Saturday, November 14, 2009

Breeders’ Cup Suffering From Identity Crisis

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 13, 2009--Was it me, or did you also get the sense that this year’s Breeders’ Cup didn’t feel like the usual championship event until Goldikova unleashed that powerful kick midway through Saturday’s program?

Whether this perception is accurate or not, Breeders’ Cup Ltd. Ultimately must decide whether it wants to stick with the original model and mantra, “Racing’s Crowning Event,” or whether it wants to be the Breeders’ Cup International Racing Festival.

As currently structured, it falls a bit short of achieving either goal.

Don’t misunderstand. Breeders’ Cup will crown its share of champions again this year. It never has failed to do so. But unlike in the early days of the event, the overall quality in majority of the races was lacking.

The only notable progress--which may be the only measure that interests current organizational hierarchy--has come in the area of betting handle.

Just as expansion has reduced the overall quality of the four major sports leagues, large-market Major League Baseball teams notwithstanding, so, too, has expanding the championship format to two days and doubling the number of the original seven events failed to achieve the desired results.

It remains early in the Filly Friday experiment but thus far it’s been much ado about very little, except for the negative publicity generated by the renaming of the Distaff to Ladies Classic. In my view, the name isn’t as politically incorrect as it is pedestrian.

The filly concept hasn’t really caught on or ignited a fire under the brand. Ironic, too, that in 2009, “the year of the filly” featuring the two best thoroughbreds in America, one was a no-show and the other raced on Saturday--and gave the boys a fine spanking, at that.

Was I the only observer that found it curious that Filly Friday began with an open 14-furlong marathon? Facetiously, did Breeders’ Cup run out of fillies or only filly races? And, come to think of it, why is the Filly & Mare Sprint seven furlongs and not six?

Why does that race even exist? Very Subtle’s 1987 victory at Hollywood Park gave that renewal of the Sprint a special excitement. And even if she were lucky to take advantage of the gaffe made by shadow-jumping Dayjur, was anyone at Belmont Park, bettors notwithstanding, upset when Safely Kept became the Sprint beneficiary?

And was a F & M Turf really necessary? All can surmise the answer but that’s still not a good reason. So maybe Miss Alleged wasn’t all that compelling when beating the boys at Churchill Downs in 1991, but Pebbles Turf victory at Aqueduct in 1985 was an unforgettable Breeders‘ Cup moment.

Wouldn’t the Turf renewals of 2004 and 2006 been better off with Ouija Board than without her? And what about Banks Hill in 1991? Certainly, Midday would have been a welcome addition to this year’s Turf, easily the weakest running in recent memory.

The Dirt Mile was not run this year although history will recognize Furthest Land as the 2009 winner. The notion was a poor conception from the outset. Two-turn milers simply don’t enjoy the same stature as one-turn milers but most tracks lack a mile chute.

Sprinting eight furlongs proves something, especially to potential breeders. Two-turn milers might appear black-type attractive in sales catalogues but the uninitiated don’t know any better. Maybe that was the point all along.

Turf sprints are fun unless, of course, you spend summers in Saratoga where the novelty wears off in a few weeks. Why any “championship race” exists without a nominal champion in that category is lost on most fans, myself included.

Juvenile turf racing, however, like grass racing in general, is easier on the youngsters and can help predict the success of future campaigns. It probably will have its own Eclipse category before long although it’s not critical to the success of this program.

As long as future Breeders’ Cups are held at venues in Lexington or Chicago or Southern California or Toronto, for that matter, Eclipse Awards should recognize accomplishment on all three surfaces; dirt, turf and synthetics.

“Dirt” horses went zero for the last two Breeders’ Cups. Until and unless some venue can offer championship racing on all three surfaces, or concurrently at different locales, many of America’s best dirt horses will continue to avoid Breeders’ Cup day, especially if the following year’s campaign is predicated on winning traditionally prestigious dirt fixtures.

Finally, it is hoped that the tweaking of the wagering menu--following the lead of handle-hungry racetracks--will cease. Back in the day of the original seven-race event, the Sprint opened the program and the Classic closed it; the Turf has always been the penultimate race and it followed the Distaff every year. Races were set in stone and fans could name them in order. So much for building tradition.

And so Breeders’ Cup Ltd. must decide what it wants to be. CEO Greg Avioli has said the event could remain in a state of flux for the next few years until planners can grow the brand going forward, hopefully recapturing the excitement of its early days.

If this truly is its aim, to give Breeders’ Cup an identity with sports fans that it doesn’t enjoy now because of seasonal competition from the World Series and college and pro football, it has an enormous opportunity to shake itself and the sport out of its lethargy come next November.

Call it “The Breeders’ Cup: Late Night Filly Friday” or “Breeders’ Cup Friday Night Lights” as a prelude to the next day’s program. Or simply go all out for two days and call it “Breeders’ Cup Prime Time.” With clever promotion and unprecedented support from horsemen, wouldn’t this grand one-time experiment be worth the risk?

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

For the Love of the Game

ARCADIA, November 7, 2009--It was very early in the year. People were just beginning to learn the name Rachel Alexandra and I wrote a Morning Line feature suggesting that the connections of the mighty Zenyatta needed to take a higher-profiled road to her next championship title assault.

Shortly thereafter, I opened a warm e-mail from trainer John Shirreffs, after he had received a heads up from his devoted wife Dottie, a key member of the Zenyatta team, along with the Mosses, owners of this behemoth race mare, with a subject line entitled, simply: Love Racing.

Shirreffs understood why I said what I had suggested, and that he, too, loves to see the best horses perform against each other at the highest levels. I understood the meaning of his words and sincerely believe he meant well.

Like everyone in the sport, Shirreffs is concerned about racing’s future, not just his own, and he worries that stories of a negative persuasion are harmful in the aggregate. On this, I assume, we continue agreeing to disagree.

To differ as to which horse is better, faster, gamer, men have raced their horses against each other from the early times, when the evil Messala, clad in a forerunner to Raiders’ black, came out repeatedly into the path of Judah Ben Hur.

Obviously, Messala should have come down. And down he came. All the way down.

For his part, Shirreffs understood why my 2008 Horse of the Year vote went to Curlin and not his filly, but he hoped that in the future I would take a more positive view of all things racing.

Rest assured I have, Mr. Shirreffs. I try to reserve negative commentary only for those who must be shaken, not stirred, out of their corporate lethargy.

“For all, except those betting on others,” wrote former Newsday colleague Paul Moran this week, “it will be difficult to root against Zenyatta in her first test against males,” before adding:

“The huge mare's brilliant career is encapsulated by her record: 13-of-13, seven of those Grade 1 stakes. The winner of the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic a year ago over this course and champion American older mare of 2008 has faced the starter just four times as a 5-year-old, and her divisional title is secure.

“She has, however, raced in form measurably below her best in the two most recent victories at the expense of overmatched West Coast competition. Despite her unsullied longevity, the long-striding mare with a reliable and devastating late run has not faced males nor attempted 10 furlongs and is asked for much in what will probably be the final run of her career.

“The daughter of Street Cry has been sharp in recent training, but whether her best is good enough to overcome unfamiliar circumstances and appreciably more formidable company than she has ever kept remains a question that precludes accepting a short price or taking a stand-alone position at the end of the pick-six. It would be no surprise to see this mare off the board.”

Moran is quoted extensively here because he said it first. Sadly, I could not agree more. To put it another way, her performance figures indicate that she has not developed from four to five, which is not unusual, but is cause for concern that her undefeated career is in serious jeopardy.

Even if Mike Smith is right, that she runs only about four jumps in her races until establishing her supremacy, I can’t get her life-and-death Clement L. Hirsch victory in out of my mind. Pilot error, again? Mike Smith error, again? I think not.

Frankly, I don’t care how slow the early pace might have been. The mighty Zenyatta had run her greatest race to keep her unblemished record in tact at Del Mar that afternoon. But, in performance-figure speak, it was not her greatest effort. Her figures are cycling back now but remain below her best four-year-old form.

"Generally, I would not do it," said owner Jerry Moss this week when asked about running a female against males. "But if you have someone who is gifted, and coming up to a race in a certain way, they deserve a chance."

The reference was to her two most recent workouts in which Shirreffs really tightened the screws, bullets that were as fast or faster than anything she’s been asked to do before. Maybe Zenyatta and Shirreffs have been having fun with us all year, perhaps trying to rope-a-dope Jess Jackson? Who knows?

As someone who does this kind of thing for a living, I’ve often seen where going from a pull to a drive is not a reliable predictor of success. Same can be said for workouts. What is it those late night TV pitchmen say: “Past results does not guarantee future results?”

John Shirreffs, Jerry Moss or HRI readers, for that matter, can either believe this or not. Last year I had quite a bit of wagering success in the Classic, but when Curlin made his move, albeit too brief and not enough, it gave me a start. That’s because I’m crazy enough to think it’s OK to lose a bet, if money is the price you pay to witness history.

I’ll probably experience a similar feeling when, at sometime after 6:45 P.M., the big mare begins her electric move midway of the far turn and my eyes will be glued to her the rest of the way.

However, if I get any indication that her rally will come up a little bit short, I’ll quickly scan to the leaders and hope, like last year, I used the first two finishers to complete my exactas. In either case, I’ll be doing so at the top of my voice.

Love racing. Indeed.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Breeders’ Cup Bettors Need Complete, Timely Information

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 30, 2009--A cursory look at the past performances of the graded stakes to be run at Santa Anita next weekend indicates that, per usual, Breeders’ Cup events will crown its share of champions.

Breeders’ Cup days always do. Zenyatta’s appearance in the Classic would be just another cherry on this sweet confection.

Now this may come as a surprise, but horseplayers do not live by romance alone. They have something else in mind: Action, and making a score, not necessarily in that order. And they certainly don’t lack for opportunities at this event.

If you’re fortunate enough to have free time next Friday and Saturday afternoons, you will have a total of 19 races to handicap; nine Friday, 10 on Saturday.

In addition to six Breeders’ Cup races Friday, an early double consisting of two Santa Anita allowance races starts this off, with the Las Palmas Stakes bringing down the curtain immediately after the Ladies Classic.

Saturday features eight Breeders’ Cup races, of course, with Santa’s Anita’s Damascus Stakes lifting the lid and the Oak Tree Derby as the 10th race finale. What lies in between makes for a pretty nice wagering sandwich.

With wagering as with life, my philosophy, learned from my father, is: “All things in moderation.” In 1971, the newly mandated OTB corporation in New York City said it another way: “Bet With Your Head, Not Over It."

The advice was good then and remains good today, except for major event days when the pools are so sizable and the races so contentious so as to almost guarantee finding value on that day’s card.

From its inception, the Breeders’ Cup program was hailed as “the Super Bowl of Racing,” which is appropriate, except for the fact that the National Football League acts like it is “shocked, shocked that wagering in going on” on its games. Hypocrites.

Well, I’m here to tell you that if you have a hunch, bet a bunch on the Breeders’ Cup races. For me, there’s not enough money in this little sector of the planet to attack the Breeders’ Cup card. And I believed that when it was a one-day event.

Over the course of two days, there will be an opportunity to bet 17 Rolling Doubles; 15 Rolling Pick Threes; six Pick Fours; two Pick Sixes; 19 exactas, trifectas and superfectas and two Super High-Fives.

In addition, two special wagers will be offered; a Head-2-Head wager on which jockey will win the most Breeders’ Cup races, and a Special Double combining the winners of the Ladies Classic and Classic.

There are guarantees galore and carryovers, too. Each day’s Breeders’ Cup Ultra Pick Six will have a guaranteed pool only on the championship races. Friday’s Ultra Pick 6 will have a guaranteed gross of $500,000; Saturday’s a $2 million guaranteed gross pool. If no one hits the Friday Ultra Pick 6, the pool will carry over into Saturday with a mandatory payout.

The Pick Fours will have three guaranteed pools. Friday’s will have a guaranteed pool of $500,000. On Saturday, the early Pick 4 will have a $1 million guaranteed gross; the late Pick Four will have a $1.5 million gross guarantee.

Super High Fives require bettors to select the first five finishers in a race. If no one hits the Super High Five Friday, the Ladies Classic Super High Five pool will carry over into Saturday’s Classic Super High Five, again with a mandatory payout, paid after the Classic.

On Wednesday’s Breeders’ Cup conference call, I pointed out to Breeders’ Cup CEO Greg Avioli that for years I’ve sought to improve the dissemination of medication and equipment change information which in past Cups has been abysmal.

Race days are rife with corrections made by the track announcer, often after advance wagers have been placed.

And, even if that weren’t the case, late announcements fall through the tracks at simulcast facilities where it’s common practice that announcements are either inaudible or are drowned out by audio from competing racetracks.

Last year, there were the late Lasix announcements re: the Aidan O’Brien horses. And in the last Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park, the noon-time announcement that the Mile favorite, Leroidesanimaux, would race with two bar shoes on.

Over the years, Lasix additions and equipment-change information has been lax when it wasn’t non-existent. Avioli said that Santa Anita would comply with California Horse Racing Board rules.

But if racing departments at all Breeders’ Cup host tracks don’t do their jobs properly, and the stewards fail to monitor that situation in the course of their normal duties, there’s something very wrong with the system.

Breeders’ Cup officials must mandate unconditionally that host tracks be diligent in dispensing traditional betting information that horseplayers need and routinely have come to expect, by getting this information from horsemen at time of entry.

This is nothing more than standard operating procedure at racetracks every day. Last year, over $155 million was bet on Breeders’ Cup races. Given that kind of incentive, demanding that racing departments insist horsemen comply with basic procedural entry rules isn’t asking too much.

I’m anxious to see what happens when final entries are set next Tuesday. You, and Breeders’ Ltd., should be interested, too.

Written by John Pricci

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