Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Alas, Common Sense Prevails in L’Affaire Strip

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 19, 2014—When it comes to nasal strips, New York State’s Thoroughbred Rule 4033.8, stating “only equipment specifically approved by the stewards shall be worn or carried by a jockey or a horse in a race” no more longer applies.

Finally, a victory of sensible thinking over politically autocratic overkill.

In a way it’s a little too bad that officials caved in so quickly on the will-he-or-won’t-he-run controversy. Had officials waited another day or two, it might have gotten people outside the game who watch three races a year fired up, providing enhanced interest in the proceedings.

It actually might have created some new racing fans, those that have fallen in love with a charismatic, handsome Thoroughbred with the cool name of California Chrome. Let’s face it; how many other concerted efforts by the industry to grow the base succeeded?

On the flip side, the New York Gaming Commission should be their props for stepping up so quickly and not pass the buck on to the stewards, who would have been under unreasonably inordinate pressure to do something they refused to do two years ago.

Ultimately, the stewards are racing’s final arbiters. Just ask the bettor who lost over a million bucks when his horse was disqualified in the final race of the day this winter at Gulfstream Park.

Like it or not, decisions such as these are the rightful purview of racing’s trained officials--with transparency and accountability, of course.

The use of nasal strips, permitted in harness racing but heretofore banned in New York’s Thoroughbred game, was no big deal and way overblown in the first place.

Ultimately, the stewards acted on the sane rationale of the New York State Gaming Commission’s Equine Medical Director Scott Palmer, DVM, who explained what everyone had surmised; that the use of nasal strips was not performance enhancing.

A nasal strip simply helps a horse breathe a little easier, and improper application of it does not impede its performance.

Additionally, nasal strips may decrease the amount of bleeding associated with exercised induced pulmonary edema without need of a syringe, unlike Lasix which proponents say is needed to control EIPH but is more commonly used as a performance enhancer and potential masking agent.

It is said that raceday Lasix levels an uneven playing field which, in and of itself, is a veiled admission that those who do not administer it somehow are at a competitive disadvantage. So, which one is it?

Clearly, yesterday’s decision by the New York stewards this was more policy change than simple, pragmatic decision making. Now, according to Palmer, equine nasal strips can be classified in the same category as tongue-ties.

Had common sense not prevailed, the precedent cited would have been the I’ll Have Another case of 2012. That dual classics winner was scratched on the eve of the Belmont due to injury but had been denied permission to use a nasal strip.

While the current Triple Crown connections arrive on Long Island all squeaky clean, I’ll Have Another’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, brought some unwelcome baggage into Belmont Park.

It may be that the nasal strip denial had as much do with O’Neill’s admission that he used Shockwave Therapy on I’ll Have Another to treat the colt’s aching back.

But the use of Shockwave Therapy in horses is highly controversial and rightly so. An overzealous horseman could use it to promote faster healing of soft tissue injuries, which more correctly responds to R & R than anything else.

Further, the back issue didn’t ring true with several experts at that time. In addition, there is not universal agreement on the lead time needed between treatment and a return to racing or serious training.

History notwithstanding, it is good that pragmatism prevailed here. If not, strict rules constructionists might have been uncomfortable rolling the dice with people who during the Triple Crown season have shown themselves to act in a principled manner.

If a partial-sale meant that Art Sherman no longer would be the colt’s trainer; it was no sale. If Churchill Downs wasn’t accommodating enough to Perry Martin and his family, there was no reason to move on to Pimlico, however misguided that decision might have been.

It is not inconceivable, then, that Team California Chrome might have elected to stay home. The Belmont will be, after all, his fourth race in nine weeks. And, of course, it’s a mile and a half long.

To ask the colt to perform in any manner that might diminish the capacity to be at his best could have been enough reason to pull the plug on history.

Indeed, a Triple Crown victory conservatively could double his value, guesstimated by some to currently stand in the $15 million range given his recent invincibility. A loss could have a negative impact on his value in the future.

California Chrome is handsome and he’s fast. He’s already a rock star that would have any major track in America stumbling over itself to attract the dual classics winner to its venue.

Strange, too, if you consider this: Ask the ordinary sports fan or casual racing fan to name all 11 Triple Crown winners and they would be very hard pressed to do so.

But ask them five years from now to name the horse that had a chance to win the Triple Crown and stayed home on a matter of principle, they’d blurt out his name in 22-and-44.

Would that decision be unfair to the horse? Undoubtedly, yes. But while California Chrome may be handsome and fast, I’m not sure his feelings wouldn’t be hurt as long as part owner Steve Coburn keeps feeding him those cookies.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

California Dreamin’: Safe and Warm in Baltimore

SARATOGA SPRINGS, May 17, 2014--For horse racing fans and bettors, dreamers one and all, it doesn’t get any better than what happened Saturday at America’s second oldest racetrack.

California Chrome was second to none.

In the Derby, there were more than a few skeptics but California Chrome proved to be the best horse, flashing that push-button acceleration of his, making the doubters look like a bunch of dumb asses.

And, of course, because of the serendipitous nature of dreams, literal and figurative, he became America’s Horse, winning the Derby for the 99 percenters.

On the third Saturday in May at “Old Hilltop,” the story got even larger. By Saturday night the Chromies were beside themselves, having to scrunch over to make way for a gang of band-wagon fans.

He got his job done, on two weeks rest and in racehorse time. What will happen on Long Island three weeks hence is for another day—on other days and for weeks to come.

But this time there was no told-you-so from the highly visible partner-breeder and 99 percenter Steve Coburn. There was only gratitude, humility and tears of joy, thanking everyone within hailing distance.

How many people have ever stood on a cupola at a Triple Crown track thanking their grooms after a race?

Sometimes it sounds a little trite when the TV guys say it but horse racing is the most democratic of all sports.

A decade ago, it was a fun bunch of high school pals with a horse born virtually in their backyards in upstate New York. Now it’s the Left Coast’s turn for two guys who had $10,000 and a dream.

As for the whole Triple Crown enchilada, there will be plenty of time, plenty of workouts, plenty of rumors—all of it to ponder.

But first, an over-the-shoulder look back at Preakness 139, in the order they went to the post:

1-Dynamic Impact was a gutty, tenacious winner of the Illinois Derby but made no impression whatsoever in the Preakness, the very brief flurry approaching the far turn notwithstanding.

2-General A Rod If you analyze the trips of Derby-Preakness horses not named California Chrome, General A Rod was far unluckier than Ride On Curlin. Javier Castellano engineered perfect position, steering ‘A Rod’ off the rail, at the ready to go after the favorite when it was time. But time stood still when the recklessly managed filly Ria Antonia stopped in his face soon after curling into the far turn--and continued her stopping all the way round the bend. Entering headstretch, ‘A Rod’ was inside with no chance to win. Angled out by Castellano at the three-sixteenths pole, he finished with a flourish after altering course again, only slightly, to the inside of a drifting Ring Weekend. Still, he almost ran down Social Inclusion for third. Ring Weekend had five lengths on A Rod at headstretch but A Rod was 4-1/4 ahead of him at the wire.

3-California Chrome is a remarkable racehorse. If he was tiring at the end of 1-3/16s miles, his action belied that fact. He stayed in rhythm beneath a “perfect” Victor Espinoza, his stick down in the last 40 yards. His course never wavered through the stretch as fatigued or lesser horses would. He makes his own perfect trip every time he runs. Victor’s brother, Jose, for years one of the most under-appreciated riders in New York and told he could never ride again, did a pretty good job getting his brother home Saturday. Here’s hoping miracles happen. This is the California Chrome saga we’re talking about here, so nothing's impossible.

4-Ring Weekend completed a big two weeks for the West Pointers, first Commanding Curve, now this guy, who likely got very little out of his Calder Derby placing, then caught a cold, then made a very representative run in the Triple Crown’s second leg. Coming out at the start and exchanging bumps that virtually eliminated Bayern, he made a nice run up the fence down the backside and on the turn in the spot vacated by ‘A Rod’ and continued running well into the lane, but tired in mid-stretch. It was a damn good try for a horse that had missed some training.

5-Bayern was eliminated at the break. He’s not the type, even if 1-3/16 miles were within his scope, which is suspect. to overcome that kind of buffeting about at the start of a race.

6-Ria Antonia was the subject of a rumor back at the stakes barn after the race that the filly was looking for a new owner. Unfortunately we were unable to confirm the report before posting this column.

7-Kid Cruz was never involved, racing as if he were empty all the way.

8-Social Inclusion washed out badly, as he is prone to do, was obstreperous in the gate, but was the only entrant to actually bring the race to California Comet, Luis Contreras did the only thing he could if he hoped to upset the Preakness. Once again this inexperienced colt acquitted himself very well. It was heartening to see that loyalty is rewarded, albeit to a lesser degree, twice in the same race.

9-Pablo Del Monte was a worthy pace presence but he surely is going to miss the Keeneland Polytrack.

10-Ride On Curlin was perfectly ridden behind a solid, but not especially enervating, pace and gave his all in an excellent run. Everyone in his camp wanted a clear shot at a brass ring and Joel Rosario gave that to the colt and his connections. He ran on very well for second but, from what we could see, the best horse would not let him by even on the gallop-out.

While we’re on this subject, we think that NBCSports is having a good Triple Crown season. But, please, can we stay on the horses just a tad longer before we go to the hero/reaction shots?

I fully realize the network is playing to a different audience, and I’m romantic enough to enjoy all the featured human storylines. That is what makes the sporting aspect of horse racing unique.

But cutting away from the horses too soon after the finish does all viewers a disservice. The aerial shot had the view, but that even was needlessly truncated.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 04, 2014

Horse Racing Also Wins Big at the Derby

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 4, 2014—The greatest thing about loving this game, the greatest thing about the Kentucky Derby, is that sometimes even when you lose trying to beat the favorite, you feel like a winner.

A couple of “dumbasses” put on quite a show at Churchill Downs on Saturday, as did the first race horse they ever owned. California Chrome got there in 2:03.66, the slowest time since Cannonade precisely four decades ago. But that’s for another day.

In Derby 140, there were rough trips and good trips and impossible trips, but there always are in 19-horse fields. But that story can wait, too, that’s a second-day riff; pre-Preakness, pre-Belmont Stakes.

I was at Churchill Downs on 18 occasions during the first week in May and admit that the feeling of being there live is irreplaceably special, especially when they play, as the jockeys put it, “that song.”

But the truth is that television captures the scene better, pictures worth thousands of words.

American horse racing fanatics have read or heard all the stories about the Coburns and Perrys and their dreams. The first time I did was on a cell phone speaker while eating a Chicago-style polish sausage at Hot Dog Heaven in Ft. Lauderdale.

It was there I first heard Coburn’s story on an NTRA conference call. It was quite a yarn he spun that afternoon. It included the story of his sister whose young life was tragically taken by disease at age 36, which Coburn saw as part of California Chrome’s destiny.

For it was 36 years ago when thoroughbred racing last celebrated a Triple Crown winner, said yesterday’s birthday boy, whose horse is now part of Derby lore. Coburn almost convinced me this winter. But the convincing would have to wait 'til Derby day.

It was fated, as was Coburn’s meeting with partner Perry Martin, the less loquacious “dumbass,” who together bought Love The Chase when a previous racing partnership was dissolved upon the mare’s retirement.

The two men formed a new relationship and called it, “Dumbass Partners,” or “DAP,” the name contributed courtesy of a groom who thought that “anyone who decides to buy [Love The Chase] is a dumbass.”

Not to be too hard on the groom, but he didn’t know anything about Coburn’s fate-ridden journey, who, with his partner can now rename the mare Love The Triple Crown Chase.

But even if that quest fails, for this Smarty Jones kind of racehorse the journey has begun, an oldest trainer’s dream realized in the Churchill Downs winners’ circle ceremonies.

Art Sherman is 77. In Triple Crown terms, ’77 was Seattle Slew’s year. California Chrome isn’t undefeated at this stage, but he is 5-for-5 beneath Victor Espinoza, who was as brilliant as his Derby mount.

Espinoza didn’t rattle when caught between speed horses going into the first turn, andnd neither did he rattle on the second turn when Samraat ranged up alongside four abreast.

“There was one inside, one outside. I could see everybody coming outside and my heart went 100 miles an hour,” he would say about the first-turn part of his journey. And when he got California Chrome out in the clear on the backside, it was “what a relief, I could let him stretch his legs.”

At a point where a lesser animal might have begun to wilt, horse and rider appeared relaxed despite having to race between horses. They both were as cool as cucumber slices on a Vienna Beef hotdog. At least that’s the way it appeared on TV.

California Chrome is a cool dude. First of all, he’s a chestnut, not the red kind like the ’73 Triple Crown winner but one that's copper-penny shiny like golden chrome. And there are those white stockings, too.

He has a stall presence, aware of his surroundings, curious but relaxed, in control. He likes people and was very playful, nipping at Johnny Weir who took the “lucky cookies” they were feeding from Tara Lipinski’s hand because “he’s had enough, he has to race tomorrow.”

California Chrome might not have gotten to the Derby finish line in fast time, like he did at Santa Anita, and his winning margin wasn’t nearly as great. But he won, and he won with authority once his closest rival, Samraat, became one-paced three-sixteenths of a mile from home.

“To see all this happen, to see this dream come true, to put up so much – your savings, your retirement – and see him win the Kentucky Derby, I have no words,” said an emotional Coburn after the race.

And, so, once again, California Chrome made a “dumbass” look like a genius, for first turning down a $6 million offer, then a $6.1 million for 51 percent, the catch being that the colt must say goodbye to Art Sherman and Los Alamitos.

Said Coburn Derby week: "The offer we got for this horse was from somebody who never put on a pair of boots to go to work and to me that was kind of an insult. Somebody who's got that much money who thinks they can step in and buy people who have worked so hard to get to this point, to me that was a slap in the face.

"Not only no, but hell no."

Six million dollars? That used to be real money, good enough to divide the mighty Secretariat 40 different ways.

Written by John Pricci

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