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, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, 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, August 06, 2007

Milestones Missing from Hall of Fame Membership

On Saturday, at the age of 32 years and eight days, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez hammered his 500th career home run and stood to watch the ball leave his bat like the Little Leaguer who disdains his coachs lesson that to not run is to upstage the pitcher.

Despite the grandstanding, baseball commissioner Bud Selig let out a deep sigh and a warm smile, knowing that even though Barry Bonds tied Hank Aaron for the most home runs hit by a Major Leaguer that very same day, Rodriguez would be wiping the name of the suspicious San Francisco Giants slugger from the top spot in the record books soon.

Records are made to be broken, so the clich goes. And we seem to be in an era when theyre broken routinely. On Sunday evening, New York Mets pitcher Tom Glavine recorded his 300th pitching victory. On Saturday afternoon, Toronto Blue Jays DH Frank Thomas, long ago thought to be yesterdays news, served notice with his 505th homer that the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown will have to wait a little while longer before its time for him to be fitted for one of those honorary blazers.

Unlike Horse Racings Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, the Baseball Hall of Fame requires that players are out of the sport at least five years before enshrinement. The Horse Racing Hall of Fame admits trainers who have trained thoroughbreds 25 years and jockeys who have ridden 20 years, regardless of whether or not they stay active. Racing reserves the right to waive the wait, should someone deem patience is not prudent.

The requirements, of course, produce controversial choices. Trainer Leroy Jolley, who was elected in 1987 for earlier success with Ridan, Foolish Pleasure and Genuine Risk, might not have been selected if the voters were asked to give weight to his sorry performance with horses since. Likewise, jockey Earlie Fires has sat in a lot of saddles since giving his teary acceptance speech in 2001, but he hasnt won often during the dry-eyed portion of his career, if ever.

Who is truly worthy of a wall plaque and who isnt has been an argument that surfaces each August when the new inductees are given their due publicly. Without unofficial barometers such as 3000 hits, 500 homers or 300 pitching wins the unspoken criteria for Baseball Hall of Fame inclusion, the election of individuals and horses to Racings Hall of Fame is based on no specific standard. As a matter of fact, many voters are casting ballots never having seen the nominees in action.

Ed Bowen, the chairman of the Horse Racing Hall of Fame election committee, says there cant be standards because the reality that represents excellence has changed so much through the decades.

Mike Kane, the museums ommunications director, points out that a trainer like Todd Pletcher, more than a dozen years away from election according to current rules, has amassed more than twice the earnings of trainers who were equally successful at turning runners into winners when purses were smaller.

In bygone days, racetracks carded only seven races daily and raced only several months a year. To base a jockeys election on the number of his winning rides might favor jockeys who rode often in the modern era as opposed to those who rode spectacularly when fewer races were run, the thinking goes.

When it comes to horses, should winning often or winning at a high percentage of starts or winning a Classic qualify an animal for admittance? As horses race fewer races because of early retirement, should charismatic horses like Barbaro with only seven lifetime starts, Bernardini with eight or Smarty Jones with nine be considered?

Of this years class, Silver Charm recorded 12 lifetime victories in 24 starts and captured the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Dubai World Cup en route to nearly $7 million in earnings. Moms Command swept New Yorks Triple Crown for Fillies and won 11 races overall. Swoons Son, who raced in the early 1950s, won 22 stakes and defeated Round Table and Needles.

Jose Santos enters the Hall today retired with 4083 career victories, while John Sellers, riding in the 1970s, had 2797 winning mounts. Trainers Henry Forrest, Frank McCabe and John Veitch had in common that they didnt get in the way a good horses talent.

Regardless of the disparity in the records of these men and horses, nobody should suggest that one might be deserving of the honor and another might not that is, until someone conducts a study of which standards suggest the ultimate recognition.

Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, July 30, 2007

On the Corner of Bird Town and Funny Cide

At a racetrack on the corner of thoroughfares ceremoniously named Bird Town and Funny Cide, Street Sense took an important step down the road to becoming the Horse of the Year.

Without Invasor in his path, the path is wide open. Trainer Steve Asmussen keeps saying that Curlin may not face Street Sense until the Breeders Cup Classic. Who knows when well see, if ever, Rags to Riches again.

It is not always the best horse that wins the Eclipse, but the most charismatic. But in Street Sense, the voters can look to a horse with extraordinary talent and enough of the immeasurable to please the masses. While the memory of Barbaro is hard to abandon, sooner or later, fans will understand that you bury the past.

Yesterday, trainer Carl Nafzger saddled the Kentucky Derby winner in the paddock, instead of bringing him out into the open where everyone could see him. Yet, once under tack and on his way to the track, the bay son of Street Cry with four bandaged ankles was showered with applause.

Clearly much of the horses charisma flows from the fact that he won Americas most visible race. Street Senses appearance in the Jim Dandy was the first time a reigning Derby champ has run at Saratoga since 1995 when Thunder Gulch came to the Spa course and conquered.

Now clearly, the goal for Street Sense is to win the Travers. You should see more timing, more rhythm, more fitness than he had today, Nafzger said after the Jim Dandy. You should see a better horse. And he has a race on the track now, so thats a big advantage.

If Street Sense wasnt cranked up to his zenith, then whats there to say for the other five horses that he faced?

CP West ran okay, but trainer Nick Zito made it sound like he couldnt do any better. Im excited, Zito proclaimed after the horses were unsaddled. He ran second to a champion, he said, as if conceding divisional honors.

Said trainer Shug McGaughey about finishing third with his runner, If Sightseeing does really well and the owners want to run in the Travers, I sure wouldnt be opposed to that. Perhaps McGaugheys better at math than he is at handicapping and can figure out that second in a race worth $1 million isnt shabby.

Street Senses jockey Calvin Borel maintains steadfast confidence, however, that his mount is the cream of the crop. As proof of his belief, he rode the same sort of Jim Dandy that he rode in the Derby - one that might get him fired with another result. Even track announcer Tom Durkin seemed on edge that the winner was hopelessly trapped on the fence. He mentioned it three times in his call, at least twice unnecessarily.

When Borel noticed an opening after passing the quarter pole, the likable (his own word) Cajun eased his colt four wide of the leaders and set out to get them. Street Sense felt the slap of Borels crop on his behind 14 times and a couple more times on his shoulder. The horse raced on like it meant bubkes to him if he won, but the punishment was incentive enough for him to go about his business.

About the same time last year, people here on the fringes of the Adirondacks were talking about Bernardini in the same reverent terms as they now speak of Street Sense. Bernardinis Travers was a celestial tour de force that made him seen god-like. Its good when the sport has an attraction that appears to be without equal, but even better when that star has a worthy foe to defeat.

Lets light votive candles that Curlin wins his Haskell and shows up in the Travers. The Midsummer Derby then will serve either as a coronation or a prelude to the most meaningful Breeders Cup Classic since Easy Goer vs. Sunday Silence.

Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Pletcher Loads and Reloads

Todd Pletchers onslaught of Saratoga begins on Tuesday evening. Thats when the Center for Disability Services makes the trainer of Belmont Stakes winner Rags to Riches its 2007 honoree and asks invited guests to donate $100 each for the charity at the three-ring circus known as Siros, Saratogas popular restaurant with a racetrack in its backyard.

The next day Pletcher will most likely be honored again, but this time it will be because his 2-year-old filly Lady Chace has won the Opening Day Schuylerville Stakes. Then again on Thursday, hell be back to try again with one of two promising 2-year-old colts either the Tremont Stakes victor Readys Image, a son of More Then Ready, or The Roundhouse, recent maiden winner at Monmouth - in the Sanford Stakes.

Pletcher won last years Sanford with Scat Daddy en route to his fourth consecutive Saratoga training title and third consecutive Eclipse Award as Trainer of the Year. Mind you, the Sanford is a horse race thats been won by Secretariat and lost by Man O War, so it isnt just a piddling sprint on a Thursday afternoons card.

Since saddling his first winner in 1996, Pletcher, who, as the son of a trainer, began hot walking his dads horses at age seven, has steadily risen to the top of his profession to the point where he now has a monopoly on the leaders in most divisions.

Pletcher proved how deep in talent his stable is this past weekend. Because Rags to Riches ran a slight fever a week ago, he decided to take no chances with her in the Coaching Club American Stakes at Belmont. And so he substituted the hard-knocking Octave to annex the Second Jewel of New Yorks Triple Tiara.

Octave is no Rags to Riches even Pletcher admits that. But she will become the Alabama Stakes pick if Rags to Riches remains amiss. The compact daughter of Unbridleds Song has now won two Grade I Stakes in a row to go along with her Kentucky Oaks and Breeders Cup seconds. Owned by the enormously successful, and lucky, Starlight Stables of Jack and Laurie Wolf in partnership with Donnie Lucarelli, Octave ran the fifth fastest CCA Oaks in history.

Starlight will be taking on new partners in a venture called Starlight Racing beginning August 3. We will welcome new partners who have the desire to win North Americas best races and have fun doing it, Wolf noted in a prepared press release, adding that Pletcher will train the Starlight Racing horses.

On a second racing front Colonial Downs in Virginia, Pletcher entered a trio of 3-year-old colts in the $1 million Virginia Derby and won with the least likely of his three. At a price of $76 to win, Pletchers Red Giant nipped Alan Goldbergs Strike a Deal at the wire in a thrilling finish, while his other two runners, Circular Quay and Top Cross finished out of the money. Betting against Pletcher at 35-1 is like putting a gun to your head and hoping that it will misfire when you pull the trigger.

Of course, Pletcher doesnt win every race in which he enters a horse. But, if past is prologue, his strike rate should be around 30 percent at Saratoga. When youre successful to this end, it means that you never run out of ammunition.

Written by Vic Zast

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