Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tradition is Killing the Triple Crown

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 19, 2010--I don’t know about you feel about it, but I’m getting a little tired of reading the opinions of general sports columnists on the future of the American Triple Crown series.

These people show up on three racing days a year, maybe five, and have a take on how the Triple Crown is not broken, how any change desecrates the past, and what a ludicrous idea it would be to try to change any of it.

Well, that’s a lot like saying the sport isn’t broken and there’s no need to fix it, either. I’m not the world’s biggest bettor, but until these columnists bet 10 cents for every dollar I put through the windows, they would do all racing fans a favor if they ignored the sport the other 362 days, too.

Until these geniuses went on record, you might have noticed during the run-up to Preakness and Belmont that sentiment for elongating the Triple Crown series started to gain some momentum. It was about trying to make each event better which, of course, helps the entire series.

And so, at this point, for the third time in the last 60 years, the Derby and Preakness winner won’t rubber-match on Long Island and, with the defection of Dublin, no three- year-old will have started in all three races. Does that sound like a series that’s working?

Before examining current realities, which industry executives seldom do enthusiastically if at all, let’s take a look back. For openers, can we all stop god-ding up the horses of yesteryear?

They were almost a different breed. They were tougher, but they were slower, too. It was a time when stamina was valued over speed, when racing was valued over the auction ring. It seems we can’t have an abundance of both traits these days. On balance, speed and stamina are mutually exclusive gifts.

And how many Man o’ Wars, Citations and Secretariats can this sport expect to see? As many as baseball gets to see a Ruth, Cobb, Cy Young and Rivera? As often as basketball sees a Mikan, Oscar, Magic and Michael? About a handful per century?

The tide of sentiment has begun to change as more veteran observers are calling for a schedule more in sync with the physiology of the modern thoroughbred that bears no resemblance to the Triple Crown winners of the 1970s, never mind those from 1919 to 1948.

Traditionalists who believe that lengthening the series does a disservice to past Triple Crown champions are wrong. Since 2006, we have written that lengthening the series makes the task more difficult, not less. Consider:

Prior to this year’s Preakness, Daily Racing Form correspondent Marcus Hersh asked a dozen of the sport’s leading horsemen about the degree of difficulty training an aspiring classicist for a period of five weeks, especially the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness.

"I seldom run them back in less than a month," said Funny Cide’s trainer, Barclay Tagg. "I found that if you came out of the Derby all right, [two weeks] was actually perfect timing," said Billy Turner, trainer of the legendary Seattle Slew.

"Usually, a horse that wins the Derby is a good horse that's peaking and in the zone… The Preakness, it's the easiest of all [Triple Crown] races," said Bob Baffert, who proved it by winning his fifth middle jewel with Lookin At Lucky.

"The two weeks is not hard to do because you're already there," said Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger said. "Longer would be worse… Then you'd have to worry." "You get to the Preakness on momentum," said Neil Drysdale, trainer of Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus.

"In those days a horse that was doing well, the timing was to run every two weeks,” added Turner. "Years ago, I'd run back in a week,” volunteered Tagg. But these days, horses racing back without sufficient recovery time are the exception, not the rule.

The Preakness should be moved back two weeks, despite Pimlico’s predictable objection on economic grounds, to increase the chances of getting more Derby horses back for the second leg. That would require moving Pimlico's opening day up a week, easily do-able.

With the present five-week schedule, most Derby horses either skip the last two legs entirely or choose one or the other, but not both. Why? Because most championships are still won in the summer and fall. There is neither money nor Eclipse style points in horse racing for trying to make history.

If, then, the Belmont Stakes is moved back to July 4th weekend, the chances of horses running in all three events would increase significantly. And there would still be sufficient recovery time for subsequent starts in the Haskell and/or Travers.

As was suggested in the DRF survey, an eight-week series would make it more difficult for trainers to sweep all three, even with a superior animal. As for series continuity, skipping the Preakness in favor of the Belmont no longer would be an attractive option; two months is a very long time between starts, especially for one at 12 furlongs.

Since 1886, there have been 12 winners of the English Triple Crown and the 14-furlong-plus St. Leger Stakes is run in September. Does that timing cheapen the accomplishments of Nijinsky, Bahram and Gainsborough? And is that somehow less than the accomplishments of Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat?

America’s fascination with the Kentucky Derby makes the day feel like a national holiday. On the first Sunday in May, “Sports Reporters” panelist Mike Lupica, no fan of racing, talked about how he loved the Derby spectacle because of it’s link to the sport’s glory days. That feeling will never change.

Then, two weeks ago, disappointed because he hoped New York would get a chance to host a Triple Crown bid, Lupica said he loved watching the drama of the Preakness stretch run unfold before adding “unfortunately, the racing season ended yesterday.”

A scheduling change extends racing’s only enduring event by a month, and Memorial Day and July 4th ARE a national holidays. It gives the connections of Derby entrants time to run back in the second leg and almost another five weeks until the Belmont.

The compressed promotional campaign of a five-week series might provide momentum for keeping the interest level high but isn’t that a sensible trade off for extending racing’s most popular event another month, giving the Preakness and Belmont national holiday identities that could help both events stand alone better than they do now?

And doesn’t this--as the popular phrase thrown around by horsemen for the public’s consumption, especially in times marred by tragedy--really do what’s best for the horse? The series can no longer, nor should it, exist solely as a paean to the past.

Tomorrow: How the Triple Crown’s past can better serve the present and future

Written by John Pricci

Comments (32)


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Despite Lifeline, Saratogians Still in Deep Water

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 19, 2010--That howling whoosh you might have heard coming from the North Country on Tuesday was the huge sigh of relief emanating from people living in New York‘s Capital District, especially in this “city in the country.”

For the last two months, this community, from breeders to horsemen to the merchants on Broadway, has been in a full court press trying to make certain that this July and August would be no different than last summer’s place to be.

The wish was simple: To be sure that the land of “history, health and horses,” wouldn’t become, well, history.

“I was afraid this town was going to look the way it did in the 1970s,” said Jackie Clark, owner of Broadway Salon in downtown Saratoga, after hearing that the race meeting would proceed as scheduled.

Canceling the Saratoga session, still the most prestigious race meet in the country, was unthinkable. “There will always be a Saratoga” went a popular refrain. But in the last week to 10 days, that speculation sounded more like a prayer than fait accompli.

The situation came to a head within 72 hours. On Sunday, New York Racing Association president Charlie Hayward said the NYRA was considering closing down on June 6, the day after the Belmont Stakes. “When we run out of money, we stop,” Hayward said about the possibility.

"That's not going to happen," Gov. David Paterson told the Associated Press two days later. "We have a plan to loan NYRA, in the short term, money to get through Saratoga, and we're working on a long-term plan to help beyond that."

The long and winding road to the Aqueduct Racino has been lined with broken promises and aborted timetables. Until a loan accord is signed, no one should rest easy.

“Before any taxpayer money is used we would like to know how much money NYRA actually has,” said Austin Shafran, spokesman for Senate Conference Leader John Sampson. “We’ve heard conflicting reports as to whether they have the money to continue operations through the Belmont Stakes.”

As they say on the racetrack: Whoa!

Maybe Mr. Shafran should have said something like: “This isn’t supposed to be about taxpayer money; it’s really about a $17-million advance on the $300-million up-front money to be paid by the VLT franchise awardee.”

Or, he might have asked rhetorically: “Aren’t we [state government] in default on an agreement that was supposed to fund NYRA’s operation starting in April of 2009 if the VLTs weren’t on line?

“Wasn’t that part of the franchise deal in which we got title to three racetrack properties valued at about $2-billion?” So don’t we owe them $30 million?”

“And another thing: We’re responsible for New York City Off Track Betting now, right? Does that mean we’re on the hook for their $17 million, too? And we‘ve stopped giving them a piece of the handle action, right?”

Let me answer those statements and hypotheticals for you, Mr. Shafran: You bet your hindquarters you do.

The New York Racing Association, its horsemen, employees, and citizens from Albany to Schroon Lake are no longer waiting to exhale. But neither can they breathe easier. Despite Paterson’s assurances, this is no done deal. No wonder NYRA executives have had no comment since the announcement.

When the idea of a $17-million front-money loan first surfaced, it sounded like a no-brainer. It is, after all, free money from the private sector against future VLT earnings and not a “taxpayer bailout of rich horse owners.”

If that were the case, it would have been better categorized as a taxpayer bailout of hard working underpaid backstretch personnel.

Any monies fronted NYRA would have “bailed out” hundreds of backstretch families which without racing would be forced from their palatial backstretch barracks and into nap-sacks lined up outside the gates on Hempstead Turnpike and Union Avenue.

The Saratoga race meet, the only NYRA session where significant profits are still possible, needs the town to prosper as much as the town needs the NYRA tax monies and tourism that horse racing generates.

Hotel reservations and home rentals, understandably slow at this juncture, might have dried up completely had the latest fiscal impasse lasted any longer. With the Monmouth summer meet set to begin Saturday with daily purses averaging a million dollars, the battle for quality horseflesh already is being waged.

Well healed horseplayers could opt for a shore thing instead of their favorite mountain racing retreat. With its three-day weekend schedule, Monmouth Park becomes a very attractive destination option.

Paterson’s fix, announced at a Tuesday press conference, is a temporary patch. The oft-started and stopped search for a VLT operator is now being conducted by the State Lottery via gubernatorial decree. Former Gov. George Pataki tried that tack five years ago, but that political football wound up getting kicked wide right.

Based on projected handle from the Aqueduct racino, $3.65 billion would have been wagered since enabling legislation was enacted. With 90 percent returned to winning players, that’s a $365-million shortfall to the state and the NYRA. That excludes $90 million the state already gets in franchise fees and taxes from on- and off-track interests annually.

From the very beginning, all anyone needed to do were their jobs in the public interest. But, per usual in the Empire State, if a proposal doesn’t fly politically, it remains grounded until a situation becomes dire. And then, even when they fix it, it’s never completely right. Stay tuned.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Preakness 135: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 14, 2010--The keys to any successful Triple Crown run are speed, stamina, conditioning and luck. The first two are characteristic of the horse; conditioning is a function of the training regimen and scheduling. Everything must go without a hiccup.

And what member of the 20-horse Derby pack was any luckier than Super Saver? He loves the Churchill surface, is a wet track freak, and was fortunate to be partnered with Calvin Borel.

But here’s the real thing about Super Saver: He makes his own luck. He owns tactical tools and has a good mind, according to his trainer and rider. Borel says he had to learn a few things, such as changing leads correctly.

Little by little, Super Saver learned his lessons. The only instructions given the rider in the Churchill paddock was just make sure he gets to change over to his proper lead, otherwise, “ride him like you own him,” Pletcher told Borel.

The thing about Calvin, at Churchill Downs or anywhere else, is that he’s a very good jockey but a great race rider. Time and again, not just in the Kentucky Derby, he plays it off the break.

No one’s infallible, of course, but every time I watch Calvin Borel ride he gets it right more often than not.

Borel was asked by a reporter this week about whether he knew he could get over to the rail with Super Saver in the Derby. “I have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C. Fortunately I didn’t have to go past Plan A.

Whatever the plan is for Preakness 135, in Super Saver Borel has a partner willing to obey his every command. And how can anyone be sure of that? Because, as the handicappers say, Super Saver remains fresh, fit and dangerous.

The following is a thumb-nail handicapping sketch of Preakness 135:

1-Aikenite (20-1): Keeps running competitively against the division’s best but never in danger of winning anything important as a three-year-old. His Derby Trial was a breakthrough performance on the Equiform scale and was not significantly higher than his top race at 2. Can move forward here if the competition doesn’t prove too steep, but the improvement not likely to be enough to mount a serious winning challenge.

2-Schoolyard Dreams (15-1): Another whose nose defeat--the improbable loss to Odysseus in the Tampa Bay Derby--kept him out of the Derby on earnings. But whatever happens Saturday that could turn out to be a blessing. If the colt’s recent training is a measure then he may be ready for prime time. His performance figures are not up to elite standards but he’s primed to move forward. Inside draw yields money prospects.

3-Pleasant Prince (20-1): Showed potential with a strong effort despite difficult Fountain of Youth circumstances then nailed in the last jump by Ice Box in the Florida Derby, a margin that kept him out of the Derby. Didn’t handle Polytrack then came back with a late-rally third in the Derby Trial. This colt has talent, blew out strongly at Keeneland, gets Julien Leparoux, looming a legitimate longshot threat.

4-Northern Giant (30-1): A little interesting from a performance figure perspective--not that his figures are competitive but he’s poised for a forward move and, just maybe, share in the superfecta. His Lanes End was a breakthrough performance, then he chased a strong pace while racing wide in the Arkansas Derby. But given his pedigree, maybe today’s start is more about carnations than black-eyed susans.

5-Yawanna Twist (30-1): Runnerup behind come-again Illinois Derby winner American Lion following a worthy late-finish placing behind Awesome Act in the Gotham, his two-turn debut. Lightly raced colt with some potential has the right connections but this spot doesn’t figure to do anything to advance his confidence. An extremely tall order.

6-Jackson Bend (12-1): This little guy always tries hard and has a hardy constitution. Did not handle the distance or sloppy conditions very well In Louisville and previously had not shown the kind of development you want to see from 2 to 3. Even if Saturday’s track is to his liking, the distance is still an issue. But Mike Smith asked to ride him back, he worked extremely well for this, and will likely make his presence felt at some point.

7-Lookin At Lucky (3-1): Baffert changed the karma, switching to the talented young Martin Garcia and thus far have proven to be a very productive team in 2010. Amid the bad luck surrounding this colt since turning 3 came a Herculean effort to win the Rebel despite almost falling five furlongs from the wire. Given the two horrendous trips since, he could improve significantly here--enough to win Preakness 135.

8-Super Saver (5-2): Developmentally, this colt has not taken a backward step since making his 3-year-old debut in March at Tampa Bay Downs. Further, his improvement has been incremental, suggesting there may be more to give on Saturday--or at least as much as what was on display in Louisville. Same story as a fortnight ago: Tactical speed, rate-ability, and pedigree. And did we mention Borel? Todd Pletcher believes the post will give Calvin options in relatively paceless event. Agreed.

9-Caracortado (10): Another horse bitten by the earnings bug which precluded his Derby participation. Was on track developmentally from a figures perspective while winning the Lewis Memorial in February, breaking through his juvenile best. Subsequently, he was seriously compromised by the San Felipe pace and his Santa Anita Derby trip. Worked great on the Pro Ride and owns tactical speed and kick, a formidable Old Hilltop combination.

10-Paddy O'Prado (9-2): His only dirt starts have come on sloppy tracks and he clearly didn’t mind the one at Churchill Downs. Kent Desormeaux thought he had an excuse and should have finished closer in Louisville, galloping out well past the finish. His wet-track races make Saturday’s projected dry conditions unknowable from a form perspective. Clearly very talented, the Derby was a huge lifetime best so a regression here seems highly likely.

11-First Dude (20-1): The Dude will accompany stablemate Paddy O’ Prado into the Preakness gate for trainer Dale Romans. Distance bred son of Stephen Got Even just missed to eventual Dwyer Stakes winner Fly Down in a Gulfstream allowances before making a solid effort in the Florida Derby despite stretch troubles. After that came a good, rough-trip third in the Blue Grass. Nice colt; ambitious spot.

12-Dublin (10-1): His Derby effort in the face of adversity was first rate, making him a deserved contender here despite the wide draw. Lukas a Preakness training legend and Garrett Gomez has extra incentive and focus for today’s challenge. The shorter distance should enhance his late kick, as does the presence of Gomez. His lifetime best effort is one race removed and he has every right to run that well again.

Selections: 1. Super Saver 2. Lookin At Lucky 3. Coracortado

Written by John Pricci

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