Sunday, December 04, 2016

An Event and a Meet You Can Bet On

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 4, 2016—There is something about an opening day at any racetrack that you have to love. Don’t know whether it’s the kind of energy that only excitement brings or if it’s just a different kind of vibe entirely

But the feeling is palpable, something you can sense when you walk around the building. That’s if you love being at the races, that is.

If you’re a local Gulfstream Park regular, it wasn’t as if such a long absence makes a heart grow fonder, beat faster.

The track has been open for simulcasting since the summer meet ended while the South racing went on eight miles to the west at GP West, which colleague Tom Jicha has aptly described as a demolition site with racetrack attached.

Reports about the state of “Calder” these days have been uniformly depressing. With no simulcasting available, the 25 minutes between races is interminable before you can make a bet. A special line had to be installed for the two days of Breeders’ Cup.

In all, there are two walk-around tellers and four standing SAM machines for the public. The two machines in the horseman’s lounge probably out-handle the other six. It’s no wonder parent Gulfstream prefers fans to wager at Gulfstream during the hiatus. But not on Saturday.

It was racing as usual at what correctly is being billed as a historic meet with the advent of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational. And it’s evident that the track is getting in preparedness for the Jan. 28th event, one week after it again plays host to Eclipse Award ceremonies.

Fresh coats of paint are evident; a re-designed dining room taking shape; new chandeliers and paintings decorate the third floor where Christine Lee’s lives, and new couches and mirrors to line the plushy carpeted halls outside the pay-for-play suites are in transit.

On other opening days, the usual topics were discussed. Does Chad Brown now have the ammunition to dethrone Todd Pletcher’s stranglehold on this meet, will Javier Castellano do it again, and will Ken Ramsey?

And while discussion of soon-to-be three-year-olds never got out of style—and this year’s South Florida collection is particularly deep, no one talks about who’s going to run in the Donn, but the Pegasus?

There’s no ducking that topic as the event looms over this meet just as the world’s largest winged horse of mythology looms over the building a ¼-mile away on the northwest corner of the property.

Pegasus at the Gates of Gulfstream Opener

Will there be a Breeders’ Cup Classic rematch the racing world clamors for happen, will the uniquely bazaar event be an aesthetic and financial success? Hell, will fans that have never paid admission to see live racing pony up a C-note just to enter the building?

Maybe the vibe is different this year because a little anxiety was adding to the excitement level. There is one certainty, however. This will be different.

And before you can say nay, think about all the people who lost their money betting against Frank Stronach in the past.

--Local trainer Jena Antonucci said it best in the days leading up to Saturday’s Claiming Crown program: “I think it’s great to be able to showcase these horses. They’re the backbone of the industry.

“Every trainer would love to have a barn full of stakes horses but that’s nearly impossible. Something like this allows the backbone of the industry to have their moment to be in the headlines.” To wit, some highlights:

: A modern-day Stymie? Maybe, maybe not. But when it comes to racing 9 furlongs, especially rounding two turns, place him squarely in that conversation. It what did not appear to be his ‘A’ race, In winning the Claiming Crown Jewel in consecutive seasons, Royal Posse improved his career slate to (34) 11-10-0, his ninth at the distance in 12 tries.

“I wasn’t worried. I know when he’s outside, he’s a grinder,” trainer Rudy Rodriguez said. “Luis [Saez] said as soon as he took him outside, he started grinding and grinding. That’s what he does most of the time.”

With yesterday’s winning share of the purse, the New York-bred five-year-old became racing’s newest millionaire. Not too shabby for a $20,000 claim in May of 2015.

Gallant New York Bred and His Posse

: It took a photo finish in the program finale to do it by Ken Ramsey won his 15th Claiming Crown event when Keystoneforvictory narrowly won the Emerald Stakes beneath Jose Ortiz, down from New York for the ride on the Mike Maker charge.

Ramsey has won at least one Claiming Crown race in seven of the last nine years. The victory was the third of the day for Ortiz, who won five races at Aqueduct Friday, and his second of the day for Ramsey, winning the open with maiden allowance juvenile filly Gentle Kitten, who looks like another nice turf prospect by Kitten’s Joy.

There’s just no quit in any sprinter trained by Jorge Navarro. The Delaware Valley-based trainer won the CC Rapid Transit wire to wire by 6-3/4 widening lengths with Shaft of Light and the CC Express with Defer Heaven under clever handling from Emisael Jaramillo.

The excitement in their faces was palpable when Stronach Group paddock analyst Gabby Gaudet interviewed her sister, Lacey, after the latter saddled Marabea to victory in the CC Tiara.


Haltered by Gaudet for $25,000 at Saratoga, the four-year-old filly won a win-and-you’re-in starter allowances at Laurel and repeated in the $125,000 turf route under a perfectly timed late run engineered by Jose Lezcano.

“I was nervous,” Gaudet admitted. “I thought she was going to [get] in trouble but you’ve got to be confident with a rider like Lezcano. He put her in the spot where he knew she need to be and he figured out the right moment and got there in time. He did a great job.”
As did Gaudet.

: Jockey Nik Juarez rode the hair off Super Spender for Jane Cibelli to take the CC Canterbury, knifing his way between runners in midstretch before exploding home for the score. Coming off a career best prior, this clearly is a late developing gelded four-year-old turf sprinter…

Chepstow might have had a tactical edge with his noted early speed and pole position to win the CC Iron Horse in the short-stretched 1-1/16 miles but in no way did that or the narrow victory margin diminish his effort. Quarter-horsed by Edgard Zayas after a flat-footed start, he was hustled to the front, took pressure, and gamely resurged to defeat a perfect-tripping runnerup…

After a good trip for the first half of the CC Distaff Dash, Ortiz got himself out of a jackpot, made his way between rivals and was striding away late with Spectacular Me for familiar New York connections, Winning Move Stable and trainer Steve Klesaris. The winner was bred by the University of Kentucky.

It is approximately 24 hours after the fact and there’s still no way to see $6,250 claim Tomenta de Oro for owner/trainer Patrick Marcondes. The $91.80 winner of the aptly named CC Glass Slipper was the only highlight for Gators fans on SEC Championship day. The four-year-old daughter of Benny the Bull was bred by the University of Florida. What’s that, a gazillion-to-one parlay?

Last year, Gulfstream Park set a record Claiming Crown handle of $10.3 million. This year, and for the fifth consecutive year since Gulfstream began hosting the event, handle rose again, reaching $11.1 million on the 11-race program.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Justice Remains Delayed in Dutrow Case

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 20, 2016—Last weekend, trainer Kellyn Gorder began a 60-day suspension nearly two years after one of the horses he trained tested positive for methamphetamine following a race at Churchill Downs.

The suspension was the result of an agreement negotiated with stewards, one subsequently upheld by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Gorder was initially suspended for 14 months for the positive test and discovery of a syringe during a related barn search.

Methamphetamine is classified as a Class A violation but the penalty was reduced to a Class B violation after further testing determined that the methamphetamine discovered was an ingredient in a popular over-the-counter medication.

At face value, reason and justice seems to have prevailed in this instance. But when measured against the way many violations have been handled, it points out how uneven justice is meted out in the racing industry.

Come January 7, 2017, Rick Dutrow will begin his fourth year of a 10-year suspension when a barn search and drug test detected the presence of Butorphanol, an analgesic pain killer having yet-to-be-proven performance-altering properties.

Butorphanol is highly controversial because the time-frame of both its efficacy and withdrawal guidelines between administration and raceday is widely disputed. After all this time, why is this trainer still being singled out as the worst transgressor ever?

All this despite expert testimony debunking the findings and statements of state witnesses; documentation from the renowned drug laboratory at University of California-Davis and confirmed by findings from the Journal of Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics published in 2012, the year of Dutrow’s appeal.

Last year, HorseRaceInsider published an investigative series on the Dutrow case based exclusively on the evidence above. The series can be found in the HRI archives but the cliff notes version of the case against Dutrow is as follows:

The positive Butorphanol findings in the horse Fastus Cactus were highly dubious and there was meddling into New York’s administrative process by the president of a national regulatory organization, Ed Martin of National Racing Commissioners International.

The investigation demonstrated how Rick Dutrow Jr. was denied a license in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which added to a dossier compiled by the New York State Racing & Wagering Board that would suspend him 10 years for exercising his right to appeal.

The HRI investigation established how Dutrow was scapegoated because of his highly controversial and questionable past that had more to do with personal issues rather than racing ones and how the widely reported number of positives he recorded had more to do with legal med overages, or for conduct unbecoming.

Politically motivated, the hearing was about how he embarrassed the sport with admissions of anabolic steroid use, legal at that time, a period when the sport was under heavy scrutiny in the shadow of Barbaro’s 2006 Preakness breakdown, the catastrophic injury of filly Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and ending with Dutrow’s Big Brown failure to complete the course during his Triple Crown quest.

Dutrow’s problems began in the winter of 2010 when got a phone call from a member of the Kentucky Racing Commission asking him to come to a meeting when he arrived in Lexington that spring to run in two Grade 1 races at Keeneland.

After several conversations with commission personnel, Dutrow made arrangements to attend the meeting. Despite continually asking about the reason for the sit-down, he was told it was “only to clear up a few things, make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

At the meeting, Dutrow was asked to look at a series of documents. One was a license application from 2006 in which his New York secretary apparently had checked the wrong box. Based on that and pressure applied by Martin’s interference, his license renewal was denied.

In Administrative Hearings, rules of due process do not apply, hearsay is permitted, and defense attorneys lack the power to subpoena evidence it deems questionable. In this case, questionable practices surfaced during sworn testimony.

State investigator Joel Leveson testified that the syringes on his report and those entered in evidence were different sizes, also admitting later he failed to correct his original which originally indicated the liquid inside the needles were clear but later described as opaque.

It was further established that rules regarding a pristine chain of custody had been violated, discrepancies as to how the barn search came to be, who was present during the search of the barn office, the illegal search of a car belonging to barn personnel.

New York stewards abrogated its responsibility by failing to conduct their own investigation, citing “no licensing power,” but Queens District Attorney Jim Liander’s investigation informed defense counsel that he found issues he deemed “actionable.” That report indicating that the investigator lied under oath is out there if anyone seeking justice takes the time to revisit justice in this case.

Beyond that, as if more were needed, highly respected Dr. Stephen Barker Director of the Equine Medication Surveillance Laboratory in Louisiana and who typically testifies for prosecutors, testified as an expert witness for the defense, debunking the state’s drug findings.

Esteemed equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage testified on Dutrow’s behalf, stating he sent horses to Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital before their problems became insurmountable ones. An alleged “juicer,” Dutrow never a horse break down while racing at NYRA circuit track in 11 years.

Given the conflicting, inconsistent and flat-out false testimony, isn’t anyone after all this time willing to revisit this case in the interests of justice? Should innuendo and political expediency be enough to rob a man of his livelihood?

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Incomparable, Invincible, Unbeatable Breeders’ Cup

LAS VEGAS, November 6, 2015—As the horses for the Breeders’ Cup Classic stepped onto the Santa Anita racetrack, TJ turned to me and said:

“We’re as guilty of this as anyone, but you know, when we’re at the track on big days, Florida Derby day, Belmont day, the Travers, we look at those cards and say ‘this is just like the Breeders’ Cup’. But the truth is there’s nothing like the Breeders’ Cup.”

Which is one-thousand percent correct. For years, we’ve called Breeders’ Cup: “The event that never fails to fire.”

All the great racing, the great performances throughout a two-day orgy of 13 races, the centerpiece Distaff and Classic as headliners, all of it remarkable equine theater.

And, by the way, as long as Breeders’ Cup is going to remain a two-day event--judging by Friday’s business it will be a two-day event in perpetuity—the Distaff should have its own day to command center stage: Make America Filly Friday Again.

Racing against males is, in historical context, all well and good. But in this country it’s not mandatory in order for our fillies to be recognized as great. Hell, sometimes you don’t even need to leave your home state to prove that, either.

“The Europeans, many of the world’s best horses against our best, there’s just nothing like it,” reiterated TJ, “the betting, the prices...” Yes, yes, and yes.

While it was considered a Battle of the Big Three, the 2016 Distaff was always Songbird vs. Beholder; the young, undefeated champion vs. a three-time champion race mare dancing one more dance in a brilliant career.

And what a show they put on: Songbird, flaunting her speed with the prodigious Mike Smith standing up in the irons through moderate backstretch fractions as Gary Stevens bided his time on Beholder.

After the G1 Zenyatta Stakes, Stevens told a television audience: “Beholder runs better at other horses. Maybe next time I won’t have to be somebody’s huckleberry, maybe they can be my huckleberry for a change.”

Well, the Distaff leader was quite a huckleberry, an undefeated champion who fought every inch of the way in deep stretch to not allow her rival by—and she didn’t; her rival went and got her in one of the more dramatic photo finish pictures one will ever see.

It truly wasn’t until the final jump—and not even then, as slow-mo, after slow-mo, after slow-mo kept pumping up the high anxiety for both camps and the millions in the audience.

There was no stop in Songbird; Beholder just went and grabbed her right at the line. As it turned out, the Distaff, and the Classic winner on Saturday, both did it the hard way, proving superior despite narrow victory margins; the Distaff’s nose and a Classic half-length.

The hard way? You bet. The winners spotted the runners-up a couple or three-length leads, and a couple or three paths wide, in moderately realistic fractions considering the class level, each winning taking it on the fair and square.

The word in the official Distaff chart to describe Songbird’s performance was right on the money: “Valiant.” California Chrome? “Gamely.”

The second of two ‘Race for the Ages’ contests not only ended dramatically but it began the same way. Arrogate broke a tad out of hand, a bit tardily; Chrome broke sharply, with Victor Espinoza looking over his right shoulder immediately as if to say: “Where the hell is Arrogate?”

Out of sight but not out of range. There sat the roan gray, out there in the 3-1/2 path, Mike Smith--if we can use a harness expression here—jiggling the lines, alternately steadying and motivating, until he was ready to launch his turn rally in earnest.

At headstretch, Espinoza twisted his body right for another look back, only this time he couldn’t have missed Arrogate, getting set to launch with about three-sixteenths of a mile remaining.

What was seen then is something that is not witnessed every day, indeed only rarely: A relatively inexperienced younger horse, out of the speed-game he demonstrated while racing the fastest 10 furlongs in Saratoga history, going after the world’s best dirt horse.

With a sixteenth to go, it appeared that the big chestnut would hold sway--then it happened. Before every discerning horseplayer’s eye, Arrogate reached down and lengthened his tremendous stride, appearing to just get started as he crossed the finish.

“He’s got amazing stamina,” confirmed Smith later. “He could have gone around again, he was literally dancing.”

And there they were, a couple of freeze-frames of note: His standing with the rest of the Classic field in front of the starting gate at post time; unflappable, quietly intense, extreme focused, game face on, confident.

Then coming back, with proud body language, taking it all in tremendous stride.

And there was Smith, winner of an astounding 25 Breeders’ Cup races, getting up there deep in unreachable Joe DiMaggio territory.

And Bob Baffert, whose unprecedented three straight Classics puts him up there in Woody Stephens’ terrain. Remarkable, stunning achievements from Hall of Fame horsemen whose execution matched those of their charges.

So here is Arrogate, with me saying: I’m not comparing his recent achievements to a horse that made singular history. But with all else being equal, and with very much to prove, Arrogate is the most impressive three-year-old I’ve seen since Seattle Slew and that includes last year’s Grand Slam stablemate.

If Arrogate remains healthy—always racing’s biggest word—he will become a horse for the ages, just like the event we witnessed on Championship Saturday.

Written by John Pricci

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