Thursday, May 20, 2010

Despite Lifeline, Saratogians Still in Deep Water

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 19, 2010--That howling whoosh you might have heard coming from the North Country on Tuesday was the huge sigh of relief emanating from people living in New York‘s Capital District, especially in this “city in the country.”

For the last two months, this community, from breeders to horsemen to the merchants on Broadway, has been in a full court press trying to make certain that this July and August would be no different than last summer’s place to be.

The wish was simple: To be sure that the land of “history, health and horses,” wouldn’t become, well, history.

“I was afraid this town was going to look the way it did in the 1970s,” said Jackie Clark, owner of Broadway Salon in downtown Saratoga, after hearing that the race meeting would proceed as scheduled.

Canceling the Saratoga session, still the most prestigious race meet in the country, was unthinkable. “There will always be a Saratoga” went a popular refrain. But in the last week to 10 days, that speculation sounded more like a prayer than fait accompli.

The situation came to a head within 72 hours. On Sunday, New York Racing Association president Charlie Hayward said the NYRA was considering closing down on June 6, the day after the Belmont Stakes. “When we run out of money, we stop,” Hayward said about the possibility.

"That's not going to happen," Gov. David Paterson told the Associated Press two days later. "We have a plan to loan NYRA, in the short term, money to get through Saratoga, and we're working on a long-term plan to help beyond that."

The long and winding road to the Aqueduct Racino has been lined with broken promises and aborted timetables. Until a loan accord is signed, no one should rest easy.

“Before any taxpayer money is used we would like to know how much money NYRA actually has,” said Austin Shafran, spokesman for Senate Conference Leader John Sampson. “We’ve heard conflicting reports as to whether they have the money to continue operations through the Belmont Stakes.”

As they say on the racetrack: Whoa!

Maybe Mr. Shafran should have said something like: “This isn’t supposed to be about taxpayer money; it’s really about a $17-million advance on the $300-million up-front money to be paid by the VLT franchise awardee.”

Or, he might have asked rhetorically: “Aren’t we [state government] in default on an agreement that was supposed to fund NYRA’s operation starting in April of 2009 if the VLTs weren’t on line?

“Wasn’t that part of the franchise deal in which we got title to three racetrack properties valued at about $2-billion?” So don’t we owe them $30 million?”

“And another thing: We’re responsible for New York City Off Track Betting now, right? Does that mean we’re on the hook for their $17 million, too? And we‘ve stopped giving them a piece of the handle action, right?”

Let me answer those statements and hypotheticals for you, Mr. Shafran: You bet your hindquarters you do.

The New York Racing Association, its horsemen, employees, and citizens from Albany to Schroon Lake are no longer waiting to exhale. But neither can they breathe easier. Despite Paterson’s assurances, this is no done deal. No wonder NYRA executives have had no comment since the announcement.

When the idea of a $17-million front-money loan first surfaced, it sounded like a no-brainer. It is, after all, free money from the private sector against future VLT earnings and not a “taxpayer bailout of rich horse owners.”

If that were the case, it would have been better categorized as a taxpayer bailout of hard working underpaid backstretch personnel.

Any monies fronted NYRA would have “bailed out” hundreds of backstretch families which without racing would be forced from their palatial backstretch barracks and into nap-sacks lined up outside the gates on Hempstead Turnpike and Union Avenue.

The Saratoga race meet, the only NYRA session where significant profits are still possible, needs the town to prosper as much as the town needs the NYRA tax monies and tourism that horse racing generates.

Hotel reservations and home rentals, understandably slow at this juncture, might have dried up completely had the latest fiscal impasse lasted any longer. With the Monmouth summer meet set to begin Saturday with daily purses averaging a million dollars, the battle for quality horseflesh already is being waged.

Well healed horseplayers could opt for a shore thing instead of their favorite mountain racing retreat. With its three-day weekend schedule, Monmouth Park becomes a very attractive destination option.

Paterson’s fix, announced at a Tuesday press conference, is a temporary patch. The oft-started and stopped search for a VLT operator is now being conducted by the State Lottery via gubernatorial decree. Former Gov. George Pataki tried that tack five years ago, but that political football wound up getting kicked wide right.

Based on projected handle from the Aqueduct racino, $3.65 billion would have been wagered since enabling legislation was enacted. With 90 percent returned to winning players, that’s a $365-million shortfall to the state and the NYRA. That excludes $90 million the state already gets in franchise fees and taxes from on- and off-track interests annually.

From the very beginning, all anyone needed to do were their jobs in the public interest. But, per usual in the Empire State, if a proposal doesn’t fly politically, it remains grounded until a situation becomes dire. And then, even when they fix it, it’s never completely right. Stay tuned.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Preakness 135: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 14, 2010--The keys to any successful Triple Crown run are speed, stamina, conditioning and luck. The first two are characteristic of the horse; conditioning is a function of the training regimen and scheduling. Everything must go without a hiccup.

And what member of the 20-horse Derby pack was any luckier than Super Saver? He loves the Churchill surface, is a wet track freak, and was fortunate to be partnered with Calvin Borel.

But here’s the real thing about Super Saver: He makes his own luck. He owns tactical tools and has a good mind, according to his trainer and rider. Borel says he had to learn a few things, such as changing leads correctly.

Little by little, Super Saver learned his lessons. The only instructions given the rider in the Churchill paddock was just make sure he gets to change over to his proper lead, otherwise, “ride him like you own him,” Pletcher told Borel.

The thing about Calvin, at Churchill Downs or anywhere else, is that he’s a very good jockey but a great race rider. Time and again, not just in the Kentucky Derby, he plays it off the break.

No one’s infallible, of course, but every time I watch Calvin Borel ride he gets it right more often than not.

Borel was asked by a reporter this week about whether he knew he could get over to the rail with Super Saver in the Derby. “I have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C. Fortunately I didn’t have to go past Plan A.

Whatever the plan is for Preakness 135, in Super Saver Borel has a partner willing to obey his every command. And how can anyone be sure of that? Because, as the handicappers say, Super Saver remains fresh, fit and dangerous.

The following is a thumb-nail handicapping sketch of Preakness 135:

1-Aikenite (20-1): Keeps running competitively against the division’s best but never in danger of winning anything important as a three-year-old. His Derby Trial was a breakthrough performance on the Equiform scale and was not significantly higher than his top race at 2. Can move forward here if the competition doesn’t prove too steep, but the improvement not likely to be enough to mount a serious winning challenge.

2-Schoolyard Dreams (15-1): Another whose nose defeat--the improbable loss to Odysseus in the Tampa Bay Derby--kept him out of the Derby on earnings. But whatever happens Saturday that could turn out to be a blessing. If the colt’s recent training is a measure then he may be ready for prime time. His performance figures are not up to elite standards but he’s primed to move forward. Inside draw yields money prospects.

3-Pleasant Prince (20-1): Showed potential with a strong effort despite difficult Fountain of Youth circumstances then nailed in the last jump by Ice Box in the Florida Derby, a margin that kept him out of the Derby. Didn’t handle Polytrack then came back with a late-rally third in the Derby Trial. This colt has talent, blew out strongly at Keeneland, gets Julien Leparoux, looming a legitimate longshot threat.

4-Northern Giant (30-1): A little interesting from a performance figure perspective--not that his figures are competitive but he’s poised for a forward move and, just maybe, share in the superfecta. His Lanes End was a breakthrough performance, then he chased a strong pace while racing wide in the Arkansas Derby. But given his pedigree, maybe today’s start is more about carnations than black-eyed susans.

5-Yawanna Twist (30-1): Runnerup behind come-again Illinois Derby winner American Lion following a worthy late-finish placing behind Awesome Act in the Gotham, his two-turn debut. Lightly raced colt with some potential has the right connections but this spot doesn’t figure to do anything to advance his confidence. An extremely tall order.

6-Jackson Bend (12-1): This little guy always tries hard and has a hardy constitution. Did not handle the distance or sloppy conditions very well In Louisville and previously had not shown the kind of development you want to see from 2 to 3. Even if Saturday’s track is to his liking, the distance is still an issue. But Mike Smith asked to ride him back, he worked extremely well for this, and will likely make his presence felt at some point.

7-Lookin At Lucky (3-1): Baffert changed the karma, switching to the talented young Martin Garcia and thus far have proven to be a very productive team in 2010. Amid the bad luck surrounding this colt since turning 3 came a Herculean effort to win the Rebel despite almost falling five furlongs from the wire. Given the two horrendous trips since, he could improve significantly here--enough to win Preakness 135.

8-Super Saver (5-2): Developmentally, this colt has not taken a backward step since making his 3-year-old debut in March at Tampa Bay Downs. Further, his improvement has been incremental, suggesting there may be more to give on Saturday--or at least as much as what was on display in Louisville. Same story as a fortnight ago: Tactical speed, rate-ability, and pedigree. And did we mention Borel? Todd Pletcher believes the post will give Calvin options in relatively paceless event. Agreed.

9-Caracortado (10): Another horse bitten by the earnings bug which precluded his Derby participation. Was on track developmentally from a figures perspective while winning the Lewis Memorial in February, breaking through his juvenile best. Subsequently, he was seriously compromised by the San Felipe pace and his Santa Anita Derby trip. Worked great on the Pro Ride and owns tactical speed and kick, a formidable Old Hilltop combination.

10-Paddy O'Prado (9-2): His only dirt starts have come on sloppy tracks and he clearly didn’t mind the one at Churchill Downs. Kent Desormeaux thought he had an excuse and should have finished closer in Louisville, galloping out well past the finish. His wet-track races make Saturday’s projected dry conditions unknowable from a form perspective. Clearly very talented, the Derby was a huge lifetime best so a regression here seems highly likely.

11-First Dude (20-1): The Dude will accompany stablemate Paddy O’ Prado into the Preakness gate for trainer Dale Romans. Distance bred son of Stephen Got Even just missed to eventual Dwyer Stakes winner Fly Down in a Gulfstream allowances before making a solid effort in the Florida Derby despite stretch troubles. After that came a good, rough-trip third in the Blue Grass. Nice colt; ambitious spot.

12-Dublin (10-1): His Derby effort in the face of adversity was first rate, making him a deserved contender here despite the wide draw. Lukas a Preakness training legend and Garrett Gomez has extra incentive and focus for today’s challenge. The shorter distance should enhance his late kick, as does the presence of Gomez. His lifetime best effort is one race removed and he has every right to run that well again.

Selections: 1. Super Saver 2. Lookin At Lucky 3. Coracortado

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, May 07, 2010

Jockeys Must Follow Rules of Racing; Stewards Must Punish Those Who Don’t

SARATOGA SPRINGS, May 6, 2010--I’ve known John Veitch for some time. I first met him back in the day through Newsday turf writer Bill Nack. He hung out afternoons in a cottage on the Belmont backstretch with his buddy, David Whiteley.

Our relationship carried on through the Alydar-Affirmed era, he being the trainer of the former, of course, and it continued later when he was holding forth evenings at Lillian’s on Broadway here in Saratoga during race meets.

He doesn’t do that anymore and neither do I. In fact, I’m not sure I know anyone who does. The place is too crowded, as they say, so no one goes there anymore.

That, and the inevitable change of life style fostered by the kind of wisdom that only many spins around the track and resultant maturity can provide. When the teeth grow long, stamina grows short.

Anyone who’s met Veitch, now chief steward for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, is familiar with his level of intelligence. When he first left the backstretch world, he tried to wise everyone up, telling anyone who listened that the trend of breeding for speed and the sales ring instead of the racetrack would have dire consequences.

Nobody listened, of course, but Veitch turned out to be a visionary. Eventually, steroids found their way into the backstretch and equine bloodstreams. They weren’t illegal at the time and had therapeutic uses. Of course, like too much of any good thing, they were abused.

That’s no longer the case as steroids were banned in the aftermath of Eight Belles and Big Brown’s Belmont debacle. So for the most part, two-year-old fillies don’t resemble five year old geldings any longer.

In the main there are two kinds of trainers; those who work for big outfits or have huge public stables, or betting trainers who must survive by their wits, skill and handicapping acumen.

As trainer for Calumet Farm, there never was a need for Veitch to survive via the betting window. Now, of course, as chief steward he can’t bet but it’s a role for which he is suited by dedication and sentiment.

Veitch deals with a strong hand and has unwavering integrity. He was the driving force behind righting L’Affaire Biancone. However, it might have been better for all horseplayers had Veitch been a bettor in the past, an exacta bettor to be precise.

Horseracing is based on a difference of opinion. It’s why one handicapper could look at Super Saver’s Arkansas Derby and see a colt hanging in deep stretch, while another looks at the race and sees a horse showing signs that perhaps it can be rated.

Moments after the Kentucky Derby, NBC showed replays of the stretch run. Moments after that, I was screaming at the high definition picture indicating that, to me, jockey Kent Desormeaux gave third finisher Paddy O’ Prado only intermittent urging in deep stretch.

Intermittent urging normally is reserved for a race winner, a horse clearly out front that is sure to win and needs not to be ridden aggressively in the final strides to do so.

Intermittent urging is commonly associated with the short descriptive comment “won ridden out,” meaning a horse was neither ridden aggressively nor eased late in a dominating performance. It means that the rider is keeping his horse focused while saving a little for next time. Bettors have no problem with this tack.

But not so on Saturday when Desormeaux’s intermittent late handling in all probability cost Paddy O’ Prado’s owners second money and bettors a winning 4-10 exacta. Originally, I wasn’t going to write about the incident because I had a vested interest in the outcome. Then I read a series of newspaper quotes.

“I think he thought he had second locked up,” trainer Dale Romans told Jennie Rees of the Louisville-Courier Journal. “I think if he kept riding harder, we’d have hung on for second.”

Then, perhaps not wanting to lose the talented Desormeaux‘s services, he qualified his remarks by adding: “He's a Hall of Fame jockey. You know you're going to get a good ride from him in the Preakness.”

The official Equibase chart indicated that Paddy O'Prado “hung” in the final sixteenth while Ice Box came roaring up on the outside to secure the place. In my opinion, Paddy O’ Prado did not hang, and apparently it didn’t appear that way to Desormeaux, either.

On Tuesday, continued the Rees story, Desormeaux sent Romans a text saying in part: “Could have won Derby. Let's win the Preakness … Galloped out in front FYI…”

Could have won, but should have been second. Hanging finishers normally don’t gallop out in front.

When I read Veitch’s comments in the story, my face turned devil’s red. “We looked at it and it was very marginal,” he said. “He has a reputation for doing that, but it really didn’t alter the outcome.”

Nearly $22 million was bet in the Derby exacta pool, not counting additional monies wagered in each of three advance betting pools conducted by Churchill Downs. Stewards everywhere need to learn the following: Their first obligation is to the betting public not the horsemen. On that there is no compromise.

Desormeaux’s actions probably did alter the outcome. A review of the replay, available online for review, will show that Desormeaux did not drive his horse strongly to the wire. In the final stages, the rider looked over his right shoulder and probably surmised that he could easily keep Make Music For Me safe, which he did by several lengths.

But Ice Box was rallying widest of all and outside of Make Music For Me. The rider likely never saw that late threat coming. Then, with the wire fast approaching, he like made peripheral contact with Ice Box and went back to scrubbing on ‘Paddy’. Too little and too late.

When a rider loses a race, or a placing, due to overconfidence, it’s usually the result of “styling,” showing the crowd and the connections that he and his horse are in complete control. They are wrong often enough to affect many outcomes. The practice is wrong headed and countermands the rule that jockeys must ride their mounts out to the finish.

Stewards on the other side of the world take this aspect seriously and their actions are transparent. American stewards do not and operate behind closed doors. Maybe they should be allowed to bet if for no other reason than to learn how it feels when their choice is beaten by rider arrogance.

What is really unforgivable here is the admission by Veitch that Desormeaux “has a reputation for doing that.” Then why is he not punished for doing so? Why is he allowed to continue flouting the rules so that he earns a reputation for doing so? This can no longer stand.

If by definition and opinion Desormeaux’s actions were too marginal to alter the order of finish, fine. I don’t agree but I can accept that judgment calls in any sport are part of the game. But when a rider is a member of the Hall of Famer in his sport, shouldn‘t he be a positive role model instead of one with a reputation for breaking the rules?

Maybe if jockeys were suspended and fined, say, the equivalent of the purse they cost the horse’s connections, this practice of not riding horses out to the finish would stop. But for that to happen, stewards everywhere must do their jobs. They are employed to protect the betting public.

Written by John Pricci

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