Saturday, April 20, 2019

Steve Davidowitz Leaves Handicapping Legacy Behind

By John Pricci

It was a seminal moment in the life of a hopeful horseplayer. It was during my early days at Newsday when I excitedly made my first expenses paid trip to Saratoga for the 24-day August Place to Be.

I felt like I had something to prove—not to Newsday, they hired me after a successful handicapping audition that lasted a year’s worth of Saturdays. Rather, the person I had to impress was myself. Do I really belong here?

The late, great Bill Nack introduced me to Andy Beyer in the Aqueduct press box and not long after I wound up sharing a house with him on Lake Avenue in Saratoga, hard by St. Clemens Church, five minutes from the track.

One night, Andy asked if I’d like to read a manuscript. The working title of the book was “Picking Winners.” It was Beyer’s first, of course, and it succeeded in introducing science to a new generation of artful horseplayers.

One morning Andy said he wanted me to meet a good friend of his, a mentor that further increased his understanding of handicapping’s many nuanced disciplines.

At the foot of the press box steps before the races, Beyer made the introduction: “Steve Davidowitz, I’d like you to meet John Pricci, he’s got a good opinion.”

And there it was, the validation I sought: “Made it ma, top of the world.”

My friendship with Steve lasted a lifetime, right up to the moment he passed last weekend at 77. He beat cancer once but, as the horsemen say, he had lots of nagging little issues. One, or a combination of them, took his life.

The reaper is never kind but the timing of this passing was particularly cruel. Not many horseplayers, public handicappers, or turf writers for that matter, loved the Kentucky Derby more than Steve Davidowitz.

Today’s horseplayers have it easier because guys like Beyer and Davidowitz led the way in the modern era. There was the prolific Tom Ainslie, of course, and the legendary Robert Saunders Dowst, but it was creative types like Davidowitz that helped usher in the modern day approach to handicapping.

Now, speed figures are ubiquitous, one can purchase trip notes, comprehensive workout reports, multi-layered stats and video is plentiful, from race replays to morning workouts--not to mention a national broadcast network.

Steve and I discussed on many occasions how handicapping has evolved through the years; too bad the breed itself has been unable to keep pace with the technological advances available.

But back in the day dedicated horseplayers were rewarded for doing their homework. Handicappers hoarded trip notes as if they were gold, studied and logged trainer and workout patterns into notebooks; anything for an edge.

Class handicapping was, and remains, a handicapping staple. It’s about the levels and the matchups--who beat who and who came back to win.

And if two or more horses emerged from the same event to win a subsequent start, that became a “key race.” If all the winners came from the clouds to win with a sweeping wide move, that became an outside-closers “track bias.”

Those terms were credited to, and popularized by, Davidowitz in his first major contribution to handicapping literature, “Betting Thoroughbreds.” It became a handicapping, the first of several more titles to come.

However, race video was virtually non-existent. There were “Race of the Week” on local stations in places like New York and South Florida, but there weren’t any nightly replay shows to point the way to a Kentucky Derby score.

But Davidowitz was resourceful and thoughtful. The night of the post draw he would invite colleagues to his Louisville hotel room, put out a modest spread, and we would watch 8-track cartridges until our eyes began tearing.

Later on, in the early days of Breeders’ Cup, Steve would pester event officials to secure videos of major European races so that hometown handicappers wouldn’t be blindsided; we knew about the stranger dangers.

Davidowitz was a devoted workout watcher. He studied the horses, the way they moved, their body language about temperaments, noting their idiosyncrasies. Could the horse handle the pressurized Derby atmosphere?

Horseplayers, like the animals they follow, are creatures of habit. And so I would join Steve each year for his annual handicapping tradition, a late night snack at the old Jack n’ the Box on Broadway every Hopeful eve.

We won some and lost more but one winner that stands out. It was 1973, Secretariat’s Triple Crown year, and there was one of the strongest speed-rail bias in play unlike many of us had ever seen.

Steve was waiting when I arrived: “I’ve got the Hopeful winner, but you better sit down first.” “Who” I asked? “Well, it’s the West Virginia shipper.”


“He may be from a minor circuit and he’s trained by a guy you never heard of but he’s bringing his rider with him.” “C’mon, who is it?”

“He has a ton of early speed and he’s drawn inside. They’ll never catch him.” “Steve!

And no one would catch longshot Gusty O’Shay, Robert Kotenko in the boot for trainer Harrison E. Johnson, a 33-year-old Maryland-based African-American, who died tragically 12 years later when, on his return from Saratoga, the plane he was piloting crashed.

While we never lived in the same place at the same time, there were many dinners and handicapping sessions through the years, though not many of as successful as the one that night in Saratoga 46 years ago.

But, wait, there’s more. Steve attended Rutgers on a baseball scholarship and was scouted by MLB until he blew out his arm. And he could pitch! I remember it took a few days to recover from a bone bruise after catching his sinking curve ball in my backyard in Syosset.

And it took the better part of a morning to recover from a late night out after attending an intimate Richie Havens acoustic performance in a town-hall setting somewhere around 90 minutes north of Manhattan. .

Steve and the singer-songwriter who opened the Woodstock Festival on Max Yasgar’s Bethel, NY farm, were close. Steve wrote Havens’ biography, “They Can’t Hide Us Anymore,” In addition to other books, he worked at newspapers in five cities and for many industry publications.

To know Steve wasn’t necessary to love him. He had gone through some rough patches and ruffled some feathers along the way.

But in both a personal and professional sense, Steve and I grew up together, nary a cross word between us and I won’t be able to talk Derby workouts with him this year.

To paraphrase, the heart knows what it wants and it knows what it knows. I knew Steve. And I loved him.

©John Pricci, HorseRaceInsider, April 20,2019

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Derby Favorite, Led by Commander Smith, Has Landed

By John Pricci

HOT SPRINGS—The timer had just clicked 23:08 for the opening quarter mile of the 2019 Derby prep-season finale, the last of the points-qualifying hundred-granders.

Staying off the inside, the gummiest part of Oaklawn Park’s biblically wet surface last Saturday, Mike Smith had just cleared the first turn racing three-paths wide of the rail.

But Money Mike wasn’t done thinking; there was more race-riding to do. He played the Arkansas Derby as if it were a match race, which it surely was on paper. Except they don’t run horse races on paper.

When Jose Ortiz, the quiet, thoughtfully aggressive riding star was named on Improbable, Omaha Beach’s match-race rival, a pitched battle would surely follow.

As most handicappers plotted the race, speedy pretenders would lead the early way, Ortiz and Improbable would likely track them, and Smith and Omaha Beach in kind would track Improbable.

But, wait, there’s more.

That’s when Smith did…well…the improbable. As the field straightened away into the backstretch, he shifted Omaha Beach into the four-path and made a middle move to vie for command.

Just after he reached the leader, Smith dropped his hands and his willing, obedient runner was content to stick his neck in front and remain there comfortably. It was a kind of speed duel, yet not really.

With Smith and his talented mount in control, Improbable and Ortiz would be forced to react to them, and not the other way around.

By the time the two rivals reached the half-mile pole, the race within a race began to unfold, snap-your-fingers fast-like. It was on.

In the end, it wasn’t as much of a battle as it was a squirmish. As the two rivals straightened away for home, the most anyone could accuse Smith of doing was “knuckling” on his colt, not quite a statue but mouse-like quiet.

Omaha Beach, a very, very good horse indeed, did the rest. He wouldn’t let Improbable go by. In midstretch, Smith lowered his body and got to urging Omaha Beach.

Alternately showing him a left-handed stick and applying a few encouraging strokes that would have pleased the strictest of new CHRB standards, the Hall of Fame-Mandella trainee reached the line in 1:49.91—racehorse time.

The surface yielded honest times all day. Mitole’s G3 Count Fleet went in 1:09.36. Quip’s G2 Oaklawn Park Handicap, for older horses, was run in 1:50.21, putting Omaha Beach’s effort in context.

Following the 23:08 opening gambit, Omaha Beach surged from fifth to first, offering splits of 24.42, 24.96, 25.07, and 12.38 for the final furlong.

That meant Smith was able to back down the subsequent half-mile to 49.38, rounded a complete turn in 25.07, before posting a final eighth that will win--what, eight or nine out of every 10 races run?

The victory margin was one length. It was another 5-3/4 lengths back to Country House, the only member of nine remaining rivals to attempt making up any ground at all. He was good; the exacta finishers were much better.

In a half-century of race watching, there were two local riding icons that I adored, worthy of lofty qualifications; Angel Cordero Jr. and Jerry Bailey.

Latter day, the Ramon Dominguez rode with that kind of rare dominance, so did Pat Day who, yes, waited a tad too long and failed to reach Sunday Silence in the 1989 “racing epic” Classic.

But like Shoemaker, who I could appreciate only during the twilight of his career and the great Pincay, who I didn’t appreciate enough because it was pre-ubiquitous simulcasting, they were the great horseback whisperers of my time.

With Saturday’s mid-race move--not that he needs my blessing--Mike Smith has made my “all-time” personal pantheon. Daring, controlled, measured, safe and strong race riding separates the very good from the very best.

Having the most willing and most talented winning partner beneath him, Smith, as he has done so often in recent years, again proved the difference.

Smith now has a Derby decision to make. Maybe that was his thinking behind the aggressiveness. He knows and felt the power of Roadster’s turf-like turn of foot but just how many gears does Omaha Beach have anyway? How can I best use them?

I would be very surprised if Mike Smith did not stick with Omaha Beach. Accepting the best mounts is about winning and loyalty. But, like Jordan, the Derby has different rules. Trainers know that all Derby mount bets are off.

Every rider wants to win every Derby; it’s just that simple. And Smith probably could have first call on every stakes horse Bob Baffert has at his disposal.

But how can one ever forget the trainer who provided his first ever Triple Crown champion? Then again, that was way back in 2018.

[Ed.Note]: After this was posted, Richard Mandella confirmed that Mike Smith would ride Omaha Beach and Bob Baffert has engaged Florent Geroux to partner with Roadster


I came to Hot Springs because seeing the Arkansas Derby and the “Racing Festival of the South” live were on my racing bucket list. I liked Hot Springs so much that I will return and, unlike Macarthur, it won’t take four years, God willing.

I was with a group of fans who rented a private infield tent. Then the rains came. And while Saturday’s event has become influential enough to be granted Grade 1 status, Oaklawn Park on this day was not ready for many of its fans.

It was not entirely Oaklawn’s fault; that problem lies at the doorstep of Intents Party Rentals, a company that bills itself as “Arkansas’ Finest Tent and Party Rental Company.”

The Arkansas Derby is the best excuse the Razorback State has to throw itself a party. The vibe comes replete with a New Orleans quintet that plays at the pleasure of the revelers, plastic cups in hand, adult beverages within.

While it is true that no one can control the weather, the track can control the environment. The 10-day forecast warned that torrents were expected and that calculation never changed. There was due diligence to be done. It wasn’t.

With 40 minutes until first post on Derby day, the tent TV sputtered, off, on, then off again from the moment we arrived. The tent was three-sided, the backside not staked down in place. Want to guess in which direction the wind was blowing?

There were three tables, all lacking table-cloths; two of them were soaked, including half the folding chairs, many of which were piled atop the tables. With temperatures hovering around 50 degrees, it was as cold as it was wet: Your basic nightmare.

Jennifer Hoyt and her media staffers could not have been kinder, providing Toni and I with shelter from the storm. I had press credentials but didn’t request press box work space since I write second-day stories, not unlike this one.

Our hosts, Chris and Donna Robbins--he the newest member of the HRI team--cried uncle the moment Mitole held off two-time defending Count Fleet champion Whitmore, texting they were uber-ing their way back home. We joined them shortly thereafter.

Not long after we left, all tents on the backside of the infield were empty.

After they were apprised the situation, and to their credit, the Intents Company offered our hosts either a full, unconditional refund, or a free tent for the 2020 Arkansas Derby, also known as doing the right thing.

Toward that end, a four-sided tent of clear plastic should be made available next year to go along with plans to raise the sightlines and add woodchips as an alternative to walking on wet, slippery grass that lead to the tents.

Heretofore, so should track management do all it can to enhance the fan experience. There appeared to be no quality control and they had more than enough warning of what was in store.

Oaklawn’s model works, and it works big time. They are on their way to new records, even without the extended meet that runs through Kentucky Derby day. It’s a betting product that the public has embraced.

On the drawing board are plans for a nine-figure hotel complex to be erected in the immediate future at the far end of the track’s expansive grounds on the south side of the grounds.

Oaklawn Park is poised to become a monster in this game, and that’s great. But when it comes to the infield fan experience, they need to order their priorities.

©John Pricci, HorseRaceInsider, April 16, 2019

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Chris Kay Will Be Missed: Discuss

January 30, 2019--In the wake of Chris Kay’s “resignation” from the New York Racing Association last week, an Internet poll was conducted asking: “Should extensive racing knowledge be a prerequisite for being CEO of a major racetrack or association?”

The results were not in the least bit surprising but the margin of disparity was an eye-opener: Four of every five respondents indicated that a deep knowledge of racing was needed to do the job.

Perhaps the margin shouldn’t be all that surprising and is really typical of racing’s stakeholders; breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, fans of every stripe and horseplayers big or small.

Despite the fact that about 95% of the above mostly lose money, 81% of the population believes that they have a 100% solution to an important industry issue; the game’s management.

In the poll’s comment section, a former NYRA executive--not without his share of controversy--had it right when, after some self-serving observations, noted: “In reality, it is an impossible job! How do you marry horsemen, politicians, executives, handicappers and fans?”

In New York State, the current answer is you can’t, such is the nature of politics. And recall that Governor Andrew Cuomo, who routinely turns his back on racing, recently released a budget that actually suggested divorcing horse racing from OTBs.

As with anything, there are two sides to every story. On the con side, Kay did appear to have a measure of jerk in him. He never failed to see an opportunity to promote himself but, most notably, asked company employees to do private work at his home.

I never have spoken with Kay. My first public glimpse was a press box observation of a winners’ circle ceremony at Saratoga celebrating 50 years of service to the association by lifelong racetracker Sentell “Sonny” Taylor, NYRA’s Official Timer.

Richard Migliore was the master of ceremonies and after the introduction, gave Kay the microphone which the CEO accepted without acknowledging Migliore, a moment that at best was a little cringe-worthy, at worst, rude and self-aggrandizing.

Kay spoke for about five minutes citing, in what can now be categorized as Trumpian style, all the accomplishments his administration made since the prior Saratoga race meet. Afterward, Kay presented Taylor with a gift for his long and meritorious service.

If he acknowledged Taylor by name, I never heard it. Funny how it’s the little things you notice about a man.

So there’s that and the unpopular significantly-higher prices that, in latter day corporate-speak, was meant to “enhance the guest experience.” Then you look at the other side, at what was accomplished during a tenure that began in 2013.

Kay gave subordinates the tools for growth. On his watch NYRA created horse racing’s best closed-circuit TV signal, featuring a deeper talent pool for producers to utilize. With that came many more broadcasts of NYRA racing on Fox Sports 2 into 2020.

Coupled with TV exposure came the significant growth of NYRABets into a world class ADW betting platform that stressed Mobile wagering, racing’s wave into the future.

Kay greenlighted the resurfacing of the Aqueduct main track, lending a big-time veneer to NYRA’s image-busting winter product.

The year after Kay took the helm, thanks to cost cutting and increased revenue, NYRA finished in the black for the first time in over a decade. Indeed, the NYRA has shown a profit from racing operations for all five years of his tenure.

The emergence of a couple of steeds named American Pharoah and Justify certainly didn’t hurt.

In recognition of the Triple Crown’s final leg and event oriented, the NYRA racing office created the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival weekend. The festival theme was replicated on or about Independence Day with a two-day Stars N Stripes Racing Festival, a largely turf-centric theme featuring international invitees.

Kay never got the chance to work on his vision of night racing at Belmont Park, a complete renovation of Elmont’s main track and turf courses, including the installation of a synthetic track for winter racing in anticipation of the future shuttering of Aqueduct Race Track.

Additionally, Kay had hoped to make capital improvements at Belmont in the manner of changes that is reshaping Saratoga, an accomplishment that has played to mixed reviews.

Horseplayers, like Wall Street gamblers, don’t easily embrace change, especially if it comes at an added cost, choosing instead to not look at the sports world and entertainment landscape that surrounds them. To wit:

While in no way comparing the two sports, the average pre-scalper price of a ticket to Sunday’s Super Bowl LIII ranged from $2,500 and $3,000. America’s middle class has long since been priced out of live sporting events.

By comparison, Saratoga racing, even at inflated prices, remains a bargain.

While Kay’s past as chief executive at Toys R Us has been a constant source of critical amusement, his executive time at Universal Parks and Recreation might have created the vision that helped enhance NYRA’s bottom line, his mandate when he accepted the post.

Taking shots at “Mr. Toys R Us” was the low hanging fruit of racetrack executive ridicule. Kay never was a popular CEO but he made the difficult out-of-box decisions needed to move NYRA forward. He deserves credit for that, even if he benefitted him financially.

It is true that Kay never met a photo op that he didn’t like, and made one very stupid decision that came at a very high price—his job.

Let’s see what the geniuses on the NYRA Board of Directors, and the state’s chief executive officer, has in mind going forward. It’s extremely unlikely that any new appointee will accomplish in the next five years what Kay achieved in that same time frame.

Written by John Pricci

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