Thursday, February 02, 2012

“If Wishes Were Horses”

PLANTATION, Fla., February 2, 2012— I finally caught up with Episode 2 of the HBO horse racing drama series Luck and once again was amazed how it struck just the right racetrack tone, in harmony with a good old-fashioned who-did-what-and-who-will-do-what-to-whom storyline.

It’s the sort of the dark comedy that’s a fact of life on both the front- and the backsides of America’s racetracks; the sort of thing that David Milch did so well in Deadwood only this time incorporating humor along with the darkness.

Critics might not have been unanimous in their praise with “only” about nine out of 10 loving it. The best news, however, is that the series has been renewed for a second season. There have been nine episodes to date and now 10 more will be added beginning January, 2013.

According to an HBO press release, the series will go back into production by the end of this month.

Of all the reviews we’ve seen, the best entered my inbox earlier this week courtesy of my daughter Linda, who admitted she probably spends too much time on Vulture, the entertainment blog of New York Magazine.

Linda also explained that it was rare when a Vulture recap accentuated the film making aspect of a piece over plot line considerations.

The following excerpt isn’t as much a review as it is a paean to racetrack life, which begs the question: How can it be that a non-racing medium gets what it means to be a racetracker when the industry, including its media, never have figured a way to describe that sensation in order to attract more people to it?

“I don’t know if there is a God working behind the scenes in the universe of Luck, wrote Matt Zoller Seitz, “but the way [Michael] Mann photographs the track and its people, animals, bleachers, sheds, low-hanging clouds and fluttering birds makes it seem as though there are larger, unseen forces at play.

“Whether these forces can be explained via theology or physics is something the pilot never [pretended] to answer, and I doubt Milch or Mann mean to provide them.

“They seem content to watch characters deal with cosmic machinations that they spend their whole lives trying to understand and tap into. When one of these characters has a good day, or a big win, it’s like seeing a flower bloom in a junkyard.”

Damn, wish I wrote that.

Let’s all try to fathom what the reviewer got from one pilot episode bout life on the racetrack, and what he thinks makes this whole scene so fascinating. Clearly, anyone tethered to the racehorse already knows exactly what Seitz is appreciating.

Horse racing and life on the racetrack is a visual medium. Did you ever notice, for instance, that back in the day, and sometimes now, when manufacturers try to sell television sets invariably there’s a horse race going on?

Why? Because racing and the racetrack explodes with color, sights and sounds, and anyone involved in it, either as a principal or bettor/fan, know there are unseen forces at play.

Theology or physics? Exactly; who knows and why.

The results of a horse race divined via the practice of handicapping? Precisely. What is handicapping, exactly, science or art? It’s mostly both, although true fans know that you begin with science and end with art in order to draw the right conclusion.

Horseplayers attempting to “deal with cosmic machinations they spend their whole lives trying to understand and tap into.” Is that not what everyone who tries to figure out the winner of a horse race is attempting to do?

Isn’t that what happens when you land on a horse for no precise reason but you have a “feeling” it will win? Isn’t that feeling really a clue from the subconscious, knowledge that flows from the 10,000 hours of research that makes one, by definition, an expert?

“Seeing a flower bloom in a junkyard” is the precise moment a race develops in reality the way it dopes out on paper; the exact moment your practiced, reasoned selection crosses the finish line first; the instant a champion overcomes all obstacles and does exactly what it was supposed to do.

These are the thoughts and the pictures a horse-playing fan conjures up as he goes through the process of figuring just how a race will be run, selects the winner, walks out to the apron, picks up his binoculars and has a one-on-one relationship with these majestic beasts who were born to compete.

All of this culminates in what the great Hall of Fame horseman and racetrack sage, John Nerud, believes, that “a bad day at the track is better than a good day anywhere else.”

And so it matters not which end of the spectrum one considers when trying to draw a bead on another observation of Seitz’s, who posited that either you think this way of life is “an ancient tradition with a certain beauty and nobility, or a business built on exploitation.”

But that doesn’t matter. To paraphrase the late owner of the Oakland Raiders, Al Davis, in concert with the maxim of Bill Clinton’s political strategist, James Carville, “just sell it, stupid.”

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

We Are Fam-i-ly

PLANTATION, Fla., January 17, 2012—If you’ve ever tried to explain this game to someone untethered to the race horse, I’m sure you found it difficult to reconcile the fact that despite the intense and often manic competition, Thoroughbred racing is capable of rendering itself down to some equine version of Love Boat.

That was the sense one got while watching the 41st annual Eclipse Award presentation on cable TV Monday night, an evening that in my den would see Dr. Gregory House finish a very distant second to a real life Jeannine Edwards.

I confess that in my four decades of immersion into this passionate pastime, I’ve sat through my share of awards dinners, even hosted a few as a past President of the New York Turf Writers Association back in the day when the NYTWA actually honored those who toiled right in front of our press box eyes. Sadly, that’s a story for another day.

The point is that awards presentations, even those hosted by Ricky Gervais, can be tedious--speaking of which, I was very proud of the fact that on my imaginary Golden Globes ballot for actor in a television series drama appeared the name of Kelsey Grammar who, like George Clooney, found his role of a lifetime. But, I digress.

Edwards, easier on the eyes than either Gervais or Hugh Laurie, did fine work, getting out from behind a podium and helping to deflate some of the formal stuffiness of the occasion. I’m not sure everyone understood the sight-gag Tebow homage, and there might have been one too many without-further-ados, but that picks at nits. Edwards’ effort certainly was worthy of an encore performance at the 42nd annual.

The winners from three finalists in every category, except that for Horse of the Year, bore not a single major surprise, and it’s always good when the best, or most accomplished, horse wins. No one looks for value at Eclipse Award time, not even John Doyle, the 2011 Handicapper of the Year. Form has its place.

Even some of the more difficult classifications, that of top three-year-old colt, top steeplechaser, and almost all of the human categories, boasted finalists so worthy that no one could have taken serious umbrage with any of the Eclipse winners so honored.

At evening’s end I was disappointed there was no award for Caleb’s Posse, aced out by Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom for sophomore best-in-show, and by Amazombie in the Sprint category. Both winners were deserving, of course, and, on balance, it’s a good thing when classic and end-of-year championship winners are rewarded in tight races: The Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup events do so much shining a light on the sport.

Inevitably, awards ceremonies are not without its low-lights. There were audio glitches interspersed throughout the ceremonies and the lighting was described by one television professional I spoke with as funereal. Further, two observers reported that the streaming presentation had many issues.

It was unfortunate, too, that Dr. Kendall Hansen found it necessary to speak so interminably that you could cut the awkwardness with a knife—especially after his eponymous race horse was the first so honored only minutes after Edwards implored, practically begged, that acceptance speeches be limited to one minute.

Martin Schwartz, owner of Eclipse champion turf mare Stacelita, was less overbearing, though it was the first time I’ve ever seen a legal pad used for making ceremonial remarks. Disappointing, too, that owner Barry Irwin and trainer Chad Brown felt it necessary to replicate Woody Allen’s award appearances. I’m sure logical explanations will be offered. Fortunately, the highlights outran the uncomfortable moments.

Given their contributions and passion for the game, tributes to the late Jess Jackson and Mace Siegel hit just the right note at the start of the evening, as did the roll of 2011 champions from races hosted by co-sponsor Breeders’ Cup Ltd. Among other personal favorites, listed chronologically, were:

Steve Asmussen seen smiling [reporters don’t get that much]; Actor John Ortiz deadpanning a silent imitation of trainer Julio Canani; Steeplechase trainer Dermot Ryan’s thoughtful acceptance speech for Black Jack Blues; Award of Merit recipient Cot Campbell’s love of the business; Bill Mott humbly congratulating fellow trainer finalists Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert and thoughtfully thanking all his assistants. The positives continued:

Handicapper John Doyle looking skyward to tell his dad that, 43 years later, “I’m at the top”; Rapid Redux owner Robert Cole giving “all the credit” to trainer David Wells; trainer Bill Kaplan [Musical Romance] thanking all the “unsung heroes” of the backstretch; the fun had by the SoCal camps of Acclamation and Amazombie—Bud Johnston [Acclamation] saying “the greatest part of the business are the people.”

There was ever classy Ramon Dominguez acknowledging “Javier and Johnny”; and two heartfelt moments as 19-year-old apprentice Kyle Frey, showing both presence and emotion, lifted his Eclipse trophy in the air, saying of his very recently deceased grandfather “this one’s for my grandpa.”

Then came ever ebullient owner Ken Ramsey, thanking four trainers who won Grade 1s for him in 2011 and, most of all, “the original kitten,” wife Sarah, who taught him three things—“to love your family, treat the horses well, and believe in yourself,” before breeder Frank Stronach thanked his wife for not allowing him to sell any of the broodmares.

At last, it was Rick Porter, the owner of Horse of the Year Havre De Grace, who on his second visit to the podium reminded all of “the highest of highs and the lowest of lows” that the game provides, allowing all to know he will never forget Eight Belles.

Porter was effusive in his praise of trainer Larry Jones for giving him, along with a Horse of the Year title, victory “in the Woodward at Saratoga, the most exciting race I’ve ever won.” He then thanked trainer Tony Dutrow for taking such good care of his filly at 2 and 3, before congratulating Jerry Hollendorfer and Blind Luck for helping to create a rivalry.

Jones declined an opportunity to close the evening with some final thoughts but earlier had thanked all his other owners for their patience and allowing him to travel the country with Havre De Grace. It was an evening of celebration, of competition and dreams shared with like-minded people: As Edwards also mentioned several times on Monday night; that’s what the game’s all about.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, January 07, 2012

Cuomo’s Expanded Gaming Vision Helps Horse Racing

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 6, 2012—My hometown of Saratoga is conservative by both convention and politics. The apparel of choice here, where winters can test your resolve, on balance, remains Republican cloth.

But it matters not on which side of the aisle you lean here, or the entire Capital District for the matter, or on one of my many forays downstate, the message is remarkably the same and considering the subject matter, nigh impossible.

I have never, ever, heard a disparaging word about our state’s present Governor. An approval rating of 75%; it’s the damndest thing, really.

I was a fan of his father’s, as were many, although I can tell you that Mario Cuomo wasn’t on everyone’s favorite list, at least not to the extent enjoyed by his son Andrew, the present Governor.

So it was with great interest on Wednesday that I tuned my television to a station other than the local OTB network.

I was curious to see if his auditory matched his dad’s, by all accounts extraordinary. Of greater import, however, was what he had to stay about the state of gaming in the Empire State.

“We have been in a state of denial for a very long time when it comes to gaming,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo emphatically told both Houses of the Legislature and every other mover and shaker in the room during his State-of-the-State address.

“We already have it. We have Tribal Casinos across the state. We have racinos across the state. We have 29,000 electronic gaming machines in the state, more than in Atlantic City, more than the entire Northeast combined. But we don’t capitalize on it."
“We are surrounded by casinos on virtually every border. We are in the gaming business already but we’re not doing it very well. We should be doing better.

“This is not about chips and cards, it’s about one thing: jobs, jobs, jobs,” an applause line in a long series of applause lines sprinkled throughout the address.

Then, referring to badly needed revenues being left on the table, Governor Cuomo went further.

“Let’s amend the constitution so that we can do gaming right. Let’s make it safe, be competitive, and get jobs back in New York. There’s a billion dollars’ worth of economic impact here. We need jobs.”

By doing gaming right, Cuomo means introducing Las Vegas-style table games at already existing racinos, including the Resorts World Casino-New York City at Aqueduct Racetrack, one that thus far has exceeded expectations.

Cuomo made no specific references to racing except to explain that one of the racinos was at Aqueduct Racetrack but his actions say he's more a fan of racing than any of his recent predecessors, including his father.

And given his stated intention to bring back, create, and save existing jobs, it is unlikely Andrew Cuomo would allow the deterioration of a revenue producer that is the lynchpin of the state’s billion dollar agribusiness.

Some things just need to be taken on faith.

The other, more significant indicator is that the Aqueduct-Resorts World property will become an important cog in the city and state’s economic engine; the construction of the world’s largest convention center, and a hotel complex, on the Aqueduct grounds.

It is expected that the Genting Group which operates and constructed the Aqueduct casino would develop the new convention center.

The $4 Billion price tag for the convention center is part of a $15 billion infrastructure package--an amalgam of federal, state and private sector investment. The package includes another $1 billion investment in gaming.

Of course, the State of the State was about much more. “Thirty-two percent of our bridges are deficit; 40 percent of our road are rated ‘poor’ and 83 percent of our parks and major dams are in disrepair.

“One in every six children lives in homes without food. Let’s stop fingerprinting families who need food and eliminate the stigma of food stamps.” And there was so much more:

A second round of economic development grants and $1 billion to incentivize investment in poverty-riddled Buffalo; a restructuring of pension plans; a special education commission free from Legislature-controlled Board of Regents. He didn’t stop there.

Cuomo called for the repair of 2,000 miles of road, replacement of 100 bridges including the heavily traveled Tappan Zee Bridge; giving farmers access to low-interest loans; initiate real campaign finance reform; expanding the DNA databank and private sector investment to move existing power in the western and northern parts of the state to downstate where it’s needed most.

Among the creation of 25,000 new jobs expanded gaming would bring, in addition to recapturing the $3 to $5 billion New Yorkers spend at casinos outside the state, there is one other factor that would be good news for horse racing in this state, according to the New York Gaming Association.

It is recommended that any further casino expansion should be restricted only to racetrack sites.

Change New York horseracing fans can believe in? We’ll see. To hear Andrew Cuomo speak about it, one gets a sense that anything’s possible.

Written by John Pricci

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