Sunday, September 25, 2016


Special Report: Pennysylvania Derby Day a Family Affair


By Zac Coffman
Special Correspondent


BENSALEM, PA., September 24, 2016--Parx was in the national spotlight Saturday as they hosted the annual Pennsylvania Derby Day card, this year featuring a three-year-old championship duel between Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist and Preakness winner Exaggerator.

Walking through the crowd early in the day, however, you could have questioned whether this rivalry should have graced the billboards promoting the day’s events, or maybe it neither of them. Maybe it should have been the filly Songbird all along.

Arriving at the track two hours before first post - it was great to see the entire apron filled with excited fans, young and old, something you barely see enough of nowadays—watching the elders introduce their youngsters to the game.

Once they day got started, bettors dove into the day’s program, sharing opinions not only with other bettors that came to see the spectacle but, more importantly, getting some special selections from their kids--like sixth race third-finisher Here’s a Jetpack at 55-1!

From the opener, it was impressive to see rail positions completely filled, especially since Parx is infamous for having one of racing’s highest takeout rates, a contributing factor as to why the track struggles to fill even half the rail on a normal race day.

In addition to a great racing card, Parx offered a meet-and-greet with several visiting riders for the benefit of Turning for Home, an organization for retired horses, and for the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund.

Among them were Mike Smith, Songbird’s regular partner; Kent Desormeaux, who rides Exaggerator for his brother, Keith, and Javier Castellano, who made all the difference in Connect’s upset victory in the main event. It made a special day even better.

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Songbird Defining Perfection

Entertaining fans between races, winning jockeys in the first eight races threw free shirts into the crowd from the winner’s enclosure, and a daylong handicapping seminar with “Hudg” was an inspired introduction to newcomers while also providing seasoned players with a different perspective.

(In future years, it would be good to see the hospitality aspect widened, opening up a family picnic area in the back made available to local businesses, specialty food trucks, and the like, making a day at the races a special event.

As I looked around when we reached the stakes portion of the card, I was amazed by just how many people Parx was able to squeeze into--and outside of--the facility. Racetrack occurrences like Saturday’s overwhelming crowd are extremely rare these days.

Yes, it was a special event, but it still provided hope that my old local track can still bring out the masses when it matters, when it tries its best, something that can make racing an everyday thing again. Of course that’s asking a lot, but tracks still must try.

This feeling of hopefulness was fulfilled when the crowd finally was introduced to Songbird. As she walked out onto the track, the roar of the crowd mimicked those of Philly fanatics when the Eagles come running onto the field.

The enthusiastic energy lasted the entire race, reaching a crescendo as she pulled away soon after turning for home. The cheering never stopped as Mike Smith took Songbird for a bit of a victory walk back up the stretch. The crowd loved it.

The connections of Songbird are examples of what the industry needs. After filling its media obligations in the winner’s circle, Smith stopped and talked to every person who called out his name as he walked back to the jock’s room prior to the Pennsylvania Derby.

As we began to look for the best vantage point to watch the race, we saw Songbird’s owner Rick Porter spending time with fans as well; signing autographs, interacting with the crowd. These encounters are important connections, now more than ever.

It felt like only seconds after Songbird showed why she is the best filly in the world right now that the field for the Pa. Derby walked onto the track.

While I expected strong cheers for the Triple Crown rivals, I could not have imagined just how LOUD the fans of them would be. Unlike the Cotillion, where fans were rooting for Songbird but remained hopeful and loyal to hometown hero Cathryn Sophia, the crowd seemed evenly split between the two championship contenders.

This became more apparent when Nyquist attempted his move on the final turn. The crowd erupted when it appeared he would overtake his challengers but as quickly became muted--almost a dead silence--as he started to fade in the stretch.

The Derby finish between Connect and Gun Runner was impressive, even if disappointing, as I had started to celebrate when I thought Gun Runner had it. But Castellano had it figured right, rallying three-to-four paths wide as Gun Runner labored in the looser footing on the far outside.

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Pennsylvania Derby: Saving Ground Matters...

Still, is was one of the best renewals I have ever seen. With the best horses available on display, it’s no surprise that the $9.6 million wagered was the second largest in Parx history to the Bayern crowd that wagered $10.3 million.

Parenthetically, imagine how much more Saturday’s figure might have been if bettors had more winnings to churn? But that’s an issue for another day.

Parx does not charge admission so it estimates how many people are in attendance on any given day. By 2 p.m., the track had given away all 6,000 hats available at the door. But as for the memories, and the friends that were made for racing on this day? Priceless.

Photos by Michael Clark

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 18, 2016


Some Positive News for a Change


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 19, 2016—The recently concluded meet at Kentucky Downs is a trend-busting phenomenon that represents a victory for racing because it’s a winner for the player.

Not that winning money there is easy; winning is never easy. But you’ve got a chance to make money because true value is available and the interest is there because, on balance, horseplayers love turf racing.

With record purses attracting full fields, Kentucky Downs closed its five-date boutique meet September 15 with total wagering up nearly 34 percent, an astounding figure. Compared to last year, which was great, it was equivalent of an added sixth day.

Betting on the closing program was $3.6 million, bringing all-sources handle to $22.5 million for 2016. Not bad for a five-day meet spread over two weeks at a track in the middle of nowhere battling significant major league competition.

I played and lost, but am looking forward to the 2017 session. I wagered three days, lost two, and nearly won enough the third day when, forgetting to take my stupid pills, nearly got even for my personal incursion into the Kentucky countryside.

Form-wise, my only beef is that results there reflect parimutuel feast or famine. On one hand, bettors get solid prohibitive choices at greater than odds-on, e.g. Kitten’s Cat comprehensive victory at 5-2.

But there are too many more examples where complete chaos rules. That’s the good news and bad news about $130,000 two- and three-year-old maiden races on grass.

However, that’s to be expected in large fields [nearly 11 per race] on turf in general, especially given a final-sixteenth finish that goes uphill, of all things. In addition to the gambling, it makes for great horse racing on TV.

God willing, we plan to drive to Saratoga for the final three weeks of the 2017 meet, visit with friends and family thereafter, and stop in Memphis/Frankfort area for a few days of racing before returning to SoFla.

Just got to see and feel what this place is all about. It and the “new” Laurel, where handle was up [with one added day] 50% for the fall meet.

This Weekend Was All About the Horses

If you love the game, you have to love what you saw this weekend. Tepin, The Pizza Man, a budding juvenile in Not This Time, and a three-year-old turf filly On Leave all gave noteworthy performances.

MARVEL: Literally and figuratively, turf queen Tepin did it again, winning her eighth straight that would have made it an even dozen had if not for a nasty Saratoga photograph taken last season.

There were reasons to have doubts going into the Woodbine Mile. Her energy level was so low in Saratoga that the Casse barn scraped plans to try males in the Fourstardave. Instead, they returned to home base and filled in the only missing race on a Canadian Hall of Fame resume.

She trained brilliantly for the race but any top trainer will tell you that horses will fool you; give you every indication they’re ready for best before being exposed by the stress of real competition. Plus they wanted to leave something in the tank for Breeders’ Cup.

The defending turf champion is a true “workhorse;” she thrives on work. Also, just how much did her amazingly gutsy hard-fought Ascot win drain her reserves? Well, at this juncture there certainly are no worries there: She just breathes different air right now.

"I had my reservations coming into the race,” said assistant trainer Norman Casse. “I thought we had her cranked up but I wasn't 100 percent confident.” Sure enough, she won with an effort that was nowhere close to her ‘A’ race.

It seems now that Tepin will place herself wherever Julien Leparoux thinks she’s comfortable. It was a perfect stalking trip over the kind of cutting ground she loves. But she needed to prove it in the lane, and prove it she did, laying her body down to do so.

“She got tired today but she'll move forward and run a little better race next time,” added Casse. That’s good news for anyone who loves to see a great horse run.

PROMISE: Speaking of turf mares, On Leave has a long way to go before she can be mentioned in the same breath as the defending champion but she’s getting closer, taking her fourth straight in the G2 Sands Point at Belmont Park.

Catching a flyer beneath speed ace Jose Ortiz in a pace-less lineup, Ortiz was able to engineer ridiculously slow fractions—the norm on New York turf—able to shade quarters of 25 seconds all the way around. Still, you have to kick on thereafter, and kick she did.

Showing an unusual turn of foot while setting the pace for the first time, she opened ground nearing the three-sixteenths, blowing the race up in midstretch, her final hand-time sixteenth in a very worthy 11.54 seconds. It’s not easy getting nine furlongs in 1:47.82 off her splits.

On Leave is likely to take her game to Keeneland for the G1 Queen Elizabeth next month. The hope is the competition makes her run a little harder. Dying to see the rest of what lies beneath that hood.

REDEMPTION: Just when you start to think that The Pizza Man can’t do it anymore, he proves you wrong, even in deep stretch where he was running one-paced before a final-strides surge beneath a well-executed between-horses finish from talented Flavian Prat.

The hard-hitting campaigner was aided by stalking a very slow pace on “good” Woodbine turf, and by the fact World Approval just couldn’t stay that final furlong. To his credit, he hard charging Wake Forest safe, as well as talented European Majeed who loomed menacingly only to flatten in the last sixteenth.

This might have been trainer Roger Brueggemann’s best work. Time to head West gentlemen.

PRIORITIES: Seeing top young horses is always a treat but seeing one that might be something special is better yet. His name is Not This Time, a dominant winner of the Iroquois Stakes on opening Saturday of the Churchill Downs Fall meet.

It’s one thing to jump up in the air at the break, stalk a slow pace very wide throughout in a two-turn debut, attack the leaders at headstretch then draw away. But by 8-3/4 lengths with something in reserve while showing a brilliant turn of foot? How often does that happen?

It’s difficult to gauge a mile and a sixteenth in 1:45.22 given Saturday’s conditions. But it must be very good considering it took filly Daddys Lil Darling needed nearly two full seconds more to win the same-trip Pocahontas.

“He’s the real deal,” said trainer Dale Romans. “He’s spooky good…that slow break wasn’t going to get him beat… When I think I have tons the best I tell [the rider] to keep [horses] in the clear in a nice, long gallop and try to overtake them. That’s what he did.”

“He’s got a future,” confirmed Robby Albarado and we’ll find out if that’s true soon enough as the victory earned Not This Time an all-expenses paid trip to the Breeders’ Cup.

Should he win that, it will give Liam’s Map’s half-brother by Giant’s Causeway a total of 30 qualifying points for the big race back home on May’s first Saturday of 2017. “The key now,” said the Louisville native, “is to get him to the Kentucky Derby.”

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 17, 2016


With Saratoga Looming, Something Old and Some New Things


HALLANDALE BEACH, July 17, 2016—From Southern California to the Jersey Shore, and from Kentucky and, as of this weekend, Indiana, all roads are lead to Saratoga for the most consequential summit among three-year-olds of both sexes this year.

It begins next weekend when sensational Songbird, a filly that some, myself included, say is reminiscent of Ruffian, gets her first serious challenge when she meets Carina Mia in the Coaching Club American Oaks.

If all goes well for both, a rematch in the storied mile-and-a-quarter Alabama on August 20 is promised.

The week after--if all goes well in the Haskell Invitational and Jim Dandy--a rematch of Triple Crown achievers Nyquist, Exaggerator and Creator would be extraordinary, a few talented new shooters sprinkled in for added interest.

Beyond this, the human races figure to be even more interesting. With Chad Brown having an extraordinary Belmont meeting, you know perennial Saratoga leader Todd Pletcher wants to retain his title.

Interesting here will be the battles between Pletcher’s juveniles vs. Brown’s legion of turf runners. Weather will factor into this, of course. Brown came close last year and with more talented dirt runners in the barn, this could be his year. Both will be going all-in. This rivalry isn’t media-made; it’s real.

With the addition of Florent Geroux and the strong riding of Joel Rosario in New York this year, the jockey battle, always of supreme interest in Saratoga, will be very highly contested.

With Geroux, the country’s leaded graded-stakes rider, joining Rosario, Saratoga titlists Javier Castellano and Johnny Velazquez, the prodigious Ortiz brothers and the emerging Manny Franco, the jockey race will be lively and highly competitive; great for bettors.

Of course, the results will depend on the quality mounts as most trainers have their “go-to” guys and barns can go hot or cold regardless of focus and intent.

Five days and counting but, first, some unfinished business:

Go Right Young Man:
Woodbine’s scheduling of right-handed races is a fascinating experiment, one that ultimately could lead to truly international sport in the years and decades to come.

Of course, racing left to right is how the sport is conducted in many parts of the world, most notably Europe.

However, judging by the one race we witnessed this week, much more experimenting in North American left-handed racing needs to be done. Until then, it would be a bad idea for bettors to get too heavily invested.

Don’t know if it was the nature of the horses—maiden claimers at the distance of 5-1/2 furlongs--or that the turf course undulated midway through the race, but the race was messy. The small field saw many horses bearing out, most likely the product of changing over to a left-footed lead change for the straightaway sprint to the finish.

Just like an appearance at Carnegie Hall, horses will need practice, practice, and more practice.

The tack of working horses “the wrong way” worked wonders for Frosted last year. Greentree, the private training center in Saratoga down Nelson Avenue from the racetrack, was the perfect venue for the experiement.

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said at the time that it kept the horse fresher mentally and contributed to improved athletic balance which is good for overall conditioning and health. Think of it as a full-body workout.

If this kind of racing and training proves good for the horse, it will be good for the game. The diversity would be good for bettors, too, having a new handicapping variable to consider.

Some trainers might use these races as conditioners or a pathway to purses, the horses getting a chance to prove they are “left-handed” specialists, in the way that some horses are slop freaks or grass specialists today.

Of course, without a private training track or lighter morning traffic, it could be a logistical nightmare for horses and trainers stabled at racetracks, likely necessitating a fixed time for when horses could work out from right to left, as opposed to mere wrong-way gallops.

As stated, the race we saw had horses not only drift out from the unaccustomed lead change but also bear in after straightening away, in effect not knowing what to do next.

Wherever this experiment goes, Woodbine deserves props for trying something new in a sport that resists change by almost any means necessary.

Woodbine never has been shy when it comes to innovation and we’re happy to report that there are a few racetrack operators still willing to take chances. Good for them; we wish them the best.

In New York, Meaning Well Is Not Enough: This week the New York Racing Association announced that there would be rule changes affecting payoffs in the Pick 4, Pick 5 and Pick 6 pools starting July 22 in the event of canceled races, rules mandated by the New York State Gaming Commission.

It seems that the NYSGC overthought the issue and were too simplistic and not completely thought-through all at the same time. While the change is easy to understand—canceled races become an ALL-WIN race for every bettor, the solution is neither optimal nor fair.

The why of that is simple: If a bettor has a strong opinion and singles a particular horse, he’s not as well off than a bettor who spread his selections in that same race:

The one who singles gets a consolation prize for that race; the bettor with no opinion who spread gets rewarded for every horse he used. Does that sound equitable?

The NYRA has tried “alternative selections” before, leaving that wagering leg up to the bettor in the event of surface switches and late-late scratches. It was eliminated because it required filling out a special wagering slip and bettors did not take advantage.

But with more sequential wagers available today; bettors’ needs have changed.

As it stands now, post-time scratches will still result in mandatory “post time favorite” substitutions after the betting pool has closed. So what’s beneficial about the new all-win rule? Nothing really at the bottom line.

As we saw happen at Golden Gate, switching the last two turf races to the main track because due to controversial “unsafe” course conditions, bettors who made sizable investments chasing a huge pool were stuck with tiny payoffs resulting in widespread losses.

Now that people bet on self-service screens, or live with a mutuel clerk without the use of “betting slips,” that no longer needs to be the case. There is no argument that technology exists to rectify this dilemma with alternative selections. It’s then on the bettors for not taking advantage.

Of course, writing new code costs money and perhaps the NYSGC doesn’t want to put that cost on the tracks. Fair enough. But if you take from takeout revenues to pay for salaries, why not pay for the new coding that helps the customer? Now that's something that would be fair and equitable.

Written by John Pricci

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