Sunday, March 01, 2015

Racing’s Mixed-Message Adjudication Process Lacks Appeal

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 1, 2015—There were three official rulings this week that, while punitive, illustrate how much racing at once either shows favoritism to rules violators or punishes others unduly by levying penalties that are inappropriate for the infraction, one way or another.

There is a legal system meant to protect every American’s rights, then there’s racetrack law whereby racing commissions in different states act as judge, jury and executioner. When the sport’s rules adjudicators fail to demonstrate they care about the message they send to bettors and fans, it’s the game that ultimately pays the price.

The first ruling involves the 60-day suspension and $10,000 fine meted out to trainer A. C. Avila as a result of his second-time starter California-bred Masochistic, badly beaten by state-bred peers in his SoCal debut, shipped to Kentucky for a Derby-day open maiden allowances which he won by 14 lengths in 1:08 4/5 as the 2-1 favorite.

To its credit, the California Horse Racing Board rejected the original penalty proposed by a CHRB hearing officer calling for Avila to serve a 30-day suspension and fined $5,000. The eventual ruling doubled the punishment for the Class 3 drug that carries a Category B penalty classification.

The drug involved was acepromazine, a tranquilizer commonly used when horses are shipped from one venue to another. This is standard operating procedure, a commonly accepted, legal and ethical practice throughout the industry.

But Masochistic testing positive for a tranquilizer that tested 40 times over the legal limit? This is nothing short of tampering with a sporting event--across state lines yet. Considering that officials questioned the debut performance of Masochistic's jockey Omar Berrio, Avila is fortunate he is not serving those 60 days in jail.

On March 1, Daily Racing Form New York correspondent David Grening reported that trainer Rudy Rodriguez will begin serving a 25-day suspension on Thursday and fined $2,500 when two horses he trained, which finished first and second, were found to have overages for Flunixin, a.k.a. Banamine, a therapeutic non-steroidal anti-inflammatory.

In the story, Rodriguez’ attorney Karen Murphy said she thought the penalty was excessive given that the New York Racing Commission had suspended trainer David Cannizzo for 45 days when three of his horses tested positive for the illegal narcotic Darvon, which no longer is permitted to be sold in the U.S.

Cannizzo’s brother Jeffrey is Executive Director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders Assn.

Murphy told the DRF that she accepted the penalty because she said her client was told that if he was going to fight the suspension, “he was going to get hammered.” Murphy was unavailable for comment after a message was left on her cell phone Sunday afternoon.

That would not be dissimilar to the fate suffered by Rodriguez’ former boss, Rick Dutrow, who appealed a 90-day suspension that New York's State Racing and Wagering Board turned into a 10-year license revocation.

In the matter of Richard E. Dutrow before the SRWB on May 31, 2011, Hearing Officer Clemente J. Parente's explanation of how the administrative process works perhaps is what Murphy was intimating. [Beginning on page 10, line 21, of the SRWB report]:

“This is an administrative proceeding. The rules of the State Administrative Procedure Act apply. The board rules apply consistently with the State Administrative Procedure Act. Strict rules of evidence do not govern. Hearsay is permitted…”

Case law, however, would have deemed revocation improper: In the Avery Rechter case, as presented by defense counsel Michael Koenig Esq. [page 15, line 25]:

“If an individual has a right – this is a right to appeal – it must be a meaningful one. And a meaningful right cannot exist if, when exercised, it results in a heightened punishment. A right to appeal is no right at all if when exercised a greater punishment can be sought…”

“That’s not the world I want to live in,” Murphy said in the DRF story relative to the Rodriguez case, “but this is the world we are living in.”

The question is: Is this the world any American wants to live in?

In a non-related--but not insignificant matter--the Gulfstream Park stewards suspended jockey Jose Ortiz for three days, beginning Wednesday, for his ride aboard Upstart in last weekend’s Fountain of Youth Stakes. Upstart was placed second following his apparent victory over Itsaknockout.

On Friday, agent Jimmy Riccio said that the rider would not appeal the suspension that runs through Friday. Since there is no racing at Gulfstream Wednesday to accommodate the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-old sale, the suspension is effectively a two-day ban.

This leaves the connections of Upstart and the bettors who made Upstart the Fountain of Youth’s odds-on favorite as the biggest losers.

Given the last two scenarios, the Rodriguez suspension could have resulted in a lose-lose situation on appeal, whereas Ortiz simply can make a short jaunt to the Bahamas for a little R & R.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

State of Confusion

Horses movin’ out, horses movin’ in,
Because their runnin’ out’ their skin,
Run, run, run, but you sure can't hide
A lane for a lane, horses bearin’ out
Bet on me and I'll pay the fee
Ride on, brother, ride on.

But more on the Gulfstream stewards later.

How about those Derby preps?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 22, 2015--Fountain of Youth favorite Upstart did everything right except get the money. But, as stated, more on that later.

As the three year olds entered in the short stretch of the mile and a sixteenth Fountain of Youth Stakes, the newly blinkered Frosted created a little separation.

Then, just as quickly and, frankly, disappointingly, he shortened stride and bore out into the hindquarters of Upstart.

At the point Frosted appeared to be on his way, Jose Ortiz was working on Upstart which, at the time, was running in place.

But when Frosted began to shorten stride, Upstart lengthened his and was about to join his rival as Itsaknockout, now in full stride, loomed up and momentarily appeared set to run right on by.

For an instant there were three across the track, then Frosted dropped out and when that happened, the undefeated Todd Pletcher trainee had reached almost even terms and it looked like it was going to be a horse race.

But Upstart would have none of it. He showed his class, asserted himself, bothering Itsaknockout but, by the time it was over, he was 2-3/4 lengths in front at the wire.

When the official chart arrived in the press box, all were incredulous that the margin was that big.

Of course, Rick Violette was extremely disappointed in the eventual outcome, but not in Upstart.

“He’s a good horse, Violette said. “Again he was wide on both turns, the horse ran great.” When he was reminded that he had an experience edge over the eventual winner, he looked the reporter in the eye and simply said: “Six pounds.”

Violette was, of course, correct, as Upstart, beneath 122 pounds, spotted Itsaknockout six pounds.

In finishing second, Itsaknockout ran extremely well. “I feel bad for the connections of the other horse,” said Pletcher.

“But we definitely got impeded and Luis [Saez] had to stop riding for a couple of strides. I don’t know how it would eventually affect the outcome.”

“Bad call,” said Violette. “[The stewards] have to understand that when a horse gets hit behind the girth, the only place the horse can go is to the right.”

Then Violette said: “Don’t know what’s next, but we might have to go to New York.”

As for Frosted, “he just pulled himself up,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin explained. “We don’t know whether it was from hitting him. I think the blinkers helped, but not the last quarter. We thought we were a winner turning for home.”

The time over a tiring surface was a very ordinary 1:46.28, with a final sixteenth in a very slow 7:30 seconds. The horses were racing into a fairly significant headwind in the stretch.

The Main Man: Given his Eclipse winning record of four consecutive Grade 1s, it’s difficult to accept the idea but the fact is that Turf Champion Main Sequence might just be a better horse in 2015.

What else can you say about a horse that looked beat on the inside into the stretch, allowed surface loving Twilight Eclipse to separate himself from the field nearing the sixteenth pole, then ran the defending Mac Diarmida winner down before drawing off to his largest margin in his undefeated U.S. career, a whopping 3/4s of a length!

Main Sequence ran his final three furlongs in 34 4/5 seconds. “It sure felt like it,” said a very happy Rajiv Maragh.

“He was awesome,” said a liberated/reprieved Graham Motion. “He broke well and for one minute I thought he might be a little close. I think every time this horse has run he has improved, his behavior has improved. He was good as gold today in the paddock, which really impressed me. I think he kind of won for fun, to be honest.”

Motion might have been a little more anxious than Main Sequence has been before his races, feeling the pressure of bringing an undefeated-in-the-U.S. champion to win at not be at tops, saving a little something for the next one.

“It’s a huge relief,” Motion admitted. “I think Rajiv has a pretty good rapport with him. He knows what it takes, and [Main Sequence’s] just got some turn of foot. I think he’s a horse that can overcome whatever. Because he’s got that turn of foot it doesn’t really matter where he is. You don’t have to make excuses for him because he can overcome it.

Clearly this was a big boost for Maragh who recently returned from injury after spending nearly four months on the ground, has gotten off to a slow start at the Gulfstream meet, but got the mount back on his ‘big horse’ yesterday. Johnny Velazquez rode him to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

“It’s very special. It just goes to show you what kind of people I’m dealing with from the owners, the trainer and John Velazquez. He rode him in the Breeders’ Cup perfectly and won. He compensated me, which shows what an honorable guy he is. He didn’t have to do that. Everybody involved with this horse all deserve this. Special horse, special people.”

“On to Dubai, hopefully. Fingers crossed,” said Motion, obviously referring that he continues to do well before shipping to the Middle East. As for the horse, Motion has it exactly right. With that kind of kick, Main Sequence makes his own luck.

Once Again, Zero Consistency from Racing’s Stewards: In full disclosure, I benefitted monetarily from Upstart’s disqualification in the Fountain of Youth.

But I did say to colleagues before the official was posted that not only had Upstart come out twice, bumping with Itsaknockout, but I thought once was enough to justify the DQ after seeing Luis Saez fight to maintain his balance in the saddle aboard the runner-up.

Now Red Board players will insist that the 2-3/4 length margin proves that the incident didn’t affect the outcome. I agree with Pletcher, making the case before the take-down that Itsaknockout reached near even terms shortly after entering the stretch and it looked like, to me anyway, that it was going to be a horse race.

When the press returned upstairs to write their stories, the conversation began anew. “What is the Florida interpretation of the [infractions] rule, same as California’s, New York’s?"

Good question, but the answer matters little.

Just like medication rules, interpretation of racing's rules vary from state to state and while jockeys might know what they can and cannot get away with, in terms of race riding, the public doesn’t, just as trainers are sometimes fooled by therapeutic medication rules; withdrawal times and the rest.

If the public doesn’t know what’s legal and what’s not, racing suffers, especially incurring the wrath of serious racing fans and bettors who make the whole enterprise possible.

I am not in favor of strict constructionist, “a-foul-is-a-foul” standards. I favor that stewards are not paid by the racetracks but the states, after passing a stewards’ bar exam, as it were. This should not be the purview of political appointees.

But, even if stewards were incompetent, there is no excuse for two things: the process--no matter how many times head-on and pan replays are shown--is still not transparent.

We have been promised video in the stewards’ stand here, just as surveillance cameras on the Santa Anita backstretch. Neither is in place and probably never will be as long as the game is allowed to police itself.

Is any more proof of this really required at this point in time in the sport?

However, the most unforgivable breach of trust with racing’s customers is the inexcusable inconsistency.

In a turf race immediately following the Fountain of Youth, the payoff race for the Rainbow Six, Pick Five and late Pick Four, the winner came out and bumped repeatedly the second finisher, significantly enough to affect the neck margin at the finish.

*If anything, the finale might have been worse because the horses did reach even terms, and after the rider of the inside horse switched the whip to his left hand, he came out twice, indeed knocking the runner-up off stride.

Or was there no change because the bothered horse, ridden by Javier Castellano, was getting a message from the stewards that they allowed him to get away with herding when his mount, House Rules, came in, forcing the runner-up to alter course in the Rampart earlier in the day?

(It highly likely didn’t affect the outcome, but Castellano could be seen tugging on the inside rein at the point of incident).

Or maybe the stewards didn’t want to take down two winners in a row to end the day?

Or maybe they remembered the bad public taste left from the highly controversial incident last season that allowed a huge Rainbow 6 jackpot to be carried over to the next day.

The only reason I raised these questions is that it occurred to me, and two other bettors who texted me late in the day with a mnessage ending with “only in Florida.”

Perhaps only in every racing state in America would have been more appropriate.

*Upon further review, edits was made at 4:06 p,m,, 022215 and 11:36 a.m. 022415

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Big Doings On and Off Track

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 19, 2015—It’s a good thing that Saturday’s card was drawn on President’s Day because handicappers—this one anyway, could use about a week to thoroughly analyze Saturday’s Fountain of Youth card.

Given first impressions of the Canadian Turf and Davona Dale Stakes, another 48 hours of study wouldn’t hurt. There are five more graded events, including the return of Horse of the Year finalist Main Sequence in the Mac Diarmida and another the forever meaningful Fountain of Youth.

And this doesn’t include a stakes-laden program at the Fair Grounds that features the always significant Risen Star, a full-lid for handicappers. Fortunately, Oaklawn Park had second thoughts and rescheduled Monday’s weather-scraped Southwest to Sunday instead of Saturday.

The spin was to give any new shooters and shippers an extra day; trying to avoid butting heads with Gulfstream and Fair Grounds. If that was the case, say it, the move makes good sense. Either way, fans and horseplayers will benefit from avoiding conflict overkill.

Actually, drawing the Fountain of Youth card was more about racing office scheduling than consideration for handicappers and fans. We have written often that in the simulcast era, all tracks should employ a 72-hour entry box; it’s about the customers, not the horsemen.

But then it’s about the horsemen, too. With more time to analyze the races, horseplayers are better prepared. Better prepared handicappers have more confidence and wager more accordingly. This is known as a win-win.

Will a universal 72-hour entry box become a rule rather than the exception? Insist on triple-digit odds before wagering on that prop.

(Meanwhile, expect full analytical coverage of the Fountain of Youth that will debut at HRI in Saturday’s Feature Race Analysis section).

Either way, when you show up at your favorite racetrack, simulcast venue or preferred easy-wagering chair, bring money. You’re going to need it.

Eclipse Justice Served: The all-powerful powers that be, in this case, the Eclipse Award Steering Committee with influence from the NTRA, National Turf Writers and Broadcasters,

and Daily Racing Form, jointly announced today that that two Eclipse Award categories have been renamed:

The Older Male category has been renamed Older Male Dirt, and Older Female has been newly minted as Older Female Dirt beginning with this year’s voting. Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Seriously, we’re very happen all have gotten the message that was backed in many precincts. Champion turf runners of both sexes will continue to compete in those classifications as Champion Turf Horse and Champion Female Turf Horse.

Synthetics specialists will be considered dirt horses. Rightfully, they deserve a category unto themselves and as long as there are enough racetracks ad top class horses that continue to compete on All Weather tracks.

At present, there are 17 categories that honor human and equine accomplishment.

THRTVG: Now there’s an acronym screaming to buy a vowel. So what’s going to happen to televised horse racing since the acquisition/merger of TVG and HRTV.

We’ve gotten some inquiries as to what we think this means, how it will be accepted, and what the face of televised horse racing will look like going forward.

My answer has been consistently the same: I don’t know, to the third power.

What I do know is that racing will have the capacity to reach more homes because TVG does. More live racing, eschewing delayed replays, more post parades, would be good things if it shakes out as promised.

Scheduling should improve, lowering the number of conflicting off times providing, of course, certain tracks get away from lengthy delays that believe will increase handle when the same bettors to their time that it is only a “suggested post time.”

Maybe if tracks offered fewer “Pick” races, with more quality content, the handle will take care of itself. Bankrolls, and patience, are finite things.

Speaking for Toni and myself, we were happy to read that “non-racing” horse programming will be maintained along with specialty shows that HRTV does so well, along with live streaming of its handicapping shows.

Good handicappers are worth their weight in gold; happy-talking-heads not so much.

I’m sure HRI’s Tom Jicha, who spent nearly a quarter-century writing his popular television column for the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, will have much more to say on Tuesday, right here, same bat time, same bat channel.

Written by John Pricci

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