Tuesday, July 15, 2014

L’Affaire Martin: Del Mar Wants It Both Ways

SARATOGA SPRINGS, July 15, 2014—This time, it was the other, silent member of “Dumb Ass Partners,” Perry Martin, who jumped ugly on the subject of dual Classics winner and 2014 Horse of the Year co-favorite, California Chrome.

Yes, this is the same man that blew off the Preakness in a fit of Derby pique and who recently raked Del Mar over the coals for having the temerity to suggest that “America’s Horse” be honored with a parade between races on Pacific Classic day.

The story has been told in different precincts and in disparate versions and there seems to be enough “blame” to go around about a much-ado-about-very-little incident that became front page racing news because Kentucky Derby winners always are.

And that’s especially true this time when the Derby-Preakness winner’s story didn’t end on the sand and loam of Belmont Park but rather on the front page of national and network media after Steve Coburn’s meltdown following Chrome’s crushing Triple Crown defeat.

Finally, with his wife at his side like some politician who got his business caught in some cookie’s jar, Coburn, after doubling down on his post-Belmont rant the following day, made a humbling, tearful apology before a network audience the day after that. It was a case of all's well that ends.

If anything, Coburn’s knee jerk tirade and Martin’s insensitivity indicates that it just might be harder for connections of any good horse to hold their best form for over two months than it is for their equine athletes. Clearly, it was time for a badly needed freshening.

But perspective is needed elsewhere, too, with some regard given for the fact that this was team of big-race neophytes that had been jumping through media hoops since a Santa Anita Derby tour de force made California Chrome a solid Kentucky Derby favorite.

There’s no need to rush to judgment in 44-flat. It’s one thing to say that if you’re “lucky” enough to win America’s most cherished prize, you should give back in every situation, at every opportunity, magnanimously, as if reality actually works that way.

The truth is that one knows for certain how they would react to new, bigger-than-life experiences until they experience events in the moment.

So whether Del Mar leaked a California Chrome appearance to media, hoping to embarrass DAP Racing into an unscheduled, unwanted appearance on the track’s biggest day, or whether Art Sherman said OK prematurely, is speculative and beside the point.

Or whether, after being shunned, Del Mar let it slip that greedy owners demanded a $50,000 appearance fee after failing to make a counter-offer, to cover expenses at minimum, demands that readers of Perry’s press release take him at his word.

Either way, Martin did not cover himself in glory. To say that local mainstream media are in Del Mar’s pocket without evidence is the cheapest of cheap shots, libelous, or both, and the appearance fee on its face seems excessive.

In our view, the more damaging element coming from this is DAP Partners running in a race created by Los Alamitos as an alternative to the “win and you’re in” Awesome Again Stakes if first it agreed to pay Chrome’s supplemental fee into the Classic.

So, first, the track lines up a gateful of equine tomato cans for Chrome to crush then pays California Chrome’s way into the big dance. This is, of course, outrageous thinking. Back East, this is called chutzpah. Out West, the proper term would be huavos or, if one prefers, cojones.

From a distance, DAP rightfully should expect that Del Mar pay for vanning expenses and give what racetrackers call a ‘stake’ to the colt’s stable hands and exercise rider, and maybe a little walking around money for the owners and trainer.

Del Mar has a vested economic interest in Chrome’s appearance but left nothing on the table for those who would bring customers into the building. Not to conclude there is a modicum of risk, and then to expect owners to foot the bill is equally offensive.

The pushback from certain industry types and favor-currying racing media was more predictable than Untapable’s win in the Mother Goose.

The California Chrome story was and is a real life fairytale. To strongly suggest that owners in the game for a proverbial 15 minutes owe the industry at debt is as nervy as asking Los Al to pay Chrome’s Breeders’ Cup entry fee.

Playing a significant role in this game IS a privilege, but the business has claims on no one. This isn’t a retired race horse at the end of a storied career; this is an active equine meteor that at any time can fall to earth if the racing gods deem it so.

It is true that this horse has earned $3.3 million. Considering huge tax obligations and expenses associated with playing the game at its highest level; travel expenses, per diems, feed and vet bills, the standard 10% to Sherman and Victor Espinoza, what remains is a pretty healthy 401K. But it doesn’t punch your ticket to Easy Street for life.

To be called out by a celebrity owner who came into racing with a seven or eight-figure cushion is cheeky and condescending, but even he admitted he would have had a “quiet conversation” with track ownership for this privilege of being “honored.”

And to add that the Dumb Ass Partners “are making us look bad” is really pompous. I can think of one or two issues that embarrass horse racing on a daily basis; institutionalized stupidity and greed being far worse than a couple of neophytes playing the fool.

Del Mar’s hiding behind the “not for profit” banner is disingenuous. The 50K that Martin wants would a deductible cost of maybe putting 5,000 or so added fannies in seats.

There’s something else at work here. Industry practitioners are paid appearance fees all the time. Back in the day, when the Haskell struggled for Travers-like prestige, Monmouth Park paid trainers under the table to run “the big horse” at the shore.

Of course, the Haskell is now a million-dollar Grade 1, but tracks still pay to bring equine stars to their venues. And big time jockeys are paid appearance fees, too, akin to a non-refundable purse advance. If you want a Hall of Famer to ride your horse, it helps to pay up front, especially for a non-favorite in a big spot.

At a critical time for a potential Horse of the Year champion, scheduling with regard to morning workouts, shipping, spacing, etc., parading in a charged atmosphere before a huge crowd is not without a certain amount of downside. The only gain is Del Mar’s, which apparently wants something for nothing.

Martin’s asking price and other suppositions are somewhat embarrassing, even bordering on the boorish. But if the track truly wants to honor the home state hero, perhaps Del Mar and DAP’s critics should admit that the track owes something, too.

Del Mar has been around a long time. There’s no guarantee that California Chrome even will be around long to compete in the 2017* Classic, where the surf will meet the championship turf for the first time in history.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Will Del Mar Horseplayers Double Their Pleasure?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 11, 2014—There’s a rumor being circulated on the Internet that the Thoroughbred Owners of California are considering a return to the higher takeout rates on Daily Doubles currently in place at Del Mar.

This can’t possibly be true, can it? Don’t they read newspapers out there? Has Internet commentary and social media reached lower California yet?

Hasn’t any owner out West ever heard of Churchill Downs?

Takeout deniers, much like climate change “non-scientists,” believe more in spin than science, coincidence over statistics, and obfuscation over progress. However anyone spins it, the Churchill Downs boycott was largely responsible for handle losses of $48-millionat the 2014 spring meet.

The Dow Jones is hovering around 17,000 for a while now, California Chrome gave the sport a bounce, in a Wall Street sense, this spring, and fields are smaller everywhere.

So, what else could it be?

According to recently released industry statistics, the number of race days is down 3.09% year over year; as was handle over the same period by 1.71%, yet, in the 2nd Quarter of 2014, purses miraculously increased by 0.42%.

And horsemen are still expecting that horseplayers will cheerfully pay for everything from continued higher purses to state-of-the-art medication testing protocols?

If we attribute the slight 2014 purse increases to the $10-million NYRA invested on the Belmont Stakes Festival card, resulting in record handle, doesn’t it follow that 2nd Quarter handle decreases of 1.43% has some relationship to CDI boycotters protesting takeout increases?

(The boycott also had an adverse influence on CDI properties Arlington Park and competition-laden Calder).

Year to date, handle on all U.S. races is $5.509-billion through June 30. For the same period in 2013, handle on U.S. races was $5.605 billion, a decrease of approximately $96-million.

One doesn’t need a sophisticated algorithm to figure that half of that handle loss this year is attributable to Churchill’s $48-million beating.

At stake today, as the prestigious Del Mar meet approaches, is the notion that Daily Double takeout will remain the same as last year’s, 23.68%. California bettors are insulted that the 18% takeout rate on Doubles, in effect all year at Santa Anita, will not be duplicated where the turf meets the surf.

Using comparative days and relative to other races, the 18% takeout on Rolling Doubles at Santa Anita resulted in handle increases in a range of 19% to 24%, according to Jeff Platt of the Horseplayers Association of North America.

It’s easy to understand the temptation of leaving the takeout on Doubles at Del Mar the same, which would be the same mindset that blew up in CDIs face at their recently concluded meet.

They believed that the higher take over Derby-Oaks weekend would be enough to create added revenue for the meet. While boycotters didn’t shun betting on those prestigious cards completely, many bet fewer races, concentrating on the prime events.

By leaving takeout rates the same, it appears that Del Mar wants to take advantage of their bridge races, especially true given the popularity of the Saratoga signal.

The thinking likely is that takeout-conscious players will be content enough with the reduced-take Pick 5 already in place and won’t mind paying 5% more on doubles than is paid
at Santa Anita.

Apparently, racetrack executives still believe that since horseplayers are creatures of habit, they won’t go shopping for the best deal and are willing to roll the dice on their strong Del Mar brand.

A decision on the takeout rate is expected to be made at a meeting of the Thoroughbred Owns of California today.

It must be said that Del Mar is not Saratoga on a daily basis and on many levels, plus the old Spa has a three-hour head start. Not every day is opening day; not every day is Saturday.

Further, it will be interesting to see how summer racing at Gulfstream Park impacts both, especially Del Mar, since it is likely the South Florida track will have large, competitive fields and enjoys the same logistical edge that any East Coast track has.

Will common sense trump greed in southern SoCal?

In this game, the only time less has meant more is when it comes to churn: The lower the rake; the bigger the handle. The only negative is a lack of patience, waiting for revenue to catch up.

Finally, Something for John Q. Horseplayer

To their credit, the NYRA has come up with an excellent idea, albeit at the very last minute, perhaps bringing lower expectations to a new level or meant as a trial balloon. There's no time to promote it now.

Tomorrow at Belmont Park, the track will host its first ever “Low Roller” live-money handicapping tournament, costing fans $40 to enter.

Of that entry fee, $10 goes to a prize pool to be distributed among the top three money finishers on a 70%, 20%, 10% basis, with the remaining $30 used as the handicapper’s bankroll.

With it, players must bet $2 across-the-board on five different horses in five different races on the 10-race Belmont card.

Live-money contests best approximate how players actually bet the races, as opposed to traditional contests in which contest-betting strategy rules.

Geared toward the average bettor-fan, the format assures some return on investment unless a player throws deep in every race, in which case his five bets could produce zero return on investment. A guaranteed pool is set at $500.

This contest seems an inspired way for fans to hone their betting-strategy techniques, sharpen their value-getting skills on fair-odds horses having a good chance to win, and it helps on-track handle by keeping players focused locally, from which the track gets a bigger slice.

Should the one-day only launch be successful, perhaps similar contests could be offered in Saratoga on the slowest days of the week, traditionally Thursdays and Mondays once the meeting gets into high gear.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Tom Durkin: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 22, 2014---Allegiance to present day race callers very often is a matter of taste, like appreciating a fine wine, a movie, favorite athlete, etc., etc.

Consequently, it follows that provincialism plays a huge role in formulating those preferences, just as one would for a favorite horse or jockey: Seabiscuit or War Admiral; Shoemaker or Arcaro; Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra?

And, so, when it comes to con the world of contemporary race callers, the majority of racing fans are aligned in two camps: Denman or Durkin?

Personally, it’s impossible for me to remain neutral. I, like so many others who have crossed paths with Tom Durkin during his 43-year career, consider him a cherished friend.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t strive for objectivity.

I have not listened to Denman’s calls nearly as many times as I’ve heard Durkin’s. But I can’t imagine, even if the coasts were reversed, I would remember as many of Trevor's calls as I would Tom’s.

Twenty-four Breeders’ Cups and 11 Triple Crowns has given Durkin far more opportunities to voice racing’s most memorable events, and he has had more than his share of “moving like a tremendous machine” moments:

There was Easy Goer and Sunday Silence “in a racing epic,” the Real Quiet-Victory Gallop Belmont photo: “a picture is worth a thousand words, this photo is worth five million dollars; history... in the waiting.”

And, of course, Smarty Jones’ crushing Triple Crown bid, marked by Durkin’s diminishing crescendo as he informed 120,000 fans “Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes.”

But there are, too, the moments of whimsy, Durkin’s paean to Wallace Beery as Long John Silver with his “Arrrrr” call in Saratoga, or singing the scales as “Doremifasolatido” crossed the finish line in front.

One of Denman’s widely acknowledged gifts is his uncanny knack for picking up winning moves, anticipating outcomes before a fan might make the same surmise, including one in particular.

Until I googled it, I had forgotten that the Denman call I won’t ever forget took place 17 years ago. The horses for the Santa Anita Handicap were at mid-far turn when Denman said that trainer Richard Mandella’s horses could finish 1-2-3.

To this day, I don’t know how he could have known that, or had the cojones to make that call out loud. I consider myself a good race-watcher and I never saw it coming that far from the wire.

Calling one horse “moving like a winner” three furlongs from the wire is one thing; but three for the money? Never. But there they were: Siphon, Sandpit and Gentlemen at the wire, the runnerup coming from seventh of 11.

I first became aware of Durkin’s gifts one winter at Hialeah. My routine seldom changed: Get there early and find a seat in the back yard adjacent to the statue of Citation--the same one Michael Corleone drove passed in Godfather II.

I’d put my feet up on the fountain’s retaining wall, point my face toward the South Florida sun, and try to pick a few winners.

After making my bets, I’d either either walk out on the apron to watch it live or return to my place in the sun and listen to the call.

The first time I did this, the race was delivered with deadly accuracy, but it was more than that. The race unfolded perfectly in my mind’s eye, the word pictures not only indicating where each horse was but whether or not it had winning position.

I introduced myself to say how much he added to my Hialeah experience and we’ve been friends ever since.

There have been many great race callers that have filled the soundtrack of my racing life, including the legendary Fred Caposella, Joe Hernandez, Chic Anderson and Dave Johnson, to name just a few.

But with the exception of comedian Robert Klein’s hilarious takes on ‘Cappy’, no race caller has been more imitated than Durkin.

His phrasing, word pictures and drama-building cadence are mainstays in the lexicon of today’s best announcers, an homage paid by any one of them who describes a game front running winner as a horse that “won’t be denied.”

There are other phrases or words not generally heard anywhere else; a hot pace that’s “audacious,” an even pace conducted as “a steady beat,” slow fractions that are “nonchalant” or “calculated,” or the slowest ones, which are “pedestrian” or “soporific.”

But, to me, Durkin’s greatest attribute is making all the races he calls better, whether it’s “a filly in the Belmont” or a maiden claimer getting up in the final strides to win the nightcap.

Everyone has their favorite announcer and I have mine. But when racetrackers and fans are asked to join the conversation about who they believe is the greatest race caller of all time, the name Tom Durkin will not be denied.

Written by John Pricci

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