Thursday, April 02, 2009

Florida Stewards Choose Not to Acknowledge Big Drama’s Track Record

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla., April 1, 2009--Question: Which horse currently owns the track record for seven furlongs at Gulfstream Park?

Hint: It’s a trick question.

Hint II: He didn't run in Saturday’s Grade 2 Swale Stakes on the Florida Derby undercard.

Hint III: No horse has ever won the Swale Stakes.

The Gulfstream Park association stewards have decided not to recognize the track record clocking of 1:20.88 set by Big Drama last Saturday. The previous--and still--track record holder at the distance is Elusive Quality, timed in 1:21.11 in 2006.

The Florida state steward has not weighed in on the decision and will not. The state steward does not get involved in matters pertaining to racing records.

The stewards acted under Gulfstream Park’s Rules of Racing, Article III, section 2, sub-paragraph a., which states:

“In determining the extent of disqualification, the stewards in their discretion may: Declare null and void a track record set or equaled by a disqualified horse, or any horses coupled with it as an entry.”

“What I saw was a new track record and I got taken down,” Big Drama’s trainer David Fawkes said to Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch.

The disqualification was justified. Yes, the first contact was slight, certainly not as consequential as the second in which This Ones For Phil was sloughed badly by the winner, who bore out and knocked the place finisher off stride.

The argument that the second bump didn’t alter the outcome because it occurred right at the line with the leader a half-length in front is valid. But as I repeatedly watched the head-on view several times, I would have made the same judgment call.

But I also would have acknowledged Big Drama* as the Gulfstream Park seven furlong record holder. The asterisk would stand for “finished first, but was disqualified for interference and placed second.”

What would be the harm in that?

When I covered harness racing early in my career, I recall rules regarding lapped-on horses; those that finished within a length of the first-place finisher that broke into a gallop at the finish line. It also concerned horses that set personal lifetime marks.

In the first case, winners were disqualified and placed behind the horses lapped on it at the finish if there were more than one. In the second instance, lifetime marks were not acknowledged following a disqualification, however. That may or may not still be the case.

(Stan Bergstein, please weigh in).

Whether This Ones For Phil would have beaten Big Drama had the horses never bumped is arguable. Rick Dutrow and Garrett Gomez said their colt would have run Big Drama down.

I didn’t think he would catch him if they went around again. Not surprisingly, Fawkes made the same argument. But neither opinion could ever be confused with fact.

Another argument for recognizing the track record performance is that the significant bumping did occur right at the line. And who’s to say the incident didn’t prevent Big Drama from running even faster?

The best argument for allowing the record to stand is that running time--how fast a horse goes from point A to point B--is the only absolute truth in the game

Besides, it would have made a great trivia question.

It’s not surprising that the stewards have wide latitude in the administration of their duties. Some examples:

“A jockey shall not unnecessarily cause his/her horse to shorten stride so as to give the appearance of having suffered a foul.”

See Kent Desormeaux on Theregoesjojo in the Florida Derby. It wasn’t quite a “frivolous” claim that could have resulted in a fine for Desormeaux but Academy Awards have been handed out for less.

“When the stewards determine that a horse shall be disqualified for interference, they may place the offending horse behind such horses it, in their judgment, interfered with, or they may place it last.”

The last phrase seems a bit draconian but is necessary when a horse bears in or out so badly that it causes a chain reaction involving many horses. There’s no need to split hairs in that instance.

“A jockey serving a suspension of 10 days or less is permitted to ride in one or more designated races during the period of the suspension if: The race is a stakes race or any race with a purse of $75,000 or more, and… the jockey agrees to serve an additional day of suspension in place of the day he/she rides in a designated race, which additional day of suspension is to be determined by the stewards.”

This might seem like justice delayed but it‘s not. The rule is about safeguarding the rights of an owner that might have contracted a jockey to ride in an important race well in advance. Why punish an innocent party?

Besides, if they wanted, the stewards could choose a major race day well in advance which would prove a costly but just punishment.

“All horses shall be ridden out in every race. A jockey shall not ease up or coast to the finish, without reasonable cause, even if the horse has no apparent chance to win prize money. A jockey shall give a best effort during a race and each horse shall be ridden to win.”

Probably the most abused rules in the game. Whenever stewards are questioned about this after having taken no action, the standard response is “we spoke to the jock, gave him the what-for,” etc. etc.

Better the rider receive a very stiff fine so that he might remember not to do it again. His cavalier action could cost the customer a small fortune should some horses finish sixth by a nose.

“The stewards shall have the authority to interpret the Racing Laws and the House rules and to decide all questions of racing not specifically covered by either.”

That goes not only in Florida but anywhere in the country. But that’s also why stewards should be made to make rulings relating to decisions pertaining to parimutuel payoffs in writing, as is the case in Hong Kong, for instance. Transparency is essential if bettors are to have faith in the system.

And regarding Hint III? Only three-year-old colts or geldings can run in the Swale Stakes under current conditions. “Horses” are defined as males 5 years old and older. Fillies can run in the Swale, if they wish, but not “mares,” females 5 years old and older.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gulfstream Shines Despite Dark Magna Saga

Hallandale Beach, Fla., March 25, 2009--The crepe hangers have already targeted April 3, the day a bankruptcy judge in Delaware will determine the fate of Magna Entertainment Corporation.

Consequently one might surmise that the atmosphere these days at Gulfstream Park must be a corporate coupling of 1) doom, and 1A) gloom. But that‘s not the reality here.

Morale is better than I have seen it in the years since the “new” Gulfstream opened in 2006. That’s because this meet’s been a success even if some 50-1 shot makes a Grade 1 joke of Saturday’s Florida Derby.

And it’s because they’re writing the business story of Gulfstream 2009 in black ink.

With help from Mother Nature, Gulfstream has been bucking all the national trends. On-track handle is up 7 percent and all-sources is higher by almost 4. With good weather projected for Saturday, those numbers could increase.

Signature races are no guarantor of box office success Despite good weather that produced an attendance rise of 4 percent, on-track handle at Turfway Park’s Lanes End program was down seven percent. All-sources handle on 12 races was down an alarming 26 percent.

So it wasn’t surprising when Gulfstream Park President and General Manager Bill Murphy had spring in his step when he walked into the track kitchen. Murphy was on his way to a weekly meeting management conducts with the horsemen every Wednesday morning.

“Everybody’s happy with it,” Murphy said. “I think it’s really helped.”

At 58, Murphy been a racetracker for 45 years, getting baptized as a hot walker at Washington Park in his native Chicago at the ripe age of 13. He’s pretty much done it all ever since.

The Vietnam vet was track superintendent at Hialeah, the general manager at Thistledown in Cleveland. He dresses with casual Friday style and carries his work to and from home in a backpack. He doesn’t look like he’d be happy doing anything else.

Good weather and well received changes have paid dividends. Gulfstream has cut back to a five-day race week and new racing secretary Doug Bredar has reinstituted what fans and bettors have come to expect as one of racing’s winter jewels.

Turning the Fountain of Youth back to a one-turn mile is an obvious example of how common sense decisions can prove popular at the entry box and at the wickets. Rocket science this ain’t.

Two of the three Florida Derby favorites, Quality Road and Theregoesjojo, comprised the Fountain of Youth exacta.

Gulfstream is doing well in other areas, too. Poker room business is up, out-handling the slots. Slots business is healthier than it’s been in recent years.

Credit management for bringing in a new slots manager, Steve Calabro, who recognized that the machines in use were not well suited to Gulfstream’s needs. At the time they were considered the worst in the market.

Calabro must have found the right mix. Slots business is up 10 percent over last year while Gulfstream’s two major competitors, Mardi Gras Race Track and Gaming, the greyhound track, and Isle Racing and Casino at Pompano Park harness, are down 14 and 25 percent, respectively.

But racing remains Gulfstream‘s core business. “It bothers me when people say Frank [Stronach] cares more about casinos than racing. He’s heard the criticisms and he‘s responded. People wanted more outside seating; that’s the reason for the Tiki Bar.

“Next year more seats will be added. We’re increasing the existing seating area by extending the traditional box area outward over the apron.

“Between the living quarters for backstretch workers with air conditioning and terraces and Palm Meadows, it’s been state of the art all the way. And he’s leading owner or leading breeder every year.”

Chances are the trend will continue in 2010. “In our first year, slots revenues didn’t meet unrealistic projections and purses were overpaid in 2007. [Consequently] 2008 was a correction year. Because we’ve done well this year, our payments are down which means purses will be increased in 2010.”

For horsemen and the track, it’s all about purses, of course. Purses were underpaid last year; quality suffered. Wags were calling the meet “Calder at Gulfstream.” On balance, quality is back to Gulfstream standards and likely to be better in 2010.

And it’s not like racing is getting help from the state of Florida. Because of accords made with Native American tribes, the tracks have been placed in an untenable position long term..

“I don’t know how we compete with the Seminole Hard Rock when they pay no taxes, no purses, and are allowed to have table games.” According to Murphy, the effective tax rate for racetracks with slots is a blended 70 percent.

But legislative help might be on the way. On Tuesday a Florida Senate committee introduced legislation to allow blackjack and baccarat at Gulfstream and Calder, permitting the Seminole Tribe to keep those games, the payback being that the Seminoles also would get roulette and card tables.

Yesterday, a separate bill called for upgraded slot machines to be installed at existing pari-mutuel facilities in all other state counties. A third gaming bill would fix the tax rate at pari-mutuel venues getting upgraded slots at 35 percent while reducing taxes on existing machines at Gulfstream and Calder from 50 percent to 35.

Essentially, this is a Senate response to a pact made between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe permitting blackjack and baccarat, forms of gambling not presently legal in Florida. The accord came with an upfront payment of $100 million from the Seminoles to the state.

Another House committee, meanwhile, is considering legislation that would replace the Crist-Seminole accord.

Taking it all in context, between the increased purses slated for 2010, the expected completion of the upscale shopping complex on the grounds, things suddenly are looking up for Gulfstream Park after its very rocky start.

What it will all mean after next month’s bankruptcy hearing is another matter entirely.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

If Racing’s Under Attack, It Must Be Derby Season

Hallandale, Fla., March 20,2009--Admittedly, I had a knee-jerk reaction when I first read William Rhoden’s piece on the state of the racing industry on the New York Times website yesterday that began: “The death of Eight Belles at last year’s Kentucky Derby…”

My negative inclination was because reporters such as Rhoden jump in an out of thoroughbred racing coverage during the Triple Crown of spring and early summer and could care less bout it the rest of the year.

This is their prerogative, and nobody ever said life was fair.

Given its timing, I could have dismissed the commentary as Rhoden being opportunistic, again injecting himself into the Kentucky Derby storyline as he did last year when invited to appear on national television to lend perspective to the Eight Belles tragedy and talked about the indefensible practice of racing thoroughbreds.

In the piece Rhoden asks: “Are breakdowns the outgrowth of a meat-grinder industry, or evidence of a horse population spread too thin?”

On an intellectual level, this is akin to asking “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

Sadly, however, Rhoden’s question needed asking no matter how negative the tone and I have too much respect for Rhoden as a reporter to question his motives, even if there appears to be an agenda at work, especially in light of the season.

Rhoden’s story talked about the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection hearing last June that on its face wanted to help remedy racing’s problems: the on-track death of horses, over breeding, and over-medicating.

All the Subcommittee did was to effectively put the industry on notice--a good thing--that it must clean its own house over the government will clean it for them. The legislators didn’t seem to be grandstanding, at least not in the same fashion as is being seen today in the AIG scenario.

While it’s true the industry remains culpable with respect to over breeding and over medicating--even after making substantive changes subsequent to last year’s Derby events--the element that seemed disingenuous was there was no recognition of the fact that accidents can happen.

By definition, wrongdoing is determined by intent. Do reasonable people believe that the intent is for horsemen and women to inflict harm on their animals? Indeed, isn’t the opposite true?

Rhoden is right about this: The Thoroughbred Safety Committee and Racing Medication and Testing Consortium has yet to address the practice of giving racehorses the legal drugs that allow them to perform when not physically at one hundred percent.

He rightfully acknowledged, too, that spokespersons for the American Association of Equine Practitioners believe the industry needs to rethink the use of legal drugs for racing and training since they can mask the finding of veterinary inspection, that medicines should be confined for the treatment of diagnosed disease.

Rhoden made the same point that’s always made whenever horses die from something other than natural causes, that human athletes who suffer serious injury or worse voluntarily do so while no one speaks up for horses who cannot speak for themselves.

Actually, there are hundreds of people within the industry that speak for the horses, caring for them while they race and after their racing days are finished, ignoring the fact that racing is the reason they were born in the first place and actually enjoy running.

Horses were bred to carry the early settlers over the most rugged terrain to settle the West. Nobody believed that to be cruel or unusual. Animals have been serving man from the beginning and never was that somehow considered immoral.

Beyond being bred for commerce, they still serve the general public by helping to preserve the green space that enables the planet to survive--and that’s not a stretch.

I agree with Rhoden that watching horses get injured and die is unusual punishment. But the act of racing is not cruel in and of itself. Only the practices that keep them racing unnaturally are, and need to be addressed.

Progress up until the Eight Belles tragedy was mostly non-existent. But changes are being made, albeit slowly. But it takes time to undo the selfish practices of the past as today‘s economists can attest.

I would have been more impressed had Rhoden gone after members of the general public that steal horses, kill them for the meat, or sell them to the horse killers in other countries for the same purpose. This practice currently is epidemic in wide expanses of South Florida.

In recent months, according to a report Wednesday on the local NBC affiliate, hundreds of horses have been stolen from farms or private residences and killed, either sold to horse killers and transported to Mexico or killed on the spot for the meat.

These killers leave the ribbed carcasses, heads, manes and tails in the fields of southwest Dade, or they transport them to the Everglades for disposal. A disproportionate number of those killed have unusual markings or color, indicating there might be a thrill element involved. It was awful.

There was no mention of any well meaning people or organizations that have come along to save these horses. Now that would be a crusade worth fighting, a practice that deserves all the negative publicity it would get. Someone should drop a dime to the New York Times.

Written by John Pricci

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