Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Of Arrogate and Del Mar in the Fall

There was a conversation on Twitter Tuesday morning that began when my friend and great racing chronicler Steve Haskin of Bloodhorse made the observation that, based on Monday’s workout, Arrogate is back. As expected, there was much back and forth with Breeders' Cup approaching.

It may interest fans to know that I agree with Haskin, but only to a point. Indeed, Arrogate’s flesh looked fuller than when we last saw him a week earlier on xbtv.com. His energy level also was good, but in our view not as I remember it at any stage pre-Dubai World Cup.

It may turn out that Arrogate unequivocally hates Del Mar, but he didn’t hate Saratoga, Gulfstream or Meydan. The difference may be because his Dubai performance was in the same orbit as Secretariat’s Belmont, or Seattle Slew’s monstrous Jockey Club Gold Cup.

We’re not comparing these three and wouldn’t want to re-litigate that topic on some subsequent thread. We’re simply noting the top three male performances we’ve seen since we began doing this professionally in 1969.

The point is that his Dubai tour de force might have reached the bottom of him, if not somewhere close. His greatness might be summoned up one last time as he comes off a lengthy, needed freshening—his second freshening since returning from the Middle East.

Monday’s workout was clearly better than the one that preceded it Oct. 16. As Haskin noted, he finished strongly and galloped out well, but…

I was not as enamored of the gallop-out as Steve was. To my eyes, Arrogate’s behemoth stride—indelibly etched from his running down California Chrome in the final strides of the 2016 Classic—is not quite there. Rather, as the handicappers say, it’s there, thereabouts.

If he is all the way back, it should be enough for a relatively short-lived Best Horse in the World to rebound and win his career finale in storybook fashion. The horse certainly has earned that. Whether he can, of course, is the $6-million question.

This uncertainty could have been somewhat mitigated. In fact, all horsemen and the bettors are being short-changed by host track Del Mar. Is there some spectacular reason why Del Mar’s backstretch didn’t open until this week, at least for Breeders’ Cup horses?

Most of the serious work was completed this past weekend. There were fitness-insurers, leg stretchers or a stepping stone to a stiff blowout to come.

Wouldn’t it have been preferable to see horses work at least twice on the surface over which they are scheduled to race?

Track superintendent Dennis Moore is a legend in his field. He installed the new Del Mar surface for the prime summer meet and it was a rousing success based on vastly improved safety records for both equine and human athletes.

The stated goal was to make the surface exactly the same as Santa Anita’s, believing that familiarity was in the best interest of all parties, including horseplayers. But here’s another concern to reconcile:

For example, it’s widely accepted that Churchill Downs plays differently in spring than it does in the fall. And those in the know in California—mainly horsemen--insist that the surface played differently last fall than it did last summer on the “old” surface.

Moore says that on Nov. 3 and 4 the track will play the same as it did in July, August and September. I’m dubious because atmospherics change. I get that the climate is relatively stable in San Diego, but nature’s clock will do what it always does: affect things.

Moore has indicated that the track would be tighter--as opposed to looser--for Breeders’ Cup event days. But if Oceanside Del Mar does mimic inland Santa Anita, it’s useful to recall how dead the Arcadia track played at the beginning of the current meet.

Of course, if track condition turns out to be a factor—and it always does—the surmise is that much of the guess work could have been avoided, as if training and betting on race horses is easy to be good at. All horsemen, not just Bob Baffert, could have benefited from this option.

If Del Mar had opened its barn area a week earlier for a limited number of horses it would have been better for all practitioners. But, I suppose, not if there were no track-maintenance crew to monitor the situation.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

With Respect to Running Times, Racing Has a Crediblity Gap

While parimutuel takeout and the Keeneland boycott have dominated the discussion in recent weeks, there is a matter of urgency that not only effects horseplayers but the very foundation and history of Thoroughbred racing itself: The timing of races.

Whether it is how one horse matches up against another in today’s race, or whether Arrogate is the historical equal of Seattle Slew, visual interpretations notwithstanding, it is axiomatic that running time is the only absolute truth in the game.

Presently there is credibility crisis in terms of how accurate the running times you see posted on the tote board and in past performances are. This has been at issue for several years, the most egregious example being the incorrect time of the 2017 Pegasus.

This week, however, the prominent Pace Advantage, a prominent racing message board, and Twitter has blown up because of the incorrect timing issues that have occurred with regularity at the current Santa Anita race meet.

Timing and past performance company Trakus published three charts from this past Saturday without running times listed, including intra-race fractions and final clocking, because the originally posted times were inaccurate.

Once this credibility gap was exposed and social media got involved, Jeff Platt, founder and president of Horseplayers Association of North America, made Santa Anita and the California Horse Racing Board aware of the Internet discussions.

Santa Anita and the CHRB acted appropriately with dispatch and handled the matter correctly. All races are now hand-timed in addition to electronic timing. When obvious mistakes occur, the correct hand-timed clocking becomes the official time of that race.

No reasonable person should have a problem with this approach, whereby tracks use official timers as a fail-safe in the interests of accuracy. Here’s why:

The most dominant driver of racing’s liquid economies, from the betting windows to the sales ring, are the “Sheets” products produced by Ragozin and Thoro-Graph. Horses are managed on the information contained therein. They provide the most meaningful measure of when horses go in and out of their form cycles.

No high six- or seven-figure purchases “off the racetrack,” or even claims, are made without knowing what kind of “Sheets number” a horse has run, an indication of both present ability shown and a projection of how fast it might run in the future.

There are other variables involved: Age and pedigree readily come to mind. And, of course, with respect to private purchases, no deal is made without a veterinary inspection.

It has been conservatively estimated--and empirically correct—that three of every four dollars wagered is made by Sheets players, including those arbitrageurs who rock the tote board in the final minute of wagering.

Parenthetically, not knowing whether you made a value play for certain until the field reaches the half-mile pole is another factor that is chasing some players away. But that’s a conversation for another day.

California is now using professional clockers, paid by the racetrack, to fail-safe timing mechanisms. If I can trust a workout indicating that Arrogate’s 5-furlong move on Oct. 10 was 1:00.20, the fastest of 40 at the distance.

Most fans and bettors readily accept workout reports and these published works are the result of a single take. When it comes to hand-timing races, multiple video-takes are considered before a more accurate average is considered official information.

This is the way it’s always been done, in the modern era going back to Secretariat’s Preakness. HRI’s Mark Berner, who retired after decades in the employ of Teletimer, hand-timed every race.

If there were an obvious malfunction, he would time a race thrice, confer with NYRA’s Official Timer, before posting an official clocking for the race.

While racetracks don’t set out to intentionally deceive the public, the industry stays well clear of making embarrassing waves, as opposed to transparently doing the right thing.

With respect to Santa Anita’s recent timing issues, credit the CHRB for finally getting something right.

Timing discrepancies are the result of many variables. A trifecta of trouble is the run-up—the distance between the starting gate and times poles; pole position placement itself, and the big kahuna of quandary, the use of temporarily rails on the turf course.

Various solutions mentioned are very costly timing apparatus used by sports leagues, impractical except for the A+ venues, timing from gate to wire, minus the run-up, which still leaves intra-race splits in question, or use the same standards in place now.

But whatever the methodology, the use of a professional Official Timer, whose name should be listed in the official track program, is the best fail-safe of all. Replication by a professional is the best insurer of accuracy, as was suggested by HRI last winter.

At the 2016-17 Gulfstream championship meet, there were many timing discrepancies, especially on the turf course where the track has the ability to move the temporary rail to six different positions.

Races in which the inner rail was placed in the middle of the course were particularly suspect and still remain dubious. We have been assured that the issue will be remedied in time for the 2017-18 championship meet launch in December.

The wish is that Gulfstream will follow California’s lead and announce that a trusted professional will be in place to insure accuracy. Timing races accurately should be part of the rules and regulations that tracks adhere to when granted a license by their states to operate.

For a business that’s dependent on data-driven gambling to succeed, only accurate information will allow customers to make informed decisions. The past, present and future of the sport depends on it.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, October 11, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, October 08, 2017

Horseplayers No Longer Crying in the Wilderness

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But in this case it’s more about the horse race industry working at cross purposes with its customers in the interests of commerce than anything else.

In this weekend’s edition of Horse Racing Nation “Insider,” the publication offered “FREE PICKS for KEENELAND STAKES!” Any NCIS fan can quote you chapter and verse Rule #37, according to Special Agent Jethro Gibbs: “There’s no such thing as a coincidence.”

It follows that the Cross-Country Pick 4, combining four Grade 1s at Belmont and Keeneland was also being heavily promoted, including “a 15-1 shot you can’t leave off your tickets,” with FREE Shadwell Mile PPs to sweeten the deal.

This is not meant to assess blame for bet-takers promoting their business but it is interesting that this “Insider” edition happened to coincide with a horseplayer’s boycott at Keeneland which dubiously insisted raised takeout was meant attract the best horses.

As if that weren’t going to happen, anyway. Clearly, this was a move to mirror the higher Churchill Downs takeout rates in place for years now, creating synergy should the two racing behemoths be given permission to encroach on other regional Kentucky tracks.

It would be also fair to ask whether these increases are in place at the Red Mile harness track. Is that Keeneland-owned property also a non-for-profit venture?

The highly touted Fall Champions Weekend that began opening day thus far has played to mixed betting results. Despite record attendance for Friday’ Fall opener, handle was flat year over year.

However, Saturday’s mega-card, featuring an All Stakes Pick Five—two Grade 2s and three Grade 1s--attracted 14.4% less handle than did the same number of races in 2016 and with two more betting interests, according to racing activists.

In advance of the Keeneland opener, the Horseplayers Association of North America and Playersboycott.org issued a joint announcement that a horseplayer boycott would take place to show that bettors resent being insulted by the false propaganda circulated.

Keeneland’s significant takeout increase was enacted despite the fact that Historic Racing machines at the Red Mile property have produced revenue increases for the parent company that insists on sticking with its false narrative.

Never mind that a takeout increase seven years ago resulted in an on-track dip of 27% at Los Alamitos. Or that a boycott of Santa Anita and Golden Gate the following year ultimately resulted in purse cuts, not increases, giving rise to significant employee layoffs at Santa Anita.

And never mind that the takeout increase at Churchill Downs three years later gave rise to a 25% handle dip at the spring meet, Kentucky Derby weekend notwithstanding, and also a 20% purse cut the following Fall.

The lesson here is that the loyal horseplayer base is mad as hell and not only are they not going to take it anymore but they’re actually doing something about it.

Even if the boycott does not reach its stated goal of 25-30% handle decrease at the Keeneland meet, the horseplayer boycott is getting coverage and gaining momentum in racing establishment media this time around and not treated as some passing fad.

The horseplayers who really care about the state of the game going forward are taking a stand and their voice is being amplified. A message is being sent and that real news is this: We’re here and won’t be taken for granted any longer.

And so the future is in the industry’s hands now, not ours. The chickens are back in their homes roosting. For how long only the business can say.


BELMONT PARK: The longer uncoupled portion of the Chad Brown entry takes the opener and will be the start of a huge day for Irad Ortiz… Copper Town takes a preliminary allowances at 1-1/16 miles impressively and it appears Todd Pletcher is going to have a lot of fun with him this winter at Gulfstream Park.

Disco Partner,
giving Irad his first of three stakes on the day, is one of this country’s classiest turf sprinters and proved it again in the Belmont Turf Sprint at 6 furlongs. They’ll be going shorter than that around those tight turf turns at Del Mar next month…

Montauk was strongly rumored to be Pletcher’s best 2-year-old. Nothing he did in his 7-furlong debut belied that opinion. Awesome performance, very bright future…Firenze Fire’s experience, and Irad strength and timing, the difference in the Champagne but Belmont's classic juvenile test not the strongest we’ve ever seen.

Yoshida finally breaks through but getting through some tight quarters, Manny Franco, in midst of a career year, helping to make the difference aboard one of the unluckiest horses at Spa meet. Love this animal but not sure he’s quite ready for a world stage, but give Bill Mott time…

New York-bred Diversify has really come into his own as a late season gelded 4-year-old taking the centerpiece Gold Cup under brilliant Irad rating, making some mid-race separation and leaving Keen Ice and Pavel with too much to do.

Their private stretch battle the latter two had allowed leader to get away. Not sure the Breeders’ Cup Classic favorites feel seriously threatened this a.m. Meanwhile, excellent work by Rick Violette, getting Diversify and peak at the Spa maintain that form in October.

KEENELAND: The stars on Friday were Whitmore, who looks like he’s back and with something in reserve for the Sprint. Whether he’s ready for Drefong is another issue, and Mark Casse with a training triple.

Did we mention Alcibiades winner Heavenly Love? Let’s put it this way; her dominant victories on Kentucky Downs turf and in Friday’s dirt 1-1/16 miles were like if Ruffian were turned inside-out. She has incredible late foot.

Heavenly Love vs. Moonshine Memories; East meets West in Juvenile Fillies. Can’t wait to see this one.

Happy for the connections who really enjoyed Bucchero’s victory in G2 Woodford, the 5YO sprinter taking advantage by sitting behind runoff speed. But he’ll be facing a different kind of competition and dynamics at the seaside course next month. Good job of pointing, Tim Glyshaw

Same can be said of Bret Calhoun who had Finley’sluckycharm fresh and fit enough to take the G2 Thoroughbred Club of America despite Brian Hernandez’s quixotic handling and should be a presence in the F&M Sprint but will meet much, much tougher next time…

Lament the passing of Ten City who appeared to be heading for victory in the Breeders’ Futurity before taking a bad step on the stretch turn, suffering an irreparably fatal injury...

Happy for Dale Romans who stretched Free Drop Billy out successfully, setting up another East-West confrontation in the Juvenile in which Bolt d’Oro will be a deserving favorite given his explosive score in Santa Anita’s Frontrunner last weekend…

Well ridden, fast-finishing Suedois raced strongly through the wire and galloped out well for Team O’Meara/Tudhope. He’ll be meeting better European peers next month but he sure looked good taking the G1 Shadwell.

Heart to Heart never got a breather but Mott’s Ballagh Rocks made a very good, sustained late run and should benefit from Saturday’s effort.

Casse, not known for having his first-timers pumped up for debut but $1.5 million purchase Curlin’s Honor broke maiden as the heavy favorite with a classy, come-again victory beneath Julien Leparoux, who’s gotten off fast looking for his sixth Keeneland title. Winner’s best races appear ahead of him. (Runnerup Fascilitator a likely maiden breaker next time out but probably will go favored).


Blackjackcat was a clear winner of the Obviously Mile but doesn't appear to be a serious threat a month from now and Roy H. looked good winning the Santa Anita Breeders' Cup Sprint Championship. Six furlongs in 1:08 3/5, with a final quarter in 23 3/5 over the tiring strip is to be respected. Next time the waters will be much deeper, however.

Written by John Pricci

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