Tuesday, February 14, 2017


A Costly But Fun Day at Tampa Bay


In the modern era, I’ve always thought of Tampa Bay Downs, the old stomping grounds of a race caller named Tom Durkin, as “The Little Track That Could.”

Back in the day, it completed a circuit with Finger Lakes and other small U.S. tracks and one year, if memory serves, it had a jockey colony a 100+ riders, half of whom you’ve never heard of, then or since.

But ever since it began getting noticed by the Horseplayers Association of North America for its player friendly menu of big competitive fields, replete with a great turf course and a demanding, safe, albeit sometimes quirky, main track.

Tampa’s been growing in all the right places while maintaining the character it’s always had, a quaint, friendly place that presents racing old school style, one appreciated not only by people from my generation but those of present and future compeers.

It’s still very much a place for racing fans, families and, of course, has developed into one of winter racing’s more popular simulcast signals, holding its own with much bigger kids on the block.

On a clear, low 70’s Florida variety of winter afternoon, racing was rocking in Oldsmar for the Tampa Bay Festival Preview program, a highly entertaining warmup to Tampa Bay Derby day, March 11. The most heartening part was that the audience was diverse.

Horseplayers and families filled the track’s apron, taking every seat available. For racetrack fare, the food is very good and the prices are fair. They stick to the basic staples and do them well.

The joint jumped with a paid admission of 5,420, crowded but not too, and with a good, old school racetrack vibe. The folks on hand, combined with the simulcast crowd, pushed nearly $9.5 million through the tote.

Walking through the building, it appeared that more TV monitors had been added since the last time we came through here, but looks can be deceiving. It was actually the same amount of TVs, just larger screens of the flat-screen HD variety.

There was ample, free seating in a typically older but clean, well maintained grandstand area. And there weren’t many empty seats among the 112 second-floor boxes we walked passed, of which 101 are sold out for the season spanning late November through Kentucky Derby day.

Saturday’s main track was a throwback to an earlier era. The track was lightning fast for the big day with speed closest to the rail holding a pronounced advantage in sprints, one which typically produces off-pace runners in races rounding two turns. Check and check.

With the Sam F. Davis, newly and deservedly graded, was named for one of the original owners of the track, a colorful man who loved to bet his money.

Durkin, who wore many hats during his formative career years, made the early program line in those days and Davis always kept a watchful eye on those posted quotes, especially the longshots.

Nowadays, however, Davis probably would have been categorized--in the words of one racing official recently--as a “horse-playing degenerate.” That executive subsequently has apologized the remark but unfortunately words cannot be unheard. I digress.

The about-time newly-graded “Sammy” turned out to be a great prep race and an excellent jumping off point for race favorite and now #1 ranked Kentucky Derby horse in America, according to the nationwide NTRA poll, undefeated Churchill-loving McCraken.

He won making what has become his signature wide rally on the turn, inhaling the leaders quicker than I expected. He was fresh, but I didn’t expect him to be as ready as he was.

Given where he is in condition presently, I wouldn’t expect Ian Wilkes to lean on him too much in the coming weeks, especially since the colt’s scheduled to have two more preps, most likely back here next time for the Tampa Derby.

Don’t know exactly what Todd Pletcher will do with Tapwrit, another who showed more than we expected, a lot more frankly. Since he obviously likes it here, too, coming back to try McCraken again makes sense.

Tapwrit’s still working on his upside; McCraken is already there.

Mark Casse’s under-the-radar State of Honor looked more focused in his new blinkers, setting a strong, somewhat pressured pace, coming again late to secure third with the benefit of a re-rally made on the rail. It was a major step forward.

Wild Shot looked great in the paddock, ran a terrific race, being seriously urged to get into the fray approaching the far turn. He took the lead soon after entering the straight but tired in late stretch, as if short of top condition. He should benefit greatly.

No Dozing also had good, controlled energy in the ring, his coat was glistening, but then he went out and ran an absolute stinker. Trainer Arnaud Delacour seemed shocked by the performance, as were we.

Well supported Fact Finding was a little sleepy in the ring and went out and ran to those looks. He was undefeated in three prior starts on disparate surfaces, so perhaps it was just a case of having a bad day.

Our personal handle for the day was a little lower than our typical Saturday gambling sessions at the racetrack but you can’t churn dollars unless you win a few dollars along the way, which is what we did—win very few dollars.

But that won’t deter us from again making a 4+ hour drive north on Alligator Alley. We made it home a lot faster but if I told you how fast I’m afraid an overzealous trooper will find us and issue a summons retroactively. I suppose I could work out a payment plan…

OLDSMAR, FL., FEBRUARY 13, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 29, 2017


No Longer a Myth, Pegasus Soars


In a game built on history and hope, there never has been anything like this. In nearly five decades on the racetrack, nothing we’ve seen matched the level of anticipation and appreciation for the sport that was on display Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

Or, as winning trainer Bob Baffert put it: “They really pulled it off.”

There was no Triple Crown on the line, only two great champions in a reprise of what became an instant rivalry: America’s Horse and his groupies in pitched battle with a newly crowned Horse in the World.

We are blessed to have spent countless exciting days on the job and have seen pretty much everything there is to see in a sport where no one can nor will ever see it all.

The thrill of watching fast and beautiful beasts in competition, straining into their bridles and against each other, beneath men whose hearts are as big as their bodies are diminutive.

We have 24 living memories of Breeders’ Cups past, a witness and chronicler of crushing disappointment; Zenyatta proving to be only human in the gloaming of Churchill Downs, but only that one time.

And every Belmont Stakes stakes since Damascus in 1967*, at Aqueduct of all places, but there were the three that stood out above the rest.

From Big Red of Meadow Stable in 1973, to a Smarty party-crasher in 2004, to a selfie celebration that ensued at the end of an arduous road, a family pet of a Thoroughbred and resplendent equine athlete that breathed life back into a sport 42 years later, however briefly.

But January 28, 2017 at Gulfstream Park was different from all those. In a sport where the past meets the future every day, up popped something that was at once brand new and yet a throwback to centuries ago when one man said to another, “I’ll bet my horse can beat your horse.”

image
I checked her out...she's clean.
On the afternoon of Pegasus I, women were dressed to the nines, replete with their come-hither Manolos and ornate hats. But, too, it was the usual snowbird crowd, in short cargo pants and hideous ripped-at-the-knees blue-jeans.

Men in sport coats is not that unusual in Hallandale this time of year, but on Saturday there were more neckties per capita than ever have been seen here. They showed respect for an event wishing to witness history. In return, they all got more than they bargained for.

The event was exclusive to the point that one could go from zero to C-note in the blink of an eye. It was built and they came. And they never stopped coming. When athletic titans clash, ATMs be damned.

Standing in the paddock ring awaiting the photo of the ninth race bang-bang finish, track announcer Pete Aiello informed the crowd that the million-dollar guaranteed Late Pick 4 pool had just been doubled.

As wagering on the final Pick 3 of the 12-race afternoon commenced, fans and the curious continued to walk through the ubiquitous metal detectors of today’s world, ponying up the same $100 had they arrived in time for the early double at 11:30 am.

Finally, immediately after Taghleeb proved the most long-winded of them all in the McKnight turf marathon, it was time for the main event. The crowd inside the paddock was as large a typical Florida Derby gathering--with another 18 minutes before the horses were called on stage.

The crowd surrounding the walking ring with the tight turns was larger than Gulfstream’s signature event; much larger, no small feat considering their premier event for three-year-olds had a 65-year headstart.

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One of several Chromie sections
Fittingly, it was the 2016 sophomore Eclipse champion that led 11 rivals into the ring, his Horse of the Year rival bookending the field, the horse with the truncated name. Like Elvis or Lebron or Adele, he was simply Chrome, and Chrome's fans travel.

And so the ring was boarded on all sides, dwarfing all the Florida Derbies that have been held at the new Gulfstream Park and Casino, born in 2006.

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Magic Mike Smith acknowledges a Higher Power
The stadium seats were full. Standing in front and behind them were double-lines of people, a sea of cell phones and tablets that will prove they were there when the great California Chrome passed the torch to the great Arrogate.

It was the same on the second floor, people lining the paddock area and stairways three levels high, row after row of onlookers craning their necks to get a closer look at the best horses in America and beyond: Horse of the Year vs. Horse of the World.

The Horse of the Year didn’t deserve to go out the way he did, his right front knee betraying him as he appeared to struggle in the cuppy footing despite having three weeks of practice over it.

Ironically, the inaugural running of the Pegasus turned out to be the sport of horse racing encapsulated: The game in which the highs are the highest and the lows bottomless.

But they “pulled it off,” indeed, as 12 million begat 40 million, and a luminescent star was born, a horse that no one has seen the bottom of thus far, not even those closest to him.

And so a horseman who celebrated the biggest win of his life that launched a Hall of Fame career with a victory at our father’s Gulfstream of 1992 returned with a champion to pull off the success of the richest horse race ever staged, one born an instant classic.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Hallandale Beach, FL, January 28, 2017

*correction made 7:26 pm, 013017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 22, 2017


Great Day at Gulfstream from Morning ‘til Night


If there were an opportunity to ensure that Saturday’s Pegasus World Cup Invitational day would be a reprise of what happened yesterday at Gulfstream Park--from early on a low-lying fog-shrouded morning to a champagne-sipping toast to the Thoroughbred champions of 2016, Frank Stronach would be asking: “Where do I sign?”

In what was the final workout of his career, the soon-to-be two-time Horse of the Year worked five furlongs on the Hallandale oval in 58 4/5 seconds, galloping out another furlong in 13, on his left lead into the clubhouse turn with exercise partner Dihigi Gladney never moving a muscle.

In its way, it was the 2016 Pacific Classic of workouts. To merely say that he’s all set for his career finale in six days somehow diminishes the effort.

As prelude to next weekend’s world’s richest dirt race and last evening’s Eclipse Award ceremonies was the Sunshine Millions, featuring some of the best that Florida-breds have to offer competing in five stakes.

If one were to add up the combined winning margins of the Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf, Distaff Sprint, Sprint, Turf and Classic, a total of 1-1/4 lengths would separate the winners from the runners-up.

The best was saved for last when Hy Riverside out-bobbed Nauset Beach in a photo so tight as to be reminiscent of Beholder’s victory over Songbird in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

And it was a nice touch that Hy Riverside gave his local trainer, Antonio Sano, his third winner on the afternoon.

It was a great lead-in to the Eclipse Award ceremonies to follow that went off without a hitch and crisply, until the very end that is.

At that point, California Chrome co-owner Perry Martin went on a nonsensical Trumpian self-aggrandizing rant about the current locale of his abode that began with an attack on Turf Writers, many of who voted his horse worthy of 2016 Horse of the Year recognition.

A saving grace, and completely apropos of the moment, was a Triple Crown-worthy number of tweets that followed:

Jeremy Balan ‏@BH_JBalan: “We can all make fun of Perry Martin but the great shame is that Art Sherman didn't get to speak”
Jay Privman ‏@DRFPrivman: “And you guys thought Coburn was the crazy one”
And, finally, comforting words from Ed DeRosa ‏@EJXD2: “For those who missed Perry Martin's speech, it will be the opening scene of Saw VIII”

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Chad Brown, Man on a Mission:
Mission Accomplished

Memorable Moments

Martin’s diatribe did not ruin a good evening. After excusing myself from my unscheduled-in-advance house guests, I retired to my computer and caught moments that were among my favorites. Quotes:

Female Sprint Champion Finest City’s trainer, Eric Kruljack: “When we get great horses, they make us look good. She’s the one I want to thank the most.”

Rick Porter, on losing the Breeders’ Cup Distaff by a desperate nose, thus ending an undefeated career: “If I had to lose to anyone, I couldn’t have picked a better trio than Wayne Hughes, Dick Mandella and Beholder.”

Could not scribble fast enough to quote the territory covered by Outstanding Trainer Chad Brown--as ebullient as anyone has ever seen him, I suspect—who thanked everyone, and we do mean everyone. To wit:

The people who work side-by-side with him every day: Especially five assistant trainers and his bookkeeper, saying that if someone were to kidnap her and take her cell phone it would ‘shut me down’, the jockeys ‘for their bravery’…

And the vets ‘who get a bad rap’, the blacksmiths who ‘take good care of their feet’, horse transporters who ‘get them their safely’, his family for their ‘support and patience’ and the horses ‘for their bravery and consistency’.

And, finally, to Paul Kelly, Shug McGaughey and Bobby Frankel, for teaching him everything he knows and ‘uses every day’.

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Javier Castellano, the first rider since Jerry Bailey
to win four straight Eclipse Awards


Hail Colleagues


This missive would be incomplete without kudos to colleagues Andrew Beyer and Steven Crist for a lifetime of achievement in Thoroughbred racing--Beyer for making speed figures mainstream and for inspiring generations of horseplayers, which included Crist, racing’s turf writing’s Renaissance man, who had a final message for the assembled elite:

“Don’t fool with the Triple Crown, it’s your greatest asset so leave it alone.”
“Keep the Breeders’ Cup moving…and bring it back to New York. It’s been 13 years and that’s just plain wrong.”
“Don’t treat medication overages as ‘racing’s latest scandal’.”
“Support Treasury Department reforms…to increase handle.”

Eclipse Margins and Observations:

Classic Empire, 248 votes (unanimous)
Champagne Room 202; New Money Honey 21; Lady Aurelia 11 (1 abstention); BC Juvenile Fillies winner nailed it.
Arrogate 243; Exaggerator 2; Nyquist 2, Gun Runner 1; didn’t realize Steve Asmussen had a vote.
Songbird 248; ‘nuff said.
California Chrome 248; ditto.
Beholder 246, Stellar Wind 2; well, she did beat her once.
Drefong 199, Lord Nelson 29, A.P. Indian 20; BC Sprint dominates, still though margin might have been closer.
Finest City 185, Haveyougoneaway 20, Paulasilverlining 13; BC F&M Sprint rules.
Flintshire 137, Highland Reel 76, Tourist 32; just about right.
Tepin 225, Found 11, Queen’s Trust 7; exactly right.
Rawnaq 171, Top Striker 31, Special Skills 2; thought it might have been just a tad closer.
Owner: Juddmonte 134, Ken and Sarah Ramsey 45, Klaravich Stables & William Lawrence 17; step down, next case, please.
Breeder: Winstar Farm 164, Clearsky Farms 62, Juddmonte Farms 4; obviously deserving but thought it would be closer.
Chad Brown 208, Bob Baffert 21, Mark Casse 11 (one abstention); first and third had career seasons, a little remarkable that Art Sherman only received 3 votes.
Javier Castellano 146, Mike Smith 44, Jose Ortiz 41 (two abstentions); I’m a little upset, no issues with Javier but let’s cancel voting and give award to money-winning rider without all the drama.
Luis Ocasio 182, Lane Luzzi 34, Eric Cancel 1; margin wider than expected.
Live Programming: NBC Sports; unless another major network steals away the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup, NBC will retire this trophy.
TV Features, ESPN; Audio Multi-Media: D, my bad.
Feature Commentary: John Scheinman, second Eclipse for brilliant wordsmith.
Photography: Tod Marks; Kudos in a highly subjective category; there’s plenty of great racing art out there.

Old School in 2016

Way to go longhairs: California Chrome (5-year-old), Beholder (6yo), Tepin (5yo), Rawnaq (9yo).

Way to go Diety: In his final thank you, Rick Porter thanked God for being able to get to Saturday's ceremonies. Porter, like TVG's Simon Bray and racecaller Larry Lederman, are enduring battles with cancer.

Bray, thankfully, appears to be doing well at present but probably no one is more blessed than Lederman. "Bernie," as he is known to his friends, celebrates his 60th birthday Monday after being diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer six years ago this April. God bless one and all, indeed.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Hallandale Beach, FL, January 22, 2017


Written by John Pricci

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