Wednesday, September 10, 2008

As with Presidential Politics, Horse of the Year Narrative Has Changed

Saratoga Springs, NY, September 10, 2008--“It’s the Classic, babe. That’s where you have to go to win a championship.”

Those were the words of trainer Rick Dutrow when he was asked by the Bloodhorse whether the Breeders’ Cup Turf ever was under consideration after Big Brown had an impressive final workout for Saturday’s Monmouth Stakes, his first start against older horses.

Entries for the purse enhanced grass race will be taken Thursday morning and it’s not expected to be a large field. Win or lose--and the Derby/Preakness hero is expected and supposed to win--the race clearly is a bridge to the Breeders’ Cup’s first synthetic track Classic.

Just like presidential candidates who get a bounce from a favorable statement du jour, so might Dutrow, insofar as the Horse of the Year title is concerned. To wit:

Consider a scenario whereby Big Brown and reigning Horse of the Year Curlin run the table in their next two starts. For the former, that means Saturday’s race and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But for the latter it’s the Jockey Club Gold Cup, then what? And that becomes the Horse of the Year question.
Everyone knows and agrees how sporting it was for Jess Jackson to keep his horse racing at 4. The purses, no matter how large, hardly can keep pace with the insurance premiums. But it isn’t about the money, Jackson has said, it’s about Curlin’s place in history.

Toward that end, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was under serious consideration until the Man o’ War happened and those plans were dashed. Then there was talk of the Japan Cup in December with its humongous purse and dirt surface. All this because Curlin’s connections (read Steve Asmussen) doesn’t want to run Curlin on a synthetic surface.

This apparently stems from Curlin’s experience with Polytrack when preparing for the 2007 Kentucky Derby at Keeneland. But he’s was a young and quite inexperienced then and is a big, bruising four-year-old now. Then there’s the matter of his apparently being a slow learner, how he’s much better the second time he does anything.

Recently there has been some speculation, engendered by Curlin’s people when they failed to completely shut the door on a possible Classic run, that the Horse of the Year will seek a Classic repeat, which certainly wouldn’t hurt Curlin’s legacy. Been there, done that, is not a suitable explanation.

Given that Asmussen sent Curlin half way across the world to get a prep for the Dubai World Cup, you would think that if the Classic were a real possibility, Curlin would be racing in Santa Anita’s Goodwood and not Belmont Park’s Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 27.

Like a presidential candidate, Jackson said the JCGC decision was payback for the great support New York racing and its fans displayed during the run-up to and in the days following the Woodward Stakes. Curlin loves Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track and, therefore, they’re just happy to stay here.

There’s been talk on both sides that there could be racing life after the Breeders’ Cup, but it might be just talk. Economically, keeping both horses in training after October 25 makes little sense with the potential downside far outweighing the potential upside. But not if a Horse of the Year championship is at issue.

We’ve stated this a million times. A Horse of the Year can be anything. It can be the horse that compiles the most impressive resume on the racetrack, period, or a blend of racing accomplishment and favorable impact on the sport.

In terms of resume, it’s defending champion Curlin in front. But don’t underestimate a dual classics winner (read Kentucky Derby) that, at the moment, owns one more Grade 1 title this year than does his only adversary.

While it’s acceptable that Big Brown has beaten up on an undistinguished three-year-old class, it must be noted, too, that, the Dubai World Cup notwithstanding, Curlin’s other Grade 1s were defeats of a grass specialist (Einstein) in the Stephen Foster and a secondary-allowances winner (Past the Point) at Saratoga. Either way, a case can be made.

As in the 2008 presidential campaign, the narrative has changed. The incumbent party, concerned with his legacy, apparently won’t take the Breeders’ Cup challenge because of a prior experience with an artificial surface. Of course, he might not “have to” run.

Further, the Horse of the Year title is determined by voters and, like this presidential election, may devolve into a popularity contest, the issues be damned. Right now, Dutrow and Michael Iavarone are odds-on to lose a popularity contest to Jess Jackson.

But here’s the only way this Horse of the Year voter can look at the 2008 Classic. This is not about Curlin’s legacy or his perceived ineffectiveness over artificial surfaces. Champions overcome adversity. The Classic is, after all, Big Brown’s synthetic debut as well.

Since the Classic has been on the three-year-old’s dance card since before his Belmont debacle, if the reigning four-year-old Horse of the Year doesn’t meet Big Brown for all the marbles on what clearly is, for both, neutral ground, then he’s the one who’s ducking a challenge.

So, will be it about the issue of their records, or will it be about the perception of which is the better horse? Can’t have it both ways, babe.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, September 05, 2008

As Sport, New York Racing Deserves Better

Saratoga Springs, NY, September 4, 2008--Belmont opens Friday after a three-day racing hiatus and this town is getting back to normal, which is to say there’s much more traffic on Broadway than there used to be when first I visited the land of history, health and horses four decades ago.

Until finally, sick of packing and unpacking, I moved my tack here permanently almost a decade ago. I recall when this used to be the place where time stopped. But the old line about “travel up the Northway to exit 14, turn right onto Union Avenue, and go back a hundred years,” just doesn’t scan anymore.

The last two dark days saw temperatures rise into the high 80s--warmer than on any day in August--and gas prices fall to $3.79 a gallon, which we’re supposed to believe is a bargain. But it’s the same every year. The circus comes to town and everything turns upside down.

Like many of the horseplaying locals, I can’t wait for the Saratoga meeting to begin then can’t wait for it to end. Sorry, but while the Woodward is a welcome aesthetic cherry on the Saratoga confection, it feels like anything that occurs after Travers is anticlimactic.

The final week is sold as a good time to visit the old Spa, the vacationing hordes having dissipated. On balance, that’s true. But the reality somehow never measures up to that perception. With the exception of the Woodward and closing-day programs, the joint is buzzless.

However, the opening the Belmont Park fall meet on the Labor Day weekend hasn’t been the answer for some time, either. Paraphrasing the great Hall of Fame horseman, John Nerud, a bad day at Saratoga is better than a good day at Belmont Park.

Here, horse racing lives and thrives in the mainstream. There, it barely exists beyond the first Saturday in June.

While, with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t agree with every policy decision the NYRA executive team makes, it’s difficult not to feel some empathy for their situation. Much of their current woes are the result of a shameless state government that places politics above the needs of its citizenry. To wit:

How is it possible that VLT legislation, enacted into law seven years ago, is not yet a reality at NYRA tracks? That’s disgraceful on two counts, the overall quality and health of this country’s leading racing jurisdiction being the least of it.

Why haven’t the state’s overburdened citizens been allowed to benefit from tax relief additional VLT revenues would have afforded all these years? And the VLT franchise decision is still in limbo. Is the state stalling while it tries to figure a way to take over all gambling, from the lottery to racetracks, OTBs, and the remaining VLT franchises, too?

Of course that isn’t exactly right because a VLT franchise announcement is supposed to be imminent, but it does make one wonder.

Meanwhile, the state will continue taking a financial hit the longer it delays making this industry healthy. Everywhere around the country purses have been lowered as a result of reduced handle. That’s how the model works. But despite lagging business, purses went up at the Saratoga meet and stayed that way.

As long as the NYRA will be forgiven its debt as part of the franchise agreement, where is the incentive to curb its spending? For New York to remain preeminent, purses need to remain competitive with states benefiting from VLT dollars. But when it comes to the horsemen that need the money most, it seems only the rich are getting richer.

Even when the NYRA tries to do something to benefit its standing and bottom line, it can’t catch a break. Not only don’t dollars go as far as they used to, neither do handshakes.

New York racing thought it was next in the Breeders’ Cup line following the Santa Anita double-dip--a move that still doesn’t make sense unless there’s some underground agenda to foist synthetic-track racing on the rest of America.

While a synthetic surface might fuel greater international participation in Breeders‘ Cup, it’s also possible the breeding industry will benefit by the expansion of an ersatz surface over which horses run, thereby widening the gene pool via external means, all in the name of safety.

Forgive the paranoid ranting. But 2008 is, after all, an election year. Either way, New York racing deserved better. Especially when it’s still capable of putting on a show as good as the one we saw for the last six weeks.

* * *

Stewards Had Good Spa, but Should Have Taken Labor Day Off

Anyone can have a bad day. So can three people. But there’s plenty of blame to go around for the horrendous call in the fifth race closing day, a five and a half furlong turf sprint. What made the call so indefensible is that no one, stewards included, had a definitive view of the action.

In the race, Mrs. Holden and Jorge Chavez took command from the start. Racing near the hedge throughout, slightly less than two paths wide, she appeared to remain in the same lane from gate to wire, drifting out slightly only when clear in the straightaway. But that’s not where the incident occurred.

Approaching headstretch, Leader of the Life, racing on the hedge, tried to get through inside of Mrs. Holden but, lacking room, was forced to check by John Velazquez. Once the two fillies entered the straight, Mrs. Holden widened her margin from 1-½ lengths to 2-¼ in the drive to the post.

There was no question as to which filly was best, but plenty of doubt regarding the outcome. Even official Equibase chartcallers had trouble discerning exactly what happened. There never was a specific reference to how the incident occurred, as there commonly is--unless now it will be done after the fact.

Mrs. Holden…”set the pace under pressure… came out slightly in upper stretch” were the only descriptive phrases. The short comment in her past performances next time out will read: “speed inside, drew off.”

Leader of the Life…”steadied behind the winner leaving the backstretch….took up sharply nearing the quarter pole…” Her short comment will say: “took up turn.” But was that “leaving the backstretch” or “nearing the quarter pole?”

Here are some of the problems. The chartcallers in the press box never saw the replays I viewed from the box area from various angles. Why? I witnessed several replays from different perspectives. The problem with incidents occurring at this juncture is that there’s no definitive view of what happened. Many problems occur in the seam of the shifting camera angles. This was one of those times.

There is no good reason why the chartcallers weren’t seeing the same replays the fans in the boxes, and those standing directly behind them, saw. And even if they had, surely they would have felt without equivocation that the evidence was inconclusive.

How can horsemen be held accountable and subsequently punished on inconclusive data?

An HRI reader commented on the site that he suspected politics, since Velazquez was involved in a battle with Alan Garcia for the meet’s leading rider. Not sure how that would work since the legendary Allen Jerkens was the trainer being punished, a political push.

Admittedly, stewards everywhere, especially New York’s, will view apprentices with a jaundiced eye as they would jockeys with reputations for dirty riding. Chavez has a reputation for being an aggressive race rider, but not for being a dirty one.

The stewards alone are not to blame, however. While the industry pays lip service to integrity, it still won’t require stewards to file written reports outlining the basis for their decisions as is done in other countries. Why not? It’s about time racing commissioners--the State Racing and Wagering Board in this case--made their highly paid officials accountable. That they don’t is indefensible.

In relation to what happens on its tracks, management should invest in additional tower cameras to help officials make better decisions, as opposed to those cameras recently installed on the other side of the finish line for providing interesting, new perspectives and some cool “hero shots.”

Or management might have used some of the budget that paid or bartered for three full-page ads in the trade paper trumpeting Curlin’s Woodward participation, as if anyone spending $5 for a set of past performances wouldn’t know.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 18, 2008

High Speed at Breeze-Up Sales Overrated

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 17, 2008--Should anyone be surprised that the results of an informal study conducted by members of the California Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association to measure the success of the Barretts preview sales from 1999 to 2006, featuring “warp speed” workouts, showed a very poor relationship between youthful zip and racetrack success?

I wasn’t and neither should you. Horses of all ages seldom win anything important after running an opening furlong in 10 seconds, that’s if they win anything at all, or even make it to the races.

The study attempted to measure the success rate of Barretts March Sale graduates over an eight-year period. The 2007 class, this year’s two-year-olds, were not included. Most of those youngsters have yet to race.

Critics of the report will claim the data is skewed, or incomplete, even just plain wrong. I’m willing to concede that some criticisms might be justified. But an overwhelming preponderance of evidence shows a clear trend, an alarming one to say the least, but not uncommon.

The research was conducted and is verifiable by visiting the Barretts and Pedigree Query websites, whose data was used to compile the following results. The samples included only the fastest best-of-preview workouts at one, two and three furlongs.

Some terrific race horses were Barretts Sales graduates, among them, Officer, Brother Derek, Queenie Belle, Dubai Escapade, Henny Hughes, River’s Prayer, Habibti and Notional, an impressive group indeed.

But the study was meant to correlate the “fastest” workers with racetrack profitability. By that criterion Dubai Escapade hasn’t justified his $2 million price tag on the racetrack. He’s won six of eight starts according to the data, but earned $427,000.

Henny Hughes and River’s Prayer made money, but not really. They weren’t sold. They were “buy-backs” a.k.a. “RNAs,” horses whose reserve price--the value placed on them by their breeder(s), was not attained.

Actually, most results were counter-intuitive: The higher the sales price, the lower the earnings. After working a quarter mile in :21.6 seconds, Morocco was sold in 1999 for $2-million, and earned $134,000 at the races, winning four of 16 starts.

After working an eighth of a mile in :10-flat the following year, Gotham City sold for $2-million but came $1,998,000 short of winning back his purchase price, going winless in two lifetime starts.

Atlantic Ocean, a 2002 Barretts graduate, had a decent racetrack career, earning $680,000 on five wins from 19 career starts, but well short of his $1.9 million purchase price. Diamond Fury sold for $2.7 million the following year, but won back only $128,000, going 3-for-15.

Even a successful career--if short lived--is no guarantor of racetrack profitability. In addition to the Dubai Escapade example, What A Song, who “zipped a quarter mile in :20.6” in 2005 and undefeated in three starts, came up short of his purchase price by $1,720,000.

In all, 28 of the fastest two-year-olds in America sold at auction over eight years for a grand total of $26,675,000 collectively earned back $3,878,000. This is not an easy game.

But things like this are bound to happen when $2 billion worth of speed and pedigreed bloodstock race for a total of $1 billion in purses over the course of the racing year. It probably easier to make money by leasing them for one minute, 11 seconds at a time.

One suitably quirky result of the study shows that consignors were a better judge of earning talent than the buyers, but not by much. Ten horses that failed to reach their reserves earned more than the value their breeders or pinhookers placed on them.

In addition to River’s Prayer and Henny Hughes, other big winners were Water League ($190K) earned over $800,000 in Japan and Buffythecenterfold ($70K) more than $530,000. And Wild Fit is doing well, too. A three-year-old this year his reserve of $240K was not met and thus far has earned over $555,000.

But 35 proved unworthy of their consignor’s assessment and some really hurt. Miz Pickens was reserved for $290,000; earned $450. Count Midnight was expected to bring over $385,000. He never made it to the races. Neither did In Style Again; same reserve price, same result.

Many people disagree with Frank Stronach, but he gets it as a horseman. His under-tack sales place an emphasis on athleticism and attitude, not speed. So when only 49 of 301 very fast two-year-olds can win themselves out, and that’s not considered unusual, what’s the point of subjecting youngsters to this kind of stress, anyway?

Written by John Pricci

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