Sunday, July 16, 2017

Vox Populi on Racing Issues; Saturday’s Big Horses Run Big

Taking the pulse of racing’s audience, a recent Paulick Report poll revealed some interesting results about how the sport’s practitioners and audience—horsemen and horseplayers—view racing’s most dominant issues.

Given the amount of advertising and the kind of promotion that supports the PR site, we assume that the largest segment of its audience are horsemen, the breeders, owners and trainers who put on the show. The results were at once predictable and surprising.

Judged least important by 10% of the responders is concern about competition from other forms of gambling. This category probably elicited a good portion of response from bettors who could care less about casinos, the occasional sports bet notwithstanding.

The next classification--converting casual fans into bettors--produced the first surprising result. If HorseRaceInsider is any measure, then 10% is a low figure. Everyone has an opinion about how to best market the game: It’s the HRI Faithful’s favorite pastime.

Racing needs more of an online presence, for one thing; more television for another; better education and greater social media exposure. Everybody even has an idea about what the game itself is; the old sport vs. gambling vehicle argument.

In our view, it would be unfair to say that the industry has not made some strides in the promotional arena. Of course, it can be made better. If I knew what it was I’d write it and declare myself a genius, but only the devil has all those details.

Next comes a shortage of horses and owners, in with 19% [all figures have been rounded]. This is reflected a smaller number of races being run each year, and while the top of the sales market is strong, no one sets out to buy a “cheap horse” anymore.

But the shortage is also a reflection of racing’s two biggest challenges, according to those who voted in the poll, and those challenges have been present from time in memoriam:

Nearly one of every four voters points to a lack of cooperation, national coordination, and infighting within the industry, even if common sense dictates that old-fashioned competition for market share is at the heart of this phenomenon. An example:

Tracks set out with the best intentions and a greater number have been staggering first-race post times. And they are not responsible for the conflicts that make adherence to schedule nearly impossible what with disqualifications, multiple close-photo finishes, injuries, etc., and the like.

However, when it’s done purposefully, it’s an irritant. Gulfstream Park has a deserved reputation for post-dragging and now other tracks, noting Gulfstream’s awesome growth in recent years, have started to follow suit both in scheduling and creating betting menus.

Parenthetically, post-dragging might be the only effective way to resolve conflicting post times--as long as this tack is not abused.

The number of races run daily, a new preponderance of turf racing leading to increased field size, a betting menu that helped popularize the spread of lower cost but higher takeout multi-race wagers with built-in degree of difficulty have all contributed to competition among racetracks.

Add to this that fewer race days, with more races scheduled on fewer days, makes for long afternoons at the track. Since the industry now caters more to its off-track simulcast audience, there is less “need” for a live audience.

Longer race days help capture market share by attracting a few more betting dollar but it’s the on-track experience that creates passion for a day at the races. Economics and job security demands track managers play the short game, but what of the long term?

Finally, if one tallies up and thinks about all the factors, they are tied inexorably to racing’s #1 challenge. More than one in every three racetrack practitioners and horseplayers point to cheating via a “culture of medication abuse,” or 36.03% as of 7/13.

It is a vexing situation since all medications, legal and otherwise, having disparate withdrawal times for different individuals, increased use of legal mega-nutrients, et al, is part of one equation. Like the issues themselves, solution are at once simple but difficult.

Ban raceday medications, including Lasix, lengthen withdrawal times, and stiffen penalties. Of course, this won’t happen as long as horsemen have the power over the simulcast signal.

True help will never come from within. Only Federal oversight gets this done. That question was absent from the survey.

It was a big Saturday for big horses from coast to coast, from morning till night, from one breed to another. A case by case look:

’s season, at least on social media, is as polarizing as political debate. She probably is the most disrespected nine-time Grade 1 winner of either sex in racing history, even if an older champion’s scant nose is what separates Songbird from a perfect career.

Her heart and class cannot be questioned, but her ranking among all-time great fillies can with no disrespect.

Songbird was a brilliant champion at 2 and 3, but reaching down deep in her titanic Distaff struggle with Beholder forced her reach bottom. That may be the difference with her as a four-year-old.

Her two brave victories this year underscore this point. She worked harder than almost everyone expected to win the Ogden Phipps, a prudent one-turn spot, and Saturday’s Delaware Handicap. She faced a tough, proven rival in New York but not so on Saturday.

Her challenge yesterday was a deep and tiring surface in her second run this year. Mike Smith said that 10 furlongs may not be her best go. That may be true. But she didn’t look distance challenged while drawing off to win the Alabama by 7 widening lengths last year.

Songbird galloping out after
her impressive 2016 Alabama score

On both the Thoro-Graph and Pricci Energy Scale, she never has been all that “fast on figures,” and has shown no development since her career best effort in the Cotillion at Parx, the race that preceded the Distaff.

We normally don’t champion the case for the upper-dog, but we’re very happy that Rick Porter, a great owner and fan, finally got his Delaware Handicap victory in his home state…

One race earlier, Frostmourne, the recent winner of the G2 Penn Mile, stretched out successfully to 9 furlongs and destroyed five overmatched rivals in the Kent Stakes. Arlington’s G1 Secretariat looks like the next logical stop…

If there ever was an appropriate time for Irap to regress it was yesterday at Indiana Grand. Instead, the G3 Indiana Derby win arguably was his most impressive victory of his career. Connections could keep going for the W Va. Derby cash but hope otherwise.

That race comes up three weeks hence. Instead, how about trying a mile and a quarter on Aug. 26 at Saratoga? This colt keeps getting improving and he’s earned a shot at the heavy heads again. Never know what will happen in the wide open sophomore division.
However, Irap will be meeting, among others if all goes according to plan, the Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Jim Dandy and Haskell winners and a Baffert or two to be named later. West Coast is already pointing there.

The latter just about ran the Travers distance in Saturday’s 9-furlong Los Alamitos Derby, such was the nature of his trip. The win was Bullet Bob’s sixth victory in the race. The late developer is no Arrogate but he’s pretty damn good enough for the Spa.

Crossing breeds, there were four tremendous performances at The Meadowlands Saturday night.

Defending juvenile trotting filly champion Ariana G. was dominant taking the Del Miller Memorial in 1:51 4/5 with last quarter in 27 2/5. Third vs. 3YO males in Pocono’s Beal July 1, she jogged home with Yannick Gingras in the bike, beating six overmatched rivals.

is a complete trotting freak, a powerful colt who earn his role as Hambletonian favorite. He won the Stanley Dancer Memorial with Tim Tetrick in 1:50 2/5, home in 27 1/5. Devious Man, who defeated Ariana G. at Pocono, was a good, albeit non-threatening runnerup…

Agent Q looks like a special pacing filly, taking the Mistletoe Shalee in a sparkling 1:48 4/5, sprinting home the final quarter-mile in 27-flat...

Huntsville is fast, genuine, and extremely game, proving all that by taking the Meadowlands Pace with Tetrick, his fifth win in this classic pace, in 1:47 4/5, home in 27 1/5 after early fractions of 26 4/5, 53 3/5 and 1:20 3/5.

Huntsville was used hard on the hot pace and runnerup Downbytheseaside gave him all he wanted in deep stretch, but the favorite ultimately would not be denied.

File Photo by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The Fourth of July and the Horse: An American Metaphor

Today is Independence Day, a time when we celebrate America’s existence as both a sovereign country and an ideal. And I am thinking about what I always think about; horses, the animals that made America great.

This recollection is different, way different I think because it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to look over the land and recognize it as the one most of us old horseplayers grew up in.

I’m thinking about the horses that still run wild and free out west and how their existence in under attack in modern day America. I think about those equines that helped conquer the west, so that our borders may extend from sea to shining sea.

I’m thinking about the horses who helped us win wars, including wars of our own choosing because of the immorality of slavery, a way of life in half the country, should be no more.

And I’m thinking about a spirited rider-less steed, the iconic Black Jack, who led the procession for an assassinated President who reminded us that “this nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal.”

And that “the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” It just doesn’t get more American than that.

I’m thinking about all the horses that were but no longer are part of the landscape of a recognizable America, race horses that symbolize the spirit of competition, a sport that was organized five centuries ago.

I’m thinking about horse racing history in America on this historic day of declarative independence, how it all began on the Plains of Hempstead in 1665 when the first race meet in this country was supervised by New York’s colonial governor.

The Hempstead Plains is the modern day region where Westbury and Garden City collide, not far from Belmont Park where today’s listed Manila Stakes for three year old turf milers will replace the middle jewel of a once celebrated handicap triple crown, the Suburban.

But the Suburban will be run, but not until Saturday, which is fine, but Gov. Nicholls, under whose aegis the first race meet was conducted, is replaced by a present day Governor who acts as if he hates horse racing, and that’s not very American.

So at a time when we remember celebrating horse racing on the Fourth of July, I’m one week removed from reading about the trial of a trainer from a nearby state, a state like so many others that used horse racing as entrée into lottery and other forms of gaming.

In this trial, at least two trainers and four veterinarians testified that therapeutic medications were illegally administered on race-day by “95 to 98 percent of the trainers at the racetrack [Penn National].”

Also acknowledged was how medication requests by trainers were back-dated by veterinarians, drugs misbranded, espionage that helped the guilty beat the testers and how samples from different horses were combined to obfuscate the findings.

The takeaway from the story is that the testing system in place was gamed by racing’s practitioners. Further, the trainers and vets testified that electrical devices were in wide use at that track, “just like at every racetrack in America.”

Now that state, like the other racing jurisdictions that helped grandfather slots and the like into law, is looking for ways to renege on its compact with a sport that has become a niche activity in the minds of today’s culture that widely considers racing a relic.

Like most everything in today’s one-off society, tradition is discarded in the name of progress, just another word for commerce. Like every horseplayer and racing practitioner that lives in the real world, raceday medication eventually will sound the death knell.

The realities associated with latter-day horse racing has effected the way horseplayers handicap and bet their money, how horsemen place their horses, avoiding certain races when they think that trying to defeat horses conditioned by super-trainers is a futile ask.

The times, they are no longer changin’. They have already changed and will continue to do so beyond recognition of the ideals and institutions made America, and a sport, great in the first place.

Americans and horseplayers with common sense should root, root, root for the home team; the institutions and check-and-balance procedures that attempt to level a playing field for all.

It’s fine that rich and powerful have edges the masses don’t enjoy, but the shame of it is that too much never seems to be enough. Boundaries and rhetoric that has been stretched beyond reasonable limits, in all things, are no more.

There is much evidence to suggest American norms have eroded and are continuing spiraling downward.

Racetrackers are fond of saying that no man is bigger than the game, just as the Founders believed no man is greater than the ideals upon which a nation was built. Now both institutions are under attack and never believe that the unthinkable can’t happen here.

The latest polls show that of the 36 richest countries in the world, America is the only one lacking universal health care. It’s the only issue that all Americans seem to agree on anymore, partisans notwithstanding.

It is America’s middle class--the ever-shrinking majority of every stripe and color—that remains under attack daily by the power elite because they have succeeded in pitting America vs. Americans. And recalls what happens to a house divided against itself.

In politics, present-day attitudes are a distortion of how Americans are supposed to treat each other. The philosophy was advanced and popularized by a novelist by a Russian born and educated American, Ayn Rand.

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed,” said Frederick Douglass.

What moves me this Independence Day are the lyrics of a ballad penned by one of America’s great blues guitarist and lyricist, Albert Castiglia, born of a Cuban mother and Italian father in New York City, 1969.

Castiglia prides himself on writing from his heart. To wit:

“What’s this world coming to when kindness has become a crime?
And you don’t answer when your brother needs a dime…
Can someone answer this simple question for me
Who are the brave, Where are the free?
“It’s a cold, cold feeling when you walk down the street
Without noticing the sadness at your feet.
It seems okay, if you’re a stray without a bone
But you’re looked down upon, if you’re a man without a home.
“Why can’t we make it, how can we survive?
It’s hard work every day just trying to stay alive,
But we won’t give up, we won’t bend and we won’t bow…
And I know we’re gonna make it somehow
“What’s this world coming to when you don’t see children smile,
When a woman’s frowned upon for trying to feed a child.
Take a look around, tell me what you see,
Look in the mirror, are you brave, are you free?
“Time to pay attention to your fellow man indeed
Time for sharing and caring…planting love’s seed.
Pray for a better… for your children and for mine,
Pray we find the answer while we still have some time…
“The hungry get blamed for the hunger,
The poor get stuck with the bill.
The weight of the world is on our shoulders,
It’s enough to challenge our will...
Yeah, but I know we’re gonna’ make it somehow…
And I know we’re gonna make it… somehow.”

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Triple Crown Change? Time for Horsemen to Walk The Talk

Horses are not machines! Write that on the blackboard 500 times—and write it across, not down. This assignment should be at least as hard as, say, winning the Triple Crown. I jest, of course, but it’s kidding on the square.

With 2017 Kentucky Derby horses ducking this year’s Preakness and Belmont Stakes left and right for various reasons, and with the only horse that raced in all three legs finishing progressively worse over the series, cries for lengthening the sequence have resurfaced.

Let’s get this out of the way now: Yes, American Pharoah was special enough to end the most recent draught and, yes, it takes a special horse to do it, and continuing the Triple Crown’s five-week span honors the legacy of those dozen Triple Crown winners.

The problem is that most of horse racing’s prime demographic does not have another 37 years to wait for the next one. And for those who lament the lack of interest in horse racing in the modern mainstream, it’s an opportunity lost to possibly creating new fans.

I am as old-school and as traditional as the next septuagenarian but the idea that lengthening the series weakens it is simply untrue.

By attracting more Derby runners back for the Preakness and Belmont, how does that make the Triple Crown easier to win? By getting those horses back for a rematch with a better chance to be close to the top of their game, how does that cheapen the prize?

Most of those who would lengthen the Triple Crown would be satisfied to simply bring the Preakness back in three weeks while leaving the Belmont in its current place on the Classics calendar.

Moving the Preakness back one week would make a great deal of difference. In all likelihood, it would prop up a race in need of a boost. The Belmont will always remain popular at the entry box because 1-1/2 miles is the great unknown, worthy of shot-taking.

As for tradition --and with the surging popularity of international racing--a look at the British Triple Crown is useful. Its third leg, the Gr.1 St. Leger Stakes at 14 furlongs, is run in September and they’ve been doing it longer, since 1776. How’s that for convention?

Like the American Triple Crown, the British Triple Crown has had its dates and distances altered over the course of time. There is plenty of precedent for change that would be good for the horses and the sport--maybe not now but another 37 years from now.

The five-to-six weeks spacing so prevalent today is because the majority of horsemen at the highest levels now concede that the modern thoroughbred on raceday medication, primarily Lasix, needs time to rehydrate, recharge, and get his mind and body right.

Time always has been in a horse’s best interest.

There’s nothing wrong or less-than about this concession to reality. If all Triple Crown horses have a chance to show up on the day at tops, how does this make the task easier? Blind adherence to the past has put racing in many of the straits it finds itself today.

I had an idea that was roundly booed when first proposed three years ago: Spacing the series over a longer duration around traditional American holidays. It was pooh-poohed because the feeling was that excitement and interest could not be sustained over time.

My proposal was to card the Derby on the first Saturday in May as always, a branding of America’s race that should never be altered.

But the Preakness should be run on or in very close proximity to the Memorial Day weekend. With all due respect to the ideals for which the day was created—is the summertime lid-lifter.

How can associating horse racing with American heroes be a bad thing? It can be a teachable moment for youngsters should learn about the role horses played in making America great.

Staging a Memorial Day weekend horse-racing event should be a marketer’s dream. Of course, it would also provide at least one more week’s freshening, longer when the calendar dictates.

Finally, the conclusion of the Triple Crown should provide added fireworks and added promotion of horse racing on the country’s July 4th holiday festivities. A July 4th Belmont still leaves enough time for a Haskell or Travers run.

Back in the day, the word was that Pimlico would never move the Preakness out another week because all of those collegiate infield revelers would have returned home for the summer.

But modern entertainment marketing accentuates events and their exclusivity which comes at a cost; pricing many out of today’s leisure market. So that timeworn excuse no longer flies.

Another obstacle to Triple Crown change comes from the fact that the new NYRA has taken great pains to create an international weekend of racing surrounding the July 4th holiday with their Stars and Stripes festival, an idea worth applauding.

No reason why the Belmont couldn’t be part of that, perhaps even drawing greater international interest from those already coming for a world-class grass and distance-racing festival?

“Doing what’s best for the horse” has become a popular mantra when today’s horsemen discuss future scheduling. Maybe those groups could apply subtle pressure on The Stronach Group and NYRA to consider altering their Triple Crown events for that very reason.

Written by John Pricci

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