Monday, November 10, 2014

Bets ‘N Pieces

PLANTATION, FL., November 11, 2014--Turf Writers in the News: Kudos to colleague Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal for her election into the National Museum of Racing’s Joe Hirsch Media Role of Honor.

And a tip of the cap to the Role of Honor Committee for remembering that the late, legendary Los Angeles Times columnist, Jim Murray, did racing proud any time he wrote about it, one of the few sports columnists--Red Smith leaps to mind--who loved Thoroughbred racing.

While I had a ‘hello-how-are-you’ relationship with Murray, I’ve had many occasions to work alongside Ms. Rees in press boxes everywhere. She is among the hardest working, knowledgeable reporters of either sex to cover the backstretches of America’s racetracks.

If there was a big event, Rees was there to cover it until only recently when the newspaper went austere on everything and Rees was forced to pick her spots. Given the way the business has gone, she’s become known among her peers as “the last turf writer…”

Encouraging news out of Boston that Bob Neumeier is on his way to recovery after suffering a stroke while preparing to leave for Los Angeles during Breeders’ Cup week after several anxious days early on.

Of course, Neumeier has had a long, distinguished career in television and radio in greater Massachusetts and is well known to this audience for his work on national broadcasts of major racing events for the NBC television network.

Without fail, we run into “Neumy” every year at Gulfstream Park where he spends a major part of the winter months. He tells everyone that he’s getting background on the three-year-olds in the run-up to Derby, but his horse-playing buds know better.

If it is at all possible, we expect that this winter will be no different. Come on down, Robert, the weather’s fine. And we’ll see if we can arrange a Get-Well Card in honor of your return. (Ed.note: Sorry, couldn't resist).

Does anyone else find it ironic that last week, while the New York Racing Association was offering health care insurance for jockeys, Parx Racing was encouraging jockeys to sign an indemnity clause absolving them of any responsibility should accidents arise?

I’m not sure where I stand on this: I’m certainly not on the side of Parx, but jockeys by definition are independent contractors.

I’m all for supporting the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund but insurance money has to come from somewhere. A portion has been coming out of the owners’ purse accounts. New York State has approved the measure and has set aside the funding.

The fact that the Saratoga Race Course meet will be the same 40 days long in 2015 makes sense from a business standpoint given the unknown status of the current NYRA franchise, expected to be put out to bid by the end of next year. Obviously, nothing’s certain when state governments are involved, so who knows?

One of the reasons given for a non-extension was balking from out-of-state horsemen for the added expenses that an eight-week, 40-day stand with racing five days per week would place on the owners.

Many years ago, the notion of a Saratoga A-meet and B-meet was discussed. If something like that were implemented, out-of-staters could ship in appropriate horses depending on which “meet” was being conducted.

Nothing says that horses from out of state can’t just simply ship in for those “meets” or for individual races, right? The reason given for the status quo just seems a bit of a stretch.

Interesting that Board Chairman David Skorton was unavailable for comment for the Albany Times Union story, and that board member Charles Wait, Chairman and CEO of the Adirondack Trust Co. of Saratoga, refused to speak on the matter with reporter James Odato.

Give me a T… gimme an R… gimme an A… gimme an N… gimme an S… gimme a P… gimme an A… gimme an R… gimme an E… gimme an N… gimme a C… gimme a Y! Now, what have you got?!

Oh? Never mind.

HorseRaceInsider would like to thank not only all those brave souls who paid the ultimate price for service to their country, and to the many thousands of disabled war veterans, but to those fighting for our safety and freedom everywhere in the world.

Lest we forget the words of the late Gen. Douglas MacArthur at West Point: Duty. Honor. Country.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

For Classic Blunder, Blame the Rule

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 3, 2014--When I was taking business classes in college, somehow I was always fascinated by the legal terms de facto and de jure .

As I got older I realized it went beyond strictl legal definitions, the first being “in fact, whether by right or not” and the latter, meaning “according to rightful entitlement, or claim:”

What the Santa Anita stewards did in the minutes after Bayern’s nose hit the finish line thisclose ahead of Toast of New York was to make a de jure ruling on what the whole world believes to be a de facto incident.

Everyone saw Shared Belief getting bumped badly at the break by the eventual winner, starting a fortuitous chain reaction that seriously compromised Moreno, the only other true speed horse in the race.

Upon dismounting, Shared Belief’s jockey Mike Smith told a national television audience that the incident cost him “any chance to win the race in the first sixteenth of a mile, from both sides.

The stewards later said that when asked, Smith told them “it would be hard for me to say“ that the incident prevented him from winning.

Then, on Sunday morning, the winningest rider in Breeders’ Cup history refuted the stewards‘ characterizations, saying that he told the stewards that he “got creamed in there.”

Well, which was it Mike? My question for Mr. Smith would be “why the hell didn‘t you claim foul as soon as you got on the phone with the stewards?”

We can’t question the he said-they said aspects of the conversation because no one outside of four people know what was said for sure, but didn’t Smith believe he had a “rightful entitlement or claim?”

And I won’t be willing to accept the notion that the stewards had already posted an inquiry. Inquiries and claims for the same infraction happen every day:

Just like “incidents at the start,” a by-product of California racing rule 1699 ( c ).

What makes this difficult for me to understand is the history of the sport itself. Why ask a jockey whether he believes he’s guilty, innocent, or about his version of events? I suspect that it is part tradition, part lack of bad-old-days technology.

But there’s another tradition in this sport, one that lacks definition but no less real. In law enforcement it’s known as the “Blue Wall.”

In this sport, no one ever holds racing’s version of the powerful 1% accountable, whether it’s owners, trainers or the jockeys.

Incur the wrath of owners and a trainer gets no horses--except for those able to win at a rate of 25% or greater.

Incur the wrath of trainers and a jockey doesn’t get mounts unless, of course, their agent can successfully spin the trainer.

But incur the wrath of other jockeys and that seam will never open; that hole on the rail will get tighter and tighter.

All this is why the currency in this sport is the lie: Every horse couldn’t be doing better; a “deep bone bruise” might really be a bowed tendon; “exhaustion” could turn out to be a condylar fracture.

Much of the bettors’ furor is based upon the unpopularity of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who many believe is too big to fail.

The rest is based on optics, that while the California Horse Racing Board was investigating seven sudden deaths suffered by Baffert-trained horses that had been treated with Thyroxin, a powerful hormone used to regulate metabolism, several of its Board members were seen socializing with Baffert in his Santa Anita box during the process.

The forthright Jim Rome, the highly visible part-owner of Shared Belief, allowed on his radio show Monday that Baffert clearly is a powerful guy in California, but he did stop short of one of his famous “takes.”

Rome later said that he had put the matter behind him and moved on, just like some of those controversial athletes he grills. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s only remark was “you saw what happened,” hoisting the Backside Curtain.

When I first came to the beat in the 1970s, I learned something about foul adjudication because the New York stewards at the time opened lines of communication via a press box two-way microphone.

“Are you ready?” steward Francis Dunne would ask. “Yes sir,” someone would always reply. Today, racing talks about transparency; 40 years ago it was practiced in New York, but sadly, no longer.

When an event similar to what happened in the Classic occurred, Dunne’s words are as clear now as they were when I first heard them: “That’s an incident at the start, gentlemen, we‘re leaving it as is.”

Which, whether most observers agree with the decision or not, is exactly what the Santa Anita stewards did Saturday night.

I’ve watched the replay more than a dozen times at every conceivable speed and from every angle available and I’ll say this; the notion that Martin Garcia intentionally drove his horse inward to reach the fence by any means necessary is absurd.

Indeed, Bayern slammed into Shared Belief hard; in turn Shared Belief nailed Moreno. Soon thereafter, Toast of New York ran his post pattern from slip 9 and also tagged Moreno, the Classic’s only other true speed.

The complexion of the race changed immediately, the incident giving Bayern a huge advantage after having severely compromised Shared Belief.

In our view, however, it is not unequivocal or irrefutable that the incident prevented Shared Belief from winning the race. Yes, he’s light bodied and , yes, he had the air taken out of him--but he was full of run racing into the first turn.

Was he severely hindered? Unquestionably. Did it cost him the race? Most probably. But was he prevented from winning right there and then? I say no.

After careful review and due consideration, I cannot be convinced that Garcia did not make every effort to straighten his mount.

As analyst Jerry Bailey said, Bayern broke in and forward simultaneously. The first clear view of Garcia was him shifting his weight and tugging at his reins hard and to the right.

I don’t know what more he could have done at that point to undo the damage done, although he did continue on a path to the rail.

However, I don’t believe it was humanly possible for Garcia to react any faster than he did. So now the question becomes: Do you hold the horse Bayern accountable for his actions? Mr. Ed maybe; Bayern, I really can’t say.

When Toast of New York came in, bumping with Moreno, whose saddle eventually slipped, Smith was behind Moreno trapped inside full of run and looking for a way out, causing him to check hard over heels.

I don’t know how Smith and Shared Belief escaped clipping the heels of the horse directly in front of them. It was truly a scary moment and it’s very fortunate that no human or animal was put in harm‘s way--but it was close.

All sports come down to a game of inches and the 2014 Classic was no different, right down to the photo finish indicating that Bayern finished a nose ahead of Toast of New York and a neck in front of California Chrome, as the three leaders finished 1-2-3 at speedy Santa Anita.

So was the whole affair lamentable? You bet. Did the defeat cost Shared Belief two championships, including Horse of the Year and likely to earn Bayern the three year old title? Yes, and the Horse of the Year push-back has already begun.

In ratings submitted to the NTRA Monday, I ranked Main Sequence #1, Bayern #2, followed in order by California Chrome, Untapable, Shared Belief, and two-time defending Horse of the Year Wise Dan.

In the final NTRA Poll of 2014, the aggregate opinion of 47 other turf writers and broadcasters reflected that same order of finish. The top-ranked vote getters, Main Sequence and Bayern, earned 20 and 13 first-place votes, respectively.

The best idea to come out of all this, to possibly avoid any appearance of homerism or political influence in the future, is to do what is done in other major sports.

Draft officials from different parts of the U.S., the best of the best, and have them officiate the Breeders’ Cup races. Have a house steward in the room to act in an advisory role should relevant local idiosyncrasies arise.

I’m sure the majority of observers believe that Bayern should have been disqualified based, de facto, on what they saw.

But then so was the Santa Anita stewards’ de jure interpretation of the rule governing the start of any race run in California, be it claimer or Breeders‘ Cup Classic.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

Santa Anita Fatigue

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 1, 2014---I have written these words ever since Breeders’ Cup II back in 1985: “As a racing event, the Breeders’ Cup never fails to fire.”

Or, a variation on that theme: “The Kentucky Derby is my favorite race but the Breeders’ Cup is my favorite event, racing’s best hoof forward.”

Or maybe it’s because the concept of Breeders’ Cup offers the greatest blend of pomp, circumstance, and gambling known to man.

For most of us, in any case, it’s what makes Thoroughbred racing “the greatest game played outdoors.” To wit:

Where else over consecutive days can be seen performances such as Lady Eli’s, or Bobby’s Kitten’s, or Texas Red’s; horsemanship like those displayed by Chad Brown, or Wesley Ward, or Steve Asmussen?

Or the athleticism and decision making skills at 40 miles per hour as those displayed by Rosie Napravnik or Javier Castellano or Frankie Dettori?

So, then, what’s leaving me so unsatisfied post event?

Was it small betting losses incurred over two days; the Turf trifecta, a value play on Bobby’s Kitten and win savers on Work All Week and Karakonite the only bets that provided a dufresnian escape from parimutuel incarceration?

No, it wasn‘t the betting; I can remember losing once or twice before. And recall, please, that this is a game in which being wrong two out of every three chances makes you a certifiable genius.

Certifiable, anyway.

And it wasn’t the atmospherics under which the event was staged; it was sloppy as hell in New York Saturday. In SoCal, the badly needed rain fell conveniently fell between programs at night.

And what better background for the beautiful spectacle of Thoroughbred racing than the San Gabriels, live or in living HD?

It can be only one thing that makes me feel this way: It’s West Coast hyperbole and it leads to Santa Anita Fatigue.

Let’s face it: the Great Race Place is and always has been the Great Speed Place. As the only source of major league racing in Southern California, it’s what makes the absence of Hollywood Park so glaring.

Even on Cushion Track, the races there took on an added dimension, a break from the peddle-to-the-mettle speed show across town.

And what about the close-cropped seven-furlong turf course for 14-horse fields?

That layout places too much of a premium on the luck of the post draw, and the luck of the trip. All entrants deserve a relatively level field of play from the moment the latch is sprung.

How ironic was it that the mile and a quarter chute, which provides the fairest way to get to Santa Anita’s main track first turn, was the backdrop for a start that eliminated virtually any chance the Classic favorite had of keeping his undefeated record in tact?

And that’s from one handicapper who picked California Chrome to win the race.

Under the conditions, Shared Belief’s fourth-place finish might have been one of the best the Classic has ever seen. And, in that context, how unsatisfying was the eventual order of finish?

Taking nothing away from Bayern; America’s fastest three-year, it helps when conditions favor your style.

Yes, he used his best weapon to dominate the Woody Stephens and Pennsylvania Derby. But the speedy two-turn confines of Monmouth Park and Santa Anita was a big part of his Grade 1 success this year.

Ironically, it was a season in which Bayern came from behind to win a three year old championship.

Next year there will be some relief from West Coast fatigue when the traveling road show--remember when there really was some semblance of a Breeders’ Cup rotation?--will head to Keeneland, where its appearance is long overdo.

(Please, no talk of logistics on this; it’s irrelevant to the staging of the event itself).

But in 2016 it’s back to Santa Anita before Del Mar gets its first opportunity to host the event? What’s up with that, anyway?

In my view, the best venue to stage the event on a quasi-permanent basis would be Churchill Downs, a neutral court.

(Please, no talk of politics in a racing context; irrelevant to the staging of the event).

When properly maintained, the fast-drying Churchill Downs dirt track gives all horses and all styles a chance, a surface over which most horses will act. It’s not New York; it’s not California; it’s in the middle in virtually every way.

While I’m dreaming out loud, of course; why not two venues concurrently? Why not Churchill’s dirt and Belmont Park’s turf?

We’re purposefully being fanciful here. No place is perfect; no surface completely free of bias: It’s horse racing, where luck always plays a disproportionate role.

But that’s what makes the striving for perfection so important. Either that, or stage it as John Gaines envisioned and give the event to every big market capable of hosting international racing. Spread the luck around.

But enough of the new boss meet the old boss. It’s at once happy and sad that Breeders’ Cup is over until 2015, that the NTRA Horse of the Year voting deadline is Monday and that real life midterm elections is Tuesday.

Isn’t it funny, and not in a ha-ha sort of way, how politics and ratings greed just seems to ruin everything?

Written by John Pricci

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