Thursday, May 31, 2007

Not Changing Triple Crown Makes For No Sense

Saratoga Springs, NY--You knew that Carl Nafzger would make the right decision and the Belmont Stakes would have to live with it. Cant argue with Nafzgers success in this countrys most important races either. Hes fashioned a career that will take him all the way to Union Avenue and the Racing Hall of Fame. Thats guaranteed someday, and deserved.

But here we are again, stuck on the corner of Disheartened and Disenchanted, because when racing reaches a crossroads it blinks and wrings its hands. In the name of tradition the sport does nothing but lament its fate then refuses to do anything about it.

The Triple Crown can be changed for the better, just like other sports that changed with the times. I, too, mourn the loss of superb execution that can result in a dynasty: Bradshaws Steelers. The Canadiens of Richard and Beliveau and Geoffrion and Plante. The Yankees, from DiMaggio to Mantle. Michaels Bulls. The Celtics of Russell and Cousy and Havlicek. I only rooted for one, but loved watching them all.

However, I cant argue that parity through expansion and salary caps and free agency and extended playoff seasons has kept fans of the major sports engaged. The problem is that mediocrity is marketable and everyone worships at the altar of the bottom line.

But racing can change its showcase event and make it better, not weaken quality the way the other sports have. Racing need only embrace a new philosophy and not be afraid to gamble that lengthening the series would at once do the best thing for the modern horse and place a greater emphasis on horsemanship.

I would argue that it is easier for a superior three-year-old to dominate his rivals over five weeks than it would be for the same horse to extend that dominance over a greater number of stronger rivals for a longer period of time.

Todays thoroughbred is sleek, not stout, and often inherently unsound because thats the price paid for decades of medication-infused bloodlines. Gone are the days when old-school horsemen can routinely get to the bottom of their stock to attain total fitness. They still can reach bottom, of course, but the recovery time takes longer.

Speed in the stallion and his offspring is the element horsemen covet most. Speed cannot be taught, like height on a basketball court. Without equivocation the measure of speed defines class and is the games only absolute truth. But it comes at the expense of stamina, the price paid for growing sales ring receipts.

Degrees of unsoundness, permissive medication, speedy pedigree, lack of stoutness and todays harder, faster surfaces compel modern horsemen with an understanding of form-cycle analysis to race todays thoroughbred far less frequently. This is a fact of racing life at every racetrack every racing day, not just the demanding Triple Crown.

The classics as presently constructed is nothing if not anachronistic. It follows that for the health of the horse, the silencing of critics who argue for racings abolition, and to promote the game in a more meaningful fashion, the Triple Crown needs to be tweaked. And it needs to happen now.

Without question, a Triple Crown of longer duration makes sense. First and foremost, it would better serve todays thoroughbred. And makes promotional sense by keeping the series alive into early summer. To wit:

The distances and venues should remain the same--if thats possible given the current state of Maryland racing. And the Derby has secured its traditional place on the first Saturday in May. Because of its distance, place on the calendar, and field size, the Kentucky Derby remains the most difficult of the three to win. Americas Race needs to stay right where it is.

Run the Preakness on the first Saturday in June, lending it added identity and giving the Derby horses an extra two weeks to recover. By adding two weeks, the race likely would attract more Derby runners while providing extra time for late developers and non-Derby qualifiers to join the chase. This does right by still maturing 3-year-olds and makes the challenge for horsemen more daunting.

And what could be a more appropriate date to conclude this unique American series than the 4th of July? This would make the Belmont an instant classic for the general sports fan, a national TV holiday event run sometime between the barbecue and the fireworks. Further, it makes the race less dependent on a Triple Crown quest.

This schedule would give promoters nine weeks to bang the drum instead of five. And wouldnt the accomplishment be even greater if the Derby and/or Preakness winner had to defeat a larger number of series rivals?

Find a sponsor to bring back the participation and winners bonus and increase the purses of the final two legs. All this would upset none of the traditional Derby prep schedules and allow horsemen more time to develop their maturing stock. The lesser Derbies would still have their place and there would be no need for Monmouth Park and Saratoga to alter the dates of their Haskell and Travers.

A longer Triple Crown season simultaneously increases and decreases the degree of difficulty, brightens the spotlight, creates and sustains added interest, produces bigger and better wagering events, all while doing whats best for the animal. When will the time come for enlightened self interest?

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

An Open Letter To New York Governor Eliot Spitzer

Dear Gov. Spitzer,

Please say that the proposal to shutter and sell off Aqueduct Racetrack and divide the franchise holders entrusted to run New York racing into disparate groups is a trial balloon. Please say that it was launched to gauge reaction from everyone tethered to the industry and to get a measure of how it would all play out politically because in New York the game always has been to satisfy as many groups as possible. Please say that you wont do what your predecessors have done; play downstate against upstate, let the chips fall, and follow the prevailing wind.

If we know one thing in New York its this: When we try to please everyone, we please no one. And please say that you lofted this balloon because the advisers you entrusted to advise are not. Obviously, you must rely on input from the state budget office, the Empire State Development Corporation and the State Racing and Wagering Board.

I claim no expertise in two of these areas. Fortunately, I dont need a job at the moment. But I know something about how racing and wagering works. Did you know that for years New York officials have been asking the SRWB to expand superfecta wagering because by not doing so the New York tracks remain at a competitive disadvantage in the simulcast marketplace and that the windfall payoffs from the wager are popular with the customers and keep them liquid longer? No?

Well, permit me to be of service. The SRWB is supposed to act in the best interests of all the states citizens but historically has made decisions based on political expediency rather than those based on sound business practices. The average horseplayer could give you better advice. But I digress.

The franchise issue is far more complex, of course. The stakes are extremely high. Racing is defined as a niche sport--if niche means total U.S. handle of $15 billion annually. The New York signal is the industrys simulcast leader and drives handle annually, not seasonally. Simulcasting makes up 85 percent of total handle and that percentage grows every day. The international market is set to explode, so the product matters. To segment local racing would be to weaken the continuity of the product dramatically. While other venues grow the sport via slots revenue, New York would lose market share.

Racing is a niche if you consider that $2.4 billion generated by New Yorks agribusiness and a community that accounts for 40,000 jobs is an industry of no consequence. Racing without a healthy New York would be like major league baseball without the Yankees, the NFL without the Giants, the NHL without the Rangers and NBA without the Knicks. History and cultural fabric matter, too.

So dont do this, Mr. Spitzer, not if you really care about the working men and women who make a living in New Yorks horse business. Dont jeopardize the stature of New York racing. Yes, competition is healthy. Its what had made this country great. But not when it works at cross purposes. Weve already seen what happens, for instance, when on-track and off-track interests compete for the same customers.

Neighboring states with VLTs already are beating our brains in. We have lost major portions of the states horse population to other states and will continue to lose them every day we delay a decision on the franchise. And if you havent heard that the $1-million Pennsylvania Derby will have a negative impact on this years Travers Stakes, the Midsummer jewel of the Saratoga meet, you havent been getting relevant advice.

A large part of the on-track versus off-track problem has been the creation of senseless competition and duplication. Do you realize that downstate tracks share the same pertinent staff with Saratoga and much of the parimutuel and track maintenance equipment, too? Do you know that Saratoga is the worlds best race meet because the best of the downstate racing stock, with no live racing there, ship north for six weeks every summer? That without that kind of quality, the worlds best race meet ceases to exist as such?

Racetracks, like people, are living organisms. They get tired. Do you realize that if Aqueduct is sold you would need a second dirt surface at Belmont Park, one suitable for winter racing? Even if Polytrack were installed, it wasnt meant for 46 consecutive weeks of operation. And not all artificial tracks are create equal. There have been problems with extremes in temperatures, hot and cold. Even Polytrack creator Martin Collins has admitted as much.

For Belmont to work well as a stand-alone downstate facility, you would need five different surfaces over which to race and train; a spring/summer/fall surface, a winterized track, two turf courses, or two enlarged into one extremely wide course to allow for the movement of the temporary rails to preserve the course for the safety for horses and jockeys, and a year-round training track.

Of course, there already is a separate training track at Belmont. But I was thinking of the 550 head currently stabled at Aqueduct. Where would they train? Where would they live? Would they leave New York altogether? What about the trainers and grooms and exercise riders and hot walkers and veterinarians and feed company personnel and track kitchen employees and seasonal employees? Where do they go? Where would they live?

If perhaps you were thinking about Saratoga as a possible solution, think again. With burgeoning growth of the town and region comes a growing dearth of affordable housing. The additional stall space provided by the Oklahoma training track environs was already needed to insure a quality product.

This year, Saratoga has lost much of its off-season horse population because trainers of good-horse stables, the ones that come to New York from Kentucky, Florida and California for its cache, have stayed behind because the artificial tracks there are safer and more consistent for training.

Actually, the quicker an artificial surface is installed at Oklahoma the better. Without one that portion of the Saratoga boarding and training experience will become irrelevant as an eight-month facility. Would downstate franchisees be prepared to prop up Saratoga instead of the other way around?

Ill allow your appointed staffers to advise you on just how disparate franchise holders would revenue share, and on real estate ownership, and on intellectual property matters. As Virgil Sollozzo once admitted, Im not that clever. But I was wondering how all those workers who barely can afford to live in Queens will pay rent in Nassau County; how all the horsemen without a big horse in their barn can continue paying the help, feed their own families, and have enough leftover to pay state and local taxes. Unlike W. C. Fields, they may decide theyd rather be in Philadelphia.

So, please, Governor, take these things into consideration. I know you want to find as much new revenue as possible, much of it upfront. You owe that to all New Yorkers. But a major industry and prominent taxpayer that provides jobs and priceless prestige has been waiting five years for help that was promised long ago. This is not a time for trail balloons, sir, only decisive action. Why not simply go back to the RFPs already provided and make a decision, before a dire situation becomes worse than it already is.


John R. Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Street Sense Will Pass His Toughest Test

Saratoga Springs, NY, May 17, 2007 -- Compared to the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness is perceived by many as just a horse race. But for Derby winning Street Sense, it certainly is a lot more. Its the next stop on the road to racing immortality.

By temperament, talent, training and surface, he had an edge at 10 furlongs two weeks ago. But the dynamics change Saturday in Baltimore. The colt must adapt. And so, too, must Calvin Borel, the X on his back having become much larger, more pronounced.

For Street Sense, Saturdays classic is more than another horse race alright. Returning in two weeks over a new track after his huge mile and a quarter without any water, the Preakness will be the biggest test of his career.
A look at the Preakness 132 participants, listed in alphabetical order, with post position and early line odds in parentheses:

Circular Quay #3 (8-1): Perhaps lifting a page from Carl Nafzgers book, it appears that Todd Pletcher allowed the colt to dictate his Preakness course. Having no intention of running his Derby horses in the Preakness, Pletcher began having second thoughts last weekend and after a satisfactory Monday workout, the diminutive late runner rejoins the classics chase. Circular Quay appeared uncomfortable over the wet-fast Churchill surface and, despite encountering some trouble on the far turn, beat 70 percent of the field, losing by just over nine lengths. The problem is eight of those lengths were made up by Street Sense and Hard Spun. A strong pace and a fast track would help immeasurably. At his best, the only horse capable of out-kicking the favorite late.

C P West #9 (20-1): Suffers from the same affliction that hindered Nobiz Like Shobizs season, perhaps only more so: He has not developed sufficiently as a three year-old. Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito would like nothing more than to win another classic, consequently he doesnt over-race his two-year-olds. But this colt was so advanced that Zito ran him in the Breeders Cup Juvenile, in which he was trounced by Street Sense. Pointed toward this in his third start at 3, he was a willing second in the Grade 3 Withers, the same race that produced Preakness winner Bernardini last year. But thats where the comparison ends.

Curlin #4 (7-2): More impressive in defeat when third in the Kentucky Derby than he ever was winning his first three starts by an aggregate 28- lengths. His connections worst fears were realized when an inside post compromised his position, resulting in a less than desirable Derby trip. While he is sure to benefit from the experience gained and Saturdays smaller field, the Preakness will be his third race in 35 days and fifth in 97, all without benefit of a juvenile foundation. Thats a lot to ask from a new millennium thoroughbred even one as talented as the attractive son of Smart Strike. Will race close to the early pace.

Flying First Class #6 (20-1): Demonstrated he was more than your typical three year with a watch-busting romp in his second lifetime start at Oaklawn Park. Following that sprint victory, he chased Curlin around Oaklawn Park a couple of times in the two-turn Rebel and Arkansas Derby, both graded events, and races to which he was ill suited at the time. Returning to one turn in the Derby Trial, he showed speed throughout the 7--furlong race, taking on all challengers before blowing the race open in midstretch. Now on the come for five-time Preakness-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, he punched his ticket to Baltimore with a rapid five-furlong breeze in :58 3/5. He is the Preakness pace and holds the key to Hard Spuns winning prospects.

Hard Spun #7 (5-2): Incredibly, the Kentucky Derby runnerup never has taken a backwards step on performance figures and generally there is no reason to assume a regression in that context now. His Derby effort was first rate, obviously, setting a strong pace and holding extremely well. The presence of Flying First Class could either help or hurt him here, providing a target for Mario Pino to stalk. Should Flying First Class prove more than a sprinter/miler, he could compromise the chances of this talented and well-bred racehorse. Rock, or hard place?

King Of The Roxy #5 (12-1): The only runner in the field that has had the Preakness circled on his dance card for months. Not ready to run in the Derby, he was pointed here by Todd Pletcher soon after finishing second to Tiago in the Santa Anita Derby. Always fast, he showed a distance-racing aptitude at Santa Anita to the surprise of many. While not quite as fast as the upper echelons here, hes primed for a career best effort. Will it be good enough? Even Team Valor spokesman Barry Irwin admitted his colt could be up against it. Money prospects at best.

Mint Slewlep #1 (30-1): The Preakness usually attracts a hopeless local. Trainer Robert Bailes returns to the Maryland classic with a gun two bullets short of his previous Preakness runnerup, Scrappy T. The colt showed some improved late foot when unplaced in the Withers but remains eligible for secondary-allowance conditions. Way out of his element.

Street Sense #8 (7-5): A most deserving favorite off his Derby tour de force, he never has failed to fire. But the second jewel could be more difficult than the first. Still relatively fresh off a two-prep Derby schedule, this nonetheless will be his third start in five weeks and the Preakness is run at Pimlico, not Churchill. But he has run very well elsewhere and continues to train strongly for Carl Nafzger, working fast but with energy in reserve. Borel has extreme confidence in his colt, a huge plus, and he knows he will get a response anytime he asks the question. Todays pace scenario coupled with a slightly shorter distance is a dynamic that, with luck, could actually help. The one to beat, again.

Xchanger #2 (15-1): This local has a punchers chance. Won the traditional Preakness prep, the Federico Tesio, as easily as horses win races, and he has trained extremely well since over the deeper training track at Fair Hill where Barbaro was prepared. He won the Grade 3 Sapling at 2 from off the pace and will have to take a similar tack here as he doesnt figure to grab the lead against Saturdays faster rivals. Ramon Dominguez is a huge plus, and it will be interesting to see who leaves the rail first, Ramon or Calvin? With a perfect trip and luck, the longshot might land a superfecta share.

Most Probable Winner: Street Sense

Best Value: Circular Quay

Written by John Pricci

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