Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The State of Racing’s Union: It Is What It Has Become

As the 143rd Kentucky Derby looms, the state of the game is teetering, fighting to remain popular with even with its staunchest allies while simultaneously efforting to remain relevant to a much wider audience. Like world events, these are worrisome times.

How troublesome? Well, it’s so bothersome that no less than one of the world’s most brilliant comic minds and huge racing fan, Mel Brooks, took to Twitter for the purpose of castigating the Los Angeles Times for “eliminating daily coverage of horse racing.”

At issue is the recently jettisoned daily listing of entries and results. Brooks’ tweet was enough to elicit a comment from his long-time friend and collegial comic genius, Carl Reiner, who replied “anything that upsets my friend Mel upsets me.”

Lamentably, they are not alone, and not everything can be explained away with kneejerk retorts that it’s simply a sign of the times--that encapsulated agate of entries and results has gone the way of classified ads and stock listings.

While comprehensive racing data lends itself well to the endless boundaries of cyberspace, as long as mainstream media and journalistic standards exist, I refuse to acknowledge that mesmerized smartphone habitués can’t learn to appreciate the feel of paper between their digits.

While the world moves forward--whatever your definition of “progress” is--Thoroughbred racing remains frozen in time. Tracks compete with each other at the bottom line and in the equine talent pool, a world that fosters competition, not cooperation.

All in the racing industry agree, e.g., that the perception of drug use, legal and otherwise, is bad yet, owing to the sovereignty of the states in which they are permitted operate, tracks will not unite in agreement that federal oversight is the only true option for reform.

Certainly, no one can blame the industry’s distrust of a centralized federal authority, given the current example of gross incompetence vested in the Executive branch and the intractability of the Legislative branch. This happens when their interests, beholden to obscene-money donors and corporate lobbyists, conflict with the citizens who put them in office.

Even when racing does present a united front—the only way statutes ever gain traction—the process is endless.

What has it been, nearly six years now, before getting a vote on the unfair and arcane taxes on winnings of over $600, needing all that time to make lawmakers understand that not many trifectas that pay off at 300-1 are the result of one-number cold punches?

And this is the kind of progress that summonses industry celebration?

The all-encompassing success of the Kentucky Derby notwithstanding, the only member of a ‘Big Three’ that includes the New York Racing Association and Churchill Downs Inc., only The Stronach Group is setting positive trends. But they have come at some cost.

The TSG is top-class winter racing, but its’ venue on the Left Coast is in dire need of a fix. Emblematic of the greed, arrogance and power wielded by a triad of owners, horsemen and racing governance, Santa Anita has become the poster child for bad publicity.

Until some form of reconciliation is made, Santa Anita’s currently muddied reputation is deserved.

But perhaps the best example of good news-bad news worthiness is the recently concluded “championship meet” at Gulfstream Park. And try as they might, critics cannot argue with Gulfstream’s trend-busting success.

Nitpickers will always find chinks, but the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational was a triumphant sensation by every measure. For one glorious afternoon in South Florida, racing was great again, a sporting event worthy of kings.

Pegasus Day:
Linchpin of Gulfstream's 2017
Championship Meet

And it is odds-on to continue attracting every great five-year-old-and-up champion before it’s ushered off to the breeding shed, just as it did this year, luring a great “people’s champion” vs. a younger champion that would become the world’s leading Thoroughbred.

The momentum that began in late January was the first stop on the road to record earnings by early April—handle figures that would continue to eclipse previous meetings on a year-over-year basis, on the meet’s biggest mega-stakes event days.

Finally, the 2016-17 championship stand culminated with the emergence of a conceivable Kentucky Derby favorite, the result of a well-structured three-year-old racing program that attracted, to date, this year’s best sophomore runners.

Arrogate, Latter day Pegasus
But all this came at a price when operations are factored in. In what arguably has grown into the most successful circuit for racing on a year-round basis, it has had its share of embarrassments among racing’s most ardent supporters; loyal bettors and fans.

The one trend the track should lament was the creation of the post-dragging trend that has spread nationwide. What was consistently a tolerable four-minute delay in advance of huge jackpot carryovers and sophomoric guarantees was tacitly accepted.

But you know things are bad when an industry-organ staffer chides the track after an 11-minute Rainbow 6 drag and a 9-minute delay on a guaranteed late Pick 4 on the same program, resulting in conflicting simulcast feature races.

Saturday race-days often lasted more than six hours became extremely tedious for fans and track employees that came into the building in support of live racing.

When playing the long game, some acknowledgment must be made that wagering dollars are finite at every level. At some point, a toll will be extracted for carding 10 or 11 races on weekday programs.

For handicappers of every stripe, time is the game’s only absolute truth. Butt far too often, running times at Gulfstream Park were seriously questioned, breeding distrust where none should exist. These errors manifest themselves when handicapping future races.

The track must provide a fail-safe. Atmospherics will only get worse with unstoppable and unpreventable new technologies, a further intrusion on the method by which Trakus compiles timing data. Only a trained official with a stopwatch can provide fail-safe verification.

Gulfstream’s spring-summer meet has recently begun and common sense dictates this session will top 2016’s. The racing office has shored up quality by attracting a handful of mega-outfits from the Southeast and Midwest and top New York stables have left small divisions behind.

Gulfstream must realize that a thin line exists between overarching success and embarrassing overreach that can harm the huge strides already made by the brand.

BOUTIQUE MEETS: Since Saratoga and Del Mar have seen their seasons extended over the years, the term boutique seems a little less applicable.

On balance, and given overall quality, the sport at both tracks is not quite up to the lofty reputations earned by both, though their brands remain extremely strong.

Considering that top echelon outfits point their best horses to traditional features at both venues, each will maintain its top-class status, especially Saratoga: History, health, and horses is a cold trifecta if there ever was one.

But there is no race meet on the planet that can compare--save Ascot perhaps for its deep, rich and storied events—with Keeneland Spring. It’s fitting that some of the world’s best nurseries are but a long stone’s-throw from such a picaresque environment.

Fourteen days of racing indeed encapsulates the meaning of boutique when it comes to horse racing. We don’t know with certitude that the stars are aligned perfectly these days, then neither do we know that we’ve ever seen 14 days of such sustained quality.

Good weather has helped keep programs intact, but the races themselves? Keeneland’s low-level claimers are better than your average claiming fare anywhere.

As for depth, Wednesday’s Keeneland feature was a NX3 allowances, a race that hardly ever fills in the modern era. But that’s what happens when the quality lives on the backside and the racing office often opts for the best eight-race programs when the need arises.

If only such civility were present everywhere, programs would be more balanced and entertaining for bettors and fans from California to New York, from South Florida to Canada and all the stops in between.

File Photos: Toni Pricci

April 19, 2017

Written by John Pricci

Comments (17)


Sunday, April 16, 2017

New Wrinkle Meets Old School in Arkansas

The King Lives! Long Live the King!

It is only fitting that in this topsy-turvy runnerup to the 2017 Kentucky Derby everyone tethered to the Thoroughbred had to await until the last hurdle was cleared to find some clarity.

And we hope that we have seen the last of the impending-danger type drama that has accompanied this winter-racing season and that pre-Derby workouts, good and bad, all go without major incident.

There are no remaining prep races in the three weeks until reaching post time for Derby. But in the next two weekends, morning trials are needed to solidify what has been, to say the least, one of the more baffling playoffs season for three-year-olds ever.

Before examining the nuts and bolts of Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, a word about the team that surrounds the 2016 juvenile champion.

We’ve known trainer Mark Casse, the son of legendary horseman Norman Casse, for nearly four decades, when he first went out on his own with the Calumet horses, back in the day when they were festooned in the devil’s red and blue.

At my age, this gives me the right to say I’m very proud of the work he’s done with Classic Empire, without throwing shade on any other horseman I know and respect as they slouch their way towards Louisville, efforting to win nothing less than “America’s Race.”

However the future of this sport plays out, that tradition will continue. Many eyes will fill 10 minutes to post when a country hears “that song,” as the jockeys refer to the Stephen Foster classic ode to days gone by.

It takes creativity and confidence to deal with the never-before-seen circumstances that arise in this most unusual of pastimes, this unusual way to make a living. It also takes balls.

To send Classic Empire off to the tranquility of a farm to get better physically and to get the colt’s mind right was a masterstroke of old school horsemanship. And, of course, it helps when the equine you’re dealing with has all the tools.

In preparing to make an Arkansas Derby choice, we went back and reviewed the video of its major participants. Alas, it was unnecessary.

All that was needed was belief in the words Casse expressed on an NTRA conference call last week and a tape of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in which he defeated, in our view, the most talented challenger he has faced, the ill-fated Not This Time.

Not having raced since the Holy Bull, an event which saw him fall apart in the walking ring and balk badly pre-loading, Casse’s words rang true yesterday when he spoke of his colt’s courage. “He gave us no indication he was hurting [until 10 minutes prior to post time].”

The layup also had him very fresh, showing speed from the jump, forcing Julien Leparoux--who was a brilliant as his colt in Hot Springs--to wrangle him a bit from close quarters entering the lower turn before settling him between horses into the backstretch run.

The trip he had in the Arkansas Derby clearly would have defeated a lesser racehorse. Stoutly restrained while remaining three paths wide, surrounded on all sides, he remarkably stayed in the bridle throughout.

And then finally, after all that, once brought out into the clear at headstretch, to lower his body and run down an improving and formerly undefeated rival was the mark of a very good colt, perhaps the very best of his generation.

But that’s the thing about this game; you need to go out and prove it every time.

Whether or not coming back in three weeks off an enervating effort will took a toll in that final, unknown furlong is consideration for another day. But as for now, we will take the connections at the word:

The trainer said he was a bit concerned: "I was questioning his fitness down the lane…but he kept running.” Said the jockey: “I think maybe he wasn’t one-hundred percent ready for today…”

The cliché is that things happen for a reason, and a missed opportunity can turn out to be a blessing. If indeed he wasn’t wound as tightly as possible, his 19 rivals will find him the one to beat three weeks hence.

Alas, Malagacy didn’t stay the trip and according to a Tweet from the Antonio Sano barn, Javier Castellano, who has ridden Gunnevera since his two-year-old Delta Jackpot finally, will stay aboard the SoFla-based colt. Castellano rode Malagacy to his Arkansas Derby showing… Lookin at Lee did a pretty good Creator imitation yesterday and clearly is peaking. Stablemate Untrapped no longer appears on the come, still not-yet-ready for prime time—but he clearly didn’t save any ground, did he?

As a review of the G3 Lexington Stakes video indicates, it certainly appeared that runnerup West Coast was probably best. Losing ground much of the way from his extreme outside slip, Flavien Prat was compelled to make a wide and premature move on the far turn lest the race get away from him. We’re not sure he was nailed by relentless finisher Senior Investment because he was dead tired, lost focus, or both. We expect the Bob Baffert trainee to join the Triple Crown parade in Baltimore.

The final installment of HRI’s Triple Crown Rankings will appear later this afternoon. Happy Easter and Passover to all!

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Arrogreatest of All Time?

Sunday at this time of year is always devoted to HorseRaceInsider’s Triple Crown--Road to the Derby coverage, but not today. Not after spending the night-time with a gray racehorse a half-world away on a Saturday afternoon.

And I was so looking forward to the Derby playoffs, too, even if the UAE Derby has underperformed historically in a Kentucky context, and even if it didn’t appear via the PPs that we’d see the second coming of Animal Kingdom in Florence, Ky.

However, it’s true you never really know--and that also applies to what subsequently might step out of a horse van on the backside of Churchill Downs after having made a 1,600 mile road trip from Sunland Park, New Mexico. But the Derby is on hold at the moment.

Because at approximately 1 pm EDT Saturday, the preps and everything else--including the final round of Elite Eight NCAA play--would be rendered moot. Time and belief were suspended when a horse named Arrogate delivered a performance for the ages.

Now, after every big race that features a big performance and a big dramatic ending, I’m as guilty as anyone who makes use of a hyperbole machine. But not today.

This time there are no words to describe what a magnificent gray Thoroughbred did on a rainy, muddy night in the desert. The effort had to be seen to be believed, and maybe not even then. Much blinking was involved.

Then, almost instantly, came visions from the mind’s recesses: I see the letter ‘S’, as in Secretariat, as in Seattle Slew, the most talented horses I’ve ever seen in the flesh.

Those wonder horses now need to move over and make room on the pedestal I built for them back in the 1970s. But I’m not the only one.

As Arrogate was beginning to be geared down by Mike Smith, that’s when race caller Terry Spargo loaned the moment his perspective. To paraphrase:

“ ‘A’ is for Arrogate… ‘A’ is for absolutely awesome… A’ is for anointed… Arrogate, the Man o’ War of the 21st Century.” And while thoughtful, obviously, the words came naturally, excitedly, but unforced.

By now I assume that anyone and everyone who even pretends to be a Thoroughbred lover has seen numerous replays of the Dubai World Cup. Their jaws still might be slackened, even now as they read this. The nuts and bolts are these:

Arrogate was for all intents eliminated at the start when he missed the break badly. Immediately, he was seriously buffeted about by rivals on either side for three long strides, so that he was dozen lengths behind after the first 100 yards.

The colt then raced five wide in the backstretch run, finding his stride naturally beneath Smith as the field was bunching up approaching the final bend. It was there that a pan camera picked him up, seemingly struggling to find his best footing.

Approaching headstretch, Arrogate was deftly guided by Mike Smith--in a short conversation as best money rider ever--between rivals as he passed six horses who were moving well in three blinks of an eye, about a sixteenth of a mile.

Money Mike tipped him out to maintain clearance for the stretch drive, taking the lead with authority and was geared down to defeat the very worthy Gun Runner in the final hundred yards, stopping the clock in 2:02.23 for 2,000 meters, about 1-1/4 miles.

It did appear that the muddy surface compromised that tremendously long, smooth but powerful stride, but nothing stops this behemoth of a race horse.

Secretariat and Slew had no holes in their game--the former running the best Triple Crown in Classics history, and Triple Crown-winning Seattle Slew, showing the world all his greatness the following year, in defeat!

But there were times that these two immortals showed their mortality, that on any given day, stuff could happen to them. That reality doesn’t seem to apply to this colt.

I consulted Thoro-Graph performance figures prior to the Dubai World Cup and noted that when he made the transition from a NX2 allowances winner to the fastest horse ever to run 10 furlongs in the history of Saratoga, he earned a figure of negative-5.

That’s not the kind of huge leap forward that causes horses to “bounce.” It’s the kind of expended energy that often has ended careers in their tracks; too much, too soon. The Travers was, after all, his graded stakes debut and only fifth lifetime start.

Not only did he not regress next time out at Santa Anita, he paired-up in the Classic. Then did it yet again when he returned East for the inaugural running of the Pegasus, establishing that event in the fashion Secretariat launched the legendary Marlboro Cup.

As we tweeted immediately after the event: “Where’s the late, great Jack Buck when you need him most because I can’t believe what I just saw,” followed by “just saw a horse win the ‘World Triple Crown.”

And those were followed by “too bad he can’t whistle-stop across America because we need heroes now,” followed by “has a race horse ever been showered with ticker tape in New York City’s Canyon of Heroes?”

Got a like and a response from Steve Haskin of Bloodhorse who wrote: “I’ll settle for a parade down Broadway in Saratoga.” Point taken.

After the mud settled at Meydan Race Course, Arrogate had become North America’s all-time leading earner as this continent’s first $17-million man.

And different eras notwithstanding, neither Secretariat nor Seattle Slew can make such a claim on history.


Could that happen? Could this actually be the year that the UAE Derby produces a very serious Kentucky Derby challenger?

Before dismissing the notion out of hand, think for a moment about how these Derby playoffs have been playing out. Good thing Dubai isn’t numbered among those verboten Middle East nations.

But one-two finishers Thunder Snow and Epicharis ran that well, and third-finishing Master Plan was eating up ground as if the Derby’s added sixteenth fits easily in his wheelhouse. Whether his 20 Derby points makes the cut, as it does now, is problematic.

Alas, nothing we observed at Turfway Park, in the Rushaway or Spiral Stakes, was reminiscent of Animal Kingdom’s impressive Derby-winning prep. The results of today’s Sunland Derby will have an impact—or not—on next week’s HRI Hi-5.

Meanwhile, staff comments landed on the cutting-room floor this week given that Saturday belonged to Arrogate and to racing’s storied history:

Here’s how the HRI Derby staff and contributor consensus shook out this week, points tallied on 6-4-2-1-1 basis points:

1-Gunnervera (18)
2-Tapwrit (17)
3-McCraken (11)
4-Girvin (4)
5-tie: J Boys Echo, One Liner (3)

Also receiving votes:
Empire Classic, Epicharis, Practical Joke, Thunder Snow

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, March 26, 2017

Written by John Pricci

Comments (9)


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