Friday, November 07, 2008

Breeders’ Cup 25 Served Sport Well but Failed Horseplayers

Saratoga Springs, NY, November 6, 2008--Philosophical differences that Thoroughbred fans and the media had with Breeders’ Cup Ltd. regarding the evolution of World Championship event days notwithstanding, fair minded observers cannot argue that the recent silver anniversary edition was an artistic triumph.

For every defeat of Curlin there was acknowledgment of the sporting gesture made by his connections and the emergence of a pair of young European standouts on America’s biggest stage.

And for every lament regarding the creation of a racing program dedicated to equines of the female persuasion, there was a star named Zenyatta who remained perfect, stepping up to save the day, and a concept.

Zenyatta gave the architects something to build on. Her performance was a rousing one, indeed worthy of a Saturday showcase. But was there not some symmetry in having the stage all to herself, an award-winning actress in a leading role?

But there was no getting away from the notion that expansion, the past and present reality of sports, dilutes specialty and excellence. That was a prevailing theme among the opposition for creating races having no real significance beyond their existence in support of a two-day event.

There certainly are enough good horses stationed around the globe to make a racing festival truly worth celebrating, the American racing industry playing host. And only through international participation does the term World Championships have meaning. Before an idea takes root, you start somewhere first.

Until Breeders’ Cup reaches that point--perhaps when races named Breeders’ Cup would reflect only Eclipse Award categories, or perhaps when an expanded program truly represents championship Grade 1 status--expansion serves one function; to grow the bottom line.

Parenthetically, Breeders’ Cup must consider how further expansion could seriously dilute established championship events. The Filly & Mare Sprint is redundant but I understand why it exists, serving Eclipse recognition. But while great milers may be regarded as having the makings of a superb stud, the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile is a tweener, neither sprint nor classic. And unless it‘s a one-turn mile, what‘s the point?

But what added races do for growing parimutuel handle, synthetic surfaces do in reverse. The wagering public remains confused by them, mostly because early speed loses its efficacy--not on all synthetics, but on most. Only the Juvenile produced a speed-laden result, but maybe Midshipmen and Square Eddie just were the best horses, too.

Handle was down significantly in the Classic likely owing to the pre-publicity surrounding Curlin’s ability to handle an artificial surface, or lack thereof. Pro-Ride plays like grass, over which he suffered his only previous 2008 defeat. One great synthetic-track workout is no guarantor of winning performance. Those concerns probably adversely affected Pick Six and Pick Four handle as well.

As long as Breeders’ Cup is not shy about wanting to grow its handle, it must do much better servicing the wagering public. Over the years I have made repeated requests that equipment and medication changes be announced when the final fields are set at the post position draw. It’s never happened.

Why this is not standard operating procedure is disgraceful. Wagering information is not the exclusive province of the racing office or past-performance disseminators.

Most Breeders’ Cup venues have house rules governing this issue. Blinker, shoe, and medication changes are vital, especially regarding first-time or re-addition of Lasix. Breeders’ Cup, through the auspices of the Santa Anita racing office, did a terrible job at BC 25.

The first nine races were drawn so rapidly, in fact, that literally hundreds of media lacked sufficient time to write down final jockey assignments. Think that’s critical information? Think you might want to know if your choice would be racing on the diuretic in 90-degree heat? To wit:

The enormously gifted and prolific Aidan O’Brien seldom, if ever, ships from Europe to the U.S. without putting his horses on Lasix. And why not? It’s within the rules, levels the playing field and, as everyone knows, is a harbinger of improved performance.

At entry time Tuesday of Breeders’ Cup week, O’Brien entered his horses without requesting Lasix, according to Mike Marten, spokesperson for the California Horse Racing Board, who circulated an e-mail to columnist Nick Kling of the Troy Record. However, either Marten was misinformed, or was misleading.

The e-mail stated O’Brien was “unfamiliar with California authorized bleeder medication procedures.” But O’Brien’s actions and personal past performances belie that statement. Ultimately, O’Brien was granted permission to add Lasix and was fined $2,500 by the stewards for missing the deadline.

On Friday, Bloodstock Research Information Services reported that O’Brien’s Heart Shaped was scheduled to race with first-time Lasix whereas his other starter, Halfway To Heaven, was not. The official track program reported the same information.

After Heaven To Heaven apparently bled, O’Brien approached the stewards to request that all four of his Saturday runners be allowed to race with Lasix. Yet, on Friday, BRIS reported that U S Ranger and Henrythenavigator would race with Lasix, but that Westphalia, Soldier Of Fortune, Red Rock Canyon and Duke Of Marmalade would not. The track program had the same information. The problem is that time-lines don’t jibe.

Early in the day, Trevor Denman announced the late changes, but that’s far from an acceptable system with such a large crowd on hand. In fact, betting information was sloppy all weekend. No less than Zenyatta, a regular Lasix user, was listed as running without it until the announcement corrected the error.

As bad, Sprint winner Midnight Lute, the subject of much speculation regarding his physical condition, had a protective plate removed from a sore hoof. I learned this from Ed Fountaine of the New York Post over post-race cocktails, who said he heard the announcement on the television broadcast. It was not in the program nor do I remember hearing Denman announce it.

There is no event that provides as much information to the racing media for public dissemination than does Breeders’ Cup Ltd. And it’s been that way from year one. But if they truly want to cash in on BC’s popularity as a wagering event, they must remember they’re in the gambling business and do their job correctly.

Breeders’ Cup commendably staged its first steroid-free event this year. Now it’s time to institute another rule. Even if equipment and medication changes are a house rule, make it a Breeders’ Cup rule to avoid confusion that’s costly only to the betting public. Inform the media at the post draw. They’ll take care of the rest.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

As with Presidential Politics, Horse of the Year Narrative Has Changed

Saratoga Springs, NY, September 10, 2008--“It’s the Classic, babe. That’s where you have to go to win a championship.”

Those were the words of trainer Rick Dutrow when he was asked by the Bloodhorse whether the Breeders’ Cup Turf ever was under consideration after Big Brown had an impressive final workout for Saturday’s Monmouth Stakes, his first start against older horses.

Entries for the purse enhanced grass race will be taken Thursday morning and it’s not expected to be a large field. Win or lose--and the Derby/Preakness hero is expected and supposed to win--the race clearly is a bridge to the Breeders’ Cup’s first synthetic track Classic.

Just like presidential candidates who get a bounce from a favorable statement du jour, so might Dutrow, insofar as the Horse of the Year title is concerned. To wit:

Consider a scenario whereby Big Brown and reigning Horse of the Year Curlin run the table in their next two starts. For the former, that means Saturday’s race and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But for the latter it’s the Jockey Club Gold Cup, then what? And that becomes the Horse of the Year question.
Everyone knows and agrees how sporting it was for Jess Jackson to keep his horse racing at 4. The purses, no matter how large, hardly can keep pace with the insurance premiums. But it isn’t about the money, Jackson has said, it’s about Curlin’s place in history.

Toward that end, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was under serious consideration until the Man o’ War happened and those plans were dashed. Then there was talk of the Japan Cup in December with its humongous purse and dirt surface. All this because Curlin’s connections (read Steve Asmussen) doesn’t want to run Curlin on a synthetic surface.

This apparently stems from Curlin’s experience with Polytrack when preparing for the 2007 Kentucky Derby at Keeneland. But he’s was a young and quite inexperienced then and is a big, bruising four-year-old now. Then there’s the matter of his apparently being a slow learner, how he’s much better the second time he does anything.

Recently there has been some speculation, engendered by Curlin’s people when they failed to completely shut the door on a possible Classic run, that the Horse of the Year will seek a Classic repeat, which certainly wouldn’t hurt Curlin’s legacy. Been there, done that, is not a suitable explanation.

Given that Asmussen sent Curlin half way across the world to get a prep for the Dubai World Cup, you would think that if the Classic were a real possibility, Curlin would be racing in Santa Anita’s Goodwood and not Belmont Park’s Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 27.

Like a presidential candidate, Jackson said the JCGC decision was payback for the great support New York racing and its fans displayed during the run-up to and in the days following the Woodward Stakes. Curlin loves Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track and, therefore, they’re just happy to stay here.

There’s been talk on both sides that there could be racing life after the Breeders’ Cup, but it might be just talk. Economically, keeping both horses in training after October 25 makes little sense with the potential downside far outweighing the potential upside. But not if a Horse of the Year championship is at issue.

We’ve stated this a million times. A Horse of the Year can be anything. It can be the horse that compiles the most impressive resume on the racetrack, period, or a blend of racing accomplishment and favorable impact on the sport.

In terms of resume, it’s defending champion Curlin in front. But don’t underestimate a dual classics winner (read Kentucky Derby) that, at the moment, owns one more Grade 1 title this year than does his only adversary.

While it’s acceptable that Big Brown has beaten up on an undistinguished three-year-old class, it must be noted, too, that, the Dubai World Cup notwithstanding, Curlin’s other Grade 1s were defeats of a grass specialist (Einstein) in the Stephen Foster and a secondary-allowances winner (Past the Point) at Saratoga. Either way, a case can be made.

As in the 2008 presidential campaign, the narrative has changed. The incumbent party, concerned with his legacy, apparently won’t take the Breeders’ Cup challenge because of a prior experience with an artificial surface. Of course, he might not “have to” run.

Further, the Horse of the Year title is determined by voters and, like this presidential election, may devolve into a popularity contest, the issues be damned. Right now, Dutrow and Michael Iavarone are odds-on to lose a popularity contest to Jess Jackson.

But here’s the only way this Horse of the Year voter can look at the 2008 Classic. This is not about Curlin’s legacy or his perceived ineffectiveness over artificial surfaces. Champions overcome adversity. The Classic is, after all, Big Brown’s synthetic debut as well.

Since the Classic has been on the three-year-old’s dance card since before his Belmont debacle, if the reigning four-year-old Horse of the Year doesn’t meet Big Brown for all the marbles on what clearly is, for both, neutral ground, then he’s the one who’s ducking a challenge.

So, will be it about the issue of their records, or will it be about the perception of which is the better horse? Can’t have it both ways, babe.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, September 05, 2008

As Sport, New York Racing Deserves Better

Saratoga Springs, NY, September 4, 2008--Belmont opens Friday after a three-day racing hiatus and this town is getting back to normal, which is to say there’s much more traffic on Broadway than there used to be when first I visited the land of history, health and horses four decades ago.

Until finally, sick of packing and unpacking, I moved my tack here permanently almost a decade ago. I recall when this used to be the place where time stopped. But the old line about “travel up the Northway to exit 14, turn right onto Union Avenue, and go back a hundred years,” just doesn’t scan anymore.

The last two dark days saw temperatures rise into the high 80s--warmer than on any day in August--and gas prices fall to $3.79 a gallon, which we’re supposed to believe is a bargain. But it’s the same every year. The circus comes to town and everything turns upside down.

Like many of the horseplaying locals, I can’t wait for the Saratoga meeting to begin then can’t wait for it to end. Sorry, but while the Woodward is a welcome aesthetic cherry on the Saratoga confection, it feels like anything that occurs after Travers is anticlimactic.

The final week is sold as a good time to visit the old Spa, the vacationing hordes having dissipated. On balance, that’s true. But the reality somehow never measures up to that perception. With the exception of the Woodward and closing-day programs, the joint is buzzless.

However, the opening the Belmont Park fall meet on the Labor Day weekend hasn’t been the answer for some time, either. Paraphrasing the great Hall of Fame horseman, John Nerud, a bad day at Saratoga is better than a good day at Belmont Park.

Here, horse racing lives and thrives in the mainstream. There, it barely exists beyond the first Saturday in June.

While, with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t agree with every policy decision the NYRA executive team makes, it’s difficult not to feel some empathy for their situation. Much of their current woes are the result of a shameless state government that places politics above the needs of its citizenry. To wit:

How is it possible that VLT legislation, enacted into law seven years ago, is not yet a reality at NYRA tracks? That’s disgraceful on two counts, the overall quality and health of this country’s leading racing jurisdiction being the least of it.

Why haven’t the state’s overburdened citizens been allowed to benefit from tax relief additional VLT revenues would have afforded all these years? And the VLT franchise decision is still in limbo. Is the state stalling while it tries to figure a way to take over all gambling, from the lottery to racetracks, OTBs, and the remaining VLT franchises, too?

Of course that isn’t exactly right because a VLT franchise announcement is supposed to be imminent, but it does make one wonder.

Meanwhile, the state will continue taking a financial hit the longer it delays making this industry healthy. Everywhere around the country purses have been lowered as a result of reduced handle. That’s how the model works. But despite lagging business, purses went up at the Saratoga meet and stayed that way.

As long as the NYRA will be forgiven its debt as part of the franchise agreement, where is the incentive to curb its spending? For New York to remain preeminent, purses need to remain competitive with states benefiting from VLT dollars. But when it comes to the horsemen that need the money most, it seems only the rich are getting richer.

Even when the NYRA tries to do something to benefit its standing and bottom line, it can’t catch a break. Not only don’t dollars go as far as they used to, neither do handshakes.

New York racing thought it was next in the Breeders’ Cup line following the Santa Anita double-dip--a move that still doesn’t make sense unless there’s some underground agenda to foist synthetic-track racing on the rest of America.

While a synthetic surface might fuel greater international participation in Breeders‘ Cup, it’s also possible the breeding industry will benefit by the expansion of an ersatz surface over which horses run, thereby widening the gene pool via external means, all in the name of safety.

Forgive the paranoid ranting. But 2008 is, after all, an election year. Either way, New York racing deserved better. Especially when it’s still capable of putting on a show as good as the one we saw for the last six weeks.

* * *

Stewards Had Good Spa, but Should Have Taken Labor Day Off

Anyone can have a bad day. So can three people. But there’s plenty of blame to go around for the horrendous call in the fifth race closing day, a five and a half furlong turf sprint. What made the call so indefensible is that no one, stewards included, had a definitive view of the action.

In the race, Mrs. Holden and Jorge Chavez took command from the start. Racing near the hedge throughout, slightly less than two paths wide, she appeared to remain in the same lane from gate to wire, drifting out slightly only when clear in the straightaway. But that’s not where the incident occurred.

Approaching headstretch, Leader of the Life, racing on the hedge, tried to get through inside of Mrs. Holden but, lacking room, was forced to check by John Velazquez. Once the two fillies entered the straight, Mrs. Holden widened her margin from 1-½ lengths to 2-¼ in the drive to the post.

There was no question as to which filly was best, but plenty of doubt regarding the outcome. Even official Equibase chartcallers had trouble discerning exactly what happened. There never was a specific reference to how the incident occurred, as there commonly is--unless now it will be done after the fact.

Mrs. Holden…”set the pace under pressure… came out slightly in upper stretch” were the only descriptive phrases. The short comment in her past performances next time out will read: “speed inside, drew off.”

Leader of the Life…”steadied behind the winner leaving the backstretch….took up sharply nearing the quarter pole…” Her short comment will say: “took up turn.” But was that “leaving the backstretch” or “nearing the quarter pole?”

Here are some of the problems. The chartcallers in the press box never saw the replays I viewed from the box area from various angles. Why? I witnessed several replays from different perspectives. The problem with incidents occurring at this juncture is that there’s no definitive view of what happened. Many problems occur in the seam of the shifting camera angles. This was one of those times.

There is no good reason why the chartcallers weren’t seeing the same replays the fans in the boxes, and those standing directly behind them, saw. And even if they had, surely they would have felt without equivocation that the evidence was inconclusive.

How can horsemen be held accountable and subsequently punished on inconclusive data?

An HRI reader commented on the site that he suspected politics, since Velazquez was involved in a battle with Alan Garcia for the meet’s leading rider. Not sure how that would work since the legendary Allen Jerkens was the trainer being punished, a political push.

Admittedly, stewards everywhere, especially New York’s, will view apprentices with a jaundiced eye as they would jockeys with reputations for dirty riding. Chavez has a reputation for being an aggressive race rider, but not for being a dirty one.

The stewards alone are not to blame, however. While the industry pays lip service to integrity, it still won’t require stewards to file written reports outlining the basis for their decisions as is done in other countries. Why not? It’s about time racing commissioners--the State Racing and Wagering Board in this case--made their highly paid officials accountable. That they don’t is indefensible.

In relation to what happens on its tracks, management should invest in additional tower cameras to help officials make better decisions, as opposed to those cameras recently installed on the other side of the finish line for providing interesting, new perspectives and some cool “hero shots.”

Or management might have used some of the budget that paid or bartered for three full-page ads in the trade paper trumpeting Curlin’s Woodward participation, as if anyone spending $5 for a set of past performances wouldn’t know.

Written by John Pricci

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