Sunday, January 29, 2017

No Longer a Myth, Pegasus Soars

In a game built on history and hope, there never has been anything like this. In nearly five decades on the racetrack, nothing we’ve seen matched the level of anticipation and appreciation for the sport that was on display Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

Or, as winning trainer Bob Baffert put it: “They really pulled it off.”

There was no Triple Crown on the line, only two great champions in a reprise of what became an instant rivalry: America’s Horse and his groupies in pitched battle with a newly crowned Horse in the World.

We are blessed to have spent countless exciting days on the job and have seen pretty much everything there is to see in a sport where no one can nor will ever see it all.

The thrill of watching fast and beautiful beasts in competition, straining into their bridles and against each other, beneath men whose hearts are as big as their bodies are diminutive.

We have 24 living memories of Breeders’ Cups past, a witness and chronicler of crushing disappointment; Zenyatta proving to be only human in the gloaming of Churchill Downs, but only that one time.

And every Belmont Stakes stakes since Damascus in 1967*, at Aqueduct of all places, but there were the three that stood out above the rest.

From Big Red of Meadow Stable in 1973, to a Smarty party-crasher in 2004, to a selfie celebration that ensued at the end of an arduous road, a family pet of a Thoroughbred and resplendent equine athlete that breathed life back into a sport 42 years later, however briefly.

But January 28, 2017 at Gulfstream Park was different from all those. In a sport where the past meets the future every day, up popped something that was at once brand new and yet a throwback to centuries ago when one man said to another, “I’ll bet my horse can beat your horse.”

I checked her out...she's clean.
On the afternoon of Pegasus I, women were dressed to the nines, replete with their come-hither Manolos and ornate hats. But, too, it was the usual snowbird crowd, in short cargo pants and hideous ripped-at-the-knees blue-jeans.

Men in sport coats is not that unusual in Hallandale this time of year, but on Saturday there were more neckties per capita than ever have been seen here. They showed respect for an event wishing to witness history. In return, they all got more than they bargained for.

The event was exclusive to the point that one could go from zero to C-note in the blink of an eye. It was built and they came. And they never stopped coming. When athletic titans clash, ATMs be damned.

Standing in the paddock ring awaiting the photo of the ninth race bang-bang finish, track announcer Pete Aiello informed the crowd that the million-dollar guaranteed Late Pick 4 pool had just been doubled.

As wagering on the final Pick 3 of the 12-race afternoon commenced, fans and the curious continued to walk through the ubiquitous metal detectors of today’s world, ponying up the same $100 had they arrived in time for the early double at 11:30 am.

Finally, immediately after Taghleeb proved the most long-winded of them all in the McKnight turf marathon, it was time for the main event. The crowd inside the paddock was as large a typical Florida Derby gathering--with another 18 minutes before the horses were called on stage.

The crowd surrounding the walking ring with the tight turns was larger than Gulfstream’s signature event; much larger, no small feat considering their premier event for three-year-olds had a 65-year headstart.

One of several Chromie sections
Fittingly, it was the 2016 sophomore Eclipse champion that led 11 rivals into the ring, his Horse of the Year rival bookending the field, the horse with the truncated name. Like Elvis or Lebron or Adele, he was simply Chrome, and Chrome's fans travel.

And so the ring was boarded on all sides, dwarfing all the Florida Derbies that have been held at the new Gulfstream Park and Casino, born in 2006.

Magic Mike Smith acknowledges a Higher Power
The stadium seats were full. Standing in front and behind them were double-lines of people, a sea of cell phones and tablets that will prove they were there when the great California Chrome passed the torch to the great Arrogate.

It was the same on the second floor, people lining the paddock area and stairways three levels high, row after row of onlookers craning their necks to get a closer look at the best horses in America and beyond: Horse of the Year vs. Horse of the World.

The Horse of the Year didn’t deserve to go out the way he did, his right front knee betraying him as he appeared to struggle in the cuppy footing despite having three weeks of practice over it.

Ironically, the inaugural running of the Pegasus turned out to be the sport of horse racing encapsulated: The game in which the highs are the highest and the lows bottomless.

But they “pulled it off,” indeed, as 12 million begat 40 million, and a luminescent star was born, a horse that no one has seen the bottom of thus far, not even those closest to him.

And so a horseman who celebrated the biggest win of his life that launched a Hall of Fame career with a victory at our father’s Gulfstream of 1992 returned with a champion to pull off the success of the richest horse race ever staged, one born an instant classic.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Hallandale Beach, FL, January 28, 2017

*correction made 7:26 pm, 013017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Great Day at Gulfstream from Morning ‘til Night

If there were an opportunity to ensure that Saturday’s Pegasus World Cup Invitational day would be a reprise of what happened yesterday at Gulfstream Park--from early on a low-lying fog-shrouded morning to a champagne-sipping toast to the Thoroughbred champions of 2016, Frank Stronach would be asking: “Where do I sign?”

In what was the final workout of his career, the soon-to-be two-time Horse of the Year worked five furlongs on the Hallandale oval in 58 4/5 seconds, galloping out another furlong in 13, on his left lead into the clubhouse turn with exercise partner Dihigi Gladney never moving a muscle.

In its way, it was the 2016 Pacific Classic of workouts. To merely say that he’s all set for his career finale in six days somehow diminishes the effort.

As prelude to next weekend’s world’s richest dirt race and last evening’s Eclipse Award ceremonies was the Sunshine Millions, featuring some of the best that Florida-breds have to offer competing in five stakes.

If one were to add up the combined winning margins of the Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf, Distaff Sprint, Sprint, Turf and Classic, a total of 1-1/4 lengths would separate the winners from the runners-up.

The best was saved for last when Hy Riverside out-bobbed Nauset Beach in a photo so tight as to be reminiscent of Beholder’s victory over Songbird in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

And it was a nice touch that Hy Riverside gave his local trainer, Antonio Sano, his third winner on the afternoon.

It was a great lead-in to the Eclipse Award ceremonies to follow that went off without a hitch and crisply, until the very end that is.

At that point, California Chrome co-owner Perry Martin went on a nonsensical Trumpian self-aggrandizing rant about the current locale of his abode that began with an attack on Turf Writers, many of who voted his horse worthy of 2016 Horse of the Year recognition.

A saving grace, and completely apropos of the moment, was a Triple Crown-worthy number of tweets that followed:

Jeremy Balan ‏@BH_JBalan: “We can all make fun of Perry Martin but the great shame is that Art Sherman didn't get to speak”
Jay Privman ‏@DRFPrivman: “And you guys thought Coburn was the crazy one”
And, finally, comforting words from Ed DeRosa ‏@EJXD2: “For those who missed Perry Martin's speech, it will be the opening scene of Saw VIII”

Chad Brown, Man on a Mission:
Mission Accomplished

Memorable Moments

Martin’s diatribe did not ruin a good evening. After excusing myself from my unscheduled-in-advance house guests, I retired to my computer and caught moments that were among my favorites. Quotes:

Female Sprint Champion Finest City’s trainer, Eric Kruljack: “When we get great horses, they make us look good. She’s the one I want to thank the most.”

Rick Porter, on losing the Breeders’ Cup Distaff by a desperate nose, thus ending an undefeated career: “If I had to lose to anyone, I couldn’t have picked a better trio than Wayne Hughes, Dick Mandella and Beholder.”

Could not scribble fast enough to quote the territory covered by Outstanding Trainer Chad Brown--as ebullient as anyone has ever seen him, I suspect—who thanked everyone, and we do mean everyone. To wit:

The people who work side-by-side with him every day: Especially five assistant trainers and his bookkeeper, saying that if someone were to kidnap her and take her cell phone it would ‘shut me down’, the jockeys ‘for their bravery’…

And the vets ‘who get a bad rap’, the blacksmiths who ‘take good care of their feet’, horse transporters who ‘get them their safely’, his family for their ‘support and patience’ and the horses ‘for their bravery and consistency’.

And, finally, to Paul Kelly, Shug McGaughey and Bobby Frankel, for teaching him everything he knows and ‘uses every day’.

Javier Castellano, the first rider since Jerry Bailey
to win four straight Eclipse Awards

Hail Colleagues

This missive would be incomplete without kudos to colleagues Andrew Beyer and Steven Crist for a lifetime of achievement in Thoroughbred racing--Beyer for making speed figures mainstream and for inspiring generations of horseplayers, which included Crist, racing’s turf writing’s Renaissance man, who had a final message for the assembled elite:

“Don’t fool with the Triple Crown, it’s your greatest asset so leave it alone.”
“Keep the Breeders’ Cup moving…and bring it back to New York. It’s been 13 years and that’s just plain wrong.”
“Don’t treat medication overages as ‘racing’s latest scandal’.”
“Support Treasury Department reforms…to increase handle.”

Eclipse Margins and Observations:

Classic Empire, 248 votes (unanimous)
Champagne Room 202; New Money Honey 21; Lady Aurelia 11 (1 abstention); BC Juvenile Fillies winner nailed it.
Arrogate 243; Exaggerator 2; Nyquist 2, Gun Runner 1; didn’t realize Steve Asmussen had a vote.
Songbird 248; ‘nuff said.
California Chrome 248; ditto.
Beholder 246, Stellar Wind 2; well, she did beat her once.
Drefong 199, Lord Nelson 29, A.P. Indian 20; BC Sprint dominates, still though margin might have been closer.
Finest City 185, Haveyougoneaway 20, Paulasilverlining 13; BC F&M Sprint rules.
Flintshire 137, Highland Reel 76, Tourist 32; just about right.
Tepin 225, Found 11, Queen’s Trust 7; exactly right.
Rawnaq 171, Top Striker 31, Special Skills 2; thought it might have been just a tad closer.
Owner: Juddmonte 134, Ken and Sarah Ramsey 45, Klaravich Stables & William Lawrence 17; step down, next case, please.
Breeder: Winstar Farm 164, Clearsky Farms 62, Juddmonte Farms 4; obviously deserving but thought it would be closer.
Chad Brown 208, Bob Baffert 21, Mark Casse 11 (one abstention); first and third had career seasons, a little remarkable that Art Sherman only received 3 votes.
Javier Castellano 146, Mike Smith 44, Jose Ortiz 41 (two abstentions); I’m a little upset, no issues with Javier but let’s cancel voting and give award to money-winning rider without all the drama.
Luis Ocasio 182, Lane Luzzi 34, Eric Cancel 1; margin wider than expected.
Live Programming: NBC Sports; unless another major network steals away the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup, NBC will retire this trophy.
TV Features, ESPN; Audio Multi-Media: D, my bad.
Feature Commentary: John Scheinman, second Eclipse for brilliant wordsmith.
Photography: Tod Marks; Kudos in a highly subjective category; there’s plenty of great racing art out there.

Old School in 2016

Way to go longhairs: California Chrome (5-year-old), Beholder (6yo), Tepin (5yo), Rawnaq (9yo).

Way to go Diety: In his final thank you, Rick Porter thanked God for being able to get to Saturday's ceremonies. Porter, like TVG's Simon Bray and racecaller Larry Lederman, are enduring battles with cancer.

Bray, thankfully, appears to be doing well at present but probably no one is more blessed than Lederman. "Bernie," as he is known to his friends, celebrates his 60th birthday Monday after being diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer six years ago this April. God bless one and all, indeed.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Hallandale Beach, FL, January 22, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Even in Small Ways, The Meadowlands Keeps Trying

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 17, 2017—It is no secret that horse racing in New Jersey is in trouble and has been for some time. Competition from casino-enhanced purses in neighboring racing states has dealt a serious blow to its economic viability.

But unlike, say, California, the Garden State’s woes can’t be attributed to lack of trying. Contrarily, when it comes to new ideas, it can be argued New Jersey is one of horse racing’s most progressive jurisdictions and has been for some time.

New Jersey was the first to embrace exchange wagering in the U.S., and while that concept hasn’t set the horse-betting world on fire, it has raised awareness that expansion is possible via diversification and choice given its appeal to a Wall Street mentality.

Exchange wagering pits player against players or player vs. crowd by locking-in prices based on handicapping skill and knowledge of the public’s betting habits. At once, players have diversification and control over their money.

In an effort to spur business, The Meadowlands lowered parimutuel takeout to 15% across the board at its brief all-turf meet. But lowering takeout works best only over the sustained trial periods needed to overcome near term revenue shortfall.

In order to attract people into their buildings or online bet shops, New Jersey horse interests have lobbied for sports wagering, with its venues as gateway, a concept that has received governmental support, then not; public support, then not again.

At blame is hypocritical right-wing attitudes toward gambling and because New York casino interests and sports leagues have lobbied against competitive racinos that are 20 minutes from Manhattan or Westchester County.

Whatever it’s tried, New Jersey has been stymied to the point where horse racing is rapidly becoming unsustainable.

The pressure to stop the bleeding by any means necessary occurred recently when The Meadowlands decided to computerize it the harness-racing morning line earlier this month.

In the big picture this looks like a small issue, but it’s indicative of the fact that horse racing everywhere is failing in its attempts to keep the fans it has, never mind attracting a new audience.

Like handicapping, line-making is an art science, which is how all thinking-man’s gambling games should be approached. It’s as much about feel, gambling soul as it were, as it is about stats. In short, it takes one to know one.

Latter-day bettors can’t even agree on the function of what a morning line should be. Is it a predictor of how the crowd will eventually spread/spend their money or a guide as to how they should bet their money?

At the National Armstrong Daily, I was taught that ideally it’s the former. But more often than not it winds up being a hybrid. That’s not a negative. Setting the line is a thankless job.

A linemaker’s good opinion is never acknowledged; he’s noticed only when a mistake is made and, of course, no one is privy to insider betting until the prices appear on the tote board.

The morning line is important because those quotes greatly impact future betting behavior, especially in the popular sequential pools that attract heavy wagering.

Many regulars argue why bother with setting this guideline at all? Simply allow the opening flash on the tote be what the crowd should bases its wagering on.

That argument has some merit save for the fact many in the crowd could know what constitutes “value” if there was not a pre-set judgment based on objective past performances data. Parimutuel betting is fluid and constantly evolving.

Additionally, mainstream bettors, especially in the simulcast era, have a right to see where the “steam” is coming from? Much of the crowd’s perception is not so much that the game is rigged but rather that it’s too inside and nowhere near as transparent as it should be.

Like humans, computers have limitations, but only the most sophisticated programs can be intuitive as humans, especially practiced horseplayers. And how do we know that humans fed the computer the most relevant information?

But machines are exposed to political pressures that accompanies the linemaker. Can a linemaker set a Hall of Fame trainer’s entrant at 30-1? Can the “house horse” be that price? The pressure is subtle but no less real.

The bottom line is that the public uses the early morning lines to reach decisions and computers know with even less certitude than humans how the crowd with react to disparate dynamics; how does one assess known unknowns from unknowable unknowns?

The early line is important because it impacts perception, be it a race or the entire game. If the novice cannot understand, like many veterans, how or why a particular 10-1 shot opens at 4-5, both camps will know something’s up and further investigation in needed.

Empirically, computer odds have a greater chance of success in harness racing where one mile in a standard distance, stout Standardbreds race much more regularly and trainer stats are available to shade the line in the direction the stats take you.

The Meadowlands is using a computer line generated by Trackmaster. That product has a deserved, good reputation in that area. The track has also assigned a betting expert to review the computer line seeking obvious anomalies.

Handicapping tenets in Thoroughbred racing are more intricate and a lot more subtle. A computer is unlikely to differentiate the worth of a 59-second workout from a Bob Baffert-trained debuting two-year-old compared to one conditioned by Bill Mott.

However, consider this: Comparing a computer-generated Thoroughbred morning line with one constructed by a track linemaker who wears four other hats would be a very difficult call.

A solid, professional morning line is almost taken for granted, and it shouldn’t be. It protects both the public and the sport’s reputation. As such, it’s money very well spent. In that context, the tack in New Jersey is keeping its eye on the prize.

Written by John Pricci

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