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, May 16, 2011

Not Your Father’s Derby

(NEW YORK, NY – May 16, 2011) None of the candid remarks that Barry Irwin uttered in the post-race interview room at Churchill Downs following the Kentucky Derby won by Animal Kingdom was as widely ignored as his chastisement of the press for applying old standards to the present.

Perhaps the press didn’t take Team Valor International’s CEO seriously, or perhaps it was stunned by his charges that all trainers, except one, don’t communicate to owners truthfully and that partnerships like his haven’t been treated very well by the racetracks. But, whatever occurred, the one thing that Irwin got right isn’t splattered all over the horse racing news like the others.

Turf writers, like handicappers, thrive on statistics. The Derby is loaded with them. The race’s mystique prompts the belief that a code rules the outcome. The code spreads its influence wide, suggesting that victory is likely to elude horses that aren’t of a certain kind. Adhering to such belief, on the other hand, has never been more preposterous.

Furthermore, each race, no matter the prize, presents its own set of circumstances that makes using a trend to determine its outcome illogical. Although it is true that the Run for the Roses’s 137-year history reveals similarities among winners, recent runnings have proved that looking back into time for clues to foretell which horse will win is like predicting the Cubs can’t be World Series champs because they haven’t been World Series champs for over a century. Hey, wait, isn’t there some better analogy?

"If a turf writer paid attention to a horse like this and just looked at the horse like an individual, I think they would have figured out why he was a buyable force,” Irwin insisted toward the end of his stay on the dais. Yet, one wonders if the former LA turf writer really meant what he said, and what he might have said instead had his horse lost because he failed to adapt to the dirt or was under-experienced. Clearly, he knew that his runner stood on the wrong side of history or else he couldn’t have called out the facts about what Animal Kingdom accomplished so readily.

“We made a lot of history today,” Irwin told moderator John Asher, Vice President, Racing Communications for Churchill Downs, at the very outset of his inquisition. “This is the first horse that came to win this race with only four previous races since Exterminator in 1918 and the first horse to win after a six-week layoff since Needles in 1956,” he said, rattling off names and dates like a wolf in sheep’s clothes.

“This getting hung up on no turf horses have ever done this, no synthetic horses have ever done this – that kind of stuff, and getting bogged down in the statistics of the post position – no horse have ever won from the 19; maybe there’s never been a good horse in the 19,” the Team Valor International CEO rambled, obviously slighted. Irwin seemed miffed that his colt overlooked because the glove didn’t fit. And, if this was the case, who could blame him?

If nothing else, the last several Derbies have indicated that the past no longer seems prologue. The 2009 winner Mine That Bird failed to run in any of the five Grade 1 stakes preps, joining only four Derby winners in the last 60 years to accomplish their victories in Louisville without doing that. In 2008, Big Brown proved that a horse such as Animal Kingdom can win without entering a stakes as a two-year-old. In 2007, Street Sense beat the Breeders Cup Juvenile jinx.

The 2006 winner Barbaro rested five weeks before his Derby – inadvisable, experts said. In 2005, Giacomo didn’t hit the board in his Grade 1 Derby prep, considered a pre-requisite. A year earlier, Smarty Jones was the first unbeaten Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977; John Servis and Stuart Elliot, the first trainer/jockey combo to win in their first attempts – so much for knowing the way there. In 2003, Funny Cide became the first New York-bred ever and the first gelding since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929 to triumph. The year before, War Emblem became the only Illinois Derby winner to wear roses. Exceptions, not rules, have dominated the decade.

Considering the decade, Irwin had every right to make his point about naivete. What he could have said just as meaningfully is that everyone involved in the sport needed to see it for what it is, not for what it once was. The same factors that in recent years have turned the tables upside down in connecting a pattern to Derby success are influencing horse racing on a day to day basis.

Stamina has been bred out of horses (the dual Dosage Index score and Experimental Highweight ranking as a gauge has collapsed) and the careers of the sport’s most talented competitors rarely reach double figures in races contested. If they do, they’re careers that seldom make it to May or beyond June (Eskendereya, Eight Belles, Pioneerofthenile and Archarcharch). This is not your father’s sport and not your father’s Derby any longer. Things have changed to make the Derby any horse's horse race.

It’s been 33 years since a Triple Crown winner. Conditions seem ideal for one. Next May, please don’t listen to the reasons why certain horses can’t win at Churchill Downs. Take heed of what Irwin noted, even if he chose an occasion that should have been spent praising people instead of tearing them down. Irwin’s not on to something. He’s simply studied the decade more closely than others.

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Monday, May 09, 2011

Derby Highlights and Lowlights

(CHICAGO, IL – May 9, 2011) When the Kentucky Derby is no longer a rite of spring, there’ll be no reason to plant tulips. The sport may no longer captivate society on 364 days of the year. But on the first Saturday of May, each American, even those with complete indifference, has, at least, some sense that horse racing exists. Having no interest in the Kentucky Derby is like having no taste for apple pie.

It is impossible, of course, to duplicate the Derby experience. Although promoted as “the most exciting two minutes in sport,” each Run for the Roses is its own complicated story, having a beginning and end like no other.

Here, then, are the highlights and lowlights of the most recent spectacle. They have nothing to do with the winner.


The Take of the Race. A recap would not be complete without saluting the Derby’s record numbers. From a purely statistical viewpoint, the 137th edition was the biggest in just about every category. The crowd numbered 164,858, surpassing the record set in 1974 for the centennial running. At more than $165 million for the day, the all-sources wagering total was the third highest ever. Oaks day was a numeric success, too, drawing 110,211 patrons – the third largest in Oaks history. For those who believe a “name brand” horse is required to bring out a crowd, the numbers don’t bear this out.

In a Class of its Own. The Derby and Oaks day races were superb. On Friday, last year’s Kentucky Oaks winner Blind Luck made a triumphant return to the scene of her greatest victory by rallying from worst to first to edge Unrivaled Belle in the Gr. 2 La Troienne. In addition, jockey Martin Garcia pushed First Dude’s proboscis in front of Regal Ransom’s to win the Gr. 3 Alysheba - a race that nobody thought he did. Rosie Napravnik almost wore lilies for guiding St. John’s River to Kentucky Oaks glory, but Plum Pretty hung on.

Saturday’s offerings were equally thrilling – world class festival strong. Broken nose and all, Robby Albarado rode Sassy Image to victory over the game Hilda’s Passion in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff. Dogwood’s Aikenite proved his win on the Keeneland polytrack was not caused by track bias as he triumphed by a nose over Apriority in another stakes. Even the races that nobody watches – those that are run when the crowd's still at brunch – attracted high-quality runners that racetracks elsewhere would have in their features.

Painting the Track Pink. The breast cancer research group, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, owned Kentucky Oaks day. Its members dressed Churchill Downs with its trademark pink from top to bottom, including bunting on the buildings and the balls on the top of the finishing posts. A survivors’ walk on the track by hundreds of women who beat the deadly disease was inspiring. After only two years, one can’t imagine what Kentucky Oaks Friday would be without pink.

Front-runner for an Emmy. There’s no better horse racing analyst on television than Gary Stevens. He was superb with his explanations of why horses ran as they did in the Derby, noting such details as Dialed In blinking his eyes from the kickback to Pants of Fire being slow to change leads. Except for an excess of Saccharine violin music and the confusion caused by the intrusion of the on-track announcer’s call while Larry Collmus called the race for TV, NBC’s Derby coverage was furlongs better than other networks. How good Randy Moss, Laffit Pincay III and their cohorts on Versus were. If the sport’s resigned to only four or five days of network TV, make them all NBC days.


The “Defection” Derby. The late term defections by horses that excelled as two-year-olds continue to haunt the Derby. Last November, at Breeders’ Cup time, the current crop of three-year-olds was being hailed as the best in a decade. Expectations of watching a Derby with To Honor and Serve, Boys At Tosconova, Jaycito and Rogue Romance included were high. Hopes were raised even higher by the Kentucky Derby trail exploits of horses like Premier Pegasus and Toby’s Corner – two others that fell by the wayside.

There have always been disappointments such as these. Yet, in recent years, the trend seems to be gathering steam (Eskendereya, Quality Road, I Want Revenge, etc.). In addition, Uncle Mo’s drop-out was handled poorly by his owner and trainer, who entered last year’s Eclipse Award-winning two-year-old champion on Wednesday thus shutting another horse out, continued to double-speak and bloviate on Thursday, until finally announcing on Friday morning what everyone in the media center knew was going to happen all along.

Soap Box Orators. Turf writers were kind, by and large, to the candid Barry Irwin by not reporting that the CEO of Team Valor International squandered a chance to be gracious. In the post-Derby interview room, Irwin lambasted the press for concentrating on history instead of the present. He took after the racetracks for mistreating owners in partnerships and complained that all trainers that worked for him before Motion were liars, a blanket indictment that caught Bob Neumeier by surprise on the network telecast. In fielding questions after the Oaks, John Fort of Peachtree was pontific and windy. There’s no coaching owners on what to say in their post-race interviews, but these two, in particular, have had better days in front of a microphone.

Keystone Cops at Your Service. An extravaganza that attracts a crowd like the Derby’s can expect to have traffic problems. But the amount of time that it took people to exit the track at the end of Oaks and Derby day was appalling. For example, some members of the media, who began covering the day’s events as early as 5:30 am, waited as long as an hour and fifteen minutes for a van to ferry them back from the track to the parking lot – a trek out of walking distance for cameramen with heavy equipment. The excuse given for the delay was that National Guardsmen wouldn’t allow the vans to come back to the track once they departed the track with their first load of passengers. Isn’t this a problem that someone can solve?

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Monday, May 02, 2011

Extraordinary Extracurricula

(CHICAGO, IL – May 2, 2011) Except for a thinly-veneered treatise about the evils of government in the Daily Racing Form, horse racing’s commentariat has been short on its analyses of developments away from the racetrack in recent days. Kentucky Derby fever has cast its delirious effect on just about everyone. The Run for the Roses remains the lone horse race known by people experiencing life outside the shadow of America’s shedrows - thus, the pre-occupation.

Perhaps distraction was the goal of the messengers for the timing of two extraordinary extracurricular events that took place in the last seven days. Nevertheless, in the week that was – the week that had everyone glued to their tellies watching William and Kate instead of sitting in front of a laptop – the only place for horse racing news nowadays, they bear mentioning.

The most obvious, of course, was the announcement that two member of Congress were preparing a bill that would regulate race-day medications. The less obvious was a TVG-sponsored research study on what exchange wagering would do for the sport. As one would guess, the topic that is influenced by politics received the attention. Few observers chose to speak to the one that was politicized.

Regardless of how actively you want your elected officials to become involved in determining the common good, you should send U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM.) and co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) a thank you note. Change doesn’t occur in most situations, and especially in horse racing, unless the sky’s caving in. The politicians’ proposal to amend the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978 seems to many people a threat. Fingers crossed, having the Feds in their faces could be the shove that its donkeys need to get off their asses.

Knowing that the intervention was coming, the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI), The Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA), Kentucky Thoroughbred Association/Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders and the Thoroughbred Racing Association (TRA) began clamoring a week in advance of the pols’ grandstanding. They created the façade that work was seriously underway within the industry to address Udall’s and Whitfield’s concerns – that the bill wasn’t necessary. The leap to move forward was too little, too late, obviously. It was a nod, incidentally. But, at least, it took place.

The tax revenue realized from horse racing as a percentage of all money paid to government from gambling enterprises has fallen off so precipitously in the last several decades that, as tribute, the money's no longer worth chasing. Legislators see the stands empty, rarely read about the sport in the media, hear too often that the sport can’t support itself; they write it off as lost source of votes. What a relief it is now to know that there’s someone who cares, even if that someone is viewed as an enemy.

If you wish, give the back of your hand to Udall and Whitfield for meddling. Or embrace them for doing what horse racing’s grandees should have done long ago. Still, remember this. With the source of the proposed legislation being Washington, it’s okay, then, to say that you favor the bill but not its consequences. Republicans, who are voting for Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget plan, feel entirely within their rights to proclaim that they’re not voting against Medicare. Truth, be damned.

If, however, you truly enjoy politics, there was none better on view than the open-faced lobbying displayed brazenly by Betfair Group, Ltd, the world’s leading exchange wagering Internet bookmaker, posing as one its subsidiaries. Here, too, it matters not on which side of the issue you fall on. What was fascinating to witness was how skilled people were at employing the conceit of research to pull off a sales promotion and how gullible audiences became when told they were being let on to scientific findings.

Betfair’s TVG division commissioned Christiansen Capital Advisors, LLC to produce a 141-page “independent study” – wink, wink - that concluded that exchange wagering was all good; in fact, a must for the sport if it wanted to attract younger bettors and a compliment to the traditional tote system. If you saw the Academy Award-winning documentary Inside Job, Christiansen’s shameless report comes across like the film’s many examples of made-up reports written by professors and experts who were paid to pimp the questionable practices of financial institutions that led to recession.

If you come across Christiansen’s report cold, it will seem like a media guide. The report offers numbers, graphs and narrative ad nauseam. It is also jam-packed with factoids, probably to make it seem weighty. You can learn, for example, that all but two of 60 British racecourses were established before 1927. You can read an endorsement in support of exchange wagering from a former British Foreign Secretary that was proffered in 2004.

The report blames the recession for the drastic declines in British horse racing from 2008 to 2009 (figures for 2010 weren’t made available) and downplays a coincidental change in the way the UK collects taxes from bookmakers by claiming the significant rise in Levy Board revenues of prior years was connected to Betfair’s emergence. Everything you’d expect from a sales pitch is there. The material just isn’t presented to be that, and that’s what’s wrong with it.

Ironically, exchange wagering – a far more risky proposition for horse racing than drug policy adjustment – will be instituted almost immediately, while Udall and Whitfield’s bill will receive opposition until it’s beaten down – put to rest by the inclination of the majority to view the intervention of government into business as bogeymen stuff. In addition, all the alphabet soup organizations that rose collectively to say they were in favor of a ban on race-day medications are more likely to disperse than to organize.

The thought that Feds couldn’t do a better job than the industry at governing the sport is convoluted. In prior years, it made more sense to hire Christiansen instead of a car salesman for finding out the truth – but no longer. So, it is in the week that was.

Vic Zast posts daily on Facebook and often on Twitter. Find him there after you've commented on this column.

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