Monday, August 03, 2015

Pharoah: Past, Present and Future

OCEANPORT, NY, August 4, 2015—Sunday was about historical context. Today, it’s all about the future.

From a racing perspective, American Pharoah, barring the unforeseen, has absolutely no excuse for not showing up in the shadow of the elm trees in upstate New York.

In our view, American Pharoah saved his best race for last, Sunday at 5:52 p.m. at Monmouth Park. He was sparkling, bedazzling, description-defying.

There are three possible negatives, from a connections point of view.

The timing: It’s not like the best horse in the world cannot be trained up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But in a perfect world, you would like the spacing to be better.
The competition: Much of that depends on the results of Saturday’s Whitney, which will be drawn Tuesday evening. That, of course, is whether older horses are on the dance card prior to the Classic.

From a timing standpoint, the Pennsylvania Derby is a very good fit. And the superstitious Baffert kept to his Haskell tradition, even if he was saddling the likes of American Pharoah later that afternoon: Lunch at world famous Max’s hot dogs with the best of trimmings.

(No word on whether that was followed up with soft ice cream at the Lighthouse, one short block east and 200 yards north of Joline). Either way, the man who saddled Pa. Derby winning Bayern certainly has Bensalem directions in his cell phone memory.

Then there’s pressure for the Haskell King to race in his home state of California. That could mean the Del Mar Derby—even if it’s on turf—or the Awesome Again at Santa Anita, a dry run against elders in which, like the Breeders’ Cup, he would get weight.

Parenthetically, do you think Richard Mandella would consider the Awesome Again with Beholder, or might come east to meet better female competition? I’ll see your weight allowance and raise you one sex allowance.

Our hunch is Mr. Zayat means what he says about taking the highest road possible with his horses, providing continued excellent health and energy retention and that would mean a run in the Travers--but that’s the spacing bug-a-boo all over again.

Meanwhile, in addition to added distance and a more challenging two-turn surface, the competition will be stiffer.

Keen Ice was no clunk-up second in the Haskell. He ran like a man on Sunday, sprinting home to the finish, sharper than we had ever seen here. He’s developing beautifully in the care of Dale Romans, who’s not afraid to lose and uses races to get ready for bigger ones.

Romans has been targeting the Midsummer Derby since late spring for his true 10 furlong race horse. American Pharoah stepped the timer in 1:47.96 despite being eased in the final yards, getting his last eighth-mile in a geared down 13.51 seconds.

Keen Ice kicked his final half-furlong in a tad over :12 1/5 seconds; couldn’t ask for a better Travers prep other than a race over the track.

Speaking of the Jim Dandy, the ultimate Travers prep in our view, the first two finishers ran extremely well considering the bizarre four-horse field, with Texas Red finishing a half-length to the good of Frosted in 1:48.77, off laughable fractions of :24.37 and 48.15.

Red’s win was a little on the clever side, Kent Desormeaux showing supreme confidence despite the ominous presence sitting over his shoulder. To be fair, however, Texas Red got first run, leaving Frosted with a lot more to do.

Like Keen Ice, Frosted will benefit from the added furlong and an imagined livelier pace on August 29. But Texas Red appears a little handier than both and that could be his edge. Personally, I’m not sure whether or not the added distance will help.

I want to see American Pharoah race at one the racking world’s most prestigious venues, but it probably would be a more entertaining puzzle without him.

Warmth at the Shore: And the weather was good, too. But if American Pharoah transported us back to a time when the sport was king, Monmouth Park brought us back to a place where going to the races was a great way to spend a working day.

I had not covered the Haskell in several years and didn’t remember precisely how to get to the press elevator. But from the customer service person who made two phone calls to find the right answer—before the building was open to the public.

A security person later escorted us directly to the lift. Every person on John Heims’ press/marketing staff could not have been more accommodating.

We don’t do PSAs for racetracks here at HRI, but when venues like Monmouth Park, or Gulfstream Park, treat the media even-handedly and professionally, it is noticed, and appreciated by all.

Gulfstream at the Shore: Wildcat Red (yellow bridle) surges to win Teddy Drone Stakes
Photo by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 02, 2015

American Pharoah, the Shore Thing

OCEANPORT, NJ, August 2, 2015--I am totally prepared to be called a fool--or worse, and there would be plenty of justification for it.

That's because it took until today, Haskell Sunday, to recognize American Pharoah as a truly great race horse. Yes, history, he is one of the ones.

He made some very nice three-year-olds appear outclassed as he left them in his bounding wake: What I'm saying is how a horse possibly could emerge from the Triple Crown series better than the one that went in. I don't have to see him defeat older horses to prove something to these old set of eyes.

Finally, I have seen enough

Mr. Jordan, who won the Grade 3 prep for the William Hill Haskell Invitational, put pressure on the 2015 Triple Crown champion from the start but meekly gave up the chase midway down the backside. No mas.

Upstart, fresh, the way he wants to be, and training up an Adirondack storm in Saratoga, moved to challenge at the perfect time, just as Mr. Jordan was giving way. But his will to go on with it abandoned him when American Pharoah asserted himself.

Competitive Edge probably will be returned to one-turn racing, but he is fast and genuine on his best day. And he couldn't handle the heat when American Pharoah pressed him in earnest at mid-turn.

And mere strides before the home straight, Pharoah's ears started to rise.

He galloped into the Haskell stretch on a picture perfect summer's day and, quite appropriately, showed the equine world who's boss. The stretch run was reduced to a perfunctory exercise.

By the time he raced by me approaching the furlong pole, American Pharoah was being eased by Victor Espinoza, winning completely geared down.

Stated simply, it was one of the most dominating performances I've ever been privileged to see.

American Pharoah asserts his dominance.

The feeling that swelled within as American Pharoah separated himself from the other animals was, like the Belmont Stakes moment, surreal. It made me mindful of the soliloquy delivered by Robert Redford in the final scene adapted from author Norman Maclean's work [poetic license mine]:

American Pharoah...One of the Ones!

Eventually, all things merge into one...

And a river runs through it.

The river was cut by the world's great flood...

And runs over rocks from the basement of time.

On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.

Under the rocks are the words...

And some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by [horses].

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

LeBron James 1—American Pharoah 0

The Deity works in mysterious ways. Less than 24 hours after an American Triple Crown champion was snubbed by sports fans who voted in this year's ESPY Awards in favor of a great human athlete whose team was defeated in his sport's Championship finals, legislation was introduced that if successful would help alter Thoroughbred racing's unsavory image by having a highly successful independent body administer the rules and regulations with respect to horseracing's medication policies. At the end of the day, today might be remembered as the beginning of racing's resurgence, its finest hour

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., July 16, 2015—Despite the NTRA’s efforts to get out the vote and a well-intentioned letter from New York Representative Paul Tonko asking President Barack Obama to extend a White House invitation in honor of American Pharoah’s historic achievement, the Best Championship Performance Award for 2015 at Wednesday night’s ESPYs went to NBA great LeBron James.

It’s hard to know where to begin and what surmise Thoroughbred racing and mainstream sports fans should take away from this.

More than most endeavors, sports is in lockstep with emotion but, despite some shortcomings, at least Eclipse Award procedures show a large measure of objectivity. A great deal of thought goes into each Eclipse ballot cast. The same cannot be said of ESPY voters.

Democratic Representative Tonko’s letter to his party’s leader was a wonderful gesture, reading in part that “welcoming athletes who have reached the pinnacle of their sport to the White House is a time-honored tradition.”

There is no doubt that LeBron James is on a very short list when discussing the best basketball player of all-time which essentially is--pardon the expression--a two-horse race between James and the legendary Michael Jordan.

But Best Championship Performance? I thought the team from Northern California won the 2014-15 NBA title. American Pharoah might have outpolled several other worthy semifinalists but, unlike the Eclipse vote, there’s no official mention of margins between runners-up.

Even James seemed to be somewhat embarrassed: “Second place got me this, this wasn’t expected at all," he said.

Jockey Victor Espinoza was recognized for his role in completing racing's 12th Triple Crown sweep but not so the four-legged athlete that did most of the work, an achievement guaranteed to earn him at least two Eclipse Award titles.

A large part of the snub is the fact that horse racing no longer is on the radar of smodern day sports fan and hasn’t been for several generations, the sport paying the steepest price for not having anything resembling a nationally televised racing season.

But even if it were a popular television product, the perception would remain that racing is not played on the level, as untrustworthy as boxing--now that professional wrestling is widely and properly regarded as “entertainment.”

The other major reason why racing, despite its storied history, is out of the sports mainstream is due to the public’s view that every time it sees an (L) on an official racing program it means the sport cannot survive without its dependency on drugs, therapeutic or otherwise.

Until such time racing can be accepted as a “clean sport,” the negative perception will continue. But the good news is that time may be at hand following today’s introduction of the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015 calling for drug testing and rules enforcement under guidelines established by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

The argument that drug use is a reality in all sports is not only real but legitimate. Where horse racing gets in trouble is that there is no counter to the claim that humans have a choice of what gets injected into their bodies but animals do not.

Clearly, it is not only humane but imperative, in the name of good health and common sense, that therapeutic medications continue to have their place--just not on raceday for all the world to see.

When and if this legislation is passed, the industry will have legitimate bragging rights that it finally has cleaned up its act in a way that every citizen can understand.

The new Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity announced its support of the bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressmen Andy Barr (R-Ky.) and Tonko (D-N.Y.).

The legislation would grant authority for rule-making, testing and enforcement of drug and medication use to an entity created by USADA providing badly needed independent overnight.

The Coalition represents a diverse group organizations including The Jockey Club, Breeders’ Cup Ltd., the Water Hay Oats Alliance, the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders.

“The Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity thanks Representatives Barr and Tonko for issuing this common sense legislation,” said Craig Fravel, president and chief executive officer of the Breeders’ Cup Ltd. in a Coalition press release.

“It is immensely gratifying to see the results of earnest collaboration among such a broad range of stakeholders. This bill is designed to provide a new level of certainty and trust for our participants and fans.

“We applaud these members of Congress for their foresight in regard to the future of an industry that contributes billions of dollars and generates hundreds of thousands of jobs to the American economy.”

The release further states the horse racing industry needs a makeover and this bill has the potential to deliver a new regulatory framework with a science-based program and provide better protection for all of the athletes involved,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States.

“We are grateful to Representatives Barr and Tonko for wading into this debate and we hope that they can find common ground with other lawmakers interested in racing reform to get a good, comprehensive bill over the finish line.”

As a non-profit, nongovernmental organization, USADA would create the Thoroughbred Horseracing Anti-Doping Authority (THADA), to be governed by a board of six USADA board members and five independent individuals from the Thoroughbred racing industry.

THADA would develop and administer a nationwide anti-doping program that would go into effect beginning January 1, 2017, following input from the Thoroughbred industry and the public.

With a proven ability to protect the integrity of competition, USADA is uniquely equipped to provide independent oversight in setting uniform medication standards for Thoroughbred racing, the Coalition concluded.

The first step on the road to real reform has been taken. Let the negotiating begin with the hope cynicism is Also-Eligible and not be allowed into the body of the discussion.

However, if on January 1, 2017 race-day medication still exists, integrity will forever be a non-starter and racing will continue to diminish to the point of being unrecognizable to itself, with a repeat of this year’s ESPY results an odds-on certainty.

Written by John Pricci

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