Tuesday, November 04, 2014

For Classic Blunder, Blame the Rule

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 3, 2014--When I was taking business classes in college, somehow I was always fascinated by the legal terms de facto and de jure .

As I got older I realized it went beyond strictl legal definitions, the first being “in fact, whether by right or not” and the latter, meaning “according to rightful entitlement, or claim:”

What the Santa Anita stewards did in the minutes after Bayern’s nose hit the finish line thisclose ahead of Toast of New York was to make a de jure ruling on what the whole world believes to be a de facto incident.

Everyone saw Shared Belief getting bumped badly at the break by the eventual winner, starting a fortuitous chain reaction that seriously compromised Moreno, the only other true speed horse in the race.

Upon dismounting, Shared Belief’s jockey Mike Smith told a national television audience that the incident cost him “any chance to win the race in the first sixteenth of a mile, from both sides.

The stewards later said that when asked, Smith told them “it would be hard for me to say“ that the incident prevented him from winning.

Then, on Sunday morning, the winningest rider in Breeders’ Cup history refuted the stewards‘ characterizations, saying that he told the stewards that he “got creamed in there.”

Well, which was it Mike? My question for Mr. Smith would be “why the hell didn‘t you claim foul as soon as you got on the phone with the stewards?”

We can’t question the he said-they said aspects of the conversation because no one outside of four people know what was said for sure, but didn’t Smith believe he had a “rightful entitlement or claim?”

And I won’t be willing to accept the notion that the stewards had already posted an inquiry. Inquiries and claims for the same infraction happen every day:

Just like “incidents at the start,” a by-product of California racing rule 1699 ( c ).

What makes this difficult for me to understand is the history of the sport itself. Why ask a jockey whether he believes he’s guilty, innocent, or about his version of events? I suspect that it is part tradition, part lack of bad-old-days technology.

But there’s another tradition in this sport, one that lacks definition but no less real. In law enforcement it’s known as the “Blue Wall.”

In this sport, no one ever holds racing’s version of the powerful 1% accountable, whether it’s owners, trainers or the jockeys.

Incur the wrath of owners and a trainer gets no horses--except for those able to win at a rate of 25% or greater.

Incur the wrath of trainers and a jockey doesn’t get mounts unless, of course, their agent can successfully spin the trainer.

But incur the wrath of other jockeys and that seam will never open; that hole on the rail will get tighter and tighter.

All this is why the currency in this sport is the lie: Every horse couldn’t be doing better; a “deep bone bruise” might really be a bowed tendon; “exhaustion” could turn out to be a condylar fracture.

Much of the bettors’ furor is based upon the unpopularity of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who many believe is too big to fail.

The rest is based on optics, that while the California Horse Racing Board was investigating seven sudden deaths suffered by Baffert-trained horses that had been treated with Thyroxin, a powerful hormone used to regulate metabolism, several of its Board members were seen socializing with Baffert in his Santa Anita box during the process.

The forthright Jim Rome, the highly visible part-owner of Shared Belief, allowed on his radio show Monday that Baffert clearly is a powerful guy in California, but he did stop short of one of his famous “takes.”

Rome later said that he had put the matter behind him and moved on, just like some of those controversial athletes he grills. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s only remark was “you saw what happened,” hoisting the Backside Curtain.

When I first came to the beat in the 1970s, I learned something about foul adjudication because the New York stewards at the time opened lines of communication via a press box two-way microphone.

“Are you ready?” steward Francis Dunne would ask. “Yes sir,” someone would always reply. Today, racing talks about transparency; 40 years ago it was practiced in New York, but sadly, no longer.

When an event similar to what happened in the Classic occurred, Dunne’s words are as clear now as they were when I first heard them: “That’s an incident at the start, gentlemen, we‘re leaving it as is.”

Which, whether most observers agree with the decision or not, is exactly what the Santa Anita stewards did Saturday night.

I’ve watched the replay more than a dozen times at every conceivable speed and from every angle available and I’ll say this; the notion that Martin Garcia intentionally drove his horse inward to reach the fence by any means necessary is absurd.

Indeed, Bayern slammed into Shared Belief hard; in turn Shared Belief nailed Moreno. Soon thereafter, Toast of New York ran his post pattern from slip 9 and also tagged Moreno, the Classic’s only other true speed.

The complexion of the race changed immediately, the incident giving Bayern a huge advantage after having severely compromised Shared Belief.

In our view, however, it is not unequivocal or irrefutable that the incident prevented Shared Belief from winning the race. Yes, he’s light bodied and , yes, he had the air taken out of him--but he was full of run racing into the first turn.

Was he severely hindered? Unquestionably. Did it cost him the race? Most probably. But was he prevented from winning right there and then? I say no.

After careful review and due consideration, I cannot be convinced that Garcia did not make every effort to straighten his mount.

As analyst Jerry Bailey said, Bayern broke in and forward simultaneously. The first clear view of Garcia was him shifting his weight and tugging at his reins hard and to the right.

I don’t know what more he could have done at that point to undo the damage done, although he did continue on a path to the rail.

However, I don’t believe it was humanly possible for Garcia to react any faster than he did. So now the question becomes: Do you hold the horse Bayern accountable for his actions? Mr. Ed maybe; Bayern, I really can’t say.

When Toast of New York came in, bumping with Moreno, whose saddle eventually slipped, Smith was behind Moreno trapped inside full of run and looking for a way out, causing him to check hard over heels.

I don’t know how Smith and Shared Belief escaped clipping the heels of the horse directly in front of them. It was truly a scary moment and it’s very fortunate that no human or animal was put in harm‘s way--but it was close.

All sports come down to a game of inches and the 2014 Classic was no different, right down to the photo finish indicating that Bayern finished a nose ahead of Toast of New York and a neck in front of California Chrome, as the three leaders finished 1-2-3 at speedy Santa Anita.

So was the whole affair lamentable? You bet. Did the defeat cost Shared Belief two championships, including Horse of the Year and likely to earn Bayern the three year old title? Yes, and the Horse of the Year push-back has already begun.

In ratings submitted to the NTRA Monday, I ranked Main Sequence #1, Bayern #2, followed in order by California Chrome, Untapable, Shared Belief, and two-time defending Horse of the Year Wise Dan.

In the final NTRA Poll of 2014, the aggregate opinion of 47 other turf writers and broadcasters reflected that same order of finish. The top-ranked vote getters, Main Sequence and Bayern, earned 20 and 13 first-place votes, respectively.

The best idea to come out of all this, to possibly avoid any appearance of homerism or political influence in the future, is to do what is done in other major sports.

Draft officials from different parts of the U.S., the best of the best, and have them officiate the Breeders’ Cup races. Have a house steward in the room to act in an advisory role should relevant local idiosyncrasies arise.

I’m sure the majority of observers believe that Bayern should have been disqualified based, de facto, on what they saw.

But then so was the Santa Anita stewards’ de jure interpretation of the rule governing the start of any race run in California, be it claimer or Breeders‘ Cup Classic.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (41)


Sunday, November 02, 2014

Santa Anita Fatigue

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 1, 2014---I have written these words ever since Breeders’ Cup II back in 1985: “As a racing event, the Breeders’ Cup never fails to fire.”

Or, a variation on that theme: “The Kentucky Derby is my favorite race but the Breeders’ Cup is my favorite event, racing’s best hoof forward.”

Or maybe it’s because the concept of Breeders’ Cup offers the greatest blend of pomp, circumstance, and gambling known to man.

For most of us, in any case, it’s what makes Thoroughbred racing “the greatest game played outdoors.” To wit:

Where else over consecutive days can be seen performances such as Lady Eli’s, or Bobby’s Kitten’s, or Texas Red’s; horsemanship like those displayed by Chad Brown, or Wesley Ward, or Steve Asmussen?

Or the athleticism and decision making skills at 40 miles per hour as those displayed by Rosie Napravnik or Javier Castellano or Frankie Dettori?

So, then, what’s leaving me so unsatisfied post event?

Was it small betting losses incurred over two days; the Turf trifecta, a value play on Bobby’s Kitten and win savers on Work All Week and Karakonite the only bets that provided a dufresnian escape from parimutuel incarceration?

No, it wasn‘t the betting; I can remember losing once or twice before. And recall, please, that this is a game in which being wrong two out of every three chances makes you a certifiable genius.

Certifiable, anyway.

And it wasn’t the atmospherics under which the event was staged; it was sloppy as hell in New York Saturday. In SoCal, the badly needed rain fell conveniently fell between programs at night.

And what better background for the beautiful spectacle of Thoroughbred racing than the San Gabriels, live or in living HD?

It can be only one thing that makes me feel this way: It’s West Coast hyperbole and it leads to Santa Anita Fatigue.

Let’s face it: the Great Race Place is and always has been the Great Speed Place. As the only source of major league racing in Southern California, it’s what makes the absence of Hollywood Park so glaring.

Even on Cushion Track, the races there took on an added dimension, a break from the peddle-to-the-mettle speed show across town.

And what about the close-cropped seven-furlong turf course for 14-horse fields?

That layout places too much of a premium on the luck of the post draw, and the luck of the trip. All entrants deserve a relatively level field of play from the moment the latch is sprung.

How ironic was it that the mile and a quarter chute, which provides the fairest way to get to Santa Anita’s main track first turn, was the backdrop for a start that eliminated virtually any chance the Classic favorite had of keeping his undefeated record in tact?

And that’s from one handicapper who picked California Chrome to win the race.

Under the conditions, Shared Belief’s fourth-place finish might have been one of the best the Classic has ever seen. And, in that context, how unsatisfying was the eventual order of finish?

Taking nothing away from Bayern; America’s fastest three-year, it helps when conditions favor your style.

Yes, he used his best weapon to dominate the Woody Stephens and Pennsylvania Derby. But the speedy two-turn confines of Monmouth Park and Santa Anita was a big part of his Grade 1 success this year.

Ironically, it was a season in which Bayern came from behind to win a three year old championship.

Next year there will be some relief from West Coast fatigue when the traveling road show--remember when there really was some semblance of a Breeders’ Cup rotation?--will head to Keeneland, where its appearance is long overdo.

(Please, no talk of logistics on this; it’s irrelevant to the staging of the event itself).

But in 2016 it’s back to Santa Anita before Del Mar gets its first opportunity to host the event? What’s up with that, anyway?

In my view, the best venue to stage the event on a quasi-permanent basis would be Churchill Downs, a neutral court.

(Please, no talk of politics in a racing context; irrelevant to the staging of the event).

When properly maintained, the fast-drying Churchill Downs dirt track gives all horses and all styles a chance, a surface over which most horses will act. It’s not New York; it’s not California; it’s in the middle in virtually every way.

While I’m dreaming out loud, of course; why not two venues concurrently? Why not Churchill’s dirt and Belmont Park’s turf?

We’re purposefully being fanciful here. No place is perfect; no surface completely free of bias: It’s horse racing, where luck always plays a disproportionate role.

But that’s what makes the striving for perfection so important. Either that, or stage it as John Gaines envisioned and give the event to every big market capable of hosting international racing. Spread the luck around.

But enough of the new boss meet the old boss. It’s at once happy and sad that Breeders’ Cup is over until 2015, that the NTRA Horse of the Year voting deadline is Monday and that real life midterm elections is Tuesday.

Isn’t it funny, and not in a ha-ha sort of way, how politics and ratings greed just seems to ruin everything?

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, October 27, 2014

On Breeders’ Cup Eve, Horseplayers Continue Their Advocacy

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 26, 2014---Set against a backdrop of horsemen signing entry cards for a run in Breeders’ Cup XXXI beginning Friday, close to 500 stakeholders have signed a petition asking that security cameras be installed in all barns on the Santa Anita backstretch.

After being unable to get any satisfaction with that state’s alphabet groups, most significantly the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the TOc, grassroots horseplayer activists in California took matters into their own hands.

It may be too late for this year's Breeders’ Cup but not so for the prime winter meet the day after Christmas. If all tracks don’t take reasonable measure to shore up their security, no executive ever should be allowed to use the word transparency again.

Not onsite for the Breeders’ Cup this year, I’m not privy to the current politics of the situation but the issue is simple and universal enough. It’s all about the level playing field, about customer’s betting money, the coin of the realm that gives lifeblood to this thing of ours.

As a rule, it’s difficult to spur horseplayers into action, but since the advent of the Horseplayers Association of North America and activists such as Andy Asaro, who continues to act as Prodder-in-Chief to hundreds of industry stakeholders daily, horseplayers finally are playing a role: See Santa Anita in 2012; see Churchill Downs in 2013.

Thanks to these volunteers, the voice of horseplayers has created within the betting community a spirit of cooperation for the health of the game, one that offers a front that’s more united than the sum of all of industry alphabet groups combined.

Of course, state houses everywhere in which racing is conducted make racing’s uniformity process nearly impossible--only the feds can bring about true uniformity--but states don’t want to lose control of their power bases and lose a place that conveniently serves as a patronage dump for the well connected jobless.

State control is one of the reasons why many horsemen at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania are currently waiting to be paid purse and claim money from July, since requests for funds due from the fruits of their investment and labor first have to be processed and then approved before checks can even be cut.

Why? Aren’t usurious takeout rates mandated by Pennsylvania paid to the state by the tracks almost immediately? The situation there is disgraceful, but I digress.

Among the almost 500 petition signatures, there are precious few from industry types, as if security and transparency were not in the interests of all. However, some horsemen were not afraid to step up and some of the signatories may surprise:

The names of Donna Barton Brothers, Mark Casse, Gary Contessa, Bruce Headley, Mark Hennig, Graham Motion, Todd Pletcher, as well as owners, breeders and members of the mainstream media, appear as signatories, although not all the signatures have been officially verified as of this posting.

[HRI contacted Mr. Pletcher via text message who replied that until I informed him, he was unaware that the following petition existed. Organizers indicated subsequently that “most of the other” horsemen responses have been verified].

Interesting to note that no TOC board member has signed on, nor have we recognized any industry media, electronic or otherwise. [I might have missed a name or two, so please advise so that we can note it for the record].

THE PETITION READS: On Improving Thoroughbred racing through better surveillance and security along with tough penalties for those who violate the rules.

We the Bettors, Fans, Owners, Trainers, and other Industry Stakeholders sign this pledge advocating for better Thoroughbred horse welfare by enacting greater security measures to protect horses and the integrity of the Sport. We also want meaningful strengthening of rules providing appropriate consequences for all those that break the rules governing race day medication.

Here, the undersign, request that state horse racing boards, in the interest of fair and clean racing implement surveillance and security systems throughout the backstretch including stricter security for those entering and exiting such areas. This alone can ensure better horse health and deter improper conduct.

In addition governing bodies like the California Horse Race Board should create and enforce regulations in an equitable fashion based upon higher standards as those found in the Hong Kong Jockey Club, widely considered the worldwide leader in such matters.

On the eve of the Breeders’ Cup, we strongly urge the California Horse Racing Board to take the lead in putting such measures in place following North America's premier two days of racing.

In addition to signing, we're asking petitioners to add to the discussion board below with any suggestions that would benefit Thoroughbred horse racing by providing the safest and fairest conditions for the sport we love.

As noted in the privacy clause of this site, names and emails will only be used to show horse racing governing bodies that each signature is unique and has been provided by an individual interested in joining this most important cause.

Friends and Stakeholders of Thoroughbred Racing

Click the link to sign or look at the latest comments: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/improved-thoroughbred-surveillance-and-safety/?utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=button

BETS ‘N PIECES: Congratulations to the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund for electing Richard Migliore to its Board of Directors as the first jockey so serve in that capacity. Migliore has viable ideas as to how retired racehorses can have successful second careers…

Speaking of jockeys, retired or not, it’s curious why there were no names on the petition since their very lives are dependent on animals that have no business on the racetrack except for the use of certain “therapeutic medications”…

Breeders’ Cup entries will be drawn later today, Friday’s card at 1PM PT and Saturday’s at 4PM which is, of course, 7PM Eastern. Why wasn’t the draw conducted three days ago, one week in advance of Day 1, allowing horsemen, media, and, most importantly, bettors, more time for study?

For most bettors-- Breeders’ Cup is not the Triple Crown, it has a smaller more sophisticated loyal racing audience that will be involved this weekend because they are the game’s most serious fans/bettors and, Eclipse champions notwithstanding, Breeders’ Cup is all about the betting.

In 1984, there were seven Breeders’ Cup events on one day. But Breeders’ Cup Ltd. needs wagering to remain viable and in the forefront as an industry- leading organization; hence it is now two days and 13 races--which is two less than last year.

Suggestion to Breeders’ Cup: All horsemen know if and when they are running and their preferences for particular races. If the weather issue is going to be trotted out, or horsemen want to wait until the last minute to see if a strong favorite is declared, then maintain a short also-eligible list of, say, three horses, determined by the BC Committee, much as they already deal with first and second race preferences.

Here’s how it works for the fans, and because handle are attendance are the only metrics the industry seems to want to consider are handle and attendance figures, consider this:

The recently concluded Keeneland meet was an aesthetic success by any measure, bad weather and all. Yet Sunday’s regurgitated headlines read “Handle and Attendance Down at Keeneland.”

And what makes Keeneland immune to racing’s national down-spiraling handle trends? It’s not all about field size.

Not one headline heralded the remarkable performance of Keeneland’s state-of-the-art dirt surface--the storyline at meet's beginning--under disparate conditions; its drying properties; consistency, minimal bias, even on days when certain styles had an edge. Invariably, the best horses won. Isn’t that all that matters to bettors, breeders, owners and trainers? Again, I digressed:

To do a thorough job—increase personal handle--handicappers require about two hours to research a conventional nine-race card. But that’s without limit fields in virtually every race; without automatic throw-outs; without a record number of pre-entrants, including scores of unfamiliar foreign entrants and without the best trainers and jockeys in the world competing against each other in the same race.

What’s the sense of easily recognizing the best horse in a turf race, e.g.; a worthy, post-time favorite, after it draws post 12? Certainly, post positions significantly affect race dynamics and bet-able odds.

Beating favorites has more to do with Breeders’ Cup than it does for the everyday value seeker: Players don’t get a chance to bet into pools this large in 13 straight races. Fans/bettors need more time.

We know that BC Vice President Peter Rotundo Jr. understands this and we hope he takes this suggestion to his colleagues at his pay grade and above.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (4)


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