Thursday, June 28, 2007


Retirement of Invasor Another Loss for Racing


Saratoga Springs, NY--...In thoroughbred racing, the term great is an adjective held in such high esteem that its often referred to as the G word. Its used sparingly, usually when remarkable performance meets historical achievement under extraordinary circumstance

Invasor, retired to stud last week after sustaining an injury, was a great racehorse.

Perhaps we jumped the gun back in March when we wrote that first paragraph, and Invasors body of work, in terms of historical perspective, is still relatively small. But his record is all that remains now.

Eleven wins from 12 lifetime starts. A winner on three continents, he was Horse of the Year on the two in this hemisphere. A winner of the Uruguayan Triple Crown. Never defeated in a Grade or Group 1 race, nine in all. He was a margin horse, winning five South American starts by a combined 24 lengths, but also never lost a stretch battle. Adversity couldnt stop him, either.

What made Invasor great was his class, courage and athleticism.

He overcame a stumbling start and multiple stretch challenges before looking a late runner in the eye to win a Whitney. He was not deterred by a bobbling break, pronounced bias, the eventual 3-year-old champion, or the only handicap horse to ever sweep Californias storied Grade 1 trilogy and won a Breeders Cup Classic with his ears pricking.

In the Pimlico Special, his American debut, after having crossed the Atlantic twice, he altered course, lost three lengths when his rider dropped a reign, but re-rallied to beat one of the fastest horses in training. In the Suburban, he bobbled at the start, was soundly bumped, then dominated six rivals to win by almost five.

In his 2007 debut, he clipped heels entering the stretch, nearly fell, regained his stride, then displayed a brilliant turn of foot on the rail to bust the Donn Handicap wide open. Thats when, for me, he became a great horse.

Finally, in what would be his last start, he was used hard throughout at a considerable loss of ground and still won the Dubai World Cup. In defeating Discreet Cat, among others, he avenged his only defeat.

He was the best handicap horse I saw since Spectacular Bid, which Im sure will engender an Ann Coulter-like response from fans of the great Cigar. Its very difficult comparing horses from different eras for many reasons, but performance figures can be a useful measure.

I think Invasor was great, too, but Formal Gold and Ghostzapper were consistently faster, said Cary Fotias of Equiform and HorseRaceInsider.com. You could put Invasor with them on the intangibles, his innate ability and talent. But [everyone] knows how good Skip Away was and Formal Gold just killed him.

After working five furlongs in :59 2/5 at Belmont Park in preparation for his Suburban Handicap title defense this Saturday, a swelling was discovered which later proved to be a fracture at the top of the sesamoid bone in his right hind leg. While not life-threatening, the decision was made to retire him to Shadwell Farm in Kentucky.

But his issues might have started sooner. A veteran exercise rider from another barn told me during Belmont week that she didnt think Invasor was doing well. I referred to this conversation on the Capital OTB television network the following weekend.

His action looked terrible, the exercise rider said. He definitely has a problem somewhere.

Hes being pointed to the Suburban, I said.

Whens that? she asked.

End of the month.

I doubt hell make it, she concluded.

Make of this conversation what you will. The racetrack is a tough place, rife with jealousy. But this was a person with no axe to grind with Invasor or his connections. Indeed, they might not even know of each others existence.

Racing at the highest levels of the sport takes its toll more often than not. Todays successful thoroughbred also must travel extensively. Invasor crossed the Atlantic a total of four times. His last race was an enervating effort in the Dubai World Cup. That run followed the Donn, a race in which he nearly fell.

Either race could have been the beginning of the end of Invasors racing career. But the Dubai World Cup is a most demanding event held in a desert. It gets so hot in the United Arab Emirates that racing must be conducted at night. The race is so stressful that many American-based horses werent the same after competing in the World Cup.

And what are the chances Invasors connections would admit the problem surfaced in his last race? Owner Sheikh Hamdans brother, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, owns Nad Al Sheba Race Course. The fallout from such negative publicity certainly wouldnt inspire other American owners to ship their horses Dubai, no matter how big the purse money.

But at least Sheikh Hamdan still has Invasor and he can look forward to racing, or selling, his offspring. And suddenly this years Breeders Cup Classic becomes only a great betting race instead of a showdown between a defending Horse of the Year and the three-year-old class of 2007 that would have pushed him to the limit again.

Make no mistake. The loss of Invasor to the breeding shed is a huge blow for the sport, one only exacerbated by the premature retirement of otherwise healthy thoroughbreds worth more at stud than on the racetrack. Even the great ones like Invasor

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, June 21, 2007


A Second Open Letter to New York Governor Eliot Spitzer


Dear Gov. Spitzer,

Im a little confused about this new plan to cut the racing baby in half. I fear I am not alone. Perhaps youre a little unsure yourself. Am I wrong in assuming that the latest trial balloon launched to gauge the reaction of parties tethered to New York racing hasnt worked because, instead of satisfying as many groups as possible, it served to unite those with objections?

As stated in our last letter, we know this about New York politics: When we try to please everyone we please no one. And now, with the Legislature in recess, weve run out of racetrack. Whatever the solution, its odds-on it wont happen by the time the current franchise expires. While you ponder the solution, heres some background you might find helpful.

Racing is a niche sport--if niche is defined by total annual U.S. handle of $15 billion. New York racing is responsible for $2.7 billion of that handle, making the product the industrys leader. Simulcasting comprises 85 percent of the $15-billion, and the percentage grows every day. The international market is ready to explode.

So the product matters. It cannot be overstated that a sufficient amount of VLT revenue must be earmarked for purses and capital improvements; not simply to maintain but to solidify New Yorks preeminent position.

Racing is a niche in New York only if you consider the states huge agri-business and 40,000 jobs to be of little or no consequence. But cultural fabric matters, too. Reiterating, New York without its industry-leading thoroughbred sport would be like major league baseball without the Yankees, the NFL without the Giants, the NHL without the Rangers and the NBA without the Knicks.

What confuses me is that your latest proposal has Aqueduct remaining as a VLT-facility-only with the remaining land sold off to satisfy NYRAs debt. There would be no VLTs for Belmont Park. Originally you proposed to shut Aqueduct, sell all the land, and build an entertainment destination with VLTs at Belmont. If I were so inclined, Id rather drive or ride the Long Island Railroad to Belmont than take the A train to Aqueduct. But I prefer a little thinking with my gaming; thats just me.

As far as who would run the gaming-only operation, does this mean that the Excelsior group must compete all over again with the Empire and Capital Play organizations? That doesnt seem right but its your call.

Now you realize that Empire gets its strength from out of state organizations that recently banded together in an attempt to corner the betting-platform market, right? Why would Churchill Downs and Magna suddenly turn altruistic when it comes to doing whats best for New York?

Capital Play? They conduct themselves as representing the best elements of Australian racing. Do your people realize theyre little more than a betting platform that happens to be based in Australia?

Beyond equitable revenue sharing between the casino and racing interests that would guarantee not only racings survival but its stature going forward, none of your proposals address the off-track betting situation.

Weve all seen what happens when on-track and off-track interests work at cross purposes. Fixing New York racing must include the resolution of a system that creates senseless competition through duplication. There must be a way to fix this and assure the states counties their cut.

Your own past performances indicate that you believe in reforming troubled industries through changes in operational procedures and management or by rewriting bylaws and reconstituting boards. Clearly, the NYRA board as presently constructed could use some house-cleaning.

On their watch, NYRAs former president was allowed to resign before the culture of corruption investigation embarrassed him, or worse, and hes currently receiving $7,000 a month in benefits. His successor subsequently was sent packing with $500,000 in his kick.

All this while two mid-level executives were scapegoated and sent to jail and two other loyal employees had their reputations permanently tarnished and still remain in legal limbo, denied their right to a swift and speedy trial. To paraphrase the fictional Willy Cicci, the family has a lot of buffers, governor.

But please be careful not to overload the board with appointments who know little or nothing of racing, i.e., anyone not in the racing business in this state.

If Aqueduct were eliminated, many changes would be needed for Belmont to work as a stand-alone downstate facility. You would need five different surfaces over which to race and train; a spring/summer/fall surface, a winterized track, two turf courses (or two enlarged into one very wide course) and a year-round training track. And thats before the heating bill gets paid.

Of course, there exists a separate training track at Belmont. But I was thinking of the 550 head now stabled at Aqueduct. Where would they train, or live? If perhaps you or your advisers were thinking of Saratoga as a possible solution, think again. With burgeoning growth of the town and region comes a growing dearth of affordable housing. The additional stall space provided by the Oklahoma training facility is already in use to maintain quality.

This year, however, Saratoga lost much of its off-season horse population because trainers of good-horse stables from Kentucky and California that come to New York for its cache have remained behind because the artificial surfaces there are safer and more consistent for training. The quicker an artificial surface is installed at Oklahoma, the better. Without it, the Saratoga boarding experience eventually will become irrelevant as an eight-month facility.

Ill allow your appointed staffers to advise you on how disparate franchise holders, one for gaming and one for racing, would share revenue. Safeguards for racings continued growth must be put in place. One need only visit the backstretch of the Saratoga Gaming and Raceway to see what happens when VLT operators continue to invest in their gaming facilities while ignoring the racetrack that allowed them to operate in the first place. The stalls are a disgrace.

So, please, Governor, take these things into account. I know you want to find as much new revenue as possible, preferably upfront. You owe that to all New Yorkers. But a major industry and prominent taxpayer that provides jobs and priceless prestige has been waiting five years for help. If dividing the baby is what it takes, do it. In a perfect world reasonable people could make it work.

Respectfully,


John R. Pricci


Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, June 14, 2007


Sophomore Class of 2007 Best In Decades


Elmont, NY--The consensus opinion is that the 1970s provided the sport of thoroughbred racing with its finest moments.

Who could forget Secretariats Belmont Stakes, widely regarded as the best performance by a thoroughbred ever? And that move around the first turn at Pimlico wasnt bad, either. Simply stated, Secretariat was Gods greatest equine creation.

Seattle Slew is my personal favorite, still the only horse to have won the Triple Crown while undefeated. His greatness was even celebrated in defeat; a nose loss to Exceller in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup was arguably the gamest performance ever.

That same year produced racings last Triple Crown winner. But to this day you cant mention Affirmed without completing the phrase with Alydar. The golden chestnut vs. the liver chestnut was the greatest rivalry the sport has known.

So then why was the recently concluded Triple Crown series the best I have witnessed in the modern era? Because it had everything.
In Street Sense, the 2007 Kentucky Derby produced a new star. It was a victory for old school horsemanship and a heart warming tale of a jockey, a present day Horatio Alger with a Cajun drawl who slipped through inside of 18 rivals never missing a beat.

And, so, the colt made history as the first Juvenile winner ever to win a Derby; his trainer Carl Nafzger won his second julep cup and punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame on Union Avenue as Calvin Borel raised the bar exceedingly high for future celebrations on horseback.

Two weeks later Street Sense got to gawking a little and lost his Triple Crown bid by a nose, snatching defeat from victorys jaws as Curlin made one of the more dramatic stretch runs in the history of the sport. Many said that Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in 1989 had nothing on this pair. No one argued.

Then, exit Street Sense from the Belmont, enter Rags To Riches, a filly, one who gave the 139th Test of a Champion an identity that would last in perpetuity. There have been only three females to win a Belmont, and she did it by reprising Curlins Preakness role, as she out-stared him all the way to the finish post.

Four wide all the way around big sandy after a stumbling beginning, a final quarter-mile in :23 4/5 following a half-mile in :50 and three-quarters in 1:15 the cherry on top.

Are you kidding? This can only be described as magical.

Time has come for the countrys best three-year-olds to freshen up and prepare for the battles of late summer and fall, culminating with a trip to Monmouth Park on the last Saturday in October. Invasor and all the rest had better have their running shoes on.

This three-year-old class is the best racing has seen in a very long time. From a performance figure perspective, collectively they have had no peer group in recent memory, the best of them running as fast as any Grade 1 older horse can run. Thats quite a feat for a sophomore in spring.

All connections have decisions to make and theyre interesting to ponder. You would think, for instance, that this years Haskell would serve not so much as a prep for the Travers but rather for the Breeders Cup Classic.

The Haskell would seem like a natural return spot for Hard Spun, given the early speed Garrett Gomez wouldnt let him show in the Belmont. Maybe now Mario Pino will get his regular mount back. Pinos Preakness mistake--if you want to call it that; I call it circumstantial reaction--might serve him well at speed kind Monmouth Park.

Given that Street Sense is pointing for the Travers, it is more likely Nafzger will choose to prep in the Jim Dandy. That path worked for Unshaded and trainers, as stated before, are creatures of habit.

The high profile Triple Crown trail is virgin territory for Steve Asmussen but he has proven to be a good student of history. Knowing Curlin as well as he does, Asmussen probably will send him to Monmouth, thinking hed rather meet Hard Spun than Street Sense before taking on Invasor over the same track in the fall. Curlin has Monmouth style.

And so what of the filly?

Rags To Riches currently is pointing toward the Coaching Club American Oaks. From there she could take several paths. Look for her to take a more challenging path than the Alabama, since two of the big three Derby horses are likely Monmouth bound.

There are two good reasons for Rags To Riches to run at Saratoga. Both Michael Tabor and Todd Pletcher have left the door wide open when it comes to meeting males again. In taking on Street Sense, perhaps defeating him, it would give Rags To Riches a victory over all three.

The owners and their trainer have a keen sense of history. Ruthless, the filly that won the inaugural Belmont, also won the Travers, the only female to have won both races. Now doesnt that sound like a historical challenge worth pursuing?

If this years Triple Crown colts, and this special Triple Crown filly, keep doing their thing, the great Invasor had better not stub his toe. Not with this crop, the best weve seen in three decades.

Written by John Pricci

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