Thursday, July 16, 2015

LeBron James 1—American Pharoah 0

The Deity works in mysterious ways. Less than 24 hours after an American Triple Crown champion was snubbed by sports fans who voted in this year's ESPY Awards in favor of a great human athlete whose team was defeated in his sport's Championship finals, legislation was introduced that if successful would help alter Thoroughbred racing's unsavory image by having a highly successful independent body administer the rules and regulations with respect to horseracing's medication policies. At the end of the day, today might be remembered as the beginning of racing's resurgence, its finest hour

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., July 16, 2015—Despite the NTRA’s efforts to get out the vote and a well-intentioned letter from New York Representative Paul Tonko asking President Barack Obama to extend a White House invitation in honor of American Pharoah’s historic achievement, the Best Championship Performance Award for 2015 at Wednesday night’s ESPYs went to NBA great LeBron James.

It’s hard to know where to begin and what surmise Thoroughbred racing and mainstream sports fans should take away from this.

More than most endeavors, sports is in lockstep with emotion but, despite some shortcomings, at least Eclipse Award procedures show a large measure of objectivity. A great deal of thought goes into each Eclipse ballot cast. The same cannot be said of ESPY voters.

Democratic Representative Tonko’s letter to his party’s leader was a wonderful gesture, reading in part that “welcoming athletes who have reached the pinnacle of their sport to the White House is a time-honored tradition.”

There is no doubt that LeBron James is on a very short list when discussing the best basketball player of all-time which essentially is--pardon the expression--a two-horse race between James and the legendary Michael Jordan.

But Best Championship Performance? I thought the team from Northern California won the 2014-15 NBA title. American Pharoah might have outpolled several other worthy semifinalists but, unlike the Eclipse vote, there’s no official mention of margins between runners-up.

Even James seemed to be somewhat embarrassed: “Second place got me this, this wasn’t expected at all," he said.

Jockey Victor Espinoza was recognized for his role in completing racing's 12th Triple Crown sweep but not so the four-legged athlete that did most of the work, an achievement guaranteed to earn him at least two Eclipse Award titles.

A large part of the snub is the fact that horse racing no longer is on the radar of smodern day sports fan and hasn’t been for several generations, the sport paying the steepest price for not having anything resembling a nationally televised racing season.

But even if it were a popular television product, the perception would remain that racing is not played on the level, as untrustworthy as boxing--now that professional wrestling is widely and properly regarded as “entertainment.”

The other major reason why racing, despite its storied history, is out of the sports mainstream is due to the public’s view that every time it sees an (L) on an official racing program it means the sport cannot survive without its dependency on drugs, therapeutic or otherwise.

Until such time racing can be accepted as a “clean sport,” the negative perception will continue. But the good news is that time may be at hand following today’s introduction of the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015 calling for drug testing and rules enforcement under guidelines established by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

The argument that drug use is a reality in all sports is not only real but legitimate. Where horse racing gets in trouble is that there is no counter to the claim that humans have a choice of what gets injected into their bodies but animals do not.

Clearly, it is not only humane but imperative, in the name of good health and common sense, that therapeutic medications continue to have their place--just not on raceday for all the world to see.

When and if this legislation is passed, the industry will have legitimate bragging rights that it finally has cleaned up its act in a way that every citizen can understand.

The new Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity announced its support of the bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressmen Andy Barr (R-Ky.) and Tonko (D-N.Y.).

The legislation would grant authority for rule-making, testing and enforcement of drug and medication use to an entity created by USADA providing badly needed independent overnight.

The Coalition represents a diverse group organizations including The Jockey Club, Breeders’ Cup Ltd., the Water Hay Oats Alliance, the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders.

“The Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity thanks Representatives Barr and Tonko for issuing this common sense legislation,” said Craig Fravel, president and chief executive officer of the Breeders’ Cup Ltd. in a Coalition press release.

“It is immensely gratifying to see the results of earnest collaboration among such a broad range of stakeholders. This bill is designed to provide a new level of certainty and trust for our participants and fans.

“We applaud these members of Congress for their foresight in regard to the future of an industry that contributes billions of dollars and generates hundreds of thousands of jobs to the American economy.”

The release further states the horse racing industry needs a makeover and this bill has the potential to deliver a new regulatory framework with a science-based program and provide better protection for all of the athletes involved,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States.

“We are grateful to Representatives Barr and Tonko for wading into this debate and we hope that they can find common ground with other lawmakers interested in racing reform to get a good, comprehensive bill over the finish line.”

As a non-profit, nongovernmental organization, USADA would create the Thoroughbred Horseracing Anti-Doping Authority (THADA), to be governed by a board of six USADA board members and five independent individuals from the Thoroughbred racing industry.

THADA would develop and administer a nationwide anti-doping program that would go into effect beginning January 1, 2017, following input from the Thoroughbred industry and the public.

With a proven ability to protect the integrity of competition, USADA is uniquely equipped to provide independent oversight in setting uniform medication standards for Thoroughbred racing, the Coalition concluded.

The first step on the road to real reform has been taken. Let the negotiating begin with the hope cynicism is Also-Eligible and not be allowed into the body of the discussion.

However, if on January 1, 2017 race-day medication still exists, integrity will forever be a non-starter and racing will continue to diminish to the point of being unrecognizable to itself, with a repeat of this year’s ESPY results an odds-on certainty.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 10, 2015

Forget Special Prosecutors, What Racing Needs is an fSociety

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., July 10, 2015--There’s no question that when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo invoked an executive order to put New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in charge of prosecuting police-involved killings, it was a step on the right direction.

"We have seen this all across the country where there's a lack of trust in the criminal justice system triggered by a particular case," Cuomo said in a Tuesday news conference.

“The basic argument is always the same,” he continued, “that [citizens] don't trust the prosecution because of [their] connections with the police… A criminal justice system doesn't work without trust. Where there is no justice, there is anarchy."

Only months before, parenthetically, Cuomo had made comments suggesting that a special prosecutor would handle cases that solely involved unarmed victims.

To his credit, Schneiderman acted immediately and anointed highly respected veteran prosecutor Alvin Bragg to head a new Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit involving the deaths of unarmed civilians, most notably Eric Garner.

As was seen on a video that eventually went viral, Garner died as a result of an NYPD officer putting him in a department-prohibited chokehold. At the time, Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan declined to indict the officer involved.

“The Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit will examine these cases with the highest level of care and independence,” said Schneiderman after he appointed Bragg.

Let’s hope Schneiderman will have more success than when he was asked to investigate a 2010 complaint that the New York Racing Association with the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, now the NYS Gaming Commission, conspired to credential undocumented workers on the backstretch of New York’s racetracks.

Patti Cerda, Manager of NYRA’s ID office before she resigned after refusing to continue issuing credentials to undocumented workers, explained to HRI via phone Friday: “These workers used fraudulent documents to gain employment. These were cases of identity theft involving other people’s social security and alien registration numbers.

“At the time, I went to the Investigator General’s office in lower Manhattan with documentation in a notebook in which I kept records on documented backstretch workers. I was asked to give them some names they could verify.

“The IG’s Office verified that the information I gave them was correct and asked, ‘if we went to the track, in what departments could these records be found?’ I told them but the investigation seemed to end at that point because nothing ever happened as a result.

Issuing false credentials became a condition of Cerda’s employment. She refused to continue breaking the law and quit her job. “Much of the time I was there, most barns had workers who used false documents to get help licensed.

“I sent letters to the FBI in Washington and was told they were going forward my information to their local office in New York. Again, nothing happened. All of them wrote me back, but no action was taken.”

Here are some questions for all authorities involved:

• Why not act on Cerda’s assertions especially since they all proved true, which leads to questions that involve the kind of justice that Gov. Cuomo alleges is so important to the citizenry?

• Why has there been no follow-up--be it Federal, State, FBI or New York’s racing industry--to the HRI Special Report on the Rick Dutrow case, after affidavits and testimony from highly creditable defense experts was ignored by the Administrative Hearing Officer?

• Why is there no investigation into a false positive test result created by New York’s woefully inadequate drug laboratories which ignored scientific proof involving the drug Butorphanol available at the time?

• Why, after cross-examination of state investigator Joel Leveson’s obviously false sworn testimony re the events leading up to, and discovery of, three syringes in Dutrow’s Aqueduct barn office, wasn’t the case dismissed?

• Why is there no presumption of innocence; why was case law ignored; why is hearsay permitted; why are there no strict rules of evidence; why was an illegal search of Dutrow’s assistant trainer’s car ignored; why was the chain of custody breach ignored?

• Why are there no rules re discovery; why does defense counsel lack subpoena power; why is a report filed by Queens D. A. Jim Leander stating his inability to find credible evidence against Dutrow and that the conduct of state officials may be “actionable” still unavailable?

• Why was Denise Vasquez, the NYRA investigator whose job it was to hold the evidence bag, according to Leveson, really fired? Why has she fallen off the grid? Why after being fired did she find it necessary to hide in her apartment, according to another NYRA investigator who spoke to a co-worker off the record? Does she know too much?

• Why is the retired Joel Leveson hiding on Panama?

• Why are none of Dutrow’s colleagues stepping up and speaking out, especially since any one of them could be next?

• Why is the rest of the media, including those who promised Dutrow they would look into his case after the Triple Crown, hiding behind their paychecks?

• Why are Administrative Hearing proceedings above the law?

And one last question: Who has the kind of power that can stonewall everybody and everything?

Next Installment: It wasn’t enough to revoke Dutrow’s license; he needed to be prevented from making a living by any means necessary, including serving the game away from the racetrack.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

All-American Pharoah All the Time

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., June 21, 2015—I wish I could say that there existed the same amount of hysteria associated with the first three Triple Crown winners of the modern era pre-American Pharoah but in good conscience I just don’t remember it that way.

The probable cause lies in the fact that soon after Secretariat broke the quarter-century drought that came after Citation in 1948, two more winners of racing’s most celebrated gauntlet came in rapid succession; Seattle Slew four years later and Affirmed a year after that.

Back in the day, Secretariat was deservedly known as “the Mighty Secretariat,” such was his imposing presence and the supreme power he displayed during many of his stunning performances.

But Seattle Slew--still the only member of this exclusive club to have won the series while undefeated--was not truly acknowledged as a true “great” until his four-year-old season.

Ironically, Seattle Slew was more celebrated following a narrow come-again defeat in the Jockey Club Gold Cup than he was in victory, an effort that remains the most amazing performance by a racehorse we’ve ever seen; Big Red’s Belmont being the most perfect.

Of course, Affirmed came along the next year to sweep the Triple Crown in 1978. Maybe it was his rivalry with Alydar that at once confirmed his talent but in some way diminished the aura of greatness because back then it was all about “The Rivalry,” the uncoupled entry of all-time.

Ho hum, Affirmed’s Belmont was just another Triple Crown sweep. Most agree there should have been a third straight but the racing gods foiled the quest of the undeniable great Spectacular Bid. At least, Bid did help solidify the ‘70s as racing’s greatest decade.

There is little doubt that the sporting appetite for greatness was heightened by the futility that lasted 37 years until this past June 6. During that time television became the greatest communication conduit ever, heightened only by a new media that can be carried in pocket or purse.

The current hysteria surrounding American Pharoah--I didn’t even realize, e.g., that Julia Roberts was a big racing fan, did you?--was aided by the fact that he has a cool name. It might be the chicken-and-egg effect but badly named horses don’t win Triple Crowns:

Before Citation came Assault, and before him there was Count Fleet and Whirlaway and War Admiral and Omaha and Gallant Fox and Sir Barton.

And it’s appropriate to note it wasn’t even known as the Triple Crown when Sir Barton won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1915. It only became known as such after the great Charles Hatton dubbed it so following Gallant Fox’s achievement in 1930.

But the Triple Crown’s glorious past has given way to the hysteria surrounding where American Pharoah should or will run next.

Owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert are still basking in the afterglow as is jockey Victor Espinoza, who will make his next celebrated appearance at Gulfstream Park when he rides on the Summit of Speed program, July 5.

Espinoza’s presence comes replete with a poster giveaway that includes photo images of the winning horse from all three events pre-autographed by rider. Prior exclusive agreements will preclude a formal autograph session on site that day.

So where will Espinoza show up next sitting atop the 2014 juvenile champion and certain-to-be 2015 Horse of the Year? The horse already has made a cameo appearance at Churchill Downs, attracting over 30,000 fans on Stephen Foster night and will parade next weekend at Santa Anita.

We’re on record that we’d like to see him take the highest road possible on his way to the Breeders’ Cup Classic which in our view would be appearances in the Haskell, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

This obviously would mean he would not run again in his home state of California. Del Mar is making $5 million overtures for an appearance vs. his elders in the Pacific Classic. Whatever is decided from this point forward, it appears Saratoga will be the odd race out.

While no formal announcement has been made, Baffert already has told Monmouth Park officials to get prepared. The race makes sense for the horse for many reasons and his superstitious trainer probably would love nothing better than to win his eighth Haskell.

Recalling the path taken by Bayern last season, the race most likely to come next is the Pennsylvania Derby.

It would be a three-year-old path of less resistance and the timing is such that he would have two preps for the Classic, August 2 and September 19, affording plenty of time in between. Having won the Classics, Zayat and Baffert will get to split $300,000 just for showing up in addition to being odds-on to win a million-dollar race.

Of course, if the hometown pressure becomes too great, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Santa Anita quadrupling the purse for the nine-furlong Awesome Again Stakes vs. older horses September 26.

If there were a proposition offered, my money would be on a Haskell-Pennsylvania Derby prep schedule for the Classic. When the connections decide, not to worry; you’ll be able to read all about it everywhere words are printed or spoken.

Written by John Pricci

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