Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Expect Many Hotly Contested Eclipse Categories

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, December 22 2015—Here is the dichotomy that was Thoroughbred racing in 2015: Never in the past 37 years has the vote for Horse of the Year been so well defined yet ballots in too many divisions will leave voters worlds apart for clear-cut lack of dominance.

The fact the great American Pharoah will be proclaimed 2015 Horse of the Year notwithstanding, voting in at least six categories, more if human practitioners are included, will spark endless debate among voters who sincerely care about championship legacy.

Confusion reigns not only at the top of many categories but several runners-up also are likely to be in dispute. Given the open nature of balloting in so many divisions, second and third-place votes in 2015 could be pivotal factors.

That said, this is one man’s opinion of which members of the 2015 equine set deserve championship recognition. In candor, I wanted to abstain in many categories where individuals, continually given opportunities to establish their dominance, didn’t.

Per usual, I start at the Grade 1 level and work my way down, acknowledging that not all G1s are created equal. But not even that benchmark was the determinant it normally is; personal opinion weighed more heavily this time around.

Parenthetically, we will await Saturday’s Grade 1 La Brea* before finalizing our official ballot for champion female sprinter.

STEEPLECHASE 4-YEAR-OLD & UP: A two-horse battle between Bob Le Beau and Dawalan, each with a pair of Grade 1s. Each owns a victory over the other but we separated them by rewarding ‘Bob’ who spotted Dawalan eight pounds while beating him in the Lonesome Glory. Battle for third between Overwhelming and African Oil was equally vexing.
1. Bob Le Beau 2. Dawalan 3. Overwhelming.

2-YEAR-OLD MALE CHAMPION: Thank you Nyquist for making this a no-brainer. Impossible to knock perfection: 5-for-5; three G1s, including his remarkable Juvenile score. Airoforce: Sprinting, turf, slop, he treated it all the same. Very talented and eagerly awaiting his 3 YO campaign. Mohaymen: 3-for-3, two Grade 2s, proving in the Remsen that he can get nine furlongs; another exciting prospect.
1. Nyquist. 2. Airoforce. 3. Mohaymen

Another big Southern California thanks to Songbird: 4-for-4, three Grade 1s counting the Juvenile Fillies. Faster than fast. Rachel’s Valentine was no slam dunk for place, not with Catch a Glimpse in the mix. But her placing to Songbird while being taken out of her best settle-in-stride game underscores her class. Including the G1 Juvenile Fillies Turf, she was a dual graded winner.
1. Songbird. 2. Rachel’s Valentina. 3. Catch A Glimpse

3-YEAR-OLD MALE CHAMPION: All Hail King Pharoah: Six Grade 1s including the first classics sweep in 37 years and racing first “Grand Slam.” Runhappy was 5-for-6, including two Grade 1s with the BC Sprint. No older horse finished ahead of him in four attempts; extraordinary talent. Too bad Dortmund had issues keeping him on the sidelines five months; was 5-for-7 including the G1 Santa Anita Derby and beat elders twice this fall. Frosted, Keen Ice and Upstart had opportunities to raise their games but did not; maybe next year.
1. American Pharoah. 2. Runhappy. 3. Dortmund.

3-YEAR-OLD FILLY CHAMPION: This was going to be one of my abstention categories: Every time it appeared one filly would take charge of the division but that never happened. The best 3-year-old filly I saw in 2015 was Lady Eli. Before going to the sidelines, there was no telling how good--and just because she’s 6-for-6 on grass, 3-for-3 this year, doesn’t mean she can’t do dirt. Stellar Wind was two bad trips from an undefeated 6-for-6 season. As it is she won four graded events including the G1 Santa Anita Oaks and was beaten a neck by older Stopchargingmaria in the Distaff. I’m a Chatterbox finished first in four graded stakes including the G1 CCA Oaks (disqualified) and G1 Cotillion, but only one of the four was beyond 1-1/16 miles.
1. Lady Eli. 2. Stellar Wind. 3. I’m a Chatterbox.

Another category in which at least three horses had opportunities to cement the title but did not. Further, I still don’t know to regard the abbreviated campaigns of Shared Belief and, to a lesser extent, California Chrome. I grudgingly settled on Tonalist [7] 3-2-1 for defending his G1 JCGC title and, after his disastrous-trip Classic clunker, he rebounded to win the G1 Cigar Mile with an impossible late rally. After the G1 Met Mile and Whitney, Honor Code was poised, then lost his last two starts. Had Mike Smith not opened a premature five-length Whitney lead in midstretch, Liam’s Map would have been settled this on BC Saturday. Should Shared Belief win this honor, I would be neither surprised nor disappointed.
1. Tonalist. 2. Honor Code. 3. Liam’s Map

4-YEAR-OLD & UP DIRT FEMALE: Thank you Beholder, a deserving winner of yet another title but again without never having to leave the friendly confines. Runners-up were hard to separate among Sheer Drama, Stopchargingmaria and Wedding Toast. But Sheer Drama scored two Grade 1s, one at 10 furlongs, had a G1 placing and a G2 score while taking her act on the road. Stopchargingmaria was exceedingly well managed in a 3-for-5 campaign culminating with the Distaff following two Grade 3s wins was good but not compelling enough. What Beholder is to SoCal, Wedding Toast is to Belmont Park.
1. Beholder. 2. Sheer Drama. 3. Stopchargingmaria.

Thank you Runhappy and Maria Borell. Private Zone had the title within his reach but could not hold off the exceedingly talented son of Super Saver. Rock Fall also was on the precipice of a championship but then the racing gods are a fickle and cruel lot.
1. Runhappy. 2. Private Zone. 3. Rock Fall.

3-YEAR-OLD & UP FEMALE SPRINT CHAMPION: Potential abstention category, Part 2. The ranking that appears below will change on our official ballot should Cavorting win Saturday’s G1 La Brea. Until then, we are compelled to take dominating New York-bred La Verdad by virtue of finishing first in five graded stakes from her first six starts and a gallant placing behind well managed F & M Sprint winner Wavell Avenue. Too bad her overall record was tarnished somewhat while running her poorest race this year vs. Fall Highweight males. The Grade 3 was her fifth start in 64 days--her third in 33 days-- including a trip to Kentucky in between. Now retired at 5, she won 15 of 24 lifetime starts. Still, it will be Cavorting’s title to lose. Lady Shipman is a turf sprint specialist that compiled a worthy (10) 7-2-1 slate this year, coming within a diminishing neck of defeating males in the BC Turf Sprint.
1. *La Verdad. 2. *Cavorting. 3. Lady Shipman.

3-YEAR-OLD & UP MALE TURF CHAMPION: Near abstention, Part 3. The best turf performance we witnessed all year was Flintshire’s course record G1 Sword Dancer. However, it only landed him show honors on our ballot. Never believing it were possible until we mulled over the Eclipse PPs, our #1 choice is The Pizza Man. A winner of 4 of 6 over different courses and disparate conditions, he took the G1 Arlington Million and was a jump shy of catching perfect-tripping Grand Arch in the G1 Shadwell. Following a very wide journey in the BC Turf, he rebounded by shipping to Del Mar and took the G2 Hollywood Turf Cup; not many BC horses win their subsequent start. Big Blue Kitten deserves props for winning half of his six starts, including two G1s.
1. The Pizza Man. 2. Big Blue Kitten. 3. Flintshire.

3-YEAR-OLD & UP FEMALE TURF CHAMPION: Not an abstention category but close only because I could have put my head on the pillow restfully after having taken one of three different directions. I voted for Tepin. Her (7) 5-2-0 record includes three G1s, with the BC Mile over males and a nose defeat in the G1 Diana. Stephanie’s Kitten won half her six starts with the BC F&M Turf. Found accomplished a lot in defeating course-compromised Golden Horn in the BC Turf. It was her lone qualifying U.S. start. And not to forget she was European Group 1 placed four times, two of those also vs. older males.
1. Tepin. 2. Stephanie’s Kitten. 3. Found

OUTSTANDING TRAINER: How can I not vote for Chad Brown, or Kiaran McLaughlin, coming off career years, or the redoubtable money machine, Todd Pletcher? But while I have my issues with Mr. Baffert, it’s one thing to have best horse but another to train one in such audacious fashion. Baffert got American Pharoah ready for a successful assault on history off a compressed prep regimen. He got the colt to give his most inspiring effort in his lone defeat when he would have preferred to keep him in the barn. Then to recycle and ready him for Classic gave testimony to the best horse we’ve seen in decades, all while under the pressure to maintain an uncommon level of excellence.
Bob Baffert

OUTSTANDING JOCKEY: Much like Baffert, it is one thing to ride the best dirt horse in the world and another to not make a mistake. Victor Espinoza never panicked; the Travers defeat coming as a result of circumstances and tactics, not through any fault of the rider. But it was Javier Castellano who dominated between the fences in 2016, the absolute difference on so many occasions--even if he does take a little too much the best of it at times. He wins with with every manner of racehorse. No one dominated race meetings the way Castellano did virtually throughout the entire year.
Javier Castellano

OUTSTANDING OWNER: For their unparalleled sportsmanship, this was a one-owner race.
Zayat Stable

OUTSTANDING BREEDER: The Zayats, of course, put together the mating of American Pharoah. Adena Springs and the Ramseys had wonderful seasons per usual but Darley achieved lofty heights with statistics not impacted by one particular horse or stallion. Darley-bred runners made 751 starts through Dec. 13, compiling an across-the-board record of 140-101-104. They were one of six breeders not named Zayat to win three or more Grade 1s; breeding the most G2 winners with four, and they placed third in earnings with $8.9 million, less than $400K behind the Zayats.
Darley Stable

HORSE OF THE YEAR 2016 was Thoroughbred racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner and inaugural Grand Slam champion.
American Pharoah

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Campo To Discuss Harlan’s Holiday Incident with Gulfstream Stewards

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 20, 2015—As was promised late last week, we caught up with Gulfstream Park President P.J. Campo before the races on Saturday. We discussed areas of interest to two members of the HRI Faithful:

The first was the extremely-late rider change announcement involving leading rider Javier Castellano, who replaced Matthew Rispoli on the winning Valid prior to last weekend’s Harlan’s Holiday. Denny wanted to know if Gulfstream had any reaction.

Roger’s reference was to his first-hand eyewitness account of an “almost 30 minute delay” before an announcement was made that a turf race would be rescheduled to the main track after multi-race betting had begun. Both are regular posters.

With regard to the late surface-switch announcement, Campo denied that the delay took that long. “We have a protocol that we follow,” Campo said. “After we decide [a race will be rescheduled], calls are made to the horsemen, stewards, and mutuels so that ‘turf’ tickets wouldn’t be sold on that race.”

I suggested that track announcer Larry Collmus should be higher on the call list so that the public would be informed of the change as quickly as possible. Obviously, a surface switch profoundly alters the handicapping/betting process.

As for the Harlan’s Holiday, the Valid incident was placed at the feet of trainer Marcus Vitali. “We weren’t told about the rider change until much later,” said Campo.

I informed Campo that a post-race press release referred to a conversation between Vitali and Rispoli. Said Vitali: “…I had talked to Matt yesterday or the day before. Nothing personal, it was a business decision. He’s a great kid and he still rides for me, and we move forward.”

My argument was since betting was conducted and had been finalized in at least four multi-race pools, that if the stewards were not notified in a timely manner of the change then they should mandated that Rispoli ride as named or that Valid be scratched.

A rule exists that in stakes races a trainer has up until 45 minutes to scratch his horse. It is not specified whether that rule also extends to rider changes. If that is the case then the rule needs to be altered or scrapped entirely.

Perceptions notwithstanding, horseplayers are reasonable people. If a hellacious storm results in a track condition change or surface switch, a trainer should be allowed to scratch in the best interests of the horse, owner and, by extension, the betting public.

Absent that, it should be the responsibility of the stewards to protect the public. Unfortunately, racing officials are politically loathe to lord over horsemen.

All understand the business implications involved with regard to scratches, especially in jurisdictions where more than one steward is paid by the racing association.

Absent this, horsemen, whose purses are made possible by the betting public, have an obligation to the people who are betting those dollars.

The Valid incident is not over as per my conversation with Campo, who promised that he would have a conversation with the stewards about the issue.

Had the public been informed when daily changes are announced in advance of the card, all would have had a chance to view the Harlan’s Holiday from a different handicapping perspective; they were denied the necessary information.

Reasonable people will agree that what’s done is done. But this incident should never be repeated. The incident was totally unnecessary had Vitali made his intentions known to Gulfstream officials in a timely fashion after his conversation with Rispoli.

Guess the only reason Bob Baffert wasn’t winning his 10th Futurity Saturday is because American Pharoah was injured at this time last year and would not have been able to make the race.

Despite racing somewhat greenly, Baffert’s Mor Chances finished very well to defeat uncoupled mate Toews On Ice, who did all the dirty via a protracted pace battle; he didn’t deserve to lose. Time of 1:43.54 solid for 1-1/16 miles, final sixteenth in 06.56. Reverse the trips and…

XY Jet is a star in the making, taking the G3 Mr. Prospector by double-digits in 1:08.56. And, on the gallop-out, he didn’t look any more tired than those who chased him home. Three-year-old has come into his own and protem Sprint Champion Runhappy will have some big-time competition should both remain healthy in 2016.

If yesterday’s results mean anything, it won’t be long before the Tropical Park Oaks and Derby become graded events. Both were great betting races, full of quality and quality potential. Both races produced unbelievably thrilling finishes. Indeed, one blanket would have been enough to cover the first four finishers in both races!

Most interesting is that the leaders in each race remained right there at the end. Solemn Tribute hung on tenaciously to win the Tropical Derby and Celestine was beaten in the final few strides by Tammy the Torpedo.

Both had to battle northwest crosswinds that at times gusted to 35 mph. With trips too numerous to mention; checking video replays of both events is advised.

There were pair of entertaining baby races at Tampa Bay Downs. We don’t know that victories by Hidden Treat in the Sandpiper and Ishaq in the Inaugural will translate into scores in the Tampa Bay Oaks and Tampa Derby, respectively, but they can’t hurt.

Hidden Treat had to chase a very quick SoFla invader, Kandoo, before putting her away before holding off the ralliers. Considering she is by Lemon Drop Kid out a Medaglia D’Oro mare, Arnaud Delacour trainee certainly has a license to go longer.

The very fast Ishaq validated his huge-figure maiden score but was all out to do so over legitimate overlay Royal Summation in the Inaugural. By Harlan’s Holiday, he, too, should go on, but his style would seem to work against him.

The human stars in NoFla were Eoin Harty and Delacour. The latter, also saddled impressive debut winner Armoire, going a mile on the turf in solid time to win by 5. Harty, not known for winning with debut types, did it twice with a pair of Godolphin juveniles.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

For Pletcher, Castellano, Stewards and Bettors, Just Another Day at the Office

HALLANDALE BEACH, December 13, 2015—As the racing world is well aware, Todd Pletcher is going for his 13th consecutive South Florida training title this winter. And, yes, he does have the stock and the numbers to get that job done.

But when given an obvious advantage, there is enormous pressure to execute, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t make it look like breaking so many sticks.

There was much talk this summer and fall about Pletcher’s two-year-olds. Where were they at Saratoga and Belmont Park? Where were they on Breeders’ Cup day?

Guess many of them were late to develop. Through yesterday’s opener, he broke the maiden of six juveniles from seven starters. After Saturday’s fourth race, he was 7-for-8; better late than never one supposes.

It helps when you have a friendly condition book but then, as stated, you must execute. Most of these maiden breakers have been training in South Florida since early to mid-November. This streak is no happenstance.

The meet is one week old. Unless the sky falls, you can put the baker’s dozen in the books right now. It’s hard to win down here, yet Pletcher continuously makes it look so predictably easy.

The same can be said for Javier Castellano. He started the meet with a four-bagger on the Claiming Crown program. He had a riding triple yesterday, including a beauty aboard Harlan’s Holiday winner Valid, though we can’t say we liked the circumstances under which that was accomplished.

It’s not because it wasn’t nice when Castellano replaced young Matthew Rispoli at the last minute. Not that Rispoli could do anything about it; he’s currently riding at 27% for trainer Marcus Vitali, including Valid here, two starts back.

And it’s not that I can blame Vitali or the owners for wanting to ride the defending Gulfstream champion, who secured an unprecedented fourth straight title last winter. If Javier is available to ride your horse, you name him at time of entry.

But why yesterday’s extremely late change? I did not hear track announcer Larry Collmus state that there would be a change of riders until after the race immediately preceding the Harlan’s Holiday. Some never heard it:

“I didn’t even know Castellano was on the horse,” said Tom Jicha, who covered Saturday’s four stakes for the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, upon his return to the press box after post-race interviews.

If the stewards were doing their jobs, i.e., protecting the interests of the betting public, the change never should have been allowed.

The Harlan’s Holiday was the penultimate leg in Gulfstream’s highly successful lineup of horizontal wagers:

The sequences were five races into the highly publicized and well promoted Rainbow Six Jackpot, four races into the late Pick 5, and second-to-last leg in the Late Pick 4 and Pick 3.

From all sources, over $10.2 million was wagered on Saturday’s Gulfstream Park program, of which $526,701 was bet on the four horizontal wagers above.

Most bettors, including Gulfstream linemaker Jay Stone, thought the Harlan’s Holiday principally was a two-horse affair between the early line favorites; Horses for the Course Valid (5-2) and Madefromlucky (3-1).

Valid, dropping out of the tough-trip G1 BC Dirt Mile, brought a (10) 5-2-1 Gulfstream slate into the race. Madefromlucky, a dual Grade 2 winner this year, won both lifetime starts over the surface.

But when it came to speed figures, it was no contest. The gelded five-year-old had a huge edge on performance figures, earning two of the highest figures in the field on the Thoro-Graph scale and on our energy-distribution-based Race Dynamics Ratings.

For the uninitiated—and we’re speaking of many racetrack executives and racing officials—betting any popular sequential wager uses the same principle college basketball coaches use to describe success in the NCAA Tournament: survive and advance.

The figures suggests that Valid was a most viable single, especially given the mile and a sixteenth trip and upper-stretch finish line that strongly benefitted Valid.

Additionally, there were Pletcher’s pre-race comments that he expects to have a big year with Madefromlucky, the G1 Donn being the major winter target, and that nine furlongs, the distance of both his G2 victories, was his best trip.

However, when using the survive-and-advance tack; what does a handicapper do with the Harlan’s Holiday? Casting no aspersions, does one single the team of Vitali and Rispoli over Pletcher and Johnny Velazquez?

Of course not. For most handicappers, both horses must be used to advance to the final leg. But here’s the problem with using both horses: Whatever sequence you play, the cost of the ticket is doubled. Doubled!

But what if Castellano was named on the program; could one “gamble” with Castellano’s horse as a potential single, one who figured to have a good trip from a cozy inside slip with beneficial dynamics and a wide edge on numbers? Of course.

Am I a disgruntled bettor? Only mildly, since the 50-Cent Pick 4 returned only $178.90. We didn’t have it since, forced to use Madefromlucky and needing to single somewhere, we stood alone with Aztec Brave in the last-leg finale.

We decided to allow Reporting Star to beat us from post 10 going 7-1/2 furlongs on the turf with the rail out way in the middle of the course. Of course, Reporting Star beat us a nose after moving in several slips following a bevy of late scratches, including one at the gate.

As was much written everywhere during the recent hysteria over Fantasy Sports betting, there’s no greater game of skill that handicapping horse races with its myriad of factors requiring bankroll decisions before making a wager, especially hard-to-win sequentials.

With no slight of Rispoli, who we believe is a naturally talented and promising young rider, a video review of the Harlan’s Holiday will indicate that perhaps no jockey on earth could have ridden Valid any better than did Castellano.

He waited until the very last instant, moving at just the right instant to swallow an easy, loose-leading Mr. Jordan before opening enough separation which enabled him to last over a fast-finishing Madefomlucky.

To his credit, Castellano sounded sincerely apologetic in a closed-circuit post-race interview: “It’s a business. I feel bad for the other rider…they were looking to make a change and I was lucky to be able to ride the horse.”

Said Vitali: “I had talked to Matt before… Nothing personal, it was a business decision. He’s a great kid and he still rides for me, and we move forward.”

It is true that the best business decision was made to win the race; no beef with that that. But Castellano was open in the race when the overnight came out. Vitali spoke with Rispoli the day or two before the race.

Then why wasn’t the damn announcement made at noon so that players would have had a chance to reevaluate their handicapping, especially with respect to late-day horizontals?

Once again, racing officials failed to have their customer’s backs.

And this happens days after the industry holds its annual December confab in sunny Tucson trying to divine ways to attract new fans when they apparently don’t care a lick about holding on to the loyal ones they already have.

Written by John Pricci

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