Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Racing Hall of Fame Vote: Guilty As Charged

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 26, 2013---It shouldn’t be this way but I often dread the Hall of Fame ballot I receive each year. No matter what criterion I choose, I’m always uneasy after responding.

Must be the Catholic guilt thing.

The “problem” is that inclusion into racing’s pantheon is largely a matter of perception. So when ballots arrive, it’s a matter of delineating one potential immortal from the next. No one knows better than a professional handicapper what an inexact science assigning values to horses and horsemen can be.

It would serve voters well if there were some objective standard against which subjective opinions could be measured. Indeed, Hall Of Fame ballots are sent to people that have made a life’s work out of horse racing. And if “professionals” aren’t qualified to judge, then who?

Not having some objective standard makes it easier for voters to be swayed by prejudice; politics, region, personal relationships good or bad.

Sometimes people can be in racing their entire lives and their opinions never improve, which is why the combined wisdom of the many that comprise a consensus is often better than singular opinions, no matter how well informed.

A suggestion for the appropriate Hall of Fame committee: In the stat package that goes with each year’s nominees might be included some bellwether statistics. For instance, what is the average number of races won by a Hall of Fame jockey? Does the average Hall of Fame horse win 70 percent of its starts? If nothing else, stuff like this would be interesting to know.

For years, there was some rancor among voters with respect to how votes determined inclusion. A number of years back there was the “75%” rule, when that percentage needed to be attainedfor inclusion.

Then came a time when nominees were listed by category; male and female horses, jockeys, trainers. So what happens if there are three great fillies, but no jockey you believed to be an immortal? What to do?

For the last four years, voters have been submitted a list of candidates from which to choose. There are 10, including five jockeys, four horses and one traine this year. Vote for any--or all--10 nominees and the four highest vote getters are elected regardless of category. In the event of a tie, both individuals are in.

This would be irksome if you believed that all 10 merit inclusion; since a vote for all would be the equivalent of a vote for none. So, in the end, it does come down to the personal smell test.

Now, do we judge Chris Antley for his on-track performances or his off-track demons? This is an easy one for me. I invoke the Ty Cobb rule; it’s what happens inside the lines that matter--no bad pun intended.

A winning rate of 18 percent on major circuits from coast to coast without a super-trainer’s support is worthy of special merit. Becoming the first rider to win nine races in a day, and winning a DiMaggio-like 64 races on consecutive days are immortal achievements. Two Derbies and a Preakness among 3,480 career victorie don't hurt.

Now that Calvin Borel has reached the 5,000-win career plateau to add to his three Derby victories in a four-year span, isn't he an immortal? Only three riders have won the Derby more than thrice and Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack and Willie Shoemaker have their place in Saratoga. Calvin was, of course, Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra’s regular partner and has won riding titles at seven different tracks in Arkansas, Louisiana and Kentucky.

Lure, 14-for-25 overall, was the first horse to earn repeat wins in the Breeders’ Cup (Mile), nine graded stakes overall on turf and dirt including four Grade 1s often carrying high weight in handicaps. He was a dominant miler on either surface.

I was set disparage Invasor because of an insufficient body of work but a record that includes 11 victories in 12 lifetime starts, nine of them Grade 1, the Uruguayan Triple Crown, and a Horse of the Year title in an American campaign debut is impossible to knock.

Housebuster won 15 of 22 career starts including 11 graded stakes and three Grade 1s. He was the first horse in over a quarter-century to repeat as Champion Sprinter. As a 3-year-old, he lost the Metropolitan Mile to Horse of the Year Criminal Type by a neck, finishing a length and a half in front of future Hall of Famer Easy Goer.

Ashado won 12 of 21 lifetime starts, seven Grade 1 stakes, and was the repeat Filly Champion of 2004-05, winning her first at 3 after defeating older in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Trainer Gary Jones retired after winning 1,465 races at a worthy rate of 18.5 percent, taking 17% of the graded stakes he entered. Based in California, Jones had a national reputation after developing the champion careers of Turkoman, Best Pal, and the popular win machine Meafara, a top class filly sprinter.

Garrett Gomez, Alex Solis and Craig Perret are not unworthy. Just didn’t want to “punish” the seven listed above. If there is a better alternative to the current system I don’t know what it is. Wish I did.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Go Ahead, Make Our Day

HALLANDALE BEACH, Florida, February 26, 2013—The news emanating from the Golden State this year has been so bad on so many levels that I can’t even begin to count the ways. Alas, since I am paid to try, let’s concentrate on this for now.

According to a Daily Racing Form report last week, the takeout rate on the popular and successful Players Pick 5 could rise sharply at the Betfair Hollywood Park April 25 unless the track and the Thoroughbred Owners of California can reach an agreement on revenue distribution.

Jack Liebau, the fan-friendly Hollywood Park president indicated that without such an agreement, the promotional 14 percent takeout rate could rise to the standard exotic takeout scale of 23.65, a tax increase of 59.19 percent.

While Liebau did not break down figures specifically, he stated a majority of the 14 percent goes toward purses and that the track receives a nominal share. He was quoted to say that he is “hoping there will be a fairer arrangement in respect to the spread.”

Lou Raffetto, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, told DRF in the same story that he’s “confident we will work it out… based on our discussions we’ll come to some sort of agreement.”

Of course, it’s expected and acceptable that the two sides in a negotiation should play their cards out of public view, but two things would seem apparent just looking at those numbers.

At 14 percent, the track very likely is being under-compensated at best if it’s indeed the case that the major share of the split is going to purses. Even as a horseplayer with a vested interest in takeout, I admit there’s not much wiggle room at that rate.

Raffetto’s statement seems an admission that there probably is some inequity because of the special rate and, of course, the slice of the pie cut by the state of California exacerbates this revenue issue because it further reduces the amount that goes to the track and horsemen.

Everyone with an interest in Thoroughbred racing understands the problem and is trying to be fair-minded. But when looking at past performances, certain patterns emerge.

First, low takeout promotional wagers, from Tampa to Los Angeles, are an unqualified success when handle is the measure. Churn notwithstanding, low takeout bets are among handle leaders wherever they’re offered, a tribute to their popularity.

Of greater significance might be that because of the wager’s complexity and higher-cost nature, the amount of work that bettors put into handicapping the wager has resulted in increased handle on individual races within a given sequence; and a trickling more into sequential sub-sets--Pick 5 into Pick 4 into Pick 3, etc.

Low-cost wagers that allow handicappers to win a lot for a little if they consistently outwork their parimutuel opponents are the greatest gift ever given horseplayers. Horseplayers, also known as customers.

Without customers, of course, all those fancy pedigrees, the horse sales, well-heeled owners and bloodstock commissions--the good living made by even the most middling of practitioners--would fail to exist.

All industry factions know this and all factions either pay homage or lip service to the plight of these customers. Now to delve a little further into the PPs.

As everyone has known for some time, Hollywood Park is thisclose to closing its gates forever. And anyone who has paid attention has come to learn that Mr. Liebau seems to understand the economics and politics of takeout and the dire consequences when takeout rates are abused. But already on the brink, his track needs more revenue.

There are two places from which this revenue can flow; one is from the purse account, the second is from the customer’s pocket. The fairest answer probably is--as much as it pains this horseplayer to say so—that it will need to come from both. Everyone takes a haircut.

This sounds great except for this: Of all the groups; from powerless customers to successful but hurting tracks to owners whose pockets only run so deep to horse trainers with a finite amount of sweat equity left to give in their 365/24/7 lives, it is horsemen whose sense of entitlement will bring this whole thing down.

A look at the PPs of the TOC and its horsemen indicates that for some, purses and commissions can never be high enough. Prove to them and colleagues everywhere that, when adjusted for inflation, national handle is half of what it was less than a decade ago, they won’t care, their sense of entitlement beyond all reason.

Build it and the suckers will come worked 50 years ago. But the suckers have been bled dry and the numbers of those that have stopped coming are growing by the day. And the cure for this is what, higher taxes?

To increase takeout almost 60 percent on a wager that in a measurable way has helped stem the tide of decline inevitably will prove to be the end of California racing as the sport’s history has known it. A takeout increase at this point in time is not just bad business; it’s gluttonous insanity.

For grassroots horseplayers, this will not stand. Keep giving horseplayers the economic equivalent of a raised middle finger and reap the ill wind of boycott.

And who knows, maybe this will be the final straw for remaining players to join their brethren who’ve already moved on for the action available in a casino, sports book or card room, where the rake is much, much lower.

So, tell us, are you feeling lucky?

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla., January 18, 2013--We’ve barely gotten out of the “Kentucky Derby Prep Season” and already there’s been lots of buzz surrounding the storylines that have developed thus far in 2013.

So here, in the Year of the Baker’s Dozen--and also the Year of the Snake (draw your own conclusions)-- are the Top 13 Buzzes of Year.

At least, this is what I’m hearing from the HRI faithful, racetrack sources, and the gamblers and fans assembled at Gulfstream Park this winter:

1. The Rainbow 6: Don’t care if you love it, hate it, whether the takeout is robbing you blind or there’s so much “free money:” and leverage for a Dime you’ve just got to play it. (C’mon critics, you know who you are)!

With the racing product improving as Gulfstream enters prime time, the emergence of better horses and a continued procession of Todd Pletcher-trained favorites should produce, theoretically, formful results.

Not even the obligatory $6,250 claimer at a flat mile or the $35,000 maiden claimers s on turf that end every racing day—Special Weight maidens on Saturday, woo-hoo--there could be plenty of gold at the end of this Rainbow.

As long as there is more than one winning ticket each day, I’ve heard estimates that put the carryover as high as $20 million by meet’s end, the Friday after Florida Derby. In any event, it might be the biggest P6 pool this country has ever seen.

2. Derby Point System: Love it or hate it, like the Rainbow Six, it’s working and it will get better over time. Churchill spokesman Darren Rogers has even said that the parameters need a little tweaking and that “there are some good ideas out there.

We’ve had only two from the get-go: Bury the hatchet with Hawthorne Race Course; the Chicago market deserves Derby prep. [BTW: Hawthorne moving its prep back to two weeks before the one in Louisville can make the Illinois Derby a quintessential Preakness prep; good thinking.

And, of course, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner or Juvenile Eclipse champion should be an automatic Derby seed. The fact that it isn’t is absurd. The politics don’t even make sense. Sometimes business must suffer for the greater good.

3. Paynter: Back in training? Really? The reports were so dire, it was if we all had to live through Barbaro’s lengthy recovery and eventual demise all over again. Unbelievable story. Utterly remarkable. There are no words…

4. Rachel Alexandra: The street fightin' filly that's seemingly defying the odds again. The Internet support for the great filly warms the heart for sure.

5. Kentucky Derby Futures: Steven Crist has it right, something needs to be done. Confusion over the new points system or not, the pool on America’s great race never has grown. Because of the dreaded “all other 3-year-olds,” bettors land on a half dozen buzz horses, mainly based on early season or juvenile form that has little bearing on eligibility.

Make it attractive by lowering takeout, raising the prices on ALL nominees. A parimutuel pool is the only way. See some of the prices being offered in Las Vegas? Those people act like they’re scared to death of any exposure to insider horse knowledge.

A decade-old computer programming issue? Please don’t embarrass yourself or insult the intelligence of bettors. This isn’t the lottery or slots. Playing the races is the study of form; it’s called handicapping. It would be nice if track managers tried it. It’s a worthwhile pastime, even if the best practitioner gets it wrong two out of every three.

6. NYRA: Is the big investigative report on the Takeout Flap over yet? Will the Association ever get a new president? Inquiring minds keep asking. There are some great people working at NYRA. Too bad there’s no one to give them any direction.

7 Permissive Medication: So California trainers and others are not-so-subtly trying to pressure Breeders’ Cup to rescind its Lasix ban on this year’s event. Then how about this? How about if Breeders’ Cup does not cave on this so the world can see how many trainers are willing to become horsemen and not remain horse trainers?

Yes, like everything else, racing is a business, but I would love to know just how many trainers who say they love the game turn out to be no different than those Wall Street guys and are in it just for the Benjamins. Filled your gas tank lately, speculators?

8. Gary Stevens: Is this guy kidding? Apparently not. The first time I saw him a few weeks ago on HRTV since he returned from his Northwest Territory boot camp, he was decidedly leaner and healthier.

I didn’t see the middle leg of his three recent stakes wins but the first and third were classics, especially the one on Slim Shady. To return after a long absence at 49 is one thing; to return at such a high level remarkable. This Hall of Famer is a true renaissance man. Somehow I don’t think his story will end when he ultimately decides to hang it up for good. Jockey as inspirational leader; who knew?

9. Animal Kingdom: HRI’s Tom Jicha will get into this more at week’s end but it’s been a long time since anyone saw a horse not named Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra showered with the kind of admiration before a race than 2011 Kentucky Derby winner received prior to the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, just wave after wave of cheers and applause followed him around the walking ring. It brought to mind a flashback of the 70s when Big Red and the Black Stallion graced the stage of America’s racetracks.

10. The Pletcher 3-Year Olds: Love him, hate him, admire or jealous of him, I’m not sure another horseman, given the new Derby eligibility rules, the sheer number of talented runners and the disparate, influential people he trains for could juggle it all.

In four decades of cruising the backstretch of more racetrack than I can remember, I’ve never seen as operation as large as this—if there WERE any as large as this—run so efficiently. I keep looking but there seems some to be an undotted I’s or uncrossed T anywhere. You know that somehow he’ll figure it all out.

11. Bill Mott: In 40 years of training and a member of Racing’s Hall of Fame, there probably have been runs like the one Mott’s currently on but I don’t remember any. There were the Cigar years, the Saratoga meets he dominated the turf course the way Chad Brown did last year, and championship fall seasons like the one two years ago at Churchill Downs when he won not one but two Classics.

But this winter at Gulfstream he’s even winning with first time starters, forgodsakes, and is doing some of his best work ever. “I hope I don’t trip over a brick,” Mott told Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch before sweeping three stakes last weekend. If he had tripped, he likely would have landed on his feet, anyway.

12. SA Low-Takeout Pick 5/On-Track P6 Bonus: At least the SoCal tracks are trying very hard despite the rancorous political climate. Thanks to initial efforts by Jack Liebau of Betfair Hollywood Park who gave the “Players Pick 5” with low takeout a chance, the bet that has proven extremely successful at all three major venues. Liebau continues to be a proponent of low takeout and now handle is climbing at his crosstown rival, too. Rising tides, as opposed to trickle downs, work.

13. Eblouisante: The name says it all; “brilliant, remarkable.” Indeed, in that she is a run-alike, style-alike and big-alike sister of the mighty Zenyatta, providing another are-you-kidding-me Moment of the Young Year. Of course, she could not be in better hands than John Shirreffs’.

Written by John Pricci

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