Friday, April 01, 2011

Eastern Elitist? I’ve Been Called Worse

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., March 31, 2011--I can’t decide whether my old school is showing or whether it’s just that infamous elitist Eastern media bias that‘s showing. Truth be told, it’s probably a little of both.

I didn’t think it was quite the time for my annual anti-earnings-rule Kentucky Derby qualifier rant, but events have dictated that at least I acknowledge what‘s been happening thus far.

Since HRI has been in existence the past four year, I have posited a plan for ensuring that the most talented three-year-olds find themselves in the Louisville starting gate on May’s first Saturday.

So, of course, I must be an elitist. After all, who doesn’t want to see, listed alphabetically, Animal Kingdom, Decisive Moment, Master of Hounds, Pants On Fire and Twice the Appeal duke it out on May 7?

Parenthetically, if you lined all these horses up on a neutral dirt site, I’d make Elite Alex, a winner of absolutely nothing this year, a lukewarm favorite. Then I’d bet my money.

Now please don’t go calling or e-mailing the connections of these perfectly fine Thoroughbreds to ask: Did you read how that guy knocked your horse? I don’t knock horses. Like most fans, I just like some horses better than others.
My prejudice is that I have more respect for those horses, owners and trainers that have pointed for races that the great horses of the past have participated in, races run at tracks such as Aqueduct, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park and Santa Anita.

Of course, Keeneland should have been on this list and it would have been. But that was pre-Polytrack. Keeneland is still a great place to leg up for future engagements but either you can or cannot run on dirt.

In terms of Derby form, and not a sales catalogue, a victory in the storied, Grade 1 Blue Grass has become meaningless.

Sorry but I have to be an ugly American on this one. The rest of the world can have its synthetic surfaces. (I can hear the laptops and smart phones humming already).

So it’s the time-honored preps that get my Derby juices flowing, not those from slots-fueled Grade 3 venues offering obscene purses to attract the occasional good horse from big outfits with a capably middling three-year-old in search of black type and a big payday without needing to put a single hoof into the deep end of the pool.

We’re not playing favorites here. We wish we were in a position to benefit from one agenda or another.

It’s just that time-honored tradition, or any other way one cares to characterize racing lore, is what defines American Thoroughbred history; medication, legal or otherwise, notwithstanding.

No one has to explain the greatness of the ‘27 Yankees or Lombardi’s Packers or Russell’s Celtics or Seabiscuit to any fan serious about sports.

OK, you might have to educate the past and present instant-gratification generation of fans how to look for nuances, otherwise how would they recognize true greatness when they see it?

You mean LeBron James isn't the greatest basketball player who ever lived?

Wouldn’t it be nice if even Mr. Casual Racing Fan actually heard of most of the horses before turning on their televisions on the first Saturday in May? These preps, such as Sunday’s talent laden Florida Derby field, have the ability to create memorable four-legged rivalries?

Of course, you’d need the races to be shown on television to accomplish that.

At some later date, we’ll reprise our ideas for making the criteria used to determine the Derby field a more meaningful barometer, one that possibly could help build that illusive racing following among sports fans the industry covets.

Those horses singled out above, with the exception of Elite Alex, of course, are in the Derby field already if their connections deem it so.

And those states enumerated above have yet to run, in chronological order beginning Sunday afternoon, the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby.

Clearly, the three-year-olds considered by most every polling organization to be America’s best will be fighting for only the remaining 15 slots in the gate, even before the biggest preps have been run.

If you’re good with that, fine. As most scoundrels say when they revert to reasons other than the use of good, old fashioned common sense, this is still America.

I’m fine with America. But as far as the process by which Thoroughbreds qualify for America’s signature horse race, it has very little to do with proven class.

A 20-horse field is not about safety or determining “the best horse” in a more truly run horse race. It’s about betting handle, and I think that stinks.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Call for Sacrifice to Meet Serious Challenge

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., March 23, 2011--While three-year-old Thoroughbreds remain on various courses seeking a trip to Louisville and racing immortality, the Internet this week has been abuzz with issues far less pleasing to ponder.

Most recently Bloodhorse magazine solicited opinions from industry and gambling professionals seeking five ways in which to improve the sport. Some excellent insight was provided, but it might have been better termed as five ways to save the game. Grist for another day.

But the most troubling news story appeared in the New York Times late last week in which reporter Joe Drape shined a light on examples of the substandard care Thoroughbred race horses were receiving when their racing days were over.

It’s a problem that doesn’t get a lot of press, one most fans don’t give a second thought, whether they enjoy watching the horses run or trying to cash a bet. Without legal gambling, of course, the industry couldn’t earn a living solely by staging some equine extravaganza.

Fittingly, some of the best observations on the issue came from fans, one on this site who correctly pointed out that dog racing began to die the day a television documentary showed pictures of dead dogs being tossed into the back of a pick-up truck.

What would happen if one or two television news crews went out and filmed emaciated horses standing in paddocks at farms supposedly dedicated to caring for them and saving them from the slaughter house? That’s an image no one wants to see either.

The reader, in responding to Vic Zast’s column on Monday, “Ennui Over Racetrack Afterlife,” was also correct in noting that horse racing is losing political supporters every day. Indeed, if this issue gains traction, it would hasten racing’s demise faster than any amount of drug violations or usurious takeout rates ever could.

In Tuesday’s Saratogian, racing columnist Jeff Scott wrote that “an unfortunate result of the Times article would be if donations to the [Thoroughbred Retirement Fund] — and perhaps to other thoroughbred rescue and retirement organizations as well — were to decrease.”

Also, that “racing can no longer afford to be seen as standing by while private organizations do most of the work and shoulder most of the responsibility. It also can no longer afford to have articles on possible neglect show up on the front page of the New York Times.”

To their credit, some tracks and racing associations have created a means to provide help with retired horses that were cast aside, but there remains no unified effort to deal with this issue, no central authority with a system to provide the revenue needed for meeting such a daunting challenge.

Here in Florida, one of the first states to put a funding mechanism in place, the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Assn. has been putting money aside for Thoroughbred aftercare for years. But it wasn’t until this year, when the organization received 501-C status--a means for any charity to address tax issues--that it was able to distribute funds.

The FHBPA donates 1/3 of 1 percent of purse earnings to Thoroughbred Retirement Aftercare, or TRAC. For the month of January, that share amounted to $27,000 for the care of unwanted racehorses.

Frank Stronach, on record as saying that each owner and breeder should be responsible for the horses they breed and race, has established the “After Racing Retirement Fund” at Gulfstream Park. Stronach is matching the horsemen’s 1/3 of 1 percent from Gulfstream’s bottom line each month.

“We see this as an industry responsibility,” said Stacie Clark-Rogers. “We realize that not everyone feels this way but it costs $26 million a year to take care of all the retired racehorses. The rest of it is a lot of hard work from volunteers. We need to get the horses out of their paddocks and be productive again.”

Rogers is in charge of the Thoroughbred aftercare program at Stronach’s Adena Springs nursery in Canada, where for the last seven years they’ve been training horses to be useful in other areas when their racing days are over.

On occasion, in fact, when special circumstances made it impossible for a current owner to meet his responsibility, Adena Springs has taken back, cared for, and retrained horses that were bred at their nursery.

There are approximately 500 Thoroughbred retirement organizations that are legally recognized as charitable organizations and another 400 that work with retired horses without the tax benefits afforded by the 501-C.

With every dollar they send through a betting window, horseplayers have long since been doing their share to support Thoroughbred horses that, as Ron McAnally once said, give their lives for our pleasure. We could all do a little more, of course.

The industry--whether it be the organizations that subsist because Thoroughbreds race for money, or the tracks, horsemen, state governments and racino operators that wouldn’t be in business were it not for horseracing--needs for everyone to do the right thing.

But how can any industry enlist the help of others without first acknowledging it has a serious problem and make a fervent, collective attempt to do something about it?

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Absence of Malice Isn’t Enough

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., March 17, 2011--It’s been a week since the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission released the results of its forensic investigation into the Life At Ten incident.

At the time it happened, I became enraged thinking about how such an event, and the manner in which it transpired could occur, especially under a world class microscope.

Within days, I was asking for sanctions against the principals involved; trainer Todd Pletcher, jockey John Velazquez, and chief steward John Veitch, calling for the latter’s dismissal.

I thought that when the results of the investigation--laughable in that it took four months to complete--were made public, I’d become furious all over again.

But it’s not rage that I feel now. What I feel is this: Nothing.

The processes in which any untoward occurrence is adjudicated within the Thoroughbred industry usually comes down in a fashion similar to the aftermath of this investigation, namely very little.

It remains to be seen just what, if any, real sanctions will be levied, whether there will indeed be a measure of accountability. After all, none of this was any of the filly’s doing.

But I’m afraid the industry has won, it’s beaten me down, stolen from me the energy needed to become angry. Taking it out of the realm of feelings, it’s a sad resignation I’m experiencing. Always, resignation.

If I didn’t love it so--if I didn’t still feel compelled to give back to a game that has packed my life with excitement and fulfillment, one that’s given me a living, a chance to work at what surely would have been an avocation--I would walk away.

I would walk away with all the others who, for one reason or another, refused to play the game by the same old tired rules and outcomes, so tired of all of it.

The KHRC found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing. No one dropped a dime to the regulatory body to report any betting irregularities. No fix was in. But as important as integrity is as the cornerstone of any gambling enterprise, that never was at issue here.

The driving force behind the non-action taken by any of the game’s well known practitioners while the rare events of Nov. 5 unfolded before a national television audience is the same tie that binds everyone in modern society: Money.

A five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer was concerned that his filly, training as well if not better than any member of his deep, powerful arsenal, was unusually quiet, but informed no authority figure of his concerns.

Was he compelled to do so? By rule, no. By moral imperative? No one knows that answer because that’s not the way the money game is played. Instead, after the fact, it was reported that his filly might have had an adverse reaction to Lasix.

A future first-round Hall of Fame jockey told a retired Hall of Fame colleague on television that his mount didn’t feel right, indicating again later on that the situation had “not really” improved.

Erring on the side of business, he did not bring his filly to the state veterinarian for further examination before the start of the race, preferring to break from the barrier to see if his mount would improve with a jolt of adrenaline.

Life At Ten took several steps away from the starting gate and was eased. The jockey abdicated his responsibility and failed to report what he was feeling to the veterinarian on the scene.

He did not do so despite what was apparent to many veteran horsemen; that the filly was traveling in a manner strongly suggesting she was “tying up,” severely cramped, unable to perform normally.

Instead, Velazquez made a judgment call, one he is likely to always regret. He was in a tough spot but he failed to act in the best interests of racing and its lifeblood, the bettors. To me, the only blemish on his exemplary career.

Where it all went horribly wrong, and where there is more than a hint of a cover-up, occurred after the chief steward was contacted by a veteran ESPN producer and told what Velazquez said to analyst Jerry Bailey at four minutes to post time.

Led by chief steward Veitch, the fact that none of the stewards took action is inexcusable and not in the best interests of the game. The investigation revealed that indeed Veitch had put the onus on Velazquez, making his responsibility when all he need to do was to pick up a phone.

This collective non-action, intended or not, served the interests of Breeders’ Cup Ltd. and Churchill Downs Inc. by not returning millions of dollars to the betting public or the starting fees--more than the annual salary of most bettors--to the owner of Life At Ten. That’s a business decision.

If there were no fear of being judged as making the wrong decision, why wasn’t the filly given a post race test, steward Veitch reasoning that the testing barn likely was too overcrowded to take a blood sample. Seriously, that’s a reason?

Then there’s the conflicting testimony when KHRC steward John Becraft broke ranks, Becraft suggesting that the stewards should contact the state veterinarian at the gate. Becraft said that Veitch’s response was “if we do that, we might as well scratch the horse.”

This became a he said-he said. According to the report Veitch acknowledged Becraft might have made that suggestion but denied both hearing the suggestion or saying “…we might as well scratch the horse.”

This section of the report raised reasonable questions about whether the stewards, notably Veitch, acted in a manner that goes beyond an error in judgment and into possible abdication of responsibility.

Veitch’s non-denial denial defense of not being able to recollect a conversation in such a weighty and short timeline of events simply doesn’t fly in the real world. Where then is accountability?

What is incontrovertible is that Life At Ten was not herself in the paddock, post parade or warm-up. Any number of experts observed her action and determined she was cramped to the point where she physically was unable to race normally, much less competitively.

If Kentucky racing rules are vague enough to cause confusion among the sport’s most elite practitioners then they are nothing more than legal loopholes. In that context, following usual and customary protocols is neither a reasonable course of action nor acceptable defense.

The report implies, however vaguely, that Velazquez and Veitch are equally culpable. But racing officials by definition are the last line of defense.

In a recent thought provoking piece, Alan Shuback of Daily Racing form drew an analogy between Life At Ten’s and Barbaro’s unusual pre-Preakness behavior, reminding all that the ill-fated colt, after breaking through before the start, was immediately reloaded into the gate in a similar pressure-packed situation.

Should the Maryland stewards have erred on the side of caution and asked the attending veterinarian to take a comprehensive second look? The sport is still reeling from the effects of Barbaro, and Eight Belles, too. The Life At Ten affair resulted only in a personal tragedy for the bettors and owner.

Does anyone doubt that one more high profile breakdown resulting in death has a chance to put a reeling sport out of business?

And so what will be sanctions be? Indeed, what should they be? Can the game survive the fallout from a perceived wrist slap? What happens next time?

Why can’t a leading authority, such as the Jockey Club, construct specific guidelines and a code of conduct that all state regulators can follow instead of commissioning yet another study?

Written by John Pricci

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