Tuesday, January 09, 2018


If At First You DO Succeed, Try, Try Again


Fortunately for The Stronach Group, they never seem to run out of carbon paper. Put another way, if you build it better, they will come.

Horsemen will come for sure, and horseplayers will follow, once they are assured they will be getting the best bang for their betting bucks: Big fields and big pools.

Like it or not, Gulfstream Park, based on a four-month long race meet, has become the envy of every major venue in America in search of an economically sustainable model.

Many may not agree but as of this minute, Gulfstream Park’s march toward continued financial security is inexorable and no other track with a sustained session even comes close. As of Saturday, January 6, its handle is ahead of last year’s record pace.

In all, $1.88 billion was bet through Gulfstream Park in 2017.

The term “Championship Meet” has rankled those who would look down their noses at a gateful of $7,500 claimers. But if that cheaper stock is running long on grass, bettors likely will invest more money on it than a six-horse listed stakes.

When reason prevails, there’s absolutely no motive for racetracks not to do both. It all depends on the attractiveness of adequate field size coupled with a popular betting menu.

So successful has this approach been that TSG dove head first into Maryland with the goal of reviving a moribund industry in a state that loves its Thoroughbred racing and the lifestyle racing incorporates.

The meetings conducted by the Maryland Jockey Club at Laurel attracted handle of over $627 million last year. This represents a year over year total-handle increase of 12 percent; an 8.5 percent gain within its own borders.

The last time annual handle exceeded $600 million in the Free State was 2008, a time when national handle started its soft decline, a trend that has flat-lined since. By TSG’s accounting, total handle on Maryland Jockey Club product is up $216 million the last three years.

These are remarkable dole-free numbers. Via an expanded in-state network with four satellite off-track facilities, new people have been introduced to an expanded, improved product. A fifth satellite facility is scheduled in the near future.

Even stodgy Old Hilltop is showing gains. Preakness and Black-Eyed Susan event days have set records in recent years, both in attendance and handle. Last year, 140,000 fans attended the Preakness betting $97 million, both records.

Racing’s heightened presence in Maryland has spurred interest in its Middle Jewel weekend, where a record 50,000 people wagered nearly $20 million last year on the Black-Eyed Susan program, a gain of six percent over 2016.

This past fall, the cherished Maryland Million Day event hosted 22,000 fans, showing modest gains in both attendance and handle when compared to 2016.

However, the TSG’s biggest challenge has only just begun, especially because the politics of Thoroughbred racing in California are so toxic, owing to the greedy nature of the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the hapless California Horse Racing Board.

In no small way is it ironical that in the largest, bluest state of them all, the 1% membership profile of the TOC acts counter to red state political philosophy: The TOC under the stewardship of Mike Pegram believes in raising taxes on customers, not lowering it.

That is an issue for another day. What is not at issue are Santa Anita’s plans to conduct sustainable Thoroughbred racing going forward.

Like the corporate world in general, and Southern California racing in particular, there are but two options: Grow or Die.

Under the direction of Tim Ritvo, instrumental in building the successful Gulfstream model before taking it on the road to Laurel, TSG’s Chief Operating Officer now has his sights set directly on Santa Anita.

The well documented changes that Ritvo deems necessary for Santa Anita to survive in the future hinges on major expansion.

Since California has an entire country separating it from the larger horse population centers of the East and Midwest, it badly needs more horses. But horses need a place to live, and that means a greatly expanded barn area.

Ritvo wants to build a thousand new stalls at Santa Anita which already is in dire need of equine housing, effectively un-paving a parking lot and putting up an equine paradise.

Then, barrowing from the Palm Meadows model--the state of the art training center an hour’s drive from Gulfstream in Boynton Beach--he wants to create another 1,400 stalls on a tract of land it would acquire and develop in West Covina, 10 miles from Arcadia.

Taking a page from the Gulfstream playbook--a move recently adopted by the New York Racing Association at Aqueduct--he wants an expanded grass course to accommodate two turf courses, a la Belmont Park or Saratoga, for more grass racing.

This only can only happen by widening the Santa Anita main track from one mile to 1-1/8 miles. All expansion plans need the approval of the City of Arcadia, Los Angeles County and West Covina communities. A public meeting in West Covina is scheduled for a week from today.

If all goes according to plan, an outdoor mall bordering the paddock, such as the one in place in Hallandale Beach, could be the offing.

Frank Stronach’s vision, one that many believed impossible less than two decades ago, not only has come to fruition but is paying dividends. In two decades, Stronach has turned ridicule into an Award of Merit at the Eclipse gala on January 25.

Santa Anita clearly will be his group’s biggest challenge. The future of California racing depends on it. As a gambler, this is a favorite I won’t be trying to beat.

If At First You DON’T Succeed, Try, Try Again

Try as it might, it is clear that Gulfstream Park has proven incapable of supplying accurate turf times on a consistent basis, especially at the hybrid distance of 7-1/2 furlongs, according to a well-researched piece authored by TimeformUS figure maker, Craig Milkowski.

Issues at the heart of the concern are the placement and replacement of timing poles with respect to the use of temporary rails; the wide variance of run-up distances prior to the start and the accuracy of the distance itself since Gulfstream has recently employed the term “about” that could cover-up any potential inaccuracies.

We have requested an interview with Gulfstream upper management to discuss the process of collecting the turf times that are a matter of public record via the auspices of past performances data collection by Equibase, a Jockey Club subsidiary.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL January 9, 2018

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017


2017 Eclipse Award Ballot a Truly Mixed Bag


All week we’ve been sharing about how difficult it was to determine who were the Top 10 horses, trainers and jockeys of the last 50 years. Eclipse Award voting this year was not as thought-provoking as the historical challenge, but I will say this:

To paraphrase Sheets creator and maven Len Ragozin: “Some Eclipse Categories Must Be Crazy.”

Of course, there were many predictable slam dunks as brilliance and dominating performances showed the way. However, some divisions were downright confounding.

I will explain as we move forward but here is what one ballot will look like come the voting deadline. (There’s a performance I’d like to see on this afternoon’s traditional Santa Anita prime winter opener, possibly affecting 2nd and 3rd on ballot). Now, the categories:

STEEPLECHASER 4 & UP

People who know me know I love the up-and-over set and enjoy following their lynchpin Grade 1s throughout the year. But no one stepped up in 2017.

Scorpiancer looks like the best in show but he only raced twice and not since winning the May 13 Grade 1 Iroquois. Personally, voting for him sends the wrong message for future years.

So, for the first time ever, I abstain.

TWO-YEAR-OLD MALE

Certainly no slam dunk and believe the vote will be close. Body of work people prefer Bolt d’Oro with his two Grade 1s and wide-trip third in the Juvenile.

But here’s the thing. One of the G1s was a sprint and don’t know about the validity of using difficult trips as an excuse. After all, do we diminish accomplishments of horses that win with a perfect trip?

Of course not; it’s the nature of horse racing. Or to quote Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells: You are what your record says you are.

Head-to-head, Good Magic won their only meeting in his rival’s home state—and was no ordinary maiden going in. Second in his highly graded prior, Champagne third finisher Enticed returned to win the G2 Jockey Club at Churchill.

The horse that Good Magic beat in the Juvenile, Solomini, came back to finish first in the G1 Los Al Futurity. Hence, the top three [In order for ballots to counted, voters must choose first, second and third choices]:

1. Good Magic 2. Bolt d’Oro 3. Catholic Boy (talented and laudably versatile)

TWO YEAR OLD FILLY

Another two-horse race. Following her maiden win, Caledonia Road finished second while stretching out in the Grade 1 Frizette, then returned to win the BC Juvenile Fillies.

But I’m very enamored of Dream Tree. After breaking maiden on debut, she won the Desi Arnaz before dominating the G1 Starlet like a top class filly, remaining undefeated. So each has a Grade 1 win, albeit not of equal stature.

Third place was another skullbuster: Rushing Fall is extremely talented; undefeated in three turf starts including the G3 Jessamine and G1 Juvenile Fillies Turf.

However, we’re taking another undefeated filly, 3-for-3 Dream It is, winner of Saratoga’s G3 Schuylerville, the Canadian filly winning that dirt debut very impressively.

In the winner’s circle, trainer Barbara Minshall said she was putting her away for her three year old season. We’re not going to punish the filly for her trainer’s management.

1. Caledonia Road 2. Dream Tree 3. Dream It Is

THREE YEAR OLD COLT

Had West Coast not developed the way he did, this would have been another vexing decision. After all, looking like a world beater in both the G1 Florida and Kentucky Derbies, Always Dreaming’s season fell apart. But not so West Coast.

Two weeks after the Derby, West Coast began a five-race win streak: three graded; two Grade 1s including the Derby of Midsummer. He was a gallant third to protem Horse of the Year, older Gun Runner, in the Classic.

1. West Coast 2. Always Dreaming 3. Battle of Midway (won half his 10 starts including the BC Dirt Mile over elders. It’s shameful that he has been retired).

THIRD YEAR OLD FILLY

Abel Tasman was just too good, too consistent for her peers: Three Grade 1 scores and three G1 placings, including a strong second to protem older champion, Forever Unbridled.

Elate had her chance at the brass ring. She won the storied Alabama then followed up with a comprehensive score over elders in the G1 Beldame. But as good as she was at Belmont Park, that’s as bad as she looked at quirky Del Mar.

G1 Santa Anita Oaks winner Paradise Woods can move into second on our ballot should she win the G1 La Brea this afternoon. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, it’s…

1. Abel Tasman 2.Elate 3. Paradise Woods

OLDER MALE

After an excellent Dubai World Cup placing, Gun Runner returned to win four straight Grade 1s: Stephen Foster, Whitney, Woodward and Breeders’ Cup Classic. Single, double triple, home run! Unbelievable management from the Asmussen team.

And to think that the horse who beat him in Dubai was being compared to the game’s all- time greats. As we said before the game demands humility.

1. Gun Runner 2. Arrogate 3. Sharp Azteca (would have been interesting comparing 2017 records with Arrogate had he hung on to win the Dirt Mile).

OLDER FEMALE

Speaking of horsemanship, can’t say enough about Dallas Stewart’s brilliant management. Working back from the Distaff, he won the G2 Fleur De Lis in June and Saratoga’s G1 Personal Ensign this summer. Forever Unbridled then went on to defeat one of the deeper Distaff fields ever assembled.

Songbird won two Grade 1s, including 1-1/4 miles Delaware Handicap, then was a good, narrowly beaten second to the protem champion in career finale. Thanks for the great memories, champ.

Stellar Wind won three straight small-field G1s in SoCal then failed the big test badly.

1. Forever Unbridled 2. Songbird 3. Stellar Wind

MALE SPRINT

Gelded five year old Roy H was relatively invisible nationally but that’s all over now. Winning five of six, closing out the year with back-to-back Grade 1s including the Sprint.

Mind Your Biscuits had the higher profile and arguably more difficult campaign. Won the G2 Belmont Sprint after returning from his Golden Shaheen victory in Dubai, where he shouldered 132 pounds. Earned further respect with BC Sprint third and G1 Cigar Mile placing.

1. Roy H. 2. Mind Your Biscuits 3. Whitmore (was an early season sensation but couldn’t finish the deal).

FEMALE SPRINT

Several fillies had their moments: turf specialist Lady Aurelia was a G1 winner and narrowly beaten second at Ascot but had a terrible Breeders’ Cup. Bar of Gold had a good Breeders’ Cup but defeated state-bred in her only other victory in eight 2017 starts.

By the Moon won three graded stakes in six starts this year, including Saratoga’s G1 Ballerina, but was terrible in Oceanside, owing to an awful trip.

Defending champion Paulassilverlining started out with back-to-back Grade 1s and a Grade 2, then emptied out in two straight dull ones.

We were forced to give the nod to Ami’s Mesa, a nose defeat in the BC Sprint in her dirt debut separating her from a fifth straight victory and undefeated season. She owns three graded wins; two at Woodbine, one at Presque Isle.

These are North American awards, right? Well, she compiled the best overall record in our view.

1. Ami’s Mesa 2. By the Moon 3. Bar of Gold

MALE TURF

It might have taken Mark Casse midway through his five-year’s campaign before the Canadian Hall of Famer turned World Approval back to a mile. Bingo!

Three straight Grade 1s in two countries over all types of ground, culminating in a victory over some of the world’s best milers. And for me, the Breeders’ Cup Mile is the best North American turf race of the year.

No horse really took charge of the more traditional, longer turf events. Beach Patrol might have gotten our vote had he made it three straight G1s in the BC Turf. It would have been an impossible choice but, like elections, results have consequences.

1. World Approval* 2. Beach Patrol 3. Highland Reel (was beaten a half-length when third in the Turf; a victory would have been his fifth Grade 1 this year and an Eclipse championship. Remarkable and gorgeous animal closed out a brilliant career winning the G1 Hong Kong Vase.

FEMALE TURF


I am haunted by legends and this one’s name is Lady Eli. She deserved to go out a winner; alas, the racing gods were unkind.

In a division that lacked clarity, a head defeat in the Jenny Wiley would have begun a three-race G1 win streak. She did win the G2 Ballston Spa for good measure. But thankfully, she raced this year, and raced exceedingly well. Can’t make a valid case for any other, and why would I?

1. Lady Eli 2. Wuheida 3. Off Limits

OWNER


Rick Porter: A profile in courage, he didn’t hesitate when it came to making the best decision for his great filly, Songbird. Class still counts.

BREEDER

Charles Fipke: One-percent type but a relatively small breeder, bred one sure champion (Forever Unbridled) and won the important G1 Stephen Foster with another homebred, Seeking the Soul.

APPRENTICE


Evin Roman: A slam dunk, dominating the win and money-earned categories.

JOCKEY

A horse race between ‘Money Mike’ Smith (13 wins from 35 Grade 1 opportunities), but vote goes to Jose Ortiz who had a breakthrough year, 13-for-30 with Grade 1 chances, leading earner of $27.1 million despite being grounded this month by injury, and was 4th overall in number of winners.

TRAINER

Another horserace: Bob Baffert, who went on an unbelievable tear this spring through fall, but it was Chad Brown who dominated all of 2017: Sixth in wins despite relatively low number of starters among the elites and leading in earnings with $25.9 million thus far. Didn’t fire many blanks, given a 2017 slate of (798) 211-156-123.

HORSE OF THE YEAR

From a good colt to a dominating performer, watching Gun Runner develop this year is what being a fan of Thoroughbred racing is all about.

*correction 122617

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, December 23, 2017


Thoroughbred Racing Commentary’s Top 10 Horses of the Half-Century


If betting were allowed on any poll where respondents were asked to choose the best horse of the modern era, the price that Secretariat would be chosen #1 would be: $2.10—out—out.

I fell in line like all the rest. Just conjuring up the presence of this magnificent beast; the power, beauty, regal bearing, the whole package. And the fact that he was the most handsome chestnut we’ve ever seen adds to the allure.

When I began my career at Newsday, it was after the magnificent Bill Nack had chronicled “Big Red of Meadow Stable.” My first column assignment for Newsday was published on the Sunday of Derby week, 1977.

In the piece, only a few years after the great Charles Hatton wrote that “Secretariat’s only frame of reference is himself,” I predicted that Seattle Slew would become the first Thoroughbred to sweep the Triple Crown while undefeated.

Back in the day, I knew everything there was to know about horse racing. Which is to say that it wasn’t until about two decades later when I recognized that my breadth of knowledge needed a lot of work.

Handicapping horse races teaches one humility. If you’re not learning something new every day, the game will pass you by. One must learn to adapt--and quickly. What worked very well last year doesn’t today. Why, I don’t know, that’s just the way it works.

I truly was enamored of Slew. My first “big horse” was black beauty incarnate. His speed was ferocious; his will indefatigable. Unequivocally, his nose defeat to Exceller in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup is widely recognized as the greatest performance in defeat ever.

Ironically, it was this losing effort that convinced remaining skeptics that Slew truly belonged in a conversation about the greatest horses of all time. His Jockey Club? Here’s the great, late Bill Leggett’s Sports Illustrated account:

“Little went according to plan. First, Seattle Slew broke through the gate before the start and Angel Cordero had to yank hard on the horse to avoid being thrown into the infield. When the race started, Slew got away first, and Life's Hope and Affirmed rushed to join him.

“But as they entered the first turn, Cauthen felt his saddle creeping forward and was unable to fully control his horse. Cordero, meanwhile, had momentarily lost his right stirrup. Slew, Affirmed and Life's Hope swept the first turn like comets with Cauthen in trouble and Craig Perret, on Life's Hope, knowing that Barrera's plan was doomed…

“The first quarter mile of the 1½-mile race was run in 22 3/5. Too fast. At the half mile Slew had a head in front of Affirmed with Life's Hope another head back. But that first half was run in 45 1/5, insane time for horses trying to stretch out 1½ miles…

“The punishing early fractions and the fact that Cordero had his horse out from the rail… should have set Slew up for the kill. And Exceller did get to the front—but he could not widen his lead. Slew battled back. The finish camera showed Exceller the winner with the third-place horse, Great Contractor, 14½ lengths back, and Affirmed 20.”

I argued back and forth with my Newsday colleague and friend about which horse was superior, Big Red or Slew? With time I’ve come around to Nack’s way of thinking, even if I can’t envision Secretariat beating Slew in a match of speed.

I believe Slew would have had a much tougher time with Dr Fager, for obvious reasons. But I won’t belabor either point; enough digression.

And so I didn’t include Triple Crown winner Affirmed, or Buckpasser, Cigar or Curlin. Easy Goer or Native Dancer. Then neither did I include personal favorites Ta Wee and Rachel Alexandra--who I believe would have beaten Zenyatta--yet I included Zenyatta and left Rachel off the list.

Again, it was enormously difficult to come up with only 10 names in 50 years of racing, a virtual impossibility to be fair to every great horse I’ve been privileged to watch race.

While no fillies made the official Thoroughbred Racing Commentary list, I included three, all of which beat males in prestigious open events.

As an aside, 40 of the 45 pollsters were men. Voting was confidential unless a pollster chose to go public post-publication.

Thoroughbred Racing Commentary Poll of Top 10 Thoroughbreds of the Last 50 Years
(points awarded on sliding 10-through-1 scale, first place votes in parentheses)
1. Secretariat—423 (31)
2. Seattle Slew--287 (3)
3. Dr Fager—278 (7)
4. Spectacular Bid—240 (2)
5. Forego—224
6. Affirmed—183
7. American Pharoah—125
8. Cigar—102 (2)
9. John Henry—101
10. Buckpasser—97


Completing the TRC Top 20 were, in order: Zenyatta, Ruffian, Damascus, Personal Ensign, Alydar, Ghostzapper, Sunday Silence, Arrogate, (tie) Rachel Alexandra and Ack Ack

HRI’s Top 10 Thoroughbreds of the Last 50 Years
(criteria was representation from different eras, sexes, and subjective handicapping methodology)

1. Secretariat: The often used sobriquet “Mighty Secretariat” says it all
2. Seattle Slew: How many other horses are recognized as “great” following a defeat?
3. Dr. Fager: Record holder, weight carrier; arch rival needed a rabbit to beat him
4. Spectacular Bid: What if they held a horse race and no one came? Breezing, his Woodward 1-1/4 miles walkover was timed in 2:02 2/5.
5. Forego: Carried huge imposts from 7 furlongs to 1-1/4 miles; powerful relentless finisher
6. Ruffian: Book title tells the tale: “Burning From the Start”
7. Personal Ensign: Simply perfect
8. American Pharoah: Kindest “great horse” ever; his remarkably efficient action is more gazelle than race horse
9. Zenyatta: Swear I thought I saw the San Gabriels quake when she returned to the Classic winners’ circle; transcendent.
10. John Henry: Dirt, turf, weight, distance, age? None of it mattered.


COMING TUESDAY: MORE TOUGH CHOICES; GOING PUBLIC WITH ECLIPSE AWARD BALLOT



Written by John Pricci

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