Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for ESPN.com, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, July 18, 2011


Coming-Out Party


(SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – July 18, 2011) The reason that hope remains a commodity in horse racing circles is because a good horse can turn up anywhere. Even though buyers at last week’s Fasig-Tipton July Sale in Lexington, KY faced up to their responsibility to be optimistic with limited vigor, Saratoga Racecourse stands ready to infuse the sport with some fresh expectation.

For all its management’s concern about how to maintain the quality standards that have made it America’s premier racing product (the horse shortage threatens the condition book, the handicap division is weak and three-year-olds aren’t up to the Travers), the Spa still has its two-year-old racing program. When the historic track opens for the 143rd time this upcoming weekend, it will host three graded stakes, of which two are for two-year-olds.

Bookending Saturday’s Grade 1 TVG Coaching Club American Oaks for three-year-old fillies on Saturday will be the Grade 3 Schuylerville for two-year–old fillies on Friday and the Grade 2 Sanford for two-year-old colts on Sunday. Five additional graded stakes for juveniles are scheduled to complete the meet. Seventy races for maiden two-year-olds are being written for Saratoga’s 40 days and, rightfully so, NYRA’s publicity department is trumpeting this phase of the operation over the tracks more established features.

Last week, publicist Jon Forbes posted a release on the NYRA Web site touting Saratoga as being the place for the nation’s best two-year-olds to debut. His release provided a list of 21 horses that started at Saratoga and went on to graded stakes glory in the 10 months that followed. Uncle Mo, the Champion Two-Year-Old Colt of 2010, topped the list. More Than Real and Winter Memories, the one-two finishers in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, were included. The list was noteworthy, however, in that only a few of the 21 listed distinguished themselves in Triple Crown races.

Triple Crown racing has become the barometer used to identify the best horses in the three-year-old division, horse racing’s glamour division, and although Saratoga two-year-olds ran in abundant numbers in these classics, they fared merely adequately.

Mucho Macho Man, third in his second career start at the Spa, ran third in the Kentucky Derby, sixth in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont. Brilliant Speed, a dismal seventh against Mucho Macho Man in the race that he ran at Saratoga, was sixth in the Derby and third in the Belmont. Stay Thirsty, twelfth in the Derby and second in the Belmont, won upstate in his second race and finished second in the Hopeful. Astrology, third in the Preakness, was third at Saratoga in his maiden endeavor and won the next time out.

What one might say about the other Saratoga starters of 2010 with 2011 Triple Crown history – Santiva, Soldat, Derby Kitten, King Congie and Isn’t He Perfect – is that they were okay, nothing more. Two Triple Crown duds, namely Santiva and Soldat, performed well at the Spa, but the rest finished up the track everywhere. In all, there were 31 individual Triple Crown starters combined and nine of them had Saratoga in their PPs, 29 percent in total. Of those nine, three were winners at Saratoga. None got roses, black-eyed Susans or carnations.

Only two of the last dozen Kentucky Derby winners had Saratoga experience. Among the 19 2011 Derby starters, six were seen at Saratoga. Of the Preakness’s 14, there were four. Of the Belmont’s dozen, there were five. Considering how young horses can’t take the grind in the same way they used to, and considering the early drop-out rate that they’ve established, you’d think fewer would make it that far, and you’d think the two-year-old program at Saratoga would suffer. But it doesn’t seem to be happening.

Five years ago, Saratoga produced an almost identical record in terms of its two-year-olds and Triple Crown matters. In 2006, there were 31 unique starters in the three Triple Crown races combined and six raced at Saratoga (19 percent). Of the six Saratoga runners, two were winners (33 percent). Ten years ago, in 2001, there were 25 unique starters and six raced at Saratoga (24 percent). Of the six to run at Saratoga, two won (33 percent). Thirty years ago, in 1981, the numbers were slightly different, but equally impressive – 16 percent of the Triple Crown horses raced at Saratoga and 60 percent of those won.

In the past four runnings of the Triple Crown series, 30 individual horses have finished in the top three. Of those 30 horses, 12 competed at Saratoga as juveniles. That means that 40 percent of horses to have placed in a Triple Crown event in the last four years have emerged from Saratoga. Of those 12 horses, only one won his career debut; three others won at Saratoga in their second start and the remaining eight competed at the Spa without winning.

Saratoga is still a coming-out party for future stars. However, they might not be the horses you would expect. Not all of the Saratoga runners that went on to success in the classics actually won at the Spa. The horses that dazzle us by breaking their maidens impressively or winning some of Saratoga's juvenile stakes may not be in the headlines come the following spring.

Young racehorses develop mentally and physically at a different pace. The early bloomers may not withstand the rigors of training or may fall off the radar once the late bloomers catch up with them developmentally. Often, horses that emerge from Saratoga to make waves the next spring aren’t easily spotted at Saratoga because they were flying under the radar of the early bloomers.

If you're at Saratoga trying to see a star of tomorrow, it might be best to look for latent talent. That being the case, the situation, as it stands, speaks highly of all horses competing in maiden two-year-old races that Saratoga cards.

By Vic Zast and Nicole Russo

Nicole Russo, a horse racing writer for The Saratogian newspaper, is an expert on two-year olds and collaborated with Vic Zast to write this column. This is Vic Zast’s last column for HorseRaceInsider.com for awhile. He is going on self-imposed sabbatical to complete the production of a feature-length documentary film (see http://www.ourlongestdrive.com). Keep following Vic Zast’s horse racing interests at http://www.bloodhorse.com, facebook.com and twitter.com.



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Monday, July 11, 2011


Major League


(SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – June 11, 2011) Horse races were held at 26 different North American racecourses Saturday, but only races at three or four of the racecourses were significant. That, of course, is from the point of view of horse racing fans. If you owned or trained a horse in a race at any of the other racecourses, you wouldn’t think that. Sunday, by the way, wasn’t different.

The Irish invader Cape Blanco confirmed the superiority of European-trained horses on US turf by beating Gio Ponti in the Man O’ War at Belmont Park. First Dude and Game on Dude finished one-two in the Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park. Take your pick from here on in as to which of Saturday’s races you’d add to the list. But don’t put the American Classic at Arlington Park, won by Willcox Inn, on a par with the features at Calder or Delaware. For that matter, don’t believe that Arlington Million preview day was a preview of Arlington Million day.

Tajaaweed took the Arlington Handicap. Fantasia grabbed a victory in the Modesty Handicap. But few of the horses they beat will be factors in August when Cape Blanco and a few other middling foreign invaders come a calling. At Calder’s Summit of Speed, Sassy Image snagged the Princess Rooney, Calder’s only Grade 1; Indiano took the Carry Back and Giant Ryan the Smile Sprint Handicap. At Delaware Park, St. John’s River won the Delaware Oaks. Am I missing anything? If so, that’s my point.

The point is that horse racing can be enjoyed thoroughly even if only a few tracks would be in business. Technology has created a situation that enables you to watch and bet on races from anywhere. A couple dozen racecourses could go out of business and few people, other than the people whose jobs depend on these venues or the people who’d bet on anything, would notice. In fact, a consolidation into a dozen main racing centers might be good for the sport. It would help the horse shortage, for example, and funnel betting dollars to raise purses at and provide advertising budgets for the surviving tracks.

A dozen racecourses serving the country was the prevailing prediction when simulcasting and off-track betting came to the fore in the mid-1980s. There wasn’t going to be near the number of tracks in operation as there are today. Survival of the fittest was supposed to weed out the weakest. The racing centers left to operate once the cleansing occurred were supposed to be flourishing pinnacles of the sport, offering top-notch competition of incomparable comparison. What took place that it didn’t happen?

Only one or two operators – Churchill Downs Incorporated and MI Developments – seem possessed of the instinct to run sub-standard businesses to the ground. CDI has expressed the intention to close its racetracks that don’t have slot machines. MID has put Oak Tree at Santa Anita out of business and has pressured Calder, a CDI property, to surrender some dates so it could operate longer. In America, it’s the natural inclination of business operators to beat the competition to a pulp, grabbing market share en route to market dominance. Yet, horse racing, with these two exceptions, hasn’t shown that it’s so inclined.

With 90 percent of handle generated off-track, there is little commercial need for local product. Many tracks stay open, running nondescript races for slow horses in front of empty grandstands, just to qualify by law as off-track betting operators. Sure, they serve as employers, providing jobs, supporting farmers and giving people and horses on the fringe a broken-down place to eke out a living. But many of these tracks are marginally successful, relying heavily on subsidies, giving the game a bad name and, as such, they’d be swept away as perfunctorily as a Border’s or Kmart location that was underperforming if they belonged to a single entity or answered to a central authority that governed the sport.

Competition is what propels capitalism and, according to some, it was capitalism that made this nation the world’s most powerful economic engine. It is difficult to conclude that horse racing, acting in the manner of a social club, can be successful at defining itself in a way that its customers would prefer. Time and again, the sport proves that, when conducted to meet the highest standards, it becomes viable as appealing entertainment for the masses.

No prosperous business is able to offer two kinds of products within the context of one brand – one performing at a peak and the other in the valley. There aren’t McDonalds with substandard Big Macs or Sony televisions that produce fuzzy pictures. If you lump Saratoga in with Ellis Park like the NTRA and TRA do, you confuse the end user to think they’re the same. Even sports have their big leagues and minor leagues.

If the sport formed a compact that permitted it to organize properly, there might be a “major league” of horse racing that existed above the fray of mediocrity. To a certain extent, isn’t that we have conceptually? Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Gulfstream Park, Woodbine, the Southern California tracks and NYRA, for the most part, own a monopoly on the leading owners, horses, trainers and jockeys. They’re where the preponderance of graded stakes is run. These tracks present horse racing on a level that makes it seem major league. If there’s a renaissance to take place, it would be at these venues where the renaissance would surface.

People can have a fine time at a minor league ballpark. But they won’t see a Derek Jeter play, let alone see him slam a home run for his 3000th hit. Products made from cheap ingredients will prove less desirable than a product made of fine ingredients. Distribution and packaging help people to evaluate offerings. Pricing that’s set too low won’t boost sales but will hinder them. Horse racing’s about marketing, isn’t it? Or am I again missing something?

Vic Zast begins Vic Zast's Saratoga Diary on bloodhorse.com starting July 22. Follow him there and on Facebook and Twitter.


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Monday, July 04, 2011


Summer at Saratoga


(CHICAGO, IL – July 4, 2011) What is it about how much money a man makes that gets so many other men jealous or curious? Maybe some men don’t make what they think they deserve and kvetching about other men’s riches gives them some sort of weird satisfaction.

Regardless, the apology that NYRA CEO Charles Hayward gave for failing to re-iterate to the State guard dogs those pay increases that he and his colleagues gave themselves a bit ago has predictably become the primary news of last Monday’s pre-season Saratoga press conference. It’s a shame because there was news coming out of the Desmond Hotel confab that was infinitely more noteworthy than his compensation or memory loss.

Look, a person finds happiness only in what he achieves, how he lives his life and who loves him. So the whole matter of salary in terms of a public servant is only meaningful in relation to whether or not the public is getting its money worth. In any case, a more significant matter than compensation was discussed Monday that should be on everyone’s lips – and it has little to do with congruence.

NYRA did not pursue NBC Sports and VERSUS to televise races from Saratoga. But the networks are currently advertising a “Summer at Saratoga” eight-hour, seven-weekend series of live racing from the Spa on such widely-viewed programs as Wimbledon. Only a year ago, the best the Travers could do was the MSG Network. Horse racing, in the main, over the past couple years, has been streaming its races via the NTRA instead of televising them because of network recalcitrance. Now that's news worth talking about.

“I think that horse racing suffered because of the lack of promotion, consistency and continuity of not having the Triple Crown all on one network,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and VERSUS, in a telephone interview. Miller credited his network’s take-back of the television rights for the Belmont Stakes from ABC-TV and ESPN as the impetus to move forward with Saratoga horse racing. Flush with his networks' vastly improved ratings for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and the Belmont, he contacted Len DeLuca, a longtime ESPN programming executive, who began his own business serving NYRA’s Belmont Stakes network coverage ambitions, and, eventually, Hayward, with a sweetheart proposal.

“It turned out that August, late July to early September, was a time that, if we got creative, we could put something together,” said Miller, who noted that Saratoga Springs is the kind of authentic slice of Americana that viewers everywhere would enjoy learning about. Horse racing per se is a niche product, attracting a loyal and passionate fan base, but a hard sell to mainstream sports lovers. Not surprisingly, Miller's credited for creating the wildly-popular NHL Winter Classic, which defies the belief that the interest in pro hockey was restricted also.

Notwithstanding the comparison, Miller acknowledges that Saratoga is basically an Eastern product as compared to the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup, which have wider consumer awareness. On the other hand, he believes that NBC Sports and VERSUS can showcase the trainers and jockeys, the setting, the track itself and the historic nature of Saratoga Springs in such a manner that the provincial nature of the content will become inconsequential. Horse racing buffs, heed the warning.

What’s likely is that Saratoga’s dewy mornings, its Victorian homes and healing waters, the legends of Diamond Jim Brady and Lilly Langtry and Man ‘O War and Secretariat as well as the yearling sales will provide much of the programs’ subject matter. NBC Sports, much to the credit of Dick Ebersol, believes that the art of story-telling is vital to engaging people. The network’s producers know, for example, that the hat contest for “Hat’s Off to Saratoga” weekend will be, in at least some family rooms, a more interesting race than the Coaching Club American Oaks. “If this is successful," Miller said about leveraging the human interest, "I fully believe that we can do this at other places."

“Ratings are one measuring stick, but they’re not the only measuring stick,” Miller said about measuring success. The well-spoken television executive cited industry involvement, horsemen’s support (he wants trainers to step up and enter their best horses in his televised races not in races that offer the biggest purses), the sales marketplace and affiliate station reaction as factors that will determine what’s to become of the program.

That being said, the audience for televised horse racing, while not paltry or lowbrow, hasn’t been large enough or sufficiently demographically diverse to attract mainstream advertisers. Although NBC Sports and VERSUS were able to produce Triple Crown shows that were watched by women, the sport’s core following is middle-class, male-dominated and aging. Travelers Insurance, however, believes in the product and has stepped up already to become an advertiser on “Summer at Saratoga.” Miller didn't sound worried that others won't follow suit.

There were so many obviously beneficial aspects to the NBC Sports and VERSUS Saratoga programing that even a non-salaried NYRA intern could have seen the wisdom in moving forward with Miller’s proposal. That the highest-paid guy cemented the deal is merely a function of protocol. Yet, you wouldn’t have wanted a rube undeserving of Hayward’s salary, low in comparison to people who normally oversee assignments like this, to have been in charge.

If NBC Sports and VERSUS continue next year with Saratoga, they will be carrying the Olympic Summer Games from London during the Saratoga season and a horse racing lead-in, especially one rich in the same type of interesting stories that make the viewing of Olympics a joy as well as a ratings phenomenom, would help to create new fans not imagined. All of horse racing, which surely must realize that New York is the leader in the sport, will bask in the positive glow of the Saratoga telecasts.

The most heartening aspect is that NBC Sports and VERSUS team of top-notch broadcasters will put horse racing’s best face on to safeguard their employer’s investment. Such positive reinforcement for the sport will surely beat the belly-aching and nitpicking that goes on when its leaders are left to talk about pay stubs.

Vic Zast will be keeping Vic Zast's Saratoga Diary for bloodhorse.com for the sixth year, beginning with Saratoga's opening day - July 22.


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