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 06, 2011

How to Spend a Summer Vacation

(Wall, SD – June 6, 2011) Summer’s here. The icy blast of the Memorial Day weekend has passed. Horse racing may seem less important after the Belmont Stakes runs. But there are places to go and races to see in the upcoming months that make memories.

Remember life as a kid, when your dad dragged you along for a day at Rockingham? Distant thoughts of crossing the Peace Bridge for a day at the races in Fort Erie linger like fine perfume. Awaiting the return of the thoroughbreds to Ellis Park is a rite of the season

Destination horse racing is the salt on a medium rare steak. You may eat meat and potatoes at Finger Lakes or Calder, but food cooked by somebody else seems to always taste better. Despite today’s 24/365 season, several racetracks remain where flavor is a primary ingedient. Let’s go on vacation.

See the Queen. Sunday, June 26. Well, at least, see the Queen’s Plate. Queen Elizabeth II was on hand at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack to watch Big Red Mike win Canada’s Kentucky Derby last year. And, even though Her Royal Highness rarely attends the race named in her ancestor’s honor, it is still an event that’s worth being at.

Restricted to horses born north of the 49th parallel, recent Queen’s Plates have been won by some ordinary horses like Wild Desert and Wando that couldn’t cut the mustard south of the border. But the 1-1/4 mile race on the Polytrack has also been won by such stars of the sport as Dance Smartly, Kennedy Road and Northern Dancer. Alas, it’s not the sport that you go for. It’s the history and ambience.

2011 marks the 152nd Queen’s Plate – North America’s oldest continuing stakes race. Woodbine made a major transition from a seasonal thoroughbred racetrack to a casino with trotters and flat runners in 2001 and its business has prospered since. The racetrack operates as a spotless, state of the art facility. The day itself has a touch of the pomp and circumstance. With the vibrant city of Toronto, hosting world-class restaurants, hotels and museums in its backyard, Woodbine, especially at Queen’s Plate time, should rank high on anyone’s list for a weekend getaway.

Enjoy the English countryside, July 27-July30. The dress at Glorious Goodwood, the five days of graded horse racing that takes place in Sussex, England, used to be morning tails, as it is at Royal Ascot and Epsom. But someone wanting a change decided that Panama hats would produce a unique effect that would take horse racing fashion in a more modern direction. That direction produces a quintessential summer chic that’s complete with Pimms and views of the British countryside.

Through five days of preening and horse racing, more than 100,000 people will flood through the quaint gates to enjoy an incomparable atmosphere. That may not seem like many, considering Del Mar and Saratoga averages. Yet, for the scale of the operation, attendance is impressive, both in numbers and quality. Royalty and celebrities, for example, show up in droves. Top trainers, jockeys and owners create an International A-List. More people will turn out for Ladies Day (on Thursday, July 28) for the Goodwood Cup than for the Sussex Stakes, one of the world’s most important mile races. But any day from July 26 until July 30 is worth catching.

Vacationers on a budget may think that the Haskell Invitational offers cost savings that trump traveling to Europe. But England and back is a journey that can be made back and forth in a couple days, so the horse racing fan with a little to spend can take in both in the same week.

Catch the real “Midsummer Derby,” Sunday, July 31. The timing (four weeks earlier) and shorter distance (1-1/8 miles) of the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park has made it an appealing alternative to Saratoga’s late August Travers Stakes. And, at $1.25 million, the purse is bigger by an amount - $250,000 - that many racetracks aren’t even able to scrape up for a stakes as a whole.

Following the trend to bunch several attractions on one card, Monmouth’s management has decorated Haskell day with eight stakes, making it the Garden State’s biggest day of horse racing. That move adds fuel to
the otherwise enjoyable experience of hobnobbing in the clubhouse or eating an ice cream cone at a picnic table of one of America’s prettiest racetracks.

In addition, the nearby Jersey Shore, where the surf meets the Sopranos, and the Housewives and Snookie all frolic, is becoming a brand that’s deserving of steady purchase. You can get there from Penn Station in less time than getting to Saratoga, and from Newark International, where your flight from Heathrow is landing, the ride to Oceanport is even shorter.

The August Places to Be, from July 20 to September 7. Del Mar and Saratoga surrendered their rights to be called boutique meets when they stretched out their seasons beyond the number of race dates they became famous for. Nevertheless, the two high-class action centers bookend the country with unique presentations. Thousands of people consider an annual visit to one or the other as ritual. If horse racing was conducted in the rest of the country the ways they put it on, the sport would be infinitely more popular.

Pick your flavor – the laid back beach vibe of Southern California or New York City moved north to the Adirondacks. By objective standards, neither racetrack is modern, offering little to comfort its patrons. But, oh, how they’re loved, proving clearly that matters like these are judged by the heart and not the intellect. When it comes to some things, common sense, after all, goes on holiday.

Vic Zast wrote his column while on vacation. He is traveling by RV from Chicago to the Arctic Circle to play golf at midnight. You can learn more about the trip at

Written by Vic Zast

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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rivals in Hype Only

(CHICAGO, IL – May 30, 2011) Let’s just put an end to this nonsense about a rivalry. Animal Kingdom and Shackleford are not rivals. They are merely very fine horses that have run against each other in two races.

When they run against each other a half dozen times and the finishes are thrilling each time, or when each accounts for a race against the other in a way that you’ll remember it forever, maybe that’s when there will be a rivalry. Until then, prepare for a Belmont Stakes that might re-unite the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winners and that, in itself, is worth something. It'll be the first time for the rubber match since 2005.

Last year’s Belmont Stakes didn’t feature either the Derby or Preakness winner. In the year before, the Derby king Mine That Bird finished third while the Preakness queen Rachel Alexandra remained in her stall. In 2008, Big Brown, running invincibly, supposedly, had his Triple Crown beheaded when Kent Desormeaux pulled the undefeated horse up and out of the race when he saw that his effort was futile.

Only nine winners of one of the first two Triple Crown races or both competed in the third over the term of the last 10 years. Only one Belmont winner since 1995, namely Thunder Gulch, won the Derby. In the last couple decades, half the Belmonts were won by basically once-in-a-lifetime sensations.

Recent winners Drosselmeyer, Da’Tara, Jazil, Birdstone, Sarava and, to a lesser degree, Summer Bird were Belmont champions of minor prior achievement. Rags to Riches beat Curlin but theKentucky Oaks-winning filly didn’t have Street Sense to worry about. Afleet Alex defeated Giacomo, but Giacomo wasn’t at the peak that he was five weeks earlier. Empire Maker, runnerup in the Preakness to Funny Cide, cut the New York-bred gelding’s hopes for a twelfth spot in horse racing history and then Funny Cide and he weren’t competitive any longer. Point Given faced Monarchos. But Monarchos, except for the first Saturday in May, wasn’t his match in the Preakness and Belmont.

As a matter of fact, the Belmont Stakes hasn’t accommodated rivals since 1989 when Easy Goer turned the tables on Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence. The two Hall of Fame horses met on the racetrack only four times. Sunday Silence defeated Easy Goer three times. Yet, in two of the races, the margin was less than a neck. In the betting, one was favored and the other was made second choice in all Triple Crown starts, and they finished one-two each time.

In 1978, Easy Goer’s father Alydar had a rivalry with Affirmed that was even more thrilling. The two horses met on 10 occasions, facing off eight times before the Belmont. Heading into Louisville for the Run for the Roses, the count stood at two wins for Alydar and four for Affirmed. The chestnut son of Exclusive Native, under-appreciated by the Eastern establishment, swept the Triple Crown and beat his rival twice more to the finish line, although he surrendered his Travers Stakes prize money because of Laffit Pincay’s boo-boo.

There have been years when circumstances conspired to create rivalries, too. Sham is often considered the rival of Secretariat, but in none of their showdowns was the outcome in doubt. Frank “Pancho” Martin, Sham’s trainer, contributed heat to this comparison, boasting wildly that Sham finished ahead of Secretariat in the Wood Memorial won by Angle Light and that his horse lost two teeth in the gate before the Derby began. But to nought.

East vs. West was the theme behind the fabrication of a Nashua vs. Swaps rivalry in 1955. A “Great Match Race,” held at Chicago’s Washington Park, eventually settled which colt was the better – the Kentucky Derby winner Swaps or the Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Nashua. The race turned out to be not much of a contest, as the East Coast-based Nashua took the lead at the start and, like Seabiscuit beating War Admiral – two other famed rivals, found the finish line first.

In the late 1930s, Seabiscuit and War Admiral developed their followings with feats that kept them apart. Only they, unlike Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, were given the chance to meet. Rivals that never face off often cause the most intrigue. Unresolved issues play into the imagination. We’ll never know now, for example, if Uncle Mo was the better of Premier Pegasus or if Uncle Mo was a flash in the pan.

At this point, neither Animal Kingdom nor Shackleford are candidates for anxious conjecture. In Animal Kingdom, horse racing has an impressive Kentucky Derby winner that achieved his success after the top three-year-olds dropped out. The lightly-raced horse is 50-50 in his half dozen starts, having won only one race of questionable note - the Grade 3 Spiral - before breaking through to the peak of his generation.

Shackleford is a Preakness winner that took advantage of his tactical speediness to hang on in a race that set up poorly for Animal Kingdom. The Dale Romans-trained colt wasn’t able to hold off a lesser adversary - Dialed In - in the Florida Derby, a similar, albeit, slightly longer route. Although the colt’s three-for-seven record’s admirable, the son of Forestry may, if he stays healthy, become Hard Spun.

In the next two weeks, NYRA’s marketing and communications teams will be cranking out tweets and Facebook posts like a teen that’s on summer vacation. They’ll be spinning the face-off as a battle of champions.
This is what you do when you’re dealt a hand that costs you 50,000 fans in the grandstand.

When no Triple Crown’s at stake, Belmont Park’s management is ecstatic to host 60,000 patrons on Belmont Stakes day. Chances are, nonetheless, that the crowd will see some other horse, beside the two being hyped, prove triumphant.

Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Hooray for TV

(CHICAGO, IL – May 23, 2011) At the end of the NBC network portion of this weekend’s Preakness Stakes programming, sportscaster Bob Costas provided a near-teary salute to Dick Ebersol, the frequently-feted executive who recently announced that he’s retiring next month after three decades of being at the epicenter of sport’s biggest telecasts.

It’s undetermined how much Ebersol, a short-timer, had to do with producing Saturday’s show. But if it was a lot, he’ll be missed. For those who enjoyed the Triple Crown's second jewel while prone on the couch, you viewed an Eclipse Award-winning production on your Sony. Fingers crossed that the broadcasters fare as well when the Belmont Stakes is contested with flimsier storylines.

While not flawless – the coverage ran on a half-hour too long, failed to televise the sport's number one turf horse even though Paddy O’Prado won the Dixie Stakes during the telecast's timeframe, and had technical problems that obliterated trainer Graham Motion’s humorous remarks in a pre-race interview with Kenny Rice – NBC Sports portrayed horse racing as a game that’s enjoyed on many levels.

The two hour show captivated viewers with stretches of human drama, teased them with controversial interviews and provided them with insights that people in the Pimlico grandstand did not benefit from despite being on site.
At a time when other sports, notably NFL Football, are worried that the live presentation of their games don’t measure up to the televised versions, horse racing people, by and large, believe that witnessing the real thing offers superior satisfaction to an electronic distillation. A television show about a horse race produced by capable hands, nevertheless, can be immeasurably enjoyed. Here, then, in addition to the fact that a telecast is free and there's no traffic and it's weatherproof, are some reasons why you might choose to stay home to watch the Belmont, based on Saturday’s Preakness:

Human Interest Segments. The assortment of stories involving Preakness participants made watching the race almost secondary. Costas pressed Barry Irwin on the controversial statements he made in the post-Derby interviews and Irwin’s natural garrulity surfaced. He admitted regret for his ill-conceived timing when speaking out against horse racing’s problems, and then called for the FBI to investigate the misuse of drugs on the animals. Once a maverick, always a maverick. But Irwin, who was prepared for his inquisition this time, was terrific.

A feature on jockey Robby Albarado was not limited to his bad luck in losing the mount on Animal Kingdom. The segment excelled when it moved on to a discussion of the felony charges of domestic abuse and wanton endangerment that resulted in the jockey’s ultimate plea to accept rehab. It ended with Albarado professing he’s prepared to make changes in his behavior.

The most emotional piece, however, was about Noah Grove, the brave 12-year-old son of Norman Asbjornson’s trainer Chris Grove. Noah’s osteosarcoma led to having his leg amputated a few years back. His mom cried as she told NBC Sports that his last words before surgery were a plea to leave the leg on. The network presented uplifting footage of Noah free of the cancer but having to deal with a prosthetic.

Expert Insight. Experienced horse racing fans are able to catch the subtle developments before, during and after a horse race that explain the outcome. But the casual fan sees a field of animals load into a gate, run the course and finish a race not really knowing what happened. TV viewers have the action explained to them.

Nobody on TV provides better analysis than Gary Stevens. The former champion jockey was noteworthy Saturday for explaining that winning jockey Jesus Castanon slowed the pace down after taking the lead on the backstretch. He noted that Animal Kingdom didn’t break well, was too far back and that Castanon went through five sets of goggles compared to none in the Derby. But where Stevens really stood out was when he crouched like a rider must on a sway-backed mount and explained why this odd conformation put a jock at a big disadvantage.

Excuse Donna Barton Brothers for being wrong when she said that Shackleford’s high-keyed behavior and subsequent washiness would compromise the winner’s chances. Moreover, she said Mr. Commons and King Congie were runners with the look and demeanor of horses that would run well. But she was spot-on at other times, including her prompting of Castanon to translate what the Mexican-born rider said in Spanish to his mother as he dedicated the victory to his recently-deceased father. Brothers’s questions might originate with people in a booth delivering them in her ear through an embedded listening device, but they were asked at the right time with feigned spontaneity.

Give credit to those guys in the booth also for keying on the loser. Immediately after he dismounted the runner-up, Velazquez explained that Animal Kingdom was hit in the chest with the kickback when running closer to horses in front when he took to the dirt in the Derby. This time around, further back of the pack, the colt was hit in the face, and it bothered him.

Tom Hammond wears well on the eyes despite a vintage haircut. Versus anchors Randy Moss (he noted that Shackleford changed leads late in the stretch in his post-race analysis) and Laffit Pincay III handle set-up and mop-up like able custodians.

Beautiful Images. As for how everything looked, fans in want of a new screensaver need search no further than NBC’s overhead shot of the Preakness field strung out on the backstretch. With the sun at the cameraman’s back, the long shadows of the horses in motion created an ethereal image, as if swans in flight were cast in the glow of a sunset.

Close-ups of Costas, surrounded by infield gardens, made Pimlico appear to be Eden. Pans of Chesapeake Bay made Baltimore look as if it was Barcelona. Another shot stopped hearts; it was of Motion consoling his son after the results were official. And, best of all, NBC Sports ran numerous commercials that advertised upcoming telecasts from Saratoga Racecourse and the Breeders’ Cup. What more could you ask for?

Vic Zast invites you to his Facebook page and to follow him on Twitter.

Written by Vic Zast

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