Monday, June 27, 2011
You Should Get What You Pay For
(CHICAGO, IL – June 27, 2011) With most things in life, you get what you pay for - but not in horse racing. A nice filly named Inglorious shamed 16 colts and geldings in Sunday’s $1 million Queen’s Plate Stakes. But is she really a horse that her connections will bring south or that would have run against males if they were better? Buster’s Ready, a filly that ran with a $50,000 tag in a claiming race several months ago, beat only five horses in Saturday’s Grade 1 $250,000 Mother Goose Stakes, a race previously taken by Go for Wand, Serena’s Song, Open Mind and Ruffian. But does she possess Hall of Fame potential befitting the Mother Goose’s winner?
A tendency toward injury, the inability of trainers to maintain campaigners and, perhaps, an overabundance of inflated purses to choose from have left horse racing’s greatest stakes humiliated. The horses in many of North America’s most treasured races are incongruent with the reputations of races they’re winning and running in. A quick scan of the runners in some of the highest graded stakes recently contested reveal fields of low graded stakes competitors. The look forward is equally foreboding, as stakes races won by the turf’s greatest stars will most likely be won by horses that nobody’s heard of.
Graded stakes are supposed to represent the ultimate tests. When horses that haven’t raced at this level constitute 90 percent of the field, one must question if the designation “graded stakes” is becoming devalued. Although the standard of graded status may shift with the times, it is often evaluated on the same basis it held previously. With the exception of Rachel Alexandra, the last 15 winners of the Mother Goose, for example, aren’t the equal of the winners of the prior 15 years or, for that matter, the last 30, according to most historians.
It’s a problem, of course, because, during a time of fan abandonment and a reduction of wagering, the last thing that anyone wants is a sport that is shaky at its core – meaning that the product it puts on the field is inferior. You can call a Grade 1 stakes race a Grade 1 stakes race, but that doesn’t mean it is one. A horse can bankroll a million dollars from winning a race or two, but that doesn’t earn him equal status with the turf’s most celebrated millionaires? Those NFL games that were played by replacement players - the last time the league struck - went into the record books as NFL games, but were they really?
The problem of field quality used to be most acute in the Handicap Division, which was decimated of top level performers by the premature disappearance of three-year-old stars. Its saving grace was that many top sophomores were injured early in their careers and needed to come back to racing as four-year-olds, if possible, to establish stallion credentials. In addition, one owner, the late Jess Jackson, kept two of the best older horses – Curlin and Rachel Alexandra – in action, and another, Jerry Moss, saw that Zenyatta would continue on beyond the time that most people expected her retirement.
Although the Breeders’ Cup Classic has benefitted from having three-year-olds competing, it has also provided incentive for high-quality returnees to the track in search of prize money and glory. A long time ago, when the Arlington Million introduced the first $1 million purse, it was able to excite people with its uniqueness. Now, however, there are $1 million purses everywhere, and many of them lure five and six-horses. There are too many big pots available to not take your time with a horse, and horses too fragile to hurry.
This year’s Handicap Division is weak, threatening to make upcoming races such as the Whitney and Woodward real tests for the PR department. Moreover, the three-year-old division has been decimated by injury, similarly rendering the Haskell, Jim Dandy and Travers short on headliners. Uncle Mo may return soon from his untimely illness, but he’s returning a sprinter. In addition, many of the summer’s top events will feel the sting of losing Kentucky Derby Trail standouts.
The Remsen winner Honor and Serve is out with a tendon injury; the Florida Derby winner Dialed In requires knee surgery. These two horses, trained by men with strong Saratoga attachments, were headed for the Spa’s major races. Same for the Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Derby runner-up Nehro, who ended their Triple Crown campaigns compromised. That leaves the Preakness winner Shackleford and the Belmont champion Ruler On Ice for the Travers. Should we get excited about that?
All considered, there’s something to be said about the connection between the number of horses as opposed to the kind of horses participating in a race that leads to good business. NYRA understands this and prefers to address these more pressing exigencies. This past week, the association announced two purse incentives for Saratoga geared toward keeping fields full – one provides a $1000 participation incentive for horses that finish out of the top five and the other boosts purses 20 percent if more than eight betting interests leave the paddock for a race that’s been pulled off the turf. Still these actions are disjunctive to producing product quality.
There have been ups and downs to any given number of North American fixtures through the decades. Although, this time around, like the Earth’s current climate changes, the sport’s problems seem self-made. Resistance to shortening the season and redirecting the assets broadly into races of less historic importance is immovable. There are dozens of graded and weekend stakes that offer purses too high for the good of the sport.
So what will happen is the events promoted as the top of the sport will continue to be cheapened until there is no telling the difference between one from another. Horses without a long vita of achievement will enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame and leave the stage as quickly as they entered it.
Vic Zast invites friends to his Facebook page and followers to Twitter,
Written by Vic Zast
Monday, June 20, 2011
New Spots on the Leopard
(INUVIK, NWT, CANADA – June 19, 2011) No sooner had Ruler On Ice crossed the Belmont Stakes finish line that the new New York Racing Association began planning for Saratoga. An announcement regarding how to apply for media credentials was issued tout suite and an invitation for a pre-season press conference at The Desmond in Albany to hear what the brass had to promise for the upcoming season was emailed to appropriate parties.
Although these events occur annually, you will notice the word “new” that describes NYRA. The use of that word was purposeful, of course, because, for the first time in several years, the nation’s number one horse racing franchise is acting the part of a leader.
An enormous percentage of all monies wagered are wagered on NYRA’s races. NYRA’s tracks host the most graded stakes, offer the country’s highest prizes and feature many of the sport’s greatest stars. As a verse to a popular song goes, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Yet, looking back at the past several years, effort has not caused performance, so the change in behavior is welcome.
Among fans, NYRA has long had a reputation for arrogance. When Charles Hayward, a bona fide
fan, was appointed president, there was hope that he’d work to improve matters between the racetracks’ management and the public. You can decide for yourself, if he’s done that. But give him his props anyway for some things that have happened lately.
Following New York City’s OTB demise in the winter, NYRA operatives have stood up to the plate and shown gumption. Instead of crying out loud that they’re treated unfairly, which they often are, they began acting responsibly. They saw attendance and handle grow in response to meaningful steps they took to gain back the losses they felt when the shops closed. More importantly, they stopped saying that they were a business that couldn’t survive without help from outsiders.
The way NYRA has recently behaved is startling to many. The franchise has rarely taken to proactive measures except for seeking the assistance of others. With its problems behind, there’s a good chance that 2011 will be the start of a new golden era. At least, it is looking that way. Past won’t be prologue this time.
Last July, despite Hayward’s denial that business would be adversely affected by negative publicity, attendance and handle at Saratoga decreased in accordance with a decade-long trend. Three months before the track opened, Hayward warned people that horse racing might not take place at the Spa unless the State would come through on its promise to bankroll the franchise while the Aqueduct casino was being built. In return, fans made other summer plans, causing hotels and motels to panic.
In addition, New York Thoroughbred Breeders chipped in with their own ill-advised moaning. They added coal to the fire by saying that a cessation of the sport in the Empire State was imminent. The actions of both organizations were in no sense a good way to build enthusiasm. Well, you know the rest of the story.
Business at Saratoga declined. There were Thursday and Mondays when there weren’t 10,000 fans in the seats, even though there were more reported. In fact, business has declined in all but two of the last 10 summers. This year would be a good time to end that string. Count on PJ Campo to write races that lure big, bettable fields. Hope the weather stays sunny and cool. But, by all obvious signs, the track is at least several more years away of accomplishing a true revival.
Two weeks ago, Hayward told Ray Paulick of the paulickreport.com that designs are all but complete for a new permanent structure to rise on the clubhouse turn replacing the temporary At the Rail Pavilion. The proposed building is intended to serve those fans that want air-conditioning and favor more modern amenities. The price of construction will be high and it’ll take two years to build. In true “cover your behind” fashion, the association has hired experts from out of town to help with decisions. Nevertheless, a common refrain is “if you build it, they will come,” and that’s what everyone’s counting on.
Throughout the Triple Crown season, horse racing has proved that putting on a good show is all that it takes to make friends. Although there is little to sell in the way of charismatic horses now that it’s over, Saratoga’s festivities offer a similar stimulus. The historic racecourse’s charms are unrivaled and the meet’s 40 days, while not 24 or 30 or 36, still constitute to some extent a “get it while you can because later you can’t” energy.
In the end, corporations are still a lot like leopards – they never change their spots. Everyday operatives learn quickly that if they want to advance in the ranks, they must act like their bosses do. By and large, NYRA’s middle management operates in the manner it does because that’s what’s expected of them. The guy on the bottom looks up to the guy above him who looks up at the guy above him and so on. Yet, there are signs that seem to indicate change in the Empire State.
NYRA wants the Breeders Cup back at Belmont Park, for example, and won’t rest until it has its own OTB operation. In the meantime, laying low with the complaining has helped matters. Having said that, don’t expect many decisions at NYRA to be made for the sake of the fans, if they cause discomfort with horse owners. The franchise became horse racing’s epitome by offering Big Apple-inflated purses, writing stakes for the best horses and making rich folks feel welcome.
Funny how effectively that’s worked, as a matter of fact. Let the party begin.
Vic Zast has filed this column from Inuvik, nearly 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. He completed a drive by RV in 16 days to get there for golf at midnight on the longest day, which is today. Learn more at http://www.ourlongestdrive.com.
Written by Vic Zast
Monday, June 13, 2011
The Road Ahead
(FORT NELSON, BC – June 13, 2011) I watched the Belmont Stakes on my laptop at 11:30 pm Saturday. It was a replay on twinspires.com. My three buddies, one of whom is dead, were sitting in lawn chairs underneath the roll-out canopy of an RV in the parking lot of a motel in Chetwynd, British Columbia, Canada.
From what I can tell, very few people in Chetwynd knew that the Belmont Stakes was being run. There’s no OTB, not even a casino, in Chetwynd. Horses here are for pleasure riding and pulling wagons around town as a tourist attraction. There is horse racing in BC, but the horse racing’s far away in Vancouver and, for the moment, all attention on Vancouver has to do with the Canucks.
You may be interested in learning about what I was doing in Chetwynd. The town was the seventh stop of a 16-day journey by RV that is taking me to play golf above the Arctic Circle. I chose the spot randomly. It’s about halfway between Prince George and Fort Nelson. In addition, the seventh annual International Chainsaw Carving Championships, a kind of Breeders Cup for guys who turn logs into art, was being held in a park.
None of the three men who were traveling with me – all Americans from Chicago – would have known that the Belmont Stakes was being run, either. Except for me, they would have missed the race and never hear of it again until next June. But an interesting thing happened when I told them I would be watching it. They huddled round with their lawn chairs and we watched together. In fact, we bet among ourselves, like the people do in Dubai or places elsewhere that have no gambling.
What took place is a good example of how anticipation supersedes accomplishment every time. After the two minutes and nearly 31 seconds that it took Ruler on Ice to run 1-1/2 miles, there was let-down. None of us had picked the longshot winner; no money exchanged hands. This Belmont proved nothing, set nothing up for future – will be one of those Classics that recede in the background like the highway we’re driving. I’ll be posting this column, God permitting there’s Internet, from who knows where tonight.
The marketing people at Belmont have to figure out how to make horse racing’s third Triple Crown jewel the beginning of something instead of the end. Until that occurs, NYRA will always be dependent on what has happened in the Preakness and Kentucky Derby. NYRA’s marketing department, as usual, did a terrific job to lure warm bodies out on a wet day for a race that was meaningless and, perhaps, out of sync with the times. But reaction is never better than action. Taking matters into their own hands with a plan that makes the commercial success of the Belmont less susceptible to the past would be smart.
As for horse racing in general, what has longshots in three Triple Crown races wrought? Well, the answer is a division of three-year-olds that nobody really cares about. Ruler on Ice might win another big stakes, but it’s likely to be in mud. He was second in the Tesio (ho-hum) and ran at Sunland Park. The 5-2 favorite Animal Kingdom took a beating at the break, dropped way back of a slow pace and made a run like a freight train before running out of steam. He’s a turf horse.
Shackleford, incorrectly identified as The Derby winner’s rival, is a miler, no matter what Dale Romans says. So, too, is the reigning Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Uncle Mo, provided he races again. Dialed In is the Travers winner. Nehro, a chronic also-ran. Are there any others of note on the murky horizon?
It would be fun to be a bug on the wall in the Breeders’ Cup offices. Having a star to promote your event provides you a leg up. But, right now, at least, there doesn’t seem to be any available. If you think the three-year-old division, the main source of Breeders’ Cup promotional currency, is weak, then you probably believe the handicap division is bankrupt. If the Breeders’ Cup was smart it would send representatives to England today to talk the owners and trainers of Royal Ascot runners to plan ahead for Louisville this November .The unbeaten Frankel, of course, would serve ideally to sub for Zenyatta as publicity fodder. As of now, nonetheless, what the Breeders’ Cup has is Goldikova – that’s it.
This journey I’m taking, called “Our Longest Drive” has its end in Inuvik, 100 miles north of The Arctic Circle where we’ll play golf at midnight of the summer solstice – June 21. At first, I was leery about scheduling the trip at a time when the Belmont as run. Although I can see now, it shouldn’t have been a worry. This is not to downplay the efforts made by the winner, participants and presenters – they all acted admirably, considering the circumstances. But the circumstances were such that isn’t much to get excited about when the ranks of good horses are thinned and there’s scant evidence those who remain have a future worth following. It’s a down year.
On the other hand, the wood carvers in Chetwynd are living proof that it’s possible to make something from nothing. There’s still time, I suppose, for something exciting to develop. I just don’t see it.
Vic Zast is on Our Longest Drive. He’s making a documentary about a road trip by four men, one of whom is dead, who drive by RV to the Arctic Circle to play golf at midnight of the summer solstice. Go to http://www.ourlongestdrive.com
to follow their adventures.
Written by Vic Zast