Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Jack Wilson: Best At His Job and a Better Person; Eclipse Finalists Announced

HALLANDALE BEACH, January 7, 2015—Long before I fancied myself as “Racing’s Wanna’ Be Savior,” I was a sharp, a wise guy, looking for a gambling edge by any means necessary.

Never mind that I was working for a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper; the sports desk wasn’t going to help me pick or bet on a winner. And the handicapping competition at the other New York tabloids were formidable rivals.

This was back in the day, the glory years of the 1970s when three Triple Crown winners graced America’s racetracks; therapeutic medication had not yet soiled the gene pool.

At the time, not only were there no capital L’s inside a circle on official track programs but past performances didn’t contain even the most basic trainer and jockey win percentages. Short comments in running lines like “no factor” or “up in time” hardly told the story.

If you wanted to know what happened, you were at the mercy of “Trackmen” whose job it is to produce past performance charts with footnote commentary. The only inviolate rule was, no matter how taxing the work circumstances, “there will always be a chart.”

For handicapping research, one either stockpiled old Forms or cut the charts out of the paper and pasted them into accountants’ long day journals which would be swollen six inches thick by the time the racing season ended.

Whenever I mentioned the term Trackman in those earlier days, the name Don Fair of the Daily Racing Form, nee Morning Telegraph, came up immediately.

Then I met Jack Wilson, who leads any discussion when someone asks “who is the best chart caller of all time?”

In over four decades, Jack Wilson not only was the best I ever saw but the best I ever will see. While the trade is still a highly treasured craft to be learned, access to endless television replay technology has helped greatly.

But there’s nothing like a sophisticated set of eyes having knowledge of horses and riders, with excellent handicapping skills, that helps the Trackman provide horseplayers with a hi-tech “picture” of what happened during a particular race.

Race watching is a skilled art. Everyone considers themselves good trip handicappers now that all have access to replays from tracks all over the world. But just as not all Grade 1s are not created equal, neither are trip handicappers.

Not having access to, nor truly believing in the power of speed figures in my early years, I was by definition a trip handicapper. I worked at it and got good at it, as did New York chart call-taker, Paul Cornman of “Sports Eye.” We became good friends.

Paul remains a professional horseplayer and relocated to Las Vegas three decades ago, but I knew he would have wanted to know about Jack Wilson’s passing last week from congestive heart failure.

Upon hearing the news, Cornman said “the Babe was absolutely the best at doing his job and an even better person.” Cornman is a big baseball fan who was fond of using nicknames. And who was better than “the Babe” after all?

“Remember the time we tried to hide that horse from him?” Paul asked.

“I’m not proud to admit this," I said, "but, yes, I do.”

It was an era when you saw something, you said nothing, except to your closest friends, provided you trusted them not to spread the Intel to every “Mush” on the second floor of the clubhouse.

One afternoon Paul and I saw something and we decided to try distracting Wilson at that point of the replay where this one particular horse, call it the #9 horse, either had subtle trouble or the jockey appeared disinterested in the outcome.

So just before the incident I asked Jack “hey, did you see what happened to [another] horse?” “Got it, thanks” Jack said, his eyes never leaving the screen, his pen never leaving his Trackman’s pad upon which he scribbled PP commentary in short-hand.

I can’t remember what I asked but I kept the conversation going until the race was over. As we left to return to our workplaces from the only small screen television in the Aqueduct press box, Jack called out:

“Hey big Johnny, I saw what happened to the 9.” Cornman and I thought we were being so clever. All we got was busted, Jack going out of his way to describe in great detail what happened to “the 9” in his chart footnote.

If you’re a racetracker and you didn’t love Jack Wilson, it’s because you never met the man. Jack never had a bad day or, if he had, he hid it extremely well. Ever cheerful and attracted to his aura, you always wanted to hang with him.

Wilson never smoked, never took a drink, yet he never stopped smiling, befitting man whose vices were consuming copious amounts of ice cream and marshmallow peeps. Oh, but he liked busting chops, but only if he liked you--and Jack liked everybody.

Whenever an inquiry sign was lit and the adjudication process was taking a little longer than usual, people went back to their jobs waiting for the result to become official.

“Uh oh,” Jack would say in a raised voice, with the accent on the first syllable. It made your head snap to attention and look up at the tote board, only to see the objection sign still blinking.

“Gotcha’ again, Big Johnny.”

Alas, Wilson got me, and lots of others, all the time. As stated, he was an equal opportunity kibitzer who just happened to be the best there ever was at his job. How could he not be?

Jack is the son of Dave and Lady Wilson. Based in New England, a racing hotbed in the day, Dave was one of the first of the public handicappers to use speed figures.

And Dave Wilson was so good at his job that one of the local newspapers he worked for printed a special edition of the newspaper during the race meet, using the paper as a wraparound to Wilson’s selection sheet. He would later become known as “King Wilson.”

The King passed before we had a chance to meet, but I did know Jack’s mom, Lady. I can’t remember what the subject was but Lady was never shy about doling out advice--when she was not handicapping and making her own bets.

“If you don’t use it you’ll lose it,” she advised me once. It was the first time I ever heard the expression, certainly not the last, and I've played it over and over in my mind.

Jack Wilson improved the quality of my racetrack life and gave me the best advice I ever received when I was first starting out:

“If a horse wins and pays $3, you pick it,” he said. “If a horse wins and pays $30, you pick it.” Jack liked keeping things simple.

In those pre Self-Automated-Machine days, it seemed like he visited the cashier’s window after every race. Maybe that’s why Paul dubbed him “the Babe.”

Or maybe it was because as racing’s popularity grew, the DRF brought him in to call all the Triple Crown races, and the Breeders’ Cup when it began in ’84. Jack eventually was kicked him upstairs to become the national supervisor of chart callers.

Jack Wilson loved people and he loved his job. Racetrackers everywhere recognized this and they loved him back. Rest In Peace, Trackman.

* * *

Few Surprises Among Eclipse Finalists: Finalists were announced today and, as expected, Bayern, California Chrome and Main Sequence are the three that will vie for Horse of the Year 2014.

The only disappointment was that Art Sherman did not make the final cut as Bob Baffert, Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher were the top three vote getters in the Traner's category. And, so, the man who got the most out of the least, gets no official recognition from those who follow the game daily. Go figure.

* * *

The Honorable Brendan O'Meara: Kudos Brendan for receiving an Honorable mention in the Feature/Commentary Eclipse Award category for your series "When Smarty Jones Shook the Earth" that appeared at on Sept. 21, 2014. O'Meara was cited, along with Mary Simon's piece "The Story of Old Rosebud, An American Tragedy." Way to go, B.

It goes without saying that we could not be happier for our friend, John Scheinman, who won the 2014 Media Eclipse Award in the Feature/Commentary category for "Memories of a Master: The Determined Life of Dickie Small," a retelling of the remarkable life of late Mid-Atlantic trainer Richard "Dickie" Small, who died of cancer at age 68 in April 2014.

Scheinman's piece appeared on, May 12, 2014. Spoiler alert: Before Small saddled all those stakes winners in the Mid-Atlantic and nationally, he served his country as a member of the Special Forces. Needless to say, great story; great read.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, January 01, 2015

A Happy New Year or Will Racing Tap Out?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 1, 2015—It is the last day of the year and everyone will start out even--everyone except those who are tethered to this game in both body and soul.

Despite the injustices that hurt every owner, every trainer, every jockey, every backstretch and, of course, the horseplayer, each is all in. This all-consuming exercise requires nothing less.

In a culture that will bet on virtually anything--even illegally, if the proposition is popular enough--it is the horseplayer that society holds in low regard.

For many, the horseplayer is a cliché: He is the guy you meet on a street corner, a racetrack, or even in front of a home computer wearing worn out shoes; with silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants, looking like he probably drinks a bit, too.

But it is the horseplayer who is the most resilient of gamblers: You can ignore him, lie to him, cheat him, steal from him and keep him in the dark. But you can count on him, win or lose, mostly lose, but he keeps coming back for more.

Until he doesn’t.

On both coasts recently, in jurisdictions considered to be the most important in the country, there unfortunately were disparate events that were cut from the cloth of ineptitude, arrogance, indifference or all the preceding.

Normally, these kind stories would make me angry. Instead, all I’m left with is a feeling of sadness.

It is true that hope cannot pay the bills, but hope is the currency on which this game is built, what it will need to survive. Without hope, interest wanes and all is on its way to being lost.

At its best, horse racing provides a sanctuary, an all-consuming antidote for real life syndrome. But there is no escaping reality. Like the poet says, every refuge has its price.

Several stories emerged in the final throes of 2014 that give even the most hopeful horseplayers pause, fearing that all the talk and promises are empty. Change for the better is hopeless, just another sleight of hand.

Today, New York-based trainer David Cannizzo begins serving a 45-day suspension because three horses he trained, two winners and a runner-up, tested positive for Propoxyphene.

As climate-change deniers say, I’m no scientist, but the painkiller best known by its trade name, Darvon, is classified as a Class 3 drug by the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

If a painkiller isn’t a reliable performance enhancer, I shudder to think how harmful Class 2 and Class 1 drugs truly are, whatever the scenario.

Cannizzo has denied any wrongdoing, telling Daily Racing Form that it was “a total contamination type of thing…nothing we did…still trying to figure it out” and the reason he didn’t appeal is because “there are too many big things coming up.”

The trainer originally was suspended 75 days, of which 30 were stayed, and he was fined a total of $6,000, the owners compelled to forfeit purse money by order of the New York Gaming Commission.

Cannizzo, a third generation horseman, is the brother of Jeffrey Cannizzo, the current Executive Director of the New York State Breeders Inc. The optics on this look none too good.

Things are no better on the left coast given the report that Rodenticide, rat poison, is “a possible link” between the seven horses from Bob Baffert’s barn that died within 18 months of Sudden Equine Death Syndrome.

A 2013 investigation concluded that environmental factors were possible links; the barn itself, possibly Hollywood Park’s track surface. A cluster of death in such a short time, from one barn? More bad optics.

Last year, Dr. Rick Arthur of the California Horse Racing Board talked about a possible link to the thyroid medication Thyroxine, whose properties stimulate the consumption of oxygen and increase metabolism.

Overuse in animals results in hyperactivity, excess consumption of water or feed and a faster heart rate. Thyroxine was administered to every horse in Baffert’s barn whether it had thyroid issues or not.

Another use for Thyroxine in a healthy equine, however, is as an EPO antidote, a medication that thickens blood by producing extra red blood cells to ward off fatigue.

Horses treated with Erythropoietin tire at a slower rate, taking advantage of “extra oxygen” created by the increase of red blood cells. Thickened blood causes clots and blood clots can cause heart attacks in healthy individuals. Worse optics, still.

But it was the greed displayed by Santa Anita last Sunday which was the most egregious example of the kind of disregard executive bean counters, officials and industry organizations can have for their customers and their sport.

Despite the protestations of a horseplayer activist who contacted the CHRB, stewards, and track executives before the day’s second race, wanting some explanation as to why one particular soon-to-be 6-year-old mare, Seeking Bliss, was allowed to race.

The activist also wondered aloud on his widely circulated industry-contact list why no action was taken by the Jockeys Guild: The response he received was an email from a Guild operative asking that his name be removed from the mailing list.

It never should have reached that point. Prior to Sunday, Seeking Bliss raced seven times. Six times she finished last, losing by an aggregate 239 lengths, 34 lengths per start. The race in which she beat three of 10 rivals, she was 112-1.

In another race, her post time odds were 133-1. The shortest prices in those starts were 33-1 and 37-1. In six of those seven races, she earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 0.

Last Sunday she was last of nine, beaten off after breaking badly and far behind her rivals. She ridden out by her 7-pound apprentice jockey to complete the course “a quarter mile behind the field,” according to the official chart. She was 94-1.

No racetrack, most especially one of the premier winter signals in the world, has any business allowing this type of no-hope money-burner to race. She should not have been allowed to race for her own protection, her rider’s safety and the integrity of the betting pools.

If my colleague Paul Moran were writing this, he might have described Santa Anita’s behavior as being cravenly avaricious.

Worshipping at the altar of bottom line handle must end for this game to survive. If the racing office can’t fill a sufficiently, or find a suitable extra, then run one less race. If this is habitual, shorten the race week.

Tracks run large fields of lower class horses to feed their multi-race race pools, believing that more “spread races” will increase handle and/or create carryovers, catering to a small pool of gamblers and arbitrageurs who command a sizable percentage of handle.

What will they be left with after these market speculators move on to the next big thing?

Low-takeout, high-degree-of-difficult wagers, often promoted with ersatz guaranteed minimums, are a money-suck of rank-and-file horseplayer bankrolls.

Admittedly, carryovers create increased handle, but most every day players are frozen out because of bankroll limitations. Track executives fail to realize that more bettors will jump into horizontal pools when they see a “free square.”

Big payoffs create big headlines for a day. Smaller payoffs create more winners and a fiscally healthier fan base by keeping betting money in circulation. The low-takeout wager is, on balance, a promotional shell game.

Increasing the number of betting opportunities is another narrow minded approach. Too many betting opportunities; not enough money in individual pools. Not enough money in individual pools; more late-odds drops.

Worse, it kills pool liquidity. Too many bets per card turns off the whales that all bet-takers covet. And worse, still, it hurts every level of bettor who, like the game, must churn to survive. But, I digress.

What makes me dejected on the most hopeful day of the year is that a handful of recent events show a lack of respect for the game’s equine athletes, the sport, and the intelligence of its customers.

Maybe what’s needed here is for horseplayers to stage die-ins in front of every grandstand and clubhouse gate at every major venue

Who knows? Maybe an unconcerned and disinterested mainstream media will be compelled to shine a light on what’s at stake: history; tradition; jobs and a way of life. What depresses most is knowing, through the prism of past performances, that truly meaningful reform will not be coming from within.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Difficult Year for Eclpse Voters: One Man’s Ballot

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 27, 2014—The year 2014 had a little bit of everything and it was the kind diversity that made the game an interesting sport to follow and, as a result, this year's Eclipse voting promises to have its share of controversial debate.

The phrase one often hears when an upset occurs is “that’s why they call it gambling.” When it comes to the sport itself, it's more like “that’s why they run the races.”

Now that the time has come to make our Eclipse ballot public, the refrain should be "that’s why they call it handicapping. And, so, here it is, one man’s opinion.

Steeplechase Horse: 1st - Demonstrative, 2nd - Divine Fortune, 3rd - Decoy Daddy.

The three Ds had this category locked up although there was daylight between the exacta finishes and Decoy Daddy. In the final analysis, it was our top vote with a 3-2 Grade 1 edge over the runner-up.

Two-Year-Old Male: 1st - Texas Red, 2nd - American Pharaoh, 3rd - Carpe Diem

Misfortune robbed fans of a highly anticipated East-West battle between Carpe Diem and American Pharaoh due to the latter’s misfortune. But who’s to say that Texas Red would not have seized the day, anyway? Indeed, his electric finish was reminiscent of Arazi. Hopefully he’ll have a much better three-year-old campaign.

Two-Year-Old Filly: 1st - Take Charge Brandi, 2nd - Lady Eli, 3rd - West Coast Belle
We love it when equine athletes turn this an exercise into a no-brainer by dominating the important races in their category, which is exactly what ‘Brandi’ did in traditional fixtures that determines championships. So what if I think Lady Eli has more talent? That’s what 2015 is for.

Three-Year-Old Male: 1st - California Chrome, 2nd - Bayern, 3rd - Shared Belief
I know, I know: Maybe Bayern’s the better horse; maybe Shared Belief is better than both of them. All have imposing records, disparate imposing records and extenuating circumstances when they went head to head to head. But that’s what 2015 is for.

Three-Year-Old Filly: 1st - Untapable, 2nd - Stopchargingmaria, 3rd - Lexie Lou
Stopchargingmaria won the two most important Grade 1s they run in Saratoga and an overall excellent record. But how can Untapable not be a unanimous choice?

Older Male: 1st - Palace Music, 2nd - Main Sequence, 3rd - Wise Dan
Far and away, Palace Music was the Best Older Male of the Half Year…it happens.

Older Female: 1st - Close Hatches, 2nd - Dayatthespa, 3rd – Iotapa
Far and away, Close Hatches was the Best Older Mare of the Three-Quarter Year. Dayatthespa if a turf specialist, of course, but she finished the season the right way in marquee events; Iotapa was the mist accomplished out west.

Male Sprinter: 1st - Work All Week, 2nd - Private Zone, 3rd – RichTapestry
Work All Week compiled the perfect sprint resume this year at three-quarters of a mile, including the one that matters. In fact, he’s never lost a dirt sprint in his entire life.

Female Sprinter: 1st - Judy the Beauty, 2nd - Artemis Argotera, 3rd - Sweet Reason
Judy tried so hard last year but came up a bit short, so her trainer decided to do everything he could to make amends this year. Well done, Judy; well done, Wesley.

Male Turf Horse: 1st - Main Sequence, 2nd - Wise Dan, 3rd – Flintshire
Until the Hollywood Derby, my choice for Horse of the Year. Four starts; four Grade 1 victories in four traditional route fixtures. Meanwhile, the two-time defending Horse of the Year also goes 4-for-4, overcoming a life threatening illness, only to be shut out. It was just that kind of kooky year.

Female Turf Horse: 1st - Dayatthespa, 2nd - Crown Queen, 3rd - La Tia
Her record was not overwhelming, with two Grade 1s and a restricted state-bred stakes but she stepped her game way up in the Fall including the day when the whole world was watching and at a distance that many believed was beyond her best. She did it an old school way; she earned it.

Owner: 1st - Ken & Sarah Ramsey, 2nd - Kaleem Shah, 3rd - Martin & Coburn
I’m not quite sure any owner of a non-classic type animal got any more out of their stud than the Ramseys have gotten--and keeping getting--from their beloved Kitten. Kitten’s Joy and the Ramseys are everywhere, winning everywhere they go. Don’t know the man but happy for Kaleem Shah. He’s heavily invested in this game and people like him should be recognized… The DAP duo had the title locked up until one bad in New York. Guess if you can’t make it there, you can’t make it anywhere.

Breeder: 1st - Adena Springs, 2nd - Ken & Sarah Ramsey, 3rd - Chester & Mary Broman
Year after year, quality over quantity—and sometimes that, too—from the Stronach Group… And a tip of the cap to the Bromans, who have turned out more runners at their place in Chestertown, New York than just about any other family operation, anywhere.

Jockey: 1st - Javier Castellano, 2nd - Mike Smith, 3rd - Irad Ortiz
Javier’s just too prolific; seems to be in the sweet spot of every race, whatever the dynamics—although he needs to be a little more careful away from the starting gate. Smith is a remarkable athlete (but he owed it to the game to claim foul one day at Santa Anita). For Ortiz, it just might be a matter of time.

Apprentice Jockey: 1st - Drayden Van Dyke, 2nd - Juan Saez, 3rd - Angel Cruz
Van Dyke’s record speaks for itself and from the little we’ve seen he’s wily beyond his years… Clearly, the Juan Saez story was the saddest of 2014, just a damn shame…Angel Cruz sure wins a lot of races.

Trainer: 1st - Art Sherman, 2nd - Chad Brown, 3rd - Todd Pletcher
Only the kind of horsemanship displayed by Sherman could have overcome the extraordinary achievements of his two brilliant, young challengers. We’ve said it before: It’s a lot easier with several barns full of running Thoroughbreds but it’s another to get them into the circle so consistently and in so many big spots.

Horse of the Year: 1st - California Chrome, 2nd - Main Sequence, 3rd – Bayern
As I look over my ballot, how could Wise Dan not lead in any category; how could Bayern not? Racing fans know all the stories. For us, the above was how this strange brew of 2014 shook out, and I'll say this, too. Everyone on this list is a prodigious winner that had one hell of a year..

Bets’ N Pieces: Come one, come all to South Florida, where youth and age will be served…When longshot Mad Patriot reached the finish line first Saturday at Gulfstream Park, it raised Gary Bain’s yearly winning streak to 34 consecutive years. How cool is that? “I’m 62 going on 19,” Bain told the Gulfstream Park press staff after the race, returning to the winners’ circle to a warm round of applause. And good for owner/trainer Christine Wasilewski. Good for her, too…

Marathon races, especially on turf, are properly regarded as “rider’s races.” The axiom was proved again yesterday when Johnny Velazquez timed the late run of Irish Mission perfectly to win the Grade La Prevoyante, likely delaying her trip home to the breeding shed. Christophe Clement saddled both the highly regarded winner and longshot runner-up Tabreed

Likewise, it was Javier Castellano who emerged from the pack at just the right time in midstretch with Divine Oath to take the G3 McKnight for Todd Pletcher. The victory continues the 2014 trend of three-year-olds defeating their elders this Fall. Sophomores swept the top prize in the G1 Jockey Gold Cup, Breeders’ Cup Classic and Clark Handicap. Divine Oath was the only three-year-old in the limit field…

Soup’s On: The talented, lightly raced Speechify, who cannot tolerate straw and nearly choked to death, and then suffered a condylar fracture, has been nursed back to health and took the 6-furlong G3 Mr. Prospector in 1:09.54. Very much looking the part, a beautiful, black coiled-spring of energy in the paddock, ran to his appearance and should be a factor against top sprinters in 2015. He’s fed a very soupy mixture of mash each day.

What Time Is It? I know there has been some rain in the area preceding Saturday’s program and the turf course was soft, but those running times were either unusually slow or wrong. Stay tuned…

Overly Impressive: The public bet early and often, as if Overcontrol was SoFla’s worst kept secret, opening at 1-9 and virtually remaining there throughout until tons of late money showed for 5-2 runner-up, Centauro Star, in his way, as impressive as the winner. Breaking last from the rail on the wet, drying-out strip, Indian Charlie colt showed an extreme turn of foot to narrow the gap at headstretch and was finishing strongly behind the winner who by that time appeared to be idling. Will be betting him back next time but 5-2 seems highly unlikely.

Written by John Pricci

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