Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Belmont Stakes Weekend Like No Other

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., June 12, 2016—This past weekend at the Longchamp of Long Island was so eventful it’s hard to know where to begin.

Thursday’s racing was a damn good imitation of a Saturday summer program at Belmont Park looks like. Friday’s card was akin to a great Saturday at the races.
Belmont Day? Belmont day was nothing short of Breeders’ Cup without that brand. Indeed, it was a Festivus for the rest of us.

A look back at Belmont Festival races:


Belmont Coronation Invitational: Bill Mott, who’s had a chilly spring, gives an indication that he focused on the event weekend, winning the 1 15/16 marathon with Suffused for major client Juddmonte.

Astoria Stakes: Bode’s Dream catches a flyer from her outer position in a small field and was never in danger for Todd/Johnny team in 1:03.66, going strongly under the wire. I see Schuylerville--the race, not the town--in her future.

Intercontinental: There may be a new sheriff in town and his name is Chad Brown. Favorite Zindaya kicked strongly approaching mid-stretch and got up at the finish.

Rivalry to Watch: With no apparent rivalry at this juncture between Nyquist and Exaggerator now that the latter’s Double Crown dreams were not realized and the Derby winner skipping the Belmont, the rivalry to watch may be Todd vs. Chad.

Chad had slightly better numbers two years ago is felt as if he were shunned by Eclipse Award voters. Now that he has dirt horses to go with his grass arsenal, Saratoga should be very interesting this year.

Last year, it was a meet-long battle until the final week when Todd’s numbers took over. Looks like the current playing field is much closer to be leveled. Can’t wait.


Rags to Riches
: Mark Casse has long been Canada’s most dominant horseman. Looks like the rest of North America—and Epsom—is in his sights.
Theogony was monstress winning the race named for the 2007 Belmont Stakes winner. She won by 8 widening lengths in 2:28.42, final quarter in 24.17 seconds. It was a wow performances by a budding star. While it would not have altered the result, rating favored lone speed Mei Ling off the pace was one of the most curious things I’ve seen Johnny do. Very likely there’s more there, there.

Tremont Stakes: Another juvenile sprint, this one for the boys, and another flyer caught. Once Saratoga Two Step hit the side of the slip coming out leaving Silver Mission alone on the lead, winning by 6-1/4 lengths in 1:03.78, 12/100s slower than Friday’s filly.

Jersey Girl Stakes: Wow, Part II. The three-year filly division is already deep, and we’re not just speaking Songbird here, so make room for Kareena. She demolished only four rivals but did so in 1:07.87. The track was fast, but not THAT fast. Kiaran McLaughlin, like Mott, has been cool this spring. This effort signaled his big weekend to come.

G2 True North: Best storylines were Charlton Baker emerging as a possible major player on the New York scene and Manny Franco giving the “Ride of the Weekend” aboard Joking, getting up final strides to win by a neck. He rode a rallier the way one should be ridden, especially at Belmont. Begin your rally into headstretch staying behind cover and tip wide outside after straightening away. Great job!

G2 New York Stakes: Chad’s been doing this a lot lately, sweeping multiple money positions in stakes. Dacita was very good but runnerup Sea Calisi. Jose Ortiz, who’s ridden a staggering amount of winners at the Belmont halfway mark, gave the poorest judged ride I’ve ever seen from him. It happens. He took an inside path from far back and it didn’t work out. I’m still a huge big fan. As for Sea Calisi, she’s not a good mare; she’s in the conversation for best turf female in the country.

Belmont Gold Cup
: I wish I had $50K to out into Mike Maker’s account and say “please go claim me a turf horse.” The work he has done with Da Big Hoss is extraordinary—and now to get him to win going two miles? Awesome. No small part was the ride put forth by Florent Geroux, a rider I’ve been touting as elite from last year. The fact he’s moving his tack to Saratoga, with all that turf racing, fits into his wheelhouse nicely. Quietly, in most respects, he’s the second leading stakes rider in the country behind Javier Castellano. Awesome.


G1 Acorn
: Bill Mott, Part 2: With Cathryn Sophia conceivably a bit over the top and with Go Maggie Go coming back quickly, the race was there for the taking by a fresh, pointed Carina Mia. She looked a winner every step beneath Julien Leparoux, himself back in top career form. Malibu Moon filly is a top player in a deep division headed by Songbird, scheduled to return next weekend.

G1 Ogden Phipps, McLaughin, Part 2: One thing to be humbled by a humbling game, another to be wrong at the top of your voice. Cavorting’s powerhouse score in the Ruffian certainly had to take a toll. It wasn’t Saturday. She came with a near carbon-copy run—Geroux’s second big one of the weekend--and swept to a 2-1/4 score in 1:40.14. There’s only one obstacle in her way to the division championship but it’s a big one; Beholder.

G1 Just A Game
, Mott, Part 3: She looked good winning the G2 Honey Fox but saved her best run for the ‘Met Mile for Females on Grass.” Clearly, she made the progression for 3 to 4 and in Mott’s hands it’s unlikely to stop there. Recepta continues to be unlucky, not as unlucky as in Beaugay, but never had a chance to make her late run outside. Still, she ran on very well for place. Maybe will even the score in Saratoga; stay tuned.

G1 Met Mile, McLaughlin, Part 3: From the time he was 3 he gave the impression he’d make a top class miler, winning his only prior start at the trip at 2. Well make that 2-for-2 with an exclamation mark! Or two exclamation marks!! Confidently ridden into the stretch by Joel Rosario, who did some nifty broken-field running to win the ‘Woody’ with Tom’s Ready and who fits Frosted like no other, he drew to win by 14-1/4 geared down lengths in 1:32.73, a final quarter-mile in 23.37. Anchor Down has raised his game and despite a fast yet stumbling start and chasing a strong pace three across the track, he held steadfastly for place. Say, when’s the Whitney again?

G1 Manhattan
, Chad, Part 2; Juddmonte, Part 2: And who does Flintshire think he is, Secretariat. Well, over a freaky fast, record-conducive grass course, was won by the now 7-year-old winner of $8 million, mostly the hard way, ran 10 furlongs in 1:58.92. Off the bench! Now this: Racing alternately in fourth to sixth position throughout, he mowed down eight rivals in splits that were run in 25.96, 24.13, 23.19 and an incredible 21:83. It probably will take another Brit to beat him from here on out. No one around these parts.

Test of the Champion 148: As Mr. Durkin, and many of the race callers to follow, might say, with their strides synchronized, Destin and Creator hit the wire together in a photo that didn’t deserve a loser. Destin had the easier time of it, dynamically speaking, and could not have been ridden better by Castellano. But Irad Ortiz Jr., perched way up on Creator’s withers and with pumping arms synchronized with Castellano’s, won a photo that was thisclose. Kudos to both colts and their handlers/connections.

As for favored Preakness winner Exaggerator, he was mostly empty all the way; the surface probably didn't help. Suddenbreakingnews never saved an inch of ground but was never in it; Cherry Wine lost his Belmont in the paddock; Brody’s Cause went forward, but not fast enough. Lani was a bright-finish third, despite a rabbit-less rabbit pace. Stradavari, mostly invisible throughout, raced one-paced. Governor Malibu had winning run but had to be halted up twice at critical junctures yet was beaten a mere length and a half. Is future is just up the stretch from here.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 05, 2016

ALI: The Soul of a Butterfly

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., June 5, 2016—On the first Saturday in May, the city of Louisville celebrated its world famous, iconic horse race for the 145th time.

On the first Saturday in June, it mourned its world famous, iconic hometown hero, Muhammad Ali.

Both are timeless.

There will be millions of words written or spoken this week about his accomplishments as prelude to a funeral procession and services Friday morning in his hometown.

If you’re a millennial wanting to learn about the man, you’ll find everything there is to know online. A unique individual, his life was shaped by the era in which he lived.

We are of the same generation, and like many people my age, you had a love/hate relationship with the man born as Cassius Marcellus Clay.

*“There’s something happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear…

Born in the early ‘40s, both of us came of age in the late 60s. I saw Clay fight in the old Madison Square Garden from the only seats I could afford.

Before there were Friday Night Lights there were Friday Night Fights, viewed in my home on a 12” black-and-white Philco television set.

There they were: Graziano and Marciano; Jersey Joe Wolcott--who refereed at least one of the titanic battles Ali had with Smokin’ Joe Frazier; the rivalry between

Carmine Basilio and Gene Fullmer, like that of Sugar Ray Robinson and Raging Bull Jake LaMotta.

Boxing was mainstream then and very popular, just like horse racing was.

I wasn’t skilled in the art of “the sweet science.” I watched the Friday Night Fights with my parents and it was my father who took me to my first live fight at the old Sunnyside Gardens Arena.

Known as the ‘Golden Gloves’, sponsored by the New York Daily News, the bouts were for young amateurs and it used a tournament format. It was one of the few avenues of success open to low income youngsters who couldn’t afford college, even at $30 per credit.

If you matriculated through the school of hard knocks, you eventually made it to the big ring on 50th Street and Eighth Ave. in Manhattan, site of the old Madison Square Garden.

When I finally made the trek from Queens to “The World’s Most Famous Arena," it was apparent even from the cheap seats that Cassius Clay was something special. No boxer ever looked like he did, fought like he did.

It was a turbulent time, the 60s, and the country was changing by the day, like it is today. And by the end of the decade I was like most other college kids; all for peace, love and rock ‘n roll, loving the one I was with whenever possible.

Like my peers, I hated the Vietnam War: It was difficult if not impossible to embrace nationalism while suffering from a severe case of the munchies.

Because I wore my hair shoulder length didn’t mean that I didn’t love my country. And when the most famous boxer of all time converted to Islam and conscientiously objected to the war, refusing to serve his country, I turned on him.

I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound,
Everybody look what's going down…

When Kent State happened, my anger shifted away from Ali and toward the government. I bitched and moaned from the safety of St. John’s’ student lounge. My big contribution to ‘the movement’ was joining a campus protest in support of lay teachers seeking tenure from the university.

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

Ali didn’t bitch and moan; he acted. A man of conviction, he gave up three prime career years because he “had no argument” with the people of North Vietnam. He refused induction. Disgraced, he was stripped of his heavyweight championship title.

The Viet Cong were killing people my age and seeing caskets on TV draped in American flags, sitting on tarmacs all over America filled me with rage. Yet when I watched live war video, the image that made the greatest impression was seeing the havoc wrecked by our flame-throwers and napalm.

I was conflicted and I didn’t understand why: I was raised on John Wayne movies; watched “Sands of Iwo Jima” every time it was on. We were the good guys. World War II was just because the Axis nations that would dominate the world needed defeating.

It was a confusing time for young Americans. Ali was a polarizing symbol but he also made me aware for the first time that there were two Americas. Just like it is now, for reasons that are, at once, different but the same.

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong

I came full circle on Ali at about the same time as everyone else: His incredible comebacks, the punishment he absorbed for the sake of a winning strategy.

Seeing replays of his fight with Sonny Liston when, in the fifth round, he fought blinded by some foreign substance supplied by the thug’s corner-men, and nearing the end of his prime, he defeated a younger, stronger George Foreman after Ali allowed the champion to punch himself out.

Upon his retirement, it was Ali’s humanitarian works that came to the fore, a path he chose to follow the rest of his life. I became a huge fan of the man who was truly transcendent now, the most recognizable face on the planet.

Before yesterday’s card at Churchill, the track paid tribute to its favorite son: Reading from a transcript, track announcer Travis Stone said in part:

“The Louisville-born, three-time heavyweight boxing champion, American legend and humanitarian was no stranger to Churchill Downs.

“Early in his career, he jogged over our one-mile dirt track to build fitness and he later visited our track to attend the Kentucky Derby… In his honor, please observe a moment of silence for our hometown icon, the Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali.”

Churchill’s iconic Twin Spires will glow red and black in honor of Louisville’s favorite son through Friday.

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid…

For what it’s worth, there’s a line from Ali’s autobiography, Soul of a Butterfly, that have become words to live by:

“If you say you love God, you cannot say it if you don’t love all of God’s children.”


* Italics courtesy of Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s Buffalo Springfield: Richie Furay, Bruce Palmer, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and the late Dewey Martin

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Figs Don’t Lie: Canterbury and Pimlico Post Significant Gains

HALLANDALE BEACH, May 29, 2016—Long term, the jury on the takeout experiment at Canterbury Park will be sequestered for quite a long time.

But after reviewing the initial evidence, skeptics who questioned whether horseplayers would support a track in the hinterlands with their betting dollars against prime time rivals have been found guilty as charged.

There is one important takeaway for the industry, that no matter which branch of the sport practitioners engage in they need to learn this: Horseplayers Matter.

Whether the opening weekend momentum can be sustained over time is going to keep the jury out for quite some time, which is something that the Shakopee, Minnesota track has pledged to give it.

Canterbury’s bold decision to lower takeout to 15% in the straight pools and 18% on all exotics was well received by racing and social media alike. Sunday’s program is the fifth of a 69-day race meet.

The aim, of course, is prove once again that lower takeout rates will stimulate betting volume so that at worst the experiment would prove revenue-neutral at the bottom line while at best it would increase profitability.

Takeout reductions have spiked handle everywhere it’s been implemented since the ‘70s. There’s no logical reason for it not to succeed again, especially given that savvy present-day horseplayers have become price sensitive, knowing the simulcast market gives them options.

Shopping for value before the handicapping begins is mandatory since there are so few of us left, making it difficult for the horse-playing 99% to find an edge. Today’s loyal customer is better educated, and there’s more handicapping data available than ever before.

Given this new reality, Canterbury is supposed to show substantial gains and it will with player support. The Shakopee track lacks a national presence but horseplayers have lent their support for the reduced-take experiment. Once again there’s data proving that churn works.

Betting handle has increased and, on a percentage basis, increased dramatically, Saturday notwithstanding. The attendant publicity Canterbury has garnered, along with an instant decision to scuttle a higher takeout Jackpot bet—helped enable big gains on opening weekend, May 20.

Field size was moderate last weekend yet Canterbury posted increases of 34% for the Friday opener; 20% on Saturday despite Preakness competition, and a staggering 48% last Sunday. Canterbury races Friday nights and Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

There will be a Memorial Day program on Monday.

This weekend began well, too, with Friday posting a gain of 17% year over year. But on Saturday Canterbury got slammed. Bad weather and a sealed wet track against the sport’s biggest markets--most enjoying good weather—was too big a mountain to climb.

After scratches, Canterbury’s eight races Saturday averaged six starters, including four seven-horse fields. Three turf races were rescheduled to dirt and handle for the day was only $325,894. In all, 48 runners competed for total purses worth $148,500.

Resultantly, handle was down a whopping 47% compared to 2015, but four out of five days ain’t bad, good for an overall boost of 9.1% for the first five days of racing.

I have looked at the past performances for the highest-pursed races for five days and bet from $10 to $24 at each session, Preakness day notwithstanding. On balance, the racing has been good and form held well.

(Thanks to Foolhardy [$26.20], we’re ahead for Canterbury [see Friday’s Feature Race Analysis page]. And I will continue to support the track that wants to help support me).

Looking back, the two stakes offered opening weekend, the 10000 Lakes Friday night and the Paul Bunyan Sunday afternoon, were good, competitive events on paper and played that way. Those races, filled with some nice runners, were quite handicappable.

Admittedly, the dirt track was a little speed crazy opening weekend--albeit not as much as Woodbine’s was Monday for its special Victoria Day program.

I have no experience as to whether this bias trend will prevail but certainly we saw nothing that proved extraordinary. Speed, especially tactical pressers, have historically done well at the Minnesota track on both dirt and turf, around one turn or two.

Two-turn turf routes give stout closers their best chances to win, but do try to avoid double-digit outside posts on either surface whenever possible.

The turf races play like they do at most other venues, although there aren’t many last-to-first dynamics at longer distances like those seen most everywhere else. Generally, it’s always best to think speed, the universal bias.

Preakness Sets All-Time Records in Handle and Attendance

The good karma surrounding Maryland racing this year, due mostly to major improvements made at Laurel Park for the winter meet, might, in the final analysis, be helping downtrodden Pimlico.

Attendance records reportedly were broken for both the Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness day programs and the second jewel of the Triple Crown turned out be an aesthetic success despite dreary weather and the defeat of super gallant Nyquist.

Total handle on the 14-race Preakness program, featuring seven other stakes, was a record $94,127,434, eclipsing the previous mark of $91,028,704 set 11 years ago. Total handle was up 10.8 percent year over year, with attendance up 2.5 percent.

Alas, the hangover effect from American Pharoah’s Triple Crown accomplishments turned out to be a good thing. While ratings were spotty for this year’s Derby, the undefeated Triple Crown-eligible Nyquist attracted a half-million more viewers than Pharoah did last year.

NBC’s coverage averaged 9.4 million viewers, 6% more than last year’s 8.9 million. The 9.4 million viewers plateau was 200,000 fewer than California Chrome’s two years ago and Oxbow’s 9.7 million mark the year before that. Numbers like this have not been seen since the early 2000s.

Additionally, over 3.1 million minutes of coverage were streamed live on the Internet, a gain of 221% over 2015, with a record 115,000 unique users.

Written by John Pricci

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