Friday, April 15, 2011

The Hall of Fame Envelope, Please

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 14, 2011--The last time I went public with my Hall of Fame ballot it caused quite a stir with many of the HRI regulars. I expect that this year will be no different.

Here’s how the Hall of Fame voting works. On the ballot are 10 names that can be deemed worthy of entrance into the pantheon, seven humans and three equines.

Voters can select as many, or as few, of the 10 nominees as they want, all 10 if they‘re so inclined. But only the four top vote getters can be inducted into the Hall of Fame in August.

I can make a case for nine of the 10, but since only the top four vote getters will gain entrance, I narrowed my list down so as not to compromise the chances of those I believe most worthy.

Tried as I might to whittle the list down to four, I went with five after eliminating all the equines--it’s not like the horses are on pins and needles in their stalls waiting to hear the news.

Eventually, Open Mind, Safely Kept and Sky Beauty are likely to gain entrance, if not through the voting process then via the Historic Review Committee, defined on the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame website as a “special circumstance.”

The 10 nominees for 2011, listed alphabetically, are: Calvin Borel, Garrett Gomez, Jerry Hollendorfer, Gary Jones, Safely Kept, Sky Beauty, Alex Solis, John Velazquez and Robert Wheeler. Ultimately, I voted for five horsemen.

In terms of this exercise, the only disclaimer is that I have voted for Robert Wheeler more than once. Since he has not gained admission thus far, I decided to wait until next year, or await the judgment of the Historic Reviewers.

When the Hall of Fame biographies were prepared earlier this year, Calvin Borel had won with 4,815 of his 32,379. As many mounts as he normally accepts on any given card, 15 percent efficiency is a worthy win rate.

But it was his third Kentucky Derby victory with Super Saver in a four-year span that seals the deal. Can anyone disagree that Borel’s athleticism, judgment, daring and timing likely was the difference between victory and defeat in any of those three wins?

If Borel fails to gain admission to the Hall, I don’t know how I could possibly explain the slight to future generations. On a aesthetic level, he’s been one of the few bright spots in what’s been a very difficult decade for the sport. While some will disagree, to me this was a no-brainer.

I voted for Garrett Gomez because he owns Hall of Fame talent and his career appears nowhere near the slowing-down stage. This after overcoming personal demons that have stopped lesser men in their tracks.

His timing, decision making and strength are his best attributes, enabling him to compile statistics that are enviable and rare. To wit:

His 3,435 winners from 19,818 mounts yields a strong win percentage of .17. As for his reputation as a “money rider,” his purse earnings of $176.9 million is $63 million more than Borel’s despite 12,500 fewer opportunities, which is fairly astounding.

Gomez owns the single-year record of 76 stakes wins, established in 2007. He’s won 12 Breeders’ Cups, including the 2010 Classic on Blame, of course. His win percentage in graded stakes is a very rare .20, which includes 19 Grade 1 scores in the past two years.

I will tolerate no characterizing of Jerry Hollandorfer as being simply a big fish in a small pond: You would think that at least one trainer would have interrupted his 37 straight training titles at Bay Meadows, or his 32 straight at Golden Gate Fields.

Besides, any criticism along those lines should have been dispelled for his work with last year’s three-year-old filly champion, Blind Luck, five cross-country trips and all. Hollendorfer upset last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile with Dakota Phone and engineered a 6-for-6 campaign with ill-fated Tuscan Evening.

Long before the advent of huge mega-stables, Hollendorfer hovered around his career win percentage of .24, an incredible mark over a sustained period, saddling 5,863 winners from 24,768 entrants.

Hollendorfer has finished in the top 10 in nationwide wins for 24 consecutive years through 2010, 12 times in the top 10 on the earnings list. He’s saddled 192 stakes-winning horses, including 84 (15 percent efficiency) at the graded level. He deserves to be in the company of many of the game’s all-time great horsemen.

I have also voted for Gary Jones before and did so again this year. Winning at an 18.5 percent rate for his career on the highly competitive Southern California circuit is a Hall of Fame accomplishment, not to mention his 15 individual meet titles.

In all, Jones won 102 graded stakes--also an 18 percent rate--among his 233 stakes victories, doing so with 104 individual horses.

Jones has won Grade 1s across the country with every manner of horse, from two-year-old colts to older stakes mares and geldings.

While developing and conditioning such talented mares as Kostromo and Meafara, Jones is best known and remembered for his work with two males; the redoubtable Best Pal and the great champion, Turkoman.

If John Velazquez is not a first round Hall of Famer then I don’t know who else it would be--Borel and Gomez notwithstanding, of course.

Velazquez is batting 18 percent for a career which began in 1990, which seems other worldly when you’ve had more than 25,000 rides.

Even if his main client is the prolific Todd Pletcher, career earnings of over $241-million is nearly as much as Borel and Gomez combined. In a short 21-year career, he’s already fourth on the all-time list.

He has partnered with seven champions, and this excludes major horses such as Quality Road and Lemon Drop Kid, to recall just two. Through last year, he’s won 617 stakes races, including 413 graded events, both categories at an 18 percent clip.

In the last five years, Johnny Velazquez won 43 Grade 1s, 12 in 2010. His greatest attribute on a daily basis is an almost steadfast refusal to beat himself. He’s probably the least cussed-out jockey in racing history.

The best position rider since Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey, Velazquez instinctively knows when to push the button and is seldom out-finished. Perhaps when you ride for Pletcher and are mentored by the great Angel Cordero Jr., this is as it should be.

Only good wishes for these great practitioners of the sport.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, April 01, 2011

Eastern Elitist? I’ve Been Called Worse

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., March 31, 2011--I can’t decide whether my old school is showing or whether it’s just that infamous elitist Eastern media bias that‘s showing. Truth be told, it’s probably a little of both.

I didn’t think it was quite the time for my annual anti-earnings-rule Kentucky Derby qualifier rant, but events have dictated that at least I acknowledge what‘s been happening thus far.

Since HRI has been in existence the past four year, I have posited a plan for ensuring that the most talented three-year-olds find themselves in the Louisville starting gate on May’s first Saturday.

So, of course, I must be an elitist. After all, who doesn’t want to see, listed alphabetically, Animal Kingdom, Decisive Moment, Master of Hounds, Pants On Fire and Twice the Appeal duke it out on May 7?

Parenthetically, if you lined all these horses up on a neutral dirt site, I’d make Elite Alex, a winner of absolutely nothing this year, a lukewarm favorite. Then I’d bet my money.

Now please don’t go calling or e-mailing the connections of these perfectly fine Thoroughbreds to ask: Did you read how that guy knocked your horse? I don’t knock horses. Like most fans, I just like some horses better than others.
My prejudice is that I have more respect for those horses, owners and trainers that have pointed for races that the great horses of the past have participated in, races run at tracks such as Aqueduct, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park and Santa Anita.

Of course, Keeneland should have been on this list and it would have been. But that was pre-Polytrack. Keeneland is still a great place to leg up for future engagements but either you can or cannot run on dirt.

In terms of Derby form, and not a sales catalogue, a victory in the storied, Grade 1 Blue Grass has become meaningless.

Sorry but I have to be an ugly American on this one. The rest of the world can have its synthetic surfaces. (I can hear the laptops and smart phones humming already).

So it’s the time-honored preps that get my Derby juices flowing, not those from slots-fueled Grade 3 venues offering obscene purses to attract the occasional good horse from big outfits with a capably middling three-year-old in search of black type and a big payday without needing to put a single hoof into the deep end of the pool.

We’re not playing favorites here. We wish we were in a position to benefit from one agenda or another.

It’s just that time-honored tradition, or any other way one cares to characterize racing lore, is what defines American Thoroughbred history; medication, legal or otherwise, notwithstanding.

No one has to explain the greatness of the ‘27 Yankees or Lombardi’s Packers or Russell’s Celtics or Seabiscuit to any fan serious about sports.

OK, you might have to educate the past and present instant-gratification generation of fans how to look for nuances, otherwise how would they recognize true greatness when they see it?

You mean LeBron James isn't the greatest basketball player who ever lived?

Wouldn’t it be nice if even Mr. Casual Racing Fan actually heard of most of the horses before turning on their televisions on the first Saturday in May? These preps, such as Sunday’s talent laden Florida Derby field, have the ability to create memorable four-legged rivalries?

Of course, you’d need the races to be shown on television to accomplish that.

At some later date, we’ll reprise our ideas for making the criteria used to determine the Derby field a more meaningful barometer, one that possibly could help build that illusive racing following among sports fans the industry covets.

Those horses singled out above, with the exception of Elite Alex, of course, are in the Derby field already if their connections deem it so.

And those states enumerated above have yet to run, in chronological order beginning Sunday afternoon, the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby.

Clearly, the three-year-olds considered by most every polling organization to be America’s best will be fighting for only the remaining 15 slots in the gate, even before the biggest preps have been run.

If you’re good with that, fine. As most scoundrels say when they revert to reasons other than the use of good, old fashioned common sense, this is still America.

I’m fine with America. But as far as the process by which Thoroughbreds qualify for America’s signature horse race, it has very little to do with proven class.

A 20-horse field is not about safety or determining “the best horse” in a more truly run horse race. It’s about betting handle, and I think that stinks.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Call for Sacrifice to Meet Serious Challenge

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., March 23, 2011--While three-year-old Thoroughbreds remain on various courses seeking a trip to Louisville and racing immortality, the Internet this week has been abuzz with issues far less pleasing to ponder.

Most recently Bloodhorse magazine solicited opinions from industry and gambling professionals seeking five ways in which to improve the sport. Some excellent insight was provided, but it might have been better termed as five ways to save the game. Grist for another day.

But the most troubling news story appeared in the New York Times late last week in which reporter Joe Drape shined a light on examples of the substandard care Thoroughbred race horses were receiving when their racing days were over.

It’s a problem that doesn’t get a lot of press, one most fans don’t give a second thought, whether they enjoy watching the horses run or trying to cash a bet. Without legal gambling, of course, the industry couldn’t earn a living solely by staging some equine extravaganza.

Fittingly, some of the best observations on the issue came from fans, one on this site who correctly pointed out that dog racing began to die the day a television documentary showed pictures of dead dogs being tossed into the back of a pick-up truck.

What would happen if one or two television news crews went out and filmed emaciated horses standing in paddocks at farms supposedly dedicated to caring for them and saving them from the slaughter house? That’s an image no one wants to see either.

The reader, in responding to Vic Zast’s column on Monday, “Ennui Over Racetrack Afterlife,” was also correct in noting that horse racing is losing political supporters every day. Indeed, if this issue gains traction, it would hasten racing’s demise faster than any amount of drug violations or usurious takeout rates ever could.

In Tuesday’s Saratogian, racing columnist Jeff Scott wrote that “an unfortunate result of the Times article would be if donations to the [Thoroughbred Retirement Fund] — and perhaps to other thoroughbred rescue and retirement organizations as well — were to decrease.”

Also, that “racing can no longer afford to be seen as standing by while private organizations do most of the work and shoulder most of the responsibility. It also can no longer afford to have articles on possible neglect show up on the front page of the New York Times.”

To their credit, some tracks and racing associations have created a means to provide help with retired horses that were cast aside, but there remains no unified effort to deal with this issue, no central authority with a system to provide the revenue needed for meeting such a daunting challenge.

Here in Florida, one of the first states to put a funding mechanism in place, the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Assn. has been putting money aside for Thoroughbred aftercare for years. But it wasn’t until this year, when the organization received 501-C status--a means for any charity to address tax issues--that it was able to distribute funds.

The FHBPA donates 1/3 of 1 percent of purse earnings to Thoroughbred Retirement Aftercare, or TRAC. For the month of January, that share amounted to $27,000 for the care of unwanted racehorses.

Frank Stronach, on record as saying that each owner and breeder should be responsible for the horses they breed and race, has established the “After Racing Retirement Fund” at Gulfstream Park. Stronach is matching the horsemen’s 1/3 of 1 percent from Gulfstream’s bottom line each month.

“We see this as an industry responsibility,” said Stacie Clark-Rogers. “We realize that not everyone feels this way but it costs $26 million a year to take care of all the retired racehorses. The rest of it is a lot of hard work from volunteers. We need to get the horses out of their paddocks and be productive again.”

Rogers is in charge of the Thoroughbred aftercare program at Stronach’s Adena Springs nursery in Canada, where for the last seven years they’ve been training horses to be useful in other areas when their racing days are over.

On occasion, in fact, when special circumstances made it impossible for a current owner to meet his responsibility, Adena Springs has taken back, cared for, and retrained horses that were bred at their nursery.

There are approximately 500 Thoroughbred retirement organizations that are legally recognized as charitable organizations and another 400 that work with retired horses without the tax benefits afforded by the 501-C.

With every dollar they send through a betting window, horseplayers have long since been doing their share to support Thoroughbred horses that, as Ron McAnally once said, give their lives for our pleasure. We could all do a little more, of course.

The industry--whether it be the organizations that subsist because Thoroughbreds race for money, or the tracks, horsemen, state governments and racino operators that wouldn’t be in business were it not for horseracing--needs for everyone to do the right thing.

But how can any industry enlist the help of others without first acknowledging it has a serious problem and make a fervent, collective attempt to do something about it?

Written by John Pricci

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