Sunday, May 22, 2016

Record-Breaking Preakness Weekend: Saga of Triumph and Tragedy

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 23, 2016—Just got to love Thoroughbred racing’s Classics: All of it; the pomp, circumstances and performances; animals giving their all, expert horsemanship and, of course, controversy. What’s racing without it?

First the bad news: Leave it to the Drudge Report and other major media outlets, even in my local television market, to lead their Preakness coverage with the two equine fatalities that occurred early Preakness day.

The tagline, by the way, was “Exaggerator won the Preakness denying Nyquist his bid for the Triple Crown.”

What did I expect? What should the industry expect when it gives its horsemen’s groups power to lord over everything, especially leading the opposition to national standardized medication rules and independent, federal oversight of testing procedures?

Before hearing from the Excuse 101 department, this is not about a government takeover.

It’s about the Feds appointing an independent agency, such as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, to mandate standardized medications thresholds and uniform, meaningful sanctions without scape-goating tactics.

It’s about rules and sanctions being administered by appointed board regulators; USADA board members acting in concert with industry appointed regulators.

Why should change come? Because optics matter and so that when equine deaths occur, it would be a portion of big-event racing coverage, not its lead media item.

Another reason is so that PETA officials lodge its concerns with government appointed officials and not take shots at the industry as it did upon learning of the incidents:

“In today's racing drug culture,” said one PETA official, “at least three horses are dying every day on U.S. tracks. The foolish use of muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatory drugs and other [raceday] medications must end now."

Racing’s practitioners, horseplayers and fans realize that accidents are, and always will be, an unfortunate part of the game. All must recognize that many “accidents” can be avoided, except for bad steps and apparent cardiac arrest.

The death of gelded nine-year-old Homeboykris, a former Champagne Stakes winner, from an apparent coronary after winning the Preakness day opener could have been the result of many factors, including an adverse reaction to medication, legal or otherwise.

Owned by Barbaro’s connections, painfully aware of what happened on Preakness day a decade ago, Pramedya took an apparent a bad step on a wet but safe turf course. Too bad she had to suffer a tragic end on one of the few days the whole world watches, as ironic as it is heartbreaking.

Thrown heavily, jockey Daniel Centeno was “fortunate” to suffer a broken right clavicle, but an injury that will keep him on the ground for six to eight weeks.

Great Horsemanship on Display at Preakness

Another element to consider in light of fatalities is how racing’s “drug culture” can blur some of the great horsemanship on display not only at Pimlico Saturday but available in some measure every day at every Thoroughbred venue throughout the U.S.

Nyquist no longer is perfect, but it’s highly likely that Nyquist would not have achieved as much as he has if trainer Doug O’Neill weren’t calling the shots.

O’Neill’s somewhat unorthodox interval-training methodology is more old school than original but it’s to his credit that he recognized exactly what his horse needed for peak performance.

“Nyquist had such a strong campaign,” O’Neill said on a recent NTRA Preakness teleconference.

“I had to nurse him through it. I learned that when you hit a fitness plateau you’ve got to give them rest. You need a good grasp as horses as individuals--feed tub in the morning, winning his races; it’s working.”

And it still is. All that Nyquist lost yesterday was a horse race, and its welcome news that the Preakness-vanquished Derby winner will continue on to New York, according to a report from Pimlico Sunday morning. He is slated to ship Monday morning.

For handicappers looking forward to the champion’s test, it wasn’t pedigree that prevented Nyquist form remaining undefeated; it was a toxic, pressured pace which allowed uber classy, mud-loving Exaggerator to pounce on Nyquist at headstretch.

The Derby winner never had a chance to exhale in Baltimore, unlike an apparently anxious Mario Gutierrez did soon after setting foot on the sloppy surface for the post parade as if he knew what was coming--coming at him in waves.

A Poor Man's Affirmed-Alydar

O’Neill also said something else on the NTRA call in reference to main rival Exaggerator. “Keith [Desormeaux] is a super competitive guy. What they have done with that horse is brilliant.”

Like O’Neill, Desormeaux knows his horse. It wasn’t long after the Derby that Desormeaux referenced Exaggerator’s recuperative powers. “There’s not much you can do in two weeks fitness-wise. I just wanted to keep him happy and fresh,” said Desormeaux pre-race.

On Sunday morning he reiterated the message: “I’ve been preaching about my horse’s recuperative powers. He rests, he eats well, and 24 hours later he’s full of energy.” This augurs well for the Belmont, that and the way he looked post-race.

As Desormeaux said on national TV afterward. “It’s three weeks to the Belmont; we’ll be there with bells on.”

While Exaggerator legitimately turned the duel into a real rivalry, he did so on his preferred wet footing--a 3-1/2 length tour-de-force despite idling in deep stretch--but the scoreboard still reads Nyquist 4-Exaggerator 1.

Wet or dry, we’ll wager that this classic-looking will continue to narrow his rival’s advantage.

What Dead Rail; Kent Knows the Best Way Home

While the wet Pimlico surface was muddy and sealed throughout the day, the rain that fell nearing Preakness post helped level the playing field for all. Horses running on the rail through the stretch tired throughout the day in race after race.

But late showers rendered the track sloppy so that no particular path held an advantage. Kent later would tell his brother, who was concerned about the inside, that he tested it in pre-race warmups and found the rail to be no worse than the rest of the surface.

And what ostensibly appeared to be a premature move was actually perfectly timed. In the end, Nyquist, challenged throughout on both sides through very fast early fractions, Desormeaux pounced on Nyquist just as the favorite’s challengers tired.

What was encouraging for Nyquist fans is that once Gutierrez--who may or may not have had an opportunity to try Plan B and back off Uncle Lino as the pair entered the backstretch--angled Nyquist outside his rival in midstretch.

Nyquist re-rallied briefly but the pace had taken a toll. He was unable withstand the game late run of another mud-lark, Cherry Wine, for the place.

"3-5" Stradavari Disappoints

Making only his fourth lifetime start, Stradavari ran on well for fourth but certainly didn’t look the part of an odds-on favorite. We’re being facetious here, but once again racing is the embarrassed victim of age-old technology, human error, or simple rule-breaking.

There has been no official explanation of what happened during advance Preakness wagering. Apparently, no one has found an answer or hasn’t had enough time to conjure up an excuse.

Early Preakness morning, TVG posted advance-betting odds for the Preakness and all appeared routine. At the time, the two favorites were very close in odds and Stradavari was a clear cut if distant third choice.

At approximately 12:20 pm, an announcement was made that one bettor at Laurel apparently wagered $80,000 to win on Stradavari. From memory, Nyquist resultantly went up to about 2-1 and Exaggerator was 7-2. The rest were double digits-to-1.

At about 3 p.m. Stradavari’s odds had drifted up to 3-2 while Nyquist ticked down to 8-5.

But the next time we noted the odds an hour or so later, the prices posted approximated the off odds, those prices holding through the final hour of wagering: 3-5 on the favorite, 5-2 on the second choice, and 8-1 on Stradavari.

Though possible, it’s highly improbable for the final odds to change so dramatically again had the $80,000 wager not been canceled.

Some tracks such as New York’s places time restrictions on cancellations. Many have a rule that once a bettor leaves the window, he owns the ticket. In light of nine-figure handle totals, horseplayers are owed a clear explanation.

An expected phone call from an official to explain what occurred was not forthcoming.

Future Hall of Famer?

In juxtaposition to Homeboykris—winning his 14th race in 63 career starts--is legendary 10-year-old Ben’s Cat. On Friday, “the Cat” made a magical final-strides surge between rivals to win his fifth Jim McKay Turf Sprint, career victory 32 from 55 lifetime starts. He’s earned $2.54 million in the hardest way possible for Hall of Famer King Leatherbury.

The 83-year-old was asked after the race how he keeps Ben’s Cat going: “To tell you the truth, he’s the one who keeps me going.” Only in racing will you find such stories.

Ben’s Cat is four victories shy of another legendary gelding, the great John Henry. Whether this old boy reaches or surpasses that milestone should be immaterial. Ben’s Cat is a great horse, deserving of his own plaque on Union Avenue.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Promoting Greed Hurting Bettors and Bet-Takers

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 15, 2016—Bitch, bitch, bitch…that’s all horseplayers and certain segments of the media do. Complain and complain and complain and…

Well, here’s a suggestion for industry movers and shakers who feel that way: Just stop providing the grist for our bitchy mills.

ITEM: Kentucky Derby Is Always on the First Saturday in May

Always, and without fail. It’s an American institution, the embodiment of Americana, right?

So why doesn’t various bet takers—mostly referencing you, ADWs--invest a little revenue in needed bandwidth, for the sole and express purpose and earning more revenue?

Never mind that you’re in a service industry and all you really need do is to provide prompt service to customers in the only area that matters: wagering.

Every year, what happened at last week and at a couple of Las Vegas casinos--and likely others with which we are unaware—is that the system, not the players, go on tilt.

The question is shouldn’t all segments of the industry invest in the latest technology, whatever the individual cost, to properly handle the final hour of wagering on the Kentucky Derby?

Damn right they should.

The first Saturday of May is the one day when casual sports fans and the public at large become aware that there is a famous horse race taking place, and that’s it’s customary to bet on it.

It’s difficult enough getting a Derby bet down in the final hour of wagering when all systems are up and running smoothly and all parimutuel windows are manned everywhere.

Volume causes chaos: This comes as a surprise to no one, except possibly those whose job it is to provide a service. The mindset seems to be let’s alienate “Christmas and Easter bettors” so they would never think it a good idea to visit a racetrack one day.

And here’s something vocal betting critics fail to consider on the subject of service: Convenience betting online may be the present and future of the game, but only exposure to a racetrack can create a racing fan for life; it’s about horseplayer DNA.

Besides, not investing in technology assures that the game will disappear from public view altogether in the next decade or two just as the latest generation approaches middle age.

And we’re not even considering growth here, only suggesting that it might be a good idea to properly service an aging, dwindling fan base and the occasional newbie who bothers to find what all the fuss is about on Derby day.

According to a recent poll, horse racing is the favorite sport of exactly 1% of the population, ranked behind swimming and track and field. SWIMMING!

ITEM: Carryovers vs. Jackpots vs. Consolations; Consternation Abounds:

Today, Sunday, there are no less than a dozen carryovers or jackpot carryovers available at popular venues throughout the country. Of course, Jackpot Carryovers refer to pools where bonanzas are paid out only to a single winner.

Equibase correctly describes the wager as such; racing’s paper of record, Daily Racing Form, incorrectly insists on a sweeping “carryover” designation. “Jackpot Carryover” would eliminate any confusion, but that would be too easy.

All current routine promotion; Internet, print, closed-circuit TV hosts, etc., is consumed with selling life-changing scores—lowest common denominator lottery advertising—instead of promoting wagers with a lower degree of difficulty that keeps the customer liquid and coming back for more.

As HRI’s Mark Berner wrote last week with respect to New York’s Pick Six wager, the bet has become anachronistic with the advent of fractional wagering in Pick pools such as the Pick 3, Pick 4 and Pick 5.

At the recently concluded Keeneland meet in which attendance and handle rebounded extremely well from 2015, I surmised that the Pick 5 made more sense to chase than the Pick 4.

That might sound counter-intuitive but it’s not, why? Because Keeneland’s Pick 5, like Gulfstream’s, comes with a built-in P4 Consolation that makes more wagering sense than playing the less difficult Pick 4.

Racetracks in particular play to, and count on, the greed factor in their advertising, pandering to the biggest bettors instead of taking care of racing’s 99%. It’s the reason why tracks think they fool bettors by listing, say, Superfecta payouts based on a $2 wager.

Do you know anyone who plays $2 Superfectas, especially given IRS burdens? Clearly, the bigger believes that posting artificially inflated payouts is the siren call to get involved.

This approach works great--right up until the point the player taps out.

It’s no small irony that while most of the pillars of the turf have gone to that great racetrack in the sky, present day executives still manage the racing business as if the sport were still the province of some exclusive club members and kings.

While Keeneland and Gulfstream have figured it out a Pick 5 that includes a P4 Consolation helps player liquidity. Bettors can recoup losses and reinvest the original bankroll the next day. A Pick 4 Consolation churns wagers that by their nature intrinsically discourages it.

Both Laurel and Pimlico in Maryland and Santa Anita don’t offer a Pick 4 Consolation even though they are members of the Stronach Group consortium, Neither does New York nor does prominent CDI tracks Churchill Downs, Fair Grounds and Arlington.

I cashed a Pick 5 on the last weekend at Keeneland and, for shame, was unaware there was a P4 Consolation available. A $300 payout became about $340 upon cashing. What price goodwill?

Not only was this a nice bonus but had I failed to complete the sequence, I would have gotten back my original $24 investment plus. What are the chances I’d be looking to play again the next day?

And isn’t this the goal, for bettors and bet-takers alike?

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 08, 2016

What Happens in Vegas…

LAS VEGAS, MAY 8, 2016—Cross off Derby Day in Sin City from the old bucket list. I have now been there and am doing it. l will think about whether or not there will be an encore, but more on that later.

I believe this is my fifth trip here, the last two with my late, great friend Cary Fotias. But it wasn’t Cary who I was missing from this sojourn; quite to my surprise, I miss him every day.

I would have thought that the intensity of loss from his passing two years ago would have ebbed by now. But like everything else in the technology age, all episodes take us one step further away from our souls--the corporal, not the spiritual kind.

Toni has left for church because someone had to. It’s 7 a.m. PDT and it’s a beautiful day in the desert. We check out of Hilton’s Elara in a few hours and move south to join Mr. and Mrs. Jicha and their lifelong friend Sherry at the South Point Casino & Resort.

It will be our home for the next three days, on The Strip but about three miles south of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign and the Little White Chapel where Jon Bon Jovi got married.

Go figure.

The iconic structure is now in the middle of a constructed island surrounded by parking spaces specifically designed for those eager visitors needing to picture themselves standing in front of it, before I-phoning those images to friends back home.

Soon, it seems, the postcard business will follow in the path of newspapers. As you read this, who needs either anymore?

Besides, in the glamorous mall on the other side of the double doors across from the swimming pool, first class 49-cent stamps cost one dollar from a machine that takes either quarters or old fashioned greenbacks.

Toni refused to pay the ransom, bless her principles, so we took selfies up on the 57th floor of Elara, the city below looking southwest as picturesque backdrop, and we sent them to our daughters instead.

The Kentucky Derby? From one live take, it appeared to be a fairly uneventful event-- unusual to say the least--but I’ll get to that later, too. There’s plenty of time for recapping and digesting before the Triple Crown road tour arrives in Baltimore.

The smart-phone digits now read 7:45. Couldn’t sleep anyway, it’s Vegas!

The Race Book at South Point, like the hotel itself, is new, spacious, and well appointed. Their policy is player friendly with free abbreviated racing programs, $2 Forms, complimentary cocktails and coffee and where the waitresses appear happy to be there.

Upstairs, a second betting area was set-up to handle the overflow Derby crowd which was good thinking, something the industry could learn from. More on that as well.

The Race Book manager moved people along throughout the day, instructing newbies over an intercom what was--and what was about to be--happening:

“Please check your tickets now,” he warned several times. “We can correct any mistakes that might have been made right now…after the race it will be too late.”

The horseplayers in our row, including Brian and “Big Chris,” turned out to be Jicha’s and my best Derby-Day buddies. Like Florida, where seldom is found a native, Vegas is like that: Tim migrated from California 20 years ago. Likewise did Chris from South Florida.

Between races, Chris and TJ swapped Phil Saltzman stories, the colorful (to say the least) former Calder race caller, and Toby Callet, a complete public handicapper and professional player, who today lives just north of the Palm Meadows training center back home.

For all his efficiency, the race book manager was not a gracious man. We asked if we could have some volume beneath the video feed to hear “My Old Kentucky Home” as the maiden led the Derby 142 cast onto the track.

This was after Lani—‘hide the women and children’--was excused from the post parade--probably more out of paddock safety concerns as opposed to providing him with some kind of competitive edge.

Anyway, the manager made a little frowny face, accompanied by a what-are-you-kidding-me? stare. I pounded my chest NBA-style and blurted out “where’s your soul?” He ignored me and turned away. I figured he was just racetrack executive-in-training.

Without getting into Derby day itself—suffice that it’s not easy to lose money after you’ve cashed on Rocket Time ($5.20, $27.20 exacta), the Tepin exacta (12.20), Catalina Red (30.20) and Sharp Azteca (28.20)—but I did.

That’s how pivotal the photo lost by Beach Patrol was. The decision cost the HRI boys several four-figure payoffs.

Added to over-betting the Derby, which I consider a patriotic duty, I managed to lose a third of my bankroll. Now I know why what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas; it’s your cash.

Notwithstanding, I wouldn’t have change a thing except for the losing part.

I get to see my old friend Paul Cornman at dinner tonight, and that’s a big Win.

Written by John Pricci

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