Friday, December 07, 2007

Plethora of Stakes Winners Cheat True Champions

There are too many stakes races run in America, and the situation is getting worse every year.

And how do we know when too much of a good thing is enough? When more equals less, and thats the case at the highest levels of thoroughbred racing.

Followers of the sport in recent years werent surprised last week when the American Graded Stakes Committee increased the number of graded stakes races to be run next year.

While there will be two fewer Grade 2s run in 2008, there will be three more Grade 1s and six newly installed G3s.

I cant argue with the elevation of the Pilgrim, Miss Grillo, Southwest and Florida Oaks to graded status. The first two are natural preps for the new Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf, the Southwest begins the road to the Arkansas Derby and the Florida Oaks has gained prestige with the addition of South Florida shippers into Tampa Bay Downs.

The proportion of graded stakes, and their delineation in relation to each other, makes sense, too. Over 22 percent are G1, almost 32 percent G2, and 45 percent are G3.

However, 718 open stakes is too many, as are the number of Grade 1s, set at 110 in 2008. Grade 1 racing represents the sports highest level and often defines championships. But to suggest that all G1s are created equal is folly.

The increase in the number of stakes in the modern era began in the mid-1970s after the great Secretariat was syndicated for a then unheard of $6-million. That stunning sum was the beginning of how the breeding industry--and not the sport of racing one mans horse against another--ultimately would determine success in the thoroughbred business.

With fewer racing dates, no simulcasting, and three Triple Crown winners within six years-- Secretariat, undefeated Seattle Slew, and the Affirmed/Alydar show--going to the races was a very popular alternative to mainstream sports.

Breeding syndicates began to replace family owned nurseries and that portion of the industry was beginning to be fueled by Japanese and European buyers purchasing our best bloodlines for racing and future breeding considerations.

Racing was becoming very big international business, and tracks began competing with each other in an era when star racehorses still attracted media attention and large live crowds.

Fueled by an increase in betting handle, more money was poured into newly created stakes with allowance and weight-for-age conditions becoming more prevalent. Resultantly, racing secretaries would either keep the highweight assignments of top handicap horses on the feathery side or go back to walking hots. New York even imposed a highweight rule, not to exceed 126 pounds.

With field size in stakes shrinking from opportunities to win and earn big purses elsewhere, horsemen, motivated by loyalty to owners and their own pocketbooks, began ducking the big horse with their own big horse, even if you still had to ship to Belmont Park in the fall to win a title.

Parenthetically, it is no wonder it crossed John Gainess mind to come up with a series of championship defining races on one day, a Super Bowl for racing, paid by the proceeds of all those valuable stud horses and their toney progeny.

Given monetary success at the sports highest levels and with simulcasting about to enter its infancy, new tracks began to sprout up everywhere. This necessitated that graded events be created to engender a big time atmosphere at these new venues, forcing powerhouse tracks to begin lobbying for an upgrade of their own traditional races.

In politics, size matters.

While this country may still be regarded as bloodstock nursery to the world, it has begun to lose ground. Europeans, Japanese and more recently Middle Eastern interests are not only snapping up the best of Americas remaining blue-blooded stock at yearling and juvenile sales but are taking them right off the racetrack and back to their own farms around the globe.

Aside from the historical factors and the economic reality of expensive horses earning graded blacktype almost as soon as the overnight comes out, the modern games added opportunities artificially increases the value of todays stakes winners as potential stallions, which seems to be the way the game is played by todays new strain of owner/breeder.

There are myriad reasons then for the existence and continued growth of stakes opportunities, but a stakes win doesnt equate to class the way it once did, in the same manner that the 9-furlong Haskell doesnt equate to the 10-furlong Travers even though both are Grade 1 events.

The prevailing trend in thoroughbred racing is the burgeoning growth of international sport. In this country, however, the prevailing wind still seem to blow only in the colonies as the number of stakes races increase year to year. It might be counterintuitive, but the greater the number of stakes races, the more we cheapen the value of our best horses and the less we dominate the sport internationally.

If that werent true, if too many stakes opportunities werent counterproductive, then how do we explain that in the recent Breeders Cup, the only international representation on hand were two handfuls of European runners.

If we still cling to the notion that American racing is the worlds best--as represented by the total number of stakes winners--then why did Hong Kong attract runners from five European countries and Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and Singapore this weekend for their four Grade 1-program worth over $8-million? Maybe because the racing world also recognizes that not all Grade 1s are equal.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Time Has Come for ‘North American Pick 6’

In case you have been spending time on another planet, here is some news that might shock you. As of yesterday, the rate of exchange between the American and Canadian dollar has flip-flopped. The American dollar currently is worth fractions of a penny more than 99 cents.

First, the dollar. Whats next, innovation?

A few years ago, our racing friends north of the border realized that it was losing wagering market share to other forms of gambling. Since last year they have been conducting a review of gambling regulations as it concerns the racing industry vis a vis other forms of gambling.
The Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency realized that the thoroughbred and harness racing industries provided the oldest, institutionalized form of wagering and, as such, their rules were antiquated and placed racing at a competitive disadvantage with casinos, the Internet, and government regulated lotteries.

Resultantly, the Agency has proposed to eliminate or change restrictive regulations to permit expansion of wagering menus at the tracks and increase the kinds of betting options available. The CPMA has also taken an active role in the social aspects of gaming, requiring its teletheaters to offer seating, food and washrooms.

Parenthetically, if New Yorks State Racing and Wagering Board permitted those amenities from the outset, maybe New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would not be making these ridiculous threats about closing betting parlors in the five boroughs because they lose money.

On an administrative level, the CPMA is proposing measures to allow telephone betting accounts and is trying to figure ways to create synergy between the racing industry and other forms of government regulated gaming, such as slots.

Of greater interest to bettors is the expansion of the wagering menu to include new wagers with a fractional component, bets that would exponentially increase the possibility of windfall payoffs. To that end, Canadian regulators are considering the institution of the V75 and V64.

These wagers are among the most popular bets in Europe. The V75 jackpot is a Pick 7 wager that in a short period has become Europes most popular bet. Despite the 10-Cent minimum, the V75 attracted a record handle of $11-million U.S, according to figures quoted in the Toronto Globe and Mail. The V64 is a Pick 6 offered on Swedish harness races with a 20-Cent minimum. The carryover in the V64 has reached $25-million.

Despite the inexpensive cost, the V75 reached a record high payoff of a lottery-like $6.5-million while the V64 reached a high-water mark of over $566,000. It is amazing what a difference fractional wagering, marketing on a national level, and life-changing payoffs can make.

In addition to tapping into the mentality of lottery players, the potential for huge payoffs in these super-exotic pools minimizes competition from offshore bet shops that will not risk booking bets with such a low handle-to-payout ratio.

In the stodgy world of American pari-mutuels, indifference is often confused with tradition. State racing regulators continue protecting the wagering public against itself while red state politicians have done their best to make gambling Americas next wedge issue.

Since the racing industry does not figure to get help on the national level anytime soon, Americas racetracks must begin showing creativity in wagering options in the areas of bet diversification, the placing of wagers, and creating the potential for windfall payoffs.

To paraphrase the political catchphrase of another administration: Its about the money, stupid.

It is not as if Americas tracks are not trying. Last year, Arlington Park introduced 50-Cent trifectas, a wager that seems ideal for bettors with a slots mentality. On point, it gives the average horseplayer the leverage he needs to collect more often and to use the kind of marginal contenders that help inflate payoffs.

On the third Saturday of May at Pimlico, a 25-Cent Pick 6 was available on a stakes-loaded program that culminated with the Preakness. However, either no bet-takers in New York State thought to ask the Racing and Wagering Board for permission to take the wager, or the venues wouldnt pay tote companies to re-program the betting machines. Either way, more potential handle lost; less customer service given.

In New York, the NYRA introduced the Grand Slam, and the bet has played to mixed reviews. Interesting in that it was a four-race sequence requiring an in-the-money finish in the first three legs, thus loading the bases, and the winner of the fourth leg, to hit a Grand Slam.

However, the wager is just not that interesting and it makes no sense to tie up betting capital for a relatively small return. The wager was a little interesting at Saratoga because of the quality of the competition and higher average payoffs. But at least track management tried something, like when it lowered the takeout on Pick 6 from 25 percent to 15 on non-carryover days.

Efforts made by Americas tracks have been few and far between. There has been no movement toward, say: A 25-Cent North American Pick Six every Sunday, on six stakes races from the USA and Canada.

Promoted continentally, entries would be taken Wednesday; wagers taken everywhere for four days (Thursday through Sunday, including Internet). Then print the entries in USA Today on Thursday--right next to the illegal sports betting lines--with a rotating group of nationally recognized handicappers from the areas hosting the races, forming a super-consensus-box guide.

Like the current Magna 5, races should be bundled into a nationally televised, one-hour show live on one of the ESPN networks--or suitably large regional sportsnets--and streaming on the Internet. During the NFL season, find a Saturday window, excluding Breeders Cup day, for a three-day national wager leading into the local evening news.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hall of Fame 2008 Nominees: An Embarrassment of Riches

Saratoga Springs, NY--The Hall of Fame nominations ballot arrived in the mail Monday. Is it that time already? Can Eclipse Award ballots be far behind?

The answers are yes and no, like the entire process itself. So many worthy nominees; so little time to get them all in at once.

My first inclination was to not add to an already worthy list. The H of F rule is that horses and horsemen nominated but not elected in the past three years automatically return on next years ballot.

Thats entirely fair. If you made the cut once but failed to enter; try, try and try again. There are no losers on the list. Its the reason why all those TV award-show presenters say: And the Fill-In-The-Award-Here Goes To

In that spirit, I wasnt going to add to the existing lists.
To varying degrees, arent jockeys Eddie Maple, Craig Perret, Randy Romero and Alex Solis worthy of induction to the Hall?

Howd you like a horse trained by Dale Baird or Gary Jones or Mel Stute or Robert Wheeler? Me, too.

Were you not entertained by the performances of Best Pal and Housebuster and Lure and Manila?

Dont you like mares that shave, such as Inside Information, Silverbulletday, Open Mind and Sky Beauty?

Thats enough to consider, enough to make a horse-lovers head hurt.

So how do you choose between Maple, a winner of nearly 4,400 races, and Craig Perret, a winner of exactly that number, many by appointment only?

Or were Romeros rides on Go for Wand and the pressure of Personal Ensigns winning streak, ending with that indelible Breeders Cup over Derby heroine Winning Colors, good enough to seal the deal? How about Alex Soliss work on Classic/Dubai World Cup winner Pleasantly Perfect. Snow Chief, too. Either way, no argument.

The great trainers are always hardest for me to separate. How is the winner of 9,418 races through last October not in the Hall of Fame? And I dont care if Dale Baird saddled all of them in my back yard. They count!

Gary Jones? He was 18 percent effective in stakes company, the developer of Turkoman and Best Pal and Quiet American. Quiet American? He won the Cigar Mile when it was the NYRA Mile, in 1990.

Everybody remembers Stutes work with Snow Chief, but how soon we forget Bobby Wheeler, if we ever knew him. In 1960, when C.V. Whitney was Americas leading owner, it was Wheeler who won tons of stakes money with Tompion and the fillies Silver Spoon and Bug Brush.

Bug Brush? She set a world record beating males in the San Antonio. Wheeler won 18 stakes with those two fillies that year. And when racing began to grade its stakes in 1976, Wheeler won 25 percent of those he entered. No wonder Greentree and Nelson Bunker Hunt hired him, too.

That would make him a sort of back-in-the-day Pletcher. Todd Pletcher? With current earnings of over $138-million, fourth all-time, hes not eligible until 2020. Riddle that for a minute.

The horses? Best Pal: 18-for-47, 17 stakes, Big Cap, Hollywood Gold Cup, Oaklawn Handicap; $5.6-million. Turf specialist Manila: 12-for-18; Arlington Million, United Nations, Turf Classic, Breeders Cup Turf over Theatrical, Estrapade and European champion Dancing Brave; $2.6 million. Silver Charm: 12-for-24, 11 graded stakes, Derby, Preakness, Dubai World Cup (Swain, by a nose); $6.9-million.

And the girls? Inside Information: 14-for-17, nine stakes (six Grade 1), wins over Heavenly Prize, Sky Beauty and Serenas Song. Sky Beauty: 15-for-21, NYRA Triple Tiara, Alabama, the Ruffian (130 pounds). Silverbulletday: 15-for-23, 14 of first 16; $3-million; Juvenile Fillies, Ashland, Kentucky Oaks, Alabama.

So Im thinking this is easy. Plenty to think about already. How impertinent to add more names to those lists.

Parenthetically, what if Midnight Lute does win Saturdays Cigar Mile? Does he upset Lawyer Ron, the protem handicap champion? Excuse the digression.

In their zeal to make the process easier, the Hall of Fame people provided more information to nominators; a Top 100 list of trainers, jockeys, and horses, both active and inactive. But the committee actually made the decision process harder, confusing voters with all these facts.

Among the Top 100 trainers listed by earnings, sitting at No. 5 is Bob Baffert. Right, hes not in the Hall of Fame, and hes eligible. Got to nominate him.

But wait. What about Jerry Hollandorfer? Would there even be a Northern California circuit without him? Now look all the way down to No. 29. Are you kidding me? Carl Nafzger? He doesnt have Bafferts numbers, but he doesnt have Bafferts owners, either.

(I know Im in the minority, but I must vote my Eclipse conscience: Curlin for Horse of Year; Nafzger for Trainer of the Year. Why? Because at the end of the day, Nafzger accomplished more working with a little less. And Im a huge Street Sense fan).

Already mentioned Baird. But racings third winningest trainer, King Leatherbury, is eligible, as is Richard Hazelton, fifth on the all-time winners list. Will they, too, be victims of geography?

A glance at the Top 100 money earning jockeys shows Edgar Prado right behind Solis at No. 7, and hes eligible. And did you know that Garrett Gomez, the new all-time single-season stakes king, is eligible, too.

At No. 35, nine slots behind Gomez, is Chris Antley. Does anyone deny his Hall of Fame talent? Or will a tragic off-track life and death be his legacy? Which begs the question, what about the eligible Patrick Valenzuela?

Dont know if anyones thought of this, but if 500 home runs is one benchmark for entering the MLB Hall of Fame, so should members of the 6,000-win club, especially since only 15 jockeys have done it. Yet, David Gall (7,396), Larry Snyder, Carl Gambardella and, most recently, Mario Pino, are not Hall of Famers despite their qualifications.

It is with a measure of excitement and trepidation for my future workload, that I add these names (one per category limit) to the 2008 list of Hall of Fame nominees: Trainer: Carl Nafzger (Baffert next year, I promise). Jockey: Edgar Prado. Contemporary Male: Maybe Tiznow, maybe not. (Consecutive Classics loom large, an 8-for-15 career mark doesnt). Female: Enough already.

The deadline is December 4. Probably will take that long to decide.

Written by John Pricci

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