Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Industry Continues to Disrespect Horseplayers, Fans and Its Own Legacy

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, October 4, 2016—I should be enjoying the game right now. The Breeders’ Cup, the two best back-to-back betting days of the year, is upon us and last weekend’s first round of playoffs were nothing short of top shelf.

This weekend, it’s a Super Saturday for real at Belmont Park, and mighty Keeneland Race Course, friendly rake and all, opens its boutique autumn meet Friday with Fall Stars Weekend featuring the great turf mare, Tepin.

All that remains after this weekend is delving into this year’s graded stakes results and learning more about the invaders that make Breeders’ Cup truly world class. This is a time when fans and players should celebrate their love of the game.

However, many devoted fans on every level, myself included, have a sick feeling in our stomachs, as if the five final weeks of the 2016 Presidential campaign weren’t enough of an anxiety-fest.

No matter how recent events have been spun--a handful of exceptions notwithstanding--the sport’s rich and powerful and its ruling class, the stewards, spend time covering up transgressions while feigning transparency.

Don’t believe everything you see or hear. Recent “improvements” and “strides made” are Band-Aids on bullet wounds that slowly and inexorably becoming fatal.

I personally know four deeply devoted practitioners that have walked away in a span of two months and two more who are thinking about it.

Two of the defectors were big-time gamblers. One horseman, a successful syndicator and member of the Water, Hay and Oats Alliance, volunteered without prompting the he’s slowly phasing out his U.S. operation in favor of racing in galaxies far, far away.

Like me, he’s aware Thoroughbred nirvana is unattainable, but that the game has become a playing field where only racing’s deep-pocketed elite class have more than a puncher’s chance to succeed.

But when the racing-made millionaire said “there’s no real appetite for reform in this industry,” he made me and like-minded media feel foolish. It was like kryptonite for chroniclers who refuse to take a knee when confronted by the sport's deep wounds.

We acknowledge the way real life works but what’s equally true is that “every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on,” a famed American once said, later adding “there are those that look at things the way they are and ask why; I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

Since the sport’s last golden age there’s been no real relief in sight. While deserving, only the deplorables among the game’s lower strata are being dealt with sternly and with a modicum of dispatch, only after authorities were shamed into taking action. Meanwhile, the game’s stars are allowed to thrive and prosper, big time.

At a recent gathering of racing’s elite in Lexington, great Hall of Famer rider Chris McCarron told the rich and powerful members of the Thoroughbred Club of America that “drugs don’t kill horses, people do.”

McCarron went on to not only acknowledge that many audience members there to honor him stand firmly against federal intervention but that independent scrutiny may be the only real avenue left to save the game from itself. Amen.

The perception that racing’s stewards spend more energy punishing lower echelon perpetrators while they allow the game’s stars to get away with murder rings true.

The consequences of jockey Kent Desormeaux actions at Los Alamitos in which failed to ride out an odds-on favorite to the finish cost big show bettors a small fortune. Desormeaux is notorious for not riding out his mounts.

The $500 fine he received is infuriatingly insulting. Just how stupid do the stewards think America’s horseplayers are? Five-hundred dollars for a Hall of Fame, world class, millionaire athletic talent?! This slap on the wrist was a slap in the face to fans.

The stewards’ disregard for Desormeaux’s continued flaunting of the rules is an insult to horseplayers worldwide at best, unlawful tampering with a sporting at worst. The only message being sent is that it’s our game; love it or leave it.

Desormeaux was simply “taking care of”a tiring race horse? Perhaps his class dropping mount should not have been allowed to race in the six-horse field in the first place?

For a similar infraction, lesser known jockeys Brayan Pena and Eswan Flores received 7-day and 3-day suspensions, respectively, from the same Los Alamitos stewards at the track’s summer meet.

Racing rules are not applied evenly and every horseplayer and serious fan knows it.

When Joel Rosario rode odds-on Woodward favorite Frosted in arrogant fashion this summer at Saratoga--so noticeable that his overconfidence was noted in announcer Larry Collmus’ race call--it appeared to the majority of most sane observers that his ride was the difference between victory and defeat.

By rule, jockeys must ride their horses to the finish. The standard is there to protect the betting public without whom there would be no game. Fans did not even get the courtesy of a subsequent dog-and-pony show.

At the least, Rosario should have been censured publicly by the stewards rather than keeping it in house, if indeed they ever addressed the issue with Rosario. Colleague Tom Jicha and I read about the game from reliable sources every day. The first time we became aware that Frosted resented whipping was after the official sign was lit.

And, like those Los AL bettors who lost their show dough, Pick 4 “single” Frosted admittedly cost me a Saratoga payday. I felt as if my pocket were picked. There was no acknowledgment that anything this serious had occurred, much less an apology issued by anyone.

Theoretically, I have little issue with “race riding,” taking any edge to win while barely staying inside the bounds of intimidation, rough or careless riding and ultimately, of course, the safety of horses and riders.

But there’s too much race riding going on and it’s getting out of hand. There is plenty of empirical evidence of stretch-drifting or outright lane shifting to-and-from any direction.

Has anyone noticed that more winners of close finishes this year are those that re-surge on the inside rather than the one outside in the clear with late momentum?

Haven’t New York’s stewards noticed that jockeys are also taking greater advantage of “incident at the start” judgment calls, riders taking an extra step or two before straightening their mounts? Do you closely watch Javier Castellano leaving the gate?

Of course, it’s more than the jockeys who skirt the bounds of good behavior to the point at which the public is either being duped or believed to be too stupid to notice?

How was the transfer of Winstar Farm’s Gettysburg from Todd Pletcher to Steve Asmussen during Belmont week with the stated “strategy” of using the 1-for-7 runner as a pace-setting rabbit for the more accomplished Creator permitted by New York’s stewards and the New York State Gaming Commission?

Although not compelled by rule, why didn’t the stewards or Gaming Commission order Gettysburg coupled in the wagering with Creator, since his presence was for the soul purpose of helping his stablemate win?

Ironically, Creator beat Pletcher trainee Destin by a nose and it doesn’t matter that Gettysburg was 55-1. Racing governance fleeced bettors who tricked themselves into believing the longshot might have a slim chance given the lack of pace on paper. The optics were as embarrassing as it was shameful.

The following week, Winstar, for whom Pletcher won a Kentucky Derby with Super Saver, offered Gettysburg back to the trainer. To his credit, Pletcher said no thanks.

A similar scenario occurred at Saratoga when Juddmonte Farm purchased Inordinate for the purpose of using him as a “rabbit” for America’s leading turf horse, Flintshire.

The fact that it was a longshot whose job was to set fast fractions before inevitably tiring is not the point. The idea is that bettors and fans at one of the few remaining venues that attracts visitors were being bamboozled. It's what happens when tracks worship at the altar of sacred handle.

How is this good for the sport or its fading public image? How is it good business to earn thousands when the cost of such ill will and bad optics is priceless?

The unethical use of uncoupled same-owner interests is not limited to New York, of course.

On Saturday at Gulfstream Park, a no-chance 35-1 shot who had never been close to the lead in claiming races, ran as a separate interest in order to set the table for odds-on stablemate R Kinsley Doll in a $150,000 Florida Sires stakes race.

R Quick Temper, owned by Averill Racing LLC et al, did an effective job getting 7-5 Ballet Diva beaten with an all-out speed assault, but to the detriment of both horses. Her pace-pressing mate was also beaten when late running She’s Incredible spoiled the party.

The time is long past due for racing officials everywhere to do their jobs, adjudicating what happens on both sides of the backstretch consistently and impartially for the sake of customers who bet their money; those who make the game go.

Authorities do act, but they use a double standard; one for 30% claiming trainers, the other for 30% stakes trainers who dominate the highest levels of the sport.

One hears grumbling from horsemen all the time and not all backstretch backlash is jealousy driven. It’s one thing to saddle the best horses; it’s another to seldom see those runners outfinished.

Deep-pocketed owners supply a handful trainers with the best stock available. Owners who can afford neither expensive horses nor very high day-money rates are either scaling back their operations or holding dispersal sales.

Following a September 8 hearing, the Monmouth Park board of stewards suspended trainer Chloe Bradley 45 days and fined her $1,500 for entering Lucy N Ethel in the August 14 Blue Sparkler Stakes.

The fast-sprinting filly subsequently was ordered scratched. Bradley is an operative of Ramon Preciado, currently serving a 180-day suspension for six clenbuterol violations. The stewards scratched her from the Blue Sparkler while they were trying to determine whether Bradley indeed was the trainer.

In the interim, Lucy N Ethel shipped to Saratoga and won the Grade 2 Prioress Stakes wire to wire, paying $47.40. Apparently the New York stewards had no problem allowing the filly to race at the Spa while its trainer of record was under investigated. The filly’s recent workouts had been at Parx Racing, Preciado’s home track.

It’s a terrible state of affairs if the New York stewards knew of the issue or, even worse, completely unaware. Either way, an outside overseer with authority might have entirely avoided this lamentable situation.

Lucy N Ethel is now in the care of trainer Tom Amoss.

In a recent poll conducted by a respected online aggregator, practitioners were asked their opinion why out-of-competition drug testing hasn’t taken hold in racing the way it has in other sports? The last time we saw the results, 34% noted “lack of desire” while 30% blamed “no national oversight.”

When Santa Anita opened its Breeders’ Cup meet last weekend, they proudly announced the installation of a state-for-the-art video surveillance system that can closely monitor the entire stable area on a 24/7/365 basis.

It truly is a wonder to behold, and an extremely commendable action, even if some of it was paid from the proceeds of an extraordinarily high exacta takeout rate of 22.68%.

But at least that money was spent in the best interests of the public, the horses, and all horsemen who covet a level playing field.

A state-of-the-art video surveillance system Watch Santa Anita VNR. should be available at every track that can pay for it. If tracks can’t afford it then perhaps they ought not to be racing. Just as infirm horses need time off, not drugs that, with insufficient lead time, allows them to compete “racing sound.”

At that same polling venue, 60% of respondents indicated that use of the new surveillance system would boost their confidence in the integrity of the racing product.

All that’s needed now is faith that Santa Anita will employ observers at a rate commensurate with an excellent racing skill set, paid a living wage so that it makes them take their responsibility seriously, just as stewards are supposed to.

Will this all happen? Considering I’m quite familiar with past performances day, I make it a layover that nothing will change for the better; today, tomorrow or in the near future. Not as long as the foxes continue to be the ones in charge of the hen house.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Special Report: Pennysylvania Derby Day a Family Affair

By Zac Coffman
Special Correspondent

BENSALEM, PA., September 24, 2016--Parx was in the national spotlight Saturday as they hosted the annual Pennsylvania Derby Day card, this year featuring a three-year-old championship duel between Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist and Preakness winner Exaggerator.

Walking through the crowd early in the day, however, you could have questioned whether this rivalry should have graced the billboards promoting the day’s events, or maybe it neither of them. Maybe it should have been the filly Songbird all along.

Arriving at the track two hours before first post - it was great to see the entire apron filled with excited fans, young and old, something you barely see enough of nowadays—watching the elders introduce their youngsters to the game.

Once they day got started, bettors dove into the day’s program, sharing opinions not only with other bettors that came to see the spectacle but, more importantly, getting some special selections from their kids--like sixth race third-finisher Here’s a Jetpack at 55-1!

From the opener, it was impressive to see rail positions completely filled, especially since Parx is infamous for having one of racing’s highest takeout rates, a contributing factor as to why the track struggles to fill even half the rail on a normal race day.

In addition to a great racing card, Parx offered a meet-and-greet with several visiting riders for the benefit of Turning for Home, an organization for retired horses, and for the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund.

Among them were Mike Smith, Songbird’s regular partner; Kent Desormeaux, who rides Exaggerator for his brother, Keith, and Javier Castellano, who made all the difference in Connect’s upset victory in the main event. It made a special day even better.

Songbird Defining Perfection

Entertaining fans between races, winning jockeys in the first eight races threw free shirts into the crowd from the winner’s enclosure, and a daylong handicapping seminar with “Hudg” was an inspired introduction to newcomers while also providing seasoned players with a different perspective.

(In future years, it would be good to see the hospitality aspect widened, opening up a family picnic area in the back made available to local businesses, specialty food trucks, and the like, making a day at the races a special event.

As I looked around when we reached the stakes portion of the card, I was amazed by just how many people Parx was able to squeeze into--and outside of--the facility. Racetrack occurrences like Saturday’s overwhelming crowd are extremely rare these days.

Yes, it was a special event, but it still provided hope that my old local track can still bring out the masses when it matters, when it tries its best, something that can make racing an everyday thing again. Of course that’s asking a lot, but tracks still must try.

This feeling of hopefulness was fulfilled when the crowd finally was introduced to Songbird. As she walked out onto the track, the roar of the crowd mimicked those of Philly fanatics when the Eagles come running onto the field.

The enthusiastic energy lasted the entire race, reaching a crescendo as she pulled away soon after turning for home. The cheering never stopped as Mike Smith took Songbird for a bit of a victory walk back up the stretch. The crowd loved it.

The connections of Songbird are examples of what the industry needs. After filling its media obligations in the winner’s circle, Smith stopped and talked to every person who called out his name as he walked back to the jock’s room prior to the Pennsylvania Derby.

As we began to look for the best vantage point to watch the race, we saw Songbird’s owner Rick Porter spending time with fans as well; signing autographs, interacting with the crowd. These encounters are important connections, now more than ever.

It felt like only seconds after Songbird showed why she is the best filly in the world right now that the field for the Pa. Derby walked onto the track.

While I expected strong cheers for the Triple Crown rivals, I could not have imagined just how LOUD the fans of them would be. Unlike the Cotillion, where fans were rooting for Songbird but remained hopeful and loyal to hometown hero Cathryn Sophia, the crowd seemed evenly split between the two championship contenders.

This became more apparent when Nyquist attempted his move on the final turn. The crowd erupted when it appeared he would overtake his challengers but as quickly became muted--almost a dead silence--as he started to fade in the stretch.

The Derby finish between Connect and Gun Runner was impressive, even if disappointing, as I had started to celebrate when I thought Gun Runner had it. But Castellano had it figured right, rallying three-to-four paths wide as Gun Runner labored in the looser footing on the far outside.

Pennsylvania Derby: Saving Ground Matters...

Still, is was one of the best renewals I have ever seen. With the best horses available on display, it’s no surprise that the $9.6 million wagered was the second largest in Parx history to the Bayern crowd that wagered $10.3 million.

Parenthetically, imagine how much more Saturday’s figure might have been if bettors had more winnings to churn? But that’s an issue for another day.

Parx does not charge admission so it estimates how many people are in attendance on any given day. By 2 p.m., the track had given away all 6,000 hats available at the door. But as for the memories, and the friends that were made for racing on this day? Priceless.

Photos by Michael Clark

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Some Positive News for a Change

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 19, 2016—The recently concluded meet at Kentucky Downs is a trend-busting phenomenon that represents a victory for racing because it’s a winner for the player.

Not that winning money there is easy; winning is never easy. But you’ve got a chance to make money because true value is available and the interest is there because, on balance, horseplayers love turf racing.

With record purses attracting full fields, Kentucky Downs closed its five-date boutique meet September 15 with total wagering up nearly 34 percent, an astounding figure. Compared to last year, which was great, it was equivalent of an added sixth day.

Betting on the closing program was $3.6 million, bringing all-sources handle to $22.5 million for 2016. Not bad for a five-day meet spread over two weeks at a track in the middle of nowhere battling significant major league competition.

I played and lost, but am looking forward to the 2017 session. I wagered three days, lost two, and nearly won enough the third day when, forgetting to take my stupid pills, nearly got even for my personal incursion into the Kentucky countryside.

Form-wise, my only beef is that results there reflect parimutuel feast or famine. On one hand, bettors get solid prohibitive choices at greater than odds-on, e.g. Kitten’s Cat comprehensive victory at 5-2.

But there are too many more examples where complete chaos rules. That’s the good news and bad news about $130,000 two- and three-year-old maiden races on grass.

However, that’s to be expected in large fields [nearly 11 per race] on turf in general, especially given a final-sixteenth finish that goes uphill, of all things. In addition to the gambling, it makes for great horse racing on TV.

God willing, we plan to drive to Saratoga for the final three weeks of the 2017 meet, visit with friends and family thereafter, and stop in Memphis/Frankfort area for a few days of racing before returning to SoFla.

Just got to see and feel what this place is all about. It and the “new” Laurel, where handle was up [with one added day] 50% for the fall meet.

This Weekend Was All About the Horses

If you love the game, you have to love what you saw this weekend. Tepin, The Pizza Man, a budding juvenile in Not This Time, and a three-year-old turf filly On Leave all gave noteworthy performances.

MARVEL: Literally and figuratively, turf queen Tepin did it again, winning her eighth straight that would have made it an even dozen had if not for a nasty Saratoga photograph taken last season.

There were reasons to have doubts going into the Woodbine Mile. Her energy level was so low in Saratoga that the Casse barn scraped plans to try males in the Fourstardave. Instead, they returned to home base and filled in the only missing race on a Canadian Hall of Fame resume.

She trained brilliantly for the race but any top trainer will tell you that horses will fool you; give you every indication they’re ready for best before being exposed by the stress of real competition. Plus they wanted to leave something in the tank for Breeders’ Cup.

The defending turf champion is a true “workhorse;” she thrives on work. Also, just how much did her amazingly gutsy hard-fought Ascot win drain her reserves? Well, at this juncture there certainly are no worries there: She just breathes different air right now.

"I had my reservations coming into the race,” said assistant trainer Norman Casse. “I thought we had her cranked up but I wasn't 100 percent confident.” Sure enough, she won with an effort that was nowhere close to her ‘A’ race.

It seems now that Tepin will place herself wherever Julien Leparoux thinks she’s comfortable. It was a perfect stalking trip over the kind of cutting ground she loves. But she needed to prove it in the lane, and prove it she did, laying her body down to do so.

“She got tired today but she'll move forward and run a little better race next time,” added Casse. That’s good news for anyone who loves to see a great horse run.

PROMISE: Speaking of turf mares, On Leave has a long way to go before she can be mentioned in the same breath as the defending champion but she’s getting closer, taking her fourth straight in the G2 Sands Point at Belmont Park.

Catching a flyer beneath speed ace Jose Ortiz in a pace-less lineup, Ortiz was able to engineer ridiculously slow fractions—the norm on New York turf—able to shade quarters of 25 seconds all the way around. Still, you have to kick on thereafter, and kick she did.

Showing an unusual turn of foot while setting the pace for the first time, she opened ground nearing the three-sixteenths, blowing the race up in midstretch, her final hand-time sixteenth in a very worthy 11.54 seconds. It’s not easy getting nine furlongs in 1:47.82 off her splits.

On Leave is likely to take her game to Keeneland for the G1 Queen Elizabeth next month. The hope is the competition makes her run a little harder. Dying to see the rest of what lies beneath that hood.

REDEMPTION: Just when you start to think that The Pizza Man can’t do it anymore, he proves you wrong, even in deep stretch where he was running one-paced before a final-strides surge beneath a well-executed between-horses finish from talented Flavian Prat.

The hard-hitting campaigner was aided by stalking a very slow pace on “good” Woodbine turf, and by the fact World Approval just couldn’t stay that final furlong. To his credit, he hard charging Wake Forest safe, as well as talented European Majeed who loomed menacingly only to flatten in the last sixteenth.

This might have been trainer Roger Brueggemann’s best work. Time to head West gentlemen.

PRIORITIES: Seeing top young horses is always a treat but seeing one that might be something special is better yet. His name is Not This Time, a dominant winner of the Iroquois Stakes on opening Saturday of the Churchill Downs Fall meet.

It’s one thing to jump up in the air at the break, stalk a slow pace very wide throughout in a two-turn debut, attack the leaders at headstretch then draw away. But by 8-3/4 lengths with something in reserve while showing a brilliant turn of foot? How often does that happen?

It’s difficult to gauge a mile and a sixteenth in 1:45.22 given Saturday’s conditions. But it must be very good considering it took filly Daddys Lil Darling needed nearly two full seconds more to win the same-trip Pocahontas.

“He’s the real deal,” said trainer Dale Romans. “He’s spooky good…that slow break wasn’t going to get him beat… When I think I have tons the best I tell [the rider] to keep [horses] in the clear in a nice, long gallop and try to overtake them. That’s what he did.”

“He’s got a future,” confirmed Robby Albarado and we’ll find out if that’s true soon enough as the victory earned Not This Time an all-expenses paid trip to the Breeders’ Cup.

Should he win that, it will give Liam’s Map’s half-brother by Giant’s Causeway a total of 30 qualifying points for the big race back home on May’s first Saturday of 2017. “The key now,” said the Louisville native, “is to get him to the Kentucky Derby.”

Written by John Pricci

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