Friday, September 05, 2008

As Sport, New York Racing Deserves Better

Saratoga Springs, NY, September 4, 2008--Belmont opens Friday after a three-day racing hiatus and this town is getting back to normal, which is to say there’s much more traffic on Broadway than there used to be when first I visited the land of history, health and horses four decades ago.

Until finally, sick of packing and unpacking, I moved my tack here permanently almost a decade ago. I recall when this used to be the place where time stopped. But the old line about “travel up the Northway to exit 14, turn right onto Union Avenue, and go back a hundred years,” just doesn’t scan anymore.

The last two dark days saw temperatures rise into the high 80s--warmer than on any day in August--and gas prices fall to $3.79 a gallon, which we’re supposed to believe is a bargain. But it’s the same every year. The circus comes to town and everything turns upside down.

Like many of the horseplaying locals, I can’t wait for the Saratoga meeting to begin then can’t wait for it to end. Sorry, but while the Woodward is a welcome aesthetic cherry on the Saratoga confection, it feels like anything that occurs after Travers is anticlimactic.

The final week is sold as a good time to visit the old Spa, the vacationing hordes having dissipated. On balance, that’s true. But the reality somehow never measures up to that perception. With the exception of the Woodward and closing-day programs, the joint is buzzless.

However, the opening the Belmont Park fall meet on the Labor Day weekend hasn’t been the answer for some time, either. Paraphrasing the great Hall of Fame horseman, John Nerud, a bad day at Saratoga is better than a good day at Belmont Park.

Here, horse racing lives and thrives in the mainstream. There, it barely exists beyond the first Saturday in June.

While, with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t agree with every policy decision the NYRA executive team makes, it’s difficult not to feel some empathy for their situation. Much of their current woes are the result of a shameless state government that places politics above the needs of its citizenry. To wit:

How is it possible that VLT legislation, enacted into law seven years ago, is not yet a reality at NYRA tracks? That’s disgraceful on two counts, the overall quality and health of this country’s leading racing jurisdiction being the least of it.

Why haven’t the state’s overburdened citizens been allowed to benefit from tax relief additional VLT revenues would have afforded all these years? And the VLT franchise decision is still in limbo. Is the state stalling while it tries to figure a way to take over all gambling, from the lottery to racetracks, OTBs, and the remaining VLT franchises, too?

Of course that isn’t exactly right because a VLT franchise announcement is supposed to be imminent, but it does make one wonder.

Meanwhile, the state will continue taking a financial hit the longer it delays making this industry healthy. Everywhere around the country purses have been lowered as a result of reduced handle. That’s how the model works. But despite lagging business, purses went up at the Saratoga meet and stayed that way.

As long as the NYRA will be forgiven its debt as part of the franchise agreement, where is the incentive to curb its spending? For New York to remain preeminent, purses need to remain competitive with states benefiting from VLT dollars. But when it comes to the horsemen that need the money most, it seems only the rich are getting richer.

Even when the NYRA tries to do something to benefit its standing and bottom line, it can’t catch a break. Not only don’t dollars go as far as they used to, neither do handshakes.

New York racing thought it was next in the Breeders’ Cup line following the Santa Anita double-dip--a move that still doesn’t make sense unless there’s some underground agenda to foist synthetic-track racing on the rest of America.

While a synthetic surface might fuel greater international participation in Breeders‘ Cup, it’s also possible the breeding industry will benefit by the expansion of an ersatz surface over which horses run, thereby widening the gene pool via external means, all in the name of safety.

Forgive the paranoid ranting. But 2008 is, after all, an election year. Either way, New York racing deserved better. Especially when it’s still capable of putting on a show as good as the one we saw for the last six weeks.

* * *

Stewards Had Good Spa, but Should Have Taken Labor Day Off

Anyone can have a bad day. So can three people. But there’s plenty of blame to go around for the horrendous call in the fifth race closing day, a five and a half furlong turf sprint. What made the call so indefensible is that no one, stewards included, had a definitive view of the action.

In the race, Mrs. Holden and Jorge Chavez took command from the start. Racing near the hedge throughout, slightly less than two paths wide, she appeared to remain in the same lane from gate to wire, drifting out slightly only when clear in the straightaway. But that’s not where the incident occurred.

Approaching headstretch, Leader of the Life, racing on the hedge, tried to get through inside of Mrs. Holden but, lacking room, was forced to check by John Velazquez. Once the two fillies entered the straight, Mrs. Holden widened her margin from 1-½ lengths to 2-¼ in the drive to the post.

There was no question as to which filly was best, but plenty of doubt regarding the outcome. Even official Equibase chartcallers had trouble discerning exactly what happened. There never was a specific reference to how the incident occurred, as there commonly is--unless now it will be done after the fact.

Mrs. Holden…”set the pace under pressure… came out slightly in upper stretch” were the only descriptive phrases. The short comment in her past performances next time out will read: “speed inside, drew off.”

Leader of the Life…”steadied behind the winner leaving the backstretch….took up sharply nearing the quarter pole…” Her short comment will say: “took up turn.” But was that “leaving the backstretch” or “nearing the quarter pole?”

Here are some of the problems. The chartcallers in the press box never saw the replays I viewed from the box area from various angles. Why? I witnessed several replays from different perspectives. The problem with incidents occurring at this juncture is that there’s no definitive view of what happened. Many problems occur in the seam of the shifting camera angles. This was one of those times.

There is no good reason why the chartcallers weren’t seeing the same replays the fans in the boxes, and those standing directly behind them, saw. And even if they had, surely they would have felt without equivocation that the evidence was inconclusive.

How can horsemen be held accountable and subsequently punished on inconclusive data?

An HRI reader commented on the site that he suspected politics, since Velazquez was involved in a battle with Alan Garcia for the meet’s leading rider. Not sure how that would work since the legendary Allen Jerkens was the trainer being punished, a political push.

Admittedly, stewards everywhere, especially New York’s, will view apprentices with a jaundiced eye as they would jockeys with reputations for dirty riding. Chavez has a reputation for being an aggressive race rider, but not for being a dirty one.

The stewards alone are not to blame, however. While the industry pays lip service to integrity, it still won’t require stewards to file written reports outlining the basis for their decisions as is done in other countries. Why not? It’s about time racing commissioners--the State Racing and Wagering Board in this case--made their highly paid officials accountable. That they don’t is indefensible.

In relation to what happens on its tracks, management should invest in additional tower cameras to help officials make better decisions, as opposed to those cameras recently installed on the other side of the finish line for providing interesting, new perspectives and some cool “hero shots.”

Or management might have used some of the budget that paid or bartered for three full-page ads in the trade paper trumpeting Curlin’s Woodward participation, as if anyone spending $5 for a set of past performances wouldn’t know.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 18, 2008

High Speed at Breeze-Up Sales Overrated

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 17, 2008--Should anyone be surprised that the results of an informal study conducted by members of the California Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association to measure the success of the Barretts preview sales from 1999 to 2006, featuring “warp speed” workouts, showed a very poor relationship between youthful zip and racetrack success?

I wasn’t and neither should you. Horses of all ages seldom win anything important after running an opening furlong in 10 seconds, that’s if they win anything at all, or even make it to the races.

The study attempted to measure the success rate of Barretts March Sale graduates over an eight-year period. The 2007 class, this year’s two-year-olds, were not included. Most of those youngsters have yet to race.

Critics of the report will claim the data is skewed, or incomplete, even just plain wrong. I’m willing to concede that some criticisms might be justified. But an overwhelming preponderance of evidence shows a clear trend, an alarming one to say the least, but not uncommon.

The research was conducted and is verifiable by visiting the Barretts and Pedigree Query websites, whose data was used to compile the following results. The samples included only the fastest best-of-preview workouts at one, two and three furlongs.

Some terrific race horses were Barretts Sales graduates, among them, Officer, Brother Derek, Queenie Belle, Dubai Escapade, Henny Hughes, River’s Prayer, Habibti and Notional, an impressive group indeed.

But the study was meant to correlate the “fastest” workers with racetrack profitability. By that criterion Dubai Escapade hasn’t justified his $2 million price tag on the racetrack. He’s won six of eight starts according to the data, but earned $427,000.

Henny Hughes and River’s Prayer made money, but not really. They weren’t sold. They were “buy-backs” a.k.a. “RNAs,” horses whose reserve price--the value placed on them by their breeder(s), was not attained.

Actually, most results were counter-intuitive: The higher the sales price, the lower the earnings. After working a quarter mile in :21.6 seconds, Morocco was sold in 1999 for $2-million, and earned $134,000 at the races, winning four of 16 starts.

After working an eighth of a mile in :10-flat the following year, Gotham City sold for $2-million but came $1,998,000 short of winning back his purchase price, going winless in two lifetime starts.

Atlantic Ocean, a 2002 Barretts graduate, had a decent racetrack career, earning $680,000 on five wins from 19 career starts, but well short of his $1.9 million purchase price. Diamond Fury sold for $2.7 million the following year, but won back only $128,000, going 3-for-15.

Even a successful career--if short lived--is no guarantor of racetrack profitability. In addition to the Dubai Escapade example, What A Song, who “zipped a quarter mile in :20.6” in 2005 and undefeated in three starts, came up short of his purchase price by $1,720,000.

In all, 28 of the fastest two-year-olds in America sold at auction over eight years for a grand total of $26,675,000 collectively earned back $3,878,000. This is not an easy game.

But things like this are bound to happen when $2 billion worth of speed and pedigreed bloodstock race for a total of $1 billion in purses over the course of the racing year. It probably easier to make money by leasing them for one minute, 11 seconds at a time.

One suitably quirky result of the study shows that consignors were a better judge of earning talent than the buyers, but not by much. Ten horses that failed to reach their reserves earned more than the value their breeders or pinhookers placed on them.

In addition to River’s Prayer and Henny Hughes, other big winners were Water League ($190K) earned over $800,000 in Japan and Buffythecenterfold ($70K) more than $530,000. And Wild Fit is doing well, too. A three-year-old this year his reserve of $240K was not met and thus far has earned over $555,000.

But 35 proved unworthy of their consignor’s assessment and some really hurt. Miz Pickens was reserved for $290,000; earned $450. Count Midnight was expected to bring over $385,000. He never made it to the races. Neither did In Style Again; same reserve price, same result.

Many people disagree with Frank Stronach, but he gets it as a horseman. His under-tack sales place an emphasis on athleticism and attitude, not speed. So when only 49 of 301 very fast two-year-olds can win themselves out, and that’s not considered unusual, what’s the point of subjecting youngsters to this kind of stress, anyway?

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Without Action Racing Might Not Survive Latest Firestorm

First, it was Jess Jackson, owner of 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin, that pleaded for help. Now it’s my turn, a former ink-stained wretch who traded in an old Underwood for a new Toshiba laptop. Congress, please help.

No, I’m not crazy. I fully understand the possible pitfalls here. Like Bill Burbas, a 64-year-old flat-bed driver who rescued me on the New York Thruway after a throttle position sensor, whatever that is, rendered my 2007 Subaru powerless, I, too, have lost faith in the system.

Burbas, salt of the earth life-long Democrat, worries that Barack Obama will be another Jimmy Carter--well meaning but ineffectual--and believes America never again will be the country he grew up in. Technology can’t save it; things have gone too far.

What was the old slogan; better living through chemistry? Well, it’s that kind of technology that’s gotten racing into a mess from which many of the well meaning-- inside and outside the industry--believe it can never recover.

I’m being an alarmist? The game is bigger than us all? It was once. But it’s not bigger than public perception. Racing’s approval rating is somewhere around that of Congress or even the lame duck, lame brain in the White House.

But, for better or worse, it's the only system we have.

I’m not naïve enough to believe it was ever strictly hay, oats and water. In a game of big, fast money, people will take an edge. It’s human nature.

Longing for the good old days?

Under the tutelage of Tom Smith, inducted into Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2000 via the Historic Review Committee, the legendary Seabiscuit went on to win 33 of the 89 races, setting 16 track records in the process.

But a year after leaving the employ of C.S. Howard, he received a lengthy suspension for drug violations. So, in retrospect, does that somehow make Seabiscuit something less than? Isn’t it too bad that question needed begging?

Clichés are true, of course. Racing is a microcosm of what happens in life. But in no small measure is it ironic that, despite it’s excesses, this country remains puritanical in so many ways? You need not be a zealot to be a person that cares for the ethical treatment of animals, especially those that helped make America great.

Once a major pastime, racing now exists on the sports periphery. It has become a victim of its own success vis a vis its most visible prize, the one steeped in Americana. That prize is the Kentucky Derby, first leg of America’s Triple Crown.

Breeding a Derby champion no longer is about durability and longevity. It’s about speed and power. Everybody knows that, even in Washington D.C.

By now, the most casual of sports fans know what’s wrong with the racing industry, and therein lies its problem. That perception is out there. The problem for the industry is that perception in this case is built on facts.

Even racing’s harshest critics can accept that accidents can and do happen. But not when there’s so much evidence that man is causing the predisposition that leads to so many of these accidents. We breed a faster, more powerful race horse, pump it up with chemical additives, and keep it racing on therapeutic medication.

What was it that one owner-breeder said in last week’s House subcommittee hearing: The body of Schwarzenegger on the legs of Don Knotts?

In the dictionary, look up the word: “ther-a-peu-tic, adj. 1. used in treating disease: relating to, involving, or used in the treatment of disease and disorders 2. maintaining health: working or done to maintain health.”

Nowhere in the definition are the words “to perform at optimum level pain free while infirm.”

Many horsemen and horsewomen I know take better care of their animals than they do themselves. Trainers understand the argument that horses cannot decide for themselves whether or not they want to perform through artificial means, but they also hide behind racing’s permissive rules. But there are pressures.

When livelihoods include factors over which those responsible have no control; the pressure of the racetracks and, by extension, owners to run, and the pressure to win, not only for owners but for the stable help, most horseman will abide by the rules but some will choose to legally win by any means necessary.

Since the House subcommittee hearing, three prominent trainers, Rick Dutrow, Steve Asmussen and Larry Jones, have been cited for drug positives. And jockey Jeremy Rose was suspended an excessive six months for striking his mount in the face with a whip.

In Rose’s case, he claims it was accidental and inadvertent, trying to straighten out his lugging-in mount by hitting her on the shoulder, at once consistent with taking a standard safety precaution while trying to win a race.

Rose is one of the game’s top riders, the regular partner of dual classics winner Afleet Alex, the feel good story of 2005. The horse’s trainer, Howard Wolfendale, accepted Rose’s explanation and apology, and is still using Rose on his horses.

These suspensions can be viewed as the game getting tough while in the spotlight‘s glare, proving that it can police itself. But it also is an industry known for making examples of people before going back to business as usual.

I hope the powers that be--whoever they are--realize that this approach will no longer stand, that the problem won’t be buried in the short memories of the American people, that they can’t afford to wait this thing out.

I’m not sure when it became fashionable in this country to say “I’m sorry, but now it’s time to move on.” It probably was around the same time that people stopped being accountable for their actions. What will the industry say when the next accident occurs?

Animals deserve and require respectful care. As stated, the overwhelming majority of people tethered to the thoroughbred are excellent caretakers. But racing needs to ensure that behavior by imposing meaningful standards and sanctions on a national scale. The best interests of the industry will be served by taking care of the best interests of the horse.

Lamentably, I feel the same way about the industry that flat-bed driver Bill Burbas feels about the country he grew up in. When he said he lost faith because things have gone too far, I told him I couldn’t go there. I told him that as a writer and a horseplayer, a hopeless romantic, I couldn’t let my small piece of the American dream die.

So, why not do this, industry? Instead of waiting for Congress to meddle into your affairs, let every organization and racing-states representative convene in Saratoga. Come for the Travers then lock yourselves up in the Gideon Putnam conference center and stay there until you accomplish the following:

Therapeutic medication will be permitted but controlled; nothing can be administered within 96 hours of a race. Ban all forms of steroids, from birth. What buyers see is what they get. Eliminate all race-day medication. Establish one centralized national betting platform with a takeout so low as to drive rebate shops out of business.

Earmark a minute percentage of the resultantly increased simulcast handle for equine health and designer-drug research. Technology helped create the problem, now let technology fix it.

Make every state racing commission answerable to a central authority and call it the National Thoroughbred League. Appoint a commissioner, one from the private sector, not from inside the industry. Bill Clinton needs a job. Start there and work backwards, but not too far. Get someone who is Einstein smart and loves the sport, figureheads need not apply.

Do this before the House subcommittee calls a second hearing and have the NTL Commissioner tell Congress what the industry is prepared to do, starting with some of the recommendations above, and a reasonable time frame in which to get it all done. Show Congress and the rest of America that the industry is worthy of what once was--and can again be--a great sport.

Or not. Throw up your hands and do nothing because it’s all too complicated and there are too many reasons why it can’t be done, explaining that you live in the real world and there is no such thing as enlightened self interest only cover-your-ass reality.

Then watch all your chickens come home to roost and begin to reap what you have sown since the sport‘s golden age, the 1970s. Take no action and suffer the consequences or, worse, become totally irrelevant. Then look in the mirror we’ve created and ask: How did we allow things to go this far?

Written by John Pricci

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