Sunday, May 21, 2017

“Horses Make Liars of Us All”

What makes this game fascinating, what keeps handicappers and players coming back for more, is the challenge of knowing that one can never learn enough to conquer the unconquerable.

What’s the old expression; that you can beat a race but you can’t beat the races? Actually, that racetrack cliché applies to horsemen, too. The latest example took place in Baltimore yesterday.

Shame on me for not remembering who I learned one of my early lessons from—think it have been Billy Turner when we were brand spanking new to big-time turf writing and were in awe of Turner’s eventual 1977 Triple Crown champion, Seattle Slew.

“Horses make liars of us all,” was my first backstretch lesson from a horseman, one that unfailingly continues to be taught every day that horses race.

Today’s modern message is subtly different. When trainers are asked when and where a horse will run next, the trainer-speak response most often heard is “we’ll let the horse tell us.”

Well, what Always Dreaming was telling trainer Todd Pletcher, and anyone who watched video of him train every day in the run-up to Preakness 142, was a lie.

Indeed, he was settled, relaxed and enjoying himself, in the relative calm of Pimlico Race Course, but he remained a hellion when he went out for his morning exercise.

Exercise rider Nick Bush and the draw reins were still in evidence as the horsemen around the colt tried to keep his energy level bottled up, saving his strength for Preakness Day and a chance to return to New York with a chance to win racing’s 13th Triple Crown.

“He keeps checking all the boxes,” Pletcher told everyone who asked, even those unwilling to believe their own lying eyes. The late bloomer appeared indefatigable, unbeatable, possibly on his way to becoming “one of the ones,” a great race horse.

In the end, however, he turned out to be merely equine--“merely” the 143rd equine winner in Kentucky Derby history and horses make liars of us all.

The first time I learned a hard lesson about what can happen to a strong Derby winner on his way to a possible assault on the Triple Crown came 16 years later in Baltimore.

Sea Hero, benefiting from a great ride by Jerry Bailey, found room along the insider soon after straightening away and powered passed everyone, winning with something in reserve.

The long-striding colt gave Hall of Famer MacKenzie Miller his first Kentucky Derby and owner Paul Mellon a trophy to match one for England’s most prestigious race for 3-year-olds, the 1974 Epsom Derby with a 50-1 shot, Snow Knight.

That spring in Baltimore, I decided to attach myself to the hip of the late Danny Furr, “Mr. Mack’s” trusted top assistant and we walked to the track every morning behind Sea Hero.

The colt appeared to be doing great and there was great expectation they’d return home to New York with a Triple Crown in their sites. I made the walkover with them Preakness day, a time when almost all Preakness horses were saddled in the infield.

Like Always Dreaming, Sea Hero was checking all the boxes, too. I remained in the infield to watch the Preakness from the outside fence of the turf course and it was thrilling. The only disappointment was Sea Hero, who at no time did any serious running.

I re-attached myself to Furr and was standing with him as Bailey walked by on his way back to the jock’s room to prepare for the next race. The rider never broke stride, only slowing down long enough to say “I was empty all the way.” I was stunned.

Furr nodded to Bailey that he got the message and headed back to the Preakness barn to attend Sea Hero. I stood there, my thoughts my only companion, left to wonder “what the hell am I going to write now?”

It’s nearly a quarter-century later now, but this time I knew exactly what to write about what I saw from 940 miles away from Baltimore, in Suite 21 that serves as a press box high atop Gulfstream Park racetrack.

As Pletcher put it, “I was a little concerned coming by the wire the first time. He was there but it wasn’t like he was dragging Johnny there, actually. It felt like he was on a loose rein by the time they turned up the backside.”

Concurred Johnny Velazquez: “He just got beat, that's it. Not much to say. I knew I was in trouble on the backstretch when the other horse got to him, almost head to head, and engaged him. I knew he didn’t have it… that's horse racing.”

The rider was asked whether the Preakness pace was too fast on what had become a tiring, drying-out wet surface: “Look at the horse that was next to me,” was Velasquez’s only and appropriate response.

Classic Empire didn’t deserve to lose, indeed taking the race to Always Dreaming, just as Mark Casse and Julien Leparoux promised they would for the past 10 days.

And while an obvious case can be made that the Derby, especially when paired up with his big Florida Derby effort, sapped Always Dreaming’s reserves—note that Classic Empire’s Preakness was his third start in five weeks.

And after his troubled and enervating Derby, which followed an all-out Arkansas Derby score, he likely proved that he is the better, tougher of the two Preakness favorites.

“I said to Julien second doesn’t mean anything,” Casse explained. “I said ‘let’s go and try to win this thing.’ We were going to be aggressive and that’s what we did. It ended up getting us in the end.”

Said Leparoux: “The only thing is Always Dreaming backed out of the race early so I got to the lead early, maybe too early. I got to the lead early and the winner just came at us at the end. He ran a big, big race.”

No doubt. “I was hoping that horse came to him earlier,” Casse later said of Cloud Computing. “He tried to kick back, but we were second best today.”

Clearly, Cloud Computing was telling Chad Brown, who won his first Classic, the truth. The horse told Brown with his outstanding training and six weeks rest that he would run his best lifetime race at Pimlico.

So in the end, new school did get the money. Brown, always quick to complement his staff, did listen to his horse. Cloud Computing had enough points to enter the Derby but, with Practical Joke already in, Brown did not allow Derby fever to dictate his schedule.

“I’m not going to dispute that running a fresh horse was part of our strategy,” Brown told NBC’s Bob Neumeier. “Classic Empire and Always Dreaming are two outstanding horses and our strategy was if we’re ever going to beat them let’s take them on two weeks rest while we have six, and it worked.”

Given proper time and circumstance, all plans work, old school and new school. Because one can never learn enough to conquer the unconquerable.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Future Derby Safety and Form: Churchill’s Move Now

On Thursday’s NTRA conference call, jockey Gary Stevens, who has the ride on Royal Mo in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, recalled a conversation he had with Mike Smith following last week’s rough and tough rumble in Louisville.

Smith, who had the Kentucky Derby mount on Girvin, said post-race: “He was getting knocked around so many times and the poor guy just never had a shot…

“I felt like I was in the one-hole. I finally get him running at the three-eighths pole and someone wiped out four of us again.”

This of course is routine and not an exception in the 20-horse race on an American dirt track that’s one-mile in circumference.

In a macabre sense, this unknowable unknown, controlled by racing’s fickle gods of fate, bring added excitement to the Derby’s mystique but also raises the danger quotient in what already is a perilous exercise for both humans and equines.

“Classic Empire’s fourth was spectacular,” began Stevens. “What do they say, it is what it is? That means if you don’t get way good you just got screwed. There were several incidents this year, very heavy contact going on at the three-eighths.

“It’s up there with the roughest I’ve ever seen,” said the ageless Hall of Famer from the sidelines, whose Preakness ride didn’t make the Derby cut.

If it were at all possible, I asked Stevens if a 20-horse starting gate would reduce the chances of potentially hazardous race dynamics and would also ensure the possibility of more cleanly event.

Speaking from the heart, a reconstructed knee and a rebuilt hip Stevens thought “it would be a great idea. We’re never going back to 14-horse fields.

“There’s a pretty good gap [between the main and auxiliary gates] going from outside to inside and looks like the outside gate is pointing in.”

From the Classic Empire camp, Mark Casse had another perspective: “So many things can go wrong. Our horse traveled 75 feet winner farther than the winner and 90 feet farther than the second horse. At 8-1/2 feet per length, we could have finished closer, gotten a better placing.

“He couldn’t even open his right eye until the next day, which also might have been a factor [from the incident soon after the start]. The auxiliary gate is tilted inside and is 13-½ feet from them main gate. When those horses come inside they’re at a full head of steam.

“Everybody came from outside and killed us,” said Luis Saez, who rode J Boys Echo. “I tried to rush and see what we got but by the half-mile everyone was gone.”

“I’m not sure a 20-horse gate is possible due to maneuverability,” offered Casse, “but getting the auxiliary gate closer to the main gate [could help].

“I noticed the outside gate was slanted inward at the start. If that gap were narrowed there would be less room to fall. They should look into something.”

I know little about gate construction and less about aero-dynamics, but a 20-stall gate would allow the #1 horse to move closer to a safer part of the chute and the outside horses wouldn’t enjoy a momentum advantage breaking inside down toward the rail.

Parenthetically, I needed to watch the start of the 2016 Derby as the overhead view from this year’s Derby on NBC Sports’ overhead shot were not available Sunday morning. (If anyone can find access, please share them here).

The Derby gate could live against that back fence permanently, eliminating the maneuverability issue. Many tracks use more than one gate now.

We hope that CDI look seriously into the possibility of one 20-horse gate for safety and form’s sake. Given the Derby’s profitability, it’s not too much to ask ad would be good PR for the sport.

BETS ‘N PIECES: The Peter Pan Stakes often has a profound effect on Belmont Stakes form. But that unlikely will be the case this year given yesterday’s sloppy conditions in New York and the possibility that undefeated Timeline is more suited to the Haskell than Belmont.

“We had spoken [with owner Bill Farish] earlier in the day that if we had some success here, the Haskell is a race that we have a lot of interest in,” said Chad Brown. “[Timeline] doesn't strike me as a mile-and-a-half horse…and we're still in the developmental stage..."

Dermot Weld Keeps Go[ing] and Go[ing], using Belmont Park as his personal American playground. The filly Zhukova defeated males again, taking yesterday’s boggy Grade I Man o’ War. “It was a major target,” explained Weld’s son, Mark. “The rains came and it was a huge help.”

The turn of foot displayed by that type of ground was eye-catchingly unusual. “She’s a true European Grade 1 mare,” added Weld. “You don’t beat the Breeders’ Cup winner Found very easily, he said of his world class filly…”

Trainer Rodrigo Ubilio deserves props for his expert management with Highway Star, the New York-bred who beat stablemate Bar of Gold to take the G3 Beaugay, keeping the filly undefeated in four starts at Belmont Park and at the mile distance. Top NY breeders Chester and Mary Broman, often cited here, bred both fillies…

A useful reminder of some great turf writing in a NY Times piece Friday on five top Horse Racing Books, including Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, C. E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, Bill Nack’s Secretariat, the Making of a Champion, Joe Palmer’s This Was Racing and Steve Davidowitz’s comprehensive handicapping tome, Betting Thoroughbreds in the 21st Century.

During Derby Week, my friend and former colleague John Piesen passed away in a New Jersey hospice following a lengthy illness. A friendly ‘competitor’ at the New York Post while I was at Newsday, we shared good times on the road at Triple Crown events, Penn National’s “World Series of Handicapping” and enjoyed more than a few memorable Whitney eve’s in Saratoga, where Vegas “happens there-stays there” rules apply.

Suffice it to say we were younger and a lot less wise. RIP, my friend.


Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Derby Dreams Do Come True

Twenty--that’s the number of times you should view the Kentucky Derby replay if you want to know everything that happened in last Saturday’s feature race at Churchill Downs.

Or you could take our word for it: The best horse won and reversible bad-luck trips by others were not going to change Saturday’s outcome. It only would have made things a little more interesting. Here are some cliff notes:

is a very good horse and if he keeps this up he could become a great one; no hyperbole intended. Did he have a perfect trip? Of course, but it was one of his own making.

No need to watch him in replay. If you remember his Florida Derby, then you’ve seen his Kentucky Derby: Speed from the start, establishing position, then moving to a stalking position in mid-backstretch.

He took the lead when his rider pushed the button, was set down at headstretch and drew off, under pressure until the conclusion was foregone, winning with something left.

The only thing you possibly should review is the gallop-out. As Vic Stauffer might intone, he was straight and strong, very strong.

LOOKIN AT LEE was given a perfect trip by Corey Borel, err, Lanerie. He hugged the fence, went around one tiring rival at mid-far-turn, accelerating while he cut the corner into the lane.

That is highly unusual for a supposed one-run deep closer, and he continued his strong rally to the wire. This should have surprised no one. He’s made up ground in the stretch in top company all his two-turn life: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

IRISH WAR CRY: I think Graham Motion probably has it figured out but doesn’t want to say, at least not yet but for the second time this year his horse bounced off big efforts. First in the Fountain of Youth, now the Derby.

Still can’t get over how Irish War Cry, with Rajiv Maragh sneaking a peak backward curling into the far turn, went from loaded to empty in a matter of three jumps: Never saw anything quite like it, missteps notwithstanding.

The reason we think Motion has it figured out is because in the immediate aftermath of the heated battle, he mentioned a next possible target: The Haskell, which makes perfect sense.

This gives Irish War Cry recovery time and would be the shortest van ride for a million-dollar Grade 1 he will ever take from his Fair Hill base, the Pennsylvania Derby of fall notwithstanding. The colt was not a happy pre-Derby camper.

The distance, surface and natural bias favoring speed at Monmouth Park makes perfect sense, especially considering that, assuming good health, the Brooklyn Boys et al are likely to take the Jim Dandy route to the Travers.

Saratoga would be a great spot for a possible rematch between these Derby favorites unless, of course, Motion decides he will await the Pennsylvania Derby in the fall before a presumed challenge of his elders where the surf meets the turf in November.

Well, it wasn’t quite Seattle Slew’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, but after the gate wipeout, to recover, re-rally while losing ground, getting bumped again by inside rivals coming out for the midstretch drive, to keep coming was an amazing effort.

Clearly, the 2016 juvenile champion is one classy and tough sonuvabitch.

With a clean trip we don’t believe any horse was capable of handling Always Dreaming on Saturday, although the stretch run would have been a lot more exciting.

Let’s hope that the colt recovers from an eye injury sustained during the race—it improved markedly on Monday--sufficiently to make a trip to Baltimore.

BATTLE OF MIDWAY deserves some love. On the engine and stalking three wide throughout, he put pressure on the winner bending into the far turn while Irish War Cry put pressure on him, and he stayed well for show.

Yes, the wet track kept the speed alive throughout the day and that the slow last half-mile is the result of a fast first half-mile.

The following horses had their chances compromised by circumstances during the running. So draw a line through your troubled horse of choice and is deserving a chance to win next out given proper spotting:

Girvin (clobbered and eliminated), J Boys Echo (clobbered and eliminated), Thunder Snow (propped, buck-jumped, or as rider Christophe Semillon put it post-race: “I don’t know what happened after the start”).

To a lesser degree, Untrapped, Tapwrit, McCraken, Patch and State of Honor’s disappointing runs were mitigated by circumstances.

As a fan, I’m hyper-sensitive to the recognition that horse racing gets from the public and media. This is written in Vegas. Here, in New York, and back in SoFla, it was as if May was missing its first Saturday. There was an astonishing lack of buzz surrounding this year’s Derby in mainstream-sports America.

So it’s nothing short of amazing the numbers this event generated on a number of metric scales. Handle, despite rainy-dark-day sloppy conditions was through the roof—all-sources wagering at record levels of $209.2 million for the day, up 9% year over year, $139.2 million of it on the Derby, an 8% increase over the previous record.

All-sources handle for Derby Week also set a record of $284.1 million, a yearly increase of 7%.

On-track handle figures were not made available. Attendance for the week of 349,455 was down 7% from last year’s record total, spearheaded by rainy Oaks Day’s 15.6% decrease with temperatures the lowest since 1940.

Derby Day attendance of 158,070, the seventh highest figure in track history, was also eye-opening. Having covered 18 Kentucky Derbies and all but one Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, I was happy to be comfortably ensconced inside the Orleans Race Book.

Overnight ratings also were quite surprising given the lack of advance equine star power. The overnights were strong and much improved at 10.5, a 9% gain over 2016. It was the second-highest rating in the last quarter-century.

Additionally, reported record pageviews of 3.8 million according to Google Analytics, an 18 percent increase over 2016. Traffic on the Today’s Racing app had 5 million screen views, a 6 percent increase.

On a personal note, I did not meet a single staff member of the Orleans staff who did not make us feel like valued guests, from the registration desk to race book staffers. The registration desk quickly resolved issues and provided professional top grade service.

If there is anything lamentable, it’s that the Orleans--horse racing’s first best friend in Vegas and still home to the Handicapping World Series Tournament each March--has de-emphasized horse racing in their product offerings.

Given that sports betting has trended higher in recent years and, in light of the numbers generated by classics like the Derby, other major event days and prestige race meets meets such as Saratoga and Del Mar, the Orleans should make a concerted effort to recapture a brand identity horseplayers have long related to.

Since my last visit in 2016, Boyd Gaming has invested heavily in the property and has given the Orleans a tasteful and much appreciated facelift. We understand they intend to continue making upgrades.

Should further improvements happen, we hope and recommend that the Race Book and the services provided therein are included. Horseplayers are loyal gamblers that show their appreciation for amenities with faithful economic support.

May 8, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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