Saturday, September 12, 2015
Should Zayat Be Rolling Classic Dice?
LOS ANGELES, September 11, 2015—The retirement of two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan announced on Labor Day, ending his preparation for a comeback at age eight in Sunday's Woodbine Mile, was a sad disappointment.
The venerable gelding earned $7,552,920 from 23 wins and 2 seconds in 31 career starts. A Grade I winner on both turf and dirt, he was first and foremost a turf mile specialist – best-known for the Breeders' Cup Miles he won on his way to the ultimate Eclipse honor in 2012 at 5 and again the following year.
An intended “three-peat” ala Forego was compromised by a bout with colic requiring surgery and then, following recovery, abandoned due to an ankle injury. The latter affliction healed without surgery but the discovery of a tendon tear a week prior to his intended return proved the final tipping point.
One can only imagine what it must have taken to keep Kelso going through his five-year Horse of the Year reign.
Because Wise Dan was gelded he got the chance to eventually achieve the potential promised by the bloodlines of early-developing Triple Crown winners, Secretariat and Affirmed--even if it seemed to elude the progeny that produced him.
His owner/breeder, Morton Fink, is to be admired and applauded for his vision, patience, and responsible oversight of the gift he shared with racing fans. Fink will be respected for his decision to provide as happy an ending as possible to a wonderful story at a time when racing could use more of the same.
Horse of the Year is, of course, in the eyes of the beholder. There is no rule, no right or wrong – only opinion – and a majority of enabled voters must share it to bestow the honor, deserved or not. All fans can hope that somehow the best horse confirms his/her superiority on the racetrack.
Normally, only divisional champions are considered Horse of the Year worthy, but sometimes accomplishments are less important in determining the distinction than the recipient's impact in the minds of racing fans and Eclipse Award voters alike.
This year's Triple Crown winner is three-year-old division champion assuming he never races again or even loses again to a divisional rival. Five nationally televised events have focused fan attention and wagering favoritism on American Pharoah. Four of those times his admirers were rewarded with victories over less talented or less mature rivals.
The tables were turned at Saratoga on Travers day when one maturing rival finally challenged the champion's speed, and another his stamina in the stretch. The latter also benefited from continued improvement, aided by his exposure in four of those events.
One race does not Horse of the Year make, but if Keen Ice were to win the BC Classic at the expense of both American Pharoah and older horses, there will be some who would seriously consider supporting the later bloomer.
Awaiting both sophomores may be the older Liam's Map, likely to contest the early pace without a Frosted-like challenge. Metropolitan Mile and Whitney winner Honor Code, and Pacific Classic dominatrix Beholder, might well be well capable of running down the classy early leaders in the Keeneland homestretch.
A Jockey Gold Cup victory would enhance the credentials of all other challengers, but perhaps there could be some hangover from the consecutive, three-year Horse of the Year reign by distaffers Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and Harve de Grace whereby Beholder could attract gender-based support.
Entrepreneur Ahmed Zayat might be better served to “trust his gut” and play it safe. As things stand, his horse is a Horse of the Year shoo-in, ensuring that the cash register will ring at least 200 times a year unless his stud career resembles those of Secretariat or Affirmed.
Parenthetically, it’s interesting to note at this point that the successful stud Storm Cat – and thus his great sire, Storm Bird -- appears in both the pedigree of American Pharoah and
Can Zayat he be certain that a sweep by Keen Ice of three successive 10-furlong Grade I stakes against top competition wouldn't freeze his own horse out?
The chances of that happening would improve greatly if American Pharoah were again among the vanquished. But that could only happen if Keen Ice were to prep in, and win, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which currently is not on the dance card of the Travers upsetter.
There is another question which must be asked: Is a fairy tale ending whereby American Pharoah wins the Breeders' Cup Classic and goes to stud an incontestably deserving and highly acclaimed Horse of the Year worth risking further diminished stature or worse, possible injury?
Let me posit this: Is owning another Triple Crown winner more or less likely than owning another Horse of the Year? Recall that Jess Jackson purchased eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin before the Derby and Rachel Alexandra just in time for the Preakness. Between them, Jackson collected three consecutive Horse of the Year Eclipses.
It does seem unlikely, however, that the notoriously hard-bargaining Zayat would take the same costly approach as Jackson.
Who knows, in the end money may talk and Zayat could walk. As generous as he’s been in sharing his champion with America, he has made no secret of the profit motive behind his involvement in the game.
As the Egyptian-born real-life “American Pharaoh,” Zayat is likely to preside over many future Triple Crown and even Horse of the Year campaigns with the stock he breeds, buys or otherwise acquires. Someday he might even wind up with more horses in the Derby starting gate than Todd Pletcher.
Written by Indulto
Friday, August 07, 2015
Snore at the Shore: A Wakeup Call
LOS ANGELES, August 5, 2015—Thankfully, I was able to watch Sunday's Haskell Invitational on HD-TV without the continually streaming interruptions that marred my viewing of Friday's Curlin and Saturday's Jim Dandy from Saratoga on my ADW's track feed.
Those difficulties notwithstanding, both of those races were more exciting and offered better wagering opportunities despite shorter fields, than did American Pharaoh's purse enhanced public workout at Monmouth.
Maybe I'm just too old and too cynical, but if the practice of beating up on inferior stock--including some already squashed multiple times--is considered sport then so is professional wrestling. Worse, giving in to purse inflation coercion sets a dangerous precedent.
I don't deny that America's best 3-year-old looked very impressive despite the lack of competition. Indeed, the Triple Crown winner was most significantly been tested in the Kentucky Derby by Firing Line and Dortmund; the former now sidelined for the rest of the year.
NYRA executives are now in lockstep with their Monmouth Park counterparts. Perhaps the late ascending Curlin winner, Smart Transition, and the resurgent Jim Dandy victor, Texas Red, will get a chance to make American Pharoah work harder for his next inflated-purse prize.
Fortunately, it appears that the prestige of the Travers might provide that possibility.
Kent Desormeaux's masterful ride on Texas Red to narrowly defeat Joel Rosario on Frosted in the Jim Dandy almost didn't get a chance to happen. Nor would he have been able to garner virtually the same payday the very next day, guiding Keen Ice to a second-place Haskell finish following a breathalyzer dust-up with the California stewards.
Desormeaux rode four races at Del Mar last Wednesday before the stewards decided to perform a breathalyzer test and then took him off his final two mounts. The next day, the jockey claimed he had demonstrated to the stewards that a carbonated beverage affects test results as much as the hard stuff.
Apparently, Desormeaux generated sufficient doubt to, at least, temporarily delay further sanctions. I have yet to read an explanation as to why they wanted to perform the test in the first place.
I'm an unabashed fan of jockey Kent Desormeaux and was happy that his hopes for a big day aboard the most important horse trained by his brother, Keith, weren't thwarted by the SoCal stewards via yet another arbitrary decision.
One of the NBC talking heads had a field day on camera with Kent's difficulties but I must have missed the part where they engaged in any critical discussion on eleventh-hour purse increases.
Perhaps the jockey's enhanced payday was poetic justice but that’s where the slope gets slippery. Can one applaud Desormeaux's good fortune in light of the excess that enabled it? Are his proven issues with alcohol any more off-putting than those allegedly associated with Ahmed Zayat's gambling?
The only perfection we could see in the Shore Snore was American Pharoah's stride as he eased his way to the finish line.
But it was good to see crowds of people enjoying themselves at summertime race meets that traditionally renew a horseplayer's passion, if not his bankroll. Perhaps the increasing frequency of short fields and short prices aren't as aggravating at the track when caught up in the excitement of celebrations too long delayed.
Surely, American Pharoah deserves the same accolades bequeathed Secretariat and Seattle Slew for their superiority in capturing their Triple Crowns at the expense of progressively weaker competition.
The problem with the practice of elevating purses for highly-visible graded stakes is that it also raises the cost of participation for owners in the long term and players in the short term while benefitting only stud farms and a fortunate few owners, trainers and jockeys.
I believe an overwhelming majority of racing's customers would support efforts to ensure fuller, more competitive fields in these “ultra-purse” events.
That, however, would require not only more cooperative scheduling of Grade I and II stakes within divisions but possibly limiting maximum-purse distribution to full fields only. A downward sliding scale could apply to successively fewer starters floored by graded-stakes minimums.
Not practical? Fields would be padded with hopeless entries? Aren't they already? Perhaps other measures could define minimums on earnings; say average speed ratings or other factors to be determined by actual competition?
If Churchill Downs can mandate top-four finishers in specific qualifying races for Derby starters, why can't additional measures of previous performance levels be developed to qualify starters in other high-profile events in all applicable divisions?
I've long advocated bonus-incentivized series to reward cumulative performances across multiple graded events within divisions. Last year's bonus that rewarded victories in the Los Alamitos Derby Pacific Classic and Breeders' Cup Classic might have been won by Shared Belief if not for a seriously compromised start.
Monmouth's effort to create a similar bonus with the Haskell as the first leg, rather than increase its own purse never came to fruition, and executive consultant Dennis Drazin offered to show HRI executive editor John Pricci e-mail documentation.
There just has to be better alternatives to rewarding “the big horse” at the expense of worthy competition between the fences for the horses and for the bettors queued up in betting lines everywhere.
Written by John Pricci
Monday, July 27, 2015
Fed Bills Fumble on Meds
LOS ANGLES, July 27, 2015--Anyone fearful of Federal intervention had ample justification dumped in their laps last week when sponsors of one Congressional bill dealing with horse racing reform started criticizing a newer, similar bill with different sponsors.
Already on record in support of the newer bill, HRI Executive Editor, John Pricci commented
, "Perhaps they should consider acting like grownups and help push for legislation that makes the game better for bettors and industry stakeholders. If they are sincere, they should try to fashion a solution helping like-minded colleagues instead of competing with them."
Also supporting the newer bill is a coalition of the Jockey Club and the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance (WHOA). Recently, the Horseplayers Association of North America (HANA) was invited by the Jockey Club to join that coalition.
HANA then polled its membership to determine whether or not it should do so, but they have not shared the results for several weeks now. Perhaps expansion of the elite Jockey Club's influence is not all that popular a concept, or perhaps horseplayers only care about the next set of past performances?
I believe both bills contain the same fatal flaw, i.e., they put the proverbial cart before the horse.
The reason the Federal Government is inserting itself in the widely called-for overhaul of racing's medication and drug testing policies and punishment procedures is because the industry cannot – or will not – reform itself. Due to its fragmented regulation at 38 state levels – which effectively protects existing political fiefdoms and private power bases – it lacks the authority to impose change across racing jurisdictions.
Or, perhaps, now that there are casinos on virtually every corner and drafting athletes for dollars, the tacit legalization of sports gambling throughout the 50 states, bean counters don’t care all that much anymore about racing’s contributions—one that has declined by about 25 percent in the last decade—to their various coffers.
Both bills appear to address only a subset of required reforms without first creating a framework for a central authority with the ability and responsibility to analyze, prioritize, and fund completion of all of them.
There is no completely, coherent strategy in place for creating a truly representative decision-making body independent of the states that can A) establish the rules all venues must follow, B) enforce those rules in identical fashion everywhere, and C) ensure cooperation among all venues to achieve the "greatest collective benefit to all."
The hope is that, as provided within the bill, there will be meaningful cooperation between the industry and government as the process will not go forward without first getting input from the industry, which may lead back to square one since there is no central authority.
The status quo becomes more insurmountable by the day and only the industry is to blame due to its own foot-dragging.
How such a body might be formed, funded, and staffed, is problematic because few, if any, appear to be in favor of direct control of racing by the Federal government, which really is part of the big lie; the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is an already established independent body.
If Federally-sponsored legislation really wants to have a positive impact, perhaps it should call for, create, and help pay for a Centralized Racing Authority Convention to independently draft a detailed proposal for such a body to be operated as a private corporation with Federally-legislated authority; with accountability to a Federal government agency when that need presents itself. Perhaps this private, corporate entity could be the ultimate-compromise way forward.
What better model than the Constitutional Convention of our Founding Forefathers to work out a solution to racing's problems and map out the game's future? In my opinion, any proposal developed must have complete transparency built in, possibly by a group of elected representatives.
In this case, the electorate would consist of people directly and indirectly involved in racing occupationally, racing's customers, and representatives of State and Federal governments.
Perhaps a blue-ribbon panel of representatives could be appointed from each state in which racing is conducted by the federal government including industry stakeholders, but not limited to, alphabetically: 1) bettors, 2) breeders, 3) horse owners, 4) horse rescuers, 5) jockeys, 6) news providers, 7) regulators, 8) stewards, 9) track management, 10) trainers, 11) veterinarians. Did I leave anyone out?
One possible scenario might be that the government/stakeholder group (GSG) name three individuals it considered capable of addressing racing-related issues with integrity and intelligence.
Ballots with those candidates for each GSG seat would then be mailed to each government appointee, industry licensee, and to each unique ADW account holder, virtually every serious fan/bettor.
A statement by each candidate for viewing and commenting would be made available on all actively monitored racing discussion forum websites.
Each candidate must propose possible solutions to deal effectively with areas of greatest conflict:
Uniform rules of wagering as well as racing
Race day medication policy
Drug testing procedures
Current acceptable levels under specific circumstances
Authorized testing agencies and source(s) of funding)
Specific penalties for violation of specific rules, and multiple violations over specific periods
Procedures for challenging and effecting changes to rules and rulings subsequently brought into question.
As a horseplayer, I want to see uniformity of definition, access, and application, as well as transparency of implementation, characterizing each of the following aspects of wagering:
Takeout revenue optimization
Expansion and Promotion of high-churn wagers
Breakage levels and beneficiaries
Taxation on individual payoffs and collective winnings
Rebates to winners AND losers
State Residency Regulations
Other GSGs will undoubtedly have different issues to pursue. The main goal of the preceding approach is create a group collectively concerned, experienced, and reasonable enough to participate objectively.
Surely, there are some Franklin and Jefferson types associated with racing capable of hammering out something that the vast majority can get behind. I'll take a shot at priming the pump with a few recognizable names with impeccable credentials:
– Tim Ritvo
– Bennett Liebman
– Maggie Moss
– Barry Irwin
– Caroline Betts
– H. Graham Motion
– Dr. Avery Bramlage
– Jerry Bailey
– Ray Paulick
– John Pricci
New York Racing
– Steven Crist
I hope readers will feel free to chime in with any names they trust to represent them in such an endeavor, and with any GSG-specific issues they feel strongly about.
Written by Indulto