Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Gulfstream Park Officially Has Run Out of Time

We’ve been sitting on the sidelines observing but now must jump into the Internet fray: The penny-wise, perception-foolish damage being caused by Gulfstream Park’s timing issues have come to a head in recent weeks and inaction can no longer stand.

The track must hire an experienced clocker, a designated Official Timer, a person indicated as such in the official track program.

I made my handicapping bones in New York where there always has been an official timer, and I made an assumption that this is the way it’s done everywhere.

Well, you know what they say about people who assume things.

With industry employment opportunities limited, this person need not be paid a fortune to assume this vital role. But an Official Timer should not be partly funded by, say, a horsemen’s group, nor should the task be the responsibility of Equibase chart callers.

Chart callers already shoulder a heavy burden of responsibility for making accurate calls and race descriptions; footnoted observations in service to the horse-playing public.

On its face, the timing process might appear to be routinely mundane, especially considering today’s ever-increasing reliance on enhanced technology. But that would be a superficial assessment; a trained eye is a valuable asset.

Video should exist as an enhancement to the initial critical thinking that begins at the outset of the chart-creation procedure. Result charts is the place where serious handicapping research begins.

Solving the timing issue is not a difficult fix. In the past, Gulfstream management has been responsive to suggestions that have a win-win component.

Anyone who disagrees that the track has not been receptive in the past is welcome to explain what disqualifies Gulfstream management from consideration of one of the country’s most approachable management teams. I wouldn't know where to begin arguing with overarching trend-busting success.

Interminable post-dragging notwithstanding, of course.

This past Saturday, several of the races were extremely troublesome: I saw a five-furlong turf race won by Spellker with splits of [rounded] 25-change and 48-change, with a final time of 59 and change.

On Saturday’s course those fractions would have been virtually impossible, especially with respect to the opening 1/4-mile. Routinely, a horse that runs an opening quarter of 25+ in a five-furlong Gulfstream turf sprint would be fifth by 10 at that point of call.

When I checked the chart for the Saturday allowances won by Spellker, the Equibase recorded times in the result chart were N/A, N/A and 56.65, which would have been impossible given the Trakus fractions we saw, hence the fractions were “unavailable.”

Turf times in general, because of movable rails and disparate run-up gate placements, have always been the subject of a great deal of skepticism and lack of confidence in the accuracy of reported race times.

In another race, the Trakus Chiclets--an innovation we have loved since its inception because it provides an instant picture of where every horse is racing, particularly useful when trying to identify hidden, between-rivals runners--went completely off the rails.

It showed two horses--one on the far outside, the other inside—moving erratically, forward and back four or five positions in the twinkling of an eye for a major portion of the backstretch run. Clearly, there was a malfunction in that instance.

I have heard a suggestion that if Trakus were to remain Gulfstream’s official timing company, perhaps only the Chiclets should remain while the races themselves are timed from another source. Whatever the fix, two things need to happen.

Trakus should send the best technicians available to fix the problem once and for all, however long that takes. It could save them money in the long haul if one day it could be proven legally that timing errors were badly damaging the track’s brand.

If bettors lose confidence because running times--the game’s only absolute truth--are proving inaccurate, that could result in a loss of business. The track doesn’t want that and neither should the serious player or racing fan.

The best solution would be an Official Timer solely in the employ of Gulfstream, verifying that the times posted are accurate, at least within 20/100s of a second. In qualified hands that would not be a problem.

With so many bettors relying on speed figures in the modern era of handicapping and wagering, nothing is more important to the entire interrelated process than accuracy. This game is hard enough.

Gulfstream Park needs to step up here and hire an Official Timer so that the buck stops with them. An Official Timer must put a stopwatch on every race. Time has run out on patchwork fixes that simply haven’t worked.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, February 28, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Costly But Fun Day at Tampa Bay

In the modern era, I’ve always thought of Tampa Bay Downs, the old stomping grounds of a race caller named Tom Durkin, as “The Little Track That Could.”

Back in the day, it completed a circuit with Finger Lakes and other small U.S. tracks and one year, if memory serves, it had a jockey colony a 100+ riders, half of whom you’ve never heard of, then or since.

But ever since it began getting noticed by the Horseplayers Association of North America for its player friendly menu of big competitive fields, replete with a great turf course and a demanding, safe, albeit sometimes quirky, main track.

Tampa’s been growing in all the right places while maintaining the character it’s always had, a quaint, friendly place that presents racing old school style, one appreciated not only by people from my generation but those of present and future compeers.

It’s still very much a place for racing fans, families and, of course, has developed into one of winter racing’s more popular simulcast signals, holding its own with much bigger kids on the block.

On a clear, low 70’s Florida variety of winter afternoon, racing was rocking in Oldsmar for the Tampa Bay Festival Preview program, a highly entertaining warmup to Tampa Bay Derby day, March 11. The most heartening part was that the audience was diverse.

Horseplayers and families filled the track’s apron, taking every seat available. For racetrack fare, the food is very good and the prices are fair. They stick to the basic staples and do them well.

The joint jumped with a paid admission of 5,420, crowded but not too, and with a good, old school racetrack vibe. The folks on hand, combined with the simulcast crowd, pushed nearly $9.5 million through the tote.

Walking through the building, it appeared that more TV monitors had been added since the last time we came through here, but looks can be deceiving. It was actually the same amount of TVs, just larger screens of the flat-screen HD variety.

There was ample, free seating in a typically older but clean, well maintained grandstand area. And there weren’t many empty seats among the 112 second-floor boxes we walked passed, of which 101 are sold out for the season spanning late November through Kentucky Derby day.

Saturday’s main track was a throwback to an earlier era. The track was lightning fast for the big day with speed closest to the rail holding a pronounced advantage in sprints, one which typically produces off-pace runners in races rounding two turns. Check and check.

With the Sam F. Davis, newly and deservedly graded, was named for one of the original owners of the track, a colorful man who loved to bet his money.

Durkin, who wore many hats during his formative career years, made the early program line in those days and Davis always kept a watchful eye on those posted quotes, especially the longshots.

Nowadays, however, Davis probably would have been categorized--in the words of one racing official recently--as a “horse-playing degenerate.” That executive subsequently has apologized the remark but unfortunately words cannot be unheard. I digress.

The about-time newly-graded “Sammy” turned out to be a great prep race and an excellent jumping off point for race favorite and now #1 ranked Kentucky Derby horse in America, according to the nationwide NTRA poll, undefeated Churchill-loving McCraken.

He won making what has become his signature wide rally on the turn, inhaling the leaders quicker than I expected. He was fresh, but I didn’t expect him to be as ready as he was.

Given where he is in condition presently, I wouldn’t expect Ian Wilkes to lean on him too much in the coming weeks, especially since the colt’s scheduled to have two more preps, most likely back here next time for the Tampa Derby.

Don’t know exactly what Todd Pletcher will do with Tapwrit, another who showed more than we expected, a lot more frankly. Since he obviously likes it here, too, coming back to try McCraken again makes sense.

Tapwrit’s still working on his upside; McCraken is already there.

Mark Casse’s under-the-radar State of Honor looked more focused in his new blinkers, setting a strong, somewhat pressured pace, coming again late to secure third with the benefit of a re-rally made on the rail. It was a major step forward.

Wild Shot looked great in the paddock, ran a terrific race, being seriously urged to get into the fray approaching the far turn. He took the lead soon after entering the straight but tired in late stretch, as if short of top condition. He should benefit greatly.

No Dozing also had good, controlled energy in the ring, his coat was glistening, but then he went out and ran an absolute stinker. Trainer Arnaud Delacour seemed shocked by the performance, as were we.

Well supported Fact Finding was a little sleepy in the ring and went out and ran to those looks. He was undefeated in three prior starts on disparate surfaces, so perhaps it was just a case of having a bad day.

Our personal handle for the day was a little lower than our typical Saturday gambling sessions at the racetrack but you can’t churn dollars unless you win a few dollars along the way, which is what we did—win very few dollars.

But that won’t deter us from again making a 4+ hour drive north on Alligator Alley. We made it home a lot faster but if I told you how fast I’m afraid an overzealous trooper will find us and issue a summons retroactively. I suppose I could work out a payment plan…


Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 29, 2017

No Longer a Myth, Pegasus Soars

In a game built on history and hope, there never has been anything like this. In nearly five decades on the racetrack, nothing we’ve seen matched the level of anticipation and appreciation for the sport that was on display Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

Or, as winning trainer Bob Baffert put it: “They really pulled it off.”

There was no Triple Crown on the line, only two great champions in a reprise of what became an instant rivalry: America’s Horse and his groupies in pitched battle with a newly crowned Horse in the World.

We are blessed to have spent countless exciting days on the job and have seen pretty much everything there is to see in a sport where no one can nor will ever see it all.

The thrill of watching fast and beautiful beasts in competition, straining into their bridles and against each other, beneath men whose hearts are as big as their bodies are diminutive.

We have 24 living memories of Breeders’ Cups past, a witness and chronicler of crushing disappointment; Zenyatta proving to be only human in the gloaming of Churchill Downs, but only that one time.

And every Belmont Stakes stakes since Damascus in 1967*, at Aqueduct of all places, but there were the three that stood out above the rest.

From Big Red of Meadow Stable in 1973, to a Smarty party-crasher in 2004, to a selfie celebration that ensued at the end of an arduous road, a family pet of a Thoroughbred and resplendent equine athlete that breathed life back into a sport 42 years later, however briefly.

But January 28, 2017 at Gulfstream Park was different from all those. In a sport where the past meets the future every day, up popped something that was at once brand new and yet a throwback to centuries ago when one man said to another, “I’ll bet my horse can beat your horse.”

I checked her out...she's clean.
On the afternoon of Pegasus I, women were dressed to the nines, replete with their come-hither Manolos and ornate hats. But, too, it was the usual snowbird crowd, in short cargo pants and hideous ripped-at-the-knees blue-jeans.

Men in sport coats is not that unusual in Hallandale this time of year, but on Saturday there were more neckties per capita than ever have been seen here. They showed respect for an event wishing to witness history. In return, they all got more than they bargained for.

The event was exclusive to the point that one could go from zero to C-note in the blink of an eye. It was built and they came. And they never stopped coming. When athletic titans clash, ATMs be damned.

Standing in the paddock ring awaiting the photo of the ninth race bang-bang finish, track announcer Pete Aiello informed the crowd that the million-dollar guaranteed Late Pick 4 pool had just been doubled.

As wagering on the final Pick 3 of the 12-race afternoon commenced, fans and the curious continued to walk through the ubiquitous metal detectors of today’s world, ponying up the same $100 had they arrived in time for the early double at 11:30 am.

Finally, immediately after Taghleeb proved the most long-winded of them all in the McKnight turf marathon, it was time for the main event. The crowd inside the paddock was as large a typical Florida Derby gathering--with another 18 minutes before the horses were called on stage.

The crowd surrounding the walking ring with the tight turns was larger than Gulfstream’s signature event; much larger, no small feat considering their premier event for three-year-olds had a 65-year headstart.

One of several Chromie sections
Fittingly, it was the 2016 sophomore Eclipse champion that led 11 rivals into the ring, his Horse of the Year rival bookending the field, the horse with the truncated name. Like Elvis or Lebron or Adele, he was simply Chrome, and Chrome's fans travel.

And so the ring was boarded on all sides, dwarfing all the Florida Derbies that have been held at the new Gulfstream Park and Casino, born in 2006.

Magic Mike Smith acknowledges a Higher Power
The stadium seats were full. Standing in front and behind them were double-lines of people, a sea of cell phones and tablets that will prove they were there when the great California Chrome passed the torch to the great Arrogate.

It was the same on the second floor, people lining the paddock area and stairways three levels high, row after row of onlookers craning their necks to get a closer look at the best horses in America and beyond: Horse of the Year vs. Horse of the World.

The Horse of the Year didn’t deserve to go out the way he did, his right front knee betraying him as he appeared to struggle in the cuppy footing despite having three weeks of practice over it.

Ironically, the inaugural running of the Pegasus turned out to be the sport of horse racing encapsulated: The game in which the highs are the highest and the lows bottomless.

But they “pulled it off,” indeed, as 12 million begat 40 million, and a luminescent star was born, a horse that no one has seen the bottom of thus far, not even those closest to him.

And so a horseman who celebrated the biggest win of his life that launched a Hall of Fame career with a victory at our father’s Gulfstream of 1992 returned with a champion to pull off the success of the richest horse race ever staged, one born an instant classic.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Hallandale Beach, FL, January 28, 2017

*correction made 7:26 pm, 013017

Written by John Pricci

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