Friday, September 18, 2009

Finally, Industry Becoming Responsive to its Fans

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 17, 2009--Much as I hate to admit it, and as much as we bitch and moan that nothing ever gets done, sometimes somebody out there listens to its constituency.

After lamenting that the country never got a chance to see Rachel Alexandra make history in the Woodward Stakes either over-the-air or on national cable television, it was the suggestion here and elsewhere that the race could have been shown, perhaps, at halftime of a college football game.

Well it looks like Breeders’ Cup, the ESPN network, or both, stepped up and will televise two weekends of important Breeders’ Cup preps the weekends of Oct. 10-11 and again on Oct. 17, the conclusion of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series.

While the schedule is truncated and not all it could be, it’s a step in the right direction and could set a precedent for seasons to come. It may not be Rachel, but it’s progress.

Between college football doubleheaders on ESPN, racing fans will be treated to both the Goodwood Stakes and Lady’s Secret Stakes at Santa Anita, the Breeders’ Cup site for a second consecutive year.

The Goodwood is expected to feature Kentucky Derby-winning Mine That Bird in his final Classic prep. The Lady’s Secret will showcase undefeated Zenyatta in her quest to tie Personal Ensign’s modern undefeated campaign while competing in top class company.

Unfortunately, it will be an either/or situation during the same time slot. ESPN will mix and match, shifting around post times if need be. The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races will be seen on ESPN, ESPN-2 or ESPN Classic.

Check--and double-check--listings in your local area.

While these races are part of the run-up to the event-day cards, they obviously can stand on their own. Anytime the Derby winner goes postward, it’s newsworthy.

Given that Mine That Bird was declared from the Travers with the lingering effects of routine epiglottis surgery and had lost his previous start, the Goodwood should be interesting. The return of Derby-winning partner Calvin Borel to the irons adds to the intrigue.

Zenyatta, of course, is technically still in the Horse of the Year running although Rachel Alexandra has what many voters consider to be a commanding, unbeatable lead. Either way, it’s always a treat to see the big mare rev up that huge engine three furlongs from home.

The October 11 telecast will feature two Grade 1s, the Juddmonte Spinster and Keeneland Turf, a Juvenile Turf qualifier. On October 17, international races from Toronto at Woodbine and the United Kingdom from Newmarket will conclude the series.

In conjunction with the TV schedule, Breeders’ Cup announced the launch of BreedersCup360, a specialized website that looks at Breeders’ Cup wagering.

The site,, which focuses on international horses, may be about a year late, considering the success of the Europeans in 2008. But, again, it's a good thing.

The most valuable features are access to race videos covering 14 divisions, commentary provided by many of the usual suspects. Of greater import, videos aside, is the compilation of historical stats with trend analysis of jockeys, trainers, pedigrees and relevant handicapping data linked to the site.

The important thing is that the industry finally is listening and getting tuned into the needs of its rank and file customers--horseplayers. Unfortunately, some of this customer service may be the result of Breeders’ Cup failing to capture the public imagination in the way the Kentucky Derby does.

It could be the difficult scheduling of the Breeders’ Cup itself, forced to compete with a strong fall sports schedule that features post-season baseball, the meat of the college football season, at a time when the cream of the NFL also is beginning to rise.

I have said repeatedly that the Derby is my favorite race but the Breeders’ Cup my favorite event.

But unless the horses that became household names during the Triple Crown of spring and traditional fixtures of summer show up for racing’s crowning event, Breeders’ Cup will have a difficult time getting non-racing sports fans fired up.

Breeders’ Cup has two elements to sell to the public; a world class international racing event and a spectacular cornucopia of attractive wagering opportunities. Bankrolls can’t be big enough to attack the handicapping challenges of Breeders‘ Cup event days.

The problem is that while interest in it is growing, international racing doesn’t get the blood of provincial American racing fans boiling. And only since the advent of the simulcast era have fans taken an interest in wagering beyond their hometown track.

There are many reasons why betting the horses isn’t as popular as it once was. Too much racing; a never-ending season; declining product quality; deteriorating facilities; high takeout; medication, legal and otherwise; illegal sports betting and the mindless pastimes of slots and the lottery.

Not to mention an intellectual underclass that has been dumbed down to the extent it believes it unnecessary to think any more than is absolutely necessary.

Written by John Pricci

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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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