Friday, April 17, 2009

Derby Eligibility Rules: Revisionist Redux

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 16, 2009--In case you missed this interesting note in a Daily Racing Form news post by Jay Privman:

“The graded earnings clause, which determines the starting field if more than the maximum 20 horses enter the Derby, is quite controversial, but there's a worst-case scenario lurking that Churchill Downs officials are probably hoping to avoid.

“Charitable Man and Dunkirk are tied in graded stakes earnings with $150,000. If they end up tied for the final spot in the field, the published conditions of the Derby state that the next tie-breaker would be earnings in non-restricted stakes races.

“That would still leave them tied. After that, the final tie-breaker says starting berths ‘shall be determined by lot’. In other words, a shake or pill pull.

“If El Crespo finishes second in the Lexington, he also would have $150,000 in graded earnings. Like Charitable Man and Dunkirk, he has no earnings from any other non-restricted stakes races…”

Those of us not so secretly rooting for this Derby doomsday scenario to play out, are not at all motivated by schadenfreude--gloating at somebody else’s bad luck.

Parenthetically, schadenfreude is more rule than exception in the racing business, pretty much on every level: Owners, trainers, jockeys, handicappers, etc., etc. But that still doesn’t mean that the graded earnings rule doesn’t have woeful shortcomings.

In case you’ve forgotten our position, or missed it entirely, this was the HRI post from 2008 pre-Derby 134. Hopefully, it will not need another reprint in 2010.

[Bracketed text indicates updated material].

“Win, lose or post position draw, this should be the final year that Kentucky Derby eligibility is determined by earnings, graded or otherwise.

“The system has outlived its utility, if indeed it ever made sense. Twenty Derby starters is the modern rule not the exception. And it matters not that this year’s draw involving the filly Eight Belles went smoothly. Using any criteria, she earned her way in.”

[Irony is sometimes cruel and tragic].

“Admission based on earnings is fraught with inequities to the existing prep process too numerous to mention, and in the future it’s bound to get worse because any track could artificially inflate the importance of its prep race by throwing money at it.

“That might be good for business, but it’s bad for the Derby.”

[See the Delta Jackpot, UAE Derby and Sunland Derby, i.e., if the latter ever becomes graded].

“Racing is a game built on opinion backed by dollars. Having a lot of either doesn’t guarantee quality. All reasonable people acknowledge the Derby as “America’s Race.” As such, it should feature the best three-year-olds based on one criterion: Performance.

“Why shouldn’t the best 20 thoroughbreds be loaded into the Churchill Downs starting gate, gaining entry the way most horses earn their titles: Racetrack accomplishment in the sport’s time-honored events.

“There are only two ways to look at a horse race; before and after the fact. Post race any argument can be made with certitude, yet still might not provide the best course for future action. Such as the notion that the graded-stakes earnings system works.

“…[Here are] two ideas, one from a fan, the other from a respected journalist. Not only were they practical but also included additional benefits:

“[New rules would] heighten interest and anticipation during the prep run-up season; boost bottom lines at tracks hosting the established preps; help horsemen to make the best decisions possible by knowing exactly what is gained from successful participation in certain events [with fixed values].

“While the establishment of two-year-old form is important from a developmental perspective, it’s meaningless if the individual fails to make an often difficult transition from two to three, [allowing the competition to catch up].

“Juvenile form is just that; juvenile form. Precocity is an unreliable predictor of classics success… Meaningful Derby talk should begin on January 1 and not the last Saturday in October.

“There are twenty spots in the gate and, fortuitously, 20 established Derby prep races. The following is a modern breakdown of traditionally recognized preps by region:

“The Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby; the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby; the Lane’s End; the Gotham and Wood Memorial, the Illinois Derby; Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby; the Sham, San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby; the El Camino Real Derby, the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby; the Blue Grass and Coolmore Lexington.”

[Some distances and scheduling may need tweaking, such as this year’s successful Fountain of Youth to Florida Derby transition. Further, the future status of the El Camino Real is in question].

“By region, this covers the West Coast of Florida (2), South Florida (3), Louisiana (2), New York (2), Illinois (1), Northern California (1), Southern California (3), Arkansas (3) and Kentucky (3).

“The ultimate goal is to have your horse peak on the first Saturday in May. Instead of money won… points earned from in-the-money finishes in 20 widely recognized preps [should be the criteria].”

“Three-year-old form and the ability to handle two turns at meaningful distances is the best measure of [Derby] worthiness. Assigning points [give horsemen better options]. Horses can gain experience and conditioning while not leaving their ‘A’ game at the prep-race finish line.

“A too-late, fast-finish second or third in the Wood, Blue Grass or Santa Anita Derby [often] is the best way to arrive in Louisville near tops. A graduating point scale of 3-2-1 for the money finishers in a Grade 3, a 6-4-2 scale at the Grade 2 level, and a 9-6-3 score in Grade 1s is a fair measure-to-grade ratio.

“…If there remains insistence to include juvenile form, the only races should be the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Remsen, Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and Cash Call Futurity. Two are Grade 2, two are Grade 1, all are around two turns in fall and early winter.

“Twenty preps for 20 stalls. What could be more impartial, obliging, or easier to understand?”

[As for European participation, a point system based on the same sliding scale reflecting Group form, with only three-year-old and juvenile races at a mile or longer the measure.

The idea of a single “win-and-in” three-year-old prep did not have an auspicious debut. After a terrible effort in the Blue Grass, Mafaaz will not run in the Derby.

The notion that greater European participation is interesting, but quaint. No one wants to jam up Churchill Downs Inc. for trying to increase handle by introducing the Kentucky Derby to a new market. But the goal should always be that “America’s Race” is all that it can be].

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Paragallo Incident Is a Disguised Blessing

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 8, 2009--If the Ernie Paragallo imbroglio--the sad tale of starving horses too weak to travel but well enough to be carried to a nearby kill pen--that resulted in warp speed industry reaction is any measure then those animals will not have suffered in vain.

Horse slaughter, known to HRI readers as equicide, is much in the news these days. The Thoroughbred Times recently published a comprehensive piece about how exercise rider Alex Brown raised a million dollars on the Internet, not only raising anti-slaughter awareness but saving 2,700 horses in the process.

On this site, HRI contributor and activist Marion Altieri has been writing recent exposes on how it first appeared that Montana Gov. Brain Schweitzer vetoed a bill that called for the construction of killing pens in that state.

Upon closer inquiry, however, Altieri learned that the governor’s veto would be reversed if certain amendments were added to the original bill protecting the company building the slaughter house from future litigation.

If the conditions that Gov. Schweitzer suggested are met, he would sign the bill permitting the construction of slaughter houses in Montana.

Additionally, Altieri learned that the Ag lobby is working closely with cattle ranchers to forge a plan for the ranching of horses that would ultimately create an American market for horse meat consumption.

Through the auspices of the website, a survey was conducted asking: “Would You Eat Horse Meat?” Marketers for the horse meat purveyors are trying to sell the notion that since horse meat is lower in fat content than cows, there are health benefits.

Altieri further learned that the “survey” was rigged. When three anti-slaughter activists, including Altieri, took the survey and answered “no,” they received an error message from the site indicating their response was inappropriate and unacceptable.

Last Saturday, the New York Times reported that the Paragallo horses were to be transported from his Center Brook Farm in Climax, New York to Florida for breeding purposes. But when the horses were found to be in such poor health, the transporter decided to take them to a New York kill pen instead. Fortunately, four horses were rescued.

The reaction of the industry was immediate and pointed. On Tuesday the New York State Racing and Wagering Board opened an investigation into the treatment of horses at Paragallo’s farm. The SRWB is also investigating ownership issues concerning Paranack Stables.

The Paulick Report then published a story reporting that Paragallo’s license was suspended in 2005 by the SRWB for “financial irresponsibility,” indicating that Paragallo’s two daughters now are the current licensed owners of the Paranack operation.

On balance, it should be known that Paragallo has donated seasons to his highly successful stud Unbridled’s Song to charities, and donated $1 million to NTRA Charities New York Heroes Fund following the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Unbridled’s Song will be represented by Old Fashioned in this year’s Kentucky Derby, and also Dunkirk if that colt can make the earnings cut.

On the same day the SRWB announced the launching of its investigation, the Jockey Club issued a news release with this statement from Chairman Ogden Mills Phipps:

“The Jockey Club fully supports and assists law enforcement agencies, the courts and racing regulatory authorities in the investigation of matters involving animal cruelty.

“Furthermore, pursuant to Section V, Rule 19A (4) of the Principal Rules and Requirements of The American Stud Book, The Jockey Club reserves the right to deny any or all of the privileges of The American Stud Book to any person or entity when there is a final determination by a court, an official tribunal, or an official racing body that such person has killed, abandoned, mistreated, neglected, abused, or otherwise committed an act of cruelty to a horse.

“The Jockey Club has invoked this rule in the past and will not hesitate to do so again when appropriate. The Jockey Club maintains a long-held conviction that owners are responsible and should be held accountable for the care, well-being and humane treatment of their Thoroughbred horses.”

New York’s Thoroughbred Breeders, meanwhile, are taking proactive measures to address this issue, especially in light of the poor economic climate.

The NYTB is proposing a task force to include themselves, the SRWB, the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and the New York Racing Association tracks and Finger Lakes Racing and Gaming, to assist owners forced to sell their horses…and to punish any owner, breeder or trainer that “directly or indirectly contributes to an outcome where a horse is knowingly sent to slaughter.”

And there was this from Alex Waldrop, NTRA President and CEO: “In the case of owner Ernie Paragallo, the alleged abdication of responsibility for the welfare of one's horses, either directly or indirectly, is unacceptable. Should the charges prove true, authorities should move swiftly to impose the most severe penalties applicable under the circumstances.”

There was no mention, however, that the NTRA was prepared to end its neutrality stance on horse slaughter and lend its full and uncompromising support to the anti-horse slaughter movement.

If the juxtaposed timing of the Paragallo incident and the advent of the 2009 Triple Crown series results in positive measures that goes beyond public relations and into the realm of meaningful change, the incident will have been a blessing.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Florida Stewards Choose Not to Acknowledge Big Drama’s Track Record

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla., April 1, 2009--Question: Which horse currently owns the track record for seven furlongs at Gulfstream Park?

Hint: It’s a trick question.

Hint II: He didn't run in Saturday’s Grade 2 Swale Stakes on the Florida Derby undercard.

Hint III: No horse has ever won the Swale Stakes.

The Gulfstream Park association stewards have decided not to recognize the track record clocking of 1:20.88 set by Big Drama last Saturday. The previous--and still--track record holder at the distance is Elusive Quality, timed in 1:21.11 in 2006.

The Florida state steward has not weighed in on the decision and will not. The state steward does not get involved in matters pertaining to racing records.

The stewards acted under Gulfstream Park’s Rules of Racing, Article III, section 2, sub-paragraph a., which states:

“In determining the extent of disqualification, the stewards in their discretion may: Declare null and void a track record set or equaled by a disqualified horse, or any horses coupled with it as an entry.”

“What I saw was a new track record and I got taken down,” Big Drama’s trainer David Fawkes said to Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch.

The disqualification was justified. Yes, the first contact was slight, certainly not as consequential as the second in which This Ones For Phil was sloughed badly by the winner, who bore out and knocked the place finisher off stride.

The argument that the second bump didn’t alter the outcome because it occurred right at the line with the leader a half-length in front is valid. But as I repeatedly watched the head-on view several times, I would have made the same judgment call.

But I also would have acknowledged Big Drama* as the Gulfstream Park seven furlong record holder. The asterisk would stand for “finished first, but was disqualified for interference and placed second.”

What would be the harm in that?

When I covered harness racing early in my career, I recall rules regarding lapped-on horses; those that finished within a length of the first-place finisher that broke into a gallop at the finish line. It also concerned horses that set personal lifetime marks.

In the first case, winners were disqualified and placed behind the horses lapped on it at the finish if there were more than one. In the second instance, lifetime marks were not acknowledged following a disqualification, however. That may or may not still be the case.

(Stan Bergstein, please weigh in).

Whether This Ones For Phil would have beaten Big Drama had the horses never bumped is arguable. Rick Dutrow and Garrett Gomez said their colt would have run Big Drama down.

I didn’t think he would catch him if they went around again. Not surprisingly, Fawkes made the same argument. But neither opinion could ever be confused with fact.

Another argument for recognizing the track record performance is that the significant bumping did occur right at the line. And who’s to say the incident didn’t prevent Big Drama from running even faster?

The best argument for allowing the record to stand is that running time--how fast a horse goes from point A to point B--is the only absolute truth in the game

Besides, it would have made a great trivia question.

It’s not surprising that the stewards have wide latitude in the administration of their duties. Some examples:

“A jockey shall not unnecessarily cause his/her horse to shorten stride so as to give the appearance of having suffered a foul.”

See Kent Desormeaux on Theregoesjojo in the Florida Derby. It wasn’t quite a “frivolous” claim that could have resulted in a fine for Desormeaux but Academy Awards have been handed out for less.

“When the stewards determine that a horse shall be disqualified for interference, they may place the offending horse behind such horses it, in their judgment, interfered with, or they may place it last.”

The last phrase seems a bit draconian but is necessary when a horse bears in or out so badly that it causes a chain reaction involving many horses. There’s no need to split hairs in that instance.

“A jockey serving a suspension of 10 days or less is permitted to ride in one or more designated races during the period of the suspension if: The race is a stakes race or any race with a purse of $75,000 or more, and… the jockey agrees to serve an additional day of suspension in place of the day he/she rides in a designated race, which additional day of suspension is to be determined by the stewards.”

This might seem like justice delayed but it‘s not. The rule is about safeguarding the rights of an owner that might have contracted a jockey to ride in an important race well in advance. Why punish an innocent party?

Besides, if they wanted, the stewards could choose a major race day well in advance which would prove a costly but just punishment.

“All horses shall be ridden out in every race. A jockey shall not ease up or coast to the finish, without reasonable cause, even if the horse has no apparent chance to win prize money. A jockey shall give a best effort during a race and each horse shall be ridden to win.”

Probably the most abused rules in the game. Whenever stewards are questioned about this after having taken no action, the standard response is “we spoke to the jock, gave him the what-for,” etc. etc.

Better the rider receive a very stiff fine so that he might remember not to do it again. His cavalier action could cost the customer a small fortune should some horses finish sixth by a nose.

“The stewards shall have the authority to interpret the Racing Laws and the House rules and to decide all questions of racing not specifically covered by either.”

That goes not only in Florida but anywhere in the country. But that’s also why stewards should be made to make rulings relating to decisions pertaining to parimutuel payoffs in writing, as is the case in Hong Kong, for instance. Transparency is essential if bettors are to have faith in the system.

And regarding Hint III? Only three-year-old colts or geldings can run in the Swale Stakes under current conditions. “Horses” are defined as males 5 years old and older. Fillies can run in the Swale, if they wish, but not “mares,” females 5 years old and older.

Written by John Pricci

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