Sunday, February 25, 2018


South Florida Diary


Dear Diary,

February 14: It’s been quite the fortnight; emotions ran a gamut longer than the Display Handicap. The highs were zenith sized but the lows? Nadir only begins to scratch the surface.

The lowest of the lows hit a nation when 17 people, most of them children, were robbed of a future that for most of them was bright. They had every advantage, fortunate to live in one of Broward County’s most exclusive towns, going to a model high school.

Until the morning of Valentine’s Day past, life was normal. People were living the lives like they do, the privileged, while others around them were just makin’ it to scratch. But that’s OK because where there’s life, there’s hope, right?

Clichés become so because their truth is self-evident.

But on this afternoon, all the lights went out as America, again, retreated into its violent past and hatred was visited upon a community after hatred was visited upon one of its own. He lost all perspective and too many innocents lost their lives.

February 17: My oldest daughter Jen is using South Florida as a stopover on her way back to the Shores of Jersey from LA, where she was credentialed to work NAMM, a trade show for the Musical Instruments industry, at which a handful of rock stars and top session musicians act as exhibiting artists.

This year’s honorees at the event were Jackson Browne and Melissa Etheridge, among others.

We are still enjoying our visit as this is written and I used the opportunity to make our first drive up to Payson Park this year. The training center is 90 minutes, with traffic, from home. Jen’s no horseplayer but has loved mornings on the backside since she was a baby. We turned Thursday into a take your daughter to work day.

The atmosphere more closely resembles European yards, with its rolling hills surrounding a training track with the kind of surface that muffles the sound of hooves, deep and safe. In short, it’s a place where, between business hours, horses can be horses.

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Payson Park: Good for Equine and Human Souls Alike

For dad, it was a chance to visit some of the people I first met back in the day in New York. Shug McGaughey took the day off, with top assistant trainer Robby Medina putting the classy stable residents through their paces.

But Bill Mott and Christophe Clement, two horsemen I admire for obvious reasons, were present and are always a highlight on any trip to Indiantown. Surprised to see Ken McPeek, readying his top class stock for an assault on Keeneland.

McPeek informed us that he is moving a large division to South Florida late this spring and summer, returning to a place where it all began for him. Indeed, McPeek was a graduate of McGaughey University when first starting out.

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Payson Trifecta: (left to right) McPeek, Clement, Mott

Any day now, Clement is expecting the arrival of the Generazio turf sprinters, has some nice fillies, could use a few good male dirt horses and might return to New York a bit earlier this year because of the newly resurfaced Aqueduct main track and newly widened turf course.

Mott debuted a professional special-weights winner, Penalty, on Saturday’s Hal’s Hope program, the colt numbering among Irad Ortiz’s hatful of winners on the day. He said his barn is coming around and should be peaking in about a month or so.

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"This is my baby." Elate's handler, Erma Scott,
has been with Mott 37 years.

We visited with one of our favorite fillies, Elate, while we were there and can report first hand that she’s growing nicely into her large flame.

Mott declined to blame the Del Mar surface for the mare’s Distaff loss, explaining that she was just tired following her monster efforts winning the Alabama and Beldame back to back. I asked if there was Saratoga Grade I in her future. He smiled: “I hope so.”

February 24:
A couple of good stakes highlighted Saturday’s Gulfstream program. In the Texas Glitter at 5 furlongs on the turf for three year olds, Salmanazar ran to his excellent recent works, never in serious danger through the lane.

The second and third horses might be worth following as Shangroyal was ready off the bench for Wesley Ward, chasing the winner throughout at the loss of ground but staying gamely to beat favorite Barbarossa narrowly, good race riding by Albin Jiminez.

Barbarossa was pocketed up nicely but never could shake into the clear. He kept chugging and narrowly missed in the tight place photo. The winner and third finisher were trained by Todd Pletcher, who also managed the brilliant turf sprint campaign of Texas Glitter.

Irish War Cry brought his B+ game into the G3 Hal’s Hope but it wasn’t good enough for Economic Model’s A game. After entering the stretch, these two came together as a team, quite literally, as the Ortiz brothers battled it out, Irish War Cry holding a narrow lead on the outside.

Economic Model, like most Chad Brow runners, never ran out of reserves, however, while the favorite tired in the final 50 yards. Sure to benefit, if a race like this were brought back, the thinking is that Irish War Cry would even the score.

February 25:
Shortly after this is posted it will be time to get ready as Toni and I travel up to Frank & Dino’s Restaurant in Boca. Owned in partnership, South Florida-based trainer Carlo Vaccarezza, who lives in Coral Springs, next door to Parkland, is the host.

The restaurant will be closed for business but open to the public and racetrack community for a fund raiser for the Parkland families affected by the Valentine’s Day mass shooting. We’ll be there to pay our respects and in support for the community.

The good news is that Vaccarezza’s sons, Nicholas and Michael, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, thankfully escaped with their lives but surely will be left with the scars the rest of their lives.

When I lived in New York, I thought 911 would be the last national tragedy that would hit so close to home. But this, dear diary, is America now, where the right to bear assault rifles, weapons of war, is more important than enacting sensible policy on gun control.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, February 18, 2018


Through a Simo Saturday Notebook…


For obvious reasons, it was not a great weekend in South Florida, what with the events that transpired on Valentine’s Day at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

The 3,000 student campus is located about 40 minutes to the north and west of Gulfstream Park, where flags were flown at half-staff and where wall-to-wall and cover-to-cover reporting has dominated the media. Like mainstream media these days, for all the wrong reasons.

The racetrack community was fortunate, relieved to learn that in the aftermath of 17 murdered students, two of its own were spared. Senior Nicholas Vaccarezza and sophomore Michael Vaccarezza.

Vaccarezza the younger is better known to racetrackers and fans as Little Mike. The two pupils are the sons of Carlo and Priscilla Vaccarezza. Carlo, of course, is the South Florida-based trainer; Priscilla campaigned the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner a.k.a. Little Mike.

On Sunday, February 25, Carlo will close his restaurant, Frank & Dino’s, from mid-afternoon into the evening. The Boca Raton space will be opened to raise funds for the families affected by the senseless use of an assault rifle on promising young lives.

The public is invited. There is no charge for food and drink; just bring your checkbooks. For those not in the area wishing to help, the Marjory Stoneham Douglas Victims Fund has been established https://www.gofundme.com/stonemandouglasvictimsfund.

It is with profound humility and anger that we suggest the funds immediately be disbursed and shared among Washington legislators that they may become beholden to family victims of mass murder and all U.S. citizens, not the National Rifle Association.

DERBY STARS RISE AND FALL IN CHAOTIC GRADE 2 PREP


Actually, maybe there wasn’t enough chaos but more on the Risen Star results later. Suffice it to say that with the exception of the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra featuring a strong pace, the four remaining two-turn dirt races were won by the speed, all getting away with modest early fractions--seemingly a routine race shape in Fair Grounds routes.

Special weight maiden three year-old fillies went an opening quarter in 23.05. In a ‘two-other-than’ allowances, featuring the return of 2017 classics campaigner Lookin At Lee, two horses hooked up from the jump, one lasting for the win. The other finished fourth, losing by a neck and two noses. ‘Lee’ never got out of a gallop and finished “absolutely.”

In the G3 Mineshaft, The Player, sporting a new set of blinkers, wired an otherwise outclassed group by 4-1/4 confident lengths following an opening gambit in 24.27, looking ready for bigger game next time out.

Monomoy Girl proved much the best filly in the Rachel Alexander after Classy Act set what turned out to be, for the day, a blistering pace of 23.58 and 46.8, but ‘Monomoy’s’ battle with Wonder Gadot never materialized, the pacesetter easily holding the place.

The Demoiselle winner was a one-paced third, appearing better off galloping on or near a moderate pace at longer distances. The Oaks trip will prove to be more to her liking than the winner’s. Can’t say that winner’s drifting out late was an encouraging sign.

Completing the day’s track profile, rock bottom maiden claimers closed out the Pick 4—of course, as all tracks must stick it to rank and file horizontal players—with Two Date wiring this two-turn bunch, never seriously threatened at 19-1.

The Risen Star was a rare four-speed number as the first four runners raced around the oval, positions virtually unchanged. Snapper Sinclair, a laughable overlay at 41.70-to-1, led the way in 24.15 and 47.96. With winning Bravazo on his hip, the duo remained that way until the last jump in a head-bobbing thriller.

Noble Indy ran spottily in a somewhat disappointing performance but redeemed himself somewhat upon video review. Racing between/behind horses throughout, he got his first taste of dirt in three lifetime starts. His late rail rally looked one-paced but was actually a tad better as he galloped out ahead of the near dead-heaters.

The time of 1:42.96 given the opening quarter-mile was solid, and the final five-sixteenths was completed in a worthy 30.10 seconds. Favorite Instilled Regard raced outside Noble Indy throughout in a flat effort; Principe Guilherme lost ground throughout in a dull performance.

SAY HELLO TO SYNCHRONY, BUDDING GRASS STAR


Michael Stidham, enjoying an excellent early season, did a marvelous job getting his five-year-old set for best in his 9-furlong return from a lengthy layup. Confident handled by turf ace Joe Bravo, he stormed home to deny the streaking favorite Mr. Misunderstood a successful four year old debut.

Roughed at the break, he settled nicely inside, making a sharp turn move from 10th that carried him 7 deep into the lane. He was two lengths in front in midstretch and held the favorite safe, never threatened for the win. The time was a snappy 1:48.82, the last three furlongs in a sharp 36.35 with final sixteenth in 11.41.

ONE CARD, TWO COOL HORSES

And they both won! On a card featuring 12 starter races for various price levels for both sexes, the seven year old mate Chella won for the sixth time in 10 starts at 7 furlongs, improving her lifetime mark to 26-for-41. It wasn’t easy, having to overcome a wide draw on a surface that carried speed on the inside throughout the afternoon.

In the nominal feature, the $60,000 Old Hickory at 1-1/16th miles, old pro Page McKenney, who has earned his money the hard way on the mid-Atlantic circuit, swept to command into the stretch and raced away from a hearty bunch with authority. It was the gelded eight year-old’s 21st win in 54 lifetime starts, adding to his career earnings of $1.7 million.

MARYLAND, COLD MARYLAND


Eschewing President’s Day in deference to a Simo Saturday that aside from the Fair Grounds Louisiana Derby Preview program, three storied Laurel fixtures highlighted racing on the East Coast the Grade 2 Barbara Fritchie, G3 General George and the storied but now ungraded John B. Campbell Stakes, nee Handicap.

Afleet Willy won an uninspiring edition of the Campbell, wiring four horses as the odds-on choice. But Fritchie winner Ms Locust Point is starting to act like a serious filly, so much so that the connections are going to take a hard look at Keeneland’s G1 Madison, where the waters will be much deeper.

Something Awesome won the General George in a neck thriller over Fellowship, both taking advantage of a hotly contested pace duel. The “house hose” was bred at Adena Springs and campaigned under the Stronach Stable flag…XY Jet won the Pelican in a laugher at Tampa Bay Downs. He’s now all dressed up and ready for his trip to Dubai’s Golden Shaheen.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, February 11, 2018


Computer Batch Betting Enathema to Horseplaying Majority


Oaklawn Park race caller and veteran handicapping contest player, Vic Stauffer, tweeted this on Friday .from the National Handicapping Championship:

“OMG I’ve never said a word in 20 years about late odds changes. But this was INCREDIBLE. I switched to the #2 in the tournament ONLY because she was 7-1. INTO THE GATE. Went past the ¼ pole at 4-1. OMG. OMG. OMG.”

With all due respect, Vic, wish someone with your visibility had spoken out sooner. It happens every day, especially at major tracks with big pools. Mr Jicha and I disagree on many things, as the HRI Faithful knows, but we concur wholeheartedly on this one:

Last minute computer batch betting, coupled with rebates, is the biggest threat the racing industry faces because of the damage it does to bankrolls. For players, it’s bigger than takeout, bigger than drug cheats, bigger than anything to a horseplayer’s fiscal health.

Horsemen’s groups should join responsible industry journalists and a majority of customers fighting to save the remaining horse player/fan. Your purse accounts depend on it, of course. Players who have remained loyal already have begun curtailing their play.

Racing had better shake these doldrums. Useful to note contextually that handle has tanked by about 1/3 in the last decade, and has been flat the last five years. In business you either grow or die, and we’re not even thinking about the inflation quotient here.

I spoke with a friend Sunday morning with a puncher’s chance to win the NHC despite one contestant’s commanding lead. He said there was significant chatter about big-odds drops during Friday’s wagering among those players at his table.

Sadly, he said, the contestants seemed resigned to the fact that this is the world horseplayers now live in.

Everyone lives in the real world: Racetracks, like any company, are in the business of growing revenue. Computer syndicates with access to pool data supply a significant portion of that income, but they wouldn’t be able to sustain it if it weren’t for rebates.

Big players that very much help the game go are entitled to their rewards—but not at the expense of the other 95%, many of whom may also be big bettors but without access to data and computer speed. They are rebated, too, but without the batch-bettor’s edge.

We’re only asking this much: Allow the computers to bet up until minutes-to-post strikes 0, then drag the start a few minutes for the benefit of the rest of us who can react to payoff odds that would be much closer to approximating final payoffs.

Give nine out of 10 serious and loyal players a fighting chance. Bet-takers might even be able to squeeze out a little more betting handle from the masses. If anyone has a better idea, please share. Horseplayers need all the help they can get.

LOTS OF FIRSTS AT GULFSTREAM SATURDAY…

First, first, there was the maiden victory of He Takes Charge, a very pricey purchase and precursor of trainer Mark Casse’s upset victory in Tampa’s Grade 3 Sam F. Davis with Flameaway, completing a training triple 30 minutes with 2017 Turf Champion World Approval who took the G3 Tampa Bay Stakes. He showed a little rust--and a lot of class.

In Hallandale, 7-year-old Heart to Heart finally got his Grade 1 taking the Gulfstream Park Turf Stakes in wire fashion beneath a heady and determined Julien Leparoux, able to help his mount to suppress the early challengers, holding on with grim determination.

“He had to work very hard today,” said a relieved Brian Lynch, “but he finally got it done. We were a little anxious at the start because when they reach that age you don’t know how much more they want to do it,” Lynch said, explaining Heart to Heart’s 2018 debut in the Ft. Lauderdale when his charge reared at the start, losing all chance. Happy for man and best; both deserved to win one of these.

That storyline repeated itself a half hour later when the usually trip-compromised Elysea’s World showed all her class to take her first graded score beneath wise, patient and strong handling from Javier Castellano, who admitted “today, she got a perfect trip today.”

The 5-year-old mare won by a nose over less experienced stablemate, Dream Awhile, who held grudgingly but was out-bobbed at the finish. Trainer Chad Brown didn’t get the dead-heat he was rooting for in the final strides but promised that Dream Awhile will be heard from. “She’s still young and I think she has a bright future ahead of her.”

BIG DAY AT THE BAY…

Excellent job by Dale Romans, shipping C. S. Incharge north to Tampa to take the Suncoast in the final strides coming off the two-turn maiden breaker at Gulfstream. You know she’s going to return for the next one MAR 10…Romans did not fare as well with Hollywood Star who appeared in need of his season’s debut, running spottily in the Sam F. Davis; will benefit.

The Sam F. Davis is always entertaining but outdid itself in this renewal. His rivals allowed Flameaway to get away a bit soft on a surface that on balance carried speed. Still, he proved more than a turf specialist while competing against a pretty salty group.

Fans of Catholic Boy and Vino Rosso take heart; all they lost was a horse race. Favored Catholic Boy never saw the fence at any time, loomed a winner but idled late as if in need of the effort. He, too, will benefit.

Show finisher Vino Rosso is going to be a tough customer in the Tampa Derby off his Davis finish. Racing between horses most of the way down the backside, he was outrun along the inside approaching the five-sixteenths but re-rallied after Johnny Velazquez brought him to the outside.

In a matter of jumps, he went from what appeared to be an off-the-board finish to nearly winning the damn thing, lengthening stride late, close to catching the two leaders by a decreasing half-length margin. Ate plenty of dirt and showed class and courage.

The Todd Pletcher charge is scheduled to return in the Tampa Derby. HRI has learned that Graham Motion’s Untamed Domain, who finished third in his 3-year-old debut on the Gulfstream lawn, is heading to Tampa Bay. The Tampa Derby will be his introduction to dirt racing.

Written by John Pricci

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