Sunday, November 25, 2018

November Closes with a Dubious DQ, Dismissals, Retirements and a Glimpse Into the Future

This was intended to be a summary of all the great racing on display over the holiday weekend and a peek at Saturday’s Cigar Mile program, the last great hurrah of the 2018 racing season in New York.

Once again, however, it was controversy that dominated the Internet, immediately following Friday’s finale at Churchill Downs that resulted in a double disqualification, one in which the first finisher was to reward one bettor with $317,000 of Jackpot gold.

Internet speculation [read paranoia] was that the Churchill Downs stewards conspired to disqualify Presidential Tweet in favor of the official winner, Laser Loop, elevated from third, the result of a double disqualification, the other protagonist being place finisher, Colossus.

Conspiracy minded horseplayers in fact had little issue with the demoting of Colossus who bore in badly in midstretch, making contact with show finisher Laser Loop, video evidence showing that the incident cost Laser Loop a better placing.

It was the takedown of Presidential Tweet that caused an outcry after the stewards decided both were at fault. Rail running Presidential Tweet did bear out strides from the wire, forcing Corey Lanerie aboard Laser Loop to check from dangerously close quarters.

A stewards’ inquiry was posted and a jockey’s objection against both rivals was lodged by Lanerie. After a lengthy delay, the stewards saw it the rider’s way, elevating Laser Loop from third to first, demoting Presidential Tweet to second and Colossus to third.

Video replay showed Presidential Tweet drifting out several jumps before the finish line under left-handed whipping from Chris Landeros. From those two or three jumps it is extremely doubtful that this incident cost Laser Loop a better placing.

Under any circumstances, the call would have been highly controversial. But the controversy was exacerbated by the fact that there was a huge jackpot carryover in play.

With the disqualification of Presidential Tweet, whose victory would have resulted in a life-altering score, the jackpot pool carried over into the final Saturday of the Churchill Downs fall meet. Over $241,000 was spent chasing it.

Ironically, the Jackpot was hit by a single Saturday bettor who collected $500,256 when favorite War of Will eliminated any further drama by drawing off to win the day’s finale by five widening lengths.

Friday’s controversial disqualification brought to mind a similar incident four years ago at Gulfstream Park when the demoting of the race winner truly cost one jackpot player the score of a lifetime: $1.6 million.

When stewards’ decisions have an impact on the next day’s wagering handle, racing has an inherent problem. It requires no imagination to posit that this circumstance is rife with conflicts of interest. And it does not help that these decisions are made in a vacuum.

When it comes to the adjudication process, there is no transparency or accountability. The decision making should be in full view of the betting public via closed-circuit TV. But stewards are not even required to state their opinions in writing as is done elsewhere.

As in any situation that places Thoroughbred racing’s reputation in jeopardy due to lack of uniformity, transparency or both, the industry never will be able to shed its public image of being an insider’s “sport,” a small-time one at that.

The game has run out of excuses and rationalizations, so please do not insult the collective intelligence of racing’s audience who deserves better treatment than it gets in return for its economic and emotional support. Besides, we’ve heard it all before.

If the industry cannot see that Friday’s incident or those like it is a problem, consider this: Horseplayers are made to feel like rubes. The sport no longer can depend on the fact that one will be born every minute.

One day, fathers will decide not to bring their sons to the racetrack on a Saturday; uncles no longer will take their nieces to the races to see the beautiful animals. When that day comes, the industry will get the reckoning it has earned.

WHAT’S GOING ON AT THE STRONACH GROUP? The firing of Santa Anita race caller Michael Wrona Saturday knocked ‘L’Affaire Tweet’ right off Twitter’s trending race stories. Wrona’s dismissal closely follows those of racing analyst Megan Devine and XBTV host Aaron Vercruysse and XBTV analyst Richard Migliore.

The explanation that makes the most sense for all this is that this was, purely and simply, a salary dump. One could have seen the writing on the Xpressbet wall when its President, Ron Luniewski, who joined the company in 2002, suddenly “departed” in April.

The first thing any new CEO does is cut costs, which explains the Migliore and Vercruysse dismissals. XBTV has been a very expensive enterprise its parent company, The Stronach Group, to produce. And, of course, TSG numbers Santa Anita among its many holdings.

Tim Ritvo’s explanation that Santa Anita is “going in a new direction” is taken at face value. Usually, when this kind of occurrence takes place, talent and marketing are among the first departments to suffer. Taken together, these events may just be the beginning.

The very public power struggle between Chairman Belinda Stronach and Honorary Chairman Frank Stronach is also central to all this. Belinda has been vocal about her father’s loss-leading projects while TSG Founder alleges financial impropriety by its current President and its CEO, Alon Ossip.

Unknown at this point is who will be calling the races when Santa Anita opens its prime winter meet the day after Christmas. Wrona’s talent for the time being is limited to a new assignment at Kentucky Downs and the one he currently holds at Santa Rosa County Fair.

Gary Stevens’ 32-year Hall of Fame riding career has come to end, the result of a freak back injury sustained during a pre-race warmup at Del Mar last weekend. His numbers, obviously, are impressive: 5,187 lifetime victories with purse earnings of over $258 million, ninth all-time.

Ironically, the 55-year-old officially retired in a Del Mar ceremony on the same afternoon another Hall of Famer, Johnny Velazquez, was celebrating his 55th birthday aboard Naughty Joker, who completed Saturday’s early double at Churchill Downs.

“Seabiscuit’s rider” has won races on four continents. Notable mounts include Da Hoss, Winning Colors, Silver Charm, Point Given and legendary race mare Beholder. His ride aboard Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop 20 years ago was a personal favorite.

The assumption is that Stevens has maintained his membership in the Screen Actors Guild and that someday he again might appear on a silver screen near you. He also has done great work as a TV racing analyst.

Will Signalman and Liora follow in the footsteps of a couple Horses of the Year, Gun Runner and Rachel Alexandra, who also used Churchill’s ‘Stars of Tomorrow’ programs to launch their championship careers?

It’s difficult to put victories in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and Golden Rod, respectively, in historical context given the sloppy nature of the racetrack. For now, the 10 points each earned toward appearances in the Kentucky Derby and Oaks must suffice.

PERSONAL HIATUS: I am scheduled for surgery this coming Thursday, the first of two procedures to treat basal cell carcinoma in the tib/fib area of my left leg. I likely won’t pound another keyboard for two to three weeks.

Thereafter, it will be rehab, racing on TV and wagering via my Xpressbet account. Confined to home upon my release from the University of Miami Health Care system, I should be able to resume writing duties soon thereafter. Trips to Gulfstream are TBD.

With any luck, I can point for the Pegasus on the last Saturday in January. With complications, the Florida Derby would be a more likely target. Pre-anesthesia, I will also ask my doctors to remove a nagging losing streak that has plagued me throughout 2018.

In the interim, starting Thursday, HRI will be in the capable hands of Mark Berner, Tom Jicha and Indulto. Be kind to them, and each other, please. When I’m up to it, I will effort to keep interested parties abreast on Twitter @johnpricci.

Written by John Pricci

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