Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Incomparable, Invincible, Unbeatable Breeders’ Cup

LAS VEGAS, November 6, 2015—As the horses for the Breeders’ Cup Classic stepped onto the Santa Anita racetrack, TJ turned to me and said:

“We’re as guilty of this as anyone, but you know, when we’re at the track on big days, Florida Derby day, Belmont day, the Travers, we look at those cards and say ‘this is just like the Breeders’ Cup’. But the truth is there’s nothing like the Breeders’ Cup.”

Which is one-thousand percent correct. For years, we’ve called Breeders’ Cup: “The event that never fails to fire.”

All the great racing, the great performances throughout a two-day orgy of 13 races, the centerpiece Distaff and Classic as headliners, all of it remarkable equine theater.

And, by the way, as long as Breeders’ Cup is going to remain a two-day event--judging by Friday’s business it will be a two-day event in perpetuity—the Distaff should have its own day to command center stage: Make America Filly Friday Again.

Racing against males is, in historical context, all well and good. But in this country it’s not mandatory in order for our fillies to be recognized as great. Hell, sometimes you don’t even need to leave your home state to prove that, either.

“The Europeans, many of the world’s best horses against our best, there’s just nothing like it,” reiterated TJ, “the betting, the prices...” Yes, yes, and yes.

While it was considered a Battle of the Big Three, the 2016 Distaff was always Songbird vs. Beholder; the young, undefeated champion vs. a three-time champion race mare dancing one more dance in a brilliant career.

And what a show they put on: Songbird, flaunting her speed with the prodigious Mike Smith standing up in the irons through moderate backstretch fractions as Gary Stevens bided his time on Beholder.

After the G1 Zenyatta Stakes, Stevens told a television audience: “Beholder runs better at other horses. Maybe next time I won’t have to be somebody’s huckleberry, maybe they can be my huckleberry for a change.”

Well, the Distaff leader was quite a huckleberry, an undefeated champion who fought every inch of the way in deep stretch to not allow her rival by—and she didn’t; her rival went and got her in one of the more dramatic photo finish pictures one will ever see.

It truly wasn’t until the final jump—and not even then, as slow-mo, after slow-mo, after slow-mo kept pumping up the high anxiety for both camps and the millions in the audience.

There was no stop in Songbird; Beholder just went and grabbed her right at the line. As it turned out, the Distaff, and the Classic winner on Saturday, both did it the hard way, proving superior despite narrow victory margins; the Distaff’s nose and a Classic half-length.

The hard way? You bet. The winners spotted the runners-up a couple or three-length leads, and a couple or three paths wide, in moderately realistic fractions considering the class level, each winning taking it on the fair and square.

The word in the official Distaff chart to describe Songbird’s performance was right on the money: “Valiant.” California Chrome? “Gamely.”

The second of two ‘Race for the Ages’ contests not only ended dramatically but it began the same way. Arrogate broke a tad out of hand, a bit tardily; Chrome broke sharply, with Victor Espinoza looking over his right shoulder immediately as if to say: “Where the hell is Arrogate?”

Out of sight but not out of range. There sat the roan gray, out there in the 3-1/2 path, Mike Smith--if we can use a harness expression here—jiggling the lines, alternately steadying and motivating, until he was ready to launch his turn rally in earnest.

At headstretch, Espinoza twisted his body right for another look back, only this time he couldn’t have missed Arrogate, getting set to launch with about three-sixteenths of a mile remaining.

What was seen then is something that is not witnessed every day, indeed only rarely: A relatively inexperienced younger horse, out of the speed-game he demonstrated while racing the fastest 10 furlongs in Saratoga history, going after the world’s best dirt horse.

With a sixteenth to go, it appeared that the big chestnut would hold sway--then it happened. Before every discerning horseplayer’s eye, Arrogate reached down and lengthened his tremendous stride, appearing to just get started as he crossed the finish.

“He’s got amazing stamina,” confirmed Smith later. “He could have gone around again, he was literally dancing.”

And there they were, a couple of freeze-frames of note: His standing with the rest of the Classic field in front of the starting gate at post time; unflappable, quietly intense, extreme focused, game face on, confident.

Then coming back, with proud body language, taking it all in tremendous stride.

And there was Smith, winner of an astounding 25 Breeders’ Cup races, getting up there deep in unreachable Joe DiMaggio territory.

And Bob Baffert, whose unprecedented three straight Classics puts him up there in Woody Stephens’ terrain. Remarkable, stunning achievements from Hall of Fame horsemen whose execution matched those of their charges.

So here is Arrogate, with me saying: I’m not comparing his recent achievements to a horse that made singular history. But with all else being equal, and with very much to prove, Arrogate is the most impressive three-year-old I’ve seen since Seattle Slew and that includes last year’s Grand Slam stablemate.

If Arrogate remains healthy—always racing’s biggest word—he will become a horse for the ages, just like the event we witnessed on Championship Saturday.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, October 09, 2016

Clip & Save BC Prep Trip Notes from Super Saturday

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 9, 2016—If your intention is to make money on Breeders’ Cup XXXIII and you missed any of the prestigious races run from East to Midwest to West on Saturday, get thee to a replay center and decide for yourself.

The results of Saturday’s graded stakes were as exciting as they were illuminating. It was interesting to see and infer which connections were serious about winning yesterday’s Grade 1 titles at all costs or whether a win would be nice, but more a means to an end.

At Belmont Park, graded stakes action started with ladies first, and juvenile youngsters—all six of them--the small field norm in Saturday’s preps—raced a flat mile in the Frizette. Local runner Libby’s Tail nearly stole the race, and the show.

She made all the pace, most of it pressured, hounded by favorite Nonna Mela, who ultimately was dull, short, or subtly outclassed. Libby’s Tail was in front into the stretch, which forced strong second favorite Yellow Agate to reach down deep.

And win she did, showing extraordinary courage while up in class and distance making her second career start. Few races are wasted these days given rich purses, but this was quite a performance to get up in the final strides under very challenging conditions.

Quite a performance by trainer Christophe Clement, too, building on his reputation for getting horses to repeat following a maiden win, a good one in which she overcame gate from far back in an eye-opening 1:10. Gemologist is a hot sire and grandsire Lemon Drop Kid adds distance to the resume.

Lady Eli can bring a racing fan to tears, watering mine with a gutsy score over talented mate, Sea Calisi, Chad Brown beating Chad Brown. Taking the lead in midstretch, ‘Eli’ showed her noted class taking the G1 Flower Bowl in her second start after battling laminitis for a year.

Just can’t say enough about Lady Eli’s hard fought victory but the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf will be a whole new ballgame. But it seems that miracles are things that are, as racetrackers say, within her scope.

Between these two ladies came older males in the G2 Kelso dirt mile won by Todd Pletcher’s Anchor Down, a driving winner in very fast time after securing a loose backside lead. Will be a BC Dirt Mile factor but will be up against it. He might opt for the Cigar Mile. A different kind of speed game is played out West.

Clement doubled with the remarkably consistent turf sprinter Pure Sensation, a 2015 BC Turf Sprint disappointment. He saved every inch of ground to snatch victory in the final strides from a speedy, very determined Power Alert in the Belmont Turf Sprint. But it’s a Santa Anita ballgame. As they say out West; the hill is the hill is the hill!

Terrific performances from two extremely talented juvenile colts, both remaining an inch away from being undefeated. From a trip handicapping perspective, a case could be made that both Champagne horses. In the end it was a familiar 2016 summer scenario; Chad first, Todd second.

Practical Joke is a very serious racehorse that’s now undefeated in three starts and protem divisional leader by virtue of two Grade 1 wins. On Saturday, no one would have held it against him had the tight, tight photo gone the other way.

Breaking out of hand inside from the pole, he virtually eliminating himself; not. Joel Rosario didn’t rattle, got the Joker closer and settled as Syndergaard and Johnny V. controlled things up front. Practical Joke is a fighter; he proved it in the Hopeful and doubled-down in the Champagne.

Meanwhile, Syndergaard proved he was for real and more than just a mud-lark, a reputation gained when he won the state-bred Funny Cide by 10 laughing lengths. Up in class and distance, he could not have acquitted himself any better. He and the winner doubtlessly will impact the Juvenile.

A polite rant: I love it how many latter-day handicappers refer to New York-breds in a dismissive fashion. NY-Breds might not be quite as prolific in open company as, say, Florida breds (Lexington rules!), but are far from being trivialized as inferior.

Don’t know where the G3 Hill Prince three-year-old fit in the turf picture four weeks from now but expect that the Chadster, if he has the final say, would not start Camelot Kitten, Beach Patrol or Annals of Time--another 1-2-3 turf finish in 2016 for Brown--against feet-rattling Flintshire. The Hollywood Derby is the most likely for any, or all three.

America’s top turf router against vs. some of Europe’s best? One word: Redemption.

New York-bred Effinex had no choice but to keep a soft Jockey Club Gold Cup pace honest and did the dirty work, setting the table for the well-timed last run of Hoppertunity; another New York ship-in winner for Bob Baffert.

The enormous presence of California Chrome and Arrogate notwithstanding, the state-bred’s JCGC is a good effort to build on. A good third in the Big Cap this year, his season’s debut, Effinex always has needed his first start off a break, and he hadn’t run since the Whitney. The problem is that he figures to lose Mike Smith to Arrogate.

At Keeneland, Mongolian Saturday needed to prove he was the same top class turf sprinter after his trip to Dubai and lengthy layup. He did so in a subtly dominant performance that left something in the tank. G3 Woodford Stakes winner will be a formidable presence; runnerup Hogy made a very strong, wide late run but the hill is…

Chad appears ready to defend the Filly & Mare Sprint title, not with Wavell Avenue but Irish Jasper, who has gotten good at the perfect time. She made a strong, sustained perfect-trip run up the fence to take the G2 TCA Sprint. ‘Jasper’ won her Spa prior at 6-1/2 furlongs, a decent transition to seven-eighths next month.

The Toddster was up next Photo Call who got very loose on a very long lead beneath Kent Desormeaux, who has little problem riding 29-1 winners out to the finish. Victory in the $400,000 G1 First Lady should take some “sting” out of that $500 fine.

Perhaps Desormeaux might be gentleman enough to pick up the tab for Gary Stevens.

Let’s say this: Tepin, the #2 ranked race horse in America, recently won two Group 1s; Ascot’s Queen Anne and the Woodbine Mile, both over males. Each victory was hard fought.

Saturday’s placing was her first defeat since August 29, 2015 and if it were not for a head and nose loss at Saratoga in two preceding starts, a victory yesterday would have been her 11th consecutive score. Previously, she had been 3-for-3 at Keeneland.

The question is: Could the great turf mare be over the top? I was among the first on her bandwagon, as the HRI faithful know. Casting no aspersions here but the question is a legitimate one, and a concern four weeks hence.

Classic Empire’s victory in the G1 Breeders’ Futurity took some of steam out of Tepin’s loss for Team Casse. Winning as much the best breaking from post 11, Julien Leparoux saved no ground, stalking 3-to-4 paths wide throughout, winning by a comfortable 3-length margin; a major Juvenile player. Runnerup Lookin at Lee ran on very well for place.

In the G1 Shadwell Turf Mile, filly Miss Temple City--who also beat males in the G1 Makers Mark this spring--got pluperfect handling from Edgar Prado, a great teammate for trainer Graham Motion, who’s won everything of late—and barely lasted over a flying Ironicus.

That stretch-running gray gave Jose Ortiz few options in a tricky two-turn slow-paced mile. The latter was probably best as the race was run, tipping 7-wide and, after gathering himself, pulled a Silky Sullivan down the middle of the course and just missed. The problem is the same course dynamics await at Santa Anita.

Odds-on Lord Nelson, under patient handling from uber talented Flavien Prat, was a perfect trip winner over pacesetting All Run in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship, his third straight Grade 1, setting up a classic showdown with A. P. Indian, a winner of his third straight Grade 1 on opening day at Keeneland. It was the Baffert trainee’s fifth Santa Anita victory. He spotted the runnerup four pounds.

Vyjack got a consecutive, perfectly timed late move beneath partner Prat and won the G2 City of Hope Mile with style, but it was Phil D’Amato uncoupled stablemate Obviously that had the much tougher trip.

After sweeping the first turn wide in a premature move to the lead, he repelled perfect-tripping Om until Vyjack ran them both down. Obviously, tiring late for third, paid the price for his early run. Expect him to be the toughest of the three when they meet next.

Coming Tuesday: Mark Berner's Open Letter to New York's Franchise Oversight Board

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Industry Continues to Disrespect Horseplayers, Fans and Its Own Legacy

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, October 4, 2016—I should be enjoying the game right now. The Breeders’ Cup, the two best back-to-back betting days of the year, is upon us and last weekend’s first round of playoffs were nothing short of top shelf.

This weekend, it’s a Super Saturday for real at Belmont Park, and mighty Keeneland Race Course, friendly rake and all, opens its boutique autumn meet Friday with Fall Stars Weekend featuring the great turf mare, Tepin.

All that remains after this weekend is delving into this year’s graded stakes results and learning more about the invaders that make Breeders’ Cup truly world class. This is a time when fans and players should celebrate their love of the game.

However, many devoted fans on every level, myself included, have a sick feeling in our stomachs, as if the five final weeks of the 2016 Presidential campaign weren’t enough of an anxiety-fest.

No matter how recent events have been spun--a handful of exceptions notwithstanding--the sport’s rich and powerful and its ruling class, the stewards, spend time covering up transgressions while feigning transparency.

Don’t believe everything you see or hear. Recent “improvements” and “strides made” are Band-Aids on bullet wounds that slowly and inexorably becoming fatal.

I personally know four deeply devoted practitioners that have walked away in a span of two months and two more who are thinking about it.

Two of the defectors were big-time gamblers. One horseman, a successful syndicator and member of the Water, Hay and Oats Alliance, volunteered without prompting the he’s slowly phasing out his U.S. operation in favor of racing in galaxies far, far away.

Like me, he’s aware Thoroughbred nirvana is unattainable, but that the game has become a playing field where only racing’s deep-pocketed elite class have more than a puncher’s chance to succeed.

But when the racing-made millionaire said “there’s no real appetite for reform in this industry,” he made me and like-minded media feel foolish. It was like kryptonite for chroniclers who refuse to take a knee when confronted by the sport's deep wounds.

We acknowledge the way real life works but what’s equally true is that “every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on,” a famed American once said, later adding “there are those that look at things the way they are and ask why; I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

Since the sport’s last golden age there’s been no real relief in sight. While deserving, only the deplorables among the game’s lower strata are being dealt with sternly and with a modicum of dispatch, only after authorities were shamed into taking action. Meanwhile, the game’s stars are allowed to thrive and prosper, big time.

At a recent gathering of racing’s elite in Lexington, great Hall of Famer rider Chris McCarron told the rich and powerful members of the Thoroughbred Club of America that “drugs don’t kill horses, people do.”

McCarron went on to not only acknowledge that many audience members there to honor him stand firmly against federal intervention but that independent scrutiny may be the only real avenue left to save the game from itself. Amen.

The perception that racing’s stewards spend more energy punishing lower echelon perpetrators while they allow the game’s stars to get away with murder rings true.

The consequences of jockey Kent Desormeaux actions at Los Alamitos in which failed to ride out an odds-on favorite to the finish cost big show bettors a small fortune. Desormeaux is notorious for not riding out his mounts.

The $500 fine he received is infuriatingly insulting. Just how stupid do the stewards think America’s horseplayers are? Five-hundred dollars for a Hall of Fame, world class, millionaire athletic talent?! This slap on the wrist was a slap in the face to fans.

The stewards’ disregard for Desormeaux’s continued flaunting of the rules is an insult to horseplayers worldwide at best, unlawful tampering with a sporting at worst. The only message being sent is that it’s our game; love it or leave it.

Desormeaux was simply “taking care of”a tiring race horse? Perhaps his class dropping mount should not have been allowed to race in the six-horse field in the first place?

For a similar infraction, lesser known jockeys Brayan Pena and Eswan Flores received 7-day and 3-day suspensions, respectively, from the same Los Alamitos stewards at the track’s summer meet.

Racing rules are not applied evenly and every horseplayer and serious fan knows it.

When Joel Rosario rode odds-on Woodward favorite Frosted in arrogant fashion this summer at Saratoga--so noticeable that his overconfidence was noted in announcer Larry Collmus’ race call--it appeared to the majority of most sane observers that his ride was the difference between victory and defeat.

By rule, jockeys must ride their horses to the finish. The standard is there to protect the betting public without whom there would be no game. Fans did not even get the courtesy of a subsequent dog-and-pony show.

At the least, Rosario should have been censured publicly by the stewards rather than keeping it in house, if indeed they ever addressed the issue with Rosario. Colleague Tom Jicha and I read about the game from reliable sources every day. The first time we became aware that Frosted resented whipping was after the official sign was lit.

And, like those Los AL bettors who lost their show dough, Pick 4 “single” Frosted admittedly cost me a Saratoga payday. I felt as if my pocket were picked. There was no acknowledgment that anything this serious had occurred, much less an apology issued by anyone.

Theoretically, I have little issue with “race riding,” taking any edge to win while barely staying inside the bounds of intimidation, rough or careless riding and ultimately, of course, the safety of horses and riders.

But there’s too much race riding going on and it’s getting out of hand. There is plenty of empirical evidence of stretch-drifting or outright lane shifting to-and-from any direction.

Has anyone noticed that more winners of close finishes this year are those that re-surge on the inside rather than the one outside in the clear with late momentum?

Haven’t New York’s stewards noticed that jockeys are also taking greater advantage of “incident at the start” judgment calls, riders taking an extra step or two before straightening their mounts? Do you closely watch Javier Castellano leaving the gate?

Of course, it’s more than the jockeys who skirt the bounds of good behavior to the point at which the public is either being duped or believed to be too stupid to notice?

How was the transfer of Winstar Farm’s Gettysburg from Todd Pletcher to Steve Asmussen during Belmont week with the stated “strategy” of using the 1-for-7 runner as a pace-setting rabbit for the more accomplished Creator permitted by New York’s stewards and the New York State Gaming Commission?

Although not compelled by rule, why didn’t the stewards or Gaming Commission order Gettysburg coupled in the wagering with Creator, since his presence was for the soul purpose of helping his stablemate win?

Ironically, Creator beat Pletcher trainee Destin by a nose and it doesn’t matter that Gettysburg was 55-1. Racing governance fleeced bettors who tricked themselves into believing the longshot might have a slim chance given the lack of pace on paper. The optics were as embarrassing as it was shameful.

The following week, Winstar, for whom Pletcher won a Kentucky Derby with Super Saver, offered Gettysburg back to the trainer. To his credit, Pletcher said no thanks.

A similar scenario occurred at Saratoga when Juddmonte Farm purchased Inordinate for the purpose of using him as a “rabbit” for America’s leading turf horse, Flintshire.

The fact that it was a longshot whose job was to set fast fractions before inevitably tiring is not the point. The idea is that bettors and fans at one of the few remaining venues that attracts visitors were being bamboozled. It's what happens when tracks worship at the altar of sacred handle.

How is this good for the sport or its fading public image? How is it good business to earn thousands when the cost of such ill will and bad optics is priceless?

The unethical use of uncoupled same-owner interests is not limited to New York, of course.

On Saturday at Gulfstream Park, a no-chance 35-1 shot who had never been close to the lead in claiming races, ran as a separate interest in order to set the table for odds-on stablemate R Kinsley Doll in a $150,000 Florida Sires stakes race.

R Quick Temper, owned by Averill Racing LLC et al, did an effective job getting 7-5 Ballet Diva beaten with an all-out speed assault, but to the detriment of both horses. Her pace-pressing mate was also beaten when late running She’s Incredible spoiled the party.

The time is long past due for racing officials everywhere to do their jobs, adjudicating what happens on both sides of the backstretch consistently and impartially for the sake of customers who bet their money; those who make the game go.

Authorities do act, but they use a double standard; one for 30% claiming trainers, the other for 30% stakes trainers who dominate the highest levels of the sport.

One hears grumbling from horsemen all the time and not all backstretch backlash is jealousy driven. It’s one thing to saddle the best horses; it’s another to seldom see those runners outfinished.

Deep-pocketed owners supply a handful trainers with the best stock available. Owners who can afford neither expensive horses nor very high day-money rates are either scaling back their operations or holding dispersal sales.

Following a September 8 hearing, the Monmouth Park board of stewards suspended trainer Chloe Bradley 45 days and fined her $1,500 for entering Lucy N Ethel in the August 14 Blue Sparkler Stakes.

The fast-sprinting filly subsequently was ordered scratched. Bradley is an operative of Ramon Preciado, currently serving a 180-day suspension for six clenbuterol violations. The stewards scratched her from the Blue Sparkler while they were trying to determine whether Bradley indeed was the trainer.

In the interim, Lucy N Ethel shipped to Saratoga and won the Grade 2 Prioress Stakes wire to wire, paying $47.40. Apparently the New York stewards had no problem allowing the filly to race at the Spa while its trainer of record was under investigated. The filly’s recent workouts had been at Parx Racing, Preciado’s home track.

It’s a terrible state of affairs if the New York stewards knew of the issue or, even worse, completely unaware. Either way, an outside overseer with authority might have entirely avoided this lamentable situation.

Lucy N Ethel is now in the care of trainer Tom Amoss.

In a recent poll conducted by a respected online aggregator, practitioners were asked their opinion why out-of-competition drug testing hasn’t taken hold in racing the way it has in other sports? The last time we saw the results, 34% noted “lack of desire” while 30% blamed “no national oversight.”

When Santa Anita opened its Breeders’ Cup meet last weekend, they proudly announced the installation of a state-for-the-art video surveillance system that can closely monitor the entire stable area on a 24/7/365 basis.

It truly is a wonder to behold, and an extremely commendable action, even if some of it was paid from the proceeds of an extraordinarily high exacta takeout rate of 22.68%.

But at least that money was spent in the best interests of the public, the horses, and all horsemen who covet a level playing field.

A state-of-the-art video surveillance system Watch Santa Anita VNR. should be available at every track that can pay for it. If tracks can’t afford it then perhaps they ought not to be racing. Just as infirm horses need time off, not drugs that, with insufficient lead time, allows them to compete “racing sound.”

At that same polling venue, 60% of respondents indicated that use of the new surveillance system would boost their confidence in the integrity of the racing product.

All that’s needed now is faith that Santa Anita will employ observers at a rate commensurate with an excellent racing skill set, paid a living wage so that it makes them take their responsibility seriously, just as stewards are supposed to.

Will this all happen? Considering I’m quite familiar with past performances day, I make it a layover that nothing will change for the better; today, tomorrow or in the near future. Not as long as the foxes continue to be the ones in charge of the hen house.

Written by John Pricci

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