Sunday, June 14, 2015

All We Are Saying… Is Give Bill a Chance

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., June 14, 2015—Three years ago, a couple of political operatives approached Frank Stronach to ask for his support. They were trying to help cobble together legislation that effectively would put an end to the use of raceday medication.

Stronach listened attentively, wished them luck, told them he was on their side, but that he was distrustful of federal intervention, had his own way of doing things, and wished to affect change through the auspices of the industry itself.

Two months ago, Stronach showed up on Capitol Hill with his lobbyist in tow and asked one question: “What can I do to help?”

When racing’s ultimate rabble-rousing visionary, who has invested over a billion dollars in the sport, gives up on the prospect that the industry can reform itself if everyone would just give it a little more time to build on the progress already made, why should players and fans place their trust in the same old promises?

Since well-financed horsemen’s groups--devotees of the status quo whose creed is “never give an inch”--figure to fight any significant change in race-day medication policy, it’s up to the tracks to take a proactive stance to rebuild the trust of its customers.

This is because the Jockey Club, which has worked diligently and behind the scenes, has failed to use its registry clout to advance the cause; neither has the Graded Stakes Committee done anything to initiate a new conversation on this sensitive matter.

The Breeders’ Cup took a baby step by withdrawing race-day Lasix from their juvenile races a few years ago but shortly thereafter caved in to pressure laid to bear by horsemen’s groups in California who threatened to boycott Santa Anita’s Breeders’ Cup reprise.

This week, Gulfstream Park announced plans to run two Lasix-free races for juveniles this summer, one for each sex, using a $65,000 purse carrot to encourage participation.

The gesture may turn out to be mostly ceremonial but it’s a start and shows a willingness on Stronach’s part to walk his talk by keeping a promise he made a year ago. He believes Lasix-free racing is possible and that race-day medication-free racing attainable.

Initially, incentivizing purses probably is the only way to get significant cooperation from horsemen who could hold tracks purse-increased hostage should it try to extend a raceday medication-free policy to other divisions. It’s worth a try if only to shed light on where industry stakeholders truly stand.

As the Stronach Group also owns Santa Anita Park, Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park, Golden Gate Fields and Portland Meadows, it is in a unique position to get the ball rolling in different parts of the country. This would provide exposure in two of racing’s four key regions.

This winter the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted to allow tracks to card races banning Lasix 24 hours in advance of post time. This sounds good in theory but impractical since Lasix generally is ineffective outside a four-hour window--unless, of course, the whole country is made to comply.

With its sales component, Keeneland is likely to give it a go. Churchill Downs, desperate to fill races given the competition with Indiana for bloodstock at the lower levels, probably cannot afford to experiment unless, again, that’s the rule in Indiana, too.

But with Keeneland and, by extension, Kentucky on board, only New York would remain. The reality is as New York goes, so will the prospect of national legislation. The bill cannot happen without New York which, to date, has been more about window dressing than substance.

Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY) is set to introduce the Thoroughbred Horse Racing Anti-Doping Act of 2015 to establish uniform standards for drugs and medication in the American Thoroughbred industry. This bill will not hold national simulcasting hostage, unlike the Pitts legislation.

In a recent press release, Tonko acknowledged the industry for taking significant steps toward medication reform but that national legislation is needed to build on that progress by providing a uniform solution that sets the highest standards of independence, fairness and integrity.

The planned legislation would grant independent authority over rule-making, testing and enforcement oversight regarding drugs and medication to an agency created by the non-profit, non-governmental U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

Among other things, this would free the industry to concentrate on other issues such as a national promotional campaign which should have as its focus handicapping/gambling as thought-provoking entertainment with a built-in, skill-based profit component.

The language of the Tonko bill must be carefully crafted so that racing understands that it still controls its own destiny, only with independent and transparent oversight.

To date, without national leadership, all efforts in this area ultimately have failed. After two decades, the industry is still talking, still taking suggestions under advisement, and still saying that more study is needed: This game has been studied to death; all hail American Pharoah and the status quo.

National legislation will go nowhere without the cooperation of the industry it is trying to help and reform. It cannot be stressed enough that the proposed bill would not create an ongoing role for federal government in horse racing, as would-be obstructionists might argue.

Jockey Club and Breeders’ Cup Ltd. approval is not just helpful, it’s mandatory. Along with the backing of the Humane Society of the United States and the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance, a consortium of the industry’s most influential players, this much needed national legislation actually might have a chance.

Nearly a half-million jobs nationally and $25 billion in economic impact depends on it.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 07, 2015

King Pharoah: Thirty-Seven and Won

ELMONT, NY, June 7, 2015—Note the dateline, it's Sunday's, not Saturday’s. I needed time to look up strict meaning of surreal: It’s quite the day when events that you cannot control meld into youthful exuberance at an advanced age.

I was one the privileged 90,000 who had a ticket to the best show on earth. Every day I’m living the dream, lucky to turn a passion into my life’s work. The entire day unfolded literally before my eyes. Trainer Dale Romans had a horse in the Belmont, Keen Ice, and he made the following possible.

Romans and I are at polar ends on what our sport needs today, in his view humane treatment of the Thoroughbred with the proper amount of CCs of Lasix, and he demands properly enforced uniform rules with a graduated punishment schedule for offenders.

I want the United States Anti-Doping Agency, a proven non-governmental organization that adjudicated the Lance Armstrong case and also involved with NFL testing, a league that sometimes keeps its athletes on the field by any therapeutic means necessary.

I also favor an end to race-day medication, the elephant that’s trying to sneak out of the closet, once and for all. I know: Perfect World Dreamer. I prefer to think of it in football terms; throwing deep. In games of chance, perception rules.

Romans and I now enjoy a mutual respect, a sense of trust and fairness, because of the Rick Dutrow case. The three of us coalesced one afternoon in South Florida in late January. It was the first time I ever sat down with Dutrow, race interviews notwithstanding.

After interfacing for nearly two hours, I promised both that I would read the hearing testimony. Rick and Dale said that’s all they wanted. On Saturday, I was rewarded with a front row seat to history by Romans. It just happened that way; karma, kismet. And Keen Ice ran the best he could; a crisp third-place finish.

They called her the Ice Queen but not for reasons you might think. She is a family friend who attended the Belmont with me and once had turned her brother’s talent and garage into a million-dollar-a-year business as co-founder of Ice Sculpture Designs on Long Island.

Alas, a yarn with local color and Divine intervention. Bill Maher would hate this story.

So we would be sitting in Keen Ice’s box and the Belmont horse I fancied, Frosted, sounded like a natural exacta to my friend’s parents. But something got in the way of the Hunch Bet of a Lifetime; a very special race horse named American Pharoah.

The colt is now on his way to becoming a legendary figure in the sport. If he can close out the season in similar fashion in the Breeders’ Cup Classic—without compromising his main rival at the start, of course—he will have earned that distinction. On Saturday, American Pharoah retired the Eclipse trophy for Horse of the Year 2015.

We sat gawking all day. To our left and down one row was Todd Pletcher for a race or two. I saw Kiaran McLaughlin at the end of the day and thanked him for giving all fans an extra thrill when Frosted loomed the only danger entering the straight. He smiled, the look on his face of a man proud of his horse.

“We were just second best today,” he said when prodded about a softer pace that many had expected. Then he averted his glance to peer out over the continuing winners’ circle ceremonies he so wanted for his team and said, with pride, “great for the game.”

One shining moment on a glorious day in June. I’ll never forget how Romans’ gesture turned a press box wretch into a kid flush with excitement. I’m sure I wasn’t the only horseplayer who stood a little taller when American Pharoah began to widen his advantage.

Of course, everyone in racing is celebrating the first Triple Crown since 1978. Hell, it was his fourth win in eight weeks over four tracks at four different distances by a horse whose pedigree was supposed to stop him five weeks ago.

The Test of the Champion began smoothly, no one seriously compromised, a small stutter-step notwithstanding, as the leaders raced into the clubhouse turn. As expected, American Pharoah was on the lead with Materiality on the chase.

Frosted was in a tough spot, Joel Rosario having to decide whether to stay in the clear outside or drop over to the fence. He knew he couldn’t take back because Belmonts aren’t won from the clouds. Consequently, he would up between rivals for much of the backstretch run.

I and perhaps many others awaited the pace challenge from Materiality and Johnny Velazquez that never came, surprising for the gate-compromised Derby competitor and wire winner of the Florida Derby.

If 48-and-change and 1:13-and change weren’t enough to seal the deal, then a brilliant tactic from Victor Third-Time-the-Charm Espinoza was. Espinoza, separated himself from the group soon after entering the far turn. The slow pace takes nothing away from American Pharoah's achievement; clearly the best of his generation won on the square, impressively.

Frosted, in no man’s land at that point, worked his way over to the fence with momentum while under brilliant handling from Rosario before tipping out to loom a viable threat.

But Espinoza and American Pharoah had more and kicked away, never leaving the issue in doubt. There would be no Real Quiet reprise for Bob Baffert this day; no Smarty Jones drama for two generations of fans who wanted to see history made in the worst way.

My late, great friend Cary Fotias always said that of all the major sporting events, nothing beats the roar of the Belmont crowd at the top of the stretch with a Triple Crown on the line. On Saturday, that was true after the wire as well.

If I were insulated in the press box, the original plan until Romans asked on Thursday if I needed anything for Saturday, I never would have felt this Triple Crown, or watch the scene unfold first hand.

There was Joe “Riders Up” Torre embracing Baffert after the Hall of Famer stopped celebrating with his family.

There was Jerry Jones, too, smiling widely, making arrangements so that his guest, Bill Clinton, could enjoy the festivities. POTUS’ mother Rose was an Oaklawn Park regular. My friend snapped a picture of the President talking with Dr. Ruth outside the Trustees Room.

The Governor of the State of New York, the agency that has taken custody of the New York Racing Association, and which has been slow in allowing it to be privatized, sent a representative for the trophy presentation instead.

A half hour after the race, we walked out on to Hempstead Turnpike and into the spring night. American Pharoah had an easier time winning the Belmont than we had finding a cab. But all’s well that ends happily, and memorably.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

American Pharoah: What Price Greatness?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 21, 2015--This is no news flash: American Pharoah is quite the race horse. It takes a special Thoroughbred to go on a four-race roll at the highest divisional levels in this day and age.

Winning four races in an eight-week span against the best your generation has to offer takes a special horse, indeed. American Pharoah won the Derby with class and courage; he took the Preakness with class and speed.

Yes, American Pharoah is extremely gifted, to date the best of his very talented peer group, but I’m not yet ready to concede the other ‘G’ word: Great.

For me, that will take one more victory, his fifth in 11 weeks, including three which have been won in tandem only 11 times in history.

Perhaps my standards of greatness are unrealistic and unfair, like the Kirk Douglas character in the film noir classic “Young Man With a Horn.” Rick Martin was a trumpet player so outstanding that he needed to reach for an unplayable note, one that only his imagination could conjure up.

But I will concede that if American Pharoah can make it in New York a fortnight from now, he can make it anywhere, anytime, in any place he chooses. He will have earned that right.

Should American Pharoah make history, there will be pressure and a serious appearance fee attached to running in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

And God knows the troubled Thoroughbred industry in the Garden State could use a boost, positive visibility that goes along with a Triple Crown winner’s appearance.

Besides, Ahmed Zayat needs the money.

If Bob Baffert can pull this off—he’s already collected seven Haskell trophies--then all he need is bring back American Pharoah a month later and do it all over again in the Derby of Midsummer, the Travers at Saratoga.

If the colt doesn’t run in New Jersey, it’s may be because the trainer has a number of talented three year olds to take his place in the starting gate; Dortmund for one, who is being freshened as you read this.

But knowing how the Zayats feel about the game, how grateful and sporting they are, they should, if the fates allow on June 6, accept only the most prestigious challenges down the road.

I’m sure the secretive breeders that own his stud rights would at once cower in fear but acquiesce. Meanwhile, I don’t get it. Someone please explain this to me; why all the hush-hush?

With his minimum stud value already assured as a would-be repeat champion, there would be no downside to launching a barnstorming racetrack tour, one that ends up in Lexington this fall, future physical issues notwithstanding.

Of course, we all must guard against getting too far ahead of ourselves; ask the owners of Shared Belief.

True greatness demands challenge and overcoming adversity, even one as unrealistic as winning the modern version of the Triple Crown. Admittedly, the timing is the same, only today’s American Thoroughbred isn’t that hearty.

We breed Thoroughbred Ferraris in this country, not Subarus. Speed, like sex, sells. What good is circumnavigating the globe if you can’t get there fast enough with the latest piece of equine eye candy?

And it doesn’t help that to assure yearlings make sure to the auction ring making the best appearance they can--a little nip here, a little corrective surgery there, and voila--a mercurial equine star whose brilliance will blind until it flames out.

So, is American Pharoah truly, uniquely special, “one of the ones,” or will he prove to be a fallen waysider. History will acknowledge one or the other, a fortnight from now, or a year down the road, hidden breeding commitments notwithstanding.

And there is a consideration as to whether Zayat, who still controls the colt’s racing destiny and having won medallions of glory, will begin going for the gold while he still can. Time will reveal all.

Preakness Post-Script: I have two confessions to make: I’m a huge Gary Stevens fan, admiration that has only grown since he made one of the greatest comebacks in the history of sports.

But he disappointed me with his terse post-race quote, an economy of words that was the shortest comment supplied by any of the Preakness participants.

Stevens was a big pre-race storyline. As the rider of surprising second favorite Firing Line, he was interviewed by Bob Costas before the race and was glib and candid as usual.

And he had plenty to say on the NTRA conference call a week before the race, generous with his time and insight that was very much appreciated.

He did tell Tim WIlkin of the Albany Times Union: "When it really started raining, (Firing Line) had his ears pinned and he was not a happy camper, Stevens said. "We started galloping off and the further we galloped, the higher his head got and he just started sulking."

But after easing his mount on Pimlico’s far turn with almost three furlongs remaining, he offered only this to the Pimlico publicity department and the Triple Crown audience: “We stumbled out of the gate and that was our race today.”

His disappointment is understandable but as a top broadcaster--and one in waiting after he re-retires--he should get what is expected of him. Firing Line, Derby lead changes et al, was the Preakness buzz horse not named American Pharoah.

Serious racing fans know that in all likelihood, he “took care” of his horse with no chance of victory, one that was having extreme difficulty handling the sloppy surface.

But the majority of the Triple Crown audience doesn’t know this, there was reason to explain what happened and why, the reason he did not persevere with Firing Line to the finish post.

Perception is reality, especially given the likelihood of an unsophisticated racing audience, and Stevens should know this, too, especially as one of sport’s most visible faces.

But let’s be clear: Transparency is little more than a 12-letter word. The cardinal rule in this game is to protect the value of the horse at all costs. It is the reason that every horse couldn’t be doing any better, why every workout is just what the trainer wanted.

If the game wishes to survive and become more than a niche sport in the future, if it wants a place in the front row of sports, in the big-time, it should act like it.

Written by John Pricci

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