Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hall of Fame 2008 Nominees: An Embarrassment of Riches

Saratoga Springs, NY--The Hall of Fame nominations ballot arrived in the mail Monday. Is it that time already? Can Eclipse Award ballots be far behind?

The answers are yes and no, like the entire process itself. So many worthy nominees; so little time to get them all in at once.

My first inclination was to not add to an already worthy list. The H of F rule is that horses and horsemen nominated but not elected in the past three years automatically return on next years ballot.

Thats entirely fair. If you made the cut once but failed to enter; try, try and try again. There are no losers on the list. Its the reason why all those TV award-show presenters say: And the Fill-In-The-Award-Here Goes To

In that spirit, I wasnt going to add to the existing lists.
To varying degrees, arent jockeys Eddie Maple, Craig Perret, Randy Romero and Alex Solis worthy of induction to the Hall?

Howd you like a horse trained by Dale Baird or Gary Jones or Mel Stute or Robert Wheeler? Me, too.

Were you not entertained by the performances of Best Pal and Housebuster and Lure and Manila?

Dont you like mares that shave, such as Inside Information, Silverbulletday, Open Mind and Sky Beauty?

Thats enough to consider, enough to make a horse-lovers head hurt.

So how do you choose between Maple, a winner of nearly 4,400 races, and Craig Perret, a winner of exactly that number, many by appointment only?

Or were Romeros rides on Go for Wand and the pressure of Personal Ensigns winning streak, ending with that indelible Breeders Cup over Derby heroine Winning Colors, good enough to seal the deal? How about Alex Soliss work on Classic/Dubai World Cup winner Pleasantly Perfect. Snow Chief, too. Either way, no argument.

The great trainers are always hardest for me to separate. How is the winner of 9,418 races through last October not in the Hall of Fame? And I dont care if Dale Baird saddled all of them in my back yard. They count!

Gary Jones? He was 18 percent effective in stakes company, the developer of Turkoman and Best Pal and Quiet American. Quiet American? He won the Cigar Mile when it was the NYRA Mile, in 1990.

Everybody remembers Stutes work with Snow Chief, but how soon we forget Bobby Wheeler, if we ever knew him. In 1960, when C.V. Whitney was Americas leading owner, it was Wheeler who won tons of stakes money with Tompion and the fillies Silver Spoon and Bug Brush.

Bug Brush? She set a world record beating males in the San Antonio. Wheeler won 18 stakes with those two fillies that year. And when racing began to grade its stakes in 1976, Wheeler won 25 percent of those he entered. No wonder Greentree and Nelson Bunker Hunt hired him, too.

That would make him a sort of back-in-the-day Pletcher. Todd Pletcher? With current earnings of over $138-million, fourth all-time, hes not eligible until 2020. Riddle that for a minute.

The horses? Best Pal: 18-for-47, 17 stakes, Big Cap, Hollywood Gold Cup, Oaklawn Handicap; $5.6-million. Turf specialist Manila: 12-for-18; Arlington Million, United Nations, Turf Classic, Breeders Cup Turf over Theatrical, Estrapade and European champion Dancing Brave; $2.6 million. Silver Charm: 12-for-24, 11 graded stakes, Derby, Preakness, Dubai World Cup (Swain, by a nose); $6.9-million.

And the girls? Inside Information: 14-for-17, nine stakes (six Grade 1), wins over Heavenly Prize, Sky Beauty and Serenas Song. Sky Beauty: 15-for-21, NYRA Triple Tiara, Alabama, the Ruffian (130 pounds). Silverbulletday: 15-for-23, 14 of first 16; $3-million; Juvenile Fillies, Ashland, Kentucky Oaks, Alabama.

So Im thinking this is easy. Plenty to think about already. How impertinent to add more names to those lists.

Parenthetically, what if Midnight Lute does win Saturdays Cigar Mile? Does he upset Lawyer Ron, the protem handicap champion? Excuse the digression.

In their zeal to make the process easier, the Hall of Fame people provided more information to nominators; a Top 100 list of trainers, jockeys, and horses, both active and inactive. But the committee actually made the decision process harder, confusing voters with all these facts.

Among the Top 100 trainers listed by earnings, sitting at No. 5 is Bob Baffert. Right, hes not in the Hall of Fame, and hes eligible. Got to nominate him.

But wait. What about Jerry Hollandorfer? Would there even be a Northern California circuit without him? Now look all the way down to No. 29. Are you kidding me? Carl Nafzger? He doesnt have Bafferts numbers, but he doesnt have Bafferts owners, either.

(I know Im in the minority, but I must vote my Eclipse conscience: Curlin for Horse of Year; Nafzger for Trainer of the Year. Why? Because at the end of the day, Nafzger accomplished more working with a little less. And Im a huge Street Sense fan).

Already mentioned Baird. But racings third winningest trainer, King Leatherbury, is eligible, as is Richard Hazelton, fifth on the all-time winners list. Will they, too, be victims of geography?

A glance at the Top 100 money earning jockeys shows Edgar Prado right behind Solis at No. 7, and hes eligible. And did you know that Garrett Gomez, the new all-time single-season stakes king, is eligible, too.

At No. 35, nine slots behind Gomez, is Chris Antley. Does anyone deny his Hall of Fame talent? Or will a tragic off-track life and death be his legacy? Which begs the question, what about the eligible Patrick Valenzuela?

Dont know if anyones thought of this, but if 500 home runs is one benchmark for entering the MLB Hall of Fame, so should members of the 6,000-win club, especially since only 15 jockeys have done it. Yet, David Gall (7,396), Larry Snyder, Carl Gambardella and, most recently, Mario Pino, are not Hall of Famers despite their qualifications.

It is with a measure of excitement and trepidation for my future workload, that I add these names (one per category limit) to the 2008 list of Hall of Fame nominees: Trainer: Carl Nafzger (Baffert next year, I promise). Jockey: Edgar Prado. Contemporary Male: Maybe Tiznow, maybe not. (Consecutive Classics loom large, an 8-for-15 career mark doesnt). Female: Enough already.

The deadline is December 4. Probably will take that long to decide.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Breeders’ Cup Marathons Could Prove Beneficial to Sport

The events immediately surrounding Breeders Cup 24 has provided grist for countless mills. The impact of the first two-day scenario; the Cups negative impact on existing traditional fixtures; catastrophic breakdowns and even the weather has been fair game for speculation and commentary.

The true impact of this Breeders Cup season instead might prove to be what happened before and after racings crowning event, happenstance that could make a greater, more lasting impression on the sport, one that actually reverses some of the negative trends of the last decade.

Before and after the recent Breeders Cup there was much speculation about how the event can be changed for the good not only of that organization but how enlightened self interest regarding some changes under consideration could be whats best for the game going forward.

The dominant topic has been expansion and its potential for not only raising the profile of the season-ending event equal to the level of public consciousness enjoyed by the Triple Crown, but also how by lifting the events prestige elevates the brand to a true world class level, one that reaches beyond Europe to racing outposts in the Far and Middle East.

Fair minded individuals would have to term the Breeders Cups inaugural two-day format a success. Despite a well documented fact that people wager less money on sloppy tracks and, to a smaller degree, wet turf courses, on-track handle of $5-million at water-logged Monmouth Park was significant as was a weekday simulcast handle of $30-million. All this despite relatively small fields in two of the three added BC events.

Expansion that would include a six furlong turf sprint and possibly dirt marathons will be on the docket when the Breeders Cup board of directors meets next month. At this juncture, the turf sprint is considered the strong favorite for adoption on the first of the Cups two-day program slated for next October at Santa Anita Park.

Would anyone truly be surprised if someday Breeders Cup expanded to include races for every Eclipse division? And wouldnt that be the right thing to do? Indeed, if Breeders Cup expanded further, wouldnt it make sense to spread the two-day event over a three-day period to sustain and build greater anticipation? That way Day 1 would get comprehensive coverage instead of the prelude/afterthought treatment it got this year. The host track certainly wouldnt mind.

More important than a turf sprint, sure to prove popular on both sides of the Atlantic, is the notion of creating dirt marathons. Season-ending marathon championships might go a very long way toward helping restore the sport to its former glory days. To wit:

Because of the slower pace and the accent on stamina, marathon events are safer for the animal. Clearly, sprint racing is far more stressful. By taking the ability to run fast out of the equation, horses again can be bred for stamina, which should prove a boon to both horsemanship and the breeding industry. Leveling both those playing fields are in sports best interests.

The creation of championship marathons is certain to increase a wider range of international participation, drawing competitors from lands where distance racing is the rule, not the exception. Resultantly, more marathons would be instituted here as a matter of policy, thereby creating an alternative for an underutilized segment of American thoroughbred sport. A pattern of new races leading to a championship lends diversity and provides an added level of interest for both fans and bettors.

The trend of synthetic-track racing in this country dovetails nicely into an expansion of marathon events. In addition to the promising safety studies, there has been even more empirical evidence to suggest that training on artificial surfaces results in a greater level of fitness and conditioning, a necessary by-product when trying to get horses to stretch their speed over much longer distances.

Perhaps the best reason to create a championship division for marathoners is that it might help keep some of racings three-year-old stars around a little longer, at least until their 4-year-old season. Beyond that a championship program for marathoners gives rise to the possibility that once again the sports fans could see a new millennium filled with latter day Kelsos, Foregos and John Henrys.

A championship marathon division is the impetus that could engender a greater spirit of cooperation within the provincially splintered industry. Its easier to gain cooperation among competitors when each has a vested interest in the successful outcome of a new program initiative.

The fruits of commitment would take time, of course. But stimulating a spirit of cooperation between competitors within the same region can be a reward in itself. A series of marathon races, sensibly scheduled, could create a circuit where none previously existed. A newly formed cooperative could result in a synergistic marketing effort among what have been competing venues.

Much of the pre-Breeders Cup storylines involved how racings crowning event rendered the sports traditional fixtures obsolete, events that previously gave the game its continuity and historical perspective. But that was an unintended negative consequence. Ironic, now, how the expansion of what some believe a debilitating concept could instead prove the instrument for making the sport better, beyond anything ever envisioned by Breeders Cups early practitioners.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 09, 2007

New York Politicians Playing Dangerous Game of Franchise Compromise

Saratoga Springs, NY--

Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.--Michael Corleone

Just when I was prepared to write happy thoughts about a recent visit to Santa Anita, how I still prefer legit dirt tracks to synthetic surfaces, and all other things racing, a story threw the New York franchise issue right back into my face.

I had given up commenting on the franchise dilemma, even if every SoCal racetracker I met asked what was going to happen in New York. My answer was that not even Governor Eliot Spitzer or Senator Joseph Bruno could riddle that, especially after Bruno proposed the creation of a racing and gaming super agency shaped from his own vision and likeness.

My considered position was that all involved parties; Democrats, Republicans and the New York Racing Association--given that its prosecution-deferred guilty plea made it a criminal entity--should find a diseased yak in their collective beds. After all, it was NYRAs machinations that hijacked New Yorks world class sport in the first place.

The history of the process of awarding of the franchise began in earnest when Gov. Spitzer agreed to extend the NYRA franchise 30 years, forgive their debts, give them more taxpayer money to get started, in exchange for the deeds to the Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga properties. But that a separate entity would run the VLT gaming operations.

The State House of Representatives, under fellow Democratic leader Sheldon Silver said, lets do it, with the proviso that Aqueduct would house the only VLT facility downstate, presumably so that Nassau County would not compete with Silvers County of Queens for gaming revenue. He said the House would oppose any further extension of gambling in New York State. A moral pillar, obviously, is Mr. Silver.

As expected, Republican Senate Majority Leader Bruno let out with a resounding: Whoa back! Not on my watch you dont. Instead, Bruno proposed the creation of a new super agency--11 political appointees including an overwhelming majority of Republicans--that would decide if and when the new franchisee could order those new paper clips, and from whom.

In short, there was the Spitzer solution: Make everything go away, but mostly NYRAs problems. And Brunos response to the Spitzer plan: Drop dead.

Then there was the Bruno plan, an offer no one could accept, but far enough from the Spitzer proposal as to guarantee huge concessions when seats were filled at the bargaining table. Spitzers Response: Your mama.

And, of course, there was Silvers plan, which doesnt exist now and is unlikely to in the future, Unless, of course, his boys get a pay raise. Dont laugh. That could be a part of a brand new franchise agreement that began circulating earlier this week, also including tax cuts and monies for construction projects. As if a multi-billion dollar industry werent enough of a concern.

Under this new compromise, it is proposed that three separate racing entities run each track; one franchise for Aqueduct, another for Belmont Park and a third for Saratoga, most likely the NYRA since it has stewarded the growth of a six-week race meet into a world wide destination venue.

And even if hes unfamiliar with Northway Exit 14, not even Silver would trifle with Saratogas success.

Such a change could reverse the course of major racing in New York. The NYRA was created in 1955 to eliminate all the little fiefdoms that sprung up with the opportunity to make a buck. Back in the day, racing was the only legal action around. Tracks were always a loggerheads over dates, purses, stakes programs, and the competition to curry favor with the sports biggest and best outfits.

Under NYRAs flag, New York racing became, on balance, the worlds best year-round circuit and host of this planets best extended race meet at Saratoga. But when you stiff the feds, the state, the horsemen, and your own pensioners, you open Pandoras box and run the risk of closing the entry box. Which leads us to a sorry state of affairs, pun intended.

I have no bulls in this rodeo nor am I taking a position on the plans viability. But this three-tier approach doesnt have to be a bad thing. We all know the knocks; intramural competition for the same equine and human populations, no stakes schedule flexibility, logistical and stabling issues, disparate purse levels, etc., etc. But, keeping an open mind, this might be the only damn plan that could work in this politically charged, dishonest environment. To wit:

In the main, Aqueduct exists in a vacuum. Like it or not, its the winter-racing tail that wags this dog, operating for four of seven months from December through March. This period is the reason God invented Santa Anita, Gulfstream and Fair Grounds. (Cant trust Hot Springs until April, either).

When quality New York racing is discussed, seldom is Aqueduct included in the same conversation with Belmont Park and Saratoga.

Belmont and Saratoga need each other. Belmont spring transitions from last stop on the Triple Crown trail to Saratoga preview. The two-year-olds begin to debut, the Dwyer helps produce a second-season Travers three-year-old, and grass racing hits its full turf stride. Saratoga is, well, Saratoga, standing alone until it transitions into the Belmont Fall Grade 1 prep season.

The stalls issue is resolvable between the tracks, their racing departments and local horsemen. It can be delineated by the quality of the meet and the kind of horses needed to put on the different shows. Dates and purses can be legislated into racing law. There should be enough VLT purse money to go around for all three, including Saratoga. There still can be a common pool of employees from which to draw, but also a demarcation point for seasonal needs and economic realities. Think of it: One suit, three pockets.

Of course, how this or any plan can happen before the December 31 deadline is a huge unknown. Right now, the favorite is that a resolution will not be found in time. And its off to bankruptcy court we go. Thats another crapshoot but with NYRA ruling a slight favorite.

The skinny is that Spitzer is moving off his plan and closer to a compromise. Bruno thinks its 50-50 that a deal can be struck by the end of the month, leaving December to flesh out the details. Silver? Well, just make it worth his while and hell pack the car and drive back up the Thruway.

But to compromise in good faith to emerge with a workable resolution is fraught with a dilemma. Its like the old joke about a man who learns that, finally, tonights the night. Then he finds out he can make love to either Roseanne Barr or Rosie ODonnell.

In order to settle the franchise issue, I hope that all involved parties would heed the advise of the fictional Lou Mannheim to Bud Fox in the movie, Wall Street. Man looks in the abyss, theres nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that's what keeps him out of the abyss.

Written by John Pricci

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