Wednesday, October 03, 2012

In And You Win

ELMONT, NY, October 3, 2012—So you thought last Saturday was super? Think again. Enter Keeneland, making the racing Friday through Sunday in Lexington, Elmont and Arcadia the Mother of All Breeders’ Cup prep weekends.

According to information provided by Breeders’ Cup Ltd., there will be no fewer than 15 “Win and You’re In” events. And that’s significant, too.

The economy still is what it is what maybe it’s due to some feeling of acrimony between horsemen and Breeders’ Cup, precipitated by the “No Lasix” mandate in all events for juveniles.

Most horsemen are resentful, make no mistake, but this game never, ever has been happy with anything other than the status quo. There have been a number of juvenile defections already, reasons which are any other than the real issue.

Yes, I know, they believe it’s unfair to the division as a whole that championship events will be held without the performance-enhancing diuretic:

Horses on Lasix run faster than horses racing without it. What would you call it other than performance enhancing. And, parenthetically, Lasix does not “prevent” bleeding, it retards it. Ever hear of a horse “bleeding through Lasix?”

There is one point made by horsemen does ring true. It does throw a huge monkey wrench into betting on any of the juvenile events. How horses--even young ones who don’t “need” the medication per se—will react when it is withdrawn is unknowable.

Of course, owners and trainers did have the option of running without it all season, but that doesn’t fit neatly into various training “programs.” But, I digress.

This year, then, the “Win and You’re In” economic incentive is more important than ever.

On Tuesday’s NTRA tele-conference, Dale Romans, spoke of Breeders’ Cup participation for his 3-year-old turf star, Silver Max, the acknowledged leader of that class most of the season:

Said Romans: “We don’t know what his peak is or could be. We have to run in the Shadwell, evaluate his race and see what we want to do.

“It’s expensive [to run in the Breeders’ Cup]. He may not run at all. Even without [heavy favorite] Wise Dan, we’ll see what [Silver Max] is made of.”

Romans is not the only one looking for answers or, at least, seeking confirmation of where he’s at and where he’s going next. So is Charlie Lopresti, trainer of Wise Dan, ranked third in this week’s NTRA poll.

“He worked [great] other day, just like in Saratoga after the Fourstardave. He came out of the [Woodbine Mile] very, very well, so we decided that we might as well run him.

“Otherwise, I would have to work him Saturday and maybe two or three times after that. But if he shows any indication he’s not ready to run, then he won’t.”

‘Now if Wise Dan runs well and comes out of the [Shadwell Turf Mile] well, we’ll go on to the Breeders’ Cup. This race could knock him out. If we don’t go [to Breeders’ Cup], we can look at the [Churchill’s Grade 1] Clark on dirt.

The remarkable 5-year-old Wise Dan has won graded stakes on three surfaces; dirt, turf and synthetics.

The most disappointing aspect with regard to Breeders’ Cup is that Lopresti and owner Morton Fink do not plan to keep their options open by cross-entering in the Mile and Classic, even with a strong possibility of becoming Horse of the Year.

“If we go to California we know where we’ll run,” Lopresti said, giving every indication that it would be in The Mile on the turf.

“We’re not too overly concerned with [becoming Horse of the Year]. “He’s a gelding so it wouldn’t enhance his stud value.”

It’s refreshing when horsemen are completely forthcoming and guileless. But the admission that Wise Dan’s connections are “not too overly concerned” with a very winnable Horse of the Year title is not only unwelcome news for Breeders’ Cup but for the sport as well.

Many observers believe that he is, on balance, the most talented horse in America. But perhaps Wise Dan’s people are a little intimidated about meeting Game On Dude at 1-1/4 miles on his home track where he is undefeated in five lifetime starts.

But even European journalists are interested in seeing Wise Dan run in the Classic. Sam Walker of the Racing Post wrote this week that it would be “wise for Dan” to run in the Classic, using Racing Post ratings to make his case.

The top ranked horse in the world combining all surfaces is the amazing undefeated Frankel, ranked at 142 pounds on turf, 12 pounds higher than co-runners-up Black Caviar and Cirrus Des Aigles at 130.

In this category, Wise Dan is tied for sixth at 128 pounds, earned for his efforts on All-Weather and dirt surfaces. All other horses ranked above him are European turf specialists.

On turf, Wise Dan is rated at 127 pounds, the leading American turf horse but which places him in a five-horse dead-heat for seventh with five European runners.

On dirt, however, Wise Dan is rated at 128, one more pound than retired dual Classic winner I’ll Have Another and three pounds higher than Game On Dude.

Additionally, Wise Dan is the top rated All-Weather horse in the world at 128, one pound more than Pacific Classic-winning 3-year-old Dullahan and again three pounds higher than Game On Dude at 125, based on his Hollywood Gold Cup score.

As the lottery people say and keeping with this weekend’s theme, only in reverse, you’ve got to be in it to win it. Unless, of course, your horse is a gelding, and purse money is the prime motivator.

Imagine what American racing history would look like if the connections of Kelso, Forego and John Henry felt the same way. I wonder what Sam Rubin, owner of the legendary John Henry, would do?

Twice Horse of the Year and a four-time turf champion, John Henry, in addition to winning the 1981 Jockey Club Gold Cup, remains only one of three horses to win the Santa Anita Handicap back-to-back in ‘81 and ’82.

In 1984, at age 9, he became the oldest horse to win Horse of the Year even without a victory in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic. But not for lack of trying.

Because his sire, Ole Bob Bowers, wasn’t nominated, Rubin would need to pony up a 20% supplemental few of $400,000 to enter the $2 million Turf. Said Rubin at the time:

''It's a stupid thing to do. I'm doing it for the horse, for the jockey, for the trainer. I could have done without it. I hope he comes out of the race healthy; that's what I hope.”

A crushing blow at the time, John Henry strained a ligament in his left foreleg, he was withdrawn from consideration, and never raced again.

Hopefully, Wise Dan does well enough, and comes out of the Shadwell well enough, to proceed to SoCal on the first Saturday in November. Lopresti said if we go to California, we know where we’ll run. Hopefully there’s still time to reorder priorities.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

On Restoring Sanity to Saratoga’s Racing Schedule

Saratoga Springs, NY, September 12, 2012—Now that Saratoga 144 is in the rear view, there has been, courtesy of colleague Bob Ehalt, Internet chatter about extending the Saratoga race meet.

Ehalt argues that between Saratoga’s popularity--showing no signs of waning--and the struggles of tracks downstate to coax live bodies into its buildings, that Saratoga should host a summer meet from the 4th of July through Labor Day.

It probably was more than a dozen years ago, just after our Saratoga Diary came of age at 21 years, when we made the same suggestion. It wasn’t so much that it was a great idea, or even a desirable one, but the notion seemed inevitable.

Forget that a bad day at Saratoga--roughly 10,000 fans--is 250% greater than an average day at Belmont Park. And never mind that Saratoga is the word you hear most often about one hour after the Belmont Stakes horses reach the finish line.

Forget, too, that racing on a mile and an eighth track is more aggressively exciting and, on balance, more predictable than those at big Big Sandy, everything else being equal. (Talking main track, not turf courses here).

Above all, finally, how many of America’s best race horses wind up here at one point or another, making Saratoga still the classiest, most competitive race meet attracting pool liquidity like no other and the best place to make a score on one event.

Frankly, I would like to see a Saratoga summer meet, but only with certain criteria. If it doesn’t work, scrap it the next year.

First, a Saratoga summer meet must be a five-day race week. If it is expected that people relocate for two months, they must continue to have a) a life, and, b) an opportunity to freshen up the day after all life’s errands are run.

If you want to keep your workforce happy, they must be provided a little “me time.” Should visitors be the only ones allowed to have some fun? A race day is pressure packed. Having time to unwind is important.

A happy worker provides better customer service. And if you’re a bettor, it’s impossible to remain focused when you’re mentally and physically exhausted. Then legislators and suits would need to know a little something about gambling to appreciate that.

Want to keep those fields full with quality horses for eight weeks instead of six and a half? That’s very simple. Conduct nine-race cards every day except Thursdays (steeplechasing) and weekends.

No one will have a problem with a dozen races on Travers day, with an 11:45 a.m. post time.

Seriously consider a 12:45 p.m. start every day. It’s earlier, but not to a fault, and it should be good for business. Adding one minute between races contributes to the Spa’s leisurely pace and will be appreciated by the simulcast crowd and horsemen alike.

One final alteration; the meet not need be extended to run through Labor Day. The stand should end on the final weekend in August and close with what Saratoga is essentially all about.

Parenthetically, give families a chance to return home and get youngster ready for school or time to get back to work, locals and visitors both. After a week’s hiatus, run the Woodward on Labor Day weekend, the opening of Belmont Fall. Spacing to the Jockey Club Gold Cup doesn’t change. Give fans a reason to show up.

So, in addition to any other stakes the racing office wants to schedule for Saratoga’s final weekend, the Travers, in its customary calendar spot, should be the final Saturday of the meet: You build towards a climax and your biggest event brings the curtain down.

Closing day is the following Sunday and, again, whatever other stakes are offered is fine, but the Spa will always be about the babies. The Hopeful and Spinaway should be the final two races of the closing-day program. Leave fans wanting more!

End on a high note--a Saratoga note--not with maiden claimers on the turf for horses that can’t reliably get 9 furlongs, as was sadly the case this year.

The Chamber of Commerce will be happy, as will bars, restaurants, and other service industries, and renters will be happy, too—more money for the negligible difference between 6-1/2 and 8 weeks.

Racetrackers would have a life and could take a deep breath once a week. Revenue would grow. And the New York City ballet people will be just fine. When it comes to Saratoga, money makes more than just the mare go.

No Lasix for Juveniles? It Can Be Done

Excellent piece of research by Saratogian columnist Jeff Scott. Last year, 58 two-year-olds, or eight percent of total juvenile starters, raced without Lasix. This year there were 141, or 20 percent of juvenile starters.

The 141 Lasix-free two-year-olds ran in 71 races and of the 141, nine were post-time favorites. That whole group compiled a slate of (141) 10-13-14. In all, 12.67% of the Lasix-free horses won 14.08 of races run, with an in-the-money percentage of 52.11.

While the sample is small, obviously, the non-Lasix two-year-olds are trending in the right direction.

The reason non-Lasix horses are competing without the diuretic is two-fold: Some raceday-medication critics are walking their talk; others are conducting a grand Breeders’ Cup Juvenile experiment, since Lasix use is barred from juvenile competition this year.

It seems that several outcomes are possible. The number of Europeans that wouldn’t make the trip because the air miles from Europe double when California hosts the event and because the synthetic surface has been replaced by conventional dirt.

In the juvenile races, anyway, the no-Lasix rule could increase European participation thinking that, for them, the playing field is more level.

There are several issues I have a hard time discerning: Why would trainers race their two-year-olds on Lasix if they have to come off it on Breeders’ Cup day? And how is the betting public expected to deal with this?

Unfortunately, I see a scenario playing out whereby the majority of pro-raceday Lasix trainers will argue: See, horses need it and these form reversals will continue if you compel us to get our horses off Lasix.

Of course, the remedy for that is to not use the performance enhancer in the first place. That’s why--if and when raceday medication is banned--you start with the two-year-olds and grandfather in all three-year-olds and older until their racing careers end.

But for now, as long as raceday Lasix remains legal, horsemen will continue to champion the status quo and will come up with tons of Breeders’ Cup juvenile data crafted to make their case.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, August 20, 2012

New York State Needs to Get This One Right

August 19, 2012—Travers week has officially arrived and the buzz all around town is not about whether Kiaran McLaughlin will be the first trainer since Carl Nafzger to sweep the Alabama-Travers double [Lady Joanne and Street Sense in 2007].

Nor is it about whether the Travers colts can run as fast as Alabama heroine Questing: one and one-quarter miles in 2:01.69. (We're taking 'over' the total).

Instead, this is the Saratoga meet where sport has played a subordinate role to politics and New York racing’s future--that is if the present Governor will allow Thoroughbred racing to have a future as we’ve known it and, if he does, what that future would look like.

The big question re all that is who will handle the reins, who will be chosen to right a ship that has been listing since the NYRA’s former management ignored the sun-setting of a takeout provision that cost horseplayers across the country $8.5 million.

And if Mr. Cuomo someday decides to cut off the VLT largesse because machines don’t have families, don’t need health care, and don’t need a pension for the day they just can’t do it anymore, what then?

That is the day when all that is left in the horseplayer, the most underappreciated, taken-for-granted and, at times, abused customer any going concern ever had.

Who will remain on the job at the New York Racing Association after the state-loaded Board of Trustees is named is anyone’s guess. One would have to think that NYRA staffers, at least, are safe. They're the ones who
show up every day and put on the show, even on dark days.

The New York Racing Association has been on automatic pilot for some time, even before the top executives were terminated. Without the racing office, officials, administrators of every stripe, and the horsemen that have remained loyal to New York racing throughout, this show would not have gone on.

As an official said to me the other day, “the ship might veer off course a little from time to time, but the crew is still down in the engine room working.”

Sadly and expectedly, politicians should have kept their mouths closed rather than open them and remove all doubt that on matters pertaining to racing they’re in over their heads.

Assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow has been serving New Yorkers from the 87th district for 20 years. Laudably, he was the author “Cynthia’s Law,” which established that reckless assault of a child should be a class D felony. The measure also raised awareness for shaken baby syndrome. This is what public serice should be about.

But as the Chair of the Assembly Racing and Wagering Committee, his role has been passive. Recently, Mr. Pretlow came to the defense of acting NYRA President Ellen McClain, stating that she’s getting a “bad deal” from the shakeup expected to take place at meet’s end.

Ms. McClain has excellent credentials in the business community and was hired as NYRA’s Chief Financial Officer. She should return to that post when changes finally are made. When it comes to the demands placed on a racetrack CEO, she is out of her element and overmatched.

Mr. Pretlow, racing is not a business in which a top-class manager can show up, surround himself with the best talent available, then make the right decisions that not only affect the bottom line but the lives of thousands of extended members of this state’s huge racing family.

Everything that happens on the racetrack, whether it occurs on the backside or the front-side, is in lockstep with everything else. Wagering is not the only area where the term commingling applies.

Do I have any special knowledge about who will take the reins? No, but I hear rumors like anyone else. As for former President Charlie Hayward’s replacement, the names heard most often are Lou Raffetto’s and Bill Murphy’s, by a margin of about 2-1.

Both men are very well respected within the industry and by most horsemen, and generally are loved by anyone who has worked under them. Both have vast experience and credentials. Either would make a worthy successor.

Raffetto is currently President of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, where his tenure has been fraught with difficulty as the problems facing the industry are especially sensitive out west.

In working for the California horsemen, he’s run afoul of horseplayers with respect to the takeout issue. But it should be noted that when he was COO and President of the Maryland Jockey Club, he reduced takeout at the now defunct Laurel summer meet. There is evidence all over, especially now at Del Mar, that lower trakeout and fractional betting in tandem works, and it works big-time.

In addition to high-level management positions at Laurel and Pimlico, Raffetto has groomed and trained horses and served as a racing secretary. Other positions he held included assistant general manager at Monmouth Park, Executive Vice-President of Racing at Suffolk Downs and CEO of the National Steeplechase Association.

Murphy was a Vice President and General Manager of Racing Operations at Gulfstream Park and at Thistledown Race Course. He too groomed horses, was an assistant starter and the youngest track superintendent ever appointed at Hialeah, and the Director of Operations at Detroit Race Course. Murphy current serves as an Expressbet executive.

Obviously, either man would be well qualified to help lead New York racing back to its classy roots. And both understand the plight of the horseplayer, being bettors themselves. If not, their tenure would have unwanted distractions. The pools need to be fed. Like the adage says; you need to spend money to make money.

Should either man assume the role, or whoever it may be,he needs to seriously consider making Richard Migliore the operations face of the new company.

Well-liked by racing fans, respected by horsemen, a hands-on practitioner, bloodstock consultant and now media-savvy talent, Migliore has an eye for the details that have been ignored for years, not the least of which is the plight of the horseplaying customer.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am friendly with all three of these men. None have lobbied for my support, which is probably wise on their part. But I have lots of friends in this business and the ones that stick know my philosophy: Be good to the game that's been good to you.

Time has come to go back to the future.

Written by John Pricci

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