath the famed but now dwarfed twin spires, and the crowd, 150,000-strong that is as much a cross-section of America as any event, anywhere. Yet somehow the race itself transcends all.

Thats what happens when three of the first four finishers come from 17th, 19th and 20th and the winner, at Churchill Downs anyway, proves clearly the best of his generation because of his
electric turn of foot, a trainer who brings out his best while not reaching bottom, and a race-rider who believes his horse can do anything.
With the lengthening of teeth comes the realization that this was a Derby to savor. Surely, new traditions will come so that todays cutting-edge becomes tomorrows standard. But this was the Throwback Derby: Work strongly over the track Derby week and run well on Saturday. Work fast, and run one-two.

Street Sense, a throwback racehorse, one that never runs a bad race, that comes from behind no matter what and let the pace be damned. No comparisons quite yet, but when he starts to crank that kick he comes on like Kelso and comes on like Forego and comes on like John Henry. He just doesnt stop coming.

Trainer Carl Nafzger, who makes a plan then lets the horse tell him. And, as told by Steve Haskin of Blood Horse, who takes the time to call his mentor, John Nerud, and thanks him for it all, for teaching him how to train a racehorse and about pedigree, where it all begins.

And then he tells Nerud how hes now going to meet the press now and tell them how smart he is. So in tune with reality, he wouldnt even commit to the second leg of a storied Crown until late the next morning, when the horse would let him know.

With deference to the leaping Avelino Gomez and Angel Cordero and Frankie Dettori, Calvin Borel has now set the bar for post-race exuberance so high that it might never be reached again. Jockeys have made my cry often in my career but never while watching them celebrate a victory.

He made you feel the spirit of Daddy Borel, and his brothers nurturing love and the love of every manner of racetracker that happened cross his path as he and Street Sense worked their way back to the winners circle, a trip seemingly as long as the one that carried him from the bayou to the bluegrass. Like some equine Bukowski, it was high fives for all his friends.

Derby 132 produced a star that sadly turned into a comet. Hopefully the star of Derby 133 will be a pensioner when Derby 153 is renewed on the first Saturday of May, 2027. Until then theres a lot more in store for Street Sense on the racetrack, a colt that felt so good the morning after the Derby that his trainer didnt shed-walk him but sent him out to jog instead.

The bad news for the division and good news for Triple Crown fans is that Street Sense appears to be getting better, stronger. In a television interview on the Capital OTB Television Network, Borel promised after the Blue Grass that Street Sense would be 20 lengths better in the Derby. When given a chance to recant, he refused.

According to Equiform performance figures, the improvement from the Blue Grass to the Derby was 14.84 lengths, 1 Equiform point equaling 2.375 lengths when comparing 9-furlong races to 10. So Borel was close enough. The final figure also represented a lifetime best effort.

In Preakness terms, the negative for Street Sense is that it will not be run at Churchill Downs. The colt has won elsewhere but his best races, by far, have come at Churchill Downs. And his trips had nothing to do with it.

Horses are given credit for speed, which is immeasurable, and heart, or courage under pressure, which is not. But good horses are never given credit for making their own luck, especially when partnered by a terrific race-rider. All race-riders are jockeys; not all jockeys are race-riders.

While Street Sense was clearly the best of them, the Derby had three winners, including runnerup Hard Spun and show finisher Curlin. Hard Spun also produced a career best figure in the Derby. What made the effort extraordinary was the enervating pace he set. But he didnt tire. He kept is energy up from gate to wire. He simply was outrun by the winner in the final furlong.

Curlin visually impressed more in defeat than he did while winning the Arkansas Derby. Given the Derbys level of competition, added distance, unfamiliarity with the surface and a shuffled-back trip, Curlin did extremely well to finish third, earning a figure only a tad slower than his fast Oaklawn Park romp.

So imagine that. A Derby with three winners and easy-to-cheer-for connections. Theyve run this race 133 times and it never gets old, sometimes only better.

Written by John Pricci

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