Tuesday, April 02, 2013
Is Mike Pegram’s Sphere of Influence Good for California Racing?
LOS ANGELES, April 2, 2013--Three-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert appears once again headed toward the scene of those triumphs together with his client, friend, and fellow Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) board member, Mike Pegram.
The two have taken the Triple Crown trail to Louisville on several occasions, and came within a nose of immortality with Real Quiet
in 1998 and a second Preakness with Looking at Lucky
12 years later.
The late Jess Jackson’s dream was to campaign the offspring of his two champions, Curlin
and Rachel Alexandra
; both of whom were purchased prior to Triple Crown events with each winning the Preakness as well.
It seems Pegram has realized that dream and then some; breeding his way into this year’s Derby by mating of his own stellar performers, Midnight Lute
, producing recent Sunland Derby winner Govenor Charlie
Commenting on that victory to Jay Privman
, the owner/breeder was guarded in his assessment.
‘"The Derby’s the hardest race in the world to win,” Pegram said. "We all get Derby Fever, and I’ve got it right now. But losing the Derby’s no fun" … "If he’s good enough, he’ll be there. It’ll be up to Bobby. "’
Initially I thought such hesitancy might be related to his Derby experience with Dantheblugrassman
in 2002. That entry was a controversial one after the horse finished last in the Santa Anita Derby and was scratched the morning of the Kentucky Derby due to "cramping." Baffert ultimately won that Derby with another client’s entry, War Emblem
However, Pegram was very enthusiastic over another of his three-year-olds by that same sire. In a display of overwhelming force and/or fortune, Pegram took the Sunland Oaks on the Derby undercard with the filly Midnight Lucky
Pegram is an amazing example of success spawning success -- a multiple McDonalds franchise mogul who parlayed a portion of his profits into horse racing and eventually casinos. His prominence and influence as an owner have evolved into power with his election as the current chairman of the TOC board of directors.
The most engaging account of Pegram’s ascension is Bill Finley’s
from 2011, which the TOC uses as Pegram’s profile on its website.
The use of Finley’s piece on Pegram by the TOC seems as ironic as its subject appears heroic considering the turf writer’s position on the California takeout increase legislated in 2010 here
, and here
Despite all the "Ray Kroc-isms on customer service" alluded to in the profile, it’s fair to say that Pegram is more concerned with lowering the price of beer at the track than on lowering takeout. Interviewed recently on the Roger Stein radio show, Pegram made it clear he had no intention of giving up any of the legislated increase.
I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say that Pegram wields as much effective veto power over California racing as Governor Cuomo does over New York racing. Unlike the Governor, however, it’s clear that he loves the game and wants others to enjoy as much as he does. But it’s not easy rooting for someone who has his foot on your neck.
In a two-part interview from 2010 by Ray Paulick
, Pegram provided an amusing but telling response when asked whether he had any input in the decision to run Lookin At Lucky
in the Preakness and then not go to the Belmont: "… when I do offer my opinion, there’s usually fact-based reasons I’m doing this. If there’s a tie, Bobby’s the one who is sleeping with those animals, not me. Fortunately, he needs the money more than I do. That’s one thing about racing that’s right. At least it rewards success."
Parenthetically, Mr. Pegram, allow me this: That racing in California is certainly rewarding your successes, thanks to the legislated subsidy to leading owners paid for primarily by California-resident, recreational bettors ineligible for rebates.
Frankly, horseplayers are tired of your reducing our chances for success without improving the racing product in terms of field size and competitiveness. Our enjoyment comes from trying to beat a fair game that’s visibly beatable by other than professional bettors.
You have said that "… innovation is what is lacking." Then how about experimenting with lower takeout one pool at a time and see if handle gains of the magnitude shown by the Pick 5 are possible in "underperforming" pools?
And why not go a step further? Put recreational bettors on a level playing field with professionals by ensuring that every participant in any pari-mutuel pool is charged the same effective
takeout rate like it used to be when racing was popular.
The only thing that seems to have eluded Pegram’s grasp is racetrack ownership. Searching the Internet revealed that he has unfruitfully pursued or entertained various forms of ownership involving the purchases of Ellis Park in 2003, Fairgrounds in 2004, Los Alamitos in 2005, and Del Mar in 2010. The latter two were motivated by the long-awaited closing of Hollywood Park whose redevelopment is finally expected to become reality.
Pegram recently said he was no longer interested in becoming a partner in Los Al but he’s still in the thick of determining suitable sites and planning for the transplanting of HOL racing elsewhere. Apparently not all California horsemen were happy with the way that process had been going. According to the Blood Horse
, the California Thoroughbred Trainers (CTT) are pushing for consideration of Fairplex" as a replacement racing/training facility once HOL is closed for good.
Without the L.A. County Fair in operation, would there be enough Fairplex attendance to bear witness that live races were actually being broadcast? In the latest "Alphonse and Gaston" routine by the two contending sites, Los Al withdrew from the competition, while leaving the door open. What will an environmental impact study say about the increase in horses, people, and traffic in the host city of Cypress -- as well as on the intersecting 405 and 605 freeways -- under a Los Al plan to run afternoons AND evenings?
In a recently distributed email, Harry Hacek wrote, "With the relief from a split meet at Fairplex Park and the Del Mar meeting Santa Anita would be positioned to put on the best of racing. To prepare for their premier winter meeting, and further replenish the turf course, Santa Anita could hold an exclusive dirt-only meeting in [place of] the Hollywood Park fall meet."
That suggested to me that if Fairplex can’t accommodate a mile dirt oval, then perhaps an outer seven furlong turf course might enable combined concurrent replacement meets without conflicting dates, assuming Santa Anita could still support a turf stakes schedule running only on weekends.
Baffert and Pegram have been the inspiration of bobblehead dolls for racetrack give-away promotions but it’s the bettors who are shaking their heads at the duo’s defiant denials that TOC policies support rather than deter dwindling handle, field sizes, and interest in racing.
Is the dominance of the TOC, which effectively prevents California racetracks from pricing their own product, combined with Pegram’s influence, good for racing in California? Or is it merely the bottom-line component of his success as a horse owner?
Written by Indulto
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
The Currency of Eligibility
LOS ANGELES, March 16, 2013--At last count, only *four 3-year-olds are confirmed as starters for the Grade I Florida Derby. [Ed. Note: *Subsequently, a fifth has been added to the list]
But given the new currency for Kentucky Derby eligibility there is no way only five horses will be entered; even if the top three are among the highest-rated contenders on most published Derby lists.
With 40 points awarded for second place, can even Todd Pletcher afford not to try for both qualifying opportunities?
Under the old system, trainers were free to run in graded events at any distance, on any surface, at either age 2 or 3 and their horse’s accumulated earnings determined its eligibility.
The primary inequity of that system was the lack of uniformity in purses by grade (and in grading) and in their distribution among the top finishers. Another was the ability to qualify by winning a single race with an inflated purse relative to the quality of the field.
Still another were gimmicks like New York’s padding of 2YO graded stakes at Saratoga with bonuses for breaking maiden at Belmont, effectively making qualifiers out of races for non-winners.
Some have argued that this attempted gaming of the system incentivized Churchill Downs’ approach toward the exclusion of Hawthorne Race Course in the new system.
The primary weakness of the former system was that the excessive number of qualifying events tended to reduce both field size and level of competition in those preps as well as the likelihood that starters would face one another prior to the Derby. Another was that horses which had not proven themselves either sufficiently talented or prepared, were not only keeping some legitimate Triple Crown contenders out of the Derby but compromised the chances of those that did get in.
While the new system reduces the inequities of the one it replaces, it hasn’t yet eliminated them. Win-And-You’re-In (WAYI) is still alive and well. While such events can produce an Animal Kingdom
, more often than not, they can also produce one-hit-wonders or horses that cannot survive the stress of the subsequent Triple Crown campaign.
In replacing earnings with points, the CDI team did a good job of distributing them among the top 4 finishers with the 10-4-2-1 ratio that approximates purse distribution.
In my opinion, it is superior to the roughly 3-2-1-0 ratio -- variously adjusted for grade level -- employed by the Breeders’ Cup.
[I compared the latter (and a variation of it) with earnings here at HRI last year]
Rather than assigning "grades" to qualifying races, levels of competition are now associated with races occurring in specific pre-derby blocks of time. The most "productive" block for Derby winners figures to be the one from 5.5 to 2.5 weeks prior to the Derby, as horses participating in these races are considered more likely to win the Derby.
The current maximum multiplier of 10 is applied to the basic point ratio for races scheduled in that period and is expected to attract the strongest fields.
The next highest multiplier of 5 is applied in the block from 9.5 to 5.5 weeks out, the current group of races. Most horses participating in these races are expected to start in the final round as well.
Most Derby starters will have qualified during these two intervals. The WAYI effect may reward the 50 point winners and 40 point 2nd place finishers as well as the 100 point winners.
The lowest multiplier of 1 is applied to the initial period from 31.5 to 9.5 weeks out that includes all the 2-year-old qualifiers that can provide a potential Triple Crown performer with a "foundation," just as some early 3-year-old preps that have rarely produced Derby starters.
Much has been made of the BC Classic’s point value not exceeding those of other juvenile races. I support that approach. However, with the same subjectivity that includes England’s no-turns Royal Lodge
on turf as a qualifier, so should the 2YO male voted the Eclipse Award winner also be credited with the equivalent of an additional win in some other possible point category -- as opposed to creating another WAYI race. The juvenile champion should have to run well at 3 to qualify for the Derby.
A multiplier of 2 is applied to the final block starting 2.5 weeks out. It is a final opportunity to qualify for contenders who came up short during the previous two intervals. (Charismatic
was the last Derby winner from that interval).
Politics notwithstanding, team CDI came up with a logical system with more to like than dislike. If a Triple Crown Champion should emerge, CDI will deserve a share of that credit. The 20 Derby starters and the non-starters, too, will provide plenty of fuel for suggested tweaks from horsemen and fans alike.
I’m interested to see what the effects of applying alternative interval multipliers might be, particularly if the results suggest that eliminating WAYI situations might create even stronger fields. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the subsequent performances of those failing to qualify would support any such speculation.
As we approach the most significant preps at the end of March, if four proves to be a crowd in the Florida Derby starting gate, then the spotlight will focus intensely on any trainer who leaves his yet-to-qualify Derby hopeful in its stall on March 30.
[Ed. Note: *Edit made prior to posting, March 19]
Written by Indulto
Sunday, March 10, 2013
A Smile Is a Thin Disguise
LOS ANGELES, March 8, 2013--It appears there might be at least one prep race added to Churchill Down's list of Kentucky Derby qualifying events for 2014. If you're thinking it will be the Illinois Derby, think again!
With the recent release its 2013 stakes schedule, Calder Race Course announced that the ungraded Calder Derby would be moved from grass to dirt, from 8.5 to 9 furlongs, and from a purse of $100K to $250K.
It will be run a week earlier on April 6 - the same day as the Santa Anita Derby and the Wood Memorial. That was also the day the Grade III Illinois Derby used to be run before CDI eliminated them from the KY Derby Trail.
But wait - how can an ungraded stakes race be put on a par with these two traditional Grade I stalwarts? No problem - it's CDI, not the American Graded Stakes Committee, that determines the currency of eligibility; now distributed in points among the top four finishers in designated races.
And, despite its contraction of qualifying contests, CDI was careful to set a precedent by assigning 10 eligibility points to the winner of the ungraded, one-mile Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park, which is not a CDI property...yet.
If CDI wants to use one of its own properties to host a qualifier in stead of a rival organization's property, that's their prerogative. Nobody with a real shot to get into this year's Kentucky Derby is likely to run in the revised Calder event, but this move will prevent Hawthorne from reclaiming its abdicated slot. Machiavelli would have been proud!
Hawthorne could still fit the IL Derby into Arkansas Derby day the following week if CDI would let them back in.
What's more likely, however, is that CDI will attempt to get that date for Hawthorne rival, Arlington Park, Arlington opens this year on the day before KY Derby day, but has long had its eye on expanded spring dates.
The KY Derby is no longer just the gateway to the Triple Crown, CDI has become its gate keeper as well. It's been said that "absolute power corrupts absolutely."
With three CDI properties hosting preps worth 100 points to the winner, CDI would indeed realize its objective of being "in control of the Derby." Imagine if they decide to make those races invitational!
It appears the press is finally starting to look into the situation with this DRF column
by Marcus Hersch who called the omission of the IL Derby from the Derby points system "curious."
"Churchill Downs is owned by Churchill Downs Inc., as is Arlington, and Arlington chairman Dick Duchossois is CDI's largest shareholder. Duchossois and Arlington have steadfastly maintained they played no part in the Illinois Derby's exclusion from Churchill's new Road to the Kentucky Derby system. Carey professes to believe that version of events. Many, though, see the linkage as all too obvious, an effort to make Chicago a one-track town."
Hersch described Hawthorne president, Tim Carey's first reaction:
'Carey said when Churchill revealed its new system in June, it caught Hawthorne off guard. Carey's first call went to Duchossois, not Churchill." As soon as the thing was announced, I picked up the phone and called him," Carey said. "He said he was not aware of it. He said he had just found out about it himself. I took him at his word."'
Later, Hersch revealed a more convincing view of that relationship:
'... Arlington has regularly called into question Hawthorne's financial viability during annual racing dates awards meetings with the Illinois Racing Board. "Publicly they have said at hearings that they need us, and in the same breath, they try to put us out of business," Carey said.'
Regarding Carey's subsequent IL Derby purse hike and calendar switch, Hersch wrote:
"To some, those moves invite comparison to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Hawthorne's financial status has become tenuous."
"Hawthorne's response to the Illinois Derby has not gone unquestioned. Many Hawthorne-based horsemen scoff at the notion of a Preakness prep, suggesting the same horses would show up if $250,000 had been carved from the purse instead of added to it."
I have this vision of Tim Carey harmonizing the following with the Eagles:
“…My oh my, you sure know how to arrange things
You set it up so well with no appeal
On the other side of town a track is waiting
With location and dates no one could steal…”
= = = = =
I ran across two very interesting comments in response to
Jay Hovdey’s article
on the new Derby points system.
Comment by juliuso
What everyone seems to be missing with the new points system, is that this system will reward the most talented horses and trainers that are willing to take on an aggressive series of challenges before they even get to compete in the Big Race. Building a reputation as a 3 year old BEFORE reaching the big stage is good for the sport. This will expose more "great horses" as opposed to one hit wonders that got the perfect setup to wine one big race and then off to the breeding shed. There is no reason why a top class horse should not be getting 4-5 top class races under his/her belt as a 2 year old, and then 4-5 top class races as a 3 year old before going for the "classics".
What the sport needs is champion warriors, where fans can follow the progress and victories over many races, and where Superstars earn their stripes beating allcomers instead of vanquishing one field of runners on a good day.
Comment by Marshall Lowe in reply to juliuso
What YOU seem to be missing is that Churchill Downs Inc. is rewarding their tracks, punishing others and would, in fact, have eliminated many past dery winners. Also, how does this 'system' keep one-hit wonders out? Ever heard of King of David? Won the Ark Derby and finished up the track. How about Brilliant Speed (Blue Grass winner), or Midnight Interlude (Santa Anita Derby). Boy, these horses sure were warriors, weren't they? This point BS is just that, and I defy you to come up with a cogent explanation why it is not.
juliuso is very convincing, but the new system doesn't just retain the "Win-and-You're-In" component, it expands it. To promote his "Warrior" concept, there cannot be such a discrepancy in points among preps, and each starter should have to be competitive in more than one 3YO prep. In my opinion, points accumulated should inversely determine post position draw order, and a point minimum might help eliminate the obstacle presented by the inside post position.
Marshall Lowe’s counterexamples are too simplistic. Animal Kingdom got in based on a single race and won. Bodemeister got in the way King David did, and he might have been a Triple Crown winner under different circumstances. Sometimes it'll work and sometimes it won't.
Written by Indulto