Friday, January 04, 2008

Road to the Kentucky Derby Begins Saturday

Turf writers in desperate search of a story know two things: go see Nick Zito; go see Wayne Lukas, not necessarily in that order. Both, after all, are extremely quotable and each knows the value of keeping their brands in front of the public (read prospective owners).

Turf writers know a third thing. Bereft of storylines when on deadline, think two words: Kentucky Derby.

In that spirit, a forward look at certain-to-be juvenile champion War Pass; Remsen hero Court Vision, a courageous and classy nine-furlong winner, and Denis of Cork, one of the more impressive debut winners ever.
While the measure of dosage index is no longer in vogue as a predictor of Derby form, it still has some merit. So, as an aside, an early look at some dosage profiles as outlined by column contributor Brad Morgan.

Morgan reviewed the dosage profiles of 37 newly turned three-year-olds. Of those, only six had as many as two points in either its Solid or Professional wing. Meaning, according to dosage theory, theyre light on the stamina side of their pedigree.

Considering the current state of the breeding industry, is it any wonder that this small sample of relatively high class individuals reflects that the majority of American racehorses are bred for speed?

Interestingly, three of the six stamina-influenced sophomores are fillies.

Of greater significance, though, were the names of several highly regarded Triple Crown hopefuls, all of which impressed on the racetrack as two-year-olds.

El Gato Malo, undefeated in two starts, including the two-turn Gold Rush at Golden Gate Fields, has a DI of 4.33.

Etched, undefeated in two starts by a combined 13- lengths, including the G3 Nashua, has a dosage index of 4.14.

Gayego, a maiden breaker by three lengths in 1:09 over Hollywoods Cushion Track, has a DI of 4.33.

Pyro, the strong-finish runnerup to War Pass in both the Grade 1 Champagne and Juvenile, has a dosage of 4.14.

Sea of Pleasure, 2-for-2, including a preliminary allowance win in 1:08 3/5 at Hollywood Park, checks in with a 4.33.

And, finally, War Pass, 4-for-4 in high, championship style but with a dosage index of 4.09, slightly over the desired measure of 4.0 or lower.

The knock one hears most often, however, is that he may not be rate-able. Even Zito admitted last year that you have to let him do what he wants to do, when he wants to do it.

But thats where the knocks end. In four starts, he never has taken a backward step on the Equiform performance-figure scale. He came out running fast then came back and ran even faster, earning an Equiform figure of 74.25. He followed that up with a 76.25 in the Champagne, moving up in class and distance, before earning a breathtaking 79.25 in the Juvenile.

Only jinx-busting Street Sense ran that fast at 2 in the modern era, albeit earning his figure over a dry Churchill surface.

Horses that never take a backward step are impossible to knock. But since every rule has an exception, heres one: too much; too soon. Going from a 71.75 to 79.25 in three months is substantial development.

Developmentally, Court Vision did nothing wrong in his four starts, either. His figures improved from start one to start three, coming out running while showing good energy distribution, improving in his second start to break maiden, then went forward again to win the G3 Iroquois mile at Churchill Downs.

But his Remsen was something else altogether. Termed a soft win because the pace and final time were slower than his Iroquois score, his trip and subsequent victory was anything but soft.

Court Vision simply willed his way to victory, bulling and bumping his way through horses in deep stretch despite a slow pace that figured to compromise his late surge. Not many young horses will do that, especially at nine furlongs. Bill Motts Majestic Warrior gets all the publicity for his upside. But its Court Vision thats already a proven commodity.

Denis of Corks maiden win has to be seen to be believed, and maybe not even then (6th race, CD, Nov. 24). The majority of juvenile debut winners speed-pop their rivals right to the finish. Not Denis.

At the first call of the seven-furlong sprint, Denis of Cork had only one of 11 rivals beaten. At the second call. It was three. Then he began a five-wide run rounding the famed Churchill far turn for and was a length behind the leader approaching midstretch.

Denis of Cork finished off the huge rally to finish 3/4s of a length to the good in 1:22 2/5. Calvin Borel rode the colt for trainer David Carroll. Interesting to note that Carl Nafzger had a starter in the race, too.

Denis of Cork earned an Equiform figure of 72.25, a fast--but not too fast--building block. Viewing the effort in context is more revealing. Along the way to his final figure was a four-furlong pace figure of 71 and a two-furlong figure of 63. His internal six furlong figure was 69. Meaning, the farther he went, the faster he went. Stabled at Fair Grounds, he owns a DI of 1.80.

Zitos War Pass is scheduled to make his seasons debut in late February at Gulfstream. No plans have been announced for Court Vision, also stabled in Florida, or for Denis of Cork.

But the road begins tomorrow. Aqueduct will offer the Count Fleet at a mile and 70 yards and features the undefeated, well managed Giant Moon, leaving from the outside in a field a seven with a short run into the first turn.

Zito, meanwhile, will run two in Gulfstreams G2 Hutcheson at seven furlongs: Cool Coal Man, strangled into submission in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last out, and Coal Play, second in Calders What A Pleasure Stakes. Both are owned by Robert Lapenta. Big Truck, Grand Minstrel and Halo Najib are serious contenders in a very competitive renewal.

So let the games, and the quotes, begin.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 28, 2007

On Balance, A Good Year for Thoroughbred Racing

The answer to what kind of year its been depends on what pew youre sitting in.

If you receive a paycheck from the New York Racing Association., are a member of a wagering platform that doesnt handle your favorite track, or born Patrick Biancone, 2007 wasnt so good.

If, however, youre a high class dirt loving three-year-old, own stock in a synthetic surface-manufacturing company, or born Calvin Borel, you made some good memories.

Nationally, synthetic racetracks made a huge and dramatic impact while never scratching the surface (pun intended) of what it means for the future of the sport and its breeding industry. It was the racing story of 2007.

Unless the future of New Yorks racing franchise is settled in favor of thoroughbred racing, the racing story of 2007 might not matter.

Its true that all racing, like politics, is local.

But everyone knows that the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL does best when the Giants, Yankees, Knicks and Rangers are having winning seasons.

Its no different in the thoroughbred game. The sport benefits in California, Kentucky and Florida when Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga are robust.

The popular proliferation of international racing in 2007 was the dominant story for racing worldwide. But like the aforementioned leagues and states, international racing needs a healthy American racing industry.

Without looking at the numbers, figure that national betting handle will remain flat at around $15 billion this year.

But $15 billion doesnt buy what it used to. So, unless America embraces the marriage of Internet technology to more wagering products like betting exchanges and lower takeout, handle will not only stagnate but will flat-line.

In 2007, racing learned that racinos are nothing more than a trendy quick fix. Hopefully racing learned as much, and the remedy is for the physicians of industry to heal themselves.

The problem is that no one in the seat of power listens. In fact no seat even exists.

Indeed, all these troublesome issues are not exclusive to the transition of 2007 into 2008. Going forward, the areas of concern are timeless. Hopefully time for finding needed solutions doesnt run out.

Thankfully, what happened between the fences proved a great distraction both pragmatically and aesthetically.

For me, the success of the greatest Non-Triple Crown series ever helped celebrate the accomplishments of Barbaro in the same manner his death earlier at once inflated and deflated those accomplishments.

It does, after all, begin and end with the race horse.

And, so, a Breeders Cup Juvenile winner finally was stout enough to win a Kentucky Derby. His prep regimen had put one racetrack on the national map and a synthetic one under a microscope. A colt named Street Sense ultimately provided an answer.

His victory led to my personal favorite moment of the year; the horse-back celebration of a jockey in rose colored goggles finding his way to a winners circle he visited many times before but never like this.

Then a Derby rival, a horse that eventually would prove worthy of a Horse of the Year title, re-broke in midstretch to snatch a victory so improbable as to render four decades of Preakness less special. And that includes the ding-dong of 1989.

But instead of a Belmont afterthought, racing witnessed another moment in the very special history of this very special racing series. For the first time in more than a century, a filly would beat the colts with a thisclose finish going a true classic distance.

Im positive Ill never see three individual, albeit in-tandem, performances executed so dramatically again.

In fact, Id bet on it.

The expansion of Breeders Cup, whose 2007 debut, again depending on whether your pew was under cover or exposed to the elements, either failed or succeeded.

Hopeful and reasonably certain, Breeders Cup expansion will be viewed as a success in another 10 years. Lets hope the 2008 renewal dawns bright beneath a warm Southern California sun.

Theres no rule that more must equal less.

What I also hope for 2008 and beyond is that the industry realizes how the continued proliferation of synthetic track racing will change a time-honored game. Dirt is either real or its not. Its either sand and loam or clay, or its not.

Synthetic surfaces adds a third element to a sport in which its participants race. Racing not turf racing and everything else. Not in this country, anyway. Synthetic tracks will change the way stallions are bred to mares, the way common sense could not.

Stamina, like speed, cant be taught. My hope for 2008 and beyond is that racing holds on to the sand and loam and clay and finds a better way to make traditional dirt tracks safer.

The best improvement of the past year is how the industry finally is starting to deal with its number one problem; cheaters using drugs.

Biancone, should he be found guilty in the cobra venom scandal, just might have to be the poster child in the war on illegal drugs. That would be a notorious achievement if he were kicked off a third continent for drug violations.

And so it was a good thing when Kentucky joined California and Mid-Atlantic racetracks in banning the use of anabolic steroids.

It might not appear so but racing took some positive strides in 07. Hopefully that trend continues into 08 and beyond.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 21, 2007

All of America Has Franchise Fatigue

Although it tis the season, its been very difficult for fans tethered to New York racing to be jolly. Not with everyone suffering from franchise fatigue.

Remarkably, but predictably, it appears as if New York State lawmakers are about to run out of racetrack: Ten days and counting to years end, Christmas Day notwithstanding, and not a creature is stirring, not even the House.

Which reminds me, before examining this phenomenon: Have you seen the television ads of those politicians that would like to be known in 2009 by the worlds most powerful acronym, POTUS?

Hillary is placing all the gifts America we will get under its holiday tree, with care, of course. That a corporate Democrat would come with so many centrist presents was not surprising. All part of the Hillary I Know spin campaign, I guess.

And there was Rudy, Mr. Jocular, the Saint of 911, cracking wise with fruitcake jokes. Talk about l-a-m-e. Certainly wouldnt want to miss any of his stump gems from now on. Gives me goose-bumps just thinking about it.

I like the ad of John Edwards, the populist in the $400 coiffure, that was a little more secular but a warm message sure to resonate with Americans whove been taking it on the chin lately, just about everybody.

Edwards is right about one thing: The medias primary coverage has been superficial.

Have you seen those election-as-horserace cable ads? Cmon Chris, have a talk with Abrams and his people. The spots are as lame as Rudys.

The Obama family holiday message was warm and mainstream, the urban family next door, just like many of you and me. At least, it was to the point and tastefully low key.

There was Mitt Romney, whose message was heavy and serious and button-down, per usual, looking like anything but a member of a cult.

And, of course, my personal favorite, Mike Huckabee, who appears to be running for saint.

Note the bookcase, lit with a bright light that gave the illusion of it being, you know, a cross, and see it land on his right shoulder before disappearing behind him, just in case you werent getting the message.

And Im thinking the most important election in modern American history is looming, so why shouldnt media coverage on the Road to the White House be superficial? The messages are.

Meanwhile, sometimes you develop your principles based on experience, George W. Bush was saying at a Thursday morning press conference. He never was in danger of practicing what he preached.

Its America that has franchise fatigue, why not New York horseplayers? But, I digress.

So with 10 days remaining in 2007, Democratic Gov. Spitzer decided to replace Non-Profit Oversight Board chairperson Carole Stone, appointed by previous Republican Governor George Pataki in 2005.

Not that the NYRA will allow the boards designee on the grounds Jan. 1 to conduct racing without a fight. In fact, they probably wouldnt, refusing to dignify that plan with a comment.

This recent announcement angered me because Trooper Gate--a potential Spitzer albatross symptomatic of his feud with Republican Senate majority leader Joe Bruno--is back in the news and it appeared Spitzers decision to replace a Pataki appointee was politically motivated.

Until Stone spoke, and her qualifications to steer New York racing, even on an interim basis, were exposed. Heres how she responded to a reporters questions/observations.

On what organization would be appointed to replace NYRA if theres no permanent accord by Dec. 31? We dont have an alternate operator selected, or in mind.

Guess two years wasnt enough time to think about it.

On the legalities should another operator temporarily take over the franchise? Were sorting through the process.

Dana Perino would have made a perfect replacement but shes working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

On whether she thought NYRA would accept the terms of a temporary extension? They need to respond before [Dec. 31]. I dont know why they would decline.

Thirty days, step down, next case, please.

Whatever Spitzers motive, Ms. Stone needed to be replaced. Incredibly, she will remain a board member.

Just dont ask her any more questions, OK?

So now Steven Newman, former Deputy Comptroller of New York City, will be responsible for finding a suitable temporary replacement for NYRA on Jan. 1, if necessary.

The fact there will be no mutuel clerks to sell tickets, or any personnel to supply services from hot dogs to barn security, etc., etc., is probably viewed as no big hindrance.

In the immortal words of A.J.: What, no #$%&^* calendar now?

You know the scariest part of this? The fact that Senator Bruno thinks that a larger board of permanent appointees is the proper compromise to settle the franchise flap.

Written by John Pricci

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