Friday, June 13, 2008

Racing’s Second Season Begins Saturday at Churchill Downs

Surrounding the run-up and aftermath of Belmont Stakes 140, and the failed quest of Big Brown to join the sport’s elite, there were many developments and storylines that fell between the Triple Crown cracks. Here, then, a few quick takes on recent events to help clear the docket before the game moves on:

RACING’S SECOND SEASON BEGINS: Saturday is Stephen Foster day at Churchill Downs, a glorious and interesting program that features the American four-year-old debut of 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin.

The 3-5 early line favorite carries top weight of 128 pounds in the handicap honoring the “My Old Kentucky Home” author, spotting nine rivals from 10 to 15 pounds. Steve Asmussen thinks the impost too high, citing the assignment itself and its relation to the competition. He harrumphed that he may not run the colt, then figured what the hell, saying he didn’t want to disappoint the fans.

Never mind that the purse was raised to sweeten the pot and ensure his participation. Never mind that the chestnut behemoth won the $6 million Dubai World Cup in a laugher over 11 of the planet’s best horses by 7-¾ geared-down lengths toting 126.

Never mind that the only recent Grade 1 winner he will face is Einstein, a dual G1 winner this year--on grass. Although we should note, too, that Jonesboro and Grasshopper each won G3s this season at a mile and a sixteenth.

And never mind that Curlin prepped for the World Cup under 132 pounds in his first start this year. In fairness to Asmussen, the trainer was only doing his job, like Phil Jackson who hoped to get a few calls go the other way in Game 2 of the NBA finals. “The owners didn’t put him back in training to debate weights,” he said.

Remember when horsemen used to consider accepting a highweight assignment as an honor? Remember when racing used to be a sport?

HEDGE FUND, ANYONE? Or, I’ll see your Dutrow, and raise you a Baffert, Lukas and Zito. The brain-child of three Lexington-based horsemen, according to a report, the hedge fund will raise $75 million to buy yearlings, to be selected and trained by the three horsemen.

Known as the “Thoroughbred Legends Racing Stable,” the idea is to “buy the Big Browns before they become Big Brown,” according to Baffert. “We don’t want to pay the premium for a ready-made race horse.”

That’s another way of saying we don’t want to get into bidding wars with the ground-breaking IEAH group for promising stock, or with Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai for that matter. “We don’t see them as competitors,” said fund co-founder Olin Gentry.

Yeah, right.

The hedge fund will charge a 2 percent management fee and retain 20 percent of the profits. The three thoroughbred legends have 26 Triple Crown victories, winning 15 of 18 races during one six-year span.

With that much cash and brain power, coming up with a Big Brown or two should be a snap.

COME BACK TO US, ALEX: It’s clear to fair-minded observers that NTRA chief executive Alex Waldrop owns the management and political skills for the job and appears to have the best intentions of serving the racing fan. He’s worked hard trying to have the repressive IRS tax on exotic wagers repealed, has expanded national television coverage on ESPN--even if racing is often relegated to ESPN2 status--understands that handicapping is an untapped marketing resource and, most significantly, has taken a lead role in trying to rid the sport of anabolic steroids.

Waldrop writes a blog on the NTRA website, a laudable effort to reach racing’s fans. But recent comments indicate he might need to fix his spin cycle. He wrote that fans should be happy about three things as the summer racing season begins: that all sources Belmont Stakes handle was up 32 percent, that television ratings improved nearly three times, and that the legacy of Big Brown will be the end of the steroid era in racing.

On average, one out of three ain’t bad, about the rate of winning favorites. But that’s if you exclude the fact he hasn’t mentioned corticosteroids--with its performance enhancing properties--in the same breath with the anabolic brew.

Why should racing fans care about how much was wagered on Belmont day? Besides, most people bet on Big Brown, the 3-10 favorite. Nearly $10 million, about 10 percent of all monies wagered, was lost on Big Brown in straight wagering alone. Add in exactas, trifectas, superfectas, doubles, Pick 3s, Pick 4s and Pick 6s and that figure is much higher.

Why should fans feel happy about losing money on a “sure thing“? And higher television ratings are in the best interests of fans how? Higher ratings are important to the industry and NTRA, not fans. Fans make the ratings, not vice versa. I would have been more impressed had Big Brown, despite 94-degree temperatures, put more fannies in the seats.

Saturday’s crowd was 25,000 less than were there for Smarty Jones. What bettors really care about, on Belmont and every racing day, is service at a fair price, good food, clean restrooms--with adequate plumbing--and a lower parimutuel takeout. And if racing only did that, they’d be helping themselves, too.

But maybe the disappointing live Belmont crowd says more about the hangover from the losses of Barbaro and Eight Belles than the sport dares realize.

KIEREN FALLON TO RIDE AT SARATOGA IN 2009? Why not? Bring us your tired, poor and huddled masses… your alleged race fixers, recovering substance abusers… your great race riders. Outside the gates, six-time English riding champion and three-time winner of the Epsom Derby, Kieren Fallon hasn’t been as fortunate as he’s been between the fences.

A recovering alcoholic, Fallon currently is serving an 18-month suspension for abusing cocaine a second time, the ban scheduled to end next summer. Fallon’s current suspension came shortly after he was acquitted for alleged race fixing when a judge threw the case out of court. Fallon was charged with conspiring to hold back horses for a betting ring who wagered on horses to lose through betting exchanges. Fallon’s lawyer was able to establish the rider won about one third of the races he allegedly fixed.

Fallon will be 45 when he attempts his latest comeback and has said that he’d like to ride in America. When comparing their careers, parallels to the late Chris Antley quickly leap to mind. One of life’s saddest happenstances is wasted talent. Hopefully, Fallon can conquer his demons and display his considerable talents over here prior to hanging his tack up for good. I don't know Mr. Fallon personally, I should add, but wish him the best on and off the racetrack.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Clem Florio Had an Eye for Greatness

I read the news today, oh boy. Clem Florio died last Sunday night. He was 78-years-old. That’s not so old these days. And if you knew Clem, it was way too soon.

Florio was a turf writer by name, a handicapper by trade. I had heard that he worked for some paper in Baltimore. But I didn’t bother to learn which one then. If it wasn’t New York, it didn’t count.

I was an arrogant little punk back in the day, only little was never my strong suit.

It was the early 1970s. I was doing whatever I could in the Aqueduct press box to survive, a magazine piece here, handicapping gig, there.

My claim to fame, as far as my dad was concerned, was that I occasionally ghosted for a turf writer who worked for a big local paper who was--how do I phrase this--a non tea-totaller.

The lead was the same every day: “At Aqueduct today, before a crowd of 21,240...” After that followed the horse’s name, the jockey’s, maybe the trainer’s, the running time, margin of victory and win price.

Two hundred words: $20. Not bad for 30 minutes work. That was 10 bets. And exactas weren’t even invented. When exotics were expanded to include trifectas, they were called triples.

I remember the precise day I met Clem Florio, although I’ve forgotten who made the introduction. I remember him being ####-sure of himself, never lacking for an opinion. It was the Fourth of July, 1972.

He was good looking in a Jack Palance sort of way. If across-the-board wagering were offered on the proposition that he was an American of Italian descent, the payoff would read: $2.40, out, out.

It was a few years after the introduction of OTB. The politico in charge was a dapper fellow named Howard Samuels. The tabloids dubbed him “Howie the Horse.”

In those days Aqueduct closed for the season in late October, reopened on March 20. The best New York horses went to Florida, or Aiken, or Camden, in South Carolina. The selling platers went to Bowie in Maryland.

OTB was taking action on racing from Bowie back then. Local horseplayers dying for some live action took a subway into Midtown Manhattan then got on a bus for the five-hour ride to Bowie. One way.

In those days you didn’t even need proof of age to buy cigarettes then. You could get them from a vending machine: You stuck a quarter in and out dropped a pack of Lucky Strikes, with two shiny pennies, always heads up, enclosed inside the cellophane on the side panel of the package. With your thumb you would slide your change up and out into the palm of your other hand. Pretty good deal, if you didn’t mind rolling the dice with your life.

No one spoke to each other on those bus rides. Besides, horseplayers are more loquacious after a race, then only if they could say, “I had ‘em.”

During those five hours, horseplayers were deep in thought, circling little details in their forms so they wouldn’t forget those nuggets when they stepped up to the $2 window, which were always located on the apron side of the grandstand.

If you won, you walked, or ran, around to the other side of the betting bay to collect. If you had a good day, you might even get to visit the $5 or $10 window. In order to queue up at the $50 window, you needed the likeness of Ulysses S. Grant and a dream.

The ritual was repeated nine times a day. Simulcasting? You were lucky to see a video replay of the races.

If you didn’t have bus fare, or the 14 hours to spare, you bet Bowie at OTB. On Saturdays, you could watch “Racing from Bowie” with Ken--can’t remember his last name, think it started with W--and some analyst named Harvey Pack.

Seizing an opportunity to add to my free lance gigs, I asked the late Ike Gellis, sports editor of the New York Post, for a job handicapping the Bowie races.

“We’ve got Clem Florio. Why would I want to hire you?”

I suppose Gellis didn’t have to sugar-coat it that way. Which brings us back to Independence Day.

It was the second half of the daily double, a maiden dash at five and a half furlongs for two-year-old colts. Trainer Lucien Laurin had a reputation for having horses ready for their debuts. The money showed and Laurin’s horse closed the favorite at 3-1 despite an inexperienced apprentice, Paul Feliciano, in the irons.

A colt named Herbull won the race by a neck over Master Achiever, with Fleet n’ Royal a length farther back in third.

Juvenile races are always good fodder for trip handicappers, especially in fields of 12. When the results were made official, handicappers and writers gathered around the only closed circuit monitor in the press box to watch the race replay.

A racetrack press box is no less competitive than the jock’s room. No one shared information then, everyone watching as quietly as those horseplayers on the bus to Bowie, scribbling handicapping hieroglyphics into track programs. But not this time.

Within an hour of meeting Florio that morning, we had become fast friends. He was standing to the right and in front of me as we watched the second race replay. When the video ended, Florio walked passed me and said “I’ve got my Derby horse.”

“What?” I asked.

“You better go back and look at Laurin’s horse,” Florio said.

In those days, you had to wait until the following day before you could see the races for a second time.

And so, there was Laurin’s horse, breaking next to last, checking and steadying all over the lot, aiming for this hole; closed, aiming for that hole; shut off again. Feliciano held on for dear life as his horse mounted a furious finish, making up seven lengths in the final quarter-mile.

Laurin’s horse not only won the following year’s Kentucky Derby but the Triple Crown, too. Secretariat later graced the front covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated and subsequently was syndicated for a then unheard of $6-million. His magnificent chestnut likeness even wound up on a U.S. postage stamp.

So when I think of Florio, I think of Secretariat, and vice versa. Why not? They were both champions.

Ed. Note: For More Reminiscences of Clem Florio, Read Bill Christine’s Lines In the Sand Blog

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Part 11:  Derby 134 Aftermath; All in Racing Must Prove They Truly Care

As a young journalist I had a taste for Kool Aid. I bought into the argument that New York racing needed Lasix to compete with the rest of the country for racing stock.

Dr. Manuel Gilman, who made the leap from NYRA track veterinarian to the steward‘s stand, was correct when he warned that the proliferation of permissive medication would be the end of quality racing as we know it. Time has proven Gilman prescient.

The use of race day medication and steroids must be eliminated. Medication is not allowed in most major jurisdictions throughout the world, so why here? Analgesics such as Phenylbutazone masks pain and can cause irreparable harm. Lasix can mask everything else.

The industry devotes much of its diligence attempting to keep up designer drug developments but turns a blind eye to race day medication. Most debilitating injuries occur when earlier problems go undetected of are allowed to fester. There’s absolutely no evidence this was the case in Derby 134, but that’s not the issue.

When field after field of unraced two-year-old debut with Lasix, what kind of message does racing send to fans and customers alike? That we’re breeding a population of bleeders? The fact that a diuretic Lasix can work as a masking agent is universally accepted. Have our horsemen become averse to hay, oats, water? No wonder most of the world regards our racing as less than.

There is conflicting data to support the observation that modern commercial breeding produces inherently weaker stock. U C Davis and Penn’s College of Veterinary Medicine concur that no correlation exists between breeding for speed and unsoundness. Yet in the last half century average starts per horse have been cut virtually in half, from more than 11 per year to just over six. How is that fact reconciled exactly?

Before more jurisdictions knee-jerk toward a wider installation of synthetic surfaces, additional study is needed. While preliminary evidence shows that fewer fractures occur on all-weather surfaces, there are no statistics reflecting the greater number of soft tissue injuries seen, according to empirical data supplied by horsemen.

Some jockeys have ridden on synthetic surfaces wearing face masks for fear of inhaling any potentially dangerous by-products. Some Polytrack surfaces have gotten dramatically slower in the warmth of the California sun. Extremely cold has also proven problematical in Canada.

It appear the chemical composition of synthetic surfaces may be altered in some way by extremes in temperature. What are the short and long term side effects on horses that inhale this foreign substance? The jury on this could be out for some time. How long did it take scientists to identify asbestos as a carcinogen?

Never mind the havoc that synthetic surfaces wreak on horseplayers. Even Keeneland was forced to admit that some bettors probably stayed away from their product at the recently concluded spring meet. And they have a vested interest in Polytrack as a product.

Better track maintenance appears a preferable alternative to ersatz dirt. But that notion likely will meet resistance from the tracks because synthetics are cheaper to maintain and keep fields from being negatively impacted by foul weather.

In the last two decades, rolling and sealing wet tracks has become a commonly accepted practice. But while it allows for fasting drying it also renders the cushion less forgiving. Since fans bet more on fast tracks, floating is more about money than safety.

Jockeys seem to prefer sealed tracks to those with standing water on top. Perhaps track superintendents can find ways to aid nature rather than create an artificial solution by trotting out the heavy equipment. Further study of a horse’s natural habitat is requisite.

On the subject of jockey safety, they must be allowed to continue carrying whips. A lighter, softer model like those used in some foreign jurisdictions seems a viable alternative, and stricter enforcement of existing rules regarding misuse of the whips is mandatory. Jockeys should have whips to help insure their own safety.

In good conscience, the industry must ask itself if less than two fatalities per thousand horses is acceptable collateral damage to conduct a sport. Considering that the pressure a running horse puts on its hooves has been likened to a human supporting himself by standing on one finger, it’s a credit to horsemen that the figure is as “low” as it is.

Casual fans tune in to watch the Derby, the Preakness, not so much, and the Belmont Stakes hardly at all except when a Triple Crown is at stake. And it seems that only a true superstar can whet a Breeders’ Cup appetite in the same manner the spring classics do. But since the 2005 Breeders‘ Cup, viewers have seen or heard of five fatal breakdowns. At that rate, how long will it be before even true fans lose heart?

The dominance of Big Brown is not the sole reason only one other Derby horse will soldier on to Baltimore. Avoiding the crown’s second jewel, like watching horses outrun speed-infused pedigrees, is routine for the connections of high class Derby-aged stock. Consequently, until stamina and soundness are bred back in, the duration of the Triple Crown must be lengthened.

For four years, we’ve been advocating a schedule consisting of the first Saturday in May, first Saturday in June, and July 4th, in effect making horse racing a national holiday. On balance, the modern high class thoroughbred needs, at minimum, four weeks between starts to approximate peak performance. Agree or not, today’s Triple Crown schedule is anachronistic and, as such, fraught with peril.

By allowing for further maturity, greater participation of Derby horses throughout the series, and allowing late-developing individuals to join the group, a longer Triple Crown schedule would not only maintain the degree of difficulty but actually might add to it. Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and all the others can rest easy.

Trainer Larry Jones and jockey Gabriel Saez, wise beyond his 20 years, did nothing wrong. Neither did owner Rick Porter, whose ultimate decision it was to race a filly against 19 colts in an atmosphere charged by 157,000 julep-fueled fans. Fillies run against colts all the time elsewhere, goes the mantra, but mainly on forgiving grass.

The issue of fillies vs. colts on today’s harder, faster surfaces is problematical. Given the brittle nature of the modern horse, the injury masking that permissive medication allows and the added stress of competing at the highest level, owners of fillies should reconsider whether a place in the record book is really worth it.

Fillies need not “prove something” by taking on males. It’s a sporting gesture only in the abstract. Racing all out on the fence alongside Foolish Pleasure was anathema to Ruffian. Rags To Riches never was the same after her triumphant Belmont struggle with Curlin--and she was a robust specimen. Subsequently she was forced to miss the Breeders‘ Cup and was retired this year when she no longer could withstand training.

In some part, Eight Belles lost her life because she ran the race of her young life. Even as Saez was trying to take care of her in deep stretch and beyond, the filly kept trying to catch Big Brown. That’s what separates very good horses from the common ones; they keep trying, hard. Practitioners and fans alike need to care for the horses that care for us by doing our bidding.

The industry no longer can afford its deniability. It can’t make bad steps disappear, but it is morally bound to try, hard, to do for the animals that allow those tethered to them to bask in their reflected glory while enjoying and, in some cases, enriching themselves.

American racing must take stock of the way it conducts itself and do something before government, responding to public outcry, has a notion it can do it better, or even ban it altogether. The paradigm must change. The time for true reform is at hand.

All segments of the industry must share in this, taking positive steps to show that it truly cares about the inevitable bad ones. Anything less is indefensible. Anything less would be criminal.

Written by John Pricci

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