Friday, March 11, 2011

The Toughest Stewards’ Decision Ever

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., March 10, 2011--Professional people in this game who know me well, both of them, agree that I’m a pretty good race watcher. That was the original lead.

Then I thought, screw false modesty: I’m good at what I do. Let the record show such verities!

When I was at Newsday some referenced me as one of the original “trip handicappers.” Back in the day, a chart taker from the Daily Racing Form even gave me a nickname; “Pathfinder”--you know, as in three-path, five paths wide, etc., etc.

I don’t take as much pride in the trip handicapper label these days because everyone within hailing distance of a monitor considers himself an expert race watcher. Bless them: They help inflate the odds.

Recall a horse by the name of Allumeuse? I was the whistle blower who rushed into the stewards stand at Saratoga when they wrongly disqualified the mare.

“I respectfully submit you took down the wrong horse,” I said, before pointing out where all the horses involved were.

I bring this up because last Sunday morning I awakened to several accounts of what had transpired in the Big Cap, a.k.a. Santa Anita Handicap, the first being Bill Christine’s right here at HRI.

I read Christine’s piece, then several more, with Richard Mandella saying he would have nothing to say, Victor Espinoza’s dramatic ”how many times do I have to get dropped?” diatribe, and Bob Baffert’s observation after watching the instant replay immediately saw Twirling Candy initiate the contact and that Game On Dude’s number had a good chance to stay up.

And I’m thinking, “prima dona,” “bully,” and other things far less complimentary. Where does he get off talking to the stewards, anyway?

So I called up the Thoroughbred Times website and clicked on the video of the Santa Anita Handicap, noting that the video replay was over 10 minutes long. This will require a second cup of coffee, I reasoned.

I watched the video, I don’t know, three or four times, and I’m thinking, wow, Baffert’s really full of it: Game On Dude got two horses, not one! But I kept watching anyway.

This had to be the hardest call any group of stewards would ever have to make in the history of stewardom. They should never show tapes of this race as a learning tool in stewards’ school. Nuclear fission would be easier to explain.

Suddenly, up came the super slow motion. “Hey, wait a minute!” I said out loud to an empty living room. I was mesmerized, watching and watching, over and over.

Three horses across the track; Game On Dude, Twirling Candy and Setsuko, their centrifugal momentum carrying them out to where the inside horse, Game On Dude, was about four paths wide of the rail as the three straightened away into the stretch.

“Dammit! Baffert was right, I’ll be a sonuvabitch!”

As the three horses began their stretch drive, a weakening Twirling Candy veered inward, with jockey Joel Rosario leaning left, the shoulder of Twirling Candy running into the hindquarters of Game On Dude, knocking his bad end off stride.

Within a stride or two, Game On Dude responded like a hot-blooded Thoroughbred should, coming out to engage Twirling Candy.

Simultaneously, and this is key, Setsuko was bearing in--slightly, but bearing in nonetheless--helping to make the Twirling Candy sandwich.

The favorite, who failed to stay 10 furlongs, trouble or not, was done as--and this is complete supposition--he appeared to empty out simultaneously at the point of contact.

Either way, no matter whose at fault, there was no way the incident cost Twirling Candy first or second money. The rest, with respect to a share of other purse monies, is speculation. So much happened yet the evidence was NFL-inconclusive.

While all observers on both sides of the decision were quick to point out Chantel Sutherland’s use of a left-handed whip aboard the winner, there was nary a mention of Setsuko, in the final furlong, veering in four or five paths from the middle of the track to a position where he and Game On Dude were thisclose to each other at the finish line.

Of course, jockeys often allow their mounts to do this in an effort to intimidate a rival. I never heard that mentioned, and neither did I read anywhere--this could be my bad--where Setsuko had every chance to win but was out-gamed.

Game On Dude, with or without the aid of a left-handed whip, fought back, coming again to stick his nose in front at the wire. The important aspect here is that the winner was maintaining what appeared to be a straight course.

As to the initial contact, there was the equivalent of a three-quarter pan shot that clearly shows Twirling Candy was the original transgressor. It’s like what happens in the schoolyard after a fight in which loser is badly whopped. “Yeah, well, he started it!”

While Espinoza was giving his interpretation at top volume--given the inflammatory nature of his comments--Sutherland explained to an HRTV audience Sunday afternoon that once she felt Twirling Candy make the initial contract, her only thought was to keep Game On Dude together.

That she did aboard a very willing Game On Dude who was all racehorse on Sunday. For some reason, the Big Cap is one race that never fails to fire, worthy of its celebrated history.

The 2011 renewal will go down as the most memorable of the modern era. A thrilling finish that followed lots of bumper-car action at headstretch. And, in the face of enormous pressure, an extremely difficult decision--one that easily could have gone the other way--two Santa Anita stewards, erring on the side of "do no harm," made the right call.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Gulfstream’s Secretary Bork a Very Timely Writer

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla., February 17, 2011--The Kentucky Derby might be 79 days from right now but the jockeying for position has begun in earnest and things are beginning to heat up around here.

It’s about time, too. From the weather, to the booming business, to the ultra competitive racing at the highest levels, everything’s been going rather well for the South Florida track. And now we get a few sparks that could turn into Triple Crown fireworks.

Reading between the lines of Mike Welsch‘s Daily Racing Form story on the creation of the Timely Writer overnight handicap open to all three-year-olds going a mile on March 12--the same day juvenile champion Uncle Mo is scheduled to make his 2011 debut in the Tampa Bay Derby--it’s an easy surmise that Nick Zito, trainer of undefeated Dialed In, ranked third on HRI’s Derby Power 10 Ratings, may be a little miffed.

Clearly, Zito would love to have had the option of considering such a spot. With $240,000 in graded earnings from the Holy Bull, running in a graded prep before the Florida Derby was not an imperative for a horse that‘s Louisville bound.

But with only two lifetime starts, experience is what Dialed In needs--two turn experience--and it appears that next weekend’s Fountain of Youth is coming up on the salty side. If there were an easier bridge to the Florida Derby, Zito likely would cross it.

“Both the timing and the distance of the race really don’t fit my schedule,” Zito told the Daily Racing Form, “although it’s the distance more than the date that’s the big issue.”

“I’d like to find another alternative for my horse rather than the Fountain of Youth, and had the handicap been written at a mile and one-eighth rather than one mile, I’d probably think about running him in there.”

Finding a more suitable two turn race for Dialed In ultimately may be less of an issue than what may be being perceived as an accommodation to Todd Pletcher. Of course, big outfits have always had the upper hand in this game and I’m sure Zito has benefitted from such scenarios himself. Writing races for trainers are part of the game.

Meanwhile, Pletcher must be thrilled to have this option. Old school horsemen believe that a one turn mile is a more suitable prep for a nine furlong route than a shorter two turner such as the Tampa Bay Derby’s mile and a sixteenth.

Additionally, Gulfstream Park is a much shorter van ride from Palm Meadows. Pletcher could even elect to lead Uncle Mo over from his barn on the Gulfstream backside. It’s a nice option to have. Pletcher said he would talk it over with owner Mike Repole.

“It’s an interesting race,” Pletcher told Welsch. “The fact that it’s on the same day as the Tampa Derby obviously works into our timing.”

At once, this seems like a good move and a bad move for Gulfstream Park, although the arithmetic says that the good outnumbers the bad by a two to one margin.

Despite the later date, the Timely Writer could hurt next week’s Fountain of Youth. On it’s face it’s apples vs. oranges; two turns to one, it’s worth more money--graded money, too--and coming two weeks after the Fountain of Youth, it gives trainers more time.

The deciding factor for any horseman with Kentucky Derby aspirations is just how highly he values the Grade 1 Florida Derby and it’s million dollar purse. Pretty highly one would think, and the Timely Writer mile is a nice fit with the nine furlong Florida Derby three weeks later.

If three weeks turns out to be too close for Timely Writer horses to come back in the Florida Derby, the G1 Wood Memorial could be the beneficiary, as it comes on the following weekend. The bad news for the Wood horses is that Aqueduct’s Grade 1 has been the major spring-prep goal of Uncle Mo.

Either way, it’s likely to be a good business decision for Gulfstream, sure to gain national press exposure at the expense of the Tampa Bay Derby should Uncle Mo remain in South Florida. It should be pretty good for business, too.

But there may be another element at work here: Payback.

The handle figures at the current Gulfstream Park session have been off the charts, both on track and from all sources. The only numbers that have remained relatively flat, or up slightly, are the intrastate wagering figures.

That’s because the cost of Tampa Bay’s simulcast signal has been set significantly lower to undercut Gulfstream’s popularity, thereby compelling more of the state’s bet takers to take the less costly Tampa product over Gulfstream‘s more expensive signal.

The signal fees issue has put some strain on the relationship between 2011’s most successful winter venues, that just happen to be located within the state of Florida. We’re sure it’s nothing personal. It’s strictly business, just like the creation of the Timely Writer and its aftermath.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Penny Chenery Gets It, Now It’s the Industry’s Turn

ELMONT, NY, January 20, 2011--It may be a romantic notion but I love the idea that as I read about what Penny Chenery has in mind for racing fans, I was sitting in the shadows of a racetrack that was the backdrop for perhaps the greatest equine performance ever made.

That, of course, would be June 9, 1973, when a defending Horse of the Year champion opened an insurmountable lead as he moved like a tremendous machine en route to a 31-length victory in a Belmont Stakes run in 2:24, 12-clipping the competition to death.

Secretariat is still widely regarded as the most popular Thoroughbred, certainly in the modern era, until a female behemoth named Zenyatta came along to challenge that legend as she boosted attendance and television ratings wherever and whenever she appeared in her Horse of the Year season.

The Horse of the Year Eclipse for her achievements on the track certainly was far from a no-brainer, narrowly tasting defeat for the first time in her career at the hooves of Blame, the best handicap male to race in America last year. But as to which Thoroughbred is more popular, that issue never was up for debate.

In that spirit, Ms. Chenery, owner of Secretariat, has created the Secretariat Vox Populi Award to honor the most popular Thoroughbred of any racing season based on a vote of racing fans, the first time any racing person or organization formally recognized one extremely well-liked racehorse by the racing public. Fittingly, the newly created award will go to Zenyatta.

“Horse racing already has established avenues to award outstanding accomplishments and we certainly should honor superior performance,” Chenery said in a press release. “But achievement can be measured in many ways.”

“Fans occasionally feel a disconnect when the horses who most impacted [them] are not recognized through traditional equine awards. The industry is long overdue in annually acknowledging the star horse who brings the most excitement and attention to the sport. It is my hope that the Secretariat Vox Populi Award will achieve that purpose.”

Chenery selected this year’s recipient but future plans call for a committee of distinguished racing personalities and industry representatives to choose the winner in each successive via a national online vote.

The idea of allowing fans to participate via their incorporation into the Eclipse Award process is certainly not a new one, but it’s always been viewed askance by some members of the three Eclipse voting groups, the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, NTRA racing secretaries and Equibase chart callers, and Daily Racing Form staffers. The current voters fear that Eclipse Award recognition would devolve into a popularity contest, especially in the absence of stated guideline qualifications.

I have been against fan participation in the Eclipse process for just that reason. But I no longer feel that way, now believing time has come for fans to have a meaningful Horse of the Year voice upon the establishment of guidelines to monitor a secure voting process.

“Fans should play a greater part (in voting for Horse of the Year), and we need to figure a way to make that possible,” said Jerry Moss, owner of Horse of the Year Zenyatta, in an NTRA teleconference in advance of Monday‘s Horse of the Year announcement.

Moss is not the only practitioner who believes time has come to get fans more involved in the sport. An informal poll was conducted via telephone in advance of this post by HorseRaceInsider with seven horsemen. Every one was in favor of fan participation, but also agreed there should be some qualifying standards.

The Cartier Awards honoring European champions uses a formula that includes a point system based on performance in stakes races, points from votes cast by journalists, and Racing Post and Daily Telegraph readers on a 40-40-20 pro rated basis.

Whether that’s the best method is open to debate. But certainly some objective standard allowing fans to participate as a fourth group in the Horse of the Year Eclipse Award process should be required. Some measure should be put in place that helps assure the quality of fan opinion and a fail-safe that eliminates multiple ballots.

The industry is learning, not without some pain, that fans and horseplayers are demanding that they have a voice and have been expressing their displeasure with the status quo via boycotting tracks they deem fan unfriendly, and are supporting those which take measures to improve the lot of the customer.

Compared to that situation, getting fans more actively involved in the inner workings of Horse of the Year should by easy. If racing’s older demographic is allowed to participate in the process, it might be easier to get their children attracted to, and involved in, the game. Certainly couldn’t hurt, and it’s painless.

Online voters should be made to register before being allowed to vote. But this, too, needs to be a painless, one that doesn’t give the appearance of some marketing trick used to compiling a mailing list. This is about giving, not getting.

There have been proposals as to how best involve the voters. Distributing ballots at racetracks, simulcast venues and ADW account holders certainly would seem to assure the legitimacy of the fan voting bloc, but is limiting compared to online convenience.

As for online registration, the guess is only those who care will take the time to register. Seems unlikely a person would register just to prank the system. As for the criteria used by the three voting blocks in place, the system works fine. I’m opposed to a selection committee defining criteria for industry professionals to use.

And, please, no half measures. Allow fans to be a meaningful part of the Horse of the Year process. As for the notion of a “People’s Choice Award” in lieu of real fan participation, we now have one of those in place, courtesy of Secretariat and his owner.

Written by John Pricci

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