Thursday, May 03, 2012

Chance Of A Lifetime

HorseRaceInsider executive editor John Pricci has constructed thumbnail sketches of all 20 Kentucky Derby 138 entrants. Listed in post order with early line odds:

1-DADDY LONG LEGS 30-1: A multiple Group winner on turf and synthetic Tapeta surface but awful in his lone dirt start, beaten 19-1/2 legs in Breeders’ Cup Juvenile against most of his Derby rivals. Looks impossible.

OPTIMIZER 50-1: Caught the last train to Louisville with defection of Mark Valeski. Always showing promise at 2, his only excellent effort this year was a rapid-finish second in the Rebel to streaking Secret Circle. Better than his subsequent Arkansas Derby flop and can finish like a train; for superfecta players only.

3-TAKE CHARGE INDY 15-1: Maligned for winning Florida Derby under ideal circumstances; lack of pressured lead and a speed-kind surface. But where is it written this he is one-dimensional speed? A grand looking individual with classy pedigree, he’s flying under the radar, Calvin Borel notwithstanding. It would be a mistake to dismiss him out of hand. Price play at double-digit odds.

4-UNION RAGS 9-2: Multiple graded stakes winner has had the screws tightened by trainer Matz following his tough trip, too late finish in Florida Derby. Lost photo to juvenile champion here last fall while racing greenly but showed his liking for surface with recent strong five-furlong breeze. Julien Leparoux, riding with great confidence again, unlikely to make the same mistake twice. Most probable winner.

5-DULLAHAN 8-1: Grand looking colt came with a scintillating finish to win the Blue Grass Stakes on Keeneland Polytrack, and therein may lie the problem. Both lifetime victories have come on synthetic surfaces, over which he also has trained better, compared to his dirt trials. Returning in three weeks off enervating effort is a concern.

6-BODEMEISTER 4-1: Freakishly fast and powerful winner of the Arkansas Derby in a must-win-to-get-in situation and has come back to work strongly over wet Churchill surface. The early line favorite must prove he has that same energy level against much tougher rivals on relatively short rest, and enough foundation for 10 furlongs in early May. Post draw did him no favors.

7-ROUSING SERMON 50-1: Like Liaison, his sophomore season has been something of a disaster, his Louisiana Derby third notwithstanding. He lags early, doesn’t own an explosive turn of foot, and has yet to prove fast enough on the Equiform scale. Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer says all the speed that’s signed on will help. Point taken, but it won’t help enough.

8-CREATIVE CAUSE 12-1: The other strong handsome gray contender in Derby 138. Best attributes are his proven ability against the division’s best and highly laudable consistency. Has winning Derby style, especially given the speedy pace dynamic, and a star, Joel Rosario, in the boot. Blinkers stay off appears the proper tack. Very solid; great draw.

9-TRINNIBERG 50-1: One dimensional speed—but of the Twilight Zone variety. He is a bullet away from the barrier, physically much better at 3. Obviously bred for much shorter, he might surprise some people who believe they can blow by this speedster at will. Still, his connections should have skipped this and shipped to Crabtown instead.

10-DADDY NOSE BEST 15-1: All he wants to do is run long and finish, a trait he demonstrated on turf at 2. This year he’s transitioned to synthetics and dirt, handling each graded stakes assignment successfully. Has vast experience in big fields, training strongly, and picks up strong finishing Garrett Gomez, a perfect match for his come-from-behind style. Very live price play; great draw.

11-ALPHA 15-1: A Grade 3 winner and twice Grade 1 placed, has had his Derby preparation interrupted after developing an infection from cuts suffered in Wood Memorial. Back on track with a sharp workout. Had tougher trip when second to Gemologist but failed the “eyeball test.” Has all the pedigree needed to win given a personal best effort.

12-PROSPECTIVE 30-1: improved sharply after adding blinkers to win Tampa Bay Derby, showing true determination when faced with serious stretch challenge. Very wide behind Dullahan in the Blue Grass, has been one of the training stars since shipping to Churchill. Barn excels with synthetic-to-dirt maneuver and figures to run well. Whether he belongs here is the big question.

13-WENT THE DAY WELL 20-1: Might have more talent than last year’s Derby-winning mate Animal Kingdom but is somewhat quirky. Won G3 Spiral following his maiden score and has trained well since, showing more focus since adding blinkers in recent morning trials. Performance figures are marching forward, albeit slowly. Superfecta finish possible.

14-HANSEN 10-1: Won juvenile championship with Breeders’ Cup victory on this track before coming back too fresh in season’s debut when second to the gifted Algorithms. After rebounding strongly with a rated victory in the Gotham, he can be forgiven his Blue Grass defeat owing to fast pace and stressful pre-race handling. Doubtlessly has the talent but 10 furlongs might prove a bridge too far.

15-GEMOLOGIST 6-1: Not especially fast on the Equiform performance figure scale but continues to march forward, remaining undefeated while truly snatching victory from defeat’s jaws when he appeared beaten in the Wood. Taking the same tack for connections that won the Derby with Super Saver. Trainer Pletcher excels with third-off-layup runners; wide draw gives Castellano options.

16-EL PADRINO 20-1: Impressed winning season’s debut over eventual Florida Derby hero and showed true grit winning the Risen Star subsequently before things began heading south. He raced one-paced in Gulfstream’s signature event and worked poorly since. A wet track should be a big plus, but then one of those disappointing works came in the mud.

17-DONE TALKING 50-1: Has taken heat for winning an extremely slow Illinois Derby, an observation with merit. But he’s a natural router, is peaking at the right time and hails from a barn, Hamilton Smith’s, that’s been profitable in graded stakes and in third-off-layoff scenarios. Might complete superfecta at better than 50-1, needing a complete pace meltdown.

18-SABERCAT 30-1: Like stablemate Daddy Knows Best, is coming to hand at the right time. Owing to big juvenile graded earnings, was slated for a two-prep campaign and after his Rebel debacle returned with a flying-too-late third in Bodemeister’s Arkansas Derby, a huge improvement. Has trained purposefully since and can snag a piece of this at extremely long odds.

19-I’LL HAVE ANOTHER 12-1: A revelation this season with a surprising yet comprehensive victory in the Robert B. Lewis Memorial off a five-month absence, then showed grit and class winning the Santa Anita Derby. Everything about him; from his scheduling, to heretofore unknown rider, to his unorthodox training regimen, has been unusual. Wide draw figures to seriously compromise his trip.

20-LIAISON 50-1: Showed lots of promise as a juvenile winner of G1 Cash Call Futurity but has had an extremely disappointing sophomore season. Local workout was very ordinary and doubtful he would be in here if stablemate Bodemeister didn’t help punch his ticket. Even with Bob Baffert’s Hall of Fame talent, this would represent an upset of major proportions.

21-MY ADONIS (NL) Also Eligible: Overmatched colt would have very little chance to hit the board from post 20--should he draw in. In the event of a scratch prior to 9 a.m. Friday, all horses move one position closer to the inside rail.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Fastest Two Distractions in Sports

SARATOGA SPRINGS, MAY 1, 2012—It has taken a very long time for racing’s problems to reach this stage and one thing is certain: It will take a whole lot longer than two minutes to figure the whole thing out.

Sometime late Wednesday afternoon, post positions for Kentucky Derby 138, one of the deepest and most contentious fields assembled in the modern era will be drawn and one can look at this event in one of two ways:

The timing could not have been better; the timing could not have been worse.

Two days before the post draw, and after the last four Derby horses had had their last meaningful workout for the big day, the New York Times published another installment in their series on horse racing’s use of medication, legal and otherwise.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, some of Thoroughbred racing’s most recognized names, including the owners of Kentucky Derby-winning Barbaro, a prominent veterinarian, and a retired Hall of Fame jockey, said in a Congressional hearing that the use of medication, legal and otherwise, was widespread and crippling the sport.

The installment “Big Purses, Sore Horses and Death” published Monday of Derby week was one of two articles that devastated the industry. The other, entitled “State Report Says Racing Association Knowingly Withheld Millions,” informed that a new state report, having e-mail documentation, contradicted a prior statement made by New York Racing Association President and CEO Charles Hayward that withholding of $8.6 million due winning bettors in several exotic pools for a period of 15 months was not an “unintentional oversight.”

Shortly thereafter, NYRA Board Chairman C. Steven Duncker announced that the NYRA Executive Committee had placed Hayward and Patrick Kehoe, NYRA Senior VP and General Counsel, on administrative leave without pay pending further investigation.

The Congressional hearing in Kennett Square, Pa. included the testimony of leading industry figures who support the ban of the race-day use of furosemide, a.k.a. Lasix.

Earlier this year, HRI railed against the coverage the Times gave the issue in its first installment of the investigative series. Lumping together fatality statistics that crossed all jurisdictions, breeds, and used disparate qualifying parameters was not only salacious but patently unfair in our view but not to the extent it lacked credibility.

As Hall of Famer Gary Stevens courageously stated even before giving his testimony, federal intervention is needed to save racing from itself. That is the position we took when the first Congressional hearings were held in the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

“If there is no race-day medication,” Stevens said Monday, “it would solve a lot of problems in racing.”

Racing promised substantive changes after that hearing and some meaningful measures were taken including the ban on steroids. But given big picture realities, the measures weren’t enough and didn’t get to the heart of the issue; the abuse of legal therapeutic medication.

Of course, there’s the insidious issue of illegal substances to consider, the age-old problem of under-funded laboratories trying to play catch-up with the pharmaceutical companies.

Indeed, some testers are well aware of what the illegal substances are but their labs lack the funding (resolve?) to conduct thorough tests to prove that these man-made properties tilt the playing field and to stop its use.

Such a substance is Eprex. A synthetic preparation of human erythropoietin, or EPO, Eprex uses recent DNA technology. EPO is commonly used to treat certain forms of anemia by regulating the formation of red blood cells. Eprex is a purified glycoprotein which stimulates the process known as erythropoiesis and thus is performance enhancing.

The fact that no delineation has been made between permissive and illegal medications essentially has prevented Congress from adopting a bipartisan bill penned by Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act, which would lend new definition and process to the 1978 Interstate Horseracing Act.

According to published reports, all Congressional legislators knew about the issue before them is what they read in the two Times stories, and even those lawmakers considered friendly to racing are reticent to get involved in the sport’s problems.

The industry knows this yet it continues to dance around the issue. By maintaining the status quo, the improvements that have been made are treating the symptoms and not the root cause; abuse.

Dr. Greg Ferraro, DVM, a former Lasix use proponent who now believes he was mistaken, is calling for federal intervention: “There virtually is no way in which you are going to get any kind of consistent rules to control these drugs without it,” Ferraro said Monday.

In New York, meanwhile, the bottom has fallen out of the NYRA. The CEO and legal counsel were put on administrative leave without pay which moved them a step closer to the door, especially if the association expects to retain its franchise.

Dominos will continue to fall if Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who since his State of the State address, has said he wants to take a closer look at whether Thoroughbred racing in New York continues to make sense for the state in the long term.

Any change in direction might include the closure of Aqueduct Race Track and converting it into a multipurpose facility and the possible sale of Belmont Park and Saratoga, two extremely valuable and attractive properties, to the highest independent bidder.

The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association has scheduled a meeting at Belmont Park for Wednesday at 11 a.m. to discuss the entire matter.

If the feds intervene because racing fiefdoms in 38 states could not come together in their own best interests with a solution insuring the sport’s viability well into the Millennium, does it really matter who’s at fault?

If the NYRA loses its franchise because its officers acted as if they were above the law, will the ripple effect of those actions bring down an entire industry?

Sadly, for many people in this game, Wednesday’s Derby post draw will serve only as little more than a distraction, and a temporary one at that.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

“No Comment”

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 22, 2012—I’ve been putting this off because I’m in denial—the anger stage, I think--but mostly sad; a time when that knot in your stomach just won't go away.

At this juncture, I’m starting to get used to losing family and friends. Check that: You never get used to it; only concede that loss is inevitable and more a part of life than it used to be, way back before you lost no one and knew everything.

Richard (Dick) Hamilton was so many things to me: a one-time colleague; a one-time adversary--the way a New York Racing Association steward and newspaper columnist working-different-sides-of-the-same-street are natural competitors.

I didn’t mention friend because he was a friend to everyone he ever met and spent quality time with. Maybe it’s because I’m green-eyed about it; he had so many friends but you wanted to be his best friend because that’s the way he made you feel.

Special people make other people feel special.

Dick Hamilton was a very bright man but never hit you over the head with that. He’d use playful humor to put your idea down or point out the kind of prejudice that comes natural to anyone who’s plenty longer than 15 minutes on the planet.

He could always disagree because he loved to spar on various subjects; the game, people, politics, sports in general, especially, hailing from Lowell, Mass., his beloved Red Sox. In fact, he was one Red Sox fan this Yankee fan suffered gladly.

Indeed, Hamilton could disagree but never was disagreeable. We had many philosophical differences and with age I admit that I came around to his line of thinking after shunting my ideas aside, for whatever reason.

There was an incident one day involving a jockey that I didn’t think put forth his best effort. In fact, I sought out Hamilton to express my displeasure. He said he hadn’t thought about it in that context but would check it out.

The next day, he sought me out, said that my observations might have been on the mark, that all three stewards watch the video patrol with the rider to the effect that he would receive a warning, and to consider it the only warning he get.

I wanted to report that meeting in Newsday and Hamilton said he would have no official comment on the stewards’ actions. That might have been the only time we disagreed so that other people might notice but I respected his wishes for several reasons:

First, it would be betraying a confidence. Second, Hamilton was under no obligation to tell me about the meeting since it was an “internal matter” between the rider and the stewards but thanked me for bringing the situation to their attention.

Finally, there are times a reporter must go off the record. If he doesn’t--especially in this business--he will be frozen out of information needed to do his job which would also put his newspaper at a competitive disadvantage. It’s a fine line.

The next morning I was getting some coffee in the press box lounge when Hamilton entered the room. I turned around and said “good morning, judge.” Hamilton said: “I have ‘no comment’ on that.

From that moment, "no comment" became our personal greeting whenever we saw each other.

After accepting early retirement from the NYRA, Hamilton became the communications officer for the National Museum and Racing Hall of Fame. Politics notwithstanding, no one ever loved his job more than Hamilton loved his time at the Hall of Fame.

He helped conceptualize and author the Hall of Fame induction ceremony each August, a tradition that has become an SRO event open to the racing public.

Hamilton also created free handicapping seminars for the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup events at the Museum, organized bus trips to the Belmont Stakes, and personally conducted backstretch tours at Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track.

“Dick Hamilton was an invaluable contributor to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame both during his years here as our communications officer and also in recent years as a volunteer,” said current museum director Christopher Dragone earlier this week.

“His knowledge of thoroughbred racing and his passion for the sport and the Museum were evident to all who knew him. He was one of the true gentlemen in racing and was beloved in the Saratoga community. Dick was a wonderful ambassador for the Museum and the sport in general.”

Through the years, Hamilton was careful never to inject his opinion into the controversial aspects of the game but made one exception: “There is just no excuse for not protecting the public,” Hamilton told HRI at the time of the Life At Ten investigation.

“All the chief steward hadd to do was pick up the phone and ask the state vet at the gate to take a close look at the filly. [The stewards] should be fined the amount of money the public lost.” It was the only time I ever saw him angry.

I would see him every month I went for blood tests at Saratoga Hospital, where Hamilton volunteered. But I won’t anymore because, at 76, he’s gone.

He might shake his head in disgust but Dick Hamilton never uttered a disparaging word except that one time. Equally, we strenuously try to avoid the use of clichés, except this one time: They broke the mold when they made Dick Hamilton.

Written by John Pricci

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