Saturday, November 07, 2009

For the Love of the Game

ARCADIA, November 7, 2009--It was very early in the year. People were just beginning to learn the name Rachel Alexandra and I wrote a Morning Line feature suggesting that the connections of the mighty Zenyatta needed to take a higher-profiled road to her next championship title assault.

Shortly thereafter, I opened a warm e-mail from trainer John Shirreffs, after he had received a heads up from his devoted wife Dottie, a key member of the Zenyatta team, along with the Mosses, owners of this behemoth race mare, with a subject line entitled, simply: Love Racing.

Shirreffs understood why I said what I had suggested, and that he, too, loves to see the best horses perform against each other at the highest levels. I understood the meaning of his words and sincerely believe he meant well.

Like everyone in the sport, Shirreffs is concerned about racing’s future, not just his own, and he worries that stories of a negative persuasion are harmful in the aggregate. On this, I assume, we continue agreeing to disagree.

To differ as to which horse is better, faster, gamer, men have raced their horses against each other from the early times, when the evil Messala, clad in a forerunner to Raiders’ black, came out repeatedly into the path of Judah Ben Hur.

Obviously, Messala should have come down. And down he came. All the way down.

For his part, Shirreffs understood why my 2008 Horse of the Year vote went to Curlin and not his filly, but he hoped that in the future I would take a more positive view of all things racing.

Rest assured I have, Mr. Shirreffs. I try to reserve negative commentary only for those who must be shaken, not stirred, out of their corporate lethargy.

“For all, except those betting on others,” wrote former Newsday colleague Paul Moran this week, “it will be difficult to root against Zenyatta in her first test against males,” before adding:

“The huge mare's brilliant career is encapsulated by her record: 13-of-13, seven of those Grade 1 stakes. The winner of the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic a year ago over this course and champion American older mare of 2008 has faced the starter just four times as a 5-year-old, and her divisional title is secure.

“She has, however, raced in form measurably below her best in the two most recent victories at the expense of overmatched West Coast competition. Despite her unsullied longevity, the long-striding mare with a reliable and devastating late run has not faced males nor attempted 10 furlongs and is asked for much in what will probably be the final run of her career.

“The daughter of Street Cry has been sharp in recent training, but whether her best is good enough to overcome unfamiliar circumstances and appreciably more formidable company than she has ever kept remains a question that precludes accepting a short price or taking a stand-alone position at the end of the pick-six. It would be no surprise to see this mare off the board.”

Moran is quoted extensively here because he said it first. Sadly, I could not agree more. To put it another way, her performance figures indicate that she has not developed from four to five, which is not unusual, but is cause for concern that her undefeated career is in serious jeopardy.

Even if Mike Smith is right, that she runs only about four jumps in her races until establishing her supremacy, I can’t get her life-and-death Clement L. Hirsch victory in out of my mind. Pilot error, again? Mike Smith error, again? I think not.

Frankly, I don’t care how slow the early pace might have been. The mighty Zenyatta had run her greatest race to keep her unblemished record in tact at Del Mar that afternoon. But, in performance-figure speak, it was not her greatest effort. Her figures are cycling back now but remain below her best four-year-old form.

"Generally, I would not do it," said owner Jerry Moss this week when asked about running a female against males. "But if you have someone who is gifted, and coming up to a race in a certain way, they deserve a chance."

The reference was to her two most recent workouts in which Shirreffs really tightened the screws, bullets that were as fast or faster than anything she’s been asked to do before. Maybe Zenyatta and Shirreffs have been having fun with us all year, perhaps trying to rope-a-dope Jess Jackson? Who knows?

As someone who does this kind of thing for a living, I’ve often seen where going from a pull to a drive is not a reliable predictor of success. Same can be said for workouts. What is it those late night TV pitchmen say: “Past results does not guarantee future results?”

John Shirreffs, Jerry Moss or HRI readers, for that matter, can either believe this or not. Last year I had quite a bit of wagering success in the Classic, but when Curlin made his move, albeit too brief and not enough, it gave me a start. That’s because I’m crazy enough to think it’s OK to lose a bet, if money is the price you pay to witness history.

I’ll probably experience a similar feeling when, at sometime after 6:45 P.M., the big mare begins her electric move midway of the far turn and my eyes will be glued to her the rest of the way.

However, if I get any indication that her rally will come up a little bit short, I’ll quickly scan to the leaders and hope, like last year, I used the first two finishers to complete my exactas. In either case, I’ll be doing so at the top of my voice.

Love racing. Indeed.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Breeders’ Cup Bettors Need Complete, Timely Information

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 30, 2009--A cursory look at the past performances of the graded stakes to be run at Santa Anita next weekend indicates that, per usual, Breeders’ Cup events will crown its share of champions.

Breeders’ Cup days always do. Zenyatta’s appearance in the Classic would be just another cherry on this sweet confection.

Now this may come as a surprise, but horseplayers do not live by romance alone. They have something else in mind: Action, and making a score, not necessarily in that order. And they certainly don’t lack for opportunities at this event.

If you’re fortunate enough to have free time next Friday and Saturday afternoons, you will have a total of 19 races to handicap; nine Friday, 10 on Saturday.

In addition to six Breeders’ Cup races Friday, an early double consisting of two Santa Anita allowance races starts this off, with the Las Palmas Stakes bringing down the curtain immediately after the Ladies Classic.

Saturday features eight Breeders’ Cup races, of course, with Santa’s Anita’s Damascus Stakes lifting the lid and the Oak Tree Derby as the 10th race finale. What lies in between makes for a pretty nice wagering sandwich.

With wagering as with life, my philosophy, learned from my father, is: “All things in moderation.” In 1971, the newly mandated OTB corporation in New York City said it another way: “Bet With Your Head, Not Over It."

The advice was good then and remains good today, except for major event days when the pools are so sizable and the races so contentious so as to almost guarantee finding value on that day’s card.

From its inception, the Breeders’ Cup program was hailed as “the Super Bowl of Racing,” which is appropriate, except for the fact that the National Football League acts like it is “shocked, shocked that wagering in going on” on its games. Hypocrites.

Well, I’m here to tell you that if you have a hunch, bet a bunch on the Breeders’ Cup races. For me, there’s not enough money in this little sector of the planet to attack the Breeders’ Cup card. And I believed that when it was a one-day event.

Over the course of two days, there will be an opportunity to bet 17 Rolling Doubles; 15 Rolling Pick Threes; six Pick Fours; two Pick Sixes; 19 exactas, trifectas and superfectas and two Super High-Fives.

In addition, two special wagers will be offered; a Head-2-Head wager on which jockey will win the most Breeders’ Cup races, and a Special Double combining the winners of the Ladies Classic and Classic.

There are guarantees galore and carryovers, too. Each day’s Breeders’ Cup Ultra Pick Six will have a guaranteed pool only on the championship races. Friday’s Ultra Pick 6 will have a guaranteed gross of $500,000; Saturday’s a $2 million guaranteed gross pool. If no one hits the Friday Ultra Pick 6, the pool will carry over into Saturday with a mandatory payout.

The Pick Fours will have three guaranteed pools. Friday’s will have a guaranteed pool of $500,000. On Saturday, the early Pick 4 will have a $1 million guaranteed gross; the late Pick Four will have a $1.5 million gross guarantee.

Super High Fives require bettors to select the first five finishers in a race. If no one hits the Super High Five Friday, the Ladies Classic Super High Five pool will carry over into Saturday’s Classic Super High Five, again with a mandatory payout, paid after the Classic.

On Wednesday’s Breeders’ Cup conference call, I pointed out to Breeders’ Cup CEO Greg Avioli that for years I’ve sought to improve the dissemination of medication and equipment change information which in past Cups has been abysmal.

Race days are rife with corrections made by the track announcer, often after advance wagers have been placed.

And, even if that weren’t the case, late announcements fall through the tracks at simulcast facilities where it’s common practice that announcements are either inaudible or are drowned out by audio from competing racetracks.

Last year, there were the late Lasix announcements re: the Aidan O’Brien horses. And in the last Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park, the noon-time announcement that the Mile favorite, Leroidesanimaux, would race with two bar shoes on.

Over the years, Lasix additions and equipment-change information has been lax when it wasn’t non-existent. Avioli said that Santa Anita would comply with California Horse Racing Board rules.

But if racing departments at all Breeders’ Cup host tracks don’t do their jobs properly, and the stewards fail to monitor that situation in the course of their normal duties, there’s something very wrong with the system.

Breeders’ Cup officials must mandate unconditionally that host tracks be diligent in dispensing traditional betting information that horseplayers need and routinely have come to expect, by getting this information from horsemen at time of entry.

This is nothing more than standard operating procedure at racetracks every day. Last year, over $155 million was bet on Breeders’ Cup races. Given that kind of incentive, demanding that racing departments insist horsemen comply with basic procedural entry rules isn’t asking too much.

I’m anxious to see what happens when final entries are set next Tuesday. You, and Breeders’ Ltd., should be interested, too.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Zenyatta: Savior of Synthetic Cup II

ELMONT, NY, October 21, 2009--Now is not the time for panic. Fifteen minutes from now, perhaps. Just not at this moment.

But it hasn’t been a fun run-up to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships thus far. In fact, racing’s greatest event never has been under such a microscope.

This event never, ever, has failed to fire. There’s just too much there, there. But at this point it looks like the fireworks are more apt to resemble sparklers than cherry bombs.

Developments began many months ago when everyone found out that thefilly in the "Year of the Filly,” the great three-year-old distaffer Rachel Alexandra, would not race “on the plastic.”

The hue and cry really began before that, two years ago when it was announced that one track, the mighty Santa Anita Park, would become the first venue to stage the event back-to-back.

The storied racetrack is not the heavy in this piece. Its racing surface, an artificial one mandated by California Horse Racing Board, is.

But at least the surface mitigated some of the reluctance on the part of European horsemen to ship their charges into a hot weather venue at the end of an enervating year.

Clearly, the aim was to turn the event into an international Thoroughbred happening. [Read romance the European betting market here].

In that context, and buoyed by the success of these outlanders in last year’s event, Europeans, or American-based foreign connections, will come in even larger droves.

I wrote at the time, and still believe, that last year’s Breeders’ Cup was, from an aesthetic view, one of its best editions ever.

Too bad that since inception it’s been a public relations nightmare, one that eventually ended with a member of the executive hierarchy being forced to witness the 2009 event from the cheap seats.

Then when Sea the Stars, nine-figure future and all, decided to retire after the Arc, the Classic, or Turf, suffered a huge hit.

He might not have been worth 10,000 new fannies, but he certainly would have attracted a good number from among the curious, creating palpable excitement for a grateful segment of the Thoroughbred audience.

But there have been other defections, notable in their own right. Fabulous Strike, the sprint division leader throughout most of the season and his recent conqueror, Kodiak Kowboy, had their names scratched from their Sprint dance cards.

And just as Breeders’ Cup officials were warming to the idea that E. P. Taylor winner Lahaleeb would seek more glory in the Filly & Mare Turf, their connections decided that putting up a $180,000 supplemental fee was a bad bet.

Trainer Michael Channon put it delicately: “…In a sense, Win and You’re In is a bit misleading.” Indeed. They’re headed to the Hong Kong Cup instead, all expenses paid.

Macho Again might not quicken the pulse, but he did come closest to catching Rachel Alexandra. He'll probably go to the Clark now, having established his liking for Churchill Downs by winning the Stephen Foster.

Time was when the Meadowlands Cup winner was a Classic automatic. But the exciting, albeit sparingly raced, Etched, will point to the Clark, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin indicating that his foreign owners are just saying no to Pro Ride.

Last Saturday at Calder, Jackson Bend, the best two-year-old no one’s ever heard of, completed a sweep of the Florida Stallion series with a three-length score in the In Reality despite looking beaten in upper stretch. No artificial surface for him.

Trainer Stanley Gold, like Stanley Hough in New York, who has a serious juvenile colt in Discreetly Mine and a talented filly in Awesome Maria, instead will look ahead to 2010 three-year-old season.

A victory in the Canadian International was not enough to send Champs Elysees out to Santa Anita for the Turf. Instead, the protem 2009 Canadian Horse of the Year will enter stud in the spring.

The Classic took two more hits this week, one from the connections of Rail Trip, the G1 Hollywood Gold Cup winner who’s battling foot issues, and the other from Team Valor, who decided to point Goodwood winner Gitano Hernando to the $10-million Dubai World Cup in March.

They think it makes more sense than running back quickly on the heels of a hard-fought victory, and they probably made the right decision.

Is the Goodwood becoming a West Coast version of the Meadowlands Cup? Maybe both tracks should consider scheduling their events earlier next season. Just a thought.

But the biggest blow would come from a champion that has had the Breeders’ Cup circled since winning a Championship last year. And for the Classic to have any juice for American race fans, it needs Zenyatta against the boys on her hometown track.

There has been considerable back and forth in the racing media as to the merits of a 14th consecutive modern stakes record victory without defeat or an outside chance at a Horse of the Year title.

It’s highly improbable that a Classic victory that pushes Zenyatta past Hall of Famer Personal Ensign will be enough to earn her the ultimate honor. But it’s not impossible.

I live in the real world and acknowledge Rachel’s three victories over males, one in a classic and another over elders, and two tape-measure jobs against her contemporaries, the most ambitious campaign by a filly ever waged.

But voting is a funny thing, and not just in Florida or Illinois. Think college sports, where late season victories take on added significance as voters start circling the provincial wagons.

A Classic victory, giving her a record 14 straight in this country’s most important race for older horses, would demand serious Hose of the Year consideration, even among Rachel’s staunchest supporters.

Never mind that it’s the only confrontation every Thoroughbred fan would love to see.

Plus having the added benefit of helping to preserve a spectacular racing event in a year that, even with the emergence of two all-time great three-year-olds, has done more to damage the psyche of Thoroughbred fans than any other in recent memory.

Written by John Pricci

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