Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Second Open Letter to New York Governor Eliot Spitzer

Dear Gov. Spitzer,

Im a little confused about this new plan to cut the racing baby in half. I fear I am not alone. Perhaps youre a little unsure yourself. Am I wrong in assuming that the latest trial balloon launched to gauge the reaction of parties tethered to New York racing hasnt worked because, instead of satisfying as many groups as possible, it served to unite those with objections?

As stated in our last letter, we know this about New York politics: When we try to please everyone we please no one. And now, with the Legislature in recess, weve run out of racetrack. Whatever the solution, its odds-on it wont happen by the time the current franchise expires. While you ponder the solution, heres some background you might find helpful.

Racing is a niche sport--if niche is defined by total annual U.S. handle of $15 billion. New York racing is responsible for $2.7 billion of that handle, making the product the industrys leader. Simulcasting comprises 85 percent of the $15-billion, and the percentage grows every day. The international market is ready to explode.

So the product matters. It cannot be overstated that a sufficient amount of VLT revenue must be earmarked for purses and capital improvements; not simply to maintain but to solidify New Yorks preeminent position.

Racing is a niche in New York only if you consider the states huge agri-business and 40,000 jobs to be of little or no consequence. But cultural fabric matters, too. Reiterating, New York without its industry-leading thoroughbred sport would be like major league baseball without the Yankees, the NFL without the Giants, the NHL without the Rangers and the NBA without the Knicks.

What confuses me is that your latest proposal has Aqueduct remaining as a VLT-facility-only with the remaining land sold off to satisfy NYRAs debt. There would be no VLTs for Belmont Park. Originally you proposed to shut Aqueduct, sell all the land, and build an entertainment destination with VLTs at Belmont. If I were so inclined, Id rather drive or ride the Long Island Railroad to Belmont than take the A train to Aqueduct. But I prefer a little thinking with my gaming; thats just me.

As far as who would run the gaming-only operation, does this mean that the Excelsior group must compete all over again with the Empire and Capital Play organizations? That doesnt seem right but its your call.

Now you realize that Empire gets its strength from out of state organizations that recently banded together in an attempt to corner the betting-platform market, right? Why would Churchill Downs and Magna suddenly turn altruistic when it comes to doing whats best for New York?

Capital Play? They conduct themselves as representing the best elements of Australian racing. Do your people realize theyre little more than a betting platform that happens to be based in Australia?

Beyond equitable revenue sharing between the casino and racing interests that would guarantee not only racings survival but its stature going forward, none of your proposals address the off-track betting situation.

Weve all seen what happens when on-track and off-track interests work at cross purposes. Fixing New York racing must include the resolution of a system that creates senseless competition through duplication. There must be a way to fix this and assure the states counties their cut.

Your own past performances indicate that you believe in reforming troubled industries through changes in operational procedures and management or by rewriting bylaws and reconstituting boards. Clearly, the NYRA board as presently constructed could use some house-cleaning.

On their watch, NYRAs former president was allowed to resign before the culture of corruption investigation embarrassed him, or worse, and hes currently receiving $7,000 a month in benefits. His successor subsequently was sent packing with $500,000 in his kick.

All this while two mid-level executives were scapegoated and sent to jail and two other loyal employees had their reputations permanently tarnished and still remain in legal limbo, denied their right to a swift and speedy trial. To paraphrase the fictional Willy Cicci, the family has a lot of buffers, governor.

But please be careful not to overload the board with appointments who know little or nothing of racing, i.e., anyone not in the racing business in this state.

If Aqueduct were eliminated, many changes would be needed for Belmont to work 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 very wide course) and a year-round training track. And thats before the heating bill gets paid.

Of course, there exists a separate training track at Belmont. But I was thinking of the 550 head now stabled at Aqueduct. Where would they train, or live? If perhaps you or your advisers were thinking of 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 facility is already in use to maintain quality.

This year, however, Saratoga lost much of its off-season horse population because trainers of good-horse stables from Kentucky and California that come to New York for its cache have remained behind because the artificial surfaces there are safer and more consistent for training. The quicker an artificial surface is installed at Oklahoma, the better. Without it, the Saratoga boarding experience eventually will become irrelevant as an eight-month facility.

Ill allow your appointed staffers to advise you on how disparate franchise holders, one for gaming and one for racing, would share revenue. Safeguards for racings continued growth must be put in place. One need only visit the backstretch of the Saratoga Gaming and Raceway to see what happens when VLT operators continue to invest in their gaming facilities while ignoring the racetrack that allowed them to operate in the first place. The stalls are a disgrace.

So, please, Governor, take these things into account. I know you want to find as much new revenue as possible, preferably 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. If dividing the baby is what it takes, do it. In a perfect world reasonable people could make it work.


John R. Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Sophomore Class of 2007 Best In Decades

Elmont, NY--The consensus opinion is that the 1970s provided the sport of thoroughbred racing with its finest moments.

Who could forget Secretariats Belmont Stakes, widely regarded as the best performance by a thoroughbred ever? And that move around the first turn at Pimlico wasnt bad, either. Simply stated, Secretariat was Gods greatest equine creation.

Seattle Slew is my personal favorite, still the only horse to have won the Triple Crown while undefeated. His greatness was even celebrated in defeat; a nose loss to Exceller in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup was arguably the gamest performance ever.

That same year produced racings last Triple Crown winner. But to this day you cant mention Affirmed without completing the phrase with Alydar. The golden chestnut vs. the liver chestnut was the greatest rivalry the sport has known.

So then why was the recently concluded Triple Crown series the best I have witnessed in the modern era? Because it had everything.
In Street Sense, the 2007 Kentucky Derby produced a new star. It was a victory for old school horsemanship and a heart warming tale of a jockey, a present day Horatio Alger with a Cajun drawl who slipped through inside of 18 rivals never missing a beat.

And, so, the colt made history as the first Juvenile winner ever to win a Derby; his trainer Carl Nafzger won his second julep cup and punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame on Union Avenue as Calvin Borel raised the bar exceedingly high for future celebrations on horseback.

Two weeks later Street Sense got to gawking a little and lost his Triple Crown bid by a nose, snatching defeat from victorys jaws as Curlin made one of the more dramatic stretch runs in the history of the sport. Many said that Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in 1989 had nothing on this pair. No one argued.

Then, exit Street Sense from the Belmont, enter Rags To Riches, a filly, one who gave the 139th Test of a Champion an identity that would last in perpetuity. There have been only three females to win a Belmont, and she did it by reprising Curlins Preakness role, as she out-stared him all the way to the finish post.

Four wide all the way around big sandy after a stumbling beginning, a final quarter-mile in :23 4/5 following a half-mile in :50 and three-quarters in 1:15 the cherry on top.

Are you kidding? This can only be described as magical.

Time has come for the countrys best three-year-olds to freshen up and prepare for the battles of late summer and fall, culminating with a trip to Monmouth Park on the last Saturday in October. Invasor and all the rest had better have their running shoes on.

This three-year-old class is the best racing has seen in a very long time. From a performance figure perspective, collectively they have had no peer group in recent memory, the best of them running as fast as any Grade 1 older horse can run. Thats quite a feat for a sophomore in spring.

All connections have decisions to make and theyre interesting to ponder. You would think, for instance, that this years Haskell would serve not so much as a prep for the Travers but rather for the Breeders Cup Classic.

The Haskell would seem like a natural return spot for Hard Spun, given the early speed Garrett Gomez wouldnt let him show in the Belmont. Maybe now Mario Pino will get his regular mount back. Pinos Preakness mistake--if you want to call it that; I call it circumstantial reaction--might serve him well at speed kind Monmouth Park.

Given that Street Sense is pointing for the Travers, it is more likely Nafzger will choose to prep in the Jim Dandy. That path worked for Unshaded and trainers, as stated before, are creatures of habit.

The high profile Triple Crown trail is virgin territory for Steve Asmussen but he has proven to be a good student of history. Knowing Curlin as well as he does, Asmussen probably will send him to Monmouth, thinking hed rather meet Hard Spun than Street Sense before taking on Invasor over the same track in the fall. Curlin has Monmouth style.

And so what of the filly?

Rags To Riches currently is pointing toward the Coaching Club American Oaks. From there she could take several paths. Look for her to take a more challenging path than the Alabama, since two of the big three Derby horses are likely Monmouth bound.

There are two good reasons for Rags To Riches to run at Saratoga. Both Michael Tabor and Todd Pletcher have left the door wide open when it comes to meeting males again. In taking on Street Sense, perhaps defeating him, it would give Rags To Riches a victory over all three.

The owners and their trainer have a keen sense of history. Ruthless, the filly that won the inaugural Belmont, also won the Travers, the only female to have won both races. Now doesnt that sound like a historical challenge worth pursuing?

If this years Triple Crown colts, and this special Triple Crown filly, keep doing their thing, the great Invasor had better not stub his toe. Not with this crop, the best weve seen in three decades.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

History Triumphant In “Pointless” Belmont

Elmont, NYYou wanted history? You got it.

The 139th Belmont Stakes was supposed to be dead after the Derby winner went on R & R. But a strange confluence of events occurred and history happened. Thats horse racing. Thats how it works.

It took 102 years for a filly to win the Belmont Stakes and for her trainer seemed almost as long.

The fillys jockey had never won one of these either but he broke through with a move that began in Queens and ended at the Nassau County finish line, a head in front of the by-a-nose winner of the Preakness in a thrilling redux of last months Pimlico show.

History was made by a filly that lived up to her name, first elevating a moribund classic with her presence then etching that name in its record books. Whenever people talk about Rags To Riches, the filly that won the Belmont, one will say shes so tough she shaves.
Rags To Riches spent many mornings this spring working in company with Grade 1 Hopeful and Louisiana Derby winner, Circular Quay, one of Todd Pletchers five Derby colts. Looks like he toughened her up. Maybe it had the opposite effect on him.

She was ready when Curlin, the newest Preakness legend, ran on strongly in another gifted performance. He came back at her for more in the final half-furlong and gave her all she wanted. And she could have, almost should have, given in.

But she shaves. Rags To Riches did three generations of Belmont-winning sires proud by looking a very gifted colt in the eye and staring him down in the shadow of the Belmont wire.

Then Johnny Velazquez was punctuating the air on the gallop-out and Todd Pletcher was as pumped as eyes have ever seen him and somewhere Angel Cordero Jr. was smiling.

Carl Nafzger had better win the Travers now, and maybe the Breeders Cup, too, because all of a sudden a three-year-old filly has four Grade 1 victories with Saratoga still six weeks away and shes the only horse in America this year to pass the Test of a Champion.

This time Curlin was on the inside and the filly outside, out-sprinting him in early stretch then out-staring him deeply into the wire. Everybody thought she was the greatest when she went six wide around both turns Santa Anita to win the Las Vergennes. Guess she just likes it out there.

And maybe it took an upstart named Digger to dig up some enthusiasm for supporting what was a pedestrian five-horse race a week ago. And maybe I owe Larry Roman an apology. Because he must have awakened Patrick Biancone who was in, then out, when Pletcher committed Michael Tabor and Derrick Smiths filly to the race. Then Nick Zito heard the band, began marching and the Belmont came alive.

But no one expected this.

In becoming the first filly to win the Belmont at its current distance, Rags To Riches made history for herself. Good for her, good for racing fans, good for the game and good for Tabor for giving fans a chance to celebrate a Belmont.

But he couldnt do it without help from a man who honed her talents and developed her into a star. Not only did she retire the Eclipse Award trophy for sophomore filly but the most accomplished three-year-old racehorse in America is a girl and she put herself in the conversation for Horse of the Year.

Todd Pletcher, like mentor Wayne Lukas, is extremely deft with young horses, especially fillies. Breeding, talent and opportunity aside, this horse was doing so well he couldnt hold her on the ground, he said. The safer, more prudent Mother Goose was three weeks away. He had to run this feline powder keg before she blew a gasket in the stall.

She stumbled, stumbled, at the start. But Velazquez was Johnny B. Cool. He gathered her, allowed her her head, positioned her where she likes to be and applied pressure ever so slightly when the moderate pace turned glacial.

The dawdling pace actually hurt Hard Spun, stoutly restrained by Garrett Gomez, the regular rider of Rags To Riches, who at that point had his regular mount sitting off his right shoulder. But it wasnt the Hard Spun of the Derby and Preakness Gomez was riding, the colt appearing uncomfortable over the sandy surface.

But Velazquez, regular rider for Pletcher, was now on the filly after his agent, Cordero, spoke with Greg Fox about their agreement to ride Slews Tizzy. And sometimes the game is about more than just money.

Fox agreed to let Velazquez out of his commitment. Gomez honored his, after he agreed to ride Hard Spun while Pletcher was still on the fence with the filly. You couldnt make this up.

Curlin was a very good, troubled third in Louisville, as Street Sense and Calvin Borel stole the show in a dazzling display of firepower. Then Curlin and Street Sense did their thing in Baltimore. Exit gap left Street Sense; enter gap right Rags To Riches. The filly and Curlin then picked up where Street Sense and Curlin left off in Baltimore.

Amazing how disparate results can produce an unforgettable Triple Crown. Who needs a sweep when one winner, at any time, could produce a magical mystery tour that was the 139th Belmont, and the entire series for that matter?

But thats how the game is supposed to work when racing people are sporting enough to try. Jolly good show, eh what?

Written by John Pricci

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