Wednesday, February 04, 2015

When It Comes to the Sport, Art Sherman Gets It

PLANTATION, FL., February 4, 2015—Beyond the X’s and O’s of handicapping and cashing a winning ticket, rooting for your racetrack favorites doesn’t stop at the betting window or submit tab.

And it’s not limited to star equines. Indeed, many fans root for or against certain jockeys, even if their allegiance is predicated on pari-mutuel success or lack thereof.

Trainers, of course, are a different story. The “super trainer” is a root-against for most serious fans unless, of course, they’ve singled his runner in Pick 4s.

Wagering notwithstanding, personality rules. Some trainers can be abrasive, dismissive; others are perceived as a mensch and still others feel the love because of their legendary status.

Who doesn’t root for “the Chief,” H. Allen Jerkens, who is that rare blend of self-effacing mensch and all-time legendary horsemen?

As evidenced by his participation in the NTRA's first national phone conference of 2015, Art Sherman is cast in the Jerkens mold, perhaps more than most prominent trainers of today.

Sherman is preparing California Chrome for “The Rematch Sans One,” his confrontation with Shared Belief, and maybe that’s as it should be?

How often does the previous year’s juvenile champion get to meet next year’s three-year-old champion and Horse of the Year in such an early season matchup?

Bayern will have to sit this one out, no matter how regrettably, no matter how much racing fans are clamoring for Breeders’ Cup Classic Redux. Instead, Hoppertunity will represent the Baffert shedrow.

“I get goose bumps when I think about [Saturday’s rematch],” Sherman said on Tuesday’s call. “There’s a lot at stake. Whatever happens, we just want to [see both horses] have a fair run at it.

“Me and Jerry [Hollendorfer, trainer of Sherman’s main rival] go back a long time, we’re good friends, but we’re both very competitive.

“Shared Belief is a really nice horse. I felt bad for him in the Breeders’ Cup. I’ve wanted to meet [Jerry’s] horse heads up for a long time.”

Sherman will get his wish this weekend.

Then, if all goes well for the Horse of the Year 2014, it’s off to the United Arab Emirates for the $10 million Dubai World Cup.

“The owners would like Chrome to meet the best horses in the world,” Sherman explained. “Perry Martin makes all the decisions.”

“To me it’s a long way. I’ve never been there. I’m told it’s beautiful. I’ve spoken to a lot of people and they say it takes about three months [for horses] to recover [from the trip].

“[California Chrome’s] adaptable and he’s the best shipper in the world. I can’t make any excuses there, but he’s got a lot of races to go.

“After this race he’ll be really strong for Dubai. He’ll have to be at his best to run with the best in Europe.

“I’m delighted to have a chance to train him as a four year old. I just wish I could keep him in America. There are lots of good races and you don’t have to travel that far.”

And that’s the shared belief of the group that owns Saturday’s main rival.

“We talked about [Dubai] among our partners,” said Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer on the call earlier. “We haven’t ruled it out but I don’t think the interest is all that high.

“A lot of horses went over there and weren’t quite the same. It depends on the makeup of your horse when they can come back, but I wouldn’t criticize anyone who wants to run for a big purse.”

And there lies a fundamental difference between the two camps.

“It’s just a logistics problem with the World Cup,” said Hollendorfer, who’s saddled over 6,800 career victories. “A lot of horses would need time off.

“We just enjoy running in the U.S., home in California…there are a lot of nice races, the Pacific Classic, lots of nice races in New York. I don’t want to talk for Jim Rome and our other great partners but we just want to enjoy that as much as we can.”

Hollendorfer played down the match race storyline some, saying that this is “the race we pointing to no matter who was running. This is just the next race [on the schedule], then we’ll find another one. You have to beat all the horses.

“The significance of the race is that this is what the fans wanted to see. It would be better if Bob’s horse [Bayern, not Hoppertunity] was in there. This is the way racing is supposed to be. I’m sure Art’s looking forward to this as much as I am.

Indeed, he is, and in more ways than one.

“I said at the time I thought it was a mistake [to retire California Chrome after his three year old year]. That’s what happens to our game. You lose a lot of fans when you don’t have the stars.

“When I was a kid [and exercise rider for Swaps], sixty-five or seventy thousand people came out to see Swaps win the Hollywood Gold Cup. Now people don’t want to get off the Freeway and want to bet on their I-pad.

“He’s the people’s horse, why all the need over money? When this horse came into the ring, fans were yelling ‘Chrome, Chrome’, and I thought ‘wow, look at that.’

“I just love to see people enjoy the sport. There’s nothing like being there. I want it here for my kids to see when I’m not around.”

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Criticism In Easy, Solutions Are Hard

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 29, 2015—I am no fan of winter racing in New York and haven’t been since the beginning after learning that a new specialized winter track would need to be constructed inside Aqueduct’s main dirt oval.

My reasoning was that if one of the best dirt tracks in American racing couldn’t stand up to the elements at this time of year, that the surface might not be safe enough to minimize risk to horses and jockeys, then maybe racing in winter is a great idea after all.

Cold-weather animals or no cold-weather animals.

Just like liberal race-day medication rules, I believed then as now that perception is everything when it comes to gambling reality.

Aesthetically, with no opportunity to race seven furlongs or a one-turn mile for a third of the New York season, the product would bear no resemblance to what America’s horseplayers expected from New York racing; decidedly less-than.

At one time winter racing made economic sense beyond filling state coffers; it helped the New York Racing Association squirrel away enough money when the “good-horse circuit” returned to race at Belmont Park and Saratoga.

And this was long before anyone dared conjure up the two-headed casino dole monster.

Back in the day, when racinos became the fashionable solution, legal pari-mutuels at racetracks was the bridge states used to elbow in various forms of casino gaming, including slots dubbed Video Lottery Terminals as to sidestep casino gaming bans.

Parenthetically, it’s the same tack the present-day NFL takes when it encourages and commercially promotes weekly fantasy football games: Fantasy leagues, the VLTs of illegal “spread” betting on football.

For many horseracing fans and bettors, New York winter racing has become anathema and, for the second time in three years, race fans and horse lovers from all over America are witnessing another spate of fatal breakdowns, one far exceeding the norm.

Obviously, something is very wrong.

Several years ago, when purse winnings were more valuable than the “equine commodities” that earned those purses, greed won out as both owners and trainers began spotting their horses far too aggressively.

From late 2011 to 2012, 22 horses suffered fatal injuries, animals having become an expendable means to an economic end. More pieces of “equine chattel” were claimed during that period than any other I can recall in four decades covering New York racing.

This season there have been 14 catastrophic injuries in a truncated 26-day session cut short by weather cancellations and a reduced schedule.

But what’s the problem now, when the current meet’s breakdown rate is more than four times the national average? Either no one knows or no one is willing to say, certainly not for the record.

One of the culprits could be the surface itself. Racetracks are organic and, like humans, don’t work as well when they get old.

When first constructed, the track was hailed as a winter racing marvel; deservedly so. It’s only problematic issue was the dreaded freeze-thaw cycle which caused the track would dry unevenly; slick here, firm there. Consistent freezing temps were never at issue.

But four inspections by the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory proclaimed the track structurally sound and Rick Violette, current President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association stated emphatically last weekend “there’s nothing wrong with racetrack.”

(By virtue of his position as the NYTHA chief, Violette also sits ex-officio on the NYRA Board of Directors.

Privately, however, many of Violette’s colleagues currently racing in South Florida but having divisions in New York, as well as several current New York-based trainers, are saying otherwise.

But because the racing office holds the power of stall allotments over trainers, none were willing to say so for the record.

While some in the racing media, to their credit, have brought the issue of winter-racing breakdowns to the forefront, much of the coverage has been one-sided.

Most published reports only have addressed how racing-office misinterpretation of a NYRA house rule prohibiting horses from running back within 15 days of its last race resulted in eight program scratches on Sunday with nine more expected on today’s card.

Horsemen and media have questioned the wisdom of the 14-day ban but if there were recommendations on how to solve the problem of horse fatalities, I missed them.

So, then, what happens now? If a majority can’t or won’t agree that it’s the surface, arguing they know what’s best for their horses and clients, what do they propose would stop the carnage?

Are we to accept more of the same-old unfortunate-part-of-the-game defense? Where is there a leader among these groups who screams “stop the madness?” Where is the Jockeys’ Guild on this? The only one getting any heat at all is the racing association.

Any veteran racetracker, myself included, would identify the 14-day ban and the raising of minimum maiden-claiming levels a sophomoric, Band-Aid fix to a lethal wound.

But why is having horses qualify after having been beaten off such a bad idea, whatever qualifying the workout time to return? Indeed, starting today, there will be a four-day race week for the foreseeable future featuring eight-race cards. How can one reasonably argue that is not at least a step in the right direction? Who speaks for the horses?

Approximately half the recent fatalities were cheaper horses that either raced back on very short rest or had more than two starts within a 30-day period but arguments that no one knows whether over-racing caused the breakdowns, or citing examples of high-class, short-rest, success stories, are disingenuous apples-to-oranges comparisons.

The fact that no one truly can know what the correct time-frame benchmark should be, or that trainers who race back quickly should not be presumed to be animal abusers, is just more obfuscation.

Any trainer at any level worth his salt, if he were being honest, would tell you that every class of race horse has only so many productive furlongs in their racing careers. If he doesn’t he should consider himself a trainer in name only, not a horseman.

Hard and fast rules often does make for poor policy. But while it’s easier for a majority to criticize these hastily conceived stopgaps, I have not seen many, if any, policies that can be considered short term solutions to day-to-day racing as presently constructed.

It’s not unfair to say some highly placed racetrack executives are overmatched in their positions, and legislators who play at being racetrack executives know even less. But given the state of modern racing, do trainers as a group deserve the benefit of doubt?

If that were true, you wouldn’t hear the betting public scream “juice” at racetrack monitors every time a 30% trainer’s horse crosses the finish line five in front.

At the bottom line, what is NYRA’s ultimate goal, or the goal of any track that finds itself dealing with a similar situation? When racetracks stare down the barrel of negative public perception, it must act, do something to abate the damage as quickly as possible.

Again, maybe NYRA’s hastily conceived reaction was trifling but when this issue first surface two weeks ago, we thought a four-day, eight-race card was one winter-racing answer.

Well, in addition to 15-day, 25-length rules, etc., NYRA did institute two breaks this season and currently are carding eight-race programs four times a week. They may be misguided but they’re playing the dead hand they were dealt.

If anyone has an answer resembling a smarter solutionand not just more piling on, I’m sure everyone who loves the horses, and the game, would love to know what they are.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Everything Dies Baby, That’s a Fact

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 14, 2015-As if the recent losses of good friends are not enough to remind one of his mortality, now the bricks and mortar of our past are falling by the wayside, too.

Atlantic City Race Course, we hardly knew ya’, but the little we did know and experienced, we loved.

It was 30 years ago, life was a bit simpler and the family always would look forward to the drive south in the summertime.

We loved the Jersey Shore then; we still do. We’d spend a week in Margate at the White Sands, right on the beach. On a clear day you could see the Steel Pier a few miles to the north.

As Lou said to Sally in Louis Malle’s 1980 classic: “You should have seen the ocean in those days.”

There were no honky-tonk women in the family and as for casino gambling, table games just don’t do it for me. But night time Thoroughbred racing at Atlantic City always did.

It was at a time when Ken Dunn was making his bones as a successful racetrack executive and Larry Lederman was calling the races; sometimes as Trevor Denman, or as Dave Johnson, sometimes even as himself.

When the microphone went live, you’d never know what to expect.

The arrangements were always the same: Beach by day and Nana baby-sitting by night so that Toni and I could go out for a special dinner, admittedly more of the action variety than the romantic kind.

(No tsking, please; we celebrated our 46th anniversary on Monday, that’s 43 in Super Bowl years to the day: Jets 16-Colts 7).

There was one proviso, however. I would have to take Nana to the races the next night while Toni baby-sat; not quite the same deal as Saratoga where every racing day was take-your-mother-in-law-to-work day.

We always had supper in the trackside dining room, walked down to one of the more quaint walking walks anywhere and spent a race up in the booth visiting with Lederman.

And I must agree with a recent post from Barry Irwin on another site: A.C. had “the best turf course this side of Hialeah.”

The place deteriorated some with the passage of time but it certainly had its share of glamour back in the day; Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope--fittingly Bing Crosby’s partner in all those road movies.

You remember Crosby, of course. He was one of the co-founders of “old Del Mar.”

But there was another celebrity link. Atlantic City Race Course was the vision of John Kelly, a mainline Philadelphia businessman who’s fetching daughter Grace eschewed a successful movie star career to run off and marry the handsome Prince of Monaco.

One evening, at the track where night racing was born, Toni rushed back from the Ladies Room nearly out of breath:

“I just saw the Princess in the Ladies Room, she’s even more beautiful than she is on screen.”

Not having a particularly good night at the wickets, I asked: “Did you get her figures?” Classy woman that she is, my wife did not dignify the question, saying only “why don’t you just get the check?”

As most of the HRI faithful know, in recent years A.C. ran a five-day, all-turf race meet so that by mandate it could remain open for simulcasting year-round.

Meadowlands, the first track to receive a simulcast signal from the first track ever to send one, has picked up that gauntlet for New Jersey and recently has conducted all-turf race cards.

Upon hearing the closure announcement, officials representing Monmouth Park have made inquiries about picking up Atlantic City’s days, perhaps buying the track outright. The sides have agreed to talk about it in the future.

But for now it’s enough to know that for Atlantic City Race Course, glory days, well, they have passed it by; glory days, in the wink of an old man’s eye, glory days…glory days.

BETS N PIECES: The life of the late Jack Wilson will be remembered in a video presentation during Saturday night’s Eclipse Awards ceremony. Nothing could be more appropriate than to celebrate the best chart caller ever to grace a racetrack press box. In his original call of the 1973 Belmont Stakes for Daily Racing Form, Wilson named the margin of 31 lengths as Secretariat crossed the finish line. He was always doing things like that; a remarkable talent, a remarkable human being.

By Comparison, Stewards and Racing Rules May Not Be That Bad: Last week, according to several respected gamblers, the Santa Anita stewards did not take a horse down that should have been disqualified. At Gulfstream, the stewards disqualified a horse for a marginal infraction. So which is worse, the disparate rules in various racing jurisdictions or the one that allows for the type of interpretation used by NFL officials in the final minutes of the Packers-Cowboys semi-finals matchup?

If Dez Bryant didn’t take three steps, it was close. If he didn’t make a football play with control and arms outstretched, it was close, although the ruling was not as bad as the one made in the Cowboys favor vs. the Lions the week before. Why doesn’t the ground cause a fumble for a runner but does for a receiver?

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: So now we know that first-time gelding date information as reported by the DRF refers to the date on which the data was made available, presumably at time of entry, and not the date the alteration was performed. This, of course, is not helpful at best, misleading at worst. Was the runner an unbeknownst gelding last time out or has he been a gelding for his last three races? Do it right or don’t do it at all.

Drug Classifications and Proposed Rule Changes: Too little and Too Late: The New York Gaming Commission recently proposed a rule that if adopted would result in graduated suspensions for multiple medication violations of 30, 60, 180 days or one year when a violator reaches a certain points threshold based on the classification of drug involved.

This is a good start in that it eliminates capricious and arbitrary nature of fines and suspensions while leveling the punitive playing field. The rule is recommended nationally by the Association of Racing Commissioners International and has the support of the New York Racing Association., the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and the Jockey Club. This gives it a chance to be enacted.

But until and unless the ARCI is held to account for what truly constitutes a Class A, B or C-type drug with a clear delineation between therapeutic medications and cheating drugs, justice will not be best served to either the bettors or the horsemen.

As was mentioned here previously in our commentary regarding the David Cannizzo suspension, how can a painkiller such as Propoxyphene, a.k.a. Darvon, be classified as a Class C drug? Someone needs to explain that to me in words I can understand.

Written by John Pricci

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