Friday, March 18, 2011

Absence of Malice Isn’t Enough

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., March 17, 2011--It’s been a week since the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission released the results of its forensic investigation into the Life At Ten incident.

At the time it happened, I became enraged thinking about how such an event, and the manner in which it transpired could occur, especially under a world class microscope.

Within days, I was asking for sanctions against the principals involved; trainer Todd Pletcher, jockey John Velazquez, and chief steward John Veitch, calling for the latter’s dismissal.

I thought that when the results of the investigation--laughable in that it took four months to complete--were made public, I’d become furious all over again.

But it’s not rage that I feel now. What I feel is this: Nothing.

The processes in which any untoward occurrence is adjudicated within the Thoroughbred industry usually comes down in a fashion similar to the aftermath of this investigation, namely very little.

It remains to be seen just what, if any, real sanctions will be levied, whether there will indeed be a measure of accountability. After all, none of this was any of the filly’s doing.

But I’m afraid the industry has won, it’s beaten me down, stolen from me the energy needed to become angry. Taking it out of the realm of feelings, it’s a sad resignation I’m experiencing. Always, resignation.

If I didn’t love it so--if I didn’t still feel compelled to give back to a game that has packed my life with excitement and fulfillment, one that’s given me a living, a chance to work at what surely would have been an avocation--I would walk away.

I would walk away with all the others who, for one reason or another, refused to play the game by the same old tired rules and outcomes, so tired of all of it.

The KHRC found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing. No one dropped a dime to the regulatory body to report any betting irregularities. No fix was in. But as important as integrity is as the cornerstone of any gambling enterprise, that never was at issue here.

The driving force behind the non-action taken by any of the game’s well known practitioners while the rare events of Nov. 5 unfolded before a national television audience is the same tie that binds everyone in modern society: Money.

A five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer was concerned that his filly, training as well if not better than any member of his deep, powerful arsenal, was unusually quiet, but informed no authority figure of his concerns.

Was he compelled to do so? By rule, no. By moral imperative? No one knows that answer because that’s not the way the money game is played. Instead, after the fact, it was reported that his filly might have had an adverse reaction to Lasix.

A future first-round Hall of Fame jockey told a retired Hall of Fame colleague on television that his mount didn’t feel right, indicating again later on that the situation had “not really” improved.

Erring on the side of business, he did not bring his filly to the state veterinarian for further examination before the start of the race, preferring to break from the barrier to see if his mount would improve with a jolt of adrenaline.

Life At Ten took several steps away from the starting gate and was eased. The jockey abdicated his responsibility and failed to report what he was feeling to the veterinarian on the scene.

He did not do so despite what was apparent to many veteran horsemen; that the filly was traveling in a manner strongly suggesting she was “tying up,” severely cramped, unable to perform normally.

Instead, Velazquez made a judgment call, one he is likely to always regret. He was in a tough spot but he failed to act in the best interests of racing and its lifeblood, the bettors. To me, the only blemish on his exemplary career.

Where it all went horribly wrong, and where there is more than a hint of a cover-up, occurred after the chief steward was contacted by a veteran ESPN producer and told what Velazquez said to analyst Jerry Bailey at four minutes to post time.

Led by chief steward Veitch, the fact that none of the stewards took action is inexcusable and not in the best interests of the game. The investigation revealed that indeed Veitch had put the onus on Velazquez, making his responsibility when all he need to do was to pick up a phone.

This collective non-action, intended or not, served the interests of Breeders’ Cup Ltd. and Churchill Downs Inc. by not returning millions of dollars to the betting public or the starting fees--more than the annual salary of most bettors--to the owner of Life At Ten. That’s a business decision.

If there were no fear of being judged as making the wrong decision, why wasn’t the filly given a post race test, steward Veitch reasoning that the testing barn likely was too overcrowded to take a blood sample. Seriously, that’s a reason?

Then there’s the conflicting testimony when KHRC steward John Becraft broke ranks, Becraft suggesting that the stewards should contact the state veterinarian at the gate. Becraft said that Veitch’s response was “if we do that, we might as well scratch the horse.”

This became a he said-he said. According to the report Veitch acknowledged Becraft might have made that suggestion but denied both hearing the suggestion or saying “…we might as well scratch the horse.”

This section of the report raised reasonable questions about whether the stewards, notably Veitch, acted in a manner that goes beyond an error in judgment and into possible abdication of responsibility.

Veitch’s non-denial denial defense of not being able to recollect a conversation in such a weighty and short timeline of events simply doesn’t fly in the real world. Where then is accountability?

What is incontrovertible is that Life At Ten was not herself in the paddock, post parade or warm-up. Any number of experts observed her action and determined she was cramped to the point where she physically was unable to race normally, much less competitively.

If Kentucky racing rules are vague enough to cause confusion among the sport’s most elite practitioners then they are nothing more than legal loopholes. In that context, following usual and customary protocols is neither a reasonable course of action nor acceptable defense.

The report implies, however vaguely, that Velazquez and Veitch are equally culpable. But racing officials by definition are the last line of defense.

In a recent thought provoking piece, Alan Shuback of Daily Racing form drew an analogy between Life At Ten’s and Barbaro’s unusual pre-Preakness behavior, reminding all that the ill-fated colt, after breaking through before the start, was immediately reloaded into the gate in a similar pressure-packed situation.

Should the Maryland stewards have erred on the side of caution and asked the attending veterinarian to take a comprehensive second look? The sport is still reeling from the effects of Barbaro, and Eight Belles, too. The Life At Ten affair resulted only in a personal tragedy for the bettors and owner.

Does anyone doubt that one more high profile breakdown resulting in death has a chance to put a reeling sport out of business?

And so what will be sanctions be? Indeed, what should they be? Can the game survive the fallout from a perceived wrist slap? What happens next time?

Why can’t a leading authority, such as the Jockey Club, construct specific guidelines and a code of conduct that all state regulators can follow instead of commissioning yet another study?

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, March 11, 2011

The Toughest Stewards’ Decision Ever

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., March 10, 2011--Professional people in this game who know me well, both of them, agree that I’m a pretty good race watcher. That was the original lead.

Then I thought, screw false modesty: I’m good at what I do. Let the record show such verities!

When I was at Newsday some referenced me as one of the original “trip handicappers.” Back in the day, a chart taker from the Daily Racing Form even gave me a nickname; “Pathfinder”--you know, as in three-path, five paths wide, etc., etc.

I don’t take as much pride in the trip handicapper label these days because everyone within hailing distance of a monitor considers himself an expert race watcher. Bless them: They help inflate the odds.

Recall a horse by the name of Allumeuse? I was the whistle blower who rushed into the stewards stand at Saratoga when they wrongly disqualified the mare.

“I respectfully submit you took down the wrong horse,” I said, before pointing out where all the horses involved were.

I bring this up because last Sunday morning I awakened to several accounts of what had transpired in the Big Cap, a.k.a. Santa Anita Handicap, the first being Bill Christine’s right here at HRI.

I read Christine’s piece, then several more, with Richard Mandella saying he would have nothing to say, Victor Espinoza’s dramatic ”how many times do I have to get dropped?” diatribe, and Bob Baffert’s observation after watching the instant replay immediately saw Twirling Candy initiate the contact and that Game On Dude’s number had a good chance to stay up.

And I’m thinking, “prima dona,” “bully,” and other things far less complimentary. Where does he get off talking to the stewards, anyway?

So I called up the Thoroughbred Times website and clicked on the video of the Santa Anita Handicap, noting that the video replay was over 10 minutes long. This will require a second cup of coffee, I reasoned.

I watched the video, I don’t know, three or four times, and I’m thinking, wow, Baffert’s really full of it: Game On Dude got two horses, not one! But I kept watching anyway.

This had to be the hardest call any group of stewards would ever have to make in the history of stewardom. They should never show tapes of this race as a learning tool in stewards’ school. Nuclear fission would be easier to explain.

Suddenly, up came the super slow motion. “Hey, wait a minute!” I said out loud to an empty living room. I was mesmerized, watching and watching, over and over.

Three horses across the track; Game On Dude, Twirling Candy and Setsuko, their centrifugal momentum carrying them out to where the inside horse, Game On Dude, was about four paths wide of the rail as the three straightened away into the stretch.

“Dammit! Baffert was right, I’ll be a sonuvabitch!”

As the three horses began their stretch drive, a weakening Twirling Candy veered inward, with jockey Joel Rosario leaning left, the shoulder of Twirling Candy running into the hindquarters of Game On Dude, knocking his bad end off stride.

Within a stride or two, Game On Dude responded like a hot-blooded Thoroughbred should, coming out to engage Twirling Candy.

Simultaneously, and this is key, Setsuko was bearing in--slightly, but bearing in nonetheless--helping to make the Twirling Candy sandwich.

The favorite, who failed to stay 10 furlongs, trouble or not, was done as--and this is complete supposition--he appeared to empty out simultaneously at the point of contact.

Either way, no matter whose at fault, there was no way the incident cost Twirling Candy first or second money. The rest, with respect to a share of other purse monies, is speculation. So much happened yet the evidence was NFL-inconclusive.

While all observers on both sides of the decision were quick to point out Chantel Sutherland’s use of a left-handed whip aboard the winner, there was nary a mention of Setsuko, in the final furlong, veering in four or five paths from the middle of the track to a position where he and Game On Dude were thisclose to each other at the finish line.

Of course, jockeys often allow their mounts to do this in an effort to intimidate a rival. I never heard that mentioned, and neither did I read anywhere--this could be my bad--where Setsuko had every chance to win but was out-gamed.

Game On Dude, with or without the aid of a left-handed whip, fought back, coming again to stick his nose in front at the wire. The important aspect here is that the winner was maintaining what appeared to be a straight course.

As to the initial contact, there was the equivalent of a three-quarter pan shot that clearly shows Twirling Candy was the original transgressor. It’s like what happens in the schoolyard after a fight in which loser is badly whopped. “Yeah, well, he started it!”

While Espinoza was giving his interpretation at top volume--given the inflammatory nature of his comments--Sutherland explained to an HRTV audience Sunday afternoon that once she felt Twirling Candy make the initial contract, her only thought was to keep Game On Dude together.

That she did aboard a very willing Game On Dude who was all racehorse on Sunday. For some reason, the Big Cap is one race that never fails to fire, worthy of its celebrated history.

The 2011 renewal will go down as the most memorable of the modern era. A thrilling finish that followed lots of bumper-car action at headstretch. And, in the face of enormous pressure, an extremely difficult decision--one that easily could have gone the other way--two Santa Anita stewards, erring on the side of "do no harm," made the right call.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Gulfstream’s Secretary Bork a Very Timely Writer

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla., February 17, 2011--The Kentucky Derby might be 79 days from right now but the jockeying for position has begun in earnest and things are beginning to heat up around here.

It’s about time, too. From the weather, to the booming business, to the ultra competitive racing at the highest levels, everything’s been going rather well for the South Florida track. And now we get a few sparks that could turn into Triple Crown fireworks.

Reading between the lines of Mike Welsch‘s Daily Racing Form story on the creation of the Timely Writer overnight handicap open to all three-year-olds going a mile on March 12--the same day juvenile champion Uncle Mo is scheduled to make his 2011 debut in the Tampa Bay Derby--it’s an easy surmise that Nick Zito, trainer of undefeated Dialed In, ranked third on HRI’s Derby Power 10 Ratings, may be a little miffed.

Clearly, Zito would love to have had the option of considering such a spot. With $240,000 in graded earnings from the Holy Bull, running in a graded prep before the Florida Derby was not an imperative for a horse that‘s Louisville bound.

But with only two lifetime starts, experience is what Dialed In needs--two turn experience--and it appears that next weekend’s Fountain of Youth is coming up on the salty side. If there were an easier bridge to the Florida Derby, Zito likely would cross it.

“Both the timing and the distance of the race really don’t fit my schedule,” Zito told the Daily Racing Form, “although it’s the distance more than the date that’s the big issue.”

“I’d like to find another alternative for my horse rather than the Fountain of Youth, and had the handicap been written at a mile and one-eighth rather than one mile, I’d probably think about running him in there.”

Finding a more suitable two turn race for Dialed In ultimately may be less of an issue than what may be being perceived as an accommodation to Todd Pletcher. Of course, big outfits have always had the upper hand in this game and I’m sure Zito has benefitted from such scenarios himself. Writing races for trainers are part of the game.

Meanwhile, Pletcher must be thrilled to have this option. Old school horsemen believe that a one turn mile is a more suitable prep for a nine furlong route than a shorter two turner such as the Tampa Bay Derby’s mile and a sixteenth.

Additionally, Gulfstream Park is a much shorter van ride from Palm Meadows. Pletcher could even elect to lead Uncle Mo over from his barn on the Gulfstream backside. It’s a nice option to have. Pletcher said he would talk it over with owner Mike Repole.

“It’s an interesting race,” Pletcher told Welsch. “The fact that it’s on the same day as the Tampa Derby obviously works into our timing.”

At once, this seems like a good move and a bad move for Gulfstream Park, although the arithmetic says that the good outnumbers the bad by a two to one margin.

Despite the later date, the Timely Writer could hurt next week’s Fountain of Youth. On it’s face it’s apples vs. oranges; two turns to one, it’s worth more money--graded money, too--and coming two weeks after the Fountain of Youth, it gives trainers more time.

The deciding factor for any horseman with Kentucky Derby aspirations is just how highly he values the Grade 1 Florida Derby and it’s million dollar purse. Pretty highly one would think, and the Timely Writer mile is a nice fit with the nine furlong Florida Derby three weeks later.

If three weeks turns out to be too close for Timely Writer horses to come back in the Florida Derby, the G1 Wood Memorial could be the beneficiary, as it comes on the following weekend. The bad news for the Wood horses is that Aqueduct’s Grade 1 has been the major spring-prep goal of Uncle Mo.

Either way, it’s likely to be a good business decision for Gulfstream, sure to gain national press exposure at the expense of the Tampa Bay Derby should Uncle Mo remain in South Florida. It should be pretty good for business, too.

But there may be another element at work here: Payback.

The handle figures at the current Gulfstream Park session have been off the charts, both on track and from all sources. The only numbers that have remained relatively flat, or up slightly, are the intrastate wagering figures.

That’s because the cost of Tampa Bay’s simulcast signal has been set significantly lower to undercut Gulfstream’s popularity, thereby compelling more of the state’s bet takers to take the less costly Tampa product over Gulfstream‘s more expensive signal.

The signal fees issue has put some strain on the relationship between 2011’s most successful winter venues, that just happen to be located within the state of Florida. We’re sure it’s nothing personal. It’s strictly business, just like the creation of the Timely Writer and its aftermath.

Written by John Pricci

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