Sunday, December 02, 2018

Changing of the Guard Shifts Racing Landscape

For those in Thoroughbred racing who believe that the great Mississippi River is what separates East from West or, in this case, the New York Racing Association from Southern California, know that you’ve been using the wrong simile.

A more appropriated image would be a double-edged reflection in a two-way mirror, worthy of an Oscar Wilde who, coincidentally, published his only novel 10 years after the justifiably famous Apollo won his Kentucky Derby.

Like Dorian Gray’s image, East Meets West is geographic deception defined.

Racing in New York and California has made real and potential changes in the waning days of the 2018 racing season, a transformation that may be completed by week’s end.

That’s when New York is expected to officially extend the most influential race meet on the planet when NYRA’s Board of Directors convenes this week. Whether or not it extends the meet might solely depend on attitude. Racetracks are unhappy when their potential plans appear elsewhere first. But as 2019 looms, it might not have a choice.

Extending the Saratoga race meet is at once a huge deal and one that long has been considered a possibility. Is starting the 2019 Spa meet on July 11 instead of July 19, such a big deal? What is big would be a humane decision to reduce the race week from an anachronistic six days to five.

Extending such sagacity further, weekday programs should be limited to nine races with 10-race cards on weekends. A 12-race Travers Day exemption? At least that’s easily justifiable, so have at it. What is clear is that New York racing already has changed and will continue to do so.

The newly minted mega Belmont Stakes Day and Stars N Stripes Festival cards have created event weekends, travel destinations for those so inclined, a chance for New York to bask in the national spotlight, a rightful place. And scheduling is so vital for present day visibility and aesthetic success.

Back in the day, the Wood Memorial was Grade 1 and New York horseman returned from winter quarters at about that time instead of staying in a place where--as the saying went--“they pay you in sunshine.”

But that shipping schedule changed and New Yorkers returned in time for the Belmont opener, thereabouts. Now, the best runners on “the good horse circuit” remain south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

That’s because Keeneland, always a big deal, has become a monster. Quality combined with quantity is a reality that’s still popular with bettors despite raised takeout rates, which have been partially rescinded. From there, the best Keeneland horses move on to Churchill Downs for Derby week stakes.

After that, most New Yorkers have returned home but faster than you can say Belmont Stakes, fields start dwindling as horsemen begin pointing for Saratoga--races the whole world watches. Unfortunately, due to the fresh-horse Breeders’ Cup trend, Belmont’s Fall Championship Meet, like most other autumn session, has become prep city.

Thank the New York racing gods for Saratoga.

Southern California racing, namely Santa Anita, has been having their woes, too, so much so that The Stronach Group’s Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo is now spending most of his time in Arcadia, trying to make the Great Race Place Great Again.

On Ritvo’s watch, Gulfstream became the Capital of Winter Racing, and Laurel Park has risen from the dustbin of indifference. Now, who is to say that one day it won’t host a future Breeders’ Cup which would have been considered an impossible dream a decade ago.

A “new” Santa Anita is being built using a successful Gulfstream Park template that includes an expanded barn area, a 20-Cent Jackpot Pick Six, and a new turf-sprint program, the elements that made Gulfstream the success it’s been since its reincarnation.

Every racetrack wants full fields of top horses and Ritvo is no exception. But given an either/or scenario, he would opt for larger fields of lesser horses daily than to limit Santa’s Anita’s national exposure to five-horse Grade 1s on weekends. This week, notable changes at Santa Anita became national stories, one of them highly controversial.

We have no special knowledge but the firing of track announcer Michael Wrona was, in our view, part of Belinda Stronach’s directive to cost costs. In the role of a good soldier, Ritvo took the hit. Besides, race calling is just not an area that interests him.

But Racing Director is. Part of Ritvo’s success at Gulfstream was his poaching of New York’s underappreciated P J Campo. The popularity of turf sprinting, especially during Campo’s early Saratoga days, was successful because those races attracted big, betable fields.

Gulfstream’s popularity and bottom line success coincided with its accent of turf racing, especially sprints. Eventually, year over year soaring handle earned Campo a promotion to Vice President of Racing for TSG.

Turf’s burgeoning popularity, combined with Campo’s trend-setting race conditions that sometimes go four levels deep, has led to larger fields. This made for very challenging handicapping puzzles, which led to handle-increasing “spread betting” in popular horizontal pools.

If Campo doesn’t temporarily fill in for Rick Hammerle, dismissed as Santa Anita racing secretary this week, he already has a replacement in mind, one who will receive a copy of Campo’s condition-book game plan the moment he accepts the job.

By inking a long-term deal with FOX Sports to create a year-round national television home for New York racing from both Saratoga Race Course and Belmont Park, extending the Saratoga meet, racing’s premier extended-meet brand, makes sense.

In 2019, FOX Sports will televise 500 hours of NYRA racing, nearly every race run at Belmont and Saratoga. The broadcast schedule will then expand to more than 600 hours annually in 2020. More Saratoga racing likely proved to be a big carrot at the negotiating table.

In addition to Saratoga being good for business, its possible expansion is based on two more mitigating factors: The construction of an arena for the NHL’s Islanders on the Belmont Park property could be a logistical nightmare during live racing. But of greater import was for New York to raise its racing profile.

Santa Anita and the NYRA are well aware of their sagging popularity and influence. Within two weeks, each has changed the face of what it will present to its respective fan bases. The betting market, as it has in Maryland and especially South Florida, ultimately will have the final say.


When the bread and butter claimers of the racing game get to run for $110,000--the best of them going two turns for $200,000--horsemen are going to respond.

Including two special-weight maiden races on grass, 149 horses were entered on the inaugural program of Gulfstream’s 2018-2019 Championship Meet that concludes with the Florida Derby on the final Saturday in March.

Not only did horsemen support the Claiming Crown program but bettors did as well. And why not? Think of the competitive events as the Breeders’ Cup for claimers. Euros? Who needs Euros when the secretary’s office can entice runners that last ran at 21 different venues?

And if the name of the game is claimers, then Jorge Navarro is the name to know. Despite a reputation based on otherworldly accomplishments, Navarro horses won three of nine Claiming Crown events, the only favorite being the winner of the nominal feature, Aztec Sense, who improved his 2018 slate to a perfect 8-for-8.

Jockey Chris Landeros, who is not a Gulfstream regular, had a riding triple, including two Claiming Crown events, the Canterbury Stakes with Rocket Heat and the Glass Slipper with Misschief Maas. Another newcomer, veteran trainer Tom Amoss, broke his Gulfstream maiden in the Distaff Dash with promising turf sprinting miss Oxford Comma.

But Gulfstream mainstays also enjoyed success on the season opening card. Seeking a 16th consecutive training title, Todd Pletcher won the third race with favorite Bourbon in May. It was his 384th GP victory since 2013.

Claiming Crown regulars Ken Ramsey and trainer Mike Maker won their 16th and 17th races, respectively, when fast finishing Peru won the Tiara under chilly, perfect execution from Julien Leparoux.

Avoiding the danger of losing daylight this time of year, there was nary a post-drag—with the possible exception of the feature--but despite that and competition from NYRA’s high profile Cigar Mile program, Gulfstream broke its opening day handle record of $11.9 million set last year.

Saturday’s handle topped out at $13.6 million, a 14 percent increase year over year. By comparison, NYRA’s graded stakes laden card attracted handle of $12.7 million on a 10-race program.


Four graded stakes highlighted Saturday’s Aqueduct card. Two Grade 2 races for juveniles produced excellent performances from the Demoiselle winner, Positive Spirit, and Remsen victor, Maximus Mischief.

Positive Spirit (11-1) drew off in deep stretch, widening her winning margin to 10-1/2 lengths over a surface that played very slowly throughout the day. The Churchill Downs shipper bested Parx invader Afleet Destiny (26-1). Nine furlongs was timed in 1.56.01.

The impressive part of the victory by Maximus Mischief (7-5) was twofold. He rated kindly in his two-turn debut--despite running off in a recent allowance sprint at Parx--as he stalked the early pace of 60-1 Gladiator King.

Notwithstanding some greenness in the lane, he was unpressured by favorite Network Effect’s (11-10) late rally, holding the Chad Brown trainee safe by 2-1/4 lengths. The Robert Reid trained runner, owned by Smarty Jones’ connections, is now undefeated in three starts.

The running time of 1.51.34 was approximately 23 lengths faster than the filly ran the same distance and his final three furlongs was run in a strong 36.74 seconds. He will winter in South Florida and his three-year-old debut is eagerly anticipated.

Patternrecognition (5-1) raised his game at the conclusion of his five-year-old season, taking the G1 Cigar by 3/4s of a length over True Timber (31-1) in a very solid 1.34.98, a less than sterling renewal of the event.

Heavily favored Marley’s Freedom (1-2) was life and death to hold off Come Dancing (9-1) by a neck in the G3 Go for Wand, the mile timed in 1.38.35. Wouldn’t be terribly surprised if she joined former mate Abel Tasman in the breeding shed next season.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 25, 2018

November Closes with a Dubious DQ, Dismissals, Retirements and a Glimpse Into the Future

This was intended to be a summary of all the great racing on display over the holiday weekend and a peek at Saturday’s Cigar Mile program, the last great hurrah of the 2018 racing season in New York.

Once again, however, it was controversy that dominated the Internet, immediately following Friday’s finale at Churchill Downs that resulted in a double disqualification, one in which the first finisher was to reward one bettor with $317,000 of Jackpot gold.

Internet speculation [read paranoia] was that the Churchill Downs stewards conspired to disqualify Presidential Tweet in favor of the official winner, Laser Loop, elevated from third, the result of a double disqualification, the other protagonist being place finisher, Colossus.

Conspiracy minded horseplayers in fact had little issue with the demoting of Colossus who bore in badly in midstretch, making contact with show finisher Laser Loop, video evidence showing that the incident cost Laser Loop a better placing.

It was the takedown of Presidential Tweet that caused an outcry after the stewards decided both were at fault. Rail running Presidential Tweet did bear out strides from the wire, forcing Corey Lanerie aboard Laser Loop to check from dangerously close quarters.

A stewards’ inquiry was posted and a jockey’s objection against both rivals was lodged by Lanerie. After a lengthy delay, the stewards saw it the rider’s way, elevating Laser Loop from third to first, demoting Presidential Tweet to second and Colossus to third.

Video replay showed Presidential Tweet drifting out several jumps before the finish line under left-handed whipping from Chris Landeros. From those two or three jumps it is extremely doubtful that this incident cost Laser Loop a better placing.

Under any circumstances, the call would have been highly controversial. But the controversy was exacerbated by the fact that there was a huge jackpot carryover in play.

With the disqualification of Presidential Tweet, whose victory would have resulted in a life-altering score, the jackpot pool carried over into the final Saturday of the Churchill Downs fall meet. Over $241,000 was spent chasing it.

Ironically, the Jackpot was hit by a single Saturday bettor who collected $500,256 when favorite War of Will eliminated any further drama by drawing off to win the day’s finale by five widening lengths.

Friday’s controversial disqualification brought to mind a similar incident four years ago at Gulfstream Park when the demoting of the race winner truly cost one jackpot player the score of a lifetime: $1.6 million.

When stewards’ decisions have an impact on the next day’s wagering handle, racing has an inherent problem. It requires no imagination to posit that this circumstance is rife with conflicts of interest. And it does not help that these decisions are made in a vacuum.

When it comes to the adjudication process, there is no transparency or accountability. The decision making should be in full view of the betting public via closed-circuit TV. But stewards are not even required to state their opinions in writing as is done elsewhere.

As in any situation that places Thoroughbred racing’s reputation in jeopardy due to lack of uniformity, transparency or both, the industry never will be able to shed its public image of being an insider’s “sport,” a small-time one at that.

The game has run out of excuses and rationalizations, so please do not insult the collective intelligence of racing’s audience who deserves better treatment than it gets in return for its economic and emotional support. Besides, we’ve heard it all before.

If the industry cannot see that Friday’s incident or those like it is a problem, consider this: Horseplayers are made to feel like rubes. The sport no longer can depend on the fact that one will be born every minute.

One day, fathers will decide not to bring their sons to the racetrack on a Saturday; uncles no longer will take their nieces to the races to see the beautiful animals. When that day comes, the industry will get the reckoning it has earned.

WHAT’S GOING ON AT THE STRONACH GROUP? The firing of Santa Anita race caller Michael Wrona Saturday knocked ‘L’Affaire Tweet’ right off Twitter’s trending race stories. Wrona’s dismissal closely follows those of racing analyst Megan Devine and XBTV host Aaron Vercruysse and XBTV analyst Richard Migliore.

The explanation that makes the most sense for all this is that this was, purely and simply, a salary dump. One could have seen the writing on the Xpressbet wall when its President, Ron Luniewski, who joined the company in 2002, suddenly “departed” in April.

The first thing any new CEO does is cut costs, which explains the Migliore and Vercruysse dismissals. XBTV has been a very expensive enterprise its parent company, The Stronach Group, to produce. And, of course, TSG numbers Santa Anita among its many holdings.

Tim Ritvo’s explanation that Santa Anita is “going in a new direction” is taken at face value. Usually, when this kind of occurrence takes place, talent and marketing are among the first departments to suffer. Taken together, these events may just be the beginning.

The very public power struggle between Chairman Belinda Stronach and Honorary Chairman Frank Stronach is also central to all this. Belinda has been vocal about her father’s loss-leading projects while TSG Founder alleges financial impropriety by its current President and its CEO, Alon Ossip.

Unknown at this point is who will be calling the races when Santa Anita opens its prime winter meet the day after Christmas. Wrona’s talent for the time being is limited to a new assignment at Kentucky Downs and the one he currently holds at Santa Rosa County Fair.

Gary Stevens’ 32-year Hall of Fame riding career has come to end, the result of a freak back injury sustained during a pre-race warmup at Del Mar last weekend. His numbers, obviously, are impressive: 5,187 lifetime victories with purse earnings of over $258 million, ninth all-time.

Ironically, the 55-year-old officially retired in a Del Mar ceremony on the same afternoon another Hall of Famer, Johnny Velazquez, was celebrating his 55th birthday aboard Naughty Joker, who completed Saturday’s early double at Churchill Downs.

“Seabiscuit’s rider” has won races on four continents. Notable mounts include Da Hoss, Winning Colors, Silver Charm, Point Given and legendary race mare Beholder. His ride aboard Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop 20 years ago was a personal favorite.

The assumption is that Stevens has maintained his membership in the Screen Actors Guild and that someday he again might appear on a silver screen near you. He also has done great work as a TV racing analyst.

Will Signalman and Liora follow in the footsteps of a couple Horses of the Year, Gun Runner and Rachel Alexandra, who also used Churchill’s ‘Stars of Tomorrow’ programs to launch their championship careers?

It’s difficult to put victories in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and Golden Rod, respectively, in historical context given the sloppy nature of the racetrack. For now, the 10 points each earned toward appearances in the Kentucky Derby and Oaks must suffice.

PERSONAL HIATUS: I am scheduled for surgery this coming Thursday, the first of two procedures to treat basal cell carcinoma in the tib/fib area of my left leg. I likely won’t pound another keyboard for two to three weeks.

Thereafter, it will be rehab, racing on TV and wagering via my Xpressbet account. Confined to home upon my release from the University of Miami Health Care system, I should be able to resume writing duties soon thereafter. Trips to Gulfstream are TBD.

With any luck, I can point for the Pegasus on the last Saturday in January. With complications, the Florida Derby would be a more likely target. Pre-anesthesia, I will also ask my doctors to remove a nagging losing streak that has plagued me throughout 2018.

In the interim, starting Thursday, HRI will be in the capable hands of Mark Berner, Tom Jicha and Indulto. Be kind to them, and each other, please. When I’m up to it, I will effort to keep interested parties abreast on Twitter @johnpricci.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

When It Comes to Championships, Less Is Not More

The most successful trainers on the planet entertain and marvel us with their horsemanship every day. We all know who they are. But based on Europe’s Cartier Awards, John Gosden might have proven he’s the best of them all.

If there were an Elias Sports Bureau for horseracing—all the comprehensive data easily accessible statistical compilations as in baseball—I could say this with certitude. But since I can’t, I’ll live with this claim until proven wrong:

As modern day Thoroughbred racing awards are presently constructed, no horseman ever has trained five champions in a single year, much less one that includes a Horse of the Year.

But that’s exactly what John Gosden has done this year, topping himself when he became the first trainer to have three championship titlists in 2014.

You need not be a Euro Nerd to celebrate Gosden’s success. The Oxford grad has won over 100 Group 1 races on four continents, including this season’s European Horse of the Year, Roaring Lion.

Many horseplayers in Southern California will remember when he took out a trainer’s license. It was in 1979 after he apprenticed in the U.S. with trainer Tommy Doyle, post-graduate work after learning his craft from Vincent O’Brien, the legendary “Wizard of Tipperary.”

Gosden’s first “big horse” won the Santa Anita Handicap four years after striking out on his own. That’s back in the day when it truly was the “Big ‘Cap.” Over 85,000 saw Bates Motel win the 1983 renewal. He was Gosden’s first champion.

One of Gosden's five 2018 titlists was Arc de Triomphe repeater Enable, who beat males again a month later in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. That victory likely won’t earn her an American Eclipse--and not because she raced here only once.

Sistercharlie, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf sealed that honor a few hours earlier by taking her fourth Grade 1 of the 2018 season, an American champion by any measure.

Enable can’t win in the open category either because that Eclipse Award is designated Turf Male, even if she did finish 9-1/2 lengths in front of America’s 10 best turf males in Louisville four week later.

If an award is based on a body of quality work in a single season, shouldn’t one race be enough for Eclipse consideration? By rule it is, but a one-victory championship is not a popular notion with many Eclipse voters. And two of every three racing fans polled agree that one is not enough.

If beating 18 of Europe’s best off a single synthetic prep over three overmatched rivals then ship here to defeat 11 of the best male turf courses America could assemble, why shouldn’t this be an “open class” category? Just askin’.

As long as American breeders and the keepers of racing’s flame want to delineate among disparate sex and age groups then there are, at once, too many awards and not enough.


One of Gosden’s five champions was Stradivarius, Europe’s champion stayer. Of course, America’s game is speed on dirt, not stamina on either surface. But if the U.S. wants to be a serious player on the world stage, shouldn’t it walk that talk?

Just as the burgeoning popularity of turf racing in America has resulted in breeding for more turf success also, why not potentially bring stamina back into the breeding equation?

The Breeders’ Cup Marathon has been demoted to a Grade 2 afterthought with a reduced purse of $500,000. Why? Because it wasn’t popular at the entry box?

Pedigree notwithstanding, could the lack of a meaningful marathon divisional schedule at major venues all season also have something to do with its lack of clout? Must every decision the sport makes be based on handle alone?

We’re only talking one or two major races per meet at America’s ‘A’ venues. Do what is working these days: Throw enough money at a marathon program and owners and trainers will come with more and better stock.

Marathons can become the last refuge for the “slow,” horse, a race for specialists that has the added benefit of leveling the chemical playing field to a degree and is popular with more traditional fans.

Aesthetically, fair-minded people agreed that Future Stars Friday was a success. It gave babies—the following year’s 3-year-olds—a stage unto themselves. And it restored a handful of races to its original Saturday lineup.

With turf sprinting being so popular on every level, why doesn’t it have its own championship category? Of course, the same can be said of juvenile turf runners. Consider:

The issue of juvenile filly supremacy is inarguable. With blowout victories in the G1 Frizette and Juvenile Fillies, a wide majority agree that Jaywalk would be a most deserving champion.

But any panel of experts likely would identify turf juvenile filly Newspaperofrecord as the superior performer on Futures Friday. Why should one of these superior fillies walk away empty handed?

Undefeated in three starts, Newspaperofrecord’s victory margins were Ruffian-like, an aggregate 20 lengths. But on turf, not dirt.

Juvenile sprinters probably shouldn’t deserve U.S. Eclipse recognition, but isn’t it interesting that Longchamp’s Prix de l’Abbaye is a 5-furlong dash for 2-year-olds and up?! But superior juvenile turf routers should be recognized.

To not do so should not be based on the fact that there are too many awards already--17 for champion horses and horsemen, including Horse of the Year—and it would make the awards ceremony more insufferable, already so despite the oft-repeated pleas of ceremonial hosts.

In that case, parenthetically, do what the Oscars and Emmys do, give out new Eclipses at a separate advance ceremony or in video presentation.

If the Breeders’ Cup’s aim is truly to be a championship defining event, then the championship-worthy winners of the Turf Sprint, a rejuvenated G1 Marathon, and both Juvenile Turf route events deserve recognition.

Written by John Pricci

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