Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Triple Crown Change? Time for Horsemen to Walk The Talk

Horses are not machines! Write that on the blackboard 500 times—and write it across, not down. This assignment should be at least as hard as, say, winning the Triple Crown. I jest, of course, but it’s kidding on the square.

With 2017 Kentucky Derby horses ducking this year’s Preakness and Belmont Stakes left and right for various reasons, and with the only horse that raced in all three legs finishing progressively worse over the series, cries for lengthening the sequence have resurfaced.

Let’s get this out of the way now: Yes, American Pharoah was special enough to end the most recent draught and, yes, it takes a special horse to do it, and continuing the Triple Crown’s five-week span honors the legacy of those dozen Triple Crown winners.

The problem is that most of horse racing’s prime demographic does not have another 37 years to wait for the next one. And for those who lament the lack of interest in horse racing in the modern mainstream, it’s an opportunity lost to possibly creating new fans.

I am as old-school and as traditional as the next septuagenarian but the idea that lengthening the series weakens it is simply untrue.

By attracting more Derby runners back for the Preakness and Belmont, how does that make the Triple Crown easier to win? By getting those horses back for a rematch with a better chance to be close to the top of their game, how does that cheapen the prize?

Most of those who would lengthen the Triple Crown would be satisfied to simply bring the Preakness back in three weeks while leaving the Belmont in its current place on the Classics calendar.

Moving the Preakness back one week would make a great deal of difference. In all likelihood, it would prop up a race in need of a boost. The Belmont will always remain popular at the entry box because 1-1/2 miles is the great unknown, worthy of shot-taking.

As for tradition --and with the surging popularity of international racing--a look at the British Triple Crown is useful. Its third leg, the Gr.1 St. Leger Stakes at 14 furlongs, is run in September and they’ve been doing it longer, since 1776. How’s that for convention?

Like the American Triple Crown, the British Triple Crown has had its dates and distances altered over the course of time. There is plenty of precedent for change that would be good for the horses and the sport--maybe not now but another 37 years from now.

The five-to-six weeks spacing so prevalent today is because the majority of horsemen at the highest levels now concede that the modern thoroughbred on raceday medication, primarily Lasix, needs time to rehydrate, recharge, and get his mind and body right.

Time always has been in a horse’s best interest.

There’s nothing wrong or less-than about this concession to reality. If all Triple Crown horses have a chance to show up on the day at tops, how does this make the task easier? Blind adherence to the past has put racing in many of the straits it finds itself today.

I had an idea that was roundly booed when first proposed three years ago: Spacing the series over a longer duration around traditional American holidays. It was pooh-poohed because the feeling was that excitement and interest could not be sustained over time.

My proposal was to card the Derby on the first Saturday in May as always, a branding of America’s race that should never be altered.

But the Preakness should be run on or in very close proximity to the Memorial Day weekend. With all due respect to the ideals for which the day was created—is the summertime lid-lifter.

How can associating horse racing with American heroes be a bad thing? It can be a teachable moment for youngsters should learn about the role horses played in making America great.

Staging a Memorial Day weekend horse-racing event should be a marketer’s dream. Of course, it would also provide at least one more week’s freshening, longer when the calendar dictates.

Finally, the conclusion of the Triple Crown should provide added fireworks and added promotion of horse racing on the country’s July 4th holiday festivities. A July 4th Belmont still leaves enough time for a Haskell or Travers run.

Back in the day, the word was that Pimlico would never move the Preakness out another week because all of those collegiate infield revelers would have returned home for the summer.

But modern entertainment marketing accentuates events and their exclusivity which comes at a cost; pricing many out of today’s leisure market. So that timeworn excuse no longer flies.

Another obstacle to Triple Crown change comes from the fact that the new NYRA has taken great pains to create an international weekend of racing surrounding the July 4th holiday with their Stars and Stripes festival, an idea worth applauding.

No reason why the Belmont couldn’t be part of that, perhaps even drawing greater international interest from those already coming for a world-class grass and distance-racing festival?

“Doing what’s best for the horse” has become a popular mantra when today’s horsemen discuss future scheduling. Maybe those groups could apply subtle pressure on The Stronach Group and NYRA to consider altering their Triple Crown events for that very reason.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (40)


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Hey Dad, Have You Ever Taken Your Kid to the Races?

In the 50s, 60s and 70s, when horses still had a presence in everyday life, there was a lot more advertising about bringing dad out to the track on Father’s Day. But that’s not really the case anymore.

Back in the day, dads and uncles took their sons and nephews to the track on a Saturday, providing a fascinating wide-eyed introduction to the spectacle of Thoroughbred racing.

This, of course, was prologue. Betting off-track did not exist, neither did simulcasting, the Internet, or even cable TV as we know it today. In the minds of youngsters, the racetrack was an exciting wide-eyed spectacle of sights, sounds and colors, and it still can be.

But the advertising we see today is left to in-house invitations via a closed simulcasting loop because racing coverage, right down to entries-and-results agate, no longer exists in mainstream media, special big events notwithstanding.

Ergo, it doesn’t make sense for local racetracks to market en masse because sports fans in the main are unaware of the sport beyond the Triple Crown and in places outside of Saratoga, Del Mar and Lexington. Consequently, young people never get the message.

Racing’s omni-presence went out with high-button shoes. And what’s left to promote is no less controversial. Are we selling a grand, colorful, upscale entertainment experience, or a gambling game played with expensive animals?

New fans can be created only by their live introduction to racing’s grand spectacle. If it is meant to be, it will happen only after seeing horse racing’s unique blend of color, excitement and chance.

A message must be sent that racing is a pastime worthy of immersion by some of the world’s most influential people; much more than simply a thinking man’s gambling vehicle.

I’ve written this often, so please indulge me once more. When I was 16, I was compelled to accompany my parents and aunt and uncle to Roosevelt Raceway one Saturday night.

It was the second International Trot and the mile-and-a-quarter event was won by Holland’s Hairos II, with Italian and American horses completing the trifecta. We were a family of five that summer night in 1960. There also was another 50,332 in attendance.

My father gave me $6 for three $2 wagers and so I picked out three names I liked, printed in the Daily Mirror’s bold type. I went 3-for-3: Count Pick, Speedy Pick and Garnet Queen. I turned $6 into $13. I was rich.

But this wasn’t meant to be a Father’s Day tale—I miss you, dad—rather as an expansive reply to a comment made by one of the HRI Faithful at the bottom of Indulto’s latest column, a man who goes by the handle of McDuff.

His surname is inconsequential in this regard and I barely can remember Dennis’ face but we had a thread in common, the late, great turf writer and dear friend, Paul Moran.

Moran was the conduit by which I met McDuff. First and foremost, it was clear he loved the game, a recreational bettor who enjoyed talking horses with a couple of Newsday guys at a local pub.

Horses and the racing was the thread that bound us all. No one was bigger than the game which unfortunately is not so much the case these days. Tangential but appropriate, incivility hurts the racing dynamic, too, a fact also pointed out in the comment section.

But there was for McDuff a more disturbing aspect, the result of Mark Berner’s column on veterinary reports in his Belmont Stakes Tuesday wrap-up.

Berner wrote on the veterinary report released by the New York State Gaming Commission regarding how many and which horses were treated with medication prior to competing in the high profile races run on the Belmont Day program. Wrote McDuff:

“Mark Berner's comments had me so annoyed regarding the lack of common sense within the industry, I just lashed out. When viewing runners in the paddock before a race, I always liked to view the field to see who looked clean, excessive sweating, bandages, etc., etc.

“To learn that every runner in the Belmont Stakes was on raceday meds just blew me away. What have they done to our sport? I gave up on baseball so many years past over the steroid issue…

“For the overseers of the sport, I guess it all comes down to the money to be made today…

“Trainers like Mack Miller and stewards like John Rotz are no more apparently. Just look at what the current day governance did for, or better yet, to Dutrow..?

“At times I suspect it must be difficult for you to prevail through all of it. Especially the personal swipes and attacks levied at you on the HRI comments board. So many old and angry…

“‘Somebody stole my passion, somebody stole my zeal’ [song lyrics] captures all of [racing’s] empty seats quite well. Berner’s Vet Transparency article was quite disturbing to me.

“As a small recreational player, I have not been so much concerned with issues like whales and takeout as I am with the lack of honesty, integrity and sincerity of stewardship of the sport.

“…The animosity, negativity and harshness of the commentaries, and lack of civility of late found at HRI, only further convince me that it is time to quietly walk away.

“I will continue to read John’s Feature Race Analysis and no doubt still wager a few bucks on the feature, but for the most part I will become more a member of the empty seats.

“Should same-day racing medications be eliminated, I will look to return but for now, ‘somebody along the way stole the passion’ indeed. Just not as much fun any longer. In closing I want to thank the featured bloggers and I hope for more positive change in the sport.”

When racing loses the passion of a lifetime fan, just as it had when Dr. Steven Roman, the father of Dosage theory, walked away completely and shuttered his chef-de-race website last year, the trouble for the sport is real and ongoing.

As for wagering, there is gambling game if this sport ceases to exist, even given its weakened status and standing.

With the exception of racing’s myriad problems, that always have existed in one form or another, modern big pharma and the emergence of the dominant “super trainer” have made the modern game less competitive in nature.

The irony is that the sport at its highest levels, on balance, never has been better in our view. Today’s breeding industry, in catering to the market, is cranking out more good horses.

The fact that most are not as durable is a multi-faceted issue, not the least of which is over-medication, legal and otherwise.

Good racing, coupled with fewer racing days, can be maintained at its present level, especially since the sport is becoming more international by the minute. This can only grow the sport in America by heightening interest worldwide.

But without the passion of the every-day fans, and even the game’s practitioners, mainstream media will remain indifferent and racing’s slow slide into an abyss is likely to continue unabated, slowly but inexorably.

The Triple Crown will be popular every year, as will places like Saratoga and Del Mar, and the Breeders’ Cup series of qualifying races, plus the events themselves, along with a handful of Super Saturdays, will keep the sport relevant to its true lovers.

Horses are no longer a part of America’s daily fabric; the price of progress. In the near future, automobiles will be driving themselves and online shopping will continue to be the bane of the big-box stores.

So dad and Uncle Joe, if your kids have not taken you to the track today that may be on you. But one sunny summer Saturday, introduce them to a racetrack near you. Two things will happen: They will get it about the racing experience, or they won’t.

The sin is in not knowing such a wondrous pastime even exists.

June 18, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Classic Day Replete with Classic Performances

Vindication comes in many forms: There’s the kind where tough luck is expunged; when an often-criticized methodology proves unjustified, and when the Belmont Stakes, sans Triple Crown drama--even without winners of the first two installments of the world’s most famous three-race series--is still The Belmont.

Bad karma was nipped in the bud Saturday at when Tapwrit atoned for the desperate nose defeat suffered by his come-backing four-year-old stablemate Destin in last year’s Belmont, suffered at the hooves of Creator.

Saturday’s clear-cut perfect trip victory surely must have been worth the additional $800,000 his connections paid for the Tapit colt, as compared to the year-older Giant’s Causeway offspring. And when form holds, so does the importance of a racing classic.

Alongside Jose Ortiz, who engineered a rail skimming ride perfectly behind the fastest horse in the field and worthy favorite, Irish War Cry, his first Classic victory, stood Todd Pletcher, the guy who supposedly is great at winning Classic preps but the races not so much.

Pletcher’s Belmont record hardly could be much better: Three wins and four second from 13 starters, all having one common thread; they ran on Derby weekend, skipped the crab cakes festival, returned to home base and either started or completed seven exactas.

And, once again in the modern era, spacing mattered. Tapwrit was the fourth Belmont winner that ran in the Derby, skipped the Preakness, before rejoining the caravan five weeks later. That’s five times in the last 10 years.

And so does pedigree, especially when testing champions. Irish War Cry ran a winning race. He did the dirty work, setting the pace with the speedy and wound-up Meanwhile hounding him throughout, but the bottom side of his pedigree got to him inside the final sixteenth of a mile.

Look further up the track and there was Gormley, attempting a winning bid at headstretch that launched him into a clear third midway through the lane but also succumbed in the final furlong to the stoutly bred Patch who, like the runnerup, ran their eyeballs out. An excellent performance by the superfecta performers, indeed.

Clearly, form held. Belmont favorites weren’t able to add to their impressive 42% win ratio, Irish War Cry unable to add to the chalk’s worthy 62-for-148 slate into Saturday.

But inside posts again proved to be advantageous, per usual, as #2 Tapwrit was the 94th horse since 1905 to win from slip 7 inward (Irish War Cry broke sharply from a near mid-pack post 7.

And so Belmont Stakes 149, a good show, concluded this parity-filled season, circumstances dictating separate winners of all three legs, each of whom is expected to be part of the boxed NTRA weekly poll of three-year-olds taken tomorrow; the key horse still anyone’s guess.

It will only serve to make the second season a lot more interesting, especially when uber talent Mastery, and Easy Goer-winning West Coast jumps into the frame for the first time, notwithstanding the return of Classic Empire. The championship season is just getting started.


Especially ‘Money Mike’ Smith, the self-described ‘Big Day Bob’ Baffert, and a filly named Songbird. But, wait, there’s more…

Jose Ortiz had a riding triple, including the Woodford Reserve-Belmont Stakes double returning $415.50; Chris Clement exacting Jaipur revenge with Disco Partner, who missed by a wild-finishing neck in last year’s renewal and, not to be ignored, a new filly turf star from Chad Brown and Juddmonte, Antonoe.

To recall a similarly explosive turn of foot, was forced to recall Royal Academy’s 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile, or Miesque’s two runs in that same event several years earlier, or any of Goldikova’s three straight scores from 2008-10. If you missed it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDRBKaBwOSA

Heart-warming to see Jimmy Toner flash his noted turf acumen with Manitoulin in the race after the Belmont, especially in the colors of Darby Dan Farm, something you rarely see on today’s big-event stages--cool, classy silks.

But beyond the “Test of the Champion,” Saturday clearly belong to Smith, Baffert and a great filly.

A five-win stakes day for Smith, four of them while sitting in the Belmont rocking chair waiting to push the button, horses that were locked and loaded by Baffert.

But one mount did require a brilliant tactical maneuver with Kentucky Oaks-winning Abel Tasman, who stole the storied Acorn mile from co-favorite Salty and five other three-year-old fillies, a turn-move swoop up the fence to blow the race open by headstretch.

Baffert’s four winners, if they weren’t there already, are now set for prime time. West Coast showed again that he will act anywhere and belongs in top company (Haskell anyone?) and that American Anthem and Mor Spirit are a little better than I surmised.

At first blush, I was a tad disappointed with Songbird’s return, but that’s the reason racing video was invented. The returning first-time four-year-old, now a nose shy of a perfect baker’s dozen lifetime slate, showed no rust and broke like a shot out of the gate.

But what first was interpreted as dullness, was in fact a schooling lesson from Mike Smith as the competing speed tried to chew on the favorite down the backside. And to everyone watching, Smith notwithstanding, things got more than a bit dicey on the turn.

Javier Castellano aboard Paid Up Subscriber was attempting to do to Smith what Smith did to Joel Rosario, Salty’s partner, only the race before, only Smith had a proven champion beneath him.

Indeed, Paid Up Subscriber put a long neck in front and Songbird was in danger of being defeated, until later when the replay indicated that Smith was educating the “bigger, stronger” four-year-old for the battles ahead, knowing his filly’s class would carry the day.

Soon after straightening away, Smith went to a more vigorous hand drive, but still with a loose rein, and in the end, Paid Up Subscriber ultimately gave way. The takeaway is that the challenger gave a career performance while the champion got a race she needed to build on and while getting the money, too.

Hall of Fame Hollendorfer had his filly fit, but she was not cranked to the extent that she needed to be had her challenger been, say, Stellar Wind in the two-turn Grade 1 Gamely Stakes.


Although total handle for the stakes-laden Belmont Stakes Day card was down 5.8% to $93,666,832, all-sources handle for the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival showed an increase 1.6% to $124,740,193.

While attendance of 57,729 was disappointing compared to the 60,114 fans who came out in 2016, a 4% decrease, it was much better than the crowd who showed up to see Palace Malice in 2013--in a non-Triple Crown apples-to-apples comparison—by 10,167.

By contrast, all-sources wagering was up 30% on Thursday year over year, while Friday registered an increase of 35% increase.

Despite the unfortunate but justified of Epicharis, Japanese bettors wagered $4.6 million in a separate pool. While the host track gets a piece of the action, that separate pool total cannot be included in NYRA’s official figures.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (30)


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