Tuesday, May 23, 2017


Good News Flash: Racing’s Popular Again


The notion that racing may be undergoing a resurgence in the eyes of the sporting public comes as a surprise to me and, yes, the asterisk appearing in the headline is recognition for the fact that when it comes to sports we have become a big event society.

The daily fare, apparently, is regarded as simply the SOS regardless of the sport. Still, the 2017 Triple Crown series has been, to date, an immensely popular happening.

Whether it is in person or on TV, people seem to be warming up to horse racing again, however brief the episode may be.

World class events that feature attractions at the highest levels of performance that draws national over-the-air coverage sends a message that somehow resonates most favorably:

There’s something happening here that’s worthwhile. Sports fans seem to be saying something here, even if the overall message ain’t exactly clear.

Nearly a half-million people went to the races on Kentucky Derby and Preakness weekends, resulting in through-the-roof attendance for the first two jewels in racing’s crowning event. Of course, the Derby, “America’s Race” is the linchpin for all of it.

Between the Derby and Preakness, over 307,000 people either drove, bussed, walked or limo’ed their way into racetrack clubhouses, grandstands and infields of Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course.

The Derby’s 167,000-plus was the second highest attendance of all time, just 3,000 short of the record in spite of a washed-out weekend. Preakness attendance of 140,000-plus was a record-breaker, eclipsing last year’s all-time standard of 135,000.

Oaks Day, meanwhile, was the shortfall in four mega-days of racing yet still attracted 105,000-plus on a rain-filled, 51-degree Friday. You have to go back to 1940 to find an afternoon that was colder.

Pimlico started their record-breaking weekend when 50,000 people plunked down their cash to see all the stakes action, including the nominal feature, the Black-Eyed Susan, a number that topped 2016’s record mark of 47,000. By any measure, these numbers are startling.

When you follow the money, the happy story continues. Total handle on Derby day was more than $192 million, where racing conditions were a lot worse than the intelligence insulting, historically inaccurate and sophomoric “wet-fast” designation.

On Preakness day, a record $97 million was wagered, or 3 percent higher than 2016’s record total, which had eclipsed the previous year by an eye-opening 14%.

More notable perhaps is the resurgence of racing’s popularity in Maryland, in part due to the positive strides taken by The Stronach Group’s $22 million-and-climbing investment in Laurel Park, where the racing is successfully following the Gulfstream Park playbook.

The newly polished image of racing in the Free State resulted in a Preakness weekend handle increase of 7 percent year over year, an improvement of 3 percent 2015’s numbers. And this is at old ‘Old Hilltop’, badly in need of refurbishing if not replacing.

What appears inescapable--even if handle is not the be-all, end-all metric it once was--is that the sporting public, and not just racing fans and horseplayers, is becoming engaged.

The giant publicity boost provided by the Kentucky Derby and the positive, resurgent status currently enjoyed by The Maryland Jockey Club, has been very good for the sport in the overall.

It will be interesting to see what trends portend for New York, compared to other non-Triple Crown years. On balance, given the spacing of the three events and the positive nature of the first two, the orgiastic Belmont Day stakes fest should produce a positive apples-to-apples comparison. Anything less would be a disappointing momentum killer.

To be honest, we’re not certain that New Yorkers have the same passion for racing that it once had. We would love nothing better than a sun-shiny day on which we could be proven dead wrong about that notion. It’s up to you, New York, New York.

CLASSIC EMPIRE #1? Yes, that’s the ranking the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby winner and Preakness runnerup enjoys today, supplanting the dual G1-winning Kentucky Derby champion Always Dreaming atop of the NTRA national three-year-old poll.

I was one of 21 members of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters to vote Classic Empire #1 and Always Dreaming, who was ranked first on 15 of the ballots, at #2. I’ve been getting trolled ever since, expecting the same from some of the HRI Faithful.

For the record, I voted Cloud Computing third. The Preakness winner garnered three first-place votes.

Understand that I struggled mightily before casting my ballot for the Top 10 Three-Year-Olds, a separate category for a second poll that ranks the best of the older “handicap divisions,” an inclusive category that does not delineate male from female, dirt from turf.

When the NTRA Poll was first created, I asked for guidelines and was told that the poll is an amalgam. Like the “rules” governing Horse of the Year Eclipse voting, there are no rules. I was informed that votes are based on accomplishment an opinion, the object being to project end-of-year championships.

Most times I err on the side of accomplishment and even then it’s tough, especially in the open category where no delineations are made, as explained above. Conversely, I admit that, this week, considerations other than “the record” were at play.

I’m no math whiz but have no difficulty counting to two, as in two Grade 1s, including the prestigious Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby for Always Dreaming to one Grade 1 for Classic Empire.

Pardon my parsing but the judgment is based on the fact that Classic Empire is a defending champion, which may not be applicable by definition but a strong consideration given that it is a measure of the same generation.

Always Dreaming and Classic Empire have gone head to head twice, with each taking a turn finishing ahead of the other. Parenthetically, I get that Always Dreaming actually won his race by a wide margin while the other suffered a final-strides runnerup loss.

Qualitatively, I believe their performances were relatively equivalent; a perfect-trip bias aided blowout Derby victory vs. a got slammed so hard that he could have given up the ghost right there, and justifiably so.

But Classic Empire didn’t, of course. Instead, he spotted Always Dreaming about eight or nine lengths of ground (75 feet wider trip), raced on the slower portion of the CD surface, and finished fourth of 20, beaten by 8-3/4 lengths.

Making his third start in five weeks, it was no contest between the two as Always Dreaming reacted, bouncing badly from two consecutive huge lifetime bests, which was to be expected.

Always Dreaming ran a lifetime top in the Derby on the Thoro-Graph scale, which is a first for us, likely due to relatively short rest for all and the mile and a quarter trip.

But he gave no signs of regression in his training for the Preakness. To the contrary, he was doing so well that trainer Todd Pletcher made an out-of-character knocking-on-wood gesture when interviewed 25 hours before the Preakness.

In my view, Classic Empire appears to be the tougher and likely better of the two horses. The only way anyone will know for sure is for them to meet again on a fast surface when they are both fresh and given good no-excuses trips.

Until then, we voted for the colt we think is the “better horse.” Let the debating begin.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 21, 2017


“Horses Make Liars of Us All”


What makes this game fascinating, what keeps handicappers and players coming back for more, is the challenge of knowing that one can never learn enough to conquer the unconquerable.

What’s the old expression; that you can beat a race but you can’t beat the races? Actually, that racetrack cliché applies to horsemen, too. The latest example took place in Baltimore yesterday.

Shame on me for not remembering who I learned one of my early lessons from—think it have been Billy Turner when we were brand spanking new to big-time turf writing and were in awe of Turner’s eventual 1977 Triple Crown champion, Seattle Slew.

“Horses make liars of us all,” was my first backstretch lesson from a horseman, one that unfailingly continues to be taught every day that horses race.

Today’s modern message is subtly different. When trainers are asked when and where a horse will run next, the trainer-speak response most often heard is “we’ll let the horse tell us.”

Well, what Always Dreaming was telling trainer Todd Pletcher, and anyone who watched video of him train every day in the run-up to Preakness 142, was a lie.

Indeed, he was settled, relaxed and enjoying himself, in the relative calm of Pimlico Race Course, but he remained a hellion when he went out for his morning exercise.

Exercise rider Nick Bush and the draw reins were still in evidence as the horsemen around the colt tried to keep his energy level bottled up, saving his strength for Preakness Day and a chance to return to New York with a chance to win racing’s 13th Triple Crown.

“He keeps checking all the boxes,” Pletcher told everyone who asked, even those unwilling to believe their own lying eyes. The late bloomer appeared indefatigable, unbeatable, possibly on his way to becoming “one of the ones,” a great race horse.

In the end, however, he turned out to be merely equine--“merely” the 143rd equine winner in Kentucky Derby history and horses make liars of us all.

The first time I learned a hard lesson about what can happen to a strong Derby winner on his way to a possible assault on the Triple Crown came 16 years later in Baltimore.

Sea Hero, benefiting from a great ride by Jerry Bailey, found room along the insider soon after straightening away and powered passed everyone, winning with something in reserve.

The long-striding colt gave Hall of Famer MacKenzie Miller his first Kentucky Derby and owner Paul Mellon a trophy to match one for England’s most prestigious race for 3-year-olds, the 1974 Epsom Derby with a 50-1 shot, Snow Knight.

That spring in Baltimore, I decided to attach myself to the hip of the late Danny Furr, “Mr. Mack’s” trusted top assistant and we walked to the track every morning behind Sea Hero.

The colt appeared to be doing great and there was great expectation they’d return home to New York with a Triple Crown in their sites. I made the walkover with them Preakness day, a time when almost all Preakness horses were saddled in the infield.

Like Always Dreaming, Sea Hero was checking all the boxes, too. I remained in the infield to watch the Preakness from the outside fence of the turf course and it was thrilling. The only disappointment was Sea Hero, who at no time did any serious running.

I re-attached myself to Furr and was standing with him as Bailey walked by on his way back to the jock’s room to prepare for the next race. The rider never broke stride, only slowing down long enough to say “I was empty all the way.” I was stunned.

Furr nodded to Bailey that he got the message and headed back to the Preakness barn to attend Sea Hero. I stood there, my thoughts my only companion, left to wonder “what the hell am I going to write now?”

It’s nearly a quarter-century later now, but this time I knew exactly what to write about what I saw from 940 miles away from Baltimore, in Suite 21 that serves as a press box high atop Gulfstream Park racetrack.

As Pletcher put it, “I was a little concerned coming by the wire the first time. He was there but it wasn’t like he was dragging Johnny there, actually. It felt like he was on a loose rein by the time they turned up the backside.”

Concurred Johnny Velazquez: “He just got beat, that's it. Not much to say. I knew I was in trouble on the backstretch when the other horse got to him, almost head to head, and engaged him. I knew he didn’t have it… that's horse racing.”

The rider was asked whether the Preakness pace was too fast on what had become a tiring, drying-out wet surface: “Look at the horse that was next to me,” was Velasquez’s only and appropriate response.

Classic Empire didn’t deserve to lose, indeed taking the race to Always Dreaming, just as Mark Casse and Julien Leparoux promised they would for the past 10 days.

And while an obvious case can be made that the Derby, especially when paired up with his big Florida Derby effort, sapped Always Dreaming’s reserves—note that Classic Empire’s Preakness was his third start in five weeks.

And after his troubled and enervating Derby, which followed an all-out Arkansas Derby score, he likely proved that he is the better, tougher of the two Preakness favorites.

“I said to Julien second doesn’t mean anything,” Casse explained. “I said ‘let’s go and try to win this thing.’ We were going to be aggressive and that’s what we did. It ended up getting us in the end.”

Said Leparoux: “The only thing is Always Dreaming backed out of the race early so I got to the lead early, maybe too early. I got to the lead early and the winner just came at us at the end. He ran a big, big race.”

No doubt. “I was hoping that horse came to him earlier,” Casse later said of Cloud Computing. “He tried to kick back, but we were second best today.”

Clearly, Cloud Computing was telling Chad Brown, who won his first Classic, the truth. The horse told Brown with his outstanding training and six weeks rest that he would run his best lifetime race at Pimlico.

So in the end, new school did get the money. Brown, always quick to complement his staff, did listen to his horse. Cloud Computing had enough points to enter the Derby but, with Practical Joke already in, Brown did not allow Derby fever to dictate his schedule.

“I’m not going to dispute that running a fresh horse was part of our strategy,” Brown told NBC’s Bob Neumeier. “Classic Empire and Always Dreaming are two outstanding horses and our strategy was if we’re ever going to beat them let’s take them on two weeks rest while we have six, and it worked.”

Given proper time and circumstance, all plans work, old school and new school. Because one can never learn enough to conquer the unconquerable.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 14, 2017


Future Derby Safety and Form: Churchill’s Move Now


On Thursday’s NTRA conference call, jockey Gary Stevens, who has the ride on Royal Mo in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, recalled a conversation he had with Mike Smith following last week’s rough and tough rumble in Louisville.

Smith, who had the Kentucky Derby mount on Girvin, said post-race: “He was getting knocked around so many times and the poor guy just never had a shot…

“I felt like I was in the one-hole. I finally get him running at the three-eighths pole and someone wiped out four of us again.”

This of course is routine and not an exception in the 20-horse race on an American dirt track that’s one-mile in circumference.

In a macabre sense, this unknowable unknown, controlled by racing’s fickle gods of fate, bring added excitement to the Derby’s mystique but also raises the danger quotient in what already is a perilous exercise for both humans and equines.

“Classic Empire’s fourth was spectacular,” began Stevens. “What do they say, it is what it is? That means if you don’t get way good you just got screwed. There were several incidents this year, very heavy contact going on at the three-eighths.

“It’s up there with the roughest I’ve ever seen,” said the ageless Hall of Famer from the sidelines, whose Preakness ride didn’t make the Derby cut.

If it were at all possible, I asked Stevens if a 20-horse starting gate would reduce the chances of potentially hazardous race dynamics and would also ensure the possibility of more cleanly event.

Speaking from the heart, a reconstructed knee and a rebuilt hip Stevens thought “it would be a great idea. We’re never going back to 14-horse fields.

“There’s a pretty good gap [between the main and auxiliary gates] going from outside to inside and looks like the outside gate is pointing in.”

From the Classic Empire camp, Mark Casse had another perspective: “So many things can go wrong. Our horse traveled 75 feet winner farther than the winner and 90 feet farther than the second horse. At 8-1/2 feet per length, we could have finished closer, gotten a better placing.

“He couldn’t even open his right eye until the next day, which also might have been a factor [from the incident soon after the start]. The auxiliary gate is tilted inside and is 13-½ feet from them main gate. When those horses come inside they’re at a full head of steam.

“Everybody came from outside and killed us,” said Luis Saez, who rode J Boys Echo. “I tried to rush and see what we got but by the half-mile everyone was gone.”

“I’m not sure a 20-horse gate is possible due to maneuverability,” offered Casse, “but getting the auxiliary gate closer to the main gate [could help].

“I noticed the outside gate was slanted inward at the start. If that gap were narrowed there would be less room to fall. They should look into something.”

I know little about gate construction and less about aero-dynamics, but a 20-stall gate would allow the #1 horse to move closer to a safer part of the chute and the outside horses wouldn’t enjoy a momentum advantage breaking inside down toward the rail.

Parenthetically, I needed to watch the start of the 2016 Derby as the overhead view from this year’s Derby on NBC Sports’ overhead shot were not available Sunday morning. (If anyone can find access, please share them here).

The Derby gate could live against that back fence permanently, eliminating the maneuverability issue. Many tracks use more than one gate now.

We hope that CDI look seriously into the possibility of one 20-horse gate for safety and form’s sake. Given the Derby’s profitability, it’s not too much to ask ad would be good PR for the sport.

BETS ‘N PIECES: The Peter Pan Stakes often has a profound effect on Belmont Stakes form. But that unlikely will be the case this year given yesterday’s sloppy conditions in New York and the possibility that undefeated Timeline is more suited to the Haskell than Belmont.

“We had spoken [with owner Bill Farish] earlier in the day that if we had some success here, the Haskell is a race that we have a lot of interest in,” said Chad Brown. “[Timeline] doesn't strike me as a mile-and-a-half horse…and we're still in the developmental stage..."

Dermot Weld Keeps Go[ing] and Go[ing], using Belmont Park as his personal American playground. The filly Zhukova defeated males again, taking yesterday’s boggy Grade I Man o’ War. “It was a major target,” explained Weld’s son, Mark. “The rains came and it was a huge help.”

The turn of foot displayed by that type of ground was eye-catchingly unusual. “She’s a true European Grade 1 mare,” added Weld. “You don’t beat the Breeders’ Cup winner Found very easily, he said of his world class filly…”

Trainer Rodrigo Ubilio deserves props for his expert management with Highway Star, the New York-bred who beat stablemate Bar of Gold to take the G3 Beaugay, keeping the filly undefeated in four starts at Belmont Park and at the mile distance. Top NY breeders Chester and Mary Broman, often cited here, bred both fillies…

A useful reminder of some great turf writing in a NY Times piece Friday on five top Horse Racing Books, including Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, C. E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, Bill Nack’s Secretariat, the Making of a Champion, Joe Palmer’s This Was Racing and Steve Davidowitz’s comprehensive handicapping tome, Betting Thoroughbreds in the 21st Century.

During Derby Week, my friend and former colleague John Piesen passed away in a New Jersey hospice following a lengthy illness. A friendly ‘competitor’ at the New York Post while I was at Newsday, we shared good times on the road at Triple Crown events, Penn National’s “World Series of Handicapping” and enjoyed more than a few memorable Whitney eve’s in Saratoga, where Vegas “happens there-stays there” rules apply.

Suffice it to say we were younger and a lot less wise. RIP, my friend.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL--May 14, 2017


Written by John Pricci

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