Friday, February 29, 2008

Breeders’ Cup: Celebrating Gender or Widening the Gap?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, Feb 28, 2008--

More than ever, it seems, its dangerous to generalize along gender lines, so let me be specific about my feelings on the subject: Viva La Difference!

Am I the only non-evangelical-nutlog left who feels this way? Is it wrong for me to quicken stride so that I can be first to open a door for a female companion? Or is it because I think theyre too weak to do it for themselves?

Conversely, is it reasonable to expect that Tara Nott Cunningham would out-bench-press fellow Olympian Oscar Chaplin III? More to the point, is it unreasonable to conclude that the five-pound sex allowance Rags to Riches got from the boys in last years Belmont Stakes wasnt the head difference between the filly and eventual Horse of the Year Curlin?

And so what if women generally are not as big or strong as men? So what if they tend to be more emotional? Does it make them inferior? You could look at it another way. You could conjure up the image of men giving birth. Or males reacting to social subtext in the same fashion women do? Does that somehow make males less than?
Can we all stop trying to react so sensitively? I'll admit to a social perception Ive inferred from watching this years Democratic debates between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Hussein Obama. I think its been harder for Hillary to overcome the gender gap than it has been for Obama to cross Americas great racial divide.

Just like American voters who now appear ready to embrace their social and cultural differences, wouldnt it be better if all of us engaged in racing either as a business or a sporting and cultural pastime hold our differences closer?

I bring this up because of a simmering undercurrent created almost instantly by Breeders Cups decision to create an all female racing program on Day 1 of its World Championships this fall at Santa Anita.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that women are the first thing that leaps to mind whenever I consider the possibility of a Southern California sojourn. Is that sexist? By strict definition, yes. Misogynistic? Now that might be a little strong.

To those who took offense to changing the name of the Distaff to Ladies Classic, I offer this challenge: What kind of response do you think youd get from the average person under age 40 if you went Jaywalking like Leno and asked them to define the word distaff? Whatever the guess, Ill take under. In Breeders Cup terms, the marriage of Classic to Ladies, or Filly & Mare Classic, elevates the race in the eyes of casual fans.

Depending on who you ask, the Friday program of the inaugural two-day Breeders Cup at Monmouth Park was either moderately successful or a complete disaster. Personally, I think the unbelievably foul weather rendered all opinions moot.

The benefit of hindsight has not changed that opinion: When compared to Saturday, Friday, in terms of the anticipation for, and coverage of, was pre-climactic. The races were non-graded, non-defining and off message. What they were were great betting races, and that seems to be the focus now: generating revenue, like any other business.

With their Ladies Day concept, Breeders Cup has gone back to the future as a marketing tool for the sport. In doing so it has put the spotlight on a vastly underappreciated segment of the racing business: women.

To that end, the organization promises to develop a series of festivities promoting cause-related womens health programs, on-site initiatives, and consumer promotions, all good ideas.

But there better be a story featuring the achievements of trainer Helen Pitts, the extraordinary success of female exercise riders, and the countless hot-walking, horse-grooming moms that raise families despite a 365-day work schedule. And maybe a tribute to executive Stella Thayer, breeder Penny Tweedy, or late racing exemplar Martha Gerry.

One area where women are appreciated is as handicappers and analysts is broadcasting. At least they have benefited from the media notion that sex sells. It might be the only racetrack instance where they have an edge.

On the racetrack, gender and excellence are not mutually exclusive. But for equines its a little different between the fences. Fillies dont excite most players the same way colts do. Only in Kentucky is an Oaks day celebrated, and maybe thats what the Breeders Cup people eventually hope to accomplish here.

But unless its a Winning Colors or Personal Ensign, an Azeri or Ladys Secret, fillies just dont create buzz. It becomes different only when they prove to be equal to, or better than, males. Would the early days of Breeders Cup been as special without Pebbles winning the Turf, without Miesque going back to back in the Mile?

The Breeders Cup people have had a shaky year. They missed an opportunity to bring European races into the Win and Youre In mix. They acted hastily in awarding Santa Anita a second consecutive series in 2009 when less than a week later the NYRA franchise issue was resolved.

The Santa Anita scenario runs the real risk of discouraging European participation because of climate and turf course circumference considerations. The only foreseeable upsides are great Southern California fall weather and a gorgeous backdrop for television. That, and the chance that Fridays races could be presented in prime time, free of World Series competition.

So let the women have their day on a national stage that all can celebrate. And the best of the equines, the Grade 1 types, can give Breeders Cup Friday the buzz it lacked last fall at Monmouth Park. Can we all agree its better to have loved and lost?

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 22, 2008

David Carroll’s Patience Paying Off for Kentucky Derby Hopeful

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, Feb. 21, 2008--If you like what youve seen from the undefeated Kentucky Derby prospect Denis Of Cork so far, my best advice would be to wait a little longer. You might only have seen the tip of this leggy, long-bodied, athletic iceberg of a racehorse.

Its not as if the colt didnt show ability from the start. He did, but there were issues that needed attention before his 48-year-old Irish-bred trainer, David Carroll, had him where he wanted him. Carroll knows how to get the best from a good horse. Working six years for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, Carroll was the regular exercise rider of Easy Goer among other Phipps family notables.

Denis Of Cork is a Florida-bred son of Harlans Holiday, from the Unbridled mare, Unbridled Girl, and was a $250,000 two-year-old purchase by Mr. and Mrs. William Warren last March. But Denis emerged from the breeze-up sale with bucked shins, a common two-year-old ailment that responds best to time, and thats what Carroll gave him.

Not only did he take a long time to come around but our [Churchill] barn was under quarantine after one of our horses came out of Keeneland sick, said Carroll. We were shut down but that probably didnt matter. We wouldnt have run [Denis] any sooner, anyway.

When Carroll began preparing the colt, he worked him in company with an established stablemate, Blackberry Road, and Denis more than held his own. Finally, the colt was ready and Denis debuted on the final Saturday of the Churchill meet. He won that 7-furlong debut in dramatically impressive fashion.

Yes, I was surprised by his performance. Im not the kind that has to win first time out. I told Calvin [Borel] just let him break, settle, and then finish up with him.

But when I saw him make that [5-path sweeping] move on the turn, I thought he was going to run big. He really got to running and was very impressive. Ian [Wilkes, assistant to Carl Nafzger] came up to me afterwards and said he was surprised, too.

When Churchill closed, Carroll shipped his horses to Fair Grounds, a surface the trainer holds in high regard, but Denis had lost his way, the trainer said. He took a while to settle in and I had to give him time to regroup. Fortunately, Mr. Warren is very patient, always wants to do whats best for the horse.

Finally, after five weeks, the colt began to pick his head up, was doing well, but not as good as immediately before the debut. So, while not at the very top of his game, he made a second start, his first around two turns, in an allowance race on a sloppy track.

He never trained well on an off track, Carroll said. Calvin later said he was slippin and slidin all over the place during the warmup. Before the race I told Calvin just keep him out of trouble, keep him in a rhythm.

Borel kept Denis out of trouble, way out in the middle of the Fair Grounds backstretch. But in order to get first run, Borel moved sooner than he wanted, and the colt struggled even more, but they won anyway. Throw this race out, Borel told Carroll.

He wasnt even blowing when he came back, Carroll explained. It was like he was saying Ill do next time what I didnt do today. And he came out of the race a monster, ready to move forward.

Borel couldnt commit to Denis Of Cork for his next start, the Southwest Stakes. But Robby Albarado came to the barn, worked the colt, and Carroll did the Cajun two-step, replacing Borel with Albarado for Mondays Grade 3. Denis Of Cork might have been 2-for-2 but had no graded earnings, commonly needed to enter the Derby starting gate.

Denis was ready to run, but was he ready to ship again, to a new track and a new surface? He slept well, ate well, settled into his surroundings and I thought hes growing up right in front of my eyes, Carroll said.

Our game plan was simple, I told Robby it looked like there was a lot of speed so just settle and get him in his rhythm.

But I was so mad going down the backstretch, recalled Carroll. The leader ran off with Julien [Leparoux] and I wanted a contested pace. Fortunately, and surprisingly, Denis Of Cork jumped into the race early, racing closer to the pace than expected.

He was there, the rider told the trainer afterward, and not because of me.

At the end of the Southwest, nothing had changed. Denis Of Cork was still undefeated, only this time he finished first twice. One mile races at Oaklawn Park end at the sixteenth pole, but when Denis reached the true finish line no one passed him.

So, is Denis Of Cork good enough to win the Derby?

All a trainer can do is put him in a position, physically and mentally, said Carroll. I only have 22 horses so I have time to observe him, his disposition, his walk, the way he puts his head in the feed tub. He looks to have an air of confidence about him now, and hes put on some weight. Hopefully hes stays healthy, keeps improving.

Hes like a big, tall, high school kid and I think his best races and more improvement are ahead of him, the trainer said. Theres still a couple of things we need to work on, Albarado advised.

Hes so lightly raced, he needs experience, said the trainer who also guides the Derby destiny of a talented, albeit unlucky, Blackberry Road. Well run [Blackberry Road] back in the Louisiana Derby and Robby will ride him, replacing Borel. We just want to change the luck up a little bit.

But [Denis Of Cork] will run in the Rebel and well keep our options open after that. Ive done my babying with him. Now hes going to have to go out and run, be a racehorse.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Needed Franchise Fix a Waste of Time and Money

SARATOGA SPRINGS, Feb. 14, 2008--What a waste of time and money, this entire political harangue that gave agita to the thousands of people who fretted about the state of world class racing in New York.

And we're not talking about the near panic that was created here, in this city in the country. We're referring to those who could have afforded the shutdown least: Backstretch workers and mutuel clerks, ushers and hot dog vendors, horsemen not named Pletcher or Mott or McLaughlin, Gomez or Velazquez or Prado.

While its comforting to know that the world's best thoroughbred racing will be conducted in New York without man-made interruption for the next 25 years, and that well healed tourists can begin contacting real estate brokers or making hotel reservations for August, what was really accomplished by all this wrangling, the needless, costly delays?

Just how has this broken model--referenced by all parties and resulting in the passage of VLT legislation six years ago to benefit the states major racetracks and the taxpayers of the State of New York-- been fixed, exactly? Five years of VLT revenues all gone to hell because the people's interests weren't as important as the agenda of Albany power brokers.

What are we supposed to make of benchmarks that require the newly reconstituted New York Racing Association to use its best efforts to reach handle and performance standards? What standards? Are we using attendance figures from the 70s? Handle figures from the 00s? Last years figures from both?

And why was OTB supposedly seeking to opt out of simulcasting NYRA races, according to a story on, when the NYRA races are OTBs volume leader?

That didnt make sense. OTB generates handle sufficient enough to negotiate its own deals. NYC-OTB alone handles a billion annually and basically it sets the price for the other regions. OTB simply wanted the ability to simulcast other tracks in the event of a negotiations breakdown with the local franchise holder.

The NYRA--left for dead over a year ago after Excelsior Racing was awarded a racing and gaming franchise at the states three major tracks by Gov. George Patakis Ad Hoc Committee on Racing--has been resurrected, virtually in tact. Recent history became ancient when voters decided to replace one governor and one political party with another.

Excelsior no longer even exists. Remember when they were supposed to be the ones having very close ties to sitting governor?

And so it turns out the Memorandum of Understanding signed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the NYRA had legs, the association playing its land card beautifully. While Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, the major obstructionist in all this, was allowed to save face, make no mistake: The governor and NYRA were the big winners.

According to some of the significant terms of the 25-year franchise extension agreement announced Wednesday--as opposed to the one floated last weekend--NYRA gets a $105-million in operating capital, forgiveness of $120-million in state debt, and added money for purses. The state takes title to all three racetrack properties valued at about a billion dollars. What might it be worth on Jan. 1, 2034?

Each made political gains, too. The interim plan had the NYRA board reconstituted from 28 members to 21, including present political appointees, NYRA retaining 11 of the 20 members.

But the final agreement reduces the NYRA board from 28 to 25. NYRA gets to keep 14 of the 25, better proportional representation which, politics notwithstanding, makes better business sense. Its chairman, Steven Duncker, is limited to one four-year term.

Its a win for the governor because he gets to make seven of the 11 state appointees. Four of the remaining seats will be held by the OTBs collectively, horsemen, breeders, and a union member representing the New York chapter of the AFL-CIO. Added to the NYRA executive board will be one appointee each from the House and Senate.

The state oversight board, created when the serious NYRA problems began a few years ago, will remain and given more power. But the current members will be replaced, another loss for Bruno, as now the governor gets to make the majority of appointments to the five-member board.

It was also a win for this community and for Queens residents as well. NYRA must meet with community advisory boards semi-annually before it can act on future real estate development plans. The loser here was Nassau County, which failed to get either this courtesy or the racino it wanted for Belmont Park.

Horsemen did relatively well. The states breeders will get 1.5% of VLT revenues by year three and purses will increase by 7.5% in that same period. After payouts, NYRA will retain 7% of the VLT revenues, 3% for racing operations and 4% for improvements and renovations. For this, they pay New York State a franchise fee annually.

Wednesdays legislation did not address the NYC-OTB issue in particular or the OTB scenario in the overall. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is holding to his threat to shut down all OTB branches within the five boroughs. The former needs to be addressed by June; the latter, a complex matter involving revenues to the counties and jobs, wont be addressed until the earliest mid-2009. After all, this is an election year.

The elephant in the room is the franchise to run the VLT operations, to be determined next month. Two bidders remain: Capital Play, represented by lobbyist Kenneth Bruno, and SL Green, a consortium of investors coupled with the remnants of the original Empire Racing group, to which Kenneths father, Joseph, was tethered. Capisci?

Written by John Pricci

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