Sunday, November 11, 2018

To Whip and Not to Whip, These Are the Questions

Despite a formful, championship-crowning, and dramatic-finish excitement of last weekend’s Breeders’ Cup, it wasn’t the greatest week for the rest of the racing world, practically or optically.

On the same day Christophe Soumillon was beating on Thunder Snow with a Gatling-style machine gun right handed whip, Turffontein Race Course in South Africa conducted its first in a series of crop-free racing.

Lamentably, the National Horseracing Authority of South Africa said the next one is a couple of months down the road. Under consideration is whether jockeys will be allowed to carry whips and not use them, or not be permitted to carry them at all.

I have spoken with jockeys over the years regarding whip use and most insisted that in addition to getting a response from a horse that was not picking up the tempo on its own, a riding crop is also a rider’s safety net.

This argument states that when mounts unexpectedly bear out or lug in sharply, to the detriment of themselves or other riders, the whip acts as a corrective steering mechanism by getting the horse’s attention before it’s too late.

A racing fan on Twitter noted shortly after Thunder’s Snow third-place Classic finish that Soumillon had whipped his mount no less than 15 times. I watched several head-on and pan views and I can’t say that it was 15, but it WAS excessive.

The whipping appeared unnecessarily harsh as Thunder Snow was giving his best stretch effort, beaten 1-3/4 lengths for the win, 3/4s of that for place as he failed to stay with runnerup Gunnevera in the final few strides.

Coincidentally, or not, trainer Graham Motion, while not citing the incident specifically, did call for a serious investigative study into what should or should not be permitted regarding whip use as it relates to racing internationally.

Of course, when California instituted its three-strike-limit whip rules, there was much gnashing of teeth and cries among horseplayers who apparently believe that if jockeys weren’t whipping their mounts purposefully they weren’t trying their best.

Weighing in at six pounds of overweight at the age of 12, I cannot claim to have first-hand knowledge of what constitutes excessively flagrant whip use, but I will say this:

When Accelerate twice balked prior to the gate load, NBC mics clearly picked up the sound of the Classic winner’s handlers as they encouraged Accelerate to go forward with the crack of the whip several times. The sound of it was cringe worthy.

I only know that if a horseman of Motion’s stature and demonstrable integrity is calling for a review of whip use in this country, especially when compared to what’s acceptable around the world, there must be something to this issue.

For most loyal fans and inveterate bettors alike, the optics of even temperate whip use are terrible. It’s not the message racing wants to send to sport’s followers, never mind efforts devoted to creating new horse racing fans.

No Such Problem In SoCal…

Especially if your name is Kent Desormeaux, who continues to demonstrate that he could care less about the rules of racing that demands jockeys put forth their best effort to the finish or racing fans who participate by betting their money.

Notwithstanding Desormeaux’s well deserved infamy for his failure to ride his mounts out to the finish line, he showed his disregard once again in the 9th race at Santa Anita NOV 9, a race that also offered High Five wagering.

Astride Violent Ridge (12-1), Desormeaux did the right thing almost to the very end. He saved ground behind a contested pace before tipping at out headstretch, simultaneously giving his mount several cracks of the whip for encouragement.

In midstretch, Desormeaux altered course back to the rail and encouraged his mount once again, until the final strides at which point he appeared to stop riding: Again.

The three-way photo, requiring lengthy examination, showed a dead heat for fifth between Violent Ridge and Longden (7-2). Both finished a nose behind fourth finisher Paddock Pick (10-1). The $1 Superfecta paid $847.80 behind 3-1 winning favorite, Surfing Star.

From the tape replay, it was unclear that Desormeaux had stopped riding--until two damning images came to life: The photo clearly showed Desormeaux standing up in the irons and Violent Ridge with something in reserve, finishing second on the gallop-out before reaching the turn.

If I were a steward and this incident was viewed in isolation, Desormeaux’s ride might have resulted in a stern reprimand the next day. But this was no isolated incident. Desormeaux’s actions at the end of races which he cannot win often results in a lackluster effort.

The last time he was called on the carpet for not riding out his mount to the wire resulted in a three-day suspension and a relatively painless fine. It would be laughable if it didn’t make the blood of bettors boil.

Clearly, Desormeaux has no respect for rules or the fans and will do whatever he pleases because he knows his actions will result in only tacit disapproval from officials. Resultantly, the California Horse Race Board must share the blame for what amounts to, by definition, tampering with the outcome of a sporting event.

If Desormeaux was “on his belly” at the finish, the result of the High Five may have been altered—there were no winners according to the official chart--but the chances are Violent Ridge’s backers would have collected a similar $800 superfecta payoff.

Desormeaux repeatedly fails to ride the race out, time after time after time after time. He deserves three months, not three days. Racing’s stakeholders wonder why their fans react in a paranoid and negative fashion.

Maybe it’s because there are too many in the game who act as if they are after them.

NoCal to Permanent SoCal

We’ve heard the arguments: Southern California has the best weather for hosting the Breeders’ Cup in perpetuity and the time zone allows for handle optimization given three extra hours afforded bettors in the East and Midwest.

One big issue, provincial pride notwithstanding, is the “neutral ground” that only racetracks east of the Mississippi can provide. Midwest and Eastern tracks offer a more level playing field, avoiding the logistical advantage of SoCal-based runners.

While the disparity is not as great as it was pre-air travel, it remains easier for animals to ship from west to east successfully than the other way around.

And Breeders’ Cup would not be the international success it is without European participation. They, as do most horses, prefer the cooler climates and shorter trip.

The original Breeders’ Cup vision was for it to be an equine road show. New York deserves to be back in the rotation. Laurel Park, with its honest main track and expansive turf course, deserves a Breeders’ Cup debut.

There’s Keeneland, of course, and one day, it is hoped, Churchill will get a chance to present the Classic under the lights.

Of all the things that may broken in the racing industry, Breeders’ Cup isn’t one of them.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, November 06, 2018

The Horse of the Year Horse Race of 2018

Could there be a better day—a day that separates this country from most of the rest of the world--than to reveal an early ballot cast Sunday? No, not that ballot, the NTRA one posted the day after Breeders’ Cup XXXV.

The NTRA National Poll--as opposed to the 3-year-old Poll that ends at the conclusion of the Triple Crown—is intended to rank America’s best racing talent, regardless of age or sex, a list of 10 horses that might be best in show, aka Horse of the Year.

For most of 2018’s post-Triple Crown season, it basically was all Justify all the time, followed closely by a seemingly invincible West Coast handicapper, Accelerate, and a leading filly, like defending champion Abel Tasman or an up-and-coming soph called Monomoy Girl.

Nearly two months of racing remain in the 2018 racing season so things could still change; opinions, at least thoughtful ones that hopefully continue, during the perspective-gaining time left, to evolve..

So, on the most important Election Day in the democracy’s lifetime, here is what the online ballot of one turf writer who, somewhat stunningly still refuses to accept abject cynicism and remains devoted to the game, is surprised by his own choices.

Suffice that it would be a major surprise to me and most of my colleagues should any horse not named Justify be crowned 2018 Horse of the Year. But like the man says: Not so fast my friends.

After considerable horserace soul searching, a few perspective-altering developments and in consideration of 74 years on the planet, I believe that I have earned the right, in good and clear conscience, to do as I damn please. To wit, one man’s NTRA ballot:

5. ROY H

Horse racing debates are raging everywhere on this topic. A recent informal Twitter poll shows 54% of fans preferred Accelerate over Justify.

And, speaking of statistical dead heats on this Election Day, an online racing poll reveals the closest thing we can have to a precise dead heat: 43.75% to 43.74% for Accelerate as this is being written. Yes, it’s thatclose.

For those who do not understand what the issue is about, it’s the 13th Triple Crown winner in history, the first to do so without having race at 2 since 1882 and the first to do so undefeated since Seattle Slew, the only other undefeated classics champ.

But, in this corner, is five year old Accelerate, the winner of five of six starts in 2018, all Grade 1, including the California “Big Three” and four of those five at the classic American distance of a mile and a quarter.

Accelerate’s only loss was a neck defeat to City of Light, an authoritative winner of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile on the same afternoon. Accelerate competed from February to November.

As for Monomoy Girl, all she accomplished was to finish first in all seven starts dating back to a February Grade 2. The other six were Grade 1 [once disqualified], comprising two prestigious Oaks and a Distaff over elders that included a defending Eclipse champion, Abel Tasman.

While the resumes of Accelerate and Monomoy Girl are extremely compelling, how does one knock an undefeated Triple Crown champion off his perch, even if some of the blush came off the roses, black-eyed susans and carnations courtesy of American Pharoah’s drought-ending sweep three years ago?

Whether via injury, or to protect the reputation of a reported $70-million syndicated property, Justify did not race beyond June 9, never beat an older horse and among the Triple Crown vanquished, only Good Magic returned to win a major, the G1 Haskell Invitational.

Trust that this debate will rage right up to December’s Eclipse Award-voting deadline. Ultimately, all will be revealed the night of January 24 inside Gulfstream Park’s Sport of Kings theater.

You might have noticed that my ballot did not include a vote for a leading Turf champion because I don’t believe any such runner stamped himself worthy of being called a champion, and neither did an older dirt mare assert her superiority.

As stated, racing will be conducted for two more truncated months so there might be time to impress Eclipse voters. With respect to grass horses, two European-based fillies finished ahead of America’s best males—by nine thrashing lengths.

This may be a year when I am forced to award the Turf title to a history-making Arc de Triomphe-winning filly. Like Frankie shouted after Enable’s Turf victory: “She conquered America.”

Also, observe we included two juvenile fillies in our Top NTRA 10; Jaywalk, who took a traditional dual Grade 1 path to an Eclipse title, including a tour de force Juvenile Fillies, and the Juvenile Filly Turf champion, Newspaperofrecord.

Undefeated on the grass, Newspaperofrecord tops the list of most brilliant performer in Breeders’ Cup 35. And, on this particular Election Day, the most important in the life of a democratic republic ever, she certainly earns the title of Best Named Horse of 2018.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Make Lesser Races, and Their Coverage, Super

I do not know European racing writer Daniel Ross. But I’m in his debt, and that of online publication Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, for making me aware that the “super trainer” is not just an American phenomenon.

I won’t get into the weeds on this. Find his recent three-part series to understand the conclusions he draws, based on statistics provided by the British Horseracing Authority and anecdotal evidence gleaned from interviews with horsemen.

The majority seems to agree that the phenomenon is attributable to two factors—realities of life that are prevalent today in these United States; inequitable distribution of wealth and the cumulative effects of fake racing news. Consider:

In an effort to market the sport and business of thoroughbred racing, tracks have listened to the public by looking at the bottom lines and concluding what should be glaringly obvious to all stakeholders: Big events produce big handle.

The other reality is that the same handful of super trainers and the wealthy syndicates they train for attract the most coverage because they are too big to ignore and too big to fail so that the future also becomes prologue.

It’s easier to maintain a 25% winning average with a pool of 200 horses to draw from than it is for the capable trainer at the other end of the barn to win at 15% because he and his owners need to run more often to survive racing’s economies of scale.

One of the BHA charts shows the dichotomy that has existed in the past decade with respect to purse inequities. Resultantly, the number of U.S. super outfits has stayed the same or have grown slightly while the number of smaller outfits has decreased significantly.

What’s more, American super trainers have been earning larger percentages of overall prize monies with fewer starters than before while trainers at the low end saw their share of prize money shrink to unsustainably low levels.

Super trainers in the U.S. have been accruing larger percentages of prize money. It follows that trainers at the other end of the scale saw their share of overall prize money shrink.

In the UK over the past decade, the number of super trainers has remained relatively flat as the number of smaller stables have met the same fate as their U.S. brethren, dropping off precipitously.

The percentage of all starters and prize money won by UK’s top 60 trainers has grown by an average 10% in both categories, from roughly 40% to 50% in purses overall.

The problem for the remaining trainers is that the top 60 are taking down nearly 80% of available purses, a growth rate of nearly 30%. If that trend holds there and here, the future is unsustainable at that rate.

The top two classes of horses are earning 40% of the purse money, up approximately 35% over the same 10-year period. Meanwhile, purse money available in the lower classes has decreased from 8% to 6%, a 25% drop.

Can a limbo stick going any lower?

On balance, horsemen in the UK and US, as well as engaged American horseplayers, agree the problem indeed is twofold: inequitable purse distribution in the face of slightly rising handle and skewed media coverage.

HRI regulars can attest that this a recurring theme here, where we effort to be fair and objective in our coverage, trying to maintain an often difficult balance of sports event vs. gambling enterprise.

We justify blanket coverage of the Bafferts, Browns and Pletchers by recognizing that on America’s biggest days, super trainers garner and deserve the biggest headlines. Handle figures support that notion.

These races generate great fan interest and the reason why gamblers target these days. Big pools warrant big-money action: These are the races trainers desperately want to win, the public trusting they will get an honest run.

Tier 2 and Tier 3 tracks get their 15 minutes in the national spotlight and we effort to support those days. It would serve racing well if they promoted more of those and the Pick Whatever, and distribute purse money more equitably.

Not to pick on Oaklawn Park, no different than any track looking to boost its bottom line and attract the best horses. But does the Rebel, a prep for the more significant Arkansas Derby, have to carry a million dollar purse?

Preps have their place, of course, but it just seems like that money could have been better spent on some of the lesser classes. And the sport takes it on the chin from the super outfits in other ways.

But this shouldn’t mean that a handful of trainers with the best horses can target the Breeders’ Cup and fashion scant campaigns, arriving at the big dance with the freshest horses earning a fortune along the way winning a handful of grotesquely inflated purses.

Prestigious races used to stand on their own and still can, but tracks will continue throwing big money at their big races to attract the best horses as is their right. We will endeavor to spread our coverage out a little better. It doesn’t count unless you walk the talk.

Written by John Pricci

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