Friday, November 14, 2014

Gulfstream Finds Temporary Fix to Palm Beach Workouts Flap

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 14, 2014--Bruno De Julio is an independent published clocker, horse owner, bloodstock agent and syndication manager, a man certainly not lacking in either portfolio or credibility.

But when he contacted Palm Beach Downs, a training center in Del Ray Beach earlier this week, he was told that he would not be able to enter because the facility was private property, essentially racing’s version of a “gaited community.”

When he questioned what the protocol for entrance was, a PBD spokesperson, who may or may not have been the general manager, pointedly said “you want to come here for some hidden motives.”

As a private, published clocker, De Julio has a partnership arrangement with to sell workout reports through their auspices. His wealth of credentials has given him access to most every major racetrack in America.

In the course of conversation, De Julio was told that no one is allowed in “for the protection of the horses.” Additionally, he was instructed that the workouts were being recorded because “horses can’t run without workouts.”

“I then informed her that over 20 horses of Todd Pletcher’s worked on Nov. 12th but no workouts were recorded,” De Julio said by phone from Del Ray Beach Thursday. I asked him how he knew that since he was denied admission:

“The workouts are up on Pletcher’s website.”

Todd Pletcher’s program often involves company workouts which he hand-times, also relying on corroboration from an assistant trainer or an official clocker. Given his prolific accomplishments, it’s safe to infer that his methods work.

When the story first surfaced, racing’s Internet outlets began buzzing. Grassroots activist Andy Asaro apprised myriad industry types of the situation and Jeff Platt, Horseplayers Association of North America CEO, sent an email to the Jockey Club which took the matter under review.

With the Palm Beach Downs issue as catalyst, the bigger question becomes: What to do with horses that run at racetracks off private training centers where most workouts are hand-timed by the people who condition them, honor bound to supply timing information for wider dissemination.

Workouts timed by trainers on the honor system? What could possibly go wrong?

In California, and at other major circuits, licensed private clockers work alongside official clockers employed by Equibase, the industry’s information disseminator responsible for official charts, past performances and workout times.

Having official and private clockers work side by side provides “a good system of checks and balances,” De Julio explained. “It’s worked very well in California.”

Clearly, the entire parimutuel system could not exist at this point in racing history without making serious attempts to supply the most reliable and transparent handicapping information available.

Another related issue might be the most important of all; the accurate timing of the races themselves. At present this is unachievable as long as there are variances in the head start or run-up horses get before the timing process begins.

Parenthetically, with respect to timing grass races, the imperfect system in place is exacerbated when the position of the temporary rail is altered, which is done to provide the safest footing possible and preserve course longevity.

The day after De Julio had his exasperating conversation with the PBD spokesperson, published workouts began to surface. Finally, by late Friday morning, the situation was resolved, albeit far from the perfect solution.

Gulfstream has reached an agreement with the owner of Palm Beach Downs property offering a compromise after it became apparent that the property owner had no interest in hiring a clocker.

Gulfstream hired its own clocker who they hope to have in place by Dec. 1 at the latest. Further, it intends to hire another to time workouts at Payson Park, another private training facility 90 minutes from Gulfstream Park.

Workouts from Palm Beach Downs and Payson Park will be published in past performance data. Gulfstream will foot the bill and later be reimbursed in part by Equibase.

Racing Vice President P.J. Campo hired a clocker who will report timing information to Equibase, the track hoping to avoid any political issues which could arise from Daily Racing Form or private clockers like De Julio seeking access.

It remains to be seen how well the system will work. With a horse population of 1,200 at Gulfstream, the track has three clockers to cover morning workouts, Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch as the occasional fourth man in the booth.

Palm Beach Downs has an approximate horse population of 200; Payson’s about twice that. How one person is expected to handle a crush of workouts that traditionally come after track maintenance breaks seems an extremely tall order.

Additionally, will that person be a truly skilled timer, or someone on Gulfstream’s payroll will to take information supplied to them by a horsemen and simply perform data-entry tasks for Equibase? Only time will tell.

Until then, as some other boss might say, you can’t light a fire without a spark.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Bets ‘N Pieces

PLANTATION, FL., November 11, 2014--Turf Writers in the News: Kudos to colleague Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal for her election into the National Museum of Racing’s Joe Hirsch Media Role of Honor.

And a tip of the cap to the Role of Honor Committee for remembering that the late, legendary Los Angeles Times columnist, Jim Murray, did racing proud any time he wrote about it, one of the few sports columnists--Red Smith leaps to mind--who loved Thoroughbred racing.

While I had a ‘hello-how-are-you’ relationship with Murray, I’ve had many occasions to work alongside Ms. Rees in press boxes everywhere. She is among the hardest working, knowledgeable reporters of either sex to cover the backstretches of America’s racetracks.

If there was a big event, Rees was there to cover it until only recently when the newspaper went austere on everything and Rees was forced to pick her spots. Given the way the business has gone, she’s become known among her peers as “the last turf writer…”

Encouraging news out of Boston that Bob Neumeier is on his way to recovery after suffering a stroke while preparing to leave for Los Angeles during Breeders’ Cup week after several anxious days early on.

Of course, Neumeier has had a long, distinguished career in television and radio in greater Massachusetts and is well known to this audience for his work on national broadcasts of major racing events for the NBC television network.

Without fail, we run into “Neumy” every year at Gulfstream Park where he spends a major part of the winter months. He tells everyone that he’s getting background on the three-year-olds in the run-up to Derby, but his horse-playing buds know better.

If it is at all possible, we expect that this winter will be no different. Come on down, Robert, the weather’s fine. And we’ll see if we can arrange a Get-Well Card in honor of your return. (Ed.note: Sorry, couldn't resist).

Does anyone else find it ironic that last week, while the New York Racing Association was offering health care insurance for jockeys, Parx Racing was encouraging jockeys to sign an indemnity clause absolving them of any responsibility should accidents arise?

I’m not sure where I stand on this: I’m certainly not on the side of Parx, but jockeys by definition are independent contractors.

I’m all for supporting the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund but insurance money has to come from somewhere. A portion has been coming out of the owners’ purse accounts. New York State has approved the measure and has set aside the funding.

The fact that the Saratoga Race Course meet will be the same 40 days long in 2015 makes sense from a business standpoint given the unknown status of the current NYRA franchise, expected to be put out to bid by the end of next year. Obviously, nothing’s certain when state governments are involved, so who knows?

One of the reasons given for a non-extension was balking from out-of-state horsemen for the added expenses that an eight-week, 40-day stand with racing five days per week would place on the owners.

Many years ago, the notion of a Saratoga A-meet and B-meet was discussed. If something like that were implemented, out-of-staters could ship in appropriate horses depending on which “meet” was being conducted.

Nothing says that horses from out of state can’t just simply ship in for those “meets” or for individual races, right? The reason given for the status quo just seems a bit of a stretch.

Interesting that Board Chairman David Skorton was unavailable for comment for the Albany Times Union story, and that board member Charles Wait, Chairman and CEO of the Adirondack Trust Co. of Saratoga, refused to speak on the matter with reporter James Odato.

Give me a T… gimme an R… gimme an A… gimme an N… gimme an S… gimme a P… gimme an A… gimme an R… gimme an E… gimme an N… gimme a C… gimme a Y! Now, what have you got?!

Oh? Never mind.

HorseRaceInsider would like to thank not only all those brave souls who paid the ultimate price for service to their country, and to the many thousands of disabled war veterans, but to those fighting for our safety and freedom everywhere in the world.

Lest we forget the words of the late Gen. Douglas MacArthur at West Point: Duty. Honor. Country.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

For Classic Blunder, Blame the Rule

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 3, 2014--When I was taking business classes in college, somehow I was always fascinated by the legal terms de facto and de jure .

As I got older I realized it went beyond strictl legal definitions, the first being “in fact, whether by right or not” and the latter, meaning “according to rightful entitlement, or claim:”

What the Santa Anita stewards did in the minutes after Bayern’s nose hit the finish line thisclose ahead of Toast of New York was to make a de jure ruling on what the whole world believes to be a de facto incident.

Everyone saw Shared Belief getting bumped badly at the break by the eventual winner, starting a fortuitous chain reaction that seriously compromised Moreno, the only other true speed horse in the race.

Upon dismounting, Shared Belief’s jockey Mike Smith told a national television audience that the incident cost him “any chance to win the race in the first sixteenth of a mile, from both sides.

The stewards later said that when asked, Smith told them “it would be hard for me to say“ that the incident prevented him from winning.

Then, on Sunday morning, the winningest rider in Breeders’ Cup history refuted the stewards‘ characterizations, saying that he told the stewards that he “got creamed in there.”

Well, which was it Mike? My question for Mr. Smith would be “why the hell didn‘t you claim foul as soon as you got on the phone with the stewards?”

We can’t question the he said-they said aspects of the conversation because no one outside of four people know what was said for sure, but didn’t Smith believe he had a “rightful entitlement or claim?”

And I won’t be willing to accept the notion that the stewards had already posted an inquiry. Inquiries and claims for the same infraction happen every day:

Just like “incidents at the start,” a by-product of California racing rule 1699 ( c ).

What makes this difficult for me to understand is the history of the sport itself. Why ask a jockey whether he believes he’s guilty, innocent, or about his version of events? I suspect that it is part tradition, part lack of bad-old-days technology.

But there’s another tradition in this sport, one that lacks definition but no less real. In law enforcement it’s known as the “Blue Wall.”

In this sport, no one ever holds racing’s version of the powerful 1% accountable, whether it’s owners, trainers or the jockeys.

Incur the wrath of owners and a trainer gets no horses--except for those able to win at a rate of 25% or greater.

Incur the wrath of trainers and a jockey doesn’t get mounts unless, of course, their agent can successfully spin the trainer.

But incur the wrath of other jockeys and that seam will never open; that hole on the rail will get tighter and tighter.

All this is why the currency in this sport is the lie: Every horse couldn’t be doing better; a “deep bone bruise” might really be a bowed tendon; “exhaustion” could turn out to be a condylar fracture.

Much of the bettors’ furor is based upon the unpopularity of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who many believe is too big to fail.

The rest is based on optics, that while the California Horse Racing Board was investigating seven sudden deaths suffered by Baffert-trained horses that had been treated with Thyroxin, a powerful hormone used to regulate metabolism, several of its Board members were seen socializing with Baffert in his Santa Anita box during the process.

The forthright Jim Rome, the highly visible part-owner of Shared Belief, allowed on his radio show Monday that Baffert clearly is a powerful guy in California, but he did stop short of one of his famous “takes.”

Rome later said that he had put the matter behind him and moved on, just like some of those controversial athletes he grills. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s only remark was “you saw what happened,” hoisting the Backside Curtain.

When I first came to the beat in the 1970s, I learned something about foul adjudication because the New York stewards at the time opened lines of communication via a press box two-way microphone.

“Are you ready?” steward Francis Dunne would ask. “Yes sir,” someone would always reply. Today, racing talks about transparency; 40 years ago it was practiced in New York, but sadly, no longer.

When an event similar to what happened in the Classic occurred, Dunne’s words are as clear now as they were when I first heard them: “That’s an incident at the start, gentlemen, we‘re leaving it as is.”

Which, whether most observers agree with the decision or not, is exactly what the Santa Anita stewards did Saturday night.

I’ve watched the replay more than a dozen times at every conceivable speed and from every angle available and I’ll say this; the notion that Martin Garcia intentionally drove his horse inward to reach the fence by any means necessary is absurd.

Indeed, Bayern slammed into Shared Belief hard; in turn Shared Belief nailed Moreno. Soon thereafter, Toast of New York ran his post pattern from slip 9 and also tagged Moreno, the Classic’s only other true speed.

The complexion of the race changed immediately, the incident giving Bayern a huge advantage after having severely compromised Shared Belief.

In our view, however, it is not unequivocal or irrefutable that the incident prevented Shared Belief from winning the race. Yes, he’s light bodied and , yes, he had the air taken out of him--but he was full of run racing into the first turn.

Was he severely hindered? Unquestionably. Did it cost him the race? Most probably. But was he prevented from winning right there and then? I say no.

After careful review and due consideration, I cannot be convinced that Garcia did not make every effort to straighten his mount.

As analyst Jerry Bailey said, Bayern broke in and forward simultaneously. The first clear view of Garcia was him shifting his weight and tugging at his reins hard and to the right.

I don’t know what more he could have done at that point to undo the damage done, although he did continue on a path to the rail.

However, I don’t believe it was humanly possible for Garcia to react any faster than he did. So now the question becomes: Do you hold the horse Bayern accountable for his actions? Mr. Ed maybe; Bayern, I really can’t say.

When Toast of New York came in, bumping with Moreno, whose saddle eventually slipped, Smith was behind Moreno trapped inside full of run and looking for a way out, causing him to check hard over heels.

I don’t know how Smith and Shared Belief escaped clipping the heels of the horse directly in front of them. It was truly a scary moment and it’s very fortunate that no human or animal was put in harm‘s way--but it was close.

All sports come down to a game of inches and the 2014 Classic was no different, right down to the photo finish indicating that Bayern finished a nose ahead of Toast of New York and a neck in front of California Chrome, as the three leaders finished 1-2-3 at speedy Santa Anita.

So was the whole affair lamentable? You bet. Did the defeat cost Shared Belief two championships, including Horse of the Year and likely to earn Bayern the three year old title? Yes, and the Horse of the Year push-back has already begun.

In ratings submitted to the NTRA Monday, I ranked Main Sequence #1, Bayern #2, followed in order by California Chrome, Untapable, Shared Belief, and two-time defending Horse of the Year Wise Dan.

In the final NTRA Poll of 2014, the aggregate opinion of 47 other turf writers and broadcasters reflected that same order of finish. The top-ranked vote getters, Main Sequence and Bayern, earned 20 and 13 first-place votes, respectively.

The best idea to come out of all this, to possibly avoid any appearance of homerism or political influence in the future, is to do what is done in other major sports.

Draft officials from different parts of the U.S., the best of the best, and have them officiate the Breeders’ Cup races. Have a house steward in the room to act in an advisory role should relevant local idiosyncrasies arise.

I’m sure the majority of observers believe that Bayern should have been disqualified based, de facto, on what they saw.

But then so was the Santa Anita stewards’ de jure interpretation of the rule governing the start of any race run in California, be it claimer or Breeders‘ Cup Classic.

Written by John Pricci

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