Sunday, December 20, 2015

Campo To Discuss Harlan’s Holiday Incident with Gulfstream Stewards

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 20, 2015—As was promised late last week, we caught up with Gulfstream Park President P.J. Campo before the races on Saturday. We discussed areas of interest to two members of the HRI Faithful:

The first was the extremely-late rider change announcement involving leading rider Javier Castellano, who replaced Matthew Rispoli on the winning Valid prior to last weekend’s Harlan’s Holiday. Denny wanted to know if Gulfstream had any reaction.

Roger’s reference was to his first-hand eyewitness account of an “almost 30 minute delay” before an announcement was made that a turf race would be rescheduled to the main track after multi-race betting had begun. Both are regular posters.

With regard to the late surface-switch announcement, Campo denied that the delay took that long. “We have a protocol that we follow,” Campo said. “After we decide [a race will be rescheduled], calls are made to the horsemen, stewards, and mutuels so that ‘turf’ tickets wouldn’t be sold on that race.”

I suggested that track announcer Larry Collmus should be higher on the call list so that the public would be informed of the change as quickly as possible. Obviously, a surface switch profoundly alters the handicapping/betting process.

As for the Harlan’s Holiday, the Valid incident was placed at the feet of trainer Marcus Vitali. “We weren’t told about the rider change until much later,” said Campo.

I informed Campo that a post-race press release referred to a conversation between Vitali and Rispoli. Said Vitali: “…I had talked to Matt yesterday or the day before. Nothing personal, it was a business decision. He’s a great kid and he still rides for me, and we move forward.”

My argument was since betting was conducted and had been finalized in at least four multi-race pools, that if the stewards were not notified in a timely manner of the change then they should mandated that Rispoli ride as named or that Valid be scratched.

A rule exists that in stakes races a trainer has up until 45 minutes to scratch his horse. It is not specified whether that rule also extends to rider changes. If that is the case then the rule needs to be altered or scrapped entirely.

Perceptions notwithstanding, horseplayers are reasonable people. If a hellacious storm results in a track condition change or surface switch, a trainer should be allowed to scratch in the best interests of the horse, owner and, by extension, the betting public.

Absent that, it should be the responsibility of the stewards to protect the public. Unfortunately, racing officials are politically loathe to lord over horsemen.

All understand the business implications involved with regard to scratches, especially in jurisdictions where more than one steward is paid by the racing association.

Absent this, horsemen, whose purses are made possible by the betting public, have an obligation to the people who are betting those dollars.

The Valid incident is not over as per my conversation with Campo, who promised that he would have a conversation with the stewards about the issue.

Had the public been informed when daily changes are announced in advance of the card, all would have had a chance to view the Harlan’s Holiday from a different handicapping perspective; they were denied the necessary information.

Reasonable people will agree that what’s done is done. But this incident should never be repeated. The incident was totally unnecessary had Vitali made his intentions known to Gulfstream officials in a timely fashion after his conversation with Rispoli.

Guess the only reason Bob Baffert wasn’t winning his 10th Futurity Saturday is because American Pharoah was injured at this time last year and would not have been able to make the race.

Despite racing somewhat greenly, Baffert’s Mor Chances finished very well to defeat uncoupled mate Toews On Ice, who did all the dirty via a protracted pace battle; he didn’t deserve to lose. Time of 1:43.54 solid for 1-1/16 miles, final sixteenth in 06.56. Reverse the trips and…

XY Jet is a star in the making, taking the G3 Mr. Prospector by double-digits in 1:08.56. And, on the gallop-out, he didn’t look any more tired than those who chased him home. Three-year-old has come into his own and protem Sprint Champion Runhappy will have some big-time competition should both remain healthy in 2016.

If yesterday’s results mean anything, it won’t be long before the Tropical Park Oaks and Derby become graded events. Both were great betting races, full of quality and quality potential. Both races produced unbelievably thrilling finishes. Indeed, one blanket would have been enough to cover the first four finishers in both races!

Most interesting is that the leaders in each race remained right there at the end. Solemn Tribute hung on tenaciously to win the Tropical Derby and Celestine was beaten in the final few strides by Tammy the Torpedo.

Both had to battle northwest crosswinds that at times gusted to 35 mph. With trips too numerous to mention; checking video replays of both events is advised.

There were pair of entertaining baby races at Tampa Bay Downs. We don’t know that victories by Hidden Treat in the Sandpiper and Ishaq in the Inaugural will translate into scores in the Tampa Bay Oaks and Tampa Derby, respectively, but they can’t hurt.

Hidden Treat had to chase a very quick SoFla invader, Kandoo, before putting her away before holding off the ralliers. Considering she is by Lemon Drop Kid out a Medaglia D’Oro mare, Arnaud Delacour trainee certainly has a license to go longer.

The very fast Ishaq validated his huge-figure maiden score but was all out to do so over legitimate overlay Royal Summation in the Inaugural. By Harlan’s Holiday, he, too, should go on, but his style would seem to work against him.

The human stars in NoFla were Eoin Harty and Delacour. The latter, also saddled impressive debut winner Armoire, going a mile on the turf in solid time to win by 5. Harty, not known for winning with debut types, did it twice with a pair of Godolphin juveniles.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

For Pletcher, Castellano, Stewards and Bettors, Just Another Day at the Office

HALLANDALE BEACH, December 13, 2015—As the racing world is well aware, Todd Pletcher is going for his 13th consecutive South Florida training title this winter. And, yes, he does have the stock and the numbers to get that job done.

But when given an obvious advantage, there is enormous pressure to execute, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t make it look like breaking so many sticks.

There was much talk this summer and fall about Pletcher’s two-year-olds. Where were they at Saratoga and Belmont Park? Where were they on Breeders’ Cup day?

Guess many of them were late to develop. Through yesterday’s opener, he broke the maiden of six juveniles from seven starters. After Saturday’s fourth race, he was 7-for-8; better late than never one supposes.

It helps when you have a friendly condition book but then, as stated, you must execute. Most of these maiden breakers have been training in South Florida since early to mid-November. This streak is no happenstance.

The meet is one week old. Unless the sky falls, you can put the baker’s dozen in the books right now. It’s hard to win down here, yet Pletcher continuously makes it look so predictably easy.

The same can be said for Javier Castellano. He started the meet with a four-bagger on the Claiming Crown program. He had a riding triple yesterday, including a beauty aboard Harlan’s Holiday winner Valid, though we can’t say we liked the circumstances under which that was accomplished.

It’s not because it wasn’t nice when Castellano replaced young Matthew Rispoli at the last minute. Not that Rispoli could do anything about it; he’s currently riding at 27% for trainer Marcus Vitali, including Valid here, two starts back.

And it’s not that I can blame Vitali or the owners for wanting to ride the defending Gulfstream champion, who secured an unprecedented fourth straight title last winter. If Javier is available to ride your horse, you name him at time of entry.

But why yesterday’s extremely late change? I did not hear track announcer Larry Collmus state that there would be a change of riders until after the race immediately preceding the Harlan’s Holiday. Some never heard it:

“I didn’t even know Castellano was on the horse,” said Tom Jicha, who covered Saturday’s four stakes for the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, upon his return to the press box after post-race interviews.

If the stewards were doing their jobs, i.e., protecting the interests of the betting public, the change never should have been allowed.

The Harlan’s Holiday was the penultimate leg in Gulfstream’s highly successful lineup of horizontal wagers:

The sequences were five races into the highly publicized and well promoted Rainbow Six Jackpot, four races into the late Pick 5, and second-to-last leg in the Late Pick 4 and Pick 3.

From all sources, over $10.2 million was wagered on Saturday’s Gulfstream Park program, of which $526,701 was bet on the four horizontal wagers above.

Most bettors, including Gulfstream linemaker Jay Stone, thought the Harlan’s Holiday principally was a two-horse affair between the early line favorites; Horses for the Course Valid (5-2) and Madefromlucky (3-1).

Valid, dropping out of the tough-trip G1 BC Dirt Mile, brought a (10) 5-2-1 Gulfstream slate into the race. Madefromlucky, a dual Grade 2 winner this year, won both lifetime starts over the surface.

But when it came to speed figures, it was no contest. The gelded five-year-old had a huge edge on performance figures, earning two of the highest figures in the field on the Thoro-Graph scale and on our energy-distribution-based Race Dynamics Ratings.

For the uninitiated—and we’re speaking of many racetrack executives and racing officials—betting any popular sequential wager uses the same principle college basketball coaches use to describe success in the NCAA Tournament: survive and advance.

The figures suggests that Valid was a most viable single, especially given the mile and a sixteenth trip and upper-stretch finish line that strongly benefitted Valid.

Additionally, there were Pletcher’s pre-race comments that he expects to have a big year with Madefromlucky, the G1 Donn being the major winter target, and that nine furlongs, the distance of both his G2 victories, was his best trip.

However, when using the survive-and-advance tack; what does a handicapper do with the Harlan’s Holiday? Casting no aspersions, does one single the team of Vitali and Rispoli over Pletcher and Johnny Velazquez?

Of course not. For most handicappers, both horses must be used to advance to the final leg. But here’s the problem with using both horses: Whatever sequence you play, the cost of the ticket is doubled. Doubled!

But what if Castellano was named on the program; could one “gamble” with Castellano’s horse as a potential single, one who figured to have a good trip from a cozy inside slip with beneficial dynamics and a wide edge on numbers? Of course.

Am I a disgruntled bettor? Only mildly, since the 50-Cent Pick 4 returned only $178.90. We didn’t have it since, forced to use Madefromlucky and needing to single somewhere, we stood alone with Aztec Brave in the last-leg finale.

We decided to allow Reporting Star to beat us from post 10 going 7-1/2 furlongs on the turf with the rail out way in the middle of the course. Of course, Reporting Star beat us a nose after moving in several slips following a bevy of late scratches, including one at the gate.

As was much written everywhere during the recent hysteria over Fantasy Sports betting, there’s no greater game of skill that handicapping horse races with its myriad of factors requiring bankroll decisions before making a wager, especially hard-to-win sequentials.

With no slight of Rispoli, who we believe is a naturally talented and promising young rider, a video review of the Harlan’s Holiday will indicate that perhaps no jockey on earth could have ridden Valid any better than did Castellano.

He waited until the very last instant, moving at just the right instant to swallow an easy, loose-leading Mr. Jordan before opening enough separation which enabled him to last over a fast-finishing Madefomlucky.

To his credit, Castellano sounded sincerely apologetic in a closed-circuit post-race interview: “It’s a business. I feel bad for the other rider…they were looking to make a change and I was lucky to be able to ride the horse.”

Said Vitali: “I had talked to Matt before… Nothing personal, it was a business decision. He’s a great kid and he still rides for me, and we move forward.”

It is true that the best business decision was made to win the race; no beef with that that. But Castellano was open in the race when the overnight came out. Vitali spoke with Rispoli the day or two before the race.

Then why wasn’t the damn announcement made at noon so that players would have had a chance to reevaluate their handicapping, especially with respect to late-day horizontals?

Once again, racing officials failed to have their customer’s backs.

And this happens days after the industry holds its annual December confab in sunny Tucson trying to divine ways to attract new fans when they apparently don’t care a lick about holding on to the loyal ones they already have.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, December 08, 2015

PVal’s Legacy: Tragedy or Triumph?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 8, 2015--- It was the winter of 1996-7. I had just taken a buyout from Newsday and went to South Florida looking for work on the racetrack, possibly as a jockey agent.

At that time, Patrick Valenzuela was beginning one of his many failed comebacks. He was exercising horses in Florida that year and we met by chance one morning outside of Nick Zito’s Gulfstream Park barn.

I gave him my credentials and Zito vouched from my bona fides. Valenzuela was warm and very engaging but not interested in hiring me. He wanted an experienced agent to jump-start his return.

Actually, I struck out as an agent three times that winter. Another talented jockey was riding at the meet but had been struggling big-time, having fallen out of favor after he decided to change agents a short time prior to his shipping south for the winter.

The rider was very polite, thanked me for my confidence and interest but, in the end, it was no thanks. Strike two.

I took one more shot at the backstretch brass ring. After the Gulfstream meet I ventured Midwest to Turfway Park for the Spiral Stakes. I met with a rider who was enjoying some success but should have been doing a lot better.

“Come back to New York,” I said. “I have some television contacts there and you would be a natural on TV.” I got a beautiful note of appreciation shortly thereafter, but no job offer.

Eventually, Mike Smith became a world class sports figure thanks to a filly named Zenyatta, Donna Barton eventually married Frank Brothers and wound up on NBC, Valenzuela was back in rehab and I wound up here at HRI.

For now, I assume that all God’s children are happy.

Patrick Valenzuela has been and remains a lightning rod that many in the racing establishment believe the sport can do without. All I can fathom is that these critics must have never placed a serious bet.

If they had, their parimutuel paths would have crossed at one time or another and they would have had many occasions to celebrate PVal’s athletic prowess.

Valenzuela became a true household name as the rider of dual classics winner Sunday Silence in 1989, nine years after winning his first Santa Anita Derby when he barely was old enough to drive.

Four years ago, Valenzuela announced his retirement. Many believed he did so rather than potentially fail yet another drug test. Always having issues making weight, it no doubt was a contributing factor to his developing a cocaine habit. At that time, he reportedly had gall bladder surgery.

Aside from the usual suspensions jockeys receive for careless riding and the like, he never has been cited for any serious racetrack violations. He loved riding too much to jeopardize his career in any way.

Has he been a bad boy? Sure, probably nine times a bad boy. But when is it ever the right time to give up on an individual?

Whatever your politics, all reasonable people must agree by now that alcohol and drug addiction is a disease; climate change deniers, standing in seawater up to their ankles, notwithstanding.

Personally, I’ve never been compelled to live my life one day at a time but I’ll say this: I’m not very sure I would excel at it; I’m just glad that my own demons don’t require daily monitoring.

PVal has tried to return many times and failed. Will he fail again? Line-makers likely would make the chances of a regression an odds-on favorite. Not me, I prefer to stay positive.

The only thing I hope Valenzuela gets hooked on again is winning races on a regular basis.

Does Valenzuela’s presence in a race represent a clear and present danger to other riders? Maybe, maybe not.

I’m kidding on the square when I posit that a slightly impaired Valenzuela would be no more of a threat to rival jockeys than the average 10-pound bug boy. There is no evidence that he ever has ridden in a race while impaired.

Age doesn’t make one smarter but it almost always makes people wiser. At 53, let’s hope that Valenzuela takes a been-there-done-that attitude on substance abuse and that it’s of a thing of the past.

As it stands, Valenzuela, has visited the winners’ circle several times at the Fair Grounds recently, and he is not the only current rider dealing with personal demons. Then that’s what regularly scheduled random drug-tests are for.

At his age, maybe the next time he falls off a wagon should absolutely be his last by decree—better to fall off a wagon than in the path of an oncoming horse and rider for all parties concerned.

For the time being I’m rooting like hell for PVal and his presence in the saddle will be for me, all else being equal, an invitation to bet on, not against.

Substance abuse has not kept other riders out of the Hall of Fame. If Valenzuela can stay clean and sober and resurrect his career in a reasonably successful way, his resume would speak volumes for his legacy.

He could even become a role model in the future, the poster boy for never giving up on a dream.

Godspeed, Patrick.

Written by John Pricci

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