Tuesday, August 30, 2016
Travers 147: Too Much of a Good Thing?
Hark! The Herald Horseplayer Sings
LOS ANGELES, August 27, 2016--HRI blogger Tom Jicha accomplished what many racing writers attempt but precious few achieve when he presented his analysis
for the 2016 Travers.
To me, his unequivocal selection of Arrogate appeared the handicapping equivalent of Babe Ruth’s famously pointing to where he was about to deliver a home run.
While the DRF’s Mike Beer also predicted the son of Unbridled Song’s victory in his "Race of the Day" video, he didn’t match Jicha’s confidence or his vision as follows:
"… Arrogate, at 10-1, is the one who interests me most of anyone in the field. He's never run in a stakes but the stylish way he has won all three of his two-turn races, the most recent at 1-20, suggests still untapped brilliance.
Statistically, Arrogate mirrors the career of American Pharoah. He got beat in his sprint debut but he's been untouchable since. ..."
TJ is my new handicapping hero … at least until next week.
On a track that started to resemble Santa Anita when successive seven-furlong sprints shaded 1:21 on the broadcast timer (but not in the subsequent DRF charts), trainer Bob Baffert previewed his West Coast wizardry with a wire-to-wire win by Drefong in the King’s Bishop under jockey Mike Smith.
When that Hall of Fame duo teamed up again for their Travers triumph, the rider completed an Alabama/Travers double, having won the former with another West Coast sensation, Songbird.
Still, an unheralded sophomore was able to slip in under the radar and set a new track record becoming the first three-year-old since Secretariat to shade both two minutes for the distance and 24 seconds for the final quarter-mile.
Arrogate’s 13½-length victory over the deepest field assembled since the Kentucky Derby re-set the stage for both the divisional championship and Horse of the Year honors.
Further, it sends a message to the California Chrome camp that "it ain’t over ‘til it’s over."
In one minute, fifty nine and one-fifth seconds, the status of Southern California racing stock sky-rocketed--in contrast to the steadily declining support for the racing product there.
And it’s not just stakes runners shipped East by high-percentage trainers such as Baffert, Hollendorfer, D’Amato and the rest. Indeed, New York-based trainer David Jacobson has been very successful with horses he claimed in California to race elsewhere.
Bettor’s appetites for action at California tracks are being curbed by small, uncompetitive fields dominated by odds-on trainees carefully spotted by the few trainers among whom all the better bloodlines are distributed.
Arrogate and Drefong are shining examples of this phenomenon. To what degree this is facilitated by stall allocations, the condition books and owners who are unwilling to rock the boat is unclear.
What is clear is that good horses based outside California are seldom sent there to compete except when the Breeders’ Cup and notable Grade 1s are being offered.
This isn’t due simply to the lack of purses fueled by casino dollars but rather the refusal of Southern California track operators to schedule their stakes races cooperatively with the rest of the country.
Why was Del Mar’s G1 Pat O’Brien Stakes scheduled on the same day as Saratoga’s G1 Forego? Why were the G1 Pacific Classic and G1 Whitney with their million-dollar purses scheduled so closely together that neither got full fields?
And the problem doesn’t end with field size. The unwillingness of the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Horse Racing Board to adjust breakage on show bets and reduce takeout on exacta wagers inhibits expansion of those pools at California tracks.
The fifty-cent trifecta minimum was finally implemented at Del Mar but low payoffs in these tiny fields continue to dampen enthusiasm for these wagers in comparison to their popularity at Saratoga.
Baffert’s role in maintaining the status quo on the above issues as a TOC board member has undermined his popularity among horseplayer advocates since the TOC-maneuvered takeout increase
in 2010 at the expense of the player.
Indeed, Baffert’s detractors increased exponentially several years when the investigation
of seven sudden deaths in Baffert’s barn revealed that all of his trainees had been routinely treated with the thyroid drug Thyro-L, even those with normal thyroids -- a practice not unusual according to a veterinarian contacted by the Paulick Report
Sadly, freakish performances like Arrogate’s raise the specter of chemical assistance at the highest level of competition. Few would deny Baffert’s extraordinary ability as a trainer and judge of equine talent. But the lack of uniform rules and drug testing enables reasonable people to express concerns about the kind of performance witnessed on Travers Day.
Arrogate now is expected to train up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic but I’d like to know how his ascent to the top of the Baffert shedrow affects plans for his other accomplished three-year-olds, including millionaire Cupid, Mor Spirit, Collected, Toews on Ice, and Haskell/Travers runner-up American Freedom.
Juddmonte’s campaigning of Flintshire has been sufficiently sportsman-like to suggest they might be willing to face the best competition sooner rather than later.
With Nyquist targeting the Pennsylvania Derby and with the Jockey Gold Cup and Awesome Again out there—he’s already beaten his elders thrice—who knows?
If California Chrome and/or Tepin run the table, they’re the leaders of the pack. If not, have we reached a point where two potential Grade 1 victories in the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic would be enough to earn a Horse of the Year title?
Written by Indulto
Friday, July 29, 2016
A Legacy That’s Worth Leaving
LOS ANGELES, July 28, 2016—Steven Crist's retirement from the Daily Racing Form qualified him as the most newsworthy development of last week. Though better known as a Daily Racing Form executive and columnist, acclaimed author of betting books and influential horseplayer advocate, he had also worked as a New York Racing Assn. executive under then CEO, Kenny Noe Jr.
In a subsequent Q&A interview by the Thoroughbred Daily News
, Crist candidly described the experience: "… It was frustrating. I discovered there was this whole political side to the job. Kenny and I took a lot of early morning plane rides up to Albany to talk to dopey legislators. You had to do them favors or give them things. It was just horrible."
Asked about his impact when writing about New York racing and politics, he replied, "… It’s hard to feel any sense of accomplishment. It just gets worse and worse and it doesn’t matter what they say… they’re never held accountable for anything. What Andrew Cuomo has done, making a deal with NYRA and then taking it back, it’s just disgraceful."
Crist's announcement came on the heels of another news-making development made by friend and former DRF colleague, Charles Hayward. The former NYRA CEO garnered media attention
with "the formation of Hayward Advisory Services LLC to assist racing companies grow their business through a strategic planning process and by introducing revenue and cost-saving initiatives."
This is Hayward's next step in an effort to restore his relevance in the wake of attempts to further assassinate his character by minions of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and assorted industry commentators.
In what some observers attribute to the Governor's ‘agenda’ to optimize state revenues from gambling through casinos at the expense of horse racing in the state, Hayward was fired upon the official discovery of NYRA's incontrovertible failure to lower takeout beyond the legislated sunset date for a temporary state-imposed increase.
Ironically, the wayward Hayward was condemned by e-mails from and to Crist, who had inquired about the issue at the behest of a DRF reader.
Interestingly, Hayward's announcement came the day after a "Times Union op-ed piece
by current NYRA CEO, Chris Kay, defending NYRA's accounting practices which had been criticized in a recent audit by State Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli.
Kay is also struggling with his image in the face of repeated unkind Internet commentary portraying the former Toys R Us executive as a fish out of water; cluelessly tampering with – if not trampling on – tradition.
Kay has been held responsible for counting both empty “sold” seats in an attempt to bolster attendance figures. There also were perceived relevancies between LIRR trains and the stranding of legions of Belmont Stakes attendees.
Parenthetically, Kay's subsequent performance bonus was widely ridiculed and, eventually, officially challenged by the audit in question.
Offering little insight and even less originality, Kay not only reiterated points expressed in earlier responses by NYRA General Counsel, Joseph Lambert, and NYRA Communications Director, Patrick McKenna, but he also co-opted Hayward's position regarding franchise performance standards and VLT distributions from this month-old Thoroughbred Racing Commentary article
It's highly unlikely this display of "chutzpah" by Kay precipitated Hayward's action, even if his superiority over his successor never was so glaringly obvious.
In this piece, Hayward said his firing "by the NYRA board after NYRA was alleged by the State Racing and Wagering Board to have knowingly overcharged our betting customers 1 percent on all exotic wagers.
“At the time and to this day, I have continued to assert my innocence regarding this allegation."
In reporting his announcement, DRF characterized Hayward as "a lifelong horseplayer and racing fan."
Hayward's own press release stated that "Over the past 35 years, I have participated in the Thoroughbred racing industry as a horseplayer, a horse owner, a racetrack operator and a publisher. My passion for and experience in the racing industry will allow me to make further contributions to this great sport."
As NYRA continues to demonstrate executive and boardroom misjudgments regardless of who is at the helm, one must infer that the problem is institutional as well as political. Whatever strategic planning may have taken place under successive new foxes in the old NYRA hen-house seems to have been based on survival, rather than growth.
Perhaps Hayward's experience could most productively be utilized from the outside rather than on the inside as a horseplayer advocate committed to the survival of racing's customer base.
Hayward certainly has the industry contacts and insider insights to effectively manage and represent a horseplayer organization if indeed one of truly significant membership can be created.
Meanwhile, it is Crist who is one of the few individuals sufficiently well-known and respected to gain trust and attract financial support across diverse horse-playing constituencies.
More importantly, it is Crist who has the necessary stature to motivate cooperation among constituents, harnessing and helping to direct their collective strength to influence wide-spread adoption of the reforms needed to keep the game vibrant and meaningful.
Some of Crist's suggestions have included the following:
"… The problem is right now we have a lot of once a-year-racing fans and a lot of 200-day-a-year racing fans. We could use a lot more 10-to-15 days type of fans.
“… We need something again like the ACRS that organizes the sport. If people knew that on the first Saturday of every month something really special is going on in racing, that would really help.
“[And if you fix ... IRS regulations], I think there would be a surge in handle that people wouldn’t believe."
Crist and Hayward could become Gotham City's next dynamic duo; gray hair notwithstanding, leading the charge to rescue racing from itself.
Written by Indulto
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
A Dubious Challenge to the Dubai World Cup
LOS ANGELES, May 16, 2016—A post-Derby announcement of a revised plan to unseat Dubai as the world's richest Thoroughbred horse race has piqued interest across the Internet.
Two factors are responsible: The first has to do with the novel strategy on how to fund the event, the second because it’s the brainchild of Frank Stronach, arguably the most powerful individual in North American racing.
The original "Pegasus World Championship," proposal called for a 10-furlong race with a $12 million purse to be held at either Santa Anita or Gulfstream Park, perhaps in rotation. Obviously both are Stronach properties.
In essence, 12 shares would be sold at $1 million each to investors who then can not only enter the race but also share in ancillary revenues generated by the event.
It's most recent reincarnation embraces Gulfstream--with far lower seating capacity--and the distance will be nine furlongs which unlike the longer race comes with a much shorter run to the first turn.
How would you like to put up a million bucks and draw the 11 or 12 hole?
Intended or not, this is a shot across the bow of the Dubai World Cup, but there are other factors worth noting, too.
The Donn Handicap is a Grade 1 event, of course, but recently won't be confused with what brand-obsessed individuals have termed a “Super Grade 1.”
The Pegasus World Cup may be due in part by the Donn's drop-off in quality since Invasor won the event in 2007. Further, the decline in field size recently may also indicate that the event has lost some of its appeal or because of a glut of alternative spots available .
Then there is the matter of how meaningful graded stakes are for any event whose eligibility is determined by ownership rather than performance.
Generating irritation in the name of innovation seems to be the effect this latest version of Stronach's vision to wrest bragging rights away from a rival, even one a half world away.
We're thinking what would prevent Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum from saying: “I’ll see your $12 million and raise you three, or eight million more?"
Stronach's $200 million renovation of Gulfstream Park has accentuated by the relocation from Austria a $30 million, 11-story, 715-ton statue of a winged horse defeating a dragon in an adjoining park.
However, is that as impressive as the Sheikh's $1.25 billion replacement of an entire racetrack, a huge five-story structure replete with a grandstand spanning five furlongs? Both seem monuments to excess.
Interestingly, neither man bets his money on horse races. Betting is not allowed in the UAE and Stronach was quoted as saying here "I’m pretty lucky with everything I do but I don’t bet."
Perhaps this accounts for the takeout differential that exists between Gulfstream and Santa Anita and business is bearing this out this difference; Gulfstream has been enjoying significant growth in recent years while Santa Anita has been struggling with its less friendly takeout rates.
Should the Pegasus World Cup actually fly, there will be more of racing’s 1% who would be willing to form an "elite dirty dozen,” so to speak, shutting the stall door on owners of legitimate contenders but can’t enter because they don’t have a loose million dollars to spare.
"Rather than worry about conflicts, DRF's Jay Hovdey argued, Jay Hovdey
[put] " the race right in Dubai’s face in terms of both distance and date. …,"
while also noting …"The Santa Anita Handicap in early March already was suffering from its 20-year proximity to the Dubai World Cup. Surrounded now by a $12 million pot on one side and a $10 million race on the other, the Handicap could shrivel away to nothing ..."
Additionally, Hovdey pointed out that "The Pegasus World Cup is ... theoretically funded by a dozen million-dollar antes for the 12 proposed starters...” "but that actual starters need not be named right away and the 12 starting positions can be syndicated, resold, or creatively monetized in ways that neither the racetrack nor the Florida racing authorities have yet to imagine."
What effect will all this have on transparency and integrity? Will all relationships and financial arrangements be made public? Would it be possible to determine the potential existence of an unworthy stablemate that might be employed strictly as a rabbit?
My guess is that Florida regulators and/or horsemen were considered to be a lesser obstacle than their California counterparts. Indeed, the Looney Tunes nature of the California Horse Racing Board proceedings always raises the question "what's up, Doc? Do you think Pegasus really will take flight?"
Written by Indulto