Thursday, May 07, 2015

Racing’s Staring Down the Barrel of Politics and Public Perception

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 7, 2015—Question: When does a “shameless publicity stunt,” a proposed piece of legislation that would shut down the Internet to horse racing, stop becoming the sucker-punch by which it was delivered?

Answer: When, in the long term, the end result compels the Thoroughbred racing industry to finally get its entire act together, once and for all.

Was the collective bi-partisan language of Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Joe Pitts, condemning pari-mutuel horse racing and calling for a repeal of the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978, over the top?

Considering that they propose to shut down the highest-profile segment of a multi-billion-dollar green-space industry that’s responsible for the life and livelihood of 4.6 million people because they deem it necessary to “encourage racing to end widespread cheating and doping of racehorses” is hyperbole at its mean-spirited best.

Not that certain segments of the industry doesn’t deserve such invective.

At a time when most reasonable people are longing for simpler days and ways--the disenfranchised among us notwithstanding—the good old days, including the equine portion of the animal world, are still with us, even if it’s hiding in plain sight.

According to statistics compiled by the American Horse Council, there are 9.2 million horses living in the U. S., 844,000 of which wouldn’t be alive if it were not for the horse racing industry.

In total, the racing industry has a direct economic impact of $39 billion annually--$102 billion when multiplied by the wealth it spreads throughout the economy.

Racing is directly responsible for 460,000 full time jobs and pays nearly $2 billion annually to all levels of government. Horse’s lives matter; racing alone being responsible for over $26 billion of GDP, gross domestic product.

Tangentially, there were two interesting posts this week: one from an American owner/breeder/publisher; the other the result of an interview with the man responsible for administering arguably the world’s most successful racing model, that of Hong Kong.

Barry Weisbord was walking along the backstretch at Churchill Downs during Derby week chatting up world renown horseman Mike De Kock, who observed “this is big”--bigger even than the man who has seen and done it all, which got Weisbord to thinking:

“We have become very gun shy, we devotees of Thoroughbred racing in America,” wrote Weisbord in his Thoroughbred Daily News publication this week.

“Our industry media is constantly finding fault with what we do; some deserved, some not. The non-industry media rarely pays attention to us, and lately, when they do, it hurts.”

That’s true; criticism hurts. What’s not true is the implication that somehow the media summons up the perceptions that exist within the recesses of their negative imaginations.

In the online publication Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, there was an inspired interview with Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, chief executive of the most progressive racing jurisdiction in the world; the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

There can be disparate points of view regarding Engelbrecht-Bresges’ observations, and much can be made of the fact that racing there is conducted in a partnership between the HKJC and the government.

Of course, that could never work here, not in these un-United States, anyway.

In tandem with government, Hong Kong's thoroughbred industry concentrates on the things that matter: racing dates; stewardship both on and off-track; ,medication, therapeutic and otherwise, and the funding necessary to conduct testing in world-class facilities.

The CEO was asked by author Paul Haigh that, if he had the power to impose one worldwide rule, what would it be.

“Drug-free racing stands out,” said Engelbrecht-Bresges. “From whichever angle you examine this, the answer is the same – every horse in every race must compete free from the influence or benefit of medication.

“The public will not accept anything less, and our sponsors will mirror that attitude. Nor is it in our own long term interests to do otherwise, especially when you consider the selection of horses for breeding.”

Clearly, the CEO of the HKJC made no distinction between illegal doping and the use of therapeutic medication on race day. Rightfully so, in the long term interests of the sport.

“Regional differences in medication rules and how this is dealt with, in terms of the global recognition of [class worthiness] is a difficult conversation, but it is another issue that is pertinent to [racing’s] credibility.

“Only those races in which all horses are free from their influence should be given black type status…The testing for such races must be undertaken only by analytical laboratories which meet a certain performance standard.”

And then he said this: “While it is not a direct concern in our circumstances, the implications of medication-affected racing results on selection for breeding are also something that is taken very seriously in a large number of countries…

“We have invested substantially in our racing laboratory, both in hardware and software, to make it at least in the top two such laboratories in the world. Rigorous sampling programs, both in training, pre-race, and post-race are also essential.” (Read out-of-competition testing here).

Do Englebrecht-Bresges’ comments somehow relate to the proposed Udall-Pitts legislation that effectively would put racing out of business?

Frankly, the response to that question depends on the self-interested views of stakeholders who talk a good game about doing what’s best for the sport, but there’s a furlong of distance between rhetoric and true reform.

American horseracing and many willing racing media—sorry, Mr. Weisbord—remind us about the progress the sport has made on uniform medication rules, except, of course, in jurisdictions where doing so would negatively impact the bottom line buried in their collective backyards.

Since 2003, total annual wagering has declined by $4.6 billion, over 30%. Lack of effective promotion, under-exposure, onerous takeout, and handicapping skills that take time and patience to master, are out of step with today’s younger gambling demographic are issues, obviously.

Millennials would rather “deep” gamble on Fantasy Sports than spend the time it takes to learn something, a skill that even the most successful practitioners find extremely difficult to master with any consistency.

Its sponsors and benefactors can call Fantasy Sports whatever they wish: Winning prize money on the outcome of uncertain sports-related events, whether it be a race result or Peyton Manning’s throwing four touchdown passes, is gambling by any other name.

I don’t understand how and why it’s legal. But it happens because state governments themselves do it: Once upon a time, slots were outlawed in New York State, hence Video Lottery Terminals were born.

What hurts horse racing with the public is drugs, which is race-fixing in their view. Like Udall and Pitts, the public cannot or will not delineate between therapeutic medication and synthetic rocket fuel.

And every segment of the industry has done a poor job communicating and educating them, making it possible for opportunistic politicians to bring the whole thing crashing down on a politically-correct whim.

The use of medication, legal and otherwise, the fact that equine athletes break down despite the best efforts of animal lovers who devote their lives to horses, and that horses have no say in whether or not they need pharmacological help to compete, sends a bad message.

Those optics will not go away until horses run medication-free on race day. Foot-dragging on this has badly affected the way the public perceives horse racing. They know that not every day is Derby day.

So what happens when legislators want to play politics with millions of lives and billions of dollars?

Racing organizations make explanations but they appear to be excuses after-the-fact. The Jockey Club wants the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to conduct testing in world class laboratories, a good thing, but haven't anything proactively except try to exert some influence.

The NTRA fights outmoded, unfair taxes on large winnings, but doesn’t call out racetracks that charge too much for their gambling product, takeout rates that are unsustainable for the practiced, never mind average customer.

Instead, the NTRA should be taking an informed fight to state houses instead of emphasizing tax relief on winning bets having an extreme degree of difficulty.

But after caring so much about racing back in the day, the public doesn’t seem to care but for five days a year, mostly, only three. They’ve walked away and have taken their betting money with them. The younger generation that grew up playing video games now plays at fantasy sports, a statistical video game where you can win money.

The Jockey Club stated that “medication reform in the Thoroughbred industry will come about only with insight and cooperation from industry stakeholders, and we will continue to work with legislative leaders and Thoroughbred industry groups to develop and implement uniform rules and penalties. Horses should compete only when they are free from the influence of medication.”

The National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association in North America also opposes the bill, but their organization mostly acts to protect the rights of their 30,000 strong who continue to depend on race-day medication. No industry can police itself when acting counter to each other.

The Thoroughbred Racing Associations, a racetrack trade group, has had no comment thus far.

The National Uniform Medication Program has done well to establish testing thresholds for commonly used therapeutic drugs and a graded medication-violation penalty system.

However, state houses in disparate jurisdictions have failed to consider any measure along these lines. The states don’t care, and the industry doesn’t seem to get that.

Before this new proposal, the two lawmakers had as its goal the construction of a national authority that would appoint an independent anti-doping agency. The industry had had none of this thus far. Last week’s pronouncement is the result of racing’s piecemeal, ineffectual progress.

The racing industry fails to seriously consider the consequences should one of its star athletes suffer a catastrophic injury while a Triple Crown nation looks on. How would they explain such a calamity to their children, explaining that horses most need medication to run? What kind of future does horse racing have in the mind of that child?

According to popular culture, reality is what it is. Reality happens as the result of cause and effect, whether that cause is real or imagined. What happens after depends on how the public perceives events. Racing is under the gun and the public perception will dictate racing's future reality.

Someone's got to ask Thoroughbred racing one question: Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya?

Written by John Pricci

Comments (13)


Sunday, May 03, 2015

Kentucky Derby Lives Up to Hype…and Then Some

HALLANDALE, FL, May 3, 2015—Despite the negativity surrounding the industry and the efforts of a handful of stakeholders to agree to disagree, the horses and the game’s special events always wind up saving the day.

Aided by great local weather and positive publicity about the talent and depth in the 2015 class of sophomore equines, records for both attendance and handle were shattered.

But in the final analysis, God bless the Thoroughbred.

At the end, four of the most accomplished horses in Kentucky Derby 141 finished ahead of 14 rivals, half of them having some kind of good chance.

And American Pharoah is for real. If he stays healthy, not a given, his talents may be unreal, in a positive sense. He has the brilliance to be in every race. Now we know he’s got guts, too.

As discussed here post-Oaks, the Churchill surface was reminiscent of two things to me. If acted more like Churchill in the fall than the traditional Churchill of spring.

For two of the biggest days of racing in America, the track was speed favoring. You could close successfully but you needed a hot, almost suicidal, pace to come from the clouds, but it worked much better if you were able to save ground.

The outside was deeper; one could see that on the screen. To me it was evocative of Gulfstream Park on Florida Derby day; at once speed favoring and punishing.

The track surface is what made Frosted’s effort so outstanding, finishing the strongest of all at the line. Yes, Materiality finished very well despite trouble at the start and his inexperience. He wasn’t as close to the top three as Frosted, but did well to finish 7-3/4 lengths behind the winner.

One could pick apart trips and there were some obvious incidents, especially approaching the first turn, but we’ll concentrate on those up front, in a manner that much of the other competition didn’t.

And you didn’t have to watch races develop all weekend to know that the track favored speed; you know it because how often to you see a three-speed number in the feature race on May’s first Saturday.

Meanwhile, the riders in this three-speed affair were brilliant. Martin Garcia was able to cojole a half in 47.34. All three managed to steal off with the first three prizes by throwing a third quarter of 23.95 at the group, separating themselves from 15 rivals approaching the far turn.

Gary Stevens rode a great race, no real surprise there, despite being forced to race between a 17-hands rock and a brilliant hard place. He had to keep Dortmund honest while glancing over his shoulder, needing to time a winning move perfectly.

And Derby-repeating Victor Espinoza was brilliant, too. Maybe any rider can get American Pharoah to relax, but there’s no doubt Espinoza can--they really make a good team out there.

Not only that, but Espinoza timed his move perfectly, gaining momentum into the lane while not racing on the fastest part of the track, putting pressure on Stevens, who doubtlessly would have preferred to wait a few more jumps before going after Dortmund in earnest.

Firing Line will be the “trip horse” two weeks from now in Baltimore. He did the dirty work, as the handicappers say, and was re-rallying at the winner, looking for an instant like a possible resurgent winner with a sixteenth of a mile to go.

But this very good colt never was able to change over to his correct, right lead despite Stevens’ insistence. Of course, young horses learn from race to race.

So unless Firing Line’s the second coming of Alydar, he’ll probably get the hang of switching over racing into, or through, the lane.

But the day belonged to American Pharoah and to the Zayats, who definitely had a Derby trophy with their name on it after coming close thrice. It’s a good thing when supporters of the game are rewarded, whatever the politics of any situation.

American Pharoah had something to prove yesterday and he removed any doubt as to his superior class and brilliance. How superior, and how classy he is in a historical context is the only question left to answer.

That, and whether the plate he wears on his left fore to protect his frog eventually catches up with him. Hopefully, it’s something that he will continue to deal with in the future.

There was talk Sunday morning that the top three finishers will do it again in two weeks, and that’s been a long time coming. Baltimore--even as insignificant as the Preakness is in the city’s big picture, certainly could use a boost, too.

Along with the usual array of new shooters, Mark Casse, whose horses ran great all weekend, said he would look at the Preakness. Frosted is most likely to await the Belmont but this is racing, and things change.

BETS ‘N PIECES: If American Pharoah was great, which he was, then Bayern was awful, unable to beat a horse. The quirky surface may or may not have had anything to do with it; which is a good possibility. Probably wasn’t going to handle Private Zone in the Churchill Downs Sprint any event; he’s as hickory as they make’m…Todd Pletcher has made no Preakness plans at this juncture re his three Derby runners; Stanford, withdrawn after entering the Derby, will run in Baltimore… Speaking of Pletcher-trained three year olds, Competitive Edge may be the best of them, winning in the inaugural Pat Day Stakes in electric style; his flat mile in 1:34.18 smashed a decades-old stakes record (formerly run as the Derby Trial)…

Is there any doubt that Divisidero, winner of the American Turf Stakes, is a budding three year old turf star? Divisidero vs. Bolo; would pay to see that one…A Lot got late in the shadow of the wire, as if in need of the race; stakes win coming soon, mark it down…Judy The Beauty spotted Dame Dorothy three pounds and conditioning, beaten only a neck in the G1 Humana Distaff; excellent return performance. Fourth finisher Sweet Reason loomed boldly but was one-paced in the final furlong; will benefit, mark that one down, too…

Tonalist finished great winning the Westchester at Belmont Park, where he’s never lost in four starts Equipped with "cheater" blinkers, he was sharp and strong…

Would love to have been a fly on the wall during the Ken Ramsey-Chad Brown confrontation over Stephanie’s Kitten, resulting in a program scratch from the Woodford Reserve Turf Stakes. Brown, meanwhile, was at Belmont Park saddling Rosalind to win the Sheepshead Bay. Did he prefer to be in New York, or was the decision made after the disagreement?

Written by John Pricci

Comments (20)


Monday, April 27, 2015

If Baffert Runs 1-2 in Derby 141, What Then?

PLANTATION, FL., APRIL 27, 2015—Here we are, Derby Week 141, and I still can’t conjure up a field with more brilliance, potential greatness, this rich in talent. There are five days remaining now so no defections, please.

One or more of these colts, headed by American Pharoah, might be one of the ones of history, but I do not deign to call any one of them a special horse. All Thoroughbreds are special.

And, besides, any trainer who stands in front of a microphone or notepad this week will say that his horse is special, whether he is or not: There are owners to cajole, after all.

It is almost universally acknowledged by anyone who has seen him race that American Pharoah could be a “freak,” a crude term for the highest accolade in this sport of paupers and kings.

Many observers believe they saw what they needed to when American Pharoah rated comfortably in second before effortlessly—no hyperbole, just fact—sweeping to command and blowing the Arkansas Derby wide open at headstretch.

There are two things related to his style that are missing from completing the equation. The leader was quarter-horsed from the first jump in a catch-me-if-you-can gambit. If you can’t say rabbit-like, I can.

Further, as was mentioned, and the hope of all rival trainers, no one knows whether or not he will pass an eyeball-to-eyeball, fetlock-to-fetlock confrontation, and that includes Bob Baffert.

But there are two saving graces about that: The race shape/trip might not require as much and none of his 19 rivals will be capable of pushing him to that degree, if so, they’ll make that commitment at their peril..

How this all shakes out depends on two more things; post-position draw, of course, and the break from the gate. Variables such as crowd noise and field size add to the puzzle.

I freely admit that I don’t know what to expect. I’ve spoken with two horsemen on the subject this week, world famous Mike De Kock and recently unretired Brooklyn legend John Parisella.

On last week’s NTRA conference call, and on my cell later that afternoon, I asked both men the same question: “Is there anything about American Pharoah’s constitution, demeanor, action or running style that could compromise his chances?”

They had the exact same answer: “No weakness.”

Elsewhere, Steve Cauthen used the word "freak" to describe American Pharoah's ability. "Super horse" is what Todd Pletcher called him; "lengths ahead of Dortmund" was how Wayne Lukas put it.

Of course, words like these have been used to describe many Derby wunderkinds--but that's why races are run between wooden fences on dirt, not on paper.

I've never bothered to ask about Baffert’s “other horse,” an inappropriate description considering all he’s done is win six races in which he’s run, including one over the Churchill surface.

I’ve seen all of Dortmund’s races, as have many of you. I can’t find fault with any of them, nor with him; so agile for a horse of 17 hands, one that can beat you in so many ways.

Speaking of paper, will it be long before some enterprising sports book sets a price on a winning Baffert Derby quinella?

Shortly after last Tuesday’s call, a colleague called to ask this hypothetical question:

“What if the Baffert horses were to finish 1-2? The winner obviously goes on to Baltimore; would he then skip the Preakness with the other one..?

“..Now let’s say he runs them both in the Preakness and they finish 1-2 again? Does he not run the runner-up in the Belmont, concerned he could cost himself the Triple Crown..?

“..What do you think he will do?”

“Can’t trick me,” I said. “That’s three questions.”

But very good questions, indeed.

First, assuming continued good health for both colts and coming out of their races well, the fact they are owed by separate interests deliciously complicates matters.

A few scenarios, then:

American Pharoah pulls a Point Given: Whether it be lack of stout conditioning, pilot error, whatever, he finishes second or worse in Kentucky but showed he truly belongs. He might have been trip compromised and was quite probably best on the day… but his stablemate wins.

I’d figure that both American Pharoah and Dortmund run back in the Preakness. Clearly, the Derby winner goes to Baltimore. However, if Dortmund loses, he skips Baltimore and ships to Long Island.

Now, if they should they finish 1-2 again, with American Pharoah winning, the Belmont wicket gets really sticky. With a Triple Crown on the line, and with Dortmund appearing the more likely to handle 12 furlongs, what then? Does he derail his and Shah’s Triple Crown dreams?

If there were no Triple Crown on the line for American Pharoah, it’s Haskell Invitational here we come. After all, Baffert’s only won seven of those, four times in the past five years.

As of right now, however, only Saturday matters.

When deciding between divergent paths, Baffert, like most horse trainers, will opt on the side of cash. But these are Triple Crown races, the most coveted prize for any owner. For Baffert, it would be a nice dilemma to have.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (6)


Page 9 of 103 pages « FirstP  <  7 8 9 10 11 >  Last »