Friday, March 21, 2008

Big Brown Gives Dutrow His Marching Orders

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla., March 21, 2008---

Anyone who has spent time around Rick Dutrow probably would agree his disposition is described best with one word: unflappable. He doesnt rattle easily, has an easy way of moving about and answers questions in matter-of-fact style, like hes been there, done it.

So, will he allow his first Kentucky Derby get the better of him, is there any anxiety about the pressure cooker hes about to enter, will it alter the confidence he has in his training program?

That would be no, no and no.

Im going to follow his lead, said the trainer of Big Brown, one of the strong Florida Derby favorites, said in his stable office, Barn 22, at the Palm Meadows training center. Hell take us as far as we can go.

From what he sees thus far, Dutrow believes, as does his jockey, Kent Desormeaux, who forsook a trip to Dubai for next Saturdays World Cup festivities to ride Big Brown at Gulfstream.

Desormeauxs agent, Mike Sellito, said it best a few weeks ago when he informed his regular customers and the rest of the racing world: Where Big Brown goes, Kent Desormeaux will go.

For Desormeaux on Wednesday, that meant a short trip north on I-95, west on 595, then north on Floridas Turnpike, about 30 miles and a couple of furlongs by car from the Fort Lauderdale International Airport. He worked his Florida Derby mount five furlongs.

After working Big Brown five-eighths in a minute, like breaking so many sticks--I told him not too fast, not too slow,--Desormeaux got off the colt, walked into Dutrows office and said: You know, the other day when he won, I was so high that I was saying crazy things, like hes the best horse Ive ever ridden. Now I think he really might be.

Dutrow recalled Desormeauxs words before showing the reporter his trainers log book, repeating exactly what he told the rider in response to his best horse comment. First, some background:

Dutrow and the entire racetrack knew what he was getting even before Big Brown walked into his barn following a private purchase for a major interest in the colt. Big Brown had run exactly once, on the grass at Saratoga. He left the barrier so fast that he blew the first turn but, after settling into comfortable stride, Jeremy Rose pushed the button into the stretch and Big Brown drew off to win by 11 lengths.

Not long after the highly successful IEAH group outbid Darley Stable interests for Big Brown, he was turned over to Dutrow, who immediately pointed to the inaugural Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf. Plans were scrapped when the colt developed a quarter crack. Back to the drawing board, Dutrow repeated the process this year but before the colt could return to the races he developed another quarter crack on the off side.

Following more rest and repair, Big Brown started shed-walking Feb. 1 until finally, on the 11th, with the crack almost completely healed, Big Brown began jogging two miles a day. Between Feb. 11 and Mar. 1, Big Brown had three workouts, all of the not-too-fast-not-too-slow variety: three furlongs, galloping out a half-mile; a half-mile, out five furlongs, and finally five furlongs, out three-quarters.

I always thought he was better on turf but when I worked him in company and [older stakes horse] Diamond Stripes couldnt stay with him, I knew I had a turf horse AND a dirt horse.

He worked an unbelievable five furlongs--I couldnt imagine he was anywhere near 100 percent--but was fit and ready to run, Dutrow said. I asked the racing secretary to write a race; turf, dirt, it didnt matter. I told nobody about how I trained him. Then I called Bobby Frankel and said listen to what I did, I must be crazy. Bobbys a friend and he has a way of [keeping things in perspective].

A turf race was written for Mar. 5 but rain forced it to be rescheduled to a flat mile on the main track. After stalking a :22 4/5 and :45 1/5 pace, Big Brown easily took the lead approaching headstretch beneath a motionless Desormeaux, was six lengths in front in a twinkling and 12 lengths to the good at the end of a 1:35 3/5 mile.

Two starts, two wins, by a combined 24 lengths. Mike [Ivarone, managing partner of IEAH] called the night he won. I was so excited I couldnt talk.

[Big Brown] is so laid back, unassuming, said his trainer. He doesnt make you pay attention to him. On the track he does what you want and we let him do what he wants. Hes starting to come around, figuring things out. Now he wants to do more but we just try to keep him in hand.

The Florida Derby is Saturday, Mar. 29. Hell work next on the 25th, same thing, another five-eighths. Dutrow is not allowing himself to become too excited, and has no interest in trying to get to the bottom of Big Brown. Im just trying to stay out of his way.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Racing Must Hear its Customers

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla., Mar. 20, 2008

We interrupt our Road to the Kentucky Derby coverage to bring you this important message. Its about wagering, without which there would be no money for purses, and hence, no game.

You know that, of course. But it seems this fact goes unrecognized for long durations in this business if, indeed, it ever did receive the attention it truly deserves.

In case you missed it, there is an opinion essay addressed to the industry by Alex Waldrop, CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, in the March/April issue of Horseplayer magazine.

I've never met the man so I could be off base here. But my impression from the piece is that were not talking about an empty suit here. He addresses the concerns of horseplayers as if he gets it, as hard as that might be to believe.

But consider some of Waldrops text and judge for yourself...

"The fundamental economic engine that drives virtually all sectors of the racing pari-mutuel wagering. To accomplish positive stands to reason that we must engage and connect with those who wager, namely horseplayers"

"The one 'league' that has always existed within horse racing, albeit slightly under the surface, is the sports legion of horseplayers...."

"[We must] provide our customers with the information or even the software they need to create what they want for themselves, like designing their own bets...Why not formally enlist [horseplayers] in the process?"

I know what youre thinking: The industry can't even come up with a program for betting in real time; we still get those pesky after-the-bell odds machinations. They've been betting from their seats on hand-held computers for years in Hong Kong, why not here?

And my personal pet peeve: You ask a mutuel clerk for a printout of the late scratches and theres no delineation between the 1 and 1A in a stable coupling, so there's no knowing if one or both halves of an entry are scratched unless you hear the announcement. Thats never a given in simulcast situations.

Does it get more basic than that? Thank God people dont bet their money on these things, right?

The impetus for Waldrop's commentary was the conclusion of the successful National Handicapping Championship last winter in Las Vegas. The popularity of contests such as the NHC and Horseplayer World Series, two of the largest and most prestigious, is one of the few positive industry trends going forward and expansion is on the horizon.

There may be people who love the game more than Vinnie Ralph, but they wouldn't be easy to find. A resident of Woodbridge, New Jersey, Ralph would be considered a regular at a dozen different venues.

A few years ago, discussions between Ralph and Bill Nader, then of the New York Racing Association, led to moving the Pick 6 from races 3 through 8 to the final six races on the card. Ralph thought that repositioning the Pick 6 would dove-tail nicely with the Pick Four, already the last four races of the day.

Given this menu, the $1 Pick 4 would provide opportunities for hedging or optimization in the $2 Pick 6 pool. Since sizable wagers are usually involved, common sense prevailed and the wagering menu was altered. Listening to knowledgeable customers is the hallmark of a good executive. Hopefully, thats what Waldrops attempting here.

In his comments, Waldrop addressed the utility of a Horseplayers Coalition. Its mission is to use a portion of NHC Tour fees to fund NTRA's legislative initiatives, principally bringing about change in the current withholding statutes that apply to windfall payoffs generated by exotic wagering. Waldrop got Ralph to thinking.

Ralph spoke with a colleague capable of investing serious money into multi-race pools regarding the Magna 5. Ralph asked whether he had any interest in the wager. Like Ralph, the player was intrigued by the idea of five races conducted within an hour from good tracks featuring big fields replete with good horses. That is until they learned it cost $2.

Magna had envisioned carryovers which always boost handle but Ralph's research showed that since its inception in 2004, the Magna 5 carried over only twice. The $500,000 guaranteed pool fell short with more frequency.

Ralph has an idea for a new bet. He approached about a dozen big players and asked whether a new Pick Six bet should be $1 or 50 cents. A half a buck won in a landslide.

Ralph calls this new wager the "Quick 6." To prove the logistics work, he chose six races from May 12, 2007. Coincidentally, the tracks were all part of Churchill Downs Inc.

The 7th and 8th from Arlington Park; the 10th and 11th from Calder Race Course; and the 9th and 10th from Churchill Downs, were run between 5:01 p.m. and 5:52 p.m. It was do-able. But Ralph especially loves the Derby and he's looking for a way to fill the agonizing wait between the Woodford Reserve and Kentucky Derby.

The Derby day play took longer, 80 minutes, but still do-able. The half-dollar Quick 6 is a bet the average player or novice could afford, even with a 20-horse Derby field rounding out the sequence. Of greater import, it keeps money in circulation longer by often avoiding average withholding of 30 percent on large payoffs.

Ralph points out there would be 30 percent withholding on a $1 payoff of $5,100 but on two 50-cent tickets of $2,550, there would be none, zero, zip, nada. The Quick 6 would be offered every Saturday. In the event of a carryover, a Sunday sequence would complete the play.

While Waldrop likes the idea because it accomplishes three goals at once--creating something new; catering to average fans and addressing the withholding issue--there is some sentiment within the company to revive the NTRA Pick 4.

In the essay, Waldrop referred to an eight-year study focusing on young "Millenials," age 20 to 29. Research found that they were serious sports fans, were more likely wager on line, and would seek out games and sports that require thinking--counter-intuitive to what the industrys marketers have believed for years. Things change.

Waldrop wrote: "This is the greatest potential for growth our business has seen since the appearance of televised sports." As everyone knows, the window closed on that opportunity. But it had better not allow a myopic view of the future to compromise racings growth going forward in the name of corporate branding. This time, the stakes are too high.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

For the Good of the Game

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.---Mar. 19, 2008

Caught in a wave of humanity while trying to escape the paddock traffic, I bobbed and weaved my way through a record Tampa Bay Derby crowd toward the winners circle, mouth agape while trying to process what I had just seen.

After all, theres beat, then theres beaten off.

I saw Mike Welsch and Dave Josephs, heads down, eyes on notebooks, scribbling furiously, so I rushed over, looked up, and saw Robert LaPenta, as shocked as anyone in the building.

War Pass may not be Seattle Slew but in Tampa last Saturday he wasnt even War Pass.

Craning my neck forward to get closer to the conversation, I strained mightily to hear what was being said while the owner of War Pass recounted what led up to his colts operatic non-effort when out came words referencing a slight fever earlier in the week.

He didnt just say that, did he? I asked no one in particular, maybe not even myself. With that, a reporter turned, looked at me as if he, too, had heard something like this before and wished he hadnt.

When favorites are beaten people begin asking questions, trying to make logic soup from chaotic ingredients. But this was no ordinary favorite. This one was an unbeaten margin horse; this was the protem Kentucky Derby favorite that put a record 12,724 fannies in the seats. This one was 1-20!

And this was the one that spiked a fever earlier in the week.

Thinking before speaking is not always an option. Emotions cloud the brain as it tries to make sense of the surreal. The connections of racehorses never seem to be prepared for such moments, even if the chances are 1-20 that there will be more like these than the one in which they picture themselves draped in roses at Churchill Downs on Mays first Saturday.

So pardon the public if they dont get it and forgive them if sometimes they would rather turn their back on this thing of ours rather than try to understand what happened and learn from it. Its just the damn media that gods these horses up like theyre Pegasus reincarnate then are at a loss to provide the why behind such a momentous fall.

And make no mistake. This was King Kong off the Empire State building.

Horses are, first and foremost, living, breathing, magnificent animals. Theres nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse, Lord Palmerston first said. And thats what the public relates to. Throw in a measure of invincibility and the magic of an American icon as the Kentucky Derby and the crescendo begins.

Racehorses are that and more. They are commodities bought on the open market which gives them value beyond aesthetics. Win some important races, do it in fast time, and the value increases exponentially. If they are singularly talented and high profile, and are coveted by oil glutted sheikhs, they become worth what some successful people call stupid money.

The public needs to understand this, factoring in the realization that they are made of flesh and blood and tendons and pasterns and hocks and hooves, and that theres nothing mechanical about any of it. Sometimes, as Ron McAnally reminded us, they give their lives for our pleasure. But sports fans must realize, too, that racehorses are treated better by their human caretakers than some humans take care of their own. Sad but true, the public needs to know this, too.

And they need to be educated the way other fans in this country are educated to care about baseball, football, basketball and all the rest. If there were really something wrong with Tom Bradys foot, would Bill Belichick shout it out for all the tabloids to hear?

OK, maybe coach Belichick is a poor example.

But when entries were drawn 48 hours in advance of the Tampa Bay Derby, stakes coordinator Duane Dube had done his best to scare up a few local rivals to support the event to give it the illusion of being a horse race and not a coronation. Had LaPenta or trainer Nick Zito referenced a fever earlier in the week, the event would have been over-filled like some beaten claiming race.

As a horse owner with a top prize of $180,000 on the line, would you rather face 10 rivals or five?

To paraphrase a previous administration in Washington D.C., its about the money stupid, not about stupid money. Treating racehorses like royalty is a big expense. Racetrackers correctly say its money that makes the mare go.

Be it emotionally or financially, everyone tethered to the racehorse knows and understands this. But the general public that attracted to the Derby does not and needs to be educated about the sports nuances. Its nuance that turns a sporting public into lifetime racing fans and horseplayers.

Since last Saturdays remarks, the connections of War Pass have begun to back away from the fever scenario. But this is not about whether there was a fever present or not; horseplayers seldom have a problem drawing their own conclusions.

This is about the time of year when sports fans begin to take notice and put their fannies in racetrack seats. In the continued absence of education, pre-race excuses made in post race interviews leave a bad taste and shows little regard for a bigger picture.

Its about time that the public is made to understand, as racetrackers do, that they all get beat, that theres no shame in defeat, that theres nothing sinister afoot.

Even the most well meaning of owners shouldnt make a bad situation worse. They should know enough to just hold their tongues and take their lumps. Nobody gets to have it both ways. Nobody and no horse, no matter how famous, is bigger than the game.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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