Friday, July 10, 2015

Forget Special Prosecutors, What Racing Needs is an fSociety

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., July 10, 2015--There’s no question that when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo invoked an executive order to put New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in charge of prosecuting police-involved killings, it was a step on the right direction.

"We have seen this all across the country where there's a lack of trust in the criminal justice system triggered by a particular case," Cuomo said in a Tuesday news conference.

“The basic argument is always the same,” he continued, “that [citizens] don't trust the prosecution because of [their] connections with the police… A criminal justice system doesn't work without trust. Where there is no justice, there is anarchy."

Only months before, parenthetically, Cuomo had made comments suggesting that a special prosecutor would handle cases that solely involved unarmed victims.

To his credit, Schneiderman acted immediately and anointed highly respected veteran prosecutor Alvin Bragg to head a new Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit involving the deaths of unarmed civilians, most notably Eric Garner.

As was seen on a video that eventually went viral, Garner died as a result of an NYPD officer putting him in a department-prohibited chokehold. At the time, Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan declined to indict the officer involved.

“The Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit will examine these cases with the highest level of care and independence,” said Schneiderman after he appointed Bragg.

Let’s hope Schneiderman will have more success than when he was asked to investigate a 2010 complaint that the New York Racing Association with the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, now the NYS Gaming Commission, conspired to credential undocumented workers on the backstretch of New York’s racetracks.

Patti Cerda, Manager of NYRA’s ID office before she resigned after refusing to continue issuing credentials to undocumented workers, explained to HRI via phone Friday: “These workers used fraudulent documents to gain employment. These were cases of identity theft involving other people’s social security and alien registration numbers.

“At the time, I went to the Investigator General’s office in lower Manhattan with documentation in a notebook in which I kept records on documented backstretch workers. I was asked to give them some names they could verify.

“The IG’s Office verified that the information I gave them was correct and asked, ‘if we went to the track, in what departments could these records be found?’ I told them but the investigation seemed to end at that point because nothing ever happened as a result.

Issuing false credentials became a condition of Cerda’s employment. She refused to continue breaking the law and quit her job. “Much of the time I was there, most barns had workers who used false documents to get help licensed.

“I sent letters to the FBI in Washington and was told they were going forward my information to their local office in New York. Again, nothing happened. All of them wrote me back, but no action was taken.”

Here are some questions for all authorities involved:

• Why not act on Cerda’s assertions especially since they all proved true, which leads to questions that involve the kind of justice that Gov. Cuomo alleges is so important to the citizenry?

• Why has there been no follow-up--be it Federal, State, FBI or New York’s racing industry--to the HRI Special Report on the Rick Dutrow case, after affidavits and testimony from highly creditable defense experts was ignored by the Administrative Hearing Officer?

• Why is there no investigation into a false positive test result created by New York’s woefully inadequate drug laboratories which ignored scientific proof involving the drug Butorphanol available at the time?

• Why, after cross-examination of state investigator Joel Leveson’s obviously false sworn testimony re the events leading up to, and discovery of, three syringes in Dutrow’s Aqueduct barn office, wasn’t the case dismissed?

• Why is there no presumption of innocence; why was case law ignored; why is hearsay permitted; why are there no strict rules of evidence; why was an illegal search of Dutrow’s assistant trainer’s car ignored; why was the chain of custody breach ignored?

• Why are there no rules re discovery; why does defense counsel lack subpoena power; why is a report filed by Queens D. A. Jim Leander stating his inability to find credible evidence against Dutrow and that the conduct of state officials may be “actionable” still unavailable?

• Why was Denise Vasquez, the NYRA investigator whose job it was to hold the evidence bag, according to Leveson, really fired? Why has she fallen off the grid? Why after being fired did she find it necessary to hide in her apartment, according to another NYRA investigator who spoke to a co-worker off the record? Does she know too much?

• Why is the retired Joel Leveson hiding on Panama?

• Why are none of Dutrow’s colleagues stepping up and speaking out, especially since any one of them could be next?

• Why is the rest of the media, including those who promised Dutrow they would look into his case after the Triple Crown, hiding behind their paychecks?

• Why are Administrative Hearing proceedings above the law?

And one last question: Who has the kind of power that can stonewall everybody and everything?

Next Installment: It wasn’t enough to revoke Dutrow’s license; he needed to be prevented from making a living by any means necessary, including serving the game away from the racetrack.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

All-American Pharoah All the Time

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., June 21, 2015—I wish I could say that there existed the same amount of hysteria associated with the first three Triple Crown winners of the modern era pre-American Pharoah but in good conscience I just don’t remember it that way.

The probable cause lies in the fact that soon after Secretariat broke the quarter-century drought that came after Citation in 1948, two more winners of racing’s most celebrated gauntlet came in rapid succession; Seattle Slew four years later and Affirmed a year after that.

Back in the day, Secretariat was deservedly known as “the Mighty Secretariat,” such was his imposing presence and the supreme power he displayed during many of his stunning performances.

But Seattle Slew--still the only member of this exclusive club to have won the series while undefeated--was not truly acknowledged as a true “great” until his four-year-old season.

Ironically, Seattle Slew was more celebrated following a narrow come-again defeat in the Jockey Club Gold Cup than he was in victory, an effort that remains the most amazing performance by a racehorse we’ve ever seen; Big Red’s Belmont being the most perfect.

Of course, Affirmed came along the next year to sweep the Triple Crown in 1978. Maybe it was his rivalry with Alydar that at once confirmed his talent but in some way diminished the aura of greatness because back then it was all about “The Rivalry,” the uncoupled entry of all-time.

Ho hum, Affirmed’s Belmont was just another Triple Crown sweep. Most agree there should have been a third straight but the racing gods foiled the quest of the undeniable great Spectacular Bid. At least, Bid did help solidify the ‘70s as racing’s greatest decade.

There is little doubt that the sporting appetite for greatness was heightened by the futility that lasted 37 years until this past June 6. During that time television became the greatest communication conduit ever, heightened only by a new media that can be carried in pocket or purse.

The current hysteria surrounding American Pharoah--I didn’t even realize, e.g., that Julia Roberts was a big racing fan, did you?--was aided by the fact that he has a cool name. It might be the chicken-and-egg effect but badly named horses don’t win Triple Crowns:

Before Citation came Assault, and before him there was Count Fleet and Whirlaway and War Admiral and Omaha and Gallant Fox and Sir Barton.

And it’s appropriate to note it wasn’t even known as the Triple Crown when Sir Barton won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1915. It only became known as such after the great Charles Hatton dubbed it so following Gallant Fox’s achievement in 1930.

But the Triple Crown’s glorious past has given way to the hysteria surrounding where American Pharoah should or will run next.

Owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert are still basking in the afterglow as is jockey Victor Espinoza, who will make his next celebrated appearance at Gulfstream Park when he rides on the Summit of Speed program, July 5.

Espinoza’s presence comes replete with a poster giveaway that includes photo images of the winning horse from all three events pre-autographed by rider. Prior exclusive agreements will preclude a formal autograph session on site that day.

So where will Espinoza show up next sitting atop the 2014 juvenile champion and certain-to-be 2015 Horse of the Year? The horse already has made a cameo appearance at Churchill Downs, attracting over 30,000 fans on Stephen Foster night and will parade next weekend at Santa Anita.

We’re on record that we’d like to see him take the highest road possible on his way to the Breeders’ Cup Classic which in our view would be appearances in the Haskell, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

This obviously would mean he would not run again in his home state of California. Del Mar is making $5 million overtures for an appearance vs. his elders in the Pacific Classic. Whatever is decided from this point forward, it appears Saratoga will be the odd race out.

While no formal announcement has been made, Baffert already has told Monmouth Park officials to get prepared. The race makes sense for the horse for many reasons and his superstitious trainer probably would love nothing better than to win his eighth Haskell.

Recalling the path taken by Bayern last season, the race most likely to come next is the Pennsylvania Derby.

It would be a three-year-old path of less resistance and the timing is such that he would have two preps for the Classic, August 2 and September 19, affording plenty of time in between. Having won the Classics, Zayat and Baffert will get to split $300,000 just for showing up in addition to being odds-on to win a million-dollar race.

Of course, if the hometown pressure becomes too great, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Santa Anita quadrupling the purse for the nine-furlong Awesome Again Stakes vs. older horses September 26.

If there were a proposition offered, my money would be on a Haskell-Pennsylvania Derby prep schedule for the Classic. When the connections decide, not to worry; you’ll be able to read all about it everywhere words are printed or spoken.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

All We Are Saying… Is Give Bill a Chance

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., June 14, 2015—Three years ago, a couple of political operatives approached Frank Stronach to ask for his support. They were trying to help cobble together legislation that effectively would put an end to the use of raceday medication.

Stronach listened attentively, wished them luck, told them he was on their side, but that he was distrustful of federal intervention, had his own way of doing things, and wished to affect change through the auspices of the industry itself.

Two months ago, Stronach showed up on Capitol Hill with his lobbyist in tow and asked one question: “What can I do to help?”

When racing’s ultimate rabble-rousing visionary, who has invested over a billion dollars in the sport, gives up on the prospect that the industry can reform itself if everyone would just give it a little more time to build on the progress already made, why should players and fans place their trust in the same old promises?

Since well-financed horsemen’s groups--devotees of the status quo whose creed is “never give an inch”--figure to fight any significant change in race-day medication policy, it’s up to the tracks to take a proactive stance to rebuild the trust of its customers.

This is because the Jockey Club, which has worked diligently and behind the scenes, has failed to use its registry clout to advance the cause; neither has the Graded Stakes Committee done anything to initiate a new conversation on this sensitive matter.

The Breeders’ Cup took a baby step by withdrawing race-day Lasix from their juvenile races a few years ago but shortly thereafter caved in to pressure laid to bear by horsemen’s groups in California who threatened to boycott Santa Anita’s Breeders’ Cup reprise.

This week, Gulfstream Park announced plans to run two Lasix-free races for juveniles this summer, one for each sex, using a $65,000 purse carrot to encourage participation.

The gesture may turn out to be mostly ceremonial but it’s a start and shows a willingness on Stronach’s part to walk his talk by keeping a promise he made a year ago. He believes Lasix-free racing is possible and that race-day medication-free racing attainable.

Initially, incentivizing purses probably is the only way to get significant cooperation from horsemen who could hold tracks purse-increased hostage should it try to extend a raceday medication-free policy to other divisions. It’s worth a try if only to shed light on where industry stakeholders truly stand.

As the Stronach Group also owns Santa Anita Park, Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park, Golden Gate Fields and Portland Meadows, it is in a unique position to get the ball rolling in different parts of the country. This would provide exposure in two of racing’s four key regions.

This winter the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted to allow tracks to card races banning Lasix 24 hours in advance of post time. This sounds good in theory but impractical since Lasix generally is ineffective outside a four-hour window--unless, of course, the whole country is made to comply.

With its sales component, Keeneland is likely to give it a go. Churchill Downs, desperate to fill races given the competition with Indiana for bloodstock at the lower levels, probably cannot afford to experiment unless, again, that’s the rule in Indiana, too.

But with Keeneland and, by extension, Kentucky on board, only New York would remain. The reality is as New York goes, so will the prospect of national legislation. The bill cannot happen without New York which, to date, has been more about window dressing than substance.

Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY) is set to introduce the Thoroughbred Horse Racing Anti-Doping Act of 2015 to establish uniform standards for drugs and medication in the American Thoroughbred industry. This bill will not hold national simulcasting hostage, unlike the Pitts legislation.

In a recent press release, Tonko acknowledged the industry for taking significant steps toward medication reform but that national legislation is needed to build on that progress by providing a uniform solution that sets the highest standards of independence, fairness and integrity.

The planned legislation would grant independent authority over rule-making, testing and enforcement oversight regarding drugs and medication to an agency created by the non-profit, non-governmental U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

Among other things, this would free the industry to concentrate on other issues such as a national promotional campaign which should have as its focus handicapping/gambling as thought-provoking entertainment with a built-in, skill-based profit component.

The language of the Tonko bill must be carefully crafted so that racing understands that it still controls its own destiny, only with independent and transparent oversight.

To date, without national leadership, all efforts in this area ultimately have failed. After two decades, the industry is still talking, still taking suggestions under advisement, and still saying that more study is needed: This game has been studied to death; all hail American Pharoah and the status quo.

National legislation will go nowhere without the cooperation of the industry it is trying to help and reform. It cannot be stressed enough that the proposed bill would not create an ongoing role for federal government in horse racing, as would-be obstructionists might argue.

Jockey Club and Breeders’ Cup Ltd. approval is not just helpful, it’s mandatory. Along with the backing of the Humane Society of the United States and the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance, a consortium of the industry’s most influential players, this much needed national legislation actually might have a chance.

Nearly a half-million jobs nationally and $25 billion in economic impact depends on it.

Written by John Pricci

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