Sunday, May 28, 2017

Open Letter to Martin Panza, NYRA Senior Vice-President, Racing Operations

Dear Mr. Panza,

I’m writing to you on behalf of the racing fans of America and especially your constituents in New York’s metropolitan area.

We are in the midst of a three-day holiday weekend that celebrates true American patriots, especially those who paid the ultimate price for service to their country--this also includes our battle-scarred veterans who returned to their families.

Please don’t misunderstand me, sir. My request on behalf of Thoroughbred enthusiasts in no way compares with, or in any other manner minimizes the sentiment expressed above. Nothing can be compared to the horror of war.

Political correctness, even in the current environment, still has a deserved place where reverence for ideals and ideas must be maintained.

Tomorrow, Memorial Day, will mark the 56th anniversary of the first time I ever witnessed a Thoroughbred horse race.

Like many other New York racing enthusiasts, the only time I went racing was to after-dark harness tracks. Roosevelt Raceway and Yonkers Raceway were teeming with fans in numbers that the present-day NYRA would go to extreme measures to replicate.

And so it was on this revered American holiday that I was given my first opportunity to attend the races. Every seat in the Aqueduct house, stretching from Conduit to Rockaway Boulevards, was filled with racegoers.

I arrived in time to see one of my television heroes; a horse called Kelso. I watched from the grandstand apron and the ground literally shook because “Kelly” was erasing a five-length deficit in the final furlong. In that moment I went over-the-moon, hooked on the sport.

“The version of the Metropolitan run on May 30, 1961 attracted a field of seven and was led postward by Kelso, who somehow managed to be Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old in 1960 without going anywhere near one of the Triple Crown events. Their loss.

“In that ’61 Metropolitan, Kelso was making his second start as a 4-year-old for his trainer, Carl Hanford. He carried 130 pounds, most of it Eddie Arcaro, and beat All Hands, who carried 117, by a nose. Woody Stephens trained All Hands.”
-- Jay Hovdey, DRF, 2011

The Met Mile had become for me, and still can be for others, the kind of race that can attract a holiday visitor to Belmont Park to see a special horse run. And maybe that newcomer can feel the same connected excitement I felt at the end of a holiday weekend.

Of course, I went back the following year to see if a small but mighty Carry Back, a Jack Prince home-bred by ‘Nobody out of Nothing’ and three-year old-champion of 1961, could make his patented late rush and win the Met Mile at 4. He did and he did.

In that first year at the track, 1961--a future Met Mile winner was getting another future author tethered to the game, and she remembered a quote from trainer Jinks Fires. -- Leslie Knauf, “The Rail: New York Times Horse Racing Blog,” 2011, wrote:

“In the week leading up to this year’s Kentucky Derby, 70-year old Jinks Fires, the trainer of Archarcharch, described Carry Back’s memorable victory over Crozier as the first Derby he witnessed.

“That was the race that launched the remarkable story of Carry Back as “the people’s horse” — the same one that ignited a lifelong passion for racing in the heart of one young second grader 50 years ago.”

In 1977, I became Newsday’s first Thoroughbred handicapper. Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown and Forego won the Metropolitan Mile. All was right with the world--until Slew was shipped to California and Forego accepted his weight challenge in the Suburban.

As a result of Forego’s Met Mile win, legendary Racing Secretary Tommy Trotter assigned the giant dark bay highweight of 138 pounds for the Suburban Handicap. Forego lost by a neck to Quiet Little Table, who carried 114 pounds to victory.

“Horse players received another major shock to their wallets yesterday when the great Forego was beaten at Belmont Park a day after Seattle Slew suffered his first defeat in California.

“It is likely a Forego victory in the $106,400 Suburban Handicap would have solidified his chances at a fourth straight Horse‐of‐the‐Year award. Instead, he fell victim to the immense difference in weights he toted.

“When a valet slung the pouch loaded with 44 pounds of lead over his back, Forego's trainer, Frank Whitely Jr., standing on the other side of the horse, shouted, 'Don’t miss'.

“Trotter said he could not recall the last time a horse in this country carried so much weight. “We assigned that much to Kelso once,” he said, “but his owner refused it."
–- Jerry Eskenazi, The New York Times, 1977

There have been other unforgettable Met moments for racing fans, Mr. Panza, the next one coming for me 17 years later. Three weeks before that year’s Met, a big gray power-ball speedster called Holy Bull failed miserably as that year’s Kentucky Derby favorite.

But on Memorial Day, 1994, my wife Toni and I celebrated this unique American holiday on the Belmont Park apron watching Holy Bull dominate older rivals in gate-to-wire fashion to beat Cherokee Run, later to become 1994’s champion sprinter.

“Three weeks after he was battered and beaten in the Kentucky Derby, the big gray colt Holy Bull revived his ranking as a speed demon yesterday when he outran older stars from wire to wire and won the $500,000 Metropolitan Handicap by 5 1/2 lengths over Cherokee Run.

“It was his first performance since he ran 12th in a field of 14 in the rain and the rough-house of the Derby, and it was memorable. He led every step of the way against a distinguished cast, he ran the third-fastest Metropolitan Mile in the 101-year history of the race and he became only the 15th horse to win it at the age of 3.”
–- Joe Durso, The New York Times, 1994

Then, 11 years later, came the unforgettable Ghostzapper.

“When Bobby Frankel was a young trainer claiming cheap horses, he watched Secretariat and Affirmed sweep the Triple Crown and wondered what it would be like to condition the best horse on the planet.

“He found out yesterday at Belmont Park. Ghostzapper, the reigning Horse of the Year, effortlessly captured the Grade I $750,000 Metropolitan Mile by six and a quarter lengths.

“A crowd of 15,066, witnessing his first start in seven months, seemed to give him a reverent ovation. Many of the fans had probably passed up other holiday plans in the hopes they would catch a glimpse of greatness.

“They were not disappointed.”
– Joe Drape, The New York Times, 2005

Mr. Panza, I’m imploring you to consider this: Please restore the Metropolitan Handicap to its rightful place on the NYRA racing calendar. For all that it has meant to the history of the game—not to mention that of New York racing—the event rates a day unto itself.

If you would, please bring this up with your fellow executives and NYRA Board members when they convene to consider the 2018 stakes schedule. For those who want to run farther, the 1-1/2 mile Brooklyn, older companion of the Belmont, is there in two weeks.

If nothing else, the Met Mile still can be a nicely spaced bridge to the Suburban on the July 4th holiday weekend, either at its present distance or shorter. Now that there no longer is a Handicap Triple series to consider, reconfiguration is possible, yes?

Indeed, I too live in the real world. I acknowledge and have applauded your vision for American racing, trying to place it on an international footing, just as you first envisioned when you created the American Oaks during your tenure at Hollywood Park.

The internationally popular and stamina-rewarding goal was, and remain, a vision for the sport's future, helping American racing in its struggle to regain the popularity and prestige it once enjoyed beyond the five days of Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup.

The Belmont Stakes and July 4th weekend racing festivals not only are an aesthetic success but have succeeded in creating events that horsemen and horseplayers worldwide eagerly support. All the metrics underscore this notion.

Further, I would like it to be fully understood that I have long supported the New York-bred program--although I’m not sure that having two special days for the breed has not blunted the impact of the original Showcase Day event.

When it was a one-day fall occurrence, it was New York’s second largest by handle, only to Belmont Stakes day. State-bred races do not, however, merit the attention of people who might like to give racing a try by setting aside one day on a holiday weekend to see a truly special attraction.

Quite obviously, racing is a game steeped in tradition and history by offering great opportunities to its known stars or to those it helps to create.

If given an opportunity and free time, early impressions made on novice racegoers matter because they can last a lifetime. In acknowledgment to the bottom line, Monday’s six New York-bred stakes would have been a great betting prelude to a true showcase event.

Winning the Met Mile, a true New York fan favorite and every breeder’s dream.

Written by John Pricci

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