Sunday, June 23, 2019

Arcadia to Ascot, Worlds Apart

This was supposed to be a whimsical piece; the lead already written: “I have a confession to make. I’m an Ascot weenie and I have no intention of apologizing for how much I loved not only the racing but the pomp and circumstance, too…” Like the old Keeneland tagline, this is racing as it was meant to be. From Tuesday through Saturday morning, I felt the same way I did as a teenager at the races, filled with excited anticipation. And I didn’t bet a dime; the spectacle was enough. Then came more bad news from Santa Anita…the kind of news that could take an industry down. The juxtaposition exhausts me.

By John Pricci

Another horse has broken down and was euthanized, the 30th such occurrence since the day of Christmas. The latest fatality, American Currency, was trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, a member of Racing’s Hall of Fame since 2011. Hollendorfer also trained four of the 30 dead horses.

Hollendorfer once was King of Northern California Racing. It was a matter of when, not if, the big time would beckon. And so he moved his barn south, to places named Hollywood Park and Santa Anita Park and Del Mar, developing three champions he would ship around the country in search of a title worthy resume.

Now the question becomes what kind of legacy does he leave behind? Is it the 7,600 winners that makes him the third leading trainer of all-time, the man who won 22 straight meet titles at Northern California racetracks, the man whose horses earned $200 million while under his care?

Or will it be a trainer suspended for medication violations 19 times in 19 years, the penalties being sundry days on the sidelines but only $17,000 in monetary penalties, the prodigious Hall of Fame trainer who was ruled off Santa Anita?

As this saga plays out in the coming days, the answer is an emphatic who knows?

Insiders are saying that Del Mar, which begins its summer meet July 17, does not intend to grant Hollendorfer stall space. However, Los Alamitos Chairman Ed Allred tweeted it “will gladly provide stalls to Jerry Hollendorfer, a Hall of Fame trainer and an unexcelled horseman. Unless forbidden by the CHRB, we intend to permit entries from Hollendorfer.”

At this posting, Del Mar has not confirmed whether or not Hollendorfer will be allowed on the grounds or if entries will be permitted. The trainer already had sent a division to New York in advance of the Saratoga meet. The NYRA confirmed they were aware of the Santa Anita ban, but offered no further comment.

Cruelly ironic is the fact that Saturday’s deadly accident came less than 24 hours after he was one of the trainers profiled on a CNN horse racing feature, replete with the most gruesome video it could compile, asking whether the time had come to ban Thoroughbred racing. “We are at a tipping point,” acknowledged Jockey Club President James Gagliano in the piece.

Also coming under CNN’s glare was trainer William E. Morey, another prolific Northern California horseman, the third winningest trainer there the past six years, the man who ended Hollendorfer’s NoCal title streak. Morey recently was suspended 30 days [subsequently reduced to 15], given a year’s probation, and fined $3,000 for medication violations.

Still another, trainer Michael Pender, was suspended by the California Horse Racing Board stewards for animal welfare violations. Pender also was ordered by Santa Anita management to vacate his stalls.

Pender was charged with working a horse at Santa Anita--after a veterinary examination disclosed an injury—and entered his $20,000 claim for $12,500 at Golden Gate Fields, also owned by The Stronach Group, but was vet scratched by order of the stewards.

Interesting, too, in a callous display of tone-deaf hubris, Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association, last week issued a statement that NHBPA “strongly opposes [House and Senate versions] of the Horseracing Integrity Act and encourages industry participants to voice their opposition by contacting their representatives in Congress.”

Like so many status quo defenders, the organization obviously is more “Protective” of the rights of horsemen to administer raceday medication, and there’s nothing caring or compassionate about that. Perhaps Horseman’s Malevolent and Protective Association would be more appropriate.


So this was supposed to be about Frankie Dettori’s magnificent seven victories, including a heretofore impossible four straight on one card—even for the man who won seven straight 23 years ago! His ground-saving, nerve wracking stretch drive was a thing of beauty, giving all-time great stayer Stradivarius a rare Ascot Gold Cup double.

It was going to be about Hayley Turner becoming the first woman in 32 years to win at Royal Ascot because, of all things, should could make the weight assignment, the winning Thanks Be (33-1) in receipt of 21 pounds from Magnetic Charm (7-1), owned by Her Majesty The Queen.

Also, this was going to be about Blue Point winning twice at the meet--the King’s Stand on Tuesday and returning to win the highly prestigious Diamond Jubilee on Saturday, and it was supposed to be about the gifted Crystal Ocean giving Sir Michael Stoute his 80th Royal Ascot victory.

The Yanks had sent word that they were coming but left empty-handed, although Wesley Ward, who put Ascot on America’s dance card, just missed winning his 11th event, a tough beat for Johnny Velazquez who lost again when the stewards ordered a nine-day suspension because he raised his crop too high and also struck his mount in the wrong place. He took it like the class act he is and will not appeal.

But the Brits should know that the Yanks will keep coming, hoping next time to get their drums rum-tumming. So beware, we’ll be over, we’ll still be coming over, so prepare, while those who are tethered to American racing say a prayer.

©John Pricci, HorseRaceInsider June 23 2019, All Rights Reserved

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Twitter Tweaks Takeout: Kentucky Derby Winner* Returns


While the Thoroughbred industry awaits its fate, one known only by the Deity given the powerful voice animal rights activists, racing can do something proactive: It can try harder not to lose the remaining fans it has and possibly attract future horseplayers by lowering the high cost of playing the game

By John Pricci

HALLANDALE BEACH—Even if counterintuitive, the Twitterverse can be a force for good. There was a thread this weekend suggesting tweaks to the issue of lowering parimutuel takeout that makes sense. Maybe it’s a cause that the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation could advance going forward.

The tack suggested provided grist for the gambler’s mill. It wouldn’t level the playing field completely, not as long as a handful of well-funded computer syndicates continue to be given free rein to set the odds too late for rank and file to adjust.

But it would bring a measure of fairness that currently is non-existent, thus allowing the rank and file to continue supporting the game. To wit:

• No rebates on losing wagers for anyone.
• Lower takeout on the highest churn wagers; straight win, place and show bets.
• Penny breakage--which in some cases can amount to 19 pennies on every $2 wagered.
• Pay a bonus to high volume bettors on winning wagers only.

Not a perfect solution, just a little something for everyone engaged in betting on horse.

Yes, lowering takeout rates does require the cooperation of racetracks and the approval of state legislatures to lower taxes. Allow racing authorities to inform the federal creation of uniform rules and penalties nationwide via an independent agency while local authorities concentrate helping horseplayers in their states.

The message must be sent that helping horseplayers to remain liquid is in everyone’s economic best interest in the long term. To paraphrase trainer Chuck Simon’s tweet re the above “It’s a lot like term limits. Everyone thinks it’s a great idea but it’s something that will never happen.”

Whether or not Simon is correct matters not. Well-meaning horse racing lovers inside the industry must try. This is not a time for cynicism; it’s a time for pulling out all stops while the industry struggles to survive, never mind remaining relevant in the world of sports world.

Kentucky Derby Winner* Returns

Until a three-year-old male emerges as leader of racing’s glamour division, no one knows who the best of the group is. The politically correct term is parity; too bad there aren’t Eclipse Awards for Horse of the Month.

I wonder if Maximum Security—he lives, he breathes, he races--will have to live with this Roger Maris thing for the rest of his racing life and legacy; the * symbol. That’s why the Haskell, Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic will especially important this year. Some horse needs to step up and lead.

In any case, it’s interesting to see the colt back in the entries. He meets five rivals in today’s Pegasus Stakes, this afternoon’s 10th race at his home base, Monmouth Park.

Maximum Security, a 1-2 early line favorite, will meet a handful of minor-awards seekers and fellow Haskell prepsters. But we’re not talking the equivalent of equine tomato cans here. Todd Pletcher is sending two, including second choice King for a Day (4-1), the likely pacesetter should the favorite defer.

Indeed, King for a Day is about a half-dozen lengths slower on paper but his figures are straight forward. And since Maximum Security technically is not undefeated, Jason Servis doubtlessly has left most of the gas in the tank. Things could get interesting, especially with Joe Bravo atop the Sir Barton winner.

Of course, all entrants have their eye on the million-dollar Grade 1 prize on July 20, including the fresh, fast working Identifier (6-1). Considering company lines, most handicappers might regard him as an automatic toss. But my past performances say Paco Lopez in the boot for Jorge Navarro. ‘Nuff said.

Given the above, Maximum Security has a better chance to be defeated than Gary and Mary West have in winning their court case, now that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission this week filed a motion to dismiss the West’s complaint.

The motion, filed in US District Court for the Eastern District’s Lexington Division, cites the Commonwealth’s statute: [The racing commission has] “full authority to prescribe necessary and reasonable administrative regulations and conditions under which horse racing at a horse racing meeting shall be conducted.”

The Kentucky Racing Commission stated it relies upon its stewards to “exercise immediate supervision, control and regulation of racing.” It might have taken 22 minutes, but that’s exactly what happened.

Section 4 of the regulations state that the stewards are responsible for the “final determination” of objections resulting from actions in a race, and that “findings of fact and determination shall be final and shall not be subject to appeal.”

Further--and this is significant--the motion included the fact that the Wests “agreed to the rules of horse racing in the Commonwealth” when they applied for a license to race in Kentucky, and thus “agreed to the commission's regulations and agreed that the stewards' determinations are final.”

The West’s counsel argue that the disqualification is not supported by substantial evidence of the whole record, is deficient, and that it exceeds the commission’s statutory authority, thus denying the Wests due process when the stewards abused their discretion by ordering a disqualification.

The bet here is that the court will follow established case law “and dismiss the Wests' attempt to appeal the unappealable, and to claim a property interest not recognized by Kentucky law.” As a true enemy of the people recently said: “Case Closed.”

©John Pricci,, June 16, 2019, All Rights Reserved

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 09, 2019

And the Triple Crown of 2019 Goes to: Mark Casse

By John Pricci

ELMONT—Looking back on the five weeks of the 2019 Triple Crown leaves at least one observer thinking this: What a short, strange trip it’s been!

First, there were myriad preps, won by multitudes of different Classic contenders. Then came the Derby; the historical, hysterical, event that took place in Kentucky five weeks ago that will be a huge part of Derby lore going forward.

This was followed by an unneeded, unnecessary disparagement of War of Will’s Preakness, who used his speed and power to provide himself with a perfect-trip ending. That was all War of Will and Tyler Gaffalione.

Finally came yesterday’s 151st Belmont Stakes in which most of the post-race storyline concerned itself with the possibility that the “best horse” finished second while the “best rider” won the race.

What was lost in all the might-have-been scenarios is one immutable fact: From beginning to end, Mark Casse put the 2019 Classics on his back in the Louisville starting gate and carried it all the way to the finish line in New York.

His deeply troubled Derby runner and Preakness winner was the only member of the division to make all the dances because this young older-schooler believes that “if you can run in these races, you should.”

And so he did, winning two of the three; one an effort of satisfaction and a certain vindication of belief, the other giving a horse what it needed to succeed on the second Saturday in June:

If by getting fit in the Withers, Tampa Bay Derby and Blue Grass was necessary to set up Sir Winston’s Belmont-winning performance with a fast-finish Peter Pan placing, then so be it. Treating the Belmont winner like an individual was as fitting an ending to this Casse’s personal Triple Crown as any.

When discussing the game’s bigger than life training icons, one always hears the names Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, the “Big Three,” mentioned first. Well now there appears to be a “Murderers Row.” Simply add Casse’s name to the dominating mix.

Triple Crown MVP Mark Casse
File Photo by Toni Pricci

Conditions were terrible for all in Louisville; the wide trip and wet track were ruinous to the Derby chances Baffert’s Game Winner and Improbable, respectively. Pletcher, per custom, competed in only two of the three events and none of his starters ever threated in either race.

Brown had no impact on this year’s Triple Crown but he’s on top of the list when it comes to turf domination and is in the conversation for his handling of possibly the best three-year-old filly in America, Acorn Stakes record-setting Guarana.

But it was Casse who won two classics with different horses, setting the record straight on the stewards’ inquiry process following the Derby in an objective manner before stating, when asked post-Preakness, that he would do whatever it takes to ensure the game endures, including the absence of raceday medication.

But winning the Belmont with the “other horse” with a career-best effort while the stable star-- the only runner cheered by the pre-Belmont crowd--raced as if all tuckered out by cramming for the Triple Crown after the Louisiana Derby debacle, places the 57-year-old horsemen in rarified air, indeed.

Belmont Stakes Festival Grade 1 Watch

Can’t argue with those who believe trips made all the difference in the Belmont. Joel Rosario was brilliant and daring, saving ground on a surface that played faster inside than outside before he angled out, kissing his stablemate en route to a running lane. Even if the track played more fairly, the ground loss by Tacitus was staggering...

The HRI Faithful know that we are huge Jose Ortiz fans. The youngster may be been forced into the wide trip when Tyler Gaffalione and War of Will curiously did not go on with it after entering the backstretch. While love Ortiz’s aggressiveness, but his decision making, Guarana notwithstanding, was poor on Belmont Festival weekend.

The mid-race move aboard Giant Zinger in Friday’s New York Stakes was ill advised given the dynamics at that time. And the attempted mid-race move with Gold Cup co-favorite Red Knight was very poorly executed with the brush into the lower clubhouse turn. Don’t know if there were any viable options for Tacitus, but that trip wasn’t going to get it done on Saturday’s racetrack...

Met Mile favorite McKinzie certainly had a valid excuse--trapped with run behind horses inside the final furlong--finding a seam inside too late to rush passed a good-tripping Thunder Snow. But even at that, we don’t know that Mitole deserved to lose.

He attended the pace all the way, surrounded by rivals contesting for the lead approaching headstretch, but kept on going despite chasing splits of 22.17, 44.38, and 108.24, finishing up in a very worthy 24.51. The final time of 1.32.75 was 2/100s off the Met Mile record...

That McKinzie would have caught Mitole with a cleaner trip was more of an optical illusion in our view. Mitole kept him at bay yards from the wire and still refused to let him by on the gallop-out.

Steve Asmussen has hit all the high notes with this fast and extremely consistent four-year-old, just as he has with Midnight Bisou, the filly giving her G1 Ogden Phipps rivals six pounds and a clear-cut licking. Maybe Monomoy Girl is a little intimidated and has no wish to come out of her at the moment...?

The performance of the day belonged to Acorn winner Guarana. In perfect striking position behind Serengeti Empress’ intense fractions of 21.89, 43.99 and 108.03, Guarana completing the mile in a drawing-out 133.58, the fastest renewal ever. The Kentucky Oaks winner was courageous in defeat. But right now, Guarana is breathing different than her divisional rivals.

(c) John Pricci,, June 9, 2019

Written by John Pricci

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