Sunday, February 22, 2015

State of Confusion

Horses movin’ out, horses movin’ in,
Because their runnin’ out’ their skin,
Run, run, run, but you sure can't hide
A lane for a lane, horses bearin’ out
Bet on me and I'll pay the fee
Ride on, brother, ride on.

But more on the Gulfstream stewards later.

How about those Derby preps?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 22, 2015--Fountain of Youth favorite Upstart did everything right except get the money. But, as stated, more on that later.

As the three year olds entered in the short stretch of the mile and a sixteenth Fountain of Youth Stakes, the newly blinkered Frosted created a little separation.

Then, just as quickly and, frankly, disappointingly, he shortened stride and bore out into the hindquarters of Upstart.

At the point Frosted appeared to be on his way, Jose Ortiz was working on Upstart which, at the time, was running in place.

But when Frosted began to shorten stride, Upstart lengthened his and was about to join his rival as Itsaknockout, now in full stride, loomed up and momentarily appeared set to run right on by.

For an instant there were three across the track, then Frosted dropped out and when that happened, the undefeated Todd Pletcher trainee had reached almost even terms and it looked like it was going to be a horse race.

But Upstart would have none of it. He showed his class, asserted himself, bothering Itsaknockout but, by the time it was over, he was 2-3/4 lengths in front at the wire.

When the official chart arrived in the press box, all were incredulous that the margin was that big.

Of course, Rick Violette was extremely disappointed in the eventual outcome, but not in Upstart.

“He’s a good horse, Violette said. “Again he was wide on both turns, the horse ran great.” When he was reminded that he had an experience edge over the eventual winner, he looked the reporter in the eye and simply said: “Six pounds.”

Violette was, of course, correct, as Upstart, beneath 122 pounds, spotted Itsaknockout six pounds.

In finishing second, Itsaknockout ran extremely well. “I feel bad for the connections of the other horse,” said Pletcher.

“But we definitely got impeded and Luis [Saez] had to stop riding for a couple of strides. I don’t know how it would eventually affect the outcome.”

“Bad call,” said Violette. “[The stewards] have to understand that when a horse gets hit behind the girth, the only place the horse can go is to the right.”

Then Violette said: “Don’t know what’s next, but we might have to go to New York.”

As for Frosted, “he just pulled himself up,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin explained. “We don’t know whether it was from hitting him. I think the blinkers helped, but not the last quarter. We thought we were a winner turning for home.”

The time over a tiring surface was a very ordinary 1:46.28, with a final sixteenth in a very slow 7:30 seconds. The horses were racing into a fairly significant headwind in the stretch.

The Main Man: Given his Eclipse winning record of four consecutive Grade 1s, it’s difficult to accept the idea but the fact is that Turf Champion Main Sequence might just be a better horse in 2015.

What else can you say about a horse that looked beat on the inside into the stretch, allowed surface loving Twilight Eclipse to separate himself from the field nearing the sixteenth pole, then ran the defending Mac Diarmida winner down before drawing off to his largest margin in his undefeated U.S. career, a whopping 3/4s of a length!

Main Sequence ran his final three furlongs in 34 4/5 seconds. “It sure felt like it,” said a very happy Rajiv Maragh.

“He was awesome,” said a liberated/reprieved Graham Motion. “He broke well and for one minute I thought he might be a little close. I think every time this horse has run he has improved, his behavior has improved. He was good as gold today in the paddock, which really impressed me. I think he kind of won for fun, to be honest.”

Motion might have been a little more anxious than Main Sequence has been before his races, feeling the pressure of bringing an undefeated-in-the-U.S. champion to win at not be at tops, saving a little something for the next one.

“It’s a huge relief,” Motion admitted. “I think Rajiv has a pretty good rapport with him. He knows what it takes, and [Main Sequence’s] just got some turn of foot. I think he’s a horse that can overcome whatever. Because he’s got that turn of foot it doesn’t really matter where he is. You don’t have to make excuses for him because he can overcome it.

Clearly this was a big boost for Maragh who recently returned from injury after spending nearly four months on the ground, has gotten off to a slow start at the Gulfstream meet, but got the mount back on his ‘big horse’ yesterday. Johnny Velazquez rode him to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

“It’s very special. It just goes to show you what kind of people I’m dealing with from the owners, the trainer and John Velazquez. He rode him in the Breeders’ Cup perfectly and won. He compensated me, which shows what an honorable guy he is. He didn’t have to do that. Everybody involved with this horse all deserve this. Special horse, special people.”

“On to Dubai, hopefully. Fingers crossed,” said Motion, obviously referring that he continues to do well before shipping to the Middle East. As for the horse, Motion has it exactly right. With that kind of kick, Main Sequence makes his own luck.

Once Again, Zero Consistency from Racing’s Stewards: In full disclosure, I benefitted monetarily from Upstart’s disqualification in the Fountain of Youth.

But I did say to colleagues before the official was posted that not only had Upstart come out twice, bumping with Itsaknockout, but I thought once was enough to justify the DQ after seeing Luis Saez fight to maintain his balance in the saddle aboard the runner-up.

Now Red Board players will insist that the 2-3/4 length margin proves that the incident didn’t affect the outcome. I agree with Pletcher, making the case before the take-down that Itsaknockout reached near even terms shortly after entering the stretch and it looked like, to me anyway, that it was going to be a horse race.

When the press returned upstairs to write their stories, the conversation began anew. “What is the Florida interpretation of the [infractions] rule, same as California’s, New York’s?"

Good question, but the answer matters little.

Just like medication rules, interpretation of racing's rules vary from state to state and while jockeys might know what they can and cannot get away with, in terms of race riding, the public doesn’t, just as trainers are sometimes fooled by therapeutic medication rules; withdrawal times and the rest.

If the public doesn’t know what’s legal and what’s not, racing suffers, especially incurring the wrath of serious racing fans and bettors who make the whole enterprise possible.

I am not in favor of strict constructionist, “a-foul-is-a-foul” standards. I favor that stewards are not paid by the racetracks but the states, after passing a stewards’ bar exam, as it were. This should not be the purview of political appointees.

But, even if stewards were incompetent, there is no excuse for two things: the process--no matter how many times head-on and pan replays are shown--is still not transparent.

We have been promised video in the stewards’ stand here, just as surveillance cameras on the Santa Anita backstretch. Neither is in place and probably never will be as long as the game is allowed to police itself.

Is any more proof of this really required at this point in time in the sport?

However, the most unforgivable breach of trust with racing’s customers is the inexcusable inconsistency.

In a turf race immediately following the Fountain of Youth, the payoff race for the Rainbow Six, Pick Five and late Pick Four, the winner came out and bumped repeatedly the second finisher, significantly enough to affect the neck margin at the finish.

*If anything, the finale might have been worse because the horses did reach even terms, and after the rider of the inside horse switched the whip to his left hand, he came out twice, indeed knocking the runner-up off stride.

Or was there no change because the bothered horse, ridden by Javier Castellano, was getting a message from the stewards that they allowed him to get away with herding when his mount, House Rules, came in, forcing the runner-up to alter course in the Rampart earlier in the day?

(It highly likely didn’t affect the outcome, but Castellano could be seen tugging on the inside rein at the point of incident).

Or maybe the stewards didn’t want to take down two winners in a row to end the day?

Or maybe they remembered the bad public taste left from the highly controversial incident last season that allowed a huge Rainbow 6 jackpot to be carried over to the next day.

The only reason I raised these questions is that it occurred to me, and two other bettors who texted me late in the day with a mnessage ending with “only in Florida.”

Perhaps only in every racing state in America would have been more appropriate.

*Upon further review, edits was made at 4:06 p,m,, 022215 and 11:36 a.m. 022415

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Big Doings On and Off Track

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 19, 2015—It’s a good thing that Saturday’s card was drawn on President’s Day because handicappers—this one anyway, could use about a week to thoroughly analyze Saturday’s Fountain of Youth card.

Given first impressions of the Canadian Turf and Davona Dale Stakes, another 48 hours of study wouldn’t hurt. There are five more graded events, including the return of Horse of the Year finalist Main Sequence in the Mac Diarmida and another the forever meaningful Fountain of Youth.

And this doesn’t include a stakes-laden program at the Fair Grounds that features the always significant Risen Star, a full-lid for handicappers. Fortunately, Oaklawn Park had second thoughts and rescheduled Monday’s weather-scraped Southwest to Sunday instead of Saturday.

The spin was to give any new shooters and shippers an extra day; trying to avoid butting heads with Gulfstream and Fair Grounds. If that was the case, say it, the move makes good sense. Either way, fans and horseplayers will benefit from avoiding conflict overkill.

Actually, drawing the Fountain of Youth card was more about racing office scheduling than consideration for handicappers and fans. We have written often that in the simulcast era, all tracks should employ a 72-hour entry box; it’s about the customers, not the horsemen.

But then it’s about the horsemen, too. With more time to analyze the races, horseplayers are better prepared. Better prepared handicappers have more confidence and wager more accordingly. This is known as a win-win.

Will a universal 72-hour entry box become a rule rather than the exception? Insist on triple-digit odds before wagering on that prop.

(Meanwhile, expect full analytical coverage of the Fountain of Youth that will debut at HRI in Saturday’s Feature Race Analysis section).

Either way, when you show up at your favorite racetrack, simulcast venue or preferred easy-wagering chair, bring money. You’re going to need it.

Eclipse Justice Served: The all-powerful powers that be, in this case, the Eclipse Award Steering Committee with influence from the NTRA, National Turf Writers and Broadcasters,

and Daily Racing Form, jointly announced today that that two Eclipse Award categories have been renamed:

The Older Male category has been renamed Older Male Dirt, and Older Female has been newly minted as Older Female Dirt beginning with this year’s voting. Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Seriously, we’re very happen all have gotten the message that was backed in many precincts. Champion turf runners of both sexes will continue to compete in those classifications as Champion Turf Horse and Champion Female Turf Horse.

Synthetics specialists will be considered dirt horses. Rightfully, they deserve a category unto themselves and as long as there are enough racetracks ad top class horses that continue to compete on All Weather tracks.

At present, there are 17 categories that honor human and equine accomplishment.

THRTVG: Now there’s an acronym screaming to buy a vowel. So what’s going to happen to televised horse racing since the acquisition/merger of TVG and HRTV.

We’ve gotten some inquiries as to what we think this means, how it will be accepted, and what the face of televised horse racing will look like going forward.

My answer has been consistently the same: I don’t know, to the third power.

What I do know is that racing will have the capacity to reach more homes because TVG does. More live racing, eschewing delayed replays, more post parades, would be good things if it shakes out as promised.

Scheduling should improve, lowering the number of conflicting off times providing, of course, certain tracks get away from lengthy delays that believe will increase handle when the same bettors to their time that it is only a “suggested post time.”

Maybe if tracks offered fewer “Pick” races, with more quality content, the handle will take care of itself. Bankrolls, and patience, are finite things.

Speaking for Toni and myself, we were happy to read that “non-racing” horse programming will be maintained along with specialty shows that HRTV does so well, along with live streaming of its handicapping shows.

Good handicappers are worth their weight in gold; happy-talking-heads not so much.

I’m sure HRI’s Tom Jicha, who spent nearly a quarter-century writing his popular television column for the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, will have much more to say on Tuesday, right here, same bat time, same bat channel.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

When It Comes to the Sport, Art Sherman Gets It

PLANTATION, FL., February 4, 2015—Beyond the X’s and O’s of handicapping and cashing a winning ticket, rooting for your racetrack favorites doesn’t stop at the betting window or submit tab.

And it’s not limited to star equines. Indeed, many fans root for or against certain jockeys, even if their allegiance is predicated on pari-mutuel success or lack thereof.

Trainers, of course, are a different story. The “super trainer” is a root-against for most serious fans unless, of course, they’ve singled his runner in Pick 4s.

Wagering notwithstanding, personality rules. Some trainers can be abrasive, dismissive; others are perceived as a mensch and still others feel the love because of their legendary status.

Who doesn’t root for “the Chief,” H. Allen Jerkens, who is that rare blend of self-effacing mensch and all-time legendary horsemen?

As evidenced by his participation in the NTRA's first national phone conference of 2015, Art Sherman is cast in the Jerkens mold, perhaps more than most prominent trainers of today.

Sherman is preparing California Chrome for “The Rematch Sans One,” his confrontation with Shared Belief, and maybe that’s as it should be?

How often does the previous year’s juvenile champion get to meet next year’s three-year-old champion and Horse of the Year in such an early season matchup?

Bayern will have to sit this one out, no matter how regrettably, no matter how much racing fans are clamoring for Breeders’ Cup Classic Redux. Instead, Hoppertunity will represent the Baffert shedrow.

“I get goose bumps when I think about [Saturday’s rematch],” Sherman said on Tuesday’s call. “There’s a lot at stake. Whatever happens, we just want to [see both horses] have a fair run at it.

“Me and Jerry [Hollendorfer, trainer of Sherman’s main rival] go back a long time, we’re good friends, but we’re both very competitive.

“Shared Belief is a really nice horse. I felt bad for him in the Breeders’ Cup. I’ve wanted to meet [Jerry’s] horse heads up for a long time.”

Sherman will get his wish this weekend.

Then, if all goes well for the Horse of the Year 2014, it’s off to the United Arab Emirates for the $10 million Dubai World Cup.

“The owners would like Chrome to meet the best horses in the world,” Sherman explained. “Perry Martin makes all the decisions.”

“To me it’s a long way. I’ve never been there. I’m told it’s beautiful. I’ve spoken to a lot of people and they say it takes about three months [for horses] to recover [from the trip].

“[California Chrome’s] adaptable and he’s the best shipper in the world. I can’t make any excuses there, but he’s got a lot of races to go.

“After this race he’ll be really strong for Dubai. He’ll have to be at his best to run with the best in Europe.

“I’m delighted to have a chance to train him as a four year old. I just wish I could keep him in America. There are lots of good races and you don’t have to travel that far.”

And that’s the shared belief of the group that owns Saturday’s main rival.

“We talked about [Dubai] among our partners,” said Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer on the call earlier. “We haven’t ruled it out but I don’t think the interest is all that high.

“A lot of horses went over there and weren’t quite the same. It depends on the makeup of your horse when they can come back, but I wouldn’t criticize anyone who wants to run for a big purse.”

And there lies a fundamental difference between the two camps.

“It’s just a logistics problem with the World Cup,” said Hollendorfer, who’s saddled over 6,800 career victories. “A lot of horses would need time off.

“We just enjoy running in the U.S., home in California…there are a lot of nice races, the Pacific Classic, lots of nice races in New York. I don’t want to talk for Jim Rome and our other great partners but we just want to enjoy that as much as we can.”

Hollendorfer played down the match race storyline some, saying that this is “the race we pointing to no matter who was running. This is just the next race [on the schedule], then we’ll find another one. You have to beat all the horses.

“The significance of the race is that this is what the fans wanted to see. It would be better if Bob’s horse [Bayern, not Hoppertunity] was in there. This is the way racing is supposed to be. I’m sure Art’s looking forward to this as much as I am.

Indeed, he is, and in more ways than one.

“I said at the time I thought it was a mistake [to retire California Chrome after his three year old year]. That’s what happens to our game. You lose a lot of fans when you don’t have the stars.

“When I was a kid [and exercise rider for Swaps], sixty-five or seventy thousand people came out to see Swaps win the Hollywood Gold Cup. Now people don’t want to get off the Freeway and want to bet on their I-pad.

“He’s the people’s horse, why all the need over money? When this horse came into the ring, fans were yelling ‘Chrome, Chrome’, and I thought ‘wow, look at that.’

“I just love to see people enjoy the sport. There’s nothing like being there. I want it here for my kids to see when I’m not around.”

Written by John Pricci

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