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, June 04, 2007

Standards of Hall of Fame Greatness

As all-purpose Houston Astro Craig Biggio nears his 3000th career hit, baseball writers are beginning to assess his Hall of Fame credentials and note why he, with his .283 lifetime batting average, might belong in the company of Mantle and Musial and Mays.

The same thing happened last week when Braves pitcher John Smoltz recorded his 200th lifetime victory. Smoltz holds the all-time Major League record for most saves from a pitcher who has started and won 200 games and, predictably, observers with calculators quickly deduced that hed be approaching the magic number of 300 wins, had Atlanta not asked him to pitch in relief for three and a half seasons.

Human beings, who are burdened by emotion, elect players to Cooperstown. But this doesnt claim they have brains. After all, the electorate is comprised of sportswriters - fellows who depend on media guides more than they do on gray matter.

Baseball provides measures or milestones which automatically allow players to get elected. Get 3000 hits like Biggio, and youre first ballot. Hit 500 home runs, and youre in. Pitch 300 victories, bingo. The system is simple, if not simple-minded. How easy, then, it would be for turf writers to have a similar set of formulae for the Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

Instead, 186 guys and gals with typewriters, vague memories and hidden identities scratch their heads, read the resumes, listen to the spin, flip a nickel and come up with their selections from a list of nominations that 16 individuals - the Nominating Committee - decide upon. This year, eight of the Committees 13 nominees made the cut. Standard procedure afterward is to have a public argument. In keeping with horse racings historic denouement, second-guessing settles in like the fog over San Francisco.

Most of the new members arent strangers to real racing fans, although none of them are Mantle or Musial or Mays. Mistake-prone, albeit prolific, jockey Jose Santos; failed Triple Crown winner Silver Charm; John Veitch, a horse tutor whose best student Alydar served as a synonym for second; and Moms Command, some mare from New England that triumphed routinely in the Big Apple, made it in.

Ed Bowen, who chairs both the Hall of Fame Nominating Committee and the Historic Review Committee, which named the other four new members, said he wouldnt want standards, such as the number of winning rides or victories in key races, on which the voters would base their election. Bowen contends that the different eras in which racing greats competed make a rule of thumb a thumbs down.

Nevertheless, without standards, wouldnt it be fun to know what the current members have in common? Is 4000 wins in the saddle like Santos has the standard? Should a horse such as Barbaro, with six wins in just seven lifetime starts, make the grade? Why should a long run of middling triumphs qualify Earlie Fires for the Hall, but stellar careers like Fourstardaves or Perfect Drifts arent good enough?

In the final analysis, the Hall of Fame shouldnt be for the hearty or accomplished, but for the truly great. A balance between achievement and impact should serve as the criterion for induction. But with the ever increasing early retirement of horses from competition, standards might serve some purpose. At least, everyone would know why some members make it in and some do not.

Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, May 28, 2007

For Triple Crown Horses, Travers an Unrealistic Intention

Fun on a par with an NFL mock draft begins as soon as the Preakness horses cool down in their post-race stalls. Thats when everyone begins sorting out which runners are going to the Belmont and which are to be reserved for later that summer.

The Dwyer Stakes, held at Belmont Park on Independence Day - July 4, is usually a prudent choice for horses catching up on conditioning with the Triple Crown contestants. To a lesser degree, the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, scheduled for July 14, is an option for West Coast-based three-year-olds.

Neither of these races, however, seems to get as much attention, or shall we say intention, as two later races, both held in early August. The $1 million Haskell Invitational Handicap at Monmouth and the $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga are the preps for the Midsummer Derby the Derby that every Johnny-come-lately seems to covet, the $1 million Travers.
Well point toward the Travers, trainer Carl Nafzger said, disdaining an immediate acknowledgement that Street Sense would run in the Belmont Stakes following the nip-of-the-nose that Curlin gave the Kentucky Derby winner in the Preakness.

Right now, Im planning on races like the Dwyer, Jim Dandy and Travers, said Barclay Tagg, trainer of Nobiz Like Showbiz, who was a no show in Baltimore.

The main goal will be the Travers, announced Nick Zito, hoping to avoid CPR with CP West.

There have been 137 Travers and perhaps thats what makes the stakes lure so enticing. Horses such as Man O War, Whirlaway, Buckpasser, Damascus and Point Given have won it.

But its rare when a Triple Crown race winner finds his way into the Travers winners circle, a little less rare when a Kentucky Derby winner makes it, and even rarer when the big predicted showdown of spring actually takes place at the Spa.

This in no way diminishes the importance of the Travers as a graded stakes. It only points to the folly of believing that it serves as a reunion of the springs best three-year-olds.

Only three Kentucky Derby winners in the last 64 years have won the Travers. With the exception of Thunder Gulch in 1995 (the Derby winner at 25-1) and Sea Hero (at 13-1) in 1993, statisticians have to go back to Shut Out in 1942 to find a Travers winner that three months prior to the Travers was the toast of the nation.

There have been only three Preakness winners to annex the Travers in the last 39 years, and none of them won the Derby. Damascus was undoubtedly the best three-year-old of 1967 and Point Given was without comparison in 2001. But the third Preakness/Travers winner of these four decades was Bernardini a great horse, no doubt, but one who wasnt tested by Barbaro.

Eight Belmont Stakes winners in the last 39 years have triumphed in the Travers, but three of them (Point Given, Thunder Gulch and Damascus) were also Kentucky Derby or Preakness winners. So, for the long period of 1967 to 2006, the tally of Triple Crown race winners to come back to win at Saratoga in late August is 11.

More troubling, however, is the roster of Triple Crown heroes who never even made the Travers. Count such crowd-stirring champions such as Barbaro (2006), Afleet Alex (2005), Smarty Jones (2004), Funny Cide (2003), War Emblem (2002) and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) in that august group. Go back a little farther, and you can list Kentucky Derby/Preakness winners Charismatic (1999), Real Quiet (1998) and Silver Charm (1997) among Travers absentees.

Make little of all this, of course, because the Travers is certain to showcase a worthy champion. Just dont plan on it to be Street Sense or Curlin and any of the weary Triple Crown horses who make it through the grind of these races. All the good intentions of their trainers dont measure up to the reality.

Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Triple Crown Over, Belmont Still On

The rumor that the Belmont Stakes will be cancelled because of indifference is false.

There will be a Belmont Stakes, but it will be a Belmont Stakes in name only, not the Belmont Stakes that has something to do with the Triple Crown. There will be no winner of the coveted Third Jewel, but the horse that finishes first will be awarded the purse money. Whoever would like to watch the race on television can.

These sad developments come about as a result of the final placings in the Preakness Stakes. In this race, the very good colt Curlin beat Street Sense, a Kentucky Derby winner with an affinity for the excuse. The margin at the wire was a short head, but it was enough to cause Street Senses trainer Carl Nafzger to declare, There is really no reason for us to go there.

Hard Spun, second in the Derby and third in the Preakness, will aim for the Belmont, but he may be exhausted. Regardless, trainer Larry Jones stubbornly said, Theres no reason to think he cant do it because he sure wont have to run fast early in the race. As I said when this started, I had plans of running all three races.

Curlin, if he attempts the Belmont, will be making his fourth start in eight weeks. Curlins trainer Steve Asmussen, getting his first taste of Triple Crown glory, is hungry for more and said, This is the stage this horse deserves, and these are the caliber of races hes intended for. Asmussen has 200 horses in training and is the countrys leading trainer, so he should have a respect for exhaustion.

Trainer Shug McGaughey, elated with the victory of Sightseeing in the Peter Pan Stakes this weekend, said that he would consider the Belmont, too. The trainers of the second and third place finishers in the Peter Pan - Prom Shoes and Fearless Vision, announced an interest in the race, also.

Although no word is emanating from Todd Pletchers barn yet, it is inconceivable that the Eclipse Award-winning trainer will be absent from the skirmish. The fans writing on the Internet Message Boards want Pletchers Kentucky Oaks winning filly Rags to Riches, who theyve nicknamed R2R, to run. But its more likely that he opts for Circular Quay again, or even Sam P., he-men who are bred for the marathon.

This leaves the newly-freshened trio of Kentucky Derby runners Great Hunter, a son of the Belmont winner Aptitude; Imawildandcrazyguy, who trainer Bill Kaplan says is an amazing cardiovascular horse, and the Kentucky Derby wise guy selection Tiago, whose sire Pleasant Tap is considered the ultimate stamina source. Slews Tizzy, victorious in his last two starts, is another possibility.

If the prospect of seeing these horses compete against each other doesnt excite you, it may be fun to buy into the early hype of a midsummer rematch among Street Sense, Curlin and Hard Spun in the Travers. Nevertheless, if past is prologue, the chances are that one of these will see the inside of a paddock on a stud farm instead of the racing strip at Saratoga.

Three weeks remain to spin the Belmont as a major attraction, so its possible that everyone will forget the frustrations of this weekend in terms of what its caused to the rivalries. For all practical purposes, however, the Spring Classics season is over.

Fifty weeks from now, everyone will view Curlin as Afleet Alex and Street Sense as Giacomo. Two weeks ago, the hope was for Secretariat.

Written by Vic Zast

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