Sunday, May 14, 2017

Future Derby Safety and Form: Churchill’s Move Now

On Thursday’s NTRA conference call, jockey Gary Stevens, who has the ride on Royal Mo in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, recalled a conversation he had with Mike Smith following last week’s rough and tough rumble in Louisville.

Smith, who had the Kentucky Derby mount on Girvin, said post-race: “He was getting knocked around so many times and the poor guy just never had a shot…

“I felt like I was in the one-hole. I finally get him running at the three-eighths pole and someone wiped out four of us again.”

This of course is routine and not an exception in the 20-horse race on an American dirt track that’s one-mile in circumference.

In a macabre sense, this unknowable unknown, controlled by racing’s fickle gods of fate, bring added excitement to the Derby’s mystique but also raises the danger quotient in what already is a perilous exercise for both humans and equines.

“Classic Empire’s fourth was spectacular,” began Stevens. “What do they say, it is what it is? That means if you don’t get way good you just got screwed. There were several incidents this year, very heavy contact going on at the three-eighths.

“It’s up there with the roughest I’ve ever seen,” said the ageless Hall of Famer from the sidelines, whose Preakness ride didn’t make the Derby cut.

If it were at all possible, I asked Stevens if a 20-horse starting gate would reduce the chances of potentially hazardous race dynamics and would also ensure the possibility of more cleanly event.

Speaking from the heart, a reconstructed knee and a rebuilt hip Stevens thought “it would be a great idea. We’re never going back to 14-horse fields.

“There’s a pretty good gap [between the main and auxiliary gates] going from outside to inside and looks like the outside gate is pointing in.”

From the Classic Empire camp, Mark Casse had another perspective: “So many things can go wrong. Our horse traveled 75 feet winner farther than the winner and 90 feet farther than the second horse. At 8-1/2 feet per length, we could have finished closer, gotten a better placing.

“He couldn’t even open his right eye until the next day, which also might have been a factor [from the incident soon after the start]. The auxiliary gate is tilted inside and is 13-½ feet from them main gate. When those horses come inside they’re at a full head of steam.

“Everybody came from outside and killed us,” said Luis Saez, who rode J Boys Echo. “I tried to rush and see what we got but by the half-mile everyone was gone.”

“I’m not sure a 20-horse gate is possible due to maneuverability,” offered Casse, “but getting the auxiliary gate closer to the main gate [could help].

“I noticed the outside gate was slanted inward at the start. If that gap were narrowed there would be less room to fall. They should look into something.”

I know little about gate construction and less about aero-dynamics, but a 20-stall gate would allow the #1 horse to move closer to a safer part of the chute and the outside horses wouldn’t enjoy a momentum advantage breaking inside down toward the rail.

Parenthetically, I needed to watch the start of the 2016 Derby as the overhead view from this year’s Derby on NBC Sports’ overhead shot were not available Sunday morning. (If anyone can find access, please share them here).

The Derby gate could live against that back fence permanently, eliminating the maneuverability issue. Many tracks use more than one gate now.

We hope that CDI look seriously into the possibility of one 20-horse gate for safety and form’s sake. Given the Derby’s profitability, it’s not too much to ask ad would be good PR for the sport.

BETS ‘N PIECES: The Peter Pan Stakes often has a profound effect on Belmont Stakes form. But that unlikely will be the case this year given yesterday’s sloppy conditions in New York and the possibility that undefeated Timeline is more suited to the Haskell than Belmont.

“We had spoken [with owner Bill Farish] earlier in the day that if we had some success here, the Haskell is a race that we have a lot of interest in,” said Chad Brown. “[Timeline] doesn't strike me as a mile-and-a-half horse…and we're still in the developmental stage..."

Dermot Weld Keeps Go[ing] and Go[ing], using Belmont Park as his personal American playground. The filly Zhukova defeated males again, taking yesterday’s boggy Grade I Man o’ War. “It was a major target,” explained Weld’s son, Mark. “The rains came and it was a huge help.”

The turn of foot displayed by that type of ground was eye-catchingly unusual. “She’s a true European Grade 1 mare,” added Weld. “You don’t beat the Breeders’ Cup winner Found very easily, he said of his world class filly…”

Trainer Rodrigo Ubilio deserves props for his expert management with Highway Star, the New York-bred who beat stablemate Bar of Gold to take the G3 Beaugay, keeping the filly undefeated in four starts at Belmont Park and at the mile distance. Top NY breeders Chester and Mary Broman, often cited here, bred both fillies…

A useful reminder of some great turf writing in a NY Times piece Friday on five top Horse Racing Books, including Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, C. E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, Bill Nack’s Secretariat, the Making of a Champion, Joe Palmer’s This Was Racing and Steve Davidowitz’s comprehensive handicapping tome, Betting Thoroughbreds in the 21st Century.

During Derby Week, my friend and former colleague John Piesen passed away in a New Jersey hospice following a lengthy illness. A friendly ‘competitor’ at the New York Post while I was at Newsday, we shared good times on the road at Triple Crown events, Penn National’s “World Series of Handicapping” and enjoyed more than a few memorable Whitney eve’s in Saratoga, where Vegas “happens there-stays there” rules apply.

Suffice it to say we were younger and a lot less wise. RIP, my friend.


Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Derby Dreams Do Come True

Twenty--that’s the number of times you should view the Kentucky Derby replay if you want to know everything that happened in last Saturday’s feature race at Churchill Downs.

Or you could take our word for it: The best horse won and reversible bad-luck trips by others were not going to change Saturday’s outcome. It only would have made things a little more interesting. Here are some cliff notes:

is a very good horse and if he keeps this up he could become a great one; no hyperbole intended. Did he have a perfect trip? Of course, but it was one of his own making.

No need to watch him in replay. If you remember his Florida Derby, then you’ve seen his Kentucky Derby: Speed from the start, establishing position, then moving to a stalking position in mid-backstretch.

He took the lead when his rider pushed the button, was set down at headstretch and drew off, under pressure until the conclusion was foregone, winning with something left.

The only thing you possibly should review is the gallop-out. As Vic Stauffer might intone, he was straight and strong, very strong.

LOOKIN AT LEE was given a perfect trip by Corey Borel, err, Lanerie. He hugged the fence, went around one tiring rival at mid-far-turn, accelerating while he cut the corner into the lane.

That is highly unusual for a supposed one-run deep closer, and he continued his strong rally to the wire. This should have surprised no one. He’s made up ground in the stretch in top company all his two-turn life: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

IRISH WAR CRY: I think Graham Motion probably has it figured out but doesn’t want to say, at least not yet but for the second time this year his horse bounced off big efforts. First in the Fountain of Youth, now the Derby.

Still can’t get over how Irish War Cry, with Rajiv Maragh sneaking a peak backward curling into the far turn, went from loaded to empty in a matter of three jumps: Never saw anything quite like it, missteps notwithstanding.

The reason we think Motion has it figured out is because in the immediate aftermath of the heated battle, he mentioned a next possible target: The Haskell, which makes perfect sense.

This gives Irish War Cry recovery time and would be the shortest van ride for a million-dollar Grade 1 he will ever take from his Fair Hill base, the Pennsylvania Derby of fall notwithstanding. The colt was not a happy pre-Derby camper.

The distance, surface and natural bias favoring speed at Monmouth Park makes perfect sense, especially considering that, assuming good health, the Brooklyn Boys et al are likely to take the Jim Dandy route to the Travers.

Saratoga would be a great spot for a possible rematch between these Derby favorites unless, of course, Motion decides he will await the Pennsylvania Derby in the fall before a presumed challenge of his elders where the surf meets the turf in November.

Well, it wasn’t quite Seattle Slew’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, but after the gate wipeout, to recover, re-rally while losing ground, getting bumped again by inside rivals coming out for the midstretch drive, to keep coming was an amazing effort.

Clearly, the 2016 juvenile champion is one classy and tough sonuvabitch.

With a clean trip we don’t believe any horse was capable of handling Always Dreaming on Saturday, although the stretch run would have been a lot more exciting.

Let’s hope that the colt recovers from an eye injury sustained during the race—it improved markedly on Monday--sufficiently to make a trip to Baltimore.

BATTLE OF MIDWAY deserves some love. On the engine and stalking three wide throughout, he put pressure on the winner bending into the far turn while Irish War Cry put pressure on him, and he stayed well for show.

Yes, the wet track kept the speed alive throughout the day and that the slow last half-mile is the result of a fast first half-mile.

The following horses had their chances compromised by circumstances during the running. So draw a line through your troubled horse of choice and is deserving a chance to win next out given proper spotting:

Girvin (clobbered and eliminated), J Boys Echo (clobbered and eliminated), Thunder Snow (propped, buck-jumped, or as rider Christophe Semillon put it post-race: “I don’t know what happened after the start”).

To a lesser degree, Untrapped, Tapwrit, McCraken, Patch and State of Honor’s disappointing runs were mitigated by circumstances.

As a fan, I’m hyper-sensitive to the recognition that horse racing gets from the public and media. This is written in Vegas. Here, in New York, and back in SoFla, it was as if May was missing its first Saturday. There was an astonishing lack of buzz surrounding this year’s Derby in mainstream-sports America.

So it’s nothing short of amazing the numbers this event generated on a number of metric scales. Handle, despite rainy-dark-day sloppy conditions was through the roof—all-sources wagering at record levels of $209.2 million for the day, up 9% year over year, $139.2 million of it on the Derby, an 8% increase over the previous record.

All-sources handle for Derby Week also set a record of $284.1 million, a yearly increase of 7%.

On-track handle figures were not made available. Attendance for the week of 349,455 was down 7% from last year’s record total, spearheaded by rainy Oaks Day’s 15.6% decrease with temperatures the lowest since 1940.

Derby Day attendance of 158,070, the seventh highest figure in track history, was also eye-opening. Having covered 18 Kentucky Derbies and all but one Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, I was happy to be comfortably ensconced inside the Orleans Race Book.

Overnight ratings also were quite surprising given the lack of advance equine star power. The overnights were strong and much improved at 10.5, a 9% gain over 2016. It was the second-highest rating in the last quarter-century.

Additionally, reported record pageviews of 3.8 million according to Google Analytics, an 18 percent increase over 2016. Traffic on the Today’s Racing app had 5 million screen views, a 6 percent increase.

On a personal note, I did not meet a single staff member of the Orleans staff who did not make us feel like valued guests, from the registration desk to race book staffers. The registration desk quickly resolved issues and provided professional top grade service.

If there is anything lamentable, it’s that the Orleans--horse racing’s first best friend in Vegas and still home to the Handicapping World Series Tournament each March--has de-emphasized horse racing in their product offerings.

Given that sports betting has trended higher in recent years and, in light of the numbers generated by classics like the Derby, other major event days and prestige race meets meets such as Saratoga and Del Mar, the Orleans should make a concerted effort to recapture a brand identity horseplayers have long related to.

Since my last visit in 2016, Boyd Gaming has invested heavily in the property and has given the Orleans a tasteful and much appreciated facelift. We understand they intend to continue making upgrades.

Should further improvements happen, we hope and recommend that the Race Book and the services provided therein are included. Horseplayers are loyal gamblers that show their appreciation for amenities with faithful economic support.

May 8, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 07, 2017

Todd Pletcher by any other name: “Carnac the Magnificent”

LAS VEGAS--After all the calculations, the special training techniques, the gooey going--all of it--in the final analysis the best horse won. The notion that Always Dreaming is the best of his generation no longer is up for debate.

Just as he had in Tampa, and twice in Hallandale, Always Dreaming reaffirmed his ability to go a distance and win with authority. He took his talents to Louisville and did it again in front of the whole world.

As much as it was validation for the scary good colt and his band of believers, the cheering led by a couple of boys from Brooklyn, it was confirmation that his trainer is a certain future first-ballot Hall of Famer.

#oneforfortyfive #not

In fact, let’s call it one-for-one--as in the only time the public thought Todd Pletcher should win the Kentucky Derby.

Appropriately, his second Derby victory came with long-time collaborator Johnny Velazquez, A Hall of Famer who still finds the sweet spot anytime he’s in the tack.

And so their colt went from rank and tough to control one weekend to Kentucky Derby champion the next. Being obstreperous is a big issue.

Just ask Graham Motion about the headstrong Irish War Cry before yesterday’s race. Ask Mark Casse about the history of Classic Empire. A horse’s mind is a terrible thing to waste. Sometimes it needs reining in.

Too tough to control? No problem, get exercise rider Nick Bush on the phone--and get me a set of draw reins.

In less than a week, Always Dreaming was still his good-feeling self but was much more comported in the parade postward, his energy evident but controlled.

Just as the 49-year-old showed a master’s hand four years ago with Palace Malice, he did so again with Always Dreaming.

Recall that the 2013 Belmont Stakes winner, a virtual runoff in Derby 139, Pletcher used the five weeks between classics to manage his colt’s speed by removing blinkers. Similarly, his latest project literally needed handling.

Last Monday, Bush and the new reins were in place and by Saturday the colt was in Churchill’s winners’ circle, surrounded by all the connections and his emotional trainer, overwhelmed by the moment.

Tears of joy could not be hidden behind rainy-day sunglasses, as if the normally measured Pletcher did not want to allow visitors a peak into his soul.

“These were not crocodile tears,” NBC’s Kenny Rice later confirmed. “He was flat out, seriously, big-time crying.”

Pletcher’s unflappability is legendary. There is the all-too familiar trainer- speak that’s employed on the racetrack every day, then there’s Pletcher-speak which deals much more in specifics.

Always thoughtful, most often illuminating, he turns pre- and post-race interviews into teachable moments for fans, horseplayers and media alike.

Yes, Pletcher’s equivocating is sometimes maddening, “sort of.” But it’s as if everything in his equine world is just fine and he doesn’t want to run the risk of inviting bad karma by tempting racing’s fickle gods of fate.

We have stated this before, as have many others. If he were not a horseman, Todd Pletcher would be the CEO of a company in any field of his choosing.

He has taken the lessons earned from his stewardship as a Wayne Lukas assistant and raised that art form to another level, becoming the most emulated horseman in the game.

We don’t remember exactly how many years ago it was when we noticed that he worked his willing and able horses precisely every seven days.

A lot like NFL coaches, owners with other trainers must have noticed the same thing and now seemingly all trainers have established regular training schedules, many of them at the highest levels of the sport.

Without good and sound horses this would not be possible, of course. But now all successful trainers employ routine workout patterns that work best for them; every six days, or every eight days, or a combination of the two.

Pletcher’s attention to detail is obvious; any observable moment in the walking ring is proof of that.

Make no mistake: He is as guilty as any horseman when it comes to adhering to racing’s prime directive: Establish share-holder value by winning the proscribed events then say all the right things to protect that reputation.

His young pupils are almost cookie-cutter types, as almost each one is a fine, athletic-looking individual. In the main, there never seems to be a hair out of place. But it’s more than just that, too; it’s job performance.

In Uncle Mo’s three-year-old season, as the 2010 juvenile champion was being prepared for his assault on the Kentucky Derby, we drove north to Palm Meadows one Sunday morning to watch him work.

Back then, Pletcher’s horses were stabled in Boynton Beach, a very long stone’s throw from his current winter stabling address, the more bucolic and much quieter Palm Beach Downs.

It was a beautiful morning and we were on the clocker’s stand awaiting his arrival when all those teams of workers bearing the initials T A P on the saddlecloth entered the backside of the hectic PMM training track.

Team after team breezed by. Pletcher would follow them on the gallop-out before finally removing the binoculars from his eyes to peer down at his watch, conferring and verifying the time with assistant trainer Tristan Barry.

Virtually a minute or two later, the next team would begin their trials and that’s how his morning went, just like clockwork.

Meanwhile, I was around Uncle Mo only once in 2010 and then from a distance, the press box at Churchill Downs for the 2010 Breeders’ Cup. I confess that I would never be able to pick him out of a lineup.

In a break between sets, I leaned over and, in practically a whisper, I asked the trainer to tell me when his star pupil was on the racetrack.

Without averting his gaze through the binoculars and without hesitation, he said “he’s in the third set coming out now, he’s the one on the outside.”

Having had barely enough time to notice, I said “whoa, how’d you know that?” He put the glasses down, turned around, looked me in the eye and said: “I know everything,” before turning trackside and raising his binoculars again.

You’ll just have to take my word on this: There wasn’t a hint of braggadocio in his words, only reassurance, confident that he’s in control. Ask his owners and they probably will tell you the same thing.

I’ve known Pletcher since he was Darrell Wayne’s assistant and was at Gulfstream Park in February of 1996 when he saddled his first career winner, Majestic Number.

There have been well over 4,000 more since, including seven Eclipse Awards as America’s leading trainer. Clearly, he must know something.

As Paul Cornman and I passed away the time awaiting the Derby 143 horses to step onto the track to the strains of “that song,” as the jockeys call it, Paul told me a story.

“You remember the late clocker, Cole Rosen? Well, it was toward the end of his life. He no longer was working and was having a tough time of it.

“I have a friend who knows them both, and he’s very close with Todd. He told me that Todd called Cole, asked him what he needed, anything at all, and that he would be highly insulted to learn that Cole had reached out to someone else first.”

Just know that if Rosen had, Pletcher, the man who sees everything, would have known that, too. That’s the part no one sees behind the imperturbable exterior.

May 7, 2017

Coming Tuesday: Our take on Derby 143 itself and other thoughts from the desert

Written by John Pricci

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