Tuesday, April 09, 2013
Better On Fire than Under Fire
LOS ANGELES, April 7, 2013--Last year’s Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, Doug O’Neill is back in the Triple Crown picture again. He is in the midst of a sizzling hot streak fueled by his latest transplanted reinsman, Kevin Krigger. Both trainer and jockey had four winners last Friday. The next day they captured that major Kentucky Derby qualifying prep with a horse that could be a throwback to the 1970s.
The horse, of course, is that golden scents-sniffing, purse-sensitive performer, Goldencents
, who runs his best when the stakes are highest. After finishing second in the Champagne to eventual two-year-old champion,Shanghai Bobby
, O’Neill showed uncommon sense in bypassing the BC Juvenile (and its Lasix prohibition) and shipping to the Delta Jackpot to continue putting some foundation into his colt despite the Jackpot’s losing its win-and-you’re-in status under CDI’s new eligibility rules.
The now confirmed two-turner became a bullet-working sensation this winter at Santa Anita. Trainer Bob Baffert regularly works his better horses in 1:11 and change and seems to get results in the afternoon; at least from those that can withstand such rigorous conditioning. In perusing past performances for the initial HRI Derby Poll, I noticed that Goldencents
had not one, but two works in 1:10 and a few ticks -- not O’Neill’s normal tactics -- suggesting he’s a horse that loves to run.
The San Felipe made doubters out of many Goldencents
admirers when he succumbed in a speed duel with the Baffert-trained Flashback
that allowed a new star to enter the frame, the fast-closing Hear The Ghost
trained by Jerry Hollendorfer.
Then came the controversial installation of heightened Santa Anita Derby security. Hollendorfer was one of the adamantly opposed. Think what you will but once the proposal was accepted, Hear The Ghost
disappeared from the Derby Trail in almost the same manner O’Neill’s I’ll Have Another
departed last year’s Triple Crown pursuit after increased Belmont Stakes security.
To be fair, however, there were I'll Have Another's physical issues that were treated with the use of a magnetic blanket.
Prior to Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby, both Baffert and O’Neil worked on changes to their charges’ running styles. What’s more, Flashback’s
stablemate, Super Ninety Nine
, would be available as a rabbit after revealing hia limitations in Arkansas. Ostensibly, the plan would be to burn out the impatient Goldencents
with Super Ninety Nine
, setting up a victory by a restrained Flashback
guided by new go-to guy, Garrett Gomez.
Instead, the Baffert pair encountered a more tractable Goldencents
If O’Neill wins another Triple Crown event this year, he will probably join Baffert and Pletcher in the ranks of sought-after TC trainers. Baffert has nine horses with accumulated points of which two are already qualified. Two more could still qualify. Further, there are others without Derby points he could enter in the last two win-and-you’re-in preps.
Meanwhile, Pletcher has six horses with points – two already qualified with two others nearing the horizon. It is doubtful Pletcher would enter any more point-less runners as his two qualified are among the anticipated betting favorites. O’Neill had a second horse with points but lightning didn’t strike twice for owner Paul Reddam and jockey Gutierrez.
Team O’Neill can handle an upturn in business if required. Brother Dennis functions as a bargain-basement version of Barry Irwin and was responsible for claiming Lava Man
prior to that champion’s stakes campaigns, and for acquiring I’ll Have Another
It would be interesting to see what he comes up with if he got money thrown at him at the same rate Pletcher and Baffert have come to expect.
What may have done the most damage to O’Neill’s image last year was the death of the claimer Burna Dette
, shipped to Los Alamitos and dropped severely in price only to break down on the track.
This year, Baffert suffered a similar fate when a former graded stakes winner named Tweebster
was dropped in for a claim at Santa Anita. Both trainers, it should be noted, have used the mega-drop strategy successfully in the past.
O’Neill’s equanimity under duress is almost always accompanied by an enthusiasm that has eluded Baffert since suffering his unfortunate heart attack. Any excitement Pletcher exhibits to the media often requires visual enhancement.
In any event, the new day of Derby eligibility that some expected to adversely affect the high-profile, high-volume trainers appears to have actually improved their results thus far.
And it indeed looks as if this year’s Derby field will be the one of the most competitive ever! Imagine what an increase in the number of trainers with multiple Derby starters would bring?
Written by Indulto
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