Saturday, November 09, 2013

Here’s To You, Paulie

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 9, 2013—The phone rang at 9:01 a.m. It was Fran telling me that Paul had been taken to Saratoga Hospital Friday night and that the inevitable could be only hours away.

Not many people, if any, beat Stage 4 lung cancer--certainly Cary Fotias didn’t. But despite Paul Moran’s promise to me two years ago that “I will beat this thing,” the disease ultimately proved stronger than the flesh.

But never the spirit.

Mercifully the end came for Paul six hours later, my colleague at Newsday for 17 years and a man who I sat three feet away from in press boxes stretching from Aqueduct to Hollywood Park, with all the stops in between, for longer than that.

When I was writing a column as Newsday’s first public handicapper, the time had come for Ed Comerford to retire. “Whitey” was a former Newsday sports editor who spent the waning days of a distinguished newspaper career covering Thoroughbred racing.

It was a time when the New York tabs, and the Gray Lady, too, had two or three people on the racing beat. Newsday covered horse racing mostly because the Belmont Stakes is run on Long Island, and because there were drawing board plans to make an incursion into New York City.

Dick Sandler, the great Newsday Sports Editor, instructed me to go out and find a replacement for Comerford. A week or two later, Mark Berner, a friend and Newsday consensus box colleague, brought me a clip of a piece Paul had written on harness racing.

After serving his country in Vietnam, Moran went to work at the Buffalo News, his hometown paper, and eventually found his way to South Florida and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel where he covered Thoroughbreds and Pompano Park harness.

I took the clip into the Newsday office, gave it to Sandler who read it and gave it to Deputy Sports Editor Jeff Williams. They looked at each other, looked back at me, and Dick said “get in touch with Moran and have him call me.”

The rest is Eclipse Award history.

In many ways, Paul and I were polar opposites, especially politically. While we had many disagreements, somehow we managed never to go to bed angry, figuratively speaking, of course.

Even when we weren’t on the same page, my present duties require that I devour everything that’s written on racing and when I noticed one of Paul’s recent contributions to, his was the first story I opened.

There have been many great wordsmiths to labor as turf writers; Palmer, Smith, Hatton and all the rest.

But Bill Nack and Paul Moran were contemporaries, both at Newsday and in life, and were my literary turf heroes. I wish I had the proverbial dollar for each time I blurted out: “Hey, Toni, listen to this one… Wish I wrote that.”

Nack, of course, had the great mystical style of the old masters. Paul’s tomes were more adversarial, but could he ever turn a phrase. As he wrote his column, he sometimes would laugh at his own jokes. The next day, invariably, I laughed, too.

Paul not only was creative on the printed page but was inspired whenever he filled out a Newsday expense report on our return from Saratoga each summer.

One afternoon Sandler called Newsday’s private line in the Belmont press box. Moran answered it and was laughing when he hung up the phone.

I asked “what was that all about?” “Dick told me that he went over my expense report and said that ‘I assume you’re now the same size as Pricci’.”

In the tradition of the great wordsmiths who labored at their craft whatever their field, Paul often would unwind at night with a few pops at local watering holes wherever racing was conducted.

Back then it was Esposito’s Tavern across from Belmont Park downstate, and Lillian’s on Broadway in Saratoga.

One year Paul rented a house on East Avenue. He was ambling home about 3:30 a.m. when Mitch Levites of NYRA’s closed-circuit TV department rolled up on Paul and lowered his window.

“Give you a lift?” Paul walked over, got in and exchanged pleasantries as Levites put the car in gear and began to slowly roll forward. “Where to?” Levites asked. They went about 40 feet, two or three houses passed where Paul climbed into the car.

“Right here,” he said to Mitch. He got out, put the key in the lock, and disappeared into his Saratoga rental.

Paul won two Eclipse Awards, the Red Smith Award for outstanding coverage of the Kentucky Derby, one from the Associated Press Sports Editors, among others.

At that time Newsday had the best seats in the Belmont Park press box, closest to headstretch. Our perch provided a perfect view of the grotesque scene playing out in front of us, the tragic breakdown of Go for Wand in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

The late Willie Shofner, a.k.a “the Black Prince,” worked the press box lounge back then. He fed us on race days and kept some liquor behind the lunch counter in case one of the scribes had an “emergency.”

Grown men were crying everywhere in the press box and many of us took a time out and a couple of pops before regrouping to report on what had just transpired.

As we started writing, a reporter from another paper came into our office and made the mistake of asking who I liked in the next race. It was a good thing there were no open windows. Paul screamed the guy right out of the room, to say the least.

Then he sat down and wrote a stirring account of the breakdown on deadline, earning him the second of two Eclipse Awards.

Paul Moran was practiced in the art of the give-and-take, rarely without the perfect wisecrack suitable for any occasion.

The perception might have been of a man in conflict with himself, but this was also a man who had pictures of four poor children he helped support through charitable organizations on his refrigerator door. At the end, much of his money was willed to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

“I can understand my getting sick,” he told a friend after roaming the halls of Sloan Kettering one afternoon following surgery two years ago. “But what did these kids ever do to deserve this?”

Paul probably would be embarrassed to think people might learn about this quiet generosity--not the carefully crafted image of the curmudgeonly contrarian he worked so hard to perfect.

Befitting his half-Irish, half-Italian heritage, he went out as he lived. Paul Moran was a man’s man, right to the very end.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 03, 2013

A Tale of Two Champions

ELMONT, NY, July 2, 2013—Last Saturday at Churchill Downs, anyone tethered to the game got a few stark examples about how Thoroughbred racing's the owners and trainers can approach the business differently.

That morning, defending Filly & Mare Eclipse Sprint Champion Groupie Doll had her first quasi-serious workout since her extended freshening. It was only a 3- furlong move, albeit a quick one, but trainer Buff Bradley needed to start somewhere, anywhere.

There was a schedule for her 2013 campaign that it changed drastically when, in South Florida this winter, the champ was very lethargic in her training. Rather than force the issue, Bradley turned her out, allowed her to be a horse for a while before finally got her back to the racetrack last weekend.

Originally, the mare was to include a month freshening then train in Florida for a spring/summer campaign. The layup was ordered by Bradley, who co-owns Groupie Doll with his father and clients Brent Burns and Carl Hurst, came immediately after her heart-thumping, gut-wrenching, nose defeat to 2011 Travers-winning Stay Thirsty in the Cigar Mile—a race that Bradley hoped would make the filly a serious Horse of the Year finalist.

Saturday's workout was of little consequence in the big picture but it served its purpose. “The big thing today was that she was willing to [train] and she wasn’t at Gulfstream,” Bradley said Saturday at Churchill Downs. “Fillies are a little temperamental and they might not come back as good as you had hoped…”

Fillies can be that way, of course, but so could any race horse forced to reach down deep to all their talented and courage, especially at the end of a full campaign. Last season, Groupie Doll's record included five straight graded stakes wins, three of them Grade 1, from April through November before her courageous effort on Thanksgiving weekend.

This was a case of four owners that woke up when morning after their filly just won the Vinery Madison, her first incursion into Grade 1 company, and began to think really big. They had a good filly that could have won plenty of life-altering money but they began to think big, to see what their horse could really do.

And she did plenty. Freshened for the fall, she came out and dominated the Presque Isle Downs Masters and did the same thing in the TCA at Keeneland before nailing down the championship in the Breeders' Cup F & M Sprint. Their dream got them this far but they dreamt bigger still and got thisclose to winning a possible Horse of the Year title.

As destiny would have it, the actual Horse of the Year would run on the same day and win but under adverse conditions and under a lot more pressure to do so in what was supposed to be easy bridge race. The Firecracker Handicap was anything but easy.

But what was Wise Dan doing in that race in the first place? The defending Horse of the Year has won over three different surfaces and there was an opportunity at the recently concluded meet to get revenge for last year’s nagging loss in G1 Stephen Foster.

In hindsight, running in the Firecracker turned out to be fortunate. Maybe trainer Charlie LoPresti had watched Fort Larned train up to the Foster. The Breeders' Cup Classic winner won in breathtaking fashion, a spectacle of speed that was on display every step of the nine furlongs. It’s doubtful any horse in the country could have beaten Fort Larned on that night.

Running in the Firecracker was fortuitous in that context, but only that context. The race was run over a turf course that became boggy from a brief but furious downpour. Wise Dan did not handle the footing particularly well. And if all the jockeys and horses in the race were counted as separate entities, it was eight against two out there on the Louisville turf course.

Johnny Velazquez wanted to save as much horse and ground as possible but it turned out to be Jack in the Box all the way from gate to wire. It looked like a hole would never open.

But Wise Dan and Johnny showed class and courage, bulling their way through a narrow opening inside, brushing the hedge soundly in the process before bobbling significantly near the sixteenth pole prior to striding away for the win.

And recall—how could one forget?—that he was carrying a steadying 128 pounds. Is that a lot weight? By today’s standards, sure, even if it was of little consequence. The race did little to alter Wise Dan's place in racing history.

The Horse of the Year, who’s been pointed to the Bernard Baruch on the Saratoga turf course all season but LoPresti is now considering run in either of Saratoga's prestigious dirt events, the Whitney or Woodward.

But that would might not be as sporting as it appears. LoPresti would love to win a Grade 1 on dirt this year and keep Wise Dan unbeaten for the remainder of 2013, racing on the turf thereafter in an effort to have Wise Dan repeat as Horse of the Year without having to run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, one of the original stated goals.

There's little doubt that the physical issues currently compromising stablemate Successful Dan has required rethinking Wise Dan’s schedule. But how come it turns out that Wise Dan's schedule is usually risk averse? How can he avoid the 2012 Classic winner all year and be worthy of the accolades sure to come his way if he runs the table from this point forward?

If that’s the case, Wise Dan would likely go the Bernard Baruch-Woodward route. Is that good planning? Yes. A sporting gesture? Not a chance.

If I were conjuring a future path forward for Wise Dan for the remainder of 2013, I’m asking myself one question: What would Buff Bradley do?

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Celebrate Saratoga 150 with Return to True Quality

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 26, 2013—It’s not that I don’t wish Saratoga 150 to be a huge success, I do, but I hope the upcoming race meet doesn’t break any handle records this year.

Now I didn’t move my tack from Long Island to Saratoga over a decade ago because I wish either the racetrack or the community any harm; just the opposite. But I don’t want to see handle records fall if it means that quantity again will out-finish quality.

Now I am a fan, and have been booster of, the New York-bred program since its inception. But a slow horse is a slow horse, whether it’s bred in New York, Kentucky or Florida.

In other words, please, Mr. Racing Secretary, no maiden claiming sprints for New York-breds going 5-1/2 furlongs on the grass this year, OK?

I know that such a race will draw a limit field, and I agree that small outfits have the same right to Saratoga success as those of once and future Hall of Famers. But there's a limit. It’s like the pool hall owner told the hustling Fast Eddie Felson: “This is Ames, mister.”

Quantity should not trump quality in New York, especially here. Commander Kay may not be aware of such nuances, but he is said to be a fast study. The previous administration justified their jobs and salary increases by growing handle.

But increasing handle should be Priority #2 at the new NYRA. No longer should the racing office be pressured by executives looking over their shoulders; there no longer should be a need to use the Sub-9 to make an 11-race card go.

At Monday's annual Saratoga press conferences, NYRA executives said that, in a spirit of cooperation with the town’s entrepreneurs, efforts will be made to end the day's race cards earlier.

Last year, the average Saratoga racing day was insufferably long, an occurrence made worse by a six-day racing week. Actually, a five-day week might bring some of the specialness back to a time when less was more, a time when Saratoga was the August Place to Be.

Of course, no one is attracted to or wants to bet on five-horse fields. There were many stories on that very subject in cyber-land last week, including one on Saturday’s Mother Goose Stakes.

The Grade 1 attracted five 3-year-old fillies, including 1-5 Dreaming of Julia, a gutsy but dull, never-in-it runnerup to the talented Close Hatches.

Considering that no one likes five-horse fields, what if this year’s Travers attracted only five runners; Orb, Oxbow, Palace Malice, Verrazano and Normandy Invasion. Explain to me how that would not be a great betting race.

Like everyone, I live in the real world, one where change isn’t an option but the way it is. Fine. But that doesn’t mean that every now and then an effort shouldn’t be made to turn back the clock.

And is there a better time than the present, as the community and racetrack celebrates 150 years of the best extended race meet on the planet, to make such an attempt?

The first condition book has yet to be published so there's still time for New York racing to re-dedicate itself to quality Saratoga racing beyond its 34 graded stakes and 16 Grade 1 events.

Whatever the number is, now or in the future, Albany leadership is never going to be impressed by a couple of percentage-point handle increases, not while the bottom line measuring stick is racing vs. a run-of-the-mill sino.

Any member of the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce should be able to reason that a five-day race week in the future date can be good for business; another more day to cruise the shops, do brunch, or just relax after one more night of reveling.

“It’s not the 24 days of Saratoga that get you,” often said the late, great Joe Hirsch, “it’s the 24 nights.”

In addition to those once-and-future Hall of Fame outfits, there will be plenty of out of town support for Saratoga 150. With the exception of scrutiny-averse Larry Jones, every major outfit east of the Mississippi with any interest has been granted stalls.

Of course, Saratoga means juvenile racing. There haven’t been many 2-year-old maiden races at Belmont Park this spring owing to, among other things, 12 inches of June rainfall thus far. That, and the 8-horse limit for juvenile sprints, should mean plenty of high class babies will be on display. Recall that all the Triple Crown heroes of 2013 were stabled here last year.

It’s too late to do anything about a five-day race week this year. But an effort can be made to card not more than nine races daily, except steeplechase days and weekends. Betting handle on bigger and “better” fields will more than compensate for fewer races. There's only so much betting money to go around, even in Saratoga.

Track prices, already high enough, will not increase this year. Coolers will be permitted in the backyard. NYRA executives have been told that hotel reservations and advance ticket sales are strong. Weather permitting; a successful season already seems assured.

There's no good reason for quantity to trump quality this year. This is Saratoga, Mr. Campo.

Written by John Pricci

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