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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Time Has Come for Reality to Eclipse Tradition

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, December 17, 2013—Time for a reality check.

It is resolved that while the event was intended as a championship defining moment, year-round, three surface racing mitigates this proposition. In the name of fairness and Eclipse Awards, it’s a body of work that all too often decides season-ending honors.

Put another way, wishes aren’t horses and the Breeders’ Cup World Championships fail to crown title holders as often as it makes a season or a career an indelible memory.

It doesn't happen often but event day also can elevate the status of mere equines to that of legend, and that’s what makes Breeders’ Cup racing’s greatest event. But the best laid plans…

Last week, a juvenile named Shared Belief exploded on to the late-season stage, taking everyone’s breath away by remaining undefeated winning his Grade 1 two-turn debut in fast, grand style and throwing four hooves into the Eclipse ring.

But what are we supposed to make of the fact that all victories have come over a man-made surface and not God’s good earth?

Is it really fair to compare that accomplishment to those of major Grade 1 mile-or-more dirt runners such as Havana, or New Year’s Day, or Bond Holder?

I don’t know about you but I have trouble delineating the difference between apples and oranges.

One could make more meaningful comparisons if Shared Belief were measured against G1 All-Weather horses Tamarando or We Miss Artie or, even to a small degree, Outstrip, a grass horse and winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.

Of course, there will be times when subjectivity is needed to separate horses whose accomplishments on the record are thisclose.

But short of a point system, or a warm weather December Breeders’ Cup that for all intents would bring the racing year to a close, isn’t the idea to establish a measure of objective finality?

Unlike, say, the modern day justice system, shouldn’t we be seeking the truth in an effort to get it right? Shouldn’t that be the true goal?

And if that’s the real objective, hasn’t time come to establish a separate, third Eclipse category for synthetic specialists? If dirt and turf are separate but equal classifications, why not acknowledge All-Weather as a separate category?

With Hollywood Park about to close permanently, where will next year’s Shared Belief come from? And should there be opportunities to make an end around November’s Breeders’ Cup results?

As long as there are major tracks such as Del Mar, Arlington Park and, most notably, Keeneland that host All-Weather racing, this murky picture doesn’t figure to clear up any time in the near future.

All Weathers notwithstanding, chaos exists in many Eclipse divisions. Older horses separate dirt and turf excellence; why not juveniles? Consider Outstrip, e.g., a juvenile whose record worthy of some recognition, somewhere.

Never worse than third in five starts, the Godolphin gray has three wins, including the G1 Juvenile Turf, the G2 Champagne at Doncaster, and a neck defeat when runnerup in Goodwood’s G2 Vintage.

That’s a slate conceivably worth an entire enchilada, but at least should put him in the conversation about the two year old that was the most accomplished of 2013.

Pundits can argue all day whether those credentials are Eclipse worthy Eclipse, but all that is required for consideration is one start in North America. Chances are, however, most voters are unlikely to give this colt a second thought.

It’s understood that with all the problems the industry has, tweaking the Eclipses is odds-on to be a non-starter. But one of racing’s good things--recognition of excellence-- can be made better.

If industry elites do decide to take a look at this, it shouldn’t be made to be about the hardware, or the length of the Eclipse Award program. Frankly, the awards show is not appointment TV, not thus far, anyway.

What does matter is that racing excellence and, by extension, horsemanship should be recognized at the highest level. If the number of awards become unwieldy, put a bunch of them together for recognition and applause, an equine equivalent of the Oscar for sound editing.

A third All-Weather category likely would be very popular with the people who buy at auction, their trainers and, of course, breeders by giving them more drums to bang as their horses would have more opportunities to distinguish themselves on the racetrack and in the breeding shed.

Less racing but with more accomplished stock sounds like a reasonably good, promotable sell. An All-Weather Champion provides added value in the marketplace.

Eclipse expansion is worth serious consideration. An All-Weather surface is not dirt and it’s not turf. It’s a different animal entirely. Versatility should be recognized and rewarded. As presently constructed, the ability to do so doesn’t exist.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

DRF Minus

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, December 3, 2013—For me, last weekend’s holiday horse racing feast had only one negative: Discovering that “America’s Turf Authority” doesn’t take its brand slogan very seriously anymore.

If it did, Daily Racing Form wouldn’t compel its customers and racing fans to pay a premium to read, of all things, routine stakes advances meant to showcase the game’s brightest stars while keeping fans informed and engaged.

In an age where mainstream racing coverage has all but disappeared in markets not named Southern California, Kentucky, or Saratoga, thoroughbred racing’s paper of record is no longer in the business of bringing you all the news needed to follow the sport comprehensively.

It’s what happens when the corporate mission is to monetize everything.

From the beginning, Thoroughbred racing, with boxing and theater to a lesser degree, kept the publication alive over a span of three centuries. The converse is also true.

Racing’s fans could always depend on “the Form” to let them know what was happening to their favorite horses and about the horsemen who labor on the backstretch of America’s racetracks.

I’ve made many friends at the DRF in the course of 40 years, and even worked for them a bit, conducting handicapping seminars at Siro’s in Saratoga and as a sports handicapper.

And I’m convinced that DRF’s present day editorial people must horrified by this change in focus, at once understanding that revenue pays the bills but now are left to wonder “why did I get into this business in the first place?”

Oh, yes, their passion to be involved in Thoroughbred racing on some level.

If recent events are a measure, it appears that DRF is no longer in the new news business, and into everything else. The original charter to promote the sport has become secondary; racetracks and profitability, not readership, are now the true constituency.

No disrespect intended, but if you wanted to read about what’s happening at Tampa Bay Downs or Zia Park this weekend, you could still do that by simply logging on to

But if fans wanted to know what the Clark or Cigar Mile players were saying in advance of possible championship defining events, they would have to pay a premium to read about it on DRF Plus.

The DRF’s focus has changed dramatically since it entered the bookmaking space. Instead of supporting the game and the racetracks as it once did, it now competes for the dollars created by an industry and infused it with purpose, it now monetizes the stories fans want to read about.

The Thoroughbred industry is incestuous. Tracks and their ADWs never really put any pressure to bear on this once-partner now-competitor. Indeed, online wagering competitor Xpressbet powers the DRF betting platform, and tracks continue selling the DRF product in their buildings.

Who knows, maybe this is payback going back to the time when tracks got into the past performance business, selling their overpriced track performance programs at a cost that was still cheaper than buying the Form.

Traditional mainstream news has moved into a space once occupied by new media. But even though cyberspace is endless, mainstream media has all but abandoned horse racing. In the interim, meanwhile, tracks have learned that no-news can be good news.

The industry now controls the message almost completely while avoiding the spotlight’s hot, hostile glare. It is no wonder racetrack press releases are being disseminated by communications outlets for free all over the Internet.

HorseRaceInsider started out on a shoestring seven years ago and created a press release section to fill the considerable gaps a one-man staff couldn’t. Commentary and insight, not hard news, became the true grist of the Internet’s mill, especially in a business founded on the opinion that one man’s horse can beat another’s.

Press releases provide fans with racing information with sanitized quotes that almost never acknowledge accompanying storylines that could be viewed as being controversial, even if an essential part of the story.

Equidaily was the first news aggregator to take the LexisNexis route to disseminate racing information. Ray Paulick took that idea, added his reporting skills and brought in a partner to create a sound business model. Horse Races NOW most recently entered this space, coming in and essentially ripping off both.

In practical terms, DRF stopped covering the game when it got into bed with the racetracks, the most glaring example when it failed to even acknowledge that a boycott of Santa Anita betting pools organized by the grassroots Horseplayers Association of North America group that was protesting a significant rise in takeout existed, much less that it was successful.

For the first time ever, horseplayers were given a voice. Sounds like a news story to me.

This past weekend featured great, bettable races that had possible Eclipse Award implications--the case in both the Grade 1 Clark and Cigar Mile.

Fans could have read all about it had they previously purchased a one-year subscription package (among other plans offered) to DRF Plus for $119.95. The stakes advances were free to DRF Bets customers. And so the cross-promotion goes.

Javier Castellano rode five winners on the Cigar Mile program, underscoring the fact that he is New York’s dominant reinsman after injuries to Joel Rosario and Johnny Velazquez seriously curtailed their Eclipse aspirations.

The story on the DRF website Monday from Aqueduct had the headline: “Castellano Could Get Eclipsed by Stevens” You couldn’t read it unless you were DRF Plus subscriber or DRF Bets customer.

I live in the “real world.” If a company wanted to charge for information related to wagering, they should have at it. If a customer can benefit financially from the fruit of the organization’s labor force, paying a premium has some justification.

But if you wanted to read about the pros and cons of Gary Stevens’ comeback in Eclipse terms, or learn about Shug McGaughey’s 2014 Kentucky Derby mindset, that cost money.

What this policy will cost the Thoroughbred industry down the road is incalculable.

There simply are too many racing organizations that want to charge customers a premium for almost anything worthwhile; from the rake on making a bet to the past performances that drive the horse betting business.

I might live in the real world but I don’t have to like it. Charging for important stakes advances, or stories like the Jockey Eclipse scenario, is a terrible disservice to the industry and its fans, showing a lack of regard for the sport of modern-era horse racing.

On the DRF Plus order page, there is a note that reads: “If you would like to donate $1.50 to the Keeneland Library to digitally preserve a full page of Daily Racing Form's historical editions, check this box.”

I wonder how much DRF policy makers would charge for a bowl of Rocky Mountain Oyster Stew.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (25)


Sunday, November 24, 2013

In Hollywood, Truth Always Stranger than Fiction

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 24, 2013—If you’re a fan of NCIS, America’s top rated television series, then you probably know that its lead character, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, does not believe in coincidences.

Neither do most horseplayers, albeit to a fault on many occasions. Well, here’s what’s happened over a three-day period this week , Wednesday through Friday.

On Wednesday, the state of California, shocked to discover that horse racing was being conducted back East, got out in front of Thursday’s Congressional hearings on horse racing by joining their Mid-Atlantic brethren and others in the Uniform Rules for Medication and Drug Testing consortium. This follows the lead of Illinois which only recently came on board, and Kentucky is thisclose to joining the confederation in short order.

As trainer Turo Escalante would say after saddling one of his improbable longshot winners: “What a surprise.”

Escalante, of course, is a fictional character from the late HBO horse racing series “Luck” which--truly coincidentally--was canceled by the cable giant because, they said, it was afraid to incur the wrath of animal rights activists who might boycott their network after learning that three horses died on the set as the series was being made.

Last month, the California Horse Racing Board completed its investigations into unexplained sudden death of horses. Yet, it took until Thursday morning when in advance of the hearings it was announced that Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert had been exonerated of any wrongdoing in the sudden deaths of seven horses in his care within a 16-month period ending last March.

It was determined that five of the seven died of cardiopulmonary failure and that five of the seven were stricken in morning workouts or gallops, a sixth during a race, and the seventh immediately after racing.

“We couldn’t find anything,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the CHRB. “It doesn’t change the fact we don’t have an answer. It does say there is something wrong here.”

It has been widely reported that following the third sudden death, CHRB testers began to look for blood doping agents. None were found, but the bronchial dilator clenbuterol, legal for therapeutic use but illegal on raceday and a source of great controversy, was found in 25 percent of the horses tested.

All seven of Baffert’s sudden-death horses were treated with thyroxine, a hormone used to treat hypothyroidism. When questioned during the investigation, Baffert told Arthur that he treated all his horses with it but stopped after the seventh death.

Arthur said it was rare for the medication to be used that extensively, and hasn’t found a barn that uses it on all their horses, but that the hormone was legally dispensed, adding that the trainer was not in violation of the rules.

Some of the known side effects of thyroxine and its derivatives are difficulty in breathing, shortness of breath, chest pain, excessive sweating or intolerance to heat, and fast or irregular heartbeat.

According to a recent New York Times report, Baffert asked his veterinarians to prescribe thyroxine, which is against American Association of Equine Practitioners policy that states treatments are to be based on specific diagnosis.

It is unknown--nor does it matter--if Thursday’s Congressional hearing was a kneejerk reaction to a damaging Times series during Kentucky Derby week or whether the Jockey Club made good on its threat to seek federal regulation if racing states were dragging their feet on having their join the Uniform Rules group.

In either case, federal Constitutional law supersedes the state statutes that govern horse racing because of possible unlawful interstate commerce activity which, by definition, is the essence of simulcast wagering.

Possible legislation, the third of its kind in the last two years, would give the feds oversight in the areas of medication use, testing, and punishment. Testing would be placed under the auspices of the United States Anti-Doping Agency which oversees the misuse of drugs in sports, including the Olympics.

The Uniform Rules organization is hoping to head off federal legislation in the shadow of the most recent regulatory wire.

Alan Foreman, chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, was insistent on Capital-OTB’s “Loose on the Lead” program Sunday morning that concerns regarding Clenbuterol and corticosteroid abuse have been addressed and that a point system has been established for rules violators, doling out punishment depending upon the severity of the offense.

The sticking point will be whether Salix will continue to be allowed on raceday. Predictably, horsemen’s groups are in uniform agreement, wanting the status quo to be maintained. The congressional bill wants to see raceday use phased out within two years of a bill becoming law.

On Friday, three Penn National–based trainers and a racetrack clocker were arrested and charged with committing fraud in connection with horse racing at Penn National. The news release came from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Harrisburg. Coincidence?

Somebody cue Escalante.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (10)


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