Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sparring at the Draw, Good Time Had by All

ELMONT, NY, June 3, 2009--As post-position draw press conferences go, Wednesday morning’s at Belmont Park was pretty fun. Lots of bon ami and irreverence being thrown around, as it should be. People bet serious money on the outcome of these races but it still should be fun.

Even though it doesn’t appear on any of the logos I’ve seen, Saturday’s Belmont Stakes is the oldest of the Triple Crown events, having its 141st renewal, something to be proud of, indeed. Wayne Lukas on several occasions tacked on another decade but, no harm, no foul, coach.

At 74, Lukas is having the time of his life again. With several new clients, one who apparently was not too adversely effected by the events of Sept. 15, Wayne has reason to go back to the sales, looking for more cats beneath the hides of thoroughbred yearlings.

But the winner of four Belmonts is enjoying it more because he is more relaxed, “nothing more to prove” to the people with notebooks asking questions at the barn the Sunday morning after a high profile defeat.

“Yeah, I’m having more fun. I don’t feel I have to explain it all. We’ve got some of these and, at this stage, I’m happy to be enjoying this experience. I have no grand illusions but I think they’ll both be competitive in here.”

I told him that I shouldn’t say this because I‘m afraid it would go to his head but I reminded him he was approaching that legend status, still hiding behind the foster grants and looking good, of course. The old ball coach usually does.

Speaking of athletes, he’s very high on a linebacker from the Air Force Academy. “Watch him, number 44,” he said. “In high school he was all-everything in California.” No one usually questions his ability to spot talent, whether the athlete had two legs or four. He was talking about Jeff's son. His grandson.

Still trying to change the Triple Crown--aren’t we all?--but he knows his plan has little chance. “A mile and a quarter is the classic American distance but it’s not likely the Belmont will be changed after 151 years [sic],” he answered Tom Durkin.

Actually, Chip Woolley, trainer of the Kentucky Derby champion and 2-1 early line favorite for Belmont 141, had a question for Durkin earlier.

Before leaning into his crutches and set to leave the podium, Woolley said he had a question for Durkin. “Do you know what my horse looks like yet?”

The question was greeted with laughter and some applause from an appreciative audience.” The question was referencing Durkin’s late pickup of Mine That Bird who in midstretch squeezed through a narrow hole on the rail as if shot from a gun in the sloppy gloaming at Churchill.

That question could have been posed to anyone who watched the race live or on TV. If they were honest that’d admit they didn’t know who the hell it was either. I think I’m pretty good, and I know I checked MY program.

Nick Zito was up next and asked Durkin the same question, but the line fell flat a second time. Durkin turned immediately turned to the audience and asked the crowd if there was someone out there with a hair-shirt that he could borrow. Skate save, a beauty.

Almost all camps were represented which was a good job by all involved, producers and participants.

It was Wednesday and Charitable Man’s trainer still doesn’t want to trade places with anyone. Kiaran McLaughlin’s confidence level is very high. Todd Pletcher, meanwhile, STILL believes Dunkirk is a good horse and hopes to prove it. Can’t blame him.

On the way up to the podium Lukas stole Woolley’s crutches and took a couple of strides, but gave them back. Eoin Harty gets credit for candor saying he has absolutely no idea how Mr. Hot Stuff will handle a dry, dirt track.

Up came Tim Ice, trainer of the other bird, Summer Bird, another son of Triple Crown denying Birdstone, himself acting like he wants to be a very good sire, if he’s not already. Mary Lou Whitney thought that he would be and so far she’s been proven right.

Of course, there’s a triple crown at stake (note lower case) and this year, too. Calvin Borel‘s.

Pletcher probably had this right when he told the Daily News “it won’t go down in the history books as a Triple Crown winner, but he will be.” Right on two counts:

“Racing history” won’t be fast to embrace it because it’s always supposed to be about the horse, not the rider, a serious discussion for another day should Calvin win the Jockey Triple. Got to call it something, right?. We’ll see how that plays out.

I referred to Borel by first name although I’ve never met the man. But Calvin Borel is easy to root for. You can tell that every time you look into his face. There’s 4,500 winners and 4,500 mucked stalls in that face. “Levon Helm Goes to the Races.”

He’s perhaps perfect for our time: “Every-man Journey-man Wins Belmont.”

I’m buying it all because this is supposed to be fun. So I’ll be smiling when he does it, which he “guaranteed” by the way. And lately he’s been a lot smarter lately than me. I know the Derby camp is happy to have him back and they should be. When was life better?

After the conference, the media rushed toward Woolley and I followed the other bird’s trainer Time Ice.

“Didn’t you say before the Derby that you were pointing for the Belmont?” “Yes, he said.”

“What made the Belmont more important than the Derby,” I asked. “The distance,” Ice said.

“And why the blinkers?” “They’re for focus, it’s not meant to put speed into him.”

“And the second workout,” I wanted to know, “the one with Kent, they were with the blinkers? “Yes.”

“Was it the tighter track, the experience, or the blinkers that made the second workout here better than the first?” “A little bit of everything.”

“And the karma is good for a Cajun to tap a Cajun to beat THE Cajun right now?”

“I think Kent makes a lot of sense for this horse,” Tim Ice said.

Things can get real interesting on Saturday. And fun. And what could be better than that?

Written by John Pricci

Comments (3)


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Eclipse Voters, Bloggers Want Same Matchup: Rachel vs Zenyatta

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 26, 2009--It’s been my experience that unless the names of a particular distaff deity is invoked, fillies just don’t excite racing fans the same way colts do.

It’s no one’s fault that there aren’t enough Ruffians or Bushers or Twilight Tears to go around. It’s just the way it is:

There are not enough tomboys like Shuvee, or bullets like Moccasin, a Horse of the Year at 2, or Derby winners like Winning Colors and Genuine Risk or perfectionists like Personal Ensign. These exceptional females proved great is great, gender be damned.

Today it's the Preakness heroine Rachel Alexandra and perfectionist Zenyatta that has elevated the female race horse in stature. Everybody might love the itty-bitty gritty Derby winner that could, especially after he stamped himself genuine in Baltimore.

But it’s the ladies that are the buzz and they’re on a collision course. Not, however, on the racetrack any time in the near future, but in the Eclipse voting booth.

To prove the point, it will take a little hypothesizing. Because nobody knows what any of the camps are going to do, perhaps not even the handlers themselves.

But after reading the quotes, then the tea leaves, here is one voting scenario to ponder.

Let’s say that, by Sunday, Rachel Alexandra is kicking down the barn door and if she doesn’t run soon, she’s going to hurt herself by acting out in her stall. Jess and Steve huddle. “We’re running in the Belmont,” Jess says.

Somehow, enough water is found on Long Island--ground water, not rain, please--to spray Big Sandy, making the track nice and tight. And Rachel is able to skip over it like it’s Churchill Downs. She wins the Belmont.

In this corner, Rachel Alexandra, the only filly in the history of the universe to win two legs of racing’s Triple Crown.

On the other coast, and only on that coast, Zenyatta does exactly what she did last year, winning the Vanity, Clement Hirsch, Lady’s Secret and Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic. This final just in: Zenyatta 14, Personal Ensign 13.

And in this corner, the record holding winner of 14 straight races without defeat in top class competition, and still, distaff champion of the world, Zenyatta.

May I have the envelope, please. And the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year 2009 goes to ???

Talk about splitting hairs. Where’s a BCS computer when you really need one?

In the blogosphere, fans already are choosing up sides. Said one blogger about Zenyatta’s proposed schedule: “It would be the equivalent of driving your Ferrari around a cul-de-sac.”

Said another: “I’d hardly call Zenyatta’s plans defending her title, more like maintaining her perfect record.”

I’ve got one, too, with apologies to John Shirreffs and Peppers Pride: “It’s like pummeling New Mexico-breds 19 straight times.”

In defense, one said that “anyone who feels they have a horse that can beat Big Z can put their horse on a plane and go take their shot. The champion never comes to you, you go to them.”

And another: “I LOVE Zenyatta… LOVE. But I seriously hope they take her out of the cul-de-sac at least once. There’s always hope that maybe they’re just playing coy… fingers crossed on that one!”

And finally, this: “The ultimate goal…is October. To get there you map out a plan. Appeasing people is not part of it. You decide the best way to give your horse the best chance… It might not make everyone happy, but it’s the right one according to the people who know the horse best.”

The camps have been talking, too. Shirreffs on the mile and a quarter Hollywood Gold Cup. “She’s never run that far… And against the boys? Let’s make it even harder.”

And “when it gets closer to [Breeders’ Cup] time, you don’t want to ship around too much. Saratoga is a long way.”

Then this from Jess Jackson: "If [Rachel] runs at all on the plastic [Santa Anita‘s Pro-Ride], it will be because she's so damn good that she can beat the boys in the Classic, not the Ladies' Classic," adding he would love to take on Zenyatta at some point.

If Zenyatta ends her career by eclipsing Personal Ensign and if Rachel Alexandra were to win the Belmont, my Horse of the Year vote will go to Rachel Alexandra.

Why? Because, in my opinion, her achievement would have greater historical significance. If she skips the Belmont, targets and wins the Travers, that might accomplish the same thing. For me, beating males twice means more.

Otherwise, like that blogger said, Zenyatta’s the champ, you come to her. And that puts the onus on Jackson to chase Zenyatta..

I have a compromise where both camps give something up. Jackson already has a real estate agent hunting for places to rent for the Saratoga meet, so Rachel will spend the summer here.

Saratoga is a long way, but there are such things as airplanes. Board one of those and meet the younger Rachel in the Personal Ensign on the last weekend in August. Running in that spot has a little extra symmetry, too.

Beyond that, most observers believe that the three-year-old cannot beat the older mare, no matter how fast or slow the pace. To this point, I agree.

August is still early in the season for three-year-olds vs. elders--advantage Zenyatta. And it allows more than enough recovery time before Zenyatta's penultimate start, the Lady’s Secret, at Santa Anita in October.

As for her legacy, she will have beaten the filly who beat the boys in the Preakness--instead of the outmanned group she beat last weekend. For Horse of the Year, it would be: Race, Set and Match.

Even Zenyatta’s biggest fans want to see this, thereby eliminating all those nagging questions. Wrote another Zenyatta blogger:

“I won’t ‘love her any less’ if she never gets a chance to prove that’s she’s one of the all-time greats by defeating any and all potential competition. But I’ll definitely think it was a damn shame and waste of talent.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, May 22, 2009

HANA Proving a Positive Force for Industry Change

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 21, 2009--What began as a horseplayer rant among several handfuls of people in a chat room at pace has become a burgeoning populist movement that’s gaining a voice in the thoroughbred industry.

There’s something happening here and it’s beginning to become clear that what’s going down is a shift in attitude from the racing industry towards fans that allows horseplayers to become a part of racing’s reconstruction process going forward.

It could not possibly have come at a better time.

And what could be better proof of the kind of passion the game elicits? Horseplayers, by definition, competitors within a parimutuel pool, bonding together for the good of all.

Wouldn’t it be great if the industry took a lesson?

The grass roots movement all happened because fewer than a dozen horseplayers decided to do something about their plight and those of their colleagues throughout the country, the whales and the minnows.

And so the small group incorporated themselves in September of 2008, appointed an executive committee, and the Horseplayers Association of North America was born.

HANA’s mission statement, available on its website,, includes a list of proactive principles. Never before in the history of thoroughbred racing have horseplayers united in such a unique and positive way.

Given the nature of the beast, no one believed it could be done. But in less than nine months, HANA has grown to include approximately 1,200 legitimate members whose combined handle brings between $40 to $45 million to the industry table every year.

No longer can the industry afford to look away.

According to HANA president Jeff Platt, the voluntary organization has at its core four principles, four elements upon which positive change can be effected not only for horseplayers but for the industry as well.

“What we are seeking,” said Platt in a phone interview, “is that the industry makes every track signal available to every ADW (advance deposit wagering platform).

“Takeout needs to be lowered so that the lower product costs can enable horse racing to be more competitive with other forms of wagering.

“We want a national drug policy that’s enforced with real penalties for cheaters. No longer can those horsemen be allowed to train from their cell phones.

“And, finally, pool integrity. We want the odds to be displayed [wagers posted] in real time. We believe all these elements have combined to hold the game back for the last dozen years.”

To be proactive is to put ideas and words into positive action. One such HANA initiative was the creation of a “buy-cott” which, as the name suggests, is the opposite of boycott.

HANA’s board reasoned that they needed to choose a race at a meeting that--because of its smaller size and quality of its horses--doesn’t generate much handle. HANA determines the race its members could wager on to make a statement, proving at once that the organization should be taken seriously and be a force for positive change.

“The results have been OK so far,” shared Platt, “but it’s been a learning process. At first, we chose small tracks in different time slots where we might make an impact [on handle].”

But, by far, the most successful buy-cott occurred on the final Saturday of the recently concluded Hawthorne race meet.

“We chose a very competitive Illinois-bred stakes with a large field, the kind of race most bettors want to wager on. Our members responded to the higher rated track by wagering $80,000 more on the event than was handled [in several years on the same race].”

Parenthetically, this week's HANA buy-cott play is Saturday's eighth race at Canterbury Park.

Serendipitously, Platt had wagered on the second race at Penn National just prior to our interview Wednesday night. He was all set to collect 10-1 on the winner, Twodoorsdown. The race had been declared with an advisory that prices were pending.

As Platt awaited the prices, he noticed the winner’s odds drop from 10-1, 9-1, 8-1 and 7-1. After a delay of approximately 20 minutes, the race was declared a non-betting event and refunds were made on all wagers, including winning bets made prior to post time.

“The stop-wagering mechanisms are not being received from the tracks [in a timely fashion].”

“This happens more often than people think. Everyone’s finding out more about these developments because people are speaking up. The industry needs to pay somebody to create a modern and secure tote system.”

Platt is a programmer by trade and spoke with a number of experts in his field. The bad news is that the cost would be very high. He has been given estimates in the $250-to-$300 million range.

With a combined national annual handle of over $14-billion, the high cost, unfortunately, is the price of doing business. It would be in the interests of all tracks and simulcast venues to pay their fair share based on handle.

In this environment, no one’s holding their breath.

Aside from proving that HANA has the power to make positive change at the bottom line, a more important aspect is that horseplayers are finally getting a seat at the table.

HANA recently has had positive talks with Keeneland’s hierarchy. At a recent wagering conference in Canada attended by representatives from Woodbine, Betfair, horsemen’s groups and horseplayers, the organization was happy to be part of the process.

They discovered that when the subject of lower takeout was broached, participants found themselves agreeing that lowering the cost of the product was in everyone’s best interests. Imagine that.

“Behind the scenes the sides need to continue to sit down, put down their swords and pick up the pen.”

Relative to takeout, Platt sees positive signs by the shift in attitudes on rebates.

“The concept has changed recently with regard to offering rebates to all players. You’re starting to see organizations such as the California Horse Racing Board, and some of the tracks beginning to provide rebates its on-track patrons.

“The pendulum is starting to swing because the industry is becoming aware that the players are aware. At our meetings, we try to settle on a marketing strategy that helps give customers what they want. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what the industry should do.”

Written by John Pricci

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