Wednesday, January 18, 2012

We Are Fam-i-ly

PLANTATION, Fla., January 17, 2012—If you’ve ever tried to explain this game to someone untethered to the race horse, I’m sure you found it difficult to reconcile the fact that despite the intense and often manic competition, Thoroughbred racing is capable of rendering itself down to some equine version of Love Boat.

That was the sense one got while watching the 41st annual Eclipse Award presentation on cable TV Monday night, an evening that in my den would see Dr. Gregory House finish a very distant second to a real life Jeannine Edwards.

I confess that in my four decades of immersion into this passionate pastime, I’ve sat through my share of awards dinners, even hosted a few as a past President of the New York Turf Writers Association back in the day when the NYTWA actually honored those who toiled right in front of our press box eyes. Sadly, that’s a story for another day.

The point is that awards presentations, even those hosted by Ricky Gervais, can be tedious--speaking of which, I was very proud of the fact that on my imaginary Golden Globes ballot for actor in a television series drama appeared the name of Kelsey Grammar who, like George Clooney, found his role of a lifetime. But, I digress.

Edwards, easier on the eyes than either Gervais or Hugh Laurie, did fine work, getting out from behind a podium and helping to deflate some of the formal stuffiness of the occasion. I’m not sure everyone understood the sight-gag Tebow homage, and there might have been one too many without-further-ados, but that picks at nits. Edwards’ effort certainly was worthy of an encore performance at the 42nd annual.

The winners from three finalists in every category, except that for Horse of the Year, bore not a single major surprise, and it’s always good when the best, or most accomplished, horse wins. No one looks for value at Eclipse Award time, not even John Doyle, the 2011 Handicapper of the Year. Form has its place.

Even some of the more difficult classifications, that of top three-year-old colt, top steeplechaser, and almost all of the human categories, boasted finalists so worthy that no one could have taken serious umbrage with any of the Eclipse winners so honored.

At evening’s end I was disappointed there was no award for Caleb’s Posse, aced out by Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom for sophomore best-in-show, and by Amazombie in the Sprint category. Both winners were deserving, of course, and, on balance, it’s a good thing when classic and end-of-year championship winners are rewarded in tight races: The Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup events do so much shining a light on the sport.

Inevitably, awards ceremonies are not without its low-lights. There were audio glitches interspersed throughout the ceremonies and the lighting was described by one television professional I spoke with as funereal. Further, two observers reported that the streaming presentation had many issues.

It was unfortunate, too, that Dr. Kendall Hansen found it necessary to speak so interminably that you could cut the awkwardness with a knife—especially after his eponymous race horse was the first so honored only minutes after Edwards implored, practically begged, that acceptance speeches be limited to one minute.

Martin Schwartz, owner of Eclipse champion turf mare Stacelita, was less overbearing, though it was the first time I’ve ever seen a legal pad used for making ceremonial remarks. Disappointing, too, that owner Barry Irwin and trainer Chad Brown felt it necessary to replicate Woody Allen’s award appearances. I’m sure logical explanations will be offered. Fortunately, the highlights outran the uncomfortable moments.

Given their contributions and passion for the game, tributes to the late Jess Jackson and Mace Siegel hit just the right note at the start of the evening, as did the roll of 2011 champions from races hosted by co-sponsor Breeders’ Cup Ltd. Among other personal favorites, listed chronologically, were:

Steve Asmussen seen smiling [reporters don’t get that much]; Actor John Ortiz deadpanning a silent imitation of trainer Julio Canani; Steeplechase trainer Dermot Ryan’s thoughtful acceptance speech for Black Jack Blues; Award of Merit recipient Cot Campbell’s love of the business; Bill Mott humbly congratulating fellow trainer finalists Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert and thoughtfully thanking all his assistants. The positives continued:

Handicapper John Doyle looking skyward to tell his dad that, 43 years later, “I’m at the top”; Rapid Redux owner Robert Cole giving “all the credit” to trainer David Wells; trainer Bill Kaplan [Musical Romance] thanking all the “unsung heroes” of the backstretch; the fun had by the SoCal camps of Acclamation and Amazombie—Bud Johnston [Acclamation] saying “the greatest part of the business are the people.”

There was ever classy Ramon Dominguez acknowledging “Javier and Johnny”; and two heartfelt moments as 19-year-old apprentice Kyle Frey, showing both presence and emotion, lifted his Eclipse trophy in the air, saying of his very recently deceased grandfather “this one’s for my grandpa.”

Then came ever ebullient owner Ken Ramsey, thanking four trainers who won Grade 1s for him in 2011 and, most of all, “the original kitten,” wife Sarah, who taught him three things—“to love your family, treat the horses well, and believe in yourself,” before breeder Frank Stronach thanked his wife for not allowing him to sell any of the broodmares.

At last, it was Rick Porter, the owner of Horse of the Year Havre De Grace, who on his second visit to the podium reminded all of “the highest of highs and the lowest of lows” that the game provides, allowing all to know he will never forget Eight Belles.

Porter was effusive in his praise of trainer Larry Jones for giving him, along with a Horse of the Year title, victory “in the Woodward at Saratoga, the most exciting race I’ve ever won.” He then thanked trainer Tony Dutrow for taking such good care of his filly at 2 and 3, before congratulating Jerry Hollendorfer and Blind Luck for helping to create a rivalry.

Jones declined an opportunity to close the evening with some final thoughts but earlier had thanked all his other owners for their patience and allowing him to travel the country with Havre De Grace. It was an evening of celebration, of competition and dreams shared with like-minded people: As Edwards also mentioned several times on Monday night; that’s what the game’s all about.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, January 07, 2012

Cuomo’s Expanded Gaming Vision Helps Horse Racing

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 6, 2012—My hometown of Saratoga is conservative by both convention and politics. The apparel of choice here, where winters can test your resolve, on balance, remains Republican cloth.

But it matters not on which side of the aisle you lean here, or the entire Capital District for the matter, or on one of my many forays downstate, the message is remarkably the same and considering the subject matter, nigh impossible.

I have never, ever, heard a disparaging word about our state’s present Governor. An approval rating of 75%; it’s the damndest thing, really.

I was a fan of his father’s, as were many, although I can tell you that Mario Cuomo wasn’t on everyone’s favorite list, at least not to the extent enjoyed by his son Andrew, the present Governor.

So it was with great interest on Wednesday that I tuned my television to a station other than the local OTB network.

I was curious to see if his auditory matched his dad’s, by all accounts extraordinary. Of greater import, however, was what he had to stay about the state of gaming in the Empire State.

“We have been in a state of denial for a very long time when it comes to gaming,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo emphatically told both Houses of the Legislature and every other mover and shaker in the room during his State-of-the-State address.

“We already have it. We have Tribal Casinos across the state. We have racinos across the state. We have 29,000 electronic gaming machines in the state, more than in Atlantic City, more than the entire Northeast combined. But we don’t capitalize on it."
“We are surrounded by casinos on virtually every border. We are in the gaming business already but we’re not doing it very well. We should be doing better.

“This is not about chips and cards, it’s about one thing: jobs, jobs, jobs,” an applause line in a long series of applause lines sprinkled throughout the address.

Then, referring to badly needed revenues being left on the table, Governor Cuomo went further.

“Let’s amend the constitution so that we can do gaming right. Let’s make it safe, be competitive, and get jobs back in New York. There’s a billion dollars’ worth of economic impact here. We need jobs.”

By doing gaming right, Cuomo means introducing Las Vegas-style table games at already existing racinos, including the Resorts World Casino-New York City at Aqueduct Racetrack, one that thus far has exceeded expectations.

Cuomo made no specific references to racing except to explain that one of the racinos was at Aqueduct Racetrack but his actions say he's more a fan of racing than any of his recent predecessors, including his father.

And given his stated intention to bring back, create, and save existing jobs, it is unlikely Andrew Cuomo would allow the deterioration of a revenue producer that is the lynchpin of the state’s billion dollar agribusiness.

Some things just need to be taken on faith.

The other, more significant indicator is that the Aqueduct-Resorts World property will become an important cog in the city and state’s economic engine; the construction of the world’s largest convention center, and a hotel complex, on the Aqueduct grounds.

It is expected that the Genting Group which operates and constructed the Aqueduct casino would develop the new convention center.

The $4 Billion price tag for the convention center is part of a $15 billion infrastructure package--an amalgam of federal, state and private sector investment. The package includes another $1 billion investment in gaming.

Of course, the State of the State was about much more. “Thirty-two percent of our bridges are deficit; 40 percent of our road are rated ‘poor’ and 83 percent of our parks and major dams are in disrepair.

“One in every six children lives in homes without food. Let’s stop fingerprinting families who need food and eliminate the stigma of food stamps.” And there was so much more:

A second round of economic development grants and $1 billion to incentivize investment in poverty-riddled Buffalo; a restructuring of pension plans; a special education commission free from Legislature-controlled Board of Regents. He didn’t stop there.

Cuomo called for the repair of 2,000 miles of road, replacement of 100 bridges including the heavily traveled Tappan Zee Bridge; giving farmers access to low-interest loans; initiate real campaign finance reform; expanding the DNA databank and private sector investment to move existing power in the western and northern parts of the state to downstate where it’s needed most.

Among the creation of 25,000 new jobs expanded gaming would bring, in addition to recapturing the $3 to $5 billion New Yorkers spend at casinos outside the state, there is one other factor that would be good news for horse racing in this state, according to the New York Gaming Association.

It is recommended that any further casino expansion should be restricted only to racetrack sites.

Change New York horseracing fans can believe in? We’ll see. To hear Andrew Cuomo speak about it, one gets a sense that anything’s possible.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

And the HRI Ballot Goes To…

SARATOGA SPRINGS, January 1, 2012—Note the dateline. I say that because, in Eclipse Year 2011 especially, voters should wait for the last possible minute so that their choices truly resonate with themselves, never mind the rest of the racing world.

And while on this subject, my colleague Dick Powell was right. In this age of instant communications, there’s no reason why the Eclipse Awards shouldn’t encompass a 365-day racing year.

Any racing season and the ensuing Eclipse Award voting process doesn’t end when ballots are mailed to the voters. Is the Malibu Stakes on opening day at Santa Anita not a Grade 1? Is the LaBrea not a Grade 1?

Ask the connections of Declan’s Moon whether the 2004 Hollywood Futurity run on December 18 made a difference.

I came to my ballot ready to concede the Filly & Mare sprint title to Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner Musical Romance, who owns more than a one-race resume.

But I couldn’t check her name off without first watching Turbulent Descent’s quest for a third Grade 1 victory on the last day of the year.

Turbulent Descent not only didn’t win but raced very poorly, showing no run in the lane after angling out into the clear at head-stretch. So it’s Musical Romance for me, 4-for-13 record and all.

Determining the best in show in several categories this year was a lot like what the Iowa caucus process was; the lesser of evils in the minds of many voters.

Not even the most loyal racing fan thought 2011 was a banner year on the Thoroughbred stage. It did have its moments, however, the game’s stars providing some of that impetus:

My personal favorite was Blind Luck’s relentless pursuit of Havre De Grace down the Stanton, Delaware stretch. But there were others of note: The bumper-cars Big ‘Cap; the O’Brien father-and-son act in the Turf; the entertaining Rapid Redux chase, etc.

But it is what it is, so let’s take a look:

Steeplechase, 4 Year Old & Up

Not a lot of productivity among the leading candidates. A two-horse battle as we see it, but we must make three selections in each category or votes in that section will not be counted.

Black Jack Blues dominated in both U.S. starts, including the Grade 1 Grand National with a season’s record of (8) 5-1-0, including a decision of his main rival, Tax Ruling, pulled up and eased in that event.

But Black Jack Blues declined the rematch in the subsequent G1 Colonial Cu, won by Tax Ruling, his second G1 this year, giving him a (4) 2-0-0 slate. With trepidation: 1. Tax Ruling 2. Black Jack Blues 3. Mabou.

Two Year Old Colt & Gelding

So, if I made an allowance for Tax Ruling, why not Union Rags, (4) 3-1-0, who had a much tougher time of things in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after first winning a G2 and the G1 Champagne? Because Hansen’s speed made his own good trip at Churchill, and after prior victories by 12¼ and 13¼ lengths, he stayed undefeated. That counts for a lot. Still, with some reservation: 1. Hansen 2. Union Rags 3. Creative Cause.

Two Year Old Filly

Had My Miss Aurelia remained healthy, took on and defeated colts in something like the 9-furlong Remsen at 9 furlongs, I would have given her Horse of the Year consideration, such was the state of the game. Grace Hall was undefeated with a G1 on her card and was a good second in in Juvenile Fillies: 1. My Miss Aurelia 2. Grace Hall 3. Weemissfrankie.

Three Year Old Colt and Gelding

Competing in the classics, everyone’s goal on January 1 each year, makes you a part of the game’s lore, especially if you have success. Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom was most impressive, was most game and classy two weeks later, and most unlucky three weeks after that. But the racing year doesn’t end in early June.

Caleb’s Posse, admittedly a sprinter/miler type, won half his 10 starts, including the two-turn Ohio Derby, the G1 Kings Bishop over Uncle Mo and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile over elders and Preakness winning Shackleford. That makes him the most accomplished in our view: 1. Caleb’s Posse 2. Animal Kingdom 3. Stay Thirsty.

Three Year Old Filly

With the exception of Royal Delta, various leading candidates took us to the highest levels then never could seal the deal. R Heat Lightning was a killer last winter at Gulfstream; then Plum Pretty took the divisional lead with Kentucky Oaks score. It’s Tricky won G1 Acorn and CCA Oaks back to back and Zazu, with her two G1s, was good all year. Defending champion Awesome Feather remained undefeated in two starts didn’t return from injury soon enough. Royal Delta, with Bill Mott calling the shots, simply improved with the seasons, each start more important than the last: 1. Royal Delta 2. Zazu 3. It’s Tricky.

Four Year Old & Up Male

Had Acclamation, winner of three G1s, only had one important victory on dirt. If only Game On Dude, or Flat Out, won the Classic. If Tizway and First Dude only made it all the way to Louisville.

If Drosselmeyer did just a little more, or if Wise Dan raised his profile; any of the above had a chance at the brass ring. But that was the other major disappointment in a racing year gone by; the handicap class. With qualification: 1. Acclamation 2. Game On Dude 3. Tizway.

Four Year Old & Up Female

Havre De Grace and Blind Luck need no introduction, but it might have been interesting to see what would have happened had Awesome Maria--4-for-4, all graded, one G1—Awesome Maria made it beyond June 18. Finally, a top class no-brainer: 1. Havre De Grace 2. Blind Luck 3. Awesome Maria.

Three Year Old & Up Male Sprint

Never thought I would land here but after taking the allotted time to deliberate, Amazombie deserves the honor. Slate of (9) 5-1-3 is first rate, earnings of $1.3 million merits respect—and I’m not an earnings guy—four graded stakes wins, two G1s, including the Sprint, and never off the board in six graded stakes. Accomplishment and laudable consistency: 1. Amazombie 2. Caleb’s Posse 3. The Factor.

Three Year Old & Up Filly Sprint

After Musical Romance, it was just as difficult. Ultimately I decided that winning half of six starts, including two G1s and a six-furlong score in 1:08.2 was good for place. Show was a female with a 4-for-7 slate, all graded wins, one G1, a track record of 1:20.2 and a couple of near records, too. Another difficult call: 1. Musical Romance 2. Sassy Image 3. Hilda’s Passion.

Three Year Old & Up Male Turf

A two-horse race at the top with the top candidates going 3-for-3 in G1s; the other with four graded wins in five graded starts, including two G1s, the most worthy. The third choice was more subjective:1. Cape Blanco 2. Acclamation 3. St Nicholas Abbey.

Three Year Old & Up Female Turf

It was just one tough category after another. No filly dominated open company; the one that was dominant was a three year old racing with her own kind who failed in her biggest test of the year. And so it was Stacelita with her two G1s and a placing in the G1 United Nations vs. males: 1. Stacelita 2. Dubawi Heights 3. Winter Memories.

Trainer Eclipse

How do you fit four candidates into three slots? You don’t. It was a breakthrough year for Derby winning Graham Motion. Bob Baffert was G1 prolific. Todd Pletcher was super prolific with many multiple graded-win days.

But it was Bill Mott that got the brass ring in prime time, his work with Drosselmeyer and Royal Delta things of beauty, especially the latter. And to get To Honor And Serve to finish on a high note after early season issues was the cherry on top: 1. Bill Mott 2. Bob Baffert 3. Graham Motion.

Jockey Eclipse

There are so many great athletes from which to choose. But for overall excellence and dominance without one mega-stable exclusively behind him; day-in, day-out; stakes-in, stakes-out: 1. Ramon Dominguez 2. Johnny Velazquez 3. Javier Castellano.

Owner Eclipse

For doing it in all categories: number of victories; stakes wins; variety of entrants from G1 to claimers at all high profile meets; as a breeder, et al: 1. Ken and Sarah Ramsey 2. Team Valor International 3. Live Oak Plantation.

Parenthetically, love the idea that Ramsey bets his money, helping the handle wherever he races.

Breeder Eclipse

If the mere mention of the name Stronach didn’t almost always engender controversy, he could practically retire this trophy: 1. Adena Springs 2. Ken & Sarah Ramsey 3. Live Oak Stud.

Apprentice Eclipse

Very subjective. From what we’ve seen, young riders able to coax run from their mounts, attain positioning with just the right amount of aggressiveness, and with an ability to finish, in a photo it’s:1. C J McMahon 2. Irad Ortiz Jr. 3. Ryan Curatolo.


What a year; seriously thought of leaving this title open. But since the award will be presented in Los Angeles in any case, I decided to vote in Thoroughbred racing's version of the Iowa Caucus. Frankly, I fel there were very few viable options.

I settled on a standout individual that accomplished some notable goals, and for the willingness of the connections to raise their horse's profile when no one would have blamed them for taking a more prudent tack. Rick Porter is a successful horseman who knows how to cash out, but in this instance gave back to the game by making an unselfish sporting gesture.

1. HAVRE DE GRACE 2. Acclamation 3. Rapid Redux

Written by John Pricci

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