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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, January 31, 2011


Top 10 Derby Losers-to-Be List


(CHICAGO, IL – Monday, January 31, 2011) The Kentucky Derby flu season is starting. In a few weeks, the fever will sweep thoroughbred racing. In a month, the disease will be everywhere. You can get a shot at your corner Walgreens to prevent it. But you’re probably better off taking two aspirin and waiting three months for the condition to pass.

Someone has designated Super Bowl week as the time to begin listing the horses with the best chances at Triple Crown glory, or else there’s more than meets the eye to the Holy Bull Stakes. Maybe the Florida mile is significant because it is run at a track where the most Triple Crown hopefuls are stabled. Yet, there are only two winners, Barbaro and Go for Gin, to suggest in its provenance that the horse that can win it will triumph in Louisville.

Nevertheless, in the past week alone, turf writer Gary West rated 100 promising three-year-olds on his popular West Points Web site, Dick Downey at thedowneyprofile.com began offering his information to subscribers and Mike Watchmaker, on behalf of the Daily Racing Form, joined in with his 20 names to follow this spring.

By Wednesday of next week, a roster of turf writers and horse racing observers will emerge on the paulickreport.com with their weekly choices. Mike Veitch at The Saratogian newspaper will share his wisdom also. Soon, The Blood-Horse’s Steve Haskin will begin narrowing his focus with another Derby Dozen. Eventually, hundreds of predictions, both well-founded and baseless, will clutter the Internet.

You can print any of these listings out, close your eyes and stick a hatpin through the paper and, maybe, with great luck, pick the Derby winner. Forecasting success is the basis of handicapping, but trying to do well at the task more than 90 days out is impossible.

So, here’s a different kind of Kentucky Derby list that present a consensus Top 10 with reasons why they won’t win the Run for the Roses instead of why they could. There’s a small chance that one of the selections will prove the analysis wrong. But what’s most certain is that nine of them won’t. A list like this, then, is revealing for which horses are off it not on it.

1. Uncle Mo. Only one Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion has won the Kentucky Derby. What makes two-year-old champions successful is often an early maturity that eludes their competition. Moreover, there’s the growing concern that Uncle Mo, an Indian Charlie colt, may not race at his best over a distance, even though his dosage numbers insist that he will.

2. To Honor and Serve. One of several early “wise guy” selections, To Honor and Serve has the kind of distance-loving pedigree that excites people. But the Kentucky Derby is a 1-1/8 mile race, not a 1-1/4 mile race – its winners inevitably take the lead a furlong before the finish line. Well-bred, New York-based runners trained by men like Bill Mott are often over-valued. This one is also when you assess him by Mucho Macho Man.

3. Dialed In. “Zitomania” will set the fans on edge for Dialed In, a handsomely-comformed colt by Mineshaft that runs like Ice Box. Racing 15 lengths behind the leaders as he did in the Holy Bull, the closer Dialed In would have to be ultra-fortunate to make his way through a congested field of 20 to win the Derby. Yet, on the basis of his monster win yesterday, he’s on the Top 10 losers-to-be list reluctantly

4. Boys At Tosconova. The hype for this son of Officer began well before Boys At Tosconova won the Hopeful at Saratoga, beating only three horses. But he was easily left for second by Uncle Mo in the BC Juvenile and has had his return to the races delayed by a show of indifference – a very bad sign. If he gets to the post for the big race in Louisville, it’ll be for the last time.

5. Soldat. Success on grass in the With Anticipation and second-place finishes in the Pilgrim and in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf has probably already endowed Soldat with the graded stakes earnings that are necessary to get into the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Fans are excited with his victory in an entry-level allowance race on January 21. But Soldat hasn’t beaten a really good horse, nor has he won on a fast dirt surface.

6. Comma To The Top. A winner of six of his 10 starts, the likable gelding Comma To The Top has a few factors going against him. He is prepping at Golden Gate Fields, where few Derby winners are found. He’s trained by Peter Miller; this is the thinnest air Miller’s breathed. And Comma To The Top’s breeding will fail him as the distances get longer.

7. Tapizar. Here’s another of those “wise guy” horses. The Steve Asmussen-trained son of Tapit won the Sham Stakes easily. But he looks to be one of those types that will run an occasional eye-popping race and then get beat by so-so opponents. Asmussen would have to get him just right on Derby day, a feat that’s escaped the trainer with other Derby horses before.

8. The Factor. Trainer Bob Baffert is high on this super-speedy colt. But he hasn’t breezed in two weeks, causing mild agita in people who believe interruptions in training at this time of year can be heart-breaking. Big question is how will the Hall of Fame trainer temper The Factor’s inclination for going to the front of his races full out? The guess is he won’t.

9. J.P.’s Gusto. This once-formidable Del Mar Futurity winner has lost in his last three starts, indicating that perhaps his best races are behind him. The David Hofmans trainee ran miserably at Churchill Downs in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at 17-1. The distance of a mile and two furlongs won’t suit him.

10. Elite Alex. Because of the important role that Oaklawn Park has played on recent Kentucky Derby Roads, it’s tempting to tab Elite Alex as a horse to watch. But he’s won just one race in his lifetime and will get buried alive when the Florida-based horses head to Hot Springs for the more important stakes that come later in the season.


HorseraceInsider.com also publishes a Top 10 Derby list. It’s a compilation of the rankings that John Pricci, Bill Christine and I identify as hopefuls with the best chances.




Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, January 24, 2011


Check is in the Mail


(CHICAGO, IL – January 24, 2011) There was a time when becoming an elected official represented an exalted accomplishment. Mothers told their children they could grow up to be president, and the children believed it and thought public service was something to strive for. And then slowly but surely the aura surrounding those chosen to lead began to subside, until now it is barely a flicker. As a matter of fact, being a member of the government today puts one low on the totem pole when a job defines character.

The foolish idea that politicians will do what they say, nonetheless, seems to hang on like a summer cold. What the electorate has heard from the elected since June is how they’ll vanquish unemployment, lower the debt and dismantle the health care bill - a dismantling that’s puzzling for why that would benefit us. Instead, what they’ve done is to add to the deficit by cutting the taxes of rich folks and pass a dead-ended bill to recall the reform that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office concludes will reduce it.

It used to be that he who served represented a philosophy that appealed to the people who voted him in. Now a position in government is for a glib two-faced mercenary, one willing to do anything necessary, even sacrificing an ideology to kiss up to corporate donors. Such is the person – the people with prostituted lives – with whom horse racing deals as a licensed entity. If the industry started each encounter it had with a lawmaker by doubting his honesty, there’d be more time and money to care for the business.

Tomorrow, President Obama and a Republican would-be repo man will display the epitome of money-making politics when they blah-blah-blah on primetime television. But three days ago, Rahm Emanuel, the frontrunner to take over for Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley in February, provided another clear example of the state of the situation for those who can’t see the forest for the trees.

Emanuel raised $10.6 million from contributors during the campaign financing period which ended on December 31, over five times his rivals. He then heartily endorsed an education reform bill that was vigorously opposed by the teachers unions. Almost $1 million of the money Emanuel raised came from a group that’s pushed for reforms that educators find abhorrent.

The former White House Chief of Staff is not unique in his method of selecting constituents. His improvisation is of epidemic proportion. Simply check out how senators and members of Congress have voted on various issues and then see who their most generous contributors are. The price of influence has risen to astonishing heights, to the point that candidates will spend fortunes to win election in order to get on the receiving end.

Lacking the lobbying funds to compete with casinos (and the anti-gambling forces to which they contribute), the state’s horse racing industry has missed out in the gain game. After 20 years of lining the pockets of legislators, little substantive has changed in the law to help Illinois racetracks compete with its competition. Dick Duchossois went so far as to close Arlington Park in 1998 and 1999, believing that he would pressure the State to approve slots for his marble-floored palace. Nothing happened.

The most recent slap in the face came a week ago, in the last hour of the final day of the Legislature. Rep. Lou Lang quit on bringing a bill to the floor that was virtually assured of creating racinos, dashing the hopes of horsemen in the Prairie State. The Democrat from Skokie, a 22-year veteran of the Illinois House, then sent an email to them that defended his failure – something about I’m with you, just trust me, it wasn’t the right time to pass it.

“Let no one believe that I am not on your side,” wrote Lang, his use of a double-negative a hedge against sounding dishonest. His line was the equal to the one about the three greatest lies - “The check is in the mail, this is for your own good, and I’m from corporate headquarters and I’ve come to help you.” His excuse had the ring of Sen. Damon Thayer’s “Never too late to let the people decide,” when Thayer backed off from launching a bill his supporters - Kentucky's racetracks and horsemen – had paid for, or Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s “Would be a big boost for the economy” statement, that he made in defense of Gov. David Paterson’s settlement of a dispute that will lead to a Catskills casino, a development expected to harm business at NYRA’s Aqueduct racino.

What’s mind-blowing is that after years of blatant duplicity, people continue to believe in the sincerity of politicians' motives and remarks. Being loose with the truth has become so common that it’s made outright lying permissible. If one lies repeatedly, his lies become truth or, at least, in his mind, an acceptable practice. The one result of the Tucson shooting that was more obvious than the violence and insanity was that House representatives were aghast that a murder attempt was made on a member of their own privilege-presumed class. The reaction short-changed the episode's ghastly nature, to the favor of the victims' employment.

“In even our shock, we are composed and determined to fulfill our calling to represent our constituents,” House Speaker John Boehner sobbed, quite appropriately this time, as if his kind – men with their hands out for money - deserve admiration. “Let us not let this inhuman act do otherwise,” he said, believing, quite inaccurately, that his colleagues and he behave in a manner that’s high-minded.

Pari-mutuel wagering is no longer the lone source, or the biggest source, of gambling taxation to make government officials protect it, especially in a climate of economic acrobatics. Horse racing has allowed its popular reach to recede by chasing remote taps of revenue that emptied the racetracks and tainted the sport with a cold-hearted ambience. The sport has become, in effect, the once shining star that no longer sings like a diva because her voice is too weak for Broadway. Perhaps that's a good thing, considering the audience.

Vic Zast posts thoughts on horse racing and other topics on Facebook.com/viczast and Twitter.com/viczast.


Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, January 17, 2011


Changing Seasons


(CHICAGO, IL – January 17, 2011) Tonight the Eclipse Award Speculation Season will end and the Eclipse Award Complaint Season will begin. The upcoming season could persist anywhere from one week to one month depending on which horse is named Horse of the Year. Such a run would take horse racing fans right up to the Triple Crown Trail Season. Some people, who have tired of the Blame vs. Zenyatta debate, have turned the page on the calendar already. A handful of sophomore hopefuls broke from starting gates in races this past Saturday and Sunday.

Major League Baseball manages its seasons better than any sport. But, under the weight of unusual circumstances, horse racing does almost as well. Except for its wildly popular player draft in April, NFL football disappears once the Super Bowl is over. Likewise, NBA basketball and NHL hockey are, at best, three-season sports. Horse racing finds ways to engage its enthusiasts in stretches when its grind isn’t worth watching. It’s a credit to the NTRA, Breeders’ Cup Ltd. and The Jockey Club that the sport is able to make something of little when the action is boring, drawn-out and irrelevant. The Eclipse Awards is an excellent example.

Baseball is played in six months for most teams and seven for those that excel. But the manner in which the National Pastime entertains its fans is the model of constant engagement. Once the sting from champagne is no longer felt in the eyes of the World Series winners, baseball rolls out its MVPs, Cy Young Award winners and Rookies of the Year. Then the MLB owners hold their always eventful Winter Meetings, and, a bit later, the fire is lighted in what’s known as the Hot Stove League. Ultimately, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.

Tens of thousands of Cubs fans paid $60 each to attend the Cubs Convention at the Hilton Chicago Hotel on S. Michigan Avenue this weekend. Less than a week from now, a like number of Chicago White Sox fans will jam the Hyatt Regency Chicago for SoxFest. Meanwhile, about 550 black tie-attired horse racing people will gather in tribute to the stars of 2010 at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. Wouldn’t it be grand if that number was many times greater?

“Fans should have a chance to be a bigger part of the evening,” answered NTRA vice-president of communications Keith Chamblin in email, when asked if there was thought to making the announcement of Eclipse Awards more accessible to the public. But he also inferred that discussions relating to moving the presentation to a theater where thousands of the sport’s faithful could join in, as they can and do at the Academy Awards or the NFL player draft, were not under “serious consideration.”

The player draft has become so popular with fans that the League has moved it to prime-time and is thinking of taking it around from one NFL city to another and perhaps even to cities where the League has no team. “It’s on the table,” Commissioner Roger Goodell told NFL Network host Rich Eisen on Wednesday’s NFL Total Access. The NFL’s main source of revenue comes from television, but Goodell knows his product has value only if people are consumed by it.

“Should we ever move to a theater-like venue with greater fan involvement, then I think the accent will be on securing the very best location, which could eventually mean a more permanent home for the Eclipse Awards,” Chamblin noted, taking the side of efficiency. Understandably, the two businesses are at different points in their growth curve. One is zooming upward with $8 billion in revenues and the other, once the biggest sport in the country, has many empty grandstands and has faced double-digit declines in this decade. Nevertheless, horse racing’s away-from-the-racetrack activities might be the key to its renaissance.

Away from the track, the fans speculate from January to April on what horse will win the Kentucky Derby, wonder about whether or not the winner can move on to capture the Triple Crown as soon as the race is over and what predicaments are in store for the two-year-old mid-summer stars that emerge from the unknown at Saratoga and Del Mar. Once the “Win and You’re In” concept develops, it, too, will grace autumn with a topic of considerable observation. In the two most recent Novembers through Januaries, the Eclipse Awards has enhanced the prospect of beguiling verbal intercourse among horse racing’s audiences to the same extent that Cialis has introduced bathtub soaking as a form of sex for jaded spouses.

“Much of the drama and intrigue surrounding the Eclipse Awards the past two years has been created organically,” Chamblin correctly observed. “Such scenarios are very hard to manufacture,” he said. But true as that may be, there are steps that the organizers can take which would secure that the show had a bona fide permanence in the game’s chronology, rendering it a time of year when we think back to all that is good about horse racing and not what is wrong.

At least four nominated Eclipse Award horses, two of which have won Breeders’ Cup races, ran within a week of tonight’s presentation. Bringing horses of this ilk to a racecourse in the ceremony’s neighborhood by writing races that reward them extraordinarily, for example, might be one thing to think about. There are numerous ideas for developing the Eclipse Awards – adding Special Eclipse Awards or using the program for feting handicappers, writers, photographers and television producers aren’t among them.

In the last couple years, the Eclipse Awards and Breeders’ Cup World Championships have connected synergistically like they’ve never before. “It will be up to the presenters of the awards to try to capitalize on the increased interest going forward,” Chamblin said. What he should have said is, “If we don’t leverage the increased interest in the Eclipse Awards into a sustainable property, we’re not serving the sport properly.”

Vic Zast posts daily on Facebook.com/viczast and Twitter.com/viczast.

Written by Vic Zast

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