Thursday, January 29, 2015

Criticism In Easy, Solutions Are Hard

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 29, 2015—I am no fan of winter racing in New York and haven’t been since the beginning after learning that a new specialized winter track would need to be constructed inside Aqueduct’s main dirt oval.

My reasoning was that if one of the best dirt tracks in American racing couldn’t stand up to the elements at this time of year, that the surface might not be safe enough to minimize risk to horses and jockeys, then maybe racing in winter is a great idea after all.

Cold-weather animals or no cold-weather animals.

Just like liberal race-day medication rules, I believed then as now that perception is everything when it comes to gambling reality.

Aesthetically, with no opportunity to race seven furlongs or a one-turn mile for a third of the New York season, the product would bear no resemblance to what America’s horseplayers expected from New York racing; decidedly less-than.

At one time winter racing made economic sense beyond filling state coffers; it helped the New York Racing Association squirrel away enough money when the “good-horse circuit” returned to race at Belmont Park and Saratoga.

And this was long before anyone dared conjure up the two-headed casino dole monster.

Back in the day, when racinos became the fashionable solution, legal pari-mutuels at racetracks was the bridge states used to elbow in various forms of casino gaming, including slots dubbed Video Lottery Terminals as to sidestep casino gaming bans.

Parenthetically, it’s the same tack the present-day NFL takes when it encourages and commercially promotes weekly fantasy football games: Fantasy leagues, the VLTs of illegal “spread” betting on football.

For many horseracing fans and bettors, New York winter racing has become anathema and, for the second time in three years, race fans and horse lovers from all over America are witnessing another spate of fatal breakdowns, one far exceeding the norm.

Obviously, something is very wrong.

Several years ago, when purse winnings were more valuable than the “equine commodities” that earned those purses, greed won out as both owners and trainers began spotting their horses far too aggressively.

From late 2011 to 2012, 22 horses suffered fatal injuries, animals having become an expendable means to an economic end. More pieces of “equine chattel” were claimed during that period than any other I can recall in four decades covering New York racing.

This season there have been 14 catastrophic injuries in a truncated 26-day session cut short by weather cancellations and a reduced schedule.

But what’s the problem now, when the current meet’s breakdown rate is more than four times the national average? Either no one knows or no one is willing to say, certainly not for the record.

One of the culprits could be the surface itself. Racetracks are organic and, like humans, don’t work as well when they get old.

When first constructed, the track was hailed as a winter racing marvel; deservedly so. It’s only problematic issue was the dreaded freeze-thaw cycle which caused the track would dry unevenly; slick here, firm there. Consistent freezing temps were never at issue.

But four inspections by the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory proclaimed the track structurally sound and Rick Violette, current President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association stated emphatically last weekend “there’s nothing wrong with racetrack.”

(By virtue of his position as the NYTHA chief, Violette also sits ex-officio on the NYRA Board of Directors.

Privately, however, many of Violette’s colleagues currently racing in South Florida but having divisions in New York, as well as several current New York-based trainers, are saying otherwise.

But because the racing office holds the power of stall allotments over trainers, none were willing to say so for the record.

While some in the racing media, to their credit, have brought the issue of winter-racing breakdowns to the forefront, much of the coverage has been one-sided.

Most published reports only have addressed how racing-office misinterpretation of a NYRA house rule prohibiting horses from running back within 15 days of its last race resulted in eight program scratches on Sunday with nine more expected on today’s card.

Horsemen and media have questioned the wisdom of the 14-day ban but if there were recommendations on how to solve the problem of horse fatalities, I missed them.

So, then, what happens now? If a majority can’t or won’t agree that it’s the surface, arguing they know what’s best for their horses and clients, what do they propose would stop the carnage?

Are we to accept more of the same-old unfortunate-part-of-the-game defense? Where is there a leader among these groups who screams “stop the madness?” Where is the Jockeys’ Guild on this? The only one getting any heat at all is the racing association.

Any veteran racetracker, myself included, would identify the 14-day ban and the raising of minimum maiden-claiming levels a sophomoric, Band-Aid fix to a lethal wound.

But why is having horses qualify after having been beaten off such a bad idea, whatever qualifying the workout time to return? Indeed, starting today, there will be a four-day race week for the foreseeable future featuring eight-race cards. How can one reasonably argue that is not at least a step in the right direction? Who speaks for the horses?

Approximately half the recent fatalities were cheaper horses that either raced back on very short rest or had more than two starts within a 30-day period but arguments that no one knows whether over-racing caused the breakdowns, or citing examples of high-class, short-rest, success stories, are disingenuous apples-to-oranges comparisons.

The fact that no one truly can know what the correct time-frame benchmark should be, or that trainers who race back quickly should not be presumed to be animal abusers, is just more obfuscation.

Any trainer at any level worth his salt, if he were being honest, would tell you that every class of race horse has only so many productive furlongs in their racing careers. If he doesn’t he should consider himself a trainer in name only, not a horseman.

Hard and fast rules often does make for poor policy. But while it’s easier for a majority to criticize these hastily conceived stopgaps, I have not seen many, if any, policies that can be considered short term solutions to day-to-day racing as presently constructed.

It’s not unfair to say some highly placed racetrack executives are overmatched in their positions, and legislators who play at being racetrack executives know even less. But given the state of modern racing, do trainers as a group deserve the benefit of doubt?

If that were true, you wouldn’t hear the betting public scream “juice” at racetrack monitors every time a 30% trainer’s horse crosses the finish line five in front.

At the bottom line, what is NYRA’s ultimate goal, or the goal of any track that finds itself dealing with a similar situation? When racetracks stare down the barrel of negative public perception, it must act, do something to abate the damage as quickly as possible.

Again, maybe NYRA’s hastily conceived reaction was trifling but when this issue first surface two weeks ago, we thought a four-day, eight-race card was one winter-racing answer.

Well, in addition to 15-day, 25-length rules, etc., NYRA did institute two breaks this season and currently are carding eight-race programs four times a week. They may be misguided but they’re playing the dead hand they were dealt.

If anyone has an answer resembling a smarter solutionand not just more piling on, I’m sure everyone who loves the horses, and the game, would love to know what they are.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Everything Dies Baby, That’s a Fact

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 14, 2015-As if the recent losses of good friends are not enough to remind one of his mortality, now the bricks and mortar of our past are falling by the wayside, too.

Atlantic City Race Course, we hardly knew ya’, but the little we did know and experienced, we loved.

It was 30 years ago, life was a bit simpler and the family always would look forward to the drive south in the summertime.

We loved the Jersey Shore then; we still do. We’d spend a week in Margate at the White Sands, right on the beach. On a clear day you could see the Steel Pier a few miles to the north.

As Lou said to Sally in Louis Malle’s 1980 classic: “You should have seen the ocean in those days.”

There were no honky-tonk women in the family and as for casino gambling, table games just don’t do it for me. But night time Thoroughbred racing at Atlantic City always did.

It was at a time when Ken Dunn was making his bones as a successful racetrack executive and Larry Lederman was calling the races; sometimes as Trevor Denman, or as Dave Johnson, sometimes even as himself.

When the microphone went live, you’d never know what to expect.

The arrangements were always the same: Beach by day and Nana baby-sitting by night so that Toni and I could go out for a special dinner, admittedly more of the action variety than the romantic kind.

(No tsking, please; we celebrated our 46th anniversary on Monday, that’s 43 in Super Bowl years to the day: Jets 16-Colts 7).

There was one proviso, however. I would have to take Nana to the races the next night while Toni baby-sat; not quite the same deal as Saratoga where every racing day was take-your-mother-in-law-to-work day.

We always had supper in the trackside dining room, walked down to one of the more quaint walking walks anywhere and spent a race up in the booth visiting with Lederman.

And I must agree with a recent post from Barry Irwin on another site: A.C. had “the best turf course this side of Hialeah.”

The place deteriorated some with the passage of time but it certainly had its share of glamour back in the day; Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope--fittingly Bing Crosby’s partner in all those road movies.

You remember Crosby, of course. He was one of the co-founders of “old Del Mar.”

But there was another celebrity link. Atlantic City Race Course was the vision of John Kelly, a mainline Philadelphia businessman who’s fetching daughter Grace eschewed a successful movie star career to run off and marry the handsome Prince of Monaco.

One evening, at the track where night racing was born, Toni rushed back from the Ladies Room nearly out of breath:

“I just saw the Princess in the Ladies Room, she’s even more beautiful than she is on screen.”

Not having a particularly good night at the wickets, I asked: “Did you get her figures?” Classy woman that she is, my wife did not dignify the question, saying only “why don’t you just get the check?”

As most of the HRI faithful know, in recent years A.C. ran a five-day, all-turf race meet so that by mandate it could remain open for simulcasting year-round.

Meadowlands, the first track to receive a simulcast signal from the first track ever to send one, has picked up that gauntlet for New Jersey and recently has conducted all-turf race cards.

Upon hearing the closure announcement, officials representing Monmouth Park have made inquiries about picking up Atlantic City’s days, perhaps buying the track outright. The sides have agreed to talk about it in the future.

But for now it’s enough to know that for Atlantic City Race Course, glory days, well, they have passed it by; glory days, in the wink of an old man’s eye, glory days…glory days.

BETS N PIECES: The life of the late Jack Wilson will be remembered in a video presentation during Saturday night’s Eclipse Awards ceremony. Nothing could be more appropriate than to celebrate the best chart caller ever to grace a racetrack press box. In his original call of the 1973 Belmont Stakes for Daily Racing Form, Wilson named the margin of 31 lengths as Secretariat crossed the finish line. He was always doing things like that; a remarkable talent, a remarkable human being.

By Comparison, Stewards and Racing Rules May Not Be That Bad: Last week, according to several respected gamblers, the Santa Anita stewards did not take a horse down that should have been disqualified. At Gulfstream, the stewards disqualified a horse for a marginal infraction. So which is worse, the disparate rules in various racing jurisdictions or the one that allows for the type of interpretation used by NFL officials in the final minutes of the Packers-Cowboys semi-finals matchup?

If Dez Bryant didn’t take three steps, it was close. If he didn’t make a football play with control and arms outstretched, it was close, although the ruling was not as bad as the one made in the Cowboys favor vs. the Lions the week before. Why doesn’t the ground cause a fumble for a runner but does for a receiver?

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: So now we know that first-time gelding date information as reported by the DRF refers to the date on which the data was made available, presumably at time of entry, and not the date the alteration was performed. This, of course, is not helpful at best, misleading at worst. Was the runner an unbeknownst gelding last time out or has he been a gelding for his last three races? Do it right or don’t do it at all.

Drug Classifications and Proposed Rule Changes: Too little and Too Late: The New York Gaming Commission recently proposed a rule that if adopted would result in graduated suspensions for multiple medication violations of 30, 60, 180 days or one year when a violator reaches a certain points threshold based on the classification of drug involved.

This is a good start in that it eliminates capricious and arbitrary nature of fines and suspensions while leveling the punitive playing field. The rule is recommended nationally by the Association of Racing Commissioners International and has the support of the New York Racing Association., the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and the Jockey Club. This gives it a chance to be enacted.

But until and unless the ARCI is held to account for what truly constitutes a Class A, B or C-type drug with a clear delineation between therapeutic medications and cheating drugs, justice will not be best served to either the bettors or the horsemen.

As was mentioned here previously in our commentary regarding the David Cannizzo suspension, how can a painkiller such as Propoxyphene, a.k.a. Darvon, be classified as a Class C drug? Someone needs to explain that to me in words I can understand.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Jack Wilson: Best At His Job and a Better Person; Eclipse Finalists Announced

HALLANDALE BEACH, January 7, 2015—Long before I fancied myself as “Racing’s Wanna’ Be Savior,” I was a sharp, a wise guy, looking for a gambling edge by any means necessary.

Never mind that I was working for a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper; the sports desk wasn’t going to help me pick or bet on a winner. And the handicapping competition at the other New York tabloids were formidable rivals.

This was back in the day, the glory years of the 1970s when three Triple Crown winners graced America’s racetracks; therapeutic medication had not yet soiled the gene pool.

At the time, not only were there no capital L’s inside a circle on official track programs but past performances didn’t contain even the most basic trainer and jockey win percentages. Short comments in running lines like “no factor” or “up in time” hardly told the story.

If you wanted to know what happened, you were at the mercy of “Trackmen” whose job it is to produce past performance charts with footnote commentary. The only inviolate rule was, no matter how taxing the work circumstances, “there will always be a chart.”

For handicapping research, one either stockpiled old Forms or cut the charts out of the paper and pasted them into accountants’ long day journals which would be swollen six inches thick by the time the racing season ended.

Whenever I mentioned the term Trackman in those earlier days, the name Don Fair of the Daily Racing Form, nee Morning Telegraph, came up immediately.

Then I met Jack Wilson, who leads any discussion when someone asks “who is the best chart caller of all time?”

In over four decades, Jack Wilson not only was the best I ever saw but the best I ever will see. While the trade is still a highly treasured craft to be learned, access to endless television replay technology has helped greatly.

But there’s nothing like a sophisticated set of eyes having knowledge of horses and riders, with excellent handicapping skills, that helps the Trackman provide horseplayers with a hi-tech “picture” of what happened during a particular race.

Race watching is a skilled art. Everyone considers themselves good trip handicappers now that all have access to replays from tracks all over the world. But just as not all Grade 1s are not created equal, neither are trip handicappers.

Not having access to, nor truly believing in the power of speed figures in my early years, I was by definition a trip handicapper. I worked at it and got good at it, as did New York chart call-taker, Paul Cornman of “Sports Eye.” We became good friends.

Paul remains a professional horseplayer and relocated to Las Vegas three decades ago, but I knew he would have wanted to know about Jack Wilson’s passing last week from congestive heart failure.

Upon hearing the news, Cornman said “the Babe was absolutely the best at doing his job and an even better person.” Cornman is a big baseball fan who was fond of using nicknames. And who was better than “the Babe” after all?

“Remember the time we tried to hide that horse from him?” Paul asked.

“I’m not proud to admit this," I said, "but, yes, I do.”

It was an era when you saw something, you said nothing, except to your closest friends, provided you trusted them not to spread the Intel to every “Mush” on the second floor of the clubhouse.

One afternoon Paul and I saw something and we decided to try distracting Wilson at that point of the replay where this one particular horse, call it the #9 horse, either had subtle trouble or the jockey appeared disinterested in the outcome.

So just before the incident I asked Jack “hey, did you see what happened to [another] horse?” “Got it, thanks” Jack said, his eyes never leaving the screen, his pen never leaving his Trackman’s pad upon which he scribbled PP commentary in short-hand.

I can’t remember what I asked but I kept the conversation going until the race was over. As we left to return to our workplaces from the only small screen television in the Aqueduct press box, Jack called out:

“Hey big Johnny, I saw what happened to the 9.” Cornman and I thought we were being so clever. All we got was busted, Jack going out of his way to describe in great detail what happened to “the 9” in his chart footnote.

If you’re a racetracker and you didn’t love Jack Wilson, it’s because you never met the man. Jack never had a bad day or, if he had, he hid it extremely well. Ever cheerful and attracted to his aura, you always wanted to hang with him.

Wilson never smoked, never took a drink, yet he never stopped smiling, befitting man whose vices were consuming copious amounts of ice cream and marshmallow peeps. Oh, but he liked busting chops, but only if he liked you--and Jack liked everybody.

Whenever an inquiry sign was lit and the adjudication process was taking a little longer than usual, people went back to their jobs waiting for the result to become official.

“Uh oh,” Jack would say in a raised voice, with the accent on the first syllable. It made your head snap to attention and look up at the tote board, only to see the objection sign still blinking.

“Gotcha’ again, Big Johnny.”

Alas, Wilson got me, and lots of others, all the time. As stated, he was an equal opportunity kibitzer who just happened to be the best there ever was at his job. How could he not be?

Jack is the son of Dave and Lady Wilson. Based in New England, a racing hotbed in the day, Dave was one of the first of the public handicappers to use speed figures.

And Dave Wilson was so good at his job that one of the local newspapers he worked for printed a special edition of the newspaper during the race meet, using the paper as a wraparound to Wilson’s selection sheet. He would later become known as “King Wilson.”

The King passed before we had a chance to meet, but I did know Jack’s mom, Lady. I can’t remember what the subject was but Lady was never shy about doling out advice--when she was not handicapping and making her own bets.

“If you don’t use it you’ll lose it,” she advised me once. It was the first time I ever heard the expression, certainly not the last, and I've played it over and over in my mind.

Jack Wilson improved the quality of my racetrack life and gave me the best advice I ever received when I was first starting out:

“If a horse wins and pays $3, you pick it,” he said. “If a horse wins and pays $30, you pick it.” Jack liked keeping things simple.

In those pre Self-Automated-Machine days, it seemed like he visited the cashier’s window after every race. Maybe that’s why Paul dubbed him “the Babe.”

Or maybe it was because as racing’s popularity grew, the DRF brought him in to call all the Triple Crown races, and the Breeders’ Cup when it began in ’84. Jack eventually was kicked him upstairs to become the national supervisor of chart callers.

Jack Wilson loved people and he loved his job. Racetrackers everywhere recognized this and they loved him back. Rest In Peace, Trackman.

* * *

Few Surprises Among Eclipse Finalists: Finalists were announced today and, as expected, Bayern, California Chrome and Main Sequence are the three that will vie for Horse of the Year 2014.

The only disappointment was that Art Sherman did not make the final cut as Bob Baffert, Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher were the top three vote getters in the Traner's category. And, so, the man who got the most out of the least, gets no official recognition from those who follow the game daily. Go figure.

* * *

The Honorable Brendan O'Meara: Kudos Brendan for receiving an Honorable mention in the Feature/Commentary Eclipse Award category for your series "When Smarty Jones Shook the Earth" that appeared at on Sept. 21, 2014. O'Meara was cited, along with Mary Simon's piece "The Story of Old Rosebud, An American Tragedy." Way to go, B.

It goes without saying that we could not be happier for our friend, John Scheinman, who won the 2014 Media Eclipse Award in the Feature/Commentary category for "Memories of a Master: The Determined Life of Dickie Small," a retelling of the remarkable life of late Mid-Atlantic trainer Richard "Dickie" Small, who died of cancer at age 68 in April 2014.

Scheinman's piece appeared on, May 12, 2014. Spoiler alert: Before Small saddled all those stakes winners in the Mid-Atlantic and nationally, he served his country as a member of the Special Forces. Needless to say, great story; great read.

Written by John Pricci

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