Friday, September 11, 2009

Reflections on An Opening Day at Belmont Park

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY--Eight years ago today, I was having breakfast in my tiny dining area in Ronkonkoma, New York and was on the computer when I heard the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

I looked out the condo window and the morning was bright and clear. I wondered: How could that happen? Then, when I heard about a second plane slamming into a second tower, I felt a pit lodge in my stomach, the kind that comes when the brain transmits a primal sense of fear.

The phone started to ring and the panic outside my condo windows was getting closer to home by the minute. My wife called to remind me that our youngest daughter was in transit via subway to the Wall Street area for a job interview.

Shortly thereafter, a good friend called from Springfield, Massachusetts. Both our voices cracked as we spoke because we realized that our homeland was under attack and for our children the world would never be the same.

Peace and prosperity was great and it was lasting for such a long time that the thought was it would never end. The rest of the world was a quiet place, too, or at least the mainstream media was playing it that way.

The only concern was ever the problem: Israelis v. Palestinians. In a historical context, India and Pakistan runs a bad second. At the time, I never gave Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Iran, a second thought. Such was my ugly American naiveté.

At that time, I was doing a bi-weekly radio show, “Trackside with John Pricci,” on WEVD-1050 AM, broadcast from their studios on Manhattan’s West Side. The hour was devoted to interviews with horsemen, racing journalists and handicappers.

The best “get” that I can recall having on the show was Laura Hillenbrand, who had just written a book about the golden age of horse racing in America, and how a horse called “Seabiscuit” was helping to lift America out of its great depression mindset.

The shows were on Friday and Saturday evenings. It wasn’t long before we attracted a few sponsors and were doing very nicely until news came that ESPN had bought the station and had no interest in thoroughbred racing programming. It was moved to another station for a time, the shows moved to Saturday evening and Sunday morning. On the following Sunday, John Lennon's "Imagine" replaced "Fugue for the Tinhorns" from Guys and Dolls as we went to breaks.

Parenthetically, it’s interesting that ESPN now has a contract to broadcast horse racing on television but still seems to have a hard time throwing enthusiastic support behind the sport; a subject for another day.

By late morning on September 11, 2001, most racetracks--sadly, not all--had cancelled their programs for the afternoon for obvious reasons and in deference to the nearly 3,000 American lives that would be lost.

History would show that hijacked planes were crashed into both towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, while a fourth was brought down by a handful of brave Americans in a field in rural Shanksville, Pennsylvania before it could reach its final Washington D.C. destination.

Belmont Park was among the tracks scheduled to race that day and most morning workouts had been completed when the first news reports began circulating. It was the Belmont Fall meet, of course, and some of those workers were pointing to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, scheduled for later that fall at the Long Island track.

I called the press box that morning and got no answer, which I thought strange. I later learned that a handful of reporters and track personnel had stepped onto the roof of the racetrack from which you could see, and smell, the smoke that was billowing from the buildings in the distance many miles away.

Until those buildings were no longer standing.

Fortunately, my youngest heard about the attacks before she reached Wall Street. She detrained at the Union Square station, went upstairs and stood in the middle of 14th Street with other horrified New Yorkers.

She saw the first tower collapse and at once heard an entire block of onlookers collectively gasp. Her mother told her to go back to her dorm at the School of Visual Arts on East 23rd Street, then lost contact as cell service disappeared.

After reaching her later, Linda described the scene outside her dorm window, smoky, acrid air as national guardsmen with rifles at the ready occupied every street corner on Lexington Avenue as far as the eye could see.

My oldest remained in her apartment in Merrick, Long Island, too terrified to leave.

At the Hall of Fame induction of Tiznow last month, D.G. Van Clief, founding chairman of the NTRA and former President of Breeders' Cup Limited, talked about his greatest source of pride being part of an organization that helped give New York City back its identity as a world capital by staging the first international event in the metropolitan area following the 9/11 attacks.

Tiznow remains the only repeat winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic, defeating Arc de Triomphe winner Sakhee in a thrilling stretch drive.

Today is opening day of the prestigious Belmont Park Fall session. For a long time, this stand was known at the Belmont Park Fall Championship meeting. That much has changed, like everything else.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Where the Surf Meets the Synthetic Turf

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 23, 2009--I’m a sucker for opening days. Opening days anywhere, at any track where the game is played at a high level. The best horses, jockeys, trainers. All of it.

So, after watching about half the card from Belmont Park on Wednesday, I drove the American classic distance, a mile and a quarter, from the Saratoga harness track to my digs on Union, settling in for an afternoon of televised sport.

Where the surf meets the turf at old Del Mar.

Guess I wasn’t the only one affected by the opening day adrenaline. There they were, a couple of jockeys on $12.5 selling platers, quarter-horsing into and around the first of two turns in :22 and :45 4/5.

To no one‘s surprise, the eventual winner, High Stakes Silver, rallied from far back beneath the highly touted double bug boy, the talented Christian Santiago Reyes. Trip handicappers among you might give the eventual second-place finisher a little extra credit.

Runnerup Fantasy Free raced closest to those suicidal fractions, a close-up third, and continued gamely to the wire, beaten only by a neck by the last-run winner on a surface that later would prove to favor ralliers throughout the day.

In the second race, a well bred special weight maiden called Via Zavata was allowed to set an un-California-like sprint pace of :23 1/5 and :46 4/5, en route to a drawing out 2-¼ length win in 1:11 flat.

But for me the wheels fell off the bandwagon in the very next race when an eight year old claimer, Mi Rey, suffered a catastrophic breakdown in midstretch, throwing jockey Rafael Bejarano heavily to the ground. Mi Rey was vanned off and euthanized.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Bejarano was luckier than his mount, but not completely. The rider who swept every race meet over the entire course of the 2008 season was kicked in the face by a trailing horse. His jaw, nose, and orbital facial bones were broken in the accident.

For me, and I’m sure for many others, the rest of the card just didn’t seem all that important. As a player, I’m a big Bejarano fan. And so another top rider suffers serious injuries while Rene Douglas remains paralyzed.

But after seeing Mi Rey’s limb swinging in the air--the worst thing you can ever see on a racetrack, one that makes you turn your head and avert your eyes--I instinctively changed channels. It was awful.

And so opening day at Del Mar, one that saw more people enter the seaside track than at any time in its history, 44,907, for me was over.

Now I’m hoping that the Mi Rey incident doesn’t become part of a trend. During training hours four days earlier, a maiden-claimer named Mad for Plaid broke her left front sesamoids as she passed the finish line after a company workout and was euthanized.

Del Mar’s safety issues have been well documented in recent years and in May, 2006, not long after Barbaro’s Preakness misstep, the California Horse Racing Board mandated the installation of synthetic tracks at all major venues in the state. California’s notoriously fast surfaces have always been on the industry’s radar screen.

Richard Shapiro, then head of the CHRB, believed that the spate of Del Mar injuries, the attendant publicity surrounding the ill fated Derby winner, and California’s rock hard reputation necessitated action, so he mandated the switch to synthetics. Now he’s not so sure it was the right thing to do.

“In 20-20 hindsight,“ Shapiro told the Union Tribune’s Hank Wesch this week, “I would not have pushed for a mandate. You ask me if I'm disappointed and, in a word, the answer is yes.

“When we moved forward to synthetics it was at a time when there were a tremendous number of fatalities and breakdowns. The motivation was to try to find something to stem those losses.”

Not everyone agrees it was a mistake. Del Mar president Joe Harper recently said that If given the choice he’d do it all over again. “How,” said Harper, “can you regret a decision that in the first year gives you a 70 percent reduction in fatal injuries?”

That’s not a statewide number, but the data on breakdown reduction has been solid. According to Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB Equine Medical Director, racing fatalities are down 40 percent since the synthetic surface mandate.

And while the data is incomplete, Arthur doesn’t think that when those results are known the facts will confirm anecdotal evidence from trainers who say the number of soft tissue injuries have increased dramatically since the surface switch.

Also according to Wesch, trainer Gary Stute offered that “when [synthetics] first came out, I think trainers were about 60-40 in favor. Now I think it’s 20-80 against, and that’s being conservative. I can‘t think of 10 trainers who really like them.”

“[Synthetic tracks] have lessened the fatalities but have not proven to be what we thought they would,” added Shapiro. “They require more maintenance and have not been as consistent as we anticipated.

“And while they have lowered fatalities,” Shapiro later contradicted Arthur‘s preliminary data, “there are indications of problems with injuries that aren't fatal.”

The Del Mar Polytrack certainly seems to have proven more beneficial than the Pro Ride surface at Santa Anita where, according to a Los Angeles Times story last fall, there were seven fatal breakdowns in the immediate run-up to Breeders’ Cup.

Coming out of that event, it’s been noted that horses which spent most of their young lives training or racing on California’s artificial surfaces haven’t fared well. At this writing, the first five finishers in last year’s Juvenile have been either retired or are currently out of training.

The 2008 Juvenile Fillies trifecta also are among the missing, including champion and subsequent $5.8 million purchase Stardom Bound. And this doesn’t reflect three Triple Crown aspirants that were taken out of training this spring, including high profile The Pamplemousse.

[Ed. note: Subsequent to this posting, Daily Racing Form reported that Stardom Bound is back in training and is targeting the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic].

Then, of course, there was the recent retirement of multiple Grade 1 winner Pioneerof The Nile, fifth in last year’s Juvenile, a Triple Crown campaigner this, but which suffered a soft-tissue injury while preparing for the Swaps Stakes.

Like dirt tracks, no two synthetic surfaces are alike. Del Mar’s went from too slow in its first season to just about right last year, although there were more injuries than in year one.

To reiterate, hopefully Mi Rey and Mad for Plaid were not the beginning of a negative trend. And Bejarano makes it back to Del Mar in time for the Pacific Classic.

[ED. Note: The following is an advisory we received from HRI contributor Andy Asaro:

Up until a few months ago they were not counting Horses that were vanned off the Track and euthanized in the barn area as a racing fatality. They were not counting Horses that broke down in the morning in the afternoon racing statistics. These guys are ideological and won’t hesitate to lie to the public to suit their interests].,0,3407900.column Excerpt:"...CHRB figures put the reduction in racing fatalities since the advent of synthetics at 11%. Still, the synthetics remain highly controversial. Some owners and trainers have left the state. Others fear that gamblers who cite a difficulty in handicapping synthetic races are betting elsewhere, or not at all..."

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Breeders’ Cup Making Some Progress

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 16, 2009--It’s an odd time of year but the Breeders’ Cup is much in the news these days.

Interesting, too, how after a quarter-century “racing’s greatest day” still can be a polarizing force depending on your particular point of view.

My view, frankly, is a bit of a dichotomy. I’m an old schooler but wide open to new ideas. After all, no one’s too old to learn. Consider:

At once I can say the Kentucky Derby is my favorite race but Breeders’ Cup is my favorite event. The Derby can sometimes disappoint but never the Breeders‘ Cup. There are too many good horses for the day to fail. There’s just too much there, there.

The dichotomy part has to do with how I can say I like the idea of a two-day event, but not all of the new races.

How I didn’t like changing the name of the Distaff but understand the concerns of marketers who say no one outside the industry ever heard the term used in a sentence.

Racing is a sport supported entirely by parimutuel wagering. But neither Derby day, nor Travers day, nor Big ‘Cap day, could ever hope to match the number of potential wagering opportunities available to Breeders’ Cup bettors.

Like much of the rest of the world, Breeders’ Cup is having financial difficulties. As with any organization, mistakes were made. No one is immune to that. But perhaps the Ltd. part of Breeders’ Cup should have purchased more bonds, less stocks.

Indeed, 99 percent of the population never saw the travails of September 2008 coming. We’re not trying to play the red board here but Breeders’ Cup Ltd. might have made better use of other people’s money.

More attention could have been paid to its fiduciary responsibilities. Actually, the same can be said for the Jockey Club’s portfolio, too. But I digress.

Money isn’t the only issue. Breeders’ Cup always wants to enhance its prestige worldwide. Otherwise, why schedule two consecutive events at a track--one of this country’s most magnificent venues, modern warts and all--with a synthetic surface if not to provide a “neutral surface” for foreign horses?

It worked. Last year’s exacta finish in the Classic underscores that point of view. And this country doesn’t award Eclipses to our best juvenile turf runners. Then why stage those races if not to attract strong foreign participation?

Indeed, money makes the mare and the horses and the geldings, go. Otherwise, why 14 races? And as a glutton for graded parimutuel punishment, I‘m conflicted once again.

Can’t have enough big-field wide-open events for my wagering appetite nor, apparently, for anyone else’s. Two-day handle of $155-million speaks to that.

So, why is Breeders’ Cup $5-million light this year? That part is not their bad. Much of it has to do with a serious decline in nominating fees owing directly to the world economy.

If Breeders’ Cup is going to break even this year, it had better see a significant boost in handle and additional sponsorships. And, in that regard, help is on the way.

With new people on the Breeders’ Cup board, business is being conducted a little differently. By allowing media types to listen in on board discussions, the process is more open, more transparent. That’s laudable and hopefully this tack continues.

One potential revenue raiser is a newly created handicapping contest for high rollers and contest-circuit professional types; the “Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge.”

The two-day tournament will be conducted at Santa Anita Park on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 6 and 7, and have a six-figure payout based on the number of participants and the hefty $10,000 buy-in.

Each entrant will receive a free VIP ticket to the Championships and have a private seating area at the track with complimentary food and beverage. The contest is limited to the first 100 players to enter.

Of the initial $10,000 bankroll, $2,500 is applied toward the prize money and $7,500 is earmarked for personal betting. At the conclusion of the tournament, any dollar amount remaining in the bankroll is retained by the player.

The top six finishers qualify for the 2010 DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas in January. Each NHC qualifier also earns $1,000 towards his or her travel expenses to Las Vegas.

(HRI resident handicapper Cary Fotias sent his non-refundable $500 deposit in on Wednesday). Deposits are credited towards each player’s bankroll. The remainder of the $10,000 bankroll is due by Nov. 1, 2009.

Prize money for the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge will be awarded to the top ten finishers. Based upon 100 entries, prize money will total $275,000 with $150,000 to the winner.

Tournament races will include only those live events from Oak Tree at Santa Anita Park, including, of course, all 14 Breeders’ Cup races. Wager types permitted are Win, Place, Show, Exacta and Trifecta.

It would have been better had the general public been included too, perhaps given an opportunity to win some humongous prize based on the Classic results, fashioned loosely on the Irish Sweepstakes principle. Could create buzz and certainly wouldn’t hurt television ratings.

Speaking of TV, Breeders’ Cup announced yesterday it has entered into a multi-year agreement with TVG, the racing network and Advanced Deposit Wagering platform owned by the Betfair people, who just happen to have a great looking balance sheet.

TVG, which once sponsored the Sprint and last year’s Dirt Mile, is now title sponsor of the Breeders’ Cup Mile, one of the world’s premier turf events. It will also be the exclusive marketing partner in the ADW category.

The network will produce the Breeders’ Cup Simulcast Show, distributed to over 2,000 simulcast locations. They will also provide enhanced coverage of four major Mile preps: the Del Mar Mile, Woodbine Mile, Oak Tree Mile and Shadwell Turf Mile.

Details were not released, but this was all about Benjamins and the “new” Breeders’ Cup’s strategy to enter long term alliances.

Recall that several years ago, when the New York Racing Association “borrowed” from the horsemen’s account, resulting in a shortfall of some $17-million, TVG came to the rescue with oodles of cash. NYRA then paid the horsemen and TVG had an exclusive agreement.

Given Betfair’s European roots and TVG’s potential to grow the Breeders’ Cup international audience, it appears a win for both sides. So far, the new strategy is working.

Betting Exchange, anyone?

Written by John Pricci

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