Friday, February 28, 2014

Gulfstream Stewards Inert; Track Takes Action

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 28, 2014—As Gulfstream Park’s Rainbow 6 Jackpot continues its ascent to well over $1.7 million, the heat on the Florida stewards remains intense in the wake of a non-disqualification in Thursday’s sixth race, clearly a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

The undeniable inconsistency in the wake of Saturday’s controversial disqualification in the final leg of the Rainbow 6 Jackpot that denied a single winner $1.6 million, thereby extending the carryover, created a firestorm of bad will.

Thursday’s non-disqualification for virtually the same offense has members of the Horseplayers Association of North America calling for a boycott of Gulfstream’s races until the stewards are either suspended or fired.

The HANA boycott of Santa Anita’s races in 2011 following an unconscionable rise in the rate of parimutuel takeout was extremely effective as horseplayers spoke with one voice for the first time ever.

According to Blood Horse’s figures compiled at meet’s end, gross handle, with eight fewer racing days, declined by nearly 21 percent. The largest declines were off-track; the California ADWs down by more than 20 percent while out-of-state simulcasts were off 23 percent. Total daily average handle declined from $7.5 million to $6.6 million year over year.

While this is a different issue, it’s clear that horseplayers are extremely frustrated and are prepared to take action on what is perceived as a national epidemic of inconsistent rulings. The rules of racing are virtually the same all over but the manner of interpretation varies, sometimes widely, and therein lays a problem.

Reasonable horseplayers can accept, albeit grudgingly, different styles when it comes to adjudicating fouls, like knowledge of umpires having a wider strike zone or fouls that are not called in the final minute of a tied basketball game.

In racing, some judges are strict constructionists, on the lookout for lane violations—a foul is a foul is a foul. At other venues, the practice is to allow trained eyes to make judgment calls after close inspection of video replays to determine whether an incident cost a rival a placing.

In both cases, the emphasis is on what happens as horses battle down the stretch toward the finish for the pot of gold that awaits owners, trainers, jockeys and, yes, horseplayers, without whom there would be no one to support the industry.

Money makes the mare go, as old school racetrackers say. But bettors know it’s their money that enables parimutuel horse racing and now are demanding, and getting, however grudgingly, a seat at the table.

As an observer of the betting public and a public handicapper for four decades, I can testify that I never have seen this much outrage which today is only heightened by the presence of Internet gadflies and social media.

All events are now in real time and the absence of acceptable standards of communication and behavior often has resulted in a lack of objectivity, responsibility and accountability. In the Gulfstream case, civility and reason has taken a hit within the horse racing community of which we are all members.

After having viewed all replays of Saturday’s final race at Gulfstream from vantage points not available to the public, including rear tower shots and slow motion, my original opinion that the disqualification of Collinito was the right call was confirmed.

Parenthetically, the public should have online access to all available angles.

I had no dog in Saturday’s fight but I did Thursday, having selected and made a small wager on 7-1 winner Hard Enough. Once again, all things being equal, I would have allowed the result to stand and here’s why:

While Paco Lopez brought his mount out 3 paths under left-hand whipping and bumped with Cummings Road near the finish, it was difficult to discern from the video whether the incident occurred at or just after the dueling horses crossed the finish line noses apart.

Further, third finisher Burn the Mortgage was angled out by Javier Castellano looking to rally while splitting rivals. There was not enough room and Castellano was forced to steady his mount, essentially contributing to his own problems.

As for Cummings Road, he had every chance to win. In fact, from the pan view it appeared that he gained a very slight lead in deep stretch but was out-gamed at the wire.

If I was certain that the bump occurred at the finish line, I would have disqualified Hard Enough. But if the incident occurred at the wire after the race was over, I would have allowed the result to stand.

Not being sure of when that or any other incident occurs, I invoke the Any-Given-Sunday rule that the evidence was inconclusive and would have allowed the result to stand in that case. To me, this was a judgment call to end all judgment calls.

However, this is not the point, and all things were not equal. In Thursday’s bang-bang incident, the Gulfstream stewards, in the name of consistency, and with all the attendant publicity given Collinito, Hard Enough should have been disqualified.

All horseplayers really want is consistency and transparency. Because of their inconsistency, the Gulfstream stewards as a group might have done irreparable harm to the track’s stature and the credibility of its management.

The three stewards should have stepped up on Sunday, held a press preference to explain the process and take responsibility for their actions. Stewards are not above acting in the best interests of the racing public.

Kentucky Chief Steward John Veitch was suspended and fired because of a lapse in judgment four years ago. I thought the Gulfstream stewards got the decision right both times and, while contradictory, it would have been better for all concerned had they been consistent on two close calls.

Absent that, they needed to step up instead of allowing the chips to fall.

GULFSTREAM TO BECOME MORE TRANSPARENT: Gulfstream Park announced today it will begin instituting changes to provide bettors more information and greater transparency whenever there is a disqualification or objection on any of its races.

"We truly believe the bettor deserves a detailed explanation as to why a horse has been disqualified," said Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo. "The bettor is not only the economic engine that drives this sport but he and she is also the biggest fan of the sport. We need to continue to find ways to improve the integrity and transparency.

“We have not done a good job explaining why our stewards have disqualified a horse and we're going to change that. We have a few changes we will implement immediately and are studying a number of ideas, including a camera and microphone in the stewards' booth.

"Obviously there's never going to be a 100 percent consensus whether a horse should or should not be taken down. We want stewards to be consistent but we also want them to treat each race individually because every scenario is different. We want them to be quick but some decisions take longer. We feel we can provide our bettors more information that's more timely.

Track announcer Larry Collmus will provide a detailed explanation for any ruling while a replay of the infraction is highlighted and played from pan and head-on angles. A statement by the stewards will be posted on Gulfstream Park's website under disqualifications in a timely fashion.

"There will be things we add and maybe a few we subtract, but our decisions will be based on what is best for our bettors. If these changes work at Gulfstream, we will roll them out across all Stronach Group tracks."

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Gulfstream Stewards Got It Right; Ritvo Calls for Transparency, Televising Inquiry Process

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 23, 2014—Take this from someone who’s been there, although not to the extent of $1.6 million.

Long ago in a land far away, a place called Saratoga, I rushed into the stewards stand after the second race on Saturday afternoon, August 2, 1986, to inform the New York stewards that when they disqualified Allumeuse, they had taken down the wrong horse.

But that was like a day at Frank’s Beach compared to what happened in the finale on Fountain of Youth day when $20 million was wagered on the Fountain of Youth program, the first time that figure was surpassed in the new structure on a non-Florida Derby day race card.

With over $1.2 million dollars in the carryover pot and another half-million spent chasing it on Saturday, there was to be a single winner of $1.6 million in the Rainbow 6 jackpot when 15-1 Collinito finished first beneath Luis Saez.

But then the stewards posted an inquiry and jockey Paco Lopez, on 39-1 shot Strategic Keeper, lodged an objection against Saez for alleged interference soon after entering the stretch.

The Florida stewards, after their usual lengthy deliberations, disqualified Collinito from first and placed him second.

Ironically, even though Strategic Keeper was more than double the odds of Collinito, there was more than one winning ticket on the winning 11-12-3-5-4-13 sequence paying over $36,600, thus creating a carryover into the Sunday program of more than $1.3 million.

Two observations: It was the worst beat at the races I’ve seen. And while it would have been a very close call either way, the stewards made the right call. Clearly, I’m in the minority of horseplayers here.

Saturday night and early Sunday morning, the Twitterverse and the chat room exploded, the sentiment running almost 4-1 against the disqualification.

Able to watch the stewards’ tapes of the incident more times than I can remember on Sunday afternoon, with slow-motion capability, did nothing to dissuade my original position that the disqualification, while a close one, was righteous and just.

Soon after entering the stretch, Collinito drifted out approximately four paths into the lane occupied Strategic Keeper, forcing Lopez twice to bend his mount in half. Further, the second finisher appeared to lug in, compelling Lopez to gather his mount, which only added to the confusion. But the harm already had been done.

Upon straightening out in deep stretch and getting clear to the outside of Collinito, Strategic Keeper re-rallied and was getting to Collinito rapidly in the final strides, losing by a rapidly diminishing neck.

In my view, the original winner caused a lot more than a neck’s worth of trouble, thus the disqualification. Saez was suspended three days for the infraction.

Observers are allowed to see these incidents in a different way, the reason why they are referred to as judgment calls. Controversial judgment calls happen in virtually all sports, only not when people are legally betting their money on the outcome. And let’s face it; horseplayers, even if their concerns are largely ignored by track executives, are a vocal lot, mostly negative in nature, especially when it involves winning and losing.

I will wager that no bettor before or after Saturday’s 12th race at Gulfstream Park ever will have suffered a worse “beat.”

By definition, parimutuel wagering is a zero-sum game and arguably as many bettors benefitted from the decision than were harmed; the fact that more Rainbow 6 tickets were sold using #13 speaks to that.

But American horse racing, with its lack of transparency on virtually every level, deserves the cynicism it sows. For instance, I don’t want to read why stewards made their decisions after the fact.

I, and the majority of horseplayers I know, want to see the foul adjudication process live and in real time. Simply install a camera in the stewards’ stand, turn on the audio, and allow bettors to eavesdrop on the proceedings.

HRI questioned Gulfstream President and CEO Tim Ritvo Sunday afternoon about televising the review process and other issues arising from Saturday’s disqualification:

“I love the idea,” said Ritvo. “A live camera in there would give us full transparency. We do it at the [Kentucky] Derby once a year. Why not do it all the time?”

HRI: Will-Pays are no longer posted for the Rainbow 6 although the information is readily available. Why?

A: “The tote company would not provide Will-Pays after the Fair Grounds incident a few years ago. There was a late scratch in the final race in their jackpot bet and a bettor with the scratched horse was moved to the post time favorite by rule.

“When the favorite won, there were two live tickets instead of one. They’re afraid they would be liable in some way when things like this happen.”

“If that happens to a bettor here and the scratched horse makes him live to the post-time favorite winner, we pay the jackpot as long as the ticket belongs to one bettor and the sequence is on one ticket.”

HRI: Were you involved in the decision making process with the stewards via phone which some observers said they saw during the process? It was also reported on HRTV that you had a ‘sick look’ on your face when the inquiry sign went up?

A: “I had no contact with the stewards and phone records would prove that. I am [not a litigious person] but we’re thinking about suing those persons. Besides, [stewards] Don Brumfield and Jeffrey Noe would never listen to me.

“The sick look on my face is because the last thing I want to see in the final race are foul claims, horses scratched at the gate or a rider falling off his horse. I don’t want to see anything happen that might give bettors the wrong impression.”

HRI: Some sharp bettors, citing a turf race won by Old Time Hockey, claim the stewards have exhibited something of a laissez faire policy in the adjudication of turf races this meet, forgiving more contact than they would on dirt. Is that accurate, and where is the consistency in officiating?

A: “I’d have to look at that race, but I’ll tell you this. They took down Javier Castellano one day when he was four in front turning for home for drifted out. “He blamed it on the lights or shadows or something. If you look at that race you'll see the consistency of [Saturday’s] call.”

HRI: As of mid-Sunday morning, only the Am-West website was showing the head-on replay of the final race even though they showed the head-on in all other races. What happened?

A: “I have no idea. We showed it here while the stewards were looking at their films. The idea that that was a conspiracy is absurd. There are a lot of gray decisions in racing but we stand behind [Saturday’s] stewards decision one hundred percent.”

HRI: In general, doesn’t the lack of transparency in these kinds of incidents have an adverse effect on wagering integrity?

A: “Throughout the history of our game, there have always been controversial calls. In sports like football or basketball today, officials can watch replays. In racing, the stewards can look at things over and over for as long as it takes from every angle, including slow-motion.”

HRI:Gulfstream has a vested interest in the results since carryovers generate added handle. Isn’t this true and how much of a difference does this make?

A: “On a good weekend, $500,000 is bet into a carryover pool, $300,000 during the week. The blended takeout rate is 20 percent for the entire country so that leaves $100,000 for all the tracks. Our share of that is 7 percent, of which 3.5 percent goes to the horsemen, that’s about $35,000 for us.”

HRI: Is there a chance that Saturday’s incident could result in a criminal investigation?

A: “We are completely confident the stewards made the right decision and would have no problem talking to anybody about it. We feel bad for the customer, it probably was the worst bad beat ever. But I have not gotten any calls about it from the customer complaining about the decision.”

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Candy Is Dandy

HALLANDALE, FL, February 12, 2014—Count me among those who were impressed by Candy Boy’s victory in the Robert B Lewis Memorial and underwhelmed with Midnight Hawk on Saturday and in future Grade 1s.

Perfect trip notwithstanding [good horses make their own perfect trips, see Lea], the way he lengthened stride, at and passing the finish line while well within himself [see pricking ears] indicates to me the longer, the merrier.

With the big weekend in South Florida, I did not pay enough attention to the Lewis pre-race; my bad.

But it was my stupid, too, because this was the horse that made that wild middle move in the G1 Cash Call following a tardy start and continued on well enough to finish second behind the undefeated and back-in-training Shared Belief

That move would have buried lesser stock. Gary Stevens wisely took the return call after working him five times, simultaneously learning and teaching.

“I just wanted Gary to be patient,” trainer John Sadler said on TV after the race. Well, he must have said something before the race, too.

Approaching the far turn in the Lewis, Stevens had a cat-bird’s seat of a three-pronged battle directly in front of him and instead of asking his mount when odds-on Midnight Hawk went after the leaders in earnest, Stevens reached down and took another hold.


As the three-ply battle was to continue into the homestretch, Stevens let out a bit or rein, tipped Candy Boy four wide, allowed the colt to gain momentum on his own, rode him in earnest at the eighth pole then allowed his mount to do the rest late.

I’m a figures guy, but this race wasn’t about running time--a very solid 1.41.83 for 1-1/16 miles with a big gallop-out. It was about the manner of victory and power-packed stride. It belied a pedigree that doesn’t scream 1-1/4 miles, as a son of Candy Ride from the In Excess mare, She’s an Eleven.

But Candy Boy’s victory spoke loudly as to ability. Sadler, who doesn’t have a great amount of success when he leaves SoCal, might have a runner that could make that observation moot. I can’t wait to see him run again, and I won’t be surprised if he skips the next dance and awaits the Santa Anita Derby.

But Lochte Is Quicker If Calder-based “claiming trainer” Marcus Vitali wants to get to Disney World by the fastest route, he should pay jockey Orlando Bocachica a pretty penny to handle the driving assignment.

Saturday's Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap was the first Grade 1 win in the careers of both men. Good for them. And good for Lochte, a rapidly developing early season four year old.

Anyone who can read past performances knew that the improving Medaglia d’Oro gelding likes the Hallandale course and his last race, a low level allowances, was a career best from a performance figure perspective.

Vitali realized it, too, and when the grandson of Lemon Drop Kid came back with a bullet blowout at his Miami Lakes base, they assessed the competition and decided to take their shot. B-I-N-G-O!

The event more closely resembled an aspiring Grade 1 than the real deal—not that there weren’t talented runners in the group--but most were proven Grade 2 runners and Grade 1 wannabes. In the case of runners-up Imagining and Amira’s Prince, they're likely to earn G1 status sooner rather than later; both ran well in defeat.

Durkin, Spadaro Back in Action In case you were watching the ponderous opening ceremonies from Sochi and missed it, the boys from Tuscany--harness racing sage Joe Spadaro of Saratoga, and the legendary track announcer from Floral Park--were making some noise in East Rutherford.

Coraggioso, making his second start off a lengthy layoff and having missed a week due to the track’s Super Bowl hiatus, trotted a mile in 1:52 4/5 on the engine throughout while racing into a moderate head wind.

Now in the hands of husband and wife team of trainer Julie Miller and driver Andy, the New York-bred earned a lifetime mark with his victory and never appeared in danger of being defeated in the C1/B2 handicap.

Making some training and warm-up changes to his routine, Coraggioso responded well, trotting the mile one full second faster than A1/FFA handicappers earlier on the card.

In fairness, parenthetically, the FFA handicap was a 5-horse field with a half-mile pace [can you even say that?] 4/5s of a second slower than Coraggioso’s and little or no lead challenges. The time would have been slower still had John Campbell not attempted a mid-race move a la Stevens in the Cash Call.

The effort likely will move Coraggioso into B-1 company, the race scheduled for Friday night.

Will New Meadowlands Get a Casino? Bet on it, even if it needs state-wide approval and support from South Jersey political interests.

There was an interesting editorial in the Bergen Record calling Gov. Christie’s five-year plan for Atlantic City a failed project—this is year three—and endorsing a casino for the new North Jersey sports complex as a better means to fund urban renewal in the state’s major cities.

Increased competition from Pennsylvania and New York have hurt the Atlantic City casinos and the improvements slated for Atlantic City’s revival never materialized and are unlikely to, according to the Record.

A casino in the Meadowlands sports complex is the tonic that can help keep the state’s casino gamblers home instead of crossing the Hudson to play in Yonkers or South Ozone Park (if there are enough lanes open on the GWB to get there, of course).

Plans already are in place with a major casino operator. Once the five-year moratorium against casino expansion is lifted, there will be a ritzy destination casino a short drive from midtown Manhattan. (There’s always the tunnel and Route 3).

Written by John Pricci

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