Sunday, June 18, 2017

Hey Dad, Have You Ever Taken Your Kid to the Races?

In the 50s, 60s and 70s, when horses still had a presence in everyday life, there was a lot more advertising about bringing dad out to the track on Father’s Day. But that’s not really the case anymore.

Back in the day, dads and uncles took their sons and nephews to the track on a Saturday, providing a fascinating wide-eyed introduction to the spectacle of Thoroughbred racing.

This, of course, was prologue. Betting off-track did not exist, neither did simulcasting, the Internet, or even cable TV as we know it today. In the minds of youngsters, the racetrack was an exciting wide-eyed spectacle of sights, sounds and colors, and it still can be.

But the advertising we see today is left to in-house invitations via a closed simulcasting loop because racing coverage, right down to entries-and-results agate, no longer exists in mainstream media, special big events notwithstanding.

Ergo, it doesn’t make sense for local racetracks to market en masse because sports fans in the main are unaware of the sport beyond the Triple Crown and in places outside of Saratoga, Del Mar and Lexington. Consequently, young people never get the message.

Racing’s omni-presence went out with high-button shoes. And what’s left to promote is no less controversial. Are we selling a grand, colorful, upscale entertainment experience, or a gambling game played with expensive animals?

New fans can be created only by their live introduction to racing’s grand spectacle. If it is meant to be, it will happen only after seeing horse racing’s unique blend of color, excitement and chance.

A message must be sent that racing is a pastime worthy of immersion by some of the world’s most influential people; much more than simply a thinking man’s gambling vehicle.

I’ve written this often, so please indulge me once more. When I was 16, I was compelled to accompany my parents and aunt and uncle to Roosevelt Raceway one Saturday night.

It was the second International Trot and the mile-and-a-quarter event was won by Holland’s Hairos II, with Italian and American horses completing the trifecta. We were a family of five that summer night in 1960. There also was another 50,332 in attendance.

My father gave me $6 for three $2 wagers and so I picked out three names I liked, printed in the Daily Mirror’s bold type. I went 3-for-3: Count Pick, Speedy Pick and Garnet Queen. I turned $6 into $13. I was rich.

But this wasn’t meant to be a Father’s Day tale—I miss you, dad—rather as an expansive reply to a comment made by one of the HRI Faithful at the bottom of Indulto’s latest column, a man who goes by the handle of McDuff.

His surname is inconsequential in this regard and I barely can remember Dennis’ face but we had a thread in common, the late, great turf writer and dear friend, Paul Moran.

Moran was the conduit by which I met McDuff. First and foremost, it was clear he loved the game, a recreational bettor who enjoyed talking horses with a couple of Newsday guys at a local pub.

Horses and the racing was the thread that bound us all. No one was bigger than the game which unfortunately is not so much the case these days. Tangential but appropriate, incivility hurts the racing dynamic, too, a fact also pointed out in the comment section.

But there was for McDuff a more disturbing aspect, the result of Mark Berner’s column on veterinary reports in his Belmont Stakes Tuesday wrap-up.

Berner wrote on the veterinary report released by the New York State Gaming Commission regarding how many and which horses were treated with medication prior to competing in the high profile races run on the Belmont Day program. Wrote McDuff:

“Mark Berner's comments had me so annoyed regarding the lack of common sense within the industry, I just lashed out. When viewing runners in the paddock before a race, I always liked to view the field to see who looked clean, excessive sweating, bandages, etc., etc.

“To learn that every runner in the Belmont Stakes was on raceday meds just blew me away. What have they done to our sport? I gave up on baseball so many years past over the steroid issue…

“For the overseers of the sport, I guess it all comes down to the money to be made today…

“Trainers like Mack Miller and stewards like John Rotz are no more apparently. Just look at what the current day governance did for, or better yet, to Dutrow..?

“At times I suspect it must be difficult for you to prevail through all of it. Especially the personal swipes and attacks levied at you on the HRI comments board. So many old and angry…

“‘Somebody stole my passion, somebody stole my zeal’ [song lyrics] captures all of [racing’s] empty seats quite well. Berner’s Vet Transparency article was quite disturbing to me.

“As a small recreational player, I have not been so much concerned with issues like whales and takeout as I am with the lack of honesty, integrity and sincerity of stewardship of the sport.

“…The animosity, negativity and harshness of the commentaries, and lack of civility of late found at HRI, only further convince me that it is time to quietly walk away.

“I will continue to read John’s Feature Race Analysis and no doubt still wager a few bucks on the feature, but for the most part I will become more a member of the empty seats.

“Should same-day racing medications be eliminated, I will look to return but for now, ‘somebody along the way stole the passion’ indeed. Just not as much fun any longer. In closing I want to thank the featured bloggers and I hope for more positive change in the sport.”

When racing loses the passion of a lifetime fan, just as it had when Dr. Steven Roman, the father of Dosage theory, walked away completely and shuttered his chef-de-race website last year, the trouble for the sport is real and ongoing.

As for wagering, there is gambling game if this sport ceases to exist, even given its weakened status and standing.

With the exception of racing’s myriad problems, that always have existed in one form or another, modern big pharma and the emergence of the dominant “super trainer” have made the modern game less competitive in nature.

The irony is that the sport at its highest levels, on balance, never has been better in our view. Today’s breeding industry, in catering to the market, is cranking out more good horses.

The fact that most are not as durable is a multi-faceted issue, not the least of which is over-medication, legal and otherwise.

Good racing, coupled with fewer racing days, can be maintained at its present level, especially since the sport is becoming more international by the minute. This can only grow the sport in America by heightening interest worldwide.

But without the passion of the every-day fans, and even the game’s practitioners, mainstream media will remain indifferent and racing’s slow slide into an abyss is likely to continue unabated, slowly but inexorably.

The Triple Crown will be popular every year, as will places like Saratoga and Del Mar, and the Breeders’ Cup series of qualifying races, plus the events themselves, along with a handful of Super Saturdays, will keep the sport relevant to its true lovers.

Horses are no longer a part of America’s daily fabric; the price of progress. In the near future, automobiles will be driving themselves and online shopping will continue to be the bane of the big-box stores.

So dad and Uncle Joe, if your kids have not taken you to the track today that may be on you. But one sunny summer Saturday, introduce them to a racetrack near you. Two things will happen: They will get it about the racing experience, or they won’t.

The sin is in not knowing such a wondrous pastime even exists.

June 18, 2017

Written by John Pricci

Comments (21)


Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Classic Day Replete with Classic Performances

Vindication comes in many forms: There’s the kind where tough luck is expunged; when an often-criticized methodology proves unjustified, and when the Belmont Stakes, sans Triple Crown drama--even without winners of the first two installments of the world’s most famous three-race series--is still The Belmont.

Bad karma was nipped in the bud Saturday at when Tapwrit atoned for the desperate nose defeat suffered by his come-backing four-year-old stablemate Destin in last year’s Belmont, suffered at the hooves of Creator.

Saturday’s clear-cut perfect trip victory surely must have been worth the additional $800,000 his connections paid for the Tapit colt, as compared to the year-older Giant’s Causeway offspring. And when form holds, so does the importance of a racing classic.

Alongside Jose Ortiz, who engineered a rail skimming ride perfectly behind the fastest horse in the field and worthy favorite, Irish War Cry, his first Classic victory, stood Todd Pletcher, the guy who supposedly is great at winning Classic preps but the races not so much.

Pletcher’s Belmont record hardly could be much better: Three wins and four second from 13 starters, all having one common thread; they ran on Derby weekend, skipped the crab cakes festival, returned to home base and either started or completed seven exactas.

And, once again in the modern era, spacing mattered. Tapwrit was the fourth Belmont winner that ran in the Derby, skipped the Preakness, before rejoining the caravan five weeks later. That’s five times in the last 10 years.

And so does pedigree, especially when testing champions. Irish War Cry ran a winning race. He did the dirty work, setting the pace with the speedy and wound-up Meanwhile hounding him throughout, but the bottom side of his pedigree got to him inside the final sixteenth of a mile.

Look further up the track and there was Gormley, attempting a winning bid at headstretch that launched him into a clear third midway through the lane but also succumbed in the final furlong to the stoutly bred Patch who, like the runnerup, ran their eyeballs out. An excellent performance by the superfecta performers, indeed.

Clearly, form held. Belmont favorites weren’t able to add to their impressive 42% win ratio, Irish War Cry unable to add to the chalk’s worthy 62-for-148 slate into Saturday.

But inside posts again proved to be advantageous, per usual, as #2 Tapwrit was the 94th horse since 1905 to win from slip 7 inward (Irish War Cry broke sharply from a near mid-pack post 7.

And so Belmont Stakes 149, a good show, concluded this parity-filled season, circumstances dictating separate winners of all three legs, each of whom is expected to be part of the boxed NTRA weekly poll of three-year-olds taken tomorrow; the key horse still anyone’s guess.

It will only serve to make the second season a lot more interesting, especially when uber talent Mastery, and Easy Goer-winning West Coast jumps into the frame for the first time, notwithstanding the return of Classic Empire. The championship season is just getting started.


Especially ‘Money Mike’ Smith, the self-described ‘Big Day Bob’ Baffert, and a filly named Songbird. But, wait, there’s more…

Jose Ortiz had a riding triple, including the Woodford Reserve-Belmont Stakes double returning $415.50; Chris Clement exacting Jaipur revenge with Disco Partner, who missed by a wild-finishing neck in last year’s renewal and, not to be ignored, a new filly turf star from Chad Brown and Juddmonte, Antonoe.

To recall a similarly explosive turn of foot, was forced to recall Royal Academy’s 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile, or Miesque’s two runs in that same event several years earlier, or any of Goldikova’s three straight scores from 2008-10. If you missed it:

Heart-warming to see Jimmy Toner flash his noted turf acumen with Manitoulin in the race after the Belmont, especially in the colors of Darby Dan Farm, something you rarely see on today’s big-event stages--cool, classy silks.

But beyond the “Test of the Champion,” Saturday clearly belong to Smith, Baffert and a great filly.

A five-win stakes day for Smith, four of them while sitting in the Belmont rocking chair waiting to push the button, horses that were locked and loaded by Baffert.

But one mount did require a brilliant tactical maneuver with Kentucky Oaks-winning Abel Tasman, who stole the storied Acorn mile from co-favorite Salty and five other three-year-old fillies, a turn-move swoop up the fence to blow the race open by headstretch.

Baffert’s four winners, if they weren’t there already, are now set for prime time. West Coast showed again that he will act anywhere and belongs in top company (Haskell anyone?) and that American Anthem and Mor Spirit are a little better than I surmised.

At first blush, I was a tad disappointed with Songbird’s return, but that’s the reason racing video was invented. The returning first-time four-year-old, now a nose shy of a perfect baker’s dozen lifetime slate, showed no rust and broke like a shot out of the gate.

But what first was interpreted as dullness, was in fact a schooling lesson from Mike Smith as the competing speed tried to chew on the favorite down the backside. And to everyone watching, Smith notwithstanding, things got more than a bit dicey on the turn.

Javier Castellano aboard Paid Up Subscriber was attempting to do to Smith what Smith did to Joel Rosario, Salty’s partner, only the race before, only Smith had a proven champion beneath him.

Indeed, Paid Up Subscriber put a long neck in front and Songbird was in danger of being defeated, until later when the replay indicated that Smith was educating the “bigger, stronger” four-year-old for the battles ahead, knowing his filly’s class would carry the day.

Soon after straightening away, Smith went to a more vigorous hand drive, but still with a loose rein, and in the end, Paid Up Subscriber ultimately gave way. The takeaway is that the challenger gave a career performance while the champion got a race she needed to build on and while getting the money, too.

Hall of Fame Hollendorfer had his filly fit, but she was not cranked to the extent that she needed to be had her challenger been, say, Stellar Wind in the two-turn Grade 1 Gamely Stakes.


Although total handle for the stakes-laden Belmont Stakes Day card was down 5.8% to $93,666,832, all-sources handle for the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival showed an increase 1.6% to $124,740,193.

While attendance of 57,729 was disappointing compared to the 60,114 fans who came out in 2016, a 4% decrease, it was much better than the crowd who showed up to see Palace Malice in 2013--in a non-Triple Crown apples-to-apples comparison—by 10,167.

By contrast, all-sources wagering was up 30% on Thursday year over year, while Friday registered an increase of 35% increase.

Despite the unfortunate but justified of Epicharis, Japanese bettors wagered $4.6 million in a separate pool. While the host track gets a piece of the action, that separate pool total cannot be included in NYRA’s official figures.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (30)


Sunday, May 28, 2017

Open Letter to Martin Panza, NYRA Senior Vice-President, Racing Operations

Dear Mr. Panza,

I’m writing to you on behalf of the racing fans of America and especially your constituents in New York’s metropolitan area.

We are in the midst of a three-day holiday weekend that celebrates true American patriots, especially those who paid the ultimate price for service to their country--this also includes our battle-scarred veterans who returned to their families.

Please don’t misunderstand me, sir. My request on behalf of Thoroughbred enthusiasts in no way compares with, or in any other manner minimizes the sentiment expressed above. Nothing can be compared to the horror of war.

Political correctness, even in the current environment, still has a deserved place where reverence for ideals and ideas must be maintained.

Tomorrow, Memorial Day, will mark the 56th anniversary of the first time I ever witnessed a Thoroughbred horse race.

Like many other New York racing enthusiasts, the only time I went racing was to after-dark harness tracks. Roosevelt Raceway and Yonkers Raceway were teeming with fans in numbers that the present-day NYRA would go to extreme measures to replicate.

And so it was on this revered American holiday that I was given my first opportunity to attend the races. Every seat in the Aqueduct house, stretching from Conduit to Rockaway Boulevards, was filled with racegoers.

I arrived in time to see one of my television heroes; a horse called Kelso. I watched from the grandstand apron and the ground literally shook because “Kelly” was erasing a five-length deficit in the final furlong. In that moment I went over-the-moon, hooked on the sport.

“The version of the Metropolitan run on May 30, 1961 attracted a field of seven and was led postward by Kelso, who somehow managed to be Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old in 1960 without going anywhere near one of the Triple Crown events. Their loss.

“In that ’61 Metropolitan, Kelso was making his second start as a 4-year-old for his trainer, Carl Hanford. He carried 130 pounds, most of it Eddie Arcaro, and beat All Hands, who carried 117, by a nose. Woody Stephens trained All Hands.”
-- Jay Hovdey, DRF, 2011

The Met Mile had become for me, and still can be for others, the kind of race that can attract a holiday visitor to Belmont Park to see a special horse run. And maybe that newcomer can feel the same connected excitement I felt at the end of a holiday weekend.

Of course, I went back the following year to see if a small but mighty Carry Back, a Jack Prince home-bred by ‘Nobody out of Nothing’ and three-year old-champion of 1961, could make his patented late rush and win the Met Mile at 4. He did and he did.

In that first year at the track, 1961--a future Met Mile winner was getting another future author tethered to the game, and she remembered a quote from trainer Jinks Fires. -- Leslie Knauf, “The Rail: New York Times Horse Racing Blog,” 2011, wrote:

“In the week leading up to this year’s Kentucky Derby, 70-year old Jinks Fires, the trainer of Archarcharch, described Carry Back’s memorable victory over Crozier as the first Derby he witnessed.

“That was the race that launched the remarkable story of Carry Back as “the people’s horse” — the same one that ignited a lifelong passion for racing in the heart of one young second grader 50 years ago.”

In 1977, I became Newsday’s first Thoroughbred handicapper. Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown and Forego won the Metropolitan Mile. All was right with the world--until Slew was shipped to California and Forego accepted his weight challenge in the Suburban.

As a result of Forego’s Met Mile win, legendary Racing Secretary Tommy Trotter assigned the giant dark bay highweight of 138 pounds for the Suburban Handicap. Forego lost by a neck to Quiet Little Table, who carried 114 pounds to victory.

“Horse players received another major shock to their wallets yesterday when the great Forego was beaten at Belmont Park a day after Seattle Slew suffered his first defeat in California.

“It is likely a Forego victory in the $106,400 Suburban Handicap would have solidified his chances at a fourth straight Horse‐of‐the‐Year award. Instead, he fell victim to the immense difference in weights he toted.

“When a valet slung the pouch loaded with 44 pounds of lead over his back, Forego's trainer, Frank Whitely Jr., standing on the other side of the horse, shouted, 'Don’t miss'.

“Trotter said he could not recall the last time a horse in this country carried so much weight. “We assigned that much to Kelso once,” he said, “but his owner refused it."
–- Jerry Eskenazi, The New York Times, 1977

There have been other unforgettable Met moments for racing fans, Mr. Panza, the next one coming for me 17 years later. Three weeks before that year’s Met, a big gray power-ball speedster called Holy Bull failed miserably as that year’s Kentucky Derby favorite.

But on Memorial Day, 1994, my wife Toni and I celebrated this unique American holiday on the Belmont Park apron watching Holy Bull dominate older rivals in gate-to-wire fashion to beat Cherokee Run, later to become 1994’s champion sprinter.

“Three weeks after he was battered and beaten in the Kentucky Derby, the big gray colt Holy Bull revived his ranking as a speed demon yesterday when he outran older stars from wire to wire and won the $500,000 Metropolitan Handicap by 5 1/2 lengths over Cherokee Run.

“It was his first performance since he ran 12th in a field of 14 in the rain and the rough-house of the Derby, and it was memorable. He led every step of the way against a distinguished cast, he ran the third-fastest Metropolitan Mile in the 101-year history of the race and he became only the 15th horse to win it at the age of 3.”
–- Joe Durso, The New York Times, 1994

Then, 11 years later, came the unforgettable Ghostzapper.

“When Bobby Frankel was a young trainer claiming cheap horses, he watched Secretariat and Affirmed sweep the Triple Crown and wondered what it would be like to condition the best horse on the planet.

“He found out yesterday at Belmont Park. Ghostzapper, the reigning Horse of the Year, effortlessly captured the Grade I $750,000 Metropolitan Mile by six and a quarter lengths.

“A crowd of 15,066, witnessing his first start in seven months, seemed to give him a reverent ovation. Many of the fans had probably passed up other holiday plans in the hopes they would catch a glimpse of greatness.

“They were not disappointed.”
– Joe Drape, The New York Times, 2005

Mr. Panza, I’m imploring you to consider this: Please restore the Metropolitan Handicap to its rightful place on the NYRA racing calendar. For all that it has meant to the history of the game—not to mention that of New York racing—the event rates a day unto itself.

If you would, please bring this up with your fellow executives and NYRA Board members when they convene to consider the 2018 stakes schedule. For those who want to run farther, the 1-1/2 mile Brooklyn, older companion of the Belmont, is there in two weeks.

If nothing else, the Met Mile still can be a nicely spaced bridge to the Suburban on the July 4th holiday weekend, either at its present distance or shorter. Now that there no longer is a Handicap Triple series to consider, reconfiguration is possible, yes?

Indeed, I too live in the real world. I acknowledge and have applauded your vision for American racing, trying to place it on an international footing, just as you first envisioned when you created the American Oaks during your tenure at Hollywood Park.

The internationally popular and stamina-rewarding goal was, and remain, a vision for the sport's future, helping American racing in its struggle to regain the popularity and prestige it once enjoyed beyond the five days of Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup.

The Belmont Stakes and July 4th weekend racing festivals not only are an aesthetic success but have succeeded in creating events that horsemen and horseplayers worldwide eagerly support. All the metrics underscore this notion.

Further, I would like it to be fully understood that I have long supported the New York-bred program--although I’m not sure that having two special days for the breed has not blunted the impact of the original Showcase Day event.

When it was a one-day fall occurrence, it was New York’s second largest by handle, only to Belmont Stakes day. State-bred races do not, however, merit the attention of people who might like to give racing a try by setting aside one day on a holiday weekend to see a truly special attraction.

Quite obviously, racing is a game steeped in tradition and history by offering great opportunities to its known stars or to those it helps to create.

If given an opportunity and free time, early impressions made on novice racegoers matter because they can last a lifetime. In acknowledgment to the bottom line, Monday’s six New York-bred stakes would have been a great betting prelude to a true showcase event.

Winning the Met Mile, a true New York fan favorite and every breeder’s dream.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (11)


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