Friday, June 20, 2014

The Case for a Lower Case triple crown

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 18, 2014—I was happy to see the other day that Steve Haskin of the Bloodhorse suggested that the Triple Crown for Fillies—oops, make that lower case triple crown, insisted the late, great Joe Hirsch—for Fillies be revived.

Perhaps this is an idea whose time has come. Again.

Now before anyone says it won’t have a smidgeon of the impact that the Upper Case version does, we are already aware. But that’s not the point, nor should it be.

This triad would be for thoroughbred racing fans that will care, and each race of the series could a possible anchor leg of an All-Stakes Pick 4, even if the events are overnighters with a purse of $100,000. Hopefully, it would get more support than that.

One of my fondest memories was of Mom’s Command winning the mile and a half Coaching Club American Oaks after having taken the Acorn and Mother Goose previously.

Even though she dominated her generation, not many believed she would go that far, but her class prevailed.

It was a real family affair as the Hall of Fame filly was owned by Peter Fuller and ridden by his daughter, Abigail. Fuller was a driving force behind the creation of a racing circuit in New England, once a hot-bed of thoroughbred racing and still home to passionate fans and horseplayers.

Then, of course, there was the great Davona Dale, another Hall of Famer that was so good she won two filly triple crowns, the older traditional version run at Churchill, Pimlico and Belmont, and the same NYRA version won by Mom’s Command.

If there were one this year, it might have caught on nationally what with Kentucky Oaks winning Untapable reaching second in the NTRA three-year-old poll, now third behind Belmont Stakes winning Tonalist.

Many believe her to be the most talented sophomore in America. If not, she certainly has run her way into the conversation.

If a filly triple crown were to be resurrected, wouldn’t a national version with sensible spacing, preferably at the Upper Case tracks, be that be something worth seeing?

But why stop there? Why not a three race series for all divisions?

Yes, I know, something like this was tried years ago with the American Racing Series which generally was greeted with a collective yawn.

With more and more horse racing making its way back on television, good programming is a must. Why not a series in all divisions to promote interest and continuity, from the babies to the old pros?

The championship landscape in all divisions has changed. There are some divisional champions—juveniles and sprinters come immediately to mind—that are generally crowned after season’s end victories in the Breeders’ Cup.

That was the intended goal of the Breeders’ Cup, that, and it to be a traveling road show for thoroughbred racing. In the last decade, however, the accent has been on handle with added races that hardly reflect championship divisions.

The Marathon and Juvenile Sprint, for instance, were staged as ungraded events sans the seven-figure “championship” purses, their existence appearing to be little more than parimutuel fodder for the Friday programs.

Those kind of races notwithstanding, there is the other argument that when Breeders’ Cup crowns a champion it can do so at the expense of the regular season of traditional, high profile events. No better example than horse for course Beholder’s Distaff victory trumping Princess of Slymar’s considerable body of work in time honored events at different venues.

There would be no need to reinvent the field. If racetrack and industry executives were administered truth serum instead of the local Kool Aid, all could construct a consensus of the most important races in each division.

For example—truly as example only—a Grade 1 9-furlong series including the Donn Handicap, Stephen Foster Handicap and Whitney Handicap would be an very attractive package in attractive settings.

Older fillies and mares could face off in the Apple Blossom, Ogden Phipps and Spinster, a triad providing a top class stage on which the female runners could establish their best-in-show credentials.

And if a three-year-old wanted to throw her hooves into the ring in the fall at Keeneland, that would only lend to the drama and provide greater championship definition.

An older horse turf series at 10 furlongs that features the Manhattan Handicap, Arlington Million and Clement L Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship Stakes could lend more definition to the Breeders’ Cup Turf, an event traditionally dominated by the Europeans.

Even if any of the above races have been reduced by circumstances and scheduling to becoming latter-day Breeders’ Cup preps, the winners could have raised their profiles so significantly throughout the year against top company as to hold safe their Eclipse Award lead vs a talented European interloper to be named later.

But it’s not limited to that. It’s about growing interest and business, with the added benefit of possibly growing the game if television networks do their jobs and package a triple crown, lower case, in all divisions.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Doing What’s Best for the Triple Crown Horses

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 15, 2014—I’ve been taking on the issue of a Triple Crown schedule change for five years now and I must be doing a terrible job.

That observation has little to do with whether any recommendations are being considered or not: My failure is getting fans and practitioners conversant with the idea that a longer duration of the series could make the task more difficult, not less.

More so, this is about doing the right thing for the latter day Thoroughbred, about improving the overall quality of the series.

What’s it’s not about is making the feat easier, less worthy of wonderment, nor should it be seen as denigrating the accomplishments of the original Elite Eleven.

Progressive ideas in this game are never adopted without kicking, screaming and the collective gnashing of teeth.

It’s often been stated here that this industry can wear one down, but that’s probably the purpose of such a drill; living with the status quo.

But since when does the status quo improve anything? And there are more good reasons to alter the Triple Crown schedule rather than maintain it to provide some imagined perfect contextual link to the past.

More than any other sport, this is game is built on opinion and, since most horseplayers and owners are unsuccessful, it follows that much of that opinion isn’t very good.

All humans, especially racetrackers, tend to make issues more difficult than need be, thinking that all objections must be overcome before adopting progressive change, even when change includes acknowledgement of present-day and future realities.

Let’s consider change through the prism of fair, rational thought. Fair is not some dirty four-letter word.

Race horses notwithstanding, acknowledging that today’s athletes are better than their predecessors because of improved training techniques, better nutrition, equipment and facilities, gives reality its due.

If that premise is acknowledged to be true, comparisons among different generations are by their nature patently unfair. Is it fair to compare Michael Jordan to LeBron James, Jim Brown to O.J. Simpson (infamy notwithstanding), or Pete Rose to Ty Cobb?

All that remains then is opinion, based on perception or well-intended prejudice. Do we really know whether Secretariat would have dominated Citation the way he completely outclassed his peer group in 1973? Again, there is no context for comparing generations.

The all-time great athletes above played in different environments, under a variation of the rules, or with schedule changes. Just like a race horse can only beat what’s lined up next to him, domination needs no definition; greatness is unmistakably in the eye of all beholders, a reward unto itself requiring no further qualification.

Today’s thoroughbred, awash in a gene pool of raceday medication, is not comparable to any of the elite eleven, nor is it fair to them to do so. The modern American horse is bred for the sales ring, not the racetrack; mated to be at his best from eight to nine furlongs, rarely at 10, and certainly never at 12.

If you lined up a gate full of sprinters to compete in the 2015 Belmont Stakes, one will have his name engraved on the Belmont trophy; it will just have taken him a lot longer to get there.

The Kentucky Derby has grown to such an extent that it has become one of the most coveted prizes, if not the most in thoroughbred racing, knowing no geographic boundary. In the grand scheme of American racing, this will never change.

The Belmont Stakes--whether it’s calendar placement, a blend of track configuration and pilot error, or the shot-taking mindset that no American Thoroughbred is predisposed to running a mile and a half--will continue to attract a diverse field, especially “equine teenagers” that have undergone a late spring growth spurt.

But no one seems to value the Preakness as a classic unto itself. It has been reduced to a mere stepping stone for the chosen few and not the majority of the generation’s best that have earned their way to the top rung by successfully running a Derby gauntlet.

Resultantly, Preakness new shooters are more a collection of the second-tier variety and, given a long and storied thoroughbred history, the centerpiece of Maryland Jockey Club calendar deserves a lot more respect.

The main reason that the Preakness has become the Triple Crown’s red-headed stepchild is scheduling. Modern thoroughbreds are not predisposed to frequent competition, another argument against same-scheduling lending context to achievement.

Most horsemen don’t choose to run in the Belmont Stakes because their horses are just dying to run a mile and a half. Horsemen choose to run the Belmont because it’s five weeks from the Derby and because the modern Derby winner will be more vulnerable after his Preakness run.

Excluding the debilitating effects of raceday medication, what other unqualified explanation can be offered for the fact that 45 was the average number of starts in a thoroughbred’s career in the 1950s but is only 13 today?

Of course, racing has more pressing issues than fixing its most popular series, but does that mean it cannot be better?

What is particularly galling is that no one, practitioner, public and media alike, is willing to concede the possibility that extending the series could make it more difficult--as if even winning three consecutive claiming races at the same track is an everyday thing.

The HRI faithful know that I favor a first Saturday in May, Memorial Day weekend, and July 4th weekend Triple Crown schedule. To me, it’s Americana and an acknowledgement of the modern-day thoroughbred reality rolled into one.

Must the industry ask its equine athletes to do the impossible every year just to keep the dream storyline alive? And what about the animal’s remaining sophomore season and older horse campaigns for the majority of top-tiered three-year-olds?

Extending the Triple Crown season makes it possible for the winner of the first two legs to be at his best for the third—if, that is, his trainer can keep him at tops over a longer, sustained period.

Extending the season would increase participation in the entire series, not just the Preakness, and this extension would help insure that the Triple Crown aspirant’s competition also would also have a better chance to bring it’s 'A' game to Long Island. How does this make winning the Triple Crown easier?

If there’s a classics trophy with a horseman’s name on it, wouldn’t those owners and trainers be more inclined to test the Derby winner at a more reasonable distance rather than taking a 12-furlong crapshoot?

And doesn’t a bigger, better, and more experienced Preakness field make the task more difficult, not less? A fairer, more level playing field for all does not mean easier, it means better, and better is always harder.

During trophy ceremonies on Stephen Foster night Saturday at Churchill Downs, a contrite and humbled Steve Coburn spoke of a thousand text messages he received after giving his phone number out on national TV, and how 97 percent of agreed with him [about the Triple Crown’s inherent unfairness].

While his solution is not remotely based in reality, even if his estimates were hyperbolic, it was assuredly a lot of concern to the public. Coburn is brash and unfiltered in word and deed but none of it, however unfortunate it was at times, ever seemed untrue.

Indeed, if lots of the public agreed with him then there is no casual sports audience capable of understanding the nuances of thoroughbred racing. They only know what they see and hear on television.

During their post-race press conference, both Robert Evans and Christophe Clement indicated that the duration of the series should be changed for the better. To a large degree they benefitted from the current schedule but were sportsmen enough to admit that lengthening the series is the right thing to do.

It’s a bit sad that the connections of two previous Triple Crown winners thought more about their horse’s place in history than acknowledging that in all probability the modern thoroughbred has changed and no longer can be reasonably expected to replicate top form in a three-race five-week series.

Must the future mimic the past for tradition’s sake if the modern horse is unsuited to running its best without four-to-six weeks of recovery time, not to mention a series run at disparate distances in three different states in five weeks?

Things change. “Doing what’s best for the horse,” is a phrase that comes trippingly off the tongue in track press releases and when the cameras are rolling. As always, saying the right thing is a lot easier than its execution.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Rant That Could Rock Racing’s World

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 10, 2014—Is it safe to write now? Was Steve Coburn on the morning talk-show circuit again this morning, and I missed it somehow? If so, were there any more apologies?

I hope Yogi wasn’t been reading the sports pages these last few days. He’d be really confused after learning that it’s not over even when it IS over.

The entire civilized world has gone on record about what simply has become known as: “The Rant.”

There are several examples regarding the reaction to this issue that are particularly galling, not the least of which concerns the media:

Most national non-racing sports media, the kind that covers Triple Crown events, and just maybe the Breeders’ Cup, don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to horse racing.

For me, it’s like the old punchline to the old gambling joke: “What do I know about hockey?”

Mike Lupica weighed in, my hero, “Mr. Shooting From the Lip” himself. I don’t hold his disdain for racing against him. It seems his father was rumored to be an inveterate horseplayer when he was a child and he’s hated the sport for its gambling aspects ever since.

And that’s similar to two other sports enthusiasts; Mario and Andrew Cuomo. I wonder what ever became of their love of sports. They seldom, if ever, came to a big horse race in New York, including the Travers, an in-their-own-backyard event.

The current Governor was among the 102,000 in attendance at Belmont Park on Saturday. Then again, 2016 is right around the corner.

On the drive home from Elmont to Saratoga Monday morning, I checked in with Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts co-hosts of WFAN’s midday radio program, always a good listen for me.

But when Roberts said, in relation to The Rant, that it “wasn’t about the horse, it was about the money, the owner’s ego,” I nearly drove off the Cross Island Parkway.

Guess Evan didn’t hear the one about how Coburn and his partner Perry Martin turned down $6 million for a half-interest BEFORE the Kentucky Derby because it meant that Art Sherman no longer would be the colt’s trainer.

I broke for lunch and missed the first hour of the Mike Francesa show, in which he presumably talked about The Rant and The Race. The two to five o’clock hours were devoted to the anemic Mets and what later that night would turn out to be the equally anemic New York Rangers.

Francesa, introduced to the game by noted handicapper and professional horseplayer Paul Cornman, wears his love of horse racing on his sleeve. This comes in particularly handy when you need to secure your own box for big races at Belmont and Saratoga.

This is a man who rightfully deserves his reputation as a people’s champion, asking the tough questions to the biggest names in sports, yet somehow he’s acquired a strong taste for Thoroughbred racing’s particular brand of Kool Aid.

Seldom is heard a discouraging word, or a tough question, for that matter. Every Friday before the Belmont Stakes, he hosts arguably America’s most successful sports talk program from the clubhouse apron at Big Sandy, interviewing the biggest names in the game.

Before this year, that list included Joe Drape of the New York Times, who, with other journalists, has been placed on Thoroughbred racing’s persona non grata list for the tough stance he’s taken regarding medication and training methods, legal and otherwise.

But he wasn’t on the program this year due to what was being called a “scheduling conflict.”

It seems tough questions are OK for other sports, just not for this one.

Obviously, it took more than 24 hours to clear the fog of the Triple Crown wars from Coburn’s brain. Instead of apologizing on Sunday and belatedly tipping a cap to the winners, he doubled down and made his very indelicate basketball analogy.

Better late than never. As we wrote in our Belmont Stakes wrap Saturday evening, the man was exhausted, acting as if he was celebrating prematurely, this after being extremely generous and accommodating with his time for five weeks, notwithstanding another month between the Santa Anita Derby and the one held in Louisville.

One of The Rant’s great ironies is that, in some weirdly, insane fashion, might have kept horse racing above the fold for longer than 24 hours. A disappointing attempt to make history became a backstory to The Rant.

The other vexing aspect of the coverage is how duplicitous it is to celebrate a man for his colorfully brash and candid demeanor one day and destroy him for those same qualities the next.

While Sunday’s references were ignorant and tasteless, it remains an antidote to ultra-correct cliches. Contrarily, Monday’s apology appeared sincerely contrite, especially those to wife Carolyn, the connections of Tonalist, and “the whole horse racing world.”

I would wager that the overwhelming majority of those reading this know more about Thoroughbred racing history than the co-owner of a dual classics winner--on-the-job training in a good way. No disgrace, that.

But as was previously mentioned, there was a message that really needed hearing. Not references to “cheaters” or “cowards,” or Coburn’s confusing Triple Crown athletes with triathlon athletes.

Coburn is right when he says Triple Crown “means three.” Of course, that means three individual events, all worth winning on their merits.

The reality is that some Grade 1s are created more equal than others, especially the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, in that both are run at classic distances; the American classic distance of a mile and a quarter and the European classic trip of a mile and a half.

But the message that “this [Triple Crown] thing is unfair to the horses” strikes the right note in the age of permissive raceday medication.

Let’s forget for a moment that the Kentucky Derby prep schedule is an arduous playoffs road in which would-be Triple Crown aspirants must succeed or fail to qualify for a starting berth in America’s greatest racing spectacle, the gateway to a crown.

And let’s forget, too, that each of the 11 Triple Crown winners didn’t need to beat more than seven rivals, fresh legs or no fresh legs. In fact, let’s forget that all Triple Crown winners competed without raceday Lasix coursing through their veins. Let’s forget all of that and consider this:

The Hancock family has been breeding racehorses in Kentucky since the Civil War. Arthur Hancock III is one of the founding members of WHOA, the Water, Hay & Oats Alliance and dedicating himself to improving the breed.

Hancock has bred three classics winners; Gato Del Sol, the family’s first Kentucky Derby winner, the dual classics winner and unlucky Triple Crown aspirant, Risen Star, and dual classics winner and Horse of the Year Sunday Silence.

Hancock believes that Lasix has polluted the gene pool, citing that when he was a child in the 1950s Thoroughbreds averaged 45 starts per year. Today that average is 13, less than 29%.

Arthur owns Stone Farm in Paris, KY. with his wife, Staci. The Hancocks believe that these days you can’t know whether you’re breeding to a true champion or to a horse whose reputation was built on the use of raceday Lasix.

In the worthy historical reference “Champions” published by DRF Press in 2000, every divisional championship pre-1990 was won by a horse that raced without the legal diuretic. From 1990 forward, the overwhelming majority have.

Parenthetically, there are 14 Eclipse Award categories including Horse of the Year. In the last quarter-century, all but 31 champions raced on Lasix; six of those were European based and two others were steeplechasers.

There were juvenile champions in this group, but Flanders never raced at 3 and Boston Harbor had one start his Derby season. Female turf horses and female sprinters became segregated categories in 1979 and 2007, respectively.

Absent historical context, Carolyn Coburn believes that "our story has given so much to so many people and I hope 30 seconds doesn't destroy that.”

Americans are a forgiving lot when they believe you, and a man who admits to being “very ashamed” on national television is one without guile, the same man he was during California Chrome’s six-race win streak.

Coburn made the sports and racing world fall in love with a couple of “dumb asses,” their everyman trainer, and a very gifted race horse. They will all be just fine. They’re just in need of a very good freshening.

If only that were the cure for everything.

Written by John Pricci

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