Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Today, the Game Renews Itself… Like Always

Glad we waited to cast our ballot until after the Grade 1 season official closed on Saturday, December 29.

For us it made the difference in several classes, most notably the Eclipse Champion Trainer category and for some second and third place rankings.

But before we consider what the coming year will bring for the industry and its supporters, a final piece of 2018 house cleaning. This is what one man’s Eclipse ballot looked like:


1-ZANJABEELl: Richard Hendricks figured it out for 2018, win half your four starts [it is a short season!] make two of them G1, including your main rival.
2. Optimus Prime
3. Jury Duty


1-GAME WINNER: Perfect season at 4-for-4, three Grade 1s including the Juvenile. And we like him because he appears a bit ‘old school’ to me.


Amazing that if she hadn’t won the Juvenile Fillies in a romp, she might have had no chance to win this category—that’s how dominating Newspaperofrecord was. And, sorry, one can shorten the Eclipse Awards program, but time has come to recognize Juvenile Male and Female Turf champions.
3-Restless Rider


1-JUSTIFY: Undefeated, untied, and un-scored upon modern-precedent-setting 13th winner of the American Triple Crown. We hardly got to know you.
2-Catholic Boy


1-MONOMOY GIRL: A complete champion, doing it the old school way, from February to November, including a defining moment, a victory over older mares in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
2-Midnight Bisou
3-Shamrock Rose


1-ACCELERATE: In any other year that didn’t boast a Triple Crown winner, waged a Horse of the Year campaign by virtue of six victories and a placing in seven starts, including four consecutive Grade 1s culminating with the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
2-City of Light
3-Bee Jersey


1-BLUE PRIZE: By Default. We believe that no filly distinguished herself without qualification as to merit Eclipse recognition in a more traditional sense. This vote is in lieu of an abstention, the only other option open to me in good conscience.
2-Unique Bella
3-Abel Tasman


1-ROY H: Early on, didn’t think I was looking at the same Sprint Champion from last year. Wrong, Peter Miller played him like a Stradivarius. The bad news as more of the short, measured campaigns of America’s best horses.
2-Imperial Hint
3-Promises Fulfilled


1-SHAMROCK ROSE: Doesn’t make one’s heart go pitter-pat but, frankly, there’s was a lot of that going around in 2018. Filly & Mare Sprint was the clincher in an spectacularly unspectacular division.
2-Marley’s Freedom
3-Unique Bella (think Forego)


1-CATHOLIC BOY: Classy 3-year-old Travers winner won both of his turf starts, including G1 Belmont Derby at a mile and a quarter. Another undistinguished division and another almost-abstention. Champions should be dominant, not just Grade 1 aggregators.
2-Glorious Empire
3-Expert Eye


1-ENABLE: Expect to get flack for this for two reasons: Many voters believe one race in this country should not qualify foreigners for a North American Eclipse. But Enable’s Breeders’ Cup was Apollo-jinx-like; first Arc winner to win The Turf (after winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe off one soft prep). Plus taking one Grade 1 win vs. males over four divisional G1s for Sistercharlie, who we believe the most likely to be elected.
3-A Raving Beauty


CHAD BROWN in a squeaker over Bob Baffert. The former, while turf and older-horse centric, has expanded his horizons to younger horses in recent years with some success. Baffert, two- and three-year-old centric, really has no turf game. Look, a very tough category demanded some eclectic choices.


Michael Corleone had the answer: “It was between the brothers.” Taking the more adaptable and aggressive JOSE ORTIZ over his strong-finish brother Irad Jr., race-riding Joel Rosario and Money Mike Smith. I wouldn’t be upset if any of them picked up the hardware; Eclipse-worthy year had by all.


In a very close call, EDGAR MORALES over Weston Hamilton and Assael Espinoza.


HRONIS RACING in a three-way photo with Peter Brant and WinStar Farm


WINSTAR FARM over John Gunther and Mike Abraham


His trainer summed it up best. “Now they say it doesn't look that tough, but they're all tough. Justify simply ran those horses into the ground when they were chasing him. That's what happened. A lot of horses get ground up in those classics.

“We're all here for those races. We want to win the Derby, we want to win the Triple Crown. It's all about the classics and they're hard on the horses. Unfortunately, we couldn't run Justify after the Belmont.”

Unfortunate, indeed, for the colt’s fans, for Jeopardy players and for loyal fans of the sport.

For those who are interested, the three finalists in each category will be announced Saturday, JAN 5 at 11:05 a.m. ET from Gulfstream Park. It will be available at http://gulfstreampark.com, the Gulfstream Park simucast feed, and at XBTV.com.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 23, 2018

‘Tis the Season

This didn’t start out as a Christmas column. That would have been expected and I would have believed it to be a little cliché for my journalistic bent.

Unexpectedly, however, we gained lots of perspective this last month, which sounds a lot like another dreaded cliché for anyone facing trying or difficult circumstances.

In my case I’m thinking more trying than difficult, even if more woods remain to find one’s way out of. Know that I’m not the kind of horseplayer who shouts “you got this” as your best bet approaches the sixteenth pole.

And if this game hasn’t humbled you, you’re not an inveterate horseplayer and life has taught you absolutely nothing.

Tis the season for thoughts and prayers and daily thanksgiving, a practice for all seasons. Consider this example from the other day.

As a neighbor, I behave as any typical native New Yorker would; keep your head down and mind your own business. I’ve found that it’s always best in these scenarios to heed the advice of Broadway Danny Rose’s uncle: Friendly, not familiar.

Gail and Ray live next door and while Toni does the stop-and-chat as good as anyone ever has, I remain a pleasantries-exchange type.

The doorbell rang several days after I was sprung from UM’s Jackson Memorial Hospital and there stood Gail giving Toni a welcome-home, he’s-going-to-love-it giant cupcake. I never thought I would be on their radar. What a lovely, humbling gesture, I thought.

My recent albeit still ongoing experience has taught another lesson: Prayers work. Be it from family, close friends, or the devoted HRI Faithful, beseeching a Higher Power has borne fruit—at least thus far. Slow and steady not only wins races but brings inner peace.

Tis the season, after all, when peace and love come back into fashion--holiday blessings that doesn’t come replete with dollar signs.

By extension, it could be that the thoughts and prayers of well-meaning people is started to reap dividends for my country, under siege from without and, most troubling, from within.

I’ve spent time searching for mindless, escapist TV to aid in the recovery process, fare that would of a restorative nature. Didn’t care to watch my TVG; Sorry, no critical thinking now if you don’t mind.

But the events of the past week were inescapable and once again I was trapped by the 24-hour news cycle. And no American alive today has seen anything like this; not Meacham, not Beschloss, not Kearns-Goodwin.

It will take a decade, maybe longer, for things to normalize, if indeed there is any hunger for that. For such a fast country we sure are slow learners, if-at-all.

But there is hope because facts are slowly beginning to win the day again, and the ship of state once again may sail. But first comes survival, not the given today that it was when the 2018 Advent Calendar first appeared.

One day we may recovered from the events of Nov. 8, 2016. This isn’t about distinguishing one ideology from another. It’s about the survival of a democratic republic in which no individual is above the law, nothing less--the pillar of America.

Some comparisons can be made to Thoroughbred racing. Like the electorate, the modern game seems split 40% horsemen on one side; 40% fans and gamblers on the other. It’s a battle of control for the 20% in the middle who will decide the sport’s future.

In an effort to find restorative relief, as above, we have not watched televised racing except for major horses online since DEC 6. And here’s the bad news for the industry: I can’t say I missed it.

Saratoga and Keeneland notwithstanding, prime time Gulfstream is my favorite meet to participate in. Big, quality fields of open races is, at once, aesthetic and betting nirvana.

For me, this is a first. I’ve been betting on horses since I was 13, 61 years ago. Later, as a junior at Bishop Loughlin Memorial in Brooklyn, I was a minor celebrity when after collecting $22 from classmates, I feigned illness, left school early and took two trains and a bus to Aqueduct.

I bet the wad, plus $20 of my own on Red Belle to win the Interborough Handicap, a Hobeau Farm trainee conditioned by Allen Jerkens, long before anyone called him “the Chief.” She went wire to wire and paid off a 5-2, if I recall correctly.

For 24 hours, the ability to pick a winner made me more popular than B-Baller Larry Lembo, later the most celebrated zebra in college-hoop history, and more than then-sane Rudy Giuliani in the next homeroom. But enough digression.

As 2019 approaches, I considered some of the issues covered by HRI staffers and contributors this year: Raceday medication; super-trainer dominance; Thoroughbred retirement vs. its shameful alternative; excessive whipping; special betting access and potential past-posting; high takeout vs. rebates and legal sports bet’s dual-edged sword.

I predict that if these issues are not resolved, the game will not survive. Wrong? I’m a naysayer, prophet of doom? There’s too much money and influence in the game? It’s too big to fail?

That’s where the industry, and status quo short-term thinkers, are wrong:

The American public, the same that’s slowly wising up about the Criminal-in-Chief, is not on your side. In a recent poll, America indicated there #1 concern is not global warming, attacks on the democratic process, or the immigration game; its animal cruelty.

They don’t understand that racing, even with therapeutic medication is OK because the animals don’t get to choose. And far too many of them, even the healthy ones, are slaughtered when their utility as glorified moneymakers is gone, absent a second career.

A former American institution, the circus, is gone. So is dog racing in South Florida, where the Sun Sentinel recently reported that if the current adoption process doesn’t speed up satisfactorily, thousands of dogs will be euthanized.

On opening day of Gulfstream’s championship meet, PETA members lined up outside the gates. Thoroughbred racing is their next target. Who knows what one high-profile breakdown in a high-profile nationally televised event would bring?

But the end doesn’t always come with loud bangs but with barely audible whimpers.

I will never stop writing about the game that has given my family a good life, a living that if fortune hadn’t interceded instead would have been a hobby with no chance to give back.

Isaac Goren, Doctor of Eastern Medicine and my spiritual advisor, told me he’s never worked with another group that was more passionate than racetrackers. His observations to their devotion and love of animals is, in almost all cases, on point.

I can never repay the game that’s been so good to me but tis the season for love and thanksgiving, even as passion ebbs.

It is said that the only battles worth fighting are those you can’t win, but the kind of effort that requires takes its toll, after decades of trying and realizing that you’ve hardly moved the needle.

To all: Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a Healthy New Year

Written by John Pricci

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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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