Monday, January 11, 2016

Eclipse Process Playing to Mixed Backside Reviews

BOYNTON BEACH, FL., January 10, 2016—One of the prime reason’s Gulfstream Park has become the premier extended race meet in the country is its state-of-the-art training facility 38 miles north of the Hallandale track.

Most of the East Coast horses on the “good horse circuit” are stabled here and on Sunday morning we had a chance to visit the stable areas of both facilities and we were surprised by what we discovered.

This week, most of the racing industry will descend on South Florida for the 45th annual Eclipse Award ceremonies at Gulfstream Park Saturday night.

From what we know, the only luminary not certain to show is Ricky Gervais and that’s too bad. Surely there will be enough practitioners to skewer next weekend as not all humility-challenged individuals are limited to a town where tinsels grow on trees.

What surprised then is that not all the horsemen we visited, including many who will be in attendance Saturday, are enamored of the Eclipse Award procedure, objecting to the methodology of the voting process itself.

The Eclipses are racing’s version of the primaries. There are three voting blocs; the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, Thoroughbred Racing Association officials, and Daily Racing Form staffers.

The major complaint is that too many of the results often are capricious and arbitrary. As we state every year when making our choices public, the DRF’s late, great Joe Hirsch once counselled a young turf writer back in the day.

On the matter of Horse of the Year, Hirsch, a founding member of the National Turf Writers organization—no broadcasters were permitted to vote in those days—“the Horse of the Year can be anything."

Actually, that is the case in every category. Politics and provincialism, mostly the former, are at work and there are no objective standards. That’s what a majority of horsemen we spoke with Sunday had objections to.

Trainers are pleased that owners, most of whom are well heeled and whose support feeds the breeding industry, often in sizable amounts, are recognized. Accordingly, they should be acknowledged and allowed to bask in the reflected glory of the animals they support throughout the racing year.

Some of the trainers we spoke with admitted they are attending because their owners expect them to. The lament most often heard is there are too many voters who never see in the flesh the horses they vote as champions.

There is no true objectivity and what are the deciding factors: body of work, horse-by-horse matchups, number of Grade 1 wins, where the victories were compiled?

Speaking personally, it is all of the above. I was only of 265 voters, including one abstention, who determined that California Chrome was deserving of Horse of the Year honors.

But, controversy involving a compromised rival notwithstanding, California Chrome was defeated by Bayern in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, defined as America’s championship crowning event.

So does that make it the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in name only? The majority of trainers we spoke with believe that to be the case, just as, to keep it real, not all Grade 1s, or G2s or G3s, are created equal.

How, for instance, could an undefeated runner who many believe to be the best of her generation, Lady Eli, fail to be one of three finalists in the three-year-old filly category despite her limited yet undefeated season?

And for journalists, for instance, how could one classification be a so-called Features/Commentary category. Does the winner of this Eclipse finish first by collecting 100 apples compared to the runnerup amassing 50 oranges?

More than one horsemen mentioned that some objective standard(s) should be put in place so that votes are counted on a one-person-one vote basis.

As one suggested, designing a protocol that assigns two members from the three sponsoring groups compile a list of three--even five finalists--before allowing voters to cast ballots for one horse and one individual per category.

Voting for first, second and third in all categories when only first place votes designate the Eclipse champions is a creation that makes the announcement of three finalists possible. To what end, except to boost dinner ticket sales.

In a game correctly built on opinion, establishing qualifying standards and guidelines before voting would be fair to all and provides the best chance to acknowledge the most deserving recipient.

WEEKEND WRAPUP: Bob Baffert-trained runners Corrected and Let’s Meet in Rio finished one-two in Santa Anita’s G3 Sham Stakes and there likely is a Derby victory in their future, just probably not on May’s first Saturday…

Doubtlessly, Corrected showed class by overcoming a wide-throughout trip. Locked and loaded beneath Martin Garcia, he always looked the part of a winner. Stablemate runnerup came up with a very strong late run and rates to improve with seasoning and distance…

Indeed, Let’s Meet in Rio may prove the better of the two as the prep campaign lengthens, but the best performance by a three-year-old this weekend may have come 3,000 miles to the East…

Cherry Wine went from last to first, taking a Gulfstream Park two-turn allowances by six lengths for the team of Dale Romans and Corey Lanerie. Not many races are won at Gulfstream with that running style, especially lately.

Rallying strongly on the turn, Lanerie tipped the Paddy O’Prado-Unbridled’s Song colt wide at headstretch and inhaled the leaders, drawing off “handily.” Trailing a moderate pace, the time of 1:44.37 was solid enough.

Todd Pletcher
has plenty of good options with Hal’s Hope winner Mshawish. Not only did G1 Cigar Mile fourth prove his Donn worthiness, he could still opt for a G1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap repeat…

Pletcher still would have three Dubai opportunities; a choice of two turf races, one at a mile, or go turf-to-dirt in the $10-million World Cup. Nice dilemma to have...

The remarkable La Verdad improved her career slate to (25) 16-3-0 taking Aqueduct's Interborough Stakes. The New York-bred six-year-old mare finished first in four graded stakes in 2015 and was second in the BC F & M Sprint, pushing her earnings toward $1.6M.

A worthy Eclipse finalist, La Verdad is scheduled to make her career finale in Laurel’s Barbara Fritchie before being bred to Medaglia d’Oro. She will reside at New York’s Edition Farm thereafter.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 03, 2016

Record 2015 Handle Validates Gulfstream’s Elite Status

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 3, 2016—When the “Gulfstream Championship” meet began December 5 with the very successful Claiming Crown program, the winter meet officially began.

But often the calendar is everything. Saturday’s 11-race card featuring five stakes, of which three were graded and three for newly turned 3-year-olds, was the first post-holidays weekend program.

The atmospherics Saturday were different; more people in the building, more energy, more familiar faces. There were pretty women in hats and men in white shorts wearing pink Ralph Lauren shirts.

The Gulfstream “winter meet” is finally officially.

If there was any doubt by the looks of things, it was all too clear when, as the horses returned to be unsaddled following the fourth race, this was heard from the terrace outside Suite 22, a.k.a. the press box:

“Hey jock, you suck.” Yes, apparently some of the Aqueduct crowd were now in the house, too. It made me feel a bit wistful, now that I’m officially a Florida resident.

Parenthetically, whenever anyone asks, my response is always the same: “I’m a New Yorker who happens to live in Florida at the moment.” But enough digression already.

Now, as far as metrics are concerned, betting handle may be old school but will have to do until something better comes along. Gulfstream Park released its handle figures for 2015 on Friday and total live handle was a rounded $1.338 billion, a 14% increase year over year.

Since the sport’s final handle figures for last year are still forthcoming, for comparison’s sake we deducted .084 percent from monies wagered through November, 2015, which included Gulfstream’s live races, and an interesting contrast emerged.

Handle on Gulfstream’s live product represents more than 13% of total U.S. handle from all sources, which includes racing at Gulfstream Park West.

But Gulfstream’s percentage of U.S. handle would be even higher if the money coming through the Hallandale windows from simulcasting venues were included. In all, Gulfstream processed wagers worth $1.625 billion.

The larger point is that now, not just during the winter months, Gulfstream Park has reached the very top echelon of racing venues, the equal of great places like Belmont Park, Santa Anita and Churchill Downs.

And when names like Saratoga or Del Mar or Keeneland are dropped, Gulfstream belongs in that conversation, too.

Everyone knows how this industry is slow adapting to change--and that’s being charitable. Gulfstream still has its detractors mostly because it’s not their father’s Gulfstream.

But that was back in the day when Hialeah Park was still a cathedral and Gulfstream was a post-primetime afterthought, the bridge between South Florida and points north on the good-horse circuit.

It now seems assured there will come a day when the Pletchers, Browns, Motts and Clements will leave 30 head here for the summer as Gulfstream continues to grow in scope and prestige.

If 2015 figures are indicative of anything, it’s that Gulfstream Park is well on its way.

THREE-YEAR-OLD BIAS: Even if there’s not one top-flight newly turned three-year-old in my life, I confess this is my favorite time of year; watching the young ones grow and develop right before my eyes.

Every three-year-old race here Saturday--and we’re throwing in Aqueduct’s Jerome for good measure--was entertaining and informative in different ways as we slouch toward Louisville.

Grade 3 Jerome winner Flexibility looks like a potential classics aspirant, as did Awesome Speed, winner of the listed Mucho Macho Man locally, albeit with more to prove.

But it was G3 Hutcheson winner Awesome Banner who was Saturday’s sophomore star. He was dominating coming off an April layup following the removal of a small knee chip.

Shaking off race-long pressure, Awesome Banner separated himself from the group soon after entering the straight and won by a geared down 4-3/4 lengths in 1:09.57, rocking a final quarter-mile of 24.70.

All three of yesterday’s dirt races for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream were bias aided, and the inside was the place to be.

It’s not so much the bias suited the winner’s speedy style, which it did, but the surface also carried the chasers going all day long; no runner made significant ground late down the center.

Trainer Stanley Gold believes he’ll go on: “Because of his demeanor I don’t think distance will be a problem. He’s sprinting because we’re training him to sprint…certainly we’re going to try to stretch him out.”

The 7-furlong Swale seems like the logical next stop.

Lucy N Ethel was a little less impressive visually but what she accomplished is notable. In stretching her undefeated career to three, she was coming off an unbelievably fast race (“1” on the Thoro-Graph scale), shipped into a warm climate, and coming in off relatively short rest—tough on a filly.

But maybe not, too. “In her second race, she exploded,” explained trainer Ramon Preciado. “This race she was better, and the next time she’s going to be better.”

She’ll get a chance to live up to her trainer’s confidence in the G2 7-furlong Forward Gal, Jan. 30, the same day as the Swale on the Holy Bull undercard.

And that’s where we’re likely to see Saturday’s Mucho Macho Man winner, Awesome Speed. Expected to set the pace, he was bumped from two sides at the break and was forced to take a stalking position.

Approaching the quarter-pole he dispatched the leader, opened ground, then held El Charro--which made a game wide-turn rally--safe in 1:35.97 for a flat mile. The final furlong was 12.85.

“He’ll stretch out to a mile and a sixteenth but I don’t know if he’ll stretch out with good horses,” admitted trainer Alan Goldberg via cell phone. “Before the race I was thinking we would pass the Holy Bull and just try for the Fountain of Youth, but we’ll see.”

The difference maker may be that Mohaymen is pointing toward the Holy Bull but unlikely would run back in the Fountain of Youth prior to the Florida Derby or Wood Memorial.

Speaking of Mohaymen, Flexibility, twice runnerup to the Tapit gray, got a perfect trip behind a three-ply speed battle, inhaled them when ready, and drew off professionally in good time. The connections are deciding whether the G3 Jerome winner will remain in New York or ship south.

: As promised, Gulfstream CEO P.J. Campo met with the stewards concerning the late, untimely jockey switch to Javier Castellano on Marcus Vitali’s Valid who went on to win the Harlan’s Holiday.

The stewards were satisfied with Vitali’s explanation that named rider Matthew Rispoli might have been some feeling ill effects from a recent spill. Rispoli, who rides for Vitali, rode an unplaced Vitali-trained longshot earlier on the card.

Vitali was within his rights, of course, but said that he spoke with the rider well before the races began, possibly a day earlier. Campo explained to Vitali that changes should be made at scratch time.

But that doesn’t account for the fact that the stewards did not have the players back. The players are the ones who put $1.3 billion through the windows in 2015.

Joel Rosario was at his ground-saving, strong-finishing best with five visits to the circle Saturday. He celebrated on Sunday by riding Gustnado to a place finish in the second race then took the rest of the day off…

After he didn’t finish as well as Bob Baffert wanted him Sunday morning, Dortmund will opt for the San Antonio instead of the San Pascual and his anticipated matchup with California Chrome. ‘Chrome’ is headed to the Dubai World Cup following his highly anticipated 5-year-old debut.

Maybe horse and trainer were exhausted watching ‘Chrome’ work six furlongs in 1:10.03 before Saturday’s SA races. Dortmund also had Dubai on his dance card but might just remain in SoCal for the Big ‘Cap. ‘Dubai Bob’ might need a change of nickname; stay tuned.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Kalifornia Karma, a Mixed Bag

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 29, 2015—Southern California racing is much in the news these days, not unexpected since Saturday marked the opening day of Santa Anita’s prestigious winter stand.

Heartening to see that 44,000 warm bodies filled the building, surprising more for the fact that it was 39 degrees in Santa Monica while in New York on Christmas day, forsythia was beginning to bloom—for real, the result of three straight days in the 70s.

The big story was the 75-degree temperature in the Big Apple was the same as July 4th. Meanwhile, it was snowing sideways during the Sun Bowl in El Paso which, of course, is just across the river from Juarez, Mexico.

Climate change? Nah, just more bad science.

Anyway, the atmosphere was energized during and after the day’s events. Handle was said to be good; then maybe not that good. Then there was a Pick Six guarantee--then there wasn’t? Then an $80,000 carryover—then there wasn’t? I’m so confused.

The only thing for certain is that influential leading owners still care more about their individual purse accounts than they do the health of the local industry from which they earn huge purses while exacting a takeout toll at a un-major-venue-like 22.68%.

I was reminded of this because it hit home when, in the Mathis Bros Turf Mile, the 10-2 exacta combining a 6-5 favorite from post nine in a field of 11 with a 23.90-1 shot returned a disappointing $47.60 per $2 wager.

If management there cares to do something about this, they should consider there are more bettors like me who now eschew exactas due to the exorbitant rake, even if sometimes it’s too siren-like because the public’s favorite appears too big to fail.

PSA to management: When I play exotics at bettor-unfriendly venues, I pare my normal unit down to about half. Of course, that’s too bad for all concerned. Had I won a few dollars more, I might have wagered a few dollars more on the La Brea and Malibu.

Sadly, it doesn’t appear that anyone who can do something about this will handle figures will continue to tank like they have been through this decade.

As mentioned in the weekend wrap, racing was top class throughout the entire opening-day card, which came as no surprise to this old scribe who voted for five California-based would-be Eclipse winners, including the Horse of the Year and his trainer.

The karma from the West Coast is likely to remain mixed. Scientists blame the lack of prototypical winter on climate change and the El Nino phenomenon, which could alter the preparation of two protem champions that will celebrate their third birthday on Friday.

Trainer Doug O’Neill has mapped out a tentative schedule for would-be juvenile champion Nyquist that according to several sources includes a season’s debut in the San Vicente in Arcadia followed by a trip here for the Florida Derby, April 2nd.

Jerry Hollendorfer would begin Songbird’s campaign in the Las Virgenes but is keeping his Kentucky Oaks prep options open beyond that, so open, in fact, that a run in the Kentucky Derby has been placed on the table.

Much will depend on how the male season shakes out. But the mitigation is that publicity is the preferred marketing tool of would-be breeder/sellers, and that Songbird’s owner campaigned Eight Belles, euthanized after suffering a fatal injury in the 2011 Derby.

Ultimately, it may be El Nino that determines which way the Triple Crown wind will blow.

A check of the HRI archives (Dec. 22) will show the thinking process behind our vote for the would-be Eclipse champions of 2015, both equine and human.

My bad was forgetting that three selections also needed to be made in the human categories as well and, mea culpa, I omitted the apprentice category from my original post.

(Hint: Under no circumstances will it be Donald J. Trump. Don’t see further need to Make America Hate Again).

For those not interested in why, and to update the Female Sprint category following the La Brea as promised, my official vote appears below: From the ballot’s bottom, up:

TRAINER: Bob Baffert,
Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown

APPRENTICE JOCKEY: Tyler Gaffalione,
Eric Cancel, Angel Cruz

JOCKEY: Javier Castellano,
Victor Espinoza, Irad Ortiz Jr.

BREEDER: Darley Stable, Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings, Zayat Stables

OWNER: Zayat Stables
, Stonestreet Stable, Godolphin Racing

STEEPLECHASE: Bob Le Beau, Dawalan, African Oil

, Stephanie’s Kitten, Found

MALE TURF: The Pizza Man
, Big Blue Kitten, Flintshire

Birdatthewire, Wavell Avenue

MALE SPRINTER: Runhappy, Private Zone, Rock Fall

OLDER DIRT FEMALE: Beholder, Sheer Drama, Stopchargingmaria

OLDER DIRT MALE: Tonalist, Honor Code, Liam’s Map

Stellar Wind, I’m a Chatterbox

THREE-YEAR-OLD MALE: American Pharoah
, Runhappy, Dortmund

, Rachel’s Valentina, Catch a Glimpse

, Airoforce, Mohaymen

HORSE OF THE YEAR: American Pharoah,
Beholder, Runhappy

Written by John Pricci

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