Friday, December 28, 2007


On Balance, A Good Year for Thoroughbred Racing


The answer to what kind of year its been depends on what pew youre sitting in.

If you receive a paycheck from the New York Racing Association., are a member of a wagering platform that doesnt handle your favorite track, or born Patrick Biancone, 2007 wasnt so good.

If, however, youre a high class dirt loving three-year-old, own stock in a synthetic surface-manufacturing company, or born Calvin Borel, you made some good memories.

Nationally, synthetic racetracks made a huge and dramatic impact while never scratching the surface (pun intended) of what it means for the future of the sport and its breeding industry. It was the racing story of 2007.


Unless the future of New Yorks racing franchise is settled in favor of thoroughbred racing, the racing story of 2007 might not matter.

Its true that all racing, like politics, is local.

But everyone knows that the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL does best when the Giants, Yankees, Knicks and Rangers are having winning seasons.

Its no different in the thoroughbred game. The sport benefits in California, Kentucky and Florida when Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga are robust.

The popular proliferation of international racing in 2007 was the dominant story for racing worldwide. But like the aforementioned leagues and states, international racing needs a healthy American racing industry.

Without looking at the numbers, figure that national betting handle will remain flat at around $15 billion this year.

But $15 billion doesnt buy what it used to. So, unless America embraces the marriage of Internet technology to more wagering products like betting exchanges and lower takeout, handle will not only stagnate but will flat-line.

In 2007, racing learned that racinos are nothing more than a trendy quick fix. Hopefully racing learned as much, and the remedy is for the physicians of industry to heal themselves.

The problem is that no one in the seat of power listens. In fact no seat even exists.

Indeed, all these troublesome issues are not exclusive to the transition of 2007 into 2008. Going forward, the areas of concern are timeless. Hopefully time for finding needed solutions doesnt run out.

Thankfully, what happened between the fences proved a great distraction both pragmatically and aesthetically.

For me, the success of the greatest Non-Triple Crown series ever helped celebrate the accomplishments of Barbaro in the same manner his death earlier at once inflated and deflated those accomplishments.

It does, after all, begin and end with the race horse.

And, so, a Breeders Cup Juvenile winner finally was stout enough to win a Kentucky Derby. His prep regimen had put one racetrack on the national map and a synthetic one under a microscope. A colt named Street Sense ultimately provided an answer.

His victory led to my personal favorite moment of the year; the horse-back celebration of a jockey in rose colored goggles finding his way to a winners circle he visited many times before but never like this.

Then a Derby rival, a horse that eventually would prove worthy of a Horse of the Year title, re-broke in midstretch to snatch a victory so improbable as to render four decades of Preakness less special. And that includes the ding-dong of 1989.

But instead of a Belmont afterthought, racing witnessed another moment in the very special history of this very special racing series. For the first time in more than a century, a filly would beat the colts with a thisclose finish going a true classic distance.

Im positive Ill never see three individual, albeit in-tandem, performances executed so dramatically again.

In fact, Id bet on it.

The expansion of Breeders Cup, whose 2007 debut, again depending on whether your pew was under cover or exposed to the elements, either failed or succeeded.

Hopeful and reasonably certain, Breeders Cup expansion will be viewed as a success in another 10 years. Lets hope the 2008 renewal dawns bright beneath a warm Southern California sun.

Theres no rule that more must equal less.

What I also hope for 2008 and beyond is that the industry realizes how the continued proliferation of synthetic track racing will change a time-honored game. Dirt is either real or its not. Its either sand and loam or clay, or its not.

Synthetic surfaces adds a third element to a sport in which its participants race. Racing not turf racing and everything else. Not in this country, anyway. Synthetic tracks will change the way stallions are bred to mares, the way common sense could not.

Stamina, like speed, cant be taught. My hope for 2008 and beyond is that racing holds on to the sand and loam and clay and finds a better way to make traditional dirt tracks safer.

The best improvement of the past year is how the industry finally is starting to deal with its number one problem; cheaters using drugs.

Biancone, should he be found guilty in the cobra venom scandal, just might have to be the poster child in the war on illegal drugs. That would be a notorious achievement if he were kicked off a third continent for drug violations.

And so it was a good thing when Kentucky joined California and Mid-Atlantic racetracks in banning the use of anabolic steroids.

It might not appear so but racing took some positive strides in 07. Hopefully that trend continues into 08 and beyond.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 21, 2007


All of America Has Franchise Fatigue


Although it tis the season, its been very difficult for fans tethered to New York racing to be jolly. Not with everyone suffering from franchise fatigue.

Remarkably, but predictably, it appears as if New York State lawmakers are about to run out of racetrack: Ten days and counting to years end, Christmas Day notwithstanding, and not a creature is stirring, not even the House.

Which reminds me, before examining this phenomenon: Have you seen the television ads of those politicians that would like to be known in 2009 by the worlds most powerful acronym, POTUS?

Hillary is placing all the gifts America we will get under its holiday tree, with care, of course. That a corporate Democrat would come with so many centrist presents was not surprising. All part of the Hillary I Know spin campaign, I guess.

And there was Rudy, Mr. Jocular, the Saint of 911, cracking wise with fruitcake jokes. Talk about l-a-m-e. Certainly wouldnt want to miss any of his stump gems from now on. Gives me goose-bumps just thinking about it.

I like the ad of John Edwards, the populist in the $400 coiffure, that was a little more secular but a warm message sure to resonate with Americans whove been taking it on the chin lately, just about everybody.

Edwards is right about one thing: The medias primary coverage has been superficial.

Have you seen those election-as-horserace cable ads? Cmon Chris, have a talk with Abrams and his people. The spots are as lame as Rudys.

The Obama family holiday message was warm and mainstream, the urban family next door, just like many of you and me. At least, it was to the point and tastefully low key.

There was Mitt Romney, whose message was heavy and serious and button-down, per usual, looking like anything but a member of a cult.

And, of course, my personal favorite, Mike Huckabee, who appears to be running for saint.

Note the bookcase, lit with a bright light that gave the illusion of it being, you know, a cross, and see it land on his right shoulder before disappearing behind him, just in case you werent getting the message.

And Im thinking the most important election in modern American history is looming, so why shouldnt media coverage on the Road to the White House be superficial? The messages are.

Meanwhile, sometimes you develop your principles based on experience, George W. Bush was saying at a Thursday morning press conference. He never was in danger of practicing what he preached.

Its America that has franchise fatigue, why not New York horseplayers? But, I digress.

So with 10 days remaining in 2007, Democratic Gov. Spitzer decided to replace Non-Profit Oversight Board chairperson Carole Stone, appointed by previous Republican Governor George Pataki in 2005.

Not that the NYRA will allow the boards designee on the grounds Jan. 1 to conduct racing without a fight. In fact, they probably wouldnt, refusing to dignify that plan with a comment.

This recent announcement angered me because Trooper Gate--a potential Spitzer albatross symptomatic of his feud with Republican Senate majority leader Joe Bruno--is back in the news and it appeared Spitzers decision to replace a Pataki appointee was politically motivated.

Until Stone spoke, and her qualifications to steer New York racing, even on an interim basis, were exposed. Heres how she responded to a reporters questions/observations.

On what organization would be appointed to replace NYRA if theres no permanent accord by Dec. 31? We dont have an alternate operator selected, or in mind.

Guess two years wasnt enough time to think about it.

On the legalities should another operator temporarily take over the franchise? Were sorting through the process.

Dana Perino would have made a perfect replacement but shes working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

On whether she thought NYRA would accept the terms of a temporary extension? They need to respond before [Dec. 31]. I dont know why they would decline.

Thirty days, step down, next case, please.

Whatever Spitzers motive, Ms. Stone needed to be replaced. Incredibly, she will remain a board member.

Just dont ask her any more questions, OK?

So now Steven Newman, former Deputy Comptroller of New York City, will be responsible for finding a suitable temporary replacement for NYRA on Jan. 1, if necessary.

The fact there will be no mutuel clerks to sell tickets, or any personnel to supply services from hot dogs to barn security, etc., etc., is probably viewed as no big hindrance.

In the immortal words of A.J.: What, no #$%&^* calendar now?

You know the scariest part of this? The fact that Senator Bruno thinks that a larger board of permanent appointees is the proper compromise to settle the franchise flap.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 14, 2007


Eclipse Awards For All My (Equine) Friends


Saratoga Springs, NY--Mixed in with the early Christmas mail was the official ballot for the 2007 Eclipse Awards. And none to soon. It seems like forever that all of racing has been mired in the morass of the New York franchise scenario. What a relief to concentrate however briefly on a positive aspect of thoroughbred racing.

The choices were not all cut and dry, they never are. Because there are no objective standards, there were instances when subjective judgment was required. How much controversy is engendered by the voting members of the National Turf Writers, Daily Racing Form and National Thoroughbred Racing Association officials remains to be seen.

But at least its the kind of controversy the sport can live with. Unless, of course, one believes that the lumping of synthetic track races with traditional dirt surfaces is inherently unfair. On the merits, it is. Dirt and all-weather surfaces are extremely different animals. If turf and dirt are separate, why dont synthetic surfaces deserve their own category? A question for another day.

Here, then, is a look at one mans ballot that requires the listing of three horses in each division, with the eventual champion determined by the horse getting the most first place votes.

Four-Year-Old & Up, Steeplechase: An easy category. Good Night Shirt a three-time Grade 1 winner. His five main competitors could muster only one G1 each. In a tight photo, weight carrier Mixed Up a neck in front of fellow G1 winner Gliding.

Two-Year-Old Colt and Gelding: Only the undefeated, dual G1 winner War Pass, the spread-eagle Juvenile winner, is a legitimate titlist. Beyond the Nick Zito trainee, it gets a little dicey. Settled on G1 winner Wicked Style (Polytrack) in a photo over Court Vision, 3-for-3 around two turns, including the G2 Remsen.

Two-Year-Old Filly: Brilliant, undefeated Indian Blessing, the dual G1 Juvenile Fillies winner, is a no-brainer. Our second choice was unknown to us until we read her past performances. Rated Feisty, undefeated in three starts by a combined 15- lengths, is a dual G3 winner, including one over colts. Proud Spell was 3-for-4, including the G2 Matron, her defeat a game placing in Indian Blessings Juv Fillies. (Demoiselle winner Mushka and undefeated Pure Clan merited serious attention).

Three-Year-Old Colt and Gelding: As simple as 1-2-3, as in Kentucky Derby 1-2-3, only inverted. Curlin, the clear champion. Street Sense had his opportunity at Monmouth Park but didnt win the rubber match. Finally, the remarkable Hard Spun. (Im already missing Street Sense and Hard Spun. Hope Curlin gives us a four-year-old season).

Three-Year-Old Filly: Rags To Riches was Americas only four-time G1 winner. All hail Queen of the Belmont! Tie-breaker goes to Panty Raid, a dual G1 winner and victorious on three different surfaces. Hard-hitting G1 winner Octave over G1-winning sprinter, Dream Rush.

Four-Year-Old & Up Male: A subjective call between two dual G1 winners owning light bodies of work. Defending Horse of the Year Invasor won the Donn and Dubai World Cup before injury forced retirement. A great loss of a great horse. Lawyer Ron won half of his eight starts, including two storied events, but maybe more a horse for course than anything else. Like we said, tough call. And, by default, Lava Man third.

Four Year-Old & Up Female: Ginger Punch, a gem, won three G1s at three different venues. Dual G1 winner Nashobas Key (one Cushion, one turf), might have been 8-for-8 if not for a tough-trip, boggy-course fourth in Filly & Mare Turf. Hystericalady, a versatile lady, for third, winning the always competitive Humana Distaff sprint and the G2 Molly Pitcher going long. And she lost two G1s, including the Distaff, by the combined margin of a neck.

Three-Year-Old & Up Sprint Male: Dual G1 winner Midnight Lute, including the Sprint. Fabulous Strike was 3-for-4, including the G1 Vosburgh and G3 Aristedes in 1:07 3/5. (A shame he sustained pre-Cup injury). Hard Spuns G1 Kings Bishop good enough for third. (If there was an Eclipse for speed and heart at any distance, it would stand on a mantle in his stall).

Three-Year-Old & Up Sprint Female: Surprising, my champion is Rivers Prayer, 5-for-5, two G3s and a G1, including the ever difficult Princess Rooney. Further, she won on Polytrack and turf. The classy, versatile Hystericalady, including the aforementioned G1 Humana Distaff, in a photo over dual G1 winning Dream Rush, unable to beat her elders.

Three-Year-Old & Up Turf Male: Thrice-winning G1 winner English Channel, easily. Dual G1 winner After Market over Mile winner Kip DeVille, the edge favoring the traditional distance type over a mile specialist. Tough call.

Three-Year-Old & Up Turf Female: The most vexing category with five multiple G1 winners and no truly dominant player. Lahudood for her two G1s, the Filly and Mare Turf breaking any ties. Nashobas Key, undefeated in four turf starts, including G1 Yellow Ribbon, before shipping to Monmouth. Panty Raid was 1-for-1 on turf, a G1 win over her elders. (Honorable mention to dual G1 winner Mrs. Lindsay but North American win was north of the border).

Breeder: Adena Springs, based on progeny earnings and graded stakes victories, over Mr. and Mrs. Martin Wygod and Will Farish.

Owner: Fox Hill Farms, for taking on all comers and any distance, ducking no one with their homebred, Hard Spun. Zayat Stables over Stronach Stables for runner-up.

Trainer: Steve Asmussen for his work with Curlin. Carl Nafzger (Street Sense) in a photo over record-breaking Todd Pletcher. (I have problems leaving Kairan McLaughlin off this list but split votes are not allowed).

Jockey: Prolific record-breaker Garrett Gomez, over Robby Albarado and Calvin Borel, respectively, who did their best work while the whole world watched.

Apprentice Jockey: Poised, prolific Joseph Talamo over Jermaine Bridgmohan and Alonso Quinonez, respectively.

Horse of the Year: Curlin, Rags To Riches, Street Sense.

Written by John Pricci

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