Tuesday, July 14, 2015
A big horse outweighs big races
Monmouth is preparing for the biggest crowd in its history (including the 2007 Breeders' Cup) when American Pharoah goes in the Haskell on Aug. 2. Huge throngs showed up to see him merely parade at Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. This extraordinary star power is more important than ever to racing with California Chrome, Lady Eli and Main Sequence bowing out with injuries over the past few days. If there is a way to keep the Triple Crown winner on the track as a 4-year-old, it must be explored.
MIAMI, July 14, 2015--A great horse trumps great racingâ€¦and itâ€™s not a close call. The American Pharoah experience establishes this beyond debate. Huge crowds have shown up at Churchill Downs and Santa Anita just to see him paraded.
Now Monmouth Park is preparing for the biggest day in its history on Aug 2 when American Pharoah returns to the races in the Haskell. As many as 60,000 fans are expected, dwarfing even the 2007 Breedersâ€™ Cup. (Note to NYRAâ€™s Christopher Kay: There will be no cap on attendance, no matter what.)
In fact, Monmouthâ€™s biggest crowd was not for either of the Breedersâ€™ Cup days but for the 2003 Haskell when another peopleâ€™s horse, Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, made his first post-Triple Crown appearance. (Alas, he ran third to Peace Rules and Sky Mesa).
To the credit of Ahmed Zayat and Bob Baffert, they have not held up Monmouth for any enhancements to the $1 million Haskell purse. They will get $75,000 apiece in bonus money because American Pharoah won three Triple Crown races but this is available every year to owners and trainers of the winners of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
The same canâ€™t be said of Monmouth management, which is jacking up every price it can. Admission is normally $3 grandstand, $5 clubhouse. On Aug. 2, it will be $6 and $9. This isnâ€™t awful for the biggest day of the year. Almost every track does it.
However, what Monmouth is doing with parking is unforgivable. General parking is normally $6, according to the Monmouth website. Valet is $10. On Haskell Day, it will be $20 general, $40 valet.
The disingenuous justification by Robert Kulina, president of the company that runs the joint, is insulting. Stealing a page from Kay, who says he is charging for Saratoga picnic tables, which have always been free, as a service to fans, Kulina said the steep hike in parking is for the fans' sake, to encourage people to car pool or take mass transportation to the track.
â€śHorse-pucky,â€ť as Col. Potter used to say on M*A*S*H. Kulina knows many, if not most fans canâ€™t convene a crowd of fellow race-goers to car pool. If this was truly the goal, every car with four or more fans would get a break in price.
Mass transportation is even less of an option for many. Weâ€™re talking the Jersey Shore, not the west side of Manhattan. If an atypically large number did take mass transit, the Long Island Railroad nightmare at the 2014 Belmont would be a day at the beach by comparison.
Kulina knows every spot will be filled in his lots and heâ€™s going to gouge fans for as many dollars as he can.
Getting back to the reason for the anticipated record crowd, American Pharoah, it underlines the value of star power to racing. Loyalists are attracted by great races. The masses are drawn by great horses.
Unfortunately, racingâ€™s biggest stars keep dropping.
Shared Belief was a superstar in the making. Weâ€™ve lost him for at least the rest of this year. Even if he returns, it will take time to rebuild his reputation.
California Chrome was another crowd magnet. It was announced Monday that heâ€™s gone, too, for at least this year. The only upside to this downer is that he is so unfashionably bred, he might come back as a 5-year-old in a bid to strengthen his allure to breeders.
It also was revealed Monday that undefeated Lady Eliâ€™s racing career is probably over and she is fighting for her life because of laminitis. Fans donâ€™t get as excited by great fillies not named Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta but Lady Eli is still a dispiriting loss to the sport.
Fans awoke Tuesday to learn that double Eclipse winner Main Sequence has a tendon injury and has been retired. Thatâ€™s two Breedersâ€™ Cup champions and a Kentucky Derby winner lost within a couple of days.
Thankfully, racingâ€™s biggest star is still on the track. If there is a way, any way, to get the people who will take control of American Pharoah to race him as a 4-year-old, every effort should be made.
He could generate $10 million or more in the breeding shed next year but with a $10 million race in Dubai (the sheiks might go for a couple of million just to get him there) and a $6 million Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic sandwiching numerous other seven-figure purses that would be thrown at him, it might be possible to match his 2016 earning potential as a stud.
Even Canterbury Downs is willing to put up a $2 million pot to get him to Minnesota.
Iâ€™ll bet Frank Stronach would considerably sweeten the purse of the Donn to get American Pharoah to South Florida next winter. How about a Stronach-owned tracks Triple Crownâ€”the Donn, Santa Anitaâ€™s Big Cap and Pimlico Specialâ€”with a seven-figure bonus for a sweep that would move the total haul close to $5 million.
NYRA throws around casino-driven purse money as if itâ€™s trying to launder cash. If it can come up with $2 million for a couple of turf races for 3-year-olds on July 4th weekend, surely it could come up with just as much for a real spectacular featuring a Triple Crown winner. Which do you suppose would bring more people to Long Island, the Belmont Derby and Oaks or American Pharoah?
Then thereâ€™s TV money, a relative pittance for even the most prestigious races outside the Triple Crown. But put American Pharoah in the field and the telecast moves from second tier cable channels to the major broadcast networks, with a corresponding hike in license fees.
Of course any chance to keep American Pharoah racing for another season would be dependent on a surrender of selfishness and prioritizing the good of the game by his ownership group.
â€śYou may say Iâ€™m a dreamer but (I hope) Iâ€™m not the only one.â€ť
Written by Tom Jicha
Wednesday, July 08, 2015
Spa Fans Getting Nickeled and Dimed to Death
NYRA CEO Christopher Kay keeps finding new ways to squeeze money from Saratoga racing fans. Admission went up last year. Now 100 picnic tables will carry a charge every day instead of just Travers Day.Watch that number increase. It will cost this season to sit at formerly free seats in the Carousel area. Most disturbing is plans for a multi-million-dollar expansion of the clubhouse are going ahead even though the current regime is supposed to be gone next year. This is an ominous sign that Gov. Cuomo and his puppet Kay are confident they aren't going away any time soon.
MIAMI, July 7, 2015--Saratoga is starting to remind us of Las Vegas. The philosophy of Sin City in the not too distant past was, â€śWeâ€™re going to get your money at the tables and slots, so weâ€™ll stay out of your pocket as much as possible in our lodging, bars, restaurants and shows.â€ť
Then the corporate guys took over. The first thing they did was decree that just getting your gambling money wasnâ€™t enough. The hotel, bars and restaurants had to show a profit, too. Drinks were measured shots, no doubles. In some race books, you had to ask for drink tickets when you made a bet, then turn them in to the cocktail waitresses. If you wanted a premium beer or umbrella drink, they commanded extra tickets. Entertainment in the main show rooms became as expensive as it was back home.
More recently, some numbers-crunchers came up with the concept of â€śresort fees,â€ť Las Vegas equivalent of airline baggage charges. These fees run as high as $25 a day. This, of course, is nothing more than a way to jack up the price of rooms, which are no longer bargains at face value.
Las Vegas is still doing OK but nothing like it once did. Unemployment, once unheard of, is soaring. Building has come to a halt, with some major projects abandoned unfinished. Homes are selling for half what they once cost. The economy is a factor but Las Vegas has survived previous recessions without the downturn it is suffering.
This brings us to Saratoga, which handles more money per day than any other racetrack in America. Under Christopher Kay, another bottom line corporate suit, a similar nickel and dime philosophy has taken hold. Admission, which was $2 grandstand and $5 clubhouse for what seemed like forever, jumped to $5 and $8 last season. Parking went up, too.
But it doesnâ€™t stop at the entry gate. Previously hard to get reserved seats also were jacked up in price. The result: thousands go unsold on many days.
Picnic tables, ALL picnic tables, were free. A few years ago, Kay put a $100 charge on some for Travers Day. The money was going to racetrack charities, he promised. It didâ€¦for one year. Now there will be 100 on sale every day and all the money is going to NYRAâ€™s bottom line.
Kay says there will still be 850 free tables. Anyone want to make an over-under on how long this will stand?
The Carousel area, with scores of seats, has been free throughout its existence. Kay has redubbed it a sports bar and will charge to sit there this season.
Has anyone clued in the Toy Man that there are few sports on TV during the hours races are run at Saratoga? NFL season doesnâ€™t start until the week after Saratoga closes. The NBA and NHL are in their off-seasons. People donâ€™t watch mundane regular season baseball games, most of which are at night anyway, at home. The Carousel â€śsports barâ€ť is nothing but a way to grab another few bucks out of racing fans accustomed to sitting there for free.
The Top of the Stretch area, my personal favorite, is getting squeezed more each season. First it was pricey catered picnic areas along the rail. Even when they werenâ€™t being utilized, security guards made sure common fans didnâ€™t get to have the up close view they used to have.
A huge tent also has been added against the back fence. So far, fans are allowed to hang out when it is not being rented. By I hold my breath each season that this will change, too. Iâ€™m hesitant to call it to Kayâ€™s attention. In any case, an area which used to accommodate a thousand or more fans comfortably is now elbow to elbow with a couple of hundred.
The Saratoga Hall of Fame building Kay is constructing near the Carousel is not only resulting in the eradication of shade trees, it is also is going to cut into the space fans used to have at their disposal.This is where families, which make Saratoga so special, congregate. Keep charging them more and pushing them further from the horses and soon they decide, â€śThis isnâ€™t fun anymore,â€ť and will find other things to do.
Saratoga locals are outraged that the Open House on a Sunday before the meeting opened, a tradition for more than three decades, was canceled by Kay. He said he did it because it wasnâ€™t well attended, which was widely disputed. He also said local charities, which were allowed to fund-raise on Open House Sunday, werenâ€™t as successful as they should be. Kay didnâ€™t quote one local charity to back this claim.
John Hendrickson, who has the title of being Gov. Cuomoâ€™s advisor to the NYRA board on Saratoga issues, was livid that he wasnâ€™t told of the cancellation until it was a done deal. â€śHow can I advise when Iâ€™m not in the process?â€ť
Kay let the true reason out when he said the Open House could be revived if a sponsor is found. In other words, as long as it doesnâ€™t cost NYRA a dime. Good will in the local community doesnâ€™t show up on balance sheets.
The most ominous development of all is the planning for a new building, which is being called an extension of the clubhouse. Essentially the plan is to build permanent skyboxes. They will be situated on the other side of the walking path from the paddock to the track, where temporary facilities have been the past several years.
That these are being built for a handful of the super wealthy is bad enough. How about spending some money to substantially increase the number of restrooms for women. Itâ€™s a disgrace that they have to wait in endless lines on weekend days.
But the big issue is what business plans a significant, multi-million dollar expansion knowing it will not be there when the work is finished and the bills come due?
Political appointee Kay and company were supposed to be gone this fall, replaced by a return of NYRA to private ownership. Without warning or fanfare, Gov Cuomo extended this by a year. There is nothing to stop him for doing this ad infinitum, especially since there appears to be little to no effort to find a new operator.
That Kay, with the governorâ€™s approval, is moving ahead with this expansion suggests that the current regime plans to be around for a while.
This is not good news for Saratoga in particular and New York racing in general.
Written by Tom Jicha
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Stars are out for the big holiday weekend
Three Breeders' Cup champions--Main Sequence, Texas Red and Work All Week--are expected to get back on the road to this year's renewal, hoping to reverse disappointing showings last time out in major stakes over the holiday weekend. Also, Lady Eli tries to stretch her unbeaten streak to six in the Belmont Oaks.
MIAMI, June 30, 2015--The Triple Crown and its long run-up dominate the first half of the racing season. After that, focus turns to the Breedersâ€™ Cup. This process picks up momentum all over the map during the Independence Day weekend.
For three of last yearâ€™s Breedersâ€™ Cup champions, Fourth of July weekend represents a chance for redemption after less than stellar performances. Main Sequence, who started his four-for-four U.S. campaign in 2014 in Monmouthâ€™s United Nations, is expected back to defend his title on Sunday.
A Horse of the Year finalist in 2014, he extended his unbeaten streak to five in Gulfstreamâ€™s Mac Diarmida, his 2015 debut. However, he didnâ€™t look like the star, who beat some of the worldâ€™s best in the BC Turf last November, in the Dubai Sheema Classic, checking in a non-competitive seventh. Maybe heâ€™s just a horse for U.S. courses.
Texas Red became the de facto Kentucky Derby favorite off an eye-catching, late-running 6 Â˝ length score in the BC Juvenile. However, he didnâ€™t get very far down the Derby trail. He ran second in the San Vicente in February then went to the sidelines with a foot abscess. Heâ€™ll make his first start on the comeback trail in the Dwyer, one of six stakes on Belmontâ€™s July 4th Stars and Stripes mega Saturday.
Itâ€™s not an easy spot. Among those also pointing to the Dwyer is Blofeld from Todd Pletcherâ€™s armada of talented 3-year-olds.
Blofeld rattled off convincing wins in the Futurity and Nashua to cap a three-for-three juvenile campaign. He suffered his first defeat when he ran third in the William Walker--the stakes that replaced the Derby Trial--at Churchill Downs. He had a tough trip on an off track that night and still missed by less than two lengths. He could be double tough back home at Belmont.
Work All Week completed a five-for-six 2014 with his game half-length triumph in the BC Sprint. Like Texas Red, he wound up running second against less heralded company in his 2015 debut, the Aristides, during Derby week at Churchill.
He has been working bullets preparing for his return in the Smile, one of nine stakes on Sundayâ€™s Summit of Speed card at Gulfstream. Restoring the Summit, which was AWOL last summer due to the conflict with Calder, which wasnâ€™t resolved soon enough to schedule it, is another of the praise-worthy moves Gulfstream has made since the dispute was worked out.
The Summit, which offers purses in excess of a million dollars, was created by Calder to give South Florida summer racing a focal point. It succeeded beyond the most optimistic hopes, enticing a number of Eclipse and Breedersâ€™ Cup-caliber horses to return at a time of year when serious horses had long departed the area.
Alsvid, who outran Work All Week in the Aristides, also is coming in for the Smile hoping to show that last time wasnâ€™t a fluke and grab the BC Win and Youâ€™re In Award attached to the Smile. The Princess Rooney for fillies and mares also carries a Win and Youâ€™re In award.
Also not intimidated by the prospect of facing the Eclipse winning sprinter, Wildcat Red, who won the 2014 Fountain of Youth and was second in the Florida Derby, is being pointed to the Smile. Itâ€™s a challenging assignment for a horse who hasnâ€™t been out since the Sunshine Millions in January.
Not only top horses are lured to South Florida for the rich Summit card. Two-time Eclipse jockey champion Javier Castellano is scheduled to fly in to ride Wildcat Red. Last weekend, he ventured out to Prairie Meadows and won two big races, the Iowa Derby and Cornhusker.
A bigger attraction for local fans might be the presence of Triple Crown winning jockey Victor Espinoza. Castellano is a winter regular at Gulfstream. South Florida fans donâ€™t get to see the West Coast-based Espinoza, who is scheduled to ride City of Weston in the Smile and is sure to pick up other mounts on the card.
Back at Belmont, Lady Eli, the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf champion, will try to run her record to a perfect six-for-six in the Belmont Oaks. She already has won both 2015 starts, the Appalachian at Keeneland and the Wonder Again at Belmont. She looks like a free space in multiple race wagers. It will be interesting to see if NYRA takes the Oaks out of the Pick 6 sequence.
Lady Eliâ€™s trainer, Chad Brown, is also loaded for the companion Belmont Derby with Takeover Target and Startup Nation, who ran two-three in the Penine Ridge, the prep for this Derby. However, they will have to find a way to hold off Divisidero, the winner of that race.
Divisidero, whoâ€™s three-for-four, with his only loss the result of a horrific trip at Gulfstream, is a fun horse to watch. He has a breath-taking turn of foot, reminiscent of really top Euros. But a horse with his style is always vulnerable to pace and racing luck.
Getting back to the super Belmont card, it also includes the return of Tonalist, who suffered his first defeat at Belmont in the Met Mile when he ran second to Honor Code. He is back at a more favorable distance in the mile-and-a-quarter Suburban.
Out West, highly touted Laz Barrera winner Kentuckian could be tested by Dortmund, who was six-for-six until running third in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness. If Bob Baffertâ€™s â€śotherâ€ť outstanding 3-year-old gets back on track, he could be headed East for the Haskell or Travers, depending on what Baffert decides to do with American Pharoah.
The Triple Crown champion will continue to be racingâ€™s biggest story wherever he shows up. However, judging from this coming weekend, he will be far from the only story.
Written by Tom Jicha