Monday, June 11, 2012

A Longer Triple Crown Has Benefits Far Beyond Tradition

ELMONT, NY, June 11, 2012—Most people agreed that his was the year it was finally going to happen. From horsemen, to media, to horseplayer and sports fans, the consensus of all was that I’ll Have Another, demonstrated in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, had all the tools to become an immortal.

Never mind that if I’ll Have Another competed and won the Triple Crown here Saturday he would have beaten almost three times the number of rivals Citation did in 1948. Citation? The original “Big Red,” until the “Big Red” of Meadow Stable” came along, was considered the greatest American horse of the modern era.

Never mind that in 1978, Affirmed, notwithstanding his nemesis, Alydar, beat only 17 other rivals to become the last Triple Crown winner of 34 years. Hell, I’ll Have Another beat 19 rivals in this year’s Kentucky Derby alone.

Finally, never mind that all 11 Triple Crown winners ever had to beat more than seven rivals in the Test of the Champion. Had I’ll Have Another run and won, he would have beaten 11 rivals, 40 Triple Crown opponents in all.

All of the above can be construed as logical reasons why today’s Triple Crown series is harder to win than ever; numbers dictate. But there are many more reasons; some subtle, some not, and all worth considering:

Speed-laden commercial pedigrees; inherent unsoundness of popular sire lines; modern training philosophy; the hot-housing of yearlings, increased popularity of speed-crazy breeze-up sales; lack of juvenile foundation for the classics season, etc., ad nauseum.

When concerned individuals suggest that the duration of the series needs lengthening, two arguments heard most often is “five weeks” is what makes the accomplishment so difficult--so special; and that a lengthened series would cheapen the achievement of the predecessors.

A question, then, for all those making the degree of difficulty/historical context argument: Given the above factors, would a victory by I’ll Have Another on Saturday somehow have tarnished the accomplishments of the 11immortals?

Said the apple to the orange, of course not. The time for debating is over. Acknowledging reality and self-serving sanity is what’s needed now.

The tradeoff of stamina for speed has proven to be a mistake for the breed, not for the people who bred and sold them. Consider:

According to recently released Jockey Club statistics, field size in 1980 was approximately nine starters per race; halcyon 1950 levels. This likely reflected the surge in racing’s popularity coming off the Triple Crown binge of the ‘70s. That number dropped to eight last year.

In 1972, the average race horse had a career spanning over 10 lifetime starts. Last year, that number was a bit over six, meaning that despite all the medical and technological breakthroughs, lifetime career expectancy was lower by 40 percent lower, over the past 40 years ago. Coincidence? I think not.

The breed is far less durable; consider Citation’s Triple Crown season: Big Red raced four times in February and thrice in April. He won the Derby Trial on April 27 and the Derby four days later. He won the Preakness on May 15 and the Jersey Stakes two weeks later.

Between the Jersey Stakes on May 29 and the June 12 Belmont, Citation breezed a half-mile, worked a mile three days later and, three days after that six furlongs, one day before the Belmont. He went wire to wire and won by eight.

Citation obviously was a great race horse but also nothing more than flesh, blood and bone, strong bone. Name one American horse that could withstand that kind of training schedule in this era. Can’t think of one? Of course not; that Thoroughbred no longer exists.

Before the ink on the 2012 Belmont Stakes chart was dry, two respected members of the mainstream media used words like change, outlaw, inhumane. Like it or not, his is how the majority of the 85,000 people at Belmont Park Saturday, and the millions viewing on TV, still get their news.

Wrote Bob Ford in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "We see it every year in the Triple Crown chase. Horses break down, or they develop physical issues that lead to their retirement.

“It is too much to ask a 3-year-old, who are "little more than teenagers" in their development to run three hard races in just five weeks… At some point, the sport of horse racing has to make a change. Not because there will never be another Triple Crown winner. Some horse will beat the odds and get it done eventually…

“Enduring the three races in the span of five weeks is one thing. Preparing to do it and trying to recover between the races is just as sapping. As constituted for modern horses, the Triple Crown series is inhumane. It doesn't work."

Sally Jenkins, Washington Post: “It’s a good thing I’ll Have Another is such a celebrity. Otherwise that horse would be working right now. The most scrutinized trainer in thoroughbred racing was forced to withdraw the most famous horse in America from the Belmont.

"This is hardly proof that thoroughbred racing has cured its creeping moral sickness. It only proves that [trainer Doug O’Neill] knows he can’t take another major public scandal at the moment, and neither can his sport…

“We should be grateful that I’ll Have Another won’t be on the track at risk of a public breakdown... But somewhere, on another track, in a less publicized race, a sore-legged horse will run. About 800 horses die racing each year… That rate is intolerably high…

"Thoroughbred racing is at a moral junction, and it's time to decide whether it has any real worth, or needs to be outlawed."

Andrew Cohen Atlantic Monthly /60 Minutes: “In horse racing, everyone has an excuse. Everyone has an explanation. No one accepts responsibility. Regulators don't enforce the rules aggressively enough. And when they do the targets of their investigation whine about how unfair the rules are.

“A few weeks ago, for example, New York regulators suspended a harness racing trainer for nearly 1,700 pre-race medication violations. How did the industry react? Leading trainers were outraged-- at regulators…

“The question now is whether this fire will roar long enough, and generate enough financial and political and regulatory heat, to do any good for the sport. If not, it will be yet another wasted opportunity for the industry, another tragedy for its many purists…”

The industry should defend itself the best way it can, by all means. Believe it or not, this is a bigger issue than who’s right or who’s wrong. It’s not what we think that matters. Racing will live with its problems; has for the four decades I’ve covered the sport.

The ones who can’t live with it, right or wrong, are the public that only get interested a couple of days a year. Why should the industry care? Because it won’t be regulators who will shut the game down. It will be the public, with an assist from mainstream media, that will end it.

The time has come for the practitioners so fond of saying how the top priority is to “do what’s best for the horse,” make a concerted effort to show the general public and its loyal fans and bettors that it will practice what it preaches.

This isn’t like the Raceday Lasix issue replete with serious economic complications. This is an easy fix that will make headlines, the application of pen to calendar. Please, space the series out in a fashion that reflects today’s reality.

Racing is losing favor with Americans while also needing to compete with NBA and NHL championships? Then give the public what it wants and the horses what they need.

Link the Triple Crown series to the holidays and make it part of America’s fabric. Forever, the Kentucky Derby is the first Saturday of May. A little more than four weeks later, a Memorial Day weekend Preakness. Five weeks after that, the Belmont Stakes on the Fourth of July weekend, an event even without a Triple Crown on the line.

The value of good will and added favorable publicity attendant to an elongated schedule is priceless. Racing needs to show people that it truly cares in a big, headline grabbing way. It must show, in terms the public can understand, that it's willing to alter tradition by doing what's best for young, present day Thoroughbreds.

Half measures won't work; it's far too late for that.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, June 07, 2012

There’s No Entitlement to a Triple Crown

ELMONT, NY, June 7, 2012—The Belmont Stakes detention barn is sold out, as are the reserve seats, and the field has been set.

All that’s left for the bi-legged participants is the crossing of a final few T’s, hitting a couple of parties, and waiting for the morality play of Belmont 144 to work itself out.

Michael Matz; Olympian, Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, real life hero, and his owner, the daughter of a Virginia breeding legend, who once toiled in John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s White House but now conducts her life with gusto from a motorized wheel chair that seemingly never steps.

Phyllis Wyeth smokes victory cigars bigger than Red Auerbach’s and would love to have some gentleman match her in the winners’ circle at Belmont Park late Saturday afternoon after her Union Rags derails an historic bid.

That would be only fair considering it was her horse that was supposed to be the one making history. But funny things happen when you race toward antiquity because other people want the same dream, too. No one has the Triple Crown coming to them.

In the other corner sit the heavies of the piece, the anti-heroes replete with checkered pasts who probably thought it would never come to all this. But it has. There’s potential for victory on Saturday but, after Saturday, then what? More past; less future?

Will there be more about the O’Neill positives, overages, and the results of the appeal to his upcoming 45-day suspension? And what of Paul Reddam’s million-dollar Ditech fine, and allegations about Cash Call’s deceptive advertising, usurious interest rates, and strong-armed collectors?

You bet there will be more about all that.

Caught in the middle of these disparate set of characters are two gifted race horses--one that can become an immortal, and he’s completely innocent.

All I’ll Have Another does to be at his best is to subject himself to chiropractic back rubs and stretching exercises and an acupuncturist who sticks needles here, there and everywhere, meant to send what Far Easterners call chi, natural energy that courses through the system, helping the body to heal itself.

Meanwhile, it was the other animal that was supposed to find himself on history’s brink, and he will represent the other camp on Saturday.

Union Rags was the should-have-been juvenile champion, the runnerup with an asterisk due to pilot error, a fate that would play itself out, literally over and again in two of the three biggest races of his young life.

Because of the Triple Crown travails of Doug O’Neill, who wiseguys have dubbed Drug O’Neill for years, we’ve learned that horses can test for excessive levels of TCO2 without having been administered a concoction of baking soda, sugar and electrolytes.

What are we supposed to believe?

Instead, let’s one day concentrate on, you know, the horses--two very good horses among a small handful of other very good horses--in the champion’s test taking place late Saturday afternoon. Instead, think about this:

I’ll Have Another sold at auction for $35,000, the same as Seattle Slew’s $17,000 loosely adjusted for inflation. Morality plays are part of the human condition at every level but, while some race results are happier occasions than others, a race comes out the way a race comes out.

When you think about it, what’s more democratic than Thoroughbred racing? In the gate, whatever baggage horses carry beyond scale-weight, they are all four legs, a mane, and a tail, in the language of old school racetrackers.

Sometimes, it turns out that one of the horses has the heart of a true champion. But that’s why they run the races, to find out. Because when the gate opens, anything can happen, especially at a mile and a half, and that’s what makes this whole racetrack thing work.

When the gate springs open late Saturday afternoon, the present will go chasing the past and, one way or another, lies the future of the sport, as unknowable as a race result itself.

But for now, at 6:40 p.m. Saturday, root for your horse for whatever the reason and may the best horse find a clear path to victory. Sunday will take care of itself.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Additional Wagering Board Protocols Welcome and Timely

ELMONT, NY, May 30, 2012—In the course of the events that lead to media reporting and commentary, I have had little patience for agencies that see a window of opportunity to seize the national spotlight by hopefully advancing their agenda in the wide shadow cast by a world class event.

For years, the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame believed that early in Kentucky Derby week would be a good time to announce the names of that year’s inductees since the national sports media are all in one place at one time. Sensibly, this is no longer the case.

But this regrettable tack still goes these days with many organizations, especially regulatory agencies, still believing it’s better to get the news out while the whole world is watching what’s gong on both inside and outside the fences of America’s racetracks.

Notes to industry: Since the advent of the 24-hour mainstream media news cycle, either the world no longer cares or can only accept the never ending sensory bombardment one sound byte at a time.

The news business is no different than any other industry these days; one person now does the job of three and they, too, are on overload. That dandy new testing rule will need to wait until the Triple Crown is over. It’s about immediacy and priorities.

The State Racing & Wagering Board sometimes falls into this trap, getting news out at the most visible moments. But they have been on a major roll recently—that’s if you’re willing to overlook the apparent failings of their regulatory responsibilities in L’Affaire NYRA.

Fortunately for the agency, the organization involved in the imbroglio left an e-mail trail that in a small way mitigates its shortcomings in the matter.

As Association of Racing Commissioners International President Ed Martin said Tuesday, the case brought against Standardbred trainer Lou Pena by the NYSRWB as reported online in Standardbred Canada is "a game changer with wide ramifications for racing regardless of breed.

“This is a new chapter, make no mistake about it,” Martin added, noting that New York’s reliance on veterinary records as evidence of an illegal administration rather than a laboratory finding is a new regulatory strategy other agencies would emulate.

Triple Crown bid or not, no responsible journalist could ignore a headline that links the number 1,700 with alleged administrations of legal substances by one Standardbred trainer.

Under the circumstances, trainer Lou Pena did the only thing he could do: Cry racial prejudice.

Today, May 30, the same day the NTRA is hosting a Triple Crown national teleconference that includes Penny Chenery (owner, Secretariat), Ron Turcotte (jockey, Secretariat), Sally Hill (co-owner, Seattle Slew), Billy Turner (trainer, Seattle Slew), Patrice Wolfson (co-owner, Affirmed), (Steve Cauthen, Affirmed), the SRWB announced the “installation of strict protocols for horses and participants taking part in June 9 Belmont Stakes.”

While this announcement might be viewed as opportunistic--that the protocols could have be installed with less fanfare--it’s most important that the world knows, especially in the current environment where the use of even legal medication is a page one story and the Triple Crown aspirant’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, has had his dubious past questioned by national media starting around 7 p.m. on May 5th.

All Belmont horses will be stalled in Belmont Park’s secured stakes barn beginning June 6, subjected to out-of-competition blood testing and will remain in that barn until the race’s conclusion.

The blood tests will be sent to the Board’s Drug Lab that night for immediate review and the stakes barn will be monitored by SRWB and Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau personnel in addition to the NYRA security contingent.

The security procedures include limiting personnel who are allowed to enter the area, noted in entry-exit logs. Personnel entering a horse’s stall, including his trainer and NYRA veterinarian must also be logged and include a reason for the visit. Veterinarians will be escorted into the stall by security personnel.

Equipment, feed, hay, bales, etc. will be searched, horses assigned specific stalls, no human consumption of food or beverage will be allowed inside a stall or within proximity, only NYRA vets can administer raceday Lasix and the press will assigned to specific designated areas.

Beginning Belmont eve, June 8, no vet may visit a stall without making an appointment with SRWB investigators, providing written notice of intended treatment. On June 9, treatment will only be permitted for emergency or by agreement with the Stewards. SRWB investigators will provide surveillance and the stakes barn will be restricted to only Belmont Stakes horses.

In addition, the NYRA will have additional roving security teams during Belmont Stakes day, overseeing the handling and movement of Belmont Stakes horses and additional security measures will be taken inside Belmont Park on raceday.

Should I’ll Have Another be good enough to enter the Triple Crown pantheon, second-guessing the connections will be a part of the Belmont Stakes aftermath. For the good of the game, that will be a very good thing.

Written by John Pricci

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