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, July 16, 2007

Hard to Find Straight-Talk in Saratoga

The Zast family has moved its tack to Saratoga. In seven days, horse racing will begin in earnest in this thriving hamlet near the Adirondacks and for lovers of the sport, theres no better place for a total immersion.

Yes, you read it right in seven days. Thats because on Sunday the track will be opened to the public for a trial run and four non-betting races for steeplechase horses is on the card. Fans can bet among themselves, just as people do in the Bayou or at baseball games when they flash those video images of donuts or pizzas running an imaginary race across the scoreboard.

Then on Wednesday, July 25, the pari-mutuel betting portion of the meet begins 41 days, minus Tuesdays, ending on Labor Day. Purses will average a whopping $771,535 a day and 47 stakes races will be held.

Nevertheless, news here, for at least the last two years, has been which group is going to take over for NYRA in running the racing operations in the Empire State. A decision to select the new franchise owner was to have been made six months ago. But now Gov. Eliot Spitzer is feuding with Sen. Joe Bruno, the Senate Majority Leader, and chances are they wont have the consensus needed to appoint an operator this summer.

Meanwhile, two major stories on the track have been written one the retirement of a favorite son and the other a release from captivity of an equine ape. And like modern-day politics, neither of these developments offers even a glimmer of straight-talk.

The 7-year-old gelding Funny Cide, the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner that is owned by a bunch of blue collar guys with a stable of New York-bred claiming horses, is calling it quits. The Green Monkey, a $16 million yearling purchase by one of the worlds richest men, is reluctantly approaching his first starting gate.

We want to give him an opportunity to enjoy his retirement, noted Funny Cides part-owner Jack Knowlton, while assuring all that the horse was still sound. Well, what about us, Jack? Remember when 7-year-old geldings that were sound used to race for as long as the spirit moved them? Remember Kelso and Forego?

Kelso retired at age nine after starting 63 times and racking up 39 victories. Forego raced until he was eight, winning 34 times in 57 starts. Sackatoga made Funny Cide bow out after winning the $100,000 Wadsworth Memorial Handicap before a near record crowd at Finger Lakes and finishing his career as the victor in 11 of his 38 starts.

If anyone came to see him they would be elated with the way he looks, trainer Barclay Tagg inexplicably advised turf writer Steve Haskin of The Blood-Horse magazine after the announcement of Funny Cides retirement became public. But you have to stop on them sometime, and weve received a lot of critical mail for not retiring him.

In this age of political correctness and cautiousness, its pretty clear that there wont be many people, including Haskin, to write that Sackatoga should have barnstormed their sound horse for the benefit of fans. But for Tagg to say, as he did, that a demotion to stable pony was in store as some sort of reward for the former great horse, thats malarkey.

Regardless, as Funny Cide departs, The Green Monkey emerges. Look for him to race against other troubled three and four-year-old maidens at Saratoga in week one or two. I will do everything I can to have him as ready as I can first time out, and sometimes you can only do so much, trainer Todd Pletcher warned readers of the New York Times in Bill Findleys piece about the colts long-awaited debut at the races.

Pletchers quote read as waffled as Aunt Jemimas syrup. But, then, thats what you get when theres so much dough in the batter and not enough heat to make it edible. Its only 30 miles from the state capitol in Albany to the racetrack in Saratoga, but much shorter as the bull flies.

Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Venomous Times in the Horse Sport Fill Other Sports’ Void

Turf writers grab your laptops. Today is one of only two days all year on which no major sport is played.

Coverage of horse racing should be everywhere - NOT. The day before and the day after Major League Baseballs All-Star Game are the lone calendar days when the NFL, NHL, NBA, NASCAR or the UFC arent in business.

But how sad that stalled legislation, snake venom and the depleted Handicap Division are what we have to fill the void. Does it seem that horse racing makes headlines only when a politician gets involved (always!), a horse trainer dopes a horse (often) or an injury wipes out a runner (routine)?

On Friday the Illinois House defeated Gov. Rod Blagojevichs plan to lease the state lottery for $10 billion to help pay down the Prairie States colossal pension debt. Blagojevich has grandiose plans for improving education and providing health care, but Illinois has no money.

Now six weeks into overtime, the Legislature must come up with a budget soon, and gambling expansion, already shot down once in earlier sessions, may surface again as a solution for the shortfall thats needed to fund the governors programs. If so, the racetracks and OTB parlors could get video lottery terminals or new casinos could be built, thereby providing impact money to the tracks as compensation.

Without additional revenue, the Illinois tracks and Illinois horsemen might as well resign themselves to second-class racing. Illinois does the least of all states to support the industry already, and a once-important racing jurisdiction has felt the sting of neglect.

On the other hand, trainer Patrick Biancone is one guy who must believe hes attracting too much attention. Struck with problems relating to illegal medications in California and Kentucky, Biancone could become the first trainer tossed from competing on three continents. This time around, it was cobra venom. Just how does one go about getting poison from a snake (the cobra, not the trainer) like this anyway?

Well, it seems as though you can buy venom over the phone or on the Internet (surprise, surprise) from the Miami Serpentarium Laboratories in Punta Gorda, Florida. Recently, trainers at Saratoga Raceway were accused of using the illegal substance to deaden the sore limbs of harness horses. Regardless, the fact that Biancone might have used venom speaks volumes about how desperate winning becomes.

In the aftermath of Invasors retirement, heres a horse that you might want to keep your eye on, and a 3-year-old that is fun to follow but is not one to bet on.

Brass Hat made a triumphant return to the racetrack by breaking the track record at Churchill Downs in an allowance race. Once considered Americas top older horse, hes been off a year recovering from a fractured sesamoid. Now it seems that the owners son Buff Bradley, Brass Hats trainer, has him ready to rumble again.

Fred Bradley, the owner a former Kentucky state senator, is undoubtedly still smarting from the decision of Dubai racing officials for denying him the second place purse from the 2006 $6 million Dubai World Cup for a medication infraction. But it wont take Brass Hat long to start ringing up Bradleys cash register again.

As for the horse not to bet, The Green Monkey is ever so close to his first career start. The $16 million colt worked five furlongs in 1:00.40 at Belmont on Sunday. But beware at his cost, all it will take is a warning from trainer Todd Pletcher that the horse is a dud, and off hell go to the sidelines with some mysterious career-ending injury.

Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Finger Lakes on the 4th of July for the People’s Horse

Funny Cide has brought more fun to its owners and more satisfaction to the fans than any horse in memory.

Members of the Sackatoga Stable are off on another wild ride not to Churchill Downs on their yellow school bus, but to a small market racetrack on the wings of pure optimism.

Finger Lakes, a dirt-only outpost for patchwork-prone thoroughbreds on the fringes of competitiveness, noted last week that the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner was going to participate in its 4th of July Wadsworth Memorial Handicap.

In order to subsidize Funny Cides journey from Saratoga Springs, track president Chris Riegle announced that he convinced local horsemen to assist with a $50,000 boost of the Wadsworth purse. Normally, a stakes for 3-year-olds and up at a distance of 1 1/8 miles for $50,000, this years Wadsworth, now doubled in purse size, will be for $100,000.

Riegle argued successfully that Funny Cides appearance in the stakes would boost attendance for the holiday card by 400 percent. Not bad, for a 7-year-old gelding that is so past his prime he makes Perfect Drift look like an up-and-comer.

Im not seeing a horse that doesnt run as fast as he ever did, explained Jack Knowlton, Sackatogas spokesman, last week in The Saratogian newspaper. Nevertheless, his sight may be well short of 20/20. Funny Cide hasnt finished better than third in six recent starts, but this hasnt dissuaded the New York-breds owners from campaigning him aggressively.

Poor vision aside, Knowlton lacks nothing in enthusiasm. By sheer chest-thumping, hes moved front and center in the racing game by exploiting the excitement created by one horse. He became the main man in New York racing by simply promoting the sport whenever he was given the chance to promote Funny Cide. In addition to serving on the Ad Hoc Committee to recommend a new franchise operator for Empire State racetracks, Knowlton keeps busy granting interviews, giving speeches and making his voice heard at every turn imaginable.

Public relations are exactly the functions that he and his partners will perform in Canandaigua, New York this Wednesday. The Sackatoga Stable owners wont just be sitting around Finger Lakes tiny Turf Club awaiting the results of the Wadsworth. Theyll be signing autographs for the benefit of the Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program and posing for photographs with fans.

Moreover, as an added attraction, Finger Lakes fans will get to see Funny Cides Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Jockey Club Gold Cup trophies. We get a lot of support from New York State in general, but particularly from the Watertown, Syracuse and Rochester areas, Knowlton said about his ambassorship. The more people that get exposed to a champion, the better it is for the game, he said diplomatically and accurately.

Maybe it takes simple folks from little towns like Sackets Harbor, New York, where several members of the Sackatoga Stable hail from, to understand this dynamic.

After Street Sense won the Kentucky Derby this May, Arlington Park officials had the opportunity to pursue the horses Chicago-based owner to bring his champion back to the site of his maiden triumph by boosting the purse or providing a bonus for a midsummer race that could have served Street Sense as a prep for the Travers, but they didnt.

Jim Tafel is too busy and Dick Duchossois too disinterested to consider anything extraordinary for Street Sense. Jack Knowlton and Chris Riegle, on the other hand, are blue collar guys who understand that the Wadsworth Memorial and Finger Lakes is a good fit for the peoples horse.

Written by Vic Zast

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