Wednesday, January 04, 2012

And the HRI Ballot Goes To…

SARATOGA SPRINGS, January 1, 2012—Note the dateline. I say that because, in Eclipse Year 2011 especially, voters should wait for the last possible minute so that their choices truly resonate with themselves, never mind the rest of the racing world.

And while on this subject, my colleague Dick Powell was right. In this age of instant communications, there’s no reason why the Eclipse Awards shouldn’t encompass a 365-day racing year.

Any racing season and the ensuing Eclipse Award voting process doesn’t end when ballots are mailed to the voters. Is the Malibu Stakes on opening day at Santa Anita not a Grade 1? Is the LaBrea not a Grade 1?

Ask the connections of Declan’s Moon whether the 2004 Hollywood Futurity run on December 18 made a difference.

I came to my ballot ready to concede the Filly & Mare sprint title to Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner Musical Romance, who owns more than a one-race resume.

But I couldn’t check her name off without first watching Turbulent Descent’s quest for a third Grade 1 victory on the last day of the year.

Turbulent Descent not only didn’t win but raced very poorly, showing no run in the lane after angling out into the clear at head-stretch. So it’s Musical Romance for me, 4-for-13 record and all.

Determining the best in show in several categories this year was a lot like what the Iowa caucus process was; the lesser of evils in the minds of many voters.

Not even the most loyal racing fan thought 2011 was a banner year on the Thoroughbred stage. It did have its moments, however, the game’s stars providing some of that impetus:

My personal favorite was Blind Luck’s relentless pursuit of Havre De Grace down the Stanton, Delaware stretch. But there were others of note: The bumper-cars Big ‘Cap; the O’Brien father-and-son act in the Turf; the entertaining Rapid Redux chase, etc.

But it is what it is, so let’s take a look:

Steeplechase, 4 Year Old & Up

Not a lot of productivity among the leading candidates. A two-horse battle as we see it, but we must make three selections in each category or votes in that section will not be counted.

Black Jack Blues dominated in both U.S. starts, including the Grade 1 Grand National with a season’s record of (8) 5-1-0, including a decision of his main rival, Tax Ruling, pulled up and eased in that event.

But Black Jack Blues declined the rematch in the subsequent G1 Colonial Cu, won by Tax Ruling, his second G1 this year, giving him a (4) 2-0-0 slate. With trepidation: 1. Tax Ruling 2. Black Jack Blues 3. Mabou.

Two Year Old Colt & Gelding

So, if I made an allowance for Tax Ruling, why not Union Rags, (4) 3-1-0, who had a much tougher time of things in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after first winning a G2 and the G1 Champagne? Because Hansen’s speed made his own good trip at Churchill, and after prior victories by 12¼ and 13¼ lengths, he stayed undefeated. That counts for a lot. Still, with some reservation: 1. Hansen 2. Union Rags 3. Creative Cause.

Two Year Old Filly

Had My Miss Aurelia remained healthy, took on and defeated colts in something like the 9-furlong Remsen at 9 furlongs, I would have given her Horse of the Year consideration, such was the state of the game. Grace Hall was undefeated with a G1 on her card and was a good second in in Juvenile Fillies: 1. My Miss Aurelia 2. Grace Hall 3. Weemissfrankie.

Three Year Old Colt and Gelding

Competing in the classics, everyone’s goal on January 1 each year, makes you a part of the game’s lore, especially if you have success. Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom was most impressive, was most game and classy two weeks later, and most unlucky three weeks after that. But the racing year doesn’t end in early June.

Caleb’s Posse, admittedly a sprinter/miler type, won half his 10 starts, including the two-turn Ohio Derby, the G1 Kings Bishop over Uncle Mo and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile over elders and Preakness winning Shackleford. That makes him the most accomplished in our view: 1. Caleb’s Posse 2. Animal Kingdom 3. Stay Thirsty.

Three Year Old Filly

With the exception of Royal Delta, various leading candidates took us to the highest levels then never could seal the deal. R Heat Lightning was a killer last winter at Gulfstream; then Plum Pretty took the divisional lead with Kentucky Oaks score. It’s Tricky won G1 Acorn and CCA Oaks back to back and Zazu, with her two G1s, was good all year. Defending champion Awesome Feather remained undefeated in two starts didn’t return from injury soon enough. Royal Delta, with Bill Mott calling the shots, simply improved with the seasons, each start more important than the last: 1. Royal Delta 2. Zazu 3. It’s Tricky.

Four Year Old & Up Male

Had Acclamation, winner of three G1s, only had one important victory on dirt. If only Game On Dude, or Flat Out, won the Classic. If Tizway and First Dude only made it all the way to Louisville.

If Drosselmeyer did just a little more, or if Wise Dan raised his profile; any of the above had a chance at the brass ring. But that was the other major disappointment in a racing year gone by; the handicap class. With qualification: 1. Acclamation 2. Game On Dude 3. Tizway.

Four Year Old & Up Female

Havre De Grace and Blind Luck need no introduction, but it might have been interesting to see what would have happened had Awesome Maria--4-for-4, all graded, one G1—Awesome Maria made it beyond June 18. Finally, a top class no-brainer: 1. Havre De Grace 2. Blind Luck 3. Awesome Maria.

Three Year Old & Up Male Sprint

Never thought I would land here but after taking the allotted time to deliberate, Amazombie deserves the honor. Slate of (9) 5-1-3 is first rate, earnings of $1.3 million merits respect—and I’m not an earnings guy—four graded stakes wins, two G1s, including the Sprint, and never off the board in six graded stakes. Accomplishment and laudable consistency: 1. Amazombie 2. Caleb’s Posse 3. The Factor.

Three Year Old & Up Filly Sprint

After Musical Romance, it was just as difficult. Ultimately I decided that winning half of six starts, including two G1s and a six-furlong score in 1:08.2 was good for place. Show was a female with a 4-for-7 slate, all graded wins, one G1, a track record of 1:20.2 and a couple of near records, too. Another difficult call: 1. Musical Romance 2. Sassy Image 3. Hilda’s Passion.

Three Year Old & Up Male Turf

A two-horse race at the top with the top candidates going 3-for-3 in G1s; the other with four graded wins in five graded starts, including two G1s, the most worthy. The third choice was more subjective:1. Cape Blanco 2. Acclamation 3. St Nicholas Abbey.

Three Year Old & Up Female Turf

It was just one tough category after another. No filly dominated open company; the one that was dominant was a three year old racing with her own kind who failed in her biggest test of the year. And so it was Stacelita with her two G1s and a placing in the G1 United Nations vs. males: 1. Stacelita 2. Dubawi Heights 3. Winter Memories.

Trainer Eclipse

How do you fit four candidates into three slots? You don’t. It was a breakthrough year for Derby winning Graham Motion. Bob Baffert was G1 prolific. Todd Pletcher was super prolific with many multiple graded-win days.

But it was Bill Mott that got the brass ring in prime time, his work with Drosselmeyer and Royal Delta things of beauty, especially the latter. And to get To Honor And Serve to finish on a high note after early season issues was the cherry on top: 1. Bill Mott 2. Bob Baffert 3. Graham Motion.

Jockey Eclipse

There are so many great athletes from which to choose. But for overall excellence and dominance without one mega-stable exclusively behind him; day-in, day-out; stakes-in, stakes-out: 1. Ramon Dominguez 2. Johnny Velazquez 3. Javier Castellano.

Owner Eclipse

For doing it in all categories: number of victories; stakes wins; variety of entrants from G1 to claimers at all high profile meets; as a breeder, et al: 1. Ken and Sarah Ramsey 2. Team Valor International 3. Live Oak Plantation.

Parenthetically, love the idea that Ramsey bets his money, helping the handle wherever he races.

Breeder Eclipse

If the mere mention of the name Stronach didn’t almost always engender controversy, he could practically retire this trophy: 1. Adena Springs 2. Ken & Sarah Ramsey 3. Live Oak Stud.

Apprentice Eclipse

Very subjective. From what we’ve seen, young riders able to coax run from their mounts, attain positioning with just the right amount of aggressiveness, and with an ability to finish, in a photo it’s:1. C J McMahon 2. Irad Ortiz Jr. 3. Ryan Curatolo.


What a year; seriously thought of leaving this title open. But since the award will be presented in Los Angeles in any case, I decided to vote in Thoroughbred racing's version of the Iowa Caucus. Frankly, I fel there were very few viable options.

I settled on a standout individual that accomplished some notable goals, and for the willingness of the connections to raise their horse's profile when no one would have blamed them for taking a more prudent tack. Rick Porter is a successful horseman who knows how to cash out, but in this instance gave back to the game by making an unselfish sporting gesture.

1. HAVRE DE GRACE 2. Acclamation 3. Rapid Redux

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 01, 2012

Time to Turn the Page

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, DECEMBER 31, 2011—There’s a pivotal scene in “When Harry Met Sally” when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, when hats fly, horns sound, confetti drifts in streams from out of nowhere and the familiar, traditional lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne” start to play.

Harry Burns then says to Sally Albright, and I’m paraphrasing here, “I never understood what the words to this song means. Should we forget old acquaintances, or should we remember not to forget old acquaintances..? ”

Actually, it is supposed to be about old friends who have parted, meet again, and lift a glass in friendship and recall a past gone by. So, Harry, the basic message is we should not forget old friends, and should take the time to celebrate a reunion whenever one occurs.

But these days, New Year’s Eve and day seem to be less about friendship and more about impending January whites sales, diets, and other resolutions that are even money never to see February. But also new beginnings; at least there’s still that.

Truth be told, I probably had a worse year than the three-year-olds. As far as 2011 is concerned, good f…ing riddance!

It wasn’t all bad, mind you. There was the condo in Plantation that Toni and I lucked into, and enough left in the 201K—a 401K pre-2008—to pay for it. They don’t give 30-year mortgages to 60-somethings, you understand. That’s if you can find a bank that still lends money.

And got to do the bucket list thing, too, buying a piece of my very first race horse. Doing OK, too, as the filly is paying her way. Hasn’t won yet but five starts and five checks; not too shabby. Hopefully, she gets the job done on the January 8. We shall see.

I’m not much of a New Year’s reveler; never was. But this New Year’s was cool. Toni and I were at home and at the struck of midnight we had a birthday party. Dubai’s Connection turned 7 on Sunday. We’re so proud.

But the rest of the racetrack year kind of, in the language of today’s young people, sucked. First of all, it was first losing year in the last four. They say that the photos and DQs even out. They don’t. The first bad beat came at Calder’s Summit of Speed this summer.

The investment was $24. The pool was the Pick 5 with its tempting 15% pari-mutuel takeout. Musical Romance had just split horses deftly beneath Juan Leyva to take the lead at 7-1 and with a half furlong left her length lead appeared safe. Over $5K for a song.

Sassy Image. The 3-2 favorite was least of 10 at head-stretch. But Mike Smith swung her to the far outside, 8 to 10 wide, and she came rolling, flying like some feline Turkoman. She got up by a neck. I was stunned. Couldn’t believe Musical Romance got beat; couldn’t believe Sassy Image got up.

Off that race, Sassy image finished sixth on the Ballerina and didn’t race again in 2011. After the Rooney, Musical Romance won the listed Barb’s Dancer, the Grade 2 Presque Isle Downs Masters and the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Guess she was the best filly; only not on July 9 at Calder.

Then came, well, New Year’s Eve, by now that was yesterday, it was another 50-Cent Pick 5, this was at Gulfstream, a bet that offers a consolation AND a carryover. And so we made a $48 investment, a 4x1x3x2x4.

Our single, ironically named Battle Hardened, did all the dirt work, stalking for the entire nine furlongs, taking the lead at head-stretch, battled the entire length of the stretch and held Big Screen safe, until the last jump, beaten a head. Battle Hardened was the 7-2 second choice; Big Screen the 5-2 favorite.

The Pick 5 with Big Screen and the other spread horses returned $6,871.20. It wasn’t a complete loss, though. The conso paid $51.20. The winner “wore down rival late.” The runnerup finished “gamely, just failed.”

“For auld lang syne, my dears, for auld lang syne, we'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne," and maybe drown a sorrow or two. It’s New Year’s Day; I’m even for 2012.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

You’re Entering the Wondrous Dimension of Imagination. . .Welcome to the Spin Zone

SARATOGA SRINGS, NY, December 29, 2011—When it comes to managing the fallout from the takeout error made by the New York Racing Association by which bettors were overcharged by more than $8 million over a 15-month period, it turns out that NYRA and several media outlets know more about spin cycles than a Maytag repair man.

After keeping a low profile for nearly a week during the Aqueduct Christmas hiatus, NYRA CEO Charles Hayward surfaced in a Daily Racing Form interview Tuesday. “I’m the CEO, ultimately I’m responsible,” before adding the qualifier “a lot of people both inside NYRA and the state [had a chance] to review [the statutory reduction] and the bottom line is that we missed it.”

In Thursday’s Saratogian, Adirondack Trust Co. president, CEO and board chairman Charles V. Wait, also a NYRA Board of Trustees member, said the incident was “clearly unintentional,” that “these things happen in business from time to time” and that no one should lose a job over this, only that “it’s something for the [NYRA Board] Audit Committee to review.”

Beneath the headline “NYRA’s Hayward says takeout reduction permanent,” somewhat akin to a NYRA press release on this situation last week (“NYRA lowers takeout)” came a second admission of culpability and a belated apology: “We’re trying to do what we can to fix that for the customers,” Hayward told the DRF, “but it doesn’t eliminate the fact that we made a mistake, for which I apologize.”

Hayward also said that the 2% compensatory takeout reduction on five exotic wagers would be permanent, “not for only 15 months as had been reported by some outlets.” Those outlets, however, were only reporting what the language led them to believe.

A New York State Racing & Wagering Board statement from a hearing on this situation read in part: “Chapter 115 of the Laws of 2008, Section 238 of the Racing Law… the matter remains under review; the Board approved the request to bring NYRA’s takeout on exotic wagers into compliance with statute. Furthermore, the Board approved the following actions in relation to approval of this request and consequences of the use of the excessive takeout rate for approximately 15 months.”

Those who blamed state racing law as being very complex seemingly knew what they are talking about. The language “approximately 15 months” apparently can be taken to mean forever, even if the minimum amount of reduction time proscribed must be in place for at least that length of time. If, then, NYRA does not request an increase back to higher pre-existing levels, the 24% takeout rate would remain in effect permanently.

The language in the statute relating to the Pick Six is also parsed, the bet defined as a “super-exotic.” All combination bets consisting of at least three elements up to five are termed merely “exotic.” Since NYRA is permitted to charge anywhere up to a 36% rake on the Pick Six—who conjured up that number?—the 26% rate Pick Six bettors were charged during the 15 months in question falls within the parameters of the statute.


HRI has not seen any language that governs what measures the state’s harness tracks or Finger Lakes Thoroughbreds must take to correct overcharges made on their customers. All simulcast organizations were unintended beneficiaries of the illegal rate. The SRWB did, however, instruct the state’s OTB corporations to follow NYRA’s lead to make bettors with documentation whole.

The 15-month error was in all probability an oversight, albeit one of enormous magnitude, falling between the cracks of a betting chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon. But it makes no sense, especially given that Genting’s New York City Casino on the grounds of Aqueduct Racetrack is a sign that happy days may be here again. That the Association would take such a gamble and show such utter disregard of racing law seems unreasonable, although history could contradict that notion.

However, it would have been better had Hayward’s apology come quicker, getting out in front of the flack before setting the spin cycle on high. It would have appeared more sincere had he not pointed out in the DRF story that the Association has been acting without a designated chief financial offer since October 5, or that takeout rates are published daily in the official track program, Daily Racing Form and off-track locations. This was not a time for playing the caveat emptor card.

Nor was it timely to state that NYRA was “opposed initially” to the 2008 takeout increase as part of the franchise agreement because “it was bad for business.”

And so the action taken by the Association “brings NYRA into compliance with the statutory provisions. NYRA states that they are requesting to lower the takeout rate an additional one percent to 24% to compensate their customers for the prior higher rate. It should be noted that the allowable range set forth in statute for exotic wagers is 15% to 25%. The requested rate is within the allowable range.”

That means that if it wanted, NYRA could request takeout reductions in “exotic” pools as low as 15%. But what are the odds, especially after Hayward declined to comment on whether NYRA would seek a takeout reduction on straight win, place and show wagers, and two-horse wagers such as the exacta and daily double?

Written by John Pricci

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