Sunday, November 01, 2015

American Pharoah Fulfilled the Dreams of Racing Fans Worldwide

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 31, 2015—In the end, American Pharoah, the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner, took longer to get back to the winners’ circle than it did for him to dispatch the best field of runners the world could assemble to defeat him, a lot longer.

Of course, this promenade allowed the multitude on hand at Keeneland to see him, embrace him for one last shining moment, to etch his appearance in the minds’ eye forever.

Victor Espinoza seized this instant to showcase an equine animal that put catapulted his rider into the bright lights normally reserved for those capable of achieving true significance.

Just as he had at Belmont Park, Espinoza gave a world-wide audience a one-horse post parade, time enough to consider his mount’s presence on one of Thoroughbred racing’s great stages. But American Pharoah gave racing more than just great victories.

There were mornings on the Jersey Shore this summer when fans were well-advised to ride the backstreets into Monmouth Park. We’ve been blessed to see our share of early morning workouts and gallops, but never in the company of about 2,500 fans on a Friday.

On another morning, in Saratoga during Travers week, when his expected appearance for a leg-stretching gallop snarled traffic for 20 minutes, even for those who live diagonally across the street from the race course on Union Avenue.

In late afternoon of June 6, on a magical spring day in New York, American Pharoah transported Belmont Park fans 37 years back in time and the realization they might never experience this moment again; memories haunted by many unrealized moments past.

There was an equally bright afternoon at Monmouth Park when the colt literally, totally and unexpectedly, reduced veteran observers to tears as they would truly appreciate greatness, perhaps for the first time. Old school standards take time and they die hard.

Of great personal significance, there were the videos of his timed pre-and-post Triple Crown workouts, too numerous to mention but noted here many times, in which American Pharoah rendered seeing disbelieving, straining the credulity of digits on a stopwatch.

His action, flawless and faulting of all others by comparison, made every morning trial seem wondrous, occasions unto themselves. His trainer, who this day would underscore his own Hall of Fame legacy, said it best early this week: “No horse can move like that.”

But American Pharoah’s best attribute is a demeanor that belies the aggressive attitude of so many exceptional horses which are incapable of allowing their competitive fire to remain submerged beneath the surface. He is kind, obedient, quizzical and playfully attentive.

Those attributes alone makes him one of the ones; a singular talent and the horse of a lifetime.

Fans often note how many of the great ones have noble names to match? Man o’ War, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Ruffian, to name just a few.

And now we have a son of Pioneer of the Nile who truly has earned the right to be called “America’s Horse,” more than in name only: American Pharoah, equine ruler, indeed.

In a world equally divided by politics and prejudice, the colt brought a measure of civility, bonding the diverse worlds of racing and sports world together, however briefly, to share and celebrate one of life’s special moments, one for all and all for one.

In the gloaming of Keeneland Race Course on a Saturday evening in October, the feelings were no different than when on the eve of American Pharoah’s triumphant farewell, a stadium full of baseball fans swayed arm-in-arm singing in celebration of one of its heroes.

As I watched American Pharoah saunter ever so slowly back to the winners’ circle for the final time of his magnificent career, the moments I cosmically shared with a race horse on a video screen provided an indelible memory to a lifelong racing fan.

At once, I was happy for the racing family who shared their priceless possession with the sport they love and risked it all after their colt’s place in racing history was assured, and I was sad for all people who just don’t get it about Thoroughbred racing.

Ahmed Zayat said it best before the race, a chance he need not have taken: It’s not about the money or the glory, he said, it’s about defining greatness which, in addition to tolerance and understanding, is currently in very short supply.

The sport owes the Zayat family and the horsemanship of Bob Baffert a debt of gratitude, one it can never fully repay.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Classic for the Ages and a Good Betting Race, Too

HALLANDALE BEACH, October 24, 2015—Breeders’ Cup pre-entries were released Wednesday, all 200 of them, but the rightful buzz surrounds the 2015 Classic which, if it holds together, may prove to be the best field ever assembled for the championship event.

This is possible due to the appearance of the first ever Triple Crown winner to compete in this race, a circumstance that forced racing publicists to come up with a new term should American Pharoah conquer the world, not just members of his own generation.

“Racing’s Grand Slam” might not be a terribly innovative term, but a pretty darn good one for a sport not usually celebrated for its originality.

They could have gone in a different direction but “Battle of the Sexes” wouldn’t be novel either. However, it is yet another development to gin up the event to those poor souls who just don’t get it about the sport of horse racing.

So let’s entertain this notion: Modern sports fans, and even U.S. racing fans for that matter, still get excited when boy meets girl.

The indelible memory, of course, is the battle that ended tragically at Belmont Park when Ruffian failed to complete the course in her match race with Kentucky Derby-winning Foolish Pleasure.

Other, happier, latter day recollections include Zenyatta’s Classic, Rachel Alexandra’s Preakness, and recalling Derby winners Winning Colors and Genuine Risk, a tomboy yet beautiful mare who returned to finish second in both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Consider that for a moment: In an era when it’s unusual for a three-year-old male to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown, Genuine Risk ran and placed in all three; remarkable, indeed.

The 2015 Classic is more than a celebrated match race between a Classics history making and a repeat champion of the fairer sex. And, as for Beholder, two recent memories stand out like beacons:

There was the jaw-dropping moment when she completely inhaled her male foes in the Pacific Classic, her first start vs. the boys and at the Classic’s 10-furlong trip.

The other was a pan shot of her walking in the Santa Anita paddock recently, providing a view reminiscent of another behemoth race mare, Shuvee, the repeat winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1970-71 at its original distance of two miles.

As exciting as this match is to anticipate, the 2015 Classic is more than a Triple Crown winner hitting for the circuit or a hookup at some fancy Midwest venue.

It is a race for the ages, one that also includes a Wood Memorial/Pennsylvania Derby winner; a three-time 2015 European Group 1 champion, and the G1 winner of the 2015 Hollywood Gold Cup.

And lest we not forget this year’s winner of the storied Metropolitan Handicap and Whitney; the Travers winner; last year’s Belmont and JCGC winner, and an exciting late developer who won the G1 Awesome Again impressively in just his fourth lifetime start.

All will have their hooves full, and despite the depth of talent and the scope of their accomplishments, none are without serious questions to answer, to wit:

Will the rigorous campaign and the air miles catch up with American Pharoah, a question which cannot be answered definitively until 5:46 p.m. at Keeneland next Saturday?

And while she had excuses, is Beholder the same mare outside California, and can she handle competition of this magnitude, by far the toughest in her career, on a surface over which she’s never run?

Can Frosted finish ahead of American Pharoah, something he has failed to do in three lifetime starts, and beat older rivals, too?

Can Gleneagles, a four-time Group 1 winner at a mile or less over there, beat a field of this quality in his first lifetime start on dirt at the classic American distance of a mile and a quarter?

Does Hard Aces really belong?

Will the talented, classy Honor Code have the same tremendous punch at 10 furlongs over an unfamiliar surface?

Is Keen Ice truly a horse for the future, or was his Travers victory the result of race dynamics that perfectly suited his style?

In another year, this question might be unnecessary but this is no ordinary year: Can a relatively inexperienced Smooth Roller take another leap forward against horses of this caliber?

And while his JCGC victory was an indication that he is all the way back, is Tonalist ultimately more than a horse for the Belmont Park course?

These are all legitimate concerns for all and what makes the 2015 Classic fascinatingly singular.

Until more video review is reviewed, all we can offer is this: On the Pricci Energy Ratings scale--a measure of energy distribution efficiency, the top-ranked horses on their best recent form are Beholder at 100.2; American Pharoah at 96.3, and Smooth Roller, 92.7.

On the Thoro-Graph scale, our interpretation of the patterns based on their previous performance figures, show two horses with upside capable of moving forward in the Classic: Keen Ice and Frosted.

Go figure.

Today's On The Line column was underwritten via special promotional arrangement with

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Seeking Big Picture Balance in Simulcasting

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 20, 2015—Once upon a time, while working for a daily newspaper far, far away, I often was invited to participate on a panel reviewing and deciding which in-house simulcast presentation was worthy of the Simulcast Award as conducted by the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of America.

The Simulcast Award honors excellence in a racetrack’s live race product presentation to simulcast outlets. Every year, a panel of five judges selects the winner as North America’s best. The award is presented yearly to the award winner at the annual International Simulcast Conference.

The TRA is a trade organization comprised of 44 member racetracks which account for about 75 percent of total North American handle annually. This year, 14 tracks submitted entries for the panel’s consideration. Santa Anita won the third time in 23 years, its first since winning back-to-back in 2000-2001.

The panel cited Santa Anita for its presentation, very informative yet easy to read, also noting its excellent display of results, payouts and race splits. Additional considerations were user-friendliness and use of multiple camera angles.

Each of the 14 competing tracks included one day’s actual audio and video presentation which incorporated pre-race features, odds, will-pays, commentary, the live race, followed by results and post-race features.

The closed-circuit TV department must have had an extraordinary day on June 27, the day Santa Anita submitted for consideration, because every time I watch the track's CC-TV coverage it leaves me wanting more.

The surmise is that this year’s panel members must not be serious horseplayers. All the winning elements cited I’m sure existed on June 27, but whenever I watch Santa Anita's presentation it has me wanting more relevant information, more efficiently.

Maybe it’s me but I don’t want to see any more commercials, whether it be in-house, local or national spots. I’m sure it helps pay the bills but it gets in the way of getting the betting information I need in a timely fashion.

If this year’s panelists are indeed serious players, then I apologize. But my surmise is that you make most of your wagers live on-track. At latter day race-book-style simulcast areas, on track or off, there is seldom audio for a simple reason: Can anyone decipher two or three sets of talking heads all speaking at the same time?

Back in the day, TV sets were placed far enough from each other that bettors picked their favorite track and park themselves in front of it. They heard all the audio information needed at Santa Anita, Belmont, Churchill, wherever.

Today’s theater style banks of TVs generally are lined up one after another on a big flat wall. If there is audio available, which it seldom is, conflicting sound is held to a minimum by placing the most popular signals far enough apart so as to avoid distraction.

Betting focus is difficult enough to maintain without conflicting information being disseminated as so much conflicting gibberish. Competing tracks, while getting better, remain in conflict vis a vis post-time synchronization. For dedicated simulcast handicappers, less audio is more.

What I see happening at Santa Anita too often is the following: The race is run, followed by on-track interviews which, as a turf writer, I want and appreciate. But the bettor next to me doesn’t. Sometimes there are two interviews with owners, trainers or jockeys--trainers should be the priority except in extraordinary newsworthy circumstances.

Then come two replays; the pan shot the clear priority. Time is always critical in simuland. Next come the commercials which, having no choice, I must live with.

By that time the horses reach the paddock. Video, interviews and paddock analysis comes next, the horses then leave the paddock, are followed onto the racetrack and shown in parade; the latter clearly the most critical of these.

And now Santa Anita deigns to show me the will-pays?

Now if I want to bet more money; to save with a runner getting smart tote action; press my Pick 5 with a Pick 4 that includes prime contenders, overlays, or solid runners I could not afford in the original P5 sequence, I couldn't do it intelligently without the needed will-pay information.

Aside from a betting system that points out sneaky, live horses in double will-pays in relation to the morning line, Double will-pays provide clues at what final post-time odds are more likely to be, especially when horses open as overlays. There are myriad reasons why will-pays are essential.

California tracks seem to consider horseplayer’s needs last. Whatever your past-performance provider preference, e.g., tracks there usually are the last to make entry sheets with morning lines available. Three time zones do not account for too-long delays.

During the years I served on the simulcast panel, I always seemed to vote for either Keeneland or Woodbine. This makes sense, since Keeneland, with seven awards, and Woodbine, with five, have accounted for more than half the 23 winners.

This year, the New York Racing Association came up with an innovation that includes will-pays next to paddock shots and post parades for a lengthy period to the right on the same screen. Further, added camera angles on both sides of the post parade, shot in high definition, and with on-air talent second to none, rate my unofficial vote.

Who knows? Maybe 2016 will be the year the NYRA wins its first ever Simulcast Award. Indeed, Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga are a collective 0-for-23 years. And there’s plenty wrong with that picture.

Written by John Pricci

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