Tuesday, December 06, 2016
Oldies, Goodies and Newbies
LOS ANGELES, December 5, 2016—What do Mike Smith, Bob Baffert, Gary Stevens, Richard Mandella, Bill Mott, Aiden O'Brien, Michael Stoute, and Frankie Dettori have in common?
Well, they're all racing legends that have won multiple Breeders' Cup races for decades--and they did so again in 2016. And none of the winners were the public’s choice.
Like some human recording stars, many of racing's equine stars can be one-hit wonders. Though spectacular first-time successes create cherished memories and visions of sugar plums, stardom is truly bequeathed against proven competition on center stage.
That’s what makes the Breeders' Cup work, and its strength is that it does so multiple times a day across multiple divisions.
What often gets overlooked is the overall performances of jockeys and trainers. Owners choose conditioners proven to have their high-priced horseflesh ready when it counts.
Likewise, trainers want riders known for coolness under pressure by overcoming unexpected obstacles in order to make the most of their preparation without costly error.
Smith's latest Breeders’ Cup win on Arrogate was his third of 2016 and 25th overall. Many were disappointed he didn’t win a fourth event aboard the very popular Songbird, who suffered her lone career defeat in the Distaff.
Instead, it was good friend Gary Stevens who won the Distaff on sentimental favorite and Eclipse champion Beholder for Dick Mandella, snatching victory from defeat’s jaws that was reminiscent of his ride on Victory Gallop denying Real Quiet Triple Crown immortality. It takes a legend to beat one.
But the true golden oldie is Smith, whose (8) 3-3-1 record in this year’s event elevated Money Mike’s achievement to platinum status especially since his other winners, Tamarkuz and Finest City, reported home at 11-1 and 8-1, respectively.
If Smith was heartbroken by the photo decision that went against Songbird, he didn't show it Saturday aboard Arrogate, engineering a close but decisive victory over older male champion California Chrome.
In the Classic, Smith's patience and confidence enabled him to reverse the role he had played in the previous day's feature, happy that he enhanced his mount’s chances of winning three-year old championship, maybe even Horse of the Year.
For his part, it was Travers Day all over again for Bob Baffert, who sent out both Drefong and Arrogate to repeat wins in their respective races.
Baffert, of course, started out as a quarter horse trainer fittingly winning his first Breeders’ Cup race in the 1992 Sprint in 1992, an event he’s won five times, including a back-to-backer with Midnight Lute in 2007-08.
But he also proved once again there’s no better conditioner of 10-furlong Grade I stakes runners. Indeed, Arrogate gave him back-to-back Classic wins as well, joining American Pharoah, Game On Dude, Real Quiet, Silver Charm and War Emblem, underscoring his mastery of mile and a quarter Grade 1s.
Another notable irony was that Baffert's Classic repeat required a reversal in roles for Smith and Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah’s partner.
The Chrome camp, of course, is chomping at the bit for a rematch in the Pegasus World Cup Invitation, but what do Arrogate's connections really gain by meeting California Chrome again at a shorter 9 furlongs, except perhaps getting 7-1 on a million-dollar bet?
Then again, $1.75 million for second and $1 million for third are worthwhile consolations when added to potential sharing of ancillary revenue.
As for the Pegasus, should destiny deposit the desired dozen stars to compete beneath the gaze of Pegasus himself, the ultimate winner should be the Stronach Group.
They had better after establishing new levels of admission and seating pricing that will limit participation in the event to only the deepest of pockets interested in racing.
Perhaps related in some way, Santa Anita recently announced a purse reduction for the "Big Cap," from $1M to $750K. Maybe TSG is considering a bonus-incentivized series that includes the Pegasus, Santa Anita Handicap and another graded stake at one of their properties to be named later.
Incrementalizing the purses of any subsequent legs for each starting Pegasus performer couldn't hurt potential Pegasus participation.
It also might be worth some discussion that rewards trainers and jockeys independent of the horses involved, perhaps another aspect of the promotion sure to come.
Mike Smith, while certainly one of the very best, isn’t the only money rider around, right?
Written by Indulto
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
A Strange Twist: Classic as a Lose-And-They’re-In Pegasus Event?
LOS ANGELES, October 24, 2016—If California Chrome can win both the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Pegasus World Cup he not only will become Thoroughbred racing’s first Win-Your Way/Buy-Your-Way-In winner but also would be the first to sweep all three legs of a bonus-incentivized series that included two Win-And-Your-In roads to the Classic.
Win or lose, it will be interesting to see which approach produces the more competitive of the two races. But should he lose the Classic, what then?
‘Chrome’ would not be the only dual WAYI winner forced to waste a free ride earned on the racetrack. Frosted has a ticket to the Dirt Mile to complement the one he earned for the Classic and, after deliberations, he’s headed to the latter.
Exaggerator’s recent retirement leaves only two possibilities among the six horses that have won seven "Classic Challenge" events: Hopportunity and Melatonin.
But as for Exaggerator, like Belmont winning Creator, Preakness winning Exaggerator will compete for dates with the sexiest broodmares in Lexington. Creator will due his suiting in the Far East.
As for Nyquist, plans are for him to compete in the Classic despite disconcerting defeats in the Preakness, Haskell and Pennsylvania Derby. Then no one knows Nyquist better than the brothers O’Neill.
One clear and present danger to Chrome’s ambitions appears to be another three-year-old, Arrogate, whose 13-1/2 length sub-two-minute Travers victory fuels the fantasy of a latter-day Jaipur-Ridan matchup.
It would be great theater to see two California-based speedsters racing head to head all the way around, even though it’s doubtful that “money riders” Victor Espinoza or Mike Smith would fall into a speed trap.
Besides, Art Sherman believes that Chrome’s at his best when he has a target to run at and said so following a recent workout.
But should a hot pace bring this dynamic duo back to the field, Arrogate’s uncoupled stablemate, the nicely prepped Hopportunity, just might pick up the pieces for Hall of Famer Bob Baffert. We’re sure Kiaran McLaughlin’s hoping for something that for Frosted, a likely stalk-a-pouncer in this lineup.
Interesting to note that Baffert could play still another card and add Travers runner-up American Freedom to the Classic mix. That colt is a tactical speedster that’s comfortable either setting or sitting just off the pace. We'll stop guessing when Breeders' Cup pre-entries are announced Wednesday.
The 2016 Classic could, in fact, boast the greatest number of uncoupled entries in its history.
The improving Shaman Ghost and sometimes enigmatic Effinex, unsuccessful in three Chrome-less WAYI races but nonetheless always brings his game, will represent the Junior Giant Killer Jimmy Jerkens' outfit.
Recall that Shaman Ghost nosed out over-confidently handled Frosted in the Woodward while Effinex was worn down by a tighter Hopportunity in Belmont’s Jockey Club Gold Cup.
With Dortmund headed to the Dirt Mile, along with Pa Derby runnerup Gun Runner, his conqueror, Connect, will sit on the sidelines.
It’s difficult to conjure up at this juncture where 12 Pegasus starters might come from. But how about Great Britain?
This weekend, trainer Aidan O’Brien indicated he would enter last year’s Turf heroine Found to the Classic lineup. The four-year-old filly will be cross-entered in the Turf but the connections want to “take a look.” Window shopping doesn't cost a dime.
Win The Space, third in the San Diego Handicap, Pacific Classic and Awesome Again, is expected to be pre-entered tomorrow with along with a fresh, fast-working early-season high-profile divisional player, Melatonin.
And just last week, the owner of 2015 Travers winner Keen Ice, Jerry Crawford, said he wants in, figuring all the Classic speed and its mile and a quarter distance suits his late finisher very well. It does, but then the competition might not.
Trainer Todd Pletcher backed Crawford's play re the pace and distance scenarios but unless the Classic falls apart completely it’s difficult to figure them making a case for trying nine furlongs at Gulfstream Park in late January, which brings us back to the Pegasus.
So the question remains which dozen horses will fill the Pegasus starting gate? One of Exaggerator’s owners recently sold his slot which could go to a Classic upsetter. A starting-stall would be a lot more valuable should Chrome be defeated. If that occurs, Chrome would lose the bonus which was expected to cover his Pegasus entry fee.
Worse, his anticipated stud career might lose a little momentum. Doubtful in light of his 2016 resume but anything’s possible in the horse business.
Unless there’s a clause we’re unaware of that allows investors to bail out of their commitment without taking too big a hit, the Pegasus very likely will have a full field.
And as far as that's concerned, it might turn out to be a LATI scenario for some not-quite-ready-for-primetime players. For the Classic/Pegasus favorite it's a Lose And They’re In scenario.
Written by Indulto
Monday, September 26, 2016
Impending Danger: Industry Needs to Heed Worrisome Trend
LOS ANGELES, September 26, 2016—Horseplayers didn’t just lose an advocate this week, they lost an activist. Motivations vary, but activism generally requires passion, dedication, commitment, and sacrifice to be effective. There is a price to be paid for such expenditure of personal resources, and Lenny Moon finally decided that price was too high.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Moon didn’t pass away or even fade away. Though not explicit, his final blog piece, "Crossing the Finish Line
, suggested he succumbed to his obsession with the game.
The volume of sympathetic comments to that piece, including some from well-known internet voices, were not only a testament to his popularity but also indicative of how frequently horseplayers struggle to balance their passion for the game with their family responsibilities.
Among what he counted as his successes, he wrote:
"The organization that most resonated with me and my belief system regarding horse racing was HANA, the horse player founded group that is the voice of the customer in the industry. I wrote for their free monthly newsletter for the past several years, which provides more value than anything else the industry puts out and it’s not behind a paywall. I helped get out the word when they convinced a few tracks to lower their takeout rates. Most importantly I worked hard with them to punish Churchill Downs for raising their takeout rates. The tens of millions of dollars in lost handle that first year and each year since are proof that I was on the right side."
That wasn’t always the case.
I first became aware of Moon’s work in 2012 in an early Equinometry blog piece
through a link from the HANA blog. In it, Moon used his interpretation of an older op-ed piece of mine at the HANA blog to help make his point:
That the results of the Players Boycott of California in 2011 were less than they could have or should have been. Naturally, I went back to read all his previous blog entries to see what he had been doing during that period.
I found that Moon started blogging in October 2011, focusing on the Breeders’ Cup, and then Handicapping Tournaments. He didn’t start addressing takeout until February, 2012, so I concluded he was a relative newcomer to the takeout wars in his 30s, but that he the energy and determination to make a difference if his perspective outside of HANA could be maintained.
Obviously, it couldn’t, and the reinforcement he found there for his passion arguably might have led to his inevitably unbearable circumstances.
I know from personal experience that the initial exposure to the thoughtful analyses and arguments of Jeff Platt, or the far-ranging insights and positive thinking of Dean Towers, can be invigorating.
Further, I found that communicating with them, if only on-line, and receiving positive feedback in that process can be intoxicating; particularly in the absence of meaningful dialogue, reform and action elsewhere.
With such encouragement, it is easy to understand how Moon’s involvement and love for the game increased the level of his horseplayer advocacy.
Ironically, even with Moon’s solid contribution to the 2014 boycott of Churchill Downs and HANA’s application of lessons learned from the 2011 boycott of Santa Anita, the results were strikingly similar.
There was little loss in revenue despite lower handle and takeout was never reduced. That led me to suspect that there had been no significant increase in HANA membership in those three intervening years:
Horseplayer selfishness and apathy has helped fuel the indifference that the industry has towards its core customers.
Today I would agree with his criticism of the initial 2011 effort. Yes, it took a takeout increase to spur the first wave of activism. It wasn’t so much the amount of the increase as it was the justification offered for it, coupled with the dismissive manner in which it was orchestrated, implemented and defended by the self-interested Thoroughbred Owners of California and the unaccountable California Horse Racing Board.
Lamentably, Moon and others did not get meaningfully involved until Churchill Downs exhibited the same behavior.
I always had wondered whether or not Moon was a rebated player. He was certainly in favor of lowering takeout but it wasn’t clear whether or not he supported a level playing field for all, i.e., equal direct takeout for every parimutuel pool participant.
In my view, rebated players have dominated the HANA Board of Directors in the past, declining to pursue policies that would terminate their advantage over fellow members who did not receive rebates.
Indeed, one director envisioned the process used by AARP as an appropriate model for HANA. I interpreted that to mean that his preference was to work within the status quo; not rocking the rebate boat.
In his later writings however, it became clear to me that he, too, preferred change to the way things are now.
Either way, let me add my condolences to those who showed empathy for a shortened career of passionate pro-action that was compromised by the kind of circumstances that could consume any of us.
Wishing only good things, and the very best of luck, to a proud racing voice forced into silence by a greater passion for life that for the game.
It’s a very sorry state when passion for the game has become too much of a burden on players. By now, the larger message should be resonating with racing’s power broker elite: Two choices: Reform or die.
Written by Indulto