Sunday, March 16, 2008

Foreboding Omens in Tampa

OLDSMAR, Fla., March 16, 2008--

The horses for the 28th Tampa Bay Derby were filing into the paddock, one by one. With arms outstretched and fingers wrapped around digital cameras, the assembled among a record crowd of 12,746 waited for the star to arrive. And the champion is always the last one to enter the ring.

Atoned, glistening with health as he walked by, and the businesslike Big Truck, were already taking their turns around the saddling enclosure. Shortly thereafter, there began a stirring in the crowd, which turned into a buzz, which turned almost immediately hoots and howls.

Whats all the noise about? asked stakes coordinator Duane Dube, his question directed facetiously toward Barclay Tagg. Tagg laughed, Dube smiled, but he never broke stride as he worked his way down the line, one stall at a time.
War Pass entered the ring looking like a champion. He stopped just before stepping into the paddock area, pricked his ears and turned his head, surveying the crowd. All this took a couple of seconds, before he continued his walk toward stall number 3.

Before Nick Zito and longtime assistant Tim Poole moved in for the girth-tightening procedure, War Pass took a circumference or two of the enclosure, Zito, game face on, shared a few moments with owner Robert LaPenta until his cell phone interrupted their visit.

Horsey paparazzi, some credentialed, some not, were everywhere, shooting anything that moved. A small group of people, either the connections of one of the horses or visiting dignitaries, got as close as they could get to stall number three. When the moment was right, they began clicking or buzzing away. Some apparently had flash capability, a big no-no when pent-up racehorses are the subject.

Moments later, a young, well-dressed man with a lovely child perched atop his shoulders, approached the group and said in a nice way to no one in particular: I love all you people to death, but please dont flash pictures of the horse. It just sucks all the energy right out of them.

A racetracker for more than four decades, that was news to me. Maybe its because I dont know the difference between a view-finder and the backside of a horse. Just then my cell phone began to vibrate. I flipped the lid open to see whether I should take the call immediately or call back when, staring me in the face, I noted the moment in time: Sat, Mar. 15, 5:38 pm.

The Ides of March. Hmm.

The horses left their enclosures for one final tour of the ring. War Pass didnt turn a hair, as the racetrackers say, a real professional racehorse. Either that, or he could be a little flat. It happens without rhyme or reason sometimes. Not knowing the individual well, I cant say.

Atoned was the last horse to leave the ring. Later, he would lead the Derby pack into the stretch, absolutely running his eyeballs out. It would take a big truck to run over the top of this guy.

The horsemen followed their charges out of the paddock. As the trainer of the favorite walked by, I was tempted to say what I always say: Run good and come back good. But luck almost always has nothing to do with it. So instead, I said: Have a safe trip, Nick.

You said it right, Zito replied. Thats the only thing that really matters.

Luck, both good and bad, did have something to do with it: Bad because of the start, the brilliant speedster breaking two lengths slow away from the barrier; good in that nothing untoward happened to the colt. But War Pass and Cornelio Velasquez were buffeted about soon after the start, and were in uncomfortably close quarters on the first turn, Velasquez forced to steady as the leaders straightened away into the backstretch.

Meanwhile, Johnny Velazquez, as if reprising his winning ride on the filly in last years Belmont Stakes, had Atoned comfortably out in the middle of the Tampa Bay straight, way out, in fact, moving into the four path on the final turn as Velazquez attempted to pull the rug out from beneath his rivals hooves, surging to a clear advantage into the stretch.

At this juncture War Pass also was outside in the clear but obviously struggling over the surface and going nowhere. The early favorite for the Kentucky Derby was no longer going to be an undefeated champion, and his performance will be sure to open the flood-gates of Derby possibilities in coming days even wider.

As Atoned began to open his lead, Big Truck, appearing a bit heavy-headed, was being pushed on by Eibar Coa as they began their run for second. Leaving the quarter pole, as the horses came into view, Tagg ran toward the outside paddock railing and jumped up on a fence post, straining to see Big Trucks outside rally that reached even terms with Atoned before finally pulling away with 40 yards to go--all while trying to maintain his balance.

When they left the three-sixteenths, I was standing on the fence screaming and trying not to fall off, said a smiling, reflective Tagg in the winners circle amidst a media semi-circle. You just never know. Youre not supposed to beat War Pass going a mile and a sixteenth. But when I looked up and didnt see him, I thought he had on the wrong colors.

Tagg and owner Eric Feins concerns about graded earnings should not weigh on them too heavily, Big Trucks $180,000 share of the purse should be enough. Knowing in earnest that they belong, Tagg and Fein have a serious interest in staying on the Derby trail with their Tampa Derby winner. A phone call to Zito had yet to be returned as this is posted.

If you believe in omens and legends, it appears the Ides of March have claimed another victim. Either that, or the reason why its called gambling.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Friday, March 14, 2008

Will War Pass Prove as Hot as Tampa Bay Downs?

OLDSMAR, Fla., March 14, 2008---

Peter Berube looks quite comfortable, ergonomically speaking, in the leather chair inside his modest but nicely appointed office. A computer screen to his left is within arms length and a bank of television monitors are directly overhead. Post time for Fridays lid-lifter is 75 minutes away, 23 hours before the gates open for Saturdays Festival Day, a.k.a., Tampa Bay Derby day.

In his 14th year, the son of Paul Berube, retired head of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, the sports security arm, the youthfully fit 44-year-old has witnessed the kind of growth that must be the envy of the racing industry. Berube believes the impetus for this success came 11 years ago when Tampas own track maintenance crew installed a turf course.

A review of Tampas history hints this country track on Floridas left coast always might have been destined for good things. It began when two partners opened Tampa Downs in 1926. One of them, Col. Matt Winn, went on to become the promotional genius behind the success of the Kentucky Derby a decade later.

During World War II, the U.S. Army built barracks on the track grounds that housed troops trained in the art of jungle warfare that was practiced in the Japanese theater. Three years later, the Sunshine Park Racing Association was formed and Sunshine Park opened in 1947. In that era, Tampa played host to legendary sportswriters Grantland Rice, Red Smith and Arthur Daley who came south each winter to cover the spring training exhibition season.

Upon the retirement of Sam F. Davis in 1980, the track was renamed Tampa Bay Downs and a year later Budweiser sponsored the inaugural Tampa Bay Derby, the same year an apprentice named Julie Krone won her first race en route to a Hall of Fame career. Last year, Street Sense became the first Breeders Cup Juvenile winner to win the Kentucky Derby after making his three-year-old debut in this tracks signature event. Tampa handled $10.9-million from all sources that day. It had arrived.

We wanted to attract major outfits with better horses and they wanted turf. So we installed the turf course and its made all the difference." And so the major outfits came and brought with them better stock. Thats reflected in the fact that purses have increased every year since.

[Field size] was always good here, 8.5 to 9. But its grown with turf racing, reaching 9.6 and 9.7 two and three years ago. Its down a bit this year at 9.3.

Field size isnt the only number thats taken a small hit. Weekday on-track attendance and handle is down. Weve seen some growth in our export signals but when you look at sales tax figures and hotel receipts state-wide, its clear that a lot of people havent come to Florida this year. Weekends are good. Our Poker Room is attracting a younger demographic, but the fixed-income people we usually get are hurting.

In addition to the Poker Room which, by statute, must pay half its profits into the purse account, Tampa has taken other measures to drive business. It installed The Downs, a 17-acre Practice Golf Facility featuring a short game area, golf schools, Jr. golf camps, and a one of its kind driving range with self-service betting machines. A miniature golf course is on the drawing board.

Tampa Bay Downs is not a typical racino that segregates casino patrons from the racetrack. The Silks Poker Room has simulcast monitors surrounding its 26 tables, live betting windows, self-service machines and an unobstructed, birds-eye view of the races. We want new people to come out to the racetrack, said Tampas vice-president and general manager.

And horseplayers were not ignored in the expansion process. Tampas first elevator was installed in the grandstand last year and Berube promises an aggressive capital expenditure plan will allow for continuing major renovations.

Even with live parimutuel numbers in slight decline, the purse increases that went into the first condition book will continue through the rest of the meet that ends May 4, the day after the Kentucky Derby. Were going to hit our poker [projections] so purses wont take a hit.

But will Tampa, like some other tracks, run cheaper stock to save purse money? Tomorrow would be a good example. Last year we carded three beaten claimers, this year none. We want to maintain structure and dont want purses fluctuating from [condition] book to book. Horsemen love five-horse fields. Thats not our philosophy. What fills is what goes.

In December 2006, seven riders suspected of being involved in betting rings or working independently were told to leave the grounds. No evidence of wrongdoing was found and recently, when five of the riders applied for re-admission, all were denied. All racetracks have the right of exclusion if it feels the decision is in their best interests.

Integrity is a prime concern. Without it there is no racing. Until the investigation is complete, [the ban] must continue. Thats Tampas position. You cant tell the FBI what to do.

In addition to the Tampa Derby, the little track that could will offer the Hillsborough Stakes, Dreaming of Anna vs. Lures Princess Redux, two of the best turf fillies in training. Ninety minutes later, Nick Zito will try to emulate the Tampa Derby victory of the 2006 juvenile champion with the 2007 champion.

In a game where the good news is routinely outdistanced by the bad, and the only measures of success are the bottom line and fan perception, the notion that Tampa Bay Downs must be doing something right is indisputable.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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On Dark Days, Horsemen Really Gamble

OCALA, Fla.--March 13, 2008

No Racing Today.

No problem.

On a day that started out crisp and sunny but would begin to melt into a late morning sun, the drive 80 miles north from Tampa on Interstate 75 was a hell of a way to spend a dark day at Tampa Bay Downs, where on Saturday, undefeated juvenile champion War Pass will take a sixth step toward his date with destiny.

The word from the racing secretarys office was that the entries were filling slowly, including a handful of six-horse fields. The local publicists call Saturday, the afternoon of the Tampa Bay Derby, Festival Day, where there also will be a handful of stakes races as the little track that could hopes to make hay out of its day on the national stage.

But those few anxious moments turned out to be exactly that, a few anxious moments. With the exception of the Derby, that drew six rivals for War Pass, and the six-horse Hillsborough, 127 entrants will compete in 13 events, an average of just under 10 per race. Is there a track anywhere in the country that wouldnt sign that bottom line for their one day in the sun?

The two-year-old-in-training sales, a.k.a. breeze-up sales, presented by the Ocala Breeders Sales company, features fast horses and sexy pedigrees. Its why theyre called select sales. Its not easy on young horses when the faster they breeze the more money they bring at auction. But that topics for another day. As Jimmy the Gent would tell you: It is what it is.

But this is the business the modern breeding industry has chosen. It was how Justin Casse, a second generation horseman, son of prominent Florida breeder and prolific gambler, Norman, and his brother Mark, a trainer, the Prince of Toronto, wanted to spend his life, as a bloodstock agent. His mother Linda, a former commentator and handicapper for the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, is, of course, very proud.

Justin, still in his 20s, had a breakout year in 2007, selling two horses for a half-million dollars each. He has seven head in the sale that takes place next Tuesday and Wednesday. I havent had any that have worked lights out, he said outside Barn 9, a football field away from the sales pavilion, but I have a filly I think youll really like.

All my horses were probably a work away from their best, and this filly wasnt going to work fast anyway. Shell probably want a mile and an eighth.

The filly is Hip#316, a daughter of Candy Ride, a champion miler in Argentina, twice a Group 1 winner in his native country before coming to America and winning, among other graded races, the G1 Pacific Classic in track record time.

Two years ago Candy Ride was bred to Fortunes Favour, an unraced daughter of Sir Ivor that produced five winners from nine foals to race, which makes #316 a half-sister to multiple stakes-winning Rapunzel Runz. Shes all class but probably will be a little slow to come around, shes a May 14 foal. You should probably put her in your stable mail.

For the time that I was there, trainer Steve Klesaris wore out a path between barns 9 and 8, closely inspecting about a dozen babies. Hey Steve. What happened with Roman Emperor in the Gotham? Thought he was sitting nicely tucked up when they came out of the fog at the quarter pole, but he didnt go on with it.

He fought the jock all the way. Jeremy [Rose] tried to get him to settle but couldnt. He said he couldnt even see out there. When he finally settled, he was done.

I asked how the rest of his winter was going. Well, Im not down here this year, only for the sales. Im at Fair Hill [training center] all the time. I saw the Gulfstream book, the kind of races they were writing, and decided to stay where I was.

Buzz Chace, a man with a great eye for a racehorse, had just arrived on the red eye from Southern California where he was working the Barretts Sales. Alongside was Terry Finley, the president of West Point Thoroughbreds, in town to buy some babies recommended by Chace and to cheer for his G1 winning filly Lures Princess in tomorrows G3 Hillsborough.

I wanted to know how Saratoga Russell, the beaten Gotham favorite, was doing after his disappointing effort. He shut down, but hell be fine, assured Finley, in reference to an entrapped epiglottis, a problem easily corrected by a minor procedure.

Run good and come back good, was my wish for Lures Princess as I backed away from their lunch table. And dont let Dreaming Of Anna get away easy, he said, this time referencing his fillys nose defeat to the 2006 juvenile champion in the Endeavour Stakes last month, when the speedy Anna got loose on an easy lead.

As I walked back to the car for the return ride to Tampa, Klesaris stopped in for a bit of lunch, and Chace and Finley walked back to the yards, looking for their next Grade 1 winner. Maybe theyll find another Lures Princess. As an OBS graduate, shes another reason why its called a select sale.

Written by John Pricci

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