Friday, December 14, 2007

Eclipse Awards For All My (Equine) Friends

Saratoga Springs, NY--Mixed in with the early Christmas mail was the official ballot for the 2007 Eclipse Awards. And none to soon. It seems like forever that all of racing has been mired in the morass of the New York franchise scenario. What a relief to concentrate however briefly on a positive aspect of thoroughbred racing.

The choices were not all cut and dry, they never are. Because there are no objective standards, there were instances when subjective judgment was required. How much controversy is engendered by the voting members of the National Turf Writers, Daily Racing Form and National Thoroughbred Racing Association officials remains to be seen.

But at least its the kind of controversy the sport can live with. Unless, of course, one believes that the lumping of synthetic track races with traditional dirt surfaces is inherently unfair. On the merits, it is. Dirt and all-weather surfaces are extremely different animals. If turf and dirt are separate, why dont synthetic surfaces deserve their own category? A question for another day.

Here, then, is a look at one mans ballot that requires the listing of three horses in each division, with the eventual champion determined by the horse getting the most first place votes.

Four-Year-Old & Up, Steeplechase: An easy category. Good Night Shirt a three-time Grade 1 winner. His five main competitors could muster only one G1 each. In a tight photo, weight carrier Mixed Up a neck in front of fellow G1 winner Gliding.

Two-Year-Old Colt and Gelding: Only the undefeated, dual G1 winner War Pass, the spread-eagle Juvenile winner, is a legitimate titlist. Beyond the Nick Zito trainee, it gets a little dicey. Settled on G1 winner Wicked Style (Polytrack) in a photo over Court Vision, 3-for-3 around two turns, including the G2 Remsen.

Two-Year-Old Filly: Brilliant, undefeated Indian Blessing, the dual G1 Juvenile Fillies winner, is a no-brainer. Our second choice was unknown to us until we read her past performances. Rated Feisty, undefeated in three starts by a combined 15- lengths, is a dual G3 winner, including one over colts. Proud Spell was 3-for-4, including the G2 Matron, her defeat a game placing in Indian Blessings Juv Fillies. (Demoiselle winner Mushka and undefeated Pure Clan merited serious attention).

Three-Year-Old Colt and Gelding: As simple as 1-2-3, as in Kentucky Derby 1-2-3, only inverted. Curlin, the clear champion. Street Sense had his opportunity at Monmouth Park but didnt win the rubber match. Finally, the remarkable Hard Spun. (Im already missing Street Sense and Hard Spun. Hope Curlin gives us a four-year-old season).

Three-Year-Old Filly: Rags To Riches was Americas only four-time G1 winner. All hail Queen of the Belmont! Tie-breaker goes to Panty Raid, a dual G1 winner and victorious on three different surfaces. Hard-hitting G1 winner Octave over G1-winning sprinter, Dream Rush.

Four-Year-Old & Up Male: A subjective call between two dual G1 winners owning light bodies of work. Defending Horse of the Year Invasor won the Donn and Dubai World Cup before injury forced retirement. A great loss of a great horse. Lawyer Ron won half of his eight starts, including two storied events, but maybe more a horse for course than anything else. Like we said, tough call. And, by default, Lava Man third.

Four Year-Old & Up Female: Ginger Punch, a gem, won three G1s at three different venues. Dual G1 winner Nashobas Key (one Cushion, one turf), might have been 8-for-8 if not for a tough-trip, boggy-course fourth in Filly & Mare Turf. Hystericalady, a versatile lady, for third, winning the always competitive Humana Distaff sprint and the G2 Molly Pitcher going long. And she lost two G1s, including the Distaff, by the combined margin of a neck.

Three-Year-Old & Up Sprint Male: Dual G1 winner Midnight Lute, including the Sprint. Fabulous Strike was 3-for-4, including the G1 Vosburgh and G3 Aristedes in 1:07 3/5. (A shame he sustained pre-Cup injury). Hard Spuns G1 Kings Bishop good enough for third. (If there was an Eclipse for speed and heart at any distance, it would stand on a mantle in his stall).

Three-Year-Old & Up Sprint Female: Surprising, my champion is Rivers Prayer, 5-for-5, two G3s and a G1, including the ever difficult Princess Rooney. Further, she won on Polytrack and turf. The classy, versatile Hystericalady, including the aforementioned G1 Humana Distaff, in a photo over dual G1 winning Dream Rush, unable to beat her elders.

Three-Year-Old & Up Turf Male: Thrice-winning G1 winner English Channel, easily. Dual G1 winner After Market over Mile winner Kip DeVille, the edge favoring the traditional distance type over a mile specialist. Tough call.

Three-Year-Old & Up Turf Female: The most vexing category with five multiple G1 winners and no truly dominant player. Lahudood for her two G1s, the Filly and Mare Turf breaking any ties. Nashobas Key, undefeated in four turf starts, including G1 Yellow Ribbon, before shipping to Monmouth. Panty Raid was 1-for-1 on turf, a G1 win over her elders. (Honorable mention to dual G1 winner Mrs. Lindsay but North American win was north of the border).

Breeder: Adena Springs, based on progeny earnings and graded stakes victories, over Mr. and Mrs. Martin Wygod and Will Farish.

Owner: Fox Hill Farms, for taking on all comers and any distance, ducking no one with their homebred, Hard Spun. Zayat Stables over Stronach Stables for runner-up.

Trainer: Steve Asmussen for his work with Curlin. Carl Nafzger (Street Sense) in a photo over record-breaking Todd Pletcher. (I have problems leaving Kairan McLaughlin off this list but split votes are not allowed).

Jockey: Prolific record-breaker Garrett Gomez, over Robby Albarado and Calvin Borel, respectively, who did their best work while the whole world watched.

Apprentice Jockey: Poised, prolific Joseph Talamo over Jermaine Bridgmohan and Alonso Quinonez, respectively.

Horse of the Year: Curlin, Rags To Riches, Street Sense.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Plethora of Stakes Winners Cheat True Champions

There are too many stakes races run in America, and the situation is getting worse every year.

And how do we know when too much of a good thing is enough? When more equals less, and thats the case at the highest levels of thoroughbred racing.

Followers of the sport in recent years werent surprised last week when the American Graded Stakes Committee increased the number of graded stakes races to be run next year.

While there will be two fewer Grade 2s run in 2008, there will be three more Grade 1s and six newly installed G3s.

I cant argue with the elevation of the Pilgrim, Miss Grillo, Southwest and Florida Oaks to graded status. The first two are natural preps for the new Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf, the Southwest begins the road to the Arkansas Derby and the Florida Oaks has gained prestige with the addition of South Florida shippers into Tampa Bay Downs.

The proportion of graded stakes, and their delineation in relation to each other, makes sense, too. Over 22 percent are G1, almost 32 percent G2, and 45 percent are G3.

However, 718 open stakes is too many, as are the number of Grade 1s, set at 110 in 2008. Grade 1 racing represents the sports highest level and often defines championships. But to suggest that all G1s are created equal is folly.

The increase in the number of stakes in the modern era began in the mid-1970s after the great Secretariat was syndicated for a then unheard of $6-million. That stunning sum was the beginning of how the breeding industry--and not the sport of racing one mans horse against another--ultimately would determine success in the thoroughbred business.

With fewer racing dates, no simulcasting, and three Triple Crown winners within six years-- Secretariat, undefeated Seattle Slew, and the Affirmed/Alydar show--going to the races was a very popular alternative to mainstream sports.

Breeding syndicates began to replace family owned nurseries and that portion of the industry was beginning to be fueled by Japanese and European buyers purchasing our best bloodlines for racing and future breeding considerations.

Racing was becoming very big international business, and tracks began competing with each other in an era when star racehorses still attracted media attention and large live crowds.

Fueled by an increase in betting handle, more money was poured into newly created stakes with allowance and weight-for-age conditions becoming more prevalent. Resultantly, racing secretaries would either keep the highweight assignments of top handicap horses on the feathery side or go back to walking hots. New York even imposed a highweight rule, not to exceed 126 pounds.

With field size in stakes shrinking from opportunities to win and earn big purses elsewhere, horsemen, motivated by loyalty to owners and their own pocketbooks, began ducking the big horse with their own big horse, even if you still had to ship to Belmont Park in the fall to win a title.

Parenthetically, it is no wonder it crossed John Gainess mind to come up with a series of championship defining races on one day, a Super Bowl for racing, paid by the proceeds of all those valuable stud horses and their toney progeny.

Given monetary success at the sports highest levels and with simulcasting about to enter its infancy, new tracks began to sprout up everywhere. This necessitated that graded events be created to engender a big time atmosphere at these new venues, forcing powerhouse tracks to begin lobbying for an upgrade of their own traditional races.

In politics, size matters.

While this country may still be regarded as bloodstock nursery to the world, it has begun to lose ground. Europeans, Japanese and more recently Middle Eastern interests are not only snapping up the best of Americas remaining blue-blooded stock at yearling and juvenile sales but are taking them right off the racetrack and back to their own farms around the globe.

Aside from the historical factors and the economic reality of expensive horses earning graded blacktype almost as soon as the overnight comes out, the modern games added opportunities artificially increases the value of todays stakes winners as potential stallions, which seems to be the way the game is played by todays new strain of owner/breeder.

There are myriad reasons then for the existence and continued growth of stakes opportunities, but a stakes win doesnt equate to class the way it once did, in the same manner that the 9-furlong Haskell doesnt equate to the 10-furlong Travers even though both are Grade 1 events.

The prevailing trend in thoroughbred racing is the burgeoning growth of international sport. In this country, however, the prevailing wind still seem to blow only in the colonies as the number of stakes races increase year to year. It might be counterintuitive, but the greater the number of stakes races, the more we cheapen the value of our best horses and the less we dominate the sport internationally.

If that werent true, if too many stakes opportunities werent counterproductive, then how do we explain that in the recent Breeders Cup, the only international representation on hand were two handfuls of European runners.

If we still cling to the notion that American racing is the worlds best--as represented by the total number of stakes winners--then why did Hong Kong attract runners from five European countries and Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and Singapore this weekend for their four Grade 1-program worth over $8-million? Maybe because the racing world also recognizes that not all Grade 1s are equal.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Time Has Come for ‘North American Pick 6’

In case you have been spending time on another planet, here is some news that might shock you. As of yesterday, the rate of exchange between the American and Canadian dollar has flip-flopped. The American dollar currently is worth fractions of a penny more than 99 cents.

First, the dollar. Whats next, innovation?

A few years ago, our racing friends north of the border realized that it was losing wagering market share to other forms of gambling. Since last year they have been conducting a review of gambling regulations as it concerns the racing industry vis a vis other forms of gambling.
The Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency realized that the thoroughbred and harness racing industries provided the oldest, institutionalized form of wagering and, as such, their rules were antiquated and placed racing at a competitive disadvantage with casinos, the Internet, and government regulated lotteries.

Resultantly, the Agency has proposed to eliminate or change restrictive regulations to permit expansion of wagering menus at the tracks and increase the kinds of betting options available. The CPMA has also taken an active role in the social aspects of gaming, requiring its teletheaters to offer seating, food and washrooms.

Parenthetically, if New Yorks State Racing and Wagering Board permitted those amenities from the outset, maybe New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would not be making these ridiculous threats about closing betting parlors in the five boroughs because they lose money.

On an administrative level, the CPMA is proposing measures to allow telephone betting accounts and is trying to figure ways to create synergy between the racing industry and other forms of government regulated gaming, such as slots.

Of greater interest to bettors is the expansion of the wagering menu to include new wagers with a fractional component, bets that would exponentially increase the possibility of windfall payoffs. To that end, Canadian regulators are considering the institution of the V75 and V64.

These wagers are among the most popular bets in Europe. The V75 jackpot is a Pick 7 wager that in a short period has become Europes most popular bet. Despite the 10-Cent minimum, the V75 attracted a record handle of $11-million U.S, according to figures quoted in the Toronto Globe and Mail. The V64 is a Pick 6 offered on Swedish harness races with a 20-Cent minimum. The carryover in the V64 has reached $25-million.

Despite the inexpensive cost, the V75 reached a record high payoff of a lottery-like $6.5-million while the V64 reached a high-water mark of over $566,000. It is amazing what a difference fractional wagering, marketing on a national level, and life-changing payoffs can make.

In addition to tapping into the mentality of lottery players, the potential for huge payoffs in these super-exotic pools minimizes competition from offshore bet shops that will not risk booking bets with such a low handle-to-payout ratio.

In the stodgy world of American pari-mutuels, indifference is often confused with tradition. State racing regulators continue protecting the wagering public against itself while red state politicians have done their best to make gambling Americas next wedge issue.

Since the racing industry does not figure to get help on the national level anytime soon, Americas racetracks must begin showing creativity in wagering options in the areas of bet diversification, the placing of wagers, and creating the potential for windfall payoffs.

To paraphrase the political catchphrase of another administration: Its about the money, stupid.

It is not as if Americas tracks are not trying. Last year, Arlington Park introduced 50-Cent trifectas, a wager that seems ideal for bettors with a slots mentality. On point, it gives the average horseplayer the leverage he needs to collect more often and to use the kind of marginal contenders that help inflate payoffs.

On the third Saturday of May at Pimlico, a 25-Cent Pick 6 was available on a stakes-loaded program that culminated with the Preakness. However, either no bet-takers in New York State thought to ask the Racing and Wagering Board for permission to take the wager, or the venues wouldnt pay tote companies to re-program the betting machines. Either way, more potential handle lost; less customer service given.

In New York, the NYRA introduced the Grand Slam, and the bet has played to mixed reviews. Interesting in that it was a four-race sequence requiring an in-the-money finish in the first three legs, thus loading the bases, and the winner of the fourth leg, to hit a Grand Slam.

However, the wager is just not that interesting and it makes no sense to tie up betting capital for a relatively small return. The wager was a little interesting at Saratoga because of the quality of the competition and higher average payoffs. But at least track management tried something, like when it lowered the takeout on Pick 6 from 25 percent to 15 on non-carryover days.

Efforts made by Americas tracks have been few and far between. There has been no movement toward, say: A 25-Cent North American Pick Six every Sunday, on six stakes races from the USA and Canada.

Promoted continentally, entries would be taken Wednesday; wagers taken everywhere for four days (Thursday through Sunday, including Internet). Then print the entries in USA Today on Thursday--right next to the illegal sports betting lines--with a rotating group of nationally recognized handicappers from the areas hosting the races, forming a super-consensus-box guide.

Like the current Magna 5, races should be bundled into a nationally televised, one-hour show live on one of the ESPN networks--or suitably large regional sportsnets--and streaming on the Internet. During the NFL season, find a Saturday window, excluding Breeders Cup day, for a three-day national wager leading into the local evening news.

Written by John Pricci

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