Friday, January 14, 2011

High Anxiety

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 13, 2011--It just might come to pass that the first NTRA teleconference of the year will never be surpassed given the amount of respect, drama and determination on display Thursday afternoon.

This one was for all the marbles, but it should never be confused with a Ryan vs. Belichick or Cromartie vs. Brady scenario. The urgency in advance of Monday’s announcement was palpable, the level of respect for the opponent worthy of what’s at stake, the 2010 Horse of the Year title.

For Team Zenyatta and Team Blame, it’s a matter of their place in the annals of the Thoroughbred sport. Neither seemed willing to settle for being the one the pushed their rival to the max.

No one ever remembers the team that finishes second in the Super Bowl.

Representing Zenyatta was owner Jerry Moss, who clearly hasn’t forgotten last year’s slight. “It would be bad [if she lost], that’s all I can say,” Moss said.

“With everything she’s accomplished, it’s ridiculous if she didn’t win one Horse of the Year title.

“I think she’s done enough. She got beat fair and square, but it was a narrow loss. She won five Grade 1’s, was great for racing, and brought 19 straight wins into the Breeders‘ Cup.”

Later, Al Stall Jr. made a counterpoint: “My whole life I read about what horses did on the racetrack. I think Blame did enough, winning the Foster, Whitney and Breeders’ Cup. I’m a strength of schedule, head-to-head kind of guy.”

Each makes a compelling case.

Given that Zenyatta is the sentimental favorite, would Stall feel badly if Blame were named Horse of the Year? “No, not at all. He means as much to us as she means to them.”

“We’re racing people. We feel we deserve it as long as the horse performed on the racetrack, which he did.”

On that, counterpoint Moss: “Two years ago, the horse that finished fourth in the Classic was Horse of the Year. Last year, we won the Classic and the Horse of the Year didn’t even run.”

Throughout the program, as it has been this winter and fall, the definition of Horse of the Year remained a lively topic. Whatever happens, Moss believes that it wouldn't adversely affect Zenyatta’s legacy.

“I believe she’ll go down as perhaps the greatest mare in history. Nineteen wins without a defeat is quite an accomplishment. All are welcome to try [to duplicate it].”

Moss spoke about his definition of the title and the role of the fans: “Who was the most important race horse in the U.S.? Who’s the horse that people look for and come out to see?

“She was the story this year. Last year, we won the Super Bowl and didn’t take home the trophy.”

Moss continued, acknowledging Zenyatta‘s followers: “The fans have been fantastic and have to be acknowledged. They’re a very important part of the process and they should be.”

The results of HRI’s own Horse of the Year poll was one-sided; the battle between these protem champions on Monday night is expected to be a real horse race. That's the buzz, anyway.

As this was written, 179 ballots were cast on Zenyatta received 155 first place votes, 86.5% of responders. Blame garnered 17 votes, or 9.5%. The other 4% went to Goldikova.

Some argue that this disparity, compared to the tight race that exists among Eclipse voters, is the reason fan voting shouldn’t be allowed, that too much of the public’s opinions are rife with emotional subjectivity.

Of course, it just could be that Thoroughbred racing fans are as passionate about all horses as horse people who tend to their own stock.

Since the game could not exist without the participation of fans/horseplayers, perhaps time has come to allow them to be part of the process, at minimum on a pro forma basis.

“I believe fans should have a greater place in this,” said Moss. “Let the fans in. You’ve got to pay attention to your customers. You get into one of these [tough decisions], it gets subjective.

“If [qualifications for Horse of the Year] were a little more cut and dry, it wouldn’t have to be as political, taking out ads [and the like].”

Another teleconference storyline dealt with the acrimonious discourse surrounding the last two Horse of the Year campaigns, Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta last year and continuing in 2010 with Blame, due to the disparate accomplishments of the two horses.

“Whoever would disrespect Blame might not have the knowledge of how this game works,” offered Stall.

“We’ll be happy for Zenyatta if she wins. But I backed off reading those [negative] things on the blogs. That’s just the way [the Internet] is.

And the backlash that would develop should Zenyatta again be denied the honor?

“I can guarantee that if Blame wins Horse of the Year, there will be all kinds of talk on the Internet. I can handle that.

“We’re not going to be embarrassed. We concentrated on winning races all year and the voting is out of our control. We’ll go down [to Miami] and have a good time.”

Not likely the case for Team Zenyatta. “If we didn’t win the big prize,” Moss said, “we’d be disappointed.”

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, January 06, 2011

“It’s Enough to Make You Sick; Is It Enough to Make You Stop?

SPRINGFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS, January 6, 2011--I was stuck a few dollars at The Rock simulcasts on Tuesday. Alive in a chalky late double at Parx, I decided to handicap the Calder finale, literally, as Gulfstream Park would open the next day.

It was a nondescript field of seven older filly maiden claimers going two turns. Al’s Angel, with hot riding Paco Lopez, opened at 1-2, the rest of the field nowhere in the wagering, so I took a closer look.

There was no doubt that Al’s Angel was a deserving favorite. Her last performance figure over the same surface towered over the competition.

The bad news, however, is that she was entered back on only nine days rest, and the lifetime best figure set her up for a regression. It was time to dig deeper.

Gimmeamink was running consistent figures, albeit slower, and figured to run at least as well. At 6-1 on the tote, I had found an overlay. A $20 win bet would make me a winner for the day--no matter how the Parx late double turned out.

I made my wager, rejoined my friends at the table. One didn’t play, the other had the favorite and Gimmeamink in a boxed exacta. There was 1 minute on the tote board as the track feed turned to the horses being loaded. “They’re off.”

Under a well timed move by apprentice Jose Alvarez, Gimmeamink rushed passed the favorite, who got on my filly but didn't go on with it.

Sometimes things go as planned, Gimmeamink drew off nicely as Al’s Angel held second. Smiling faces all around.

Until the prices were posted. Gimmeamink paid $8.00 to win. Not even breakage on the $8 mutuel!

“Wait a minute,” said Phil. “That horse was 9-1 as they were running.” I didn’t see that myself, but I know the filly was 8-1 on the tote with less than a minute to post.

I’ve been around the game long enough not to be a sore winner. I hate it when players tell me how much they won but should have been more; if this, and if the other thing.

The chalky late double won and I was able to maximize the play, taking two price shots to complete cold exactas, using the ALL button to block, essentially making a trifecta saver. Got lucky when my 25-1 chance finished third to a 19-1 shot.

Harissa won the race, the Sleigh Ride Stakes, paying $3. The trifecta returned $119.50 for $1 despite the usurious Parx trifecta takeout of 30 percent. But I was livid, and I'm not being a sore winner. It made me think about the declining wagering trends, and the admonition at the top when cigarette advertising was first banned on television.

With apologies to master thief Frank, the James Caan character in “Thief,” the 1981 movie marking the directorial film debut of Michael Mann, I’ve got some A-B-C-type information for Santa Anita President George Haines.

Haines beleves that betting on horses is about picking winners, not takeout, and that only the top fraction of one percent is concerned about the rake. Well, Mr. Haines, I would not have bet on Gimmeamink at 3-1. I couldn't afford to.

Most good bets lose, Mr. Haines, that’s why you must “get paid” when you win. Players can’t afford to take bad prices in a difficult risk-reward, zero-sum game.

Fortunately, however, the industry is coming to the rescue. The Thoroughbred Racing Associations, in a recent press release, announced that its board “approved to support development…” of a tote security system…

To “ensure the close of betting throughout the parimutuel network” and the dissemination of real-time decimal odds to “participating host racetracks” for display…”Upon implementation within 18-24 months…”

If this is supposed to be the model for private sector efficiency then government might as well take over everything.

“Support development?” “Participating host racetracks?” “Implementation within 18-24 months?”

What’s the rush?

I don’t mean to be flippant, truly don’t. And I applaud the development. But I’m not even sure if “participating racetracks” only means TRA member tracks. Certainly hope not.

This is not a new problem. The first time I became acutely aware was when Monarchos won the 2001 Florida Derby, the odds going from 9-2 entering the backstretch to 5-2 entering the final turn.

This process should be further along by now--and it could take up to two more years? Wonder what the national handle figures will trend like then?

Then I shouldn’t worry. Everyone knows that further contraction is inevitable, and with further contraction will come greater efficiency. But don’t take my word for that.

“It seems that this year’s wagering drop was much more a function of the decline in racing days--compared to 2009 when wagering declined 9.8% and race days were down only 2.6%,” said Alex Waldrop, President and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Associations.

You mean you don’t understand? Then simply follow this: Wagering on U. S. races in 2010 declined by 7.33%, from $12.3-million to $11.4 million. Race days, meanwhile, declined by 7.75%, from 5,933 days to 5,473.

Hell, we’re practically making money? Time to invoke Larry the Liquidator again, the second time this month. That's Larry, who just loves “Other People’s Money”:

“We're not broke. And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure.”

I see Netflix in Mr. Waldrop’s future; I'm willing to pay for the rental.

In the meanwhile, perhaps racing managers who have not yet read Ed DeRosa’s instructive tutorial blog on the Thoroughbred Times website re: the debilitating effects of takeout, should take note.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Just One Man’s Opinion

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 29, 2010--For most every member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, the following chore is considered a privilege, not a routine.

Many members feel, as I do, that as racing journalists who heap what we hope are equal amounts of praise and criticism, it is incumbent upon us to go public with our Eclipse choices.

For me, this annual exercise is a coming clean, trying to judge the horses and the horsemen as objectively as possible, go where the record speaks loudest.

When making the difficult call, however, such as 2010 Horse of the Year, we work for a subjective opinion that's based on a personal truth, not personal prejudice.

A look, then, at one man’s ballot seeking to honor the best of 2010’s best. Eclipse voting rules require three choices in all categories:

Steeplechase, 4 Year Olds & Up: Slip Away owns Grade 3 win, was Grade 1 placed thrice and gave the dominant performance of the year, winning the G1 Colonial Cup by 25-¾ lengths beneath worthy 156 pounds. 2. Arcadius. 3. Sermon of Love.

The Skinny: On balance, a down quality year for the up-and-over set.

Juvenile Colt: Uncle Mo dominated winning three lifetime starts by combined 23-¼ lengths without defeat. Extraordinary turn of foot demonstrated the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was uncommon and unforgettable. 2. Boys At Tosconova. 3. To Honor And Serve.

The Skinny: Has a freaky dimension, making him a legitimate Kentucky Derby favorite.

Juvenile Filly: Awesome Feather, at 6-for-6, the one undefeated equine that most people never heard of. Tactically brilliant and a true professional. 2. Turbulent Descent. 3. R. Heat Lightning.

The Skinny: Blind Luck will be a tough act to follow but this one‘s been a developmental wonder.

Three Year Old Colt or Gelding: Lookin At Lucky proved inarguably the class of the division following the retirement of early season wonder Eskendereya. 2. Eskendereya. 3. Afleet Express.

The Skinny: A snake bit class, injuries took a significant toll and the retirement of the protem champion is a real blow, after he acquitted himself fairly well in a very wide-trip Classic.

Three Year Old Filly: Blind Luck crossed the country no less than six times en route to a five-win season that included three Grade 1s, among those the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama. 2. Evening Jewel. 3. Devil May Care.

The Skinny: Heart-stopping style and courage was a blend that proved beyond reproach. How she comes back at 4 one of the early season 2011 storylines.

Older Male: Blame enjoyed a near perfect season, culminating with a Classic victory over the great Zenyatta. 2. Quality Road. 3. Richard’s Kid.

The Skinny: Ultra consistent, hickory tough and extremely well managed. Another premature retirement that really hurts the game in 2011.

Older Female: The mighty Zenyatta needs no introduction. 2. Life At Ten. 3. Unrivaled Belle.

The Skinny: Owns the most unique equine personality we’ve ever seen, she’s in the conversation for greatest race mare of all time.

Male Sprinter: Big Drama won the Sprint, the definitive dash, with authoritative style and never worse than second in five starts with three victories. 2. Majesticperfection. 3. Discreetly Mine.

The Skinny: In a division searching for a leader all season, a would-be champion emerged while the whole world was watching.

Female Sprinter: Dubai Majesty finished 2010 strong winning three of her last four, with one second, including the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. 2. Franny Freud. 3. Champagne D’Oro.

The Skinny: Another division that all year a work in progress until the very last moment, after Franny Freud went to the sidelines with an injury, never to race again.

Turf Males, 3 Year Olds & Up: Gio Ponti won two Grade 1s and was narrowly beaten in two others, always with his weight up when racing in top company. 2. Dangerous Midge. 3. Paddy O’ Prado.

The Skinny: The championship was there for the taking until sophomore Paddy O’ Prado opted for the Classic instead of the Turf.

Turf Female, 3 Year Old & Up: Goldikova is a truly great race mare that routinely beats top class males and made Breeders’ Cup history with her three-peat in the Mile. 2. Proviso. 3. Tuscan Evening.

The Skinny: It took a history making performance to deny four-time Grade 1 winner Proviso the title. On balance, this division stronger than their male contemporaries.

Trainer: John Shirreffs' handling of an uber talented, uber large, quirky 6 year old race mare coming up a half-head short of a 20-for-20 career is the stuff of Thoroughbred legend. 2. Albert Stall Jr. 3. Jerry Hollendorfer.

The Skinny: L’Affaire Life At Ten leaves Todd Pletcher on the outside looking in.

Jockey: Garrett Gomez, the most sought after money rider in North America, won this country’s most prestigious race for male runners and, despite, 700 fewer rides, was only a half-million dollars beyond leading earner Ramon Dominguez, whose won purses of $17.2 million and counting. 2. Dominguez. 3. Mike Smith.

The Skinny: L’Affaire Life At Ten leaves Johnny Velazquez on the outside looking in.

Apprentice Jockey: Omar Moreno’s earnings of over $5.3 million is an extraordinary total for a young rider. 2. Luis Saez. 3. Angel Serpa.

Owner: Jerry and Ann Moss, despite their zeal for protecting Zenyatta’s unblemished slate, showed uncommon sportsmanship by bringing her back at age 6 when she could have retired on top of the racing world.

Breeder: Claiborne Farm and Adele B. Dilschneider. Old school mating philosophy has its rewards.

Horse of the Year 2010. 1. Zenyatta. 2. Blame. 3. Goldikova.

After the reams of copy I've written on this issue, I'm sparing those of you suffering from Zenyatta fatigue. There's plenty of material in the HRI archives.

Written by John Pricci

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