Sunday, November 05, 2017

“Breeders’ Cup: The Horse Racing Event That Never Fails to Fire”

I write the same headline every year. Why? Because, on balance, truer words were never written. The overall quality of racing in this annual two-day event is unparalleled in this country.

Kentucky Derby/Oaks weekend some years might pose a kind of early season challenge, and the new-fangled monster Belmont Day probably comes closest in that top horses from nearly every division comes to Long Island, including a sprinkling of Europeans.

Something else we say every year is that the Kentucky Derby, America’s Race, is the best racing spectacle this country has. Through it Americana still lives, even in these unnecessarily wretched days. The Derby is the stuff of legend; Breeders’ Cup more clearly defines excellence.

Eight championship categories were decided this weekend, six definitively or highly likely, and most probably two more.

But I must say that this renewal, considering the number of highly regarded horses and prior champions—with many of which were absurdly over-bet—did not leave me with the same warm and fuzzy racing emotions as many past event days have.

As an unabashed equine sentimentalist, both Lady Eli and Arrogate deserved better than they got or, in the latter’s case, gave, in their career finales.
In Arrogate’s case, fans and handicappers are best to remember two things, and you need not to take this from me. But you should trust in what Jerry Bailey and Richard Migliore have to say on the subject:

There are only just so many miles in the legs of a race horse, especially those that compete at the top level that often are required to reach the bottom of their ability to win a race.

Or consider what Mike Smith said after the Classic, about hating to blame the racetrack, about believing that the Del Mar surface could have had such a negative effect on the horse that swept the Travers, Classic, Pegasus and Dubai World Cup with such devastating power.

The feeling is that Bob Baffert suspected as well, but didn’t finally admit it to himself or the public that those races emptied out his star colt, leaving little in his competitive tank. Works and gallops are fine but nothing brings out the worst like the stress of competition.

When Arrogate broke out of hand at the start, never getting into the race at any point, I could not help but flash back to how the great Lady’s Secret pulled herself up on the Saratoga backstretch; equine body language for no mas.

Lady Eli, meanwhile, found herself in a jackpot before the field reached the first turn, jostled about between fillies so repeatedly that Irad Ortiz had no choice but to yank her out of the logjam. Thereafter or during, she suffered the worst “superficial” cut we’ve ever seen.

An aside: Ortiz embarrassed himself and insulted the intelligence of the viewing audience by insisting he had a good trip; he got her covered up, found room, but she offered no kick. It wasn’t his fault that he was slammed inside and out as the large field entered a tight turn. Why not use that legitimate excuse?

Instead, every winning rider talks about his good trip, just as every trainer always liked his charge from the start and couldn’t be doing better. But maybe it’s not all their fault; maybe the racing media should ask more pointed questions? Rant over.

But the whole terrible seen just wasn’t what you wanted to see from a mare who overcame so much just to survive founder to become the horse racing story of this or any other year.

That’s why her defeat was so deflating; she never got the chance to show what she had in her last competitive run.

Most alarming, however, were the complete no-shows that raced in Del Mar’s initial Breeders’ Cup. We may find excuses later, real or contrived, but notable horses such as Mor Spirit, Stellar Wind, Lady Aurelia, Unique Bella and Drefong were awful.

To a lesser degree, so were Ribchester, Elate, whose development stopped abruptly, Moonshine Memories and Heavenly Love. Defeat is one thing but virtual non-efforts, even in this game, are another. We’ll get to Bolt d’Oro later.

But all of this is not to say there weren’t other warm horse racing moments: The excitement of Dallas Stewart who, showing a master’s hand with the sparingly campaigned Unbridled Forever, hit his target dead on.

And there was the Peter Miller trampoline act, sans trampoline; an emotional Mark Casse, overcome with the pride-and-joy of family, and Steve Asmussen, who’s rooting Gun Runner home willed a Horse of the Year title, in the works since the day he returned from Dubai.

In addition to the protem Horse of the Year and champion older male, other highly likely Eclipse titlists include sprinter Roy H; three year old male West Coast; three year old filly Abel Tasman and turf champion World Approval.

Will have to do more critical thinking with respect to juvenile championships of both sexes. I will vote for Caledonia Road and Good Magic in the final NTRA poll of 2017 as I believe Breeders’ Cup should define juvenile championships, at minimum tie breakers in vexing categories.

While Bolt d’Oro may or may not prove a better horse than Good Magic at 3, it has little to do with their overall juvenile seasons. But the colt had help in defeat; the Juvenile was not one of Corey Nakatani’s best moments on horseback.

He appeared to hesitate going into the first turn, getting his colt hung out to dry from a wide post, losing any serious chance to prove he was best. One simply cannot lose that much ground and expect to overcome it, even on a track favoring late outside runners.

However, I do believe the term “strong bias” was an over-exaggeration of the conditions. What I do believe is that Del Mar’s narrow layout is unworthy of an international event—not the venue, just the track’s dynamics.

The main track is OK but the turf course compromises true world class turf racing. In our view, all one-mile main tracks should come replete with chutes on both sides of the course, somewhat mitigating the tight turns that by its nature places horses and riders in tight quarters.

But all of what happened over Breeders’ Cup weekend did nothing to minimize the excellence of the event. In fact, given the overall success of the Europeans, the term World Championships never has been more apt.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Of Arrogate and Del Mar in the Fall

There was a conversation on Twitter Tuesday morning that began when my friend and great racing chronicler Steve Haskin of Bloodhorse made the observation that, based on Monday’s workout, Arrogate is back. As expected, there was much back and forth with Breeders' Cup approaching.

It may interest fans to know that I agree with Haskin, but only to a point. Indeed, Arrogate’s flesh looked fuller than when we last saw him a week earlier on His energy level also was good, but in our view not as I remember it at any stage pre-Dubai World Cup.

It may turn out that Arrogate unequivocally hates Del Mar, but he didn’t hate Saratoga, Gulfstream or Meydan. The difference may be because his Dubai performance was in the same orbit as Secretariat’s Belmont, or Seattle Slew’s monstrous Jockey Club Gold Cup.

We’re not comparing these three and wouldn’t want to re-litigate that topic on some subsequent thread. We’re simply noting the top three male performances we’ve seen since we began doing this professionally in 1969.

The point is that his Dubai tour de force might have reached the bottom of him, if not somewhere close. His greatness might be summoned up one last time as he comes off a lengthy, needed freshening—his second freshening since returning from the Middle East.

Monday’s workout was clearly better than the one that preceded it Oct. 16. As Haskin noted, he finished strongly and galloped out well, but…

I was not as enamored of the gallop-out as Steve was. To my eyes, Arrogate’s behemoth stride—indelibly etched from his running down California Chrome in the final strides of the 2016 Classic—is not quite there. Rather, as the handicappers say, it’s there, thereabouts.

If he is all the way back, it should be enough for a relatively short-lived Best Horse in the World to rebound and win his career finale in storybook fashion. The horse certainly has earned that. Whether he can, of course, is the $6-million question.

This uncertainty could have been somewhat mitigated. In fact, all horsemen and the bettors are being short-changed by host track Del Mar. Is there some spectacular reason why Del Mar’s backstretch didn’t open until this week, at least for Breeders’ Cup horses?

Most of the serious work was completed this past weekend. There were fitness-insurers, leg stretchers or a stepping stone to a stiff blowout to come.

Wouldn’t it have been preferable to see horses work at least twice on the surface over which they are scheduled to race?

Track superintendent Dennis Moore is a legend in his field. He installed the new Del Mar surface for the prime summer meet and it was a rousing success based on vastly improved safety records for both equine and human athletes.

The stated goal was to make the surface exactly the same as Santa Anita’s, believing that familiarity was in the best interest of all parties, including horseplayers. But here’s another concern to reconcile:

For example, it’s widely accepted that Churchill Downs plays differently in spring than it does in the fall. And those in the know in California—mainly horsemen--insist that the surface played differently last fall than it did last summer on the “old” surface.

Moore says that on Nov. 3 and 4 the track will play the same as it did in July, August and September. I’m dubious because atmospherics change. I get that the climate is relatively stable in San Diego, but nature’s clock will do what it always does: affect things.

Moore has indicated that the track would be tighter--as opposed to looser--for Breeders’ Cup event days. But if Oceanside Del Mar does mimic inland Santa Anita, it’s useful to recall how dead the Arcadia track played at the beginning of the current meet.

Of course, if track condition turns out to be a factor—and it always does—the surmise is that much of the guess work could have been avoided, as if training and betting on race horses is easy to be good at. All horsemen, not just Bob Baffert, could have benefited from this option.

If Del Mar had opened its barn area a week earlier for a limited number of horses it would have been better for all practitioners. But, I suppose, not if there were no track-maintenance crew to monitor the situation.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

With Respect to Running Times, Racing Has a Crediblity Gap

While parimutuel takeout and the Keeneland boycott have dominated the discussion in recent weeks, there is a matter of urgency that not only effects horseplayers but the very foundation and history of Thoroughbred racing itself: The timing of races.

Whether it is how one horse matches up against another in today’s race, or whether Arrogate is the historical equal of Seattle Slew, visual interpretations notwithstanding, it is axiomatic that running time is the only absolute truth in the game.

Presently there is credibility crisis in terms of how accurate the running times you see posted on the tote board and in past performances are. This has been at issue for several years, the most egregious example being the incorrect time of the 2017 Pegasus.

This week, however, the prominent Pace Advantage, a prominent racing message board, and Twitter has blown up because of the incorrect timing issues that have occurred with regularity at the current Santa Anita race meet.

Timing and past performance company Trakus published three charts from this past Saturday without running times listed, including intra-race fractions and final clocking, because the originally posted times were inaccurate.

Once this credibility gap was exposed and social media got involved, Jeff Platt, founder and president of Horseplayers Association of North America, made Santa Anita and the California Horse Racing Board aware of the Internet discussions.

Santa Anita and the CHRB acted appropriately with dispatch and handled the matter correctly. All races are now hand-timed in addition to electronic timing. When obvious mistakes occur, the correct hand-timed clocking becomes the official time of that race.

No reasonable person should have a problem with this approach, whereby tracks use official timers as a fail-safe in the interests of accuracy. Here’s why:

The most dominant driver of racing’s liquid economies, from the betting windows to the sales ring, are the “Sheets” products produced by Ragozin and Thoro-Graph. Horses are managed on the information contained therein. They provide the most meaningful measure of when horses go in and out of their form cycles.

No high six- or seven-figure purchases “off the racetrack,” or even claims, are made without knowing what kind of “Sheets number” a horse has run, an indication of both present ability shown and a projection of how fast it might run in the future.

There are other variables involved: Age and pedigree readily come to mind. And, of course, with respect to private purchases, no deal is made without a veterinary inspection.

It has been conservatively estimated--and empirically correct—that three of every four dollars wagered is made by Sheets players, including those arbitrageurs who rock the tote board in the final minute of wagering.

Parenthetically, not knowing whether you made a value play for certain until the field reaches the half-mile pole is another factor that is chasing some players away. But that’s a conversation for another day.

California is now using professional clockers, paid by the racetrack, to fail-safe timing mechanisms. If I can trust a workout indicating that Arrogate’s 5-furlong move on Oct. 10 was 1:00.20, the fastest of 40 at the distance.

Most fans and bettors readily accept workout reports and these published works are the result of a single take. When it comes to hand-timing races, multiple video-takes are considered before a more accurate average is considered official information.

This is the way it’s always been done, in the modern era going back to Secretariat’s Preakness. HRI’s Mark Berner, who retired after decades in the employ of Teletimer, hand-timed every race.

If there were an obvious malfunction, he would time a race thrice, confer with NYRA’s Official Timer, before posting an official clocking for the race.

While racetracks don’t set out to intentionally deceive the public, the industry stays well clear of making embarrassing waves, as opposed to transparently doing the right thing.

With respect to Santa Anita’s recent timing issues, credit the CHRB for finally getting something right.

Timing discrepancies are the result of many variables. A trifecta of trouble is the run-up—the distance between the starting gate and times poles; pole position placement itself, and the big kahuna of quandary, the use of temporarily rails on the turf course.

Various solutions mentioned are very costly timing apparatus used by sports leagues, impractical except for the A+ venues, timing from gate to wire, minus the run-up, which still leaves intra-race splits in question, or use the same standards in place now.

But whatever the methodology, the use of a professional Official Timer, whose name should be listed in the official track program, is the best fail-safe of all. Replication by a professional is the best insurer of accuracy, as was suggested by HRI last winter.

At the 2016-17 Gulfstream championship meet, there were many timing discrepancies, especially on the turf course where the track has the ability to move the temporary rail to six different positions.

Races in which the inner rail was placed in the middle of the course were particularly suspect and still remain dubious. We have been assured that the issue will be remedied in time for the 2017-18 championship meet launch in December.

The wish is that Gulfstream will follow California’s lead and announce that a trusted professional will be in place to insure accuracy. Timing races accurately should be part of the rules and regulations that tracks adhere to when granted a license by their states to operate.

For a business that’s dependent on data-driven gambling to succeed, only accurate information will allow customers to make informed decisions. The past, present and future of the sport depends on it.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, October 11, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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