Monday, June 16, 2014

Doing What’s Best for the Triple Crown Horses

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 15, 2014—I’ve been taking on the issue of a Triple Crown schedule change for five years now and I must be doing a terrible job.

That observation has little to do with whether any recommendations are being considered or not: My failure is getting fans and practitioners conversant with the idea that a longer duration of the series could make the task more difficult, not less.

More so, this is about doing the right thing for the latter day Thoroughbred, about improving the overall quality of the series.

What’s it’s not about is making the feat easier, less worthy of wonderment, nor should it be seen as denigrating the accomplishments of the original Elite Eleven.

Progressive ideas in this game are never adopted without kicking, screaming and the collective gnashing of teeth.

It’s often been stated here that this industry can wear one down, but that’s probably the purpose of such a drill; living with the status quo.

But since when does the status quo improve anything? And there are more good reasons to alter the Triple Crown schedule rather than maintain it to provide some imagined perfect contextual link to the past.

More than any other sport, this is game is built on opinion and, since most horseplayers and owners are unsuccessful, it follows that much of that opinion isn’t very good.

All humans, especially racetrackers, tend to make issues more difficult than need be, thinking that all objections must be overcome before adopting progressive change, even when change includes acknowledgement of present-day and future realities.

Let’s consider change through the prism of fair, rational thought. Fair is not some dirty four-letter word.

Race horses notwithstanding, acknowledging that today’s athletes are better than their predecessors because of improved training techniques, better nutrition, equipment and facilities, gives reality its due.

If that premise is acknowledged to be true, comparisons among different generations are by their nature patently unfair. Is it fair to compare Michael Jordan to LeBron James, Jim Brown to O.J. Simpson (infamy notwithstanding), or Pete Rose to Ty Cobb?

All that remains then is opinion, based on perception or well-intended prejudice. Do we really know whether Secretariat would have dominated Citation the way he completely outclassed his peer group in 1973? Again, there is no context for comparing generations.

The all-time great athletes above played in different environments, under a variation of the rules, or with schedule changes. Just like a race horse can only beat what’s lined up next to him, domination needs no definition; greatness is unmistakably in the eye of all beholders, a reward unto itself requiring no further qualification.

Today’s thoroughbred, awash in a gene pool of raceday medication, is not comparable to any of the elite eleven, nor is it fair to them to do so. The modern American horse is bred for the sales ring, not the racetrack; mated to be at his best from eight to nine furlongs, rarely at 10, and certainly never at 12.

If you lined up a gate full of sprinters to compete in the 2015 Belmont Stakes, one will have his name engraved on the Belmont trophy; it will just have taken him a lot longer to get there.

The Kentucky Derby has grown to such an extent that it has become one of the most coveted prizes, if not the most in thoroughbred racing, knowing no geographic boundary. In the grand scheme of American racing, this will never change.

The Belmont Stakes--whether it’s calendar placement, a blend of track configuration and pilot error, or the shot-taking mindset that no American Thoroughbred is predisposed to running a mile and a half--will continue to attract a diverse field, especially “equine teenagers” that have undergone a late spring growth spurt.

But no one seems to value the Preakness as a classic unto itself. It has been reduced to a mere stepping stone for the chosen few and not the majority of the generation’s best that have earned their way to the top rung by successfully running a Derby gauntlet.

Resultantly, Preakness new shooters are more a collection of the second-tier variety and, given a long and storied thoroughbred history, the centerpiece of Maryland Jockey Club calendar deserves a lot more respect.

The main reason that the Preakness has become the Triple Crown’s red-headed stepchild is scheduling. Modern thoroughbreds are not predisposed to frequent competition, another argument against same-scheduling lending context to achievement.

Most horsemen don’t choose to run in the Belmont Stakes because their horses are just dying to run a mile and a half. Horsemen choose to run the Belmont because it’s five weeks from the Derby and because the modern Derby winner will be more vulnerable after his Preakness run.

Excluding the debilitating effects of raceday medication, what other unqualified explanation can be offered for the fact that 45 was the average number of starts in a thoroughbred’s career in the 1950s but is only 13 today?

Of course, racing has more pressing issues than fixing its most popular series, but does that mean it cannot be better?

What is particularly galling is that no one, practitioner, public and media alike, is willing to concede the possibility that extending the series could make it more difficult--as if even winning three consecutive claiming races at the same track is an everyday thing.

The HRI faithful know that I favor a first Saturday in May, Memorial Day weekend, and July 4th weekend Triple Crown schedule. To me, it’s Americana and an acknowledgement of the modern-day thoroughbred reality rolled into one.

Must the industry ask its equine athletes to do the impossible every year just to keep the dream storyline alive? And what about the animal’s remaining sophomore season and older horse campaigns for the majority of top-tiered three-year-olds?

Extending the Triple Crown season makes it possible for the winner of the first two legs to be at his best for the third—if, that is, his trainer can keep him at tops over a longer, sustained period.

Extending the season would increase participation in the entire series, not just the Preakness, and this extension would help insure that the Triple Crown aspirant’s competition also would also have a better chance to bring it’s 'A' game to Long Island. How does this make winning the Triple Crown easier?

If there’s a classics trophy with a horseman’s name on it, wouldn’t those owners and trainers be more inclined to test the Derby winner at a more reasonable distance rather than taking a 12-furlong crapshoot?

And doesn’t a bigger, better, and more experienced Preakness field make the task more difficult, not less? A fairer, more level playing field for all does not mean easier, it means better, and better is always harder.

During trophy ceremonies on Stephen Foster night Saturday at Churchill Downs, a contrite and humbled Steve Coburn spoke of a thousand text messages he received after giving his phone number out on national TV, and how 97 percent of agreed with him [about the Triple Crown’s inherent unfairness].

While his solution is not remotely based in reality, even if his estimates were hyperbolic, it was assuredly a lot of concern to the public. Coburn is brash and unfiltered in word and deed but none of it, however unfortunate it was at times, ever seemed untrue.

Indeed, if lots of the public agreed with him then there is no casual sports audience capable of understanding the nuances of thoroughbred racing. They only know what they see and hear on television.

During their post-race press conference, both Robert Evans and Christophe Clement indicated that the duration of the series should be changed for the better. To a large degree they benefitted from the current schedule but were sportsmen enough to admit that lengthening the series is the right thing to do.

It’s a bit sad that the connections of two previous Triple Crown winners thought more about their horse’s place in history than acknowledging that in all probability the modern thoroughbred has changed and no longer can be reasonably expected to replicate top form in a three-race five-week series.

Must the future mimic the past for tradition’s sake if the modern horse is unsuited to running its best without four-to-six weeks of recovery time, not to mention a series run at disparate distances in three different states in five weeks?

Things change. “Doing what’s best for the horse,” is a phrase that comes trippingly off the tongue in track press releases and when the cameras are rolling. As always, saying the right thing is a lot easier than its execution.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Rant That Could Rock Racing’s World

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 10, 2014—Is it safe to write now? Was Steve Coburn on the morning talk-show circuit again this morning, and I missed it somehow? If so, were there any more apologies?

I hope Yogi wasn’t been reading the sports pages these last few days. He’d be really confused after learning that it’s not over even when it IS over.

The entire civilized world has gone on record about what simply has become known as: “The Rant.”

There are several examples regarding the reaction to this issue that are particularly galling, not the least of which concerns the media:

Most national non-racing sports media, the kind that covers Triple Crown events, and just maybe the Breeders’ Cup, don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to horse racing.

For me, it’s like the old punchline to the old gambling joke: “What do I know about hockey?”

Mike Lupica weighed in, my hero, “Mr. Shooting From the Lip” himself. I don’t hold his disdain for racing against him. It seems his father was rumored to be an inveterate horseplayer when he was a child and he’s hated the sport for its gambling aspects ever since.

And that’s similar to two other sports enthusiasts; Mario and Andrew Cuomo. I wonder what ever became of their love of sports. They seldom, if ever, came to a big horse race in New York, including the Travers, an in-their-own-backyard event.

The current Governor was among the 102,000 in attendance at Belmont Park on Saturday. Then again, 2016 is right around the corner.

On the drive home from Elmont to Saratoga Monday morning, I checked in with Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts co-hosts of WFAN’s midday radio program, always a good listen for me.

But when Roberts said, in relation to The Rant, that it “wasn’t about the horse, it was about the money, the owner’s ego,” I nearly drove off the Cross Island Parkway.

Guess Evan didn’t hear the one about how Coburn and his partner Perry Martin turned down $6 million for a half-interest BEFORE the Kentucky Derby because it meant that Art Sherman no longer would be the colt’s trainer.

I broke for lunch and missed the first hour of the Mike Francesa show, in which he presumably talked about The Rant and The Race. The two to five o’clock hours were devoted to the anemic Mets and what later that night would turn out to be the equally anemic New York Rangers.

Francesa, introduced to the game by noted handicapper and professional horseplayer Paul Cornman, wears his love of horse racing on his sleeve. This comes in particularly handy when you need to secure your own box for big races at Belmont and Saratoga.

This is a man who rightfully deserves his reputation as a people’s champion, asking the tough questions to the biggest names in sports, yet somehow he’s acquired a strong taste for Thoroughbred racing’s particular brand of Kool Aid.

Seldom is heard a discouraging word, or a tough question, for that matter. Every Friday before the Belmont Stakes, he hosts arguably America’s most successful sports talk program from the clubhouse apron at Big Sandy, interviewing the biggest names in the game.

Before this year, that list included Joe Drape of the New York Times, who, with other journalists, has been placed on Thoroughbred racing’s persona non grata list for the tough stance he’s taken regarding medication and training methods, legal and otherwise.

But he wasn’t on the program this year due to what was being called a “scheduling conflict.”

It seems tough questions are OK for other sports, just not for this one.

Obviously, it took more than 24 hours to clear the fog of the Triple Crown wars from Coburn’s brain. Instead of apologizing on Sunday and belatedly tipping a cap to the winners, he doubled down and made his very indelicate basketball analogy.

Better late than never. As we wrote in our Belmont Stakes wrap Saturday evening, the man was exhausted, acting as if he was celebrating prematurely, this after being extremely generous and accommodating with his time for five weeks, notwithstanding another month between the Santa Anita Derby and the one held in Louisville.

One of The Rant’s great ironies is that, in some weirdly, insane fashion, might have kept horse racing above the fold for longer than 24 hours. A disappointing attempt to make history became a backstory to The Rant.

The other vexing aspect of the coverage is how duplicitous it is to celebrate a man for his colorfully brash and candid demeanor one day and destroy him for those same qualities the next.

While Sunday’s references were ignorant and tasteless, it remains an antidote to ultra-correct cliches. Contrarily, Monday’s apology appeared sincerely contrite, especially those to wife Carolyn, the connections of Tonalist, and “the whole horse racing world.”

I would wager that the overwhelming majority of those reading this know more about Thoroughbred racing history than the co-owner of a dual classics winner--on-the-job training in a good way. No disgrace, that.

But as was previously mentioned, there was a message that really needed hearing. Not references to “cheaters” or “cowards,” or Coburn’s confusing Triple Crown athletes with triathlon athletes.

Coburn is right when he says Triple Crown “means three.” Of course, that means three individual events, all worth winning on their merits.

The reality is that some Grade 1s are created more equal than others, especially the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, in that both are run at classic distances; the American classic distance of a mile and a quarter and the European classic trip of a mile and a half.

But the message that “this [Triple Crown] thing is unfair to the horses” strikes the right note in the age of permissive raceday medication.

Let’s forget for a moment that the Kentucky Derby prep schedule is an arduous playoffs road in which would-be Triple Crown aspirants must succeed or fail to qualify for a starting berth in America’s greatest racing spectacle, the gateway to a crown.

And let’s forget, too, that each of the 11 Triple Crown winners didn’t need to beat more than seven rivals, fresh legs or no fresh legs. In fact, let’s forget that all Triple Crown winners competed without raceday Lasix coursing through their veins. Let’s forget all of that and consider this:

The Hancock family has been breeding racehorses in Kentucky since the Civil War. Arthur Hancock III is one of the founding members of WHOA, the Water, Hay & Oats Alliance and dedicating himself to improving the breed.

Hancock has bred three classics winners; Gato Del Sol, the family’s first Kentucky Derby winner, the dual classics winner and unlucky Triple Crown aspirant, Risen Star, and dual classics winner and Horse of the Year Sunday Silence.

Hancock believes that Lasix has polluted the gene pool, citing that when he was a child in the 1950s Thoroughbreds averaged 45 starts per year. Today that average is 13, less than 29%.

Arthur owns Stone Farm in Paris, KY. with his wife, Staci. The Hancocks believe that these days you can’t know whether you’re breeding to a true champion or to a horse whose reputation was built on the use of raceday Lasix.

In the worthy historical reference “Champions” published by DRF Press in 2000, every divisional championship pre-1990 was won by a horse that raced without the legal diuretic. From 1990 forward, the overwhelming majority have.

Parenthetically, there are 14 Eclipse Award categories including Horse of the Year. In the last quarter-century, all but 31 champions raced on Lasix; six of those were European based and two others were steeplechasers.

There were juvenile champions in this group, but Flanders never raced at 3 and Boston Harbor had one start his Derby season. Female turf horses and female sprinters became segregated categories in 1979 and 2007, respectively.

Absent historical context, Carolyn Coburn believes that "our story has given so much to so many people and I hope 30 seconds doesn't destroy that.”

Americans are a forgiving lot when they believe you, and a man who admits to being “very ashamed” on national television is one without guile, the same man he was during California Chrome’s six-race win streak.

Coburn made the sports and racing world fall in love with a couple of “dumb asses,” their everyman trainer, and a very gifted race horse. They will all be just fine. They’re just in need of a very good freshening.

If only that were the cure for everything.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

GUEST EDITIORIAL: Nasal Strips OK Is 15 Years Late

By Susan Kayne

The use of nasal strips for Thoroughbreds in New York State is a controversy that seems a distant memory as California Chrome prepares to chase immortality on Saturday at Belmont Park.

Thing is that the strip flap should have been settled in 1999. Apparently, justice is not the only issue that grinds very slowly.

Prior to reversing his course on nasal strips, Dr. Ted Hill, former New York Racing Association examining veterinarian and now current Jockey Club steward, cited studies showing that equine nasal strips can be performance-enhancing by reducing fatigue and possibly prevent bleeding.

Admittedly, Hill had no plans to become a steward: “It was totally different from my former job,” Hill said in the New York Times three years ago. As a veterinarian you’re familiar with the rules, but your primary responsibility is the welfare and safety of the horses.”

As for the use of nasal strips, former NYRA steward Carmine Donofrio, Hill’s colleague for 14 years, had this take on the subject: “We don’t need ‘em, we have Lasix”.

Philosophically, however, that opinion is at odds with Hill’s thoughts on the diuretic. “Lasix is greatly overused,” said Hill in Bill Heller’s “Run, Baby, Run: What Every Owner, Breeder & Handicapper Should Know About Lasix in Racehorses.”

“The research on Lasix raises more questions than answers,” Hill said, adding later that “Lasix is not totally innocuous even though it’s used in such enormous quantities. Some horses react severely to it.

“Some horses become very quiet, too quiet. Horses can get colic or a spastic gut. It’s not hard for our horses in extensive training and stall environments to get uncomfortable. Some horses run very poorly on Lasix. I’d like to see it not in blanket usage in New York.”

Meanwhile, the nasal strip issue could have been avoided long before California Chrome was a gleam in Lucky Pulpit’s eye. NYRA always classified nasal strips as “equipment,” no different than blinkers, shadow rolls or tongue ties. But those items were allowed long before their “performance enhancing” effects were studied.

A ‘nasal strip’ is a self-adhesive appliance placed over a horse’s nose to stabilize underlying soft tissue. It does not require a diagnosis, prescription, injection, or the services of a veterinarian, yet NYRA invoked a house rule against them even though they were approved by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board in 1999, begging the question: Why?

Prior to the controversy, nasal strips were legal for Thoroughbreds in every racing jurisdiction in the country. Notwithstanding the New York ban, trainers could ask for permission but solely at the discretion of NYRA’s stewards under a state regulation that ”only equipment specifically approved by the stewards shall be worn or carried by a jockey or a horse in a race.”

The most celebrated case was in 2012 when trainer Doug O’Neill requested permission to use the strips on his Triple Crown hopeful I’ll Have Another. He was denied permission by stewards Hill, Donofrio and Braulio Baeza Jr. I'll Have Another subsequently was declared from the race due to injury.

At that time, Hill told Daily Racing Form that “part of the issue had to do with a nasal strip coming off a horse in the paddock or at the gate, citing the possibility of wet weather… To be fair and consistent, we have to regulate its use… that’s always been the issue.”

As most fans know, nasal strips have been permitted in New York harness racing since 1999, which begs another question: Why didn’t Dr. Hill query his colleagues to learn how harness racing officials and standardbred trainers have successfully regulated the use of nasal strips for the past 15 years?

When California Chrome’s trainer Art Sherman indicated that his Derby and Preakness winner might not race in the $1,500,000 Belmont Stakes if the strips were not permitted; an epic media storm arose. During that 72-hour period neither the stewards nor the media put in a call to Dr. James Chiapetta, co-inventor of the Fair Nasal Strips.

“I’ve been dealing with New York since we launched the product in 1999 – I still have the document that says NYSRWB approved nasal strips – that meant thoroughbreds and standardbreds,” he said by phone this week.

Chiapetta called the New York stewards repeatedly over the years but got no response. He received letters from former NYRA President Charlie Hayward promising to look into the matter but nothing happened.

“When the I’ll Have Another issue arose in 2012, we never really got the straight story. I met with [NYSRWB Chairman] John Sabini and with his general counsel and [a second] attorney but they didn’t seem to understand or articulate what the issue was. The matter was referred back to the stewards so we got on the phone with [them].”

Hill told Chiapetta: “I believe in the product, I believe in the data, I don’t see why this should be a problem -- but, given this has gone on for so long we really have to go back to NYRA because they are the ones who implemented the ban.”

In one subsequent conversation, Chiapetta was asked to explain how other jurisdictions regulated nasal strips. “We went through every jurisdiction in America, my people on the ground identified that everybody manages them like a tongue tie.”

Chiapetta was told he needed to leave nasal strips in the paddock “so if a horse comes [in the paddock} without it we could put it on because ‘we can’t scratch horses because fields are too small’.”

Chiapetta sent the Flair nasal strips to Hill but “then the world went silent – we would call, and call, and never heard anything back.”

Chiapetta then reached Donofrio on the phone, “I proposed the opportunity to sit and talk and explain to him the science behind the product. Donofrio said he [didn’t need the science]. [Neither was he interested in its role] in reducing EIPH.”

“Well maybe I’ll talk to you when Lasix is banned,” Chiapetta was told.

In eight peer-reviewed studies nasal strips are scientifically proven to reduce exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging [bleeding] by reducing the collapse of the soft nasal tissue during exercise.

Unlike humans, horses breathe only through their nostrils; all horses have a large area of tissue on their nose that gets sucked in when they’re running hard.

The use of nasal strips can reduce bleeding as much as Lasix by increasing the ease of air intake, in turn reducing the negative pressure in the alveoli which, when less stressed, are less likely to break and cause bleeding. VIDEO: Benefits of Flair Strips

“The strips make no more difference in the outcome of a race than do horseshoes, tongue ties, figure eight bridles, or other equipment horsemen are permitted to use," concluded Chiapetta in a statement.

Despite overwhelming evidence of its debilitating effect on horses, Lasix continues to be the drug of choice for thoroughbred trainers for treating EIPH. “The strips, however, are designed to protect horses’ lungs so they can stay healthier,” added Chiapetta.

So NYRA has had this information for 15 years, yet chose to deny Thoroughbreds at their tracks the benefits of a humane, prophylactic measure that would possibly stop horses from choking on their own blood.

And we believe that this industry can police itself?

Equestrian Susan Kayne is a New York-based owner-breeder and host of the television magazine series "Unbridled"

Written by John Pricci

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