Thursday, February 26, 2009

Racing Hall of Fame: Bobbing for Trainers

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 25, 2009--No more argument. No more technicalities. No more politics. Bob Baffert, winner of eight Triple Crown races, seven Breeders' Cups, and the trainer of 10 Eclipse champions is a finalist for election into the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame.

When the ballots are finally tabulated, the Hall of Fame nominating committee will be the biggest obstacle the youthful, silver-haired 56-year-old had to overcome. This is his first year on the ballot but not the first time he was eligible. It’s a little complicated.

Beyond that pesky association with Quarter Horses that doesn’t really sit well with the old guard, there were a bunch of incomplete thoroughbred seasons sandwiched around years in which he entered not a single thoroughbred race. But now it’s 2009 and, in Baffert speak, everything’s cherry.

Baffert, who led the nation in earnings three times and whose horses have bankrolled over $135-million, has trained more than 160 stakes winners and counting, including a remarkable 254 graded stakes. Figure that that’s an awful lot of five-furlong bullets.

It was Baffert’s work with Thirty Slews--a horse he purchased as a yearling that would eventually win the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Sprint--that earned him a national reputation, the year after he won three stakes races on Oak Tree-at-Santa Anita’s California Cup program.

For Baffert the horseman, good things, and bad things, came in fours. There were four Quarter Horse champions and eight Triple Crown wins, but with four different horses, earning him four Double Crowns but no cigars. The most frustrating, of course, was Real Quiet’s agonizing nose loss to Victory Gallop in the 1998 Belmont.

Baffert’s certain first round election will come at the expense of another Bob from California, old schooler Robert Wheeler. Because of a controversial rule, only one finalist can be elected in any category in any given year, unless there’s a dead heat.

The consensus among voting writers is that the qualifying rule should be amended to include any nominee with a worthy portfolio.

This is Wheeler’s eighth year on the ballot. Two of his best-known stakes winners were C.V. Whitney's homebred Silver Spoon, the co-champion 3-year-old filly of 1959, and the filly Bug Brush, winner of six stakes including a world record performance defeating males in the San Antonio Stakes.

Silver Spoon defeated males, too, winning the 1959 Santa Anita Derby, one of three fillies to do so. Both fillies later won consecutive runnings of the prestigious Santa Margarita. Wheeler won that race for a third time, 18 years later, with nine-time stakes winner Taisez Vous, the only trainer to win the Santa Margarita thrice at that time.

In 1960, Wheeler won a second consecutive Santa Anita Derby with the Whitney owned colt, Tompion, who later won the Blue Grass and Travers when Wheeler sent him East for another trainer to saddle.

Much of Wheeler's career pre-dated the grading of races, but he won 26 percent of the graded stakes he entered and 25 percent of all stakes from 1976 to 1992. He trained a total of 56 stakes-winning horses, including Track Robbery, the 1982 older female champion.

Wheeler was a consummate horseman. He won turf marathons, the 14-furlong San Juan Capistrano and 12-furlong Sunset with Patrone, and was an ace with two year olds, winning the pre-Breeders’ Cup Hollywood Juvenile Championship five times. Wheeler trainees also won two Hollywood Gold Cups and the La Canada back-to-back.

Where the surf meets the turf, Wheeler won the Del Mar Oaks twice and three runnings of the Del Mar Debutante. He won the Del Mar Futurity and Del Mar Derby, too, winning stakes at the seaside track for a period of 30 years.

Wheeler died in 1992 but is still ranked 10th in all-time stakes victories at Santa Anita. Seven of the nine trainers ranked ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame. He saddled his final stakes winner, Never Round, two weeks before his death at age 72.

Robert Wheeler’s career achievements are clearly worthy of enshrinement into the Hall but in good conscience it’s impossible to deny Bob Baffert the deserved honor of first- round inductee. And so Bobby Wheeler will be denied for the eighth time because of a questionable qualifier.

Eventually Wheeler will get in. His Hall of Fame credentials are undeniable and, if he’s not voted in, he’ll certainly get the nod from the Hall of Fame’s historic review committee. Bobby Wheeler died 17 years ago. He’ll be eligible for historic review in 2017.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

AAEP White Paper Is Roadmap for Substantive Change, Part 2

In the natural order of things, the procedures recommended in an American Association of Equine Practitioners white paper released this week will lead to mandatory cross-jurisdictional sharing of information.

This seems like a basic tenet, but a lack of uniformity exists because no one’s in charge. Everyone in the sport recognizes this, and the hope is that the industry will embrace many of the AAEP recommendations that are, on their face, timely, sensible and thoughtfully radical.

In terms of how the game is perceived, it is clear that the public must be educated. Racing must concede that social mores have changed and that the modern racehorse no longer a beast of burden but a pleasure animal and companion that isn’t abused but cherished, more a way of life than strict business commodity. The public needs convincing that the animal’s well being is of the highest priority.

For this to become a reality, the public must see for themselves that the industry has the horse’s best interests at heart. Given that claiming and condition horses dominate racing programs, changes to the structure of the claiming game and medication usage in horses intended for sale on the racetrack--and at public auction--must be made.

The AAEP recommends that periods of rest for all horses be mandated to provide opportunities to refresh the animal. Further, no horse should be permitted to race within 10 days of its last start, and every horse entered to race must be on the track grounds in sufficient time for pre-race inspection by a regulatory veterinarian to assess racing soundness.

Other recommendations include having all claimed horses subjected to post-race inspection, as currently is the rule in New York, and claimed horses that test positive shall have the claim rescinded at the buyer’s discretion. And no claiming race should have a purse exceeding the claiming price by more than 50 percent, which should reduce the temptation to over-race.

All claimed horses shall not be allowed to start in a claiming for 30 days since the date of the claim, or for less than 25 percent more than the amount for which it was claimed. And, most significantly, horses that do not finish the race, or sustain catastrophic injury, remains the property of the original owner.

The AAEP knows it’s in for a battle as it tries to be an instrument for restructuring the racing model. Quoting Dr. Scott Palmer from the white paper: “Our premise is very simple: What is good for the horse is good for racing. It is fair to say that particular recommendations will resonate with some individuals and alienate others.”

Funding, of course, especially in this environment, is another issue. This is where the NTRA might be creative in raising revenue for the industry: There’s the matter of maintaining testing facilities; the storing of samples, underwritten in large part by the Jockey Club; research and development on medication and surface testing, and added backstretch security. After that, an aggressive public relations campaign to educate the public about the advances made safeguarding the health and welfare of the horse.

But there’s another issue, one the NTRA has not strongly embraced; advocating for the abolition of horse slaughter. The industry needs funding to assist in the transition of horses from racing to a second career. It cannot ask horseplayers to pay for it in the form of higher parimutuel takeout, which, in the absence of creativity, has been typical of the industry’s solution to deal with failed business models.

In most racing jurisdictions there is no institutional program to care for horses. There is no vehicle for rehabilitation, retraining, or adoption of horses whose racing careers have ended. Significantly, the organization recommends the programs that reinforce the concept of owner responsibility to support a secondary racehorse market.

Both the AAEP and the Jockey Club could have gone further to include the responsibility of the breeding industry in the area of foal over-production. As we have all learned the hard way, a free market economy lacking some form of oversight is not always the best way to go.

But it seems clear that the AAEP wants to be part of the solution and not the problem. And since they’re actively campaigning for cooperation and transparency within the racing industry, I’m sure the organization would have no objection with having the names of attending veterinarians printed in the past performance data right next to the owner and trainer.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Racing Industry Making Progress on Difficult Issues: Part 1

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 19, 2009--Little by little, there is evidence that the racing industry is beginning to clean its own house.

Trainer Christophe Clement said in an interview last month that the ban on steroids will make a profound difference in the way horses are trained and raced, that stamina now has a chance to overcome speed.

And so it would appear that the steroid ban, the proliferation of synthetic surfaces, and more conscientious maintenance of conventional dirt tracks are making it harder to maintain frontrunning speed (empirically, see Gulfstream and Aqueduct this winter) and, in a good way, places a premium on strength over speed.

Not long after Clement made his comment, Roddy Valente, a successful New York owner, told a racing audience on the Capital-OTB “Trackfacts” program that his trainer, Bruce Levine, has wrestled with the notion of steroids as performance enhancer for the last few years and concluded it didn’t make a big difference one way or the other.

Ackowledging this difference of opinion, it's interested to note that many regulars think Levine’s high winning percentage in most categories puts him in the category of the so-called “super-trainer.” Unfortunately, for both Levine and the industry, the perception that "super trainers" exist is reality.

The fact is most horseplayers can name a circuit’s “super trainers” without consulting the track program. Resultantly, many heavy bettors have walked away from the game believing the “magic factor” has rendered the traditional handicapping paradigm moot.

From a business and moral perspective, this is racing’s biggest problem. The handicappers that remain have learned to factor the “30-percent trainer" into their handicapping. Either that or ignore them to your bankroll's peril. At minimum, most players believe they must use these super-trainers in a defensive betting posture.

As a consequence, “super trainers” are overbet. But if they win 30 percent of the time, does that definition fit? Savvy horseplayers know that the cleaner the punch, the better the value. Betting defensively can be very costly. Between the short odds and added expense of including unwanted horses into the wagering mix, finding betting value has become extremely difficult.

It’s no wonder, and no coincidence, that so many big players have walked away. And this is before addressing the nature of high parimutuel takeout rates that yield a short-term revenue fix but calamitous long term results for the player and the industry.

Good news for the industry been a long time coming, but not this week, when vested interests began to address their problems purposefully. There were two important developments; one from the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the nation's vets, and the other from the Jockey Club.

The AAEP recommendations are forward-looking, will take time to implement and require an almost unprecedented level of cooperation. But the Jockey Club announcement that it will fund a frozen sample and retrospective testing program, beginning in April, 12 months after the establishment of the Thoroughbred Safety Committee in the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy--represents warp speed movement.

Not only will the freezing of samples at designated facilities act as a deterrent to the use of illegal substances, but an accumulation of positive results by the same owner, trainer or attending veterinarian would be considered “aggravating circumstances” in the determination of how fines and suspensions would be levied in accordance with existing Racing Medication and Testing Consortium penalty recommendations.

This is important news and a significant step forward. For it to work effectively, of course, there must be transparency regarding what those penalties are or should be. And they had better include possible lifetime bans for habitual violators. This is a brave new world we have all entered, one in which dishonesty and greed have forced us to peer into an abyss. The time for wrist slapping is over.

Also significant this week was an AAEP white paper that contained recommendations to protect the safety and welfare of the racehorse. Much in this nine-page paper has been discussed before but this time some new wrinkles acknowledged current racetrack realities and public perceptions.

Finally, there is acknowledgement that racing’s basic business model must change. Racing is a year-round sport conducted in 38 disparate jurisdictions, a situation lending itself not only to chaotic inefficiency but policies that place the racehorse in stressful situations, some of which can be ameliorated or eliminated altogether with thoughtful rule changes.

As claiming races comprise 70 percent of the average wagering menu, and with field size directly tied to revenue, the AAEP recommends that the practice of racing secretaries applying pressure on trainers to race be abolished. Racetrack and racino executives, especially, must be educated as to the health and welfare of the horse.

There is acknowledgement, too, that the racing model has evolved whereby peak earning potential for racehorses is late in the two-year-old year and in the three-year-old season, with less potential for earnings as horses age, the highest classes notwithstanding. Recognizing that some degree of training and racing is good for two-year-olds, the AAEP acknowledges that racing juveniles is preferable for long term health and quality of performance.

Additionally, the AAEP wants owners to be brought into the decision process of race horse care in consort with the trainer and vet. Pre-race testing procedures and the uniform reporting of injuries, including those sustained in workouts, long overdue, must be standardized. And the current reporting system which varies from state to state must be made uniform.

TOMORROW: Claiming races, the welfare of horses, and public perception

Written by John Pricci

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