Thursday, May 21, 2015
American Pharoah: What Price Greatness?
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 21, 2015--This is no news flash: American Pharoah is quite the race horse. It takes a special Thoroughbred to go on a four-race roll at the highest divisional levels in this day and age.
Winning four races in an eight-week span against the best your generation has to offer takes a special horse, indeed. American Pharoah won the Derby with class and courage; he took the Preakness with class and speed.
Yes, American Pharoah is extremely gifted, to date the best of his very talented peer group, but I’m not yet ready to concede the other ‘G’ word: Great.
For me, that will take one more victory, his fifth in 11 weeks, including three which have been won in tandem only 11 times in history.
Perhaps my standards of greatness are unrealistic and unfair, like the Kirk Douglas character in the film noir classic “Young Man With a Horn.” Rick Martin was a trumpet player so outstanding that he needed to reach for an unplayable note, one that only his imagination could conjure up.
But I will concede that if American Pharoah can make it in New York a fortnight from now, he can make it anywhere, anytime, in any place he chooses. He will have earned that right.
Should American Pharoah make history, there will be pressure and a serious appearance fee attached to running in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
And God knows the troubled Thoroughbred industry in the Garden State could use a boost, positive visibility that goes along with a Triple Crown winner’s appearance.
Besides, Ahmed Zayat needs the money.
If Bob Baffert can pull this off—he’s already collected seven Haskell trophies--then all he need is bring back American Pharoah a month later and do it all over again in the Derby of Midsummer, the Travers at Saratoga.
If the colt doesn’t run in New Jersey, it’s may be because the trainer has a number of talented three year olds to take his place in the starting gate; Dortmund for one, who is being freshened as you read this.
But knowing how the Zayats feel about the game, how grateful and sporting they are, they should, if the fates allow on June 6, accept only the most prestigious challenges down the road.
I’m sure the secretive breeders that own his stud rights would at once cower in fear but acquiesce. Meanwhile, I don’t get it. Someone please explain this to me; why all the hush-hush?
With his minimum stud value already assured as a would-be repeat champion, there would be no downside to launching a barnstorming racetrack tour, one that ends up in Lexington this fall, future physical issues notwithstanding.
Of course, we all must guard against getting too far ahead of ourselves; ask the owners of Shared Belief.
True greatness demands challenge and overcoming adversity, even one as unrealistic as winning the modern version of the Triple Crown. Admittedly, the timing is the same, only today’s American Thoroughbred isn’t that hearty.
We breed Thoroughbred Ferraris in this country, not Subarus. Speed, like sex, sells. What good is circumnavigating the globe if you can’t get there fast enough with the latest piece of equine eye candy?
And it doesn’t help that to assure yearlings make sure to the auction ring making the best appearance they can--a little nip here, a little corrective surgery there, and voila--a mercurial equine star whose brilliance will blind until it flames out.
So, is American Pharoah truly, uniquely special, “one of the ones,” or will he prove to be a fallen waysider. History will acknowledge one or the other, a fortnight from now, or a year down the road, hidden breeding commitments notwithstanding.
And there is a consideration as to whether Zayat, who still controls the colt’s racing destiny and having won medallions of glory, will begin going for the gold while he still can. Time will reveal all.
I have two confessions to make: I’m a huge Gary Stevens fan, admiration that has only grown since he made one of the greatest comebacks in the history of sports.
But he disappointed me with his terse post-race quote, an economy of words that was the shortest comment supplied by any of the Preakness participants.
Stevens was a big pre-race storyline. As the rider of surprising second favorite Firing Line, he was interviewed by Bob Costas before the race and was glib and candid as usual.
And he had plenty to say on the NTRA conference call a week before the race, generous with his time and insight that was very much appreciated.
He did tell Tim WIlkin of the Albany Times Union: "When it really started raining, (Firing Line) had his ears pinned and he was not a happy camper, Stevens said. "We started galloping off and the further we galloped, the higher his head got and he just started sulking."
But after easing his mount on Pimlico’s far turn with almost three furlongs remaining, he offered only this to the Pimlico publicity department and the Triple Crown audience: “We stumbled out of the gate and that was our race today.”
His disappointment is understandable but as a top broadcaster--and one in waiting after he re-retires--he should get what is expected of him. Firing Line, Derby lead changes et al, was the Preakness buzz horse not named American Pharoah.
Serious racing fans know that in all likelihood, he “took care” of his horse with no chance of victory, one that was having extreme difficulty handling the sloppy surface.
But the majority of the Triple Crown audience doesn’t know this, there was reason to explain what happened and why, the reason he did not persevere with Firing Line to the finish post.
Perception is reality, especially given the likelihood of an unsophisticated racing audience, and Stevens should know this, too, especially as one of sport’s most visible faces.
But let’s be clear: Transparency is little more than a 12-letter word. The cardinal rule in this game is to protect the value of the horse at all costs. It is the reason that every horse couldn’t be doing any better, why every workout is just what the trainer wanted.
If the game wishes to survive and become more than a niche sport in the future, if it wants a place in the front row of sports, in the big-time, it should act like it.
Written by John Pricci
Sunday, May 17, 2015
Game On…Rained On…Game Over
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 16, 2015--In the end, the Preakness players told you all you needed to know.
In the walkover from the Preakness Stakes barn, Bob Baffert was asked how American Pharoah’s condition was; would he be ready for the challenge, coming back in two weeks?
Would we see the same horse that dominated the Arkansas Derby before showing his class and grit three weeks later in Louisville?
Baffert said just what you’d expect him to say, “but you still need that luck,” he said to the national television audience.
After the race, Victor Espinoza was asked on his way to the winners’ circle after spread-eagling the Preakness field from pillar to post whether he had planned the winning front-running gambit.
“After the rain I didn’t want to be behind horses,” Espinoza said. He didn’t need to think about strategy and the trip any longer. Espinoza knew he had to quarter-horse out of there and take the race to his rivals from the jump.
And he took Preakness 140 by taking the lead then taking the prize. Now Espinoza and American Pharoah can take their act on the road just one more time, this time for the biggest prize of all; racing immortality.
There will be plenty of time to chew on whether he can or whether he can’t do just that. As Baffert said afterward, “I don’t even want to think about it right now…It’s tough up there, I’ve been up there. I just want to enjoy this.”
Espinoza, loaded with confidence and buoyed by the knowledge that a sloppy track would be just fine for both himself and his partner then went out and sucked all the drama out the crown’s middle jewel with another dominating victory.
He put pedal to the metal and gave the Preakness field a thorough beating, winning with ears pricking, once again skipping over slop with those long and bounding strides.
In doing so, American Pharoah extended the Preakness record of his trainer to a perfect 4-for-4 coming back in two weeks following a Kentucky Derby victory and in doing so his rider became the first jockey to attempt a Triple Crown sweep for a third time, two back-to-back.
And if the Zayat family had some good fortune coming their way in for heartbreaking defeats in Triple Crown races past, they got it: The heavens opened as if right on cue.
The result in all probability would have been identical, even if the Preakness were conducted beneath sunny skies on a dry track, such was the colt’s superiority at Old Hilltop on the third Saturday in May.
The pre-race storyline in the 60 minutes leading up to the event was nicely handled by the NBC analysts, who reminded the audience that the overzealously spotted Mr. Z was the only other member of the field with sloppy-track experience.
Stablemate Dortmund seemed to handle the surface OK; more acting on it than relishing it. He was put in a serious drive on the final turn, made some progress, but never seriously threatened. Tiring badly late, he probably will receive a rest after a full prep campaign.
If the start was critical for American Pharoah, it was just as significant for second favorite Firing Line. The ground broke out from beneath him at the start, leaving rider Gary Stevens with no options racing into the first turn.
But in the final analysis, it mattered little. He was wide throughout, uncharacteristically far behind the leader, and started jumping up and down leaving the five-furlong pole.
It may turn out to be merely academic but Firing Line hated the going and mercifully was eased with five-sixteenths of a mile remaining. A very nice colt that never had a chance; he deserved a better fate.
Lightly raced Divining Rod distinguished himself even if he tired perceptibly in deep stretch, either due to distance limitations or the fact he was the only horse to make a sustained run and sincere challenge, until Espinoza turned American Pharoah loose.
Tale of Verve distinguished himself too, and clearly is developing very well. He looked like a Trojan horse leaving the saddling area and finished with good late energy; an excellent race to build on and a credit to Dallas Stewart’s management.
So, will the third time prove a Triple Crown charm for Espinoza, and will be this attempt at a sweep be lucky 13 for those that have followed Affirmed into Belmont seeking the same prize the past 37 years?
Well, like Baffert says, it’s tough up there.
Written by John Pricci
Thursday, May 07, 2015
Racing’s Staring Down the Barrel of Politics and Public Perception
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 7, 2015—Question: When does a “shameless publicity stunt,” a proposed piece of legislation that would shut down the Internet to horse racing, stop becoming the sucker-punch by which it was delivered?
Answer: When, in the long term, the end result compels the Thoroughbred racing industry to finally get its entire act together, once and for all.
Was the collective bi-partisan language of Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Joe Pitts, condemning pari-mutuel horse racing and calling for a repeal of the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978, over the top?
Considering that they propose to shut down the highest-profile segment of a multi-billion-dollar green-space industry that’s responsible for the life and livelihood of 4.6 million people because they deem it necessary to “encourage racing to end widespread cheating and doping of racehorses” is hyperbole at its mean-spirited best.
Not that certain segments of the industry doesn’t deserve such invective.
At a time when most reasonable people are longing for simpler days and ways--the disenfranchised among us notwithstanding—the good old days, including the equine portion of the animal world, are still with us, even if it’s hiding in plain sight.
According to statistics compiled by the American Horse Council, there are 9.2 million horses living in the U. S., 844,000 of which wouldn’t be alive if it were not for the horse racing industry.
In total, the racing industry has a direct economic impact of $39 billion annually--$102 billion when multiplied by the wealth it spreads throughout the economy.
Racing is directly responsible for 460,000 full time jobs and pays nearly $2 billion annually to all levels of government. Horse’s lives matter; racing alone being responsible for over $26 billion of GDP, gross domestic product.
Tangentially, there were two interesting posts this week: one from an American owner/breeder/publisher; the other the result of an interview with the man responsible for administering arguably the world’s most successful racing model, that of Hong Kong.
Barry Weisbord was walking along the backstretch at Churchill Downs during Derby week chatting up world renown horseman Mike De Kock, who observed “this is big”--bigger even than the man who has seen and done it all, which got Weisbord to thinking:
“We have become very gun shy, we devotees of Thoroughbred racing in America,” wrote Weisbord in his Thoroughbred Daily News publication this week.
“Our industry media is constantly finding fault with what we do; some deserved, some not. The non-industry media rarely pays attention to us, and lately, when they do, it hurts.”
That’s true; criticism hurts. What’s not true is the implication that somehow the media summons up the perceptions that exist within the recesses of their negative imaginations.
In the online publication Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, there was an inspired interview with Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, chief executive of the most progressive racing jurisdiction in the world; the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
There can be disparate points of view regarding Engelbrecht-Bresges’ observations, and much can be made of the fact that racing there is conducted in a partnership between the HKJC and the government.
Of course, that could never work here, not in these un-United States, anyway.
In tandem with government, Hong Kong's thoroughbred industry concentrates on the things that matter: racing dates; stewardship both on and off-track; ,medication, therapeutic and otherwise, and the funding necessary to conduct testing in world-class facilities.
The CEO was asked by author Paul Haigh that, if he had the power to impose one worldwide rule, what would it be.
“Drug-free racing stands out,” said Engelbrecht-Bresges. “From whichever angle you examine this, the answer is the same – every horse in every race must compete free from the influence or benefit of medication.
“The public will not accept anything less, and our sponsors will mirror that attitude. Nor is it in our own long term interests to do otherwise, especially when you consider the selection of horses for breeding.”
Clearly, the CEO of the HKJC made no distinction between illegal doping and the use of therapeutic medication on race day. Rightfully so, in the long term interests of the sport.
“Regional differences in medication rules and how this is dealt with, in terms of the global recognition of [class worthiness] is a difficult conversation, but it is another issue that is pertinent to [racing’s] credibility.
“Only those races in which all horses are free from their influence should be given black type status…The testing for such races must be undertaken only by analytical laboratories which meet a certain performance standard.”
And then he said this: “While it is not a direct concern in our circumstances, the implications of medication-affected racing results on selection for breeding are also something that is taken very seriously in a large number of countries…
“We have invested substantially in our racing laboratory, both in hardware and software, to make it at least in the top two such laboratories in the world. Rigorous sampling programs, both in training, pre-race, and post-race are also essential.” (Read out-of-competition testing here).
Do Englebrecht-Bresges’ comments somehow relate to the proposed Udall-Pitts legislation that effectively would put racing out of business?
Frankly, the response to that question depends on the self-interested views of stakeholders who talk a good game about doing what’s best for the sport, but there’s a furlong of distance between rhetoric and true reform.
American horseracing and many willing racing media—sorry, Mr. Weisbord—remind us about the progress the sport has made on uniform medication rules, except, of course, in jurisdictions where doing so would negatively impact the bottom line buried in their collective backyards.
Since 2003, total annual wagering has declined by $4.6 billion, over 30%. Lack of effective promotion, under-exposure, onerous takeout, and handicapping skills that take time and patience to master, are out of step with today’s younger gambling demographic are issues, obviously.
Millennials would rather “deep” gamble on Fantasy Sports than spend the time it takes to learn something, a skill that even the most successful practitioners find extremely difficult to master with any consistency.
Its sponsors and benefactors can call Fantasy Sports whatever they wish: Winning prize money on the outcome of uncertain sports-related events, whether it be a race result or Peyton Manning’s throwing four touchdown passes, is gambling by any other name.
I don’t understand how and why it’s legal. But it happens because state governments themselves do it: Once upon a time, slots were outlawed in New York State, hence Video Lottery Terminals were born.
What hurts horse racing with the public is drugs, which is race-fixing in their view. Like Udall and Pitts, the public cannot or will not delineate between therapeutic medication and synthetic rocket fuel.
And every segment of the industry has done a poor job communicating and educating them, making it possible for opportunistic politicians to bring the whole thing crashing down on a politically-correct whim.
The use of medication, legal and otherwise, the fact that equine athletes break down despite the best efforts of animal lovers who devote their lives to horses, and that horses have no say in whether or not they need pharmacological help to compete, sends a bad message.
Those optics will not go away until horses run medication-free on race day. Foot-dragging on this has badly affected the way the public perceives horse racing. They know that not every day is Derby day.
So what happens when legislators want to play politics with millions of lives and billions of dollars?
Racing organizations make explanations but they appear to be excuses after-the-fact. The Jockey Club wants the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to conduct testing in world class laboratories, a good thing, but haven't anything proactively except try to exert some influence.
The NTRA fights outmoded, unfair taxes on large winnings, but doesn’t call out racetracks that charge too much for their gambling product, takeout rates that are unsustainable for the practiced, never mind average customer.
Instead, the NTRA should be taking an informed fight to state houses instead of emphasizing tax relief on winning bets having an extreme degree of difficulty.
But after caring so much about racing back in the day, the public doesn’t seem to care but for five days a year, mostly, only three. They’ve walked away and have taken their betting money with them. The younger generation that grew up playing video games now plays at fantasy sports, a statistical video game where you can win money.
The Jockey Club stated that “medication reform in the Thoroughbred industry will come about only with insight and cooperation from industry stakeholders, and we will continue to work with legislative leaders and Thoroughbred industry groups to develop and implement uniform rules and penalties. Horses should compete only when they are free from the influence of medication.”
The National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association in North America also opposes the bill, but their organization mostly acts to protect the rights of their 30,000 strong who continue to depend on race-day medication. No industry can police itself when acting counter to each other.
The Thoroughbred Racing Associations, a racetrack trade group, has had no comment thus far.
The National Uniform Medication Program has done well to establish testing thresholds for commonly used therapeutic drugs and a graded medication-violation penalty system.
However, state houses in disparate jurisdictions have failed to consider any measure along these lines. The states don’t care, and the industry doesn’t seem to get that.
Before this new proposal, the two lawmakers had as its goal the construction of a national authority that would appoint an independent anti-doping agency. The industry had had none of this thus far. Last week’s pronouncement is the result of racing’s piecemeal, ineffectual progress.
The racing industry fails to seriously consider the consequences should one of its star athletes suffer a catastrophic injury while a Triple Crown nation looks on. How would they explain such a calamity to their children, explaining that horses most need medication to run? What kind of future does horse racing have in the mind of that child?
According to popular culture, reality is what it is. Reality happens as the result of cause and effect, whether that cause is real or imagined. What happens after depends on how the public perceives events. Racing is under the gun and the public perception will dictate racing's future reality.
Someone's got to ask Thoroughbred racing one question: Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya?
Written by John Pricci