Friday, August 20, 2010

At Santa Anita, It’s Back to the Future

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY--August 19, 2010

Hosanna In Excelsis Deo.

No disrespect intended, to either the Deity or Frank Stronach.

Say this for Frank: You can often question his methodology but never his love for the game.

But I thought replacing Pro-Ride with God’s dirt was supposed to cost $10-million? Turns out it was half that. So what took so long?

Can other tracks be far behind? Good question, but first things first.

Don’t really know what Stronach intends to do about Golden Gate Fields, which reopens August 25. But I do know that the dirt track there was awful.

Actually, I’ve never heard much of an outcry from the Northern California crowd about anything. I like those people; they seem more reasonable, less defensive.

I don’t expect the move back to dirt will be hailed everywhere. Some will speak to the issue of horse safety. That, combined with human safety, comes first, they will say. They are right about that, but how long does this jury have to remain out?

Oaklawn Park has proven that you can measure the surface for safety through testing. Maybe the California Horse Racing Board will insist on something like that, something they should have thought about sooner.
If they decide to do that now, after the synthetics fact, they should pay for it. They’ve already cost a hurting racing industry in the Golden State too much money and grief already.

But they shouldn’t deregulate the whole thing. It was a disaster when it was tried in Florida. There’s one word to describe the effect deregulation would have with respect to racing dates: Chaotic.

And how’s that Wall Street deregulation thing-ee working out for ya’?

What effect will converting to dirt have on future Breeders’ Cups? Clearly BC Ltd/ has been trying mightily to raise its international profile, and betting handle, too, not necessarily in that order.

I’m setting the over-under at 35 percent, the number of fewer foreign entrants in the next Breeders’ Cup hosted by Santa Anita.

Just thought about this: What if Zenyatta had been racing on Santa Anita dirt all along? Would anyone, myself included, demand that she go on some kind of tour then? I’m just sayin’.

If last year’s Classic were on dirt, would Rachel Alexandra have run in the Woodward, and pointed toward the Classic, or the Ladies Classic, instead? And in which race would Zenyatta have run?

Would the Europeans have finished one-two ahead of Curlin in 2008?

Good thing that the sales market has been in decline or there might have been a rush to breed more horses whose families crossed over to synthetics successfully.

Know that we’re all in favor of stamina in the pedigree here at HRI. We’re not, however, a big fan of s-l-o-w. That’s downright un-American.

The bad news would be that we might not see Bullet Bob make as many forays into New York in order to get off the plastic. “I’m sitting on good horses here but I can’t race them on this surface,” Baffert told the San Diego Union Tribune earlier this week re: the Del Mar Poly.

In case you were unaware, two horses broke down in the Del Mar homestretch last weekend, raising the total to five at the meet. There has been one breakdown in a Saratoga, and that came on grass.

The problem is that the Del Mar dirt was god-awful and even more dangerous. Too bad they don’t conduct aquatic horse races. Where the turf meets the surf, for real.

What does Santa Anita’s return to a dirt surface do to overall form on a circuit that‘s mostly contiguous--not that it was easy making sense of Pro Ride to Cushion Track to Polytrack?

And now we’re going to inject dirt into that already confusing handicapping scenario?

It looks like Frank really intends to open his gates whenever he wishes and thinks that the competition from his dirt track will drive Hollywood Park right out of business.

Of course, Hollywood’s been on life support for some time, thrown a lifeline--if you want to call it that--by an ailing economy. But there’s a problem having only one track in the same geographical area. Like people, dirt racetracks get tired.

Unless there are plans to expand the Fair season significantly beyond Fairplex, Santa Rosa meets and the seven weeks of Del Mar, will it be all-Santa Anita all-the-time for the remainder of the California racing year?

Meanwhile, the synthetic track debate continues to rage in California. Some trainers say the horses are healthier; others insist they’re seeing more hind end injuries. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Meanwhile, Stronach has not filed the necessary paperwork that would set aside the surface switch mandated not long after Barbaro’s tragic breakdown.

It’s likely that after some kissing of rings, permission will be granted for a racetrack owner to do what a majority of his horsemen and horseplayers want.

With as much money as Stronach’s invested in the industry, he’s entitled to do the right thing by a situation that steadily had gone from bad to worse.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (35)


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Provincial Campaign Will Deny Zenyatta Her Rightful Place in History

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 10, 2010--I’ve tried, I’ve pleaded, I’ve cajoled, just short of begging. I’ve written pieces such as “Can’t We All Get Along?” Go back in the archives and read one if you doubt that.

Other stories have been written, too, stories that posited how unfair and shortsighted it is that a compliment of either Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra is to disrespect the other.

You might be glad to learn that, like most of you, I’m sick of reading and writing about the two mares, no matter how great they are. And until they race again, or new news develops, I no longer will stoke this insatiable fire.

First, this heads-up to Webmaster Mark. Get ready for an onslaught of invective, character assassination, or worse. It could get ugly quickly. But I’ve had enough. Now it’s time to allow chips to fall.

Running Zenyatta in the Zenyatta is a disgrace.

At least when New Mexico-bred sprinter Peppers Pride remained in state-bred company to complete an unbeaten streak at 19, the connections never promised a whirlwind campaign. They placed her where they expected her to win.

This year, the Zenyatta camp have done the same. Only their Perfect Campaign has done a disservice to the legacy to the great race mare.

Is Secretariat or Seattle Slew or Spectacular Bid or Man o’ War any less than because they got beat? Since when is losing a race some big disgrace? Horse racing is a game in which if you’re wrong two out of three times you’re considered a genius.

The true disgrace in all this is saying one thing and doing another. The connections promised they would share Zenyatta with all her fans. I wasn’t aware that all of them lived in California.

Detractors disparaged Rachel Alexandra because they felt Jess Jackson ducked the 2009 Breeders’ Cup. Beating Grade 1 males thrice, including elders, just wasn’t a world class good enough. But they can’t say it came as a surprise.

Jackson announced he wouldn’t run on “the plastic” well before the Woodward. No one was surprised that another very successful businessmen had become a control freak. By definition, control freaks get what they want. What’s the good of having all this weight if you can’t throw it around?

The rescheduled, lengthened and enriched Lady’s Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park is an example of this. It was no less tacky than the road being taken by Zenyatta‘s people.

The wraps finally are coming off the defending Horse of Year’s 2010 campaign. Resultantly, one of the hottest mares on the East Coast, ironically named Malibu Prayer, will duck Rachel and head to Monmouth Park for the Molly Pitcher instead.

But the Personal Ensign will be no walkover. Life At Ten and Unrivaled Belle are more than capable Grade 1 rivals.

When the undefeated mare recently went after 18 straight and pulled it off, no one noticed. After tying Cigar, Zenyatta’s every move should have been chronicled in mainstream sports media. Nothing fires the imagination like a little imagination.

Instead, it all happened with a whimper. The only people who knew what was happening were racing’s true fans, some of whom waited until 9:30 on a Saturday night to see her on a delayed simulcast feed, if one were even available.

I cannot forget how excited I was to hear that Zenyatta would race again at 6; a clear challenge against all odds. She would be shared with all of racing’s fans and the rest of America, too, not just those in her own backyard. Finally, a win for racing. Instead, we got 2009 all over again.

As a sports fan and lover of this greatest game played outdoors, I can no longer root for Zenyatta’s human connections and, by extension, their mare to win #19. They had a chance to perhaps make a small difference but instead placed greater emphasis on their own local celebrity and “the streak.”

If the Zenyatta camp had a true sense of history and tradition, they might have recalled how a great West Coast champion beat a great East Coast champion in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. And they might have remembered, too, how it was the vanquished Seattle Slew that won the day. His greatest performance came in a losing effort.

I can’t think of anything more deliciously appropriate than to see Zenyatta suffer her first defeat in a race named in honor, a made-for-the-moment Grade 1 event that disrespected another great mare, Lady’s Secret, who never ducked, who sought new worlds to conquer and not challenges to avoid.

And would a defeat in Zenyatta the race make Zenyatta the horse any less than? Of course not. Would it mean that she would have no chance for redemption a month later with a Classic repeat at Churchill Downs? Again, no. And isn’t that truly the stuff of legend?

“If we go to New York, that will mean she’ll be away from the barn for over a month,” Shirreffs told the Daily Racing Form early this week. "The only thing that concerns me is if I go to New York, do I go directly to Kentucky?

“How long do I stay away from the [California] stable? I'm not a good telephone trainer. We have to decide the best decision. We'll follow the script as much as possible as we did last year," he said.

And so any trainer who successfully ships around the country apparently is a good telephone trainer. I thought he might be just good horsemen, perhaps even a sportsman.

Following last year’s script is not a bad thing and is common practice in this business. But we all could have saved lots of time if we were told that right from the beginning.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (106)


Friday, July 16, 2010

The NYRA Gets One Right

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 15, 2010--The mood on the Oklahoma training track this morning was upbeat, as several of the horsemen we spoke with in the wake of the New York Racing Association’s decision to shutter the detention barn in favor of stringent new security policies with tougher penalties were happy about recent developments.

We followed up briefly with some of those same horsemen who gave us their input on a June 12 column that called for the closure of the controversial detention facility.

The good mood, however, doesn’t reflect continuing concerns about the leveling of the playing field. “You know cheaters will find a way if they want to badly enough,” said one. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” said another. “I’ve been around this place a long time.”

All the horsemen we spoke with were willing to give the new process a chance, happy that new robust testing regimens will be accompanied by equally stringent penalties that punishes cheaters who come up with “positives.” Every one were in favor of the new three strikes and you’re out policy.

Most of the procedures put in place are scheduled to commence starting July 23, opening day of the Saratoga race meet. The rules are consistent with the uniform regulations authored by the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI).

Trainers of horses testing positive for Class A drug violations will face a minimum mandatory one-year disbarment from entering horses or being allocated stalls at NYRA racetracks for a first offense. A second mandatory disbarment for a second violation will last for a duration of three years. A third violation will result in permanent disbarment.

Of particular significance is the measure stating trainers serving disbarments will not be permitted to transfer their training responsibilities to family members or current employees, a common practice that has made a sham of the suspension process in the past.

According to a statement published by the NYRA, an ongoing effort to further enhance the new policies and procedures over the next 12 months will closely monitor the re-instituted procedure of allowing private veterinarians administering Lasix to horses on race day.

Further measures call for re-examining TCO2 testing policies with respect to historical TCO2 levels, assessing appropriate penalties for violators, and regular reporting on the results and impact of the elimination of the security barn to the Special Oversight Committee of the NYRA Board of Directors.

Regrettably, the NYRA missed an opportunity to list on the official track program, right alongside the trainer’s name, the name of the attending veterinarian. Some horsemen use more than one vet, but making the name of the vet available allows the betting public to track who dispenses medications when certain horses show sudden and dramatic improvement.

“The out-of-competition drug testing program combined with the new assembly barn and ‘in-today’ procedures will provide NYRA with potent tools to confront today’s challenges of detecting performance-enhancing substances and allow us to stay one step ahead of potential abusers,” said NYRA president Charlie Hayward in the release.

“The science empowering cheaters has changed since 2005 and these new procedures will ensure that NYRA’s countermeasures keep pace in order to preserve the integrity of the sport.” Racetracks have always had a difficult task trying to keep pace with Big Pharma’s R & D people. But continue trying they must.

On its face, the measures taken by NYRA more than compensate for the elimination of the detention barns--not that the barns didn’t serve some purpose. Suspected abusers left New York soon after they were instituted, or after they stopped winning with their normally dramatic regularity. Other suspected abusers who took up residence in New York, mostly during the Aqueduct sessions, left after learning it wasn’t as easy to win at 35 percent as it used to be.

The elimination of the detention barn coupled with new testing policies, procedures, and sterner penalties for violators, is the most comprehensive action we’ve seen NYRA take on any difficult issue in the modern era. For that, they are to be commended.

The proof, however, ultimately will reside in the execution of its plan, employing the fine tuning needed after noting what works and what doesn’t. Continued vigilance is not an elective. In the morass that has become New York racing, track management has devised a plan that surprisingly provides a reason to feel optimistic going forward.

In considering the sport’s survival, all have a vested interest in rooting for the contraction model put in place in New Jersey, hopefully reversing recent fortunes in the Garden State and provide the industry with a viable blueprint. At once, what happens on this side of the Hudson counts, too. If successful, real security measures taken by the NYRA will have a positive effect on the entire industry.

In matters of security and integrity, all who are tethered to the game reside in the same fox hole. Suddenly, achieving unity in this fractured sport doesn’t seem so impossible. The NYRA has done a good thing here. If it’s truly sincere about effecting change, it could once again occupy the role of true industry leader. For the time being, anyway, it appears all the dogs and ponies have been laid to rest.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (24)


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