"Players Up" blogger Indulto is a retired computer programming residing in SoCal and has been betting Thoroughbreds since the days of Kelso, cashing his first ticket at Saratoga while in college.

Indulto is well known in racing's cyber world as a participant on the Ragozin Sheets message board, the PaceAdvantage Forum, Paulick Report, and has made important contributions to the industry's audience as an HRI Readers Blog contributor.

Indulto was active in the formation of the Horseplayers Association of North America and with former HANA colleagues worked on the Players' Boycott of California racing when takeout rates were increased by the legislature there.

Taking his nickname from the King Ranch color-bearer of the 1960s, Indulto now devotes his time to advocate for the recreational player and hobbyist, but prefers lower takeout rates for all rather than subsidized rebates for the few.

Indulto supports the creation of a centralized racing authority to establish uniform rules for racing and wagering and for those standards to be enforced consistently.

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Friday, August 10, 2018

Hard-Nose Justify Will Go Down in History

LOS ANGELES--It’s amazing how readily hyperbole can polarize any conversation these days. For every enthusiastic supporter of some allegedly positive aspect of racing or politics, there seems to be a skeptic, contrarian, or conspiracy theorist willing to rebut that position.

In that spirit, I respectfully challenge the following statement by HRI Executive Editor, John Pricci, in his recent "On the Line Blog piece:
”What is ... indisputable is that what Justify achieved over a period of 112 days was the greatest achievement ever in the sport’s long and storied history.”

First, I feel compelled to question whether the level of accomplishment was higher for the trainer than the horse. Second, couldn’t we at least wait until the true mettle of those Justify defeated can be determined in his absence before applying such a superlative?

Despite media exaggeration, those deserving stellar status still shine brightly. Most would agree that Justify, Gun Runner, Arrogate, California Chrome, and American Pharoah deserve their accolades, as do Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra.

Lesser lights have shined brightly, but briefly, streakers such as Snow Bird, Nyquist, and I'll Have Another; firecrackers like Animal Kingdom, Will Take Charge, Game On Dude, Beholder.

Were West Coast and Collected simply one hit wonders?

Taken at face value, the Justify saga is certainly extraordinary: A three-year-old colt wins six straight races over 112 days to go from unraced maiden to undefeated Triple Crown Winner, Divisional champion, and probable Horse of the Year.

In the process, he also won two Derby-qualifying preps, and proved as adept on wet surfaces as on dry ones. Perhaps he could have run faster, but there was never any need to do so. So what’s not to like?

For older fans like me who savored the extended successful careers of Kelso and Forego, and the rivalries of Dr. Fager and Damascus, Affirmed and Alydar, and Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, it feels less like a loss and more like a robbery.

Not to mention the bad aftertaste left by
a) Competition compromised by circumstance
b) Capitalism-centric career contraction
c) Conspiratorial connections
d) Conspicuously un-sportsmanlike conduct permeating a pastime catering to deep-pocketed interests in every corner.

Recently, Haskell winner Good Magic succeeded in getting more out of getting out from under Justify’s dominance than did Curlin Winner, Hofburg, and Jim Dandy winner, Tenfold, in even smaller fields that same weekend.

None of them broke 1:50 for 9 furlongs. Is this an indication of the strength of Justify’s competition or its collective weakness? Why Hofburg didn’t run for $1M and a possible free BC Classic berth, or even the Jim Dandy’s $600K, instead of the Curlin for only $100K, escapes me.

Nyquist was the previous undefeated Derby winner whose career tanked following his subsequent defeat in the Preakness despite his sensational streak culminating in a Juvenile championship. His first outing as a three-year-old was delayed to the point where he ran in a graded sprint instead of a qualifying route.

Though subsequently acquiring eligibility in the Florida Derby, Nyquist may not have had the foundation to win the soggy second leg in Baltimore. His failure to re-ignite in the Haskell led to his uncontested retirement without ever facing eventual division champion, Arrogate.

Unlike these two colts, Justify’s legend will not be compromised by either the calendar or connection missteps.

What Does “T.O.C.” Mean to You?

Prior to my exposure to Thoroughbred racing, I associated the acronym, “TOC,” with “Truth Or Consequences” and “Table Of Contents.”

Later, I associated it with the characterization of the Belmont Stakes as the “Test of Champions.” After moving to California, however, there was no disassociating it from “Thoroughbred Owners of California.”

But since the recent California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) meeting, where both the local organizations representing owners and trainers refused to clearly explain their opposition to out-of-competition testing for illegal medication in racehorses, it is “Trainers Owners Cheaters” that initially springs to mind.

Now I don’t believe all trainers and/or owners are cheaters, but even assuming, as I do, that most aren’t, it’s reasonable to ask why, then, do their official representatives thwart all efforts to identify those who are?

If 80% of purses are going to 20% of the trainers under a system permitting raceday medication with its attending abuses, why don’t the majority stand up for a more level playing field? How does the status quo benefit them?

TOC members no longer dominate the CHRB but some of the most recent political appointees appear to be contributing little to the discussions, and even less to the solutions.

Their relative inexperience may have enabled the descent of these public board meetings into a “Theater Of Confrontation” which reached a new low with the personal attacks on CHRB equine medical director, Dr. Rick Arthur, by representatives of the TOC and CTT (California Thoroughbred Trainers).

Subsequent push-back from friends of Arthur in turn triggered a response from the CTT in the form of a Q&A session with executive director, Alan Balch, by Daniel Ross.

(The article contains links to all relevant components of the controversy and in my opinion clearly demonstrates trainers’ unwillingness to be forthcoming, even in a format of their own choosing).

Rather than simply lay out their various concerns and offer some logical approaches to dealing with and possibly resolving the issue, they prefer to retreat behind closed doors and delay any resolution as long as possible.

The degree of control over racing by local horsemen varies among jurisdictions, as do the rules, but California is a stronghold of recalcitrance. Without a central racing authority to establish and enforce uniform rules of racing and wagering nationwide, nothing will change.

Without modification of the Interstate Horseracing Act to mandate the existence of such an authority and to create a more functional balance of power among racing’s stakeholders, the status quo will remain.

How much of an impact can USADA testing have without uniformly defined overage levels, uniform penalties for abusing those metrics, and consistent enforcement across jurisdictions?

The lack of uniform medication standards was never more apparent than when the spotlight shifted to the Iowa festival of racing at Prairie Meadows on the Thursday and Friday evenings preceding Stars and Stripes Saturday.

I was surprised to find that every starter in every race on both cards ran with Butazolidin (“Bute”). One horse ran without Lasix.

When the spotlight returned to the Midwest a week later in Indiana, Lasix alone predominated as usual, as it does in most major graded stakes jurisdictions.

Written by Indulto

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Triple Crown Reform Rendered Unjustified

LOS ANGELES, June 25, 2018—In the week leading up to the Belmont Stakes, former NYRA CEO, Charles Hayward opined,
"… whatever the outcome, the Belmont Stakes, as the last leg of the Triple Crown at a mile and a half, has outlived its usefulness ...

… Whether there is a runner eligible for the Triple Crown going into the Belmont or not, the outcome of the race has been consistently disappointing.

… over the last two decades the quality of the Belmont field, as compared to the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, has been sorely lacking

... for the horses that do not win the Derby, their connections regroup and put together three-to-six-month plans for those who do not continue on the Triple Crown tour.

... the mile-and-a-half Belmont is a lone wolf - there is no other Grade 1 stake at that distance on the dirt in the U.S.

... no trainer in the U.S. under normal circumstances would run a horse at a mile and a quarter, a mile and three sixteenths and a mile and a half over five-week period.

... the current distances and race spacing are no longer consistent with current industry practices."

Following the well-attended running of the final TC leg, Bob Ehalt observed,
"… after six different horses won the next six Triple Crown races in 2016 and 2017 ... you wondered how long would it be before ... the clamor for change started anew.

Now, thanks to Justify, that notion of altering the series can be put to rest."

Indeed as long as the public continues to demonstrate its willingness to pay a premium to experience the proceedings in the manner it has twice in the last four years, the Belmont Stakes will continue to be conducted at what has become its traditional distance and spacing.

Whether or not any of the Hayward snippets reflect any truth or wisdom, his “lone wolf” characterization is totally under NYRA’s control.

The Association could easily move the Brooklyn Handicap to a point on the calendar conducive to the current year’s Belmont winner competing against older horses. It could also restore the Jockey Club Gold Cup to its former 12-furlong distance last won by Easy Goer in 1989.

By offering variable bonuses to top-four finishers in two or more of a series including its own 10-furlong minimum Graded I and II stakes along with the BC Classic, NYRA could raise the level of awareness, enthusiasm, and competition for Belmont Park’s signature contest conditions.

The latest Triple Crown winner not only shattered several shibboleths, he also set the stage for subsequent emulation of his preparation.

By eradicating the belief that any horse unraced at two could not win the Kentucky Derby, he ensured expansion of fields for sophomore preps, and conversely, contraction of them in juvenile preps; especially if the disparity in their point allocations continues.

But perhaps the currently undefeated three-year-old’s most significant impact on racing was the unprecedented focus on his interlocking ownership with several other TC candidates.

The illusion of collusion that flourished during the entire series, and culminated in the perception of deception that infected the Belmont Stakes, must be addressed if that final leg is to retain its significance.

What accounts for this recent proliferation of shares in multiple thoroughbreds among the wealthiest ownership entities in equine talent expected to compete at the highest level both on-track and in the breeding shed?

Has sportsmanship finally succumbed to profit-making as the primary motivating factor in all facets of racing? How can this latest manifestation of obfuscation be offset?

The surest way to rekindle controversy next year is to not restore the practice of coupling entries. Clearly the downside of uncoupled entries outweighs any perceived upside.

Horses with either the same ownership participation or stable affiliation should be coupled for betting purposes. Disqualification of any coupled entrant should disqualify all coupled with it relative to the fouled party. Any benefit to manipulators and abusers of uncoupled entries is derived at the direct expense of the betting public.

I disagree with those who believe the shenanigans that marred the running of the Belmont actually tarnished Justify's accomplishment; only the reputations of the interlocking connections took a hit.

What more proof is required that sportsmanship is in short supply than the post-race utterances by Mike Repole, after he took the baton from Steve Coburn and lowered the level of post-Belmont sour grapes.

The owner’s hypocritical reviling of the rider of his reality-challenged rabbit makes one wonder what he wouldn’t do to win.

David Grening reported,
’… Repole was also frustrated with jockey Javier Castellano, who rode Noble Indy for him and WinStar Farm; the latter also co-owns Justify. Repole said he and Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Noble Indy and Vino Rosso, instructed Castellano to make the lead.

Castellano said his horse broke slowly and hit the side of the gate. He said he tried to get the horse forwardly placed, but soon realized he wasn't going to be able to get ahead of Justify.

"He wanted me to be on the lead, but I didn’t have enough speed to get to the lead," Castellano said… "Javier opted to go to his plan B,” Pletcher said. “Mike and I didn’t discuss a plan B."

… "You get to run in this race one time in your life, you would expect to follow directions," Repole said. "He chose an audible, that doesn’t sit well with me. It’ll be awhile before you see Javier in the blue and orange silks."’

Yet when the intention to run Noble Indy in the Belmont was announced, Grening had written,
"Walden said he has discussed with Repole that Noble Indy would not be used to put pressure on Justify to aid the late-running Vino Rosso, whom Repole owns with Vinnie Viola.

"He’s not going to be used as a rabbit,” Walden said. “From that standpoint, Mike’s on board, I’m on board."

Perhaps the plan B discussion involved Elliott Walden.

The only thing that could conceivably diminish Justify’s achievement would be the continued orchestrated absence of competition going forward. Reputation solidification possible in future Grade I contests won't happen if later-developing rivals remain on the sidelines.

What's the likelihood Justify will ever face Audible again? Or the older West Coast for the first time? Will his connections risk ending his streak against determined rabbit-assisted entries? Would they really expose him to another Arrogate-like August apparition that might deny him the Travers and/or the BC Classic?

Following the Belmont, Hayward offered more useful commentary:

"A decade ago, the rule for coupling was very strict and it would have been likely the Baffert horses, and the Pletcher pair, would have been coupled at that time. It would even have been possible that all four horses could have been coupled together.

“The uncoupling of owner/trainer concerns has been largely driven by a desire to increase betting interest … it is essential that the stewards ... avoid perceived or real conflicts due to common interests."

Regardless of future accomplishments, Justify will be remembered for shining through both the machinations of insiders and the cynicism of outsiders, and preserving the Triple Crown as most prefer it--at least until the last baby boom horseplayer is laid to rest.

Written by Indulto

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Counterpoint: Winning Races Should Qualify the Derby Entrants

LOS ANGELES, May 14, 2018—The fact that the heavens opened two years in succession to rain on the Kentucky Derby post parade -- and thrice since the reign of vindictive venue restriction began – might suggest to some that the cosmos has colluded with climate change to compromise the proceedings on Derby Day.

Even if a higher power isn't manifesting its displeasure, genuine concern would not be misplaced over what has arguably become a calendar-confining, creativity-crushing qualification process that imposes Churchill Downs’ concept of candidate correctness on all Derby starters.

By casting the road to the Kentucky Derby in concrete, with little accommodation for individual development and adversity, CDI may be guilty of competition constraint and career contraction among its equine campaigners.

The 144th “Run for the Roses” was the sixth time starter eligibility was determined through performances in a selected series of qualifying prep races with preference given to participation within six weeks of the main event.

No longer is eligibility based on total earnings accumulated in any combination of graded stakes races. While the latter had been independent of surface, distance, gender, and venue, the former removed turf routes, all sprints, all filly races, and certain tracks, from the equation.

Was it the success and popularity of the Kentucky Derby that emboldened the operators of the host track to usurp the power to dictate where and when runners could qualify for their race?

Or was it the determination of deep-pocketed owners to pursue their Derby dreams at almost any cost that encouraged CDI to take control of prep participation as well as the main event?

Among the eligibility inequities fans hoped would be eliminated by a new system based on points, was the effective guarantee of starting gate berths to top finishers in all the highest purse preps; some of which were seldom the source of commensurate talent; most egregiously the UAE and Sunland Derbies.

That “reform” never materialized, as CDI assigned excessive point awards to the same races, effectively making them “Win And You’re In” (WAYI) events; thereby lowering the significance of earlier preps -- even in combination -- due to the disparity in points each contributed to eligibility.

Ironically, the BC Juvenile became undervalued in the rush to reduce the relevance of races for two-year-olds.

Whatever their motivation and intent, CDI has created conditions which, in its first six years of implementation, have produced results too consistent to be considered coincidental:

1) Six consecutive Kentucky Derby-winning favorites.
2) All won a maximum points prep in its last start within 5 weeks of the Derby.
3) Three won the Florida Derby.
4) Two won the Santa Anita Derby
5) Jockey Victor Espinoza won twice
6) Trainer Bob Baffert won twice
7) Trainer Todd Pletcher qualified 21 starters including the winners of 4 Florida Derbies, 3 Wood Memorials, 2 Arkansas Derbies, 2 Louisiana Derbies, and 1 Blue Grass.

This year Pletcher engineered victories in 4 of the 7 maximum point preps; all the more impressive since he also managed to avoid running those he qualified against one another.

The flip side of Pletcher’s Derby prep successes, however, is that neither of his two Derby winners subsequently won a race, and only his Belmont winner, Palace Malice, won a Grade I stake against older horses. Incredibly, all three Florida Derby-Kentucky Derby doublers have also failed to win another race since 2013.

The obstacles created by 20-horse fields seldom deter the connections of less accomplished and/or talented performers from sacrificing their futures. Neither do they seem to have any difficulty ignoring the new reality dominated by race timing and significance reinforced annually by conditioners capable of exploiting them.

Is racing in North America sustainable with a handicap division devoid of accomplished and recognizable talent being squandered if not injured along the Triple Crown trail?

Like 2016, this year’s top three betting choices finished 1-2-3. While perpetual predictability produces popular winners, it precludes exciting upsets, and huge payoffs in many pools. That only last prep winners represent the real competition for Triple Crown aspirations under the new system is evident.

For example, the 2013 Florida Derby winner (Orb) went on to win the Kentucky Derby as the 2nd-ranked eligibility point earner. The runner-up (Itsmyluckyday) finished 15th in Louisville as the 12th-ranked qualifier.

Similarly, the 2018 Santa Anita Derby winner (Justify) won the Kentucky Derby as the 9th-ranked qualifier while the 7th-ranked runner-up (Bolt d’Oro) finished 12th, and the 26th-ranked outsider (Instilled Regard) finished 4th.

Note that in both races, the Superfecta included two horses exiting the same final prep; a pattern that has now repeated itself three times in succession.

Not only have the last prep also-rans in the above grid never won, they rarely reversed relative finish order with their fellow same last prep contestants unless trouble was a factor. Perhaps this phenomenon is due to the relative lack of incentive to attempt qualification earlier than March with so few points attainable from September through February.

Perhaps Derby fields could be strengthened by a) ensuring that such also-rans are eligible only if they're also earlier prep winners, and b) not forcing multiple early prep winners to continue developing and maintaining their fitness in qualifying races alone.

Trainers still need distance, spacing, and surface options to adjust for individuality, injury, or inclement weather.

One might wonder whether we’ll ever see another fascinating upset featuring a frantic stretch run like Mine That Bird’s in the mud, or a brilliant speed display like Secretariat’s in the sunshine as he lowered the track record by running successively faster quarters. Neither won their last prep race, and both qualified on the strength of their campaigns as two-year-olds.

In my opinion, the currency of eligibility should not be earnings or points, but victories. Derby starters should be preferred by total wins in qualified preps. Such races should be increased in number, and their significance distributed more equitably over the eight months preceding the Derby.

A horse incapable of winning at least one prep probably doesn’t belong in the Derby, but winning only one prep should not guarantee a starting berth. Points tiers would still be useful in ranking horses within each victory total level, but too great a differential between them would not support a preference based on win total.

Hopefully, Churchil Downs will consider the following changes:

1) Retain, but modify three tiers awarding 100, 50, and 10 points to winners (PTW), respectively, to 50, 40, and 30, so that any two wins would be worth more than any one of them.
2) Assign higher tiers to certain Juvenile races: 50 PTW for the BC Juvenile, and 40 for the Champagne, Breeders’ Futurity, Frontrunner, and Los Alamitos Futurity.
3) Award points only to top-four finishers who beat at least four horses
4) Add potentially high-quality opportunities to win a prep, e.g., the BC Juvenile Turf, Illinois Derby, and Frederico Tessio,with 40 PTW.
5) Either reserve the rail post in 20-horse fields for the starter with the lowest eligibility point total, or else draw for it first among the group with the lowest win total.

As Vince Lombardi is often quoted, "Winning isn’t everything; it's the only thing."

Written by John Pricci

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