Thursday, June 07, 2012

There’s No Entitlement to a Triple Crown

ELMONT, NY, June 7, 2012—The Belmont Stakes detention barn is sold out, as are the reserve seats, and the field has been set.

All that’s left for the bi-legged participants is the crossing of a final few T’s, hitting a couple of parties, and waiting for the morality play of Belmont 144 to work itself out.

Michael Matz; Olympian, Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, real life hero, and his owner, the daughter of a Virginia breeding legend, who once toiled in John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s White House but now conducts her life with gusto from a motorized wheel chair that seemingly never steps.

Phyllis Wyeth smokes victory cigars bigger than Red Auerbach’s and would love to have some gentleman match her in the winners’ circle at Belmont Park late Saturday afternoon after her Union Rags derails an historic bid.

That would be only fair considering it was her horse that was supposed to be the one making history. But funny things happen when you race toward antiquity because other people want the same dream, too. No one has the Triple Crown coming to them.

In the other corner sit the heavies of the piece, the anti-heroes replete with checkered pasts who probably thought it would never come to all this. But it has. There’s potential for victory on Saturday but, after Saturday, then what? More past; less future?

Will there be more about the O’Neill positives, overages, and the results of the appeal to his upcoming 45-day suspension? And what of Paul Reddam’s million-dollar Ditech fine, and allegations about Cash Call’s deceptive advertising, usurious interest rates, and strong-armed collectors?

You bet there will be more about all that.

Caught in the middle of these disparate set of characters are two gifted race horses--one that can become an immortal, and he’s completely innocent.

All I’ll Have Another does to be at his best is to subject himself to chiropractic back rubs and stretching exercises and an acupuncturist who sticks needles here, there and everywhere, meant to send what Far Easterners call chi, natural energy that courses through the system, helping the body to heal itself.

Meanwhile, it was the other animal that was supposed to find himself on history’s brink, and he will represent the other camp on Saturday.

Union Rags was the should-have-been juvenile champion, the runnerup with an asterisk due to pilot error, a fate that would play itself out, literally over and again in two of the three biggest races of his young life.

Because of the Triple Crown travails of Doug O’Neill, who wiseguys have dubbed Drug O’Neill for years, we’ve learned that horses can test for excessive levels of TCO2 without having been administered a concoction of baking soda, sugar and electrolytes.

What are we supposed to believe?

Instead, let’s one day concentrate on, you know, the horses--two very good horses among a small handful of other very good horses--in the champion’s test taking place late Saturday afternoon. Instead, think about this:

I’ll Have Another sold at auction for $35,000, the same as Seattle Slew’s $17,000 loosely adjusted for inflation. Morality plays are part of the human condition at every level but, while some race results are happier occasions than others, a race comes out the way a race comes out.

When you think about it, what’s more democratic than Thoroughbred racing? In the gate, whatever baggage horses carry beyond scale-weight, they are all four legs, a mane, and a tail, in the language of old school racetrackers.

Sometimes, it turns out that one of the horses has the heart of a true champion. But that’s why they run the races, to find out. Because when the gate opens, anything can happen, especially at a mile and a half, and that’s what makes this whole racetrack thing work.

When the gate springs open late Saturday afternoon, the present will go chasing the past and, one way or another, lies the future of the sport, as unknowable as a race result itself.

But for now, at 6:40 p.m. Saturday, root for your horse for whatever the reason and may the best horse find a clear path to victory. Sunday will take care of itself.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Additional Wagering Board Protocols Welcome and Timely

ELMONT, NY, May 30, 2012—In the course of the events that lead to media reporting and commentary, I have had little patience for agencies that see a window of opportunity to seize the national spotlight by hopefully advancing their agenda in the wide shadow cast by a world class event.

For years, the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame believed that early in Kentucky Derby week would be a good time to announce the names of that year’s inductees since the national sports media are all in one place at one time. Sensibly, this is no longer the case.

But this regrettable tack still goes these days with many organizations, especially regulatory agencies, still believing it’s better to get the news out while the whole world is watching what’s gong on both inside and outside the fences of America’s racetracks.

Notes to industry: Since the advent of the 24-hour mainstream media news cycle, either the world no longer cares or can only accept the never ending sensory bombardment one sound byte at a time.

The news business is no different than any other industry these days; one person now does the job of three and they, too, are on overload. That dandy new testing rule will need to wait until the Triple Crown is over. It’s about immediacy and priorities.

The State Racing & Wagering Board sometimes falls into this trap, getting news out at the most visible moments. But they have been on a major roll recently—that’s if you’re willing to overlook the apparent failings of their regulatory responsibilities in L’Affaire NYRA.

Fortunately for the agency, the organization involved in the imbroglio left an e-mail trail that in a small way mitigates its shortcomings in the matter.

As Association of Racing Commissioners International President Ed Martin said Tuesday, the case brought against Standardbred trainer Lou Pena by the NYSRWB as reported online in Standardbred Canada is "a game changer with wide ramifications for racing regardless of breed.

“This is a new chapter, make no mistake about it,” Martin added, noting that New York’s reliance on veterinary records as evidence of an illegal administration rather than a laboratory finding is a new regulatory strategy other agencies would emulate.

Triple Crown bid or not, no responsible journalist could ignore a headline that links the number 1,700 with alleged administrations of legal substances by one Standardbred trainer.

Under the circumstances, trainer Lou Pena did the only thing he could do: Cry racial prejudice.

Today, May 30, the same day the NTRA is hosting a Triple Crown national teleconference that includes Penny Chenery (owner, Secretariat), Ron Turcotte (jockey, Secretariat), Sally Hill (co-owner, Seattle Slew), Billy Turner (trainer, Seattle Slew), Patrice Wolfson (co-owner, Affirmed), (Steve Cauthen, Affirmed), the SRWB announced the “installation of strict protocols for horses and participants taking part in June 9 Belmont Stakes.”

While this announcement might be viewed as opportunistic--that the protocols could have be installed with less fanfare--it’s most important that the world knows, especially in the current environment where the use of even legal medication is a page one story and the Triple Crown aspirant’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, has had his dubious past questioned by national media starting around 7 p.m. on May 5th.

All Belmont horses will be stalled in Belmont Park’s secured stakes barn beginning June 6, subjected to out-of-competition blood testing and will remain in that barn until the race’s conclusion.

The blood tests will be sent to the Board’s Drug Lab that night for immediate review and the stakes barn will be monitored by SRWB and Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau personnel in addition to the NYRA security contingent.

The security procedures include limiting personnel who are allowed to enter the area, noted in entry-exit logs. Personnel entering a horse’s stall, including his trainer and NYRA veterinarian must also be logged and include a reason for the visit. Veterinarians will be escorted into the stall by security personnel.

Equipment, feed, hay, bales, etc. will be searched, horses assigned specific stalls, no human consumption of food or beverage will be allowed inside a stall or within proximity, only NYRA vets can administer raceday Lasix and the press will assigned to specific designated areas.

Beginning Belmont eve, June 8, no vet may visit a stall without making an appointment with SRWB investigators, providing written notice of intended treatment. On June 9, treatment will only be permitted for emergency or by agreement with the Stewards. SRWB investigators will provide surveillance and the stakes barn will be restricted to only Belmont Stakes horses.

In addition, the NYRA will have additional roving security teams during Belmont Stakes day, overseeing the handling and movement of Belmont Stakes horses and additional security measures will be taken inside Belmont Park on raceday.

Should I’ll Have Another be good enough to enter the Triple Crown pantheon, second-guessing the connections will be a part of the Belmont Stakes aftermath. For the good of the game, that will be a very good thing.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Memorial Day at Belmont Park: Land of Hopes and Dreams

ELMONT, NY, May 29, 2012—Fittingly, it seemed and felt a lot like the old days, when Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day and not, like what every American holiday has become, a day for commerce.

Indeed, the crowd at Belmont Park had a holiday vibe, more like the old Saturday vibe-- not a real holiday vibe when Aqueduct, yes, Aqueduct, drew about 60,000 New York sports fans to what in this town was a large patch in the middle of a red, white and blue Memorial Day quilt.

Sixty-thousand fans, a number that the NYRA would gladly sign for on a Belmont Stakes day in seasons when different horses win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

The only thing that truly was the same was the excitement and quality generated by another running of the Metropolitan Handicap, a.k.a. the Met Mile, and the race finish, typically always in doubt until the horses reach that final gut-wrenching furlong.

Inside the final furlong, a reference to my first ever visit to a Thoroughbred track in 1961, when the mighty Kelso erased a five length disadvantage inside the eighth pole with ground-gobbling, 130-pound toting strides.

Only yesterday, when Caleb’s Posse came flying with his usual, heart-stopping alacrity, and appeared on his way to victory, Shackleford wouldn’t let him by. Caleb’s Posse had him, only he didn’t.

These days I’m nostalgic for racetrack crowds. So, knowing that I can watch a replay in online detail, I enjoy watching a race live from the apron whenever possible; wanting to feel the energy that gets only from a dramatic stretch run.

Like on Monday, when Donnie Von Hamel’s horse came flying after Dale Romans’.

With temperatures in the 80s, the air hung heavy in the Elmont paddock and the big four players; To Honor An Serve, Shackleford, Caleb’s Posse and Jackson Bend, were circled by their handles in front of the saddling enclosures.

It appeared that either the heat had tempered their energy or that good horses are smart horses, knowing what they needed to do: Conserve energy until called upon. The big four were relaxed, almost somnambulant. A baby could have been on the other end of the shank to lead them.

Their demeanors remained virtually unchanged after they were tacked up, except for the 2011 Preakness winner. Horseplayers recall that before his races last year Shackleford was wildly exuberant, getting more rambunctious as post time drew near.

At 4 it’s the same, only different. Shackleford was the only one visibly up on his toes; not too high, but just high enough. And he puffs himself up, looking more like prize fighter than equine athlete, a horsey loaded gun. In a word; great.

And so it was that at the end of a mile raced in a worthy 1.33.30--compared to the 1:34.34 it took the rapid Buffum to get the same classified-allowance trip, or the 1:34.61 needed by Bob Baffert’s speedy Contested to take the Acorn—it was the boundlessly energetic Shackleford that would not be denied.

The best part was seeing it from the apron, right in front of you: Shackleford, with new rider Johnny Velazquez, through racing Saturday was stuck in a 3-for-50 slump, got his horse to lengthen and stick his nose out one inch, the precise difference in Met 116.

Or, as the official result chart fashioned by chart caller Danny Kulchisky and call taker Brian Affrunti:

“…Around the bend and under some coaxing at this stage, [Shackleford] led a tightly bunched group into the stretch and got cut loose, drew out to his biggest advantage in the ensuing furlong, but with Caleb’s Posse full of run and bearing down hard.

“[Shackleford] was given six hard shots from the left side and steadily drifted out towards the middle of the strip after each one, had the runnerup draw alongside in midstretch, but showed all heart to stave off that one’s stiff challenge and preserve the decision.”

Precisely: all heart…stiff challenge…Preserve the decision. Parenthetically, there might have been better chart callers throughout Thoroughbred history but none as thoroughly poetic as this team.

The prelude to the Met wasn’t too shabby, either. Contested, owned by the Baffert family, made a shambles of the Acorn over the speed kind surface. Playing catch me if you dare, not only did she take an aggressive lead beneath Javier Castellano but increased her lead to five lengths at the line.

Prior to that, It’s Tricky showed her affinity for Belmont Park with an equally Met-gutsy three-quarter length victory over a controlled pacesetter, Cash for Clunkers while heavily favored Awesome Maria, the defending Ogden Phipps champion, apparently showed her affinity for Gulfstream Park.

Uncharacteristically four lengths behind in the first eighth of a mile, it appeared that her best effort would not be forthcoming on this day, an observation that played itself out down the long Elmont straight.

There were over 10,000 in attendance on a sultry Memorial Day and it felt good to be among them, an afternoon where memories were, once and again, up close and personal.

Written by John Pricci

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