Saturday, June 09, 2007

In This Belmont, Speed Kills

Elmont, NYIts like Larry Jones, the trainer of Hard Spun, says: At the end of the year, we might all be hailing [Curlin] as a superhorse.

Certainly he looked like a superhorse winning the Preakness in what only could be described as a singular performance. I never saw anything like his re-rally win in four decades of watching races.

Curlin is a deserving early line favorite at 6-5, more likely 4-5 by late Saturday afternoon. But Ill be betting against him. Heres a look at the field for Belmont 139 in alphabetical order, with post position and early line odds in parentheses:

#4 C P West (12-1): Nick Zito was adamant moments after the Preakness that there would be Belmont for this colt but here he is. And why not? He ran his way into the Belmont with a breakthrough performance in Baltimore. Until three weeks ago, he gave no indication he made the transition from precocious juvenile to classics performer. It was a good prep, but not perfect, because it was too good, too fast. Further, one could argue that Hard Spun wasnt the only horse who might have moved prematurely. The colt deserves this chance and will make his presence felt, but not likely in the top spot. Money prospects.

#3 Curlin (6-5): Certainly needs no introduction. Hell be the one wearing a black hat. Curlins a very good horse, perhaps even great, but winning the Belmont is not a given for the legendary Preakness performer. His extremely impressive Equiform performance figure at Pimlico represented a 3-point forward move. Regression is virtually assured making his fourth start in eight weeks off an enervating race against fresher rivals at a distance for which he is unsuited by pedigree. Without the benefit of a two-year-old foundation, all his rapid development figures to catch up with him somewhere along the line. What better time than at a mile and a half?

#6 Hard Spun (5-2): The first lesson taught in Handicapping 101 is this: Speed is always dangerous. The most important thing to learn about speed is that its the element that cant be learned; either you have it or you dont. Its a racehorses best weapon and is effective at any distance, including this one. A video review of Hard Spuns Derby and Preakness indicates he didnt race as some kind of rank run-off. He was fairly handy and amenable to rating. Much has been made of the fillys pedigree to handle the distance, justifiably. But this is the best bred horse for the Belmont distance. So, as the presumed leader reaches the Belmont halfway mark and the timer indicates something around 1:12, there should be enough left in this tank to make it the rest of the way home. Upset call.

#1 Imawildandcrazyguy (20-1): Hard to believe but this colt came from farther back than Street Sense in the Derby. From last of 20 to fourth is no small feat. He was finishing with gusto, not just out-plodding tired rivals to the finish. Bill Kaplan said hes been pointing for the Belmont since January. This stayer is a grinder type who just keeps finishing up his races, a rare commodity in the modern thoroughbred. Grinders win the Belmont over middling competition. The big three here are anything but middle of the road. For trifecta and superfecta players only.

#7 Rags To Riches (3-1): Win or lose, this filly is a most welcome Belmont addition and all her connections should be celebrated for stepping up to take on colts at a mile and half. Bred for the distance is one thing and doing it is another, but this filly can win the Belmont. On performance figure projections, shed be maybe four to six lengths behind the top males here. But her five pound sex allowance is significant. Rags To Riches gains three lengths from her weight advantage and that puts her in the picture with the big boys. Her three Grade 1 victories this year are more than the field has won combined and she has six Belmont winners in her first three generations. Class, pedigree and speed are a handicapping holy trinity. She can become the first filly in a century to do this. Drawn next to Hard Spun, watching the battle into the first turn between Garrett Gomez [Hard Spun] and Johnny Velazquez alone is worth the admission price. Very dangerous rival.

#5 Slews Tizzy (20-1): At early line odds this colt would be an underlay. He was classy enough to win a Grade 2 and Grade 3 recently but these are decidedly different animals, at a decidedly different distance. But if Rafael Bejarano picked up the phone to personal hustle the mount after Velazquez asked out of his commitment to ride the filly, then that talented rider might want to make his presence felt somewhere along the way. No where remotely close to the top of the ticket. Rank outsider.

#2 Tiago (10-1): Trainer John Sherriffs and Mike Smith began making their Belmont plans before Tiago was cooled out after the Derby. He won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby over moderate rivals then ran well in the Derby despite encountering some traffic and, of greater significantly, racing greenly. He has trained strongly since then and continues to develop the right way. The problem is that he lacks the performance figures to compete with the big three, but he has all the rest of the tools to indicate he more than belongs. We see his participation as another step in his development, but he might prove a boon to trifecta and superfecta players. Strong money prospects.

Selections: 1. Hard Spun 2. Rags To Riches 3. Curlin 4. Tiago

Wagers: Hard Spun to win at 5-2 or greater. Exacta box with Rags To Riches.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Not Changing Triple Crown Makes For No Sense

Saratoga Springs, NY--You knew that Carl Nafzger would make the right decision and the Belmont Stakes would have to live with it. Cant argue with Nafzgers success in this countrys most important races either. Hes fashioned a career that will take him all the way to Union Avenue and the Racing Hall of Fame. Thats guaranteed someday, and deserved.

But here we are again, stuck on the corner of Disheartened and Disenchanted, because when racing reaches a crossroads it blinks and wrings its hands. In the name of tradition the sport does nothing but lament its fate then refuses to do anything about it.

The Triple Crown can be changed for the better, just like other sports that changed with the times. I, too, mourn the loss of superb execution that can result in a dynasty: Bradshaws Steelers. The Canadiens of Richard and Beliveau and Geoffrion and Plante. The Yankees, from DiMaggio to Mantle. Michaels Bulls. The Celtics of Russell and Cousy and Havlicek. I only rooted for one, but loved watching them all.

However, I cant argue that parity through expansion and salary caps and free agency and extended playoff seasons has kept fans of the major sports engaged. The problem is that mediocrity is marketable and everyone worships at the altar of the bottom line.

But racing can change its showcase event and make it better, not weaken quality the way the other sports have. Racing need only embrace a new philosophy and not be afraid to gamble that lengthening the series would at once do the best thing for the modern horse and place a greater emphasis on horsemanship.

I would argue that it is easier for a superior three-year-old to dominate his rivals over five weeks than it would be for the same horse to extend that dominance over a greater number of stronger rivals for a longer period of time.

Todays thoroughbred is sleek, not stout, and often inherently unsound because thats the price paid for decades of medication-infused bloodlines. Gone are the days when old-school horsemen can routinely get to the bottom of their stock to attain total fitness. They still can reach bottom, of course, but the recovery time takes longer.

Speed in the stallion and his offspring is the element horsemen covet most. Speed cannot be taught, like height on a basketball court. Without equivocation the measure of speed defines class and is the games only absolute truth. But it comes at the expense of stamina, the price paid for growing sales ring receipts.

Degrees of unsoundness, permissive medication, speedy pedigree, lack of stoutness and todays harder, faster surfaces compel modern horsemen with an understanding of form-cycle analysis to race todays thoroughbred far less frequently. This is a fact of racing life at every racetrack every racing day, not just the demanding Triple Crown.

The classics as presently constructed is nothing if not anachronistic. It follows that for the health of the horse, the silencing of critics who argue for racings abolition, and to promote the game in a more meaningful fashion, the Triple Crown needs to be tweaked. And it needs to happen now.

Without question, a Triple Crown of longer duration makes sense. First and foremost, it would better serve todays thoroughbred. And makes promotional sense by keeping the series alive into early summer. To wit:

The distances and venues should remain the same--if thats possible given the current state of Maryland racing. And the Derby has secured its traditional place on the first Saturday in May. Because of its distance, place on the calendar, and field size, the Kentucky Derby remains the most difficult of the three to win. Americas Race needs to stay right where it is.

Run the Preakness on the first Saturday in June, lending it added identity and giving the Derby horses an extra two weeks to recover. By adding two weeks, the race likely would attract more Derby runners while providing extra time for late developers and non-Derby qualifiers to join the chase. This does right by still maturing 3-year-olds and makes the challenge for horsemen more daunting.

And what could be a more appropriate date to conclude this unique American series than the 4th of July? This would make the Belmont an instant classic for the general sports fan, a national TV holiday event run sometime between the barbecue and the fireworks. Further, it makes the race less dependent on a Triple Crown quest.

This schedule would give promoters nine weeks to bang the drum instead of five. And wouldnt the accomplishment be even greater if the Derby and/or Preakness winner had to defeat a larger number of series rivals?

Find a sponsor to bring back the participation and winners bonus and increase the purses of the final two legs. All this would upset none of the traditional Derby prep schedules and allow horsemen more time to develop their maturing stock. The lesser Derbies would still have their place and there would be no need for Monmouth Park and Saratoga to alter the dates of their Haskell and Travers.

A longer Triple Crown season simultaneously increases and decreases the degree of difficulty, brightens the spotlight, creates and sustains added interest, produces bigger and better wagering events, all while doing whats best for the animal. When will the time come for enlightened self interest?

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

An Open Letter To New York Governor Eliot Spitzer

Dear Gov. Spitzer,

Please say that the proposal to shutter and sell off Aqueduct Racetrack and divide the franchise holders entrusted to run New York racing into disparate groups is a trial balloon. Please say that it was launched to gauge reaction from everyone tethered to the industry and to get a measure of how it would all play out politically because in New York the game always has been to satisfy as many groups as possible. Please say that you wont do what your predecessors have done; play downstate against upstate, let the chips fall, and follow the prevailing wind.

If we know one thing in New York its this: When we try to please everyone, we please no one. And please say that you lofted this balloon because the advisers you entrusted to advise are not. Obviously, you must rely on input from the state budget office, the Empire State Development Corporation and the State Racing and Wagering Board.

I claim no expertise in two of these areas. Fortunately, I dont need a job at the moment. But I know something about how racing and wagering works. Did you know that for years New York officials have been asking the SRWB to expand superfecta wagering because by not doing so the New York tracks remain at a competitive disadvantage in the simulcast marketplace and that the windfall payoffs from the wager are popular with the customers and keep them liquid longer? No?

Well, permit me to be of service. The SRWB is supposed to act in the best interests of all the states citizens but historically has made decisions based on political expediency rather than those based on sound business practices. The average horseplayer could give you better advice. But I digress.

The franchise issue is far more complex, of course. The stakes are extremely high. Racing is defined as a niche sport--if niche means total U.S. handle of $15 billion annually. The New York signal is the industrys simulcast leader and drives handle annually, not seasonally. Simulcasting makes up 85 percent of total handle and that percentage grows every day. The international market is set to explode, so the product matters. To segment local racing would be to weaken the continuity of the product dramatically. While other venues grow the sport via slots revenue, New York would lose market share.

Racing is a niche if you consider that $2.4 billion generated by New Yorks agribusiness and a community that accounts for 40,000 jobs is an industry of no consequence. Racing without a healthy New York would be like major league baseball without the Yankees, the NFL without the Giants, the NHL without the Rangers and NBA without the Knicks. History and cultural fabric matter, too.

So dont do this, Mr. Spitzer, not if you really care about the working men and women who make a living in New Yorks horse business. Dont jeopardize the stature of New York racing. Yes, competition is healthy. Its what had made this country great. But not when it works at cross purposes. Weve already seen what happens, for instance, when on-track and off-track interests compete for the same customers.

Neighboring states with VLTs already are beating our brains in. We have lost major portions of the states horse population to other states and will continue to lose them every day we delay a decision on the franchise. And if you havent heard that the $1-million Pennsylvania Derby will have a negative impact on this years Travers Stakes, the Midsummer jewel of the Saratoga meet, you havent been getting relevant advice.

A large part of the on-track versus off-track problem has been the creation of senseless competition and duplication. Do you realize that downstate tracks share the same pertinent staff with Saratoga and much of the parimutuel and track maintenance equipment, too? Do you know that Saratoga is the worlds best race meet because the best of the downstate racing stock, with no live racing there, ship north for six weeks every summer? That without that kind of quality, the worlds best race meet ceases to exist as such?

Racetracks, like people, are living organisms. They get tired. Do you realize that if Aqueduct is sold you would need a second dirt surface at Belmont Park, one suitable for winter racing? Even if Polytrack were installed, it wasnt meant for 46 consecutive weeks of operation. And not all artificial tracks are create equal. There have been problems with extremes in temperatures, hot and cold. Even Polytrack creator Martin Collins has admitted as much.

For Belmont to work well as a stand-alone downstate facility, you would need five different surfaces over which to race and train; a spring/summer/fall surface, a winterized track, two turf courses, or two enlarged into one extremely wide course to allow for the movement of the temporary rails to preserve the course for the safety for horses and jockeys, and a year-round training track.

Of course, there already is a separate training track at Belmont. But I was thinking of the 550 head currently stabled at Aqueduct. Where would they train? Where would they live? Would they leave New York altogether? What about the trainers and grooms and exercise riders and hot walkers and veterinarians and feed company personnel and track kitchen employees and seasonal employees? Where do they go? Where would they live?

If perhaps you were thinking about Saratoga as a possible solution, think again. With burgeoning growth of the town and region comes a growing dearth of affordable housing. The additional stall space provided by the Oklahoma training track environs was already needed to insure a quality product.

This year, Saratoga has lost much of its off-season horse population because trainers of good-horse stables, the ones that come to New York from Kentucky, Florida and California for its cache, have stayed behind because the artificial tracks there are safer and more consistent for training.

Actually, the quicker an artificial surface is installed at Oklahoma the better. Without one that portion of the Saratoga boarding and training experience will become irrelevant as an eight-month facility. Would downstate franchisees be prepared to prop up Saratoga instead of the other way around?

Ill allow your appointed staffers to advise you on just how disparate franchise holders would revenue share, and on real estate ownership, and on intellectual property matters. As Virgil Sollozzo once admitted, Im not that clever. But I was wondering how all those workers who barely can afford to live in Queens will pay rent in Nassau County; how all the horsemen without a big horse in their barn can continue paying the help, feed their own families, and have enough leftover to pay state and local taxes. Unlike W. C. Fields, they may decide theyd rather be in Philadelphia.

So, please, Governor, take these things into consideration. I know you want to find as much new revenue as possible, much of it upfront. You owe that to all New Yorkers. But a major industry and prominent taxpayer that provides jobs and priceless prestige has been waiting five years for help that was promised long ago. This is not a time for trail balloons, sir, only decisive action. Why not simply go back to the RFPs already provided and make a decision, before a dire situation becomes worse than it already is.


John R. Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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