Friday, May 30, 2008

Clem Florio Had an Eye for Greatness

I read the news today, oh boy. Clem Florio died last Sunday night. He was 78-years-old. That’s not so old these days. And if you knew Clem, it was way too soon.

Florio was a turf writer by name, a handicapper by trade. I had heard that he worked for some paper in Baltimore. But I didn’t bother to learn which one then. If it wasn’t New York, it didn’t count.

I was an arrogant little punk back in the day, only little was never my strong suit.

It was the early 1970s. I was doing whatever I could in the Aqueduct press box to survive, a magazine piece here, handicapping gig, there.

My claim to fame, as far as my dad was concerned, was that I occasionally ghosted for a turf writer who worked for a big local paper who was--how do I phrase this--a non tea-totaller.

The lead was the same every day: “At Aqueduct today, before a crowd of 21,240...” After that followed the horse’s name, the jockey’s, maybe the trainer’s, the running time, margin of victory and win price.

Two hundred words: $20. Not bad for 30 minutes work. That was 10 bets. And exactas weren’t even invented. When exotics were expanded to include trifectas, they were called triples.

I remember the precise day I met Clem Florio, although I’ve forgotten who made the introduction. I remember him being ####-sure of himself, never lacking for an opinion. It was the Fourth of July, 1972.

He was good looking in a Jack Palance sort of way. If across-the-board wagering were offered on the proposition that he was an American of Italian descent, the payoff would read: $2.40, out, out.

It was a few years after the introduction of OTB. The politico in charge was a dapper fellow named Howard Samuels. The tabloids dubbed him “Howie the Horse.”

In those days Aqueduct closed for the season in late October, reopened on March 20. The best New York horses went to Florida, or Aiken, or Camden, in South Carolina. The selling platers went to Bowie in Maryland.

OTB was taking action on racing from Bowie back then. Local horseplayers dying for some live action took a subway into Midtown Manhattan then got on a bus for the five-hour ride to Bowie. One way.

In those days you didn’t even need proof of age to buy cigarettes then. You could get them from a vending machine: You stuck a quarter in and out dropped a pack of Lucky Strikes, with two shiny pennies, always heads up, enclosed inside the cellophane on the side panel of the package. With your thumb you would slide your change up and out into the palm of your other hand. Pretty good deal, if you didn’t mind rolling the dice with your life.

No one spoke to each other on those bus rides. Besides, horseplayers are more loquacious after a race, then only if they could say, “I had ‘em.”

During those five hours, horseplayers were deep in thought, circling little details in their forms so they wouldn’t forget those nuggets when they stepped up to the $2 window, which were always located on the apron side of the grandstand.

If you won, you walked, or ran, around to the other side of the betting bay to collect. If you had a good day, you might even get to visit the $5 or $10 window. In order to queue up at the $50 window, you needed the likeness of Ulysses S. Grant and a dream.

The ritual was repeated nine times a day. Simulcasting? You were lucky to see a video replay of the races.

If you didn’t have bus fare, or the 14 hours to spare, you bet Bowie at OTB. On Saturdays, you could watch “Racing from Bowie” with Ken--can’t remember his last name, think it started with W--and some analyst named Harvey Pack.

Seizing an opportunity to add to my free lance gigs, I asked the late Ike Gellis, sports editor of the New York Post, for a job handicapping the Bowie races.

“We’ve got Clem Florio. Why would I want to hire you?”

I suppose Gellis didn’t have to sugar-coat it that way. Which brings us back to Independence Day.

It was the second half of the daily double, a maiden dash at five and a half furlongs for two-year-old colts. Trainer Lucien Laurin had a reputation for having horses ready for their debuts. The money showed and Laurin’s horse closed the favorite at 3-1 despite an inexperienced apprentice, Paul Feliciano, in the irons.

A colt named Herbull won the race by a neck over Master Achiever, with Fleet n’ Royal a length farther back in third.

Juvenile races are always good fodder for trip handicappers, especially in fields of 12. When the results were made official, handicappers and writers gathered around the only closed circuit monitor in the press box to watch the race replay.

A racetrack press box is no less competitive than the jock’s room. No one shared information then, everyone watching as quietly as those horseplayers on the bus to Bowie, scribbling handicapping hieroglyphics into track programs. But not this time.

Within an hour of meeting Florio that morning, we had become fast friends. He was standing to the right and in front of me as we watched the second race replay. When the video ended, Florio walked passed me and said “I’ve got my Derby horse.”

“What?” I asked.

“You better go back and look at Laurin’s horse,” Florio said.

In those days, you had to wait until the following day before you could see the races for a second time.

And so, there was Laurin’s horse, breaking next to last, checking and steadying all over the lot, aiming for this hole; closed, aiming for that hole; shut off again. Feliciano held on for dear life as his horse mounted a furious finish, making up seven lengths in the final quarter-mile.

Laurin’s horse not only won the following year’s Kentucky Derby but the Triple Crown, too. Secretariat later graced the front covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated and subsequently was syndicated for a then unheard of $6-million. His magnificent chestnut likeness even wound up on a U.S. postage stamp.

So when I think of Florio, I think of Secretariat, and vice versa. Why not? They were both champions.

Ed. Note: For More Reminiscences of Clem Florio, Read Bill Christine’s Lines In the Sand Blog

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Part 11:  Derby 134 Aftermath; All in Racing Must Prove They Truly Care

As a young journalist I had a taste for Kool Aid. I bought into the argument that New York racing needed Lasix to compete with the rest of the country for racing stock.

Dr. Manuel Gilman, who made the leap from NYRA track veterinarian to the steward‘s stand, was correct when he warned that the proliferation of permissive medication would be the end of quality racing as we know it. Time has proven Gilman prescient.

The use of race day medication and steroids must be eliminated. Medication is not allowed in most major jurisdictions throughout the world, so why here? Analgesics such as Phenylbutazone masks pain and can cause irreparable harm. Lasix can mask everything else.

The industry devotes much of its diligence attempting to keep up designer drug developments but turns a blind eye to race day medication. Most debilitating injuries occur when earlier problems go undetected of are allowed to fester. There’s absolutely no evidence this was the case in Derby 134, but that’s not the issue.

When field after field of unraced two-year-old debut with Lasix, what kind of message does racing send to fans and customers alike? That we’re breeding a population of bleeders? The fact that a diuretic Lasix can work as a masking agent is universally accepted. Have our horsemen become averse to hay, oats, water? No wonder most of the world regards our racing as less than.

There is conflicting data to support the observation that modern commercial breeding produces inherently weaker stock. U C Davis and Penn’s College of Veterinary Medicine concur that no correlation exists between breeding for speed and unsoundness. Yet in the last half century average starts per horse have been cut virtually in half, from more than 11 per year to just over six. How is that fact reconciled exactly?

Before more jurisdictions knee-jerk toward a wider installation of synthetic surfaces, additional study is needed. While preliminary evidence shows that fewer fractures occur on all-weather surfaces, there are no statistics reflecting the greater number of soft tissue injuries seen, according to empirical data supplied by horsemen.

Some jockeys have ridden on synthetic surfaces wearing face masks for fear of inhaling any potentially dangerous by-products. Some Polytrack surfaces have gotten dramatically slower in the warmth of the California sun. Extremely cold has also proven problematical in Canada.

It appear the chemical composition of synthetic surfaces may be altered in some way by extremes in temperature. What are the short and long term side effects on horses that inhale this foreign substance? The jury on this could be out for some time. How long did it take scientists to identify asbestos as a carcinogen?

Never mind the havoc that synthetic surfaces wreak on horseplayers. Even Keeneland was forced to admit that some bettors probably stayed away from their product at the recently concluded spring meet. And they have a vested interest in Polytrack as a product.

Better track maintenance appears a preferable alternative to ersatz dirt. But that notion likely will meet resistance from the tracks because synthetics are cheaper to maintain and keep fields from being negatively impacted by foul weather.

In the last two decades, rolling and sealing wet tracks has become a commonly accepted practice. But while it allows for fasting drying it also renders the cushion less forgiving. Since fans bet more on fast tracks, floating is more about money than safety.

Jockeys seem to prefer sealed tracks to those with standing water on top. Perhaps track superintendents can find ways to aid nature rather than create an artificial solution by trotting out the heavy equipment. Further study of a horse’s natural habitat is requisite.

On the subject of jockey safety, they must be allowed to continue carrying whips. A lighter, softer model like those used in some foreign jurisdictions seems a viable alternative, and stricter enforcement of existing rules regarding misuse of the whips is mandatory. Jockeys should have whips to help insure their own safety.

In good conscience, the industry must ask itself if less than two fatalities per thousand horses is acceptable collateral damage to conduct a sport. Considering that the pressure a running horse puts on its hooves has been likened to a human supporting himself by standing on one finger, it’s a credit to horsemen that the figure is as “low” as it is.

Casual fans tune in to watch the Derby, the Preakness, not so much, and the Belmont Stakes hardly at all except when a Triple Crown is at stake. And it seems that only a true superstar can whet a Breeders’ Cup appetite in the same manner the spring classics do. But since the 2005 Breeders‘ Cup, viewers have seen or heard of five fatal breakdowns. At that rate, how long will it be before even true fans lose heart?

The dominance of Big Brown is not the sole reason only one other Derby horse will soldier on to Baltimore. Avoiding the crown’s second jewel, like watching horses outrun speed-infused pedigrees, is routine for the connections of high class Derby-aged stock. Consequently, until stamina and soundness are bred back in, the duration of the Triple Crown must be lengthened.

For four years, we’ve been advocating a schedule consisting of the first Saturday in May, first Saturday in June, and July 4th, in effect making horse racing a national holiday. On balance, the modern high class thoroughbred needs, at minimum, four weeks between starts to approximate peak performance. Agree or not, today’s Triple Crown schedule is anachronistic and, as such, fraught with peril.

By allowing for further maturity, greater participation of Derby horses throughout the series, and allowing late-developing individuals to join the group, a longer Triple Crown schedule would not only maintain the degree of difficulty but actually might add to it. Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and all the others can rest easy.

Trainer Larry Jones and jockey Gabriel Saez, wise beyond his 20 years, did nothing wrong. Neither did owner Rick Porter, whose ultimate decision it was to race a filly against 19 colts in an atmosphere charged by 157,000 julep-fueled fans. Fillies run against colts all the time elsewhere, goes the mantra, but mainly on forgiving grass.

The issue of fillies vs. colts on today’s harder, faster surfaces is problematical. Given the brittle nature of the modern horse, the injury masking that permissive medication allows and the added stress of competing at the highest level, owners of fillies should reconsider whether a place in the record book is really worth it.

Fillies need not “prove something” by taking on males. It’s a sporting gesture only in the abstract. Racing all out on the fence alongside Foolish Pleasure was anathema to Ruffian. Rags To Riches never was the same after her triumphant Belmont struggle with Curlin--and she was a robust specimen. Subsequently she was forced to miss the Breeders‘ Cup and was retired this year when she no longer could withstand training.

In some part, Eight Belles lost her life because she ran the race of her young life. Even as Saez was trying to take care of her in deep stretch and beyond, the filly kept trying to catch Big Brown. That’s what separates very good horses from the common ones; they keep trying, hard. Practitioners and fans alike need to care for the horses that care for us by doing our bidding.

The industry no longer can afford its deniability. It can’t make bad steps disappear, but it is morally bound to try, hard, to do for the animals that allow those tethered to them to bask in their reflected glory while enjoying and, in some cases, enriching themselves.

American racing must take stock of the way it conducts itself and do something before government, responding to public outcry, has a notion it can do it better, or even ban it altogether. The paradigm must change. The time for true reform is at hand.

All segments of the industry must share in this, taking positive steps to show that it truly cares about the inevitable bad ones. Anything less is indefensible. Anything less would be criminal.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Part 1: Industry Has Moral Obligation to its Thoroughbreds

It’s nearly a week since the fatal breakdown of Eight Belles and the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way. Racing will survive, it is being said or written. Sponsors that lend support to the Kentucky Derby have indicated that they will not run for cover. This, too, shall pass.

But the casual fan, the one the industry covets to grow its shrinking base, would not agree. Not the three people who approached a racing colleague in Boston the day after the Derby for the purpose of telling him they will never watch another horse race on TV.

Neither will the people who approached a trainer friend on Long Island, saying the same thing. And not the fan who button-holed me at the Albany Teletheater Wednesday to say that he was there only for the Pick Six carryovers in New York and Kentucky but he no longer would get caught up in Triple Crown hyperbole ever again.

If racing thinks that it will weather this storm the way it has all others, that roll of the dice will come up snake eyes. This is not about the rant of self-promoting PETA zealots waiting for their next raison d'etre. It is not like the old saw about members of a popular religion loving its dogs more than it loves its neighbors.

If the racing industry is about more than lip service, if it truly cares about the animal and not the money, it needs to start all over again. If and when it does, it will not reap the benefits for another half century. I won’t see it, but maybe my grandchildren will. The American thoroughbred industry must totally rethink the way it conducts the sport.

There are scores of issues. It starts with commercial breeders who breed for speed and looks at the expense of stamina. Outrunning the short-coupled pedigree is today’s rule, not the exception The modern race horse is fine, not course like his ancestors, more muscular in the hindquarters with bones lighter in the lower leg, that according to Dr. Gregory Ferraro, Director of the Center for Equine Health at the University of California, Davis.

“It isn’t about the horse anymore,” Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said to me this week. “It’s about the money.”

Breeding a stouter race horse cannot be done overnight, and running a breeding farm is an expensive proposition. Consequently, commercial breeders have chosen to maintain the status quo because that’s what the market demands, the latest flavor of the month. Unless the thinking changes, the only racing left will be conducted along their paddock fences.

To show good faith, that they care about the horse and not about the money, consignors must help eliminate two-year-old breeze-up sales. Getting babies to run a furlong in :09 or :10 seconds for money, at best, raises greed to an art form. What would you call running that fast on bones that haven’t had a chance to knit, very young horses not conditioned to go that fast yet? Recklessness? Animal cruelty?

When it comes to racing freshman stock, racetracks on major circuits can be part of the solution, not the problem. Do two furlong races really prove anything? And what about 4-½ furlong sprints? What purpose do they serve beyond driving handle and showcasing the latest and greatest commercial stallion? These races do not improve the breed. In the interests of the horse and the sport, eliminate them.

This is not a call to do away with juvenile racing. That’s impractical and unnecessary. But tracks can stop writing these short baby races. If youngsters aren’t fit to race at least six furlongs, they should continue training until they are. Training remodels bone that helps deal with the stress of racing by making bone thicker, Ferraro stated.

Juvenile racing should start in July, not April. Condition books at major fall racetracks should include longer races for juveniles, particularly for the faster high-priced stock. All horses cannot be distance runners. But races of seven furlongs or more would require a horse to distribute his energy differently, take less pounding from those jack-rabbit sprint starts. It would force trainers to give their horses time to build wind and bone.

The argument that this wouldn’t work is cynical. Granted, it is more expensive in the short term. But it will mean that trainers will learn to become better horsemen, less reliant on speed and medication. For racetracks, field size equates to dollars. But either you’re part of the solution or the problem. Tracks can benefit the following year when well conditioned two-year-olds make better three-year-olds.

Tomorrow: Medication, Synthetic Tracks and More

Written by John Pricci

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