Sunday, May 06, 2012

Derby 138: Impertinent Post Mortums

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 6, 2012—So, how might things have gone if, say, Bodemeister had four weeks between races instead of three? Might he have lasted? Did he bounce, or simply get tired after excruciating fractions? Probably the latter, but who really knows.

What is certain is that this is one free running top class animal that didn’t deserve his fate. Did Bob Baffert actually suggest to Mike Smith, that if the opportunity presented itself, to bottom out the field? Baffert said Sunday that he’ll wait a week before deciding on a Preakness run.

The $48,046.40 Question: What if the first four finishers did not come from the Raise A Native sire line? Even If I’ll Have Another is a grandson of the prolific Distorted Humor, did you think the colt’s father, Flower Alley, a $7,500 stallion, would have this kind of recent Grade 1 fortune? First Lilacs And Lace, and now this guy.

Let It Rain: What if biblical rains did not descend on Louisville late Friday afternoon and into Saturday morning? Did all the sealing and floating pack the surface down to the degree that speed kept right on going, from the Kentucky Oaks right through the 13th and final on Saturday night?

And does the Equibase chart expect anyone who witnessed the Oaks to believe that the official surface designation should be "fast?" Wouldn’t a designation of “wet-fast” been closer to reality, and less misleading?

What is Churchill Downs going to do without track superintendent Butch Lehr? Wasn’t it amazing how the track harrowed up fast for Saturday’s third race? Churchill in the spring is so fast-drying, in fact, that water trucks were on the track prior to the Turf Classic--the race before the Derby--applying some H2O despite an anticipated elongated delay. Churchill might be the only surface that doesn’t cause this handicapper to freak out when the track comes up “sloppy.”

Proud As Peacocks: Undercard coverage by the new NBCSports Network was first rate and a stark improvement over similar coverage of recent years. You might not always agree with analyst Jerry Bailey, but he never fails to impart useful information to neophytes and veteran fans alike.

Host Laffit Pincay III—we don’t have to refer to him as LP3, now do we?—was a revelation; easy listening, good banter, doesn’t get in the way of a story, and asks insightful questions. Reporting turns by Gary Stevens, Randy Moss, Jay Privman and Donna Brothers hit the right notes. On the network side, viewers were treated to a side of Bob Baffert never before seen. Terrific feature.

No More Rag-Tag Trips: Union Rags will never get a chance to reach his full potential this year until he gets a different rider. Julien Leparoux is top class, but his style doesn't suit the colt. With Hall of Fame Johnny V. likely committed to Preakness probable Went The Day Well--who galloped out like a wild horse--and with Hansen unlikely to try the Belmont, Ramon Dominguez is probably available at this point in time.

Michael Matz’s choice of the Belmont over the Preakness would more likely be about the five weeks than the marathon trip. As for getting the distance, Union Rags is going to need to be more Nijinsky II and less Dixie Union. Meanwhile, a Preakness run has not been ruled out.

Headless Horse Sees All Tracks Alike: Dullahan may be 0-4 on dirt but certainly doesn’t give the impression that anything but turf or synthetics is beyond him. After breaking inward at the start and knocking Union Rags around, he too was forced to steady while in close quarters at the first turn; nothing serious but certainly making for a few uncomfortable moments.

The colt finally settled nicely on the backside but was forced to angle out about 7 wide into the stretch. It took him awhile to find his best stride but when he did, he set sail for the wire only to fall short by 1¾ lengths. Did he have 1¾ lengths worth of trouble? Quite possibly. The connections are sitting on the Preakness fence.

No Comment, No Time, No Obligation: Eclipse Award winning turf writer Claire Novak tweeted yesterday that when a reporter asked Eclipse winning trainer Steve Asmussen if he had a minute to talk about the finish of Derby horses Daddy Nose Best and Sabercat, 10th and 15th, respectively. The answer was “no.” When asked what would be more convenient later on, the answer was “next year.”

With all the interest in the Derby, with the positive press his horses got Derby week, and with the sport under siege, it would have been nice had Asmussen, who does not avoid the spotlight when things are going well, found a few minutes to tell fans what he thought might have happened to his entrants. And that’s a bad job on his part.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Chance Of A Lifetime

HorseRaceInsider executive editor John Pricci has constructed thumbnail sketches of all 20 Kentucky Derby 138 entrants. Listed in post order with early line odds:

1-DADDY LONG LEGS 30-1: A multiple Group winner on turf and synthetic Tapeta surface but awful in his lone dirt start, beaten 19-1/2 legs in Breeders’ Cup Juvenile against most of his Derby rivals. Looks impossible.

OPTIMIZER 50-1: Caught the last train to Louisville with defection of Mark Valeski. Always showing promise at 2, his only excellent effort this year was a rapid-finish second in the Rebel to streaking Secret Circle. Better than his subsequent Arkansas Derby flop and can finish like a train; for superfecta players only.

3-TAKE CHARGE INDY 15-1: Maligned for winning Florida Derby under ideal circumstances; lack of pressured lead and a speed-kind surface. But where is it written this he is one-dimensional speed? A grand looking individual with classy pedigree, he’s flying under the radar, Calvin Borel notwithstanding. It would be a mistake to dismiss him out of hand. Price play at double-digit odds.

4-UNION RAGS 9-2: Multiple graded stakes winner has had the screws tightened by trainer Matz following his tough trip, too late finish in Florida Derby. Lost photo to juvenile champion here last fall while racing greenly but showed his liking for surface with recent strong five-furlong breeze. Julien Leparoux, riding with great confidence again, unlikely to make the same mistake twice. Most probable winner.

5-DULLAHAN 8-1: Grand looking colt came with a scintillating finish to win the Blue Grass Stakes on Keeneland Polytrack, and therein may lie the problem. Both lifetime victories have come on synthetic surfaces, over which he also has trained better, compared to his dirt trials. Returning in three weeks off enervating effort is a concern.

6-BODEMEISTER 4-1: Freakishly fast and powerful winner of the Arkansas Derby in a must-win-to-get-in situation and has come back to work strongly over wet Churchill surface. The early line favorite must prove he has that same energy level against much tougher rivals on relatively short rest, and enough foundation for 10 furlongs in early May. Post draw did him no favors.

7-ROUSING SERMON 50-1: Like Liaison, his sophomore season has been something of a disaster, his Louisiana Derby third notwithstanding. He lags early, doesn’t own an explosive turn of foot, and has yet to prove fast enough on the Equiform scale. Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer says all the speed that’s signed on will help. Point taken, but it won’t help enough.

8-CREATIVE CAUSE 12-1: The other strong handsome gray contender in Derby 138. Best attributes are his proven ability against the division’s best and highly laudable consistency. Has winning Derby style, especially given the speedy pace dynamic, and a star, Joel Rosario, in the boot. Blinkers stay off appears the proper tack. Very solid; great draw.

9-TRINNIBERG 50-1: One dimensional speed—but of the Twilight Zone variety. He is a bullet away from the barrier, physically much better at 3. Obviously bred for much shorter, he might surprise some people who believe they can blow by this speedster at will. Still, his connections should have skipped this and shipped to Crabtown instead.

10-DADDY NOSE BEST 15-1: All he wants to do is run long and finish, a trait he demonstrated on turf at 2. This year he’s transitioned to synthetics and dirt, handling each graded stakes assignment successfully. Has vast experience in big fields, training strongly, and picks up strong finishing Garrett Gomez, a perfect match for his come-from-behind style. Very live price play; great draw.

11-ALPHA 15-1: A Grade 3 winner and twice Grade 1 placed, has had his Derby preparation interrupted after developing an infection from cuts suffered in Wood Memorial. Back on track with a sharp workout. Had tougher trip when second to Gemologist but failed the “eyeball test.” Has all the pedigree needed to win given a personal best effort.

12-PROSPECTIVE 30-1: improved sharply after adding blinkers to win Tampa Bay Derby, showing true determination when faced with serious stretch challenge. Very wide behind Dullahan in the Blue Grass, has been one of the training stars since shipping to Churchill. Barn excels with synthetic-to-dirt maneuver and figures to run well. Whether he belongs here is the big question.

13-WENT THE DAY WELL 20-1: Might have more talent than last year’s Derby-winning mate Animal Kingdom but is somewhat quirky. Won G3 Spiral following his maiden score and has trained well since, showing more focus since adding blinkers in recent morning trials. Performance figures are marching forward, albeit slowly. Superfecta finish possible.

14-HANSEN 10-1: Won juvenile championship with Breeders’ Cup victory on this track before coming back too fresh in season’s debut when second to the gifted Algorithms. After rebounding strongly with a rated victory in the Gotham, he can be forgiven his Blue Grass defeat owing to fast pace and stressful pre-race handling. Doubtlessly has the talent but 10 furlongs might prove a bridge too far.

15-GEMOLOGIST 6-1: Not especially fast on the Equiform performance figure scale but continues to march forward, remaining undefeated while truly snatching victory from defeat’s jaws when he appeared beaten in the Wood. Taking the same tack for connections that won the Derby with Super Saver. Trainer Pletcher excels with third-off-layup runners; wide draw gives Castellano options.

16-EL PADRINO 20-1: Impressed winning season’s debut over eventual Florida Derby hero and showed true grit winning the Risen Star subsequently before things began heading south. He raced one-paced in Gulfstream’s signature event and worked poorly since. A wet track should be a big plus, but then one of those disappointing works came in the mud.

17-DONE TALKING 50-1: Has taken heat for winning an extremely slow Illinois Derby, an observation with merit. But he’s a natural router, is peaking at the right time and hails from a barn, Hamilton Smith’s, that’s been profitable in graded stakes and in third-off-layoff scenarios. Might complete superfecta at better than 50-1, needing a complete pace meltdown.

18-SABERCAT 30-1: Like stablemate Daddy Knows Best, is coming to hand at the right time. Owing to big juvenile graded earnings, was slated for a two-prep campaign and after his Rebel debacle returned with a flying-too-late third in Bodemeister’s Arkansas Derby, a huge improvement. Has trained purposefully since and can snag a piece of this at extremely long odds.

19-I’LL HAVE ANOTHER 12-1: A revelation this season with a surprising yet comprehensive victory in the Robert B. Lewis Memorial off a five-month absence, then showed grit and class winning the Santa Anita Derby. Everything about him; from his scheduling, to heretofore unknown rider, to his unorthodox training regimen, has been unusual. Wide draw figures to seriously compromise his trip.

20-LIAISON 50-1: Showed lots of promise as a juvenile winner of G1 Cash Call Futurity but has had an extremely disappointing sophomore season. Local workout was very ordinary and doubtful he would be in here if stablemate Bodemeister didn’t help punch his ticket. Even with Bob Baffert’s Hall of Fame talent, this would represent an upset of major proportions.

21-MY ADONIS (NL) Also Eligible: Overmatched colt would have very little chance to hit the board from post 20--should he draw in. In the event of a scratch prior to 9 a.m. Friday, all horses move one position closer to the inside rail.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Fastest Two Distractions in Sports

SARATOGA SPRINGS, MAY 1, 2012—It has taken a very long time for racing’s problems to reach this stage and one thing is certain: It will take a whole lot longer than two minutes to figure the whole thing out.

Sometime late Wednesday afternoon, post positions for Kentucky Derby 138, one of the deepest and most contentious fields assembled in the modern era will be drawn and one can look at this event in one of two ways:

The timing could not have been better; the timing could not have been worse.

Two days before the post draw, and after the last four Derby horses had had their last meaningful workout for the big day, the New York Times published another installment in their series on horse racing’s use of medication, legal and otherwise.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, some of Thoroughbred racing’s most recognized names, including the owners of Kentucky Derby-winning Barbaro, a prominent veterinarian, and a retired Hall of Fame jockey, said in a Congressional hearing that the use of medication, legal and otherwise, was widespread and crippling the sport.

The installment “Big Purses, Sore Horses and Death” published Monday of Derby week was one of two articles that devastated the industry. The other, entitled “State Report Says Racing Association Knowingly Withheld Millions,” informed that a new state report, having e-mail documentation, contradicted a prior statement made by New York Racing Association President and CEO Charles Hayward that withholding of $8.6 million due winning bettors in several exotic pools for a period of 15 months was not an “unintentional oversight.”

Shortly thereafter, NYRA Board Chairman C. Steven Duncker announced that the NYRA Executive Committee had placed Hayward and Patrick Kehoe, NYRA Senior VP and General Counsel, on administrative leave without pay pending further investigation.

The Congressional hearing in Kennett Square, Pa. included the testimony of leading industry figures who support the ban of the race-day use of furosemide, a.k.a. Lasix.

Earlier this year, HRI railed against the coverage the Times gave the issue in its first installment of the investigative series. Lumping together fatality statistics that crossed all jurisdictions, breeds, and used disparate qualifying parameters was not only salacious but patently unfair in our view but not to the extent it lacked credibility.

As Hall of Famer Gary Stevens courageously stated even before giving his testimony, federal intervention is needed to save racing from itself. That is the position we took when the first Congressional hearings were held in the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

“If there is no race-day medication,” Stevens said Monday, “it would solve a lot of problems in racing.”

Racing promised substantive changes after that hearing and some meaningful measures were taken including the ban on steroids. But given big picture realities, the measures weren’t enough and didn’t get to the heart of the issue; the abuse of legal therapeutic medication.

Of course, there’s the insidious issue of illegal substances to consider, the age-old problem of under-funded laboratories trying to play catch-up with the pharmaceutical companies.

Indeed, some testers are well aware of what the illegal substances are but their labs lack the funding (resolve?) to conduct thorough tests to prove that these man-made properties tilt the playing field and to stop its use.

Such a substance is Eprex. A synthetic preparation of human erythropoietin, or EPO, Eprex uses recent DNA technology. EPO is commonly used to treat certain forms of anemia by regulating the formation of red blood cells. Eprex is a purified glycoprotein which stimulates the process known as erythropoiesis and thus is performance enhancing.

The fact that no delineation has been made between permissive and illegal medications essentially has prevented Congress from adopting a bipartisan bill penned by Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act, which would lend new definition and process to the 1978 Interstate Horseracing Act.

According to published reports, all Congressional legislators knew about the issue before them is what they read in the two Times stories, and even those lawmakers considered friendly to racing are reticent to get involved in the sport’s problems.

The industry knows this yet it continues to dance around the issue. By maintaining the status quo, the improvements that have been made are treating the symptoms and not the root cause; abuse.

Dr. Greg Ferraro, DVM, a former Lasix use proponent who now believes he was mistaken, is calling for federal intervention: “There virtually is no way in which you are going to get any kind of consistent rules to control these drugs without it,” Ferraro said Monday.

In New York, meanwhile, the bottom has fallen out of the NYRA. The CEO and legal counsel were put on administrative leave without pay which moved them a step closer to the door, especially if the association expects to retain its franchise.

Dominos will continue to fall if Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who since his State of the State address, has said he wants to take a closer look at whether Thoroughbred racing in New York continues to make sense for the state in the long term.

Any change in direction might include the closure of Aqueduct Race Track and converting it into a multipurpose facility and the possible sale of Belmont Park and Saratoga, two extremely valuable and attractive properties, to the highest independent bidder.

The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association has scheduled a meeting at Belmont Park for Wednesday at 11 a.m. to discuss the entire matter.

If the feds intervene because racing fiefdoms in 38 states could not come together in their own best interests with a solution insuring the sport’s viability well into the Millennium, does it really matter who’s at fault?

If the NYRA loses its franchise because its officers acted as if they were above the law, will the ripple effect of those actions bring down an entire industry?

Sadly, for many people in this game, Wednesday’s Derby post draw will serve only as little more than a distraction, and a temporary one at that.

Written by John Pricci

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