Thursday, February 12, 2009

New York-Bred Program Has Come of Age; Commentator Best in Show

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 11, 2009--Back in the early days of the New York-bred industry, when Dr. Dominic DeLuke’s Assunta Louis Farm and the great Mike Hernandez were winning everything in sight, led by a horse that turned out to be one of the program’s foundation sires, prolific Fratello Ed, 2008 might be the year that Big Apple breeding pioneers dreamt about.

No one is confusing the relatively young New York breeding industry with traditionally established powers in Kentucky and Florida yet, but no longer is the local program considered something less-than either. When Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby in 2003, everyone had little choice but to finally get with the program.

This year, 45 New York-breds, 22 males and 23 females, were nominated in nine different divisional categories, 10 including New York-Bred of the Year, and all but a few of them made their bones in open company. If the purpose of the drill is improvement of the breed, New York horse people are doing their fair share.

The 45 nominated horses stepped outside the restricted stakes ranks on 109 occasions this year and earned more W’s than L’s. New York breds won a total of 22 open non graded stakes and placed in 12 more, finishing out of the money only eight times in 42 attempts.

Buzz-kills might argue this is an indication that overall quality of the modern thoroughbred has fallen dramatically. But then it can’t be argued that New York breds overachieved nor can the judgment of the owners and trainers who picked out those open company spots be disparaged.

But New Yorkers tried the graded ranks, too, and fared just as well. New York breds won 14 graded stakes, including the Carter, Black-Eyed Susan and the Whitney, placed in 27 more, and finished off the board only 26 times.

Two of the losses came in the Kentucky Derby, one each in the Preakness, Belmont and Pennsylvania Derby, while two fillies were blanked in the Black-Eyed Susan and Alabama, respectively.

In all, New York-bred horses were entered in a total of 109 open company stakes and won 83. Contextually, this year’s nominees placed a cherry on the cake that Funny Cide helped bake.

The winners among the 45 equine nominees--some qualified in several categories--will be honored by the New York Thoroughbred Breeders in the near future. Unlike the Eclipse Awards, there is no voting for horsemen and women. Those winners are determined by statistical tally.

Voters, New York-based turf writers, are required to make three selections in each category in order to have their ballots validated. Here, then, is one man’s opinion:

Two-Year Old Filly: Grade 2 Matron winner and G2 Adirondack-placed Doremifasolatido
over Mother Russia and R Betty Graybull. A very difficult category after getting passed the Adirondack winner.

Two-Year Old Colt: Flip a coin, the accomplishments were so disparate. Dagnabit off his Tremont win, over Trinity Magic and Cribnote. (Sorry, Haynesfield, the Count Fleet was run in 2009).

Three-Year Old Filly: G2 Black-Eyed Susan winner Sweet Vendetta won half her six starts, over Weathered (6-for-11), and late starting Under Serviced (4-for-6 with two state-bred stakes).

Three-Year Old Colt: G2 Indiana Derby winner Tin Cup Chalice went 6-for-8 in one of the feel good stories of the New York season, over G3 Tampa Bay Derby winner, Big Truck, and G3 Discovery winner, Wishful Tomcat.

Four-Year Old Filly or Mare: Redoubtable multiple graded-stakes winning J Ray, easily, over Chestoria and Love Cove.

Four-Year Old & Up Male: Multiple graded stakes and G1 Whitney hero Commentator over undefeated G1 Carter winner Bustin Stones and hard hitting Stormin Normandy.

Female Turf: J Ray earned her older mare portfolio on this surface, over possible heir apparent I Lost My Choo and Chestoria.

Male Turf: Wishful Tomcat ended season with three straight stakes, 4-for-5 in all, including a graded and open class score, over hard hitting Banrock and lightly campaigned Pays to Dream.

Female Sprinter: Open stakes winner and G1-placed By the Light, over Keep the Peace and Under Serviced.

Male Sprinter: G1 Carter winner Bustin Stones retired (via injury) undefeated in six lifetime starts, over Ferocious Fires and Stormin Normandy.

New York Horse of the Year 2008: Commentator, who this year will attempt to win his third Whitney, over Bustin Stones and Tin Cup Chalice.

The winners will be announced and feted in ceremonies at the Gideon Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs, the night of April 13.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 06, 2009

If Racing Doesn’t Tend its own Garden, Feds Will

New York City, February 5, 2009--According to a Thoroughbred Times Internet report, racing regulations were uppermost in the minds of racing executives as the joint annual meeting of the National Thoroughbred Associations and Harness Tracks of America concluded Wednesday.

What was clear is that racing has no wish to be regulated by the federal government which is, of course, the good news and the bad and also begs the question: So who asked you, anyway?

The economy continues to swirl deeper into the toilet. Our elected leaders are acting like they lost; the losers are taking their obfuscation positions, making the cure for our ills none too stimulating, insuring the audacity of the status quo.

The goal should be to keep these people as far away from racing as possible, unless...

Modern deregulation started with Reagan, continued under Bush 1, was kicked up a notch during the Clinton years then was left to fester, like everything else, during Bush 2. It hasn’t worked--probably because the term “free enterprise” was too liberally interpreted to mean steal anything that’s not nailed down.

“We don’t need the federal government to tell us how to run our operations,” said American Horse Council President Jay Hickey. Congress would disagree, of course, believing the federal Interstate Horse Racing Act gives them license to do whatever they want.

Thus far, Beltway types have engaged only in questioning a handful of racing’s leaders by a House committee in the wake of Eight Belles’ catastrophic Kentucky Derby but, like Schwarzenegger, promised they would be back.

“This industry can get up and move when it needs to,” said Scot Waterman, D.V.M., according to the Thoroughbred Times report, adding that he is pleased with how the industry responded since the first phase of its model drug rules were rolled out in 2005.

It’s almost four years later and the ban on anabolic steroids--a phase 3 measure whereby an agreement between the Association of Racing Commissioners International and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association required tracks to ban its use as a condition of races earning graded status--is the one development that has made an impact.

“Polls show that the less someone knows about racing the less they think of its integrity, and that has to change.” And where are the educational programs that not only would educate the public but the very legislators who rule on industry matters? Anyone who saw the House hearings last June knows education is elementary.

NTRA President Alex Waldrop updated the attendees on the progress being made on phase one of last year’s rollout of the Safety and Integrity Alliance, saying later that wagering security is an area the alliance could address in the future.

In the future? The integrity of the pools, a disconcerting issue for several years, is first now going to get some attention? Hopefully it will be more than a half measure. Waldrop said later that the alliance’s goal is to implement change but not act as a regulator. He’s for giving tracks the option of self regulation, which suggests the NTRA has no ambitions beyond the realm of trade organization. Back to square one.

The next step, to streamline post-race testing procedures, is the next logical course of action. But with labs scattered throughout the country and with many states hamstrung by various forms of a proposal process, economic sense might not yield the desired level of quality assurance.

Another attendee, RCI president Ed Martin, wants to see an end to redundant overregulation, believing the U.S. could follow the Canadian model where industry money pays an independent agency to conduct testing and research. He doesn’t think the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, the enforcement arm of the TRA, is suitable. “Racing cannot self-police itself,” he said.

So racing turns 360 degrees once again. How long do you think it will be before the feds figure out that if these racing guys think they can’t police themselves, and since none of their organizations seem willing or able to step up, we might not have a choice but to intervene?

Next time the industry’s leaders should agree to lock themselves in a room and not emerge until smoke wafts skyward from the fire that burns during this winter of racing’s discontent. There might be more to agree on than not.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Joe Hirsch: Legend and Friend to All

Saratoga Springs, NY, January 21, 2009--In Joe Hirsch speak, tributes from the people and organizations wishing to honor his memory and service to the sport he loved read like a roll of drums.

"There has been no more respected figure in horse racing over the last 50 years than Joe Hirsch…" said Alex Waldrop, NTRA President and CEO.

“He was a kind man, a friend to everyone... truly one of racing’s giants,” said Joe Aulisi, Director of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

“He was a great man and a racing journalist the likes of which we will never see or read again…” said Charlie Hayward, NYRA President & CEO, former President & CEO of Daily Racing Form.

“Joe was a great ambassador for our sport. He had the best interests of horse racing at heart at all times…” said Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of The Jockey Club.

“He was a role model and mentor to so many...set a high standard of excellence…we are honored to be the recipient of his guidance, generosity and leadership,” said Tom Law, President of the National Turf Writers Association.

Despite his gift for story and language, it is unlikely that you ever would have read a Joe Hirsch blog. Snarky attitude never was one of his attributes.

Unequivocally, racing was a major sport when Joe was in his prime. It was a time when a sports writer traveled with the team he covered, more confidant than watchdog.

Hard reporting wouldn’t come until later on, with the “chipmunks,” writers and reporters such as Stan Isaacs, Dick Young, Larry Merchant and a handful of others.

But don’t confuse Joe Hirsch with an apologist. When he saw something he didn’t like, he wrote about it. His was an unquestioned voice of authority.

Issues solved.

Following tributes that appeared almost instantly the day Joe died came recollections of what he had written, or said: “Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso, but only once.” That Racing Form lead became the stuff of racetrack lore.

There was the story about a reporter who prior to a big race lamented to Joe, “it’s a shame about the sloppy track…” His quip “it was a shame about Marie Antoinette” was quintessential Joe Hirsch.

And there was the time when a young Newsday reporter was concerned about how he would cover news emanating from a then jam-packed four weeks of racing at Saratoga:

“It’s not the 24 days you have to worry about, it’s the 24 nights,” he counseled.

Joe often made a personal impact on the lives of his fellow turf writers, too.

My wife and I were married on January 12, 1969, the day the old American Football League gained parity with the older, established NFL when an upstart quarterback “guaranteed” a victory by his Jets over the mighty Colts.

Post time for the church wedding was 5 p.m. Of the 150 invited guests, over one hundred came disguised as empty pews. Father Anthony Praetano didn’t enter Immaculate Conception Monastery until approximately 5:10. Just couldn’t tear himself away from the car radio.

Eventually this story would be documented in an Andy Beyer Super Bowl column and later in Readers’ Digest, coincidentally a property of the Walter Annenberg media empire that also owned the Racing Form.

Twenty years later, Super Bowl XXIII was in Miami, as was Joe Hirsch, covering the Gulfstream meet. Toni and I decided to celebrate our 20th by watching the Joe Montana-led 49ers vs. the Boomer Esiason-led Cincinnati Bengals.

The Niners won; the Bengals covered.

Hirsch’s Manhattan roommate of 11 years also happened to be the same upstart quarterback who engineered the most significant upset in professional football history.

Hirsch initially was doing a favor to Sonny Werblin, who was Johnny Carson’s theatrical agent, a Broadway producer, master of Elberon Farms and owner of the New York Jets who had invested a then ungodly sum of $400,000 in a quarterback from the University of Alabama via Beaver Falls, Pa.

On the Friday of Super Bowl weekend, Toni and I, along with race-caller Tom Durkin and his friend, went to the races. The feature was split divisions of the Joe Namath Handicap for fillies and mares on the turf.

By mid-afternoon, Hirsch was in the trackside restaurant presumably to say hello but really to lead us to the box area where Namath, then a spokesman for Gulfstream Park, awaited.

Namath walked over, Hirsch introduced us, Namath gave my wife a kiss, pretty much ignored me and presented her with an autographed football that read:

“Toni, sorry I missed your wedding but I had to make good on a guarantee.”

As post time approached, Hirsch escorted us to the paddock where he enlisted track photographer Jim Raftery to take a picture of the anniversary couple with Joe Willie Namath.

That will always be Joe Hirsch to us.

Professionally, Joe would sometimes throw me a storyline and once helped me riddle a personal dilemma regarding my 1988 Horse of the Year ballot.

Ferdinand was favored to win the honor despite his somewhat pedestrian 4-for-11 record. The certain-to-be turf champion, Theatrical, had dominated his division, the winner of six Grade 1 events.

“Horse of the Year can be anything,” Hirsch advised. So I voted for Theatrical. Ferdinand won the title, but my conscience was clear.

Now Hirsch, like the storied thoroughbred nurseries he enjoyed writing about--the Greentrees, Calumets, and all the rest that bred to race, not sell, are gone. As is much of the romance.

Perhaps it’s better that Joe isn’t around to witness the virtual disappearance (pun intended) of mainstream turf writing as modern thoroughbred racing continues to devolve more into the realm of game than sport.

Maybe now’s time has come for the sport to acknowledge not only his legacy, but those of Joe Palmer, Red Smith, Audax Minor and countless others, who elevated the sport with the kind of word pictures that make race horses come alive on the printed page, providing a lasting presence for a sport that was first introduced on the Plains of Hempstead nearly four hundred years ago.

As a founder and first president of the National Turf Writers Assn, Joe Hirsch was a trail blazer. Perhaps he can be again.

Correcting an oversight that has existed for too long, the sport needs to construct, in his memory, the Joe Hirsch Turf Writers’ wing of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Written by John Pricci

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