Sunday, November 25, 2018

November Closes with a Dubious DQ, Dismissals, Retirements and a Glimpse Into the Future

This was intended to be a summary of all the great racing on display over the holiday weekend and a peek at Saturday’s Cigar Mile program, the last great hurrah of the 2018 racing season in New York.

Once again, however, it was controversy that dominated the Internet, immediately following Friday’s finale at Churchill Downs that resulted in a double disqualification, one in which the first finisher was to reward one bettor with $317,000 of Jackpot gold.

Internet speculation [read paranoia] was that the Churchill Downs stewards conspired to disqualify Presidential Tweet in favor of the official winner, Laser Loop, elevated from third, the result of a double disqualification, the other protagonist being place finisher, Colossus.

Conspiracy minded horseplayers in fact had little issue with the demoting of Colossus who bore in badly in midstretch, making contact with show finisher Laser Loop, video evidence showing that the incident cost Laser Loop a better placing.

It was the takedown of Presidential Tweet that caused an outcry after the stewards decided both were at fault. Rail running Presidential Tweet did bear out strides from the wire, forcing Corey Lanerie aboard Laser Loop to check from dangerously close quarters.

A stewards’ inquiry was posted and a jockey’s objection against both rivals was lodged by Lanerie. After a lengthy delay, the stewards saw it the rider’s way, elevating Laser Loop from third to first, demoting Presidential Tweet to second and Colossus to third.

Video replay showed Presidential Tweet drifting out several jumps before the finish line under left-handed whipping from Chris Landeros. From those two or three jumps it is extremely doubtful that this incident cost Laser Loop a better placing.

Under any circumstances, the call would have been highly controversial. But the controversy was exacerbated by the fact that there was a huge jackpot carryover in play.

With the disqualification of Presidential Tweet, whose victory would have resulted in a life-altering score, the jackpot pool carried over into the final Saturday of the Churchill Downs fall meet. Over $241,000 was spent chasing it.

Ironically, the Jackpot was hit by a single Saturday bettor who collected $500,256 when favorite War of Will eliminated any further drama by drawing off to win the day’s finale by five widening lengths.

Friday’s controversial disqualification brought to mind a similar incident four years ago at Gulfstream Park when the demoting of the race winner truly cost one jackpot player the score of a lifetime: $1.6 million.

When stewards’ decisions have an impact on the next day’s wagering handle, racing has an inherent problem. It requires no imagination to posit that this circumstance is rife with conflicts of interest. And it does not help that these decisions are made in a vacuum.

When it comes to the adjudication process, there is no transparency or accountability. The decision making should be in full view of the betting public via closed-circuit TV. But stewards are not even required to state their opinions in writing as is done elsewhere.

As in any situation that places Thoroughbred racing’s reputation in jeopardy due to lack of uniformity, transparency or both, the industry never will be able to shed its public image of being an insider’s “sport,” a small-time one at that.

The game has run out of excuses and rationalizations, so please do not insult the collective intelligence of racing’s audience who deserves better treatment than it gets in return for its economic and emotional support. Besides, we’ve heard it all before.

If the industry cannot see that Friday’s incident or those like it is a problem, consider this: Horseplayers are made to feel like rubes. The sport no longer can depend on the fact that one will be born every minute.

One day, fathers will decide not to bring their sons to the racetrack on a Saturday; uncles no longer will take their nieces to the races to see the beautiful animals. When that day comes, the industry will get the reckoning it has earned.

WHAT’S GOING ON AT THE STRONACH GROUP? The firing of Santa Anita race caller Michael Wrona Saturday knocked ‘L’Affaire Tweet’ right off Twitter’s trending race stories. Wrona’s dismissal closely follows those of racing analyst Megan Devine and XBTV host Aaron Vercruysse and XBTV analyst Richard Migliore.

The explanation that makes the most sense for all this is that this was, purely and simply, a salary dump. One could have seen the writing on the Xpressbet wall when its President, Ron Luniewski, who joined the company in 2002, suddenly “departed” in April.

The first thing any new CEO does is cut costs, which explains the Migliore and Vercruysse dismissals. XBTV has been a very expensive enterprise its parent company, The Stronach Group, to produce. And, of course, TSG numbers Santa Anita among its many holdings.

Tim Ritvo’s explanation that Santa Anita is “going in a new direction” is taken at face value. Usually, when this kind of occurrence takes place, talent and marketing are among the first departments to suffer. Taken together, these events may just be the beginning.

The very public power struggle between Chairman Belinda Stronach and Honorary Chairman Frank Stronach is also central to all this. Belinda has been vocal about her father’s loss-leading projects while TSG Founder alleges financial impropriety by its current President and its CEO, Alon Ossip.

Unknown at this point is who will be calling the races when Santa Anita opens its prime winter meet the day after Christmas. Wrona’s talent for the time being is limited to a new assignment at Kentucky Downs and the one he currently holds at Santa Rosa County Fair.

Gary Stevens’ 32-year Hall of Fame riding career has come to end, the result of a freak back injury sustained during a pre-race warmup at Del Mar last weekend. His numbers, obviously, are impressive: 5,187 lifetime victories with purse earnings of over $258 million, ninth all-time.

Ironically, the 55-year-old officially retired in a Del Mar ceremony on the same afternoon another Hall of Famer, Johnny Velazquez, was celebrating his 55th birthday aboard Naughty Joker, who completed Saturday’s early double at Churchill Downs.

“Seabiscuit’s rider” has won races on four continents. Notable mounts include Da Hoss, Winning Colors, Silver Charm, Point Given and legendary race mare Beholder. His ride aboard Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop 20 years ago was a personal favorite.

The assumption is that Stevens has maintained his membership in the Screen Actors Guild and that someday he again might appear on a silver screen near you. He also has done great work as a TV racing analyst.

Will Signalman and Liora follow in the footsteps of a couple Horses of the Year, Gun Runner and Rachel Alexandra, who also used Churchill’s ‘Stars of Tomorrow’ programs to launch their championship careers?

It’s difficult to put victories in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and Golden Rod, respectively, in historical context given the sloppy nature of the racetrack. For now, the 10 points each earned toward appearances in the Kentucky Derby and Oaks must suffice.

PERSONAL HIATUS: I am scheduled for surgery this coming Thursday, the first of two procedures to treat basal cell carcinoma in the tib/fib area of my left leg. I likely won’t pound another keyboard for two to three weeks.

Thereafter, it will be rehab, racing on TV and wagering via my Xpressbet account. Confined to home upon my release from the University of Miami Health Care system, I should be able to resume writing duties soon thereafter. Trips to Gulfstream are TBD.

With any luck, I can point for the Pegasus on the last Saturday in January. With complications, the Florida Derby would be a more likely target. Pre-anesthesia, I will also ask my doctors to remove a nagging losing streak that has plagued me throughout 2018.

In the interim, starting Thursday, HRI will be in the capable hands of Mark Berner, Tom Jicha and Indulto. Be kind to them, and each other, please. When I’m up to it, I will effort to keep interested parties abreast on Twitter @johnpricci.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

When It Comes to Championships, Less Is Not More

The most successful trainers on the planet entertain and marvel us with their horsemanship every day. We all know who they are. But based on Europe’s Cartier Awards, John Gosden might have proven he’s the best of them all.

If there were an Elias Sports Bureau for horseracing—all the comprehensive data easily accessible statistical compilations as in baseball—I could say this with certitude. But since I can’t, I’ll live with this claim until proven wrong:

As modern day Thoroughbred racing awards are presently constructed, no horseman ever has trained five champions in a single year, much less one that includes a Horse of the Year.

But that’s exactly what John Gosden has done this year, topping himself when he became the first trainer to have three championship titlists in 2014.

You need not be a Euro Nerd to celebrate Gosden’s success. The Oxford grad has won over 100 Group 1 races on four continents, including this season’s European Horse of the Year, Roaring Lion.

Many horseplayers in Southern California will remember when he took out a trainer’s license. It was in 1979 after he apprenticed in the U.S. with trainer Tommy Doyle, post-graduate work after learning his craft from Vincent O’Brien, the legendary “Wizard of Tipperary.”

Gosden’s first “big horse” won the Santa Anita Handicap four years after striking out on his own. That’s back in the day when it truly was the “Big ‘Cap.” Over 85,000 saw Bates Motel win the 1983 renewal. He was Gosden’s first champion.

One of Gosden's five 2018 titlists was Arc de Triomphe repeater Enable, who beat males again a month later in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. That victory likely won’t earn her an American Eclipse--and not because she raced here only once.

Sistercharlie, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf sealed that honor a few hours earlier by taking her fourth Grade 1 of the 2018 season, an American champion by any measure.

Enable can’t win in the open category either because that Eclipse Award is designated Turf Male, even if she did finish 9-1/2 lengths in front of America’s 10 best turf males in Louisville four week later.

If an award is based on a body of quality work in a single season, shouldn’t one race be enough for Eclipse consideration? By rule it is, but a one-victory championship is not a popular notion with many Eclipse voters. And two of every three racing fans polled agree that one is not enough.

If beating 18 of Europe’s best off a single synthetic prep over three overmatched rivals then ship here to defeat 11 of the best male turf courses America could assemble, why shouldn’t this be an “open class” category? Just askin’.

As long as American breeders and the keepers of racing’s flame want to delineate among disparate sex and age groups then there are, at once, too many awards and not enough.


One of Gosden’s five champions was Stradivarius, Europe’s champion stayer. Of course, America’s game is speed on dirt, not stamina on either surface. But if the U.S. wants to be a serious player on the world stage, shouldn’t it walk that talk?

Just as the burgeoning popularity of turf racing in America has resulted in breeding for more turf success also, why not potentially bring stamina back into the breeding equation?

The Breeders’ Cup Marathon has been demoted to a Grade 2 afterthought with a reduced purse of $500,000. Why? Because it wasn’t popular at the entry box?

Pedigree notwithstanding, could the lack of a meaningful marathon divisional schedule at major venues all season also have something to do with its lack of clout? Must every decision the sport makes be based on handle alone?

We’re only talking one or two major races per meet at America’s ‘A’ venues. Do what is working these days: Throw enough money at a marathon program and owners and trainers will come with more and better stock.

Marathons can become the last refuge for the “slow,” horse, a race for specialists that has the added benefit of leveling the chemical playing field to a degree and is popular with more traditional fans.

Aesthetically, fair-minded people agreed that Future Stars Friday was a success. It gave babies—the following year’s 3-year-olds—a stage unto themselves. And it restored a handful of races to its original Saturday lineup.

With turf sprinting being so popular on every level, why doesn’t it have its own championship category? Of course, the same can be said of juvenile turf runners. Consider:

The issue of juvenile filly supremacy is inarguable. With blowout victories in the G1 Frizette and Juvenile Fillies, a wide majority agree that Jaywalk would be a most deserving champion.

But any panel of experts likely would identify turf juvenile filly Newspaperofrecord as the superior performer on Futures Friday. Why should one of these superior fillies walk away empty handed?

Undefeated in three starts, Newspaperofrecord’s victory margins were Ruffian-like, an aggregate 20 lengths. But on turf, not dirt.

Juvenile sprinters probably shouldn’t deserve U.S. Eclipse recognition, but isn’t it interesting that Longchamp’s Prix de l’Abbaye is a 5-furlong dash for 2-year-olds and up?! But superior juvenile turf routers should be recognized.

To not do so should not be based on the fact that there are too many awards already--17 for champion horses and horsemen, including Horse of the Year—and it would make the awards ceremony more insufferable, already so despite the oft-repeated pleas of ceremonial hosts.

In that case, parenthetically, do what the Oscars and Emmys do, give out new Eclipses at a separate advance ceremony or in video presentation.

If the Breeders’ Cup’s aim is truly to be a championship defining event, then the championship-worthy winners of the Turf Sprint, a rejuvenated G1 Marathon, and both Juvenile Turf route events deserve recognition.

Written by John Pricci

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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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