Friday, February 18, 2011

Gulfstream’s Secretary Bork a Very Timely Writer

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla., February 17, 2011--The Kentucky Derby might be 79 days from right now but the jockeying for position has begun in earnest and things are beginning to heat up around here.

It’s about time, too. From the weather, to the booming business, to the ultra competitive racing at the highest levels, everything’s been going rather well for the South Florida track. And now we get a few sparks that could turn into Triple Crown fireworks.

Reading between the lines of Mike Welsch‘s Daily Racing Form story on the creation of the Timely Writer overnight handicap open to all three-year-olds going a mile on March 12--the same day juvenile champion Uncle Mo is scheduled to make his 2011 debut in the Tampa Bay Derby--it’s an easy surmise that Nick Zito, trainer of undefeated Dialed In, ranked third on HRI’s Derby Power 10 Ratings, may be a little miffed.

Clearly, Zito would love to have had the option of considering such a spot. With $240,000 in graded earnings from the Holy Bull, running in a graded prep before the Florida Derby was not an imperative for a horse that‘s Louisville bound.

But with only two lifetime starts, experience is what Dialed In needs--two turn experience--and it appears that next weekend’s Fountain of Youth is coming up on the salty side. If there were an easier bridge to the Florida Derby, Zito likely would cross it.

“Both the timing and the distance of the race really don’t fit my schedule,” Zito told the Daily Racing Form, “although it’s the distance more than the date that’s the big issue.”

“I’d like to find another alternative for my horse rather than the Fountain of Youth, and had the handicap been written at a mile and one-eighth rather than one mile, I’d probably think about running him in there.”

Finding a more suitable two turn race for Dialed In ultimately may be less of an issue than what may be being perceived as an accommodation to Todd Pletcher. Of course, big outfits have always had the upper hand in this game and I’m sure Zito has benefitted from such scenarios himself. Writing races for trainers are part of the game.

Meanwhile, Pletcher must be thrilled to have this option. Old school horsemen believe that a one turn mile is a more suitable prep for a nine furlong route than a shorter two turner such as the Tampa Bay Derby’s mile and a sixteenth.

Additionally, Gulfstream Park is a much shorter van ride from Palm Meadows. Pletcher could even elect to lead Uncle Mo over from his barn on the Gulfstream backside. It’s a nice option to have. Pletcher said he would talk it over with owner Mike Repole.

“It’s an interesting race,” Pletcher told Welsch. “The fact that it’s on the same day as the Tampa Derby obviously works into our timing.”

At once, this seems like a good move and a bad move for Gulfstream Park, although the arithmetic says that the good outnumbers the bad by a two to one margin.

Despite the later date, the Timely Writer could hurt next week’s Fountain of Youth. On it’s face it’s apples vs. oranges; two turns to one, it’s worth more money--graded money, too--and coming two weeks after the Fountain of Youth, it gives trainers more time.

The deciding factor for any horseman with Kentucky Derby aspirations is just how highly he values the Grade 1 Florida Derby and it’s million dollar purse. Pretty highly one would think, and the Timely Writer mile is a nice fit with the nine furlong Florida Derby three weeks later.

If three weeks turns out to be too close for Timely Writer horses to come back in the Florida Derby, the G1 Wood Memorial could be the beneficiary, as it comes on the following weekend. The bad news for the Wood horses is that Aqueduct’s Grade 1 has been the major spring-prep goal of Uncle Mo.

Either way, it’s likely to be a good business decision for Gulfstream, sure to gain national press exposure at the expense of the Tampa Bay Derby should Uncle Mo remain in South Florida. It should be pretty good for business, too.

But there may be another element at work here: Payback.

The handle figures at the current Gulfstream Park session have been off the charts, both on track and from all sources. The only numbers that have remained relatively flat, or up slightly, are the intrastate wagering figures.

That’s because the cost of Tampa Bay’s simulcast signal has been set significantly lower to undercut Gulfstream’s popularity, thereby compelling more of the state’s bet takers to take the less costly Tampa product over Gulfstream‘s more expensive signal.

The signal fees issue has put some strain on the relationship between 2011’s most successful winter venues, that just happen to be located within the state of Florida. We’re sure it’s nothing personal. It’s strictly business, just like the creation of the Timely Writer and its aftermath.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Penny Chenery Gets It, Now It’s the Industry’s Turn

ELMONT, NY, January 20, 2011--It may be a romantic notion but I love the idea that as I read about what Penny Chenery has in mind for racing fans, I was sitting in the shadows of a racetrack that was the backdrop for perhaps the greatest equine performance ever made.

That, of course, would be June 9, 1973, when a defending Horse of the Year champion opened an insurmountable lead as he moved like a tremendous machine en route to a 31-length victory in a Belmont Stakes run in 2:24, 12-clipping the competition to death.

Secretariat is still widely regarded as the most popular Thoroughbred, certainly in the modern era, until a female behemoth named Zenyatta came along to challenge that legend as she boosted attendance and television ratings wherever and whenever she appeared in her Horse of the Year season.

The Horse of the Year Eclipse for her achievements on the track certainly was far from a no-brainer, narrowly tasting defeat for the first time in her career at the hooves of Blame, the best handicap male to race in America last year. But as to which Thoroughbred is more popular, that issue never was up for debate.

In that spirit, Ms. Chenery, owner of Secretariat, has created the Secretariat Vox Populi Award to honor the most popular Thoroughbred of any racing season based on a vote of racing fans, the first time any racing person or organization formally recognized one extremely well-liked racehorse by the racing public. Fittingly, the newly created award will go to Zenyatta.

“Horse racing already has established avenues to award outstanding accomplishments and we certainly should honor superior performance,” Chenery said in a press release. “But achievement can be measured in many ways.”

“Fans occasionally feel a disconnect when the horses who most impacted [them] are not recognized through traditional equine awards. The industry is long overdue in annually acknowledging the star horse who brings the most excitement and attention to the sport. It is my hope that the Secretariat Vox Populi Award will achieve that purpose.”

Chenery selected this year’s recipient but future plans call for a committee of distinguished racing personalities and industry representatives to choose the winner in each successive via a national online vote.

The idea of allowing fans to participate via their incorporation into the Eclipse Award process is certainly not a new one, but it’s always been viewed askance by some members of the three Eclipse voting groups, the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, NTRA racing secretaries and Equibase chart callers, and Daily Racing Form staffers. The current voters fear that Eclipse Award recognition would devolve into a popularity contest, especially in the absence of stated guideline qualifications.

I have been against fan participation in the Eclipse process for just that reason. But I no longer feel that way, now believing time has come for fans to have a meaningful Horse of the Year voice upon the establishment of guidelines to monitor a secure voting process.

“Fans should play a greater part (in voting for Horse of the Year), and we need to figure a way to make that possible,” said Jerry Moss, owner of Horse of the Year Zenyatta, in an NTRA teleconference in advance of Monday‘s Horse of the Year announcement.

Moss is not the only practitioner who believes time has come to get fans more involved in the sport. An informal poll was conducted via telephone in advance of this post by HorseRaceInsider with seven horsemen. Every one was in favor of fan participation, but also agreed there should be some qualifying standards.

The Cartier Awards honoring European champions uses a formula that includes a point system based on performance in stakes races, points from votes cast by journalists, and Racing Post and Daily Telegraph readers on a 40-40-20 pro rated basis.

Whether that’s the best method is open to debate. But certainly some objective standard allowing fans to participate as a fourth group in the Horse of the Year Eclipse Award process should be required. Some measure should be put in place that helps assure the quality of fan opinion and a fail-safe that eliminates multiple ballots.

The industry is learning, not without some pain, that fans and horseplayers are demanding that they have a voice and have been expressing their displeasure with the status quo via boycotting tracks they deem fan unfriendly, and are supporting those which take measures to improve the lot of the customer.

Compared to that situation, getting fans more actively involved in the inner workings of Horse of the Year should by easy. If racing’s older demographic is allowed to participate in the process, it might be easier to get their children attracted to, and involved in, the game. Certainly couldn’t hurt, and it’s painless.

Online voters should be made to register before being allowed to vote. But this, too, needs to be a painless, one that doesn’t give the appearance of some marketing trick used to compiling a mailing list. This is about giving, not getting.

There have been proposals as to how best involve the voters. Distributing ballots at racetracks, simulcast venues and ADW account holders certainly would seem to assure the legitimacy of the fan voting bloc, but is limiting compared to online convenience.

As for online registration, the guess is only those who care will take the time to register. Seems unlikely a person would register just to prank the system. As for the criteria used by the three voting blocks in place, the system works fine. I’m opposed to a selection committee defining criteria for industry professionals to use.

And, please, no half measures. Allow fans to be a meaningful part of the Horse of the Year process. As for the notion of a “People’s Choice Award” in lieu of real fan participation, we now have one of those in place, courtesy of Secretariat and his owner.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 14, 2011

High Anxiety

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 13, 2011--It just might come to pass that the first NTRA teleconference of the year will never be surpassed given the amount of respect, drama and determination on display Thursday afternoon.

This one was for all the marbles, but it should never be confused with a Ryan vs. Belichick or Cromartie vs. Brady scenario. The urgency in advance of Monday’s announcement was palpable, the level of respect for the opponent worthy of what’s at stake, the 2010 Horse of the Year title.

For Team Zenyatta and Team Blame, it’s a matter of their place in the annals of the Thoroughbred sport. Neither seemed willing to settle for being the one the pushed their rival to the max.

No one ever remembers the team that finishes second in the Super Bowl.

Representing Zenyatta was owner Jerry Moss, who clearly hasn’t forgotten last year’s slight. “It would be bad [if she lost], that’s all I can say,” Moss said.

“With everything she’s accomplished, it’s ridiculous if she didn’t win one Horse of the Year title.

“I think she’s done enough. She got beat fair and square, but it was a narrow loss. She won five Grade 1’s, was great for racing, and brought 19 straight wins into the Breeders‘ Cup.”

Later, Al Stall Jr. made a counterpoint: “My whole life I read about what horses did on the racetrack. I think Blame did enough, winning the Foster, Whitney and Breeders’ Cup. I’m a strength of schedule, head-to-head kind of guy.”

Each makes a compelling case.

Given that Zenyatta is the sentimental favorite, would Stall feel badly if Blame were named Horse of the Year? “No, not at all. He means as much to us as she means to them.”

“We’re racing people. We feel we deserve it as long as the horse performed on the racetrack, which he did.”

On that, counterpoint Moss: “Two years ago, the horse that finished fourth in the Classic was Horse of the Year. Last year, we won the Classic and the Horse of the Year didn’t even run.”

Throughout the program, as it has been this winter and fall, the definition of Horse of the Year remained a lively topic. Whatever happens, Moss believes that it wouldn't adversely affect Zenyatta’s legacy.

“I believe she’ll go down as perhaps the greatest mare in history. Nineteen wins without a defeat is quite an accomplishment. All are welcome to try [to duplicate it].”

Moss spoke about his definition of the title and the role of the fans: “Who was the most important race horse in the U.S.? Who’s the horse that people look for and come out to see?

“She was the story this year. Last year, we won the Super Bowl and didn’t take home the trophy.”

Moss continued, acknowledging Zenyatta‘s followers: “The fans have been fantastic and have to be acknowledged. They’re a very important part of the process and they should be.”

The results of HRI’s own Horse of the Year poll was one-sided; the battle between these protem champions on Monday night is expected to be a real horse race. That's the buzz, anyway.

As this was written, 179 ballots were cast on Zenyatta received 155 first place votes, 86.5% of responders. Blame garnered 17 votes, or 9.5%. The other 4% went to Goldikova.

Some argue that this disparity, compared to the tight race that exists among Eclipse voters, is the reason fan voting shouldn’t be allowed, that too much of the public’s opinions are rife with emotional subjectivity.

Of course, it just could be that Thoroughbred racing fans are as passionate about all horses as horse people who tend to their own stock.

Since the game could not exist without the participation of fans/horseplayers, perhaps time has come to allow them to be part of the process, at minimum on a pro forma basis.

“I believe fans should have a greater place in this,” said Moss. “Let the fans in. You’ve got to pay attention to your customers. You get into one of these [tough decisions], it gets subjective.

“If [qualifications for Horse of the Year] were a little more cut and dry, it wouldn’t have to be as political, taking out ads [and the like].”

Another teleconference storyline dealt with the acrimonious discourse surrounding the last two Horse of the Year campaigns, Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta last year and continuing in 2010 with Blame, due to the disparate accomplishments of the two horses.

“Whoever would disrespect Blame might not have the knowledge of how this game works,” offered Stall.

“We’ll be happy for Zenyatta if she wins. But I backed off reading those [negative] things on the blogs. That’s just the way [the Internet] is.

And the backlash that would develop should Zenyatta again be denied the honor?

“I can guarantee that if Blame wins Horse of the Year, there will be all kinds of talk on the Internet. I can handle that.

“We’re not going to be embarrassed. We concentrated on winning races all year and the voting is out of our control. We’ll go down [to Miami] and have a good time.”

Not likely the case for Team Zenyatta. “If we didn’t win the big prize,” Moss said, “we’d be disappointed.”

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Written by John Pricci

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