Sunday, December 11, 2016

Racing’s History and Tradition Matters

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 10, 2016—Given the decline in horse racing’s popularity as a sport and business with the sporting public at large, there has been much hand wringing about how the game should be marketed.

Is it a sport? Is it a gambling game, in which skill most often decides the difference between the thrill of victory and the agony of emptied wallets?

I personally believe there’s room for both, accentuating the fact that horse racing--even more than handicapping and gambling on mainstream sports--is a thinking person’s game if for no other reason there are more than two sides to every puzzle.

So what does all this have to do with the recent downgrading of both the storied Blue Grass and Wood Memorial Stakes and, to a lesser extent the Mother Goose distaff for racing’s three-year-old glamour division?

Before considering the current status of these events we agree with those who certified the uplifting of the Pennsylvania Derby to Grade 1. As the HorseRaceInsider faithful are well aware, Mr. Jicha and I have been calling for such a move for several years.

However, the elevation of the race that has attracted high profile talent is the result of factors beyond the prestige normally associated with a Grade 1 designation.

Equi-distant from both the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic, it is the only opportunity for three-year-olds to run for a cool million and a Grade 1 title in their own division.

The Pennsylvania Derby is at once a chance for late developers to throw their hooves into the championship ring with the potential of defeating a Triple Crown, Travers or Haskell hero because the connections of those events get $50,000 for just showing up.

Most horsemen and other industry stakeholders agree that money, Grade 1 status, and good spacing is a powerful trifecta.

But here’s what bothers me about the downgrading of two major three-year-old events that in the modern era are considered--unfairly in our view--mere preps, albeit major and lucrative ones for the world’s most famous horse race run on May’s first Saturday.

Thoroughbred racing deserves the criticism it gets for living in the past when it comes to course correction for the future. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with its past, a foundation that has given well rounded sports fans a lifetime of passionate memories.

Add in color, pageantry and love for a majestic animal in a sporting context, it’s not difficult to fall in love with horse racing whether equine athletes win money for you or not--though winning is so much better.

Horse racing is nothing less than American history itself. And if people don’t understand that premise, buy them a copy of Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” or rent them the video for family viewing around their new smart TVs at Christmas time.

But what’s really bothersome about the downgrading of the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial is two-fold:

The Blue Grass takes place in the Thoroughbred nursery to the world and New York--despite the state’s thumb that acts like it would love to crush it into dust--is still this country’s most famous circuit and its betting volume leader.

The New York circuit also happens to be the home of one of America’s Top 10 sports venues and the Wood the defining race of the spring racing season conducted in “the greatest city in the world.”

So do 11 people have a right to throw the racing history made in Lexington Kentucky and New York City into the trash bin of antiquity? Don’t these regions deserve to host a Grade 1 event for three-year-olds in the spring?

Recent editions of the Blue Grass and Wood have left much to be desired, obviously. All know this. But between the major competition these races face and modern training programs, something had to give. Who’s to say this just isn’t be a bad cycle? Consider:

How many more winners would these races have produced in eight, 10 or 12-horse Kentucky Derby fields? How many more winners would they have produced had racetracks in Arkansas and Louisiana not thrown a million dollars at their state’s Derby?

Southern California’s 4-out-of-5-year Kentucky Derby hot streak notwithstanding, where would all those East and Midwestern-based three-year-olds raced in the past? Would Lexington be in that mix? Would New York?

What would happen if Keeneland and Aqueduct raise the purse of the Blue Grass and Wood to $1,500,000? I’ll tell you what would happen: Bob Baffert would ship his horses further east.

Or what if Keeneland and NYRA decide to declare war on Gulfstream Park and move their races back a week so that horsemen would have a choice of three 35-days-to-Derby preps? I’ll tell you what would happen: All three would suffer.

The Blue Grass and Wood problem is more about money and scheduling than races suddenly deemed less-than by panel decree. There’s too much Grade 1 blacktype, too much money, in too many places and in all divisions given smaller foal crops.

Simply stated, the thought of Lexington and New York not hosting a Grade 1 three-year-old prep and traditional spring racing event is on its face preposterous. Racing tradition is more important than the fate of a geographical accidental tourist.

From an earlier Wood Memorial era, notable Derby losers included champions and super studs such as Tapit, Empire Maker, Unbridled’s Song, Easy Goer and Slew o’ Gold.

From the Blue Grass came Derby defeated Thoroughbred legends Pulpit, Skip Away, Holy Bull, Alydar and Round Table.

This is not only about the Kentucky Derby and their latter-day “preps.” Even in this era, all racing history matters.

Bad Weather, Good Day for Gulfstream’s Showcase Juveniles, Especially Pletcher’s

He didn’t win them all but did take four of the five races he entered. Todd Pletcher came away with sprint wins for Bode’s Dream, undefeated in three starts, and Sonic Mule, now 3-for-4 sprinting. Both will remain at shorter distances in the near future.

But his other two winners, plus one runnerup, highly likely will get their opportunities to see whether they belong with the soon-to-be three-year-old elites.

Main Track Only entrant Fact Check took advantage of the off-turf conditions and an outside draw, as did Tapwrit, to win their one-turn miles very well.

Tapwrit must have been a looker at auction. Even though a son of the remarkable Tapit, his $1.2 million purchase price was twice that of the average Tapit offspring, a big number considering there’s not a lot of stamina on the bottom side of Tapwrit’s pedigree.

Of Appealing Zophie’s four other foals to race, only two won and yesterday’s $75,000 listed race was the mare’s first offspring to win a race with a name attached to it.

As good as Tapwrit ran, his runnerup stablemate impressed more favorably. Master Plan, also boasting a sprinter/miler’s pedigree, finished strongly late, whittling down the winner’s 5-length midstretch margin to a length with a final quarter-mile in: 24 2/5.

But the best of the quartet was Fact Finding, a $523,000 two-year-old purchase who extended his undefeated record to three, winning the Smooth Aire by 7 widening lengths in 1:36.92--solid time in the sloppy conditions--after being hounded throughout by co-favorite Basha.

“He showed us today that he should be able to handle the stretch-out from a mile,” said the trainer seeking his 14th Gulfstream title. “The time stacked up favorable for the day; it was a quality effort.”

In other Showcase races, Lirica stretched her speed a mile to win the Hut Hut with authority for trainer Antonio Sano and Party Boat got up in the finale strides for Graham Motion, the juvenile filly’s third straight victory but first on dirt. Very nice filly.

Good News, Bad News for Baffert at Los Al

Mastery extended his undefeated record to three, winning the G1 Cash Call Futurity in his first start around two turns after re-adding blinkers. The win was his second at the graded level [B3 Bob Hope], Baffert’s ninth in the race. Mastery’s now won at every track in Southern California.

American Gal didn’t fare as well in the G1 Starlet, suffering a second consecutive ultra-wide journey going two turns, even if Saturday’s run was less eventful than her third place Juvenile Fillies finish. She seemed to have it in hand by tired in the final 100 yards.

But take nothing away from Abel Tasman, a winner of three straight herself, her second rounding two turns. Simon Callaghan’s filly finished very strongly under a confident Joe Talamo and had reserves in the tank at the end of the 1-1/16 miles.

“We decided to supplement her [$10,000] because she was getting good at the right time,” said Callaghan. “I thought she had the stamina for this race.”

Abel Tasman’s victory was good for 10 points towards an appearance in the Kentucky Oaks which is, of course, a sixteenth of a mile farther. “I think the distance is the key for this filly,” Callaghan added. The Quality Road filly underscored his opinion Saturday.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 04, 2016

An Event and a Meet You Can Bet On

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 4, 2016—There is something about an opening day at any racetrack that you have to love. Don’t know whether it’s the kind of energy that only excitement brings or if it’s just a different kind of vibe entirely

But the feeling is palpable, something you can sense when you walk around the building. That’s if you love being at the races, that is.

If you’re a local Gulfstream Park regular, it wasn’t as if such a long absence makes a heart grow fonder, beat faster.

The track has been open for simulcasting since the summer meet ended while the South racing went on eight miles to the west at GP West, which colleague Tom Jicha has aptly described as a demolition site with racetrack attached.

Reports about the state of “Calder” these days have been uniformly depressing. With no simulcasting available, the 25 minutes between races is interminable before you can make a bet. A special line had to be installed for the two days of Breeders’ Cup.

In all, there are two walk-around tellers and four standing SAM machines for the public. The two machines in the horseman’s lounge probably out-handle the other six. It’s no wonder parent Gulfstream prefers fans to wager at Gulfstream during the hiatus. But not on Saturday.

It was racing as usual at what correctly is being billed as a historic meet with the advent of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational. And it’s evident that the track is getting in preparedness for the Jan. 28th event, one week after it again plays host to Eclipse Award ceremonies.

Fresh coats of paint are evident; a re-designed dining room taking shape; new chandeliers and paintings decorate the third floor where Christine Lee’s lives, and new couches and mirrors to line the plushy carpeted halls outside the pay-for-play suites are in transit.

On other opening days, the usual topics were discussed. Does Chad Brown now have the ammunition to dethrone Todd Pletcher’s stranglehold on this meet, will Javier Castellano do it again, and will Ken Ramsey?

And while discussion of soon-to-be three-year-olds never got out of style—and this year’s South Florida collection is particularly deep, no one talks about who’s going to run in the Donn, but the Pegasus?

There’s no ducking that topic as the event looms over this meet just as the world’s largest winged horse of mythology looms over the building a ¼-mile away on the northwest corner of the property.

Pegasus at the Gates of Gulfstream Opener

Will there be a Breeders’ Cup Classic rematch the racing world clamors for happen, will the uniquely bazaar event be an aesthetic and financial success? Hell, will fans that have never paid admission to see live racing pony up a C-note just to enter the building?

Maybe the vibe is different this year because a little anxiety was adding to the excitement level. There is one certainty, however. This will be different.

And before you can say nay, think about all the people who lost their money betting against Frank Stronach in the past.

--Local trainer Jena Antonucci said it best in the days leading up to Saturday’s Claiming Crown program: “I think it’s great to be able to showcase these horses. They’re the backbone of the industry.

“Every trainer would love to have a barn full of stakes horses but that’s nearly impossible. Something like this allows the backbone of the industry to have their moment to be in the headlines.” To wit, some highlights:

: A modern-day Stymie? Maybe, maybe not. But when it comes to racing 9 furlongs, especially rounding two turns, place him squarely in that conversation. It what did not appear to be his ‘A’ race, In winning the Claiming Crown Jewel in consecutive seasons, Royal Posse improved his career slate to (34) 11-10-0, his ninth at the distance in 12 tries.

“I wasn’t worried. I know when he’s outside, he’s a grinder,” trainer Rudy Rodriguez said. “Luis [Saez] said as soon as he took him outside, he started grinding and grinding. That’s what he does most of the time.”

With yesterday’s winning share of the purse, the New York-bred five-year-old became racing’s newest millionaire. Not too shabby for a $20,000 claim in May of 2015.

Gallant New York Bred and His Posse

: It took a photo finish in the program finale to do it by Ken Ramsey won his 15th Claiming Crown event when Keystoneforvictory narrowly won the Emerald Stakes beneath Jose Ortiz, down from New York for the ride on the Mike Maker charge.

Ramsey has won at least one Claiming Crown race in seven of the last nine years. The victory was the third of the day for Ortiz, who won five races at Aqueduct Friday, and his second of the day for Ramsey, winning the open with maiden allowance juvenile filly Gentle Kitten, who looks like another nice turf prospect by Kitten’s Joy.

There’s just no quit in any sprinter trained by Jorge Navarro. The Delaware Valley-based trainer won the CC Rapid Transit wire to wire by 6-3/4 widening lengths with Shaft of Light and the CC Express with Defer Heaven under clever handling from Emisael Jaramillo.

The excitement in their faces was palpable when Stronach Group paddock analyst Gabby Gaudet interviewed her sister, Lacey, after the latter saddled Marabea to victory in the CC Tiara.


Haltered by Gaudet for $25,000 at Saratoga, the four-year-old filly won a win-and-you’re-in starter allowances at Laurel and repeated in the $125,000 turf route under a perfectly timed late run engineered by Jose Lezcano.

“I was nervous,” Gaudet admitted. “I thought she was going to [get] in trouble but you’ve got to be confident with a rider like Lezcano. He put her in the spot where he knew she need to be and he figured out the right moment and got there in time. He did a great job.”
As did Gaudet.

: Jockey Nik Juarez rode the hair off Super Spender for Jane Cibelli to take the CC Canterbury, knifing his way between runners in midstretch before exploding home for the score. Coming off a career best prior, this clearly is a late developing gelded four-year-old turf sprinter…

Chepstow might have had a tactical edge with his noted early speed and pole position to win the CC Iron Horse in the short-stretched 1-1/16 miles but in no way did that or the narrow victory margin diminish his effort. Quarter-horsed by Edgard Zayas after a flat-footed start, he was hustled to the front, took pressure, and gamely resurged to defeat a perfect-tripping runnerup…

After a good trip for the first half of the CC Distaff Dash, Ortiz got himself out of a jackpot, made his way between rivals and was striding away late with Spectacular Me for familiar New York connections, Winning Move Stable and trainer Steve Klesaris. The winner was bred by the University of Kentucky.

It is approximately 24 hours after the fact and there’s still no way to see $6,250 claim Tomenta de Oro for owner/trainer Patrick Marcondes. The $91.80 winner of the aptly named CC Glass Slipper was the only highlight for Gators fans on SEC Championship day. The four-year-old daughter of Benny the Bull was bred by the University of Florida. What’s that, a gazillion-to-one parlay?

Last year, Gulfstream Park set a record Claiming Crown handle of $10.3 million. This year, and for the fifth consecutive year since Gulfstream began hosting the event, handle rose again, reaching $11.1 million on the 11-race program.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Justice Remains Delayed in Dutrow Case

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 20, 2016—Last weekend, trainer Kellyn Gorder began a 60-day suspension nearly two years after one of the horses he trained tested positive for methamphetamine following a race at Churchill Downs.

The suspension was the result of an agreement negotiated with stewards, one subsequently upheld by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Gorder was initially suspended for 14 months for the positive test and discovery of a syringe during a related barn search.

Methamphetamine is classified as a Class A violation but the penalty was reduced to a Class B violation after further testing determined that the methamphetamine discovered was an ingredient in a popular over-the-counter medication.

At face value, reason and justice seems to have prevailed in this instance. But when measured against the way many violations have been handled, it points out how uneven justice is meted out in the racing industry.

Come January 7, 2017, Rick Dutrow will begin his fourth year of a 10-year suspension when a barn search and drug test detected the presence of Butorphanol, an analgesic pain killer having yet-to-be-proven performance-altering properties.

Butorphanol is highly controversial because the time-frame of both its efficacy and withdrawal guidelines between administration and raceday is widely disputed. After all this time, why is this trainer still being singled out as the worst transgressor ever?

All this despite expert testimony debunking the findings and statements of state witnesses; documentation from the renowned drug laboratory at University of California-Davis and confirmed by findings from the Journal of Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics published in 2012, the year of Dutrow’s appeal.

Last year, HorseRaceInsider published an investigative series on the Dutrow case based exclusively on the evidence above. The series can be found in the HRI archives but the cliff notes version of the case against Dutrow is as follows:

The positive Butorphanol findings in the horse Fastus Cactus were highly dubious and there was meddling into New York’s administrative process by the president of a national regulatory organization, Ed Martin of National Racing Commissioners International.

The investigation demonstrated how Rick Dutrow Jr. was denied a license in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which added to a dossier compiled by the New York State Racing & Wagering Board that would suspend him 10 years for exercising his right to appeal.

The HRI investigation established how Dutrow was scapegoated because of his highly controversial and questionable past that had more to do with personal issues rather than racing ones and how the widely reported number of positives he recorded had more to do with legal med overages, or for conduct unbecoming.

Politically motivated, the hearing was about how he embarrassed the sport with admissions of anabolic steroid use, legal at that time, a period when the sport was under heavy scrutiny in the shadow of Barbaro’s 2006 Preakness breakdown, the catastrophic injury of filly Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and ending with Dutrow’s Big Brown failure to complete the course during his Triple Crown quest.

Dutrow’s problems began in the winter of 2010 when got a phone call from a member of the Kentucky Racing Commission asking him to come to a meeting when he arrived in Lexington that spring to run in two Grade 1 races at Keeneland.

After several conversations with commission personnel, Dutrow made arrangements to attend the meeting. Despite continually asking about the reason for the sit-down, he was told it was “only to clear up a few things, make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

At the meeting, Dutrow was asked to look at a series of documents. One was a license application from 2006 in which his New York secretary apparently had checked the wrong box. Based on that and pressure applied by Martin’s interference, his license renewal was denied.

In Administrative Hearings, rules of due process do not apply, hearsay is permitted, and defense attorneys lack the power to subpoena evidence it deems questionable. In this case, questionable practices surfaced during sworn testimony.

State investigator Joel Leveson testified that the syringes on his report and those entered in evidence were different sizes, also admitting later he failed to correct his original which originally indicated the liquid inside the needles were clear but later described as opaque.

It was further established that rules regarding a pristine chain of custody had been violated, discrepancies as to how the barn search came to be, who was present during the search of the barn office, the illegal search of a car belonging to barn personnel.

New York stewards abrogated its responsibility by failing to conduct their own investigation, citing “no licensing power,” but Queens District Attorney Jim Liander’s investigation informed defense counsel that he found issues he deemed “actionable.” That report indicating that the investigator lied under oath is out there if anyone seeking justice takes the time to revisit justice in this case.

Beyond that, as if more were needed, highly respected Dr. Stephen Barker Director of the Equine Medication Surveillance Laboratory in Louisiana and who typically testifies for prosecutors, testified as an expert witness for the defense, debunking the state’s drug findings.

Esteemed equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage testified on Dutrow’s behalf, stating he sent horses to Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital before their problems became insurmountable ones. An alleged “juicer,” Dutrow never a horse break down while racing at NYRA circuit track in 11 years.

Given the conflicting, inconsistent and flat-out false testimony, isn’t anyone after all this time willing to revisit this case in the interests of justice? Should innuendo and political expediency be enough to rob a man of his livelihood?

Written by John Pricci

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