Sunday, December 02, 2018

Changing of the Guard Shifts Racing Landscape

For those in Thoroughbred racing who believe that the great Mississippi River is what separates East from West or, in this case, the New York Racing Association from Southern California, know that you’ve been using the wrong simile.

A more appropriated image would be a double-edged reflection in a two-way mirror, worthy of an Oscar Wilde who, coincidentally, published his only novel 10 years after the justifiably famous Apollo won his Kentucky Derby.

Like Dorian Gray’s image, East Meets West is geographic deception defined.

Racing in New York and California has made real and potential changes in the waning days of the 2018 racing season, a transformation that may be completed by week’s end.

That’s when New York is expected to officially extend the most influential race meet on the planet when NYRA’s Board of Directors convenes this week. Whether or not it extends the meet might solely depend on attitude. Racetracks are unhappy when their potential plans appear elsewhere first. But as 2019 looms, it might not have a choice.

Extending the Saratoga race meet is at once a huge deal and one that long has been considered a possibility. Is starting the 2019 Spa meet on July 11 instead of July 19, such a big deal? What is big would be a humane decision to reduce the race week from an anachronistic six days to five.

Extending such sagacity further, weekday programs should be limited to nine races with 10-race cards on weekends. A 12-race Travers Day exemption? At least that’s easily justifiable, so have at it. What is clear is that New York racing already has changed and will continue to do so.

The newly minted mega Belmont Stakes Day and Stars N Stripes Festival cards have created event weekends, travel destinations for those so inclined, a chance for New York to bask in the national spotlight, a rightful place. And scheduling is so vital for present day visibility and aesthetic success.

Back in the day, the Wood Memorial was Grade 1 and New York horseman returned from winter quarters at about that time instead of staying in a place where--as the saying went--“they pay you in sunshine.”

But that shipping schedule changed and New Yorkers returned in time for the Belmont opener, thereabouts. Now, the best runners on “the good horse circuit” remain south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

That’s because Keeneland, always a big deal, has become a monster. Quality combined with quantity is a reality that’s still popular with bettors despite raised takeout rates, which have been partially rescinded. From there, the best Keeneland horses move on to Churchill Downs for Derby week stakes.

After that, most New Yorkers have returned home but faster than you can say Belmont Stakes, fields start dwindling as horsemen begin pointing for Saratoga--races the whole world watches. Unfortunately, due to the fresh-horse Breeders’ Cup trend, Belmont’s Fall Championship Meet, like most other autumn session, has become prep city.

Thank the New York racing gods for Saratoga.

Southern California racing, namely Santa Anita, has been having their woes, too, so much so that The Stronach Group’s Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo is now spending most of his time in Arcadia, trying to make the Great Race Place Great Again.

On Ritvo’s watch, Gulfstream became the Capital of Winter Racing, and Laurel Park has risen from the dustbin of indifference. Now, who is to say that one day it won’t host a future Breeders’ Cup which would have been considered an impossible dream a decade ago.

A “new” Santa Anita is being built using a successful Gulfstream Park template that includes an expanded barn area, a 20-Cent Jackpot Pick Six, and a new turf-sprint program, the elements that made Gulfstream the success it’s been since its reincarnation.

Every racetrack wants full fields of top horses and Ritvo is no exception. But given an either/or scenario, he would opt for larger fields of lesser horses daily than to limit Santa’s Anita’s national exposure to five-horse Grade 1s on weekends. This week, notable changes at Santa Anita became national stories, one of them highly controversial.

We have no special knowledge but the firing of track announcer Michael Wrona was, in our view, part of Belinda Stronach’s directive to cost costs. In the role of a good soldier, Ritvo took the hit. Besides, race calling is just not an area that interests him.

But Racing Director is. Part of Ritvo’s success at Gulfstream was his poaching of New York’s underappreciated P J Campo. The popularity of turf sprinting, especially during Campo’s early Saratoga days, was successful because those races attracted big, betable fields.

Gulfstream’s popularity and bottom line success coincided with its accent of turf racing, especially sprints. Eventually, year over year soaring handle earned Campo a promotion to Vice President of Racing for TSG.

Turf’s burgeoning popularity, combined with Campo’s trend-setting race conditions that sometimes go four levels deep, has led to larger fields. This made for very challenging handicapping puzzles, which led to handle-increasing “spread betting” in popular horizontal pools.

If Campo doesn’t temporarily fill in for Rick Hammerle, dismissed as Santa Anita racing secretary this week, he already has a replacement in mind, one who will receive a copy of Campo’s condition-book game plan the moment he accepts the job.

By inking a long-term deal with FOX Sports to create a year-round national television home for New York racing from both Saratoga Race Course and Belmont Park, extending the Saratoga meet, racing’s premier extended-meet brand, makes sense.

In 2019, FOX Sports will televise 500 hours of NYRA racing, nearly every race run at Belmont and Saratoga. The broadcast schedule will then expand to more than 600 hours annually in 2020. More Saratoga racing likely proved to be a big carrot at the negotiating table.

In addition to Saratoga being good for business, its possible expansion is based on two more mitigating factors: The construction of an arena for the NHL’s Islanders on the Belmont Park property could be a logistical nightmare during live racing. But of greater import was for New York to raise its racing profile.

Santa Anita and the NYRA are well aware of their sagging popularity and influence. Within two weeks, each has changed the face of what it will present to its respective fan bases. The betting market, as it has in Maryland and especially South Florida, ultimately will have the final say.


When the bread and butter claimers of the racing game get to run for $110,000--the best of them going two turns for $200,000--horsemen are going to respond.

Including two special-weight maiden races on grass, 149 horses were entered on the inaugural program of Gulfstream’s 2018-2019 Championship Meet that concludes with the Florida Derby on the final Saturday in March.

Not only did horsemen support the Claiming Crown program but bettors did as well. And why not? Think of the competitive events as the Breeders’ Cup for claimers. Euros? Who needs Euros when the secretary’s office can entice runners that last ran at 21 different venues?

And if the name of the game is claimers, then Jorge Navarro is the name to know. Despite a reputation based on otherworldly accomplishments, Navarro horses won three of nine Claiming Crown events, the only favorite being the winner of the nominal feature, Aztec Sense, who improved his 2018 slate to a perfect 8-for-8.

Jockey Chris Landeros, who is not a Gulfstream regular, had a riding triple, including two Claiming Crown events, the Canterbury Stakes with Rocket Heat and the Glass Slipper with Misschief Maas. Another newcomer, veteran trainer Tom Amoss, broke his Gulfstream maiden in the Distaff Dash with promising turf sprinting miss Oxford Comma.

But Gulfstream mainstays also enjoyed success on the season opening card. Seeking a 16th consecutive training title, Todd Pletcher won the third race with favorite Bourbon in May. It was his 384th GP victory since 2013.

Claiming Crown regulars Ken Ramsey and trainer Mike Maker won their 16th and 17th races, respectively, when fast finishing Peru won the Tiara under chilly, perfect execution from Julien Leparoux.

Avoiding the danger of losing daylight this time of year, there was nary a post-drag—with the possible exception of the feature--but despite that and competition from NYRA’s high profile Cigar Mile program, Gulfstream broke its opening day handle record of $11.9 million set last year.

Saturday’s handle topped out at $13.6 million, a 14 percent increase year over year. By comparison, NYRA’s graded stakes laden card attracted handle of $12.7 million on a 10-race program.


Four graded stakes highlighted Saturday’s Aqueduct card. Two Grade 2 races for juveniles produced excellent performances from the Demoiselle winner, Positive Spirit, and Remsen victor, Maximus Mischief.

Positive Spirit (11-1) drew off in deep stretch, widening her winning margin to 10-1/2 lengths over a surface that played very slowly throughout the day. The Churchill Downs shipper bested Parx invader Afleet Destiny (26-1). Nine furlongs was timed in 1.56.01.

The impressive part of the victory by Maximus Mischief (7-5) was twofold. He rated kindly in his two-turn debut--despite running off in a recent allowance sprint at Parx--as he stalked the early pace of 60-1 Gladiator King.

Notwithstanding some greenness in the lane, he was unpressured by favorite Network Effect’s (11-10) late rally, holding the Chad Brown trainee safe by 2-1/4 lengths. The Robert Reid trained runner, owned by Smarty Jones’ connections, is now undefeated in three starts.

The running time of 1.51.34 was approximately 23 lengths faster than the filly ran the same distance and his final three furlongs was run in a strong 36.74 seconds. He will winter in South Florida and his three-year-old debut is eagerly anticipated.

Patternrecognition (5-1) raised his game at the conclusion of his five-year-old season, taking the G1 Cigar by 3/4s of a length over True Timber (31-1) in a very solid 1.34.98, a less than sterling renewal of the event.

Heavily favored Marley’s Freedom (1-2) was life and death to hold off Come Dancing (9-1) by a neck in the G3 Go for Wand, the mile timed in 1.38.35. Wouldn’t be terribly surprised if she joined former mate Abel Tasman in the breeding shed next season.

Written by John Pricci

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