Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Make Lesser Races, and Their Coverage, Super

I do not know European racing writer Daniel Ross. But I’m in his debt, and that of online publication Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, for making me aware that the “super trainer” is not just an American phenomenon.

I won’t get into the weeds on this. Find his recent three-part series to understand the conclusions he draws, based on statistics provided by the British Horseracing Authority and anecdotal evidence gleaned from interviews with horsemen.

The majority seems to agree that the phenomenon is attributable to two factors—realities of life that are prevalent today in these United States; inequitable distribution of wealth and the cumulative effects of fake racing news. Consider:

In an effort to market the sport and business of thoroughbred racing, tracks have listened to the public by looking at the bottom lines and concluding what should be glaringly obvious to all stakeholders: Big events produce big handle.

The other reality is that the same handful of super trainers and the wealthy syndicates they train for attract the most coverage because they are too big to ignore and too big to fail so that the future also becomes prologue.

It’s easier to maintain a 25% winning average with a pool of 200 horses to draw from than it is for the capable trainer at the other end of the barn to win at 15% because he and his owners need to run more often to survive racing’s economies of scale.

One of the BHA charts shows the dichotomy that has existed in the past decade with respect to purse inequities. Resultantly, the number of U.S. super outfits has stayed the same or have grown slightly while the number of smaller outfits has decreased significantly.

What’s more, American super trainers have been earning larger percentages of overall prize monies with fewer starters than before while trainers at the low end saw their share of prize money shrink to unsustainably low levels.

Super trainers in the U.S. have been accruing larger percentages of prize money. It follows that trainers at the other end of the scale saw their share of overall prize money shrink.

In the UK over the past decade, the number of super trainers has remained relatively flat as the number of smaller stables have met the same fate as their U.S. brethren, dropping off precipitously.

The percentage of all starters and prize money won by UK’s top 60 trainers has grown by an average 10% in both categories, from roughly 40% to 50% in purses overall.

The problem for the remaining trainers is that the top 60 are taking down nearly 80% of available purses, a growth rate of nearly 30%. If that trend holds there and here, the future is unsustainable at that rate.

The top two classes of horses are earning 40% of the purse money, up approximately 35% over the same 10-year period. Meanwhile, purse money available in the lower classes has decreased from 8% to 6%, a 25% drop.

Can a limbo stick going any lower?

On balance, horsemen in the UK and US, as well as engaged American horseplayers, agree the problem indeed is twofold: inequitable purse distribution in the face of slightly rising handle and skewed media coverage.

HRI regulars can attest that this a recurring theme here, where we effort to be fair and objective in our coverage, trying to maintain an often difficult balance of sports event vs. gambling enterprise.

We justify blanket coverage of the Bafferts, Browns and Pletchers by recognizing that on America’s biggest days, super trainers garner and deserve the biggest headlines. Handle figures support that notion.

These races generate great fan interest and the reason why gamblers target these days. Big pools warrant big-money action: These are the races trainers desperately want to win, the public trusting they will get an honest run.

Tier 2 and Tier 3 tracks get their 15 minutes in the national spotlight and we effort to support those days. It would serve racing well if they promoted more of those and the Pick Whatever, and distribute purse money more equitably.

Not to pick on Oaklawn Park, no different than any track looking to boost its bottom line and attract the best horses. But does the Rebel, a prep for the more significant Arkansas Derby, have to carry a million dollar purse?

Preps have their place, of course, but it just seems like that money could have been better spent on some of the lesser classes. And the sport takes it on the chin from the super outfits in other ways.

But this shouldn’t mean that a handful of trainers with the best horses can target the Breeders’ Cup and fashion scant campaigns, arriving at the big dance with the freshest horses earning a fortune along the way winning a handful of grotesquely inflated purses.

Prestigious races used to stand on their own and still can, but tracks will continue throwing big money at their big races to attract the best horses as is their right. We will endeavor to spread our coverage out a little better. It doesn’t count unless you walk the talk.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, October 14, 2018

Prep-eration Done, Zero Minus Three Weeks

Serious horseplayers are chomping at the bit and at least 85 “Win-and-In” all-expenses-paid horse owners are eagerly anticipating the first weekend of November.

We’ve said it before, in both a sporting and gambling sense, that as an event the Breeders’ Cup never fails to fire. One can argue that posit but the end result figures prohibitively to be more of the same.

There has been some media and social hand-wringing over the lack of star power during this year’s run-up so it was welcoming news when John Gosden announced that the great Enable would be coming stateside for the Turf.

So whether bet on or lay the Turf favorite, this event and the competitively diverse Distaff are certain to lend stature to Saturday’s lynchpin Classic program.

And we love the new concept of “Future Stars Friday,” for two reasons:

Alliteration notwithstanding, Filly Friday never really caught on, and as sophomore-centric as the sport has become in modern times, what could be more interesting than getting an early line on potential 2019 classics performers?

East meets West, an interesting storyline and usually worthy of hyperbole, takes on added significance on Day 1 thanks to the performance of Complexity in last weekend’s Champagne, setting up his battle with the West’s equally gifted Game Winner.

What makes the confrontation classic is Complexity’s unusual brilliance and strength which belies a short-side pedigree v Game Winner’s two-turn experience and stride-lengthening finish. Brown v Baffert doesn’t hurt, either.

Adding to what should be an intriguing, action-filled Friday are turf routes and sprints for youngsters of both sexes, along with the traditional Juvenile Fillies which might become more of a Midwest v East v South thing.

Hard to know what to make of yesterday’s racing, including Rushing Fall’s performance in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup. Pre-race, trainer Chad Brown announced there would be no Breeders’ Cup. Three presumed reasons:

Couldn’t give away her edge at Keeneland--where she’s now 3-for-3 after Javier Castellano walked the dog in yesterday’s QE II; she needs more than three weeks rest, and the likeliest concern: 1-3/8 miles may be a furlong or two too far.

In three significant Saturday events, one at Belmont and two in Toronto, each was won by horses that came from Europe.

Stella di Camelot, trained by Brown and ridden with precision by Eric Cancel, kicked clear from Andina Del Sur late, who ran much too good to lose, a casualty of pace and situational dynamics.

The two Ontario-based Grade 1s, one for each sex, was won by horses that last raced in Great Britain. Far from Europe’s best—E.P. Taylor winner Sheikha Reika had never run in Group company but was more than enough to handle whatever North America could amass.

The foreign victories said more about the inadequacies of turf talent on this continent as opposed to that seemingly racing anywhere else in the world in jurisdictions that do not run with raceday medication. Coincidence?

Credit trainers David Simcock and Roger Varian for their preparation and reading of the competition, and to excellent handling by young, talented paisano Andrea Atzeni, who timed both rides perfectly, starting with Desert Encounter.

Parenthetically, there has been a recent trend among Lexington-based breeders to produce strains that will perform well on turf, perhaps thinking that if dirt pedigree can act on turf, why wouldn’t it work the other way around?

This might come just in the nick of time, so to speak. Foreign dominance on North American turf courses is getting to be a little old.

Cruzado Dela Noche, bred at Hanover Shoe Farm but representing Sweden, shocked the Yonkers International Trot field at 30-1 with Hall of Famer Brian Sears in the bike.

Timed in a snappy 1-1/4 miles in 2:24, the race was marred when both favorites, Canadian champion Marion Marauder and prestigious Elitlopp winner Ringostarr Treb, jumped off stride early on, changing the entire race complexion. Sears, who has done so over 10,000 times, gave the winner a perfect drive, biding his time until setting sail in the final quarter mile.

The 2018 Yonkers International was the last major harness event hosted by Yonkers track president and CEO Tim Rooney, whose family held harness track recently sold the venue to MGM Resorts.

Rooney is the son of Art Rooney, a prolific horseplayer who once cashed a parlay at Saratoga worth $160,000. A lover of sports, the family patriarch had enough money to found the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise in 1933.

Thirty-nine years later, Art bought Yonkers Raceway and Liberty Bell Park, the precursor of Parx. His son Tim became Yonkers Raceway’s chief executive at a time when the sport was in its heyday.

Yonkers eventually carried on the International Trot tradition which began at Roosevelt Raceway. Tom Jicha and I first met Rooney in 1970 when Jicha was sports editor of the resurgent New York Daily Mirror. My memory of Rooney from those early days was one of a bright, soft spoken gentleman.

Under Rooney’s direction, Yonkers began simulcasting its races to France four years ago and began commingling betting pools two years later. Betting handle from France eventually resulted in higher payouts to Yonkers bettors.

Joe Faraldo, president of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York, best described Rooney in a recently published interview: “I found him to be a man of his word who really likes the sport,” Faraldo said. “His word was better than what most people put in writing.”

CROSS-BREED PICK OOPS: A refund was issued on all wagers made on Saturday's Belmont-Yonkers Pick 4 after it was determined a 'stop betting' order at the AmTote hub for the separate pool wager occurred after the start of Race 7 at Yonkers, the $250,000 Harry Harvey Invitational Trot, which was the first leg in the sequence of the Belmont-Yonkers Pick 4 wager.

Wagering on the Belmont-Yonkers Pick 4 was stopped during the running of the Harry Harvey Invitational Trot but some wagers entered the pool late.

In an effort to be fair to all bettors, the Belmont-Yonkers Pick 4 gross pool of $12,409 has been refunded. Players that purchased winning tickets will be contacted and paid the full amount. Those players that correctly played the winning sequence of 1-6-5-2 will be paid $1250.75 for each $0.50 ticket.

Kudos to NYRA management for doing the right thing by all bettors.

Joe Gorajec and I never met yet I’m one of his biggest fans. He speaks truth to power and three years ago lost his position as executive director of the Indiana State Racing Commission by writing and sharing this opinion after specifically being advised not to do so.

In part: “I have seen substantial efforts – with mixed results – to improve uniformity in drug testing and penalties for positive tests. I have also witnessed a largely inadequate, milquetoast response to emerging threats to racing's integrity…

“Most significant among these threats are blood-doping agents and other drugs that require an extensive out-of-competition program for detection. I believe the threat to the integrity of our sport is greater now than it was 25 years ago.”

Gorajec is at it again in his InsideRacingRegs blog whereby he “called on ALL state racing regulators to adopt rules voiding the claim of horses in claiming races if they suffered fatal injuries or were placed on the vet's list immediately after competing.”

Currently, the voided-claim rule is in effect in nine states but only California routinely provides that information to Equibase, the official industry database, so that horseplayers reading charts and past performances know when a horse was claimed and then had that claim voided.

Gorajec recently amended that suggestion, stating that the information provided Equibase details are general and that claims may have been voided for reasons other than a horse's physical condition.

“…I believe horse players deserve this information,” Gorajec wrote. “It might be helpful; it might not. That should not be for us – regulators, track operators, horsemen, etc. – to decide. Put the information out there and let the public decide. They are the ones who are risking their money.”

Gorajec, who supports Barr-Tonko uniformity legislation, continues to advocate for transparency in the name of the public trust. What a concept!

Staffer and soon HRI Managing Editor upon the debut of HorseRaceInsider 2.0, Mark Berner, discusses at length and in depth the benefits that improved technology can have on the horse racing landscape.

In his recent interview on the ESPN podcast “In The Gate” with Barry Abrams, Berner demonstrates his second-nature understanding of how new technologies can advance the industry’s course going forward.

Click on the following You Tube link below. The interview begins at the 13-minute mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSB-sbOZOLI&feature=youtu.be

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Are We Done With Breeders’ Cup Preps Yet?

The answer to that proposition is highly probable--although there's just enough time that some contest this weekend would allow aspiring equine with three weeks rest to enter the big dance.

While there were major Grade 1s this pseudo holiday weekend (Christopher Columbus has been treated very badly), of major interest to true fans of the sport is what happened across the pond on Sunday.

But who we’re really talking about the 4-year-old filly Enable who won back to Arc De Triomphes, the first in the modern era to do with off a single prep—on a synthetic track yet. Then again, it is John Gosden we’re referencing here.

The filly was tactically brilliant, obviously well prepared, and expertly ridden by Frankie (anyone who can win six Arcs has is in Madonna, Lebron, and Oprah territory as far as we're concerned).

And so it appears that she will be coming for The Turf and, since she’s fresh, she could be the one that conquers the "Curse of the Arc Winner."

Gosden would love to put a check in the Breeders’ Cup Turf box, and we’re certain that Dettori would love to help him do just that. Enable's star power would be very much appreciated and the Breeders’ Cup sure could use some of that.

We wish the runnerup Sea Of Class, and her giant late turn of foot were coming, too, but she’s done for the season to return next year. For now, the great Enable will have to do.

Don’t know if Marcel Boussac winner Lily’s Candle is coming over but owner Martin Schwartz, one of Chad Brown’s earliest clients, purchased the filly on Oct. 6 and won a Group 1 the next day coming from last going a mile.

Our fillies could be in deep trouble should Lily’s Candle get on a plane bound for Louisville.

As for Royal Marine, he looked very good winning Jean-Luc Lagardere, but our eye caught the second and third finishers:

Broome made all under pressure throughout and held very gamely; Anodor, one paced most of the way, settled and flew home but too late.

Wild Illusion and Magic Wand made an excellent impression as the exacta finishers in the Prix De L’Opera and Mabs Cross was a worthy winner of the 5-furlong Prix De L’Abbaye, a sprint for two-year-olds and up. Imagine that?

Back in the New World, Eskimo Kisses could not replicate her winning Alabama form in the Spinster against her elders but Blue Prize, despite lugging out very badly well passed the crown of the Keeneland surface, finally took down a Grade 1.

As hard as she tries, she deserved a big race with her name on it.

G3 Bourbon nose winner Current might not be a match for his Cup rivals from here or abroad but he will be the most handsome, a gorgeous chestnut colt with a lot of heart and class.

At Belmont, Covfefe was a huge odds-on flop, but even if she were able to replicate her blazing sprint form in the G1 Frizette, she still might not have been able to handle Jaywalk who, after setting a controlled half in 45.64, stopped the clock for the mile in a very sparkly 1:34.57.

New York Bred Fourstar Crook, winner of the G1 Flower Bowl, might not scare the Filly Turf competition away but she’ll be running hard at them late like she always does. The 5-year-old mare is as reliable as they come.

Don’t know what to make of Uncle Benny’s Futurity score, or Lonely Road’s Matron, for two reasons:

Don’t know, as stated previously, if 6-furlong form will be a good fit at Churchill and there’s no historical reference as these traditional juvenile fall events were run on grass for the first time this year.

The pragmatic me loves the idea since both these races have fallen on hard times in the Breeders’ Cup prep era and turf racing is good marketing these days. The traditional me hates it, of course.

Racing officials are not famous for their candor but loved this quote from Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice president of racing operations.

“I find it highly ironic, Panza said. “Here are our 2-year-olds all running four weeks before the Breeders’ Cup and yet our older horses need nine, 10, 11 weeks between races. It’s disgusting. It really is.”

BETS 'N PIECES:: We were remiss on Sunday in not commenting on Keeneland’s Friday opener with its Cup implications:

Promises Fulfilled may not prove as brilliant as Imperial Hint, or as mettle-tested as defending sprint champion Roy H—back at tops in SoCal over the weekend—but he will fight any horse hoof and nail. Rivals had trouble, yes, but he put away two speed challengers and held off his talented elders--and the 3-year-old will get a few pounds.

Meanwhile, Restless Rider might be a really, really good one. She announced her two-turn presence with authority taking the G1 Alcibiades. A tough dynamics Spinaway, in which she placed, is all that's keeping her from being undefeated in four starts. And her first two wins were over the Churchill surface.

Written by John Pricci

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