Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Rick Porter, Just Continue to Say No

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, March 7, 2016—Unintentionally, Songbird, and her exclusion from the initial NTRA Kentucky Derby poll but inclusion in HRI’s rankings until late Triple Crown nominations close March 20—has become a lightning rod of sorts.

The caveat that came inside the latest NTRA release instructed voters to enter the names of their top 10 three-year-olds that “have nominated to the Triple Crown,” seemingly wishing to avoid any controversy regarding her non-participation in this year's Kentucky Derby.

As everyone knows, the filly’s connections have insisted from the time she gained national prominence en route to the 2015 juvenile filly championship that she would be pointed to the Kentucky Oaks and that a Derby run was off the table.

At HRI, an executive decision was made to include her in the Top 10 if our staffers and contributors believed her worthy of such an “honor.” And none of us believe there’s a racing fan in America who doubts she deserves a Top 10 ranking, if not Top 1 status.

This site will include her for another week but in the March 21 poll she will be included in the “also receiving votes” category, even if I have to throw out my 10th ranked colt to put her name on the list of this country’s top three-year-olds.

We also include her acknowledging that Derby Fever is a virulent strain and if, heaven forbid, something untoward were to keep the best five males from running in the Derby, Songbird’s connections could have a change of heart. Either way, a clock is ticking.

Editorials have been written elsewhere begging that she be allowed to compete in the Derby, her supporters using a “Horse for the Ages” argument which she might very well prove to be. God knows the talent is there.

And that is why she has become a catalyst for controversy, albeit the kind of polemic that, frankly, racing could use more of: Should she, or shouldn’t she?

In a recent Internet survey, two of every three racing fans responded that the connections should stick to their original goal and continue pointing to the Kentucky Oaks. We could not agree with those fans more.

The hype encouraging the owner of Songbird to point for the Kentucky Derby instead of the Oaks focuses on the wrong priorities, and it’s not because we believe that racing females against males is a bridge too far.

In the modern era, there have been plenty of examples of wins and losses on both sides. Of those we have witnessed, for every Gamely unable to handle Dr. Fager there was a ground-breaking Zenyatta beating the world’s best Breeders’ Cup males.

For every Cicada unable to outlast Ridan, there was Winning Colors taking Derbies back-to-back. For every Glorious Song vanquished by Spectacular Bid there was Rags to Riches, “a filly in the Belmont,” and a Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness and Haskell and Woodward.

But times have changed. Racing now struggles for its legitimacy as a sport with the public at large, and the lights of the Triple Crown are hot and bright and unforgiving.

Whether racing likes it or not, the sport is one high profile tragedy from getting its doors shuttered by animal rights activists.

The American public doesn’t remember a Dahlia or an All Along and probably never heard of Black Caviar.

But from the movies they know Ruffian and from television they just might remember the fate that befell Eight Belles, owned by the same man who campaigns Songbird.

When Songbird is mentioned in the same sentence as Derby, Rick Porter never mentions the filly that was euthanized after breaking down jumps passed the Churchill Downs finish line. He doesn’t need to and it’s probably too painful even if eight years have passed.

Still, there is only one chance to earn the kind of immortality that only a Kentucky Derby can bestow and a fortnight can be an eternity in the horse business.

There are several indelicate considerations to ponder: Would Ruffian be as famous had she survived her match with Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park? Has she become immortal more for her death than her racetrack heroics? Her legacy was acknowledged because she died as she had lived: On the lead.

Does anyone want to remember Songbird, or any other magnificent filly that might meet their tragic fate because they reached down to parts unknown within themselves, deeper than they ever have in their lives, summoning more speed, more courage?

Given the climate that exists around racing in a larger sports context, can this sport afford to risk another tragedy of such great magnitude? Could racing’s somewhat tenuous world-class existence continue to survive after something like that?

Tomorrow’s guaranteed to no one and equine tragedy can strike anywhere, anytime, even in the relative safety of the shedrow. But it would be imprudent for Porter to take such a risk.

Even though Stuart Janney, owner and breeder of Ruffian, had some misgivings, he capitulated to the idea of a match race because the racing public and the media wanted it and he talked his trainer into running. Frank Whitely wanted no part of it.

There are some things owners should consider doing for the good of the game. Running Songbird in this year’s Kentucky Derby isn’t one of them.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Post Dragging, Jackpot Bets Symptomatic of the Times

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 24, 2016—Somewhere along the road racing has lost its way. Maybe it was the day the last horse drawn wagon disappeared from city streets forever back in the 1950s, who knows? Even Western movies have left the mainstream.

In a recent blog post on pullthepocket.com, Dean Towers got it exactly right when he commented on the current practice of post-dragging—not closing betting windows until well after posted off times—that a successful short-term bump was just that; short term.

Quoting from the Harvard Business Review relative to corporations, Towers culled: “The worst kind of waning-industry environment occurs when one or more weakened companies ... forced to use desperate actions... [force] other companies to respond likewise."

This conclusion that in the end copycat philosophies work at cross-purposes in the long term is both intuitive and logical--with one notable exception. Post dragging started fruitfully at a hugely successful racetrack, Gulfstream Park, with the institution of its highly popular Rainbow 6 Jackpot wager.

As all know, the Rainbow 6 has a “jackpot carryover pool” which is not paid out except when there’s one perfect ticket, but not even track publicists know how to define what happens when it doesn’t:

It’s not so much that the Pick 6 puzzle went “unsolved” for the day and that the “carryover” is building. The reality is that the puzzle was solved too well, and the money remaining is not a carryover distributed in the manner of a traditional Pick 6.

Additionally, it’s also deceitful when ersatz “guaranteed pools” are promoted. While it is true that tracks guarantee a certain amount of residual handle--as was the case twice recently at Santa Anita—the gimmick is little more than income averaging by track executives.

The reason no one is fooled by any of this is because, on balance, there’s no one left to fool. The “square money” left the game long ago, probably starting at the time that chemical warfare started to replace my-horse-is-better-than-your-horse competition.

This is not be regarded as naïveté about the good old days; we heard that story about what happened to Seabiscuit’s trainer, “Silent Tom” Smith, after he left the employ of Charles Howard.

Reportedly Smith’s stable foreman administered ephedrine to one of the Maine Chance Farms runners in Smith’s care resulting in a one-year suspension under the absolute insurer rule. But I digress.

The Rainbow 6 and other mega-horizontal pool wagers is what helped bring the industry to this lamentable trend of post dragging. Following endless promotion by tracks, ADWs and its broadcast networks, six-figure pools routinely attract huge play, an advantage to racing’s betting 1%.

On Saturday at Gulfstream, for instance, there was a $1.5 million in the jackpot-carryover pool and bettors from all over the country spent $500,000 chasing it. And, believe it or not, it was worth chasing even if there were no seven-figure payout.

The straight prices that comprised Saturday’s sequence with multiple winning tickets were: $16.40, 6.60, 9.80, 6.80, 3.40 and 8.20. Because of the jackpot, the Rainbow 6 paid $2,454. A traditional $2 Pick 6 never would have paid as much--and the Rainbow 6 is a 20-Cent bet.

Doubtlessly, bettors often appreciate an extra minute or two in these instances after seeing horses in the paddock and entering the track for the opening leg of a sequential wager.

At Gulfstream, parenthetically, two HRI wise guys have set the Over-Under post drag at 4-1/2 minutes. In the interest of full disclosure, you’re laying 7-5 if you choose over the total.

The reason other than “customer accommodation” is the kind of corporate greed that Wall Street is famous for. If earnings or profits don’t match or exceed expectations, it’s considered a bad year and stock prices drop when companies miss their mark.

With post dragging, any hope that racetracks can coordinate post times is completely lost—and just how does that help the bettor and overall business in the long term?

In one post-dragging example Saturday, a Gulfstream event was about to start at the same time a Santa Anita race was going off—one company effectively competing against itself. At Fair Grounds, post time for the Risen Star was scheduled for 6:21 pm. The field began loading at 6:39.

As the Harvard study indicated, competitors have responded in kind. This is handle madness and completely frustrates bettors. When post times are delayed, the chances that bettors will wager on the next race decrease accordingly.

The tracks noted above are, with the New York Racing Association, members of racing’s Big Three, but I will give NYRA credit for this:

When the MTP clock hits “0,” horses begin to load. In that context, NYRA plays the game like Thoroughbred racing is still a big time sport, and this is a service to racing enthusiasts who love the game passionately and a sign of respect for the process.

All tracks ought to show a little more respect for the game and its customers. No one has extra time to waste these days. Besides, where’s the proof that bleeding every cent possible from today’s customer does any good for all the tomorrows that follow?

Judging by handle figures that continue to rise each year, post dragging appears to be working very well at Gulfstream, at least for now, but a reckoning is inevitable, a point at which returns will diminish.

Eventually, even the most faithful fan will decide that the disrespect shown their intellect and convenience is just not worth the effort anymore, even those who bet in their pajamas. The only people the industry are fooling are staring back at them in the mirror.

Have respect for the intellect and bankroll of all customers, and your own long term goals. Make the product affordable, the principle behind why churn works and lower the takeout.

At least show a willingness by taking a shave on maybe one race a day, offering a bonus on straight play on any field of good horses, not bottom-of-the-stable-area program filler. Figure something out. Maybe a trend will emerge indicating long term growth potential.

If all industry players who claim to love the game and its way of life were willing to take one step beyond the bottom line, they will prove to present and future fans that they believe and continue to have faith in their core product.

Never thought I’d write this but kudos to the New York State Gaming Commission for making public fines levied against three jockeys: Junior Alvarado, for "failure to ride in a professional manner" in separate incidents early this month; Cornelio Velasquez, for "failure to maintain a straight course inside the 1/8 pole after having been previously warned," and Angel Saez-Arroyo, for "failure to maintain a straight course leaving the starting gate after having been previously warned."

This three-pronged action is unprecedented and deserves commendation and support. The Alvarado penalty is in part the result of official Equibase chart footnotes re Zippity Zoom, the fifth-place finisher in the sixth race on Feb 12. Led by Dan Kulchisky, New York’s trackmen are the most informative and bettor-friendly in North America. Now, about the pending Rudy Rodriguez suspension...?

: RealClearSports.com has deemed the Kentucky Derby one of the Top 10 Sporting Events in America That Has Lost Its Luster. “One of the driving forces behind horse racing’s popularity has always been betting… But with the rise of casinos, online sportsbooks and state-sponsored lotteries, America began to abandon the tracks.” Core product people, core product…

OH, AND THIS: reminder that HRI’s 2016 Kentucky Derby Power 10 begins this Sunday. Is there anybody alive out there?

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Perspective in Saturday’s Gulfstream Feature

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 21, 2016—Today’s lead story was supposed to be all about the Risen Star Stakes but that’s secondary compared to the events which transpired during the running of yesterday’s nominal feature race at Gulfstream Park.

Easy to say from the safety of the press box, this was as chilling a spill as one might see, the incident occurring at headstretch during Saturday’s Melody of Colors turf sprint stakes. Joel Rosario and Rafael Hernandez are fortunate they will “only” be sidelined five or six weeks. It could have been much, much worse.

Following a spill, jocks are taught to stay down and not move until help arrives. But in the immediate aftermath of seeing horses and jockeys collide and get tossed around every which way, none of the riders, including a third, Edgard Zayas, moved for what seemed like forever.

Unfortunately, the accident did take the life of Rosario’s mount, three-year-old filly Kandoo.

Hernandez, like Zayas, who also rode consecutive winners on the card, got the worst of it with several broken ribs and a broken clavicle and will be hospitalized for the next few days. Agent Cliff Collier clarified, saying there was “no damage to the spine.”

Rosario, Gulfstream’s fifth leading rider with a win percentage of 18, second only to Javier Castellano’s preponderance of favorite-aided 22% efficiency, will have a plate inserted Monday to repair a broken wrist. Zayas, off his Sunday mounts, is scheduled to return Wednesday.

Anyone who watched the spill unfold knows that all three were lucky to survive. Rosario’s riding helmet was split in two and it “probably saved his life,” agent Ron Anderson told Gulfstream Park press staffers.

Call it karma or whatever but it is ironic that Rosario’s injury came at the end of a week when it was learned Ramon Dominguez, forced into premature retirement, the result of a traumatic brain injury in 2013, is eligible for inclusion on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. Dominguez’ helmet was crushed, too, and, like Rosario, is lucky to be alive.

Indeed, HRI has learned that Dominguez’s skull was fractured all the way around and so the helmet did its job in 2013 and again Saturday at Gulfstream by diffusing the blunt force of the impact. Concussions, however, are another issue.

On TVG Saturday, co-host and trainer Ron Ellis spoke of concussions in football relative to recent NFL storylines, and how racing is behind the times when it comes to researching new technologies that can help reduce post-traumatic effects of concussed jockeys.

Some tracks currently are talking about conducting brain scans before it provides jockeys with a license to ride. Since discoveries relative to chronic traumatic encephalopathy are learned post-mortem, establishing a baseline makes sense in terms of future discovery.

All this is fact-of-life, business-as-usual for riders, the only athletes who’s every move on the job is followed by an ambulance trailing them all the way from flag-fall to finish.

Ellis also made the point that while other paid athletes can take their time convalescing from injuries given guaranteed contracts, jockeys are independent contractors who don’t earn when forced to remain on the ground.

Jockeys don’t think about the dangers associated with their jobs because if they did they’d never do the job effectively. Fans and bettors hardly ever give these issues a second thought when placing their bets.

And that was the case Saturday at Gulfstream, until a near tragedy once again loomed as a jockey’s co-pilot.


Asmussen Had Gun Runner Loaded: Good training job to get Gun Runner to win off the bench in a good workmanlike Risen Star performance, one that should move him forward toward Louisville with continued development. It was great ride from Florent Geroux, his fourth win on the card…

What amazes is, considering Fair Grounds’ truncated racing schedule and lower than prime-time purses, Geroux is third in wins and money this year according to TVG reports. Geroux understood that the inside was really live at the Fair Grounds yesterday and took full advantage. Parenthetically, the HRI Derby Power 10 will make it's 2016 debut next week.

The Eagle Has Lost: Neil Howard trainee was beaten by a loose leading, rail running Majestic Harbor; Cinco Charlie went wire to wire from the pole beneath Geroux; the $150 upsetter Venus Valentine rallied up the fence with Corey Lanerie and Risen Star runnerup Forevamo benefitted from an inside, tip-out trip. As the race was run, troubled Mo Tom was probably best; see replay…

Matching Spills: There was another unfortunate accident 3,000 miles from Gulfstream in which jockey Kyle Frey suffered left-leg and right-arm fractures in a fifth-race incident at Golden Gate Fields. Frey is third in the standings and a former Eclipse-winning apprentice…

D.C. International Redux? A bill in the Maryland House of Representatives would transfer 1.1 million lottery dollars to horse racing, of which $500,000 would be earmarked for a new “Maryland International,” intended as a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Turf. It would be a shot across the bow of Belmont Park’s Joe Hirsch Turf Classic…

Speaking of rejuvenating Maryland stakes of yore, the Free State still runs the John B Campbell Handicap. Once a storied fixture, it was run last weekend as a $75,000 ungraded overnight stakes. It deserves better.

Back in the day, the race named for legendary racing secretary John Blanks Campbell was won by Kelso, Mongo, the great race-mares Tosmah and Relaxing, Skip Trial et al…

Throw some of that lottery money at this once big-time event and someday it may earn its graded status back. Scheduling could be a bit trickier; unlike the Turf Classic, might not want to run afoul of the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Written by John Pricci

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