Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Eclipse Voters, Bloggers Want Same Matchup: Rachel vs Zenyatta
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 26, 2009--It’s been my experience that unless the names of a particular distaff deity is invoked, fillies just don’t excite racing fans the same way colts do.
It’s no one’s fault that there aren’t enough Ruffians or Bushers or Twilight Tears to go around. It’s just the way it is:
There are not enough tomboys like Shuvee, or bullets like Moccasin, a Horse of the Year at 2, or Derby winners like Winning Colors and Genuine Risk or perfectionists like Personal Ensign. These exceptional females proved great is great, gender be damned.
Today it's the Preakness heroine Rachel Alexandra and perfectionist Zenyatta that has elevated the female race horse in stature. Everybody might love
the itty-bitty gritty Derby winner that could, especially after he stamped himself genuine in Baltimore.
But it’s the ladies that are the buzz and they’re on a collision course. Not, however, on the racetrack any time in the near future, but in the Eclipse voting booth.
To prove the point, it will take a little hypothesizing. Because nobody knows what any of the camps are going to do, perhaps not even the handlers themselves.
But after reading the quotes, then the tea leaves, here is one voting scenario to ponder.
Let’s say that, by Sunday, Rachel Alexandra is kicking down the barn door and if she doesn’t run soon, she’s going to hurt herself by acting out in her stall. Jess and Steve huddle. “We’re running in the Belmont,” Jess says.
Somehow, enough water is found on Long Island--ground water, not rain, please--to spray Big Sandy, making the track nice and tight. And Rachel is able to skip over it like it’s Churchill Downs. She wins the Belmont.
In this corner, Rachel Alexandra, the only filly in the history of the universe to win two legs of racing’s Triple Crown.
On the other coast, and only on that coast, Zenyatta does exactly what she did last year, winning the Vanity, Clement Hirsch, Lady’s Secret and Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic. This final just in: Zenyatta 14, Personal Ensign 13.
And in this corner, the record holding winner of 14 straight races without defeat in top class competition, and still, distaff champion of the world, Zenyatta
May I have the envelope, please. And the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year 2009 goes to ???
Talk about splitting hairs. Where’s a BCS computer when you really need one?
In the blogosphere, fans already are choosing up sides. Said one blogger about Zenyatta’s proposed schedule: “It would be the equivalent of driving your Ferrari around a cul-de-sac.”
Said another: “I’d hardly call Zenyatta’s plans defending her title, more like maintaining her perfect record.”
I’ve got one, too, with apologies to John Shirreffs and Peppers Pride: “It’s like pummeling New Mexico-breds 19 straight times.”
In defense, one said that “anyone who feels they have a horse that can beat Big Z can put their horse on a plane and go take their shot. The champion never comes to you, you go to them.”
And another: “I LOVE Zenyatta… LOVE. But I seriously hope they take her out of the cul-de-sac at least once. There’s always hope that maybe they’re just playing coy… fingers crossed on that one!”
And finally, this: “The ultimate goal…is October. To get there you map out a plan. Appeasing people is not part of it. You decide the best way to give your horse the best chance… It might not make everyone happy, but it’s the right one according to the people who know the horse best.”
The camps have been talking, too. Shirreffs on the mile and a quarter Hollywood Gold Cup. “She’s never run that far… And against the boys? Let’s make it even harder.”
And “when it gets closer to [Breeders’ Cup] time, you don’t want to ship around too much. Saratoga is a long way.”
Then this from Jess Jackson: "If [Rachel] runs at all on the plastic [Santa Anita‘s Pro-Ride], it will be because she's so damn good that she can beat the boys in the Classic, not the Ladies' Classic," adding he would love to take on Zenyatta at some point.
If Zenyatta ends her career by eclipsing Personal Ensign and if Rachel Alexandra were to win the Belmont, my Horse of the Year vote will go to Rachel Alexandra.
Why? Because, in my opinion, her achievement would have greater historical significance. If she skips the Belmont, targets and wins the Travers, that might accomplish the same thing. For me, beating males twice means more.
Otherwise, like that blogger said, Zenyatta’s the champ, you come to her. And that puts the onus on Jackson to chase Zenyatta..
I have a compromise where both camps give something up. Jackson already has a real estate agent hunting for places to rent for the Saratoga meet, so Rachel will spend the summer here.
Saratoga is a long way, but there are such things as airplanes. Board one of those and meet the younger Rachel in the Personal Ensign on the last weekend in August. Running in that spot has a little extra symmetry, too.
Beyond that, most observers believe that the three-year-old cannot beat the older mare, no matter how fast or slow the pace. To this point, I agree.
August is still early in the season for three-year-olds vs. elders--advantage Zenyatta. And it allows more than enough recovery time before Zenyatta's penultimate start, the Lady’s Secret, at Santa Anita in October.
As for her legacy, she will have beaten the filly who beat the boys in the Preakness--instead of the outmanned group she beat last weekend. For Horse of the Year, it would be: Race, Set and Match.
Even Zenyatta’s biggest fans want to see this, thereby eliminating all those nagging questions. Wrote another Zenyatta blogger:
“I won’t ‘love her any less’ if she never gets a chance to prove that’s she’s one of the all-time greats by defeating any and all potential competition. But I’ll definitely think it was a damn shame and waste of talent.
Written by John Pricci
Friday, May 22, 2009
HANA Proving a Positive Force for Industry Change
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 21, 2009--What began as a horseplayer rant among several handfuls of people in a chat room at pace advantage.com has become a burgeoning populist movement that’s gaining a voice in the thoroughbred industry.
There’s something happening here and it’s beginning to become clear that what’s going down is a shift in attitude from the racing industry towards fans that allows horseplayers to become a part of racing’s reconstruction process going forward.
It could not possibly have come at a better time.
And what could be better proof of the kind of passion the game elicits? Horseplayers, by definition, competitors within a parimutuel pool, bonding together for the good of all.
Wouldn’t it be great if the industry took a lesson?
The grass roots movement all happened because fewer than a dozen horseplayers decided to do something about their plight and those of their colleagues throughout the country, the whales and the minnows.
And so the small group incorporated themselves in September of 2008, appointed an executive committee, and the Horseplayers Association of North America was born.
HANA’s mission statement, available on its website, http://www.horseplayersassociation.org
, includes a list of proactive principles. Never before in the history of thoroughbred racing have horseplayers united in such a unique and positive way.
Given the nature of the beast, no one believed it could be done. But in less than nine months, HANA has grown to include approximately 1,200 legitimate members whose combined handle brings between $40 to $45 million to the industry table every year.
No longer can the industry afford to look away.
According to HANA president Jeff Platt, the voluntary organization has at its core four principles, four elements upon which positive change can be effected not only for horseplayers but for the industry as well.
“What we are seeking,” said Platt in a phone interview, “is that the industry makes every track signal available to every ADW (advance deposit wagering platform).
“Takeout needs to be lowered so that the lower product costs can enable horse racing to be more competitive with other forms of wagering.
“We want a national drug policy that’s enforced with real penalties for cheaters. No longer can those horsemen be allowed to train from their cell phones.
“And, finally, pool integrity. We want the odds to be displayed [wagers posted] in real time. We believe all these elements have combined to hold the game back for the last dozen years.”
To be proactive is to put ideas and words into positive action. One such HANA initiative was the creation of a “buy-cott” which, as the name suggests, is the opposite of boycott.
HANA’s board reasoned that they needed to choose a race at a meeting that--because of its smaller size and quality of its horses--doesn’t generate much handle. HANA determines the race its members could wager on to make a statement, proving at once that the organization should be taken seriously and be a force for positive change.
“The results have been OK so far,” shared Platt, “but it’s been a learning process. At first, we chose small tracks in different time slots where we might make an impact [on handle].”
But, by far, the most successful buy-cott occurred on the final Saturday of the recently concluded Hawthorne race meet.
“We chose a very competitive Illinois-bred stakes with a large field, the kind of race most bettors want to wager on. Our members responded to the higher rated track by wagering $80,000 more on the event than was handled [in several years on the same race].”
Parenthetically, this week's HANA buy-cott play is Saturday's eighth race at Canterbury Park.
Serendipitously, Platt had wagered on the second race at Penn National just prior to our interview Wednesday night. He was all set to collect 10-1 on the winner, Twodoorsdown. The race had been declared with an advisory that prices were pending.
As Platt awaited the prices, he noticed the winner’s odds drop from 10-1, 9-1, 8-1 and 7-1. After a delay of approximately 20 minutes, the race was declared a non-betting event and refunds were made on all wagers, including winning bets made prior to post time.
“The stop-wagering mechanisms are not being received from the tracks [in a timely fashion].”
“This happens more often than people think. Everyone’s finding out more about these developments because people are speaking up. The industry needs to pay somebody to create a modern and secure tote system.”
Platt is a programmer by trade and spoke with a number of experts in his field. The bad news is that the cost would be very high. He has been given estimates in the $250-to-$300 million range.
With a combined national annual handle of over $14-billion, the high cost, unfortunately, is the price of doing business. It would be in the interests of all tracks and simulcast venues to pay their fair share based on handle.
In this environment, no one’s holding their breath.
Aside from proving that HANA has the power to make positive change at the bottom line, a more important aspect is that horseplayers are finally getting a seat at the table.
HANA recently has had positive talks with Keeneland’s hierarchy. At a recent wagering conference in Canada attended by representatives from Woodbine, Betfair, horsemen’s groups and horseplayers, the organization was happy to be part of the process.
They discovered that when the subject of lower takeout was broached, participants found themselves agreeing that lowering the cost of the product was in everyone’s best interests. Imagine that.
“Behind the scenes the sides need to continue to sit down, put down their swords and pick up the pen.”
Relative to takeout, Platt sees positive signs by the shift in attitudes on rebates.
“The concept has changed recently with regard to offering rebates to all players. You’re starting to see organizations such as the California Horse Racing Board, Youbet.com and some of the tracks beginning to provide rebates its on-track patrons.
“The pendulum is starting to swing because the industry is becoming aware that the players are aware. At our meetings, we try to settle on a marketing strategy that helps give customers what they want. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what the industry should do.”
Written by John Pricci
Friday, May 15, 2009
What Would Damon Runyon Do?
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 14, 2009--As legendary sportswriter Damon Runyon once advised: "The race does not always go to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."
That quoted, the starkest difference between seasoned handicappers and passionate thoroughbred racing fans comes down to this: The best horse isn’t always the best bet.
There’s ample evidence that sensational filly Rachel Alexandra is the “best horse” in the Preakness 134 field. And you need not trust any handicapper’s opinion on that; just read the comments of any horseman who’s not so eagerly lining up against the filly on Saturday.
Of course, contradictions such as the above is what makes the handicapping of horse races such an engaging and challenging exercise. Or referencing the George C. Scott line in the movie “Patton”: “God help me but I do love it so."
Here, then, the remaining handicapping profiles of Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, listed in post position order:
Much improved since moving from synthetics to dirt three starts back, he was beaten seven lengths by Friesan Fire, who had freaked in the Louisiana Derby slop, and by the same margin when Mine That Bird freaked in a sloppy Kentucky Derby. In between came a gutsy win in the Arkansas Derby and, if not for being jostled about in the Derby’s rough-house stretch run he, would have finished second. Kept limber with a very slow breeze over a deep and holding Pimlico surface early in the week, he acts on any type of going and Rafael Bejarano figures to use this colt’s versatility to best advantage should that need arise on Pimlico’s quirky configuration. Maintaining his performance level might be problematical, however.
Not only did he suffer through a terrible trip as he was buffeted about by rivals in the Kentucky Derby, he also was forced to check on two separate occasions. This is a long striding colt with gears and can win from near the early pace or from behind, but despite his versatility he never appeared comfortable in the off going. Consequently, he’s yet another Derby runner whose effort can be dismissed as an aberration. He’s obviously a lot better horse than he showed in Louisville and in Julien Leparoux has a race-riding star in the boot. Has enough foundation to run strongly here, even though an in-the-money effort seems far more likely than a victory.
9-PIONEEROF THE NILE:
Remains the most accomplished of the Preakness horses by virtue of two Grade 1 victories, a G1 Kentucky Derby placing, and two victories at the G2 level this season. Not only did he demonstrate an ability to handle something other than a synthetic surface at Churchill Downs but showed that he’s as gritty as ever, winning a rough n’ tumble place battle over two contentious rivals after racing out in the center of the track much of the Derby’s 10 furlongs, not the fastest part of the Louisville surface May 2. Continues to please trainer Bob Baffert with his Triple Crown preparation and comes into the Preakness off a small forward move in the Derby and a New Pace Top, a harbinger of yet another improved effort.
Don’t be shocked if this colt shows a much improved performance in the Preakness. It wouldn’t be the first time that trainer D. Wayne Lukas prepped a horse in a marquee event for a subsequent spot. The Preakness is the middle jewel of the Triple Crown but it’s not the Derby, and this runner needed to get his feet held to the fire. Already beaten by double-digit lengths in the slop at 2, he caught that surface again after drawing post 19 on the inside-favoring Derby track. Prior to that wide non-effort came two good-figure performances in the Lanes End and Arkansas Derby. Lukas has won the Preakness five times and taps Alan Garcia here. At a huge price, he’s a Super High 5/Superfecta inclusion.
11-TAKE THE POINTS:
Taking points is never a bad idea since it gives bettors two ways to win. Reserving him from the Derby in favor of a Preakness run was a prudent decision but it might not help when he lines up against some crusty Preakness 134 rivals. This colt’s development is admirable. With the exception of the slightest regression in the Sham Stakes when he chased The Pamplemousse from a wide path throughout, he’s not taken a backward step in six career starts, and his improvement has been beneficially incremental. His connections were concerned about short recovery time heading into the Santa Anita Derby, so today’s six-week spacing should have his batteries fully charged. Probably a notch below, but a nice colt nonetheless. Money prospects.
12-TONE IT DOWN:
I love it when modest local owners have a horse worthy enough to compete in a historical classic and the Preakness seems to attract at least one every year. Remember longshots Icabad Crane, Magic Weisner? But I’m afraid that I prefer my Maryland horses to have won or made a winning-type performance in Pimlico’s traditional Preakness prep, the Federico Tesio. Tone It Down set a moderate pace and tired to finish third behind Miners Escapade, who’s skipped the Triple Crown’s middle jewel. Rather than try matching strides early with the likes of Big Drama and Rachel Alexandra, the connections have decided he try off the pace tactics today. In either case, his performance figures are too slow.
From an Equiform figures’ perspective, the 79½ final figure she earned winning the Kentucky Oaks without urging was the same figure earned by the Derby winner the following day. But unlike Mine That Bird, Rachel’s figure represented an incremental move forward--not the big leap taken by the Derby winner-- making her less likely to regress. She receives a *five-pound weight concession from the colts at today’s mile and three-sixteenths journey which projects her to be, by definition, the “fastest horse” in the race. However, it is unknown how she will handle much, much tougher rivals from a class, final-figure and pace-figure perspective. A talent edge is the great equalizer but is no guarantor of success. No horse has won the Preakness from post 13 and fillies are 4-for-52, none in 85 years. This is what academicians call an epistemological dichotomy. I call it a use-her and lose-her proposition.
Tomorrow: Final selections and constructing a winning exotics strategy.
Written by John Pricci