Thursday, February 16, 2017
Winning is the only thing, according to a Derby trend
One loss shouldn't dash the hopes of Kentucky Derby prospects but a trend over the past five years indicates that it's a bad omen. The five most recent Derby winners have gone 12-for-12 in their preps. Throw out a defeat in a grass race by Animal Kingdom and another year is added to the streak. Meanwhile, the likelihood of sports betting winning approval in the courts or by Congress grows. But would this be a bad thing for racing?
MIAMI--Classic Empire, the Juvenile Champion and early Kentucky Derby favorite, might have disappointed in the Holy Bull because he became unnerved by shipping into Gulfstream from the Palm Meadows training center on the morning of the race.
Maybe it was a developing foot abscess that went undiscovered until a few days after the race. Perhaps it was a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
Whatever it was, failing to win in his first start as a 3-year-old makes him unlikely to wear the roses on the first Saturday in May, according to a trend over the past five years. Since 2012 the winner of the Kentucky Derby has been undefeated in his 3-year-old campaign.
I brought this up for the first time a year ago and Nyquist kept the streak going, winning both his sophomore starts before Louisville. That made it 12-for-12, still a small sample but sizable enough to not be disregarded.
American Pharoah won both his preps. California Chrome was 3-for-3 prior to the Derby. Orb also was 3-for-3. Iâ€™ll Have Another was perfect in a pair of preps.
The last time the eventual Derby winner suffered defeat prior to the Run for the Roses carries an asterisk. Animal Kingdom ran second in a turf allowance at Gulfstream in his 2011 debut. He rebounded to win the Spiral, on an artificial surface, in his final Derby prep.
So when youâ€™re trying to identify the horse most likely to win Americaâ€™s greatest race, keep in mind the phrase often attributed to Vince Lombardi even though he didnâ€™t originate it: â€śWinning isnâ€™t everything. Itâ€™s the only thing.â€ť
A Pletcher irony
The most recent Derby winner to score the first win of his 3-year-old campaign in the big one was Super Saver in 2010. How ironic that he is the only Derby winner for Todd Pletcher, who seems to have a herd of streaking Classic hopefuls with sparkling records at this time of year.
This yearâ€™s hot prospect is Battalion Runner who has won impressively at seven furlongs and a mile and a sixteenth and is being pointed toward the Florida Derby.
Pletcher has another flashy 3-year-old named Malagacy, who won his 5 Â˝ furlong debut by 15 lengths in the slop then came back last Sunday to take a 6 Â˝ furlong entry level allowance by 7 on a fast track. His first race was on Jan. 4, so he is this yearâ€™s candidate to rekindle talk of the Curse of Apollo; no horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old since 1882.
Thankfully, Pletcher has tamped down such talk. He feels Malagacyâ€™s future is around one turn.
Coincidentally, Pletcherâ€™s rival Chad Brown said the same about Favorable Outcome after his big win in the Swale.
If and when these two hook up it could be something to see. Unfortunately, there is nothing left on the Gulfstream stakes schedule for 3-year-old sprinters.
However, the Hutcheson failed to fill earlier in the meeting and Tim Ritvo said he would consider bringing it back later in the season if there is a call for it. A Malagacy-Favorable Outcome confrontation would add even more luster to the traditionally sensational Florida Derby card.
Sports betting: blessing or curse?
Some societal changes can be seen coming years away; decriminalization of marijuana, same sex marriage. It was clear they were inevitable, only a matter of time. Legalization of sports betting is beginning to slide into this category.
Obstacles that have limited legal sports betting to Nevada are under relentless challenge. New Jersey, which has been clutching at every straw to salvage whatâ€™s left of the casino business in Atlantic City, has been frustrated by the courts in its effort to join Nevada for the better part of the decade.
A couple of New Jersey congressman, Frank LoBiondo and Frank Pallone Jr., are introducing a bill in Congress that would give states a four-year window to decide whether they want sports gambling. President Trump, a former Atlantic City casino owner, is said to have no objections.
Now Maryland is joining the cause. A bill, H989, has been introduced in the legislature. It would allow the stateâ€™s tracks and casinos to apply for sports betting should the federal prohibition against it be eliminated.
The barrier is the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which prohibited any state but Nevada from taking action on individual games. Professional sports leagues have been ferocious opponents of all attempts to get around this law. But opposition appears to be softening.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver was the first to break from the pack. In an op-ed in The New York Times
in November 2014, Silver wrote, â€śGambling has increasingly become a popular and accepted form of entertainment in the United States.â€ť Noting that it is estimated that as much as $400 billion is wagered illegally in the U.S., Silver continued, â€śCongress should adopt a federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports.â€ť
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has joined the chorus. A year ago, he said, â€śItâ€™s important for baseball to give fresh consideration to the issue.â€ť More recently he has amplified this position. â€śThereâ€™s this buzz out there in terms of people feeling that there may be an opportunity here for legalized sports betting. We are re-examining our stance on gambling.â€ť
The NFL remains publicly opposed to gambling on its games but it has overtly supported fantasy sports, disingenuously saying it doesnâ€™t consider this gambling. Some NFL owners have a piece of the fantasy sports action.
The fact that the league seems on the verge of allowing the Oakland Raiders to move to Las Vegas, where a new stadium would be wedged between casinos whose biggest sports business is the NFL--$138 million was wagered on the Super Bowl--is a further indication that the league isnâ€™t as anti-sports gambling as it claims to be.
The expectation is that if and when sports betting is legalized, it will be limited, at least initially, to existing casinos and race tracks.
This might not be a good thing for racing. Slots were supposed to save race tracks. They have done exactly the opposite. Slots have become ubiquitous while race tracks are closing down or running fewer dates. The promised purse subsidies are under assault.
Sports betting could be slots squared. It is said slots players donâ€™t gamble on the horses to any substantial degree and vice versa.
Horse players do gamble on sports. A lot. There is a finite amount of gambling funds among the public. Money now invested in races would be re-directed to games.
Also, sports betting is capital intensive. One certainty is Congress and the states would insist on a prohibition of betting on credit. This would take significant sums out of players' pockets.
Horse racing relies on churn. Sports betting doesnâ€™t to any great extent.
As a fan, I would love to see tracks allowed to handle sports. As someone who loves racing, Iâ€™m concerned it could be the final nail in racingâ€™s coffin.
February 16, 2017
Written by Tom Jicha
Wednesday, February 08, 2017
Shed a tear for Hialeah thanks to latest travesty
Hialeah, still beautiful as ever, continues to descend into racing oblivion. The latest travesty is as outrageous as the Metropolitan Museum of Art being transformed into a brothel would be. A quarterhorse meet has been used to justify Hialeah being allowed to operate a slots casino and poker room. Now that is being abandoned in favor of some sort of sham racing where as few as two horses gallop--in a manner of speaking--down a path. The only consolation is, it might not come to pass if decoupling is approved by the Florida legislature this spring.
I havenâ€™t been to Hialeah for simulcasting since the Gulfstream West meeting. If Iâ€™m going to watch local races on TV, Hialeah is half the trip for me that Gulfstream is.
The Hialeah experience still gives me a good feeling. Palm trees still sway, the grounds remain breath-taking, flamingos cavort in the infield and the clubhouse has been refurbished. Itâ€™s like revisiting my old neighborhood, which has become, shall we say, not a desirable place to live anymore. But the structures and landscape are unchanged, so going back still rekindles warm memories of what once was.
On my next trip to Hialeah, if there is one, Iâ€™m going to check to see if there is a tear running down the cheek of the statue of Citation. There should be.
According to a dispatch in The Paulick Report, the once most cherished thoroughbred track in the world is about to be reduced to running sham two-horse races to satisfy the legal requirement to keep its casino and card rooms.
This might seem only marginally worse than the Gulfstream West meeting at a venue that is now an empty lot bordering a race track or the low grade quarterhorse meeting Hialeah has used to keep its casino . But Calder, as much as it grew on me over the years, was never the treasure of the turf that Hialeah was.
The latest development all but dashes my dream of thoroughbreds racing under the flamingoes again. I felt that if decoupling were passed, as seems likely this legislative season, the Gulfstream West meeting at Calder would be put out of its misery and Hialeah would move in with a short boutique meeting between Gulfstreamâ€™s summer session and the prime winter meet.
It would make sense. A fall hiatus is beneficial to Gulfstream. It breaks the monotony of running 12 straight months at a single venue with one season bleeding right into the next. But now, as they say in Brooklyn, "Fuhgeddaboutit!"
I still think decoupling is a factor in the farcical meeting Hialeah got approved. Iâ€™m not the only one who feels decoupling is inevitable. If it happens, it will probably be at the end of April, near the conclusion of the 2017 legislative season.
Hialeah announced last year that it was shifting its keep-the-casino quarterhorse meeting from December-February to a June start, apparently hoping decoupling would make it unnecessary. By dumping the quarterhorses for barrel racing or flag fall racing or God-knows-what racing, Hialeah doesnâ€™t even have to go through the motions of preparing for a quarterhorse meet.
This is the thanks the scuffling quarterhorse guys get for helping Hialeah to get a casino.
Some things never change in John Brunetti Land.
Too many stakes
The foal crop has dropped in half over the past decade or so. Logically speaking, the roster of stakes worthy horses also has had a decline. Yet, it seems as if the number of stakes races hasnâ€™t had a corresponding reduction. If anything, stakes opportunities have increased.
Tim Ritvo was justifiably proud when the Pegasus, even with its million dollar buy-in, and its consolation heat, the Poseidon, drew 21 entries on Jan. 28. â€śNormally we struggle to get eight in the Donn (the premier handicap race the Pegasus replaced),â€ť the Gulfstream president said.
He might have added that one week earlier, eight older horses ran a mile and eighth in the Sunshine Millions Classic. There was only one repeater between the Classic and the Poseidon, Hy Riverside. Thus, 28 older horses ran for added money within a week.
This Saturday, older horses will go at it again in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. Nine have been entered. Iron horse Hy Riverside is answering the bell again. Awesome Banner and Awesome Slew are back from the Millions. Even with these repeaters, the three-week total of older horses in stakes stands at 34. Subtract Arrogate and Imperative, who shipped in from California to win the Pegasus and Posideon, as well as California Chrome and this still leaves 31.
The question is, are there really 31 older stakes caliber horses in South Florida at this time of year? The answer would have to be no. An argument could be made that there arenâ€™t 31 genuine older stakes horses in the country.
I never thought I would be one to call for a reduction in stakes. However, it takes more than dropping an entry slip in the box to qualify as a stakes horse. Fewer stakes, spaced over a longer period of time, would enhance the prestige and caliber of field of all of them.
The Sunshine Millions should be relocated to December. The Halâ€™s Hope could also stay at the end of the calendar year for horses ineligible for the Florida-bred races. The Pegasus and any accompanying race should have January all to themselves.
A race like the Harlanâ€™s Holiday could be wedged into late February or early March. The Gulfstream Handicap would be a nice fit on the Florida Derby undercard. Run the first week in April, it might attract some of the better handicap horses ready to come out of their winter break.
It makes little sense to continue to cram these races within little more than a month.
Bring back the Donn
With a second edition of the Pegasus likely, Iâ€™d like to reiterate my call to attach the Donn name to the Gulfstream Park Handicap, which is kind of a generic anyway.
Without the Donn family, there would be no Gulfstream Park.
If the Pegasus indeed comes back and the Donn is not used for a stakes for the second straight year in 2018, it will be stripped of its graded status and likely be forgotten about. That would be a pity.
Miami, February 9, 2017
Written by Tom Jicha
Thursday, February 02, 2017
Woody’s revered record facing a challenge
Woody Stephens' five consecutive Belmont Stakes winners is a record that could stand for all time. However, it is fair to ask if Bob Baffert is approaching an equally superlative achievement. He has won three straight Breeders' Cup Classics and has Arrogate for a potential fourth. After last Saturday's Pegasus, you have to wonder, who is going to beat this superhorse?
MIAMI--Some records are so revered, they are considered almost unassailable: Joe DiMaggioâ€™s 56-game hitting streak; Wilt Chamberlainâ€™s 100-point game; the Dolphinsâ€™ perfect season. For racing fans, Woody Stephensâ€™ feat of five consecutive Belmont Stakes winners fits into this category.
Literally, Woodyâ€™s mark might never be surpassed. Since Woodyâ€™s remarkable run from 1982-86, only D. Wayne Lukas has won as many as three consecutive Belmont Stakes. No one else has gone even back-to-back.
However Arrogateâ€™s sensational triumph in the Pegasus raises the question of whether we might be on the verge of a racing achievement at the highest level that is the equal or better of Woodyâ€™s.
Itâ€™s a long way from February to November. At this point last year, no one outside Bob Baffertâ€™s inner circle had heard of Arrogate. But right now the grey colt would have to be considered a short price to give Baffert his fourth straight Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic victory. Arrogateâ€™s connections say this is his No 1 target for 2017. Everything else will be counting backward from the Nov. 4 Classic at Del Mar, according to Baffert.
Barring injuryâ€”granted, a big leapâ€”whoâ€™s going to beat him? What the son of Unbridled Song has done in his last three races has been other-worldly and, in a strange development, it has gotten even better since Saturday.
Respected clockers, including Craig Milkowski of Time Form U.S., Randy Moss and Bruno DeJulio, have challenged the official clocking of 1:47.61. Milkowski has concluded that Arrogate ran nine furlongs in 1:46.53, better than Leaâ€™s track record of 1:46.86. This would give Arrogate a second track record in three starts, to go with his 1:59.36 in the Travers.
Gulfstream is promising an official review. Whether Arrogate gets credit for another record is almost irrelevant. â€śSuperhorse,â€ť Milkowski wrote.
Andy Beyer has revised upward his â€śfigâ€ť for Arrogate from 116 to 119. This puts it in line with his 120 for the BC Classic and 122 for the Travers, figs in a different stratosphere.
Certainly no older horse weâ€™ve seen can keep up with Arrogate, especially with California Chrome gone. Heâ€™s killed the best that can be lined up twice now. As for last yearâ€™s 3-year-old crop, the winners of all three Triple Crown races have gone to the breeding shed. Gun Runner and Connect, the best of those who didnâ€™t show up for the Pegasus, finished a time zone behind Arrogate in the Travers and Classic.
What about new 3 year-olds?
Maybe thereâ€™s a newly turned 3-year-old, who will be ready to challenge by yearâ€™s end. Juvenile champion Classic Empire launches his campaign this Saturday in the Holy Bull. The only time he has been beaten was when he wheeled at the start. Undefeated McCraken cranks it up a week from Saturday in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. Also undefeated Mastery is being pointed toward a March race, according to Baffert. It could turn out the biggest threat to Arrogate is another Baffert.
Do four Breedersâ€™ Cup Classics in a row equal five Belmont Stakes? I would argue yes. The Belmont at a mile and a half is a one of a kind race, often diminished by shortcomings of the breed as well as the attrition of the grueling Triple Crown campaign. Of Woodyâ€™s five winners, only 1984 Derby winner Swale took part in the first two legs the Triple Crown events. The other four skipped one or the other, some both, to be pointed specifically for the Belmont while others of their generation knocked themselves out in the Derby and Preakness.
The Breedersâ€™ Cup has become the year-end championship, run at Americaâ€™s classic distance. It is targeted for the entire season by almost everyone in the game, including some of Europeâ€™s best.
I am not minimizing Woodyâ€™s accomplishments. Others had the same opportunities and didnâ€™t come close. I am merely putting them in the context of this debate.
This is not to say the Baffert conveyer belt of superstars might not provide him with a fifth straight or more Classic champion.
To this point, the two streaks have only one significant bond. Both have been done entirely with 3-year-olds. This was a prerequisite, of course, of Woodyâ€™s feat. Baffert has beaten all comers of any age with Bayern, American Pharoah and Arrogate.
A fabulous day for TSG & racing
Getting back to the Pegasus, it was great to hear Belinda Stronach rave about the South Florida vibe and how she hopes to bring the worldâ€™s richest race back to Gulfstream in 2018. But all this was said in the euphoria of what was a fabulous day for The Stronach Group and racing.
It remains to be seen if it will be as easy this coming year to get a dozen entities to ante up $1 million months ahead of time on the if-come.
One lesson learned is that by January there are not 12 horses worthy of such an event. Three of this yearâ€™s dozen went off in excess of 100-1. A fourth, Eragon, the South American substitute for Runhappy, should have been 1,000-1. He trailed throughout. A GPS device would be needed to tabulate how far he finished behind Arrogate.
So the possibility of a slot in the starting gate becoming a sellersâ€™ market asset is unlikely to come to pass. Itâ€™s a debatable point whether the possibility of having Arrogate go for an encore next January is a plus. It certainly is for the race, not so much for getting others to sign on.
The ancillary revenue streams promised to share-holders are probably a long way from amounting to much, if anything. The TV ratings, which Tim Ritvo said was crucial to future finances, were nothing special. The 1.23 Nielsen rating translated to about two million fans. Compare this to the 12 million who dependably tune into the Kentucky Derby.
The ratings were roughly comparable to the Breedersâ€™ Cup, which has been around since 1984 and still doesnâ€™t command a dime for TV rights. Sponsorships, another potential source of revenue for subscribers, will have to continue to pay the freight to get the Pegasus on TV.
If there is a bright spot, it is the $40 million plus handed Saturday, a little less than half that on the Pegasus. Share-holders have been promised a piece of this in the future.
If somehow a Japanese horse could be lured to the race, this could almost double and actually amount to something for share-holders.
There is a reason Japanese race horses have become as in demand as a fun date in prom season. The Japanese bet about $20 million on the Arc when one of their horses is competing. Itâ€™s not unreasonable to expect that much or more on the Pegasus if one of their local heroes was in the field.
This is why Ritvo took a party to Japan hoping to get a Japanese horse for the inaugural Pegasus. Itâ€™s why the Kentucky Derby has set aside a slot for a Japanese 3-year-old and NYRA has put up a $1 million bonus for a Japanese horse who wins the Belmont.
A more equitable distribution of the Pegasus purse also is mandatory. As it was, only Arrogate, who took home $7 million and house horse Shaman Ghost, who won $1.75 million for second, turned a profit. The $1 million Neolithic got for third was merely the break-even mark; less than that when you subtract jockey and trainer fees. Finishing third should be profitable.
The $7 million will stay to maintain the Pegasus as the worldâ€™s biggest payoffâ€”at least until the sheiks in Dubai pony up some more oil money. But the other $5 million needs a redistribution table; maybe $2 million for second; $1.5 million for third; $1 million for fourth and the rest set aside as expense money for the also-rans. Awarding $250,000 for fourth through last runs against everything horse racing is supposed to be.
Nothing is perfect the first time it is attempted, as Ritvo said. There was far more good than not at the inaugural Pegasus. Letâ€™s hope this is sufficient to ensure many more Pegasuses in the future.
Written by Tom Jicha