Tuesday, May 01, 2012


The Fastest Two Distractions in Sports


SARATOGA SPRINGS, MAY 1, 2012—It has taken a very long time for racing’s problems to reach this stage and one thing is certain: It will take a whole lot longer than two minutes to figure the whole thing out.

Sometime late Wednesday afternoon, post positions for Kentucky Derby 138, one of the deepest and most contentious fields assembled in the modern era will be drawn and one can look at this event in one of two ways:

The timing could not have been better; the timing could not have been worse.

Two days before the post draw, and after the last four Derby horses had had their last meaningful workout for the big day, the New York Times published another installment in their series on horse racing’s use of medication, legal and otherwise.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, some of Thoroughbred racing’s most recognized names, including the owners of Kentucky Derby-winning Barbaro, a prominent veterinarian, and a retired Hall of Fame jockey, said in a Congressional hearing that the use of medication, legal and otherwise, was widespread and crippling the sport.

The installment “Big Purses, Sore Horses and Death” published Monday of Derby week was one of two articles that devastated the industry. The other, entitled “State Report Says Racing Association Knowingly Withheld Millions,” informed that a new state report, having e-mail documentation, contradicted a prior statement made by New York Racing Association President and CEO Charles Hayward that withholding of $8.6 million due winning bettors in several exotic pools for a period of 15 months was not an “unintentional oversight.”

Shortly thereafter, NYRA Board Chairman C. Steven Duncker announced that the NYRA Executive Committee had placed Hayward and Patrick Kehoe, NYRA Senior VP and General Counsel, on administrative leave without pay pending further investigation.

The Congressional hearing in Kennett Square, Pa. included the testimony of leading industry figures who support the ban of the race-day use of furosemide, a.k.a. Lasix.

Earlier this year, HRI railed against the coverage the Times gave the issue in its first installment of the investigative series. Lumping together fatality statistics that crossed all jurisdictions, breeds, and used disparate qualifying parameters was not only salacious but patently unfair in our view but not to the extent it lacked credibility.

As Hall of Famer Gary Stevens courageously stated even before giving his testimony, federal intervention is needed to save racing from itself. That is the position we took when the first Congressional hearings were held in the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

“If there is no race-day medication,” Stevens said Monday, http://www.thehorse.com “it would solve a lot of problems in racing.”

Racing promised substantive changes after that hearing and some meaningful measures were taken including the ban on steroids. But given big picture realities, the measures weren’t enough and didn’t get to the heart of the issue; the abuse of legal therapeutic medication.

Of course, there’s the insidious issue of illegal substances to consider, the age-old problem of under-funded laboratories trying to play catch-up with the pharmaceutical companies.

Indeed, some testers are well aware of what the illegal substances are but their labs lack the funding (resolve?) to conduct thorough tests to prove that these man-made properties tilt the playing field and to stop its use.

Such a substance is Eprex. A synthetic preparation of human erythropoietin, or EPO, Eprex uses recent DNA technology. EPO is commonly used to treat certain forms of anemia by regulating the formation of red blood cells. Eprex is a purified glycoprotein which stimulates the process known as erythropoiesis and thus is performance enhancing.

The fact that no delineation has been made between permissive and illegal medications essentially has prevented Congress from adopting a bipartisan bill penned by Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act, which would lend new definition and process to the 1978 Interstate Horseracing Act.

According to published reports, all Congressional legislators knew about the issue before them is what they read in the two Times stories, and even those lawmakers considered friendly to racing are reticent to get involved in the sport’s problems.

The industry knows this yet it continues to dance around the issue. By maintaining the status quo, the improvements that have been made are treating the symptoms and not the root cause; abuse.

Dr. Greg Ferraro, DVM, a former Lasix use proponent who now believes he was mistaken, is calling for federal intervention: “There virtually is no way in which you are going to get any kind of consistent rules to control these drugs without it,” Ferraro said Monday.

In New York, meanwhile, the bottom has fallen out of the NYRA. The CEO and legal counsel were put on administrative leave without pay which moved them a step closer to the door, especially if the association expects to retain its franchise.

Dominos will continue to fall if Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who since his State of the State address, has said he wants to take a closer look at whether Thoroughbred racing in New York continues to make sense for the state in the long term.

Any change in direction might include the closure of Aqueduct Race Track and converting it into a multipurpose facility and the possible sale of Belmont Park and Saratoga, two extremely valuable and attractive properties, to the highest independent bidder.

The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association has scheduled a meeting at Belmont Park for Wednesday at 11 a.m. to discuss the entire matter.

If the feds intervene because racing fiefdoms in 38 states could not come together in their own best interests with a solution insuring the sport’s viability well into the Millennium, does it really matter who’s at fault?

If the NYRA loses its franchise because its officers acted as if they were above the law, will the ripple effect of those actions bring down an entire industry?

Sadly, for many people in this game, Wednesday’s Derby post draw will serve only as little more than a distraction, and a temporary one at that.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, April 22, 2012


“No Comment”


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 22, 2012—I’ve been putting this off because I’m in denial—the anger stage, I think--but mostly sad; a time when that knot in your stomach just won't go away.

At this juncture, I’m starting to get used to losing family and friends. Check that: You never get used to it; only concede that loss is inevitable and more a part of life than it used to be, way back before you lost no one and knew everything.

Richard (Dick) Hamilton was so many things to me: a one-time colleague; a one-time adversary--the way a New York Racing Association steward and newspaper columnist working-different-sides-of-the-same-street are natural competitors.

I didn’t mention friend because he was a friend to everyone he ever met and spent quality time with. Maybe it’s because I’m green-eyed about it; he had so many friends but you wanted to be his best friend because that’s the way he made you feel.

Special people make other people feel special.

Dick Hamilton was a very bright man but never hit you over the head with that. He’d use playful humor to put your idea down or point out the kind of prejudice that comes natural to anyone who’s plenty longer than 15 minutes on the planet.

He could always disagree because he loved to spar on various subjects; the game, people, politics, sports in general, especially, hailing from Lowell, Mass., his beloved Red Sox. In fact, he was one Red Sox fan this Yankee fan suffered gladly.

Indeed, Hamilton could disagree but never was disagreeable. We had many philosophical differences and with age I admit that I came around to his line of thinking after shunting my ideas aside, for whatever reason.

There was an incident one day involving a jockey that I didn’t think put forth his best effort. In fact, I sought out Hamilton to express my displeasure. He said he hadn’t thought about it in that context but would check it out.

The next day, he sought me out, said that my observations might have been on the mark, that all three stewards watch the video patrol with the rider to the effect that he would receive a warning, and to consider it the only warning he get.

I wanted to report that meeting in Newsday and Hamilton said he would have no official comment on the stewards’ actions. That might have been the only time we disagreed so that other people might notice but I respected his wishes for several reasons:

First, it would be betraying a confidence. Second, Hamilton was under no obligation to tell me about the meeting since it was an “internal matter” between the rider and the stewards but thanked me for bringing the situation to their attention.

Finally, there are times a reporter must go off the record. If he doesn’t--especially in this business--he will be frozen out of information needed to do his job which would also put his newspaper at a competitive disadvantage. It’s a fine line.

The next morning I was getting some coffee in the press box lounge when Hamilton entered the room. I turned around and said “good morning, judge.” Hamilton said: “I have ‘no comment’ on that.

From that moment, "no comment" became our personal greeting whenever we saw each other.

After accepting early retirement from the NYRA, Hamilton became the communications officer for the National Museum and Racing Hall of Fame. Politics notwithstanding, no one ever loved his job more than Hamilton loved his time at the Hall of Fame.

He helped conceptualize and author the Hall of Fame induction ceremony each August, a tradition that has become an SRO event open to the racing public.

Hamilton also created free handicapping seminars for the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup events at the Museum, organized bus trips to the Belmont Stakes, and personally conducted backstretch tours at Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track.

“Dick Hamilton was an invaluable contributor to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame both during his years here as our communications officer and also in recent years as a volunteer,” said current museum director Christopher Dragone earlier this week.

“His knowledge of thoroughbred racing and his passion for the sport and the Museum were evident to all who knew him. He was one of the true gentlemen in racing and was beloved in the Saratoga community. Dick was a wonderful ambassador for the Museum and the sport in general.”

Through the years, Hamilton was careful never to inject his opinion into the controversial aspects of the game but made one exception: “There is just no excuse for not protecting the public,” Hamilton told HRI at the time of the Life At Ten investigation.

“All the chief steward hadd to do was pick up the phone and ask the state vet at the gate to take a close look at the filly. [The stewards] should be fined the amount of money the public lost.” It was the only time I ever saw him angry.

I would see him every month I went for blood tests at Saratoga Hospital, where Hamilton volunteered. But I won’t anymore because, at 76, he’s gone.

He might shake his head in disgust but Dick Hamilton never uttered a disparaging word except that one time. Equally, we strenuously try to avoid the use of clichés, except this one time: They broke the mold when they made Dick Hamilton.



Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 12, 2012


Gulfstream Park Reminiscent of…Saratoga?  Really?


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 12, 2012—All roads, it seems, leads home, to Saratoga where, quite coincidentally, the Oklahoma Training Track across from the big ballpark opened for housing and training today. Call it the New York route on the “Good Horse Circuit.”

Oklahoma and, for that matter, the legendary racetrack across the street looks the same, which is to say, just great. Unfortunately, training hours were over when I rolled up on the entrance, but the weekend’s coming and I can see a container of coffee and a stopwatch in my immediate future.

Of course, it’s good to be home. But I have another home now, too, South Florida. Call it my favorite spot on “The Snowbird Circuit.” It’s nice having a small piece of that rock, too, even if I only got to Lauderdale Beach twice in the past three months.

I like South Florida even if it is part of a state in which “justifiable homicide” is permitted and rigorously defended; where foreclosures run rampant, unemployment is higher than the national average and a place where any moron can call someone a communist because he or she sits in 70 or 71 or 80 seats across the aisle from theirs.

Looking back on a winter racing season recently past, it’s almost impossible to recall all the good things that took place between the fences near the corner of Biscayne and Hallandale Beach Boulevards.

The meet started with Discreet Dancer’s track record performance on opening day, the beginning of a meeting to remember for Todd Pletcher whose 72 winners gave him a ninth consecutive training title, a milestone 3,000th victory, his support allowing Javier Castellano to ride a record number of meet winners, 112, also joining the ranks of 3,000 win club.

Yes, the Pletcher shedrow is extremely powerful and deep, seemingly having a runner for every condition. But it’s one thing to enter the “best horse” and another to win with such consistency at the sport’s highest levels; Pletcher’s good horses aren’t beating up on a bunch of equine tomato cans.

It was a meet in which thrice-Kentucky Derby winning Calvin Borel left with his riding crop between his legs only to return and upset the consensus Kentucky Derby favorite in Gulfstream Park’s signature event, the Florida Derby, the linchpin of the best racing program seen in 2012.

The 2011-2012 Gulfstream Park race meet was a box office success as well. Horses such as Awesome Feather, the 2010 Juvenile Fillies champion, Mucho Macho Man, Awesome Maria and Hymn Book saw to that, especially Maria and the Macho Man.

But the best part is that the new Gulfstream Park—when does it just become Gulfstream Park, I wonder—is that it was reminiscent of the older venue, where on any given day, champion might show up in some mid-week allowance race.

Of course, given the calendar, it’s all about the three-year-olds, and there were plenty of those. Ten horses comprise the NTRA 3-yrear-old pole; half based in the East and the other half based in the West or Midwest.

All the Eastern based 3-year-olds were stabled in SoFla this weekend. Only Alpha didn’t race at Gulfstream Park, but Union Rags, Gemologist, Hansen and Take Charge Indy did. Might as well throw in Risen Star winner El Padrino, at the moment graded earnings challenged, and the sidelined Algorithms, a Holy Bull revelation.

The 2011 Eclipse Award female sprint champion Musical Romance returned to form in the Grade 2 Inside Information. Animal Kingdom returned to win an allowance race but was reinjured and 2011 Louisiana Derby winner Pants On Fire also returned an allowance winner. Preakness winning Shackleford also showed up, as did irrepressible Jackson Bend.

As you might expect, it was all very popular at the box office. The early December opening accounted for an addition $80 million in handle receipts, according to Gulfstream, with on-track handle going over the $50 million mark for the first time in the new facility, which opened in 2006.

In addition to the on-track numbers, all-sources handle set a new standard for the meet that included a record $26.7 million on Florida Derby day, $2.9 million of that on track. It’s easy to attract record handle given top-flight talent and an average field size of 9.25.

The Gulfstream betting menu leaves nothing to the imagination and the fairly friendly takeout rates in multi-race pools and the availability of incremental multi-race wagering, including 50-Cent trifectas and Dime Superfectas, pretty much standard everywhere these days, all helped.

The Dime Rainbow Pick 6 is successful by any fair measure even with its high takeout rates because it allows everyone into the pool. A 10-Cent Pick Six paying $1,800-plus personally insured a profitable meeting. But there is still work to be done.

While Gulfstream and Aqueduct worked hard to coordinate post times so as not to be in conflict, all too often on Saturdays, or so it seemed, Gulfstream post times conflicted with its sister track, Santa Anita.

Competition, not cooperation, with intrastate rival Tampa Bay Downs, was both obvious and a little distasteful. Horses for Gulfstream’s Saturday feature on March 10 seem to lollygag for an exceptionally long time near the starting gate, insuring that Gulfstream’s feature would conflict with the Tampa Bay Derby.

Additionally, on self-service betting machines, where the more popular simulcast signals often share a space on the same line with the host track, with secondary track relegated to the “More Tracks” button, are routine.

But self-service bettors had to go three deep to find Tampa Bay Downs, which certainly qualified as a featured signal that afternoon given its strong supporting stakes program. Away from the press box, I had some difficulty finding a monitor that carried Tampa Bay.

Gulfstream Park is a class operation from top to bottom, but this tack is bush league and beneath the stature of the best winter signal in the country, bar none. But there’s another element about Gulfstream that, for all its New Millennium design, is reminiscent of my other home track.

I like to watch the races from a television viewing stand directly behind the winners’ circle and opposite the finish line. The stand is about 10 feet high, providing an unobstructed view of the action as you stand watching that day’s feature race in the crowd.

Like Saratoga, Gulfstream’s fans like up five deep at the rail to get a closer look at the horses and feel the energy as the field races toward the finish. People on a racetrack apron straining, up on their toes, to get a better look.

People at the racetrack. What a concept.

Written by John Pricci

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