Friday, October 12, 2007

NYRA Right To Play Hardball With State Senate

Saratoga Springs, NY--Bennett Liebman, acting director of the Albany Law School racing and wagering program, said it best last month when he appeared before the State Senates Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee on the subject of New Yorks racing franchise.

To paraphrase: No one is wearing a white hat in this scenario.

At the fourth and final Senate hearing this week before the entire Legislature reconvenes Oct. 22, officials of the New York Racing Association warned that unless both houses approve Gov. Eliot Spitzers recommendation to extend NYRAs franchise for 30 years in exchange for ceding the title of its racetrack properties to the state, thoroughbred racing in New York would shut down upon expiration of the current franchise at midnight, Jan. 1.

At the heart of all this is, of course, is the future installation of Video Lottery Terminals and Aqueduct and possibly Belmont Park. Under the auspices of the New York State Lottery, VLTs at Aqueduct are expected to raise $600 million in revenue in the first year, a projection most experts believe is not too overzealous.

The association believes that a bankruptcy judge would not allow the claims of NYRAs creditors to be placed in jeopardy due to a loss of control over its revenues and assets. The Republican controlled Senate believes that a state oversight board created two years ago could step in and run the tracks by installing an interim management company.

As far as racing is concerned, such an occurrence would be an unmitigated disaster. It would not only place New York racing in serious jeopardy but has the potential to interrupt a major flow of revenue to New York State.

The logistical problems created by such a temporary solution would be nightmarish, involving all manner of goods and services. Both the front-side and back-side of the racetrack would be effected. So would thousands of people who work in the industry throughout the state, not to mention the economic hardship visited upon owners, trainers and backstretch workers.

While the downstate tracks operate seasonally, Aqueduct and Belmonts horse population and workforce act interdependently. A smooth transition between the tracks is required for racing to be conducted at all, much less at the level associated with New Yorks industry leading status.

The NYRA is absolutely within its rights to shut down racing in the face of what would amount to as a state takeover. The NYRA went into the franchise process ready and willing to play the land-ownership card. It cant now back away from that tack by allowing interim management overseen by politicians who cant get out of their own way in Albany, much less pull the strings of a business it clearly doesnt understand nor has the inclination to learn.

There are no white hats in this process, and that includes NYRA. Remember, we are talking about a company that didnt pay its taxes and received deferred prosecution after pleading guilty to criminal charges. Those charges were sealed in the report of the state appointed monitor. That monitor, the law firm of Getnick and Getnick, received a no-bid contract, paid for--then and now--by the NYRA.

Of this entire smoking gun scenario and inherent conflict of interest, said Liebman last month, if you believe NYRA is transparent, you have blinkers on.

Gov. Spitzer clearly wanted the state to gain secure title to the three tracks without having to suffer through a lengthy and costly litigation process, an argument the state could lose. New Yorks leading Democrat said as much in a visit to the Saratoga press box last August.

Resultantly, the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding between the state and NYRA amounted to a windfall for the racing association. The percentages of VLT revenues afforded NYRA are high, especially considering the state is forgiving $130 million in existing debt and fronting them another $75 million for operational costs until the VLTs are up and running. The Senate has proposed to lower NYRA's percentage share of VLT revenues and pass the difference on to the casino operator.

But while New York racing fiddles, Albany burns.

As expected, House Majority Leader Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, backed Spitzers plan that included VLTs for Aqueduct but not Nassau Countys Belmont Park, a financial good thing for New York Citys Queens County.

When Spitzer learned that interest in attracting a casino operator would all but evaporate without Belmont Park in the VLT mix, he shifted gears. But not Silver, who said he would oppose any further extension of gambling in the state. Belmont Park is located approximately seven miles east of Aqueduct Racetrack.

Meanwhile, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, Joseph Bruno, embroiled in a feud with the Governor whose staffers allegedly assigned state troopers to monitor Brunos activities, said that he opposes the Spitzer plan and wanted the organizations involved in the original Request for Proposals process to run the tracks.

It has been well documented that Bruno has close ties to the Empire Racing group that last year lost the franchise bid to Excelsior Racing. Federal authorities currently are investigating pre-existing relationships between Bruno; Tim Smith, Empire investor and former head of Friends of New York Racing, said to be a stalking horse for Empire, and Jeff Perlee, Empire CEO and former Director of the New York Lottery. VLTs operate under auspices of the Lottery commission, whose delaying tactics during the Pataki administration stalled VLT construction at Aqueduct.

The awarding of the franchise to Excelsior Racing last year was considered a major upset. Empire Racing, which had the support of New York horsemen, several Bruno associates, and the financial backing of a consortium of major industry organizations were considered the odds-on favorites.

Empire suffered a major blow when it lost the support of the New York horsemen, followed this week by the withdrawal of Churchill Downs Inc., Magna Entertainment, as well as the financial support of its honorary chairwoman, New York socialite and horse owner Marylou Whitney.

Delaware North, which operates casinos at New Yorks Finger Lakes Racetrack and Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, is expected to follow suit. Empire is said to be in negotiations on a merger with rival Capital Play, according to a post on the Bloodhorse web-site.

If VLTs are approved at Belmont Park, Excelsior is the leading candidate to run the casino--fitting since they made the most comprehensive and generous proposal to win the original RFP process (see HRI column archive dated 09.13.07 for details). Without Belmont Park in the mix, Excelsior is out.

Upon being awarded the franchise last year, soon thereafter it was learned that Richard Fields, a major Democratic booster, had extended the use of his private jet to Spitzer for a political fundraiser in Kentucky. Spitzer later paid for the trip but the political harm had been done.

Fields, developer of the highly successful Hard Rock Casino in South Florida, recently purchased a majority interest in Suffolk Downs. Suffolk is considered a likely future site for one of three casino operations in Massachusetts. This week Fields dropped out of the Excelsior group. A political obstacle having been cleared, Excelsiors chances of again being awarded New Yorks VLT franchise improved dramatically despite Brunos expected protestations.

But unless Spitzers plan, or a facsimile, is approved by years end, it wont be a Happy New Year for New York horseplayers. Worse, it could prove an industry disaster of seismic proportions.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Lawyer Ron to Upset Three-Year-Olds Bid for Classic History Berth

After last weekends Breeders Cup prep races, even those late to the dance regarding the superiority of the 2007 three-year-old class is now squarely aboard the bandwagon. But are they good enough to repeat the feat of the class of 2000?

Seven years ago a late developing sophomore named Tiznow took on the world and won a thrilling stretch duel from the uber-talented European Giants Causeway.

And when Captain Steve roared home for third, at the direct expense of speedy Albert the Great, three-year-olds comprised a Classic superfecta for the first time in Breeders Cup history.

Can Any Given Saturday, Curlin, Hard Spun, Street Sense and/or Tiago duplicate that feat?

Will Curlin and Street Sense stage a Preakness redux, dominating the Classic the way Sunday Silence and Easy Goer did in 1989?

Or will Lawyer Ron, reprising the role played by Gate Dancer four years earlier, break up the party the way Jack Van Bergs runner did when he prevented a sophomore sweep, separating Proud Truth from Turkoman and Chiefs Crown?

Its this historical context that makes this years Classic the most anticipated renewal since the inaugural running in 1984.

If it turns out to be a sophomore sweep, Tiago likely will be the odd three-year-old out. He simply hasnt caught up to his generations upper echelon on the Equiform performance figure scale and has been beating up on inferior opponents in California.

Encouraging is that Tiagos best figure came in the Kentucky Derby at the Classic distance. The problem is, trips and inexperience notwithstanding, he wasnt good enough to beat Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin then, and he isnt good enough to beat all of them now.

Any finish better fourth for Tiago would be a stretch.

Should that happen, it likely would come at the expense of Hard Spun who has proven tough, very fast and completely genuine, but still suspect at 10 furlongs.

Its unlikely Hard Spun will get loose on a lead easy enough to steal a Classic, in the manner of Black Tie Affair 16 years ago, even over a speed-kind Monmouth oval. But he never runs a bad one and that includes the Belmont Stakes. Garrett Gomez needs to take credit for that debacle.

Which brings us to Any Given Saturday, the only proven Monmouth horse for course. This Todd Pletcher three-year-old raised his game in the Dwyer, running as fast as colts his age can run.

The colt virtually duplicated that effort winning the Haskell with authority and managed to win a slower Brooklyn despite an out-of-comfort-zone journey. That soft win might prove beneficial when he meets the Derby colts again, without the hindrance of a foot bruise like the one he sustained in the Derby.

Curlin is back if, indeed, as trainer Steve Asmussen said early this week, he ever left. In the modern era, no three-year-old weve seen has accomplished as much as he has in a narrow career window spanning from Feb. 3 to Sept. 30 of his sophomore year.

Its unknowable how badly this long striding colt was hampered by Monmouths tighter turns in the Haskell or his inactivity since his grueling match with the Belmont heroine last June.

In May, Curlin proved an extraordinary horse with a Preakness for the ages, running faster on the Equiform scale than any three-year-old this year not named Street Sense. Then last weekend he took measure of an older horse that had run nine furlongs faster than any horse in the storied history of Saratoga.

Curlin looked the part of a winner even as five furlongs remained in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The sense here is that he had some energy in reserve despite the narrow victory margin. Hes back--and hes back with a vengeance.

Street Sense is the most popular three-year-old in the country owing to his throwback quality as a racehorse, likeable connections and, oh yes, as a winner of the Kentucky Derby and Travers, the fourth leg of the Triple Crown no matter what Asmussen thinks about that.

You cant even beat Street Sense when you take him out of his one-run, turn-inhaling game. Your best chance is to hope he strikes the front a few strides from the finish, and your horse is close enough for that to matter. And, of course, youll need to hand him his first 10-furlong defeat.

Even with all this, it will be extremely difficult for this superb sophomore class to duplicate the feat of their contemporaries of 2000. And thats because Pletcher has the best four-year-old in the country to accompany his surface loving three-year-old into the Monmouth starting gate.

Lawyer Ron was a record setting winner of the Whitney and subsequently a completely dominant winner of the Woodward. The only thing he lost in the Jockey Club Gold Cup was a photograph and a horse race.

The defeat was attributed to Lawyer Ron reverting to a head strong style that compromised his classics run last year, a possible regression off his enervating Saratoga performances and, to a lesser extent, the mile and a quarter route. Holes are easily poked in two of these three scenarios.

Consecutive lifetime-best efforts are extremely valid reasons for a regression. But he did gallop out well at the end of the JCGC, its Classic distance seemingly not a serious compromising factor. But the pace was. And not for Lawyer Rons inability to rate kindly.

How was he expected to relax off an opening gambit of :24.28 around a half-turn in that wide, open expanse that is Belmont Parks backstretch run? Given those dynamics he rated fairly well. Whats a little disconcerting, however, was Pletchers and Johnny Velazquezs reaction to this scenario.

This week Pletcher said that after discussing the situation with his rider, they might be better off allowing the colt his head right from the start. Unless he was blowing smoke, it upsets the form when Pletcher voluntarily discusses pre-race strategy. He just doesnt do it. Why now?

Maybe its because he thinks, as many do, that Lawyer Ron would relax better around two real turns. And with Hard Spun signed on, how soft does he think the early fractions will be? Theres just no reason for Team Pletcher to overact to the Gold Cup defeat.

It just may be that Lawyer Ron is the horse to beat in this mega high class Classic struggle, perhaps its best renewal ever. But one thing is clear: Lawyer Rons odds-on to break up the three-year-old superfecta and deny the extraordinary group a berth in Classic history.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Reputation Tarnished, Curlin Seeks Redemption

He arrived on the scene already a star. if the whispers emanating from Florida were true. But it certainly appeared people were jumping the gun. Whats the rush to canonization?

The chestnut colt took the track at Gulfstream Park in February in a typically loaded special-weight maiden sprint for three-year-olds at seven furlongs, and the workout whisperers were betting him down to 5-2.

Didnt these people know there were two horses with excellent form in the field, one with experience at the distance, and that his inside draw didnt figure to help him?

Then Curlin went out and blew their doors off, by almost 13 lengths, in fast time while bearing out the length of the stretch.

Too bad. The way he was getting out down the lane, hell never last, I was thinking. What, hes been sold? For how much? Like Discreet Cat, off one race? Are these people, nuts?

No. I was.

And just like that Helen Pitts was out, Steve Asmussen was in, and the rich got richer.

Why should racing be different?

But they would get their comeuppance, I was certain. Imagine, a Grade 3 two-turner, at a different track, bearing out the length of the stretch in his only sprint start. What are these people, nuts?

No. I was.

Curlin used that Rebel Stakes as a bridge to the G2 Arkansas Derby. But this would be different for sure. The waters are a lot deeper now. And this time its nine furlongs. Are these people nuts?

No. It was me.

Curlin won the Arkansas Derby by nearly 11 and his action was flawless. Watching Robbie Albarado partner him down the backstretch, the colt appeared so fluid it looked like he could have balanced a glass of water on his back.

But an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby? Are these people crazy?

If they were, not by much. By only 10 cents on the dollar: Street Sense; 4.90-1. Curlin; 5.00-1

But serious Derby contender in his fourth lifetime start? Crazy, right?

Again, not by much. Third by eight, behind Street Sense and Hard Spun, after being steadied early and rallying wide into the stretch.

Lost in Street Senses winning rally, from 19th of 20 on the backstretch to first, was the fact Curlin was 14th when Street Sense was 17th at the six-furlong pole.

The Derby may be a hell of a spot to get an education but I guess its true what they say about whatever doesnt kill you makes you stronger.

Certainly, the speed was there, the talent, too, and in the Preakness Curlin would prove that class was there as well.

Calvin Borel saved just as much ground in Baltimore as he did on Street Sense in Louisville. He opened a momentum-building length and a half advantage leaving the three-sixteenths pole. Elmont, here we come.

Wait, here comes Curlin! Wasnt he left for dead at headstretch? Then Street Sense did what he always does after striking the front: He waited. Curlins still coming.

Here comes Street Sense to re-engage. Ding-dong. Ding-dong. Photo finish. Bye-bye Elmont. Bye-bye Triple Crown. Back home to Churchill.

Now its Curlins time, to live up to all that ability, to all that promise. Hello filly.

The Belmont Stakes loss was no disgrace. Far from it. Another head to head battle for the ages. Another photo finish, one that didnt serve a loser.

But, no. Not this time.

Trainer Steve Asmussen didnt lose heart. In fact, quite the opposite. He spoke of Curlin in glowing terms, even in defeat. His confidence was bordering on the arrogant.

As if Curlin didnt lose that photo. As if Curlin werent at least a little fortunate to win that picture in Maryland.

Alls well that ends, however. Time to freshen, recharge the batteries, get ready for the Haskell. Its not often you get a chance to get the feel of the Breeders Cup track for a million bucks.

But this is racing where, on any given Saturday, they all get beat.

Curiously, with his third place Haskell finish, Curlin seemed to lose support. Its not as if he wasnt on the sidelines a few months, coming from a mile and a half marathon three weeks after the Preakness gut-wrencher, and meeting a sharper speed rival on a speed-kind oval.

So as quickly as he became a star hes become the forgotten Triple Crown performer. Even to the point of being disrespected. Maybe its because hes only won once against the divisions best. Maybe its because his trainers been a little cheeky.

Im not sure why everybody has given up on him, said Todd Pletcher this week. Pletcher will saddle favorite Lawyer Ron against Curlin in Sundays Jockey Club Gold Cup. [The Haskell] was his first race back. It was a good third in my opinion.

But it was jockey Robbie Albarados post-Haskell comments that were, well, puzzling. He felt good, he said post-race. Steve does a great job getting this horse ready but [Curlin] just couldnt get it done today. He may have needed a rest today, but hell bounce back and be fine.

He felt good but may have needed a rest today? Unless it was a misquote, what did that mean?

If he needed a rest after coming off a rest, how is that a good thing?

Typical of any trainer with a losing favorite, Asmussen was defensive of his stable star, as in were proud of him, wouldnt trade places with anyone, etc., etc.

Hard to think that Curlin can beat Lawyer Ron on Sunday, who is older, faster, and owns a recent conditioning edge on the Preakness hero. And Asmussen knows that a Classic victory is Curlins only chance for post-season honors. Not all screws will be fastened tightly.

But to get his favorable reputation back, Curlin must run well, look like a horse that will benefit from his race to emerge a viable Classic contender next month.

I expect him to run a good race Saturday, [sic] said Pletcher, rival trainer and still Curlin fan. Id be cautious to say anything negative about what Curlin has done, or will do in the future.

Written by John Pricci

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