Sunday, May 18, 2014

California Dreamin’: Safe and Warm in Baltimore

SARATOGA SPRINGS, May 17, 2014--For horse racing fans and bettors, dreamers one and all, it doesn’t get any better than what happened Saturday at America’s second oldest racetrack.

California Chrome was second to none.

In the Derby, there were more than a few skeptics but California Chrome proved to be the best horse, flashing that push-button acceleration of his, making the doubters look like a bunch of dumb asses.

And, of course, because of the serendipitous nature of dreams, literal and figurative, he became America’s Horse, winning the Derby for the 99 percenters.

On the third Saturday in May at “Old Hilltop,” the story got even larger. By Saturday night the Chromies were beside themselves, having to scrunch over to make way for a gang of band-wagon fans.

He got his job done, on two weeks rest and in racehorse time. What will happen on Long Island three weeks hence is for another day—on other days and for weeks to come.

But this time there was no told-you-so from the highly visible partner-breeder and 99 percenter Steve Coburn. There was only gratitude, humility and tears of joy, thanking everyone within hailing distance.

How many people have ever stood on a cupola at a Triple Crown track thanking their grooms after a race?

Sometimes it sounds a little trite when the TV guys say it but horse racing is the most democratic of all sports.

A decade ago, it was a fun bunch of high school pals with a horse born virtually in their backyards in upstate New York. Now it’s the Left Coast’s turn for two guys who had $10,000 and a dream.

As for the whole Triple Crown enchilada, there will be plenty of time, plenty of workouts, plenty of rumors—all of it to ponder.

But first, an over-the-shoulder look back at Preakness 139, in the order they went to the post:

1-Dynamic Impact was a gutty, tenacious winner of the Illinois Derby but made no impression whatsoever in the Preakness, the very brief flurry approaching the far turn notwithstanding.

2-General A Rod If you analyze the trips of Derby-Preakness horses not named California Chrome, General A Rod was far unluckier than Ride On Curlin. Javier Castellano engineered perfect position, steering ‘A Rod’ off the rail, at the ready to go after the favorite when it was time. But time stood still when the recklessly managed filly Ria Antonia stopped in his face soon after curling into the far turn--and continued her stopping all the way round the bend. Entering headstretch, ‘A Rod’ was inside with no chance to win. Angled out by Castellano at the three-sixteenths pole, he finished with a flourish after altering course again, only slightly, to the inside of a drifting Ring Weekend. Still, he almost ran down Social Inclusion for third. Ring Weekend had five lengths on A Rod at headstretch but A Rod was 4-1/4 ahead of him at the wire.

3-California Chrome is a remarkable racehorse. If he was tiring at the end of 1-3/16s miles, his action belied that fact. He stayed in rhythm beneath a “perfect” Victor Espinoza, his stick down in the last 40 yards. His course never wavered through the stretch as fatigued or lesser horses would. He makes his own perfect trip every time he runs. Victor’s brother, Jose, for years one of the most under-appreciated riders in New York and told he could never ride again, did a pretty good job getting his brother home Saturday. Here’s hoping miracles happen. This is the California Chrome saga we’re talking about here, so nothing's impossible.

4-Ring Weekend completed a big two weeks for the West Pointers, first Commanding Curve, now this guy, who likely got very little out of his Calder Derby placing, then caught a cold, then made a very representative run in the Triple Crown’s second leg. Coming out at the start and exchanging bumps that virtually eliminated Bayern, he made a nice run up the fence down the backside and on the turn in the spot vacated by ‘A Rod’ and continued running well into the lane, but tired in mid-stretch. It was a damn good try for a horse that had missed some training.

5-Bayern was eliminated at the break. He’s not the type, even if 1-3/16 miles were within his scope, which is suspect. to overcome that kind of buffeting about at the start of a race.

6-Ria Antonia was the subject of a rumor back at the stakes barn after the race that the filly was looking for a new owner. Unfortunately we were unable to confirm the report before posting this column.

7-Kid Cruz was never involved, racing as if he were empty all the way.

8-Social Inclusion washed out badly, as he is prone to do, was obstreperous in the gate, but was the only entrant to actually bring the race to California Comet, Luis Contreras did the only thing he could if he hoped to upset the Preakness. Once again this inexperienced colt acquitted himself very well. It was heartening to see that loyalty is rewarded, albeit to a lesser degree, twice in the same race.

9-Pablo Del Monte was a worthy pace presence but he surely is going to miss the Keeneland Polytrack.

10-Ride On Curlin was perfectly ridden behind a solid, but not especially enervating, pace and gave his all in an excellent run. Everyone in his camp wanted a clear shot at a brass ring and Joel Rosario gave that to the colt and his connections. He ran on very well for second but, from what we could see, the best horse would not let him by even on the gallop-out.

While we’re on this subject, we think that NBCSports is having a good Triple Crown season. But, please, can we stay on the horses just a tad longer before we go to the hero/reaction shots?

I fully realize the network is playing to a different audience, and I’m romantic enough to enjoy all the featured human storylines. That is what makes the sporting aspect of horse racing unique.

But cutting away from the horses too soon after the finish does all viewers a disservice. The aerial shot had the view, but that even was needlessly truncated.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 04, 2014

Horse Racing Also Wins Big at the Derby

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 4, 2014—The greatest thing about loving this game, the greatest thing about the Kentucky Derby, is that sometimes even when you lose trying to beat the favorite, you feel like a winner.

A couple of “dumbasses” put on quite a show at Churchill Downs on Saturday, as did the first race horse they ever owned. California Chrome got there in 2:03.66, the slowest time since Cannonade precisely four decades ago. But that’s for another day.

In Derby 140, there were rough trips and good trips and impossible trips, but there always are in 19-horse fields. But that story can wait, too, that’s a second-day riff; pre-Preakness, pre-Belmont Stakes.

I was at Churchill Downs on 18 occasions during the first week in May and admit that the feeling of being there live is irreplaceably special, especially when they play, as the jockeys put it, “that song.”

But the truth is that television captures the scene better, pictures worth thousands of words.

American horse racing fanatics have read or heard all the stories about the Coburns and Perrys and their dreams. The first time I did was on a cell phone speaker while eating a Chicago-style polish sausage at Hot Dog Heaven in Ft. Lauderdale.

It was there I first heard Coburn’s story on an NTRA conference call. It was quite a yarn he spun that afternoon. It included the story of his sister whose young life was tragically taken by disease at age 36, which Coburn saw as part of California Chrome’s destiny.

For it was 36 years ago when thoroughbred racing last celebrated a Triple Crown winner, said yesterday’s birthday boy, whose horse is now part of Derby lore. Coburn almost convinced me this winter. But the convincing would have to wait 'til Derby day.

It was fated, as was Coburn’s meeting with partner Perry Martin, the less loquacious “dumbass,” who together bought Love The Chase when a previous racing partnership was dissolved upon the mare’s retirement.

The two men formed a new relationship and called it, “Dumbass Partners,” or “DAP,” the name contributed courtesy of a groom who thought that “anyone who decides to buy [Love The Chase] is a dumbass.”

Not to be too hard on the groom, but he didn’t know anything about Coburn’s fate-ridden journey, who, with his partner can now rename the mare Love The Triple Crown Chase.

But even if that quest fails, for this Smarty Jones kind of racehorse the journey has begun, an oldest trainer’s dream realized in the Churchill Downs winners’ circle ceremonies.

Art Sherman is 77. In Triple Crown terms, ’77 was Seattle Slew’s year. California Chrome isn’t undefeated at this stage, but he is 5-for-5 beneath Victor Espinoza, who was as brilliant as his Derby mount.

Espinoza didn’t rattle when caught between speed horses going into the first turn, andnd neither did he rattle on the second turn when Samraat ranged up alongside four abreast.

“There was one inside, one outside. I could see everybody coming outside and my heart went 100 miles an hour,” he would say about the first-turn part of his journey. And when he got California Chrome out in the clear on the backside, it was “what a relief, I could let him stretch his legs.”

At a point where a lesser animal might have begun to wilt, horse and rider appeared relaxed despite having to race between horses. They both were as cool as cucumber slices on a Vienna Beef hotdog. At least that’s the way it appeared on TV.

California Chrome is a cool dude. First of all, he’s a chestnut, not the red kind like the ’73 Triple Crown winner but one that's copper-penny shiny like golden chrome. And there are those white stockings, too.

He has a stall presence, aware of his surroundings, curious but relaxed, in control. He likes people and was very playful, nipping at Johnny Weir who took the “lucky cookies” they were feeding from Tara Lipinski’s hand because “he’s had enough, he has to race tomorrow.”

California Chrome might not have gotten to the Derby finish line in fast time, like he did at Santa Anita, and his winning margin wasn’t nearly as great. But he won, and he won with authority once his closest rival, Samraat, became one-paced three-sixteenths of a mile from home.

“To see all this happen, to see this dream come true, to put up so much – your savings, your retirement – and see him win the Kentucky Derby, I have no words,” said an emotional Coburn after the race.

And, so, once again, California Chrome made a “dumbass” look like a genius, for first turning down a $6 million offer, then a $6.1 million for 51 percent, the catch being that the colt must say goodbye to Art Sherman and Los Alamitos.

Said Coburn Derby week: "The offer we got for this horse was from somebody who never put on a pair of boots to go to work and to me that was kind of an insult. Somebody who's got that much money who thinks they can step in and buy people who have worked so hard to get to this point, to me that was a slap in the face.

"Not only no, but hell no."

Six million dollars? That used to be real money, good enough to divide the mighty Secretariat 40 different ways.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, April 28, 2014

As Derby Week Begins, Racing at the Crossroads

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 28, 2014—From the backside to the executive offices to the press box, the racing community often laments the lack of meaningful media coverage of the sport.

The biggest stories are usually the saddest, the most embarrassing: the Fix Six scandal, the animal cruelty of Ernie Paragallo, the Barbaro and Eight Belles tragedies, the sudden equine death syndrome mystery and, most recently, the PETA/Asmussen tapes.

In the case of the latter, outside events unwittingly took some of the heat off racing created by the undercover sting operation. The NCAA Tournament was in high gear when the story broke. No foul, no harm.

But now, with Derby Week upon us, the sports world is mired in a new obsession; the hideous, hurtful Donald Sterling tapes. However, don’t expect the fallout from the “scandalous” PETA video to disappear anytime soon.

It’s Monday and the Asmussen story already has been dredged up by the New York Daily News, Newsday and a Lexington, KY-based business website.

But whatever coverage this story gets the rest of this week, it will pale in comparison to what will be learned by the general public during the highly rated network broadcast of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

If Bob Costas hosts the event again this year, the medication issue certainly will be covered for the weighty matter that it is. Or the topic might be explored by new hire Josh Elliott, former “Good Morning America” news anchor with an ESPN pedigree.

NBC Sports indicated in a press release when Elliott was hired that horse racing would be one of his assignments.

Given anticipated concerns from the industry, whatever the network decides to do, or not do, it would be good if some leading racing organization made a meaningful announcement this week. That message can come in one of two forms:

In what horsemen’s groups hope will be a preemptive strike is an announcement that an accord has been reached among all major racing jurisdictions to adopt the National Uniform Medication Program, based on the Association of Racing Commissioners International’s model rules.

The RCI program would be a very good start, leveling the playing field on the use of legal medication by lengthening withdrawal times and standardizing and strengthening punishment for medication violations, permitted or otherwise.

Gulfstream Park, following the lead of New Meadowlands, has begun out-of-competition [random] testing. Stronach Group owner Frank Stronach has called for establishment of on-track pharmacies that would buy and dispense all medications to all horses on racetrack grounds.

Based on the Hong Kong model, newly constructed “house rules” would prohibit anyone from having any medication in their possession except those that have been properly prescribed in a recognized therapeutic treatment program.

Critics, of course, pointed to the many logistical issues, such as treatment administered at “off track” training centers, or the fact that Hong Kong is a single circuit with a horse population that routinely is double the amount of races run there in any one year.

The Stronach Group plan calls for hiring an equine health and safety director to devise how the policies will be implemented and decreed in consultation with a committee consisting of owners, trainers and veterinarians.

Jockey Club chairman Ogden Mills Phipps proposed that veterinary records of every horse entered in this year’s Triple Crown races be made immediately available. The New York State Gaming Commission does this for the Belmont Stakes, but it only covers a three-day period. Phipps thinks the time frame be lengthened to two weeks.

A large number of prominent owners and trainers have voluntarily pledged to make veterinary records available to the public for all North American graded stakes.

This is admirable, but it should be considered only a good place to start, especially since the public bets most of its money on high quality racing programs.

Among the trainers to volunteer were Roger Attfield, Mark Casse, Christophe Clement, Neil Drysdale, D. Wayne Lukas, Richard Mandella, Michael Matz, Shug McGaughey, Kenny McPeek, Bill Mott, John Shirreffs, Al Stall Jr., Dallas Stewart and Ian Wilkes. There were a similar amount of prominent owners and breeders.

To their credit, many highly visible owners and breeders have expressed skepticism that the industry will make the necessary concerted effort to level the playing field.

Further, these individuals are aware that if currently dormant public perception becomes active, possibly spurred on by the next high profile accident or scandal, powerful conservative extremists could demand that government shut the whole thing down.

If the adoption of the RCI model rules becomes universal, all trainers who use race-day Lasix on 90 percent of their horses will have gained a substantial victory as practitioners but the sport will lose again.

Many of the sport’s most influential and potent owners and breeders don’t trust that the model rules will be enough, that permissive medication policies have only helped to weaken the breed to the detriment of all.

And so they formed a grassroots organization, WHOA, the Water, Hay and Oats Alliance, hoping to rid the sport of race-day medication.

These are not idealists having no financial dogs in this fight but rather are practitioners who take a long-range view, keenly aware that status quo policies have caused a schism in the industry not dissimilar to what’s happening in American life on a daily basis.

“For most all of my career in the third generation, we as an industry have allowed both intentional and unintentional consequences of this use of permissive medication to overwhelm this great sport,” said Staci Hancock of Stone Farm.

“…Far worse, our lack of a coherent uniform policy has given much of our public the impression that we are only interested in exploiting these magnificent creatures,” stated Don M Robinson, owner/breeder of Winter Quarter Farm.

“Horse racing is now perceived as a "win at all cost" sport. Like any other sport, we need uniform rules and transparency. We've waited far too long for our sport to make necessary rules and police itself.

“We can no longer be absentee owners of our thoroughbreds. It's time to clean up our act so our sport can again earn the respect of its fans. They deserve better... and so do our horses,” said Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson in support of WHOA.

From owner/breeder Joseph W. Sutton came this: “Those charged with administering and regulating horse racing have turned their heads and done nothing. Federal legislation is required.

“Race day medications should be banned; new anti-doping rules should be strongly enforced, and those who cheat should be severely punished. If not, our sport is doomed.”

Although federal legislation endorsed by WHOA may be the only real answer, it need not be the only one.

The recently written Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act would give the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency power to lead. USADA is the independent agency that busted cyclist Lance Armstrong and has a mission “to preserve the value and integrity of athletic competition through just initiatives that prevent, deter and detect violations of true sport.”

The USADA would create testing and stiffer penalty programs for horse racing nationally, replacing the helter-skelter state-by-state mechanism currently in place.

Unlike previous bills which were not enacted, the new bill would enable USADA to act as an antidoping body without amending the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978, increasing hopes that it could become law.

To offer interstate off-track wagers, the host track and the off-track system accepting the wager must gain the consent of USADA in addition to previously stated conditions as required by the 1978 law.

The industry then would be dealing with the agency directly and not with independent members of Congress, which has to be a plus. However, racing must fund the costs of regulation and enforcement.

“Money can’t be an excuse because there is [money] already out there supporting a flawed, loophole-ridden system,” said Travis Tygart, CEO of USADA.

“Unlike any other sport, real money is at stake for the public, and real people are impacted. The goal would be to actually return the sport to the beauty we all know is there, and ensure that the consumer, or betting public, or just those watching on television, would know that it was a level playing field.

"The USADA is not here to say it must be federal legislation; we are here to say there is a model that can help, and be done much better than it is being done."

"There are really two questions,” concluded Tygart: “How good or not good is the [new] policy? And once you have uniform policies, then the question is whether the implementation of those policies is uniform or not."

Said Phipps, who’s Jockey Club registers all Thoroughbreds: “We fully support, and have shown, that the independent model is the only truly effective way to regulate a sport.”

So, how badly does racing really want to clean up its act? This is about more than Steve Asmussen; it is about the conduct of every horseman going forward. They deserve to have rules that are clear and fair, uniform standards wherever they race.

But horses have rights, too, to compete naturally, and may the best horse win. For those who fund racing itself, the horseplayers, they have a right to expect that what they bet on is what they get.

Written by John Pricci

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