Sunday, June 21, 2015

All-American Pharoah All the Time

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., June 21, 2015—I wish I could say that there existed the same amount of hysteria associated with the first three Triple Crown winners of the modern era pre-American Pharoah but in good conscience I just don’t remember it that way.

The probable cause lies in the fact that soon after Secretariat broke the quarter-century drought that came after Citation in 1948, two more winners of racing’s most celebrated gauntlet came in rapid succession; Seattle Slew four years later and Affirmed a year after that.

Back in the day, Secretariat was deservedly known as “the Mighty Secretariat,” such was his imposing presence and the supreme power he displayed during many of his stunning performances.

But Seattle Slew--still the only member of this exclusive club to have won the series while undefeated--was not truly acknowledged as a true “great” until his four-year-old season.

Ironically, Seattle Slew was more celebrated following a narrow come-again defeat in the Jockey Club Gold Cup than he was in victory, an effort that remains the most amazing performance by a racehorse we’ve ever seen; Big Red’s Belmont being the most perfect.

Of course, Affirmed came along the next year to sweep the Triple Crown in 1978. Maybe it was his rivalry with Alydar that at once confirmed his talent but in some way diminished the aura of greatness because back then it was all about “The Rivalry,” the uncoupled entry of all-time.

Ho hum, Affirmed’s Belmont was just another Triple Crown sweep. Most agree there should have been a third straight but the racing gods foiled the quest of the undeniable great Spectacular Bid. At least, Bid did help solidify the ‘70s as racing’s greatest decade.

There is little doubt that the sporting appetite for greatness was heightened by the futility that lasted 37 years until this past June 6. During that time television became the greatest communication conduit ever, heightened only by a new media that can be carried in pocket or purse.

The current hysteria surrounding American Pharoah--I didn’t even realize, e.g., that Julia Roberts was a big racing fan, did you?--was aided by the fact that he has a cool name. It might be the chicken-and-egg effect but badly named horses don’t win Triple Crowns:

Before Citation came Assault, and before him there was Count Fleet and Whirlaway and War Admiral and Omaha and Gallant Fox and Sir Barton.

And it’s appropriate to note it wasn’t even known as the Triple Crown when Sir Barton won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1915. It only became known as such after the great Charles Hatton dubbed it so following Gallant Fox’s achievement in 1930.

But the Triple Crown’s glorious past has given way to the hysteria surrounding where American Pharoah should or will run next.

Owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert are still basking in the afterglow as is jockey Victor Espinoza, who will make his next celebrated appearance at Gulfstream Park when he rides on the Summit of Speed program, July 5.

Espinoza’s presence comes replete with a poster giveaway that includes photo images of the winning horse from all three events pre-autographed by rider. Prior exclusive agreements will preclude a formal autograph session on site that day.

So where will Espinoza show up next sitting atop the 2014 juvenile champion and certain-to-be 2015 Horse of the Year? The horse already has made a cameo appearance at Churchill Downs, attracting over 30,000 fans on Stephen Foster night and will parade next weekend at Santa Anita.

We’re on record that we’d like to see him take the highest road possible on his way to the Breeders’ Cup Classic which in our view would be appearances in the Haskell, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

This obviously would mean he would not run again in his home state of California. Del Mar is making $5 million overtures for an appearance vs. his elders in the Pacific Classic. Whatever is decided from this point forward, it appears Saratoga will be the odd race out.

While no formal announcement has been made, Baffert already has told Monmouth Park officials to get prepared. The race makes sense for the horse for many reasons and his superstitious trainer probably would love nothing better than to win his eighth Haskell.

Recalling the path taken by Bayern last season, the race most likely to come next is the Pennsylvania Derby.

It would be a three-year-old path of less resistance and the timing is such that he would have two preps for the Classic, August 2 and September 19, affording plenty of time in between. Having won the Classics, Zayat and Baffert will get to split $300,000 just for showing up in addition to being odds-on to win a million-dollar race.

Of course, if the hometown pressure becomes too great, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Santa Anita quadrupling the purse for the nine-furlong Awesome Again Stakes vs. older horses September 26.

If there were a proposition offered, my money would be on a Haskell-Pennsylvania Derby prep schedule for the Classic. When the connections decide, not to worry; you’ll be able to read all about it everywhere words are printed or spoken.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

All We Are Saying… Is Give Bill a Chance

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., June 14, 2015—Three years ago, a couple of political operatives approached Frank Stronach to ask for his support. They were trying to help cobble together legislation that effectively would put an end to the use of raceday medication.

Stronach listened attentively, wished them luck, told them he was on their side, but that he was distrustful of federal intervention, had his own way of doing things, and wished to affect change through the auspices of the industry itself.

Two months ago, Stronach showed up on Capitol Hill with his lobbyist in tow and asked one question: “What can I do to help?”

When racing’s ultimate rabble-rousing visionary, who has invested over a billion dollars in the sport, gives up on the prospect that the industry can reform itself if everyone would just give it a little more time to build on the progress already made, why should players and fans place their trust in the same old promises?

Since well-financed horsemen’s groups--devotees of the status quo whose creed is “never give an inch”--figure to fight any significant change in race-day medication policy, it’s up to the tracks to take a proactive stance to rebuild the trust of its customers.

This is because the Jockey Club, which has worked diligently and behind the scenes, has failed to use its registry clout to advance the cause; neither has the Graded Stakes Committee done anything to initiate a new conversation on this sensitive matter.

The Breeders’ Cup took a baby step by withdrawing race-day Lasix from their juvenile races a few years ago but shortly thereafter caved in to pressure laid to bear by horsemen’s groups in California who threatened to boycott Santa Anita’s Breeders’ Cup reprise.

This week, Gulfstream Park announced plans to run two Lasix-free races for juveniles this summer, one for each sex, using a $65,000 purse carrot to encourage participation.

The gesture may turn out to be mostly ceremonial but it’s a start and shows a willingness on Stronach’s part to walk his talk by keeping a promise he made a year ago. He believes Lasix-free racing is possible and that race-day medication-free racing attainable.

Initially, incentivizing purses probably is the only way to get significant cooperation from horsemen who could hold tracks purse-increased hostage should it try to extend a raceday medication-free policy to other divisions. It’s worth a try if only to shed light on where industry stakeholders truly stand.

As the Stronach Group also owns Santa Anita Park, Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park, Golden Gate Fields and Portland Meadows, it is in a unique position to get the ball rolling in different parts of the country. This would provide exposure in two of racing’s four key regions.

This winter the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted to allow tracks to card races banning Lasix 24 hours in advance of post time. This sounds good in theory but impractical since Lasix generally is ineffective outside a four-hour window--unless, of course, the whole country is made to comply.

With its sales component, Keeneland is likely to give it a go. Churchill Downs, desperate to fill races given the competition with Indiana for bloodstock at the lower levels, probably cannot afford to experiment unless, again, that’s the rule in Indiana, too.

But with Keeneland and, by extension, Kentucky on board, only New York would remain. The reality is as New York goes, so will the prospect of national legislation. The bill cannot happen without New York which, to date, has been more about window dressing than substance.

Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY) is set to introduce the Thoroughbred Horse Racing Anti-Doping Act of 2015 to establish uniform standards for drugs and medication in the American Thoroughbred industry. This bill will not hold national simulcasting hostage, unlike the Pitts legislation.

In a recent press release, Tonko acknowledged the industry for taking significant steps toward medication reform but that national legislation is needed to build on that progress by providing a uniform solution that sets the highest standards of independence, fairness and integrity.

The planned legislation would grant independent authority over rule-making, testing and enforcement oversight regarding drugs and medication to an agency created by the non-profit, non-governmental U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

Among other things, this would free the industry to concentrate on other issues such as a national promotional campaign which should have as its focus handicapping/gambling as thought-provoking entertainment with a built-in, skill-based profit component.

The language of the Tonko bill must be carefully crafted so that racing understands that it still controls its own destiny, only with independent and transparent oversight.

To date, without national leadership, all efforts in this area ultimately have failed. After two decades, the industry is still talking, still taking suggestions under advisement, and still saying that more study is needed: This game has been studied to death; all hail American Pharoah and the status quo.

National legislation will go nowhere without the cooperation of the industry it is trying to help and reform. It cannot be stressed enough that the proposed bill would not create an ongoing role for federal government in horse racing, as would-be obstructionists might argue.

Jockey Club and Breeders’ Cup Ltd. approval is not just helpful, it’s mandatory. Along with the backing of the Humane Society of the United States and the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance, a consortium of the industry’s most influential players, this much needed national legislation actually might have a chance.

Nearly a half-million jobs nationally and $25 billion in economic impact depends on it.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 07, 2015

King Pharoah: Thirty-Seven and Won

ELMONT, NY, June 7, 2015—Note the dateline, it's Sunday's, not Saturday’s. I needed time to look up strict meaning of surreal: It’s quite the day when events that you cannot control meld into youthful exuberance at an advanced age.

I was one the privileged 90,000 who had a ticket to the best show on earth. Every day I’m living the dream, lucky to turn a passion into my life’s work. The entire day unfolded literally before my eyes. Trainer Dale Romans had a horse in the Belmont, Keen Ice, and he made the following possible.

Romans and I are at polar ends on what our sport needs today, in his view humane treatment of the Thoroughbred with the proper amount of CCs of Lasix, and he demands properly enforced uniform rules with a graduated punishment schedule for offenders.

I want the United States Anti-Doping Agency, a proven non-governmental organization that adjudicated the Lance Armstrong case and also involved with NFL testing, a league that sometimes keeps its athletes on the field by any therapeutic means necessary.

I also favor an end to race-day medication, the elephant that’s trying to sneak out of the closet, once and for all. I know: Perfect World Dreamer. I prefer to think of it in football terms; throwing deep. In games of chance, perception rules.

Romans and I now enjoy a mutual respect, a sense of trust and fairness, because of the Rick Dutrow case. The three of us coalesced one afternoon in South Florida in late January. It was the first time I ever sat down with Dutrow, race interviews notwithstanding.

After interfacing for nearly two hours, I promised both that I would read the hearing testimony. Rick and Dale said that’s all they wanted. On Saturday, I was rewarded with a front row seat to history by Romans. It just happened that way; karma, kismet. And Keen Ice ran the best he could; a crisp third-place finish.

They called her the Ice Queen but not for reasons you might think. She is a family friend who attended the Belmont with me and once had turned her brother’s talent and garage into a million-dollar-a-year business as co-founder of Ice Sculpture Designs on Long Island.

Alas, a yarn with local color and Divine intervention. Bill Maher would hate this story.

So we would be sitting in Keen Ice’s box and the Belmont horse I fancied, Frosted, sounded like a natural exacta to my friend’s parents. But something got in the way of the Hunch Bet of a Lifetime; a very special race horse named American Pharoah.

The colt is now on his way to becoming a legendary figure in the sport. If he can close out the season in similar fashion in the Breeders’ Cup Classic—without compromising his main rival at the start, of course—he will have earned that distinction. On Saturday, American Pharoah retired the Eclipse trophy for Horse of the Year 2015.

We sat gawking all day. To our left and down one row was Todd Pletcher for a race or two. I saw Kiaran McLaughlin at the end of the day and thanked him for giving all fans an extra thrill when Frosted loomed the only danger entering the straight. He smiled, the look on his face of a man proud of his horse.

“We were just second best today,” he said when prodded about a softer pace that many had expected. Then he averted his glance to peer out over the continuing winners’ circle ceremonies he so wanted for his team and said, with pride, “great for the game.”

One shining moment on a glorious day in June. I’ll never forget how Romans’ gesture turned a press box wretch into a kid flush with excitement. I’m sure I wasn’t the only horseplayer who stood a little taller when American Pharoah began to widen his advantage.

Of course, everyone in racing is celebrating the first Triple Crown since 1978. Hell, it was his fourth win in eight weeks over four tracks at four different distances by a horse whose pedigree was supposed to stop him five weeks ago.

The Test of the Champion began smoothly, no one seriously compromised, a small stutter-step notwithstanding, as the leaders raced into the clubhouse turn. As expected, American Pharoah was on the lead with Materiality on the chase.

Frosted was in a tough spot, Joel Rosario having to decide whether to stay in the clear outside or drop over to the fence. He knew he couldn’t take back because Belmonts aren’t won from the clouds. Consequently, he would up between rivals for much of the backstretch run.

I and perhaps many others awaited the pace challenge from Materiality and Johnny Velazquez that never came, surprising for the gate-compromised Derby competitor and wire winner of the Florida Derby.

If 48-and-change and 1:13-and change weren’t enough to seal the deal, then a brilliant tactic from Victor Third-Time-the-Charm Espinoza was. Espinoza, separated himself from the group soon after entering the far turn. The slow pace takes nothing away from American Pharoah's achievement; clearly the best of his generation won on the square, impressively.

Frosted, in no man’s land at that point, worked his way over to the fence with momentum while under brilliant handling from Rosario before tipping out to loom a viable threat.

But Espinoza and American Pharoah had more and kicked away, never leaving the issue in doubt. There would be no Real Quiet reprise for Bob Baffert this day; no Smarty Jones drama for two generations of fans who wanted to see history made in the worst way.

My late, great friend Cary Fotias always said that of all the major sporting events, nothing beats the roar of the Belmont crowd at the top of the stretch with a Triple Crown on the line. On Saturday, that was true after the wire as well.

If I were insulated in the press box, the original plan until Romans asked on Thursday if I needed anything for Saturday, I never would have felt this Triple Crown, or watch the scene unfold first hand.

There was Joe “Riders Up” Torre embracing Baffert after the Hall of Famer stopped celebrating with his family.

There was Jerry Jones, too, smiling widely, making arrangements so that his guest, Bill Clinton, could enjoy the festivities. POTUS’ mother Rose was an Oaklawn Park regular. My friend snapped a picture of the President talking with Dr. Ruth outside the Trustees Room.

The Governor of the State of New York, the agency that has taken custody of the New York Racing Association, and which has been slow in allowing it to be privatized, sent a representative for the trophy presentation instead.

A half hour after the race, we walked out on to Hempstead Turnpike and into the spring night. American Pharoah had an easier time winning the Belmont than we had finding a cab. But all’s well that ends happily, and memorably.

Written by John Pricci

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